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48: Ultra vires

Valley is bright in the early morning
As the stream is crossed with a song
Mountain uprises ahead with a warning
This pathway to take may be hard and long

Sky is far as the shadows lengthen
While unheeding the traveller climbs
Meeting all challenges still with some laughter
Youth knows of no folly in youthful times

Time has a way of holding measure
And things of the past keep their place
Seen from an over-the-shoulder glance backward
Past swiftly steps up and adjusts the space

Roaring bull in the chinashopWhile LEAF WINE enjoyed being made a fuss of by the children where she rested on the beach, Armand, up in the little spire room aboard the barge, was trying earnestly to bully David into doing what he wanted him to do, just as he had bullied METHUSELAH into crashing through the Gap on a low tide.

     “How many times must I tell you?” he asked. “Sit still and be quiet for a few days—but no—you must jump into everything like an uncontrolled innocent who has swallowed too much of life all at once and now gets hit with a stomach ache as a consequence. Did you not learn at school that every action has an equal, corresponding and just as energetic reaction—which may or may not be to your liking? If I had you in hospital I would be tempted to have you restrained for your own safety. You seem at the moment not to be responsible for your own behaviour.”

     “Hey—come on,” objected David with a slightly guilty and embarrassed little laugh, knowing that a deep and friendly concern was behind the stern words of a physician lecturing a fractious patient who wouldn’t take the professional advice given to him, “I thought I was going to have a nice, quiet rest on LEAF WINE, getting hauled home with no responsibilities. Did I ask for a sogger to get us? I was enjoying the ride up until then. What was I supposed to do? Sit there and let her sink?”

     “Perhaps, thinking responsibility wasn’t yours,” was the considered reply after a moment, “You trusted in luck. You didn’t check her out before we hauled her off or you would have found that the old emergency pump didn’t work. Being a gambler you should know better than to presume anything. The odds are always there. Here—swallow these—and since you mention it—it was my fault. I was in charge of getting us home safely. I can’t be annoyed with you for wanting to let go of the helm for what you thought would be a peaceful journey without your input. Beer is a fine nepenthe. It makes us all jolly and forgetful of our troubles. It is hard to be constantly on alert like a samurai, but something always creeps up on the unwary. We are all fools waiting to be taken when we let down our guard.”

     “Well I can’t wiggle out of it with the beer bit because I was sloshing tomato juice,” David reminded him, “So—yeah—my fault.”

     The doctor turned to Howard who was sitting there with a huge grin on his face and told him,

     “It is not a laughing matter. If you have any influence over this man at all you will tell him to be quiet and tiptoe around for the next week and stop thinking he can continue to roar about like a bull in a glass shop.”

     “China shop,” corrected Howard, “And if I had any influence over ‘this man’ I’d use it to tell him to get off my back and let me lead my own life.”

     “Fagh!—you would do better to see what example he has set and not do these things yourself, but it is not your fault. You’re two of a kind—genetically designed to get into trouble—and all we bystanders can do is pick up the pieces and try to stick them back together again afterward.”

     “Glad to know it’s not my fault,” this from a laughing David, “And thanks for the help.”

     “It is not an excuse. You should try to counteract it with the intelligence you so obviously receive from the brain you are now mistreating with your too much energy.”

     “Yeah,” put in Howard, “Shut up and quit sticking your nose into places it doesn’t belong.”

     “Where’s that?” came the question, but before Howard could reply, he said to Armand, “We have to do some emergency repairs on the boats. Did METHUSELAH get badly damaged do you think? We’d better take a look, fast.”

     “METHUSELAH has seen much worse. The priority is getting LEAF WINE temporarily patched so that she can be moved farther up the beach. Then when the tide comes in we can float her to a suitable place and shore her up for awhile so she can be worked on. As for ‘we’—you are not going anywhere. I know that you are the expert here where wooden boats are concerned but fortunately you are not the only man who knows how to look after them. Fitz and Shiro and myself, and this hulking young piece of developing muscle here, can take care of the task quite adequately while you recuperate. Non non! No arguments. Apart from that, I’ve given you a sedative, and you’ll be nicely asleep by the time we get at it.”

     “You did what?!” exploded David. “Did I ask you for that? All I wanted was something for my headache. I don’t take drugs.”

     “What do you think ‘something’ for your headache is? Candy?” returned Armand with a wicked little laugh. “You must take what I think is good for you, or you must find another physician.”

     Before he got an answer Rose came into the room.

     “All got together again?” she asked.

     “Ah, here is someone who is sensible. Please Rose—tell this man he must behave in your precinct or you will toss him out from paradise.”

     “Well—,” Rose hesitated, then, “If I do that he’ll get all riled up again getting out of here. I think we should just leave him alone for awhile to contemplate his fate if he doesn’t.”

     “Oh geeze, this is coercion—but okay—I’ll try, although I think the punishment is much too severe for the crime,” submitted David.

     “Um—I don’t know about that,” laughed Rose. “Not if it’s a repeat offence.”

     She joined in the laughter, then said,

     “Speaking of crime Armand, I have to tell you I’ve just had a call to the effect that there’s a large possibility we may have another appointment in the city shortly.”

     “They are going to prosecute me,” stated Armand, straightening up and turning to her.

     “It sounds like it,” replied Rose glumly.

     There was silence in the little sunlit room until Armand asked,

     “I suppose this means if I should be convicted I will have a record? Then I will be ultra vires everywhere, not just in—.”

     He broke off, and Rose noted the words at which he did.

     “Could you speak English instead of all that French you keep stacking your conversations with?” broke in Howard, “Then maybe you’d be better understood by genetic misfits like me.”

     “That was Latin, not French, mon petit ignoramus. It means I am transcending authority or, loosely translated here, outside the law.”

