The Marquise shook her angrily.
"What was he to you, girl? What was he to you?" she demanded shrilly.
And the girl, no more than half conscious of what she was saying, made answer:
"The bravest gentleman, the noblest friend I have ever known."
Pah! The Dowager dropped her arm and turned to issue a command to Fortunio. But already the fellow had departed. His concern was not with women, but with the man who had escaped him. He must make certain that the fall had killed Garnache.
Breathless and worn as he was, all spattered now with blood from the scratch in his cheek, which lent him a terrific aspect, he dashed from that shambles and across the guard-room. He snatched up a lighted lantern that had been left in the doorway and leapt down the stairs and into the courtyard. Here he came upon Monsieur de Tressan with a half-dozen fellows at his heels, all more or less half clad, but all very fully armed with swords and knives, and one or two with muskets.
Roughly, with little thought for the dignity of his high office, he thrust the Lord Seneschal aside and turned the men. Some he ordered off to the stables to get horses, for if Garnache had survived his leap and swum the moat, they must give chase. Whatever betide, the Parisian must not get away. He feared the consequences of that as much for himself as for Condillac. Some five or six of the men he bade follow him, and never pausing to answer any of Tressan's fearful questions, he sped across the courtyard, through the kitchens—which was the nearest way—into the outer quadrangle. Never pausing to draw breath, spent though he was, he pursued his flight under the great archway of the keep and across the drawbridge, the raising of which had been that night postponed to await the Lord Seneschal's departure.
Here on the bridge he paused and turned in a frenzy to scream to his followers that they should fetch more torches. Meanwhile he snatched the only one at hand from the man-at-arms that carried it.
His men sprang into the guard-room of the keep, realizing from his almost hysterical manner the urgent need for haste. And while he waited for them, standing there on the bridge, his torch held high, he scanned by its lurid red light the water as far as eye could reach on either side of him.
There was a faint movement on the dark, oily surface for all that no wind stirred. Not more than four or five minutes could have elapsed since Garnache's leap, and it would seem as if the last ripple from the disturbance of his plunge had not yet rolled itself out. But otherwise there was nothing here, nor did Fortunio expect aught. The window of the Northern Tower abutted on to the other side of the chateau, and it was there he must look for traces of the fugitive or for his body.
"Hasten!" he shouted over his shoulder. "Follow me!" And without waiting for them he ran across the bridge and darted round the building, his torch scattering a shower of sparks behind him on the night, and sending little rills of blood-red light down the sword which he still carried.
He gained the spot where Garnache must have fallen, and he stood below the radiance that clove the night from the shattered window fifty feet above, casting the light of his torch this way and that over the black bosom of the moat. Not a ripple moved now upon that even, steely surface. Voices sounded behind him, and with them a great glare of ruddy light came to herald the arrival of his men. He turned to them and pointed with his sword away from the chateau.
"Spread yourselves!" he shouted. "Make search yonder. He cannot have gone far."
And they, but dimly realizing whom they sought, yet realizing that they sought a man, dashed off and spread themselves as he had bidden them, to search the stretch of meadowland, where ill must betide any fugitive, since no cover offered.
Fortunio remained where he was at the edge of the moat. He stooped, and waving his torch along the ground he moved to the far angle of the chateau, examining the soft, oozy clay. It was impossible that a man could have clambered out over that without leaving some impression. He reached the corner and found the clay intact; at least, nowhere could he discover a mark of hands or a footprint set as would be that of a man emerging from the water.
He retraced his steps and went back until he had reached the eastern angle of the chateau, yet always with the same result. He straightened himself at last, and his manner was more calm; his frenzied haste was gone, and deliberately he now raised his torch and let its light shine again over the waters. He pondered them a moment, his dark eyes musing almost regretfully.
"Drowned!" he said aloud, and sheathed his sword.
From the window overhead a voice hailed him. He looked up and saw the Dowager, and, behind her, the figure of her son. Away in the meadows the lights of his men's torches darted hither and thither like playful jack-o'-lanterns.
"Have you got him, Fortunio?"
"Yes, madame," he answered with assurance. "You may have his body when you will. He is underneath here." And he pointed to the water.
They appeared to take his word for it, for they questioned him no further. The Marquise turned to mademoiselle, who was still sitting on the floor.
"He is drowned, Valerie," she said slowly, watching the girl's face.
Valerie looked up. Her eyes were very wide, and her lips moved for a second. Then she fell forward without a word. This last horror, treading on the heels of all those that already had assailed her, proved too great a strain for her brave spirit. She had swooned.
Tressan entered at that moment, full of questions as to what might be toward, for he had understood nothing in the courtyard. The Marquise called to him to help her with the girl, Marius being still too faint, and between them they bore her to her chamber, laid her on the bed, and, withdrawing, closed the door upon her. Then she signed to Marius and the Seneschal.
"Come," she said; "let us go. The sight and smell of the place are turning me sick, although my stomach is strong enough to endure most horrors."
She took up one of the candle-branches to light them, and they went below and made their way to the hall, where they found Marius's page, Gaston, looking very pale and scared at the din that had filled the chateau during the past half-hour or so. With him was Marius's hound, which the poor boy had kept by him for company and protection in that dreadful time.
The Marquise spoke to him kindly, and she stooped to pat the dog's glossy head. Then she bade Gaston set wine for them, and when it was fetched the three of them drank in brooding, gloomy silence.
The draught invigorated Marius, it cheered Tressan's drooping spirits, and it quenched the Dowager's thirst. The Seneschal turned to her again with his unanswered questions touching the end of that butchery above-stairs. She told him what Fortunio had said that Garnache was drowned as a consequence of his mad leap from the window.
Into Tressan's mind there sprang the memory of the thing Garnache had promised should befall him in such a case. It drove the colour from his cheeks and brought great lines of fearful care into sharp relief about his mouth and eyes.
"Madame, we are ruined!" he groaned.
"Tressan," she answered him contemptuously, "you are chicken-hearted. Listen to me. Did he not say that he had left his man behind him when he came to Condillac? Where think you that he left his man?"
"Maybe in Grenoble," answered the Seneschal, staring.
"Find out," she told him impressively, her eyes on his, and calm as though they had never looked upon such sights as that very night had offered them. "If not in Grenoble, certainly, at least, somewhere in this Dauphiny of which you are the King's Lord Seneschal. Turn the whole province inside out, man, but find the fellow. Yours is the power to do it. Do it, then, and you will have no consequences to fear. You have seen the man?"
"Ay, I have seen him. I remember him; and his name, I bethink me, is Rabecque."
He took courage; his face looked less dejected.
"You overlook nothing, madame," he murmured. "You are truly wonderful. I will start the search this very night. My men are almost all at Montelimar awaiting my commands. I'll dispatch a messenger with orders that they are to spread themselves throughout Dauphiny upon this quest."
The door opened, and Fortunio entered. He was still unwashed and terrible to look upon, all blood-bespattered. The sight of him drove a shudder through Tressan. The Marquise grew solicitous.
"How is your wound, Fortunio?" was her first question.
He made a gesture that dismissed the matter.
"It is nothing. I am over full-blooded, and if I am scratched, I bleed, without perceiving it, enough to drain another man."
"Here, drink, mon capitaine," she urged him, very friendly, filling him a cup with her own hands. "And you, Marius?" she asked. "Are you recovering strength?"
"I am well," answered Marius sullenly. His defeat that evening had left him glum and morose. He felt that he had cut a sorry figure in the affair, and his vanity was wounded. "I deplore I had so little share in the fight," he muttered.
"The lustiest fight ever I or any man beheld," swore Fortunio. "Dieu! But he was a fighter, that Monsieur de Garnache, and he deserved a better end than drowning."
"You are quite sure that he is drowned?"
Fortunio replied by giving his reasons for that conclusion, and they convinced both the Marquise and her son indeed they had never deemed it possible that the Parisian could have survived that awful leap. The Dowager looked at Marius, and from him to the captain.
"Do you think, you two, that you will be fit for tomorrow's business?"
"For myself," laughed Fortunio, "I am ready for it now."
"And I shall be when I have rested," answered Marius grimly.
"Then get you both to rest, you will be needing it," she bade them.
"And I, too, madame," said the Seneschal, bending over the hand she held out to him. "Good-night to you all." He would have added a word to wish them luck in the morrow's venture; but for the life of him he dared not. He turned, made another of his bows, and rolled out of the room.
Five minutes later the drawbridge was being raised after his departure, and Fortunio was issuing orders to the men he had recalled from their futile search to go clear the guard-room and antechamber of the Northern Tower, and to bear the dead to the chapel, which must serve as a mortuary for the time. That done he went off to bed, and soon after the lights were extinguished in Condillac; and save for Arsenio, who was, on guard, sorely perturbed by all that had befallen and marvelling at the rashness of his friend "Battista"—for he had no full particulars of the business—the place was wrapped in sleep.
