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CHAPTER XV

SAFE-CONDUCT


Across the body of that convulsively sobbing woman, the mother of
one and the mistress of the other, the eyes of those mortal enemies
met, invested with a startled, appalled interest that admitted of
no words.

Beyond the table, as if turned to stone by this culminating horror
of revelation, stood Aline.

M. de La Tour d'Azyr was the first to stir. Into his bewildered
mind came the memory of something that Mme. de Plougastel had said
of a letter that was on the table. He came forward, unhindered.
The announcement made, Mme. de Plougastel no longer feared the
sequel, and so she let him go. He walked unsteadily past this
new-found son of his, and took up the sheet that lay beside the
candlebranch. A long moment he stood reading it, none heeding him.
Aline's eyes were all on Andre-Louis, full of wonder and
commiseration, whilst Andre-Louis was staring down, in stupefied
fascination, at his mother.

M. de La Tour d'Azyr read the letter slowly through. Then very
quietly he replaced it. His next concern, being the product of
an artificial age sternly schooled in the suppression of emotion,
was to compose himself. Then he stepped back to Mme. de Plougastel's
side and stooped to raise her.

"Therese," he said.

Obeying, by instinct, the implied command, she made an effort to
rise and to control herself in her turn. The Marquis half conducted,
half carried her to the armchair by the table.

Andre-Louis looked on. Still numbed and bewildered, he made no
attempt to assist. He saw as in a dream the Marquis bending over
Mme. de Plougastel. As in a dream he heard him ask:

"How long have you known this, Therese?"

"I... I have always known it... always. I confided him to Kercadiou.
I saw him once as a child... Oh, but what of that?"

"Why was I never told? Why did you deceive me? Why did you tell
me that this child had died a few days after birth? Why, Therese?
Why?"

"I was afraid. I... I thought it better so - that nobody, nobody,
not even you, should know. And nobody has known save Quintin until
last night, when to induce him to come here and save me he was
forced to tell him."

"But I, Therese?" the Marquis insisted. "It was my right to know."

"Your right? What could you have done? Acknowledge him? And then?
Ha!" It was a queer, desperate note of laughter. "There was
Plougastel; there was my family. And there was you... you, yourself,
who had ceased to care, in whom the fear of discovery had stifled
love. Why should I have told you, then? Why? I should not have
told you now had there been any other way to... to save you both.
Once before I suffered just such dreadful apprehensions when you
and he fought in the Bois. I was on my way to prevent it when you
met me. I would have divulged the truth, as a last resource, to
avert that horror. But mercifully God spared me the necessity then."

It had not occurred to any of them to doubt her statement, incredible
though it might seem. Had any done so her present words must have
resolved all doubt, explaining as they did much that to each of her
listeners had been obscure until this moment.

M. de La Tour d'Azyr, overcome; reeled away to a chair and sat down
heavily. Losing command of himself for a moment, he took his
haggard face in his hands.

Through the windows open to the garden came from the distance the
faint throbbing of a drum to remind them of what was happening
around them. But the sound went unheeded. To each it must have
seemed that here they were face to face with a horror greater than
any that might be tormenting Paris. At last Andre-Louis began to
speak, his voice level and unutterably cold.

"M. de La Tour d'Azyr," he said, "I trust that you'll agree that
this disclosure, which can hardly be more distasteful and horrible
to you than it is to me, alters nothing, - since it effaces nothing
of all that lies between us. Or, if it alters anything, it is
merely to add something to that score. And yet... Oh, but what can
it avail to talk! Here, monsieur, take this safe-conduct which is
made out for Mme. de Plougastel's footman, and with it make your
escape as best you can. In return I will beg of you the favour
never to allow me to see you or hear of you again."

"Andre!" His mother swung upon him with that cry. And yet again
that question. "Have you no heart? What has he ever done to you
that you should nurse so bitter a hatred of him?"

"You shall hear, madame. Once, two years ago in this very room I
told you of a man who had brutally killed my dearest friend and
debauched the girl I was to have married. M. de La Tour d'Azyr is
that man."

