Chapter IX. The Question
 

Sweep the room, Monsieur? And remove this medley? But M. le Capitaine--'

'The Captain is in the village,' I replied Sternly. 'And do you move. Move, man, and the thing will be done while you are talking about it. Set the door into the garden open--so.'

'Certainly, it is a fine morning. And the tobacco of M. le Lieutenant--But M. le Capitaine did not--'

'Give orders? Well, I give them,' I answered. 'First of all, remove these beds. And bustle, man, bustle, or I will find something to quicken you!'

In a moment--'And M. le Capitaine's riding-boots?'

'Place them in the passage,' I replied.

'Oh! in the passage?' He paused, looking at them in doubt.

'Yes, booby; in the passage.'

'And the cloaks, Monsieur?'

'There is a bush handy outside the window. Let them air.'

'Ohe, the bush? Well, to be sure they are damp. But--yes, yes, Monsieur, it is done. And the bolsters?'

'There also,' I said harshly. 'Throw them out. Faugh! The place reeks of leather. Now, a clean hearth. And set the table before the open door, so that we may see the garden--so. And tell the cook that we dine at eleven, and that Madame and Mademoiselle will descend.'

'Ohe! But M. le Capitaine ordered the dinner for half-past eleven.'

'It must be advanced, then; and, mark you, my friend, if it is not ready when Madame comes down, you will suffer, and the cook too.'

When he was gone on his errand, I looked round. What else was lacking? The sun shone cheerily on the polished floor; the air, freshened by the rain which had fallen in the night, entered freely through the open doorway. A few bees lingering with the summer hummed outside. The fire crackled bravely; an old hound, blind and past work, lay warming its hide on the hearth. I could think of nothing more, and I stood and stood and watched the man set out the table and spread the cloth.

'For how many, Monsieur?' he asked in a scared tone.

'For five,' I answered; and I could not help smiling at myself.

For what would Zaton's say could it see Berault turned housewife? There was a white glazed cup, an old-fashioned piece of the second Henry's time, standing on a shelf. I took it down and put some late flowers in it, and set it in the middle of the table, and stood off myself to look at it. But a moment later, thinking I heard them coming, I hurried it away in a kind of panic, feeling on a sudden ashamed of the thing. The alarm proved to be false, however; and then again, taking another turn, I set the piece back. I had done nothing so foolish for--for more years than I like to count.

But when Madame and Mademoiselle came down, they had eyes neither for the flowers nor the room. They had heard that the Captain was out beating the village and the woods for the fugitive, and where I had looked for a comedy I found a tragedy. Madame's face was so red with weeping that all her beauty was gone. She started and shook at the slightest sound, and, unable to find any words to answer my greeting, could only sink into a chair and sit crying silently.

Mademoiselle was in a mood scarcely more cheerful. She did not weep, but her manner was hard and fierce. She spoke absently, and answered fretfully. Her eyes glittered, and she had the air of straining her ears continually to catch some dreaded sound.

'There is no news, Monsieur?' she said as she took her seat. And she shot a swift look at me.

'None, Mademoiselle.'

'They are searching the village?'

'I believe so.'

'Where is Clon?' This in a lower voice, and with a kind of shrinking in her face.

I shook my head. 'I believe that they have him confined somewhere. And Louis, too,' I said. 'But I have not seen either of them.'

'And where are--I thought these people would be here,' she muttered. And she glanced askance at the two vacant places. The servant had brought in the meal.

'They will be here presently,' I said coolly. Let us make the most of the time. A little wine and food will do Madame good.'

She smiled rather sadly.

'I think that we have changed places,' she said. 'And that you have turned host and we guests.'

'Let it be so,' I said cheerfully. 'I recommend some of this ragout. Come, Mademoiselle, fasting can aid no one. A full meal has saved many a man's life.'

It was clumsily said, perhaps; for she shuddered and looked at me with a ghastly smile. But she persuaded her sister to take something; and she took something on her own plate and raised her fork to her lips. But in a moment she laid it down again.

'I cannot,' she murmured. 'I cannot swallow. Oh, my God, at this moment they may be taking him.'

I thought that she was about to burst into a passion of tears, and I repented that I had induced her to descend. But her self- control was not yet exhausted. By an effort, painful to see, she recovered her composure. She took up her fork, and ate a few mouthfuls. Then she looked at me with a fierce under-look.

'I want to see Clon,' she whispered feverishly. The man who waited on us had left the room.

'He knows?' I said.

