"It is a long distance from Condillac to Paris, madame," said her son, with a shrug.
"And you will find them none so ready to send soldiers all this way, Marquise," the Seneschal comforted her.
"Bah! You make too sure of your security. You make too sure of what they will do, what leave undone. Time will show, my friends; and, mor-dieu! I am much at fault if you come not both to echo my regret that we did not dispose of Monsieur de Garnache and his lackey when we had them in our power."
Her eye fell with sinister promise upon Tressan, who shivered slightly and spread his hands to the blaze, as though his shiver had been of cold. But Marius did not so readily grow afraid.
"Madame," he said, "at the worst we can shut our gates and fling defiance at them. We are well-manned, and Fortunio is seeking fresh recruits."
"Seeking them, yes," she sneered. "For a week has the fellow been spending money like water, addling the brains of half Grenoble with the best wine at the Auberge de France, yet not a single recruit has come in, so far."
Marius laughed. "Your pessimism leads you into rash conclusions," he cried. "You are wrong. One recruit has come in."
"One!" she echoed. "A thousand devils! A brave number that! A fine return for the river of wine with which we have washed the stomachs of Grenoble."
"Still, it is a beginning," ventured the Seneschal.
"Aye, and, no doubt, an ending," she flashed back at him. "And what manner of fool may this one be, whose fortunes were so desperate that he could throw them in with ours?"
"He is an Italian—a Piedmontese who has tramped across Savoy and was on his way to Paris to make his fortune, when Fortunio caught him and made it clear to him that his fortune was made for him at Condillac. He is a lusty, stalwart fellow, speaking no word of French, who was drawn to Fortunio by discovering in him a fellow-countryman."
Mockery flashed from the Dowager's beautiful eyes.
"In that you have the reason of his enrolling himself. He knew no word of French, poor devil, so could not learn how rash his venture was. Could we find more such men as this one it might be well. But where shall we find them? Pish! my dear Marius, matters are little mended, nor ever will be, for the mistake we made in allowing Garnache to go his ways."
"Madame;" again ventured Tressan, "I think that you want for hopefulness."
"At least, I do not want for courage, Monsieur le Comte," she answered him; "and I promise you that while I live—to handle a sword if need be—no Paris men shall set foot in Condillac."
"Aye," grumbled Marius, "you can contemplate that, and it is all you do contemplate. You will not see, madame that our position is far from desperate; that, after all, there may be no need to resist the King. It is three months since we had news of Florimond. Much may happen in three months when a man is warring. It may well be that he is dead."
"I wish I knew he was—and damned," she snapped, with a tightening of her scarlet lips.
"Yes," agreed Marius, with a sigh, "that were an end to all our troubles."
"I'm none so sure. There is still mademoiselle, with her new-formed friends in Paris—may a pestilence blight them all! There are still the lands of La Vauvraye to lose. The only true end to our troubles as they stand at present lies in your marrying this headstrong baggage."
"That the step should be rendered impossible, you can but blame yourself," Marius reminded her.
"How so?" she cried, turning sharply upon him.
"Had you kept friends with the Church, had you paid tithes and saved us from this cursed Interdict, we should have no difficulty in getting hither a priest, and settling the matter out of hand, be Valerie willing or not."
She looked at him, scorn kindling in her glance. Then she swung round to appeal to Tressan.
"You hear him, Count," said she. "There is a lover for you! He would wed his mistress whether she love him or not—and he has sworn to me that he loves the girl."
"How else should the thing be done since she opposes it?" asked Marius, sulkily.
"How else? Do you ask me how else? God! Were I a man, and had I your shape and face, there is no woman in the world should withstand me if I set my heart on her. It is address you lack. You are clumsy as a lout where a woman is concerned. Were I in your place, I had taken her by storm three months ago, when first she came to us. I had carried her out of Condillac, out of France, over the border into Savoy, where there are no Interdicts to plague you, and there I would have married her."
Marius frowned darkly, but before he could speak, Tressan was insinuating a compliment to the Marquise.
"True, Marius," he said, with pursed lips. "Nature has been very good to you in that she has made you the very counterpart of your lady mother. You are as comely a gentleman as is to be found in France—or out of it."
"Pish!" snapped Marius, too angered by the reflection cast upon his address, to be flattered by their praises of his beauty. "It is an easy thing to talk; an easy thing to set up arguments when we consider but the half of a question. You forget, madame, that Valerie is betrothed to Florimond and that she clings faithfully to her betrothal."
"Vertudieu!" swore the Marquise, "and what is this betrothal, what this faithfulness? She has not seen her betrothed for three years. She was a child at the time of their fiancailles. Think you her faithfulness to him is the constancy of a woman to her lover? Go your ways, you foolish boy. It is but the constancy to a word, to the wishes of her father. Think you constancy that has no other base than that would stand between her and any man who—as you might do, had you the address—could make her love him?"
"I do say so," answered Marius firmly.
She smiled the pitying smile of one equipped with superior knowledge when confronted with an obstinate, uninformed mind.
"There is a droll arrogance about you, Marius," she told him, quietly. "You, a fledgling, would teach me, a woman, the ways of a woman's heart! It is a thing you may live to regret."
"As how?" he asked.
"Once already has mademoiselle contrived to corrupt one of our men, and send him to Paris with a letter. Out of that has sprung our present trouble. Another time she may do better. When she shall have bribed another to assist her to escape; when she, herself, shall have made off to the shelter of the Queen-mother, perhaps you will regret that my counsel should have fallen upon barren ground."
"It is to prevent any such attempt that we have placed her under guard," said he. "You are forgetting that."
"Forgetting it? Not I. But what assurance have you that she will not bribe her guard?"
Marius laughed, rose, and pushed back his chair.
"Madame," said he, "you are back at your contemplation of the worst side of this affair; you are persisting in considering only how we may be thwarted. But set your mind at rest. Gilles is her sentinel. Every night he sleeps in her anteroom. He is Fortunio's most trusted man. She will not corrupt him."
The Dowager smiled pensively, her eyes upon the fire. Suddenly she raised them to his face. "Berthaud was none the less trusted. Yet, with no more than a promise of reward at some future time should she succeed in escaping from us, did she bribe him to carry her letter to the Queen. What happened to Berthaud that may not happen to Gilles?"
"You might change her sentry nightly," put in the Seneschal.
"Yes, if we knew whom we could trust; who would be above corruption. As it is"—she shrugged her shoulders "that would be but to afford her opportunities to bribe them one by one until they were all ready to act in concert."
"Why need she any sentinel at all?" asked Tressan, with some show of sense.
"To ward off possible traitors," she told him, and Marius smiled and wagged his head.
"Madame is never done foreseeing the worst, monsieur."
"Which shows my wisdom. The men in our garrison are mercenaries, all attached to us only because we pay them. They all know who she is and what her wealth."
"Pity you have not a man who is deaf and dumb," said Tressan, half in jest. But Marius looked up suddenly, his eyes serious.
"We have as good," said he. "There is the Italian knave Fortunio enrolled yesterday, as I have told you. He knows neither her wealth nor her identity; nor if he did could he enter into traffic with her, for he knows no French, and she no Italian."
The Dowager clapped her hands. "The very man!" she cried.
But Marius, either from sheer perverseness, or because he did not share her enthusiasm, made answer: "I have faith in Gilles."
"Yes," she mocked him, "and you had faith in Berthaud. Oh, if you have faith in Gilles, let him remain; let no more be said."
The obstinate boy took her advice, and shifted the subject, speaking to Tressan of some trivial business connected with the Seneschalship.
But madame, woman-like, returned to the matter whose abandoning she had herself suggested. Marius, for all his affected disdain of it, viewed it with a certain respect. And so in the end they sent for the recruit.
Fortunio—who was no other than the man Garnache had known as "Sanguinetti"—brought him, still clad in the clothes in which he had come. He was a tall, limber fellow, with a very swarthy skin and black, oily-looking hair that fell in short ringlets about his ears and neck, and a black, drooping mustache which gave him a rather hang-dog look. There was a thick stubble of beard of several days' growth about his chin and face; his eyes were furtive in their glances, but of a deep blue that contrasted oddly with his blackness when he momentarily raised them.
He wore a tattered jerkin, and his legs, in default of stockings, were swathed in soiled bandages and cross-gartered from ankle to knee. He stood in a pair of wooden shoes, from one of which peeped forth some wisps of straw, introduced, no doubt, to make the footgear fit. He slouched and shuffled in his walk, and he was unspeakably dirty. Nevertheless, he was girt with a sword in a ragged scabbard hanging from a frayed and shabby belt of leather.
