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CHAPTER III

THE ELOQUENCE OF M. DE VILMORIN


As they walked down the hill together, it was now M. de Vilmorin
who was silent and preoccupied, Andre-Louis who was talkative. He
had chosen Woman as a subject for his present discourse. He claimed
- quite unjustifiably - to have discovered Woman that morning; and
the things he had to say of the sex were unflattering, and
occasionally almost gross. M. de Vilmorin, having ascertained the
subject, did not listen. Singular though it may seem in a young
French abbe of his day, M. de Vilmorin was not interested in Woman.
Poor Philippe was in several ways exceptional. Opposite the Breton
arme - the inn and posting-house at the entrance of the village of
Gavrillac - M. de Vilmorin interrupted his companion just as he was
soaring to the dizziest heights of caustic invective, and
Andre-Louis, restored thereby to actualities, observed the carriage
of M. de La Tour d'Azyr standing before the door of the hostelry.

"I don't believe you've been listening to me," said he.

"Had you been less interested in what you were saying, you might
have observed it sooner and spared your breath. The fact is, you
disappoint me, Andre. You seem to have forgotten what we went for.
I have an appointment here with M. le Marquis. He desires to hear
me further in the matter. Up there at Gavrillac I could accomplish
nothing. The time was ill-chosen as it happened. But I have hopes
of M. le Marquis."

"Hopes of what?"

"That he will make what reparation lies in his power. Provide for
the widow and the orphans. Why else should he desire to hear me
further?"

"Unusual condescension," said Andre-Louis, and quoted "Timeo Danaos
et dona ferentes."

"Why?" asked Philippe.

"Let us go and discover - unless you consider that I shall be in
the way."

Into a room on the right, rendered private to M. le Marquis for so
long as he should elect to honour it, the young men were ushered by
the host. A fire of logs was burning brightly at the room's far
end, and by this sat now M. de La Tour d'Azyr and his cousin, the
Chevalier de Chabrillane. Both rose as M. de Vilmorin came in.
Andre-Louis following, paused to close the door.

"You oblige me by your prompt courtesy, M. de Vilmorin," said the
Marquis, but in a tone so cold as to belie the politeness of his
words. "A chair, I beg. Ah, Moreau?" The note was frigidly
interrogative. "He accompanies you, monsieur?" he asked.

"If you please, M. le Marquis."

"Why not? Find yourself a seat, Moreau." He spoke over his shoulder
as to a lackey.

"It is good of you, monsieur," said Philippe, "to have offered me
this opportunity of continuing the subject that took me so
fruitlessly, as it happens, to Gavrillac."

The Marquis crossed his legs, and held one of his fine hands to the
blaze. He replied, without troubling to turn to the young man, who
was slightly behind him.

"The goodness of my request we will leave out of question for the
moment," said he, darkly, and M. de Chabrillane laughed. Andre-Louis
thought him easily moved to mirth, and almost envied him the faculty.

"But I am grateful," Philippe insisted, "that you should condescend
to hear me plead their cause.

The Marquis stared at him over his shoulder. "Whose cause?" quoth he.

"Why, the cause of the widow and orphans of this unfortunate Mabey."

The Marquis looked from Vilmorin to the Chevalier, and again the
Chevalier laughed, slapping his leg this time.

"I think," said M. de La Tour d'Azyr, slowly, "that we are at
cross-purposes. I asked you to come here because the Chateau de
Gavrillac was hardly a suitable place in which to carry our
discussion further, and because I hesitated to incommode you by
suggesting that you should come all the way to Azyr. But my object
is connected with certain expressions that you let fall up there.
It is on the subject of those expressions, monsieur, that I would
hear you further - if you will honour me."

Andre-Louis began to apprehend that there was something sinister in
the air. He was a man of quick intuitions, quicker far than those
of M. de Vilmorin, who evinced no more than a mild surprise.

"I am at a loss, monsieur," said he. "To what expressions does
monsieur allude?"

