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THE DILIGENCE FROM ROUEN AND THE MASQUERADING LADIES
The diligence from Rouen rolled and careened along the road to Rochelle. Eddies of snow, wind-formed, whirled hither and thither, or danced around the vehicle like spirits possessed of infinite mischief. Here and there a sickly tree stretched forth its barren arms blackly against the almost endless reaches of white. Sometimes the horses struggled through drifts which nearly reached their bellies; again, they staggered through hidden marsh pools. The postilion, wrapped in a blanket, cursed deeply and with ardor. He swung his whip not so much to urge the horses as to keep the blood moving in his body. Devil take women who forced him to follow the king's highway in such weather! Ten miles back they had passed a most promising inn. Stop? Not they! Rochelle, Rochelle, and nothing but Rochelle!
"How lonely!" A woman had pushed aside the curtain and was peering into the night. There was no light save that which came from the pallor of the storm, dim and misty. "It has stopped snowing. But how strange the air smells!"
"It is the sea . . . We are nearing the city. It is abominably cold."
"The sea, the sea!" The voice was rich and young, but heavy with weariness. "And we are nearing Rochelle? Good! My confidence begins to return. You must hide me well, Anne."
"Mazarin shall never find you. You will remain in the city till I take leave of earthly affairs."
"A convent, Anne? Oh, if you will. But why Canada? You are mad to think of it. You are but eighteen. You have not even known what love is yet."
There was a laugh. It was light-hearted. It was a sign that the sadness and weariness which weighed upon the voice were ephemeral.
"That is no answer."
"Anne, have I had occasion to fall in love with any man when I know man so well? You make me laugh! Not one of them is worthy a sigh. To make fools of them; what a pastime!"
"Take care that one does not make a fool of you, Gabrielle."
"Ah, he would be worth loving!"
"But what are you going to do with the property?"
"Mazarin has already posted the seals upon it."
"About to be. That is why I fled to Rouen. My mother warned me that the cardinal had found certain documents which proved that a conspiracy was forming at the hôtel. Monsieur's name was the only one he could find. His Eminence thought that by making a prisoner of me he might force me to disclose the names of those most intimate with monsieur. He is searching France for me, Anne; and you know how well he searches when he sets about it. Will he find me? I think not. His arm can not reach very far into Spain. How lucky it was that I should meet you in Rouen! I was wondering where in the world I should go. And I shall live peacefully in that little red château of yours. Oh! if you knew what it is to be free! The odious life I have lived! He used to bring his actress into the dining-hall. Pah! the paint was so thick on her face that she might have been a negress for all you could tell what her color was. And he left her a house near the forest park and seven thousand livres beside. Free!" She drew in deep breaths of briny air.
"Gabrielle, you are a mystery to me. Four years out of convent, and not a lover; I mean one upon whom you might bestow love. And that handsome Vicomte d'Halluys?"
"Pouf! I would not throw him yesterday's rose."
"And Monsieur de Saumaise?"
"Well, yes; he is a gallant fellow. And I fear that I have brought trouble into his household. But love him? As we love our brothers. The pulse never bounds, the color never comes and goes, the tongue is never motionless nor the voice silenced in the presence of a brother. My love for Victor is friendship without envy, distrust, or self-interest. He came upon my sadness and shadow as a rainbow comes on the heels of a storm. But love him with the heart's love, the love which a woman gives to one man and only once?"
"Poor Victor!" said Anne.
"Oh, do not worry about Victor. He is a poet. One of their prerogatives is to fall in love every third moon. But the poor boy! Anne, I have endangered his head, and quite innocently, too. I knew not what was going on till too late."
"And you put your name to that paper!"
"What would you? Monsieur le Comte would have broken my wrist, and there are black and blue spots on my arm yet."
"Tell me about that grey cloak."
"There is nothing to tell, save that Victor did not wear it. And something told me from the beginning that he was innocent."
