The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 23
A NOTE WHICH WENT ASTRAY.
MEANWHILE Jacques had undertaken to manage my little affair at Biloxi with tact and discretion. And this is how the fellow did it:
It seems that Jacques thought no harm of the note, and when he took it first to the house my lady was out. The honest fellow, doing his best to carry out my instructions, refused to leave it. When he returned, my lady worked, bent down amongst her flowers, in the little garden beside their cottage. The Chevalier stood some distance off, busied someway, Jacques knew not how, but with his face turned away from my messenger as he came up. Jacques handed the note to my lady through the fence, and she took it gently by the corner, fearing to soil it. She held it up to look at the name written upon it, and seeing it was her own, looked again more curiously at the writing. She did not know the hand. Then she gaily called to the Chevalier:
"Oh, Charles, come here; see what I have; it is a missive to your wife, and from some gay gallant, too. I do not know the writing. Do you come here and read it to me. My hands are so—" She held up two small white hands dabbled in the dirt.
"Perhaps some invitation to a court ball. We'll go, eh, Agnes?"
He came like the fine, strong gentleman he was, across the garden, taking the note from her and tearing it open. He began straightway to read, my lady on tip-toe behind him reading over his shoulder, and holding her contaminated hands away from his coat. His face grew puzzled at the first, then as he seemed to finish, he stood a pace apart from my lady and read again. There was murder in his face—yet so white and quiet.
He threw down the note and ground it into the soft earth beneath his heel. Then he caught my lady firmly by both her shoulders and held her fast, at full arm's length, gazing steadily into her face.
"God in heaven," as Jacques said to me; "Master, what eyes has that Chevalier de la Mora! No man could lie to him with those eyes reading what a fellow thought." Jacques could not make himself to leave; he stood rigid and watched.
She tried to laugh, but her husband's face forbade that this could be a spark of lover's play.
"Why, Charles, what is the matter with you, you behave so strangely?"
The Chevalier had grown an older man, his face stern and resolute, eyes a-glitter, and mouth drawn in tense, determined lines. A most dangerous man.
"Why, Charles, what is the matter?"
"When did you meet him at Sceaux? What did you do?"
"Don't lie to me, woman, I am in no mood for subterfuge."
She besought him with one frightened look, one step forward to him as if for protection, which he repelled; then she looked as though she might weep.
"Neither do you weep. Tell me how many notes like this have you received?"
"Like what? I could not read it, you held it so high," she sobbed.
The Chevalier stooped down, picked up the crumpled paper from the earth, and smoothed it out. He then handed it to her, and regarded her face intently as she read it.
"Read this, Madame, and see how careless you have been."
And my lady read the note; she, too, read it again, the first reading not sufficing her to understand. Then she looked at her husband with great wide-open eyes; she was now calm, and as quiet as he.
"Truly, Charles, I know nothing of this."
"It was always said, Madame, at Sceaux, you could take the stage and play the parts of distressed and virtuous damosels," he answered her, coldly curling his lip.
"Tell me, Madame, as you value your soul, what is this Captain de Mouret to you?"
"As I value my soul," my lady answered him direct and steadily, looking straight into his eye, her own hands folded across her heaving breast. "As I value my soul, Charles, I know nothing of him."
"What does he mean when he says here 'I was hasty and too impulsive when we parted in the chapel at Sceaux'?"
"Upon my honour, Charles, I do not know. I never saw the man in all my life—to know him."
"Upon your honour," the Chevalier repeated.
And my lady's cheek flushed fire. But her form straightened up, and her eyes met his unflinching, without guilt or fear. The Chevalier turned and caught sight of Jacques, for the lout, according to his story, had grown to the spot as firm as one of the oaks.
"Here, you fellow, come here, come here!"
And Jacques dared not disobey him.
"Here, fellow, how many notes like this have you brought to my wife?"
"Only that one, my lord." Jacques started in by telling the truth, and he followed it up religiously. According to his account of it, the Chevalier looked him straight through and through until he dared not tell a lie.
