Chapter 8 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

"Mademoiselle, remain yet another day with us. The more complete now your rest, the better speed will you make hereafter, so that the time will not be lost."

Thus Monsieur de Corbal to his guest on the following afternoon.

They sat in the library, whither he had earlier conducted her; an untidy, dusty room, panelled in soiled white on all sides but one, which was packed from floor to ceiling with serried ranks of books. Its furnishings were handsome and as massive as anything produced in the reign of Louis XV, but they wore, like all else in that house, an air of dilapidation. The litter on the spacious writing-table testified at once to a studious industry and to negligence.

Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, occupying a window-seat along which was stretched one of her slim, pantalooned legs, demurred at the proposal, expressed the opinion that she had best push on at dusk; that, in fact, she could not think of subjecting monsieur le vicomte to the risk of her discovery under his roof.

At this Monsieur de Corbal laughed with such evident amusement as to pique her a little, for she could not conceive in what she was ridiculous. But he did not leave her long in conjecture. He paced the chamber as he talked, upright and handsome, looking more like a nobleman and less like other things than usual. Not only had he resumed to-day the ceremonious dress in which yesterday he had attended the Tribunal—the only suit of its kind in his wardrobe—but he had improved upon it. There was a foam of lace at his neck, and ruffles at his wrists to veil the hands which labour in the open had burnt brown; and he had brought out of their neglect a pair of lacquered shoes with paste buckles and red heels, shoes which in those days would have imperilled any man's neck.

He explained his laughter. "Mademoiselle, I am in the enviable position of a man for whom risks have ceased to exist, whom fear can no longer touch. This is Tuesday, and on Thursday next I am to die. That is why I laugh at the notion of danger to me from harbouring you."

She swung her leg from the window-seat and sat bolt upright, confronting him, her eyes wide.

"Monsieur! How is this possible? You amuse yourself at my expense! How can it be that you, who are free..."

"I will explain," he interrupted her, and he did so.

She heard his tale in growing distress and also in growing admiration for his intrepid calm, for the almost humorous outlook with which he viewed his desperate situation. Again she was reminded of another whose outlook was ever humorous too. But the difference!

"The beast!" she said, when he had done. "The cruel, mocking beast!"

The vicomte nodded. "That describes him, I think. He is facetiously malign. Well, well! He may have my head. But he will not make me bow it to his humorous will."

Her hands twisting and untwisting between her knees in her agitation of concern, she began to urge him to seek safety in flight.

He cut her short at the very outset.

"I thought of it, of course. But it would be useless, and there's a degradation in failure to which I will not expose myself. I'll be no quarry for these Revolutionary dogs to hunt. If succumb I must, I'll succumb in dignity, as my blood demands. You agree, I hope, that the alternative is unthinkable; that every dead Corbal would shudder in his grave if I were guilty of any baseness to save my useless life?"

She pondered him in silence with an infinite compassion, an infinite tenderness. She was little addicted normally to seek the feminine relief of tears. Yet now it was only by an effort of will that she repressed them.

"Is there," she asked after a moment, "no third course possible? Have you thought well, monsieur?"

Perhaps more of her tender concern escaped in her voice than she intended. He halted before her, and his dark, solemn eyes considered her. The pallor deepened in his face as if he were suddenly beset by fear, and a deeper wistfulness crept into the lines of it. At last, very slowly, he answered her.

"Yes, I have thought. And a third course does offer. But..." He broke off with a little gesture of despair.

"But what, monsieur? Express it freely. It is the way to test a thought."

"You know that, too! How wise you are!" Admiration flashed in his eyes. "The thing, however, is not in need of the test of expression. I hesitate only from the fear of being misunderstood."

She almost smiled as she looked up at him. "To a man in your case can it matter to be misunderstood? And misunderstood by whom? By me? For what does my opinion count in this?"

"For everything." he answered, and set her staring and a little breathless, stirred by something quite indefinable.

He swung away from her abruptly, paced to the book-lined wall, and back again, with bowed head, to come to a halt once more before her.

"I may be suspected of having found here no more than something to supply my need. That is my great fear. Will you believe me, mademoiselle, if I swear that I shall utter no word that is not true? I am a man in his last hours. There may be little good in me; but never in life have I soiled myself by falsehood."

"That is how I should judge you, monsieur. Speak freely, then."

He spoke, but not freely. He faltered and stumbled awkwardly in a manner utterly unusual to him, whose utterance normally was precise and scholarly.

"You will not see, mademoiselle, I beseech you, a lack of...of homage in what I am to say. In other circumstances...But here time presses. I am a man who has lived much alone. My books and my land have been my only concerns, and my little family almost my only company in years. It is this aloofness from the world which has made possible my survival until now. Many things that make up the life of my kind have passed me by. I have not missed them, because I have not desired them. No woman...I beg you to believe woman has ever touched my life. Until now."

Mademoiselle de Montsorbier stiffened. She was very white, and the grey woollen smock shuddered under the heave of her slight breasts. The vicomte paused there, watching her almost in fear, he who had contemplated death with such tranquillity. He clasped his hands in his nervousness and found them moist.

"I...I have read the poets, of course. Yet I do not know how these things come to a man. I know only that love has come to me like a lightning stroke out of heaven. Bear with me, mademoiselle, though I may seem to you outrageous. Doubt what you will, but not my truth and sincerity."

Again he paused. But still she said nothing. Of the two it would have been hard to say which was possessed by the deeper fear.

