Infomotions, Inc.The Indiscretion of the Duchess / Hope, Anthony, 1863-1933



Author: Hope, Anthony, 1863-1933
Title: The Indiscretion of the Duchess
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): delhasse; marie delhasse; duchess; aycon; maclou; duke; gustave; necklace; cardinal's necklace; marie
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Title: The Indiscretion of the Duchess

Author: Anthony Hope

Release Date: October 31, 2004 [EBook #13909]
[Date last updated: August 28, 2006]

Language: English

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[Illustration: "_I plucked him off the duke and flung him on his back on
the sands_,"]




THE INDISCRETION OF THE DUCHESS

_Being a Story Concerning Two Ladies, a Nobleman, and a Necklace_


BY ANTHONY HOPE


AUTHOR OF "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA," ETC.


NEW YORK

1894





CONTENTS.


     I. A MULTITUDE OF GOOD REASONS

    II. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF A SUPPER-TABLE

   III. THE UNEXPECTED THAT ALWAYS HAPPENED

    IV. THE DUCHESS DEFINES HER POSITION

     V. A STRATEGIC RETREAT

    VI. A HINT OF SOMETHING SERIOUS

   VII. HEARD THROUGH THE DOOR

  VIII. I FIND THAT I CARE

    IX. AN UNPARALLELED INSULT

     X. LEFT ON MY HANDS

    XI. A VERY CLEVER SCHEME

   XII. AS A MAN POSSESSED

  XIII. A TIMELY TRUCE

   XIV. FOR AN EMPTY BOX

    XV. I CHOOSE MY WAY

   XVI. THE INN NEAR PONTORSON

  XVII. A RELUCTANT INTRUSION

 XVIII. A STRANGE GOOD HUMOR

   XIX. UNSUMMONED WITNESSES

    XX. THE DUKE'S EPITAPH

   XXI. A PASSING CARRIAGE

  XXII. FROM SHADOW TO SUNSHINE




THE INDISCRETION OF THE DUCHESS.




CHAPTER I.

A Multitude of Good Reasons.


In accordance with many most excellent precedents, I might begin by
claiming the sympathy due to an orphan alone in the world. I might even
summon my unguided childhood and the absence of parental training to
excuse my faults and extenuate my indiscretions. But the sympathy which I
should thus gain would be achieved, I fear, by something very like false
pretenses. For my solitary state sat very lightly upon me--the sad events
which caused it being softened by the influence of time and habit--and had
the recommendation of leaving me, not only free to manage my own life as I
pleased, but also possessed of a competence which added power to my
freedom. And as to the indiscretions--well, to speak it in all modesty and
with a becoming consciousness of human frailty, I think that the undoubted
indiscretions--that I may use no harder term--which were committed in the
course of a certain fortnight were not for the most part of my doing or
contriving. For throughout the transactions which followed on my arrival
in France, I was rather the sport of circumstances than the originator of
any scheme; and the prominent part which I played was forced upon me, at
first by whimsical chance, and later on by the imperious calls made upon
me by the position into which I was thrust.

The same reason that absolves me from the need of excuse deprives me of
the claim to praise; and, looking back, I am content to find nothing of
which I need seriously be ashamed, and glad to acknowledge that, although
Fate chose to put me through some queer paces, she was not in the end
malevolent, and that, now the whole thing is finished, I have no cause to
complain of the ultimate outcome of it. In saying that, I speak purely and
solely for myself. There is one other for whom I might perhaps venture to
say the same without undue presumption, but I will not; while for the
rest, it must suffice for me to record their fortunes, without entering on
the deep and grave questions which are apt to suggest themselves to anyone
who considers with a thoughtful mind the characters and the lives of those
with whom he is brought in contact on his way through the world. The good
in wicked folk, the depths in shallow folk, the designs of haphazard
minds, the impulsive follies of the cunning--all these exist, to be dimly
discerned by any one of us, to be ignored by none save those who are
content to label a man with the name of one quality and ignore all else in
him, but to be traced, fully understood, and intelligently shown forth
only by the few who are gifted to read and expound the secrets of human
hearts. That is a gift beyond my endowment, and fitted for a task too
difficult for my hand. Frankly, I did not, always and throughout, discern
as clearly as I could desire the springs on which the conduct of my
fellow-actors turned; and the account I have given of their feelings and
their motives must be accepted merely as my reading of them, and for what,
as such, it is worth. The actual facts speak for themselves. Let each man
read them as he will; and if he does not indorse all my views, yet he
will, I venture to think, be recompensed by a story which even the
greatest familiarity and long pondering has not robbed of all its interest
for me. But then I must admit that I have reasons which no one else can
have for following with avidity every stage and every development in the
drama, and for seeking to discern now what at the time was dark and
puzzling to me.

The thing began in the most ordinary way in the world--or perhaps that is
too strongly put. The beginning was ordinary indeed, and tame, compared
with the sequel. Yet even the beginning had a flavor of the unusual about
it, strong enough to startle a man so used to a humdrum life and so
unversed in anything out of the common as I. Here, then, is the beginning:

One morning, as I sat smoking my after-breakfast cigar in my rooms in St.
James' Street, my friend Gustave de Berensac rushed in. His bright brown
eyes were sparkling, his mustache seemed twisted up more gayly and
triumphantly than ever, and his manner was redolent of high spirits. Yet
it was a dull, somber, misty morning, for all that the month was July and
another day or two would bring August. But Gustave was a merry fellow,
though always (as I had occasion to remember later on) within the limits
of becoming mirth--as to which, to be sure, there may be much difference
of opinion.

"Shame!" he cried, pointing at me. "You are a man of leisure, nothing
keeps you here; yet you stay in this _bouillon_ of an atmosphere, with
France only twenty miles away over the sea!"

"They have fogs in France too," said I. "But whither tends your
impassioned speech, my good friend? Have you got leave?"

Gustave was at this time an extra secretary at the French Embassy in
London.

"Leave? Yes, I have leave--and, what is more, I have a charming
invitation."

"My congratulations," said I.

"An invitation which includes a friend," he continued, sitting down. "Ah,
you smile! You mean that is less interesting?"

"A man may smile and smile, and not be a villain," said I. "I meant
nothing of the sort. I smiled at your exhilaration--nothing more, on the
word of a moral Englishman."

Gustave grimaced; then he waved his cigarette in the air, exclaiming:

"She is charming, my dear Gilbert!"

"The exhilaration is explained."

"There is not a word to be said against her," he added hastily.

"That does not depress me," said I. "But why should she invite me?"

"She doesn't invite you; she invites me to bring--anybody!"

"Then she is _ennuyée_, I presume?"

"Who would not be, placed as she is? He is inhuman!"

"_M. le mari?_"

"You are not so stupid, after all! He forbids her to see a single soul; we
must steal our visit, if we go."

"He is away, then?"

"The kind government has sent him on a special mission of inquiry to
Algeria. Three cheers for the government!"

"By all means," said I. "When are you going to approach the subject of who
these people are?"

"You will not trust my discernment?"

"Alas, no! You are too charitable--to one half of humanity."

"Well, I will tell you. She is a great friend of my sister's--they were
brought up in the same convent; she is also a good comrade of mine."

"A good comrade?"

"That is just it; for I, you know, suffer hopelessly elsewhere."

"What, Lady Cynthia still?"

"Still!" echoed Gustave with a tragic air. But he recovered in a moment.
"Lady Cynthia being, however, in Switzerland, there is no reason why I
should not go to Normandy."

"Oh, Normandy?"

"Precisely. It is there that the duchess--"

"Oho! The duchess?"

"Is residing in retirement in a small _château_, alone save for my
sister's society."

"And a servant or two, I presume?"

"You are just right, a servant or two; for he is most stingy to her
(though not, they say, to everybody), and gives her nothing when he is
away."

"Money is a temptation, you see."

"_Mon Dieu_, to have none is a greater!" and Gustave shook his head
solemnly.

"The duchess of what?" I asked patiently.

"You will have heard of her," he said, with a proud smile. Evidently he
thought that the lady was a trump card. "The Duchess of Saint-Maclou."

I laid down my cigar, maintaining, however, a calm demeanor.

"Aha!" said Gustave. "You will come, my friend?"

I could not deny that Gustave had a right to his little triumph; for a
year ago, when the duchess had visited England with her husband, I had
received an invitation to meet her at the Embassy. Unhappily, the death of
a relative (whom I had never seen) occurring the day before, I had been
obliged to post off to Ireland, and pay proper respect by appearing at the
funeral. When I returned the duchess had gone, and Gustave had,
half-ironically, consoled my evident annoyance by telling me that he had
given such a description of me to his friend that she shared my sorrow,
and had left a polite message to that effect. That I was not much consoled
needs no saying. That I required consolation will appear not unnatural
when I say that the duchess was one of the most brilliant and well-known
persons in French society; yes, and outside France also. For she was a
cosmopolitan. Her father was French, her mother American; and she had
passed two or three years in England before her marriage. She was very
pretty, and, report said, as witty as a pretty woman need be. Once she had
been rich, but the money was swallowed up by speculation; she and her
father (the mother was dead) were threatened with such reduction of means
as seemed to them penury; and the marriage with the duke had speedily
followed--the precise degree of unwillingness on the part of Mlle. de
Beville being a disputed point. Men said she was forced into the marriage,
women very much doubted it; the lady herself gave no indication, and her
father declared that the match was one of affection. All this I had heard
from common friends; only a series of annoying accidents had prevented the
more interesting means of knowledge which acquaintance with the duchess
herself would have afforded.

"You have always," said Gustave, "wanted to know her."

I relit my cigar and puffed thoughtfully. It was true that I had rather
wished to know her.

"My belief is," he continued, "that though she says 'anybody,' she means
you. She knows what friends we are; she knows you are eager to be among
her friends; she would guess that I should ask you first."

I despise and hate a man who is not open to flattery: he is a hard,
morose, distrustful, cynical being, doubting the honesty of his friends
and the worth of his own self. I leant an ear to Gustave's suggestion.

"What she would not guess," he said, throwing his cigarette into the
fireplace and rising to his feet, "is that you would refuse when I did ask
you. What shall be the reason? Shocked, are you? Or afraid?"

Gustave spoke as though nothing could either shock or frighten him.

"I'm merely considering whether it will amuse me," I returned. "How long
are we asked for?"

"That depends on diplomatic events."

"The mission to Algeria?"

"Why, precisely."

I put my hands in my pockets.

"I should certainly be glad, my dear Gustave," said I, "to meet your
sister again."

"We take the boat for Cherbourg to-morrow evening!" he cried triumphantly,
slapping me on the back. "And, in my sister's name, many thanks! I will
make it clear to the duchess why you come."

"No need to make bad blood between them like that," I laughed.

In fine, I was pleased to go; and, on reflection, there was no reason why
I should not go. I said as much to Gustave.

"Seeing that everybody is going out of town and the place will be a desert
in a week, I'm certainly not wanted here just now."

"And seeing that the duke is gone to Algeria, we certainly are wanted
there," said Gustave.

"And a man should go where he is wanted," said I.

"And a man is wanted," said Gustave, "where a lady bids him come."

"It would," I cried, "be impolite not to go."

"It would be dastardly. Besides, think how you will enjoy the memory of
it!"

"The memory?" I repeated, pausing in my eager walk up and down.

"It will be a sweet memory," he said.

"Ah!"

"Because, my friend, it is prodigiously unwise--for you."

"And not for you?"

"Why, no. Lady Cynthia--"

He broke off, content to indicate the shield that protected him. But it
was too late to draw back.

"Let it be as unwise," said I, "as it will--"

"Or as the duke is," put in Gustave, with a knowing twinkle in his eye.

"Yet it is a plan as delightful--"

"As the duchess is," said Gustave.

And so, for all the excellent reasons which may be collected from the
foregoing conversation,--and if carefully tabulated they would, I am
persuaded, prove as numerous as weighty,--I went.




CHAPTER II.

The Significance of a Supper-Table.


The Aycons of Aycon Knoll have always been a hard-headed, levelheaded
race. We have had no enthusiasms, few ambitions, no illusions, and not
many scandals. We keep our heads on our shoulders and our purses in our
pockets. We do not rise very high, but we have never sunk. We abide at the
Knoll from generation to generation, deeming our continued existence in
itself a service to the state and an honor to the house. We think more
highly of ourselves than we admit, and allow ourselves to smile when we
walk in to dinner behind the new nobility. We grow just a little richer
with every decade, and add a field or two to our domains once in five
years. The gaps made by falling rents we have filled by judicious
purchases of land near rising towns; and we have no doubt that there lies
before us a future as long and prosperous as our past has been. We are not
universally popular, and we see in the fact a tribute to our valuable
qualities.

I venture to mention these family virtues and characteristics because it
has been thought in some quarters that I displayed them but to a very
slight degree in the course of the expedition on which I was now embarked.
The impression is a mistaken one. As I have said before, I did nothing
that was not forced upon me. Any of my ancestors would, I am sure, have
done the same, had they chanced to be thrown under similar circumstances
into the society of Mme. de Saint-Maclou and of the other persons whom I
was privileged to meet; and had those other persons happened to act in the
manner in which they did when I fell in with them.

Gustave maintained his gayety and good spirits unabated through the trials
of our voyage to Cherbourg. The mild mystery that attended our excursion
was highly to his taste. He insisted on our coming without servants. He
persuaded me to leave no address; obliged to keep himself within touch of
the Embassy, he directed letters to be sent to Avranches, where, he
explained, he could procure them; for, as he thought it safe to disclose
when a dozen miles of sea separated us from the possibility of curious
listeners, the house to which we were bound stood about ten miles distant
from that town, in a retired and somewhat desolate bit of country lining
the seashore.

"My sister says it is the most _triste_ place in the world," said he; "but
we shall change all that when we arrive."

There was nothing to prevent our arriving very soon to relieve Mlle. de
Berensac's depression, for the middle of the next day found us at
Avranches, and we spent the afternoon wandering about somewhat aimlessly
and staring across the bay at the mass of Mont St. Michel. Directly
beneath us as we stood on the hill, and lying in a straight line with the
Mount, there was a large square white house, on the very edge of the
stretching sand. We were told that it was a convent.

"But the whole place is no livelier than one," said I, yawning. "My dear
fellow, why don't we go on?"

"It is right for you to see this interesting town," answered Gustave
gravely, but with a merry gleam in his eye. "However, I have ordered a
carriage, so be patient."

"For what time?"

"Nine o'clock, when we have dined."

"We are to get there in the dark, then?"

"What reason is there against that?" he asked, smiling.

"None," said I; and I went to pack up my bag.

In my room I chanced to find a _femme-de-chambre_. To her I put a question
or two as to the gentry of the neighborhood. She rattled me off a few
distinguished names, and ended:

"The duke of Saint-Maclou has also a small _château_."

"Is he there now?" I asked.

"The duchess only, sir," she answered. "Ah, they tell wonderful stories of
her!"

"Do they? Pray, of what kind?"

"Oh, not to her harm, sir; or, at least, not exactly, though to simple
country-folk--"

The national shrug was an appropriate ending.

"And the duke?"

"He is a good man," she answered earnestly, "and a very clever man. He is
very highly thought of at Paris, sir."

I had hoped, secretly, to hear that he was a villain; but he was a good
man. It was a scurvy trick to play on a good man. Well, there was no help
for it. I packed my bag with some dawning misgivings; the chambermaid,
undisturbed by my presence, went on rubbing the table with some
strong-smelling furniture polish.

"At least," she observed, as though there had been no pause, "he gives
much to the church and to the poor."

"It may be repentance," said I, looking up with a hopeful air.

"It is possible, sir."

"Or," cried I, with a smile, "hypocrisy?"

The chambermaid's shake of her head refused to accept this idea; but my
conscience, fastening on it, found rest. I hesitated no longer. The man
was a cunning hypocrite. I would go on cheerfully, secure that he deserved
all the bamboozling which the duchess and my friend Gustave might prepare
for him.

At nine o'clock, as Gustave had arranged, we started in a heavy carriage
drawn by two great white horses and driven by a stolid fat hostler. Slowly
we jogged along under the stars, St. Michel being our continual companion
on the right hand, as we followed the road round the bay. When we had gone
five or six miles, we turned suddenly inland. There were banks on each
side of the road now, and we were going uphill; for rising out of the
plain there was a sudden low spur of higher ground.

"Is the house at the top?" I asked Gustave.

"Just under the top," said he.

"I shall walk," said I.

The fact is, I had grown intolerably impatient of our slow jog, which had
now sunk to a walk.

We jumped out and strode on ahead, soon distancing our carriage, and
waking echoes with our merry talk.

"I rather wonder they have not come to meet us," said Gustave. "See, there
is the house."

A sudden turn in the road had brought us in sight of it. It was a rather
small modern Gothic _château_. It nestled comfortably below the hill,
which rose very steeply immediately behind it. The road along which we
were approaching appeared to afford the only access, and no other house
was visible. But, desolate as the spot certainly was, the house itself
presented a gay appearance, for there were lights in every window from
ground to roof.

"She seems to have company," I observed.

"It is that she expects us," answered Gustave. "This illumination is in
our honor."

"Come on," said I, quickening my pace; and Gustave burst out laughing.

"I knew you would catch fire when once I got you started!" he cried.

Suddenly a voice struck on my ear--a clear, pleasant voice:

"Was he slow to catch fire, my dear Gustave?"

I started. Gustave looked round.

"It is she," he said. "Where is she?"

"Was he slow to catch fire?" asked the voice again. "Well, he has but just
come near the flame"--and a laugh followed the words.

"Slow to light is long to burn," said I, turning to the bank on the left
side of the road, for it was thence that the voice came.

A moment later a little figure in white darted down into the road,
laughing and panting. She seized Gustave's hand.

"I ran so hard to meet you!" she cried.

"And have you brought Claire with you?" he asked.

"Present your friend to me," commanded the duchess, as though she had not
heard his question.

Did I permit myself to guess at such things, I should have guessed the
duchess to be about twenty-five years old. She was not tall; her hair was
a dark brown, and the color in her cheeks rich but subdued. She moved with
extraordinary grace and agility, and seemed never at rest. The one term of
praise (if it be one, which I sometimes incline to doubt) that I have
never heard applied to her is--dignified.

"It is most charming of you to come, Mr. Aycon," said she. "I've heard so
much of you, and you'll be so terribly dull!"

"With yourself, madame, and Mlle. de Berensac--"

"Oh, of course you must say that!" she interrupted. "But come along,
supper is ready. How delightful to have supper again! I'm never in good
enough spirits to have supper when I'm alone. You'll be terribly
uncomfortable, gentlemen. The whole household consists of an old man and
five women--counting myself."

"And are they all--?" began Gustave.

"Discreet?" she asked, interrupting again. "Oh, they will not tell the
truth! Never fear, my dear Gustave!"

"What news of the duke?" asked he, as we began to walk, the duchess
stepping a little ahead of us.

"Oh, the best," said she, with a nod over her shoulder. "None, you know.
That's one of your proverbs, Mr. Aycon?"

"Even a proverb is true sometimes," I ventured to remark.

We reached the house and passed through the door, which stood wide open.
Crossing the hall, we found ourselves in a small square room, furnished
with rose-colored hangings. Here supper was spread. Gustave walked up to
the table. The duchess flung herself into an armchair. She had taken her
handkerchief out of her pocket, and she held it in front of her lips and
seemed to be biting it. Her eyebrows were raised, and her face displayed a
comical mixture of amusement and apprehension. A glance of her eyes at me
invited me to share the perilous jest, in which Gustave's demeanor
appeared to bear the chief part.

Gustave stood by the table, regarding it with a puzzled air.

"One--two--three!" he exclaimed aloud, counting the covers laid.

The duchess said nothing, but her eyebrows mounted a little higher, till
they almost reached her clustering hair.

"One--two--three?" repeated Gustave, in unmistakable questioning. "Does
Claire remain upstairs?"

Appeal--amusement--fright--shame--triumph--chased one another across the
eyes of Mme. de Saint-Maclou: each made so swift an appearance, so swift
an exit, that they seemed to blend in some peculiar personal emotion
proper to the duchess and to no other woman born. And she bit the
handkerchief harder than ever. For the life of me I couldn't help it; I
began to laugh; the duchess' face disappeared altogether behind the
handkerchief.

"Do you mean to say Claire's not here?" cried Gustave, turning on her
swiftly and accusingly.

The head behind the handkerchief was shaken, first timidly, then more
emphatically, and a stifled voice vouchsafed the news:

"She left three days ago."

Gustave and I looked at one another. There was a pause. At last I drew a
chair back from the table, and said:

"If madame is ready--"

The duchess whisked her handkerchief away and sprang up. She gave one look
at Gustave's grave face, and then, bursting into a merry laugh, caught me
by the arm, crying:

"Isn't it fun, Mr. Aycon? There's nobody but me! Isn't it fun?"




CHAPTER III.

The Unexpected that Always Happened.


Everything depends on the point of view and is rich in varying aspects. A
picture is sublime from one corner of the room, a daub from another; a
woman's full face may be perfect, her profile a disappointment; above all,
what you admire in yourself becomes highly distasteful in your neighbor.
The moral is, I suppose, Tolerance; or if not that, something else which
has escaped me.

When the duchess said that "it"--by which she meant the whole position of
affairs--was "fun," I laughed; on the other hand, Gustave de Berensac,
after one astonished stare, walked to the hall door.

"Where is my carriage?" we heard him ask.

"It has started on the way back three, minutes ago, sir."

"Fetch it back."

"Sir! The driver will gallop down the hill; he could not be overtaken."

"How fortunate!" said I.

"I do not see," observed Mme. de Saint-Maclou, "that it makes all that
difference."

She seemed hurt at the serious way in which Gustave took her joke.

"If I had told the truth, you wouldn't have come," she said in
justification.

"Not another word is necessary," said I, with a bow.

"Then let us sup," said the duchess, and she took the armchair at the head
of the table.

We began to eat and drink, serving ourselves. Presently Gustave entered,
stood regarding us for a moment, and then flung himself into the third
chair and poured out a glass of wine. The duchess took no notice of him.

"Mlle, de Berensac was called away?" I suggested.

"She was called away," answered the duchess.

"Suddenly?"

"No," said the duchess, her eyes again full of complicated expressions. I
laughed. Then she broke out in a plaintive cry: "Oh! were you ever
dying--dying--dying of weariness?"

Gustave made no reply; the frown on his face persisted.

"Isn't it a pity," I asked, "to wreck a pleasant party for the sake of a
fine distinction? The presence of Mlle. de Berensac would have infinitely
increased our pleasure; but how would it have diminished our crime?"

"I wish I had known you sooner, Mr. Aycon," said the duchess; "then I
needn't have asked him at all."

I bowed, but I was content with things as they were. The duchess sat with
the air of a child who has been told that she is naughty, but declines to
accept the statement. I was puzzled at the stern morality exhibited by my
friend Gustave. His next remark threw some light on his feelings.

"Heavens! if it became known, what would be thought?" he demanded
suddenly.

"If one thinks of what is thought," said the duchess with a shrug, "one
is--"

"A fool," said I, "or--a lover!"

"Ah!" cried the duchess, a smile coming on her lips. "If it is that, I'll
forgive you, my dear Gustave. Whose good opinion do you fear to lose?"

"I write," said Gustave, with a rhetorical gesture, "to say that I am
going to the house of some friends to meet my sister!"

"Oh, you write?" we murmured.

"My sister writes to say she is not there!"

"Oh, she writes?" we murmured again.

"And it is thought--"

"By whom?" asked the duchess.

"By Lady Cynthia Chillingdon," said I.

"That it is a trick--a device--a deceit!" continued poor Gustave.

"It was decidedly indiscreet of you to come," said the duchess
reprovingly. "How was I to know about Lady Cynthia? If I had known about
Lady Cynthia, I would not have asked you; I would have asked Mr. Aycon
only. Or perhaps you also, Mr. Aycon--"

"Madame," said I, "I am alone in the world."

"Where has Claire gone to?" asked Gustave.

"Paris," pouted the duchess.

Gustave rose, flinging his napkin on the table.

"I shall follow her to-morrow," he said. "I suppose you'll go back to
England, Gilbert?"

If Gustave left us, it was my unhesitating resolve to return to England.

"I suppose I shall," said I.

"I suppose you must," said the duchess ruefully. "Oh, isn't it
exasperating? I had planned it all so delightfully!"

"If you had told the truth--" began Gustave.

"I should not have had a preacher to supper," said the duchess sharply;
then she fell to laughing again.

"Is Mlle. de Berensac irrecoverable?" I suggested.

"Why, yes. She has gone to take her turn of attendance on your rich old
aunt, Gustave."

I think that there was a little malice in the duchess' way of saying this.

There seemed nothing more to be done. The duchess herself did not propose
to defy conventionality to the extent of inviting me to stay. To do her
justice, as soon as the inevitable was put before her, she accepted it
with good grace, and, after supper, busied herself in discovering the time
and manner in which her guests might pursue their respective journeys. I
may be flattering myself, but I thought that she displayed a melancholy
satisfaction on discovering that Gustave de Berensac must leave at ten
o'clock the next morning, whereas I should be left to kick my heels in
idleness at Cherbourg if I set out before five in the afternoon.

"Oh, you can spend the time _en route_," said Gustave. "It will be
better."

The duchess looked at me; I looked at the duchess.

"My dear Gustave," said I, "you are very considerate. You could not do
more if I also were in love with Lady Cynthia."

"Nor," said the duchess, "if I were quite unfit to be spoken to."

"If my remaining till the afternoon will not weary the duchess--" said I.

"The duchess will endure it," said she, with a nod and a smile.

Thus it was settled, a shake of the head conveying Gustave's judgment. And
soon after, Mme. de Saint-Maclou bade us good-night. Tired with my
journey, and (to tell the truth) a little out of humor with my friend, I
was not long in seeking my bed. At the top of the stairs a group of three
girls were gossiping; one of them handed me a candle and flung open the
door of my room with a roguish smile on her broad good-tempered face.

"One of the greatest virtues of women," said I pausing on the threshold,
"is fidelity."

"We are devoted to Mme. la Duchesse," said the girl.

"Another, hardly behind it, is discretion," I continued.

"Madame inculcates it on us daily," said she. I took out a napoleon.

"Ladies," said I, placing the napoleon in the girl's hand, "I am obliged
for your kind attentions. Good-night!" and I shut the door on the sound of
a pleased, excited giggling. I love to hear such sounds; they make me
laugh myself, for joy that this old world, in spite of everything, holds
so much merriment; and to their jovial lullaby I fell asleep,

Moreover--the duchess teaching discretion! There can have been nothing
like it since Baby Charles and Steenie conversed within the hearing of
King James! But, then discretion has two meanings--whereof the one is "Do
it not," and the other "Tell it not." Considering of this ambiguity, I
acquitted the duchess of hypocrisy.

At ten o'clock the next morning we got rid of my dear friend Gustave de
Berensac. Candor compels me to put the statement in that form; for the
gravity which had fallen upon him the night before endured till the
morning, and he did not flinch from administering something very like a
lecture to his hostess. His last words were an invitation to me to get
into the carriage and start with him. When I suavely declined, he told me
that I should regret it. It comforts me to think that his prophecy, though
more than once within an ace of the most ample fulfillment, yet in the end
was set at naught by the events which followed.

Gustave rolled down the hill, the duchess sighed relief.

"Now," said she, "we can enjoy ourselves fora few hours, Mr. Aycon. And
after that--solitude!"

I was really very sorry for the duchess. Evidently society and gayety were
necessary as food and air to her, and her churl of a husband denied them.
My opportunity was short, but I laid myself out to make the most of it. I
could give her nothing more than a pleasant memory, but I determined to do
that.

We spent the greater part of the day in a ramble through the woods that
lined the slopes of the hill behind the house; and all through the hours
the duchess chatted about herself, her life, her family--and then about
the duke. If the hints she gave were to be trusted, her husband deserved
little consideration at her hands, and, at the worst, the plea of reprisal
might offer some excuse for her, if she had need of one. But she denied
the need, and here I was inclined to credit her. For with me, as with
Gustave de Berensac before the shadow of Lady Cynthia came between, she
was, most distinctly, a "good comrade." Sentiment made no appearance in
our conversation, and, as the day ruthlessly wore on, I regretted honestly
that I must go in deference to a conventionality which seemed, in this
case at least--Heaven forbid that I should indulge in general theories--to
mask no reality. Yet she was delightful by virtue of the vitality in her;
and the woods echoed again and again with our laughter.

At four o'clock we returned sadly to the house, where the merry girls
busied themselves in preparing a repast for me. The duchess insisted on
sharing my meal.

"I shall go supperless to bed to-night," said she; and we sat down glum as
two children going back to school.

Suddenly there was a commotion outside; the girls were talking to one
another in rapid eager tones. The duchess raised her head, listening. Then
she turned to me, asking:

"Can you hear what they say?"

"I can distinguish nothing except 'Quick, quick!'"

As I spoke the door was thrown open, and two rushed in, the foremost
saying:

"Again, madame, again!"

"Impossible!" exclaimed the duchess, starting up.

"No, it is true. Jean was out, snaring a rabbit, and caught sight of the
carriage."

"What carriage? Whose carriage?" I asked.

"Why, my husband's," said the duchess, quite calmly. "It is a favorite
trick of his to surprise us. But Algeria! We thought we were safe with
Algeria. He must travel underground like a mole, Suzanne, or we should
have heard."

"Oh, one hears nothing here!"

"And what," said the duchess, "are we to do with Mr. Aycon?"

"I can solve that," I observed. "I'm off."

"But he'll see you!" cried the girl. "He is but a half-mile off."

"Mr. Aycon could take the side-path," said the duchess.

"The duke would see him before he reached it," said the girl. "He would be
in sight for nearly fifty yards."

"Couldn't I hide in the bushes?" I asked.

"I hate anything that looks suspicious," remarked the duchess, still quite
calm; "and if he happened to see you, it would look rather suspicious! And
he has got eyes like a cat's for anything of that sort."

