"And you will wed me then?" he bleated.
By an effort her eyes smiled down upon him, although her face was a trifle drawn.
"Have I not said that I will listen to no suitor? and what is that but a suitor's question?"
He caught her hand; he would have fallen on his knees there and then, at her feet, on the grass still wet with the night's mist, but that he in time bethought him of how sadly his fine apparel would be the sufferer.
"Yet I shall not sleep, I shall know no rest, no peace until you have given me an answer. Just an answer is all I ask. I will set a curb upon my impatience afterwards, and go through my period of ah—probation without murmuring. Say that you, will marry me in six months' time—at Easter, say."
She saw that an answer she must give, and so she gave him the answer that he craved. And he—poor fool!—never caught the ring of her voice, as false as the ring of a base coin; never guessed that in promising she told herself it would be safe to break that promise six months hence, when the need of him and his loyalty would be passed.
A man approached them briskly from the chateau. He brought news that a numerous company of monks was descending the valley of the Isere towards Condillac. A faint excitement stirred her, and accompanied by Tressan she retraced her steps and made for the battlements, whence she might overlook their arrival.
As they went Tressan asked for an explanation of this cortege, and she answered him with Fortunio's story of how things had sped yesterday at La Rochette.
Up the steps leading to the battlements she went ahead of him, with a youthful, eager haste that took no thought for the corpulence and short-windedness of the following Seneschal. From the heights she looked eastwards, shading her eyes from the light of the morning sun, and surveyed the procession which with slow dignity paced down the valley towards Condillac.
At its head walked the tall, lean figure of the Abbot of Saint Francis of Cheylas, bearing on high a silvered crucifix that flashed and scintillated in the sunlight. His cowl was thrown back, revealing his pale, ascetic countenance and shaven head. Behind him came a coffin covered by a black pall, and borne on the shoulders of six black-robed, black cowled monks, and behind these again walked, two by two, some fourteen cowled brothers of the order of Saint Francis, their heads bowed, their arms folded, and their hands tucked away in their capacious sleeves.
It was a numerous cortege, and as she watched its approach the Marquise was moved to wonder by what arguments had the proud Abbot been induced to do so much honour to a dead Condillac and bear his body home to this excommunicated roof.
Behind the monks a closed carriage lumbered down the uneven mountain way, and behind this rode four mounted grooms in the livery of Condillac. Of Marius she saw nowhere any sign, and she inferred him to be travelling in that vehicle, the attendant servants being those of the dead Marquis.
In silence, with the Seneschal at her elbow, she watched the procession advance until it was at the foot of the drawbridge. Then, while the solemn rhythm of their feet sounded across the planks that spanned the moat, she turned, and, signing to the Seneschal to follow her, she went below to meet them. But when she reached the courtyard she was surprised to find they had not paused, as surely would have been seemly. Unbidden, the Abbot had gone forward through the great doorway and down the gallery that led to the hall of Condillac. Already, when she arrived below, the coffin and its bearers had disappeared, and the last of the monks was passing from sight in its wake. Leaning against the doorway through which they were vanishing stood Fortunio, idly watching that procession and thoughtfully stroking his mustachios. About the yard lounged a dozen or so men-at-arms, practically all the garrison that was left them since the fight with Garnache two nights ago.
After the last monk had disappeared, she still remained there, expectantly; and when she saw that neither the carriage nor the grooms made their appearance, she stepped up to Fortunio to inquire into the reason of it.
"Surely Monsieur de Condillac rides in that coach," said she.
"Surely," Fortunio answered, himself looking puzzled. "I will go seek the reason, madame. Meanwhile will you receive the Abbot? The monks will have deposited their burden."
She composed her features into a fitting solemnity, and passed briskly through to the hall, Tressan ever at her heels. Here she found the coffin deposited on the table, its great black pall of velvet, silver-edged, sweeping down to the floor. No fire had been lighted that morning nor had the sun yet reached the windows, so that the place wore a chill and gloomy air that was perhaps well attuned to the purpose that it was being made to serve.
With a rare dignity, her head held high, she swept down the length of that noble chamber towards the Abbot, who stood erect as a pikestaff: at the tablehead, awaiting her. And well was it for him that he was a man of austere habit of mind, else might her majestic, incomparable beauty have softened his heart and melted the harshness of his purpose.
