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Authors: Storm Jameson

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BOOK: Cloudless May
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“They taught you to walk at the convent,” she said.

“We had to practise along a line drawn on the floor,” Catherine said, laughing.

“Are you glad to be at home?” No—she had not meant to ask that.

“Of course!”

The Huet woman, Mme de Freppel thought, has no children. An access of pride seized her. It was not what she had expected—to be thankful simply that she had had a child. But it would pass, in place of the impatient tenderness she used to feel when the child was living in the house. Another thought followed it. Catherine would marry. And she must make the right marriage. Her husband must be secure in society, so secure that his mother-in-law would be accepted. . . .

I shall be safe at last, her mind cried. Catherine, with her beauty, her untried youth, her—she admitted it—gentle friendly indifference, would give her the security she had never had yet. She closed her eyes, opening them to find her daughter watching her with an indulgent smile.

“Before I knew you were coming today, I'd asked two people to lunch. I'm sorry they will be here—but perhaps you'll like them. And I want you to meet people.”

Catherine seemed a little vexed. “Why need I meet people? I'd much rather not.”

“What are you going to wear?” her mother said.

She began taking the new dresses out of the wardrobe. Catherine came over to her, smiling, and put them back one after the other. She refused to try them on.

“Not now, mother. Tomorrow. I won't do it now. If this dress I'm wearing won't do for your guests I can eat in the kitchen with Sophie—as when I was little. By the way, I hope we still have Sophie?”

“Of course,” Mme de Freppel said.

She was afraid to insist. In the past she had always given in to Catherine because in a month or a day or two she would be sending her away; until then the child must be happy. It was too late to begin using her with the authority of a mother. . . . There are other ways of guiding a young girl.

“You look very nice,” she said lightly. “Your frock is much too short, but never mind, we'll see about all that tomorrow. Now come down to lunch.”

Only one of the guests had arrived. Abbé Garnier was over-whelmingly polite to the young girl. He questioned her in his resounding voice—you could only suppose that his body was hollow—about the convent.

“And what a-ah shall you do? Do you contemplate social service, as it's fashionable to call it now?”

“I shall do war work,” Catherine said in a low voice. “I hope I can nurse.”

“Admirable, admirable——”

“No, she's too young,” Mme de Freppel interrupted.

“But very exacting,” Garnier continued, “most exacting. You mustn't let enthusiasm get the better of you. It's never wise. Let me tell you a little story....”

He was interrupted again, by the hurried entrance of Jacques de Saint-Jouin. The young officer apologised effusively for coming late, clasping his hands boisterously with an air of penitence. He dropped it at once when he was presented to Catherine, and saluted carelessly, smiling into her face as though she and he were already close friends. The young girl gave him a composed smile; he turned from her at once and talked to his hostess. He went on talking when they were at
table, with a confidence and good-humour which Mme de Freppel seemed to find charming. She looked encouragingly at Catherine, who was silent.

“Have you heard the latest?” Saint-Jouin smiled. “I've persuaded Madeleine Souzy to come for my show, and a delicious creature called Esther I-forget-what, a Jewess, of course, I'm told too ravishing, with a voice like a corncrake. I adore women with hoarse voices. Then there's the Spanish pianist, I forget his name too, but he's quite first-class and he'll set off the rubbish. It's going to cost the earth, although they're unpaid. But there are the fares and hotel expenses, and dinner. My mother, who has a head for money—why not, since it was all her money? My maternal grandparent, you know, was a mine-owner, I fancy very grim—I expect you know her, my dear Abbé, she does all the good works imaginable; she gave a ciborium last year to her church, very handsome, I'm told; I didn't happen to see it but I know the trouble she went to to match the garnets. My mother is an admirable woman.”

He paused to put food into his mouth. Garnier seized his chance.

“Yes, yes, I know your mother. I knew your father slightly, the late Comte de Saint-Jouin. A very a-ah cultivated man.”

