Away in the Northern Tower, where mademoiselle was lodged, she sat in eager talk with Garnache, who had returned unobserved and successful from his journey of espionage.
He had told her what from the conversation of Marius and his mother he had learned touching the contents of that letter. Florimond lay as near as La Rochette, detained there by a touch of fever, but promising to be at Condillac by the end of the week. Since that was so, Valerie opined there was no longer the need to put themselves to the trouble of the escape they had planned. Let them wait until Florimond came.
But Garnache shook his head. He had heard more; and for all that he accounted her at present safe from Marius, yet he made no false estimate of that supple gentleman's character, was not deluded by his momentary show of niceness. As the time of Florimond's arrival grew nearer, he thought it very possible that Marius might be rendered desperate. There was grave danger in remaining. He said naught of this, yet he convinced mademoiselle that it were best to go.
"Though there will no longer be the need of a toilsome journey as far as Paris," he concluded. "A four hours' ride to La Rochette, and you may embrace your betrothed."
"Did he speak of me in his letter, know you, monsieur?" she inquired.
"I heard them say that he did not," Garnache replied. "But it may well be that he had good reason. He may suspect more than he has written."
"In that case," she asked—and there was a wounded note in her voice—"Why should a touch of fever keep him at La Rochette? Would a touch of fever keep you from the woman you loved, monsieur, if you knew, or even suspected, that she was in durance?"
"I do not know, mademoiselle. I am an old man who has never loved, and so it would be unfair of me to pass judgment upon lovers. That they think not as other folk is notorious; their minds are for the time disordered."
Nevertheless he looked at her where she sat by the window, so gentle, so lissome, so sweet, and so frail, and he had a shrewd notion that were he Florimond de Condillac, whether he feared her in durance or not, not the fever, nor the plague itself should keep him for the best part of a week at La Rochette within easy ride of her.
She smiled gently at his words, and turned the conversation to the matter that imported most.
"Tonight then, it is determined that we are to go?"
"At midnight or a little after. Be in readiness, mademoiselle, and do not keep me waiting when I rap upon your door. Haste may be of importance."
"You may count upon me, my friend," she answered him, and stirred by a sudden impulse she held out her hand. "You have been very good to me, Monsieur de Garnache. You have made life very different for me since your coming. I had it in my mind to blame you once for your rashness in returning alone. I was a little fool. You can never know the peace that has come to me from having you at hand. The fears, the terrors that possessed me before you came have all been dispelled in this last week that you have been my sentry in two senses."
He took the hand she held out to him, and looked down at her out of his grimy, disfigured face, an odd tenderness stirring him. He felt as might have felt a father towards his daughter—at least, so thought he then.
"Child," he answered her, "you overrate it. I have done no less than I could do, no more than any other would have done."
"Yet more than Florimond has done—and he my betrothed. A touch of fever was excuse enough to keep him at La Rochette, whilst the peril of death did not suffice to deter you from coming hither."
"You forget, mademoiselle, that, maybe, he does not know your circumstances."
"Maybe he does not," said she, with a half-sigh. Then she looked up into his face again. "I am sad at the thought of going, monsieur," she surprised him by saying.
"Sad?" he cried. Then he laughed. "But what can there be to sadden you?"
"This, monsieur: that after to-night it is odds I shall never see you more." She said it without hesitation and without coquetry, for her upbringing had been simple and natural in an atmosphere different far from that in which had been reared the courtly women he had known. "You will return to Paris and the great world, and I shall live out my life in this, little corner of Dauphiny. You will forget me in the bustle of your career, monsieur; but I shall always hold your memory very dear and very gratefully. You are the only friend I have ever known since my father died excepting Florimond, though it is so long since I have seen him, and he never came to me in times of stress as you have done."
"Mademoiselle," he answered, touched despite himself more touched than he could have believed possible to his callous, world-worn nature—"you make me very proud; you make me feel a little better than I am, for if I have earned your regard and friendship, there must be some good in old Garnache. Believe me, mademoiselle, I too shall not forget."
And thereafter they remained a spell in silence, she sitting by the window, gazing out into the bright October sky, he standing by her chair, thoughtfully considering her brown head so gracefully set upon her little shoulders. A feeling came to him that was odd and unusual; he sought to interpret it, and he supposed it to mean that he wished that at some time in the dim past he might have married some woman who would have borne him for daughter such a one as this.
CHAPTER XV. THE CONFERENCE
The matter that brought Monsieur de Tressan to Condillac—and brought him in most fearful haste—was the matter of the courier who had that day arrived at the chateau.
News of it had reached the ears of my Lord Seneschal. His mind had been a prey to uneasiness concerning this business of rebellion in which he had so rashly lent a hand, and he was anxious to know whence came this courier and what news he brought. But for all his haste he had paused—remembering it was the Marquise he went to visit—to don the gorgeous yellow suit with the hanging sleeves which he had had from Paris, and the crimson sash he had bought at Taillemant's, all in the very latest mode.
Thus arrayed, his wig well curled and a clump of it caught in ribbon of flame-coloured silk on the left side, his sword hanging from belt and carriages richly wrought with gold, and the general courtier-like effect rather marred by the heavy riding-boots which he would have liked to leave behind yet was constrained to wear, he presented himself before the Dowager, hiding his anxiety in a melting smile, and the latter in the profoundest of bows.
The graciousness of his reception overwhelmed him almost, for in his supreme vanity he lacked the wit to see that this cordiality might be dictated by no more than the need they had of him at Condillac. A lackey placed a great chair for him by the fire that he might warm himself after his evening ride, and the Dowager, having ordered lights, sat herself opposite him with the hearth between them.
He simpered awhile and toyed with trivialities of speech before he gave utterance to the matter that absorbed him. Then, at last, when they were alone, he loosed the question that was bubbling on his lips.
"I hear a courier came to Condillac to-day."
For answer she told him what he sought to learn, whence came that courier, and what the message that he brought.
"And so, Monsieur de Tressan," she ended, "my days at Condillac are numbered."
"Why so?" he asked, "since you say that Florimond has adopted towards you a friendly tone. Surely he would not drive his father's widow hence?"
She smiled at the fire in a dreamy, pensive manner.
"No," said she, "he would not drive me hence. He has offered me the shelter of Condillac for as long as it may pleasure me to make it my home."
"Excellent!" he exclaimed, rubbing his little fat hands and screwing the little features of his huge red face into the grotesque semblance of a smile. "What need to talk of going, then?"
"What need?" she echoed, in a voice dull and concentrated. "Do you ask that, Tressan? Do you think I should elect to live upon the charity of this man?"
For all that the Lord Seneschal may have been dull-witted, yet he had wit enough to penetrate to the very marrow of her meaning.
"You must hate Florimond very bitterly," said he. She shrugged her shoulders.
"I possess, I think, the faculty of feeling strongly. I can love well, monsieur, and I can hate well. It is one or the other with me. And as cordially as I love my own son Marius, as cordially do I detest this coxcomb Florimond."
She expressed no reasons for her hatred of her late husband's elder son. Hers were not reasons that could easily be put into words. They were little reasons, trivial grains of offence which through long years had accumulated into a mountain. They had their beginning in the foolish grievance that had its birth with her own son, when she had realized that but for that rosy-cheeked, well-grown boy borne to the Marquis by his first wife, Marius would have been heir to Condillac. Her love of her own child and her ambitions for him, her keen desire to see him fill an exalted position in the world, caused her a thousand times a day to wish his half-brother dead. Yet Florimond had flourished and grown, and as he grew he manifested a character which, with all its imperfections, was more lovable than the nature of her own offspring. And their common father had never seen aught but the faults of Marius and the virtues of Florimond. She had resented this, and Marius had resented it; and Marius, having inherited with his mother's beauty his mother's arrogant, dominant spirit, had returned with insolence such admonitions as from time to time his father gave him, and thus the breach had grown. Later, since he could not be heir to Condillac, the Marquise's eyes, greedy of advancement for him, had fallen covetously upon the richer La Vauvraye, whose lord had then no son, whose heiress was a little girl.
By an alliance easy to compass, since the lords of Condillac and La Vauvraye were lifelong friends, Marius's fortunes might handsomely have been mended. Yet when she herself bore the suggestion of it to the Marquis, he had seized upon it, approved it, but adopted it for Florimond's benefit instead.
Thereafter war had raged fiercely in the family of Condillac—a war between the Marquis and Florimond on the one side, and the Marquise and Marius on the other. And so bitterly was it waged that it was by the old Marquis's suggestion that at last Florimond had gone upon his travels to see the world and carry arms in foreign service.
Her hopes that he would take his death, as was a common thing when warring, rose high—so high as to become almost assurance, a thing to be reckoned with. Florimond would return no more, and her son should fill the place to which he was entitled by his beauty of person and the high mental gifts his doting mother saw in him.
Yet the months grew into years, and at long intervals full of hope for the Marquise news came of Florimond, and the news was ever that he was well and thriving, gathering honours and drinking deep of life.
And now, at last, when matters seemed to have been tumbled into her lap that she might dispose of them as she listed; now, when in her anxiety to see her son supplant his step-brother in the possession of La Vauvraye—if not, perhaps, in that of Condillac as well she had done a rashness which might end in making her and Marius outlaws, news came that this hated Florimond was at the door; tardily returned, yet returned in time to overthrow her schemes and to make her son the pauper that her husband's will had seemed to aim at rendering him.
