The Truants

Chapter XXX

M. Giraud again

A.E.W. Mason

THE DUSK was deepening quickly into darkness. As she ran down the open stretch of hillside between her villa and the little town, she saw the lights blaze out upon the terrace of Monte Carlo. Far below her, upon her right, they shone like great opals, each with a heart of fire. Pamela stopped for a second to regain her breath before she reached Roquebrune. The sudden brightness of those lights carried her thoughts backwards to the years when the height of trouble for her had been the sickness of a favourite horse, and all her life was an eager expectation. On so many evenings she had seen those lights flash out through the gathering night while she had sat talking in her garden with the little schoolmaster whom she was now to revisit. To both of them those lights had been a parable. They had glowed in friendliness and promise—thus she had read the parable—out of a great, bright, gay world of men and women, upon a cool, twilit garden of youth and ignorance. She thought of what had come in place of all that imagined gaiety. To the schoolmaster, disappointment and degradation; while, as for herself, she felt very lonely upon this evening. “The world is a place of great sadness.” Thus had M. Giraud spoken when Pamela had returned to Roquebrune from her first season in London, and the words now came back to her again.

She ran on through the narrow streets of Roquebrune, her white frock showing in the light from the shops and windows. She wore no hat upon her head, and more than one of the people in the street called to her as she passed and asked her whether she needed help. Help, indeed, she did need, but not from them. She came to the tiny square whence the steps led down to the station. On the west side of the square stood the school-house, and, close by, the little house of the schoolmaster. A light burned in a window of the ground floor. Pamela knocked loudly upon the door. She heard a chair grate upon the floor-boards. She knocked again, and the door was opened. It was the schoolmaster himself who opened it.

“M. Giraud!” she exclaimed, drawing her breath quickly. The schoolmaster leaned forward and stared at the white figure which stood in the darkness just outside his porch; but he made no reply.

“Let me in!” cried Pamela; and he made a movement as though to bar the way. But she slipped quickly past him into the room. He closed the door slowly and followed her.

The room was bare. A deal table, a chair or two, and a few tattered books on a hanging bookshelf made up all its furniture. Pamela leaned against the wall with a hand to her heart. M. Giraud saw her clearly now. She stood only a few feet from him, in the light of the room. She was in distress; yet he spoke harshly.

“Why have you come?” he cried; and she answered, piteously, “I want your help.”

At that a flame of anger kindled within him. He saw her again, after all this long time of her absence—her whose equal he had never spoken with. Her dark hair, her eyes, the pure outline of her face, her tall, slim figure, the broad forehead—all the delicacy and beauty of her—was a torture to him. The sound of her voice, with its remembered accents, hurt him as he had thought nothing could ever hurt him again.

“Really!” he cried, in exasperation. “You want help; so you come to me. Without that need would you have come? No, indeed. You are a woman. Get your fine friends to help you!”

There were other follies upon his tongue, but he never spoke them. He looked at Pamela, and came to a stop.

Pamela had entered the cottage bent with a single mind upon her purpose—to avert a catastrophe at the little restaurant on the Corniche road. But M. Giraud was before her, face to face with her, as she was face to face with him. She saw him clearly in the light as he saw her; and she was shocked. The curé had prepared her for a change in her old comrade, but not for so complete a disfigurement. The wineshop had written its sordid story too legibly upon his features. His face was bloated and red, the veins stood out upon the cheeks, and the nose like threads of purple; his eyes were yellow and unwholesome. M. Giraud had grown stout in body, too; and his dress was slovenly and in disrepair. He was an image of degradation and neglect. Pamela was shocked, and betrayed the shock. She almost shrank from him at the first; there was almost upon her face an expression of aversion and disgust. But sorrow drove the aversion away, and immediately her eyes were full of pity; and these swift changes M. Giraud saw and understood.

She was still his only window on the outside world. That was the trouble. By her expression he read his own decline more surely than in his mirror. Through her he saw the world; through her, too, he saw what manner of figure he presented to the world. Never had he realised how far he had sunk until this moment. He saw, as in a picture, the young schoolmaster of the other days who had read French with the pupil, who was more his teacher than his pupil, upon the garden terrace of the Villa Pontignard—a youth full of dreams, which were vain, no doubt, but not ignoble. There was a trifle of achievement, too. For even now one of the tattered books upon his shelf was a copy of his brochure on Roquebrune and the Upper Corniche road. With perseverance, with faith—he understood it in a flash—he might have found, here, at Roquebrune, a satisfaction for those ambitions which had so tortured him. There was a field here for the historian, had he chosen to seize on it. Fame might have come to him, though he never visited the great cities and the crowded streets. So he thought, and then he realised what he had become. It was true he had suffered great unhappiness. Yet so had she—Pamela Mardale; and she had not fallen from her pedestal. Here shame seized upon him. He lowered his eyes from her face.

