Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 4

At Meudon

Later in the week he received a visit from Le Chapelier just before noon.

“I have news for you, Andre. Your godfather is at Meudon. He arrived there two days ago. Had you heard?”

“But no. How should I hear? Why is he at Meudon?” He was conscious of a faint excitement, which he could hardly have explained.

“I don’t know. There have been fresh disturbances in Brittany. It may be due to that.”

“And so he has come for shelter to his brother?” asked Andre–Louis.

“To his brother’s house, yes; but not to his brother. Where do you live at all, Andre? Do you never hear any of the news? Etienne de Gavrillac emigrated years ago. He was of the household of M. d’Artois, and he crossed the frontier with him. By now, no doubt, he is in Germany with him, conspiring against France. For that is what the emigres are doing. That Austrian woman at the Tuileries will end by destroying the monarchy.”

“Yes, yes,” said Andre–Louis impatiently. Politics interested him not at all this morning. “But about Gavrillac?”

“Why, haven’t I told you that Gavrillac is at Meudon, installed in the house his brother has left? Dieu de Dieu! Don’t I speak French or don’t you understand the language? I believe that Rabouillet, his intendant, is in charge of Gavrillac. I have brought you the news the moment I received it. I thought you would probably wish to go out to Meudon.”

“Of course. I will go at once — that is, as soon as I can. I can’t to-day, nor yet to-morrow. I am too busy here.” He waved a hand towards the inner room, whence proceeded the click-click of blades, the quick moving of feet, and the voice of the instructor, Le Duc.

“Well, well, that is your own affair. You are busy. I leave you now. Let us dine this evening at the Café de Foy. Kersain will be of the party.”

“A moment!” Andre–Louis’ voice arrested him on the threshold. “Is Mlle. de Kercadiou with her uncle?”

“How the devil should I know? Go and find out.”

He was gone, and Andre–Louis stood there a moment deep in thought. Then he turned and went back to resume with his pupil, the Vicomte de Villeniort, the interrupted exposition of the demi-contre of Danet, illustrating with a small-sword the advantages to be derived from its adoption.

Thereafter he fenced with the Vicomte, who was perhaps the ablest of his pupils at the time, and all the while his thoughts were on the heights of Meudon, his mind casting up the lessons he had to give that afternoon and on the morrow, and wondering which of these he might postpone without deranging the academy. When having touched the Vicomte three times in succession, he paused and wrenched himself back to the present, it was to marvel at the precision to be gained by purely mechanical action. Without bestowing a thought upon what he was doing, his wrist and arm and knees had automatically performed their work, like the accurate fighting engine into which constant practice for a year and more had combined them.

Not until Sunday was Andre–Louis able to satisfy a wish which the impatience of the intervening days had converted into a yearning. Dressed with more than ordinary care, his head elegantly coiffed — by one of those hairdressers to the nobility of whom so many were being thrown out of employment by the stream of emigration which was now flowing freely — Andre–Louis mounted his hired carriage, and drove out to Meudon.

The house of the younger Kercadiou no more resembled that of the head of the family than did his person. A man of the Court, where his brother was essentially a man of the soil, an officer of the household of M. le Comte d’Artois, he had built for himself and his family an imposing villa on the heights of Meudon in a miniature park, conveniently situated for him midway between Versailles and Paris, and easily accessible from either. M. d’Artois — the royal tennis-player — had been amongst the very first to emigrate. Together with the Condes, the Contis, the Polignacs, and others of the Queen’s intimate council, old Marshal de Broglie and the Prince de Lambesc, who realized that their very names had become odious to the people, he had quitted France immediately after the fall of the Bastille. He had gone to play tennis beyond the frontier — and there consummate the work of ruining the French monarchy upon which he and those others had been engaged in France. With him, amongst several members of his household went Etienne de Kercadiou, and with Etienne de Kercadiou went his family, a wife and four children. Thus it was that the Seigneur de Gavrillac, glad to escape from a province so peculiarly disturbed as that of Brittany — where the nobles had shown themselves the most intransigent of all France — had come to occupy in his brother’s absence the courtier’s handsome villa at Meudon.