He raised his hand when she was within a sword's length of him, and with startling words, delivered in ringing tones, he broke the ponderous silence.
"Wretched woman," he denounced her, "your sins have found you out. Justice is to be done, and your neck shall be bent despite your stubborn pride. Derider of priests, despoiler of purity, mocker of Holy Church, your impious reign is at an end."
Tressan fell back aghast, his face blenching to the lips; for if justice was at hand for her, as the Abbot said, then was justice at hand for him as well. Where had their plans miscarried? What flaw was there that hitherto she had not perceived? Thus he questioned himself in his sudden panic.
But the Marquise was no sharer in his tremors. Her eyes opened a trifle wider; a faint colour crept into her cheeks; but her only emotions were of amazement and indignation. Was he mad, this shaveling monk? That was the question that leapt into her mind, the very question with which she coldly answered his outburst.
"For madness only," she thought fit to add, "could excuse such rash temerity as yours."
"Not madness, madame," he answered, with chill haughtiness—"not madness, but righteous indignation. You have defied the power of Holy Church as you have defied the power of our sovereign lady, and justice is upon you. We are here to present the reckoning, and see its payment made in full."
She fancied he alluded to the body in the coffin—the body of her stepson—and she could have laughed at his foolish conclusions that she must account Florimond's death an act of justice upon her for her impiety. But her rising anger left her no room for laughter.
"I thought, sir priest, you were come to bury the dead. But it rather seems you are come to talk."
He looked at her long and sternly. Then he shook his head, and the faintest shadow of a smile haunted his ascetic face.
"Not to talk, madame; oh, not to talk," he answered slowly. "But to act, I have come, madame, to liberate from this shambles the gentle lamb you hold here prisoned."
At that some of the colour left her cheeks; her eyes grew startled: at last she began to realize that all was not as she had thought—as she had been given to understand.—Still, she sought to hector it, from very instinct.
"Vertudieu!" she thundered at him. "What mean you?"
Behind her Tressan's great plump knees were knocking one against the other. Fool that he had been to come to Condillac that day, and to be trapped thus in her company, a partner in her guilt. This proud Abbot who stood there uttering denunciations had some power behind him, else had he never dared to raise his voice in Condillac within call of desperate men who would give little thought to the sacredness, of his office.
"What mean you?" she repeated—adding with a sinister smile, "in your zeal, Sir Abbot, you are forgetting that my men are within call."
"So, madame, are mine," was his astounding answer, and he waved a hand towards the array of monks, all standing with bowed heads and folded arms.
At that her laughter rang shrill through the chamber. "These poor shavelings?" she questioned.
"Just these poor shavelings, madame," he answered, and he raised his hand again and made a sign. And then an odd thing happened, and it struck a real terror into the heart of the Marquise and heightened that which was already afflicting her fat lover, Tressan.
The monks drew themselves erect. It was as if a sudden gust of wind had swept through their ranks and set them all in motion. Cowls fell back and habits were swept aside, and where twenty monks had stood, there were standing now a score of nimble, stalwart men in the livery of Condillac, all fully armed, all grinning in enjoyment of her and Tressan's dismay.
One of them turned aside and locked the door of the chamber. But his movement went unheeded by the Dowager, whose beautiful eyes, starting with horror, were now back upon the grim figure of the Abbot, marvelling almost to see no transformation wrought in him.
"Treachery!" she breathed, in an awful voice, that was no louder than a whisper, and again her eyes travelled round the company, and suddenly they fastened upon Fortunio, standing six paces from her to the right, pulling thoughtfully at his mustachios, and manifesting no surprise at what had taken place.
In a sudden, blind choler, she swept round, plucked the dagger from Tressan's belt and flung herself upon the treacherous captain. He had betrayed her in some way; he had delivered up Condillac—into whose power she had yet had no time to think. She caught him by the throat with a hand of such nervous strength as one would little have suspected from its white and delicate contour. Her dagger was poised in the air, and the captain, taken thus suddenly, was palsied with amazement and could raise no hand to defend himself from the blow impending.
But the Abbot stepped suddenly to her side and caught her wrist in his thin, transparent hand.
"Forbear," he bade her. "The man is but a tool."
She fell back—dragged back almost by the Abbot—panting with rage and grief; and then she noticed that during the moment that her back had been turned the pall had been swept from the coffin. The sight of the bare deal box arrested her attention, and for the moment turned aside her anger. What fresh surprise did they prepare her?
