Royal Magazine, October 190
Out of the Dice Box
by Rafael Sabatini
The dice rattled merrily upon the table, and the two men bent over to watch the issue of the throw, their faces white with eagerness.
At last the rattle ceasedit had been one of those impetuous, half-angry throws which send the dice rolling across the boardthe cubes came to a standstill, and with bated breath the men counted the fateful black dots. Then with a half-stifled oath, Stanislas de Gouvillethe younger playersank back into his chair. The muscles of his livid face were contracted for a moment as though he had been beset by physical painfor a moment and no more. He had been a gamester too long not to have learnt how to lose like a gentleman, with smiling countenance, even thoughas in the present instancethe loss might be total, irreparable and pauperising.
It was with a smilealbeit a ghastly onethat he turned again to his companion.
"I pray you forget my momentary excitement," he said wearily. "It was unworthy of me; but what would you, my dear La Fosse? I am like Francis the First after the battle of PaviaI have lost all save honour."
La Fosse wore a look of polite contrition. There is a weighty responsibility in having diced every night for a month with a man, and in having during that time won first his money, thensteadily, yard by yard and acre by acrethe land of his estate, and, finally, his very chàteau with all the treasures it contains. It is, perchance, a thing to be merry at, but decency forbids this mirth to be indulged in the presence of the vanquished. And so, albeit happy enough at heart, La Fosse's breeding compelled him to look glum and pained. He was anxious to quit Gouville's society; but here again politeness interfered, for the house was his, and he might not order Gouville to leave.
Stanislas de Gouville, on the other hand, showed scant eagerness to be gone, He sat in his chair, toying listlessly with the dice-box, which he had not relinquished since his last disastrous throw, and wondering vaguely how he might live henceforthor whether he would live at all. He thought tooand this was the bitterest thought that could beset himof the beautiful and queenly Mademoiselle de Grandcourt, and of how he must now abandon all hope of ever winning her for his wife.
He tilted the dice-box upwards, and gazed for a moment into it with vacant eye; then flinging the cursed thing that had wrought his ruin, on to the table, he gave vent to a mirthless laugh.
"La Fosse," he cried in a voice that was curiously playful, "has your good fortune made you dumb? St. Gris, but you are the dullest fellow I ever sat with."
"What would you?" deprecated La Fosse with a shrug.
"What would I? I would see you merry. In Heaven's name, let us have more Armagnac. That bottle has stood empty for the last half-hour."
La Fosse mumbled an apology for his abstraction, and more wine was brought, of which he drank half a goblet. Gouville finished the bottle quietly, unconsciously, and babbling away at scraps of court gossip the while. And gradually as he drank, the ice of misery that had gathered round his heart was thawed, and he became again the merry, reckless Stanislas to whom it was said, belonged the wittiest tongue and sharpest sword at the court of Louis XIV.
Bottle followed bottle, and at last, as midnight was striking from the belfry of St. Jacques, Gouville staggered to his feet, and passing his hand across his forehead mumbled something about having drunk over-much, As he rose, André de La Fosse, who had sat silent and pensive for the last quarter of an hour, rose also.
"Let me express my regret, Stanislas," he murmured not unkindly, "at the scurvy treatment you have suffered at the hands of fortune. Come, mon ami, better luck next time!"
Stanislas gazed vacantly round the richly furnished room, then laughed.
"Too late, La Fosse, too late," he answered. "There will be no next time. This," he added, taking up his sword from a chair, and holding it aloft by the baldrick"is my last and only possession. It is the only piece of value saved from the wreck of my fortunes, and, I take it, La Fosse," he concluded flippantly, "that you are not in want of a rapier."
La Fosse answered nothing for a moment. Then with a quick exclamation, such as escapes a man who is suddenly smitten by a great idea
"God knows I am!" he cried. "I am in want of a rapierof your rapier, Stanislas,"
Gouville stared at him for a moment, incredulous.
"Then, by the Mass, there it is," and he dropped it with a clatter on the table. "How much will you stake against it? Say fifty pistolesthe hilt alone is worth as much'twas chiselled by Le Cannu."
La Fosse went white to the lips.
"Not fifty pistoles, but fifty thousand. Nay moreI'll stake everything that I have won from you during the past month. Every acre of your estate in Normandy will I lay against that sword of yours on a single throw."
Stanislas drew his hand across his brow, as if to brush aside some unseen mist that clogged his understanding, and stared with drunken solemnity at his companion.
