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Title: The Nuptials of Corbigny Author: Rafael sabatini * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305701h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2013 Most recent update: October 2013 This eBook was produced by: Ruth Heredia Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Chauvinière by G. Patrick Nelson
In adverse circumstances, Rafael Sabatini wrote a very short novel, The Nuptials of Corbal, to fulfill his commission from a magazine. But McCall's found it far too long for a single instalment and didn't wish to run it as a serial. This story is the cut-down version of that novel. The clinching clue to the fact that this was so, and that it was not the novel (published later) which was expanded from the story, comes in the second section, during Dumey's reflections. According to the story, the heroine is taken directly from the Conciergerie to Dumey's. In the novel she is taken first to a madhouse in the Archevêché. That reference should have been cut out but remained! Sabatini had yet to give his publishers the novel they expected every year. Adversity unabated, he could only offer the original short novel, which was lavishly illustrated to cover its paucity of text.
A trivial note: The heroine's eyes, twice described as blue-green, become gray-green later!
SHADOWS moved behind the broad lattice that formed the upper part of the heavy wooden doors at the gallery's end. Those nearest, observing this and knowing what it portended, caught their breath. From these, apprehension rippled over the groups assembled in that long narrow avenue of doom, striking them into silence.
Upon that silence the rasping of a key in its lock rang like a pistol shot. One of the wings of the great heavy door swung inwards, and the turnkey entered, brawny and swarthy, his blue shirt gaping away from a broad hairy chest, a fur bonnet on his cropped head, a yellow bloodhound at his heels. He stood aside on the platform at the head of the steps, to give passage to a slim young gentleman in a tight black frock and a round black hat adorned by a buckle in front and a cockade at the side. A paper in his hand drew the eyes--some scared, some apathetic, some proudly indifferent, and some defiantly scornful--of the hundred men and women assembled there for the daily purpose of hearing that paper's contents. For this slim young gentleman, Robert Wolf, clerk of the Revolutionary Tribunal, was the adjutant of the Public Accuser. His paper bore the list over whose preparation Fouquier-Tinville had laboured half the night.
The Citizen Wolf stepped briskly to the edge of the platform, to read the names of those whom Fouquier-Tinville summoned that morning to judgment: "the baker's batch," as it was called in the cynical jargon of the day!
Having chosen his position, the clerk waited until three men who followed him should have come to a standstill. Not on that account did they hurry themselves. Two of them, men of middle age, both dressed in black, one tall and portly the other short and wizened, took their time deferentially from another who, walking a little in advance, appeared to conduct them.
This was Chauvinière, the Nivernais deputy, tall, slim, not over thirty, of a certain vigorous elegance. He wore a riding-coat with broad lapels and silver buttons, the tails of which reached almost to the heels of his Hessian boots. Spotless buckskins cased his long, lean legs so closely that every muscle was defined, and a cravat of spotless white clothed his neck to the chin. He was girt by a tricolour sash, and a tricolour cockade adorned his grey hat, which was cocked in front, à la Henri IV, and surmounted by a panache of black plumes. Thus were advertised his office and his sansculottism which latter stood too high, had been too fully proven, to be shaken by any gibes at his apparel, whilst his arrogance, audacity and self-assurance were proof against vulgar criticism. Those qualities were to be read in his lean, sallow countenance with its high-bridged nose, its curled upper lip and its keen light eyes under their level black brows. There was a certain raffishness in his air that proclaimed him half-gentleman, half-valet; half-wolf, half-fox.
With a leisureliness that took no account either of the waiting clerk or of the agonized suspense and the pounding of a hundred hearts in that assembly, Chauvinière selected his point of vantage, at a little distance from Robert Wolf, and descended the first step, so that his two companions in black immediately behind him obtained, from the summit of the platform, a clear view over his head.
His keen eyes raked the gallery and the men and women in that throng, most of whom were so scrupulously dressed that, saving for the absence of powder from their heads, they might have been gathered together for a lévee. This was a daily miracle performed upon slender enough resources by the prisoners in the Conciergerie.
The deputy's questing glance came at last to rest upon Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, standing slim and straight, beside the chair into which her mother had nervelessly collapsed. Incredibly fearless and resolute she stood, with scarcely loss of colour to her lovely face. But the blue-green eyes dilated a little and flickered as they met the deputy's. Her slight bosom moved perceptibly under its crossed muslin fichu, to betray a sudden agitation which not even the advent of the list had been able to arouse.
Chauvinière half-turned to the men in black behind him. He said something in a low voice into an obsequiously lowered ear, and with his silver-mounted cane he deliberately pointed. Three pairs of eyes followed the direction of the pointing, and Mademoiselle de Montsorbier stiffened under that volley of glances whose purport she was far from guessing but which instinctively she felt to bode no good.
Then the pointing cane was lowered, and the three men ranged themselves decorously, as Robert Wolf began to call the names of the doomed. His voice droned emotionlessly. Like Fouquier-Tinville himself, he was simply a part of the great revolutionary machine. There was no personal responsibility in what he did, and it was not for him to indulge feelings and emotions over actions that were not his own. To answer each summons there would be now a gasp, now a sob of terror, occasionally an outcry of hysterical panic quickly sinking into shuddering sobs from the victim chosen.
The voice droned on implacably, but as sweetly as if it had been the hum of bees making honey:
"The ci-devant Marquis de La Tourette."
The Marquis, middle-aged, exquisite in a blue coat with silver lace, threw up his head--the handsome head that so soon would leave his shoulders--and sharply caught his breath. In an instant he recovered. He remembered what was due to his blood and his self-respect. He shrugged and smiled in deprecation, for all that his face was the colour of chalk.
"It will break the monotony," he said softly to a neighbour, as the next name was being called.
"The ci-devant Comtesse de Montsorbier."
Madame de Montsorbier, a slender little woman of fifty, half-rose from her chair, beginning an inarticulate cry on which she seemed to choke. But her knees were loosened, and she sank down again, leaning sideways against her daughter. Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, rigid now and piteously white, set protecting arms about her half-swooning mother, and waited to hear her own name, almost hoped to hear it, in her selfless anxiety. All that she realized was that in her agony, the frail woman who had borne her would require her as she had never required her yet. Solicitude for her mother effaced all consideration of her own fate. That was the mettle of Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, and her deepest dismay was not reached until the list had come to an end without her own name having been pronounced by that monotonous voice.
Two gendarmes, coming she knew not whence, surged suddenly before her.
"The ci-devant Montsorbier," said one of them, and set a hand upon the drooping shoulder of Madame.
Mademoiselle de Montsorbier turned to him, unable to marshal her tumultuous thoughts into coherent expression. "But it is my mother! There is some error. She cannot go without me. You see how feeble she is. My name has not been called. It is an omission. You see that it is an omission. You will tell them that it is an omission. You will let me go with her."
Thus, in a confused torrent, the phrases tumbled from her lips.
The man looked at her sullenly, dubiously, his nether lip projected. He shook his head. "Not our affair." He shook the Countess who was not more than half-conscious. "You are to come along, citoyenne."
"But I may go with her? I may go with her?"