No sooner had she asked herself the question than herself she answered it, and an icy hand seemed to close about her heart. It was Marius who was dead. They had lied to her. Marius's was the body they had borne to Condillac—those men in the livery of her stepson.
With a sudden sob in her throat she took a step towards the coffin. She must see for herself. One way or the other she must at once dispel this torturing doubt. But ere she had taken three paces, she stood arrested again, her hands jerked suddenly to the height of her breast, her lips parting to let out a scream of terror. For the coffin-lid had slowly raised and clattered over. And as if to pile terror for her, a figure rose from the box, and, sitting up, looked round with a grim smile; and the figure was the figure of a man whom she knew to be dead, a man who had died by her contriving—it was the figure of Garnache. It was Garnache as he had been on the occasion of his first coming to Condillac, as he had been on the day they had sought his life in this very room. How well she knew that great hooked nose and the bright, steely blue eyes, the dark brown hair, ash-coloured at the temples where age had paled it, and the fierce, reddish mustachios, bristling above the firm mouth and long, square chin.
She stared and stared, her beautiful face livid and distorted, till there was no beauty to be seen in it, what time the Abbot regarded her coldly and Tressan, behind her, turned almost sick with terror. But not the terror of ghosts was it afflicted him. He saw in Garnache a man who was still of the quick—a man who by some miracle had escaped the fate to which they supposed him to have succumbed; and his terror was the terror of the reckoning which that man would ask.
After a moment's pause, as if relishing the sensation he had created, Garnache rose to his feet and leapt briskly to the ground. There was nothing ghostly about the thud with which he alighted on his feet before her. A part of her terror left her; yet not quite all. She saw that she had but a man to deal with, yet she began to realize that this man was very terrible.
"Garnache again!" she gasped.
He bowed serenely, his lips smiling.
"Aye, madame," he told her pleasantly, "always Garnache. Tenacious as a leech, madame; and like a leech come hither to do a little work of purification."
Her eyes, now kindling again as she recovered from her recent fears, sought Fortunio's shifty glance. Garnache followed it and read what was in her mind.
"What Fortunio has done," said he, "he has done by your son's authority and sanction."
"Marius?" she inquired, and she was almost fearful lest she should hear that by her son he meant her stepson, and that Marius was dead.
"Yes, Marius," he answered her. "I bent him to my will. I threatened him that he and this fellow of his, this comrade in arms so worthy of his master, should be broken on the wheel together unless I were implicitly obeyed. If they would save their lives, this was their chance. They were wise, and they took it, and thus afforded me the means of penetrating into Condillac and rescuing Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye."
"Then Marius—?" She left her question unfinished, her hand clutching nervously at the bosom of her gown.
"Is sound and well, as Fortunio truthfully will have told you. But he is not yet out of my grasp, nor will be until the affairs of Condillac are settled. For if I meet with further opposition here, broken on the wheel he shall be yet, I promise you."
Still she made a last attempt at hectoring it. The long habit of mastership dies hard. She threw back her head; her courage revived now that she knew Marius to be alive and sound.
"Fine words," she sneered. "But who are you that you can threaten so and promise so?"
"I am the Queen-Regent's humble mouthpiece, madame. What I threaten, I threaten in her name. Ruffle it no longer, I beseech you. It will prove little worth your while. You are deposed, madame, and you had best take your deposition with dignity and calm—in all friendliness do I advise it."
"I am not yet come so low that I need your advice," she answered sourly.
"You may before the sun sets," he answered, with his quiet smile. "The Marquis de Condillac and his wife are still at La Rochette, waiting until my business here is done that they may come home."
"His wife?" she cried.
"His wife, madame. He has brought home a wife from Italy."
"Then—then—Marius?" She said no more than that. Maybe she had no intention of muttering even so much of her thoughts aloud. But Garnache caught the trend of her mind, and he marvelled to see how strong a habit of thought can be. At once upon hearing of the Marquis's marriage her mind had flown back to its wonted pondering of the possibilities of Marius's wedding Valerie.
But Garnache dispelled such speculations.
"No, madame," said he. "Marius looks elsewhere for a wife—unless mademoiselle of her own free will should elect to wed him—a thing unlikely." Then, with a sudden change to sternness—"Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye is well, madame?" he asked.
