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CHAPTER XI

INFERENCES


By fast driving Andre-Louis had reached the ground some minutes
ahead of time, notwithstanding the slight delay in setting out.
There he had found M. de La Tour d'Azyr already awaiting him,
supported by a M. d'Ormesson, a swarthy young gentleman in the
blue uniform of a captain in the Gardes du Corps.

Andre-Louis had been silent and preoccupied throughout that drive.
He was perturbed by his last interview with Mademoiselle de
Kercadiou and the rash inferences which he had drawn as to her
motives.

"Decidedly," he had said, "this man must be killed."

Le Chapelier had not answered him. Almost, indeed, had the Breton
shuddered at his compatriot's cold-bloodedness. He had often of
late thought that this fellow Moreau was hardly human. Also he had
found him incomprehensibly inconsistent. When first this
spadassinicide business had been proposed to him, he had been so
very lofty and disdainful. Yet, having embraced it, he went about
it at times with a ghoulish flippancy that was revolting, at times
with a detachment that was more revolting still.

Their preparations were made quickly and in silence, yet without
undue haste or other sign of nervousness on either side. In both
men the same grim determination prevailed. The opponent must be
killed; there could be no half-measures here. Stripped each of coat
and waistcoat, shoeless and with shirt-sleeves rolled to the elbow,
they faced each other at last, with the common resolve of paying
in full the long score that stood between them. I doubt if either
of them entertained a misgiving as to what must be the issue.

Beside them, and opposite each other, stood Le Chapelier and the
young captain, alert and watchful.

"Allez, messieurs!"

The slender, wickedly delicate blades clashed together, and after
a momentary glizade were whirling, swift and bright as lightnings,
and almost as impossible to follow with the eye. The Marquis led
the attack, impetuously and vigorously, and almost at once
Andre-Louis realized that he had to deal with an opponent of a very
different mettle from those successive duellists of last week, not
excluding La Motte-Royau, of terrible reputation.

Here was a man whom much and constant practice had given
extraordinary speed and a technique that was almost perfect.
In addition, he enjoyed over Andre-Louis physical advantages of
strength and length of reach, which rendered him altogether
formidable. And he was cool, too; cool and self-contained; fearless
and purposeful. Would anything shake that calm, wondered
Andre-Louis?

He desired the punishment to be as full as he could make it. Not
content to kill the Marquis as the Marquis had killed Philippe, he
desired that he should first know himself as powerless to avert
that death as Philippe had been. Nothing less would content
Andre-Louis. M. le Marquis must begin by tasting of that cup of
despair. It was in the account; part of the quittance due.

As with a breaking sweep Andre-Louis parried the heavy lunge in
which that first series of passes culminated, he actually laughed
- gleefully, after the fashion of a boy at a sport he loves.

That extraordinary, ill-timed laugh made M. de La Tour d'Azyr's
recovery hastier and less correctly dignified than it would otherwise
have been. It startled and discomposed him, who had already been
discomposed by the failure to get home with a lunge so beautifully
timed and so truly delivered.

He, too, had realized that his opponent's force was above anything
that he could have expected, fencing-master though he might be, and
on that account he had put forth his utmost energy to make an end
at once.

More than the actual parry, the laugh by which it was accompanied
seemed to make of that end no more than a beginning. And yet it
was the end of something. It was the end of that absolute confidence
that had hitherto inspired M. de La Tour d'Azyr. He no longer looked
upon the issue as a thing forgone. He realized that if he was to
prevail in this encounter, he must go warily and fence as he had
never fenced yet in all his life.

They settled down again; and again - on the principle this time that
the soundest defence is in attack - it was the Marquis who made the
game. Andre-Louis allowed him to do so, desired him to do so;
desired him to spend himself and that magnificent speed of his
against the greater speed that whole days of fencing in succession
for nearly two years had given the master. With a beautiful, easy
pressure of forte on foible Andre-Louis kept himself completely
covered in that second bout, which once more culminated in a lunge.

Expecting it now, Andre-Louis parried it by no more than a deflecting
touch. At the same moment he stepped suddenly forward, right within
the other's guard, thus placing his man so completely at his mercy
that, as if fascinated, the Marquis did not even attempt to recover
himself.

