The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 12

XII
WHY MIGNON WENT TO MARKET

iT is market day at Dives. This means that it is Saturday. On Friday the market is at Cabourg, on Wednesday at Buezval, and on the other days at the several small towns within a radius of twenty miles.

It means, too, that the street fronting the Inn is blocked up with a line of carts, little and big, their shafts in the gutter, the horses eating from troughs tied to the hind axle; that another line stretches its length along the narrow street on the kitchen side of the Inn which leads to the quaint Norman church, squeezing itself through a yet narrower street into a small open square, where it comes bump up against a huge hulk of a building, choked up on these market days with piles of vegetables, crates of chickens, boxes of apples, unruly pigs alive and squealing; patient, tired, little calves; geese, ducks—all squawking; chrysanthemums in pots spread out on the sidewalk; old brass, old iron; everything that goes to supply the needs of the white-capped women and wide-hatted men who crowd every square foot of standing room.

Market day means, too, that Pierre is unusually busy; and so is Lemois, and so are Leà and our little Mignon. Long before any one of us were out of bed this morning, the court-yard was crowded with big red-faced Norman farmers and their fat wives, all talking at once over their coffee, each with half a glass of Calvados (Norman apple-jack) dumped into their cups. At noon, the market over, they were back again for their midday breakfast, and Pierre, who had been working since daylight without a mouthful to eat, then placed on a big table in one of the open kiosks a huge earthen crock, sizzling-hot, filled with tripe, bits of pork, and chicken—the whole seasoned with onions and giving out a most seductive and inviting smell when its earthenware cover was lifted. There were great loaves of brown bread, too, which Lemois himself cut and served to the guests, besides cold pork in slices and cabbage chopped into shreds. When each plate was full, and the knives and forks had begun to rattle, he went indoors for his most precious heirloom—the square cut-glass decanter with its stopper made of silver buttons cut from a peasant’s jacket and soldered together—and after brimming each glass, seated himself and took his meal with the others, bowing them out when breakfast was over—hat in hand—as if they were ambassadors of a foreign court—gentleman and peasant, as he is—while they, full to their eyelids, stumbled up into their several carts, their women climbing in after.

And a great day it was for an out-door meal or for anything else one’s soul longed for—and they have these days in Normandy in October, when the fire is out in the Marmouset, the air a caress, and a hunger for the vanished summer comes over you. So soothing was the touch of the autumn air, and so lovely the tones of the autumn sky, that Louis hauled out a sketch-box from beneath a pile of canvases, and tucking one of them under his arm, disappeared through the big gate in the direction of the old church. Brierley took down his gun, and, calling Peter, strolled out of the court-yard promising to be back at luncheon, while Herbert, who had risen at dawn and walked to Houlgate to bid The Engineer good-by, dragged out an easy-chair from the “Gallerie,” backed it up against the statue of the Great Louis, and under pretence of resting his legs, buried himself in a book, the warm sunshine full on the page.

I, being left to my own devices, waited until the last cart with its well-fed load of Norman farmers had turned the corner of the Inn and quiet reigned again; and remembering that I was host, sought out our landlord and put the question squarely as to what objections, if any, he, the lord of the manor, had to our lunching out of doors too, and at the same table on which Pierre had placed the big crock and its attendant trimmings.

“Of course, my dear Monsieur High-Muck, you shall all lunch in the court, but the menu shall be better adapted to your more gentle appetites than the one prepared for our departed guests. I am at this moment paying the penalty for my share of the indigestible mess—but then I could not hurt their feelings by refusing—and so I have a queer feeling here”—and he ironed his waistcoat with the flat of his hand, his eyes upraised as if in pain. “But let me think—what shall it be to-day? I have a fish which Mignon, who has just gone to the market, will bring back, because I could not go myself nor spare Leà. Those big-eating people came so early and stayed so late. After the fish we will have Poulet Vallèe D’auge, with stewed celery, and at last a Pêche Flambée—and it will be the last time, for the late peaches are about over. And now about the wine—will you pick it out or shall I? Ah!—I remember—only yesterday I found a few bottles of Moncontour Vouvray at the bottom of a shelf in my old wine-cellar. It will bring fresh courage to your hearts. When it does not do that, and you have only dull despair or thick headaches, it should be poured out on the ground”—having delivered which homily, the old man, with his eye on Coco asleep on his perch, sauntered slowly up the court in the direction of the wine-cellar, from which he emerged a few minutes later bearing two dust-encrusted bottles topped with yellow wax—a distinguishing mark which he himself had placed there some twenty years before and had forgotten.