Madame scanned him with interest. The fastidious Marius eyed him with disgust. The Seneschal peered at him curiously through shortsighted eyes.
"I do not think I have ever seen a dirtier ruffian," said he.
"I like his nose," said madame quietly. "It is the nose of an intrepid man."
"It reminds me of Garnache's," laughed the Seneschal.
"You flatter the Parisian," commented Marius.
The mercenary, meanwhile, stood blandly smiling at the party, showing at least a fine array of teeth, and wearing the patient, attentive air of one who realizes himself to be under discussion, yet does not understand what is being said.
"A countryman of yours, Fortunio?" sneered Marius.
The captain, whose open, ingenuous countenance dissembled as villainous a heart as ever beat in the breast of any man, disowned the compatriotism with a smile.
"Hardly, monsieur," said he. "'Battista' is a Piedmontese." Fortunio himself was a Venetian.
"Is he to be relied upon, think you?" asked madame. Fortunio shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands. It was not his habit to trust any man inordinately.
"He is an old soldier," said he. "He has trailed a pike in the Neapolitan wars. I have cross-questioned him, and found his answers bore out the truth of what he said."
"And what brings him to France?" asked Tressan. The captain smiled again, and there came again that expressive shrug of his. "A little over-ready with the steel," said he.
They told Fortunio that they proposed to place him sentry over mademoiselle instead of Gilles, as the Italian's absolute lack of French would ensure against corruption. The captain readily agreed with them. It would be a wise step. The Italian fingered his tattered hat, his eyes on the ground.
Suddenly madame spoke to him. She asked him for some account of himself and whence he came, using the Italian tongue, of which she had a passing knowledge. He followed her questions very attentively, at times with apparent difficulty, his eyes on her face, his head craned a little forward.
Now and then Fortunio had to intervene, to make plainer to this ignorant Piedmontese mind the Marquise's questions. His answers came in a deep, hoarse voice, slurred by the accent of Piedmont, and madame—her knowledge of Italian being imperfect—had frequently to have recourse to Fortunio to discover the meaning of what he said.
At last she dismissed the pair of them, bidding the captain see that he was washed and more fittingly clothed.
An hour later, after the Seneschal had taken his departure to ride home to Grenoble, it was madame herself, accompanied by Marius and Fortunio, who conducted Battista—such was the name the Italian had given—to the apartments above, where mademoiselle was now confined practically a prisoner.
CHAPTER XI. VALERIE'S GAOLER
My child, said the Dowager, and her eyes dwelt on Valerie with a look of studied gentleness, "why will you not be reasonable?"
The constant reflection that Garnache was at large, making his way back to Paris to stir up vengeance for the outrage put upon him, was not without a certain chastening effect upon the Dowager. She had a way of saying that she had as good a stomach for a fight as any man in France, and a fight there should be if it came to it and Garnache should return to assail Condillac. Yet a certain pondering of the consequences, a certain counting of the cost—ordinarily unusual to her nature led her to have recourse to persuasion and to a gentleness no less unusual.
Valerie's eyes were raised to hers with a look that held more scorn than wonder. They were standing in the antechamber of Valerie's room. Yonder at his post lounged the recruit "Battista," looking a trifle cleaner than when first he had been presented to the Marquise, but still not clean enough for a lady's antechamber. He was leaning stolidly against the sill of the window, his eyes on the distant waters of the Isere, which shone a dull copper colour in the afterglow of the October sunset. His face was vacant, his eyes pensive, as he stood there undisturbed by the flow of a language he did not understand.
Fortunio and Marius had departed, and the Marquise—played upon by her unusual tremors—had remained behind for a last word with the obstinate girl.
"In what, madame," asked Valerie, "does my conduct fall short of reasonableness?"
The Dowager made a movement of impatience. If at every step she were to be confronted by these questions, which had in them a savour of challenge, she was wasting time in remaining.
"You are unreasonable, in this foolish clinging to a promise given for you."
"Given by me, madame," the girl amended, knowing well to what promise the Dowager referred.
"Given by you, then; but given at an age when you could not understand the nature of it. They had no right to bind you so."
"If it is for any to question that right, it is for me," Valerie made answer, her eyes ever meeting the Dowager's unflinchingly. "And I am content to leave that right unquestioned. I am content to fill the promise given. In honour I could not do less."
"Ah! In honour!" The Dowager sighed. Then she came a step nearer, and her face grew sweetly wistful. "But your heart, child; what of your heart?"
"My heart concerns myself. I am the betrothed of Florimond—that is all that concerns the world and you. I respect and admire him more than any living man, and I shall be proud to become his wife when he returns, as his wife I shall become in spite of all that you and your son may do."
The Dowager laughed softly, as if to herself.
"And if I tell you that Florimond is dead?"
"When you give me proof of that, I shall believe it," the girl replied. The Marquise looked at her, her face manifesting no offence at the almost insulting words.
"And if I were to lay that proof before you?" she inquired, sadly almost.
Valerie's eyes opened a trifle wider, as if in apprehension. But her answer was prompt and her voice steady. "It still could have no effect upon my attitude towards your son."
"This is foolishness, Valerie—"
"In you it is, madame," the girl broke in; "a foolishness to think you can constrain a girl, compel her affections, command her love, by such means as you have employed towards me. You think that it predisposes me to be wooed, that it opens my heart to your son, to see myself gaoled that he may pay me his court."
"Gaoled, child? Who gaols you?" the Dowager cried, as if the most surprising utterance had fallen from Valerie's lips.
Mademoiselle smiled in sorrow and some scorn.
"Am I not gaoled, then?" she asked. "What call you this? What does that fellow there? He is to lie outside my door at nights to see that none holds communication with me. He is to go with me each morning to the garden, when, by your gracious charity I take the air. Sleeping and waking the man is ever within hearing of any word that I may utter—"
"But if he has no French!" the Dowager protested.
"To ensure, no doubt, against any attempt of mine to win him to my side, to induce him to aid me escape from this prison. Oh, madame, I tell you you do but waste time, and you punish me and harass yourself to little purpose. Had Marius been such a man as I might have felt it in my nature to love which Heaven forbid!—these means by which you have sought to bring that thing about could but have resulted in making me hate him as I do."
The Dowager's fears were banished from her mind at that, and with them went all thought of conciliating Valerie. Anger gleamed in her eyes; the set of her lips grew suddenly sneering and cruel, so that the beauty of her face but served to render it hateful the more.
"So that you hate him, ma mie?" a ripple of mockery on the current of her voice, "and he a man such as any girl in France might be proud to wed. Well, well, you are not to be constrained, you say." And the Marquise's laugh was menacing and unpleasant. "Be not so sure, mademoiselle. Be not so sure of that. It may well betide that you shall come to beg upon your knees for this alliance with a man whom you tell me that you hate. Be not so sure you cannot be constrained."
Their eyes met; both women were white to the lips, but it was curbed passion in the one, and deadly fear in the other; for what the Dowager's words left unsaid her eyes most eloquently conveyed. The girl shrank back, her hands clenched, her lip caught in her teeth.
"There is a God in heaven, madame," she reminded the Marquise.
"Aye—in heaven," laughed the Marquise, turning to depart. She paused by the door, which the Italian had sprung forward to open for her.
"Marius shall take the air with you in the morning if it is fine. Ponder meanwhile what I have said."
"Does this man remain here, madame?" inquired the girl, vainly seeking to render her voice steady.
"In the outer anteroom is his place: but as the key of this room is on his side of the door, he may enter here when he so pleases, or when he thinks that he has reason to. If the sight of him displeases you, you may lock yourself from it in your own chamber yonder."
The same she said in Italian to the man, who bowed impassively, and followed the Dowager into the outer room, closing the door upon mademoiselle. It was a chamber almost bare of furniture, save for a table and chair which had been placed there, so that the gaoler might take his meals.
The man followed the Marquise across the bare floor, their steps resounding as they went, and he held the outer door for her.
Without another word she left him, and where he stood he could hear her steps as she tripped down the winding staircase of stone. At last the door of the courtyard closed with a bang, and the grating of a key announced to the mercenary that he and his charge were both imprisoned in that tower of the Chateau de Condillac.
Left alone in the anteroom, mademoiselle crossed to the window and dropped limply into a chair. Her face was still very white, her heart beating tumultuously, for the horrid threat that had been conveyed in the Dowager's words had brought her her first thrill of real fear since the beginning of this wooing-by-force three months ago, a wooing which had become more insistent and less like a wooing day by day, until it had culminated in her present helpless position.
