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   Chapter 20 A DEATH WARRANT OR A MARRIAGE CONTRACT

The Grey Cloak By Harold MacGrath Characters: 16247

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Well, Gabrielle," said Anne, curiously, "what do you propose to do?"

Madame went to the window; madame stared far below the balcony at the broad river which lay smooth and white in the morning sunshine; madame drummed on the window-casing.

"It is a mare's nest," she replied, finally.

"First of all, there is D'Hérouville. True, he is in the hospital," observed Anne, "but he will shortly become an element."

Madame shrugged.

"There's the vicomte, for another."

Madame spread the most charming pair of hands.

"And the poet," Anne continued.

Madame tucked away a rebel curl above her ear.

"And last, but not least, there's the Chevalier du Cévennes. The governor was very kind to permit you to remain incognito."

Madame's face became animated. "What an embarrassing thing it is to be so plentifully and frequently loved!"

"If only you loved some one of these noble gentlemen!"

"D'Hérouville, a swashbuckler; D'Halluys, a gamester; Du Cévennes, a fop. Truly, you can not wish me so unfortunate as that?"

"Besides, Monsieur du Cévennes does not know nor love you."

"I suppose not. How droll it would be if I should set about making him fall in love with me!-to bring him to my feet and tell him who I am-and laugh!"

"I should advise you not to try it, Gabrielle. He might become formidable. Are you not mischief endowed with a woman's form?"

"A mare's nest it is, truly; but since I have entered it willingly …"

"Well?"

"I shall not return to France on the Henri IV," determinedly.

"But Du Cévennes and the others?"

"I shall avoid Monsieur du Cévennes; I shall laugh in D'Hérouville's face; the vicomte will find me as cold and repelling as that iceberg which we passed near Acadia."

"And Monsieur de Saumaise?" Anne persisted.

"Well, if he wishes it, he may play Strephon to my Phyllis, only the idyl must go no further than verses. No, Anne; his is a brave, good heart, and I shall not play with it. I am too honest."

"Well, at any rate, you will not become dull while I am on probation. And you will also become affiliated with the Ursulines?"

Madame smiled with gentle irony. "Oh, yes, indeed! And I shall teach Indian children to speak French as elegantly as Brant?me wrote it, and knit nurses' caps for the good squaws. … Faith, Anne, dear, if I did not love you, the Henri IV could not carry me back to France quick enough." Madame leaned from the window and sniffed the forest perfumes.

"You will be here six months, then."

"That will give certain personages in France time to forget."

"You were very uncivil to Monsieur le Marquis on board."

"I adore that race, the Pérignys," wrathfully. "Twenty times I had the impulse to tell him who I am."

"But you did not. And what can he be doing here?"

"Doubtless he intends to become a Jesuit father: or he is here for the purpose of taking his son back to France. Like the good parent he is, he does not wait for the prodigal's return. He comes after him."

"Monsieur le Marquis was taken ill last night, so I understand."

"Ah! perhaps the prodigal scorned the fatted calf!"

"Yon are very bitter."

"I have been married four years; my freedom is become so large that I know not what to do with it. Married four years, and every night upon retiring I have locked the door of my bedchamber. And what is the widow's portion? The menace of the block or imprisonment. I was a lure to his political schemes, and I never knew it till too late. Could I but find that paper! Writing is a dangerous and compromising habit. I shall never use a pen again; not I. One signs a marriage certificate or a death-warrant."

Anne crossed the room and put her arms round her companion, who accepted the caress with moist eyes.

"You will have me weeping in a moment, Gabrielle," said Anne.

"Let us weep together, then; only I shall weep from pure rage."

"There is peace in the convent," murmured Anne.

"Peace is as the heart is; and mine shall never know peace. I have been disillusioned too soon. I should go mad in a convent. Did I not pass my youth in one,-to what end?"

"If only you loved a good man."

"Or even a man," whimsically. "Go on with the thought."

"The mere loving would make you happy."

Madame searched Anne's blue eyes. "Dear heart, are you not hiding something from me? Your tone is so mournful. Can it be?" as if suddenly illumined within.

"Can what be?" asked Anne, nervously.

"That you have left your heart in France."

"Oh, I have not left my heart in France, Gabrielle. Do you not feel it beating against your own?"

"Who can he be?" musingly.

"Gabrielle, Gabrielle!" reproachfully.

"Very well, dear. If you have a secret I should be the last to force it from you."

"See!" cried Anne, suddenly and eagerly; "there is Monsieur du Cévennes and his friend coming up the path. Do you not think that there is something manly about the Chevalier's head?"

"I will study it some day; that is, if I feel the desire."

"Do you really hate him?"

"Hate him? Faith, no; that would be admitting that he interested me."