Had they been less sure that Garnache was drowned, maybe they had slumbered less tranquilly that night at Condillac. Fortunio had been shrewd in his conclusions, yet a trifle hasty; for whilst, as a matter of fact, he was correct in assuming that the Parisian had not crawled out of the moat—neither at the point he had searched, nor elsewhere—yet was he utterly wrong to assume him at the bottom of it.
Garnache had gone through that window prepared to leap into another—and, he hoped, a better world. He had spun round twice in the air and shot feet foremost through the chill waters of the moat, and down until his toes came in contact with a less yielding substance, yet yielding nevertheless. Marvelling that he should have retained until now his senses, he realized betimes that he was touching mud—that he was really ankle deep in it. A vigorous, frantic kick with both legs at once released him, and he felt himself slowly re-ascending to the surface.
It has been often said that a drowning man in his struggles sees his whole life mirrored before him. In the instants of Garnache's ascent through the half stagnant waters of that moat he had reviewed the entire situation and determined upon the course he should pursue. When he reached the surface, he must see to it that he broke it gently, for at the window above were sure to be watchers, looking to see how he had fared. Madame, he remembered, had sent Tressan for muskets. If he had returned with them and they should perceive him from above, a bullet would be sent to dispose of him, and it were a pity to be shot now after having come through so much.
His head broke the surface and emerged into the chill darkness of the night. He took a deep breath of cold but very welcome air, and moving his arms gently under water, he swam quietly, not to the edge of the moat but to the chateau wall, close under which he thought he would be secure from observation. He found by good fortune a crevice between two stones; he did not see it, his fingers found it for him as they groped along that granite surface. He clung there a moment and pondered the situation. He heard voices above, and looking up he saw the glare of light through the opening he had battered.
And now he was surprised to feel new vigour running through him. He had hurled himself from that window with scarce the power to leap, bathed in perspiration and deeming his strength utterly spent. The ice-cold waters of the moat had served, it would seem, to brace him, to wash away his fatigue, and to renew his energies. His mind was singularly clear and his senses rendered superacute, and he set himself to consider what he had best do.
Swim to the edge of the moat and, clambering out, take to his legs was naturally the first impulse. But, reflecting upon the open nature of the ground, he realized that that must mean his ruin. Presently they would come to see how he had fared, and failing to find him in the water they would search the country round about. He set himself in their place. He tried to think as they would think, the better that he might realize how they would act, and then an idea came to him that might be worth heeding. In any case his situation was still very desperate; on that score he allowed himself no illusions. That they would take his drowning for granted, and never come to satisfy themselves, he was not optimist enough to assume.
He abandoned his grip of the wall and began to swim gently toward the eastern angle. If they came out, they must lower the bridge; he would place himself so that in falling it should cover him and screen him from their sight. He rounded the angle of the building, and now the friendly cloud that had hung across the moon moved by, and a faint, silver radiance was upon the water under his eyes. But yonder, ahead of him, something black lay athwart the moat. At once he knew it for the bridge. It was down. And he had the explanation in that he remembered that the Lord Seneschal had not yet left Condillac. It mattered little to him one way or the other. The bridge was there, and he made the best of it.
A few swift, silent strokes brought him to it. He hesitated a moment before venturing into the darkness underneath; then, bethinking him that it was that or discovery, he passed under. He made for the wall, and as he groped along he found a chain depending and reaching down into the water. He caught at it with both hands and hung by it to await events.
And now, for the first time that night, his pulses really quickened. There in the dark he waited, and the moments that sped seemed very long to him, and they were very anxious. He had no good sword wherewith to defend himself were he attacked, no good, solid ground on which to take his stand. If he were discovered, he was helpless, at their mercy, to shoot, or take, or beat to death as best they listed. And so he waited, his pulses throbbing, his breath coming short and fast. The cold water that had invigorated him some minutes ago was numbing him now, and seemed to be freezing his courage as it froze the blood in his veins, the very marrow in his bones.
Presently his ears caught a rush of feet, a sound of voices, and Fortunio's raised above the others. Heavy steps rang on the bridge over his head, and the thud of their fall was like thunder to the man beneath. A crimson splash of light fell on the moat on either side of him. The fellow on the bridge had halted. Then the steps went on. The light flared this way and that, and Garnache almost trembled, expecting at every moment that its rays would penetrate the spot where he was hanging and reveal him cowering there like a frightened water-rat. But the man moved on, and his light flared no longer.
Then others followed him. Garnache heard the sounds of their search. So overwrought was he that there was a moment when he thought of swimming to the edge and making across the country to the north while they were hunting the meadows to the east; but he repressed the impulse and stayed on. An eternity did it seem before those men returned and marched once more over his head. A further eternity was it until the clatter of hoofs on the courtyard stones and their thunder on the planks above him brought him the news that Tressan was riding home. He heard the hoofs quicken, and their loud rattle on the road that led down to the Isere, a half-mile away; and then, when the hoof-beats grew more distant, there came again the echo of voices up above.
Was it not over yet? Dear God! would it never end? He felt that a few moments more of this immersion and he should be done for utterly; his numbness must rob him of the power to cross the moat.
Suddenly the first welcome sound he had heard that night came to his ears. Chains creaked, hinges groaned, and the great black pall above him began gradually to rise. Faster it went, till, at last, it fell back into position, flat with the wall of the chateau, and such little light as there was from the moon was beating down upon his frozen face.
He let the chain go, and, with strokes swift and silent as he could contrive, he crossed the water. He clambered up the bank, almost bereft of strength. A moment he crouched there listening. Had he moved too soon? Had he been incautious?
Nothing stirred behind him to confirm his fears. He crept softly across the hard ground of the road where he had landed. Then, when the yielding, silent turf was under his feet, he gave not another thought for his numbness, but started to run as a man runs in a nightmare, so little did the speed of his movements match the pace of his desire to set a distance between himself and Condillac.
CHAPTER XIX. THROUGH THE NIGHT
It wanted something over an hour to midnight when Monsieur de Garnache started out in his sodden clothes to run from Condillac. He bore away to the north, and continued running until he had covered a mile or so, when perforce he must slacken his pace lest presently he should have to give way to utter exhaustion. He trudged on bravely thereafter, at a good, swinging pace, realizing that in moving briskly lay his salvation from such ill effects as might otherwise attend his too long immersion. His run had set a pleasant glow upon his skin and seemed to have thawed the frozen condition of his joints. Yet he could not disguise from himself that he was sorely worn by that night's happenings, and that, if he would reach his goal, he must carefully husband such strength as yet remained him.
That goal of his was Voiron, some four leagues distant to the north, where, at the inn of the Beau Paon, his man, Rabecque, should be lodged, ready for his coming at any time. Once already, when repairing to Condillac, he had travelled by that road, and it was so direct that there seemed scant fear of his mistaking it. On he plodded through the night, his way lighted for him by the crescent moon, the air so still that, despite his wet garments, being warmed as he was by his brisk movements, he never felt the cold of it.
He had overheard enough of what had been said by Marius to Valerie to understand the business that was afoot for the morrow, and he doubted him that he had not sufficiently injured the Dowager's son to make him refrain from or adjourn his murderous ride across the border into Savoy.
Garnache's purpose now was to reach Voiron, there to snatch a brief rest, and then, equipped anew to set out with his man for La Rochette and anticipate the fell plans of Marius and Fortunio.
He might have experienced elation at his almost miraculous escape and at the circumstance that he was still at large to carry this duel with the Condillacs to a fitting finish, were it not for the reflection that but for his besetting sin of hastiness he might now be travelling in dry garments toward La Rochette, with mademoiselle beside him. Once again that rash temper of his had marred an enterprise that was on the point of succeeding. And yet, even as he regretted his rashness, rage stirred him again at the thought of Marius crushing that slender shape against him and seeking to force his odious kisses upon her pure, immaculate lips. And then the thought of her, left behind at Condillac at the mercy of Marius and that she-devil the Marquise, and the fears that of a sudden leapt up in his mind, brought him to a standstill, as though he were contemplating the incomparable folly of a return. He beat his hands together for a moment in a frenzy of anguish; he threw back his head and raised his eyes to the sky above with a burst of imprecations on his lips. And then reflection brought him peace. No, no; they dare offer her no hurt. To do so must irrevocably lose them La Vauvraye; and it was their covetousness had made them villains. Upon that covetousness did their villainy rest, and he need fear from them no wanton ruthlessness that should endanger their chance of profit.
He trudged on, reassured. He had been a fool so to give way to fear; as great a fool as he had been when he had laid hands on Marius to quell his excessive amorousness. Dieu! Was he bewitched? What ailed him? Again he paused there in the night to think the situation out.
A dozen thoughts, all centering about Valerie, came crowding in upon his brain, till in the end a great burst of laughter—the laughter of a madman almost, eerie and terrific as it rang upon the silent night broke from his parted lips. That brief moment of introspection had revealed him to himself, and the revelation had fetched that peal of mocking laughter from him.