There was no denying that it would look suspicious if I were caught hiding
in the bushes. I sat silent, having no other suggestion to make.

Suzanne, with a readiness not born, I hope, of practice, came to the
rescue with a clever suggestion.

"The English groom whom madame dismissed a week ago--" said she. "Why
should not the gentleman pass as the groom? The man would not take his old
clothes away, for he had bought new ones, and they are still here. The
gentleman would put them on and walk past--_voilà_."

"Can you look like a groom?" asked the duchess. "If he speaks to you, make
your French just a _little_ worse"--and she smiled.

They were all so calm and businesslike that it would have seemed
disobliging and absurd to make difficulties.

"We can send your luggage soon, you know," said the duchess. "You had
better hide Mr. Aycon's luggage in your room, Suzanne. Really, I am afraid
you ought to be getting ready, Mr. Aycon."

The point of view again! By virtue of the duchess' calmness and Suzanne's
cool readiness, the proceeding seemed a most ordinary one. Five minutes
later I presented myself to the duchess, dressed in a villainous suit of
clothes, rather too tight for me, and wearing a bad hat rakishly cocked
over one eye. The duchess surveyed me with great curiosity.

"Fortunately the duke is not a very clever man," said she. "Oh, by the
way, your name's George Sampson, and you come from Newmarket; and you are
leaving because you took more to drink than was good for you. Good-by, Mr.
Aycon. I do hope that we shall meet again under pleasanter circumstances."

"They could not be pleasanter--but they might be more prolonged," said I.

"It was so good of you to come," she said, pressing my hand.

"The carriage is but a quarter of a mile off!" cried Suzanne warningly.

"How very annoying it is! I wish to Heaven the Algerians had eaten the
duke!"

"I shall not forget my day here," I assured her.

"You won't? It's charming of you. Oh, how dull it will be now! It only
wanted the arrival of--Well, good-by!"

And with a final and long pressure of the duchess' hand, I, in the garb
and personality of George Sampson, dismissed for drunkenness, walked out
of the gate of the _château_.

"One thing," I observed to myself as I started, "would seem highly
probable--and that is, that this sort of thing has happened before."

The idea did not please me. I like to do things first.




CHAPTER IV.

The Duchess Defines Her Position.


I walked on at a leisurely pace; the heavy carriage was very near the top
of the hill. In about three minutes' time we met. There sat alone in the
carriage a tall dark man, with a puffy white face, a heavy mustache, and
stern cold eyes. He was smoking a cigar. I plucked my hat from my head and
made as if to pass by.

"Who's this?" he called out, stopping the carriage.

I began to recite my lesson in stumbling French.

"Why, what are you? Oh, you're English! Then in Heaven's name, speak
English--not that gabble." And then he repeated his order, "Speak
English," in English, and continued in that language, which he spoke with
stiff formal correctness.

He heard my account of myself with unmoved face.

"Have you any writings--any testimonials?" he asked.

"No, my lord," I stammered, addressing him in style I thought most natural
to my assumed character.

"That's a little curious, isn't it? You become intoxicated everywhere,
perhaps?"

"I've never been intoxicated in my life, my lord," said I, humbly but
firmly.

"Then you dispute the justice of your dismissal?"

"Yes, my lord." I thought such protest due to my original.

He looked at me closely, smoking his cigar the while.

"You made love to the chambermaids?" he asked suddenly.

"No, my lord. One evening, my lord, it was very hot, and--and the wine, my
lord--"

"Then you were intoxicated?"

I fumbled with my hat, praying that the fellow would move on.

"What servants are there?" he asked, pointing to the house.

"Four maids, my lord, and old Jean."

Again he meditated; then he said sharply:

"Have you ever waited at table?"

We have all, I suppose, waited at table--in one sense. Perhaps that may
save my remark from untruth.

"Now and then, my lord," I answered, wondering what he would be at.

"I have guests arriving to-morrow," he said. "My man comes with them, but
the work will perhaps be too much for him. Are you willing to stay and
help? I will pay you the same wages."

I could have laughed in his face; but duty seemed to point to seriousness.

"I'm very sorry, my lord--" I began.

"What, have you got another place?"

"No, my lord; not exactly."

"Then get up on the front seat. Or do you want your employers to say you
are disobliging as well as drunken?"

"But the lady sent me--"

"You may leave that to me. Come, jump up! Don't keep me waiting!"

Doubtfully I stood in the road, the duke glaring at me with impatient
anger. Then he leaned forward and said:

"You are curiously reluctant, sir, to earn your living. I don't understand
it. I must make some inquiries about you."

I detected suspicion dawning in his eyes. He was a great man; I did not
know what hindrances he might not be able to put in the way of my
disappearance. And what would happen if he made his inquiries? Inquiries
might mean searching, and I carried a passport in the name of Gilbert
Aycon.

Such share had prudence; the rest must be put down to the sudden impulse
of amusement which seized me. It was but for a day or two! Then I could
steal away. Meanwhile what would not the face of the duchess say, when I
rode up on the front seat!

"I--I was afraid I should not give satisfaction," I muttered.

"You probably won't," said he. "I take you from necessity, not choice, my
friend. Up with you!"

And I got up beside the driver--not, luckily, the one who had brought
Gustave de Berensac and myself the day before--and the carriage resumed
its slow climb up the hill.

We stopped at the door. I jumped down and assisted my new master.

The door was shut. Nobody was to be seen; evidently we were not expected.
The duke smiled sardonically, opened the door and walked in, I just
behind. Suzanne was sweeping the floor. With one glance at the duke and
myself, she sprang back, with a cry of most genuine surprise.

"Oh, you're mighty surprised, aren't you?" sneered the duke. "Old Jean
didn't scuttle away to tell you then? You keep a good watch, young woman.
Your mistress' orders, eh?"

Still Suzanne stared--and at me. The duke chuckled.

"Yes, he's back again," said he, "so you must make the best of it, my
girl. Where's the duchess?"

"In--in--in her sitting-room, M. le Duc."

"'In--in--in,'" he echoed mockingly. Then he stepped swiftly across the
hall and flung the door suddenly open. I believe he thought that he really
had surprised Jean's slow aged scamper ahead of him.

"Silence for your life!" I had time to whisper to Suzanne; and then I
followed him. There might be more "fun" to come.

The duchess was sitting with a book in her hand. I was half-hidden by the
duke, and she did not see me. She looked up, smiled, yawned, and held out
her hand.

"I hardly expected you, Armand," said she. "I thought you were in
Algeria."

Anybody would have been annoyed; there is no doubt that the Duke of
Saint-Maclou was very much annoyed.

"You don't seem overjoyed at the surprise," said he gruffly.

"You are always surprising me," she answered, lifting her eyebrows.

Suddenly he turned round, saying "Sampson!" and then turned to her,
adding:

"Here's another old friend for you." And he seized me by the shoulder and
pulled me into the room.

The duchess sprang to her feet, crying out in startled tones, "Back?"

I kept my eyes glued to the floor, wondering what would happen next,
thinking that it would be, likely enough, a personal conflict with my
master.

"Yes, back," said he. "I am sorry, madame, if it is not your pleasure, for
it chances to be mine."

His sneer gave the duchess a moment's time. I felt her regarding me, and I
looked up cautiously. The duke still stood half a pace in front of me, and
the message of my glance sped past him unperceived.

Then came what I had looked for--the gradual dawning of the position on
the duchess, and the reflection of that dawning light in those wonderful
eyes of hers. She clasped her hands, and drew in her breath in a long
"Oh!" It spoke utter amusement and delight. What would the duke make of
it? He did not know what to make of it, and glared at her in angry
bewilderment. Her quick wit saw the blunder she had been betrayed into.
She said "Oh!" again, but this time it expressed nothing except a sense of
insult and indignation.

"What's that man here for?" she asked.

"Because I have engaged him to assist my household."

"I had dismissed him," she said haughtily.

"I must beg you to postpone the execution of your decree," said he. "I
have need of a servant, and I have no time to find another."

"What need is there of another? Is not Lafleur here?" (She was playing her
part well now.)

"Lafleur comes to-morrow; but he will not be enough."

"Not enough--for you and me?"

"Our party will be larger to-morrow."

"More surprises?" she asked, sinking back into her chair.

"If it be a surprise that I should invite my friends to my house," he
retorted.

"And that you should not consult your wife," she said, with a smile.

He turned to me, bethinking himself, I suppose, that the conversation was
not best suited for the ears of the groom.

"Go and join your fellow-servants; and see that you behave yourself this
time."

I bowed and was about to withdraw, when the duchess motioned me to stop.
For an instant her eyes rested on mine. Then she said, in gentle tones:

"I am glad, Sampson, that the duke thinks it safe to give you an
opportunity of retrieving your character."

"That for his character!" said the duke, snapping his fingers. "I want him
to help when Mme. and Mlle. Delhasse are here."

On the words the duchess went red in the face, and then white, and sprang
up, declaring aloud in resolute, angry tones, that witnessed the depth of
her feelings in the matter:

"I will not receive Mlle. Delhasse!"

I was glad I had not missed that: it was a new aspect of my little friend
the duchess. Alas, my pleasure was short-lived! for the duke, his face
full of passion, pointed to the door, saying "Go!" and, cursing his regard
for the dignity of the family, I went.

In the hall I paused. At first I saw nobody. Presently a rosy, beaming
face peered at me over the baluster halfway up the stairs, and Suzanne
stole cautiously down, her finger on her lips.

"But what does it mean, sir?" she whispered.

"It means," said I, "that the duke takes me for the dismissed groom--and
has re-engaged me."

"And you've come?" she cried softly, clasping her hands in amazement.

"Doesn't it appear so?"

"And you're going to stay, sir?"

"Ah, that's another matter. But--for the moment, yes."

"As a servant?"

"Why not--in such good company?"

"Does madame know?"

"Yes, she knows, Suzanne. Come, show me the way to my quarters; and no
more 'sir' just now."

We were standing by the stairs. I looked up and saw the other girls
clustered on the landing above us.

"Go and tell them," I said. "Warn them to show no surprise. Then come back
and show me the way."

Suzanne, her mirth half-startled out of her but yet asserting its
existence in dimples round her mouth, went on her errand. I leaned against
the lowest baluster and waited.

Suddenly the door of the duchess' room was flung open and she came out.
She stood for an instant on the threshold. She turned toward the interior
of the room and she stamped her foot on the parqueted floor.

"No--no--no!" she said passionately, and flung the door close behind her,
to the accompaniment of a harsh, scornful laugh.

Involuntarily I sprang forward to meet her. But she was better on her
guard than I.

"Not now," she whispered, "but I must see you soon--this evening--after
dinner. Suzanne will arrange it. You must help me, Mr. Aycon; I'm in
trouble."

"With all my power!" I whispered, and with a glance of thanks she sped
upstairs. I saw her stop and speak to the group of girls, talking to them
in an eager whisper. Then, followed by two of them, she pursued her way
upstairs.

Suzanne came down and approached me, saying simply, "Come," and led the
way toward the servants' quarters. I followed her, smiling; I was about to
make acquaintance with a new side of life.

Yet at the same time I was wondering who Mlle. Delhasse might chance to
be: the name seemed familiar to me, and yet for the moment I could not
trace it. And then I slapped my thigh in the impulse of my discovery.

"By Jove, Marie Delhasse the singer!" cried I, in English.

"Sir, sir, for Heaven's sake be quiet!" whispered Suzanne.

"You are perfectly right," said I, with a nod of approbation.

"And this is the pantry," said Suzanne, for all the world as though
nothing had happened. "And in that cupboard you will find Sampson's
livery."

"Is it a pretty one?" I asked.

"You, sir, will look well in it," said she, with that delicate evasive
flattery that I love. "Would not you, sir, look well in anything?" she
meant.

And while I changed my traveling suit for the livery, I remembered more
about Marie Delhasse, and, among other things, that the Duke of
Saint-Maclou was rumored to be her most persistent admirer. Some said that
she favored him; others denied it with more or less conviction and
indignation. But, whatever might chance to be the truth about that, it was
plain that the duchess had something to say for herself when she declined
to receive the lady. Her refusal was no idle freak, but a fixed
determination, to which she would probably adhere. And, in fact, adhere to
it she did, even under some considerable changes of circumstance.




CHAPTER V.

A Strategic Retreat.


The arrival of the duke, aided perhaps by his bearing toward his wife and
toward me, had a somewhat curious effect on me. I will not say that I felt
at liberty to fall in love with the duchess; but I felt the chain of
honor, which had hitherto bound me from taking any advantage of her
indiscretion, growing weaker; and I also perceived the possibility of my
inclinations beginning to strain on the weakened chain. On this account,
among others, I resolved, as I sat in the pantry drinking a glass of wine
with which Suzanne kindly provided me, that my sojourn in the duke's
household should be of the shortest. Moreover, I was not amused; I was not
a real groom; the maids treated me with greater distance and deference
than before; I lost the entertainment of upstairs, and did not gain the
interest of downstairs. The absurd position must be ended. I would hear
what the duchess wanted of me; then I would go, leaving Lafleur to grapple
with his increased labors as best he could. True, I should miss Marie
Delhasse. Well, young men are foolish.

"Perhaps," said I to myself with a sigh, "it's just as well."

I did not wait at table that night; the duchess was shut up in her own
apartment: the duke took nothing but an omelette and a cup of coffee;
these finished, he summoned Suzanne and her assistants to attend him on
the bedroom floor, and I heard him giving directions for the lodging of
the expected guests. Apparently they were to be received, although the
duchess would not receive them. Not knowing what to make of that
situation, I walked out into the garden and lit my pipe; I had clung to
that in spite of my change of raiment.

Presently Suzanne looked out. A call from the duke proclaimed that she had
stolen a moment. She nodded, pointed to the narrow gravel path which led
into the shrubbery, and hastily withdrew. I understood, and strolled
carelessly along the path till I reached the shrubbery. There another
little path, running nearly at right angles to that by which I had come,
opened before me. I strolled some little way along, and finding myself
entirely hidden from the house by the intervening trees, I sat down on a
rude wooden bench to wait patiently till I should be wanted. For the
duchess I should have had to wait some time, but for company I did not
wait long; after about ten minutes I perceived a small, spare,
dark-complexioned man coming along the path toward me and toward the
house. He must have made a short cut from the road, escaping the winding
of the carriage-way. He wore decent but rather shabby clothes, and carried
a small valise in his hand. Stopping opposite to me, he raised his hat and
seemed to scan my neat blue brass-buttoned coat and white cords with
interest.

"You belong to the household of the duke, sir?" he asked, with a polite
lift of his hat.

I explained that I did--for the moment.

"Then you think of leaving, sir?"

"I do," I said, "as soon as I can; I am only engaged for the time."

"You do not happen to know, sir, if the duke requires a well-qualified
indoor servant? I should be most grateful if you would present me to him.
I heard in Paris that a servant had left him; but he started so suddenly
that I could not get access to him, and I have followed him here."

"It's exactly what he does want, I believe, sir," said I. "If I were you,
I would go to the house and obtain entrance. The duke expects guests
to-morrow."

"But yourself, sir? Are not your services sufficient for the present?"

"As you perceive," said I, indicating my attire, "I am not an indoor
servant. I am but a makeshift in that capacity."

He smiled a polite remonstrance at my modesty, adding:

"You think, then, I might have a chance?"

"An excellent one, I believe. Turn to the left, there by the chestnut
tree, and you will find yourself within a minute's walk of the front
door."

He bowed, raised his hat, and trotted off, moving with a quick, shuffling,
short-stepping gait. I lit another pipe and yawned. I hoped the duke would
engage this newcomer and let me go about my business; and I fancied that
he would, for the fellow looked dapper, sharp, and handy. And the duchess?
I was so disturbed to find myself disturbed at the thought of the duchess
that I exclaimed:

"By Jove, I'd better go! By Jove, I had!"

A wishing-cap, or rather a hoping-cap--for if a man who is no philosopher
may have an opinion, we do not always wish and hope for the same
thing--could have done no more for me than the chance of Fate; for at the
moment the duke's voice called "Sampson!" loudly from the house. I ran in
obedience to his summons. He stood in the porch with the little stranger
by him; and the stranger wore a deferential, but extremely well-satisfied
smile.

"Here, you," said the duke to me, "you can make yourself scarce as soon as
you like. I've got a better servant, aye, and a sober one. There's ten
francs for you. Now be off!"

I felt it incumbent on me to appear a little aggrieved:

"Am I to go to-night?" I asked. "Where can I get to to-night, my lord?"

"What's that to me? I dare say if you stand old Jean a franc, he'll give
you a lift to the nearest inn. Tell him he may take a farm-horse."

Really the duke was treating me with quite as much civility as I have seen
many of my friends extend to their servants. I had nothing to complain of.
I bowed, and was about to turn away, when the duchess appeared in the
porch.

"What is it, Armand?" she asked. "You are sending Sampson away after all?"

"I could not deny your request," said he in mockery. "Moreover, I have
found a better servant."

The stranger almost swept the ground in obeisance before the lady of the
house.

"You are very changeable," said the duchess.

I saw vexation in her face.

"My dearest, your sex cannot have a monopoly of change. I change a bad
servant--as you yourself think him--for a good one. Is that remarkable?"

The duchess said not another word, but turned into the house and
disappeared. The duke followed her. The stranger, with a bow to me,
followed him. I was left alone.

"Certainly I am not wanted," said I to myself; and, having arrived at this
conclusion, I sought out old Jean. The old fellow was only too ready to
drive me to Avranches or anywhere else for five francs, and was soon busy
putting his horse in the shafts. I sought out Suzanne, got her to smuggle
my luggage downstairs, gave her a parting present, took off my livery and
put on the groom's old suit, and was ready to leave the house of M. de
Saint-Maclou.

At nine o'clock my short servitude ended. As soon as a bend in the road
hid us from the house I opened my portmanteau, got out my own clothes,
and, _sub æthere_, changed my raiment, putting on a quiet suit of blue,
and presenting George Sampson's rather obtrusive garments (which I took
the liberty of regarding as a perquisite) to Jean, who received them
gladly. I felt at once a different being--so true it is that the tailor
makes the man.

"You are well out of that," grunted old Jean. "If he'd discovered you,
he'd have had you out and shot you!"

"He is a good shot?"

"_Mon Dieu_!" said Jean with an expressiveness which was a little
disquieting; for it was on the cards that the duke might still find me
out. And I was not a practiced shot--not at my fellow-men, I mean.
Suddenly I leaped up.

"Good Heavens!" I cried. "I forgot! The duchess wanted me. Stop, stop!"

With a jerk Jean pulled up his horse, and gazed at me.

"You can't go back like that," he said, with a grin. "You'll have to put
on these clothes again," and he pointed to the discarded suit.

"I very nearly forgot the duchess," said I. To tell the truth, I was at
first rather proud of my forgetfulness; it argued a complete triumph over
that unruly impulse at which I have hinted. But it also smote me with
remorse. I leaped to the ground.

"You must wait while I run back."

"He will shoot you after all," grinned Jean.

"The devil take him!" said I, picturing the poor duchess utterly
forsaken--at the mercy of Delhasses, husband, and what not.

I declare, as my deliberate opinion, that there is nothing more dangerous
than for a man almost to forget a lady who has shown him favor. If he can
quite forget her--and will be so unromantic--why, let him, and perhaps
small harm done. But almost--That leaves him at the mercy of every
generous self-reproach. He is ready to do anything to prove that she was
every second in his memory.

I began to retrace my steps toward the _château_.

"I shall get the sack over this!" called Jean.

"You shall come to no harm by that, if you do," I assured him.

But hardly had I--my virtuous pride now completely smothered by my tender
remorse--started on my ill-considered return journey, when, just as had
happened to Gustave de Berensac and myself the evening before, a slim
figure ran down from the bank by the roadside. It was the duchess. The
short cut had served her. She was hardly out of breath this time; and she
appeared composed and in good spirits.

"I thought for a moment you'd forgotten me, but I knew you wouldn't do
that, Mr. Aycon."

Could I resist such trust?

"Forget you, madame?" I cried. "I would as soon forget--"

"So I knew you'd wait for me."

"Here I am, waiting faithfully," said I.

"That's right," said the duchess. "Take this, please, Mr. Aycon."

"This" was a small handbag. She gave it to me, and began to walk toward
the cart, where Jean was placidly smoking a long black cheroot.

"You wished to speak to me?" I suggested, as I walked by her.

"I can do it," said the duchess, reaching the cart, "as we go along."

Even Jean took his cheroot from his lips. I jumped back two paces.

"I beg your pardon!" I exclaimed, "As we go along, did you say?"

"It will be better," said the duchess, getting into the cart (unassisted
by me, I am sorry to say). "Because he may find out I'm gone, and come
after us, you know."

Nothing seemed more likely; I was bound to admit that.

"Get in, Mr. Aycon," continued the duchess. And then she suddenly began to
talk English. "I told him I shouldn't stay in the house if Mlle. Delhasse
came. He didn't believe me; well, he'll see now. I couldn't stay, could I?
Why don't you get in?"

Half dazed, I got in. I offered no opinion on the question of Mlle.
Delhasse: to begin with, I knew very little about it; in the second place
there seemed to me to be a more pressing question.

"Quick, Jean!" said the duchess.

And we lumbered on at a trot, Jean twisting his cheroot round and round,
and grunting now and again. The old man's face said, plain as words.

"Yes, I shall get the sack; and you'll be shot!"

I found my tongue.

"Was this what you wanted me for?" I asked.

"Of course," said the duchess, speaking French again.

"But you can't come with me!" I cried in unfeigned horror.

The duchess looked up; she fixed her eyes on me for a moment; her eyes
grew round, her brows lifted. Then her lips curved: she blushed very red;
and she burst into the merriest fit of laughter.

"Oh, dear!" laughed the duchess. "Oh, what fun, Mr. Aycon!"

"It seems to me rather a serious matter," I ventured to observe. "Leaving
out all question of--of what's correct, you know" (I became very
apologetic at this point), "it's just a little risky, isn't it?"

Jean evidently thought so; he nodded solemnly over his cheroot.

The duchess still laughed; indeed, she was wiping her eyes with her
handkerchief.

"What an opinion to have of me!" she gasped at last. "I'm not coming with
you, Mr. Aycon."

I dare say my face showed relief: I don't know that I need be ashamed of
that. My change of expression, however, set the duchess a-laughing again.

"I never saw a man look so glad," said she gayly. Yet somewhere, lurking
in the recesses of her tone--or was it of her eyes?--there was a little
reproach, a little challenge. And suddenly I felt less glad: a change of
feeling which I do not seek to defend.

"Then where are you going?" I asked in much curiosity.

"I am going," said the duchess, assuming in a moment a most serious air,
"into religious retirement for a few days."

"Religious retirement?" I echoed in surprise.

"Are you thinking it's not my _métier_?" she asked, her eyes gleaming
again.

"But where?" I cried.

"Why, there, to be sure." And she pointed to where the square white
convent stood on the edge of the bay, under the hill of Avranches. "There,
at the convent. The Mother Superior is my friend, and will protect me."

The duchess spoke as though the guillotine were being prepared for her. I
sat silent. The situation was becoming rather too complicated for my
understanding. Unfortunately, however, it was to become more complicated
still; for the duchess, turning to the English tongue again, laid a hand
on my arm and said in her most coaxing tones:

"And you, my dear Mr. Aycon, are going to stay a few days in Avranches."

"Not an hour!" would have expressed the resolve of my intellect. But we
are not all intellect; and what I actually said was:

"What for?"

"In case," said the duchess, "I want you, Mr. Aycon."

"I will stay," said I, nodding, "just a few days at Avranches."

We were within half a mile of that town. The convent gleamed white in the
moonlight about three hundred yards to the left. The duchess took her
little bag, jumped lightly down, kissed her hand to me, and walked off.

Jean had made no comment at all--the duchess' household was hard to
surprise. I could make none. And we drove in silence into Avranches.

When there before with Gustave, I had put up at a small inn at the foot of
the hill. Now I drove up to the summit and stopped before the principal
hotel. A waiter ran out, cast a curious glance at my conveyance, and
lifted my luggage down.

"Let me know if you get into any trouble for being late," said I to Jean,
giving him another five francs.

He nodded and drove off, still chewing the stump of his cheroot.

"Can I have a room?" I asked, turning to the waiter.

"Certainly, sir," said he, catching up my bag in his hand.

"I am just come," said I, "from Mont St. Michel."

A curious expression spread over the waiter's face. I fancy he knew old
Jean and the cart by sight; but he spread out his hands and smiled.

"Monsieur," said he with the incomparable courtesy of the French nation,
"has come from wherever monsieur pleases."

"That," said I, giving him a trifle, "is an excellent understanding."

Then I walked into the _salle-à-manger_, and almost into the arms of an
extraordinarily handsome girl who was standing just inside the door.

"This is really an eventful day," I thought to myself.




CHAPTER VI.

A Hint of Something Serious.


Occurrences such as this induce in a man of imagination a sense of sudden
shy intimacy. The physical encounter seems to typify and foreshadow some
intermingling of destiny. This occurs with peculiar force when the lady is
as beautiful as was the girl I saw before me.

"I beg your pardon, madame," said I, with a whirl of my hat.

"I beg your pardon, sir," said the lady, with an inclination of her head.

"One is so careless in entering rooms hurriedly," I observed.

"Oh, but it is stupid to stand just by the door!" insisted the lady.

Conscious that she was scanning my appearance, I could but return the
compliment. She was very tall, almost as tall as I was myself; you would
choose to call her stately, rather than slender. She was very fair, with
large lazy blue eyes and a lazy smile to match. In all respects she was
the greatest contrast to the Duchess of Saint-Maclou.

"You were about to pass out?" said I, holding the door.

She bowed; but at the moment another lady--elderly, rather stout, and, to
speak it plainly, of homely and unattractive aspect--whom I had not
hitherto perceived, called from a table at the other end of the room where
she was sitting:

"We ought to start early to-morrow."

The younger lady turned her head slowly toward the speaker.

"My dear mother," said she, "I never start early. Besides, this town is
interesting--the landlord says so."

"But he wishes us to arrive for _déjeuner_."

"We will take it here. Perhaps we will drive over in the
afternoon--perhaps the next day."

And the young lady gazed at her mother with an air of indifference--or
rather it seemed to me strangely like one of aversion and defiance.

"My dear!" cried the elder in consternation. "My dearest Marie!"

"It is just as I thought," said I to myself complacently.

Marie Delhasse--for beyond doubt it was she--walked slowly across the room
and sat down by her mother. I took a table nearer the door; the waiter
appeared, and I ordered a light supper. Marie poured out a glass of wine
from a bottle on the table; apparently they had been supping. They began
to converse together in low tones. My repast arriving, I fell to. A few
moments later, I heard Marie say, in her composed indolent tones:

"I'm not sure I shall go at all. _Entre nous_, he bores me."

I stole a glance at Mme. Delhasse. Consternation was writ large on her
face, and suspicion besides. She gave her daughter a quick sidelong
glance, and a frown gathered on her brow. So far as I heard, however, she
attempted no remonstrance. She rose, wrapping a shawl round her, and made
for the door. I sprang up and opened it; she walked out. Marie drew a
chair to the fire and sat down with her back to me, toasting her feet--for
the summer night had turned chilly. I finished my supper. The clock struck
half-past eleven. I stifled a yawn; one smoke and then to the bed was my
programme.

Marie Delhasse turned her head half-round.

"You must not," said she, "let me prevent you having your cigarette. I
should set you at ease by going to bed, but I can't sleep so early, and
upstairs the fire is not lighted."

I thanked her and approached the fire. She was gazing into it
meditatively. Presently she looked up.

"Smoke, sir," she said imperiously but languidly.

I obeyed her, and stood looking down at her, admiring her stately beauty.

"You have passed the day here?" she asked, gazing again into the fire.

"In this neighborhood," said I, with discreet vagueness.

"You have been able to pass the time?"

"Oh, certainly!" That had not been my difficulty.

"There is, of course," she said wearily, "Mont St. Michel. But can you
imagine anyone living in such a country?"

"Unless Fate set one here--" I began.

"I suppose that's it," she interrupted.

"You are going to make a stay here?"

"I am," she answered slowly, "on my way to--I don't know where."

I was scrutinizing her closely now, for her manner seemed to witness more
than indolence; irresolution, vacillation, discomfort, asserted their
presence. I could not make her out, but her languid indifference appeared
more assumed than real.

With another upward glance, she said:

"My name is Marie Delhasse."

"It is a well-known name," said I with a bow.

"You have heard of me?"

"Yes."

"What?" she asked quickly, wheeling half-round and facing me.

"That you are a great singer," I answered simply.

"Ah, I'm not all voice! What about me? A woman is more than an organ pipe.
What about me?"

Her excitement contrasted with the langour she had displayed before.

"Nothing," said I, wondering that she should ask a stranger such a
question. She glanced at me for an instant. I threw my eyes up to the
ceiling.

"It is false!" she said quietly; but the trembling of her hands belied her
composure.

The tawdry gilt clock on the mantelpiece by me ticked through a long
silence. The last act of the day's comedy seemed set for a more serious
scene.

"Why do you ask a stranger a question like that?" I said at last, giving
utterance to the thought that puzzled me.

"Whom should I ask? And I like your face--no, not because it is handsome.
You are English, sir?"

"Yes, I am English. My name is Gilbert Aycon."

"Aycon--Aycon! It is a little difficult to say it as you say it."

Her thoughts claimed her again. I threw my cigarette into the fire, and
stood waiting her pleasure. But she seemed to have no more to say, for she
rose from the seat and held out her hand to me.

"Will you 'shake hands?'" she said, the last two words in English; and she
smiled again.

I hastened to do as she asked me, and she moved toward the door.

"Perhaps," she said, "I shall see you to-morrow morning."

"I shall be here." Then I added: "I could not help hearing you talk of
moving elsewhere."

She stood still in the middle of the room; she opened her lips to speak,
shut them again, and ended by saying nothing more than:

"Yes, we talked of it. My mother wishes it. Good-night, Mr. Aycon."

