“Do you know,” said Climene, “that I am waiting for the explanation which I think you owe me?”
They were alone together, lingering still at the table to which Andre–Louis had come belatedly, and Andre–Louis was loading himself a pipe. Of late — since joining the Binet Troupe — he had acquired the habit of smoking. The others had gone, some to take the air and others, like Binet and Madame, because they felt that it were discreet to leave those two to the explanations that must pass. It was a feeling that Andre–Louis did not share. He kindled a light and leisurely applied it to his pipe. A frown came to settle on his brow.
“Explanation?” he questioned presently, and looked at her. “But on what score?”
“On the score of the deception you have practised on us — on me.”
“I have practised none,” he assured her.
“You mean that you have simply kept your own counsel, and that in silence there is no deception. But it is deceitful to withhold facts concerning yourself and your true station from your future wife. You should not have pretended to be a simple country lawyer, which, of course, any one could see that you are not. It may have been very romantic, but . . . Enfin, will you explain?”
“I see,” he said, and pulled at his pipe. “But you are wrong, Climene. I have practised no deception. If there are things about me that I have not told you, it is that I did not account them of much importance. But I have never deceived you by pretending to be other than I am. I am neither more nor less than I have represented myself.”
This persistence began to annoy her, and the annoyance showed on her winsome face, coloured her voice.
“Ha! And that fine lady of the nobility with whom you are so intimate, who carried you off in her cabriolet with so little ceremony towards myself? What is she to you?”
“A sort of sister,” said he.
“A sort of sister!” She was indignant. “Harlequin foretold that you would say so; but he was amusing himself. It was not very funny. It is less funny still from you. She has a name, I suppose, this sort of sister?”
“Certainly she has a name. She is Mlle. Aline de Kercadiou, the niece of Quintin de Kercadiou, Lord of Gavrillac.”
“Oho! That’s a sufficiently fine name for your sort of sister. What sort of sister, my friend?”
For the first time in their relationship he observed and deplored the taint of vulgarity, of shrewishness, in her manner.
“It would have been more accurate in me to have said a sort of reputed left-handed cousin.”
“A reputed left-handed cousin! And what sort of relationship may that be? Faith, you dazzle me with your lucidity.”
“It requires to be explained.”
“That is what I have been telling you. But you seem very reluctant with your explanations.”
“Oh, no. It is only that they are so unimportant. But be you the judge. Her uncle, M. de Kercadiou, is my godfather, and she and I have been playmates from infancy as a consequence. It is popularly believed in Gavrillac that M. de Kercadiou is my father. He has certainly cared for my rearing from my tenderest years, and it is entirely owing to him that I was educated at Louis le Grand. I owe to him everything that I have — or, rather, everything that I had; for of my own free will I have cut myself adrift, and to-day I possess nothing save what I can earn for myself in the theatre or elsewhere.”
She sat stunned and pale under that cruel blow to her swelling pride. Had he told her this but yesterday, it would have made no impression upon her, it would have mattered not at all; the event of to-day coming as a sequel would but have enhanced him in her eyes. But coming now, after her imagination had woven for him so magnificent a background, after the rashly assumed discovery of his splendid identity had made her the envied of all the company, after having been in her own eyes and theirs enshrined by marriage with him as a great lady, this disclosure crushed and humiliated her. Her prince in disguise was merely the outcast bastard of a country gentleman! She would be the laughing-stock of every member of her father’s troupe, of all those who had so lately envied her this romantic good fortune.
“You should have told me this before,” she said, in a dull voice that she strove to render steady.
“Perhaps I should. But does it really matter?”
“Matter?” She suppressed her fury to ask another question. “You say that this M. de Kercadiou is popularly believed to be your father. What precisely do you mean?”
“Just that. It is a belief that I do not share. It is a matter of instinct, perhaps, with me. Moreover, once I asked M. de Kercadiou point-blank, and I received from him a denial. It is not, perhaps, a denial to which one would attach too much importance in all the circumstances. Yet I have never known M de Kercadiou for other than a man of strictest honour, and I should hesitate to disbelieve him — particularly when his statement leaps with my own instincts. He assured me that he did not know who my father was.”
“And your mother, was she equally ignorant?” She was sneering, but he did not remark it. Her back was to the light.
“He would not disclose her name to me. He confessed her to be a dear friend of his.”
