M. de La Tour d'Azyr's engagement in the country on that Sunday was with M. de Kercadiou. To fulfil it he drove out early in the day to Meudon, taking with him in his pocket a copy of the last issue of "Les Actes des Apotres," a journal whose merry sallies at the expense of the innovators greatly diverted the Seigneur de Gavrillac. The venomous scorn it poured upon those worthless rapscallions afforded him a certain solatium against the discomforts of expatriation by which he was afflicted as a result of their detestable energies.
Twice in the last month, had M. de La Tour d'Azyr gone to visit the Lord of Gavrillac at Meudon, and the sight of Aline, so sweet and fresh, so bright and of so lively a mind, had caused those embers smouldering under the ashes of the past, embers which until now he had believed utterly extinct, to kindle into flame once more. He desired her as we desire Heaven. I believe that it was the purest passion of his life; that had it come to him earlier he might have been a vastly different man. The cruelest wound that in all his selfish life he had taken was when she sent him word, quite definitely after the affair at the Feydau, that she could not again in any circumstances receive him. At one blow—through that disgraceful riot—he had been robbed of a mistress he prized and of a wife who had become a necessity to the very soul of him. The sordid love of La Binet might have consoled him for the compulsory renunciation of his exalted love of Aline, just as to his exalted love of Aline he had been ready to sacrifice his attachment to La Binet. But that ill-timed riot had robbed him at once of both. Faithful to his word to Sautron he had definitely broken with La Binet, only to find that Aline had definitely broken with him. And by the time that he had sufficiently recovered from his grief to think again of La Binet, the comedienne had vanished beyond discovery.
For all this he blamed, and most bitterly blamed, Andre-Louis. That low-born provincial lout pursued him like a Nemesis, was become indeed the evil genius of his life. That was it—the evil genius of his life! And it was odds that on Monday... He did not like to think of Monday. He was not particularly afraid of death. He was as brave as his kind in that respect, too brave in the ordinary way, and too confident of his skill, to have considered even remotely such a possibility as that of dying in a duel. It was only that it would seem like a proper consummation of all the evil that he had suffered directly or indirectly through this Andre-Louis Moreau that he should perish ignobly by his hand. Almost he could hear that insolent, pleasant voice making the flippant announcement to the Assembly on Monday morning.
He shook off the mood, angry with himself for entertaining it. It was maudlin. After all Chabrillane and La Motte-Royau were quite exceptional swordsmen, but neither of them really approached his own formidable calibre. Reaction began to flow, as he drove out through country lanes flooded with pleasant September sunshine. His spirits rose. A premonition of victory stirred within him. Far from fearing Monday's meeting, as he had so unreasonably been doing, he began to look forward to it. It should afford him the means of setting a definite term to this persecution of which he had been the victim. He would crush this insolent and persistent flea that had been stinging him at every opportunity. Borne upward on that wave of optimism, he took presently a more hopeful view of his case with Aline.
At their first meeting a month ago he had used the utmost frankness with her. He had told her the whole truth of his motives in going that night to the Feydau; he had made her realize that she had acted unjustly towards him. True he had gone no farther.
But that was very far to have gone as a beginning. And in their last meeting, now a fortnight old, she had received him with frank friendliness. True, she had been a little aloof. But that was to be expected until he quite explicitly avowed that he had revived the hope of winning her. He had been a fool not to have returned before to-day.
Thus in that mood of new-born confidence—a confidence risen from the very ashes of despondency—came he on that Sunday morning to Meudon. He was gay and jovial with M. de Kercadiou what time he waited in the salon for mademoiselle to show herself. He pronounced with confidence on the country's future. There were signs already—he wore the rosiest spectacles that morning—of a change of opinion, of a more moderate note. The Nation began to perceive whither this lawyer rabble was leading it. He pulled out "The Acts of the Apostles" and read a stinging paragraph. Then, when mademoiselle at last made her appearance, he resigned the journal into the hands of M. de Kercadiou.
