Story type: Literature
As Played at Paris, in the May of 1750
“Cette amoureuse ardeur qui dans les coeurs s’excite N’est point, comme l’on s�ait, un effet du merite; Le caprice y prend part, et, quand quelqu’un nous plaist, Souvent nous avons peine à dire pourquoy c’est. Mais on vois que l’amour se gouverne autrement.
DUC DE PUYSANGE, somewhat given to women, and now and then to good-fellowship, but a man of excellent disposition.
MARQUIS DE SOYECOURT, his cousin, and loves de Puysange’s wife.
DUKE OF ORMSKIRK.
DUCHESSE DE PUYSANGE, a precise, but amiable and patient, woman.
ANTOINE, LACKEYS to de Puysange, Etc.
Paris, mostly within and about the Hôtel de Puysange.
HEART OF GOLD
PROEM:–Necessitated by a Change of Scene
You are not to imagine that John Bulmer debated an exposure of de Soyecourt. “Live and let live” was the Englishman’s axiom; the exuberant Cazaio was dead, his men were either slain or dispersed, and the whole tangle of errors–with judicious reservations–had now been unravelled to Gaston’s satisfaction. And Claire de Puysange was now Duchess of Ormskirk. Why, then, meddle with Destiny, who appeared, after all, to possess a certain sense of equity?
So Ormskirk smiled as he presently went about Paris, on his own business, and when he and Louis de Soyecourt encountered each other their friendliness was monstrous in its geniality.
They were now one and all in Paris, where Ormskirk’s marriage had been again, and more publicly, solemnized. De Puysange swore that his sister was on this occasion the loveliest person affordable by the resources of the universe, but de Soyecourt backed another candidate; so that over their wine the two gentlemen presently fell into a dispute.
“Nay, but I protest to you she is the most beautiful woman in all Paris!” cried the Marquis de Soyecourt, and kissed his finger-tips gallantly.
“My dear Louis,” the Duc de Puysange retorted, “her eyes are noticeable, perhaps; and I grant you,” he added, slowly, “that her husband is not often troubled by–that which they notice.”
“–And the cleverest!”
“I have admitted she knows when to be silent. What more would you demand of any woman?”
“And yet–” The little Marquis waved a reproachful forefinger.
“Why, but,” said the Duke, with utter comprehension, “it is not for nothing that our house traces from the great Jurgen–“
He was in a genial midnight mood, and, on other subjects, inclined to be garrulous; for the world, viewed through a slight haze, of vinous origin, seemed a pleasant place, and inspired a kindly desire to say diverting things about the world’s contents. He knew the Marquis to be patient, and even stolid, under a fusillade of epigram and paradox; in short, de Puysange knew the hour and the antagonist for midnight talk to be at hand. And a saturnalia of phrases whirled in his brain, demanding utterance.
He waved them aside. Certain inbred ideas are strangely tenacious of existence, and it happened to be his wife they were discussing. It would not be good form, de Puysange felt, for him to evince great interest in this topic….
“And yet,” de Puysange queried, as he climbed democratically into a public hackney coach, “why not? For my part, I see no good and sufficient reason for discriminating against the only woman one has sworn to love and cherish and honor. It is true that several hundred people witnessed the promise, with a perfect understanding of the jest, and that the keeping of this oath involves a certain breach of faith with society. Eh bien! let us, then, deceive the world–and the flesh–and the devil! Let us snap our fingers at this unholy trinity, and assert the right, when the whim takes us, to make unstinted love to our own wives!”
He settled back in the fiacre to deliberate. “It is bourgeois? Bah! the word is the first refuge of the unskilful poseur! It is bourgeois to be born, to breathe, to sleep, or eat; in which of the functions that consume the greater part of my life do I differ from my grocer? Bourgeois! why, rightly considered, to be a human being at all is quite inordinately bourgeois! And it is very notably grocer-like to maintain a grave face and two establishments, to chuckle privily over the fragments of the seventh commandment, to repent, upon detection, and afterward–ces bêtes-là!–to drink poison. Ma foi, I infinitely prefer the domestic coffee!”
The Duc de Puysange laughed, and made as though to wave aside the crudities of life. “All vice is bourgeois, and fornication in particular tends to become sordid, outworn, vieux jeu! In youth, I grant you, it is the unexpurgated that always happens. But at my age–misericorde!–the men yawn, and les demoiselles–bah! les demoiselles have the souls of accountants! They buy and sell, as my grocer does. The satiation of carnal desires is no longer a matter of splendid crimes and sorrows and kingdoms lost; it is a matter of business.”
