Before Mademoiselle de Guerchi had recovered from her fright the commander spoke.
"As I am a gentleman, my beauty, if you were the Abbess of Montmartre, you could not be more difficult of access. I met a blackguard on the stairs who tried to stop me, and whom I was obliged to thrash soundly. Is what they told me on my return true? Are you really doing penance, and do you intend to take the veil?"
"Sir," answered Angelique, with great dignity, "whatever may be my plans, I have a right to be surprised at your violence and at your intrusion at such an hour."
"Before we go any farther," said de Jars, twirling round on his heels, "allow me to present to you my nephew, the Chevalier de Moranges."
"Chevalier de Moranges!" muttered Quennebert, on whose memory in that instant the name became indelibly engraven.
"A young man," continued the commander, "who has come back with me from abroad. Good style, as you see, charming appearance. Now, you young innocent, lift up your great black eyes and kiss madame's hand; I allow it."
"Monsieur le commandeur, leave my room; begone, or I shall call----"
"Whom, then? Your lackeys? But I have beaten the only one you keep, as I told you, and it will be some time before he'll be in a condition to light me downstairs: 'Begone,' indeed! Is that the way you receive an old friend? Pray be seated, chevalier."
He approached Mademoiselle de Guerchi, and, despite her resistance, seized hold of one of her hands, and forcing her to sit down, seated himself beside her.
"That's right, my girl," said he; "now let us talk sense. I understand that before a stranger you consider yourself obliged to appear astonished at my ways of going on. But he knows all about us, and nothing he may see or hear will surprise him. So a truce to prudery! I came back yesterday, but I could not make out your hiding-place till to-day. Now I'm not going to ask you to tell me how you have gone on in my absence. God and you alone know, and while He will tell me nothing, you would only tell me fibs, and I want to save you from that venial sin at least. But here I am, in as good spirits as ever, more in love than ever, and quite ready to resume my old habits."
Meantime the lady, quite subdued by his noisy entrance and ruffianly conduct, and seeing that an assumption of dignity would only draw down on her some fresh impertinence, appeared to resign herself to her position. All this time Quennebert never took his eyes from the chevalier, who sat with his face towards the partition. His elegantly cut costume accentuated his personal advantages. His jet black hair brought into relief the whiteness of his forehead; his large dark eyes with their veined lids and silky lashes had a penetrating and peculiar expression--a mixture of audacity and weakness; his thin and somewhat pale lips were apt to curl in an ironical smile; his hands were of perfect beauty, his feet of dainty smallness, and he showed with an affectation of complaisance a well-turned leg above his ample boots, the turned down tops of which, garnished with lace, fell in irregular folds aver his ankles in the latest fashion. He did not appear to be more than eighteen years of age, and nature had denied his charming face the distinctive sign of his sex for not the slightest down was visible on his chin, though a little delicate pencilling darkened his upper lip: His slightly effeminate style of beauty, the graceful curves of his figure, his expression, sometimes coaxing, sometimes saucy, reminding one of a page, gave him the appearance of a charming young scapegrace destined to inspire sudden passions and wayward fancies. While his pretended uncle was making himself at home most unceremoniously, Quennebert remarked that the chevalier at once began to lay siege to his fair hostess, bestowing tender and love-laden glances on her behind that uncle's back. This redoubled his curiosity.
"My dear girl," said the commander, "since I saw you last I have come into a fortune of one hundred thousand livres, neither more nor less. One of my dear aunts took it into her head to depart this life, and her temper being crotchety and spiteful she made me her sole heir, in order to enrage those of her relatives who had nursed her in her illness. One hundred thousand livres! It's a round sum--enough to cut a great figure with for two years. If you like, we shall squander it together, capital and interest. Why do you not speak? Has anyone else robbed me by any chance of your heart? If that were so, I should be in despair, upon my word-for the sake of the fortunate individual who had won your favour; for I will brook no rivals, I give you fair warning."
"Monsieur le commandeur," answered Angelique, "you forget, in speaking to me in that manner, I have never given you any right to control my actions."
