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   Chapter 3 “MAN TO MAN AND STEEL TO STEEL”

The Lane That Had No Turning, Volume 4 By Gilbert Parker Characters: 17580

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


One evening a fortnight later Louis Racine and George Fournel, the Englishman, stood face to face in the library of the Manor House. There was antagonism and animosity in the attitude of both. Apart from the fact that Louis had succeeded to the Seigneury promised to Fournel, and sealed to him by a reputed will which had never been found, there was cause for hatred on the Englishman's part. Fournel had been an incredibly successful man. Things had come his way-wealth, and the power that wealth brings. He had but two set-backs, and the man before him in the Manor House of Pontiac was the cause of both. The last rebuff had been the succession to the Seigneury, which, curious as it might seem, had been the cherished dream of the rich man's retirement. It had been his fancy to play the Seigneur, the lord magnificent and bountiful, and he had determined to use wealth and all manner of influence to have the title of Baron of Pontiac revived-it had been obsolete for a hundred years. He leaned towards the grace of an hereditary dignity, as other retired millionaires cultivate art and letters, vainly imagining that they can wheedle civilisation and the humanities into giving them what they do not possess by nature, and fool the world at the same time.

The loss of the Seigneury had therefore cut deep, but there had been a more hateful affront still. Four years before, Louis Racine, when spasmodically practising law in Quebec, had been approached by two poor Frenchmen, who laid claim to thousands of acres of land which a Land Company, whereof George Fournel was president, was publicly exploiting for the woods and valuable minerals discovered on it. The Land Company had been composed of Englishmen only. Louis Racine, reactionary and imaginative, brilliant and free from sordidness, and openly hating the English, had taken up the case, and for two years fought it tooth and nail without pay or reward. The matter had become a cause celebre, the Land Company engaging the greatest lawyers in both the English and French province. In the Supreme Court the case was lost to Louis' clients. Louis took it over to the Privy Council in London, and carried it through triumphantly and alone, proving his clients' title. His two poor Frenchmen regained their land. In payment he would accept nothing save the ordinary fees, as though it were some petty case in a county court. He had, however, made a reputation, which he had seemed not to value, save as a means of showing hostility to the governing race, and the Seigneury of Pontiac, when it fell to him, had more charms for him than any celebrity to be won at the bar. His love of the history of his country was a mania with him, and he looked forward, on arriving at Pontiac, to being the apostle of French independence on the continent. Madelinette had crossed his path in his most enthusiastic moment, when his brilliant tongue and great dreams surrounded him with a kind of glamour. He had caught her to himself out of the girl's first triumph, when her nature, tried by the strain of her first challenge to the judgment of the world, cried out for rest, for Pontiac and home, and all that was of the old life among her people.

Fournel's antipathy had only been increased by the fact that Louis Racine had married the now famous Madelinette, and his animosity extended to her.

It was not in him to understand the nature of the Frenchman, volatile, moody, chivalrous, unreasonable, the slave of ideas, the victim of sentiment. Not understanding, when he began to see that he could not attain the object of his visit, which was to secure some relics of the late Seigneur's household, he chose to be disdainful.

"You are bound to give me these things I ask for, as a matter of justice-if you know what justice means," he said at last.

"You should be aware of that," answered the Seigneur, with a kindling look. He felt every glance of Fournel's eye a contemptuous comment upon his deformity, now so egregious and humiliating. "I taught you justice once."

Fournel was not to be moved from his phlegm. He knew he could torture the man before him, and he was determined to do so, if he did not get his way upon the matter of his visit.

"You can teach me justice twice and be thanked once," he answered. "These things I ask for were much prized by my friend, the late Seigneur. I was led to expect that this Seigneury and all in it and on it should be mine. I know it was intended so. The law gives it you instead. Your technical claim has overridden my rights-you have a gift for making successful technical claims. But these old personal relics, of no monetary value-you should waive your avaricious and indelicate claim to them." He added the last words with a malicious smile, for the hardening look in Racine's face told him his request was hopeless, and he could not resist the temptation to put the matter with cutting force. Racine rose to the bait with a jump.

"Not one single thing-not one single solitary thing-!"

"The sentiment is strong if the grammar is bad," interrupted Fournel, meaning to wound wherever he found an opportunity, for the Seigneur's deformity excited in him no pity; it rather incensed him against the man, as an affront to decency and to his own just claims to the honours the Frenchman enjoyed. It was a petty resentment, but George Fournel had set his heart upon playing the grand-seigneur over the Frenchmen of Pontiac, and of ultimately leaving his fortune to the parish, if they all fell down and worshipped him and his "golden calf."

"The grammar is suitable to the case," retorted the Seigneur, his voice rising. "Everything is mine by law, and everything I will keep. If you think different, produce a will-produce a will!"