“Help!” he stammered. “You ask me to help you? Look at me! I can give you no help!”

He suddenly broke off. He sat down at the table, buried his face in his hands, and burst into tears. Pamela crossed to him and laid her hand very gently upon his shoulder. She spoke very gently, too.

“Oh yes, you can,” she said.

He drew away from her, but she would not be repulsed.

“You should never have come to me at all,” he sobbed. “Oh, how I hate that you should see me like this! Why did you come? I did not mean you to see me. You must have known that! You must have known, too, why. It was not kind of you, mademoiselle. No, it was not kind!”

“Yet I am glad that I came,” said Pamela. “I came, thinking of myself, it is true—my need is so very great; but now I see your need is as great as mine. I ask you to rise up and help me.”

“No, leave me alone!” he cried. And she answered, gently, “I will not.”

M. Giraud grew quiet. He pressed his handkerchief to his eyes, and stood up.

“Forgive me!” he said. “I have behaved like a child; but you would forgive me if you knew how I have waited and waited for you to come back. But you never did. Each summer I said, ‘She will return in the winter!’ And the winter came, and I said, ‘She will come in the spring.’ But neither in winter nor in the spring did you return to Roquebrune. I have needed you so badly all these years.”

“I am sorry,” replied Pamela; “I am very sorry.”

She did not reproach herself at all. She could not see, indeed, that she was to blame. But she was none the less distressed. Giraud’s exhibition of grief was so utterly unfamiliar to her that she felt awkward and helpless in face of it. He was yet further disfigured now by the traces of weeping; his eyes were swollen and red. There was something grotesque in the aspect of this drink-swollen face, all convulsed with sorrow. Nothing could well lie less in sympathy with Pamela’s nature than Giraud’s outburst and display of tears; for she was herself reticent and proud. She held her head high as she walked through the world, mistress alike of her sorrows and her joys. But Mr. Mudge had spoken the truth when he had called upon her in Leicestershire. Imagination had come to her of late. She was able to understand the other point of view—to appreciate that there were other characters than hers which must needs fulfil themselves in ways which were not hers. She put herself now in M. Giraud’s place. She imagined him waiting and waiting at Roquebrune, with his one window on the outside world closed and shuttered—a man in a darkened room who most passionately desired the air without. She said, with a trace of hesitation—

“You say you have needed me very much?”

“Oh, have I not?” exclaimed Giraud; and the very weariness of his voice would have convinced her, had she needed conviction. It seemed to express the dilatory passage of the years during which he had looked for her coming, and had looked in vain.

“Well, then, listen to me,” she went on. “I was once told that to be needed by those whom one needs is a great comfort. I thought of the saying at the time, and I thought that it was a true one. Afterwards”—she began to speak slowly, carefully selecting her words—“it happened that in my own experience I proved it to be true—at all events, for me. Is it true for you also? Think well. If it is not true I will go away as you bade me at the beginning; but if it is true—why, then I may be of some little help to you, and you will be certainly a great help to me; for I need you very surely.”

M. Giraud looked at her in silence for a little while. Then he answered her with simplicity, and so, for the first time during this interview, wore the proper dignity of a man.

“Yes, I will help you,” he said. “What can I do?”

She held out the letter which she had written to Lionel Callon. She bade him carry it with the best speed he could to its destination.

“Lose no time!” she implored. “I am not sure, but it may be that one man’s life, and the happiness of a man and a woman besides, all hang upon its quick receipt.”

M. Giraud took his hat from the wall and went to the door. At the door he paused, and standing thus, with an averted face, he said in a whisper, recalling the words she had lately spoken—

“There is one, then, whom you need? You are no longer lonely in your thoughts? I should like to know.”

“Yes,” Pamela answered gently: “I am no longer lonely in my thoughts.”

“And you are happy?” he continued. “You were not happy when you were at Roquebrune last. I should like to know that you, at all events, are happy now.”

“Yes,” said Pamela. In the presence of his distress she rather shrank from acknowledging the change which had come over her. It seemed cruel; yet he clearly wished to know. He clearly would be the happier for knowing. “Yes,” she said; “I am happy.”

“I am very glad,” said M. Giraud, in a low voice; “I am very glad.” And he went rather quickly out by the door.

The Truants - Contents    |     Chapter XXXI

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