Her mind skimmed lightly over all these matters, seeking somewhere some wrong that should stand out stark and glaring, upon which she might seize, and offer it to the Seneschal as an explanation of her hatred. But nowhere could she find the thing she sought. Her hatred had for foundation a material too impalpable to be fashioned into words. Tressan's voice aroused her from her thoughts.
"Have you laid no plans, madame?" he asked her. "It were surely a madness now to attempt to withstand the Marquis."
"The Marquis? Ah yes—Florimond." She sat forward out of the shadows in which her great chair enveloped her, and let candle and firelight play about the matchless beauty of her perfect face. There was a flush upon it, the flush of battle; and she was about to tell the Seneschal that not while one stone of Condillac should stand upon another, not while a gasp of breath remained in her frail body, would she surrender. But she checked her rashness. Well might it be that in the end she should abandon such a purpose. Tressan was ugly as a toad, the most absurd, ridiculous bridegroom that ever led woman to the altar. Yet rumour ran that he was rich, and as a last resource, for the sake of his possessions she might bring herself to endure his signal shortcomings.
"I have taken no resolve as yet," said she, in a wistful voice. "I founded hopes upon Marius which Marius threatens to frustrate. I think I had best resign myself to the poverty of my Touraine home."
And then the Seneschal realized that the time was now. The opportunity he might have sought in vain was almost thrust upon him. In the spirit he blessed Florimond for returning so opportunely; in the flesh he rose from the chair and, without more ado, he cast himself upon his knees before the Dowager. He cast himself down, and the Dowager experienced a faint stirring of surprise that she heard no flop such as must attend the violent falling of so fat a body. But the next instant, realizing the purpose of his absurd posture, she shrank back with a faint gasp, and her face was mercifully blurred to his sight once more amid the shadows of her chair. Thus was he spared the look of utter loathing, of unconquerable, irrepressible disgust that leapt into her countenance.
His voice quivered with ridiculous emotion, his little fat red fingers trembled as he outheld them in a theatrical gesture of supplication.
"Never contemplate poverty, madame, until you have discarded me," he implored her. "Say but that you will, and you shall be lady of Tressan. All that I have would prove but poor adornment to a beauty such as yours, and I should shrink from offering it you, were it not that, with it all, I can offer you the fondest heart in France. Marquise—Clotilde, I cast myself humbly at your feet. Do with me as you will. I love you."
By an effort she crushed down her loathing of him—a loathing that grew a hundredfold as she beheld him now transformed by his amorousness into the semblance almost of a satyr—and listened to his foolish rantings.
As Marquise de Condillac it hurt her pride to listen and not have him whipped for his audacity; as a woman it insulted her. Yet the Marquise and the woman she alike repressed. She would give him no answer—she could not, so near was she to fainting with disdain of him—yet must she give him hope against the time when, should all else fail, she might have to swallow the bitter draught he was now holding to her lips. So she temporized.
She controlled her voice into a tone of gentle sadness; she set a mask of sorrow upon her insolent face.
"Monsieur, monsieur," she sighed, and so far overcame her nausea as for an instant to touch his hand in a little gesture of caress, "you must not speak so to a widow of six months, nor must I listen."
The quivering grew in his hands and voice; but no longer did they shake through fear of a rebuff: they trembled now in the eager strength of the hope he gathered from her words. She was so beautiful, so peerless, so noble, so proud—and he so utterly unworthy—that naught but her plight had given him courage to utter his proposal. And she answered him in such terms!
"You give me hope, Marquise? If I come again—?"
She sighed, and her face, which was once more within the light, showed a look of sad inquiry.
"If I thought that what you have said, you have said out of pity, because you fear lest my necessities should hurt me, I could give you no hope at all. I have my pride, mon ami. But if what you have said you would still have said though I had continued mistress of Condillac, then, Tressan, you may repeat it to me hereafter, at a season when I may listen."
His joy welled up and overflowed in him as overflows a river in time of spate.
He bent forward, caught her hand, and bore it to his lips.
"Clotilde!" he cried, in a smothered voice; then the door opened, and Marius stepped into the long chamber.
At the creaking sound of the opening door the Seneschal bestirred himself to rise. Even the very young care not so to be surprised, how much less, then, a man well past the prime of life? He came up laboriously—the more laboriously by virtue of his very efforts to show himself still nimble in his mistress's eyes. Upon the intruder he turned a crimson, furious face, perspiration gleaming like varnish on brow and nose. At sight of Marius, who stood arrested, scowling villainously upon the pair, the fire died suddenly from his glance.
"Ah, my dear Marius," said he, with a flourish and an air of being mightily at his ease. But the young man's eyes went over and beyond him to rest in a look of scrutiny upon his mother. She had risen too, and he had been in time to see the startled manner of her rising. In her cheeks there was a guilty flush, but her eyes boldly met and threw back her son's regard.
Marius came slowly down the room, and no word was spoken. The Seneschal cleared his throat with noisy nervousness. Madame stood hand on hip, the flush fading slowly, her glance resuming its habitual lazy insolence. By the fire Marius paused and kicked the logs into a blaze, regardless of the delicate fabric of his rosetted shoes.
"Monsieur le Seneschal," said madame calmly, "came to see us in the matter of the courier."
"Ah!" said Marius, with an insolent lifting of his brows and a sidelong look at Tressan; and Tressan registered in his heart a vow that when he should have come to wed the mother, he would not forget to take payment for that glance from her pert son.
"Monsieur le Comte will remain and sup with us before riding back to Grenoble," she added.
"Ah!" said he again, in the same tone. And that for the moment was all he said. He remained by the fire, standing between them where he had planted himself in the flesh, as if to symbolize the attitude he intended in the spirit.
But one chance he had, before supper was laid, of a word alone with his mother, in her own closet.
"Madame," he said, his sternness mingling with alarm, "are you mad that you encourage the suit of this hedgehog Tressan?"
She looked him up and down with a deliberate eye, her lip curling a little.
"Surely, Marius, it is my own concern."
"Not so," he answered her, and his grasp fastened almost viciously on her wrist. "I think that it is mine as well. Mother, bethink you," and his tone changed to an imploring key, "bethink you what you would do! Would you—you—mate with such a thing as that?"
His emphasis of the pronoun was very eloquent. Not in all the words of the French language could he have told her better how high he placed her in his thoughts, how utterly she must fall, how unutterably be soiled by an alliance with Tressan.
"I had hoped you would have saved me from it, Marius," she answered him, her eyes seeming to gaze down into the depths of his. "At La Vauvraye I had hoped to live out my widowhood in tranquil dignity. But—" She let her arms fall sharply to her sides, and uttered a little sneering laugh.
"But, mother," he cried, "between the dignity of La Vauvraye and the indignity of Tressan, surely there is some middle course?"
"Aye," she answered scornfully, "starvation on a dunghill in Touraine—or something near akin to it, for which I have no stomach."
He released her wrist and stood with bent head, clenching and unclenching his long white hands, and she watched him, watching in him the working of his proud and stubborn spirit.
"Mother," he cried at last, and the word sounded absurd between them, by so little did he seem the younger of the twain, "mother, you shall not do it you must not!"
"You leave me little alternative—alas!" sighed she. "Had you been more adroit you had been wed by now, Marius, and the future would give us no concern. As it is, Florimond comes home, and we—" She spread her hands and thrust out her nether lip in a grimace that was almost ugly. Then: "Come," she said briskly. "Supper is laid, and my Lord Seneschal will be awaiting us."
And before he could reply she had swept past him and taken her way below. He followed gloomily, and in gloom sat he at table, never heeding the reckless gaiety of the Seneschal and the forced mirth of the Marquise. He well understood the sort of tacit bargain that his mother had made with him. She had seen her advantage in his loathing of the proposed union with Tressan, and she had used it to the full. Either he must compel Valerie to wed him this side of Saturday or resign himself to see his mother—his beautiful, peerless mother—married to this skin of lard that called itself a man.
Living, he had never entertained for his father a son's respect, nor, dead, did he now reverence his memory as becomes a son. But in that hour, as he sat at table, facing this gross wooer of his mother's, his eyes were raised to the portrait of the florid-visaged haughty Marquis de Condillac, where it looked down upon them from the panelled wall, and from his soul he offered up to that portrait of his dead sire an apology for the successor whom his widow destined him.
He ate little, but drank great draughts, as men will when their mood is sullen and dejected, and the heat of the wine, warming his veins and lifting from him some of the gloom that had settled over him, lent him anon a certain recklessness very different from the manner of his sober moments.
Chancing suddenly to raise his eyes from the cup into which he had been gazing, absorbed as gazes a seer into his crystal, he caught on the Seneschal's lips so odious a smile, in the man's eyes so greedy, hateful a leer as he bent them on the Marquise, that he had much ado not to alter the expression of that flabby face by hurling at it the cup he held.
He curbed himself; he smiled sardonically upon the pair; and in that moment he swore that be the cost what it might, he would frustrate the union of those two. His thoughts flew to Valerie, and the road they took was fouled with the mud of ugly deeds. A despair, grim at first, then mocking, took possession of him. He loved Valerie to distraction. Loved her for herself, apart from all worldly advantages that must accrue to him from an alliance with her. His mother saw in that projected marriage no more than the acquisition of the lands of La Vauvraye, and she may even have thought that he himself saw no more. In that she was wrong; but because of it she may have been justified of her impatience with him at the tardiness, the very clumsiness with which he urged his suit. How was she to know that it was just the sincerity of his passion made him clumsy? For like many another, normally glib, self-assured, and graceful, Marius grew halting, shy, and clumsy only where he loved.