She was a strong-souled, high-spirited girl, but tonight hope seemed extinguished in her breast. Florimond, too, seemed to have abandoned her. Either he had forgotten her, or he was dead, as the Dowager said. Which might be the true state of things she did not greatly care. The realization of how utterly she was in the power of Madame de Condillac and her son, and the sudden chance discovery of how unscrupulously that power might be wielded, filled her mind to the exclusion of all else.
By the window she sat, watching, without heeding them, the fading colours in the sky. She was abandoned to these monsters, and it seemed they would devour her. She could hope for no help from outside since they had as she believed—slain Monsieur de Garnache. Her mind dwelt for a moment on that glimpse of rescue that had been hers a week ago, upon the few hours of liberty which she had enjoyed, but which only seemed now to increase the dark hopelessness of her imprisonment.
Again with the eyes of her mind she beheld that grim, stalwart figure, saw his great nose, his greying hair, his fierce mustachios and his stern, quick eyes. Again she heard the rasp of his metallic voice with its brisk derision. She saw him in the hall below, his foot upon the neck of that popinjay of Condillac daring them all to draw a breath, should he forbid it; again in fancy she rode on the withers of his horse at the gallop towards Grenoble. A sigh escaped her. Surely that was the first man who was indeed a man she had ever set eyes on since her father died. Had Garnache been spared, she would have felt courage and she would have hoped, for there was something about him that suggested energy and resource such as it is good to lean upon in times of stress. Again she heard that brisk, metallic voice: "Are you content, madame? Have you had fine deeds enough for one day?"
And then, breaking in upon her musings came the very voice of her day-dream, so suddenly, sounding so natural and lifelike that she almost screamed, so startled was she.
"Mademoiselle," it said, "I beg that you'll not utterly lose heart. I have come back to the thing Her Majesty bade me do, and I'll do it, in spite of that tigress and her cub."
She sat still as a statue, scarce breathing, her eyes fixed upon the violet sky. The voice had ceased, but still she sat on. Then it was slowly borne in upon her that that was no dream-voice, no trick of her overburdened mind. A voice, a living, actual voice had uttered those words in this room, here at her elbow.
She turned, and again she almost screamed; for there, just behind her, his glittering eyes fixed upon her with singular intentness, stood the swarthy, black-haired Italian gaoler they had given her because he had no French.
He had come up so quietly behind her that she had not heard his approach, and he was leaning forward now, with an odd suggestion of crouching in his attitude, like a beast about to spring. Yet his gaze riveted hers as with a fascination. And so, while she looked, his lips moved, and from them, in that same voice of her dreams, came from this man who had no French, the words:
"Be not afraid, mademoiselle. I am that blunderer, Garnache, that unworthy fool whose temper ruined what chance of saving you he had a week ago."
She stared like one going mad.
"Garnache!" said she, in a husky whisper. "You Garnache?"
Yet the voice, she knew, was Garnache's and none other. It was a voice not easily mistaken. And now, as she looked and looked, she saw that the man's nose was Garnache's, though oddly stained, and those keen eyes, they were Garnache's too. But the hair that had been brown and flecked with grey was black; the reddish mustachios that had bristled like a mountain cat's were black, too, and they hung limp and hid from sight the fine lines of his mouth. A hideous stubble of unshorn beard defaced his chin and face, and altered its sharp outline; and the clear, healthy skin that she remembered was now a dirty brown.
Suddenly the face smiled, and it was a smile that reassured her and drove away the last doubt that she had. She was on her feet in an instant.
"Monsieur, monsieur," was all that she could say; but her longing was to fling her arms about the neck of this man, as she might have flung them about the neck of a brother or a father, and sob out upon his shoulder the sudden relief and revulsion that his presence brought.
Garnache saw something of her agitation, and to relieve it he smiled and began to tell her the circumstances of his return and his presentation to Madame as a knave who had no French.
"Fortune was very good to me, mademoiselle," said he. "I had little hope that such a face as mine could be disguised, but I take no pride in what you see. It is the handiwork of Rabecque, the most ingenious lackey that ever served a foolish master. It helped me that having been ten years in Italy when I was younger, I acquired the language so well as to be able to impose even upon Fortunio. In that lay a circumstance which at once disarmed suspicion, and if I stay not so long as it shall take the dye to wear from my hair and beard and the staining from my face, I shall have little to fear."
"But, monsieur," she cried, "you have everything to fear!" And alarm grew in her eyes.
But he laughed again for answer. "I have faith in my luck, mademoiselle, and I think I am on the tide of it at present. I little hoped when I made my way into Condillac in this array that I should end, by virtue of my pretended ignorance of French, in being appointed gaoler to you. I had some ado to keep the joy from my eyes when I heard them planning it. It is a thing that has made all else easy."
"But what can you do alone, monsieur?" she asked him; and there was a note almost of petulance in her voice.
He moved to the window, and leaned his elbow on the sill. The light was fast fading. "I know not yet. But I am here to contrive a means. I shall think and watch."
"You know in what hourly peril I am placed," she cried, and suddenly remembering that he must have overheard and understood the Dowager's words, a sudden heat came to her cheeks to recede again and leave them marble-pale. And she thanked Heaven that in the dusk and in the shadow where she stood he could but ill make out her face.
"If you think that I have been rash in returning—"
"No, no, not rash, monsieur; noble and brave above all praise. I would indeed I could tell you how noble and brave I account your action."
"It is as nothing to the bravery required to let Rabecque do this hideous work upon a face for which I have ever entertained some measure of respect."
He jested, sooner than enlighten her that it was his egregious pride had fetched him back when he was but a few hours upon his journey Pariswards, his inability to brook the ridicule that would be his when he announced at the Luxembourg that failure had attended him.
"Ah, but what can you do alone?" she repeated.
"Give me at least a day or two to devise some means; let me look round and take the measure of this gaol. Some way there must be. I have not come so far and so successfully to be beaten now. Still," he continued, "if you think that I overrate my strength or my resource, if you would sooner that I sought men and made an assault upon Condillac, endeavouring to carry it and to let the Queen's will prevail by force of arms, tell me so, and I am gone tomorrow."
"Whither would you go?" she cried, her voice strained with sudden affright.
"I might seek help at Lyons or Moulins. I might find loyal soldiers who would be willing to follow me by virtue of my warrant to levy such help as I may require, if I but tell them that the help was refused me in Grenoble. I am not sure that it would be so, for, unfortunately, my warrant is for the Seneschal of Dauphiny only. Still, I might make the attempt."
"No, no," she implored him, and in her eagerness to have him put all thought of leaving her from his mind, she caught him by the arm and raised a pleading face to his. "Do not leave me here, monsieur; of your pity do not leave me alone amongst them. Think me a coward if you will, monsieur: I am no less. They have made a coward of me."
He understood the thing she dreaded, and a great pity welled up from his generous heart for this poor unfriended girl at the mercy of the beautiful witch of Condillac and her beautiful rascally son. He patted the hand that clutched his arm.
"I think, myself, that it will be best if I remain, now that I have come so far," he said. "Let me ponder things. It may well be that I shall devise some way."
"May Heaven inspire you, monsieur. I shall spend the night in prayer, I think, imploring God and His saints to show you the way you seek."
"Heaven, I think, should hear your prayers, mademoiselle," he answered musingly, his glance upon the white, saintly face that seemed to shine in the deepening gloom. Then, suddenly he stirred and bent to listen.
"Sh! Some one is coming," he whispered. And he sped quickly from her side and into the outer room, where he sank noiselessly on to his chair as the steps ascended the stone staircase and a glow of yellow light grew gradually in the doorway that opened on to it.
CHAPTER XII. A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE
That he might inspire the more confidence in the Dowager and her son Garnache organized and performed a little comedy at Condillac a couple of nights after his appointment as mademoiselle's gaoler. He gave an alarm at dead midnight, and when half-clad men, followed presently by madame and Marian, rushed into the anteroom where he stood, a very picture of the wildest excitement, he drew their attention to two twisted sheets, tied end to end, hanging from the window which overlooked the moat; and in answer to the marquise's questions he informed her that he had been disturbed by sounds of movements and upon entering the chamber he had discovered mademoiselle making these preparations for departure.
Valerie, locked in the inner chamber, refused to come forth as the Marquise bade her, but her voice reassured Madame de Condillac of her presence, and so, since her attempt had failed, madame was content to let her be.
"The little fool," she said, peering down from the window into the night; "she would have been killed for certain. Her rope of sheets does not reach more than a third of the way down. She would have had over thirty feet to fall, and if that had not been enough to finish her, she would of a certainty have, been drowned in the moat."