He realized now, at last, that not because the Queen had ordered him to procure Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye's enlargement had he submitted to assume a filthy travesty, to set his neck in jeopardy, to play the lackey and the spy. It was because something in Valerie's eyes, something in her pure, lily face had moved him to it; and simultaneously had come the thought of the relation in which she stood to that man at La Rochette whose life he now sought to save for her, and it had stabbed him with a bitterness no misfortune, no failure yet had brought him.
He trudged on, knowing himself for what he was a fool who, after close upon forty years of a strenuous life in which no petticoat had played a part, was come under the spell of a pair of innocent eyes belonging to a child almost young enough to have been his daughter.
He despised himself a little for his weakness; he despised himself for his apostasy from the faith that had governed his life—the faith to keep himself immune from the folly to which womanhood had driven so many a stout man.
And yet, mock himself, despise himself as he would, a great tenderness, a great desire grew strong in his soul that night as he trudged on toward distant Voiron. Mile after mile her image kept him company, and once, when he had left Voreppe behind him, the greater portion of his journey done, some devil whispered in his ear that he was weary; that he would be over-weary on the morrow for any ride to La Rochette. He had done all that mortal man could do; let him rest to-morrow whilst Marius and Fortunio accomplished by Florimond what the fever had begun.
A cold perspiration broke on him as he wrestled with that grim temptation. Valerie was his; she belonged to him by the right of dangers shared; never had mother in her labours been nearer death for the offspring's sake than had he for Valerie during the days that were sped and the hours that were but gone. She belonged to him by the title of those dangers he had been through. What had Florimond done to establish his claim to her? He had remained absent during long years, a-warring in a foreign land. With how many banal loves might not the fellow in that time have strewn his soldier's path! Garnache knew well how close does Cupid stalk in the wake of Mars, knew well the way of these gay soldiers and the lightness of their loves.
Was, then, this fellow to come now and claim her, when perils were past, when there was naught left to do but lead her to the altar? Could he be worthy of such a pearl of womanhood, this laggard who, because a fever touched him, sat him down in an inn within a few hours' ride of her to rest him, as though the world held no such woman as Valerie?
And she, herself, by what ties was she bound to him? By the ties of an old promise, given at an age when she knew not what love meant. He had talked of it with her, and he knew how dispassionately she awaited Florimond's return. Florimond might be betrothed to her—her father and his had encompassed that between them—but no lover of hers was he.
Thus far did his thoughts journey, and temptation gripped him ever more and more strongly. And then his manhood and his honour awoke with a shudder, as awakens a man from an ugly dream. What manner of fool was he? he asked himself again. Upon what presumptions did he base his silly musings? Did he suppose that even were there no Florimond, it would be left for a harsh, war-worn old greybeard such as he to awaken tenderness in the bosom of that child? The tenderness of friendship perhaps—she had confessed to that; but the tenderness of her sweet love must be won by a younger, comelier man.
If love had indeed touched him at last, let him be worthy of it and of her who inspired it. Let him strain every sinew in her service, asking no guerdon; let him save the life of the man to whom she was affianced; let him save her from the clutches of the Marquise de Condillac and her beautiful, unscrupulous son.
He put his folly from him and-went on, seeking to hold his mind to the planning of his to-morrow's journey and its business. He had no means to know that at that very hour Valerie was on her knees by her little white bed, in the Northern Tower of Condillac, praying for the repose of the soul of Monsieur de Garnache—the bravest gentleman, the noblest friend she had ever known. For she accounted him dead, and she thought with horror of his body lying in the slime under the cold waters of the moat beneath the window of her antechamber. A change seemed to have come upon her. Her soul was numb, her courage seemed dead, and little care had she in that hour of what might betide her now.
Florimond was coming, she remembered: coming to wed her. Ah, well! It mattered little, since Monsieur de Garnache was dead—as though it could have mattered had he been living!
Three hours of his long striding brought Garnache at last to Voiron, and the echo of his footsteps rang through the silent streets and scared a stray cat or two that were preying out of doors. There was no watch in the little township and no lights, but by the moon's faint glimmer Garnache sought the inn of the Beau Paon, and found it at the end of a little wandering. A gaudy peacock, with tail spread wide, was the sign above the door on which he thumped and kicked as if he would have beaten it down.
It opened after some delay, and a man, half clad, candle in hand, a night-cap on his hoary locks, showed an angry face at the opening.
At sight of the gaunt, bedraggled figure that craved admittance, the landlord would have shut the door again, fearing that he had to do with some wild bandit from the hills. But Garnache thrust his foot in the way.
"There is a man named Rabecque, from Paris, lodging here. I must have instant speech with him," said he; and his words, together with the crisp, commanding tones in which they were uttered, had their effect upon the host.
Rabecque had been playing the great lord during the week he had spent at Voiron, and had known how to command a certain deference and regard. That this tatterdemalion, with the haughty voice, should demand to see him at that hour of the night, with such scant unconcern of how far he might incommode the great Monsieur Rabecque, earned for him too a certain measure of regard, though still alloyed with some suspicion.
The landlord bade him enter. He did not know whether Monsieur Rabecque would forgive him for being disturbed; he could not say whether Monsieur Rabecque would consent to see this visitor at such an hour; very probably he would not. Still, monsieur might enter.
Garnache cut him short before he had half done, announced his name and bade him convey it to Rabecque. The alacrity with which the lackey stirred from his bed upon hearing who it was that had arrived impressed the host not a little, but not half so much as it impressed him presently to observe the deference with which this great Monsieur Rabecque of Paris confronted the scarecrow below stairs when he was brought into its presence.
"You are safe and sound, monsieur?" he cried, in deferential joy.
"Aye, by a miracle, mon fils," Garnache answered him, with a short laugh. "Help me to bed; then bring me a cup of spiced wine. I have swum a moat and done other wonders in these clothes."
The host and Rabecque bustled now to minister to his wants between them, and when, jaded and worn, Garnache lay at last between good-smelling sheets with the feeling in him that he was like to sleep until the day of judgment, he issued his final orders.
"Awake me at daybreak, Rabecque," said he drowsily. "We must be stirring then. Have horse ready and clothes for me. I shall need you to wash me clean and shave me and make me what I was before your tricks and dyes turned me into what I have been this week and more. Take away the light. At daybreak! Don't let me sleep beyond that as you value your place with me. We shall have brisk work to-morrow. At—daybreak—Rabecque!"
CHAPTER XX. FLORIMOND DE CONDILLAC
It was noon of the next day when two horsemen gained the heights above La Rochette and paused to breathe their nags and take a survey of the little township in the plain at their feet. One of these was Monsieur de Garnache, the other was his man Rabecque. But it was no longer the travestied Garnache that Condillac had known as "Battista" during the past days, it was that gentleman as he had been when first he presented himself at the chateau. Rabecque had shaved him, and by means of certain unguents had cleansed his skin and hair of the dyes with which he had earlier overlaid them.
That metamorphosis, of itself, was enough to set Garnache in a good humour; he felt himself again, and the feeling gave him confidence. His mustachios bristled as fiercely as of old, his skin was clear and healthy, and his dark brown hair showed ashen at the temples. He was becomingly arrayed in a suit of dark brown camlet, with rows of close-set gold buttons running up his hanging sleeves; a leather jerkin hid much of his finery, and his great boots encased his legs. He wore a brown hat, with a tallish crown and a red feather, and Rabecque carried his cloak for him, for the persistent Saint Martin's summer rendered that day of November rather as one of early autumn.
A flood of sunshine descended from a cloudless sky to drench the country at their feet, and all about them the trees preserved a green that was but little touched by autumnal browning.
Awhile he paused there on the heights; then he gave his horse a touch of the spur, and they started down the winding road that led into La Rochette. A half-hour later they were riding under the porte cochere of the inn of the Black Boar. Of the ostler who hastened forward to take their reins Monsieur de Garnache inquired if the Marquis de Condillac were lodged there. He was answered in the affirmative, and he got down at once from his horse. Indeed, but for the formality of the thing, he might have spared himself the question, for lounging about the courtyard were a score of stalwart weather-tanned fellows, whose air and accoutrements proclaimed them soldiers. It required little shrewdness to guess in them the personal followers of the Marquis, the remainder of the little troop that had followed the young seigneur to the wars when, some three years ago, he had set out from Condillac.
Garnache gave orders for the horses to be cared for, and bade Rabecque get himself fed in the common room. Heralded by the host, the Parisian then mounted the stairs to Monsieur de Condillac's apartments.
The landlord led the way to the inn's best room, turned the handle, and, throwing wide the door, stood aside for Monsieur de Garnache to enter.
From within the chamber came the sounds of a scuffle, a man's soft laugh, and a girl's softer intercession.
"Let me go, monsieur. Of your pity, let me go. Some one is coming."
"And what care I who comes?" answered a voice that seemed oppressed by laughter.
