It was at daybreak the following morning that Simon Pradel left the château. He had spent the whole night at the bedside of the Abbé Edgeworth, fighting a stubborn fight against a tired heart, which threatened any moment to cease beating. The old priest was hardly conscious during all those hours, only swallowing mechanically at intervals the cordials and restoratives which the doctor forced between his lips. Just before six he rallied a little. His first request was for a priest to hear his confession.
"You are no longer in danger now," Pradel said to him gently.
But the abbé insisted.
"I must see a priest," he said; "it is three days since I made confession."
"You have nothing on your conscience, I am sure, Monsieur l'Abbé, and I am afraid of too much mental effort for you."
"Concern at being deprived of a brother's ministrations will be worse for me than any effort," the old man declared with serene obstinacy.
There was nothing for it but to humour the sick man. Pradel immediately thought of Augustin Levet and decided to go and fetch him. He collected his impedimenta, left instructions with the woman who was in charge of the invalid, and made his way, with much relief, out of this inhospitable château. The morning was clear and cold, the sun just rising above the woods of Charenton, flooded the valley with its pale, wintry light. In the park one or two labourers were at work and in the stableyard away to the left Pradel saw three men, one of whom, a groom, was holding a horse by the bridle which another, presumably Lord Devinne was about to mount; the third had his back turned towards the avenue and Pradel couldn't see who it was. He was walking quickly now in the direction of the gate, and suddenly became aware of a woman's figure walking in the same direction as himself, some distance ahead of him. For the moment he came to a halt, and stood stockstill, hardly crediting his own eyes. It was not often that such a piece of good fortune came his way. The joy of meeting Mademoiselle Cécile, alone, of speaking with her unobserved, had only occurred twice during these last twelve months when first he had learned to love her.
Pradel was no fool. He knew well enough that his love was absolutely hopeless: that is to say he had known it until recently when the greatest social upheaval the world had ever seen, turned the whole fabric of society topsy-turvy. He would hardly have been human if he had not since then begun, not exactly to hope, but to wonder. Opposition on the part of these arrogant patricians who constituted Mademoiselle Cécile's family would probably continue, but there was no knowing what the next few months, even weeks, might bring in the way of drawing these aristocrats out of their fortresses of pride, and leaving them more completely at the mercy of the much despised middle class.
Pradel, of course, didn't think of all this at the moment when he saw Cécile de la Rodière walking alone in the park. He only marvelled at his own good fortune and hastened to overtake her. She was wrapped in an ample cloak from neck to ankles, but its hood had fallen away from her head and that same wintry sun that glistened on the river, touched the loose curls above her ears and made them shine like tiny streaks of gold.
All down the length of the avenue there were stone seats at intervals; the last of these was not very far from the entrance gate. Cécile came to a halt beside it, looked all round her almost, Pradel thought, as if she was expecting some one, and then sat down. At sound of the young man's footsteps she turned, and seeing him she rose, obviously a little confused. He came near, took off his hat, bowed low and said smiling:
"Up betimes, Mademoiselle?"
"The sunrise looked so beautiful from my window," she murmured, "I was tempted."
"I don't wonder. This morning air puts life into one."
Cécile sat down again. Without waiting for permission Simon sat down beside her.
"I might echo your question, Monsieur le Docteur," the girl resumed with a smile: "Up betimes?"
"Not exactly, Mademoiselle. As a matter of fact I am ready for bed now."
"You have been up all night?"
"With my patient."
"The dear old man! How is he?"
"Better now. But he has had a bad night."
"And you were with him all the time?"
"That was kind. And," the girl added with a smile, "did he confess to you?"
"No. But I guessed."
"Was he raving then, in delirium?"
"No. He was very weak, but quite conscious."
"Then how could you guess?"
"He is a priest, for he has a tonsure. He is a fugitive since his name was withheld. It was not very difficult."
"You won't . . ." she implored impulsively.
"Mademoiselle!" he retorted with gentle reproach. "I know. I know," she rejoined quickly. "I ought not to have asked. You would not be capable of such a mean action. Everyone knows how noble and generous you always are, and you must try and forgive me."
She gave a quaint little sigh, and added with a curious strain of bitterness:
"We all seem a little unhinged these days. Nothing seems the same as it was just a few years ago. Our poor country has gone mad and so have we, in a way. But," she resumed more evenly, "I must not keep you from your rest. You lead such a busy life, you must not overtire yourself."
"Rest?" he exclaimed involuntarily. "Overtire myself? As if there was anything in the world. . . ."
He contrived to check himself in time. The torrent of words which were about to rise from his heart to his lips would have had consequences, the seriousness of which it had been difficult to overestimate. Cécile de la Rodière was woman enough to realize this also, but womanlike too, she didn't want the interview to end abruptly like this. So she rose and turned to walk towards the gate. He followed, thinking the while how gladly he would have lingered on, how gladly he would have prolonged this tête-à-tête which to her probably was banal enough but which for him had been one of the happiest moments of his lonely life. Cécile, however, said nothing till they reached the postern gate. Here she came to a standstill, and while he was in the act of opening the gate, she stretched her hand out to him.