"Mind that you tell me the truth. Who gave you this note?"
"Captain de Mouret."
"At his quarters."
"To whom did he say you should deliver it?"
"To Madame Agnes de la Mora."
The Chevalier stooped, picked up the envelope, and re-read the superscription, handing it over to my lady, who took it unseeing.
"Did he expect a reply?"
"Yes, my lord."
"And where did he say to bring it?"
"Bring it to him when he returned from across the Bay this afternoon. I was to await him upon the shore."
"At what hour?"
"None was named, my Lord; he said it would be late, perchance."
Verily, as Jacques told it me, he must have drained the stupid fellow dry.
Then the Chevalier turned to my lady with the utmost courtesy:
"What say you, Madame, shall I bear your reply to this gentle captain? For by my faith, Madame, you require a more careful go-between than this, one more discreet and less glib of tongue."
"Charles, upon my honour, I know nothing of all this; I have never seen this Captain de Mouret."
He looked as if he did not hear her. He glanced at the sun, full two hours high, drew his sword and started to leave the garden.
He paused to doff his cap, and say, "I bear your message for you, Madame; verily, I am honoured."
My lady neither screamed nor fainted during his questioning of Jacques; she stood and listened as one dazed, or who but dimly understood. The Chevalier strode out sword in hand.
"For shame, Charles," she called to him calmly enough, though she was deadly pale, "here is some wretched mistake—"
"Yes, there does appear to have been a mistake—in the delivery of this precious billet. I will speedily make that right."
He turned. Her bearing was full as proud as his. He looked from the woman to the paper in his hand.
"Well, if you know not this man, then he has wantonly insulted you. I shall await this Captain de Mouret by the water, and there I shall know the truth. He shall explain what means this pretty letter to my wife."
Jacques watched her proudly erect figure enter the door. He saw her sway a moment in indecision, then sink beside the bed to pray. She came shortly to the door again and called him. The fellow's brain worked slowly, and he had not yet comprehended the extent of mischief he had done. That he had done something amiss, though, he began to understand.
"You had that note from Monsieur le Capitaine de Mouret?"
"And he said deliver it to me?"
"To Madame Agnes de la Mora. Am I not right?"
"Yes, I am Madame Agnes de la Mora, but that note was not intended for me."
She came closer to Jacques, so close indeed she laid her trembling hand upon his sleeve.
"Tell me—you know this Captain de Mouret well—tell me if you would save an innocent woman, has this Captain de Mouret a love affair here? Answer me, answer me truly, has he a love affair, or—or a mistress?"
Her innocence and direct question abashed Jacques sorely and set him a wondering what manner of escapade was this his master had got into.
"I will go to her, be she what she may, go to anybody; my husband must not kill this innocent man. No; and here I disturb myself about my own reputation, while two lives are in jeopardy. I must think, I must act—but how?"
And she broke down to weep again, showing the woman in her that was behind so brave a front. Her tears were not for long. Jacques felt it was his turn now to say something, so he blundered out, "See the Governor;" then one whit better he went, "I will see the Governor for you."
The good fellow had in that moment for the first time realized that he could stop the affair, and do it he would if he had to quit the colony. And she such a lovely lady, so gentle with the poor.
"Do you not fear to speak with him of such as this?"
"No, Madame, Bienville's soldiers do not fear him; they leave that for his enemies."
And so it fell out that Jacques told the Governor. And he told him all
It was ever Bienville's wont to act with quick decision.
"Order Major Boisbriant to report to me at once." And off posted Jacques upon his errand.
That officer attended with military promptitude.
"Major Boisbriant, do you seek on the instant the Chevalier de la Mora, and bear him company wherever he may go until you are relieved. Put upon him no restraint, and say nothing of your having such orders from me if you can avoid it. There is trouble brewing here, which I want to prevent; an affair of honour, you understand. He has gone toward the landing on the Bay. Be discreet and delicate."
Boisbriant nodded his comprehension, saluted, and was gone. Bienville turned to Jacques.
