Chapter 9 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

Filomène had her attractions, and a man of so enterprising a nature as the citizen-representative does not allow feminine attractions to go unheeded.

When she returned to him where he waited in the hall, he took her softly rounded chin in his lean hand and considered her approvingly. His words, however, suggested that he did so dispassionately, in a spirit of critical detachment.

"Does he perceive your graces yet, my dear, this fastidious ci-devant? Faith, in his place, I should not wait to be bidden twice. I'll make a ci-devant vicomtesse of you yet," he promised, and kissed her by way of sealing the bargain. Detachment, after all, may be pushed too far; and he had a way with him, the citizen-representative Chauvinière.

He released her chin and bade her conduct him to the reluctant bridegroom. But Filomène remembered her orders to detain him, and he, himself, had afforded her the pretext. More than this, it was suddenly revealed to her how she might even save the vicomte for whom her affection was of the exalted kind that desires to express itself only in service.

"It's not only the bridegroom who is reluctant," said she, her winsome face grown sullen. "You make very free with a poor girl, you gentlemen of the Revolutionary Tribunal. You bid a man marry me without so much as a 'by-your-leave' to me. You take it for granted that I've no mind in the matter. 'Marry Filomène on Thursday, or we guillotine you on Friday.'" She sniffed her angry scorn. "You think that's all there is to it. And what if Filomène doesn't want the man you order to become her husband?"

Chauvinière was scowling at her. He remembered the soft glances he had seen her bestow upon Corbal, which had first suggested to him the course he had taken. His scowl became a smile of mockery.

"What game do you play with me, my girl?"

"No game, citizen-representative. It's deadly earnest as you and your Tribunal will discover. I'm not to be handed over like a cow or a sheep, and I don't belong to you to be bestowed by you. Liberty, eh? That's your notion of Liberty, is it? Why, the aristocrats would never have dared so much, and you'll not dare it where I'm concerned."

"But of course not, if you say so."

"I do say so." Her voice grew shrill. She had wrought herself into a fine mimic passion. "You'd better understand me clearly, and save yourselves the trouble of pushing this imbecile business any further. I do not take a husband at your bidding, and certainly not the citizen Corbal. I refuse to marry."

Chauvinière was smiling tolerantly upon the vehemence.

"You do?" quoth he.

"Flatly," she announced, not without a flash of exultation, conceiving that thus she had checkmated Chauvinière and saved her beloved vicomte from the peril that assailed him.

Chauvinière, still smiling, fetched a sigh. "A pity!" he said. "A thousand pities! He will now, if he wishes to live, have to find some one for himself; and I cannot hope that he will find any one half so agreeable." He sighed again, inwardly relishing the joke. "Now lead me to him, if you please."

Filomène shrank back, aghast to find her weapons so easily shivered. She choked down her tears of rage, eyeing the citizen-representative with a malevolence that but increased his secret mirth.

Then, nothing else being left to do, she conducted him in silence and announced him to the waiting vicomte. Lithe and active in his long grey coat, tricolour sash from which a sabre now dangled, and cockaded plumed hat which he did not trouble to remove, Chauvinière swaggered into the library. Within the threshold he halted, irony in every line of him, to survey the vicomte, who with hands behind him stood placidly by the empty fireplace. He jerked a thumb after the retreating Filomène.

"A juicy pullet, my friend; not to be boggled over by a man of taste."

"Perhaps I am not a man of taste—by Revolutionary canons."

"In your own interests I hope you'll prove so. You've offended the child by your reluctance, and she declares that you shall not marry her now if you would. But that's to be overcome by a little persuasive wooing. In your place, I should offer it. You'll find her arms warmer about your neck than the collar of the guillotine. But it's for you to choose between maid and widow."

"You repeat yourself, citizen. Is that the only purpose of your visit."

Chauvinière's light eyes drew narrow. Here was one who dealt in a mockery that was deadlier than his own and just as elusive.

"You misapprehend me." His tone was dry and crisp. "It is the fault of your class to want for understanding. It is the emptiness of aristocrat heads that has brought so many of them to the basket. I am here, my dear ci-devant, to exhort you in the fraternal spirit..."

