The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XVII. Some Passages at Arms
There comes a moment to every man, who faces an imminent danger, when the mental vision expands and he sees beyond. By this transient gift of prescience he knows what the end will be, whether he is to live or die. As Maurice looked into the merciless eyes of his enemy, a dim knowledge came to him that this was to be an event and not a catastrophe, a fragment of a picture yet to be fully drawn. His confidence and courage returned. He thanked God, however, that the light above equalized their positions, and that the shadows were behind them.
The swords came together with a click light but ominous. Immediately Beauvais stepped back, suddenly threw forward his body, and delivered three rapid thrusts. Maurice met them firmly, giving none.
"Ah!" cried Beauvais; "that is good. You know a little. There will be sport, besides."
Maurice shut his lips the tighter, and worked purely on the defensive. His fencing master had taught him two things, silence and watchfulness. While Beauvais made use of his forearm, Maurice as yet depended solely on his wrist. Once they came together, guard to guard, neither daring to break away until by mutual agreement, spoken only by the eyes, both leaped backward out of reach. There was no sound save the quick light stamp of feet and the angry murmur of steel scraping against steel. Sometimes they moved circlewise, with free blades, waiting and watching. Up to now Beauvais's play had been by the book, so to speak, and he began to see that his opponent was well read.
"Which side is the pretty rose?" seeking to distract Maurice. "Tell me, and I will pin it to you."
Not a muscle moved in Maurice's face.
"It is too, bad," went on Beauvais, "that her Highness finds a lover only to lose him. You fool! I read your eyes when you picked up that rose. Princesses are not for such as you. I will find her a lover, it will be neither you nor Prince Frederick--ah! you caught that nicely. But you depend too much on the wrist. Presently it will tire; and then--pouf!"
Now and then a a flame, darting from the grate, sparkled on the polished steel, and from the steel it shot into the watchful eyes. A quarter of an hour passed; still Maurice remained on the defensive. At first Beauvais misunderstood the reason, and thought Maurice did not dare run the risk of passing from defensive to offensive. But by and by the froth of impatience crept into his veins. He could not penetrate above or below that defense. The man before him was of marble, with a wrist of iron; he neither smiled nor spoke, there was no sign of life at all, except in the agile legs, the wrist, and eyes. The Colonel decided to change his tactics.
"When I have killed you," he said, "I shall search your pockets, for I know that you lie when you say that you have not those certificates. Madame was a fool to send you. No man lives who may be trusted. And what is your game? Save the Osians? Small good it will do you. Her Highness will wed Prince Frederick--mayhap--and all you will get is cold thanks. And in such an event, have you reckoned on Madame the duchess? War! And who will win? Madame; for she has not only her own army, but mine. Come, come! Speak, for when you leave this room your voice will be silent. Make use of the gift, since it is about to leave you."
The reply was a sudden straightening of the arm. The blade slipped in between the Colonel's forearm and body, and was out again before the soldier fully comprehended what had happened. Maurice permitted a cold smile to soften the rigidity of his face. Beauvais saw the smile, and read it. The thrust had been rendered harmless intentionally. An inch nearer, and he had been a dead man. To accomplish such a delicate piece of sword play required nothing short of mastery. Beauvais experienced a disagreeable chill, which was not unmixed with chagrin. The boy had held his life in his hand, and had spared it. He set his teeth, and let loose with a fury before which nothing could stand; and Maurice was forced back step by step until he was almost up with the wall.
"You damned fool!" the Colonel snarled, "you'll never get that chance again."
For the next few minutes it took all the splendid defense Maurice possessed to keep the spark in his body. The Colonel's sword was no longer a sword, it was a flame; which circled, darted, hissed and writhed. Twice Maurice felt the bite of it, once in the arm and again in the thigh. These were not deep, but they told him that the end was but a short way off. He had no match for this brilliant assault. Something must be done, and that at once. He did not desire the Colonel's death, and the possibility of accomplishing this was now extremely doubtful. But he wanted to live. Life was just beginning--the rough road had been left behind. He was choosing between his life and the Colonel's. Beauvais, after the fashion of the old masters, was playing for the throat. This upward thrusting, when continuous, is difficult to meet, and Maurice saw that sooner or later the blade would reach home. If not sudden death, it meant speechlessness, and death as a finality. Then the voice of his guardian angel spoke.