She nodded her head, but made no answer in words. He turned to Fortunio.
"Go fetch her," he bade the captain, and one of the men unlocked the door to let Fortunio out upon that errand.
The Parisian took a turn in the apartment, and came close to Tressan. He nodded to the Seneschal with a friendliness that turned him sick with fright.
"Well met, my dear Lord Seneschal. I am rejoiced to find you here. Had it been otherwise I must have sent for you. There is a little matter to be settled between us. You may depend upon me to settle it to your present satisfaction, if to your future grief." And, with a smile, he passed on, leaving the Seneschal too palsied to answer him, too stricken to disclaim his share in what had taken place at Condillac.
"You have terms to make with me?" the Marquise questioned proudly.
"Certainly," he answered, with his grim courtesy. "Upon your acceptance of those terms shall depend Marius's life and your own future liberty."
"What are they?"
"That within the hour all your people—to the last scullion—shall have laid down their arms and vacated Condillac."
It was beyond her power to refuse.
"The Marquis will not drive me forth?" she half affirmed, half asked.
"The Marquis, madame, has no power in this matter. It is for the Queen to deal with your insubordination—for me as the Queen's emissary."
"If I consent, monsieur, what then?"
He shrugged his shoulders, and smiled quietly.
"There is no 'if,' madame. Consent you must, willingly or unwillingly. To make sure of that have I come back thus and with force. But should you deliver battle, you will be worsted—and it will be very ill for you. Bid your men depart, as I have told you, and you also shall have liberty to go hence."
"Aye, but whither?" she cried, in a sudden frenzy of anger.
"I realize, madame, from what I know of your circumstances that you will be well-nigh homeless. You should have thought of how one day you might come to be dependent upon the Marquis de Condillac's generosity before you set yourself to conspire against him, before you sought to encompass his death. You can hardly look for generosity at his hands now, and so you will be all but homeless, unless—" He paused, and his eyes strayed to Tressan and were laden with a sardonic look.
"You take a very daring tone with me," she told him. "You speak to me as no man has ever dared to speak."
"When the power was yours, madame, you dealt with me as none has ever dared to deal. The advantage now is mine. Behold how I use it in your own interests; observe how generously I shall deal with you who deal in murder. Monsieur de Tressan," he called briskly. The Seneschal started forward as if some one had prodded him suddenly.
"Mu—monsieur?" said he.
"With you, too, will I return good for evil. Come hither."
The Seneschal approached, wondering what was about to take place. The Marquise watched his coming, a cold glitter in her eye, for—keener of mental vision than Tressan—she already knew the hideous purpose that was in Garnache's mind.
The soldiers grinned; the Abbot looked on with an impassive face.
"The Marquise de Condillac is likely to be homeless henceforth," said the Parisian, addressing the Seneschal. "Will you not be gallant enough to offer her a home, Monsieur de Tressan?"
"Will I?" gasped Tressan, scarce daring to believe his own ears, his eyes staring with a look that was almost one of vacancy. "Madame well knows how readily."
"Oho?" crowed Garnache, who had been observing madame's face. "She knows? Then do so, monsieur; and on that condition I will forget your indiscretions here. I pledge you my word that you shall not be called to further account for the lives that have been lost through your treachery and want of loyalty, provided that of your own free will you lay down your Seneschalship of Dauphiny an office which I cannot consent to see you filling hereafter."
Tressan stared from the Dowager to Garnache and back to the Dowager. She stood there as if Garnache's words had turned her into marble, bereft of speech through very rage. And then the door opened, and Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye entered, followed closely by Fortunio.
At sight of Garnache she stood still, set her hand on her heart, and uttered a low cry. Was it indeed Garnache she saw—Garnache, her brave knight-errant? He looked no longer as he had looked during those days when he had been her gaoler; but he looked as she liked to think of him since she had accounted him dead. He advanced to meet her, a smile in his eyes that had something wistful in it. He held out both hands to her, and she took them, and there, under the eyes of all, before he could snatch them away, she had stooped and kissed them, whilst a murmur of "Thank God! Thank God!" escaped from her lips to heaven.
"Mademoiselle, mademoiselle!" he remonstrated, when it was too late to stay her. "You must not; it is not seemly in me to allow it."
