Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini - HTML preview
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11. The King's Commissioner
For that most amiable of Gascon cadets, Monsieur de Castelroux, I have naught but the highest praise. In his every dealing with me he revealed himself so very gallant, generous, and high-minded a gentleman that it was little short of a pleasure to be his prisoner. He made no inquiries touching the nature of my interview with those two gentlemen at the Hotel de la Couronne, and when at the moment of leaving I requested him to deliver a packet to the taller of those same two he did so without comment or question. That packet contained the portrait of Mademoiselle de Marsac, but on the inner wrapper was a note requesting Lesperon not to open it until he should be in Spain.Neither Marsac nor Lesperon did I see again before we resumed our journey to Toulouse.
At the moment of setting out a curious incident occurred. Castelroux's company of dragoons had ridden into the courtyard as we were mounting. They lined up under their lieutenant's command, to allow us to pass; but as we reached the porte-cochere we were delayed for a moment by a travelling-carriage, entering for relays, and coming, apparently, from Toulouse. Castelroux and I backed our horses until we were in the midst of the dragoons, and so we stood while the vehicle passed in. As it went by, one of the leather curtains was drawn back, and my heart was quickened by the sight of a pale girl face, with eyes of blue, and brown curls lying upon the slender neck. Her glance lighted on me, swordless and in the midst of that company of troopers, and I bowed low upon the withers of my horse, doffing my hat in distant salutation.
The curtain dropped again, and eclipsed the face of the woman that had betrayed me. With my mind full of wild surmisings as to what emotions might have awakened in her upon beholding me, I rode away in silence at Monsieur de Castelroux's side. Had she experienced any remorse? Any shame? Whether or not such feelings had been aroused at sight of me, it certainly would not be long ere she experienced them, for at the Hotel de la Couronne were those who would enlighten her.
The contemplation of the remorseful grief that might anon beset her when she came to ponder the truth of matters, and, with that truth, those things that at Lavedan I had uttered, filled me presently with regret and pity. I grew impatient to reach Toulouse and tell the judges of the mistake that there had been. My name could not be unknown to them, and the very mention of it, I thought, should suffice to give them pause and lead them to make inquiries before sending me to the scaffold. Yet I was not without uneasiness, for the summariness with which Castelroux had informed me they were in the habit of dealing with those accused of high treason occasioned me some apprehensive pangs.
This apprehension led me to converse with my captor touching those trials, seeking to gather from him who were the judges. I learnt then that besides the ordinary Tribunal, a Commissioner had been dispatched by His Majesty, and was hourly expected to arrive at Toulouse. It would be his mission to supervise and direct the inquiries that were taking place. It was said, he added, that the King himself was on his way thither, to be present at the trial of Monsieur le Duc de Montmorency. But he was travelling by easy stages, and was not yet expected for some days. My heart, which had leapt at the news, as suddenly sank again with the consideration that I should probably be disposed of before the King's arrival. It would behoove me, therefore, to look elsewhere for help and for some one to swear to my identity.
"Why, then, monsieur, I augur you this gentleman's friendship, and that it may pilot you through your trouble. Although--" Being mercifully minded, he stopped short.But I laughed easily. "Indeed, my dear Captain, I think it will," said I; "although friendship in this world is a thing of which the unfortunate know little." But I rejoiced too soon, as you shall hear.
We rode diligently on, our way lying along the fertile banks of the Garonne, now yellow with the rustling corn. Towards evening we made our last halt at Fenouillet, whence a couple of hours' riding should bring us to Toulouse.At the post-house we overtook a carriage that seemingly had halted for relays, but upon which I scarce bestowed a glance as I alighted.
Whilst Castelroux went to arrange for fresh horses, I strode into the common room, and there for some moments I stood discussing the viands with our host. When at last I had resolved that a cold pasty and a bottle of Armagnac would satisfy our wants, I looked about me to take survey of those in the room. One group in a remote corner suddenly riveted my attention to such a degree that I remained deaf to the voice of Castelroux, who had just entered, and who stood now beside me. In the centre of this group was the Comte de Chatellerault himself, a thick-set, sombre figure, dressed with that funereal magnificence he affected.
But it was not the sight of him that filled me with amazement. For that, Castelroux's information had prepared me, and I well understood in what capacity he was there. My surprise sprang rather from the fact that amongst the half-dozen gentlemen about him - and evidently in attendance - I beheld the Chevalier de Saint-Eustache. Now, knowing as I did, the Chevalier's treasonable leanings, there was ample cause for my astonishment at finding him in such company. Apparently, too, he was on very intimate terms with the Count, for in raising my glance I had caught him in the act of leaning over to whisper familiarly in Chatellerault's ear.Their eyes - indeed, for that matter the eyes of the entire company --were turned in my direction.
Perhaps it was not a surprising thing that Chatellerault should gaze upon me in that curious fashion, for was it not probable that he had heard that I was dead? Besides, the fact that I was without a sword, and that at my side stood a King's officer, afforded evidence enough of my condition, and well might Chatellerault stare at beholding me so manifestly a prisoner.
Even as I watched him, he appeared to start at something that Saint-Eustache was saying, and a curious change spread over his face. Its whilom expression had been rather one of dismay; for, having believed me dead, he no doubt accounted his wager won, whereas seeing me alive had destroyed that pleasant conviction. But now it took on a look of relief and of something that suggested malicious cunning."That," said Castelroux in my ear, "is the King's commissioner. Did I not know it? I never waited to answer him, but, striding across the room, I held out my hand over the table - to Chatellerault. "My dear Comte," I cried, "you are most choicely met."
I would have added more, but there was something in his attitude that silenced me. He had turned half from me, and stood now, hand on hip, his great head thrown back and tilted towards his shoulder, his expression one of freezing and disdainful wonder.Now, if his attitude filled me with astonishment and apprehension, consider how these feelings were heightened by his words.
"Monsieur de Lesperon, I can but express amazement at your effrontery. If we have been acquainted in the past, do you think that is a sufficient reason for me to take your hand now that you have placed yourself in a position which renders it impossible for His Majesty's loyal servants to know you?"I fell back a pace, my mind scarce grasping yet the depths of this inexplicable attitude. "This to me, Chatellerault?" I gasped. "To you?" he blazed, stirred to a sudden passion. "What else did you expect, Monsieur de Lesperon?"
I had it in me to give him the lie, to denounce him then for a low, swindling trickster. I understood all at once the meaning of this wondrous make-believe. From Saint-Eustache he had gathered the mistake there was, and for his wager's sake he would let the error prevail, and hurry me to the scaffold. What else might I have expected from the man that had lured me into such a wager - a wager which the knowledge he possessed had made him certain of winning? Would he who had cheated at the dealing of the cards neglect an opportunity to cheat again during the progress of the game?
As I have said, I had it in my mind to cry out that he lied - that I was not Lesperon; that he knew I was Bardelys. But the futility of such an outcry came to me simultaneously with the thought of it. And, I fear me, I stood before him and his satellites - the mocking Saint-Eustache amongst them - a very foolish figure."There is no more to be said," I murmured at last.
"But there is!" he retorted. "There is much more to be said. You shall render yet an account of your treason, and I am afraid, my poor rebel, that your comely head will part company with your shapely body. You and I will meet at Toulouse. What more is to be said will be said in the Tribunal there."
A chill encompassed me. I was doomed, it seemed. This man, ruling the province pending the King's arrival, would see to it that none came forward to recognize me. He would expedite the comedy of my trial, and close it with the tragedy of my execution. My professions of a mistake of identity - if I wasted breath upon them would be treated with disdain and disregarded utterly. God! What a position had I got myself into, and what a vein of comedy ran through it - grim, tragic comedy, if you will, yet comedy to all faith. The very woman whom I had wagered to wed had betrayed me into the hands of the very man with whom I laid my wager.
But there was more in it than that. As I had told Mironsac that night in Paris, when the thing had been initiated, it was a duel that was being fought betwixt Chatellerault and me - a duel for supremacy in the King's good graces. We were rivals, and he desired my removal from the Court. To this end had he lured me into a bargain that should result in my financial ruin, thereby compelling me to withdraw from the costly life of the Luxembourg, and leaving him supreme, the sole and uncontested recipient of our master's favour. Now into his hand Fate had thrust a stouter weapon and a deadlier: a weapon which not only should make him master of the wealth that I had pledged, but one whereby he might remove me for all time, a thousandfold more effectively than the mere encompassing of my ruin would have done.I was doomed. I realized it fully and very bitterly.
I was to go out of the ways of men unnoticed and unmourned; as a rebel, under the obscure name of another and bearing another's sins upon my shoulders, I was to pass almost unheeded to the gallows. Bardelys the Magnificent - the Marquis Marcel Saint-Pol de Bardelys, whose splendour had been a byword in France - was to go out like a guttering candle.
The thought filled me with the awful frenzy that so often goes with impotency, such a frenzy as the damned in hell may know. I forgot in that hour my precept that under no conditions should a gentleman give way to anger. In a blind access of fury I flung myself across the table and caught that villainous cheat by the throat, before any there could put out a hand to stop me.
He was a heavy man, if a short one, and the strength of his thick-set frame was a thing abnormal. Yet at that moment such nervous power did I gather from my rage, that I swung him from his feet as though he had been the puniest weakling. I dragged him down on to the table, and there I ground his face with a most excellent good-will and relish."You liar, you cheat, you thief!" I snarled like any cross-grained mongrel. "The King shall hear of this, you knave! By God, he shall!"
They dragged me from him at last - those lapdogs that attended him --and with much rough handling they sent me sprawling among the sawdust on the floor. It is more than likely that but for Castelroux's intervention they had made short work of me there and then.
But with a bunch of Mordieus, Sangdieus, and Po' Cap de Dieus, the little Gascon flung himself before my prostrate figure, and bade them in the King's name, and at their peril, to stand back.
Chatellerault, sorely shaken, his face purple, and with blood streaming from his nostrils, had sunk into a chair. He rose now, and his first words were incoherent, raging gasps.
"What is your name, sir?" he bellowed at last, addressing the Captain. "Amedee de Mironsac de Castelroux, of Chateau Rouge in Gascony," answered my captor, with a grand manner and a flourish, and added, "Your servant.""What authority have you to allow your prisoners this degree of freedom?" "I do not need authority, monsieur," replied the Gascon. "Do you not?" blazed the Count. "We shall see. Wait until I am in Toulouse, my malapert friend." Castelroux drew himself up, straight as a rapier, his face slightly flushed and his glance angry, yet he had the presence of mind to restrain himself, partly at least.
"I have my orders from the Keeper of the Seals, to effect the apprehension of Monsieur de Lesperon; and to deliver him up, alive or dead, at Toulouse. So that I do this, the manner of it is my own affair, and who presumes to criticize my methods censoriously impugns my honour and affronts me. And who affronts me, monsieur, be he whosoever he may be, renders me satisfaction. I beg that you will bear that circumstance in mind."
His moustaches bristled as he spoke, and altogether his air was very fierce and truculent. For a moment I trembled for him. But the Count evidently thought better of it than to provoke a quarrel, particularly one in which he would be manifestly in the wrong, King's Commissioner though he might be. There was an exchange of questionable compliments betwixt the officer and the Count, whereafter, to avoid further unpleasantness, Castelroux conducted me to a private room, where we took our meal in gloomy silence.
It was not until an hour later, when we were again in the saddle and upon the last stage of our journey, that I offered Castelroux an explanation of my seemingly mad attack upon Chatellerault.
"You have done a very rash and unwise thing, monsieur," he had commented regretfully, and it was in answer to this that I poured out the whole story. I had determined upon this course while we were supping, for Castelroux was now my only hope, and as we rode beneath the stars of that September night I made known to him my true identity.
I told him that Chatellerault knew me, and I informed him that a wager lay between us - withholding the particulars of its nature --which had brought me into Languedoc and into the position wherein he had found and arrested me. At first he hesitated to believe me, but when at last I had convinced him by the vehemence of my assurances as much as by the assurances themselves, he expressed such opinions of the Comte de Chatellerault as made my heart go out to him.
"You see, my dear Castelroux, that you are now my last hope," I said.
"Nay, that need not be. My intendant Rodenard and some twenty of my servants should be somewhere betwixt this and Paris. Let them be sought for monsieur, and let us pray God that they be still in Languedoc and may be found in time."
"It shall be done, monsieur, I promise you," he answered me solemnly. "But I implore you not to hope too much from it. Chatellerault has it in his power to act promptly, and you may depend that he will waste no time after what has passed.""Still, we may have two or three days, and in those days you must do what you can, my friend." "You may depend upon me," he promised. "And meanwhile, Castelroux," said I, "you will say no word of this to any one." That assurance also he gave me, and presently the lights of our destination gleamed out to greet us. That night I lay in a dank and gloomy cell of the prison of Toulouse, with never a hope to bear company during those dark, wakeful hours.
A dull rage was in my soul as I thought of my position, for it had not needed Castelroux's recommendation to restrain me from building false hopes upon his chances of finding Rodenard and my followers in time to save me. Some little ray of consolation I culled, perhaps, from my thoughts of Roxalanne. Out of the gloom of my cell my fancy fashioned her sweet girl face and stamped it with a look of gentle pity, of infinite sorrow for me and for the hand she had had in bringing me to this.That she loved me I was assured, and I swore that if I lived I would win her yet, in spite of every obstacle that I myself had raised for my undoing.
12. The Tribunal Of Toulouse
I had hoped to lie some days in prison before being brought to trial, and that during those days Castelroux might have succeeded in discovering those who could witness to my identity. Conceive, therefore, something of my dismay when on the morrow I was summoned an hour before noon to go present myself to my judges.
From the prison to the Palace I was taken in chains like any thief --for the law demanded this indignity to be borne by one charged with the crimes they imputed to me. The distance was but short, yet I found it over-long, which is not wonderful considering that the people stopped to line up as I went by and to cast upon me a shower of opprobrious derision - for Toulouse was a very faithful and loyal city. It was within some two hundred yards of the Palace steps that I suddenly beheld a face in the crowd, at the sight of which I stood still in my amazement. This earned me a stab in the back from the butt-end of the pike of one of my guards."What ails you now?" quoth the man irritably. "Forward, Monsieur le traite!"
I moved on, scarce remarking the fellow's roughness; my eyes were still upon that face - the white, piteous face of Roxalanne. I smiled reassurance and encouragement, but even as I smiled the horror in her countenance seemed to increase. Then, as I passed on, she vanished from my sight, and I was left to conjecture the motives that had occasioned her return to Toulouse. Had the message that Marsac would yesterday have conveyed to her caused her to retrace her steps that she might be near me in my extremity; or had some weightier reason influenced her return? Did she hope to undo some of the evil she had done? Alas, poor child! If such were her hopes, I sorely feared me they would prove very idle.
Of my trial I should say but little did not the exigencies of my story render it necessary to say much. Even now, across the gap of years, my gorge rises at the mockery which, in the King's name, those gentlemen made of justice. I can allow for the troubled conditions of the times, and I can realize how in cases of civil disturbances and rebellion it may be expedient to deal summarily with traitors, yet not all the allowances that I can think of would suffice to condone the methods of that tribunal.
The trial was conducted in private by the Keeper of the Seals - a lean, wizened individual, with an air as musty and dry as that of the parchments among which he had spent his days. He was supported by six judges, and on his right sat the King's Commissioner, Monsieur de Chatellerault - the bruised condition of whose countenance still advertised the fact that we had met but yesterday. Upon being asked my name and place of abode, I created some commotion by answering boldly "I am the Sieur Marcel de Saint-Pol, Marquis of Bardelys, of Bardelys in Picardy."
The President - that is to say, the Keeper of the Seals - turned inquiringly to Chatellerault. The Count, however, did no more than smile and point to something written on a paper that lay spread upon the table. The President nodded.
"Monsieur Rene de Lesperon," said he, "the Court may perhaps not be able to discriminate whether this statement of yours is a deliberate attempt to misguide or frustrate the ends of justice, or whether, either in consequence of your wounds or as a visitation of God for your treason, you are the victim of a deplorable hallucination. But the Court wishes you to understand that it is satisfied of your identity. The papers found upon your person at the time of your arrest, besides other evidence in our power, remove all possibility of doubt in that connection. Therefore, in your own interests, we implore you to abandon these false statements, if so be that you are master of your wits. Your only hope of saving your head must lie in your truthfully answering our questions, and even then, Monsieur de Lesperon, the hope that we hold out to you is so slight as to be no hope at all."
There was a pause, during which the other judges nodded their heads in sage approval of their President's words. For myself, I kept silent, perceiving how little it could avail me to continue to protest, and awaited his next question."You were arrested, monsieur, at the Chateau de Lavedan two nights ago by a company of dragoons under the command of Captain de Castelroux. Is that so?" "It is so, monsieur."
"And at the time of your arrest, upon being apprehended as Rene de Lesperon, you offered no repudiation of the identity; on the contrary, when Monsieur de Castelroux called for Monsieur de Lesperon, you stepped forward and acknowledged that you were he.""Pardon, monsieur. What I acknowledged was that I was known by that name." The President chuckled evilly, and his satellites smiled in polite reflection of his mood.
"This acute differentiating is peculiar, Monsieur de Lesperon, to persons of unsound mental condition," said he. "I am afraid that it will serve little purpose. A man is generally known by his name, is he not?" I did not answer him. "Shall we call Monsieur de Castelroux to confirm what I have said?"
"It is not necessary. Since you allow that I may have said I was known by the name, but refuse to recognize the distinction between that and a statement that 'Lesperon' is my name, it would serve no purpose to summon the Captain."
"You are charged, Monsieur de Lesperon, with high treason in its most virulent and malignant form. You are accused of having borne arms against His Majesty. Have you anything to say?""I have to say that it is false, monsieur; that His Majesty has no more faithful or loving subject than am I." The President shrugged his shoulders, and a shade of annoyance crossed his face.
"If you are come here for no other purpose than to deny the statements that I make, I am afraid that we are but wasting time," he cried testily. "If you desire it, I can summon Monsieur de Castelroux to swear that at the time of your arrest and upon being charged with the crime you made no repudiation of that charge."
"Naturally not, monsieur," I cried, somewhat heated by this seemingly studied ignoring of important facts, "because I realized that it was Monsieur de Castelroux's mission to arrest and not to judge me. Monsieur de Castelroux was an officer, not a Tribunal, and to have denied this or that to him would have been so much waste of breath."
"Ah! Very nimble; very nimble, in truth, Monsieur de Lesperon, but scarcely convincing. We will proceed. You are charged with having taken part in several of the skirmishes against the armies of Marshals de Schomberg and La Force, and finally, with having been in close attendance upon Monsieur de Montmorency at the battle of Castelnaudary. What have you to say?""That it is utterly untrue." "Yet your name, monsieur, is on a list found among the papers in the captured baggage of Monsieur le Duc de Montmorency." "No, monsieur," I denied stoutly, "it is not." The President smote the table a blow that scattered a flight of papers.
"Par la mort Dieu!" he roared, with a most indecent exhibition of temper in one so placed. "I have had enough of your contradictions. You forget, monsieur, your position--"
"At least," I broke in harshly, "no less than you forget yours."
The Keeper of the Seals gasped for breath at that, and his fellow judges murmured angrily amongst themselves. Chatellerault maintained his sardonic smile, but permitted himself to utter no word.
"I would, gentlemen," I cried, addressing them all, "that His Majesty were here to see how you conduct your trials and defile his Courts. As for you, Monsieur le President, you violate the sanctity of your office in giving way to anger; it is a thing unpardonable in a judge. I have told you in plain terms, gentlemen, that I am not this Rene de Lesperon with whose crimes you charge me. Yet, in spite of my denials, ignoring them, or setting them down either to a futile attempt at defence or to an hallucination of which you suppose me the victim, you proceed to lay those crimes to my charge, and when I deny your charges you speak of proofs that can only apply to another.
"How shall the name of Lesperon having been found among the Duke of Montmorency's papers convict me of treason, since I tell you that I am not Lesperon? Had you the slightest, the remotest sense of your high duty, messieurs, you would ask me rather to explain how, if what I state be true, I come to be confounded with Lesperon and arrested in his place. Then, messieurs, you might seek to test the accuracy of what statements I may make; but to proceed as you are proceeding is not to judge but to murder. Justice is represented as a virtuous woman with bandaged eyes, holding impartial scales; in your hands, gentlemen, by my soul, she is become a very harlot clutching a veil."
Chatellerault's cynical smile grew broader as my speech proceeded and stirred up the rancour in the hearts of those august gentlemen. The Keeper of the Seals went white and red by turns, and when I paused there was an impressive silence that lasted for some moments. At last the President leant over to confer in a whisper with Chatellerault. Then, in a voice forcedly calm - like the calm of Nature when thunder is brewing - he asked me, "Who do you insist that you are, monsieur?"
"Once already have I told you, and I venture to think that mine is a name not easily forgotten. I am the Sieur Marcel de Saint-Pol, Marquis of Bardelys, of Bardelys in Picardy."A cunning grin parted his thin lips. "Have you any witnesses to identify you?" "Hundreds, monsieur!" I answered eagerly, seeing salvation already within my grasp. "Name some of them." "I will name one - one whose word you will not dare to doubt." "That is?" "His Majesty the King. I am told that he is on his way to Toulouse, and I but ask, messieurs, that you await his arrival before going further with my trial."
"Is there no other witness of whom you can think, monsieur? Some witness that might be produced more readily. For if you can, indeed, establish the identity you claim, why should you languish in prison for some weeks?"His voice was soft and oily. The anger had all departed out of it, which I - like a fool - imagined to be due to my mention of the King.
"My friends, Monsieur le Garde des Sceaux, are all either in Paris or in His Majesty's train, and so not likely to be here before him. There is my intendant, Rodenard, and there are my servants - some twenty of them - who may perhaps be still in Languedoc, and for whom I would entreat you to seek. Them you might succeed in finding within a few days if they have not yet determined to return to Paris in the belief that I am dead."He stroked his chin meditatively, his eyes raised to the sunlit dome of glass overhead.
"Ah-h!" he gasped. It was a long-drawn sigh of regret, of conclusion, or of weary impatience. "There is no one in Toulouse who will swear to your identity monsieur?" he asked."I am afraid there is not," I replied. "I know of no one."
