dressed in black, as became a man who mourned his father, yet with a striking richness of material, whilst his broad collar of fine point and the lace cuffs of his doublet were worth a fortune. What time they ate Monsieur de Garnache told of his journey from Paris and of his dealings with Tressan and his subsequent adventures at Condillac. He dwelt passingly upon the manner in which they had treated him, and found it difficult to choose words to express the reason for his returning in disguise to play the knight-errant to Valerie. He passed on to speak of last night's happenings and of his escape. Throughout, the Marquis heard him with a grave countenance and a sober, attentive glance, yet, when he had finished a smile crept round the sensual lips. "The letter that I had at Milan prepared me for some such trouble as this," said he, and Garnache was amazed at the lightness of his tone, just as he had been amazed to see the fellow keep his countenance at the narrative of mademoiselle's position. "I guessed that my beautiful stepmother intended me some such scurviness from the circumstance of her having kept me in ignorance of my father's death. But frankly, sir, your tale by far outstrips my wildest imaginings. You have behaved very - very bravely in this affair. You seem, in fact, to have taken a greater interest in Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye's enlargement than the Queen could have a right to expect of you." And he smiled, a world of suggestion in his eyes. Garnache sat back in his chair and stared at the man. "This levity, monsieur, on such a subject, leaves me thunderstruck," he said at last. "Diable!" laughed the other. "You are too prone, after your trials; to view its tragic rather than its comic side. Forgive me if I am smitten only with the humour of the thing." "The humour of the thing!" gurgled Garnache, his eyes starting from his head. Then out leapt that temper of his like an eager hound that has been suddenly unleashed. He brought down his clenched hand upon the table, caught in passing a flagon, and sent it crashing to the floor. If there was a table near at hand when his temper went, he never failed to treat it so. "Par la mort Dieu! monsieur, you see but the humour of it, do you? And what of that poor child who is lying there, suffering this incarceration because of her fidelity to a promise given you?" The statement was hardly fully accurate. But it served its purpose. The other's face became instantly, grave. "Calm yourself, I beg, monsieur," he cried, raising a soothing hand. "I have offended you somewhere; that is plain. There is something here that I do not altogether understand. You say that Valerie has suffered on account of a promise given me? To what are you referring?" "They hold her a prisoner, monsieur, because they wish to wed her to Marius," answered Garnache, striving hard to cool his anger. "Parfaitement! That much I understood." "Well, then, monsieur, is the rest not plain? Because she is betrothed to you - " He paused. He saw, at last, that he was stating something not altogether accurate. But the other took his meaning there and then, lay back in his chair, and burst out laughing. The blood hummed through Garnache's head as he tightened his lips and watched this gentleman indulge his inexplicable mirth. Surely Monsieur de Condillac was possessed of the keenest sense of humour in all France. He laughed with a will, and Garnache sent up a devout prayer that the laugh might choke him. The noise of it filled the hostelry. "Sir," said Garnache, with an ever-increasing tartness, "there is a by-word has it 'Much laughter, little wit.' In confidence won, is that your case, monsieur?" The other looked at him soberly a moment, then went off again. "Monsieur, monsieur!" he gasped, "you'll be the death of me. For the love of Heaven look less fierce. Is it my fault that I must laugh? The folly of it all is so colossal. Three years from home, yet there is a woman keeps faithful and holds to a promise given for her. Come, monsieur, you who have seen the world, you must agree that there is in this something that is passing singular, extravagantly amusing. My poor little Valerie!" he spluttered through his half-checked mirth, "does she wait for me still? does she count me still betrothed to her? And because of that, says 'No' to brother Marius! Death of my life! I shall die of it." "I have a notion that you may, monsieur," rasped Garnache's voice, and with it rasped Garnache's chair upon the boards. He had risen, and he was confronting his merry host very fiercely, white to the lips, his eyes aflame. There was no mistaking his attitude, no mistaking his words. "Eh?" gasped the other, recovering himself at last to envisage what appeared to develop into a serious situation. "Monsieur," said Garnache, his voice very cold, "do I understand that you no longer intend to carry out your engagement and wed Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye?" A dull flush spread upon the Marquis's