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OF ORIOLES AND WOMAN'S PREROGATIVES
"Tell Monsieur le Comte for me that I am sleeping and may not be disturbed!"
All through the long night the marquis's thin, piercing voice rang in the Chevalier's ears, and rang with sinister tone. He could find no ease upon his pillow, and he stole quietly forth into the night. He wandered about the upper town, round the cathedral, past the Ursulines, under the frowning walls of the citadel, followed his shadow in the moonlight and went before it. Those grim words had severed the last delicate thread which bound father and son. To have humiliated himself! To have left open in his armor a place for such a thrust! He had gone with charity and forgiveness, to be repulsed! He had held forth his hand, to find the other's withdrawn!
"Tell Monsieur le Comte for me that I am sleeping and may not be disturbed!"
Mockery! And yet this same father had taken up the sword to drive it through a man who had laughed. Only God knew; for neither the son understood the father nor the father the son. Well, so be it. He was now without weight upon his shoulders; he was conscience free; he had paid his obligations, obligations far beyond his allotted part. It was inevitable that their paths should separate. There had been too many words; there was still too much pride.
"Tell Monsieur le Comte for me that I am sleeping and may not be disturbed!"
He had stood there in the corridor and writhed as this blade entered his soul and turned and turned. Rage and chagrin had choked him, leaving him utterly speechless. So be it. Forevermore it was to be the house divided. . . . It was after two o'clock when the Chevalier went back to his bed. The poet was in slumber, and his face looked careworn in repose.
"Poor lad! He is not happy, either. Only the clod knows content as a recompense for his poverty. Good night, Madame; to-morrow, to-morrow, and we shall see!"
And the morrow came, the rarest gem in all the diadem of days. There was a ripple on the water; a cloudless sky; fields of corn waving their tasseled heads and the broad leaf of the tobacco plant trembling, trembling.
"What!" cried Victor in surprise; "you have a new feather in your hat?"
"Faith, lad," said the Chevalier, "the old plume was a shabby one. But I have not destroyed it; too many fond remembrances cling to it. How often have I doffed that plume at court, in the gardens, on the balconies and on the king's highways! And who would suspect, to look at it now, that it had ever dusted the mosaics at the Vatican? And there have been times when I flung it on the green behind the Luxembourg, my doublet beside it."
"Ah, yes; we used to have an occasional affair." And Victor nodded as one who knew the phrase. "But a new feather here? Who will notice it? Pray, glance at this suit of mine! I give it one month's service, and then the Indian's clout. I can't wear those skins. Pah!"
"Examine this feather," the Chevalier requested.
"White heron, as I live! You are, then, about to seek the war-path?" laughing.
"Or the path which leads to it. I am going a-courting."
"Yes. Heigho! How would you like a pheasant, my poet, and a bottle of Mignon's bin of '39?"
"Paris!" Victor smacked his lips drolly.
"Or a night at Voisin's, with dice and the green board?"
"Or a romp with the girls along the quays?"
"Horns of Panurge! I like this mood."
"It's a man's mood. I am thinking of the château of oak and maple I shall some day build along some river height. What a fireplace I shall have, and what cellars! Somehow, Paris no longer calls to me."
"To me," said the poet, "it is ever calling, calling. Shall I see my beloved Paris again? Who can say?"
"Mazarin will not live forever."
"But here it is so lonesome; a desert. And you will make a fine seigneur, you with your fastidious tastes, love of fine clothes and music. Look at yourself now! A silk shirt in tatters, tawdry buckskin, a new hero's feather, and a dingy pair of moccasins. And you are going a-courting. What, fortune?"
"'Tis all the same."
"So you love her?" quietly.
"Yes, lad, I love her; and I am determined to learn this day the worth of loving."
"Take care," warned the poet.
"Victor, some day you will be going back to Paris. Tell them at court how, of a summer's morn, Monsieur le Chevalier du Cévennes went forth to conquest."
"Hark!" said Victor. "I hear a blackbird." He sorted his papers, for he was writing. "I will write an ode on your venture. What shall I call it?"
"Call it 'Hazards,' comrade; for this day I put my all in the leather cup and make but a single throw. Who is madame?"
"Ask her," rather sharply.
"She is worthy of a man's love?"