"It seems, monsieur, that I must refresh your memory." The Marquis
crossed his legs, and swung sideways on his chair, so that at last
he directly faced M. de Vilmorin. "You spoke, monsieur - and however
mistaken you may have been, you spoke very eloquently, too eloquently
almost, it seemed to me - of the infamy of such a deed as the act of
summary justice upon this thieving fellow Mabey, or whatever his name
may be. Infamy was the precise word you used. You did not retract
that word when I had the honour to inform you that it was by my orders
that my gamekeeper Benet proceeded as he did."

"If," said M. de Vilmorin, "the deed was infamous, its infamy is not
modified by the rank, however exalted, of the person responsible.
Rather is it aggravated."

"Ah!" said M. le Marquis, and drew a gold snuffbox from his pocket.
"You say, 'if the deed was infamous,' monsieur. Am I to understand
that you are no longer as convinced as you appeared to be of its
infamy?"

M. de Vilmorin's fine face wore a look of perplexity. He did not
understand the drift of this.

"It occurs to me, M. le Marquis, in view of your readiness to assume
responsibility, that you must believe justification for the deed
which is not apparent to myself."

"That is better. That is distinctly better." The Marquis took
snuff delicately, dusting the fragments from the fine lace at his
throat. "You realize that with an imperfect understanding of these
matters, not being yourself a landowner, you may have rushed to
unjustifiable conclusions. That is indeed the case. May it be a
warning to you, monsieur. When I tell you that for months past I
have been annoyed by similar depredations, you will perhaps
understand that it had become necessary to employ a deterrent
sufficiently strong to put an end to them. Now that the risk is
known, I do not think there will be any more prowling in my coverts.
And there is more in it than that, M. de Vilmorin. It is not the
poaching that annoys me so much as the contempt for my absolute and
inviolable rights. There is, monsieur, as you cannot fail to have
observed, an evil spirit of insubordination in the air, and there
is one only way in which to meet it. To tolerate it, in however
slight a degree, to show leniency, however leniently disposed, would
entail having recourse to still harsher measures to-morrow. You
understand me, I am sure, and you will also, I am sure, appreciate
the condescension of what amounts to an explanation from me where I
cannot admit that any explanations were due. If anything in what I
have said is still obscure to you, I refer you to the game laws, which
your lawyer friend there will expound for you at need."

With that the gentleman swung round again to face the fire. It
appeared to convey the intimation that the interview was at an end.
And yet this was not by any means the intimation that it conveyed
to the watchful, puzzled, vaguely uneasy Andre-Louis. It was,
thought he, a very curious, a very suspicious oration. It affected
to explain, with a politeness of terms and a calculated insolence
of tone; whilst in fact it could only serve to stimulate and goad
a man of M. de Vilmorin's opinions. And that is precisely what it
did. He rose.

"Are there in the world no laws but game laws?" he demanded, angrily.
"Have you never by any chance heard of the laws of humanity?"

The Marquis sighed wearily. "What have I to do with the laws of
humanity?" he wondered.

M. de Vilmorin looked at him a moment in speechless amazement.

"Nothing, M. le Marquis. That is - alas! - too obvious. I hope
you will remember it in the hour when you may wish to appeal to
those laws which you now deride."

M. de La Tour d'Azyr threw back his head sharply, his high-bred face
imperious.

"Now what precisely shall that mean? It is not the first time
to-day that you have made use of dark sayings that I could almost
believe to veil the presumption of a threat."

"Not a threat, M. le Marquis - a warning. A warning that such deeds
as these against God's creatures... Oh, you may sneer, monsieur,
but they are God's creatures, even as you or I - neither more nor
less, deeply though the reflection may wound your pride, In His
eyes... "

"Of your charity, spare me a sermon, M. l'abbe!"

"You mock, monsieur. You laugh. Will you laugh, I wonder, when God
presents His reckoning to you for the blood and plunder with which
your hands are full?"

"Monsieur!" The word, sharp as the crack of a whip, was from M. de
Chabrillane, who bounded to his feet. But instantly the Marquis
repressed him.