"Ah, bah! What's your hurry to sneeze into the basket? Your turn will come soon enough, citoyenne. Lend a hand, Gaston."
Between them, the two men dragged the Countess to her feet, and half-carried, half-led her away. The girl sprang after them.
"I may come, too; may I not? I may..."
A blow from the elbow of one of the guards cut short her breath, and sent her hurtling backwards. "Faith! You make yourself a nuisance, my girl!"
She reeled to the wooden chair the Countess had vacated.
"Mother!" she gasped aloud, "Mother!"
White-faced she sat, in stony tearless grief, her long fine hands clutched between her knees.
Just so, a month ago, had her father been rent from them, to take his trial; and hers it had been since then to comfort and sustain her mother. Now her mother, too, was gone!
Why had she been left? A voice was speaking at her elbow, a crisp, level voice, not unpleasant, although pitched in a tone almost ironical.
"This is the young woman who claims your attention, citizens. You observe her listlessness, her unnatural pallor, the vacancy of her stare. Perform your office. It is not for me to direct you, or even to suggest; but for you to judge."
She swung half-round, looking up, challenge, defiance, alarm all blending in her glance, like some trapped wild creature. She met the light eyes of Chauvinière, piercing, mocking eyes which she had grown to hate, and even to fear, she who had never feared anything in all her proud young life. A half-dozen times in the last three weeks had she found those eyes upon her in a questing, measuring, soullessly appraising glance, which had scorched her from head to foot. Twice already had he found occasion to speak to her as he passed through the prisoners' gallery on a visit which appeared to have no other object but that of addressing her. Each time she had commanded herself so as to dissemble from him her resentment at the insult which his look and word conveyed. She would command herself now. He should never guess her fear of him, this dishonouring fear for which she loathed herself.
The two men in black were gravely considering her, the taller one extended a plump hand, and took her wrist.
"Your pulse, citoyenne."
"My pulse?" she heard herself questioning in a distant voice, and knew by the drumming of her temples that her pulses galloped in that moment. Then above considerations of herself rose the momentarily whelmed memory of her bereavement. "You, Monsieur...Citizen, Citizen-deputy! They have taken Madame my mother, and by an omission I have been left. Give orders, monsieur, I implore you, that my name be added to the list of the day..."
"Ah!" said Chauvinière, with so singular an emphasis that it arrested her intercession. He looked at the men in black with a significant lift of his black brows. "You hear her, citizen-doctors! Is that the request of a young woman who is sane? To desire--to implore--death at that age, when life unfolds itself like a perfumed rose, when the blood runs warm and clear, is a sufficient confirmation of what already I suspected. But"--and again there was that flash of mockery from those light eyes--"it is not for me to influence your decision. You must form judgment for yourselves. Proceed!" He waved a hand, a hand that was long and slender as an aristocrat's and as graceful in its gesture which subtly blended invitation with command.
The doctors sighed and grunted. "For my own part," said the shorter one, "I do not like her eyes. That wild, hunted look, that expression of distraction...hem! Hem!"
"And then her pallor," put in the other. "Most unnatural! And this pulse!"
"Of course, of course," said the deputy's voice, and it was cold as ice, or--thought the little doctor--cold as the knife of the guillotine: "It is for you to form the opinion. But you will remember that I brought you here because I have upon other occasions witnessed these same traits in the citoyenne, when no external cause could be discerned such as may have arisen now."
The little doctor clutched at salvation. "Ah, but that is decisive," he exclaimed with complete conviction of tone. "If these symptoms--this pulse, this pallor, these twitchings, this glassy stare and...and the rest--have been manifest constantly and without adequate cause, one conclusion only is possible. At least," he added with a glance at his colleague, "that is my opinion."
"And mine," said the other sharply. "Emphatically, mine!"
Chauvinière's lips twitched. "It is gratifying, citizen-doctors, for a layman to find his scientific suspicions confirmed by men of science. You will, then, certify the citoyenne, so that the Public Accuser may authorize her removal say to the madhouse in the Rue du Bac."
He inclined his head in dismissal, haughty as a prince of the old régime. The deputy's commanding hand waved them away. Then his eyes swung to the girl's face. She was on her feet confronting him, appearing to be entirely fearless.
"Is it pretended that I am mad?" Her question was a challenge.
He smiled a little. "Must you quarrel with a pretence which will give you life, which will snatch you from under the knife of the guillotine? If you do, and at your age, then you are as mad as they who are about to certify you."
"But why," she asked quietly, "should you desire to serve me?"
A smile momentarily softened his saturnine countenance. "I do not believe a man has lived since the world began who did not at some time desire to serve one woman," he said meaningly.
The traditions in which she had been reared rendered this an insult in her eyes. She let him perceive it in her sudden stiffening, the up-tilting of her chin, the frown above her blue-green eyes and the angry flush that stained her delicately tinted face.
"You forget your place, sir," she told him, speaking as to an impertinent groom. "You presume."
If it stung him, he betrayed no hurt. His gentle smile grew even gentler, sadder. It was within his considerable psychological knowledge that he who would gain empire over a woman must begin by making himself her slave.
"Presume? Is it presumption to state a historical truth? Do I ask for anything? Do I demand wages for the service I proffer? I am at your command, citoyenne, to save your life, because the desire to serve you, without guerdon or hope of guerdon, is stronger than myself. Is that to presume?"
"No, monsieur. It is to be incredible."
"Incredible, yes," he agreed at last. "I have often been accounted that. But we waste time, citoyenne. Listen, and afterwards resolve yourself. Mistrust me, and remain to be presently guillotined; or trust me, and let me lead you back to life. That shall be as you please. I offer; but I do not persuade. Listen now."
Swiftly, briefly he traced for her the course of events to come.
Her removal to the madhouse would take place in the course of the
next day. As soon as it was effected, he would depart for the
Nivernais, being already commissioned by the Convention to
undertake there a tour of inspection. His passports were ready, and
they included a non-existent secretary. That was the place that she
should fill, if she so decided, suitably dressed in man's attire
for the purpose. Let her take time for thought, and let him know
to-morrow, when he sought the house in the Rue du Bac, how she
decided. He hoped that she would choose wisely. In the Nivernais
she would be free to go her ways, and no doubt would know how to
find shelter in her native province and perhaps procure assistance
to enable her to quit France should she so desire it. "We are
Nivernais both," he ended by reminding her. "Perhaps it is
compatriotism that strengthens my interest in you." He flashed a
quick glance at the door, then, at last, swept off his hat, and
bowed low. "My homage, citoyenne."
DUMEY, the middle-aged physician who controlled the madhouse in the Rue du Bac, received a visit late in the afternoon of the following day from the Deputy Chauvinière. The deputy came in a travelling chaise, from which he removed a valise together with himself.
This he set down in the doctor's private room. He came straight to business in his peremptory, overbearing fashion.
"Among the demented prisoners entrusted to your care this morning is a ci-devant, a Citoyenne de Montsorbier."
"Ah yes!" The plump doctor's countenance became eager. "Her case...Her case is one I have..."
"Never mind her case. She is dead."
"Dead!" Dumey looked thunderstricken.
"Isn't that why you have sent for me?"
"Sent for you? But I didn't send for you."
