As they walked down the hill together, it was now M. de Vilmorin who was silent and preoccupied, Andre-Louis who was talkative. He had chosen Woman as a subject for his present discourse. He claimed—quite unjustifiably—to have discovered Woman that morning; and the things he had to say of the sex were unflattering, and occasionally almost gross. M. de Vilmorin, having ascertained the subject, did not listen. Singular though it may seem in a young French abbe of his day, M. de Vilmorin was not interested in Woman. Poor Philippe was in several ways exceptional. Opposite the Breton arme—the inn and posting-house at the entrance of the village of Gavrillac—M. de Vilmorin interrupted his companion just as he was soaring to the dizziest heights of caustic invective, and Andre-Louis, restored thereby to actualities, observed the carriage of M. de La Tour d'Azyr standing before the door of the hostelry.
"I don't believe you've been listening to me," said he.
"Had you been less interested in what you were saying, you might have observed it sooner and spared your breath. The fact is, you disappoint me, Andre. You seem to have forgotten what we went for. I have an appointment here with M. le Marquis. He desires to hear me further in the matter. Up there at Gavrillac I could accomplish nothing. The time was ill-chosen as it happened. But I have hopes of M. le Marquis."
"Hopes of what?"
"That he will make what reparation lies in his power. Provide for the widow and the orphans. Why else should he desire to hear me further?"
"Unusual condescension," said Andre-Louis, and quoted "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes."
"Why?" asked Philippe.
"Let us go and discover—unless you consider that I shall be in the way."
Into a room on the right, rendered private to M. le Marquis for so long as he should elect to honour it, the young men were ushered by the host. A fire of logs was burning brightly at the room's far end, and by this sat now M. de La Tour d'Azyr and his cousin, the Chevalier de Chabrillane. Both rose as M. de Vilmorin came in. Andre-Louis following, paused to close the door.
"You oblige me by your prompt courtesy, M. de Vilmorin," said the Marquis, but in a tone so cold as to belie the politeness of his words. "A chair, I beg. Ah, Moreau?" The note was frigidly interrogative. "He accompanies you, monsieur?" he asked.
"If you please, M. le Marquis."
"Why not? Find yourself a seat, Moreau." He spoke over his shoulder as to a lackey.
"It is good of you, monsieur," said Philippe, "to have offered me this opportunity of continuing the subject that took me so fruitlessly, as it happens, to Gavrillac."
The Marquis crossed his legs, and held one of his fine hands to the blaze. He replied, without troubling to turn to the young man, who was slightly behind him.
"The goodness of my request we will leave out of question for the moment," said he, darkly, and M. de Chabrillane laughed. Andre-Louis thought him easily moved to mirth, and almost envied him the faculty.
"But I am grateful," Philippe insisted, "that you should condescend to hear me plead their cause."
The Marquis stared at him over his shoulder. "Whose cause?" quoth he.
"Why, the cause of the widow and orphans of this unfortunate Mabey."
The Marquis looked from Vilmorin to the Chevalier, and again the Chevalier laughed, slapping his leg this time.
"I think," said M. de La Tour d'Azyr, slowly, "that we are at cross-purposes. I asked you to come here because the Chateau de Gavrillac was hardly a suitable place in which to carry our discussion further, and because I hesitated to incommode you by suggesting that you should come all the way to Azyr. But my object is connected with certain expressions that you let fall up there. It is on the subject of those expressions, monsieur, that I would hear you further—if you will honour me."
Andre-Louis began to apprehend that there was something sinister in the air. He was a man of quick intuitions, quicker far than those of M. de Vilmorin, who evinced no more than a mild surprise.
"I am at a loss, monsieur," said he. "To what expressions does monsieur allude?"
"It seems, monsieur, that I must refresh your memory." The Marquis crossed his legs, and swung sideways on his chair, so that at last he directly faced M. de Vilmorin. "You spoke, monsieur—and however mistaken you may have been, you spoke very eloquently, too eloquently almost, it seemed to me—of the infamy of such a deed as the act of summary justice upon this thieving fellow Mabey, or whatever his name may be. Infamy was the precise word you used. You did not retract that word when I had the honour to inform you that it was by my orders that my gamekeeper Benet proceeded as he did."
"If," said M. de Vilmorin, "the deed was infamous, its infamy is not modified by the rank, however exalted, of the person responsible. Rather is it aggravated."
"Ah!" said M. le Marquis, and drew a gold snuffbox from his pocket. "You say, 'if the deed was infamous,' monsieur. Am I to understand that you are no longer as convinced as you appeared to be of its infamy?"
M. de Vilmorin's fine face wore a look of perplexity. He did not understand the drift of this.
"It occurs to me, M. le Marquis, in view of your readiness to assume responsibility, that you must believe justification for the deed which is not apparent to myself."