"When first I saw you there in the light last night, it seemed to if my soul leapt from me to embrace your soul. I utter crudities, perhaps. I can express it in no other way. But so spontaneous, inevitable was this thing, that it has seemed to me...It is not a presumption, mademoiselle. It is an instinct, I think. It has seemed to me that something reciprocal, something mutual must have taken place. It seemed impossible that a man's spirit could...experience so much...unsupported.

"Mademoiselle, I am ashamed of my poor words. They do not..."

She interrupted him at last. She had risen, and, unbelievable miracle as it seemed to him, her breast was leaning on his own, her face, all white, and piteous was upturned to him.

"Ashamed!" she cried. "Ashamed!"

There was a music of tenderness in her voice that dazed his senses. "Your words leave nothing unsaid. Nothing that is not true, at least. Your instincts were at no fault, my dear."

His arms went round her. His voice was the voice of a man in pain.

"Love is the fulfilment of every living thing, and I might have died unfulfilled if you had not come to me at the eleventh hour."

She shuddered. "Oh, my dear!" She lay faint against him.

"Ah! But all that is changed," he cried, to hearten her. "You make life possible. If I had been mistaken, if you had not cared, nothing further would have mattered. I should still have died the richer, the nobler for what you brought me. But since you care...Listen, my dear. The decree of the Revolutionary Tribunal is only that I marry. So that I marry within three days I fulfill the requirements of this grotesque mockery which they call a law. Filomène was proposed to me, because I would make no choice for myself. But Filomène or another, it is all one to them. If you, then, come with me before the Tribunal, in peasant dress—that will be safer—as a girl whom I prefer, whom I have chosen for myself...We can invent your place of origin. That will not be difficult. If, then..."

She broke away from him, and stepped back. "Oh, you don't know what you are saying!" she cried out in deep distress.

He stood crestfallen, his soaring hopes all checked.

"But if...if...we love each other?" he faltered. "What difficulty, then? Need the notion of an immediate marriage be so repugnant?"

"It isn't that! It isn't that!"

"What then?"

She laughed without mirth. The situation, after all, was not without mirthless humour.

"Chauvinière!" she said significantly.

"Chauvinière?" he echoed, misunderstanding her, of course. "What of him, then? Even Chauvinière will be silenced since his demand that I marry will be satisfied. He named Filomène as the only bride at hand. But one woman will do as well as another for him; or, if not for him, at least for the Tribunal. So that I obey the decree, they can hardly compel me in the matter of my choice. That were too dangerous a precedent."

"What you say would be true in the case of any woman but myself."

"But yourself?" He gazed bewildered.

"Because I am the one woman of whom Chauvinière will not permit you to make choice. It is sadly, cruelly ironical, my friend. If you disclose me, you merely destroy me with yourself."

"If I disclose you as Mademoiselle de Montsorbier. But that is not the intention. As a peasant, a girl of the people..."

She interrupted him, to make all plain at last.

"That might serve for the others. But not for Chauvinière. Chauvinière was the deputy who smuggled me out of Paris."

It was a long moment before he completely understood, and understanding brought a curious horror. "It was he? It was he...?"

She nodded, her little features twisted in a bitter smile.

He shuddered, and put his hands to his face to shut out the picture which the sight of her now evoked. He stepped back, and sat down abruptly in a chair. He groaned as he sat there, and at first she misunderstood the source of his pain, imagined it to lie only in the sudden sense of defeat which her disclosure brought him. But his words enlightened her.

"Chauvinière!" he muttered. "That ineffable beast! His foul eyes crawling over your purity and grace!" He set his teeth. "That he should have dared! That he should have soiled you by his glance!"

"My dear, is it worth while to think of that? At such a moment?"

"What else is there to think of? What else can matter by comparison? My life!" he laughed. "I would give it freely to have spared you!"

There was a tap at the door. Filomène came in with a scared countenance. "It is the citizen-representative," she announced. "He is here. He asks to see you."

Mademoiselle de Montsorbier shrank back in fear.

Corbal uncovered his face, and came slowly to his feet.

"The citizen-representative?" he questioned dully. "Chauvinière?" Then, abruptly, he cast off his dejection. He squared his shoulders and stood stiff and straight, his face alight with purpose. Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, observing him, instead of distress beheld in him only a preternatural calm. And when presently he spoke again, not only had his voice resumed its natural level tone, but it was faintly charged with a note that was almost derisive.

"The citizen-representative Chauvinière, eh? Is he alone?"

"Yes, monsieur. I saw no one else."

The vicomte nodded. He was smiling. "But how very good. How very condescending of the citizen-representative to honour my house again! And so very opportunely! Almost it is as if he had guessed my need to see him, and desired to spare me the trouble of going in quest of him. Let him wait a moment or two in the hall, Filomène. Detain him there if you can. Then bring him in."

Between surprise and relief at the vicomte's manner, Filomène departed.

Before she was out of the room, Corbal was at a tall cupboard of polished mulberry that stood against the wall. He found Mademoiselle de Montsorbier at his elbow.

"Will you hide me in there?"

He lost a second in staring at her. Then he smiled and shook his head. "I have no thought to hide you." He took a mahogany case from a shelf in the cupboard.

"But if he finds me here!"

"It is what I desire." He took up a powder horn and a little linen bag, and closed the door of the cupboard. "The confident, overbearing fool!"

He crossed to his writing-table, and opened the box. It contained a brace of duelling pistols bedded in its red velvet lining.