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Anne Isabella Thackeray - The Village On The Cliff (1865)

(MRS. RICHMOND RITCHIE) (England, 1838)

Mrs. Ritchie's " Village " is on the coast of Normandy, where most of the story's action takes place, although there are scenes in London and rural England also. The time is the period of the writing. The novel has a special interest in that the author is a daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray.

RICHARD BUTLER, unsuccessful artist, had spent most of the summer in Normandy. For the time being he lived with his aunt, the Countess de Tracy, in her great house not far from the fishing village of Petitport, where the painter found his favorite subjects. His one finished picture to show for his summer was a kitchen interior, with a fishwife at her homely tasks, and the face of the fishwife was that of Reine Chrétien, his unconfessed sweetheart. For Richard had fallen in love with his model, or, rather, he had persuaded the girl he loved to pose for him.

Reine was a singular product of the country, an heiress of noble blood, and yet a peasant of peasants. Her mother having married below her station, and having been utterly cast off by her aristocratic family, had yet conserved her share of a considerable fortune and had left it to Reine, who now lived with her dissolute grandfather, managing his house, dragging him home from the wine-shop, and scornfully refusing the numerous offers of marriage made to her by the men of the neighborhood. The mingling of the peasant and the noble in her brought about a seeming contradictoriness of character; for she was proud, but she gloried in her peasant condition; she knew her native right to meet all people on terms of equality, but she had a strong aversion to the upper classes, and was deeply conscious that her habits and peasant ancestry unfitted her to mingle with them.

The English artist who visited Petitport that summer loved Reine for herself alone, but he did not propose marriage, al-though he was morally certain she loved him, because he was in a difficult and rather delicate situation with regard to the world. Richard Butler was dependent on his bachelor uncle, Charles; he was forever getting into scrapes from which Uncle Charles regularly extricated him with warnings not to transgress in the future; and just at this time Richard was recovering from one of his very worst scrapes. He had gone heavily in debt, and, yielding to family pressure—for there were other Butlers besides Uncle Charles—he had unwillingly proposed marriage to a young lady of means whose other qualifications for matrimony had not brought her any too many suitors. Richard believed he should be rejected, but, to his horror, the young lady accepted him. The outlook was impossible, for Richard, with all his foolishness, had a substratum of honorable sense in his nature. He chose the least of the evils that confronted him, and jilted the young lady, writing her frankly and remorsefully that the mercenary motives for his proposal rendered the keeping of his engagement positively dishonorable. Then he fled to Normandy until the wrath of Uncle Charles should cool, and had fallen in love with a peasant! To suggest marrying such a person at this juncture would have stirred the whole Butler family to such indignation that he never would have been forgiven.

When he returned to England, near the end of the season, leaving Reine wondering and hurt, Madame de Tracy accompanied him to pay a visit to her brother, Hervey Butler, who lived with his rather large family in London. The governess in this family was Catherine George, a pretty, well-meaning girl of twenty. She was an orphan with two little sisters to care for and only the income of a thousand pounds to meet the demands upon her. There were, to be sure, two aunts, each with considerable property; but they were generous only in advice, of which Catherine stood in sufficient need but which never came at the moment when it could be useful. With all her conscientious-tress and sweetness of disposition, she never should have been a governess, The schoolroom was a prison, her tasks were irk-some, and her young mind was given to foolishly romantic dreams, Cousin Dick, the scapegrace painter, was immensely popular with Catherine's little charges, and, as he was a frequent visitor to his Uncle Hervey's house, he became acquainted with the governess, whose beauty and ready blushes attracted his favorable attention, He spoke kindly to her, for that was his habit with all people, and her foolish little heart quickly magnified his words to much more than their proper import. Such commonplace deference as he showed her had never before come within her experience, and her pathetic loneliness was cheered, like a chamber whose blinds are thrown open to the spring sunshine for the first time in years. At first she was a member of the family parties, as when all the Butlers trooped to Dick's studio to see his Normandy painting; but Madame de Tracy had sharp eyes which looked straight through Catherine's happy blushes and saw the perturbation of spirit that caused them; she was well aware of Dick's everlasting capacity for making mistakes, and she thought it wise, in the interests of both Dick and Catherine, to warn Mrs. Hervey Butler. The warning was heeded, and when a picnic day at Uncle Charles's country-place was planned Catherine was omitted from the party.

