Epoch the Fourth
Chapter XXIV. In Which the Sword is Sheathed
 

How had it gone with Iberville and Gering?

The room was large, scantily, though comfortably, furnished. For a moment after they took up their swords they eyed each other calmly. Iberville presently smiled: he was recalling that night, years ago, when by the light of the old Dutch lantern they had fallen upon each other, swordsmen, even in those days, of more than usual merit. They had practised greatly since. Iberville was the taller of the two, Gering the stouter. Iberville's eye was slow, calculating, penetrating; Gering's was swift, strangely vigilant. Iberville's hand was large, compact, and supple; Gering's small and firm.

They drew and fell on guard. Each at first played warily. They were keen to know how much of skill was likely to enter into this duel, for each meant that it should be deadly. In the true swordsman there is found that curious sixth sense, which is a combination of touch, sight, apprehension, divination. They had scarcely made half a dozen passes before each knew that he was pitted against a master of the art--an art partly lost in an age which better loves the talk of swords than the handling of them. But the advantage was with Iberville, not merely because of more practice,--Gering made up for that by a fine certainty of nerve,--but because he had a prescient quality of mind, joined to the calculation of the perfect gamester.

From the first Iberville played a waiting game. He knew Gering's impulsive nature, and he wished to draw him on, to irritate him, as only one swordsman can irritate another. Gering suddenly led off with a disengage from the carte line into tierce, and, as he expected, met the short parry and riposte. Gering tried by many means to draw Iberville's attack, and, failing to do so, played more rapidly than he ought, which was what Iberville wished.

Presently Iberville's chance came. In the carelessness of annoyance, Gering left part of his sword arm uncovered, while he was meditating a complex attack, and he paid the penalty by getting a sharp prick from Iberville's sword-point. The warning came to Gering in time. When they crossed swords again, Iberville, whether by chance or by momentary want of skill, parried Gering's disengage from tierce to carte on to his own left shoulder.

Both had now got a taste of blood, and there is nothing like that to put the lust of combat into a man. For a moment or two the fight went on with no special feat, but so hearty became the action that Iberville, seeing Gering flag a little,--due somewhat to loss of blood, suddenly opened such a rapid attack on the advance that it was all Gering could do to parry, without thought of riposte, the successive lunges of the swift blade. As he retreated, Gering felt, as he broke ground, that he was nearing the wall, and, even as he parried, incautiously threw a half- glance over his shoulder to see how near. Iberville saw his chance, his finger was shaping a fatal lunge, when there suddenly came from the hallway a woman's voice. So weird was it that both swordsmen drew back, and once more Gering's life was waiting in the hazard.

Strange to say, Iberville recognised the voice first. He was angered with himself now that he had paused upon the lunge and saved Gering. Suddenly there rioted in him the disappointed vengeance of years. He had lost her once by sparing this man's life. Should he lose her again? His sword flashed upward.

At that moment Gering recognised his wife's voice, and he turned pale. "My wife!" he exclaimed.

They closed again. Gering was now as cold as he had before been ardent, and he played with malicious strength and persistency. His nerves seemed of iron. But there had come to Iberville the sardonic joy of one who plays for the final hazard, knowing that he shall win. There was one great move he had reserved for the last. With the woman's voice at the door beseeching, her fingers trembling upon the panel, they could not prolong the fight. Therefore, at the moment when Gering was pressing Iberville hard, the Frenchman suddenly, with a trick of the Italian school, threw his left leg en arriere and made a lunge, which ordinarily would have spitted his enemy, but at the critical moment one word came ringing clearly through the locked door. It was his own name, not Iberville, but--"Pierre! Pierre!"

He had never heard the voice speak that name. It put out his judgment, and instead of his sword passing through Gering's body it only grazed his ribs.

Perhaps there was in him some ancient touch of superstition, some sense of fatalism, which now made him rise to his feet and throw his sword upon the table.

"Monsieur," he said cynically, "again we are unfortunate."

Then he went to the door, unlocked it, and threw it open upon Jessica. She came in upon them trembling, pale, yet glowing with her anxiety.

