“Then it was you!” said the taller stranger, who was still laughing so heartily that he had to wipe his eyes with his exquisite lace handkerchief.
“May God forgive me,” I replied.
The next moment his arm was again round me. I clung to him as to a rock, for of a truth I had never felt a grasp so steady and withal so gentle and kindly, as was his around my shoulders. I tried to murmur words of thanks, but again that wretched feeling of sickness and faintness overcame me, and for a second or two it seemed to me as if I were slipping into another world. The stranger’s voice came to my ear, as it were through cotton-wool.
“The man is starving,” he said. “Shall we take him over to your lodgings, Tony? They are safer than mine. He may be able to walk in a minute or two, if not I can carry him.”
My senses at this partly returned to me, and I was able to protest feebly:
“No, no! I must go back—I must—kind sirs,” I murmured. “Mme. la Marquise will be getting so anxious.”
No sooner were these foolish words out of my mouth than I could have bitten my tongue out for having uttered them; and yet, somehow, it seemed as if it was the stranger’s magnetic personality, his magic voice and kindly act towards me, who had so basely sold him to his enemies, which had drawn them out of me. He gave a low, prolonged whistle.
“Mme. la Marquise?” he queried, dropping his voice to a whisper.
Now to have uttered Mme. la Marquise de Mortaine’s name here in Lyons, where every aristocrat was termed a traitor and sent without trial to the guillotine, was in itself an act of criminal folly, and yet—you may believe me, monsieur, or not—there was something within me just at that moment that literally compelled me to open my heart out to this stranger, whom I had so basely betrayed, and who requited my abominable crime with such gentleness and mercy. Before I fully realised what I was doing, monsieur, I had blurted out the whole history of Mme. la Marquise’s flight and of M. le Vicomte’s sickness to him. He drew me under the cover of an open doorway, and he and his friend listened to me without speaking a word until I had told them my pitiable tale to the end.
When I had finished he said quietly:
“Take me to see Mme. la Marquise, old friend. Who knows? perhaps I may be able to help.”
Then he turned to his friend.
“Will you wait for me at my lodgings, Tony,” he said, “and let Ffoulkes and Hastings know that I may wish to speak with them on my return?”
He spoke like one who had been accustomed all his life to give command, and I marvelled how his friend immediately obeyed him. Then when the latter had disappeared down the dark street, the stranger once more turned to me.
“Lean on my arm, good old friend,” he said, “and we must try and walk as quickly as we can. The sooner we allay the anxieties of Mme. la Marquise the better.”