London Magazine, March 1904
by Rafael Sabatini
"Shall we cut again?" enquired M. de Noailles, with a smile of polite insouciance.
For over an hour already the game had resolved itself into a duel 'twixt him and me. One by one the others had dropped out to becomesome amused and some interestedspectators at the pitiable plucking of a fool. That fool was I. As the hour advanced, Noailles' lips had closed tighter in their sinister determination. For once that he lost, thrice would he win, and thus the gods of chance made cat and mouse of us, allotting to me the meaner role. Once, when in a frenzy I had doubled the stakes and won the cut, young Labresque, who was a cadet in my regiment, set a restraining hand upon my sleeve.
"Come, M. de Lescure," he murmured, "let that suffice you; see, the day is breaking."
The others scowled at him who to-day I know was my only friend about that board.
"For shame!" cried one. "Would you have him pause even as fortune smiles? Let him regain his losses, boy. Come, Lescure, it is the turn of the tide."
The argument sorted well with my inclinations. Again I doubled; again I cut; but this timealas!I lost. Noailles gathered in my gold.
"Again?" he enquired with a smile.
My breath came fast, and the fever of the game drew sweat to my brow, for all that the room was chill with the air of that September morn.
"I have," said I hoarsely, "a little land by Beaugency. If you are interested?"
I paused. His face took on an expression of concern.
"A thousand regrets that it should have gone so far, Lescure"
"Pish," I broke in irritably, "it is not that. I have no use for that plot of ground."
Noailles shuffled the cards.
"At your own price," said he, setting down the pack.
"Five thousand livres?" I asked impatiently. He inclined his head and cut a seven. A deadly stillness followed. The smile faded from Noailles' lips. Those about craned their necks to see my cut. With hope I put forth my hand. In despair I let the cards flutter from it. I had turned a six.
"Peste!" he deprecated, raising his eyebrows, "fortune scowls on you! But what will you? Lucky at love, mon amiyou know the adage."
The onlokers grinned. Our rivalrywhich, however, we had not allowed to interfere with our relationswas well known, as was the greater favour wherein I stood with Mademoiselle de Trécillac. There was a sneer in his words that angered me. That night at play he had all but ruined me, and 'twas like to go hard with my suit in consequence.
Hotlyand without warrantI made answer that the love wherein he held me lucky was the only thing he might not strip me of. A frown darkened for a moment his smooth, almost boyish, face, then it passed, and with a smile and a sigh
"Helas, I wish I might, Lescure," said he, "I wish I might. But we waste time. Shall we cut again?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"For to-night, at least, Noailles, we cut no more. You shall have my note of hand for the Beaugency property."
"Have you lost heart?" he cried.
"No; but I have lost everything negotiable."
His fingers drummed absently on the table; his brown eyes met mine; his manner was a strange mixture of eagerness and hesitation.
"May I still suggest a stake?" said he. "I fear I am taking a great liberty, but it is prompted to me by something that has been said. You wear a locket set in diamonds, Lescure."
My face grew hot with anger. "Would you have me risk such a possession?" I cried.
"But why not?" quoth he suavely, "'Lucky at love' you said. Let it be the symbol of your love. Have you no faith in symbols? Do you not think that the love you boast is yours will stand your friend?"
To me just then, a prey to all a gamester's superstitions, the argument seemed specious. Indeed, methought, since he was powerless to win from me the love of Madeline, so, too, would he prove powerless to win from me the symbol of that lovethe locket she had given me. Dolt that I was! Fool that I was! I caught at that fancy. I bethought me of my heavy losses, of my father's anger when he should hear of itas hear he mustand of my compulsory withdrawal from Paris and my regiment. I bethought me of how my straitened circumstances must perforce hamper my wooing of Madeline, and the inevitable postponementor worseof the marriage I so ardently hoped for. All this I saw, and how by one cut of the cards the whole might be righted. 'Twas as much for love of her as for any other reason, I told myself, that I consented.
"What do you stake against it?" I asked hoarsely.
"All that I have won to-night," said he, his face alight with eagerness.
"I'll take that wager, Noailles," I shouted, rising to my feet.
He rose also, and, bowing for answer, he took the pack and cut a five. With a sigh he replaced the cards, and pushed the pack towards me.
"You were well advised, it seems. Your symbol has indeed stood your friend. But cutfor form's sake."
