Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 14

The Barrier

That gift of laughter of his seemed utterly extinguished. For once there was no gleam of humour in those dark eyes, as they continued to consider her with that queer stare of scrutiny. And yet, though his gaze was sombre, his thoughts were not. With his cruelly true mental vision which pierced through shams, and his capacity for detached observation — which properly applied might have carried him very far, indeed — he perceived the grotesqueness, the artificiality of the emotion which in that moment he experienced, but by which he refused to be possessed. It sprang entirely from the consciousness that she was his mother; as if, all things considered, the more or less accidental fact that she had brought him into the world could establish between them any real bond at this time of day! The motherhood that bears and forsakes is less than animal. He had considered this; he had been given ample leisure in which to consider it during those long, turbulent hours in which he had been forced to wait, because it would have been almost impossible to have won across that seething city, and certainly unwise to have attempted so to do.

He had reached the conclusion that by consenting to go to her rescue at such a time he stood committed to a piece of purely sentimental quixotry. The quittances which the Mayor of Meudon had exacted from him before he would issue the necessary safe-conducts placed the whole of his future, perhaps his very life, in jeopardy. And he had consented to do this not for the sake of a reality, but out of regard for an idea — he who all his life had avoided the false lure of worthless and hollow sentimentality.

Thus thought Andre–Louis as he considered her now so searchingly, finding it, naturally enough, a matter of extraordinary interest to look consciously upon his mother for the first time at the age of eight-and-twenty.

From her he looked at last at Jacques, who remained at attention, waiting by the open door.

“Could we be alone, madame?” he asked her.

She waved the footman away, and the door closed. In agitated silence, unquestioning, she waited for him to account for his presence there at so extraordinary a time.

“Rougane could not return,” he informed her shortly. “At M. de Kercadiou’s request, I come instead.”

“You! You are sent to rescue us!” The note of amazement in her voice was stronger than that of her relief.

“That, and to make your acquaintance, madame.”

“To make my acquaintance? But what do you mean, Andre–Louis?”

“This letter from M. de Kercadiou will tell you.” Intrigued by his odd words and odder manner, she took the folded sheet. She broke the seal with shaking hands, and with shaking hands approached the written page to the light. Her eyes grew troubled as she read; the shaking of her hands increased, and midway through that reading a moan escaped her. One glance that was almost terror she darted at the slim, straight man standing so incredibly impassive upon the edge of the light, and then she endeavoured to read on. But the crabbed characters of M. de Kercadiou swam distortedly under her eyes. She could not read. Besides, what could it matter what else he said. She had read enough. The sheet fluttered from her hands to the table, and out of a face that was like a face of wax, she looked now with a wistfulness, a sadness indescribable, at Andre–Louis.

“And so you know, my child?” Her voice was stifled to a whisper.

“I know, madame my mother.”

The grimness, the subtle blend of merciless derision and reproach in which it was uttered completely escaped her. She cried out at the new name. For her in that moment time and the world stood still. Her peril there in Paris as the wife of an intriguer at Coblenz was blotted out, together with every other consideration — thrust out of a consciousness that could find room for nothing else beside the fact that she stood acknowledged by her only son, this child begotten in adultery, borne furtively and in shame in a remote Brittany village eight-and-twenty years ago. Not even a thought for the betrayal of that inviolable secret, or the consequences that might follow, could she spare in this supreme moment.

She took one or two faltering steps towards him, hesitating. Then she opened her arms. Sobs suffocated her voice.

“Won’t you come to me, Andre–Louis?”

A moment yet he stood hesitating, startled by that appeal, angered almost by his heart’s response to it, reason and sentiment at grips in his soul. This was not real, his reason postulated; this poignant emotion that she displayed and that he experienced was fantastic. Yet he went. Her arms enfolded him; her wet cheek was pressed hard against his own; her frame, which the years had not yet succeeded in robbing of its grace, was shaken by the passionate storm within her.

“Oh, Andre–Louis, my child, if you knew how I have hungered to hold you so! If you knew how in denying myself this I have atoned and suffered! Kercadiou should not have told you — not even now. It was wrong — most wrong, perhaps, to you. It would have been better that he should have left me here to my fate, whatever that may be. And yet — come what may of this — to be able to hold you so, to be able to acknowledge you, to hear you call me mother — oh! Andre–Louis, I cannot now regret it. I cannot . . . I cannot wish it otherwise.”

“Is there any need, madame?” he asked her, his stoicism deeply shaken. “There is no occasion to take others into our confidence. This is for to-night alone. To-night we are mother and son. To-morrow we resume our former places, and, outwardly at least, forget.”

“Forget? Have you no heart, Andre–Louis?”

The question recalled him curiously to his attitude towards life — that histrionic attitude of his that he accounted true philosophy. Also he remembered what lay before them; and he realized that he must master not only himself but her; that to yield too far to sentiment at such a time might be the ruin of them all.

“It is a question propounded to me so often that it must contain the truth,” said he. “My rearing is to blame for that.”

She tightened her clutch about his neck even as he would have attempted to disengage himself from her embrace.

