At that moment arrived the caleche which Duchemin had commanded to drive him to the chateau; and with a ride of two miles before him and rain imminent, he had no more time to waste.
Dinner was served in a vast and sombre hall whose darkly panelled walls and high-beamed ceiling bred a multitude of shadows that danced about the table a weird, spasmodic saraband, without meaning or end, restlessly advancing and retreating as the candles flickered, failed and flared in the gusty draughts.
There was (Duchemin learned) no other means of illumination but by candle-light in the entire chateau. The time-old structure had been thoroughly renovated and modernised in most respects, it was furnished with taste and reverence (one could guess whose the taste and purse) but Madame de Sevenie remained its undisputed chatelaine, a belated spirit of the ancien regime, stubbornly set against the conveniences of this degenerate age. Electric lighting she would never countenance. The telephone she esteemed a convenience for tradespeople and vulgarians in general, beneath the dignity of leisured quality. The motor car she disapproved yet tolerated because, for all her years, she was of a brisk and active turn and liked to get about, whereas since the War good horseflesh was difficult to find in France and men to care for it more scarce still.
So much, and more besides, she communicated to Duchemin at intervals during the meal, comporting herself toward him with graciousness not altogether innocent of a certain faded coquetry. Having spoken of herself as one born too late for her time, she paused and eyed him keenly, a gleam of light malice in her bright old eyes.
“And you, too, monsieur,” she added suddenly. “But you, I think, belong to an even earlier day...”
“I, madame? And why do you say that?”
“I should have been guillotined under the Terror; but you, monsieur, you should have been hanged long before that—hanged for a buccaneer on the Spanish Main.”
“Madame may be right,” said Duchemin, amused. “And quite possibly I was, you know.”
Then he wondered a little, and began to cultivate some respect for the shrewdness of her intuitions.
He sat on her left, the place of honour going by custom immemorial to monsieur le cure of Nant. For all that, Duchemin declined to feel slighted. Was he not on the right of Eve de Montalais?
The girl Louise was placed between the cure and her sister-in-law. Duchemia could not have been guilty of the offence of ignoring her; but the truth is that, save when courtesy demanded that he pay her some attention, he hardly saw her. She was pretty enough, but very quiet and self-absorbed, a slender, nervous creature with that pathetically eager look peculiar to her age and caste in France, starving for the life she might not live till marriage should set her free.