"And the Chevalier du Cévennes could not have worn it because he was in Fontainebleau that dreadful night."
"The Chevalier du Cévennes is living in Rochelle?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yes. Was it not gallant of him to accept punishment in Victor's stead?"
"What else could he do, being a gentleman?"
"Why does your voice grow cold at the mention of his name?" asked Anne.
"It is your imagination, dear. My philosophy has healed the wounded vanity. Point out the Chevalier to me, I should like to see the man who declined an alliance with the house of Montbazon."
"I thought that you possessed a miniature of him?"
"It contained only the face of a boy; I want to see the man. Besides, I do not exactly know what has become of the picture, which was badly painted."
"I will point him out. Was the Comte d'Hérouville among the conspirators?"
"Yes. How I hate that man!"
"Keep out of his path, Gabrielle. He would stop at nothing. There is madness in that man's veins."
"I do not fear him. Many a day will pass ere I see him again, or poor Victor, for that matter. I wonder where he has gone?"
"I would I could fathom that heart of yours."
"It is very light and free just now."
"Am I your confidante in all things?"
"I believe so."
"The year I lived with you at the hôtel taught me that you are like sand; a great many strange things going on below."
"What a compliment! But give up trying to fathom me, Anne. I love you better when you laugh. Must you be a nun, you who were once so gay?"
"I am weary."
"Of what? You ask me if I am your confidante in all things; Anne, are you mine?"
"So. Well, I shall not question you." The speaker drew her companion closer and retucked the robes; and silence fell upon the two, silence broken only by the wind, the flapping leather curtains, and the muffled howling of the postilion.
It was twelve o'clock when the diligence drew up before the Corne d'Abondance. The host came out, holding a candle above his head and shading his eyes with his unengaged hand.
"Maître, I have brought you two guests," said the postilion, sliding off his horse and grunting with satisfaction.
"Gentlemen, I hope."
"Ladies!" and lowering his voice, the postilion added: "Ladies of high degree, I can tell you. One is the granddaughter of an admiral and the other can not be less than a duchess."
"Ladies? Oh, that is most unfortunate! The ladies' chamber is all upset, and every other room is engaged. They will be compelled to wait fully an hour."
"That will not inconvenience us, Monsieur," said a voice from the window of the diligence, "provided we may have something hot to drink; wines and hot water, with a dash of sugar and brandy. Come, my dear; and don't forget your mask."
"How disappointing that the hôtel was closed! Well, we can put up with the tavern till morning."
With some difficulty the two women alighted and entered the common assembly room, followed by the postilion who staggered under bulky portmanteaus. They approached the fire unconcernedly, ignoring the attention which their entrance aroused. The youngest gave a slight scream as the Iroquois rose abruptly and moved away from the chimney.
"Holy Virgin!" Anne cried, clutching Gabrielle's arm; "it is an Indian!" The vision of quiet in a Quebec convent grew vague.
"Hush! he would not be here if he were dangerous." Gabrielle turned her grey-masked face toward the fire and rested a hand on the broad mantel.
Victor, who had taken a table which sat in the shadow and who was trying by the aid of champagne to forget the tragic scene of the hour gone, came near to wasting a glass of that divine nectar of Nepenthe. He brushed his eyes and held a palm to his ear. "That voice!" he murmured. "It is not possible!"
At this same moment the vicomte turned his head, his face describing an expression of doubt and astonishment. He was like a man trying to recollect the sound of a forgotten voice, a melody. He stared at the two figures, the one of medium height, slender and elegant, the other plump and small, at the grey mask and then at the black. These were not masks of coquetry and larking, masks which begin at the brow and end at the lips: they were curtained. Seized, by an impulse, occult or mechanic, the vicomte rose and drew near. The younger woman made a gesture. Was it of recognition? The vicomte could not say. But he saw her lean toward her companion, whisper a word which caused the grey mask to wheel quickly. She seemed to grow taller, while a repelling light flashed from the eyeholes of the grey mask.