The harsh and swarthy face relaxed. With, a little sigh the Duc de Puysange had closed his fevered eyes. About them were a multitude of tiny lines, and of this fact he was obscurely conscious, in a wearied fashion, when he again looked out on the wellnigh deserted streets, now troubled by a hint of dawn. His eyes were old; they had seen much. Two workmen shambled by, chatting on their way to the day’s work; in the attic yonder a drunken fellow sang, “Ah, bouteille ma mie,” he bellowed, “pourquoi vous vuidez-vous?”
De Puysange laughed. “I suppose I have no conscience, but at least, I can lay claim to a certain fastidiousness. I am very wicked,”–he smiled, without mirth or bitterness,–“I have sinned notably as the world accounts it; indeed, I think, my repute is as abominable as that of any man living. And I am tired,–alas, I am damnably tired! I have found the seven deadly sins deadly, beyond, doubt, but only deadly dull and deadly commonplace. I have perseveringly frisked in the high places of iniquity, I have junketed with all evil gods, and the utmost they could pretend to offer any of their servitors was a spasm. I renounce them, as feeble-minded deities, I snap my fingers, very much as did my progenitor, the great Jurgen, at all their over-rated mysteries.”
His glance caught and clung for a moment to the paling splendor of the moon that hung low in the vacant, dove-colored heavens. A faint pang, half-envy, half-regret, vexed the Duke with a dull twinge. “I wish too that by living continently I could have done, once for all, with this faded pose and this idle making of phrases! Eheu! there is a certain proverb concerning pitch so cynical that I suspect it of being truthful. However,–we shall see.”
De Puysange smiled. “The most beautiful woman in all Paris? Ah, yes, she is quite that, is this grave silent female whose eyes are more fathomless and cold than oceans! And how cordially she despises me! Ma foi, I think that if her blood–which is, beyond doubt, of a pale-pink color,–be ever stirred, at all, it is with loathing of her husband. Well, life holds many surprises for madame, now that I become quite as virtuous as she is. We will arrange a very pleasant comedy of belated courtship; for are we not bidden to love one another? So be it,–I am henceforth the model père de famille.”
Now the fiacre clattered before the Hôtel de Puysange.
The door was opened by a dull-eyed lackey, whom de Puysange greeted with a smile, “Bon jour, Antoine!” cried the Duke; “I trust that your wife and doubtless very charming children have good health?”
“Beyond question, monseigneur,” the man answered, stolidly.
“That is excellent hearing,” de Puysange said, “and it rejoices me to be reassured of their welfare. For the happiness of others, Antoine, is very dear to the heart of a father–and of a husband.” The Duke chuckled seraphically as he passed down the hall. The man stared after him, and shrugged.
“Rather worse than usual,” Antoine considered.
Next morning the Duchesse de Puysange received an immoderate armful of roses, with a fair copy of some execrable verses. De Puysange spent the afternoon, selecting bonbons and wholesome books,–“for his fiancée,” he gravely informed the shopman.
At the Opéra he never left her box; afterward, at the Comtesse de Hauteville’s, he created a furor by sitting out three dances in the conservatory with his wife. Mademoiselle Tiercelin had already received his regrets that he was spending that night at home.
The month wore on.
“It is the true honeymoon,” said the Duke.
In that event he might easily have found a quieter place than Paris wherein to spend it. Police agents had of late been promised a premium for any sturdy beggar, whether male or female, they could secure to populate the new plantation of Louisiana; and as the premium was large, genteel burgesses, and in particular the children of genteel burgesses, were presently disappearing in a fashion their families found annoying. Now, from nowhere, arose and spread the curious rumor that King Louis, somewhat the worse for his diversions in the Parc-aux-Cerfs, daily restored his vigor by bathing in the blood of young children; and parents of the absentees began to manifest a double dissatisfaction, for the deduction was obvious.
There were riots. In one of them Madame de Pompadour barely escaped with her life, [Footnote: This was on the afternoon of the famous ball given by the Pompadour in honor of the new Duchess of Ormskirk.] and the King himself on his way to Compiègne, was turned back at the Porte St. Antoine, and forced to make a détour rather than enter his own capital. After this affair de Puysange went straight to his brother-in-law.
“Jean,” said he, “for a newly married man you receive too much company. And afterward your visitors talk blasphemously in cabarets and shoot the King’s musketeers. I would appreciate an explanation.”
