Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini - HTML preview
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Bardelys the Magnificent
1. The Wager................................................................................................................... 3
2. The King's Wishes .................................................................................................... 12
3. Rene De Lesperon..................................................................................................... 16
4. A Maid In The Moonlight............................................................................................. 22
5. The Vicomte De Lavedan ............................................................................................. 30
6. In Convalescence .......................................................................................................... 37
7. The Hostility Of Saint-Eustache ................................................................................... 46
8. The Portrait ................................................................................................................... 62
9. A Night Alarm .............................................................................................................. 69
10. The Risen Dead........................................................................................................... 78
11. The King's Commissioner........................................................................................... 86
12. The Tribunal Of Toulouse .......................................................................................... 93
13. The Eleventh Hour.................................................................................................... 105
14. Eavesdropping........................................................................................................... 112
15. Monsieur De Chatellerault Is Angry......................................................................... 120
16. Swords! ..................................................................................................................... 127
17. The Babbling Of Ganymede ..................................................................................... 134
18. Saint-Eustache Is Obstinate ...................................................................................... 142
19. The Flint And The Steel............................................................................................ 151
20. The "Bravi" At Blagnac ............................................................................................ 164
21. Louis The Just ........................................................................................................... 173
22. We Unsaddle............................................................................................................. 181
1. The WagerSpeak of the Devil," whispered La Fosse in my ear, and, moved by the words and by the significance of his glance, I turned in my chair.
The door had opened, and under the lintel stood the thick-set figure of the Comte de Chatellerault. Before him a lacquey in my escutcheoned livery of red-and-gold was receiving, with back obsequiously bent, his hat and cloak.
A sudden hush fell upon the assembly where a moment ago this very man had been the subject of our talk, and silenced were the wits that but an instant since had been making free with his name and turning the Languedoc courtship - from which he was newly returned with the shame of defeat - into a subject for heartless mockery and jest. Surprise was in the air for we had heard that Chatellerault was crushed by his ill-fortune in the lists of Cupid, and we had not looked to see him joining so soon a board at which - or so at least I boasted - mirth presided.
And so for a little space the Count stood pausing on my threshold, whilst we craned our necks to contemplate him as though he had been an object for inquisitive inspection. Then a smothered laugh from the brainless La Fosse seemed to break the spell. I frowned. It was a climax of discourtesy whose impression I must at all costs efface.
I leapt to my feet, with a suddenness that sent my chair gliding a full half-yard along the glimmering parquet of the floor, and in two strides I had reached the Count and put forth my hand to bid him welcome. He took it with a leisureliness that argued sorrow. He advanced into the full blaze of the candlelight, and fetched a dismal sigh from the depths of his portly bulk."You are surprised to see me, Monsieur le Marquis," said he, and his tone seemed to convey an apology for his coming - for his very existence almost.
Now Nature had made my Lord of Chatellerault as proud and arrogant as Lucifer
- some resemblance to which illustrious personage his downtrodden retainers were said to detect in the lineaments of his swarthy face. Environment had added to that store of insolence wherewith Nature had equipped him, and the King's favour - in which he was my rival - had gone yet further to mould the peacock attributes of his vain soul. So that this wondrous humble tone of his gave me pause; for to me it seemed that not even a courtship gone awry could account for it in such a man.
"I had not thought to find so many here," said he. And his next words contained the cause of his dejected air. "The King, Monsieur de Bardelys, has refused to see me; and when the sun is gone, we lesser bodies of the courtly firmament must needs turn for light and comfort to the moon." And he made me a sweeping bow.
"Meaning that I rule the night?" quoth I, and laughed. "The figure is more playful than exact, for whilst the moon is cold and cheerless, me you shall find ever warm and cordial. I could have wished, Monsieur de Chatellerault, that your gracing my board were due to a circumstance less untoward than His Majesty's displeasure.""It is not for nothing that they call you the Magnificent," he answered, with a fresh bow, insensible to the sting in the tail of my honeyed words. I laughed, and, setting compliments to rest with that, I led him to the table. "Ganymede, a place here for Monsieur le Comte. Gilles, Antoine, see to Monsieur de Chatellerault. Basile, wine for Monsieur le Comte. Bestir there!"
In a moment he was become the centre of a very turmoil of attention. My lacqueys flitted about him buzzing and insistent as bees about a rose. Would Monsieur taste of this capon a la casserole, or of this truffled peacock? Would a slice of this juicy ham a l'anglaise tempt Monsieur le Comte, or would he give himself the pain of trying this turkey aux olives? Here was a salad whose secret Monsieur le Marquis's cook had learnt in Italy, and here a vol-au-vent that was invented by Quelon himself.
Basile urged his wines upon him, accompanied by a page who bore a silver tray laden with beakers and Wagons. Would Monsieur le Comte take white Armagnac or red Anjou? This was a Burgundy of which Monsieur le Marquis thought highly, and this a delicate Lombardy wine that His Majesty had oft commended. Or perhaps Monsieur de Chatellerault would prefer to taste the last vintage of Bardelys?
And so they plagued him and bewildered him until his choice was made; and even then a couple of them held themselves in readiness behind his chair to forestall his slightest want. Indeed, had he been the very King himself, no greater honour could we have shown him at the Hotel de Bardelys.
But the restraint that his coming had brought with it hung still upon the company, for Chatellerault was little loved, and his presence there was much as that of the skull at an Egyptian banquet.
For of all these fair-weather friends that sat about my table - amongst whom there were few that had not felt his power - I feared there might be scarcely one would have the grace to dissemble his contempt of the fallen favourite. That he was fallen, as much his words as what already we had known, had told us.
Yet in my house I would strive that he should have no foretaste of that coldness that to-morrow all Paris would be showing him, and to this end I played the host with all the graciousness that role may bear, and overwhelmed him with my cordiality, whilst to thaw all iciness from the bearing of my other guests, I set the wines to flow more freely still. My dignity would permit no less of me, else would it have seemed that I rejoiced in a rival's downfall and took satisfaction from the circumstance that his disfavour with the King was like to result in my own further exaltation.
My efforts were not wasted. Slowly the mellowing influence of the grape pronounced itself. To this influence I added that of such wit as Heaven has graced me with, and by a word here and another there I set myself to lash their mood back into the joviality out of which his coming had for the moment driven it.
And so, presently, Good-Humour spread her mantle over us anew, and quip and jest and laughter decked our speech, until the noise of our merry-making drifting out through the open windows must have been borne upon the breeze of that August night down the rue Saint-Dominique, across the rue de l'Enfer, to the very ears perhaps of those within the Luxembourg, telling them that Bardelys and his friends kept another of those revels which were become a byword in Paris, and had contributed not a little to the sobriquet of "Magnificent" which men gave me.
But, later, as the toasts grew wild and were pledged less for the sake of the toasted than for that of the wine itself, wits grew more barbed and less restrained by caution; recklessness hung a moment, like a bird of prey, above us, then swooped abruptly down in the words of that fool La Fosse.
"Messieurs," he lisped, with that fatuousness he affected, and with his eye fixed coldly upon Chatellerault, "I have a toast for you." He rose carefully to his feet - he had arrived at that condition in which to move with care is of the first importance. He shifted his eye from the Count to his glass, which stood half empty. He signed to a lacquey to fill it. "To the brim, gentlemen," he commanded. Then, in the silence that ensued, he attempted to stand with one foot on the ground and one on his chair; but encountering difficulties of balance, he remained upright - safer if less picturesque.
"Messieurs, I give you the most peerless, the most beautiful, the most difficult and cold lady in all France. I drink to those her thousand graces, of which Fame has told us, and to that greatest and most vexing charm of all - her cold indifference to man. I pledge you, too, the swain whose good fortune it maybe to play Endymion to this Diana.
"It will need," pursued La Fosse, who dealt much in mythology and classic lore - "it will need an Adonis in beauty, a Mars in valour, an Apollo in song, and a very Eros in love to accomplish it. And I fear me," he hiccoughed, "that it will go unaccomplished, since the one man in all France on whom we have based our hopes has failed. Gentlemen, to your feet! I give you the matchless Roxalanne de Lavedan!"
Such amusement as I felt was tempered by apprehension. I shot a swift glance at Chatellerault to mark how he took this pleasantry and this pledging of the lady whom the King had sent him to woo, but whom he had failed to win. He had risen with the others at La Fosse's bidding, either unsuspicious or else deeming suspicion too flimsy a thing by which to steer conduct. Yet at the mention of her name a scowl darkened his ponderous countenance. He set down his glass with such sudden force that its slender stem was snapped and a red stream of wine streaked the white tablecloth and spread around a silver flowerbowl. The sight of that stain recalled him to himself and to the manners he had allowed himself for a moment to forget."Bardelys, a thousand apologies for my clumsiness," he muttered. "Spilt wine," I laughed, "is a good omen."
And for once I accepted that belief, since but for the shedding of that wine and its sudden effect upon him, it is likely we had witnessed a shedding of blood. Thus, was the ill-timed pleasantry of my feather-brained La Fosse tided over in comparative safety. But the topic being raised was not so easily abandoned. Mademoiselle de Lavedan grew to be openly discussed, and even the Count's courtship of her came to be hinted at, at first vaguely, then pointedly, with a lack of delicacy for which I can but blame the wine with which these gentlemen had made a salad of their senses. In growing alarm I watched the Count. But he showed no further sign of irritation. He sat and listened as though no jot concerned. There were moments when he even smiled at some lively sally, and at last he went so far as to join in that merry combat of wits, and defend himself from their attacks, which were made with a good-humour that but thinly veiled the dislike he was held in and the satisfaction that was culled from his late discomfiture.
For a while I hung back and took no share in the banter that was toward. But in the end - lured perhaps by the spirit in which I have shown that Chatellerault accepted it, and lulled by the wine which in common with my guests I may have abused - I came to utter words but for which this story never had been written.
"Chatellerault," I laughed, "abandon these defensive subterfuges; confess that you are but uttering excuses, and acknowledge that you have conducted this affair with a clumsiness unpardonable in one equipped with your advantages of courtly rearing."
A flush overspread his face, the first sign of anger since he had spilled his wine.
"I have no clumsiness to confess," he answered hotly, raising his voice. "It is a fine thing to sit here in Paris, among the languid, dull, and nerveless beauties of the Court, whose favours are easily won because they look on dalliance as the best pastime offered them, and are eager for such opportunities of it as you fleering coxcombs will afford them. But this Mademoiselle de Lavedan is of a vastly different mettle. She is a woman; not a doll. She is flesh and blood; not sawdust, powder, and vermilion. She has a heart and a will; not a spirit corrupted by vanity and licence."La Fosse burst into a laugh. "Hark! O, hark!" he cried, "to the apostle of the chaste!" "Saint Gris!" exclaimed another. "This good Chatellerault has lost both heart and head to her." Chatellerault glanced at the speaker with an eye in which anger smouldered.
"You have said it," I agreed. "He has fallen her victim, and so his vanity translates her into a compound of perfections. Does such a woman as you have described exist, Comte? Bah! In a lover's mind, perhaps, or in the pages of some crackbrained poet's fancies; but nowhere else in this dull world of ours."He made a gesture of impatience. "You have been clumsy, Chatellerault," I insisted.
"You have lacked address. The woman does not live that is not to be won by any man who sets his mind to do it, if only he be of her station and have the means to maintain her in it or raise her to a better. A woman's love, sir, is a tree whose root is vanity. Your attentions flatter her, and predispose her to capitulate. Then, if you but wisely choose your time to deliver the attack, and do so with the necessary adroitness - nor is overmuch demanded - the battle is won with ease, and she surrenders. Believe me, Chatellerault, I am a younger man than you by full five years, yet in experience I am a generation older, and I talk of what I know." He sneered heavily. "If to have begun your career of dalliance at the age of eighteen with an amour that resulted in a scandal be your title to experience, I agree," said he. "But for the rest, Bardelys, for all your fine talk of conquering women, believe me when I tell you that in all your life you have never met a woman, for I deny the claim of these Court creatures to that title. If you would know a woman, go to Lavedan, Monsieur le Marquis. If you would have your army of amorous wiles suffer a defeat at last, go employ it against the citadel of Roxalanne de Lavedan's heart. If you would be humbled in your pride, betake yourself to Lavedan.""A challenge!" roared a dozen voices. "A challenge, Bardelys!"
"Mais voyons," I deprecated, with a laugh, "would you have me journey into Languedoc and play at wooing this embodiment of all the marvels of womanhood for the sake of making good my argument? Of your charity, gentlemen, insist no further.""The never-failing excuse of the boaster," sneered Chatellerault, "when desired to make good his boast." "Monsieur conceives that I have made a boast?" quoth I, keeping my temper.
"Your words suggested one - else I do not know the meaning of words. They suggested that where I have failed you could succeed, if you had a mind to try. I have challenged you, Bardelys. I challenge you again. Go about this wooing as you will; dazzle the lady with your wealth and your magnificence, with your servants, your horses, your equipages; and all the splendours you can command; yet I make bold to say that not a year of your scented attentions and most insidious wiles will bear you fruit. Are you sufficiently challenged?""But this is rank frenzy!" I protested. "Why should I undertake this thing?" "To prove me wrong," he taunted me. "To prove me clumsy. Come, Bardelys, what of your spirit?" "I confess I would do much to afford you the proof you ask. But to take a wife! Pardi! That is much indeed!"
"Bah!" he sneered. "You do well to draw back You are wise to avoid discomfiture. This lady is not for you. When she is won, it will be by some bold and gallant gentleman, and by no mincing squire of dames, no courtly coxcomb, no fop of the Luxembourg, be his experiences of dalliance never so vast."
"Po' Cap de Dieu!" growled Cazalet, who was a Gascon captain in the Guards, and who swore strange, southern oaths. "Up, Bardelys! Afoot! Prove your boldness and your gallantry, or be forever shamed; a squire of dames, a courtly coxcomb, a fop of the Luxembourg! Mordemondieu! I have given a man a bellyful of steel for the half of those titles!"
"I heeded him little, and as little the other noisy babblers, who now on their feet - those that could stand - were spurring me excitedly to accept the challenge, until from being one of the baiters it seemed that of a sudden the tables were turned and I was become the baited. I sat in thought, revolving the business in my mind, and frankly liking it but little. Doubts of the issue, were I to undertake it, I had none.
My views of the other sex were neither more nor less than my words to the Count had been calculated to convey. It may be - I know now that it was that the women I had known fitted Chatellerault's description, and were not over-difficult to win. Hence, such successes as I had had with them in such comedies of love as I had been engaged upon had given me a false impression. But such at least was not my opinion that night. I was satisfied that Chatellerault talked wildly, and that no such woman lived as he depicted. Cynical and soured you may account me. Such I know I was accounted in Paris; a man satiated with all that wealth and youth and the King's favour could give him; stripped of illusions, of faith and of zest, the very magnificence - so envied - of my existence affording me more disgust than satisfaction. Since already I had gauged its shallows.
Is it strange, therefore, that in this challenge flung at me with such insistence, a business that at first I disliked grew presently to beckon me with its novelty and its promise of new sensations?
"Is your spirit dead, Monsieur de Bardelys?" Chatellerault was gibing, when my silence had endured some moments. "Is the cock that lately crowed so lustily now dumb? Look you, Monsieur le Marquis, you are accounted here a reckless gamester. Will a wager induce you to this undertaking?"
I leapt to my feet at that. His derision cut me like a whip. If what I did was the act of a braggart, yet it almost seems I could do no less to bolster up my former boasting - or what into boasting they had translated.
"You'll lay a wager, will you, Chatellerault?" I cried, giving him back defiance for defiance. A breathless silence fell. "Then have it so. Listen, gentlemen, that you may be witnesses. I do here pledge my castle of Bardelys, and my estates in Picardy, with every stick and stone and blade of grass that stands upon them, that I shall woo and win Roxalanne de Lavedan to be the Marquise of Bardelys. Does the stake satisfy you, Monsieur le Comte? You may set all you have against it," I added coarsely, "and yet, I swear, the odds will be heavily in your favour."
I remember it was Mironsac who first found his tongue, and sought even at that late hour to set restraint upon us and to bring judgment to our aid. "Messieurs, messieurs!" he besought us. "In Heaven's name, bethink you what you do. Bardelys, your wager is a madness. Monsieur de Chatellerault, you'll not accept it. You'll--""Be silent," I rebuked him, with some asperity. "What has Monsieur de Chatellerault to say?"
He was staring at the tablecloth and the stain of the wine that he had spilled when first Mademoiselle de Lavedan's name was mentioned. His head had been bent so that his long black hair had tumbled forward and partly veiled his face. At my question he suddenly looked up. The ghost of a smile hung on his sensuous lips, for all that excitement had paled his countenance beyond its habit.
"Monsieur le Marquis." said he rising, "I take your wager, and I pledge my lands in Normandy against yours of Bardelys. Should you lose, they will no longer call you the Magnificent; should I lose --I shall be a beggar. It is a momentous wager, Bardelys, and spells ruin for one of us.""A madness!" groaned Mironsac. "Mordieux!" swore Cazalet. Whilst La Fosse, who had been the original cause of all this trouble, vented his excitement in a gibber of imbecile laughter. "How long do you give me, Chatellerault?" I asked, as quietly as I might. "What time shall you require?" "I should prefer that you name the limit," I answered. He pondered a moment. Then "Will three months suffice you?" he asked. "If it is not done in three months, I will pay," said I.
And then Chatellerault did what after all was, I suppose, the only thing that a gentleman might do under the circumstances. He rose to his feet, and, bidding the company charge their glasses, he gave them a parting toast."Messieurs, drink with me to Monsieur le Marquis de Bardelys's safe journey into Languedoc, and to the prospering of his undertaking."
In answer, a great shout went up from throats that suspense had lately held in leash. Men leapt on to their chairs, and, holding their glasses on high, they acclaimed me as thunderously as though I had been the hero of some noble exploit, instead of the main figure in a somewhat questionable wager. "Bardelys!" was the shout with which the house reechoed. "Bardelys! Bardelys the Magnificent! Vive Bardelys!"
2. The King's Wishes
It was daybreak ere the last of them had left me, for a dozen or so had lingered to play lansquenet after the others had departed. With those that remained my wager had soon faded into insignificance, as their minds became engrossed in the fluctuations of their own fortunes.I did not play myself; I was not in the mood, and for one night, at least, of sufficient weight already I thought the game upon which I was launched.
I was out on the balcony as the first lines of dawn were scoring the east, and in a moody, thoughtful condition I had riveted my eyes upon the palace of the Luxembourg, which loomed a black pile against the lightening sky, when Mironsac came out to join me. A gentle, lovable lad was Mironsac, not twenty years of age, and with the face and manners of a woman. That he was attached to me I knew."Monsieur le Marquis," said he softly, "I am desolated at this wager into which they have forced you." "Forced me?" I echoed. "No, no; they did not force me. And yet," I reflected, with a sigh, "perhaps they did." "I have been thinking, monsieur, that if the King were to hear of it the evil might be mended." "But the King must not hear of it, Armand," I answered quickly. "Even if he did, matters would be no better - much worse, possibly." "But, monsieur, this thing done in the heat of wine--" "Is none the less done, Armand," I concluded. "And I for one do not wish it undone." "But have you no thought for the lady?" he cried.
I laughed at him. "Were I still eighteen, boy, the thought might trouble me. Had I my illusions, I might imagine that my wife must be some woman of whom I should be enamoured. As it is, I have grown to the age of twenty-eight unwed. Marriage becomes desirable. I must think of an heir to all the wealth of Bardelys. And so I go to Languedoc. If the lady be but half the saint that fool Chatellerault has painted her, so much the better for my children; if not, so much the worse. There is the dawn, Mironsac, and it is time we were abed. Let us drive these plaguy gamesters home."
