The Truants

Chapter I

Pamela Mardale learns a very little History.

A.E.W. Mason

THERE were only two amongst all Pamela Mardale’s friends who guessed that anything was wrong with her; and those two included neither her father nor her mother. Her mother, indeed, might have guessed, had she been a different woman. But she was a woman of schemes and little plots, who watched with concentration their immediate developments, but had no eyes for any lasting consequence. And it was no doubt as well for her peace of mind that she never guessed. But of the others it was unlikely that any one would suspect the truth. For Pamela made no outward sign. She hunted through the winter from her home under the Croft Hill in Leicestershire; she went everywhere, as the saying is, during the season in London; she held her own in her own world, lacking neither good spirits nor the look of health. There were, perhaps, two small peculiarities which marked her off from her companions. She was interested in things rather than in persons, and she preferred to talk to old men rather than to youths. But such points, taken by themselves, were not of an importance to attract attention.

Yet there were two amongst her friends who suspected: Alan Warrisden and the schoolmaster of Roquebrune, the little village carved out of the hillside to the east of Monte Carlo. The schoolmaster was the nearer to the truth, for he not only knew that something was amiss, he suspected what the something was. But then he had a certain advantage, since he had known Pamela Mardale when she was a child. Their acquaintance came about in the following way—

He was leaning one evening of December over the parapet of the tiny square beside the schoolhouse, when a servant from the Villa Pontignard approached him.

“Could M. Giraud make it convenient to call at the villa at noon to-morrow?” the servant asked. “Madame Mardale was anxious to speak to him.”

M. Giraud turned about with a glow of pleasure upon his face.

“Certainly,” he replied. “But nothing could be more simple. I will be at the Villa Pontignard as the clock strikes.”

The servant bowed, and without another word paced away across the square and up the narrow winding street of Roquebrune, leaving the schoolmaster a little abashed at his display of eagerness. M. Giraud recognised that in one man’s mind, at all events, he was now set down for a snob, for a lackey disguised as a schoolmaster. But the moment of shame passed. He had no doubt as to the reason of the summons, and he tingled with pride from head to foot. It was his little brochure upon the history of the village—written with what timidity, and printed at what cost to his meagre purse!—which had brought him recognition from the lady of the villa upon the spur of the hill. Looking upwards he could just see the white walls of the villa glimmering through the dusk, he could imagine its garden of trim lawns and dark cypresses falling from bank to bank in ordered tiers down the hillside.

“To-morrow at noon,” he repeated to himself; and now he was seized with a shiver of fear at the thought of the mistakes in behaviour which he was likely to make. What if Madame Mardale asked him to breakfast? There would be unfamiliar dishes to be eaten with particular forks. Sometimes a knife should be used and sometimes not. He turned back to the parapet with the thought that he had better, perhaps, send up a note in the morning pleading his duties at the school as a reason for breaking his engagement. But he was young, and as he looked down the steep slope of rock on which the village is perched, anticipation again got the better of fear. He began to build up his life like a fairy palace from the foundation of this brief message.

A long lane of steps led winding down from the square, and his eyes followed it, as his feet had often done, to the little railway station by the sea through which people journeyed to and fro between the great cities, westwards to France and Paris, eastwards to Rome and Italy. His eyes followed the signal lights towards another station of many lamps far away to the right, and as he looked there blazed out suddenly other lights of a great size and a glowing brilliancy, lights which had the look of amazing jewels discovered in an eastern cave. These were the lights upon the terrace of Monte Carlo. The schoolmaster had walked that terrace on his mornings of leisure, had sat unnoticed on the benches, all worship of the women and their daintiness, all envy of the men and the composure of their manner. He knew none of them, and yet one of them had actually sent for him, and had heard of his work. He was to speak with her at noon to-morrow.