She startled him by laughing, and her laugh was not pleasant.
“A very dear friend, you may be sure, you simpleton. What name do you bear?”
He restrained his own rising indignation to answer her question calmly: “Moreau. It was given me, so I am told, from the Brittany village in which I was born. But I have no claim to it. In fact I have no name, unless it be Scaramouche, to which I have earned a title. So that you see, my dear,” he ended with a smile, “I have practised no deception whatever.”
“No, no. I see that now.” She laughed without mirth, then drew a deep breath and rose. “I am very tired,” she said.
He was on his feet in an instant, all solicitude. But she waved him wearily back.
“I think I will rest until it is time to go to the theatre.” She moved towards the door, dragging her feet a little. He sprang to open it, and she passed out without looking at him.
Her so brief romantic dream was ended. The glorious world of fancy which in the last hour she had built with such elaborate detail, over which it should be her exalted destiny to rule, lay shattered about her feet, its debris so many stumbling-blocks that prevented her from winning back to her erstwhile content in Scaramouche as he really was.
Andre–Louis sat in the window embrasure, smoking and looking idly out across the river. He was intrigued and meditative. He had shocked her. The fact was clear; not so the reason. That he should confess himself nameless should not particularly injure him in the eyes of a girl reared amid the surroundings that had been Climene’s. And yet that his confession had so injured him was fully apparent.
There, still at his brooding, the returning Columbine discovered him a half-hour later.
“All alone, my prince!” was her laughing greeting, which suddenly threw light upon his mental darkness. Climene had been disappointed of hopes that the wild imagination of these players had suddenly erected upon the incident of his meeting with Aline. Poor child! He smiled whimsically at Columbine.
“I am likely to be so for some little time,” said he, “until it becomes a commonplace that I am not, after all, a prince.
“Not a prince? Oh, but a duke, then — at least a marquis.”
“Not even a chevalier, unless it be of the order of fortune. I am just Scaramouche. My castles are all in Spain.”
Disappointment clouded the lively, good-natured face.
“And I had imagined you . . . ”
“I know,” he interrupted. “That is the mischief.” He might have gauged the extent of that mischief by Climene’s conduct that evening towards the gentlemen of fashion who clustered now in the green-room between the acts to pay their homage to the incomparable amoureuse. Hitherto she had received them with a circumspection compelling respect. To-night she was recklessly gay, impudent, almost wanton.
He spoke of it gently to her as they walked home together, counselling more prudence in the future.
“We are not married yet,” she told him, tartly. “Wait until then before you criticize my conduct.”
“I trust that there will be no occasion then,” said he.
“You trust? Ah, yes. You are very trusting.”
“Climene, I have offended you. I am sorry.”
“It is nothing,” said she. “You are what you are.” Still was he not concerned. He perceived the source of her ill-humour; understood, whilst deploring it; and, because he understood, forgave. He perceived also that her ill-humour was shared by her father, and by this he was frankly amused. Towards M. Binet a tolerant contempt was the only feeling that complete acquaintance could beget. As for the rest of the company, they were disposed to be very kindly towards Scaramouche. It was almost as if in reality he had fallen from the high estate to which their own imaginations had raised him; or possibly it was because they saw the effect which that fall from his temporary and fictitious elevation had produced upon Climene.
Leandre alone made himself an exception. His habitual melancholy seemed to be dispelled at last, and his eyes gleamed now with malicious satisfaction when they rested upon Scaramouche, whom occasionally he continued to address with sly mockery as “mon prince.”
On the morrow Andre–Louis saw but little of Climene. This was not in itself extraordinary, for he was very hard at work again, with preparations now for “Figaro–Scaramouche” which was to be played on Saturday. Also, in addition to his manifold theatrical occupations, he now devoted an hour every morning to the study of fencing in an academy of arms. This was done not only to repair an omission in his education, but also, and chiefly, to give him added grace and poise upon the stage. He found his mind that morning distracted by thoughts of both Climene and Aline. And oddly enough it was Aline who provided the deeper perturbation. Climene’s attitude he regarded as a passing phase which need not seriously engage him. But the thought of Aline’s conduct towards him kept rankling, and still more deeply rankled the thought of her possible betrothal to M. de La Tour d’Azyr.