     “You mean like a criminal?!”

     “That is the meaning I have put on it.”

     Rose regarded her friend and client and suggested,

     “We’ll talk about it after you’ve finished with ‘this man’. “

     “I thought David was the only one who got into trouble with the law. What are the cops after you for?” asked Howard with interest.

     “I was foolish enough to save the life of a wild fowl instead of killing it and eating it for dinner,” sighed Armand.

     Howard gave him a baffled look and, seeing it, Armand told him,

     “Ask your brother. He assisted in all the sordid details.”

     “Is he being charged too?! Told you. He’s always in trouble. You shouldn’t associate with him,” advised Howard, tongue-in-cheek.

     “I would rather associate with him than with some who profess to uphold the law, present company excepted, Rose.”

     “I seem to be an exception everywhere,” she smiled, catching David’s amused glance, “But I don’t necessarily uphold the law, I try to use it to see that justice is done—if you believe such a possibility exists. If you’ve managed to wrestle him into sitting still for awhile come along and we’ll talk about it while he tells Howie about Sidney.”

     “If I must,” Armand agreed, “And it seems that I must. Lie down now and have a good nap David. You will feel so much better after it—and Howard—don’t get your big brother going again while I’m away. If I find out you have I’ll kick your derrière most thoroughly as an antidote.”

     “I’ll sit on it for awhile then,” laughed Howard. “Your antidote seems a bit too much like a purgative.”

     “I am glad you understood at least that French,” returned the doctor as he and Rose went out.

- - -

Armand leaned back in his chair, cradling in both hands the mug of café au lait Rose had made for him as he considered the question she had just asked,

     “Ultra vires—not just in what?”

     He didn’t answer immediately, looking out a window of her kitchen at the sunlight on the water, enjoying the tranquil moment, then at last he looked directly at her and replied,

     “Not just in France.”

     “You have a problem with France?!”

     “It’s of old standing, from when I was young.”

     “Mmhm. That’s what they all seem to have trouble with—when they were young,” observed Rose, from long association with such problems. “We should all be born old. What are we talking here? A speeding ticket? Pot? What?”

     “It is rather involved,” explained Armand. “My ancestry haunts me. My family was noble far back when. I came here as a young man to Québec for my schooling in medicine—and also because I disagreed with my stepmother. This I always thought was a good thing for me. Here I found out there’s no bowing and scraping to undeserving men simply because of birth, no nobility, because it’s against the law unless they give up their citizenship. What idiot would do that for an empty and possibly fraudulent title? It would seem all one needs, to be powerful and wealthy here, is ruthlessness and a stomach for having no morals or ethics. Those who want power and wealth soon take it in their own way. Two or three generations later it reverts to poverty and impotence again, generally from the antics of profligate children. It’s a good way to pass it around to the next ambitious and unscrupulous lot.”

     “I hate to interrupt this very interesting line of thought,” interjected Rose, “But maybe we could go into it further some other time. Right now I need to know if you have a past record. Someone else may come across it and use it against you. You’d better explain.”

     There was such a long silence that Rose offered,

     “We can talk about this later if you’d rather.”

     “No, it doesn’t matter,” said Armand coming out of his silence. “They say confession is good for the spirit and perhaps I have already waited too long. I’m no longer afraid to speak among my friends. If you have the time now, I’ll tell you.”

     “We both seem to have lots of time here,” she smiled.

     “So—it is this way. When my mother died my father remarried. This one was a greedy, selfish, vain, empty-headed spendthrift. She and I didn’t get along and when it came time for my further schooling I asked to be sent to Québec to live with my uncle. She was glad to be rid of me. When my father died and I found he had left the property to me it appeared to be such an opportunity. I had just finished my internship, I was barely twenty-four, and it seemed like a wonderful thing—to be head of a vineyard such as ours had been. I thought I could restore the estate to its former reputation. I was a fool, as I soon found out.”

- - -

<Hah! He is back again waving his papers in my face. There will never be an end to this.>

     Armand Hilaire Phillipe Montmorency de Marincourt considered his bleak future, leaning carefully braced back in his Louis the Fourteenth chair behind his Louis the Fourteenth desk of white and gold as the man before him stopped speaking and laid some papers on its shining surface.

     There was silence then. Armand closed his eyes the better to enjoy it, as well as from having reached a point of noncompliance with the request being made of him, but the lapse in the conversation didn’t last long.

     “M’sieu de Marincourt!” Came the voice, demanding attention. “There is no other way. By signing over the estate in this way you clear yourself of further responsibilities in this matter, but are still allowed to live here.”

     There was another silence, which Armand broke at last, without opening his eyes.

     “Ah yes. In this matter. What of the others?”

     “We will deal with those later.”

     “I see. This is the first thing you want. After that you’ll clean up the details—meaning anything else I might still possess—and when I stand on the street naked you’ll have me arrested for indecency.”

     “It is not our intention to pursue this to such a conclusion,” was the reply made in offended tones.

     “Perhaps not your intention but certainly the result.”

     Another silence until the demand came again, with a rustling of papers.

     “You really have no choice. You must sign this now please!”

     Armand opened his dark brown eyes, fastened them on the paler blue ones of the man before him, and straightened up with a careful slowness which seemed like theatrics to the attorney, who was not impressed.

     “Must? No choice? Indeed! You sit there and tell me to sign away an estate which has been in my family for centuries. If you succeed in your grasping it will be without my cooperation. There is no power on earth which can force me to affix my name to your papers.”

     He reached suddenly across his desk, snatched the papers, tore them in half, stood up and threw them at the man opposite him.

     “You-will-not-sign?!” enunciated the livid-faced attorney who was now on his own feet, with his hands on the desk, leaning across it toward Armand.

