Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XXVI. The Secret of the Tapestry
That evening, at eight o'clock, Jean Labrouk was buried. A shell had burst not a dozen paces from his own door, within the consecrated ground of the cathedral, and in a hole it had made he was laid, the only mourners his wife and his grandfather, and two soldiers of his company sent by General Bougainville to bury him. I watched the ceremony from my loft, which had one small dormer window. It was dark, but burning buildings in the Lower Town made all light about the place. I could hear the grandfather mumbling and talking to the body as it was lowered into the ground. While yet the priest was hastily reading prayers, a dusty horseman came riding to the grave, and dismounted.
"Jean," he said, looking at the grave, "Jean Labrouk, a man dies well that dies with his gaiters on, aho! ... What have you said for Jean Labrouk, m'sieu'?" he added to the priest.
The priest stared at him, as though he had presumed.
"Well?" said Gabord. "Well?"
The priest answered nothing, but prepared to go, whispering a word of comfort to the poor wife. Gabord looked at the soldiers, looked at the wife, at the priest, then spread out his legs and stuck his hands down into his pockets, while his horse rubbed its nose against his shoulder. He fixed his eyes on the grave, and nodded once or twice musingly.
"Well," he said at last, as if he had found a perfect virtue, and the one or only thing that could be said, "well, he never eat his words, that Jean."
A moment afterwards he came into the house with Babette, leaving one of the soldiers holding his horse. After the old man had gone, I heard him say, "Were you at mass to-day? And did you see all?"
And when she had answered yes, he continued: "It was a mating as birds mate, but mating was it, and holy fathers and Master Devil Doltaire can't change it till cock-pheasant Moray come rocketing to 's grave. They would have hanged me for my part in it, but I repent not, for they have wickedly hunted this little lady."
"I weep with her," said Jean's wife.
"Ay, ay, weep on, Babette," he answered.
"Has she asked help of you?" said the wife.
"Truly; but I know not what says she, for I read not, but I know her pecking. Here it is. But you must be secret."
Looking through a crack in the floor, I could plainly see them. She took the letter from him and read aloud:
"If Gabord the soldier have a good heart still, as ever he had in the past, he will again help a poor friendless woman. She needs him, for all are against her. Will he leave her alone among her enemies? Will he not aid her to fly? At eight o'clock to-morrow night she will be taken to the Convent of the Ursulines, to be there shut in. Will he not come to her before that time?"
For a moment after the reading there was silence, and I could see the woman looking at him curiously. "What will you do?" she asked.
"My faith, there's nut to crack, for I have little time. This letter but reached me with the news of Jean, two hours ago, and I know not what to do, but, scratching my head, here comes word from General Montcalm that I must ride to Master Devil Doltaire with a letter, and I must find him wherever he may be, and give it straight. So forth I come; and I must be at my post again by morn, said the General."
"It is now nine o'clock, and she will be in the convent," said the woman tentatively.
"Aho!" he answered, "and none can enter there but Governor, if holy Mother say no. So now goes Master Devil there? 'Gabord,' quoth he, 'you shall come with me to the convent at ten o'clock, bringing three stout soldiers of the garrison. Here's an order on Monsieur Ramesay, the Commandant. Choose you the men, and fail me not, or you shall swing aloft, dear Gabord.' Sweet lovers of hell, but Master Devil shall have swinging too one day." He put his thumb to his nose, and spread his fingers out.
Presently he seemed to note something in the woman's eyes, for he spoke almost sharply to her: "Jean Labrouk was honest man, and kept faith with comrades."
"And I keep faith too, comrade," was the answer.
"Gabord's a brute to doubt you," he rejoined quickly, and he drew from his pocket a piece of gold, and made her take it, though she much resisted.
Meanwhile my mind was made up. I saw, I thought, through "Master Devil's" plan, and I felt, too, that Gabord would not betray me. In any case, Gabord and I could fight it out. If he opposed me, it was his life or mine, for too much was at stake, and all my plans were now changed by his astounding news. At that moment Voban entered the room without knocking. Here was my cue, and so, to prevent explanations, I crept quickly down, opened the door, came in on them.
They wheeled at my footsteps; the woman gave a little cry, and Gabord's hand went to his pistol. There was a wild sort of look in his face, as though he could not trust his eyes. I took no notice of the menacing pistol, but went straight to him and held out my hand.
"Gabord," said I, "you are not my jailer now."