"Sit down, Chevalier. You are interrupting M. l'abbe, and I should
like to hear him further. He interests me profoundly."

In the background Andre-Louis, too, had risen, brought to his feet by
alarm, by the evil that he saw written on the handsome face of M. de
La Tour d'Azyr. He approached, and touched his friend upon the arm.

"Better be going, Philippe," said he.

But M. de Vilmorin, caught in the relentless grip of passions long
repressed, was being hurried by them recklessly along.

"Oh, monsieur," said he, "consider what you are and what you will
be. Consider how you and your kind live by abuses, and consider the
harvest that abuses must ultimately bring."

"Revolutionist!" said M. le Marquis, contemptuously. "You have the
effrontery to stand before my face and offer me this stinking cant
of your modern so-called intellectuals!"

"Is it cant, monsieur? Do you think - do you believe in your soul
- that it is cant? Is it cant that the feudal grip is on all
things that live, crushing them like grapes in the press, to its
own profit? Does it not exercise its rights upon the waters of the
river, the fire that bakes the poor man's bread of grass and barley,
on the wind that turns the mill? The peasant cannot take a step
upon the road, cross a crazy bridge over a river, buy an ell of
cloth in the village market, without meeting feudal rapacity,
without being taxed in feudal dues. Is not that enough, M. le
Marquis? Must you also demand his wretched life in payment for the
least infringement of your sacred privileges, careless of what
widows or orphans you dedicate to woe? Will naught content you but
that your shadow must lie like a curse upon the land? And do you
think in your pride that France, this Job among the nations, will
suffer it forever?"

He paused as if for a reply. But none came. The Marquis considered
him, strangely silent, a half smile of disdain at the corners of his
lips, an ominous hardness in his eyes.

Again Andre-Louis tugged at his friend's sleeve.

"Philippe."

Philippe shook him off, and plunged on, fanatically.

"Do you see nothing of the gathering clouds that herald the coming
of the storm? You imagine, perhaps, that these States General
summoned by M. Necker, and promised for next year, are to do nothing
but devise fresh means of extortion to liquidate the bankruptcy of
the State? You delude yourselves, as you shall find. The Third
Estate, which you despise, will prove itself the preponderating
force, and it will find a way to make an end of this canker of
privilege that is devouring the vitals of this unfortunate country."

M. le Marquis shifted in his chair, and spoke at last.

"You have, monsieur," said he, "a very dangerous gift of eloquence.
And it is of yourself rather than of your subject. For after all,
what do you offer me? A rechauffe of the dishes served to
out-at-elbow enthusiasts in the provincial literary chambers,
compounded of the effusions of your Voltaires and Jean-Jacques and
such dirty-fingered scribblers. You have not among all your
philosophers one with the wit to understand that we are an order
consecrated by antiquity, that for our rights and privileges we have
behind us the authority of centuries."

"Humanity, monsieur," Philippe replied, "is more ancient than
nobility. Human rights are contemporary with man."

The Marquis laughed and shrugged.

"That is the answer I might have expected. It has the right note
of cant that distinguishes the philosophers." And then M. de
Chabrillane spoke.

"You go a long way round," he criticized his cousin, on a note of
impatience.

"But I am getting there," he was answered. "I desired to make quite
certain first."

"Faith, you should have no doubt by now."

"I have none." The Marquis rose, and turned again to M. de Vilmorin,
who had understood nothing of that brief exchange. "M. l'abbe,"
said he once more, "you have a very dangerous gift of eloquence. I
can conceive of men being swayed by it. Had you been born a
gentleman, you would not so easily have acquired these false views
that you express."

M. de Vilmorin stared blankly, uncomprehending.

"Had I been born a gentleman, do you say?" quoth he, in a slow,
bewildered voice. "But I was born a gentleman. My race is as old,
my blood as good as yours, monsieur."

>From M. le Marquis there was a slight play of eyebrows, a vague,
indulgent smile. His dark, liquid eyes looked squarely into the
face of M. de Vilmorin.

"You have been deceived in that, I fear."

"Deceived?"