"And yet, La Fosse," he said in a puzzled tone, "it did not seem to me that you drank over much to-night. But perchance I did not notice."
"Oh, I'm sober enough, Gouville, never fear."
"You are, eh? Then, by my life, I must be more drunk than I had thought. Did you say something just now about dicing for my sword?"
In a voice that shook with excitement, La Fosse repeated his preposterous offer.
"Perdition take me if I understand how a sword can be of such value to you."
"Not a sword, Stanislas, but your sword. Your sword with your unerring arm and brain to guide it."
"Peste! I understand. You have an enemy."
La Fosse nodded.
"Wellyou wear a sword yourself."
"Aye, but a useless one in this matter. Sit down and listen to me," he cried excitedly. "To begin with I am in love."
"You are wasting words, La Fosse. It goes without saying, that in a case of this character there must be a woman. And wherever there is a woman it is a forgone conclusion that you love her. Your susceptibilities are proverbial, mon cher."
"Possibly," said La Fossetoo eager now to entertain resentment. "But the present affair is no jest. It is my intention to make Mademoiselleerthe lady in question, my wife. Unfortunately, that accursed bully, the Marquis de Belcourt, is of a like mind touching the same lady, and to gain his ends he will, if necessary, have recourse to violence. Would you credit it de Gouville, that here in this very room not a fortnight ago he had the effrontaery to threaten me that if I ever dared to wed her, he would send me a challenge before I left the altar?"
"What was your answer?"
"I vouchsafed him none. I ordered him from the house."
"That was well done. And now?"
"Until to-night it was my intention to disregard the threat, and, should my suit prosperas indeed I have good reason to believe it willto marry the lady, albeit I might leave her a widow before I took her home. I put myself in the hands of Mathurin, the fencing master; he did his best for me, but it is of no avail; I am a clumsy fool with a rapier, whilst Belcourt is with one exception the best swordsman in Paris."
"That one exception?"
"Yourself," he answered, eying the slender, dissipated, and almost effeminate-looking young man before him. "Ah, Gouville," he went on hurriedly, "I am ashamed to crave your aid in a matter which a gentleman should settle for himself. But life is sweetat least, it will be sweet if she is kind. You tempted me to-night when you dangled your sword in the air. The temptation has proved too much for me. I offer to stake the fortune I have won from you against this service. Nay more, Gouville, I will do this: I will set the Gouville estates against your sword. If you win, your fortune is restored to you and the matter is ended so far as it concerns you. If you lose, I claim your services to pick a quarrel with Belcourt and rid me of him, and I will give you back your estate so soon as you have fulfilled that part of the bargain. Whichever way the dice fall out they will set you in the position you have lost. Allons, Gouville, accept!"
La Fosse's accents had well nigh become a whine, and as he stopped, he held out his hands supplicatingly. But Gouville was irresponsive.
"What if by luck or skill Belcourt proves master, and runs me through?" he enquired coldly.
"I'll take the risk of that."
"Vraiement! it seems to me that I shall take the risk of that. Tell me, La Fosse," he added, "why should I not use the sword you covet, against you now? I might choose to be insulted by your proposal, and kill you for it on the spot. What then, my friend? Who would there be to say that I had ever lost the Normandy estates? Tell me; what is to impede me from doing this?"
"You are a man of honour."
"You acknowledge it, La Fosse, and yet you ask me to do the work of a common bravo? Bah!" he cried, staggering once more from his chair. "Where are the dice? You are taking an infernal advantage of me because I am drunk. But it had best be done now, for there would be no excuse for me were I sober. The dice, man, pass the dice!"
La Fosse obeyed him in silence, and with trembling fingers gathered the cubes into the box and handed it to his companion.
"St. Gris, have you got the palsy, La Fosse? Here goes, and may the devil help me, for he is of a certainty in the business."
He threw quick and carelessly.
"There," he cried, surveying the three aces with a scowl, "I knew it, Did you ever see ill-luck cling more fondly to a man? Do not give yourself the trouble of throwing, La Fosse. It is not worth the time you'll waste on it. Be good enough to pass me my hat and call your servant to light me down the stairs. Good-night, La Fosse," he babbled on. I am a rich man again, but Pardieu, you have the best of the bargain. Belcourt had better make his peace with Mother Church; he'll want a shrift presently. Good-night!"
As Gouville walked home he was far from happy with himself. Cloak it as he would, the fact remained that he had accepted a bravo's task. There was a moment when he was on the point of going back to tell La Fosse that he preferred to starve in honour than to thrive with the stain of an unclean action on his escutcheon. What would Madeleine de Grandcourt say if ever she knew? But on the other hand, how could he press his suit if he were a beggar?
