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- The Trail of the Sword, Volume 4. - 6/7 -
"Yes, yes; forgive me," she replied. She turned to Perrot again. "It is with you, then. You helped to save my life once--what right have you to destroy it now? You and Monsieur Iberville gave me the world when it were easy to have lost it; now when the world is everything to me because my husband lives in it, you would take his life and break mine."
Suddenly a thought flashed into her mind. Her eyes brightened, her hand trembled towards Perrot, and touched him. "Once I gave you something, monsieur, which I had worn on my own bosom. That little gift--of a grateful girl, tell me, have you it still?"
Perrot drew from his doublet the medallion she had given him, and fingered it uncertainly.
"Then you value it," she added. "You value my gift, and yet when my husband is a prisoner, to what perilous ends God only knows, you deny me to him. I will not plead; I ask as my right; I have come from Count Frontenac; he sent me to this good priest here. Were my husband in the citadel now I should be admitted. He is here with the man who, you know, once said he loved me. My husband is wickedly held a prisoner; I ask for entrance to him."
Pleading, apprehension, seemed gone from her; she stood superior to her fear and sorrow. The priest reached a hand persuasively towards Perrot, and he was about to speak, but Perrot, coming close to the troubled wife, said: "The door is locked; they are there alone. I cannot let you in, but come with me. You have a voice--it may be heard. Come."
Presently all three were admitted into the dim hallway.
IN WHICH THE SWORD IS SHEATHED
How had it gone with Iberville and Gering?
The room was large, scantily, though comfortably, furnished. For a moment after they took up their swords they eyed each other calmly. Iberville presently smiled: he was recalling that night, years ago, when by the light of the old Dutch lantern they had fallen upon each other, swordsmen, even in those days, of more than usual merit. They had practised greatly since. Iberville was the taller of the two, Gering the stouter. Iberville's eye was slow, calculating, penetrating; Gering's was swift, strangely vigilant. Iberville's hand was large, compact, and supple; Gering's small and firm.
They drew and fell on guard. Each at first played warily. They were keen to know how much of skill was likely to enter into this duel, for each meant that it should be deadly. In the true swordsman there is found that curious sixth sense, which is a combination of touch, sight, apprehension, divination. They had scarcely made half a dozen passes before each knew that he was pitted against a master of the art--an art partly lost in an age which better loves the talk of swords than the handling of them. But the advantage was with Iberville, not merely because of more practice,--Gering made up for that by a fine certainty of nerve,--but because he had a prescient quality of mind, joined to the calculation of the perfect gamester.
From the first Iberville played a waiting game. He knew Gering's impulsive nature, and he wished to draw him on, to irritate him, as only one swordsman can irritate another. Gering suddenly led off with a disengage from the carte line into tierce, and, as he expected, met the short parry and riposte. Gering tried by many means to draw Iberville's attack, and, failing to do so, played more rapidly than he ought, which was what Iberville wished.
Presently Iberville's chance came. In the carelessness of annoyance, Gering left part of his sword arm uncovered, while he was meditating a complex attack, and he paid the penalty by getting a sharp prick from Iberville's sword-point. The warning came to Gering in time. When they crossed swords again, Iberville, whether by chance or by momentary want of skill, parried Gering's disengage from tierce to carte on to his own left shoulder.
Both had now got a taste of blood, and there is nothing like that to put the lust of combat into a man. For a moment or two the fight went on with no special feat, but so hearty became the action that Iberville, seeing Gering flag a little,--due somewhat to loss of blood, suddenly opened such a rapid attack on the advance that it was all Gering could do to parry, without thought of riposte, the successive lunges of the swift blade. As he retreated, Gering felt, as he broke ground, that he was nearing the wall, and, even as he parried, incautiously threw a half- glance over his shoulder to see how near. Iberville saw his chance, his finger was shaping a fatal lunge, when there suddenly came from the hallway a woman's voice. So weird was it that both swordsmen drew back, and once more Gering's life was waiting in the hazard.
