The Great House

 

By Stanley J. Weyman

 

Longmans, Green and Co. New York 1919

 

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Chapter 1

 

THE HOTEL LAMBERT—UPSTAIRS

 

     ON an evening in March in the ‘forties of last century a girl looked down on the Seine from an attic window on the Ile St. Louis.  The room behind her—or beside her, for she sat on the window-ledge, with her back against one side of the opening and her feet against the other—was long, whitewashed from floor to ceiling, lighted by five gaunt windows, and as cold to the eye as charity to the recipient.  Along each side of the chamber ran ten pallet beds.  A black door broke the wall at one end, and above the door hung a crucifix.  A painting of a Station of the Cross adorned the wall at the other end.  Beyond this picture the room had no ornament; it is almost true to say that beyond what has been named it had no furniture.  One bed—the bed beside the window at which the girl sat—was screened by a thin curtain at which the girl sat—was screened by a thin curtain which did not reach the floor.  This was her bed.

 

     But in early spring no window in Paris looked on a scene more cheerful than this window; which as from an eyrie commanded a shining reach of the Seine bordered by the lawns and foliage of the King’s Garden, and closed by the graceful arches of the Bridge of Austerlizt.  On the water boats shot to and fro.  The quays were gay with the red trousers of soldiers and the coquettish caps of soubrettes, with students in strange cloaks, and the twinkling wheels of yellow cabriolets.  The firs swallows were hawking hither and thither above the water, and a pleasant hum rose from the Boulevard Bourdon.

 

     Yet the girl sighed.  For it was her birthday, she was twenty this twenty-fifth of March, and there was not a soul in the world to know this and to wish her joy.  A life of dependence, toned to the key of the whitewashed room and the thin pallets, lay before her; and though she had good reason to be thankful for the safety which dependence brought, still she was only twenty, and springtime, viewed from prison windows, beckons to its cousin, youth.  She saw family groups walking the quays, and father, mother, children, all, seen from a distance, were happy.  She saw lovers loitering in the garden or pacing to and fro, and romance walked with every one of them; none came late, or fell to words.  She sighed more deeply; and on the sound the door opened.

 

     Hola!” cried a shrill voice, speaking in French, fluent, but oddly accented.  “Who is here?  The Princess desires that the English Mademoiselle will descend this evening.” 

 

     “Very good,” the girl in the window replied pleasantly.  “At the same hour, Josephine?”

 

     “Why, not, Mademoiselle?”  A trim maid, with a plain face and the faultless figure of a Pole, came a few steps into the room.  “But you are alone?”

 

     “The children are walking.  I stayed at home.”

 

     “To be alone?  As if I did not understand that!  To be alone—it is the luxury of the rich.”

 

     The girl nodded.  “None but a Pole would have thought of that,” she said.

 

     “Ah, the crafty English Miss!” the maid retorted.  “How she flatters!  Perhaps she needs a touch of the tongs to-night?  Or the loan of a pair of red-heeled shoes, worn no more than thrice by the Princess—and with the black which is convenable for Mademoiselle, oh, so neat!  Of the ancien regime, absolutely!”

 

     The other laughed.  “The ancien regime, Josephine—and this!” she replied, with a gesture that embraced the room, the pallets, her own bed.  “A curled head—and this!  You are truly a cabbage—“

 

     “But Mademoiselle descends!”

 

     “A cabbage of—foolishness!”

 

     “Ah, well, if I descended, you would see,” the maid retorted.  “I am but the Princess’s second maid, and I know nothing!  But if I descended it would not be to this dormitory I should return!  Nor to the tartines!  Nor to the daughters of Poland!  Trust me for that—and I know but my prayers.  While Mademoiselle, she is an artist’s daughter.”

 

     “There spoke the Pole again,” the girl struck in with a smile.

 

     “The English Miss knows how to flatter,” Josephine laughed.  “That is one for the touch of the tongs,” she continued, ticking them off on her fingers.  “And one for the red-heeled shoes.  And—but no more!  Let me begone before I am bankrupt!”  She turned about with a flirt of her short petticoats, but paused and looked back, with her hand on the door.  “None the less, mark you well, Mademoiselle, from the whitewash to the ceiling of Lebrun, from the dortoir of the Jeunes Filles to the Gallery of Hercules, there are but twenty stairs, and easy, oh, so easy to descend!  If Mademoiselle instead of flattering Josephine, the Cracovienne, flattered some pretty gentleman—who knows?  Not I!  I know but my prayers!”  And with a light laugh the maid clapped to the door and was gone.

 

     The girl in the window had not throughout the parley changed her pose or moved more than her head, and this was characteristic of her.  For even in her playfulness there was gravity, and measure of stillness.  Now, left alone, she dropped her feet to the floor, turned, and knelt on the sill with her brow pressed against the glass.  The sun had set, mists were rising from the river, the quays were gray and cold.  Here and there a lamp began to shine through the twilight.  But the girl’s thoughts were no longer on the scene beneath her eyes.

 

     “There goes the third who has been good to me,” she pondered.  “First the Polish lodger who lived on the floor below, and saved me from that woman.  Then the Princess’s daughter.  Now Josephine.  There are still kind people in the world—God grant that I may not forget it!  But how much better to give than to take, to be strong than to be weak, to be the mistress and not the puppet of fortune!  How much better—and, were I a man, how easy!”

 

     But on that there came into her remembrance one to whom it had not been easy, one who had signally failed to master fortune, or to grapple with circumstances.  “Poor father!” she whispered.