     “You understand at last,” returned Armand, leaning too and glaring into the face opposite his, “And if I must be more specific, never—never—NEVER!”

     “We shall see, young man, we shall see,” breathed the angry visitor, collecting his case. “ ‘Never’ is a very long time.”

     “You at least have that correct,” returned Armand.

     “The Government of France will not be treated with in this fashion. We have dealt with your kind before,” retorted the man, snapping his case shut with the metallic sound of a descending guillotine while holding Armand’s gaze, then, throwing out a sarcastic, “Good-morning—Seigneur!” he turned his back, leaving the room in a swirl of torn paper as he kicked at it on his way to the door.

     Armand perceived that the last word and the action accompanying it, was certainly intended to convey insult, mocking centuries of de Marincourts, dismissing them as nothing, to be disposed of with the deliberate closing of a bureaucrat’s attaché case.

     He came out from behind his desk, snatched up all the torn paper from the floor, walked quickly and determinedly after the man and stepped around him just as he reached the door. With his left hand he took him by the lapels of his jacket and stuffed the papers down the front of it with his right, saying,

     “Cochon! Take your garbage with you.”

     The startled attorney recognised that this at least was not theatrics, but fury, and sudden fear came over him.

     “Stop this you young idiot! Let go of me! I’ll have you for assault!” he protested, struggling, as Armand opened the door, then ended the encounter by thrusting the man out and slamming the ponderous old carved work of art behind him.

     He leaned against it for a few seconds as though to bar re-entry until he heard a loud ‘thunk’ as the door fell into place.

     “Merde—merde merde merde!” he swore, as he went back to his office.

     A small, dark, thin man was now standing to the right of his desk as he went in. He looked at Armand and quickly looked away again as his employer stalked over to the chair behind the desk and threw himself violently into it, with the result that it collapsed with a splintering sound as a leg declined to put up with any more of such treatment.

Hurling the broken leg of the chair across the room     Dust and curses fumed up from the carpet as Armand, on hands and knees, hurled the broken leg of the chair across the room. It struck a bookcase, shattering the glass in the door, ricochetted off and demolished a large jardinière which spilled its potted palm onto the floor before its pieces themselves landed there on top of it. The plant lay there prostrate and startled, its fronds stretching out as though in appeal, asking what it had done to deserve such treatment.

     Armand pulled himself upright with the aid of the desk, which creaked in protest as he did so, kicked the broken remnants of the chair and declared with deep determination,

     “That is the last time you dump me on my backside! I sit here doing a balancing act, trying to look like a business man, propped up on a pile of dust held together with glue, thinking—will you go out from under me this morning in front of this insufferable bastard or will you hold me up one more time? I move like an old man with rheumatism for your benefit, afraid to twitch in case you object.”

     The unfortunate chair was certainly of the opinion that it would never again collapse beneath anybody’s weight.

     Armand rubbed his lower spine as he continued,

     “I am not even able to slam my own front door with impunity for fear it will fall from its worn-out hinges and flatten me, which would please them immensely. I must hold it up afterwards until it settles into place—great hulking piece of antiquity”

     The beautiful old timeworn door rested thankfully on its old hinges and decided not to reply, having managed to open at the appropriate moment and close with more scornful swiftness than was its wont. It would have liked to draw the attention of the young man who was heaping such insults on it to the many times it had resisted the fury of unkind mankind which had attempted to breach its thick, reinforced and sturdy front. A battering ram effort had later initiated the fine carvings which now graced its old wood, in an effort to efface the damage wrought there. It stayed in dignified silence, as it had these many centuries, still ready to close itself against the threats of the world—with just a little more effort from the closer.

     “Look at me, Mathieu, trapped here in this national treasure of a chateau, surrounded by disintegrating objects, huddling in front of a fireplace intended to eat whole trees while I burn newspapers and junk from the cellar if I can wrest it away from the rats, because the central heating system is nonfunctional and the utility company has refused more credit. I live on croissants and beer while everyone expects me to behave as though I still possess limitless wealth and boundless acres. Enough!

     The weathered cut stones of the venerable chateau felt ill-used by these remarks. After all, they figured, it was not their fault that they had been neglected to the point of collapse. They were still as strong and solid as they had been since they were placed, except that lately, successive masters had not taken the care to see that they were still fastened together as they should be. They kept an injured silence.

     Mathieu Lalonde also said nothing. He had better sense. He let his employer continue his tirade.

     “The roof is getting ready to fall in on all this pile of antiquity . I’m afraid to clean the carpets in case the vacuum cleaner swallows what’s left of their musty pile. There’s mould in the cupboards. I use the bushes outside because the plumbing has given up. I bathe in the fountain now because the stream kindly fills it with clean water. I go to your place on a bicycle because I can’t afford to run a car even if I had one left to run, and there I find out what it’s like to be a human being in the contemporary world.”

     The roof which had resisted the violence of weather, enemy assault and neglect for so long, was so stunned by what it considered to be these ungrateful remarks after all its time of holding up the sky that it felt it might have an attack of trembling and fall in immediately. It steadied itself by an effort of sheer weight.

     After these accusations the graceful old fountain, wearing its moss and lichen adornments, was the only thing which felt it could still hold up its massive basin, still overflowing with clear mountain water, without feeling fault after these verbal attacks on the household. After all, without its constant supply which was also led underground into the building for the residents, those within the chateau might well have died of thirst under siege. It and the little chuckling stream which had seen so many years come and go tried to comfort the others with their own success.

     Mathieu, thinking of the fountain, remembered well the day his new employer had returned from tramping the vineyards, dusty, disheartened, and angry that the vines had been left to ramble unkept and untended for so long that they were to the point of uselessness.

