Chapter XXI. Two Women.
 

Out of compliment, and to show my gratitude, I attended M. de Rambouillet home to his lodging, and found him as much pleased with himself, and consequently with me, as I was with him. For the time, indeed, I came near to loving him; and, certainly, he was a man of high and patriotic feeling, and of skill and conduct to match. But he lacked that touch of nature and that power of sympathising with others which gave to such men as M. de Rosny and the king, my master, their peculiar charm; though after what I have related of him in the last chapter it does not lie in my mouth to speak ill of him. And, indeed, he was a good man.

When I at last reached my lodging, I found a surprise awaiting me in the shape of a note which had just arrived no one knew how. If the manner of its delivery was mysterious, however, its contents were brief and sufficiently explicit; for it; ran thus: 'Sir, by meeting me three hours after noon in the square before the House of the Little Sisters you will do a service at once to yourself and to the undersigned, Marie de Bruhl.'

That was all, written in a feminine character, yet it was enough to perplex me. Simon, who had manifested the liveliest joy at my escape, would have had me treat it as I had treated the invitation to the Parvis of the Cathedral; ignore it altogether I mean. But I was of a different mind, and this for three reasons, among others: that the request was straightforward, the time early, and the place sufficiently public to be an unlikely theatre for violence, though well fitted for an interview to which the world at large was not invited. Then, too, the square lay little more than a bowshot from my lodging, though on the farther side of the Rue St. Denys.

Besides, I could conceive many grounds which Madame de Bruhl might have for seeing me; of which some touched me nearly. I disregarded Simon's warnings, therefore, and repaired at the time appointed to the place--a clean, paved square a little off the Rue St. Denys, and entered from the latter by a narrow passage. It was a spot pleasantly convenient for meditation, but overlooked on one side by the House of the Little Sisters; in which, as I guessed afterwards, madame must have awaited me, for the square when I entered it was empty, yet in a moment, though no one came in from the street, she stood beside me. She wore a mask and long cloak. The beautiful hair and perfect complexion, which had filled me with so much admiration at our first meeting in her house, were hidden, but I saw enough of her figure and carriage to be sure that it was Madame de Bruhl and no other.

She began by addressing me in a tone of bitterness, for which I was not altogether unprepared.

'Well, sir,' she exclaimed, her voice trembling with anger, 'you are satisfied, I hope, with your work?'

I expected this and had my answer ready. 'I am not aware, Madame,' I said, 'that I have cause to reproach myself. But, however that may be, I trust you have summoned me for some better purpose than to chide me for another's fault; though it was my voice which brought it to light.'

'Why did you shame me publicly?' she retorted, thrusting her handkerchief to her lips and withdrawing it again with a passionate gesture.

'Madame,' I answered patiently--I was full of pity for her, 'consider for a moment the wrong your husband did me and how small and inadequate was the thing I did to him in return.'

'To him!' she ejaculated so fiercely that I started. 'It was to me--to me you did it! What had I done that you should expose me to the ridicule of those who know no pity, and the anger of one as merciless? What had I done, sir?'

I shook my head sorrowfully. 'So far, madame,' I answered, 'I allow I owe you reparation, and I will make it should it ever be in my power. Nay, I will say more,' I continued, for the tone in which she spoke had wrung my heart. 'In one point I strained the case against your husband. To the best of my belief he abducted the lady who was in my charge, not for the love of her, but for political reasons, and as the agent of another.'

She gasped. 'What?' she cried. 'Say that again!'

As I complied she tore off her mask and gazed into my face with straining eyes and parted lips. I saw then how much she was changed, even in these few days--how pale and worn were her cheeks, how dark the circles round her eyes. 'Will you swear to it?' she said at last, speaking with uncontrollable eagerness, while she laid a hand which shook with excitement on my arm. Will you swear to it, sir?'

'It is true,' I answered steadfastly. I might have added that after the event her husband had so treated mademoiselle as to lead her to fear the worst. But I refrained, feeling that it was no part of my duty to come between husband and wife.

She clasped her hands, and for a moment looked passionately upwards, as though she were giving thanks to Heaven; while the flesh of health and loveliness which I had so much admired returned, and illumined her face in a wonderful manner. She seemed, in truth and for the moment, transformed. Her blue eyes filled with tears, her lips moved; nor have I ever seen anything bear so near a resemblance to those pictures of the Virgin Mary which Romans worship as madame did then.

The change, however, was as evanescent as it was admirable. In an instant she seemed to collapse. She struck her hands to her face and moaned, and I saw tears, which she vainly strove to restrain, dropping through her fingers. 'Too late!' she murmured, in a tone of anguish which wrung my heart. 'Alas, you robbed me of one man, you give me back another. I know him now for what he is. If he did not love her then, he does now. It is too late!'