“You do not blame me for your rearing? Knowing all, as you do, Andre–Louis, you cannot altogether blame. You must be merciful to me. You must forgive me. You must! I had no choice.”

“When we know all of whatever it may be, we can never do anything but forgive, madame. That is the profoundest religious truth that was ever written. It contains, in fact, a whole religion — the noblest religion any man could have to guide him. I say this for your comfort, madame my mother.”

She sprang away from him with a startled cry. Beyond him in the shadows by the door a pale figure shimmered ghostly. It advanced into the light, and resolved itself into Aline. She had come in answer to that forgotten summons madame had sent her by Jacques. Entering unperceived she had seen Andre–Louis in the embrace of the woman whom he addressed as “mother.” She had recognized him instantly by his voice, and she could not have said what bewildered her more: his presence there or the thing she overheard.

“You heard, Aline?” madame exclaimed.

“I could not help it, madame. You sent for me. I am sorry if . . . ” She broke off, and looked at Andre–Louis long and curiously. She was pale, but quite composed. She held out her hand to him. “And so you have come at last, Andre,” said she. “You might have come before.”

“I come when I am wanted,” was his answer. “Which is the only time in which one can be sure of being received.” He said it without bitterness, and having said it stooped to kiss her hand.

“You can forgive me what is past, I hope, since I failed of my purpose,” he said gently, half-pleading. “I could not have come to you pretending that the failure was intentional — a compromise between the necessities of the case and your own wishes. For it was not that. And yet, you do not seem to have profited by my failure. You are still a maid.”

She turned her shoulder to him.

“There are things,” she said, “that you will never understand.”

“Life, for one,” he acknowledged. “I confess that I am finding it bewildering. The very explanations calculated to simplify it seem but to complicate it further.” And he looked at Mme. de Plougastel.

“You mean something, I suppose,” said mademoiselle.

“Aline!” It was the Countess who spoke. She knew the danger of half-discoveries. “I can trust you, child, I know, and Andre–Louis, I am sure, will offer no objection.” She had taken up the letter to show it to Aline. Yet first her eyes questioned him.

“Oh, none, madame,” he assured her. “It is entirely a matter for yourself.”

Aline looked from one to the other with troubled eyes, hesitating to take the letter that was now proffered. When she had read it through, she very thoughtfully replaced it on the table. A moment she stood there with bowed head, the other two watching her. Then impulsively she ran to madame and put her arms about her.

“Aline!” It was a cry of wonder, almost of joy. “You do not utterly abhor me!”

“My dear,” said Aline, and kissed the tear-stained face that seemed to have grown years older in these last few hours.

In the background Andre–Louis, steeling himself against emotionalism, spoke with the voice of Scaramouche.

“It would be well, mesdames, to postpone all transports until they can be indulged at greater leisure and in more security. It is growing late. If we are to get out of this shambles we should be wise to take the road without more delay.”

It was a tonic as effective as it was necessary. It startled them into remembrance of their circumstances, and under the spur of it they went at once to make their preparations.

They left him for perhaps a quarter of an hour, to pace that long room alone, saved only from impatience by the turmoil of his mind. When at length they returned, they were accompanied by a tall man in a full-skirted shaggy greatcoat and a broad hat the brim of which was turned down all around. He remained respectfully by the door in the shadows.

Between them the two women had concerted it thus, or rather the Countess had so concerted it when Aline had warned her that Andre–Louis’ bitter hostility towards the Marquis made it unthinkable that he should move a finger consciously to save him.

Now despite the close friendship uniting M. de Kercadiou and his niece with Mme. de Plougastel, there were several matters concerning them of which the Countess was in ignorance. One of these was the project at one time existing of a marriage between Aline and M. de La Tour d’Azyr. It was a matter that Aline — naturally enough in the state of her feelings — had never mentioned, nor had M. de Kercadiou ever alluded to it since his coming to Meudon, by when he had perceived how unlikely it was ever to be realized.

M. de La Tour d’Azyr’s concern for Aline on that morning of the duel when he had found her half-swooning in Mme. de Plougastel’s carriage had been of a circumspection that betrayed nothing of his real interest in her, and therefore had appeared no more than natural in one who must account himself the cause of her distress. Similarly Mme. de Plougastel had never realized nor did she realize now — for Aline did not trouble fully to enlighten her — that the hostility between the two men was other than political, the quarrel other than that which already had taken Andre–Louis to the Bois on every day of the preceding week. But, at least, she realized that even if Andre–Louis’ rancour should have no other source, yet that inconclusive duel was cause enough for Aline’s fears.

And so she had proposed this obvious deception; and Aline had consented to be a passive party to it. They had made the mistake of not fully forewarning and persuading M. de La Tour d’Azyr. They had trusted entirely to his anxiety to escape from Paris to keep him rigidly within the part imposed upon him. They had reckoned without the queer sense of honour that moved such men as M. le Marquis, nurtured upon a code of shams.

Andre–Louis, turning to scan that muffled figure, advanced from the dark depths of the salon. As the light beat on his white, lean face the pseudo-footman started. The next moment he too stepped forward into the light, and swept his broad-brimmed hat from his brow. As he did so Andre–Louis observed that his hand was fine and white and that a jewel flashed from one of the fingers. Then he caught his breath, and stiffened in every line as he recognized the face revealed to him.