A moan was her only answer. She covered her face with her hands.

The Marquis rose slowly to his feet again. He came slowly forward,
his smouldering eyes scanning his son's face.

"You are hard," he said grimly. "But I recognize the hardness.
It derives from the blood you bear."

"Spare me that," said Andre-Louis.

The Marquis inclined his head. "I will not mention it again. But
I desire that you should at least understand me, and you too, Therese.
You accuse me, sir, of murdering your dearest friend. I will admit
that the means employed were perhaps unworthy. But what other means
were at my command to meet an urgency that every day since then
proves to have existed? M. de Vilmorin was a revolutionary, a man
of new ideas that should overthrow society and rebuild it more akin
to the desires of such as himself. I belonged to the order that
quite as justifiably desired society to remain as it was. Not only
was it better so for me and mine, but I also contend, and you have
yet to prove me wrong, that it is better so for all the world; that,
indeed, no other conceivable society is possible. Every human
society must of necessity be composed of several strata. You may
disturb it temporarily into an amorphous whole by a revolution such
as this; but only temporarily. Soon out of the chaos which is all
that you and your kind can ever produce, order must be restored or
life will perish; and with the restoration of order comes the
restoration of the various strata necessary to organized society.
Those that were yesterday at the top may in the new order of things
find themselves dispossessed without any benefit to the whole. That
change I resisted. The spirit of it I fought with whatever weapons
were available, whenever and wherever I encountered it. M. de
Vilmorin was an incendiary of the worst type, a man of eloquence
full of false ideals that misled poor ignorant men into believing
that the change proposed could make the world a better place for
them. You are an intelligent man, and I defy you to answer me from
your heart and conscience that such a thing was true or possible.
You know that it is untrue; you know that it is a pernicious
doctrine; and what made it worse on the lips of M. de Vilmorin was
that he was sincere and eloquent. His voice was a danger that must
be removed - silenced. So much was necessary in self-defence. In
self-defence I did it. I had no grudge against M. de Vilmorin. He
was a man of my own class; a gentleman of pleasant ways, amiable,
estimable, and able.

"You conceive me slaying him for the very lust of slaying, like
some beast of the jungle flinging itself upon its natural prey.
That has been your error from the first. I did what I did with the
very heaviest heart - oh, spare me your sneer! - I do not lie, I
have never lied. And I swear to you here and now, by my every hope
of Heaven, that what I say is true. I loathed the thing I did.
Yet for my own sake and the sake of my order I must do it. Ask
yourself whether M. de Vilmorin would have hesitated for a moment
if by procuring my death he could have brought the Utopia of his
dreams a moment nearer realization.

"After that. You determined that the sweetest vengeance would be
to frustrate my ends by reviving in yourself the voice that I had
silenced, by yourself carrying forward the fantastic apostleship
of equality that was M. de Vilmorin's. You lacked the vision that
would have shown you that God did not create men equals. Well,
you are in case to-night to judge which of us was right, which
rong. You see what is happening here in Paris. You see the foul
spectre of Anarchy stalking through a land fallen into confusion.
Probably you have enough imagination to conceive something of what
must follow. And do you deceive yourself that out of this filth
and ruin there will rise up an ideal form of society? Don't you
understand that society must re-order itself presently out of all
this?

"But why say more? I must have said enough to make you understand
the only thing that really matters - that I killed M. de Vilmorin
as a matter of duty to my order. And the truth - which though it
may offend you should also convince you - is that to-night I can
ook back on the deed with equanimity, without a single regret, apart
from what lies between you and me.

"When, kneeling beside the body of your friend that day at
Gavrillac, you insulted and provoked me, had I been the tiger you
conceived me I must have killed you too. I am, as you may know, a
man of quick passions. Yet I curbed the natural anger you aroused
in me, because I could forgive an affront to myself where I could
not overlook a calculated attack upon my order."