"You are losing your memory, Dumey. Fortunately for both of us, I am not. You sent for me to assure myself of the decease, and countersign the death-certificate which you are about to sign. My own signature will be witnessed by my secretary. He will appear presently. Now, pray conduct me to view the body."
Dumey looked at his visitor long and hard. There was that between them, on the subject of which a word from Chauvinière would send Dumey's head rolling into Samson's basket: which was precisely why, of all the madhouses in Paris, Chauvinière had chosen this establishment in the Rue du Bac for the reception of the patients removed from the Archevêché. Against this danger on the one hand, Dumey had to set, on the other, favours received from the deputy, and no doubt to be continued, one of which, indeed, was the present filling of his house and consequently of his pockets. On both scores, whatever Chauvinière commanded, Dumey must perform.
Dumey smiled at last his understanding and shrugged his resignation. "The responsibility..." he was beginning timidly.
"Will be mine, since I countersign your certificate. Hold your tongue, and no question will arise. There will be no questions about any inmates for a month. When they come, present your certificate. It will be too long after the event to admit of traces."
Dumey bowed, and conducted him. When he had unlocked the door of a room above-stairs, he would have led the way in, but the deputy arrested him.
"Go wait below in your room. You will the more easily forswear yourself if you do not see your patient again alive."
"But I shall have to see her. I..."
"You are mistaken. You will not. Go. Don't waste my time."
Dumey departed. Chauvinière entered the room, carrying the valise.
Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, forewarned of his presence by his voice was standing to receive him. He bowed deferentially, and this time he was so unrepublican as to remove his hat. Then he placed the valise on the table.
"You have resolved, citoyenne?" He had no doubt, this psychologist, that time and thought must have brought a person of her age to one conclusion only. It is very difficult to die willingly at twenty.
"I have resolved, monsieur," she answered him with quiet dignity.
He smiled as if he read her thought. "And you have resolved to live," he said. "That is very wise."
"I haven't said so." His penetration alarmed her a little.
"No? I assumed it from your calm, from the absence of defiance in your reception of me. It would desolate me to learn I am mistaken."
"Mons...Citizen, if I have mis-judged you, I hope that you will have the generosity to forgive me. I...I hesitate to express myself upon your...your concern, your kindliness."
"Continue to hesitate. Expressions waste time, and we have none to spare." He threw open the valise. "Here, citoyenne, are the garments in which you will travel." He drew some of them forth. She recoiled, her face on fire.
"These! These! Impossible!"
"A little difficult, perhaps. But I trust the difficulty will be overcome. If you will study them, the mystery of how they should be donned and worn will gradually vanish."
"That! But that is not the difficulty. You misunderstand me purposely."
"In the hope of making you perceive the absurdity of your qualms. My secretary cannot travel in a striped petticoat, and you will find these breeches...but there! We have no time to lose. I efface myself that you may make haste. When you are ready you will find me in the corridor."
A half-hour or so later, by when the deputy was in a ferment of
impatience, a stripling figure, in round hat, black riding-coat,
boots and breeches emerged from the lady's room. A moment
Chauvinière detained her, to scrutinize her with an eye that missed
no detail. Thus dressed she looked shorter by some inches, but her
figure was well enough, and the queue of her hair had been cleverly
contrived. He hurried her below. Dumey awaited them, his
certificate prepared. That business over, the Deputy Chauvinière
with his secretary closely following, entered the waiting
DURING the two succeeding days, they travelled at a furious rate, and with but short halts for food and rest and change of horses, so that before nightfall of the second day they came to rest at Chatillon-sur-Laing, a village of the Orléanais. Each night Chauvinière observed a deference that was almost exaggerated. He saw to it that she had comfortable quarters quite to herself, where she need fear no lack of privacy. He talked glibly and entertainingly, displaying, as it were, all the jewels of his mind to dazzle and beglamour her. She thawed a little. Indeed it was impossible to remain frozen in aloofness under the glow of so much benignity. Yet once or twice, looking up suddenly, she caught his eyes upon her. They shifted instantly, and the wolfish expression she surprised upon his face, was as instantly covered as if by a mask. But memory of it remained to evoke a sudden ineffable dread.
He drank perhaps too much that evening, and in consequence slackened a little the reins of his self-control. For in holding the door for her departure and in wishing her good-night, the leer on his face and the evil glow of his eyes were unmistakable. Such was the fear they roused in her, that having locked and bolted her door, she flung herself fully dressed upon her bed, to sleep at last the light, uneasy sleep of one whose mind is vigilant. Yet nothing happened to justify her tremors of spirit, and when she came to breakfast she found herself awaited by a Representative so correct and formal in his manner that she asked herself whether her imagination had not tricked her on the previous night.
All day that question abode with her, whilst the chaise swayed and rocked in its headlong speed, and Chauvinière half-dozed in his corner with a disregard of her that was almost ungallant. It was still with her when at five o'clock in the afternoon within a half-mile of La Charité, a village on the Loire, their journey came to a sudden lurching end as the result of the loss of an axle-pin, which but for the post-boy's quick perception might have more serious consequences.
Chauvinière climbed down, swearing savagely. It had been his purpose to reach Nevers that night, to address a meeting of the Committee of Public Safety and so to plan that upon the morrow he might set out upon his survey. That plan he must now abandon, and accept such a kennel as La Charité could offer his Republican sybaritism.
Yet when they had tramped the half-mile of muddy road to the village, they found there an excellent inn, where they were given a good room above-stairs in which to sup, with a bedroom opening from each side of it. Within an hour of their arrival an unusually good supper was placed before them by the vintner and his comely wife, who did not spare themselves in the service of the great man from Paris by whom their poor house was honoured.
Over the well-larded capon Chauvinière expressed himself to his secretary.
"By this I should judge that there is a good deal of aristocracy surviving in this Nivernais of yours."
"You should be thankful for that since it enables you to sup so well."
"In this world, as you may to find, the greater the cause for thankfulness on the one hand, the greater the cause for repining on the other. It is thus that Fortune bestows her favours: taking payment always."
"The payment of a debt is no good cause for repining," she objected.
He looked at her, so intently, so inscrutably, that all her fears of yesterday evening suddenly returned, and she shivered.
"You are cold," he said, and she fancied that the shadow of a smile swept almost imperceptibly across his lean face. "Let me close the window." He rose, and crossed the room; and it was whilst he stood with his back towards her, humouring the catch of the lattice, that she suddenly took her resolve to end this suspense, to put his intentions regarding her to an immediate test. She waited only until he had returned to his seat.
"You have been very good to me, incredibly good to me, citizen." Her eyes were upon the coarsely woven table-cloth; between finger and thumb she was kneading a little ball of crumb. "I must speak of it because the time has come to thank you; to thank you, and to part."
She looked up suddenly to surprise his expression, and found it compounded of suspicion, anger and dismay.
"Part?" He frowned as he uttered the word. With heightened incredulity he repeated: "Part?"
She explained herself. "We are already in the Nivernais. It is my own country. I have friends throughout the province..."
"Friends? What friends?" His tone suggested that their mention should be their death-warrant.
