By fast driving Andre-Louis had reached the ground some minutes ahead of time, notwithstanding the slight delay in setting out. There he had found M. de La Tour d'Azyr already awaiting him, supported by a M. d'Ormesson, a swarthy young gentleman in the blue uniform of a captain in the Gardes du Corps.
Andre-Louis had been silent and preoccupied throughout that drive. He was perturbed by his last interview with Mademoiselle de Kercadiou and the rash inferences which he had drawn as to her motives.
"Decidedly," he had said, "this man must be killed."
Le Chapelier had not answered him. Almost, indeed, had the Breton shuddered at his compatriot's cold-bloodedness. He had often of late thought that this fellow Moreau was hardly human. Also he had found him incomprehensibly inconsistent. When first this spadassinicide business had been proposed to him, he had been so very lofty and disdainful. Yet, having embraced it, he went about it at times with a ghoulish flippancy that was revolting, at times with a detachment that was more revolting still.
Their preparations were made quickly and in silence, yet without undue haste or other sign of nervousness on either side. In both men the same grim determination prevailed. The opponent must be killed; there could be no half-measures here. Stripped each of coat and waistcoat, shoeless and with shirt-sleeves rolled to the elbow, they faced each other at last, with the common resolve of paying in full the long score that stood between them. I doubt if either of them entertained a misgiving as to what must be the issue.
Beside them, and opposite each other, stood Le Chapelier and the young captain, alert and watchful.
The slender, wickedly delicate blades clashed together, and after a momentary glizade were whirling, swift and bright as lightnings, and almost as impossible to follow with the eye. The Marquis led the attack, impetuously and vigorously, and almost at once Andre-Louis realized that he had to deal with an opponent of a very different mettle from those successive duellists of last week, not excluding La Motte-Royau, of terrible reputation.
Here was a man whom much and constant practice had given extraordinary speed and a technique that was almost perfect. In addition, he enjoyed over Andre-Louis physical advantages of strength and length of reach, which rendered him altogether formidable. And he was cool, too; cool and self-contained; fearless and purposeful. Would anything shake that calm, wondered Andre-Louis?
He desired the punishment to be as full as he could make it. Not content to kill the Marquis as the Marquis had killed Philippe, he desired that he should first know himself as powerless to avert that death as Philippe had been. Nothing less would content Andre-Louis. M. le Marquis must begin by tasting of that cup of despair. It was in the account; part of the quittance due.
As with a breaking sweep Andre-Louis parried the heavy lunge in which that first series of passes culminated, he actually laughed—gleefully, after the fashion of a boy at a sport he loves.
That extraordinary, ill-timed laugh made M. de La Tour d'Azyr's recovery hastier and less correctly dignified than it would otherwise have been. It startled and discomposed him, who had already been discomposed by the failure to get home with a lunge so beautifully timed and so truly delivered.
He, too, had realized that his opponent's force was above anything that he could have expected, fencing-master though he might be, and on that account he had put forth his utmost energy to make an end at once.
More than the actual parry, the laugh by which it was accompanied seemed to make of that end no more than a beginning. And yet it was the end of something. It was the end of that absolute confidence that had hitherto inspired M. de La Tour d'Azyr. He no longer looked upon the issue as a thing forgone. He realized that if he was to prevail in this encounter, he must go warily and fence as he had never fenced yet in all his life.
They settled down again; and again—on the principle this time that the soundest defence is in attack—it was the Marquis who made the game. Andre-Louis allowed him to do so, desired him to do so; desired him to spend himself and that magnificent speed of his against the greater speed that whole days of fencing in succession for nearly two years had given the master. With a beautiful, easy pressure of forte on foible Andre-Louis kept himself completely covered in that second bout, which once more culminated in a lunge.
Expecting it now, Andre-Louis parried it by no more than a deflecting touch. At the same moment he stepped suddenly forward, right within the other's guard, thus placing his man so completely at his mercy that, as if fascinated, the Marquis did not even attempt to recover himself.
