Old and New Acquaintance

Fascinated as by a basilisk with three heads, I could not leave this clique; the ground near them seemed to hold my feet. The canopy of entwined trees held out shadow, the night whispered a pledge of protection, and an officious lamp flashed just one beam to show me an obscure, safe seat, and then vanished. Let me now briefly tell the reader all that, during the past dark fortnight, I have been silently gathering from rumour respecting the origin and the object of M. Emanuel’s departure. The tale is short, and not new. Its alpha is Mammon and its omega Interest.

If Madame Walravens was hideous as a Hindu idol, she seemed also to possess, in the estimation of these her votaries, an idol’s consequence. The fact was, she had been rich—very rich; and though, for the present, without the command of money, she was likely one day to be rich again. At Basseterre, in Guadeloupe, she possessed a large estate, received in dowry on her marriage sixty years ago, sequestered since her husband’s failure, but now, it was supposed, cleared of claim, and, if duly looked after by a competent agent of integrity, considered capable of being made, in a few years, largely productive.

Père Silas took an interest in this prospective improvement for the sake of religion and the church, whereof Magliore Walravens was a devout daughter. Madame Beck, distantly related to the hunchback, and knowing her to be without family of her own, had long brooded over contingencies with a mother’s calculating forethought, and, harshly treated as she was by Madame Walravens, never ceased to court her for interest’s sake. Madame Beck and the priest were thus, for money reasons, equally and sincerely interested in the nursing of the West Indian estate.

But the distance was great and the climate hazardous. The competent and upright agent wanted must be a devoted man. Just such a man had Madame Walravens retained for twenty years in her service, blighting his life, and then living on him, like an old fungus; such a man had Père Silas trained, taught, and bound to him by the ties of gratitude, habit, and belief. Such a man Madame Beck knew, and could in some measure influence. “My pupil,” said Père Silas, “if he remains in Europe, runs risk of apostasy, for he has become entangled with a heretic.” Madame Beck made also her private comment, and preferred in her own breast her secret reason for desiring expatriation. The thing she could not obtain she desired not another to win; rather would she destroy it. As to Madame Walravens, she wanted her money and her land, and knew Paul, if he liked, could make the best and faithfullest steward. So the three self- seekers banded and beset the one unselfish. They reasoned, they appealed, they implored; on his mercy they cast themselves; into his hands they confidingly thrust their interests. They asked but two or three years of devotion: after that he should live for himself. One of the number, perhaps, wished that in the meantime he might die.

No living being ever humbly laid his advantage at M. Emanuel’s feet, or confidingly put it into his hands, that he spurned the trust or repulsed the repository. What might be his private pain or inward reluctance to leave Europe, what his calculations for his own future, none asked, or knew, or reported. All this was a blank to me. His conferences with his confessor I might guess; the part duty and religion were made to play in the persuasions used I might conjecture. He was gone, and had made no sign. There my knowledge closed.

With my head bent, and my forehead resting on my hands, I sat amidst grouped tree-stems and branching brushwood. Whatever talk passed amongst my neighbours I might hear if I would—I was near enough; but for some time there was scarce motive to attend. They gossiped about the dresses, the music, the illuminations, the fine night. I listened to hear them say, “It is calm weather for his voyage; the Antigua” (his ship) “will sail prosperously.” No such remark fell; neither the Antigua nor her course nor her passenger were named.

Perhaps the light chat scarcely interested old Madame Walravens more than it did me. She appeared restless, turning her head now to this side, now that, looking through the trees, and among the crowd, as if expectant of an arrival and impatient of delay. “Où sont-ils? Pourquoi ne viennent-ils?” I heard her mutter more than once; and at last, as if determined to have an answer to her question, which hitherto

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