Epoch the First
Chapter IV. The Uplifting of the Swords
 

Iberville and Gering sat on with the tobacco and the wine. The older men had joined the ladies, the governor having politely asked them to do so when they chose. The other occupant of the room was Morris, who still stood stolidly behind his master's chair.

For a time he heard the talk of the two young men as in a kind of dream. Their words were not loud, their manner was amicable enough, if the sharing of a bottle were anything to the point. But they were sitting almost the full length of the table from him, and to quarrel courteously and with an air hath ever been a quality in men of gentle blood.

If Morris's eyesight had been better, he would have seen that Gering handled his wine nervously, and had put down his long Dutch pipe. He would also have seen that Iberville was smoking with deliberation, and drinking with a kind of mannered coolness. Gering's face was flushed, his fine nostrils were swelling viciously, his teeth showed white against his red lips, and his eyes glinted. There was a kind of devilry at Iberville's large and sensuous mouth, but his eyes were steady and provoking, and while Gering's words went forth pantingly, Iberville's were slow and concise, and chosen with the certainty of a lapidary.

It is hard to tell which had started the quarrel, but an edge was on their talk from the beginning. Gering had been moved by a boyish jealousy; Iberville, who saw the injustice of his foolish temper, had played his new-found enemy with a malicious adroitness. The aboriginal passions were strong in him. He had come of a people which had to do with essentials in the matter of emotions. To love, to hate, to fight, to explore, to hunt, to be loyal, to avenge, to bow to Mother Church, to honour the king, to beget children, to taste outlawry under a more refined name, and to die without whining: that was its range of duty, and a very sufficient range it was.

The talk had been running on Bucklaw. It had then shifted to Radisson. Gering had crowded home with flagrant emphasis the fact that, while Radisson was a traitor and a scoundrel,--which Iberville himself had admitted with an ironical frankness,--he was also a Frenchman. It was at this point that Iberville remembered, also with something of irony, the words that Jessica had used that afternoon when she came out of the sunshine into the ante-room of the governor's chamber. She had waved her hand into the distance and had said: "Foolish boy!" He knew very well that that part of the game was turned against him, but with a kind of cheerful recklessness, as was ever his way with odds against him, and he guessed that the odds were with Gering in the matter of Jessica,--he bent across the table and repeated them with an exasperating turn to his imperfect accent. "Foolish boy!" he said, and awaited, not for long, the event.

"A fool's lie," retorted Gering, in a low, angry voice, and spilled his wine.

At that Iberville's heart thumped in his throat with anger, and the roof of his mouth became dry; never in his life had he been called a liar. The first time that insult strikes a youth of spirit he goes a little mad.

But he was very quiet--an ominous sort of quietness, even in a boy. He got to his feet and leaned over the table, speaking in words that dropped on the silence like metal: "Monsieur, there is but one answer."

At this point Morris, roused from his elaborate musings, caught, not very clearly, at the meaning of it all. But he had not time to see more, for just then he was called by the governor, and passed into the room where Mammon, for the moment, perched like a leering, little dwarf upon the shoulders of adventurous gentlemen grown avaricious on a sudden.

"Monsieur, there is but one way. Well?" repeated Iberville.

"I am ready," replied Gering, also getting to his feet. The Frenchman was at once alive to certain difficulties. He knew that an envoy should not fight, and that he could ask no one to stand his second; also that it would not be possible to arrange a formal duel between opposites so young as Gering and himself. He sketched this briefly, and the Bostonian nodded moody assent. "Come, then," said Iberville, "let us find a place. My sword is at my hand. Yours?"

"Mine is not far off," answered Gering sullenly. Iberville forbore to point a moral, but walked to the mantel, above which hung two swords of finest steel, with richly-chased handles. He had noted them as soon as he had entered the room. "By the governor's leave," he said, and took them down. "Since we are to ruffle him let him furnish the spurs--eh? Shall we use these, and so be even as to weapons? But see," he added, with a burst of frankness, "I am in a--a trouble." It was not easy on the instant to find the English word. He explained the duties of his mission. It was singular to ask his enemy that he should see his papers handed to Count Frontenac if he were killed, but it was characteristic of him.

"I will see the papers delivered," said Gering, with equal frankness.

"That is, if by some miraculous chance I should be killed," added Iberville. "But I have other ends in view."