Ormskirk shrugged. “Merely a makeshift, Gaston. Merely a device to gain time wherein England may prepare against the alliance of France and Austria. Your secret treaty will never be signed as long as Paris is given over to rioters. Nay, the Empress may well hesitate to ally herself with a king who thus clamantly cannot govern even his own realm. And meanwhile England will prepare herself. We will be ready to fight you in five years, but we do not intend to be hurried about it.”
“Yes,” de Puysange assented;–“yet you err in sending Cumberland to defend Hanover. You will need a better man there.”
Ormskirk slapped his thigh. “So you intercepted that last despatch, after all! And I could have sworn Candale was trustworthy!”
“My adored Jean,” replied de Puysange, “he has been in my pay for six months! Console yourself with the reflection that you overbid us in Noumaria.”
“Yes, but old Ludwig held out for more than the whole duchy is worth. We paid of course. We had to pay.”
“And one of course congratulates you upon securing the quite essential support of that duchy. Still, Jean, if there were any accident–” De Puysange was really unbelievably ugly when he smiled. “For accidents do occur…. It is war, then?”
“My dear fellow,” said Ormskirk, “of course it is war. We are about to fly at each other’s throats, with half of Europe to back each of us. We begin the greatest game we have ever played. And we will manage it very badly, I dare say, since we are each of us just now besotted with adoration of our wives.”
“At times,” said de Puysange, with dignity, “your galimatias are insufferable. Now let us talk like reasonable beings. In regard to Pomerania, you will readily understand that the interests of humanity–“
Still the suggestion haunted him. It would be a nuance too ridiculous, of course, to care seriously for one’s wife, and yet Hélène de Puysange was undeniably a handsome woman. As they sat over the remains of their dinner,–à deux, by the Duke’s request,–she seemed to her husband quite incredibly beautiful. She exhaled the effects of a water-color in discreet and delicate tinctures. Lithe and fine and proud she was to the merest glance; yet patience, a thought conscious of itself, beaconed in her eyes, and she appeared, with urbanity, to regard life as, upon the whole, a countrified performance. De Puysange liked that air; he liked the reticence of every glance and speech and gesture,–liked, above all, the thinnish oval of her face and the staid splendor of her hair. Here was no vulgar yellow, no crass and hackneyed gold … and yet there was a clarified and gauzier shade of gold … the color of the moon by daylight, say…. Then, as the pleasures of digestion lapsed gently into the initial amenities of sleep, she spoke.
“Monsieur,” said she, “will you be pleased to tell me the meaning of this comedy?”
“Madame,” de Puysange answered, and raised his gloomy eyebrows, “I do not entirely comprehend.”
“Ah,” said she, “believe me, I do not undervalue your perception. I have always esteemed your cleverness, monsieur, however much”–she paused for a moment, a fluctuating smile upon her lips,–“however much I may have regretted its manifestations. I am not clever, and to me cleverness has always seemed to be an infinite incapacity for hard work; its results are usually a few sonnets, an undesirable wife, and a warning for one’s acquaintances. In your case it is, of course, different; you have your statesmanship to play with–“
“And statesmen have no need of cleverness, you would imply, madame?”
“I do not say that. In any event, you are the Duc de Puysange, and the weight of a great name stifles stupidity and cleverness without any partiality. With you, cleverness has taken the form of a tendency to intoxication, amours, and–amiability. I have acquiesced in this. But, for the past month–“
“The happiest period of my life!” breathed the Duke.
“–you have been pleased to present me with flowers, bonbons, jewels, and what not. You have actually accorded your wife the courtesies you usually preserve for the ladies of the ballet. You have dogged my footsteps, you have attempted to intrude into my bedroom, you have talked to me as–well, very much as–“
“Much as the others do?” de Puysange queried, helpfully. “Pardon me, madame, but, in one’s own husband, I had thought this very routine might savor of originality.”
The Duchess flushed, “All the world knows, monsieur, that in your estimation what men have said to me, or I to them, has been for fifteen years a matter of no moment! It is not due to you that I am still–“
“A pearl,” finished the Duke, gallantly,–then touched himself upon the chest,–“cast before swine,” he sighed.
She rose to her feet. “Yes, cast before swine!” she cried, with a quick lift of speech. She seemed very tall as she stood tapping her fingers upon the table, irresolutely; but after an instant she laughed and spread out her fine hands in an impotent gesture. “Ah, monsieur,” she said, “my father entrusted to your keeping a clean-minded girl! What have you made of her, Gaston?”
