Chapter 4 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

They clattered over the kidney-stones of Melun as dusk was falling and came to draw up at the Hôtel de la Nation—lately the Hôtel Royal. There, no sooner had a whisper gone forth from the postboy touching the identity of our traveller, than out came landlord, ostler, and chamberlain to welcome him in trembling obsequiousness.

Chauvinière accepted this tribute to his greatness with a lofty disdain which few despots could have equalled, none surpassed. The best rooms were placed at the disposal of himself and his young secretary; the best supper Melun could provide was prepared for his august consumption; and a very choice old Burgundy was discovered in the cellar where it had lain neglected, and brought forth for the representative's delectation.

At table and thereafter his demeanour towards Mademoiselle de Montsorbier was of a correctness which could not have been exceeded by one of her own class. He was solicitous, but always deferential; kindly, but never lacking in respect. And he entertained her presently with talk which displayed unsuspected depths of culture, acquaintance not only with the works of Scarron and Voltaire, but also with the classical authors, whom he freely quoted. His personality began to abash her a little, in a measure as she discovered it so greatly to transcend all that at first she had suspected. He displayed a refinement almost incredible in one of his political creed; his manners were impeccable.

When at last she retired for the night, she went in an uncertainty more profound than ever. He held the door for her, his head deferentially inclined, and with a courteously expressed wish for her good repose. Within her room, which was next to his own, a wave of panic suddenly swept over her. She drove home the bolts with which her door was furnished at base and summit, then went to open her window, so as to ascertain what line of retreat might be available in case of need. It was cold and drizzling and the night was overcast and very dark. But light from a ground-floor window showed her the gleaming cobbles of the yard, a good fifteen feet below. At need with a twisted sheet she might go that way. But what then? Such a course was only to be contemplated in desperate case, and her case was not yet desperate. Indeed, she sought to assure herself, she had no cause to consider it desperate at all. She was a little coward, shuddering at shadows.

She was even more strongly of this opinion when she awakened in the morning, refreshed by unbroken sleep, the spring sunshine flooding her little white room, and realized on awakening how needlessly imagination had made a craven of her.

She came spruce and trim to breakfast, so spruce and trim that a serving-maid in the corridor gazed with a shy smile at the citizen-representative's young secretary,

and may have been distressed by that austere young man's indifference to her charms.

Chauvinière was already at table. As there was a servant in the room, he did not rise. He nodded curtly, and his greeting had an edge.

"Ah, Antoine! You slept well, I trust?"

"Excellently, I thank you, citizen-representative."

"In future do not sleep quite so well, if you please. I dislike late-comers and young men who are reluctant to leave their beds. Your breakfast is cold, and the horses are already being harnessed. We set out in ten minutes. See that you are ready."

They travelled all that day at a furious rate, and with but two halts for food and rest and change of horses, so that before nightfall they had gone sixty miles and came to rest at Chatillon-sur-Laing, a village of the Orleannais. Here the experience of the previous night was repeated. Again Chauvinière observed a deference that was almost exaggerated, again he talked glibly and entertainingly, displaying, as it were, all the jewels of his mind to dazzle and beglamour her. She thawed a little. Indeed it was impossible to remain frozen in aloofness under the glow of so much benignity. Yet once or twice, looking up suddenly, she caught his eyes upon her. They shifted instantly, and the wolfish expression she surprised upon his face was as instantly covered as if by a mask. But the impression of it remained upon her memory, to evoke a sudden ineffable dread, akin to that with which his eyes had smitten her in the Conciergerie.

He drank perhaps too much that evening, and in consequence slackened a little the reins of his self-control. For in holding the door for her departure and in wishing her good-night, the leer on his face and the evil glow of his eyes were unmistakable. Such was the fear they aroused in her, that, having locked and bolted her door, she flung herself fully dressed upon her bed, her mind in such a state of vigilance that she scarcely slept at all until the dawn. Yet nothing happened to justify her tremors of spirit, and when she came to breakfast she found herself awaited by a representative so correct and formal in his manner that she asked herself whether again her imagination had not tricked her on the previous night.

All day that question abode with her, whilst the chaise swayed and rocked in its headlong speed, and Chauvinière half-dozed in his corner with a disregard of her that was almost ungallant. It was still with her when at five o'clock in the afternoon, within a half-mile of La Charite, a village on the Loire, their journey came to a sudden lurching end as the result of the loss of an axle-pin, which but for the postboy's quick perception might have had more serious consequences.

Chauvinière climbed down, swearing savagely. It had been his purpose to reach Nevers that night, there to address a meeting of the Committee of Public Safety and so to plan that upon the morrow he might set out upon his survey. That plan he must now abandon, and accept such a kennel as La Charite could offer his republican sybaritism.