I bade her good-night, and she passed slowly through the door, which I
closed behind her. I turned again to the fire, saying:

"What would the duchess think of that?"

I did not even know what I thought of it myself; of one thing only I felt
sure---that what I had heard of Marie Delhasse was not all that there was
to learn about her.

I was lodged in a large room on the third floor, and when I awoke the
bright sun beamed on the convent where, as I presume, Mme. de Saint-Maclou
lay, and on the great Mount beyond it in the distance. I have never risen
with a more lively sense of unknown possibilities in the day before me.
These two women who had suddenly crossed my path, and their relations to
the pale puffy-cheeked man at the little _château_, might well produce
results more startling than had seemed to be offered even by such a freak
as the original expedition undertaken by Gustave de Berensac and me. And
now Gustave had fallen away and I was left to face the thing alone. For
face it I must. My promise to the duchess bound me: had it not I doubt
whether I should have gone; for my interest was not only in the duchess.

I had my coffee upstairs, and then, putting on my hat, went down for a
stroll. So long as the duke did not come to Avranches, I could show my
face boldly--and was not he busy preparing for his guests? I crossed the
threshold of the hotel.

Just at the entrance stood Marie Delhasse; opposite her was a thickset
fellow, neatly dressed and wearing mutton-chop whiskers. As I came out I
raised my hat. The man appeared not to notice me, though his eyes fell on
me for a moment. I passed quickly by--in fact, as quickly as I could--for
it struck me at once that this man must be Lafleur, and I did not want him
to give the duke a description of the unknown gentleman who was staying at
Avranches. Yet, as I went, I had time to hear Marie's slow musical voice
say:

"I'm not coming at all to-day."

I was very glad of it, and pursued my round of the town with a lighter
heart. Presently, after half an hour's walk, I found myself opposite the
church, and thus nearly back at the hotel: and in front of the church
stood Marie Delhasse, looking at _the façade_.

Raising my hat I went up to her, her friendliness of the evening before
encouraging me.

"I hope you are going to stay to-day?" said I.

"I don't know." Then she smiled, but not mirthfully. "I expect to be very
much pressed to go this afternoon," she said.

I made a shot--apparently at a venture.

"Someone will come and carry you off?" I asked jestingly.

"It's very likely. My presence here will be known."

"But need you go?"

She looked on the ground and made no answer.

"Perhaps though," I continued, "he--or she--will not come. He may be too
much occupied."

"To come for me?" she said, with the first touch of coquetry which I had
seen in her lighting up her eyes.

"Even for that, it is possible," I rejoined.

We began to walk together toward the edge of the open _place_ in front of
the church. The convent came in sight as we reached the fall of the hill.

"How peaceful that looks!" she said; "I wonder if it would be pleasant
there!"

I was myself just wondering how the Duchess of Saint-Maclou found it, when
a loud cry of warning startled us. We had been standing on the edge of the
road, and a horse, going at a quick trot, was within five yards of us. As
it reached us, it was sharply reined in. To my amazement, old Jean, the
duchess' servant, sat upon it. When he saw me, a smile spread over his
weather-beaten face.

"I was nearly over you," said he. "You had no ears."

And I am sorry to say that Jean winked, insinuating that Marie Delhasse
and I had been preoccupied.

The diplomacy of non-recognition had failed to strike Jean. I made the
best of a bad job, and asked:

"What brings you here?"

Marie stood a few paces off, regarding us.

"I'm looking for Mme. la Duchesse," grinned Jean.

Marie Delhasse took a step forward when she heard his reference to the
duchess.

"Her absence was discovered by Suzanne at six o'clock this morning," the
old fellow went on. "And the duke--ah, take care how you come near him,
sir! Oh, it's a kettle of fish! For as I came I met that coxcomb Lafleur
riding back with a message from the duke's guests that they would not come
to-day! So the duchess is gone, and the ladies are not come; and the
duke--he has nothing to do but curse that whippersnapper of a Pierre who
came last night."

And Jean ended in a rapturous hoarse chuckle.

"You were riding so fast, then, because you were after the duchess?" I
suggested.

"I rode fast for fear," said Jean, with a shrewd smile, "that I should
stop somewhere on the road. Well, I have looked in Avranches. She is not
in Avranches. I'll go home again."

Marie Delhasse came close to my side.

"Ask him," she said to me, "if he speaks of the Duchess of Saint-Maclou."

I put the question as I was directed.

"You couldn't have guessed better if you'd known," said Jean; and a swift
glance from Marie Delhasse told me that her suspicion as to my knowledge
was aroused.

"And what will happen, Jean?" said I.

"The good God knows," shrugged Jean. Then, remembering perhaps my
five-franc pieces, he said politely, "I hope you are well, sir?"

"Up to now, thank you, Jean," said I.

His glance traveled to Marie. I saw his shriveled lips curl; his
expression was ominous of an unfortunate remark.

"Good-by!" said I significantly.

Jean had some wits. He spared me the remark, but not the sly leer that had
been made to accompany it. He clapped his heels to his horse's side and
trotted off in the direction from which he had come. So that he could
swear he had been to Avranches, he was satisfied!

Marie Delhasse turned to me, asking haughtily:

"What is the meaning of this? What do you know of the Duke or Duchess of
Saint-Maclou?"

"I might return your question," said I, looking her in the face.

"Will you answer it?" she said, flushing red.

"No, Mlle. Delhasse, I will not," said I.

"What is the meaning of this 'absence' of the Duchess of Saint-Maclou
which that man talks about so meaningly?"

Then I said, speaking low and slow:

"Who are the friends whom you are on your way to visit?"

"Who are you?" she cried. "What do you know about it? What concern is it
of yours?"

There was no indolence or lack of animation in her manner now. She
questioned me with imperious indignation.

"I will answer not a single word," said I. "But--you asked me last night
what I had heard of you."

"Well?" she said, and shut her lips tightly on the word.

I held my peace; and in a moment she went on passionately:

"Who would have guessed that you would insult me? Is it your habit to
insult women?"

"Not mine only, it seems," said I, meeting her glance boldly.

"What do you mean, sir?"

"Had you, then, an invitation from Mme. de Saint-Maclou?"

She drew back as if I had struck her. And I felt as though I had struck
her. She looked at me for a moment with parted lips; then, without a word
or a sign, she turned and walked slowly away in the direction of the
hotel.

And I, glad to have something else to occupy my thoughts, started at a
brisk pace along the foot-path that runs down the hill and meets the road
which would lead me to the convent, for I had a thing or two to say to the
duchess. And yet it was not of the duchess only that I thought as I went.
There were also in my mind the indignant pride with which Marie Delhasse
had questioned me, and the shrinking shame in her eyes at that
counter-question of mine. The Duke of Saint-Maclou's invitation seemed to
bring as much disquiet to one of his guests as it had to his wife herself.
But one thing struck me, and I found a sort of comfort in it: she had
thought, it seemed, that the duchess was to be at home.

"Pah!" I cried suddenly to myself. "If she weren't pretty, you'd say that
made it worse!"

And I went on in a bad temper.




CHAPTER VII.

Heard through the Door.


Twenty minutes' walking brought me to the wood which lay between the road
and the convent. I pressed on; soon the wood ceased and I found myself on
the outskirts of a paddock of rough grass, where a couple of cows and half
a dozen goats were pasturing; a row of stunted apple trees ran along one
side of the paddock, and opposite me rose the white walls of the convent;
while on my left was the burying-ground with its arched gateway, inscribed
"_Mors janua vitæ_." I crossed the grass and rang a bell, that clanged
again and again in echo. Nobody came. I pulled a second time and more
violently. After some further delay the door was cautiously opened a
little way, and a young woman looked out. She was a round-faced,
red-cheeked, fresh creature, arrayed in a large close-fitting white cap, a
big white collar over her shoulders, and a black gown. When she saw me,
she uttered an exclamation of alarm, and pushed the door to again. Just in
time I inserted my foot between door and doorpost.

"I beg your pardon," said I politely, "but you evidently misunderstand me.
I wish to enter."

She peered at me through the two-inch gap my timely foot had preserved.

"But it is impossible," she objected. "Our rules do not allow it. Indeed,
I may not talk to you. I beg of you to move your foot."

"But then you would shut the door."

She could not deny it.

"I mean no harm," I protested.

"'The guile of the wicked is infinite,'" remarked the little nun.

"I want to see the Mother Superior," said I. "Will you take my name to
her?"

I heard another step in the passage. The door was flung wide open, and a
stout and stately old lady faced me, a frown on her brow.

"Madame," said I, "until you hear my errand you will think me an
ill-mannered fellow."

"What is your business, sir?"

"It is for your ear alone, madame."

"You can't come in here," said she decisively.

For a moment I was at a loss. Then the simplest solution in the world
occurred to me.

"But you can come out, madame," I suggested.

She looked at me doubtfully for a minute. Then she stepped out, shutting
the door carefully behind her. I caught a glimpse of the little nun's
face, and thought there was a look of disappointment on it. The old lady
and I began to walk along the path that led to the burying-ground.

"I do not know," said I, "whether you have heard of me. My name is Aycon."

"I thought so. Mr. Aycon, I must tell you that you are very much to blame.
You have led this innocent, though thoughtless, child into most deplorable
conduct."

("Well done, little duchess!" said I to myself; but of course I was not
going to betray her.)

"I deeply regret my thoughtlessness," said I earnestly. "I would, however,
observe that the present position of the duchess is not due to my--shall
we say misconduct?--but to that of her husband. I did not invite--"

"Don't mention her name!" interrupted the Mother Superior in horror.

We had reached the arched gateway; and there appeared standing within it a
figure most charmingly inappropriate to a graveyard--the duchess herself,
looking as fresh as a daisy, and as happy as a child with a new toy. She
ran to me, holding out both hands and crying:

"Ah, my dear, dear Mr. Aycon, you are the most delightful man alive! You
come at the very moment I want you."

"Be sober, my child, be sober!" murmured the old lady.

"But I want to hear," expostulated the duchess. "Do you know anything, Mr.
Aycon? What has been happening up at the house? What has the duke done?"

As the duchess poured out her questions, we passed through the gate; the
ladies sat down on a stone bench just inside, and I, standing, told my
story. The duchess was amused to hear of old Jean's chase of her; but she
showed no astonishment till I told her that Marie Delhasse was at the
hotel in Avranches, and had declined to go further on her journey to-day.

"At the hotel? Then you've seen her?" she burst out. "What is she like?"

"She is most extremely handsome," said I. "Moreover, I am inclined to like
her."

The Mother Superior opened her lips--to reprove me, no doubt; but the
duchess was too quick.

"Oh, you like her? Perhaps you're going to desert me and go over to her?"
she cried in indignation, that was, I think, for the most part feigned.
Certainly the duchess did not look very alarmed. But in regard to what she
said, the old lady was bound to have a word.

"What is Mr. Aycon to you, my child?" said she solemnly. "He is
nothing--nothing at all to you, my child."

"Well, I want him to be less than nothing to Mlle. Delhasse," said the
duchess, with a pout for her protector and a glance for me.

"Mlle. Delhasse is very angry with me just now," said I.

"Oh, why?" asked the duchess eagerly.

"Because she gathered that I thought she ought to wait for an invitation
from you, before she went to your house."

"She should wait till the Day of Judgment!" cried the duchess.

"That would not matter," observed the Mother Superior dryly.

Suddenly, without pretext or excuse, the duchess turned and walked very
quickly--nay, she almost ran--away along the path that encircled the group
of graves. Her eye had bidden me, and I followed no less briskly. I heard
a despairing sigh from the poor old lady, but she had no chance of
overtaking us. The audacious movement was successful.

"Now we can talk," said the duchess.

And talk she did, for she threw at me the startling assertion:

"I believe you're falling in love with Mlle. Delhasse. If you do, I'll
never speak to you again!"

"If I do," said I, "I shall probably accept that among the other
disadvantages of the entanglement."

"That's very rude," observed the duchess.

"Nothing with an 'if' in it is rude," said I speciously.

"Men must be always in love with somebody," said she resentfully.

"It certainly approaches a necessity," I assented.

The duchess glanced at me. Perhaps I had glanced at her; I hope not.

"Oh, well," said she, "hadn't we better talk business?"

"Infinitely better," said I; and I meant it.

"What am I to do?" she asked, with a return to her more friendly manner.

"Nothing," said I.

It is generally the safest advice--to women at all events.

"You are content with the position? You like being at the hotel perhaps?"

"Should I not be hard to please, if I didn't?"

"I know you are trying to annoy me, but you shan't. Mr. Aycon, suppose my
husband comes over to Avranches, and sees you?"

"I have thought of that."

"Well, what have you decided?"

"Not to think about it till it happens. But won't he be thinking more
about you than me?"

"He won't do anything about me," she said. "In the first place, he will
want no scandal. In the second, he does not want me. But he will come over
to see her."

"Her" was, of course, Marie Delhasse. The duchess assigned to her the
sinister distinction of the simple pronoun.

"Surely he will take means to get you to go back?" I exclaimed.

"If he could have caught me before I got here, he would have been glad.
Now he will wait; for if he came here and claimed me, what he proposed to
do would become known."

There seemed reason in this; the duchess calculated shrewdly.

"In fact," said I, "I had better go back to the hotel."

"That does not seem to vex you much."

"Well, I can't stay here, can I?" said I, looking round at the nunnery.
"It would be irregular, you know."

"You might go to another hotel," suggested she.

"It is most important that I should watch what is going on at my present
hotel," said I gravely; for I did not wish to move.

"You are the most--" began the duchess.

But this bit of character-reading was lost. Slow but sure, the Mother
Superior was at our elbows.

"Adieu, Mr. Aycon," said she.

I felt sure that she must manage the nuns admirably.

"Adieu!" said I, as though there was nothing else to be said.

"Adieu!" said the duchess, as though she would have liked to say something
else.

And all in a moment I was through the gateway and crossing the paddock.
But the duchess ran to the gate, crying:

"Mind you come again to-morrow!"

My expedition consumed nearly two hours; and one o'clock struck from the
tower of the church as I slowly climbed the hill, feeling (I must admit
it) that the rest of the day would probably be rather dull. Just as I
reached the top, however, I came plump on Mlle. Delhasse, who appeared to
be taking a walk. She bowed to me slightly and coldly. Glad that she was
so distant (for I did not like her looks), I returned her salute, and
pursued my way to the hotel. In the porch of it stood the waiter--my
friend who had taken such an obliging view of my movements the night
before. Directly he saw me, he came out into the road to meet me.

"Are you acquainted with the ladies who have rooms on the first floor?" he
asked with an air of mystery.

"I met them here for the first time," said I.

I believe he doubted me; perhaps waiters are bred to suspicion by the
things they see.

"Ah!" said he, "then it does not interest you to know that a gentleman has
been to see the young lady?"

I took out ten francs.

"Yes, it does," said I, handing him the money. "Who was it?"

"The Duke of Saint-Maclou," he whispered mysteriously.

"Is he gone?" I asked in some alarm. I had no wish to encounter him.

"This half-hour, sir."

"Did he see both the ladies?"

"No; only the young lady. Madame went out immediately on his arrival, and
is not yet returned."

"And mademoiselle?"

"She is in her room."

Thinking I had not got much, save good will, for my ten francs--for he
told me nothing but what I had expected to hear--I was about to pass on,
when he added, in a tone which seemed more significant than the question
demanded:

"Are you going up to your room, sir?"

"I am," said I.

"Permit me to show you the way," he said--though his escort seemed to me
very unnecessary.

He mounted before me. We reached the first floor. Opposite to us, not
three yards away, was the door of the sitting-room which I knew to be
occupied by the Delhasses.

"Go on," said I.

"In a moment, sir," he said.

Then he held up his hand in the attitude of a man who listens.

"One should not listen," he whispered, apologetically; "but it is so
strange. I thought that if you knew the lady--Hark!"

I knew that we ought not to listen. But the mystery of the fellow's manner
and the concern of his air constrained me, and I too paused, listening.

From behind the door there came to our strained attentive ears the sound
of a woman sobbing. I sought the waiter's eyes; they were already bent on
me. Again the sad sounds came--low, swift, and convulsive. It went to my
heart to hear them. I did not know what to do. To go on upstairs to my own
room and mind my own business seemed the simple thing--simple, easy, and
proper. But my feet were glued to the boards. I could not go, with that
sound beating on my ears: I should hear it all the day. I glanced again at
the waiter. He was a kind-looking fellow, and I saw the tears standing in
his eyes.

"And mademoiselle is so beautiful!" he whispered.

"What the devil business is it of yours?" said I, in a low but fierce
tone.

"None," said he. "I am content to leave it to you, sir;" and without more
he turned and went downstairs.

It was all very well to leave it to me; but what--failing that simple,
easy, proper, and impossible course of action which I have indicated--was
I to do?

Well, what I did was this: I went to the door of the room and knocked
softly. There was no answer. The sobs continued. I had been a brute to
this girl in the morning; I thought of that as I stood outside.

"My God! what's the matter with her?" I whispered.

And then I opened the door softly.

Marie Delhasse sat in a chair, her head resting in her hands and her hands
on the table; and her body was shaken with her weeping.

And on the table, hard by her bowed golden head, there lay a square
leathern box. I stood on the threshold and looked at her.

The rest of the day did not now seem likely to be dull; but it might prove
to have in store for me more difficult tasks than the enduring of a little
dullness.




CHAPTER VIII.

I Find that I Care.


For a moment I stood stock still, wishing to Heaven that I had not opened
the door; for I could find now no excuse for my intrusion, and no reason
why I should not have minded my own business. The impulse that had made
the thing done was exhausted in the doing of it. Retreat became my sole
object; and, drawing back, I pulled the door after me. But I had given
Fortune a handle--very literally; for the handle of the door grated loud
as I turned it. Despairing of escape, I stood still. Marie Delhasse looked
up with a start.

"Who's there?" she cried in frightened tones, hastily pressing her
handkerchief to her eyes.

There was no help for it. I stepped inside, saying:

"I'm ashamed to say that I am."

I deserved and expected an outburst of indignation. My surprise was great
when she sank against the back of the chair with a sigh of relief. I
lingered awkwardly just inside the threshold.

"What do you want? Why did you come in?" she asked, but rather in
bewilderment than anger.

"I was passing on my way upstairs, and--and you seemed to be in distress."

"Did I make such a noise as that?" said she. "I'm as bad as a child; but
children cry because they mustn't do things, and I because I must."

We appeared to be going to talk. I shut the door.

"My intrusion is most impertinent," said I. "You have every right to
resent it."

"Oh, have I the right to resent anything? Did you think so this morning?"
she asked impetuously.

"The morning," I observed, "is a terribly righteous time with me. I must
beg your pardon for what I said."

"You think the same still?" she retorted quickly.

"That is no excuse for having said it," I returned. "It was not my
affair."

"It is nobody's affair, I suppose, but mine."

"Unless you allow it to be," said I. I could not endure the desolation her
words and tone implied.

She looked at me curiously.

"I don't understand," she said in a fretfully weary tone, "how you come to
be mixed up in it at all."

"It's a long story." Then I went on abruptly: "You thought it was someone
else that had entered."

"Well, if I did?"

"Someone returning," said I stepping up to the table opposite her.

"What then?" she asked, but wearily and not in the defiant manner of the
morning.

"Mme. Delhasse perhaps, or perhaps the Duke of Saint-Maclou?"

Marie Delhasse made no answer. She sat with her elbows on the table, and
her chin resting on the support of her clenched hands; her lids drooped
over her eyes; and I could not see the expression of her glance, which
was, nevertheless, upon me.

"Well, well," I continued, "we needn't talk about him. Have you been doing
some shopping?" And I pointed to the red leathern box.

For full half a minute she sat, without speech or movement. Then she said
in answer to my question, which she could not take as an idle one:

"Yes, I have been doing some bargaining."

"Is that the result?"

Again she paused long before she answered.

"That," said she, "is a trifle--thrown in."

"To bind the bargain?" I suggested.

"Yes, Mr. Aycon--to bind the bargain."

"Is it allowed to look?"

"I think everything must be allowed to you. You would be so surprised if
it were not."

I understood that she was aiming a satirical remark at me: I did not mind
that; she had better flay me alive than sit and cry.

"Then I may open the box?"

"The key is in it."

I drew the box across, and I took a chair that stood by. I turned the key
of the box. A glance showed me Marie's drooped lids half raised and her
eyes fixed on my face.

I opened the box: there lay in it, in sparkling coil on the blue velvet, a
magnificent diamond necklace; one great stone formed a pendent, and it was
on this stone that I fixed my regard. I took it up and looked at it
closely; then I examined the necklace itself. Marie's eyes followed my
every motion.

"You like these trinkets?" I asked.

"Yes," said she, in that tone in which "yes" is stronger than a thousand
words of rapture; and the depths of her eyes caught fire from the stones,
and gleamed.

"But you know nothing about them," I pursued composedly.

"I suppose they are valuable," said she, making an effort after
_nonchalance_.

"They have some value," I conceded, smiling. "But I mean about their
history."

"They are bought, I suppose--bought and sold."

"I happen to know just a little about such things. In fact, I have a book
at home in which there is a picture of this necklace. It is known as the
Cardinal's Necklace. The stones were collected by Cardinal Armand de
Saint-Maclou, Archbishop of Caen, some thirty years ago. They were set by
Lebeau of Paris, on the order of the cardinal, and were left by him to his
nephew, our friend the duke. Since his marriage, the duchess has of course
worn them."

All this I said in a most matter-of-fact tone.

"Do you mean that they belong to her?" asked Marie, with a sudden lift of
her eyes.

"I don't know. Strictly, I should think not," said I impassively.

Marie Delhasse stretched out her hand and began to finger the stones.

"She wore them, did she?"

"Certainly."

"Ah! I supposed they had just been bought." And she took her fingers off
them.

"It would take a large sum to do that--to buy them _en bloc_," I observed.

"How much?"

"Oh, I don't know! The market varies so much: perhaps a million francs,
perhaps more. You can't tell how much people will give for such things."

"No, it is difficult," she assented, again fingering the necklace, "to say
what people will give for them."

I leaned back in my chair. There was a pause. Then her eyes suddenly met
mine again, and she exclaimed defiantly:

"Oh, you know very well what it means! What's the good of fencing about
it?"

"Yes, I know what it means," said I. "When have you promised to go?"

"To-morrow," she answered.

"Because of this thing?" and I pointed to the necklace.

"Because of--How dare you ask me such questions!"

I rose from my seat and bowed.

"You are going?" she asked, her fingers on the necklace, and her eyes
avoiding mine.

"I have the honor," said I, "to enjoy the friendship of the Duchess of
Saint-Maclou."

"And that forbids you to enjoy mine?"

I bowed assent to her inference. She sat still at the table, her chin on
her hands. I was about to leave her, when it struck me all in a moment
that leaving her was not exactly the best thing to do, although it might
be much the easiest. I arrested my steps.

"Well," she asked, "is not our acquaintance ended?"

And she suddenly opened her hands and hid her face in them. It was a
strange conclusion to a speech so coldly and distantly begun.

"For God's sake, don't go!" said I, bending a little across the table
toward her.

"What's it to you? What's it to anybody?" came from between her fingers.

"Your mother--" I began.

She dropped her hands from her face, and laughed. It was a laugh the like
of which I hope not to hear again. Then she broke out:

"Why wouldn't she have me in the house? Why did she run away? Am I unfit
to touch her?"

"If she were wrong, you're doing your best to make her right."

"If everybody thinks one wicked, one may as well be wicked, and--and live
in peace."

"And get diamonds?" I added, "Weren't you wicked?"

"No," she said, looking me straight in the face. "But what difference did
that make?"

"None at all, in one point of view," said I. But to myself I was swearing
that she should not go.

Then she said in a very low tone:

"He never leaves me. Ah! he makes everyone think--"

"Let 'em think," said I.

"If everyone thinks it--"

"Oh, come, nonsense!" said I.

"You know what you thought. What honest woman would have anything to do
with me--or what honest man either?"

I had nothing to say about that; so I said again.

"Well, don't go, anyhow."

She spoke in lower tones, as she answered this appeal of mine:

"I daren't refuse. He'll be here again; and my mother--"

"Put it off a day or two," said I. "And don't take that thing."

She looked at me, it seemed to me, in astonishment.

"Do you really care?" she asked, speaking very low.

I nodded. I did care, somehow.

"Enough to stand by me, if I don't go?"

I nodded again.

"I daren't refuse right out. My mother and he--"

She broke off.

"Have something the matter with you: flutters or something," I suggested.

The ghost of a smile appeared on her face.

"You'll stay?" she asked.

I had to stay, anyhow. Perhaps I ought to have said so, and not stolen
credit; but all I did was to nod again.

"And, if I ask you, you'll--you'll stand between me and him?"

I hoped that my meeting with the duke would not be in a strong light; but
I only said:

"Rather! I'll do anything I can, of course."

She did not thank me; she looked at me again. Then she observed.

"My mother will be back soon."

"And I had better not be here?"

"No."

I advanced to the table again, and laid my hand on the box containing the
Cardinal's necklace.

"And this?" I asked in a careless tone.

"Ought I to send them back?"

"You don't want to?"

"What's the use of saying I do? I love them. Besides, he'll see through
it. He'll know that I mean I won't come. I daren't--I daren't show him
that!"

Then I made a little venture; for, fingering the box idly, I said:

"It would be uncommonly handsome of you to give 'em to the duchess."

"To the duchess?" she gasped in wondering tones.

"You see," I remarked, "either they are the duchess', in which case she
ought to have them; or, if they were the duke's, they're yours now; and
you can do what you like with them."

"He gave them me on--on a condition."

"A condition," said I, "no gentleman could mention, and no law enforce."

She blushed scarlet, but sat silent.

"Revenge is sweet," said I. "She ran away rather than meet you. You send
her her diamonds!"

A sudden gleam shot into Marie Delhasse's eyes.

"Yes," she said, "yes." And stopped, thinking, with her hands clasped.

"You send them by me," I pursued, delighted with the impression which my
suggestion had made upon her.

"By you? You see her, then?" she asked quickly.

"Occasionally," I answered. The duchess' secret was not mine, and I did
not say where I saw her.

"I'll give them to you," said Marie--"to you, not to the duchess."

"I won't have 'em at any price," said I. "Come, your mother will be back
soon. I believe you want to keep 'em." And I assumed a disgusted air.

"I don't!" she flashed out passionately. "I don't want to touch them! I
wouldn't keep them for the world!"

I looked at my watch. With a swift motion, Marie Delhasse leaped from her
chair, dashed down the lid of the box, hiding the glitter of the stones,
seized the box in her two hands and with eyes averted held it out to me.

"For the duchess?" I asked.

"Yes, for the duchess," said Marie, with, averted eyes.

I took the box, and stowed it in the capacious pocket of the
shooting-jacket which I was wearing.

"Go!" said Marie, pointing to the door.

I held out my hand. She caught it in hers. Upon my word, I thought she was
going to kiss it. So strongly did I think it that, hating fuss of that
sort, I made a half-motion to pull it away. However, I was wrong. She
merely pressed it and let it drop.

"Cheer up! cheer up! I'll turn up again soon," said I, and I left the
room.

And left in the nick of time; for at the very moment when I, hugging the
lump in my coat which marked the position of the Cardinal's Necklace,
reached the foot of the stairs Mme. Delhasse appeared on her way up.

"Oh, you old viper!" I murmured thoughtlessly, in English.

"Pardon, monsieur?" said Mme. Delhasse.

"Forgive me: I spoke to myself--a foolish habit," I rejoined, with a low
bow and, I'm afraid, a rather malicious smile. The old lady glared at me,
bobbed her head the slightest bit in the world, and passed me by.

I went out into the sunshine, whistling merrily. My good friend the waiter
stood by the door. His eyes asked me a question.

"She is much better," I said reassuringly. And I walked out, still
whistling merrily.

In truth I was very pleased with myself. Every man likes to think that he
understands women. I was under the impression that I had proved myself to
possess a thorough and complete acquaintance with that intricate subject.
I was soon to find that my knowledge had its limitations. In fact, I have
been told more than once since that my plan was a most outrageous one.
Perhaps it was; but it had the effect of wresting those dangerous stones
from poor Marie's regretful hands. A man need not mind having made a fool
of himself once or twice on his way through the world, so he has done some
good by the process. At the moment, however, I felt no need for any such
apology.




CHAPTER IX.

An Unparalleled Insult.


I was thoughtful as I walked across the _place_ in front of the church in
the full glare of the afternoon sun. It was past four o'clock; the town
was more lively, as folk, their day's work finished, came out to take
their ease and filled the streets and the _cafés_. I felt that I also had
done something like a day's work; but my task was not complete till I had
lodged my precious trust safely in the keeping of the duchess.

There was, however, still time to spare, and I sat down at a _café_ and
ordered some coffee. While it was being brought my thoughts played round
Marie Delhasse. I doubted whether I disliked her for being tempted, or
liked her for resisting at the last; at any rate, I was glad to have
helped her a little. If I could now persuade her to leave Avranches, I
should have done all that could reasonably be expected of me; if the duke
pursued, she must fight the battle for herself. So I mused, sipping my
coffee; and then I fell to wondering what the duchess would say on seeing
me again so soon. Would she see me? She must, whether she liked it or not;
I could not keep the diamonds all night. Perhaps she would like.

"There you are again!" I said to myself sharply, and I roused myself from
my meditations.

As I looked up, I saw the man Lafleur opposite to me. He had his back
toward me, but I knew him, and he was just walking into a shop that faced
the _café_ and displayed in its windows an assortment of offensive
weapons--guns, pistols, and various sorts of knives. Lafleur went in. I
sat sipping my coffee. He was there nearly twenty minutes; then he came
out and walked leisurely away. I paid my score and strolled over to the
shop. I wondered what he had been buying. Dueling pistols for the duke,
perhaps! I entered and asked to be shown some penknives. The shopman
served me with alacrity. I chose a cheap knife, and then I permitted my
gaze to rest on a neat little pistol that lay on the counter. My simple
_ruse_ was most effective. In a moment I was being acquainted with all the
merits of the instrument, and the eulogy was backed by the information
that a gentleman had bought two pistols of the same make not ten minutes
before I entered the shop.