M. de Kercadiou, with his niece's future to consider, went to read the paper in the garden, taking up there a position whence he could keep the couple within sight—as his obligations seemed to demand of him—whilst being discreetly out of earshot.
The Marquis made the most of an opportunity that might be brief. He quite frankly declared himself, and begged, implored to be taken back into Aline's good graces, to be admitted at least to the hope that one day before very long she would bring herself to consider him in a nearer relationship.
"Mademoiselle," he told her, his voice vibrating with a feeling that admitted of no doubt, "you cannot lack conviction of my utter sincerity. The very constancy of my devotion should afford you this. It is just that I should have been banished from you, since I showed myself so utterly unworthy of the great honour to which I aspired. But this banishment has nowise diminished my devotion. If you could conceive what I have suffered, you would agree that I have fully expiated my abject fault."
She looked at him with a curious, gentle wistfulness on her lovely face.
"Monsieur, it is not you whom I doubt. It is myself."
"You mean your feelings towards me?"
"But that I can understand. After what has happened..."
"It was always so, monsieur," she interrupted quietly. "You speak of me as if lost to you by your own action. That is to say too much. Let me be frank with you. Monsieur, I was never yours to lose. I am conscious of the honour that you do me. I esteem you very deeply..."
"But, then," he cried, on a high note of confidence, "from such a beginning..."
"Who shall assure me that it is a beginning? May it not be the whole? Had I held you in affection, monsieur, I should have sent for you after the affair of which you have spoken. I should at least not have condemned you without hearing your explanation. As it was..." She shrugged, smiling gently, sadly. "You see..."
But his optimism far from being crushed was stimulated. "But it is to give me hope, mademoiselle. If already I possess so much, I may look with confidence to win more. I shall prove myself worthy. I swear to do that. Who that is permitted the privilege of being near you could do other than seek to render himself worthy?"
And then before she could add a word, M. de Kercadiou came blustering through the window, his spectacles on his forehead, his face inflamed, waving in his hand "The Acts of the Apostles," and apparently reduced to speechlessness.
Had the Marquis expressed himself aloud he would have been profane. As it was he bit his lip in vexation at this most inopportune interruption.
Aline sprang up, alarmed by her uncle's agitation.
"What has happened?"
"Happened?" He found speech at last. "The scoundrel! The faithless dog! I consented to overlook the past on the clear condition that he should avoid revolutionary politics in future. That condition he accepted, and now"—he smacked the news-sheet furiously—"he has played me false again. Not only has he gone into politics, once more, but he is actually a member of the Assembly, and what is worse he has been using his assassin's skill as a fencing-master, turning himself into a bully-swordsman. My God! Is there any law at all left in France?"
One doubt M. de La Tour d'Azyr had entertained, though only faintly, to mar the perfect serenity of his growing optimism. That doubt concerned this man Moreau and his relations with M. de Kercadiou. He knew what once they had been, and how changed they subsequently were by the ingratitude of Moreau's own behavior in turning against the class to which his benefactor belonged. What he did not know was that a reconciliation had been effected. For in the past month—ever since circumstances had driven Andre-Louis to depart from his undertaking to steer clear of politics—the young man had not ventured to approach Meudon, and as it happened his name had not been mentioned in La Tour d'Azyr's hearing on the occasion of either of his own previous visits. He learnt of that reconciliation now; but he learnt at the same time that the breach was now renewed, and rendered wider and more impassable than ever. Therefore he did not hesitate to avow his own position.
"There is a law," he answered. "The law that this rash young man himself evokes. The law of the sword." He spoke very gravely, almost sadly. For he realized that after all the ground was tender. "You are not to suppose that he is to continue indefinitely his career of evil and of murder. Sooner or later he will meet a sword that will avenge the others. You have observed that my cousin Chabrillane is among the number of this assassin's victims; that he was killed on Tuesday last."
