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CHAPTER XIV

THE BARRIER


That gift of laughter of his seemed utterly extinguished. For once
there was no gleam of humour in those dark eyes, as they continued
to consider her with that queer stare of scrutiny. And yet, though
his gaze was sombre, his thoughts were not. With his cruelly true
mental vision which pierced through shams, and his capacity for
detached observation - which properly applied might have carried him
very far, indeed - he perceived the grotesqueness, the artificiality
of the emotion which in that moment he experienced, but by which he
refused to be possessed. It sprang entirely from the consciousness
that she was his mother; as if, all things considered, the more or
less accidental fact that she had brought him into the world could
establish between them any real bond at this time of day! The
motherhood that bears and forsakes is less than animal. He had
considered this; he had been given ample leisure in which to consider
it during those long, turbulent hours in which he had been forced to
wait, because it would have been almost impossible to have won across
that seething city, and certainly unwise to have attempted so to do.

He had reached the conclusion that by consenting to go to her rescue
at such a time he stood committed to a piece of purely sentimental
quixotry. The quittances which the Mayor of Meudon had exacted from
him before he would issue the necessary safe-conducts placed the
whole of his future, perhaps his very life, in jeopardy. And he
had consented to do this not for the sake of a reality, but out of
regard for an idea - he who all his life had avoided the false lure
of worthless and hollow sentimentality.

Thus thought Andre-Louis as he considered her now so searchingly,
finding it, naturally enough, a matter of extraordinary interest to
look consciously upon his mother for the first time at the age of
eight-and-twenty.

>From her he looked at last at Jacques, who remained at attention,
waiting by the open door.

"Could we be alone, madame?" he asked her.

She waved the footman away, and the door closed. In agitated
silence, unquestioning, she waited for him to account for his
presence there at so extraordinary a time.

"Rougane could not return," he informed her shortly. At M. de
Kercadiou's request, I come instead."

"You! You are sent to rescue us!" The note of amazement in her
voice was stronger than that of het relief.

"That, and to make your acquaintance, madame."

"To make my acquaintance? But what do you mean, Andre-Louis?"

"This letter from M. de Kercadiou will tell you." Intrigued by his
odd words and odder manner, she took the folded sheet. She broke
the seal with shaking hands, and with shaking hands approached the
written page to the light. Her eyes grew troubled as she read; the
shaking of her hands increased, and midway through that reading a
moan escaped her. One glance that was almost terror she darted at
the slim, straight man standing so incredibly impassive upon the
edge of the light, and then she endeavoured to read on. But the
crabbed characters of M. de Kercadiou swam distortedly under her
eyes. She could not read. Besides, what could it matter what else
he said. She had read enough. The sheet fluttered from her hands
to the table, and out of a face that was like a face of wax, she
looked now with a wistfulness, a sadness indescribable, at
Andre-Louis.

"And so you know, my child?" Her voice was stifled to a whisper.

"I know, madame my mother."

The grimness, the subtle blend of merciless derision and reproach
in which it was uttered completely escaped her. She cried out at
the new name. For her in that moment time and the world stood
still. Her peril there in Paris as the wife of an intriguer at
Coblenz was blotted out, together with every other consideration
- thrust out of a consciousness that could find room for nothing
else beside the fact that she stood acknowledged by her only son,
this child begotten in adultery, borne furtively and in shame in a
remote Brittany village eight-and-twenty years ago. Not even a
thought for the betrayal of that inviolable secret, or the con-
sequences that might follow, could she spare in this supreme moment.

She took one or two faltering steps towards him, hesitating. Then
she opened her arms. Sobs suffocated her voice.

"Won't you come to me, Andre-Louis?"

A moment yet he stood hesitating, startled by that appeal, angered
almost by his heart's response to it, reason and sentiment at grips
in his soul. This was not real, his reason postulated; this
poignant emotion that she displayed and that he experienced was
fantastic. Yet he went. Her arms enfolded him; her wet cheek was
pressed hard against his own; her frame, which the years had not
yet succeeded in robbing of its grace, was shaken by the passionate
storm within her.

