A couple of hours after the engagement in the Marquis de Condillac’s apartments at the Sanglier Noir at La Rochette, Monsieur de Garnache, attended only by Rabecque, rode briskly into France once more and made for the little town of Cheylas, which is on the road that leads down to the valley of the Isere and to Condillac. But not as far as the township did he journey. On a hill, the slopes all cultivated into an opulent vineyard, some two miles east of Cheylas, stood the low, square grey building of the Convent of Saint Francis. Thither did Monsieur de Garnache bend his horse’s steps. Up the long white road that crept zigzag through the Franciscans’ vineyards rode the Parisian and his servant under the welcome sunshine of that November afternoon.

Garnache’s face was gloomy and his eyes sad, for his thoughts were all of Valerie, and he was prey to a hundred anxieties regarding her.

They gained the heights at last, and Rabecque got down to beat with his whip upon the convent gates.

A lay-brother came to open, and in reply to Garnache’s request that he might have a word with the Father Abbot, invited him to enter.

Through the cloisters about the great quadrangle, where a couple of monks, their habits girt high as their knees, were busy at gardeners’ work, Garnache followed his conductor, and up the steps to the Abbot’s chamber.

The master of the Convent of Saint Francis of Cheylas a tall, lean man with an ascetic face, prominent cheekbones, and a nose not unlike Garnache’s own—the nose of a man of action rather than of prayer—bowed gravely to this stalwart stranger, and in courteous accents begged to be informed in what he might serve him.

Hat in hand, Garnache took a step forward in that bare, scantily furnished little room, permeated by the faint, waxlike odour that is peculiar to the abode of conventuals. Without hesitation he stated the reason of his visit.

“Father,” said he, “a son of the house of Condillac met his end this morning at La Rochette.”

The monk’s eyes seemed to quicken, as though his interest in the outer world had suddenly revived.

“It is the Hand of God,” he cried. “Their evil ways have provoked at last the anger of Heaven. How did this unfortunate meet his death?”

Garnache shrugged his shoulders.

“De mortuis nil nisi bonum,” said he. His air was grave, his blue eyes solemn, and the Abbot had little cause to suspect the closeness with which that pair of eyes was watching him. He coloured faintly at the implied rebuke, but he inclined his head as if submissive to the correction, and waited for the other to proceed.

“There is the need, Father, to give his body burial,” said Garnache gently.

But at that the monk raised his head, and a deeper flush the flush of anger—spread now upon his sallow cheeks. Garnache observed it, and was glad.

“Why do you come to me?” he asked.

“Why?” echoed Garnache, and there was hesitancy now in his voice. “Is not the burial of the dead enjoined by Mother Church? Is it not a part of your sacred office?”

“You ask me this as you would challenge my reply,” said the monk, shaking his head. “It is as you say, but it is not within our office to bury the impious dead, nor those who in life were excommunicate and died without repentance.”

“How can you assume he died without repentance?”

“I do not; but I assume he died without absolution, for there is no priest who, knowing his name, would dare to shrive him, and if one should do it in ignorance of his name and excommunication, why then it is not done at all. Bid others bury this son of the house of Condillac; it matters no more by what hands or in what ground he be buried than if he were the horse he rode or the hound that followed him.”

“The Church is very harsh, Father,” said Garnache sternly.

“The Church is very just,” the priest answered him, more sternly still, a holy wrath kindling his sombre eyes.

“He was in life a powerful noble,” said Garnache thoughtfully. “It is but fitting that, being dead, honour and reverence should be shown his body.”

“Then let those who have themselves been honoured by the Condillacs honour this dead Condillac now. The Church is not of that number, monsieur. Since the late Marquis’s death the house of Condillac has been in rebellion against us; our priests have been maltreated, our authority flouted; they paid no tithes, approached no sacraments. Weary of their ungodliness the Church placed its ban upon them; under this ban it seems they die. My heart grieves for them; but—”

He spread his hands, long and almost transparent in their leanness, and on his face a cloud of sorrow rested.