"It would not be fair to them to name them; nor, indeed, quite fair to you. It might test your duty too severely. Neither would it be fair to you that I accompany you into Nevers in broad daylight to-morrow. After all, I was well-known there not so many months ago. There will be many left who might recognize me. Seeing me in your company and thus, what could they assume? You would be compromised, and..."
"Compromised!" His scornful laughter shook the crazy windows. "And who in Nevers would dare to compromise me?"
"Your carelessness cannot deceive me." Her gray-green eyes looked at him resolutely. "And that is why we part to-night."
He leaned forward across the board. His face was very grave. It had lost some of its habitual colour.
"You give me news, citoyenne. We part to-night, eh? To-night? And will you tell me where you are going?"
"I could not tell that without compromising others."
He laughed. "You'll compromise the whole Nivernais before ever I let you go." The tone was fierce, snarling, as a dog snarls over a bone that is being wrested away. But immediately almost he had checked that too-revealing note. His voice was smooth again. "You'll forgive my insistence, citoyenne. But I have not jeopardized my neck to save yours from the guillotine just to have you throw my gift away in sheer wantonness. Oh no. I shall make sure of your safety before I part with you."
"But you said in Paris..."
"Never mind what I said in Paris." There was an angry rumbling in his voice. "Consider only what I have said here. I do not part with you until I am assured of your safety."
She was answered. Her suspense, her doubts, were at an end. He was the wolf she had at first supposed him, and she was the prey he promised himself. Of her terror she permitted him to catch no glimpse. Her surprise passed, chased away by a smile, a smile of a sweetness and gentleness such as she had never yet vouchsafed him.
"Your generosity...your nobility leaves me without words. You bring me almost to tears, citizen; tears of gratitude."
"Add nothing more," he implored her. His voice grew hoarse. "You have yet to learn the depth of a devotion which would stop at nothing in your service, Cléonie."
One of his long arms came across the table, and his fine hand closed upon hers where it lay there beside her plate. A moment she let it remain, loathing his touch, repressing the shudder that might betray that loathing, and loathing herself for the duplicity to which circumstances compelled her to descend. Then, hot with a shame, whose flush he entirely misunderstood, smiling with a rather piteous wistfulness she gently disengaged her hand and rose.
"Suffer me to go," she begged him. "I...I am a little confused."
"No! Wait!" He, too, had risen, and stood eager beyond the dividing board, to him so inopportunely placed.
"To-morrow!" she begged him faintly. "We will talk again to-morrow, citizen. Let me go now! Ah, let me go!"
Almost she overdid it, almost she overacted the suggestion of a spiritual struggle against the magnetism of his personality. With another, indeed, it might have been entirely fatal. But Chauvinière, the psychologist, felt he knew the full value of restraint, knew how much more complete is the ultimate surrender to a generous opponent! He bowed low, in silence save for a little sigh, and by the time he came upright again he was alone. She had slipped like a ghost into the adjacent room. He saw the white door close. He heard the bolts rasp home. He smiled as he stood there. Then he sighed again, still smiling, resumed his chair, and poured himself wine.
Behind her bolted door Mademoiselle de Montsorbier stood breathless and a little faint. She leaned against it, listening to his movements in the room beyond, and gradually she resumed her self-command. She moved at last to the dressing-table and by the dim light of the single candle burning, sat down before her mirror, but made no attempt to prepare herself for bed.
Thus for a half-hour, at the end of which she heard the rasp of his chair in the outer room, followed by the sound of his pacing to and fro like a caged animal. Once his steps came right up to her door and paused there. She stiffened, her skin roughened and she was conscious of an acceleration of her pulses as she waited through that pause, which seemed interminable, waited for his knock. It came at last, sharply rapped and the sound brought her to her feet.
By a miracle she kept her voice steady. "Who is there?"
"It is I, citoyenne. Chauvinière."
"What do you want, citizen?"
There was a long pause before his answer came: "To warn you that we start very early in the morning. The chaise will be ready at five o'clock."
"I shall be punctual, citizen. Good night!"
"Good night, citoyenne."
His footsteps receded. She heard them cross the length of the outer room. Then he passed into his own chamber, and at last came the closing of his door. She was able to breathe again. But her mind continued agitated, confused. Had he deliberately sought to scare her, merely so as to show that all fear of him was idle and thus lull her into a sense of false security, or had his action been genuine?
She crossed the room and flung herself upon the bed fully dressed as she was, even to her riding-boots, but she left the candle burning, and made no attempt to go to sleep. With a patience and self-control that were miraculous considering what was in her mind, she lay thus, listening and waiting for a full two hours until she could be sure that the house slept. Then, at last, she rose, and removed her boots. She took up the guttering candle, and very softly withdrew the bolts of her door. Cautiously, soundlessly, she opened it, and soundlessly crept out into the room beyond, which now was all in darkness. A moment she paused listening. From beyond the far door came a sound of mild snoring. The Citizen-Representative was asleep.
With her boots in one hand and the candle held aloft in the other she tip-toed towards the door that opened to the stairs. Midway across the room she checked. Something gleamed lividly on a side-table, and drew her glance. It was the clasp of the Representative's portfolio. She paused, hesitating, scared by the temptation that assailed her, to which at last, with a pale smile, she yielded. She snatched up the portfolio and tucked it under her arm. Then she passed out, and in her stockinged feet cautiously descended the creaking staircase.
In the passage below she paused to put on her boots. Then very carefully she drew the bolts of a side door, and stepped out into the stable yard. Upon the closed lower half leaned a man who had observed her exit, and who now straightened himself to challenge her. Instantly resolved, she anticipated him.
"Ha! You are astir! It is fortunate; for otherwise I must have fetched you from your bed. I need a horse at once, citizen."
"A horse? At this hour?"
"Business of the Nation." The young secretary's voice was hard and peremptory. He flourished his portfolio. "I am to ride ahead of the Citizen-Representative into Nevers. There is urgency. Make haste, or you will answer to the Citizen-Representative."
A horse was quickly saddled, and upon this the young secretary,
with a seat suggestive of a huntsman rather than a clerk, vanished
at the gallop into the night.
THE Citizen-Representative, newly-risen, scrupulously shaved, his hair dressed as carefully as an aristocrat's stalked into the main room between the bedrooms, calling briskly for chocolate.
Whilst he waited he sauntered to the window, and stood there considering the darkness and drizzle outside. Presently, however, the general stillness about him smote his attention as a sudden sound might have done at another time. It moved him apprehensively. He stepped swiftly to Mademoiselle de Montsorbier's door, and rapped sharply with his knuckles. There was no answer. He tried the handle. It turned, and the door swung inwards, discovering to him the room's lack of tenant. He noted the bed, undisturbed save by an impression of her form so faint as to suggest that it was some hours since she had lain there, nor then had lain there long.
With an oath, he flung headlong from the room. The innkeeper, terrified by the Representative's furious demands for his secretary, backed by horrible threats of the guillotine in the event of prevarication or evasion, quaveringly swore that he knew nothing whatever of the missing person and that he learnt now for the first time of that person's absence.
The Citizen-Representative stared at the mumbling oaf with such fierce flaming eyes that the fellow recoiled in dread. But the ostler, lounging near at hand and overhearing the angry interrogatory, came forward to supply the answer which was to quench Chauvinière's last lingering hope.