"Really!" said I. "What for?"

"Oh, I don't know, sir. It is a wise thing often to carry one of these
little fellows. One never knows."

"In case of a quarrel with another gentleman?"

"Oh, they are hardly such as we sell for dueling, sir."

"Aren't they?"

"They are rather pocket pistols--to carry if you are out at night; and we
sell many to gentlemen who have occasion in the way of their business to
carry large sums of money or valuables about with them. They give a sense
of security, sir, even if no occasion arises for their use."

"And this gentleman bought two? Who was he?"

"I don't know, sir. He gave me no name."

"And you didn't know him by sight?"

"No, sir; perhaps he is a stranger. But indeed I'm almost that myself: I
have but just set up business here."

"Is it brisk?" I asked, examining the pistol.

"It is not a brisk place, sir," the man answered regretfully. "Let me sell
you one, sir!"

It happened to be, for the moment, in the way of my business to carry
valuables, but I hoped it would not be for long, so that I did not buy a
pistol; but I allowed myself to wonder what my friend Lafleur wanted with
two--and they were not dueling pistols! If I had been going to keep the
diamonds--but then I was not. And, reminded by this reflection, I set out
at once for the convent.

Now the manner in which the Duchess of Saint-Maclou saw fit to treat
me--who was desirous only of serving her--on this occasion went far to
make me disgusted with the whole affair into which I had been drawn. It
might have been supposed that she would show gratitude; I think that even
a little admiration and a little appreciation of my tact would not have
been, under the circumstances, out of place. It is not every day that a
lady has such a thing as the Cardinal's Necklace rescued from great peril
and freely restored, with no claim (beyond that for ordinary civility) on
the part of the rescuer.

And the cause did not lie in her happening to be out of temper, for she
greeted me at first with much graciousness, and sitting down on the corn
bin (she was permitted on this occasion to meet me in the stable), she
began to tell me that she had received a most polite--and indeed almost
affectionate--letter from the duke, in which he expressed deep regret for
her absence, but besought her to stay where she was as long as the health
of her soul demanded. He would do himself the honor of waiting on her and
escorting her home, when she made up her mind to return to him.

"Which means," observed the duchess, as she replaced the letter in her
pocket, "that the Delhasses are going, and that if I go (without notice
anyhow) I shall find them there."

"I read it in the same way; but I'm not so sure that the Delhasses are
going."

"You are so charitable," said she, still quite sweetly. "You can't bring
yourself to think evil of anybody."

The duchess chanced to look so remarkably calm and composed as she sat on
the corn bin that I could not deny myself the pleasure of surprising her
with the sudden apparition of the Cardinal's Necklace. Without a word, I
took the case out of my pocket, opened it, and held it out toward her. For
once the duchess sat stock-still, her eyes round and large.

"Have you been robbing and murdering my husband?" she gasped.

With a very complacent smile I began my story. Who does not know what it
is to begin a story with a triumphant confidence in its favorable
reception? Who does not know that first terrible glimmer of doubt when the
story seems not to be making the expected impression? Who has not endured
the dull dogged despair in which the story, damned by the stony faces of
the auditors, has yet to drag on a hated weary life to a dishonored grave?

These stages came and passed as I related to Mme. de Saint-Maclou how I
came to be in a position to hand back to her the Cardinal's Necklace.
Still, silent, pale, with her lips curled in a scornful smile, she sat and
listened. My tone lost its triumphant ring, and I finished in cold,
distant, embarrassed accents.

"I have only," said I, "to execute my commission and hand the box and its
contents over to you."

And, thus speaking, I laid the necklace in its case on the corn bin beside
the duchess.

The duchess said nothing at all. She looked at me once--just once; and I
wished then and there that I had listened to Gustave de Berensac's second
thoughts and left with him at ten o'clock in the morning. Then having
delivered this barbed shaft of the eyes, the duchess sat looking straight
in front of her, bereft of her quick-changing glances, robbed of her
supple grace--like frozen quicksilver. And the necklace glittered away
indifferently between us.

At last the duchess, her eyes still fixed on the whitewashed wall
opposite, said in a slow emphatic tone:

"I wouldn't touch it, if it were the crown of France!"

I plucked up my courage to answer her. For Marie Delhasse's sake I felt a
sudden anger.

"You are pharisaical," said I. "The poor girl has acted honorably. Her
touch has not defiled your necklace."

"Yes, you must defend what you persuaded," flashed out the duchess. "It's
the greatest insult I was ever subjected to in my life!"

Here was the second lady I had insulted on that summer day!

"I did but suggest it--it was her own wish."

"Your suggestion is her wish! How charming!" said the duchess.

"You are unjust to her!" I said, a little warmly.

The duchess rose from the corn bin, made the very most of her sixty-three
inches, and remarked:

"It's a new insult to mention her to me."

I passed that by; it was too absurd to answer.

"You must take it now I've brought it," I urged in angry puzzle.

The duchess put out her hand, grasped the case delicately, shut it--and
flung it to the other side of the stable, hard by where an old ass was
placidly eating a bundle of hay.

"That's the last time I shall touch it!" said she, turning and looking me
in the face.

"But what am I to do with it?" I cried.

"Whatever you please," returned Mme. de Saint-Maclou; and without another
word, without another glance, either at me or at the necklace, she walked
out of the stable, and left me alone with the necklace and the ass.

The ass had given one start as the necklace fell with a thud on the floor;
but he was old and wise, and soon fell again to his meal. I sat drumming
my heels against the corn bin. Evening was falling fast, and everything
was very still. No man ever had a more favorable hour for reflection and
introspection. I employed it to the full. Then I rose, and crossing the
stable, pulled the long ears of my friend who was eating the hay.

"I suppose you also were a young ass once," said I with a rueful smile.

Well, I couldn't leave the Cardinal's Necklace in the corner of the
convent stable. I picked up the box. Neddy thrust out his nose at it. I
opened it and let him see the contents. He snuffed scornfully and turned
back to the hay.

"He won't take it either," said I to myself, and with a muttered curse I
dropped the wretched thing back in the pocket of my coat, wishing much
evil to everyone who had any hand in bringing me into connection with it,
from his Eminence the Cardinal Armand de Saint-Maclou down to the waiter
at the hotel.

Slowly and in great gloom of mind I climbed the hill again. I supposed
that I must take the troublesome ornament back to Marie Delhasse,
confessing that my fine idea had ended in nothing save a direct and
stinging insult for her and a scathing snub for me. My pride made this
necessity hard to swallow, but I believe there was also a more worthy
feeling that caused me to shrink from it. I feared that her good
resolutions would not survive such treatment, and that the rebuff would
drive her headlong into the ruin from which I had trusted that she would
be saved. Yet there was nothing else for it. Back the necklace must go. I
could but pray--and earnestly I did pray--that my fears might not be
realized.

I found myself opposite the gun-maker's shop; and it struck me that I
might probably fail to see Marie alone that evening. I had no means of
defense--I had never thought any necessary. But now a sudden nervousness
got hold of me: it seemed to me as if my manner must betray to everyone
that I carried the necklace--as if the lump in my coat stood out
conspicuous as Mont St. Michel itself. Feeling that I was doing a
half-absurd thing, still I stepped into the shop and announced that, on
further reflection, I would buy the little pistol. The good man was
delighted to sell it to me.

"If you carry valuables, sir," he said, repeating his stock
recommendation, "it will give you a feeling of perfect safety."

"I don't carry valuables," said I abruptly, almost rudely, and with most
unnecessary emphasis.

"I did but suggest, sir," he apologized. "And at least, it may be that you
will require to do so some day."

"That," I was forced to admit, "is of course not impossible." And I slid
the pistol and a supply of cartridges into the other pocket of my coat.

"Distribute the load, sir," advised the smiling nuisance. "One side of
your coat will be weighed down. Ah, pardon! I perceive that there is
already something in the other pocket."

"A sandwich-case," said I; and he bowed with exactly the smile the waiter
had worn when I said that I came from Mont St. Michel.




CHAPTER X.

Left on my Hands.


"There is nothing else for it!" I exclaimed, as I set out for the hotel.
"I'll go back to England."

I could not resist the conclusion that my presence in Avranches was no
longer demanded. The duchess had, on the one hand, arrived at a sort of
understanding with her husband; while she had, on the other, contrived to
create a very considerable misunderstanding with me. She had shown no
gratitude for my efforts, and made no allowance for the mistakes which,
possibly, I had committed. She had behaved so unreasonably as to release
me from any obligation. As to Marie Delhasse, I had had enough (so I
declared in the hasty disgust my temper engendered) of Quixotic endeavors
to rescue people who, had they any moral resolution, could well rescue
themselves. There was only one thing left which I might with dignity
undertake--and that was to put as many miles as I could between the scene
of my unappreciated labors and myself. This I determined to do the very
next day, after handing back this abominable necklace with as little
obvious appearance of absurdity as the action would permit.

It was six o'clock when I reached the hotel and walked straight up to my
room in sulky isolation, looking neither to right nor left, and exchanging
a word with nobody. I tossed the red box down on the table, and flung
myself into an armchair. I had half a mind to send the box down to Marie
Delhasse by the waiter--with my compliments; but my ill-humor did not
carry me so far as thus to risk betraying her to her mother, and I
perceived that I must have one more interview with her--and the sooner the
better. I rang the bell, meaning to see if I could elicit from the waiter
any information as to the state of affairs on the first floor and the
prospect of finding Marie alone for ten minutes.

I rang once--twice--thrice; the third was a mighty pull, and had at last
the effect of bringing up my friend the waiter, breathless, hot, and
disheveled.

"Why do you keep me waiting like this?" I asked sternly.

His puffs and pants prevented him from answering for a full half-minute.

"I was busy on the first floor, sir," he protested at last. "I came at the
very earliest moment."

"What's going on on the first floor?"

"The lady is in a great hurry, sir. She is going away, sir. She has been
taking a hasty meal, and her carriage is ordered to be round at the door
this very minute. And all the luggage had to be carried down, and--"

I walked to the window, and, putting my head out, saw a closed carriage,
with four trunks and some smaller packages on the roof, standing at the
door.

"Where are they going?" I asked, turning round.

The waiter was gone! A bell ringing violently from below explained his
disappearance, but did not soothe my annoyance. I rang my bell very
forcibly again: the action was a welcome vent for my temper. Turning back
to the window, I found the carriage still there. A second or two later,
Mme. Delhasse, attended by the waiter who ought to have been looking after
me, came out of the hotel and got into the carriage. She spoke to the
waiter, and appeared to give him money. He bowed and closed the door. The
driver started his horses and made off at a rapid pace toward the
carriage-road down the hill. I watched till the vehicle was out of sight
and then drew my head in, giving a low puzzled whistle and forgetting the
better part of my irritation in the interest of this new development.
Where was the old witch going--and why was she going alone?

Again I rang my bell; but the waiter was at the door before it ceased
tinkling.

"Where's she going to?" I asked.

"To the house of the Duke of Saint-Maclou, sir," he answered, wiping his
brow and sighing for relief that he had got rid of her.

"And the young lady--where is she?"

"She has already gone, sir."

"Already gone!" I cried. "Gone where? Gone when?"

"About two hours ago, sir--very soon after I saw you go out, sir--a
messenger brought a letter for the young lady. I took it upstairs; she was
alone when I entered. When she looked at the address, sir, she made a
little exclamation, and tore the note open in a manner that showed great
agitation. She read it; and when she had read it stood still, holding it
in her hand for a minute or two. She had turned pale and breathed quickly.
Then she signed to me with her hand to go. But she stopped me with another
gesture, and--and then, sir--"

"Well, well, get on!" I cried.

"Then, sir, she asked if you were in the hotel, and I said no--you had
gone out, I did not know where. Upon that, she walked to the window, and
stood looking out for a time. Then she turned round to me, and said: 'My
mother was fatigued by her walk, and is sleeping. I am going out, but I do
not wish her disturbed. I will write a note of explanation. Be so good as
to cause it to be given to her when she wakes.' She was calm then, sir;
she sat down and wrote, and sealed the note and gave it to me. Then she
caught up her hat, which lay on the table, and her gloves; and then, sir,
she walked out of the hotel."

"Which way did she go?"

"She went, sir, as if she were making for the footpath down the hill. An
hour or more passed, and then madame's bell rang. I ran up and, finding
her in the sitting room, I gave her the note."

"And what did she say?"

"She read it, and cried 'Ah!' in great satisfaction, and immediately
ordered a carriage and that the maid should pack all her luggage and the
young lady's. Oh! she was in a great hurry, and in the best of spirits;
and she pressed us on so that I was not able to attend properly to you,
sir. And finally, as you saw, she drove off to the house of the duke,
still in high good humor."

The waiter paused. I sat silent in thought.

"Is there anything else you wish to know, sir?" asked the waiter.

Then my much-tried temper gave way again.

"I want to know what the devil it all means!" I roared.

The waiter drew near, wearing a very sympathetic expression. I knew that
he had always put me down as an admirer of Marie Delhasse. He saw in me
now a beaten rival. Curiously I had something of the feeling myself.

"There is one thing, sir," said he. "The stable-boy told me. The message
for Mlle. Delhasse was brought from a carriage which waited at the bottom
of the hill, out of sight of the town. And--well, sir, the servants wore
no livery; but the boy declares that the horses were those of the Duke of
Saint-Maclou."

I muttered angrily to myself. The waiter, discreetly ignoring my words,
continued:

"And, indeed, sir, madame expected to meet her daughter. For I chanced to
ask her if she would take with her a bouquet of roses which she had
purchased in the town, and she answered: 'Give them to me. My daughter
will like to have them.'"

The waiter's conclusion was obvious. And yet I did not accept it. For why,
if Marie were going to the duke's, should she not have aroused her mother
and gone with her? That the duke had sent his carriage for her was likely
enough; that he would cause it to wait outside the town was not
impossible; that Marie had told her mother that she had gone to the duke's
was also clear from that lady's triumphant demeanor. But that she had in
reality gone, I could not believe. A sudden thought struck me.

"Did Mlle. Delhasse," I asked, "send any answer to the note that came from
the carriage?"

"Ah, sir, I forgot. Certainly. She wrote an answer, and the messenger
carried it away with him."

"And did the boy you speak of see anything more of the carriage?"

"He did not pass that way again, sir."

My mind was now on the track of Marie's device. The duke had sent his
carriage to fetch her. She, left alone, unable to turn to me for guidance,
determined not to go; afraid to defy him--more afraid, no doubt, because
she could no longer produce the necklace--had played a neat trick. She
must have sent a message to the duke that she would come with her mother
immediately that the necessary preparations could be made; she had then
written a note to her mother to tell her that she had gone in the duke's
carriage and looked to her mother to follow her. And having thus thrown
both parties on a false scent, she had put on her hat and walked quietly
out of the hotel. But, then, where had she walked to? My chain of
inference was broken by that missing link. I looked up at the waiter. And
then I cursed my carelessness. For the waiter's eyes were no longer fixed
on my face, but were fastened in eloquent curiosity on the red box which
lay on my table. To my apprehensive fancy the Cardinal's Necklace seemed
to glitter through the case. That did not of course happen; but a jewel
case is easy to recognize, and I knew in a moment that the waiter
discerned the presence of precious stones. Our eyes met. In my puzzle I
could do nothing but smile feebly and apologetically. The waiter smiled
also--but his was a smile of compassion and condolence. He took a step
nearer to me, and with infinite sympathy in his tone observed:

"Ah, well, sir, do not despair! A gentleman like you will soon find
another lady to value the present more."

In spite of my vanity--and I was certainly not presenting myself in a very
triumphant guise to the waiter's imagination--I jumped at the mistake.

"They are capricious creatures!" said I with a shrug. "I'll trouble myself
no more about them."

"You're right, sir, you're right. It's one one day, and another another.
It's a pity, sir, to waste thought on them--much more, good money. You
will dine to-night, sir?" and his tone took a consolatory inflection.

"Certainly I will dine," said I; and with a last nod of intelligence and
commiseration, he withdrew.

And then I leaped, like a wildcat, on the box that contained the
Cardinal's Necklace, intent on stowing it away again in the seclusion of
my coat-pocket. But again I stood with it in my hand--struck still with
the thought that I could not now return it to Marie Delhasse, that she had
vanished leaving it on my hands, and that, in all likelihood, in three or
four hours' time the Duke of Saint-Maclou would be scouring the country
and setting every spring in motion in the effort to find the truant lady,
and--what I thought he would be at least anxious about--the truant
necklace. For to give your family heirlooms away without recompense is a
vexatious thing; and ladies who accept them and vanish with them into
space can claim but small consideration. And, moreover, if the missing
property chance to be found in the possession of a gentleman who is
reluctant to explain his presence, who has masqueraded as a groom with
intent to deceive the owner of the said property, and has no visible
business to bring or keep him on the spot at all--when all this happens,
it is apt to look very awkward for that gentleman.

"You will regret it if you don't start with me;" so said Gustave de
Berensac. The present was one of the moments in which I heartily agreed
with his prescient prophecy. Human nature is a poor thing. To speak
candidly, I cannot recollect that, amid my own selfish perplexities, I
spared more than one brief moment to gladness that Marie Delhasse had
eluded the pursuit of the Duke of Saint-Maclou. But I spared another to
wishing that she had thought of telling me to what haven she was bound.




CHAPTER XI.

A Very Clever Scheme.


I must confess at once that I might easily have displayed more acumen, and
that there would have been nothing wonderful in my discerning or guessing
the truth about Marie Delhasse's movements. Yet the truth never occurred
to me, never so much as suggested itself in the shape of a possible
explanation. I cannot quite tell why; perhaps it conflicted too strongly
with the idea of her which possessed me; perhaps it was characteristic of
a temperament so different from my own that I could not anticipate it. At
any rate, be the reason what it may, I did not seriously doubt that Marie
Delhasse had cut the cords which bound her by a hasty flight from
Avranches; and my conviction was deepened by my knowledge that an evening
train left for Paris just about half an hour after Marie, having played
her trick on her mother and on the Duke of Saint-Maclou, had walked out of
the hotel, no man and no woman hindering her.

Under these circumstances, my work--imposed and voluntary alike--was done;
and the cheering influence of the dinner to which I sat down so awoke my
mind to fresh agility that I found the task of disembarrassing myself of
that old man of the sea--the Cardinal's Necklace--no longer so hopeless as
it had appeared in the hungry disconsolate hour before my meal. Nay, I saw
my way to performing, incidentally, a final service to Marie by creating
in the mind of the duke such chagrin and anger as would, I hoped,
disincline him from any pursuit of her. If I could, by one stroke, restore
him his diamonds and convince him, not of Marie's virtue, but of her
faithlessness, I trusted to be humbly instrumental in freeing her from his
importunity, and of restoring the jewels to the duchess--nay, of restoring
to her also the undisturbed possession of her home and of the society of
her husband. At this latter prospect I told myself that I ought to feel
very satisfied, and rather to my surprise found myself feeling not very
dissatisfied; for most unquestionably the duchess had treated me
villainously and had entirely failed to appreciate me. My face still went
hot to think of the glance she had given Marie Delhasse's maladroit
ambassador.

After these reflections and a bottle of Burgundy (I will not apportion the
credit) I rose from the table humming a tune and started to go upstairs,
conning my scheme in a contented mind. As I passed through the hall the
porter handed me a note, saying that a boy had left it and that there was
no answer. I opened and read it; it was very short and it ran thus:

I wish never to see you again. ELSA.

Now "Elsa" (and I believe that I have not mentioned the fact before--an
evidence, if any were needed, of my discretion) was the Christian name of
the Duchess of Saint-Maclou. Picking up her dropped handkerchief as we
rambled through the woods, I had seen the word delicately embroidered
thereon, and I had not forgotten this chance information. But why--let
those learned in the ways of women answer if they can--why, first, did she
write at all? Why, secondly, did she tell me what had been entirely
obvious from her demeanor? Why, thirdly, did she choose to affix to the
document which put an end to our friendship a name which that friendship
had never progressed far enough to justify me in employing? To none of
these pertinent queries could I give a satisfactory reply. Yet, somehow,
that "Elsa" standing alone, shorn of all aristocratic trappings, had a
strange attraction for me, and carried with it a pleasure that the
uncomplimentary tenor of the rest of the document did not entirely
obliterate. "Elsa" wished never to see me again: that was bad; but it was
"Elsa" who was so wicked as to wish that: that was good. And by a curious
freak of the mind it occurred to me as a hardship that I had not received
so much as a note of one line from--"Marie."

"Nonsense!" said I aloud and peevishly; and I thrust the letter into my
pocket, cheek by jowl with the Cardinal's Necklace. And being thus vividly
reminded of the presence of that undesired treasure, I became clearly
resolved that I must not be arrested for theft merely because the Duchess
of Saint-Maclou chose (from hurry, or carelessness, or what motive you
will) to sign a disagreeable and unnecessary communication with her
Christian name and nothing more, nor because Mlle. Delhasse chose to
vanish without a word of civil farewell. Let them go their ways--I did not
know which of them annoyed me more. Notwithstanding the letter,
notwithstanding the disappearance, my scheme must be carried out. And
then--for home! But the conclusion came glum and displeasing.

The scheme was very simple. I intended to spend the hours of the night in
an excursion to the duke's house. I knew that old Jean slept in a detached
cottage about half a mile from the _château_. Here I should find the old
man. I would hand to him the necklace in its box, without telling him what
the contents of the box were. Jean would carry the parcel to his master,
and deliver with it a message to the effect that a gentleman who had left
Avranches that afternoon had sent the parcel by a messenger to the duke,
inasmuch as he had reason to believe that the article contained therein
was the property of the duke and that the duke would probably be glad to
have it restored to him. The significant reticence of this message was
meant to inform the duke that Marie Delhasse was not so solitary in her
flight but that she could find a cavalier to do her errands for her, and
one who would not acquiesce in the retention of the diamonds. I imagined,
with a great deal of pleasure, what the duke's feelings would be in face
of the communication. Thus, then, the diamonds were to be restored, the
duke disgusted, and I myself freed from all my troubles. I have often
thought since that the scheme was really very ingenious, and showed a
talent for intrigue which has been notably wanting in the rest of my
humble career.

The scheme once prosperously carried through, I should, of course, take my
departure at the earliest moment on the following day. I might, or I might
not, write a line of dignified remonstrance to the duchess, but I should
make no attempt to see her; and I should most certainly go. Moreover, it
would be a long while before I accepted any of her harum-scarum
invitations again.

"Elsa" indeed! Somehow I could not say it with quite the indignant scorn
which I desired should be manifest in my tone. I have never been able to
be indignant with the duchess; although I have laughed at her. Now I could
be, and was, indignant with Marie Delhasse; though, in truth, her
difficult position pleaded excuses for her treatment of me which the
duchess could not advance.

As the clock of the church struck ten I walked downstairs from my room,
wearing a light short overcoat tightly buttoned up. I informed the waiter
that I was likely to be late, secured the loan of a latchkey, and left my
good friend under the evident impression that I was about to range the
shores of the bay in love-lorn solitude. Then I took the footpath down the
hill and, swinging along at a round pace, was fairly started on my
journey. If the inference I drew from the next thing I saw were correct,
it was just as well for me to be out of the way for a little while. For,
when I was still about thirty yards from the main road, there dashed past
the end of the lane leading up the hill a carriage and pair, traveling at
full speed. I could not see who rode inside; but two men sat on the box,
and there was luggage on the top. I could not be sure in the dim light,
but I had a very strong impression that the carriage was the same as that
which had conveyed Mme. Delhasse out of my sight earlier in the evening.
If it were so, and if the presence of the luggage indicated that of its
owner, the good lady, arriving alone, must have met with the scantest
welcome from the duke. And she would return in a fury of anger and
suspicion. I was glad not to meet her; for if she were searching for
explanation, I fancied, from glances she had given me, that I was likely
to come in for a share of her attention. In fact, she might reasonably
have supposed that I was interested in her daughter; nor, indeed, would
she have been wrong so far.

Briskly I pursued my way, and in something over an hour I reached the turn
in the road and, setting my face inland, began to climb the hill. A mile
further on I came on a bypath, and not doubting from my memory of the
direction, that this must be a short cut to the house, I left the road and
struck along the narrow wooded track. But, although shorter than the road,
it was not very direct, and I found myself thinking it very creditable to
the topographical instinct of my friend and successor, Pierre, that he
should have discovered on a first visit, and without having been to the
house, that this was the best route to follow. With the knowledge of where
the house lay, however, it was not difficult to keep right, and another
forty minutes brought me, now creeping along very cautiously, alertly, and
with open ears, to the door of old Jean's little cottage. No doubt he was
fast asleep in his bed, and I feared the need of a good deal of noisy
knocking before he could be awakened from a peasant's heavy slumber.

My delight was therefore great when I discovered that--either because he
trusted his fellow-men, or because he possessed nothing in the least worth
stealing--he had left his door simply on the latch. I lifted the latch and
walked in. A dim lantern burned on a little table near the smoldering
log-fire. Yet the light was enough to tell me that my involuntary host was
not in the room. I passed across its short breadth to a door in the
opposite wall. The door yielded to a push; all was dark inside. I listened
for a sleeper's breathing, but heard nothing. I returned, took up the
lantern, and carried it with me into the inner room. I held it above my
head, and it enabled me to see the low pallet-bed in the corner. But Jean
was not lying in the bed--nay, it was clear that he had not lain on the
bed all that night. Yet his bedtime was half-past eight or nine, and it
was now hard on one o'clock. Jean was "making a night of it," that seemed
very clear. But what was the business or pleasure that engaged him? I
admit that I was extremely annoyed. My darling scheme, on which I had
prided myself so much, was tripped up by the trifling accident of Jean's
absence.

What in the world, I asked again, kept the old man from his bed? It
suddenly struck me that he might, by the duke's orders, have accompanied
Mme. Delhasse back to Avranches, in order to be able to report to his
master any news that came to light there. He might well have been the
second man on the box. This reflection removed my surprise at his absence,
but not my vexation. I did not know what to do! Should I wait? But he
might not be back till morning. Wearily, in high disgust, I recognized
that the great scheme had, for tonight at least, gone awry, and that I
must tramp back to Avranches, carrying my old man of the sea, the
Cardinal's Necklace. For Jean could not read, and it was useless to leave
the parcel with written directions.

I went into the outer room, and set the lantern in its place; I took a
pull at my flask, and smoked a pipe. Then, with a last sigh of vexation, I
grasped my stick in my hand, rose to my feet, and moved toward the door.

Ah! Hark! There was a footstep outside.

"Thank Heaven, here comes the old fool!" I murmured.

The step came on, and, as it came, I listened to it; and as I listened to
it, the sudden satisfaction that had filled me as suddenly died away; for,
if that were the step of old Jean, may I see no difference between the
footfalls of an elephant and of a ballet-dancer! And then, before I had
time to form any plan, or to do anything save stand staring in the middle
of the floor, the latch was lifted again, the door opened, and in
walked--the Duke of Saint-Maclou!




CHAPTER XII.

As a Man Possessed.


The dim light served no further than to show that a man was there.

"Well, Jean, what news?" asked the duke, drawing the door close behind
him.

"I am not Jean," said I.

"Then who the devil are you, and what are you doing here?" He advanced and
held up the lantern. "Why, what are you hanging about for?" he exclaimed
the next moment, with a start of surprise.

"And I am not George Sampson either," said I composedly. I had no mind to
play any more tricks. As I must meet him, it should be in my own
character.

The duke studied me from top to toe. He twirled his mustache, and a slight
smile appeared on his full lips.

"Yet I know you as George Sampson, I think, sir," said he, but in an
altered tone. He spoke now as though to an equal--to an enemy perhaps, but
to an equal.

I was in some perplexity; but a moment later he relieved me.

"You need trouble yourself with no denials," he said. "Lafleur's story of
the gentleman at Avranches, with the description of him, struck me as
strange; and for the rest--there were two things."

He seated himself on a stool. I leaned against the wall.

"In the first place," he continued, "I know my wife pretty well; in the
second, a secret known to four maidservants-- Really, sir, you were very
confiding!"

"I was doing no wrong," said I; though not, I confess, in a very convinced
tone.

"Then why the masquerade?" he answered quickly, hitting my weak point.

"Because you were known to be unreasonable."

His smile broadened a little.

"It's the old crime of husbands, isn't it?" he asked. "Well, sir, I'm no
lawyer, and it's not my purpose to question you on that matter. I will put
you to no denials."

I bowed. The civility of his demeanor was a surprise to me.

"If that were the only affair, I need not keep you ten minutes," he went
on. "At least, I presume that my friend would find you when he wanted to
deliver a message from me?"

"Certainly. But may I ask why, if that is your intention, you have delayed
so long? You guessed I was at Avranches. Why not have sent to me?"

The duke tugged his mustache.

"I do not know your name, sir," he remarked.

"My name is Aycon."

"I know the name," and he bowed slightly. "Well, I didn't send to you at
Avranches because I was otherwise occupied."

"I am glad, sir, that you take it so lightly," said I.

"And by the way, Mr. Aycon, before you question me, isn't there a question
I might ask you? How came you here to-night?" And, as he spoke, his smile
vanished.

"I have nothing to say, beyond that I hoped to see your servant Jean."

"For what purpose? Come, sir, for what purpose? I have a right to ask for
what purpose." And his tone rose in anger.

I was going to give him a straightforward answer. My hand was actually on
the way to the spot where I felt the red box pressing against my side,
when he rose from his seat and strode toward me; and a sudden passion
surged in his voice.

"Answer me! answer me!" he cried. "No, I'm not asking about my wife; I
don't care a farthing for that empty little parrot. Answer me, sir, as you
value your life! What do you know of Marie Delhasse?"