"Worthy!" Victor half rose from his chair. "Worthy of being loved? Yes, Paul, she is worthy. But are you sure that you love her?"
"I have loved her for two years."
"Two years," repeated the poet. "She is a strange woman."
"But you know her!"
"Yes, I know her; as we know a name and the name of a history."
"She comes from a good family?"
Victor laughed mirthlessly. "Oh, yes!"
"Do you know why she is here?"
"I thought I did, but I have found that I am as ignorant as yourself."
"There is a mad humor in me to-day. Wish me good luck and bid me be gone."
"Good luck to you, Paul; good luck to you, comrade." And Victor's smile, if forced, was none the less affectionate.
"And luck to your ode, my good poet. I go to find me a nosegay."
And when he was gone, Victor remained motionless in his chair. Two years! Ah, Gabrielle, Gabrielle, was that quite fair? He thought of all the old days, and a great wave of bitterness rushed over him. He no longer heard the blackbird. The quill fell from his fingers, and he laid his head upon his arms.
"I am tired," was all he said.
The Chevalier wended his way toward the Ursulines. His heart beat furiously. Sometimes his feet dragged, or again they flew, according to the fall or rise of his courage. The sight of a petticoat sent him into a cold chill. He tramped here and there, in all places where he thought possibly she might be found. Half the time he caught himself walking on tiptoe, for no reason whatever. Dared he inquire for her, send a fictitious note enticing her forth from her room? No, he dared do neither; he must prowl around, waiting and watching for his opportunity. Would she laugh, be indignant, storm or weep? Heaven only knew! To attack her suddenly, without giving her time to rally her forces,--formidable forces of wit and sarcasm!--therein lay his hope.
"What a coward a woman can make of a man! I have known this woman two years; I have danced and dined with her, made love, and here I can scarce breathe! I am lost if she sees me in this condition, or finds a weak spot. How I love her, love her! I have kissed the air she leaves in passing by. Oh! I will solve this enchanting mystery. I have the right now; I am rich, and young."
It will be seen that the gods favor those who go forward.
By the wall of the Ursulines stood a rustic bench, and upon this bench sat madame. She was waiting for Anne, who was paying her usual morning devotions under the guidance of the Mother Superior. Madame was not very busy with her eyes, and the jeweled miniature which she held in her hand seemed no longer to attract her. The odor of rose and heliotrope pervaded the gently stirring air. From the convent garden came the melting lilt of the golden oriole. By and by madame's gaze returned to the miniature. For a brief space poppies burned in her cheeks and the seed smoldered in her eyes. Then, as if the circlet of gold and gems was distasteful to her sight, she hastily thrust it into the bosom of her gown. Madame had not slept well of late; there were shadows under her lovely eyes.
All this while the Chevalier watched her. Several times he put forward a foot, only to draw it back. This, however, could not go on indefinitely, so, summoning all his courage, he took a firm step, another, and another, and there was now no retreating save ignominiously. For at the sound of his foot on the gravel, madame discovered him. By the time he stood before her, however, all was well with him; his courage and wit and daring had returned to do him honor. This morning he was what he had been a year ago, a gay and rollicking courtier.
"Madame, what a glorious day it is!" The heron feather almost touched the path, so elaborate was the courtesy. "Does the day not carry you back to France?"
Something in his handsome eyes, something in the debonair smile, something in his whole demeanor, left her without voice. She simply stared at him, wide-eyed. He sat down beside her, thereby increasing her confusion.
"I have left Monsieur de Saumaise writing chansons; and here's an oriole somewhere, singing his love songs. What is it that comes with summer which makes all male life carry nosegays to my lady's easement? Faith, it must be in the air. Here's Monsieur Oriole in love; it matters not if last year's love is not this year's. All he knows is that it is love. Somewhere in yonder forests the eagle seeks its mate, the mountain lion its lioness, the red deer its hind."
Madame sat very still and erect. Her forces were scattered, and she could not summon them to her aid till this man's purpose was made distinct.
"In all the hundred days of summer will there be a more perfect day for love than this? Madame, you said that I had lost a valuable art; what was it?"
Madame began vaguely to believe that he had not lost it. This man was altogether new to her. Behind all this light converse she recognized a power. She trembled.
