Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Silent Duel
By Victor Cherbuliez (1829–1899)
From ‘Samuel Brohl and Company’

MADAME DE LORCY ushered Samuel into the salon, where he had scarcely set foot when he descried an old woman lounging on a causeuse, fanning herself as she chatted with Abbé Miollens. He remained motionless, his eyes fixed, scarcely breathing, cold as marble; it seemed to him that the four walls of the salon swayed from right to left and left to right, and that the floor was sliding from under his feet like the deck of a pitching vessel.  1
  The previous day, Antoinette once departed, Madame de Lorcy had resumed her attack on Princess Gulof, and the princess had ended by consenting to delay her departure, to dine with the adventurer of the green eyes, and to subject him to a close scrutiny. There she was; yes, it was indeed she! The first impulse of Samuel Brohl was to regain the door as speedily as possible; but he did nothing of the kind. He looked at Madame de Lorcy: she herself was regarding him with astonishment; she wondered what could suddenly have overcome him; she could find no explanation for the bewilderment apparent in his countenance.  2
  “It is a mere chance,” he thought at last; “she has not intentionally drawn me into a snare.” This thought was productive of a sort of half-relief.  3
  “Eh bien! what is it?” she asked. “Has my poor salon still the misfortune to be hurtful to you?”  4
  He pointed to a jardinière, saying: “You are fond of hyacinths and tuberoses; their perfume overpowered me for a moment. I fear you think me very effeminate.”  5
  She replied in a caressing voice: “I take you for a most worthy man who has terrible nerves; but you know by experience that if you have weaknesses I have salts. Will you have my smelling-bottle?”  6
  “You are a thousand times too good,” he rejoined, and bravely marched forward to face the danger. It is a well-known fact that dangers in a silken robe are the most formidable of all.  7
  Madame de Lorcy presented him to the princess, who raised her chin to examine him with her little glittering eyes. It seemed to him that those gray orbs directed at him were two balls, which struck him in the heart; he quivered from head to foot and asked himself confusedly whether he were dead or living. He soon perceived that he was still living; the princess had remained impassible—not a muscle of her face had moved. She ended by bestowing upon Samuel a smile which was almost gracious, and addressing to him some insignificant words which he only half understood, but which seemed to him exquisite—delicious. He fancied that she was saying to him: “You have a chance—you were born lucky; my sight has been impaired for some years, and I do not recognize you. Bless your star, you are saved!” He experienced such a transport of joy that he could have flung his arms about the neck of Abbé Miollens, who came up to him with extended hand, saying:—  8
  “What have you been thinking about, my dear count? Since we last met a very great event has been accomplished. What woman wishes, God wishes; but after all, my own humble efforts were not without avail, and I am proud of it.”  9
  Madame de Lorcy requested Count Larinski to offer his arm to Princess Gulof and lead her out to dinner. He mechanically complied; but he had not the strength to utter a syllable as he conducted the princess to table. She herself said nothing; she seemed wholly busied in arranging with her unoccupied hand a lock of her gray hair, which had strayed too far over her forehead. He looked fixedly at this short plump hand, which one day in a fit of jealous fury had administered to him two smart blows; his cheeks recognized it.  10
  During dinner the princess was very gay: she paid more attention to Abbé Miollens than to Count Larinski; she took pleasure in teasing the good priest—in endeavoring to shock him a little. It was not easy to shock him; to his natural easy good-nature he united an innate respect for grandeurs and for princesses. She did not neglect so good an opportunity to air her monkey-development theories. He merrily flung back the ball; he declared that he should prefer to be a fallen angel rather than a perfected monkey; that in his estimation a parvenu made a much sorrier figure in the world than the descendant of an old family of ruined nobility. She replied that she was more democratic than he. “It is pleasant to me,” said she, “to think that I am a progressive ape, who has a wide future before him, and who by taking proper pains may hope to attain new advancement.”  11
  While they were thus chatting, Samuel Brohl was striving with all his might to recover from the terrible blow he had received. He noted with keen satisfaction that the eyesight of the princess was considerably impaired; that the microscopic studies for which she had always had a taste had resulted in rendering her somewhat near-sighted; that she was obliged to look out carefully to find her way among her wine-glasses. “She has not seen me for six years,” thought he, “and I have become a different man; I have undergone a complete metamorphosis; I have difficulty sometimes in recognizing myself. Formerly my face was close-shaven; now I have let my entire beard grow. My voice, my accent, the poise of my head, my manners, the expression of my countenance, all are changed; Poland has entered into my blood—I am Samuel no longer, I am Larinski.” He blessed the microscope, which enfeebled the sight of old women; he blessed Count Abel Larinski, who had made of him his twin brother. Before the end of the repast he had recovered all his assurance, all his aplomb. He began to take part in the conversation: he recounted in a sorrowful tone a sorrowful little story; he retailed sundry playful anecdotes with a melancholy grace and sprightliness; he expressed the most chivalrous sentiments; shaking his lion’s mane, he spoke of the prisoner at the Vatican with tears in his voice. It were impossible to be a more thorough Larinski.  12