"I do not wish your life," he said, breaking the silence, "but at the same time I wish to live--ah!" Maurice leaped back just in time. As it was, the point of his enemy's blade scratched his chin.
They broke and circled. The Colonel feinted. Maurice, with his elbow against his side and his forearm extended, waited. Again the Colonel lunged for the throat. This time, instead of meeting it in tierce, Maurice threw his whole force forward in such a manner as to bring the steel guard of his rapier full on the Colonel's point. There was a ringing sound of snapping steel, and the Colonel stood with nothing but a stump in his grasp.
"There you are," said Maurice, a heat-flash passing over him. Had he swerved a hair's breadth from the line, time would have tacked finis to the tale. "Now, I am perfectly willing to talk," putting his point to the Colonel's breast. "It would inconvenience me to kill you, but do not count too much on that."
"Damn you!" cried the Colonel, giving way, his face yellow with rage, chagrin and fear. "Kill me, for I swear to God that one or the other of us must die! Damn you and your meddling nose!"
"Damn away, chevalier d'industrie; damn away. But live, live, live! That will be the keenest punishment. Live! O, my brave killer of boys, you thought to play with me as a cat with a mouse, eh? Eh, Captain Urquijo-Beauvais-and-What-is-your-name?" He pressed the point here, there, everywhere. "You were too confident. Pardon me if I appear to brag, but I have taken lessons of the best fencing masters in Europe, and three times, while you devoted your talents to monologues, I could have pinned you like one of those butterflies on the wall there. Have you ever heard of the sword of Damocles? Well, well; it hangs over many a head to-day. I will be yours. I give you forty-eight hours to arrange your personal affairs. If after that time you are still in this part of the country, I shall inform the proper authorities in Vienna. The republic has representation there. Of a noble Austrian house, on the eve of recall? I think not."
Beauvais made a desperate attempt to clutch the blade in his hands.
"No, no!" laughed Maurice, making rapid prods which caused Beauvais to wince. "Now, back; farther, farther. I do not like the idea of having my back to the door."
Beauvais suddenly wheeled and dashed for the mantel. But as he endeavored to lay hand on the revolver Maurice brought down the blade on the Colonel's knuckles, leaving a livid welt. Maurice took possession of the weapon, while a grimace of agony shot over the Colonel's face. Seeing that the chambers were loaded, Maurice threw down the sword.
"Well, well!" he said, cocking the weapon. "And I saw it when I entered the room. It would have saved a good deal of trouble." Beauvais grew white. "O," Maurice continued, "I am not going to shoot you. I wish merely to call your valet." He aimed at the grate and pressed the trigger, and the report, vibrating within the four walls, was deafening.
A moment passed, and the valet, with bulging eyes and blanched face, peered in. Seeing how matters stood, he made as though to retreat.
Maurice leveled the smoking revolver. "Come in, Francois; your master will have need of you."
Francois complied, vertigo in his limbs. "My God!" he cried, wringing his hands.
"Your master tried to murder me," said Maurice. Francois had heard voices like this before, and it conveyed to him that a fine quality of anger lay close to the surface. "Take down yonder window curtain cord." Francois did so. "Now bind your master's hands with it."
"Francois," cried the Colonel, "if you so much as lay a finger on me, I'll kill you."
"Francois, I will kill you if you don't," said Maurice.
"My God!" wailed the valet at loss which to obey when to obey either meant death. His teeth chattered.
"You may have all the time you want, Francois, to wring your hands when I am gone. Come; to work. Colonel, submit. I'm in a hurry and have no time to spare. While I do not desire to kill you, self-preservation will force me to put a bullet into your hide, which will make you an inmate of the city hospital. Bind his hands behind his back, and no more nonsense."
"Monsieur," appealingly to Beauvais, "my God, I am forced. He will kill me!"
"So will I," grimly; "by God, I will!" Beauvais had a plan. If he could keep Maurice long enough, help might arrive. And he had an excellent story to tell. Still Francois doddered. With his eye on the Colonel and the revolver sighted, Maurice picked up the sword. He gave Francois a vigorous prod. Francois needed no further inducement. He started forward with alacrity. In the wink of an eye he threw the cord around Beauvais's arms and pinned them to his sides. Beauvais swore, but the valet was strong in his fright. He struggled and wound and knotted and tied, murmuring his pitiful "Mon Dieu!" the while, till the Colonel was the central figure of a Gordian knot.
