In the Village of Viger

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

THE TRAGEDY OF THE SEIGNIORY


THERE WAS a house on the outskirts of Viger called, by courtesy, the Seigniory.  Passing down one of the side-streets you caught sight of it, set upon a rise, having nothing to do with the street, or seemingly with any part of the town.  Built into the bank, as it was, the front had three storeys, while the back had but two.  The lower flat, half cellar, half kitchen, was lighted from a broad door and two windows facing the south-east.  Entrance to the second floor was had by a flight of steps to a wide gallery running completely across the front of the house.  Then, above this second storey, there was a sharply-peaked roof, with dormer-windows.  The walls of the kitchen storey were rough stone, while the upper part had been plastered and overlaid with a buff-coloured wash; but time had cracked off the plaster in many places, and showed the solid stones.
    With all the ravages of time upon it, and with all its [Page 69] old surroundings gone, it yet had an air of some distinction.  With its shoulder to the street, and its independent solidity, it made men remember days gone by, when it was only a farm-house on the Estate of the Rioux family.  Yet of that estate this old house, with its surrounding three acres of land, was all that remained; and of the retainers that once held allegiance to this proud name, Louis Bois was the last.
    Living alone in the old house, growing old with it, guarding some secret and keeping at a proper distance the inquisitive and loquacious villagers, had given Louis also some distinction.  He was reported an old soldier, and bore about the witness of it in a wooden leg.  He swore, when angry, in a cavalier fashion, using the heavier English oaths with some freedom.  His bravery, having never been put to proof, rested securely upon these foundations.  But he had a more definite charm for the villagers; he was supposed to have money of his own, and afforded the charming spectacle of a human being vegetating like a plant, without effort and without trouble.  Louis Bois had grown large in his indolence, and towards the end of his career he moved with less frequency and greater difficulty.  His face was round and fat; the hair had never grown on it, and the skin was fine and smooth as an orange, without wrinkles, but marked with very decided pores.  The expression of amiability that his mouth promised was destroyed by an eye of suspicious restlessness.  About fifteen years before the time of his release Louis had been [Page 70] sworn to his post by the last of the Rioux family—Hugo Armand Theophile. 
    This young man, of high spirit and passionate courage, found himself, at the age of twenty-five, after two years of intermittent study at a Jesuit College, fatherless, and without a sou to call his own.  Of the family estate, the farm-house, round which Viger had closed, was all that remained, and from its windows this fiery youth might look across the ten acres that were his, over miles of hill and wood to which his grandfather had been born.  This vista tortured him for three days, when he sold seven of his acres, keeping the rest from pride.  Then he shook off the dust of Viger, but not before swearing Louis Bois, who was old enough to be his father, and love him as such, to stay and watch the forlorn hope of the Rioux Estate until he, the last of the line, should return and redeem his ancient heritage.  He would be gone ten years, he said; and Louis reflected with pride that his own money would keep him that long, and longer.
    At first he kept the whole house open, and entertained some of his friends; but he soon discovered that he lost money by that, and gradually he boarded up the windows and lived in the kitchen and one room of the upper flat.
    He was a sensitive being, this, and his master's idea had taken hold upon him.  His burly frame contained a faint heart; he had no physical courage; and he was as suspicious as a savage.  Moreover, he was superstitious, as superstitious as an old wife, and odd occurrences made him [Page 71] uneasy.  If he could have been allowed to doze on his gallery in the sun all his days, and sleep secure of dreams and visitations all his nights, his life might have been bearable.  The first three years of his stewardship were comparatively uneventful.  He traced his liege's progress through the civilized world by the post-mark on his letters, which sometimes contained a bill of exchange, of which the great and safe back of Bardé Brothers took charge.  As yet his master had not captured a treasure ship; but seven years remained.
    At the beginning of his fourth year something happened which disturbed Louis' existence to its centre.  An emissary of the devil, in the guise of a surveyor, planted his theodolite, and ran a roadway which took off a corner of his three acres, and for this he received only an arbitrator's allowance.  In vain he stumped up and down his gallery, and in vain his English oaths—the roadway went through.  To add to his trouble, the letters from the wanderer ceased.  Was he dead?  Had he forgotten?  No more money was coming in, and Louis had the perpetual sight of the alienated lands before his eyes.
