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Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge

Chapter XIV. — Monsieur D'estrelles and His Valet

page 69

Chapter XIV.
Monsieur D'estrelles and His Valet.

In a spacious well-furnished apartment of the Auberge Royale lounged the subject of the foregoing conversation amusing himself with the latest number of the Encyclopedie60. He was a dark handsome man in the prime of life, with a nonchalant air, and a sneering expression, which deepened as he lightly glanced at the seductive heresies of Messrs Voltaire and Co61. His attire was rich, and his whole appearance denoted the command of ample means. After skimming several pages of the ‘new philosophy’ he summoned his personal attendant, a wiry, fleshless person with a feline manner and noiseless movement.

‘Arnaud,’ said his master. ‘I am expecting some friends. When I ring, bring in the liqueurs yourself, and, as my friends will probably dine with me, order a good menu and covers for three. And, Arnaud, when you fetch the liqueurs come without your eyeshades.’

C'est bien, Monsieur, but my eyes——’

‘Yes, yes, I know all about your eyes, but a few minutes' exposure will not hurt them, and it will amuse me, pardieu! to see their effect upon my friends.’

C'est, bien, Monsieur, I am at your service.’

A considerable time elapsed ere the lackey heard his master's ring. When at length it sounded, he removed his eyeshades and quietly glided into the salon with the refreshments, to find that gentleman engaged in animated conversation with the friends of the cafe, who seemed to have left doubt and hesitation behind, and were chattering and gesticulating as only Frenchmen can. He entered with eyes cast down, but as he set the salver upon the table, raised and turned them upon the guests, who both arrested their words open-mouthed, as if startled by the appearance of something uncanny. Politeness made them instantly avert their gaze, but, as if fascinated, it perpetually returned while he remained, in attendance; to the singular being who acted as valet to Monsieur d'Estrelles.

Dressed in a plain suit of snuff brown, of almost the same tint as his skin, his lean figure was supple as an eel, and its snaky movements as he glided to and fro produced in the lively Frenchmen a feeling of wonder and repulsion. But it was not his figure so much as his countenance, particularly the visual organs, which chiefly engaged attention. Not so much sallow as downright brown, his skin somewhat pox-pitted. page 70 looked dry as parchment; the features, though regular enough, were quite devoid of flesh, and the thin lips tightly compressed. Upon his head he wore a wig of silvery hair, which contrasted singularly with his complexion. But the eyes, as before said, formed his most striking feature. Large, dark, glittering, surrounded by red lids without the suspicion of an eyelash, they stared out from their hollow caverns with a beady brightness which attracted, and an unexplainable fascination which riveted attention. They seemed to belong to one who had lived for generations, and had nothing left to learn, to fear, or to love. He might have been a revivified mummy, whose soul during his long imprisonment had roamed at will, gathering up the wisdom of the ages so old he looked to those whose eyes had once encountered his. Ordinarily, however, he kept these singular orbs concealed under the plea of a diseased condition; but when discovered they possessed a power of allurement few could resist, and a questioning intensity which made the subject feel that his mind was an open book which the being before him was reading through his eyes.

Mon Dien! D'Estrelles, where on this earth found yon that extra-ordinary specimen of humanity?’

The question was asked by Du Fresne when Arnaud, having supplied, their wants, had left the apartment.

‘Ha, ha! I thought he would interest you. He is my show beast, my caged tiger, whom I keep for my diversion and that of my friends.’

‘Ha, ha! very good of you, my friend; but I hope you have extracted his claws, since you let him out of his cage at times. I fear he might be dangerous if he once, drew blood. I confess his look gave me a chill, mon Dieu, oui.’

‘His eyes are rather startling until one gets used to them, but he usually veils his celestial orbits; lest their glory should blind ordinary mortals. I suppose. He says, however, it is because they are weak, though pardieu! I have never found them so.’

‘Ha, ha! an excellent joke. Why, they draw like Spanish flies. But what makes them so peculiar?’

‘I think it is partly the want of eyelashes. You would not notice it, perhaps, but the poor devil has none. He says they fell out a year ago, after his recovery from small pox, and left his eyes permanently inflamed.’

‘What is he at all?’

“A sort of man, I suppose.”

‘Ha, ha!’

‘But, pardieu! Like yourself, I am not sure. I sometimes think he is more snake, at others, all devil.’