"I'll be your guard to citadel," said he, after a moment's dumb surprise, refusing my outstretched hand.
"Neither guard nor jailer any more, Gabord," said I seriously. "We've had enough of that, my friend."
The soldier and the jailer had been working in him, and his fingers trifled with the trigger. In all things he was the foeman first. But now something else was working in him. I saw this, and added pointedly, "No more cage, Gabord, not even for reward of twenty thousand livres and at command of Holy Church."
He smiled grimly, too grimly, I thought, and turned inquiringly to Babette. In a few words she told him all, tears dropping from her eyes.
"If you take him, you betray me," she said; "and what would Jean say, if he knew?"
"Gabord," said I, "I come not as a spy; I come to seek my wife, and she counts you as her friend. Do harm to me, and you do harm to her. Serve me, and you serve her. Gabord, you said to her once that I was an honourable man."
He put up his pistol. "Aho, you've put your head in the trap. Stir, and click goes the spring."
"I must have my wife," I continued. "Shall the nest you helped to make go empty?"
I worked upon him to such purpose that, all bristling with war at first, he was shortly won over to my scheme, which I disclosed to him while the wife made us a cup of coffee. Through all our talk Voban had sat eying us with a covert interest, yet showing no excitement. He had been unable to reach Alixe. She had been taken to the convent, and immediately afterwards her father and brother had gone their ways--Juste to General Montcalm, and the Seigneur to the French camp. Thus Alixe did not know that I was in Quebec.
An hour after this I was marching, with two other men and Gabord, to the Convent of the Ursulines, dressed in the ordinary costume of a French soldier, got from the wife of Jean Labrouk. In manner and speech though I was somewhat dull, my fellows thought, I was enough like a peasant soldier to deceive them, and my French was more fluent than their own. I was playing a desperate game; yet I liked it, for it had a fine spice of adventure apart from the great matter at stake. If I could but carry it off, I should have sufficient compensation for all my miseries, in spite of their twenty thousand livres and Holy Church.
In a few minutes we came to the convent, and halted outside, waiting for Doltaire. Presently he came, and, looking sharply at us all, he ordered two to wait outside, and Gabord and myself to come with him. Then he stood looking at the building curiously for a moment. A shell had broken one wing of it, and this portion had been abandoned; but the faithful Sisters clung still to their home, though urged constantly by the Governor to retire to the Hotel Dieu, which was outside the reach of shot and shell. This it was their intention soon to do, for within the past day or so our batteries had not sought to spare the convent. As Doltaire looked he laughed to himself, and then said, "Too quiet for gay spirits, this hearse. Come, Gabord, and fetch this slouching fellow," nodding towards me.
Then he knocked loudly. No one came, and he knocked again and again. At last the door was opened by the Mother Superior, who was attended by two others. She started at seeing Doltaire.
"What do you wish, monsieur?" she asked.
"I come on business of the King, good Mother," he replied seriously, and stepped inside.
"It is a strange hour for business," she said severely.
"The King may come at all hours," he answered soothingly: "is it not so? By the law he may enter when he wills."
"You are not the King, monsieur," she objected, with her head held up sedately.
"Or the Governor may come, good Mother?"
"You are not the Governor, Monsieur Doltaire," she said, more sharply still.
"But a Governor may demand admittance to this convent, and by the order of his Most Christian Majesty he may not be refused: is it not so?"
"Must I answer the catechism of Monsieur Doltaire?"
"But is it not so?" he asked again urbanely.
"It is so, yet how does that concern you, monsieur?"
"In every way," and he smiled.
"This is unseemly, monsieur. What is your business?"
"The Governor's business, good Mother."
"Then let the Governor's messenger give his message and depart in peace," she answered, her hand upon the door.
"Not the Governor's messenger, but the Governor himself," he rejoined gravely.
He turned and was about to shut the door, but she stopped him. "This is no house for jesting, monsieur," she said. "I will arouse the town if you persist.--Sister," she added to one standing near, "the bell!"
"You fill your office with great dignity and merit, Mere St. George," he said, as he put out his hand and stayed the Sister. "I commend you for your discretion. Read this," he continued, handing her a paper.
A Sister held a light, and the Mother read it. As she did so Doltaire made a motion to Gabord, and he shut the door quickly on us. Mere St. George looked up from the paper, startled and frightened too.
"Your Excellency!" she exclaimed.