"Oh, Andre-Louis, my child, if you knew how I have hungered to hold
you so! If you knew how in denying myself this I have atoned and
suffered! Kercadiou should not have told you - not even now. It
was wrong - most wrong, perhaps, to you. It would have been better
that he should have left me here to my fate, whatever that may be.
And yet - come what may of this - to be able to hold you so, to be
able to acknowledge you, to hear you call me mother - oh!
Andre-Louis, I cannot now regret it. I cannot... I cannot wish it
otherwise."

"Is there any need, madame?" he asked her, his stoicism deeply
shaken. "There is no occasion to take others into our confidence.
This is for to-night alone. To-night we are mother and son.
To-morrow we resume our former places, and, outwardly at least,
forget."

"Forget? Have you no heart, Andre-Louis?"

The question recalled him curiously to his attitude towards life
- that histrionic attitude of his that he accounted true philosophy.
Also he remembered what lay before them; and he realized that he
must master not only himself but her; that to yield too far to
sentiment at such a time might be the ruin of them all.

"It is a question propounded to me so often that it must contain
the truth," said he. "My rearing is to blame for that."

She tightened her clutch about his neck even as he would have
attempted to disengage himself from her embrace.

"You do not blame me for your rearing? Knowing all, as you do,
Andre-Louis, you cannot altogether blame. You must be merciful to
me. You must forgive me. You must! I had no choice."

"When we know all of whatever it may be, we can never do anything
but forgive, madame. That is the profoundest religious truth that
was ever written. It contains, in fact, a whole religion - the
noblest religion any man could have to guide him. I say this for
your comfort, madame my mother."

She sprang away from him with a startled cry. Beyond him in the
shadows by the door a pale figure shimmered ghostly. It advanced
into the light, and resolved itself into Aline. She had come in
answer to that forgotten summons madame had sent her by Jacques.
Entering unperceived she had seen Andre-Louis in the embrace of
the woman whom he addressed as "mother." She had recognized him
instantly by his voice, and she could not have said what bewildered
her more: his presence there or the thing she overheard.

"You heard, Aline?" madame exclaimed.

"I could not help it, madame. You sent for me. I am sorry if... "
She broke off, and looked at Andre-Louis long and curiously. She
was pale, but quite composed. She held out her hand to him. "And
so you have come at last, Andre," said she. "You might have come
before."

"I come when I am wanted," was his answer. "Which is the only time
in which one can be sure of being received." He said it without
bitterness, and having said it stooped to kiss her hand.

"You can forgive me what is past, I hope, since I failed of my
purpose," he said gently, half-pleading. "I could not have come to
you pretending that the failure was intentional - a compromise
between the necessities of the case and your own wishes. For it
was not that. And yet, you do not seem to have profited by my
failure. You are still a maid."

She turned her shoulder to him.

"There are things," she said, "that you will never understand."

"Life, for one," he acknowledged. "I confess that I am finding it
bewildering. The very explanations calculated to simplify it seem
but to complicate it further." And he looked at Mme. de Plougastel.

"You mean something, I suppose," said mademoiselle.

"Aline!" It was the Countess who spoke. She knew the danger of
half-discoveries. "I can trust you, child, I know, and Andre-Louis,
I am sure, will offer no objection." She had taken up the letter
to show it to Aline. Yet first her eyes questioned him.

"Oh, none, madame," he assured her. "It is entirely a matter for
yourself."

Aline looked from one to the other with troubled eyes, hesitating
to take the letter that was now proffered. When she had read it
through, she very thoughtfully replaced it on the table. A moment
she stood there with bowed head, the other two watching her. Then
impulsively she ran to madame and put her arms about her.

"Aline!" It was a cry of wonder, almost of joy. "You do not
utterly abhor me!"

"My dear," said Aline, and kissed the tear-stained face that seemed
to have grown years older in these last few hours.