"That will do," said Maurice. "Now, Francois, good and faithful servant, take your master over to the lounge, and sit down beside him until I get into my clothes. Yes; that's it." He shoved his collar and tie into a pocket, slipped on his vest and coat, put on his hat and slung his topcoat over his arm. During these maneuvers the revolver remained conspicuously in sight. "Now, Francois, lead the way to the street door. By the time you return to your illustrious master, who is the prince or duke of something or other, pursuit will be out of the question. Now, as for you," turning to Beauvais, "the forty-eight hours hold good. During that time I shall go armed. Forty-eight hours from now I shall inform the authorities at the nearest consulate. If they catch you, that's your affair. Off we go, Francois."
"By God!--" began Beauvais, struggling to his feet.
"Come so far as this door," warned Maurice, "and, bound or not, I'll knock you down. Hang you! Do you think my temper will improve in your immediate vicinity? Do you think for a moment that I do not lust for your blood as heartily as you lust for mine? Go to the devil your own way; you'll go fast enough!" He caught Francois by the shoulders and pushed him into the hall, followed, and closed the door. Francois had been graduated from the stables, therefore his courage never rose to sublime heights. All the way down the stairs he lamented; and each time he turned his head and saw the glitter of the revolver barrel he choked with terror.
"If you do not kill me, Monsieur, he will; he will, I know he will! My God, how did it happen? He will kill me!" and the voice sank into a muffled sob.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Maurice could not repress his laughter. "He will not harm you; he threatened you merely to delay me. Open the door." He stepped out into the refreshing air. "By the way, tell your master not to go to the trouble of having me arrested, for the first thing in the morning I shall place a sealed packet in the hands of the British minister, to be opened if I do not call for it within twenty-four hours. And say to your master that I shall keep the rose."
"Mon Dieu! A woman! I might have known!" ejaculated Francois, as the door banged in his face.
Maurice, on reaching the pavement, took to his legs, for he saw three men rapidly approaching. Perhaps they had heard the pistol shot. He concluded not to wait to learn. He continued his rush till he gained his room. It was two o'clock. He had been in the Colonel's room nearly three hours. It seemed only so many minutes. He hunted for his brandy, found it and swallowed several mouthfuls. Then he dropped into a chair from sheer exhaustion. Reaction laid hold of him. His hands shook, his legs trembled, and perspiration rolled down his cheek.
"By George!" This exclamation stood alone, but it was an Odyssey. He remained stupefied, staring at his shoes, over which his stockings had fallen. His shirt buttons were gone, and the bosom was guiltless of its former immaculateness. After a time he became conscious of a burning pain in the elbow of his right arm. He glanced down at his hand, to find it covered with drying blood. He jumped up and cast about his clothes. One leg of his trousers was soaked, and the dull ache in his thigh told the cause. He salved the wounds and bound them in strips of handkerchiefs, which he held in place by using some of the cast-off cravats.
"That was about as close to death as a man can get and pull out. I feel as if I had swallowed that cursed blade of his. I am an ass, sure enough. I've always a bad cold when there's a rat about; can't smell him. And the rascal remembered me! Will he stay in spite of my threat? I'll hang on here till to-morrow. If he stays--I won't. He has the devil's own of a sword. Hang it, my nerves are all gone to smash."
Soon some gentler thought took hold, and he smiled tenderly. He brought forth the rose, turned it this way and that, studied it, stroked it, held it to his lips as a lover holds the hand of the woman he loves. Her rose; somehow his heart told him that she had laughed because Beauvais had stooped in vain.
"Ah, Maurice," he said, "you are growing over fond. But why not? Who will know? To have loved is something."
He crept into bed; but sleep refused him its offices, and he tossed about in troubled dreams. He fought all kinds of duels with all sorts of weapons. He was killed a half dozen times, but the archbishop always gave him something which rekindled the vital spark. A thousand Beauvaises raged at him. A thousand princesses were ever in the background, waiting to be saved. He swore to kill these Beauvaises, and after many fruitless endeavors, he succeeded in smothering them in their gray pelisses. Then he woke, as dreamers always wake when they pass some great dream-crisis, and found himself in a deadly struggle with a pillow and a bed-post. He laughed and sprang out of bed.
"It's no use, I can't sleep. I am an old woman."
So he lit his pipe and sat dreaming with his eyes open, smoking and smoking, until the sickly pallor of dawn appeared in the sky, and he knew that day had come.