Strange to say, Iberville recognised the voice first. He was angered with himself now that he had paused upon the lunge and saved Gering. Suddenly there rioted in him the disappointed vengeance of years. He had lost her once by sparing this man's life. Should he lose her again? His sword flashed upward.
At that moment Gering recognised his wife's voice, and he turned pale. "My wife!" he exclaimed.
They closed again. Gering was now as cold as he had before been ardent, and he played with malicious strength and persistency. His nerves seemed of iron. But there had come to Iberville the sardonic joy of one who plays for the final hazard, knowing that he shall win. There was one great move he had reserved for the last. With the woman's voice at the door beseeching, her fingers trembling upon the panel, they could not prolong the fight. Therefore, at the moment when Gering was pressing Iberville hard, the Frenchman suddenly, with a trick of the Italian school, threw his left leg en arriere and made a lunge, which ordinarily would have spitted his enemy, but at the critical moment one word came ringing clearly through the locked door. It was his own name, not Iberville, but--"Pierre! Pierre!"
He had never heard the voice speak that name. It put out his judgment, and instead of his sword passing through Gering's body it only grazed his ribs.
Perhaps there was in him some ancient touch of superstition, some sense of fatalism, which now made him rise to his feet and throw his sword upon the table.
"Monsieur," he said cynically, "again we are unfortunate."
Then he went to the door, unlocked it, and threw it open upon Jessica. She came in upon them trembling, pale, yet glowing with her anxiety.
Instantly Iberville was all courtesy. One could not have guessed that he had just been engaged in a deadly conflict. As his wife entered, Gering put his sword aside. Iberville closed the door, and the three stood looking at each other for a moment. Jessica did not throw herself into her husband's arms. The position was too painful, too tragic, for even the great emotion in her heart. Behind Iberville's courtesy she read the deadly mischief. But she had a power born for imminent circumstances, and her mind was made up as to her course. It had been made up when, at the critical moment, she had called out Iberville's Christian name. She rightly judged that this had saved her husband's life, for she guessed that Iberville was the better swordsman.
She placed her hands with slight resistance on the arms of her husband, who was about to clasp her to his breast, and said: "I am glad to find you, George." That was all.
He also had heard that cry, "Pierre," and he felt shamed that his life was spared because of it--he knew well why the sword had not gone through his body. She felt less humiliation, because, as it seemed to her, she had a right to ask of Iberville what no other woman could ask for her husband.
A moment after, at Iberville's request, they were all seated. Iberville had pretended not to notice the fingers which had fluttered towards him. As yet nothing had been said about the duel, as if by tacit consent. So far as Jessica was concerned it might never have happened. As for the men, the swords were there, wet with the blood they had drawn, but they made no sign. Iberville put meat and wine and fruit upon the table, and pressed Jessica to take refreshment. She responded, for it was in keeping with her purpose. Presently Iberville said, as he poured a glass of wine for her: "Had you been expected, madame, there were better entertainment."
"Your entertainment, monsieur," she replied, "has two sides,"--she glanced at the swords,--"and this is the better."
"If it pleases you, madame."
"I dare not say," she returned, "that my coming was either pleasant or expected."
He raised his glass towards her: "Madame, I am proud to pledge you once more. I recall the first time that we met."
Her reply was instant. "You came, an ambassador of peace to the governor of New York. Monsieur, I come an ambassador of peace to you."
"Yes, I remember. You asked me then what was the greatest, bravest thing I ever did. You ever had a buoyant spirit, madame."
"Monsieur," she rejoined, with feeling, "will you let me answer that question for you now? The bravest and greatest thing you ever did was to give a woman back her happiness."
"Have I done so?"
"In your heart, yes, I believe. A little while ago my husband's life and freedom were in your hands--you will place them in mine now, will you not?"
Iberville did not reply directly. He twisted his wineglass round, sipped from it pleasantly, and said: "Pardon me, madame, how were you admitted here?"
She told him.
"Singular, singular!" he replied; "I never knew Perrot fail me before. But you have eloquence, madame, and he knew, no doubt, that you would always be welcome to my home."
There was that in his voice which sent the blood stinging through Gering's veins. He half came to his feet, but his wife's warning, pleading glance brought him to his chair again.
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