M. de Kercadiou wrote a letter.
"Godson," he began, without any softening adjective, "I have learnt with pain and indignation that you have dishonoured yourself again by breaking the pledge you gave me to abstain from politics. With still greater pain and indignation do I learn that your name has become in a few short days a byword, that you have discarded the weapon of false, insidious arguments against my class—the class to which you owe everything—for the sword of the assassin. It has come to my knowledge that you have an assignation to-morrow with my good friend M. de La Tour d'Azyr. A gentleman of his station is under certain obligations imposed upon him by his birth, which do not permit him to draw back from an engagement. But you labour under no such disadvantages. For a man of your class to refuse an engagement of honour, or to neglect it when made, entails no sacrifice. Your peers will probably be of the opinion that you display a commendable prudence. Therefore I beg you, indeed, did I think that I still exercise over you any such authority as the favours you have received from me should entitle me to exercise, I would command you, to allow this matter to go no farther, and to refrain from rendering yourself to your assignation to-morrow morning. Having no such authority, as your past conduct now makes clear, having no reason to hope that a proper sentiment of gratitude to me will induce to give heed to this my most earnest request, I am compelled to add that should you survive to-morrow's encounter, I can in no circumstances ever again permit myself to be conscious of your existence. If any spark survives of the affection that once you expressed for me, or if you set any value upon the affection, which, in spite of all that you have done to forfeit it, is the chief prompter of this letter, you will not refuse to do as I am asking."
It was not a tactful letter. M. de Kercadiou was not a tactful man. Read it as he would, Andre-Louis—when it was delivered to him on that Sunday afternoon by the groom dispatched with it into Paris—could read into it only concern for M. La Tour d'Azyr, M. de Kercadiou's good friend, as he called him, and prospective nephew-in-law.
He kept the groom waiting a full hour while composing his answer. Brief though it was, it cost him very considerable effort and several unsuccessful attempts. In the end this is what he wrote:
Monsieur my godfather—You make refusal singularly hard for me when you appeal to me upon the ground of affection. It is a thing of which all my life I shall hail the opportunity to give you proofs, and I am therefore desolated beyond anything I could hope to express that I cannot give you the proof you ask to-day. There is too much between M. de La Tour d'Azyr and me. Also you do me and my class—whatever it may be—less than justice when you say that obligations of honour are not binding upon us. So binding do I count them, that, if I would, I could not now draw back.
If hereafter you should persist in the harsh intention you express, I must suffer it. That I shall suffer be assured.
Your affectionate and grateful godson
He dispatched that letter by M. de Kercadiou's groom, and conceived this to be the end of the matter. It cut him keenly; but he bore the wound with that outward stoicism he affected.
Next morning, at a quarter past eight, as with Le Chapelier—who had come to break his fast with him—he was rising from table to set out for the Bois, his housekeeper startled him by announcing Mademoiselle de Kercadiou.
He looked at his watch. Although his cabriolet was already at the door, he had a few minutes to spare. He excused himself from Le Chapelier, and went briskly out to the anteroom.
She advanced to meet him, her manner eager, almost feverish.
"I will not affect ignorance of why you have come," he said quickly, to make short work. "But time presses, and I warn you that only the most solid of reasons can be worth stating."
It surprised her. It amounted to a rebuff at the very outset, before she had uttered a word; and that was the last thing she had expected from Andre-Louis. Moreover, there was about him an air of aloofness that was unusual where she was concerned, and his voice had been singularly cold and formal.
It wounded her. She was not to guess the conclusion to which he had leapt. He made with regard to her—as was but natural, after all—the same mistake that he had made with regard to yesterday's letter from his godfather. He conceived that the mainspring of action here was solely concern for M. de La Tour d'Azyr. That it might be concern for himself never entered his mind. So absolute was his own conviction of what must be the inevitable issue of that meeting that he could not conceive of any one entertaining a fear on his behalf.
What he assumed to be anxiety on the score of the predestined victim had irritated him in M. de Kercadiou; in Aline it filled him with a cold anger; he argued from it that she had hardly been frank with him; that ambition was urging her to consider with favour the suit of M. de La Tour d'Azyr. And than this there was no spur that could have driven more relentlessly in his purpose, since to save her was in his eyes almost as momentous as to avenge the past.
She conned him searchingly, and the complete calm of him at such a time amazed her. She could not repress the mention of it.
"How calm you are, Andre!"
"I am not easily disturbed. It is a vanity of mine."
"But... Oh, Andre, this meeting must not take place!" She came close up to him, to set her hands upon his shoulders, and stood so, her face within a foot of his own.
"You know, of course, of some good reason why it should not?" said he.
"You may be killed," she answered him, and her eyes dilated as she spoke.
It was so far from anything that he had expected that for a moment he could only stare at her. Then he thought he had understood. He laughed as he removed her hands from his shoulders, and stepped back. This was a shallow device, childish and unworthy in her.
"Can you really think to prevail by attempting to frighten me?" he asked, and almost sneered.