     On being told that the bailiff had arrived and ‘removed’ a few things, that he would definitely return with papers he wished to serve on the latest de Marincourt, and finally that the shower didn’t work at the moment, or perhaps not at all from now on, Armand had flung himself into the fountain, clothes and all, in an act of defiance, declaring that a small thing like that wouldn’t turn him away from his chosen path.

     It seemed now that the path had become too steep and overgrown to be followed farther.

     “Now they ask me to be museum keeper and show tourists around in my own house, a live piece of history, a museum piece myself, on display in wig and silk stockings and high-heeled shoes with bows on, mincing and bowing and playing the clown and showing off the bed of my ancestors where our line was conceived, as a titillating touch. For this I’ll get food and this crumbling roof to cover me until I die of shame.”

     Even the old roof was so aggrieved at even the suggestion of having to house such a spectacle, it was made to feel it would rather cave in completely than put up with such insult.

     “Whoever thought this humiliation up must himself have been conceived in the gutter. Enough!

     With that word Armand pounded a fist on the desk, which shook visibly from the impact.

     “Go ahead! Fall down! That is all I need,” he roared, continuing to pound. “I felt you sway when I put my hands on you earlier, you coward. You made me behave like that ignorant lout, leaning and shouting so he might not notice you’d shake and groan without my weight to counterbalance his.”

     The desk was about to answer that if the perpetrator assaulting it with such thumps was as agéd as itself he might have a different view of things, but it figured that a reply might trigger another thumping which might actually result in final disaster, so it said nothing.

     Mathieu took the chair the attorney had vacated, walked around the tottering desk, held it behind Armand and said,

     “This one is safe. I fixed it myself for his visit.”

     Armand took a long look at his secretary, took a deep breath to get control of himself, then said,

     “Thank you, Mathieu, I wish you’d given him mine,” and sat down, folding his arms because he dared not lean on the desk.

     “Will he return with the police?” Mathieu enquired then, in a concerned tone.

     He had never seen Armand de Marincourt assault anyone before. His employer had always been controlled and reserved in difficult situations.

     “Oh, he’s much too crafty for that,” replied Armand. “In jail I am out of his reach. In jail I am well fed and protected from his harassment and that of others. In jail I’ll have a bed which doesn’t sag. No no. It’s his plan to worry me to death and when I’m lying gasping my last he’ll arrive with his papers and in front of everyone gathered there he’ll say—you must sign, it is your duty to France. Can I not get it across to him that I am now a canadien?”

     He sighed, a deep and troubled sound.

     “I’m a physician, well-trained and able, but prevented from practising because I have no money with which to set up an office. No one will lend me the money, and no one else will take me on because they regard me as a dilettante—young de Marincourt, arriving from the Americas and playing at medicine. We will not have these pretenders who may be ill-trained and certainly lacking in experience. He must study some more and become a real physician here before we allow him to enter our hospitals. Nor must he treat the poor for nothing. Unthinkable! They deserve better—if they can pay.

     “Hah! I do that in spite of them—those fatuous, greedy thieves who desecrate the Hippocratic oath, leaving the sick and dying who need them while they cater to whining, neurotic hypochondriacs who demand unnecessary service for money. Shame and infamy to all of them. Would that people who strive to live forever and beyond their share of long years could be made to do so, then perhaps they would find out what life is all about.”

     There was silence, as both men considered his words, the one knowing too well what life and death were all about, the other hoping his span of years would indeed be long and happy and free from illness, although—not forever. The problems of one lifetime seemed to be enough in his mind. More than that might become too trying for the psyche, although—interesting perhaps.

     At last Armand having vented some of his rage in his haranguing suggested,

     “Let us—if you have the courage to come with me—go to the cellar Mathieu, and see if we can find a couple of half decent bottles of wine among the cobwebs, which may have been missed when the last of it was sold, then we’ll decide what to do. We’ll take the dinner bell to drive the rodents before us.”

     Mathieu hated rats, but he went, old-fashioned dinner bell firmly gripped by the handle, following along behind a very angry and desperate young man who had to decide on a course for the future.

     They returned with something of triumph in their faces, carrying five old bottles, as well as the heartening fact that a whole rack of good wine had been missed. Armand was actually smiling.

     “I have nothing to offer you but day old bread and a poor cheese for lunch,” he told his secretary as he collected things together and then, to the shocked surprise of Mathieu he set them on the floor.

     “We shall sit on the floor. There’s nowhere to fall here—unless it gives way,” he explained, and as Mathieu hesitantly joined him there, he concluded, “You’re the only friend I have, you and Giselle and the children. Please. Let’s have no more of ‘Yes Sir’ and ‘No Sir’ for the benefit of these execrable vultures. I’ve decided. I’ll go back to my adopted country. Why did I ever come here thinking that a medical practice would generate enough revenue to restore an old chateau? It would seem others have bigger ideas for this old heap of tottering stone.

     “That is the place for me—the land of my mother. The ignorant have blamed her for the fall of the de Marincourts because she had nothing when she married except her own worth. Fagh! She was from the old nobility which fled The Terror to England and from there to the New World. It was not her fault we fell. We were down the drain in my grandfather’s time, if not before. In fact I’ve heard that, when she came, there was so much interest in seeing what my father had collected from ‘that wild land’, the de Marincourts were in favour once more.

     “If my father had possessed any sense at all he would have left all this in the past—but no, he must try to salvage an old heritage—like his now idiotic son—and as well he was too fond of high living. He should have followed me and lived honestly like my uncle with his farm. They are never hungry. They grow their own food. They press their own wine. Nobody fawns and grovels. Everybody has equal opportunity.”

     Armand washed that glowing picture of dominion paradise down his throat with the last of the wine in his glass, blissfully forgetting that the resilient farm stock from which his uncle had sprung, by the left hand route, knew all about the joys of working the land, whether under republic or parliament, and had not at all been convinced that any governmental system had improved much on the plough or the conditions of those who used it, up to and including the present day.