"Saddle my horse at once and bring him here."
It was much later than I had hoped before I could with decency return to Biloxi. Impatient, childish and excited I recrossed the bay, leaving a little detail of soldiers to watch beside the body of my friend. As soon as I saw Jacques on the other shore I knew something had gone wrong. That senseless knave was pacing uncertainly about the beach, stopping here and there to dig great holes in the sand with his toe, and carefully filling them up again. The fellow, ever on the watch for me, was at the same time watching the path from Biloxi, and seemed to dread my coming. Instead of meeting me at the water, he waited for me to approach him, thus leaving the two boatmen out of hearing.
"Well, give me the note; why stand there like a drivelling fool," for the fellow's hesitant manner angered and frightened me.
"There is no note, sir."
"The lady sent none."
Under my questions Jacques turned red and pale, then he blundered out:
"The Chevalier de la Mora said he would bring the answer to you himself—at the shore."
He kept his eyes fast riveted upon another hole he was digging in the sand.
"The—Chevalier?" I knew what that meant. Great God! and this was the end of it all.
"Tell me, you bungling fool, what knows he of this?"
"Pardon, Master; I thought no harm of it; you had never before employed me on such an errand."
It was now my own turn to seek the ground with my eyes, so just, so humble was the rebuke.
"I thought no harm of it, sir, and gave it to Madame in the garden; she called upon the Chevalier to read it for her."
"What said he? To her? Was he violent?"
"No sir, most polite; terribly polite, and cool; but, master, you must not meet him; he will kill you."
Of this I had scant doubt.
"Did he make no sign as if he would do her harm?"
"No, sir, not then, but he looked so queer one could hardly say what he meditated. I would not care to have him look at me like that."
I was paralyzed by the suddenness of the ill-fortune which had befallen, but I was to be allowed no day of grace in which to plan a line of conduct. My face had been turned all this while toward the sea, there being something soothing to me about the long, even sweep of those bright, blue waters in the south.
Jacques faced the town. I noted a deprecatory gesture, and following his gaze saw the Chevalier himself coming our way at a good round pace. My knees did quake, and the veriest poltroon might have well been ashamed of the overweening fear which possessed me. In defense of which I may say, I believe it was due in large part to my great respect and fondness for de la Mora, as well as a deep consciousness of the justice of his cause. From long habit I looked first to my weapons, but for once felt no joy in them.
"Captain de Mouret," he greeted me with a soldier's formal courtesy.
"Chevalier de la Mora."
"Captain, I have the honor to return to you a note which I believe bears your name," and he handed me the unfortunate billet.
"Am I right? Is that your hand?"
I scorned to lie, and answered him evenly;
"Is that note properly directed? To Madame de la Mora?"
"It is, but—"
"Have you any explanation, sir, to offer?"
For the life of me I could think of nothing to say; I could not tell him the truth, neither could I lie to him with grace. So I simply said:
"It was not her fault," probably the worst remark I could have made.
"Then, this note is true? You did meet my wife by appointment in the ruined chapel at Sceaux?"
"No, by my honour, there was no appointment; I came upon her by chance, and through no consent of hers."
"And so you presumed to meet my wife in a lonely place—which she denies to me upon her honour, as you now swear; you were there 'hot, impulsive and hasty' which this honourable missive of yours craves pardon for. Now you seek another private interview which you say you can not live without?"
I nodded moodily, wishing only to have the matter over, and avoid his further questioning.
"By my soul, Captain, I am rejoiced to find you so frank—rejoiced that you do not lie. The other, God knows, is bad enough."
I winced, but held my tongue.
"Our business, then, is plain enough; and there is no time like the present."
So saying he cast off his coat and began to roll his sleeves back, leaving bare that magnificent forearm of his, supple and dexterous. Imitating him we were both soon stripped for action.
I had only my light rapier, worn about the garrison, while he was armed with his heavy campaign blade. I was already a dead man, or so I felt, for there was no spirit in me for the fight. Our blades crossed, and immediately he noted the disparity of arms.