"If I have not expressed my condolence, Azyr, it is because my indignation stifles at the moment every other feeling. The scoundrel! You say that sooner or later he will meet a sword that will avenge the others. I pray that it may be soon."
The Marquis answered him quietly, without anything but sorrow in his voice. "I think your prayer is likely to be heard. This wretched young man has an engagement for to-morrow, when his account may be definitely settled."
He spoke with such calm conviction that his words had all the sound of a sentence of death. They suddenly stemmed the flow of M. de Kercadiou's anger. The colour receded from his inflamed face; dread looked out of his pale eyes, to inform M. de La Tour d'Azyr, more clearly than any words, that M. de Kercadiou's hot speech had been the expression of unreflecting anger, that his prayer that retribution might soon overtake his godson had been unconsciously insincere. Confronted now by the fact that this retribution was about to be visited upon that scoundrel, the fundamental gentleness and kindliness of his nature asserted itself; his anger was suddenly whelmed in apprehension; his affection for the lad beat up to the surface, making Andre-Louis' sin, however hideous, a thing of no account by comparison with the threatened punishment.
M. de Kercadiou moistened his lips.
"With whom is this engagement?" he asked in a voice that by an effort he contrived to render steady.
M. de La Tour d'Azyr bowed his handsome head, his eyes upon the gleaming parquetry of the floor. "With myself," he answered quietly, conscious already with a tightening of the heart that his answer must sow dismay. He caught the sound of a faint outcry from Aline; he saw the sudden recoil of M. de Kercadiou. And then he plunged headlong into the explanation that he deemed necessary.
"In view of his relations with you, M. de Kercadiou, and because of my deep regard for you, I did my best to avoid this, even though as you will understand the death of my dear friend and cousin Chabrillane seemed to summon me to action, even though I knew that my circumspection was becoming matter for criticism among my friends. But yesterday this unbridled young man made further restraint impossible to me. He provoked me deliberately and publicly. He put upon me the very grossest affront, and... to-morrow morning in the Bois... we meet."
He faltered a little at the end, fully conscious of the hostile atmosphere in which he suddenly found himself. Hostility from M. de Kercadiou, the latter's earlier change of manner had already led him to expect; the hostility of mademoiselle came more in the nature of a surprise.
He began to understand what difficulties the course to which he was committed must raise up for him. A fresh obstacle was to be flung across the path which he had just cleared, as he imagined. Yet his pride and his sense of the justice due to be done admitted of no weakening.
In bitterness he realized now, as he looked from uncle to niece—his glance, usually so direct and bold, now oddly furtive—that though to-morrow he might kill Andre-Louis, yet even by his death Andre-Louis would take vengeance upon him. He had exaggerated nothing in reaching the conclusion that this Andre-Louis Moreau was the evil genius of his life. He saw now that do what he would, kill him even though he might, he could never conquer him. The last word would always be with Andre-Louis Moreau. In bitterness, in rage, and in humiliation—a thing almost unknown to him—did he realize it, and the realization steeled his purpose for all that he perceived its futility.
Outwardly he showed himself calm and self-contained, properly suggesting a man regretfully accepting the inevitable. It would have been as impossible to find fault with his bearing as to attempt to turn him from the matter to which he was committed. And so M. de Kercadiou perceived.
"My God!" was all that he said, scarcely above his breath, yet almost in a groan.
M. de La Tour d'Azyr did, as always, the thing that sensibility demanded of him. He took his leave. He understood that to linger where his news had produced such an effect would be impossible, indecent. So he departed, in a bitterness comparable only with his erstwhile optimism, the sweet fruit of hope turned to a thing of gall even as it touched his lips. Oh, yes; the last word, indeed, was with Andre-Louis Moreau—always!
Uncle and niece looked at each other as he passed out, and there was horror in the eyes of both. Aline's pallor was deathly almost, and standing there now she wrung her hands as if in pain.
"Why did you not ask him—beg him..." She broke off.
"To what end? He was in the right, and... and there are things one cannot ask; things it would be a useless humiliation to ask." He sat down, groaning. "Oh, the poor boy—the poor, misguided boy."
