In the great hall of the Chateau de Condillac sat the Dowager, her son, and the Lord Seneschal, in conference.

It was early in the afternoon of the last Thursday in October, exactly a week since Monsieur de Garnache all but broken-hearted at the failure of his mission—had departed from Grenoble. They had dined, and the table was still strewn with vessels and the fragments of their meal, for the cloth had not yet been raised. But the three of them had left the board—the Seneschal with all that reluctance with which he was wont to part company with the table, no matter how perturbed in spirit he might be—and they had come to group themselves about the great open fireplace.

A shaft of pale October sunshine entering through the gules of an escutcheon on the mullioned windows struck a scarlet light into silver and glass upon the forsaken board.

Madame was speaking. She was repeating words that she had uttered at least twenty times a day during the past week.

“It was a madness to let that fellow go. Had we but put him and his servant out of the way, we should be able now to sleep tranquil in our beds. I know their ways at Court. They might have marvelled a little at first that he should tarry so long upon his errand, that he should send them no word of its progress; but presently, seeing him no more, he would little by little have been forgotten, and with him the affair in which the Queen has been so cursedly ready to meddle.

“As it is, the fellow will go back hot with the outrage put upon him; there will be some fine talk of it in Paris; it will be spoken of as treason, as defiance of the King’s Majesty, as rebellion. The Parliament may be moved to make outlaws of us, and the end of it all—who shall foresee?”

“It is a long distance from Condillac to Paris, madame,” said her son, with a shrug.

“And you will find them none so ready to send soldiers all this way, Marquise,” the Seneschal comforted her.

“Bah! You make too sure of your security. You make too sure of what they will do, what leave undone. Time will show, my friends; and, mor-dieu! I am much at fault if you come not both to echo my regret that we did not dispose of Monsieur de Garnache and his lackey when we had them in our power.”

Her eye fell with sinister promise upon Tressan, who shivered slightly and spread his hands to the blaze, as though his shiver had been of cold. But Marius did not so readily grow afraid.

“Madame,” he said, “at the worst we can shut our gates and fling defiance at them. We are well-manned, and Fortunio is seeking fresh recruits.”

“Seeking them, yes,” she sneered. “For a week has the fellow been spending money like water, addling the brains of half Grenoble with the best wine at the Auberge de France, yet not a single recruit has come in, so far.”

Marius laughed. “Your pessimism leads you into rash conclusions,” he cried. “You are wrong. One recruit has come in.”

“One!” she echoed. “A thousand devils! A brave number that! A fine return for the river of wine with which we have washed the stomachs of Grenoble.”

“Still, it is a beginning,” ventured the Seneschal.

“Aye, and, no doubt, an ending,” she flashed back at him. “And what manner of fool may this one be, whose fortunes were so desperate that he could throw them in with ours?”

“He is an Italian—a Piedmontese who has tramped across Savoy and was on his way to Paris to make his fortune, when Fortunio caught him and made it clear to him that his fortune was made for him at Condillac. He is a lusty, stalwart fellow, speaking no word of French, who was drawn to Fortunio by discovering in him a fellow-countryman.”

Mockery flashed from the Dowager’s beautiful eyes.

“In that you have the reason of his enrolling himself. He knew no word of French, poor devil, so could not learn how rash his venture was. Could we find more such men as this one it might be well. But where shall we find them? Pish! my dear Marius, matters are little mended, nor ever will be, for the mistake we made in allowing Garnache to go his ways.”

“Madame;” again ventured Tressan, “I think that you want for hopefulness.”

“At least, I do not want for courage, Monsieur le Comte,” she answered him; “and I promise you that while I live—to handle a sword if need be—no Paris men shall set foot in Condillac.”

“Aye,” grumbled Marius, “you can contemplate that, and it is all you do contemplate. You will not see, madame that our position is far from desperate; that, after all, there may be no need to resist the King. It is three months since we had news of Florimond. Much may happen in three months when a man is warring. It may well be that he is dead.”

“I wish I knew he was—and damned,” she snapped, with a tightening of her scarlet lips.

“Yes,” agreed Marius, with a sigh, “that were an end to all our troubles.”