    One day, when he was coming home from the bank, his eye caught a poster that made him think; it was an announcement of a famous lottery.  Do what he would he could not get it out of his head; and that evening, when he was cooking his supper, he resolved to make money after a fashion of his own.  He saw himself a suddenly rich man, the winner of the seventy-five-thousand-dollar prize. [Page 72]  He felt his knee burn under him, and felt also what a dead thing his wooden leg was.
    He began to venture small sums in the lottery, hoarding half his monthly allowance until he should have sufficient funds to purchase a ticket.  Waiting for the moment when he could buy, and then waiting for the moment when he could receive news of the drawing, lent a feverish interest to his life.  But he failed to win.  With his failure grew a sort of exasperation—he would win, he said, if he spent every cent he owned.  He had moments when he suspected that he was being duped, but he was always reassured upon spelling out the lottery circular, where the drawing by the two orphan children was so touchingly described.
    At last, after repeated failures, he drew every cent of his own that he could muster, and bought a whole ticket.  He never rested a moment until the returns came.  He had days of high spirits, when he touched his gains and saw them heaped before him, and other days of depression when he cursed his ill luck, and saw blanks written everywhere.  When he learned the result his last disappointment was his greatest.  He had drawn a blank.
    He was in a perfect fury of rage, and went off to bed cursing like a sea-pirate.  When he took off his wooden leg, he took it by the foot and beat the floor with the knee-end until he got some relief.  Could he have captured, he would have murdered the innocent orphan children.  He swore never to be tempted again, but the morning when [Page 73]he took that oath, April was bleak on the hills, and a tardy spring circled in cold sunshine, leaving the buds suspended.
    When May came, his hope again blossomed.  Slowly and certainly his mind approached that money he had in trust for his master, until, one sultry day in June, he saw his way to success, and felt his conscience lulled.  That afternoon he dozed on the gallery and dreamed.  He felt he was in Heaven, and the heaven of his dreams was a large Cathedral whose nave he had walked somewhere in his journeyings.  He saw the solemn passages, the penetrating shafts of light, the obscure altar rising dimly in the star-hung alcove; and from the glamour round the altar floated down a magnificent angel, and with a look of perfect knowledge in his eyes shamed him for his base resolve.  Slowly, as Louis quailed before him, he dwindled, shimmering in the glory shaken from his vesture, until he grew very faint and indistinct, and dissolved slowly into light.  Then his vision swayed aside, and he saw his own gallery, and a little cream-coloured dog, that sat with his back half-turned towards him, eyeing him over his shoulder.  Superstitious Louis shuddered when he saw this dog.  He thought there was something uncanny about him; but to a casual observer he was an ordinary dog of mixed blood.  He had a sharp nose and ears, piercing eyes, straight, cream-coloured hair rather white upon the breast, and a tail curled down upon his back.  He was a small dog; an intense nervousness animated his every movement. [Page 74]
    Louis was afraid to drive him away, and so long as he saw him he could not forget his dream and the reproof he had had from heaven; gradually he came to believe the animal was a spirit in canine form.  His reasons for this were that the dog never slept, or at least never seemed to sleep.  All day long he followed Louis about.  If he dozed in his chair the dog laid his nose between his paws and watched him.  If he woke at night his eyes burned in the darkness.  Again, he never seemed to eat anything, and he was never heard to utter a sound.
    Louis, half-afraid of him, gave him a name; he called him Fidele.  He also tried to coax him, but to no purpose.  The dog never approached him except when he went to sleep; then he would move nearer to him.  At last he got greater confidence; and Louis awoke from a doze one day to find him gnawing his wooden leg.  He tried to frighten him off; but Fidele had acquired the habit and stuck to it.  Whenever Louis would fall asleep, Fidele would approach him softly and chew his leg.  Perhaps it was the soft tremor that was imparted to his fleshy leg from the gnawing of the wooden one; but Louis never slept more soundly than when this was progressing.  He saw, however, with dismay, his hickory support vanishing, and to avoid wasting his money on wooden legs he covered the one he had with brass-headed tacks.  In the end the dog came to be a sort of conscience for him.  He could never look at his piercing eyes without thinking of the way he had been warned.
