The vicomte closed the door gently, leaving the key in the lock. She followed, each movement with eyes as keen and wary as a cat’s. He drew out a chair, walked around the table and selected another chair.
“Will you not sit down, Madame?”
“I prefer to stand, Monsieur.”
“As you please. Pardon me, but I am inclined to sit down.”
“Will you be brief?”
“As possible.” The vicomte took in a long breath, reached a hand into his breast and drew out a folded paper, oblong in shape.
At the sight of this madame’s eyes first narrowed, then grew wide and round.
“Begin, Monsieur,” a suspicion of tremor in her tones.
“Well, then: fate or fortune has made you free; fate or fortune has brought you into this wilderness. Here, civilization becomes less fine in the grain; men reach forth toward objects brusquely and boldly. Well, Madame, you know that for the past year I have loved you silently and devotedly. . . .”
“If that is all, Monsieur . . . !” scornfully.
“Patience!” He tapped the paper with his hand. “Is there not something about the shape of this paper, Madame, that is familiar? Does it not recall to your mind something of vital importance?”
Madame placed her hand upon the back of the chair and the ends of her fingers grew white from the pressure.
“The great Beaufort has scrawled negligently across this paper; the sly, astute Gaston. My name is here, and so is yours, Madame. My name would never have been here but for your beauty, which was a fine lure. Listen. As for my name, there lives in the Rue Saint Martin a friend who plays at alchemy. He has a liquid which will dissolve ink, erase it, obliterate it, leaving the paper spotless. Thus it will be easy for me to substitute another in place of mine. Mazarin seeks you, Madame, either to place your beautiful neck upon the block or to immure you for life in prison. Madame, this paper represents two things: your death-warrant or your marriage contract. Which shall it be?”
AN INGENIOUS IDEA AND A WOMAN’S WIT
Madame sat down. There was an interval of silence, during which the candles seemed to move strangely from side to side, and the dark face beyond was blurred and indistinct; all save the eyes, which, like the lidless orbs of a snake, held and fascinated her. Vaguely she comprehended the peril of a confused mind, and strove to draw upon that secret inward strength which discovers itself in crises.
“How did you obtain that paper, Monsieur?”
The calm of her voice, though he knew it to be forced, surprised him. “How did I obtain it? By strategy.”
“Ah! not by the sword, then?” leaning upon the table, her fingers alone betraying her agitation. “Not by the sword, and the mask, and the grey cloak?”