"Mesdames," said the vicomte with elaborate courtesy, "the sight of the Indian doubtless alarms you, but he is perfectly harmless. Permit a gentleman to offer his services to two ladies who appear to be traveling alone."
Father Chaumonot frowned from his chair and would have risen but for the restraining hand of Bouchard, who, like all seamen, was fond of gallantry.
"Monsieur," replied the black mask, coldly and impudently, "we are indeed alone; and upon the strength of this assertion, will you not resume your conversation with yonder gentlemen and allow my companion and myself to continue ours?"
"Mademoiselle," said the vicomte eagerly, "I swear to you, that your voice is familiar to my ears." He addressed the black mask, but he looked searchingly at the grey. His reward was small. She maintained under his scrutiny an icy, motionless dignity.
"And permit me to say," returned the black mask, "that while your voice is not familiar, the tone is, and very displeasing to my ears. And if you do not at once resume your seat, I shall be forced to ask aid of yonder priest."
"Yes, yes! that voice I have heard before!" Then, quick as a flash, he had plucked the strings of her mask, disclosing a round, piquant face, now white with fury.
"Oh, Monsieur!" she cried; "if I were a man!"
"This grows interesting," whispered Bouchard to Du Puys.
"Anne de Vaudemont?" exclaimed the vicomte; "in Rochelle?" The vicomte stepped back confused. He stared undecidedly at mademoiselle's companion. She deliberately turned her back.
Victor was upon his feet, and his bottle of wine lay frothing on the floor. He came forward.
"Vicomte, your actions are very disagreeable to me," he said. The end of his scabbard was aggressively high in the air. He was not so tall a man as the vicomte, but his shoulders were as broad and his chest as deep.
Neither the vicomte nor the poet heard the surprised exclamation which came with a muffled sound from behind the grey mask. She swayed slightly. The younger threw her arms around her, but never took her eyes from the flushed countenance of Victor de Saumaise.
"Indeed!" replied the vicomte coolly; "and how do you account for that?" He spoke with that good nature which deceives only those who are not banterers themselves.
"It is not necessary to particularize," proudly, "to a gentleman of your wide accomplishments."
"Monsieur de Saumaise, your servant," said the vicomte. "Ladies, I beg of you to accept my apologies. I admit the extent of my rudeness, Mademoiselle." He bowed and turned away, leaving Victor puzzled and diffident.
"Mademoiselle de Vaudemont," he said, "is it possible that I see you here in Rochelle?" How his heart beat at the sight of that figure standing by the mantel.
"And you, Monsieur; what are you doing here?"
"I am contemplating a journey to Spain," carelessly.
"Success to your journey," said Anne, frankly holding out a hand. But she was visibly distressed as she glanced at her companion. "Is the Vicomte d'Halluys going to Spain also?" smiling.
Victor shrugged. "He professes to have business in Quebec. That beautiful Paris has grown so unhealthy!"
"Quebec?" The woman in the grey mask spun on her heels. "Monsieur, did I hear you say Quebec?"
"Yes, Madame la Comtesse."
The grey mask made a gesture of dissent. Presently she spoke. "Monsieur, you have made a mistake. There is no Madame la Comtesse here."
Victor did not reply.
"Do you hear, Monsieur?"
"Yes, Madame. Our eyes and ears sometimes deceive us, but never the heart."
Madame flung out a hand in protest. "Never mind, Monsieur, what the heart says; it is not worth while."
Victor grew pale. There was a double meaning to this sentence. Anne eyed him anxiously.
A disturbance at the table caught Victor's ear. He saw that the vicomte and the others were proceeding toward the stairs. The vicomte was last to mount. At the landing he stopped, looked down at the group by the chimney, shrugged, and went on.
Maître le Borgne came in from the kitchens. "If the ladies will follow me I will conduct them to their rooms. A fire is under way. The wines and brandy and sugar are on the table; and the warming-pan stands by the chimney."