Already tasting victory, I put out my hand and lifted half the pack. Noailles was the first to see the card, and a cry of satisfaction escaped him, despite his wonted courtly coolness. I had turned a deuce. In fascinated horror I gazed upon the card, then my fingers relaxed their hold and the paste-boards fluttered from my grasp, and striking in their fall the table's legs, were strewn upon the ground around me. Trembling, I sank back into my seat.
"The gods are very good to me to-night, Lescure," he murmured deprecatingly. "Another time you shall have your revanche."
With fingers that seemed numb, I drew the locket from my breast. Passionately I snapped the slender chain that held it. For a moment I gazed upon the sweet face that smiled at me from its glittering setting of diamonds, and in that moment the devil prompted trickery to me. My cheeks burned as I conceived the thought, acting upon which I set myself to open the locket.
"What is it you do?" inquired Noailles.
"Eh?" I returned, with an affected unconcern that was pitiably transparent. "I am removing the picture."
"What?" he exclaimed. And as I looked up I met his glance black with anger.
"We said the locket, did we not, Noailles!" I asked. "There was no mention of the portrait."
On every face about me sat a smile, here grim, there scornful, there again pitying.
"Ho, ho! my dear Lescure," laughed he unpleasantly. "But you could not have misunderstood me. Is it likely I should have staked against those diamonds four times their value in moneys and in land? Or again, when we played for your Beaugency property there was no mention of the trees and tenements that stand upon it, yet such there is no question I have won. And so, too, have I won the locket and its portrait."
I made a vain, a pitiful, a shameful attempt to bluster it.
"Nay, but this is trickery," I shouted.
"Trickery!" he echoed in a tone that was the forerunner of a challenge.
"Aye, trickery," I repeated furiously. "What comparison can lie 'twixt the trees and tenements of the Beaugency estates and the portrait in this locket? Thoes trees and dwellings are an inseparable part of the property; they are immovables, and therefore included in the wager. But not so this picture; it is no more a part of the locket than your clothes, Monsieur, are a part of your person."
He was white by now. yet he held the reigns of his anger with an iron hand.
"Monsieur de Lescure," said he in a voice that was forcedly calm. "I will put the matter to these gentlemen, and it shall be as they decide."
At that I protested that there was naught to be decided; that the matter was clear. Again I spoke of trickery, and artfully I went to work to pick a quarrel with him. My moneys and my lands I had lost, if not without a pang, at least without a murmur. But ere I parted with this portrait I was mad enough, blind enough, to court a quarrel whichto my shame I write itmust have involved the rending of my honour. But those present intervened, and to such purpose that presently with feelings of shame and rage such as a detected and baffled cheat may experience, I was forced to relinquish the portrait of Madeline which in that evil hour I had staked and lost.
With the portrait it seemed to me then that I had also lost the original; that in my last glance at her beloved face I had made my adieux to Madeline herself.
The use to which Noailles meant to put the locket I could not doubt. He would carry it to the lady; tell her how he had come by it, and thus prove overwhelmingly to my undoing how unworthy was I of its possession. With an aching heart I sat back in my chair, a prey to remorse and grief, and not a little shame at the unworthy trick by which I had sought to cheat him of the picture. I heeded not their cold farewells as they trooped out to leave me alone in my chamber with my sorrow and the dawn.
There sat I, my chin on my ruffles, amid the disorder that told of that night's play, for some three hours or more. I sat in a strange, waking sleep; my mind active in its poignant grief, my limbs benumbed and powerless.
From that stupor I was at last aroused by my servant, Duboscq, with a letter which had just been brought by a messenger from M. de Sartines.
"Ciel!" I cried, springing up, "what o'clock is it?"
"It has just gone nine, monsieur."
The note proved to be a brief, peremptory summons to the presence of the Lieutenant-General of Police. With the bitter reflection that unless my father should prove singularly lenient, forgiving and generous, I should soon cease to be troubled with such commands, I went to change my wig and my apparel, and remove, as far as possible, the traces of the night's sleeplessness from my countenance.
By ten o'clock I stood before M. de Sartines. His impassive, owl-like face, with its wide-set, observant eyes and beaky nose, gave no sign of the impatience with which he had awaited my coming, and which his words betrayed.
"I have been waiting for you, M. de Lescure."
