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THE VICOMTE D'HALLUYS RECEIVES BROTHER JACQUES' ABSOLVO TE
The fort had four large compartments which consisted of a mess-room already described, a living-room, general sleeping quarters for the Jesuit Fathers, lay brothers and officers, and a large room for stores. A roomy loft extended over the mess-room, to be resumed again over the sleeping quarters, the living-room being situated between. Unknown to the Iroquois, a carpenter's shop had been established in the loft for the purpose of constructing some boats.
From the living-room there came to the Chevalier the murmur of voices, sometimes a laugh. He was unaware of how much time passed. He was conscious only of the voices, the occasional laugh, and the shining pieces of silver in his hand. The perpendicular furrow above his nose grew deeper and deeper, the line of his lips grew thinner and thinner, and the muscles of his jaws became and remained hard and square. Presently he shook his head as a lion shakes his when about to leap. He righted the corporal's chair and pushed his own under the table. He had forgotten his hunger. With the coin closed tightly in his fist, he started toward the door which gave into the living-room. He stopped still when his foot touched the threshold, and leaned against the jamb, gloomily surveying the occupants of the room. He saw Victor seated at his table, making corrections on the pages of what was to be his book of lore. Father Chaumonot and Brother Jacques shared the table with the poet, and both were reading. The gentlemen who had been forced either by poverty or the roving hand of adventure to take parts in this mission drama were gathered before the fire, discussing the days of prosperity and the court of Louis XIII. A few feet from the poet's table stood another, and round this sat Major du Puys, Nicot, and the vicomte, engaged in a friendly game of dominoes. D'Hérouville, Corporal Frémin, Jean Pauquet and a settler named The Fox, were not among the assemblage.
Victor saw his friend, nodded and smiled. But the Chevalier did not return the smile. Had Victor looked closer he would have seen the pall of impending tragedy on the Chevalier's darkened brow.
"Ha!" said the vicomte, as he stirred the dominoes about; "there you are, Chevalier. Come and take a hand." He smiled encouragingly.
The Chevalier went slowly toward the table, never taking his eyes from the vicomte's face. When he finally stood beside the vicomte's stool, he stretched out his arm and opened his hand.
"Monsieur le Vicomte," he said, "do you recognize these ten pieces of silver?"
Not a man among them all but felt the ice of a chill strike his spine at the sound of the Chevalier's voice. Every head in the room turned.
"Recognize?" The vicomte looked from the hand to the owner's face upon which lay a purpose as calm and relentless as it was deadly. "Recognize? What do you mean, Monsieur?"
The Chevalier answered with a repellent laugh. "Your economy does you credit; you have sold me to a drunken corporal for ten pieces of silver." With a swift movement he flung the silver into the vicomte's upturned face.
The vicomte covered his face with his hands and sprang to his feet. But no sound escaped him. When he withdrew his hands his lips were bleeding and there were blue ridges on his cheeks and forehead.
Confusion. Priests and soldiers and adventurers gathered quickly around. Du Puys took the Chevalier by the shoulders and pressed him back from the table, while Brother Jacques threw his arms around the vicomte. Only the Chevalier and the victim of his rage were apparently calm.
"Are you mad, Chevalier?" demanded Du Puys. "What the devil!"
"Be seated, Messieurs," said the vicomte, wiping his lips. "You are all witnesses to this unprovoked assault. There can be but one result. You shall die, Monsieur," to the Chevalier.
"It is possible." The Chevalier brushed aside Du Puys's hands and tried to reach his sword.
"I will have one or the other of you shot, or both of you," roared Du Puys. But his heart was not in his voice.
"That is a small matter," said the Chevalier.
"What is the meaning of all this?" cried Chaumonot.
"Tell him, Monsieur le Chevalier," laughed the vicomte; "tell him!"
The Chevalier was mute; but his chest heaved and his eyes glowed with a terrible fury.
"Monsieur," continued the vicomte, "you and I will step outside. There is moonlight."
"You will do nothing of the sort, Monsieur le Vicomte," said Brother Jacques coolly.