As I uttered those words the President's countenance changed as abruptly as if he had flung off a mask. From soft and cat-like that he had been during the past few moments, he grew of a sudden savage as a tiger. He leapt to his feet, his face crimson, his eyes seeming to blaze, and the words he spoke came now in a hot, confused, and almost incoherent torrent.
"Miserable!" he roared, "out of your own mouth have you convicted yourself. And to think that you should have stood there and wasted the time of this Court - His Majesty's time - with your damnable falsehoods! What purpose did you think to serve by delaying your doom? Did you imagine that haply, whilst we sent to Paris for your witnesses, the King might grow weary of justice, and in some fit of clemency announce a general pardon? Such things have been known, and it may be that in your cunning you played for such a gain based upon such a hope. But justice, fool, is not to be cozened. Had you, indeed, been Bardelys, you had seen that here in this court sits a gentleman who is very intimate with him. He is there, monsieur; that is Monsieur le Comte de Chatellerault, of whom perhaps you may have heard. Yet, when I ask you whether in Toulouse there is any one who can bear witness to your identity, you answer me that you know of no one. I will waste no more time with you, I promise you."
He flung himself back into his chair like a man exhausted, and mopped his brow with a great kerchief which he had drawn from his robes. His fellow judges laid their heads together, and with smiles and nods, winks and leers, they discussed and admired the miraculous subtlety and acumen of this Solomon. Chatellerault sat, calmly smiling, in solemn mockery.
For a spell I was too thunderstruck to speak, aghast at this catastrophe. Like a fool, indeed, I had tumbled into the pit that had been dug for me by Chatellerault for I never doubted that it was of his contriving. At last, "My masters," said I, "these conclusions may appear to you most plausible, but, believe me, they are fallacious. I am perfectly acquainted with Monsieur de Chatellerault, and he with me, and if he were to speak the truth and play the man and the gentleman for once, he would tell you that I am, indeed, Bardelys. But Monsieur le Comte has ends of his own to serve in sending me to my doom. It is in a sense through his agency that I am at present in this position, and that I have been confounded with Lesperon. What, then, could it have availed me to have made appeal to him? And yet, Monsieur le President, he was born a gentleman, and he may still retain some notion of honour. Ask him, sir - ask him point-blank, whether I am or not Marcel de Bardelys."
The firmness of my tones created some impression upon those feeble minds. Indeed, the President went so far as to turn an interrogative glance upon the Count. But Chatellerault, supremely master of the situation, shrugged his shoulders, and smiled a pitying, long-suffering smile.
"Must I really answer such a question, Monsieur le President?" he inquired in a voice and with a manner that clearly implied how low would be his estimate of the President's intelligence if he were, indeed, constrained to do so."But no, Monsieur le Comte," replied the President with sudden haste, and in scornful rejection of the idea. "There is no necessity that you should answer."
"But the question, Monsieur le President!" I thundered, my hand outstretched towards Chatellerault. "Ask him - if you have any sense of your duty - ask him am I not Marcel de Bardelys.""Silence!" blazed the President back at me. "You shall not fool us any longer, you nimble-witted liar!" My head drooped. This coward had, indeed, shattered my last hope.
"Some day, monsieur," I said very quietly, "I promise you that your behaviour and these gratuitous insults shall cost you your position. Pray God they do not cost you also your head!"
My words they treated as one might treat the threats of a child. That I should have had the temerity to utter them did but serve finally to decide my doom, if, indeed, anything had been wanting.
With many epithets of opprobrium, such as are applied to malefactors of the lowest degree, they passed sentence of death upon me, and with drooping spirits, giving myself up for lost and assured that I should be led to the block before many hours were sped, I permitted them to reconduct me through the streets of Toulouse to my prison.
I could entertain you at length upon my sensations as I walked between my guards, a man on the threshold of eternity, with hundreds of men and women gaping at me - men and women who would live for years to gape upon many another wretch in my position. The sun shone with a brilliance that to such eyes as mine was a very mockery. Thus would it shine on through centuries, and light many another unfortunate to the scaffold. The very sky seemed pitiless in the intensity of its cobalt. Unfeeling I deemed the note that everywhere was struck by man and Nature, so discordant was it with my gloomy outlook. If you would have food for reflection upon the evanescent quality of life, upon the nothingness of man, upon the empty, heartless egoism implicit in human nature, get yourselves sentenced to death, and then look around you. With such a force was all this borne in upon me, and with such sufficiency, that after the first pang was spent I went near to rejoicing that things were as they were, and that I was to die, haply before sunset. It was become such a world as did not seem worth a man's while to live in: a world of vainness, of hollowness, of meanness, of nothing but illusions. The knowledge that I was about to die, that I was about to quit all this, seemed to have torn some veil from my eyes, and to have permitted me to recognize the worthless quality of what I left. Well may it be that such are but the thoughts of a man's dying moments, whispered into his soul by a merciful God to predispose him for the wrench and agony of his passing.
I had been a half-hour in my cell when the door was opened to admit Castelroux, whom I had not seen since the night before. He came to condole with me in my extremity, and yet to bid me not utterly lose hope.
"It is too late to-day to carry out the sentence," said he, "and as to-morrow will be Sunday, you will have until the day after. By then much may betide, monsieur. My agents are everywhere scouring the province for your servants, and let us pray Heaven that they may succeed in their search."
"It is a forlorn hope, Monsieur de Castelroux," I sighed, "and I will pin no faith to it lest I suffer a disappointment that will embitter my last moments, and perhaps rob me of some of the fortitude I shall have need of."
He answered me, nevertheless, with words of encouragement. No effort was being spared, and if Rodenard and my men were still in Languedoc then was every likelihood that they would be brought to Toulouse in time. Then he added that that, however, was not the sole object of his visit. A lady had obtained permission of the Keeper of the Seals to visit me, and she was waiting to be admitted."A lady?" I exclaimed, and the thought of Roxalanne flitted through my mind. "Mademoiselle de Lavedan?" I inquired. He nodded. "Yes," said he; then added, "She seems in sore affliction, monsieur."
I besought him to admit her forthwith, and presently she came. Castelroux closed the door as he withdrew, and we were left alone together. As she put aside her cloak, and disclosed to me the pallor of her face and the disfiguring red about her gentle eyes, telling of tears and sleeplessness, all my own trouble seemed to vanish in the contemplation of her affliction.
We stood a moment confronting each other with no word spoken. Then, dropping her glance, and advancing a step, in a faltering, hesitating manner "Monsieur, monsieur," she murmured in a suffocating voice.In a bound I was beside her, and I had gathered her in my arms, her little brown head against my shoulder. "Roxalanne!" I whispered as soothingly as I might - "Roxalanne!" But she struggled to be free of my embrace. "Let me go, monsieur," she pleaded, a curious shrinking in her very voice. "Do not touch me, monsieur. You do not know - you do not know." For answer, I enfolded her more tightly still. "But I do know, little one," I whispered; "and I even understand." At that, her struggles ceased upon the instant, and she seemed to lie limp and helpless in my arms. "You know, monsieur," she questioned me - "you know that I betrayed you?"
"Yes," I answered simply. "And you can forgive me? I am sending you to your death and you have no reproaches for me! Oh, monsieur, it will kill me!""Hush, child!" I whispered. "What reproaches can I have for you? I know the motives that impelled you."
"Not altogether, monsieur; you cannot know them. I loved you, monsieur. I do love you, monsieur. Oh! this is not a time to consider words. If I am bold and unmaidenly, I - I--"
"Neither bold nor unmaidenly, but - oh, the sweetest damsel in all France, my Roxalanne!" I broke in, coming to her aid. "Mine was a leprous, sinful soul, child, when I came into Languedoc. I had no faith in any human good, and I looked as little for an honest man or a virtuous woman as one looks for honey in a nettle. I was soured, and my life had hardly been such a life as it was meet to bring into contact with your own. Then, among the roses at Lavedan, in your dear company, Roxalanne, it seemed that some of the good, some of the sweetness, some of the purity about you were infused anew into my heart. I became young again, and I seemed oddly cleansed. In that hour of my rejuvenation I loved you, Roxalanne."
Her face had been raised to mine as I spoke. There came now a flutter of the eyelids, a curious smile about the lips. Then her head drooped again and was laid against my breast; a sigh escaped her, and she began to weep softly."Nay, Roxalanne, do not fret. Come, child, it is not your way to be weak." "I have betrayed you!" she moaned. "I am sending you to your death!" "I understand, I understand," I answered, smoothing her brown hair. "Not quite, monsieur. I loved you so, monsieur, that you can have no thought of how I suffered that morning when Mademoiselle de Marsac came to Lavedan.
"At first it was but the pain of thinking that - that I was about to lose you; that you were to go out of my life, and that I should see you no more - you whom I had enshrined so in my heart.
"I called myself a little fool that morning for having dreamed that you had come to care for me; my vanity I thought had deluded me into imagining that your manner towards me had a tenderness that spoke of affection. I was bitter with myself, and I suffered oh, so much! Then later, when I was in the rose garden, you came to me.
"You remember how you seized me, and how by your manner you showed me that it was not vanity alone had misled me. You had fooled me, I thought; even in that hour I imagined you were fooling me; you made light of me; and my sufferings were naught to you so that I might give you some amusement to pass the leisure and monotony of your sojourn with us.""Roxalanne - my poor Roxalanne!" I whispered.
"Then my bitterness and sorrow all turned to anger against you. You had broken my heart, and I thought that you had done it wantonly. For that I burned to punish you. Ah! and not only that, perhaps. I think, too, that some jealousy drove me on. You had wooed and slighted me, yet you had made me love you, and if you were not for me I swore you should be for no other. And so, while my madness endured, I quitted Lavedan, and telling my father that I was going to Auch, to his sister's house, I came to Toulouse and betrayed you to the Keeper of the Seals.
"Scarce was the thing done than I beheld the horror of it, and I hated myself. In my despair, I abandoned all idea of pursuing the journey to Auch, but turned and made my way back in haste, hoping that I might still come to warn you. But at Grenade I met you already in charge of the soldiers. At Grenade, too I learnt the truth - that you were not Lesperon. Can you not guess something of my anguish then? Already loathing my act, and beside myself for having betrayed you, think into what despair I was plunged by Monsieur de Marsac's intimation.
"Then I understood that for reasons of your own you had concealed your identity. You were not perhaps, betrothed; indeed, I remembered then how, solemnly you had sworn that you were not; and so I bethought me that your vows to me may have been sincere and such as a maid might honourably listen to.""They were, Roxalanne! they were!" I cried.
But she continued "That you had Mademoiselle de Marsac's portrait was something that I could not explain; but then I hear that you had also Lesperon's papers upon you; so that you may have become possessed of the one with the others. And now, monsieur--"
She ceased, and there against my breast she lay weeping and weeping in her bitter passion of regret, until it seemed to me she would never regain her selfcontrol.
"It has been all my fault, Roxalanne," said I, "and if I am to pay the price they are exacting, it will be none too high. I embarked upon a dastardly business; which brought me to Languedoc under false colours. I wish, indeed, that I had told you when first the impulse to tell you came upon me. Afterwards it grew impossible."
"Tell me now," she begged. "Tell me who you are." Sorely was I tempted to respond. Almost was I on the point of doing so, when suddenly the thought of how she might shrink from me, of how, even then, she might come to think that I had but simulated love for her for infamous purposes of gain, restrained and silenced me. During the few hours of life that might be left me I would at least be lord and master of her heart. When I was dead - for I had little hope of Castelroux's efforts - it would matter less, and perhaps because I was dead she would be merciful."I cannot, Roxalanne. Not even now. It is too vile! If - if they carry out the sentence on Monday, I shall leave a letter for you, telling you everything." She shuddered, and a sob escaped her. From my identity her mind fled back to the more important matter of my fate. "They will not carry it out, monsieur! Oh, they till not! Say that you can defend yourself, that you are not the man they believe you to be!"
"We are in God's hands, child. It may be that I shall save myself yet. If I do, I shall come straight to you, and you shall know all that there is to know. But, remember, child" - and raising her face in my hands, I looked down into the blue of her tearful eyes - "remember, little one, that in one thing I have been true and honourable, and influenced by nothing but my heart - in my wooing of you. I love you, Roxalanne, with all my soul, and if I should die you are the only thing in all this world that I experience a regret at leaving."
"I do believe it; I do, indeed. Nothing can ever alter my belief again. Will you not, then, tell me who you are, and what is this thing, which you call dishonourable, that brought you into Languedoc?"A moment again I pondered. Then I shook my head. "Wait, child," said I; and she, obedient to my wishes, asked no more.
It was the second time that I neglected a favourable opportunity of making that confession, and as I had regretted having allowed the first occasion to pass unprofited, so was I, and still more poignantly, to regret this second silence.
A little while she stayed with me yet, and I sought to instil some measure of comfort into her soul. I spoke of the hopes that I based upon Castelroux's finding friends to recognize me - hopes that were passing slender. And she, poor child, sought also to cheer me and give me courage.
"If only the King were here!" she sighed. "I would go to him, and on my knees I would plead for your enlargement. But they say he is no nearer than Lyons; and I could not hope to get there and back by Monday. I will go to the Keeper of the Seals again, monsieur, and I will beg him to be merciful, and at least to delay the sentence."
I did not discourage her; I did not speak of the futility of such a step. But I begged her to remain in Toulouse until Monday, that she might visit me again before the end, if the end were to become inevitable.
Then Castelroux came to reconduct her, and we parted. But she left me a great consolation, a great strengthening comfort. If I were destined, indeed, to walk to the scaffold, it seemed that I could do it with a better grace and a gladder courage now.
13. The Eleventh Hour
Castelroux visited me upon the following morning, but he brought no news that might be accounted encouraging. None of his messengers were yet returned, nor had any sent word that they were upon the trail of my followers. My heart sank a little, and such hope as I still fostered was fast perishing. Indeed, so imminent did my doom appear and so unavoidable, that later in the day I asked for pen and paper that I might make an attempt at setting my earthly affairs to rights. Yet when the writing materials were brought me, I wrote not. I sat instead with the feathered end of my quill between my teeth, and thus pondered the matter of the disposal of my Picardy estates.
Coldly I weighed the wording of the wager and the events that had transpired, and I came at length to the conclusion that Chatellerault could not be held to have the least claim upon my lands. That he had cheated at the very outset, as I have earlier shown, was of less account than that he had been instrumental in violently hindering me.
I took at last the resolve to indite a full memoir of the transaction, and to request Castelroux to see that it was delivered to the King himself. Thus not only would justice be done, but I should - though tardily - be even with the Count. No doubt he relied upon his power to make a thorough search for such papers as I might leave, and to destroy everything that might afford indication of my true identity. But he had not counted upon the good feeling that had sprung up betwixt the little Gascon captain and me, nor yet upon my having contrived to convince the latter that I was, indeed, Bardelys, and he little dreamt of such a step as I was about to take to ensure his punishment hereafter.
Resolved at last, I was commencing to write when my attention was arrested by an unusual sound. It was at first no more than a murmuring noise, as of at sea breaking upon its shore. Gradually it grew its volume and assumed the shape of human voices raised in lusty clamour. Then, above the din of the populace, a gun boomed out, then another, and another.
I sprang up at that, and, wondering what might be toward, I crossed to my barred window and stood there listening. I overlooked the courtyard of the jail, and I could see some commotion below, in sympathy, as it were, with the greater commotion without.
Presently, as the populace drew nearer, it seemed to me that the shouting was of acclamation. Next I caught a blare of trumpets, and, lastly, I was able to distinguish above the noise, which had now grown to monstrous proportions, the clattering hoofs of some cavalcade that was riding past the prison doors. It was borne in upon me that some great personage was arriving in Toulouse, and my first thought was of the King. At the idea of such a possibility my brain whirled and I grew dizzy with hope. The next moment I recalled that but last night Roxalanne had told me that he was no nearer than Lyons, and so I put the thought from me, and the hope with it, for, travelling in that leisurely, indolent fashion that was characteristic of his every action, it would be a miracle if His Majesty should reach Toulouse before the week was out, and this but Sunday.
The populace passed on, then seemed to halt, and at last the shouts died down on the noontide air. I went back to my writing, and to wait until from my jailer, when next he should chance to appear, I might learn the meaning of that uproar.
An hour perhaps went by, and I had made some progress with my memoir, when my door was opened and the cheery voice of Castelroux greeted me from the threshold."Monsieur, I have brought a friend to see you."
I turned in my chair, and one glance at the gentle, comely face and the fair hair of the young man standing beside Castelroux was enough to bring me of a sudden to my feet."Mironsac!" I shouted, and sprang towards him with hands outstretched. But though my joy was great and my surprise profound, greater still was the bewilderment that in Mironsac's face I saw depicted. "Monsieur de Bardelys!" he exclaimed, and a hundred questions were contained in his astonished eyes. "Po' Cap de Dieu!" growled his cousin, "I was well advised, it seems, to have brought you."
"But," Mironsac asked his cousin, as he took my hands in his own, "why did you not tell me, Amedee, that it was to Monsieur le Marquis de Bardelys that you were conducting me?""Would you have had me spoil so pleasant a surprise?" his cousin demanded. "Armand," said I, "never was a man more welcome than are you. You are but come in time to save my life."
And then, in answer to his questions, I told him briefly of all that had befallen me since that night in Paris when the wager had been laid, and of how, through the cunning silence of Chatellerault, I was now upon the very threshold of the scaffold. His wrath burst forth at that, and what he said of the Count did me good to hear. At last I stemmed his invective.
"Let that be for the present, Mironsac," I laughed. "You are here, and you can thwart all Chatellerault's designs by witnessing to my identity before the Keeper of the Seals."And then of a sudden a doubt closed like a cold hand upon my brain. I turned to Castelroux. "Mon Dieu!" I cried. "What if they were to deny me a fresh trial?" "Deny it you!" he laughed. "They will not be asked to grant you one." "There will be no need," added Mironsac. "I have but to tell the King--" "But, my friend," I exclaimed impatiently, "I am to die in the morning!" "And the King shall be told to-day - now, at once. I will go to him." I stared askance a moment; then the thought of the uproar that I had heard recurring to me, "Has the King arrived already?" I exclaimed. "Naturally, monsieur. How else do I come to be here? I am in His Majesty's train."
At that I grew again impatient. I thought of Roxalanne and of how she must be suffering, and I bethought me that every moment Mironsac now remained in my cell was another moment of torture for that poor child. So I urged him to be gone at once and carry news of my confinement to His Majesty. He obeyed me, and I was left alone once more, to pace up and down in my narrow cell, a prey to an excitement such as I should have thought I had outlived.At the end of a half-hour Castelroux returned alone. "Well?" I cried the moment the door opened, and without giving him so much as time to enter. "What news?" "Mironsac tells me that His Majesty is more overwrought than he has ever seen him. You are to come to the Palace at once. I have an order here from the King." We went in a coach, and with all privacy, for he informed me that His Majesty desired the affair to be kept secret, having ends of his own to serve thereby.
I was left to wait some moments in an ante-chamber, whilst Castelroux announced me to the King; then I was ushered into a small apartment, furnished very sumptuously in crimson and gold, and evidently set apart for His Majesty's studies or devotions. As I entered, Louis's back was towards me. He was standing - a tall, spare figure in black - leaning against the frame of a window, his head supported on his raised left arm and his eyes intent upon the gardens below.
He remained so until Castelroux had withdrawn and the door had closed again; then, turning suddenly, he confronted me, his back to the light, so that his face was in a shadow that heightened its gloom and wonted weariness."Voila, Monsieur de Bardelys!" was his greeting, and unfriendly. "See the pass to which your disobedience of my commands has brought you."
"I would submit, Sire," I answered, "that I have been brought to it by the incompetence of Your Majesty's judges and the ill-will of others whom Your Majesty honours with too great a confidence, rather than by this same disobedience of mine."
"The one and the other, perhaps," he said more softly. "Though, after all, they appear to have had a very keen nose for a traitor. Come, Bardelys, confess yourself that.""I? A traitor?" He shrugged his shoulders, and laughed without any conspicuous mirth.
"Is not a traitor one who runs counter to the wishes; of his King? And are you not, therefore, a traitor, whether they call you Lesperon or Bardelys? But there," he ended more softly still, and flinging himself into a chair as he spoke, "I have been so wearied since you left me, Marcel. They have the best intentions in the world, these dullards, and some of them love me even; but they are tiresome all. Even Chatellerault, when he has a fancy for a jest - as in your case perpetrates it with the grace of a bear, the sprightliness of an elephant.""Jest?" said I.
"You find it no jest, Marcel? Pardieu, who shall blame you? He would be a man of unhealthy humour that could relish such a pleasantry as that of being sentenced to death. But tell me of it. The whole story, Marcel. I have not heard a story worth the listening to since - since you left us.""Would it please you, Sire, to send for the Comte de Chatellerault ere I begin?" I asked.
"Chatellerault? No, no." He shook his head whimsically. "Chatellerault has had his laugh already, and, like the ill-mannered dog he is, he has kept it to himself. I think, Marcel, that it is our turn now. I have purposely sent Chatellerault away that he may gain no notion of the catastrophic jest we are preparing him in return."
The words set me in the very best of humours, and to that it may be due that presently, as I warmed to my narrative, I lent it a vigour that drew His Majesty out of his wonted apathy and listlessness. He leaned forward when I told him of my encounter with the dragoons at Mirepoix, and how first I had committed the false step of representing myself to be Lesperon.
Encouraged by his interest, I proceeded, and I told my story with as much piquancy as I was master of, repressing only those slight matters which might reflect upon Monsieur de Lavedan's loyalty, but otherwise dealing frankly with His Majesty, even down to the genuineness of the feelings I entertained for Roxalanne. Often he laughed, more often still he nodded approvingly, in understanding and sympathy, whilst now and then he purred his applause. But towards the end, when I came to the matter of the Tribunal of Toulouse, of how my trial was conducted, and of the part played in it by Chatellerault, his face grew set and hard."It is true - all this that you tell me?" he cried harshly.
