Chapter 10 THE DILIGENCE FROM ROUEN AND THE MASQUERADING LADIES
The diligence from Rouen rolled and careened along the road to Rochelle.
Eddies of snow, wind-formed, whirled hither and thither, or danced around th_ehicle like spirits possessed of infinite mischief. Here and there a sickl_ree stretched forth its barren arms blackly against the almost endles_eaches of white. Sometimes the horses struggled through drifts which nearl_eached their bellies; again, they staggered through hidden marsh pools. Th_ostilion, wrapped in a blanket, cursed deeply and with ardor. He swung hi_hip not so much to urge the horses as to keep the blood moving in his body.
Devil take women who forced him to follow the king's highway in such weather!
Ten miles back they had passed a most promising inn. Stop? Not they! Rochelle, Rochelle, and nothing but Rochelle!
"How lonely!" A woman had pushed aside the curtain and was peering into th_ight. There was no light save that which came from the pallor of the storm, dim and misty. "It has stopped snowing. But how strange the air smells!"
"It is the sea … We are nearing the city. It is abominably cold."
"The sea, the sea!" The voice was rich and young, but heavy with weariness.
"And we are nearing Rochelle? Good! My confidence begins to return. You mus_ide me well, Anne."
"Mazarin shall never find you. You will remain in the city till I take leav_f earthly affairs."
"A convent, Anne? Oh, if you will. But why Canada? You are mad to think of it.
You are but eighteen. You have not even known what love is yet."
There was a laugh. It was light-hearted. It was a sign that the sadness an_eariness which weighed upon the voice were ephemeral.
"That is no answer."
"Anne, have I had occasion to fall in love with any man when I know man s_ell? You make me laugh! Not one of them is worthy a sigh. To make fools o_hem; what a pastime!"
"Take care that one does not make a fool of you, Gabrielle."
"Ah, he would be worth loving!"
"But what are you going to do with the property?"
"Mazarin has already posted the seals upon it."
"About to be. That is why I fled to Rouen. My mother warned me that th_ardinal had found certain documents which proved that a conspiracy wa_orming at the hôtel. Monsieur's name was the only one he could find. Hi_minence thought that by making a prisoner of me he might force me to disclos_he names of those most intimate with monsieur. He is searching France for me, Anne; and you know how well he searches when he sets about it. Will he fin_e? I think not. His arm can not reach very far into Spain. How lucky it wa_hat I should meet you in Rouen! I was wondering where in the world I shoul_o. And I shall live peacefully in that little red château of yours. Oh! i_ou knew what it is to be free! The odious life I have lived! He used to brin_is actress into the dining-hall. Pah! the paint was so thick on her face tha_he might have been a negress for all you could tell what her color was. An_e left her a house near the forest park and seven thousand livres beside.
Free!" She drew in deep breaths of briny air.
"Gabrielle, you are a mystery to me. Four years out of convent, and not _over; I mean one upon whom you might bestow love. And that handsome Vicomt_'Halluys?"
"Pouf! I would not throw him yesterday's rose."
"And Monsieur de Saumaise?"
"Well, yes; he is a gallant fellow. And I fear that I have brought troubl_nto his household. But love him? As we love our brothers. The pulse neve_ounds, the color never comes and goes, the tongue is never motionless nor th_oice silenced in the presence of a brother. My love for Victor is friendshi_ithout envy, distrust, or self-interest. He came upon my sadness and shado_s a rainbow comes on the heels of a storm. But love him with the heart'_ove, the love which a woman gives to one man and only once?"
"Poor Victor!" said Anne.
"Oh, do not worry about Victor. He is a poet. One of their prerogatives is t_all in love every third moon. But the poor boy! Anne, I have endangered hi_ead, and quite innocently, too. I knew not what was going on till too late."
"And you put your name to that paper!"
"What would you? Monsieur le Comte would have broken my wrist, and there ar_lack and blue spots on my arm yet."
"Tell me about that grey cloak."
"There is nothing to tell, save that Victor did not wear it. And somethin_old me from the beginning that he was innocent."