"Have we severed our connection?"
At this singular question Angelique started, but de Jars continued--
"When last we parted we were on the best of terms, were we not? I know that some months have elapsed since then, but I have explained to you the reason of my absence. Before filling up the blank left by the departed we must give ourselves space to mourn. Well, was I right in my guess? Have you given me a successor?"
Mademoiselle de Guerchi had hitherto succeeded in controlling her indignation, and had tried to force herself to drink the bitter cup of humiliation to the dregs; but now she could bear it no longer. Having thrown a look expressive of her suffering at the young chevalier, who continued to ogle her with great pertinacity, she decided on bursting into tears, and in a voice broken by sobs she exclaimed that she was miserable at being treated in this manner, that she did not deserve it, and that Heaven was punishing her for her error in yielding to the entreaties of the commander. One would have sworn she was sincere and that the words came from her heart. If Maitre Quennebert had not witnessed the scene with Jeannin, if he had not known how frail was the virtue of the weeping damsel, he might have been affected by her touching plaint. The chevalier appeared to be deeply moved by Angelique's grief, and while his, uncle was striding up and down the room and swearing like a trooper, he gradually approached her and expressed by signs the compassion he felt.
Meantime the notary was in a strange state of mind. He had not yet made up his mind whether the whole thing was a joke arranged between de Jars and Jeannin or not, but of one thing he was quite convinced, the sympathy which Chevalier de Moranges was expressing by passionate sighs and glances was the merest hypocrisy. Had he been alone, nothing would have prevented his dashing head foremost into this imbroglio, in scorn of consequence, convinced that his appearance would be as terrible in its effect as the head of Medusa. But the presence of the widow restrained him. Why ruin his future and dry up the golden spring which had just begun to gush before his eyes, for the sake of taking part in a melodrama? Prudence and self-interest kept him in the side scenes.
The tears of the fair one and the glances of the chevalier awoke no repentance in the breast of the commander; on the contrary, he began to vent his anger in terms still more energetic. He strode up and down the oaken floor till it shook under his spurred heels; he stuck his plumed hat on the side of his head, and displayed the manners of a bully in a Spanish comedy. Suddenly he seemed to have come to a swift resolution: the expression of his face changed from rage to icy coldness, and walking up to Angelique, he said, with a composure more terrible than the wildest fury--
"My rival's name?"
"You shall never learn it from me!"
"Madame, his name?"
"Never! I have borne your insults too long. I am not responsible to you for my actions."
"Well, I shall learn it, in spite of you, and I know to whom to apply. Do you think you can play fast and loose with me and my love? No, no! I used to believe in you; I turned, a deaf ear to your traducers. My mad passion for you became known; I was the jest and the butt of the town. But you have opened my eyes, and at last I see clearly on whom my vengeance ought to fall. He was formerly my friend, and I would believe nothing against him; although I was often warned, I took no notice. But now I will seek him out, and say to him, 'You have stolen what was mine; you are a scoundrel! It must be your life, or mine!' And if, there is justice in heaven, I shall kill him! Well, madame, you don't ask me the name of this man! You well know whom I mean!"
This threat brought home to Mademoiselle de Guerchi how imminent was her danger. At first she had thought the commander's visit might be a snare laid to test her, but the coarseness of his expressions, the cynicism of his overtures in the presence of a third person, had convinced her she was wrong. No man could have imagined that the revolting method of seduction employed could meet with success, and if the commander had desired to convict her of perfidy he would have come alone and made use of more persuasive weapons. No, he believed he still had claims on her, but even if he had, by his manner of enforcing them he had rendered them void. However, the moment he threatened to seek out a rival whose identity he designated quite clearly, and reveal to him the secret it was so necessary to her interests to keep hidden, the poor girl lost her head. She looked at de Jars with a frightened expression, and said in a trembling voice--
"I don't know whom you mean."
"You don't know? Well, I shall commission the king's treasurer, Jeannin de Castille, to come here to-morrow and tell you, an hour before our duel."