“I’m none so sure. There is still mademoiselle, with her new-formed friends in Paris—may a pestilence blight them all! There are still the lands of La Vauvraye to lose. The only true end to our troubles as they stand at present lies in your marrying this headstrong baggage.”

“That the step should be rendered impossible, you can but blame yourself,” Marius reminded her.

“How so?” she cried, turning sharply upon him.

“Had you kept friends with the Church, had you paid tithes and saved us from this cursed Interdict, we should have no difficulty in getting hither a priest, and settling the matter out of hand, be Valerie willing or not.”

She looked at him, scorn kindling in her glance. Then she swung round to appeal to Tressan.

“You hear him, Count,” said she. “There is a lover for you! He would wed his mistress whether she love him or not—and he has sworn to me that he loves the girl.”

“How else should the thing be done since she opposes it?” asked Marius, sulkily.

“How else? Do you ask me how else? God! Were I a man, and had I your shape and face, there is no woman in the world should withstand me if I set my heart on her. It is address you lack. You are clumsy as a lout where a woman is concerned. Were I in your place, I had taken her by storm three months ago, when first she came to us. I had carried her out of Condillac, out of France, over the border into Savoy, where there are no Interdicts to plague you, and there I would have married her.”

Marius frowned darkly, but before he could speak, Tressan was insinuating a compliment to the Marquise.

“True, Marius,” he said, with pursed lips. “Nature has been very good to you in that she has made you the very counterpart of your lady mother. You are as comely a gentleman as is to be found in France—or out of it.”

“Pish!” snapped Marius, too angered by the reflection cast upon his address, to be flattered by their praises of his beauty. “It is an easy thing to talk; an easy thing to set up arguments when we consider but the half of a question. You forget, madame, that Valerie is betrothed to Florimond and that she clings faithfully to her betrothal.”

Vertudieu!” swore the Marquise, “and what is this betrothal, what this faithfulness? She has not seen her betrothed for three years. She was a child at the time of their fiancailles. Think you her faithfulness to him is the constancy of a woman to her lover? Go your ways, you foolish boy. It is but the constancy to a word, to the wishes of her father. Think you constancy that has no other base than that would stand between her and any man who—as you might do, had you the address—could make her love him?”

“I do say so,” answered Marius firmly.

She smiled the pitying smile of one equipped with superior knowledge when confronted with an obstinate, uninformed mind.

“There is a droll arrogance about you, Marius,” she told him, quietly. “You, a fledgling, would teach me, a woman, the ways of a woman’s heart! It is a thing you may live to regret.”

“As how?” he asked.

“Once already has mademoiselle contrived to corrupt one of our men, and send him to Paris with a letter. Out of that has sprung our present trouble. Another time she may do better. When she shall have bribed another to assist her to escape; when she, herself, shall have made off to the shelter of the Queen-mother, perhaps you will regret that my counsel should have fallen upon barren ground.”

“It is to prevent any such attempt that we have placed her under guard,” said he. “You are forgetting that.”

“Forgetting it? Not I. But what assurance have you that she will not bribe her guard?”

Marius laughed, rose, and pushed back his chair.

“Madame,” said he, “you are back at your contemplation of the worst side of this affair; you are persisting in considering only how we may be thwarted. But set your mind at rest. Gilles is her sentinel. Every night he sleeps in her anteroom. He is Fortunio’s most trusted man. She will not corrupt him.”

The Dowager smiled pensively, her eyes upon the fire. Suddenly she raised them to his face. “Berthaud was none the less trusted. Yet, with no more than a promise of reward at some future time should she succeed in escaping from us, did she bribe him to carry her letter to the Queen. What happened to Berthaud that may not happen to Gilles?”

“You might change her sentry nightly,” put in the Seneschal.

“Yes, if we knew whom we could trust; who would be above corruption. As it is”—she shrugged her shoulders “that would be but to afford her opportunities to bribe them one by one until they were all ready to act in concert.”

“Why need she any sentinel at all?” asked Tressan, with some show of sense.

“To ward off possible traitors,” she told him, and Marius smiled and wagged his head.

“Madame is never done foreseeing the worst, monsieur.”

“Which shows my wisdom. The men in our garrison are mercenaries, all attached to us only because we pay them. They all know who she is and what her wealth.”

