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   Chapter 21 AN INGENIOUS IDEA AND A WOMAN'S WIT

The Grey Cloak By Harold MacGrath Characters: 10238

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Madame sat down. There was an interval of silence, during which the candles seemed to move strangely from side to side, and the dark face beyond was blurred and indistinct; all save the eyes, which, like the lidless orbs of a snake, held and fascinated her. Vaguely she comprehended the peril of a confused mind, and strove to draw upon that secret inward strength which discovers itself in crises.

"How did you obtain that paper, Monsieur?"

The calm of her voice, though he knew it to be forced, surprised him. "How did I obtain it? By strategy."

"Ah! not by the sword, then?" leaning upon the table, her fingers alone betraying her agitation. "Not by the sword, and the mask, and the grey cloak?"

As if the question afforded him infinite amusement, the vicomte laughed.

"Would I be here?" he said. "Would I have ventured into this desert? Rather would I not have spoken yonder in France? I shall tell you how I obtained it … after we are married."

Madame raised a hand and nervously tapped a knuckle against her teeth.

"Which is it to be, Madame?" caressing the paper.

"Monsieur, you are not without foresight and reason. Have you contemplated what I should become in time, forced into a marriage with a man whom I should not love, with whom I should always associate the sword, and the mask, and the grey cloak?"

"I have speculated upon that side of it," easily, "and am willing to take the risk. In time you would forget all about the sword and the cloak, since they can in no wise be associated with me. Eventually you would grow to love me."

"Either you understand nothing about women, or you are guilty of gross fatuity."

"I understand woman tolerably well, and I have rubbed against too many edges to be fatuous."

"Indeed, I believe you have much to learn."

"If I showed this paper to the governor of Quebec …"

"Which you will not do, there being no magic liquid this side of France."

"It would be simple to cut out the name."

"You would still have to explain to Monsieur de Lauson how you came into possession of it."

"Madame, the more I listen to you, the more determined I am that you shall become my wife. I admire the versatility of your mind, the coolness of your logic. Not one woman in a thousand could talk to so much effect, when imprisonment or death …"

"Or marriage!"

"… faced her as surely as it faces you."

"Permit me to see the paper, Monsieur."

Some men would have surrendered to the seductiveness of her voice; not so the vicomte.

"Scarcely, Madame," smiling.

"How am I to know that it is genuine? Allow me to glance at it?"

"And witness you tear it up, or … burn it like a love-letter?" shrewdly.

Madame stiffened in her chair.

"Have you ever burned a love-letter, Madame?" asked the vicomte.

Madame turned pale from rage and shame. The rage nearly overcame the fear and terror which she was so admirably concealing.

"Have you?" pitilessly.

"You … ?"

"Yes," intuitively. He touched the particles of burnt paper and laughed.

"You were in this room?"

"I was. It was not intentional eavesdropping; my word of honor, as to that. I came in here, having an unimportant engagement with a friend. He was late. While I waited, in walked Monsieur le Chevalier, then yourself."

"Monsieur, you might have made known your presence."

"It is true that I might; but I should have missed a very fine comedy. Madame, I compliment you. How well you have kept undiscovered, even undreamt of, this charming intrigue!"

Madame gazed at the door and wondered if she could reach it before he could.

"So, sometimes you are called 'Diane'? You are no longer the huntress; you are Daphne!"

"Monsieur!"

"And you would turn into a laurel tree! My faith, Madame, it was a charming scene! You are as erudite as a student fresh from the Sorbonne."

"Monsieur, this is far away from the subject."

"Let me see; there was a line worthy of Monsieur de Saumaise at his best. Ah, yes! 'I kiss your handsome grey eyes a thousand times'! Ah well, let us give the Chevalier credit; he certainly has a handsome pair of eyes, as many a dame and demoiselle at court will attest. It was truly a delightful letter; only the music of it was somewhat inharmonious to my ears."

"Take care, Monsieur, that I do not choose the block. I am not wholly without courage."

"Pardon me! Jealousy has an evil sting. I ask you to pardon me. Besides, it was evident that you had some definite purpose in trifling with the Chevalier. Well, he is out of the game."

"Do you know what brought him here?" veering into a new channel to lull the vicomte's caution. She had an idea.

"I do; but it would not sound pleasant in your ears."

"He followed …"

"A woman?" with quick anticipation. "I do not say so. I brought him into our conversation merely to prove to you that I was more in your confidence than you dreamed of."

Madame drew her fingers across her brow.