Yet, when they had tramped the half-mile of muddy road to the village, they found there an excellent inn, where they were given a good room above-stairs in which to sup, with a bedroom opening from each side of it. Within an hour of their arrival an unusually good supper was placed before them by the vintner and his comely wife, who did not spare themselves in their endeavour to earn the commendation of the great man from Paris by whom, in their own words, their poor house was honoured.

Over the well-larded capon Chauvinière expressed himself to his secretary.

"By this I should judge that there is a good deal of aristocracy surviving in this Nivernais of yours."

"You should be thankful for that, since it provides you with so good a supper."

"In this world, as you may come to find, the greater the cause for thankfulness on the one hand, the greater the cause for repining on the other. It is thus that Fortune bestows her favours: taking payment always."

"The payment of a debt is no good cause for repining," she objected.

He looked at her, so intently, so inscrutably, that all her fears of yesterday evening suddenly returned, and she shivered. He observed it.

"You are cold," he said, and she fancied that the shadow of a smile swept almost imperceptibly across his lean face. "Let me close the window." He rose, and crossed the room; and it was whilst he stood with his back towards her, humouring the catch of the lattice, that she suddenly took her resolve to end this suspense, to put his intentions regarding her to an immediate test. And her fertile mind at once supplied the necessary elements. She waited only until he had returned to the table.

"You have been very good to me, incredibly good to me, citizen."

He paused to stare at her, his hand upon the back of the tilted chair.

"What need to speak of that?"

Her eyes were upon the coarsely woven tablecloth; between finger and thumb she was kneading a little ball of crumb.

"I must speak of it because the time has come to thank you; to thank you, and to part."

She looked up suddenly to surprise his expression and found it compounded of suspicion, anger, and dismay.

"Part?" He frowned as he uttered the word. With heightened incredulity he repeated: "Part?"

She explained herself. "We are already in the Nivernais. It is my own country. I have friends throughout the province..."

"Friends? What friends?" His tone suggested that their mention should be their death-warrant.

"I will not name them lest I compromise them. That would not be fair to them, nor, indeed, quite fair to you. It might test your duty too severely. Neither would it be fair to you that I accompany you into Nevers in broad daylight to-morrow. After all, I was well known there not so many months ago. There will be many left who might recognize me. Seeing me in your company and thus, what could they assume? You would be compromised and..."

"Compromised!" His scornful laughter shook the crazy windows. "And who in Nevers would dare to compromise me?"

She smiled upon him rather wistfully, slowly nodding her fair head. "You are of a high courage, citizen; of a reckless audacity, as I have observed. But I will not permit you to add, to the heavy debt under which I already lie, the risk perhaps of your life..."

"Tush! No more of that, citoyenne! I run no risk. But if I did, what then? My life is my own to risk as I choose, and not as you or any other presumes to permit. We are free men all in this reformed France." His tone resumed its habitual sardonic note. "And we need no permission for our acts. All that went with the days of tyranny."

"Your generosity cannot deceive me." Her blue-green eyes looked at him resolutely. "And that is why we part to-night."

He leaned forward across the board. His face was very grave. It had lost, or seemed to have lost, some of its habitual color.

"You give me news, citoyenne. We part to-night, eh? To-night? So, so! And will you tell me where you are going?"

"I could not tell you without compromising others."

He laughed. "You'll compromise the whole Nivernais before ever I let you go." The tone was fierce, snarling, as a dog snarls over a bone that is being wrested away. But immediately almost he had checked that too-revealing note. His voice was smooth again. "I mean, before I let you go risk yourself in such a fashion. You'll forgive my insistence, citoyenne. But I have not jeopardized my neck to save yours from the guillotine just to have you throw my gift away in sheer wantonness. Oh, no. I shall make sure of your safety before I part with you." He sat down at last.

"But you said in Paris..."

"Never mind what I said in Paris." There was an angry rumbling in his voice. Again it was the note of the dog about to be robbed of the bone he had looked forward to enjoying. "Consider only what I have said here. I do not part with you until I am assured of your safety."

She sat there facing him across the board with terror in her heart, her eyes dilating a little as they met now his smouldering glance, observed the flush on his prominent cheek-bones, and the scowl on that lofty brow across which a clump of his moist black hair had fallen like a curtain.

She was answered. Her suspense at least, her doubts and questionings were at an end. He was the wolf she had at first supposed him, and she was the prey he promised himself. Why, she wondered, did he stalk her so warily and patiently? It was not hers to understand the man's sybaritic fastidiousness which rendered repugnant to him the notion of prevailing without real conquest.

Of her terror she permitted him to catch no glimpse. All that was disclosed to him by her rigid stare was surprise. Then the surprise passed, chased away by a smile, a smile of a sweetness and gentleness such as she had never yet vouchsafed him. She averted her eyes.

"Your generosity...your nobility leaves me without words. You bring me almost to tears, citizen; tears of gratitude. And yet..."