"As true as the Gospels. If you deem an oath necessary, Sire, I swear by my honour that I have uttered nothing that is false, and that, in connection with Monsieur de Chatellerault, even as I have suppressed nothing, so also have I exaggerated nothing.""The dastard!" he snapped. "But we will avenge you, Marcel. Never fear it." Then the trend of his thoughts being changed, he smiled wearily.
"By my faith, you may thank God every night of your worthless life that I came so opportunely to Toulouse, and so may that fair child whose beauty you have limned with such a lover's ardour. Nay, never redden, Marcel. What? At your age, and with such a heavy score of affaires to your credit, has it been left for a simple Languedoc maiden to call a blush to your callous cheek? Ma foi, they say truly that love is a great regenerator, a great rejuvenator!"
I made him no answer other than a sigh, for his words set me thinking, and with thought came a tempering of the gay humour that had pervaded me. Remarking this, and misreading it, he laughed outright."There, Marcel, never fear. We will not be rigorous. You have won both the maid and the wager, and, by the Mass, you shall enjoy both."
"Helas, Sire," I sighed again, "when the lady comes to know of the wager--" "Waste no time in telling her, Marcel, and cast yourself upon her mercy. Nay, go not with so gloomy a face, my friend. When woman loves, she can be very merciful; leastways, they tell me so."Then, his thoughts shifting ground once more, he grew stern again. "But first we have Chatellerault to deal with. What shall we do with him?" "It is for Your Majesty to decide."
"For me?" he cried, his voice resuming the harshness that was never far from it. "I have a fancy for having gentlemen about me. Think you I will set eyes again upon that dastard? I am already resolved concerning him, but it entered my mind that it might please you to be the instrument of the law for me.""Me, Sire?"
"Aye, and why not? They say you can play a very deadly sword upon necessity. This is an occasion that demands an exception from our edict. You have my sanction to send the Comte de Chatellerault a challenge. And see that you kill him, Bardelys!" he continued viciously. "For, by the Mass, if you don't, I will! If he escapes your sword, or if he survives such hurt as you may do him, the headsman shall have him. Mordieu! is it for nothing that I am called Louis the Just?"I stood in thought for a moment. Then-- "If I do this thing, Sire," I ventured, "the world will say of me that I did so to escape the payment I had incurred." "Fool, you have not incurred it. When a man cheats, does he not forfeit all his rights?" "That is very true. But the world--"
"Peste!" he snapped impatiently, "you are beginning to weary me, Marcel - and all the world does that so excellently that it needs not your collaboration. Go your ways, man, and do as you elect. But take my sanction to slay this fellow Chatellerault, and I shall be the better pleased if you avail yourself of it. He is lodged at the Auberge Royale, where probably you will find him at present. Now, go. I have more justice to dispense in this rebellious province."I paused a moment. "Shall I not resume my duties near Your Majesty?" He pondered a moment, then he smiled in his weary way.
"It would please me to have you, for these creatures are so dismally dull, all of them. Je m'ennuie tellement, Marcel!" he sighed. "Ough! But, no, my friend, I do not doubt you would be as dull as any of them at present. A man in love is the weariest and most futile thing in all this weary, futile world. What shall I do with your body what time your soul is at Lavedan? I doubt me you are in haste to get you there. So go, Marcel. Get you wed, and live out your amorous intoxication; marriage is the best antidote. When that is done, return to me.""That will be never, Sire," I answered slyly.
"Say you so, Master Cupid Bardelys?" And he combed his beard reflectively. "Be not too sure. There have been other passions - aye, as great as yours - yet have they staled. But you waste my time. Go, Marcel; you are excused your duties by me for as long as your own affairs shall hold you elsewhere - for as long as you please. We are here upon a gloomy business - as you know. There are my cousin Montmorency and the others to be dealt with, and we are holding no levees, countenancing no revels. But come to me when you will, and I will see you. Adieu!"I murmured my thanks, and very deep and sincere were they. Then, having kissed his hand, I left him.
Louis XIII is a man who lacks not maligners. Of how history may come to speak of him it is not mine to hazard. But this I can say, that I, at least, did never find him other than a just and kindly master, an upright gentleman, capricious at times and wilful, as must inevitably be the case with such spoilt children of fortune as are princes, but of lofty ideals and high principles. It was his worst fault that he was always tired, and through that everlasting weariness he came to entrust the determining of most affairs to His Eminence. Hence has it resulted that the censure for many questionable acts of his reign, which were the work of my Lord Cardinal, has recoiled upon my august master's head.But to me, with all the faults that may be assigned him, he was ever Louis the Just, and wherever his name be mentioned in my hearing, I bare my head.
I turned it over in my mind, after I had left the King's presence, whether or not I should visit with my own hands upon Chatellerault the punishment he had so fully earned. That I would have gone about the task rejoicing you may readily imagine; but there was that accursed wager, and - to restrain me - the thought of how such an action might be construed into an evasion of its consequences. Better a thousand times that His Majesty should order his arrest and deal with him for his attempted perversion of justice to the service of his own vile ends. The charge of having abused his trust as King's commissioner to the extent of seeking to do murder through the channels of the Tribunal was one that could not fail to have fatal results for him - as, indeed, the King had sworn.
That was the position of affairs as it concerned Chatellerault, the world, and me. But the position must also be considered as it concerned Roxalanne, and deeply, indeed, did I so consider it. Much pondering brought me again to the conclusion that until I had made the only atonement in my power, the only atonement that would leave me with clean hands, I must not again approach her.
Whether Chatellerault had cheated or not could not affect the question as it concerned Mademoiselle and me. If I paid the wager --whether in honour bound to do so or not - I might then go to her, impoverished, it is true, but at least with no suspicion attaching to my suit of any ulterior object other than that of winning Roxalanne herself.
I could then make confession, and surely the fact that I had paid where clearly there was no longer any need to pay must earn me forgiveness and afford proof of the sincerity of my passion.
Upon such a course, then, did I decide, and, with this end in view, I took my way towards the Auberge Royale, where His Majesty had told me that the Count was lodged. It was my purpose to show myself fully aware of the treacherous and unworthy part he had played at the very inception of the affair, and that if I chose to consider the wager lost it was that I might the more honestly win the lady.
Upon inquiring at the hostelry for Monsieur de Chatellerault I was informed by the servant I addressed that he was within, but that at the moment he had a visitor. I replied that I would wait, and demanded a private room, since I desired to avoid meeting any Court acquaintances who might chance into the auberge before I had seen the Count.
My apparel at the moment may not have been all that could have been desired, but when a gentleman's rearing has taken place amid an army of servitors to minister to his every wish, he is likely to have acquired an air that is wont to win him obedience. With all celerity was I ushered into a small chamber, opening on the one side upon the common room, and being divided on the other by the thinnest of wooden partitions from the adjoining apartment.
Here, the landlord having left me, I disposed myself to wait, and here I did a thing I would not have believed myself capable of doing, a thing I cannot think of without blushing to this very day. In short, I played the eavesdropper - I, Marcel Saint-Pol de Bardelys. Yet, if you who read and are nice-minded, shudder at this confession, or, worse still, shrug your shoulders in contempt, with the reflection that such former conduct of mine as I have avowed had already partly disposed you against surprise at this I do but ask that you measure my sin by my temptation, and think honestly whether in my position you might not yourselves have fallen. Aye - be you never so noble and high-principled - I make bold to say that you had done no less, for the voice that penetrated to my ears was that of Roxalanne de Lavedan.
"I sought an audience with the King," she was saying, "but I could not gain his presence. They told me that he was holding no levees, and that he refused to see any one not introduced by one of those having the private entree.""And so," answered the voice of Chatellerault, in tones that were perfectly colourless, "you come to me that I may present you to his Majesty?"
"You have guessed it, Monsieur le Comte. You are the only gentleman of His Majesty's suite, with whom I can claim acquaintance - however slight - and, moreover, it is well known how high you stand in his royal favour. I was told that they that have a boon to crave can find no better sponsor."
"Had you gone to the King, mademoiselle," said he, "had you gained audience, he would have directed you to make your appeal to me. I am his Commissioner in Languedoc, and the prisoners attainted with high treason are my property.""Why then, monsieur," she cried in an eager voice, that set my pulses throbbing, "you'll not deny me the boon I crave? You'll not deny me his life?" There was a short laugh from Chatellerault, and I could hear the deliberate fall of his feet as he paced the chamber.
"Mademoiselle, mademoiselle, you must not overrate my powers. You must not forget that I am the slave of Justice. You may be asking more than is in my power to grant. What can you advance to show that I should be justified in proceeding as you wish?""Helas, monsieur, I can advance nothing but my prayers and the assurance that a hideous mistake is being made." "What is your interest in this Monsieur de Lesperon?" "He is not Monsieur de Lesperon," she cried.
"But, since you cannot tell me who he is, you must be content that we speak of him at least as Lesperon," said he, and I could imagine the evil grin with which he would accompany the words.
The better that you may appreciate that which followed, let me here impart to you the suspicions which were already sinking into my mind, to be changed later into absolute convictions touching the course the Count intended to pursue concerning me. The sudden arrival of the King had thrown him into some measure of panic, and no longer daring to carry out his plans concerning me, it was his object, I made no doubt, to set me at liberty that very evening. Ere he did so, however, and presuming upon my ignorance of His Majesty's presence in Toulouse, Chatellerault would of a certainty have bound me down by solemn promise - making that promise the price of my liberty and my life - to breathe no word of my captivity and trial. No doubt, his cunning brain would have advanced me plausible and convincing reasons so to engage myself.
He had not calculated upon Castelroux, nor that the King should already have heard of my detention. Now that Roxalanne came to entreat him to do that which already he saw himself forced to do, he turned his attention to the profit that he might derive from her interestedness on my behalf. I could guess also something of the jealous rage that must fill him at this signal proof of my success with her, and already I anticipated, I think, the bargain that he would drive."Tell me, then," he was repeating, "what is your interest in this gentleman?"
There was a silence. I could imagine her gentle face clouded with the trouble that sprang from devising an' answer to that question; I could picture her innocent eyes cast down, her delicate cheeks pinked by some measure of shame, as at last, in a low, stifled voice, the four words broke from her "I love him, monsieur."
Ah, Dieu! To hear her confess it so! If yesternight it had stirred me to the very depths of my poor, sinful soul to have her say so much to me, how infinitely more did it not affect me to overhear this frank avowal of it to another! And to think that she was undergoing all this to the end that she might save me!
From Chatellerault there came an impatient snort in answer, and his feet again smote the floor as he resumed the pacing that for a moment he had suspended. Then followed a pause, a long silence, broken only by the Count's restless walking to and fro. At last "Why are you silent, monsieur?" she asked in a trembling voice.
"Helas, mademoiselle, I can do nothing. I had feared that it might be thus with you; and, if I put the question, it was in the hope that I was wrong."
"Oh, no, no!" she cried, and her voice was of horror and despair. "You do not mean that - " She stopped short; and then, after a pause, it was the Count who finished the sentence for her."I mean, mademoiselle, that this Lesperon must die!"
You will marvel that I let her suffer so, that I did not break down the partition with my hands and strike that supple gentleman dead at her feet in atonement for the anguish he was causing her. But I had a mind to see how far he would drive this game he was engaged upon.
Again there was a spell of silence, and at last, when Mademoiselle spoke, I was amazed at the calm voice in which she addressed him, marvelling at the strength and courage of one so frail and childlike to behold."Is your determination, indeed, irrevocable, monsieur? If you have any pity, will you not at least let me bear my prayers and my tears to the King?"
"It would avail you nothing. As I have said, the Languedoc rebels are in my hands." He paused as if to let those words sink well into her understanding; then, "If I were to set him at liberty, mademoiselle, if I were to spirit him out of prison in the night, bribing his jailers to keep silent and binding him by oath to quit France at once and never to betray me, I should be, myself, guilty of high treason. Thus alone could the thing be done, and you will see, mademoiselle, that by doing it I should be endangering my neck."There was an ineffable undercurrent of meaning in his words - an intangible suggestion that he might be bribed to do all this to which he so vaguely alluded. "I understand, monsieur," she answered, choking - "I understand that it would be too much to ask of you."
"It would be much, mademoiselle," he returned quickly, and his voice was now subdued and invested with an odd quiver. "But nothing that your lips might ask of me and that it might lie in the power of mortal man to do, would be too much!" "You mean?" she cried, a catch in her breath. Had she guessed - as I, without sight of her face, had guessed - what was to follow? My gorge was rising fast. I clenched my hands, and by an effort I restrained myself to learn that I had guessed aright.
"Some two months ago," he said, "I journeyed to Lavedan, as you may remember. I saw you, mademoiselle - for a brief while only, it is true - and ever since I have seen nothing else but you." His voice went a shade lower, and passion throbbed in his words.She, too, perceived it, for the grating of a chair informed me that she had risen. "Not now, monsieur - not now!" she exclaimed. "This is not the season. I beg of you think of my desolation."
"I do, mademoiselle, and I respect your grief, and, with all my heart, believe me, I share it. Yet this is the season, and if you have this man's interests at heart, you will hear me to the end."Through all the imperiousness of his tone an odd note of respect - real or assumed - was sounding.
"If you suffer, mademoiselle, believe me that I suffer also, and if I make you suffer more by what I say, I beg that you will think how what you have said, how the very motive of your presence here, has made me suffer. Do you know, mademoiselle, what it is to be torn by jealousy? Can you imagine it? If you can, you can imagine also something of the torture I endured when you confessed to me that you loved this Lesperon, when you interceded for his life. Mademoiselle, I love you - with all my heart and soul I love you. I have loved you, I think, since the first moment of our meeting at Lavedan, and to win you there is no risk that I would not take, no danger that I would not brave.""Monsieur, I implore you - " "Hear me out, mademoiselle!" he cried. Then in quieter voice he proceeded: "At present you love this Monsieur de Lesperon--" "I shall always love him! Always, monsieur!"
"Wait, wait, wait!" he exclaimed, annoyed by her interruption. "If he were to live, and you were to wed him and be daily in his company, I make no doubt your love might endure. But if he were to die, or if he were to pass into banishment and you were to see him no more, you would mourn him for a little while, and then - Helas! it is the way of men and women - time would heal first your sorrow, then your heart."
"Never, monsieur - oh, never!"
"I am older, child, than you are. I know. At present you are anxious to save his life anxious because you love him, and also because you betrayed him, and you would not have his death upon your conscience." He paused a moment; then raising his voice, "Mademoiselle," said he, "I offer you your lover's life.""Monsieur, monsieur!" cried the poor child, "I knew you were good! I knew--" "A moment! Do not misapprehend me. I do not say that I give it --I offer it." "But the difference?"
"That if you would have it, mademoiselle, you must buy it. I have said that for you I would brave all dangers. To save your lover, I brave the scaffold. If I am betrayed, or if the story transpire, my head will assuredly fall in the place of Lesperon's. This I will risk, mademoiselle -I will do it gladly - if you will promise to become my wife when it is done."There was a moan from Roxalanne, then silence; then - "Oh, monsieur, you are pitiless! What bargain is this that you offer me?" "A fair one, surely," said that son of hell - "a very fair one. The risk of my life against your hand in marriage." "If you - if you truly loved me as you say, monsieur," she reasoned, "you would serve me without asking guerdon."
"In any other thing I would. But is it fair to ask a man who is racked by love of you to place another in your arms, and that at the risk of his own life? Ah, mademoiselle, I am but a man, and I am subject to human weaknesses. If you will consent, this Lesperon shall go free, but you must see him no more; and I will carry my consideration so far as to give you six months in which to overcome your sorrow, ere I present myself to you again to urge my suit.""And if I refuse, monsieur?" He sighed. "To the value which I set upon my life you must add my very human jealousy. From such a combination what can you hope for?" "You mean, in short, that he must die?" "To-morrow," was that infernal cheat's laconic answer. They were silent a little while, then she fell a-sobbing.
"Be pitiful, monsieur! Have mercy if you, indeed, love me. Oh, he must not die! I cannot, I dare not, let him die! Save him, monsieur, and I will pray for you every night of my life; I will pray for you to our Holy Mother as I am now praying to you for him."
Lived there the man to resist that innocent, devout appeal? Lived there one who in answer to such gentle words of love and grief could obtrude his own coarse passions? It seems there did, for all he answered was "You know the price, child."
"And God pity me! I must pay it. I must, for if he dies I shall have his blood upon my conscience!" Then she checked her grief, and her voice grew almost stern in the restraint she set upon herself. "If I give you my promise to wed you hereafter
- say in six months' time - what proof will you afford me that he who is detained under the name of Lesperon shall go free?"
Then at last I leapt to my feet. I could endure no more. You may marvel that I had had the heart to endure so much, and to have so let her suffer that I might satisfy myself how far this scoundrel Chatellerault would drive his trickster's bargain.
A more impetuous man would have beaten down the partition, or shouted to her through it the consolation that Chatellerault's bargain was no bargain at all, since I was already at large. And that is where a more impetuous man would have acted upon instinct more wisely than did I upon reason. Instead, I opened the door, and, crossing the common room, I flung myself down a passage that I thought must lead to the chamber in which they were closeted. But in this I was at fault, and ere I had come upon a waiter and been redirected some precious moments were lost. He led me back through the common room to a door opening upon another corridor. He pushed it wide, and I came suddenly face to face with Chatellerault, still flushed from his recent contest."You here!" he gasped, his jaw falling, and his cheeks turning pale, as well they might; for all that he could not dream I had overheard his bargaining. "We will go back, if you please, Monsieur le Comte." said I.
"Back where?" he asked stupidly. "Back to Mademoiselle. Back to the room you have just quitted." And none too gently I pushed him into the corridor again, and so, in the gloom, I missed the expression of his face."She is not there," said he. I laughed shortly. "Nevertheless, we will go back," I insisted. And so I had my way, and we gained the room where his infamous traffic had been held. Yet for once he spoke the truth. She was no longer there. "Where is she?" I demanded angrily.
"Gone," he answered; and when I protested that I had not met her, "You would not have a lady go by way of the public room, would you?" he demanded insolently. "She left by the side door into the courtyard.""That being so, Monsieur le Comte," said I quietly, "I will have a little talk with you before going after her." And I carefully closed the door.
15. Monsieur De Chatellerault Is AngryWithin the room Chatellerault and I faced each other in silence. And how vastly changed were the circumstances since our last meeting!
The disorder that had stamped itself upon his countenance when first he had beheld me still prevailed. There was a lowering, sullen look in his eyes and a certain displacement of their symmetry which was peculiar to them when troubled.
Although a cunning plotter and a scheming intriguer in his own interests, Chatellerault, as I have said before, was not by nature a quick man. His wits worked slowly, and he needed leisure to consider a situation and his actions therein ere he was in a position to engage with it.
"Monsieur le Comte," quoth I ironically, "I make you my compliments upon your astuteness and the depth of your schemes, and my condolences upon the little accident owing to which I am here, and in consequence of which your pretty plans are likely to miscarry.
He threw back his great head like a horse that feels the curb, and his smouldering eyes looked up at me balefully. Then his sensuous lips parted in scorn."How much do you know?" he demanded with sullen contempt. "I have been in that room for the half of an hour," I answered, rapping the partition with my knuckles. "The dividing wall, as you will observe, is thin, and I heard everything that passed between you and Mademoiselle de Lavedan."
"So that Bardelys, known as the Magnificent; Bardelys the mirror of chivalry; Bardelys the arbiter elegantiarum of the Court of France, is no better, it seems, than a vulgar spy."If he sought by that word to anger me, he failed.
"Lord Count," I answered him very quietly, "you are of an age to know that the truth alone has power to wound. I was in that room by accident, and when the first words of your conversation reached me I had not been human had I not remained and strained my ears to catch every syllable you uttered. For the rest, let me ask you, my dear Chatellerault, since when have you become so nice that you dare cast it at a man that he has been eavesdropping?""You are obscure, monsieur. What is it that you suggest?"
"I am signifying that when a man stands unmasked for a cheat, a liar, and a thief, his own character should give him concern enough to restrain him from strictures upon that of another."
A red flush showed through the tan of his skin, then faded and left him livid - a very evil sight, as God lives. He flung his heavily-feathered hat upon the table, and carried his hand to his hilt."God's blood!" he cried. "You shall answer me for this." I shook my head and smiled; but I made no sign of drawing. "Monsieur, we must talk a while. I think that you had better."
He raised his sullen eyes to mine. Perhaps the earnest impressiveness of my tones prevailed. Be that as it may, his half-drawn sword was thrust back with a click, and "What have you to say?" he asked.
"Be seated." I motioned him to a chair by the table and when he had taken it I sat down opposite to him. Taking up a quill, I dipped it in the ink-horn that stood by, and drew towards me a sheet of paper.
"When you lured me into the wager touching Mademoiselle de Lavedan," said I calmly, "you did so, counting upon certain circumstances, of which you alone had knowledge, that should render impossible the urging of my suit. That, Monsieur le Comte, was undeniably the action of a cheat. Was it not?""Damnation!" he roared, and would have risen, but, my hand upon his arm, I restrained him and pressed him back into his chair.
"By a sequence of fortuitous circumstances," I pursued, "it became possible for me to circumvent the obstacle upon which you had based your calculations. Those same circumstances led later to my being arrested in error and in place of another man. You discovered how I had contravened the influence upon which you counted; you trembled to see how the unexpected had befriended me, and you began to fear for your wager.
"What did you do? Seeing me arraigned before you in your quality as King's Commissioner, you pretended to no knowledge of me; you became blind to my being any but Lesperon the rebel, and you sentenced me to death in his place, so that being thus definitely removed I should be unable to carry out my undertaking, and my lands should consequently pass into your possession. That, monsieur, was at once the act of a thief and a murderer. Wait, monsieur; restrain yourself until I shall have done. To-day again fortune comes to my rescue. Again you see me slipping from your grasp, and you are in despair. Then, in the eleventh hour, Mademoiselle de Lavedan comes to you to plead for my life. By that act she gives you the most ample proof that your wager is lost. What would a gentleman, a man of honour, have done under these circumstances? What did you do? You seized that last chance; you turned it to the best account; you made this poor girl buy something from you; you made her sell herself to you for nothing - pretending that your nothing was a something of great value. What term shall we apply to that? To say that you cheated again seems hardly adequate.""By God, Bardelys!"