Let it be said at once that there was nothing of the lackey under the schoolmaster’s shabby coat. The visit which he was bidden to pay was to him not so much a step upwards as outwards. Living always in this remote high village, where the rock cropped out between the houses, and the streets climbed through tunnels of rock, he was always tormented with visions of great cities and thoroughfares ablaze; he longed for the jostle of men, he craved for other companionship than he could get in the village wineshop on the first floor, as a fainting man craves for air. The stars came out above his head; it was a clear night, and they had never shone brighter. The Mediterranean, dark and noiseless, swept out at his feet beyond the woods of Cap Martin. But he saw neither the Mediterranean nor any star. His eyes turned to the glowing terrace upon his right, and to the red signal-lamps below the terrace.

M. Giraud kept his engagement punctually. The clock chimed upon the mantelpiece a few seconds after he was standing in the drawing-room of the Villa Pontignard, and before the clock had stopped chiming Mrs. Mardale came in to him. She was a tall woman, who, in spite of her years, still retained the elegance of her youth, but her face was hard and a trifle querulous, and M. Giraud was utterly intimidated. On the other hand, she had good manners, and the friendly simplicity with which she greeted him began to set him at his ease.

“You are a native of Roquebrune, Monsieur?” said she.

“No, Madame, my father was a peasant at Aigues-Mortes. I was born there,” he replied frankly.

“Yet you write, if I may say so, with the love of a native for his village,” she went on. M. Giraud was on the point of explaining. Mrs. Mardale, however, was not in the least interested in his explanation, and she asked him to sit down.

“My daughter, Monsieur, has an English governess,” she explained, “but it seems a pity that she should spend her winters here and lose the chance of becoming really proficient in French. The curé recommended me to apply to you, and I sent for you to see whether we could arrange that you should read history with her in French during your spare hours.”

M. Giraud felt his head turning. Here was his opportunity so long dreamed of come at last. It might be the beginning of a career—it was at all events that first difficult step outwards. He was to be the teacher in appearance; at the bottom of his heart he knew that he was to be the pupil, he accepted the offer with enthusiasm, and the arrangements were made. Three afternoons a week he was to spend an hour at the Villa Pontignard.

“Well, I hope the plan will succeed,” said Mrs. Mardale, but she spoke in a voice which showed that she had no great hopes of success. And as M. Giraud replied that he would at all events do his best, she rejoined plaintively—

“It is not of you, Monsieur, that I have any doubts. But you do not know my daughter. She will learn nothing which she does not want to learn, she will not endure any governess who is not entirely her slave, and she is fifteen and she really must learn something.”

Pamela Mardale, indeed, was at this time the despair of her mother. Mrs. Mardale had mapped out for her daughter an ideal career. She was to be a model of decorum in the Early Victorian style, at once an ornament for a drawing-room and an excellent housekeeper, and she was subsequently to make a brilliant marriage. The weak point of the scheme was that it left Pamela out of the reckoning. There was her passion for horses for one thing, and her distinct refusal, besides, to sit quietly in any drawing-room. When she was a child, horses had been persons to Pamela rather than animals, and, as her conduct showed, persons preferable by far to human beings. Visitors to the house under Croft Hill were at times promised a sight of Pamela, and indeed they sometimes did see a girl in a white frock, with long black legs, and her hair tumbled all over her forehead, neighing and prancing at them from behind the gate of the stable yard. But they did not see her at closer quarters than that, and it was certain that if by any chance her lessons were properly learnt, they had been learnt upon the corn-bin in the stables. Portraits of Pamela at the age of nine remain, and they show a girl who was very pretty, but who might quite well have been a boy, with a mass of unruly dark hair, a pair of active dark eyes, and a good-humoured face alertly watching for any mischief which might come its way.

Something of the troubles which M. Giraud was likely to find ahead of him Mrs. Mardale disclosed that morning, and the schoolmaster returned to his house filled with apprehensions. The apprehensions, however, were not justified. The little schoolmaster was so shy, so timid, that Pamela was disarmed. She could be gentle when she chose, and she chose now. She saw, too, M. Giraud’s anxiety to justify her mother’s choice of him, and she determined with a sense of extreme virtue to be a credit to his teaching. They became friends, and thus one afternoon, when they had taken their books out into the garden of the villa, M. Giraud confided to her the history of the brochure which had made them acquainted.