“Oh, I shouldn't say he was that,” Saint-Jouin said, smiling. “I never saw my father open a book in his life. Once, when someone spoke about Ravel in his hearing, he said, 'I never drank that, what is it? . . .' I do happen to know better than that,” he went on modestly: “I had a friend once who was quite a musician; I must say it all bores me rather.”

“What do you prefer?” Catherine asked mildly. It was the first time she had spoken.

The young man looked at her with a smile full of admiration. “I expect you're very learned; girls are nowadays. It's disgraceful, but I've always been too fond of riding.”

“A healthy sign, if I may say so,” Garnier boomed. “We need simplicity in this country. If we had been simpler, stronger, we should not have found ourselves in this a-ah crisis. Hitler has many faults, no one is more clearly aware of them than I am, but I must admit, we must all admit, he understands how to govern. Don't mistake me, I deplore violence. But, I insist, order is better than disorder. This is a lesson we shall
have to learn, and perhaps—who knows?—Herr Hitler himself may be the instrument of our reformation.”

“If only,” Mme de Freppel exclaimed, “if only we could be done with this war.” She turned to the young officer. “Tell me honestly. Do you think we can win? Even then we shall all be ruined. I'm in despair.”

Saint-Jouin did not answer immediately. He had been struggling for some time with the piece of chicken on his plate, making shameless efforts to cut away a sheath of gristle. The food was as bad as all Mme de Freppel's meals, but since, when a dish was brought in, she always said, “I had such trouble to get a bird . . .” or it might be—“a sirloin; you have no idea how difficult it is, living so far out of the town: I hope you'll enjoy it,” no one dared refuse. Saint-Jouin dropped his knife.

“Despair? I imagine this bird died of it.”

“Your habits are those of the mess,” Mme de Freppel said smoothly. She turned to the Abbé and began to talk to him about the Bishop. “He seems tired and frailer, the war is telling on him, poor man. . . . Don't you find him much older?”

Catherine was making no attempt to talk to Saint-Jouin. Can she be stupid? her mother thought. . . . No, there was a wilful indifference in the girl's way of looking in front of her, half listening, with a half smile. She was refusing to make an effort. And the young officer, although obviously he admired her, made none, either. Mme de Freppel had never felt before that she was old enough to be Saint-Jouin's mother. Now, suddenly, she felt that the abyss separating her from two of the people at her table was not her experience, not the harshness of her life, not the past, but simply and only her age. . . . With an effort, she went on talking.

Garnier listened to her with an absent smile. He had reached the point of supreme satisfaction and pride he always reached at some moment of his social visits. He came in nervously, suspicious, determined not to be made a fool of. Slowly he became drunk with the sense of his power. He knew so much. Resting an elbow on his learning, he talked. And talked. Never without an object. He always saw hovering in front of him the further place he desired to reach—where he would be absolutely safe. There I can be frankly myself, he thought. There I can strike. . . . He suffered—he did not know it—from the duel
going on in his soul between the astute peasant and the loyal priest. As a boy, as a young priest, the peasant drove him to respect the energy and solidity of the Church. His superiors recognised in him one of those priest-politicians who can be purified by use. Later, a whole series of false steps put him out of the way of being used. His energy was fretting him to death: he was so thin that the boys in the Abbey choir called him “the Pipe.” He did not know this when he listened to the ambiguous purity of their voices, and felt tears coming into his eyes.

The day he heard that the Bishop of Euxerre was dying, he pointed that way all the force of his longing for safety, all the devotion of his insulted spirit. The Prefect, he knew, was a friend of the Minister; it was without a sense of incongruity that he laid hands on Bergeot's mistress as a useful instrument. He was so sure of his honesty.

He interrupted her without scruple.

“Charming, charming. How well you put it. . . . Now if I may turn to another subject. Not, I flatter myself, unimportant. You know how attached I am to the Morvan. I was born there, the happiest days of my childhood were passed in that country of tenacious peasants.... I think it could be impressed on the Minister that I can render a unique service. Special qualifications are not a-ah to be despised in these times.”

At first Mme de Freppel had been puzzled. Suddenly she understood. She looked at Garnier with admiration.