He saw in the act no more than an expression of the gratitude for what he had done to serve her, and for the risk in which his life had been so willingly placed in that service. Under the suasion of his words she grew calm again; then, suddenly, a fear stirred her once more in that place where she had known naught but fears.
"Why are you here, monsieur? You have come into danger again?"
"No, no," he laughed. "These are my own men at least, for the time being. I am come in power this time, to administer justice. What shall be done with this lady, mademoiselle?" he asked; and knowing well the merciful sweetness of the girl's soul, he added, "Speak, now. Her fate shall rest in your hands."
Valerie looked at her enemy, and then her eyes strayed round the room and took stock of the men standing there in silence, of the Abbot who still remained at the table-head, a pale, scarce-interested spectator of this odd scene.
The change had come so abruptly. A few minutes ago she had been still a prisoner, suffering tortures at having heard that Marius was to return that day, and that, willy-nilly, she must wed him now. And now she was free it seemed: her champion was returned in power, and he stood bidding her decide the fate of her late oppressors.
Madame's face was ashen. She judged the girl by her own self; she had no knowledge of any such infinite sweetness as that of this child's nature, a sweetness that could do no hurt to any. Death was what the Marquise expected, since she knew that death would she herself have pronounced had the positions been reversed. But—
"Let her go in peace, monsieur," she heard mademoiselle say, and she could not believe but that she was being mocked. And as if mockery were at issue, Garnache laughed.
"We will let her go, mademoiselle—yet not quite her own way. You must not longer remain unrestrained, madame," he told the Marquise. "Natures such as yours need a man's guidance. I think you will be sufficiently punished if you wed this rash Monsieur de Tressan, just as he will be sufficiently punished later when disillusionment follows his present youthful ardour. Make each other happy, then," and he waved his arms from one to the other. "Our good Father, here, will tie the knot at once, and then, my Lord Seneschal, you may bear home your bride. Her son shall follow you."
But the Marquise blazed out now. She stamped her foot, and her eyes seemed to have taken fire.
"Never, sir! Never in life!" she cried. "I will not be so constrained. I am the Marquise de Condillac, monsieur. Do not forget it!"
"I am hardly in danger of doing that. It is because I remember it that I urge you to change your estate with all dispatch; and cease to be the Marquise de Condillac. That same Marquise has a heavy score against her. Let her evade payment by this metamorphosis. I have opened for you, madame, a door through which you may escape."
"You are insolent," she told him. "By God, sir! I am no baggage to be disposed of by the will of any man."
At that Garnache himself took fire. Her anger proved as the steel smiting the flint of his own nature, and one of his fierce bursts of blazing passion whirled about her head.
"And what of this child, here?" he thundered. "What of her, madame? Was she a baggage to be disposed of by the will of any man or woman? Yet you sought to dispose of her against her heart, against her nature, against her plighted word. Enough said!" he barked, and so terrific was his mien and voice that the stout-spirited Dowager was cowed, and recoiled as he advanced a step in her direction. "Get you married. Take you this man to husband, you who with such calmness sought to drive others into unwilling wedlock. Do it, madame, and do it now, or by the Heaven above us, you shall come to Paris with me, and you'll not find them nice there. It will avail you little to storm and shout at them that you are Marquise de Condillac. As a murderess and a rebel shall you be tried, and as both or either it is odds you will be broken on the wheel—and your son with you. So make your choice, madame."
He ceased. Valerie had caught him by the arm. At once his fury fell from him. He turned to her.
"What is it, child?"
"Do not compel her, if she will not wed him," said she. "I know—and—she did not—how terrible a thing it is."
"Nay, patience, child," he soothed her, smiling now, his smile as the sunshine that succeeds a thunderstorm.
"It is none so bad with her. She is but coy. They had plighted their troth already, so it seems. Besides, I do not compel her. She shall marry him of her own free will—or else go to Paris and stand her trial and the consequences."
"They had plighted their troth, do you say?"
"Well—had you not, Monsieur le Seneschal?"
"We had, monsieur," said Tressan, with conscious pride; "and for myself I am ready for these immediate nuptials."
"Then, in God's name, let Madame give us her answer now. We have not the day to waste."
She stood looking at him, her toe tapping the ground, her eyes sullenly angry. And in the end, half-fainting in her great disdain, she consented to do his will. Paris and the wheel formed too horrible an alternative; besides, even if that were spared her, there was but a hovel in Touraine for her, and Tressan, for all his fat ugliness, was wealthy.