When the last of them had staggered down my steps, and I had bidden a drowsy lacquey extinguish the candles, I called Ganymede to light me to bed and aid me to undress. His true name was Rodenard; but my friend La Fosse, of mythological fancy, had named him Ganymede, after the cup-bearer of the gods, and the name had clung to him. He was a man of some forty years of age, born into my father's service, and since become my intendant, factotum, majordomo, and generalissimo of my regiment of servants and my establishments both in Paris and at Bardelys.
We had been to the wars together ere I had cut my wisdom teeth, and thus had he come to love me. There was nothing this invaluable servant could not do. At baiting or shoeing a horse, at healing a wound, at roasting a capon, or at mending a doublet, he was alike a master, besides possessing a score of other accomplishments that do not now occur to me, which in his campaigning he had acquired. Of late the easy life in Paris had made him incline to corpulency, and his face was of a pale, unhealthy fullness.To-night, as he assisted me to undress, it wore an expression of supreme woe. "Monseigneur is going into Languedoc?" he inquired sorrowfully. He always called me his "seigneur," as did the other of my servants born at Bardelys. "Knave, you have been listening," said I. "But, monseigneur," he explained, "when Monsieur le Comte de Chatellerault laid his wager--"
"And have I not told you, Ganymede, that when you chance to be among my friends you should hear nothing but the words addressed to you, see nothing but the glasses that need replenishing? But, there! We are going into Languedoc. What of it?"
"They say that war may break out at any moment," he groaned; "that Monsieur le Duc de Montmorency is receiving reenforcements from Spain, and that he intends to uphold the standard of Monsieur and the rights of the province against the encroachments of His Eminence the Cardinal."
"So! We are becoming politicians, eh, Ganymede? And how shall all this concern us? Had you listened more attentively, you had learnt that we go to Languedoc to seek a wife, and not to concern ourselves with Cardinals and Dukes. Now let me sleep ere the sun rises."
On the morrow I attended the levee, and I applied to His Majesty for leave to absent myself. But upon hearing that it was into Languedoc I went, he frowned inquiry. Trouble enough was his brother already making in that province. I explained that I went to seek a wife, and deeming all subterfuge dangerous, since it might only serve to provoke him when later he came to learn the lady's name, I told him - withholding yet all mention of the wager - that I fostered the hope of making Mademoiselle de Lavedan my marquise.
Deeper came the line between his brows at that, and blacker grew the scowl. He was not wont to bestow on me such looks as I now met in his weary eyes, for Louis XIII had much affection for me."You know this lady?" he demanded sharply. "Only by name, Your Majesty." At that his brows went up in astonishment. "Only by name? And you would wed her? But, Marcel, my friend, you are a rich man one of the richest in France. You cannot be a fortune hunter."
"Sire," I answered, "Fame sings loudly the praises of this lady, her beauty and her virtue - praises that lead me to opine she would make me an excellent chatelaine. I am come to an age when it is well to wed; indeed, Your Majesty has often told me so. And it seems to me that all France does not hold a lady more desirable. Heaven send she will agree to my suit!"In that tired way of his that was so pathetic: "Do you love me a little, Marcel?" he asked. "Sire," I exclaimed, wondering whither all this was leading us, "need I protest it?"
"No," he answered dryly; "you can prove it. Prove it by abandoning this Languedoc quest. I have motives - sound motives, motives of political import. I desire another wedding for Mademoiselle de Lavedan. I wish it so, Bardelys, and I look to be obeyed."
For a moment temptation had me by the throat. Here was an unlooked-for chance to shake from me a business which reflection was already rendering odious. I had but to call together my friends of yesternight, and with them the Comte de Chatellerault, and inform them that by the King was I forbidden to go awooing Roxalanne de Lavedan. So should my wager be dissolved. And then in a flash I saw how they would sneer one and all, and how they would think that I had caught avidly at this opportunity of freeing myself from an undertaking into which a boastful mood had lured me. The fear of that swept aside my momentary hesitation.
"Sire," I answered, bending my head contritely, "I am desolated that my inclinations should run counter to your wishes, but to your wonted kindness and clemency I must look for forgiveness if these same inclinations drive me so relentlessly that I may not now turn back."
He took a turn in silence, like a man who is mastering himself before he will speak. Many an eye, I knew, was upon us, and not a few may have been marvelling whether already Bardelys were about to share the fate that yesterday had overtaken his rival Chatellerault. At last he halted at my side again.
"Marcel," said he, but though he used that name his voice was harsh, "go home and ponder what I have said. If you value my favour, if you desire my love, you will abandon this journey and the suit you contemplate. If, on the other hand, you persist in going - you need not return. The Court of France has no room for gentlemen who are but lip-servers, no place for courtiers who disobey their King."
That was his last word. He waited for no reply, but swung round on his heel, and an instant later I beheld him deep in conversation with the Duke of Saint-Simon. Of such a quality is the love of princes - vain, capricious, and wilful. Indulge it ever and at any cost, else you forfeit it.
I turned away with a sigh, for in spite of all his weaknesses and meannesses I loved this cardinal-ridden king, and would have died for him had the need occurred, as well he knew. But in this matter --well, I accounted my honour involved, and there was now no turning back save by the payment of my wager and the acknowledgment of defeat.
3. Rene De Lesperon
That very day I set out. For since the King was opposed to the affair, and knowing the drastic measures by which he was wont to enforce what he desired, I realized that did I linger he might find a way definitely to prevent my going.
I travelled in a coach, attended by two lacqueys and a score of men-at-arms in my own livery, all commanded by Ganymede. My intendant himself came in another coach with my wardrobe and travelling necessaries. We were a fine and almost regal cortege as we passed down the rue de l'Enfer and quitted Paris by the Orleans gate, taking the road south. So fine a cortege, indeed, that it entered my mind. His Majesty would come to hear of it, and, knowing my destination, send after me to bring me back. To evade such a possibility, I ordered a divergence to be made, and we struck east and into Touraine. At Pont-le-Duc, near Tours, I had a cousin in the Vicomte d'Amaral, and at his chateau I arrived on the third day after quitting Paris.
Since that was the last place where they would seek me, if to seek me they were inclined, I elected to remain my cousin's guest for fifteen days. And whilst I was there we had news of trouble in the South and of a rising in Languedoc under the Duc de Montmorency. Thus was it that when I came to take my leave of Amaral, he, knowing that Languedoc was my destination, sought ardently to keep me with him until we should learn that peace and order were restored in the province. But I held the trouble lightly, and insisted upon going.
Resolutely, then, if by slow stages, we pursued our journey, and came at last to Montauban. There we lay a night at the Auberge de Navarre, intending to push on to Lavedan upon the morrow. My father had been on more than friendly terms with the Vicomte de Lavedan, and upon this I built my hopes of a cordial welcome and an invitation to delay for a few days the journey to Toulouse, upon which I should represent myself as bound.
Thus, then, stood my plans. And they remained unaltered for all that upon the morrow there were wild rumours in the air of Montauban. There were tellings of a battle fought the day before at Castelnaudary, of the defeat of Monsieur's partisans, of the utter rout of Gonzalo de Cordova's Spanish tatterdemalions, and of the capture of Montmorency, who was sorely wounded - some said with twenty and some with thirty wounds - and little like to live. Sorrow and discontent stalked abroad in Languedoc that day, for they believed that it was against the Cardinal, who sought to strip them of so many privileges, that Gaston d'Orleans had set up his standard.
That those rumours of battle and defeat were true we had ample proof some few hours later, when a company of dragoons in buff and steel rode into the courtyard of the Auberge de Navarre, headed by a young spark of an officer, who confirmed the rumour and set the number of Montmorency's wounds at seventeen. He was lying, the officer told us, at Castelnaudary, and his duchess was hastening to him from Beziers. Poor woman! She was destined to nurse him back to life and vigour only that he might take his trial at Toulouse and pay with his head the price of his rebellion.
Ganymede who, through the luxurious habits of his more recent years had - for all his fine swagger - developed a marked distaste for warfare and excitement, besought me to take thought for my safety and to lie quietly at Montauban until the province should be more settled.
"The place is a hotbed of rebellion," he urged. "If these Chouans but learn that we are from Paris and of the King's party, we shall have our throats slit, as I live. There is not a peasant in all this countryside indeed, scarce a man of any sort but is a red-hot Orleanist, anti-Cardinalist, and friend of the Devil. Bethink you, monseigneur, to push on at the present is to court murder.""Why, then, we will court murder," said I coldly. "Give the word to saddle."
I asked him at the moment of setting out did he know the road to Lavedan, to which the lying poltroon made answer that he did. In his youth he may have known it, and the countryside may have undergone since then such changes as bewildered him. Or it may be that fear dulled his wits, and lured him into taking what may have seemed the safer rather than the likelier road. But this I know, that as night was falling my carriage halted with a lurch, and as I put forth my head I was confronted by my trembling intendant, his great fat face gleaming whitely in the gloom above the lawn collar on his doublet."Why do we halt, Ganymede?" quoth I. "Monseigneur," he faltered, his trembling increasing as he spoke, and his eyes meeting mine in a look of pitiful contrition, "I fear we are lost." "Lost?" I echoed. "Of what do you talk? Am I to sleep in the coach?" "Alas, monseigneur, I have done my best--" "Why, then, God keep us from your worst," I snapped. "Open me this door."
I stepped down and looked about me, and, by my faith, a more desolate spot to lose us in my henchman could not have contrived had he been at pains to do so. A bleak, barren landscape - such as I could hardly have credited was to be found in all that fair province - unfolded itself, looking now more bleak, perhaps, by virtue of the dim evening mist that hovered over it. Yonder, to the right, a dull russet patch of sky marked the west, and then in front of us I made out the hazy outline of the Pyrenees. At sight of them, I swung round and gripped my henchman by the shoulder.
"A fine trusty servant thou!" I cried. "Boaster! Had you told us that age and fat living had so stunted your wits as to have extinguished memory, I had taken a guide at Montauban to show us the way. Yet, here, with the sun and the Pyrenees to guide you, even had you no other knowledge, you lose yourself!"
"Monseigneur," he whimpered, "I was choosing my way by the sun and the mountains, and it was thus that I came to this impasse. For you may see, yourself, that the road ends here abruptly."
"Ganymede," said I slowly, "when we return to Paris - if you do not die of fright 'twixt this and then - I'll find a place for you in the kitchens. God send you may make a better scullion than a follower!" Then, vaulting over the wall, "Attend me, some half-dozen of you," I commanded, and stepped out briskly towards the barn.
As the weather-beaten old door creaked upon its rusty hinges, we were greeted by a groan from within, and with it the soft rustle of straw that is being moved. Surprised, I halted, and waited whilst one of my men kindled a light in the lanthorn that he carried.
By its rays we beheld a pitiable sight in a corner of that building. A man, quite young and of a tall and vigorous frame, lay stretched upon the straw. He was fully dressed even to his great riding-boots, and from the loose manner in which his back-and-breast hung now upon him, it would seem as if he had been making shift to divest himself of his armour, but had lacked the strength to complete the task. Beside him lay a feathered headpiece and a sword attached to a richly broidered baldrick. All about him the straw was clotted with brown, viscous patches of blood. The doublet which had been of sky-blue velvet was all sodden and stained, and inspection showed us that he had been wounded in the right side, between the straps of his breastplate.
As we stood about him now, a silent, pitying group, appearing fantastic, perhaps, by the dim light of that single lanthorn, he attempted to raise his head, and then with a groan he dropped it back upon the straw that pillowed it. From out of a face white, as in death, and drawn with haggard lines of pain, a pair of great lustrous blue eyes were turned upon us, abject and pitiful as the gaze of a dumb beast that is stricken mortally.
It needed no acuteness to apprehend that we had before us one of yesterday's defeated warriors; one who had spent his last strength in creeping hither to get his dying done in peace. Lest our presence should add fear to the agony already upon him, I knelt beside him in the blood-smeared straw, and, raising his head, I pillowed it upon my arm.
"Have no fear," said I reassuringly. "We are friends. Do you understand?"
The faint smile that played for a second on his lips and lighted his countenance would have told me that he understood, even had I not caught his words, faint as a sigh "Merci, monsieur." He nestled his head into the crook of my arm. "Water - for the love of God!" he gasped, to add in a groan, "Je me meurs, monsieur."
Assisted by a couple of knaves, Ganymede went about attending to the rebel at once. Handling him as carefully as might be, to avoid giving him unnecessary pain they removed his back-and-breast, which was flung with a clatter into one of the corners of the barn. Then, whilst one of them gently drew off his boots, Rodenard, with the lanthorn close beside him, cut away the fellow's doublet, and laid bare the oozing sword-wound that gaped in his mangled side. He whispered an order to Gilles, who went swiftly off to the coach in quest of something that he had asked for; then he sat on his heels and waited, his hand upon the man's pulse, his eyes on his face.I stooped until my lips were on a level with my intendant's ear. "How is it with him?" I inquired.
"Dying," whispered Rodenard in answer. "He has lost too much blood, and he is probably bleeding inwardly as well. There is no hope of his life, but he may linger thus some little while, sinking gradually, and we can at least mitigate the suffering of his last moments."
When presently the men returned with the things that Ganymede had asked for, he mixed some pungent liquid with water, and, whilst a servant held the bowl, he carefully sponged the rebel's wound. This and a cordial that he had given him to drink seemed to revive him and to afford him ease. His breathing was no longer marked by any rasping sound, and his eyes seemed to burn more intelligently.
"I am dying - is it not so?" he asked, and Ganymede bowed his head in silence. The poor fellow sighed. "Raise me," he begged, and when this service had been done him, his eyes wandered round until they found me. Then "Monsieur," he said, "will you do me a last favour?""Assuredly, my poor friend," I answered, going down on my knees beside him. "You - you were not for the Duke?" he inquired, eyeing me more keenly.
"No, monsieur. But do not let that disturb you; I have no interest in this rising and I have taken no side. I am from Paris, on a journey of - of pleasure. My name is Bardelys - Marcel de Bardelys.""Bardelys the Magnificent?" he questioned, and I could not repress a smile. "I am that overrated man."
"But then you are for the King!" And a note of disappointment crept into his voice. Before I could make him any answer, he had resumed. "No matter; Marcel de Bardelys is a gentleman, and party signifies little when a man is dying. I am Rene de Lesperon, of Lesperon in Gascony," he pursued. "Will you send word to my sister afterwards?"I bowed my head without speaking.
"She is the only relative I have, monsieur. But - and his tone grew wistful - "there is one other to whom I would have you bear a message." He raised his hand by a painful effort to the level of his breast. Strength failed him, and he sank back. "I cannot, monsieur," he said in a tone of pathetic apology. "See; there is a chain about my neck with a locket. Take it from me. Take it now, monsieur. There are some papers also, monsieur. Take all. I want to see them safely in your keeping."I did his bidding, and from the breast of his doublet I drew some loose letters and a locket which held the miniature of a woman's face. "I want you to deliver all to her, monsieur." "It shall be done," I answered, deeply moved. "Hold it - hold it up," he begged, his voice weakening. "Let me behold the face." Long his eyes rested on the likeness I held before him. At last, as one in a dream--
"Well-beloved," he sighed. "Bien aimee!" And down his grey, haggard cheeks the tears came slowly. "Forgive this weakness, monsieur," he whispered brokenly. "We were to have been wed in a month, had I lived." He ended with a sob, and when next he spoke it was more labouredly, as though that sob had robbed him of the half of what vitality remained. "Tell her, monsieur, that my dying thoughts were of her. Tell - tell her - I--""Her name?" I cried, fearing he would sink before I learned it. "Tell me her name." He looked at me with eyes that were growing glassy and vacant. Then he seemed to brace himself and to rally for a second. "Her name?" he mused, in a far-off manner. "She is - Ma-de-moiselle de -" His head rolled on the suddenly relaxed neck. He collapsed into Rodenard's arms. "Is he dead?" I asked. Rodenard nodded in silence.
4. A Maid In The Moonlight
I do not know whether it was the influence of that thing lying in a corner of the barn under the cloak that Rodenard had flung over it, or whether other influences of destiny were at work to impel me to rise at the end of a half-hour and announce my determination to set out on horseback and find myself quarters more congenial.
"To-morrow," I instructed Ganymede, as I stood ready to mount, "you will retrace your steps with the others, and, finding the road to Lavedan, you will follow me to the chateau.""But you cannot hope to reach it to-night, monseigneur, through a country that is unknown to you," he protested. "I do not hope to reach it to-night. I will ride south until I come upon some hamlet that will afford me shelter and, in the morning, direction." I left him with that, and set out at a brisk trot. Night had now fallen, but the sky was clear, and a crescent moon came opportunely if feebly to dispel the gloom.
I quitted the field, and went back until I gained a crossroad, where, turning to the right, I set my face to the Pyrenees, and rode briskly amain. That I had chosen wisely was proved when some twenty minutes later. I clattered into the hamlet of Mirepoix, and drew up before an inn flaunting the sign of a peacock - as if in irony of its humbleness, for it was no better than a wayside tavern. Neither stable-boy nor ostler was here, and the unclean, overgrown urchin to whom I entrusted my horse could not say whether indeed Pere Abdon the landlord would be able to find me a room to sleep in. I thirsted, however; and so I determined to alight, if it were only to drink a can of wine and obtain information of my whereabouts.
As I was entering the hostelry there was a clatter of hoofs in the street, and four dragoons headed by a sergeant rode up and halted at the door of the Paon. They seemed to have ridden hard and some distance, for their horses were jaded almost to the last point of endurance.
Within, I called the host, and having obtained a flagon of the best vintage - Heaven fortify those that must be content with his worst! --I passed on to make inquiries touching my whereabouts and the way to Lavedan. This I learnt was but some three or four miles distant. About the other table - there were but two within the room - stood the dragoons in a whispered consultation, of which it had been well had I taken heed, for it concerned me more closely than I could have dreamt.
"He answers the description," said the sergeant, and though I heard the words I took no thought that it was of me they spoke.
I remembered then that he had said I answered some description. With that it flashed through my mind that they had been sent after me by His Majesty to enforce my obedience to his wishes and to hinder me from reaching Lavedan. At once came the dominant desire to conceal my identity that I might go unhindered. The first name that occurred to me was that of the poor wretch I had left in the barn half an hour ago, and so--"I am," said I, "Monsieur de Lesperon, at your service."
Too late I saw the mistake that I had made. I own it was a blunder that no man of ordinary intelligence should have permitted himself to have committed. Remembering the unrest of the province, I should rather have concluded that their business was more like to be in that connection.
"He is bold, at least," cried one of the troopers, with a burst of laughter. Then came the sergeant's voice, cold and formal, "In the King's name, Monsieur de Lesperon, I arrest you."
He had whipped out his sword, and the point was within an inch of my breast. But his arm, I observed, was stretched to its fullest extent, which forbade his making a sudden thrust. To hamper him in the lunge there was the table between us.
So, my mind working quickly in this desperate situation, and realizing how dire and urgent the need to attempt an escape, I leapt suddenly back to find myself in the arms of his followers. But in moving I had caught up by one of its legs the stool on which I had been sitting. As I raised it, I eluded the pinioning grip of the troopers. I twisted in their grasp, and brought the stool down upon the head of one of them with a force that drove him to his knees. Up went that three-legged stool again, to descend like a thunderbolt upon the head of another. That freed me. The sergeant was coming up behind, but another flourish of my improvised battle-axe sent the two remaining soldiers apart to look to their swords. Ere they could draw, I had darted like a hare between them and out into the street. The sergeant, cursing them with horrid volubility, followed closely upon my heels.
Leaping as far into the roadway as I could, I turned to meet the fellow's onslaught. Using the stool as a buckler, I caught his thrust upon it. So violently was it delivered that the point buried itself in the wood and the blade snapped, leaving him a hilt and a stump of steel. I wasted no time in thought. Charging him wildly, I knocked him over just as the two unhurt dragoons came stumbling out of the tavern.
