The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 16
AS one who pauses at the threshold of some fabled palace of the houri, so did I stop, bewildered by the beauty of this virgin field of love, by fancy decked with blossoms, now spreading all the allurements of fetterless imaginings before me. A sudden whiff brought me the perfume of her presence, and, turning, she appeared before me, whether in the spirit or the flesh, I could hardly tell, so transported was I by the swift changes of my thought, merging beauties ever new, ever sparkling, with those scarce tasted ones but just discarded. Yet there she was, a dainty thing in white. White of dress, white of face, white of spirit.
In frightened tones of far-away sweetness, her voice mingled with the air, so low, so melodious one could scarce determine when she commenced to speak.
"Monsieur, quick, listen. You are in danger. I was in Madame de Chartrain's chamber and overheard. You have letters. M. de Greville will take them from you—for her sake—they compromise her. There is other danger," she spoke breathlessly on, "other more deadly danger lurking for you here; I beseech you to leave—at once. M. de Greville will take those letters from you by force or guile. Oh, tarry not, there has been so much of blood, and this place so seeming fair; the assassin, the poison and prison houses."
The eloquence of fear trembled in her words. Half starting forward I drank in every syllable, not for the warning she would fain convey, but for their sweetness. All I could realize for the moment was that she had sought me, sought me freely. Then she was gone. Swiftly, noiselessly as she came, she disappeared. The distant flutter of her skirts among the sombre trees marked the path she went. Through it all I spoke no word, returning, as one who has received an angel's visit, to my reverie.
I was not suffered long to spend my time alone. The old beau, de Virelle, in his bluff and hearty way directed the attention of a party of ladies who were with him to where I hung over a marble balustrade enraptured at the broad expanse of valley, rosy tinted with the hues of ebbing light, boundless as the dim horizon of my own sweet dreams.
"By my faith, Captain, you should have heard the clamour over your departure. Already famous, and so soon weary of your laurels. Ah! a tryst," he exclaimed. "Verily you do better than I thought," for he had picked up a muslin handkerchief, edged with lace, which sought in vain to hide itself among the leaves. So busied had I been it escaped my notice. Instinctively I reclaimed the prize and with no gentle hand I doubt, for his touch and jeering manner desecrated the sacred relic of my vanished saint.
De Virelle scowled somewhat at my precipitation, but, meeting a no less determined air, passed the matter by. His ladies affected not to see. They in their turn plied me with inquiries about the savages in America, asked all manner of silly questions, and completed with their foolish simperings the disgust I already felt at such an interruption to my thought. Yet so great is the force of novelty to women they clung about me as if I were some strange tame animal brought to Paris for their divertisement.
"Zounds, Margot dear," de Virelle blurted out aside, for even his dull senses saw I was not pleased, "our good Moliere must have had this hermit captain in his mind when he made Alceste to rail so at the hypocrisies of the world, and urge the telling of truth and looking of truth at all times."
"How brutally frank! What bad breeding," assented that young woman.
"This captain seems so full of weariness at our coming, and lacks the grace to veil it decently; let us go."
Finding no hand of mine raised to hinder them, these fair dames and demoiselles, with many pretty pouts and flutters and flounces, betook themselves away, followed by their faithful squire.
I began then to feel sorry at having disgraced Jerome's gentle teachings. The light dying away across the distant fields and streams, I resigned my solitary communion and set out slowly toward the villa. The meaning of all the girl had said now forced itself upon my attention. If this were true, and it seemed plausible enough in view of all that had transpired here, I was indeed confronted by a new and serious danger. Happily danger was not a new fellow-traveller; I merely turned over in my mind the best means to meet it.
Going rather out of my way, I found the grooms without much difficulty, and telling them we were to leave Sceaux at once, ordered the horses saddled, and made ready at a side door where I directed them to wait. My own mind was to tell Jerome nothing of it, but simply to mount the best horse and ride away alone—if that course became necessary.
I will break in a bit just here to speak of an incident which occurred that very night in the modest boudoir of Madame de la Mora. Had I but known of it at the time, it would have saved me many weary months of suffering.
Madame Agnes de la Mora sat placidly, her work basket by her side, busied about some lace she was mending. The Chevalier studied a number of military maps of Louisiana at his table. It was a pretty picture of domestic harmony, then quite unfashionable at Sceaux. A timid rap at the door, and a voice:
"Sister, may I come in?"
"Yes, child," and her sister Charlotte slipped silently in and sat herself upon the floor at Madame's feet. There was a striking similarity between the two. Madame, for all her dignified title, being but a year the elder, and she scant of twenty. Charlotte, somewhat slighter and more delicately coloured, was even of greater beauty than her sister, with much promise for the years to come. To the casual observer, though, especially when viewed apart, they seemed almost reflections one of the other. There was something of a loving guardianship in the attitude of the elder, of confiding trust in that of the younger, as she leaned her head upon her sister's knee in pensive meditation.
"Sister, I must tell you of something; I know not that I did well or ill," and she lifted her face with a surety of sympathy.
"What is it, dear, what weighty matter troubles you now?"
The Chevalier looked up long enough to say:
"Have you torn your frock, or only quarrelled again with the good Abbe over your task?" The girl very evidently had nothing to fear from his harshness.
"No! No! Don't tease; it's really important. This day at noon Madame Chartrain was in her chamber—you know the young man who came with M. Jerome?" de la Mora nodded.
"The same I ran into at the door?" and she flushed again at the memory of our discomfiture.
"Well, to-day noon at Madam Chartrain's I heard that danger threatened him concerning some papers or something which he has—and Madame du Maine, too, they mean him harm; and—and—well, I told him. Did I do ill, sister?"
"What is that, Charlotte? Come here."
She crossed the room obediently and stood before him.
The Chevalier asked: "How did it happen, child? Tell me all about it, where you saw him, who was there, and all."
So she went on to tell of her seeking me in the park, and her hurried warning.
"Well, what did he say to all that?"
"He didn't say anything; I gave him no chance; I just ran up near him and told him as quick as ever I could that he had better go off somewhere, and then—and then—well, I just ran away again. He looked so startled and surprised he could not say anything. When I turned again to peep through the hedge he was still standing there with his hands stretched out as if he would have liked to stop me, but I was already gone."
The girl laughed a short little laugh and tucked her hand closer into his.
"Did I do wrong, Charles? Tell me, was it so very, very—bold?"
The Chevalier could not quite suppress the smile already twitching at his lips, though he soon looked grave enough.
"Yes, child, it was not well; beside, the affair is not yours, and it is always dangerous to meddle. There, now, don't worry, it does not matter much after all. Soon we leave here and you will never see any of them again, I hope. This is no place for lassies fair and young as you. I hope to take both you and Agnes to a new and purer land."
"Soon we leave?" she repeated, "oh, I forgot; but I don't want to, I like it here."
"Like it? I thought you hated Sceaux?"
"Yes, I did—but—"
"But, nothing, I just like it—now," she insisted illogically.
"Who is this young man, Charles?" asked Agnes when her sister had gone. And he told her.