In the mind of neither, you see, was there any doubt of what must be the issue. The calm confidence in which La Tour d'Azyr had spoken compelled itself to be shared. He was no vainglorious boaster, and they knew of what a force as a swordsman he was generally accounted.
"What does humiliation matter? A life is at issue—Andre's life."
"I know. My God, don't I know? And I would humiliate myself if by humiliating myself I could hope to prevail. But Azyr is a hard, relentless man, and..."
Abruptly she left him.
She overtook the Marquis as he was in the act of stepping his carriage. He turned as she called, and bowed.
At once he guessed her errand, tasted in anticipation the unparalleled bitterness of being compelled to refuse her. Yet at her invitation he stepped back into the cool of the hall.
In the middle of the floor of chequered marbles, black and white, stood a carved table of black oak. By this he halted, leaning lightly against it whilst she sat enthroned in the great crimson chair beside it.
"Monsieur, I cannot allow you so to depart," she said. "You cannot realize, monsieur, what a blow would be dealt my uncle if... if evil, irrevocable evil were to overtake his godson to-morrow. The expressions that he used at first..."
"Mademoiselle, I perceived their true value. Spare yourself. Believe me I am profoundly desolated by circumstances which I had not expected to find. You must believe me when I say that. It is all that I can say."
"Must it really be all? Andre is very dear to his godfather."
The pleading tone cut him like a knife; and then suddenly it aroused another emotion—an emotion which he realized to be utterly unworthy, an emotion which, in his overwhelming pride of race, seemed almost sullying, yet not to be repressed. He hesitated to give it utterance; hesitated even remotely to suggest so horrible a thing as that in a man of such lowly origin he might conceivably discover a rival. Yet that sudden pang of jealousy was stronger than his monstrous pride.
"And to you, mademoiselle? What is this Andre-Louis Moreau to you? You will pardon the question. But I desire clearly to understand."
Watching her he beheld the scarlet stain that overspread her face. He read in it at first confusion, until the gleam of her blue eyes announced its source to lie in anger. That comforted him; since he had affronted her, he was reassured. It did not occur to him that the anger might have another source.
"Andre and I have been playmates from infancy. He is very dear to me, too; almost I regard him as a brother. Were I in need of help, and were my uncle not available, Andre would be the first man to whom I should turn. Are you sufficiently answered, monsieur? Or is there more of me you would desire revealed?"
He bit his lip. He was unnerved, he thought, this morning; otherwise the silly suspicion with which he had offended could never have occurred to him.
He bowed very low. "Mademoiselle, forgive that I should have troubled you with such a question. You have answered more fully than I could have hoped or wished."
He said no more than that. He waited for her to resume. At a loss, she sat in silence awhile, a pucker on her white brow, her fingers nervously drumming on the table. At last she flung herself headlong against the impassive, polished front that he presented.
"I have come, monsieur, to beg you to put off this meeting."
She saw the faint raising of his dark eyebrows, the faintly regretful smile that scarcely did more than tinge his fine lips, and she hurried on. "What honour can await you in such an engagement, monsieur?"
It was a shrewd thrust at the pride of race that she accounted his paramount sentiment, that had as often lured him into error as it had urged him into good.
"I do not seek honour in it, mademoiselle, but—I must say it—justice. The engagement, as I have explained, is not of my seeking. It has been thrust upon me, and in honour I cannot draw back."
"Why, what dishonour would there be in sparing him? Surely, monsieur, none would call your courage in question? None could misapprehend your motives."
"You are mistaken, mademoiselle. My motives would most certainly be misapprehended. You forget that this young man has acquired in the past week a certain reputation that might well make a man hesitate to meet him."
She brushed that aside almost contemptuously, conceiving it the merest quibble.
"Some men, yes. But not you, M. le Marquis."
Her confidence in him on every count was most sweetly flattering. But there was a bitterness behind the sweet.