I gained my horse and vaulted into the saddle. Tearing the reins from the urchin that held them, and driving my spurs into the beast's flanks, I went careering down the street at a gallop, gripping tightly with my knees, whilst the stirrups, which I had had no time to step into, flew wildly about my legs.
A pistol cracked behind me; then another, and a sharp, stinging pain in the shoulder warned me that I was hit. But I took no heed of it then. The wound could not be serious, else I had already been out of the saddle, and it would be time enough to look to it when I had outdistanced my pursuers. I say my pursuers, for already there were hoofbeats behind me, and I knew that those gentlemen had taken to their horses. But, as you may recall, I had on their arrival noted the jaded condition of their cattle, whilst I bestrode a horse that was comparatively fresh, so that pursuit had but small terrors for me. Nevertheless, they held out longer, and gave me more to do than I had imagined would be the case. For nigh upon a half-hour I rode, before I could be said to have got clear of them, and then for aught I knew they were still following, resolved to hound me down by the aid of such information as they might cull upon their way.
I was come by then to the Garonne. I drew rein beside the swiftly flowing stream, winding itself like a flood of glittering silver between the black shadows of its banks. A little while I sat there listening, and surveying the stately, turreted chateau that loomed, a grey, noble pile, beyond the water. I speculated what demesne this might be, and I realized that it was probably Lavedan.
I pondered what I had best do, and in the end I took the resolve to swim the river and knock at the gates. If it were indeed Lavedan, I had but to announce myself, and to one of my name surely its hospitalities would be spread. If it were some other household, even then the name of Marcel de Bardelys should suffice to ensure me a welcome.
By spurring and coaxing, I lured my steed into the river. There is a proverb having it that though you may lead a horse to the water you cannot make him drink. It would have now applied to my case, for although I had brought mine to the water I could not make him swim; or, at least, I could not make him breast the rush of the stream. Vainly did I urge him and try to hold him; he plunged frantically, snorted, coughed, and struggled gamely, but the current was bearing us swiftly away, and his efforts brought us no nearer to the opposite shore. At last I slipped from his back, and set myself to swim beside him, leading him by the bridle. But even thus he proved unequal to the task of resisting the current, so that in the end I let him go, and swam ashore alone, hoping that he would land farther down, and that I might then recapture him. When, however, I had reached the opposite bank, and stood under the shadow of the chateau, I discovered that the cowardly beast had turned back, and, having scrambled out, was now trotting away along the path by which we had come. Having no mind to go after him, I resigned myself to the loss, and turned my attention to the mansion now before me.
Some two hundred yards from the river it raised its great square bulk against the background of black, star-flecked sky. From the facade before me down to the spot where I stood by the water, came a flight of half a dozen terraces, each balustraded in white marble, ending in square, flat-topped pillars of Florentine design. What moon there was revealed the quaint architecture of that stately edifice and glittered upon the mullioned windows. But within nothing stirred; no yellow glimmer came to clash with the white purity of the moonlight; no sound of man or beast broke the stillness of the night, for all that the hour was early. The air of the place was as that of some gigantic sepulchre. A little daunted by this all-enveloping stillness, I skirted the terraces and approached the house on the eastern side. Here I found an old-world drawbridge --now naturally in disuse - spanning a ditch fed from the main river for the erstwhile purposes of a moat. I crossed the bridge, and entered an imposing courtyard. Within this quadrangle the same silence dwelt, and there was the same obscurity in the windows that overlooked it. I paused, at a loss how to proceed, and I leaned against a buttress of the portcullis, what time I considered.
I was weak from fasting, worn with hard riding, and faint from the wound in my shoulder, which had been the cause at least of my losing some blood. In addition to all this, I was shivering with the cold of my wet garments, and generally I must have looked as little like that Bardelys they called the Magnificent as you might well conceive. How, then, if I were to knock, should I prevail in persuading these people - whoever they might be - of my identity? Infinitely more had I the air of some fugitive rebel, and it was more than probable that I should be kept in durance to be handed over to my friends the dragoons, if later they came to ride that way. I was separated from those who knew me, and as things now stood - unless this were, indeed, Lavedan - it might be days before they found me again.
I was beginning to deplore my folly at having cut myself adrift from my followers in the first place, and having embroiled myself with the soldiers in the second; I was beginning to contemplate the wisdom of seeking some outhouse of this mansion wherein to lie until morning, when of a sudden a broad shaft of light, coming from one of the windows on the first floor, fell athwart the courtyard. Instinctively I crouched back into the shadow of my friendly buttress, and looked up.
That sudden shaft of light resulted from the withdrawal of the curtains that masked a window. At this window, which opened outward on to a balcony; I now beheld - and to me it was as the vision of Beatrice may have been to Dante - the white figure of a woman. The moonlight bathed her, as in her white robe she leaned upon the parapet gazing upward into the empyrean. A sweet, delicate face I saw, not endowed, perhaps, with that exquisite balance and proportion of feature wherein they tell us beauty lies, but blessed with a wondrously dainty beauty all its own; a beauty, perhaps, as much of expression as of form; for in that gentle countenance was mirrored every tender grace of girlhood, all that is fresh and pure and virginal.
I held my breath, I think, as I stood in ravished contemplation of that white vision. If this were Lavedan, and that the cold Roxalanne who had sent my bold Chatellerault back to Paris empty-handed then were my task a very welcome one.
How little it had weighed with me that I was come to Languedoc to woo a woman bearing the name of Roxalanne de Lavedan I have already shown. But here in this same Languedoc I beheld to-night a woman whom it seemed I might have loved, for not in ten years - not, indeed, in all my life - had any face so wrought upon me and called to my nature with so strong a voice.
I gazed at that child, and I thought of the women that I had known --the bold, bedizened beauties of a Court said to be the first in Europe. And then it came to me that this was no demoiselle of Lavedan, no demoiselle at all in fact, for the noblesse of France owned no such faces. Candour and purity were not to be looked for in the high-bred countenances of our great families; they were sometimes found in the faces of the children of their retainers. Yes; I had it now. This child was the daughter of some custodian of the demesne before me.
Suddenly, as she stood there in the moonlight, a song, sung at half-voice, floated down on the calm air. It was a ditty of old Provence, a melody I knew and loved, and if aught had been wanting to heighten the enchantment that already ravished me, that soft melodious voice had done it. Singing still, she turned and reentered the room, leaving wide the windows, so that faintly, as from a distance, her voice still reached me after she was gone from sight.
It was in that hour that it came to me to cast myself upon this fair creature's mercy. Surely one so sweet and saintly to behold would take compassion on an unfortunate! Haply my wound and all the rest that I had that night endured made me dull-witted and warped my reason.
With what strength I still possessed I went to work to scale her balcony. The task was easy even for one in my spent condition. The wall was thick with ivy, and, moreover, a window beneath afforded some support, for by standing on the heavy coping I could with my fingers touch the sill of the balcony above. Thus I hoisted myself, and presently I threw an arm over the parapet. Already I was astride of that same Parapet before she became aware of my presence.
The song died suddenly on her lips, and her eyes, blue as forget-me-nots, were wide now with the fear that the sight of me occasioned. Another second and there had been an outcry that would have brought the house about our ears, when, stepping to the threshold of the room, "Mademoiselle," I entreated, "for the love of God, be silent! I mean you no harm. I am a fugitive. I am pursued."
This was no considered speech. There had been no preparing of words; I had uttered them mechanically almost - perhaps by inspiration, for they were surely the best calculated to enlist this lady's sympathy. And so far as went the words themselves, they were rigorously true.
With eyes wide open still, she confronted me, and I now observed that she was not so tall as from below I had imagined. She was, in fact, of a short stature rather, but of proportions so exquisite that she conveyed an impression of some height. In her hand she held a taper by whose light she had been surveying herself in her mirror at the moment of my advent. Her unbound hair of brown fell like a mantle about her shoulders, and this fact it was drew me to notice that she was in her night-rail, and that this room to which I had penetrated was her chamber."Who are you?" she asked breathlessly, as though in such a pass my identity were a thing that signified.
I had almost answered her, as I had answered the troopers at Mirepoix, that I was Lesperon. Then, bethinking me that there was no need for such equivocation here, I was on the point of giving her my name. But noting my hesitation, and misconstruing it, she forestalled me."I understand, monsieur," said she more composedly. "And you need have no fear. You are among friends."
Her eyes had travelled over my sodden clothes, the haggard pallor of my face, and the blood that stained my doublet from the shoulder downward. From all this she had drawn her conclusions that I was a hunted rebel. She drew me into the room, and, closing the window, she dragged the heavy curtain across it, thereby giving me a proof of confidence that smote me hard - impostor that I was.
"I crave your pardon, mademoiselle, for having startled you by the rude manner of my coming," said I, and never in my life had I felt less at ease than then. "But I was exhausted and desperate. I am wounded, I have ridden hard, and I swam the river."
The latter piece of information was vastly unnecessary, seeing that the water from my clothes was forming a pool about my feet. "I saw you from below; mademoiselle, and surely, I thought, so sweet a lady would have pity on an unfortunate." She observed that my eyes were upon her, and in an act of instinctive maidenliness she bore her hand to her throat to draw the draperies together and screen the beauties of her neck from my unwarranted glance, as though her daily gown did not reveal as much and more of them.
That act, however, served to arouse me to a sense of my position. What did I there? It was a profanity - a defiling, I swore; from which you'll see, that Bardelys was grown of a sudden very nice."Monsieur," she was saying, "you are exhausted."
"But that I rode hard," I laughed, "it is likely they had taken me to Toulouse, were I might have lost my head before my friends could have found and claimed me. I hope you'll see it is too comely a head to be so lightly parted with.""For that," said she, half seriously, half whimsically, "the ugliest head would be too comely."
I laughed softly, amusedly; then of a sudden, without warning, a faintness took me, and I was forced to brace myself against the wall, breathing heavily the while. At that she gave a little cry of alarm."Monsieur, I beseech you to be seated. I will summon my father, and we will find a bed for you. You must not retain those clothes."
"Angel of goodness!" I muttered gratefully, and being still half dazed, I brought some of my Court tricks into that chamber by taking her hand and carrying it towards my lips. But ere I had imprinted the intended kiss upon her fingers - and by some miracle they were not withdrawn - my eyes encountered hers again. I paused as one may pause who contemplates a sacrilege. For a moment she held my glance with hers; then I fell abashed, and released her hand.
The innocence peeping out of that child's eyes it was that had in that moment daunted me, and made me tremble to think of being found there, and of the vile thing it would be to have her name coupled with mine. That thought lent me strength. I cast my weariness from me as though it were a garment, and, straightening myself, I stepped of a sudden to the window. Without a word, I made shift to draw back the curtain when her hand, falling on my sodden sleeve, arrested me.
"What will you do, monsieur?" she cried in alarm. "You may be seen." My mind was now possessed by the thing I should have thought of before. I climbed to her balcony, and my one resolve was to get me thence as quickly as might be."I had not the right to enter here," I muttered. "I--" I stopped short; to explain would only be to sully, and so, "Good-night! Adieu!" I ended brusquely. "But, monsieur--" she began. "Let me go," I commanded almost roughly, as I shook my arm free of her grasp. "Bethink you that you are exhausted. If you go forth now, monsieur, you will assuredly be taken. You must not go." I laughed softly, and with some bitterness, too, for I was angry with myself. "Hush, child," I said. "Better so, if it is to be."
And with that I drew aside the curtains and pushed the leaves of the window apart. She remained standing in the room, watching me, her face pale, and hex eyes pained and puzzled.
One last glance I gave her as I bestrode the rail of her balcony. Then I lowered myself as I had ascended. I was hanging by my hands, seeking with my foot for the coping of the window beneath me, when, suddenly, there came a buzzing in my ears. I had a fleeting vision of a white figure leaning on the balcony above me; then a veil seemed drawn over my eyes; there came a sense of falling; a rush as of a tempestuous wind; then - nothing.
5. The Vicomte De Lavedan
When next I awakened, it was to find myself abed in an elegant apartment, spacious and sunlit, that was utterly strange to me. For some seconds I was content to lie and take no count of my whereabouts. My eyes travelled idly over the handsome furnishings of that choicely appointed chamber, and rested at last upon the lean, crooked figure of a man whose back was towards me and who was busy with some phials at a table not far distant. Then recollection awakened also in me, and I set my wits to work to grapple with my surroundings. I looked through the open window, but from my position on the bed no more was visible than the blue sky and a faint haze of distant hills.
I taxed my memory, and the events of yesternight recurred to me. I remembered the girl, the balcony, and my flight ending in my giddiness and my fall. Had they brought me into that same chateau, or - Or what? No other possibility came to suggest itself, and, seeing scant need to tax my brains with speculation, since there was one there of whom I might ask the question--
"Hola, my master!" I called to him, and as I did so I essayed to move. The act wrung a sharp cry of pain from me. My left shoulder was numb and sore, but in my right foot that sudden movement had roused a sharper pang.
At my cry that little wizened old man swung suddenly round. He had the face of a bird of prey, yellow as a louis d'or with a great hooked nose, and a pair of beady black eyes that observed me solemnly. The mouth alone was the redeeming feature in a countenance that had otherwise been evil; it was instinct with goodhumour. But I had small leisure to observe him then, for simultaneously with his turning there had been another movement at my bedside, which drew my eyes elsewhere. A gentleman, richly dressed, and of an imposing height, approached me."You are awake, monsieur?" he said in a half interrogative tone. "Will you do me the favour to tell me where I am, monsieur?" quoth I. "You do not know? You are at Lavedan. I am the Vicomte de Lavedan --at your service." Although it was no more than I might have expected, yet a dull wonder filled me, to which presently I gave expression by asking stupidly--
"At Lavedan? But how came I hither?" "How you came is more than I can tell," he laughed. "But I'll swear the King's dragoons were not far behind you. We found you in the courtyard last night; in a swoon of exhaustion, wounded in the shoulder, and with a sprained foot. It was my daughter who gave the alarm and called us to your assistance. You were lying under her widow." Then, seeing the growing wonder in my eyes and misconstruing it into alarm: "Nay, have no fear, monsieur," he cried. "You were very well advised in coming to us. You have fallen among friends. We are Orleanists too, - at Lavedan, for all that I was not in the fight at Castelnaudary. That was no fault of mine. His Grace's messenger reached me overlate, and for all that I set out with a company of my men, I put back when I had reached Lautrec upon hearing that already a decisive battle had been fought and that our side had suffered a crushing defeat." He uttered a weary sigh.
"God help us, monsieur! Monseigneur de Richelieu is likely to have his way with us. But let that be for the present. You are here, and you are safe. As yet no suspicion rests on Lavedan. I was, as I have said, too late for the fight, and so I came quietly back to save my skin, that I might serve the Cause in whatever other way might offer still. In sheltering you I am serving Gaston d'Orleans, and, that I may continue so to do, I pray that suspicion may continue to ignore me. If they were to learn of it at Toulouse or of how with money and in other ways I have helped this rebellion - I make no doubt that my head would be the forfeit I should be asked to pay."I was aghast at the freedom of treasonable speech with which this very debonnaire gentleman ventured to address an utter stranger. "But tell me, Monsieur de Lesperon," resumed my host, "how is it with you?" I started in fresh astonishment. "How - how do you know that I am Lesperon?" I asked.
"Ma foi!" he laughed, "do you imagine I had spoken so unreservedly to a man of whom I knew nothing? Think better of me, monsieur, I beseech you. I found these letters in your pocket last night, and their superscription gave me your identity. Your name is well known to me," he added. "My friend Monsieur de Marsac has often spoken of you and of your devotion to the Cause, and it affords me no little satisfaction to be of some service to one whom by repute I have already learned to esteem."
I lay back on my pillows, and I groaned. Here was a predicament! Mistaking me for that miserable rebel I had succoured at Mirepoix, and whose letters I bore upon me that I might restore them to some one whose name he had failed to give me at the last moment, the Vicomte de Lavedan had poured the damning story of his treason into my ears.
What if I were now to enlighten him? What if I were to tell him that I was not Lesperon - no rebel at all, in fact - but Marcel de Bardelys, the King's favourite? That he would account me a spy I hardly thought; but assuredly he would see that my life must be a danger to his own; he must fear betrayal from me; and to protect himself he would be justified in taking extreme measures. Rebels were not addicted to an excess of niceness in their methods, and it was more likely that I should rise no more from the luxurious bed on which his hospitality had laid me. But even if I had exaggerated matters, and the Vicomte were not quite so bloodthirsty as was usual with his order, even if he chose to accept my promise that I would forget what he had said, he must nevertheless - in view of his indiscretion - demand my instant withdrawal from Lavedan. And what, then, of my wager with Chatellerault?
Then, in thinking of my wager, I came to think of Roxalanne herself --that dainty, sweet-faced child into whose chamber I had penetrated on the previous night. And would you believe it that I - the satiated, cynical, unbelieving Bardelys - experienced dismay at the very thought of leaving Lavedan for no other reason than because it involved seeing no more of that provincial damsel?
My unwillingness to be driven from her presence determined me to stay. I had come to Lavedan as Lesperon, a fugitive rebel. In that character I had all but announced myself last night to Mademoiselle. In that character I had been welcomed by her father. In that character, then, I must remain, that I might be near her, that I might woo and win her, and thus - though this, I swear, had now become a minor consideration with me - make good my boast and win the wager that must otherwise involve my ruin.
As I lay back with closed eyes and gave myself over to pondering the situation, I took a pleasure oddly sweet in the prospect of urging my suit under such circumstances. Chatellerault had given me a free hand. I was to go about the wooing of Mademoiselle de Lavedan as I chose. But he had cast it at me in defiance that not with all my magnificence, not with all my retinue and all my state to dazzle her, should I succeed in melting the coldest heart in France.
And now, behold! I had cast from me all these outward embellishments; I came without pomp, denuded of every emblem of wealth, of every sign of power; as a poor fugitive gentleman, I came, hunted, proscribed, and penniless - for Lesperon's estate would assuredly suffer sequestration. To win her thus would, by my faith, be an exploit I might take pride in, a worthy achievement to encompass.
And so I left things as they were, and since I offered no denial to the identity that was thrust upon me, as Lesperon I continued to be known to the Vicomte and to his family.
Presently he called the old man to my bedside and I heard them talking of my condition.
And then, in confirmation of these words, followed a stamping and rattle of hoofs on the flags of the courtyard below. The old servant stood wringing his hands in helpless terror, and wailing, "Monsieur, monsieur!"
But the Vicomte crossed rapidly to the window and looked out. Then he laughed with intense relief; and in a wondering voice "They are not troopers," he announced. "They have more the air of a company of servants in private livery; and there is a carriage - pardieu, two carriages!"
At once the memory of Rodenard and my followers occurred to me, and I thanked Heaven that I was abed where he might not see me, and that thus he would probably be sent forth empty-handed with the news that his master was neither arrived nor expected.
But in that surmise I went too fast. Ganymede was of a tenacious mettle, and of this he now afforded proof. Upon learning that naught was known of the Marquis de Bardelys at Lavedan, my faithful henchman announced his intention to remain there and await me, since that was, he assured the Vicomte, my destination.
"My first impulse," said Lavedan, when later he came to tell me of it, "was incontinently to order his departure. But upon considering the matter and remembering how high in power and in the King's favour stands that monstrous libertine Bardelys, I deemed it wiser to afford shelter to this outrageous retinue. His steward - a flabby, insolent creature - says that Bardelys left them last night near Mirepoix, to ride hither, bidding them follow to-day. Curious that we should have no news of him! That he should have fallen into the Garonne and drowned himself were too great a good fortune to be hoped for."
