Chapter 7 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

At the leisurely pace of a man who meditates, Monsieur de Corbal took his way home up the hill through the April dusk. He did not relish the thought of dying. Even less, however, did he relish the thought of the horrible mésalliance by which he might save his life, which shows that Chauvinière was right and that Monsieur de Corbal's republican sentiments were not of the proper depth. The notion of supplying future Corbals with such an ancestress as Filomène was entirely repulsive to him, however much he may have esteemed Filomène in her proper place. Aristocratic sentiments, after all, die hard.

He reflected that he was confronted with a choice of evils, and he was philosopher enough to know that in such a case he must accept the less. The futility of flight was too apparent. He would be hunted down, and at a time when it was impossible to move openly in the country without papers, he would soon be overtaken and brought back in ignominy. Let him at least preserve his self-respect. Reluctant though he might be to die, life, after all, was not so delectable in these days, and the Hereafter, if the priests were right, should not be without interest.

He mounted a stile over a wall bordering one of his meadows, and as he leapt lightly down upon the turf, he was suddenly aware of a figure crouching there in the gloom. A moment he stood at gaze, then called out, challenging, whereupon the figure came upright, detached itself from the wall, and was off at speed across the narrow strip of meadowland towards the woods.

Here, thought Monsieur de Corbal, was an eccentricity of behaviour that called for investigation. He was swift of foot, and he was upon the fugitive before the latter had covered half the distance to his goal. He clutched the shoulder of a stripling, clad in the blouse, loose pantaloons, and wooden shoes of a peasant.

"A word with you, my friend. You are too fleet for honesty, to say nothing of your skulking behind a wall."

"Let me go," snarled a boyish voice. "I have done you no harm." The figure writhed in his grasp. "Don't dare to detain me!"

"Dare!" Corbal laughed. "Here's fury!"

There was more fury than the vicomte reckoned. Something bright gleamed suddenly in the boy's hand. On the instant Corbal had him in a wrestler's grip which pinned his arms helplessly to his sides. He hugged the murderous rascal close, intending to throw him. Instead, as if contact with that young body had burnt him, he thrust it sharply from him, and stepped back.

"Name of God!" he ejaculated.

The supposed stripling stood before him, breathing hard with head a little bowed, making no further attempt to escape.

"Who are you? What are you? And why are you dressed as a man? Answer me. I will not hurt you."

The sudden gentleness of his voice, more, its high-bred inflection, wrought a change in the other's attitude. He threw back his head, showing a face that gleamed white and ghostly in the half-light.

"Who are you? What is your name?" came the counter-questions, in a voice and delivered on a note which left Corbal little doubt of the masquerader's quality.

"Until lately I was known as the Vicomte Corbigny de Corbal. Since then I have enjoyed a certain peace as a ci-devant. At the moment I scarcely know how to describe myself. But this land is still mine, and that house up yonder, in which I am prepared to afford you shelter if you will deal frankly with me."

"You are a gentleman!"

"You may call me that, I hope."

"A gentleman at large in France!" Almost she seemed to laugh. "But it is a bewildering encounter."

"Mutually bewildering," said he. "I was not, myself, expecting to meet a lady."

He heard the sharp intake of her breath.

"How do you know that?"

"How? I have my intuitions. They are not to be deceived by rude garments and eccentric manners. I am at your service, madame—or, is it mademoiselle?"

She hesitated long before passionately answering him: "Oh, if you are a trickster, play your vile trick. It's all one to me. I am sick and weary. I should welcome even such rest as the guillotine brings. I am Cléonie de Montsorbier."

He repeated the name in accents of surprise.

"You are incredulous. You have heard of us in prison in Paris. We are a Nivernais family, and there should be interest in us hereabouts. You have heard perhaps that monsieur my father and madame my mother have already perished on the scaffold. You may even have heard that I was removed to a house of lunatics, but not that I was removed thence by a Revolutionary gentleman who desired to befriend me, because possibly that is not yet known even in Paris. It's a long story, monsieur le vicomte."

