The sleepy village of Gavrillac, a half-league removed from the main road to Rennes, and therefore undisturbed by the world's traffic, lay in a curve of the River Meu, at the foot, and straggling halfway up the slope, of the shallow hill that was crowned by the squat manor. By the time Gavrillac had paid tribute to its seigneur—partly in money and partly in service—tithes to the Church, and imposts to the King, it was hard put to it to keep body and soul together with what remained. Yet, hard as conditions were in Gavrillac, they were not so hard as in many other parts of France, not half so hard, for instance, as with the wretched feudatories of the great Lord of La Tour d'Azyr, whose vast possessions were at one point separated from this little village by the waters of the Meu.
The Chateau de Gavrillac owed such seigneurial airs as might be claimed for it to its dominant position above the village rather than to any feature of its own. Built of granite, like all the rest of Gavrillac, though mellowed by some three centuries of existence, it was a squat, flat-fronted edifice of two stories, each lighted by four windows with external wooden shutters, and flanked at either end by two square towers or pavilions under extinguisher roofs. Standing well back in a garden, denuded now, but very pleasant in summer, and immediately fronted by a fine sweep of balustraded terrace, it looked, what indeed it was, and always had been, the residence of unpretentious folk who found more interest in husbandry than in adventure.
Quintin de Kercadiou, Lord of Gavrillac—Seigneur de Gavrillac was all the vague title that he bore, as his forefathers had borne before him, derived no man knew whence or how—confirmed the impression that his house conveyed. Rude as the granite itself, he had never sought the experience of courts, had not even taken service in the armies of his King. He left it to his younger brother, Etienne, to represent the family in those exalted spheres. His own interests from earliest years had been centred in his woods and pastures. He hunted, and he cultivated his acres, and superficially he appeared to be little better than any of his rustic metayers. He kept no state, or at least no state commensurate with his position or with the tastes of his niece Aline de Kercadiou. Aline, having spent some two years in the court atmosphere of Versailles under the aegis of her uncle Etienne, had ideas very different from those of her uncle Quintin of what was befitting seigneurial dignity. But though this only child of a third Kercadiou had exercised, ever since she was left an orphan at the early age of four, a tyrannical rule over the Lord of Gavrillac, who had been father and mother to her, she had never yet succeeded in beating down his stubbornness on that score. She did not yet despair—persistence being a dominant note in her character—although she had been assiduously and fruitlessly at work since her return from the great world of Versailles some three months ago.
She was walking on the terrace when Andre-Louis and M. de Vilmorin arrived. Her slight body was wrapped against the chill air in a white pelisse; her head was encased in a close-fitting bonnet, edged with white fur. It was caught tight in a knot of pale-blue ribbon on the right of her chin; on the left a long ringlet of corn-coloured hair had been permitted to escape. The keen air had whipped so much of her cheeks as was presented to it, and seemed to have added sparkle to eyes that were of darkest blue.
Andre-Louis and M. de Vilmorin had been known to her from childhood. The three had been playmates once, and Andre-Louis—in view of his spiritual relationship with her uncle—she called her cousin. The cousinly relations had persisted between these two long after Philippe de Vilmorin had outgrown the earlier intimacy, and had become to her Monsieur de Vilmorin.
She waved her hand to them in greeting as they advanced, and stood—an entrancing picture, and fully conscious of it—to await them at the end of the terrace nearest the short avenue by which they approached.
"If you come to see monsieur my uncle, you come inopportunely, messieurs," she told them, a certain feverishness in her air. "He is closely—oh, so very closely—engaged."
"We will wait, mademoiselle," said M. de Vilmorin, bowing gallantly over the hand she extended to him. "Indeed, who would haste to the uncle that may tarry a moment with the niece?"
"M. l'abbe," she teased him, "when you are in orders I shall take you for my confessor. You have so ready and sympathetic an understanding."
"But no curiosity," said Andre-Louis. "You haven't thought of that."
"I wonder what you mean, Cousin Andre."