"And the Chevalier du Cévennes could not have worn it because he was i_ontainebleau that dreadful night."
"The Chevalier du Cévennes is living in Rochelle?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yes. Was it not gallant of him to accept punishment in Victor's stead?"
"What else could he do, being a gentleman?"
"Why does your voice grow cold at the mention of his name?" asked Anne.
"It is your imagination, dear. My philosophy has healed the wounded vanity.
Point out the Chevalier to me, I should like to see the man who declined a_lliance with the house of Montbazon."
"I thought that you possessed a miniature of him?"
"It contained only the face of a boy; I want to see the man. Besides, I do no_xactly know what has become of the picture, which was badly painted."
"I will point him out. Was the Comte d'Hérouville among the conspirators?"
"Yes. How I hate that man!"
"Keep out of his path, Gabrielle. He would stop at nothing. There is madnes_n that man's veins."
"I do not fear him. Many a day will pass ere I see him again, or poor Victor, for that matter. I wonder where he has gone?"
"I would I could fathom that heart of yours."
"It is very light and free just now."
"Am I your confidante in all things?"
"I believe so."
"The year I lived with you at the hôtel taught me that you are like sand; _reat many strange things going on below."
"What a compliment! But give up trying to fathom me, Anne. I love you bette_hen you laugh. Must you be a nun, you who were once so gay?"
"I am weary."
"Of what? You ask me if I am your confidante in all things; Anne, are yo_ine?"
"So. Well, I shall not question you." The speaker drew her companion close_nd retucked the robes; and silence fell upon the two, silence broken only b_he wind, the flapping leather curtains, and the muffled howling of th_ostilion.
It was twelve o'clock when the diligence drew up before the Corne d'Abondance.
The host came out, holding a candle above his head and shading his eyes wit_is unengaged hand.
"Maître, I have brought you two guests," said the postilion, sliding off hi_orse and grunting with satisfaction.
"Gentlemen, I hope."
"Ladies!" and lowering his voice, the postilion added: "Ladies of high degree, I can tell you. One is the granddaughter of an admiral and the other can no_e less than a duchess."
"Ladies? Oh, that is most unfortunate! The ladies' chamber is all upset, an_very other room is engaged. They will be compelled to wait fully an hour."
"That will not inconvenience us, Monsieur," said a voice from the window o_he diligence, "provided we may have something hot to drink; wines and ho_ater, with a dash of sugar and brandy. Come, my dear; and don't forget you_ask."
"How disappointing that the hôtel was closed! Well, we can put up with th_avern till morning."
With some difficulty the two women alighted and entered the common assembl_oom, followed by the postilion who staggered under bulky portmanteaus. The_pproached the fire unconcernedly, ignoring the attention which their entranc_roused. The youngest gave a slight scream as the Iroquois rose abruptly an_oved away from the chimney.
"Holy Virgin!" Anne cried, clutching Gabrielle's arm; "it is an Indian!" Th_ision of quiet in a Quebec convent grew vague.
"Hush! he would not be here if he were dangerous." Gabrielle turned her grey- masked face toward the fire and rested a hand on the broad mantel.
Victor, who had taken a table which sat in the shadow and who was trying b_he aid of champagne to forget the tragic scene of the hour gone, came near t_asting a glass of that divine nectar of Nepenthe. He brushed his eyes an_eld a palm to his ear. "That voice!" he murmured. "It is not possible!"
At this same moment the vicomte turned his head, his face describing a_xpression of doubt and astonishment. He was like a man trying to recollec_he sound of a forgotten voice, a melody. He stared at the two figures, th_ne of medium height, slender and elegant, the other plump and small, at th_rey mask and then at the black. These were not masks of coquetry and larking, masks which begin at the brow and end at the lips: they were curtained.
Seized, by an impulse, occult or mechanic, the vicomte rose and drew near. Th_ounger woman made a gesture. Was it of recognition? The vicomte could no_ay. But he saw her lean toward her companion, whisper a word which caused th_rey mask to wheel quickly. She seemed to grow taller, while a repelling ligh_lashed from the eyeholes of the grey mask.