So while Herbert read on, only looking up now and then from his book, Leà and I set the table, stripping it of its rough, heavy dishes, swabbing it off with a clean, water-soaked towel—I did the swabbing and Leà held the basin—bringing from the Marmouset our linen and china, then dragging up the big wooden chairs, which were rain-proof and never housed.

We missed Mignon, of course. Buying a fish, and the market but half a dozen blocks away, should not require a whole hour for its completion, especially since she had been told to hurry—more especially still, since Pierre’s pot was on the boil awaiting its arrival, Louis and Brierley having returned hungry as bears. Indeed I had already started in to ask Lemois the plump question as to what detained our Bunch of Roses, when Leà’s thin, sharp, fingers clutched my coat-sleeve, her eyes on Lemois. What she meant I dared not ask, but there was no doubt in my mind that it had to do with the love affair in which every man of us was mixed up as coconspirator—a conclusion which was instantly confirmed when I looked into her shrivelled face and caught the joyous, lantern flare behind her eyes.

Waiting until we were out of hearing, Lemois having gone to the kitchen, she answered with a shake of her old head:

“Mignon loiters because Gaston is well again.”

“But he has never been ill. That crack on his head did him a lot of good—hurt Monsieur Lemois, I fancy, more than it did Gaston—set him to thinking—maybe now it will come out all right.”

“No; it only made him the more obstinate; he has forbidden the boy the place.”

“And is that why you are so happy?”

The shrewd, kindly eyes of the old woman looked into mine and then a sudden smile flung a myriad of wrinkles across her face.

“I am happy, monsieur,” she whispered as I followed her around the table with the box of knives and forks, “because things are getting brighter. Gaston has a stall now in the market where he can sell his fish himself, and where Mignon can see him once in a while. She is with him now. You know the hucksters paid him what they pleased, and sometimes, even when Gaston’s catch was big, he made only a few francs some mornings. And the mother and he were obliged to take what they could get, for you cannot wait with fish when the weather is hot. To buy the stall and pay for it all at once was what troubled them, so it is a great day for Gaston—Monsieur Gaston Duprè now”—and her eyes twinkled. “Even if Monsieur Lemois holds out—and he may, after all—then there may be another way. Is it not so? Ah, we will see! She is very happy now. Only I am getting nervous; she stays so long I am afraid that Monsieur Lemois may find out,” and she shot an anxious glance up the garden.

“What did the stall cost, Leà?” I asked, flattening the knives beside the plates as I talked, my eye on the kitchen door so Lemois should not surprise us.

“Oh, a great sum—one hundred and ten francs. Two knives here, if you please, monsieur.”

“Well, where did it come from—their savings?” obeying her directions as I spoke.

“No—not his money nor his mother’s; she could not spare so much. She must be buried some time, and there must always be money enough for that. All Gaston knows is that the chief of the market came to his house and left the receipt with the permit. It is for a year.”

“Well—somebody must have paid. Who was it?” I had finished with the knives and had begun on the forks and tablespoons.

“Yes—there was somebody, perhaps it was madame la marquise?” and she turned quickly and looked into my eyes, an expression of shrewd inquiry adding a new set of wrinkles to her gentle face. “Maybe you know, monsieur?”

“No, it’s all news to me. I am glad for her sake, anyhow, whoever did it. Was it news to Mignon?”

