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CHAPTER IV

THE HERITAGE


It was M. de Vilmorin's desire that the matter should be settled
out of hand. In this he was at once objective and subjective. A
prey to emotions sadly at conflict with his priestly vocation, he
was above all in haste to have done, so that he might resume a frame
of mind more proper to it. Also he feared himself a little; by
which I mean that his honour feared his nature. The circumstances
of his education, and the goal that for some years now he had kept
in view, had robbed him of much of that spirited brutality that is
the birthright of the male. He had grown timid and gentle as a
woman. Aware of it, he feared that once the heat of his passion
was spent he might betray a dishonouring weakness, in the ordeal.

M. le Marquis, on his side, was no less eager for an immediate
settlement; and since they had M. de Chabrillane to act for his
cousin, and Andre-Louis to serve as witness for M. de Vilmorin,
there was nothing to delay them.

And so, within a few minutes, all arrangements were concluded, and
you behold that sinisterly intentioned little group of four
assembled in the afternoon sunshine on the bowling-green behind the
inn. They were entirely private, screened more or less from the
windows of the house by a ramage of trees, which, if leafless now,
was at least dense enough to provide an effective lattice.

There were no formalities over measurements of blades or selection
of ground. M. le Marquis removed his sword-belt and scabbard, but
declined not considering it worth while for the sake of so negligible
an opponent - to divest himself either of his shoes or his coat.
Tall, lithe, and athletic, he stood to face the no less tall, but
very delicate and frail, M. de Vilmorin. The latter also disdained
to make any of the usual preparations. Since he recognized that it
could avail him nothing to strip, he came on guard fully dressed,
two hectic spots above the cheek-bones burning on his otherwise grey
face.

M. de Chabrillane, leaning upon a cane - for he had relinquished
his sword to M. de Vilmorin - looked on with quiet interest. Facing
him on the other side of the combatants stood Andre-Louis, the palest
of the four, staring from fevered eyes, twisting and untwisting
clammy hands.

His every instinct was to fling himself between the antagonists, to
protest against and frustrate this meeting. That sane impulse was
curbed, however, by the consciousness of its futility. To calm him,
he clung to the conviction that the issue could not really be very
serious. If the obligations of Philippe's honour compelled him to
cross swords with the man he had struck, M. de La Tour d'Azyr's
birth compelled him no less to do no serious hurt to the unfledged
lad he had so grievously provoked. M. le Marquis, after all, was
a man of honour. He could intend no more than to administer a
lesson; sharp, perhaps, but one by which his opponent must live to
profit. Andre-Louis clung obstinately to that for comfort.

Steel beat on steel, and the men engaged. The Marquis presented to
his opponent the narrow edge of his upright body, his knees
slightly flexed and converted into living springs, whilst M. de
Vilmorin stood squarely, a full target, his knees wooden. Honour
and the spirit of fair play alike cried out against such a match.

The encounter was very short, of course. In youth, Philippe had
received the tutoring in sword-play that was given to every boy
born into his station of life. And so he knew at least the
rudiments of what was now expected of him. But what could rudiments
avail him here? Three disengages completed the exchanges, and then
without any haste the Marquis slid his right foot along the moist
turf, his long, graceful body extending itself in a lunge that went
under M. de Vilmorin's clumsy guard, and with the utmost deliberation
he drove his blade through the young man's vitals.

Andre-Louis sprang forward just in time to catch his friend's body
under the armpits as it sank. Then, his own legs bending beneath
the weight of it, he went down with his burden until he was kneeling
on the damp turf. Philippe's limp head lay against Andre-Louis'
left shoulder; Philippe's relaxed arms trailed at his sides; the
blood welled and bubbled from the ghastly wound to saturate the poor
lad's garments.

With white face and twitching lips, Andre-Louis looked up at M. de
La Tour d'Azyr, who stood surveying his work with a countenance of
grave but remorseless interest.

"You have killed him!" cried Andre-Louis.

"Of course."

The Marquis ran a lace handkerchief along his blade to wipe it. As
he let the dainty fabric fall, he explained himself. "He had, as
I told him, a too dangerous gift of eloquence."

And he turned away, leaving completest understanding with
Andre-Louis. Still supporting the limp, draining body, the young
man called to him.

"Come back, you cowardly murderer, and make yourself quite safe by
killing me too!"