"You are the first to call me so," he replied. "I thought to leave untouched this good gift of the King, and to let the Marquis de Vaudreuil and the admirable Bigot untwist the coil they have made. But no. After some too generous misgivings, I now claim my own. I could not enter here, to speak with a certain lady, save as the Governor, but as the Governor I now ask speech with Mademoiselle Duvarney. Do you hesitate?" he added. "Do you doubt that signature of his Majesty? Then see this. Here is a line from the Marquis de Vaudreuil, the late Governor. It is not dignified, one might say it is craven, but it is genuine."
Again the distressed lady read, and again she said, "Your Excellency!" Then, "You wish to see her in my presence, your Excellency?"
"Alone, good Mother," he softly answered.
"Your Excellency, will you, the first officer in the land, defy our holy rules, and rob us of our privilege to protect and comfort and save?"
"I defy nothing," he replied. "The lady is here against her will, a prisoner. She desires not your governance and care. In any case, I must speak with her; and be assured, I honour you the more for your solicitude, and will ask your counsel when I have finished talk with her."
Was ever man so crafty? After a moment's thought she turned, dismissed the others, and led the way, and Gabord and I followed. We were bidden to wait outside a room, well lighted but bare, as I could see through the open door. Doltaire entered, smiling, and then bowed the nun on her way to summon Alixe. Gabord and I stood there, not speaking, for both were thinking of the dangerous game now playing. In a few minutes the Mother returned, bringing Alixe. The light from the open door shone upon her face. My heart leaped, for there was in her look such a deep sorrow. She was calm, save for those shining yet steady eyes; they were like furnaces, burning up the colour of her cheeks. She wore a soft black gown, with no sign of ornament, and her gold-brown hair was bound with a piece of black velvet ribbon. Her beauty was deeper than I had ever seen it; a peculiar gravity seemed to have added years to her life. As she passed me her sleeve brushed my arm, as it did that day I was arrested in her father's house. She started, as though I had touched her fingers, but only half turned toward me, for her mind was wholly occupied with the room where Doltaire was.
At that moment Gabord coughed slightly, and she turned quickly to him. Her eyes flashed intelligence, and presently, as she passed in, a sort of hope seemed to have come on her face to lighten its painful pensiveness. The Mother Superior entered with her, the door closed, and then, after a little, the Mother came out again. As she did so I saw a look of immediate purpose in her face, and her hurrying step persuaded me she was bent on some project of espial. So I made a sign to Gabord and followed her. As she turned the corner of the hallway just beyond, I stepped forward silently and watched her enter a room that would, I knew, be next to this we guarded.
Listening at the door for a moment, I suddenly and softly turned the handle and entered, to see the good Mother with a panel drawn in the wall before her, and her face set to it. She stepped back as I shut the door and turned the key in the lock. I put my finger to my lips, for she seemed about to cry out.
"Hush!" said I. "I watch for those who love her. I am here to serve her--and you."
"You are a servant of the Seigneur's?" she said, the alarm passing out of her face.
"I served the Seigneur, good Mother," I answered, "and I would lay down my life for ma'm'selle."
"You would hear?" she asked, pointing to the panel.
"You speak French not like a Breton or Norman," she added. "What is your province?"
"I am an Auvergnian."
She said no more, but motioned to me, enjoining silence also by a sign, and I stood with her beside the panel. Before it was a piece of tapestry which was mere gauze in one place, and I could see through and hear perfectly. The room we were in was at least four feet higher than the other, and we looked down on its occupants.
"Presently, holy Mother," said I, "all shall be told true to you, if you wish it. It is not your will to watch and hear; it is because you love the lady. But I love her, too, and I am to be trusted. It is not business for such as you."
She saw my implied rebuke, and said, as I thought a little abashed, "You will tell me all? And if he would take her forth, give me alarm in the room opposite yonder door, and stay them, and--"
"Stay them, holy Mother, at the price of my life. I have the honour of her family in my hands."
She looked at me gravely, and I assumed a peasant openness of look and honesty. She was deceived completely, and, without further speech, she stepped to the door like a ghost and was gone. I never saw a human being so noiseless, so uncanny. Our talk had been carried on silently, and I had closed the panel quietly, so that we could not be heard by Alixe or Doltaire. Now I was alone, to see and hear my wife in speech with my enemy, the man who had made a strong, and was yet to make a stronger fight to unseat me in her affections.