She nodded, her beautiful face strangely disfigured. Her closed teeth showed between her lips. Two red spots burned in her white cheeks, and she breathed quickly. I felt, as I looked at her, a sudden pain at my heart, and a shuddering fear, such as a man, awaking to find himself falling over a precipice, might feel. How these women loved the man!

For a moment I could not speak. When I found my voice it sounded dry and husky.

'He is a safe confidant,' I muttered. 'He can neither read nor write, Mademoiselle.'

'No, but--' and then her face became fixed. 'They are coming,' she whispered. 'Hush!' She rose stiffly, and stood supporting herself by the table. 'Have they--have they--found him?' she muttered. The woman by her side wept on, unconscious of what was impending.

I heard the Captain stumble far down the passage, and swear loudly; and I touched Mademoiselle's hand.

'They have not!' I whispered. 'All is well, Mademoiselle. Pray, pray calm yourself. Sit down and meet them as if nothing were the matter. And your sister! Madame, Madame,' I cried, almost harshly, 'compose yourself. Remember that you have a part to play.'

My appeal did something. Madame stifled her sobs. Mademoiselle drew a deep breath and sat down; and though she was still pale and still trembled, the worst was past.

And only just in time. The door flew open with a crash. The Captain stumbled into the room, swearing afresh.

'Sacre nom du diable!' he cried, his face crimson with rage. 'What fool placed these things here? My boots? My--'

His jaw fell. He stopped on the word, stricken silent by the new aspect of the room, by the sight of the little party at the table, by all the changes I had worked.

'Saint Siege!' he muttered. 'What is this?' The Lieutenant's grizzled face peering over his shoulder completed the picture.

'You are rather late, M. le Capitaine,' I said cheerfully. 'Madame's hour is eleven. But, come here are your seats waiting for you.'

'Mille tonnerres!' he muttered, advancing into the room, and glaring at us.

'I am afraid that the ragout is cold,' I continued, peering into the dish and affecting to see nothing. 'The soup, however, has been kept hot by the fire. But I think that you do not see Madame.'

He opened his mouth to swear, but for the moment he thought better of it.

'Who--who put my boots in the passage?' he asked, his voice thick with rage. He did not bow to the ladies, or take any notice of their presence.

'One of the men, I suppose,' I said indifferently. 'Is anything missing?'

He glared at me. Then his cloak, spread outside, caught his eye. He strode through the door, saw his holsters lying on the grass, and other things strewn about. He came back.

'Whose monkey game is this?' he snarled, and his face was very ugly. 'Who is at the bottom of this? Speak, sir, or I--'

'Tut-tut,--the ladies!' I said. 'You forget yourself, Monsieur.'

'Forget myself?' he hissed, and this time he did not check his oath. 'Don't talk to me of the ladies! Madame? Bah! Do you think, fool, that we are put into rebel's houses to how and smile and take dancing lessons?'

'In this case a lesson in politeness were more to the point, Monsieur,' I said sternly. And I rose.

'Was it by your orders that this was done?' he retorted, his brow black with passion. Answer, will you?'

'It was!' I replied outright.

'Then take that!' he cried, dashing his hat violently in my face, 'and come outside.'

'With pleasure, Monsieur,' I answered, bowing; 'in one moment. Permit me to find my sword. I think that it is in the passage.'

I went thither to get it.

When I returned, I found that the two men were waiting for me in the garden, while the ladies had risen from the table, and were standing near it with blanched faces.

'You had better take your sister upstairs, Mademoiselle,' I said gently, pausing a moment beside them. 'Have no fear. All will be well.'

But what is it?' she answered, looking troubled. 'It was so sudden. I am--I did not understand. You quarrelled so quickly.'

'It is very simple,' I answered, smiling. 'M. le Capitaine insulted you yesterday; he will pay for it to-day. That is all. Or, not quite all,' I continued, dropping my voice and speaking in a different tone. 'His removal may help you, Mademoiselle. Do you understand? I think that there will be no more searching to-day.' She uttered an exclamation, grasping my arm and peering into my face.

'You will kill him?' she muttered.

I nodded.

'Why not?' I said.

She caught her breath, and stood with one hand clasped to her bosom, gazing at me with parted lips, the blood mounting to her checks. Gradually the flush melted into a fierce smile.

'Yes, yes, why not?' she repeated between her teeth. 'Why not?' She had her hand on my arm, and I felt her fingers tighten until I could have winced. 'Why not? So you planned this--for us, Monsieur?'

I nodded.

'But can you?'