The bitterness with which he spoke of me afforded me ample cause for congratulation that I had resolved to accept the role of Lesperon. Yet, remembering that my father and he had been good friends, his manner left me nonplussed. What cause could he have for this animosity to the son? Could it be merely my position at Court that made me seem in his rebel eyes a natural enemy?"You are acquainted with this Bardelys?" I inquired, by way of drawing him. "I knew his father," he answered gruffly. "An honest, upright gentleman." "And the son," I inquired timidly, "has he none of these virtues?"
"I know not what virtues he may have; his vices are known to all the world. He is a libertine, a gambler, a rake, a spendthrift. They say he is one of the King's favourites, and that his monstrous extravagances have earned for him the title of 'Magnificent'." He uttered a short laugh. "A fit servant for such a master as Louis the Just!"
"Monsieur le Vicomte," said I, warming in my own defence, "I swear you do him injustice. He is extravagant, but then he is rich; he is a libertine, but then he is young, and he has been reared among libertines; he is a gamester, but punctiliously honourable at play. Believe me, monsieur, I have some acquaintance with Marcel de Bardelys, and his vices are hardly so black as is generally believed; whilst in his favour I think the same may be said that you have just said of his father - he is an honest, upright gentleman.""And that disgraceful affair with the Duchesse de Bourgogne?" inquired Lavedan, with the air of a man setting an unanswerable question. "Mon Dieu!" I cried, "will the world never forget that indiscretion? An indiscretion of youth, no doubt much exaggerated outside Court circles." The Vicomte eyed me in some astonishment for a moment.
"Monsieur de Lesperon," he said at length, "you appear to hold this Bardelys in high esteem. He has a staunch supporter in you and a stout advocate. Yet me you cannot convince." And he shook his head solemnly. "Even if I did not hold him to be such a man as I have pronounced him, but were to account him a paragon of all the virtues, his coming hither remains an act that I must resent."
"But why, Monsieur le Vicomte?" "Because I know the errand that brings him to Lavedan. He comes to woo my daughter."Had he flung a bomb into my bed he could not more effectively have startled me.
"It astonishes you, eh?" he laughed bitterly. "But I can assure you that it is so. A month ago I was visited by the Comte de Chatellerault - another of His Majesty's fine favourites. He came unbidden; offered no reason for his coming, save that he was making a tour of the province for his amusement. His acquaintance with me was of the slightest, and I had no desire that it should increase; yet here he installed himself with a couple of servants, and bade fair to take a long stay.
"I was surprised, but on the morrow I had an explanation. A courier, arriving from an old friend of mine at Court, bore me a letter with the information that Monsieur de Chatellerault was come to Lavedan at the King's instigation to sue for my daughter's hand in marriage. The reasons were not far to seek. The King, who loves him, would enrich him; the easiest way is by a wealthy alliance, and Roxalanne is accounted an heiress. In addition to that, my own power in the province is known, whilst my defection from the Cardinalist party is feared. What better link wherewith to attach me again to the fortunes of the Crown - for Crown and Mitre have grown to be synonymous in this topsy-turvy France - than to wed my daughter to one of the King's favourites?
"But for that timely warning, God knows what mischief had been wrought. As it was, Monsieur de Chatellerault had but seen my daughter upon two occasions. On the very day that I received the tidings I speak of, I sent her to Auch to the care of some relatives of her mother's. Chatellerault remained a week. Then, growing restive, he asked when my daughter would return. 'When you depart, monsieur,' I answered him, and, being pressed for reasons, I dealt so frankly with him that within twenty-four hours he was on his way back to Paris."The Vicomte paused and took a turn in the apartment, whilst I pondered his words, which were bringing me a curious revelation. Presently he resumed.
"And now, Chatellerault having failed in his purpose, the King chooses a more dangerous person for the gratifying of his desires. He sends the Marquis, Marcel de Bardelys to Lavedan on the same business. No doubt he attributes Chatellerault's failure to clumsiness, and he has decided this time to choose a man famed for courtly address and gifted with such arts of dalliance that he cannot fail but enmesh my daughter in them. It is a great compliment that he pays us in sending hither the handsomest and most accomplished gentleman of all his Court - so fame has it - yet it is a compliment of whose flattery I am not sensible. Bardelys goes hence as empty-handed as went Chatellerault. Let him but show his face, and my daughter journeys to Auch again. Am I not well advised, Monsieur de Lesperon?"
"Why, yes," I answered slowly, after the manner of one who deliberates, "if you are persuaded that your conclusions touching Bardelys are correct."
It was a question that I did not attempt to answer. Haply he did not expect me to answer it. He left me free to ponder another issue of this same business of which my mind was become very full. Chatellerault had not dealt fairly with me. Often, since I had left Paris, had I marvelled that he came to be so rash as to risk his fortune upon a matter that turned upon a woman's whim. That I possessed undeniable advantages of person, of birth, and of wealth, Chatellerault could not have disregarded. Yet these, and the possibility that they might suffice to engage this lady's affections, he appeared to have set at naught when he plunged into that rash wager.
He must have realized that because he had failed was no reason to presume that I must also fail. There was no consequence in such an argument, and often, as I have said, had I marvelled during the past days at the readiness with which Chatellerault had flung down the gage. Now I held the explanation of it. He counted upon the Vicomte de Lavedan to reason precisely as he was reasoning, and he was confident that no opportunities would be afforded me of so much as seeing this beautiful and cold Roxalanne.It was a wily trap he had set me, worthy only of a trickster.
Fate, however, had taken a hand in the game, and the cards were redealt since I had left Paris. The germs of the wager permitted me to choose any line of action that I considered desirable; but Destiny, it seemed, had chosen for me, and set me in a line that should at least suffice to overcome the parental resistance - that breastwork upon which Chatellerault had so confidently depended.
As the rebel Rene de Lesperon I was sheltered at Lavedan and made welcome by my fellow-rebel the Vicomte, who already seemed much taken with me, and who had esteemed me before seeing me from the much that Monsieur de Marsac - whoever he might be - had told him of me. As Rene de Lesperon I must remain, and turn to best account my sojourn, praying God meanwhile that this same Monsieur de Marsac might be pleased to refrain from visiting Lavedan whilst I was there.
6. In Convalescence
Of the week that followed my coming to Lavedan I find some difficulty in writing. It was for me a time very crowded with events - events that appeared to be moulding my character anew and making of me a person different, indeed, from that Marcel de Bardelys whom in Paris they called the Magnificent. Yet these events, although significant in their total, were of so vague and slight a nature in their detail, that when I come to write of them I find really little that I may set down.
Rodenard and his companions remained for two days at the chateau, and to me his sojourn there was a source of perpetual anxiety, for I knew not how far the fool might see fit to prolong it. It was well for me that this anxiety of mine was shared by Monsieur de Lavedan, who disliked at such a time the presence of men attached to one who was so notoriously of the King's party. He came at last to consult me as to what measures might be taken to remove them, and I - nothing loath to conspire with him to so desirable end - bade him suggest to Rodenard that perhaps evil had befallen Monsieur de Bardelys, and that, instead of wasting his time at Lavedan, he were better advised to be searching the province for his master.
This counsel the Vicomte adopted, and with such excellent results that that very day - within the hour, in fact - Ganymede, aroused to a sense of his proper duty, set out in quest of me, not a little disturbed in mind - for with all his shortcomings the rascal loved me very faithfully.
That was on the third day of my sojourn at Lavedan. On the morrow I rose, my foot being sufficiently recovered to permit it. I felt a little weak from loss of blood, but Anatole - who, for all his evil countenance, was a kindly and gentle - servant was confident that a few days - a week at most - would see me completely restored.
Of leaving Lavedan I said nothing. But the Vicomte, who was one of the most generous and noble hearted men that it has ever been my good fortune to meet, forestalled any mention of my departure by urging that I should remain at the chateau until my recovery were completed, and, for that matter, as long thereafter as should suit my inclinations.
"At Lavedan you will be safe, my friend," he assured me; "for, as I have told you, we are under no suspicion. Let me urge you to remain until the King shall have desisted from further persecuting us."
And when I protested and spoke of trespassing, he waived the point with a brusqueness that amounted almost to anger.
"Believe, monsieur, that I am pleased and honoured at serving one who has so stoutly served the Cause and sacrificed so much to it."
At that, being not altogether dead to shame, I winced, and told myself that my behaviour was unworthy, and that I was practising a detestable deception. Yet some indulgence I may justly claim in consideration of how far I was victim of circumstance. Did I tell him that I was Bardelys, I was convinced that I should never leave the chateau alive. Very noble-hearted was the Vicomte, and no man have I known more averse to bloodthirstiness, but he had told me much during the days that I had lain abed, and many lives would be jeopardized did I proclaim what I had learned from him. Hence I argued that any disclosure of my identity must perforce drive him to extreme measures for the sake of the friends he had unwittingly betrayed.
On the day after Rodenard's departure I dined with the family, and met again Mademoiselle de Lavedan, whom I had not seen since the balcony adventure of some nights ago. The Vicomtesse was also present, a lady of very austere and noble appearance - lean as a pike and with a most formidable nose - but, as I was soon to discover, with a mind inclining overmuch to scandal and the highseasoned talk of the Courts in which her girlhood had been spent.
From her lips I heard that day the old, scandalous story of Monseigneur de Richelieu's early passion for Anne of Austria. With much unction did she tell us how the Queen had lured His Eminence to dress himself in the motley of a jester that she might make a mock of him in the eyes of the courtiers she had concealed behind the arras of her chamber.
This anecdote she gave us with much wealth of discreditable detail and scant regard for either her daughter's presence or for the blushes that suffused the poor child's cheeks. In every way she was a pattern of the class of women amongst whom my youth had been spent, a class which had done so much towards shattering my faith and lowering my estimate of her sex. Lavedan had married her and brought her into Languedoc, and here she spent her years lamenting the scenes of her youth, and prone, it would seem, to make them matter for conversation whenever a newcomer chanced to present himself at the chateau.
Looking from her to her daughter, I thanked Heaven that Roxalanne was no reproduction of the mother. She had inherited as little of her character as of her appearance. Both in feature and in soul Mademoiselle de Lavedan was a copy of that noble, gallant gentleman, her father.
One other was present at that meal, of whom I shall have more to say hereafter. This was a young man of good presence, save, perhaps, a too obtrusive foppishness, whom Monsieur de Lavedan presented to me as a distant kinsman of theirs, one Chevalier de Saint-Eustache. He was very tall - of fully my own height - and of an excellent shape, although extremely young. But his head if anything was too small for his body, and his good-natured mouth was of a weakness that was confirmed by the significance of his chin, whilst his eyes were too closely set to augur frankness.
He was a pleasant fellow, seemingly of that negative pleasantness that lies in inoffensiveness, but otherwise dull and of an untutored mind - rustic, as might be expected in one the greater part of whose life had been spent in his native province, and of a rusticity rendered all the more flagrant by the very efforts he exerted to dissemble it.
It was after madame had related that unsavoury anecdote touching the Cardinal that he turned to ask me whether I was well acquainted with the Court. I was near to committing the egregious blunder of laughing in his face, but, recollecting myself betimes, I answered vaguely that I had some knowledge of it, whereupon he all but caused me to bound from my chair by asking me had I ever met the Magnificent Bardelys."I - I am acquainted with him," I answered warily. "Why do you ask?" "I was reminded of him by the fact that his servants have been here for two days. You were expecting the Marquis himself, were you not, Monsieur le Vicomte?" Lavedan raised his head suddenly, after the manner of a man who has received an affront.
"I was not, Chevalier," he answered, with emphasis. "His intendant, an insolent knave of the name of Rodenard, informed me that this Bardelys projected visiting me. He has not come, and I devoutly hope that he may not come. Trouble enough had I to rid myself of his servants, and but for Monsieur de Lesperon's well-conceived suggestion they might still be here.""You have never met him, monsieur?" inquired the Chevalier. "Never," replied our host in such a way that any but a fool must have understood that he desired nothing less than such a meeting. "A delightful fellow," murmured Saint-Eustache - "a brilliant, dazzling personality." "You - you are acquainted with him?" I asked. "Acquainted?" echoed that boastful liar. "We were as brothers."
"How you interest me! And why have you never told us?" quoth madame, her eyes turned enviously upon the young man - as enviously as were Lavedan's turned in disgust. "It is a thousand pities that Monsieur de Bardelys has altered his plans and is no longer coming to us. To meet such a man is to breathe again the air of the grand monde. You remember, Monsieur de Lesperon, that affair with the Duchess de Bourgogne?" And she smiled wickedly in my direction.
"I have some recollection of it," I answered coldly. "But I think that rumour exaggerates. When tongues wag, a little rivulet is often described as a mountain torrent."
"You would not say so did you but know what I know," she informed me roguishly. "Often, I confess, rumour may swell the importance of such an affaire, but in this case I do not think that rumour does it justice."
I made a deprecatory gesture, and I would have had the subject changed, but ere I could make an effort to that end, the fool Saint-Eustache was babbling again."You remember the duel that was fought in consequence, Monsieur de Lesperon?" "Yes," I assented wearily. "And in which a poor young fellow lost his life," growled the Vicomte. "It was practically a murder."
"Nay, monsieur," I cried, with a sudden heat that set them staring at me; "there you do him wrong. Monsieur de Bardelys was opposed to the best blade in France. The man's reputation as a swordsman was of such a quality that for a twelvemonth he had been living upon it, doing all manner of unseemly things immune from punishment by the fear in which he was universally held. His behaviour in the unfortunate affair we are discussing was of a particularly shameful character. Oh, I know the details, messieurs, I can sure you. He thought to impose his reputation upon Bardelys as he had imposed it upon a hundred others, but Bardelys was over-tough for his teeth. He sent that notorious young gentleman a challenge, and on the following morning he left him dead in the horsemarket behind the Hotel Vendome. But far from a murder, monsieur, it was an act of justice, and the most richly earned punishment with which ever man was visited.""Even if so," cried the Vicomte in some surprise, "why all this heat to defend a brawler?"
"A brawler?" I repeated after him. "Oh, no. That is a charge his worst enemies cannot make against Bardelys. He is no brawler. The duel in question was his first affair of the kind, and it has been his last, for unto him has clung the reputation that had belonged until then to La Vertoile, and there is none in France bold enough to send a challenge to him." And, seeing what surprise I was provoking, I thought it well to involve another with me in his defence. So, turning to the Chevalier, "I am sure," said I, "that Monsieur de Saint-Eustache will confirm my words."Thereupon, his vanity being all aroused, the Chevalier set himself to paraphrase all that I had said with a heat that cast mine into a miserable insignificance.
"At least," laughed the Vicomte at length, "he lacks not for champions. For my own part, I am content to pray Heaven that he come not to Lavedan, as he intended.""Mais voyons, Gaston," the Vicomtesse protested, "why harbour prejudice? Wait at least until you have seen him, that you may judge him for yourself." "Already have I judged him; I pray that I may never see him."
"They tell me he is a very handsome man," said she, appealing to me for confirmation. Lavedan shot her a sudden glance of alarm, at which I could have laughed. Hitherto his sole concern had been his daughter, but it suddenly occurred to him that perhaps not even her years might set the Vicomtesse in safety from imprudences with this devourer of hearts, should he still chance to come that way."Madame," I answered, "he is accounted not ill-favored." And with a deprecatory smile I added, "I am said somewhat to resemble him."
"Say you so?" she exclaimed, raising her eyebrows, and looking at me more closely than hitherto. And then it seemed to me that into her face crept a shade of disappointment. If this Bardelys were not more beautiful than I, then he was not nearly so beautiful a man as she had imagined. She turned to SaintEustache."It is indeed so, Chevalier?" she inquired. "Do you note the resemblance?"
"Vanitas, vanitate," murmured the youth, who had some scraps of Latin and a taste for airing them. "I can see no likeness - no trace of one. Monsieur de Lesperon is well enough, I should say. But Bardelys!" He cast his eyes to the ceiling. "There is but one Bardelys in France."
"Enfin," I laughed," you are no doubt well qualified to judge, Chevalier. I had flattered myself that some likeness did exist, but probably you have seen the Marquis more frequently than have I, and probably you know him better. Nevertheless, should he come his way, I will ask you to look at us side by side and be the judge of the resemblance."
"Should I happen to be here," he said, with a sudden constraint not difficult to understand, "I shall be happy to act as arbiter."
"Should you happen to be here?" I echoed questioningly. "But surely, should you hear that Monsieur de Bardelys is about to arrive, you will postpone any departure you may be on the point of making, so that you may renew this great friendship that you tell us you do the Marquis the honour of entertaining for him?"
The Chevalier eyed me with the air of a man looking down from a great height upon another. The Vicomte smiled quietly to himself as he combed his fair beard with his forefinger in a meditative fashion, whilst even Roxalanne - who had sat silently listening to a conversation that she was at times mercifully spared from following too minutely - flashed me a humorous glance. To the Vicomtesse alone who in common with women of her type was of a singular obtuseness - was the situation without significance.
Saint-Eustache, to defend himself against my delicate imputation, and to show how well acquainted he was with Bardelys, plunged at once into a thousand details of that gentleman's magnificence. He described his suppers, his retinue, his equipages, his houses, his chateaux, his favour with the King, his successes with the fair sex, and I know not what besides - in all of which I confess that even to me there was a certain degree of novelty. Roxalanne listened with an air of amusement that showed how well she read him. Later, when I found myself alone with her by the river, whither we had gone after the repast and the Chevalier's reminiscences were at an end, she reverted to that conversation."Is not my cousin a great fanfarron, monsieur," she asked. "Surely you know your cousin better than I," I answered cautiously. "Why question me upon his character?"
"I was hardly questioning; I was commenting. He spent a fortnight in Paris once, and he accounts himself, or would have us account him, intimate with every courtier at the Luxembourg. Oh, he is very amusing, this good cousin, but tiresome too." She laughed, and there was the faintest note of scorn in her amusement. "Now, touching this Marquis de Bardelys, it is very plain that the Chevalier boasted when he said that they were as brothers - he and the Marquis
- is it not? He grew ill at ease when you reminded him of the possibility of the Marquis's visit to Lavedan." And she laughed quaintly to herself. "Do you think that he so much as knows Bardelys?" she asked me suddenly.
"Not so much as by sight," I answered. "He is full of information concerning that unworthy gentleman, but it is only information that the meanest scullion in Paris might afford you, and just as inaccurate."
"Why do you speak of him as unworthy? Are you of the same opinion as my father?"
"Know him? Pardieu, he is my worst enemy. A worn-out libertine; a sneering, cynical misogynist; a nauseated reveller; a hateful egotist. There is no more unworthy person, I'll swear, in all France. Peste! The very memory of the fellow makes me sick. Let us talk of other things."
But although I urged it with the best will and the best intentions in the world, I was not to have my way. The air became suddenly heavy with the scent of musk, and the Chevalier de Saint-Eustache stood before us, and forced the conversation once more upon the odious topic of Monsieur de Bardelys.
The poor fool came with a plan of campaign carefully considered, bent now upon overthrowing me with the knowledge he would exhibit, and whereby he looked to encompass my humiliation before his cousin."Speaking of Bardelys, Monsieur de Lesperon--" "My dear Chevalier, we were no longer speaking of him." He smiled darkly. "Let us speak of him, then." "But are there not a thousand more interesting things that we might speak of?" This he took for a fresh sign of fear, and so he pressed what he accounted his advantage. "Yet have patience; there is a point on which perhaps you can give me some information." "Impossible," said I. "Are you acquainted with the Duchesse de Bourgogne?" "I was," I answered casually, and as casually I added, "Are you?" "Excellently well," he replied unhesitatingly. "I was in Paris at the time of the scandal with Bardelys." I looked up quickly. "Was it then that you met her?" I inquired in an idle sort of way.
"Yes. I was in the confidence of Bardelys, and one night after we had supped at his hotel - one of those suppers graced by every wit in Paris - he asked me if I were minded to accompany him to the Louvre. We went. A masque was in progress.""Ah," said I, after the manner of one who suddenly takes in the entire situation; "and it was at this masque that you met the Duchesse?"