But in the despair that took him now the quality of his passion seemed to change. Partly it was the wine, partly the sight of this other lover—of whom there must be an end—whose very glance seemed to him an insult to his mother. His imagination had taken fire that night, and it had ripened him for any villainy. The Seneschal and the wine, between them, had opened the floodgates of all that was evil in his nature, and that evil thundered out in a great torrent that bid fair to sweep all before it.
And suddenly, unexpectedly for the others, who were by now resigned to his moody silence, the evil found expression. The Marquise had spoken of something—something of slight importance—that must be done before Florimond returned. Abruptly Marius swung round in his seat to face his mother. "Must this Florimond return?" he asked, and for all that he uttered no more words, so ample in their expression were those four that he had uttered and the tone of them, that his meaning left little work to the imagination.
Madame turned to stare at him, surprise ineffable in her glance—not at the thing that he suggested, but at the abruptness with which the suggestion came. The cynical, sneering tone rang in her ears after the words were spoken, and she looked in his face for a confirmation of their full purport.
She observed the wine-flush on his cheek, the wine-glitter in his eye, and she remarked the slight smile on his lips and the cynical assumption of nonchalance with which he fingered the jewel in his ear as he returned her gaze. She beheld now in her son a man more purposeful than she had ever known before.
A tense silence had followed his words, and the Lord Seneschal gaped at him, some of the colour fading from his plethoric countenance, suspecting as he did the true drift of Marius's suggestion. At last it was madame who spoke—very softly, with a narrowing of the eyes.
"Call Fortunio," was all she said, but Marius understood full well the purpose for which she would have Fortunio called.
With a half-smile he rose, and going to the door he bade his page who was idling in the anteroom go summon the captain. Then he paced slowly back, not to the place he had lately occupied at table, but to the hearth, where he took his stand with his shoulders squared to the overmantel.
Fortunio came, fair-haired and fresh-complexioned as a babe, his supple, not ungraceful figure tawdrily clad in showy clothes of poor material the worse for hard usage and spilt wine. The Countess bade him sit, and with her own hands she poured a cup of Anjou for him.
In some wonder, and, for all his ordinary self-possession, with a little awkwardness, the captain did her bidding, and with an apologetic air he took the seat she offered him.
He drank this wine, and here was a spell of silence till Marius, grown impatient, brutally put the thing for which the Marquise sought delicate words.
"We have sent for you, Fortunio," said he, in a blustering tone, "to inquire of you what price you'd ask to cut the throat of my brother, the Marquis de Condillac."
The Seneschal sank back in his chair with a gasp. The captain, a frown between his frank-seeming, wide-set eyes, started round to look at the boy. The business was by no means too strong for the ruffler's stomach, but the words in which it was conveyed to him most emphatically were.
"Monsieur de Condillac," said he, with an odd assumption of dignity, "I think you have mistaken your man. I am a soldier, not a cut-throat."
"But yes," the Marquise soothed him, throwing herself instantly into the breach, and laying a long, slender hand upon the frayed green velvet of the captain's sleeve. "What my son means and what he says are vastly different things."
"It will sorely tax your wits, madame," laughed Marius brutally, "to make clear that difference."
And then the Seneschal nervously cleared his throat and muttering that it waxed late and he must be riding home, made shift to rise. Him, too, the Marquise at once subdued. She was not minded that he should go just yet. It might be useful to her hereafter to have had him present at this conference, into which she meant to draw him until she should have made him one with them, a party to their guilt. For the task she needed not over many words: just one or two and a melting glance or so, and the rebellion in his bosom was quelled at once.
But with the captain her wiles were not so readily successful. He had no hopes of winning her to wife—haply no desire, since he was not a man of very great ambitions. On the other hand, he had against him the very worst record in France, and for all that he might embark upon this business under the auspices of the Lord Seneschal himself, he knew not how far the Lord Seneschal might dare to go thereafter to save him from a hanging, should it come to that.
He said as much in words. In a business of this kind, he knew from experience, the more difficulties he advanced, the better a bargain he drove in the end; and if he was to be persuaded to risk his neck in this, he should want good payment. But even for good payment on this occasion he was none too sure as yet that he would let himself be persuaded.
"Monsieur Fortunio," the Marquise said, very softly, "heed not Monsieur Marius's words. Attend to me. The Marquis de Condillac, as no doubt you will have learned for yourself, is lying at La Rochette. Now it happens that he is noxious to us—let the reasons be what they may. We need a friend to put him out of our way. Will you be that friend?"
"You will observe," sneered Marius, "how wide a difference there is between what the Marquise suggests and my own frank question of what price you would take to cut my brother's throat."
"I observe no difference, which is what you would say," Fortunio answered truculently, his head well back, his brown eyes resentful of offence—for none can be so resentful of imputed villainy as your villain who is thorough-paced. "And," he concluded, "I return you the same answer, madame—that I am no cut-throat."
She repressed her anger at Marius's sneering interference, and made a little gesture of dismay with her eloquent white hands.
"But we do not ask you to cut a throat."
"I have heard amiss, then," said he, his insolence abating nothing.
"You have heard aright, but you have understood amiss. There are other ways of doing these things. If it were but the cutting of a throat, should we have sent for you? There are a dozen in the garrison would have sufficed for our purpose."
"What is it, then, you need?" quoth he.
"We want an affair contrived with all decency. The Marquis is at the Sanglier Noir at La Rochette. You can have no difficulty in finding him, and having found him, less difficulty still in giving or provoking insult."
"Excellent," murmured Marius from the background. "It is such an enterprise as should please a ready swordsman of your calibre, Fortunio."
"A duel?" quoth the fellow, and his insolence went out of him, thrust out by sheer dismay; his mouth fell open. A duel was another affair altogether. "But, Sangdieu! what if he should slay me? Have you thought of that?"
"Slay you?" cried the Marquise, her eyes resting on his face with an expression as of wonder at such a question. "You jest, Fortunio."
"And he with the fever," put in Marius, sneering.
"Ah!" muttered Fortunio. "He has the fever? The fever is something. But—but—accidents will happen."
"Florimond was ever an indifferent swordsman," murmured Marius dreamily, as if communing with himself.
The captain wheeled upon him once more.
"Why, then, Monsieur Marius," said he, "since that is so and you are skilled—as skilled as am I, or more—and he has a fever, where is the need to hire me to the task?"
"Where?" echoed Marius. "What affair may that be of yours? We ask you to name a price on which you will do this thing. Have done with counter-questions."
Marius was skilled with the foils, as Fortunio said, but he cared not for unbaited steel, and he was conscious of it, so that the captain's half-sneer had touched him on the raw. But he was foolish to take that tone in answer. There was a truculent, Southern pride in the ruffler which sprang immediately into life and which naught that they could say thereafter would stamp out.
"Must I say again that you mistake your man?" was his retort, and as he spoke he rose, as though to signify that the subject wearied him and that his remaining to pursue it must be idle. "I am not of those to whom you can say: 'I need such an one killed, name me the price at which you'll be his butcher."'
The Marquise wrung her hands in pretty mimicry of despair, and poured out soothing words, as one might pour oil upon stormy waters. The Seneschal sat in stolid silence, a half-scared spectator of this odd scene, what time the Marquise talked and talked until she had brought Fortunio back to some measure of subjection.
Such reasoning as she made use of she climaxed by an offer of no less a sum than a hundred pistoles. The captain licked his lips and pulled at his mustachios. For all his vaunted scorn of being a butcher at a price, now that he heard the price he seemed not half so scornful.
"Tell me again the thing that you need doing and the manner of it," said he, as one who was moved to reconsider. She told him, and when she had done he made a compromise.
"If I go upon this business, madame, I go not alone."
"Oh, as for that," said Marius, "it shall be as you will. Take what men you want with you."
"And hang with them afterwards, maybe," he sneered, his insolence returning. "The hundred pistoles would avail me little then. Look you, Monsieur de Condillac, and you, madame, if I go, I'll need to take with me a better hostage than the whole garrison of this place. I'll need for shield some one who will see to it that he is not hurt himself, just as I shall see to it that he is hurt before I am."
"What do you mean? Speak out, Fortunio," the Marquise bade him.
"I mean, madame, that I will go, not to do this thing, but to stand by and render help if help be needed. Let Monsieur de Condillac go, and I will go with him, and I will undertake to see to it that he returns unhurt and that we leave the other stark."
Both started, and the Seneschal leaned heavily upon the table. He was not, with all his faults, a man of blood, and this talk of butchery turned him sick and faint.
Vainly now did the Marquise seek to alter the captain's resolution; but in this she received a sudden check from Marius himself. He cut in upon her arguments to ask the captain:
"How can you promise so much? Do you mean that you and I must fall upon him? You forget that he will have men about him. A duel is one thing, a rough-and-tumble another, and we shall fare none so well in this, I'm thinking."
The captain closed one eye, and a leer of subtle cunning overspread his face.
"I've thought of that," said he. "Neither a duel nor a rough-and-tumble do I propose, but something between the two; something that shall seem a duel yet be a rough-and-tumble."