“I should like to be in a position to bring together the stabler elements of society in these times,” Garnier went on in a mild voice. “You were telling me how much you would enjoy meeting the present Duchesse de Seuilly. In my obscure position, of course. . . . But at Euxerre—you know, don't you? that the family pays regular visits to their estate near Euxerre—anything I could do, I should be charmed. Charmed....”

She saw that Catherine was smiling at something Saint-Jouin had said to her. Encouraged, the young man made another remark. His eyes sparkled and he gesticulated with both hands, pressing the tips on his breast.

She turned back to Garnier.

“About the Duchesse de Seuilly. You were saying? ...”

Chapter 12

Catherine vanished after lunch. She left the dining-room with the others, when they were moving to the garden-room to drink coffee, and the door closed gently, with Catherine on the other side of it. It was her mother's first experience of another of this new daughter's tricks. When you thought you had her, and turned your back for a moment, she was not there. In the past, when she was a child, her mother had had trouble to get rid of her for a moment without hurting her feelings: when she was in the house, the little girl was always under her feet, following her, keeping her at night beside her bed. Never again. The mother would never have this trouble again. Smiling, friendly, the new Catherine stepped aside to avoid her.

She had gone up to her room. Without looking at the new dresses, she went to the window and leaned out. The sun was a little to the other side of the house, and she could open the shutters. A tranquil happiness reached her, coming from the rough grass burned by the sun, from the river, glittering and lifeless in the heat, seen above the alders at the end of the garden. She heard voices coming from the room below, the penetrating sound poured out by Garnier, and Saint-Jouin interrupting it brutally. She listened until her mother began talking, then ignored the sounds. Her happiness did not depend on her mother; it came from herself and passed between her and the grass and the river.... I hope I can stay here, she thought. So many times she had settled herself into a place in her mother's house, only to be sent out of it, and always on the best possible excuse—her health, her schooling. At first she missed her mother, cruelly. Then she had wanted a place where she could be alone. Now all she wanted was not to have to move.

She hoped suddenly that the door of her room would lock. She ran across to it. Yes. There was a key. Locking herself in, she went to kneel in the window with a book she took out of one of her boxes. The unpacking could wait.

After a time she heard her mother's footsteps on the landing. They stopped outside her door.

“Catherine, are you there?”

Creeping silently across the room to the bed, she did not answer. Her mother spoke again, in a louder voice.

“Yes,” Catherine said calmly.

There was a brief pause.

“Would you like to come round the garden with me?”

“No, I don't think so, mother,” she said gently. “I thought I'd lie down. I'm rather tired.”

“Very well.”

She heard her mother going away, into her own room, and relaxed without knowing it. She did not know that she had given her mother up. All she had just done was instinctive, the same instinct that at the convent guarded her from making an intimate friend, warned her not to attach herself, not to possess what she might fear losing. She made friends easily, they sought her out, she was charming with them, and once they had gone she never wrote to them, never answered their letters; they were gone, and that was enough to rub them out of her mind.

Late in the afternoon she went downstairs to see whether tea was being served. The door of the library was open. She looked in. A young man was standing with his back to the door, looking closely along the shelves. He turned round, and she recognised him.

The only time she had seen Lucien Sugny before this was humiliating for both of them. He had just been taken on by the Prefect as secretary: in spite of his intellect—or because he had never had time to train anything else—he was shy, awkward, with hands he had only to bring near a piece of valuable china for it to commit suicide. That day he had been sent to the Manor House with a message from Bergeot, and Mme de Freppel offered him tea. He accepted because he did not know how to refuse. Her daughter, a little girl of, he thought, twelve or thirteen, was there. She was crying quietly because she was being sent to school. The car, with her box strapped on, was in the drive. She drank her tea with tears falling over her cheeks into the cup, and when he looked at her with sympathy she ground her teeth at him in a grimace of hate and loathing. A moment later he dropped his plate, snatched at it, and knocked half the things off the table. The floor round him was hideous with ruin....

BOOK: Cloudless May
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