This it was that brought forcibly to his mind the self-imposed but by now half-forgotten mission that he had made his own. He had boasted that he would make the voice which M. de La Tour d’Azyr had sought to silence ring through the length and breadth of the land. And what had he done of all this that he had boasted? He had incited the mob of Rennes and the mob of Nantes in such terms as poor Philippe might have employed, and then because of a hue and cry he had fled like a cur and taken shelter in the first kennel that offered, there to lie quiet and devote himself to other things — self-seeking things. What a fine contrast between the promise and the fulfilment!
Thus Andre–Louis to himself in his self-contempt. And whilst he trifled away his time and played Scaramouche, and centred all his hopes in presently becoming the rival of such men as Chenier and Mercier, M. de La Tour d’Azyr went his proud ways unchallenged and wrought his will. It was idle to tell himself that the seed he had sown was bearing fruit. That the demands he had voiced in Nantes for the Third Estate had been granted by M. Necker, thanks largely to the commotion which his anonymous speech had made. That was not his concern or his mission. It was no part of his concern to set about the regeneration of mankind, or even the regeneration of the social structure of France. His concern was to see that M. de La Tour d’Azyr paid to the uttermost liard for the brutal wrong he had done Philippe de Vilmorin. And it did not increase his self-respect to find that the danger in which Aline stood of being married to the Marquis was the real spur to his rancour and to remembrance of his vow. He was — too unjustly, perhaps — disposed to dismiss as mere sophistries his own arguments that there was nothing he could do; that, in fact, he had but to show his head to find himself going to Rennes under arrest and making his final exit from the world’s stage by way of the gallows.
It is impossible to read that part of his “Confessions” without feeling a certain pity for him. You realize what must have been his state of mind. You realize what a prey he was to emotions so conflicting, and if you have the imagination that will enable you to put yourself in his place, you will also realize how impossible was any decision save the one to which he says he came, that he would move, at the first moment that he perceived in what direction it would serve his real aims to move.
It happened that the first person he saw when he took the stage on that Thursday evening was Aline; the second was the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr. They occupied a box on the right of, and immediately above, the stage. There were others with them — notably a thin, elderly, resplendent lady whom Andre–Louis supposed to be Madame la Comtesse de Sautron. But at the time he had no eyes for any but those two, who of late had so haunted his thoughts. The sight of either of them would have been sufficiently disconcerting. The sight of both together very nearly made him forget the purpose for which he had come upon the stage. Then he pulled himself together, and played. He played, he says, with an unusual nerve, and never in all that brief but eventful career of his was he more applauded.
That was the evening’s first shock. The next came after the second act. Entering the green-room he found it more thronged than usual, and at the far end with Climene, over whom he was bending from his fine height, his eyes intent upon her face, what time his smiling lips moved in talk, M. de La Tour d’Azyr. He had her entirely to himself, a privilege none of the men of fashion who were in the habit of visiting the coulisse had yet enjoyed. Those lesser gentlemen had all withdrawn before the Marquis, as jackals withdraw before the lion.
Andre–Louis stared a moment, stricken. Then recovering from his surprise he became critical in his study of the Marquis. He considered the beauty and grace and splendour of him, his courtly air, his complete and unshakable self-possession. But more than all he considered the expression of the dark eyes that were devouring Climene’s lovely face, and his own lips tightened.
M. de La Tour d’Azyr never heeded him or his stare; nor, had he done so, would he have known who it was that looked at him from behind the make-up of Scaramouche; nor, again, had he known, would he have been in the least troubled or concerned.
Andre–Louis sat down apart, his mind in turmoil. Presently he found a mincing young gentleman addressing him, and made shift to answer as was expected. Climene having been thus sequestered, and Columbine being already thickly besieged by gallants, the lesser visitors had to content themselves with Madame and the male members of the troupe. M. Binet, indeed, was the centre of a gay cluster that shook with laughter at his sallies. He seemed of a sudden to have emerged from the gloom of the last two days into high good-humour, and Scaramouche observed how persistently his eyes kept flickering upon his daughter and her splendid courtier.
That night there, were high words between Andre–Louis and Climene, the high words proceeding from Climene. When Andre–Louis again, and more insistently, enjoined prudence upon his betrothed, and begged her to beware how far she encouraged the advances of such a man as M. de La Tour d’Azyr, she became roundly abusive. She shocked and stunned him by her virulently shrewish tone, and her still more unexpected force of invective.