A strange and profoundly unreasonable happiness swept through the Duke’s soul as she spoke his given name for the first time within his memory. Surely, the deep contralto voice had lingered over it?–half-tenderly, half-caressingly, one might think.
The Duke put aside his coffee-cup and, rising, took his wife’s soft hands in his. “What have I made of her? I have made of her, Hélène, the one object of all my desires.”
Her face flushed. “Mountebank!” she cried, and struggled to free herself; “do you mistake me, then, for a raddle-faced actress in a barn? Ah, les demoiselles have formed you, monsieur,–they have formed you well!”
“Pardon!” said the Duke. He released her hands, he swept back his hair with a gesture of impatience. He turned from his wife, and strolled toward a window, where, for a little, he tapped upon the pane, his murky countenance twitching oddly, as he stared into the quiet and sunlit street. “Madame,” he began, in a level voice, “I will tell you the meaning of the comedy. To me,–always, as you know, a creature of whims,–there came, a month ago, a new whim which I thought attractive, unconventional, promising. It was to make love to my own wife rather than to another man’s. Ah, I grant you, it is incredible,” he cried, when the Duchess raised her hand as though to speak,–“incredible, fantastic, and ungentlemanly! So be it; nevertheless, I have played out my rôle. I have been the model husband; I have put away wine and–les demoiselles; for it pleased me, in my petty insolence, to patronize, rather than to defy, the laws of God and man. Your perfection irritated me, madame; it pleased me to demonstrate how easy is this trick of treating the world as the antechamber of a future existence. It pleased me to have in my life one space, however short, over which neither the Recording Angel nor even you might draw a long countenance. It pleased me, in effect, to play out the comedy, smug-faced and immaculate,–for the time. I concede that I have failed in my part. Hiss me from the stage, madame; add one more insult to the already considerable list of those affronts which I have put upon you; one more will scarcely matter.”
She faced him with set lips. “So, monsieur, your boasted comedy amounts only to this?”
“I am not sure of its meaning, madame. I think that, perhaps, the swine, wallowing in the mire which they have neither strength nor will to leave, may yet, at times, long–and long whole-heartedly–” De Puysange snapped his fingers. “Peste!” said he, “let us now have done with this dreary comedy! Beyond doubt de Soyecourt has much to answer for, in those idle words which were its germ. Let us hiss both collaborators, madame.”
“De Soyecourt!” she marveled, with, a little start. “Was it he who prompted you to make love to me?”
“Without intention,” pleaded the Duke. “He twitted me for my inability, as your husband, to gain your affections; but I do not question his finest sensibilities would be outraged by our disastrous revival of Philemon and Baucis.”
“Ah–!” said she. She was smiling at some reflection or other.
There was a pause. The Duc de Puysange drummed upon the window-pane; the Duchess, still faintly smiling, trifled with the thin gold chain that hung about her neck. Both knew their display of emotion to have been somewhat unmodern, not entirely à la mode.
“Decidedly,” spoke de Puysange, and turned toward her with a slight grimace, “I am no longer fit to play the lover; yet a little while, madame, and you must stir my gruel-posset, and arrange the pillows more comfortably about the octogenarian.”
“Ah, Gaston,” she answered, and in protest raised her slender fingers, “let us have no more heroics. We are not well fitted for them, you and I.”
“So it would appear,” the Duc de Puysange conceded, not without sulkiness.
“Let us be friends,” she pleaded. “Remember, it was fifteen years ago I made the grave mistake of marrying a very charming man–“
“Merci!” cried the Duke.
“–and I did not know that I was thereby denying myself the pleasure of his acquaintance. I have learned too late that marrying a man is only the most civil way of striking him from one’s visiting-list.” The Duchess hesitated. “Frankly, Gaston, I do not regret the past month.”
“It has been adorable!” sighed the Duke.
“Yes,” she admitted; “except those awkward moments when you would insist on making love to me.”
“But no, madame,” cried he, “it was precisely–“
“O my husband, my husband!” she interrupted, with a shrug of the shoulders; “why, you do it so badly!”
The Duc de Puysange took a short turn about the apartment. “Yet I married you,” said he, “at sixteen–out of a convent!”
“Mon ami,” she murmured, in apology, “am I not to be frank with you? Would you have only the connubial confidences?”
“But I had no idea–” he began.
“Why, Gaston, it bored me to the very verge of yawning in my lover’s countenance. I, too, had no idea but that it would bore you equally–“
“Hein?” said the Duke.