"What further explanation does it ask? We come upon Monsieur le Marquis where his men are not. We penetrate, let us say, into his chamber. I turn the key in the door. We are alone with him and you provoke him. He is angry, and must fight you there and then. I am your friend; I must fill the office of second for both sides. You engage, and I stand aside and let you fight it out. You say he is indifferently skilled with the sword, and, in addition, that he has a fever. Thus you should contrive to put your steel through him, and a duel it will have been. But if by luck or skill he should have you in danger, I shall be at hand to flick in my sword at the right moment and make an opening through which you may send yours home."
"Believe me it were better—" began the Dowager. But Marius, who of a sudden was much taken with the notion, again broke in.
"Are you to be depended upon to make no mistake, Fortunio?"
"Per Bacco!" swore the ruffler. "A mistake must cost me a hundred pistoles. I think you may depend upon me there. If I err at all, it will be on the side of eagerness to see you make short work of him. You have my answer now, monsieur. If we talk all night, you shall not move me further. But if my proposal suits you, I am your man."
"And I yours, Fortunio," answered Marius, and there was a ring almost of exultation in his voice.
The Dowager looked from one to the other, as if she were weighing the men and satisfying herself that Marius ran no risk. She put a question or two to her son, another to the captain; then, seeming satisfied with what had been agreed, she nodded her head and told them they had best be stirring with the dawn.
"You will have light enough by half-past six. Do not delay later in taking the road. And see that you are back here by nightfall; I shall be anxious till you are returned."
She poured wine again for the captain, and Marius coming up to the table filled himself a glass, which he tossed off. The Marquise was speaking to Tressan.
"Will you not drink to the success of the venture?" she asked him, in a coaxing tone, her eyes upon his own. "I think we are like to see the end of our troubles now, monsieur, and Marius shall be lord both of Condillac and La Vauvraye."
And the gross, foolish Seneschal, under the spell of her magnificent eyes, slowly raised his cup to his lips and drank to the success of that murderous business. Marius stood still, a frown between his eyes haled thither by the mention of La Vauvraye. He might be winning it, as his mother said, but he would have preferred to have won it differently. Then the frown was smoothed away; a sardonic smile replaced it; another cup of wine he poured himself. Then, without word to any there, he turned on his heel and went from the room, a trifle unsteady in his gait, yet with such lines of purposefulness in the way he bore himself that the three of them stared after him in dull surprise.
CHAPTER XVI. THE UNEXPECTED
In her apartments in the Northern Tower Valerie had supped, and—to spare Monsieur de Garnache the full indignity of that part of the offices he was charged with—she had herself removed the cloth and set the things in the guard-room, where they might lie till morning. When that was done—and despite her protests, Garnache had insisted upon lending a hand the Parisian reminded her that it was already after nine, and urged her to make such preparations as incumbed her for their journey.
"My preparations are soon made," she assured him with a smile. "I need but what I may carry in a cloak."
They fell to talking of their impending flight, and they laughed together at the discomfiture that would be the Dowager's and her son's when, in the morning, they came to discover the empty cage. From that they passed on to talk of Valerie herself, of her earlier life at La Vauvraye, and later the conversation shifted to Garnache, and she questioned him touching the warring he had seen in early youth, and afterwards asked him for particulars of Paris—that wonderful city which to her mind was the only earthly parallel of Paradise—and of the life at Court.
Thus in intimate talk did they while away the time of waiting, and in the hour that sped they came, perhaps, to know more of each other than they had done hitherto. Intimate, indeed, had they unconsciously become already. Their singular position, locked together in that tower—a position utterly impossible under any but the conditions that attended it—had conduced to that good-fellowship, whilst the girl's trust and dependence upon the man, the man's observance of that trust, and his determination to show her that it had not been misplaced, had done the rest.
But to-night they seemed to have drawn nearer in spirit to each other, and that, maybe, it was that prompted Valerie to sigh, and in her sweet, unthinking innocence to say again:
"I am truly sorry, Monsieur de Garnache, that our sojourn here is coming to an end."
He was no coxcomb, and he set no false value on the words. He laughed for answer, as he rejoined:
"Not so am I, mademoiselle. Nor shall I know peace of mind again until this ill-omened chateau is a good three leagues or so behind us. Sh! What was that?"
He came instantly to his feet, his face intent and serious. He had been sitting at his ease in an armchair, over the back of which he had tossed the baldric from which his sword depended. The clang of the heavy door below, striking the wall as it was pushed open, had reached his ears.
"Can it be time already?" asked mademoiselle; yet a panic took her, and she blenched a little.
He shook his head.
"Impossible," said he; "it is not more than ten o'clock. Unless that fool Arsenio has blundered—" He stopped. "Sh!" he whispered. "Some one is coming here."
And suddenly he realized the peril that might lie in being found thus in her company. It alarmed him more than did the visit itself, so unusual at this hour. He saw that he had not time to reach the guard-room; he would be caught in the act of coming forth, and that might be interpreted by the Dowager or her son—if it should happen to be one or the other of them—as a hurried act of flight such as guilt might prompt. Perhaps he exaggerated the risk; but their fortunes at Condillac had reached a point where they must not be jeopardized by any chance however slight.
"To your chamber, mademoiselle," he whispered fearfully, and he pointed to the door of the inner room. "Lock yourself in. Quick! Sh!" And he signed frantically to her to go silently.
Swift and quietly as a mouse she glided from the room and softly closed the door of her chamber and turned the key in a lock, which Garnache had had the foresight to keep well oiled. He breathed more freely when it was done.
A step sounded in the guard-room. He sank without a rustle into the chair from which he had risen, rested his head against the back of it, closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and dissembled sleep.
The steps came swiftly across the guard-room floor, soft, as of one lightly shod; and Garnache wondered was it the mother or the son, just as he wondered what this ill-come visitor might be seeking.
The door of the antechamber was pushed gently open it had stood ajar—and under the lintel appeared the slender figure of Marius, still in his brown velvet suit as Garnache last had seen him. He paused a moment to peer into the chamber. Then he stepped forward, frowning to behold "Battista" so cosily ensconced.
"Ola there!" he cried, and kicked the sentry's outstretched legs, the more speedily to wake him. "Is this the watch you keep?"
Garnache opened his eyes and stared a second dully at the disturber of his feigned slumbers. Then, as if being more fully awakened he recognized his master, he heaved himself suddenly to his feet and bowed.
"Is this the watch you keep?" quoth Marius again, and Garnache, scanning the youth's face with foolishly smiling eyes, noted the flush on his cheek, the odd glitter in his handsome eyes, and even caught a whiff of wine upon his breath. Alarm grew in Garnache's mind, but his face maintained its foolish vacancy, its inane smile. He bowed again and, with a wave of the hands towards the inner chamber,
"La damigella a la," said he.
For all that Marius had no Italian he understood the drift of the words, assisted as they were by the man's expressive gesture. He sneered cruelly.
"It would be an ugly thing for you, my ugly friend, if she were not," he answered. "Away with you. I shall call you when I need you." And he pointed to the door.
Garnache experienced some dismay, some fear even. He plied his wits, and he determined that he had best seem to apprehend from his gestures Marius's meaning; but apprehend it in part only, and go no further than the other side of that door.
He bowed, therefore, for the third time, and with another of his foolish grins he shuffled out of the chamber, pulling the door after him, so that Marius should not see how near at hand he stayed.
Marius, without further heeding him, stepped to mademoiselle's door and rapped on a panel with brisk knuckles.
"Who is there?" she inquired from within.
"It is I—Marius. Open, I have something I must say to you."
"Will it not keep till morning?"
"I shall be gone by then," he answered impatiently, "and much depends upon my seeing you ere I go. So open. Come!"
There followed a pause, and Garnache in the outer room set his teeth and prayed she might not anger Marius. He must be handled skillfully, lest their flight should be frustrated at the last moment. He prayed, too, that there might be no need for his intervention. That would indeed be the end of all—a shipwreck within sight of harbour. He promised himself that he would not lightly intervene. For the rest this news of Marius's intended departure filled him with a desire to know something of the journey on which he was bound:
Slowly mademoiselle's door opened. White and timid she appeared.
"What do you want, Marius?"
"Now and always and above all things the sight of you, Valerie," said he, and the flushed cheek, the glittering eye, and wine-laden breath were as plain to her as they had been to Garnache, and they filled her with a deeper terror. Nevertheless she came forth at his bidding.
"I see that you were not yet abed," said he. "It is as well. We must have a talk." He set a chair for her and begged her to be seated; then he perched himself on the table, his hands gripping the edges of it on either side of him, and he turned his eyes upon her.
"Valerie," he said slowly, "the Marquis de Condillac, my brother, is at La Rochette."
"He is coming home!" she cried, clasping her hands and feigning surprise in word and glance.
Marius shook his head and smiled grimly.
"No," said he. "He is not coming home. That is—not unless you wish it."
"Not unless I wish it? But naturally I wish it!"
"Then, Valerie, if you would have what you wish, so must I. If Florimond is ever to come to Condillac again, you must be my wife."
He leaned towards her now, supported by his elbow, so that his face was close to hers, a deeper flush upon it, a brighter glitter in his black eyes, his vinous breath enveloping and suffocating her. She shrank back, her hands locking themselves one in the other till the knuckles showed white.
"What—what is it you mean?" she faltered.
"No more than I have said; no less. If you love him well enough to sacrifice yourself," and his lips curled sardonically at the word, "then marry me and save him from his doom."
"What doom?" Her voice came mechanically, her lips seeming scarce to move.
He swung down from the table and stood before her.