He sought to reason with her, and finally she came to certain terms with him.
“If you have become betrothed to me simply to stand as an obstacle in my path, the sooner we make an end the better.”
“You do not love me then, Climene?”
“Love has nothing to do with it. I’ll not tolerate your insensate jealousy. A girl in the theatre must make it her business to accept homage from all.”
“Agreed; and there is no harm, provided she gives nothing in exchange.”
White-faced, with flaming eyes she turned on him at that.
“Now, what exactly do you mean?”
“My meaning is clear. A girl in your position may receive all the homage that is offered, provided she receives it with a dignified aloofness implying clearly that she has no favours to bestow in return beyond the favour of her smile. If she is wise she will see to it that the homage is always offered collectively by her admirers, and that no single one amongst them shall ever have the privilege of approaching her alone. If she is wise she will give no encouragement, nourish no hopes that it may afterwards be beyond her power to deny realization.”
“How? You dare?”
“I know my world. And I know M. de La Tour d’Azyr,” he answered her. “He is a man without charity, without humanity almost; a man who takes what he wants wherever he finds it and whether it is given willingly or not; a man who reckons nothing of the misery he scatters on his self-indulgent way; a man whose only law is force. Ponder it, Climene, and ask yourself if I do you less than honour in warning you.”
He went out on that, feeling a degradation in continuing the subject.
The days that followed were unhappy days for him, and for at least one other. That other was Leandre, who was cast into the profoundest dejection by M. de La Tour d’Azyr’s assiduous attendance upon Climene. The Marquis was to be seen at every performance; a box was perpetually reserved for him, and invariably he came either alone or else with his cousin M. de Chabrillane.
On Tuesday of the following week, Andre–Louis went out alone early in the morning. He was out of temper, fretted by an overwhelming sense of humiliation, and he hoped to clear his mind by walking. In turning the corner of the Place du Bouffay he ran into a slightly built, sallow-complexioned gentleman very neatly dressed in black, wearing a tie-wig under a round hat. The man fell back at sight of him, levelling a spy-glass, then hailed him in a voice that rang with amazement.
“Moreau! Where the devil have you been hiding your-self these months?”
It was Le Chapelier, the lawyer, the leader of the Literary Chamber of Rennes.
“Behind the skirts of Thespis,” said Scaramouche.
“I don’t understand.”
“I didn’t intend that you should. What of yourself, Isaac? And what of the world which seems to have been standing still of late?”
“Standing still!” Le Chapelier laughed. “But where have you been, then? Standing still!” He pointed across the square to a café under the shadow of the gloomy prison. “Let us go and drink a bavaroise. You are of all men the man we want, the man we have been seeking everywhere, and — behold! — you drop from the skies into my path.”
They crossed the square and entered the café.
“So you think the world has been standing still! Dieu de Dieu! I suppose you haven’t heard of the royal order for the convocation of the States General, or the terms of them — that we are to have what we demanded, what you demanded for us here in Nantes! You haven’t heard that the order has gone forth for the primary elections — the elections of the electors. You haven’t heard of the fresh uproar in Rennes, last month. The order was that the three estates should sit together at the States General of the bailliages, but in the bailliage of Rennes the nobles must ever be recalcitrant. They took up arms actually — six hundred of them with their valetaille, headed by your old friend M. de La Tour d’Azyr, and they were for slashing us — the members of the Third Estate — into ribbons so as to put an end to our insolence.” He laughed delicately. “But, by God, we showed them that we, too, could take up arms. It was what you yourself advocated here in Nantes, last November. We fought them a pitched battle in the streets, under the leadership of your namesake Moreau, the provost, and we so peppered them that they were glad to take shelter in the Cordelier Convent. That is the end of their resistance to the royal authority and the people’s will.”
He ran on at great speed detailing the events that had taken place, and finally came to the matter which had, he announced, been causing him to hunt for Andre–Louis until he had all but despaired of finding him.
