Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
III. The Wager and the Sword
As I entered the Intendant's palace with Doltaire I had a singular feeling of elation. My spirits rose unaccountably, and I felt as though it were a fete night, and the day's duty over, the hour of play was come. I must needs have felt ashamed of it then, and now, were I not sure it was some unbidden operation of the senses. Maybe a merciful Spirit sees how, left alone, we should have stumbled and lost ourselves in our own gloom, and so gives us a new temper fitted to our needs. I remember that at the great door I turned back and smiled upon the ruined granary, and sniffed the air laden with the scent of burnt corn--the peoples bread; that I saw old men and women who could not be moved by news of victory, shaking with cold, even beside this vast furnace, and peevishly babbling of their hunger, and I did not say, "Poor souls!" that for a time the power to feel my own misfortunes seemed gone, and a hard, light indifference came on me.
For it is true I came into the great dining-hall, and looked upon the long loaded table, with its hundred candles, its flagons and pitchers of wine, and on the faces of so many idle, careless gentlemen bid to a carouse, with a manner, I believe, as reckless and jaunty as their own. And I kept it up, though I saw it was not what they had looked for. I did not at once know who was there, but presently, at a distance from me, I saw the face of Juste Duvarney, the brother of my sweet Alixe, a man of but twenty or so, who had a name for wildness, for no badness that I ever heard of, and for a fiery temper. He was in the service of the Governor, an ensign. He had been little at home since I had come to Quebec, having been employed up to the past year in the service of the Governor of Montreal. We bowed, but he made no motion to come to me, and the Intendant engaged me almost at once in gossip of the town; suddenly, however, diverging upon some questions of public tactics and civic government. He much surprised me, for though I knew him brave and able, I had never thought of him save as the adroit politician and servant of the King, the tyrant and the libertine. I might have known by that very scene a few hours before that he had a wide, deep knowledge of human nature, and despised it; unlike Doltaire, who had a keener mind, was more refined even in wickedness, and, knowing the world, laughed at it more than he despised it, which was the sign of the greater mind. And indeed, in spite of all the causes I had to hate Doltaire, it is but just to say he had by nature all the great gifts--misused and disordered as they were. He was the product of his age; having no real moral sense, living life wantonly, making his own law of right or wrong. As a lad, I was taught to think the evil person carried evil in his face, repelling the healthy mind. But long ago I found that this was error. I had no reason to admire Doltaire, and yet to this hour his handsome face, with its shadows and shifting lights, haunts me, charms me. The thought came to me as I talked with the Intendant, and I looked round the room. Some present were of coarse calibre--bushranging sons of seigneurs and petty nobles, dashing and profane, and something barbarous; but most had gifts of person and speech, and all seemed capable.
My spirits continued high. I sprang alertly to meet wit and gossip, my mind ran nimbly here and there, I filled the role of honoured guest. But when came the table and wine, a change befell me. From the first drop I drank, my spirits suffered a decline. On one side the Intendant rallied me, on the other Doltaire. I ate on, drank on; but while smiling by the force of will, I grew graver little by little. Yet it was a gravity which had no apparent motive, for I was not thinking of my troubles, not even of the night's stake and the possible end of it all; simply a sort of gray colour of the mind, a stillness in the nerves, a general seriousness of the senses. I drank, and the wine did not affect me, as voices got loud and louder, and glasses rang, and spurs rattled on shuffling heels, and a scabbard clanged on a chair. I seemed to feel and know it all in some far-off way, but I was not touched by the spirit of it, was not a part of it. I watched the reddened cheeks and loose scorching mouths around me with a sort of distant curiosity, and the ribald jests flung right and left struck me not at all acutely. It was as if I were reading a Book of Bacchus. I drank on evenly, not doggedly, and answered jest for jest without a hot breath of drunkenness. I looked several times at Juste Duvarney, who sat not far away, on the other side of the table, behind a grand piece of silver filled with October roses. He was drinking hard, and Doltaire, sitting beside him, kept him at it. At last the silver piece was shifted, and he and I could see each other fairly. Now and then Doltaire spoke across to me, but somehow no word passed between Duvarney and myself.