"I have only one end in view," retorted Gering. "But wait," he said, as they neared the door leading into the main hall; "we may be seen. There is another way into the grounds through a little hall here." He turned and opened a door almost as small as a panel. "I was shown this secret door the other day, and since ours is a secret mission let us use it."

"Very well. But a minute more," said Iberville. He went and unhooked a fine brass lantern, of old Dutch workmanship, swung from the ceiling by a chain. "We shall need a light," he remarked.

They passed into the musty little hallway, and Gering with some difficulty drew back the bolts. The door creaked open and they stepped out into the garden,

Iberville leading the way. He had not conned his surroundings that afternoon for nothing, and when they had reached a quiet place among some firs he hung the lantern to the branch of a tree, opening the little ornamental door so that the light streamed out. There was not much of it, but it would serve, and without a word, like two old warriors, they took off their coats.

Meanwhile Morris had returned to the dining-room to find Jessica standing agaze there. She had just come in; for, chancing to be in her bed- chamber, which was just over the secret hallway, she had heard Gering shoot the bolts. Now, the chamber was in a corner, so that the window faced another way, but the incident seemed strange to her, and she stood for a moment listening. Then hearing the door shut, she ran down the stairs, knocked at the dining-room door and, getting no answer, entered, meeting Morris as he came from the governor's room.

"Morris, Morris," she said, "where are they all?"

"The governor is in his room, mistress."

"Who are with him?" He told her.

"Where are the others?" she urged. "Mr. Gering and Monsieur Iberville --where are they?"

The man's eyes had flashed to the place where the swords were used to hang. "Lord God!" he said under his breath.

Her eyes had followed his. She ran forward to the wall and threw up her hands against it. "Oh Morris," she said distractedly, "they have taken the swords!" Then she went past him swiftly through the panel and the outer door. She glanced around quickly, running, as she did so, with a kind of blind instinct towards the clump of firs. Presently she saw a little stream of light in the trees. Always a creature of abundant energy and sprightliness, she swept through the night, from the comedy behind to the tragedy in front; the grey starlight falling about her white dress and making her hair seem like a cloud behind her as she ran. Suddenly she came in on the two sworders with a scared, transfigured face.

Iberville had his man at an advantage, and was making the most of it when she came in at an angle behind the other, and the sight of her stayed his arm. It was but for a breath, but it served. Gering had not seen, and his sword ran up Iberville's arm, making a little trench in the flesh.

She ran in on them from the gloom, saying in a sharp, aching voice: "Stop, stop! Oh, what madness!" The points dropped and they stepped back. She stood between them, looking from one to the other. At that moment Morris burst in also. "In God's name," he said, "is this your honouring of the king's governor! Ye that have eat and drunk at his table the night! Have ye nae sense o' your manhood, young gentlemen, that for a mad gossip ower the wine ye wend into the dark to cut each other's throats? Think--think shame, baith o' ye, being as ye are of them that should know better."

Gering moodily put on his coat and held his peace. Iberville tossed his sword aside, and presently wrung the blood from his white sleeve. The girl saw him, and knew that he was wounded. She snatched a scarf from her waist and ran towards him. "You are wounded," she said. "Oh, take this!"

"I am so much sorry, indeed," he answered coolly, winding the scarf about his arm. "Mistress Leveret came too soon."

His face wore a peculiar smile, but his eyes burned with anger; his voice was not excited. Immediately, however, as he looked at Jessica, his mood seemed to change.

"Morris," he said, "I am sorry. Mademoiselle," he added, "pardon! I regret whatever gives you pain." Gering came near to her, and Iberville could see that a flush stole over Jessica's face as he took her hand and said: "I am sorry--that you should have known."

"Good!" said Iberville, under his breath. "Good! he is worth fighting again."

A moment afterwards Morris explained to them that if the matter could be hushed he would not impart it to the governor--at least, not until Iberville had gone. Then they all started back towards the house. It did not seem incongruous to Iberville and Gering to walk side by side; theirs was a superior kind of hate. They paused outside the door, on Morris's hint, that he might see if the coast was clear, and return the swords to their place on the wall.

Jessica turned in the doorway. "I shall never forgive you," she said, and was swallowed by the darkness. "Which does she mean?" asked Iberville, with a touch of irony. The other was silent.

In a moment Morris came back to tell them that they might come, for the dining-room was empty still.