"Am I forgiven?" she asked, and gave him a glance that would have addled a stoic's brain. What could a man in love do, but bend the knee and kiss the little hand. It was a moment of serenity and of peace, with the wintry sun touching the bare branches of sycamore and chestnut with its silvery light. Out of the depths of the shrubbery close by there came the sound of pattering tiny feet, the scarce perceptible movements of small rodents on the prowl. Then the beating of a horse's hoof in the near distance on the frozen ground, and a man's voice saying:
"A pleasant journey, my friend, and come and see us soon again," followed almost immediately by a loud curse and a shout:
"What is that lout doing there?"
Cécile snatched her had away, and turned frightened eyes in the direction whence the shout had come. But before Simon Pradel could jump to his feet, before Cécile could intervene, the young doctor was felled to the ground by a stunning blow from a riding-crop on the top of his head. All he heard as his senses reeled was Cécile's cry of horror and distress and her brother's infuriated shouts of "How dare you? How dare you?"
The crop was raised again and another blow came down, this time on the unfortunate young doctor's shoulders. But Pradel was not quite conscious now: he felt dizzy and sick and utterly helpless. All he could do was to put up one arm to shield his head from being hit again. He could just see Cécile's little feet beneath her skirt, and the edge of her cloak: he heard her agonized cry for help and Lord Devinne's voice called out:
"François! For God's sake stop! You might kill him."
He tried to struggle to his feet, cursing himself for his helplessness, when suddenly a curious sound came from somewhere close by. Was it from the shrubbery, or from the road opposite? Or from the cypress trees that stood sentinel outside the park gates? Impossible to say: but it had a curious paralysing effect on every one there, on that madman blind with fury as well as on his helpless victim. And yet the sound had nothing terrifying in it; it was just a prolonged, drawly, rather inane laugh; but the fact that it appeared to come from nowhere in particular and that there was no one in sight who could possibly have laughed at this moment, lent to the sound something peculiarly eerie. The age of superstition had not yet died away. François's curses froze on his lips, his cheeks became ashen grey, his arm brandishing the crop remained poised above his head as if suddenly turned to stone.
"What was that?" he continued to murmur.
"Some yokel in the road," Lord Devinne suggested, and then added lightly: "Anyway, my friend, it saved you from committing a murder."
The spell only lasted a few moments. Already François had recovered his senses, and with them, his rage.
"Committed a murder?" he retorted roughly. "I wish I had killed the brute."
He turned to his sister. "Come, Cécile!" he commanded.
She wouldn't come; she desired nothing else but to minister to the stricken man. He was lying huddled up on the ground and a gash across his forehead caused the blood to stream down his face; he had quite lost consciousness. François gave the prone, helpless form a vicious kick.
"François," the girl cried, herself roused to fury by his cowardice, "I forbid you. . . ."
"And I swear to you that I will kill him, unless you come away with me at once."
He seized the girl by the wrist and tried to drag her away. The light of mania was in his eyes. His own fury had inflamed his blood, superstitious terror had also done its work, and the whole atmosphere of revolutionary France, materialized as it were in this low-born bourgeois who had dared to make love to the daughter of an aristocrat, completed the addling of his brain, so that by now he really was not quite sane.
Cécile, horrified and indignant and afraid that the boy might do some greater mischief still, turned to Lord Devinne and said coolly:
"Milord, my brother is not responsible for his actions, so I must look to you to act as a Christian and a gentleman. If you need help, please call to Antoine in the stables. He will attend to Docteur Pradel, until he is able to get home."
She gave him a curt not. Indeed, she did not attempt to conceal the contempt which she felt for his attitude during the whole of this infamous episode, for with the exception of the one call to François:
"For God's sake, that's enough! you might kill him!" he had stood there beside his horse, with the reins over his arm, seemingly quite detached and indifferent to the abominable outrage perpetrated on a defenceless man. Even now as François by sheer force succeeded in dragging his sister away, he made a movement as if to get to horse again, until he met a last look from Cécile and apparently thought it better to make some show of human feeling.
"I'll get Antoine to give me a hand," he said, and leading his horse, he turned in the direction of the stables.
Chance, however, intervened. Antoine did not happen to be in the stables at the moment. Devinne tethered his horse in the yard, and then, after a few seconds' hesitation, he seemed to make up his mind to a certain course, and made his way round the shrubbery back to the château. His train of thought during those few seconds had been: "If I don't see Cécile now, she will brood over the whole thing, and imagine all sorts of things that didn't really happen."
Paul opened the door to him. He asked to see Mademoiselle. Paul took the message upstairs, but returned with a word from Mademoiselle that she was not feeling well and couldn't see anybody. Devinne sent up again, and again was refused. He asked when he might have the privilege of calling and was told that Mademoiselle could not say definitely. It would depend on the state of her health.
Useless to insist further. Devinne, very much chagrined, went back the way he came, feeling anything but at peace with the world in general and in particular with Simon Pradel, who was the primary cause of all this trouble. Back in the stable yard he found Antoine at work there; but all he did was to mount his horse and ride away without saying a word about a man lying unconscious by the roadside. However, when he rode past the gate he noted, rather to his surprise, that there was no sign of Simon Pradel.
"That sort of riff-raff is very tough," was my Lord Devinne's mental comment, as he put his horse to a trot down the road.