"Anne," said madame, "go you to the room with the host. I will follow you shortly. I have something to say to Monsieur de Saumaise."
There was a decision in her tones which caused Victor to experience a chill not devoid of dread. If only he could read the face behind the mask!
Anne followed Maître le Borgne upstairs. Victor and madame were alone. He waited patiently for her to speak. She devoted some moments absently to crushing with her boot the stray pieces of charred wood which littered the broad hearthstone.
"Victor," she said of a sudden, "forgive me!"
"Forgive you for what?"
"For innocently bringing this trouble upon you, for endangering your head."
"Oh, that is nothing. Danger is spice to a man's palate. But will you not remove your mask that I may look upon your face while you speak?" There was a break in his voice. This unexpected meeting seemed to have taken the solids from under his feet.
"You have been drinking!" with agitation.
"I have been striving to forget. But wine makes us reckless, not forgetful." He rumpled his hair. "But will you not remove the mask?"
"Victor, you ought never to look upon my face again."
"Do you suppose that I could forget your face, a single contour or line of it?"
"I have been so thoughtless! Forgive me! It was my hope that many months should pass ere we met again. But fate has willed it otherwise. I have but few words to say to you. I beg you to listen earnestly to them. It is true that in your company I have passed many a pleasant hour. Your wit, your gossip, your excellent verses, and your unending gaiety dispelled many a cloud of which you knew nothing, nor shall know. When I fled from Paris there was a moment when I believed you to be guilty of that abominable crime. That grey cloak; I had seen you wear it. Forgive me for doubting so brave a gentleman as yourself. I have learned all. You never spoke of the Chevalier du Cévennes as being your comrade in arms. That was excessive delicacy on your part. Monsieur, our paths must part to widen indefinitely."
"How calmly you put the cold of death in my heart!" The passion in his voice was a pain to her. Well she knew that he loved her deeply, honestly, lastingly. "Gabrielle, you know that I love you. You are free."
"Love?" with voice metallic. "Talk not to me of love. If I have inspired you with an unhappy passion, forgive me, for it was done without intent. I have played you an evil turn." She sank on one of the benches and fumbled, with the strings of her mask.
"So: the dream vanishes; the fire becomes ashes. Is it really you, Gabrielle? Has not the wine turned the world upside-down, brought you here only in fancy? This night is truly some strange dream. I shall wake to-morrow in Paris. I shall receive a note from you, bidding me bring the latest book. The Chevalier will dine with his beautiful unknown . . . Gabrielle, tell me that you love no one," anger and love and despair alternately changing his voice, "yes, tell me that!"
"Victor, I love no man. And God keep me from that folly. You are making me very unhappy!" She bent her head upon her arm.
"Oh, my vanished dream, do not weep on my account! You are not to blame. I love you well. That is God's blame, not yours, since He molded you, gave you a beautiful face, a beautiful mind, a beautiful heart. Well, I will be silent. I will go about my affairs, laughing. I shall write rollicking verses, fight a few duels, and sign a few papers under which the ax lies hidden! . . . Do you know how well I love you?" sinking beside her and taking her hand before she could place it beyond his reach. He put a kiss on it. "Listen. If it means anything toward your happiness and content of mind, I will promise to be silent forever." Suddenly he dropped the hand and rose. "Your presence is overpowering: I can not answer for myself. You were right. We ought not to have met again."
"I must go," she said, also rising. She moved blindly across the room, irresolutely. Seeing a door, she turned the knob and entered.
It was only after the door closed that Victor recollected. Paul and she together in that room? What irony! He was about to rush after madame, when his steps were arrested by a voice coming from the stairs. The vicomte was descending.
"Ah, Monsieur de Saumaise," said the vicomte, "how fortunate to find you alone!"
"Fortunate, indeed!" replied Victor. Here was a man upon whom to wreak his wrath, disappointment and despair. Justice or injustice, neither balanced on the scales of his wrath. He crossed over to the chimney, stood with his back to the fire and waited.