The Marquis half turned, his face dark with anger. Then M. de
Chabrillane set a restraining hand upon his arm. Although a party
throughout to the deed, the Chevalier was a little appalled now
that it was done. He had not the high stomach of M. de La Tour
d'Azyr, and he was a good deal younger.

"Come away," he said. "The lad is raving. They were friends."

"You heard what he said?" quoth the Marquis.

"Nor can he, or you, or any man deny it," flung back Andre-Louis.
"Yourself, monsieur, you made confession when you gave me now the
reason why you killed him. You did it because you feared him."

"If that were true - what, then?" asked the great gentleman.

"Do you ask? Do you understand of life and humanity nothing but
how to wear a coat and dress your hair - oh, yes, and to handle
weapons against boys and priests? Have you no mind to think, no
soul into which you can turn its vision? Must you be told that it
is a coward's part to kill the thing he fears, and doubly a coward's
part to kill in this way? Had you stabbed him in the back with a
knife, you would have shown the courage of your vileness. It would
have been a vileness undisguised. But you feared the consequences
of that, powerful as you are; and so you shelter your cowardice
under the pretext of a duel."

The Marquis shook off his cousin's hand, and took a step forward,
holding now his sword like a whip. But again the Chevalier caught
and held him.

"No, no, Gervais! Let be, in God's name!"

"Let him come, monsieur," raved Andre-Louis, his voice thick and
concentrated. "Let him complete his coward's work on me, and thus
make himself safe from a coward's wages."

M. de Chabrillane let his cousin go. He came white to the lips,
his eyes glaring at the lad who so recklessly insulted him. And
then he checked. It may be that he remembered suddenly the
relationship in which this young man was popularly believed to
stand to the Seigneur de Gavrillac, and the well-known affection
in which the Seigneur held him. And so he may have realized that
if he pushed this matter further, he might find himself upon the
horns of a dilemma. He would be confronted with the alternatives
of shedding more blood, and so embroiling himself with the Lord of
Gavrillac at a time when that gentleman's friendship was of the
first importance to him, or else of withdrawing with such hurt to
his dignity as must impair his authority in the countryside
hereafter.

Be it so or otherwise, the fact remains that he stopped short;
then, with an incoherent ejaculation, between anger and contempt,
he tossed his arms, turned on his heel and strode off quickly with
his cousin.

When the landlord and his people came, they found Andre-Louis, his
arms about the body of his dead friend, murmuring passionately into
the deaf ear that rested almost against his lips:

"Philippe! Speak to me, Philippe! Philippe... Don't you hear me?
0 God of Heaven! Philippe!"

At a glance they saw that here neither priest nor doctor could avail.
The cheek that lay against Andre-Louis's was leaden-hued, the
half-open eyes were glazed, and there was a little froth of blood
upon the vacuously parted lips.

Half blinded by tears Andre-Louis stumbled after them when they bore
the body into the inn. Upstairs in the little room to which they
conveyed it, he knelt by the bed, and holding the dead man's hand
in both his own, he swore to him out of his impotent rage that M. de
La Tour d'Azyr should pay a bitter price for this.

"It was your eloquence he feared, Philippe," he said. Then if I can
get no justice for this deed, at least it shall be fruitless to him.
The thing he feared in you, he shall fear in me. He feared that men
might be swayed by your eloquence to the undoing of such things as
himself. Men shall be swayed by it still. For your eloquence and
your arguments shall be my heritage from you. I will make them my
own. It matters nothing that I do not believe in your gospel of
freedom. I know it - every word of it; that is all that matters to
our purpose, yours and mine. If all else fails, your thoughts shall
find expression in my living tongue. Thus at least we shall have
frustrated his vile aim to still the voice he feared. It shall
profit him nothing to have your blood upon his soul. That voice in
you would never half so relentlessly have hounded him and his as it
shall in me - if all else fails."

It was an exulting thought. It calmed him; it soothed his grief,
and he began very softly to pray. And then his heart trembled as
he considered that Philippe, a man of peace, almost a priest, an
apostle of Christianity, had gone to his Maker with the sin of anger
on his soul. It was horrible. Yet God would see the righteousness
of that anger. And in no case - be man's interpretation of Divinity
what it might - could that one sin outweigh the loving good that
Philippe had ever practised, the noble purity of his great heart.
God after all, reflected Andre-Louis, was not a grand-seigneur.

M. de Kercadiou stared at him blankly out of his pale





Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
Category:
General Fiction

Romance Literature
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