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   Chapter 7 FACE TO FACE

The Lane That Had No Turning, Volume 4 By Gilbert Parker Characters: 17933

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

As the two approached the mansion where George Fournel lived, they saw the door open and a man come hurriedly out into the street. He wore his wrist in a sling.

Madelinette caught Madame Marie's arm. She did not speak, but her heart sank within her. The man was Tardif.

He saw them and shuffled over.

"Ha, Madame," he said, "he has the will, and I've not done with you yet-you'll see." Then, shaking a fist in Madelinette's face, he clattered off into the darkness.

They crossed the street, and Madame Marie knocked at Fournel's door. It was at once opened, and Madelinette announced herself. The servant stared stonily at first, then, as she mentioned her name and he saw her face, he suddenly became servile, and asked them into a small waiting-room. Monsieur Fournel was at home, and should be informed at once of Madame's arrival.

A few moments later the servant, somewhat graver, but as courteous still, came to say that Monsieur would receive her in his library. Madelinette turned towards Madame Marie. The servant understood.

"I shall see that the lady has refreshment," he said. "Will Madame perhaps care for refreshment-and a mirror, before Monsieur has the honour?-Madame has travelled far."

In spite of the anxiety of the moment and the great matters at stake, Madelinette could not but smile. "Thank you," she said, "I hope I'm not so unpresentable."

"A little dust here and there perhaps, Madame," he said, with humble courtesy.

Madelinette was not so heroical as to undervalue the suggestion. Lives perhaps were in the balance, but she was a woman, and who could tell what slight influences might turn the scale!

The servant saw her hesitation. "If Madame will but remain here, I will bring what is necessary," he said, and was gone. In a moment he appeared again with a silver basin, a mirror, and a few necessaries of the toilet.

"I suppose, Madame," said the servant, with fluttered anxiety, to show that he knew who she was, "I suppose you have had sometimes to make rough shifts, even in palaces."

She gave him a gold piece. It cheered her in the moment to think that in this forbidding house, on a forbidding mission, to a forbidding man, she had one friend. She made a hasty toilet, and but for the great paleness of her cheeks, no traces remained of the three days' travel with their hardship and anxiety. Presently, as the servant ushered her into the presence of George Fournel, even the paleness was warmed a little by the excitement of the moment.

Fournel was standing with his back to the door, looking out into the moonlit night. As she entered he quickly drew the curtains of the windows and turned towards his visitor, a curious, hard, disdainful look in his face. In his hands he held a paper which she knew only too well.

"Madame," he said, and bowed. Then he motioned her to a chair. He took one himself and sat down beside the great oak writing-desk and waited for her to speak-waited with a look which sent the blood from her heart to colour her cheeks and forehead.

She did not speak, however, but looked at him fearlessly. It was impossible for her to humble herself before the latent insolence of his look. It seemed to degrade her out of all consideration. He felt the courage of her defiance, and it moved him. Yet he could but speak in cynical suggestion.

"You had a long, hard, and adventurous journey," he said. He rose suddenly and drew a tray towards him. "Will you not have some refreshment?" he added, in an even voice. "I fear you have not had time to seek it at an inn. Your messenger has but just gone."

It was impossible for him to do justice to himself, or to let his hospitality rest upon its basis of natural courtesy. It was clear that he was moved with accumulated malice, and he could not hide it.

"Your servant has been hospitable," she said, her voice trembling a little. She plunged at once into the business of her visit.

"Monsieur, that paper you hold-" she stopped for an instant, able to go no further.

"Ah, this-this document you have sent me," he said, opening it with an assumed carelessness. "Your servant had an accident-I suppose we may call it that privately-as he came. He was fired at-was wounded. You will share with me the hope that the highwayman who stopped him may be brought to justice, though, indeed, your man Tardif left him behind in the dust. Perhaps you came upon him, Madame-hein?"

She steeled herself. Too much was at stake; she could not resent his hateful implications now.

"Tardif was not my messenger, Monsieur, as you know. Tardif was the thief of that document in your hands."

"Yes, this-will!" he said musingly, an evil glitter in his eyes. "Its delivery has been long delayed. Posts and messengers are slow from Pontiac."

"Monsieur will hear what I have to say? You have the will, your rights are in your hands. Is not that enough?"

"It is not enough," he answered, in a grating voice. "Let us be plain then, Madame, and as simple as you please. You concealed this will. Not Tardif but yourself is open to the law."

She shrank under the brutality of his manner, but she ruled herself to outward composure. She was about to reply when he added, with a sneer: "Avarice is a debasing vice-Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house! Thou shalt not steal!"

"Monsieur," she said calmly, "it would have been easy to destroy the will. Have you not thought of that?"

For a moment he was taken aback, but he said harshly: "If crime were always intelligent, it would have fewer penalties."

She shrank again under the roughness of his words. But she was fighting for an end that was dear to her soul, and she answered:

"It was not lack of intelligence, but a sense of honour-yes, a sense of honour," she insisted, as he threw back his head and laughed. "What do you think might be my reason for concealing the will-if I did conceal it?"

