the comtesse de colinson gazed over the rainswept sea at the lighthouse. it was dark, and despite the statement of the servant marie that it was occupied, she saw no sign of life.
just as she turned to go - for the rain was starting to fall harder - she saw the tiniest flicker of light at the top of the tower.
so - the child was right after all. the lighthouse was indeed inhabited. the comtesse smiled, thinking of the girl's artless descripion of the keeper's son as "breaking the heart of every woman in the province" or whatever it was she had said.
this romeo was probably a hulking grunting yellowtoothed donkey - still, there was no harm in imagining him as a darkeyed apollo sprung from the rocks and waves of the desolate country to which the comtesse found herself banished - she hoped, temporarily.
the coach was waiting for her under the shelter of the cliff. the coachman and the maid had spread rough but dry blankets inside on the seat.
the comtesse thanked them with her habitual graciousness as she placed her dripping self within the coach. she had not realized how wet she had gotten.
a moonless night had completely fallen. but the ride back to the chateau in the rain was uneventful.
the comtesse had changed with marie’s assistance into dryer clothing, including a rough dressing gown that even she, with her avowed indifference to ceremony, would not have appeared in before a member of her own class. but there was, of course, no one of her own class to see her.
she seated herself on the divan facing the window. a single small lamp lit the room.
marie began building up the fire, which had dwindled to almost nothing during the excursion to the seaside.
“leave that,” the comtesse commanded her. “i will attend to it myself. bring me some tea. hot tea.”
“and bring a cup for yourself.”
if marie was surprised by either the comtese’s tending the fire or her offer of tea, she did not show it, but retained the same grave demeanor which so amused her mistress.
the comtesse threw some sticks on the fire, pushed it around a bit and returned to her seat and waited for marie.
she had not decided whether it would be more amusing to attempt to corrupt the pious child, or to continue to be charmed by her innocence. for now, she would pursue the latter course.
marie returned with a tray. it contained a teapot, a cup and saucer and spoon for madame , a small bowl of sugar, and a rough mug for herself. she poured the tea with the same solemnity she did everything else.
“make yourself comfortable,” the comtesse instructed her when she had finished.
the comtesse did not feel she was condescending to marie, or demeaning herself by treating her so familiarly. she had grown accustomed , in her travels, to being thrown together with all classes of people. she was mildly annoyed at the idea that she might be expected to resume the old ways of strict observance of different manners and addresses towards different classes of people.
“tell me,” the comtesse began, “ do you have wolves prowling in this countryside? i have heard that wolves may prowl, especially in the winter months."
"oh no, madame. we have not been much troubled by wolves, or bears, or any wild creatures for many years. an occasional goat or pig might be taken by them, in the coldest winters, but no living souls."
the comtesse sipped her tea. "how boring."
marie, innocent that she might be, realized that her mistress wished to be amused.
"but," she told the comtesse. "there are many stories about wolves from the olden days."
"would madame like to hear one?"
"indeed i would. you tell me a story, and then i will tell you one."
"madame is very kind."
"have some of your tea first. it will fortify you."
after obeying by taking a sip of the scalding beverage, and as the rain beat on the windows, marie began her tale.
once upon a time a king ruled a kingdom in the far north, in the ice and snow, near where the earth meets the moon.
it was not a large kingdom or a small kingdom but just a kingdom.
and the king was not a good king or a bad king, or a strong king or a weak king, but just a king.
the chief occupation of the king and his soldiers was protecting the kingdom from the wolves which lived in the ice and snow and periodically invaded the kingdom and carried off cows and pigs and occasionally a poor milkmaid.
the king and his soldiers never completely drove the wolves away, and the wolves never overran the kingdom.
things went on in this way until one cold day st andrew approached the kingdom.
st andrew was the original member of the twelve apostles who had been sent to convert the wild kingdoms of the north.
he had already converted the wild kingdoms of russia, finland, denmark and scotland.
he had grown old in the service of the gospel, and dealing with the wild northmen - especially the scotchmen - had worn him out.
he felt that if he were to convert any more kingdoms he needed a helper, and he prayed to the blessed virgin to send him one.
but his prayer to the blessed virgin was intercepted by his brother, st peter. st peter had recently arrived in heaven himself after being crucified by the wicked roman emperor nero.
st peter had always enjoyed playing pranks on st andrew when they were little boys and even later when they both grew up and became apostles.
so st peter sent an angel - not an archangel like st michael or st gabriel - but just an ordinary angel - to st andrew and the angel told him he would come to a hut about another mile up the road to the northern kingdom, and in this hut he would find a young man who had been raised by wolves, but who, once he had had the gospel preached to him, would surely make a fine helper.
st andrew thanked the angel and continued on his way on the road to the northern kingdom.
a snowstorm came up and as the saint trudged along he could hear wolves howling on every side of him.
in the whiteness of the storm he saw the outline of a hut with a faint light showing in it.
he felt that even if this were not the hut the angel had described, he might ask the occupant or occupants if he could take shelter in it.
the saint shouted outside the hut, imploring the occupant's hospitality in the name of our savior and the virgin. after a moment the single door opened.
a darkhaired young man looked out at the saint. at first glance he appeared to have more the appearance of an angel than a wolf, but even so the saint felt a strange foreboding in looking into his eyes.
"it is not often," the young man observed in a curiously melodious voice, after indicating that andrew might enter, "that we encounter travelers in these parts, especially in such unseemly weather."
the saint took a seat on a rough chair pointed out to him. after catching his breath, he told the young man that he had come to the north kingdom to preach the gospel of our lord and the blessed mother.
"whatever that might mean," his host replied, with a smile that sent a chill through the saint. "i am sorry i have little to offer you," he continued. "i have a bit of wine, but it is not of the best quality."
"i should be grateful for it all the same," st andrew replied in his most courteous manner.
"make yourself comfortable then, while i find you a cup."
"are you a shepherd?" the saint asked the young man.
"of course, what else would i be? in this hut, in this wilderness? though i am afraid the wolves have played much havoc with my flock lately." he smiled in a manner that evinced little honest concern for the unfortunate charges thus described.
"and were you - raised by wolves yourself?" the saint enquired.
"raised by wolves?" the young man laughed as he placed a wooden cup and a small rough jug of wine on the one small table. "what an idea! no, sir traveler, i am a prince. a prince quite reduced, as you see, but a prince nonetheless."
the young man did not lie in this particular. although he was not an honest shepherd or any other kind of honest folk.
he was in fact a demon.
and not just any demon, but a demon who in his time on earth had been none other than the emperor nero, who, shortly after martyring st peter, had met a most violent end himself.
the saint considered the young man's statement, as the wind and snow - and the wolves - howled outside.