He broke off. A slight movement in the corner on his right drew his glance aside, to discover there a slim lad in peasant blouse and pantaloons.

"Why? Who's this that..." Again he checked a sudden quickening in his glance. He leaned forward, staring hard; took a short step, and stepped again. Then an oath of amazement escaped him, and on the heels of that a laugh, loud and full of relish. "Why, here's a meeting!" He swept off his hat. "It becomes necessary to uncover." He bowed. "And how long may you have been at Corbal, my dear secretary?"

Mademoiselle de Montsorbier came forward a little, miraculously preserving her composure.

"Since last night, citizen," she answered simply, so simply and calmly that it staggered him.

"Oh, since last night, citizen!" he mimicked her. "Since last night, eh? Name of a name! I find more at Corbal than I should have dreamed of seeking. Life is full of surprises. But they are seldom as pleasant." He moved to advance towards her.

"Stand where you are!"

It was Corbal who spoke, in a cold, crisp tone that effectively arrested the representative. He stiffened as he confronted the vicomte across half the room.

"Life is full of surprises, as you say, citizen-representative. This one may not prove quite so pleasant as you are supposing."

There was in the vicomte's attitude, in his very calm, something sinister and menacing.

Instantly Chauvinière scented danger and as instantly would he have forestalled it; but he was hampered and undone by the mockery in which he dealt so lavishly. His absurd gesture of mock-deference, cumbered now his right hand with his doffed hat. Before he could slip that hand into his bosom to pluck thence the pistol which he carried ready for just such emergencies, it was necessary to be rid of the hat. He tucked it swiftly under his left arm. But he got no farther.

His movement was the danger signal to Corbal, and Corbal now covered him with a heavy duelling pistol, steadied upon his left forearm.

"Move a finger, citizen-representative, and I'll dispatch you into hell."

Chauvinière obeyed, but none too literally. He planted his feet wide, and folded his hands behind him. Then he laughed. He seemed entirely unperturbed, dissembling by an easy bearing the watchfulness of those light eyes of his.

"Surprise upon surprise!" said he. "And this from you, my dear ci-devant! I was far, indeed, from expecting it of you. Hitherto you have been of so charming and unfailing a courtesy that I should never have thought you capable of such a grossness. Why should you desire to intimidate me?"

"You misapprehend me. I am not proposing to intimidate you."

"What then?"

"To kill you."

Again Chauvinière laughed, although he paled a little under his tan.

"But what words! Come, citizen: let us be practical. How can my death serve you? Will it, do you suppose, save you from the obligation of complying with the decree of the Revolutionary Tribunal, or, in the alternative, of leaving your head on the guillotine? A little reflection, my friend, will show you that it will merely precipitate your doom."

The vicomte remained unperturbed. "And a little reflection on your side will show you that my life being already forfeit, I can lose nothing by killing you."

"But an act of such puerile and fruitless vindictiveness!" Chauvinière seemed shocked and hurt. "Besides, my friend, I have two men with me, out there. If you imagine that to shoot me will afford you a chance of escape, you are wrong. The sound of the shot will bring in my men, and that will be the end of you."

"If that were true—which I know it not to be—the intervention would still come too late to prevent the end of you. And Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, at least, will have been made safe. Also you will have expiated the unforgivable presumption which led you to raise your rascal's eyes to her. You son of a dog! You gutter-begotten rogue! Your very glance has been a defilement to her. A slug crawling over the white purity of a lily's petal."

"We become lyrical!" said Chauvinière, but there was a snarl in his voice, for inwardly his arrogant soul was writhing under the lash of the nobleman's contemptuous insults. "I understand, I think. Well, well, you have me at a disadvantage. I must make terms, I suppose."

"There are no terms to be made. It but remains that you give the only payment you can afford."

"You mean that you intend to murder me in cold blood! It is inconceivable. After all, you are a gentleman, not an assassin." There was no mockery now in Chauvinière's voice. It was warmly earnest. "At least, let us exchange shots, here in this room—at ten paces, or any distance that you please elsewhere. You cannot do less than that."