Truth was, Louis Racine would rather have parted with the Seigneury itself than with these relics asked for. They were reminiscent of the time when France and her golden-lilies brooded over his land, of the days when Louis Quatorze was king. He cherished everything that had association with the days of the old regime, as a miner hugs his gold, or a woman her jewels. The request to give them up to this unsympathetic Englishman, who valued them because they had belonged to his friend the late Seigneur, only exasperated him.

"I am ready to pay the highest possible price for them, as I have said," urged the Englishman, realising as he spoke that it was futile to urge the sale upon that basis.

"Money cannot buy the things that Frenchmen love. We are not a race of hucksters," retorted the Seigneur.

"That accounts for your envious dispositions then. You can't buy what you want-you love such curious things, I assume. So you play the dog in the manger, and won't let other decent folk buy what they want." He wilfully distorted the other's meaning, and was delighted to see the Seigneur's fingers twitch with fury. "But since you can't buy the things you love-and you seem to think you should-how do you get them? Do you come by them honestly? or do you work miracles? When a spider makes love to his lady he dances before her to infatuate her, and then in a moment of her delighted aberration snatches at her affections. Is it the way of the spider then?"

With a snarl as of a wild beast, Louis Racine sprang forward and struck Fournel in the face with his clinched fist. Then, as Fournel, blinded, staggered back upon the book-shelves, he snatched two antique swords from the wall. Throwing one on the floor in front of the Englishman, he ran to the door and locked it, and turned round, the sword grasped firmly in his hand, and white with rage.

"Spider! Spider! By Heaven, you shall have the spider dance before you!" he said hoarsely. He had mistaken Fournel's meaning. He had put the most horrible construction upon it. He thought that Fournel referred to his deformity, and had ruthlessly dragged in Madelinette as well.

He was like a being distraught. His long brown hair was tossed over his blanched forehead and piercing black eyes. His head was thrown forward even more than his deformity compelled, his white teeth showed in a grimace of hatred; he was half-crouched, like an animal ready to spring.

"Take up the sword, or I'll run you through the heart where you stand," he continued, in a hoarse whisper. "I will give you till I can count three. Then by the God in Heaven-!"

Fournel felt that he had to deal with a man demented. The blow he had received had laid open the flesh on his cheek-bone, and blood was flowing from the wound. Never in his life before had he been so humiliated. And by a Frenchman-it roused every instinct of race-hatred in him. Yet he wanted not to go at him with a sword, but with his two honest hands, and beat him into a whining submission. But the man was def

ormed, he had none of his own robust strength-he was not to be struck, but to be tossed out of the way like an offending child.

He staunched the blood from his face and made a step forward without a word, determined not to fight, but to take the weapon from the other's hands. "Coward!" said the Seigneur. "You dare not fight with the sword. With the sword we are even. I am as strong as you there-stronger, and I will have your blood. Coward! Coward! Coward! I will give you till I count three. One!... Two!..."

Fournel did not stir. He could not make up his mind what to do. Cry out? No one could come in time to prevent the onslaught-and onslaught there would be, he knew. There was a merciless hatred in the Seigneur's face, a deadly purpose in his eyes; the wild determination of a man who did not care whether he lived or died, ready to throw himself upon a hundred in his hungry rage. It seemed so mad, so monstrous, that the beautiful summer day through which came the sharp whetting of the scythe, the song of the birds, and the smell of ripening fruit and grain, should be invaded by this tragic absurdity, this human fury which must spend itself in blood.

Fournel's mind was conscious of this feeling, this sense of futile, foolish waste and disfigurement, even as the Seigneur said "Three!" and, rushing forward, thrust.

As Fournel saw the blade spring at him, he dropped on one knee, caught it with his left hand as it came, and wrenched it aside. The blade lacerated his fingers and his palm, but he did not let go till he had seized the sword at his feet with his right hand. Then, springing up with it, he stepped back quickly and grasped his weapon fiercely enough now.

Yet, enraged as he was, he had no wish to fight; to involve himself in a fracas which might end in tragedy and the courts of the land. It was a high price to pay for any satisfaction he might have in this affair. If the Seigneur were killed in the encounter-he must defend himself now-what a miserable notoriety and possible legal penalty and public punishment! For who could vouch for the truth of his story? Even if he wounded Racine only, what a wretched story to go abroad: that he had fought with a hunchback-a hunchback who knew the use of the sword, which he did not, but still a hunchback!

"Stop this nonsense," he said, as Louis Racine prepared to attack again. "Don't be a fool. The game isn't worth the candle."

"One of us does not leave this room alive," said the Seigneur. "You care for life. You love it, and you can't buy what you love from me. I don't care for life, and I would gladly die, to see your blood flow. Look, it's flowing down your face; it's dripping from your hand, and there shall be more dripping soon. On guard!"