She signified her satisfaction with the faithful "Battista's" vigilance by a present of some gold pieces in the morning, and since the height of the window and the moat beneath it did not appear sufficient obstacles to mademoiselle's attempts at effecting her escape, the Dowager had the window nailed down. Thus, only by breaking it could egress be obtained, and the breaking of it could not be effected without such a noise as must arouse "Battista."
Under Garnache's instructions the comedy was carried a little further. Mademoiselle affected for her gaoler a most unconquerable aversion, and this she took pains to proclaim.
One morning, three days after her attempted escape, she was taking the air in the garden of Condillac, "Battista," ever watchful, a few paces behind her, when suddenly she was joined by Marius—a splendid, graceful figure in a riding-suit of brown velvet and biscuit-coloured hose, his points tipped with gold, his long boots of the finest marroquin leather, his liver-coloured hound at his heels. It was the last day of October, but the weather, from cold and wet that it had been for the past fortnight, had taken on a sudden improvement. The sun shone, the air was still and warm, and but for the strewn leaves and the faint smell of decay with which the breath of autumn is ever laden, one might have fancied it a day of early spring.
It was not Valerie's wont to pause when Marius approached. Since she might not prevent him from walking where he listed, she had long since abandoned the futility of bidding him begone when he came near her. But, at least, she had never stopped in her walk, never altered its pace; she had suffered what she might not avoid, but she had worn the outward air of suffering it with indifference. This morning, however, she made a departure from her long habit. Not only did she pause upon observing his approach, but she called to him as if she would have him hasten to her side. And hasten he did, a new light in his eyes that was mostly of surprise, but a little, also, of hope.
She was gracious to him for once, and gave him good morning in a manner that bordered upon the pleasant. Wondering, he fell into step beside her, and they paced together the yew-bordered terrace, the ever-vigilant but discreet "Battista" following them, though keeping now a few paces farther in the rear.
For a little while they appeared constrained, and their talk was of the falling leaves and the grateful change that had so suddenly come upon the weather. Suddenly she stopped and faced him.
"Will you do me a favour, Marius?" she asked. He halted too, and turned to her, studying her gentle face, seeking to guess her mind in the clear hazel eyes she raised to his. His eyebrows lifted slightly with surprise. Nevertheless—
"There is in all the world, Valerie, nothing you could ask me that I would not do," he protested.
She smiled wistfully. "How easy it is to utter words!" she sighed.
"Marry me," he answered, leaning towards her, his eyes devouring her now, "and you shall find my words very quickly turned to deeds."
"Ah," said she, and her smile broadened and took on a scornful twist, "you make conditions now. If I will marry you, there is nothing you will not do for me; so that, conversely, I may take it that if I do not marry you, there is nothing you will do. But in the meantime, Marius, until I resolve me whether I will marry you or not, would you not do a little thing that I might ask of you?"
"Until you resolve?" he cried, and his face flushed with the sudden hope he gathered from those words. Hitherto there had been no suggestion of a possible modification of attitude towards his suit. It had been repulsion, definite and uncompromising. Again he studied her face. Was she fooling him, this girl with the angel-innocence of glance? The thought of such a possibility cooled him instantly. "What is it you want of me?" he asked, his voice ungracious.
"Only a little thing, Marius." Her glance travelled back over her shoulder to the tall, limber fellow in leather jerkin and with cross-gartered legs who lounged a dozen steps behind them. "Rid me of that ruffian's company," said she.
Marius looked back at "Battista," and from him to Valerie. Then he smiled and made a slight movement with his shoulders.
"But to what end?" he asked, as one who pleadingly opposes an argument that is unreasonable. "Another would replace him, and there is little to choose among the men that garrison Condillac."
"Little, perhaps; but that little matters." Sure of her ground, and gathering from his tone and manner that the more ardently she begged this thing the less likely would it be that she should prevail, she pursued her intercessions with a greater heat. "Oh," she cried, in a pretended rage, "it is to insult me to give me that unclean knave for perpetual company. I loathe and detest him. The very sight of him is too much to endure."
"You exaggerate," said he coldly.
"I do not; indeed I do not," she rejoined, looking frankly, pleadingly into his face. "You do not realize what it is to suffer the insolent vigilance of such as he; to feel that your every step is under surveillance; to feel his eyes ever upon you when you are within his sight. Oh, it is insufferable!"
Suddenly he gripped her arm, his face within a hand's breadth of her own, his words falling hot and quickly on her ear.
"It is yours to end it when you will, Valerie," he passionately reminded her. "Give yourself into my keeping. Let it be mine to watch over you henceforth. Let me—"
Abruptly he ceased. She had drawn back her head, her face was white to the lips, and in her eyes, as they dwelt on his at such close quarters, there appeared a look of terror, of loathing unutterable. He saw it, and releasing her arm he fell back as if she had struck him. The colour left his face too.
"Or is it," he muttered thickly, "that I inspire you, with much the same feeling as does he?"
She stood before him with lowered eyelids, her bosom heaving still from the agitation of fear his closeness had aroused in her. He studied her in silence a moment, with narrowing eyes and tightening lips. Then anger stirred in him, and quenched the sorrow with which at first he had marked the signs of her repulsion. But anger in Marius de Condillac was a cold and deadly emotion that vented itself in no rantings, uttered no loud-voiced threats or denunciations, prompted no waving of arms or plucking forth of weapons.
He stooped towards her again from his stately, graceful height. The cruelty hidden in the beautiful lines of his mouth took instant prominence in the smile that flickered round it.
"I think that Battista makes a very excellent watchdog," he said, and you would have thought him amused, as if at the foolish subterfuge of some little child. "You may be right to dislike him. He knows no French, so that it may not be yours to pervert and bribe him with promises of what you will do if he assists you to escape; but you will see that this very quality which renders him detestable to you renders him invaluable to us."
He laughed softly, as one well pleased with his own astuteness, doffed his hat with a politeness almost exaggerated, and whistling his dog he abruptly left her.
Thus were Marius and his mother—to whom he bore the tale of Valerie's request—tricked further into reposing the very fullest trust in the watchful, incorruptible "Battista." Realizing that this would be so, Garnache now applied himself more unreservedly to putting into effect the plans he had been maturing. And he went about it with a zest that knew no flagging, with a relish that nothing could impair. Not that it was other than usual for Garnache to fling himself whole-heartedly into the conduct of any enterprise he might have upon his hands; but he had come into this affair at Condillac against his will; stress of circumstances it was had driven him on, step by step, to take a personal hand in the actual deliverance of Valerie.
It was vanity and pride that had turned him back when already he was on the road to Paris; not without yet a further struggle would he accept defeat. To this end had he been driven, for the first time in his life, to the indignity of his foul disguise; and he, whose methods had ever been direct, had been forced to have recourse to the commonest of subterfuges. It was with anger in his heart that he had proceeded to play the part he had assumed. He felt it to be a thing unworthy of him, a thing that derogated from his self-respect. Had he but had the justification of some high political aim, he might have endured it with a better resignation; the momentous end to be served might have sanctioned the ignoble means adopted. But here was a task in itself almost as unworthy of him as the methods by which he now set about accomplishing it. He was to black his face and dye his beard and hair, stain his skin and garb himself in filthy rags, for no better end than that he might compass the enlargement of a girl from the captivity into which she had been forced by a designing lady of Dauphiny. Was that a task to set a soldier, a man of his years and birth and name? He had revolted at it; yet that stubborn pride of his that would not brook his return to Paris to confess himself defeated by a woman over this woman's business, held him relentlessly to his distasteful course.
And gradually the distaste of it had melted. It had begun to fall away five nights ago, when he had heard what passed between Madame de Condillac and Valerie. A great pity for this girl, a great indignation against those who would account no means too base to achieve their ends with her, a proper realization of the indignities she was suffering, caused him to shed some of his reluctance, some of his sense of injury to himself.
His innate chivalry, that fine spirit of his which had ever prompted him to defend the weak against the oppressor, stirred him now, and stirred him to such purpose that, in the end, from taking up the burden of his task reluctantly, he came to bear it zestfully and almost gladly. He was rejoiced to discover himself equipped with histrionic gifts of which he had had no suspicion hitherto, and it delighted him to set them into activity.