That he was quite happy there is not to be supposed. A man of his almost Spartan habits, accustomed to plain fare and self-help, was a little uneasy in this sybaritic abode, with its soft carpets, profusion of gilding, and battalion of sleek, silent-footed servants — for Kercadiou the younger had left his entire household behind. Time, which at Gavrillac he had kept so fully employed in agrarian concerns, here hung heavily upon his hands. In self-defence he slept a great deal, and but for Aline, who made no attempt to conceal her delight at this proximity to Paris and the heart of things, it is possible that he would have beat a retreat almost at once from surroundings that sorted so ill with his habits. Later on, perhaps, he would accustom himself and grow resigned to this luxurious inactivity. In the meantime the novelty of it fretted him, and it was into the presence of a peevish and rather somnolent M. de Kercadiou that Andre–Louis was ushered in the early hours of the afternoon of that Sunday in June. He was unannounced, as had ever been the custom at Gavrillac. This because Benoit, M. de Kercadiou’s old seneschal, had accompanied his seigneur upon this soft adventure, and was installed — to the ceaseless and but half-concealed hilarity of the impertinent valetaille that M. Etienne had left — as his maitre d’hotel here at Meudon.

Benoit had welcomed M. Andre with incoherencies of delight; almost had he gambolled about him like some faithful dog, whilst conducting him to the salon and the presence of the Lord of Gavrillac, who would — in the words of Benoit — be ravished to see M. Andre again.

“Monseigneur! Monseigneur!” he cried in a quavering voice, entering a pace or two in advance of the visitor. “It is M. Andre . . . M. Andre, your godson, who comes to kiss your hand. He is here . . . and so fine that you would hardly know him. Here he is, monseigneur! Is he not beautiful?”

And the old servant rubbed his hands in conviction of the delight that he believed he was conveying to his master.

Andre–Louis crossed the threshold of that great room, soft-carpeted to the foot, dazzling to the eye. It was immensely lofty, and its festooned ceiling was carried on fluted pillars with gilded capitals. The door by which he entered, and the windows that opened upon the garden, were of an enormous height — almost, indeed, the full height of the room itself. It was a room overwhelmingly gilded, with an abundance of ormolu encrustations on the furniture, in which it nowise differed from what was customary in the dwellings of people of birth and wealth. Never, indeed, was there a time in which so much gold was employed decoratively as in this age when coined gold was almost unprocurable, and paper money had been put into circulation to supply the lack. It was a saying of Andre–Louis’ that if these people could only have been induced to put the paper on their walls and the gold into their pockets, the finances of the kingdom might soon have been in better case.

The Seigneur — furbished and beruffled to harmonize with his surroundings — had risen, startled by this exuberant invasion on the part of Benoit, who had been almost as forlorn as himself since their coming to Meudon.

“What is it? Eh?” His pale, short-sighted eyes peered at the visitor. “Andre!” said he, between surprise and sternness; and the colour deepened in his great pink face.

Benoit, with his back to his master, deliberately winked and grinned at Andre–Louis to encourage him not to be put off by any apparent hostility on the part of his godfather. That done, the intelligent old fellow discreetly effaced himself.

“What do you want here?” growled M. de Kercadiou.

“No more than to kiss your hand, as Benoit has told you, monsieur my godfather,” said Andre–Louis submissively, bowing his sleek black head.

“You have contrived without kissing it for two years.”

“Do not, monsieur, reproach me with my misfortune.”

The little man stood very stiffly erect, his disproportionately large head thrown back, his pale prominent eyes very stern.

“Did you think to make your outrageous offence any better by vanishing in that heartless manner, by leaving us without knowledge of whether you were alive or dead?”