“Nevertheless, Father,” said Garnache, “twenty brothers of Saint Francis shall bear the body home to Condillac, and you yourself shall head this grim procession.”

“I?” The monk shrank back before him, and his figure seemed to grow taller. “Who are you, sir, that say to me what I shall do, the Church’s law despite?”

Garnache took the Abbot by the sleeve of his rough habit and drew him gently towards the window. There was a persuasive smile on his lips and in his keen eyes which the monk, almost unconsciously, obeyed.

“I will tell you,” said Garnache, “and at the same time I shall seek to turn you from your harsh purpose.”

At the hour at which Monsieur de Garnache was seeking to persuade the Abbot of Saint Francis of Cheylas to adopt a point of view more kindly towards a dead man, Madame de Condillac was at dinner, and with her was Valerie de La Vauvraye. Neither woman ate appreciably. The one was oppressed by sorrow, the other by anxiety, and the circumstance that they were both afflicted served perhaps to render the Dowager gentler in her manner towards the girl.

She watched the pale face and troubled eyes of Valerie; she observed the almost lifeless manner in which she came and went as she was bidden, as though a part of her had ceased to exist, and that part the part that matters most. It did cross her mind that in this condition mademoiselle might the more readily be bent to their will, but she dwelt not overlong upon that reflection. Rather was her mood charitable, no doubt because she felt herself the need of charity, the want of sympathy.

She was tormented by fears altogether disproportionate to their cause. A hundred times she told herself that no ill could befall Marius. Florimond was a sick man, and were he otherwise, there was still Fortunio to stand by and see to it that the right sword pierced the right heart, else would his pistoles be lost to him.

Nevertheless she was fretted by anxiety, and she waited impatiently for news, fuming at the delay, yet knowing full well that news could not yet reach her.

Once she reproved Valerie for her lack of appetite, and there was in her voice a kindness Valerie had not heard for months—not since the old Marquis died, nor did she hear it now, or, hearing it, she did not heed it.

“You are not eating, child,” the Dowager said, and her eyes were gentle.

Valerie looked up like one suddenly awakened; and in that moment her eyes filled with tears. It was as if the Dowager’s voice had opened the floodgates of her sorrow and let out the tears that hitherto had been repressed. The Marquise rose and waved the page and an attendant lackey from the room. She crossed to Valerie’s side and put her arm about the girl’s shoulder.

“What ails you, child?” she asked. For a moment the girl suffered the caress; almost she seemed to nestle closer to the Dowager’s shoulder. Then, as if understanding had come to her suddenly, she drew back and quietly disengaged herself from the other’s arms. Her tears ceased; the quiver passed from her lip.

“You are very good, madame,” she said, with a coldness that rendered the courteous words almost insulting, “but nothing ails me save a wish to be alone.”

“You have been alone too much of late,” the Dowager answered, persisting in her wish to show kindness to Valerie; for all that, had she looked into her own heart, she might have been puzzled to find a reason for her mood—unless the reason lay in her own affliction of anxiety for Marius.

“Perhaps I have,” said the girl, in the same cold, almost strained voice. “It was not by my own contriving.”

“Ah, but it was, child; indeed it was. Had you been reasonable you had found us kinder. We had never treated you as we have done, never made a prisoner of you.”

Valerie looked up into the beautiful ivory-white face, with its black eyes and singularly scarlet lips, and a wan smile raised the corners of her gentle mouth.

“You had no right—none ever gave it you—to set constraint and restraint upon me.”

“I had—indeed, indeed I had,” the Marquise answered her, in a tone of sad protest. “Your father gave me such a right when he gave me charge of you.”

“Was it a part of your charge to seek to turn me from my loyalty to Florimond, and endeavour to compel me by means gentle or ungentle into marriage with Marius?”

“We thought Florimond dead; or, if not dead, then certainly unworthy of you to leave you without news of him for years together. And if he was not dead then, it is odds he will be dead by now.” The words slipped out almost unconsciously, and the Marquise bit her lip and straightened herself, fearing an explosion. But none came. The girl looked across the table at the fire that smouldered on the hearth in need of being replenished.