"I will brook no interference from priests!" declared the vicomte. His calm was gradually leaving him. But before he could prevent it, Brother Jacques had whipped out the vicomte's rapier and had broken it across his knee. "Curse you, you meddling Jesuit!" He wrenched loose a hand and struck Brother Jacques violently in the face.
Brother Jacques caught the wrist. "He grows profane," he said blandly. "Be quiet, Monsieur, or I will break your wrist so badly that you will never be able to handle a sword again."
The vicomte in his rage struck out with the other hand, but the young priest was too quick for him. Both the vicomte's wrists were imprisoned as securely as though bauds of iron encircled them. He struggled for a space, then became still.
"That is more sensible," Brother Jacques said smoothly.
"In Heaven's name, Paul," cried Victor, "what does this all mean?"
"It means, lad, that there are no more masks. That is all. I am sorry, Messieurs, that Monsieur le Vicomte's sword has been broken. Will one of you lend him one?"
"I place you both under arrest," declared Du Puys, emphatically.
"Major," interposed Brother Jacques, "leave Monsieur le Vicomte to me. There will be no duel between these two gentlemen. I will arrange the affair. Unless Monsieur le Chevalier desires to apologize."
"Nothing of the kind!" replied the Chevalier harshly.
"Release my wrists, sneaking priest!"
Brother Jacques nodded toward the Chevalier to signify that he would depend upon his own offices. "Monsieur le Vicomte, listen to me. Will you follow me to your cabin?"
"Even so. I have something to say to you."
"Well, I have nothing to say to you. Will you let go of my wrists?"
Brother Jacques lost none of his blandness. "I have only a single question to ask of you. I will first whisper it. If that does not convince you, I will ask it aloud. There are those here who will understand its value." He leaned toward the angry man and whispered a dozen words into his ear, then drew back, still holding the straining wrists.
The vicomte looked steadily into the priest's eyes. There was something lurking in his gaze which would have caused many a brave man to lower his eyes, But there was a vein of fine metal in this priest's composition; and the vicomte's glance broke harmlessly.
"Stare as long and as hard as you please, Monsieur. Shall I ask this question before all these men?"
"I will accompany you." The vicomte had suddenly recovered all his mental balance.
Brother Jacques released his wrists, took up a lighted candle; and the two of them left the room, followed by wondering glances, not the least of these being the Chevalier's, who was at loss to explain the vicomte's sudden docility. The priest and the vicomte soon entered the latter's cabin, and the former placed the candle on the table.
"Yes, Monsieur le Vicomte, where were you on the night of the nineteenth of last February?"
"What is that to you?"
"To me? Nothing. To you? Everything."
"That is a curious question."
"It had power enough to bring you here with me," replied Brother Jacques complacently.
"Why do you wish to know?"
"I saw you," briefly.
"A great many persons saw me that night. I was on guard at the Louvre."
"Between the hours of eleven and twelve?"
Silence. A spider, seeing the light, swung down in jerks from the beams and dangled at the side of the candlestick. Suddenly the priest reached over and caught the vicomte's restless hand.
"Rest assured, Jesuit, that when you broke my sword you left me weaponless."
"I did well to break that sword. It was an evil one."
"You are very strong for a priest," coolly.
"Oh, do not doubt that there is a man within these robes. Listen. Your path and that of the Chevalier du Cévennes must not cross again."
"You speak in riddles."
"Not to you. Behind De Leviston you struck first; now from behind a drunken soldier. It was you all the time. You tricked us cleverly. You were such a good fellow, laughing, witty, debonair. For my part, I would have sworn that D'Hérouville was the man. Besides you, Monsieur, D'Hérouville is a tyro, a Mazarin to a Machiavelli."
"You flatter me. But why not D'Hérouville instead of me?"
"Monsieur, your very audacity betrayed you. Last night you put on the grey cloak. A log spurted a flame, and at once I remembered all."
"Yes. You knocked a priest into the gutter that night as you were flying from the scene of your crime. I was that priest. But for the cloak and your remarkable nerve in putting it on, I should have remained in total darkness."