In the background Andre-Louis, steeling himself against emotionalism,
spoke with the voice of Scaramouche.

"It would be well, mesdames, to postpone all transports until they
can be indulged at greater leisure and in more security. It is
growing late. If we are to get out of this shambles we should be
wise to take the road without more delay."

It was a tonic as effective as it was necessary. It startled them
into remembrance of their circumstances, and under the spur of it
they went at once to make their preparations.

They left him for perhaps a quarter of an hour, to pace that long
room alone, saved only from impatience by the turmoil of his mind.
When at length they returned, they were accompanied by a tall man
in a full-skirted shaggy greatcoat and a broad hat the brim of
which was turned down all around. He remained respectfully by the
door in the shadows.

Between them the two women had concerted it thus, or rather the
Countess had so concerted it when Aline had warned her that
Andre-Louis' bitter hostility towards the Marquis made it
unthinkable that he should move a finger consciously to save him.

Now despite the close friendship uniting M. de Kercadiou and his
niece with Mme. de Plougastel, there were several matters concerning
them of which the Countess was in ignorance. One of these was the
project at one time existing of a marriage between Aline and M. de
La Tour d'Azyr. It was a matter that Aline - naturally enough in
the state of her feelings - had never mentioned, nor had M. de
Kercadiou ever alluded to it since his coming to Meudon, by when he
had perceived how unlikely it was ever to be realized.

M. de La Tour d'Azyr's concern for Aline on that morning of the
duel when he had found her baif-swooning in Mme. de Plougastel's
carriage had been of a circumspection that betrayed nothing of his
real interest in her, and therefore had appeared no more than
natural in one who must account himself the cause of her distress.
Similarly Mme. de Plougastel had never realized nor did she realize
now - for Aline did not trouble fully to enlighten her - that the
hostility between the two men was other than political, the quarrel
other than that which already had taken Andre-Louis to the Bois on
every day of the preceding week. But, at least, she realized that
even if Andre-Louis' rancour should have no other source, yet that
inconclusive duel was cause enough for Aline's fears.

And so she had proposed this obvious deception; and Aline had
consented to be a passive party to it. They had made the mistake
of not fully forewarning and persuading M. de La Tour d'Azyr. They
had trusted entirely to his anxiety to escape from Paris to keep
him rigidly within the part imposed upon him. They had reckoned
without the queer sense of honour that moved such men as M. le
Marquis, nurtured upon a code of shams.

Andre-Louis, turning to scan that muffled figure, advanced from
the dark depths of the salon. As the light beat on his white,
lean face the pseudo-footman started. The next moment he too
stepped forward into the light, and swept his broad-brimmed hat
from his brow. As he did so Andre-Louis observed that his hand
was fine and white and that a jewel flashed from one of the
fingers. Then he caught his breath, and stiffened in every line
as he recognized the face revealed to him.

"Monsieur," that stern, proud man was saying, "I cannot take
advantage of your ignorance. If these ladies can persuade you to
save me, at least it is due to you that you shall know whom you
are saving."

He stood there by the table very erect and dignified, ready to
perish as he had lived - if perish he must - without fear and
without deception.

Andre-Louis came slowly forward until he reached the table on the
other side, and then at last the muscles of his set face relaxed,
and he laughed.

"You laugh?" said M. de La Tour dAzyr, frowning, offended.

"It is so damnably amusing," said Andre-Louis.

"You've an odd sense of humour, M. Moreau."

"Oh, admitted. The unexpected always moves me so. I have found
you many things in the course of our acquaintance. To-night you
are the one thing I never expected to find you: an honest man."

M. de La Tour d'Azyr quivered. But he attempted no reply.

"Because of that, monsieur, I am disposed to be clement. It is
probably a foolishness. But you have surprised me into it. I
give you three minutes, monsieur, in which to leave this house, and
to take your own measures for your safety. What afterwards happens
to you shall be no concern of mine.

"Ah, no, Andre! Listen... " Madame began in anguish.

