The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 15

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NOW, that I was well out of their way, it came to me to wonder what I should do with myself until Jerome might please to seek me again, but accident favoured me with occupation. Passing through the hall I heard a woman's shrill voice, lifted in anger, berating some unfortunate attendant.

"You wretched hussy, to speak rudely to a guest of mine, who did but make to you a pretty speech. I'd have you be most charming to Monsieur Viard. Remember, you are only a hireling, and need give yourself no such fine and unseemly airs."

The door just ahead of me was thrown violently open, and out strutted a tiny lady in a most disproportionate rage. She was beautiful neither in face nor figure; she was diminutive, and petulant of manner, but bore herself with an air of almost regal pride. It was she whom I came to know as Madame du Maine, a daughter of the proud and princely Condes. Following her, weeping bitterly, came the sweet maid who had spilled the tray of flowers on me at the door. I stepped back into an alcove, lest, perchance, she look behind, and aimlessly I straggled out into the gardens as best I might.

The Villa being a strange ground, it fretted me to be alone therein, with nothing to think of but this trouble of my friends. And Madame de Chartrain, did I blame her? Blame Jerome? Yes—no. I hardly knew. Viewed at a distance and impartially, such things strike us with aversion, and we are quick to condemn. But the more I thought the nearer I came to concluding it took something more than a mere mummery to make a wife. All the ceremonials and benedictions and lighted candles and high-sounding phrases could not bind a woman's heart, where that heart was free, or called some other man its lord. Yet the bare fact remained, this woman was a wife, and to me, at least, that name had always been a sacred and holy one.

To what vain or wise conclusions my cogitations may have led me, I conceive not, for another small matter now quite absorbed my whole attention. It was the beginning of that one dear hope which speedily banished all others. It is said the trippant tread of Fate doth leave no print upon the sand to mark its passage, nor doth she sound a note of warning that the waiting hand may grasp her garments as she flies.

A gleam of white in one of the summer houses caught my roving eye, and quite aimlessly I passed the door. A chit of a child crouched upon the floor, and leaned forward on the benches, weeping as though each sob were like to burst her little heart. I grant it was no affair of mine, yet my tears were ever wont to start, and eyes play traitor to mine arm at sight of woman's trouble. Without thinking one whit, I stepped in beside her, and laying my hand gently upon the lassie's shoulder, implored that she weep no more.

Up she sprang to face me, flushed and indignant. Verily was I abashed. Yet there was that of sympathy and sincerity in my voice and mien—or so she told me after—which turned her wrath aside.

"You, Monsieur; I thought it was old Monsieur Viard, he pursues me so."

It was the same little maid I had seen in the hall, and that was why I trembled. She wept now for the scolding she had got. I caught my breath to inquire why she wept.

"Oh, Madame, Madame—it is the humour of Madame to humiliate me of late; she reminds me ever of my dependent position. And Monsieur," the child straightened up proudly till she was quite a woman. "Monsieur, I come of a race as old as her own—and as honoured." "Charles is poor—the Chevalier de la Mora, you know. But now he goes to the colonies, and will take me with him."

It was a silly enough thing to do, but about here I stalked most unceremoniously off, leaving her to her sorrow and her tears. Since that day I have often smiled to think how foolishly do the wisest men deport themselves when they first begin to love. Their little starts of passion, their petty angers and their sweet repentances—all were unexplored by me, for Love to me was yet an unread book.

At the door of the house M. Leroux hailed me graciously:

"Well met, my dear Captain; we go to the park, and would have you bear us company. Where is M. de Greville?"

I explained as best I might his absence, and followed them in lieu of better employment, forgetting for the time the threatened fete. Before I could extricate myself, these new friends had led me into a brilliant circle, and duly presented me to Madame, who sat on a sort of raised platform in the centre.

She showed no traces of her recent anger and spite, vented upon that patient girl who now claimed all my thought. Her ladies, some languishing literary notables of the day, and officers, stood about discussing the news, and talked of naught but some fetching style or popular play, through all of which I struggled as bravely as my dazed condition would permit. It seemed I would never grow accustomed to the like, though it is said many men find great delight in such gatherings. But one thing I searched for most eagerly.

Behind Madame's chair, after a little, appeared the sweet shy face of my weeping Niobe of the park. I felt she saw and recognized me, and my face grew warmer at the thought. I made bold to ask one of the gentlemen standing near me who the lady might be, and not desiring to point at her, simply described her as well as possible, and as being in attendance upon Madame.

"That, Monsieur, is Madame Agnes, wife of the Chevalier de la Mora; the wittiest and most beautiful woman at Sceaux, and the chilliest."

Noting the change of countenance which I sought in vain to control, he went on banteringly.

"Beware M. le Capitaine, half the men at Sceaux are in love with her, but she has the execrable taste to prefer her own husband. Such women destroy half the zest of living. Beside, the Chevalier has a marvellous sword and a most unpleasant temper. Bah! how ludicrous it is for men to anger at trifles."

"But," I faltered, "she seems a mere child."

"Yes, but none the less charming," and he turned away to continue his interrupted conversation with the daring young Arouet, the same who was to acquire universal fame under the name Voltaire.

Thus rudely were my new-awakened hopes of love cast down. A wife, and the wife of a friend! She had spoken to me of "Charles," and of going with him to the colonies. A wife, yet for all that, I knew I loved her.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. My intentions were the best that ever made excellent cobblestones toward the infernal gate. Only a few days and I would be gone; surely those could be passed through in peace. She was a wife—I would never let her know that all my heart was hers. This I determined. But man is weak, and the very atmosphere of France dried up the springs of every honest impulse. Everywhere was scoffing, raillery and disbelief. Honour, friendship and virtue were regarded as the vain chimeras of a fool. Why should not I enjoy life while I might?