“What do you mean, madame?” she asked; but her tone was listless, apathetic, as of one who though uttering a question is incurious as to what the answer may be.

“We had news some days ago that he was journeying homewards, but that he was detained by fever at La Rochette. We have since heard that his fever has grown so serious that there is little hope of his recovery.”

“And it was to solace his last moments that Monsieur Marius left Condillac this morning?”

The Dowager looked sharply at the girl; but Valerie’s face continued averted, her gaze resting on the fire. Her tone suggested nothing beyond a natural curiosity.

“Yes,” said the Dowager.

“And lest his own efforts to help his brother out of this world should prove insufficient he took Captain Fortunio with him?” said Valerie, in the same indifferent voice.

“What do you mean?” the Marquise almost hissed into the girl’s ear.

Valerie turned to her, a faint colour stirring in her white face.

“Just what I have said, madame. Would you know what I have prayed? All night was I upon my knees from the moment that I recovered consciousness, and my prayers were that Heaven might see fit to let Florimond destroy your son. Not that I desire Florimond’s return, for I care not if I never set eyes on him again. There is a curse upon this house, madame,” the girl continued, rising from her chair and speaking now with a greater animation, whilst the Marquise recoiled a step, her face strangely altered and suddenly gone grey, “and I have prayed that that curse might be worked out upon that assassin, Marius. A fine husband, madame, you would thrust upon the daughter of Gaston de La Vauvraye.”

And turning, without waiting for an answer, she moved slowly down the room, and took her way to her own desolate apartments, so full of memories of him she mourned—of him, it seemed to her, she must always mourn; of him who lay dead in the black waters of the moat beneath her window.

Stricken with a sudden, inexplicable terror, the Dowager, who for all her spirit was not without a certain superstition, felt her knees loosen, and she sank limply into a chair. She was amazed at the extent of Valerie’s knowledge, and puzzled by it; she was amazed, too, at the seeming apathy of Valerie for the danger in which Florimond stood, and at her avowal that she did not care if she never again beheld him. But such amazement as came to her was whelmed fathoms-deep in her sudden fears for Marius. If he should die! She grew cold at the thought, and she sat there, her hands folded in her lap, her face grey. That mention of the curse the Church had put upon them had frozen her quick blood and turned her stout spirit to mere water.

At last she rose and went out into the open to inquire if no messenger had yet arrived, for all that she knew there was not yet time for any messenger to have reached the chateau. She mounted the winding staircase of stone that led to the ramparts, and there alone, in the November sunshine, she paced to and fro for hours, waiting for news, straining her eyes to gaze up the valley of the Isere, watching for the horseman that must come that way. Then, as time sped on and the sun approached its setting and still no one came, she bethought her that if harm had befallen Marius, none would ride that night to Condillac. This very delay seemed pregnant with news of disaster. And then she shook off her fears and tried to comfort herself. There was not yet time. Besides, what had she to fear for Marius? He was strong and quick, and Fortunio was by his side. A man was surely dead by now at La Rochette; but that man could not be Marius.

At last, in the distance, she espied a moving object, and down on the silent air of eventide came the far-off rattle of a horse’s hoofs. Some one was riding, galloping that way. He was returned at last. She leaned on the battlements, her breath coming in quick, short gasps, and watched the horseman growing larger with every stride of his horse.

A mist was rising from the river, and it dimmed the figure; and she cursed the mist for heightening her anxiety, for straining further her impatience. Then a new fear was begotten in her mind. Why came one horseman only where two should have ridden? Who was it that returned, and what had befallen his companion? God send, at least, it might be Marius who rode thus, at such a breakneck pace.

At last she could make him out. He was close to the chateau now, and she noticed that his right arm was bandaged and hanging in a sling. And then a scream broke from her, and she bit her lip hard to keep another in check, for she had seen the horseman’s face, and it was Fortunio’s. Fortunio—and wounded! Then, assuredly, Marius was dead!