"And you let him go?" said Chauvinière between his teeth. He was smiling terribly. "You let him go? Like that? Tell me which way he went. Use your worthless head, animal, or you may lose it."
The ostler, answered the youth had ridden off in the direction of Nevers.
"Saddle me a horse," he commanded, and on that horse he was, himself, riding away through the darkness to Nevers within ten minutes, leaving the post-boy to follow with the chaise.
Reaching Nevers at noon, he went to the President of the Revolutionary Committee, a heavy-bodied, lumbering tanner named Desjardins, and stated his immediate need. His papers had been stolen last night at La Charité by a youth whom he had befriended, and who he was now assured was a girl, a cursed aristocrat, no doubt. She was known to have ridden off in the direction of Nevers. Her recapture was of the utmost importance. Heads would fall if she were not re-taken.
That the agents of the Committee were active is not to be doubted. In fact their activities were proved by the recapture on the morrow, near Chatillon, of the horse which the girl had ridden, and later by the discovery in a ditch near Souvigny of a black riding-coat, boots and other articles of apparel which Chauvinière recognized as those worn by the fugitive, as well as of an empty portfolio of black leather with a metal clasp, which the Representative acknowledged his own property. Of the fugitive herself, however, there was no trace.
At last towards the end of April Chauvinière's dreaded progress brought him to the little hill-town of Poussignot.
The Revolutionary Committee of Poussignot was hurriedly summoned to the little town-hall, overlooking the market-square, where the carpenters were already busy with the erection of the scaffold. In muttering awe they awaited the coming of this dread man from the Convention, who was to rouse that sleepy and hitherto contented township from its revolutionary languor.
He arrived at last, arrogant and overbearing, and already informed, it appeared, of certain things in and about Poussignot, for he produced a list of persons suspected of the new crime of incivisme, in one or another of its many forms.
It was upon naming the third of these--one Raoul Amédée de Corbigny--that he received his first check.
"Of what is he accused, that one?"
The question came abruptly from Doucier, the horse-leech, a man prominent in the local Jacobin Society, honest, fearless and formidable in debate, a man who might, had he chosen, represent his own section of the Nivernais in the National Convention. He was the first, as might have been expected, to throw off the spell of terror which Chauvinière had imposed upon the Committee.
Surprised by the sudden audacity of the interruption, Chauvinière answered impatiently: "He is accused of harbouring counter-revolutionary sentiments."
"But the Committee of Poussignot demands precise accusations; not vague charges which of its own knowledge it perceives to be unfounded."
An approving growl from the assembly informed Chauvinière that, infected by the example of their president, the members of the committee had so far recovered from the spell of his oratory as to be in a state of mutiny.
"Do you say that I lie?" he asked them icily.
"Oh! But Citizen-Representative! Only that you may have been misinformed. If you will suffer us to guide you in matters of local knowledge, citizen, you will accept our assurance that you have been misled. I assure you, citizen, that the gravest consequences might follow upon an unsubstantiated attack upon Corbigny. In Poussignot all know the stalwart republicanism of his principles; all know the unpretentious simplicity of his existence, and all love him. That is not a man to be lightly accused. For your own sake, Citizen-Representative, and for ours, you would do well to be fully armed with particulars of Corbigny's incivisme before you demand of us his arrest."
If the argument did not suffice to turn Chauvinière from his
purpose, it sufficed to make him temporize. He announced he would
visit Corbigny, and form at first hand an opinion of the real
sentiments of the ci-devant Vicomte.
THE Château de Corbigny was perched amid vineyards halfway up the hill above the town, standing four-square, grey and a little dilapidated, flanked by round towers under red roofs.
Within doors, the Citizen-Representative found the same unpretentiousness. He encountered Corbigny in the vast stone kitchen, at table with the persons of his household. These consisted of his elderly steward, Fougereot, the latter's wife, their two stalwart sons and a plump, comely young woman euphoniously named Filomène, who was responsible for the domestic comforts of the impoverished nobleman. Corbigny, himself, a man of thirty, fitted into his environment as if made for it. In dress he was almost a peasant, in dignity and courtesy a gentleman, whilst in speech and in countenance, with his lofty brow and sombre wistful eyes, he suggested the scholar and poet. He rose now to receive his visitor.
"I represent a government, citizen, that dispenses with ceremony," said Chauvinière, but with a good deal less than his usual haughty sententiousness.
Corbigny smiled. "Will you not join our board, then?" He placed a chair. "It is of a republican simplicity."
"That is as it should be," said Chauvinière, who detested republican simplicity, and daily thanked God for a revolution which had brought the succulent things of life within his easy reach. He sat down. He was served by Filomène with bread and ham, both of which he found of an excellent quality, whilst Corbigny himself poured for him a wine which left little to be desired. Not so hopelessly republican, after all, this simple fare. Corbigny and his odd guest talked indifferently of this and that, whilst the others sat listening in uneasy silence. At last, the meal being ended, Chauvinière sat back, flung one buckskinned leg over the arm of his chair, and tucked his long hand under the tricolour sash of office that girdled him. "You are very snug here at Corbigny, citizen. I wonder that you have never brought a mistress to it."
"What would you?" Corbigny said, laughing a little. "I have waited perhaps too long. Today..." he shrugged. "Today it would not be easy perhaps to find..." He checked abruptly, as one checks on the brink of an indiscretion.
But the indiscretion was committed; for Chauvinière had no difficulty in completing the ci-devant's sentence. He had meant to say that it was not easy to find a woman of his own class in a France which had been purged of aristocrats.
"To find what, citizen?" he coaxed.
"Oh, but nothing, citizen." Corbigny was faintly embarrassed. "It does not matter. And it would be easy to find a more interesting topic of conversation than myself."
"You are mistaken in both opinions. It matters very much." Chauvinière had thought of something else. "Celibacy is an affront to Nature; and who affronts Nature is no good republican, since republicanism is based on Nature's laws. That is why I say that it matters very much."
When they began to realize that he was not jesting, Corbigny made haste to change the subject.
Chauvinière left shortly, but on the morrow he inaugurated that novel mission of his. From the rostrum of the Jacobin Society of Poussignot he propounded his new gospel with the frenzied rhetoric and specious cant with which he had learnt to sway the passions of emotional unintelligent mobs. France was being depopulated by the events. That was his starting point. The evil brood of aristocracy must be replaced by a race of free men, born in an enlightened age. To neglect this was to neglect the most sacred duty that the Nation had the right to claim from them. It was to expose the Republic, through depopulation, to ultimate destruction. Forth came, then, that master-phrase of his: "Celibacy is an affront to Nature!" As none knew better than Chauvinière, who made intellectual toys for himself out of these things, such was the crack-brained state of the popular mind that the more extravagant a doctrine, the more assured it was of acceptance.
Within ten days the movement had reached such a pitch that it was proposed and unanimously agreed at the Society of Jacobins that, as the Citizen-Representative had propounded, for a man of twenty-five to remain unmarried in the face of the country's needs was to give proof of incivisme, to be punished as incivisme was punished by declaring him outside the law and sending him to the guillotine. And in the Commune of Poussignot that amazing resolution of the Jacobins was raised to the equivalent of a law.