So the Abbot, who had lent himself to the mummery of coming there to read a burial service, made ready now, by order of the Queen's emissary, to solemnize a wedding.
It was soon done. Fortunio stood sponsor for Tressan, and Garnache himself insisted upon handing the Lord Seneschal his bride, a stroke of irony which hurt the proud lady of Condillac more than all her sufferings of the past half-hour.
When it was over and the Dowager Marquise de Condillac had been converted into the Comtesse de Tressan, Garnache bade them depart in peace and at once.
"As I have promised, you shall be spared all prosecution, Monsieur de Tressan," he assured the Seneschal at parting. "But you must resign at once the King's Seneschalship of Dauphiny, else will you put me to the necessity of having you deprived of your office—and that might entail unpleasant consequences."
They went, madame with bowed head, her stubborn pride broken at last as the Abbot of Saint Francis had so confidently promised her. After them went the Abbot and the lackeys of Florimond, and Fortunio went with these to carry out Garnache's orders that the men of the Dowager's garrison be sent packing at once, leaving with the Parisian, in the great hall, just Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye.
CHAPTER XXIV. SAINT MARTIN'S EVE
Uneasy in his mind, seeking some way to tell the thing and acquit himself of the painful task before him, Garnache took a turn in the apartment.
Mademoiselle leaned against the table, which was still burdened by the empty coffin, and observed him. His ponderings were vain; he could find no way to tell, his story. She had said that she did not exactly love this Florimond, that her loyalty to him was no more than her loyalty to her father's wishes. Nevertheless, he thought, what manner of hurt must not her pride receive when she learned that Florimond had brought him home a wife? Garnache was full of pity for her and for the loneliness that must be hers hereafter, mistress of a vast estate in Dauphiny, alone and friendless. And he was a little sorry for himself and the loneliness which, he felt, would be his hereafter; but that was by the way.
At last it was she herself who broke the silence.
"Monsieur," she asked him, and her voice was strained and husky, "were you in time to save Florimond?"
"Yes, mademoiselle," he answered readily, glad that by that question she should have introduced the subject. "I was in time."
"And Marius?" she inquired. "From what I heard you say, I take it that he has suffered no harm."
"He has suffered none. I have spared him that he might participate in the joy of his mother at her union with Monsieur de Tressan."
"I am glad it was so, monsieur. Tell me of it." Her voice sounded formal and constrained.
But either he did not hear or did not heed the question.
"Mademoiselle," he said slowly. "Florimond is coming—"
"Florimond?" she broke in, and her voice went shrill, as if with a sudden fear, her cheeks turned white as chalk. The thing that for months she had hoped and prayed for was come at last, and it struck her almost dead with terror.
He remarked the change, and set it down to a natural excitement. He paused a moment. Then:
"He is still at La Rochette. But he does no more than wait until he shall have learned that his stepmother has departed from Condillac."
"But—why—why—? Was he then in no haste to come to me?" she inquired, her voice faltering.
"He is—" He stopped and tugged at his mustachios, his eyes regarding her sombrely. He was close beside her now, where he had halted, and he set his hand gently upon her shoulder, looked down into that winsome little oval face she raised to his.
"Mademoiselle," he inquired, "would it afflict you very sorely if you were not destined, after all, to wed the Lord of Condillac?"
"Afflict me?" she echoed. The very question set her gasping with hope. "No—no, monsieur; it would not afflict me."
"That is true? That is really, really true?" he cried, and his tone seemed less despondent.
"Don't you know how true it is?" she said, in such accents and with such a shy upward look that something seemed suddenly to take Garnache by the throat. The blood flew to his cheeks. He fancied an odd meaning in those words of hers—a meaning that set his pulses throbbing faster than joy or peril had ever set them yet. Then he checked himself, and deep down in his soul he seemed to hear a peal of mocking laughter—just such a burst of sardonic mirth as had broken from his lips two nights ago when on his way to Voiron. Then he went back to the business he had in hand.
"I am glad it is so with you," he said quietly. "Because Florimond has brought him home a wife."