"Mesdames," said the vicomte with elaborate courtesy, "the sight of the India_oubtless alarms you, but he is perfectly harmless. Permit a gentleman t_ffer his services to two ladies who appear to be traveling alone."
Father Chaumonot frowned from his chair and would have risen but for th_estraining hand of Bouchard, who, like all seamen, was fond of gallantry.
"Monsieur," replied the black mask, coldly and impudently, "we are indee_lone; and upon the strength of this assertion, will you not resume you_onversation with yonder gentlemen and allow my companion and myself t_ontinue ours?"
"Mademoiselle," said the vicomte eagerly, "I swear to you, that your voice i_amiliar to my ears." He addressed the black mask, but he looked searchingl_t the grey. His reward was small. She maintained under his scrutiny an icy, motionless dignity.
"And permit me to say," returned the black mask, "that while your voice is no_amiliar, the tone is, and very displeasing to my ears. And if you do not a_nce resume your seat, I shall be forced to ask aid of yonder priest."
"Yes, yes! that voice I have heard before!" Then, quick as a flash, he ha_lucked the strings of her mask, disclosing a round, piquant face, now whit_ith fury.
"Oh, Monsieur!" she cried; "if I were a man!"
"This grows interesting," whispered Bouchard to Du Puys.
"Anne de Vaudemont?" exclaimed the vicomte; "in Rochelle?" The vicomte steppe_ack confused. He stared undecidedly at mademoiselle's companion. Sh_eliberately turned her back.
Victor was upon his feet, and his bottle of wine lay frothing on the floor. H_ame forward.
"Vicomte, your actions are very disagreeable to me," he said. The end of hi_cabbard was aggressively high in the air. He was not so tall a man as th_icomte, but his shoulders were as broad and his chest as deep.
Neither the vicomte nor the poet heard the surprised exclamation which cam_ith a muffled sound from behind the grey mask. She swayed slightly. Th_ounger threw her arms around her, but never took her eyes from the flushe_ountenance of Victor de Saumaise.
"Indeed!" replied the vicomte coolly; "and how do you account for that?" H_poke with that good nature which deceives only those who are not banterer_hemselves.
"It is not necessary to particularize," proudly, "to a gentleman of your wid_ccomplishments."
"Monsieur de Saumaise, your servant," said the vicomte. "Ladies, I beg of yo_o accept my apologies. I admit the extent of my rudeness, Mademoiselle." H_owed and turned away, leaving Victor puzzled and diffident.
"Mademoiselle de Vaudemont," he said, "is it possible that I see you here i_ochelle?" How his heart beat at the sight of that figure standing by th_antel.
"And you, Monsieur; what are you doing here?"
"I am contemplating a journey to Spain," carelessly.
"Success to your journey," said Anne, frankly holding out a hand. But she wa_isibly distressed as she glanced at her companion. "Is the Vicomte d'Halluy_oing to Spain also?" smiling.
Victor shrugged. "He professes to have business in Quebec. That beautifu_aris has grown so unhealthy!"
"Quebec?" The woman in the grey mask spun on her heels. "Monsieur, did I hea_ou say Quebec?"
"Yes, Madame la Comtesse."
The grey mask made a gesture of dissent. Presently she spoke. "Monsieur, yo_ave made a mistake. There is no Madame la Comtesse here."
Victor did not reply.
"Do you hear, Monsieur?"
"Yes, Madame. Our eyes and ears sometimes deceive us, but never the heart."
Madame flung out a hand in protest. "Never mind, Monsieur, what the hear_ays; it is not worth while."
Victor grew pale. There was a double meaning to this sentence. Anne eyed hi_nxiously.
A disturbance at the table caught Victor's ear. He saw that the vicomte an_he others were proceeding toward the stairs. The vicomte was last to mount.
At the landing he stopped, looked down at the group by the chimney, shrugged, and went on.
Maître le Borgne came in from the kitchens. "If the ladies will follow me _ill conduct them to their rooms. A fire is under way. The wines and brand_nd sugar are on the table; and the warming-pan stands by the chimney."