"Your sentiments betray the indiscretion of which madame your mother
must have been guilty."

The brutally affronting words were sped beyond recall, and the lips
that had uttered them, coldly, as if they had been the merest
commonplace, remained calm and faintly sneering.

A dead silence followed. Andre-Louis' wits were numbed. He stood
aghast, all thought suspended in him, what time M. de Vilmorin's
eyes continued fixed upon M. de La Tour d'Azyr's, as if searching
there for a meaning that eluded him. Quite suddenly he understood
the vile affront. The blood leapt to his face, fire blazed in his
gentle eyes. A convulsive quiver shook him. Then, with an
inarticulate cry, he leaned forward, and with his open hand struck
M. le Marquis full and hard upon his sneering face.

In a flash M. de Chabrillane was on his feet, between the two men.

Too late Andre-Louis had seen the trap. La Tour d'Azyr's words
were but as a move in a game of chess, calculated to exasperate his
opponent into some such counter-move as this - a counter-move that
left him entirely at the other's mercy.

M. le Marquis looked on, very white save where M. de Vilmorin's
finger-prints began slowly to colour his face; but he said nothing
more. Instead, it was M. de Chabrillane who now did the talking,
taking up his preconcerted part in this vile game.

"You realize, monsieur, what you have done," said he, coldly, to
Philippe. "And you realize, of course, what must inevitably follow."

M. de Vilmorin had realized nothing. The poor young man had acted
upon impulse, upon the instinct of decency and honour, never
counting the consequences. But he realized them now at the sinister
invitation of M. de Chabrillane, and if he desired to avoid these
consequences, it was out of respect for his priestly vocation, which
strictly forbade such adjustments of disputes as M. de Chabrillane
was clearly thrusting upon him.

He drew back. "Let one affront wipe out the other," said he, in a
dull voice. "The balance is still in M. le Marquis's favour. Let
that content him."

"Impossible." The Chevalier's lips came together tightly.
Thereafter he was suavity itself, but very firm. "A blow has been
struck, monsieur. I think I am correct in saying that such a thing
has never happened before to M. le Marquis in all his life. If you
felt yourself affronted, you had but to ask the satisfaction due
from one gentleman to another. Your action would seem to confirm
the assumption that you found so offensive. But it does not on that
account render you immune from the consequences."

It was, you see, M. de Chabrillane's part to heap coals upon this
fire, to make quite sure that their victim should not escape them.

"I desire no immunity," flashed back the young seminarist, stung by
this fresh goad. After all, he was nobly born, and the traditions
of his class were strong upon him - stronger far than the seminarist
schooling in humility. He owed it to himself, to his honour, to be
killed rather than avoid the consequences of the thing he had done.

"But he does not wear a sword, messieurs!" cried Andre Louis, aghast.

"That is easily amended. He may have the loan of mine."

"I mean, messieurs," Andre-Louis insisted, between fear for his
friend and indignation, "that it is not his habit to wear a sword,
that he has never worn one, that he is untutored in its uses. He
is a seminarist - a postulant for holy orders, already half a priest,
and so forbidden from such an engagement as you propose."

"All that he should have remembered before he struck a blow," said
M. de Chabrillane, politely.

"The blow was deliberately provoked," raged Andre-Louis. Then he
recovered himself, though the other's haughty stare had no part in
that recovery. "0 my God, I talk in vain! How is one to argue
against a purpose formed! Come away, Philippe. Don't you see the
trap... "

M. de Vilmorin cut him short, and flung him off. "Be quiet, Andre.
M. le Marquis is entirely in the right."

"M. le Marquis is in the right?" Andre-Louis let his arms fall
helplessly. This man he loved above all other living men was caught
in the snare of the world's insanity. He was baring his breast to
the knife for the sake of a vague, distorted sense of the honour due
to himself. It was not that he did not see the trap. It was that
his honour compelled him to disdain consideration of it. To
Andre-Louis in that moment he seemed a singularly tragic figure.
Noble, perhaps, but very pitiful.





Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
Category:
General Fiction

Romance Literature
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