The thought decided him. He must pursue the road upon which Fortune and his friend, La Fosse, had thrust him that night.
Still, during the days that followed, he was loth to bring matters to an issue, and did little towards seeking a quarrel with Belcourt. Most of his time was spent in the Louvre, andas often as she would tolerate itat Mademoiselle de Grandcourt's side. But his wooing wore not a favourable aspect. Did he grow serious, Mademoiselle's rippling laugh would mock him. Did he wax ardent, did he attempt to speak of what was in his heart, Mademoiselle's cold glance and curling lip would freeze him into silence.
There were moments when this woman would so sting his spirit with a cruel word or glance that he wondered why he did not hate her. How often did he not register the vow to see her no more? And yet next day would find him at her side again.
He had all but forgotten the task which La Fosse had set him, and seeing that La Fosse had not the entrée to the Louvre, whereas I have saidthe best part of Gouville's time was spent, there was not his presence to remind Stanislas of what lay between them.
They met in the Place Royale one day, about a fortnight after the compact had been made, and La Fosse chided his friend for his inertness in the matter. Gouville was out of humour at the time, fresh from the torture of Mademoiselle's indifference, and ready to shed bloodno matter whose. It needed only La Fosse's information that he had seen Belcourt enter the auberge of L'Epée de Bayard a few minutes before to send Stanislas hurrying to the inn in quest of the Marquis.
He found him in the common room, at table with half-a-dozen friends, and as he hurried through, he contrived to tread upon the Marquis' foot.
"You clumsy, ill-bred clown." bellowed the Marquis, "Have you no eyes?"
Stanislas turned sharply and faced the bully.
"Surely, Monsieur," he said with a calm, sinister smile, "those words were not addressed to me?"
Now a bully is wont to become a coward in the presence of a better man. Belcourt recognised Stanislas, and his manner changed with the rapidity of lightning.
"You hurt my foot, Monsieur," he made answer," and for the moment I forgot my manners. I have no quarrel with you Monsieur de Gouville."
"Ah! Since you apologise the affair is ended," quoth Gouville with marked impertinence; and shrugging his shoulders he turned away and seated himself at some little distance. He had expected thus to have exasperated Belcourt and provoked him into further forgetfulness, but he was disappointed. The bully reddened slightly, and followed Gouville's graceful, foppish figure with his dark, scowling eyes, but was silent.
The evident timidity which the Marquis displayed upon this occasion, proved, however, an incentive to Stanislas, who contrived thereafter to find himself as often as possible in the company of Belcourt. Three days later a fresh chance presented itself.
It was at one of St. Auban's famous supper parties; M. de Belcourt was entertaining the company with the details of a duel which had been fought the day before at St. Germain betweem two celebrated dandies of the court. He was describing the manner in which M. des Cazeaux had tricked his opponent so as to obtain the opening for the lunge in tierce which had brought the combat to an end, when Stanislas, who now heard the particulars for the first time, interrupted him.
M. de Belcourt is mistaken," he said leaning across the table, "the lunge was not in tierce."
The Marquis raised his eyebrows in astonishment, and stared for a moment at the young man.
"Will M. de Gouville be pleased to tell us what the lunge was?" he enquired with a scowl.
"Certainly. It was in quinte."
"I will confess that the stroke was delivered rather high, nevertheless"
"It was in quinte," Gouville insisted rudely.
"It was not," thundered Belcourt, determined not to be outdone in politeness.
There followed a dead silence whilst the two men eyed each other across the lavsihly appointed tableBelcourt flushed and threatening; Gouville calm and disdainful. Then Stanislas pushed back his chair and rose slowly to his feet.
"You have heard me state, Messieurs, that the lunge we are discussing was delivered in quinte; you have heard M. de Belcourt say flatly that it was not. In other words, Messieurs, you have heard de Belcourt say that I lie."
"Sangdieu!" cried Belcourt. "You misapprehend me."
"Did you witness the encounter?"
"That question should have preceded your contradiction, M. le Marquis," was Gouville's diplomatic answer. "It is now beside the matter. I have said that the lunge was in quinte, and if you still entertain a doubt, I shall be happy to convince you by showing you the identical disengage at any time convenient to yourself."
Those present looked askance into each other's faces; was ever an affaire d'honneur hung upon a weaker peg? But Belcourt's answer struck the flimsy weapon of pretext from Gouville's hand.