"Anne," said madame, "go you to the room with the host. I will follow yo_hortly. I have something to say to Monsieur de Saumaise."
There was a decision in her tones which caused Victor to experience a chil_ot devoid of dread. If only he could read the face behind the mask!
Anne followed Maître le Borgne upstairs. Victor and madame were alone. H_aited patiently for her to speak. She devoted some moments absently t_rushing with her boot the stray pieces of charred wood which littered th_road hearthstone.
"Victor," she said of a sudden, "forgive me!"
"Forgive you for what?"
"For innocently bringing this trouble upon you, for endangering your head."
"Oh, that is nothing. Danger is spice to a man's palate. But will you no_emove your mask that I may look upon your face while you speak?" There was _reak in his voice. This unexpected meeting seemed to have taken the solid_rom under his feet.
"You have been drinking!" with agitation.
"I have been striving to forget. But wine makes us reckless, not forgetful."
He rumpled his hair. "But will you not remove the mask?"
"Victor, you ought never to look upon my face again."
"Do you suppose that I could forget your face, a single contour or line o_t?"
"I have been so thoughtless! Forgive me! It was my hope that many month_hould pass ere we met again. But fate has willed it otherwise. I have but fe_ords to say to you. I beg you to listen earnestly to them. It is true that i_our company I have passed many a pleasant hour. Your wit, your gossip, you_xcellent verses, and your unending gaiety dispelled many a cloud of which yo_new nothing, nor shall know. When I fled from Paris there was a moment when _elieved you to be guilty of that abominable crime. That grey cloak; I ha_een you wear it. Forgive me for doubting so brave a gentleman as yourself. _ave learned all. You never spoke of the Chevalier du Cévennes as being you_omrade in arms. That was excessive delicacy on your part. Monsieur, our path_ust part to widen indefinitely."
"How calmly you put the cold of death in my heart!" The passion in his voic_as a pain to her. Well she knew that he loved her deeply, honestly, lastingly. "Gabrielle, you know that I love you. You are free."
"Love?" with voice metallic. "Talk not to me of love. If I have inspired yo_ith an unhappy passion, forgive me, for it was done without intent. I hav_layed you an evil turn." She sank on one of the benches and fumbled, with th_trings of her mask.
"So: the dream vanishes; the fire becomes ashes. Is it really you, Gabrielle?
Has not the wine turned the world upside-down, brought you here only in fancy?
This night is truly some strange dream. I shall wake to-morrow in Paris. _hall receive a note from you, bidding me bring the latest book. The Chevalie_ill dine with his beautiful unknown … Gabrielle, tell me that you love n_ne," anger and love and despair alternately changing his voice, "yes, tell m_hat!"
"Victor, I love no man. And God keep me from that folly. You are making m_ery unhappy!" She bent her head upon her arm.
"Oh, my vanished dream, do not weep on my account! You are not to blame. _ove you well. That is God's blame, not yours, since He molded you, gave you _eautiful face, a beautiful mind, a beautiful heart. Well, I will be silent. _ill go about my affairs, laughing. I shall write rollicking verses, fight _ew duels, and sign a few papers under which the ax lies hidden! … Do you kno_ow well I love you?" sinking beside her and taking her hand before she coul_lace it beyond his reach. He put a kiss on it. "Listen. If it means anythin_oward your happiness and content of mind, I will promise to be silen_orever." Suddenly he dropped the hand and rose. "Your presence i_verpowering: I can not answer for myself. You were right. We ought not t_ave met again."
"I must go," she said, also rising. She moved blindly across the room, irresolutely. Seeing a door, she turned the knob and entered.
It was only after the door closed that Victor recollected. Paul and sh_ogether in that room? What irony! He was about to rush after madame, when hi_teps were arrested by a voice coming from the stairs. The vicomte wa_escending.
"Ah, Monsieur de Saumaise," said the vicomte, "how fortunate to find yo_lone!"
"Fortunate, indeed!" replied Victor. Here was a man upon whom to wreak hi_rath, disappointment and despair. Justice or injustice, neither balanced o_he scales of his wrath. He crossed over to the chimney, stood with his bac_o the fire and waited.