"Oh, you are surely mad! M. de La Tour d'Azyr is reputed the most dangerous sword in France."
"Have you never noticed that most reputations are undeserved? Chabrillane was a dangerous swordsman, and Chabrillane is underground. La Motte-Royau was an even more dangerous swordsman, and he is in a surgeon's hands. So are the other spadassinicides who dreamt of skewering a poor sheep of a provincial lawyer. And here to-day comes the chief, the fine flower of these bully-swordsmen. He comes, for wages long overdue. Be sure of that. So if you have no other reason to urge..."
It was the sarcasm of him that mystified her. Could he possibly be sincere in his assurance that he must prevail against M. de La Tour d'Azyr? To her in her limited knowledge, her mind filled with her uncle's contrary conviction, it seemed that Andre-Louis was only acting; he would act a part to the very end.
Be that as it might, she shifted her ground to answer him.
"You had my uncle's letter?"
"And I answered it."
"I know. But what he said, he will fulfil. Do not dream that he will relent if you carry out this horrible purpose."
"Come, now, that is a better reason than the other," said he. "If there is a reason in the world that could move me it would be that. But there is too much between La Tour d'Azyr and me. There is an oath I swore on the dead hand of Philippe de Vilmorin. I could never have hoped that God would afford me so great an opportunity of keeping it."
"You have not kept it yet," she warned him.
He smiled at her. "True!" he said. "But nine o'clock will soon be here. Tell me," he asked her suddenly, "why did you not carry this request of yours to M. de La Tour d'Azyr?"
"I did," she answered him, and flushed as she remembered her yesterday's rejection. He interpreted the flush quite otherwise.
"And he?" he asked.
"M. de La Tour d'Azyr's obligations..." she was beginning: then she broke off to answer shortly: "Oh, he refused."
"So, so. He must, of course, whatever it may have cost him. Yet in his place I should have counted the cost as nothing. But men are different, you see." He sighed. "Also in your place, had that been so, I think I should have left the matter there. But then..."
"I don't understand you, Andre."
"I am not so very obscure. Not nearly so obscure as I can be. Turn it over in your mind. It may help to comfort you presently." He consulted his watch again. "Pray use this house as your own. I must be going."
Le Chapelier put his head in at the door.
"Forgive the intrusion. But we shall be late, Andre, unless you..."
"Coming," Andre answered him. "If you will await my return, Aline, you will oblige me deeply. Particularly in view of your uncle's resolve."
She did not answer him. She was numbed. He took her silence for assent, and, bowing, left her. Standing there she heard his steps going down the stairs together with Le Chapelier's. He was speaking to his friend, and his voice was calm and normal.
Oh, he was mad—blinded by self-confidence and vanity. As his carriage rattled away, she sat down limply, with a sense of exhaustion and nausea. She was sick and faint with horror. Andre-Louis was going to his death. Conviction of it—an unreasoning conviction, the result, perhaps, of all M. de Kercadiou's rantings—entered her soul. Awhile she sat thus, paralyzed by hopelessness. Then she sprang up again, wringing her hands. She must do something to avert this horror. But what could she do? To follow him to the Bois and intervene there would be to make a scandal for no purpose. The conventions of conduct were all against her, offering a barrier that was not to be overstepped. Was there no one could help her?
Standing there, half-frenzied by her helplessness, she caught again a sound of vehicles and hooves on the cobbles of the street below. A carriage was approaching. It drew up with a clatter before the fencing-academy. Could it be Andre-Louis returning? Passionately she snatched at that straw of hope. Knocking, loud and urgent, fell upon the door. She heard Andre-Louis' housekeeper, her wooden shoes clanking upon the stairs, hurrying down to open.
She sped to the door of the anteroom, and pulling it wide stood breathlessly to listen. But the voice that floated up to her was not the voice she so desperately hoped to hear. It was a woman's voice asking in urgent tones for M. Andre-Louis—a voice at first vaguely familiar, then clearly recognized, the voice of Mme. de Plougastel.
Excited, she ran to the head of the narrow staircase in time to hear Mme. de Plougastel exclaim in agitation:
"He has gone already! Oh, but how long since? Which way did he take?"
It was enough to inform Aline that Mme. de Plougastel's errand must be akin to her own. At the moment, in the general distress and confusion of her mind, her mental vision focussed entirely on the one vital point, she found in this no matter for astonishment. The singular regard conceived by Mme. de Plougastel for Andre-Louis seemed to her then a sufficient explanation.
Without pausing to consider, she ran down that steep staircase, calling:
The portly, comely housekeeper drew aside, and the two ladies faced each other on that threshold. Mme. de Plougastel looked white and haggard, a nameless dread staring from her eyes.
"Aline! You here!" she exclaimed. And then in the urgency sweeping aside all minor considerations, "Were you also too late?" she asked.
"No, madame. I saw him. I implored him. But he would not listen."
"Oh, this is horrible!" Mme. de Plougastel shuddered as she spoke. "I heard of it only half an hour ago, and I came at once, to prevent it at all costs."
