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Chapter 12

THE CHALLENGE.


Do as you will, heap wrongs on wrongs upon me,
It shall not anger me—I tell thee Claudius,
Thou art enshrined in a holy circle
My foot can never pass—nor taunt, nor insult
Can e'er induce this hand to rise against thee.
Therefore be satisfied—
Once more I tell theo I will not fight with thee.--—Old Play.

On the day on which the interview between Marguerite and the Baron de Lectoure had taken place, the result of which had proved so diametrically opposed to the hopes and expectations of the young girl, on that day at four o'clock, the dinner bell recalled the baron to the castle. Emanuel did the honors of the table, for the marchioness could not leave her husband, and Marguerite had requested permission not to come down stairs. The other guests were the notary, the relations of the family, and the witnesses. The repast was a gloomy one, notwithstanding the imperturbable gaiety of Lectoure; but it was evident that by his joyous humor, so stirring that it appeared feverish, he strove to stun his own feelings. From time to time, indeed, his boisterous liveliness failed all at once, like a lamp, the oil of which is nearly extinguished, and then it suddenly burst forth again, as doth the flame when it devours its last aliment. At seven o'clock they rose from table, and went into the drawing-room. It would be difficult to form an idea of the strange aspect which the old castle then presented; the vast apartments of which were hung with damask draperies, with gothic designs, and ornamented with furniture of the times of Louis XIII. and Louis XIV.

They had been so long closed that they appeared unaccustomed to the presence of living beings. And, therefore, notwithstanding the abundance of chandeliers with which the servants had decorated the rooms, the feeble and vascillating light of the wax candles was insufficient to illuminate the vast rooms, and in which the voice resounded as under the arches of a cathedral. The small number of the guests, who were to be joined during the evening by some three or four gentlemen of the neighbourhood, increased the gloom which appeared to hover over the emblazoned columns of the castle. In the centre of one of the saloons, the same one in which Emanuel, at the moment after his arrival from Paris, had received Captain Paul, was placed a table prepared with much solemnity, on which was laid a closed portfolio, which, to the eyes of a stranger ignorant of all that was preparing, might as well have enclosed a death warrant as a marriage contract. In the midst of these grave aspects and gloomy impressions, from time to time a shrill mocking laugh would reach the ears of a group of persons whispering to each other. It proceeded from Lectoure, who was amusing himself at the expense of some good country gentlemen, without any respect for the feelings of Emanuel, upon whom a portion of his raillery necessarily recoiled. He would, however, every now and then cast an anxious glance around the room, and then a gloomy cloud would pervade his features, for he saw not either his father-in-law, or the marchioness, or Marguerite enter the room. As we have already stated, that neither of them had been present at the dinner table, and his interview with the latter had not, however careless he endeavored to appear, left him without some uneasiness with regard to the signing of the contract, which was to take place during the evening. Neither was Emanuel exempt from all anxiety, and he had just determined to go up to his sister's apartment, when in passing through one of the rooms he saw Lectoure, who made a sign to him to draw near.

"By heaven! you have come in the nick of time, my dear count," said he to him, while appearing to pay the greatest attention to a good country gentleman, who was talking to him, and of whom he seemed on terms of perfect intimacy; "here is M. de Nozay, who is relating to me some very curious things, upon my word! But do you know," continued he, turning to the narrator, "this is most admirable, and highly interesting. I also have marshes and ponds, and I must ask my steward as soon as I get to Paris, to tell me where they are situated. And do you catch many wild ducks in this way."

"An immense quantity," replied the gentleman, and with the accent of perfect simplicity, which proved that Lectoure could, without fear of detection, for some time longer sustain the conversation in the same tone.

"What, then, is this miraculous mode of sporting?" inquired Emanuel.

"Only imagine, my dear friend," replied Lectoure, with the most complete sang froid, "that this gentleman gets into the water up to his neck,—At what time of the year, may I ask, without being indiscreet?"

"In the month of December and January."

"It is impossible that any thing can be more picturesque. I was saying, then, that he gets into the water up to his neck, puts a large toadstool over his head, and conceals himself among the bulrushes. This so completely metamorphoses him that the ducks do not recognise him, and allow him to come close to them. Did you not say so?"

"As near as I am to you."

"Bah! really?" exclaimed Emanuel.

"And this gentleman kills just as many as he pleases."

"I kill them by dozens," said he, proudly, being enchanted by the attention which the two young men were paying to the recital of his exploits.