"Wait!" I thundered, looking him straight between the eyes, so that again he sank back cowed. Then resuming the calm with which hitherto I had addressed him, "Your cupidity," said I, "your greed for the estates of Bardelys, and your jealousy and thirst to see me impoverished and so ousted from my position at Court, to leave you supreme in His Majesty's favour, have put you to strange shifts for a gentleman, Chatellerault. Yet, wait."
And, dipping my pen in the ink-horn, I began to write. I was conscious of his eyes upon me, and I could imagine his surmisings and bewildered speculations as my pen scratched rapidly across the paper. In a few moments it was done, and I tossed the pen aside. I took up the sandbox.
"When a man cheats, Monsieur le Comte, and is detected, he is invariably adjudged the loser of his stakes. On that count alone everything that you have is now mine by rights." Again I had to quell an interruption. "But if we wave that point, and proceed upon the supposition that you have dealt fairly and honourably with me, why, then, monsieur, you have still sufficient evidence - the word of Mademoiselle, herself, in fact - that I have won my wager. And so, if we take this, the most lenient view of the case" - I paused to sprinkle the sand over my writing - "your estates are still lost to you, and pass to be my property."
"Do they, by God?" he roared, unable longer to restrain himself, and leaping to his feet. "You have done, have you not? You have said all that you can call to mind? You have flung insults and epithets at me enough to earn the cutting of a dozen throats. You have dubbed me cheat and thief" - he choked in his passion - "until you have had your fill - is it not so? Now, listen to me, Master Bardelys, master spy, master buffoon, master masquerader! What manner of proceeding was yours to go to Lavedan under a false name? How call you that? Was that, perhaps, not cheating?"
"No, monsieur, it was not," I answered quietly. "It was in the terms of your challenge that I was free to go to Lavedan in what guise I listed, employing what wiles I pleased. But let that be," I ended, and, creasing the paper, I poured the sand back into the box, and dusted the document. "The point is hardly worth discussing at this time of day. If not one way, why, then, in another, your wager is lost."
"Is it?" He set his arms akimbo and eyed me derisively, his thick-set frame planted squarely before me. "You are satisfied that it is so? Quite satisfied, eh?" He leered in my face. "Why, then, Monsieur le Marquis, we will see whether a few inches of steel will win it back for me." And once more his hand flew to his hilt.Rising, I flung the document I had accomplished upon the table. "Glance first at that," said I.
He stopped to look at me in inquiry, my manner sowing so great a curiosity in him that his passion was all scattered before it. Then he stepped up to the table and lifted the paper. As he read, his hand shook, amazement dilated his eyes and furrowed his brow."What - what does it signify?" he gasped.
"It signifies that, although fully conscious of having won, I prefer to acknowledge that I have lost. I make over to you thus my estates of Bardelys, because, monsieur, I have come to realize that that wager was an infamous one - one in which a gentleman should have had no part - and the only atonement I can make to myself, my honour, and the lady whom we insulted - is that.""I do not understand," he complained.
"I apprehend your difficulty, Comte. The point is a nice one. But understand at least that my Picardy estates are yours. Only, monsieur, you will be well advised to make your will forthwith, for you are not destined, yourself, to enjoy them."He looked at me, his glance charged with inquiry.
"His Majesty," I continued, in answer to his glance, "is ordering your arrest for betraying the trust he had reposed in you and for perverting the ends of justice to do your own private murdering.""Mon Dieu!" he cried, falling of a sudden unto a most pitiful affright. "The King knows?"
"Knows?" I laughed. "In the excitement of these other matters you have forgotten to ask how I come to be at liberty. I have been to the King, monsieur, and I have told him what has taken place here at Toulouse, and how I was to have gone to the block tomorrow!"
"Scelerat!" he cried. "You have ruined me!" Rage and grief were blent in his accents. He stood before me, livid of face and with hands clenching and unclenching at his sides.
"Did you expect me to keep such a matter silent? Even had I been so inclined it had not been easy, for His Majesty had questions to ask me. From what the King said, monsieur, you may count upon mounting the scaffold in my stead. So be advised, and make your will without delay, if you would have your heirs enjoy my Picardy chateau."
I have seen terror and anger distort men's countenances, but never have I seen aught to compare with the disorder of Chatellerault at that moment. He stamped and raved and fumed. He poured forth a thousand ordures of speech in his frenzy; he heaped insults upon me and imprecations upon the King, whose lapdog he pronounced me. His short, stout frame was quivering with passion and fear, his broad face distorted by his hideous grimaces of rage. And then, while yet his ravings were in full flow, the door opened, and in stepped the airy Chevalier de Saint-Eustache.
He stood still, amazed, beneath the lintel - marvelling to see all this anger, and abashed at beholding me. His sudden appearance reminded me that I had last seen him at Grenade in the Count's company, on the day of my arrest. The surprise it had occasioned me now returned upon seeing him so obviously and intimately seeking Chatellerault.The Count turned on him in his anger. "Well, popinjay?" he roared. "What do you want with me?" "Monsieur le Comte!" cried the other, in blent indignation and reproach. "You will perceive that you are come inopportunely," I put in. "Monsieur de Chatellerault is not quite himself."
But my speech again drew his attention to my presence; and the wonder grew in his eyes at finding me there, for to him I was still Lesperon the rebel, and he marvelled naturally that I should be at large.
Then in the corridor there was a sound of steps and voices, and as I turned I beheld in the doorway, behind Saint-Eustache, the faces of Castelroux, Mironsac, and my old acquaintance, the babbling, irresponsible buffoon, La Fosse. From Mironsac he had heard of my presence in Toulouse, and, piloted by Castelroux, they were both come to seek me out. I'll swear it was not thus they had looked to find me.
They pushed their way into the room, impelling Saint-Eustache forward, and there were greetings exchanged and felicitations, whilst Chatellerault, curbing his disorder, drew the Chevalier into a corner of the room, and stood there listening to him.
"You laugh, you knave!" he snorted. Then, with an abrupt change of manner, "You do not lack for friends," said he. "Beg one of these gentlemen to act for you, and if you are a man of honour let us step out into the yard and settle the matter."
I shook my head. "I am so much a man of honour as to be careful with whom I cross steel. I prefer to leave you to His Majesty's vengeance; his headsman may be less particular than am I. No, monsieur, on the whole, I do not think that I can fight you."
His face grew a shade paler. It became grey; the jaw was set, and the eyes were more out of symmetry than I had ever seen them. Their glance approached what is known in Italy as the mal'occhio, and to protect themselves against the baneful influences of which men carry charms. A moment he stood so, eyeing me. Then, coming a step nearer--
"You do not think that you can fight me, eh? You do not think it? Pardieu! How shall I make you change your mind? To the insult of words you appear impervious. You imagine your courage above dispute because by a lucky accident you killed La Vertoile some years ago and the fame of it has attached to you." In the intensity of his anger he was breathing heavily, like a man overburdened. "You have been living ever since by the reputation which that accident gave you. Let us see if you can die by it, Monsieur de Bardelys." And, leaning forward, he struck me on the breast, so suddenly and so powerfully - for he was a man of abnormal strength - that I must have fallen but that La Fosse caught me in his arms."Kill him!" lisped the classic-minded fool. "Play Theseus to this bull of Marathon." Chatellerault stood back, his hands on his hips, his head inclined towards his right shoulder, and an insolent leer of expectancy upon his face. "Will that resolve you?" he sneered. "I will meet you," I answered, when I had recovered breath. "But I swear that I shall not help you to escape the headsman." He laughed harshly. "Do I not know it?" he mocked. "How shall killing you help me to escape? Come, messieurs, sortons. At once!" "Sor," I answered shortly; and thereupon we crowded from the room, and went pele-mele down the passage to the courtyard at the back.
La Fosse led the way with me, his arm through mine, swearing that he would be my second. He had such a stomach for a fight, had this irresponsible, irrepressible rhymester, that it mounted to the heights of passion with him, and when I mentioned, in answer to a hint dropped in connection with the edict, that I had the King's sanction for this combat, he was nearly mad with joy.
"Blood of La Fosse!" was his oath. "The honour to stand by you shall be mine, my Bardelys! You owe it me, for am I not in part to blame for all this ado? Nay, you'll not deny me. That gentleman yonder, with the wild-cat moustaches and a name like a Gascon oath --that cousin of Mironsac's, I mean - has the flair of a fight in his nostrils, and a craving to be in it. But you'll grant me the honour, will you not? Pardieu! It will earn me a place in history.""Or the graveyard," quoth I, by way of cooling his ardour.
"Peste! What an augury!" Then, with a laugh: "But," he added, indicating SaintEustache, "that long, lean saint - I forget of what he is patron - hardly wears a murderous air."
To win peace from him, I promised that he should stand by me. But the favour lost much of its value in his eyes when presently I added that I did not wish the seconds to engage, since the matter was of so very personal a character.
Mironsac and Castelroux, assisted by Saint-Eustache, closed the heavy portecochere, and so shut us in from the observation of passers-by. The clanging of those gates brought the landlord and a couple of his knaves, and we were subjected to the prayers and intercessions, to the stormings and ravings that are ever the prelude of a stable-yard fight, but which invariably end, as these ended, in the landlord's withdrawal to run for help to the nearest corps-de-garde."Now, my myrmillones," cried La Fosse in bloodthirsty jubilation, "to work before the host returns." "Po' Cap de Dieu!" growled Castelroux, "is this a time for jests, master joker?"
"Jests?" I heard him retorting, as he assisted me to doff my doublet. "Do I jest? Diable! you Gascons are a slow-witted folk! I have a taste for allegory, my friend, but that never yet was accounted so low a thing as jesting."
At last we were ready, and I shifted the whole of my attention to the short, powerful figure of Chatellerault as he advanced upon me, stripped to the waist, his face set and his eyes full of stern resolve. Despite his low stature, and the breadth of frame which argue sluggish motion, there was something very formidable about the Count. His bared arms were great masses of muscular flesh, and if his wrist were but half as supple as it looked powerful, that alone should render him a dangerous antagonist.
Yet I had no qualm of fear, no doubt, even, touching the issue. Not that I was an habitual ferrailleur. As I have indicated, I had fought but one man in all my life. Nor yet am I of those who are said to know no fear under any circumstances. Such men are not truly brave; they are stupid and unimaginative, in proof of which I will advance the fact that you may incite a timid man to deeds of reckless valour by drugging him with wine. But this is by the way. It may be that the very regular fencing practice that in Paris I was wont to take may so have ordered my mind that the fact of meeting unbaited steel had little power to move me.
Be that as it may, I engaged the Count without a tremor either of the flesh or of the spirit. I was resolved to wait and let him open the play, that I might have an opportunity of measuring his power and seeing how best I might dispose of him. I was determined to do him no hurt, and to leave him, as I had sworn, to the headsman; and so, either by pressure or by seizure, it was my aim to disarm him.
But on his side also he entered upon the duel with all caution and wariness. From his rage I had hoped for a wild, angry rush that should afford me an easy opportunity of gaining my ends with him. Not so, however. Now that he came with steel to defend his life and to seek mine, he appeared to have realized the importance of having keen wits to guide his hand; and so he put his anger from him, and emerged calm and determined from his whilom disorder.
Some preliminary passes we made from the first engagement in the lines of tierce, each playing warily for an opening, yet neither of us giving ground or betraying haste or excitement. Now his blade slithered on mine with a ceaseless tremor; his eyes watched mine from under lowering brows, and with knees bent he crouched like a cat making ready for a spring. Then it came. Sudden as lightning was his disengage; he darted under my guard, then over it, then back and under it again, and stretching out in the lunge - his double-feint completed - he straightened his arm to drive home the botte.
But with a flying point I cleared his blade out of the line of my body. There had been two sharp tinkles of our meeting swords, and now Chatellerault stood at his fullest stretch, the half of his steel past and behind me, for just a fraction of time completely at my mercy. Yet I was content to stand, and never move my blade from his until he had recovered and we were back in our first position once again.
I heard the deep bass of Castelroux's "Mordieux!" the sharp gasp of fear from Saint-Eustache, who already in imagination beheld his friend stretched lifeless on the ground, and the cry of mortification from La Fosse as the Count recovered. But I heeded these things little. As I have said, to kill the Count was not my object. It had been wise, perhaps, in Chatellerault to have appreciated that fact; but he did not. From the manner in which he now proceeded to press me, I was assured that he set his having recovered guard to slowness on my part, never thinking of the speed that had been necessary to win myself such an opening as I had obtained.
My failure to run him through in that moment of jeopardy inspired him with a contempt of my swordplay. This he now made plain by the recklessness with which he fenced, in his haste to have done ere we might chance to be interrupted. Of this recklessness I suddenly availed myself to make an attempt at disarming him. I turned aside a vicious thrust by a close - a dangerously close - parry, and whilst in the act of encircling his blade I sought by pressure to carry it out of his hand. I was within an ace of succeeding, yet he avoided me, and doubled back.
He realized then, perhaps, that I was not quite so contemptible an antagonist as he had been imagining, and he went back to his earlier and more cautious tactics. Then I changed my plans. I simulated an attack, and drove him hard for some moments. Strong he was, but there were advantages of reach and suppleness with me, and even these advantages apart, had I aimed at his life, I could have made short work of him. But the game I played was fraught with perils to myself, and once I was in deadly danger, and as near death from the sword as a man may go and live. My attack had lured him, as I desired that it should, into making a riposte. He did so, and as his blade twisted round mine and came slithering at me, I again carried it off by encircling it, and again I exerted pressure to deprive him of it. But this time I was farther from success than before. He laughed at the attempt, as with a suddenness that I had been far from expecting he disengaged again, and his point darted like a snake upwards at my throat.
I parried that thrust, but I only parried it when it was within some three inches of my neck, and even as I turned it aside it missed me as narrowly as it might without tearing my skin. The imminence of the peril had been such that, as we mutually recovered, I found a cold sweat bathing me.
After that, I resolved to abandon the attempt to disarm him by pressure, and I turned my attention to drawing him into a position that might lend itself to seizure. But even as I was making up my mind to this - we were engaged in sixte at the time - I saw a sudden chance. His point was held low while he watched me; so low that his arm was uncovered and my point was in line with it. To see the opening, to estimate it, and to take my resolve was all the work of a fraction of a second. The next instant I had straightened my elbow, my blade shot out in a lightning stroke and transfixed his sword-arm.
There was a yell of pain, followed by a deep growl of fury, as, wounded but not vanquished, the enraged Count caught his falling sword in his left hand, and whilst my own blade was held tight in the bone of his right arm, he sought to run me through. I leapt quickly aside, and then, before he could renew the attempt, my friends had fallen upon him and wrenched his sword from his hand and mine from his arm.
It would ill have become me to taunt a man in his sorry condition, else might I now have explained to him what I had meant when I had promised to leave him for the headsman even though I did consent to fight him.
Mironsac, Castelroux, and La Fosse stood babbling around me, but I paid no heed either to Castelroux's patois or to La Fosse's misquotations of classic authors. The combat had been protracted, and the methods I had pursued had been of a very exhausting nature. I leaned now against the porte-cochere, and mopped myself vigorously. Then Saint-Eustache, who was engaged in binding up his principal's arm, called to La Fosse.
I followed my second with my eyes as he went across to Chatellerault. The Count stood white, his lips compressed, no doubt from the pain his arm was causing him. Then his voice floated across to me as he addressed La Fosse.
"You will do me the favour, monsieur, to inform your friend that this was no first blood combat, but one a outrance. I fence as well with my left arm as with my right, and if Monsieur de Bardelys will do me the honour to engage again, I shall esteem it."La Fosse bowed and came over with the message that already we had heard.
"I fought," said I in answer, "in a spirit very different from that by which Monsieur de Chatellerault appears to have been actuated. He made it incumbent upon me to afford proof of my courage. That proof I have afforded; I decline to do more. Moreover, as Monsieur de Chatellerault himself must perceive, the light is failing us, and in a few minutes it will be too dark for sword-play.""In a few minutes there will be need for none, monsieur," shouted Chatellerault, to save time. He was boastful to the end. "Here, monsieur, in any case, come those who will resolve the question," I answered, pointing to the door of the inn.
As I spoke, the landlord stepped into the yard, followed by an officer and a halfdozen soldiers. These were no ordinary keepers of the peace, but musketeers of the guard, and at sight of them I knew that their business was not to interrupt a duel, but to arrest my erstwhile opponent upon a much graver charge.The officer advanced straight to Chatellerault. "In the King's name, Monsieur le Comte," said he. "I demand your sword."
It may be that at bottom I was still a man of soft heart, unfeeling cynic though they accounted me; for upon remarking the misery and gloom that spread upon Chatellerault's face I was sorry for him, notwithstanding the much that he had schemed against me. Of what his fate would be he could have no shadow of doubt. He knew - none better - how truly the King loved me, and how he would punish such an attempt as had been made upon my life, to say nothing of the prostitution of justice of which he had been guilty, and for which alone he had earned the penalty of death.
He stood a moment with bent head, the pain of his arm possibly forgotten in the agony of his spirit. Then, straightening himself suddenly, with a proud, half scornful air, he looked the officer straight between the eyes."You desire my sword, monsieur?" he inquired. The musketeer bowed respectfully. "Saint-Eustache, will you do me the favour to give it to me?"
And while the Chevalier picked up the rapier from the ground where it had been flung, that man waited with an outward calm for which at the moment I admired him, as we must ever admire a tranquil bearing in one smitten by a great adversity. And than this I can conceive few greater. He had played for much, and he had lost everything. Ignominy, degradation, and the block were all that impended for him in this world, and they were very imminent.
He took the sword from the Chevalier. He held it for a second by the hilt, like one in thought, like one who is resolving upon something, whilst the musketeer awaited his good pleasure with that deference which all gentle minds must accord to the unfortunate.
Still holding his rapier, he raised his eyes for a second and let them rest on me with a grim malevolence. Then he uttered a short laugh, and, shrugging his shoulders, he transferred his grip to the blade, as if about to offer the hilt to the officer. Holding it so, halfway betwixt point and quillons, he stepped suddenly back, and before any there could put forth a hand to stay him, he had set the pummel on the ground and the point at his breast, and so dropped upon it and impaled himself.
A cry went up from every throat, and we sprang towards him. He rolled over on his side, and with a grin of exquisite pain, yet in words of unconquerable derision "You may have my sword now, Monsieur l'Officier," he said, and sank back, swooning.
With an oath, the musketeer stepped forward. He obeyed Chatellerault to the letter, by kneeling beside him and carefully withdrawing the sword. Then he ordered a couple of his men to take up the body.
Two of the musketeers bore him into the inn and laid him on the floor of the very room in which, an hour or so ago, he had driven a bargain with Roxalanne. A cloak rolled into a pillow was thrust under his head, and there we left him in charge of his captors, the landlord, Saint-Eustache, and La Fosse the latter inspired, I doubt not, by that morbidity which is so often a feature of the poetic mind, and which impelled him now to witness the death-agony of my Lord of Chatellerault.
Myself, having resumed my garments, I disposed myself to repair at once to the Hotel de l'Epee, there to seek Roxalanne, that I might set her fears and sorrows at rest, and that I might at last make my confession.As we stepped out into the street, where the dusk was now thickening, I turned to Castelroux to inquire how Saint-Eustache came into Chatellerault's company.
"He is of the family of the Iscariot, I should opine," answered the Gascon. "As soon as he had news that Chatellerault was come to Languedoc as the King's Commissioner, he repaired to him to offer his services in the work of bringing rebels to justice. He urged that his thorough acquaintance with the province should render him of value to the King, as also that he had had particular opportunities of becoming acquainted with many treasonable dealings on the part of men whom the State was far from suspecting."
"Mort Dieu!" I cried, "I had suspected something of such a nature. You do well to call him of the family of the Iscariot. He is more so than you imagine: I have knowledge of this - ample knowledge. He was until lately a rebel himself, and himself a follower of Gaston d'Orleans - though of a lukewarm quality. What reasons have driven him to such work, do you know?"
"The same reason that impelled his forefather, Judas of old. The desire to enrich himself. For every hitherto unsuspected rebel that shall be brought to justice and whose treason shall be proven by his agency, he claims the half of that rebel's confiscated estates.""Diable!" I exclaimed. "And does the Keeper of the Seals sanction this?" "Sanction it? Saint-Eustache holds a commission, has a free hand and a company of horse to follow him in his rebel-hunting." "Has he done much so far?" was my next question. "He has reduced half a dozen noblemen and their families. The wealth he must thereby have amassed should be very considerable, indeed."
"To-morrow, Castelroux, I will see the King in connection with this pretty gentleman, and not only shall we find him a dungeon deep and dank, but we shall see that he disgorges his blood-money.""If you can prove his treason you will be doing blessed work," returned Castelroux. "Until tomorrow, then, for here is the Hotel de l'Epee."
From the broad doorway of an imposing building a warm glow of light issued out and spread itself fanwise across the ill-paved street. In this - like bats about a lamp - flitted the black figures of gaping urchins and other stragglers, and into this I now passed, having taken leave of my companions.
I mounted the steps and I was about to cross the threshold, when suddenly above a burst of laughter that greeted my ears I caught the sound of a singularly familiar voice. This seemed raised at present to address such company as might be within. One moment of doubt had I - for it was a month since last I had heard those soft, unctuous accents. Then I was assured that the voice I heard was, indeed, the voice of my steward Ganymede. Castelroux's messenger had found him at last, it seemed, and had brought him to Toulouse.
I was moved to spring into the room and greet that old retainer for whom, despite the gross and sensuous ways that with advancing years were claiming him more and more, I had a deep attachment. But even as I was on the point of entering, not only his voice, but the very words that he was uttering floated out to my ears, and they were of a quality that held me there to play the hidden listener for the second time in my life in one and the same day.
17. The Babbling Of Ganymede
Never until that hour, as I stood in the porch of the Hotel de l'Epee, hearkening to my henchman's narrative and to the bursts of laughter which ever and anon it provoked from his numerous listeners, had I dreamed of the raconteur talents which Rodenard might boast. Yet was I very far from being appreciative now that I discovered them, for the story that he told was of how one Marcel Saint-Pol, Marquis de Bardelys, had laid a wager with the Comte de Chatellerault that he would woo and win Mademoiselle de Lavedan to wife within three months. Nor did he stop there. Rodenard, it would seem, was well informed; he had drawn all knowledge of the state of things from Castelroux's messenger, and later - I know not from whom - at Toulouse, since his arrival.