This time Andre-Louis did not laugh: He just smiled into the dilating eyes of M. de La Tour d'Azyr, and made no shift to use his advantage.
"Come, come, monsieur!" he bade him sharply. "Am I to run my blade through an uncovered man?" Deliberately he fell back, whilst his shaken opponent recovered himself at last.
M. d'Ormesson released the breath which horror had for a moment caught. Le Chapelier swore softly, muttering:
"Name of a name! It is tempting Providence to play the fool in this fashion!"
Andre-Louis observed the ashen pallor that now over spread the face of his opponent.
"I think you begin to realize, monsieur, what Philippe de Vilmorin must have felt that day at Gavrillac. I desired that you should first do so. Since that is accomplished, why, here's to make an end."
He went in with lightning rapidity. For a moment his point seemed to La Tour d'Azyr to be everywhere at once, and then from a low engagement in sixte, Andre-Louis stretched forward with swift and vigorous ease to lunge in tierce. He drove his point to transfix his opponent whom a series of calculated disengages uncovered in that line. But to his amazement and chagrin, La Tour d'Azyr parried the stroke; infinitely more to his chagrin La Tour d'Azyr parried it just too late. Had he completely parried it, all would yet have been well. But striking the blade in the last fraction of a second, the Marquis deflected the point from the line of his body, yet not so completely but that a couple of feet of that hard-driven steel tore through the muscles of his sword-arm.
To the seconds none of these details had been visible. All that they had seen had been a swift whirl of flashing blades, and then Andre-Louis stretched almost to the ground in an upward lunge that had pierced the Marquis' right arm just below the shoulder.
The sword fell from the suddenly relaxed grip of La Tour d'Azyr's fingers, which had been rendered powerless, and he stood now disarmed, his lip in his teeth, his face white, his chest heaving, before his opponent, who had at once recovered. With the blood-tinged tip of his sword resting on the ground, Andre-Louis surveyed him grimly, as we survey the prey that through our own clumsiness has escaped us at the last moment.
In the Assembly and in the newspapers this might be hailed as another victory for the Paladin of the Third Estate; only himself could know the extent and the bitternest of the failure.
M. d'Ormesson had sprung to the side of his principal.
"You are hurt!" he had cried stupidly.
"It is nothing," said La Tour d'Azyr. "A scratch." But his lip writhed, and the torn sleeve of his fine cambric shirt was full of blood.
D'Ormesson, a practical man in such matters, produced a linen kerchief, which he tore quickly into strips to improvise a bandage.
Still Andre-Louis continued to stand there, looking on as if bemused. He continued so until Le Chapelier touched him on the arm. Then at last he roused himself, sighed, and turned away to resume his garments, nor did he address or look again at his late opponent, but left the ground at once.
As, with Le Chapelier, he was walking slowly and in silent dejection towards the entrance of the Bois, where they had left their carriage, they were passed by the caleche conveying La Tour d'Azyr and his second—which had originally driven almost right up to the spot of the encounter. The Marquis' wounded arm was carried in a sling improvised from his companion's sword-belt. His sky-blue coat with three collars had been buttoned over this, so that the right sleeve hung empty. Otherwise, saving a certain pallor, he looked much his usual self.
And now you understand how it was that he was the first to return, and that seeing him thus returning, apparently safe and sound, the two ladies, intent upon preventing the encounter, should have assumed that their worst fears were realized.
Mme. de Plougastel attempted to call out, but her voice refused its office. She attempted to throw open the door of her own carriage; but her fingers fumbled clumsily and ineffectively with the handle. And meanwhile the caleche was slowly passing, La Tour d'Azyr's fine eyes sombrely yet intently meeting her own anguished gaze. And then she saw something else. M. d'Ormesson, leaning back again from the forward inclination of his body to join his own to his companion's salutation of the Countess, disclosed the empty right sleeve of M. de La Tour d'Azyr's blue coat. More, the near side of the coat itself turned back from the point near the throat where it was caught together by a single button, revealed the slung arm beneath in its blood-sodden cambric sleeve.