"Well you may," laughed Philippe. "For no one ever knows." And then, his glance straying across the terrace settled upon a carriage that was drawn up before the door of the chateau. It was a vehicle such as was often to be seen in the streets of a great city, but rarely in the country. It was a beautifully sprung two-horse cabriolet of walnut, with a varnish upon it like a sheet of glass and little pastoral scenes exquisitely painted on the panels of the door. It was built to carry two persons, with a box in front for the coachman, and a stand behind for the footman. This stand was empty, but the footman paced before the door, and as he emerged now from behind the vehicle into the range of M. de Vilmorin's vision, he displayed the resplendent blue-and-gold livery of the Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr.
"Why!" he exclaimed. "Is it M. de La Tour d'Azyr who is with your uncle?"
"It is, monsieur," said she, a world of mystery in voice and eyes, of which M. de Vilmorin observed nothing.
"Ah, pardon!" he bowed low, hat in hand. "Serviteur, mademoiselle," and he turned to depart towards the house.
"Shall I come with you, Philippe?" Andre-Louis called after him.
"It would be ungallant to assume that you would prefer it," said M. de Vilmorin, with a glance at mademoiselle. "Nor do I think it would serve. If you will wait..."
M. de Vilmorin strode off. Mademoiselle, after a moment's blank pause, laughed ripplingly. "Now where is he going in such a hurry?"
"To see M. de La Tour d'Azyr as well as your uncle, I should say."
"But he cannot. They cannot see him. Did I not say that they are very closely engaged? You don't ask me why, Andre." There was an arch mysteriousness about her, a latent something that may have been elation or amusement, or perhaps both. Andre-Louis could not determine it.
"Since obviously you are all eagerness to tell, why should I ask?" quoth he.
"If you are caustic I shall not tell you even if you ask. Oh, yes, I will. It will teach you to treat me with the respect that is my due."
"I hope I shall never fail in that."
"Less than ever when you learn that I am very closely concerned in the visit of M. de La Tour d'Azyr. I am the object of this visit." And she looked at him with sparkling eyes and lips parted in laughter.
"The rest, you would seem to imply, is obvious. But I am a dolt, if you please; for it is not obvious to me."
"Why, stupid, he comes to ask my hand in marriage."
"Good God!" said Andre-Louis, and stared at her, chapfallen.
She drew back from him a little with a frown and an upward tilt of her chin. "It surprises you?"
"It disgusts me," said he, bluntly. "In fact, I don't believe it. You are amusing yourself with me."
For a moment she put aside her visible annoyance to remove his doubts. "I am quite serious, monsieur. There came a formal letter to my uncle this morning from M. de La Tour d'Azyr, announcing the visit and its object. I will not say that it did not surprise us a little..."
"Oh, I see," cried Andre-Louis, in relief. "I understand. For a moment I had almost feared..." He broke off, looked at her, and shrugged.
"Why do you stop? You had almost feared that Versailles had been wasted upon me. That I should permit the court-ship of me to be conducted like that of any village wench. It was stupid of you. I am being sought in proper form, at my uncle's hands."
"Is his consent, then, all that matters, according to Versailles?"
"There is your own."
She laughed. "I am a dutiful niece... when it suits me."
"And will it suit you to be dutiful if your uncle accepts this monstrous proposal?"
"Monstrous!" She bridled. "And why monstrous, if you please?"
"For a score of reasons," he answered irritably.
"Give me one," she challenged him.
"He is twice your age."
"Hardly so much," said she.
"He is forty-five, at least."
"But he looks no more than thirty. He is very handsome—so much you will admit; nor will you deny that he is very wealthy and very powerful; the greatest nobleman in Brittany. He will make me a great lady."
"God made you that, Aline."
"Come, that's better. Sometimes you can almost be polite." And she moved along the terrace, Andre-Louis pacing beside her.
"I can be more than that to show reason why you should not let this beast befoul the beautiful thing that God has made."
She frowned, and her lips tightened. "You are speaking of my future husband," she reproved him.
His lips tightened too; his pale face grew paler.
"And is it so? It is settled, then? Your uncle is to agree? You are to be sold thus, lovelessly, into bondage to a man you do not know. I had dreamed of better things for you, Aline."
"Better than to be Marquise de La Tour d'Azyr?"