“Pity you have not a man who is deaf and dumb,” said Tressan, half in jest. But Marius looked up suddenly, his eyes serious.

“We have as good,” said he. “There is the Italian knave Fortunio enrolled yesterday, as I have told you. He knows neither her wealth nor her identity; nor if he did could he enter into traffic with her, for he knows no French, and she no Italian.”

The Dowager clapped her hands. “The very man!” she cried.

But Marius, either from sheer perverseness, or because he did not share her enthusiasm, made answer: “I have faith in Gilles.”

“Yes,” she mocked him, “and you had faith in Berthaud. Oh, if you have faith in Gilles, let him remain; let no more be said.”

The obstinate boy took her advice, and shifted the subject, speaking to Tressan of some trivial business connected with the Seneschalship.

But madame, woman-like, returned to the matter whose abandoning she had herself suggested. Marius, for all his affected disdain of it, viewed it with a certain respect. And so in the end they sent for the recruit.

Fortunio—who was no other than the man Garnache had known as “Sanguinetti”—brought him, still clad in the clothes in which he had come. He was a tall, limber fellow, with a very swarthy skin and black, oily-looking hair that fell in short ringlets about his ears and neck, and a black, drooping mustache which gave him a rather hang-dog look. There was a thick stubble of beard of several days’ growth about his chin and face; his eyes were furtive in their glances, but of a deep blue that contrasted oddly with his blackness when he momentarily raised them.

He wore a tattered jerkin, and his legs, in default of stockings, were swathed in soiled bandages and cross-gartered from ankle to knee. He stood in a pair of wooden shoes, from one of which peeped forth some wisps of straw, introduced, no doubt, to make the footgear fit. He slouched and shuffled in his walk, and he was unspeakably dirty. Nevertheless, he was girt with a sword in a ragged scabbard hanging from a frayed and shabby belt of leather.

Madame scanned him with interest. The fastidious Marius eyed him with disgust. The Seneschal peered at him curiously through shortsighted eyes.

“I do not think I have ever seen a dirtier ruffian,” said he.

“I like his nose,” said madame quietly. “It is the nose of an intrepid man.”

“It reminds me of Garnache’s,” laughed the Seneschal.

“You flatter the Parisian,” commented Marius.

The mercenary, meanwhile, stood blandly smiling at the party, showing at least a fine array of teeth, and wearing the patient, attentive air of one who realizes himself to be under discussion, yet does not understand what is being said.

“A countryman of yours, Fortunio?” sneered Marius.

The captain, whose open, ingenuous countenance dissembled as villainous a heart as ever beat in the breast of any man, disowned the compatriotism with a smile.

“Hardly, monsieur,” said he. “‘Battista’ is a Piedmontese.” Fortunio himself was a Venetian.

“Is he to be relied upon, think you?” asked madame. Fortunio shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands. It was not his habit to trust any man inordinately.

“He is an old soldier,” said he. “He has trailed a pike in the Neapolitan wars. I have cross-questioned him, and found his answers bore out the truth of what he said.”

“And what brings him to France?” asked Tressan. The captain smiled again, and there came again that expressive shrug of his. “A little over-ready with the steel,” said he.

They told Fortunio that they proposed to place him sentry over mademoiselle instead of Gilles, as the Italian’s absolute lack of French would ensure against corruption. The captain readily agreed with them. It would be a wise step. The Italian fingered his tattered hat, his eyes on the ground.

Suddenly madame spoke to him. She asked him for some account of himself and whence he came, using the Italian tongue, of which she had a passing knowledge. He followed her questions very attentively, at times with apparent difficulty, his eyes on her face, his head craned a little forward.

Now and then Fortunio had to intervene, to make plainer to this ignorant Piedmontese mind the Marquise’s questions. His answers came in a deep, hoarse voice, slurred by the accent of Piedmont, and madame—her knowledge of Italian being imperfect—had frequently to have recourse to Fortunio to discover the meaning of what he said.

At last she dismissed the pair of them, bidding the captain see that he was washed and more fittingly clothed.

An hour later, after the Seneschal had taken his departure to ride home to Grenoble, it was madame herself, accompanied by Marius and Fortunio, who conducted Battista—such was the name the Italian had given—to the apartments above, where mademoiselle was now confined practically a prisoner.

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