He regaled the company, therefore, with a recital of our finding the dying Lesperon, and of how I had gone off alone, and evidently assumed the name and role of that proscribed rebel, and thus conducted my wooing under sympathy inspiring circumstances at Lavedan. Then came, he announced, the very cream of the jest, when I was arrested as Lesperon and brought to Toulouse and to trial in Lesperon's stead; he told them how I had been sentenced to death in the other man's place, and he assured them that I would certainly have been beheaded upon the morrow but that news had been borne to him - Rodenard - of my plight, and he was come to deliver me.
My first impulse upon hearing him tell of the wager had been to stride into the room and silence him by my coming. That I did not obey that impulse was something that presently I was very bitterly to regret. How it came that I did not I scarcely know. I was tempted, perhaps, to see how far this henchman whom for years I had trusted was unworthy of that trust. And so, there in the porch, I stayed until he had ended by telling the company that he was on his way to inform the King - who by great good chance was that day arrived in Toulouse - of the mistake that had been made, and thus obtain my immediate enlargement and earn my undying gratitude.
Again I was on the point of entering to administer a very stern reproof to that talkative rogue, when of a sudden there was a commotion within. I caught a scraping of chairs, a dropping of voices, and then suddenly I found myself confronted by Roxalanne de Lavedan herself, issuing with a page and a woman in attendance.
For just a second her eyes rested on me, and the light coming through the doorway at her back boldly revealed my countenance. And a very startled countenance it must have been, for in that fraction of time I knew that she had heard all that Rodenard had been relating. Under that instant's glance of her eyes I felt myself turn pale; a shiver ran through me, and the sweat started cold upon my brow. Then her gaze passed from me, and looked beyond into the street, as though she had not known me; whether in her turn she paled or reddened I cannot say, for the light was too uncertain. Next followed what seemed to me an interminable pause, although, indeed, it can have been no more than a matter of seconds - aye, and of but few. Then, her gown drawn well aside, she passed me in that same irrecognizing way, whilst I, abashed, shrank back into the shadows of the porch, burning with shame and rage and humiliation.
From under her brows her woman glanced at me inquisitively; her liveried page, his nose in the air, eyed me so pertly that I was hard put to it not to hasten with my foot his descent of the steps.
At last they were gone, and from the outside the shrill voice of her page was wafted to me. He was calling to the ostler for her carriage. Standing, in my deep mortification, where she had passed me, I conjectured from that demand that she was journeying to Lavedan.
She knew now how she had been cheated on every hand, first by me and later, that very afternoon, by Chatellerault, and her resolve to quit Toulouse could but signify that she was done with me for good. That it had surprised her to find me at large already, I fancied I had seen in her momentary glance, but her pride had been quick to conquer and stifle all signs of that surprise.
I remained where she had passed me until her coach had rumbled away into the night, and during the moments that elapsed I had stood arguing with myself and resolving upon my course of action. But despair was fastening upon me.
I had come to the Hotel de l'Epee, exulting, joyous, and confident of victory. I had come to confess everything to her, and by virtue of what I had done that confession was rendered easy. I could have said to her: "The woman whom I wagered to win was not you, Roxalanne, but a certain Mademoiselle de Lavedan. Your love I have won, but that you may foster no doubts of my intentions, I have paid my wager and acknowledge defeat. I have made over to Chatellerault and to his heirs for all time my estates of Bardelys."
Oh, I had rehearsed it in my mind, and I was confident - I knew - that I should win her. And now - the disclosure of that shameful traffic coming from other lips than mine had ruined everything by forestalling my avowal.
Rodenard should pay for it - by God, he should! Once again did I become a prey to the passion of anger which I have ever held to be unworthy in a gentleman, but to which it would seem that I was growing accustomed to give way. The ostler was mounting the steps at the moment. He carried in his hand a stout horsewhip with a long knotted thong. Hastily muttering a "By your leave," I snatched it from him and sprang into the room.
My intendant was still talking of me. The room was crowded, for Rodenard alone had brought with him my twenty followers. One of these looked up as I brushed past him, and uttered a cry of surprise upon recognizing me. But Rodenard talked on, engrossed in his theme to the exclusion of all else."Monsieur le Marquis," he was saying, "is a gentleman whom it is, indeed, an honour to serve--" A scream burst from him with the last word, for the lash of my whip had burnt a wheal upon his well-fed sides. "It is an honour that shall be yours no more, you dog!" I cried.
He leapt high into the air as my whip cut him again. He swung round, his face twisted with pain, his flabby cheeks white with fear, and his eyes wild with anger, for as yet the full force of the situation had not been borne in upon him. Then, seeing me there, and catching something of the awful passion that must have been stamped upon my face, he dropped on his knees and cried out something that I did not understand for I was past understanding much just then.
The lash whistled through the air again and caught him about the shoulders. He writhed and roared in his anguish of both flesh and spirit. But I was pitiless. He had ruined my life for me with his talking, and, as God lived, he should pay the only price that it lay in his power to pay - the price of physical suffering. Again and again my whip hissed about his head and cut into his soft white flesh, whilst roaring for mercy he moved and rocked on his knees before me. Instinctively he approached me to hamper my movements, whilst I moved back to give my lash the better play. He held out his arms and joined his fat hands in supplication, but the lash caught them in its sinuous tormenting embrace, and started a red wheal across their whiteness. He tucked them into his armpits with a scream, and fell prone upon the ground.
Then I remember that some of my men essayed to restrain me, which to my passion was as the wind to a blaze. I cracked my whip about their heads, commanding them to keep their distance lest they were minded to share his castigation. And so fearful an air must I have worn, that, daunted, they hung back and watched their leader's punishment in silence.
When I think of it now, I take no little shame at the memory of how I beat him. It is, indeed, with deep reluctance and yet deeper shame that I have brought myself to write of it. If I offend you with this account of that horsewhipping, let necessity be my apology; for the horsewhipping itself I have, unfortunately, no apology, save the blind fury that obsessed me - which is no apology at all. Upon the morrow I repented me already with much bitterness. But in that hour I knew no reason. I was mad, and of my madness was born this harsh brutality.
"You would talk of me and my affairs in a tavern, you hound!" I cried, out of breath both by virtue of my passion and my exertions. "Let the memory of this act as a curb upon your poisonous tongue in future.""Monseigneur!" he screamed. "Misericorde, monseigneur!"
"Aye, you shall have mercy - just so much mercy as you deserve. Have I trusted you all these years, and did my father trust you before me, for this? Have you grown sleek and fat and smug in my service that you should requite me thus? Sangdieu, Rodenard! My father had hanged you for the half of the talking that you have done this night. You dog! You miserable knave!""Monseigneur," he shrieked again, "forgive! For your sainted mother's sake, forgive! Monseigneur, I did not know--" "But you are learning, cur; you are learning by the pain of your fat carcase; is it not so, carrion?" He sank down, his strength exhausted, a limp, moaning, bleeding mass of flesh, into which my whip still cut relentlessly.
I have a picture m my mind of that ill-lighted room, of the startled faces on which the flickering glimmer of the candles shed odd shadows; of the humming and cracking of my whip; of my own voice raised in oaths and epithets of contempt; of Rodenard's screams; of the cries raised here and there in remonstrance or in entreaty, and of some more bold that called shame upon me. Then others took up that cry of "Shame!" so that at last I paused and stood there drawn up to my full height, as if in challenge. Towering above the heads of any in that room, I held my whip menacingly. I was unused to criticism, and their expressions of condemnation roused me.
"Who questions my right?" I demanded arrogantly, whereupon they one and all fell silent. "If any here be bold enough to step out, he shall have my answer." Then, as none responded, I signified my contempt for them by a laugh."Monseigneur!" wailed Rodenard at my feet, his voice growing feeble. By way of answer, I gave him a final cut, then I flung the whip - which had grown ragged in the fray - back to the ostler from whom I had borrowed it.
"Let that suffice you, Rodenard," I said, touching him with my foot. "See that I never set eyes upon you again, if you cherish your miserable life!" "Not that, monseigneur." groaned the wretch. "Oh, not that! You have punished me; you have whipped me until I cannot stand; forgive me, monseigneur, forgive me now!"
"I have forgiven you, but I never wish to see you again, lest I should forget that I have forgiven you. Take him away, some of you," I bade my men, and in swift, silent obedience two of them stepped forward and bore the groaning, sobbing fellow from the room. When that was done "Host," I commanded, "prepare me a room. Attend me, a couple of you."
I gave orders thereafter for the disposal of my baggage, some of which my lacqueys brought up to the chamber that the landlord had in haste made ready for me. In that chamber I sat until very late; a prey to the utmost misery and despair. My rage being spent, I might have taken some thought for poor Ganymede and his condition, but my own affairs crowded over-heavily upon my mind, and sat the undisputed rulers of my thoughts that night.
At one moment I considered journeying to Lavedan, only to dismiss the idea the next. What could it avail me now? Would Roxalanne believe the tale I had to tell? Would she not think, naturally enough, that I was but making the best of the situation, and that my avowal of the truth of a story which it was not in my power to deny was not spontaneous, but forced from me by circumstances? No, there was nothing more to be done. A score of amours had claimed my attention in the past and received it; yet there was not one of those affairs whose miscarriage would have afforded me the slightest concern or mortification. It seemed like an irony, like a Dies ire, that it should have been left to this first true passion of my life to have gone awry.
I slept ill when at last I sought my bed, and through the night I nursed my bitter grief, huddling to me the corpse of the love she had borne me as a mother may the corpse of her first-born.
On the morrow I resolved to leave Toulouse - to quit this province wherein so much had befallen me and repair to Beaugency, there to grow old in misanthropical seclusion. I had done with Courts, I had done with love and with women; I had done, it seemed to me, with life itself. Prodigal had it been in gifts that I had not sought of it. It had spread my table with the richest offerings, but they had been little to my palate, and I had nauseated quickly. And now, when here in this remote corner of France it had shown me the one prize I coveted, it had been swift to place it beyond my reach, thereby sowing everlasting discontent and misery in my hitherto pampered heart.
I saw Castelroux that day, but I said no word to him of my affliction. He brought me news of Chatellerault. The Count was lying in a dangerous condition at the Auberge Royale, and might not be moved. The physician attending him all but despaired of his life.
"He is asking to see you," said Castelroux.
But I was not minded to respond. For all that he had deeply wronged me, for all that I despised him very cordially, the sight of him in his present condition might arouse my pity, and I was in no mood to waste upon such a one as Chatellerault even on his deathbed - a quality of which I had so dire a need just then for my own case.
"I will not go," said I, after deliberation. "Tell him from me that I forgive him freely if it be that he seeks my forgiveness; tell him that I bear him no rancour, and - that he had better make his will, to save me trouble hereafter, if he should chance to die."
I said this because I had no mind, if he should perish intestate, to go in quest of his next heirs and advise them that my late Picardy estates were now their property.Castelroux sought yet to persuade me to visit the Count, but I held firmly to my resolve. "I am leaving Toulouse to-day," I announced. "Whither do you go?" "To hell, or to Beaugency - I scarce know which, nor does it matter." He looked at me in surprise, but, being a man of breeding, asked no questions upon matters that he accounted secret. "But the King?" he ventured presently. "His Majesty has already dispensed me from my duties by him."
Nevertheless, I did not go that day. I maintained the intention until sunset; then, seeing that it was too late, I postponed my departure until the morrow. I can assign no reason for my dallying mood. Perhaps it sprang from the inertness that pervaded me, perhaps some mysterious hand detained me. Be that as it may, that I remained another night at the Hotel de l'Epee was one of those contingencies which, though slight and seemingly inconsequential in themselves, lead to great issues. Had I departed that day for Beaugency, it is likely that you had never heard of me - leastways, not from my own pen - for in what so far I have told you, without that which is to follow, there is haply little that was worth the labour of setting down.
In the morning, then, I set out; but having started late, we got no farther than Grenade, where we lay the night once more at the Hotel de la Couronne. And so, through having delayed my departure by a single day, did it come to pass that a message reached me before it might have been too late.
It was high noon of the morrow. Our horses stood saddled; indeed, some of my men were already mounted - for I was not minded to disband them until Beaugency was reached - and my two coaches were both ready for the journey. The habits of a lifetime are not so easy to abandon even when Necessity raises her compelling voice.
I was in the act of settling my score with the landlord when of a sudden there were quick steps in the passage, the clank of a rapier against the wall, and a voice - the voice of Castelroux - calling excitedly "Bardelys! Monsieur de Bardelys!""What brings you here?" I cried in greeting, as he stepped into the room. "Are you still for Beaugency?" he asked sharply, throwing back his head. "Why, yes," I answered, wondering at this excitement. "Then you have seen nothing of Saint-Eustache and his men?" "Nothing."
"Yet they must have passed this way not many hours ago." Then tossing his hat on the table and speaking with sudden vehemence: "If you have any interest in the family of Lavedan, you will return upon the instant to Toulouse."
The mention of Lavedan was enough to quicken my pulses. Yet in the past two days I had mastered resignation, and in doing that we school ourselves to much restraint. I turned slowly, and surveyed the little Captain attentively. His black eyes sparkled, and his moustaches bristled with excitement. Clearly he had news of import. I turned to the landlord."Leave us, Monsieur l'Hote," said I shortly; and when he had departed, "What of the Lavedan family, Castelroux?" I inquired as calmly as I might. "The Chevalier de Saint-Eustache left Toulouse at six o'clock this morning for Lavedan." Swift the suspicion of his errand broke upon my mind. "He has betrayed the Vicomte?" I half inquired, half asserted.
Castelroux nodded. "He has obtained a warrant for his apprehension from the Keeper of the Seals, and is gone to execute it. In the course of a few days Lavedan will be in danger of being no more than a name. This Saint-Eustache is driving a brisk trade, by God, and some fine prizes have already fallen to his lot. But if you add them all together, they are not likely to yield as much as this his latest expedition. Unless you intervene, Bardelys, the Vicomte de Lavedan is doomed and his family houseless."
"I will intervene," I cried. "By God, I will! And as for Saint-Eustache - he was born under a propitious star, indeed, if he escapes the gallows. He little dreams that I am still to be reckoned with. There, Castelroux, I will start for Lavedan at once."Already I was striding to the door, when the Gascon called me back. "What good will that do?" he asked. "Were it not better first to return to Toulouse and obtain a counter-warrant from the King?" There was wisdom in his words - much wisdom. But my blood was afire, and I was in too hot a haste to reason.
"Return to Toulouse?" I echoed scornfully. "A waste of time, Captain. No, I will go straight to Lavedan. I need no counter-warrant. I know too much of this Chevalier's affairs, and my very presence should be enough to stay his hand. He is as foul a traitor as you'll find in France; but for the moment God bless him for a very opportune knave. Gilles!" I called, throwing wide the door. "Gilles!""Monseigneur," he answered, hastening to me.
"Put back the carriages and saddle me a horse," I commanded. "And bid your fellows mount at once and await me in the courtyard. We are not going to Beaugency, Gilles. We ride north - to Lavedan."
18. Saint-Eustache Is Obstinate
0n the occasion of my first visit to Lavedan I had disregarded - or, rather, Fate had contrived that I should disregard - Chatellerault's suggestion that I should go with all the panoply of power - with my followers, my liveries, and my equipages to compose the magnificence all France had come to associate with my name, and thus dazzle by my brilliant lustre the lady I was come to win. As you may remember, I had crept into the chateau like a thief in the night, - wounded, bedraggled, and of miserable aspect, seeking to provoke compassion rather than admiration.
Not so now that I made my second visit. I availed myself of all the splendour to which I owed my title of "Magnificent," and rode into the courtyard of the Chateau de Lavedan preceded by twenty well-mounted knaves wearing the gorgeous Saint-Pol liveries of scarlet and gold, with the Bardelys escutcheon broidered on the breasts of their doublets - on a field or a bar azure surcharged by three lilies of the field. They were armed with swords and musketoons, and had more the air of a royal bodyguard than of a company of attendant servants.
Our coming was in a way well timed. I doubt if we could have stayed the execution of Saint-Eustache's warrant even had we arrived earlier. But for effect - to produce a striking coup de theatre - we could not have come more opportunely.
A coach stood in the quadrangle, at the foot of the chateau steps: down these the Vicomte was descending, with the Vicomtesse - grim and blasphemant as ever, on one side, and his daughter, white of face and with tightly compressed lips, on the other. Between these two women - his wife and his child - as different in body as they were different in soul, came Lavedan with a firm step, a good colour, and a look of well-bred, lofty indifference to his fate.
He disposed himself to enter the carriage which was to bear him to prison with much the same air he would have assumed had his destination been a royal levee.
Around the coach were grouped a score of men of Saint-Eustache's company - half soldiers, half ploughboys - ill-garbed and indifferently accoutred in dull breastplates and steel caps, many of which were rusted. By the carriage door stood the long, lank figure of the Chevalier himself, dressed with his wonted care, and perfumed, curled, and beribboned beyond belief. His weak, boyish face sought by scowls and by the adoption of a grim smile to assume an air of martial ferocity.
Such was the grouping in the quadrangle when my men, with Gilles at their head, thundered across the drawbridge, giving pause to those within, and drawing upon themselves the eyes of all, as they rode, two by two, under the old-world arch of the keep into the courtyard. And Gilles, who knew our errand, and who was as ready-witted a rogue as ever rode with me, took in the situation at a glance. Knowing how much I desired to make a goodly show, he whispered an order. This resulted in the couples dividing at the gateway, one going to the left and one to the right, so that as they came they spread themselves in a crescent, and drawing rein, they faced forward, confronting and half surrounding the Chevalier's company.
As each couple appeared, the curiosity - the uneasiness, probably --of SaintEustache and his men, had increased, and their expectancy was on tiptoe to see what lord it was went abroad with such regal pomp, when I appeared in the gateway and advanced at the trot into the middle of the quadrangle. There I drew rein and doffed my hat to them as they stood, open-mouthed and gaping one and all. If it was a theatrical display, a parade worthy of a tilt-ground, it was yet a noble and imposing advent, and their gaping told me that it was not without effect. The men looked uneasily at the Chevalier; the Chevalier looked uneasily at his men; mademoiselle, very pale, lowered her eyes and pressed her lips yet more tightly; the Vicomtesse uttered an oath of astonishment; whilst Lavedan, too dignified to manifest surprise, greeted me with a sober bow.
Behind them on the steps I caught sight of a group of domestics, old Anatole standing slightly in advance of his fellows, and wondering, no doubt, whether this were, indeed, the bedraggled Lesperon of a little while ago - for if I had thought of pomp in the display of my lacqueys, no less had I considered it in the decking of my own person. Without any of the ribbons and fopperies that mark the coxcomb, yet was I clad, plumed, and armed with a magnificence such as I'll swear had not been seen within the grey walls of that old castle in the lifetime of any of those that were now present.
Gilles leapt from his horse as I drew rein, and hastened to hold my stirrup, with a murmured "Monsieur," which title drew a fresh astonishment into the eyes of the beholders.
I advanced leisurely towards Saint-Eustache, and addressed him with such condescension as I might a groom, to impress and quell a man of this type your best weapon is the arrogance that a nobler spirit would resent.
"A world of odd meetings this, Saint-Eustache," I smiled disdainfully. "A world of strange comings and goings, and of range transformations. The last time we were here we stood mutually as guests of Monsieur le Vicomte; at present you appear to be officiating as a - a tipstaff."
"Monsieur!" He coloured, and he uttered the word in accents of awakening resentment. I looked into his eyes, coldly, impassively, as if waiting to hear what he might have to add, and so I stayed until his glance fell and his spirit was frozen in him. He knew me, and he knew how much I was to be feared. A word from me to the King might send him to the wheel. It was upon this I played. Presently, as his eye fell, "Is your business with me, Monsieur de Bardelys?" he asked, and at that utterance of my name there was a commotion on the steps, whilst the Vicomte started, and his eyes frowned upon me, and the Vicomtesse looked up suddenly to scan me with a fresh interest. She beheld at last in the flesh the gentleman who had played so notorious a part, ten years ago, in that scandal connected with the Duchesse de Bourgogne, of which she never tired of reciting the details. And think that she had sat at table with him day by day and been unconscious of that momentous fact! Such, I make no doubt, was what passed through her mind at the moment, and, to judge from her expression, I should say that the excitement of beholding the Magnificent Bardelys had for the nonce eclipsed beholding even her husband's condition and the imminent sequestration of Lavedan.
He flashed me a look of impotent hate. "You know of the existence of my warrant, Monsieur de Bardelys, and you must therefore realize that a royal mandate alone can exempt me from delivering Monsieur de Lavedan to the Keeper of the Seals."
"My only warrant," I answered, somewhat baffled, but far from abandoning hope, "is my word. You shall say to the Garde des Sceaux that you have done this upon the authority of the Marquis de Bardelys, and you have my promise that His Majesty shall confirm my action."In saying that I said too much, as I was quickly to realize.
"His Majesty will confirm it, monsieur?" he said interrogatively, and he shook his head. "That is a risk I dare not run. My warrant sets me under imperative obligations which I must discharge - you will see the justice of what I state."
His tone was all humility, all subservience, nevertheless it was firm to the point of being hard. But my last card, the card upon which I was depending, was yet to be played.
"Will you do me the honour to step aside with me, Chevalier?" I commanded rather than besought.
"Now, Saint-Eustache, we can talk," said I, with an abrupt change of manner from the coldly arrogant to the coldly menacing. "I marvel greatly at your temerity in pursuing this Iscariot business after learning who I am, at Toulouse two nights ago."He clenched his hands, and his weak face hardened. "I would beg you to consider your expressions, monsieur, and to control them," said he in a thick voice.