Monsieur de Corbal resumed his urbanity. "I am desolated to refuse you even that. If it were a question only of myself, of my own life and liberty, I would accede gladly. Indeed, I doubt if I should be at even so much trouble to preserve them. But there is Mademoiselle de Montsorbier. I cannot allow either her fate or the punishment of the insult your attentions have put upon her to lie at the mercy of luck or marksmanship."

Chauvinière's face had turned grey. "I am to be murdered, then?"

"Not murdered. Executed."

"A fine distinction!"

"You have dealt a little freely yourself in fine distinctions where the anguish of others was concerned. It is just that a man should sometimes drink as he has poured." The vicomte's cold sternness left little doubt of the measure of his resolve. Without moving his eyes from Chauvinière, he spoke to Mademoiselle de Montsorbier. "Mademoiselle, may I beg you to withdraw?"

"My God!" broke in a groan from the representative's bloodless lips, his arrogant spirit now subdued entirely. Only the vicomte's fixed stare and the conviction that his least movement must hasten the approaching doom prevented him from taking the chance of reaching for that pistol in his bosom. Though fear might have him now in an icy grip, yet his wits retained their clarity. To the last second he would wait and watch for his opportunity. Therefore was he still careful to do nothing to precipitate an end that might yet be averted.

"If you please, mademoiselle!" the vicomte repeated almost peremptorily, for mademoiselle had made no movement to obey him.

She moved at last, but not to depart.

"A moment, please," she said. She strove with her agitation. "Let us be practical, as the citizen-representative himself began by suggesting."

Touched though she might be by the terrible intransigent demands of the vicomte's devotion, she realized the futility of sacrificing a chance of escape and safety, which she dimly perceived, to the exploitation of a romantic vindictiveness. She saw more clearly and farther than the vicomte. She had less resentment to blind her. To be desired by a man, however unworthy, can never be quite so unpardonable an offence in the eyes of a woman as in those of her accepted lover. Therefore her thirst for Chauvinière's blood was less fierce than the vicomte's. It might go unslaked so that his life should serve them better than his death.

Calmly now she expounded her proposals.

"The citizen-representative spoke just now of making terms. Let him write three lines, informing the Revolutionary Tribunal of Poussignot that he has found it necessary suddenly to pay a visit to Nevers, which will keep him absent until to-morrow. After that, let him consent to be confined here for twenty-four hours, so as to give us that measure of start in our escape. Those are the terms on which you will, no doubt, agree, Vicomte, to spare his life."

The vicomte's face darkened. "I should prefer..."

She interrupted him, her tone persuasively insistent. "I have told you, my friend, what I desire. It is, believe me, better, safer so; nor do I want you to soil your hands unnecessarily."

If he yielded grudgingly, at least he wasted no words.

"It is for you to command. Be it so. You have heard mademoiselle's proposal, citizen. What do you say?"

Chauvinière breathed more freely. The tide of his courage flowed again, bringing with it at once a resumption of his normal manner. If he accepted this chance of life, he certainly should not be suspected of snatching at it.

He took now his time in answering, let It be seen that he pondered the proposal in dignified calm.

"As I have already said, you have me at a disadvantage." He shrugged. "I must therefore capitulate on the terms you offer. But I'll first require some guarantee that when I have fulfilled my part, you will not fail to perform yours."

"My word is your guarantee," said Corbal curtly.

Chauvinière pursed his lips. "A little meagre," he deprecated.

"It has never yet been so accounted. And only a fellow of your own base origin. Ignorant of the ways of men of honour, could suppose it."

Chauvinière looked at him, and sneered. "It Is evidently among the ways of men of honour to insult the man at whose head you hold a pistol. That is noble. That inspires confidence. That assures one that the word of such a man is a sufficient guarantee of anything!" He was bitterly derisive. "But I must take my chance of your keeping faith. I see that plainly. Tell me this, at least: When you have departed, and the twenty-four hours shall have come to an end, who is to restore me to liberty?"