"Add nothing more," he implored her. His voice grew hoarse. "You have yet to learn the depth of a devotion which would stop at nothing in your service, Cléonie."

One of his long arms came across the table, and his fine hand closed upon hers where it lay there beside her plate. A moment she let it remain, loathing his touch, repressing the shudder that might betray this loathing, and loathing herself for the duplicity to which circumstances compelled her to descend. Then, hot with a shame whose flush he entirely misunderstood, smiling with a rather piteous wistfulness, she gently disengaged her hand and rose.

"Suffer me to go," she begged him. "I...I am a little confused."

"No! Wait!" He, too, had risen, and stood eager beyond the dividing board, to him so inopportunely placed.

"To-morrow!" she begged him faintly. "We will talk again to-morrow, citizen. Let me go now! Ah, let me go!"

Almost she overdid it, almost she overacted the suggestion of a spiritual struggle against the magnetism of his personality. With another, indeed, it might have been entirely fatal. But Chauvinière the psychologist knew the full value of restraint, knew how much more complete is the ultimate surrender to a generous opponent. He bowed low in silence save for a little sigh, and by the time he came upright again he was alone. She had slipped like a ghost into the adjacent room. He saw the white door close. He heard the bolts rasp home. He smiled as he stood there. Then he sighed again, still smiling; resumed his chair, and poured himself wine.

Behind her bolted door Mademoiselle de Montsorbier stood breathless and a little faint. She leaned against it, listening to his movements, and gradually she resumed her self-command.

She crossed at last to the dressing-table, and by the dim light of the single candle burning there surveyed her face. She accused it of pallor, assured herself that there was nothing to be feared, then drawing up a chair, sat down before her mirror, but made no attempt to prepare herself for bed.

Thus for a half-hour, at the end of which she heard the rasp of his chair in the outer room, followed by the sound of his pacing to and fro like a caged animal. Once his Steps came right up to her door and paused there. She stiffened. She was conscious of the roughening of her skin, of the acceleration of her pulses as she waited through that pause, which seemed interminable, waited for his knock. It came at last, sharply rapped, and the sound brought her to her feet.

By a miracle she kept her voice steady. "Who is there?"

"It is I, citoyenne; Chauvinière."

"What do you want, citoyen?"

There was a long pause before his answer came: "To warn you that we set out early in the morning. The chaise will be ready at eight o'clock."

"I shall be punctual, citoyen. Goodnight!"

"Good-night, citoyenne."

His footsteps receded. Scarcely crediting her ears, she listened to them as they crossed the length of the outer room. Then she heard him pass into his own chamber, and at last came the closing of his door. She was able to breathe again. But it was in vain that she sought to explain that trivial incident. Had he deliberately sought to scare her, merely so as to show that all fear of him was idle and thus lull her into a sense of false security, or had his action been genuine?

She crossed the room and flung herself upon the bed, fully dressed as she was, even to her riding-boots, but she left the candle burning and made no attempt to go to sleep.

With a patience and self-control that were miraculous considering what was in her mind, she lay thus, listening and waiting for a full two hours until she could be sure that the house slept. Then, at last, she rose, and removed her boots. She took up the guttering candle, and very softly withdrew the bolts of her door. Cautiously, soundlessly, she opened it, and soundlessly crept out into the room beyond, which now was all in darkness. A moment she paused listening. From beyond the far door came a sound of mild snoring. The citizen-representative was asleep.

With her boots in one hand and the candle held aloft in the other she tiptoed towards the door that opened to the stairs. Midway across the room she checked. Something gleamed lividly on a side-table and drew her glance. It was the clasp of the representative's portfolio. She paused, hesitating, scared by the temptation that assailed her, to which at last, with a pale smile, she yielded. She snatched up the portfolio and tucked it under her arm. Then she passed out, and in her stockinged feet cautiously descended the creaking staircase.

In the passage below she paused to put on her boots. Then very carefully she drew the bolts of a side door, and stepped out into the stable yard. Here a shock awaited her. Although it was past midnight, a light showed in the stables; the upper half of the stable door stood open, and above the closed lower half she beheld the bust of a man who leaned there, who had observed her exit, and who now straightened himself to challenge her. Instantly resolved, she forestalled him.

"Ah! You are astir! It is fortunate, for otherwise I must have fetched you from your bed. I need a horse at once, citizen."

"A horse? Name of a name! A horse at this hour?"

"Business of the Nation." The young secretary's voice was hard and peremptory. He flourished his portfolio. "I am to ride ahead of the citizen-representative into Nevers. There is urgency. Make haste, or you will answer to the citizen-representative."

The ostler asked no more questions. A horse was quickly saddled, and upon this the young secretary, with a seat suggestive of a huntsman rather than a clerk, vanished at the gallop into the night.