Nantes was sending fifty delegates to the assembly of Rennes which was to select the deputies to the Third Estate and edit their cahier of grievances. Rennes itself was being as fully represented, whilst such villages as Gavrillac were sending two delegates for every two hundred hearths or less. Each of these three had clamoured that Andre–Louis Moreau should be one of its delegates. Gavrillac wanted him because he belonged to the village, and it was known there what sacrifices he had made in the popular cause; Rennes wanted him because it had heard his spirited address on the day of the shooting of the students; and Nantes — to whom his identity was unknown — asked for him as the speaker who had addressed them under the name of Omnes Omnibus and who had framed for them the memorial that was believed so largely to have influenced M. Necker in formulating the terms of the convocation.
Since he could not be found, the delegations had been made up without him. But now it happened that one or two vacancies had occurred in the Nantes representation; and it was the business of filling these vacancies that had brought Le Chapelier to Nantes.
Andre–Louis firmly shook his head in answer to Le Chapelier’s proposal.
“You refuse?” the other cried. “Are you mad? Refuse, when you are demanded from so many sides? Do you realize that it is more than probable you will be elected one of the deputies, that you will be sent to the States General at Versailles to represent us in this work of saving France?”
But Andre–Louis, we know, was not concerned to save France. At the moment he was concerned to save two women, both of whom he loved, though in vastly different ways, from a man he had vowed to ruin. He stood firm in his refusal until Le Chapelier dejectedly abandoned the attempt to persuade him.
“It is odd,” said Andre–Louis, “that I should have been so deeply immersed in trifles as never to have perceived that Nantes is being politically active.”
“Active! My friend, it is a seething cauldron of political emotions. It is kept quiet on the surface only by the persuasion that all goes well. At a hint to the contrary it would boil over.”
“Would it so?” said Scaramouche, thoughtfully. “The knowledge may be useful.” And then he changed the subject. “You know that La Tour d’Azyr is here?”
“In Nantes? He has courage if he shows himself. They are not a docile people, these Nantais, and they know his record and the part he played in the rising at Rennes. I marvel they haven’t stoned him. But they will, sooner or later. It only needs that some one should suggest it.”
“That is very likely,” said Andre–Louis, and smiled. “He doesn’t show himself much; not in the streets, at least. So that he has not the courage you suppose; nor any kind of courage, as I told him once. He has only insolence.”
At parting Le Chapelier again exhorted him to give thought to what he proposed. “Send me word if you change your mind. I am lodged at the Cerf, and I shall be here until the day after to-morrow. If you have ambition, this is your moment.”
“I have no ambition, I suppose,” said Andre–Louis, and went his way.
That night at the theatre he had a mischievous impulse to test what Le Chapelier had told him of the state of public feeling in the city. They were playing “The Terrible Captain,” in the last act of which the empty cowardice of the bullying braggart Rhodomont is revealed by Scaramouche.
After the laughter which the exposure of the roaring captain invariably produced, it remained for Scaramouche contemptuously to dismiss him in a phrase that varied nightly, according to the inspiration of the moment. This time he chose to give his phrase a political complexion:
“Thus, O thrasonical coward, is your emptiness exposed. Because of your long length and the great sword you carry and the angle at which you cock your hat, people have gone in fear of you, have believed in you, have imagined you to be as terrible and as formidable as you insolently make yourself appear. But at the first touch of true spirit you crumple up, you tremble, you whine pitifully, and the great sword remains in your scabbard. You remind me of the Privileged Orders when confronted by the Third Estate.”
It was audacious of him, and he was prepared for anything — a laugh, applause, indignation, or all together. But he was not prepared for what came. And it came so suddenly and spontaneously from the groundlings and the body of those in the amphitheatre that he was almost scared by it — as a boy may be scared who has held a match to a sun-scorched hayrick. It was a hurricane of furious applause. Men leapt to their feet, sprang up on to the benches, waving their hats in the air, deafening him with the terrific uproar of their acclamations. And it rolled on and on, nor ceased until the curtain fell.
Scaramouche stood meditatively smiling with tight lips. At the last moment he had caught a glimpse of M. de La Tour d’Azyr’s face thrust farther forward than usual from the shadows of his box, and it was a face set in anger, with eyes on fire.
“Mon Dieu!” laughed Rhodomont, recovering from the real scare that had succeeded his histrionic terror, “but you have a great trick of tickling them in the right place, Scaramouche.”
Scaramouche looked up at him and smiled. “It can be useful upon occasion,” said he, and went off to his dressing-room to change.