And he stood before me with uplifted hand, as though he meant to strike
me. I did not move, and we looked keenly into one another's eyes. He
controlled himself by a great effort, but his hands trembled, as he
continued:

"That old hag who came to-night and dared to show her filthy face here
without her daughter--she told me of your talks and walks. The girl was
ready to come. Who stopped her? Who turned her mind? Who was there but
you--you--you?"

And again his passion overcame him, and he was within an ace of dashing
his fist in my face.

My hands hung at my side, and I leaned easily against the wall.

"Thank God," said I, "I believe I stopped her! I believe I turned her
mind. I did my best, and except me, nobody was there."

"You admit it?"

"I admit the crime you charged me with. Nothing more."

"What have you done with her? Where is she now?"

"I don't know."

"Ah!" he cried, in angry incredulity. "You don't know, don't you?"

"And if I knew, I wouldn't tell you."

"I'm sure of that," he sneered. "It is knowledge a man keeps to himself,
isn't it? But, by Heaven, you shall tell me before you leave this place,
or--"

"We have already one good ground of quarrel," I interrupted. "What need is
there of another?"

"A good ground of quarrel?" he repeated, in a questioning tone.

Honestly I believe that he had for the moment forgotten. His passion for
Marie Delhasse and fury at the loss of her filled his whole mind.

"Oh, yes," he went on. "About the duchess? True, Mr. Aycon. That will
serve--as well as the truth."

"If that is not a real ground, I know none," said I.

"Haven't you told me that you kept her from me?"

"For no purposes of my own."

He drew back a step, smiling scornfully.

"A man is bound to protest that the lady is virtuous," said he; "but need
he insist so much on his own virtue?"

"As it so happens," I observed, "it's not a question of virtue."

I suppose there was something in my tone that caught his attention, for
his scornful air was superseded by an intent puzzled gaze, and his next
question was put in lower tones:

"What did you stay in Avranches for?"

"Because your wife asked me," said I. The answer was true enough, but, as
I wished to deal candidly with him, I added: "And, later on, Mlle.
Delhasse expressed a similar desire."

"My wife and Mlle. Delhasse! Truly you are a favorite!"

"Honest men happen to be scarce in this neighborhood," said I. I was
becoming rather angry.

"If you are one, I hope to be able to make them scarcer by one more," said
the duke.

"Well, we needn't wrangle over it any more," said I; and I sat down on the
lid of a chest that stood by the hearth. But the duke sprang forward and
seized me by the arm, crying again in ungovernable rage:

"Where is she?"

"She is safe from you, I hope."

"Aye--and you'll keep her safe!"

"As I say, I know nothing about her, except that she'd be an honest girl
if you'd let her alone."

He was still holding my arm, and I let him hold it: the man was hardly
himself under the slavery of his passion. But again, at my words, the
wonder which I had seen before stole into his eyes.

"You must know where she is," he said, with a straining look at my face,
"but--but--"

He broke off, leaving his sentence unfinished. Then he broke out again:

"Safe from me? I would make life a heaven for her!"

"That's the old plea," said I.

"Is a thing a lie because it's old? There's nothing in the world I would
not give her--nothing I have not offered her." Then he looked at me,
repeating again: "You must know where she is." And then he whispered: "Why
aren't you with her?"

"I have no wish to be with her," said I. Any other reason would not have
appealed to him.

He sank down on the stool again and sat in a heap, breathing heavily and
quickly. He was wonderfully transfigured, and I hardly knew in him the
cold harsh man who had been my temporary master and was the mocking
husband of the duchess. Say all that may be said about his passion, I
could not doubt that it was life and death to him. Justification he had
none; excuse I found in my heart for him, for it struck me--coming over
me in a strange sudden revelation as I sat and looked at him--that he had
given such love to the duchess, the gay little lady would have been
marvelously embarrassed. It was hers to dwell in a radiant mid-ether,
neither to mount to heaver nor descend to hell. And in one of theses two
must dwell such feelings as the dukes's.

He roused himself, and leaning forward spoke to me again:

"You've lived in the same house with her and talked to her. You swear you
don't love her? What? Has Elsa's little figure come between?"

His tone was full of scorn. He seemed angry with me, not for presuming to
love his wife (nay, he would not believe that), but for being so blind as
not to love Marie.

"I didn't love her!" I answered, with a frown on my face and slow words.

"You have never felt attracted to her?"

I did not answer that question. I sat frowning in silence till the duke
spoke again, in a low hoarse whisper:

"And she? What says she to you?"

I looked up with a start, and met his searching wrathful gaze. I shook my
head; his question was new to me--new and disturbing.

"I don't know," said I; and on that we sat in silence for many moments.

Then he rose abruptly and stood beside me.

"Mr. Aycon," he said, in the smoother tones in which he had begun our
curious interview, "I came near a little while ago to doing a ruffianly
thing, of a sort I am not wont to do. We must fight out our quarrel in the
proper way. Have you any friends in the neighborhood?"

"I am quite unknown," I answered.

He thought for an instant, and then continued:

"There is a regiment quartered at Pontorson, and I have acquaintances among
the officers. If agreeable to you, we will drive over there; we shall find
gentlemen ready to assist us."

"You are determined to fight?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, with a snap of his lips. "Have we not matters enough and
to spare to fight about?"

"I can't of course deny that you have a pretext."

"And I, Mr. Aycon, know that I have also a cause. Will this morning suit
you?"

"It is hard on two now."

"Precisely. We have time for a little rest; then I will order the carriage
and we will drive together to Pontorson."

"You mean that I should stay in your house?"

"If you will so far honor me. I wish to settle this affair at once, so as
to be moving."

"I can but accept."

"Indeed you could hardly get back to Avranches, if, as I presume, you came
on foot. Ah! you've never told me why you wished to see Jean;" and he
turned a questioning look on me again, as he walked toward the door of the
cottage.

"It was--" I began.

"Stay; you shall tell me in the house. Shall I lead the way? Ah, but you
know it!" and he smiled grimly.

With a bow, I preceded him along the little path where I had once waited
for the duchess, and where Pierre, the new servant, had found me. No words
passed between us as we went. The duke advanced to the door and unlocked
it. We went in, nobody was about, and we crossed the dimly lighted hall
into the small room where supper had been laid for three (three who should
have been four) on the night of my arrival. Meat, bread, and wine stood on
the table now, and with a polite gesture the duke invited me to a repast.
I was tired and hungry, and I took a hunch of bread and poured out some
wine.

"What keeps Jean, I wonder?" mused the duke, as he sat down. "Perhaps he
has found her!" and a gleam of eager hope flashed from his eyes.

I made no comment--where was the profit in more sparring of words? I
munched my bread and drank my wine, thinking, by a whimsical turn of
thought, of Gustave de Berensac and his horror at the table laid for
three. Soon I laid down my napkin, and the duke held out his cigarette
case toward me:

"And now, Mr. Aycon, if I'm not keeping you up--"

"I do not feel sleepy," said I.

"It is the same for both of us," he reminded me, shrugging his shoulders.
"Well, then, if you are willing--of course you can refuse if you choose--I
should like to hear what brought you to Jean's quarters on foot from
Avranches in the middle of the night."

"You shall hear. I did not desire to meet you, if I could avoid it, and
therefore I sought old Jean, with the intention of making him a messenger
to you."

"For what purpose?"

"To restore to you something which has been left on my hands and to which
you have a better right than I."

"Pray, what is that?" he asked, evidently puzzled. The truth never crossed
his mind.

"This," said I; and I took the red leathern box out of my pocket, and set
it down on the table in front of the duke. And I put my cigarette between
my lips and leaned back in my chair.




CHAPTER XIII.

A Timely Truce.


I think that at first the Duke of Saint-Maclou could not, as the old
saying goes, believe his eyes. He sat looking from me to the red box, and
from the red box back to my face. Then he stretched out a slow, wavering
hand and drew the box nearer to him till it rested in the circle of his
spread-out arm and directly under his poring gaze. He seemed to shrink
from opening it; but at last he pressed the spring with a covert timid
movement of his finger, and the lid, springing open, revealed the
Cardinal's Necklace.

It seemed to be more brilliant than I had ever seen it, in the light of
the lamp that stood on the table by us; and the duke looked at it as a
magician might at the amulet which had failed him, or a warrior at the
talisman that had proved impotent. And I, moved to a sudden anger with him
for tempting the girl with such a bribe, said bitterly and scornfully,
with fresh indignation rising in me:

"It was a high bid! Strange that you could not buy her with it!"

He paid no visible heed to my taunt; and his tone was dull, bewildered,
and heavy as, holding the box still in his curved arm, he asked slowly:

"Did she give it to you to give to me?"

"She gave it to me to give to your wife." He looked up with a start. "But
your wife would not take it of her. And when I returned from my errand she
was gone--where I know not. So I decided to send it back to you."

He did not follow, or took very little interest in my brief history. He
did not even reiterate his belief that I knew Marie's whereabouts. His
mind was fixed on another point.

"How did you know she had it?" he asked.

"I found her with it on the table before her--"

"You found her?"

"Yes; I went into her sitting room and found her as I say; and she was
sobbing; and I got from her the story of it."

"She told you that?"

"Yes; and she feared to send it back, lest you should come and overbear
her resistance. I supposed you had frightened her. But neither would she
keep it--"

"You bade her not," he put in, in a quick low tone.

"If you like, I prayed her not. Did it need much cleverness to see what
was meant by keeping it?"

His mouth twitched. I saw the tempest rising again in him. But for a
little longer he held it down.

"Do you take me for a fool?" he asked.

"Am I a boy--do I know nothing of women? And do I know nothing of men?"

And he ended in a miserable laugh, and then fell again to tugging his
mustache with his shaking hand.

"You know," said I, "what's bad in both; and no doubt that's a good deal."

In that very room the duchess had called Gustave de Berensac a preacher.
Her husband had much the same reproach for me.

"Sermons are fine from your mouth," he muttered.

And then his self-control gave way. With a sweep of his arm he drove the
necklace from him, so that the box whizzed across the table, balanced a
moment on the edge, and fell crashing on the ground, while the duke cried:

"God's curse on it and you! You've taken her from me!"

There was danger--there was something like madness--in his aspect as he
rose, and, facing me where I sat, went on in tones still low, but charged
with a rage that twisted his features and lined his white cheeks:

"Are you a liar or a fool? Have you taken the game for yourself, or are
you fool enough not to see that she has despised me--and that miserable
necklace--for you--because you've caught her fancy? My God! and I've given
my life to it for two years past! And you step in. Why didn't you keep to
my wife? You were welcome to her--though I'd have shot you all the same
for my name's sake. You must have Marie too, must you?"

He was mad, if ever man was mad, at that moment. But his words were strong
with the force and clear with the insight of his passion; and the rush of
them carried my mind along, and swept it with them to their own
conclusion. Nay, I will not say that--for I doubted still; but I doubted
as a man who would deny, not as one who laughs away, a thought. I sat
silent, looking, not at him, but at the Cardinal's Necklace on the floor.

Then, suddenly, while I was still busy with the thought and dazzled at the
revelation, while I sat bemused, before I could move, his fingers were on
my throat, and his face within a foot of mine, glaring and working as he
sent his strength into his arms to throttle me. For his wife--and his
name--he would fight a duel: for the sake of Marie Delhasse he would do
murder on an invited stranger in his house. I struggled to my feet, his
grip on my throat; and I stretched out my hands and caught him under the
shoulders in the armpits, and flung him back against the table, and thence
he reeled on to a large cabinet that was by the wall, and Stood leaning
against it.

"I knew you were a villain," I said, "but I thought you were a gentleman."
(I did not stop to consider the theory implied in that.)

He leaned against the cabinet, red with his exertion and panting; but he
did not come at me again. He dashed his hand across his forehead and then
he said in hoarse breathless tones:

"You shan't leave here alive!"

Then, with a start of recollection, he thrust his hand into his pocket and
brought out a key. He put it in the lock of a drawer of the cabinet,
fumbling after the aperture and missing it more than once. Then he opened
the drawer, took out a pair of dueling pistols, and laid them on the
table.

"They're loaded," he said. "Examine them for yourself."

I did not move; but I took my little friend out of my pocket.

"If I'm attacked," said I, "I shall defend myself; but I'm not going to
fight a duel here, without witnesses, at the dead of night, in your
house."

"Call it what you like then," said he; and he snatched up a pistol from
the table.

He was beyond remonstrance, influence, or control. I believe that in a
moment he would have fired; and I must have fired also, or gone to my
death as a sheep to the slaughter. But as he spoke there came a sound,
just audible, which made him pause, with his right hand that held the
pistol raised halfway to the level of his shoulder.

Faint as the sound was, slight as the interruption it would seem to offer
to the full career of a madman's fury, it was yet enough to check him, to
call him back to consciousness of something else in the world than his
balked passion and the man whom he deemed to have thwarted it.

"What's that?" he whispered.

It was the lowest, softest knock at the door--a knock that even in asking
attention almost shrank from being heard. It was repeated, louder, yet
hardly audibly. The duke, striding on the tip of his toes, transferred the
pistols from the table back to the drawer, and stood with his hand inside
the open drawer: I slid my weapon into my pocket; and then he trod softly
across the floor to the door.

"One moment!" I whispered.

And I stooped and picked up the Cardinal's Necklace and put it back where
it had lain before, pushing its box under the table by a hasty movement of
my foot--for the duke, after a nod of intelligence, was already opening
the door. I drew back in the shadow behind it and waited.

"What do you want?" asked the duke.

And then a girl stepped hastily into the room and closed the door quickly
and noiselessly behind her. I saw her face: she was my old friend Suzanne.
When her eyes fell on me, she started in surprise, as well she might; but
the caution and fear, which had made her knock almost noiseless, her tread
silent, and her face all astrain with alert alarm, held her back from any
cry.

"Never mind him," said the duke. "That's nothing to do with you. What do
you want?"

"Hush! Speak low. I thought you would still be up, as you told me to
refill the lamp and have it burning. There's--there's something going on."

She spoke in a quick, urgent whisper, and in her agitation remembered no
deference in her words of address. "Going on? Where? Do you mean here?"

"No, no! I heard nothing here. In the duchess's dressing-room: it is just
under the room where I sleep. I awoke about half an hour ago, and I heard
sounds from there. There was a sound as of muffled hammering, and then a
noise, like the rasping of a file; and I thought I heard people moving
about, but very cautiously."

The duke and I were both listening attentively.

"I was frightened, and lay still a little; but then I got up--for the
sounds went on--and put on some clothes, and came down--"

"Why didn't you rouse the men? It must be thieves."

"I did go to the men's room; but their door was locked, and I could not
make them hear. I did not dare to knock loud; but I saw a light in the
room, under the door; and if they'd been awake they would have heard."

"Perhaps they weren't there," I suggested.

Suzanne turned a sudden look on me. Then she said:

"The safe holding the jewels is fixed in the wall of the duchess' dressing
room. And--and Lafleur knows it."

The duke had heard the story with a frowning face; but now a smile
appeared on his lips, and he said:

"Ah, yes! The jewels are there!"

"The--the Cardinal's Necklace," whispered Suzanne.

"True," said the duke; and his eyes met mine, and we both smiled. A few
minutes ago it had not seemed likely that I should share a joke--even a
rather grim joke--with him.

"Mr. Aycon," said he, "are you inclined to help me to look into this
matter? It may be only the girl's fancy--"

"No, no; I heard plainly," Suzanne protested eagerly.

"But one can never trust these rascally men-servants."

"I am quite ready," said I.

"Our business," said he, "will wait."

"It will be the better for waiting."

He hesitated a moment; then he assented gravely:

"You're right--much better."

He took a pistol out of the drawer, and shut and locked the drawer. Then
he turned to Suzanne and said:

"You had better go back to bed."

"I daren't, I daren't!"

"Then stay here and keep quiet. Mind, not a sound!"

"Give me a pistol."

He unlocked the drawer again, and gave her what she asked. Then signing to
me to follow him, he opened the door, and we stepped together into the
dark hall, the duke laying his hand on my arm and whispering:

"They're after the necklace."

We groped slowly, with careful noiselessness, across the hall to the foot
of the great staircase. There we paused and listened. There was nothing to
be heard. We climbed the first flight of stairs, and the duke turned sharp
to the right. We were now in a short corridor which ran north and south;
three yards ahead of us was another turn, leading to the west wing of the
house. There was a window by us; the duke gently opened it; and over
against us, across the base of the triangle formed by the building, was
another window, four or five yards away. The window was heavily curtained;
no light could be seen through it. But as we stood listening, the sounds
began--first the gentle muffled hammering, then the sound of the file. The
duke still held my arm, and we stood motionless. The sounds went on for a
while. Then they ceased. There was a pause of complete stillness. Then a
sharp, though not loud, click! And, upon this, the duke whispered to me:

"They've got the safe open. Now they'll find the small portable safe which
holds the necklace."

And I could make out an amused smile on his pale face. Before I could
speak, he turned and began to crawl away. I followed. We descended the
stairs again to the hall. At the foot he turned sharply to the left, and
came to a standstill in a recess under the staircase.

"We'll wait here. Is your pistol all right?"

"Yes, all right," said I.

And, as I spoke, the faintest sound spread from the top of the stairs, and
a board creaked under the steps of a man. I was close against the duke,
and I felt him quiver with a stifled laugh. Meanwhile the Cardinal's
Necklace pressed hard against my ribs under my tightly buttoned coat.




CHAPTER XIV.

For an Empty Box.


When I look back on the series of events which I am narrating and try to
recover the feelings with which I was affected in its passage, I am almost
amazed and in some measure ashamed to find how faint is my abhorrence of
the Duke of Saint-Maclou. My indignation wants not the bridle but the
whip, and I have to spur myself on to a becoming vehemence of disapproval.
I attribute my sneaking kindness for him--for to that and not much less I
must plead guilty--partly indeed to the revelation of a passion in him
that seemed to leave him hardly responsible for the wrong he plotted, but
far more to the incidents of this night, in which I was in a manner his
comrade and the partner with him in an adventure. To have stood shoulder
to shoulder with a man blinds his faults--and the duke bore himself, not
merely with the coolness and courage which I made no doubt of his
displaying, but with a readiness and zest remarkable at any time, but more
striking when they followed on the paroxysm to which I had seen him
helplessly subject. These indications of good in the man mollified my
dislike and attached me to him by a bond which begot toleration and
resists even the clearer and more piercing analysis of memory. Therefore,
when those who speak to me of what he did and sought to do say what I
cannot help admitting to be true, I hold my peace, thinking that the duke
and I have played as partners as well as on hostile sides, and that I,
being no saint, may well hold my tongue about the faults of a
fellow-sinner. Moreover,--and this is the thing of all strongest to temper
or to twist my judgment of him,--I feel often as though it were he who
laid his finger on my blind eyes and bade me look up and see where lay my
happiness. For it is strange how long a man can go without discovering his
own undermost desire. Yet, when seen, how swift it grows!

Quiet and still we stood in the bay of the staircase, and the steps over
our heads creaked under the feet of the men who came down. The duke's hand
was on my arm, restraining me, and he held it there till the feet had
passed above us and the stealthy tread landed on the marble flagging of
the hall. We thrust our heads out and peered through the darkness. I saw
the figures of two men, one following the other toward the front door;
this the first and taller unfastened and noiselessly opened; and he and
his fellow, whom, by the added light which entered, I perceived to be
carrying a box or case of moderate size, waited for a moment on the
threshold. Then they passed out, drawing the door close after them.

Still the duke held me back, and we rested where we were three or four
minutes. Then he whispered, "Come," and we stole across the hall after
them and found ourselves outside. It must have been about half-past two
o'clock in the morning; there was no moon and it was rather dark. The duke
turned sharp to the left and led me to the bypath, and there, a couple of
hundred yards ahead of us, we saw a cube of light that came from a dark
lantern.

The duke's face was dimly visible, and an amused smile played on his lips
as he said softly:

"Lafleur and Pierre! They think they've got the necklace!"

Was this the meaning of Pierre's appearance in the role of my successor?
The idea suggested itself to me in a moment, and I strove to read my
companion's face for a confirmation.

"We'll see where they go," he whispered, and then laid his finger on his
lips. Amusement sounded in his voice; indeed it was impossible not to
perceive the humor of the position, when I felt the Cardinal's Necklace
against my own ribs.

We were walking now under cover of the trees which lined the sides of the
path, so that no backward glance could discover us to the thieves; and I
was wondering how long we were thus to dog their steps, when suddenly they
turned to the left about fifty yards short of the spot where old Jean's
cottage stood, and disappeared from our sight. We emerged into the path,
the duke taking the lead. He was walking more briskly now, and I saw him
examine his pistol. When we came where the fellows had turned, we followed
in their track.

The first distant hint of approaching morning caught the tops of the trees
above us, turning them from black to a deep chill gray, as we paused to
listen. Our pursuit had brought us directly behind the cottage, which now
stood about a hundred yards on the right; and then we came upon them--or
rather suddenly stopped and crouched down to avoid coming upon them--where
they were squatting on the ground with a black iron box between them, and
the lantern's light thrown on the keyhole of the box. Lafleur held the
lantern; Pierre's hand was near the lock, and I presumed--I could not
see--that he held some instrument with which he meant to open it. A ring
of trees framed the picture, and the men sat in a hollow, well hidden from
the path even had it been high day.

The Duke of Saint-Maclou touched my arm, and I leaned forward to look in
his face. He nodded, and, brushing aside the trees, we sprang out upon the
astonished fellows. Fora moment they did not move, struck motionless with
surprise, while we stood over them, pistols in hand. We had caught them
fair and square. Expecting no interruption, they had guarded against none.
Their weapons were in their pockets, their hands busy with their job. They
sprang up the next moment; but the duke's muzzle covered Lafleur, and mine
was leveled full at Pierre. A second later Lafleur fell on his knees with
a cry for mercy; the little man stood quite still, his arms by his side
and the iron box hard by his feet. Lafleur's protestations and
lamentations began to flow fast. Pierre shrugged his shoulders. The duke
advanced, and I kept pace with him.

"Keep your eye on that fellow, Mr. Aycon," said the duke; and then he put
his left hand in his pocket, took out a key and flung it in Lafleur's
face. It struck him sharply between the eyes, and he whined again.

"Open the box," said the duke. "Open it--do you hear? This instant!"

With shaking hands the fellow dragged the box from where it lay by
Pierre's feet, and dropping on his knees began to fumble with the lock. At
last he contrived to unlock it, and raised the lid. The duke sprang
forward and, catching him by the nape of the neck, crammed his head down
into the box, bidding him, "Look--look--look!" And while he said it he
laughed, and took advantage of Lafleur's posture to give him four or five
hearty kicks.

"It's empty!" cried Lafleur, surprise rescuing him for an instant from the
other emotions to which his position gave occasion. And, as he spoke, for
the first time Pierre started, turning an eager gaze toward the box.

"Yes, it's empty," said the duke. "The necklace isn't there, is it? Now,
tell me all about it, or I'll put a bullet through your head!"

Then the story came: disentangled from the excuses and prayers, it was
simply that Pierre was no footman but a noted thief--that he had long
meditated an attack on the Cardinal's Necklace; had made Lafleur's
acquaintance in Paris, corrupted his facile virtue, and, with the aid of
forged testimonials, presented himself in the character in which I had
first made his acquaintance. The rascals had counted on the duke's
preoccupation with Marie Delhasse for their opportunity. The duke smiled
to hear it. Pierre listened to the whole story without a word of protest
or denial; his accomplice's cowardly attempt to present him as the only
culprit gained no more notice than another shrug and a softly muttered
oath. "Destiny," the little man seemed to say in the eloquent movement of
his shoulders; while the growing light showed his beady eyes fixed, full
and unfaltering, on me.

Lafleur's prayers died away. The duke, still smiling, set his pistol
against the wretch's head.

"That's what you deserve," said he.

And Lafleur, groveling, caught him by the knees.

"Don't kill me! Don't kill me!" he implored.

"Why not?" asked the duke, in the tone of a man willing to hear the other
side, but certain that he would not be convinced by it. "Why not? We find
you stealing--and we shoot you as you try to escape. I see nothing
unnatural or illegal in it, Lafleur. Nor do I see anything in favor of
leaving you alive."

And the pistol pressed still on Lafleur's forehead. Whether his master
meant to shoot, I know not--although I believe he did. But Lafleur had
little doubt of his purpose; for he hastened to play his best card, and,
clinging still to the duke's knees, cried desperately:

"If you'll spare me, I'll tell you where she is!"

The duke's arm fell to his side; and in a changed voice, from which the
cruel bantering had fled, while eager excitement filled its place, he
cried:

"What? Where who is?"

"The lady--Mlle. Delhasse. A girl I know--there in Avranches--saw her go.
She is there now."

"Where, man, where?" roared the duke, stamping his foot, and menacing the
wretch again with his pistol.

I turned to listen, forgetful of quiet little Pierre and his alert beady
eyes; yet I kept the pistol on him.

And Lafleur cried:

"At the convent--at the convent, on the shores of the bay!"

"My God!" cried the duke, and his eyes suddenly turned and flashed on
mine; and I saw that the necklace was forgotten, that our partnership was
ended, and that I again, and no longer the cowering creature before him,
was the enemy. And I also, hearing that Marie Delhasse was at the convent,
was telling myself that I was a fool not to have thought of it before, and
wondering what new impulse had seized the duke's wayward mind.

Thus neither the duke nor I was attending to the business of the moment.
But there was a man of busy brain, whose life taught him to profit by the
slips of other men and to let pass no opportunities. Our carelessness gave
one now--a chance of escape, and a chance of something else too. For,
while my negligent hand dropped to my side and my eyes were seeking to
read the duke's face, the figure opposite me must have been moving. Softly
must a deft hand have crept to a pocket; softly came forth the hidden
weapon. There was a report loud and sudden; and then another. And with the
first, Lafleur, who was kneeling at the duke's feet and looking up to see
how his shaft had sped, flung his arms wildly over his head, gave a
shriek, and fell dead--his head, half-shattered, striking the iron box as
he fell sideways in a heap on the ground.

The duke sprang back with an oath, whose sound was engulfed in the second
discharge of Pierre's pistol: and I felt myself struck in the right arm;
and my weapon fell to the ground, while I clutched the wounded limb with
my left hand.

The duke, after a moment's hesitation and bewilderment, raised his pistol
and fired; but the active little scoundrel was safe among the trees, and
we heard the twigs cracking and the leaves rustling as he pushed his way
through the wood. He was gone--scot free for us, but with his score to
Lafleur well paid. I swayed where I stood, to and fro: the pain was
considerable, and things seemed to go round before my eyes; yet I turned
to my companion, crying:

"After him! He'll get off! I'm hit; I can't run!"

The duke stood still, frowning; then he slowly dropped his smoking pistol
into his pocket. For a moment longer he stood, and a smile broadened on
his face as he raised his eyes to me.

"Let him," he said briefly; and his glance rested on me for a moment in
defiant significance. And then, without another word, he turned on his
heel. He took no heed of Lafleur's dead body, that seemed to fondle the
box, huddling it in a ghastly embrace, nor of me, who swayed and tottered
and sank on the ground by the corpse. With set lips and eager eyes he
passed me, taking the road by which we had come. And I, hugging my wounded
arm, with open eyes and parted lips, saw him dive in among the trees and
disappear toward the house. And I looked round on the iron box and the
dead body--two caskets robbed of all that made them more than empty
lumber.

Minute followed minute; and then I heard the hoofs of a horse galloping at
full speed along the road from the house toward Avranches. Lafleur was
dead and done with; Pierre might go his ways; I lay fainting in the wood;
the Cardinal's Necklace was still against my side. What recked the Duke of
Saint-Maclou of all that? I knew, as I heard the thud of the hoofs on the
road, that by the time the first reddening rays reached over the horizon
he would be at the convent, seeking the woman who was all the world to
him.

And I sat there helpless, fearful of what would befall her. For what could
a convent full of women avail against his mastering rage? And a sudden
sharp pang ran through me, startling even myself in its intensity; so that
I cried out aloud, raising my sound arm in the air toward Heaven, like a
man who swears a vow:

"By God, no! By God, no--no!"




CHAPTER XV.

I Choose my Way.


The dead man lay there, embracing the empty box that had brought him to
his death; and for many minutes I sat within a yard of him, detained by
the fascination and grim mockery of the picture no less than by physical
weakness and a numbness of my brain. My body refused to act, and my mind
hardly urged its indolent servant. I was in sore distress for Marie
Delhasse,--my vehement cry witnessed it,--yet I had not the will to move
to her aid; will and power both seemed to fail me. I could fear, I could
shrink with horror, but I could not act; nor did I move till the
increasing pain of my wound drove me, as it might any unintelligent
creature, to scramble to my feet and seek, half-blindly, for some place
that should afford shelter and succor.

Leaving Lafleur and the box where they lay, a pretty spectacle for a
moralist, I stumbled through the wood back to the path, and stood there in
helpless vacillation. At the house I should find better attendance, but
old Jean's cottage was nearer. The indolence of weakness gained the day,
and I directed my steps toward the cottage, thinking now, so far as I can
recollect, of none of the exciting events of the night nor even of what
the future still held, but purely and wholly of the fact that in the
cottage I should find a fire and a bed. The root-instincts of the natural
man--the primeval elementary wants--asserted their supremacy and claimed a
monopoly of my mind, driving out all rival emotions, and with a mighty
sigh of relief and content I pushed open the door of the cottage,
staggered across to the fire and sank down on the stool by it, thanking
Heaven for so much, and telling myself that soon, very soon, I should feel
strong enough to make my way into the inner room and haul out Jean's
pallet and set it by the fire and stretch my weary limbs, and, if the pain
of my wound allowed me, go to sleep. Beyond that my desires did not reach,
and I forgot all my fears save the one dread that I was too weak for the
desired effort. Certainly it is hard for a man to think himself a hero!

