A Question of Trust by Ethel M. Dell
She stood motionless, staring, as one dazed. He, without apology or word of any sort, strode straight forward. His face expressed stern determination, naught else.
But ere he reached her she awoke to action, stepping sharply backwards so that the table was between them. He came to a stand perforce in front of it, and looked her full and piercingly in the eyes.
"Mademoiselle," he said, and his voice was so curt that it sounded brutal, "you must come at once. The palace is in the hands of murderers. The Governor has been assassinated. In a few seconds more they will be at your door. Come!"
She recoiled from him with a face of horror.
"With you, monsieur? Never!" she cried.
He laid his hand upon the table and leaned forward.
"With me, yes," he said, speaking rapidly, yet with lips that scarcely seemed to move. "I have come for you, and I mean to take you. Be wise, Mademoiselle Stephanie! Come quietly!"
She scarcely heard him. Frenzy had gripped her--wild, unreasoning, all-mastering frenzy. The supreme moment had come for her, and, with a face that was like a death-mask, she raised the silver flask to her lips.
But no drop of its contents ever touched them, for in that instant Pierre vaulted the intervening table and hurled himself upon her. The flask flew from her hand and spun across the room, falling she knew not where; while she herself was caught in the man's arms and held in a grip like iron.
She struggled fiercely to free herself, but for many seconds she struggled in vain. Then, just as her strength was beginning to leave her, he abruptly set her free.
"Come!" he said. "There is no time for childish folly. Find a cloak, and we will go."
His tone was peremptory, but it held no anger. Turning from her, he walked deliberately away into the outer room.
She sank back trembling against the wall, nearer to collapse than she had ever been before. But the momentary respite had its effect, and instinctively she began to gather herself together for fresh effort. He had wrested her deliverance from her, but she would never accept what he offered in exchange. She would never escape with his man. She would sooner--yes, a thousand times sooner--face the mercy of the mob.
"Mademoiselle Stephanie!" Impatiently his voice came to her from the farther room. "Are you coming, or am I to fetch you?"
She did not answer. A sudden wild idea had formed in her brain. If she could slip past him--if she could reach the outer door--he would never overtake her on the corridor. But she must be brave, she must be subtle, she must watch her opportunity.
With some semblance of composure she took out a long travelling-cloak, and walked into the room in which he awaited her. With a start of surprise, she saw him standing by the open window.
"This way, mademoiselle," he said curtly; and she realised that he must have entered from the garden.
"One moment, monsieur," she returned, and quietly crossed the room to the door at the other end.
It was closed. It must have swung to behind her, for she did not remember closing it.
He made no attempt to stop her. He could not surely have guessed her intention, for he remained motionless by the window, watching her. Her heart was thumping as though it would choke her, but yet she controlled herself. He must not suspect till the door was open, till the passage was clear before her, and pursuit of no avail.
She reached out a quivering hand and grasped the ebony knob. Now--now for the last and greatest effort of her life! Sharply she turned the handle, pulled at it, wrenched it with frantic force, finally turned from it and confronted the man at the window with eyes that were hunted, desperate.
"Let me go!" she gasped hoarsely. "How dare you keep me here against my will?"
"I have no desire to keep you here, mademoiselle," he answered. "I am only waiting to take you away."
"I refuse to go with you!" she cried. "I would rather die a thousand times!"
His brows contracted into a single grim line. He left the window and came towards her.
But at his action she sprang away like a mad thing, dodged him, avoided him, then leapt suddenly upon a chair and snatched a rapier from a group of swords arranged in a circle upon the wall. The light fell full upon her ashen face and eyes of horror. She was beside herself.
All her instincts urged her to resistance. She had always shrunk from this man. If she could only hold him at bay for a little--if she could only resist long enough--surely she heard the feet of the murderers upon the corridor already! It would not take them long to batter down the door and take her life!
As she sprang to the ground again, Pierre spoke. The frown had gone from his face; it wore a faint, ironical smile. His eyes, alert, unblinking, marked her every movement as the eyes of a lynx upon its prey. He did not appear in the least disconcerted. There was even a sort of terrible patience in his attitude, as though he already saw the end of the struggle.
"Would it not be wiser, mademoiselle," he said, "to reserve your steel for an enemy?"