"Tell it me as we walk," said he, and, taking her by the arm, he turned her about to face the distant house whose windows glowed ruddily in the deepening night.

As they went she told him briefly of her pseudo-secretaryship, and of her escape at La Charité from her republican protector whom she left unnamed. She had hoped to shelter at the Château de Blesson, with her cousins there. But to her dismay on reaching it in the dawn, she had found it closed and shuttered, the family gone. Thence on a weary horse, she had plodded on to Vermes, ten miles away, where another cousin dwelt. She found Vermes a blackened ruin, and in her exhaustion and despair, she sat down before it and gave way to tears.

Thus she was surprised by a group of scared peasants, a half-dozen members of a family moving out to labour in the fields. She staked all upon their being people not yet infected by Revolutionary notions, and disclosed herself to them. The disclosure increased their fear. They were folk who still believed in God and the King; but who kept the belief secret lest it should bring evil days upon them. Nevertheless, it was not in their simple hearts to let a gentlewoman suffer. They gave her shelter for some days, until beginning to fear the consequences to them of her being discovered there, and also because to lie in hiding was too temporary a measure to suit her impatient, eager spirit, she procured from them the peasant garments in which she stood, and departed, hoping to make her way on foot across the Nivernais and Burgundy, and thence slip over the frontier into Switzerland. The Nivernais she had almost crossed, for Poussignot was only a few miles distant from the confines of Burgundy. But the journey had been one of hardships beyond all that she had feared. And this notwithstanding that Fortune had singularly befriended her. She had made a practice of travelling only by night, never venturing upon roads until they were deserted. By day she would sleep hidden in some wood or buried in the straw of a barn or the hay of a stack. Twice she had been discovered, but each time by charitably disposed peasants, who, without suspecting her sex or quality, had given her food and shelter. Commonly she had suffered hunger, and once at least had been driven to steal so that she might still the pangs of it. Once she had lost her way, and for two days travelled north instead of east. Nor would she have known of her error but that in the neighbourhood of Verzy she was taken ill as the result of a drenching endured whilst endeavouring to sleep under a hedge. Here again she owed her salvation to the charity of peasants. A farm lad had found her staggering weakly along in prey to fever, and accepting the risk of yielding to his invitation she had accompanied him to his homestead, and there, since her spent condition left her no choice, she had disclosed to the mother of the household her sex and quality. For ten days she had remained there recovering health and strength, sheltered, befriended, and used with every consideration. Then she had set forth once more upon her perilous journey. That was a week ago, since when her progress had been slow. She had heard of the presence in the Nivernais of the representative Chauvinière and the consequent rousing there of Revolutionary activity. Consequently she had deemed it more important to move with caution than with speed. She was upon the road by which Corbal was coming from Pous-signot when she became aware of his advance. Because it was not yet quite dark, out of an excessive caution she had slipped over the wall to avoid him, and thus had not only been discovered, but had been discovered in circumstances which naturally aroused his suspicions. It was the one error of judgment of which she had been guilty in her travels.

"Yet Fortune has again befriended you," said the vicomte, moved at once to compassion for her suffering and admiration of her spirit. "Here at Corbal you may take a night's rest in security and comfort."

"Every such night diminishes my chances of ultimate security," he was answered on a sigh. "It is by night that I should be on my travels."

Monsieur de Corbal halted in the porch and surprised her by a little laugh. "Faith, mademoiselle, almost you set me an example."

"An example?"

"You suggest things..." He broke off. "No, no. I had thought of it. It is not worth while." He pushed wide the door, and the glow of light from within smote them with almost blinding violence.

"Be welcome to Corbal, mademoiselle."

She stepped ahead of him into the spacious and rather shabby stone hall. He paused a moment to close and make fast the door, then turned, and his eyes, now accustomed to the light, beheld her clearly for the first time. Her grey blouse was stained and in places ragged. She had doffed the shabby hat, which looked as if it might have been filched from a scarecrow. She had cut her hair and it hung loose and ragged now about her neck and ears, just as a peasant lad's might hang, but the light smote from its golden sheen an aureole about her little head, so admirably poised, and the finely featured, high-bred face gave the lie to the tatterdemalion rest of her.