This time Andre-Louis did not laugh: He just smiled into the dilating
eyes of M. de La Tour d'Azyr, and made no shift to use his advantage.

"Come, come, monsieur!" he bade him sharply. "Am I to run my blade
through an uncovered man?" Deliberately he fell back, whilst his
shaken opponent recovered himself at last.

M. d'Ormesson released the breath which horror had for a moment
caught. Le Chapelier swore softly, muttering:

"Name of a name! It is tempting Providence to play the fool in
this fashion!"

Andre-Louis observed the ashen pallor that now over spread the face
of his opponent.

"I think you begin to realize, monsieur, what Philippe de Vilmorin
must have felt that day at Gavrillac. I desired that you should
first do so. Since that is accomplished, why, here's to make an end."

He went in with lightning rapidity. For a moment his point seemed
to La Tour d'Azyr to be everywhere at once, and then from a low
engagement in sixte, Andre-Louis stretched forward with swift and
vigorous ease to lunge in tierce. He drove his point to transfix
his opponent whom a series of calculated disengages uncovered in
that line. But to his amazement and chagrin, La Tour d'Azyr parried
the stroke; infinitely more to his chagrin La Tour d'Azyr parried
it just too late. Had he completely parried it, all would yet have
been well. But striking the blade in the last fraction of a second,
the Marquis deflected the point from the line of his body, yet not
so completely but that a couple of feet of that hard-driven steel
tore through the muscles of his sword-arm.

To the seconds none of these details had been visible. All that
they had seen had been a swift whirl of flashing blades, and then
Andre-Louis stretched almost to the ground in an upward lunge that
had pierced the Marquis' right arm just below the shoulder.

The sword fell from the suddenly relaxed grip of La Tour d'Azyr's
fingers, which had been rendered powerless, and he stood now
disarmed, his lip in his teeth, his face white, his chest heaving,
before his opponent, who had at once recovered. With the
blood-tinged tip of his sword resting on the ground, Andre-Louis
surveyed him grimly, as we survey the prey that through our own
clumsiness has escaped us at the last moment.

In the Assembly and in the newspapers this might be hailed as another
victory for the Paladin of the Third Estate; only himself could know
the extent and the bitternest of the failure.

M. d'Ormesson had sprung to the side of his principal.

"You are hurt!" he had cried stupidly.

"It is nothing," said La Tour d'Azyr. "A scratch." But his lip
writhed, and the torn sleeve of his fine cambric shirt was full of
blood.

D'Ormesson, a practical man in such matters, produced a linen
kerchief, which he tore quickly into strips to improvise a bandage.

Still Andre-Louis continued to stand there, looking on as if bemused.
He continued so until Le Chapelier touched him on the arm. Then at
last he roused himself, sighed, and turned away to resume his
garments, nor did he address or look again at his late opponent, but
left the ground at once.

As, with Le Chapelier, he was walking slowly and in silent dejection
towards the entrance of the Bois, where they had left their carriage,
they were passed by the caleche conveying La Tour d'Azyr and his
second - which had originally driven almost right up to the spot of
the encounter. The Marquis' wounded arm was carried in a sling
improvised from his companion's sword-belt. His sky-blue coat with
three collars had been buttoned over this, so that the right sleeve
hung empty. Otherwise, saving a certain pallor, he looked much his
usual self.

And now you understand how it was that he was the first to return,
and that seeing him thus returning, apparently safe and sound, the
two ladies, intent upon preventing the encounter, should have
assumed that their worst fears were realized.

Mme. de Plougastel attempted to call out, but her voice refused its
office. She attempted to throw open the door of her own carriage;
but her fingers fumbled clumsily and ineffectively with the handle.
And meanwhile the caleche was slowly passing, La Tour d'Azyr's fine
eyes sombrely yet intently meeting her own anguished gaze. And then
she saw something else. M. d'Ormesson, leaning back again from the
forward inclination of his body to join his own to his companion's
salutation of the Countess, disclosed the empty right sleeve of M.
de La Tour d'Azyr's blue coat. More, the near side of the coat
itself turned back from the point near the throat where it was
caught together by single button, revealed the slung arm beneath
in its blood. sodden cambric sleeve.