I took no note of time, but I must have sat where I was for many minutes,
before I heard someone moving in the inner room. I was very glad; of
course it was Jean, and Jean, I told myself with luxurious
self-congratulation, would bring the bed for me, and put something on my
wound, and maybe give me a chink of some fine hot cognac that would spread
life through my veins. Thus I should be comfortable and able to sleep, and
forget all the shadowy people--they seemed but shadows half-real--that I
had been troubling my brain about: the duke, and Marie, whose face danced
for a moment before my eyes, and that dead fellow who hugged the box so
ludicrously. So I tried to call to Jean, but the trouble was too great,
and, as he would be sure to come out soon, I waited; and I blinked at the
smoldering wood-ashes in the fire till my eyes closed and the sleep was
all but come, despite the smart of my arm and the ache in my unsupported
back.

But just before I had forgotten everything the door of the inner room
creaked and opened. My side was toward it and I did not look round. I
opened my eyes and feebly waved my left hand. Then a voice came, clear and
fresh:

"Jean, is it you? Well, is the duke at the house?"

I must be dreaming; that was my immediate conviction, for the voice that I
heard was a voice I knew well, but one not likely to be heard here, in
Jean's cottage, at four o'clock in the morning. Decidedly I was dreaming,
and as in order to dream a man must be asleep, I was pleased at the idea
and nodded happily, smiling and blinking in self-congratulation. But that
pleasant minute of illusion was my last; for the voice cried in tones too
full of animation, too void of dreamy vagueness, too real and actual to
let me longer set them down as made of my own brain:

"Heaven! Why, it's Mr. Aycon! How in the world do you come here?"

To feel surprise at the Duchess of Saint-Maclou doing anything which she
might please to do or being anywhere that the laws of Nature rendered it
possible she should be, was perhaps a disposition of mind of which I
should have been by this time cured; yet I was surprised to find her
standing in the doorway that led from Jean's little bedroom dressed in a
neat walking gown and a very smart hat, her hands clasped in the surprise
which she shared with me and her eyes gleaming with an amused delight
which found, I fear, no answer in my heavy bewildered gaze.

"I'm getting warm," said I at first, but then I made an effort to rouse
myself. "I was a bit hurt, you know," I went on; "that little villain
Pierre--"

"Hurt!" cried the duchess, springing forward. "How? Oh, my dear Mr. Aycon,
how pale you are!"

After that remark of the duchess', I remember nothing which occurred for a
long while. In fact, just as I had apprehended that I was awake, that the
duchess was real, and that it was most remarkable to find her in Jean's
cottage, I fainted, and the duchess, the cottage, and everything else
vanished from sight and mind.

When next I became part of the waking world I found myself on the sofa of
the little room in the duke's house which I was beginning to know so well.
I felt very comfortable: my arm was neatly bandaged, I wore a clean shirt.
Suzanne was spreading a meal on the table, and the duchess, in a charming
morning gown, was smiling at me and humming a tune. The clock on the
mantelpiece marked a quarter to eight.

"Now I know all about it," said the duchess, perceiving my revival. "I've
heard it all from Suzanne and Jean--or anyhow I can guess the rest. And
you mustn't tire yourself by talking. I had you brought here so that you
might be well looked after; because we're so much indebted to you, you
know."

"Is the duke here?" I asked.

"Oh, dear, no; it's all right," nodded the duchess. "I don't know--and I
do not care--where the duke is. Drink this milk, Mr. Aycon. Your arm's not
very bad, you know--Jean says it isn't, I mean--but you'd better have milk
first, and something to eat when you feel stronger."

The duchess appeared to be in excellent spirits. She caught up a bit of
toast from the table, poured out a cup of coffee, and, still moving about,
began a light breakfast, with every sign of appetite and enjoyment.

"You've come back?" said I, looking at her in persistent surprise.

Suzanne put the cushions behind my back in a more comfortable position,
smiled kindly on us, and left us.

"Yes," said the duchess, "I have for the present, Mr. Aycon."

"But--but the duke--" I stammered.

"I don't mind the duke," said she. "Besides, he may not come. It's rather
nice that you're just a little hurt. Don't you think so, Mr. Aycon? Just a
little, you know."

"Why?" was all I found to say. The reason was not clear to me.

"Why, in the first place, because you can't fight till your arm's
well--oh, yes, of course Armand was going to fight you--and, in the second
place, you can and must stay here. There's no harm in it, while you're
ill, you see; Armand can't say there is. It's rather funny, isn't it, Mr.
Aycon?" and she munched a morsel of toast, and leaned her elbows on the
table and sent a sparkling glance across at me, for all the world as she
had done on the first night I knew her. The cares of the world did not
gall the shoulders of Mme. de Saint-Maclou.

"But why are you here?" said I, sticking to my point.

The duchess set down the cup of coffee which she had been sipping.

"I am not particular," said she. "But I told the Mother Superior exactly
what I told the duke. She wouldn't listen any more than he would. However,
I was resolved; so I came here. I don't see where else I could go, do you,
Mr. Aycon?"

"What did you tell the Mother?"

The duchess stretched one hand across the table, clenching her small fist
and tapping gently with it on the cloth.

"There is one thing that I will not do, Mr. Aycon," said she, a touch of
red coming in her cheeks and her lips set in obstinate lines. "I don't
care whether the house is my house or anybody else's house, or an
inn--yes, or a convent either. But I will not be under the same roof with
Marie Delhasse."

And her declaration finished, the duchess nodded most emphatically, and
turned to her cup again.

The name of Marie Delhasse, shot forth from Mme. de Saint-Maclou's pouting
lips, pierced the cloud that had seemed to envelop my brain. I sat up on
the sofa and looked eagerly at the duchess.

"You saw her, then, at the convent?" I asked.

"Yes, I met her in the chapel. Really, I should have expected to be safe
from her there. And the Mother would not turn her out!" And then the
duchess, by a sudden transition, said to me, with a half-apologetic, half
challenging smile: "You got my note, I suppose, Mr. Aycon?"

For a minute I regarded the duchess. And I smiled, and my smile turned to
a laugh as I answered:

"Oh, yes! I got the note."

"I meant it," said she. "But I suppose I must forgive you now. You've been
so brave, and you're so much hurt." And the duchess' eyes expressed a
gratifying admiration of my powers.

I fingered my arm, which lay comfortably enough in the bandages and the
sling that Suzanne's care had provided for it. And I rose to my feet.

"Oh, you mustn't move!" cried the duchess, rising also and coming to where
I stood.

"By Jove, but I must!" said I, looking at the clock. "The duke's got four
hours' start of me."

"What do you want with my husband now?" she asked. "I don't see why you
should fight him; anyhow, you can't fight him till your arm is well."

The duchess' words struck on my ear and her dainty little figure was
before my eyes, but my thoughts were absent from her.

"Don't go, Mr. Aycon," said she.

"I must go," I said. "By this time he'll be at the convent."

A frown gathered on the duchess' face.

"What concern is it of yours?" she asked. "I--I mean, what good can you
do?"

"I can hardly talk to you about it--" I began awkwardly; but the duchess
saved me the trouble of finishing my sentence, for she broke in angrily:

"Oh, as if I believe that! Mr. Aycon, why are you going?"

"I'm going to see that the duke doesn't--"

"Oh, you are very anxious--and very good, aren't you? Yes, and very
chivalrous! Mr. Aycon, I don't care what he does;" and she looked at me
defiantly.

"But I do," said I, and seeing my hat on the cabinet by the wall, I walked
across the room and stretched out my hand for it. The duchess darted after
me and stood between my hat and me.

"Why do you care?" she asked, with a stamp of her small foot.

There were, no doubt, many most sound and plausible reasons for
caring--reasons independent of any private feelings of my own in regard to
Marie Delhasse; but not one of them did I give to the duchess. I stood
before her, looking, I fear, very embarrassed, and avoiding her accusing
eyes.

Then the duchess flung her head back, and with passionate scorn said to
me:

"I believe you're in love with the woman yourself!"

And to this accusation also I made no reply.

"Are you really going?" she asked, her voice suddenly passing to a note of
entreaty.

"I must go," said I obstinately, callously, curtly.

"Then go!" cried the duchess. "And never let me see you again!"

She moved aside, and I sprang forward and seized my hat. I took no notice
of the duchess, and, turning, I walked straight toward the door. But
before I reached it the duchess flung herself on the sofa and buried her
face in the cushions. I would not leave her like that, so I stood and
waited; but my tongue still refused to find excuses, and still I was in a
fever to be off.

But the duchess rose again and stood upright. She was rather pale and her
lips quivered, but she held out her hand to me with a smile. And suddenly
I understood what I was doing, and that for the second time the proud
little lady before me saw herself left and neglected for the sake of that
woman whose presence made even a convent uninhabitable to her; and the
bitter wound that her pride suffered was declared in her bearing and in
the pathetic effort at dignity which she had summoned up to hide her pain.
Yet, although on this account I was sorry for her, I discerned nothing
beyond hurt pride, and was angry at the pride for the sake of Marie
Delhasse, and when I spoke it was in defense of Marie Delhasse, and not in
comfort to the duchess.

"She is not what you think," I said.

The duchess drew herself up to her full height, making the most of her
inches.

"Really, Mr. Aycon," said she, "you must forgive me if I do not discuss
that." And she paused, and then added, with a curl of her lip: "You and my
husband can settle that between you;" and with a motion of her hand she
signed to me to leave her.

Looking back on the matter, I do not know that I had any reason to be
ashamed or to feel myself in any sort a traitor to the duchess. Yet some
such feelings I had as I backed out of the room leaving her standing there
in unwonted immobility, her eyes haughty and cold, her lips set, her grace
congealed to stateliness, her gay agility frozen to proud stiffness.

And I left her thus standing in obedience to the potent yet still but
half-understood spell which drew me from her side and would not suffer me
to rest, while the Duke of Saint-Maclou was working his devices in the
valley beneath the town of Avranches.




CHAPTER XVI.

The Inn near Pontorson.


The moment I found myself outside the house--and I must confess that, for
reasons which I have indicated, it was a relief to me to find myself
there--I hastened to old Jean's cottage. The old man was eating his
breakfast; his stolidity was unshaken by the events of the night; he
manifested nothing beyond a mild satisfaction that the two rascals had
justified his opinion of them, and a resigned regret that Pierre had not
shared the fate of Lafleur. He told me that his inquiries after Marie
Delhasse had been fruitless, and added that he supposed there would be a
police inquiry into the attempted robbery and the consequent death of
Lafleur; indeed he was of opinion that the duke had gone to Avranches to
arrange for it as much as to prosecute his search for Marie. I seized the
opportunity to suggest that I should be a material witness, and urged him
to give me one of the duke's horses to carry me to Avranches. He grumbled
at my request, declaring that I should end by getting him into trouble;
but a few francs overcame his scruples, and he provided me with a sturdy
animal, which I promised to bring or send back in the course of the day.

Great as my impatience was, I was compelled to spend the first hour of my
arrival at Avranches under the doctor's hands. He discovered to my
satisfaction that the bullet had not lodged in my arm and that my hurt was
no more than a flesh-wound, which would, if all went well, heal in a few
days. He enjoined perfect rest and freedom from worry and excitement. I
thanked him, bowed myself out, mounted again, and rode to the hotel, where
I left my horse with instructions for its return to its owner. Then, at my
best speed, I hastened down the hill again, reached the grounds of the
convent, and approached the door. Perfect rest and freedom from excitement
were unattainable until I had learned whether Marie Delhasse was still
safe within the old white walls which I saw before me; for, though I could
not trace how the change in me had come, nor track its growth, I knew now
that if she were there the walls held what was of the greatest moment to
me in all the world, and that if she were not there the world was a hell
to me until I found her.

I was about to ring the bell, when from the gate of the burial-ground the
Mother Superior came at a slow pace. The old woman was frowning as she
walked, and her frown deepened at sight of me. But I, caring nothing for
what she thought, ran up to her, crying before I had well reached her:

"Is Marie Delhasse still here?"

The Mother stopped dead, and regarded me with disapprobation.

"What business is it of yours, sir, where the young woman is?" she asked.

"I mean her no harm," I urged eagerly. "If she is safe here, I ask to know
no more; I don't even ask to see her. Is she here? The Duchess of
Saint-Maclou told me that you refused to send her away."

"God forbid that I should send away any sinner who will find refuge here,"
she said solemnly. "You have seen the duchess?"

"Yes; she is at home. But Mlle. Delhasse?"

But the old woman would not be hurried. She asked again:

"What concern have you, sir, with Marie Delhasse?"

I looked her in the face as I answered plainly:

"To save her from the Duke of Saint-Maclou."

"And from her own mother, sir?"

"Yes, above all from her own mother."

The old woman started at my words; but there was no change in the level
calm of her voice as she asked:

"And why would you rescue her?"

"For the same reason that any gentleman would, if he could. If you want
more--"

She held up her hand to silence me; but her look was gentler and her voice
softer, as she said:

"You, sir, cannot save, and I cannot save, those who will not let God
himself save them."

"What do you mean?" I cried in a frenzy of fear and eagerness.

"I had prayed for her, and talked with her. I thought I had seen grace in
her. Well, I know not. It is true that she acted as her mother bade her.
But I fear all is not well."

"I pray you to speak plainly. Where is she?"

"I do not know where she is. What I know, sir, you shall know, for I
believe you come in honesty. This morning--some two hours ago--a carriage
drove from the town here. Mme. Delhasse was in it, and with her the Duke
of Saint-Maclou. I could not refuse to let the woman see her daughter.
They spoke together for a time; and then they called me, and Marie--yes,
Marie herself--begged me to let her see the duke. So they came here where
we stand, and I stood a few yards off. They talked earnestly in low tones.
And at last Marie came to me (the others remaining where they were), and
took my hand and kissed it, thanking me and bidding me adieu. I was
grieved, sir, for I trusted that the girl had found peace here; and she
was in the way to make us love her. 'Does your mother bid you go?' I
asked, 'And will she save you from all harm?' And she answered: 'I go of
my own will, Mother; but I go hoping to return.' 'You swear that you go of
your own will?' I asked. 'Yes, of my own will,' she said firmly; but she
was near to weeping as she spoke. Yet what could I do? I could but tell
her that our door--God's door--was never shut. That I told her; and with a
heavy heart, being able to do nothing else, I let her go. I pray God no
harm come of it. But I thought the man's face wore a look of triumph."

"By Heaven," I cried, "it shall not wear it for long! Which way did they
go?"

She pointed to the road by the side of the bay, leading away from
Avranches.

"That way. I watched the carriage and its dust till I saw it no more,
because of the wood that lies between here and the road. You pursue them,
sir?"

"To the world's end, madame, if I must."

She sighed and opened her lips to speak, but no words came; and without
more, I turned and left her, and set my face to follow the carriage. I
was, I think, half-mad with anger and bewilderment, for I did not think
that it would be time well spent to ascend to the town and obtain a
vehicle or a horse; but I pressed on afoot, weary and in pain as I was,
along the hot white road. For now indeed my heart was on fire, and I knew
that beside Marie Delhasse everything was nothing. So at first
imperceptibly, slowly, and unobserved, but at the last with a swift
resistless rush, the power of her beauty and of the soul that I had seemed
to see in her won upon me; and that moment, when I thought that she had
yielded to her enemy and mine, was the flowering and bloom of my love for
her.

Where had they gone? Not to the duke's house, or I should have met them as
I rode down earlier in the morning. Then where? France was wide, and the
world wider: my steps were slow. Where lay the use of the chase? In the
middle of the road, when I had gone perhaps a mile, I stopped dead. I was
beaten and sick at heart, and I searched for a nook of shade by the
wayside, and flung myself on the ground; and the ache of my arm was the
least of my pain.

As I lay there, my eye caught sight of a cloud of dust on the road. For a
moment I scanned it eagerly, and then fell back with a curse of
disappointment. It was caused by a man on a horse--and the man was not the
duke. But in an instant I was sitting up again--for as the rider drew
nearer, trotting briskly along, his form and air was familiar to me; and
when he came opposite to me, I sprang up and ran out to meet him, crying
out to him:

"Gustave! Gustave!"

It was Gustave de Berensac, my friend. He reined in his horse and greeted
me--and he greeted me without surprise, but not without apparent
displeasure.

"I thought I should find you here still," said he. "I rode over to seek
you. Surely you are not at the duchess'?"

His tone was eloquent of remonstrance.

"I've been staying at the inn."

"At the inn?" he repeated, looking at me curiously. "And is the duchess at
home?"

"She's at home now. How come you here?"

"Ah, my friend, and how comes your arm in a sling? Well, you shall have my
story first. I expect it will prove shorter. I am staying at Pontorson
with a friend who is quartered there."

"But you went to Paris."

Gustave leaned clown to me, and spoke in a low impressive tone:

"Gilbert," said he, "I've had a blow. The day after I got to Paris I heard
from Lady Cynthia. She's going to be married to a countryman of yours."

Gustave looked very doleful. I murmured condolence, though in truth I
cared, just then, not a straw about the matter.

"So," he continued, "I seized the first opportunity for a little change."

There was a pause. Gustave's mournful eye ranged over the landscape. Then
he said, in a patient, sorrowful voice:

"You said the duchess was at home?"

"Yes, she's at home now."

"Ah! I ask again, because as I passed the inn on the way between here and
Pontorson I saw in the courtyard--"

"Yes, yes, what?" cried I in sudden eagerness.

"What's the matter, man? I saw a carriage with some luggage on it, and it
looked like the duke's, and--Hallo! Gilbert, where are you going?"

"I can't wait, I can't wait!" I called, already three or four yards away.

"But I haven't heard how you got your arm--"

"I can't tell you now. I can't wait!"

My lethargy had vanished; I was hot to be on my way again.

"Is the man mad?" he cried; and he put his horse to a quick walk to keep
up with me.

I stopped short.

"It would take all day to tell you the story," I said impatiently.

"Still I should like to know--"

"I can't help it. Look here, Gustave, the duchess knows. Go and see her. I
must go on now."

Across the puzzled mournful eyes of the rejected lover and bewildered
friend I thought I saw a little gleam.

"The duchess?" said he.

"Yes, she's all alone. The duke's not there."

"Where is the duke?" he asked; but, as it struck me, now rather in
precaution than in curiosity.

"That's what I'm going to see," said I.

And with hope and resolution born again in my heart I broke into a fair
run, and, with a wave of my hand, left Gustave in the middle of the road,
staring after me and plainly convinced that I was mad. Perhaps I was not
far from that state. Mad or not, in any case after three minutes I thought
no more of my good friend Gustave de Berensac, nor of aught else, save the
inn outside Pontorson, just where the old road used to turn toward Mont
St. Michel. To that goal I pressed on, forgetting my weariness and my
pain. For it might be that the carriage would still stand in the yard, and
that in the house I should come upon the object of my search.

Half an hour's walk brought me to the inn, and there, to my joy, I saw the
carriage drawn up under a shed side by side with the inn-keeper's market
cart. The horses had been taken out; there was no servant in sight. I
walked up to the door of the inn and passed through it. And I called for
wine.

A big stout man, wearing a blouse, came out to meet me. The inn was a
large one, and the inn-keeper was evidently a man of some consideration,
although he wore a blouse. But I did not like the look of him, for he had
shifty eyes and a bloated face. Without a word he brought me what I
ordered and set it down in a little room facing the stable yard.

"Whose carriage is that under your shed?" I asked, sipping my wine.

"It is the carriage of the Duke of Saint-Maclou, sir," he answered readily
enough.

"The duke is here, then?"

"Have you business with him, sir?"

"I did but ask you a simple question," said I. "Ah! what's that? Who's
that?"

I had been looking out of the window, and my sudden exclamation was caused
by this--that the door of a stable which faced me had opened very gently,
and but just wide enough to allow a face to appear for an instant and then
disappear. And it seemed to me that I knew the face, although the sight of
it had been too short to make me sure.

"What did you see, sir?" asked the inn-keeper. (The name on his signboard
was Jacques Bontet.)

I turned and faced him full.

"I saw someone look out of the stable," said I.

"Doubtless the stable-boy," he answered; and his manner was so ordinary,
unembarrassed, and free from alarm, that I doubted whether my eyes had not
played me a trick, or my imagination played one upon my eyes.

Be that as it might, I had no time to press my host further at that
moment; for I heard a step behind me and a voice I knew saying:

"Bontet, who is this gentleman?"

I turned. In the doorway of the room stood the Duke of Saint-Maclou. He
was in the same dress as when he had parted from me; he was dusty, his
face was pale, and the skin had made bags under his eyes. But he stood
looking at me composedly, with a smile on his lips.

"Ah!" said he, "it is my friend Mr. Aycon. Bontet, bring me some wine,
too, that I may drink with my friend." And he added, addressing me: "You
will find our good Bontet most obliging. He is a tenant of mine, and he
will do anything to oblige me and my friends. Isn't it so, Bontet?"

The fellow grunted a surly and none too respectful assent, and left the
room to fetch the duke his wine. Silence followed on his departure for
some seconds. Then the duke came up to where I stood, folded his arms, and
looked me full in the face.

"It is difficult to lose the pleasure of your company, sir," he said.

"If you will depart from here alone," I retorted, "you shall find it the
easiest thing in the world. For, in truth, it is not desire for your
society that brings me here."

He lifted a hand and tugged at his mustache.

"You have, perhaps, been to the convent?" he hazarded.

"I have just come from there," I rejoined.

"I am not an Englishman," said he, curling the end of the mustache, "and I
do not know how plain an intimation need be to discourage one of your
resolute race. For my part, I should have thought that when a lady accepts
the escort of one gentleman, it means that she does not desire that of
another."

He said this with a great air and an assumption of dignity that contrasted
strongly with the unrestrained paroxysms of the night before. I take it
that success--or what seems such--may transform a man as though it changed
his very skin. But I was not skilled to cross swords with him in talk of
that kind, so I put my hands in my pockets and leaned against the shutter
and said bluntly:

"God knows what lies you told her, you see."

His white face suddenly flushed; but he held himself in and retorted with
a sneer:

"A disabled right arm gives a man fine courage."

"Nonsense!" said I. "I can aim as well with my left;" and that indeed was
not very far from the truth. And I went on: "Is she here?"

"Mme. and Mlle. Delhasse are both here, under my escort."

"I should like to see Mlle. Delhasse," I observed.

He answered me in low tones, but with the passion in him closer to the
surface now and near on boiling up through the thin film of his
self-restraint:

"So long as I live, you shall never see her."

But I cared not, for my heart leaped in joy at his words. They meant to me
that he dared not let me see her; that, be the meaning of her consent to
go with him what it might, yet he dared not match his power over her
against mine. And whence came the power he feared? It could be mine only
if I had touched her heart.

"I presume she may see whom she will," said I still carelessly.

"Her mother will protect her from you with my help."

There was silence for a minute. Then I said:

"I will not leave here without seeing her."

And a pause followed my words till the duke, fixing his eyes on mine,
answered significantly:

"If you leave here alive to-night, you are welcome to take her with you."

I understood, and I nodded my head.

"My left arm is as sound as yours," he added; "and, maybe, better
practiced."

Our eyes met again, and the agreement was sealed. The duke was about to
speak again, when a sudden thought struck me. I put my hand in my pocket
and drew out the Cardinal's Necklace. And I flung it on the table before
me, saying:

"Let me return that to you, sir."

The duke stood regarding the necklace for a moment, as it lay gleaming and
glittering on the wooden table in the bare inn parlor. Then he stepped up
to the table, but at the moment I cried:

"You won't steal her away before--before--"

"Before we fight? I will not, on my honor." He paused and added: "For
there is one thing I want more even than her."

I could guess what that was.

And then he put out his hand, took up the necklace, and thrust it
carelessly into the pocket of his coat. And looking across the room, I saw
the inn-keeper, Jacques Bontet, standing in the doorway and staring with
all his eyes at the spot on the table where the glittering thing had for a
moment lain; and as the fellow set down the wine he had brought for the
duke, I swear that he trembled as a man who has seen a ghost; for he
spilled some of the wine and chinked the bottle against the glass. But
while I stared at him, the duke lifted his glass and bowed to me, saying,
with a smile and as though he jested in some phrase of extravagant
friendship for me:

"May nothing less than death part you and me?"

And I drank the toast with him, saying "Amen."




CHAPTER XVII.

A Reluctant Intrusion.


As Bontet the inn-keeper set the wine on the table before the Duke of
Saint-Maclou, the big clock in the hall of the inn struck noon. It is
strange to me, even now when the story has grown old in my memory, to
recall all that happened before the hands of that clock pointed again to
twelve. And last year when I revisited the neighborhood and found a neat
new house standing on the site of the ramshackle inn, I could not pass by
without a queer feeling in my throat; for it was there that the results of
the duchess' indiscretion finally worked themselves out to their
unexpected, fatal, and momentous ending. Seldom, as I should suppose, has
such a mixed skein of good and evil, of fatality and happiness, been spun
from material no more substantial than a sportive lady's idle freak.

"By the way, Mr. Aycon," said the duke, after we had drunk our toast, "I
have had a message from the magistrate at Avranches requesting our
presence to-morrow morning at eleven o'clock. An inquiry has to be held
into the death of that rascal Lafleur, and our evidence must be taken. It
is a mere formality, the magistrate is good enough to assure me, and I
have assured him that we shall neither of us allow anything to interfere
with our waiting on him, if we can possibly do so."

"I could have sent no other message myself," said I.

"I will also," continued the duke, "send word by Bontet here to those two
friends of mine at Pontorson. It would be dull for you to dine alone with
me, and, as the evening promises to be fine, I will ask them to be here by
five o'clock, and we will have a stroll on the sands and a nearer look at
the Mount before our meal. They are officers who are quartered there."

"Their presence," said I, "will add greatly to the pleasure of the
evening."

"Meanwhile, if you will excuse me, I shall take an hour or two's rest. We
missed our sleep last night, and we should wish to be fresh when our
guests arrive. If I might advise you--"

"I am about to breakfast, after that I may follow your advice."

"Ah, you've not breakfasted? You can't do better, then. _Au revoir_;" and
with a bow he left me, calling to Bontet to follow him upstairs and wait
for the note which was to go to the officers at Pontorson. It must be
admitted that the duke conducted the necessary arrangements with much
tact.

In a quarter of an hour my breakfast was before me, and I seated myself
with my back to the door and my face to the window. I had plenty to think
about as I ate; but my chief anxiety was by some means to obtain an
interview with Marie Delhasse, not with a view to persuading her to
attempt escape with me before the evening--for I had made up my mind that
the issue with the duke must be faced now, once for all--but in the hope
of discovering why she had allowed herself to be persuaded into leaving
the convent. Until I knew that, I was a prey to wretched doubts and
despondency, which even my deep-seated confidence in her could not
overcome. Fortunately I had a small sum of money in my pocket, and I felt
sure that Bontet's devotion to the duke would not be proof against an
adequate bribe: perhaps he would be able to assist me in eluding the
vigilance of Madame Delhasse and obtaining speech with her daughter.

Bontet, detained as I supposed by the duke, had left a kitchen-girl to
attend on me; but I soon saw him come out into the yard, carrying a letter
in his hand. He walked slowly across to the stable door, at which the
face, suddenly presented and withdrawn, had caught my attention. He
stopped before the door a moment, then the door opened. I could not see
whether he opened it or whether it was unlocked from within, for his burly
frame obstructed my view; but the pause was long enough to show that more
than the lifting of a latch was necessary. And that I thought worth
notice. The door closed after Bontet. I rose, opened my window and
listened; but the yard was broad and no sound reached me from the stable.

I waited there five minutes perhaps. The inn-keeper did not reappear, so I
returned to my place. I had finished my meal before he came out. This time
I was tolerably sure that the door was closed behind him by another hand,
and I fancied that I heard the click of a lock. Also I noticed that the
letter was no longer visible--of course, he might have put it in his
pocket. Jumping up suddenly as though I had just chanced to notice him, I
asked him if he were off to Pontorson, or, if not, had he a moment for
conversation.

"I am going in a few minutes, sir," he answered; "but I am at your service
now."

The words were civil enough, but his manner was surly and suspicious.
Lighting a cigarette, I sat down on the window-sill, while he stood just
outside.

"I want a bedroom," said I. "Have you one for me?"

"I have given you the room on the first floor, immediately opposite that
of the duke."

"Good. And where are the ladies lodged?"

He made no difficulty about giving me an answer.

"They have a sitting room on the first floor," he answered, "but hitherto
they have not used it. They have two bedrooms, connected by an interior
door, on the second floor, and they have not left them since their
arrival."

"Has the duke visited them there?"

"I don't think he has seen them. They had a conversation on their
arrival;" and the fellow grinned.

Now was my time. I took a hundred-franc note out of my pocket and held it
in my hand so that he could see the figures on it. I hoped that he would
not be exorbitant, for I had but one more and some loose napoleons in my
pocket.

"What was the conversation about?" I asked.

He put out his hand for the note; but I kept my grasp on it. Honesty was
not written large--no, nor plain to read--on Bontet's fat face.

"I heard little of it; but the young lady said, as they hurried upstairs:
'Where is he? Where is he?'"

"Yes, yes!"

And I held out the note to him. He had earned it. And greedily he clutched
it, and stowed it in his breeches pocket under his blouse.

"I heard no more; they hurried her up; the old lady had her by one arm and
the duke by the other. She looked distressed--why, I know not; for I
suppose"--here a sly grin spread over the fellow's face--"that the pretty
present I saw is for her."

"It's the property of the duke," I said.

"But gentlemen sometimes make presents to ladies," he suggested.

"It may be his purpose to do so. Bontet, I want to see the young lady."

He laughed insolently, kicking his toe against the wall.

"What use, unless you have a better present, sir? But it's nothing to me.
If you can manage it, you're welcome."

"But how am I to manage it? Come, earn your money, and perhaps you'll earn
more."

"You're liberal, sir;" and he stared at me as though he were trying to
look into my pocket and see how much money was there. I was glad that his
glance was not so penetrating. "But I can't help you. Stay, though. The
old lady has ordered coffee for two in the sitting-room, and bids me rouse
the duke when it is ready: so perhaps the young lady will be left alone
for a time. If you could steal up--"

I was not in the mood to stand on a punctilio. My brain was kindled by
Marie's words, "Where is he?" Already I was searching for their meaning
and finding what I wished. If I could see her, and learn the longed-for
truth from her, I should go in good heart to my conflict with the duke.