The poor girl was pitiably disappointed and bewildered, for she could not think what she had done to give offense, and she was far from suspecting that her heart's secret had been discovered. It was Dick himself who saved that day for her. He stumbled upon the fact that she had not been included in the arrangements, and when his aunts gravely intimated that there was danger of Catherine aspiring to things above her station in life he became so generously indignant that the ruling was re-versed. Without realizing that Catherine already loved him, and without meaning to do more than contribute to her innocent enjoyment, he made himself her special companion during the picnic day, and thereby wrought a catastrophe for the poor little maid.

Not only Madame de Tracy, but Mrs. Butler watched her.

They were quite agreed that heroic measures were necessary, but Mrs. Butler shrank from casting her adrift. Here was an emergency after Madame de Tracy's own heart. She promptly solved the difficulty by offering to engage Catherine as governess to her own daughter's children. That meant that Catherine would have to live in France and so be safely at a distance from the fascinating, wrong-headed Dick.

Catherine heard of this plan with dismay. Her prison had been so brightened that she wept at the thought of leaving it, and, harder yet, she would be parted from her little sisters, whom she was able to see frequently as long as she lived in London; but Mrs. Butler was quite determined on a change; the prison had to be given up, and everybody was so sure that Madame'de Tracy's offer was a golden opportunity that Catherine yielded and crossed to Normandy when that lady went home from her visit.

Once in France, with the pleasures of country life at command, Catherine was happier than she thought she could be; that is, during the first few days; but in this very brief interval an emergency developed that was far worse than the one that compelled her to leave London, and of which she was quite as ignorant. Madame de Tracy's daughter positively refused to have a governess in her family! Here was a contretemps worthy the best abilities of a born manager of other people's affairs, which Madame de Tracy certainly was in her own opinion. But she needed time to breathe and look about her; so it was agreed at the château that nothing should be said to Catherine about her equivocal standing in the household; some weeks must still elapse before the De Tracys were to go to Paris for the winter, and in that period a great deal might happen.

Madame de Tracy saw to it that the happenings came swiftly. She had not begun to look about her before her managerial mind perceived that the very best solution of the difficulty would consist in marrying Catherine to somebody; and it really mattered to whom, too, for the Countess was a good soul, and her con-science would have worried her if she could have felt that she was responsible for bringing any sort of distress upon the sweet little English girl. Madame de Tracy liked her and knew that she would make an excellent wife for anybody except Dick.

She looked about her, therefore, and saw the Mayor of Petitport, Monsieur Charles Fontaine, a kindly, garrulous widower; that he was not averse to another trial of matrimony had been made sufficiently clear by his proposal to Reine Chrétien the preceding summer; he had a little son with whom Catherine was already on good terms; she would be a devoted mother to him.

To think of a desirable match was, to the Countess, to act upon bringing it about without delay. She suggested the matter to M. Fontaine, frankly confessing that Catherine could bring little in the way of dowry, but enlarging on her estimable qualities as more than counterbalancing the financial deficiency. M. le Maire was duly impressed; he pictured to himself the satisfaction it would be to stroll upon the beach with this young and beautiful woman as his wife; and, with directness that went straight to the heart of the Countess, if not to Catherine's, he began to pay court to the English governess.

A week had hardly passed, and Fontaine's suit was well for-ward, that is, so far as he was concerned, when Dick appeared on the scene unexpectedly to all. Meantime Catherine had be-come acquainted with Reine, and these two had formed a sudden friendship. Visiting Reine in her kitchen, Catherine had discovered the original of Dick's painting; and her ingenuous exclamations over the fact, added to her flashing eyes and rosy blushes, had betrayed her tender secret to the shrewder though less sophisticated Frenchwoman. And then Dick himself came. "I had to core," he said, in answer to Catherine's surprised inquiry—and oh, how her heart beat ! Heretofore she had bravely faced her dreams and regarded them as such, but now she felt a wild and wondering thrill of hope. It was a certainty for the moment, and the earth seemed to tremble under her feet. Dick walked home with her from Reine's cottage.

"I think you must have guessed how things are with me, Miss George," he said, stopping short before they came to the château. "I know I can trust you. Pray do not say anything about it here. Reine is a thousand times too good for me, or for them, and they wouldn't understand; and I can't afford to marry yet, but I know I shall win her in time. Keep my secret. We have always been friends, have we not?"

"Yes," said Catherine, very softly, very gently, and put her hand into his. Then, trembling a little, she went into the house.