'Safely,' I said; then, muttering to her to take her sister upstairs, I turned towards the garden. My foot was already on the threshold, and I was composing my face to meet the enemy, when I heard a movement behind me. The next moment her hand was on my arm.

'Wait! Wait a moment! Come back!' she panted. I turned. The smile and flush had vanished; her face was pale. 'No!' she said abruptly. 'I was wrong! I, will not have it. I will have no part in it! You planned it last night, M. de Barthe. It is murder.'

'Mademoiselle!' I exclaimed, wondering. 'Murder? Why? It is a duel.'

'It is murder,' she answered persistently. 'You planned it last night. You said so.'

'But I risk my own life,' I replied sharply.

'Nevertheless--I will have no part in it,' she answered more faintly. She was trembling with agitation. Her eyes avoided mine.

'On my shoulders be it then!' I replied stoutly. 'It is too late, Mademoiselle, to go back. They are waiting for me. Only, before I go, let me beg of you to retire.'

And I turned from her, and went out, wondering and thinking. First, that women were strange things. Secondly--murder? Merely because I had planned the duel and provoked the quarrel! Never had I heard anything so preposterous. Grant it, and dub every man who kept his honour with his hands a Cain--and a good many branded faces would be seen in some streets. I laughed at the fancy, as I strode down the garden walk.

And yet, perhaps, I was going to do a foolish thing. The Lieutenant would still be here: a hard-bitten man, of stiffer stuff than his Captain. And the troopers. What if, when I had killed their leader, they made the place too hot for me, Monseigneur's commission notwithstanding? I should look silly, indeed, if on the eve of success I were driven from the place by a parcel of jack-boots.

I liked the thought so little that I hesitated. Yet it seemed too late to retreat. The Captain and the Lieutenant were waiting for me in a little open space fifty yards from the house, where a narrower path crossed the broad walk, down which I had first seen Mademoiselle and her sister pacing. The Captain had removed his doublet, and stood in his shirt leaning against the sundial, his head bare and his sinewy throat uncovered. He had drawn his rapier and stood pricking the ground impatiently. I marked his strong and nervous frame and his sanguine air: and twenty years earlier the sight might have damped me. But no thought of the kind entered my head now, and though I felt with each moment greater reluctance to engage, doubt of the issue had no place in my calculations.

I made ready slowly, and would gladly, to gain time, have found some fault with the place. But the sun was sufficiently high to give no advantage to either. The ground was good, the spot well chosen. I could find no excuse to put off the man, and I was about to salute him and fall to work when a thought crossed my mind.

'One moment!' I said. 'Supposing I kill you, M. le Capitaine, what becomes of your errand here?'

'Don't trouble yourself;' he answered with a sneer he had misread my slowness and hesitation. 'It will not happen, Monsieur. And in any case the thought need not harass you. I have a Lieutenant.'

'Yes, but what of my mission?' I replied bluntly. 'I have no lieutenant.'

'You should have thought of that before you interfered with my boots,' he retorted with contempt.

'True,' I said overlooking his manner. 'But better late than never. I am not sure, now I think of it, that my duty to Monseigneur will let me fight.'

'You will swallow the blow?' he cried, spitting on the ground offensively. 'Diable!' And the Lieutenant, standing on one side with his hands behind him and his shoulders squared, laughed grimly.

'I have not made up my mind,' I answered irresolutely.

'Well, nom de Dieu! make it up,' the Captain replied, with an ugly sneer. He took a swaggering step this way and that, playing his weapon. 'I am afraid, Lieutenant, that there will be no sport to-day,' he continued in a loud aside. 'Our cock has but a chicken heart.'

'Well, I said coolly,'I do not know what to do. Certainly it is a fine day, and a fair piece of ground. And the sun stands well. But I have not much to gain by killing you, M. le Capitaine, and it might get me into an awkward fix. On the other hand, it would not hurt me to let you go.'

'Indeed!' he said contemptuously, looking at me as I should look at a lackey.

'No!' I replied. 'For if you were to say that you had struck Gil de Berault and left the ground with a whole skin, no one would believe you.'

'Gil de Berault!' he exclaimed frowning.

'Yes, Monsieur,' I replied suavely. 'At your service. You did not know my name?'

'I thought that your name was De Barthe,' he said. His voice sounded queerly; and he waited for the answer with parted lips, and a shadow in his eyes which I had seen in men's eyes before.

'No,' I said; 'that was my mother's name. I took it for this occasion only.'