She met his piercing look for an instant as she compelled her white lips to answer. "You are the worst enemy that I have."
He threw back his head with an arrogant gesture very characteristic of him. "By your own choice, mademoiselle," he said.
"Yes," she flung back passionately. "I prefer you as an enemy."
He laughed at that--a fiendish, scoffing laugh that made her shrink in every nerve. Then, with unmoved composure, he walked to the mantelpiece and took up one of the foils that lay there.
"Now," he said quietly, "since you are determined to fight me, so be it! But when you are beaten, Mademoiselle Stephanie, do not ask for mercy!"
But she drew back sharply from his advance. "Take one of those rapiers," she said.
He shook his head, still with that mocking smile upon his lips. "This will serve my purpose better," he said. "Are you ready, mademoiselle? On guard!"
And with that his weapon crossed hers. She knew his purpose the moment she encountered it. It was written in every grim line of his countenance. He meant the conflict to be very short.
She was no novice in the art of fencing, but she was no match for him. Moreover, she could not meet the pitiless eyes that stared straight into hers. They distracted her. They terrified her. Yet every moment seemed to her to be something gained. Through all the wild chaos of her overstrung nerves she was listening, listening desperately, for the sound of feet outside the door. If she could only withstand him for a few short seconds! If only her strength would last!
But she was nearing exhaustion, and she knew it. Her brain had begun to swim. She saw him in a blur before her quivering vision. The hand that grasped the rapier was too numbed to obey her behests. Suddenly there came a tumult in the corridor without--a hoarse yelling and the rush of many feet. It was the sound she had been listening for, but it startled, it unnerved her. And in that instant Pierre thrust through her guard and with a lightning twist of the wrist sent her weapon hurtling through the air.
The sound of its fall was lost in the clamour outside the door--a clamour so sudden and so horrible that it did for Stephanie that which nothing else on earth could have accomplished. It drove her to the man she hated for protection.
As he flung down the foil, she made a swift move towards him. There was no longer shrinking in her eyes. She was simply a trembling, panic-stricken woman, turning instinctively to the stronger power for help. A little earlier she could have died without a tremor, but the wild strife of the past few minutes had broken down her fortitude. Her strength was gone.
"Monsieur!" she panted. "Monsieur!"
He caught her roughly to him. Even in that moment of deadly peril there was a certain fiery exultation about him. He held her fast, his eyes gazing straight down into hers.
"Shall I save you?" he said. "I can die with you--if you prefer it."
"Save me!" she cried piteously. "Save me!"
He bent his head, and suddenly, fiercely, savagely, he kissed her white lips. Then, before she could utter cry or protest, he whirled her across the room to the open window, catching up her cloak as he went; and, almost before the horror of his kiss had dawned upon her, she was out upon the balcony, alone with him in the awful dark.
He kept his hand upon her as he stepped over the stone railing, but all power of independent action seemed to have left her. She was as one stunned or beneath some spell. She stood quite rigid while he groped for and found the ladder by which he had ascended. Then, as he lifted her, she let herself go into his arms without resistance. He clasped her hands behind his neck, and she clung there mechanically as he made the swift descent.
They reached the ground in safety, and he set her on her feet. The terrace on which they found themselves was deserted. But as they stood in the dark they heard the fiends in the corridor burst into the room they had just left. And Pierre Dumaresq, lowering the ladder, laughed to himself a low, fierce laugh, without words.
The next instant there came a rush of feet upon the balcony above them and a torrent of angry shouting. Stephanie shrank against a pillar, but in a moment Pierre's arm encircled her, impelling her irresistibly, and they fled across the terrace through the darkness. The man was still laughing as he ran. There seemed to her something devilish in his laughter.
Down through the palace garden they sped, she gasping and stumbling in nightmare flight, he strongly upholding her, till half a dozen revolver shots pierced the infuriated uproar behind them and something that burned with a red-hot agony struck her left hand. She cried out involuntarily, and Pierre ceased his headlong rush for safety.
"You are hit?" he questioned. "Where?"
But she could not answer him, could not so much as stand. His voice seemed to come from an immense distance. She hardly heard his words. She was sinking, sinking into a void unfathomable.
He did not stay to question further. Abruptly he stooped, gathered her up, slung her across his shoulder, and ran on.