The vicomte approached within a yard, stopped; twisted his mustache, resting his left hand on his hip. His discerning inspection was soon completed. He was fully aware of the desperate and reckless light in the poet's eyes.
"Monsieur de Saumaise, you have this night offered me four distinct affronts. Men have died for less than one."
"Ah!" Victor clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels.
"At the Hôtel de Périgny you called me a fool when the Chevalier struck me with his sword. I shall pass over that. The Chevalier was mad, and we all were excited. But three times in this tavern you have annoyed me. Your temperament, being that of a poet, at times gets the better of you. My knowledge of this accounts for my patience."
"That is magnanimous, Monsieur," railingly.
"Were I not bound for a far country I might call you to account."
"It is possible, then?"
"Braver men than you find it to their benefit to respect this sword of mine."
"Then you have a sword?"
The vicomte laughed. It was real laughter, unfeigned. He was too keen a banterer himself not to appreciate this gift in the poet. "What a lively lad you are!" he exclaimed. "But four affronts make a long account for a single night."
"I am ready now and at all times to close the account."
"Do you love Paris?" asked the vicomte, adding his mite to the bantering.
"Not so much as I did."
"Has not Rochelle become suddenly attractive?"
"Rochelle? I do not say so."
"Come; confess that the unexpected advent of Madame de Brissac has brought this change about."
"Were we not discoursing on affronts?"
"Only as a sign of my displeasure. By September I dare say I shall return to France. I promise to look you up; and if by that time your manner has not undergone a desirable change I shall take my sword and trim the rude edges of your courtesy."
"September? That is a long while to wait. Why not come to Spain with me? We could have it out there. Quebec? Do you fear Mazarin, then, so much as that?"
"Do you doubt my courage, Monsieur?" asked the vicomte, his eyes cold and brilliant with points of light.
"Come, Monsieur; you are playing the boy. You will admit that I possess some courage. 'Twould be a fool's pastime to measure swords when neither of us is certain that to-morrow will see our heads safe upon our shoulders. I am not giving you a challenge. I am simply warning you."
"Warning? You are kind. However, one would think that you are afraid to die."
"I am. There is always something which makes life worth the living. But it is not the fear of dying by the sword. My courage has never been questioned. Neither has yours. But there is some doubt as regards your temper and reason ability. Brave? To be sure you are. At this very moment you would draw against one of the best blades in France were I to permit you. But when it comes man to man, Monsieur, you have to stand on your toes to look into my eyes. My arm is three inches longer than yours; my weight is greater. I have three considerable advantages over you. I simply do not desire your life; it is necessary neither to my honor nor to my happiness."
"To desire and to accomplish are two different things, Monsieur."
"Not to me, Monsieur," grimly. "When my desire attacks an obstacle it must give way or result in my death. I have had many desires and many obstacles, and I am still living."
"But you may be killed abroad. That would disappoint me terribly."
"Monsieur de Saumaise, I have seen for some months that you have been nourishing a secret antipathy to me. Be frank enough to explain why our admiration is not mutual." The vicomte seated himself on a bench, and threw his scabbard across his knees.
"Since you have put the question frankly I will answer frankly. For some time I have distrusted you. What was to be your gain in joining the conspiracy?"
"And yours?" quietly. "I think we both overlooked that part of the contract. Proceed."
"Well, I distrust you at this moment, for I know not what your purpose is to speak of affronts and refuse to let me give satisfaction. I distrust and dislike you for the manner in which you approached the Chevalier tonight. There was in your words a biting sarcasm and contempt which, he in his trouble did not grasp. And let me tell you, Monsieur, if you ever dare mention publicly the Chevalier's misfortune, I shall not wait for you to draw your sword."