     “Have another glass Mathieu” said Armand, taking the bottle and pouring himself this time. “To our better future. I wish you’d come with me, but you have no need to run from your own country.”

     “Thank you.” Mathieu took his refilled glass and added, “No need.”

     He thought of his wages which had been paid, as they came due, from the sale of the young man’s belongings. His own family didn’t live on beer and croissants and for that he was grateful. He had often managed to have his employer home to dinner, pretending that it was for the sake of his children, who loved to hear Armand tell them stories about the chateau, but it was really because he knew that the interesting guest he brought home didn’t eat well.

     He had tried once to refuse his wages for a month, but the look in his employer’s eyes had restrained him from ever doing such a thing again. Now he sat on a dusty antique carpet, eating day old bread and a poor cheese from beautiful plates which had once held food from banquets beyond imagination, drinking wine which he didn’t expect to taste the like of again, and listened to the sound of an ending era in his life.

     He knew that the son of the man he himself had been employed with for so long had received no beneficial inheritance from the father who had finished running the old estate into bankruptcy. The lands which had once produced some of the finest wines in the area had been left to fall into uselessness, as the uncared for vines proliferated season after season and eventually fell in a tangle of wildness over the hillsides, beyond redemption, while the owner of them headed along a path possessing the same termination.

     There was silence as the two ate and drank until Armand asked a question which had been in his mind for some time and over which he had been puzzling, while certain suspicions had begun to form around his ruminations.

     “Tell me Mathieu, you have been secretary here for so many years. How is it that my father managed to keep this place until his death when he apparently had no income?”

     Mathieu’s glance dropped to his glass. He had been hoping against hope that he would never be asked this question, but apparently all the de Marincourts had inherited very agile brains which seemed to increase in suppleness as the estate deteriorated. His own faltered.

     <Should I lie and say I don’t know ? Of course not. I’m hired to be privy to everything and to keep my mouth shut, and the man sitting before me has finally come to that realisation.>

     “He sold a few things,” the secretary admitted at last. “Just as you have done with yours.”

     The way this was said alerted Armand to the fact that he was on to something.

     “What things?” enquired Armand scornfully. “I have found out he owned nothing to sell. It had all been borrowed against or bought on credit and was quickly repossesed when I arrived.”

     Mathieu gave a little shrug, answering while busy with bread and cheese which allowed him to avoid eye contact,

     “A few things from the chateau.”

     “But this lien against the contents of the house and the property—it’s been in effect for some time—no?”

Mathieu casually taking another slice of cheese     “Some time,” agreed his companion, casually taking another slice of cheese.

     “Some time,” came the weighty response. “Was this time before or after he—sold a few things?”

     Silence spurred Armand’s thought on.

     “Afterwards then,” he concluded. “Now—how was this managed?”

     Mathieu continued to avoid the eyes of the man he lunched with as he offered the explanation,

     “We had—uh—an arrangement.”

     “Indeed. It would seem that this was a very good arrangement since he continued to occupy these premises, live flagrantly well and hold the tax collector at bay for so long,” came the observation. “Would it be invading your privacy too much if I were to ask just what this ‘arrangement’ was?”

     The secretary looked into his glass, took a good bracing drink from it and finally replied,

     “I have many connections.”


     There was a thoughtful pause as Armand considered, then asked,

     “Of what sort?”

     “I know many antique dealers and many people who collect such things,” Mathieu confessed.

     “You sold things out the back door so to speak,” commented Armand, in a matter-of fact tone.

     “It might be put that way,” was the final evasive admission.

     Armand set down his glass, reached over, hugged his startled secretary and demanded,

     “Why in hell’s hot heaven have you not told me this before?!”

     Shocked and surprised, the man replied,

     “Of course I am absolutely silent about the matters of my employer and would not blacken his name—nor wish to go to jail myself.”

     “Ah! You were not sure you could trust me with past indiscretions even though I am now the head of this establishment. You have certainly shown yourself to be trustworthy. Delightful. An honest fence. Now we’ll show these pompous bureaucrats what the person they refer to as that crude young man who comes from that uncouth, uncultured country called Canada can do. Since you know the pipelines, we’ll get everything we can from this place before it’s too late. We’ll sell what’s left of the rubbish which is still valuable before this pile of rock and rubble falls down and demolishes even that and buries us along with it.

     “What is the good of priceless items, all bolstering this image of my magnificent past history, when in a short time I’ll be out on the streets, or worse, ingloriously shaming my name by being hauled into court for nonpayment of everything. I must write my own history. Let them turn this into a museum if they wish. I won’t have any part in it. I won’t become the keeper of a museum in my own house for a wage which is, in reality, rank degradation, and charity which will keep me on the edge of poverty.

     “So—it rests with you again to do this work, and it must be done quickly before that bastard returns with better ideas and more papers. If I had dared to approach anyone before this to sell anything it would have been seized along with me before I could make a deal. It’s unfortunate that you didn’t inform me of this before. The matter has now gone too far for recovery. Tell me, is it a decent amount which this selling garnishes?”

     “Very decent,” was the prompt reply, “And I’m sorry to tell you that you have just lost a large amount by demolishing that jardinière.”

     “That ostentatious display of bad taste?!” enquired Armand, in a voice of shocked disgust.

     “It would seem that ‘taste’ is in the eyes and mind of the beholder,” replied Mathieu, with a smile, “And apart from that, it was very old. You have also lowered the value of the bookcase, and the chair you squashed is now beyond sale.”

     “It’s all a pile of rubbish!” retorted Armand. “A misuse of wealth immobilised in a revolting display of greed and pretentiousness. Totally useless knick-knacks stacked all over the place for people to trip over. That plant would have been much happier in a pot of unglazed Italian terra cotta, so it could breathe.”