He suddenly attacked with a fierce energy, forcing Fournel back upon the wall. He was not a first-class swordsman, but he had far more knowledge of the weapon than his opponent, and he had no scruple about using his knowledge. Fournel fought with desperate alertness, yet awkwardly, and he could not attack; it was all that he could do, all that he knew how to do, to defend himself. Twice again did the Seigneur's weapon draw blood, once from the shoulder and once from the leg of his opponent, and the blood was flowing from each wound. After the second injury they stood panting for a moment. Now the outside world was shut out from Fournel's senses as it was from Louis Racine's. The only world they knew was this cool room, whose oak floors were browned by the slow searching stains of Time, and darkened by the footsteps of six generations that had come and gone through the old house. The books along the walls seemed to cry out against the unseemly and unholy strife. But now both men were in that atmosphere of supreme egoism where only their two selves moved, and where the only thing that mattered on earth was the issue of this strife. Fournel could only think of how to save his life, and to do that he must become the aggressor, for his wounds were bleeding hard, and he must have more wounds, if the fight went on without harm to the Seigneur.

"You know now what it is to insult a Frenchman-On guard!" again cried the Seigneur, in a shriller voice, for everything in him was pitched to the highest note.

He again attacked, and the sound of the large swords meeting clashed on the soft air. As they struggled, a voice came ringing through the passages, singing a bar from an opera:

"Oh eager golden day, Oh happy evening hour,

Behold my lover cometh from fields of wrath and hate!

Sheathed is his sword; he cometh to my bower;

In war he findeth honour, and love within the gate."

The voice came nearer and nearer. It pierced the tragic separateness of the scene of blood. It reached the ears of the Seigneur, and a look of pain shot across his face. Fournel was only dimly aware of the voice, for he was hard pressed, and it seemed to come from infinite distances. Presently the voice stopped, and some one tried the door of the room.

It was Madelinette. Astonished at finding it locked, she stood still a moment uncertain what to do. Then the sounds of the struggle within came to her ears. She shook the door, leaned her shoulders against it, and called, "Louis! Louis!" Suddenly she darted away, found Havel the faithful servant in the passage, and brought him swiftly to the door. The man sprang upon it, striking with his shoulder. The lock gave, the door flew open, and Madelinette stepped swiftly into the room, in time to see George Fournel sway and fall, his sword rattling on the hard oak floor.

"Oh, what have you done, Louis!" she cried, then added hurriedly to Havel: "Draw the blind there, shut the door, and tell Madame Marie to bring some water quickly."

The silent servant vanished, and she dropped on her knees beside the bleeding and insensible man, and lifted his head.

"He insulted you and me, and I've killed him, Madelinette," said Louis hoarsely.

A horrified look came to her face, and she hurriedly and tremblingly opened Fournel's waistcoat and shirt, and felt his heart.

She was freshly startled by a struggle behind her, and, turning quickly, she saw Madame Marie holding the Seigneur's arm to prevent him from ending his own life.

She sprang up and laid her hand upon her husband's arm. "He is not dead-you need not do it, Louis," she said quietly. There was no alarm, no undue excitement in her face now. She was acting with good presence of mind. A new sense was working in her. Something had gone from her suddenly where her husband was concerned, and something else had taken its place. An infinite pity, a bitter sorrow, and a gentle command were in her eyes all at once-new vistas of life opened before her, all in an instant.

"He is not dead, and there is no need to kill yourself, Louis," she repeated, and her voice had a command in it that was not to be gainsaid. "Since you have vindicated your honour, you will now help me to set this business right."

Madame Marie was on her knees beside the insensible man. "No, he is not dead, thank God!" she murmured, and while Havel stripped the arm and leg, she poured some water between Fournel's lips. Her long experience as the Little Chemist's wife served her well now.

Now that the excitement was over, Louis collapsed. He swayed and would have fallen, but Madelinette caught him, helped him to the sofa, and, forcing him gently down on his side, adjusted a pillow for him, and turned to the wounded man again.

An hour went busily by in the closely-curtained room, and at last George Fournel, conscious, and with wounds well bandaged, sat in a big arm-chair, glowering round him. At his first coming-to, Louis Racine, at his wife's insistence, had come and offered his hand, and made apology for assaulting him in his own house.

Fournel's reply had been that he wanted to hear no more fool's talk and to have no more fool's doings, and that one day he hoped to take his pay for the day's business in a satisfactory way.

Madelinette made no apology, said nothing, save that she hoped he would remain for a few days till he was recovered enough to be moved. He replied that he would leave as soon as his horses were ready, and refused to take food or drink from their hands. His servant was brought from the Louis Quinze Hotel, and through him he got what was needed for refreshment, and requested that no one of the household should come near him. At night, in the darkness, he took his departure, no servant of the household in attendance. But as he got into the carriage, Madelinette came quickly to him, and said:

"I would give ten years of my life to undo to-day's work."

"I have no quarrel with you, Madame," he said gloomily, raised his hat, and was driven away.

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