Now it happened that at Condillac there was a fellow countryman of "Battista's," a mercenary from Northern Italy, a rascal named Arsenio, whom Fortunio had enlisted when first he began to increase the garrison a month ago. Upon this fellow's honesty Garnache had formed designs. He had closely observed him, and in Arsenio's countenance he thought he detected a sufficiency of villainy to augur well for the prosperity of any scheme of treachery that might be suggested to him provided the reward were adequate.
Garnache went about sounding the man with a wiliness peculiarly his own. Arsenio being his only compatriot at Condillac it was not wonderful that in his few daily hours of relief from his gaoler's duty "Battista" should seek out the fellow and sit in talk with him. The pair became intimate, and intercourse between them grew more free and unrestrained. Garnache waited, wishing to risk nothing by precipitancy, and watched for his opportunity. It came on the morrow of All Saints. On that Day of the Dead, Arsenio, whose rearing had been that of a true son of Mother Church, was stirred by the memory of his earthly mother, who had died some three years before. He was silent and moody, and showed little responsiveness to Garnache's jesting humour. Garnache, wondering what might be toward in the fellow's mind, watched him closely.
Suddenly the little man—he was a short, bowlegged, sinewy fellow—heaved a great sigh as he plucked idly at a weed that grew between two stones of the inner courtyard, where they were seated on the chapel steps.
"You are a dull comrade to-day, compatriot," said Garnache, clapping him on the shoulder.
"It is the Day of the Dead," the fellow answered him, as though that were an ample explanation. Garnache laughed.
"To those that are dead it no doubt is; so was yesterday, so will to-morrow be. But to us who sit here it is the day of the living."
"You are a scoffer," the other reproached him, and his rascally face was oddly grave. "You don't understand."
"Enlighten me, then. Convert me."
"It is the day when our thoughts turn naturally to the dead, and mine are with my mother, who has lain in her grave these three years. I am thinking of what she reared me and of what I am."
Garnache made a grimace which the other did not observe. He stared at the little cut-throat, and there was some dismay in his glance. What ailed the rogue? Was he about to repent him of his sins, and to have done with villainy and treachery; was he minded to slit no more gullets in the future, be faithful to the hand that paid him, and lead a godlier life? Peste! That was a thing that would nowise suit Monsieur de Garnache's ends just then. If Arsenio had a mind to reform, let him postpone that reformation until Garnache should have done with him. So he opened his lips and let out a deep guffaw of mockery.
"We shall have you turning monk," said he, "a candidate for canonization going barefoot, with flagellated back and shaven head. No more wine, no more dice, no more wenches, no more—"
"Peace!" snapped the other.
"Say 'Pax,"' suggested Garnache, "'Pax tecum,' or 'vobiscum.' It is thus you will be saying it later."
"If my conscience pricks me, is it aught to you? Have you no conscience of your own?"
"None. Men wax lean on it in this vale of tears. It is a thing invented by the great to enable them to pursue the grinding and oppression of the small. If your master pays you ill for the dirty work you do for him and another comes along to offer you some rich reward for an omission in that same service, you are warned that if you let yourself be tempted, your conscience will plague you afterwards. Pish! A clumsy, childish device that, to keep you faithful."
Arsenio looked up. Words that defamed the great were ever welcome to him; arguments that showed him he was oppressed and imposed upon sounded ever gratefully in his ears. He nodded his approval of "Battista's" dictum.
"Body of Bacchus!" he swore, "you are right in that, compatriot. But my case is different. I am thinking of the curse that Mother Church has put upon this house. Yesterday was All Saints, and never a Mass heard I. To-day is All Souls, and never a prayer may I offer up in this place of sin for the rest of my mother's soul."
"How so?" quoth Garnache, looking in wonder at this religiously minded cut-throat.
"How so? Is not the House of Condillac under excommunication, and every man who stays in it of his own free will? Prayers and Sacraments are alike forbidden here."
Garnache received a sudden inspiration. He leapt to his feet, his face convulsed as if at the horror of learning of a hitherto undreamt-of state of things. He never paused to give a moment's consideration to the cut-throat's mind, so wonderfully constituted as to enable him to break with impunity every one of the commandments every day of the week for the matter of a louis d'or or two, and yet be afflicted by qualms of conscience at living under a roof upon which the Church had hurled her malediction.
"What are you saying, compatriot? What is it that you tell me?"
"The truth," said Arsenio, with a shrug. "Any man who wilfully abides in the services of Condillac"—and instinctively he lowered his voice lest the Captain or the Marquise should be within earshot—, "is excommunicate."
"By the Host!" swore the false Piedmontese. "I am a Christian man myself, Arsenio, and I have lived in ignorance of this thing?"
"That ignorance may be your excuse. But now that you know—" Arsenio shrugged his shoulders.
"Now that I know, I, had best have a care of my soul and look about me for other employment."
"Alas!" sighed Arsenio; "it is none so easy to find."
Garnache looked at him. Garnache began to have in his luck a still greater faith than hitherto. He glanced stealthily around; then he sat down again, so that his mouth was close to Arsenio's ear.
"The pay is beggarly here, yet I have refused a fortune offered me by another that I might remain loyal to my masters at Condillac. But this thing that you tell me alters everything. By the Host! yes."
"A fortune?" sneered Arsenio.
"Aye, a fortune—at least, fifty pistoles. That is a fortune to some of us."
Arsenio whistled. "Tell me more," said he.
Garnache rose with the air of one about to depart.
"I must think of it," said he, and he made shift to go. But the other's hand fell with a clenching grip upon his arm.
"Of what must you think, fool?" said he. "Tell me this service you have been offered. I have a conscience that upbraids me. If you refuse these fifty pistoles, why should not I profit by your folly?"
"There would not be the need. Two men are required for the thing I speak of, and there are fifty pistoles for each. If I decide to undertake the task, I'll speak of you as a likely second."
He nodded gloomily to his companion, and shaking off his hold he set out to cross the yard. But Arsenio was after him and had fastened again upon his arm, detaining him.
"You fool!" said he; "you'd not refuse this fortune?"
"It would mean treachery," whispered Garnache.
"That is bad," the other agreed, and his face fell. But remembering what Garnache had said, he was quick to brighten again. "Is it to these folk here at Condillac?" he asked. Garnache nodded. "And they would pay—these people that seek our service would pay you fifty pistoles?"
"They seek my service only, as yet. They might seek yours were I to speak for you."
"And you will, compatriot. You will, will you not? We are comrades, we are friends, and we are fellow-countrymen in a strange land. There is nothing I would not do for you, Battista. Look, I would die for you if there should come the need! Body of Bacchus! I would. I am like that when I love a man."
Garnache patted his shoulder. "You are a good fellow, Arsenio."
"And you will speak for me?"
"But you do not know the nature of the service," said Garnache. "You may refuse it when it is definitely offered you."
"Refuse fifty pistoles? I should deserve to be the pauper that I am if such had been my habits. Be the service what it may, my conscience pricks me for serving Condillac. Tell me how the fifty pistoles are to be earned, and you may count upon me to put my hand to anything."
Garnache was satisfied. But he told Arsenio no more that day, beyond assuring him he would speak for him and let him know upon the morrow. Nor on the morrow, when they returned to the subject at Arsenio's eager demand, did Garnache tell him all, or even that the service was mademoiselle's. Instead he pretended that it was some one in Grenoble who needed two such men as they.
"Word has been brought me," he said mysteriously. "You must not ask me how."
"But how the devil are we to reach Grenoble? The Captain will never let us go," said Arsenio, in an ill-humour.
"On the night that you are of the watch, Arsenio, we will depart together without asking the Captain's leave. You shall open the postern when I come to join you here in the courtyard."
"But what of the man at the door yonder?" And he jerked his thumb towards the tower where mademoiselle was a captive, and where at night "Battista" was locked in with her. At the door leading to the courtyard a sentry was always posted for greater security. That door and that sentry were obstacles which Garnache saw the futility of attempting to overcome without aid. That was why he had been forced to enlist Arsenio's assistance.
"You must account for him, Arsenio," said he.
"Thus?" inquired Arsenio coolly, and he passed the edge of his hand significantly across his throat. Garnache shook his head.
"No," said he; "there will be no need for that. A blow over the head will suffice. Besides, it may be quieter. You will find the key of the tower in his belt. When you have felled him, get it and unlock the door; then whistle for me. The rest will be easy."
"You are sure he has the key?"
"I have it from madame herself. They were forced to leave it with him to provide for emergencies. Mademoiselle's attempted escape by the window showed them the necessity for it." He did not add that it was the implicit confidence they reposed in "Battista" himself that had overcome their reluctance to leave the key with the sentry.