     “That is for the peasantry,” remarked Mathieu.

     This was said with such a straight face, that Armand laughed.

     “I might add,” returned Mathieu, beginning to enjoy his new freedom of speech, “That some of the material you have been incinerating in the fireplace would also have brought a tidy sum.”

     “Surely not!” returned Armand in disbelief. “It was all junk.”

     “Contemporary people are infatuated with old relics. Tell them that you have a bottle of wine from your House of the kind which the King Louis Fifth drank and they will pay an enormous amount for it.”

     “You lie to them?!”

     “It is salesmanship,” replied the secretary with a steady glance. “Who knows? It well might have been.”

     “Caveat emptor. Fools!”

     “People of wealth and standing find it necessary to surround themselves with these things to show themselves for what they are.”

       “Indeed! This lot seems to have done that quite well. Please continue with your very excellent salesmanship. Perhaps once these things are sold I can pay off the back taxes and at least foil that offal from getting his hands on the land. Let him chew on that while the chimney pots topple here. It won’t be on my head they fall. They won’t be expecting this. There are two things you must do today, Mathieu. Find a buyer for these ancient relics, one who won’t cheat us too badly, and who will remove them immediately. Then hire some strong men to help us pack a few things for ourselves and carry them away.

     “I won’t tell you any more of my plans so that you’ll be able to say with a clear conscience that you don’t know where I am, but I’ll have to run fast. The real people I owe must be paid—the boulanger who sends us this bread, and who always puts in thirteen croissants, the épicier who gives me the rest of my food on faith, and the man from whom I get bière, and who for some reason allows me limitless credit for which I am eternally grateful.

     “The others are so wealthy they need none of this. Those are my father’s debts and those of his avaricious wife who helped him complete the ruin of our family. It’s from such as myself that they live, fattening on our foolish pride and misplaced sense of historic importance, while extracting outrageous amounts for trash. I’ll be written down as the last owner of the de Marincourt vineyards, but at least as the one who had enough red blood given him by his mother that his blue blood acquired the courage to help him act like a man and laugh in their faces.

     “They’ll call me a rogue, and other such names. What does it matter—they say that now. If there are things here you would like to have, Mathieu, or things you would choose and then sell, do so first. Then I’ll know that you and Giselle won’t suffer because of me. I know you won’t be unemployed long because I’ve been approached by people suggesting that if you ‘left my employ’, I should send you to them. Do they think you’re a chattel to be given away? You’ll be swamped with offers because everyone will want to ‘own’ de Marincourt’s secretary. You’re smart enough to look after your own life, and certainly capable of helping me with mine.

     “This cheese is not half bad if it’s helped down with a mouthful of good wine. We’ll eat and then we must get on with it. Another glass, Mathieu?”

- - -

Armand de Marincourt walked the wharf of the public yacht basin, considering the boats tied up there, looking for British ensigns.

     <It should be a small boat, a charter, or someone returning empty to England who will be glad of a payload, and who won’t ask too many questions about his passenger. A sailboat perhaps, with people who have spent too much money vacationing and need something to get back home. I’m a good sailor. I’ll crew, if I must. The run across the Channel is short. Then I’ll find a freighter headed for Canada.>

     Armand made no stir among the skippers in his search, because it was not unusual for footloose sailors to walk the boards looking for a boat to take them home, or somewhere else than home, offering to crew or cook or pay, and the hop across the Channel was usually busy with waterborne hitchhikers, travelling both ways.

     The first few boats he approached either already had a full complement or were not taking passengers, until at last one skipper he asked paused and, regarding him, lifted the glass in his hand, inviting,

     “Come aboard, young man. Have a drink. We are not leaving but—maybe we can think of something.”

     Armand didn’t want a drink, he wanted a boat, but there was kind hospitality in the skipper’s eyes, so he went aboard.

     “I’m John Barker—my wife Amelia—and you are—?”

     “Armand Montmorency,” came the fiction.

     “Montmorency? A fine old name. What will you have?” asked his host, pleased by the surname given which was only part of the whole. “Ah, cognac of course. French aren’t you? Here you are. Going tramping around the world on your vacance from schooling?”

     “Thank you. Yes.”

     “We’re always besieged with water-fleas heading in all directions when the university lets out. Go anywhere for the fun of it. Wind up in all sorts of abominable places. Need protection from themselves is what. Just finished your term have you?”

     “Yes,” Armand lied again, smiling, more at the reference to himself as a flea than from cordiality and, as he took the glass the man handed him, he saluted the two with, “Cheers.”

     Barker seemed even more pleased at what he perceived to be Armand’s efforts to communicate in his host’s own language.

     “A bon voyage and vacance to you,” he returned, attempting the same civility. “What’s your discipline?”

     Armand blinked.

     <How far should I humour this questioning?>

     The pause was apparently construed as necessary for translation from French to English.

     “Medicine,” came the answer at last.

     “Oh! A fine profession, but you’re wise to take a vacation while you can. There won’t be much time for that when you’re running around the hospital corridors.”

     “I should be so fortunate.”

     <Better watch my tongue or I’ll say something I shouldn’t.>

     “I’m sure you will be,” smiled John Barker with fatherly patronisation, not aware of the irony in the remark. “The world can always use good doctors.”

     The skipper took a thoughtful drink from his glass, seeming to assess his guest, while his wife made Armand uncomfortable with her plainly appreciative smile.

     “Amelia,” the man said at last, turning to her, “Do you think the Wilkinsons might take him on?”

     “It’s possible,” agreed the woman, flicking her gaze quickly away from Armand.