"The answer seems obvious. Why does the wild ass forage with a strange herd, or the pig put his feet in the trough? Not for his neighbour's gain, Madame, not in a thousand years."

"Monsieur, I have never been spoken to so coarsely. I am a blacksmith's daughter, and I have heard rough men talk in my day, but I have never heard a man-of my own race at least-so rude to a woman. But I am here not for my own sake; I will not go till I have said and done all I have come to say and do. Will you listen to me, Monsieur?"

"I have made my charges-answer them. Disprove this theft"-he held up the will-"of concealment, and enjoyment of property not your own, and then ask of me that politeness which makes so beautiful stable and forge at Pontiac."

"Monsieur, you cannot think that the will was concealed for profit, for the value of the Seigneury of Pontiac. I can earn two such seigneuries in one year, Monsieur."

"Nevertheless you do not."

"For the same reason that I did not bring or send that will to you when I found it, Monsieur. And for that same reason I have come to ask you not to take advantage of that will."

He was about to interpose angrily, but she continued: "Whatever the rental may be that you in justice feel should be put upon the Seigneury, I will pay-from the hour my husband entered on the property, its heir as he believed. Put such rental on the property, do not disturb Monsieur Racine in his position as it is, and I will double that rental."

"Do not think, Madame, that I am as avaricious as you."

"Is it avaricious to offer double the worth of the rental?"

"There is the title and distinction. You married a mad nobody; you wish to retain an honour that belongs to me."

"I am asking it for my husband's sake, not my own, believe me, Monsieur."

"And what do you expect me to do for his sake, Madame?"

"What humanity would suggest. Ah, I know what you would say: he tried to kill you; he made you fight him. But, Monsieur, he has repented of that. He is ill, he is-crippled, he cherishes the Seigneury beyond its worth a thousand times."

"He cherishes it at my expense. So, you must not disturb the man who robs you of house and land, and tries to murder you, lest he should be disturbed and not sleep o' nights. Come, Madame, that is too thin."

"He might kill you, but he would not rob you, Monsieur. Do you think that if he knew that will existed, he would be now at the Seigneury, or I here? I know you hate Louis Racine."

"With ample reason."

"You hate him more because he defeated you than because he once tried to kill you. Oh, I do not know the rights or wrongs of that great case at law; I only know that Louis Racine was not the judge or jury, but the avocat only, whose duty it was to do as he did. That he did it the more gladly because he was a Frenchman and you an Englishman, is not his fault or yours either. Louis Racine's people came here two hundred years ago, yours not sixty years ago. You, the great business man, have had practical power which gave you riches

. You have sacrificed all for power. Louis Racine has only genius, and no practical power."

"A dangerous fanatic and dreamer," he interjected. "A dreamer, if you will, with no practical power, for he never thought of himself, and 'practical power' is usually all self. He dreamed-he gave his heart and soul up for ideas. Englishmen do not understand that. Do you not know-you do know-that, had he chosen, he might have been rich too, for his brains would have been of great use to men of practical power like yourself."

She paused; Fournel did not answer, but sat as though reading the will intently.

"Was it strange that he should dream of a French sovereign state here, where his people came and first possessed the land? Can you wonder that this dreamer, when the Seigneury of Pontiac came to him, felt as if a new life were opened up to him, and saw a way to some of his ambitions. They were sad, mistaken ambitions, doomed to failure, but they were also his very heart, which he would empty out gladly for an idea. The Seigneury of Pontiac came to him, and I married him."

"Evidently bent upon wrecking the chances of a great career," interrupted Fournel over the paper.

"But no; I also cared more for ideas than for the sordid things of life. It is in our blood, you see" she was talking with less restraint now, for she saw he was listening, despite assumed indifference-"and Pontiac was dearer to me than all else in the world. Louis Racine belonged there. You-what sort of place would you, an Englishman, have occupied at the Seigneury of Pontiac! What kind-"

He got suddenly to his feet. He was a man of strange whims and vanities, and his resentment at his exclusion from the Seigneury of Pontiac had become a fixed idea. He had hugged the thought of its possession before M. de la Riviere died, as a man humbly born prides himself on the distinguished lineage of his wife. His great schemes were completed, he was a rich man, and he had pictured himself retiring to this Seigneury, a peaceful and practical figure, living out his days in a refined repose which his earlier life had never known. She had touched the raw nerves of his secret vanity.

"What kind of Seigneur would I make, eh? What sort of figure would I cut in Pontiac!" He laughed loudly. "By heaven, Madame, you shall see! I did not move against his outrage and assault, but I will move to purpose now. For you and he shall leave there in disgrace before another week goes round. I have you both in my 'practical power,' and I will squeeze satisfaction out of you. He is a ruffianly interloper, and you, Madame, the law would call by another name."

She got quickly to her feet and came a step nearer to him. Leaning a hand on the table, she bent towards him slightly. Something seemed to possess her that transfigured her face, and gave it a sense of power and confidence. Her eyes fixed themselves steadily on him.