I vouchsafed him a stare of freezing amazement. "You will no doubt remember in what capacity I find you employed. Nay, keep your hands still, Saint-Eustache. I don't fight catchpolls, and if you give me trouble my men are yonder." And I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. "And now to business. I am not minded to talk all day. I was saying that I marvel at your temerity, and more particularly at your having laid information against Monsieur de Lavedan, and having come here to arrest him, knowing, as you must know, that I am interested in the Vicomte.""I have heard of that interest, monsieur," said he, with a sneer for which I could have struck him. "This act of yours," I pursued, ignoring his interpolation, "savours very much of flying in the face of Destiny. It almost seems to me as if you were defying me." His lip trembled, and his eyes shunned my glance. "Indeed - indeed, monsieur--" he was protesting, when I cut him short.
"You cannot be so great a fool but that you must realize that if I tell the King what I know of you, you will be stripped of your ill-gotten gains, and broken on the wheel for a double traitor - a betrayer of your fellow-rebels.""But you will not do that, monsieur?" he cried. "It would be unworthy in you."
At that I laughed in his face. "Heart of God! Are you to be what you please, and do you still expect that men shall be nice in dealing with you? I would do this thing, and, by my faith, Monsieur de Eustache, I will do it, if you compel me!"
He reddened and moved his foot uneasily. Perhaps I did not take the best way with him, after all. I might have confined myself to sowing fear in his heart; that alone might have had the effect I desired; by visiting upon him at the same time the insults I could not repress, I may have aroused his resistance, and excited his desire above all else to thwart me."What do you want of me?" he demanded, with a sudden arrogance which almost cast mine into the shade.
"I want you," said I, deeming the time ripe to make a plain tale of it, "to withdraw your men, and to ride back to Toulouse without Monsieur de Lavedan, there to confess to the Keeper of the Seals that your suspicions were unfounded, and that you have culled evidence that the Vicomte has had no relations with Monsieur the King's brother."He looked at me in amazement - amusedly, almost. "A likely story that to bear to the astute gentlemen in Toulouse," said he.
"Aye, ma foi, a most likely story," said I. "When they come to consider the profit that you are losing by not apprehending the Vicomte, and can think of none that you are making, they will have little difficulty in believing you.""But what of this evidence you refer to?" "You have, I take it, discovered no incriminating evidence - no documents that will tell against the Vicomte?" "No, monsieur, it is true that I have not--" He stopped and bit his lip, my smile making him aware of his indiscretion. "Very well, then, you must invent some evidence to prove that he was in no way, associated with the rebellion."
"Monsieur de Bardelys," said he very insolently, "we waste time in idle words. If you think that I will imperil my neck for the sake of serving you or the Vicomte, you are most prodigiously at fault."
"I have never thought so. But I have thought that you might be induced to imperil your neck - as you have it - for its own sake, and to the end that you might save it."
He moved away. "Monsieur, you talk in vain. You have no royal warrant to supersede mine. Do what you will when you come to Toulouse," and he smiled darkly. "Meanwhile, the Vicomte goes with me."
"You have no evidence against him!" I cried, scarce believing that he would dare to defy me and that I had failed.
"I have the evidence of my word. I am ready to swear to what I know --that, whilst I was here at Lavedan, some weeks ago, I discovered his connection with the rebels."
"And what think you, miserable fool, shall your word weigh against mine?" I cried. "Never fear, Monsieur le Chevalier, I shall be in Toulouse to give you the lie by showing that your word is a word to which no man may attach faith, and by exposing to the King your past conduct. If you think that, after I have spoken, King Louis whom they name the just will suffer the trial of the Vicomte to go further on your instigation, or if you think that you will be able to slip your own neck from the noose I shall have set about it, you are an infinitely greater fool than I deem you."He stood and looked at me over his shoulder, his face crimson, and his brows black as a thundercloud. "All this may betide when you come to Toulouse, Monsieur de Bardelys," said he darkly, "but from here to Toulouse it is a matter of some twenty leagues." With that, he turned on his heel and left me, baffled and angry, to puzzle out the inner meaning of his parting words.
He gave his men the order to mount, and bade Monsieur de Lavedan enter the coach, whereupon Gilles shot me a glance of inquiry. For a second, as I stepped slowly after the Chevalier, I was minded to try armed resistance, and to convert that grey courtyard into a shambles. Then I saw betimes the futility of such a step, and I shrugged my shoulders in answer to my servant's glance.
I would have spoken to the Vicomte ere he departed, but I was too deeply chagrined and humiliated by my defeat. So much so that I had no room in my thoughts even for the very natural conjecture of what Lavedan must be thinking of me. I repented me then of my rashness in coming to Lavedan without having seen the King - as Castelroux had counselled me. I had come indulging vain dreams of a splendid overthrow of Saint-Eustache. I had thought to shine heroically in Mademoiselle's eyes, and thus I had hoped that both gratitude for having saved her father and admiration at the manner in which I had achieved it would predispose her to grant me a hearing in which I might plead my rehabilitation. Once that were accorded me, I did not doubt I should prevail.
Now my dream was all dispelled, and my pride had suffered just such a humiliating fall as the moralists tell us pride must ever suffer. There seemed little left me but to go hence with lambent tail, like a dog that has been whipped - my dazzling escort become a mockery but that it served the more loudly to advertise my true impotency.
As I approached the carriage, the Vicomtesse swept suddenly down the steps and came towards me with a friendly smile. "Monsieur de Bardelys," said she, "we are grateful for your intervention in the cause of that rebel my husband."
"Madame," I besought her, under my breath, "if you would not totally destroy him, I beseech you to be cautious. By your leave, I will have my men refreshed, and thereafter I shall take the road to Toulouse again. I can only hope that my intervention with the King may bear better fruit."Although I spoke in a subdued key, Saint-Eustache, who stood near us, overheard me, as his face very clearly testified. "Remain here, sir," she replied, with some effusion, "and follow us when you are rested." "Follow you?" I inquired. "Do you then go with Monsieur de Lavedan?" "No, Anne," said the Vicomte politely from the carriage. "It will be tiring you unnecessarily. You were better advised to remain here until my return."
I doubt not that the poor Vicomte was more concerned with how she would tire him than with how the journey might tire her. But the Vicomtesse was not to be gainsaid. The Chevalier had sneered when the Vicomte spoke of returning. Madame had caught that sneer, and she swung round upon him now with the vehement fury of a virago.
"He'll not return, you think, you Judas!" she snarled at him, her lean, swarthy face growing very evil to see. "But he shall - by God, he shall! And look to your skin when he does, monsieur the catchpoll, for, on my honour, you shall have a foretaste of hell for your trouble in this matter."The Chevalier smiled with much restraint. "A woman's tongue," said he, "does no injury." "Will a woman's arm, think you?" demanded that warlike matron. "You muskstinking tipstaff, I'll--" "Anne, my love," implored the Vicomte soothingly, "I beg that you will control yourself."
"Shall I submit to the insolence of this misbegotten vassal? Shall I--" "Remember rather that it does not become the dignity of your station to address the fellow. We avoid venomous reptiles, but we do not pause to reproach them with their venom. God made them so."
Saint-Eustache coloured to the roots of his hair, then, turning hastily to the driver, he bade him start. He would have closed the door with that, but that madame thrust herself forward.That was the Chevalier's chance to be avenged. "You cannot go," said he. "Cannot?" Her cheeks reddened. "Why not, monsieur Lesperon? "I have no reasons to afford you," he answered brutally. "You cannot go."
"Your pardon, Chevalier," I interposed. "You go beyond your rights in seeking to prevent her. Monsieur le Vicomte is not yet convicted. Do not, I beseech you, transcend the already odious character of your work."
And without more ado I shouldered him aside, and held the door that she might enter. She rewarded me with a smile--half vicious, half whimsical, and mounted the step. Saint-Eustache would have interfered. He came at me as if resenting that shoulder-thrust of mine, and for a second I almost thought he would have committed the madness of striking me.
"Take care, Saint-Eustache," I said very quietly, my eyes fixed on his. And much as dead Caesar's ghost may have threatened Brutus with Philippi "We meet at Toulouse, Chevalier," said I, and closing the carriage door I stepped back.
There was a flutter of skirts behind me. It was mademoiselle. So brave and outwardly so calm until now, the moment of actual separation - and added thereunto perhaps her mother's going and the loneliness that for herself she foresaw - proved more than she could endure. I stepped aside, and she swept past me and caught at the leather curtain of the coach."Father!" she sobbed.
There are some things that a man of breeding may not witness - some things to look upon which is near akin to eavesdropping or reading the letters of another. Such a scene did I now account the present one, and, turning, I moved away. But Saint-Eustache cut it short, for scarce had I taken three paces when his voice rang out the command to move. The driver hesitated, for the girl was still hanging at the window. But a second command, accompanied by a vigorous oath, overcame his hesitation. He gathered up his reins, cracked his whip, and the lumbering wheels began to move.
"Have a care, child!" I heard the Vicomte cry, "have a care! Adieu, mon enfant!" She sprang back, sobbing, and assuredly she would have fallen, thrown out of balance by the movement of the coach, but that I put forth my hands and caught her.
I do not think she knew whose were the arms that held her for that brief space, so desolated was she by the grief so long repressed. At last she realized that it was this worthless Bardelys against whom she rested; this man who had wagered that he would win and wed her; this impostor who had come to her under an assumed name; this knave who had lied to her as no gentleman could have lied, swearing to love her, whilst, in reality, he did no more than seek to win a wager. When all this she realized, she shuddered a second, then moved abruptly from my grasp, and, without so much as a glance at me, she left me, and, ascending the steps of the chateau, she passed from my sight.I gave the order to dismount as the last of Saint-Eustache's followers vanished under the portcullis.
19. The Flint And The SteelMademoiselle will see you, monsieur," said Anatole at last.
Twice already had he carried unavailingly my request that Roxalanne should accord me an interview ere I departed. On this the third occasion I had bidden him say that I would not stir from Lavedan until she had done me the honour of hearing me. Seemingly that threat had prevailed where entreaties had been scorned.
I followed Anatole from the half-light of the hall in which I had been pacing into the salon overlooking the terraces and the river, where Roxalanne awaited me. She was standing at the farther end of the room by one of the long windows, which was open, for, although we were already in the first week of October, the air of Languedoc was as warm and balmy as that of Paris or Picardy is in summer.
I advanced to the centre of the chamber, and there I paused and waited until it should please her to acknowledge my presence and turn to face me. I was no fledgling. I had seen much, I had learnt much and been in many places, and my bearing was wont to convey it. Never in my life had I been gauche, for which I thank my parents, and if years ago - long years ago - a certain timidity had marked my first introductions to the Louvre and the Luxembourg, that timidity was something from which I had long since parted company. And yet it seemed to me, as I stood in that pretty, sunlit room awaiting the pleasure of that child, scarce out of her teens, that some of the awkwardness I had escaped in earlier years, some of the timidity of long ago, came to me then. I shifted the weight of my body from one leg to the other; I fingered the table by which I stood; I pulled at the hat I held; my colour came and went; I looked at her furtively from under bent brows, and I thanked God that her back being towards me she might not see the clown I must have seemed.At length, unable longer to brook that discomposing silence--
"Mademoiselle!" I called softly. The sound of my own voice seemed to invigorate me, to strip me of my awkwardness and self-consciousness. It broke the spell that for a moment had been over me, and brought me back to myself - to the vain, self-confident, flamboyant Bardelys that perhaps you have pictured from my writings.
"I hope, monsieur," she answered, without turning, "that what you may have to say may justify in some measure your very importunate insistence." On my life, this was not encouraging. But now that I was master of myself, I was not again so easily to be disconcerted. My eyes rested upon her as she stood almost framed in the opening of that long window. How straight and supple she was, yet how dainty and slight withal! She was far from being a tall woman, but her clean length of limb, her very slightness, and the high-bred poise of her shapely head, conveyed an illusion of height unless you stood beside her. The illusion did not sway me then. I saw only a child; but a child with a great spirit, with a great soul that seemed to accentuate her physical helplessness. That helplessness, which I felt rather than saw, wove into the warp of my love. She was in grief just then - in grief at the arrest of her father, and at the dark fate that threatened him; in grief at the unworthiness of a lover. Of the two which might be the more bitter it was not mine to judge, but I burned to gather her to me, to comfort and cherish her, to make her one with me, and thus, whilst giving her something of my man's height and strength, cull from her something of that pure, noble spirit, and thus sanctify my own.
I had a moment's weakness when she spoke. I was within an ace of advancing and casting myself upon my knees like any Lenten penitent, to sue forgiveness. But I set the inclination down betimes. Such expedients would not avail me here.
"What I have to say, mademoiselle," I answered after a pause, "would justify a saint descending into, hell; or, rather, to make my metaphor more apt, would warrant a sinner's intrusion into heaven."I spoke solemnly, yet not too solemnly; the least slur of a sardonic humour was in my tones.
She moved her head upon the white column of her neck, and with the gesture one of her brown curls became disordered. I could fancy the upward tilt of her delicate nose, the scornful curve of her lip as she answered shortly "Then say it quickly, monsieur."And, being thus bidden, I said quickly "I love you, Roxalanne." Her heel beat the shimmering parquet of the floor; she half turned towards me, her cheek flushed, her lip tremulous with anger. "Will you say what you have to say, monsieur?" she demanded in a concentrated voice, "and having said it, will you go?" "Mademoiselle, I have already said it," I answered, with a wistful smile.
"Oh!" she gasped. Then suddenly facing round upon me, a world of anger in her blue eyes - eyes that I had known dreamy, but which were now very wide awake. "Was it to offer me this last insult you forced your presence upon me? Was it to mock me with those words, me - a woman, with no man about me to punish you? Shame, sir! Yet it is no more than I might look for in you.""Mademoiselle, you do me grievous wrong--" I began.
"I do you no wrong," she answered hotly, then stopped, unwilling haply to be drawn into contention with me. "Enfin, since you have said what you came to say will you go?" And she pointed to the door."Mademoiselle, mademoiselle--" I began in a voice of earnest intercession. "Go!" she interrupted angrily, and for a second the violence of her voice and gesture almost reminded me of the Vicomtesse. "I will hear no more from you." "Mademoiselle, you shall," I answered no whit less firmly.
"I will not listen to you. Talk if you will. You shall have the walls for audience." And she moved towards the door, but I barred her passage. I was courteous to the last degree; I bowed low before her as I put myself in her way."It is all that was wanting - that you should offer me violence!" she exclaimed. "God forbid!" said I. "Then let me pass." "Aye, when you have heard me."
"I do not wish to hear you. Nothing that you may say can matter to me. Oh, monsieur, if you have any instincts of gentility, if you have any pretension to be accounted anything but a mauvais sujet, I beg of you to respect my grief. You witnessed, yourself, the arrest of my father. This is no season for such as scene as you are creating.""Pardon! It is in such a season as this that you need the comfort and support that the man you love alone can give you."
"The man I love?" she echoed, and from flushed that they had been, her cheeks went very pale. Her eyes fell for an instant, then - they were raised again, and their blue depths were offered me. "I think, sir," she said, through her teeth, "that your insolence transcends all belief."
"Can you deny it?" I cried. "Can you deny that you love me? If you can - why, then, you lied to me three nights ago at Toulouse!"
That smote her hard - so hard that she forgot her assurance that she would not listen to me - her promise to herself that she would stoop to no contention with me.
"If, in a momentary weakness, in my nescience of you as you truly are, I did make some such admission, I did entertain such feelings for you, things have come to my knowledge since then, monsieur, that have revealed you to me as another man; I have learnt something that has utterly withered such love as I then confessed. Now, monsieur, are you satisfied, and will you let me pass?" She said the last words with a return of her imperiousness, already angry at having been drawn so far.
"I am satisfied, mademoiselle," I answered brutally, "that you did not speak the truth three nights ago. You never loved me. It was pity that deluded you, shame that urged you - shame at the Delilah part you had played and at your betrayal of me. Now, mademoiselle, you may pass," said I.
And I stood aside, assured that as she was a woman she would not pass me now. Nor did she. She recoiled a step instead. Her lip quivered. Then she recovered quickly. Her mother might have told her that she was a fool for engaging herself in such a duel with me - me, the veteran of a hundred amorous combats. Yet though I doubt not it was her first assault-at-arms of this description, she was more than a match for me, as her next words proved.
"Monsieur, I thank you for enlightening me. I cannot, indeed, have spoken the truth three nights ago. You are right, I do not doubt it now, and you lift from me a load of shame."
Dieu! It was like a thrust in the high lines, and its hurtful violence staggered me. I was finished, it seemed. The victory was hers, and she but a child with no practice of Cupid's art of fence!"Now, monsieur," she added, "now that you are satisfied that you did wrong to say I loved you, now that we have disposed of that question - adieu!"
"A moment yet!" I cried. "We have disposed of that, but there was another point, an earlier one, which for the moment we have disregarded. We have - you have disproved the love I was so presumptuous as to believe you fostered for me. We have yet to reckon with the love I bear you, mademoiselle, and of that we shall not be able to dispose so readily."
With a gesture of weariness or of impatience, she turned aside. "What is it you want? What do you seek to gain by thus provoking me? To win your wager?" Her voice was cold. Who to have looked upon that childlike face, upon those meek, pondering eyes, could have believed her capable of so much cruelty? "There can no longer be any question of my wager; I have lost and paid it," said I.She looked up suddenly. Her brows met in a frown of bewilderment. Clearly this interested her. Again was she drawn. "How?" she asked. "You have lost and paid it?"
"Even so. That odious, cursed, infamous wager, was the something which I hinted at so often as standing between you and me. The confession that so often I was on the point of making - that so often you urged me to make - concerned that wager. Would to God, Roxalanne, that I had told you!" I cried, and it seemed to me that the sincerity ringing in my voice drove some of the harshness from her countenance, some of the coldness from her glance.
"Unfortunately," I pursued, "it always seemed to me either not yet time, or already too late. Yet so soon as I regained my liberty, my first thought was of that. While the wager existed I might not ask you to become my wife, lest I should seem to be carrying out the original intention which embarked me upon the business of wooing you, and brought me here to Languedoc. And so my first step was to seek out Chatellerault and deliver him my note of hand for my Picardy possessions, the bulk - by far the greater bulk - of all my fortune. My second step was to repair to you at the Hotel de l'Epee.
"At last I could approach you with clean hands; I could confess what I had done; and since it seemed to me that I had made the utmost atonement, I was confident of success. Alas! I came too late. In the porch of the auberge I met you as you came forth. From my talkative intendant you had learnt already the story of that bargain into which Bardelys had entered. You had learnt who I was, and you thought that you had learnt why I wooed you. Accordingly you could but despise me."
She had sunk into a chair. Her hands were folded in a listless manner in her lap, and her eyes were lowered, her cheeks pale. But the swift heave of her bosom told me that my words were not without effect." Do you know nothing of the bargain that I made with Chatellerault?" she asked in a voice that held, I thought, some trace of misery.
"Chatellerault was a cheat!" I cried. "No man of honour in France would have accounted himself under obligation to pay that wager. I paid it, not because I thought the payment due, but that by its payment I might offer you a culminating proof of my sincerity."
"Be that as it may," said she, "I passed him my word to - to marry him, if he set you at liberty."
"The promise does not hold, for when you made it I was at liberty already. Besides, Chatellerault is dead by now - or very near it."
"Yes, dead. We fought--" The ghost of a smile, of sudden, of scornful understanding, passed like a ray of light across her face. "Pardieu!" I cried, "you do me a wrong there. It was not by my hands that he fell. It was not by me that the duel was instigated."
And with that I gave her the whole details of the affair, including the information that Chatellerault had been no party to my release, and that for his attempted judicial murder of me the King would have dealt very hardly with him had he not saved the King the trouble by throwing himself upon his sword:
There was a silence when I had done. Roxalanne sat on, and seemed to ponder. To let all that I had said sink in and advocate my cause, as to me was very clear it must, I turned aside and moved to one of the windows.
"Why did you not tell me before?" she asked suddenly. "Why - oh, why - did you not confess to me the whole infamous affair as soon as you came to love me, as you say you did?""As I say I did?" I repeated after her. "Do you doubt it? Can you doubt it in the face of what I have done?"
"Oh, I don't know what to believe!" she cried, a sob in her voice. "You have deceived me so far, so often. Why did you not tell me that night on the river? Or later, when I pressed you in this very house? Or again, the other night in the prison of Toulouse?"
"You ask me why. Can you not answer the question for yourself? Can you not conceive the fear that was in me that you should shrink away from me in loathing? The fear that if you cared a little, I might for all time stifle such affection as you bore me? The fear that I must ruin your trust in me? Oh, mademoiselle, can you not see how my only hope lay in first owning defeat to Chatellerault, in first paying the wager?""How could you have lent yourself to such a bargain?" was her next question.
"How, indeed?" I asked in my turn. "From your mother you have heard something of the reputation that attaches to Bardelys. I was a man of careless ways, satiated with all the splendours life could give me, nauseated by all its luxuries. Was it wonderful that I allowed myself to be lured into this affair? It promised some excitement, a certain novelty, difficulties in a path that I had - alas! - ever found all too smooth - for Chatellerault had made your reputed coldness the chief bolster of his opinion that I should not win.
"Again, I was not given to over-nice scruples. I make no secret of my infirmities, but do not blame me too much. If you could see the fine demoiselles we have in Paris, if you could listen to their tenets and take a deep look into their lives, you would not marvel at me. I had never known any but these. On the night of my coming to Lavedan, your sweetness, your pure innocence, your almost childish virtue, dazed me by their novelty. From that first moment I became your slave. Then I was in your garden day by day. And here, in this old Languedoc garden with you and your roses, during the languorous days of my convalescence, is it wonderful that some of the purity, some of the sweetness that was of you and of your roses, should have crept into my heart and cleansed it a little? Ah, mademoiselle!" I cried - and, coming close to her, I would have bent my knee in intercession but that she restrained me."Monsieur," she interrupted, "we harass ourselves in vain. This can have but one ending." Her tones were cold, but the coldness I knew was forced - else had she not said "we harass ourselves." Instead of quelling my ardour, it gave it fuel. "True, mademoiselle," I cried, almost exultantly. "It can end but one way!" She caught my meaning, and her frown deepened. I went too fast, it seemed. "It had better end now, monsieur. There is too much between us. You wagered to win me to wife." She shuddered. "I could never forget it." "Mademoiselle," I denied stoutly, "I did not." "How?" She caught her breath. "You did not?" "No," I pursued boldly. "I did not wager to win you. I wagered to win a certain Mademoiselle de Lavedan, who was unknown to me - but not you, not you." She smiled, with never so slight a touch of scorn. "Your distinctions are very fine - too fine for me, monsieur." "I implore you to be reasonable. Think reasonably."