Garnache strode into the chamber—spacious and handsomely furnished as became the best room of the Auberge du Sanglier Noir—to find a meal spread on the table, steaming with an odour promising of good things, but neglected by the guest for the charms of the serving-wench, whose waist he had imprisoned. As Garnache's tall figure loomed before him he let the girl go and turned a half-laughing, half-startled face upon the intruder.
"Who the devil may you be?" he inquired, and a brown eye, rakish and roving in its glance, played briskly over the Parisian, whilst Garnache himself returned the compliment, and calmly surveyed this florid gentleman of middle height with the fair hair and regular features.
The girl scurried by and darted from the room, dodging the smiting hand which the host raised as she flew past him. The Parisian felt his gorge rising. Was this the sort of fever that had kept Monsieur le Marquis at La Rochette, whilst mademoiselle was suffering in durance at Condillac? His last night's jealous speculations touching a man he did not know had leastways led him into no exaggeration. He found just such a man as he had pictured—a lightly-loving, pleasure-taking roysterer, with never a thought beyond the amusement which the hour afforded him.
With curling lip Garnache bowed stiffly, and in a cold, formal voice he announced himself.
"My name is Martin Marie Rigobert de Garnache. I am an emissary dispatched from Paris by her Majesty the Queen-mother to procure the enlargement of Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye from the durance in which she is held by madame your stepmother."
The pleasant gentleman's eyebrows went up; a smile that was almost insolent broke on his face.
"That being so, monsieur, why the devil are you here?"
"I am here, monsieur," answered him Garnache, throwing back his head, his nostrils quivering, "because you are not at Condillac."
The tone was truculent to the point of defiance, for despite the firm resolve he had taken last night never again to let his temper overmaster him, already Garnache's self-control was slipping away.
The Marquis noted the tone, and observed the man. In their way he liked both; in their way he disliked both. But he clearly saw that this peppery gentleman must be treated less cavalierly, or trouble would come of it. So he waved him gracefully to the table, where a brace of flagons stood amid the steaming viands.
"You will dine with me, monsieur," said he, the utmost politeness marking his utterance now. "I take it that since you have come here in quest of me you have something to tell me. Shall we talk as we eat? I detest a lonely meal."
The florid gentleman's tone and manner were mollifying in the extreme. Garnache had risen early and ridden far; the smell of the viands had quickened an appetite already very keen; moreover, since he and this gentleman were to be allies, it was as well they should not begin by quarrelling.
He bowed less stiffly, expressed his willingness and his thanks, laid hat and whip and cloak aside, unbuckled and set down his sword, and, that done, took at table the place which his host himself prepared him.
Garnache took more careful stock of the Marquis now. He found much to like in his countenance. It was frank and jovial; obviously that of a sensualist, but, leastways, an honest sensualist. He was dressed in black, as became a man who mourned his father, yet with a striking richness of material, whilst his broad collar of fine point and the lace cuffs of his doublet were worth a fortune.
What time they ate Monsieur de Garnache told of his journey from Paris and of his dealings with Tressan and his subsequent adventures at Condillac. He dwelt passingly upon the manner in which they had treated him, and found it difficult to choose words to express the reason for his returning in disguise to play the knight-errant to Valerie. He passed on to speak of last night's happenings and of his escape. Throughout, the Marquis heard him with a grave countenance and a sober, attentive glance, yet, when he had finished a smile crept round the sensual lips.
"The letter that I had at Milan prepared me for some such trouble as this," said he, and Garnache was amazed at the lightness of his tone, just as he had been amazed to see the fellow keep his countenance at the narrative of mademoiselle's position. "I guessed that my beautiful stepmother intended me some such scurviness from the circumstance of her having kept me in ignorance of my father's death. But frankly, sir, your tale by far outstrips my wildest imaginings. You have behaved very—very bravely in this affair. You seem, in fact, to have taken a greater interest in Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye's enlargement than the Queen could have a right to expect of you." And he smiled, a world of suggestion in his eyes. Garnache sat back in his chair and stared at the man.
"This levity, monsieur, on such a subject, leaves me thunderstruck," he said at last.
"Diable!" laughed the other. "You are too prone, after your trials; to view its tragic rather than its comic side. Forgive me if I am smitten only with the humour of the thing."
"The humour of the thing!" gurgled Garnache, his eyes starting from his head. Then out leapt that temper of his like an eager hound that has been suddenly unleashed. He brought down his clenched hand upon the table, caught in passing a flagon, and sent it crashing to the floor. If there was a table near at hand when his temper went, he never failed to treat it so.
"Par la mort Dieu! monsieur, you see but the humour of it, do you? And what of that poor child who is lying there, suffering this incarceration because of her fidelity to a promise given you?"
The statement was hardly fully accurate. But it served its purpose. The other's face became instantly, grave.
"Calm yourself, I beg, monsieur," he cried, raising a soothing hand. "I have offended you somewhere; that is plain. There is something here that I do not altogether understand. You say that Valerie has suffered on account of a promise given me? To what are you referring?"
"They hold her a prisoner, monsieur, because they wish to wed her to Marius," answered Garnache, striving hard to cool his anger.
"Parfaitement! That much I understood."
"Well, then, monsieur, is the rest not plain? Because she is betrothed to you—" He paused. He saw, at last, that he was stating something not altogether accurate. But the other took his meaning there and then, lay back in his chair, and burst out laughing.
The blood hummed through Garnache's head as he tightened his lips and watched this gentleman indulge his inexplicable mirth. Surely Monsieur de Condillac was possessed of the keenest sense of humour in all France. He laughed with a will, and Garnache sent up a devout prayer that the laugh might choke him. The noise of it filled the hostelry.
"Sir," said Garnache, with an ever-increasing tartness, "there is a by-word has it 'Much laughter, little wit.' In confidence won, is that your case, monsieur?"
The other looked at him soberly a moment, then went off again.
"Monsieur, monsieur!" he gasped, "you'll be the death of me. For the love of Heaven look less fierce. Is it my fault that I must laugh? The folly of it all is so colossal. Three years from home, yet there is a woman keeps faithful and holds to a promise given for her. Come, monsieur, you who have seen the world, you must agree that there is in this something that is passing singular, extravagantly amusing. My poor little Valerie!" he spluttered through his half-checked mirth, "does she wait for me still? does she count me still betrothed to her? And because of that, says 'No' to brother Marius! Death of my life! I shall die of it."
"I have a notion that you may, monsieur," rasped Garnache's voice, and with it rasped Garnache's chair upon the boards. He had risen, and he was confronting his merry host very fiercely, white to the lips, his eyes aflame. There was no mistaking his attitude, no mistaking his words.
"Eh?" gasped the other, recovering himself at last to envisage what appeared to develop into a serious situation.
"Monsieur," said Garnache, his voice very cold, "do I understand that you no longer intend to carry out your engagement and wed Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye?"
A dull flush spread upon the Marquis's face. He rose too, and across the table he confronted his guest, his mien haughty, his eyes imperious.
"I thought, monsieur," said he, with a great dignity, "I thought when I invited you to sit at my table that your business was to serve me, however little I might be conscious of having merited the honour. It seems instead that you are come hither to affront me. You are my guest, monsieur. Let me beg that you will depart before I resent a question on a matter which concerns myself alone."
The man was right, and Garnache was wrong. He had no title to take up the affairs of Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye. But he was past reason now, and he was not the man to brook haughtiness, however courteously it might be cloaked. He eyed the Marquis's flushed ace across the board, and his lip curled.
"Monsieur," said he, "I take your meaning very fully. Half a word with me is as good as a whole sentence with another. You have dubbed me in polite phrases an impertinent. That I am not; and I resent the imputation."
"Oh, that!" said the Marquis, with a half-laugh and a shrug. "If you resent it—" His smile and his gesture made the rest plain.
"Exactly, monsieur," was Garnache's answer. "But I do not fight sick men."
Florimond's brows grew wrinkled, his eyes puzzled.
"Sick men!" he echoed. "Awhile ago, monsieur, you appeared to cast a doubt upon my sanity. Is it a case of the drunkard who thinks all the world drunk but himself?"
Garnache gazed at him. That doubt he had entertained grew now into something like assurance.
"I know not whether it is the fever makes your tongue run so—" he began, when the other broke in, a sudden light of understanding in his eyes.
"You are at fault," he cried. "I have no fever."
"But then your letter to Condillac?" demanded Garnache, lost now in utter amazement.
"What of it? I'll swear I never said I had a fever."
"I'll swear you did."
"You give me the lie, then?"
But Garnache waved his hands as if he implored the other, to have done with giving and taking offence. There was some misunderstanding somewhere, he realized, and sheer astonishment had cooled his anger. His only aim now was to have this obscure thing made clear.
"No, no," he cried. "I am seeking enlightenment."
"I may have said that we were detained by a fever; but I never said the patient was myself."
"Who then? Who else?" cried Garnache.
"Why, now I understand, monsieur. But it is my wife who has the fever."