“At first it was dangerous — dangerous to my life — to disclose my whereabouts. Then for a time I was in need, almost destitute, and my pride forbade me, after what I had done and the view you must take of it, to appeal to you for help. Later . . . ”

“Destitute?” The Seigneur interrupted. For a moment his lip trembled. Then he steadied himself, and the frown deepened as he surveyed this very changed and elegant godson of his, noted the quiet richness of his apparel, the paste buckles and red heels to his shoes, the sword hilted in mother-o’-pearl and silver, and the carefully dressed hair that he had always seen hanging in wisps about his face. “At least you do not look destitute now,” he sneered.

“I am not. I have prospered since. In that, monsieur, I differ from the ordinary prodigal, who returns only when he needs assistance. I return solely because I love you, monsieur — to tell you so. I have come at the very first moment after hearing of your presence here.” He advanced. “Monsieur my godfather!” he said, and held out his hand.

But M. de Kercadiou remained unbending, wrapped in his cold dignity and resentment.

“Whatever tribulations you may have suffered or consider that you may have suffered, they are far less than your disgraceful conduct deserved, and I observe that they have nothing abated your impudence. You think that you have but to come here and say, ‘Monsieur my godfather!’ and everything is to be forgiven and forgotten. That is your error. You have committed too great a wrong; you have offended against everything by which I hold, and against myself personally, by your betrayal of my trust in you. You are one of those unspeakable scoundrels who are responsible for this revolution.”

“Alas, monsieur, I see that you share the common delusion. These unspeakable scoundrels but demanded a constitution, as was promised them from the throne. They were not to know that the promise was insincere, or that its fulfilment would be baulked by the privileged orders. The men who have precipitated this revolution, monsieur, are the nobles and the prelates.”

“You dare — and at such a time as this — stand there and tell me such abominable lies! You dare to say that the nobles have made the revolution, when scores of them, following the example of M. le Duc d’Aiguillon, have flung their privileges, even their title-deeds, into the lap of the people! Or perhaps you deny it?”

“Oh, no. Having wantonly set fire to their house, they now try to put it out by throwing water on it; and where they fail they put the entire blame on the flames.”

“I see that you have come here to talk politics.”

“Far from it. I have come, if possible, to explain myself. To understand is always to forgive. That is a great saying of Montaigne’s. If I could make you understand . . . ”

“You can’t. You’ll never make me understand how you came to render yourself so odiously notorious in Brittany.”

“Ah, not odiously, monsieur!”

“Certainly, odiously — among those that matter. It is said even that you were Omnes Omnibus, though that I cannot, will not believe.”

“Yet it is true.”

M. de Kercadiou choked. “And you confess it? You dare to confess it?”

“What a man dares to do, he should dare to confess — unless he is a coward.”

“Oh, and to be sure you were very brave, running away each time after you had done the mischief, turning comedian to hide yourself, doing more mischief as a comedian, provoking a riot in Nantes, and then running away again, to become God knows what — something dishonest by the affluent look of you. My God, man, I tell you that in these past two years I have hoped that you were dead, and you profoundly disappoint me that you are not!” He beat his hands together, and raised his shrill voice to call —“Benoit!” He strode away towards the fireplace, scarlet in the face, shaking with the passion into which he had worked himself. “Dead, I might have forgiven you, as one who had paid for his evil, and his folly. Living, I never can forgive you. You have gone too far. God alone knows where it will end.

“Benoit, the door. M. Andre–Louis Moreau to the door!” The tone argued an irrevocable determination. Pale and self-contained, but with a queer pain at his heart, Andre–Louis heard that dismissal, saw Benoit’s white, scared face and shaking hands half-raised as if he were about to expostulate with his master. And then another voice, a crisp, boyish voice, cut in.

“Uncle!” it cried, a world of indignation and surprise in its pitch, and then: “Andre!” And this time a note almost of gladness, certainly of welcome, was blended with the surprise that still remained.

Both turned, half the room between them at the moment, and beheld Aline in one of the long, open windows, arrested there in the act of entering from the garden, Aline in a milk-maid bonnet of the latest mode, though without any of the tricolour embellishments that were so commonly to be seen upon them.

The thin lips of Andre’s long mouth twisted into a queer smile. Into his mind had flashed the memory of their last parting. He saw himself again, standing burning with indignation upon the pavement of Nantes, looking after her carriage as it receded down the Avenue de Gigan.