I made my excuses, ill at ease beneath his inscrutable stare.
"You are looking pale, Lieutenant," he said. "I propose to send you for a ride into the country that will restore the colour to your cheeks. I am informed," he continued, "that M. de Noailles left Paris by the barrière d'Enfer two hours ago."
I started, whereat the faintest of smiles parted his thin lips.
"A curious coincidence, is it not, that the matter in which I require your services should concern him? M. de Noailles has mixed himself in affairs that he had been well advised to have avoided. His arrest in Paris was fraught with the risk of publicity, and his uncle, the Duke of St. Simon, might have given us trouble. Well, he has left Paris, and now is our opportunity. Two hours ago I requested His Majesty's permission to employ the most intelligent and discreet officer in his Guards on a business of the greatest delicacy."
I bowed amazed, and hopeful already that herein I might find a way to mend the night's disaster.
"My choice, M. de Lescure, fell upon you; not only because I know you to be possessed of these qualities, but also because I think that in this matter you may have interests of your own to serve, which will increase your diligence."
Amazing indeed were the powers that this man wielded by virtue of his network of espionage.
"M. de Noailles," he pursued," took the road to Orleans. Have you an idea whither he has gone?"
The chateau de Trécillac was situated in Berri some fifteen miles south of La Chatre. That that was his destination I did not for a moment doubt.
"I think I know, monsieur," I replied.
"Good. You will take six men and you will straightway set out to follow and overtake him. Here, M. de Lescure, is a letter of cachet commanding the Governor of the Bastille to receive and hold at His Majesty's pleasure the person of Stanislas de Noailles. But" he paused significantly. "I do not wishHis Majesty does not wishM. de Noailles to be brought to Paris."
I was bewildered.
"We should much prefer that you induce him to pursue his journey south as far as Spain, and that in awe of the imprisonment awaiting him he shall keep out of France for a year or two."
"You mean that I am to allow him to escape!"
"No doubt,"and Sartines smiled"you will find a way, armed with this." And he placed the letter of cachet in my hand. "But should you fail, should Noailles be deaf to all inducements, and refuse to quit France, then bring him here as quietly as may be. In a word, we wish him to disappear. We desire his removal, but do not wish to be called to account for it to St. Simon and his noisy supporters. You understand?"
I left M. de Sartines' presence with an elation as great as had been the despondency in which I had answered his summons. I saw a clear way to execute my commission in accordance with the King's desires and simultaneously serve my own interests.
Speed was of the first importance, and I so well contrived that within an hour of my interview with the Lieutenant-General I was riding down the Rue d'Enfer at the head of a troop of six well-mounted mousquetaires, and so on to the Orleans road. Neither ourselves nor our horses did we spare, and with the magic words of "In the King's name," we levied frequent relays along the road. An hour after nightfall we reached Artenay, where our exhausted condition compelled a halt for the night. Confident that we should overtake Noailles on the morrow, I slept tranquil, and cradled by hope. But at Orleans, where we stopped next day, I learnt at the Hotel de l'Epée that a gentleman answering the description of Noailles had arrived there the evening before on horseback, but that hiring a berline he had pushed on, clearly intending to travel all night. The news dismayed me. If Noailles pursued this method of travelling by day in the saddle, and yet again by night resting in a coach, my chance of coming up with him ere he reached Trécillac was indeed slender.
Scarce giving my men pause, I ordered them back to their saddles, and not until we rode into La Motte Beuvron, on horses dropping with exhaustion, did I allow them to draw reign again. That night we lay at Vierzon, and when on the morning of the third day I roused my mousquetaires ar six o'clock, I was greeted with more than one murmur. But deaf to complaints I urged them on. Myself I seemed in my impatience impervious to fatigue. A fever at once consumed and sustained me. We dined at Chateauroux, and crossing the Cher pushed on towards La Chatre. In Berri at last, our journey's end was in sight. But with every hour of it my anxiety increased. Of de Noailles I could gain no news on the road, save at Chateauroux where the host of the "Pâon" had told me that a gentleman such as I described had arrived there in a berline the morning before. At that my heart sank. If he was a day in front of us now that the goal of our journey was so near I might abandon all hope of coming up with him this side of Trécillac, and although I might arrive in time to execute the royal commission, I should be overlate to serve my own purpose.