“Monsieur,” that stern, proud man was saying, “I cannot take advantage of your ignorance. If these ladies can persuade you to save me, at least it is due to you that you shall know whom you are saving.”

He stood there by the table very erect and dignified, ready to perish as he had lived — if perish he must — without fear and without deception.

Andre–Louis came slowly forward until he reached the table on the other side, and then at last the muscles of his set face relaxed, and he laughed.

“You laugh?” said M. de La Tour d’Azyr, frowning, offended.

“It is so damnably amusing,” said Andre–Louis.

“You’ve an odd sense of humour, M. Moreau.”

“Oh, admitted. The unexpected always moves me so. I have found you many things in the course of our acquaintance. To-night you are the one thing I never expected to find you: an honest man.”

M. de La Tour d’Azyr quivered. But he attempted no reply.

“Because of that, monsieur, I am disposed to be clement. It is probably a foolishness. But you have surprised me into it. I give you three minutes, monsieur, in which to leave this house, and to take your own measures for your safety. What afterwards happens to you shall be no concern of mine.”

“Ah, no, Andre! Listen . . . ” Madame began in anguish.

“Pardon, madame. It is the utmost that I will do, and already I am violating what I conceive to be my duty. If M. de La Tour d’Azyr remains he not only ruins himself, but he imperils you. For unless he departs at once, he goes with me to the headquarters of the section, and the section will have his head on a pike inside the hour. He is a notorious counter-revolutionary, a knight of the dagger, one of those whom an exasperated populace is determined to exterminate. Now, monsieur, you know what awaits you. Resolve yourself and at once, for these ladies’ sake.”

“But you don’t know, Andre–Louis!” Mme. de Plougastel’s condition was one of anguish indescribable. She came to him and clutched his arm. “For the love of Heaven, Andre–Louis, be merciful with him! You must!”

“But that is what I am being, madame — merciful; more merciful than he deserves. And he knows it. Fate has meddled most oddly in our concerns to bring us together to-night. Almost it is as if Fate were forcing retribution at last upon him. Yet, for your sakes, I take no advantage of it, provided that he does at once as I have desired him.”

And now from beyond the table the Marquis spoke icily, and as he spoke his right hand stirred under the ample folds of his greatcoat.

“I am glad, M. Moreau, that you take that tone with me. You relieve me of the last scruple. You spoke of Fate just now, and I must agree with you that Fate has meddled oddly, though perhaps not to the end that you discern. For years now you have chosen to stand in my path and thwart me at every turn, holding over me a perpetual menace. Persistently you have sought my life in various ways, first indirectly and at last directly. Your intervention in my affairs has ruined my highest hopes — more effectively, perhaps, than you suppose. Throughout you have been my evil genius. And you are even one of the agents of this climax of despair that has been reached by me to-night.”

“Wait! Listen!” Madame was panting. She flung away from Andre–Louis, as if moved by some premonition of what was coming. “Gervais! This is horrible!”

“Horrible, perhaps, but inevitable. Himself he has invited it. I am a man in despair, the fugitive of a lost cause. That man holds the keys of escape. And, besides, between him and me there is a reckoning to be paid.”

His hand came from beneath the coat at last, and it came armed with a pistol.

Mme. de Plougastel screamed, and flung herself upon him. On her knees now, she clung to his arm with all her strength and might.

Vainly he sought to shake himself free of that desperate clutch.

“Therese!” he cried. “Are you mad? Will you destroy me and yourself? This creature has the safe-conducts that mean our salvation. Himself, he is nothing.”

From the background Aline, a breathless, horror-stricken spectator of that scene, spoke sharply, her quick mind pointing out the line of checkmate.

“Burn the safe-conducts, Andre–Louis. Burn them at once — in the candles there.”

But Andre–Louis had taken advantage of that moment of M. de La Tour d’Azyr’s impotence to draw a pistol in his turn. “I think it will be better to burn his brains instead,” he said. “Stand away from him, madame.”

Far from obeying that imperious command, Mme. de Plougastel rose to her feet to cover the Marquis with her body. But she still clung to his arm, clung to it with unsuspected strength that continued to prevent him from attempting to use the pistol.

“Andre! For God’s sake, Andre!” she panted hoarsely over her shoulder.

“Stand away, madame,” he commanded her again, more sternly, “and let this murderer take his due. He is jeopardizing all our lives, and his own has been forfeit these years. Stand away!” He sprang forward with intent now to fire at his enemy over her shoulder, and Aline moved too late to hinder him.

“Andre! Andre!”

Panting, gasping, haggard of face, on the verge almost of hysteria, the distracted Countess flung at last an effective, a terrible barrier between the hatred of those men, each intent upon taking the other’s life.

“He is your father, Andre! Gervais, he is your son — our son! The letter there . . . on the table . . . O my God!” And she slipped nervelessly to the ground, and crouched there sobbing at the feet of M. de La Tour d’Azyr.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29