Ainslee's, October 1903
The Duellist's Wife
by Rafael Sabatini
His first book of verses"Autumn Leaves"had run into a third edition within six months; the reviewers had been more than kind; the public was reading him, and he was in a fair way to realize the ambitions of his youth.
Yet Rudolph Lumley was unhappy.
His thoughts were retrospective. They dwelt upon the different women, a transient affection for each of whom had inspired the verses which had been collected and given to the world under the pathetic title of "Autumn Leaves."
Particularly and with much bitterness did they dwell upon the last of these flames to which he had played the moth, and who had married a friend of his.
He brooded so much and so bitterly over this that in the end he took a determination to again leave the England to which he was but newly returned.
On a visit of congé he sought out a friend of his who had recently wed.
"I've only come to say 'good-by,'" he announced in reply to his friend's cheery greeting.
"But," cried Burleigh, "you've only been in England three days!"
"Three days too long," growled the poet.
Burleighwho had seen similar symptoms beforeeyed him narrowly and sniffed.
"On the warpath again, eh? Well, what's her name?"
"My dear Herbert," said the poet loftily, "whatever matrimony may have done for you it has not improved your manners."
"It would be vain," returned the other, "to seek to improve that which the gods have made perfect. But if not a womanwhat is it takes you away again so suddenly?"
"The wish to be rid of the society of women. I have done with them for good."
"My dear Roody," quoth the critical Burleigh, "however fascinating a pursuit may be we can render it stale by abusing it. I quite understand your feelings. As a pastime you found love charming, no doubt. But you wore away its charm by indulging it too freely, too frequently andmay I add?too indiscriminately. Love is the sugar of life. But what happens to the man who takes sugar with all his viands? I will tell you."
"You needn't trouble; it really doesn't matter. Besides, it no longer concerns me; I have done with the sex. Women are the most inconstant, the most fickle, the most"
"Hang it all," cried Burleigh, "you forget I'm married."
Roody might, and was on the point of offering condolences to his friend. For obvious reasons he restrained himself.
"I shall probably be in Paris the day after tomorrow," he said presently, "and I should like to look up old Fournailles. Can you give me his address?"
"I have his card somewhere," answered Burleigh, and turning to a little escritoire he began to search for it. "Poor old Fournailles," he sighed.
"Oh, he's poor no longer," returned the poet. "He has become both rich and famous."
"Still," objected the other, whose sentiments were eminently patrician, and whose cult was the adoration of the useless, "it is a trifle derogatory for a man of his birth to be compelled to open a fencing school and turn what was a pretty accomplishment into a profession."
"The profession of a master of fence is a most gentlemanly one."
"Quite so, quite so, and it makes a man respected, which is much. Ah, here's his card."
Roody took the card, which bore the name of Jules de Fournailles, the description "Maître d'armes," and the address "Rue Copernic No. 13." He glanced at it and slipped it into his case with a sigh.
"I'll look him up for the sake of old times, and perhaps a bout or two with the foils may shake me into a more optimistic frame of mind. Exercise is a great antidote to despondency. I'll give him your love, Herbert."
Gloomily Rudolph Lumley paced the deck of the Calais-bound packet. A look of settled melancholy chastened his intellectualif weakface, and, combined with its natural pallor, gave him the interesting air of one who has done with the follies of the world and looked deep into the eyes of sorrow.
That was precisely the air which the poet wished to assume, for in a deck chair, a neglected magazine in her lap, and her eyes fixed pensively upon the glistening water, sat a strikingly pretty woman in black.
Of course she nowise interested Lumley. Her sex to him was a book wherein he had read but sorrow, and which he had closed for all time. Still he could not but observe that she was a pretty woman, and as for the tenth time he passed before her, his sorrow wrapped about him like a cloak, he caught himself drawing a parallel between the color of her eyes and that of the water they contemplateda comparison by which the water suffered in a marked degree.
At Calais he hovered near her with a satellite-like movement, hoping for no reason whatever that her French might prove insufficient and that he might lend her some of his. But in this he was disappointed.
He heard her tell a porter that she was going to Bâle, and again he sufferedfor no reason in the worlda pang of disappointment. He saw her pass out on to the platform with an elderly lady and a maid. He observed the grace of her figure, the stateliness of her carriage, the ruddy wealth of her hair, and again he registeredwith a sighthe fact that she was an enchanting creature.
Then, having almost an hour to spare, he sauntered into the buffet, and delivered himself up to the material pleasures of gastronomy.