Suddenly, as if by magic--I know it was preconcerted--the talk turned on the events of the evening and on the defeat of the British. Then, too, as strangely I began to be myself again, amid a sense of my position grew upon me. I had been withdrawn from all real feeling and living for hours, but I believe that same suspension was my salvation. For with every man present deeply gone in liquor round me--every man save Doltaire--I was sane and steady, and settling into a state of great alertness, determined on escape, if that could be, and bent on turning every chance to serve my purposes.
Now and again I caught my own name mentioned with a sneer, then with remarks of surprise, then with insolent laughter. I saw it all. Before dinner some of the revellers had been told of the new charge against me, and, by instruction, had kept it till the inflammable moment. Then, when the why and wherefore of my being at this supper were in the hazard, the stake, as a wicked jest of Bigot's, was mentioned. I could see the flame grow inch by inch, fed by the Intendant and Doltaire, whose hateful final move I was yet to see. For one instant I had a sort of fear, for I was sure they meant I should not leave the room alive; but anon I felt a river of fiery anger flow through me, rousing me, making me loathe the faces of them all. Yet not all, for in one pale face, with dark, brilliant eyes, I saw the looks of my flower of the world: the colour of her hair in his, the clearness of the brow, the poise of the head--how handsome he was!--the light, springing step, like a deer on the sod of June. I call to mind when I first saw him. He was sitting in a window of the Manor, just after he had come from Montreal, playing a violin which had once belonged to De Casson, the famous priest whose athletic power and sweet spirit endeared him to New France. His fresh cheek was bent to the brown, delicate wood, and he was playing to his sister the air of the undying chanson, "Je vais mourir pour ma belle reine." I loved the look of his face, like that of a young Apollo, open, sweet, and bold, all his body having the epic strength of life. I wished that I might have him near me as a comrade, for out of my hard experience I could teach him much, and out of his youth he could soften my blunt nature, by comradeship making flexuous the hard and ungenial.
I went on talking to the Intendant, while some of the guests rose and scattered about the rooms, at tables, to play picquet, the jesting on our cause and the scorn of myself abating not at all. I would not have it thought that anything was openly coarse or brutal; it was all by innuendo, and brow-lifting, and maddening, allusive phrases such as it is thought fit for gentlefolk to use instead of open charge. There was insult in a smile, contempt in the turn of a shoulder, challenge in the flicking of a handkerchief. With great pleasure I could have wrung their noses one by one, and afterwards have met them tossing sword-points in the same order. I wonder now that I did not tell them so, for I was ever hasty; but my brain was clear that night, and I held myself in proper check, letting each move come from my enemies. There was no reason why I should have been at this wild feast at all, I a prisoner, accused falsely of being a spy, save because of some plot by which I was to have fresh suffering and some one else be benefited--though how that could be I could not guess at first.
But soon I understood everything. Presently I heard a young gentleman say to Duvarney over my shoulder:
"Eating comfits and holding yarn--that was his doing at your manor when Doltaire came hunting him."
"He has dined at your table, Lancy," broke out Duvarney hotly.
"But never with our ladies," was the biting answer.
"Should prisoners make conditions?" was the sharp, insolent retort.
The insult was conspicuous, and trouble might have followed, but that Doltaire came between them, shifting the attack.
"Prisoners, my dear Duvarney," said he, "are most delicate and exacting; they must be fed on wine and milk. It is an easy life, and hearts grow soft for them. As thus-- Indeed, it is most sad: so young and gallant; in speech, too, so confiding! And if we babble all our doings to him, think you he takes it seriously? No, no--so gay and thoughtless, there is a thoroughfare from ear to ear, and all's lost on the other side. Poor simple gentleman, he is a claimant on our courtesy, a knight without a sword, a guest without the power to leave us--he shall make conditions, he shall have his caprice. La, la! my dear Duvarney and my Lancy!"
He spoke in a clear, provoking tone, putting a hand upon the shoulder of each young gentleman as he talked, his eyes wandering over me idly, and beyond me. I saw that he was now sharpening the sickle to his office. His next words made this more plain to me:
"And if a lady gives a farewell sign to one she favours for the moment, shall not the prisoner take it as his own?" (I knew he was recalling Alixe's farewell gesture to me at the manor.) "Who shall gainsay our peacock? Shall the guinea cock? The golden crumb was thrown to the guinea cock, but that's no matter. The peacock clatters of the crumb." At that he spoke an instant in Duvarney's ear. I saw the lad's face flush, and he looked at me angrily.