“–to hear what d’Humières–“
“He squints!” cried the Duc de Puysange.
“–or de Créquy–“
“That red-haired ape!” he muttered.
“–or d’Arlanges, or–or any of them, was pleased to say. In fact, it was my duty to conceal from my husband anything which might involve him in duels. Now that we are friends, of course it is entirely different.”
The Duchess smiled; the Duke walked up and down the room with the contained ferocity of a caged tiger.
“In duels! in a whole series of duels! So these seducers besiege you in platoons. Ma foi, friendship is a good oculist! Already my vision improves.”
“Gaston!” she cried. The Duchess rose and laid both hands upon his shoulders. “Gaston–?” she repeated.
For a heart-beat the Duc de Puysange looked into his wife’s eyes; then he sadly smiled and shook his head. “Madame,” said the Duke, “I do not doubt you. Ah, believe me, I have comprehended, always, that in your keeping my honor was quite safe–far more safe than in mine, as Heaven and most of the fiends well know. You have been a true and faithful wife to a worthless brute who has not deserved it.” He lifted her fingers to his lips. De Puysange stood very erect; his heels clicked together, and his voice was earnest. “I thank you, madame, and I pray you to believe that I have never doubted you. You are too perfect to err–Frankly, and between friends.” added the Duke, “it was your cold perfection which frightened me. You are an icicle, Hélène.”
She was silent for a moment. “Ah!” she said, and sighed; “you think so?”
“Once, then–?” The Duc de Puysange seated himself beside his wife, and took her hand.
“I–it was nothing.” Her lashes fell, and dull color flushed through her countenance.
“Between friends,” the Duke suggested, “there should be no reservations.”
“But it is such a pitiably inartistic little history!” the Duchess protested. “Eh bien, if you must have it! For I was a girl once,–an innocent girl, as given as are most girls to long reveries and bright, callow day-dreams. And there was a man–“
“There always is,” said the Duke, darkly.
“Why, he never even knew, mon ami!” cried his wife, and laughed, and clapped her hands. “He was much older than I; there were stories about him–oh, a great many stories,–and one hears even in a convent–” She paused with a reminiscent smile. “And I used to wonder shyly what this very fearful reprobate might be like. I thought of him with de Lauzun, and Dom Juan, and with the Duc de Grammont, and all those other scented, shimmering, magnificent libertines over whom les ingénues–wonder; only, I thought of him, more often than of the others, I made little prayers for him to the Virgin. And I procured a tiny miniature of him. And, when I came out of the convent, I met him at my father’s house. [Footnote: She was of the Aigullon family, and sister to d’Agenois, the first and very politic lover of Madame de la Tournelle, afterward mistress to Louis Quinze under the title of Duchesse de Ch�teauroux. The later relations between the d’Aigullons and Madame du Barry are well-known.] And that was all.”
“All?” The Duc de Puysange had raised his swart eyebrows, and he slightly smiled.
“All,” she re-echoed, firmly. “Oh, I assure you he was still too youthful to have any time to devote to young girls. He was courteous–no more. But I kept the picture,–ah, girls are so foolish, Gaston!” The Duchess, with a light laugh, drew upward the thin chain about her neck. At its end was a little heart-shaped locket of dull gold, with a diamond sunk deep in each side. She regarded the locket with a quaint sadness. “It is a long while since I have seen that miniature, for it has been sealed in here,” said she, “ever since–since some one gave me the locket”
Now the Duc de Puysange took this trinket, still tepid and perfumed from contact with her flesh. He turned it awkwardly in his hand, his eyes flashing volumes of wonderment and inquiry. Yet he did not appear jealous, nor excessively unhappy. “And never,” he demanded, some vital emotion catching at his voice–“never since then–?”
“I never, of course, approved of him,” she answered; and at this point de Puysange noted–so near as he could remember for the first time in his existence,–the curve of her trailing lashes. Why but his wife had lovely eyelashes, lashes so unusual that he drew nearer to observe them more at his ease. “Still,–I hardly know how to tell you–still, without him the world was more quiet, less colorful; it held, appreciably, less to catch the eye and ear. Eh, he had an air, Gaston; he was never an admirable man, but, somehow, he was invariably the centre of the picture.”
“And you have always–always you have cared for him?” said the Duke, drawing nearer and yet more near to her.
“Other men,” she murmured, “seem futile and of minor importance, after him.” The lashes lifted. They fell, promptly. “So, I have always kept the heart, mon ami. And, yes, I have always loved him, I suppose.”