"Oh no! no! Promise me you will not do that!" cried she, clasping her hands.
"Do not leave me thus! I cannot let you go till you give me your promise!"
She threw herself on her knees and clung with both her hands to de Jars' cloak, and appealing to Chevalier de Moranges, said--
"You are young, monsieur; I have never done you any harm; protect me, have pity on me, help me to soften him!"
"Uncle," said the chevalier in a pleading tone, "be generous, and don't drive this woman to despair."
"Prayers are useless!" answered the commander.
"What do you want me to do?" said Angelique. "Shall I go into a convent to atone? I am ready to go. Shall I promise never to see him again? For God's sake, give me a little time; put off your vengeance for one single day! To-morrow evening, I swear to you, you will have nothing more to fear from me. I thought myself forgotten by you and abandoned; and how should I think otherwise? You left me without a word of farewell, you stayed away and never sent me a line! And how do you know that I did not weep when you deserted me, leaving me to pass my days in monotonous solitude? How do you know that I did not make every effort to find out why you were so long absent from my side? You say you had left town but how was I to know that? Oh! promise me, if you love me, to give up this duel! Promise me not to seek that man out to-morrow!"
The poor creature hoped to work wonders with her eloquence, her tears, her pleading glances. On hearing her prayer for a reprieve of twenty-four hours, swearing that after that she would never see Jeannin again, the commander and the chevalier were obliged to bite their lips to keep from laughing outright. But the former soon regained his self-possession, and while Angelique, still on her knees before him, pressed his hands to her bosom, he forced her to raise her head, and looking straight into her eyes, said--
"To-morrow, madame, if not this evening, he shall know everything, and a meeting shall take place."
Then pushing her away, he strode towards the door.
"Oh! how unhappy I am!" exclaimed Angelique.
She tried to rise and rush after him, but whether she was really overcome by her feelings, or whether she felt the one chance of prevailing left her was to faint, she uttered a heartrending cry, and the chevalier had no choice but to support her sinking form.
De Jars, on seeing his nephew staggering under this burden, gave a loud laugh, and hurried away. Two minutes later he was once more at the tavern in the rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts.
"How's this? Alone?" said Jeannin.
"What have you done with the chevalier?"
"I left him with our charmer, who was unconscious, overcome with grief, exhausted Ha! ha! ha! She fell fainting into his arms! Ha! ha! ha!"
"It's quite possible that the young rogue, being left with her in such a condition, may cut me out."
"Do you think so?--Ha! ha! ha!"
And de Jars laughed so heartily and so infectiously that his worthy friend was obliged to join in, and laughed till he choked.
In the short silence which followed the departure of the commander, Maitre Quennebert could hear the widow still murmuring something, but he was less disposed than ever to attend to her.
"On my word," said he, "the scene now going on is more curious than all that went before. I don't think that a man has ever found himself in such a position as mine. Although my interests demand that I remain here and listen, yet my fingers are itching to box the ears of that Chevalier de Moranges. If there were only some way of getting at a proof of all this! Ah! now we shall hear something; the hussy is coming to herself."
And indeed Angelique had opened her eyes and was casting wild looks around her; she put her hand to her brow several times, as if trying to recall clearly what had happened.
"Is he gone?" she exclaimed at last. "Oh, why did you let him go? You should not have minded me, but kept him here."
"Be calm," answered the chevalier, "be calm, for heaven's sake. I shall speak to my uncle and prevent his ruining your prospects. Only don't weep any more, your tears break my heart. Ah, my God! how cruel it is to distress you so! I should never be able to withstand your tears; no matter what reason I had for anger, a look from you would make me forgive you everything."
"Noble young man!" said Angelique.
"Idiot!" muttered Maitre Quennebert; "swallow the honey of his words, do But how the deuce is it going to end? Not Satan himself ever invented such a situation."