The vicomte approached within a yard, stopped; twisted his mustache, restin_is left hand on his hip. His discerning inspection was soon completed. He wa_ully aware of the desperate and reckless light in the poet's eyes.
"Monsieur de Saumaise, you have this night offered me four distinct affronts.
Men have died for less than one."
"Ah!" Victor clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels.
"At the Hôtel de Périgny you called me a fool when the Chevalier struck m_ith his sword. I shall pass over that. The Chevalier was mad, and we all wer_xcited. But three times in this tavern you have annoyed me. Your temperament, being that of a poet, at times gets the better of you. My knowledge of thi_ccounts for my patience."
"That is magnanimous, Monsieur," railingly.
"Were I not bound for a far country I might call you to account."
"It is possible, then?"
"Braver men than you find it to their benefit to respect this sword of mine."
"Then you have a sword?"
The vicomte laughed. It was real laughter, unfeigned. He was too keen _anterer himself not to appreciate this gift in the poet. "What a lively la_ou are!" he exclaimed. "But four affronts make a long account for a singl_ight."
"I am ready now and at all times to close the account."
"Do you love Paris?" asked the vicomte, adding his mite to the bantering.
"Not so much as I did."
"Has not Rochelle become suddenly attractive?"
"Rochelle? I do not say so."
"Come; confess that the unexpected advent of Madame de Brissac has brough_his change about."
"Were we not discoursing on affronts?"
"Only as a sign of my displeasure. By September I dare say I shall return t_rance. I promise to look you up; and if by that time your manner has no_ndergone a desirable change I shall take my sword and trim the rude edges o_our courtesy."
"September? That is a long while to wait. Why not come to Spain with me? W_ould have it out there. Quebec? Do you fear Mazarin, then, so much as that?"
"Do you doubt my courage, Monsieur?" asked the vicomte, his eyes cold an_rilliant with points of light.
"Come, Monsieur; you are playing the boy. You will admit that I possess som_ourage. 'Twould be a fool's pastime to measure swords when neither of us i_ertain that to-morrow will see our heads safe upon our shoulders. I am no_iving you a challenge. I am simply warning you."
"Warning? You are kind. However, one would think that you are afraid to die."
"I am. There is always something which makes life worth the living. But it i_ot the fear of dying by the sword. My courage has never been questioned.
Neither has yours. But there is some doubt as regards your temper and reaso_bility. Brave? To be sure you are. At this very moment you would draw agains_ne of the best blades in France were I to permit you. But when it comes ma_o man, Monsieur, you have to stand on your toes to look into my eyes. My ar_s three inches longer than yours; my weight is greater. I have thre_onsiderable advantages over you. I simply do not desire your life; it i_ecessary neither to my honor nor to my happiness."
"To desire and to accomplish are two different things, Monsieur."
"Not to me, Monsieur," grimly. "When my desire attacks an obstacle it mus_ive way or result in my death. I have had many desires and many obstacles, and I am still living."
"But you may be killed abroad. That would disappoint me terribly."
"Monsieur de Saumaise, I have seen for some months that you have bee_ourishing a secret antipathy to me. Be frank enough to explain why ou_dmiration is not mutual." The vicomte seated himself on a bench, and thre_is scabbard across his knees.
"Since you have put the question frankly I will answer frankly. For some tim_ have distrusted you. What was to be your gain in joining the conspiracy?"
"And yours?" quietly. "I think we both overlooked that part of the contract.
"Well, I distrust you at this moment, for I know not what your purpose is t_peak of affronts and refuse to let me give satisfaction. I distrust an_islike you for the manner in which you approached the Chevalier tonight.
There was in your words a biting sarcasm and contempt which, he in his troubl_id not grasp. And let me tell you, Monsieur, if you ever dare mentio_ublicly the Chevalier's misfortune, I shall not wait for you to draw you_word."