face. He rose too, and across the table he confronted his guest, his mien haughty, his eyes imperious. "I thought, monsieur," said he, with a great dignity, "I thought when I invited you to sit at my table that your business was to serve me, however little I might be conscious of having merited the honour. It seems instead that you are come hither to affront me. You are my guest, monsieur. Let me beg that you will depart before I resent a question on a matter which concerns myself alone." The man was right, and Garnache was wrong. He had no title to take up the affairs of Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye. But he was past reason now, and he was not the man to brook haughtiness, however courteously it might be cloaked. He eyed the Marquis's flushed ace across the board, and his lip curled. "Monsieur," said he, "I take your meaning very fully. Half a word with me is as good as a whole sentence with another. You have dubbed me in polite phrases an impertinent. That I am not; and I resent the imputation." "Oh, that!" said the Marquis, with a half-laugh and a shrug. "If you resent it - " His smile and his gesture made the rest plain. "Exactly, monsieur," was Garnache's answer. "But I do not fight sick men." Florimond's brows grew wrinkled, his eyes puzzled. "Sick men!" he echoed. "Awhile ago, monsieur, you appeared to cast a doubt upon my sanity. Is it a case of the drunkard who thinks all the world drunk but himself?" Garnache gazed at him. That doubt he had entertained grew now into something like assurance. "I know not whether it is the fever makes your tongue run so - " he began, when the other broke in, a sudden light of understanding in his eyes. "You are at fault," he cried. "I have no fever." "But then your letter to Condillac?" demanded Garnache, lost now in utter amazement. "What of it? I'll swear I never said I had a fever." "I'll swear you did." "You give me the lie, then?" But Garnache waved his hands as if he implored the other, to have done with giving and taking offence. There was some misunderstanding somewhere, he realized, and sheer astonishment had cooled his anger. His only aim now was to have this obscure thing made clear. "No, no," he cried. "I am seeking enlightenment." Florimond smiled. "I may have said that we were detained by a fever; but I never said the patient was myself." "Who then? Who else?" cried Garnache. "Why, now I understand, monsieur. But it is my wife who has the fever." "Your - !" Garnache dared not trust himself to utter the word. "My wife, monsieur," the Marquis repeated. "The journey proved too much for her, travelling at the rate she did." A silence fell. Garnache's long chin sank on to his breast, and he stood there, his eyes upon the tablecloth, his thoughts with the poor innocent child who waited at Condillac, so full of trust and faith and loyalty to this betrothed of hers who had come home with a wife out of Italy. And then, while he stood so and Florimond was regarding him curiously, the door opened, and the host appeared. "Monsieur le Marquis," said he, "there are two gentlemen below asking to see you. One of them is Monsieur Marius de Condillac." "Marius?" cried the Marquis, and he started round with a frown. "Marius?" breathed Garnache, and then, realizing that the assassins had followed so close upon his heels, he put all thoughts from his mind other than that of the immediate business. He had, himself, a score to settle with them. The time was now. He swung round on his heel, and before he knew what he had said the words were out: "Bring them up, Monsieur l'Hote." Florimond looked at him in surprise. "Oh, by all means, if monsieur wishes it," said he, with a fine irony. Garnache looked at him, then back at the hesitating host. "You have heard," said he coolly. "Bring them up." "Bien, monsieur," replied the host, withdrawing and closing the door after him. "Your interference in my affairs grows really droll, monsieur," said the Marquis tartly. "When you shall have learned to what purpose I am interfering, you'll find it, possibly, not quite so droll," was the answer, no less tart. "We have but a moment, monsieur. Listen while I tell you the nature of their errand." CHAPTER XXI THE GHOST IN THE CUPBOARD Garnache had but a few minutes in which to unfold his story, and he needed, in addition, a second or two in which to ponder the situation as he now found it. His first reflection was that Florimond, since he was now married, might perhaps, instead of proving Valerie's saviour from Marius, join forces with his brother in coercing her into this alliance with him. But from what Valerie herself had told him he was inclined to think more favourably of Florimond and to suppress such doubts as these. Still he could incur no risks; is business was to serve Valerie and Valerie only; to procure at all costs her permanent liberation from the power of the Condillacs. To make sure of this he must play upon Florimond's anger, letting him know that Marius had journeyed to La Rochette