He made a gesture of exasperation. "Are men and women nothing more than names? Do the souls of them count for nothing? Is there no joy in life, no happiness, that wealth and pleasure and empty, high-sounding titles are to be its only aims? I had set you high—so high, Aline—a thing scarce earthly. There is joy in your heart, intelligence in your mind; and, as I thought, the vision that pierces husks and shams to claim the core of reality for its own. Yet you will surrender all for a parcel of make-believe. You will sell your soul and your body to be Marquise de La Tour d'Azyr."
"You are indelicate," said she, and though she frowned her eyes laughed. "And you go headlong to conclusions. My uncle will not consent to more than to allow my consent to be sought. We understand each other, my uncle and I. I am not to be bartered like a turnip."
He stood still to face her, his eyes glowing, a flush creeping into his pale cheeks.
"You have been torturing me to amuse yourself!" he cried. "Ah, well, I forgive you out of my relief."
"Again you go too fast, Cousin Andre I have permitted my uncle to consent that M. le Marquis shall make his court to me. I like the look of the gentleman. I am flattered by his preference when I consider his eminence. It is an eminence that I may find it desirable to share. M. le Marquis does not look as if he were a dullard. It should be interesting to be wooed by him. It may be more interesting still to marry him, and I think, when all is considered, that I shall probably—very probably—decide to do so."
He looked at her, looked at the sweet, challenging loveliness of that childlike face so tightly framed in the oval of white fur, and all the life seemed to go out of his own countenance.
"God help you, Aline!" he groaned.
She stamped her foot. He was really very exasperating, and something presumptuous too, she thought.
"You are insolent, monsieur."
"It is never insolent to pray, Aline. And I did no more than pray, as I shall continue to do. You'll need my prayers, I think."
"You are insufferable!" She was growing angry, as he saw by the deepening frown, the heightened colour.
"That is because I suffer. Oh, Aline, little cousin, think well of what you do; think well of the realities you will be bartering for these shams—the realities that you will never know, because these cursed shams will block your way to them. When M. de La Tour d'Azyr comes to make his court, study him well; consult your fine instincts; leave your own noble nature free to judge this animal by its intuitions. Consider that..."
"I consider, monsieur, that you presume upon the kindness I have always shown you. You abuse the position of toleration in which you stand. Who are you? What are you, that you should have the insolence to take this tone with me?"
He bowed, instantly his cold, detached self again, and resumed the mockery that was his natural habit.
"My congratulations, mademoiselle, upon the readiness with which you begin to adapt yourself to the great role you are to play."
"Do you adapt yourself also, monsieur," she retorted angrily, and turned her shoulder to him.
"To be as the dust beneath the haughty feet of Madame la Marquise. I hope I shall know my place in future."
The phrase arrested her. She turned to him again, and he perceived that her eyes were shining now suspiciously. In an instant the mockery in him was quenched in contrition.
"Lord, what a beast I am, Aline!" he cried, as he advanced. "Forgive me if you can."
Almost had she turned to sue forgiveness from him. But his contrition removed the need.
"I'll try," said she, "provided that you undertake not to offend again."
"But I shall," said he. "I am like that. I will fight to save you, from yourself if need be, whether you forgive me or not."
They were standing so, confronting each other a little breathlessly, a little defiantly, when the others issued from the porch.
First came the Marquis of La Tour d'Azyr, Count of Solz, Knight of the Orders of the Holy Ghost and Saint Louis, and Brigadier in the armies of the King. He was a tall, graceful man, upright and soldierly of carriage, with his head disdainfully set upon his shoulders. He was magnificently dressed in a full-skirted coat of mulberry velvet that was laced with gold. His waistcoat, of velvet too, was of a golden apricot colour; his breeches and stockings were of black silk, and his lacquered, red-heeled shoes were buckled in diamonds. His powdered hair was tied behind in a broad ribbon of watered silk; he carried a little three-cornered hat under his arm, and a gold-hilted slender dress-sword hung at his side.
Considering him now in complete detachment, observing the magnificence of him, the elegance of his movements, the great air, blending in so extraordinary a manner disdain and graciousness, Andre-Louis trembled for Aline. Here was a practised, irresistible wooer, whose bonnes fortunes were become a by-word, a man who had hitherto been the despair of dowagers with marriageable daughters, and the desolation of husbands with attractive wives.