But a reprimand awaited him. He was delayed at the theatre by matters concerned with the scenery of the new piece they were to mount upon the morrow. By the time he was rid of the business the rest of the company had long since left. He called a chair and had himself carried back to the inn in solitary state. It was one of many minor luxuries his comparatively affluent present circumstances permitted.
Coming into that upstairs room that was common to all the troupe, he found M. Binet talking loudly and vehemently. He had caught sounds of his voice whilst yet upon the stairs. As he entered Binet broke off short, and wheeled to face him.
“You are here at last!” It was so odd a greeting that Andre–Louis did no more than look his mild surprise. “I await your explanations of the disgraceful scene you provoked to-night.”
“Disgraceful? Is it disgraceful that the public should applaud me?”
“The public? The rabble, you mean. Do you want to deprive us of the patronage of all gentlefolk by vulgar appeals to the low passions of the mob?”
Andre–Louis stepped past M. Binet and forward to the table. He shrugged contemptuously. The man offended him, after all.
“You exaggerate grossly — as usual.”
“I do not exaggerate. And I am the master in my own theatre. This is the Binet Troupe, and it shall be conducted in the Binet way.”
“Who are the gentlefolk the loss of whose patronage to the Feydau will be so poignantly felt?” asked Andre–Louis.
“You imply that there are none? See how wrong you are. After the play to-night M. le Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr came to me, and spoke to me in the severest terms about your scandalous outburst. I was forced to apologize, and . . . ”
“The more fool you,” said Andre–Louis. “A man who respected himself would have shown that gentleman the door.” M. Binet’s face began to empurple. “You call yourself the head of the Binet Troupe, you boast that you will be master in your own theatre, and you stand like a lackey to take the orders of the first insolent fellow who comes to your green-room to tell you that he does not like a line spoken by one of your company! I say again that had you really respected yourself you would have turned him out.”
There was a murmur of approval from several members of the company, who, having heard the arrogant tone assumed by the Marquis, were filled with resentment against the slur cast upon them all.
“And I say further,” Andre–Louis went on, “that a man who respects himself, on quite other grounds, would have been only too glad to have seized this pretext to show M. de La Tour d’Azyr the door.”
“What do you mean by that?” There was a rumble of thunder in the question.
Andre–Louis’ eyes swept round the company assembled at the supper-table. “Where is Climene?” he asked, sharply.
Leandre leapt up to answer him, white in the face, tense and quivering with excitement.
“She left the theatre in the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr’s carriage immediately after the performance. We heard him offer to drive her to this inn.”
Andre–Louis glanced at the timepiece on the overmantel. He seemed unnaturally calm.
“That would be an hour ago — rather more. And she has not yet arrived?”
His eyes sought M. Binet’s. M. Binet’s eyes eluded his glance. Again it was Leandre who answered him.
“Ah!” Andre–Louis sat down, and poured himself wine. There was an oppressive silence in the room. Leandre watched him expectantly, Columbine commiseratingly. Even M. Binet appeared to be waiting for a cue from Scaramouche. But Scaramouche disappointed him. “Have you left me anything to eat?” he asked.
Platters were pushed towards him. He helped himself calmly to food, and ate in silence, apparently with a good appetite. M. Binet sat down, poured himself wine, and drank. Presently he attempted to make conversation with one and another. He was answered curtly, in monosyllables. M. Binet did not appear to be in favour with his troupe that night.
At long length came a rumble of wheels below and a rattle of halting hooves. Then voices, the high, trilling laugh of Climene floating upwards. Andre–Louis went on eating unconcernedly.
“What an actor!” said Harlequin under his breath to Polichinelle, and Polichinelle nodded gloomily.
She came in, a leading lady taking the stage, head high, chin thrust forward, eyes dancing with laughter; she expressed triumph and arrogance. Her cheeks were flushed, and there was some disorder in the mass of nut-brown hair that crowned her head. In her left hand she carried an enormous bouquet of white camellias. On its middle finger a diamond of great price drew almost at once by its effulgence the eyes of all.
Her father sprang to meet her with an unusual display of paternal tenderness. “At last, my child!”
He conducted her to the table. She sank into a chair, a little wearily, a little nervelessly, but the smile did not leave her face, not even when she glanced across at Scaramouche. It was only Leandre, observing her closely, with hungry, scowling stare, who detected something as of fear in the hazel eyes momentarily seen between the fluttering of her lids.