"I will tell you," he said, in a voice very full of promise. "I love you, Valerie, above all else on earth or, I think, in heaven; and I'll not yield you to him. Say 'No' to me now, and at daybreak I start for La Rochette to win you from him at point of sword."
Despite her fears she could not repress a little smile of scorn.
"Is that all?" said she. "Why, if you are so rash, it is yourself, assuredly, will be slain."
He smiled tranquilly at that reflection upon his courage and his skill.
"So might it befall if I went alone," said he. She understood. Her eyes dilated with horror, with loathing of him. The angry words that sprang to her lips were not to be denied.
"You cur, you cowardly assassin!" she blazed at him. "I might have guessed that in some such cutthroat manner would your vaunt of winning me at the sword-point be accomplished."
She watched the colour fade from his cheeks, and the ugly, livid hue that spread in its room to his very lips. Yet it did not daunt her. She was on her feet, confronting him ere he had time to speak again. Her eyes flashed, and her arm pointed quivering to the door.
"Go!" she bade him, her voice harsh for once. "Out of my sight! Go! Do your worst, so that you leave me. I'll hold no traffic with you."
"Will you not?" said he, through setting teeth, and suddenly he caught the wrist of that outstretched arm. But she saw nothing of immediate danger. The only danger that she knew was the danger that threatened Florimond, and little did that matter since at midnight she was to leave Condillac to reach La Rochette in time to warn her betrothed. The knowledge gave her confidence and an added courage.
"You have offered me your bargain," she told him. "You have named your price and you have heard my refusal. Now go."
"Not yet awhile," said he, in a voice so odiously sweet that Garnache caught his breath.
He drew her towards him. Despite her wild struggles he held her fast against his breast. Do what she would, he rained his hot kisses on her face and hair, till at last, freeing a hand, she smote him with all her might across the face.
He let her go then. He fell back with an oath, a patch of fingermarks showing red on his white countenance.
"That blow has killed Florimond de Condillac," he told her viciously. "He dies at noon to-morrow. Ponder it, my pretty."
"I care not what you do so that you leave me," she answered defiantly, restraining by a brave effort the tears of angry distress that welled up from her stricken heart. And no less stricken, no less angry was Garnache where he listened. It was by an effort that he had restrained himself from bursting in upon them when Marius had seized her. The reflection that were he to do so all would irretrievably be ruined alone had stayed him.
Marius eyed the girl a moment, his face distorted by the rage that was in him.
"By God!" he swore, "if I cannot have your love, I'll give you cause enough to hate me."
"Already have you done that most thoroughly," said she. And Garnache cursed this pertness of hers which was serving to dare him on.
The next moment there broke from her a startled cry. Marius had seized her again and was crushing her frail body in his arms.
"I shall kiss your lips before I go, ma mie," said he, his voice thick now with a passion that was not all of anger. And then, while he still struggled to have his way with her, a pair of arms took him about the waist like hoops of steel.
In his surprise he let her free, and in that moment he was swung back and round and cast a good six paces down the room.
He came to a standstill by the table, at which he clutched to save himself from falling, and turned bewildered, furious eyes upon "Battista," by whom he now dimly realized that he had been assailed.
Garnache's senses had all left him in that moment when Valerie had cried out. He cast discretion to the winds; reason went out of him, and only blind anger remained to drive him into immediate action. And as suddenly as that flood of rage had leaped, as suddenly did it ebb now that he found himself face to face with the outraged Condillac and began to understand the magnitude of the folly he had committed.
Everything was lost now, utterly and irretrievably—lost as a dozen other fine emprises had been by his sudden and ungoverned frenzy. God! What a fool he was! What a cursed, drivelling fool! What, after all, was a kiss or two, compared with all the evil that might now result from his interference? Haply Marius would have taken them and departed, and at midnight they would have been free to go from Condillac.
The future would not have been lacking in opportunities to seek out and kill Marius for that insult.
Why could he not have left the matter to the future? But now, with Florimond to be murdered on the morrow at La Rochette, himself likely to be murdered within the hour at Condillac, Valerie was at their mercy utterly.
Wildly and vainly did he strive even then to cover up the foolish thing that he had done. He bowed apologetically to Marius; he waved his hands and filled the air with Italian phrases, frenziedly uttered, as if by the very vigour of them he sought to drive explanation into his master's brain. Marius watched and listened, but his rage nowise abated; it grew, instead, as if that farrago of a language he did not understand were but an added insult. An oath was all he uttered. Then he swung round and caught Garnache's sword from the chair beside him, where it still rested, and Garnache in that moment cursed the oversight. Whipping the long, keen blade from its sheath, Marius bore down upon the rash meddler.
"Par Dieu!" he swore between his teeth. "We'll see the colour of your dirty blood, you that lay hands upon a gentleman."
But before he could send home the weapon, before Garnache could move to defend himself, Valerie had slipped between them. Marius looked into her white, determined face, and was smitten with surprise. What was this hind to her that she should interfere at the risk of taking the sword herself?
Then a slow smile spread upon his face. He was smarting still under her disdain and resistance, as well as under a certain sense of the discomfiture this fellow had put upon him. He saw a way to hurt her, to abase her pride, and cut her to the very soul with shame.
"You are singularly concerned in this man's life," said he, an odious undercurrent of meaning in his voice.
"I would not have you murder him," she answered, "for doing no more than madame your mother bade him."
"I make no doubt he has proved a very excellent guard," he sneered.
Even now all might have been well. With that insult Marius might consider that he had taken payment for the discomfiture he had suffered. He might have bethought him that, perhaps, as she said, "Battista" had done no more than observe the orders he had received—a trifle excessively, maybe, yet faithfully nevertheless. Thinking thus, he might even have been content to go his ways and take his fill of vengeance by slaying Florimond upon the morrow. But Garnache's rash temper, rising anew, tore that last flimsy chance to shreds.
The insult that mademoiselle might overlook might even not have fully understood—set him afire with indignation for her sake. He forgot his role, forgot even that he had no French.
"Mademoiselle," he cried, and she gasped in her affright at this ruinous indiscretion, "I beg that you will stand aside." His voice was low and threatening, but his words were woefully distinct.
"Par la mort Dieu!" swore Marius, taken utterly aback. "What may your name be—you who hitherto have had no French?"
Almost thrusting mademoiselle aside, Garnache stood out to face him, the flush of hot anger showing through the dye on his cheeks.
"My name," said he, "is Martin Marie Rigobert de Garnache, and my business now to make an end of one at least of this obscene brood of Condillac."
And, without more ado, he caught up a chair and held it before him in readiness to receive the other's onslaught.
But Marius hung back an instant—at first in sheer surprise, later in fear. He had some knowledge of the fellow's methods. Even the sword he wielded gave him little confidence opposed to Garnache with a chair. He must have help. His eyes sought the door, measuring the distance. Ere he could reach it Garnache would cut him off. There was nothing for it but to attempt to drive the Parisian back. And so with a sudden rush he advanced to the attack. Garnache fell back and raised his chair, and in that instant mademoiselle once more intervened between them.
"Stand aside, mademoiselle," cried Garnache, who now, grown cool, as was his way when once he was engaged, saw clearly through the purpose formed by Marius. "Stand aside, or we shall have him giving the alarm."
He leapt clear of her to stop Marius's sudden rush for the door. On the very threshold the young man was forced to turn and defend himself, lest his brains be dashed out by that ponderous weapon Garnache was handling with a rare facility. But the mischief was done, in that he had reached the threshold. Backing, he defended himself and gained the anteroom. Garnache followed, but the clumsy chair was defensive rather than offensive, and Marius's sword meanwhile darted above it and below it, forcing him to keep a certain distance.
And now Marius raised his voice and shouted with all the power of his lungs:
"To me! To me! Fortunio! Abdon! To me, you dogs! I am beset."
From the courtyard below rose an echo of his words, repeated in a shout by the sentinel, who had overheard them, and they caught the swift fall of the fellow's feet as he ran for help. Furious, picturing to himself how the alarm would spread like a conflagration through the chateau, cursing his headstrong folly yet determined that Marius at least should not escape him, Garnache put forth his energies to hinder him from gaining the door that opened on to the stairs. From the doorway of the antechamber mademoiselle, with a white face and terrified eyes, watched the unequal combat and heard the shouts for help. Anon despair might whelm her at the thought of how they had lost their opportunity of escaping; but for the present she had no thought save for the life of that brave man who was defending himself with an unwieldy chair.
Garnache leapt suddenly aside to take his opponent in the flank and thus turn him from his backward progress towards the outer door. The manoeuvre succeeded, and gradually, always defending himself, Garnache circled farther round him until he was between Marius and the threshold.
And now there came a sound of running feet on the uneven stones of the courtyard. Light gleamed on the staircase, and breathless voices were wafted up to the two men. Garnache bethought him that his last hour was assuredly at hand. Well, if he must take his death, he might as well take it here upon Marius's sword as upon another's. So he would risk it for the sake of leaving upon Marius some token by which he might remember him. He swung his chair aloft, uncovering himself for a second. The young man's sword darted in like a shaft of light. Nimbly Garnache stepped aside to avoid it, and moved nearer his opponent. Down crashed the chair, and down went Marius, stunned and bleeding, under its terrific blow. The sword clattered from his hand and rolled, with a pendulum-like movement, to the feet of Garnache.