"Go to your room," said Bontet, whom my prospective _largesse_ had
persuaded to civility and almost to eagerness, "and wait. If madame and
the duke go there, I'll let you know. But you must risk meeting them."

"I don't mind about that," said I; and, in truth, nothing could make my
relations with the pair more hostile than they were already.

My business with Bontet was finished; but I indulged my curiosity for a
moment.

"You have a good stable over there, I see," I remarked. "How many horses
have you there?"

The fellow turned very red: all signs of good humor vanished from his
face; my bribe evidently gave me no right to question him on that subject.

"There are no horses there," he grunted. "The horses are in the new stable
facing the road. This one is disused."

"Oh, I saw you come out from there, and I thought--"

"I keep some stores there," he said sullenly.

"And that's why it's kept locked?" I asked at a venture.

"Precisely, sir," he replied. But his uneasy air confirmed my suspicions
as to the stable. It hid some secret, I was sure. Nay, I began to be sure
that my eyes had not played me false, and that I had indeed seen the face
I seemed to see. If that were so, friend Bontet was playing a double game
and probably enjoying more than one paymaster.

However, I had no leisure to follow that track, nor was I much concerned
to attempt the task. The next day would be time--if I were alive the next
day: and I cared little if the secret were never revealed. It was nothing
to me--for it never crossed my mind that fresh designs might be hatched in
the stable. Dismissing the matter, I did as Bontet advised, and walked
upstairs to my room; and as luck would have it, I met Mme. Delhasse plump
on the landing, she being on her way to the sitting room. I bowed low.
Madame gave me a look of hatred and passed by me. As she displayed no
surprise, it was evident that the duke had carried or sent word of my
arrival. I was not minded to let her go without a word or two.

"Madame--" I began; but she was too quick for me. She burst out in a
torrent of angry abuse. Her resentment, dammed so long for want of
opportunity, carried her away. To speak soberly and by the card, the woman
was a hideous thing to see and hear; for in her wrath at me, she spared
not to set forth in unshamed plainness her designs, nor to declare of what
rewards, promised by the duke, my interference had gone near to rob her
and still rendered uncertain. Her voice rose, for all her efforts to keep
it low, and she mingled foul words of the duchess and of me with scornful
curses on the virtue of her daughter. I could say nothing; I stood there
wondering that such creatures lived, amazed that Marie Delhasse must call
such an one her mother.

Then in the midst of her tirade, the duke, roused without Bontet's help,
came out of his room, and waited a moment listening to the flow of the
torrent. And, strange as it seemed, he smiled at me and shrugged his
shoulders, and I found myself smiling also; for disgusting as the woman
was, she was amusing, too. And the duke went and caught her by the
shoulder and said:

"Come, don't be silly, mother. We can settle our accounts with Mr. Aycon
in another way than this."

His touch and words seemed to sober her--or perhaps her passion had run
its course. She turned to him, and her lips parted with a smile, a cunning
and--if my opinion be asked--loathsome smile; and she caressed the lapel
of his coat with her hand. And the duke, who was smoking, smoked on, so
that the smoke blew in her face, and she coughed and choked: whereat the
duke also smiled. He set the right value on his instrument, and took
pleasure in showing how he despised her.

"My dear, dear duke, I have such news for you--such news?" she said,
ignoring, as perforce she must, his rudeness. "Come in here, and leave
that man."

At this the duke suddenly bent forward, his scornful, insolent toleration
giving place to interest.

"News?" he cried, and he drew her toward the door to which she had been
going, neither of them paying any more attention to me. And the door
closed upon them.

The duke had not needed Bontet's rousing. I did not need Bontet to tell me
that the coast was clear. With a last alert glance at the door, I trod
softly across the landing and reached the stairs by which Mlle. Delhasse
had descended. Gently I mounted, and on reaching the top of the flight
found a door directly facing me. I turned the handle, but the door was
locked. I rattled the handle cautiously--and then again, and again. And
presently I heard a light, timid, hesitating step inside; and through the
door came, in the voice of Marie Delhasse:

"Who's there?"

And I answered at once, boldly, but in a low voice:

"It is I. Open the door."

She, in her turn, knew my voice; for the door was opened, and Marie
Delhasse stood before me, her face pale with weariness and sorrow, and her
eyes wide with wonder. She drew back before me, and I stepped in and shut
the door, finding myself in a rather large, sparely furnished room. A door
opposite was half-open. On the bed lay a bonnet and a jacket which
certainly did not belong to Marie.

Most undoubtedly I had intruded into the bedchamber of that highly
respectable lady, Mme. Delhasse. I can only plead that the circumstances
were peculiar.




CHAPTER XVIII.

A Strange Good Humor.


For a moment Marie Delhasse stood looking at me; then she uttered a low
cry, full of relief, of security, of joy; and coming to me stretched out
her hands, saying:

"You are here then, after all!"

Charmed to see how she greeted me, I had not the heart to tell her that
her peril was not past; nor did she give me the opportunity, for went on
directly:

"And you are wounded? But not badly, not badly, Mr. Aycon?"

"Who told you I was wounded?"

"Why, the duke. He said that you had been shot by a thief, and were very
badly hurt; and--and--" She stopped, blushing.

("Where is he?" I remembered the words; my forecast of their meaning had
been true.)

"And did what he told you," I asked softly, "make you leave the convent
and come to find me?"

"Yes," she answered, taking courage and meeting my eyes. "And then you
were not here, and I thought it was a trap."

"You were right; it was a trap. I came to find you at the convent, but you
were gone: only by the chance of meeting with a friend who saw the duke's
carriage standing here have I found you."

"You were seeking for me?"

"Yes, I was seeking for you."

I spoke slowly, as though hours were open for our talk; but suddenly I
remembered that at any moment the old witch might return. And I had much
to say before she came.

"Marie--" I began eagerly, never thinking that the name she had come to
bear in my thoughts could be new and strange from my lips. But the moment
I had uttered it I perceived what I had done, for she drew back further,
gazing at me with inquiring eyes, and her breath seemed arrested. Then,
answering the question in her eyes, I said simply:

"For what else am I here, Marie?" and I caught her hand in my left hand.

She stood motionless, still silently asking what I would. And I kissed her
hand. And again the low cry, lower still--half a cry and half a sigh--came
from her, and she drew timidly nearer to me; and I drew her yet nearer,
whispering, in a broken word or two, that I loved her.

But she, still dazed, looked up at me, whispering, "When, when?"

And I could not tell her when I had come to love her, for I did not know
then--nor can I recollect now; nor have I any opinion about it, save that
it speaks ill for me that it was not when first I set my eyes upon her.
But she doubted, remembering that I had seemed fancy-struck with the
little duchess, and cold, maybe stern, to her; and because, I think, she
knew that I had seen her tempted. And to silence her doubts, I kissed her
lips. She did not return my kiss, but stood with wondering eyes. Then in
an instant a change came over her face. I felt her press my hand, and for
an instant or two her lips moved, but I heard no words, nor do I think
that the unheard words were for my ear; and I bowed my head.

Yet time pressed. Again I collected my thoughts from this sweet
reverie--wherein what gave me not least joy was the perfect trust she
showed in me, for that is perhaps the one thing in this world that a man
may be proud to win--and said to her:

"Marie, you must listen. I have something to tell you."

"Oh, you'll take me away from them?" she cried, clutching my hand in both
of hers.

"I can't now," I answered. "You must be brave. Listen: if I try to take
you away now, it may be that I should be killed and you left defenseless.
But this evening you can be safe, whatever befalls me."

"Why, what should befall you?" she asked, with a swift movement that
brought her closer to me.

I had to tell her the truth, or my plan for her salvation would not be
carried out.

"To-night I fight the duke. Hush! hush! Yes, I must fight with the
duke--yes, wounded arm, my darling, notwithstanding. We shall leave here
about five and go down to the bay toward the Mount, and there on the sands
we shall fight. And--listen now--you must follow us, about half an hour
after we have gone."

"But they will not let me go."

"Go you must. Marie, here is a pistol. Take it; and if anyone stops you,
use it. But I think none will; for the duke will be with me, and I do not
think Bontet will interfere."

"But my mother?"

"You are as strong as she."

"Yes, yes, I'll come. You'll be on the sands; I'll come!" The help she had
found in me made her brave now.

"You will get there as we are fighting or soon after. Do not look for me
or for the duke, but look for two gentlemen whom you do not know, they
will be there--French officers--and to their honor you must trust."

"But why not to you?"

"If I am alive and well, I shall not fail you; but if I come not, go to
them and demand their protection from the duke, telling them how he has
snared you here. And they will not suffer him to carry you off against
your will. Do you see? Do you understand?"

"Yes, I see. But must you fight?"

"Yes, dear, I must fight. The duke will not trouble you again, I think,
before the evening; and if you remember what I have told you, all will be
well."

So I tried to comfort her, believing as I did that no two French gentlemen
would desire or dare to refuse her their protection against the duke. But
she was clinging to me now, in great distress that I must fight--and
indeed I had rather have fought at another time myself--and in fresh
terror of her mother's anger, seeing that I should not be there to bear it
for her.

"For," she said, "we have had a terrible quarrel just before you came. I
told her that unless I saw you within an hour nothing but force should
keep me here, and that if they kept me here by force, I would find means
to kill myself; and that I would not see nor speak to the duke unless he
brought me to you, according to his promise; and that if he sent his
necklace again--for he sent it here half an hour ago--I would not send it
back as I did then, but would fling it out of the window yonder into the
cattle pond, where he could go and fetch it out himself."

And my dearest Marie, finding increased courage from reciting her
courageous speech, and from my friendly hearing of it, raised her voice,
and her eyes flashed, so that she looked yet more beautiful; and again did
I forget inexorable time. But it struck me that there was small wonder
that Mme. Delhasse's temper had not been of the best nor calculated to
endure patiently such a vexatious encounter as befell her when she ran
against me on the landing outside her door.

Yet Marie's courage failed again; and I told her that before we fought I
would tell my second of her state, so that if she came not and I were
wounded (of worse I did not speak), he would come to the inn and bring her
to me. And this comforted her more, so that she grew calmer, and, passing
from our present difficulties, she gave herself to persuading me (nor
would the poor girl believe that I needed no persuading) that in no case
would she have yielded to the duke, and that her mother had left her in
wrath born of an utter despair that Marie's will in the matter could ever
be broken down.

"For I told her," Marie repeated, "that I would sooner die!"

She paused, and raising her eyes to mine, said to me (and here I think
courage was not lacking in her):

"Yes, although once I had hesitated, now I had rather die. For when I
hesitated, God sent you to my door, that in love I might find salvation."

Well, I do not know that a man does well to describe all that passes at
times like this. There are things rather meet to be left dwelling in his
own heart, sweetening all his life, and causing him to marvel that sinners
have such joys conceded to them this side of Heaven; so that in their
recollection he may find, mingling with his delight, an occasion for
humility such as it little harms any of us to light on now and then.

Enough then--for the telling of it; but enough in the passing of it there
was not nor could be. Yet at last, because needs must when the devil--or a
son--aye, or an elderly daughter of his--drives, I found myself outside
the door of Mme. Delhasse's room. With the turning of the lock Marie
whispered a last word to me, and full of hope I turned to descend the
stairs. For I had upon me the feeling which, oftener perhaps than we
think, gave to the righteous cause a victory against odds when ordeal of
battle held sway. Now, such a feeling is, I take it, of small use in a
court of law.

But Fortune lost no time in checking my presumption by an accident which
at first gave me great concern. For, even as I turned away from the door
of the room, there was Mme. Delhasse coming up the stairs. I was fairly
caught, there was no doubt about it; and for Marie's sake I was deeply
grieved, for I feared that my discovery would mean another stormy scene
for her. Nevertheless, to make the best of it, I assumed a jaunty air as I
said to Mlle. Delhasse:

"The duke will be witness that you were not in your room, madame. You will
not be compromised."

I fully expected that an outburst of anger would follow on this pleasantry
of mine--which was, I confess, rather in the taste best suited to Mme.
Delhasse than in the best as judged by an abstract standard--but to my
surprise the old creature did nothing worse than bestow on me a sour grin.
Apparently, if I were well-pleased with the last half-hour, she had found
time pass no less pleasantly. All traces of her exasperation and ill humor
had gone, and she looked as pleased and contented as though she had been
an exemplary mother, rewarded (as such deserve to be) by complete love and
peace in her family circle.

"You've been slinking in behind my back, have you?" she asked, but still
with a grin.

"It would have been rude to force an entrance to your face," I observed.

"And I suppose you've been making love to the girl?"

"At the proper time, madame," said I, with much courtesy, "I shall no
doubt ask you for an interview with regard to that matter. I shall omit no
respect that you deserve."

As I spoke, I stood on one side to let her pass. I cannot make up my mind
whether her recent fury or her present good humor repelled me more.

"You'd have a fine fool for a wife," said she, with a jerk of her thumb
toward the room where the daughter was.

"I should be compensated by a very clever mother-in-law," said I.

The old woman paused for an instant at the top of the stairs, and looked
me up and down.

"Aye," said she, "you men think yourselves mighty clever, but a woman gets
the better of you all now and then."

I was utterly puzzled by her evident exultation. The duke could not have
consented to accept her society in place of her daughter's; but I risked
the impropriety and hazarded the suggestion to Mme. Delhasse. Her face
curled in cunning wrinkles. She seemed to be about to speak, but then she
shut her lips with a snap, and suspicion betrayed itself again in her
eyes. She had a secret--a fresh secret--I could have sworn, and in her
triumph she had come near to saying something that might have cast light
on it.

"By the way," I said, "your daughter did not expect my coming." It was
perhaps a vain hope, but I thought that I might save Marie from a tirade.

The old woman shrugged her shoulders, and observed carelessly:

"The fool may do what she likes;" and with this she knocked at the door.

I did not wait to see it opened--to confess the truth, I felt not sure of
my temper were I forced to see her and Marie together--but went downstairs
and into my own room. There I sat down in a chair by the window close to a
small table, for I meant to write a letter or two to friends at home, in
case the duke's left hand should prove more skillful than mine when we met
that evening. But, finding that I could hardly write with my right hand
and couldn't write at all with the other, I contented myself with
scrawling laboriously a short note to Gustave de Berensac, which I put in
my pocket, having indorsed on it a direction for its delivery in case I
should meet with an accident. Then I lay back in my chair, regretting, I
recollect, that, as my luggage was left at Avranches, I had not a clean
shirt to fight in; and then, becoming drowsy, I began to stare idly along
the road in front of the window, rehearsing the events of the last few
days in my mind, but coming back to Marie Delhasse.

So an hour passed away. Then I rose and stretched myself, and gave a
glance out of the window to see if we were likely to have a fine evening
for our sport, for clouds had been gathering up all day. And when I had
made up my mind that the rain would hold off long enough for our purpose,
I looked down at the road again, and there I saw two figures which I knew.
From the direction of Pontorson came Jacques Bontet the inn-keeper,
slouching along and smoking a thin black cigar.

"Ah! he has been to deliver the note to our friends the officers," said I
to myself.

And then I looked at the other familiar figure, which was that of Mme.
Delhasse. She wore the bonnet and cloak which had been lying on the bed in
her room at the time of my intrusion. She was just leaving the premises of
the inn strolling, nay dawdling, along. She met Bontet and stopped for a
moment in conversation with him. Then she pursued her leisurely walk in
the direction of Pontorson, and I watched her till she was about three
hundred yards off. But her form had no charms, and, growing tired of the
prospect, I turned away remarking to myself:

"I suppose the old lady wants just a little stroll before dinner."

Nor did I see any reason to be dissatisfied with either of my
inferences--at the moment. So I disturbed myself no more, but rang the
bell and ordered some coffee and a little glass of the least bad brandy in
the inn. For it could not be long before I was presented with the Duke of
Saint-Maclou's compliments and an intimation that he would be glad to have
my company on a walk in the cool of the evening.




CHAPTER XIX.

Unsummoned Witnesses.


Slowly the afternoon wore away. My content had given place to urgent
impatience, and I longed every moment for the summons to action. None
came; and a quarter to five I went downstairs, hoping to find some means
of whiling away the interval of time. Pushing open the door of the little
_salle-à-manger_, I was presented with a back view of my host M. Bontet,
who was leaning out of the window. Just as I entered, he shouted "Ready at
six!" Then he turned swiftly round, having, I suppose, heard my entrance;
at the same moment, the sound of a door violently slammed struck on my ear
across the yard. I moved quickly up to the window. The stable door was
shut; and Bontet faced me with a surly frown on his brow.

"What is to be ready at six?" I asked.

"Some refreshments for Mme. Delhasse," he answered readily.

"You order refreshments from the stable?"

"I was shouting to the scullery: the door is, as you will perceive, sir,
there to the left."

Now I knew that this was a lie, and I might very likely have said as much,
had not the Duke of Saint-Maclou at this moment come into the room. He
bowed to me, but addressed himself to Bontet.

"Well, are the gentlemen to be here at five?" he asked.

Bontet, with an air of relief, began an explanation. One of the
gentlemen--M. de Vieuville, he believed--had read out the note in his
presence, and had desired him to tell the duke that he and the other
gentleman would meet the duke and his friend on the sands at a quarter to
six. They would be where the road ceased and the sand began at that hour.

"He seems to think," Bontet explained, "that less attention would thus be
directed to the affair."

The precaution seemed wise enough; but why had M. de Vieuville taken
Bontet so much into his confidence? The same thought struck the duke, for
he asked sharply:

"Why did he read the note to you?"

"Oh, he thought nothing of that," said Bontet easily. "The gentlemen at
Pontorson know me very well: several affairs have been arranged from this
house."

"You ought to keep a private cemetery," said the duke with a grim smile.

"The sands are there," laughed the fellow, with a wave of his hand.

Nobody appeared to desire to continue this cheerful conversation, and
silence fell upon us for some moments. Then the duke observed:

"Bontet, I want you for a few minutes. Mr. Aycon, shall you be ready to
start in half an hour? Our friends will probably bring pistols: failing
that, I can provide you, if you have no objection to using mine."

I bowed, and they left me alone. And then, having nothing better to do, I
lit a cigar, vaulted out of the window, and strolled toward the stable. My
curiosity about the stable had been growing rapidly. I cast a glance
round, and saw nobody in the yard. Then, with a careless air, I turned the
handle of the door. Nothing occurred. I turned it more violently; still
nothing happened. I bent down suddenly and looked through the keyhole. And
I saw--not a key, but--an eye! And for ten seconds I looked at the eye.
Then the eye disappeared; and I heard that little unmistakable "click."
The eye had a pistol--and had cocked it! Was that because it saw through
the keyhole strange garments, instead of the friendly bright blue of
Bontet's blouse? And why had the eye such a dislike to strangers? I
straightened myself again and took a walk along the length of the stable,
considering these questions and, incidentally, looking for a window; but
the only window was a clear four feet above my head.

I am puzzled even now to say whether I regret not having listened to the
suspicion that was strong in my breast. Had I forecast, in the least
degree, the result of my neglecting to pay heed to its warning, I should
not have hesitated for a moment. But in the absence of such a presage, I
felt rather indifferent about the matter. My predominant desire was to
avoid the necessity of postponing the settlement of the issue between the
duke and myself; and a delay to that must needs follow, if I took action
in regard to the stable. Moreover, why should I stir in the matter? I had
a right to waive any grievance of my own; for the rest, it seemed to me
that justice was not much concerned in the matter; the merits or demerits
of the parties were, in my view, pretty equal; and I questioned the
obligation to incur, not only the delay which I detested, but, in all
probability, a very risky adventure in a cause which I had very little at
heart.

If "the eye" could, by being "ready at six," get out of the stable while
the duke and I were engaged otherwise and elsewhere, why--"Let him," said
I, "and go to the devil his own way. He's sure to get there at last!" So I
reasoned--or perhaps, I should rather say, so I felt; and I must repeat
that I find it difficult now to be very sorry that my mood was what it
was.

My half hour was passing. I crossed back to the window and got in again.
The duke, whose impatience rivaled my own, was waiting for me. A case of
pistols lay on the table and, having held them up for me to see, he
slipped them inside his coat.

"Are you ready, sir?" he asked. "We may as well be starting."

I bowed and motioned him to precede me. He also, in spite of his
impatience, seemed to me to be in a better humor than earlier in the day.
The interview with Mme. Delhasse must have been satisfactory to both
parties. Had not his face showed me the improvement in his temper, his
first words after we left the premises of the inn (at a quarter past five
exactly) would have declared it; for he turned to me and said:

"Look here, Mr. Aycon. You're running a great risk for nothing. Be a
sensible man. Go back to Avranches, thence to Cherbourg, and thence to
where you live--and leave me to settle my own affairs."

"Before I accept that proposal," said I, "I must know what 'your own
affairs' include."

"You're making a fool of yourself--or being made a fool of--which you
please," he assured me; and his face wore for the moment an almost
friendly look. I saw clearly that he believed he had won the day. The old
lady had managed to make him think that--by what artifice I knew not. But
what I did know was that I believed not a jot of the insinuation he was
conveying to me, and had not a doubt of the truth, and sincerity of Marie
Delhasse.

"The best of us do that sometimes," I answered. "And when one has begun,
it is best to go through."

"As you please. Have you ever practiced with your left hand?"

"No," said I.

"Then," said he, "you've not long to live."

To do him justice, he said it in no boasting way, but like a man who would
warn me, and earnestly.

"I have never practiced with my right either," I remarked. "I think I get
rather a pull by the arrangement."

He walked on in silence for a few yards. Then he asked:

"You're resolved on it?"

"Absolutely," I returned. For I understood that he did but offer the same
terms as before--terms which included the abandonment of Marie Delhasse.

On we went, our faces set toward the great Mount, and with the sinking sun
on our left hands. We met few people, and as we reached the sands yet
fewer. When we came to a stand, just where the causeway now begins (it was
not built then), nobody was in sight. The duke took out his watch.

"We are punctual to the minute," said he. "I hope those fellows won't be
very late, or the best of the light will be gone."

There were some large flat blocks of stone lying by the roadside, and we
sat down on them and waited. We were both smoking, and we found little to
say to one another. For my part, I thought less of our coming encounter
than of the success of the scheme which I had laid for Marie's safety. And
I believe that the duke, on his part, gave equally small heed to the
fight; for the smile of triumph or satisfaction flitted now and again
across his face, called forth, I made no doubt, by the pleasant conviction
which Mlle. Delhasse had instilled into his mind, and which had caused him
to dub me a fool for risking my life in the service of a woman who had
promised all he asked of her.

But the sun sank; the best of the light went; and the officers from
Pontorson did not come. It was hard on six.

"If we fight to-night, we must fight now!" cried the duke suddenly. "What
the plague has become of the fellows?"

"It's not too dark for me," said I.

"But it soon will be for me," he answered. "Come, are we to wait till
to-morrow?"

"We'll wait till to-morrow," said I, "if you'll promise not to seek to see
or speak to Mlle. Delhasse till to-morrow. Otherwise we'll fight tonight,
seconds or no seconds, light or no light!"

I never understood perfectly the temper of the man, nor the sudden gusts
of passion to which, at a word that chanced to touch him, he was subject.
Such a storm caught him now, and he bounded up from where he sat, cursing
me for an insolent fellow who dared to put him under terms--for a fool who
flattered himself that all women loved him--and for many other things
which it is not well to repeat. So that at last I said:

"Lead the way, then: you know the best place, I suppose."

Still muttering in fury, cursing now me, now the neglectful seconds, he
strode rapidly on to the sands and led the way at a quick pace, walking
nearly toward the setting sun. The land trended the least bit outward
here, and the direction kept us well under the lee of a rough stone wall
that fringed the sands on the landward side. Stunted bushes raised their
heads above the wall, and the whole made a perfect screen. Thus we walked
for some ten minutes with the sun in our eyes and the murmur of the sea in
our ears. Then at a spot where the bushes rose highest the duke abruptly
stopped, saying, "Here," and took the case of pistols out of his pocket.
He examined the loading, handing each in turn to me. While this was being
done neither of us spoke. Then he held them both out, the stocks towards
me; and I took the one nearest to my hand. The duke laid the other down on
the sands and motioned me to follow his example; and he took his
handkerchief out of his pocket and wound it round his right hand,
confining the fingers closely.

"Tie the knot, if you can," said he, holding out his hand thus bound.

"So far I am willing to trust you," said I; but he bowed ironically as he
answered:

"It will be awkward enough anyhow for the one of us that chances to kill
the other, seeing that we have no seconds or witnesses; but it would look
too black against me, if my right hand were free while yours is in a
sling. So pray, Mr. Aycon, do not insist on trusting me too much, but tie
the knot if your wounded arm will let you."

Engrossed with my thoughts and my schemes, I had not dwelt on the danger
to which he called my attention, and I admit that I hesitated.

"I have no wish to be called a murderer," said I. "Shall we not wait again
for M. de Vieuville and his friend?"

"Curse them!" said he, fury in his eye again. "By Heavens, if I live, I'll
have a word with them for playing me such a trick! The light is all but
gone now. Come, take your place. There is little choice."

"You mean to fight, then?"

"Not if you will leave me in peace: but if not--"

"Let us go back to the inn and fight to-morrow: and meanwhile things shall
stand as they are," said I, repeating my offer, in the hope that he would
now be more reasonable.

He looked at me sullenly; then his rage came again upon him, and he cried:

"Take your place: stand where you like, and, in God's name, be quick!" And
he paused, and then added: "I cannot live another night--" And he broke
off again, and finished by crying: "Quick! Are you ready?"

Seeing there was no help for it, I took up a position. No more words
passed between us, but with a gesture he signed to me to move a little:
and thus he adjusted our places till we were opposite one another, about
two yards between us, and each presenting his side direct to the sun, so
that its slanting rays troubled each of us equally, and that but little.
Then he said:

"I will step back five paces, and do you do the like. When we are at the
distance, do you count slowly, 'One--two--three,' and at 'Three' we will
fire."

I did not like having to count, but it was necessary that one of us
should; and he, when I pressed him, would not. Therefore it was arranged
as he said. And I began to step back, but for an instant he stayed me. He
was calm now, and he spoke in quiet tones.

"Even now, if you will go!" said he. "For the girl is mine; and I think
that, and not my life or death, is what you care about."

"The girl is not yours and never will be," said I. But then I remembered
that, the seconds not having come, my scheme had gone astray, and that if
he lived in strength, Marie would be well-nigh at his mercy. And on that I
grew stern, and the desire for his blood came on me; and he, I think, saw
it in my face, for he smiled, and without more turned and walked to his
place. And I did the like; and we turned round again and stood facing one
another.

All this time my pistol had hung in the fingers of my right hand. I took
it now in my left, and looked to it, and cried to the duke:

"Are you ready?"

And he answered easily:

"Yes, I'm ready."

Then I raised my arm and took my aim,--and if the aim were not true on his
heart, my hand and not my will deserves the praise of Mercy,--and I cried
aloud:

"One!" and paused; and cried "Two!"

And as the word left my lips--before the final fatal "Three!" was so much
as ready to my tongue--while I yet looked at the duke to see that I was
not taking him unawares--loud and sharp two shots rang out at the same
instant in the still air: I felt the whizz of a bullet, as it shaved my
ear; and the duke, without a sound, fell forward on the sands, his pistol
exploding as he fell.

After all we had our witnesses!




CHAPTER XX.

The Duke's Epitaph.


For a moment I stood in amazement, gazing at my opponent where he lay
prostrate on the sands. Then, guided by the smoke which issued from the
bushes, I darted across to the low stone wall and vaulted on to the top of
it. I dived into the bushes, parting them with head and hand: I was
conscious of a man's form rushing by me, but I could pay no heed to him,
for right in front of me, in the act of re-loading his pistol, I saw the
burly inn-keeper Jacques Bontet. When his eyes fell on me, as I leaped out
almost at his very feet, he swore an oath and turned to run. I raised my
hand and fired. Alas! the Duke of Saint-Maclou had been justified in his
confidence; for, to speak honestly, I do not believe my bullet went within
a yard of the fugitive. Hearing the shot and knowing himself unhurt, he
halted and faced me. There was no time for re-loading. I took my pistol by
the muzzle and ran at him. My right arm was nearly useless; but I took it
out of the sling and had it ready, for what it was worth. I saw that the
fellow's face was pale and that he displayed no pleasure in the game. But
he stood his ground; and I, made wary by the recollection of my maimed
state, would not rush on him, but came to a stand about a yard from him,
reconnoitering how I might best spring on him. Thus we rested for a moment
till remembering that the duke, if he were not already dead, lay at the
mercy of the other scoundrel, I gathered myself together and threw myself
at Jacques Bontet. He also had clubbed his weapon, and he struck wildly at
me as I came on. My head he missed, and the blow fell on my right
shoulder, settling once for all the question whether my right arm was to
be of any use or not. Yet its uselessness mattered not, for I countered
his blow with a better, and the butt of my pistol fell full and square on
his forehead. For a moment he stood looking at me, with hatred and fear in
his eyes: then, as it seemed to me, quite slowly his knees gave way under
him; his face dropped down from mine; he might have been sinking into the
ground, till at last, his knees being bent right under him, uttering a low
groan, he toppled over and lay on the ground.

Spending on him and his state no more thought that they deserved, I
snatched his pistol from him (for mine was broken at the junction of
barrel and stock), and, without waiting to load (and indeed with one hand
helpless and in the agitation which I was suffering it would have taken me
more than a moment), I hastened back to the wall, and, parting the bushes,
looked over. It was a strange sight that I saw. The duke was no longer
prone on his face, as he had fallen, but lay on his back, with his arms
stretched out, crosswise; and by his side knelt a small spare man, who
searched, hunted, and rummaged with hasty, yet cool and methodical, touch,
every inch of his clothing. Up and down, across and across, into every
pocket, along every lining, aye, down to the boots, ran the nimble
fingers; and in the still of the evening, which seemed not broken but
rather emphasized by the rumble of the tide that had begun to come in over
the sands from the Mount, his passionate curses struck my ears. I
recollect that I smiled--nay, I believe that I laughed--for the man was my
old acquaintance Pierre--and Pierre was still on the track of the
Cardinal's Necklace; and he had not doubted, any more than I had doubted,
that the duke carried it upon his person. Yet Pierre found it not, for he
was growing angry now; he seemed to worry the still body, pushing it and
tossing the arms of it to and fro as a puppy tosses a slipper or a
cushion. And all the while the unconscious face of the Duke of
Saint-Maclou was turned up to heaven, and a stiff smile seemed to mock the
baffled plunderer. And I also wondered where the necklace was.