The chain had moved and quivered in his hand. Was it man or woman who trembled? wondered the Duc de Puysange. For a moment he stood immovable, every nerve in his body tense. Surely, it was she who trembled? It seemed to him that this woman, whose cold perfection had galled him so long, now stood with downcast eyes, and blushed and trembled, too, like any rustic maiden come shamefaced to her first tryst.
“Hélène–!” he cried.
“But no, my story is too dull,” she protested, and shrugged her shoulders, and disengaged herself–half-fearfully, it seemed to her husband. “Even more insipid than your comedy,” she added, with a not unkindly smile. “Do we drive this afternoon?”
“In effect, yes!” cried the Duke. He paused and laughed–a low and gentle laugh, pulsing with unutterable content. “Since this afternoon, madame–“
“Is cloudless?” she queried.
“Nay, far more than that,” de Puysange amended; “it is refulgent.”
What time the Duchess prepared her person for the drive the Duke walked in the garden of the Hôtel de Puysange. Up and down a shady avenue of lime-trees he paced, and chuckled to himself, and smiled benignantly upon the moss-incrusted statues,–a proceeding that was, beyond any reasonable doubt, prompted by his happiness rather than by the artistic merits of the postured images, since they constituted a formidable and broken-nosed collection of the most cumbrous, the most incredible, and the most hideous instances of sculpture the family of Puysange had been able to accumulate for, as the phrase is, love or money. Amid these mute, gray travesties of antiquity and the tastes of his ancestors, the Duc de Puysange exulted.
“Ma foi, will life never learn to improve upon the extravagancies of romance? Why, it is the old story,–the hackneyed story of the husband and wife who fall in love with each other! Life is a very gross plagiarist. And she–did she think I had forgotten how I gave her that little locket so long ago? Eh, ma femme, so ‘some one’–‘some one’ who cannot be alluded to without a pause and an adorable flush–presented you with your locket! Nay, love is not always blind!”
The Duke paused before a puff-jawed Triton, who wallowed in an arid basin and uplifted toward heaven what an indulgent observer might construe as a broken conch-shell. “Love! Mon Dieu, how are the superior fallen! I have not the decency to conceal even from myself that I love my wife! I am shameless, I had as lief proclaim it from the house-tops. And a month ago–tarare, the ignorant beast I was! Moreover, at that time I had not passed a month in her company,–eh bien, I defy Diogenes and Timon to come through such a testing with unscratched hearts. I love her. And she loves me!”
He drew a deep breath, and he lifted his comely hands toward the pale spring sky, where the west wind was shepherding a sluggish flock of clouds. “O sun, moon, and stars!” de Puysange said, aloud: “I call you to witness that she loves me! Always she has loved me! O kindly little universe! O little kings, tricked out with garish crowns and sceptres, you are masters of your petty kingdoms, but I am master of her heart!
“I do not deserve it,” he conceded, to a dilapidated faun, who, though his flute and the hands that held it had been missing for over a quarter of a century, piped, on with unimpaired and fatuous mirth. “Ah, heart of gold–demented trinket that you are, I have not merited that you should retain my likeness all these years! If I had my deserts–parbleu! let us accept such benefits as the gods provide, and not question the wisdom of their dispensations. What man of forty-three may dare to ask for his deserts? No, we prefer instead the dealings of blind chance and all the gross injustices by which so many of us escape hanging”….
“So madame has visitors? Eh bien, let us, then, behold these naughty visitors, who would sever a husband from his wife!”
From within the Red Salon came a murmur of speech,–quiet, cordial, colorless,–which showed very plainly that madame had visitors. As the Duc de Puysange reached out his hand to draw aside the portières, her voice was speaking, courteously, but without vital interest.
“–and afterward,” said she, “weather permitting–“
“Ah, Hélène!” cried a voice that the Duke knew almost as well, “how long am I to be held at arm’s-length by these petty conventionalities? Is candor never to be permitted?”
The half-drawn portière trembled in the Duke’s grasp. He could see, from where he stood, the inmates of the salon, though their backs were turned. They were his wife and the Marquis de Soyecourt. The Marquis bent eagerly toward the Duchesse de Puysange, who had risen as he spoke.
For a moment she stayed as motionless as her perplexed husband; then, with a wearied sigh, the Duchess sank back into a fauteuil. “You are at liberty to speak,” she said, slowly, and with averted glance–“what you choose.”