She swayed where she stood. She set her hand on her bosom, above her heart, as if she would have repressed the beating of the one, the heaving of the other; her soul sickened, and her mind seemed to turn numb, as she waited there for the news that should confirm her fears.

The hoofs of his horse thundered over the planks of the drawbridge, and came clatteringly to halt as he harshly drew rein in the courtyard below. There was a sound of running feet and men sprang to his assistance. Madame would have gone below to meet him; but her limbs seemed to refuse their office. She leaned against one of the merlons of the embattled parapet, her eyes on the spot where he should emerge from the stairs, and thus she waited, her eyes haggard, her face drawn.

He came at last, lurching in his walk, being overstiff from his long ride. She took a step forward to meet him. Her lips parted.

“Well?” she asked him, and her voice sounded harsh and strained. “How has the venture sped?”

“The only way it could,” he answered. “As you would wish it.”

At that she thought that she must faint. Her lungs seemed to writhe for air, and she opened her lips and took long draughts of the rising mist, never speaking for a moment or two until she had sufficiently recovered from this tremendous revulsion from her fears.

“Then, where is Marius?” she asked at last.

“He has remained behind to accompany the body home. They are bringing it here.”

“They?” she echoed. “Who are they?”

“The monks of Saint Francis of Cheylas,” he answered.

A something in his tone, a something in his shifty eyes, a cloud upon his fair and usually so ingenuous looking countenance aroused her suspicions and gave her resurrected courage pause.

She caught him viciously by the arms, and forced his glance to meet her own in the fading daylight.

“It is the truth you are telling me, Fortunio?” she snapped, and her voice was half-angry, half-fearful.

He faced her now, his eyes bold. He raised a hand to lend emphasis to his words.

“I swear, madame, by my salvation, that Monsieur Marius is sound and well.”

She was satisfied. She released his arm.

“Does he come to-night?” she asked.

“They will be here to-morrow, madame. I rode on to tell you so.”

“An odd fancy, this of his. But”—and a sudden smile overspread her face—“we may find a more useful purpose for one of these monks.”

An hour ago she would willingly have set mademoiselle at liberty in exchange for the assurance that Marius had been successful in the business that had taken him over the border into Savoy. She would have done it gladly, content that Marius should be heir to Condillac. But now that Condillac was assured her son, she must have more for him; her insatiable greed for his advancement and prosperity was again upon her. Now, more than ever—now that Florimond was dead—must she have La Vauvraye for Marius, and she thought that mademoiselle would no longer be difficult to bend. The child had fallen in love with that mad Garnache, and when a woman is crossed in love, while her grief lasts it matters little to her where she weds. Did she not know it out of the fund of her own bitter experience? Was it not that—the compulsion her own father had employed to make her find a mate in a man so much older than herself as Condillac—that had warped her own nature, and done much to make her what she was?

A lover she had had, and whilst he lived she had resisted them, and stood out against this odious marriage that for convenience’ sake they forced upon her. He was killed in Paris in a duel, and when the news of it came to her, she had folded her hands and let them wed her to whom they listed.

Of just such a dejection of spirit had she observed the signs in Valerie; let them profit by it while it lasted. They had been long enough without Church ceremonies at Condillac. There should be two to-morrow to make up for the empty time—a wedding and a burial.

She was going down the stairs, Fortunio a step behind her, when her mind reverted to the happening at La Rochette.

“Was it well done?” she asked.

“It made some stir,” said he. “The Marquis had men with him, and had the affair taken place in France ill might have come of it.”

“You shall give me a full account of it,” said she, rightly thinking that there was still something to be explained. Then she laughed softly. “Yes, it was a lucky chance for us, his staying at La Rochette. Florimond was born under an unlucky star, I think, and you under a lucky one, Fortunio.”

“I think so, too, as regards myself,” he answered grimly, and he thought of the sword that had ploughed his cheek last night and pierced his sword-arm that morning, and he thanked such gods as in his godlessness he owned for the luck that had kept that sword from finding out his heart.

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