At last the ground was sufficiently prepared for an attack upon the elusive ci-devant Vicomte de Corbigny. A definite accusation of incivisme, hitherto difficult, was now rendered easy.
The accusation was laid, and M. de Corbigny was haled before the bar of the Tribunal to receive the usual admonition. To do honour to the court and the occasion, he had dressed himself with unusual care, in garments stored up for ceremonious occasions: a black coat with silver buttons, silk breeches and stockings and buckled shoes.
"The Citizen ci-devant Vicomte de Corbigny, belongs by birth to a class which the Republic has abolished. Himself he has gone unscathed because of the republican spirit by which he is believed to be inspired. He should perceive that he is now provided with an opportunity of placing his republicanism beyond all possibility of future question.
"Acquainted as I am with his household, in which I have had the honour to be entertained, I am fortunately in a position to advise him. A girl of the people who serves him should prove domestically a very suitable wife. Therefore, this court counsels him not only to marry, but to marry Filomène Paulard, thus affording an abiding proof of his acceptance of the religion of equality--a religion in which France will tolerate no heretics."
The riff-raff largely composing the audience hailed the proposal uproariously as worthy of Solomon. When that uproar died down, Monsieur de Corbigny at last spoke. A scarlet flush had overspread his long and rather melancholy countenance. But his voice remained calm and steady.
"You know..." He half-turned, so as to include the entire assembly. "You all know my habits of life and of thought, and the simple creed by which I have governed my existence. I believe in communism, and I have given proofs of that belief. The Nation is above the individual, and I recognize the Nation's right to demand of me my property and, at need, my life. But I do not recognize the Nation's right to demand of me my soul..."
Chauvinière impatiently interrupted him. "We have abolished all that!"
But Corbigny went on as if the interruption had not been: "Nor do I recognize the Nation's voice in that demand. With submission, citizen-judges, you were placed here to administer the existing laws and not to create new ones. The making of laws is the sole prerogative of the National Convention, and any man or group of men infringing that prerogative and arrogating any such rights are themselves guilty of an incivisme for which they may be indicted."
Chauvinière admired the shrewdness and subtlety of that counter-attack, and was thankful that it was made before men of too low an order of intelligence to appreciate it. A growl of anger and mockery was all it drew from the assembly, and when that subsided the President spoke without emotion: "You have three days for consideration, Citizen Corbigny."
Corbigny advanced a step, throwing off his imperturbability. His eyes blazed in a face that passion turned from red to white. "Three seconds would be too much, Citizen-President, for consideration; three centuries not enough to alter my resolve to reject this infamy."
And whilst the crowd surged snarling and growling, the
President, impassive as doom, insisted: "Nevertheless, you have
AT the leisurely pace of a man who meditates, M. de Corbigny took his way home up the hill through the April dusk. He did not relish the thought of dying. Even less, however, did he relish the thought of the horrible mésalliance by which he might save his life. The futility of flight was too apparent. He would be hunted down, and at a time when it was impossible to move openly in the country without papers he would soon be overtaken and brought back in ignominy. Let him at least preserve his self-respect. Reluctant though he might be to die, life, after all, was not so delectable in these days.
He mounted a stile into one of his meadows, and as he leapt lightly down upon the turf, he was suddenly aware of a figure, faintly visible in the gloom, crouching behind the wall. A moment he stood gazing, then called out, challenging; whereupon the figure came upright, and was off at speed across the narrow strip of meadowland towards the woods.
The eccentricity of this behaviour, thought M. de Corbigny, called for investigation. He was fleet of foot, and he was upon the fugitive before the latter had covered half the distance to his goal. He clutched the shoulder of a stripling, clad in the blouse, loose pantaloons and wooden shoes of a peasant. "A word with you, my friend. You are too fleet for honesty, to say nothing of your skulking behind a wall."
"Let me go," snarled a boyish voice. "I have done you no harm." The figure writhed in his grasp. "Don't dare to detain me!"
"Dare!" Corbigny laughed.
Something bright gleamed suddenly in the boy's hand. On the instant Corbigny had him in a wrestler's grip which pinned his arms helplessly to his sides. He hugged the murderous rascal close, intending to throw him. Instead, as if contact with that young body had burnt him, he thrust it sharply from him, and stepped back. The supposed stripling stood before him, breathing hard with head a little bowed, making no further attempt to escape.
"Who are you? What are you? And why are you dressed as a man? Answer me. I will not hurt you."
The sudden gentleness of his voice, more, its high-bred inflection wrought a change in the other's attitude. He threw back his head, showing a face that gleamed white and ghostly in the half-light. "Who are you? What is your name?" came the counter-questions in a voice which left Corbigny little doubt of the person's quality.
"Until lately I was known as the Vicomte de Corbigny. Since then I have enjoyed a certain peace as a ci-devant. At the moment I scarcely know how to describe myself. But this land is still mine, and that house up yonder, which I shall place at your disposal if you will deal frankly with me."
"You are a gentleman!"
He inclined his head a little. "It surprises you to meet one at large in France, of course. But not more than it surprises me to meet a lady."
He heard the sharp intake of her breath. "How do you know that?"
"How? I have my instincts, madame--or, is it mademoiselle?"
She hesitated long before passionately answering him: "Oh, if you are a trickster, play your vile trick. I care not. I am sick and weary. I should welcome even such rest as the guillotine brings. I am Cléonie de Montsorbier. You are incredulous? You have heard of us in prison in Paris. We are a Nivernaise family, and there should be interest in us hereabouts. You may even have heard that I was removed to a house of lunatics, but not that I was removed thence. It's a long story, M. le Vicomte."
"Tell it me as we walk," said he, and, taking her by the arm he turned her about to face the house whose windows glowed ruddily in the deepening night.
As they went she told him briefly of her pseudo-secretaryship, and of her escape at La Charité from her republican protector whom she left unnamed. She had hoped to shelter at the Château de Blesson, with her cousins there. But to her dismay, on reaching it in the dawn, she had found it closed and shuttered, the family gone. Thence on a tired horse, she had plodded on to Verrues ten miles away, where another cousin dwelt. She found Verrues a blackened ruin, and in her weariness and despair, she sat down before it, and gave way to tears.
Thus she was surprised by a group of scared peasants. Because it was not in their simple hearts to let a gentlewoman suffer, they gave her shelter for some days; until fearing lest she should bring trouble upon them, and also because to lie there in hiding was too temporary a measure to suit her impatient eager spirit, she procured from them the peasant garments in which she stood, and departed, hoping to make her way on foot across the Nivernais and Burgundy, and thence slip over the frontier into Switzerland. But the journey had been one of hardships beyond all that she had feared.
M. de Corbigny surprised her by a little laugh. "Faith, mademoiselle, almost you set me an example."
"You suggest things..." He broke off. "No, no. I had thought of it. It is not worth while." He pushed wide the door, and the glow of light from within smote them with almost blinding violence.
"Be welcome to Corbigny, mademoiselle."