His florid cheek lost a shade of its colour, and he bit his lips as he glanced at the Lieutenant, trouble in his eyes. I had seen these signs before, and knew them, and I might have cried 'Chicken-heart!' in my turn; but I had not made a way of escape for him--before I declared myself--for nothing, and I held to my purpose.

'I think you will allow now,' I said grimly, 'that it will not harm me even if I put up with a blow!'

'M. de Berault's courage is known,' he muttered.

'And with reason,' I said. 'That being so suppose that we say this day three months, M. le Capitaine? The postponement to be for my convenience.'

He caught the Lieutenant's eye and looked down sullenly, the conflict in his mind as plain as daylight. He had only to insist that I must fight; and if by luck or skill he could master me his fame as a duellist would run, like a ripple over water, through every garrison town in France and make him a name even in Paris. On the other side were the imminent peril of death, the gleam of cold steel already in fancy at his breast, the loss of life and sunshine, and the possibility of a retreat with honour, if without glory. I read his face, and knew before he spoke what he would do.

'It appears to me that the burden is with you,' he said huskily; 'but for my part I am satisfied.'

'Very well,' I said, 'I take the burden. Permit me to apologise for having caused you to strip unnecessarily. Fortunately the sun is shining.'

'Yes,' he said gloomily. And he took his clothes from the sundial and began to put them on. He had expressed himself satisfied, but I knew that he was feeling very ill-satisfied, indeed, with himself; and I was not surprised when he presently said abruptly and almost rudely, 'There is one thing that I think we must settle here.'

'Yes?' I said. 'What is that?'

'Our positions,' he blurted out, 'Or we shall cross one another again within the hour.'

'Umph! I am not quite sure that I understand,' I said.

'That is precisely what I don't do--understand!' he retorted, in a tone of surly triumph. 'Before I came on this duty, I was told that there was a gentleman here, bearing sealed orders from the Cardinal to arrest M. de Cocheforet; and I was instructed to avoid collision with him so far as might be possible. At first I took you for the gentleman. But the plague take me if I understand the matter now.'

'Why not?' I said coldly.

'Because--well, the question is in a nutshell!' he answered impetuously. 'Are you here on behalf of Madame de Cocheforet, to shield her husband? Or are you here to arrest him? That is what I do not understand, M. de Berault.'

'If you mean, am I the Cardinal's agent--I am!' I answered sternly.

'To arrest M. de Cocheforet?'

'To arrest M. de Cocheforet.'

'Well--you surprise me,' he said.

Only that; but he spoke so drily that I felt the blood rush to my face.

'Take care, Monsieur,' I said severely. 'Do not presume too far on the inconvenience to which your death might put me.'

He shrugged his shoulders.

'No offence,' he said. 'But you do not seem, M. de Berault, to comprehend the difficulty. If we do not settle things now, we shall be bickering twenty times a day.'

'Well, what do you want?' I asked impatiently,

'Simply to know how you are going to proceed. So that our plans may not clash.'

'But surely, M. le Capitaine, that is my affair,' I said.

'The clashing?' he answered bitterly. Then he waved aside my wrath 'Pardon,' he said, 'the point is simply this. How do you propose to find him if he is here?'

'That again is my affair,' I answered. He threw up his hands in despair; but in a moment his place was taken by an unexpected disputant.

The Lieutenant, who had stood by all the time, listening and tugging at his grey moustache, suddenly spoke.

Look here, M. de Berault,' he said, confronting me roughly, 'I do not fight duels. I am from the ranks. I proved my courage at Montauban in '21, and my honour is good enough to take care of itself. So I say what I like, and I ask you plainly what M. le Capitaine doubtless has in his mind, but does not ask: Are you running with the hare, and hunting with the hounds in this matter? In other words, have you thrown up Monseigneur's commission in all but name, and become Madame's ally; or--it is the only other alternative--are you getting at the man through the women?'

'You villain!' I cried, glaring at him in such a rage and fury that I could scarcely get the words out. This was plain speaking with a vengeance! How dare you? How dare you say that I am false to the hand that pays me?'

I thought that he would blench, but he did not. He stood up stiff as a poker.

'I do not say; I ask!' he replied, facing me squarely, and slapping his fist into his open hand to drive home his words the better. 'I ask you whether you are playing the traitor to the Cardinal, or to these two women? It is a simple question.'

I fairly choked. 'You impudent scoundrel!' I said.

'Steady, steady!' he replied. 'Pitch sticks where it belongs, and nowhere else. But that is enough. I see which it is, M. le Capitaine; this way a moment, by your leave.'