"Monsieur," she said, "you may call me what you will, and I will bear it, for you have been sorely injured. You are angry because I seemed to think an Englishman was not fitted to be Seigneur of Pontiac. We French are a people of sentiments and ideas; we make idols of trifles, and we die for fancies. We dream, we have shrines for memories. These things you despise. You would give us justice and make us rich by what you call progress. Monsieur, that is not enough. We are not born to appreciate you. Our hearts are higher than our heads, and, under a flag that conquered us, they cling together. Was it strange that I should think Louis Racine better suited to be Seigneur at Pontiac?"

She paused as though expecting him to answer, but he only looked inquiringly at her, and she continued "My husband used you ill, but he is no interloper. He took what the law gave him, what has been in his family for over two hundred years. Monsieur, it has meant more to him than a hundred times greater honour could to you. When his trouble came, when-" she paused, as though it was difficult to speak-"when the other-legacy-of his family descended on him, that Seigneury became to him the one compensation of his life. By right of it only could he look the world in the face-or me."

She stopped suddenly, for her voice choked her. "Will you please continue?" said Fournel, opening and shutting the will in his hand, and looking at her with a curious new consideration.

"Fame came to me as his trouble came to him. It was hard for him to go among men, but, ah, can you think how he dreaded the day when I should return to Pontiac!... I will tell you the whole truth, Monsieur." She drew herself up proudly. "I loved-Louis. He came into my heart with its first great dream, and before life-the business of life-really began. He was one with the best part of me, the girlhood in me which is dead."

Fournel rose and in a low voice said: "Will you not sit down?" He motioned to a chair.

She shook her head. "Ah no, please! Let me say all quickly and while I have the courage. I loved him, and he loved and loves me. I love that love in which I married him, and I love his love for me. It is indestructible, because it is in the fibre of my life. It has nothing to do with ugliness or beauty, or fortune or misfortune, or shame or happiness, or sin or holiness. When it becomes part of us, it must go on in one form or another, but it cannot die. It lives in breath and song and thought and work and words. That is the wonder of it, the pity of it, and the joy of it. Because it is so, because love would shield the beloved from itself if need be, and from all the terrors of the world at any cost, I have done what I have done. I did it at cost of my honour, but it was for his sake; at the price of my peace, but to spare him. Ah, Monsieur, the days of life are not many for him: his shame and his futile aims are killing him. The clouds will soon close over, and his vexed brain and body will be still. To spare him the last turn of the wheel of torture, to give him the one bare honour left him yet a little while, I have given up my work of life to comfort him. I concealed, I stole, if you will, the document you hold. And, God help me! I would do it again and yet again, if I lost my soul for ever, Monsieur. Monsieur, I know that in his madness he would have killed you, but it was his suffering, not a bad heart, that made him do it. Do a sorrowful woman a great kindness and spare him, Monsieur."

She had held the man motionless and staring. When she ended, he got to his feet and came near to her. There was a curious look in his face, half struggle, half mysterious purpose. "The way is easy to a hundred times as much," he said, in a low meaning voice, and his eyes boldly held hers. "You are doing a chivalrous sort of thing that only a woman would do-for duty; do something for another reason: for what a woman would do-for the blood of youth that is in her." He reached out a hand to lay it on her arm. "Ask of me what you will, if you but put your hand in mine and-"

"Monsieur," she said, pale and gasping, "do you think so ill of me then? Do I seem to you like-!" She turned away, her eyes dry and burning, her body trembling with shame.

"You are here alone with me at night," he persisted. "It would not be easy to-"

"Death would be easy, Monsieur," she said calmly and coldly. "My husband tried to kill you. You would do-ah, but let me pass!" she said, with a sudden fury. "You-if you were a million times richer, if you could ruin me for ever, do you think-"

"Hush, Madame," he said, with a sudden change of voice and a manner all reverence. "I do not think. I spoke only to hear you speak in reply: only to know to the uttermost what you were. Madame," he added, in a shaking voice, "I did not know that such a woman lived. Madame, I could have sworn there was none in the world." Then in a quicker, huskier note he added: "Eighteen years ago a woman nearly spoiled my life. She was as beautiful as you, but her heart was tainted. Since then I have never believed in any woman-never till now. I have said that all were purchasable-at a price. I unsay that now. I have not believed in any one-"

"Oh, Monsieur!" she said, with a quick impulsive gesture towards him, and her face lighting with sympathy.

"I was struck too hard-"

She touched his arm and said gently: "Some are hurt in one way and some in another; all are hurt some time, but-"

"You shall have your way," he interrupted, and moved apart.

"Ah, Monsieur, Monsieur, it is a noble act!-" she hurriedly rejoined, then with a sudden cry rushed towards him, for he was lighting the will at the flame of a candle near him.

"But no, no, no, you shall not do it," she cried. "I only asked it for while he lives-ah!"

She collapsed with a cry of despair, for he had held the flaming paper above her reach, and its ashes were now scattering on the floor.

"You will let me give you some wine?" he said quietly, and poured out a glassful.

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