The vicomte swung about his scabbard and began lightly to tap the floor with it. Here and there a cinder rose in dust. The vicomte's face was grave and thoughtful. "You have rendered my simple words into a Greek chorus. That is like you poets; you are super-sensitive; you misconstrue commonplaces; you magnify the simple. I am truly sorry for the Chevalier. Now there's a man. He is superb with the rapier, light and quick as a cat; a daredevil, who had not his match in Paris. Free with his money, a famous drinker, and never an enemy. Yes, I will apologize for my bad taste in approaching him to-night. I should have waited till morning."
"You were rude to Mademoiselle de Vaudemont." Victor suddenly refused to conciliate.
"Rude? Well, yes; I admit that. My word of honor, I could not contain myself at the sound of her voice."
"Or of madame's?" shrewdly.
"Or of madame's." The vicomte smoothed his mustache.
Their eyes met, and the flame in the vicomte's disquieted Victor, courageous though he was.
"It seems to me," said the vicomte, "that you have been needlessly beating about the bush. Why did you not say to me, 'Monsieur, you love Madame de Brissac. I love her also. The world is too small for both of us?'"
"I depended upon your keen sense," replied Victor.
"I am almost tempted to favor you. I could use a short rapier."
"Good!" said Victor. "There is plenty of room. I have not killed a man since this year Thursday."
"And having killed me," replied the vicomte, rising, and there was a smile on his lips, "you would be forced to seek out Monsieur le Comte d'Hérouville, a man of devastated estates and violent temper, the roughest swordsman since Crillon's time; D'Hérouville, whose greed is as great and fierce as his love. Have you thought of him, my poet? Ah well, something tells me that the time is not far distant when we shall be rushing at each other's throats. For the present, a truce. You love madame; so do I. She is free. We are all young. Win her, if you can, and I will step aside. But until you win her . . . I wish you good night. I am going for a tramp along the sea-walls. I beg of you not to follow."
The echo of the slamming door had scarce died away when Victor, raging and potent to do the vicomte harm, flung out after him. With his sword drawn he looked savagely up and down the street, but the vicomte was nowhere in sight. The cold air, however, was grateful to the poet's feverish cheeks and aching eyes; so he strode on absently, with no destination in mind. It was only when the Hôtel de Périgny loomed before him, with its bleak walls and sinister cheval-de-frise, that his sense of locality revived. He raised a hand which cast a silent malediction on this evil house and its master, swung about and hurried back to the tavern, recollecting that Gabrielle and Paul were together.
"And all those dreams of her, they vanish like the hours. That hope, that joyous hope, of calling her mine shall buoy me up no more. She does not love me! God save me from another such unhappy night. We have all been stricken with madness." He struck at the snow-drifts with his sword. The snow, dry and dusty, flew up into his face.
Meanwhile, when madame entered the private assembly-room her eyes, blurred with tears, saw only the half dead fire. With her hand she groped along the mantel, and finding a candle, lit it. She did not care where she was, so long as she was alone; alone with her unhappy thoughts. She sat with her back toward the Chevalier, who had fallen into a slight doze. Presently the silence was destroyed by a hiccoughing sob. She had forced the end of her kerchief against her lips to stifle the sound, but ineffectually.
The Chevalier raised his head. . . . A woman? Or was his brain mocking him? And masked? How came she here? He was confused, and his sense of emergency lay fallow. He knew not what to do. One thing was certain; he must make known his presence, for he was positive that she was unaware of it. He rose, and the noise of his chair sliding back brought from her an affrighted cry. She turned. The light of the candle played upon his face.
"Madame, pardon me, but I have been asleep. I did not hear you enter. It was very careless of them to show you in here."
She rose without speaking and walked toward the door, with no uncertain step, with a dignity not lacking in majesty.
"She sees I have been drinking," he thought. "Pray, Madame, do not leave. Rather let me do that."
She made a gesture, hurried but final, and left him.
"It seems to me," mused the Chevalier, resuming his seat, "that I have lost gallantry to-night, among other considerable things. I might have opened the door for her. I wonder why she did not speak?"
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