"Am I not reasonable? Do I not think? But there is so much to think of!" she sighed. "You carried your deception so far. You came here, for instance, as Monsieur de Lesperon. Why that duplicity?"
"Again, mademoiselle, I did not," said I.
"Surely no; a thousand times no. I was the victim of circumstances in that, and if I turned them to my own account after they had been forced upon me, shall I be blamed and accounted a cheat? Whilst I was unconscious, your father, seeking for a clue to my identity, made an inspection of my clothes.
"In the pocket of my doublet they found some papers addressed to Rene de Lesperon - some love letters, a communication from the Duc d'Orleans, and a woman's portrait. From all of this it was assumed that I was that Lesperon. Upon my return to consciousness your father greeted me effusively, whereat I wondered; he passed on to discuss - nay, to tell me of - the state of the province and of his own connection with the rebels, until I lay gasping at his egregious temerity. Then, when he greeted me as Monsieur de Lesperon, I had the explanation of it, but too late. Could I deny the identity then? Could I tell him that I was Bardelys, the favourite of the King himself? What would have occurred? I ask you, mademoiselle. Would I not have been accounted a spy, and would they not have made short work of me here at your chateau?""No, no; they would have done no murder."
"Perhaps not, but I could not be sure just then. Most men situated as your father was would have despatched me. Ah, mademoiselle, have you not proofs enough? Do you not believe me now?""Yes, monsieur," she answered simply, "I believe you." "Will you not believe, then, in the sincerity of my love?"
She made no rely. Her face was averted, but from her silence I took heart. I drew close to her. I set my hand upon the tall back of her chair, and, leaning towards her, I spoke with passionate heat as must have melted, I thought, any woman who had not a loathing for me.
"Mademoiselle; I am a poor man now," I ended. "I am no longer that magnificent gentleman whose wealth and splendour were a byword. Yet am I no needy adventurer. I have a little property at Beaugency - a very spot for happiness, mademoiselle. Paris shall know me no more. At Beaugency I shall live at peace, in seclusion, and, so that you come with me, in such joy as in all my life I have done nothing to deserve. I have no longer an army of retainers. A couple of men and a maid or two shall constitute our household. Yet I shall account my wealth well lost if for love's sake you'll share with me the peace of my obscurity. I am poor, mademoiselle yet no poorer even now than that Gascon gentleman, Rene de Lesperon, for whom you held me, and on whom you bestowed the priceless treasure of your heart.""Oh, might it have pleased God that you had remained that poor Gascon gentleman!" she cried. "In what am I different, Roxalanne?" "In that he had laid no wager," she answered, rising suddenly.
My hopes were withering. She was not angry. She was pale, and her gentle face was troubled - dear God! how sorely troubled! To me it almost seemed that I had lost.She flashed me a glance of her blue eyes, and I thought that tears impended. "Roxalanne!" I supplicated. But she recovered the control that for a moment she had appeared upon the verge of losing. She put forth her hand. "Adieu, monsieur!" said she.
I glanced from her hand to her face. Her attitude began to anger me, for I saw that she was not only resisting me, but resisting herself. In her heart the insidious canker of doubt persisted. She knew - or should have known - that it no longer should have any place there, yet obstinately she refrained from plucking it out. There was that wager. But for that same obstinacy she must have realized the reason of my arguments, the irrefutable logic of my payment. She denied me, and in denying me she denied herself, for that she had loved me she had herself told me, and that she could love me again I was assured, if she would but see the thing in the light of reason and of justice."Roxalanne, I did not come to Lavedan to say 'Good-bye' to you. I seek from you a welcome, not a dismissal." "Yet my dismissal is all that I can give. Will you not take my hand? May we not part in friendly spirit?"
"No, we may not; for we do not part at all." It was as the steel of my determination striking upon the flint of hers. She looked up to my face for an instant; she raised her eyebrows in deprecation; she sighed, shrugged one shoulder, and, turning on her heel, moved towards the door."Anatole shall bring you refreshment ere you go," she said in a very polite and formal voice.
Then I played my last card. Was it for nothing that I had flung away my wealth? If she would not give herself, by God, I would compel her to sell herself. And I took no shame in doing it, for by doing it I was saving her and saving myself from a life of unhappiness."Roxalanne!" I cried. The imperiousness of my voice arrested and compelled her perhaps against her very will. "Monsieur?" said she, as demurely as you please. "Do you know what you are doing?". "But yes - perfectly." "Pardieu, you do not. I will tell you. You are sending your father to the scaffold." She turned livid, her step faltered, and she leant against the frame of the doorway for support. Then she stared at me, wide-eyed in horror.
"That is not true," she pleaded, yet without conviction. "He is not in danger of his life. They can prove nothing against him. Monsieur de Saint-Eustache could find no evidence here - nothing."
"Yet there is Monsieur de Saint-Eustache's word; there is the fact --the significant fact - that your father did not take up arms for the King, to afford the Chevalier's accusation some measure of corroboration. At Toulouse in these times they are not particular. Remember how it had fared with me but for the King's timely arrival."
That smote home. The last shred of her strength fell from her. A great sob shook her, then covering her face with her hands "Mother in heaven, have pity on me!" she cried. "Oh, it cannot be, it cannot be!"
Her distress touched me sorely. I would have consoled her, I would have bidden her have no fear, assuring her that I would save her father. But for my own ends, I curbed the mood. I would use this as a cudgel to shatter her obstinacy, and I prayed that God might forgive me if I did aught that a gentleman should account unworthy. My need was urgent, my love all-engrossing; winning her meant winning life and happiness, and already I had sacrificed so much. Her cry rang still in my ears, "It cannot be, it cannot be!"I trampled my nascent tenderness underfoot, and in its room I set a harshness that I did not feel - a harshness of defiance and menace. "It can be, it will be, and, as God lives, it shall be, if you persist in your unreasonable attitude." "Monsieur, have mercy!"
"Yes, when you shall be pleased to show me the way to it by having mercy upon me. If I have sinned, I have atoned. But that is a closed question now; to reopen it were futile. Take heed of this, Roxalanne: there is one thing - one only in all France can save your father.""That is, monsieur?" she inquired breathlessly.
"My word against that of Saint-Eustache. My indication to His Majesty that your father's treason is not to be accepted on the accusation of Saint-Eustache. My information to the King of what I know touching this gentleman."
"You will go, monsieur?" she implored me. "Oh, you will save him! Mon Dieu, to think of the time that we have wasted here, you and I, whilst he is being carried to the scaffold! Oh, I did not dream it was so perilous with him! I was desolated by his arrest; I thought of some months' imprisonment, perhaps. But that he should die - ! Monsieur de Bardelys, you will save him! Say that you will do this for me!"She was on her knees to me now, her arms clasping my boots, her eyes raised in entreaty - God, what entreaty! - to my own.
"Rise, mademoiselle, I beseech you," I said, with a quiet I was far from feeling. "There is no need for this. Let us be calm. The danger to your father is not so imminent. We may have some days yet --three or four, perhaps."
I lifted her gently and led her to a chair. I was hard put to it not to hold her supported in my arms. But I might not cull that advantage from her distress. A singular niceness, you will say, perhaps, as in your scorn you laugh at me. Perhaps you are right to laugh - yet are you not altogether right."You will go to Toulouse, monsieur?" she begged.
I took a turn in the room, then halting before her "Yes," I answered, "I will go." The gratitude that leapt to her eyes smote me hard, for my sentence was unfinished."I will go," I continued quickly, "when you shall have promised to become my wife." The joy passed from her face. She glanced at me a moment as if without understanding.
"I came to Lavedan to win you, Roxalanne, and from Lavedan I shall not stir until I have accomplished my design," I said very quietly. "You will therefore see that it rests with you how soon I may set out."She fell to weeping softly, but answered nothing. At last I turned from her and moved towards the door. "Where are you going?" she cried.
"To take the air, mademoiselle. If upon deliberation you can bring yourself to marry me, send me word by Anatole or one of the others, and I shall set out at once for Toulouse.""Stop!" she cried. Obediently I stopped, my hand already upon the doorknob. "You are cruel, monsieur!" she complained. "I love you," said I, by way of explaining it. "To be cruel seems to be the way of love. You have been cruel to me." "Would you - would you take what is not freely given?" "I have the hope that when you see that you must give, you will give freely." "If - if I make you this promise--" "Yes?" I was growing white with eagerness. "You will fulfil your part of the bargain?"
"It is a habit of mine, mademoiselle - as witnesses the case of Chatellerault." She shivered at the mention of his name. It reminded her of precisely such another bargain that three nights ago she had made. Precisely, did I say? Well, not quite precisely."I - I promise to marry you, then," said she in a choking voice, "whenever you choose, after my father shall have been set at liberty." I bowed. "I shall start at once," said I. And perhaps out of shame, perhaps out of - who shall say what sentiments? - I turned without another word and left her.
20. The "Bravi" At Blagnac
I was glad to be in the open once more - glad of the movement, as I rode at the head of my brave company along the bank of the Garonne and in the shade of the golden, autumn-tinted trees.
I was in a measure angry with myself that I had driven such a bargain with Roxalanne, in a measure angry with her that she had forced me to it by her obstinacy. A fine gentleman I, on my soul, to have dubbed Chatellerault a cheat for having done no worse than I had now brought myself to do! Yet, was it so? No, I assured myself, it was not. A thousand times no! What I had done I had done as much to win Roxalanne to me as to win her from her own unreasonableness. In the days to come she should thank me for my harshness, for that which now she perhaps accounted my unfairness.
Then, again, would I ask myself, was I very sure of this? And so the two questions were flung the one against the other; my conscience divided itself into two parties, and they waged a war that filled me with a depressing uncertainty.
In the end shame was overthrown, and I flung back my head with a snort of assurance. I was doing no wrong. On the contrary, I was doing right - both by myself and by Roxalanne. What matter that I was really cheating her? What matter that I had said I would not leave Lavedan until I had her promise, whilst in reality I had hurled my threat at Saint-Eustache that I would meet him at Toulouse, and passed my word to the Vicomtesse that I would succour her husband?
I gave no thought to the hidden threat with which Saint-Eustache had retorted that from Lavedan to Toulouse was a distance of some twenty leagues. Had he been a man of sterner purposes I might have been uneasy and on my guard. But Saint-Eustache pshaw!
It is ill to underestimate an enemy, be he never so contemptible, and for my disdain of the Chevalier I might have paid dearly had not Fortune - which of late had been practising singular jests upon me after seemingly abandoning me, returned to my aid at the last moment.
It was Saint-Eustache's purpose that I should never reach Toulouse alive, for in all the world I was the one man he feared, the one man who would encompass his undoing and destruction by a word. And so he had resolved and disposed that I should be removed, and to accomplish this he had left a line of bravi along the road I was to pass.
He had counted upon my lying the night in one of the intervening towns, for the journey was over-long to be accomplished at a stretch, and wherever I might chance to lie, there I should have to reckon with his assassins. The nearer Toulouse - although I knew not this - the thicker grew my danger. Into the very thick of it I rode; in the very thick of it I lay, and all that came of it was that I obtained possession of one more and overwhelming piece of evidence against my murderous Chevalier. But I outrun my story.
It had been my purpose to change horses at Grenade, and so push on and reach Toulouse that very night or in the early hours of the following morning. At Grenade, however, there were no horses to be obtained, at least not more than three, and so, leaving the greater portion of my company behind, I set out, escorted only by Gilles and Antoine. Night had fallen long before we reached Lespinasse, and with it came foul weather. The wind rose from the west, grew to the violence of a hurricane, and brought with it such a deluge of cold, cutting rain as never had it been my ill-chance to ride through. From Lespinasse to Fenouillet the road dips frequently, and wherever this occurred it seemed to us that we were riding in a torrent, our horses fetlock-deep in mud.
Antoine complained in groans; Gilles growled openly, and went the length of begging me, as we rode through the ill-paved, flooded streets of Fenouillet, to go no farther. But I was adamant in my resolve. Soaked to the skin, my clothes hanging sodden about me, and chilled to the marrow though I was, I set my chattering teeth, and swore that we should not sleep until we reached Toulouse."My God," he groaned, "and we but halfway!" "Forward!" was all I answered; and so as midnight chimed we left Fenouillet behind us, and dashed on into the open country and the full fury of the tempest.
My servants came after me upon their stumbling horses, whining and cursing by turns, and forgetting in their misery the respect that they were accustomed to pay me. I think now that it was a providence that guided me. Had I halted at Fenouillet, as they would have had me do, it is odds that this chronicle would never have been penned, for likely enough I had had my throat cut as I slept. A providence was it also that brought my horse down within a half-mile of Blagnac, and so badly did it founder that it might not be ridden farther.
The beasts my men bestrode were in little better condition, and so, with infinite chagrin, I was forced to acknowledge defeat and to determine that at Blagnac we should lie for the remainder of the night. After all, it mattered little. A couple of hours' riding in the morning would bring us to Toulouse, and we would start betimes.
I bade Gilles dismount - he had been the louder in his complainings --and follow us afoot, bringing my horse to the Auberge de l'Etoile at Blagnac, where he would await him. Then I mounted his jaded beast, and, accompanied by Antoine
- the last of my retainers - I rode into Blagnac, and pulled up at the sign of the "Star."
With my whip I smote the door, and I had need to smite hard if I would be heard above the wind that shrieked and howled under the eaves of that narrow street. Yet it almost seemed as if some one were expected, for scarce had my knocking ceased when the door was opened, and the landlord stood there, shading a taper with his hand. For a moment I saw the glow of its light on his rosy, white-bearded face, then a gust of wind extinguished it."Diable!" he swore, "an ugly night for travelling"; adding as an afterthought, "You ride late, monsieur."
"You are a man of supreme discernment, Monsieur l'Hote," said I testily, as I pushed him aside and stepped into the passage. "Will you keep me in the rain till daylight whilst you perpend how late I ride? Is your ostler abed? See to those beasts yourself, then. Afterwards get me food - for me and for my man and beds for both of us.""I have but one room, monsieur," he answered respectfully. "You shall have that, and your servant shall sleep in the hayloft."
"My servant sleeps in my room, if you have but one. Set a mattress on the floor for him. Is this a night to leave a dog to sleep in a hayloft? I have another servant following. He will be here in a few minutes. You must find room for him also - in the passage outside my door, if no other accommodation be possible."
"But, monsieur -" he began in a tone of protest, which I set down to the way a landlord has of making difficulties that he shall be the better paid for such lodging as he finds us."See to it," I ordered peremptorily. "You shall be well paid. Now go tend those horses."
On the wall of the passage fell a warm, reddish glow from the common room, which argued a fire, and this was too alluring to admit of my remaining longer in discussion with him. I strode forward, therefore. The Auberge de l'Etoile was not an imposing hostelry, nor one at which from choice I had made a halt. This common room stank most vilely of oil, of burning tallow - from the smoky tapers - and of I know not what other noisome unsavourinesses.
As I entered, I was greeted by a resonant snore from a man seated in a corner by the fire. His head had fallen back, displaying the brown, sinewy neck, and he slept - or seemed to sleep - with mouth wide open. Full length on the hearth and in the red glare of the burning logs lay what at first glance I took to be a heap of rags, but which closer scrutiny showed me to be another man, seemingly asleep also.
I flung my sodden castor on the table; I dropped my drenched cloak on the ground, and stepped with heavy tread and a noisy rattle of spurs across the floor. Yet my ragged gentleman slept on. I touched him lightly with my whip.
"Hold, mon bonhomme!" I cried to him. Still he did not move, whereat I lost patience and caught him a kick full in the side, so choicely aimed that first it doubled him up, then brought him into a sitting posture, with the snarl of a crossgrained dog that has been rudely aroused.
From out of an evil, dirty countenance a pair of gloomy, bloodshot eyes scowled threateningly upon me. The man on the chair awoke at the same instant, and sat forward."Eh bien?" said I to my friend on the hearth: "Will you stir yourself?" "For whom?" he growled. "Is not the Etoile as much for me as for you, whoever you may be?" "We have paid our lodging, pardieu!" swore he of the chair.
"My masters," said I grimly, "if you have not eyes to see my sodden condition, and if you therefore have not the grace to move that I may approach the fire; I'll see to it that you spend the night not only a l'Etoile, but a la belle etoile." With which pleasantry, and a touch of the foot, I moved my friend aside. My tone was not nice, nor do I generally have the air of promising more than I can fulfil.
They were growling together in a corner when Antoine came to draw off my doublet and my boots. They were still growling when Gilles joined us presently, although at his coming they paused to take his measure with their eyes. For Gilles was something of a giant, and men were wont to turn their heads - aye, and women too - to admire his fine proportions. We supped - so vilely that I have not the heart to tell you what we ate - and, having supped, I bade my host light me to my chamber. As for my men, I had determined that they should spend the night in the common room, where there was a fire, and where - notwithstanding the company of those two ruffians, into whose presence I had not troubled to inquire - they would doubtless be better than elsewhere in that poor hostelry.
In gathering up my cloak and doublet and other effects to bear them off to the kitchen, the host would have possessed himself also of my sword. But with a laugh I took it from him, remarking that it required no drying.
As we mounted the stairs, I heard something above me that sounded like the creaking of a door. The host heard it also, for he stood suddenly still, his glance very questioning.
Now, for all that I am far from being a man of tremors or unwarranted fears, to tell the truth the hostelry of the "Star" was beginning to fret my nerves. I could scarce have told you why had you asked me, as I sat upon the bed after mine host had left me, and turned my thoughts to it. It was none of the trivial incidents that had marked my coming; but it was, I think, the combination of them all. First there was the host's desire to separate me from my men by suggesting that they should sleep in the hayloft. Clearly unnecessary, when he was not averse to turning his common room into a dormitory. There was his very evident relief when, after announcing that I would have them sleep one in my room and one in the passage by my door, I consented to their spending the night below; there was the presence of those two very ill-looking cut-throats; there was the attempt to carry off my sword; and, lastly, there was that creaking door and the host's note of alarm.What was that?
I stood up suddenly. Had my fancy, dwelling upon that very incident, tricked me into believing that a door had creaked again? I listened, but a silence followed, broken only by a drone of voices ascending from the common room. As I had assured the host upon the stairs, so I now assured myself that it was the wind, the signboard of the inn, perhaps, swaying in the storm.
And then, when I had almost dismissed my doubts, and was about to divest myself of my remaining clothes, I saw something at which I thanked Heaven that I had not allowed the landlord to carry off my rapier. My eyes were on the door, and, as I gazed, I beheld the slow raising of the latch. It was no delusion; my wits were keen and my eyes sharp; there was no fear to make me see things that were not. Softly I stepped to the bed-rail where I had hung my sword by the baldrick, and as softly I unsheathed it. The door was pushed open, and I caught the advance of a stealthy step. A naked foot shot past the edge of the door into my room, and for a second I thought of pinning it to the ground with my rapier; then came a leg, then a half-dressed body surmounted by a face - the face of Rodenard!
At sight of it, amazement and a hundred suspicions crossed my mind. How, in God's name, came he here, and for what purpose did he steal so into my chamber?
But my suspicions perished even as they were begotten. There was so momentous, so alarmingly warning a look on his face as he whispered the one word "Monseigneur!" that clearly if danger there was to me it was not from him.
"And for the rest, as to expecting you here, they did not, but they were prepared against the remote chance of your coming. From what I have gathered, there is not a hostelry betwixt this and Lavedan at which the Chevalier has not left his cutthroats with the promise of enormous reward to the men who shall kill you."I caught my breath at that. My doubts vanished. "Tell me what you know," said I. "Be brief."
Thereupon this faithful dog, whom I had so sorely beaten but four nights ago, told me how, upon finding himself able to walk once more, he had gone to seek me out, that he might implore me to forgive him and not cast him off altogether, after a lifetime spent in the service of my father and of myself.
He had discovered from Monsieur de Castelroux that I was gone to Lavedan, and he determined to follow me thither. He had no horse and little money, and so he had set out afoot that very day, and dragged himself as far as Blagnac, where, however, his strength had given out, and he was forced to halt. A providence it seemed that this had so befallen. For here at the Etoile he had that evening overheard Saint-Eustache in conversation with those two bravi below stairs. It would seem from what he had said that at every hostelry from Grenade to Toulouse - at which it was conceivable that I might spend the night - the Chevalier had made a similar provision.
At Blagnac, if I got so far without halting, I must arrive very late, and therefore the Chevalier had bidden his men await me until daylight. He did not believe, however, that I should travel so far, for he had seen to it that I should find no horses at the posthouses. But it was just possible that I might, nevertheless, push on, and Saint-Eustache would let no possibility be overlooked. Here at Blagnac the landlord, Rodenard informed me, was also in Saint-Eustache's pay. Their intention was to stab me as I slept.
"Monseigneur," he ended, "knowing what danger awaited you along the road, I have sat up all night, praying God and His saints that you might come this far, and that thus I might warn you. Had I been less bruised and sore, I had got myself a horse and ridden out to meet you; as it was, I could but hope and pray that you would reach Blagnac, and that--"I gathered him into my arms at that, but my embrace drew a groan from him, for the poor, faithful knave was very sore.
"My poor Ganymede!" I murmured, and I was more truly moved to sympathy, I think, than ever I had been in all my selfish life. Hearing his sobriquet, a look of hope gleamed suddenly in his eye."You will take me back, monseigneur?" he pleaded. "You will take me back, will you not? I swear that I will never let my tongue--"
"Sh, my good Ganymede. Not only will I take you back, but I shall strive to make amends for my brutality. Come, my friend, you shall have twenty golden Louis to buy unguents for your poor shoulders.""Monseigneur is very good," he murmured, whereupon I would have embraced him again but that he shivered and drew back. "No, no, monseigneur," he whispered fearfully. "It is a great honour, but it - it pains me to be touched." "Then take the will for the deed. And now for these gentlemen below stairs." I rose and moved to the door. "Order Gilles to beat their brains out," was Ganymede's merciful suggestion.