To seal the bargain, and in earnest of all the gold to come, Garnache gave Arsenio a couple of gold louis as a loan to be repaid him when their nameless employer should pay him his fifty pistoles in Grenoble.
The sight and touch of the gold convinced Arsenio that the thing was no dream. He told Garnache that he believed he would be on guard-duty on the night of the following Wednesday—this was Friday—and so for Wednesday next they left the execution of their plans unless, meantime, a change should be effected in the disposition of the sentries.
CHAPTER XIII. THE COURIER
Monsieur de Garnache was pleased with the issue of his little affair with Arsenio.
"Mademoiselle," he told Valerie that evening, "I was right to have faith in my luck, right to believe that the tide of it is flowing. All we need now is a little patience; everything has become easy."
It was the hour of supper. Valerie was at table in her anteroom, and "Battista" was in attendance. It was an added duty they had imposed upon him, for, since her attempt to escape, mademoiselle's imprisonment had been rendered more rigorous than ever. No servant of the chateau was allowed past the door of the outer anteroom, now commonly spoken of as the guardroom of the tower. Valerie dined daily in the salon with Madame de Condillac and Marius, but her other meals were served her in her own apartments. The servants who brought the meals from the kitchen delivered them to "Battista" in the guardroom, and he it was who laid the cloth and waited upon mademoiselle. At first this added duty had irritated him more than all that he had so far endured. Had he Martin Marie Rigobert de Garnache lived to discharge the duties of a lackey, to bear dishes to a lady's table and to remain at hand to serve her? The very thought had all but set him in a rage. But presently he grew reconciled to it. It afforded him particular opportunities of being in mademoiselle's presence and of conferring with her; and for the sake of such an advantage he might well belittle the unsavoury part of the affair.
A half-dozen candles burned in two gleaming silver sconces on the table; in her tall-backed leather chair mademoiselle sat, and ate and drank but little, while Garnache told her of the preparations he had made.
"If my luck but holds until Wednesday next," he concluded, "you may count upon being well out of Condillac. Arsenio does not dream that you come with us, so that even should he change his mind, at least we have no cause to fear a betrayal. But he will not change his mind. The prospect of fifty pistoles has rendered it immutable."
She looked up at him with eyes brightened by hope and by the encouragement to count upon success which she gathered from his optimism.
"You have contrived it marvellously well," she praised him. "If we succeed—"
"Say when we succeed, mademoiselle," he laughingly corrected her.
"Very well, then—when we shall have succeeded in leaving Condillac, whither am I to go?"
"Why, with me, to Paris, as was determined. My man awaits me at Voiron with money and horses. No further obstacle shall rise to hamper us once our backs are turned upon the ugly walls of Condillac. The Queen shall make you welcome and keep you safe until Monsieur Florimond comes to claim his bride."
She sipped her wine, then set down the glass and leaned her elbow on the table, taking her chin in her fine white hand. "Madame tells me that he is dead," said she, and Garnache was shocked at the comparative calmness with which she said it. He looked at her sharply from under his sooted brows. Was she, after all, he wondered, no different from other women? Was she cold and calculating, and had she as little heart as he had come to believe was usual with her sex, that she could contemplate so calmly the possibility of her lover being dead? He had thought her better, more natural, more large-hearted and more pure. That had encouraged him to stand by her in these straits of hers, no matter at what loss of dignity to himself. It began to seem that his conclusions had been wrong.
His silence caused her to look up, and in his face she read something of what was passing in his thoughts. She smiled rather wanly.
"You are thinking me heartless, Monsieur de Garnache?"
"I am thinking you—womanly."
"The same thing, then, to your mind. Tell me, monsieur, do you know much of women?"
"God forbid! I have found trouble enough in my life."
"And you pass judgment thus upon a sex with which you have no acquaintance?"
"Not by acquaintance only is it that we come to knowledge. There are ways of learning other than by the road of experience. One may learn of dangers by watching others perish. It is the fool who will be satisfied alone with the knowledge that comes to him from what he undergoes himself."
"You are very wise, monsieur," said she demurely, so demurely that he suspected her of laughing at him. "You were never wed?"
"Never, mademoiselle," he answered stiffly, "nor ever in any danger of it."
"Must you, indeed, account it a danger?"
"A deadly peril, mademoiselle," said he; whereupon they both laughed.
She pushed back her chair and rose slowly. Slowly she passed from the table and stepped towards the window. Turning she set her back to it, and faced him.
"Monsieur de Garnache," said she, "you are a good man, a true and noble gentleman. I would that you thought a little better of us. All women are not contemptible, believe me. I will pray that you may yet mate with one who will prove to you the truth of what I say."
He smiled gently, and shook his head.
"My child," said he, "I am not half the noble fellow you account me. I have a stubborn pride that stands me at times in the stead of virtue. It was pride brought me back here, for instance. I could not brook the laughter that would greet me in Paris did I confess that I was beaten by the Dowager of Condillac. I tell you this to the end that, thinking less well of me, you may spare me prayers which I should dread to see fulfilled. I have told you before, mademoiselle, Heaven is likely to answer the prayers of such a heart as yours."
"Yet but a moment back you deemed me heartless," she reminded him.
"You seemed so indifferent to the fate of Florimond de Condillac."
"I must have seemed, then, what I am not," she told him, "for I am far from indifferent to Florimond's fate. The truth is, monsieur, I do not believe Madame de Condillac. Knowing me to be under a promise that naught can prevail upon me to break, she would have me believe that nature has dissolved the obligation for me. She thinks that were I persuaded of Florimond's death, I might turn an ear to the wooing of Marius. But she is mistaken, utterly mistaken; and so I sought to convince her. My father willed that I should wed Florimond. Florimond's father had been his dearest friend. I promised him that I would do his will, and by that promise I am bound. But were Florimond indeed dead, and were I free to choose, I should not choose Marius were he the only man in all the world."
Garnache moved nearer to her.
"You speak," said he, "as if you were indifferent in the matter of wedding Florimond, whilst I understand that your letter to the Queen professed you eager for the alliance. I may be impertinent, but, frankly, your attitude puzzles me."
"I am not indifferent," she answered him, but calmly, without enthusiasm. "Florimond and I were playmates, and as a little child I loved him and admired him as I might have loved and admired a brother perhaps. He is comely, honourable, and true. I believe he would be the kindest husband ever woman had, and so I am content to give my life into his keeping. What more can be needed?"
"Never ask me, mademoiselle; I am by no means an authority," said he. "But you appear to have been well schooled in a most excellent philosophy." And he laughed outright. She reddened under his amusement.
"It was thus my father taught me," said she, in quieter tones; "and he was the wisest man I ever knew, just as he was the noblest and the bravest."
Garnache bowed his head. "God rest his soul!" said he with respectful fervour.
"Amen," the girl replied, and they fell silent.
Presently she returned to the subject of her betrothed.
"If Florimond is living, this prolonged absence, this lack of news is very strange. It is three months since last we heard of him—four months, indeed. Yet he must have been apprised of his father's death, and that should have occasioned his return."
"Was he indeed apprised of it?" inquired Garnache. "Did you, yourself, communicate the news to him?"
"I?" she cried. "But no, monsieur. We do not correspond."
"That is a pity," said Garnache, "for I believe that the knowledge of the Marquis's death was kept from him by his stepmother."
"Mon Dieu!" she exclaimed, in horror. "Do you mean that he may still be in ignorance of it?"
"Not that. A month ago a courier was dispatched to him by the Queen-Mother. The last news of him some four months old, as you have said—reported him at Milan in the service of Spain. Thither was the courier sent to find him and to deliver him letters setting forth what was toward at Condillac."
"A month ago?" she said. "And still we have no word. I am full of fears for him, monsieur."
"And I," said Garnache, "am full of hope that we shall have news of him at any moment."
That he was well justified of his hope was to be proven before they were many days older. Meanwhile Garnache continued to play his part of gaoler to the entire satisfaction and increased confidence of the Condillacs, what time he waited patiently for the appointed night when it should be his friend Arsenio's turn to take the guard.
On that fateful Wednesday "Battista" sought out—as had now become his invariable custom—his compatriot as soon as the time of his noontide rest was come, the hour at which they dined at Condillac. He found Arsenio sunning himself in the outer courtyard, for it seemed that year that as the winter approached the warmth increased. Never could man remember such a Saint Martin's Summer as was this.
In so far as the matter of their impending flight was concerned, "Battista" was as brief as he could be.
"Is all well?" he asked. "Shall you be on guard to-night?"
"Yes. It is my watch from sunset till dawn. At what hour shall we be stirring?"