There was a moment's compunction, in which I hesitated to see this meeting; but there was Alixe's safety to be thought on, and what might he not here disclose of his intentions!--knowing which, I should act with judgment, and not in the dark. I trusted Alixe, though I knew well that this hour would see the great struggle in her between this scoundrel and myself. I knew that he had ever had a sort of power over her, even while she loathed his character; that he had a hundred graces I had not, place which I had not, an intellect that ever delighted me, and a will like iron when it was called into action. I thought for one moment longer ere I moved the panel. My lips closed tight, and I felt a pang at my heart.
Suppose, in this conflict, this singular man, acting on a nature already tried beyond reason, should bend it to his will, to which it was, in some radical ways, inclined? Well, if that should be, then I would go forth and never see her more. She must make her choice out of her own heart and spirit, and fight this fight alone, and having fought, and lost or won, the result should be final, should stand, though she was my wife, and I was bound in honour to protect her from all that might invade her loyalty, to cherish her through all temptation and distress. But our case was a strange one, and it must be dealt with according to its strangeness--our only guides our consciences. There were no precedents to meet our needs; our way had to be hewn out of a noisome, pathless wood. I made up my mind: I would hear and see all. So I slid the panel softly, and put my eyes to the tapestry. How many times did I see, in the next hour, my wife's eyes upraised to this very tapestry, as if appealing to the Madonna upon it! How many times did her eyes look into mine without knowing it! And more than once Doltaire followed her glance, and a faint smile passed over his face, as if he saw and was interested in the struggle in her, apart from his own passion and desires.
When first I looked in, she was standing near a tall high-backed chair, in almost the same position as on the day when Doltaire told me of Braddock's death, accused me of being a spy, and arrested me. It gave me, too, a thrill to see her raise her handkerchief to her mouth as if to stop a cry, as she had done then, the black sleeve falling away from her perfect rounded arm, now looking almost like marble against the lace. She held her handkerchief to her lips for quite a minute; and indeed it covered more than a little of her face, so that the features most showing were her eyes, gazing at Doltaire with a look hard to interpret, for there seemed in it trouble, entreaty, wonder, resistance, and a great sorrow--no fear, trepidation, or indirectness.
His disturbing words were these: "To-night I am the Governor of this country. You once doubted my power--that was when you would save your lover from death. I proved it in that small thing--I saved him. Well, when you saw me carried off to the Bastile--it looked like that--my power seemed to vanish: is it not so? We have talked of this before, but now is a time to review all things again. And once more I say I am the Governor of New France. I have had the commission in my hands ever since I came back. But I have spoken of it to no one--except your lover."
"My husband!" she said steadily, crushing the handkerchief in her hand, which now rested upon the chair-arm.
"Well, well, your husband--after a fashion. I did not care to use this as an argument. I chose to win you by personal means alone, to have you give yourself to Tinoir Doltaire because you set him before any other man. I am vain, you see; but then vanity is no sin when one has fine aspirations, and I aspire to you!"
She made a motion with her hand. "Oh, can you not spare me this to-day of all days in my life--your Excellency?"
"Let it be plain 'monsieur,'" he answered. "I can not spare you, for this day decides all. As I said, I desired you. At first my wish was to possess you at any cost: I was your hunter only. I am still your hunter, but in a different way. I would rather have you in my arms than save New France; and with Montcalm I could save it. Vaudreuil is a blunderer and a fool; he has sold the country. But what ambition is that? New France may come and go, and be forgotten, and you and I be none the worse. There are other provinces to conquer. But for me there is only one province, and I will lift my standard there, and build a grand chateau of my happiness there. That is my hope, and that is why I come to conquer it, and not the English. Let the English go--all save one, and he must die. Already he is dead; he died to-day at the altar of the cathedral--"
"No, no, no!" broke in Alixe, her voice low and firm.
"But yes," he said; "but yes, he is dead to you forever. The Church has said so; the state says so; your people say so; race and all manner of good custom say so; and I, who love you better--yes, a hundred times better than he--say so."
She made a hasty, deprecating gesture with her hand. "Oh, carry this old song elsewhere," she said, "for I am sick of it." There were now both scorn and weariness in her tone.
He had a singular patience, and he resented nothing. "I understand," he went on, "what it was sent your heart his way. He came to you when you were yet a child, before you had learnt the first secret of life. He was a captive, a prisoner, he had a wound got in fair fighting, and I will do him the credit to say he was an honest man; he was no spy."