And in a very cavalier fashion he took his officer by the arm, and drew him into a sidewalk, leaving me to stand in the sun, bursting with anger and spleen. The gutter-bred rascal! That such a man should insult me, and with impunity! In Paris, I might have made him fight, but here it was impossible.

I was still foaming with rage when they returned.

'We have come to a determination,' the Lieutenant said, tugging his grey moustachios, and standing like a ramrod. 'We shall leave you the house and Madame, and you can take your own line to find the man, for ourselves, we shall draw off our men to the village, and we shall take our line. That is all, M. le Capitaine, is it not?'

'I think so,' the Captain muttered, looking anywhere but at me.

'Then we bid you good-day, Monsieur,' the Lieutenant added, and in a moment he turned his companion round, and the two retired up the walk to the house, leaving me to look after them in a black fit of rage and incredulity.

At the first flush, there was something so offensive in the manner of their going that anger had the upper hand. I thought of the Lieutenant's words, and I cursed him to hell with a sickening consciousness that I should not forget them in a hurry.

'Was I playing the traitor to the Cardinal or to these women-- which?' Mon Dieu! if ever question--but there, some day I would punish him. And the Captain? I could put an end to his amusement, at any rate; and I would. Doubtless among the country bucks of Auch he lorded it as a chief provincial bully, but I would cut his comb for him some fine morning behind the barracks.

And then as I grew cooler I began to wonder why they were going, and what they were going to do. They might be already on the track, or have the information they required under hand; in that case I could understand the movement. But if they were still searching vaguely, uncertain whether their quarry were in the neighbourhood or not, and uncertain how long they might have to stay, it seemed incredible that soldiers should move from good quarters to bad without motive.

I wandered down the garden, thinking sullenly of this, and pettishly cutting off the heads of the flowers with my sheathed sword. After all, if they found and arrested the man, what then? I should have to make my peace with the Cardinal as I best might. He would have gained his point, but not through me, and I should have to look to myself. On the other hand, if I anticipated them--and, as a fact, I believed that I could lay my hand on the fugitive within a few hours--there would come a time when I must face Mademoiselle.

A little while back that had not seemed so difficult a thing. From the day of our first meeting--and in a higher degree since that afternoon when she had lashed me with her scorn-my views of her, and my feelings towards her, had been strangely made up of antagonism and sympathy; of repulsion, because in her past and present she was so different from me; of yearning because she was a woman and friendless. Later I had duped her and bought her confidence by returning the jewels, and so in a measure I had sated my vengeance; then, as a consequence, sympathy had again got the better of me, until now I hardly knew my own mind, or what I felt, or what I intended. I did not know, in fact, what I intended. I stood there in the garden with that conviction suddenly newborn in my mind; and then, in a moment, I heard her step, and I turned to find her behind me.

Her face was like April, smiles breaking through her tears. As she stood with a tall hedge of sunflowers behind her, I started to see how beautiful she was.

'I am here in search of you, M. de Barthe,' she said, colouring slightly, perhaps because my eyes betrayed my thought; 'to thank you. You have not fought, and yet you have conquered. My woman has just been with me, and she tells me that they are going.'

'Going?' I said, 'Yes, Mademoiselle, they are leaving the house.'

She did not understand my reservation.

'What magic have you used?' she said almost gaily; it was wonderful how hope had changed her. 'Besides, I am curious to learn how you managed to avoid fighting.'

'After taking a blow?' I said bitterly.

'Monsieur, I did not mean that,' she said reproachfully.

But her face clouded. I saw that, viewed in this light--in which, I suppose, she had not hitherto--the matter perplexed her more than before.

I took a sudden resolution.

'Have you ever heard, Mademoiselle,' I said gravely, plucking off while I spoke the dead leaves from a plant beside me, 'of a gentleman by name De Berault? Known in Paris, I have heard, by the sobriquet of the Black Death?'

'The duellist?' she answered, looking at me in wonder. 'Yes, I have heard of him. He killed a young gentleman of this province at Nancy two years back. 'It was a sad story,' she continued, shuddering slightly, 'of a dreadful man. God keep our friends from such!'

'Amen!' I said quietly. But, in spite of myself, I could not meet her eyes.

'Why?' she answered, quickly taking alarm at; my silence. 'What of him, M. de Barthe? Why have you mentioned him?'

'Because he is here, Mademoiselle.'

'Here?' she exclaimed. 'At Cocheforet?'

'Yes, Mademoiselle,' I answered soberly. 'I am he.'