     “Well, young Montmorency, maybe you’re in luck after all. There’s a boat here which I believe is leaving tomorrow. We made their acquaintance once in England. He runs a freight service, cross-channel and so forth, and his daughter tells us he’s not well. He has a heart condition you know. They just came in last night, and we haven’t seen him at all. We just ran into her when we were buying stores. He’s resting up and feeling too ill to want visitors. She said they’d be setting out as soon as possible. Just in to provision and refuel, and to find a spare hand for the journey because of his indisposition. If you can crew they might take you on.”

     “Oh yes. I am willing for that,” agreed Armand, not hiding his enthusiasm.

     “Sailor too are you?”

     “Racing and cruising.”

     “Well you won’t be doing much racing on METHUSELAH,” laughed Barker. “She’s an old sixty foot gaff-rigged schooner. Freight, as I said. Back and forth to England, Portugal, Spain. You’ll have to do some walking first though. She’s berthed away over to starboard of us on the outside finger of the commercial wharf. Can’t miss her. Lives up to her name.”

     “Thank you so much. I will go at once,” replied Armand, finishing his brandy.

     “Do you have to hurry off?” asked Amelia. “Have another drink.”

     “Thank you again for so much hospitality,” he smiled, “But I must hurry before someone else takes the place.”

     “You can mention me and say I sent you if you like,” suggested Barker. “He’ll certainly remember me. His name is Malcolm Wilkinson.”

     “Hilary, isn’t it dear?” corrected his wife.

     “Malcolm!” returned her husband with finality.

     “Hilary, I’m sure,” came back the rejoinder.

     “I believe that is his daughter’s name,” replied the man with forbearing patience as he ran his eyes up the mast.

     “No, she’s Mary.”

     “Mary Hilary!”

     “That’s it. Captain Malcolm Hilary Wilkinson. He’s very charming.”

     Getting a sudden and surprised scrutiny from her husband she added quickly, “They both are.”

     “Malcolm especially,” remarked the man, challenging his wife with his eyes.

     “Thank you both so very much,” interjected Armand quickly with a smile, setting down his glass and putting out his hand to Barker before the identity discussion could break out again. “You have both been so kind. I will try them.”

     When he left them the couple were still arguing.

     It took a bit of time to find his prospective passage boat but when he did he paused to do a bit of assessing.

     <Old, it’s true, although not that old, but to call her sturdy would be an understatement. The fly of the red ensign she flies isn’t defaced with the usual British merchantman’s device. What is it?>

The Canadian red ensign     As though to help answer his query a breeze took the flag and Armand was surprised to see it was the Canadian coat-of-arms with union jack at the hoist, the flag of that country at the time. He warmed to the craft immediately.

     <Must be registered in Canada! What fabulous great pieces of timber she’s built of, and ratlines I’d liked to climb immediately just for fun. Masts which must have grown straight and tall for centuries. Good, strong, long planking, and a beautiful clean deck. No cowtailed lines anywhere. Everything spliced and whipped and parcelled. Baggy wrinkle in the rigging—and there is certainly enough room aboard for my baggage. METHUSELAH it will be then, if they’ll have me.>

     He went to the stern and hailed,

     “METHUSELAH—anyone aboard?”

     There was the sound of booted feet hitting the companionway ladder, and a young woman of medium height, wearing a white shirt, khaki shorts and Wellingtons came up on deck, walked over to the starboard caprail and leaned on it.

     “Good-morning,” she greeted him, in strongly accented French, “Can I help you?”

     “Good-morning, and yes, I hope so. The skipper of JOHN BULL has told me you’ll take a passenger when you leave tomorrow,” he began.

     “Yes, but you must be able to crew,” she replied, going over his slender build and obviously inappropriate clothing.

     “I am an excellent crew,” Armand answered truthfully.

     “That’s what the last one said,” she told him, with a slightly sarcastic laugh.

     “Would you like a demonstration?” asked Armand.

     “Since you offer, I can only presume you can back it up. You say Captain Barker recommends you?”

     “I have just come from them,” returned Armand, unwilling to adjudicate in his mind as to whether that constituted a recommendation or not.

     The name mentioned seemed to carry the right weight because she agreed, asking with a smile which couldn’t be misunderstood,

     “Very well—are you unencumbered or do you have—baggage?”

     It was Armand’s turn to smile then. He thought it a nice way to enquire if he came alone or with a companion.

     “I am solo,” he told her.

     She gave a satisfied nod.

     “Even though you crew, we always ask for a little fare, to cover food and such, if that’s all right with you.”

     “If the ‘such’ should be drinkable there will be no objections on my part,” he agreed.

     “Some of it perhaps. We leave in the morning, early. Can you arrange to have your luggage delivered this evening and be on board yourself not too late?”

     “Certainly. My luggage will be sent down to the wharf in good time.”

     “One other thing—do you speak English? I do not express myself well in French.”

     “English it will be then,” he told her, reverting to that language, and knowing that he could manage well enough in that tongue.

     “Thank you. I’ll be expecting your luggage then?”

     “Both I and it will be here by this evening.”

     He reached up his hand to seal the deal, and as she leaned over to take it her long brown hair fell down from her shoulders and blew across his wrist. It sent a little tingle through him, as she touched him unintentionally in a familiar way.

     “I will see you this evening,” he repeated.

     “My name is Wilkinson,” she told him.

     “Armand Montmorency,” he returned.

     The brushing of her hair against his skin prompted him to actually look at her now, where he had merely seen a woman before. She was about his own age, he thought. He liked her brown eyes and her nice smile and he kept her hand too long, while her hair blew across his wrist.

     She didn’t pull away, but waited, while something like sardonic amusement began to gather in her eyes, until he remembered himself and let go.

     “Au’voir until tonight then,” he concluded, turned and left, reflecting that he also liked her voice and her smile and her firm hand and the part of her first name which he had been told by the Barkers—Hilary—Hilaire. It was one of his own.

