Madame sat down. There was an interval of silence, during which the candle_eemed to move strangely from side to side, and the dark face beyond wa_lurred and indistinct; all save the eyes, which, like the lidless orbs of _nake, held and fascinated her. Vaguely she comprehended the peril of _onfused mind, and strove to draw upon that secret inward strength whic_iscovers itself in crises.
"How did you obtain that paper, Monsieur?"
The calm of her voice, though he knew it to be forced, surprised him. "How di_ obtain it? By strategy."
"Ah! not by the sword, then?" leaning upon the table, her fingers alon_etraying her agitation. "Not by the sword, and the mask, and the grey cloak?"
As if the question afforded him infinite amusement, the vicomte laughed.
"Would I be here?" he said. "Would I have ventured into this desert? Rathe_ould I not have spoken yonder in France? I shall tell you how I obtained it … after we are married."
Madame raised a hand and nervously tapped a knuckle against her teeth.
"Which is it to be, Madame?" caressing the paper.
"Monsieur, you are not without foresight and reason. Have you contemplate_hat I should become in time, forced into a marriage with a man whom I shoul_ot love, with whom I should always associate the sword, and the mask, and th_rey cloak?"
"I have speculated upon that side of it," easily, "and am willing to take th_isk. In time you would forget all about the sword and the cloak, since the_an in no wise be associated with me. Eventually you would grow to love me."
"Either you understand nothing about women, or you are guilty of gros_atuity."
"I understand woman tolerably well, and I have rubbed against too many edge_o be fatuous."
"Indeed, I believe you have much to learn."
"If I showed this paper to the governor of Quebec …"
"Which you will not do, there being no magic liquid this side of France."
"It would be simple to cut out the name."
"You would still have to explain to Monsieur de Lauson how you came int_ossession of it."
"Madame, the more I listen to you, the more determined I am that you shal_ecome my wife. I admire the versatility of your mind, the coolness of you_ogic. Not one woman in a thousand could talk to so much effect, whe_mprisonment or death …"
"… faced her as surely as it faces you."
"Permit me to see the paper, Monsieur."
Some men would have surrendered to the seductiveness of her voice; not so th_icomte.
"Scarcely, Madame," smiling.
"How am I to know that it is genuine? Allow me to glance at it?"
"And witness you tear it up, or … burn it like a love-letter?" shrewdly.
Madame stiffened in her chair.
"Have you ever burned a love-letter, Madame?" asked the vicomte.
Madame turned pale from rage and shame. The rage nearly overcame the fear an_error which she was so admirably concealing.
"Have you?" pitilessly.
"You … ?"
"Yes," intuitively. He touched the particles of burnt paper and laughed.
"You were in this room?"
"I was. It was not intentional eavesdropping; my word of honor, as to that. _ame in here, having an unimportant engagement with a friend. He was late.
While I waited, in walked Monsieur le Chevalier, then yourself."
"Monsieur, you might have made known your presence."
"It is true that I might; but I should have missed a very fine comedy. Madame, I compliment you. How well you have kept undiscovered, even undreamt of, thi_harming intrigue!"
Madame gazed at the door and wondered if she could reach it before he could.
"So, sometimes you are called 'Diane'? You are no longer the huntress; you ar_aphne!"
"And you would turn into a laurel tree! My faith, Madame, it was a charmin_cene! You are as erudite as a student fresh from the Sorbonne."
"Monsieur, this is far away from the subject."
"Let me see; there was a line worthy of Monsieur de Saumaise at his best. Ah, yes! 'I kiss your handsome grey eyes a thousand times'! Ah well, let us giv_he Chevalier credit; he certainly has a handsome pair of eyes, as many a dam_nd demoiselle at court will attest. It was truly a delightful letter; onl_he music of it was somewhat inharmonious to my ears."
"Take care, Monsieur, that I do not choose the block. I am not wholly withou_ourage."
"Pardon me! Jealousy has an evil sting. I ask you to pardon me. Besides, i_as evident that you had some definite purpose in trifling with the Chevalier.
Well, he is out of the game."
"Do you know what brought him here?" veering into a new channel to lull th_icomte's caution. She had an idea.
"I do; but it would not sound pleasant in your ears."
"He followed …"
"A woman?" with quick anticipation. "I do not say so. I brought him into ou_onversation merely to prove to you that I was more in your confidence tha_ou dreamed of."
Madame drew her fingers across her brow.
"Does any one else know that you have this paper?" Madame manoeuvered he_hair, bringing it as close as possible to the table. Less than three fee_ntervened between her and the vicomte.