The Chevalier and the poet carried axes. They had been laboring since five o'clock that morning superintending the construction of a wharf. In truth, they were well worth looking at: the boyishness of one and the sober manliness of the other, the clear eyes, tanned skin, the quick, strong limbs. The poet's eye was always roving, and he quickly saw the two women in the window above.

"Paul, is not that a woman to be loved?" he said; with a gaiety which was not spontaneous.

"Which one?" asked the Chevalier, diplomatically.

"The one with hair like the haze in the morning."

"The simile is good," confessed the Chevalier. "But there is something in the eye which should warn a man."

"Eye? Can you tell the color of an eye from this distance? It's more than I can do."

The Chevalier's tan became a shade darker. "Perhaps it was the reflection of the sun."

Victor swung his hat from his head gallantly. The Chevalier bowed stiffly; the pain in his heart stopped the smile which would have stirred his lips. The lad at his side had faith in women, and he should never know that yonder beauty had played cup and ball with his, the Chevalier's, heart. How nonchalant had been her cruelty the preceding night! That letter! The Chevalier's eyes snapped with anger and indignation as he replaced his hat. It was enough that the poet knew why the marquis was in Quebec.

"You murmured a name in your sleep last night," said the Chevalier.

"What was it?"

"It sounded like 'Gabrielle'; I am not sure."

"They say that Monsieur le Marquis was a most handsome youth," Anne remarked, when the men had disappeared round an angle.

"Then it is possible the son will make a handsome old man," was madame's flippant rejoinder.

"Supposing, after all, you had married him?" suggested Anne, with a bit of malice; for somehow the Chevalier's face appealed to her admiration.

"Heaven evidently had some pity for me, for that would have been a catastrophe, indeed." Madame did not employ warm tones, and the lids of her eyes narrowed. "Wedded to a fop, whose only thought was of himself? That would have been even worse than Monsieur le Comte, who was, with all his faults, a man of great courage."

"I have never heard that the Chevalier was a coward," warmly. "In fact, in Rochelle he had the reputation of being one of the most daring soldiers in France. And a coward would never have done what he did for Monsieur de Saumaise."

"Good Heaven! let us talk of something else," cried madame. "The Chevalier, the Chevalier! He has no part in my life, nor I in his; nor will he have. I do not at present hate him, but if you keep trumpeting his name into my ears I shall." Madame was growing visibly angry. "I will leave you, Anne, with the Mother Superior's letters. I do not want company; I want to be alone. I shall return before the noon meal."

"Gabrielle, you are not angry at me? I was only jesting."

"No, Anne; I am angry at myself. My vanity is still young and green, and I can n

ot yet separate Monsieur du Cévennes from the boot-heel which ground upon my likeness. No woman with any pride would forgive an affront like that; and I am both proud and unforgiving."

"I can understand, Gabrielle. You ought not to have joined me. By now you would have been in Navarre or in Spain."

"And lonely, lonely, lonely!" with a burst of tenderness, throwing her arms round Anne again and kissing her. "I must go; I shall weep if I remain."

Half an hour later an orderly announced to his Excellency the governor that a lady desired to see him.

"Admit her at once," said De Lauson. "Mademoiselle," when madame stood before him, "am I to have the happiness of being of service to you? Or, is it 'madame' instead of 'mademoiselle'?"

"I have promised to disclose my identity in time, your Excellency. However, I shall not object to 'madame.' Monsieur, I am about to ask you a question which I shall request not to be repeated."

The governor, looking at her with open admiration, recalled the days when, as a student, he had conjured up in his own mind the faces of the goddesses. This face represented neither Venus nor Pallas; rather the lithe-limbed huntress who forswore marriage for the chase.

"And this question?" he inquired.

"What brought Monsieur le Chevalier du Cévennes, as he calls himself, to Quebec?"

The governor's face became shaded with gravity, "I may not tell you that. I did not know that you knew Monsieur le Comte. He will, without doubt, return to France with Monsieur le Marquis, his father. Nay, I shall tell you this: the Chevalier expected never to return to France."

"Never to return to France?" vaguely.

"Yes, Madame; so I understood, him to say." The governor's curiosity was manifest.

"Conspiring did not bring him here?"

"No, Madame."

"Monsieur, one more question, and then I will go. Is there a Mademoiselle Catharine Coquenard upon your books?"

"Peasant or noble?"

"Peasant, Monsieur, of a positive type," with enough scorn to attract the governor's ear.

He consulted his books, wondering what it was all about. "No such name, Madame," he said, finally, "I regret to say."

"Thank you, Monsieur; that is all."

For the rest of the day his Excellency the governor went about with a preoccupied expression on his face.