    To pay for his recklessness Louis had to live on a [Page 75] pittance for years; just enough to keep himself alive.  He might have lost his taste for gambling, through this rigour, and his temptation to use his master's money might never have returned; but in his lottery business he had made a confidant of one of the messengers of the Bardé Bank.  The fellow's name was Jacques Potvin.  He was full of dissimulation; he loved a lie for its own sake; he devoured the simple character of Louis Bois.  Whenever they met, Louis was treated to a flushed account of all sorts of escapades—thousands made in a night—tens of thousands by a pen-stroke.
    At last, as a crowning success, Jacques Potvin himself had won a thousand dollars in a drawing that Louis could not participate in.  This was galling.  To have that money lying idle; never to hear from his master Rioux, who was probably dead, and to see chance after chance slip by him.  He gave his trouble to Potvin!  Potvin took the weight lightly and threw it over his shoulder:
    "Bah!" he said.  "If I had that money under my fingers, I would be a rich man before the year was out."
    The fever was in Louis' blood again.  He tossed a sleepless night, and then resolved desperately.  He shut Fidele up in the attic, and went off and bought a ticket with his master's money.  When he came back from the bank, the first thing he saw was Fidele seated in one of the dormer-windows, watching him.  It would be six months before he could get any news of his venture; six months of Fidele and an accusing conscience.
    Half the time was scarcely over when, to his horror and [Page 76] joy, came a letter from his master.  It was dated at Rio.  He was on his way home; he would arrive in about six months.  The probable failure of his scheme gave Louis agony now.  He would have to face his master, who would arrive at Christmas if his plans were discharged, with a rifled bank account.  On the other hand, if he should be successful!—Oh! that gold, how it haunted him!
    One night, on the eve of his expectation, Louis fell asleep as he was cooking his supper.  He slept long, and when he awoke his stove was red-hot.  He started up, staring at something figured on the red stove door.
    It was only the number of the stove, but it was also the number of his ticket.  He waited, after that, in perfect serenity, and when his notice came he opened it with calmness.  He had won the seventy-five-thousand-dollar prize.
    He went off hot foot to Potvin.
    "Of course," he said, "I'll have them send it to the Bardé Bank."
    "Just keep cool," see Potvin.  "Of course you'll do nothing of the sort."
    "But why?"
    "Why?  Wait and see.  The Imperial Bank is safe enough for you."
    Louis had the money sent to the Imperial Bank.
    A short time after this, when Louis passed the Bardé Bank, a crowd of people were besieging the doors and reading the placards; the Bank had suspended payment. [Page 77] The shrewdness of Potvin had saved his seventy-five thousand.
    When he next met Jacques, he hugged him to his heart.  Jacques laid his finger on his nose:
    "Deeper still," he said.  "I know, I know that the Imperial itself is totterish.  This affair of the Bardés has made things shaky; see?  Everything is on three legs.  If I were you, now; if I were you, I'd just draw that seventy-five thousand dollars and lay it away in a strong-box till this blows over."
    "But," said Louis, in a panic, "I have no strong-box."
    "But I have," said Jacques.
    Louis laid his hands on his shoulders, and could have wept.
    Christmas passed, but no sign of Hugo Armand Theophile.  But the second week in January brought a letter, two days old, from New York.  Rioux would be in Viger in a week at the latest.  Louis was in great spirits.  He planned a surprise for his master.  He went off to find Jacques Potvin, but Jacques was not to be found.
    Louis arranged that Jacques was to meet him at a tavern called "The Blue Bells" the next day.
    "But," said Jacques, when they met, "this is absurd.  What do you want the money for?"
    "Never mind, I want it, that's all."
    "But think; seventy-five thousand dollars!"
    "I want it for a few days.  Just the money—myself—I—is it not mine?"
    Someone in the next compartment rose, and put his [Page 78] ear to the partition.  The voices were low, but he could hear them well.  Listening intently, his eyes seemed to sink into his head, and burn there darkly.
    "Well, so it is," concluded Jacques.  "I will get it for you.  But we'll have to do the thing quietly, very quietly.  I'll drive out to Viger tomorrow night, say.  I'll meet you at that vacant field next the church, at eleven, and the money will be there."
    The listener in the next compartment withdrew hastily, and mingled with the crowd at the bar.  That night he wandered out to Viger.  He observed the church and the vacant lot, and saw that there were here and there hollows under the sidewalk, where a man might crouch.