The words were out, and he stood back as stands a man who, having cast an insult, prepares to ward the blow he expects in answer. He had looked for a storm, a wild, frantic outburst; the lightning of flashing, angry eyes; the thunder of outraged pride. Instead, here was a gentle calm, a wan smile overspreading her sweet, pale face, and then she hid that face in her hands, buried face and hands upon his shoulder and fell to weeping very quietly.
This, he thought, was almost worse than the tempest he had looked for. How was he to know that these tears were the overflow of a heart that was on the point of bursting from sheer joy? He patted her shoulder; he soothed her.
"Little child," he whispered in her ear. "What does it matter? You did not really love him. He was all unworthy of you. Do not grieve, child. So, so, that is better."
She was looking up at him, smiling through the tears that suffused er eyes.
"I am weeping for joy, monsieur," said she.
"For joy?" quoth he. "Vertudieu! There is no end to the things a woman weeps for!"
Unconsciously, instinctively almost, she nestled closer to him, and again his pulses throbbed, again that flush came to overspread his lean countenance. Very softly he whispered in her ear:
"Will you go to Paris with me, mademoiselle?"
He meant by that question no more than to ask whether, now that here in Dauphiny she would be friendless and alone, it were not better for her to place herself under the care of the Queen-Regent. But what blame to her if she misunderstood the question, if she read in it the very words her heart was longing to hear from him? The very gentleness of his tone implied his meaning to be the one she desired. She raised her hazel eyes again to his, she nestled closer to him, and then, with a shy fluttering of her lids, a delicious red suffusing her virgin cheek, she answered very softly:
"I will go anywhere with you, monsieur—anywhere."
With a cry he broke from her. There was no fancying now; no possibility of misunderstanding. He saw how she had misread his question, how she had delivered herself up to him in answer. His almost roughness startled her, and she stared at him as he stamped down the apartment and back to where she stood, seeking in vain to master the turbulence of his feelings. He stood still again. He took her by the shoulders and held her at arms' length, before him, thus surveying her, and there was trouble in his keen eyes.
"Mademoiselle, mademoiselle!" he cried. "Valerie, my child, what are you saying to me?"
"What would you have me say?" she asked, her eyes upon the floor. "Was I too forward? It seemed to me there could not be question of such a thing between us now. I belong to you. What man has ever served a woman as you have served me? What better friend, what nobler lover did ever woman have? Why then need I take shame at confessing my devotion?"
He swallowed hard, and there was a mist before his eyes—eyes that had looked unmoved on many a scene of carnage.
"You know not what you do," he cried out, and his voice was as the voice of one in pain. "I am old."
"Old?" she echoed in deep surprise, and she looked up at him, as if she sought evidence of what he stated.
"Aye, old," he assured her bitterly. "Look at the grey in my hair, the wrinkles in my face. I am no likely lover for you, child. You'll need a lusty, comely young gallant."
She looked at him, and a faint smile flickered at the corners of her lips. She observed his straight, handsome figure; his fine air of dignity and of strength. Every inch a man was he; never lived there one who was more a man; and what more than such a man could any maid desire?
"You are all that I would have you," she answered him, and in his mind he almost cursed her stubbornness, her want of reason.
"I am peevish and cross-grained," he informed her, "and I have grown old in ignorance of woman's ways. Love has never come to me until now. What manner of lover, think you, can I make?"
Her eyes were on the windows at his back. The sunshine striking through them seemed to give her the reply she sought.
"To-morrow will be Saint Martin's Day," she told him; "yet see with a warmth the sun is shining."
"A poor, make-believe Saint Martin's Summer," said he. "I am fitly answered by your allegory."
"Oh, not make-believe, not make-believe," she exclaimed. "There is no make-believe in the sun's brightness and its warmth. We see it and we feel it, and we are none the less glad of it because the time of year should be November; rather do we take the greater joy in it. And it is not yet November in your life, not yet by many months."
"What you say is apt, perhaps," said he, "and may seem more apt than it is since my name is Martin, though I am no saint." Then he shook off this mood that he accounted selfish; this mood that would take her—as the wolf takes the lamb—with no thought but for his own hunger.
"No, no!" he cried out. "It were unworthy in me!"
"When I love you, Martin?" she asked him gently.
A moment he stared at her, as if through those clear eyes he would penetrate to the very depths of her maiden soul. Then he sank on to his knees before her as any stripling lover might have done, and kissed her hands in token of the fact that he was conquered.