The Parisian flung aside his chair and stooped to seize that very welcome blade. He rose, grasping the hilt and gathering confidence from the touch of that excellently balanced weapon, and he swung round even as Fortunio and two of his braves appeared in the doorway.
CHAPTER XVII. HOW MONSIEUR DE GARNACHE LEFT CONDILLAC
Never was there a man with a better stomach for a fight than Martin de Garnache, nor did he stop to consider that here his appetite in that direction was likely to be indulged to a surfeit. The sight of those three men opposing him, swords drawn and Fortunio armed in addition with a dagger, drove from his mind every other thought, every other consideration but that of the impending battle.
He fell on guard to receive their onslaught, his eyes alert, his lips tight set, his knees like springs of steel, slightly flexed to support his well-poised body.
But they paused a moment in the extremity of their surprise, and Fortunio called to him in Italian to know the meaning of this attitude of his as well as that of Marius, who lay huddled where he had fallen.
Garnache, reckless now, disdaining further subterfuge nor seeking to have recourse to subtleties that could avail him nothing, retorted in French with the announcement of his true name. At that, perceiving that here was some deep treachery at work, they hesitated no longer.
Led by Fortunio they attacked him, and the din they made in the next few minutes with their heavy breathing, their frequent oaths, their stamping and springing this way and that, and, ringing above all, the clash and clatter of sword on sword, filled the chamber and could be heard in the courtyard below.
Minutes sped, yet they gained no advantage on this single man; not one, but a dozen swords did he appear to wield, so rapid were his passes, so ubiquitous his point. Had he but stood his ground there might have been a speedy end to him, but he retreated slowly towards the door of the antechamber. Valerie still stood there, watching with fearful eyes and bated breath that tremendous struggle which at any moment she expected to see terminate in the death of her only friend.
In her way she was helping Garnache, though she little realized it. The six tapers in the candle-branch she held aloft afforded the only light for that stormy scene, and that light was in the eyes of Garnache's assailants, showing him their faces yet leaving his own in shadow.
He fell back steadily towards that door. He could not see it; but there was not the need. He knew that it was in a direct line with the one that opened upon the stairs, and by the latter he steered his backward course. His aim was to gain the antechamber, although they guessed it not, thinking that he did but retreat through inability to stand his ground. His reasons were that here in this guardroom the best he could do would be to put his back to the wall, where he might pick off one or two before they made an end of him. The place was too bare to suit his urgent, fearful need. Within the inner room there was furniture to spare, with which he might contrive to hamper his opponents and give them such a lusty fight as would live in the memory of those who might survive it for as long as they should chance to live thereafter.
He had no thought of perishing himself, although, to any less concerned, his death, sooner or later, must seem inevitable—the only possible conclusion to this affray, taken as he was. His mind was concerned only with this fight; his business to kill, and not himself to be slain. He knew that presently others would come to support these three. Already, perhaps, they were on their way, and he husbanded his strength against their coming. He was proudly conscious of his own superior skill, for he had studied the art of fence in Italy—its home—during his earlier years, and there was no trick of sword-play with which he was not acquainted, no ruse of service in a rough-and-tumble in which he was unversed. He was proudly conscious, too, of his supple strength, his endurance, and his great length of reach, and upon all these he counted to help him make a decent fight.
Valerie, watching him, guessed his purpose to be the gaining of the inner chamber, the crossing of the threshold on which she was standing. She drew back a pace or two, almost mechanically, to give him room. The movement went near to costing him his life. The light no longer falling so pitilessly upon Fortunio's eyes, the captain saw more clearly than hitherto, and shot a swift, deadly stroke straight at the region of Garnache's heart. The Parisian leapt back when it was within an inch of his breast; one of the bravoes followed up, springing a pace in advance of his companions and lengthening his arm in a powerful lunge. Garnache caught the blade almost on his hilt, and by the slightest turn of the wrist made a simultaneous presentment of his point at the other's outstretched throat. It took the fellow just above the Adam's apple, and with a horrid, gurgling cry he sank, stretched as he still was in the attitude of that murderous lunge that had proved fatal only to himself.
Garnache had come on guard again upon the instant. Yet in the briefest of seconds during which his sword had been about its work of death, Fortunio's rapier came at him a second time. He beat the blade aside with his bare left hand and stopped with his point the rush of the other bravo. Then he leapt back again, and his leap brought him to the threshold of the anteroom. He retreated quickly a pace, and then another. He was a sword's length within the chamber, and now he stood, firm as a rock and engaged Fortunio's blade which had followed him through the doorway. But he was more at his ease. The doorway was narrow. Two men abreast could not beset him, since one must cumber the movements of the other. If they came at him one at a time, he felt that he could continue that fight till morning, should there still by then be any left to face him.
A wild exultation took him, an insane desire to laugh. Surely was sword-play the merriest game that was ever devised for man's entertainment. He straightened his arm, and his steel went out like a streak of lightning. But for the dagger on which he caught its edge, the blade had assuredly pierced the captain's heart. And now, fighting still, Garnache called to Valerie. He had need of her assistance to make his preparations ere others came.
"Set down your tapers, mademoiselle," he bade her, "on the mantel shelf at my back. Place the other candle branch there too."
Swiftly, yet with half-swimming senses, everything dim to her as to one in a nightmare, she ran to do his bidding; and now the light placed so at his back, gave him over his opponents the same slight advantage that he had enjoyed before. In brisk tones he issued his fresh orders.
"Can you move the table, mademoiselle?" he asked her. "Try to drag it here, to the wall on my left, as close to the door as you can bring it."
"I will try, monsieur," she panted through dry lips; and again she moved to do his bidding. Quickened by the need there was, her limbs, which awhile ago had seemed on the point of refusing their office, appeared to gather more than ordinary strength. She was unconsciously sobbing in her passionate anxiety to render him what help was possible. Frenziedly she caught at the heavy oaken table, and began to drag it across the room as Garnache had begged her. And now, Fortunio seeing what was toward, and guessing Garnache's intentions, sought by a rush to force his way into the Chamber. But Garnache was ready for him. There was a harsh grind of steel on steel, culminating in a resounding lest, and Fortunio was back in the guard-room, whither he had leapt to save his skin. A pause fell at that, and Garnache lowered his point to rest his arm until they should again come at him. From beyond the doorway the captain called upon him to yield. He took the summons as an insult, and flew into a momentary passion.
"Yield?" he roared. "Yield to you, you cut-throat scum? You shall have my sword if you will come for it, but you shall have it in your throat."
Angered in his turn, Fortunio inclined his head to his companion's ear, issuing an order. In obedience to it, it was the bravo now who advanced and engaged Garnache. Suddenly he dropped on to his knees, and over his head Garnache found his blade suddenly opposed by Fortunio's. It was a clever trick, and it all but did Garnache's business then. Yet together with the surprise of it there came to him the understanding of what was intended. Under his guard the kneeling man's sword was to be thrust up into his vitals. As a cry of alarm broke from mademoiselle, he leapt aside and towards the wall, where he was covered from Fortunio's weapon, and turning suddenly he passed his sword from side to side through the body of the kneeling mercenary.
The whole thing he had performed mechanically, more by instinct than by reason; and when it was done, and the tables were thus effectively turned upon his assailants, he scarcely realized how he had accomplished it.
The man's body cumbered now the doorway, and behind him Fortunio stood, never daring to advance lest a thrust of that sword which he could not see—Garnache still standing close against the wall—should serve him likewise.
Garnache leaned there, in that friendly shelter, to breathe, and he smiled grimly under cover of his mustache. So long as he had to deal with a single assailant he saw no need to move from so excellent a position. Close beside him, leaning heavily against the table she had dragged thus far, stood Valerie, her face livid as death, her heart sick within her at the horror inspired her by that thing lying on the threshold. She could not take her eyes from the crimson stain that spread slowly on the floor, coming from under that limply huddled mass of arms and legs.
"Do not look, mademoiselle," Garnache implored her softly. "Be brave, child; try to be brave."
She sought to brace her flagging courage, and by an effort she averted her eyes from that horrid heap and fixed them upon Garnache's calm, intrepid face. The sight of his quietly watchful eyes, his grimly smiling lips, seemed to infuse courage into her anew.
"I have the table, monsieur," she told him. "I can bring it no nearer to the wall."
He understood that this was not because her courage or her strength might be exhausted, but because he now occupied the spot where he had bidden her place it. He motioned her away, and when she had moved he darted suddenly and swiftly aside and caught the table, his sword still fast in his two first fingers, which he had locked over the quillons. He had pushed its massive weight halfway across the door before Fortunio grasped the situation. Instantly the captain sought to take advantage of it, thinking to catch Garnache unawares. But no sooner did he show his nose inside the doorpost than Garnache's sword flashed before his eyes, driving him back with a bloody furrow in his cheek.
"Have a care, Monsieur le Capitaine," Garnache mocked him. "Had you come an inch farther it might have been the death of you."
A clatter of steps sounded upon the stairs, and the Parisian bent once more to his task, and thrust the table across the open doorway. He had a moment's respite now, for Fortunio stung—though lightly was not likely to come again until he had others to support him. And while the others came, while the hum of their voices rose higher, and finally their steps clattered over the bare boards of the guard-room floor, Garnache had caught up and flung a chair under the table to protect him from an attack from below, while he had piled another on top to increase and further strengthen the barricade.