But when towards sunset we rode, a sorely jaded company, into the yard of the Hotel de Berri, at La Chatre, my heart suddenly leapt within me, for there, talking to the ostler, stood Stanislas de Noailles himself. Here within fifteen miles of Trécillac I had run my quarry at last to earth.
He started upon catching sight of me and turning a white, weary face upon me, he smiled bitterly, I thought.
"You here, Lescure?" said he. Then his smile broadened and he laughed outright.
"Why yes, I might have guessed you would come after me."
"Your guess proves right; not so the grounds on which you base it," I answered stiffly. "I am come on the King's business."
At that his face grew a shade palerthe consciousness of the work he had been at in Paris knocked at his heart, no doubt, and he must realise how thus, in the eleventh hour, his visit to Mademoiselle de Trécillac was to be frustrated. I could almost pity him for the bitterness of the disappointment that must be his.
"May I have a word with you in private, Monsieur?" I asked.
"But certainly," said he, and we went within. In a room of the upper floor of the hotel I produced the letter of cachet that was my warrant. The first shock over, no bearing could have been more admirable than was his.
"Who plays stakes, and who loses, pays," said he airily. "It seems I have lost, Lescure. But, voyons, I have friends in Paris; my uncle St. Simon"
"Will know nothing of your arrest," I broke in. "You shall disappear utterly and completely."
He looked up sharply at that; then with a sigh and a laugh
"You will sup with me, Lescure?" said he.
I answered that I would, adding that henceforth, until the Bastille entombed him, waking or sleeping, journeying or resting, he should find me ever at his side. His self-possession angered me with the anger of envy.
When we had supped he called for cards. Nothing could have sorted better with my wishes; it was the cue for which I had waited. I seized on it to ask him what he had left me that I might stake; to revile him for having already wrought my ruin; to protest that, thanks to the condition to which he had reduced me, I should be compelled to quit the King's service, and withdraw into the country.
Encouragedas I intended that he should beby that tirade of mine, he made the next move by suggesting a bribe.
"What if I were to make restitution?" he enquired with a kindly tone of concern that robbed the question of all its coarseness. "What then, Lescure? Would you do aught for me?"
"Do? Do what?" I asked in feigned perplexity.
"To regain the position which you have lost, would you"he sank his voice almost to a whisper"would you allow me to go free? I could be out of France in three days."
"Nom de Dieu!" I cried, springing up. "Is this an offer to make a gentleman?"
A shade of disappointment crossed his face.
"I feared that you would answer thus," said he. "And yet, believe me, you are foolish. It would but mean exchanging a disgrace that is inevitable and will soon be public, for a disgrace that none need learn of. Men do such things. Think, Lescure, there is your Beaugency property. and the matter of ten thousand livres that I won from you."
"Do not tempt me." I cried.
"As you will," said he, tapping his snuff box. My heart bleeds for your father. The disgrace of it will kill him."
"Better a disgrace that is but financial than a tarnished honour."
"It will break your mother's heart," he sighed.
"Silence!" I thundered.
"And have you no thought for Mademoiselle de Trécillac?"
"Mon Dieu!" I cried out like one in despair, and paused, only to add as though in pursuance of my thoughts"But no, no, it is impossible. Besides, my men have seen you."
"But they do not know me," he cried eagerly, leaning forward. "You were wise enough not to utter my name. They may think me some chance acquaintance. To-morrow you can rouse them and pursue your quest for M. de Noailles, whom you will not find."
"And return to the King and M. de Sartines with a lie. Monsieur, I will hear no more."
Nor did I, but for that night I thought that we had done well enough. Both into my hands and into the hands of the King was Noailles unconsciously playing.
On the morrow, as we broke our fast, I broached the subject anew myself.
"I have given thought to your last night's words, Noailles," I muttered. "Indeed, they kept me awake for hours. Temptation is a tough foe to fight."
There was astonishment in those fine eyes of his.
"Your reflection, I hope, leads you to see the wisdom of what I suggest."
"In a measure it does," said I. He caught his breath, and stared at me, a light of joy leaping suddenly to his eyes.
"You agree, Lescure?"
"Let me understand what you offer," I returned, affecting the harshness of one driven to a repugnant step.
"Ten thousand livres and your property at Beaugency."
I leant across the table and spoke quickly.
"Add the locket with the portrait of Mdlle. de Trécillac, and you may walk out of this inn," said I.