Then I knew his object: to provoke a quarrel between this young gentleman and myself, which might lead to evil ends; and the Intendant's share in the conspiracy was to revenge himself upon the Seigneur for his close friendship with the Governor. If Juste Duvarney were killed in the duel which they foresaw, so far as Doltaire was concerned I was out of the counting in the young lady's sight. In any case my life was of no account, for I was sure my death was already determined on. Yet it seemed strange that Doltaire should wish me dead, for he had reasons for keeping me alive, as shall be seen.
Juste Duvarney liked me once, I knew, but still he had the Frenchman's temper, and had always to argue down his bias against my race, and to cherish a good heart towards me; for he was young, and most sensitive to the opinions of his comrades. I can not express what misery possessed me when I saw him leave Doltaire, and, coming to me where I stood alone, say--
"What secrets found you at our seigneury, monsieur?"
I understood the taunt--as though I were the common interrogation mark, the abuser of hospitality, the abominable Paul Pry. But I held my wits together.
"Monsieur," said I, "I found the secret of all good life: a noble kindness to the unfortunate."
There was a general laugh, led by Doltaire, a concerted influence on the young gentleman. I cursed myself that I had been snared to this trap.
"The insolent," responded Duvarney, "not the unfortunate."
"Insolence is no crime, at least," I rejoined quietly, "else this room were a penitentiary."
There was a moment's pause, and presently, as I kept my eye on him, he raised his handkerchief and flicked me across the face with it, saying, "Then this will be a virtue, and you may have more such virtues as often as you will."
In spite of will, my blood pounded in my veins, and a devilish anger took hold of me. To be struck across the face by a beardless Frenchman, scarce past his teens!--it shook me more than now I care to own. I felt my cheek burn, my teeth clinched, and I know a kind of snarl came from me; but again, all in a moment, I caught a turn of his head, a motion of the hand, which brought back Alixe to me. Anger died away, and I saw only a youth flushed with wine, stung by suggestions, with that foolish pride the youngster feels--and he was the youngest of them all--in being as good a man as the best, and as daring as the worst. I felt how useless it would be to try the straightening of matters there, though had we two been alone a dozen words would have been enough. But to try was my duty, and I tried with all my might; almost, for Alixe's sake, with all my heart.
"Do not trouble to illustrate your meaning," said I patiently. "Your phrases are clear and to the point."
"You bolt from my words," he retorted, "like a shy mare on the curb; you take insult like a donkey on a well-wheel. What fly will the English fish rise to? Now it no more plays to my hook than an August chub."
I could not help but admire his spirit and the sharpness of his speech, though it drew me into a deeper quandary. It was clear that he would not be tempered to friendliness; for, as is often so, when men have said things fiercely, their eloquence feeds their passion and convinces them of holiness in their cause. Calmly, but with a heavy heart, I answered:
"I wish not to find offense in your words, my friend, for in some good days gone you and I had good acquaintance, and I can not forget that the last hours of a light imprisonment before I entered on a dark one were spent in the home of your father--of the brave Seigneur whose life I once saved."
I am sure I should not have mentioned this in any other situation--it seemed as if I were throwing myself on his mercy; but yet I felt it was the only thing to do--that I must bridge this affair, if at cost of some reputation.
It was not to be. Here Doltaire, seeing that my words had indeed affected my opponent, said: "A double retreat! He swore to give a challenge to-night, and he cries off like a sheep from a porcupine; his courage is so slack, he dares not move a step to his liberty. It was a bet, a hazard. He was to drink glass for glass with any and all of us, and fight sword for sword with any of us who gave him cause. Having drunk his courage to death, he'd now browse at the feet of those who give him chance to win his stake."
His words came slowly and bitingly, yet with an air of damnable nonchalance. I looked round me. Every man present was full-sprung with wine; and a distance away, a gentleman on either side of him, stood the Intendant, smiling detestably, a keen, houndlike look shooting out of his small round eyes.
