"The door," Aline commanded her footman, and "Mount here beside me," she commanded Andre-Louis, in the same breath.
"A moment, Aline."
He turned to his companion, who was all amazement, and to Harlequin and Columbine, who had that moment come up to share it. "You permit me, Climene?" said he, breathlessly. But it was more a statement than a question. "Fortunately you are not alone. Harlequin will take care of you. Au revoir, at dinner."
With that he sprang into the cabriolet without waiting for a reply. The footman closed the door, the coachman cracked his whip, and the regal equipage rolled away along the quay, leaving the three comedians staring after it, open-mouthed... Then Harlequin laughed.
"A prince in disguise, our Scaramouche!" said he.
Columbine clapped her hands and flashed her strong teeth. "But what a romance for you, Climene! How wonderful!"
The frown melted from Climene's brow. Resentment changed to bewilderment.
"But who is she?"
"His sister, of course," said Harlequin, quite definitely.
"His sister? How do you know?"
"I know what he will tell you on his return."
"Because you wouldn't believe him if he said she was his mother."
Following the carriage with their glance, they wandered on in the direction it had taken. And in the carriage Aline was considering Andre-Louis with grave eyes, lips slightly compressed, and a tiny frown between her finely drawn eyebrows.
"You have taken to queer company, Andre," was the first thing she said to him. "Or else I am mistaken in thinking that your companion was Mlle. Binet of the Theatre Feydau."
"You are not mistaken. But I had not imagined Mlle. Binet so famous already."
"Oh, as to that..." mademoiselle shrugged, her tone quietly scornful. And she explained. "It is simply that I was at the play last night. I thought I recognized her."
"You were at the Feydau last night? And I never saw you!"
"Were you there, too?"
"Was I there!" he cried. Then he checked, and abruptly changed his tone. "Oh, yes, I was there," he said, as commonplace as he could, beset by a sudden reluctance to avow that he had so willingly descended to depths that she must account unworthy, and grateful that his disguise of face and voice should have proved impenetrable even to one who knew him so very well.
"I understand," said she, and compressed her lips a little more tightly.
"But what do you understand?"
"The rare attractions of Mlle. Binet. Naturally you would be at the theatre. Your tone conveyed it very clearly. Do you know that you disappoint me, Andre? It is stupid of me, perhaps; it betrays, I suppose, my imperfect knowledge of your sex. I am aware that most young men of fashion find an irresistible attraction for creatures who parade themselves upon the stage. But I did not expect you to ape the ways of a man of fashion. I was foolish enough to imagine you to be different; rather above such trivial pursuits. I conceived you something of an idealist."
"So I perceive. But you misled me. You talked so much morality of a kind, you made philosophy so readily, that I came to be deceived. In fact, your hypocrisy was so consummate that I never suspected it. With your gift of acting I wonder that you haven't joined Mlle. Binet's troupe."
"I have," said he.
It had really become necessary to tell her, making choice of the lesser of the two evils with which she confronted him.
He saw first incredulity, then consternation, and lastly disgust overspread her face.
"Of course," said she, after a long pause, "that would have the advantage of bringing you closer to your charmer."
"That was only one of the inducements. There was another. Finding myself forced to choose between the stage and the gallows, I had the incredible weakness to prefer the former. It was utterly unworthy of a man of my lofty ideals, but—what would you? Like other ideologists, I find it easier to preach than to practise. Shall I stop the carriage and remove the contamination of my disgusting person? Or shall I tell you how it happened?"
"Tell me how it happened first. Then we will decide."
He told her how he met the Binet Troupe, and how the men of the marechaussee forced upon him the discovery that in its bosom he could lie safely lost until the hue and cry had died down. The explanation dissolved her iciness.
"My poor Andre, why didn't you tell me this at first?"
"For one thing, you didn't give me time; for another, I feared to shock you with the spectacle of my degradation."
She took him seriously. "But where was the need of it? And why did you not send us word as I required you of your whereabouts?"
"I was thinking of it only yesterday. I have hesitated for several reasons."
"You thought it would offend us to know what you were doing?"
"I think that I preferred to surprise you by the magnitude of my ultimate achievements."
"Oh, you are to become a great actor?" She was frankly scornful.
"That is not impossible. But I am more concerned to become a great author. There is no reason why you should sniff. The calling is an honourable one. All the world is proud to know such men as Beaumarchais and Chenier."
"And you hope to equal them?"
"I hope to surpass them, whilst acknowledging that it was they who taught me how to walk. What did you think of the play last night?"
"It was amusing and well conceived."
"Let me present you to the author."
"You? But the company is one of the improvisers."
"Even improvisers require an author to write their scenarios. That is all I write at present. Soon I shall be writing plays in the modern manner."
"You deceive yourself, my poor Andre. The piece last night would have been nothing without the players. You are fortunate in your Scaramouche."
"In confidence—I present you to him."
"You—Scaramouche? You?" She turned to regard him fully. He smiled his close-lipped smile that made wrinkles like gashes in his cheeks. He nodded. "And I didn't recognize you!"
"I thank you for the tribute. You imagined, of course, that I was a scene-shifter. And now that you know all about me, what of Gavrillac? What of my godfather?"
He was well, she told him, and still profoundly indignant with Andre-Louis for his defection, whilst secretly concerned on his behalf.