"You and I alone are in the secret, Madame."
"If I should call for help?"
"Call, Madame; many will hear. But this paper, and the general fear of Mazari_ince the Fronde, and the fact that I have practically obliterated m_ignature by scratching a pen across it … Well, if you think it wise."
Her arms dropped upon the table, and the despair on her face deceived him.
"Monsieur, this is unmanly, cruel!"
"All is fair in love and war. My love compels me to use force. What if thi_ocument had fallen into D'Hérouville's hands? He would have gone about i_ess gently."
Madame bent her head upon her arms, and the candles threw a golden sparkl_nto her hair. The vicomte's heart beat fast, and his hand stole forth an_overed above that beautiful head but dared not touch it. Presently madam_ooked up. There were tears in her eyes, but the vicomte did not know tha_hey were tears of rage.
"Think, Madame," he said eagerly; "is a dungeon more agreeable to you than _m, and would not a dungeon be worse than death?"
Madame roughly brushed her eyes. "You speak of love; I doubt your sincerity."
"I love you so well that I would kill D'Hérouville and De Saumaise and D_évennes, all of them, rather than that one of them should possess the righ_o call you his."
"But can you not see how impossible life with you would be after this night? _hould hold you in perpetual fear."
"I will find a way to overcome that fear."
"But each time I look at you would recall this humiliating moment. I am _roud woman, Monsieur, and I suffer now from humiliation as I never suffere_efore;" all of which was true. "I am a Montbazon; it is very close to roya_lood. If I were forced to marry you, you would certainly live to regret it."
"As I said, I am willing to risk it." Then his voice softened. "Ah, but I lov_ou! 'Gabrielle, Gabrielle'! That name is the ebb and flow of my heart'_lood. Promise, Madame, promise; for I shall do as I say. Will you enjoy th_ungeon? I think not. Do not doubt that there is an element of greatness i_his heart of mine. With you as my wife I shall become great; D'Halluys wil_e a name to live among those of the great captains."
Madame locked her hands, her fingers twisting and untwisting … To gai_ossession of that paper!
"How often I watched you in Paris," he went on, "wondering at first who yo_ere, and then, knowing, why you were not at court with your brilliant mother.
I have seen you so many times in the gardens, just as twilight dissolved th_rightness of day. I have often followed you, but always at a respectfu_istance. And one night the happiness was mine to meet you at the hôtel o_onsieur le Comte. Oh! I know perfectly well the rumors you have hear_egarding certain exploits. But remember, I have grown up in camps, an_oldiers are neither careful nor provident. Poverty dogged my footsteps; an_e must live how we can. No good woman has ever crossed my path to lighten it_hadows, to smooth its roughness. Environment is the mold that forms the man.
I am what circumstance has made me. You, Madame, can change all this."
He leaned over the table, his eyes shining, his face glowing with love which, though half lawless, was nevertheless the best that was in him. Another woma_ight have marked the beauty on his face; but madame saw only the power of it, the power which she hated and feared. Besides, his love in no wise lessene_is caution. His left hand was wound tightly around the paper.
"Monsieur, you are without reason!"
"Love has crowded reason out."
"Your proposal is cruel and terrible."
"It is your angle of vision."
"I had thought to find peace and security; alas!"
"If I were positive that you loved some one else …" meditatively.
"I should hunt him out and kill him. There would then be no obstacle."
"You will do as you say: consign me to imprisonment or death?"
"As much as I love you. You have your choice."
"Give me but a day," she pleaded.
"Truthfully, I dare not."
"But this paper; I must see it!" wildly.
The vicomte's hand tightened. "I will place the paper in your hands on the da_f our marriage, unreservedly. You will then have the power to commit me, i_o you will. Come, Madame; it grows on toward night. Which is it to be? _ontbazon's word is as good as a king's louis."
"Once it has been given!"
As a cat leaps, as the shadow of a bird passes, madame's hand flew out an_rasped the projecting end of the paper. The short struggle was nothing; th_ed marks on her wrists were painless. Swiftly she rose and stepped, back, breathing quickly but with triumph. He made as though to leap, but in tha_oment she had smoothed out the crumpled paper. A glance, and it fluttered t_he table. Her laughter was very close to tears.
"Monsieur le Vicomte, what a clever wooer you are!" She fled toward the door, opened it, and was gone.
The vicomte sat down.
"Truly, that woman must be mine!"
He took up the paper, smoothed it, and laughed. The paper was totally blank.