She was coming towards him now with outstretched hands, a heightened colour in her cheeks, a smile of welcome on her lips. He bowed low and kissed her hand in silence.

Then with a glance and a gesture she dismissed Benoit, and in her imperious fashion constituted herself Andre’s advocate against that harsh dismissal which she had overheard.

“Uncle,” she said, leaving Andre and crossing to M. de Kercadiou, “you make me ashamed of you! To allow a feeling of peevishness to overwhelm all your affection for Andre!”

“I have no affection for him. I had once. He chose to extinguish it. He can go to the devil; and please observe that I don’t permit you to interfere.”

“But if he confesses that he has done wrong . . . ”

“He confesses nothing of the kind. He comes here to argue with me about these infernal Rights of Man. He proclaims himself unrepentant. He announces himself with pride to have been, as all Brittany says, the scoundrel who hid himself under the sobriquet of Omnes Omnibus. Is that to be condoned?”

She turned to look at Andre across the wide space that now separated them.

“But is this really so? Don’t you repent, Andre — now that you see all the harm that has come?”

It was a clear invitation to him, a pleading to him to say that he repented, to make his peace with his godfather. For a moment it almost moved him. Then, considering the subterfuge unworthy, he answered truthfully, though the pain he was suffering rang in his voice.

“To confess repentance,” he said slowly, “would be to confess to a monstrous crime. Don’t you see that? Oh, monsieur, have patience with me; let me explain myself a little. You say that I am in part responsible for something of all this that has happened. My exhortations of the people at Rennes and twice afterwards at Nantes are said to have had their share in what followed there. It may be so. It would be beyond my power positively to deny it. Revolution followed and bloodshed. More may yet come. To repent implies a recognition that I have done wrong. How shall I say that I have done wrong, and thus take a share of the responsibility for all that blood upon my soul? I will be quite frank with you to show you how far, indeed, I am from repentance. What I did, I actually did against all my convictions at the time. Because there was no justice in France to move against the murderer of Philippe de Vilmorin, I moved in the only way that I imagined could make the evil done recoil upon the hand that did it, and those other hands that had the power but not the spirit to punish. Since then I have come to see that I was wrong, and that Philippe de Vilmorin and those who thought with him were in the right.

“You must realize, monsieur, that it is with sincerest thankfulness that I find I have done nothing calling for repentance; that, on the contrary, when France is given the inestimable boon of a constitution, as will shortly happen, I may take pride in having played my part in bringing about the conditions that have made this possible.”

There was a pause. M. de Kercadiou’s face turned from pink to purple.

“You have quite finished?” he said harshly.

“If you have understood me, monsieur.”

“Oh, I have understood you, and . . . and I beg that you will go.”

Andre–Louis shrugged his shoulders and hung his head. He had come there so joyously, in such yearning, merely to receive a final dismissal. He looked at Aline. Her face was pale and troubled; but her wit failed to show her how she could come to his assistance. His excessive honesty had burnt all his boats.

“Very well, monsieur. Yet this I would ask you to remember after I am gone. I have not come to you as one seeking assistance, as one driven to you by need. I am no returning prodigal, as I have said. I am one who, needing nothing, asking nothing, master of his own destinies, has come to you driven by affection only, urged by the love and gratitude he bears you and will continue to bear you.”

“Ah, yes!” cried Aline, turning now to her uncle. Here at least was an argument in Andre’s favour, thought she. “That is true. Surely that . . . ”

Inarticulately he hissed her into silence, exasperated.

“Hereafter perhaps that will help you to think of me more kindly, monsieur.”

“I see no occasion, sir, to think of you at all. Again, I beg that you will go.”

Andre–Louis looked at Aline an instant, as if still hesitating.

She answered him by a glance at her furious uncle, a faint shrug, and a lift of the eyebrows, dejection the while in her countenance.

It was as if she said: “You see his mood. There is nothing to be done.”

He bowed with that singular grace the fencing-room had given him and went out by the door.