The portière fell; but between its folds the Duke still peered into the room, where de Soyecourt had drawn nearer to the Duke’s wife. “There is so little to say,” the Marquis murmured, “beyond what my eyes have surely revealed a great while ago–that I love you.”
“Ah!” the Duchess cried, with a swift intaking of the breath which was almost a sob. “Monsieur, I think you forget that you are speaking to the wife of your kinsman and your friend.”
The Marquis threw out his hands in a gesture which was theatrical, though the trouble that wrung his countenance seemed very real. He was, as one has said, a slight, fair man, with the face of an ecclesiastic and the eyes of an aging seraph. A dull pang shot through the Duke as he thought of the two years’ difference in their ages, and of his own tendency to embonpoint, and of the dismal features which calumniated him. Yonder porcelain fellow was in appearance so incredibly young!
“Do you consider,” said the Marquis, “that I do not know I act an abominable part? Honor, friendship and even decency!–ah, I regret their sacrifice, but love is greater than these petty things!”
The Duchess sighed. “For my part,” she returned, “I think differently. Love is, doubtless, very wonderful and beautiful, but I am sufficiently old-fashioned to hold honor yet dearer. Even–even if I loved you, monsieur, there are certain promises, sworn before the altar, that I could not forget.” She looked up, candidly, into the flushed, handsome face of the Marquis.
“Words!” he cried, with vexed impatiency.
“An oath,” she answered, sadly,–“an oath that I may not break.”
There was hunger in the Marquis’ eyes, and his hands lifted. Their glances met for a breathless moment, and his eyes were tender, and her eyes were resolute, but very, very compassionate.
“I love you!” he said. He said no more than this, but none could doubt he spoke the truth.
“Monsieur,” the Duchess replied, and the depths of her contralto voice were shaken like the sobbing of a violin, and her hands stole upward to her bosom, and clasped the gold heart, as she spoke,–“monsieur, ever since I first knew you, many years ago, at my father’s home, I have held you as my friend. You were more kind to the girl, Monsieur de Soyecourt, than you have been to the woman. Yet only since our stay in Poictesme yonder have I feared for the result of our friendship. I have tried to prevent this result. I have failed.” The Duchess lifted the gold heart to her lips, and her golden head bent over it. “Monsieur, before God, if I had loved you with my whole being,–if I had loved you all these years,–if the sight of your face were to me to-day the one good thing life holds, and the mere sound of your voice had power to set my heart to beating–beating”–she paused for a little, and then rose, with a sharp breath that shook her slender body visibly,–“even then, my Louis, the answer would be the same; and that is,–go!”
“Hélène–!” he murmured; and his outstretched hands, which trembled, groped toward her.
“Let us have no misunderstanding,” she protested, more composedly; “you have my answer.”
De Soyecourt did not, at mildest, lead an immaculate life. But by the passion that now possessed him the tiny man seemed purified and transfigured beyond masculinity. His face was ascetic in its reverence as he waited there, with his head slightly bowed. “I go,” he said, at last, as if picking his way carefully among tumbling words; then bent over her hand, which, she made no effort to withdraw. “Ah, my dear!” cried the Marquis, staring into her shy, uplifted eyes, “I think I might have made you happy!”
His arm brushed the elbow of the Duke as de Soyecourt left the salon. The Marquis seemed aware of nothing: the misery of both the men, as de Puysange reflected, was of a sort to be disturbed by nothing less noticeable than an earthquake.
“If I had loved you all these years,” murmured the Duc de Puysange. His dull gaze wandered toward the admirable “Herodias” of Giorgione which hung there in the corridor: the strained face of the woman, the accented muscles of her arms, the purple, bellying cloak which spread behind her, the livid countenance of the dead man staring up from the salver,–all these he noted, idly. It seemed strange that he should be appraising a painting at this particular moment.
“Well, now I will make recompense,” said the Duke.
He came into the room, humming a tune of the boulevards; the crimson hangings swirled about him, the furniture swayed in aerial and thin-legged minuets. He sank into a chair before the great mirror, supported by frail love-gods, who contended for its possession. He viewed therein his pale and grotesque reflection, and he laughed lightly. “Pardon, madame,” he said, “but my castles in the air are tumbling noisily about my ears. It is difficult to think clearly amid the crashing of the battlements.”
“I do not understand.” The Duchess had lifted a rather grave and quite incurious face as he entered the salon.
“My life,” laughed the Duc de Puysange, “I assure you I am quite incorrigible. I have just committed another abominable action; and I cry peccavi!” He smote himself upon the breast, and sighed portentously. “I accuse myself of eavesdropping.”