The sun sank; the green of the forests deepened; a violet mist rose from the banks; the channel of the river became a perfect mirror, which softened the gorgeous colors which the heavens flung upon its surface. Madame wandered aimlessly around within the outer parapet of the citadel. Far out upon the river she saw the black hull of the Henri IV, the rigging weaving a delicate spider-web against the faded horizon of the south. A breeze touched madame's cheek, as soft a kiss as that which a mother gives to her sleeping child. For a space her hair burned like ore in a furnace and her eyes sparkled with golden flashes; then the day smoldered and died, leaving the world enveloped in a silvery pallor. To the thought which wanders visual beauty is without significance, and madame's thought was traversing paths which were many miles beyond the sea.

"Madame, are you not truly a poet?"

The vicomte stood at her side, his hat under his arm. "I daresay," he went on, "that many a night while you were crossing the sea you stood by the railing and watched the pathway of the moon. How like destiny it was! You could not pass that ribbon of moonshine nor could it pass you, but ever and ever it walked and abided with you. Well, so it is with destiny."

"And when the clouds come, Monsieur le Vicomte, and shut out the moon, there is, then, a cessation to destiny?"

"You are not only a poet, Madame," he observed, his fingers straying over his mustache. "You have eclipsed my metaphor nicely, I will admit."

"And this preamble leads … ?"

"I have something of vital importance to tell you; but it can not be told here. Will you do me the honor and confidence, Madame, to follow me to the chateau?"

"How vital is this information?" the chill in her voice becoming obvious and distinct.

"I was speaking of destiny, Madame; what I have to say pertinently concerns yours."

Madame trembled and her brow became moist. "Where do you wish me to go with you, Monsieur?"

"Only into a deserted council chamber, where, if doubt or fear disturbs you, you have but to cry to bring the whole regiment tumbling about my ears."

"Proceed, Monsieur; I am not afraid."

"I go before only to show you the way, Madame."

He turned, and madame, casting a regretful glance at the planets which were beginning to blaze in the firmament, followed him. She was at once disturbed and curious. This man, brilliant and daring though she knew him to be, always stirred a vague distrust. He had never done aught to give rise to this inward antagonism; yet a shadowy instinct, a half-slumbering sense, warned her against him. D'Hérouville she hated cordially, for he had pursued her openly; but this man walking before her, she did not hate him, she feared him. There had been nights at the h?tel in Paris when she had felt the fiery current of his glance, but he had never spoken; many a time she had read the secret in his eyes, but his lips had remained mute. She understood this tact, this diplomacy which, though it chafed her, she could not rebuke. Thus, he was more or less a fragment of her thoughts, day after day. Ah, that mad folly, that indescribable impulse, which had brought her to New France instead of Spain! Eh well, the blood of the De Rohans and De Montbazons was in her veins, and the cool of philosophy was never plentiful in that blood. She was to learn something to-night, if only the purpose of this man who loved and spoke not.

"In here, Madame," said the vicomte, courteously, "if you will do me that honor."

A glance told madame that she had been in this room before. Did they burn candles every night in here, or had the vicomte, relying upon a woman's innate curiosity, lighted these candles himself? Her gaze, traveling along the oak table, discovered a few particles of burnt paper. Her face grew warm.

The vicomte closed the door gently, leaving the key in the lock. She followed, each movement with eyes as keen and wary as a cat's. He drew out a chair, walked around the table and selected another chair.

"Will you not sit down, Madame?"

"I prefer to stand, Monsieur."

"As you please. Pardon me, but I am inclined to sit down."

"Will you be brief?"

"As possible." The vicomte took in a long breath, reached a hand into his breast and drew out a folded paper, oblong in shape.

At the sight of this madame's eyes first narrowed, then grew wide and round.

"Begin, Monsieur," a suspicion of tremor in her tones.

"Well, then: fate or fortune has made you free; fate or fortune has brought you into this wilderness. Here, civilization becomes less fine in the grain; men reach forth toward objects brusquely and boldly. Well, Madame, you know that for the past year I have loved you silently and devotedly …"

"If that is all, Monsieur … !" scornfully.

"Patience!" He tapped the paper with his hand. "Is there not something about the shape of this paper, Madame, that is familiar? Does it not recall to your mind something of vital importance?"

Madame placed her hand upon the back of the chair and the ends of her fingers grew white from the pressure.

"The great Beaufort has scrawled negligently across this paper; the sly, astute Gaston. My name is here, and so is yours, Madame. My name would never have been here but for your beauty, which was a fine lure. Listen. As for my name, there lives in the Rue Saint Martin a friend who plays at alchemy. He has a liquid which will dissolve ink, erase it, obliterate it, leaving the paper spotless. Thus it will be easy for me to substitute another in place of mine. Mazarin seeks you, Madame, either to place your beautiful neck upon the block or to immure you for life in prison. Madame, this paper represents two things: your death-warrant or your marriage contract. Which shall it be?"

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