YET through the sweetness of this reconciliation, the fond knowledge that Nicholas was more completely attached to him than ever, the Consul could not forget the part played by José in that painful, if brief, estrangement. It had been his practice as he left the villa in the morning to acknowledge, distantly, his gardener's respectful salute. Now, however, he passed by with studied indifference, his face averted, eyes fixed straight ahead, as though to avoid seeing him. Yet in that brief moment, he was acutely conscious of the youth, of his young figure under the light cotton, the vigorous sweep of his arms as he swung the long scythe, his warmly ingenuous smile. And a surge of resentment went through his veins, an irritation that remained with him long after he had reached the office.
He tried to shake off this emotion. It was preposterous that he should permit himself to be disturbed by a mere servant, a common youngster from the town, and quite beneath his dignity to take any action in a matter which, after all, seemed less important when viewed in retrospect. Doubtless the fellow had bragged to Nicholas about his prowess at pelota and had urged him to come to watch him play the game. No more than that. Nevertheless, despite this reasoning, there remained in the Consul's breast that strange sense of jealousy, and an animosity which, as though it fed upon itself, seemed to grow from day to day.
For a while José noticed nothing, but as one morning succeeded another and still his master passed him with that impervious frown, he began to fear that he was failing to give satisfaction and his simple heart was filled with apprehension. Work was scarce in San Jorge, good situations difficult to find, and he had his mother, Maria, to think of, to say nothing of his sisters, and old Pedro, his grandfather, who had not done a stroke for seven years. Alarmed, he increased his already strenuous efforts, arrived half an hour earlier than the stipulated time, departed only when dusk began to fall.
One morning, as he worked into an uncleared patch beyond the rocky wall, he saw, deep in the mossy shelter of some myrtle shrubs, three fragile white stars, still damp with dew— the first freesias. His eyes lit up with pleasure, he stood in admiration for a long moment, then nodded to himself, crushed into the undergrowth, and carefully picked the flowers. In the tool shed, whistling under his breath, he bound them neatly with raffia against a light spray of fern. Smartening his hair before the broken scrap of mirror, he hastened to the front porch. He had not long to wait before his master appeared on the verandah.
"Señor," José said, and stopped, finding it too difficult to make the agreeable speech which he had prepared. He simply smiled, with touching diffidence, and handed up the boutonnière.
There was a pause. The Consul, like one forced against his will, slowly turned, and for the first time, since the pelota game, looked directly at the youth. This action, which seemed to break down some deep-seated and primitive inhibition, produced in him a curious sense of liberation, of mastery. His sense of tension, so long suppressed, was suddenly dissolved and instead, he felt himself capable of an almost super-human calm.
"What is this?" he inquired formally.
"For your pleasure, señor... to wear. The first freesias of spring."
"You picked them . . . these flowers?"
"But . . . yes, señor."
"You have no right to do such a thing. These flowers are mine. I do not wish them picked. I wish them to remain growing in the garden, where they properly belong."
"But, señor..." José faltered.
"That is enough. You are a stupid, self-willed fellow. You exceed your position. Let us have no more of it in future. Do you understand?"
Under the Consul's cold, steady gaze José's hurt eyes fell, his lithe young figure appeared to droop, to lose virility and poise. Sadly cast down, he looked at the little bunch of perfumed blossoms, whose stems had grown warm in his perspiring hands, and as though not knowing what to do with this rejected offering, he placed it confusedly behind his ear. As he moved off, clumsily, to the myrtle patch, he perceived that Garcia, waiting beside the car, with that peculiar grimace, sardonic and at the same time blank, which gave to the impassive face a look of cruelty, had witnessed his humiliation. He bit his lip and turned away his head, as though to hide his burning cheeks.
The Consul drove to the town, sitting erect in the rear seat of his open automobile with the folding wind-screen lowered, the breeze blowing pleasantly about him. He felt eased and satisfied, like a man who has thrown off an irritating garment and now finds himself restored to comfort and normality. So agreeable was his humour that, when he entered the office and found Alvin Decker already bent over a pile of bills of lading in the outer room, he paused and, with a touch of compunction, remarked:
"Good morning, Decker. By the way, it's about time you and your wife came to see us at Casa Breza." As his assistant started up, in pleased surprise, he continued generously. "Come next Sunday, won't you? Come in the afternoon and we'll give you tea."
"Oh, thank you, sir," Alvin exclaimed, deeply gratified. "Thank you ever so much. I know that Mrs. Decker . . ."
"Quite," the Consul cut in, blandly. "We shall expect you both at five o'clock. Don't be late."
He passed into his private office where a fresh copy of the Echo de Paris, the wrapper carefully removed, lay upon his desk. But his present mood was too creative to waste upon the news-sheet. A quick survey showed that there was nothing of importance in his official mail. He sat down in his swivel chair and, permitting himself one of his rare departures from his punctilious routine, he drew out from the bottom drawer the package he had brought from the villa the day before— his manuscript on Malbranche.
To the rest of the world Nicholas Malbranche might be a dim, an unknown figure, but to Harrington Brande this forgotten Frenchman, who in the eighteenth century attempted to adopt the teachings of Descartes in the interests of theology, had become an exemplar in whose pedantic philosophy he found a pattern for his own behaviour, the sonorous echo of his own soul. That Malbranche should be so utterly neglected served merely to fan his ardour, to increase his pride that he, personally, would be hailed as the discoverer who had brought this paragon from obscurity into the bright light of day.
Over the past ten years, with mounting ambition, he had laboured prodigiously upon the compilation of a life of his hero. Several times he had sent the first half of his manuscript to leading publishing houses. The lack of response—none had evinced the slightest interest—was bitterly provoking, for he was not impervious to the flight of time or the success of others, yet it had neither surprised nor deterred the Consul. He considered the work too erudite to be vulgarly popular and, if necessary, proposed to produce it at his own expense, confident that when it reached the hands of the inner circle of European savants it would be instantly acclaimed. As a gesture of proud defiance he had named his son Francis Nicholas, despite the protests of his wife, whose lack of enthusiasm for his project had been, alas, but one of her lamentable disloyalties. Never, indeed, would he forgive her that episode when—having, in the first flush of his love, permitted her to read some chapters of the masterpiece—he had pressed confidently for her opinion.
"I'm afraid I don't know enough about it," she had answered evasively.
"Naturally I don't expect you to understand the philosophy, my dear. But the style . . . the drama . . . the movement . . . of the book?"
"No, really, Harrington . . . I'm no judge . . .”
"Oh, come now." He laughed playfully, fondling her hand. "Be as critical as you like. Speak the truth."
A difficult silence had followed. Then, concerned, she had smiled her shadowy smile, as though begging his forgiveness.
"If you really insist, Harrington, I'm afraid it bored me frightfully."
Ah, well, Malbranche had also had his Calvary. And now, all that was past, the manuscript was near completion and, as though in anticipation of his triumphant vindication, the Consul firmly took up his pen. But as he did so, unexpectedly he paused, and raised his head. As though seeing again that bar of humiliation upon José's brow, his eyes turned distant, strangely light, in his sallow face. Then, slowly, as he began to write, he smiled.