He was immediately followed by M. de Kercadiou, in completest contrast. On legs of the shortest, the Lord of Gavrillac carried a body that at forty-five was beginning to incline to corpulence and an enormous head containing an indifferent allotment of intelligence. His countenance was pink and blotchy, liberally branded by the smallpox which had almost extinguished him in youth. In dress he was careless to the point of untidiness, and to this and to the fact that he had never married—disregarding the first duty of a gentleman to provide himself with an heir—he owed the character of misogynist attributed to him by the countryside.
After M. de Kercadiou came M. de Vilmorin, very pale and self-contained, with tight lips and an overcast brow.
To meet them, there stepped from the carriage a very elegant young gentleman, the Chevalier de Chabrillane, M. de La Tour d'Azyr's cousin, who whilst awaiting his return had watched with considerable interest—his own presence unsuspected—the perambulations of Andre-Louis and mademoiselle.
Perceiving Aline, M. de La Tour d'Azyr detached himself from the others, and lengthening his stride came straight across the terrace to her.
To Andre-Louis the Marquis inclined his head with that mixture of courtliness and condescension which he used. Socially, the young lawyer stood in a curious position. By virtue of the theory of his birth, he ranked neither as noble nor as simple, but stood somewhere between the two classes, and whilst claimed by neither he was used familiarly by both. Coldly now he returned M. de La Tour d'Azyr's greeting, and discreetly removed himself to go and join his friend.
The Marquis took the hand that mademoiselle extended to him, and bowing over it, bore it to his lips.
"Mademoiselle," he said, looking into the blue depths of her eyes, that met his gaze smiling and untroubled, "monsieur your uncle does me the honour to permit that I pay my homage to you. Will you, mademoiselle, do me the honour to receive me when I come to-morrow? I shall have something of great importance for your ear."
"Of importance, M. le Marquis? You almost frighten me." But there was no fear on the serene little face in its furred hood. It was not for nothing that she had graduated in the Versailles school of artificialities.
"That," said he, "is very far from my design."
"But of importance to yourself, monsieur, or to me?"
"To us both, I hope," he answered her, a world of meaning in his fine, ardent eyes.
"You whet my curiosity, monsieur; and, of course, I am a dutiful niece. It follows that I shall be honoured to receive you."
"Not honoured, mademoiselle; you will confer the honour. To-morrow at this hour, then, I shall have the felicity to wait upon you."
He bowed again; and again he bore her fingers to his lips, what time she curtsied. Thereupon, with no more than this formal breaking of the ice, they parted.
She was a little breathless now, a little dazzled by the beauty of the man, his princely air, and the confidence of power he seemed to radiate. Involuntarily almost, she contrasted him with his critic—the lean and impudent Andre-Louis in his plain brown coat and steel-buckled shoes—and she felt guilty of an unpardonable offence in having permitted even one word of that presumptuous criticism. To-morrow M. le Marquis would come to offer her a great position, a great rank. And already she had derogated from the increase of dignity accruing to her from his very intention to translate her to so great an eminence. Not again would she suffer it; not again would she be so weak and childish as to permit Andre-Louis to utter his ribald comments upon a man by comparison with whom he was no better than a lackey.
Thus argued vanity and ambition with her better self and to her vast annoyance her better self would not admit entire conviction.
Meanwhile, M. de La Tour d'Azyr was climbing into his carriage. He had spoken a word of farewell to M. de Kercadiou, and he had also had a word for M. de Vilmorin in reply to which M. de Vilmorin had bowed in assenting silence. The carriage rolled away, the powdered footman in blue-and-gold very stiff behind it, M. de La Tour d'Azyr bowing to mademoiselle, who waved to him in answer.
Then M. de Vilmorin put his arm through that of Andre Louis, and said to him, "Come, Andre."
"But you'll stay to dine, both of you!" cried the hospitable Lord of Gavrillac. "We'll drink a certain toast," he added, winking an eye that strayed towards mademoiselle, who was approaching. He had no subtleties, good soul that he was.
M. de Vilmorin deplored an appointment that prevented him doing himself the honour. He was very stiff and formal.
"And you, Andre?"
"I? Oh, I share the appointment, godfather," he lied, "and I have a superstition against toasts." He had no wish to remain. He was angry with Aline for her smiling reception of M. de La Tour d'Azyr and the sordid bargain he saw her set on making. He was suffering from the loss of an illusion.