He emerged once more on to the platform of the Gare Maritime as the end of the Engadine Express was vanishing out of the station. It occurred to him that she would be on board the train, and he smiled sadly and cynically without any apparent reason.
Suddenly, to his amazement, he beheld her on the platform talking excitedly to the Chef de Gare, and her words being wafted to him, he learned that her mother and her maid had gone on the express, which she had unfortunately missed. The station master advised her to wire that she would follow by the ordinary train leaving in half an hour's time.
She brushed past Lumley on her way to the telegraph office, and some subtle, delicate perfume that she exhaled bewildered him and completed the rout of his senses. Before she had vanished he had resolved that he, too, would go to Switzerland. What did hea saddened misanthropistseek in Paris, that pandemonium of human folly, that altar raised to the elusive god of pleasure?
No. It was the mountains, the eternal snows, the peace and majesty of nature that Lumley wanted, and in which he might find solace for his lacerated heart. He pretended to forget that the beautiful unknown with the Venetian hair and the statuesque figure was going to Bâle. How could that possibly interest him or affect his movements?
A quarter of an hour later he boarded the train for Bâle, and quite accidentally he saw her as he passed down the corridor, and entered a smoking compartment next to hers. He was alone, and he spent his time alternately in reading, thinking and going out into the corridor, ostensibly to admire the flat inadmirable landscape, surreptitiously to glance at her. She was sharing her coupé with a harsh-featured woman; a circumstance which though small in itself happens to have afforded the motif of that which followed.
At Laon the poet alighted to bolt an exceedingly bad dinner. He returned to find his carriage occupied. Metaphorically he rubbed his eyes upon discovering that the tenant was the beautiful unknown. She met his glances calmly, and without embarrassment.
"I trust, sir," she said, with great dignity, "that you will pardon my intrusion. But the lady in the next carriage has very pronounced views on ventilation, which unfortunately do not coincide with my own. She insists upon an open window. I could endure it during the day, but it is out of the question in the evening. I knew this to be a smoking carriage, but I also knew that it had only one occupant, and I thought you wouldn't mind. The fore part of the train is so crowded, and I don't mind tobacco in the least."
The poet protested that she need not say another word. He even went in his excitement the length of saying that he was charmed, and he sweepingly condemned the selfishness of travelers in the matter of ventilation.
His papers he placed at her disposal; she thanked him prettily and accepted the offer. Presently she let drop a desultory remark upon literature, which he snatched at to open a conversation. She had read everything, and held most definite and original views which enchanted him. They talked of the stage next. She had seen everything and everybody. The stage as a topic was succeeded by music and art, and he found her no less versed in both these subjects.
Then quite suddenly he asked her if she had read "Autumn Leaves". She had, and she admired the work. He withheld all mention of his authorship. That was something with which he would surprise her when they were better acquainted. From which it will be seen that already he was looking ahead.
At ten o'clock the attendant from the wagon-lit came to announce that his berth was ready, and he left herhis head in a whirl, his misery forgotten, and with it the fickle cause thereof.
He lay awake an inordinately long time, and his thoughts were of her whom he had but left. It was absurd, he saidforgetting the impressionable quality of his naturethat he should so dwell upon a woman whom twelve hours ago he had not seen. He thought of her wit, her beauty, her grace, her charm of manner, and he told himself that here was a woman fitted indeed to be his mate. A woman that would understand and help him in his work.
They met at six o'clock next morning on the platform at Bâle, and he learned that she was going to Zug.
"How fortunate," he exclaimed, in well-feigned surprise. "I am going there myself."
He did not deem it necessary to add that he had only just made up his mind to do so. They took their coffee at the same table, and the poet's spirits were rising fast. He saw to her luggage afterward, and had it put on the Gottardbahn, via Zürich, into which train he presently handed her.
They travelled vis-à-vis, and all went merrily until Olten was passed, when suddenly
"At what time did you say we get to Lucerne?" she inquired.
"You mean Zürich"
"No, no. Lucerne, of course."
"Lucerne?" he echoed, in surprise. "We don't go to Lucerne."
"We don't go to Lucerne?" she repeated after him, as if she didn't understand.
"It is not the usual way from Bâle to Zug," he explained reassuringly. "The direct route is via Zürich without changing."
"But my mother is waiting for me at Lucerne! I telegraphed her to do so."
"Oh Lord!" he ejaculated, adding the suggestion that she had better wire.
"But I don't know where to find her. She will meet this trainI mean she will meet the train I should have gone by; it gets there at nine something. Oh, how stupid!"
"I am ever so sorry," said the poet, penitently, "and I am afraid that it is all my fault. You had better telegraph to all the hotels in Lucerne; but I would suggest that you do so from Zug."