"That is better. That is distinctly better." The Marquis took snuff delicately, dusting the fragments from the fine lace at his throat. "You realize that with an imperfect understanding of these matters, not being yourself a landowner, you may have rushed to unjustifiable conclusions. That is indeed the case. May it be a warning to you, monsieur. When I tell you that for months past I have been annoyed by similar depredations, you will perhaps understand that it had become necessary to employ a deterrent sufficiently strong to put an end to them. Now that the risk is known, I do not think there will be any more prowling in my coverts. And there is more in it than that, M. de Vilmorin. It is not the poaching that annoys me so much as the contempt for my absolute and inviolable rights. There is, monsieur, as you cannot fail to have observed, an evil spirit of insubordination in the air, and there is one only way in which to meet it. To tolerate it, in however slight a degree, to show leniency, however leniently disposed, would entail having recourse to still harsher measures to-morrow. You understand me, I am sure, and you will also, I am sure, appreciate the condescension of what amounts to an explanation from me where I cannot admit that any explanations were due. If anything in what I have said is still obscure to you, I refer you to the game laws, which your lawyer friend there will expound for you at need."
With that the gentleman swung round again to face the fire. It appeared to convey the intimation that the interview was at an end. And yet this was not by any means the intimation that it conveyed to the watchful, puzzled, vaguely uneasy Andre-Louis. It was, thought he, a very curious, a very suspicious oration. It affected to explain, with a politeness of terms and a calculated insolence of tone; whilst in fact it could only serve to stimulate and goad a man of M. de Vilmorin's opinions. And that is precisely what it did. He rose.
"Are there in the world no laws but game laws?" he demanded, angrily. "Have you never by any chance heard of the laws of humanity?"
The Marquis sighed wearily. "What have I to do with the laws of humanity?" he wondered.
M. de Vilmorin looked at him a moment in speechless amazement.
"Nothing, M. le Marquis. That is—alas!—too obvious. I hope you will remember it in the hour when you may wish to appeal to those laws which you now deride."
M. de La Tour d'Azyr threw back his head sharply, his high-bred face imperious.
"Now what precisely shall that mean? It is not the first time to-day that you have made use of dark sayings that I could almost believe to veil the presumption of a threat."
"Not a threat, M. le Marquis—a warning. A warning that such deeds as these against God's creatures... Oh, you may sneer, monsieur, but they are God's creatures, even as you or I—neither more nor less, deeply though the reflection may wound your pride, In His eyes..."
"Of your charity, spare me a sermon, M. l'abbe!"
"You mock, monsieur. You laugh. Will you laugh, I wonder, when God presents His reckoning to you for the blood and plunder with which your hands are full?"
"Monsieur!" The word, sharp as the crack of a whip, was from M. de Chabrillane, who bounded to his feet. But instantly the Marquis repressed him.
"Sit down, Chevalier. You are interrupting M. l'abbe, and I should like to hear him further. He interests me profoundly."
In the background Andre-Louis, too, had risen, brought to his feet by alarm, by the evil that he saw written on the handsome face of M. de La Tour d'Azyr. He approached, and touched his friend upon the arm.
"Better be going, Philippe," said he.
But M. de Vilmorin, caught in the relentless grip of passions long repressed, was being hurried by them recklessly along.
"Oh, monsieur," said he, "consider what you are and what you will be. Consider how you and your kind live by abuses, and consider the harvest that abuses must ultimately bring."
"Revolutionist!" said M. le Marquis, contemptuously. "You have the effrontery to stand before my face and offer me this stinking cant of your modern so-called intellectuals!"
"Is it cant, monsieur? Do you think—do you believe in your soul—that it is cant? Is it cant that the feudal grip is on all things that live, crushing them like grapes in the press, to its own profit? Does it not exercise its rights upon the waters of the river, the fire that bakes the poor man's bread of grass and barley, on the wind that turns the mill? The peasant cannot take a step upon the road, cross a crazy bridge over a river, buy an ell of cloth in the village market, without meeting feudal rapacity, without being taxed in feudal dues. Is not that enough, M. le Marquis? Must you also demand his wretched life in payment for the least infringement of your sacred privileges, careless of what widows or orphans you dedicate to woe? Will naught content you but that your shadow must lie like a curse upon the land? And do you think in your pride that France, this Job among the nations, will suffer it forever?"
He paused as if for a reply. But none came. The Marquis considered him, strangely silent, a half smile of disdain at the corners of his lips, an ominous hardness in his eyes.
Again Andre-Louis tugged at his friend's sleeve.
Philippe shook him off, and plunged on, fanatically.
"Do you see nothing of the gathering clouds that herald the coming of the storm? You imagine, perhaps, that these States General summoned by M. Necker, and promised for next year, are to do nothing but devise fresh means of extortion to liquidate the bankruptcy of the State? You delude yourselves, as you shall find. The Third Estate, which you despise, will prove itself the preponderating force, and it will find a way to make an end of this canker of privilege that is devouring the vitals of this unfortunate country."
M. le Marquis shifted in his chair, and spoke at last.
"You have, monsieur," said he, "a very dangerous gift of eloquence. And it is of yourself rather than of your subject. For after all, what do you offer me? A rechauffe of the dishes served to out-at-elbow enthusiasts in the provincial literary chambers, compounded of the effusions of your Voltaires and Jean-Jacques and such dirty-fingered scribblers. You have not among all your philosophers one with the wit to understand that we are an order consecrated by antiquity, that for our rights and privileges we have behind us the authority of centuries."