"Bah!" he cried with a laugh of affected bonhomie. "There is no quarrel between us, M. de Gouville, and, by my faith, I do not see that a difference of opinion concerning the stroke which sent M. de Cazeaux to the devil, should occasion one. Hence I see no reason for troubling you to illustrate the lunge."
To persist after that would be to betray his purpose, to provoke M. de Belcourt into a duel.
Bitterly did Stanislas complain to La Fosse next day of his lack of success. Belcourt was eager enough to fight as a rule, but he unquestionably stood in awe of Gouville, and was determined at any cost to avoid a rupture with him.
Fortune appeared to have churlishly turned her back upon Stanislas, and he fared as ill in love as at play and in war.
His Grace the Duc de Sauveterre gave a great ball during the following week to celebrate the fiançailles of his eldest son. The court was graciously pleased to attend the fête, which accounted for the presence at the Palais Sauveterre of both Mademoiselle de Grandcourt and M. de Gouville. M. le Marquis de Belcourt was also there, resplendent in a suit of white satin, and intent upon avoiding Stanislasa precaution which he might have spared himself, for Gouville was too eager upon a quest of his own to even remark his presence.
When Mademoiselle whispered to him that the heat was stifling and that a breath of cool air would be a boon, Stanislas realised that for once the gods were kind. He offered her his arm, and led her from the gaily thronged ball-room out on to the terrace.
The moon was up and the tepid breath of that summer night was sweetened by the scent of the rose garden beyond. As he sank down beside her on the stone seat, Stanislas felt himself overcome by the seductions of the hour, the scene, the perfume, the music floating out to them from the windows behind, andto crown allby her beloved presence.
And sheshe too appeared to be under the magnetic spell of her surroundings, and when he spoke, softly at first, then passionately and convincingly, she did not interrupt him with her wonted raillery. Yet when he had done, and stood bending over herso close that for a moment his long black locks were mingled with her auburn hairand craved, with suppliance in his tone, an answer, she drew away with a merry laugh.
"You are a pretty fellow, M. de Gouville," she said airily, "truly the prettiest I know, and you have a vastly seductive tongue. But what you ask is impossible."
Gouville was crushed. His ready wit found no reply, and he stood with bowed head and clenched hands cursing the presumption that had bidden him hope to win where so many better men had failed. Was it for this that he bartered the honour of his sword?
"You are a courtier. M. de Gouville," Mademoiselle pursued, "and I do not want a courtier for a husband."
He found his tongue at last, stung to anger by her heartlessness.
"Had I foreseen, Mademoiselle, that your ambition is to wed a churl, I should have spared you this interview."
"So! We are angry now? Nay, nay, not a churl, Monsieur," she answered sweetly, "but a brave man; a bold, daring, manly man; not a man with two yards of lace and a score of ribbons to his doublet, and with the perfume of a dozen bouquets in his dainty clothes."
"Duguesclin has been dead some centuries, Mademoiselle," he said in a hard voice, "did he still live you might hope some day to marry. We had best go within."
There was a commanding note in his voice which was new to Madeleine, and which made her will subservient to his. Meekly she rose, and taking his arm without another word, allowed herself to be led into the ante-chamber, where he bowed with averted eyes, and left her.
With fire in his bosom. Stanislas went forthwith in quest of Belcourt. Whilst the mood endured that was then upon him he felt little doubt but that he should be able to force a quarrel upon the Marquis and thus fulfil the compact upon which he had entered with La Fosse. With bitterness he thought of the motives that had urged him to undertake the task and of the disappointment he had suffered, but, albeit a motive there no longer was, there was still his plighted word, andeven had that been lackingthere was the angry mood that beset him and drove him with ferocious joy to meditate bloodshed.
But again fortune showed him scant favour. Belcourt was nowhere to be found. From room to room he went seeking that conspicuous figure in white that he had remarked earlier in the evening, yet ever without success.
He made enquiries, and learnt at length that M. le Marquis had left the Palais Sauveterre an hour ago. Whither he had gone his informer could not tell him, so that Gouville was forced to set a curb upon his impatience and abandon, for the while, his quest.
The light and mirth about him being ill-attuned to his mood, he wandered out into the garden again, and there flung himself upon the very seat where but awhile ago his suit had been derided.
Hardly was he seated when the gravel behind him crunched 'neath an approaching step, and
"Do you seek M. de Belcourt?" said a man's voice at his elbow.
