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Chapter 3 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

Dumey, the middle-aged physician who controlled the madhouse in the rue du Bac, received a visit late in the afternoon of the following day from the deputy Chauvinière. The deputy came in a travelling chaise, from which he removed a valise together with himself.

This he set down in the doctor's private room. He came straight to business in his peremptory, overbearing fashion.

"Among the demented prisoners entrusted to your care this morning is a ci-devanty a citoyenne de Montsorbier."

"Ah, yes!" The plump doctor's countenance became eager. "Her case..."

"Never mind her case. She is dead."

"Dead!" Dumey looked thunder-stricken.

"Isn't that why you have sent for me?"

"Sent for you? But I didn't send for you."

"You are losing your memory, Dumey. Fortunately for both of us, I am not." His note was suddenly hard and faintly sinister, for all its eternal mockery. "You sent for me, as the nearest responsible member of the Government, to assure myself of the decease, and countersign the death certificate which you are about to draw up and sign. My own signature will be witnessed by my secretary. He will appear presently. Now, pray conduct me to view the body."

Dumey looked at his visitor long and hard. There was that between them, on the subject of which a word from Chauvinière would send Dumey's head rolling into Sanson's basket: which was precisely why, of all the madhouses in Paris, Chauvinière had chosen this establishment in the rue du Bac for the reception of the patients removed from the Archevêché. Against this danger on the one hand, Dumey had to set, on the other, favours received from the deputy and no doubt to be continued, one of which, indeed, was the present flow of patients to his house and his own consequent enrichment.

On both scores, whatever Chauvinière commanded, Dumey must perform. This even to the unquestioning risking of his head, since if he failed its removal was assured.

Dumey smiled at last his understanding and shrugged his resignation. "The responsibility..." he was beginning a little timidly.

"Will be mine, since I countersign your certificate. Hold your tongue, and no question of responsibility will ever arise. There will be no questions about any of your inmates for at least a month. When they come, you present your certificate. It will be too long after the event to admit of traces."

Dumey bowed, and conducted him. When he had unlocked the door of a room above-stairs, he would have led the way in, but the deputy arrested him.

"Wait outside, or, better still, go wait below in your room. You will the more easily forswear yourself if you do not see your patient again alive."

"But I shall have to see her. I..."

"You are mistaken. You will not. Go. Don't waste my time."

Dumey departed. Chauvinière entered the room, carrying the valise.

Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, forewarned of his presence by his voice, was already standing to receive him. He bowed to her, deferentially, and this time he was so unrepublican as to remove his hat. Then he placed the valise on the table in mid-apartment.

"You have taken your resolve, citoyenne?" he said, between question and assertion. He had no doubt in his mind, this psychologist, that time and thought must have brought a person of her age to one conclusion only. It is very difficult to die willingly at twenty.

"I have resolved, monsieur," she answered him with quiet dignity.

"Citizen," he corrected her sharply. "There are very few "monsieurs" left, and these are being guillotined so fast nowadays in this country that presently there will be none at all. If you have resolved to live and to accept my good offices, citoyenne, you will oblige me by adopting at least the more obvious terms of our vocabulary of Liberty."

He had that preciseness of delivery which is so often the reflection of the ironical mind. Mademoiselle de Montsorbier began to discover in it a certain elusive quality of humour, but could not be sure whether this was conscious or unconscious, whether this member of the Convention was intentionally ironical or merely priggish, like so many of his colleagues.

She was scanning him closely now with those grave eyes of hers, seeking in his countenance an answer to her unspoken question.

He smiled as if he read her thought. "And you have resolved to live," he said. "That is very wise."

"I haven't said so." His penetration alarmed her a little.

"No? But I take so much for granted." He was apologetic. "I assumed it from your calm, from the absence of defiance in your reception of me. It would desolate me to learn that I am mistaken."

"Mons...citizen, if I have misjudged you, I hope that you will have the generosity to forgive me. I...I hesitate to express myself upon your...your concern, your kindliness."

"Continue to hesitate. Expressions waste time, and we have none to spare." He threw open the valise. "Here, citoyenne, are the garments in which you will travel." He drew some of them forth. She recoiled, her face on fire.

"These! These! Impossible!"

"Oh, not impossible. Not at all impossible. A little difficult, perhaps. But I trust the difficulty will be overcome. If you will study the garments, the mystery of how they should be donned and worn will gradually vanish."

"That! But that is not the difficulty. You misunderstand me purposely."

"In the hope of making you perceive the absurdity of your qualms. My secretary cannot travel in a striped petticoat, and you will find these breeches...but there! We have no time to lose. I efface myself that you may make haste. When you are ready, you will find me in the corridor."

A half-hour or so later, by when the deputy was in a ferment of impatience, a stripling figure, in round hat, black riding-coat, boots, and breeches, emerged from the lady's room. A moment Chauvinière detained her, to scrutinize her with an eye that missed no detail. Thus dressed, she looked shorter by some inches, but her figure was well enough, and the queue of her hair had been cleverly contrived. He approved her in a word, and hurried her below. Dumey awaited them, his certificate prepared. That business was soon over, and the deputy Chauvinière, with his secretary closely following, entered the waiting chaise. Dumey closed the door upon them, and they were driven away.

No word passed between them until they were approaching the barrier, when Chauvinière handed his companion a bulky portfolio of black leather, partly opening it as he did so: "The passports are there on top. You will present them when they are demanded. It is in your office. No need to speak."

They drew up before the iron gates at the end of the rue d'Enfer.