"Humanity, monsieur," Philippe replied, "is more ancient than nobility. Human rights are contemporary with man."
The Marquis laughed and shrugged.
"That is the answer I might have expected. It has the right note of cant that distinguishes the philosophers."
And then M. de Chabrillane spoke.
"You go a long way round," he criticized his cousin, on a note of impatience.
"But I am getting there," he was answered. "I desired to make quite certain first."
"Faith, you should have no doubt by now."
"I have none." The Marquis rose, and turned again to M. de Vilmorin, who had understood nothing of that brief exchange. "M. l'abbe," said he once more, "you have a very dangerous gift of eloquence. I can conceive of men being swayed by it. Had you been born a gentleman, you would not so easily have acquired these false views that you express."
M. de Vilmorin stared blankly, uncomprehending.
"Had I been born a gentleman, do you say?" quoth he, in a slow, bewildered voice. "But I was born a gentleman. My race is as old, my blood as good as yours, monsieur."
From M. le Marquis there was a slight play of eyebrows, a vague, indulgent smile. His dark, liquid eyes looked squarely into the face of M. de Vilmorin.
"You have been deceived in that, I fear."
"Your sentiments betray the indiscretion of which madame your mother must have been guilty."
The brutally affronting words were sped beyond recall, and the lips that had uttered them, coldly, as if they had been the merest commonplace, remained calm and faintly sneering.
A dead silence followed. Andre-Louis' wits were numbed. He stood aghast, all thought suspended in him, what time M. de Vilmorin's eyes continued fixed upon M. de La Tour d'Azyr's, as if searching there for a meaning that eluded him. Quite suddenly he understood the vile affront. The blood leapt to his face, fire blazed in his gentle eyes. A convulsive quiver shook him. Then, with an inarticulate cry, he leaned forward, and with his open hand struck M. le Marquis full and hard upon his sneering face.
In a flash M. de Chabrillane was on his feet, between the two men.
Too late Andre-Louis had seen the trap. La Tour d'Azyr's words were but as a move in a game of chess, calculated to exasperate his opponent into some such counter-move as this—a counter-move that left him entirely at the other's mercy.
M. le Marquis looked on, very white save where M. de Vilmorin's finger-prints began slowly to colour his face; but he said nothing more. Instead, it was M. de Chabrillane who now did the talking, taking up his preconcerted part in this vile game.
"You realize, monsieur, what you have done," said he, coldly, to Philippe. "And you realize, of course, what must inevitably follow."
M. de Vilmorin had realized nothing. The poor young man had acted upon impulse, upon the instinct of decency and honour, never counting the consequences. But he realized them now at the sinister invitation of M. de Chabrillane, and if he desired to avoid these consequences, it was out of respect for his priestly vocation, which strictly forbade such adjustments of disputes as M. de Chabrillane was clearly thrusting upon him.
He drew back. "Let one affront wipe out the other," said he, in a dull voice. "The balance is still in M. le Marquis's favour. Let that content him."
"Impossible." The Chevalier's lips came together tightly. Thereafter he was suavity itself, but very firm. "A blow has been struck, monsieur. I think I am correct in saying that such a thing has never happened before to M. le Marquis in all his life. If you felt yourself affronted, you had but to ask the satisfaction due from one gentleman to another. Your action would seem to confirm the assumption that you found so offensive. But it does not on that account render you immune from the consequences."
It was, you see, M. de Chabrillane's part to heap coals upon this fire, to make quite sure that their victim should not escape them.
"I desire no immunity," flashed back the young seminarist, stung by this fresh goad. After all, he was nobly born, and the traditions of his class were strong upon him—stronger far than the seminarist schooling in humility. He owed it to himself, to his honour, to be killed rather than avoid the consequences of the thing he had done.
"But he does not wear a sword, messieurs!" cried Andre Louis, aghast.
"That is easily amended. He may have the loan of mine."
"I mean, messieurs," Andre-Louis insisted, between fear for his friend and indignation, "that it is not his habit to wear a sword, that he has never worn one, that he is untutored in its uses. He is a seminarist—a postulant for holy orders, already half a priest, and so forbidden from such an engagement as you propose."
"All that he should have remembered before he struck a blow," said M. de Chabrillane, politely.
"The blow was deliberately provoked," raged Andre-Louis. Then he recovered himself, though the other's haughty stare had no part in that recovery. "O my God, I talk in vain! How is one to argue against a purpose formed! Come away, Philippe. Don't you see the trap..."
M. de Vilmorin cut him short, and flung him off. "Be quiet, Andre. M. le Marquis is entirely in the right."
"M. le Marquis is in the right?" Andre-Louis let his arms fall helplessly. This man he loved above all other living men was caught in the snare of the world's insanity. He was baring his breast to the knife for the sake of a vague, distorted sense of the honour due to himself. It was not that he did not see the trap. It was that his honour compelled him to disdain consideration of it. To Andre-Louis in that moment he seemed a singularly tragic figure. Noble, perhaps, but very pitiful.