The situation had changed so rapidly—as when a sudden flash of lightning illumines the darkness of night; and like the electric flash a light sped into Vavel’s heart and illumined it with a delicious, a heavenly warmth that made it throb madly. But only for an instant. Then he realized that this woman who had dared everything for his sake had been insulted by the glance of scorn and derision.
He had now lost all control of himself. He snatched a pistol from his pocket, directed the muzzle toward Colonel Barthelmy’s sneering face, and said in a voice that quivered with savage fury:
“I demand that you beg this lady’s pardon.”
“You do?” coolly returned the colonel, still smiling, and gazing calmly into the muzzle of the pistol.
“Yes—or I will blow out your brains!”
The two officers accompanying the colonel drew their swords. The baroness uttered a cry of terror, and flung herself on Vavel’s breast.
“I presume you will allow me to inquire, first, what relation this lady bears to you?”
Colonel Barthelmy asked the question in measured tones; and without an instant’s hesitation came Count Vavel’s reply:
“The lady is my betrothed wife.”
The sneer vanished from the colonel’s lips, and the swords of his companions were returned to their scabbards.
“I hasten to apologize,” said the colonel. “Accept, madame, my deepest reverence, and do not refuse to forgive the insulting scorn my ignorance caused me to express. Permit me to convince you of my sincere homage, by this salute.”
He bent his head and pressed his lips to one of the lady’s hands, which were clasped about Count Vavel’s arm. Then, with his helmet still in his hand, he turned to Count Vavel, and added: “Are you satisfied?”
“Yes,” was the curt reply.
“Then let us shake hands—without malice. Accept my sincerest congratulations. To you, baroness, I give thanks for the lesson you have taught me this morning.”
He bowed once more, then stepped to one side, indicating that the way was clear.
The baroness drew her veil over her face, and, clinging tremblingly to the arm of her escort, walked by his side back to the highway, the three officers following at a respectful distance.
When they emerged from the forest they saw the three horses which had been left by the colonel and his companions in charge of the grooms. Henry must have told the gentlemen where to find his master.
With what different emotions Count Vavel returned to the castle! The dreamer in his slumbers had given utterance to words which betrayed what he had been dreaming, and he compelled the vision to abide with him even after he had wakened. He felt that he had the right to do what he had done. This woman loved him as only a woman can love; and what he had done had only been his duty, for he loved her! What he had said was no falsehood—the words had not been forced from him merely to preserve her honor; they were the truth.