Instantly Iberville was all courtesy. One could not have guessed that he had just been engaged in a deadly conflict. As his wife entered, Gering put his sword aside. Iberville closed the door, and the three stood looking at each other for a moment. Jessica did not throw herself into her husband's arms. The position was too painful, too tragic, for even the great emotion in her heart. Behind Iberville's courtesy she read the deadly mischief. But she had a power born for imminent circumstances, and her mind was made up as to her course. It had been made up when, at the critical moment, she had called out Iberville's Christian name. She rightly judged that this had saved her husband's life, for she guessed that Iberville was the better swordsman.

She placed her hands with slight resistance on the arms of her husband, who was about to clasp her to his breast, and said: "I am glad to find you, George." That was all.

He also had heard that cry, "Pierre," and he felt shamed that his life was spared because of it--he knew well why the sword had not gone through his body. She felt less humiliation, because, as it seemed to her, she had a right to ask of Iberville what no other woman could ask for her husband.

A moment after, at Iberville's request, they were all seated. Iberville had pretended not to notice the fingers which had fluttered towards him. As yet nothing had been said about the duel, as if by tacit consent. So far as Jessica was concerned it might never have happened. As for the men, the swords were there, wet with the blood they had drawn, but they made no sign. Iberville put meat and wine and fruit upon the table, and pressed Jessica to take refreshment. She responded, for it was in keeping with her purpose. Presently Iberville said, as he poured a glass of wine for her: "Had you been expected, madame, there were better entertainment."

"Your entertainment, monsieur," she replied, "has two sides,"--she glanced at the swords,--"and this is the better."

"If it pleases you, madame."

"I dare not say," she returned, "that my coming was either pleasant or expected."

He raised his glass towards her: "Madame, I am proud to pledge you once more. I recall the first time that we met."

Her reply was instant. "You came, an ambassador of peace to the governor of New York. Monsieur, I come an ambassador of peace to you."

"Yes, I remember. You asked me then what was the greatest, bravest thing I ever did. You ever had a buoyant spirit, madame."

"Monsieur," she rejoined, with feeling, "will you let me answer that question for you now? The bravest and greatest thing you ever did was to give a woman back her happiness."

"Have I done so?"

"In your heart, yes, I believe. A little while ago my husband's life and freedom were in your hands--you will place them in mine now, will you not?"

Iberville did not reply directly. He twisted his wineglass round, sipped from it pleasantly, and said: "Pardon me, madame, how were you admitted here?"

She told him.

"Singular, singular!" he replied; "I never knew Perrot fail me before. But you have eloquence, madame, and he knew, no doubt, that you would always be welcome to my home."

There was that in his voice which sent the blood stinging through Gering's veins. He half came to his feet, but his wife's warning, pleading glance brought him to his chair again.

"Monsieur, tell me," she said, "will you give my husband his freedom?"

"Madame, his life is the State's."

"But he is in your hands now. Will you not set him free? You know that the charge against him is false--false. He is no spy. Oh, monsieur, you and he have been enemies, but you know that he could not do a dishonourable thing."

"Madame, my charges against him are true."

"I know what they are," she said earnestly, "but this strife is not worthy of you, and it is shaming me. Monsieur, you know I speak truly.

"You called me Pierre a little while ago," he said; "will you not now?"

His voice was deliberate, every word hanging in its utterance. He had a courteous smile, an apparent abandon of manner, but there was devilry behind all, for here, for the first time, he saw this woman, fought for and lost, in his presence with her husband, begging that husband's life of him. Why had she called him Pierre? Was it because she knew it would touch a tender corner of his heart? Should that be so--well, he would wait.

"Will you listen to me?" she asked, in a low gentle voice.

"I love to hear you speak," was his reply, and he looked into her eyes as he had boldly looked years before, but his gaze made hers drop. There was revealed to her all that was in his mind.

"Then, hear me now," she said slowly. "There was a motherless young girl. She had as fresh and cheerful a heart as any in the world. She had not many playmates, but there was one young lad who shared her sports and pleasant hours, who was her good friend. Years passed; she was nearing womanhood, the young man was still her friend, but in his mind there had come something deeper. A young stranger also came, handsome, brave, and brilliant. He was such a man as any girl could like and any man admire. The girl liked him, and she admired him. The two young men quarreled; they fought; and the girl parted them. Again they would have fought, but this time the girl's 'life was in danger. The stranger was wounded in saving her. She owed him a debt--such a debt as only a woman can feel; because a woman loves a noble deed more than she loves her life--a good woman."

