Chapter 10 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

Seated out there in the chill gloom of the hall, on a high-backed wooden settle ranged against the grey wall, Mademoiselle de Montsorbier presently recovered command of herself.

She looked from Filomène, who, without illusions now on the score of her sex, knelt at her feet, chafing one of her hands, to Monsieur de Corbal, who leaned over her in a solicitude that made him momentarily oblivious of all else.

"My friend, forgive this weakness, it is not the time to yield to it. Tears are a luxury for those who are secure." She dried her eyes. "We are in grave peril, now, and it will need all our resource to win out of it."

But Monsieur de Corbal smiled confidently. "Your resource has already provided for that, my dear. The note which you made him write to the members of the Tribunal will sufficiently explain his absence, whilst his removal raises the only obstacle the nuptials which are required of me, provided that...that you..."

She interrupted him, raising her eyes to his, a wan smile on her white face. "You may take that for granted now, Raoul."

"Then let us lose no time. Filomène will find you such garments as you need, and we'll present ourselves to the Tribunal at once. Its members are all friendly towards me in themselves. It was only Chauvinière's influence and the fear of him which stiffened them against me in the matter of these Revolutionary nuptials. In Chauvinière's absence they'll be willing enough to let me choose my own bride so that I comply with the decree. Indeed, not Chauvinière himself could have pushed matters so far as to constrain my choice of a wife, so long as I was willing to take one, especially if she were of humble origin as you'll pretend to be. Come, then. We'll invent the origin, together with a name for you, as we go."

"How you run on!" she said, and almost laughed for all her heart-sickness and abiding horror of the thing so lately done.

"It is necessary. Time presses. Come."

"Wait! Wait!" She was imperative. "Do not let haste drive us into rashness. Consider first what must follow. Chauvinière's note will satisfy the Tribunal now, no doubt. But for how long? In a day or two there will be questions..."

He broke in upon her fears. "You do not know Poussignot. I do. I have lived here all my days. Trust my judgment in this. Chauvinière's presence has been a nightmare upon the place. His absence will bring relief, a reaction to the normal which will steadily grow whilst that absence is protracted. Very soon Poussignot's concern only will be lest Chauvinière should return. Poussignot will do nothing to encourage that, and will rest content so long as it does not occur."

"You are very confident."

"I have cause to be."

He was persuading her.

"And the note?" she asked. "How will you convey it to the Tribunal?"

"Oh, I've thought of that, too. The ostler at the inn where Chauvinière lodges is my man Fougereot's nephew, a Godfearing lad to whom all sans-culottes are detestable. Fougereot will convey the note to him, and he will deliver it: a natural enough messenger."

Her face brightened at last. "You've thought of everything," she approved him. "Chauvinière's death, then..."

"Is the best thing that could have happened for the world in general and ourselves in particular. And he brought it on himself, overreaching himself in his trickiness. Fetch Fougereot from the fields, Filomène. Meanwhile I'll get the note."

The girl departed on her errand, and the vicomte returned to the library. Alone with her thoughts. Mademoiselle de Montsorbier fell momentarily to shuddering again, and again covered her face with her hands to shut out the sight of Chauvinière as she had last seen him. Thus Monsieur de Corbal found her on his return. She heard him close the door of the library and turn the key in the lock. Then, seeing her huddled there, he hastened to her side.

"My dear, my dear! Courage! Courage!"

"I need it, yes." Her pale lips were twisted into a smile half-grim, half-whimsical. "I am not used to killing men."

"If I could have spared you that!" he cried. "But you have no grounds for self-reproach." And he reasoned with her long to banish from her mind the horror by which he perceived her to be beset. At last his fond efforts prevailed.

"Yes, yes. You are right. This is sheer weakness. And it's out of season. You have the note." He held it up in silence. "Read it to me. Let us know exactly what he has written."

The daylight was beginning to fade. He strode across to the mullioned window, and with his shoulder turned towards her raised the sheet so as to hold it to the light. In that attitude he remained for a long while immovable and silent, until at last her patience ended.

"Well?" she urged him. "Read it to me."

He turned to her, still in silence, and she saw that his face was of the colour of chalk.

"What is it?" she cried in immediate alarm.

He uttered a little laugh of bitterness, of hopelessness.

"I seem to remember that the rascal said the trick was his. A trick, indeed. Come here." She crossed to his side at once. "See for yourself what he has written, the bitter jester."

She took the sheet from his hand, and read:

"My dear ci-devant—This is to assure you that within the next twenty-four hours two things of interest to you will happen: you will be guillotined and the dainty, slippery Montsorbier will at last belong to me. I shall have cause to thank you for the entertainment provided for me here to-day."