"Does any one else know that you have this paper?" Madame manoeuvered her chair, bringing it as close as possible to the table. Less than three feet interve

ned between her and the vicomte.

"You and I alone are in the secret, Madame."

"If I should call for help?"

"Call, Madame; many will hear. But this paper, and the general fear of Mazarin since the Fronde, and the fact that I have practically obliterated my signature by scratching a pen across it … Well, if you think it wise."

Her arms dropped upon the table, and the despair on her face deceived him. "Monsieur, this is unmanly, cruel!"

"All is fair in love and war. My love compels me to use force. What if this document had fallen into D'Hérouville's hands? He would have gone about it less gently."

Madame bent her head upon her arms, and the candles threw a golden sparkle into her hair. The vicomte's heart beat fast, and his hand stole forth and hovered above that beautiful head but dared not touch it. Presently madame looked up. There were tears in her eyes, but the vicomte did not know that they were tears of rage.

"Think, Madame," he said eagerly; "is a dungeon more agreeable to you than I am, and would not a dungeon be worse than death?"

Madame roughly brushed her eyes. "You speak of love; I doubt your sincerity."

"I love you so well that I would kill D'Hérouville and De Saumaise and Du Cévennes, all of them, rather than that one of them should possess the right to call you his."

"But can you not see how impossible life with you would be after this night? I should hold you in perpetual fear."

"I will find a way to overcome that fear."

"But each time I look at you would recall this humiliating moment. I am a proud woman, Monsieur, and I suffer now from humiliation as I never suffered before;" all of which was true. "I am a Montbazon; it is very close to royal blood. If I were forced to marry you, you would certainly live to regret it."

"As I said, I am willing to risk it." Then his voice softened. "Ah, but I love you! 'Gabrielle, Gabrielle'! That name is the ebb and flow of my heart's blood. Promise, Madame, promise; for I shall do as I say. Will you enjoy the dungeon? I think not. Do not doubt that there is an element of greatness in this heart of mine. With you as my wife I shall become great; D'Halluys will be a name to live among those of the great captains."

Madame locked her hands, her fingers twisting and untwisting … To gain possession of that paper!

"How often I watched you in Paris," he went on, "wondering at first who you were, and then, knowing, why you were not at court with your brilliant mother. I have seen you so many times in the gardens, just as twilight dissolved the brightness of day. I have often followed you, but always at a respectful distance. And one night the happiness was mine to meet you at the h?tel of Monsieur le Comte. Oh! I know perfectly well the rumors you have heard regarding certain exploits. But remember, I have grown up in camps, and soldiers are neither careful nor provident. Poverty dogged my footsteps; and we must live how we can. No good woman has ever crossed my path to lighten its shadows, to smooth its roughness. Environment is the mold that forms the man. I am what circumstance has made me. You, Madame, can change all this."

He leaned over the table, his eyes shining, his face glowing with love which, though half lawless, was nevertheless the best that was in him. Another woman might have marked the beauty on his face; but madame saw only the power of it, the power which she hated and feared. Besides, his love in no wise lessened his caution. His left hand was wound tightly around the paper.

"Monsieur, you are without reason!"

"Love has crowded reason out."

"Your proposal is cruel and terrible."

"It is your angle of vision."

"I had thought to find peace and security; alas!"

"If I were positive that you loved some one else …" meditatively.

"Well?"

"I should hunt him out and kill him. There would then be no obstacle."

"You will do as you say: consign me to imprisonment or death?"

"As much as I love you. You have your choice."

"Give me but a day," she pleaded.

"Truthfully, I dare not."

"But this paper; I must see it!" wildly.

The vicomte's hand tightened. "I will place the paper in your hands on the day of our marriage, unreservedly. You will then have the power to commit me, if so you will. Come, Madame; it grows on toward night. Which is it to be? A Montbazon's word is as good as a king's louis."

"Once it has been given!"

As a cat leaps, as the shadow of a bird passes, madame's hand flew out and grasped the projecting end of the paper. The short struggle was nothing; the red marks on her wrists were painless. Swiftly she rose and stepped, back, breathing quickly but with triumph. He made as though to leap, but in that moment she had smoothed out the crumpled paper. A glance, and it fluttered to the table. Her laughter was very close to tears.

"Monsieur le Vicomte, what a clever wooer you are!" She fled toward the door, opened it, and was gone.

The vicomte sat down.

"Truly, that woman must be mine!"

He took up the paper, smoothed it, and laughed. The paper was totally blank.

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