"But then I could never believe you guilty without proof, irrefutable proof; and even then a word from you would fill my mind with doubt and uncertainty again. Yes, were the whole world to accuse you and swear to your guilt, I should still believe your simple word. I am young, madam, I have never known love as yet--until an instant ago I had no idea that more quickly than an image can excite the admiration of the eye, a thought can enter the heart and stir it to its depths, and features that one may never again behold leave a lifelong memory behind. But even if a woman of whom I knew absolutely nothing were to appeal to me, exclaiming, 'I implore your help, your protection!' I should, without stopping to consider, place my sword and my arm at her disposal, and devote myself to her service. How much more eagerly would I die for you, madam, whose beauty has ravished my heart! What do you demand of me? Tell me what you desire me to do."
"Prevent this duel; don't allow an interview to take place between your uncle and the man whom he mentioned. Tell me you will do this, and I shall be safe; for you have never learned to lie; I know."
"Of course he hasn't, you may be sure of that, you simpleton!" muttered Maitre Quennebert in his corner. "If you only knew what a mere novice you are at that game compared with the chevalier! If you only knew whom you had before you!"
"At your age," went on Angelique, "one cannot feign--the heart is not yet hardened, and is capable of compassion. But a dreadful idea occurs to me--a horrible suspicion! Is it all a devilish trick--a snare arranged in joke? Tell me that it is not all a pretence! A poor woman encounters so much perfidy. Men amuse themselves by troubling her heart and confusing her mind; they excite her vanity, they compass her round with homage, with flattery, with temptation, and when they grow tired of fooling her, they despise and insult her. Tell me, was this all a preconcerted plan? This love, this jealousy, were they only acted?"
"Oh, madame," broke in the chevalier, with an expression of the deepest indignation, "how can you for an instant imagine that a human heart could be so perverted? I am not acquainted with the man whom the commander accused you of loving, but whoever he may be I feel sure that he is worthy of your love, and that he would never have consented to such a dastardly joke. Neither would my uncle; his jealousy mastered him and drove him mad--
"But I am not dependent on him; I am my own master, and can do as I please. I will hinder this duel; I will not allow the illusion and ignorance of him who loves you and, alas that I must say it, whom you love, to be dispelled, for it is in them he finds his happiness. Be happy with him! As for me, I shall never see you again; but the recollection of this meeting, the joy of having served you, will be my consolation."
Angelique raised her beautiful eyes, and gave the chevalier a long look which expressed her gratitude more eloquently than words.
"May I be hanged!" thought Maitre Quennebert, "if the baggage isn't making eyes at him already! But one who is drowning clutches at a straw."
"Enough, madam," said the chevalier; "I understand all you would say. You thank me in his name, and ask me to leave you: I obey-yes, madame, I am going; at the risk of my life I will prevent this meeting, I will stifle this fatal revelation. But grant me one last prayer-permit me to look forward to seeing you once more before I leave this city, to which I wish I had never come. But I shall quit it in a day or two, to-morrow perhaps--as soon as I know that your happiness is assured. Oh! do not refuse my last request; let the light of your eyes shine on me for the last time; after that I shall depart--I shall fly far away for ever. But if perchance, in spite of every effort, I fail, if the commander's jealousy should make him impervious to my entreaties--to my tears, if he whom you love should come and overwhelm you with reproaches and then abandon you, would you drive me from your presence if I should then say, 'I love you'? Answer me, I beseech you."
"Go!" said she, "and prove worthy of my gratitude--or my love."
Seizing one of her hands, the chevalier covered it with passionate kisses.
"Such barefaced impudence surpasses everything I could have imagined!" murmured Quennebert: "fortunately, the play is over for to-night; if it had gone on any longer, I should have done something foolish. The lady hardly imagines what the end of the comedy will be."
Neither did Quennebert. It was an evening of adventures. It was written that in the space of two hours Angelique was to run the gamut of all the emotions, experience all the vicissitudes to which a life such as she led is exposed: hope, fear, happiness, mortification, falsehood, love that was no love, intrigue within intrigue, and, to crown all, a totally unexpected conclusion.
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