"I shall arrange for that."

"You'll forgive my importunity in desiring to know something of those arrangements before I surrender completely to your wishes. You'll realize my reluctance to be left to starve in the cellar into which you'll lock me if you should forget, or find it difficult, to take the necessary steps to procure my release."

It was mademoiselle who answered him. "At this hour to-morrow the key of your prison shall be delivered to the president of the Revolutionary Committee, together with a note containing the information necessary to procure your enlargement."

He inclined his head. "That will do excellently, of course. But who will carry the key and the note?"

"You may depend upon us to find a messenger, wherever we may be. There is no difficulty in that."

"But messengers are sometimes unreliable. If this one should delay or neglect entirely to discharge his errand?"

"We shall do our best to procure a messenger entirely trustworthy, and we shall assure him of a handsome reward at your hands to quicken his zeal. That is the utmost we can do. The rest is your risk."

He shrugged and spread his hands. "I must accept it, I suppose. You leave me little choice."

"About it, then," Corbal commanded him. "Write your note here. You will find quills, ink, and paper."

Chauvinière stepped forward as he was bidden, drew up a chair and sat down at the writing-table, across which the vicomte faced him with his ever-levelled pistol.

His pen scratched industriously for some moments, but not half so industriously as his nimble rascally wits, seeking for him a way out of this trap, a way of breaking faith and turning the tables on these two who made a mock of him.

At last he signed with a flourish, flung down the pen, and rose. He took up the note and thrust it under the eyes of Monsieur de Corbal at close quarters; at such close quarters that his left hand which held it was not more than three inches from the vicomte's right with its levelled pistol.

"Read for yourself," he said harshly.

Momentarily Monsieur de Corbal's glance was lowered to read. But in that moment the sheet waved and fell away under his eyes; and before he realized what was happening, the fingers of the hand which had held it had pounced upon his wrist and their paralyzing grip was bending it aside so that the vicomte's weapon was now harmlessly deflected.

He saw the representative's right hand slide into the bosom of his broad-lapelled coat for the pistol which he kept here, and heard the representative's mocking voice.

"I take this trick, I think, my dear ci-devant. Opportunity never fails the man who knows how to seize it."

And his laughter rang out clear and sharp to be suddenly lost in the report of a shot which filled the room with its reverberations.

Chauvinière choked on his laugh, loosed his hold of the vicomte's wrist and reeled backwards, whilst the pistol which he had been in the act of drawing dropped from his nerveless grasp. He brought up with his shoulders to the wall, pressing to his left side a hand which grew red almost at once with the blood oozing between the fingers.

Steadying himself there, his features twisted into a spasmodic grin. He attempted to speak; but broke into a cough, with the acrid taste of powder-smoke in his throat and nostrils. The cough deepened. It became a frantic effort to clear his lungs so that he might breathe, and a foam of blood appeared upon his lips. He writhed yet an instant, his limbs twitched convulsively, and finally he slid down the panelled wall into a quiet heap from which his knees protruded sharply.

It had all happened so quickly that the vicomte had never moved from his place beyond the table, nor mademoiselle from the other end of the room, where she stood staring white-faced upon her work, the pistol still smoking in her hand.

It is curious that the first thing calling for comment from Monsieur de Corbal should have been the least important.

"Death caught him with laughter on his lips," he said on a note of horror.

"I seem to remember," said mademoiselle, "that once he predicted something of the kind for himself." Her voice was oddly strained.

The vicomte pursued his train of thought.

"He might be laughing still, and with good reason, if you had not insisted upon taking the second pistol for your own possible emergencies. I never dreamed that the emergency would be mine. You were only just in time, Cléonie. Already I was looking in the face of death."

"That," she answered unsteadily, "was my only justification." She shuddered, let her pistol fall to the ground at last, covered her face with her hands, and fell to sobbing convulsively.

Instantly the vicomte was at her side, his arms round her slim shoulders, his head bending to hers, his voice soothing and heartening her. Thus he drew her from the room, closing the door upon the thing it contained, and out into the hall, where Filomène with a scared face awaited them.