"Your—!" Garnache dared not trust himself to utter the word.
"My wife, monsieur," the Marquis repeated. "The journey proved too much for her, travelling at the rate she did."
A silence fell. Garnache's long chin sank on to his breast, and he stood there, his eyes upon the tablecloth, his thoughts with the poor innocent child who waited at Condillac, so full of trust and faith and loyalty to this betrothed of hers who had come home with a wife out of Italy.
And then, while he stood so and Florimond was regarding him curiously, the door opened, and the host appeared.
"Monsieur le Marquis," said he, "there are two gentlemen below asking to see you. One of them is Monsieur Marius de Condillac."
"Marius?" cried the Marquis, and he started round with a frown.
"Marius?" breathed Garnache, and then, realizing that the assassins had followed so close upon his heels, he put all thoughts from his mind other than that of the immediate business. He had, himself, a score to settle with them. The time was now. He swung round on his heel, and before he knew what he had said the words were out:
"Bring them up, Monsieur l'Hote."
Florimond looked at him in surprise.
"Oh, by all means, if monsieur wishes it," said he, with a fine irony.
Garnache looked at him, then back at the hesitating host.
"You have heard," said he coolly. "Bring them up."
"Bien, monsieur," replied the host, withdrawing and closing the door after him.
"Your interference in my affairs grows really droll, monsieur," said the Marquis tartly.
"When you shall have learned to what purpose I am interfering, you'll find it, possibly, not quite so droll," was the answer, no less tart. "We have but a moment, monsieur. Listen while I tell you the nature of their errand."
CHAPTER XXI. THE GHOST IN THE CUPBOARD
Garnache had but a few minutes in which to unfold his story, and he needed, in addition, a second or two in which to ponder the situation as he now found it.
His first reflection was that Florimond, since he was now married, might perhaps, instead of proving Valerie's saviour from Marius, join forces with his brother in coercing her into this alliance with him. But from what Valerie herself had told him he was inclined to think more favourably of Florimond and to suppress such doubts as these. Still he could incur no risks; is business was to serve Valerie and Valerie only; to procure at all costs her permanent liberation from the power of the Condillacs. To make sure of this he must play upon Florimond's anger, letting him know that Marius had journeyed to La Rochette for the purpose of murdering his half-brother. That he but sought to murder him to the end that he might be removed from his path to Valerie, was a circumstance that need not too prominently be presented. Still, presented it must be, for Florimond would require to know by what motive his brother was impelled ere he could credit him capable of such villainy.
Succinctly, but tellingly, Garnache brought out the story of the plot that had been laid for Florimond's assassination, and it joyed him to see the anger rising in the Marquis's face and flashing from his eyes.
"What reason have they for so damnable a deed?" he cried, between incredulity and indignation.
"Their overweening ambition. Marius covets Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye's estates."
"And to gain his ends he would not stop at murdering me? Is it, indeed, the truth you tell me?"
"I pledge my honour for the truth of it," answered Garnache, watching him closely. Florimond looked at him a moment. The steady glance of those blue eyes and the steady tone of that crisp voice scattered his last doubt.
"The villains!" cried the Marquis. "The fools!" he added. "For me, Marius had been welcome to Valerie. He might have found in me an ally to aid him in the urging of his suit. But now—" He raised his clenched hand and shook it in the air, as if in promise of the battle he would deliver.
"Good," said Garnache, reassured. "I hear their steps upon the stairs. They must not find me with you."
A moment later the door opened, and Marius, very bravely arrayed, entered the room, followed closely by Fortunio. Neither showed much ill effects of last night's happenings, save for a long dark-brown scar that ran athwart the captain's cheek, where Garnache's sword had ploughed it.
They found Florimond seated quietly at table, and as they entered he rose and came forward with a friendly smile to greet his brother. His sense of humour was being excited; he was something of an actor, and the role he had adopted in the comedy to be played gave him a certain grim satisfaction. He would test for himself the truth of what Monsieur de Garnache had told him concerning his brother's intentions. Marius received his advances very coolly. He took his brother's hand, submitted to his brother's kiss; but neither kiss nor hand-pressure did he return. Florimond affected not to notice this.
"You are well, my dear Marius, I hope," said he, and thrusting him out at arms' length, he held him by the shoulders and regarded him critically. "Ma foi, but you are changed into a comely well-grown man. And your mother—she is well, too, I trust."
"I thank you, Florimond, she is well," said Marius stiffly.
The Marquis took his hands from his brother's shoulders; his florid, good-natured face smiling ever, as if this were the happiest moment of his life.
"It is good to see France again, my dear Marius," he told his brother. "I was a fool to have remained away so long. I am pining to be at Condillac once more."
Marius eyeing him, looked in vain for signs of the fever. He had expected to find a debilitated, emaciated man; instead, he saw a very lusty, healthy, hearty fellow, full of good humour, and seemingly full of strength. He began to like his purpose less, despite such encouragement as he gathered from the support of Fortunio. Still, it must be gone through with.
"You wrote us that you had the fever," he said, half inquiringly.
"Pooh! That is naught." And Florimond snapped a strong finger against a stronger thumb. "But whom have you with you?" he asked, and his eyes took the measure of Fortunio, standing a pace or two behind his master.
Marius presented his bravo.
"This is Captain Fortunio, the commander of our garrison of Condillac."
The Marquis nodded good-humouredly towards the captain.
"Captain Fortunio? He is well named for a soldier of fortune. My brother, no doubt, will have family matters to tell me of. If you will step below, Monsieur le Capitaine, and drink a health or so while you wait, I shall be honoured."
The captain, nonplussed, looked at Marius, and Florimond surprised the look. But Marius's manner became still chillier.
"Fortunio here," said he, and he half turned and let his hand fall on the captain's shoulder, "is my very good friend. I have no secrets from him."
The instant lift of Florimond's eyebrows was full of insolent, supercilious disdain. Yet Marius did not fasten his quarrel upon that. He had come to La Rochette resolved that any pretext would serve his turn. But the sight of his brother so inflamed his jealousy that he had now determined that the quarrel should be picked on the actual ground in which it had its roots.
"Oh, as you will," said the Marquis coolly. "Perhaps your friend will be seated, and you, too, my dear Marius." And he played the host to them with a brisk charm. Setting chairs, he forced them to sit, and pressed wine upon them.
Marius cast his hat and cloak on the chair where Garnache's had been left. The Parisian's hat and cloak, he naturally assumed to belong to his brother. The smashed flagon and the mess of wine upon the floor he scarce observed, setting it down to some clumsiness, either his brother's or a servant's. They both drank, Marius in silence, the captain with a toast.
"Your good return, Monsieur le Marquis," said he, and Florimond thanked him by an inclination of the head. Then, turning to Marius:
"And so," he said, "you have a garrison at Condillac. What the devil has been taking place there? I have had some odd news of you. It would almost seem as if you were setting up as rebels in our quiet little corner of Dauphiny."
Marius shrugged his shoulders; his face suggested that he was ill-humoured.
"Madame the Queen-Regent has seen fit to interfere in our concerns. We Condillacs do not lightly brook interference."
Florimond showed his teeth in a pleasant smile.
"That is true, that is very true, Pardieu! But what warranted this action of Her Majesty's?"
Marius felt that the time for deeds was come. This fatuous conversation was but a futile waste of time. He set down his glass, and sitting back in his chair he fixed his sullen black eyes full upon his half-brother's smiling brown ones.
"I think we have exchanged compliments enough," said he, and Fortunio wagged his head approvingly. There were too many men in the courtyard for his liking, and the more time they waited, the more likely were they to suffer interruption. Their aim must be to get the thing done quickly, and then quickly to depart before an alarm could be raised. "Our trouble at Condillac concerns Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye."
Florimond started forward, with a ready assumption of lover-like solicitude.
"No harm has come to her?" he cried. "Tell me that no harm has come to her."
"Reassure yourself," answered Marius, with a sneer, a greyness that was of jealous rage overspreading his face. "No harm has come to her whatever. The trouble was that I sought to wed her, and she, because she is betrothed to you, would have none of me. So we brought her to Condillac, hoping always to persuade her. You will remember that she was under my mother's tutelage. The girl, however, could not be constrained. She suborned one of our men to bear a letter to Paris for her, and in answer to it the Queen sent a hot-headed, rash blunderer down to Dauphiny to procure her liberation. He lies now at the bottom of the moat of Condillac."
Florimond's face had assumed a look of horror and indignation.
"Do you dare tell me this?" he cried.
"Dare?" answered Marius, with an ugly laugh. "Men enough have died over this affair already. That fellow Garnache left some bodies on our hands last night before he set out for another world himself. You little dream how far my daring goes in this matter. I'll add as many more as need be to the death roll that we have already, before you set foot in Condillac."
"Ah!" said Florimond, as one upon whose mind a light breaks suddenly. "So, that is the business on which you come to me. I doubted your brotherliness, I must confess, my dear Marius. But tell me, brother mine, what of our father's wishes in this matter? Have you no respect for those?"