"Captain," he remarked, composedly, drawing back a pace. "This is a bad business; I shall surely kill you, but wish to do so as a gentleman. Permit me to exchange our weapons, so you fence not at such great disadvantage."
And he offered me the hilt of his own reversed sword.
"Chevalier de la Mora, you are a gallant gentleman, will you believe a man who has not yet lied to you, and who feels a word is your due?"
"Be quick," he replied, "we maybe interrupted."
"I have wronged you and will render full atonement. But it has only been a wrong of the heart; one of which I had no control, no choice. Your sweet wife has never, by word or deed, dishonoured the noble name she bears."
"Of course, Captain, it is a gentleman's part to make such protestations. It is fruitless for us to discuss this matter further, except as we had so well begun."
So intent were we both that neither had seen Jacques leave us, nor had either heard the swift hoof beats of a horse upon the deadening sand, until the rider was full upon us.
Bienville. Behind him, on foot, just emerging from the brush some distance away, Boisbriant and Jacques.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen, put by your weapons. What does this mean?" He had flung himself from his horse and stood between.
De la Mora sullenly dropped his point.
"A mere private matter of honour, sire."
"Are there so few enemies of France with whom to fight that you must needs turn your swords at each other to rob me of a good soldier when I need every one?"
By this time Boisbriant and Jacques had come up, and Bienville commanded:
"Major, do you accompany the Chevalier de la Mora to his quarters. You will take his parole to remain there during the night, and he will report to me at ten to-morrow. Placide, do you come with me."
He gave up his horse to Jacques, and taking me by the arm led me in the direction of the garrison. Truly, I was in no better plight, for I feared reproof from the Governor more than the steel of de la Mora. During all this time I said no word. We returned to Biloxi in absolute silence. Bienville, with all a gentleman's instinct, recognized the delicacy of my position.
The Governor took me at once to his own room, and sat me down at the table.
"Now, Placide, tell me all about this miserable affair,"
"I can not, sire; believe me, I can not. I beg of you not to put upon me a command I must disobey. This wretched matter is not for me to tell, even to you."
I held my peace.
"Yes, I thought as much. Is it your fault or his, Placide?"
He drummed on the table with his fingers a while before he spoke again.
"Then, my lad, there is but one thing I can do, that is to send you away from here at once. You can leave this place to-night, seek out Tuskahoma, make your way to Pensacola, thence to Havana, where I warrant you will find other occupation. Or, if you so desire, I will accredit you to Governor Frontenac in the north."
I chose Havana, there being the greater prospect of active service there. It took the methodical Governor but brief space to give me such letters as would insure me fitting reception from our brave fellows at Pensacola. He placed them in my hand, and I quietly rose to bid him good-night, and good-bye. I would not have ventured upon anything more than a formal word of parting, for I had the consciousness of having done much to forfeit his regard. But the old man came over and put his arms about me as he might a beloved son.
"Placide," he said, "it grieves me to the soul for you to leave me. I love you, boy, as I do my own flesh. You have served me truly, always with affection and honour. I respect your silence now, and ask you for no confidences not your own. Serigny has told me how faithful you were in Paris, and what he heard from others of your interview with the King. Placide, my lad, even now it fires my blood to think of a boy of mine standing before the mighty Louis, surrounded by our enemies, and daring to tell the truth. It was glorious, glorious, and it saved your Governor. I had minded me in an idle day to hear it all from your own lips. Perhaps, some day, who knows, it may yet come. You will lose not an hour in leaving Biloxi, and I have your word to engage in no encounter?"
"Aye, sire, you have my word."
I had dropped upon my knee, and, taking his hand, kissed it gently. He turned back into his room, shut the door, and left me alone in the hall. I walked thence straightway to my own quarters, put on hastily the garb of the forest and made all readiness. My toilet was not elaborate, and a short half hour found me completely equipped for the journey.
Leaving Biloxi, unaccompanied, like a thief in the night, I set out, and having reached the Bay winded a horn until Pachaco heard, then sat me down to wait for his boat.