"Even I, mademoiselle, let me assure you. And there is more than that. This quarrel which M. Moreau has forced upon me is no new thing. It is merely the culmination of a long-drawn persecution..."
"Which you invited," she cut in. "Be just, monsieur."
"I hope that it is not in my nature to be otherwise, mademoiselle."
"Consider, then, that you killed his friend."
"I find in that nothing with which to reproach myself. My justification lay in the circumstances—the subsequent events in this distracted country surely confirm it."
"And..." She faltered a little, and looked away from him for the first time. "And that you... that you... And what of Mademoiselle Binet, whom he was to have married?"
He stared at her for a moment in sheer surprise. "Was to have married?" he repeated incredulously, dismayed almost.
"You did not know that?"
"But how do you?"
"Did I not tell you that we are as brother and sister almost? I have his confidence. He told me, before... before you made it impossible."
He looked away, chin in hand, his glance thoughtful, disturbed, almost wistful.
"There is," he said slowly, musingly, "a singular fatality at work between that man and me, bringing us ever each by turns athwart the other's path..."
He sighed; then swung to face her again, speaking more briskly: "Mademoiselle, until this moment I had no knowledge—no suspicion of this thing. But..." He broke off, considered, and then shrugged. "If I wronged him, I did so unconsciously. It would be unjust to blame me, surely. In all our actions it must be the intention alone that counts."
"But does it make no difference?"
"None that I can discern, mademoiselle. It gives me no justification to withdraw from that to which I am irrevocably committed. No justification, indeed, could ever be greater than my concern for the pain it must occasion my good friend, your uncle, and perhaps yourself, mademoiselle."
She rose suddenly, squarely confronting him, desperate now, driven to play the only card upon which she thought she might count.
"Monsieur," she said, "you did me the honour to-day to speak in certain terms; to... to allude to certain hopes with which you honour me."
He looked at her almost in fear. In silence, not daring to speak, he waited for her to continue.
"I... I... Will you please to understand, monsieur, that if you persist in this matter, if... unless you can break this engagement of yours to-morrow morning in the Bois, you are not to presume to mention this subject to me again, or, indeed, ever again to approach me."
To put the matter in this negative way was as far as she could possibly go. It was for him to make the positive proposal to which she had thus thrown wide the door.
"Mademoiselle, you cannot mean..."
"I do, monsieur... irrevocably, please to understand." He looked at her with eyes of misery, his handsome, manly face as pale as she had ever seen it. The hand he had been holding out in protest began to shake. He lowered it to his side again, lest she should perceive its tremor. Thus a brief second, while the battle was fought within him, the bitter engagement between his desires and what he conceived to be the demands of his honour, never perceiving how far his honour was buttressed by implacable vindictiveness. Retreat, he conceived, was impossible without shame; and shame was to him an agony unthinkable. She asked too much. She could not understand what she was asking, else she would never be so unreasonable, so unjust. But also he saw that it would be futile to attempt to make her understand.
It was the end. Though he kill Andre-Louis Moreau in the morning as he fiercely hoped he would, yet the victory even in death must lie with Andre-Louis Moreau.
He bowed profoundly, grave and sorrowful of face as he was grave and sorrowful of heart.
"Mademoiselle, my homage," he murmured, and turned to go.
"But you have not answered me!" she called after him in terror.
He checked on the threshold, and turned; and there from the cool gloom of the hall she saw him a black, graceful silhouette against the brilliant sunshine beyond—a memory of him that was to cling as something sinister and menacing in the dread hours that were to follow.
"What would you, mademoiselle? I but spared myself and you the pain of a refusal."
He was gone leaving her crushed and raging. She sank down again into the great red chair, and sat there crumpled, her elbows on the table, her face in her hands—a face that was on fire with shame and passion. She had offered herself, and she had been refused! The inconceivable had befallen her. The humiliation of it seemed to her something that could never be effaced.
Startled, appalled, she stepped back, her hand pressed to her tortured breast.