"Beginning with a certain day, you will ever remain in darkness." The vicomte's face was not very pleasant just then.
"The first time you annoy Monsieur le Chevalier, who is the legitimate son of the Marquis de Périgny. . . ."
"Are you quite sure?" the old banter awakening. Suddenly he stared into the priest's face. "My faith, but that would be droll! What is your interest in the Chevalier's welfare? . . . They say the marquis was a gay one in his youth, and handsome, and had a way with the women. Yes, yes; that would be more than droll. You are quite sure of the Chevalier's standing?"
"So sure, Monsieur," said Brother Jacques, "that if you continue to annoy him I shall denounce you."
"The marquis will die some day. How would it please your priestly ear to be called 'Monsieur le Marquis'?"
"Annoy either the Chevalier or Madame de Brissac, and I will denounce you. That is all I have to say to you, Monsieur. To a man of your adroit accomplishments it should be enough. I have no interest in the Périgny family save a friendly one."
"I dare say." The vicomte let his gaze fall till the spider came within vision. He put a finger under it, and the insect began to climb frantically toward its web.
"Thus, you see there will be no duel between you and the Chevalier."
The vicomte turned and looked out of the window; moonlight and glooms and falling leaves. He remained there for some time. Brother Jacques waited patiently to learn the vicomte's determination. He was curious, too, to test this man's core. Was it rotten, or hard and sound? There was villainy, but of what kind? The helpless villainy of a Nero, or the calculating villainy of a Tiberius? When the vicomte presented his countenance to Brother Jacques, it had undergone a change. It was masked with humility; all the haughtiness was gone. He plucked nervously at his chin.
"I will confess to you," he said simply.
"To me?" Brother Jacques recoiled. "Let me call Father Chaumonot."
"To you or to no one."
"Give me a moment to think." Brother Jacques was secretly pleased to have tamed this spirit.
"To you or to no one," repeated the vicomte. "Do you believe in the holiness and sacredness of your office?"
"As I believe in God," devoutly. Fervor had at once elevated Brother Jacques's priestly mind above earthly cunning.
"You will hear my confession?"
The vicomte knelt. From time to time he made a passionate gesture. It was not a long confession, but it was compact and telling.
"Absolvo te," murmured Brother Jacques mechanically, gazing toward Heaven.
Immediately the solemnity of the moment was jarred by a laugh. The vicomte was standing, all piety gone from his face; and a rollicking devil shone from his eyes.
"Now, my curious friend," tapping the astonished priest on the breast, "I have buried my secret beneath this black gown; tell it if you dare."
"You have tricked me in the name of God?" horrified.
"Self-preservation; your knowledge forced me to it. And it was a pretty trick, you will admit, casuist that you are."
"And if I should break my vows?" furiously.
"Break your vows and I promise to kill you out of hand."
"In whatever manner appears most expedient. That fool of a Brissac; he simply committed suicide. There was no other mode of egress open to me. It was my life or his. That cloak! Well, that was to tell tales in case I was seen from a distance. It nearly succeeded. And I will make an additional confession," throwing back his head, his eyes narrowing, his whole attitude speaking a man's passion. "Yes, your keen intuition has put its finger on the spot. I hate the Chevalier, hate him with a strong man's hate, the unending hate of wounded vanity, of envy, of thwarted desires. There was a woman, once, whom he lured away from me; he gained the commission in the Guards over my head; he was making love to Madame de Brissac, while I, poor fool, loitered in the antechamber. I should have sought all means to bring about his ruin, had he not taken the labor from my hands. But a bastard!" Brother Jacques shuddered. "Bah! What could I do? I could become only a spectator. My word for it, it has been a fine comedy, this bonhomie of mine, this hail-fellow well met. And only to-night he saw the pit at his feet. If that fool of a corporal had not been drunk."
"Wretch!" cried the priest, trembling as if seized with convulsion. Duped!
The vicomte opened the door, and bowed with his hand upon his heart.
"Till the morning prayers, Father," with mock gravity; "till the morning prayers."
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