He paused a moment. Andre-Louis stood rigid listening and wondering.
So, too, the others. Then M. le Marquis resumed, on a note of less
assurance. "In the matter of Mlle. Binet I was unfortunate. I
wronged you through inadvertence. I had no knowledge of the
relations between you."

Andre-Louis interrupted him 'sharply at last with a question: "Would
it have made a difference if you had?"

"No," he was answered frankly. "I have the faults of my kind. I
cannot pretend that any such scruple as you suggest would have
weighed with me. But can you - if you are capable of any detached
judgment - blame me very much for that?"

"All things considered, monsieur, I am rapidly being forced to the
conclusion that it is impossible to blame any man for anything in
this world; that we are all of us the sport of destiny. Consider,
monsieur, this gathering - this family gathering - here to-night,
whilst out there... 0 my God, let us make an end! Let us go our
ways and write 'finis' to this horrible chapter of our lives."

M. le La Tour considered him gravely, sadly, in silence for a moment.

"Perhaps it is best," he said, at length, in a small voice. He
turned to Mme. de Plougastel. "If a wrong I have to admit in my
life, a wrong that I must bitterly regret, it is the wrong that I
have done to you, my dear... "

"Not now, Gervais! Not now!" she faltered, interrupting him.

"Now - for the first and the last time. I am going. It is not
likely that we shall ever meet again - that I shall ever see any
of you again - you who should have been the nearest and dearest to
me. We are all, he says, the sport of destiny. Ah, but not quite.
Destiny is an intelligent force, moving with purpose. In life we
pay for the evil that in life we do. That is the lesson that I
have learnt to-night. By an act of betrayal I begot unknown to me
a son who, whilst as ignorant as myself of our relationship, has
come to be the evil genius of my life, to cross and thwart me, and
finally to help to pull me down in ruin. It is just - poetically
just. My full and resigned acceptance of that fact is the only
atonement I can offer you."

He stooped and took one of madame's hands that lay limply in her lap.

"Good-bye, Therese!" His voice broke. He had reached the end of
his iron self-control.

She rose and clung to him a moment, unashamed before them. The
ashes of that dead romance had been deeply stirred this night, and
deep down some lingering embers had been found that glowed brightly
now before their final extinction. Yet she made no attempt to
detain him. She understood that their son had pointed out the only
wise, the only possible course, and was thankful that M. de La Tour
d'Azyr accepted it.

"God keep you, Gervais," she murmured. "You will take the
safe-conduct, and... and you will let me know when you are safe?"

He held her face between his hands an instant; then very gently
kissed her and put her from him. Standing erect, and outwardly calm
again, he looked across at Andre-Louis who was proffering him a
sheet of paper.

"It is the safe-conduct. Take it, monsieur. It is my first and
last gift to you, and certainly the last gift I should ever have
thought of making you - the gift of life. In a sense it makes us
quits. The irony, sir, is not mine, but Fate's. Take it, monsieur,
and go in peace."

M. de La Tour d'Azyr took it. His eyes looked hungrily into the
lean face confronting him, so sternly set. He thrust the paper
into his bosom, and then abruptly, convulsively, held out his hand.
His son's eyes asked a question.

"Let there be peace between us, in God's name," said the Marquis
thickly.

Pity stirred at last in Andre-Louis. Some of the sternness left
his face. He sighed. "Good-bye, monsieur," he said.

"You are hard," his father told him, speaking wistfully. "But
perhaps you are in the right so to be. In other circumstances I
should have been proud to have owned you as my son. As it is... "
He broke off abruptly, and as abruptly added, "Good-bye."

He loosed his son's hand and stepped back. They bowed formally to
each other. And then M. de La Tour d'Azyr bowed to Mlle. de
Kercadiou in utter silence, a bow that contained something of
utter renunciation, of finality.

That done he turned and walked stiffly out of the room, and so
out of all their lives. Months later they were to hear if him
in the service of the Emperor of Austria.





Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
Category:
General Fiction

Romance Literature
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