"Pardon, madame. It is the utmost that I will do, and already I
am violating what I conceive to be my duty. If M. de La Tour d'Azyr
remains he not only ruins himself, but he imperils you. For unless
he departs at once, he goes with me to the headquarters of the
section, and the section will have his head on a pike inside the
hour. He is a notorious counter-revolutionary, a knight of the
dagger, one of those whom an exasperated populace is determined to
exterminate. Now, monsieur, you know what awaits you. Resolve
yourself and at once, for these ladies' sake."

"But you don't know, Andre-Louis!" Mme. de Plougastel's condition
was one of anguish indescribable. She came to him and clutched his
arm. "For the love of Heaven, Andre-Louis, be merciful with him!
You must!"

"But that is what I am being, madame - merciful; more merciful than
he deserves. And he knows it. Fate has meddled most oddly in our
concerns to bring us together to-night. Almost it is as if Fate
were forcing retribution at last upon him. Yet, for your sakes, I
take no advantage of it, provided that he does at once as I have
desired him."

And now from beyond the table the Marquis spoke icily, and as he
spoke his right hand stirred under the ample folds of his greatcoat.

"I am glad, M. Moreau, that you take that tone with me. You relieve
me of the last scruple. You spoke of Fate just now, and I must
agree with you that Fate has meddled oddly, though perhaps not to
the end that you discern. For years now you have chosen to stand
in my path and thwart me at every turn, holding over me a perpetual
menace. Persistently you have sought my life in various ways, first
indirectly and at last directly. Your intervention in my affairs
has ruined my highest hopes - more effectively, perhaps, than you
suppose. Throughout you have been my evil genius. And you are even
one of the agents of this climax of despair that has been reached
by me to-night."

"Wait! Listen!" Madame was panting. She flung away from
Andre-Louis, as if moved by some premonition of what was coming.
"Gervais! This is horrible!"

"Horrible, perhaps, but inevitable. Himself he has invited it. I
am a man in despair, the fugitive of a lost cause. That man holds
the keys of escape. And, besides, between him and me there is a
reckoning to be paid."

His hand came from beneath the coat at last, and it came armed with
a pistol.

Mme. de Plougastel screamed, and flung herself upon him. On her
knees now, she clung to his arm with all her strength and might.

Vainly he sought to shake himself free of that desperate clutch.

"Therese!" he cried. "Are you mad? Will you destroy me and
yourself? This creature has the safe-conducts that mean our
salvation. Himself, he is nothing."

>From the background Aline, a breathless, horror-stricken spectator
of that scene, spoke sharply, her quick mind pointing out the
line of checkmate.

"Burn the safe-conducts, Andre-Louis. Burn them at once - in the
candles there."

But Andre-Louis had taken advantage of that moment of M. de La Tour
d'Azyr's impotence to draw a pistol in his turn. "T think it will
be better to burn his brains instead," he said. "Stand away from
him, madame."

Far from obeying that imperious command, Mme. de Plougastel rose
to her feet to cover the Marquis with her body. But she still
clung to his arm, clung to it with unsuspected strength that
continued to prevent him from attempting to use the pistol.

"Andre! For God's sake, Andre!" she panted hoarsely over her
shoulder.

"Stand away, madame," he commanded her again, more sternly, "and
let this murderer take his due. He is jeopardizing all our lives,
and his own has been forfeit these years. Stand away!" He sprang
forward with intent now to fire at his enemy over her shoulder, and
Aline moved too late to hinder him.

"Andre! Andre!"

Panting, gasping, haggard of face, on the verge almost of hysteria,
the distracted Countess flung at last an effective, a terrible
barrier between the hatred of those men, each intent upon taking
the other's life.

"He is your father, Andre! Gervais, he is your son - our son! The
letter there... on the table... 0 my God!" And she slipped
nervelessly to the ground, and crouched there sobbing at the feet
of M. de La Tour d'Azyr.





Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
Category:
General Fiction

Romance Literature
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