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Authors: Sara Seale

The Truant Spirit

BOOK: The Truant Spirit
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The Truant Spirit

by SARA SEALE

Sabina was running away. Not very far, and not for very long: but even that mild bid for freedom landed her
(for she was not the efficient type)
in the wilds of Cornwall on a rainy February night, with no money, no belongings and no prospect of shelter except that offered by a total stranger. The situation seemed alarming, but she was to find that her wanderings had, after all, led her in the right direction.

CHAPTER ONE

SABINA was asleep when the train pulled into the little Comish junction where she was to change. The journey had seemed endless, and after the first hundred miles the elation of escape had given place to doubts. Was she not foolish to come so far with so little money? Would Marthe inform the police? What difference would it make in the end that she had seen Penruthan for herself and been for a brief few days independent and answerable to no one?

I am myself and all alone, she thought firmly, as the train began to lull her to the resignation and impersonality of all long journeys.
One is One and all alone and ever more shall be so ... It
was a disquieting thought, but soothing at the same time. The lines of the old rhyme had been running through her head since the train had started ...
twelve for the Twelve Apostles
...
nine for the Nine Bright Shiners ... seven for the Seven who dwell in Heaven ... six for the Six Proud Walkers ...
The rhythm fitted to the rhythm of the train, and she thought defiantly again: I am myself for the first time ... But the reflection of her face in the smoky windows as the train passed through tunnels was not reassuring. She looked lost and small and without distinction, and she knew that apart from Tante Lucille and Marthe she had little existence of her own. Her future was already decided, and she too young and too well disciplined to rebel; yet was not rebellion in this very action? To run away while Marthe was visiting a friend had not, perhaps, been very nice, or to flout Tante’s wishes when she was far away in the South of France and could not immediately retaliate, but the Six Proud Walkers, whoever they were, would, she felt sure, have struck out for freedom, however temporary, striding away into the unknown ...

As Sabina began to drift into sleep while the train rattled through anonymous darkness, pictures formed with depressing assurance of the futility of even temporary escape. She remembered Tante accepting responsibility for her when she had been left an orphan, and the years of being pushed into the background because money was scarce and Tante, volatile and restless, must still contrive her trips abroad and her many small comforts; she remembered Marthe’s vigilance and endless scoldings, the cheap hotels, the cheaper day-schools where no friends were made, and finally, Tante’s plans, coming at last it would seem to maturity.

Sabina had grown up with the French view of marriage and it no longer seemed strange that she should be promised in some vague fashion to the unknown Rene Bergerac, probably listening at this very moment to Tante’s propositions in his faraway chateau. The life she had led since the death of her father had made her grow up quickly in some matters and slowly in others. At nineteen she had a sobriety that warred constantly with the questions and doubts of adolescence, but, except upon this one day, sobriety had always won, for was she not, as Tante and Marthe frequently pointed out, beholden to charity which could ill be afforded?

At first she had recoiled with mild alarm from her aunt’s proposal, but Tante, worldly and a little impatient as always, had soon ridiculed such unsophisticated objections.

“But you are
bourgeoise, ma petite
!” she exclaimed, regarding her niece with a mixture of scorn and exasperation. “Do you dream of the fairy-tale prince who comes to reward all good little girls? That time has gone,
cherie.
Girls work these days and marry a bank clerk without prospects and keep on working to provide the monthly payments on the furniture, or, if they are wise, and have the opportunity, they make the marriage of convenience and let love look after itself.”

“But this M. Bergerac might not be agreeable—besides, he is too old,” Sabina said, struggling to grasp her aunt’s point of view.

“What has age to do with it?” Tante countered indulgently. “When you are not yet twenty the middle years sound a long way off, but they come quickly enough. A rich Frenchman of that age has sown his wild oats—he is ready to
ranger
himself with a wife who is
convenable
and not too demanding. Is there such hardship in taking the famous name of a man who will cherish you like a daughter—with a few reservations, of course?”

“No no ... but he hasn’t seen me.”

“He has seen the photograph on which I spent much good money. It was a triumph, that,
hein
—something to make a man think?”

“But not a bit like me—not a bit like anyone I could ever hope to be.”

“Bien
sur,” Tante replied indifferently. “But that is no matter. Money can do much, and the Bergeracs have always married for reasonable considerations. Rene will not be concerned with a wife who is likely to turn his clients’ heads, which has its disadvantage in his business; also, the house will be of first importance.”

Of course ... the house ... thought Sabina, finding it quite normal, if a little discouraging, that the house should be of primary consideration. She had never understood why Rene Bergerac’s mother should have left Penruthan to her, a distant, unimportant relation whom she had never met, but she had appreciated her aunt’s chagrin when it was discovered that the place was entailed and could not be sold in Sabina’s lifetime. Sabina had always understood that Penruthan was Tante’s trump card. Rene’s father, who had made the Chateau Berger one of the most famous hotels in Europe, had, so it was said, married his wife to acquire the house as an English branch, and his son, said Tante, would do the same to bring it into the family again.

“Not very flattering,” Sabina had said once, “to be taken along with the house like—like the caretaker or—or an old dog that has been pensioned.”