“It was not love for Roquebrune which led me to write it,” he said. “It was, on the contrary, my discontent. I was tortured with longings, I was not content with the children’s lessons for my working hours, and the wineshop for my leisure. I took long walks over Cap Martin to Mentone, along the Corniche road to La Turbie, and up Mont Agel. But still I had my longings as my constant companions, and since everywhere I saw traces of antiquity, I wrote this little history as a relief. It kept my thoughts away from the great world.”

The garden ran here to a point at the extreme end of that outcropping spur of rock on which the villa was built. They were facing westwards, and the sun was setting behind the hills. It lay red upon the Mediterranean on their left, but the ravine and front was already dark, and down the hillside the shadows of the trees were lengthening. At their feet, a long way below, a stream tumbled and roared amongst the oleanders in the depths of the ravine. Pamela sat gazing downwards, her lips parted in a smile.

“The great world,” she said in a low voice of eagerness. “I wonder what it’s like.”

That afternoon marked a distinct step in their friendship, and thereafter in the intervals of their reading they talked continually upon this one point they had in common, their curiosity as to the life of the world beyond their village. But it happened that Pamela did the greater part of the talking, and one afternoon that fact occurred to her.

“You always listen now, Monsieur,” she said. “Why have you grown so silent?”

“You know more than I do, Mademoiselle.”

“I?” she exclaimed in surprise. “I only know about horses.” Then she laughed. “Really, we both know nothing. We can only guess and guess.”

And that was the truth. Pamela’s ideas of the world were as visionary, as dreamlike as his, but they were not his, as he was quick to recognise. The instincts of her class, her traditions, the influence of her friends, were all audible in her voice as well as in her words. To her the world was a great flower garden of pleasure with plenty of room for horses. To him it was a crowded place of ennobling strife.

“But it’s pleasant work guessing,” she continued, “isn’t it? Then why have you stopped?”

“I will tell you, Mademoiselle. I am beginning to guess through your eyes.”

The whistle of a train, the train from Paris, mounted through the still air to their ears.

“Well,” said Pamela, with a shrug of impatience, “we shall both know the truth some time.”

“You will, Mademoiselle,” said the schoolmaster, suddenly falling out of his dream.

Pamela looked quickly at him. The idea that he would be left behind, that he would stay here all his life listening to the sing-song drone of the children in the schoolroom, teaching over and over again with an infinite weariness the same elementary lessons, until he became shabby and worn as the lesson-books he handled, had never struck her till this moment. The trouble which clouded his face was reflected by sympathy upon hers.

“But you won’t stay here,” she said gently. “Oh no! Let me think!” and she thought with a child’s oblivion of obstacles and a child’s confidence. She imparted the wise result of her reflections to M. Giraud the next afternoon.

He came to the garden with his eyes fevered and his face drawn.

“You are ill?” said Pamela. “We will not work to-day.”

“It’s nothing,” he replied.

“Tell me,” said she.

M. Giraud looked out across the valley.

“Two travellers came up to Roquebrune yesterday. I met them as I walked home from here. I spoke to them and showed them the village, and took them by the short cut of the steps down to the railway station. They were from London. They talked of London and of Paris. It’s as well visitors come up to Roquebrune rarely. I have not slept all night,” and he clasped and unclasped his hands.

“Hannibal crossed the Alps,” said Pamela. “I read it in your book,” and then she shook a finger at him, just as the schoolmaster might have done to one of his refractory pupils.

“Listen,” said she. “I have thought it all out.”

The schoolmaster composed himself into the attentive attitude of a pupil.

“You are to become a Deputy.”

That was the solution of the problem. Pamela saw no difficulties. He would need a dress-suit of course for official occasions, which she understood were numerous. A horse, too, would be of use, but that didn’t matter so much. The horse was regretfully given up. It might come later, he must get elected first, never mind how. In a word, he was as good as a Deputy already. And from a Deputy to the President of the French Republic, the step after all was not so very long. “Though I am not quite sure that I approve of Republics,” said Pamela, very seriously.

