The Merry Men

Page 84

And now, reflect.'

'I shall be very glad. I do not see what else I can do. I thank you, sir, most kindly, and I will try to be useful,' said the boy.

'Thank you,' said the Doctor warmly, rising at the same time and wiping his brow, for he had suffered agonies while the thing hung in the wind. A refusal, after the scene at noon, would have placed him in a ridiculous light before Anastasie. 'How hot and heavy is the evening, to be sure! I have always had a fancy to be a fish in summer, Jean-Marie, here in the Loing beside Gretz. I should lie under a water-lily and listen to the bells, which must sound most delicately down below. That would be a life - do you not think so too?'

'Yes,' said Jean-Marie.

'Thank God you have imagination!' cried the Doctor, embracing the boy with his usual effusive warmth, though it was a proceeding that seemed to disconcert the sufferer almost as much as if he had been an English schoolboy of the same age. 'And now,' he added, 'I will take you to my wife.'

Madame Desprez sat in the dining-room in a cool wrapper. All the blinds were down, and the tile floor had been recently sprinkled with water; her eyes were half shut, but she affected to be reading a novel as the they entered. Though she was a bustling woman, she enjoyed repose between whiles and had a remarkable appetite for sleep.

The Doctor went through a solemn form of introduction, adding, for the benefit of both parties, 'You must try to like each other for my sake.'

'He is very pretty,' said Anastasie. 'Will you kiss me, my pretty little fellow?'

The Doctor was furious, and dragged her into the passage. 'Are you a fool, Anastasie?' he said. 'What is all this I hear about the tact of women? Heaven knows, I have not met with it in my experience. You address my little philosopher as if he were an infant. He must be spoken to with more respect, I tell you; he must not be kissed and Georgy-porgy'd like an ordinary child.'

'I only did it to please you, I am sure,' replied Anastasie; 'but I will try to do better.'

The Doctor apologised for his warmth. 'But I do wish him,' he continued, 'to feel at home among us. And really your conduct was so idiotic, my cherished one, and so utterly and distantly out of place, that a saint might have been pardoned a little vehemence in disapproval. Do, do try - if it is possible for a woman to understand young people - but of course it is not, and I waste my breath. Hold your tongue as much as possible at least, and observe my conduct narrowly; it will serve you for a model.'

Anastasie did as she was bidden, and considered the Doctor's behaviour. She observed that he embraced the boy three times in the course of the evening, and managed generally to confound and abash the little fellow out of speech and appetite. But she had the true womanly heroism in little affairs. Not only did she refrain from the cheap revenge of exposing the Doctor's errors to himself, but she did her best to remove their ill-effect on Jean- Marie. When Desprez went out for his last breath of air before retiring for the night, she came over to the boy's side and took his hand.

'You must not be surprised nor frightened by my husband's manners,' she said. 'He is the kindest of men, but so clever that he is sometimes difficult to understand. You will soon grow used to him, and then you will love him, for that nobody can help. As for me, you may be sure, I shall try to make you happy, and will not bother you at all. I think we should be excellent friends, you and I. I am not clever, but I am very good-natured. Will you give me a kiss?'

He held up his face, and she took him in her arms and then began to cry. The woman had spoken in complaisance; but she had warmed to her own words, and tenderness followed. The Doctor, entering, found them enlaced: he concluded that his wife was in fault; and he was just beginning, in an awful voice, 'Anastasie - ,' when she looked up at him, smiling, with an upraised finger; and he held his peace, wondering, while she led the boy to his attic.

The Merry Men Page 85

Robert Louis Stevenson

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