Soon after this Fontaine proposed. Catherine, numb at heart, despairing for the future, saw only the prospect of a home. There, surely, might peace be found. She could not profess a love she did not feel, and she told the Frenchman frankly that she could not bring him what he had a right to expect, but she did not say No; and under the skilled direction of Madame de Tracy she was presently brought to say Yes. One of the rich aunts sent her fifty pounds for her trousseau, preparations were pushed with energy-again the Countess's management—and the marriage took place before the château was closed for the winter. Dick and Reine both attended the wedding, and when he returned to England it was with Reine's promise to marry him, and his to break the news to his uncle and make such arrangements as might be possible.

Fontaine as a husband was proud, happy, devoted, and considerate. He agreed that Catherine's tiny fortune should still be devoted to her sisters, and he required of her no more than that she should care for him a little and accept the simple attentions that he showered upon her. For a month they were together all the time, two weeks on a short journey, two weeks in his house before Monsieur and Madame Mérard returned to spend the winter there as usual. The Mérards were his first wife's parents. Before they came Catherine had begun to find it hard to endure her husband's infinite capacity for talk, but she gave no sign of impatience. Conscientiously she under-took to bear the burden she had assumed, and never did the conviction at her heart that she had made a mistake find expression in so much as a hint; but Fontaine was so hopelessly commonplace that she began to look forward with a sense of impending relief to the coming of the parents-in-law.

She was disillusioned in this matter before the Mérards had been in the house a day. They had not approved of Fontaine's second marriage on general principles, and they were prepared to disapprove of it particularly when they came to know his wife. The little innovations that Catherine had introduced into the household were seized upon for ill-natured criticism; odious comparisons were made between the first and the second wife, to the disadvantage of the latter. Madame Mérard even stooped to twit Catherine on the fact that she had contributed nothing material to the establishment. Catherine bore this despicable persecution without retorting, and her pathetic patience inflamed Madame Mérard to crueller attacks, so that the little wife was miserably unhappy. Fontaine, to be sure, sided with his wife; he was loyal, but it was in his own way, which was that of a good-natured pacificator where the situation seemed to need a spirit of aggressive domination. By soothing his wife and flattering his mother-in-law by turns, he managed to keep an appearance of harmony in the household, but even so it was at the almost constant sacrifice of Catherine's tranquillity.

Dick did not break the news of his engagement to Reine immediately on his return to England because he learned that Mr. Charles Butler was ill, and he deemed it wise to defer such a distressing communication to a more favorable opportunity. Instead of taking action, therefore, he worked in his London studio at paintings that there was little hope of selling and wrote letters to Reine that she found it difficult to understand. Whenever Dick was absent her distrust of the upper classes re-turned to her, and she doubted deeply the wisdom of marrying him. If he were in earnest, why should he delay, especially when, as she was rich, it could make no material difference whether that obnoxious uncle consented or not?

After some weeks Dick heard that his uncle was dangerously ill, and he went at once to the country to see him. Charles Butler was, indeed, at death's door. He told Dick that his will was made, "a most unjust will," said Uncle Charles, "for I am leaving substantially everything to a certain scapegrace nephew." Dick endured only one short moment of temptation, and then unbosomed himself of the secret with regard to Reine. Uncle Charles was disturbed; he could not approve of a marriage with one who, despite noble blood, was a peasant at heart and of peasant ways; such a woman could not well grace the fine establishment destined for Dick; but the uncle was no absolute curmudgeon, and he modified his will only so far as to re-quire of Dick that he should allow a year to pass before he should commit himself to a positive engagement to the Frenchwoman.

This seemed to Dick a reasonable restriction, and a year's waiting not at all intolerable. It was quite otherwise with Reine. She had not only her own doubts to contend with, but she was tormented by the inconsiderate gossiping of her rustic neighbors. They had remarked the frequent visits of the English painter and had drawn their inferences. " Well, where is he?" said they. Why did he not come like a man to claim Reine if he was in earnest? Ha! had the proud Mademoiselle Chrétien, then, been thrown over by the lordly young visitor? What could she say to such taunts? Not even to her grandfather—who was the worst gossip of all, and who pretended that such talk was most regrettable and injurious—not even to him could she confess her secret, for that would have been to betray Richard in such a way as probably to encompass his ruin. Some months passed; Uncle Charles was dead, and still the exasperating taunts continued. At last, driven to desperation, Reine wrote to Dick explaining her misery and offering to release him, reiterating her conviction that her peasant training unfitted her for the station she would have to occupy as his wife. This letter despatched, she felt an overwhelming need of friendly sympathy, and she confided all the facts to Catherine, not forgetting to. enjoin upon her the necessity for secrecy. Then Reine betook her to a convent for a retreat.