"What respect had you?" flashed back Marius, his voice now raised in anger. "Was it like a lover to remain away for three years—to let all that time go by without ever a word from you to your betrothed? What have you done to make good your claim to her?"
"Nothing, I confess; yet—"
"Well, you shall do something now," exclaimed Marius, rising. "I am here to afford you the opportunity. If you would still win Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye, you shall win her from me—at point of sword. Fortunio, see to the door."
"Wait, Marius!" cried Florimond, and he looked genuinely aghast. "Do not forget that we are brothers, men of the same blood; that my father was your father."
"I choose to remember rather that we are rivals," answered Marius, and he drew his rapier. Fortunio turned the key in the lock. Florimond gave his brother a long searching look, then with a sigh he picked up his sword where it lay ready to his hand and thoughtfully unsheathed it. Holding the hilt in one hand and the blade in the other he stood, bending the weapon like a whip, whilst again he searchingly regarded his brother.
"Hear me a moment," said he. "If you will force this unnatural quarrel upon me, at least let the thing be decently done. Not here, not in these cramped quarters, but out in the open let our meeting take place. If the captain, there, will act for you, I'll find a friend to do me the like service."
"We settle this matter here and now," Marius answered him, in a tone of calm finality.
"But if I were to kill you—" Florimond began.
"Reassure yourself," said Marius with an ugly smile.
"Very well, then; either alternative will suit the case I wish to put. If you were to kill me—it may be ranked as murder. The irregularity of it could not be overlooked."
"The captain, here, will act for both of us."
"I am entirely at your service, gentlemen," replied Fortunio pleasantly, bowing to each in turn.
Florimond considered him. "I do not like his looks," he objected. "He may be the friend of your bosom, Marius; you may have no secrets from him; but for my part, frankly, I should prefer the presence of some friend of my own to keep his blade engaged."
The Marquis's manner was affable in the extreme. Now that it was settled that they must fight, he appeared to have cast aside all scruples based upon their consanguinity, and he discussed the affair with the greatest bonhomie, as though he were disposing of a matter of how they should sit down to table.
It gave them pause. The change was too abrupt. They did not like it. It was as the calm that screens some surprise. Yet it was impossible he should have been forewarned; impossible he could have had word of how they proposed to deal with him.
Marius shrugged his shoulders.
"There is reason in what you say," he acknowledged; "but I am in haste. I cannot wait while you go in search of a friend."
"Why then," he answered, with a careless laugh, "I must raise one from the dead."
Both stared at him. Was he mad? Had the fever touched his brain? Was that healthy colour but the brand of a malady that rendered him delirious?
"Dieu! How you stare!" he continued, laughing in their faces. "You shall see something to compensate you for your journey, messieurs. I have learnt some odd tricks in Italy; they are a curious people beyond the Alps. What did you say was the name of the man the Queen had sent from Paris?—he who lies at the bottom of the moat of Condillac?"
"Let there be an end to this jesting," growled Marius. "On guard, Monsieur le Marquis!"
"Patience! patience!" Florimond implored him. "You shall have your way with me, I promise you. But of your charity, messieurs, tell me first the name of that man."
"It was Garnache," said Fortunio, "and if the information will serve you, it was I who slew him."
"You?" cried Florimond. "Tell me of it, I beg you."
"Do you fool us?" questioned Marius in a rage that overmastered his astonishment, his growing suspicion that here all was not quite as it seemed.
"Fool you? But no. I do but wish to show you something that I learned in Italy. Tell me how you slew him, Monsieur le Capitaine."
"I think we are wasting time," said the captain, angry too. He felt that this smiling gentleman was deriding the pair of them; it crossed his mind that for some purpose of his own the Marquis was seeking to gain time. He drew his sword.
Florimond saw the act, watched it, and his eyes twinkled. Suddenly Marius's sword shot out at him. He leapt back beyond the table, and threw himself on guard, his lips still wreathed in their mysterious smile.
"The time has come, messieurs," said he. "I should have preferred to know more of how you slew that Monsieur de Garnache; but since you deny me the information, I shall do my best without it. I'll try to conjure up his ghost, to keep you entertained, Monsieur le Capitaine." And then, raising his voice, his sword, engaging now his brother's:
"Ola, Monsieur de Garnache!" he cried. "To me!"
And then it seemed to those assassins that the Marquis had been neither mad nor boastful when he had spoken of strange things he had learned beyond the Alps, or else it was they themselves were turned light-headed, for the doors of a cupboard at the far end of the room flew open suddenly, and from between them stepped the stalwart figure of Martin de Garnache, a grim smile lifting the corners of his mustachios, a naked sword in his hand flashing back the sunlight that flooded through the window.
They paused, aghast, and they turned ashen; and then in the mind of each arose the same explanation of this phenomenon. This Garnache wore the appearance of the man who had announced himself by that name when he came to Condillac a fortnight ago. Then, the sallow, black-haired knave who had last night proclaimed himself as Garnache in disguise was some impostor. That was the conclusion they promptly arrived at, and however greatly they might be dismayed by the appearance of this ally of Florimond's, yet the conclusion heartened them anew. But scarce had they arrived at it when Monsieur de Garnache's crisp voice came swiftly to dispel it.
"Monsieur le Capitaine," it said, and Fortunio shivered at the sound, for it was the voice he had heard but a few hours ago, "I welcome the opportunity of resuming our last night's interrupted sword-play." And he advanced deliberately.
Marius's sword had fallen away from his brother's, and the two combatants stood pausing. Fortunio without more ado made for the door. But Garnache crossed the intervening space in a bound.
"Turn!" he cried. "Turn, or I'll put my sword through your back. The door shall serve you presently, but it is odds that it will need a couple of men to bear you through it. Look to your dirty skin!"
CHAPTER XXII. THE OFFICES OF MOTHER CHURCH
A couple of hours after the engagement in the Marquis de Condillac's apartments at the Sanglier Noir at La Rochette, Monsieur de Garnache, attended only by Rabecque, rode briskly into France once more and made for the little town of Cheylas, which is on the road that leads down to the valley of the Isere and to Condillac. But not as far as the township did he journey. On a hill, the slopes all cultivated into an opulent vineyard, some two miles east of Cheylas, stood the low, square grey building of the Convent of Saint Francis. Thither did Monsieur de Garnache bend his horse's steps. Up the long white road that crept zigzag through the Franciscans' vineyards rode the Parisian and his servant under the welcome sunshine of that November afternoon.
Garnache's face was gloomy and his eyes sad, for his thoughts were all of Valerie, and he was prey to a hundred anxieties regarding her.
They gained the heights at last, and Rabecque got down to beat with his whip upon the convent gates.
A lay-brother came to open, and in reply to Garnache's request that he might have a word with the Father Abbot, invited him to enter.
Through the cloisters about the great quadrangle, where a couple of monks, their habits girt high as their knees, were busy at gardeners' work, Garnache followed his conductor, and up the steps to the Abbot's chamber.
The master of the Convent' of Saint Francis of Cheylas a tall, lean man with an ascetic face, prominent cheekbones, and a nose not unlike Garnache's own—the nose of a man of action rather than of prayer—bowed gravely to this stalwart stranger, and in courteous accents begged to be informed in what he might serve him.
Hat in hand, Garnache took a step forward in that bare, scantily furnished little room, permeated by the faint, waxlike odour that is peculiar to the abode of conventuals. Without hesitation he stated the reason of his visit.
"Father," said he, "a son of the house of Condillac met his end this morning at La Rochette."
The monk's eyes seemed to quicken, as though his interest in the outer world had suddenly revived.
"It is the Hand of God," he cried. "Their evil ways have provoked at last the anger of Heaven. How did this unfortunate meet his death?"
Garnache shrugged his shoulders.
"De mortuis nil nisi bonum," said he. His air was grave, his blue eyes solemn, and the Abbot had little cause to suspect the closeness with which that pair of eyes was watching him. He coloured faintly at the implied rebuke, but he inclined his head as if submissive to the correction, and waited for the other to proceed.
"There is the need, Father, to give his body burial," said Garnache gently.
But at that the monk raised his head, and a deeper flush the flush of anger—spread now upon his sallow cheeks. Garnache observed it, and was glad.
"Why do you come to me?" he asked.
"Why?" echoed Garnache, and there was hesitancy now in his voice. "Is not the burial of the dead enjoined by Mother Church? Is it not a part of your sacred office?"
"You ask me this as you would challenge my reply," said the monk, shaking his head. "It is as you say, but it is not within our office to bury the impious dead, nor those who in life were excommunicate and died without repentance."
"How can you assume he died without repentance?"
"I do not; but I assume he died without absolution, for there is no priest who, knowing his name, would dare to shrive him, and if one should do it in ignorance of his name and excommunication, why then it is not done at all. Bid others bury this son of the house of Condillac; it matters no more by what hands or in what ground he be buried than if he were the horse he rode or the hound that followed him."