“Oh, it is cruel!” cried Aline, in a stifled voice, her hands clenched, and she sprang to the window.

“Aline!” her uncle’s voice arrested her. “Where are you going?”

“But we do not know where he is to be found.”

“Who wants to find the scoundrel?”

“We may never see him again.”

“That is most fervently to be desired.”

Aline said “Ouf!” and went out by the window.

He called after her, imperiously commanding her return. But Aline — dutiful child — closed her ears lest she must disobey him, and sped light-footed across the lawn to the avenue there to intercept the departing Andre–Louis.

As he came forth wrapped in gloom, she stepped from the bordering trees into his path.

“Aline!” he cried, joyously almost.

“I did not want you to go like this. I couldn’t let you,” she explained herself. “I know him better than you do, and I know that his great soft heart will presently melt. He will be filled with regret. He will want to send for you, and he will not know where to send.”

“You think that?”

“Oh, I know it! You arrive in a bad moment. He is peevish and cross-grained, poor man, since he came here. These soft surroundings are all so strange to him. He wearies himself away from his beloved Gavrillac, his hunting and tillage, and the truth is that in his mind he very largely blames you for what has happened — for the necessity, or at least, the wisdom, of this change. Brittany, you must know, was becoming too unsafe. The chateau of La Tour d’Azyr, amongst others, was burnt to the ground some months ago. At any moment, given a fresh excitement, it may be the turn of Gavrillac. And for this and his present discomfort he blames you and your friends. But he will come round presently. He will be sorry that he sent you away like this — for I know that he loves you, Andre, in spite of all. I shall reason with him when the time comes. And then we shall want to know where to find you.”

“At number 13, Rue du Hasard. The number is unlucky, the name of the street appropriate. Therefore both are easy to remember.”

She nodded. “I will walk with you to the gates.” And side by side now they proceeded at a leisurely pace down the long avenue in the June sunshine dappled by the shadows of the bordering trees. “You are looking well, Andre; and do you know that you have changed a deal? I am glad that you have prospered.” And then, abruptly changing the subject before he had time to answer her, she came to the matter uppermost in her mind.

“I have so wanted to see you in all these months, Andre. You were the only one who could help me; the only one who could tell me the truth, and I was angry with you for never having written to say where you were to be found.”

“Of course you encouraged me to do so when last we met in Nantes.”

“What? Still resentful?”

“I am never resentful. You should know that.” He expressed one of his vanities. He loved to think himself a Stoic. “But I still bear the scar of a wound that would be the better for the balm of your retraction.”

“Why, then, I retract, Andre. And now tell me.”

“Yes, a self-seeking retraction,” said he. “You give me something that you may obtain something.” He laughed quite pleasantly. “Well, well; command me.”

“Tell me, Andre.” She paused, as if in some difficulty, and then went on, her eyes upon the ground: “Tell me — the truth of that event at the Feydau.”

The request fetched a frown to his brow. He suspected at once the thought that prompted it. Quite simply and briefly he gave her his version of the affair.

She listened very attentively. When he had done she sighed; her face was very thoughtful.

“That is much what I was told,” she said. “But it was added that M. de La Tour d’Azyr had gone to the theatre expressly for the purpose of breaking finally with La Binet. Do you know if that was so?”

“I don’t; nor of any reason why it should be so. La Binet provided him the sort of amusement that he and his kind are forever craving . . . ”

“Oh, there was a reason,” she interrupted him. “I was the reason. I spoke to Mme. de Sautron. I told her that I would not continue to receive one who came to me contaminated in that fashion.” She spoke of it with obvious difficulty, her colour rising as he watched her half-averted face.

“Had you listened to me . . . ” he was beginning, when again she interrupted him.

“M. de Sautron conveyed my decision to him, and afterwards represented him to me as a man in despair, repentant, ready to give proofs — any proofs — of his sincerity and devotion to me. He told me that M. de La Tour d’Azyr had sworn to him that he would cut short that affair, that he would see La Binet no more. And then, on the very next day I heard of his having all but lost his life in that riot at the theatre. He had gone straight from that interview with M. de Sautron, straight from those protestations of future wisdom, to La Binet. I was indignant. I pronounced myself finally. I stated definitely that I would not in any circumstances receive M. de La Tour d’Azyr again! And then they pressed this explanation upon me. For a long time I would not believe it.”