Valerie watched him agonizedly, leaning now against the wall, her hands pressed across her bosom, as if to keep down its tempestuous heaving. Yet her anguish was tempered by a great wonder and a great admiration of this man who could keep such calm eyes and such smiling lips in the face of the dreadful odds by which he was beset, in the face of the certain death that must ultimately reach him before he was many minutes older. And in her imagination she conjured up a picture of him lying there torn by their angry swords and drenched in blood, his life gone out of him, his brave spirit, quenched for ever—and all for her unworthy sake. Because she little, worthless thing that she was—would not marry as they listed, this fine, chivalrous soul was to be driven from its stalwart body.
An agony of grief took her now, and she fell once more to those awful sobs that awhile ago had shaken her. She had refused to marry Marius that Florimond's life should be spared, knowing that before Marius could reach him she herself would have warned her betrothed. Yet even had that circumstance not existed, she was sure that still she would have refused to do the will of Marius. But equally sure was she that she would not so refuse him were he now to offer as the price of her compliance the life of Garnache, which she accounted irrevocably doomed.
Suddenly his steady, soothing voice penetrated her anguished musings.
"Calm yourself, mademoiselle; all is far, from lost as yet."
She thought that he but spoke so to comfort her; she did not follow the working of his warlike mind, concentrated entirely upon the business of the moment, with little thought—or care, for that matter—for what might betide anon. Yet she made an effort to repress her sobs. She would be brave, if only to show herself worthy of the companionship and friendship of so brave a man.
Across his barricade he peered into the outer room to ascertain with what fresh opponents he might have to reckon, and he was surprised to see but four men standing by Fortunio, whilst behind them among the thicker shadows, he dimly made out a woman's figure and, beside her, another man who was short and squat.
He bethought him that the hour, and the circumstance that most of the mercenaries would be in their beds, accounted for the reinforcement not being greater.
The woman moved forward, and he saw as he had suspected, that it was the Dowager herself. The squat figure beside her, moving with her into the shaft of light that fell from the doorway Garnache defended, revealed to him the features of Monsieur de Tressan. If any doubt he had still entertained concerning the Seneschal's loyalty, that doubt was now dispelled.
And now the Dowager uttered a sudden cry of fear. She had caught sight of the fallen Marius, and she hurried to his side. Tressan sped after her and between them they raised the boy and helped him to a chair, where he now sat, passing a heavy hand across his no doubt aching brow. Clearly he was recovering, from which Garnache opined with regret that his blow had been too light. The Dowager turned to Fortunio, who had approached her, and her eyes seemed to take fire at something that he told her.
"Garnache?" the Parisian heard her say, and he saw Fortunio jerk his thumb in the direction of the barricade.
She appeared to forget her son; she stepped suddenly from his side, and peered through the doorway at the stalwart figure of Garnache, dimly to be seen through the pile of furniture that protected him to the height of his breast. No word said she to the Parisian. She stood regarding him a moment with lips compressed and a white, startled, angry face. Then:
"It was by Marius's contrivance that he was placed sentry over the girl," he heard her tell Fortunio, and he thought she sneered.
She looked at the two bodies on the floor, one almost at her feet, the other just inside the doorway, now almost hidden in the shadows of the table. Then she issued her commands to the men, and fiercely she bade them pull down that barricade and take the dog alive.
But before they could move to do her bidding, Garnache's voice rang imperatively through the chamber.
"A word with you ere they begin, Monsieur de Tressan," he shouted, and such was the note of command he assumed that the men stood arrested, looking to the Dowager for fresh orders. Tressan changed colour, for all that there was surely naught to fear, and he fingered his beard perplexedly, looking to the Marquise for direction. She flashed him a glance, lifted one shoulder disdainfully, and to the men:
"Fetch him out," said she, and she pointed to Garnache. But again Garnache stayed them.
"Monsieur de Tressan," he called impressively, "to your dying day—and that will be none so distant—shall you regret it if you do not hear me."
The Seneschal was stirred by those words and the half-threat, half-warning; they seemed to cover. He paused a moment, and this time his eyes avoided the Marquise's. At last, taking a step forward,
"Knave," said he, "I do not know you."
"You know me well enough. You have heard my name. I am Martin Marie Rigobert de Garnache, Her Majesty's emissary into Dauphiny to procure the enlargement of Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye from the Chateau de Condillac, where she is detained by force and for the serving of unscrupulous ends. Now you know me and my quality."
The Dowager stamped her foot.
"Fetch him out!" she commanded harshly.
"Hear me first, Monsieur le Seneschal, or it will be the worse for you." And the Seneschal, moved by that confident promise of evil, threw himself before the men-at-arms.
"A moment, I beseech you, Marquise," he cried, and the men, seeing his earnestness and knowing his quality, stood undecided, buffeted as they were between his will and the Marquise's. "What have you to say to me?" Tressan demanded, seeking to render arrogant his tone.
"This: That my servant knows where I am, and that should I fail within a very few days to come forth safe and sound from Condillac to rejoin him, he is to ride to Paris with certain letters I have given him. Those letters incriminate you to the full in this infamous matter here at Condillac. I have set forth in them how you refused me help, how you ignored the Queen's commands of which I was the bearer; and should it be proved, in addition, that through your treachery and insubordination my life has been lost, I promise you that nothing in all this world will save you from a hanging."
"Never listen, monsieur," cried the Dowager, seeing Tressan start back like a man in sudden fear. "It is no more than the ruse of a desperate man."
"Heed me or not, at your choice," Garnache retorted, addressing himself ever to Tressan. "You have had your warning. I little thought to see you here to-night. But seeing you confirms my worst suspicions, and if I am to die, I can die easy in my conscience at the thought that in sacrificing you to Her Majesty's wrath I have certainly not sacrificed an innocent man."
"Madame—" the Seneschal began, turning to the Dowager. But she broke in impatiently upon his intended words, upon the prayer that bubbled to his lips that she should pause a while ere she made an end of this Parisian.
"Monsieur," said she, "you may bargain with him when he is taken. We will have him alive. Go in," she bade her men, her voice so resolute now that none dared tarry longer. "Fetch the knave out—alive."
Garnache smiled at mademoiselle as the words were uttered.
"They want me alive," said he. "That is a hopeful state of things. Bear up, child; I may need your help ere we are through."
"You shall find me ready, monsieur," she assured him for all her tremors. He looked at the pale face, composed now by an effort of her will, and at the beautiful hazel eyes which strove to meet his with calm and to reflect his smile, and he marvelled at her courage as much as did she at his.
Then the assault began, and he could have laughed at the way in which a couple of those cut-throats—neither wishing to have the honour of meeting him singly—hindered each other by seeking to attack him at once.
At last the Dowager commanded one of them to go in. The fellow came, and he was driven back by the sword that darted at him from above the barricade.
There matters might have come to a deadlock, but that Fortunio came forward with one of his men to repeat the tactics which had cost him a life already. His fellow went down on his knees, and drove his sword under the table and through the frame of the chair, seeking to prick Garnache in the legs. Simultaneously the captain laid hold of an arm of the chair above and sought to engage Garnache across it. The ruse succeeded to the extent of compelling the Parisian to retreat. The table seemed likely to be his undoing instead of helping him. He dropped like lightning to one knee, seeking to force the fellow out from underneath. But the obstacles which should have hindered his assailants hindered Garnache even more at this juncture. In that instant Fortunio whipped the chair from the table-top, and flung it forward. One of its legs caught Garnache on the sword arm, deadening it for a second. The sword fell from his hand, and Valerie shrieked aloud, thinking the battle at an end. But the next moment he was on his feet, his rapier firmly gripped once more, for all that his arm still felt a trifle numbed. As seconds passed the numbness wore away, but before that had taken place the table had been thrust forward, and the man beneath it had made it impossible for Garnache to hinder this. Suddenly he called to Valerie.
"A cloak, mademoiselle! Get me a cloak!" he begged. And she, stemming her fears once more, ran to do his bidding.
She caught up a cloak that lay on a chair by the door of her bed-chamber, and brought it to him. He twisted it twice round his left arm, letting its folds hang loose, and advanced again to try conclusions with the gentleman underneath. He cast the garment so that it enmeshed the sword when next it was advanced. Stepping briskly aside, he was up to the table, and his busy blade drove back the man who assailed him across it. He threw his weight against it, and thrust it back till it was jammed hard once more against the doorposts, leaving the chair at his very feet. The man beneath had recovered his sword by this, and again he sought to use it. That was the end of him. Again Garnache enmeshed it, kicked away the chair, or, rather, thrust it aside with his foot, stooped suddenly, and driving his blade under the table felt it sink into the body of his tormentor.
There was a groan and a spluttering cough, and then before Garnache could recover he heard mademoiselle crying out to him to beware. The table was thrust suddenly forward almost on top of him; its edge caught his left shoulder, and sent him back a full yard, sprawling upon the ground.
To rise again, gasping for air—for the fall had shaken him—was the work of an instant. But in that instant Fortunio had thrust the table clear of the doorway, and his men were pouring into the room.
They came at Garnache in a body, with wild shouts and fierce mockery, and he hurriedly fell on guard and gave way before them until his shoulders were against the wainscot and he had at least the assurance that none could take him in the rear. Three blades engaged his own. Fortunio had come no farther than the doorway, where he stood his torn cheek drenched in blood, watching the scene the Marquise beside him, and Tressan standing just behind them, very pale and scared.
Yet Garnache's first thought even in that moment of dire peril was for Valerie. He would spare her the sight that must before many moments be spread to view within that shambles.