After that the poet was crestfallen. He felt that he had lost ground in her good graces.
Zug, however, was reached, and they went to the Zugerhof, whence he assisted her to dispatch telegrams to each of the principal Lucerne hotels. This done they sat down to await events. Easier in mind, she permitted him after lunch to show her around the quaint little town. Together they admired the Rigi and the Pilatus, and the poet waxed rhetorical on the subject of eternal snows.
At his suggestion they took the steamer across the lake to Arth, and it was evening before they got back to Zug again.
"I really can't thank you sufficiently for your kindness," she said as they paced the deck of the little ferry steamer.
"Say rather that you cannot sufficiently blame me for my stupid blunder this morning."
"No, no, it was quite my fault. I should have told you. However, we have had a delightful dayif," she added, archly glancing up at him, "an exceedingly unconventional one."
"Like stolen fruit," said he, daringly, "our associationmay I say?has been all the sweeter on that account."
She looked up sharply, meeting the solemn glance of his wide-set, thoughtful eyes, and she laughed.
"Well, you know, mother is not very far away. Just behind that little mountain," and she pointed to the Pilatus.
"Yes," he agreed, "quite close to, in fact. Close yet invisible and beyond earshot, like a considerate chaperon. I look forward to meeting that estimable lady."
"She will thank you for having taken care of me, Mr,," she broke off in some confusion, to add: "Why, I don't even know your name! Is it not droll?"
The poet braced himself for his coup de théâtre. Already in his fancyhis imagination was boundlesshe saw the light of interest leaping to her eye at the disclosure of his identity with the author of "Autumn Leaves," which she admired. Inspired by her, who could say that but before the next autumn closed around them he might not have a second and a worthier book to offer her?
"My name, dear lady," said he, dreamily, his black eyes expressing a sort of sad deprecation, "may possibly not be unknown to you."
"Ah, you are then a personage?"
"A very humble one, I fear."
"What a deprecating tone!"
"Life teaches a man to shrug his shoulders," he replied, pathetically.
"You are a politician?"
"Oh, no. Nothing so consequential and useful. I am only"
But a cry from his companion arrested him in his introduction.
"What's the matter?"
"My husband," was the pregnant answer.
And he, following the direction of her glance, beheld a tall, slender man in black pacing the jetty which they were approaching. Something very like a groan escaped him.
"Now, isn't that fortunate?" she cried.
"Damnable I call it," said the poet to himself.
"He was to have joined us at Lucerne, and I suppose one of the telegrams must have found mother, and brought him over here."
But she was wrong in her conclusions. Monsieur Bernadot, her husband, had indeed met her mother at Lucerne, and had been sent on to Zug to prepare for their coming. He had gone to the Hirsch Hotel, where, a couple of hours after his arrival, he had received an alarming telegram from his mother-in-law, to the effect that his wife had disappeared.
In dismay, he had been on the point of going to Lucerne, when, in the station, his eye fell upon a dressing bag which he recognized as his wife's. He was informed that it was being taken to the Zugerhof, and thither he repaired hot-foot to receive the news that the lady owning that bag had arrived there that morning accompanied by a gentleman. Monsieur Bernadot, who was of an extremely jealous nature, fell into a paroxysm of rage. He was told that the lady and her companion had gone out with the intention of taking the steamer to Arth and back. And so on the jetty he waited, his anger white-hot, to receive them.
In a private room of the Zugerhof sat Madam Bernadot very pale and tearful, while her lord and master crossed and re-crossed the chamber in great strides, waved his arms like a windmill and talked steadily at the rate of some three hundred wordsone hundred of which were vituperativeto the minute.
Lumley, calm. serene and suave, sat upon the sofa, and waited until the Frenchman, for want of breath, should be compelled to pause, and would allow him to insert a word or two. To Lumley the situation presented a humorous as well as a tragic side. It was unfortunate that he had not told the lady his name after all; upon the fact of her not knowing it rested the present situation. Believe that she really did not know it, Bernadot could not; he very naturally inferred that she purposely withheld it.
At length, with a dramatic gesture, the Frenchman challenged the poet to say something.
"With pleasure," said Lumley, with a charming smile, and in a French that contained not the faintest vestige of an alien accent. "In the first place, monsieur, permit me to observe that you are behaving in a very ridiculous manner."
"Ridiculous?" roared Bernadot.
"In the second place," continued the poet, calmly, "you are behaving in a very unworthy manner, and you are placing this excellent lady, who has the misfortune to be your wife, in an exceedingly, and wholly unnecessarily painful position."