"It must be a delightful thing for your good lady, if she be fond of ducks," said Emanuel.

"She adores them," said M. de Nozay.

"I hope you will do me the honor to introduce me to so interesting a person," said Lectoure, bowing.

"Undoubtedly baron."

"I swear to you," said Lectoure, "that instantly on my return to Paris, I will speak of this sport in the king's dressing-room, and I am persuaded that his majesty himself will make a trial of it in one of his large ponds of Versailles."

"I beg your pardon, dear marquis," said Emanuel, taking Lectoure's arm, and whispering in his ear, "this is one of our country neighbors, whom we could not do otherwise than invite on so solemn an occasion."

"It requires no apology, my dear friend," said Lectoure, using the same precaution not to be heard by the party in question: "you would have been decidedly wrong had you deprived me of so amusing a companion. He is an appendage to the dower of my future wife, and I should have been greatly chagrined not to have made his acquaintance."

"Monsieur de la Jarry," said a servant, opening the door.

"A sporting companion?" said Lectoure.

"No," replied M. de Nozay; "he is a traveller."

"Ah! ah!" exclaimed Lectoure, with an accent which announced that the newly arrived personage was to be the subject of a new attack. He had hardly made the ejaculation, when the person announced entered the room, muffled up in a Polish dress, lined with fur.

"Ah! my dear La Jarry," cried Emanuel, advancing to meet him, and holding out his hand to him, "but how you are be-furred! Upon my honor, you look like the Czar Peter."

"It is," replied La Jarry, shivering, although the weather was by no means cold, "because, when one arrives from Naples—perrrrrou!"

"Ah! the gentleman has arrived from Naples," said Lectoure, joining in the conversation.

"Direct, sir."

"Did you ascend Vesuvius, sir?"

"No. I was satisfied with looking at it from my window. And then," continued the traveller, with a tone of contempt, most humiliating to the volcano, "Vesuvius is not the most curious thing that is to be seen at Naples. A mountain that smokes? my chimney does as much, when the wind is in the wrong quarter,—and besides Madame La Jarry was dreadfully alarmed at the idea of an eruption."

"But of course you visited the Grotto del Cane?" continued Lectoure.

"To what purpose?" rejoined La Jarry; "to see an animal that has vapors—give a pill to the first poodle that passes, and he will do as much. And then, Madame La Jarry has quite a passion for dogs, and it would have given her pain to witness so cruel an exhibition."

"I hope, however, that a man of science, like yourself," said Emanuel, bowing, "did not neglect the Solfatara."

"Who, I—I would not set my foot there. I can very easily imagine what three or four acres of sulphur looks like, the sole produce of which is a few millions of matches. Moreover, Madame La Jarry cannot support the odour of sulphur."

"What do you think of our new friend?" said Emanuel, leading Lectoure into the room in which the contract was to be signed.

"I know not whether it is because I saw the other first, but I decidedly prefer Nozay."

The door again opened, and the servant loudly announced, "Monsieur Paul."

"Eh!" exclaimed Emanuel, turning round.

"Who is this?" inquired Lectoure, listlessly, "another country neighbour?"

"No; this is quite another sort of person," replied Emanuel, with agitation. "How does this man dare to present himself here?"

"Ah! ah! a plebeian—eh? a common fellow, is he not? but rich, I suppose. No—a poet? musician? painter? well, I can assure you, Emanuel, that they are beginning to receive this sort of people—that accursed philosophy has confounded every thing. It cannot be helped, my dear fellow, we must courageously make up our minds to it—we have come to that. An artist sits down by a great noble, elbows him, touches the corner of his hat to him, remains seated when the other rises—they converse together on court matters—they jest, they joke, they squabble, it is bon ton though decidedly bad taste."

"You are mistaken, Lectoure," replied Emanuel; "he is neither poet, painter, or musician: he is a man to whom I must speak alone. Just lead off Nozay, while I do the same with La Jarry."

Upon this, the two young gentlemen took each of the country neighbours by the arm, and drew them away into another room, talking of shooting and travelling. The side door through which they went out, had scarcely closed upon them, when Paul appeared at the principal one. He went into the room he already knew, each corner of which concealed a door—the one led to a library, the other to the room in which he had been shut up on his first visit, awaiting the result of the conference between Marguerite and Emanuel, and then approaching the table, he remained there for a moment, looking attentively at the two doors, as though he had expected to see one of them opened. His hope was not fallacious. In a few moments, that of the library was opened, and he perceived a white form standing within it; he rushed towards it.