"I do, indeed," he answered, turning sharply and beholding to his surprise a lacquey, "can you tell me where I may find him?"
"I escorted him to his carriage half an hour ago Monsieur; he was met by two men to whom I heard him give as a rendez-vous the Rue du Guet at midnight."
In an instant Gouville was upon his feet, and, having rewarded the fellow for his information, he went within to get his cloak and sword. It wanted a quarter of an hour to midnight, so that there was just time for him to reach the Rue du Guet afoot.
He dismissed his carriage at the door of the Palais Sauveterre, feeling himself beset by that restlessness which impels a man to physical action.Thinking of many things, and cursing most, he stalked moodily along until he had reached the corner of the Rue du Guet, when suddenly his attention was arrested by a woman's cry for help. As he paused to listen, the cry was repeated, and so piteously that it drove all thoughts of Belcourt from Gouville's mind, and without another moment's delay, he set off at a run in the direction of the sound, drawing his sword as he went.
Not two hundred yards down the street he came upon a coach, from which three men were endeavouring to drag a resisting woman. The body of a man lay inert upon the ground, and Stanislas was quick to surmise him to be the luckless coachman.
He was upon the ruffians before they suspected his approach, and had run his sword through the nearest of them ere the fellow could draw.
Alarmed by this sudden and unlooked-for interference, the other two sprang back from the coach, and one of them plucking a pistol from his belt fired upon the intruder. But in his haste he aimed too high, and before he could repair his error the point of Gouville's sword was protruding from his back.
So quickly had it all taken place that Stanislas had disengaged his blade and stood ready for the third, before the fellow had got out his sword. He might have fallen upon him and slain him before he could guard himself, but his chivalrous spirit witheld him from taking so mean an advantage from a single man. He lowered his point and surveyed the tall, lithe figure before him, vainly endeavouring to pierce the shadows which the man's hat cast upon his face.
"Draw, sir," he cried, "I await you."
The man was quick to comply with so gallant an invitation, and the next moment their blades clashed. It was a short combat, though the tall man fought well and fiercely. Stanislas was his master and presently his sword glided in under the fellow's guard, and the deadly point caught him in the throat. He fell without a groan, and, as Stanislas knelt to see if he were dead, a cry of surprise escaped him, as there in the moonlight he beheld the livid, distorted face, and staring eyes of the Marquis de Belcourt. The rendez-vous which the lacquey told him Belcourt had appointed was suddenly remembered, and, in a flash, he understood the situation.
Then, before he had recovered from his astonishment, he felt a hand upon his shoulder.
"Bravely fought, my gallant knight! You were wrong, Duguesclin still lives, but his name to-day is Stanislas de Gouville."
In an instant he was upon his feet.
"You!" he gasped, at the sight of the girl who stood before him with hands held forth in a mute appeal for comfort and forgiveness. For a moment the memory of their last words rose up before him, and he stood aloof and half disdainful. Then her glorious beauty and the look in her eyes defeated his ungentle purpose. He opened his arms and took her, half laughing, half sobbing, into their shelter.
"My note of hand, La Fosse," cried Stanislas gaily next morning as he burst in upon his friend. "I have fulfilled my part of the bargain. St. Gris, I was in luck last night! The same blow that killed Belcourt won me the heart of the loveliest woman in France."
And briefly he related what had taken place.
"'Tis passing strange," murmured La Fosse with a clouded brow. "Who is the lady?"
"Fool! Did I not say the loveliest woman in France? Mademoiselle de Grandcourt."
With ashen face La Fosse turned hastily towards a small sécretaire, from which he took a paper.
There is your note of hand for the Normandy estates, Gouville. I thank you for ridding me of Belcourt," he continued, mastering his agitation, "and with all my heart I wish you joy of your conquest."
Gouville crumpled the scrap of paper into his pocket with a smile.
"Au revoir, mon ami," he cried, putting forth his hand, "and may your suit prosper as well as mine, now that the obstacle is removed from your path."
La Fosse took the proferred hand, and answered his unsuspecting friend with a brave smile.
But when Stanislas was gone, amd La Fosse was alone with his feelings, he gave vent to a bitter laugh at the irony of it all. He had restored a fortune to the bankrupt Stanislas as the price at which he was to remove the man who opposed his wooing of Madeleine de Grandcourt, and whilst Stanislas had accomplished this, he had wooed and won the lady for himself.
Sinking into a chair André de La Fosse buried his face in his hands, and cursed the fates that had played him so scurvy a trick.
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