Garnache pondered a moment, stroking that firm chin of his, on which the erstwhile stubble had now grown into a straggling, unkempt beard—and it plagued him not a little, for a close observer might have discovered that it was of a lighter colour at the roots. His hair, too, was beginning to lose its glossy blackness. It was turning dull, and presently, no doubt, it would begin to pale, so that it was high time he spread his wings and took flight from Condillac.
"We had best wait until midnight. It will give them time to be soundly in their slumbers. Though, should there be signs of any one stirring even then, you had better wait till later. It were foolish to risk having our going prevented for the sake of leaving a half-hour earlier."
"Depend upon me," Arsenio answered him. "When I open the door of your tower I shall whistle to you. The key of the postern hangs on the guardroom wall. I shall possess myself of that before I come."
"Good," said Garnache, "we understand each other."
And on that they might have parted there and then, but that there happened in that moment a commotion at the gate. Men hurried from the guardhouse, and Fortunio's voice sounded loud in command. A horseman had galloped up to Condillac, walked his horse across the bridge—which was raised only at night—and was knocking with the butt of his whip an imperative summons upon the timbers of the gate.
By Fortunio's orders it was opened, and a man covered with dust, astride a weary, foam-flecked horse, rode under the archway of the keep into the first courtyard of the chateau.
Garnache eyed him in surprise and inquiry, and he read in the man's appearance that he was a courier. The horseman had halted within a few paces of the spot where "Battista" and his companion stood, and seeing in the vilely clad Garnache a member of the Condillac household, he flung him his reins, then got down stiffly from his horse.
Fortunio, bristling with importance, his left hand on the hilt of his rapier, the fingers of his right twirling at his long fair mustachios, at once confronted him and craved his business.
"I am the bearer of letters for Madame the Dowager Marquise de Condillac," was the reply; whereupon, with an arrogant nod, Fortunio bade the fellow go with him, and issued an order that his horse should be cared for.
Arsenio was speaking in Garnache's ear. The man's nature was inquisitive, and he was indulging idle conjectures as to what might be the news this courier brought. Garnache's mind, actuated by very different motives, was engaged upon the same task, so much so that not a word heard he of what his supposed compatriot was whispering. Whence came this courier? Why had not that fool Fortunio asked him, so that Garnache might have overheard his answer? Was he from Paris and the Queen, or was he, perchance, from Italy and Florimond? These were questions to which it imported him to have the answers. He must know what letters the fellow brought. The knowledge might guide him now; might even cause him to alter the plans he had formed.
He stood in thought whilst, unheeded by him, Arsenio prattled at his elbow. He bethought him of the old minstrel's gallery at the end of the hall in which the Condillacs were dining and whither the courier would be conducted. He knew the way to that gallery, for he had made a very close study of the chateau against the time when he might find himself in need of the knowledge.
With a hurried excuse to Arsenio he moved away, and, looking round to see that he was unobserved, he was on the point of making his way to the gallery when suddenly he checked himself. What went he there to do? To play the spy? To become fellow to the lackey who listens at keyholes? Ah, no! That was something no service could demand of him. He might owe a duty to the Queen, but there was also a duty that he owed himself, and this duty forbade him from going to such extremes. Thus spake his Pride, and he mistook its voice for that of Honour. Betide what might, it was not for Garnache to play the eavesdropper. Not that, Pardieu!
And so he turned away, his desires in conflict with that pride of his, and gloomily he paced the courtyard, Arsenio marvelling what might have come to him. And well was it for him that pride should have detained him; well would it seem as if his luck were indeed in the ascendant and had prompted his pride to save him from a deadly peril. For suddenly some one called "Battista!"
He heard, but for the moment, absorbed as he was in his own musings, he overlooked the fact that it was the name to which he answered at Condillac.
Not until it was repeated more loudly, and imperatively, did he turn to see Fortunio beckoning him. With a sudden dread anxiety, he stepped to the captain's side. Was he discovered? But Fortunio's words set his doubts to rest at once.
"You are to re-conduct Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye to her apartments at once."
Garnache bowed and followed the captain up the steps and into the chateau that he might carry out the order; and as he went he shrewdly guessed that it was the arrival of that courier had occasioned the sudden removal of mademoiselle.
When they were alone together—he and she—in her anteroom in the Northern Tower, she turned to him before he had time to question her as he was intending.
"A courier has arrived," said she.
"I know; I saw him in the courtyard. Whence is he? Did you learn it?"
"From Florimond." She was white with agitation.
"From the Marquis de Condillac?" he cried, and he knew not whether to hope or fear. "From Italy?"
"No, monsieur. I do not think from Italy. From what was said I gathered that Florimond is already on his way to Condillac. Oh, it made a fine stir. It left them no more appetite for dinner, and they seem to have thought it could have left me none for mine, for they ordered my instant return to my apartments."
"Then you know nothing—save that the courier is from the Marquis?"
"Nothing; nor am I likely to," she answered, and her arms dropped limply to her sides, her eyes looked entreatingly up into his gloomy face.
But Garnache could do no more than rap out an oath. Then he stood still a moment, his eyes on the window, his chin in his hand, brooding. His pride and his desire to know more of that courier's message were fighting it out again in his mind, just as they fought it out in the courtyard below. Suddenly his glance fell on her, standing there, so sweet, so frail, and so disconsolate. For her sake he must do the thing, repulsive though it might be.
"I must know more," he exclaimed. "I must learn Florimond's whereabouts, if only that we may go to meet him when we leave Condillac to-night."
"You have arranged definitely for that?" she asked, her face lighting.
"All is in readiness," he assured her. Then, lowering his voice without apparent reason, and speaking quickly and intently, "I must go find out what I can," he said. "There may be a risk, but it is as nothing to the risk we run of blundering matters through ignorance of what may be afoot. Should any one come—which is unlikely, for all those interested will be in the hall until the courier is dealt with—and should they inquire into my absence, you are to know nothing of it since you have no Italian and I no French. All that you will know will be that you believe I went but a moment since to fetch water. You understand?"
"Then lock yourself in your chamber till I return."
He caught up a large earthenware vessel in which water was kept for his own and mademoiselle's use, emptied it through the guard-room window into the moat below, then left the room and made his way down the steps to the courtyard.
He peered out. Not a soul was in sight. This inner courtyard was little tenanted at that time of day, and the sentry at the door of the tower was only placed there at nightfall. Alongside this there stood another door, opening into a passage from which access might be gained to any part of the chateau. Thrusting behind that door the earthenware vessel that he carried, Garnache sped swiftly down the corridor on his eavesdropping errand. Still his mind was in conflict. At times he cursed his slowness, at times his haste and readiness to undertake so dirty a business, wishing all women at the devil since by the work of women was he put to such a shift as this.
CHAPTER XIV. FLORIMOND'S LETTER
In the great hall of Condillac, where the Marquise, her son, and Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye had been at dinner, a sudden confusion had been spread by the arrival of that courier so soon as it was known that he bore letters from Florimond, Marquis de Condillac.
Madame had risen hastily, fear and defiance blending in her face, and she had at once commanded mademoiselle's withdrawal. Valerie had wondered might there not be letters—or, leastways, messages—for herself from her betrothed. But her pride had suppressed the eager question that welled up to her lips. She would, too, have questioned the courier concerning Florimond's health; she would have asked him how the Marquis looked, and where the messenger had left him. But of all this that she craved to know, nothing could she bring herself to ask before the Marquise.
She rose in silence upon hearing the Dowager order Fortunio to summon Battista that he might re-conduct mademoiselle to her apartments, and she moved a few paces down the hall, towards the door, in proud, submissive readiness to depart. Yet she could not keep her eyes from the dust-stained courier, who, having flung his hat and whip upon the floor, was now opening his wallet, the Dowager standing before him to receive his papers.
Marius, affecting an insouciance he did not feel, remained at table, his page behind his chair, his hound stretched at his feet; and he now sipped his wine, now held it to the light that he might observe the beauty of its deep red colour.
At last Fortunio returned, and mademoiselle took her departure, head in the air and outwardly seeming nowise concerned in what was taking place. With her went Fortunio. And the Marquise, who now held the package she had received from the courier, bade the page depart also.
When the three were at last alone, she paused before opening the letter and turned again to the messenger. She made a brave figure in the flood of sunlight that poured through the gules and azures of the long blazoned windows, her tall, lissome figure clad in a close-fitting robe of black velvet, her abundant glossy black hair rolled back under its white coif, her black eyes and scarlet lips detaching from the ivory of her face, in which no trace of emotion showed, for all the anxiety that consumed her.