Tante had given her automatic, artificial laugh, and tapped Sabina on the cheek.

“What an amusing conceit!” she had said. “But you do not have to set your value so low,
ma petite.
Rene needs a wife as well as a house. It is best that a
hotelier
should be married—it is both a conventional necessity and a protection. You need not fear for your status at Berger. The French uphold family life more rigorously than the British.”

Then, why, asked Sabina, not following her aunt’s philosophy very clearly, “wouldn’t he rather marry a Frenchwoman?” ...

“You are a little stupid, sometimes,” Tante replied impatiently. “It is you who happen to own Penruthan, a place too large and demanding to be of any use to you in your lifetime; besides, Rene’s mother was English—that, no doubt, might influence him in the matter of taking a wife.
Mon dieu,
Sabina! Do you not understand that in this way you can repay me for my care of you? Had I known that Penruthan could not be sold I could not have afforded to make myself responsible for you. I was misled on many accounts, and now that you are in a position to offer me a home free from want and worry, you make the difficulties no French girl would contemplate for a moment.”

Sabina became humbly aware of the thorn she must have been in Tante’s impatient flesh.

“I could work,” she said.

Tante laughed.

“Assuredly you could work,” she said. “But that would not greatly help me,
cherie.
I will tell you a little secret. When I was younger I spent much time at the Chateau Berger. Rene Bergerac
pere
had more than a fondness for me. It was, I fear, perhaps on my account that his wife left him, so you see, since she willed her house away from her husband and her son, it is fitting that we should return it, hein?”

Even then, Sabina had felt there was something specious about her aunt’s arguments, but the habit of obedience was too strong. What did it matter, after all? As time went on and letters passed between the chateau and their cheap little London hotels, she came to accept the situation just as long ago she had learned to accept Tante’s way of life, and Marthe, that uncompromising Frenchwoman who had remained in Tante’s service for years, probably without wages, had seen to it that proper gratitude should not be wanting.

“For look you,” she would say. “You will never be
chic
or witty like Madame. It is only
convenable
that you should fall in with her wishes, and, believe me, mam’zelle, you are fortunate that such a chance should come your way. Madame is no longer young and it is right that her future should be assured, for, but for her, what future would you yourself look forward to?”

Sabina supposed that this was only just. If Tante had not taken her when she had been left an orphan, what would have become of her?

“This M. Bergerac,” she inquired a little timidly, “he is like the head waiter in our hotels?”

Marthe’s black eyes were amused.

“The head waiters in our hotels are
canaille, ”
she replied.

“M. Bergerac, if he is anything like his father, would employ none of them in the humblest capacity. Me, I have known the great
hoteliers
—you do not need to fear, mam’zelle ... The name of Bergerac is famous among the discerning.”

“Have you never seen him, then?”

“Not the present Bergerac. He would, I believe, have never become
hotelier
had it not been for his illness. During his father’s lifetime he took little interest in the business.”

“His illness? He’s not—I mean, he’s not—ill—in any way now, is he?”

“Ca depend,
but—well, I think he is not robust. It is a life in which one can look after the health, you understand. It was an illness, perhaps, that encouraged fears for the digestion and a dislike of fresh air.”

“What was the matter with him?”

“I forget, but you should be thankful, mam’zelle. He will not demand so full a life as some. He will be grateful, no doubt, for polite consideration and little else, and that should be enough for an English bride.”

For a moment the woman had looked out from the girls clear eyes, and Marthe’s eyebrows lifted as she was asked gently:

“And what of me, Marthe? Don’t I merit a—a full life— with someone of my own age—with a strong stomach?”

“You are too young for such matters,” Marthe replied a little brusquely. “And Madame would say you are not the type. Now for her—but the English do not understand temperament. Be thankful that for you the future should be smooth, and if Monsieur is not quite to your taste, then—a rich woman can have her—relaxations—if she is clever.”

The forthright Frenchwoman’s meaning was plain, and Sabina coloured slightly.

“That wasn’t what I meant at all,” she said, and Marthe turned away with a shrug.

“No? But then at your age,
petite,
you do not know what you want,” she observed. “Be guided by Madame, for to her you owe much. Had she not come forward it might have been an institution for you.”

“Yes,” said Sabina, “I understand.”

She did not altogether believe in the familiar allusion to an institution, but she had understood very early on that Tante’s generosity had been mainly prompted by the lure of Penruthan, and the tempting price it would fetch in the market. She shared her aunt’s disappointment that the place was entailed, and accepted the fact that, between them, she and Penruthan had

cheated Tante of just expectations....

The train carried her relentlessly to her unknown destination,

to the house which for so long had stood empty and neglected on the edge of a Cornish moor. She had never seen it, and now with Tante only yesterday gone to France to make the final delicate arrangements, she had experienced this unaccountable urge to visit the little Cornish village alone, and find for herself this unwanted legacy which must play such a part in her future.

She was tired and very conscious that her bid for freedom was foolish. In a few weeks Tante would return with M. Bergerac himself to inspect the house and his future bride; and what object had there been in running away?

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