I shook my head. "We might be detained for doing murder. We have no proof yet of their intentions - I think - " An idea flashed suddenly across my mind. "Go back to your room, Ganymede," I bade him. "Lock yourself in, and do not stir until I call you. I do not wish their suspicions aroused."
I opened the door, and as Ganymede obediently slipped past me and vanished down the passage "Monsieur l'Hote," I called. "Ho, there, Gilles!"
"Amiss?" I echoed peevishly, mincing my words as I uttered them. "Pardi! Must I be put to it to undress myself, whilst those two lazy dogs of mine are snoring beneath me? Come up this instant, Gilles. And," I added as an afterthought, "you had best sleep here in my room."
"At once, monseigneur," answered he, but I caught the faintest tinge of surprise in his accents, for never yet had it fallen to the lot of sturdy, clumsy Gilles to assist me at my toilet.The landlord muttered something, and I heard Gilles whispering his reply. Then the stairs creaked under his heavy tread.
In my room I told him in half a dozen words what was afoot. For answer, he swore a great oath that the landlord had mulled a stoup of wine for him, which he never doubted now was drugged. I bade him go below and fetch the wine, telling the landlord that I, too had a fancy for it."But what of Antoine?" he asked. "They will drug him." "Let them. We can manage this affair, you and I, without his help. If they did not drug him, they might haply stab him. So that in being drugged lies his safety."
As I bade him so he did, and presently he returned with a great steaming measure. This I emptied into a ewer, then returned it to him that he might take it back to the host with my thanks and our appreciation. Thus should we give them confidence that the way was clear and smooth for them.
Thereafter there befell precisely that which already you will be expecting, and nothing that you cannot guess. It was perhaps at the end of an hour's silent waiting that one of them came. We had left the door unbarred so that his entrance was unhampered. But scarce was he within when out of the dark, on either side of him, rose Gilles and I. Before he had realized it, he was lifted off his feet and deposited upon the bed without a cry; the only sound being the tinkle of the knife that dropped from his suddenly unnerved hand.
On the bed, with Gilles's great knee in his stomach, and Gilles's hands at his throat, he was assured in unequivocal terms that at his slightest outcry we would make an end of him. I kindled a light. We trussed him hand and foot with the bedclothes, and then, whilst he lay impotent and silent in his terror, I proceeded to discuss the situation with him.
I pointed out that we knew that what he had done he had done at SaintEustache's instigation, therefore the true guilt was Saint-Eustache's and upon him alone the punishment should fall. But ere this could come to pass, he himself must add his testimony to ours - mine and Rodenard's. If he would come to Toulouse and do that make a full confession of how he had been set to do this murdering - the Chevalier de Saint-Eustache, who was the real culprit, should be the only one to suffer the penalty of the law. If he would not do that, why, then, he must stand the consequences himself - and the consequences would be the hangman. But in either case he was coming to Toulouse in the morning.
It goes without saying that he was reasonable. I never for a moment held his judgment in doubt; there is no loyalty about a cut-throat, and it is not the way of his calling to take unnecessary risk.
We had just settled the matter in a mutually agreeable manner when the door opened again, and his confederate - rendered uneasy, no doubt, by his long absence - came to see what could be occasioning this unconscionable delay in the slitting of the throats of a pair of sleeping men.
Beholding us there in friendly conclave, and no doubt considering that under the circumstances his intrusion was nothing short of an impertinence, that polite gentleman uttered a cry - which I should like to think was an apology for having disturbed us and turned to go with most indecorous precipitancy.
But Gilles took him by the nape of his dirty neck and haled him back into the room. In less time than it takes me to tell of it, he lay beside his colleague, and was being asked whether he did not think that he might also come to take the same view of the situation. Overjoyed that we intended no worse by him, he swore by every saint in the calendar that he would do our will, that he had reluctantly undertaken the Chevalier's business, that he was no cut-throat, but a poor man with a wife and children to provide for.
And that, in short, was how it came to pass that the Chevalier de Saint-Eustache himself, by disposing for my destruction, disposed only for his own. With these two witnesses, and Rodenard to swear how Saint-Eustache had bribed them to cut my throat, with myself and Gilles to swear how the attempt had been made and frustrated, I could now go to His Majesty with a very full confidence, not only of having the Chevalier's accusations, against whomsoever they might be, discredited, but also of sending the Chevalier himself to the gallows he had so richly earned.
21. Louis The Just
"For me," said the King, "these depositions were not necessary. Your word, my dear Marcel, would have sufficed. For the courts, however, perhaps it is well that you have had them taken; moreover, they form a valuable corroboration of the treason which you lay to the charge of Monsieur de Saint-Eustache."
We were standing - at least, La Fosse and I were standing, Louis XIII sat - in a room, of the Palace of Toulouse, where I had had the honour of being brought before His Majesty. La Fosse was there, because it would seem that the King had grown fond of him, and could not be without him since his coming to Toulouse.
His Majesty was, as usual, so dull and weary - not even roused by the approaching trial of Montmorency, which was the main business that had brought him South that even the company of this vapid, shallow, but irrepressibly goodhumoured La Fosse, with his everlasting mythology, proved a thing desirable.
"I will see," said Louis, "that your friend the Chevalier is placed under arrest at once, and as much for his attempt upon your life as for the unstable quality of his political opinions, the law shall deal with him - conclusively." He sighed. "It always pains me to proceed to extremes against a man of his stamp. To deprive a fool of his head seems a work of supererogation."
I inclined my head, and smiled at his pleasantry. Louis the just rarely permitted himself to jest, and when he did his humour was as like unto humour as water is like unto wine. Still, when a monarch jests, if you are wise, if you have a favour to sue, or a position at Court to seek or to maintain, you smile, for all that the ineptitude of his witless wit be rather provocative of sorrow.
"Nature needs meddling with at times," hazarded La Fosse, from behind His Majesty's chair. "This Saint-Eustache is a sort of Pandora's box, which it is well to close ere--""Go to the devil," said the King shortly. "We are not jesting. We have to do justice."
"Ah! Justice," murmured La Fosse; "I have seen pictures of the lady. She covers her eyes with a bandage, but is less discreet where the other beauties of her figure are in question."
His Majesty blushed. He was above all things a chaste-minded man, modest as a nun. To the immodesty rampant about him he was in the habit of closing his eyes and his ears, until the flagrancy or the noise of it grew to proportions to which he might remain neither blind nor deaf.
"Monsieur de la Fosse," said he in an austere voice, "you weary me, and when people weary me I send them away - which is one of the reasons why I am usually so much alone. I beg that you will glance at that hunting-book, so that when I have done with Monsieur de Bardelys you may give me your impressions of it."
"I had thought, Sire, that it would be unnecessary to advance proofs of his innocence until there were proofs of his guilt to be refuted. It is unusual, Your Majesty, to apprehend a gentleman so that he may show cause why he did not deserve such apprehension. The more usual course is to arrest him because there are proofs of his guilt to be preferred against him."Louis combed his beard pensively, and his melancholy eyes grew thoughtful.
"A nice point, Marcel," said he, and he yawned. "A nice point. You should have been a lawyer." Then, with an abrupt change of manner, "Do you give me your word of honour that he is innocent?" he asked sharply."If Your Majesty's judges offer proof of his guilt, I give you my word that I will tear that proof to pieces." "That is not an answer. Do you swear his innocence?"
"Do I know what he carries in his conscience?" quoth I still fencing with the question. "How can I give my word in such a matter? Ah, Sire, it is not for nothing that they call you Louis the Just," I pursued, adopting cajolery and presenting him with his own favourite phrase. "You will never allow a man against whom there is no shred of evidence to be confined in prison."
"Is there not?" he questioned. Yet his tone grew gentler. History, he had promised himself, should know him as Louis the Just, and he would do naught that might jeopardize his claim to that proud title. "There is the evidence of this Saint-Eustache!"
"Hum! You are a great advocate, Marcel. You avoid answering questions; you turn questions aside by counter-questions." He seemed to be talking more to himself than tome. "You are a much better advocate than the Vicomte's wife, for instance. She answers questions and has a temper - Ciel! what a temper!""You have seen the Vicomtesse?" I exclaimed, and I grew cold with apprehension, knowing as I did the licence of that woman's tongue.
"Seen her?" he echoed whimsically. "I have seen her, heard her, well-nigh felt her. The air of this room is still disturbed as a consequence of her presence. She was here an hour ago."
"And it seemed," lisped La Fosse, turning from his hunting-book, "as if the three daughters of Acheron had quitted the domain of Pluto to take embodiment in a single woman."
"I would not have seen her," the King resumed as though La Fosse had not spoken, "but she would not be denied. I heard her voice blaspheming in the antechamber when I refused to receive her; there was a commotion at my door; it was dashed open, and the Swiss who held it was hurled into my room here as though he had been a mannikin. Dieu! Since I have reigned in France I have not been the centre of so much commotion. She is a strong woman, Marcel the saints defend you hereafter, when she shall come to be your mother-in-law. In all France, I'll swear, her tongue is the only stouter thing than her arm. But she's a fool.""What did she say, Sire?" I asked in my anxiety.
"Say? She swore - Ciel! how she did swear! Not a saint in the calendar would she let rest in peace; she dragged them all by turns from their chapter-rolls to bear witness to the truth of what she said.""That was--"
"That her husband was the foulest traitor out of hell. But that he was a fool with no wit of his own to make him accountable for what he did, and that out of folly he had gone astray. Upon those grounds she besought me to forgive him and let him go. When I told her that he must stand his trial, and that I could offer her but little hope of his acquittal, she told me things about myself, which in my conceit, and thanks to you flatterers who have surrounded me, I had never dreamed.
"She told me I was ugly, sour-faced, and malformed; that I was priest-ridden and a fool; unlike my brother, who, she assured me, is a mirror of chivalry and manly perfections. She promised me that Heaven should never receive my soul, though I told my beads from now till Doomsday, and she prophesied for me a welcome among the damned when my time comes. What more she might have foretold I cannot say. She wearied me at last, for all her novelty, and I dismissed her - that is to say," he amended, "I ordered four musketeers to carry her out. God pity you, Marcel, when you become her daughter's husband!"But I had no heart to enter into his jocularity. This woman with her ungovernable passion and her rash tongue had destroyed everything. "I see no likelihood of being her daughter's husband," I answered mournfully. The King looked up, and laughed. "Down on your knees, then," said he, "and render thanks to Heaven." But I shook my head very soberly. "To Your Majesty it is a pleasing comedy," said I, "but to me, helas! it is nearer far to tragedy." "Come, Marcel," said he, "may I not laugh a little? One grows so sad with being King of France! Tell me what vexes you."
"Mademoiselle de Lavedan has promised that she will marry me only when I have saved her father from the scaffold. I came to do it, very full of hope, Sire. But his wife has forestalled me and, seemingly, doomed him irrevocably."
His glance fell; his countenance resumed its habitual gloom. Then he looked up again, and in the melancholy depths of his eyes I saw a gleam of something that was very like affection.
"You know that I love you, Marcel," he said gently. "Were you my own son I could not love you more. You are a profligate, dissolute knave, and your scandals have rung in my ears more than once; yet you are different from these other fools, and at least you have never wearied me. To have done that is to have done something. I would not lose you, Marcel; as lose you I shall if you marry this rose of Languedoc, for I take it that she is too sweet a flower to let wither in the stale atmosphere of Courts. This man, this Vicomte de Lavedan, has earned his death. Why should I not let him die, since if he dies you will not wed?"
"Do you ask me why, Sire?" said I. "Because they call you Louis the Just, and because no king was ever more deserving of the title."
He winced; he pursed his lips, and shot a glance at La Fosse, who was deep in the mysteries of his volume. Then he drew towards him a sheet of paper, and, taking a quill, he sat toying with it.
"Because he took no active part in the revolt. If he was a traitor, he was no more than a traitor at heart, and until a man commits a crime in deed he is not amenable to the law's rigour. His wife has made his defection clear; but it were unfair to punish him in the same measure as you punish those who bore arms against you, Sire.""Ah!" he pondered. "Well? What more?" "Is that not enough, Sire?" I cried. My heart beat quickly, and my pulses throbbed with the suspense of that portentous moment. He bent his head, dipped his pen and began to write.
"What punishment would you have me mete out to him?" he asked as he wrote. "Come, Marcel, deal fairly with me, and deal fairly with him --for as you deal with him, so shall I deal with you through him."I felt myself paling in my excitement. "There is banishment, Sire --it is usual in cases of treason that are not sufficiently flagrant to be punished by death." "Yes!" He wrote busily. "Banishment for how long, Marcel? For his lifetime?" "Nay, Sire. That were too long." "For my lifetime, then?" "Again that were too long." He raised his eyes and smiled. "Ah! You turn prophet? Well, for how long, then? Come, man." "I should think five years--"
"Five years be it. Say no more." He wrote on for a few moments; then he raised the sandbox and sprinkled the document.
"Tiens!" he cried, as he dusted it and held it out to me. "There is my warrant for the disposal of Monsieur le Vicomte Leon de Lavedan. He is to go into banishment for five years, but his estates shall suffer no sequestration, and at the end of that period he may return and enjoy them - we hope with better loyalty than in the past. Get them to execute that warrant at once, and see that the Vicomte starts to-day under escort for Spain. It will also be your warrant to Mademoiselle de Lavedan, and will afford proof to her that your mission has been successful.""Sire!" I cried. And in my gratitude I could say no more, but I sank on my knee before him and raised his hand to my lips. "There," said he in a fatherly voice. "Go now, and be happy." As I rose, he suddenly put up his hand.
"Ma foi, I had all but forgotten, so much has Monsieur de Lavedan's fate preoccupied us." He picked up another paper from his table, and tossed it to me. It was my note of hand to Chatellerault for my Picardy estates.
"Chatellerault died this morning," the King pursued. "He had been asking to see you, but when he was told that you had left Toulouse, he dictated a long confession of his misdeeds, which he sent to me together with this note of yours. He could not, he wrote, permit his heirs to enjoy your estates; he had not won them; he had really forfeited his own stakes, since he had broken the rules of play. He has left me to deliver judgment in the matter of his own lands passing into your possession. What do you say to it, Marcel?"
It was almost with reluctance that I took up that scrap of paper. It had been so fine and heroic a thing to have cast my wealth to the winds of heaven for love's sake, that on my soul I was loath to see myself master of more than Beaugency. Then a compromise suggested itself.
"The wager, Sire," said I, "is one that I take shame in having entered upon; that shame made me eager to pay it, although fully conscious that I had not lost. But even now, I cannot, in any case, accept the forfeit Chatellerault was willing to suffer. Shall we --shall we forget that the wager was ever laid?"
"The decision does you honour. It was what I had hoped from you. Go now, Marcel. I doubt me you are eager. When your love-sickness wanes a little we shall hope to see you at Court again."
I sighed. "Helas, Sire, that would be never." "So you said once before, monsieur. It is a foolish spirit upon which to enter into matrimony; yet - like many follies - a fine one. Adieu, Marcel!""Adieu, Sire!"
I had kissed his hands; I had poured forth my thanks; I had reached the door already, and he was in the act of turning to La Fosse, when it came into my head to glance at the warrant he had given me. He noticed this and my sudden halt."Is aught amiss?" he asked.
"You-you have omitted something, Sire," I ventured, and I returned to the table. "I am already so grateful that I hesitate to ask an additional favour. Yet it is but troubling you to add a few strokes of the pen, and it will not materially affect the sentence itself."He glanced at me, and his brows drew together as he sought to guess my meaning. "Well, man, what is it?" he demanded impatiently.
"It has occurred to me that this poor Vicomte, in a strange land, alone, among strange faces, missing the loved ones that for so many years he has seen daily by his side, will be pitiably lonely."The King's glance was lifted suddenly to my face. "Must I then banish his family as well?" "All of it will not be necessary, Your Majesty." For once his eyes lost their melancholy, and as hearty a burst of laughter as ever I heard from that poor, weary gentleman he vented then. "Ciel! what a jester you are! Ah, but I shall miss you!" he cried, as, seizing the pen, he added the word I craved of him. "Are you content at last?" he asked, returning the paper to me. I glanced at it. The warrant now stipulated that Madame la Vicomtesse de Lavedan should bear her husband company in his exile. "Sire, you are too good!" I murmured.
"Tell the officer to whom you entrust the execution of this warrant that he will find the lady in the guardroom below, where she is being detained, pending my pleasure. Did she but know that it was your pleasure she has been waiting upon, I should tremble for your future when the five years expire."
22. We Unsaddle
Mademoiselle held the royal warrant of her father's banishment in her hand. She was pale, and her greeting of me had been timid. I stood before her, and by the door stood Rodenard, whom I had bidden attend me.
As I had approached Lavedan that day, I had been taken with a great, an overwhelming shame at the bargain I had driven. I had pondered, and it had come to me that she had been right to suggest that in matters of love what is not freely given it is not worth while to take. And out of my shame and that conclusion had sprung a new resolve. So that nothing might weaken it, and lest, after all, the sight of Roxalanne should bring me so to desire her that I might be tempted to override my purpose, I had deemed it well to have the restraint of a witness at our last interview. To this end had I bidden Ganymede follow me into the very salon.She read the document to the very end, then her glance was raised timidly again to mine, and from me it shifted to Ganymede, stiff at his post by the door. "This was the best that you could do, monsieur?" she asked at last.
"The very best, mademoiselle," I answered calmly. "I do not wish to magnify my service, but it was that or the scaffold. Madame your mother had, unfortunately, seen the King before me, and she had prejudiced your father's case by admitting him to be a traitor. There was a moment when in view of that I was almost led to despair. I am glad, however, mademoiselle, that I was so fortunate as to persuade the King to just so much clemency.""And for five years, then, I shall not see my parents." She sighed, and her distress was very touching. "That need not be. Though they may not come to France, it still remains possible for you to visit them in Spain." "True," she mused; "that will be something - will it not?" "Assuredly something; under the circumstances, much." She sighed again, and for a moment there was silence.
"Will you not sit, monsieur?" said she at last. She was very quiet to-day, this little maid - very quiet and very wondrously subdued.
"There is scarce the need," I answered softly; whereupon her eyes were raised to ask a hundred questions. "You are satisfied with my efforts, mademoiselle?" I inquired.
"But yes. Your promise was to save my father from the scaffold. You have done so, and I make no doubt you have done as much to reduce the term of his banishment as lay within your power. Yes, monsieur, I am satisfied that your promise has been well fulfilled."
Heigho! The resolve that I had formed in coming whispered it in my ear that nothing remained but to withdraw and go my way. Yet not for all that resolve - not for a hundred such resolves - could I have gone thus. One kindly word, one kindly glance at least would I take to comfort me. I would tell her in plain words of my purpose, and she should see that there was still some good, some sense of honour in me, and thus should esteem me after I was gone."Ganymede." said I. "Monseigneur?" "Bid the men mount."
At that she turned, wonder opening her eyes very wide, and her glance travelled from me to Rodenard with its unspoken question. But even as she looked at him he bowed and, turning to do my bidding, left the room. We heard his steps pass with a jingle of spurs across the hall and out into the courtyard. We heard his raucous voice utter a word of command, and there was a stamping of hoofs, a cramping of harness, and all the bustle of preparation."Why have you ordered your men to mount?" she asked at last. "Because my business here is ended, and we are going."
"Going?" said she. Her eyes were lowered now, but a frown suggested their expression to me. "Going whither?"
"Hence," I answered. "That for the moment is all that signifies." I paused to swallow something that hindered a clear utterance. Then, "Adieu!" said I, and I abruptly put forth my hand.
"'Sh! mademoiselle, I implore you," I cried. "I take shame at the memory of it. Almost as much shame as I take at the memory of that other bargain which first brought me to Lavedan. The shame of the former one I have wiped out - although, perchance, you think it not. I am wiping out the shame of the latter one. It was unworthy in me, mademoiselle, but I loved you so dearly that it seemed to me that no matter how I came by you, I should rest content if I but won you. I have since seen the error if it, the injustice of it. I will not take what is not freely given. And so, farewell.""I see, I see," she murmured, and ignored the hand that I held out. "I am very glad of it, monsieur."
I withdrew my hand sharply. I took up my hat from the chair on which I had cast it. She might have spared me that, I thought. She need not have professed joy. At least she might have taken my hand and parted in kindness."Adieu, mademoiselle!" I said again, as stiffly as might be, and I turned towards the door. "Monsieur!" she called after me. I halted. "Mademoiselle?" She stood demurely, with eyes downcast and hands folded. "I shall be so lonely here."
I stood still. I seemed to stiffen. My heart gave a mad throb of hope, then seemed to stop. What did she mean? I faced her fully once more, and, I doubt not, I was very pale. Yet lest vanity should befool me, I dared not act upon suspicions. And so "True, mademoiselle," said I. "You will be lonely. I regret it."As silence followed, I turned again to the door, and my hopes sank with each step in that direction. "Monsieur!" Her voice arrested me upon the very threshold. "What shall a poor girl do with this great estate upon her hands? It will go to ruin without a man to govern it." "You must not attempt the task. You must employ an intendant."
I caught something that sounded oddly like a sob. Could it be? Dieu! could it be, after all? Yet I would not presume. I half turned again, but her voice detained me. It came petulantly now."Monsieur de Bardelys, you have kept your promise nobly. Will you ask no payment?" "No, mademoiselle," I answered very softly; "I can take no payment." Her eyes were lifted for a second. Their blue depths seemed dim. Then they fell again. "Oh, why will you not help me?" she burst out, to add more softly: "I shall never be happy without you!" "You mean?" I gasped, retracing a step, and flinging my hat in a corner. "That I love you, Marcel - that I want you!" "And you can forgive - you can forgive?" I cried, as I caught her.
Her answer was a laugh that bespoke her scorn of everything - of everything save us two, of everything save our love. That and the pout of her red lips was her answer. And if the temptation of those lips - But there! I grow indiscreet.Still holding her, I raised my voice. "Ganymede!" I called. "Monseigneur?" came his answer through the open window. "Bid those knaves dismount and unsaddle."