Then I let myself down on to the noiseless sands and stole across to the
spot where the pair were. Pierre's hands were searching desperately and
wildly now; he no longer expected to find, but he could not yet believe
that the search was in very truth in vain. Absorbed in his task, he heard
me not; and coming up I set my foot on the pistol that lay by him, and
caught him, as the duke had caught Lafleur his comrade, by the nape of the
neck, and said to him, in a bantering tone:

"Well, is it not there, my friend?"

He wriggled; but the strength of the little man in a struggle at close
quarters was as nothing, and I held him easily with my one sound hand. And
I mocked him, exhorting him to look again, telling him that everything was
not to be seen from a stable, and bidding him call Lafleur from hell to
help him. And under my grip he grew quiet and ceased to search; and I
heard nothing but his quick breathing. And I laughed at him as I plucked
him off the duke and flung him on his back on the sands, and stood looking
down on him. But he asked no mercy of me; his small eyes answered defiance
back to me, and he glanced still wistfully at the quiet man beside us.

Yet he was to escape me--with small pain to me, I confess. For at the
moment a cry rang loud in my ear: I knew the voice; and though I kept my
foot on Pierre's pistol, yet I turned my head. And on the instant the
fellow sprang to his feet, and, with an agility that I could not have
matched, started running across the sands toward the Mount. Before I had
realized what he was about, he had thirty yards' start of me. I heard the
water rushing in now; he must wade deep, nay, he must swim to win the
Mount. But from me he was safe, for I was no such runner as he. Yet, had
he and I been alone, I would have pursued him. But the cry rang out again,
and, giving no more thought to him, I turned whither Marie Delhasse, come
in pursuance of my directions, stood with a hand pointed in questioning at
the duke, and the pistol that I had given her fallen from her fingers on
the sand. And she swayed to and fro, till I set my arm round her and
steadied her.

"Have you killed him?" she asked in a frightened whisper.

"I did not so much as fire at him," I answered. "We were attacked by
thieves."

"By thieves?"

"The inn-keeper and another. They thought that he carried the necklace,
and tracked us here."

"And did they take it?"

"It was not on him," I answered, looking into her eyes.

She raised them to mine and said simply:

"I have it not;" and with that, asking no more, she drew near to the duke,
and sat down by him on the sand, and lifted his head on to her lap, and
wiped his brow with her handkerchief, saying in a low voice, "Is he dead?"

Now, whether it be, as some say, that the voice a man loves will rouse him
when none else will, or that the duke's swoon had merely come to its
natural end, I know not; but, as she spoke, he, who had slept through
Pierre's rough handling, opened his eyes, and, seeing where he was, tried
to raise his hand, groping after hers: and he spoke, with difficulty
indeed, yet plainly enough, saying:

"The rascals thought I had the necklace. They did not know how kind you
had been, my darling."

I started where I stood. Marie grew red and then white, and looked down at
him no longer with pity, but with scorn and anger on her face.

"I have it not," she said again. "For all heaven, I would not touch it!"

And she looked up to me as she said it, praying me with her eyes to
believe.

But her words roused and stung the duke to an effort and an activity that
I thought impossible to him; for he rolled himself from her lap, and,
raising himself on his hand, with half his body lifted from the ground,
said in a loud voice:

"You have it not? You haven't the necklace? Why, your message told me that
you would never part from it again?"

"I sent no message," she answered in a hard voice, devoid of pity for him;
how should she pity him? "I sent no message, save that I would sooner die
than see you again."

Amazement spread over his face even in the hour of his agony.

"You sent," said he, "to say that you would await me to-night, and to ask
for the necklace to adorn yourself for my coming."

Though he was dying, I could hardly control myself to hear him speak such
words. But Marie, in the same calm scornful voice asked:

"By whom did the message come?"

"By your mother," said he, gazing at her eagerly. "And I sent mine--the
one I told you--by her. Marie, was it not true?" he cried, dragging
himself nearer to her.

"True!" she echoed--and no more.

But it was enough. For an instant he glared at her; then he cried:

"That old fiend has played a trick on me! She has got the necklace!"

And I began to understand the smile that I had seen on Mme. Delhasse's
face, and her marvelous good humor; and I began to have my opinion
concerning her evening stroll to Pontorson. Bontet and Pierre had been
matched against more than they thought.

The duke, painfully supported on his hand, drew nearer still to Marie; but
she rose to her feet and retreated a pace as he advanced. And he said:

"But you love me, Marie? You would have--"

She interrupted him.

"Above all men I loathe you!" she said, looking on him with shrinking and
horror in her face.

His wound was heavy on him--he was shot in the stomach and was bleeding
inwardly--and had drawn his features; his pain brought a sweat on his
brow, and his arm, trembling, scarce held him. Yet none of these things
made the anguish in his eyes as he looked at her.

"This is the man I love," said she in calm relentlessness.

And she put out her hand and took mine, and drew me to her, passing her
arm through mine. The Duke of Saint-Maclou looked up at us; then he
dropped his head, heavily and with a thud on the sand, and so lay till we
thought he was dead.

Yet it might be that his life could be saved, and I said to Marie:

"Stay by him, while I run for help."

"I will not stay by him," she said.

"Then do you go," said I. "Stop the first people you meet; or, if you see
none, go to the inn. And bid them bring help to carry a wounded man and
procure a doctor."

She nodded her head, and, without a glance at him, started running along
the sands toward the road. And I, left alone with him, sat down and raised
him, as well as I could, turning his face upward again and resting it on
my thigh. And I wiped his brow. And, after a time, he opened his eyes.

"Help will be here soon," I said. "She has gone to bring help."

Full ten minutes passed slowly; he lay breathing with difficulty, and from
time to time I wiped his brow. At last he spoke.

"There's some brandy in my pocket. Give it me," he said.

I found the flask and gave him some of its contents, which kept the life
in him for a little longer. And I was glad to feel that he settled
himself, as though more comfortably, against me.

"What happened?" he asked very faintly.

And I told him what had happened, as I conceived it--how that Bontet must
have given shelter to Pierre, till such time as escape might be possible;
but how that, when Bontet discovered that the necklace was in the inn, the
two scoundrels, thinking that they might as well be hanged for a sheep as
for a lamb, had determined to make another attempt to secure the coveted
spoil; how, in pursuance of this scheme, Bontet had, as I believed,
suppressed the duke's message to his friends at Pontorson, with the intent
to attack us, as they had done, on the sands; and I added that he himself
knew, better than I, what was likely to have become of the necklace in the
hands of Mme. Delhasse.

"For my part," I concluded, "I doubt if Madame will be at the inn to
welcome us on our return."

"She came to me and told me that Marie would give all I asked, and I gave
her the necklace to give to Marie; and believing what she told me, I was
anxious not to fight you, for I thought you had nothing to gain by
fighting. Yet you angered me, so I resolved to fight."

He seemed to have strength for nothing more; yet at the end, before life
left him, one strange last change came over him. Both his rough passion
and the terrible abasement of defeat seemed to leave him, and his face
became again the face of a well-bred, self-controlled man. There was a
helpless effort at a shrug of his shoulders, a scornful slight smile on
his lips, and a look of recognition, almost of friendliness, almost of
humor, in his eyes, as he said to me, who still held his head:

"_Mon Dieu_, but I've made a mess of it, Mr. Aycon!"

And I do not know that anyone could better this epitaph which the Duke of
Saint-Maclou composed for himself in the last words he spoke this side the
grave.




CHAPTER XXI.

A Passing Carriage.


When I saw that the Duke of Saint-Maclou was dead, I laid him down on the
sands, straightening him into a seemly posture; and I closed his eyes and
spread his handkerchief over his face. Then I began to walk up and down
with folded arms, pondering over the life and fate of the man and the
strange link between us which the influence of two women had forged. And I
recognized also that an hour ago the greater likelihood had been that I
should be where he lay, and he be looking down on me. _Dis aliter visum._
His own sin had stretched him there, and I lived to muse on the wreck--on
the "mess" as he said in self-mockery--that he had made of his life. Yet,
as I had felt when I talked to him before, so I felt now, that his had
been the hand to open my eyes, and from his mighty but base love I had
learned a love as strong and, as I could in all honesty say, more pure.

The sun was quite gone now, the roll of the tide was nearer, and water
gleamed between us and the Mount. But we were beyond its utmost rise, save
at a spring tide, and I waited long, too engrossed in my thoughts to be
impatient for Marie's return. I did not even cross the wall to see how
Bontet fared under the blow I had given him--whether he were dead, or lay
still stunned, or had found life enough to crawl away. In truth, I cared
not then.

Presently across the sands, through the growing gloom, I saw a group
approaching me. Marie I knew by her figure and gait and saw more plainly,
for she walked a little in front as though she were setting the example of
haste. The rest followed together; and, looking past them, I could just
discern a carriage which had been driven some way on to the sands. One of
the strangers wore top-boots and the livery of a servant. As they
approached, he fell back, and the remaining two--a man and a woman on his
arm--came more clearly into view. Marie reached me some twenty yards ahead
of them.

"I met no one till I was at the inn," she said, "and then this carriage
was driving by; and I told them that a gentleman lay hurt on the sands,
and they came to help you to carry him up."

I nodded and walked forward to meet them; for by now I knew the man, yes,
and the woman, though she wore a veil. And it was too late to stop their
approach. Uncovering my head, I stepped up to them, and they stopped in
surprise at seeing me. For the pair were Gustave de Berensac and the
duchess. He had gone, as he told me afterward, to see the duchess, and
they had spent the afternoon in a drive, and she was going to set him down
at his friend's quarters in Pontorson, when Marie met them, and not
knowing them nor they her (though Gustave had once, two years before,
heard her sing) had brought them on this errand.

The little duchess threw up her veil. Her face was pale, her lips
quivered, and her eyes asked a trembling question. At the sight of me I
think she knew at once what the truth was: it needed but the sight of me
to let light in on the seemingly obscure story which Marie had told, of a
duel planned, and then interrupted by a treacherous assault and attempted
robbery. With my hand I signed to the duchess to stop; but she did not
stop, but walked past me, merely asking:

"Is he badly hurt?"

I caught her by the arm and held her.

"Yes," said I, "badly;" and I felt her eyes fixed on mine.

Then she said, gently and calmly:

"Then he is dead?"

"Yes, he is dead," I answered, and loosed her arm.

Gustave de Berensac had not spoken: and he now came silently to my side,
and he and I followed a pace or two behind the duchess. The servant had
halted ten or fifteen yards away. Marie had reached where the duke lay and
stood now close by him, her arms at her side and her head bowed. The
duchess walked up to her husband and, kneeling beside him, lifted the
handkerchief from his face. The expression wherewith he had spoken his
epitaph--the summary of his life--was set on his face, so that he seemed
still to smile in bitter amusement. And the little duchess looked long on
the face that smiled in contempt on life and death alike. No tears came in
her eyes and the quiver had left her lips. She gazed at him calmly, trying
perhaps to read the riddle of his smile. And all the while Marie Delhasse
looked down from under drooping lids.

I stepped up to the duchess' side. She saw me coming and turned her eyes
to mine.

"He looked just like that when he asked me to marry him," she said, with
the simple gravity of a child whose usual merriment is sobered by
something that it cannot understand.

I doubted not that he had. Life, marriage, death--so he had faced them
all, with scorn and weariness and acquiescence--all, save that one passion
which bore him beyond himself.

The duchess spread the handkerchief again over the dead man's face, and
rose to her feet. And she looked across the dead body of the duke at Marie
Delhasse. I knew not what she would say, for she must have guessed by now
who the girl was that had brought her to the place. Suddenly the question
came in a tone of curiosity, without resentment, yet tinctured with a
delicate scorn, as though spoken across a gulf of difference:

"Did you really care for him at all?"

Marie started, but she met the duchess' eyes and answered in a low voice
with a single word:

"No."

"Ah, well!" said the little duchess with a sigh; and, if I read aright
what she expressed, it was a pitying recognition of the reason in that
answer: he could not have expected anyone to love him, she seemed to say.
And if that were so, then indeed had the finger of truth guided the duke
in the penning of his epitaph.

We three, who were standing round the body, seemed sunk in our own
thoughts, and it was Gustave de Berensac who went to the servant and bade
him bring the carriage nearer to where we were; and when it was come, they
two lifted the duke in and disposed his body as well as they could. The
man mounted the box, and at a foot-pace we set out. The duchess had not
spoken again, nor had Marie Delhasse; but when I took my place by Marie
the duchess suffered Gustave to join her, and in this order we passed
along. But before we had gone far, when indeed we had but just reached the
road, we met four of the police hurrying along; and before they came to us
or saw what was in the carriage, one cried:

"Have you seen a small spare man pass this way lately? He would be running
perhaps, or walking fast."

I stepped forward and drew them aside, signing the carriage to go on and
to the others to follow it.

"I can tell you all there is to be told about him, if you mean the man
whom I think you mean," said I. "But I doubt if you will catch him now."

And with that I told them the story briefly, and so far as it affected the
matter they were engaged upon; and they heard it with much astonishment.
For they had tracked Pierre (or Raymond Pinceau as they called him, saying
it was his true name) to Bontet's stable, on the matter of the previous
attempt on the necklace and the death of Lafleur, and on no other, and did
not think to hear such a sequel as I unfolded to them.

"And if you will search," said I, "some six yards behind the wall, and
maybe a quarter of a mile from the road, I fancy you will find Bontet; he
may have crawled a little way, but could not far, I think. As for the Duke
of Saint-Maclou, gentlemen, his body was in the carriage that passed you
this moment. And I am at your service, although I would desire, if it be
possible, to be allowed to follow my friends."

There being but four of them and their anxiety being to achieve the
capture of Pierre, they made no difficulty of allowing me to go on my way,
taking from me my promise to present myself before the magistrate at
Avranches next day; and leaving two to seek for Bontet, the other two made
on, in the hope of finding a boat to take them to the Mount, whither they
conceived the escaped man must have directed his steps.

Thus delayed, I was some time behind the others in reaching the inn, and I
found Gustave waiting for me in the entrance. The body of the duke had
been carried to his own room and a messenger sent to procure a proper
conveyance. Marie Delhasse was upstairs, and Gustave's message to me was
that the duchess desired to see me.

"Nay," said I, "there is one thing I want to do before that;" and I called
to a servant girl who was hovering between terror and excitement at the
events of the evening, and asked her whether Mme. Delhasse had returned.

"No, sir," she answered. "The lady left word that she would be back in
half an hour, but she has not yet returned."

Then I said to Gustave de Berensac, laying my hand on his shoulder:

"When I am married, Gustave, you will not meet my mother-in-law in my
house;" and I left Gustave staring in an amazement not unnatural to his
ignorance. And I allowed myself to be directed by the servant girl to
where the duchess sat.

The duchess waited till the door was shut, and then turned to me as if
about to speak, but I was beforehand with her; and I began:

"Forgive me for speaking of the necklace, but I fear it is still missing."

The duchess looked at me scornfully.

"He gave it to the girl again, I suppose?" she asked.

"He gave it," I answered, "to the girl's mother, and she, I fear, has made
off with it;" and I told the duchess how Mme. Delhasse had laid her plot.
The duchess heard me in silence, but at the end she remarked:

"It does not matter. I would never have worn the thing again; but it was a
pretty plot between them."

"The duke had no thought," I began, "but that--"

"Oh, I meant between mother and daughter," said the duchess. "The mother
gets the diamonds from my husband; the daughter, it seems, Mr. Aycon, is
likely to get respectability from you; and I suppose they will share the
respective benefits when this trouble has blown over."

It was no use to be angry with her; to confess the truth, I felt that
anger would come ill from me. So I did but say very quietly:

"I think you are wrong. Mlle. Delhasse knew nothing of her mother's
device."

"You do not deny all of what I say," observed the duchess.

"Mlle. Delhasse," I returned, "is in no need of what you suggest; but I
hope that she will be my wife."

"And some day," said the duchess, "you will see the necklace--or perhaps
that would not be safe. Madame will send the money."

"When it happens," said I, "on my honor, I will write and tell you."

The duchess, with a toss of her head which meant "Well, I'm right and
you're wrong," rose from her seat.

"I must take poor Armand home," said she. "M. de Berensac is going with
me. Will you accompany us?"

"If you will give me a delay of one hour, I will most willingly."

"What have you to do in that hour, Mr. Aycon?"

"I purpose to escort Mlle. Delhasse back to the convent and leave her
there. I suppose we shall all have to answer some questions in regard to
this sad matter, and where can she stay near Avranches save there?"

"She certainly can't come to my house," said the duchess.

"It would be impossible under the circumstances," I agreed.

"Under any circumstances," said the duchess haughtily.

By this time a covered conveyance had been procured, and when the duchess,
having fired her last scornful remark at me, walked to the door of the
inn, the body of the duke was being placed in it. Gustave de Berensac
assisted the servant, and their task was just accomplished when Jacques
Bontet was carried by two of the police to the door. The man was alive and
would recover, they said, and be able to stand his trial. But as yet no
news had come of the fortune that attended the pursuit of Raymond Pinceau,
otherwise known as Pierre. It was conjectured that he must have had a boat
waiting for him at or near the Mount, and, gaining it, had for the moment
at least made good his escape.

"But we shall find about that from Bontet," said one of them, with a
complacent nod at the fellow who lay still in a sort of stupor, with
blood-stained bandages round his head.

I stood by the door of the duchess' carriage, in which she and Gustave
were to follow the body of the duke, and when she came to step in I
offered her my hand. But she would have none of it. She got in unassisted,
and Gustave followed her. They were about to move off, when suddenly,
running from the house in wild dismay, came Marie Delhasse, and caring for
none of those who stood round, she seized my arm, crying:

"My mother is neither in the sitting room nor in her bedroom! Where is
she?"

Now I saw no need to tell Marie at that time what had become of Mme.
Delhasse. The matter, however, was not left in my hands; no, nor in those
of Gustave de Berensac, who called out hastily to the driver, "Ready! Go
on, go on!" The duchess called "Wait!" and then she turned to Marie
Delhasse and said in calm cold tones:

"You ask where your mother is. Well, then, where is the necklace?"

Marie drew back as though she had been struck; yet her grip did not leave
my arm, but tightened on it.

"The necklace?" she gasped.

And the duchess, using the most scornful words she knew and giving a short
little laugh, said.

"Your mother has levanted with the necklace. Of course you didn't know!"

Thus, if Marie Delhasse had been stern to the Duke of Saint-Maclou when he
lay dying, his wife avenged him to the full and more. For at the words, at
the sight of the duchess' disdainful face and of my troubled look, Marie
uttered a cry and reeled and sank half-fainting in my arms.

"Oh, drive on!" said the Duchess of Saint-Maclou in a wearied tone.

And away they drove, leaving us two alone. Nor did Marie speak again,
unless it were in distressed incoherent protests, till, an hour later, I
delivered her into the charge of the Mother Superior at the convent by the
side of the bay. And the old lady bade me wait till she saw Marie
comfortably bestowed, and then she returned to me and we walked side by
side for a while in the little burying-ground, she listening to an outline
of my story. Perhaps I, in a lover's zeal, spoke harshly of the duchess;
for the old lady put her hand upon my arm and said to me:

"It was not for losing the diamonds that her heart was sore--poor silly
child!"

And, inasmuch as I doubted whether my venerable friend thought that it was
for the loss of her husband either, I held my peace.




CHAPTER XXII.

From Shadow to Sunshine.


There remains yet one strange and terrible episode of which I must tell,
though indeed, I thank God, I was in no way a witness of it. A week after
the events which I have set down, while Marie still lay prostrate at the
convent, and I abode at my old hotel in Avranches, assisting to the best
of my power in the inquiry being held by the local magistrate, an officer
of police arrived from Havre; and when the magistrate had heard his story,
he summoned me from the ante-room where I was waiting, and bade me also
listen to the story. And this it was:

At the office where tickets were taken for a ship on the point to make the
voyage to America, among all the crowd about to cross, it chanced that two
people met one another--an elderly woman whose face was covered by a thick
veil, and a short spare man who wore a fair wig and large red whiskers.
Yet, notwithstanding these disguises, the pair knew one another. For at
first sight of the woman, the man cowered away and tried to hide himself;
while she, perceiving him, gave a sudden scream and clutched eagerly at
the pocket of her dress.

Seeing himself feared, the ruffian took courage, his quick brain telling
him that the woman also was seeking to avoid recognition. And when she had
taken her ticket, he contrived to see the book and, finding a name which
he did not know as hers, he tracked her to the inn where she was lodging
till the vessel should start. When he walked into the inn, she shrank
before him and turned pale--for he caught her with the veil off her
face--and again she clutched at her pocket. He sat down near her: for a
while she sat still; then she rose and walked out into the air, as though
she went for a walk. But he, suspecting rightly that she would not return,
tracked her again to another inn, meaner and more obscure than the first,
and, walking in, he sat down by her. And again the third time this was
done: and there were people who had been at each of the inns to speak to
it: and those at the third inn said that the woman looked as though Satan
himself had taken his place by her--so full of helplessness and horror was
she; while the man smiled under alert bright eyes that would not leave her
face, except now and again for a swift watchful glance round the room. For
he was now hunter and hunted both; yet, like a dog that will be slain
rather than loose his hold, he chose to risk his own life, if by that he
might not lose sight of the unhappy woman. Two lives had been spent
already in the quest: a third was nought to him; and the woman's air and
clutching of her pocket had set an idea afloat in his brain. The vessel
was to sail at six the next morning; and it was eight in the evening when
the man sat down opposite the woman in the third inn they visited--it was
no better than a drinking shop near the quays. For half an hour they sat,
and there was that in their air that made them observed. Suddenly the man
crossed over to the woman and whispered in her ear. She started, crying
low yet audibly, "You lie!" But he spoke to her again; and then she rose
and paid her score and walked out of the inn on to the quays, followed by
her unrelenting attendant. It was dark now, or quite dusk; and a loiterer
at the door distinguished their figures among the passing crowd but for a
few yards: then they disappeared; and none was found who had seen them
again, either under cover or in the open air, that night.

And for my part, I like not to think how the night passed for that
wretched old woman; for at some hour and in some place, near by the water,
the man found her alone, and ran his prey to the ground before the
bloodhounds that were on his track could come up with them.

Indeed he almost won safety, or at least respite; for the ship was already
moving when she was boarded by the police, who, searching high and low,
came at last on the spare man with the red whiskers; these an officer
rudely plucked off and the fair wig with them, and called the prisoner by
the name of Pinceau. The little man made one rush with a knife, and,
foiled in that, another for the side of the vessel. But his efforts were
useless. He was handcuffed and led on shore. And when he was searched, the
stones which had gone to compose the great treasure of the family of
Saint-Maclou--the Cardinal's Necklace--were found hidden here and there
about him; but the setting was gone.

And the woman? Let me say it briefly. Great were her sins, and not the
greatest of them was the theft of the Cardinal's Necklace. Yet the greater
that she took in hand to do was happily thwarted; and I pray that she
found mercy when the deep dark waters of the harbor swallowed her on that
night, and gave back her body to a shameful burial.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the quiet convent by the shores of the bay the wind of the world, with
its burden of sin and sorrow, blows faintly and with tempered force: the
talk of idle, eager tongues cannot break across the comforting of kind
voices and the sweet strains of quiet worship. Raymond Pinceau was dead,
and Jacques Bontet condemned to lifelong penal servitude; and the world
had ceased to talk of the story that had been revealed at the trial of
these men, and--what the world loved even more to discuss--of how much of
the story had not been revealed.

For although M. de Vieuville, President of the Court which tried Bontet,
and father of Alfred de Vieuville, that friend of the duke's who was to
have acted at the duel, complimented me on the candor with which I gave my
evidence, yet he did not press me beyond what was strictly necessary to
bring home to the prisoners the crimes of murder and attempted robbery
with which they were charged. Not till I knew the Judge, having been
introduced to him by his son, did he ask me further of the matter; and
then, sitting on the lawn of his country-house, I told him the whole
story, as it has been set down in this narrative, saving only sundry
matters which had passed between the duchess and myself on the one hand,
and between Marie Delhasse and myself on the other. Yet I do not think
that my reticence availed me much against an acumen trained and developed
by dialectic struggles with generations of criminals. For the first
question which M. de Vieuville put to me was this:

"And what of the girl, Mr. Aycon? She has suffered indeed for the sins of
others."

But young Alfred, who was standing by, laid a hand on his father's
shoulder and said with a laugh:

"Father, when Mr. Aycon leaves us tomorrow, it is to visit the convent at
Avranches." And the old man held out his hand to me, saying:

"You do well."

To the convent at Avranches then I went one bright morning in the spring
of the next year; and again I walked with the stately old lady in the
little burial ground. Yet she was a little less stately, and I thought
that there was what the profane might call a twinkle in her eye, as she
deplored Marie's disinclination to become a permanent inmate of the
establishment over which she presided. And on her lips came an indubitable
smile when I leaped back from her in horror at the thought.

"There would be none here to throw her troubles in her teeth," pursued the
Mother Superior, smiling still. "None to remind her of her mother's shame;
none to lay snares for her; none to remind her of the beauty which has
brought so much woe on her; no men to disturb her life with their angry
conflicting passions. Does not the picture attract you, Mr. Aycon?"

"As a picture," said I, "it is almost perfect. There is but one blemish in
it."

"A blemish? I do not perceive it."

"Why, madame, I cannot find anywhere in your canvas the figure of myself."

With a laugh she turned away and passed through the arched gateway. And I
saw my friend, the little nun who had first opened the door to me when I
came seeking the duchess, pass by and pause a moment to look at me. Then I
was left alone till Marie came to me through the gateway: and I sprang up
to meet her.

I have been candid throughout, and I will be candid now--even though my
plain speaking strikes not at myself, but at Marie, who must forgive me as
best she may. For I believe she meant to marry me from the very first; and
I doubt whether if I had taken the dismissal she gave, I should have been
allowed to go far on my solitary way. Indeed I think she did but want to
hear me say how that all she urged was lighter than a feather against my
love for her, and, if that were her desire, she was gratified to the full;
seeing that for a moment she frightened me, and I outdid every lover since
the world began (it cannot be that I deceive myself in thinking that) in
vehemence and insistence. So that she reproved me, adding:

"You can hardly speak the truth in all that you say: for at first, you
know, you were more than half in love with the Duchess of Saint-Maclou."

For a moment I was silenced. Then I looked at Marie: and I found in her
words no more a rebuke, but a provocation--aye, a challenge to prove that
by no possibility could I, who loved her so passionately, ever have been
so much as half in love with any woman in the whole world, the Duchess of
Saint-Maclou not excepted. And prove it I did that morning in the burial
ground of the convent, to my own complete satisfaction, and thereby
overcame the last doubts which afflicted Marie Delhasse.

And if, in spite of that most exhaustive and satisfactory proof, the thing
proved remained not much more true than the thing disproved--why, it is
not my fault. For Love has a virtue of oblivion--yes, and a better still:
that which is past he, exceeding in power all Olympus besides, makes as
though it had never been, never could have been, and was from the first
entirely impossible, absurd, and inconceivable. And for an instance of
what I say--if indeed a further example than my own be needed, which
should not be the case--let us look at the Duchess of Saint-Maclou
herself.

For, if I were half in love with the duchess, which I by no means admit,
modesty shall not blind me from holding that the duchess was as good a
half in love with me. Yet, when I had been married to Marie Delhasse some
six months, I received a letter from my good friend Gustave de Berensac,
informing me of his approaching union with Mme. de Saint-Maclou. And, if I
might judge from Gustave's letter, he repudiated utterly the idea which I
have ventured to suggest concerning the duchess.

Two other facts Gustave mentioned--both of them, I think, with a touch of
apology. The first was that the duchess, being unable to endure the
horrible associations now indissolubly connected with the Cardinal's
Necklace, of which she had become owner for the term of her life--

"What? Won't she wear it?" asked my wife at this point: she was (as wives
will) leaning over my shoulder as I read the letter.

It was what I also had expected to read; but what I did read was that the
duchess, ingeniously contriving to save both her feelings and her
diamonds, had caused the stones to be set in a tiara--"which," continued
Gustave (I am sure he was much in love) "will not have any of the
unpleasant associations connected with the necklace."

And the second fact? It was this--just this, though it was wrapped up in
all the roundabout phrases and softened by all the polite expressions of
friendship of which Gustave was master,--yet just this,--that he was not
in a position to invite myself and my wife to the wedding! For the little
duchess, consistent to the end, in spite of his entreaties and protests,
had resolutely and entirely declined to receive Mrs. Aycon!

I finished the letter and looked up at Marie. And Marie, looking
thoughtfully down at the paper, observed:

"I always told you that she was fond of you, you know."

But, for my part, I hope that Marie's explanation is not the true one. I
prefer to attribute the duchess' refusal--in which, I may state, she
steadily persists--to some mistaken and misplaced sense of propriety; or,
if that fails me, then I will set it down to the fact that Marie's
presence would recall too many painful and distressing scenes, and be too
full of unpleasant associations. Thus understood, the duchess' refusal was
quite natural and agreed completely with what she had done in respect of
the necklace--for it was out of the question to turn the edge of the
difficulty by converting Marie into a tiara!

So the duchess will not receive my wife. But I forgive her--for, beyond
doubt, but for the little duchess and that indiscretion of hers, I should
not have received my wife myself!

       *       *       *       *       *




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