    He afterward wandered about for a while, and found himself in front of the old farm-house.  A side window of the second storey was filled with the flicker of a fire.  A ladder leaned against the wall and ran up past the window.  He hesitated whether to ascend the gallery-steps or the ladder.  He chose the ladder.  With his foot on the lowest rung, he said:
    "If I hadn't this little scheme on hand I would go in, but—"
    He went up the ladder and looked in at the window.  Louis Bois was asleep before the fire.  Fidele lay by his side.  The man caught the dog's eye.
    Louis woke nervously, and saw a figure at the window.  The only thing he discerned distinctly was a white sort of cap.  In his sudden fear, seeking something to throw, he [Page 79] touched Fidele, and without thinking, he hurled him full at the man.
    The dog's body broke the old sash and crashed through the glass.  The fellow vanished.  When Louis had regained his courage, he let Fidele in.  There was not a scratch on him.  He lay down about ten yards from Louis, and looked at him fixedly.
    The old soldier had no sleep that night, and no peace the next day.
    The next night was wild.  Louis looked from his window.  The moon was shining brightly on the icy fields that glared with as white a radiance; over the polished surface drifted loose masses of snow, and clouds rushed across the moon.
    He took his cloak, his stick, and a dirk-knife, and locking Fidele in, started forth.  A few moments after he reached the rendezvous, Jacques drove up in a berlin.
    "Here it is," Jacques said, pressing a box into his hands, "the key that hangs there will open it.  I must be off.  Be careful!"
    Jacques whirled away in the wind.  There was not a soul to be seen.  Louis clutched his knife, and turned toward home.  He had not left the church very far behind, when he thought he heard something moving.  A cloud obscured the moon.  A figure leaned out from under the sidewalk and observed him.  A moment later it sprang upon the pathway and leaped forward.
    Louis was sure someone was there; half looking round, he made a swipe in the air with his knife.  It encountered [Page 80] something.  Looking round fairly he saw a man with a whitish cap stagger off the sidewalk and fall in the snow.
    Hurrying on, he looked back a moment later, and saw the figure of the man, receding, making with incredible swiftness across the vacant space.
    Louis once out of sight, the man doubled with the rapidity of a wounded beast, and after plunging through side-streets was again in front of the farm-house.  He ascended the ladder with some difficulty, and entered the room by the window.  Where he expected to find his faithful steward, there was only a white dog that neither moved or barked, and that watched him fixedly as he fell, huddled and fainting, on the bunk.
    A few minutes later Louis reached home.  The sickness of fear possessed him.  He staggered into the room and sat before the fire, trying to control himself.  When he was calmer, he found himself clutching the box.  He threw off his cloak and took the key to fit it in the lock.  The key was too large.  In vain he fussed and turned—it would not go in.  He shook the box; nothing rattled or moved.  A horrid suspicion crossed his mind.  What if Jacques had stolen the money!  What if there was nothing in the box!
    He seized the poker in a frenzy and beat the box open.  It was empty—empty—empty!
    His hand went round in it mechanically, while he gazed, wild with conjecture.  Then, with an oath he flung the box on the fire and turned away.  The disturbed brands shot a glow into every part of the room, and Louis [Page 81] saw by one flash a grey Persian-lamb cap, which he recognized, lying on the floor.  By the next, he saw the head, from which it had rolled, pillowed on his bunk.
    He tried to utter a cry, but sank into his chair stricken dumb; for death had not yet softened the lines of desperate cunning on the face, which, in spite of the scars of a wild life, he recognized as that of Hugo Armand Theophile Rioux.  
    The look of that cap as he had seen it through the window; the glimpse he had of it a few minutes ago, when he swept his knife back through the air; the face of his master—dead; the thought of himself, duped and robbed, fixed him in his chair, where he hung half-lifeless.
    Everything reeled before him, but in a dull glare he saw Fidele, his nose between his extended paws, and his eyes fixed keenly upon him.  They seemed to pierce him to the soul, until their gleam, which had followed him for so many years, faded out with all the familiar lines and corners of his room, engulfed in one intense, palpitating light.
    The people who broke open the house saw the unexplained tragedy of the Seigniory, but they did not find Fidele, nor was he ever seen again. [Page 82]