At that he scowled, and I blushed to think what a base traitor I must appear to him.
"Well?" I demanded roughly.
"You ask too much."
"You refuse?" I demanded.
"Bethink you, Noailles"
"It is useless to talk, M. de Lescure. I cannot restore the locket!"
"Then you will come to Paris."
"I cannot restore the locket," he repeated coldly.
At that I got up in a rage that was not simulated, and strode to the door.
"Very well, M. de Noailles," I threatened. "We shall see if we cannot find it for ourselves." Then opening the door I raised my voice. "Baptiste, André!" I called.
"What will you do?" he exclaimed, springing up.
"Arrest you," I replied with a disdainful smile, "and have you searched. We shall see now. M. de Noailles"
"Stay," he commanded sharply. He gazed at me with a look so pregnant with disgust that I could have struck him. "This is the second time in connection with that locket that you would cheat me," he commented bitterly. "But there, M. de Lescure, I do not wish to anger you with recriminations. I wish rather to withhold a step that must be irrevocable and which will yield you nothing. The locket is in safe keeping."
"So shall you be unless you produce it," I retorted. "My men are coming up."
"Send them back, Lescure, and I will at least attempt to restore your locket. I cannot promise, but I will do my best, and if I fail, you can still arrest me."
My pulses throbbed. The horror of the Bastille appalled him at last. He was about to melt.
I looked at him for a second, then I did as he desired, and sent off my men on a trumpery errand.
He walked to the window and looked out, then turned to me again.
"If I get back this locket for you," he asked, "what guarantee do you give me that I shall be allowed to go free?"
"I swear it on my honour," I answered.
He smiled sadly.
"I must be content with that, for all that your behaviour recently hardly justifies an excess of faith."
"Pish! I am your prisoner. Give me pen, ink and paper, and within four hours it may be that you shall have your portrait. But with your permission, Lescure, I will so couch this note that it shall do duty against you if you break your word."
"Write as you please, monsieur," said I impatiently.
He paused a moment, pen in hand, then holding it out to me
"Better still, Lescure, you shall write the note yourself at my dictation."
I took the pen (What did it signify who wrote the note?) and at his bidding I set down the following:
M. de Noailles is my prisoner here, at the Hotel de Berri, at La Chatre, and upon the warrant of a lettre de cachet, I am to deliver him to the Governor of the Bastille. But in consideration of his restoring to me the locket which four nights ago he won from me at play in Paris, I do hereby undertake and solemnly pledge my honour to allow him to go free.
"Sign it," said he, and I obeyed him.
He left me for a moment to despatch a messenger, whose return thereafter I awaited with impatience, yet well pleased with the outcome of the adventure, which was such as was desired by both M. de Sratines and myself.
Early in the afternoon, as I sat with Noailles, a waiter entered with the announcement that I was being asked for below. I desired him to conduct the visitor to the room in which we sat, and a moment later, to my amazement, Mademoiselle de Trécillac herself was ushered in.
"Madeline!" I cried, and would have rushed forward had not something in the glance of her eyes, in the poise of her head, restrained and chilled me. Looking past me at my companion
"I have received this letter, M. de Noailles," she said, "and I ask your pardon for having doubted your word. I see that you told me the truth. Though repugnant, I cannot in consideration of what has befallen, refuse to comply with what I understand to be your wishes."
"Madeline!" he cried in his turn, but in accents of joy as he advanced to kiss the hand she yielded him with a sad smile. The turning to me
"M. de Lescure," she said very coldly, "I am come to purchase M. de Noailles' liberty from you at your own price. Here is the locket against the return of which you have pledged yourself to set him free."
She placed the little gem-framed picture on the table, whilst I stood like one who has drunk overmuch and whose wits work slowly. Then little by little I came to understand what earlier I should have guessedthat when I had come upon Noailles the day before in the inn yard, the gentleman was already on his return journey from Trécillac to Paris.
I drew myself up with what assumption of dignity I could command.
"M. de Noailles," said I, "you are free to depart. But see that you tarry not in France."
Without touching the locket, I bowed to them, and sore beyond all conception, I left them together and went below to order my men to saddle. And as I rode back to Paris, my only consolation was that, from M. de Sartines' pont of view, my mission had succeeded admirably. As much consolation did it prove to me as a fine landscape may prove to a blind man.