"Has monsieur the effrontery to assume a tone of persiflage? I demand that you explain yourself."
"The demand is an interruption that only serves to retard the explanation." was the bland reply. "I had the honor to meet this lady twenty-four hours ago at Laon."
And he proceeded to give the details of their meeting en voiture, of the slight services that he had had the good fortune to render her, and of the mistake in which these had culminated that morning at Bâle.
"And," demanded Bernadot, with a sneer, "do you expect me to believe this ingenious narrative?"
"I am in the habit of speaking the truth, sir," said the poet with dignity.
"Your habits, monsieur, are of no interest to me. I do not believe a word of what you have told me."
"Monsieur!" cried the poet, rising.
"Explain to me, if you can, the mistake owing to which I find you taking a trip on a lake steamer with my wife."
"It was no mistake. One must kill time."
"Kill time, hein? Indeed, monsieur has a talent for explaining. Is monsieur in the legal profession?"
"Monsieur," began Lumley, angrily.
"Oh, don't excite him for Heaven's sake," implored the lady, in English. "He is a great duellist."
This information seemed suddenly to rob the poet of a good deal of his aplomb.
"It appears to me that he is exciting himself," said the poet with an ease which he was far from feeling.
"Que dites-vous?" demanded the husband, to whom this exchange of words in a foreign language savored strongly of collusion.
"Perhaps, monsieur," said the poet, politely, you will permit me to terminate a rather unfortunate interview by withdrawing."
"Withdrawing?" snarled Barnadot, showing his teeth. "For what do you take me, monsieur? Do you think that I am a man that allows his honor to be trampled in the dust, and then permits the offender to withdraw? Monsieur, I demand satisfaction."
"I have already given you all the satisfaction in my power. If you do not find it sufficient, the fault, monsieur, must lie with you."
Bernadot grinned horribly.
"There is a satisfaction of another sort, monsieur, which you shall render me."
The poet's heart sank. He had spent a very pleasant day with Madam Bernadot, but to be butchered for it was rather, he thought, a heavy price.
"I should like monsieur to observe," said he, "that the violence of your expressions is frightening this lady."
Bernadot was very rude in his retort, which he wound up by repeating that Lumley must give him satisfaction.
The poet shook his head.
"What you ask is impossible, monsieur. I beg that you will think it over calmly."
"Does monsieur suggest that I am anything but calm at present?" he roared.
"I suggest only, monsieur, that you think it over. Discuss it with madam. I am sure that upon reflection you will bring yourself to see the case as I have put it."
"You may be right, and you may be wrong, but I do not like the tone that you have taken. I have observed throughout a certain note of persiflage that I consider peculiarly insulting. You have used expressions that I cannot forgive."
"Endeavor to forget them," suggested the poet.
"I shall do so when I have avenged them."
The poet shuddered.
"Monsieur, I most willingly apologize for those expressions."
"I will take back those expressions, monsieur."
"Here is my card," cried Bernadot. "If you will favor me with yours I will find a friend to wait upon you to-morrow. For the rest, in five hours we can reach France."
The poet was on the horns of a dilemma. To refuse to comply would be an act of cowardice which he did not care to perform in the presence of a lady. The easiest solution appeared to be to give Bernadot his card and start for England by the first train. Accordingly, he drew his case from his pocket, and from that a card which he handed to Bernadot.
"There, monsieur, since you insist; but I trust that you will come to see that a meeting would be most inconvenient."
The Frenchman took the card, and as he glanced at it the expression of his face changed suddenly to surprise. Immediately his tone became respectful in the extreme.
"Monsieur, you are very magnanimous," said he. "I will take you at your word and accept the apology which a moment ago I refusedchurlishly perhaps."
"Why then," cried the poet, in mingled surprise and joy, "no more need be said."
He took his leave of them with gracefully expressed regrets for the misunderstanding which he had been so unfortunate as to bring about, and Bernadot went the length of begging him to say no more.
Bernadot and his wife withdrew to the Hirsch Hotel, and Lumley did not see them again. He left next day for Paris.
On the morning after his arrival in the French capital it occurred to him to pay his visit to Fournailles, not only as a friend, but as a pupil, for the poet suddenly realized that a knowledge of fence may be desirable and useful.
He took out his cardcase and emptied it in his search for Fournailles' card. But in vain; he had lost it. Then all at once he remembered Bernadot's abrupt change of manner, and he suddenly grasped the meaning of it.
He had given Fournailles' card to Bernadot, and Bernadot had not unnaturally shrank from the ordeal of meeting a fencing master with cold steel.