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Chapter 11 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

Having placed at her disposal the slender resources of his wardrobe, Monsieur de Corbal left her, and went to make his own preparations for immediate departure. He gathered up what store of money he possessed, a little secret hoard of gold which he disposed in a hollow belt next to his skin, and a bundle of assignats, to be spent on their way to the frontier, since they would be useless beyond should they ever cross it. There were, too, a few family jewels which—since sentiment must yield to necessity—might later, abroad, be converted into money, and lastly some title-deeds and other papers establishing possessions, very insecure at present, but to become valuable again should France ever awaken from her republican nightmare. Since to take all was out of the question, it became necessary to select the most important, and this selection occupied some little time.

Almost an hour had elapsed before he descended to the hall, booted and spurred, carrying cloak and valise, for she had told him that they would ride openly as soon as darkness should have fallen. It had fallen now, and it was in the light of a cluster of candles that he found her already awaiting him, arrayed in garments which, despite their ridiculous looseness, gave her something of the petit-maitre air which she had worn as Chauvinière's secretary. Considering the amazing things that she had done with scissors and needle, her speed in making ready seemed nothing short of miraculous. And there were signs that her preparations had been completed some time ago and that she had since been engaged with arrangements which really should have been his care. For even as Monsieur de Corbal was descending the stairs, he heard her addressing Fougereot, who at that moment came in from the open.

Her voice rang sharply. "You are just in time, Fougereot. Here is monsieur le vicomte. Have you made everything ready?"

"Everything as mademoiselle commanded," the man replied, and so informed Monsieur de Corbal not only that she had disclosed her identity to his people, but also that she had been issuing orders concerned with their departure.

"And your family?"

"Waiting out of doors with Filomène."

"The horses?"

"Saddled and waiting, mademoiselle."

"The scarf and hat?"

"They are there, on that chair, mademoiselle."

Monsieur de Corbal halted beside her at this point in that catechism. She was, he observed, rather pale and a little breathless, but so brisk and determined in manner that wonder grew even as he watched and listened. He was perceiving in her a further display of that spirit which Chauvinière had so much admired.

In riding-boots ridiculously large, but secretly stuffed with hay to make them fit her, she stepped aside to take up the tricolour sash and the plumed and cockaded hat, purloined from Chauvinière, who would no longer need them. She returned to proffer them to the vicomte.

"These are for you."

He recoiled, almost in horror.

"You must wear them, my friend," she insisted. "It is a necessity. Henceforth, you are the citizen-representative Chauvinière."

"It will need more than this..." he was beginning.

"I have more." She tapped her breast. "Trust me a little, my friend. Above all do not let us now delay. Come."

He yielded to her peremptoriness and suffered her to assist him to assume the sash of office, and afterwards to lead him out, Fougereot following with Monsieur de Corbal's valise.

Outside by the horses, visible in the light that streamed through the open door, Stood Fougereot's wife and their two big lads and Filomène. Came brief but touching farewells between the seigneur and his shrunken family. The Fougereots, all four, were in tears, not only at parting with their vicomte, but at what else remained to be done. This and the stifled sobbing of Filomène moved him so profoundly that he could not trust himself to speak. In silence he wrung the hand of each in turn, then got to horse. It was Mademoiselle de Montsorbier who spoke for him now.

"You will care for the land," she told them, "and count it your own until monsieur the vicomte comes to claim it again."

"God send that may be soon!" said Fougereot, and in a choking voice added something which the vicomte did not understand. "We'll rebuild the house for you."

"God keep you, monsieur le vicomte!" cried Fougereot's wife, and the others repeated it after her.

With that valediction ringing in his ears, Corbal, still half-bemused, put spurs to his horse, and presently, by a path that skirted the little town of Poussignot, he was trotting through the dusk with his fair, frail, but very resolute companion, their faces set towards Burgundy.

They breasted a slope to the east of the town, and an hour and a half later paused on the summit to breathe their horses and to look back.

The valley below lay all in darkness. But five miles to westward a flaming beacon split the gloom and drew the eye. It drew more than the eye of Monsieur de Corbal. A moment he gazed, his head craned forward, his breath suspended.

"God of Heaven!" he cried out at last. "That is Corbal. It is on fire." Had he himself been burning at the stake, his voice could hardly have carried more distress.

Mademoiselle, at his elbow, sighed before replying.

"Yes, my dear. It is Corbal. Corbal and all that it contains as a funeral pyre to Chauvinière."

Something in her quiet tone recalled Fougereot's cryptic phrase: "We will rebuild the house." He swung in the saddle to peer at her through the gloom.

"You knew!" he cried, almost in reproach.

"I ordered it."

"You ordered it?" Amazement raised his voice. "And they obeyed you."

"Only because they perceived the need to do so, for your own safety and for theirs."

"The need? What need? And why was I not told?" He was between anger and complaint.

"You might have demurred, and time might have been lost in persuading you. Perhaps, out of a natural love for the house of your fathers, you might have refused to be persuaded until it was too late. Fougereot perceived that, too. Therefore, he obeyed me."

"But the need for this?" he repeated.

"The need to destroy all evidence of what took place, not only to ensure against pursuit, but also to make things safe for your people who remain, and who might otherwise be incriminated. Listen, my dear. By now the Fougereots will be in Poussignot with the tale in which I instructed them. They will relate that returning from the fields at dusk they found the château on fire. That is all they know. Poussignot will surmise a dozen things, amongst them that you have perished in the flames, which they may even suppose—the Fougereots may hint it—that you set alight. They will surmise things, too, on the score of Chauvinière, particularly if it be known to any of them that he went to Corbal this evening. But don't let that trouble you. By dawn we shall be far away."

"You make it clear," he said. "Forgive my dullness." He looked across the valley at the leaping flames, and as he looked his sight grew blurred. "Yes, it was necessary all things considered. But, oh, my God!"

It was a moment before she answered him, and when she did so, she set a hand upon his arm.

"In this world, Raoul, all things worth having must be bought and paid for. That bonfire is the price you pay for life. Is it worth while?"

Instantly he swung to her, and cast his weakness from him.

"A thousand times if I am not to be cheated yet. If I am to buy life and love."

"You shall not be cheated, my dear. I have promised you both, and I'll not cheat you of either." She withdrew her hand from his arm, and spoke in another, brisker tone. "Let us push on. Henceforth you are the representative Chauvinière on a mission to Switzerland, and I am your secretary Antoine."

He sighed, still dubious. "Yes. But if we are called upon to prove it?"

She proffered him a package, wrapped in oiled silk and tied by a ribbon. "You had better carry these," she said. "They are the passports of the Committee of Safety to the representative Chauvinière and his secretary, commanding all to aid and warning all against hindering them, in the name of the Republic, One and Indivisible. And there are some other papers, also of importance, enjoining obedience upon all civil functionaries. It was prudent of me to have taken the representative's portfolio when I fled from him at La Charite. But I never thought to pass myself off again as his secretary, as I never thought to find a substitute for Chauvinière himself, nor while he lived would this have been easy."

He was silent a long time in sheer wonder of her wit and resource. Then he fetched a sigh that ended in a little laugh.

"I should have known better than to suppose that you merely hoped to strike blindly across the frontier. This makes things easy...assured! Oh, it is incredible, as incredible as you are, Cléonie!"

He heard her answering laugh in the dark. "Let us be moving, dear. We are on surer ground, I think, than your republican nuptials would have provided."

He wheeled his horse to follow her.

"The nuptials surely are also in the arrangement," said he.

Again her laughter answered him, but this time very soft and tender. And the nuptials followed, in Lausanne, a week later, when they found themselves among friends.


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