"You have guessed it. Ah, monsieur, if I were to tell you of the things that I witnessed that night, they would amaze you," said he, with a great air and a casual glance at Mademoiselle to see into what depth of wonder these glimpses into his wicked past were plunging her.
"I doubt it not," said I, thinking that if his imagination were as fertile in that connection as it had been in mine he was likely, indeed, to have some amazing things to tell. "But do I understand you to say that that was the time of the scandal you have touched upon?""The scandal burst three days after that masque. It came as a surprise to most people. As for me - from what Bardelys had told me - I expected nothing less." "Pardon, Chevalier, but how old do you happen to be?" "A curious question that," said he, knitting his brows. "Perhaps. But will you not answer it?" "I am twenty-one," said he. "What of it?" "You are twenty, mon cousin," Roxalanne corrected him. He looked at her a second with an injured air. "Why, true - twenty! That is so," he acquiesced; and again, "what of it?" he demanded. "What of it, monsieur?" I echoed. "Will you forgive me if I express amazement at your precocity, and congratulate you upon it?" His brows went if possible closer together and his face grew very red. He knew that somewhere a pitfall awaited him, yet hardly where.
"I do not understand you." "Bethink you, Chevalier. Ten years have flown since this scandal you refer to. So that at the time of your supping with Bardelys and the wits of Paris, at the time of his making a confidant of you and carrying you off to a masque at the Louvre, at the time of his presenting you to the Duchesse de Bourgogne, you were just ten years of age. I never had cause to think over-well of Bardelys, but had you not told me yourself, I should have hesitated to believe him so vile a despoiler of innocence, such a perverter of youth."He crimsoned to the very roots of his hair. Roxalanne broke into a laugh. "My cousin, my cousin," she cried, "they that would become masters should begin early, is it not so?"
"Monsieur de Lesperon," said he, in a very formal voice, "do you wish me to apprehend that you have put me through this catechism for the purpose of casting a doubt upon what I have said?""But have I done that? Have I cast a doubt?" I asked, with the utmost meekness. "So I apprehend."
"Then you apprehend amiss. Your words, I assure you, admit of no doubt whatever. And now, monsieur, if you will have mercy upon me, we will talk of other things. I am so weary of this unfortunate Bardelys and his affairs. He may be the fashion of Paris and at Court, but down here his very name befouls the air. Mademoiselle," I said, turning to Roxalanne, "you promised me a lesson in the lore of flowers.""Come, then," said she, and, being an exceedingly wise child, she plunged straightway into the history of the shrubs about us.
Thus did we avert a storm that for a moment was very imminent. Yet some mischief was done, and some good, too, perhaps. For if I made an enemy of the Chevalier de Saint-Eustache by humbling him in the eyes of the one woman before whom he sought to shine, I established a bond 'twixt Roxalanne and myself by that same humiliation of a foolish coxcomb, whose boastfulness had long wearied her.
7. The Hostility Of Saint-Eustache
In the days that followed I saw much of the Chevalier de Saint-Eustache. He was a very constant visitor at Lavedan, and the reason of it was not far to seek. For my own part, I disliked him - I had done so from the moment when first I had set eyes on him - and since hatred, like affection, is often a matter of reciprocity, the Chevalier was not slow to return my dislike. Our manner gradually, by almost imperceptible stages, grew more distant, until by the end of a week it had become so hostile that Lavedan found occasion to comment upon it.
"Beware of Saint-Eustache," he warned me. "You are becoming very manifestly distasteful to each other, and I would urge you to have a care. I don't trust him. His attachment to our Cause is of a lukewarm character, and he gives me uneasiness, for he may do much harm if he is so inclined. It is on this account that I tolerate his presence at Lavedan. Frankly, I fear him, and I would counsel you to do no less. The man is a liar, even if but a boastful liar and liars are never long out of mischief."
The wisdom of the words was unquestionable, but the advice in them was not easily followed, particularly by one whose position was so peculiar as my own. In a way I had little cause to fear the harm the Chevalier might do me, but I was impelled to consider the harm that at the same time he might do the Vicomte.
Despite our growing enmity, the Chevalier and I were very frequently thrown together. The reason for this was, of course, that wherever Roxalanne was to be found there, generally, were we both to be found also. Yet had I advantages that must have gone to swell a rancour based as much upon jealousy as any other sentiment, for whilst he was but a daily visitor at Lavedan, I was established there indefinitely.
Of the use that I made of that time I find it difficult to speak. From the first moment that I had beheld Roxalanne I had realized the truth of Chatellerault's assertion that I had never known a woman. He was right. Those that I had met and by whom I had judged the sex had, by contrast with this child, little claim to the title. Virtue I had accounted a shadow without substance; innocence, a synonym for ignorance; love, a fable, a fairy tale for the delectation of overgrown children.
In the company of Roxalanne de Lavedan all those old, cynical beliefs, built up upon a youth of undesirable experiences, were shattered and the error of them exposed. Swiftly was I becoming a convert to the faith which so long I had sneered at, and as lovesick as any unfledged youth in his first amour. Damn! It was something for a man who had lived as I had lived to have his pulses quicken and his colour change at a maid's approach; to find himself colouring under her smile and paling under her disdain; to have his mind running on rhymes, and his soul so enslaved that, if she is not to be won, chagrin will dislodge it from his body.
Here was a fine mood for a man who had entered upon his business by pledging himself to win and wed this girl in cold and supreme indifference to her personality. And that pledge, how I cursed it during those days at Lavedan! How I cursed Chatellerault, cunning, subtle trickster that he was! How I cursed myself for my lack of chivalry and honour in having been lured so easily into so damnable a business! For when the memory of that wager rose before me it brought despair in its train. Had I found Roxalanne the sort of woman that I had looked to find - the only sort that I had ever known - then matters had been easy. I had set myself in cold blood, and by such wiles as I knew, to win such affection as might be hers to bestow; and I would have married her in much the same spirit as a man performs any other of the necessary acts of his lifetime and station. I would have told her that I was Bardelys, and to the woman that I had expected to find there had been no difficulty in making the confession. But to Roxalanne! Had there been no wager, I might have confessed my identity. As it was, I found it impossible to avow the one without the other. For the sweet innocence that invested her gentle, trusting soul must have given pause to any but the most abandoned of men before committing a vileness in connection with her.
We were much together during that week, and just as day by day, hour by hour, my passion grew and grew until it absorbed me utterly, so, too, did it seem to me that it awakened in her a responsive note. There was an odd light at times in her soft eyes; I came upon her more than once with snatches of love-songs on her lips, and when she smiled upon me there was a sweet tenderness in her smile, which, had things been different, would have gladdened my soul beyond all else; but which, things being as they were, was rather wont to heighten my despair. I was no coxcomb; I had had experiences, and I knew these signs. But something, too, I guessed of the heart of such a one as Roxalanne. To the full I realized the pain and shame I should inflict upon her when my confession came; I realized, too, how the love of this dear child, so honourable and high of mind, must turn to contempt and scorn when I plucked away my mask, and let her see how poor a countenance I wore beneath.
And yet I drifted with the tide of things. It was my habit so to drift, and the habit of a lifetime is not to be set at naught in a day by a resolve, however firm. A score of times was I reminded that an evil is but increased by being ignored. A score of times confession trembled on my lips, and I burned to tell her everything from its inception - the environment that had erstwhile warped me, the honesty by which I was now inspired - and so cast myself upon the mercy of her belief. She might accept my story, and, attaching credit to it, forgive me the deception I had practised, and recognize the great truth that must ring out in the avowal of my love. But, on the other hand, she might not accept it; she might deem my confession a shrewd part of my scheme, and the dread of that kept me silent day by day.
Fully did I see how with every hour that sped confession became more and more difficult. The sooner the thing were done, the greater the likelihood of my being believed; the later I left it, the more probable was it that I should be discredited. Alas! Bardelys, it seemed, had added cowardice to his other short-comings.
As for the coldness of Roxalanne, that was a pretty fable of Chatellerault's; or else no more than an assumption, an invention of the imaginative La Fosse. Far, indeed, from it, I found no arrogance or coldness in her. All unversed in the artifices of her sex, all unacquainted with the wiles of coquetry, she was the very incarnation of naturalness and maidenly simplicity. To the tales that - with many expurgations - I told her of Court life, to the pictures that I drew of Paris, the Luxembourg, the Louvre, the Palais Cardinal, and the courtiers that thronged those historic palaces, she listened avidly and enthralled; and much as Othello won the heart of Desdemona by a recital of the perils he had endured, so it seemed to me was I winning the heart of Roxalanne by telling her of the things that I had seen.
Once or twice she expressed wonder at the depth and intimacy of the knowledge of such matters exhibited by a simple Gascon gentleman, whereupon I would urge, in explanation, the appointment in the Guards that Lesperon had held some few years ago, a position that will reveal much to an observant man.
The Vicomte noted our growing intimacy, yet set no restraint upon it. Down in his heart I believe that noble gentleman would have been well pleased had matters gone to extremes between us, for however impoverished he might deem me; Lesperon's estates in Gascony being, as I have said, likely to suffer sequestration in view of his treason --he remembered the causes of this and the deep devotion of the man I impersonated to the affairs of Gaston d'Orleans.
Again, he feared the very obvious courtship of the Chevalier de Saint-Eustache, and he would have welcomed a turn of events that would effectually have frustrated it. That he did not himself interfere so far as the Chevalier's wooing was concerned, I could but set down to the mistrust of Saint-Eustache - amounting almost to fear - of which he had spoken.As for the Vicomtesse, the same causes that had won me some of the daughter's regard gained me also no little of the mother's.
She had been attached to the Chevalier until my coming. But what did the Chevalier know of the great world compared with what I could tell? Her love of scandal drew her to me with inquiries upon this person and that person, many of them but names to her.
My knowledge and wealth of detail - for all that I curbed it lest I should seem to know too much - delighted her prurient soul. Had she been more motherly, this same knowledge that I exhibited should have made her ponder what manner of life I had led, and should have inspired her to account me no fit companion for her daughter. But a selfish woman, little inclined to be plagued by the concerns of another - even when that other was her daughter - she left things to the destructive course that they were shaping.
And so everything - if we except perhaps the Chevalier de Saint-Eustache - conspired to the advancement of my suit, in a manner that must have made Chatellerault grind his teeth in rage if he could have witnessed it, but which made me grind mine in despair when I pondered the situation in detail.
One evening - I had been ten days at the chateau - we went a half-league or so up the Garonne in a boat, she and I. As we were returning, drifting with the stream, the oars idle in my hand, I spoke of leaving Lavedan.
She looked up quickly; her expression was almost of alarm, and her eyes dilated as they met mine - for, as I have said, she was all unversed in the ways of her sex, and by nature too guileless to attempt to disguise her feelings or dissemble them.
"But why must you go so soon?" she asked. "You are safe at Lavedan, and abroad you may be in danger. It was but two days ago that they took a poor young gentleman of these parts at Pau; so that you see the persecution is not yet ended. Are you" - and her voice trembled ever so slightly - "are you weary of us, monsieur?"I shook my head at that, and smiled wistfully. "Weary?" I echoed. "Surely, mademoiselle, you do not think it? Surely your heart must tell you something very different?"
She dropped her eyes before the passion of my gaze. And when presently she answered me, there was no guile in her words; there were the dictates of the intuitions of her sex, and nothing more."But it is possible, monsieur. You are accustomed to the great world--"
"The great world of Lesperon, in Gascony?" I interrupted. "No, no; the great world you have inhabited at Paris and elsewhere. I can understand that at Lavedan you should find little of interest, and - and that your inactivity should render you impatient to be gone."
"If there were so little to interest me then it might be as you say. But, oh, mademoiselle--" I ceased abruptly. Fool! I had almost fallen a prey to the seductions that the time afforded me. The balmy, languorous eventide, the broad, smooth river down which we glided, the foliage, the shadows on the water, her presence, and our isolation amid such surroundings, had almost blotted out the matter of the wager and of my duplicity.
She laughed a little nervous laugh, and - maybe to ease the tension that my sudden silence had begotten - "You see," she said, "how your imagination deserts you when you seek to draw upon it for proof of what you protest. You were about to tell me of - of the interests that hold you at Lavedan, and when you come to ponder them, you find that you can think of nothing. Is it - is it not so?" She put the question very timidly, as if half afraid of the answer she might provoke."No; it is not so," I said.
I paused a moment, and in that moment I wrestled with myself. Confession and avowal - confession of what I had undertaken, and avowal of the love that had so unexpectedly come to me - trembled upon my lips, to be driven shuddering away in fear.
Have I not said that this Bardelys was become a coward? Then my cowardice suggested a course to me - flight. I would leave Lavedan. I would return to Paris and to Chatellerault, owning defeat and paying my wager. It was the only course open to me. My honour, so tardily aroused, demanded no less. Yet, not so much because of that as because it was suddenly revealed to me as the easier course, did I determine to pursue it. What thereafter might become of me I did not know, nor in that hour of my heart's agony did it seem to matter overmuch."There is much, mademoiselle, much, indeed, to hold me firmly at Lavedan," I pursued at last. "But my - my obligations demand of me that I depart."
"You mean the Cause," she cried. "But, believe me, you can do nothing. To sacrifice yourself cannot profit it. Infinitely better you can serve the Duke by waiting until the time is ripe for another blow. And how can you better preserve your life than by remaining at Lavedan until the persecutions are at an end?""I was not thinking of the Cause, mademoiselle, but of myself alone --of my own personal honour. I would that I could explain; but I am afraid," I ended lamely. "Afraid?" she echoed, now raising her eyes in wonder. "Aye, afraid. Afraid of your contempt, of your scorn." The wonder in her glance increased and asked a question that I could not answer. I stretched forward, and caught one of the hands lying idle in her lap.
"Roxalanne," I murmured very gently, and my tone, my touch, and the use of her name drove her eyes for refuge behind their lids again. A flush spread upon the ivory pallor of her face, to fade as swiftly, leaving it very white. Her bosom rose and fell in agitation, and the little hand I held trembled in my grasp. There was a moment's silence. Not that I had need to think or choose my words. But there was a lump in my throat - aye, I take no shame in confessing it, for this was the first time that a good and true emotion had been vouchsafed me since the Duchesse de Bourgogne had shattered my illusions ten years ago.
"Roxalanne," I resumed presently, when I was more master of myself, "we have been good friends, you and I, since that night when I climbed for shelter to your chamber, have we not?""But yes, monsieur," she faltered.
"Ten days ago it is. Think of it - no more than ten days. And it seems as if I had been months at Lavedan, so well have we become acquainted. In these ten days we have formed opinions of each other. But with this difference, that whilst mine are right, yours are wrong. I have come to know you for the sweetest, gentlest saint in all this world. Would to God I had known you earlier! It might have been very different; I might have been - I would have been - different, and I would not have done what I have done. You have come to know me for an unfortunate but honest gentleman. Such am I not. I am under false colours here, mademoiselle. Unfortunate I may be - at least, of late I seem to have become so. Honest I am not - I have not been. There, child, I can tell you no more. I am too great a coward. But when later you shall come to hear the truth - when, after I am gone, they may tell you a strange story touching this fellow Lesperon who sought the hospitality of your father's house - bethink you of my restraint in this hour; bethink you of my departure. You will understand these things perhaps afterwards. But bethink you of them, and you will unriddle them for yourself, perhaps. Be merciful upon me then; judge me not over-harshly."I paused, and for a moment we were silent. Then suddenly she looked up; her fingers tightened upon mine. "Monsieur de Lesperon," she pleaded, "of what do speak? You are torturing me, monsieur."
"Look in my face, Roxalanne. Can you see nothing there of how I am torturing myself?"
"Then tell me, monsieur," she begged, her voice a very caress of suppliant softness, - "tell me what vexes you and sets a curb upon your tongue. You exaggerate, I am assured. You could do nothing dishonourable, nothing vile."
"Don't ask me," I besought her; "you will learn it soon enough." For I was confident that once my wager was paid, the news of it and of the ruin of Bardelys would spread across the face of France like a ripple over water. Presently--
"Forgive me for having come into your life, Roxalanne!" I implored her, and then I sighed again. "Helas! Had I but known you earlier! I did not dream such women lived in this worn-out France."
"I will not pry, monsieur, since your resolve appears to be so firm. But if - if after I have heard this thing you speak of," she said presently, speaking with averted eyes, "and if, having heard it, I judge you more mercifully than you judge yourself, and I send for you, will you - will you come back to Lavedan?"My heart gave a great bound - a great, a sudden throb of hope. But as sudden and as great was the rebound into despair. "You will not send for me, be assured of that," I said with finality; and we spoke no more.
I took the oars and plied them vigorously. I was in haste to end the situation. Tomorrow I must think of my departure, and, as I rowed, I pondered the words that had passed between us. Not one word of love had there been, and yet, in the very omission of it, avowal had lain on either side. A strange wooing had been mine - a wooing that precluded the possibility of winning, and yet a wooing that had won. Aye, it had won; but it might not take. I made fine distinctions and quaint paradoxes as I tugged at my oars, for the human mind is a curiously complex thing, and with some of us there is no such spur to humour as the sting of pain.Roxalanne sat white and very thoughtful, but with veiled eyes, so that I might guess nothing of what passed within her mind. At last we reached the chateau, and as I brought the boat to the terrace steps, it was Saint-Eustache who came forward to offer his wrist to Mademoiselle. He noted the pallor of her face, and darted me a quick, suspicion-laden glance. As we were walking towards the chateau-- "Monsieur de Lesperon," said he in a curious tone, "do you know that a rumour of your death is current in the province?" "I had hoped that such a rumour might get abroad when I disappeared," I answered calmly. "And you have taken no single step to contradict it?" "Why should I, since in that rumour may be said to lie my safety?" "Nevertheless, monsieur, voyons. Surely you might at least relieve the anxieties the affliction, I might almost say - of those who are mourning you." "Ah!" said I. "And who may these be?" He shrugged his shoulders and pursed his lips in a curiously deprecatory smile. With a sidelong glance at Mademoiselle-- "Do you need that I name Mademoiselle de Marsac?" he sneered.
I stood still, my wits busily working, my face impassive under his scrutinizing glance. In a flash it came to me that this must be the writer of some of the letters Lesperon had given me, the original of the miniature I carried.
As I was silent, I grew suddenly conscious of another pair of eyes observing me, Mademoiselle's. She remembered what I had said, she may have remembered how I had cried out the wish that I had met her earlier, and she may not have been slow to find an interpretation for my words. I could have groaned in my rage at such a misinterpretation. I could have taken the Chevalier round to the other side of the chateau and killed him with the greatest relish in the world. But I restrained myself, I resigned myself to be misunderstood. What choice had I? "Monsieur de Saint-Eustache," said I very coldly, and looking him straight between his close-set eyes, "I have permitted you many liberties, but there is one that I cannot permit any one - and, much as I honour you, I can make no exception in your favour. That is to interfere in my concerns and presume to dictate to me the manner in which I shall conduct them. Be good enough to bear that in your memory."
In a moment he was all servility. The sneer passed out of his face, the arrogance out of his demeanour. He became as full of smiles and capers as the meanest sycophant.
"You will forgive me, monsieur!" he cried, spreading his hands, and with the humblest smile in the world. "I perceive that I have taken a great liberty; yet you have misunderstood its purport. I sought to sound you touching the wisdom of a step upon which I have ventured.""That is, monsieur?" I asked, throwing back my head, with the scent of danger breast high. "I took it upon myself to-day to mention the fact that you are alive and well to one who had a right, I thought, to know of it, and who is coming hither tomorrow." "That was a presumption you may regret," said I between my teeth. "To whom do you impart this information?"
"To your friend, Monsieur de Marsac," he answered, and through his mask of humility the sneer was again growing apparent. "He will be here tomorrow," he repeated.