"You need not tell me, Diane; I know what it is. It is the art of making love. I had not lost it; I had thought that here it was simply a useless art. When first I saw you I loved you as a boy loves. I ran hither and thither at your slightest bidding; I was the veriest slave, and I was happy in my serfdom. You could have asked me any task, and I should have accomplished it. You were in my thoughts day and night; not only because I loved you, but because you had cast a veil about you. And of all enchanting mysteries the most holding to man is the woman in the mask. You still wear a mask, Madame, only I have lifted a corner of it. And now I love you with the full love of a man, a love that has been analyzed and proved."
"I will go to Mademoiselle de Vaudemont, who is within the convent." Madame rose quietly, her eyes averted. She would gladly have flown, but that would have been undignified, the acknowledgment of defeat. And just now she knew that she could not match this mood of his.
Gently he caught her hand and drew her back to the seat.
"Pardon, but I can not lose you so soon. Mademoiselle is doubtless at prayer and may not be interrupted. I have so many questions to ask."
Madame was pale, but her eyes were glowing. She folded her hands with a passiveness which boded future ill.
"When you said that you trapped me that night at the Palais Royal, simply to take a feather from my plume, you did not mean that. You had some deeper motive."
Madame's fingers locked and unlocked. "Monsieur . . . !" she began,
"Why, it seems only yesterday that it was 'Paul'," he interrupted.
"Monsieur, I beg of you to let me go. You are emulating Monsieur d'Hérouville, and that conduct is beneath you."
"But will you listen to what I have to say?"
"I will listen," with a dangerous quiet. "Go on, Monsieur; tell me how much you love me this day. Tell me the story of the oriole, whose mate this year is not the old. Go on; I am listening."
A twinge of his recent cowardice came back to him. He moistened his lips.
"Why do you doubt my love?'"
"Doubt it! Have I not a peculiar evidence of it this very moment?" sarcastically. Madame was gathering her forces slowly but surely.
"I have asked you to be my wife, not even knowing who you are."
Madame laughed, and a strain of wild merriment crept into the music of it. "You have great courage, Monsieur."
"It is laughable, then?"
"If you saw it from my angle of vision, you would also laugh." The tone was almost insolent.
"You are married?" a certain hardness in his voice.
Madame drew farther back, for he looked like the man who had, a few nights since, seized her madly in his arms.
"If you are married," he said, his grey eyes metallic, "I will go at once, for I should know that you are not a woman worthy of a man's love."
"Go on, Monsieur; you interest me. Having asked me to listen to your protestations of love, you would now have me listen to your analysis of my character. Go on."
"That is not a denial."
"D'Hérouville called you 'Madame.'"
"What am I to believe?"
"What you will: one way or the other, I am equally indifferent." Ah, Madame!
The Chevalier saw that if he became serious, violent, or ill-tempered, he was lost. He pulled himself together. He smiled.
"Why are you not in Montreal? I understand Mademoiselle Catharine is there."
The Chevalier laughed. "You make me laugh, Diane."
"Why are you here in Quebec?"
"And you, Madame?"
"Perhaps I was seeking adventures."
"Well, perhaps I, too, came with that purpose. Come, Madame; neither of us is telling the truth."
"Begin, then, Monsieur; set an example for me."
The lines in his face deepened. All the pain of the tragedy came back. "Tell Monsieur le Comte for me that I am sleeping and may not be disturbed!" He struggled and cast aside the gloom.
"I have been accused of conspiracy, Madame."
"Yes; for my happiness."
Madame was plainly disappointed.
"I was exiled from court upon a grave accusation."
"You were recalled, and all your honors restored."
"Since you know all, Madame, it is needless to explain. What most concerns me this morning is your belief that I love you."
"Listen: there's the oriole."
"How about Madame Oriole; does she regret the lover of last year?"
"Very good, Monsieur. You are daily recovering your wit. And you used to be very witty when you were not making extravagant love."
"A man does not weep when he loves and the object of his love simulates kindness."
"I should like to test this love," reflectively.
"Test it, Diane; only test it!" He was all eagerness. He flung his hat to the ground, and with his arm along the back of the seat he leaned toward her. The heron feather remained unharmed; it was a prophetic sign, only he did not realize it. He could realize nothing save that the glorious beauty of her face was near, and that to-day there was nothing else in the world. He was young, and youth forgets overnight.