The vicomte swung about his scabbard and began lightly to tap the floor wit_t. Here and there a cinder rose in dust. The vicomte's face was grave an_houghtful. "You have rendered my simple words into a Greek chorus. That i_ike you poets; you are super-sensitive; you misconstrue commonplaces; yo_agnify the simple. I am truly sorry for the Chevalier. Now there's a man. H_s superb with the rapier, light and quick as a cat; a daredevil, who had no_is match in Paris. Free with his money, a famous drinker, and never an enemy.
Yes, I will apologize for my bad taste in approaching him to-night. I shoul_ave waited till morning."
"You were rude to Mademoiselle de Vaudemont." Victor suddenly refused t_onciliate.
"Rude? Well, yes; I admit that. My word of honor, I could not contain mysel_t the sound of her voice."
"Or of madame's?" shrewdly.
"Or of madame's." The vicomte smoothed his mustache.
Their eyes met, and the flame in the vicomte's disquieted Victor, courageou_hough he was.
"It seems to me," said the vicomte, "that you have been needlessly beatin_bout the bush. Why did you not say to me, 'Monsieur, you love Madame d_rissac. I love her also. The world is too small for both of us?'"
"I depended upon your keen sense," replied Victor.
"I am almost tempted to favor you. I could use a short rapier."
"Good!" said Victor. "There is plenty of room. I have not killed a man sinc_his year Thursday."
"And having killed me," replied the vicomte, rising, and there was a smile o_is lips, "you would be forced to seek out Monsieur le Comte d'Hérouville, _an of devastated estates and violent temper, the roughest swordsman sinc_rillon's time; D'Hérouville, whose greed is as great and fierce as his love.
Have you thought of him, my poet? Ah well, something tells me that the time i_ot far distant when we shall be rushing at each other's throats. For th_resent, a truce. You love madame; so do I. She is free. We are all young. Wi_er, if you can, and I will step aside. But until you win her … I wish yo_ood night. I am going for a tramp along the sea-walls. I beg of you not t_ollow."
The echo of the slamming door had scarce died away when Victor, raging an_otent to do the vicomte harm, flung out after him. With his sword drawn h_ooked savagely up and down the street, but the vicomte was nowhere in sight.
The cold air, however, was grateful to the poet's feverish cheeks and achin_yes; so he strode on absently, with no destination in mind. It was only whe_he Hôtel de Périgny loomed before him, with its bleak walls and siniste_heval-de-frise, that his sense of locality revived. He raised a hand whic_ast a silent malediction on this evil house and its master, swung about an_urried back to the tavern, recollecting that Gabrielle and Paul wer_ogether.
"And all those dreams of her, they vanish like the hours. That hope, tha_oyous hope, of calling her mine shall buoy me up no more. She does not lov_e! God save me from another such unhappy night. We have all been stricke_ith madness." He struck at the snow-drifts with his sword. The snow, dry an_usty, flew up into his face.
Meanwhile, when madame entered the private assembly-room her eyes, blurre_ith tears, saw only the half dead fire. With her hand she groped along th_antel, and finding a candle, lit it. She did not care where she was, so lon_s she was alone; alone with her unhappy thoughts. She sat with her bac_oward the Chevalier, who had fallen into a slight doze. Presently the silenc_as destroyed by a hiccoughing sob. She had forced the end of her kerchie_gainst her lips to stifle the sound, but ineffectually.
The Chevalier raised his head… . A woman? Or was his brain mocking him? An_asked? How came she here? He was confused, and his sense of emergency la_allow. He knew not what to do. One thing was certain; he must make known hi_resence, for he was positive that she was unaware of it. He rose, and th_oise of his chair sliding back brought from her an affrighted cry. Sh_urned. The light of the candle played upon his face.
"Madame, pardon me, but I have been asleep. I did not hear you enter. It wa_ery careless of them to show you in here."
She rose without speaking and walked toward the door, with no uncertain step, with a dignity not lacking in majesty.
"She sees I have been drinking," he thought. "Pray, Madame, do not leave.
Rather let me do that."
She made a gesture, hurried but final, and left him.
"It seems to me," mused the Chevalier, resuming his seat, "that I have los_allantry to-night, among other considerable things. I might have opened th_oor for her. I wonder why she did not speak?"