She looked up at him with a slight flush, almost of gratitude. "I know that well," she returned. "I knew there was other cause than spying at the base of all ill treatment of him. I know that you, you alone, kept him prisoner here five long years."
"Not I; the Grande Marquise--for weighty reasons. You should not fret at those five years, since it gave you what you have cherished so much, a husband--after a fashion. But yet we will do him justice: he is an honourable fighter, he has parts and graces of a rude order. But he will never go far in life; he has no instincts and habits common with you; it has been, so far, a compromise, founded upon the old-fashioned romance of ill-used captive and soft-hearted maid; the compassion, too, of the superior for the low, the free for the caged."
"Compassion such as your Excellency feels for me, no doubt," she said, with a slow pride.
"You are caged, but you may be free," he rejoined meaningly.
"Yes, in the same market open to him, and at the same price of honour," she replied, with dignity.
"Will you not sit down?" he now said, motioning her to a chair politely, and taking one himself, thus pausing before he answered her.
I was prepared to see him keep a decorous distance from her. I felt he was acting upon deliberation; that he was trusting to the power of his insinuating address, his sophistry, to break down barriers. It was as if he felt himself at greater advantage, making no emotional demonstrations, so allaying her fears, giving her time to think; for it was clear he hoped to master her intelligence, so strong a part of her.
She sat down in the high-backed chair, and I noted that our batteries began to play upon the town--an unusual thing at night. It gave me a strange feeling--the perfect stillness of the holy place, the quiet movement of this tragedy before me, on which broke, with no modifying noises or turmoil, the shouting cannonade. Nature, too, it would have seemed, had forged a mood in keeping with the time, for there was no air stirring when we came in, and a strange stillness had come upon the landscape. In the pause, too, I heard a long, soft shuffling of feet in the corridor--the evening procession from the chapel--and a slow chant:
"I am set down in a wilderness, O Lord, I am alone. If a strange voice call, O teach me what to say; if I languish, O give me Thy cup to drink; O strengthen Thou my soul. Lord, I am like a sparrow far from home; O bring me to Thine honourable house. Preserve my heart, encourage me, according to Thy truth."
The words came to us distinctly yet distantly, swelled softly, and died away, leaving Alixe and Doltaire seated and looking at each other. Alixe's hands were clasped in her lap.
"Your honour is above all price," he said at last in reply to her. "But what is honour in this case of yours, in which I throw the whole interest of my life, stake all? For I am convinced that, losing, the book of fate will close for me. Winning, I shall begin again, and play a part in France which men shall speak of when I am done with all. I never had ambition for myself; for you, Alixe Duvarney, a new spirit lives in me.... I will be honest with you. At first I swore to cool my hot face in your bosom; and I would have done that at any price, and yet I would have stood by that same dishonour honourably to the end. Never in my whole life did I put my whole heart in any--episode--of admiration: I own it, for you to think what you will. There never was a woman whom, loving to-day,"--he smiled--"I could not leave to-morrow with no more than a pleasing kind of regret. Names that I ought to have recalled I forgot; incidents were cloudy, like childish remembrances. I was not proud of it; the peasant in me spoke against it sometimes. I even have wished that I, half peasant, had been--"
"If only you had been all peasant, this war, this misery of mine, had never been," she interrupted.
He nodded with an almost boyish candour. "Yes, yes, but I was half prince also; I had been brought up, one foot in a cottage and another in a palace. But for your misery: is it, then, misery? Need it be so? But lift your finger and all will be well. Do you wish to save your country? Would that be compensation? Then I will show you the way. We have three times as many soldiers as the English, though of poorer stuff. We could hold this place, could defeat them, if we were united and had but two thousand men. We have fifteen thousand. As it is now, Vaudreuil balks Montcalm, and that will ruin us in the end unless you make it otherwise. You would be a patriot? Then shut out forever this English captain from your heart, and open its doors to me. To-morrow I will take Vaudreuil's place, put your father in Bigot's, your brother in Ramesay's--they are both perfect and capable; I will strengthen the excellent Montcalm's hands in every way, will inspire the people, and cause the English to raise this siege. You and I will do this: the Church will bless us, the State will thank us; your home and country will be safe and happy, your father and brother honoured. This, and far, far greater things I will do for your sake."