“So that you believe it now,” said Andre quickly. “Why?”

“I have not said that I believe it now. But . . . but . . . neither can I disbelieve. Since we came to Meudon M. de La Tour d’Azyr has been here, and himself he has sworn to me that it was so.”

“Oh, if M. de La Tour d’Azyr has sworn . . . ” Andre–Louis was laughing on a bitter note of sarcasm.

“Have you ever known him lie?” she cut in sharply. That checked him. “M. de La Tour d’Azyr is, after all, a man of honour, and men of honour never deal in falsehood. Have you ever known him do so, that you should sneer as you have done?”

“No,” he confessed. Common justice demanded that he should admit that virtue at least in his enemy. “I have not known him lie, it is true. His kind is too arrogant, too self-confident to have recourse to untruth. But I have known him do things as vile . . . ”

“Nothing is as vile,” she interrupted, speaking from the code by which she had been reared. “It is for liars only — who are first cousin to thieves — that there is no hope. It is in falsehood only that there is real loss of honour.”

“You are defending that satyr, I think,” he said frostily.

“I desire to be just.”

“Justice may seem to you a different matter when at last you shall have resolved yourself to become Marquise de La Tour d’Azyr.” He spoke bitterly.

“I don’t think that I shall ever take that resolve.”

“But you are still not sure — in spite of everything.”

“Can one ever be sure of anything in this world?”

“Yes. One can be sure of being foolish.”

Either she did not hear or did not heed him.

“You do not of your own knowledge know that it was not as M. de La Tour d’Azyr asserts — that he went to the Feydau that night?”

“I don’t,” he admitted. “It is of course possible. But does it matter?”

“It might matter. Tell me; what became of La Binet after all?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” She turned to consider him. “And you can say it with that indifference! I thought . . . I thought you loved her, Andre.”

“So did I, for a little while. I was mistaken. It required a La Tour d’Azyr to disclose the truth to me. They have their uses, these gentlemen. They help stupid fellows like myself to perceive important truths. I was fortunate that revelation in my case preceded marriage. I can now look back upon the episode with equanimity and thankfulness for my near escape from the consequences of what was no more than an aberration of the senses. It is a thing commonly confused with love. The experience, as you see, was very instructive.”

She looked at him in frank surprise.

“Do you know, Andre, I sometimes think that you have no heart.”

“Presumably because I sometimes betray intelligence. And what of yourself, Aline? What of your own attitude from the outset where M. de La Tour d’Azyr is concerned? Does that show heart? If I were to tell you what it really shows, we should end by quarrelling again, and God knows I can’t afford to quarrel with you now. I . . . I shall take another way.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, nothing at the moment, for you are not in any danger of marrying that animal.”

“And if I were?”

“Ah! In that case affection for you would discover to me some means of preventing it — unless . . . ” He paused.

“Unless?” she demanded, challengingly, drawn to the full of her short height, her eyes imperious.

“Unless you could also tell me that you loved him,” said he simply, whereat she was as suddenly and most oddly softened. And then he added, shaking his head: “But that of course is impossible.”

“Why?” she asked him, quite gently now.

“Because you are what you are, Aline — utterly good and pure and adorable. Angels do not mate with devils. His wife you might become, but never his mate, Aline — never.”

They had reached the wrought-iron gates at the end of the avenue. Through these they beheld the waiting yellow chaise which had brought Andre–Louis. From near at hand came the creak of other wheels, the beat of other hooves, and now another vehicle came in sight, and drew to a stand-still beside the yellow chaise — a handsome equipage with polished mahogany panels on which the gold and azure of armorial bearings flashed brilliantly in the sunlight. A footman swung to earth to throw wide the gates; but in that moment the lady who occupied the carriage, perceiving Aline, waved to her and issued a command.

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