“When?”

“Why this morning when she went to market?”

“Yes, of course it was news to her. I, myself, only knew it last night, and I wouldn’t tell her; she would have betrayed herself in her joy. So when the market people stayed so long—and I did all I could to make them stay”—here her small bead eyes were pinched tight in merriment—“I said there was nothing for your dinner and we must have a fish and that Mignon might better go for it. Watch her when she returns: her face will tell you whether she has seen him or not. Now give me the box, monsieur, and thank you for helping me. Listen! There she comes; I hear her singing.”

And so did the whole court-yard, and she kept on singing, her basket on her arm, her face in full sunlight, until she espied Leà. Then down went the fish and away she flew, throwing her arms around the dear old woman’s neck, not caring who saw her; hugging her one minute, kissing her seamed cheeks the next, chattering like a magpie all the time, her eyes flashing, her cheeks red as two roses.

Only when Lemois appeared in the kitchen door and bent his steps toward us did her customary demureness return, and even then the joy in her heart was only stifled for the moment by a fear of his having overheard her song and of his wondering at the cause.

And if the truth be told, he did come very near finding out when luncheon was served, and would have done so but for the fact that I upset Le Blanc’s glass of Vouvray and followed up the warning with a punch below his fat waist-line when he began telling us how sorry he was for being late, he having made a wide détour to avoid the market carts, winding up with: “And oh, by the way, I met your little maid, Mignon, in the fish-market; she was having a beautiful time with a young fisherman who——

It was here the dig came in.

“Ouch! What the devil, High-Muck, do you mean? Oh, I understand—yes, as I was saying”—here he stole a glance at Lemois—“I met Mignon in the market; she was buying a beautiful fish. I hope, Monsieur Lemois, we are to have it for dinner. Don’t bother, Leà, about the spilt wine; just get me a fresh glass. And, Louis, do you mind letting go that crusting of cobwebs so I can get another taste of that nosegay?” and thus the day was saved.

We broke loose, however, when Lemois was gone, and I told the whole story as Leà had given it, Louis, in his customary rôle of toast-master, rising in his seat and pledging the young couple, whose health and happiness we all drank, Brierley whistling the Wedding March to the accompaniment of a great clatter of knives and forks on the plates.

In fact, the very air seemed so charged with uncontrollable exhilaration that Coco, the oldest and most knowing of birds—he is sixty-five and has seen more love-making from his perch in the dormer overlooking that same court-yard than all the chaperones who ever lived—suddenly broke out into screams of delight, ruffling his feathers, curling up his celery sprout of a topknot, his eyes following Mignon, his head cocked on one side, when she raced back and forth from Pierre’s range to our big table. Even Tito, the scrap of a black kitten, who was never three feet away from Mignon’s heels, dodged in and out of her swaying petticoats in mad chase after her restless feet, and would not be quieted until she stopped long enough to take him up in her arms for a moment’s cuddling.

Of none of all this, thank Heaven, did Lemois have the faintest glimmer of a suspicion. When on her return from market he had scolded her for being late, he had taken her silence only as proof that she thought she deserved it. When he would have broken out on her again, suddenly remembering that our coffee was likely to be delayed, Herbert, to whom I had whispered my discovery—diplomat as he was—begged him to delay the serving of it until it could be poured directly from the pot into our cups, as the air of the court would chill it. All of which, Heaven be thanked again, Mignon overheard, sending her flying back to the kitchen, her eyes aglow with the happiness of a secret that filled her heart to bursting.

When she at last appeared with the coffee-pot, so contagious was her joy that our extended hands trembled as we held the tiny cups beneath her fingers. Somehow we had caught a little of her thrill. And it was all so evident and so marvellous and so inspiring that every man Jack of us, blighted old bachelors as we were, fell to wondering whether, after all, it would not have been better to have bent the neck to the yoke and had a running-mate beside us than to have continued our dreary trot in single harness.