Dick no sooner received Reine's letter than he set out for Normandy. Unable to find Reine, he turned naturally to Catherine for information. M. Fontaine happened to be from home at the time, and Catherine, to whom Dick's visit was an unspeakable relief from the dull routine of her days, not only talked long with him, but invited him to dinner. This conduct horrified Madame Mérard, who took the first possible occasion to rebuke Catherine in terms of exceeding bitterness. The old woman's aspersions were positively foul in their implication, and Catherine was so distressed that she fled the house. She walked for miles along the coast without finding relief for her anguish. When she drew near the village on her return, she met her husband anxiously searching for her. The reserve with which she had borne her ills then gave way, and she wept her true story in Fontaine's arms. She confessed her former love for Richard, and, although Fontaine protested sincerely that he had nothing but absolute trust in her, she insisted on explaining Dick's call on her, and the serious subject of their conversation. This enabled Fontaine to ignore his mother-in-law's cruel suspicions, but while it had that happy result it also made him a sharer of Reine's secret.

Fontaine's behavior was admirable. He made his wife understand that she had done nothing wrong, and he emphasized his conviction by insisting that she should accept an invitation from the De Tracys, who had returned to the château for an-other season, to go with them on the following day on a pleasure excursion; and Madame Mérard had been so frightened by Catherine's running away that she held her peace and even tried awkwardly to make amends for her insults. So it was a happy wife that went to the château the next morning, parting with real affection from her husband, who accompanied her part way.

On the evening of that day a furious storm arose, and all the people of the neighborhood gathered on the seashore to watch the desperate efforts of a fisher crew to navigate their craft to safety and to render such aid as might be possible. Fontaine led in the work of rescue. At the right moment he leaped into the surf, holding to the end of a rope. Just after he disappeared beneath the waves the rope slackened. Something dreadful had happened, else Fontaine, experienced in such. dangers, would not have let go. It was surmised at once that his head had struck a rock, or some submerged bit of wreckage. Dick, who was in the crowd, immediately took the rope and dashed in to save Fontaine. He did, indeed, reach Fontaine, and both were dragged to land unconscious; Dick was readily revived, but Fontaine was dead.

Reine returned to Petitport just after the funeral and heard the tragic news from her grandfather. She had not recovered from the shock it gave her when Dick came to ask her to go to Catherine, who needed her. She went at once, her heart full of sympathy for the young widow, but strangely rebellious that her lover's first appeal had been in behalf of another and not of himself. Madame de Tracy was with Catherine, condoling with her as best she could and suffering meantime from an acute trouble that she regarded as her own. For Fontaine had told the Abbé of the village about the romantic relations of Dick and Reine, and the Abbé had found the news altogether too good to keep all to himself; the result was that everybody in the vicinity heard of it, including the Countess. She had been considerate enough to say nothing of it to Catherine, but, meeting Reine in the house; she had to speak, rebuking her for tempting Dick to an ill-assorted marriage. Dick interposed in this unpleasant scene, but Reine waved him aside and took the quarrel on herself.

"I shall do your nephew no harm, Madame," she said, "for I never shall marry him. It would, indeed, be an ill-assorted marriage, and I will have no part in it."

Her reply to Dick's amazed remonstrances was to run from the house, leap into the cart that her grandfather had sent for her, and drive away. Dick, piqued at her conduct, waited until the following morning before calling on her; and by that time she had returned to the convent.

Several months later news floated across the channel to Petit-port to the effect that one of Catherine's aunts had died suddenly without the forethought to make a will, and that her property therefore had descended to Catherine, who was then in England; furthermore, that Richard Butler had proposed to her and she had accepted him. Reine thereupon wrote to Catherine a sincere letter of congratulation, expressing her hope that both she and Richard would be happy. The letter happened to arrive while Dick was calling on Catherine, between whom and himself there was no engagement and no understanding looking to one, although it was quite true that Catherine was now moderately wealthy and that the Butler family would have been very glad to see her his wife. After a slight hesitation Catherine showed Reine's letter to Dick.

"Dick," she said, "I did not love my husband as I ought to have loved him when I married him, but if I had to live my life again I would not have things otherwise. Poor Reine! There is no one so noble, so faithful. She left you because she loved you. Won't you go back to her?"

"God bless you!" said Dick in reply, "you have saved me from committing a great wrong. I will go at once."

Leaving Catherine happy in the companionship of her little sisters and uplifted by memory of a great love that had grown upon her unawares, Dick hastened to Petitport, confronted Reine, and overcame the last of her fears as to the advisability of their union.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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