     <A pity that the voyage will be so short I won’t get to know her. Will I never have any luck?>

     He sighed, but then quickly brought himself up short on that line of thinking, because it gave a sudden sharp jab to a still fresh injury.

     <Women—fagh! Shallow, untrustworthy, vain and cruel. Interested only in appearances and themselves.>

     He comforted himself with the thought that at least he was getting out before he landed homeless on the street corner, pursued by who knew what charge which might be brought against him next—obtaining goods and services by fraud, nonpayment of everything, selling property which the government could well claim had been their own for back taxes.

     <Only let me get away before I’m caught and picked off by one of those vindictive lawyers.>

     He hurried his pace, setting off for home to give instructions for getting his luggage taken aboard METHUSELAH.

- - -

It was dark when Armand Hilaire Phillipe Montmorency de Marincourt, fugitive from his own heritage, made his way down the wharf to the boat which he had chosen to take him across the Channel.

     He was absconding.

     <Those wolves I leave behind can fight over what’s left, as will befit their way of doing business. The cheque for back taxes is deposited. I’ll continue paying future levies as long as I possibly can, at the latest moment possible, just to spite that miserable paper server. I won’t let them turn it into a circus as long as I can find the money to keep it. Let the place fall down and moulder in peace, along with my forebears. I haven’t signed my name to anything, and of that at least, I’m proud.>

     He was also on the outside of quite a lot of good wine from his own cellars which were now empty of such excellence. He and Mathieu and Giselle and the children had enjoyed a wonderful evening, and there had been a tender, emotional farewell with promises to write and keep in touch, which had made him feel that he was leaving his own family. So he had parted from them, light in his heart as well as his head.

     He was gloriously drunk, but he was one of those people who holds his liquor well, and his inebriation barely showed externally. For the first time in his life he had money to do with as he pleased and a future which held the same prospects.

     He hummed as he went along the wharf toward his boat, pushing his bicycle. The sale of the chateau belongings had brought fantastically more than he had expected. He kicked himself for having sat on that fortune for so long, believing it to be a pile of worthless rubbish because it was held for debt. Now he had to get away quickly, before all those people to whom his father had owed money heard of it and he wound up being apprehended. The bulk of the amount had been deposited by Mathieu in a ‘private’ account for which Armand alone knew the details.

     The world had become a delightful place for him to be in now.

     <Ah, METHUSELAH, strong and fine and well found. A man could sail anywhere in a boat like this. Captain Wilkinson and his daughter are fortunate to have a home which can be taken anywhere by simply directing the wind or the engine to do so. Perhaps, one day, I’ll own such a vessel—Captain Armand Hilaire Phillipe Montmorency de Marincourt, member of the Compagnons d’ Bon Vivants of the Seven Seas.>

     As he stood leaning on his bicycle alongside the schooner, musing, his thoughts were displaced by a woman’s voice calling to him in English from the stern of METHUSELAH,

     “Is that you, Montmorency?”

Arriving, gloriously drunk, at the Methuselah     “I have arrived, Miss Wilkinson. Has my luggage been so good as to precede me?”

     “Yes. All of it.”

     Armand noted the emphasis.

     “Good. It was perhaps quite much, but I am going for a long vacation,” he advised her by way of explanation.

     “So I was told. Welcome aboard.”

     Armand swung himself up the boarding ladder at the invitation.

     “I see you’ve been celebrating your departure,” she remarked when he had done so and was standing before her with her hand in his again.

     “Ah. Yes. It was a long farewell.”

     “I can imagine. Perhaps you’d like to put your things in your cabin.”

     “That would be fine.”

     “I realised I couldn’t get all your luggage in there so I stowed it in the hold. I hope you don’t mind.”

     “Not at all, as long as it is stowed,” he told her as he followed her below.

     He forgot that boats have high thresholds and he forgot to step over the one leading into the pilot house, so he stumbled a little.

     “Watch your step,” she cautioned with surprise. “You have crewed before have you?”

     There was doubt in her voice now as he felt her considering his clumsiness and he could see she was thinking he had indulged in too much farewell fare.

     “Of course. Excuse me—I didn’t watch my step. I will do so in future.”

     “Good. METHUSELAH hates bad seamen.”

     “What hour do we sail?” he asked as she ushered him into a small but comfortable cabin space.

     “We sail with the tide,” she told him, and her tone made him feel he should know when that was, and he didn’t want to show his ignorance of this important piece of information by asking something he should have asked before. It was enough that they would sail.

     “I am sorry to hear about your father the captain,” he told her as he set down his hand luggage.

     She gave him such a startled look that he explained,

     “I was told he is not well. Perhaps when he is ready I will knock and we will discuss my duties.”

     “Wake Malcolm with your knocking,” she said softly, as though to herself.

     At that moment the significance of the words didn’t register in his mind.

     “Pardon me?”

     “Nothing. It was just a thought.”

     “I would not want to wake an unwell man from his much needed sleep. I will knock only at his convenience if you will let me know when that is. I must pay my respects and my fare.”

     “I’ll leave you to unpack your duffle,” was her reply.

     She went then, leaving him to consider his situation. He hadn’t been on a boat since the sailboat at his father’s club had gone the way of the polo ponies in the stables and the Lamborghini parked in the garage, all of which he had been immensely impressed with until they had been swiftly and abruptly seized by a bailiff with a writ shortly after his arrival two years before

     He sat on the bunk and felt the firmness of it.

     <Here is a place for a man.>

     He fell back on the pillow and closed his eyes, thinking of his new freedom, of his new wealth, of his return to the country he had left with much vaunted hopes and dreams of another land, and to which he was now returning with other plans, and while he was at it he fell asleep.