Monsieur de Corbal gazed upon her lost in a rapture of wonder such as he had never known. So intent were those sombre dark eyes of his that at last her glance fell away before them, and she shifted a little uncomfortably.

"You were saying, monsieur," quoth she, perhaps to break the spell. "Something of an example, was it not?"

But still he gazed and gazed, and the natural wistfulness deepened in his countenance. When at last he spoke, it was cryptically, employing the old formula.

"Moriturus te salutat!" He bowed a little. "Yet it is good to have seen you first."

She stared at him with closer scrutiny, startled by that well-known Latin phrase.

"What do you say? Who is it that is about to die?"

"Are we not all in that case?" he evaded, "all who are of your class and mine? Is not France to us as the arena to the Roman gladiator who hailed Caesar in those words. But I keep you standing."

The instincts of his blood asserting themselves, he remembered the duties of a host and put aside all other considerations.

"You will require garments, mademoiselle. I will call my housekeeper. Perhaps she may..."

"Ah, no!" she checked him. "Clean linen if you will. Give it me yourself, or send it to me by a man if you wish. But for the rest, leave me as I am, nor disclose me to be other. The citizen Chauvinière is a thought too close for any risks."

"You know the citizen Chauvinière?"

She smiled. It was wonderful, he thought, that she should smile so. Not to alarm him unnecessarily she evaded his question. "I have heard of his activities."

He nodded. "You are wise, perhaps. Come, then, you shall have what you need."

Himself he conducted her to a room above, procured for her the linen she required, and left her, to go and inform and instruct his household touching the presence of a peasant boy whom it pleased him to befriend.

The household, openly loyal and faithful to the vicomte and secretly faithful to the old order, treated the visitor at table with an equality touched by deference. They had no doubt of her quality, although it is possible that her sex remained unsuspected, so slim was she and so boyish her voice. By her request the vicomte called her Antoine, which was the name she had worn with Chauvinière.

Deep dejection sat that night upon the little company gathered there to supper in the great kitchen, and Filomène as she waited upon them showed eyes that were red from weeping in a face unusually white. They had heard the day's events before the Revolutionary Tribunal and of the doom that now overhung their master. Filomène herself was outraged in her every sensibility by the offensive alternative to death which had been offered the vicomte whom she served and worshipped.

Corbal alone appeared unmoved and indifferent to the sword suspended over his head. Indeed, he was far less silent than his wont, and there was even a touch of gaiety, of exaltation in his bearing. He ministered solicitously to the needs of his guest, from whose face his eyes were removed only when she showed herself too conscious of his glance.

At first Mademoiselle de Montsorbier experienced a sense of discomfort. Those great sombre eyes riveted so ecstatically upon her evoked a memory which of all memories she desired to bury. They reminded her of another pair of eyes that smoulderingly had pondered her across another table, scorching her soul with the insult of their glance. But that sense of parallel was short-lived. The vicomte's eyes reflected wonder and a sort of ecstasy, but all of homage. They inspired confidence, evoked a responsive kindliness, where those other eyes had awakened only fear, and somehow, before the meal was done, before the Fougereots and Filomène had retired, leaving the vicomte and his guest alone, she had the full measure of this man. She had seen in his bearing towards his people, and their bearing towards him, his fundamental gentleness, his engaging simplicity in externals, his true nobility of heart, and the devotion he was capable of inspiring. The pale, handsome face under its neatly dressed, lustrous, brown hair was the face of a loyal, generous man, in whom no woman need hesitate to repose her trust.

He took no advantage of the circumstances to seek to detain her there alone in talk. Himself, soon after the departure of the others, he escorted her to the chamber set apart for her. He set down her candle, requested her commands, and withdrew after wishing her a good rest with an austerity which left nothing to be desired, and without so much as an attempt to kiss her finger-tips, which in all the circumstances would have been no more than proper.