He paused. He had spoken with a deep power, such as I knew he could use, and I did not wonder that she paled a little, even trembled before it.
"Will you not do it for France?" she said.
"I will not do it for France," he answered. "I will do it for you alone. Will you not be your country's friend? It is no virtue in me to plead patriotism--it is a mere argument, a weapon that I use; but my heart is behind it, and it is a means to that which you will thank me for one day. I would not force you to anything, but I would persuade your reason, question your foolish loyalty to a girl's mistake. Can you think that you are right? You have no friend that commends your cause; the whole country has upbraided you, the Church has cut you off from the man. All is against reunion with him, and most of all your own honour. Come with me, and be commended and blessed here, while over in France homage shall be done you. For you I would take from his Majesty a dukedom which he has offered me more than once."
Suddenly, with a passionate tone, he continued: "Your own heart is speaking for me. Have I not seen you tremble when I come near you?"
He rose and came forward a step or two. "You thought it was fear of me. It was fear, but fear of that in you which was pleading for me, while you had sworn yourself away to him who knows not and can never know how to love you, who has nothing kin with you in mind or heart--an alien of poor fortune, and poorer birth and prospects."
He fixed his eyes upon her, and went on, speaking with forceful quietness: "Had there been cut away that mistaken sense of duty to him, which I admire unspeakably--yes, though it is misplaced--you and I would have come to each other's arms long ago. Here in your atmosphere I feel myself possessed, endowed. I come close to you, and something new in me cries out simply, 'I love you, Alixe, I love you!' See, all the damnable part of me is burned up by the clear fire of your eyes; I stand upon the ashes, and swear that I can not live without you. Come--come--"
He stepped nearer still, and she rose like one who moves under some fascination, and I almost cried out, for in that moment she was his, his--I felt it; he possessed her like some spirit; and I understood it, for the devilish golden beauty of his voice was like music, and he had spoken with great skill.
"Come," he said, "and know where all along your love has lain. That other way is only darkness--the convent, which will keep you buried, while you will never have heart for the piteous seclusion, till your life is broken all to pieces; till you have no hope, no desire, no love, and at last, under a cowl, you look out upon the world, and, with a dead heart, see it as in a pale dream, and die at last: you, born to be a wife, without a husband; endowed to be the perfect mother, without a child; to be the admired of princes, a moving, powerful figure to influence great men, with no salon but the little bare cell where you pray. With me all that you should be you will be. You have had a bad, dark dream; wake, and come into the sun with me. Once I wished for you as the lover only; now, by every hope I ever might have had, I want you for my wife."
He held out his arms to her and smiled, and spoke one or two low words which I could not hear. I had stood waiting death against the citadel wall, with the chance of a reprieve hanging between uplifted muskets and my breast; but that suspense was less than this, for I saw him, not moving, but standing there waiting for her, the warmth of his devilish eloquence about him, and she moving toward him.
"My darling," I heard him say, "come, till death...us do part, and let no man put asunder."
She paused, and, waking from the dream, drew herself together, as though something at her breast hurt her, and she repeated his words like one dazed--"Let no man put asunder!"
With a look that told of her great struggle, she moved to a shrine of the Virgin in the corner, and, clasping her hands before her breast for a moment, said something I could not hear, before she turned to Doltaire, who had now taken another step towards her. By his look I knew that he felt his spell was broken; that his auspicious moment had passed; that now, if he won her, it must be by harsh means.
For she said: "Monsieur Doltaire, you have defeated yourself. 'Let no man put asunder' was my response to my husband's 'Whom God hath joined,' when last I met him face to face. Nothing can alter that while he lives, nor yet when he dies, for I have had such a sorrowful happiness in him that if I were sure he were dead I would never leave this holy place--never. But he lives, and I will keep my vow. Holy Church has parted us, but yet we are not parted. You say that to think of him now is wrong, reflects upon me. I tell you, monsieur, that if it were a wrong a thousand times greater I would do it. To me there can be no shame in following till I die the man who took me honourably for his wife."
He made an impatient gesture and smiled ironically.
"Oh, I care not what you say or think," she went on. "I know not of things canonical and legal; the way that I was married to him is valid in his country and for his people. Bad Catholic you call me, alas! But I am a true wife, who, if she sinned, sinned not knowingly, and deserves not this tyranny and shame."