"The Church is very harsh, Father," said Garnache sternly.
"The Church is very just," the priest answered him, more sternly still, a holy wrath kindling his sombre eyes.
"He was in life a powerful noble," said Garnache thoughtfully. "It is but fitting that, being dead, honour and reverence should be shown his body."
"Then let those who have themselves been honoured by the Condillacs honour this dead Condillac now. The Church is not of that number, monsieur. Since the late Marquis's death the house of Condillac has been in rebellion against us; our priests have been maltreated, our authority flouted; they paid no tithes, approached no sacraments. Weary of their ungodliness the Church placed its ban upon them under this ban it seems they die. My heart grieves for them; but—"
He spread his hands, long and almost transparent in their leanness, and on his face a cloud of sorrow rested.
"Nevertheless, Father," said Garnache, "twenty brothers of Saint Francis shall bear the body home to Condillac, and you yourself shall head this grim procession."
"I?" The monk shrank back before him, and his figure seemed to grow taller. "Who are you, sir, that say to me what I shall do, the Church's law despite?"
Garnache took the Abbot by the sleeve of his rough habit and drew him gently towards the window. There was a persuasive smile on his lips and in his keen eyes which the monk, almost unconsciously, obeyed.
"I will tell you," said Garnache, "and at the same time I shall seek to turn you from your harsh purpose."
At the hour at which Monsieur de Garnache was seeking to persuade the Abbot of Saint Francis of Cheylas to adopt a point of view more kindly towards a dead man, Madame de Condillac was at dinner, and with her was Valerie de La Vauvraye. Neither woman ate appreciably. The one was oppressed by sorrow, the other by anxiety, and the circumstance that they were both afflicted served perhaps to render the Dowager gentler in her manner towards the girl.
She watched the pale face and troubled eyes of Valerie; she observed the almost lifeless manner in which she came and went as she was bidden, as though a part of her had ceased to exist, and that part the part that matters most. It did cross her mind that in this condition mademoiselle might the more readily be bent to their will, but she dwelt not overlong upon that reflection. Rather was her mood charitable, no doubt because she felt herself the need of charity, the want of sympathy.
She was tormented by fears altogether disproportionate to their cause. A hundred times she told herself that no ill could befall Marius. Florimond was a sick man, and were he otherwise, there was still Fortunio to stand by and see to it that the right sword pierced the right heart, else would his pistoles be lost to him.
Nevertheless she was fretted by anxiety, and she waited impatiently for news, fuming at the delay, yet knowing full well that news could not yet reach her.
Once she reproved Valerie for her lack of appetite, and there was in her voice a kindness Valerie had not heard for months—not since the old Marquis died, nor did she hear it now, or, hearing it, she did not heed it.
"You are not eating, child," the Dowager said, and her eyes were gentle.
Valerie looked up like one suddenly awakened; and in that moment her eyes filled with tears. It was as if the Dowager's voice had opened the floodgates of her sorrow and let out the tears that hitherto had been repressed. The Marquise rose and waved the page and an attendant lackey from the room. She crossed to Valerie's side and put her arm about the girl's shoulder.
"What ails you, child?" she asked. For a moment the girl suffered the caress; almost she seemed to nestle closer to the Dowager's shoulder. Then, as if understanding had come to her suddenly, she drew back and quietly disengaged herself from the other's arms. Her tears ceased; the quiver passed from her lip.
"You are very good, madame," she said, with a coldness that rendered the courteous words almost insulting, "but nothing ails me save a wish to be alone."
"You have been alone too much of late," the Dowager answered, persisting in her wish to show kindness to Valerie; for all that, had she looked into her own heart, she might have been puzzled to find a reason for her mood—unless the reason lay in her own affliction of anxiety for Marius.
"Perhaps I have," said the girl, in the same cold, almost strained voice. "It was not by my own contriving."
"Ah, but it was, child; indeed it was. Had you been reasonable you had found us kinder. We had never treated you as we have done, never made a prisoner of you."
Valerie looked up into the beautiful ivory-white face, with its black eyes and singularly scarlet lips, and a wan smile raised the corners of her gentle mouth.
"You had no right—none ever gave it you—to set constraint and restraint upon me."
"I had—indeed, indeed I had," the Marquise answered her, in a tone of sad protest. "Your father gave me such a right when he gave me charge of you."
"Was it a part of your charge to seek to turn me from my loyalty to Florimond, and endeavour to compel me by means gentle or ungentle into marriage with Marius?"
"We thought Florimond dead; or, if not dead, then certainly unworthy of you to leave you without news of him for years together. And if he was not dead then, it is odds he will be dead by now." The words slipped out almost unconsciously, and the Marquise bit her lip and straightened herself, fearing an explosion. But none came. The girl looked across the table at the fire that smouldered on the hearth in need of being replenished.
"What do you mean, madame?" she asked; but her tone was listless, apathetic, as of one who though uttering a question is incurious as to what the answer may be.
"We had news some days ago that he was journeying homewards, but that he was detained by fever at La Rochette. We have since heard that his fever has grown so serious that there is little hope of his recovery."
"And it was to solace his last moments that Monsieur Marius left Condillac this morning?"
The Dowager looked sharply at the girl; but Valerie's face continued averted, her gaze resting on the fire. Her tone suggested nothing beyond a natural curiosity.
"Yes," said the Dowager.
"And lest his own efforts to help his brother out of this world should prove insufficient he took Captain Fortunio with him?" said Valerie, in the same indifferent voice.
"What do you mean?" the Marquise almost hissed into the girl's ear.
Valerie turned to her, a faint colour stirring in her white face.
"Just what I have said, madame. Would you know what I have prayed? All night was I upon my knees from the moment that I recovered consciousness, and my prayers were that Heaven might see fit to let Florimond destroy your son. Not that I desire Florimond's return, for I care not if I never set eyes on him again. There is a curse upon this house, madame," the girl continued, rising from her chair and speaking now with a greater animation, whilst the Marquise recoiled a step, her face strangely altered and suddenly gone grey, "and I have prayed that that curse might be worked out upon that assassin, Marius. A fine husband, madame, you would thrust upon the daughter of Gaston de La Vauvraye."
And turning, without waiting for an answer, she moved slowly down the room, and took her way to her own desolate apartments, so full of memories of him she mourned—of him, it seemed to her, she must always mourn; of him who lay dead in the black waters of the moat beneath her window.
Stricken with a sudden, inexplicable terror, the Dowager, who for all her spirit was not without a certain superstition, felt her knees loosen, and she sank limply into a chair. She was amazed at the extent of Valerie's knowledge, and puzzled by it; she was amazed, too, at the seeming apathy of Valerie for the danger in which Florimond stood, and at her avowal that she did not care if she never again beheld him. But such amazement as came to her was whelmed fathoms-deep in her sudden fears for Marius. If he should die! She grew cold at the thought, and she sat there, her hands folded in her lap, her face grey. That mention of the curse the Church had put upon them had frozen her quick blood and turned her stout spirit to mere water.
At last she rose and went out into the open to inquire if no messenger had yet arrived, for all that she knew there was not yet time for any messenger to have reached the chateau. She mounted the winding staircase of stone that led to the ramparts, and there alone, in the November sunshine, she paced to and fro for hours, waiting for news, straining her eyes to gaze up the valley of the Isere, watching for the horseman that must come that way. Then, as time sped on and the sun approached its setting and still no one came, she bethought her that if harm had befallen Marius, none would ride that night to Condillac. This very delay seemed pregnant with news of disaster. And then she shook off her fears and tried to comfort herself. There was not yet time. Besides, what had she to fear for Marius? He was strong and quick, and Fortunio was by his side. A man was surely dead by now at La Rochette; but that man could not be Marius.
At last, in the distance, she espied a moving object, and down on the silent air of eventide came the far-off rattle of a horse's hoofs. Some one was riding, galloping that way. He was returned at last. She leaned on the battlements, her breath coming in quick, short gasps, and watched the horseman growing larger with every stride of his horse.
A mist was rising from the river, and it dimmed the figure; and she cursed the mist for heightening her anxiety, for straining further her impatience. Then a new fear was begotten in her mind. Why came one horseman only where two should have ridden? Who was it that returned, and what had befallen his companion? God send, at least, it might be Marius who rode thus, at such a breakneck pace.
At last she could make him out. He was close to the chateau now, and she noticed that his right arm was bandaged and hanging in a sling. And then a scream broke from her, and she bit her lip hard to keep another in check, for she had seen the horseman's face, and it was Fortunio's. Fortunio—and wounded! Then, assuredly, Marius was dead!
She swayed where she stood. She set her hand on her bosom, above her heart, as if she would have repressed the beating of the one, the heaving of the other; her soul sickened, and her mind seemed to turn numb, as she waited there for the news that should confirm her fears.