She looked up at Monsieur de Corbal in blank dismay. The vicomte nodded, smiling bitterly. "He counted confidently upon tricking me with it as he did, the resourceful dog; so confidently that he didn't hesitate to indulge his wicked humour even with my pistol at his head."

"Yes," she said. "He was like that. And his humour was the death of him."

They looked at each other helplessly, almost despairingly, bereft of the staff upon which they had so confidently looked to lean.

They were back, it seemed, in the situation which had been theirs that afternoon before the advent of Chauvinière, save that now they were additionally burdened with the representative's dead body. There could no longer be any question of those Revolutionary nuptials upon which they had been counting. For in the absence of any acceptable explanation for it, Chauvinière's disappearance must very soon give rise to inquiry. At any moment almost that inquiry might begin. Even if he had not announced to any his intention of visiting Corbal, some there must have been who had seen him come that way. He was not a man whose movements went unnoticed. He could not pass anywhere unperceived. The trail, even if weak in places, would presently lead to the Château de Corbal. The vicomte would be asked questions which he could not answer. To hide the body could not avail him. He would be required to produce the living Chauvinière. And failing that, the conclusion was foregone. It needed no words between them to expound all this. Each saw it clearly.

"There is one thing only now," said the vicomte. "I must go. I must set out at once before the hunt is up."

She looked at him, her bright face resolute.

"We must go, you mean."

He shook his head. "Do you think I'll link you to a hunted man?"

"You will be hunted for the thing I did."

"What, then? The thing you did was done to save me. It was made necessary by my own carelessness. The responsibility for the deed is mine. The intention to kill him in any case was mine. Only an accident, my own stupidity, prevented it."

"All that is not worth discussion," said she. "There are more important things to consider." And that she was considering them her knit brows bore witness.

"Yes, yes," he agreed. "You must shift for yourself now, my dear. It would not be wise in you to remain. I'll try to think of something for you. All that I can think at the moment—though it breaks my heart to say it—is that in no case must you come with me."

Again she looked at him, and now she was faintly, sadly smiling.

"How far do you think that you will get in your flight through this mad land?"

"That's why; that's why," he answered passionately. "I know I stand hardly a chance at all."

"Without me you stand none. That is why you need me more than ever. We are to be married. That was agreed between us. Shall I let a husband slip through my fingers without an effort."

"Can you jest, Cléonie." His voice was shaken with pain.

"Ah, but I can be serious, too," she said, now oddly tender. She set her hands upon his shoulders and looked up into his pale, distressed countenance. "Do you believe in Destiny, my dear?"

"I don't know what I believe."

"Consider, then. Do you think it is just blind chance that you and I, who without knowing it have been seeking each other from the beginning of our lives, should have been brought together in this odd manner, at this odd time, in circumstances which left us no leisure for ordinary wooing? My dear, don't you see that it is Destiny which has linked us now? If I had not come when I came, you would certainly have perished. If I had not found you when I did, it is probable that I should have perished too. Perceiving this, can you suppose that our lives are to end here, now that we have met?"

Her earnestness shook him, and partly he succumbed as men will—especially men in desperate case—to the suggestion that behind all human fortunes there is a guiding Intelligence which may not be thwarted. Nevertheless, for her sake, because of the risk he perceived for her, he still resisted, though more weakly now, her intention to join him in his flight.

"But if we separate," she said with sad conviction, "we separate forever; there is no chance for either of us. I feel it. I know it. Together we may win out. If we do not, at least we shall be together to the end, as Destiny intends for us. And it is my strong belief that we are intended for a happier union than the crazy republican nuptials with which you would have been content."

He looked at her in heavy silence, looked down into those clear, steady, fearless eyes, and surrendered at last to her dauntless spirit. He drew her close and kissed her gently.

"So be it, my dear. I leave myself to you; to you and Destiny."

She flashed him a quick smile, and at once became brisk and practical. She demanded to be made free of his wardrobe that she might find herself male garments better suited to the part she meant to play. Naturally he desired to know what part this was, what plan was in her mind.

Lightly she mocked him. "You thought, of course, that I should be a party to a blind, blundering flight that would land us headlong in destruction. But I am proposing an orderly retreat. I have it here." She tapped her golden head. "The details are yet to be thought out. That while I change my clothes. Ask me no questions, now, my friend. Trust me and leave yourself to me, as you said just now you would do."

It was generous of him to thrust aside a momentary vexation at this half-confidence. "Have your way, then, Madame Destiny," he said, "I have made unconditional surrender."