"You are possessed with a sad infatuation," he replied persuasively. "You are not the first who has suffered so. It will pass, and leave you sane--leave you to me. For you are mine; what you felt a moment ago you will feel again, when this romantic martyrdom of yours has wearied you."
"Monsieur Doltaire," she said, with a successful effort at calmness, though I could see her trembling too, "it is you who are mistaken, and I will show you how. But first: You have said often that I have unusual intelligence. You have flattered me in that, I doubt not, but still here is a chance to prove yourself sincere. I shall pass by every wicked means that you took first to ruin me, to divert me to a dishonest love (though I knew not what you meant at the time), and, failing, to make me your wife. I shall not refer to this base means to reach me in this sacred place, using the King's commission for such a purpose."
"I would use it again and do more, for the same ends," he rejoined, with shameless candour.
She waved her hand impatiently. "I pass all that by. You shall listen to me as I have listened to you, remembering that what I say is honest, if it has not your grace and eloquence. You say that I will yet come to you, that I care for you and have cared for you always, and that--that this other--is a sad infatuation. Monsieur, in part you are right."
He came another step forward, for he thought he saw a foothold again; but she drew back to the chair, and said, lifting her hand against him, "No, no, wait till I have done. I say that you are right in part. I will not deny that, against my will, you have always influenced me; that, try as I would, your presence moved me, and I could never put you out of my mind, out of my life. At first I did not understand it, for I knew how bad you were. I was sure you did evil because you loved it; that to gratify yourself you would spare no one: a man without pity--"
"On the contrary," he interrupted, with a sour sort of smile, "pity is almost a foible with me."
"Not real pity," she answered. "Monsieur, I have lived long enough to know what pity moves you. It is the moment's careless whim; a pensive pleasure, a dramatic tenderness. Wholesome pity would make you hesitate to harm others. You have no principles--"
"Pardon me, many," he urged politely, as he eyed her with admiration.
"Ah no, monsieur; habits, not principles. Your life has been one long irresponsibility. In the very maturity of your powers, you use them to win to yourself, to your empty heart, a girl who has tried to live according to the teachings of her soul and conscience. Were there not women elsewhere to whom it didn't matter--your abandoned purposes? Why did you throw your shadow on my path? You are not, never were, worthy of a good woman's love."
He laughed with a sort of bitterness. "Your sinner stands between two fires--" he said. She looked at him inquiringly, and he added, "the punishment he deserves and the punishment he does not deserve. But it is interesting to be thus picked out upon the stone, however harsh the picture. You said I influenced you--well?"
"Monsieur," she went on, "there were times when, listening to you, I needed all my strength to resist. I have felt myself weak and shaking when you came into the room. There was something in you that appealed to me, I know not what; but I do know that it was not the best of me, that it was emotional, some strange power of your personality--ah yes, I can acknowledge all now. You had great cleverness, gifts that startled and delighted; but yet I felt always, and that feeling grew and grew, that there was nothing in you wholly honest, that by artifice you had frittered away what once may have been good in you. Now all goodness in you was an accident of sense and caprice, not true morality."
"What has true morality to do with love of you?" he said.
"You ask me hard questions," she replied. "This it has to do with it: We go from morality to higher things, not from higher things to morality. Pure love is a high thing; yours was not high. To have put my life in your hands--ah no, no! And so I fought you. There was no question of yourself and Robert Moray--none. Him I knew to possess fewer gifts, but I knew him also to be what you could never be. I never measured him against you. What was his was all of me worth the having, and was given always; there was no change. What was yours was given only when in your presence, and then with hatred of myself and you--given to some baleful fascination in you. For a time, the more I struggled against it the more it grew, for there was nothing that could influence a woman which you did not do. Monsieur, if you had had Robert Moray's character and your own gifts, I could--monsieur, I could have worshiped you!"
Doltaire was in a kind of dream. He was sitting now in the high-backed chair, his mouth and chin in his hand, his elbow resting on the chair-arm. His left hand grasped the other arm, and he leaned forward with brows bent and his eyes fixed on her intently. It was a figure singularly absorbed, lost in study of some deep theme. Once his sword clanged against the chair as it slipped a little from its position, and he started almost violently, though the dull booming of a cannon in no wise seemed to break the quietness of the scene. He was dressed, as in the morning, in plain black, but now the star of Louis shone on his breast. His face was pale, but his eyes, with their swift-shifting lights, lived upon Alixe, devoured her.