"I shall write to him to-day that I have seen you."
"Do so. Tell him that I am well and prospering. But say no more. Do not tell him what I am doing. He has his prejudices too. Besides, it might not be prudent. And now the question I have been burning to ask ever since I entered your carriage. Why are you in Nantes, Aline?"
"I am on a visit to my aunt, Mme. de Sautron. It was with her that I came to the play yesterday. We have been dull at the chateau; but it will be different now. Madame my aunt is receiving several guests to-day. M. de La Tour d'Azyr is to be one of them."
Andre-Louis frowned and sighed. "Did you ever hear, Aline, how poor Philippe de Vilmorin came by his end?"
"Yes; I was told, first by my uncle; then by M. de La Tour d'Azyr, himself."
"Did not that help you to decide this marriage question?"
"How could it? You forget that I am but a woman. You don't expect me to judge between men in matters such as these?"
"Why not? You are well able to do so. The more since you have heard two sides. For my godfather would tell you the truth. If you cannot judge, it is that you do not wish to judge." His tone became harsh. "Wilfully you close your eyes to justice that might check the course of your unhealthy, unnatural ambition."
"Excellent!" she exclaimed, and considered him with amusement and something else. "Do you know that you are almost droll? You rise unblushing from the dregs of life in which I find you, and shake off the arm of that theatre girl, to come and preach to me."
"If these were the dregs of life I might still speak from them to counsel you out of my respect and devotion, Aline." He was very, stiff and stern. "But they are not the dregs of life. Honour and virtue are possible to a theatre girl; they are impossible to a lady who sells herself to gratify ambition; who for position, riches, and a great title barters herself in marriage."
She looked at him breathlessly. Anger turned her pale. She reached for the cord.
"I think I had better let you alight so that you may go back to practise virtue and honour with your theatre wench."
"You shall not speak so of her, Aline."
"Faith, now we are to have heat on her behalf. You think I am too delicate? You think I should speak of her as a..."
"If you must speak of her at all," he interrupted, hotly, "you'll speak of her as my wife."
Amazement smothered her anger. Her pallor deepened. "My God!" she said, and looked at him in horror. And in horror she asked him presently: "You are married—married to that—?"
"Not yet. But I shall be, soon. And let me tell you that this girl whom you visit with your ignorant contempt is as good and pure as you are, Aline. She has wit and talent which have placed her where she is and shall carry her a deal farther. And she has the womanliness to be guided by natural instincts in the selection of her mate."
She was trembling with passion. She tugged the cord.
"You will descend this instant!" she told him fiercely. "That you should dare to make a comparison between me and that..."
"And my wife-to-be," he interrupted, before she could speak the infamous word. He opened the door for himself without waiting for the footman, and leapt down. "My compliments," said he, furiously, "to the assassin you are to marry." He slammed the door. "Drive on," he bade the coachman.
The carriage rolled away up the Faubourg Gigan, leaving him standing where he had alighted, quivering with rage. Gradually, as he walked back to the inn, his anger cooled. Gradually, as he cooled, he perceived her point of view, and in the end forgave her. It was not her fault that she thought as she thought. Her rearing had been such as to make her look upon every actress as a trull, just as it had qualified her calmly to consider the monstrous marriage of convenience into which she was invited.
He got back to the inn to find the company at table. Silence fell when he entered, so suddenly that of necessity it must be supposed he was himself the subject of the conversation. Harlequin and Columbine had spread the tale of this prince in disguise caught up into the chariot of a princess and carried off by her; and it was a tale that had lost nothing in the telling.
Climene had been silent and thoughtful, pondering what Columbine had called this romance of hers. Clearly her Scaramouche must be vastly other than he had hitherto appeared, or else that great lady and he would never have used such familiarity with each other. Imagining him no better than he was, Climene had made him her own. And now she was to receive the reward of disinterested affection.
Even old Binet's secret hostility towards Andre-Louis melted before this astounding revelation. He had pinched his daughter's ear quite playfully. "Ah, ah, trust you to have penetrated his disguise, my child!"
She shrank resentfully from that implication.
"But I did not. I took him for what he seemed."
Her father winked at her very solemnly and laughed. "To be sure, you did. But like your father, who was once a gentleman, and knows the ways of gentlemen, you detected in him a subtle something different from those with whom misfortune has compelled you hitherto to herd. You knew as well as I did that he never caught that trick of haughtiness, that grand air of command, in a lawyer's musty office, and that his speech had hardly the ring or his thoughts the complexion of the bourgeois that he pretended to be. And it was shrewd of you to have made him yours. Do you know that I shall be very proud of you yet, Climene?"
She moved away without answering. Her father's oiliness offended her. Scaramouche was clearly a great gentleman, an eccentric if you please, but a man born. And she was to be his lady. Her father must learn to treat her differently.
She looked shyly—with a new shyness—at her lover when he came into the room where they were dining. She observed for the first time that proud carriage of the head, with the chin thrust forward, that was a trick of his, and she noticed with what a grace he moved—the grace of one who in youth has had his dancing-masters and fencing-masters.
It almost hurt her when he flung himself into a chair and exchanged a quip with Harlequin in the usual manner as with an equal, and it offended her still more that Harlequin, knowing what he now knew, should use him with the same unbecoming familiarity.