Marsac was that friend of Lesperon's to whose warm commendation of the Gascon rebel I owed the courtesy and kindness that the Vicomte de Lavedan had meted out to me since my coming.
Is it wonderful that I stood as if frozen, my wits refusing to work and my countenance wearing, I doubt not, a very stricken look? Here was one coming to Lavedan who knew Lesperon - one who would unmask me and say that I was an impostor. What would happen then? A spy they would of a certainty account me, and that they would make short work of me I never doubted. But that was something that troubled me less than the opinion Mademoiselle must form. How would she interpret what I had said that day? In what light would she view me hereafter?
Such questions sped like swift arrows through my mind, and in their train came a dull anger with myself that I had not told her everything that afternoon. It was too late now. The confession would come no longer of my own free will, as it might have done an hour ago, but would be forced from me by the circumstances that impended. Thus it would no longer have any virtue to recommend it to her mercy.
"The news seems hardly welcome, Monsieur de Lesperon," said Roxalanne in a voice that was inscrutable. Her tone stirred me, for it betokened suspicion already. Something might yet chance to aid me, and in the mean while I might spoil all did I yield to this dread of the morrow. By an effort I mastered myself, and in tones calm and level, that betrayed nothing of the tempest in my soul--"It is not welcome, mademoiselle," I answered. "I have excellent reasons for not desiring to meet Monsieur de Marsac."
"Excellent, indeed, are they!" lisped Saint-Eustache, with an ugly droop at the corners of his mouth. "I doubt not you'll find it hard to offer a plausible reason for having left him and his sister without news that you were alive.""Monsieur," said I at random, "why will you drag in his sister's name?"
"Why?" he echoed, and he eyed me with undisguised amusement. He was standing erect, his head thrown back, his right arm outstretched from the shoulder, and his hand resting lightly upon the gold mount of his beribboned cane. He let his eyes wander from me to Roxalanne, then back again to me. At last: "Is it wonderful that I should drag in the name of your betrothed?" said he. But perhaps you will deny that Mademoiselle de Marsac is that to you?" he suggested.And I, forgetting for the moment the part I played and the man whose identity I had put on, made answer hotly: "I do deny it." "Why, then, you lie," said he, and shrugged hits shoulders with insolent contempt.
In all my life I do not think it could be said of me that I had ever given way to rage. Rude, untutored minds may fall a prey to passion, but a gentleman, I hold, is never angry. Nor was I then, so far as the outward signs of anger count. I doffed my hat with a sweep to Roxalanne, who stood by with fear and wonder blending in her glance."Mademoiselle, you will forgive that I find it necessary to birch this babbling schoolboy in your presence."
Then, with the pleasantest manner in the world, I stepped aside, and plucked the cane from the Chevalier's hand before he had so much as guessed what I was about. I bowed before him with the utmost politeness, as if craving his leave and tolerance for what I was about to do, and then, before he had recovered from his astonishment, I had laid that cane three times in quick succession across his shoulders. With a cry at once of pain and of mortification, he sprang back, and his hand dropped to his hilt."Monsieur," Roxalanne cried to him, "do you not see that he is unarmed?"
But he saw nothing, or, if he saw, thanked Heaven that things were in such case, and got his sword out. Thereupon Roxalanne would have stepped between us, but with arm outstretched I restrained her.
"Have no fear, mademoiselle," said I very quietly; for if the wrist that had overcome La Vertoile were not with a stick a match for a couple of such swords as this coxcomb's, then was I forever shamed.
He bore down upon me furiously, his point coming straight for my throat. I took the blade on the cane; then, as he disengaged and came at me lower, I made counter-parry, and pursuing the circle after I had caught his steel, I carried it out of his hand. It whirled an instant, a shimmering wheel of light, then it clattered against the marble balustrade half a dozen yards away. With his sword it seemed that his courage, too, departed, and he stood at my mercy, a curious picture of foolishness, surprise, and fear.
Now the Chevalier de Saint-Eustache was a young man, and in the young we can forgive much. But to forgive such an act as he had been guilty of - that of drawing his sword upon a man who carried no weapons - would have been not only a ridiculous toleration, but an utter neglect of duty. As an older man it behoved me to read the Chevalier a lesson in manners and gentlemanly feeling. So, quite dispassionately, and purely for his own future good, I went about the task, and administered him a thrashing that for thoroughness it would be hard to better. I was not discriminating. I brought my cane down with a rhythmical precision, and whether it took him on the head, the back, or the shoulders, I held to be more his affair than mine. I had a moral to inculcate, and the injuries he might receive in the course of it were inconsiderable details so that the lesson was borne in upon his soul. Two or three times he sought to close with me, but I eluded him; I had no mind to descend to a vulgar exchange of blows. My object was not to brawl, but to administer chastisement, and this object I may claim to have accomplished with a fair degree of success.
At last Roxalanne interfered; but only when one blow a little more violent, perhaps, than its precursors resulted in the sudden snapping of the cane and Monsieur de Eustache's utter collapse into a moaning heap.
"I deplore, mademoiselle, to have offended your sight with such a spectacle, but unless these lessons are administered upon the instant their effect is not half so salutary."
"He deserved it, monsieur," said she, with a note almost of fierceness in her voice. And of such poor mettle are we that her resentment against that groaning mass of fopperies and wheals sent a thrill of pleasure through me. I walked over to the spot where his sword had fallen, and picked it up.
"Monsieur de Saint-Eustache," said I, "you have so dishonoured this blade that I do not think you would care to wear it again." Saying which, I snapped it across my knee, and flung it far out into the river, for all that the hilt was a costly one, richly wrought in bronze and gold.He raised his livid countenance, and his eyes blazed impotent fury. "Par la mort Dieu!" he cried hoarsely, "you shall give me satisfaction for this!" "If you account yourself still unsatisfied, I am at your service when you will," said I courteously.
Then, before more could be said, I saw Monsieur de Lavedan and the Vicomtesse approaching hurriedly across the parterre. The Vicomte's brow was black with what might have appeared anger, but which I rightly construed into apprehension."What has taken place? What have you done?" he asked of me.
"He has brutally assaulted the Chevalier," cried Madame shrilly, her eyes malevolently set upon me. "He is only a child, this poor Saint-Eustache," she reproached me. "I saw it all from my window, Monsieur de Lesperon. It was brutal; it was cowardly. So to beat a boy! Shame! If you had a quarrel with him, are there not prescribed methods for their adjustment between gentlemen? Pardieu, could you not have given him proper satisfaction?"
"If madame will give herself the trouble of attentively examining this poor SaintEustache," said I, with a sarcasm which her virulence prompted, "you will agree, I think, that I have given him very proper and very thorough satisfaction. I would have met him sword in hand, but the Chevalier has the fault of the very young - he is precipitate; he was in too great a haste, and he could not wait until I got a sword. So I was forced to do what I could with a cane.""But you provoked him," she flashed back.
"Whoever told you so has misinformed you, madame. On the contrary, he provoked me. He gave me the lie. I struck him - could I do less? - and he drew. I defended myself, and I supplemented my defence by a caning, so that this poor Saint-Eustache might realize the unworthiness of what he had done. That is all, madame."
But she was not so easily to be appeased, not even when Mademoiselle and the Vicomte joined their voices to mine in extenuation of my conduct. It was like Lavedan. For all that he was full of dread of the result and of the vengeance Saint-Eustache might wreak - boy though he was - he expressed himself freely touching the Chevalier's behaviour and the fittingness of the punishment that had overtaken him.
The Vicomtesse stood in small awe of her husband, but his judgment upon a point of honour was a matter that she would not dare contest. She was ministering to the still prostrate Chevalier who, I think, remained prostrate now that he might continue to make appeal to her sympathy - when suddenly she cut in upon Roxalanne's defence of me."Where have you been?" she demanded suddenly. "When, my mother?" "This afternoon," answered the Vicomtesse impatiently. "The Chevalier was waiting two hours for you." Roxalanne coloured to the roots of her hair. The Vicomte frowned. "Waiting for me, my mother? But why for me?" "Answer my question - where have you been?" "I was with Monsieur de Lesperon," she answered simply. "Alone?" the Vicomtesse almost shrieked. "But yes." The poor child's tones were laden with wonder at this catechism. "God's death!" she snapped. "It seems that my daughter is no better than--"
Heaven knows what may have been coming, for she had the most virulent, scandalous tongue that I have ever known in a woman's head - which is much for one who has lived at Court to say. But the Vicomte, sharing my fears, perhaps, and wishing to spare the child's ears, interposed quickly "Come, madame, what airs are these? What sudden assumption of graces that we do not affect? We are not in Paris. This is not the Luxembourg. En province comme en province, and here we are simple folk--"
"Simple folk?" she interrupted, gasping. "By God, am I married to a ploughman? Am I Vicomtesse of Lavedan, or the wife of a boor of the countryside? And is the honour of your daughter a matter--"
"The honour of my daughter is not in question, madame," he interrupted in his turn, and with a sudden sternness that spent the fire of her indignation as a spark that is trampled underfoot. Then, in a calm, level voice: "Ah, here are the servants," said he.
"Permit them, madame, to take charge of Monsieur de Saint-Eustache. Anatole, you had better order the carriage for Monsieur le Chevalier. I do not think that he will be able to ride home."
Anatole peered at the pale young gentleman on the ground, then he turned his little wizened face upon me, and grinned in a singularly solemn fashion. Monsieur de Saint-Eustache was little loved, it seemed.
Leaning heavily upon the arm of one of the lacqueys, the Chevalier moved painfully towards the courtyard, where the carriage was being prepared for him. At the last moment he turned and beckoned the Vicomte to his side.
"As God lives, Monsieur de Lavedan," he swore, breathing heavily in the fury that beset him, "you shall bitterly regret having taken sides to-day with that Gascon bully. Remember me, both of you, when you are journeying to Toulouse."The Vicomte stood beside him, impassive and unmoved by that grim threat, for all that to him it must have sounded like a death-sentence. "Adieu, monsieur - a speedy recovery," was all he answered. But I stepped up to them. "Do you not think, Vicomte, that it were better to detain him?" I asked. "Pshaw!" he ejaculated. "Let him go."
The Chevalier's eyes met mine in a look of terror. Perhaps already that young man repented him of his menace, and he realized the folly of threatening one in whose power he still chanced to be.
"Bethink you, monsieur," I cried. "Yours is a noble and useful life. Mine is not without value, either. Shall we suffer these lives - aye, and the happiness of your wife and daughter - to be destroyed by this vermin?""Let him go, monsieur; let him go. I am not afraid."
I bowed and stepped back, motioning to the lacquey to take the fellow away, much as I should have motioned him to remove some uncleanness from before me.
The Vicomtesse withdrew in high dudgeon to her chamber, and I did not see her again that evening. Mademoiselle I saw once, for a moment, and she employed that moment to question me touching the origin of my quarrel with SaintEustache.
"Upon my honour, mademoiselle," I answered solemnly, "I have plighted my troth to no living woman." Then my chin sank to my breast as I bethought me of how tomorrow she must opine me the vilest liar living - for I was resolved to be gone before Marsac arrived - since the real Lesperon I did not doubt was, indeed, betrothed to Mademoiselle de Marsac.
"I shall leave Lavedan betimes to-morrow, mademoiselle," I pursued presently. "What has happened to-day makes my departure all the more urgent. Delay may have its dangers. You will hear strange things of me, as already I have warned you. But be merciful. Much will be true, much false; yet the truth itself is very vile, and--" I stopped short, in despair of explaining or even tempering what had to come. I shrugged my shoulders in my abandonment of hope, and I turned towards the window. She crossed the room and came to stand beside me."Will you not tell me? Have you no faith in me? Ah, Monsieur de Lesperon--" "'Sh! child, I cannot. It is too late to tell you now."
"Oh, not too late! From what you say they will tell me, I should think, perhaps, worse of you than you deserve. What is this thing you hide? What is this mystery? Tell me, monsieur. Tell me."
Did ever woman more plainly tell a man she loved him, and that loving him she would find all excuses for him? Was ever woman in better case to hear a confession from the man that loved her, and of whose love she was assured by every instinct that her sex possesses in such matters? Those two questions leapt into my mind, and in resolving them I all but determined to speak even now in the eleventh hour.
And then - I know not how - a fresh barrier seemed to arise. It was not merely a matter of telling her of the wager I was embarked upon; not merely a matter of telling her of the duplicity that I had practised, of the impostures by which I had gained admittance to her father's confidence and trust; not merely a matter of confessing that I was not Lesperon. There would still be the necessity of saying who I was. Even if she forgave all else, could she forgive me for being Bardelys the notorious Bardelys, the libertine, the rake, some of whose exploits she had heard of from her mother, painted a hundred times blacker than they really were? Might she not shrink from me when I told her I was that man? In her pure innocence she deemed, no doubt, that the life of every man who accounted himself a gentleman was moderately clean. She would not see in me - as did her mother - no more than a type of the best class in France, and having no more than the vices of my order. As a monster of profligacy might she behold me, and that --ah, Dieu! - I could not endure that she should do whilst I was by.
It may be - indeed, now, as I look back, I know that I exaggerated my case. I imagined she would see it as I saw it then. For would you credit it? With this great love that was now come to me, it seemed the ideals of my boyhood were returned, and I abhorred the man that I had been. The life I had led now filled me with disgust and loathing; the notions I had formed seemed to me now all vicious and distorted, my cynicism shallow and unjust."Monsieur de Lesperon," she called softly to me, noting my silence. I turned to her. I set my hand lightly upon her arm; I let my gaze encounter the upward glance of her eyes - blue as forget-me-nots. "You suffer!" she murmured, with sweet compassion.
"Worse, Roxalanne! I have sown in your heart too the seed of suffering. Oh, I am too unworthy!" I cried out; "and when you come to discover how unworthy it will hurt you; it will sting your pride to think how kind you were to me." She smiled incredulously, in denial of my words. "No, child; I cannot tell you."
She sighed, and then before more could be said there was a sound at the door, and we started away from each other. The Vicomte entered, and my last chance of confessing, of perhaps averting much of what followed, was lost to me.
8. The Portrait
Into the mind of every thoughtful man must come at times with bitterness the reflection of how utterly we are at the mercy of Fate, the victims of her every whim and caprice. We may set out with the loftiest, the sternest resolutions to steer our lives along a well-considered course, yet the slightest of fortuitous circumstances will suffice to force us into a direction that we had no thought of taking.
Now, had it pleased Monsieur de Marsac to have come to Lavedan at any reasonable hour of the day, I should have been already upon the road to Paris, intent to own defeat and pay my wager. A night of thought, besides strengthening my determination to follow such a course, had brought the reflection that I might thereafter return to Roxalanne, a poor man, it is true, but one at least whose intentions might not be misconstrued.
And so, when at last I sank into sleep, my mind was happier than it had been for many days. Of Roxalanne's love I was assured, and it seemed that I might win her, after all, once I removed the barrier of shame that now deterred me. It may be that those thoughts kept me awake until a late hour, and that to this I owe it that when on the morrow I awakened the morning was well advanced. The sun was flooding my chamber, and at my bedside stood Anatole."What's o'clock?" I inquired, sitting bolt upright. "Past ten," said he, with stern disapproval. "And you have let me sleep?" I cried.
"We do little else at Lavedan even when we are awake," he grumbled. "There was no reason why monsieur should rise." Then, holding out a paper, "Monsieur Stanislas de Marsac was here betimes this morning with Mademoiselle his sister. He left this letter for you, monsieur."
Amaze and apprehension were quickly followed by relief, since Anatole's words suggested that Marsac had not remained. I took the letter, nevertheless, with some misgivings, and whilst I turned it over in my hands I questioned the old servant.
"He stayed an hour at the chateau, monsieur," Anatole informed me. "Monsieur le Vicomte would have had you roused, but he would not hear of it. 'If what Monsieur de Saint-Eustache has told me touching your guest should prove to be true,' said he, 'I would prefer not to meet him under your roof, monsieur.' 'Monsieur de Saint-Eustache,' my master replied, 'is not a person whose word should have weight with any man of honour.' But in spite of that, Monsieur de Marsac held to his resolve, and although he would offer no explanation in answer to my master's many questions, you were not aroused.
"At the end of a half-hour his sister entered with Mademoiselle. They had been walking together on the terrace, and Mademoiselle de Marsac appeared very angry. 'Affairs are exactly as Monsieur de Saint-Eustache has represented them,' said she to her brother. At that he swore a most villainous oath, and called for writing materials. At the moment of his departure he desired me to deliver this letter to you, and then rode away in a fury, and, seemingly, not on the best of terms with Monsieur le Vicomte.""And his sister?" I asked quickly. "She went with him. A fine pair, as I live!" he added, casting his eyes to the ceiling.
At least I could breathe freely. They were gone, and whatever damage they may have done to the character of poor Rene de Lesperon ere they departed, they were not there, at all events, to denounce me for an impostor. With a mental apology to the shade of the departed Lesperon for all the discredit I was bringing down upon his name, I broke the seal of that momentous epistle, which enclosed a length of some thirty-two inches of string.Monsieur [I read], wherever I may chance to meet you it shall be my duty to kill you.
A rich beginning, in all faith! If he could but maintain that uncompromising dramatic flavour to the end, his epistle should be worth the trouble of deciphering, for he penned a vile scrawl of pothooks.
It is because of this [the letter proceeded] that I have refrained from coming face to face with you this morning. The times are too troublous and the province is in too dangerous a condition to admit of an act that might draw the eyes of the Keeper of the Seals upon Lavedan. To my respect, then, to Monsieur le Vicomte and to my own devotion to the Cause we mutually serve do you owe it that you still live. I am on my way to Spain to seek shelter there from the King's vengeance.
To save myself is a duty that I owe as much to myself as to the Cause. But there is another duty, one that I owe my sister, whom you have so outrageously slighted, and this duty, by God's grace, I will perform before I leave. Of your honour, monsieur, we will not speak, for reasons into which I need not enter, and I make no appeal to it. But if you have a spark of manhood left, if you are not an utter craven as well as a knave, I shall expect you on the day after tomorrow, at any hour before noon, at the Auberge de la Couronne at Grenade. There, monsieur, if you please, we will adjust our differences. That you may come prepared, and so that no time need be wasted when we meet, I send you the length of my sword.
Thus ended that angry, fire-breathing epistle. I refolded it thoughtfully, then, having taken my resolve, I leapt from the bed and desired Anatole to assist me to dress.
I found the Vicomte much exercised in mind as to the meaning of Marsac's extraordinary behaviour, and I was relieved to see that he, at least, could conjecture no cause for it. In reply to the questions with which he very naturally assailed me, I assured him that it was no more than a matter of a misunderstanding; that Monsieur de Marsac had asked me to meet him at Grenade in two days' time, and that I should then, no doubt, be able to make all clear.
Meanwhile, I regretted the incident, since it necessitated my remaining and encroaching for two days longer upon the Vicomte's hospitality. To all this, however, he made the reply that I expected, concluding with the remark that for the present at least it would seem as if the Chevalier de Saint-Eustache had been satisfied with creating this trouble betwixt myself and Marsac.
From what Anatole had said, I had already concluded that Marsac had exercised the greatest reticence. But the interview between his sister and Roxalanne filled me with the gravest anxiety. Women are not wont to practise the restraint of men under such circumstances, and for all that Mademoiselle de Marsac may not have expressed it in so many words that I was her faithless lover, yet women are quick to detect and interpret the signs of disorders springing from such causes, and I had every fear that Roxalanne was come to the conclusion that I had lied to her yesternight. With an uneasy spirit, then, I went in quest of her, and I found her walking in the old rose garden behind the chateau.
She did not at first remark my approach, and I had leisure for some moments to observe her and to note the sadness that dwelt in her profile and the listlessness of her movements. This, then, was my work - mine, and that of Monsieur de Chatellerault, and those other merry gentlemen who had sat at my table in Paris nigh upon a month ago.