Directly Madame Chartrain entered without intruding, and composedly took her place among the ladies who made room for her near Madame. Nothing in her manner bore evidence of her recent conflict. It was really marvellous how the life these women led schooled them to a stoicism any Choctaw brave daring the stake might envy. She nodded to me gaily, and I stopped to touch her hand.

"Where is M. de Greville? Is he not to be with us this afternoon?"

I looked her in the face, wondering, for could she not answer her own question far better than I? She read my meaning, but her glance never wavered.

"Ah! There he is, among the gentlemen. I feared he found Sceaux too dull after Paris, and he had promised us a bit of his work. You know he composes famous verses to some fair and distant inamorata."

"Indeed, Madame, I suspected not his talents," I replied. Our conversation lagged, for the programme had already commenced, and we gave our attention to the reading of some curious letters, said to have been written by two Persians of distinction then travelling in Europe, which were being published anonymously in Paris. At first, I could not bring myself to listen to such twaddle, dubiously moral, which, under the guise of light, small talk, struck at the foundations of government, religious beliefs, and all which I had before held sacred. Listening only to contradict, I grew interested in spite of myself, and only at some allusion more than usually out of place, as it seemed to me, among so many ladies, did I take my eyes from the reader's countenance, and suffer them to roam about the company.

Feeling again the subtle influence of Agnes' gaze fixed full upon me, it caused my cheeks to flush, my knees to quake, and verily, my legs were as like to carry me away as to sustain me where I leaned against a tree. The girl was looking straight at me; I dared not return her stare which had something more than mere curiosity in it, and disturbed me greatly.

The reading was finished without my knowledge, a piece of buffoonery, or play acting gone through with, which I did not see, when my own name, called by Madame, brought me to my proper good sense again.

I found myself, before I was quite aware, bending before Madame and receiving her command that I should do something for the amusement of the company.

"M. Jerome has favoured us, you know—we have no drones here," she went on pleasantly, "and it is the rule at Sceaux that all must join our merriment."

"Jerome?" I answered in a bewildered fashion, for I had no recollection of seeing aught he did; then I remembered hearing him recite some languishing verses about a white rose, a kiss, a lady's lips—some sighs, and such other stuff that now escapes me—but I had paid no attention to it all.

Jerome, the villain, seconded Madame's request so vigorously I could not decline, though he well knew I was no carpet knight capable of entertaining ladies fair on the tourney field of wit.

"The Captain sings divinely, Madame, but is becomingly modest, as you see." The wretch laughed in his sleeve; I could have strangled him.

"Ah, so rare," she retorted, "you men are vainer than my ladies."

I knew myself the target for dozens of curious eyes, under the heat of which I near melted away.

"Sing, comrade, sing some sweet love ditty of a lonely forest maiden and her lover, robed in the innocence of Eden."

Had the fool no sense? I caught the imploring expression of interest on the girl's sweet face behind Madame, and determined at all hazards they should not have the laugh at me. I saw it all then; they were in league with Jerome to play a game of "bait the bear," with me for bear.

So I pitched in and sang, such a song I warrant as my lords and ladies had never bent their ears to hear before, a crooning death incantation of the Choctaws, which fell as naturally from my lips as my own mother tongue.

Their laughter hushed, for even in the court of France, sated as it was with novelties, laying a world under tribute for amusements, that wild, weird melody never rose before nor since. One stanza I sang translated into French that they might understand;

"Yuh! Listen. Quickly you have drawn near to hearken;
Listen! Now I have come to step over your soul;
You are of the Wolf Clan;
Your name is Ayuni;
Toward the Black Coffin of the upland, in the upland of the
Darkening Land your path shall stretch out.

With the Black Coffin and the Black Slabs I have come to cover you.
When darkness comes your spirit shall grow less and dwindle away never to reappear. Listen."

And they did listen; yea, attentively did they hearken, for a great pall of silence lowered upon them, so new, so strange to them was the song.

When I had quite finished, the soft, Indian words dropping as the splash of unknown, unseen waters, Madame besought me with earnestness to tell her more, and the others crowded round to hear. I do not know what evil genius of folly prompted the childish deed, but feeling safe in having found what we wanted, and moved more than I would admit by the now admiring eyes of the girl, I gathered up half a dozen daggers from the gentlemen who stood about. Selecting those whose weight and balance commended themselves most to my purpose, I cleared a small space, and having sent a serving man for a pack of cards, chose a five spot and pinned it to a tree. Standing back some ten to fifteen paces, I cast the four knives at the corner pips in quick succession, piercing them truly, then paused a minute and cast the fifth knife at the centre, striking accurately between the other four. It was an act of idle vanity, yet I hated for Jerome to taunt me on the way home.

By these petty means I gained a cheap applause from the belles and gallants at Sceaux, and Jerome opened not his lips to jibe me, as I feared, but like the rest, applauded.

I had now quite regained my courage, but for the girl. I loved to think of her as but a girl; that she was also a wife I barred out of our castle in Spain. Why should I be afraid of such a timid child? Verily, I knew not.

My folly had one result I could not then foresee; it told some of those present, whose hand it was had cast the hunting knife which struck Yvard. I did not learn this for days after.

The approving and pleased look on the little lady's face fired me with an insane desire to further win her notice, whereat I chided myself for a vain coxcomb, and drew imperceptibly away from the company, until I gained a shady and secluded walk which led to a retired nook overlooking the valley.

The quietude of the evening's close jarred on my turbulence of spirit. For the first time a woman's voice lingered in my ears after her speech was done, a woman's smile played as the fitful summer's lightning before my eyes. Oh, fool, fool! What place had women in a soldier's life. What a discordant harmony would one angel create amid the rough denizens of Biloxi. So I reasoned, forgetful that reasons never yet convinced the heart.