"To your chamber, mademoiselle," he cried to her. "You hinder me," he added by way of compelling her obedience. She did his bidding, but only in part. No farther went she than the doorway of her room, where she remained standing, watching the fray as earlier she had stood and watched it from the door of the antechamber.
Suddenly she was moved by inspiration. He had gained an advantage before, by retreating through a doorway into an inner room. Might he not do the same again, and be in better case if he were to retreat now to her own chamber? Impulsively she called to him.
"In here, Monsieur de Garnache. In here."
The Marquise looked across at her, and smiled in mockery. Garnache was too well occupied, she thought, to attempt any such rashness. If he but dared remove his shoulders from the wall there would be a speedier end to him than as things were.
Not so, however, thought Garnache. The cloak twisted about his left arm gave him some advantage, and he used it to the full. He flicked the slack of it in the face of one, and followed it up by stabbing the fellow in the stomach before he could recover guard, whilst with another wave of that cloak he enmeshed the sword that shot readily into the opening he had left.
Madame cursed, and Fortunio echoed her imprecations. The Seneschal gasped, his fears lost in amazement at so much valour and dexterity.
Garnache swung away from the wall now, and set his back to mademoiselle, determined to act upon her advice. But even in that moment he asked himself for the first time since the commencement of that carnage—to what purpose? His arms were growing heavy with fatigue, his mouth was parched, and great beads of perspiration stood upon his brow. Soon he would be spent, and they would not fail to take a very full advantage of it.
Hitherto his mind had been taken up with the battle only, and if he had thought of retreating, it was but to the end that he might gain a position of some vantage. Now, conscious of his growing fatigue, his thoughts turned them at last to the consideration of flight. Was there no way out of it? Must he kill every man in Condillac before he could hope to escape?
Whimsically, and almost mechanically, he set himself, in his mind, to count the men. There were twenty mercenaries all told, excluding Fortunio and himself. On Arsenio he might rely not to attack him, perhaps even to come to his assistance at the finish. That left nineteen. Four he had already either killed outright or effectively disabled; so that fifteen remained him. The task of dealing with those other fifteen was utterly beyond him. Presently, no doubt, the two now opposing him would be reinforced by others. So that if any possible way out existed, he had best set about finding it at once.
He wondered could he cut down these two, make an end of Fortunio, and, running for it, attempt to escape through the postern before the rest of the garrison had time to come up with him or guess his purpose. But the notion was too wild, its accomplishment too impossible.
He was fighting now with his back to mademoiselle and his face to the tall window, through the leaded panes of which he caught the distorted shape of a crescent moon. Suddenly the idea came to him. Through that window must lie his way. It was a good fifty feet above the moat, he knew, and if he essayed to leap it, it must be an even chance that he would be killed in leaping. But the chance of death was a certain one if he tarried where he was until others came to support his present opponents. And so he briskly determined upon the lesser risk.
He remembered that the window was nailed down, as it had remained since mademoiselle's pretended attempt at flight. But surely that should prove no formidable obstacle.
And now that his resolve was taken his tactics abruptly changed. Hitherto he had been sparing of his movements, husbanding his strength against the long battle that seemed promised him. Suddenly he assumed the offensive where hitherto he had but acted in self-defence, and a most deadly offensive was it. He plied his cloak, untwisting it from his arm and flinging it over the head and body of one of his assailants, so that he was enmeshed and blinded by it. Leaping to the fellow's flank, Garnache, with a terrific kick, knocked his legs from under him so that he fell heavily. Then, stooping suddenly, the Parisian ran his blade under the other brave's guard and through the fellow's thigh. The man cried out, staggered, and then went down utterly disabled.
One swift downward thrust Garnache made at the mass that wriggled under his cloak. The activity of its wriggles increased in the next few seconds, then ceased altogether.
Tressan felt wet from head to foot with a sweat provoked by horror of what he saw. The Dowager's lips were pouring forth a horrid litany of guard-room oaths, and meanwhile Garnache had swung round to meet Fortunio, the last of all who had stood with him.
The captain came on boldly, armed with sword and dagger, and in that moment, feeling himself spent, Garnache bitterly repented having relinquished his cloak. Yet he made a stubborn fight, and whilst they fenced and stamped about that room, Marius came to watch them, staggering to his mother's side and leaning heavily upon Tressan's shoulder. The Marquise turned to him, her face livid to the lips.
"That man must be the very fiend," Garnache heard her tell her son. "Run for help, Tressan, or, God knows, he may escape us yet. Go for men, or we shall have Fortunio killed as well. Bid them bring muskets."
Tressan, moving like one bereft of wits, went her errand, while the two men fought on, stamping and panting, circling and lunging, their breath coming in gasps, their swords grinding and clashing till sparks leapt from them.
The dust rose up to envelop and almost choke them, and more than once they slipped in the blood with which the floor was spattered, whilst presently Garnache barely recovered and saved himself from stumbling over the body of one of his victims against which his swiftly moving feet had hurtled.
And the Dowager, who watched the conflict and who knew something of sword-play, realized that, tired though Garnache might be, unless help came soon or some strange chance gave the captain the advantage, Fortunio would be laid low with the others.
His circling had brought the Parisian round, so that his back was now to the window, his face to the door of the bedchamber, where mademoiselle still watched in ever-growing horror. His right shoulder was in line with the door of the antechamber, which madame occupied, and he never saw her quit Marius's side and creep slyly into the room to speed swiftly round behind him.
The only one from whom he thought that he might have cause to fear treachery was the man whom he had dropped with a thigh wound, and he was careful to keep beyond the reach of any sudden sword-thrust from that fellow.
But if he did not see the woman's movements, mademoiselle saw them, and the sight set her eyes dilating with a new fear. She guessed the Dowager's treacherous purpose. And no sooner had she guessed it than, with a choking sob, she told herself that what madame could do that could she also.
Suddenly Garnache saw an opening; Fortunio's eyes, caught by the Dowager's movements, strayed for a moment past his opponent, and the thing would have been fatal to the captain but that in that moment, as Garnache was on the point of lunging, he felt himself caught from behind, his arms pinioned to his sides by a pair of slender ones that twined themselves about him, and over his shoulder, the breath of it fanning his hot cheek, came a vicious voice—
"Stab now, Fortunio!"
The captain asked nothing better. He raised his weary sword-arm and brought his point to the level of Garnache's breast, but in that instant its weight became leaden. Imitating the Marquise, Valerie had been in time. She seized Fortunio's half-lifted arm and flung all her weight upon it.
The captain cursed her horridly in a frenzy of fear, for he saw that did Garnache shake off the Marquise there would be an end of himself. He sought to wrench himself free of her detaining grasp, and the exertion brought him down, weary as he was, and with her weight hanging to him. He sank to his knees, and the girl, still clinging valiantly, sank with him, calling to Garnache that she held the captain fast.
Putting forth all his remaining strength, the Parisian twisted from the Dowager's encircling grasp and hurled her from him with a violence he nowise intended.
"Yours, madame, are the first woman's arms that ever Martin de Garnache has known," said he. "And never could embrace of beauty have been less welcome."
Panting, he caught up one of the overturned chairs. Holding it by the back he made for the window. He had dropped his sword, and he called to mademoiselle to hold the captain yet an instant longer. He swung his chair aloft and dashed it against the window. There was a thundering crash of shivered glass and a cool draught of that November night came to sweeten the air that had been fouled by the stamping of the fighters.
Again he swung up his chair and dashed it at the window, and yet again, until no window remained, but a great, gaping opening with a fringe of ragged glass and twisted leadwork.
In that moment Fortunio struggled to his feet, free of the girl, who sank, almost in a swoon. He sprang towards Garnache. The Parisian turned and flung his now shattered chair toward the advancing captain. It dropped at his feet, and his flying shins struck against an edge of it, bringing him, hurt and sprawling, to the ground. Before he could recover, a figure was flying through the open gap that lately had been a window.
Mademoiselle sat up and screamed.
"You will be killed, Monsieur de Garnache! Dear God, you will be killed!" and the anguish in her voice was awful.
It was the last thing that reached the ears of Monsieur de Garnache as he tumbled headlong through the darkness of the chill November night.
CHAPTER XVIII. IN THE MOAT
Fortunio and the Marquise reached the window side by side, and they were in time to hear a dull splash in the waters fifty feet below them. There was a cloud over the little sickle of moon, and to their eyes, fresh from the blaze of candle-light, the darkness was impenetrable.
"He is in the moat," cried the Marquise excitedly, and Valerie, who sat on the floor whither she had slipped when Fortunio shook her off, rocked herself in an agony of fear.
To the horrors about her—the huddled bodies lying so still upon the floor, the bloody footprints everywhere, the shattered furniture, and the groans of the man with the wounded thigh—to all this she was insensible. Garnache was dead, she told herself; he was surely dead; and it seemed as if the very thought of it were killing, too, a part of her own self.
Unconsciously she sobbed her fears aloud. "He is dead," she moaned; "he is dead."
The Marquise overheard that piteous cry, and turned to survey the girl, her brows lifting, her lips parting in an astonishment that for a second effaced the horrors of that night. Suspicion spread like an oil stain in her evil mind. She stepped forward and caught the girl by one of her limp arms. Marius, paler than his stunning had left him, leaned more heavily against the door-post, and looked on with bloodshot eyes. If ever maiden avowed the secret of her heart, it seemed to him that Valerie avowed it then.