The hoofs of his horse thundered over the planks of the drawbridge, and came clatteringly to halt as he harshly drew rein in the courtyard below. There was a sound of running feet and men sprang to his assistance. Madame would have gone below to meet him; but her limbs seemed to refuse their office. She leaned against one of the merlons of the embattled parapet, her eyes on the spot where he should emerge from the stairs, and thus she waited, her eyes haggard, her face drawn.
He came at last, lurching in his walk, being overstiff from his long ride. She took a step forward to meet him. Her lips parted.
"Well?" she asked him, and her voice sounded harsh and strained. "How has the venture sped?"
"The only way it could," he answered. "As you would wish it."
At that she thought that she must faint. Het lungs seemed to writhe for air, and she opened her lips and took long draughts of the rising mist, never speaking for a moment or two until she had sufficiently recovered from this tremendous revulsion from her fears.
"Then, where is Marius?" she asked at last.
"He has remained behind to accompany the body home. They are bringing it here."
"They?" she echoed. "Who are they?"
"The monks of Saint Francis of Cheylas," he answered.
A something in his tone, a something in his shifty eyes, a cloud upon his fair and usually so ingenuous looking countenance aroused her suspicions and gave her resurrected courage pause.
She caught him viciously by the arms, and forced his glance to meet her own in the fading daylight.
"It is the truth you are telling me, Fortunio?" she snapped, and her voice was half-angry, half-fearful.
He faced her now, his eyes bold. He raised a hand to lend emphasis to his words.
"I swear, madame, by my salvation, that Monsieur Marius is sound and well."
She was satisfied. She released his arm.
"Does he come to-night?" she asked.
"They will be here to-morrow, madame. I rode on to tell you so."
"An odd fancy, this of his. But"—and a sudden smile overspread her face—"we may find a more useful purpose for one of these monks."
An hour ago she would willingly have set mademoiselle at liberty in exchange for the assurance that Marius had been successful in the business that had taken him over the border into Savoy. She would have done it gladly, content that Marius should be heir to Condillac. But now that Condillac was assured her son, she must have more for him; her insatiable greed for his advancement and prosperity was again upon her. Now, more than ever—now that Florimond was dead—must she have La Vauvraye for Marius, and she thought that mademoiselle would no longer be difficult to bend. The child had fallen in love with that mad Garnache, and when a woman is crossed in love, while her grief lasts it matters little to her where she weds. Did she not know it out of the fund of her own bitter experience? Was it not that—the compulsion her own father had employed to make her find a mate in a man so much older than herself as Condillac—that had warped her own nature, and done much to make her what she was?
A lover she had had, and whilst he lived she had resisted them, and stood out against this odious marriage that for convenience' sake they forced upon her. He was killed in Paris in a duel, and when the news of it came to her, she had folded her hands and let them wed her to whom they listed.
Of just such a dejection of spirit had she observed the signs in Valerie; let them profit by it while it lasted. They had been long enough without Church ceremonies at Condillac. There should be two to-morrow to make up for the empty time—a wedding and a burial.
She was going down the stairs, Fortunio a step behind her, when her mind reverted to the happening at La Rochette.
"Was it well done?" she asked.
"It made some stir," said he. "The Marquis had men with him, and had the affair taken place in France ill might have come of it."
"You shall give me a full account of it," said she, rightly thinking that there was still something to be explained. Then she laughed softly. "Yes, it was a lucky chance for us, his staying at La Rochette. Florimond was born under an unlucky star, I think, and you under a lucky one, Fortunio."
"I think so, too, as regards myself," he answered grimly, and he thought of the sword that had ploughed his cheek last night and pierced his sword-arm that morning, and he thanked such gods as in his godlessness he owned for the luck that had kept that sword from finding out his heart.
CHAPTER XXIII. THE JUDGMENT OF GARNACHE
On the morrow, which was a Friday and the tenth of November—a date to be hereafter graven on the memory of all concerned in the affairs of Condillac—the Dowager rose betimes, and, for decency's sake, having in mind the business of the day, she gowned herself in black.
Betimes, too, the Lord Seneschal rode out of Grenoble, attended by a couple of grooms, and headed for Condillac, in doing which—little though he suspected it—he was serving nobody's interests more thoroughly than Monsieur de Garnache's.
Madame received him courteously. She was in a blithe—and happy mood that morning—the reaction from her yesterday's distress of mind. The world was full of promise, and all things had prospered with her and Marius. Her boy was lord of Condillac; Florimond, whom she had hated and who had stood in the way of her boy's advancement, was dead and on his way to burial; Garnache, the man from Paris who might have made trouble for them had he ridden home again with the tale of their resistance, was silenced for all time, and the carp in the moat would be feasting by now upon what was left of him; Valerie de La Vauvraye was in a dejected frame of mind that augured well for the success of the Dowager's plans concerning her, and by noon at latest there would be priests at Condillac, and, if Marius still wished to marry the obstinate baggage, there would be no difficulty as to that.
It was a glorious morning, mild and sunny as an April day, as though Nature took a hand in the Dowager's triumph and wished to make the best of its wintry garb in honour of it.
The presence of this gross suitor of hers afforded her another source of satisfaction. There would no longer be the necessity she once had dreaded of listening to his suit for longer than it should be her pleasure to be amused by him. But when Tressan spoke, he struck the first note of discord in the perfect harmony which the Dowager imagined existed.
"Madame," said he, "I am desolated that I am not a bearer of better tidings. But for all that we have made the most diligent search, the man Rabecque has not yet been apprehended. Still, we have not abandoned hope," he added, by way of showing that there was a silver lining to his cloud of danger.
For just a moment madame's brows were knitted. She had forgotten Rabecque until now; but an instant's reflection assured her that in forgetting him she had done him no more than such honour as he deserved. She laughed, as she led the way down the garden steps—the mildness of the day and the brightness of her mood had moved her there to receive the Seneschal.
"From the sombreness of your tone one might fear your news to be of the nature of some catastrophe. What shall it signify that Rabecque eludes your men? He is but a lackey after all."
"True," said the Seneschal, very soberly; "but do not forget, I beg, that he is the bearer of letters from one who is not a lackey."
The laughter went out of her face at that. Here was something that had been lost sight of in the all-absorbing joy of other things. In calling the forgotten Rabecque to mind she had but imagined that it was no more than a matter of the tale he might tell—a tale not difficult to refute, she thought. Her word should always weigh against a lackey's. But that letter was a vastly different matter.
"He must be found, Tressan," she said sharply.
Tressan smiled uneasily, and chewed at his beard.
"No effort shall be spared," he promised her. "Of that you may be very sure. The affairs of the province are at a standstill," he added, that vanity of his for appearing a man of infinite business rising even in an hour of such anxiety, for to himself, no less than to her, was there danger should Rabecque ever reach his destination with the papers Garnache had said he carried.
"The affairs of the province are at a standstill," he repeated, "while all my energies are bent upon this quest. Should we fail to have news of his capture in Dauphiny, we need not, nevertheless, despond. I have sent men after him along the three roads that lead to Paris. They are to spare neither money nor horses in picking up his trail and effecting his capture. After all, I think we shall have him."
"He is our only danger now," the Marquise answered, "for Florimond is dead—of the fever," she added, with a sneering smile which gave Tressan sensations as of cold water on his spine. "It were an irony of fate if that miserable lackey were to reach Paris now and spoil the triumph for which we have worked so hard."
"It were, indeed," Tressan agreed with her, "and we must see that he does not."
"But if he does," she returned, "then we must stand together." And with that she set her mind at ease once more, her mood that morning being very optimistic.
"Always, I hope, Clotilde," he answered, and his little eyes leered up out of the dimples of fat in which they were embedded. "I have stood by you like a true friend in this affair; is it not so?"
"Indeed; do I deny it?" she answered half scornfully.
"As I shall stand by you always when the need arises. You are a little in my debt concerning Monsieur de Garnache."
"I—I realize it," said she, and she felt again as if the sunshine were gone from the day, the blitheness from her heart. She was moved to bid him cease leering at her and to take himself and his wooing to the devil. But she bethought her that the need for him might not yet utterly be passed. Not only in the affair of Garnache—in which he stood implicated as deeply as herself—might she require his loyalty, but also in the matter of what had befallen yesterday at La Rochette; for despite Fortunio's assurances that things had gone smoothly, his tale hung none too convincingly together; and whilst she did not entertain any serious fear of subsequent trouble, yet it might be well not utterly to banish the consideration of such a possibility, and to keep the Seneschal her ally against it. So she told him now, with as much graciousness as she could command, that she fully realized her debt, and when, encouraged, he spoke of his reward, she smiled upon him as might a girl smile upon too impetuous a wooer whose impetuosity she deprecates yet cannot wholly withstand.
"I am a widow of six months," she reminded him, as she had reminded him once before. Her widowhood was proving a most convenient refuge. "It is not for me to listen to a suitor, however my foolish heart may incline. Come to me in another six months' time."