Even now she feared to jump to the obvious conclusion feared lest
perhaps the Marquis, though himself wounded, might have dealt his
adversary a deadlier wound.

She found her voice at last, and at the same moment signalled to
the driver of the caleche to stop.

As it was Pulled to a standstill, M. d'Ormesson alighted, and so
met madame in the little space between the two carriages.

"Where is M. Moreau?" was the question with which she surprised him.

"Following at his leisure, no doubt, madame," he answered,
recovering.

"He is not hurt?"

"Unfortunately it is we who... " M. d'Ormesson was beginning, when
from behind him M. de La Tour d'Azyr's voice cut in crisply:

"This interest on your part in M. Moreau, dear Countess... "

He broke off, observing a vague challenge in the air with which
she confronted him. But indeed his sentence did not need completing.

There was a vaguely awkward pause. And then she looked at M.
d'Ormesson. Her manner changed. She offered what appeared to be
an explanation of her concern for M. Moreau.

"Mademoiselle de Kercadiou is with me. The poor child has fainted."

There was more, a deal more, she would have said just then, but for
M. d'Ormesson's presence.

Moved by a deep solicitude for Mademoiselle de Kertadiou, de La Tour
d'Azyr sprang up despite his wound.

"I am in poor case to render assistance, madame," he said, an
apologetic smile on his pale face. "But... "

With the aid of d'Ormesson, and in spite of the latter's
protestations, he got down from the caleche, which then moved on a
little way, so as to leave the road clear - for another carriage
that was approaching from the direction of the Bois.

And thus it happened that when a few moments later that approaching
cabriolet overtook and passed the halted vehicles, Andre-Louis
beheld a very touching scene. Standing up to obtain a better view,
he saw Aline in a half-swooning condition - she was beginning to
revive by now - seated in the doorway of the carriage, supported by
Mme. de Plougastel. In an attitude of deepest concern, M. de La
Tour d'Azyr, his wound notwithstanding, was bending over the girl,
whilst behind him stood M. d'Ormesson and madame's footman.

The Countess looked up and saw him as he was driven past. Her face
lighted; almost it seemed to him she was about to greet him or to
call him, wherefore, to avoid a difficulty, arising out of the
presence there of his late antagonist, he anticipated her by bowing
frigidly - for his mood was frigid, the more frigid by virtue of
what he saw - and then resumed his seat with eyes that looked
deliberately ahead.

Could anything more completely have confirmed him in his conviction
that it was on M. de La Tour d'Azyr's account that Aline had come
to plead with him that morning? For what his eyes had seen, of
course, was a lady overcome with emotion at the sight of blood of
her dear friend, and that same dear friend restoring her with
assurances that his hurt was very far from mortal. Later, much
later, he was to blame his own perverse stupidity. Almost is he
too severe in his self-condemnation. For how else could he have
interpreted the scene he beheld, his preconceptions being what
they were?

That which he had already been suspecting, he now accounted proven
to him. Aline had been wanting in candour on the subject of her
feelings towards M. de La Tour d'Azyr. It was, he supposed, a
woman's way to be secretive in such matters, and he must not blame
her. Nor could he blame her in his heart for having succumbed to
the singular charm of such a man as the Marquis - for not even his
hostility could blind him to M. de La Tour d'Azyr's attractions.
That she had succumbed was betrayed, he thought, by the weakness
that had overtaken her upon seeing him wounded.

"My God!" he cried aloud. "What must she have suffered, then, if
I had killed him as I intended!"

If only she had used candour with him, she could so easily have won
his consent to the thing she asked. If only she had told him what
now he saw, that she loved M. de La Tour d'Azyr, instead of leaving
him to assume her only regard for the Marquis to be based on
unworthy worldly ambition, he would at once have yielded.

He fetched a sigh, and breathed a prayer for forgiveness to the
shade of Vilmorin.

"It is perhaps as well that my lunge went wide," he said.

"What do you mean?" wondered Le Chapelier.

"That in this business I must relinquish all hope of recommencing."





Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
Category:
General Fiction

Romance Literature
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