She paused for an instant.
"Thou shalt not commit--idolatry," he remarked in a low, cynical tone, which the repressed feeling in his face and the terrible new earnestness of his look belied.
She flushed a little, and continued: "Yet all the time I was true to him, and what I felt concerning you he knew--I told him enough."
Suddenly there came into Doltaire's looks and manner an astounding change. Both hands caught the chair-arm, his lips parted with a sort of snarl, and his white teeth showed maliciously. It seemed as if, all at once, the courtier, the flaneur, the man of breeding, had gone, and you had before you the peasant, in a moment's palsy from the intensity of his fury.
"A thousand hells for him!" he burst out in the rough patois of Poictiers, and got to his feet. "You told him all, you confessed your fluttering fears and desires to him, while you let me play upon those ardent strings of feelings, that you might save him! You used me, Tinoir Doltaire, son of a king, to further your amour with a bourgeois Englishman! And he laughed in his sleeve, and soothed away those dangerous influences of the magician. By the God of heaven, Robert Moray and I have work to do! And you--you, with all the gifts of the perfect courtesan--"
"Oh, shame! shame!" she said, breaking in.
"But I speak the truth. You berate me, but you used incomparable gifts to hold me near you, and the same gifts to let me have no more of you than would keep me. I thought you the most honest, the most heavenly of women, and now--"
"Alas!" she interrupted, "what else could I have done? To draw the line between your constant attention and my own necessity! Ah, I was but a young girl; I had no friend to help me; he was condemned to die; I loved him; I did not believe in you, not in ever so little. If I had said, 'You must not speak to me again,' you would have guessed my secret, and all my purposes would have been defeated. So I had to go on; nor did I think that it ever would cause you aught but a shock to your vanity."
He laughed hatefully. "My faith, but it has, shocked my vanity," he answered. "And now take this for thinking on: Up to this point I have pleaded with you, used persuasion, courted you with a humility astonishing to myself. Now I will have you in spite of all. I will break you, and soothe your hurt afterwards. I will, by the face of the Madonna, I will feed where this Moray would pasture, I will gather this ripe fruit!"
With a devilish swiftness he caught her about the waist, and kissed her again and again upon the mouth.
The blood was pounding in my veins, and I would have rushed in then and there, have ended the long strife, and have dug revenge for this outrage from his heart, but that I saw Alixe did not move, nor make the least resistance. This struck me with horror, till, all at once, he let her go, and I saw her face. It was very white and still, smooth and cold as marble. She seemed five years older in the minute.
"Have you quite done, monsieur?" she said, with infinite quiet scorn. "Do you, the son of a king, find joy in kissing lips that answer nothing, a cheek from which the blood flows in affright and shame? Is it an achievement to feed as cattle feed? Listen to me, Monsieur Doltaire. No, do not try to speak till I have done, if your morality--of manners--is not all dead. Through this cowardly act of yours, the last vestige of your power over me is gone. I sometimes think that, with you, in the past, I have remained true and virtuous at the expense of the best of me; but now all that is over, and there is no temptation--I feel beyond it: by this hour here, this hour of sore peril, you have freed me. I was tempted--Heaven knows, a few minutes ago I was tempted, for everything was with you; but God has been with me, and you and I are no nearer than the poles."
"You doubt that I love you?" he said in an altered voice.
"I doubt that any man will so shame the woman he loves," she answered.
"What is insult to-day may be a pride to-morrow," was his quick reply. "I do not repent of it, I never will, for you and I shall go to-night from here, and you shall be my wife; and one day, when this man is dead, when you have forgotten your bad dream, you will love me as you can not love him. I have that in me to make you love me. To you I can be loyal, never drifting, never wavering. I tell you, I will not let you go. First my wife you shall be, and after that I will win your love; in spite of all, mine now, though it is shifted for the moment. Come, come, Alixe"--he made as if to take her hand--"you and I will learn the splendid secret--"
She drew back to the shrine of the Virgin.
"Mother of God! Mother of God!" I heard her whisper, and then she raised her hand against him. "No, no, no," she said, with sharp anguish, "do not try to force me to your wishes--do not; for I, at least, will never live to see it. I have suffered more than I can bear I will end this shame, I will--"
I had heard enough. I stepped back quickly, closed the panel, and went softly to the door and into the hall, determined to bring her out against Doltaire, trusting to Gabord not to oppose me.