Even now she feared to jump to the obvious conclusion—feared lest perhaps the Marquis, though himself wounded, might have dealt his adversary a deadlier wound.
She found her voice at last, and at the same moment signalled to the driver of the caleche to stop.
As it was pulled to a standstill, M. d'Ormesson alighted, and so met madame in the little space between the two carriages.
"Where is M. Moreau?" was the question with which she surprised him.
"Following at his leisure, no doubt, madame," he answered, recovering.
"He is not hurt?"
"Unfortunately it is we who..." M. d'Ormesson was beginning, when from behind him M. de La Tour d'Azyr's voice cut in crisply:
"This interest on your part in M. Moreau, dear Countess..."
He broke off, observing a vague challenge in the air with which she confronted him. But indeed his sentence did not need completing.
There was a vaguely awkward pause. And then she looked at M. d'Ormesson. Her manner changed. She offered what appeared to be an explanation of her concern for M. Moreau.
"Mademoiselle de Kercadiou is with me. The poor child has fainted."
There was more, a deal more, she would have said just then, but for M. d'Ormesson's presence.
Moved by a deep solicitude for Mademoiselle de Kertadiou, de La Tour d'Azyr sprang up despite his wound.
"I am in poor case to render assistance, madame," he said, an apologetic smile on his pale face. "But..."
With the aid of d'Ormesson, and in spite of the latter's protestations, he got down from the caleche, which then moved on a little way, so as to leave the road clear—for another carriage that was approaching from the direction of the Bois.
And thus it happened that when a few moments later that approaching cabriolet overtook and passed the halted vehicles, Andre-Louis beheld a very touching scene. Standing up to obtain a better view, he saw Aline in a half-swooning condition—she was beginning to revive by now—seated in the doorway of the carriage, supported by Mme. de Plougastel. In an attitude of deepest concern, M. de La Tour d'Azyr, his wound notwithstanding, was bending over the girl, whilst behind him stood M. d'Ormesson and madame's footman.
The Countess looked up and saw him as he was driven past. Her face lighted; almost it seemed to him she was about to greet him or to call him, wherefore, to avoid a difficulty, arising out of the presence there of his late antagonist, he anticipated her by bowing frigidly—for his mood was frigid, the more frigid by virtue of what he saw—and then resumed his seat with eyes that looked deliberately ahead.
Could anything more completely have confirmed him in his conviction that it was on M. de La Tour d'Azyr's account that Aline had come to plead with him that morning? For what his eyes had seen, of course, was a lady overcome with emotion at the sight of blood of her dear friend, and that same dear friend restoring her with assurances that his hurt was very far from mortal. Later, much later, he was to blame his own perverse stupidity. Almost is he too severe in his self-condemnation. For how else could he have interpreted the scene he beheld, his preconceptions being what they were?
That which he had already been suspecting, he now accounted proven to him. Aline had been wanting in candour on the subject of her feelings towards M. de La Tour d'Azyr. It was, he supposed, a woman's way to be secretive in such matters, and he must not blame her. Nor could he blame her in his heart for having succumbed to the singular charm of such a man as the Marquis—for not even his hostility could blind him to M. de La Tour d'Azyr's attractions. That she had succumbed was betrayed, he thought, by the weakness that had overtaken her upon seeing him wounded.
"My God!" he cried aloud. "What must she have suffered, then, if I had killed him as I intended!"
If only she had used candour with him, she could so easily have won his consent to the thing she asked. If only she had told him what now he saw, that she loved M. de La Tour d'Azyr, instead of leaving him to assume her only regard for the Marquis to be based on unworthy worldly ambition, he would at once have yielded.
He fetched a sigh, and breathed a prayer for forgiveness to the shade of Vilmorin.
"It is perhaps as well that my lunge went wide," he said.
"What do you mean?" wondered Le Chapelier.
"That in this business I must relinquish all hope of recommencing."