"Where left you the Marquis de Condillac?" she asked the fellow.
"At La Rochette, madame," the courier answered,' and his answer brought Marius to his feet with an oath.
"So near?" he cried out. But the Dowager's glance remained calm and untroubled.
"How does it happen that he did not hasten himself, to Condillac?" she asked.
"I do not know, madame. I did not see Monsieur le Marquis. It was his servant brought me that letter with orders to ride hither."
Marius approached his mother, his brow clouded.
"Let us see what he says," he suggested anxiously. But his mother did not heed him. She stood balancing the package in her hand.
"Can you tell us, then, nothing of Monsieur le Marquis?"
"Nothing more than I have told you, madame."
She bade Marius call Fortunio, and then dismissed the courier, bidding her captain see to his refreshment.
Then, alone at last with her son, she hastily tore the covering from the letter, unfolded it and read. And Marius, moved by anxiety, came to stand beside and just behind her, where he too might read. The letter ran:
"MY VERY DEAR MARQUISE,—I do not doubt but that it will pleasure you to hear that I am on my way home, and that but for a touch of fever that has detained us here at La Rochette, I should be at Condillac as soon as the messenger who is the bearer of these presents. A courier from Paris found me a fortnight since in Milan, with letters setting forth that my father had been dead six months, and that it was considered expedient at Court that I should return home forthwith to assume the administration of Condillac. I am lost in wonder that a communication of this nature should have been addressed to me from Paris instead of from you, as surely it must have been your duty to advise me of my father's decease at the time of that untoward event. I am cast down by grief at this evil news, and the summons from Court has brought me in all haste from Milan. The lack of news from Condillac has been for months a matter of surprise to me. My father's death may be some explanation of this, but scarcely explanation enough. However, madame, I count upon it that you will be able to dispel such doubts as I am fostering. I count too, upon being at Condillac by the end of week, but I beg that neither you nor my dear Marius will allow this circumstance to make any difference to yourselves, just as, although I am returning to assume the government of Condillac as the Court has suggested to me, I hope that yourself and my dear brother will continue to make it your home for as long as it shall pleasure you. So long shall it pleasure me.
"I am, my dear marquise, your very humble and very affectionate servant and stepson,
When she had read to the end, the Dowager turned back and read aloud the passage: "However, madame, I count upon it that you will be able to dispel such doubts as I am fostering." She looked at her son, who had shifted his position, so that he was now confronting her.
"He has his suspicions that all is not as it should be," sneered Marius.
"Yet his tone is amiable throughout. It cannot be that they said too much in that letter from Paris." A little trill of bitter laughter escaped her. "We are to continue to make this our home for as long as it shall pleasure us. So long shall it pleasure him!"
Then, with a sudden seriousness, she folded the letter and, putting her hands behind her, looked up into her son's face.
"Well?" she asked. "What are you going to do?"
"Strange that he makes no mention of Valerie" said Marius pensively.
"Pooh! A Condillac thinks lightly of his women. What are you going to do?"
His handsome countenance, so marvellously like her own, was overcast. He looked gloomily at his mother for a moment; then with a slight twitch of the shoulders he turned and moved past her slowly in the direction of the hearth. He leaned his elbow on the overmantel and rested his brow against his clenched right hand, and stood so awhile in moody thought. She watched him, a frown between her arrogant eyes.
"Aye, ponder it," said she. "He is at La Rochette, within a day's ride, and only detained there by a touch of fever. In any case he promises to be here by the end of the week. By Saturday, then, Condillac will have passed out of our power; it will be lost to you irretrievably. Will you lose La Vauvraye as well?"
He let his hand fall to his side, and turned, fully to face her.
"What can I do? What can we do?" he asked, a shade of petulance in his question.
She stepped close up to him and rested her hand lightly upon his shoulder.
"You have had three months in which to woo that girl, and you have tarried sadly over it, Marius. You have now at most three days in which to accomplish it. What will you do?"
"I have been maladroit perhaps," he said, with bitterness. "I have been over-patient with her. I have counted too much upon the chance of Florimond's being dead, as seemed from the utter lack of news of him. Yet what could I do? Carry her off by force and compel at the dagger's point some priest to marry us?"
She moved her hand from his shoulder and smiled, as if she derided him and his heat.
"You want for invention, Marius," said she. "And yet I beg that you will exert your mind, or Sunday next shall find us well-nigh homeless. I'll take no charity from the Marquis de Condillac, nor, I think, will you."
"If all fails," said he, "we have still your house in Touraine."
"My house?" she echoed, her voice shrill with scorn. "My hovel, you would say. Could you abide there—in such a sty?"
"Vertudieu! If all else failed, we might be glad of it."
"Glad of it? Not I, for one. Yet all else will fail unless you bestir yourself in the next three days. Condillac is as good as lost to you already, since Florimond is upon the threshold. La Vauvraye most certainly will be lost to you as well unless you make haste to snatch it in the little moment that is left you."
"Can I achieve the impossible, madame?" he cried, and his impatience waxed beneath this unreasonable insistence of his mother's.
"Who asks it of you?"
"Do not you, madame?"
"I? Pish! All that I urge is that you take Valerie across the border into Savoy where you can find a priest to marry you, and get it done this side of Saturday."
"And is not that the impossible? She will not go with me, as you well know, madame."
There was a moment's silence. The Dowager shot him a glance; then her eyes fell. Her bosom stirred as if some strange excitement moved her. Fear and shame were her emotions; for a way she knew by which mademoiselle might be induced to go with him—not only willingly, but eagerly, she thought—to the altar. But she was his mother, and even her harsh nature shuddered before the task of instructing him in this vile thing. Why had the fool not wit enough to see it for himself?
Observing her silence Marius smiled sardonically.
"You may well ponder it," said he. "It is an easy matter to tell me what I should do. Tell me, rather, how it should be done."
His blindness stirred her anger, and her anger whelmed her hesitation.
"Were I in your place, Marius, I should find a way," said she, in a voice utterly expressionless, her eyes averted ever from his own.
He scanned her curiously. Her agitation was plain to him, and it puzzled him, as did the downcast glance of eyes usually so bold and insolent in their gaze. Then he pondered her tone, so laden with expression by its very expressionlessness, and suddenly a flood of light broke upon his mind, revealing very clearly and hideously her meaning. He caught his breath with a sudden gasp and blenched a little. Then his lips tightened suddenly.
"In that case, madame," he said, after a pause, and speaking as if he were still without revelation of her meaning, "I can but regret that you are not in my place. For, as it is, I am thinking we shall have to make the best of the hovel in Touraine."
She bit her lip in the intensity of her chagrin and shame. She was no fool, nor did she imagine from his words that her meaning had been lost upon him. She knew that he had understood, and that he chose to pretend that he had not. She looked up suddenly, her dark eyes blazing, a splash of colour in either cheek.
"Fool!" she snapped at him; "you lily-livered fool! Are you indeed my son? Are you—by God!—that you talk so lightly of yielding?" She advanced a step in his direction. "Through your cowardice you may be content to spend your days in beggary; not so am I; nor shall I be, so long as I have an arm and a voice. You may go hence if your courage fails you outright; but I'll throw up the bridge and entrench myself within these walls. Florimond de Condillac sets no foot in here while I live; and if he should come within range of musket-shot, it will be the worse for him."
"I think you are mad, madame—mad so to talk of resisting him, as you are mad to call me coward. I'll leave you till you are come to a more tranquil frame of mind." And turning upon his heel, his face on fire from the lash of her contempt, he strode down the hall and passed out, leaving her alone.
White again, with heaving bosom and clenched hands, she stood a moment where he had left her, then dropped into a chair, and taking her chin in her hand she rested her elbow on her knee. Thus she remained, the firelight tinting her perfect profile, on which little might be read of the storm that was raging in her soul. Another woman in her place would have sought relief in tears, but tears came rarely to the beautiful eyes of the Marquise de Condillac.
She sat there until the sun had passed from the windows behind her and the corners of the room were lost in the quickening shadows. At last she was disturbed by the entrance of a lackey, who announced that Monsieur le Comte de Tressan, Lord Seneschal of Dauphiny, was come to Condillac.
She bade the fellow call help to clear the board, where still was set their interrupted noontide meal, and then to admit the Seneschal. With her back to the stirring, bustling servants she stood, pensively regarding the flames, and a smile that was mocking rather than aught else spread upon her face.
If all else failed her, she told herself, there would be no Touraine hovel for her. She could always be Comtesse de Tressan. Let Marius work out alone the punishment of his cowardice.