She stepped ahead of him into the spacious and rather shabby stone hall. He paused a moment to close and make fast the door, then turned, and his eyes, now accustomed to the light, beheld her clearly for the first time. Her grey blouse was stained and in places ragged. She had doffed the shabby hat, which looked as if it might have been filched from a scarecrow. She had cut her hair, and it hung loose and ragged now about her neck and ears, just as a peasant lad's might hang, but the light smote from its golden sheen an aureole about her little head, so admirably poised, and the finely-featured face gave the lie to the rest of her.
M. de Corbigny gazed upon her, lost in a rapture of wonder such as he had never known. So intent was the gaze of his sombre, dark eyes that at last her glance fell away before him, and she shifted a little uncomfortably.
But still he gazed and gazed, and the natural wistfulness deepened in his countenance. When at last he spoke, it was cryptically, employing the old formula of the gladiator meeting death. "Moriturus te salutat!" He bowed a little. "Yet it is good to have seen you first." And then the instincts of his blood asserting themselves, he put aside all considerations but those due to a guest.
"You will require garments, mademoiselle. I will call my housekeeper. Perhaps she may..."
"Ah, no!" she checked him. "Clean linen if you will. Give it me yourself, or send it to me by a man if you wish. But for the rest, leave me as I am, nor disclose me to be other. The citizen Chauvinière is a thought too close for any risks."
"You know the citizen Chauvinière?"
She smiled. It was wonderful, he thought, that she should smile so. "I have heard of his activities."
He nodded. "You are wise perhaps. Come, then, you shall have what you require."
Himself he conducted her to a room above, procured for her the linen she required, and left her, to inform and instruct his household touching the presence of a boy who was his guest.
Deep dejection sat upon that little company gathered there to
supper in the great kitchen, and Filomène, as she waited upon them,
showed eyes that were red from weeping in a face unusually white.
They had heard the day's events before the Tribunal and the doom
that overhung their master. Filomène herself was outraged in her
every sensibility by the offensive alternative to death which had
been offered the Vicomte. Corbigny alone appeared unmoved by the
sword suspended over him.
"MADEMOISELLE remain yet another day with us. The more complete now your rest, the better speed will you make hereafter; so that the time will not be lost."
Mademoiselle de Montsorbier demurred at the proposal. She could not think of subjecting M. de Corbigny to the risk of her discovery under his roof.
At this M. de Corbigny laughed with such evident amusement as to pique her a little, for she could not conceive in what she was ridiculous. But he explained his laughter. "Mademoiselle, I am in the enviable position of a man for whom risks have ceased to exist, whom fear can no longer touch. This is Tuesday, and on Thursday next I am to die. That is why I laugh at the notion of danger to me from harbouring you."
"Monsieur! How is this possible? You amuse yourself at my expense! How can it be that you, who are free..."
"I will explain," he interrupted her, and he did so.
She heard his tale in growing distress and also in growing admiration for his intrepid calm, for the almost humorous outlook with which he viewed his desperate situation.
"The beast!" she said, when he had done. "The cruel, mocking beast! Why do you not seek safety in flight?"
"I thought of it, of course. But it would be useless, and there's a degradation in failure to which I will not submit. I'll be no quarry for these revolutionary dogs. If succumb I must, I'll succumb as my blood demands."
She looked at him in silence with an infinite compassion, an infinite tenderness. "Is there," she asked after a moment, "no third course possible? Have you thought well, monsieur?"
Something of her tender concern escaped her in her voice. He halted before her, and his dark solemn eyes considered her. His face grew pale as if with fear, and a deeper wistfulness crept into the lines of it. At last he answered her very slowly. "Yes, I have thought. And a third course offers. But I hesitate from fear of being misunderstood."
She almost smiled as she looked up at him. "To a man in your case can it matter to be misunderstood? Speak freely, then."
He spoke, but not freely. He faltered and stumbled awkwardly in an utterance that normally was precise and scholarly. "You will not see, mademoiselle, I beseech you, a lack of...of homage in what I am to say. In other circumstances...But here time presses. Bear with me, mademoiselle, though I may seem to you outrageous. Doubt what you will, but not my truth and sincerity.
"When first I saw you there in the light last night, it seemed to me...as if my soul leapt from me to embrace your soul. I utter crudities, perhaps. I can express it in no other way. But so spontaneous, so...so inevitable was this thing, that it has seemed to me...It is not a presumption, mademoiselle. It is an instinct, I think. It has seemed to me that something reciprocal, something mutual must have taken place. It seemed impossible that a man's spirit could...experience so much...unsupported. Mademoiselle, I am ashamed of my poor words. They do not..."
She interrupted him at last. She had risen, and, unbelievable miracle, as it seemed to him, her breast was leaning on his own, her face, all white and piteous was upturned to him.
"Ashamed!" she cried. "Ashamed!" There was a music of tenderness in her voice that dazed his senses. "Your words leave nothing unsaid. Nothing that is not true, at least. Your instincts were at no fault, my dear."
His arms went round her. His voice was the voice of a man in pain. "Love is the fulfilment of every living thing, and I might have died unfulfilled if you had not come to me at the eleventh hour."
She shuddered. "I had forgotten. Oh, my dear!" she lay faint against him.
"No, no," he cried, to hearten her. "You make life possible. If I had been wrong, nothing further would have mattered. I should still have died the richer, the nobler for what you brought me. But since you care...Listen, my dear. The decree is only that I marry. So that I marry within three days I fulfil the requirements of this grotesque mockery which they call a law. Filomène was proposed to me, because I would make no choice for myself. But Filomène or another, it is all one to them. If you, then, come with me before the Tribunal, in peasant dress--that will be safer--as a girl whom I prefer, whom I have chosen for myself. We can invent your place of origin. That will not be difficult. If, then..."
She broke away from him, and stepped back. "Oh, you don't know what you are saying!" she cried out in deep distress.
He stood crestfallen, his soaring hopes all checked. "But if...if...we love each other?" he faltered. "What difficulty, then? Need the notion of an immediate marriage be so repugnant?"
"It isn't that. It isn't that. Chauvinière!" she said significantly.
"Chauvinière?" he echoed, not understanding at first. Then light broke suddenly upon him. "It was he? It was he who...?"
She nodded, her little features twisted in a bitter smile.
There was a tap at the door. Filomène came in with a scared countenance. "It is the Citizen-Representative," she announced. "He is here. He asks to see you."
Mademoiselle de Montsorbier shrank back in fear. Corbigny came to his feet, very stiff and straight and suddenly of a preternatural calm.
"He comes most opportunely." Corbigny's voice had resumed its normal, pleasant tone. "I was considering going in quest of him. Detain him a moment or two in the hall, Filomène. Then bring him in."
Before Filomène was out of the room, Corbigny was at a tall cupboard of polished mulberry that stood against the wall. He found Mademoiselle de Montsorbier at his elbow. "Will you hide me in there?"
He lost a second in staring at her. Then he smiled and shook his head. "I have no thought to hide you." He took a mahogany case from a shelf in the cupboard.
"But if he finds me here!"
"It is what I desire." He took up a powder horn and a little linen bag, and closed the door of the cupboard. "The confident, overbearing fool!" He crossed to his writing-table, and opened the box.