The two women looked blankly, despairingly, at each other. In the sunshine-flooded street one or two shabby idlers were pausing to eye the handsome equipage with its magnificent bay horses, and the two great ladies on the doorstep of the fencing-academy. From across the way came the raucous voice of an itinerant bellows-mender raised in the cry of his trade:
"A raccommoder les vieux soufflets!"
Madame swung to the housekeeper.
"How long is it since monsieur left?"
"Ten minutes, maybe; hardly more." Conceiving these great ladies to be friends of her invincible master's latest victim, the good woman preserved a decently stolid exterior.
Madame wrung her hands. "Ten minutes! Oh!" It was almost a moan. "Which way did he go?"
"The assignation is for nine o'clock in the Bois de Boulogne," Aline informed her. "Could we follow? Could we prevail if we did?"
"Ah, my God! The question is should we come in time? At nine o'clock! And it wants but little more than a quarter of an hour. Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!" Madame clasped and unclasped her hands in anguish. "Do you know, at least, where in the Bois they are to meet?"
"No—only that it is in the Bois."
"In the Bois!" Madame was flung into a frenzy. "The Bois is nearly half as large as Paris." But she swept breathlessly on, "Come, Aline: get in, get in!"
Then to her coachman. "To the Bois de Boulogne by way of the Cours la Reine," she commanded, "as fast as you can drive. There are ten pistoles for you if we are in time. Whip up, man!"
She thrust Aline into the carriage, and sprang after her with the energy of a girl. The heavy vehicle—too heavy by far for this race with time—was moving before she had taken her seat. Rocking and lurching it went, earning the maledictions of more than one pedestrian whom it narrowly avoided crushing against a wall or trampling underfoot.
Madame sat back with closed eyes and trembling lips. Her face showed very white and drawn. Aline watched her in silence. Almost it seemed to her that Mme. de Plougastel was suffering as deeply as herself, enduring an anguish of apprehension as great as her own.
Later Aline was to wonder at this. But at the moment all the thought of which her half-numbed mind was capable was bestowed upon their desperate errand.
The carriage rolled across the Place Louis XV and out on to the Cours la Reine at last. Along that beautiful, tree-bordered avenue between the Champs Elysees and the Seine, almost empty at this hour of the day, they made better speed, leaving now a cloud of dust behind them.
But fast to danger-point as was the speed, to the women in that carriage it was too slow. As they reached the barrier at the end of the Cours, nine o'clock was striking in the city behind them, and every stroke of it seemed to sound a note of doom.
Yet here at the barrier the regulations compelled a momentary halt. Aline enquired of the sergeant-in-charge how long it was since a cabriolet such as she described had gone that way. She was answered that some twenty minutes ago a vehicle had passed the barrier containing the deputy M. le Chapelier and the Paladin of the Third Estate, M. Moreau. The sergeant was very well informed. He could make a shrewd guess, he said, with a grin, of the business that took M. Moreau that way so early in the day.
They left him, to speed on now through the open country, following the road that continued to hug the river. They sat back mutely despairing, staring hopelessly ahead, Aline's hand clasped tight in madame's. In the distance, across the meadows on their right, they could see already the long, dusky line of trees of the Bois, and presently the carriage swung aside following a branch of the road that turned to the right, away from the river and heading straight for the forest.
Mademoiselle broke at last the silence of hopelessness that had reigned between them since they had passed the barrier.
"Oh, it is impossible that we should come in time! Impossible!"
"Don't say it! Don't say it!" madame cried out.
"But it is long past nine, madame! Andre would be punctual, and these... affairs do not take long. It... it will be all over by now."
Madame shivered, and closed her eyes. Presently, however, she opened them again, and stirred. Then she put her head from the window. "A carriage is approaching," she announced, and her tone conveyed the thing she feared.
"Not already! Oh, not already!" Thus Aline expressed the silently communicated thought. She experienced a difficulty in breathing, felt the sudden need of air. Something in her throat was throbbing as if it would suffocate her; a mist came and went before her eyes.
In a cloud of dust an open caleche was speeding towards them, coming from the Bois. They watched it, both pale, neither venturing to speak, Aline, indeed, without breath to do so.
As it approached, it slowed down, perforce, as they did, to effect a safe passage in that narrow road. Aline was at the window with Mme. de Plougastel, and with fearful eyes both looked into this open carriage that was drawing abreast of them.
"Which of them is it, madame? Oh, which of them?" gasped Aline, scarce daring to look, her senses swimming.
On the near side sat a swarthy young gentleman unknown to either of the ladies. He was smiling as he spoke to his companion. A moment later and the man sitting beyond came into view. He was not smiling. His face was white and set, and it was the face of the Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr.
For a long moment, in speechless horror, both women stared at him, until, perceiving them, blankest surprise invaded his stern face.
In that moment, with a long shuddering sigh Aline sank swooning to the carriage floor behind Mme. de Plougastel.