However, that was the best she could do in the way of mapping out his future, and the schoolmaster listened, seeing the world through her eyes. Thus three winters passed and Pamela learned a very little history.

Towards the end of the third winter the history books were put away. Pamela was now eighteen and looking eagerly forward to her first season in London. And no doubt frocks and hats occupied more of her thoughts than did the fortunes of the schoolmaster. Some remorse for her forgetfulness seized her the day before she went away. It was a morning of spring, and the schoolmaster saw her coming down the dark narrow streets towards him. She was tall beyond the average, but without ungainliness, long of limb and lightly built, and she walked with the very step of youth. Her dark hair swept in two heavy waves above her forehead, and was coiled down behind on the back of her neck. Her throat rose straight and slim from the firm shoulders, and her eyes glowed with anticipation. Though her hair was dark, she was not sallow. Her face was no less fresh and clear than were her eyes, and a soft colour like the bloom of a fruit brightened her cheeks. In that old brown street she shone like a brilliant flower, and Giraud, as he watched her, felt all at once that he could have no place in her life, and in his humility he turned aside. But she ran after him and caught him up.

“I am going to-morrow,” she said, and she tried to keep the look of happiness out of her eyes, the thrill out of her voice. And she failed.

“It is good-bye, then,” said he.

“For a little while. I shall come back to Roquebrune in December.”

The schoolmaster smiled.

“I shall look forward from to-day until that month comes. You will have much to tell me.”

“Yes, shan’t I?” she cried; and then, lest her eagerness should hurt her friend, she added, “But I shall not forget our quiet afternoons on the garden terrace.”

The recollection of them, however, was not strong enough to check either her thoughts or their utterance. Later on perhaps, in after years, she might in her musings return to that terrace and the speculations they indulged in, and the fairy palaces they built, with an envy of the ignorance and the high thoughts of youth. To-day she was all alert to grasp the future in her hands. One can imagine her looking much as she looked in those portraits of her childhood.

“News of the great world,” she cried. “I shall bring it back. We will talk it over in Roquebrune and correct our guesses. For I shall know.”

As a fact, they never did talk over her news, but that she could not foresee. She went on her way with a smile upon her face: all confidence and courage, and expectation, a brilliant image of youth. Giraud, as he watched her the proud poise of her head, the light springing step, the thing of beauty and gentleness which she was, breathed a prayer that no harm might come to her, and no grief ever sadden her face.

The next morning she went away, and the schoolmaster lost his one glimpse of the outer world. But he lived upon the recollections of it, and took again to his long walks on the Corniche road. The time hung heavily upon his hands. He hungered for news, and no news came, and when in the month of December he noticed that the shutters were opened in the Villa Pontignard, and that there was a stir of servants about the house, he felt that the shutters were being opened after a long dark time from his one window on the outside world. He frequented the little station from that moment. No “Rapide” passed from France on its way to Italy during his leisure hours but he was there to watch its passengers. Mrs. Mardale came first, and a fortnight afterwards Pamela descended from a carriage with her maid.

Giraud watched her with a thrill of longing. It was not merely his friend who had returned, but his instructor, with new and wonderful knowledge added to the old.

Then came his first chilling moment of disillusion. It was quite evident that she saw him as she was stepping on to the platform. Her eyes went straight to his—and yet she turned away without the slightest sign of recognition and busied herself about her luggage. The world had spoilt her. That was his first thought, but he came to a truer understanding afterwards. And indeed that thought had barely become definite in his mind, when she turned again, and, holding out her hand, came to him with a smile.

“You are well?” she said.

“Yes,” said he.

And they walked up the long flight of steps to Roquebrune, talking banalities. She gave him none of the news for which he longed, and they spoke not at all of the career which together they had mapped out for him. All their long talks upon the terrace, their plans and their speculations seemed in an instant to Giraud to have become part of a pleasant, very foolish, and very distant past. He was aware of the vast gulf between them. With a girl’s inimitable quickness to adapt herself to new surroundings, she had acquired in the few months of her absence the ease, the polish, and the armour of a woman of the world. He was still the village schoolmaster, the peasant tortured with vain aspirations, feeding upon vain dreams; and in this moment he saw himself very clearly. Her silence upon their plan helped him to see himself thus. Had she still believed in that imagined career, surely she would have spoken of it. In a word, he was still looking at the world through her eyes.