“What is your meaning?” She had now risen to her feet.
“Nay, but I am requited,” the Duke reassured her, and laughed with discreetly tempered bitterness. “Figure to yourself, madame! I had planned for us a life during which our new-born friendship was always to endure untarnished. Eh bien, man proposes! De Soyecourt is of a jealous disposition; and here I sit, amid my fallen aircastles, like that tiresome Marius in his Carthaginian débris.”
“De Soyecourt?” she echoed, dully.
“Ah, my poor child!” said the Duke and, rising, took her hand in a paternal fashion, “did you think that, at this late day, the disease of matrimony was still incurable? Nay, we progress, madame. You shall have grounds for a separation–sufficient, unimpeachable grounds. You shall have your choice of desertion, infidelity, cruelty in the presence of witnesses–oh, I shall prove a yeritabie Gilles de Retz!” He laughed, not unkindlily, at her bewilderment.
“You heard everything?” she queried.
“I have already confessed,” the Duke reminded her. “And speaking as an unprejudiced observer, I would say the little man really loves you. So be it! You shall have your separation, you shall marry him in all honor and respectability; and if everything goes well, you shall be a grand duchess one of these days–Behold a fact accomplished!” De Puysange snapped his fingers and made a pirouette; he began to hum, “Songez de bonne à suivre–“
There was a little pause.
“You, in truth, desire to restore to me my freedom?” she asked, in wonder, and drew near to him.
The Duc de Puysange seated himself, with a smile. “Mon Dieu!” he protested, “who am I to keep lovers apart? As the first proof of our new-sworn friendship, I hereby offer you any form of abuse or of maltreatment you may select.”
She drew yet nearer to him. Afterward, with a sigh as if of great happiness, her arms clasped about his neck. “Mountebank! do you, then, love me very much?”
“I?” The Duke raised his eyebrows. Yet, he reflected, there was really no especial harm in drawing his cheek a trifle closer to hers, and he found the contact to be that of cool velvet.
“You love me!” she repeated, softly.
“It pains me to the heart,” the Duke apologized–“it pains me, pith and core, to be guilty of this rudeness to a lady; but, after all, honesty is a proverbially recommended virtue, and so I must unblushingly admit I do nothing of the sort.”
“Gaston, why will you not confess to your new friend? Have I not pardoned other amorous follies?” Her cheeks were warmer now, and softer than those of any other woman in the world.
“Eh, ma mie,” cried the Duke, warningly, “do not be unduly elated by little Louis’ avowal! You are a very charming person, but–‘de gustibus–‘”
“Gaston–!” she murmured.
“Ah, what is one to do with such a woman!” De Puysange put her from him, and he paced the room with quick, unequal strides.
“Yes, I love you with every nerve and fibre of my body–with every not unworthy thought and aspiration of my misguided soul! There you have the ridiculous truth of it, the truth which makes me the laughing-stock of well bred persons for all time. I adore you. I love you, I cherish you sufficiently to resign you to the man your heart has chosen. I–But pardon me,”–and he swept a white hand over his brow, with a little, choking laugh,–“since I find this new emotion somewhat boisterous. It stifles one unused to it.”
She faced him, inscrutably; but her eyes were deep wells of gladness. “Monsieur,” she said, “yours is a noble affection. I will not palter with it, I accept your offer–“
“Madame, you act with your usual wisdom,” said the Duke.
“–Upon condition,” she continued,–“that you resume your position as eavesdropper.”
The Duke obeyed her pointing finger. When he had reached the portières, the proud, black-visaged man looked back into the salon, wearily. She had seated herself in the fauteuil, where the Marquis de Soyecourt had bent over her and she had kissed the little gold locket. Her back was turned toward, her husband; but their eyes met in the great mirror, supported by frail love-gods, who contended for its possession.
“Comedy for comedy,” she murmured. He wondered what purblind fool had called her eyes sea-cold?
“I do not understand,” he said. “You saw me all the while–Yes, but the locket–?” cried de Puysange.
“Open it!” she answered, and her speech, too, was breathless.
Under his heel the Duc de Puysange ground the trinket. The long, thin chain clashed and caught about his foot; the face of his youth smiled from the fragment in his not quite steady hands. “O heart’ of gold! O heart of gold!” he said, with, a strange meditative smile, now that his eyes lifted toward the glad and glorious eyes of his wife; “I am not worthy! Indeed, my dear, I am not worthy!”