I moved, and the gravel crunched under my foot, whereupon she turned, and, at sight of me advancing towards her, she started. The blood mounted to her face, to ebb again upon the instant, leaving it paler than it had been. She made as if to depart; then she appeared to check herself, and stood immovable and outwardly calm, awaiting my approach.
But her eyes were averted, and her bosom rose and fell too swiftly to lend colour to that mask of indifference she hurriedly put on. Yet, as I drew nigh, she was the first to speak, and the triviality of her words came as a shock to me, and for all my knowledge of woman's way caused me to doubt for a moment whether perhaps her calm were not real, after all."You are a laggard this morning, Monsieur de Lesperon." And, with a half laugh, she turned aside to break a rose from its stem. "True," I answered stupidly; "I slept over-late." "A thousand pities, since thus you missed seeing Mademoiselle de Marsac. Have they told you that she was here?" "Yes, mademoiselle. Stanislas de Marsac left a letter for me." "You will regret not having seen them, no doubt?" quoth she. I evaded the interrogative note in her voice. "That is their fault. They appear to have preferred to avoid me."
"Is it matter for wonder?" she flashed, with a sudden gleam of fury which she as suddenly controlled. With the old indifference, she added, "You do not seem perturbed, monsieur?""On the contrary, mademoiselle; I am very deeply perturbed." "At not having seen your betrothed?" she asked, and now for the first time her eyes were raised, and they met mine with a look that was a stab. "Mademoiselle, I had the honour of telling you yesterday that I had plighted my troth to no living woman."
At that reminder of yesterday she winced, and I was sorry that I had uttered it, for it must have set the wound in her pride a-bleeding again. Yesterday I had as much as told her that I loved her, and yesterday she had as much as answered me that she loved me, for yesterday I had sworn that Saint-Eustache's story of my betrothal was a lie. To-day she had had assurance of the truth from the very woman to whom Lesperon's faith was plighted, and I could imagine something of her shame."Yesterday, monsieur," she answered contemptuously, "you lied in many things."
"Nay, I spoke the truth in all. Oh, God in heaven, mademoiselle," I exclaimed in sudden passion, "will you not believe me? Will you not accept my word for what I say, and have a little patience until I shall have discharged such obligations as will permit me to explain?"
"Explain?" quoth she, with withering disdain.
"There is a hideous misunderstanding in all this. I am the victim of a miserable chain of circumstances. Oh, I can say no more! These Marsacs I shall easily pacify. I am to meet Monsieur de Marsac at Grenade on the day after to-morrow. In my pocket I have a letter from this living sword-blade, in which he tells me that he will give himself the pleasure of killing me then. Yet--"
"I hope he does, monsieur!" she cut in, with a fierceness before which I fell dumb and left my sentence unfinished. "I shall pray God that he may!" she added. "You deserve it as no man deserved it yet!"
For a moment I stood stricken, indeed, by her words. Then, my reason grasping the motive of that fierceness, a sudden joy pervaded me. It was a fierceness breathing that hatred that is a part of love, than which, it is true, no hatred can be more deadly. And yet so eloquently did it tell me of those very feelings which she sought jealously to conceal, that, moved by a sudden impulse, I stepped close up to her.
"Roxalanne," I said fervently, "you do not hope for it. What would your life be if I were dead? Child, child, you love me even as I love you." I caught her suddenly to me with infinite tenderness, with reverence almost. "Can you lend no ear to the voice of this love? Can you not have faith in me a little? Can you not think that if I were quite as unworthy as you make-believe to your very self, this love could have no place?""It has no place!" she cried. "You lie - as in all things else. I do not love you. I hate you. Dieu! How I hate you!"
She had lain in my arms until then, with upturned face and piteous, frightened eyes - like a bird that feels itself within the toils of a snake, yet whose horror is blent with a certain fascination. Now, as she spoke, her will seemed to reassert itself, and she struggled to break from me. But as her fierceness of hatred grew, so did my fierceness of resolve gain strength, and I held her tightly.
"Why do you hate me?" I asked steadily. "Ask yourself, Roxalanne, and tell me what answer your heart makes. Does it not answer that indeed you do not hate me - that you love me?"
"Oh, God, to be so insulted!" she cried out. "Will you not release me, miserable? Must I call for help? Oh, you shall suffer for this! As there is a Heaven, you shall be punished!"
But in my passion I held her, despite entreaties, threats, and struggles. I was brutal, if you will. Yet think of what was in my soul at being so misjudged, at finding myself in this position, and deal not over harshly with me. The courage to confess which I had lacked for days, came to me then. I must tell her. Let the result be what it might, it could not be worse than this, and this I could endure no longer."Listen, Roxalanne!" "I will not listen! Enough of insults have I heard already. Let me go!"
"Nay, but you shall hear me. I am not Rene de Lesperon. Had these Marsacs been less impetuous and foolish, had they waited to have seen me this morning, they would have told you so."She paused for a second in her struggles to regard me. Then, with a sudden contemptuous laugh, she renewed her efforts more vigorously than before. "What fresh lies do you offer me? Release me, I will hear no more!"
"As Heaven is my witness, I have told you the truth. I know how wild a sound it has, and that is partly why I did not tell you earlier. But your disdain I cannot suffer. That you should deem me a liar in professing to love you--"
Her struggles were grown so frantic that I was forced to relax my grip. But this I did with a suddenness that threw her out of balance, and she was in danger of falling backwards. To save herself, she caught at my doublet, which was torn open under the strain.
We stood some few feet apart, and, white and palpitating in her anger, she confronted me. Her eyes lashed me with their scorn, but under my steady, unflinching gaze they fell at last. When next she raised them there was a smile of quiet but unutterable contempt upon her lips."Will you swear," said she, "that you are not Rene de Lesperon? That Mademoiselle de Marsac is not your betrothed?" "Yes - by my every hope of Heaven!" I cried passionately. She continued to survey me with that quiet smile of mocking scorn.
"I have heard it said," quoth she, "that the greatest liars are ever those that are readiest to take oath." Then, with a sudden gasp of loathing, "I think you have dropped something, monsieur," said she, pointing to the ground. And without waiting for more, she swung round and left me.
Face upwards at my feet lay the miniature that poor Lesperon had entrusted to me in his dying moments. It had dropped from my doublet in the struggle, and I never doubted now but that the picture it contained was that of Mademoiselle de Marsac.
9. A Night Alarm
I was returning that same afternoon from a long walk that I had taken - for my mood was of that unenviable sort that impels a man to be moving - when I found a travelling-chaise drawn up in the quadrangle as if ready for a journey. As I mounted the steps of the chateau I came face to face with mademoiselle, descending. I drew aside that she might pass; and this she did with her chin in the air, and her petticoat drawn to her that it might not touch me.
I would have spoken to her, but her eyes looked straight before her with a glance that was too forbidding; besides which there was the gaze of a half-dozen grooms upon us. So, bowing before her - the plume of my doffed hat sweeping the ground - I let her go. Yet I remained standing where she had passed me, and watched her enter the coach. I looked after the vehicle as it wheeled round and rattled out over the drawbridge, to raise a cloud of dust on the white, dry road beyond.
In that hour I experienced a sense of desolation and a pain to which I find it difficult to give expression. It seemed to me as if she had gone out of my life for all time - as if no reparation that I could ever make would suffice to win her back after what had passed between us that morning. Already wounded in her pride by what Mademoiselle de Marsac had told her of our relations, my behaviour in the rose garden had completed the work of turning into hatred the tender feelings that but yesterday she had all but confessed for me. That she hated me now, I was well assured. My reflections as I walked had borne it in upon me how rash, how mad had been my desperate action, and with bitterness I realized that I had destroyed the last chance of ever mending matters.
Not even the payment of my wager and my return in my true character could avail me now. The payment of my wager, forsooth! Even that lost what virtue it might have contained. Where was the heroism of such an act? Had I not failed, indeed? And was not, therefore, the payment of my wager become inevitable?
Fool! fool! Why had I not profited that gentle mood of hers when we had drifted down the stream together? Why had I not told her then of the whole business from its ugly inception down to the pass to which things were come, adding that to repair the evil I was going back to Paris to pay my wager, and that when that was done, I would return to ask her to become my wife? That was the course a man of sense would have adopted. He would have seen the dangers that beset him in my false position, and would have been quick to have forestalled them in the only manner possible.
Heigh-ho! It was done. The game was at an end, and I had bungled my part of it like any fool. One task remained me - that of meeting Marsac at Grenade and doing justice to the memory of poor Lesperon. What might betide thereafter mattered little. I should be ruined when I had settled with Chatellerault, and Marcel de Saint-Pol, de Bardelys, that brilliant star in the firmament of the Court of France, would suffer an abrupt eclipse, would be quenched for all time. But this weighed little with me then. I had lost everything that I might have valued - everything that might have brought fresh zest to a jaded, satiated life.
Later that day I was told by the Vicomte that there was a rumour current to the effect that the Marquis de Bardelys was dead. Idly I inquired how the rumour had been spread, and he told me that a riderless horse, which had been captured a few days ago by some peasants, had been recognized by Monsieur de Bardelys's servants as belonging to their master, and that as nothing had been seen or heard of him for a fortnight, it was believed that he must have met with some mischance. Not even that piece of information served to arouse my interest. Let them believe me dead if they would. To him that is suffering worse than death to be accounted dead is a small matter.
The next day passed without incident. Mademoiselle's absence continued and I would have questioned the Vicomte concerning it, but a not unnatural hesitancy beset me, and I refrained.
On the morrow I was to leave Lavedan, but there were no preparations to be made, no packing to be done, for during my sojourn there I had been indebted to the generous hospitality of the Vicomte for my very apparel. We supped quietly together that night the Vicomte and I - for the Vicomtesse was keeping her room.
I withdrew early to my chamber, and long I lay awake, revolving a gloomy future in my mind. I had given no thought to what I should do after having offered my explanation to Monsieur de Marsac on the morrow, nor could I now bring myself to consider it with any degree of interest. I would communicate with Chatellerault to inform him that I accounted my wager lost. I would send him my note of hand, making over to him my Picardy estates, and I would request him to pay off and disband my servants both in Paris and at Bardelys.
As for myself, I did not know, and, as I have hinted, I cared but little, in what places my future life might lie. I had still a little property by Beaugency, but scant inclination to withdraw to it. To Paris I would not return; that much I was determined upon; but upon no more. I had thoughts of going to Spain. Yet that course seemed no less futile than any other of which I could bethink me. I fell asleep at last, vowing that it would be a mercy and a fine solution to the puzzle of how to dispose of the future if I were to awaken no more.
I was, however, destined to be roused again just as the veil of night was being lifted and the chill breath of dawn was upon the world. There was a loud knocking at the gates of Lavedan, confused noises of voices, of pattering feet, of doors opening and closing within the chateau.
There was a rapping at my chamber door, and when I went to open, I found the Vicomte on the threshold, nightcapped, in his shirt, and bearing a lighted taper.
"Why, yes"; and he shrugged his shoulders. "What could it avail us to resist them? Even had I been prepared for it, it would be futile to attempt to suffer a siege."I wrapped a dressing-gown about me, for the morning air was chill.
"Monsieur le Vicomte," said I gravely, "I heartily deplore that Monsieur de Marsac's affairs should have detained me here. But for him, I had left Lavedan two days ago. As it is, I tremble for you, but we may at least hope that my being taken in your house will draw down no ill results upon you. I shall never forgive myself if through my having taken refuge here I should have encompassed your destruction."
"There is no question of that," he replied, with the quick generosity characteristic of the man. "This is the work of Saint-Eustache. Sooner or later I always feared that it would happen, for sooner or later he and I must have come to enmity over my daughter. That knave had me in his power. He knew - being himself outwardly one of us - to what extent I was involved in the late rebellion, and I knew enough of him to be assured that if some day he should wish to do me ill, he would never scruple to turn traitor. I am afraid, Monsieur de Lesperon, that it is not for you alone - perhaps not for you at all - that the soldiers have come, but for me."
Then, before I could answer him, the door was flung wide, and into the room, in nightcap and hastily donned robe - looking a very megere in that disfiguring deshabille - swept the Vicomtesse."See," she cried to her husband, her strident voice raised in reproach - "see to what a pass you have brought us!" "Anne, Anne!" he exclaimed, approaching her and seeking to soothe her; "be calm, my poor child, and be brave."
But, evading him, she towered, lean and malevolent as a fury. "Calm?" she echoed contemptuously. "Brave?" Then a short laugh broke from her - a despairing, mocking, mirthless expression of anger. "By God, do you add effrontery to your other failings? Dare you bid me be calm and brave in such an hour? Have I been warning you fruitlessly these twelve months past, that, after disregarding me and deriding my warnings, you should bid me be calm now that my fears are realized?"There was a sound of creaking gates below. The Vicomte heard it.
"Madame," he said, putting aside his erstwhile tender manner, and speaking with a lofty dignity, "the troopers have been admitted. Let me entreat you to retire. It is not befitting our station--"
"What is our station?" she interrupted harshly. "Rebels - proscribed, houseless beggars. That is our station, thanks to you and your insane meddling with treason. What is to become of us, fool? What is to become of Roxalanne and me when they shall have hanged you and have driven us from Lavedan? By God's death, a fine season this to talk of the dignity of our station! Did I not warn you, malheureux, to leave party faction alone? You laughed at me.""Madame, your memory does me an injustice," he answered in a strangled voice. "I never laughed at you in all my life."
"You did as much, at least. Did you not bid me busy myself with women's affairs? Did you not bid me leave you to follow your own judgment? You have followed it - to a pretty purpose, as God lives! These gentlemen of the King's will cause you to follow it a little farther," she pursued, with heartless, loathsome sarcasm. "You will follow it as far as the scaffold at Toulouse. That, you will tell me, is your own affair. But what provision have you made for your wife and daughter? Did you marry me and get her to leave us to perish of starvation? Or are we to turn kitchen wenches or sempstresses for our livelihood?"With a groan, the Vicomte sank down upon the bed, and covered his face with his hands.
"God pity me!" he cried, in a voice of agony - an agony such as the fear of death could never have infused into his brave soul; an agony born of the heartlessness of this woman who for twenty years had shared his bed and board, and who now in the hour of his adversity failed him so cruelly - so tragically."Aye," she mocked in her bitterness, "call upon God to pity you, for I shall not."
She paced the room now, like a caged lioness, her face livid with the fury that possessed her. She no longer asked questions; she no longer addressed him; oath followed oath from her thin lips, and the hideousness of this woman's blasphemy made me shudder. At last there were heavy steps upon the stairs, and, moved by a sudden impulse "Madame," I cried, "let me prevail upon you to restrain yourself."She swung round to face me, her dose-set eyes ablaze with anger.
"Sangdieu! By what right do you--" she began but this was no time to let a woman's tongue go babbling on; no time for ceremony; no season for making a leg and addressing her with a simper. I caught her viciously by the wrist, and with my face close up to hers "Folle!" I cried, and I'll swear no man had ever used the word to her before. She gasped and choked in her surprise and rage. Then lowering my voice lest it should reach the approaching soldiers: "Would you ruin the Vicomte and yourself?" I muttered. Her eyes asked me a question, and I answered it. "How do you know that the soldiers have come for your husband? It may be that they are seeking me - and only me. They may know nothing of the Vicomte's defection. Shall you, then, be the one to inform them of it by your unbridled rantings and your accusations?"Her jaw fell open in astonishment. This was a side of the question she had not considered. "Let me prevail upon you, madame, to withdraw and to be of good courage. It is more than likely that you alarm yourself without cause."
She continued to stare at me in her amazement and the confusion that was congenital with it, and if there was not time for her to withdraw, at least the possibility I had suggested acted as a timely warning.
In that moment the door opened again, and on the threshold appeared a young man in a plumed hat and corselet, carrying a naked sword in one hand and a lanthorn in the other. Behind him I caught the gleam of steel from the troopers at his heels."Which of you is Monsieur Rene de Lesperon?" he inquired politely, his utterance flavoured by a strong Gascon accent. I stood forward. "I am known by that name, Monsieur le Capitaine," said I. He looked at me wistfully, apologetically almost, then "In the King's name, Monsieur de Lesperon, I call upon you to yield!" said he. "I have been expecting you. My sword is yonder, monsieur," I replied suavely. "If you will allow me to dress, I shall be ready to accompany you in a few minutes."
He bowed, and it at once became clear that his business at Lavedan was - as I had suggested to the Vicomtesse might be possible - with me alone. "I am grateful for the readiness of your submission," said this very polite gentleman. He was a comely lad, with blue eyes and a good-humoured mouth, to which a pair of bristling moustaches sought vainly to impart an expression of ferocity."Before you proceed to dress, monsieur, I have another duty to discharge."
"Discharge your duty, monsieur," I answered. Whereupon he made a sign to his men, and in a moment they were ransacking my garments and effects. While this was taking place, he turned to the Vicomte and Vicomtesse, and offered them a thousand apologies for having interrupted their slumbers, and for so rudely depriving them of their guest. He advanced in his excuse the troublous nature of the times, and threw in a bunch of malisons at the circumstances which forced upon soldiers the odious duties of the tipstaff, hoping that we would think him none the less a gentleman for the unsavoury business upon which he was engaged.
From my clothes they took the letters addressed to Lesperon which that poor gentleman had entrusted to me on the night of his death; and among these there was one from the Duc d'Orleans himself, which would alone have sufficed to have hanged a regiment. Besides these, they took Monsieur de Marsac's letter of two days ago, and the locket containing the picture of Mademoiselle de Marsac.
The papers and the portrait they delivered to the Captain, who took them with the same air of deprecation tainted with disgust that coloured all his actions in connection with my arrest.
To this same repugnance for his catchpoll work do I owe it that at the moment of setting out he offered to let me ride without the annoyance of an escort if I would pass him my parole not to attempt an escape.
We were standing, then, in the hall of the chateau. His men were already in the courtyard, and there were only present Monsieur le Vicomte and Anatole - the latter reflecting the look of sorrow that haunted his master's face. The Captain's generosity was certainly leading him beyond the bounds of his authority, and it touched me."Monsieur is very generous," said I. He shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
"Cap de Dieu!" he cried - he had a way of swearing that reminded me of my friend Cazalet. "It is no generosity, monsieur. It is a desire to make this obscene work more congenial to the spirit of a gentleman, which, devil take me, I cannot stifle, not for the King himself. And then, Monsieur de Lesperon, are we not fellow-countrymen? Are we not Gascons both? Pardieu, there is no more respected a name in the whole of Gascony than that of Lesperon, and that you belong to so honourable a family is alone more than sufficient to warrant such slight favours as it may be in my power to show you.""You have my parole that I will attempt no escape, Monsieur le Capitaine," I answered, bowing may acknowledgment of his compliments.
"I am Mironsac de Castelroux, of Chateau Rouge in Gascony," he informed me, returning my bow. My faith, had he not made a pretty soldier he would have made an admirable master of deportment.
My leave-taking of Monsieur de Lavedan was brief but cordial; apologetic on my part, intensely sympathetic on his. And so I went out alone with Castelroux upon the road to Toulouse, his men being ordered to follow in half an hour's time and to travel at their leisure.
As we cantered along - Castelroux and I - we talked of many things, and I found him an amusing and agreeable companion. Had my mood been other than despairing, the news he gave me might have occasioned me some concern; for it seemed that prisoners arraigned for treason and participation in the late rising were being very summarily treated. Many were never so much as heard in their own defence, the evidence collected of their defection being submitted to the Tribunal, and judgment being forthwith passed upon them by judges who had no ears for anything they might advance in their own favour.