for the purpose of murdering his half-brother. That he but sought to murder him to the end that he might be removed from his path to Valerie, was a circumstance that need not too prominently be presented. Still, presented it must be, for Florimond would require to know by what motive his brother was impelled ere he could credit him capable of such villainy. Succinctly, but tellingly, Garnache brought out the story of the plot that had been laid for Florimond's assassination, and it joyed him to see the anger rising in the Marquis's face and flashing from his eyes. "What reason have they for so damnable a deed?" he cried, between incredulity and indignation. "Their overweening ambition. Marius covets Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye's estates." "And to gain his ends he would not stop at murdering me? Is it, indeed, the truth you tell me?" "I pledge my honour for the truth of it," answered Garnache, watching him closely. Florimond looked at him a moment. The steady glance of those blue eyes and the steady tone of that crisp voice scattered his last doubt. "The villains!" cried the Marquis. "The fools!" he added. "For me, Marius had been welcome to Valerie. He might have found in me an ally to aid him in the urging of his suit. But now - " He raised his clenched hand and shook it in the air, as if in promise of the battle he would deliver. "Good," said Garnache, reassured. "I hear their steps upon the stairs. They must not find me with you." A moment later the door opened, and Marius, very bravely arrayed, entered the room, followed closely by Fortunio. Neither showed much ill effects of last night's happenings, save for a long dark-brown scar that ran athwart the captain's cheek, where Garnache's sword had ploughed it. They found Florimond seated quietly at table, and as they entered he rose and came forward with a friendly smile to greet his brother. His sense of humour was being excited; he was something of an actor, and the role he had adopted in the comedy to be played gave him a certain grim satisfaction. He would test for himself the truth of what Monsieur de Garnache had told him concerning his brother's intentions. Marius received his advances very coolly. He took his brother's hand, submitted to his brother's kiss; but neither kiss nor hand-pressure did he return. Florimond affected not to notice this. "You are well, my dear Marius, I hope," said he, and thrusting him out at arms' length, he held him by the shoulders and regarded him critically. "Ma foi, but you are changed into a comely well-grown man. And your mother - she is well, too, I trust." "I thank you, Florimond, she is well," said Marius stiffly. The Marquis took his hands from his brother's shoulders; his florid, good-natured face smiling ever, as if this were the happiest moment of his life. "It is good to see France again, my dear Marius," he told his brother. "I was a fool to have remained away so long. I am pining to be at Condillac once more." Marius eyeing him, looked in vain for signs of the fever. He had expected to find a debilitated, emaciated man; instead, he saw a very lusty, healthy, hearty fellow, full of good humour, and seemingly full of strength. He began to like his purpose less, despite such encouragement as he gathered from the support of Fortunio. Still, it must be gone through with. "You wrote us that you had the fever," he said, half inquiringly. "Pooh! That is naught." And Florimond snapped a strong finger against a stronger thumb. "But whom have you with you?" he asked, and his eyes took the measure of Fortunio, standing a pace or two behind his master. Marius presented his bravo. "This is Captain Fortunio, the commander of our garrison of Condillac." The Marquis nodded good-humouredly towards the captain. "Captain Fortunio? He is well named for a soldier of fortune. My brother, no doubt, will have family matters to tell me of. If you will step below, Monsieur le Capitaine, and drink a health or so while you wait, I shall be honoured." The captain, nonplussed, looked at Marius, and Florimond surprised the look. But Marius's manner became still chillier. "Fortunio here," said he, and he half turned and let his hand fall on the captain's shoulder, "is my very good friend. I have no secrets from him." The instant lift of Florimond's eyebrows was full of insolent, supercilious disdain. Yet Marius did not fasten his quarrel upon that. He had come to La Rochette resolved that any pretext would serve his turn. But the sight of his brother so inflamed his jealousy that he had now determined that the quarrel should be picked on the actual ground in which it had its roots. "Oh, as you will," said the Marquis coolly. "Perhaps your friend will be seated, and you, too, my dear Marius." And he played the host to them with a brisk charm. Setting chairs, he forced them to sit, and pressed wine upon them.
db3nf.com screen-capture.net floresca.net simonova.net flora-source.com flora-source.com sourcecentral.com sourcecentral.com geocities.com