Madame, with the knuckle of a finger against her lips, posed as if ruminating, when in truth she was turning over in her mind the advisability of telling him all, laughing, and leaving him. And suddenly she grew afraid. What would he do? for there was some latent power in this man she hesitated to rouse. She hesitated, and the opportunity was gone. For her thought swerved to this: if only he had not such handsome eyes! She dropped her hand.
"I will test this love," she said, with malice bubbling in her own lovely orbs. "The Comte d'Hérouville has grievously offended me. Will you challenge him?" She meant nothing by this, save to gain time.
The Chevalier paled, recalling D'Hérouville's threats. "He departs the scene;" but the smile was on his lips alone.
"Then, there is the Vicomte d'Halluys; he, too, has offended me."
"The vicomte?" Challenge the vicomte, who had put D'Hérouville in the hospital that night of the fatal supper?
"Ah!" said madame; "you hesitate! And yet you ask me to put you to the test!"
"I was weighing the matter of preference," with a wave of the hand; "whether to challenge the vicomte first, or D'Hérouville. Give me the rest of the list."
"Monsieur, I admire the facility with which you adapt yourself to circumstances," scornfully. "You knew that I was but playing. I am fully capable of repaying any insolence offered to me, whether from D'Hérouville, the vicomte . . . or yourself."
"To love you, then, is insolence?"
"Yes; the method which you use is insolent."
"Is there any way to prove that I love you?" admirably hiding his despair.
"What! Monsieur, you go a-courting without buckles on your shoes?"
"Diane, let us play at cross-purposes no longer. You may laugh, thrust, scorn, trample, it will in no wise effect the constancy of my love. I do not ask you to set tasks for me. Now, hark to me: where you go henceforth, there shall I go also, to France, to Spain, to the ends of the world. You will never be so far away from the sound of my voice that you can not hear me say that I love you."
"That is persecution!"
"It is love. I shall master you some day," recovering his hat and standing, "be that day near or far. I am a man, a man of heart and courage. You need no proof of that. I have bent my knee to you for the last time but once. I shall no more entreat," holding his head high.
"Truly, Monsieur!" her wrath running over.
"Wait! You have forced me, for some purpose unknown, to love you. Well, I will force you to love me, though God alone knows how."
"You do well to add that clause," hotly. "Your imagination is too large. Force me to love you?" She laughed shrilly.
But his eye was steady, even though his broad chest swelled.
"You have asked me who I am," she cried. "Then, listen: I am . . . ."
His face was without eagerness. It was firm.
"I am . . ." she began again.
"The woman I love, the woman who shall some day be my wife."
"Must I call you a coward, Monsieur?" blazing.
"I held you in my arms the other night; you will recollect that I had the courage to release you."
Madame saw that she had lost the encounter, for the simple reason that the right was all on his side, the wrong and injustice on hers. Instinctively she felt that if she told him all he in his gathering coolness would accept it as an artifice, an untruth. Her handkerchief, which she had nervously rolled into a ball, fell to the walk. He picked it up, but to the outstretched hand he shook his head.
"That is mine, Monsieur; give it to me."
"I will give it back some day," he replied, thrusting the bit of cambric into his blouse.
"Now, Monsieur; at once!" she commanded.
"There was a time when I obeyed you in all things. This handkerchief will do in place of that single love-letter you had the indiscretion to write. Do you remember that line, 'I kiss your handsome grey eyes a thousand times?' That was a contract, a written agreement, and, on my word of honor, had I it now . . ."
"Monsieur du Cévennes," she said, "I will this day write an answer to your annoying proposal. I trust that you will be gentleman enough to accept it as final. I am exceedingly angry at this moment, and my words do justice neither to you nor to me. Yes, I had a purpose, a woman's purpose; and, to be truthful, I have grown to regret it."
"Your purpose, Madame, is nothing; mine is everything." He bowed and departed, the heron feather in his hat showing boldly.
It was almost a complete victory, for he had taken with him her woman's prerogative, the final word. He strode resolutely along, never once turning his head . . . not having the courage. But, had he turned, certain it is that he must have stopped.
For madame had fallen back upon that one prerogative which man shall never take from woman . . . tears!
Look back, Monsieur, while there is yet time.
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