"Is it you, Marguerite?" said he.

"Yes," replied a trembling voice.

"Well?"

"I told him all?"

"And—"

"And in ten minutes the contract is to be signed."

"I suspected as much—he is a miserable wretch."

"What's to be done?" cried the young girl.

"Take courage, Marguerite."

"Courage—oh! it now fails me entirely."

"There is that which will restore it," said Paul, handing her a letter.

"What does this letter contain?"

"The name of the village in which you will find your son, and the name of the woman in whose house he has been concealed."

"My son! oh! you are my guardian angel," cried Marguerite, endeavoring to kiss the hand which held the paper to her.

"Silence! someone is coming—whatever may happen, you will find one at Achards."

Marguerite suddenly closed the door without replying to him, for she had heard: the sound of her brother's footsteps. Paul turned round, and went to meet him, which he did, near the table.

"I expected you at another time, sir, and in less numerous company," said Emanuel, who was the first to speak.

"It appears to me that we are alone at this moment," said Paul, glancing around the room.

"Yes, but it is here that the contract is to be signed, and in an instant this room will be full."

"But many things may be said in an instant, count."

"You are right, sir, but you must meet a man who does not require more than an instant to comprehend them."

"I am listening," said Paul.

"You spoke to me of letters," rejoined Emanuel, drawing nearer to him, and lowering his voice.

"It is true," said Paul, with the same calmness.

"You fixed a price upon those letters?"

"That is also true."

"Well, then! if you are a man of honor, for that price, for the sum enclosed in this pocket-book, you ought now to be prepared to give them up."

"Yes, sir, yes," replied Paul, "the case stood thus, as long as I believed your sister, forgetful of the vows she had made, the fault she had committed, and even the child to which she had given birth, was seconding your ambition by her perjury. Then, I thought it would be a sufficiently bitter fate for the poor child to enter upon life without a name and without a family, not to allow him to enter it without a fortune also, and I then demanded of you, it is true, that sum in exchange for the letters in my possession. But now the state of things is altered, sir. I saw your sister throw herself upon her knees before you, I heard her entreat you not to force her into this infamous marriage, and neither prayers, nor tears, nor supplications could make any impression on your heart. It is now for me, for me who hold your honor, and the honor of your family within my hands, it is for me to save the mother from despair, as I would have saved the child from penury and misery. Those letters, sir, shall be delivered to you, when you shall, upon this table, instead of signing the marriage contract of your sister with the Baron de Lectoure, sign that of Mademoiselle Marguerite d'Auray with Anatole de Lusignan."

"Never, sir, never!"

"You shall not have them, excepting on that condition, count."

"Oh! I shall, perhaps, find some mode of compiling you to return them."

"I know not any," coldly replied Paul.

"Will you, sir, deliver those letters to me!"

"Count," replied Paul, with an expression of countenance, which, under the circumstances, was perfectly inexplicable to Emanuel, "count, listen to me?"

"Will you return me those letters, sir?"

"Count—"

"Yes, or no!"

"No!" said Paul, calmly.

"Well then, sir, you wear a sword, as I do; we are both gentlemen, or rather I would believe you to be such; let us leave the house together, and one of us shall return alone, and he, being unfettered and powerful from the death of the other, shall then do as he best pleases."

"I regret I cannot accept the offer, count."

"How? you wear that uniform, that cross upon your breast, by your side that sword, and you refuse a duel."

"Yes, Emanuel, I do refuse it, because I cannot raise my sword against you, count—believe me, I entreat you."

"You cannot fight with me!"

"I cannot, upon my honor."

"You cannot fight with me, you say?"

"At this moment a person who had entered the room without being perceived, burst into a loud laugh, close behind the two young men. Paul and Emanuel turned hastily round. Lectoure was standing close to them.

"But," said Paul, pointing to Lectoure, "I can fight with him, for he is a miserable and infamous wretch."

A burning blush passed over Lectoure's features, like the reflection of a flame. He made a step towards Paul, and then stopped.

"It is well, sir," said he; "send your second to Emanuel and they can arrange this matter."

"You will understand that between us the affair is merely deferred," said Emanuel, to Paul.

"Silence!" replied Paul, "they are announcing your mother."

"Yes, silence, and to-morrow we meet again. Lectoure," added Emanuel, "let us go to receive my mother."

Paul looked silently at the young men as they retired, and then he entered the small room in which he had before been concealed.



Alexandre Dumas pere

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