Mon Dieu!’ exclaimed Du Fresne, crossing himself. ‘How have you the courage to keep such a monster near you?’

page 71

‘As I have said, he diverts me.’

‘Have a care, however, D'Estrelles. I have heard of men possessed, and certainly there is something preter-natural about him.’

‘Ha, ha! You are surely not superstitious, mon ami!

‘If to believe in a spirit world is to be superstitions, then am I so, Monsieur.’

Pardieu! In this enlightened age? In spite of Voltaire62, Jean Jacques63, and Montesquieu64 ?’

Oui, Monsieur. Spite of the whole army of the Encyclopédie, I believe in the Church, and hold the faith of my forefathers.’

Pardieu65! You amaze me. As for me, I believe in nothing. Even what I see I doubt. How then can I believe what I have not seen?’

‘Pardon, Monsieur. You believe in the existence this golden isle of which we have been talking?’

‘Nay, there you mistake, mon ami. I believe not, but for a good which is possible I am willing to seek. If it exist, so much the better; if not, at least we shall have adventure, excitement, strong sensation. That is real while it lasts. But as for supernaturalism. Bah! It amazes me that men who can reason should believe in such folly.’

‘Believe you not in a Supreme Being then, D'Estrelles?’

‘Not I, pardieu! no.’

‘Yet you say pardieu.’

‘Ha! Ha! That is the force of habit, and after all, what matter! One must exclaim. But as for God and devil, heaven and hell, saints and angels, I laugh at them all. Yes, pardieu!

‘Pon my honour, D'Estrelles, I shall fear to take you to the southern ocean. You would sink the ship.’

‘Ah! Revenons à nos moutons66. Our conversation has become very discursive.’

‘Yet before we recommence tell me more about your valet. I feel strangely interested in him. Has his peculiar gaze no effect upon you?’

‘Only if it opens upon me unawares. Then I feel myself caught. But I have forbidden him to look at me unless I bid him, and then I am prepared. He has a snake's fascination, but I have also a strong will.’

‘Yet it is really a dangerous game to play, D'Estrelles. Suppose you should fall ill.’

Pardieu! Then he should not come near me, otherwise I should lose my head.’

Mon Dieu! What an objectionable servant! What is your own theory regarding him?’

‘Well, I believe he is an Asiatic; perhaps not pure blooded, but descended from the ancient snake charmers of India. He must have roamed about the continent for years—generations I should not wonder—for he speaks our tongue like a native, and Spanish and German also, page 72 with a smattering of Italian, and heaven knows how many languages beside. “Instinctive capacity,” he says, but I believe it is the result of ages of wandering. I picked him up at Nice nearly a year since. He was standing in a doorway watching me. I happened to lift my eyes, and encountered his, glittering like fireflies. He had been told I wanted an attendant, and I engaged him on the spot. He is an admirable lackey, never in the way, and makes a capital dernier ressort when other amusements pall. He has only one fault.’

‘And what may that be, D'Estrelles?’

‘He has an unconquerable dislike to women. I fancy some antediluvian belle must have played him false, for nothing will induce him even to carry a billet to one.’

‘Ha, ha! Why D'Estrelles, that should be a recommendation. He is less likely to interfere with your gallantries.’

‘He? pardieu! When women caress mummies, he will be in request.’

‘If you come with us you must bring him, D'Estrelles. Should the savages prove troublesome, we can set him to mesmerize them.’

‘A capital idea. He could do it, I believe, for of course aboriginals would have no power of resistance, and then, pardieu! we could test his capacity in the matter of languages.’

‘A happy thought. I trust he has the faculty he boasts of. But what should you do, D'Estrelles, if you found him obtaining an influence over yourself?’

‘Kill him! You stare. I should do so in self-defence, for I should know then that he had some evil purpose to serve. But look not so grave, mou ami. I fear no such contingency. Meanwhile about this isle d'or?

60 French encyclopedia published in Paris between 1751 and 1772. The Encyclopedie was one of the most notable projects to come out of the French Enlightenment (Reill and Wilson 127).

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

61 Voltaire was a contributor to the French encyclopedia. See note page 71.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

62 French philosopher and writer. One of the fathers of the Enlightenment in France(Reill et al 436).

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

63 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Swiss writer and one of the most original thinkers of the Enlightenment (Reill et al 369).

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

64 (1689-1755) French political theorist, historian, satirist and philosopher of the Enlightenment (Reill et al 288).

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

65 Good heavens.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

66 Let’s stick to the subject.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]