Illustration by Daniel Content
ESCORTED by Filomène, Chauvinière swaggered presently into the library, lithe and active in his long grey coat, tricolour sash from which a sabre now dangled. Within the threshold he halted, irony in every line of him. "I am here, my dear ci-devant, to exhort you in the fraternal spirit..."
He broke off. A slight movement in the corner on his right drew his glance aside.
"Why? Who's this that..." Again he checked, leaning forward, and staring. He took a quick step, and stopped again. Then an oath escaped him, and on the heels of that a laugh, loud and full of relish. "Why here's a meeting!" He swept off his hat. "It becomes necessary to uncover." He bowed. "And how long may you have been here, my dear secretary?"
"Since last night, citizen," said the lady simply, so simply and calmly that it staggered him.
"Oh since last night, citizen!" he mimicked her. "Since last night, eh? Name of a name! I find more than I sought." He moved to advance towards her.
"Stand where you are!"
The cold, crisp tone arrested him. He stiffened as he confronted Corbigny across half the room. There was in that gentleman's attitude, in his very calm, something sinister and menacing. Instantly Chauvinière scented danger, and as instantly would he have forestalled it, but that he was undone by the mockery in which he dealt so lavishly. His absurd gesture of mock-deference, cumbered now his right hand with his doffed hat. Before he could slip that hand into his bosom to pluck thence the pistol which he carried ready for just such emergencies, it was necessary to be rid of the hat. He tucked it swiftly under his left arm. But got no farther.
It was the danger signal to Corbigny, and Corbigny now covered him with a heavy duelling pistol, steadied upon his left forearm. "Move a finger, Citizen-Representative, and I'll kill you."
Chauvinière obeyed, but none too literally. He planted his feet wide, and folded his hands behind him. Then he laughed.
"Really! Really! My dear ci-devant! Why should you desire to intimidate me?"
"You misapprehend me. I am not proposing to intimidate you."
"To kill you."
Again Chauvinière laughed, but he paled a little under his tan.
"Let us be practical, citizen. How can my death serve you?"
Corbigny remained unperturbed. "You are forgetting that my life being already forfeit, I can lose nothing by killing you."
"You mean that you intend to murder me in cold blood! It is inconceivable. After all, you are a gentleman, not an assassin." There was no mockery now in Chauvinière's voice. It was warmly earnest. "At least, let us exchange shots, here in this room--at ten paces, or any distance that you please elsewhere. You cannot do less than that."
Monsieur de Corbigny resumed his urbanity. "I am desolated to refuse you even that. If it were a question only of myself, I would accede gladly. But there is Mademoiselle de Montsorbier. I cannot allow her fate to depend upon luck or marksmanship."
"Wait!" said the lady sharply, and she advanced a step. "Let us be practical, as the Citizen-Representative suggested. Let us..."
Two pistol-shots ringing out almost simultaneously cropped short her speech.
Her sudden intervention, and perhaps even more the little forward movement that she made, momentarily drew Corbigny's eyes to her. In that moment the ever-watchful Chauvinière perceived his opportunity. Into the bosom of his broad-lapelled coat flashed his right hand, and out again with a pistol, which he discharged at the Vicomte, almost without aiming. But swift as was the movement, it was not swift enough; for, perceiving it, the Vicomte fired no more than a fraction of a heart-beat later.
Corbigny stepped back, white and shaken, but unharmed. The other's bullet had grazed his shoulder. Chauvinière reeled to the wall, pressing over his left breast a hand which grew red almost at once with the blood oozing between the fingers.
"At least, I've had my shot," he said, and his features twisted into a grin. "I hope I've given better than I've received. You'll..."
He broke off to cough. His features writhed, his limbs twitched, and finally he slid down the wall into a little heap from which his knees protruded sharply.
The Vicomte stepped sharply across to screen him. "Please go," he said over his shoulder. "Please go at once."
Mademoiselle de Montsorbier hesitated, made as if she would disregard the command, then ended by obeying.
Ten minutes later Monsieur de Corbigny came to her in the hall. He was grave, but quite composed. He found her alone with Filomène. The Fougereots, he knew, were at work out of doors. She was beside him at a bound. "We have no time to lose."
"I could not permit that he should continue to live." Thus spoke the lover, showing his jealousy.
"He would have served us better living."
"I desired no service of him; not even a service that might have saved my life."
"Oh, will you listen! My life, too, is at issue. We might have constrained from him three lines of writing to inform the members of the Tribunal that he had suddenly been called away to Nevers or Paris. Then we could have locked him in the cellar to give us time to get away. Your hastiness spoilt all."
He stood suddenly contrite before her.
"Now we must repair the thing as best we can. I'll try when I am calmer, when I have ceased to shake if I ever do. Oh, I am a little coward, when all is said."
He took her in his arms to comfort her and to still her tremors as well as further to question her. But she presently withdrew, bidding him to make ready for a journey. "You think that it can profit me to attempt to escape?" he asked her.
"I think it can, if you'll be guided by me this time."
She issued orders which he did not understand. But in his penitence he bowed to them, nor probed their significance in view of her assurance. She desired to be made free of his wardrobe, and she further desired that Fougereot be summoned at once and sent to her.
When, more than an hour later, she rejoined him, he was waiting for her, spurred and booted, a cloak and a valise on the settle beside him.
From his wardrobe she had contrived to adapt herself garments which gave her very much the appearance she had worn on her first flight from Paris as Chauvinière's secretary. She was brisk and determined in manner, so that Corbigny's wonder grew ever as he watched and listened. He was beginning to perceive something of the spirit in her.
Her first question was for Fougereot, who waited there with his master. "You have made all ready?"
"Everything as mademoiselle commanded."
"And your family?"
"Waiting out of doors with Filomène."
"The scarf and hat?"
"Here, mademoiselle." He pointed to the tricolour sash and the plumed hat, lying on a chair.
She took them up and proffered them to the Vicomte. "My friend, you must wear these." He shrank a little. "It is a necessity," she insisted. "Henceforth, you are the Citizen-Representative Chauvinière."
She spent a moment in assisting Corbigny to assume the sash of office, then led him out, Fougereot following. Came brief but very touching farewells between the seigneur and his shrunken family.
"You will care for the land," Mademoiselle de Montsorbier told them, "and count it your own until Monsieur the Vicomte comes to claim it again."
Corbigny, still half-bemused, mounted his waiting horse, and she hers; and presently by a path that skirted the little town of Poussignot they were trotting through the dusk, their faces set towards Burgundy.
"By dawn we shall be far away," she said. "Henceforth you are the Representative Chauvinière on a mission to Switzerland, and I am your secretary Antoine. You had better carry these. They are the passports of the Committee of Safety to the Representative and his secretary, enjoining upon all to aid and none to hinder them in the name of the Republic One and Indivisible. And there are some other papers, too, of importance, enjoining obedience upon all civil functionaries."
He was silent a long time in sheer wonder. "I should have known that you did not hope to strike blindly across the frontier. This makes assured! Oh, it is as incredible as you are, Cléonie!"
Her laughter answered him, but this time very soft and tender. And the marriage followed a week later, when they found themselves amid friends.
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