merkins, the ancient attendant (but not so ancient as the members), came in and poked the embers a bit.
finally wilworth broke the silence.
"that -" - nobody asked what "that " was - "reminds me of a queer thing that happened to me back in - back in the day. a damned queer thing."
"well then, let's hear it, old boy, " drawled morgan from the depths of his chair in the corner.
suddenly podwell slammed his fist on the arm of his chair, with such force as to shake the dregs of the glass of whiskey on the table beside him. "no. by god! by god i'm tired of these queer tales, these damned queer tales! doesn't anybody ever have a tale of something ordinary, eh? did not anything ordinary ever happen to any of you, eh?"
"well," chamberton observed timidly, from his chair beside the fire, " we have all spent most of our lives in exotic climes, you know. before - before ending up here, that is."
but podwell would have none of it. "but surely something ordinary has happened to someone here! when you think of all the years we have all lived -"
"what about yourself, then, " morgan interjected. "do you have an ordinary tale to tell?"
"no need for that, " put in sounderby, from his chair beside the door, "i have a tale to tell - the most damned ordinary story you ever heard."
"well then, let's hear it, " came a chorus of voices from every corner of the room.
sounderby cleared his throat. "i was back from africa, for the first time in thirty years. i thought things might have changed a bit, and maybe they had - in london or paris. but in my home village - in the west counties - time seemed to have stood still. not, of course, that i had any objection to that.
it was a dull and dreary day, with a low hanging but not particularly thick fog. i decided to go for a walk before breakfast. the old housekeeper - whom i remembered very well but who did not seem to remember me - was damnably slow about everything, but especially breakfast. so, as i say, i decided to go for a walk.
i had no destination. my mind was a complete blank. i was grateful for the fact that the road was completely deserted of humans, although an occasional rabbit crossed it. a few rabbits on the road, a few cows in the field, a few crows in the air - not even a barn or tractor in sight. i could have been in caesar's time.
the fog lingered, and the day did not brighten as it went on.
eventually i came upon a small house - hardly more than a hut, with a small garden behind it, but no sign of a barn or animals. i was a bit thirsty, and resolved to be so bold as to approach the house to request a drink of water.
i rapped on the door, and it was opened immediately by a woman. a woman plainly dressed, as you might imagine, neither young nor old, good looking nor ugly.
i asked if i might have a glass of water and she nodded and stood aside without speaking to let me in. i found myself in a small room with just a table and two chairs. i thought she might be mute but when she brought me the water she remarked in a clear voice with just the touch of a country accent that it looked like just another day.
i agreed that it looked like just another day.
she asked if i would like a bite to eat, and although i was not particularly hungry i thanked her and said that i would.
she brought me a cup of milk and a plate with two slices of bread, two smaller slices of cheese, three sardines, three radishes, four slices of cucumber, a curious little tasteless cake, and an apple.
she sat in the chair across from me and looked out the window as i consumed these humble victuals, except for the apple, which i put in my pocket.
neither of us spoke.
after a period of time difficult to measure, i thanked her and got up and left.
i walked back to my old house the same way i had come. the fog lifted and the skies darkened, but it did not rain.
a month later i was back in kenya."
no one spoke for half a minute.
"by god!" cried podwell. "if that isn't the queerest damned tale i ever heard!"
no one challenged this assertion, or otherwise spoke.
the fire burned low in the grate. merkins, who had perhaps fallen asleep, did not come in to stir the embers.
for previous tales of jacques click here and here.
jacques was content with his small income and had little contact with his relations, most of whom lived on or near the family's ancient estate on the coast of brittany.
most of the family who lived in brittany, and some of them who, like jacques, had repaired to paris and other larger cities, spent the greater portion of their brief existences on this earth in endless disputes regarding the division of the family inheritance. many of these disputes concerned the attempts of various uncles to provide for their natural children, or by the attempts of the natural children and their mothers to be provided for.
jacques had always been pained and bored by these disputes - he was pained and bored by most human endeavors - and took as little notice of them as possible.
now word reached him that his uncle gustave-laurent - a personage he had no memory of - had died. for reasons jacques could not have comprehended even had he wished to try, this event had released a portion of the inheritance to be distributed evenly among all surviving family members. a modest enough sum, thus divided, but for jacques an unexpected little windfall.
this gratified him, as much as he could be gratified by anything, and he decided to celebrate.
when he arrived the next morning at madame geraldine's establishment - that is, the next morning after securing the new funds at his bank - he began by ordering a cognac. his usual procedure was to order absinthes in the morning and early afternoon and schnapps as the day wore into night.
babette, the jolly barmaid who was now in her third week in madame geraldine's employ, took immediate notice of this.
"a cognac, monsieur? that is not like you." and she emitted her hearty laugh. "what a revolution! what next? we shall have to look out the window, will we not, madame, to see if the earth is still flat. " and she laughed again.
mildly flustered, jacques explained that he was simply celebrating his new good fortune, and gave a brief account of it and its cause.
like most persons, of all classes and nations, babette regarded any amount of wealth beyond what she possessed herself as unlimited and inexhaustible riches.
she had regarded jacques as a gentleman of some modest means - he did not work, and wore clothes with no holes in them - but she now saw him in a new light .
babette did not intend to work behind a zinc counter forever. nor did she look forward to taking to the streets, or to marrying a poor but honest working man, even one that did not beat her. a gentleman such as jacques, or one of madame geraldine's other regulars, with some independent income but soft and apparently malleable to a woman like herself, was her idea of a good catch. and if the good catch happened to drink himself to death and leave her his fortune - why, that was surely not a process difficult to hasten, was it?
so on this rainy morning babette began to seriously marshal her forces for her conquest of jacques. such other customers as arrived, even the regulars, were quickly served and left to their thoughts.
madame geraldine, from her post by the fire, did not mind, as business was slow, and watched babette's performance with some amusement. at one point she even laughed - for the first time in seven or eight years.