Andre–Louis, however, still went on eating stolidly, without so much as a look in her direction. Gradually the company came to realize that just as surely as a scene was brooding, just so surely would there be no scene as long as they remained. It was Polichinelle, at last, who gave the signal by rising and withdrawing, and within two minutes none remained in the room but M. Binet, his daughter, and Andre–Louis. And then, at last, Andre–Louis set down knife and fork, washed his throat with a draught of Burgundy, and sat back in his chair to consider Climene.
“I trust,” said he, “that you had a pleasant ride, mademoiselle.”
“Most pleasant, monsieur.” Impudently she strove to emulate his coolness, but did not completely succeed.
“And not unprofitable, if I may judge that jewel at this distance. It should be worth at least a couple of hundred louis, and that is a formidable sum even to so wealthy a nobleman as M. de La Tour d’Azyr. Would it be impertinent in one who has had some notion of becoming your husband, to ask you, mademoiselle, what you have given him in return?”
M. Binet uttered a gross laugh, a queer mixture of cynicism and contempt.
“I have given nothing,” said Climene, indignantly.
“Ah! Then the jewel is in the nature of a payment in advance.”
“My God, man, you’re not decent!” M. Binet protested.
“Decent?” Andre–Louis’ smouldering eyes turned to discharge upon M. Binet such a fulmination of contempt that the old scoundrel shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Did you mention decency, Binet? Almost you make me lose my temper, which is a thing that I detest above all others!” Slowly his glance returned to Climene, who sat with elbows on the table, her chin cupped in her palms, regarding him with something between scorn and defiance. “Mademoiselle,” he said, slowly, “I desire you purely in your own interests to consider whither you are going.”
“I am well able to consider it for myself, and to decide without advice from you, monsieur.”
“And now you’ve got your answer,” chuckled Binet. “I hope you like it.”
Andre–Louis had paled a little; there was incredulity in his great sombre eyes as they continued steadily to regard her. Of M. Binet he took no notice.
“Surely, mademoiselle, you cannot mean that willingly, with open eyes and a full understanding of what you do, you would exchange an honourable wifehood for . . . for the thing that such men as M. de La Tour d’Azyr may have in store for you?”
M. Binet made a wide gesture, and swung to his daughter. “You hear him, the mealy-mouthed prude! Perhaps you’ll believe at last that marriage with him would be the ruin of you. He would always be there the inconvenient husband — to mar your every chance, my girl.”
She tossed her lovely head in agreement with her father. “I begin to find him tiresome with his silly jealousies,” she confessed. “As a husband I am afraid he would be impossible.”
Andre–Louis felt a constriction of the heart. But — always the actor — he showed nothing of it. He laughed a little, not very pleasantly, and rose.
“I bow to your choice, mademoiselle. I pray that you may not regret it.”
“Regret it?” cried M. Binet. He was laughing, relieved to see his daughter at last rid of this suitor of whom he had never approved, if we except those few hours when he really believed him to be an eccentric of distinction. “And what shall she regret? That she accepted the protection of a nobleman so powerful and wealthy that as a mere trinket he gives her a jewel worth as much as an actress earns in a year at the Comedie Francaise?” He got up, and advanced towards Andre–Louis. His mood became conciliatory. “Come, come, my friend, no rancour now. What the devil! You wouldn’t stand in the girl’s way? You can’t really blame her for making this choice? Have you thought what it means to her? Have you thought that under the protection of such a gentleman there are no heights which she may not reach? Don’t you see the wonderful luck of it? Surely, if you’re fond of her, particularly being of a jealous temperament, you wouldn’t wish it otherwise?”
Andre–Louis looked at him in silence for a long moment. Then he laughed again. “Oh, you are fantastic,” he said. “You are not real.” He turned on his heel and strode to the door.
The action, and more the contempt of his look, laugh, and words stung M. Binet to passion, drove out the conciliatoriness of his mood.
“Fantastic, are we?” he cried, turning to follow the departing Scaramouche with his little eyes that now were inexpressibly evil. “Fantastic that we should prefer the powerful protection of this great nobleman to marriage with a beggarly, nameless bastard. Oh, we are fantastic!”
Andre–Louis turned, his hand upon the door-handle. “No,” he said, “I was mistaken. You are not fantastic. You are just vile — both of you.” And he went out.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59