“You must come up to the villa,” she said. “I shall look forward to your coming.”

They were in the little square by the schoolhouse and he took the words for his dismissal. She went up the hill alone and slowly, like one that is tired. Giraud, watching her, could not but compare her with the girl who had come lightly down that street a few months ago. It dawned upon him that, though knowledge had been acquired, something had gone, something perhaps more valuable, the elasticity from her step, the eagerness from her eyes.

Giraud did not go up to the villa of his own accord, but he was asked to lunch in a week’s time, and after lunch Pamela and he went out into the garden. Instinctively they walked down to that corner on the point of the bluff which overhung the ravine and the white torrent amongst the oleanders in its depths. They had come indeed to the bench on which they used to sit before Pamela was quite aware of the direction their steps had taken. She drew back suddenly as she raised her head.

“Oh no, not here,” she cried, and she moved away quickly with a look of pain. Giraud suddenly understood why she had turned away at the railway station. Here they had dreamed, and the reality had shown the dreams to be bitterly false, so false that the very place where they had dreamed had become by its associations a place of pain. She had needed for herself that first moment when she had stepped down from the carriage.

“The world must be the home of great troubles,’ said Giraud, sadly.

“And how do you know that?” Pamela asked with a smile.

“From you,” he replied simply.

The answer was unexpected. Pamela stopped and looked at him with startled eyes.

“From me? I have said nothing—nothing at all.”

“Yet I know. How else should I know except from you, since through you alone I see the world?”

“A home of great troubles?” she repeated, speaking lightly. “Not for all. You are serious, my friend, this afternoon, and you should not be, for have I not come back?”

The schoolmaster was not deceived by her evasion. There had come a gravity into her manner, and a womanliness into her face, in a degree more than natural at her years.

“Let us talk of you for a change,” said she.

“Well, and what shall we say?” asked Giraud, and a constraint fell upon them both.

“We must forget those fine plans,” he continued at length. “Is it not so? I think I have learnt that too from you.”

“I have said nothing,” she interrupted quickly.

“Precisely,” said he, with a smile. “The school at Roquebrune will send no Deputy to Paris.”

“Oh! why not?” said Pamela, but there was no conviction in her voice. Giraud was not of the stern stuff

To break his birth’s invidious bar.

He had longings, but there was the end.

“At all events,” she said, turning to him with a great earnestness, “we shall be friends always, whatever happens.”

The words were the death-knell to the schoolmaster’s aspirations. They conveyed so much more than was actually said. He took them bravely enough.

“That is a good thing,” he said in all sincerity. “If I stay here all my life, I shall still have the memory of the years when I taught you history. I shall know, though I do not see you, that we are friends. It is a great thing for me.”

“For me, too,” said Pamela, looking straight into his eyes, and she meant her words no less than he had meant his. Yet to both they had the sound of a farewell. And in a way they were. They were the farewell to the afternoons upon the terrace, they closed the door upon their house of dreams.

Giraud leaned that evening over the parapet in the little square of Roquebrune. The Mediterranean lay dark and quiet far below, the terrace of Monte Carlo glowed, and the red signal-lamps pointed out the way to Paris. But he was no longer thinking of his fallen plans. He was thinking of the girl up there in the villa who had been struck by some blind blow of Destiny, who had grown a woman before her time. It was a pity, it was a loss in the general sum of things which make for joy.

He had of course only his suspicions to go upon. But they were soon strengthened. For Pamela fell into ill-health, and the period of ill-health lasted all that winter. After those two years had passed, she disappeared for a while altogether out of Giraud’s sight. She came no more to the Villa Pontignard, but stayed with her father and her horses at her home in Leicestershire. Her mother came alone to Roquebrune.

The Truants - Contents    |     Chapter II

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