She seemed so much overcome that I assisted her to reach a bench which stood against the wall a few paces away; nor, I confess, was it without difficulty and much self-reproach that I limited myself to those prudent offices only which her state and my duty required. To console her on the subject of her husband was impossible; to ignore him, and so to console her, a task which neither my discretion nor my sense of honour, though sorely tried, permitted me to undertake.

She presently recovered and, putting on her mask again, said hurriedly that she had still a word to say to me. 'You have treated me honestly,' she continued, 'and, though I have no cause to do anything but hate you, I say in return, look to yourself! You escaped last night--I know all, for it was my velvet knot-- which I had made thinking to send it to you to procure this meeting--that he used as a lure. But he is not yet at the end of his resources. Look to yourself, therefore.'

I thought of the appointment I had made with him for the morrow, but I confined myself to thanking her, merely saying, as I bowed over the hand she resigned to me in token of farewell, 'Madame, I am grateful. I am obliged to you both for your warning and your forgiveness.'

'Bending her head coldly she drew away her hand. At that moment, as I lifted my eyes, I saw something which for an instant rooted me to the spot with astonishment. In the entrance of the passage which led to the Rue St. Denys two people were standing, watching us. The one was Simon Fleix, and the other, a masked woman, a trifle below the middle height, and clad in a riding-coat, was Mademoiselle de la Vire!

I knew her in a moment. But the relief I experienced on seeing her safe and in Blois was not unmixed with annoyance that Simon Fleix should have been so imprudent as to parade her unnecessarily in the street. I felt something of confusion also on my own account; for I could not tell how long she and her escort had been watching me. And these two feelings were augmented when, after turning to pay a final salute to Madame de Bruhl, I looked again towards the passage and discovered that mademoiselle and her squire were gone.

Impatient as I was, I would not seem to leave madame rudely or without feeling, after the consideration she had shown me in her own sorrow; and accordingly I waited uncovered until she disappeared within the 'Little Sisters.' Then I started eagerly towards my lodging, thinking I might yet overtake mademoiselle before she entered. I was destined to meet, however, with another though very pertinent hindrance. As I passed from the Rue St. Denys into the quiet of my street I heard a voice calling my name, and, looking back, saw M. de Rambouillet's equerry, a man deep in his confidence, running after me. He brought a message from his master, which he begged me to consider of the first importance.

'The Marquis would not trust it to writing, sir,' he continued, drawing me aside into a corner where we were conveniently retired, 'but he made me learn it by heart. "Tell M. de Marsac," said he, "that that which he was left in Blois to do must be done quickly, or not at all. There is something afoot in the other camp, I am not sure what. But now is the time to knock in the nail. I know his zeal, and I depend upon him."'

An hour before I should have listened to this message with serious doubts and misgivings. Now, acquainted with mademoiselle's arrival, I returned M. de Rambouillet an answer in the same strain, and parting civilly from Bertram, who was a man I much esteemed, I hastened on to my lodgings, exulting in the thought that the hour and the woman were come at last, and that before the dawn of another day I might hope, all being well, to accomplish with honour to myself and advantage to others the commission which M. de Rosny had entrusted to me.

I must not deny that, mingled with this, was some excitement at the prospect of seeing mademoiselle again. I strove to conjure up before me as I mounted the stairs the exact expression of her face as I had last seen it bending from the window at Rosny; to the end that I might have some guide for my future conduct, and might be less likely to fall into the snare of a young girl's coquetry. But I could come now, as then, to no satisfactory or safe conclusion, and only felt anew the vexation I had experienced on losing the velvet knot, which she had given me on that occasion.

I knocked at the door of the rooms which I had reserved for her, and which were on the floor below my own; but I got no answer. Supposing that Simon had taken her upstairs, I mounted quickly, not doubting I should find her there. Judge of my surprise and dismay when I found that room also empty, save for the lackey whom M. de Rambouillet had lent me!

'Where are they?' I asked the man, speaking sharply, and standing with my hand on the door.

'The lady and her woman, sir?' he answered, coming forward.

'Yes, yes!' I cried impatiently, a sudden fear at my heart.

She went out immediately after her arrival with Simon Fleix, sir, and has not yet returned,' he answered.

The words were scarcely out of his mouth before I heard several persons enter the passage below and begin to ascend the stairs. I did not; doubt that mademoiselle and the lad had come home another way and, been somehow detained; and I turned with a sigh of relief to receive them. But when the persons whose steps I had heard appeared, they proved to be only M. de Rosny's equerry, stout, burly, and bright-eyed as ever, and two armed servants.