The evidence of my identity was complete: there was my own admission to Castelroux; the evidence of the treason of Lesperon was none the less complete; in fact, it was notorious; and there was the Duke's letter found amongst my effects. If the judges refused to lend an ear to my assurances that I was not Lesperon at all, but the missing Bardelys, my troubles were likely to receive a very summary solution. The fear of it, however, weighed not over-heavily upon me. I was supremely indifferent. Life was at an end so far as I was concerned. I had ruined the one chance of real happiness that had ever been held out to me, and if the gentlemen of the courts of Toulouse were pleased to send me unheeded to the scaffold, what should it signify?But there was another matter that did interest me, and that was my interview with Marsac. Touching this, I spoke to my captor.
"There is a gentleman I wish to see at Grenade this morning. You have amongst the papers taken from me a letter making this assignation, Monsieur le Capitaine, and I should be indeed grateful if you would determine that we shall break our fast there, so that I may have an opportunity of seeing him. The matter is to me of the highest importance.""It concerns--?" he asked. "A lady," I answered. "Ah, yes! But the letter is of the nature of a challenge, is it not? Naturally, I cannot permit you to endanger your life." "Lest we disappoint the headsman at Toulouse?" I laughed. "Have no fear. There shall be no duel!" "Then I am content, monsieur, and you shall see your friend."
I thanked him, and we talked of other things thereafter as we rode in the early morning along the Toulouse road. Our conversation found its way, I scarce know how, to the topic of Paris and the Court, and when I casually mentioned, in passing, that I was well acquainted with the Luxembourg, he inquired whether I had ever chanced to meet a young spark of the name of Mironsac.
"Mironsac?" I echoed. "Why, yes." And I was on the point of adding that I knew the youth intimately, and what a kindness I had for him, when, deeming it imprudent, I contented myself with asking, "You know him?"
"Pardieu!" he swore. "The fellow is my cousin. We are both Mironsacs; he is Mironsac of Castelvert, whilst I, as you may remember I told you, am Mironsac of Castelroux. To distinguish us, he is always known as Mironsac, and I as Castelroux. Peste! It is not the only distinction, for while he basks in the sunshine of the great world of Paris - they are wealthy, the Mironsacs of Castelvert --I, a poor devil of a Gascony cadet, am playing the catchpoll in Languedoc!"
I looked at him with fresh interest, for the mention of that dear lad Mironsac brought back to my mind the night in Paris on which my ill-starred wager had been laid, and I was reminded of how that high-minded youth had sought - when it was too late to reason me out of the undertaking by alluding to the dishonour with which in his honest eyes it must be fraught.
We spoke of his cousin - Castelroux and I - and I went so far now as to confess that I had some love for the youth, whom I praised in unmistakable terms. This inclined to increase the friendliness which my young Captain had manifested since my arrest, and I was presently emboldened by it to beg of him to add to the many favours that I already owed him by returning to me the portrait which his men had subtracted from my pocket. It was my wish to return this to Marsac, whilst at the same time it would afford corroboration of my story.To this Castelroux made no difficulty.
"Why, yes," said he, and he produced it. "I crave your pardon for not having done the thing of my own accord. What can the Keeper of the Seals want with that picture?"
I thanked him, and pocketed the locket.
"Poor lady!" he sighed, a note of compassion in his voice. "By my soul, Monsieur de Lesperon, fine work this for soldiers, is it not? Diable! It is enough to turn a gentleman's stomach sour for life, and make him go hide himself from the eyes of honest men. Had I known that soldiering meant such business, I had thought twice before I adopted it as a career for a man of honour. I had remained in Gascony and tilled the earth sooner than have lent myself to this!""My good young friend," I laughed, "what you do, you do in the King's name."
"So does every tipstaff," he answered impatiently, his moustaches bristling as the result of the scornful twist he gave his lips. "To think that I should have a hand in bringing tears to the eyes of that sweet lady! Quelle besogne! Bon Dieu, quelle besogne!"
I laughed at the distress vented in that whimsical Gascon tongue of his, whereupon he eyed me in a wonder that was tempered with admiration. For to his brave soul a gentleman so stoical as to laugh under such parlous circumstances was very properly a gentleman to be admired.
10. The Risen DeadIt was close upon ten o'clock as we rode into the yard of the imposing Hotel de la Couronne at Grenade.
Castelroux engaged a private room on the first floor - a handsome chamber overlooking the courtyard - and in answer to the inquiries that I made I was informed by the landlord that Monsieur de Marsac was not yet arrived."My assignation was 'before noon,' Monsieur de Castelroux," said I. "With your permission, I would wait until noon." He made no difficulty. Two hours were of no account. We had all risen very early, and he was, himself, he said, entitled to some rest.
Whilst I stood by the window it came to pass than a very tall, indifferently apparelled gentleman issued from the hostelry and halted for some moments in conversation with the ostler below. He walked with an enfeebled step, and leaned heavily for support upon a stout cane. As he turned to reenter the inn I had a glimpse of a face woefully pale, about which, as about the man's whole figure, there was a something that was familiar - a something that puzzled me, and on which my mind was still dwelling when presently I sat down to breakfast with Castelroux.
It may have been a half-hour later, and, our meal being at an end, we were sitting talking - I growing impatient the while that this Monsieur de Marsac should keep me waiting so - when of a sudden the rattle of hoofs drew me once more to the window. A gentleman, riding very recklessly, had just dashed through the portecochere, and was in the act of pulling up his horse. He was a lean, active man, very richly dressed, and with a face that by its swarthiness of skin and the sable hue of beard and hair looked almost black.
"Ah, you are there!" he cried, with something between a snarl and a laugh, and addressing somebody within the shelter of the porch. "Par la mort Dieu, I had hardly looked to find you!"From the recess of the doorway I heard a gasp of amazement and a cry of "Marsac! You here?"
So this was the gentleman I was to see! A stable boy had taken his reins, and he leapt nimbly to the ground. Into my range of vision hobbled now the enfeebled gentleman whom earlier I had noticed.
"My dear Stanislas!" he cried, "I cannot tell you how rejoiced I am to see you!" and he approached Marsac with arms that were opened as if to embrace him.
The newcomer surveyed him a moment in wonder, with eyes grown dull. Then abruptly raising his hand, he struck the fellow on the breast, and thrust him back so violently that but for the stable-boy's intervention he had of a certainty fallen. With a look of startled amazement on his haggard face, the invalid regarded his assailant.As for Marsac, he stepped close up to him.
"What is this?" he cried harshly. "What is this make-believe feebleness? That you are pale, poltroon, I do not wonder! But why these tottering limbs? Why this assumption of weakness? Do you look to trick me by these signs?""Have you taken leave of your senses?" exclaimed the other, a note of responsive anger sounding in his voice. "Have you gone mad, Stanislas?"
"Abandon this pretence," was the contemptuous answer. "Two days ago at Lavedan, my friend, they informed me how complete was your recovery; from what they told us, it was easy to guess why you tarried there and left us without news of you. That was my reason, as you may have surmised, for writing to you. My sister has mourned you for dead - was mourning you for dead whilst you sat at the feet of your Roxalanne and made love to her among the roses of Lavedan.""Lavedan?" echoed the other slowly. Then, raising his voice, "what the devil are you saying?" he blazed. "What do I know of Lavedan?"
In a flash it had come to me who that enfeebled gentleman was. Rodenard, the blunderer, had been at fault when he had said that Lesperon had expired. Clearly he could have no more than swooned; for here, in the flesh, was Lesperon himself, the man I had left for dead in that barn by Mirepoix.
How or where he had recovered were things that at the moment did not exercise my mind - nor have I since been at any pains to unravel the mystery of it; but there he was, and for the moment that fact was all-sufficing. What complications would come of his presence Heaven alone could foretell.
"Put an end to this play-acting!" roared the savage Marsac. "It will avail you nothing. My sister's tears may have weighed lightly with you, but you shall pay the price of them, and of the slight you have put upon her."
"My God, Marsac!" cried the other, roused to an equal fierceness. "Will you explain?"
"Aye," snarled Marsac, and his sword flashed from his scabbard," I'll explain. As God lives, I'll explain - with this!" And he whirled his blade under the eyes of the invalid. "Come, my master, the comedy's played out. Cast aside that crutch and draw; draw, man, or, sangdieu, I'll run you through as you stand!"
There was a commotion below. The landlord and a posse of his satellites - waiters, ostlers, and stableboys - rushed between them, and sought to restrain the bloodthirsty Marsac. But he shook them off as a bull shakes off a pack of dogs, and like an angry bull, too, did he stand his ground and bellow. In a moment his sweeping sword had cleared a circle about him. In its lightning dartings hither and thither at random, it had stung a waiter in the calf, and when the fellow saw the blood staining his hose, he added to the general din his shrieks that he was murdered. Marsac swore and threatened in a breath, and a kitchen wench, from a point of vantage on the steps, called shame upon him and abused him roundly for a cowardly assassin to assail a poor sufferer who could hardly stand upright."Po' Cap de Dieu!" swore Castelroux at my elbow. "Saw you ever such an ado? What has chanced?"
But I never stayed to answer him. Unless I acted quickly blood would assuredly be shed. I was the one man who could explain matters, and it was a mercy for Lesperon that I should have been at hand in the hour of his meeting that fireeater Marsac. I forgot the circumstances in which I stood to Castelroux; I forgot everything but the imminent necessity that I should intervene. Some seven feet below our window was the roof of the porch; from that to the ground it might be some eight feet more. Before my Gascon captain knew what I was about, I had swung myself down from the window on to the projecting porch. A second later, I created a diversion by landing in the midst of the courtyard fray, with the alarmed Castelroux - who imagined that I was escaping - following by the same unusual road, and shouting as he came "Monsieur de Lesperon! Hi! Monsieur de Lesperon! Mordieu! Remember your parole, Monsieur de Lesperon!"
Nothing could have been better calculated to stem Marsac's fury; nothing could have so predisposed him to lend an ear to what I had to say, for it was very evident that Castelroux's words were addressed to me, and that it was I whom he called by the name of Lesperon. In an instant I was at Marsac's side. But before I could utter a word, "What the devil does this mean?" he asked, eyeing me with fierce suspicion.
"It means, monsieur, that there are more Lesperons than one in France. I am the Lesperon who was at Lavedan. If you doubt me, ask this gentleman, who arrested me there last night. Ask him, too, why we have halted here. Ask him, if you will, to show you the letter that you left at Lavedan making an assignation here before noon to-day, which letter I received."
The suspicion faded from Marsac's eyes, and they grew round with wonder as he listened to this prodigious array of evidence. Lesperon looked on in no less amazement, yet I am sure from the manner of his glance that he did not recognize in me the man that had succoured him at Mirepoix. That, after all, was natural enough; for the minds of men in such reduced conditions as had been his upon that night are not prone to receive very clear impressions, and still less prone to retain such impressions as they do receive.
"A thousand apologies!" he laughed. "A fool might have guessed the errand that took you so quickly through that window, and none but a fool would have suspected you of seeking to escape. It was unworthy in me, Monsieur de Lesperon."I turned to him while those others still stood gaping, and led him aside. "Monsieur le Capitaine," said I, "you find it troublesome enough to reconcile your conscience with such arrests as you are charged to make, is it not so. "Mordieu!" he cried, by way of emphatically assenting.
"Now, if you should chance to overhear words betraying to you certain people whom otherwise you would never suspect of being rebels, your soldier's duty would, nevertheless, compel you to apprehend them, would it not?""Why, true. I am afraid it would," he answered, with a grimace. "But, if forewarned that by being present in a certain place you should overhear such words, what course would you pursue?" "Avoid it like a pestilence, monsieur," he answered promptly.
"Then, Monsieur le Capitaine, may I trespass upon your generosity to beseech you to let me take these litigants to our room upstairs, and to leave us alone there for a half-hour?"
Frankness was my best friend in dealing with Castelroux - frankness and his distaste for the business they had charged him with. As for Marsac and Lesperon, they were both eager enough to have the mystery explained, and when Castelroux having consented - I invited them to my chamber, they came readily enough.
Since Monsieur de Lesperon did not recognize me, there was no reason why I should enlighten him touching my identity, and every reason why I should not. As soon as they were seated, I went to the heart of the matter at once and without preamble.
"A fortnight ago, gentlemen," said I, "I was driven by a pack of dragoons across the Garonne. I was wounded in the shoulder and very exhausted, and I knocked at the gates of Lavedan to crave shelter. That shelter, gentlemen, was afforded me, and when I had announced myself as Monsieur de Lesperon, it was all the more cordially because one Monsieur de Marsac, who was a friend of the Vicomte de Lavedan, and a partisan in the lost cause of Orleans, happened often to have spoken of a certain Monsieur de Lesperon as his very dear friend. I have no doubt, gentlemen, that you will think harshly of me because I did not enlighten the Vicomte. But there were reasons for which I trust you will not press me, since I shall find it difficult to answer you with truth.""But is your name Lesperon?" cried Lesperon.
"That, monsieur, is a small matter. Whether my name is Lesperon or not, I confess to having practised a duplicity upon the Vicomte and his family, since I am certainly not the Lesperon whose identity I accepted. But if I accepted that identity, monsieur, I also accepted your liabilities, and so I think that you should find it in your heart to extend me some measure of forgiveness. As Rene de Lesperon, of Lesperon in Gascony, I was arrested last night at Lavedan, and, as you may observe, I am being taken to Toulouse to stand the charge of high treason. I have not demurred; I have not denied in the hour of trouble the identity that served me in my hour of need. I am taking the bitter with the sweet, and I assure you, gentlemen, that the bitter predominates in a very marked degree."
"But this must not be," cried Lesperon, rising. "I know not what use you may have made of my name, but I have no reason to think that you can have brought discredit upon it, and so--""I thank you, monsieur, but--"
"And so I cannot submit that you shall go to Toulouse in my stead. Where is this officer whose prisoner you are? Pray summon him, monsieur, and let us set the matter right."
"This is very generous," I answered calmly. "But I have crimes enough upon my head, and so, if the worst should befall me, I am simply atoning in one person for the errors of two.""But that is no concern of mine!" he cried.
"It is so much your concern that if you commit so egregious a blunder as to denounce yourself, you will have ruined yourself, without materially benefitting me.
He still objected, but in this strain I argued for some time, and to such good purpose that in the end I made him realize that by betraying himself he would not save me, but only join me on the journey to the scaffold.
"Besides, gentlemen," I pursued, "my case is far from hopeless. I have every confidence that, as matters stand, by putting forth my hand at the right moment, by announcing my identity at the proper season, I can, if I am so inclined, save my neck from the headsman.""If you are so inclined?" they both cried, their looks charged with inquiry.
"Let that be," I answered; "it does not at present concern us. What I desire you to understand, Monsieur de Lesperon, is that if I go to Toulouse alone, when the time comes to proclaim myself, and it is found that I am not Rene de Lesperon, of Lesperon in Gascony, they will assume that you are dead, and there will be no count against me.
"But if you come with me, and thereby afford proof that you are alive, my impersonation of you may cause me trouble. They may opine that I have been an abettor of treason, that I have attempted to circumvent the ends of justice, and that I may have impersonated you in order to render possible your escape. For that, you may rest assured, they will punish me.
"You will see, therefore, that my own safety rests on your passing quietly out of France and leaving the belief behind you that you are dead - a belief that will quickly spread once I shall have cast off your identity. You apprehend me?""Vaguely, monsieur; and perhaps you are right. What do you say, Stanislas?" "Say?" cried the fiery Marsac. "I am weighed down with shame, my poor Rene, for having so misjudged you."
More he would have said in the same strain, but Lesperon cut him short and bade him attend to the issue now before him. They discussed it at some length, but always under the cloud in which my mysteriousness enveloped it, and, in the end, encouraged by my renewed assurances that I could best save myself if Lesperon were not taken with me, the Gascon consented to my proposals.
Marsac was on his way to Spain. His sister, he told us, awaited him at Carcassonne. Lesperon should set out with him at once, and in forty-eight hours they would be beyond the reach of the King's anger.
"I have a favour to ask of you, Monsieur de Marsac," said I, rising; for our business was at an end. "It is that if you should have an opportunity of communicating with Mademoiselle de Lavedan, you will let her know that I am not - not the Lesperon that is betrothed to your sister."
"I will inform her of it, monsieur," he answered readily; and then, of a sudden, a look of understanding and of infinite pity came into his eyes. "My God!" he cried.
He seemed to ponder a moment, then looking at me again with that same compassionate glance, "You had better know," said he. "And yet - it is a difficult thing to tell you. I understand now much that I had not dreamt of. You - you have no suspicion of how you came to be arrested?""For my alleged participation in the late rebellion?" "Yes, yes. But who gave the information of your whereabouts? Who told the Keeper of the Seals where you were to be found?" "Oh, that?" I answered easily. "Why, I never doubted it. It was the coxcomb Saint-Eustache. I whipped him--" I stopped short. There was something in Marsac's black face, something in his glance, that forced the unspoken truth upon my mind. "Mother in heaven!" I cried. "Do you mean that it was Mademoiselle de Lavedan?"
He bowed his head in silence. Did she hate me, then, so much as that? Would nothing less than my death appease her, and had I utterly crushed the love that for a little while she had borne me, that she could bring herself to hand me over to the headsman?
God! What a stab was that! It turned me sick with grief - aye, and with some rage not against her, oh, not against her; against the fates that had brought such things to pass.
I controlled myself while their eyes were yet upon me. I went to the door and held it open for them, and they, perceiving something of my disorder, were courteous enough to omit the protracted leave-takings that under other auspices there might have been. Marsac paused a moment on the threshold as if he would have offered me some word of comfort. Then, perceiving, perhaps, how banal must be all comfort that was of words alone, and how it might but increase the anger of the wound it was meant to balm, he sighed a simple "Adieu, monsieur!" and went his way.
When they were gone, I returned to the table, and, sitting down, I buried my head in my arms, and there I lay, a prey to the most poignant grief that in all my easy, fortunate life I had ever known. That she should have done this thing! That the woman I loved, the pure, sweet, innocent girl that I had wooed so ardently in my unworthiness at Lavedan, should have stooped to such an act of betrayal! To what had I not reduced her, since such things could be!
Then, out of my despair grew comfort, slowly at first, and more vigorously anon. The sudden shock of the news had robbed me of some of my wit, and had warped my reasoning. Later, as the pain of the blow grew duller, I came to reflect that what she had done was but a proof - an overwhelming proof - of how deeply she had cared. Such hatred as this can be but born of a great love; reaction is ever to be measured by the action that occasions it, and a great revulsion can only come of a great affection. Had she been indifferent to me, or had she but entertained for me a passing liking, she would not have suffered so.
And so I came to realize how cruel must have been the pang that had driven her to this. But she had loved me; aye, and she loved me still, for all that she thought she hated, and for all that she had acted as if she hated. But even if I were wrong
- even if she did hate me - what a fresh revulsion would not be hers when anon she learnt that - whatever my sins - I had not played lightly with her love; that I was not, as she had imagined, the betrothed of another woman!
The thought fired me like wine. I was no longer listless - no longer indifferent as to whether I lived or died. I must live. I must enlighten the Keeper of the Seals and the judges at Toulouse concerning my identity. Why, indeed, had I ever wavered? Bardelys the Magnificent must come to life again, and then-- What then?
As suddenly as I had been exalted was I cast down. There was a rumour abroad that Bardelys was dead. In the wake of that rumour I shrewdly guessed that the report of the wager that had brought him into Languedoc would not be slow to follow. What then? Would she love me any the better? Would she hate me any the less? If now she was wounded by the belief that I had made sport of her love, would not that same belief be with her again when she came to know the truth?
Aye, the tangle was a grievous one. Yet I took heart. My old resolve returned to me, and I saw the need for urgency - in that alone could lie now my redemption in her eyes. My wager must be paid before I again repaired to her, for all that it should leave me poor indeed. In the mean while, I prayed God that she might not hear of it ere I returned to tell her.