An officer in a blue coat with red woollen epaulettes (gold having been abolished as unbecoming an age of equality) pulled open the door and peremptorily challenged the travellers.

"Who goes there?"

It was Chauvinière who from his corner drawled the answer:

"The citizen-deputy Chauvinière, representative en mission. Show him the papers, Antoine, and let us get on."

From under his lashes he watched his companion, ready to intervene at the first sign of blundering. But there was no such sign. Unfalteringly she took from the portfolio the papers he had designated, and proffered them with a hand that did not even tremble.

The officer, who had put aside a good deal of his peremptoriness upon learning with whom he had to deal, scanned the papers, returned them, saluted stiffly, and carefully reclosed the door. Then his voice rang out in command:

"Pass the citizen-representative Chauvinière."

The iron gates creaked open, the driver cracked his whip, the guard presented arms, and they rolled past the barrier and were out of Paris.

"We've crossed the Rubicon," said Chauvinière in his driest tone, and flung himself back in his corner, his long, lean legs thrust straight before him. Thus reclining he furtively continued to observe his companion. She was composedly refolding the papers and replacing them in the portfolio. His wonder, his admiration, was so strong upon him that he uttered his thought aloud:

"My faith! But you have spirit!"

She snapped the lock of the portfolio, and looked at him, smiling a little.

"It is in the blood," she said quietly. "You would not know that. Hence your surprise. You will not have known many women of my class, citizen-representative."

A lesser man would have been angered by the implication, which he was not fool enough to suppose was other than deliberate. But Chauvinière possessed that rare quality of detachment, which permitted him to admire deftness even when exercised to wound himself. He nodded his approval of her.

"I find you addicted to assumptions," he commented critically. "That, too, will be in the blood, and the cause of much of the shedding of it. Well, well! Let us talk of other things. My duties take me to Nevers. This is Thursday. We should be there by Saturday night. I don't spare horses when I travel on the business of the Nation."

She had already formed a suspicion of this from the furious pace at which the chaise was now being driven. The deputy continued:

"What I propose for you is this." He paused, and in that pause she was conscious of a quickening of her pulses; a shortening of her breath. But Chauvinière, watching her what time he deliberately tested her by this suspense, observed only her external, unruffled calm. Slowly he proceeded: "Had you glanced at those passports you would have seen that their form is uncompromising. They command all, under pain of death, to afford us every assistance in their power on our travels in the prosecution of the Nation's business. When we reach Nevers, I shall discover that I require precise information of events in the extreme east of Burgundy. Too preoccupied with affairs in the Nivernais to go myself, I shall decide to send you instead. For that purpose, and upon the authority of our passports, the Revolutionary Committee at Nevers shall supply you with the necessary safe-conduct, which will take you to the banks of the Rhone. After that, it will be for you—and you should not find it difficult—to discover means to cross into Switzerland, where you will be safe."

He ceased; but her breathing did not yet resume the normal. What she heard seemed utterly incredible. It clearly announced him to be acting from purely altruistic motives, with no thought of gain to himself. Was it possible that her plight, or something in herself, had indeed moved him to this compassionate protection? Did such things happen, particularly at the hands of these human wolves who had made the Revolution?

In consenting to take advantage of his offer, she had not permitted herself to be deceived by the specious terms in which it was made. She had accepted a desperate chance, who otherwise was lost. In accepting it, she had prepared herself to depend upon her own strength, courage, and resource, to seize and use such opportunity as might offer to cheat him of any gain he might look to make for himself, to ensure as far as might be possible to her that he should perform as he seemed to promise.

Had she dishonoured him by these thoughts? Was this man, indeed, the selfless friend he protested himself, labouring for her salvation without hope of guerdon, as he had said? It seemed to her clear mind fantastic. Yet what else was to be assumed from the intentions he had just disclosed? Or was this merely a verbal opiate to lull her into a false confidence, so that she might lie the more utterly at his mercy?

Thus her thoughts in the long spell of silence that followed his announcement, until at last he broke again upon them, compelling speech.

"You are silent, citoyenne. You do not entirely approve of my dispositions? Or perhaps you have a better plan, yourself?"

"No, no. It is not that." She paused to control the slight tremor in her voice. In the half-light of that interior it seemed to him that she had grown a little paler, as he considered the sweet profile with its finely drawn lip and delicately arched nose. "I am deeply moved, citizen, by your thought for me, which has gone so deep in planning, by the disinterested nobility of your concern."

His light eyes flickered. It was like the momentary upleaping and instant extinction of a flame in the dark. But she was not looking at him. She was staring straight before her.

"I have no words in which to thank you. I am dumb in my gratitude and wonder. Your plan for me seems everything I could desire. In Switzerland I have friends. I..."

Her voice faltered and trailed into silence. It was no pretence that she was moved, that her self-control was slipping from her. She was daunted by the very need to command herself, to be alert, vigilant, and ready for emergencies which might creep up to pounce upon her unawares. Her brave spirit, which might have preserved its vigour in the presence of revealed danger, was being battered down by uncertainty and suspense.

Chauvinière's voice, soft as silk, speaking on a sigh, penetrated the distraction of her mind.

"In that case, since you so completely approve, we may consider the matter decided, and act presently as I have said."

He settled himself back into his corner, closed his eyes, and thereafter for some three hours which that journey endured he seemed to doze. It was as if his interest in his travelling companion were already diminishing now that the intended service was already half-rendered and the remainder of it clearly plotted.

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