She paused, and for an instant something shook in her throat. Her husband looked at her with a deep wonder. And although Iberville's eyes played with his glass of wine, they were fascinated by her face, and his ear was strangely charmed by her voice.

"Will you go on?" he said.

"The three parted. The girl never forgot the stranger. What might have happened if he had always been near her, who can tell--who can tell? Again in later years the two men met, the stranger the aggressor--without due cause."

"Pardon me, madame, the deepest cause," said Iberville meaningly.

She pretended not to understand, and continued: "The girl, believing that what she was expected to do would be best for her, promised her hand in marriage. At this time the stranger came. She saw him but for a day, for an hour, then he passed away. Time went on again, and the two men met in battle--men now, not boys; once more the stranger was the victor. She married the defeated man. Perhaps she did not love him as much as he loved her, but she knew that the other love, the love of the stranger, was impossible--impossible. She came to care for her husband more and more--she came to love him. She might have loved the stranger--who can tell? But a woman's heart cannot be seized as a ship or a town. Believe me, monsieur, I speak the truth. Years again passed: her husband's life was in the stranger's hand. Through great danger she travelled to plead for her husband's life. Monsieur, she does not plead for an unworthy cause. She pleads for justice, in the name of honourable warfare, for the sake of all good manhood. Will--will you refuse her?"

She paused. Gering's eyes were glistening. Her honesty, fine eloquence, and simple sincerity, showed her to him in a new, strong light. Upon Iberville, the greater of the two, it had a greater effect. He sat still for a moment, looking at the woman with the profound gaze of one moved to the soul. Then he got to his feet slowly, opened the door, and quietly calling Perrot, whispered to him. Perrot threw up his hands in surprise, and hurried away.

Then Iberville shut the door, and came back. Neither man had made any show of caring for their wounds. Still silent, Iberville drew forth linen and laid it upon the table. Then he went to the window, and as he looked through the parted curtains out upon the water--the room hung over the edge of the cliff-he bound his own shoulder. Gering had lost blood, but weak as he was he carried himself well. For full half an hour Iberville stood motionless while the wife bound her husband's wounds.

At length the door opened and Perrot entered. Iberville did not hear him at first, and Perrot came over to him. "All is ready, monsieur," he said.

Iberville, nodding, came to the table where stood the husband and wife, and Perrot left the room. He picked up a sword and laid it beside Gering, then waved his hand towards the door.

"You are free to go, monsieur," he said. "You will have escort to your country. Go now--pray, go quickly."

He feared he might suddenly repent of his action, and going to the door, he held it open for them to pass. Gering picked up the sword, found the belt and sheath, and stepped to the doorway with his wife. Here he paused as if he would speak to Iberville: he was ready now for final peace. But Iberville's eyes looked resolutely away, and Gering sighed and passed into the hallway. Now the wife stood beside Iberville. She looked at him steadily, but at first he would not meet her eye. Presently, however, he did so.

"Good-bye," she said brokenly, "I shall always remember--always."

His reply was bitter. "Good-bye, madame: I shall forget."

She made a sad little gesture and passed on, but presently turned, as if she could not bear that kind of parting, and stretched out her hands to him.

"Monsieur--Pierre!" she cried, in a weak, choking voice.

With hot frank impulse he caught both her hands in his and kissed them. "I shall--remember," he said, with great gentleness.

Then they passed from the hallway, and he was alone. He stood looking at the closed door, but after a moment went to the table, sat down, and threw his head forward in his arms.

An hour afterwards, when Count Frontenac entered upon him, he was still in the same position. Frontenac touched him on the arm, and he rose. The governor did not speak, but caught him by the shoulders with both hands, and held him so for a moment, looking kindly at him. Iberville picked up his sword from the table and said calmly:

"Once, sir, you made it a choice between the woman and the sword."

Then he raised the sword and solemnly pressed his lips against the hilt-cross.