I had had enough; I could bear no more. To be baited like a bear by these Frenchmen--it was aloes in my teeth! I was not sorry then that these words of Juste Duvarney's gave me no chance of escape from fighting; though I would it had been any other man in the room than he. It was on my tongue to say that if some gentleman would take up his quarrel I should be glad to drive mine home, though for reasons I cared not myself to fight Duvarney. But I did not, for I knew that to carry that point farther might rouse a general thought of Alixe, and I had no wish to make matters hard for her. Everything in its own good time, and when I should be free! So, without more ado, I said to him:
"Monsieur, the quarrel was of your choosing, not mine. There was no need for strife between us, and you have more to lose than I: more friends, more years of life, more hopes. I have avoided your bait, as you call it, for your sake, not mine own. Now I take it, and you, monsieur, show us what sort of fisherman you are."
All was arranged in a moment. As we turned to pass from the room to the courtyard, I noted that Bigot was gone. When we came outside, it was just one, as I could tell by a clock striking in a chamber near. It was cold, and some of the company shivered as we stepped upon the white, frosty stones. The late October air bit the cheek, though now and then a warm, pungent current passed across the courtyard--the breath from the people's burnt corn. Even yet upon the sky was the reflection of the fire, and distant sounds of singing, shouting, and carousal came to us from the Lower Town.
We stepped to a corner of the yard and took off our coats; swords were handed us--both excellent, for we had had our choice of many. It was partial moonlight, but there were flitting clouds. That we should have light, however, pine torches had been brought, and these were stuck in the wall. My back was to the outer wall of the courtyard, and I saw the Intendant at a window of the palace looking down at us. Doltaire stood a little apart from the other gentlemen in the courtyard, yet where he could see Duvarney and myself at advantage.
Before we engaged, I looked intently into my opponent's face, and measured him carefully with my eye, that I might have his height and figure explicit and exact; for I know how moonlight and fire distort, how the eye may be deceived. I looked for every button; for the spot in his lean, healthy body where I could disable him, spit him, and yet not kill him--for this was the thing furthest from my wishes, God knows. Now the deadly character of the event seemed to impress him, for he was pale, and the liquor he had drunk had given him dark hollows round the eyes, and a gray shining sweat was on his cheek. But his eyes themselves were fiery and keen and there was reckless daring in every turn of his body.
I was not long in finding his quality, for he came at me violently from the start, and I had chance to know his strength and weakness also. His hand was quick, his sight clear and sure, his knowledge to a certain point most definite and practical, his mastery of the sword delightful; but he had little imagination, he did not divine, he was merely a brilliant performer, he did not conceive. I saw that if I put him on the defensive I should have him at advantage, for he had not that art of the true swordsman, the prescient quality which foretells the opponents action and stands prepared. There I had him at fatal advantage--could, I felt, give him last reward of insult at my pleasure. Yet a lust of fighting got into me, and it was difficult to hold myself in check at all, nor was it easy to meet his breathless and adroit advances.
Then, too, remarks from the bystanders worked me up to a deep sort of anger, and I could feel Doltaire looking at me with that still, cold face of his, an ironical smile at his lips. Now and then, too, a ribald jest came from some young roisterer near, and the fact that I stood alone among sneering enemies wound me up to a point where pride was more active than aught else. I began to press him a little, and I pricked him once. Then a singular feeling possessed me. I would bring this to an end when I had counted ten; I would strike home when I said "ten."
So I began, and I was not aware then that I was counting aloud. "One--two--three!" It was weird to the onlookers, for the yard grew still, and you could hear nothing but maybe a shifting foot or a hard breathing. "Four--five--six!" There was a tenseness in the air, and Juste Duvarney, as if he felt a menace in the words, seemed to lose all sense of wariness, and came at me lunging, lunging with great swiftness and heat. I was incensed now, and he must take what fortune might send; one can not guide one's sword to do the least harm fighting as did we.
I had lost blood, and the game could go on no longer. "Eight!" I pressed him sharply now. "Nine!" I was preparing for the trick which would end the matter, when I slipped on the frosty stones, now glazed with our tramping back and forth, and, trying to recover myself, left my side open to his sword. It came home, though I partly diverted it. I was forced to my knees, but there, mad, unpardonable youth, he made another furious lunge at me. I threw myself back, deftly avoided the lunge, and he came plump on my upstretched sword, gave a long gasp, and sank down.
At that moment the doors of the courtyard opened, and men stepped inside, one coming quickly forward before the rest. It was the Governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil. He spoke, but what he said I knew not, for the stark upturned face of Juste Duvarney was there before me, there was a great buzzing in my ears, and I fell back into darkness.