  The princess manifested, in listening to him, an astonished curiosity; she concluded by saying to him, “Count, I admire you; but I believe only in physiology, and you are a little too much of a Pole for me.”  13
  After they had left the table and repaired to the salon, several callers dropped in. It was like a deliverance to Samuel. If the society was not numerous enough for him to lose himself in it, at least it served him as a shield. He held it for a certainty that the princess had not recognized him; yet he did not cease feeling in her presence unutterably ill at ease. This Calmuck visage of hers recalled to him all the miseries, the shame, the hard grinding slavery of his youth; he could not look at her without feeling his brow burn as though it were being seared with a hot iron.  14
  He entered into conversation with a supercilious, haughty, and pedantic counselor-at-law, whose interminable monologues distilled ennui. This fine speaker seemed charming to Samuel, who found in him wit, knowledge, scholarship, and taste; he possessed the (in his eyes) meritorious quality of not knowing Samuel Brohl. For Samuel had come to divide the human race into two categories: the first comprehended those well-to-do, thriving people who did not know a certain Brohl; he placed in the second, old women who did know him. He interrogated the counselor with deference, he hung upon his words, he smiled with an air of approbation at all the absurdities which escaped him; he would have been willing to have his discourse last three hours by the watch; if this charming bore had shown symptoms of escaping him, he would have held him back by the button.  15
  Suddenly he heard a harsh voice saying to Madame de Lorcy, “Where is Count Larinski? Bring him to me; I want to have a discussion with him.”  16
  He could not do otherwise than comply; he quitted his counselor with regret, went over and took a seat in the arm-chair that Madame de Lorcy drew up for him at the side of the princess, and which had for him the effect of a stool of repentance. Madame de Lorcy moved away, and he was left tête-à-tête with Princess Gulof, who said to him, “I have been told that congratulations are due you, and I must make them at once—although we are enemies.”  17
  “By what right are we enemies, princess?” he asked, with a slightly troubled feeling, which quickly passed away as she answered, “I am a Russian and you are a Pole; but we shall have no time for fighting: I leave for London to-morrow morning at seven o’clock.”  18
  He was on the point of casting himself at her feet and tenderly kissing her two hands in testimony of his gratitude. “To-morrow at seven o’clock,” he mentally ejaculated. “I have slandered her: she has some good in her.”  19
  “When I say that I am a Russian,” resumed the princess, “it is merely a formal speech. Love of country is a prejudice, an idea which has had its day, which had sense in the times of Epaminondas or of Theseus, but which has it no longer. We live in the age of the telegraph, the locomotive; and I know of nothing more absurd now than a frontier, or more ridiculous than a patriot. Rumor says that you fought like a hero in the insurrection of 1863; that you gave proof of incomparable prowess, and that you killed with your own hand ten Cossacks. What harm had they done you, those poor Cossacks? Do they not sometimes haunt your dreams? Can you think of your victims without disquietude and without remorse?”  20
  He replied in a dry, haughty tone: “I really do not know, princess, how many Cossacks I have killed; but I do know that there are some subjects on which I do not love to expatiate.”  21
  “You are right—I should not comprehend you. Don Quixote did not do Sancho the honor to explain himself to him every day.”  22
  “Ah, I beg of you, let us talk a little of the man-monkey,” he observed, in a rather more pliant tone than he had at first assumed. “That is a question which has the advantage of being neither Russian nor Polish.”  23
  “You will not succeed that way in throwing me off the track. I mean to tell you all the evil I think of you, no matter how it may incense you. You uttered, at table, theories which displeased me. You are not only a Polish patriot,—you are an idealist, a true disciple of Plato, and you do not know how I have always detested this man. In all these sixty years that I have been in this world, I have seen nothing but selfishness and grasping after self-gratification. Twice during dinner you spoke of an ideal world. What is an ideal world? Where is it situated? You speak of it as of a house whose inhabitants you are well acquainted with, whose key is in your pocket. Can you show me the key? I promise not to steal it from you. O Poet!—for you are quite as much of a poet as of a Pole, which is not saying much—”  24
  “Nothing remains but to hang me,” he interposed, smilingly.  25
  “No, I shall not hang you. Opinions are free, and there is room enough in the world for all, even idealists. Besides, if you were to be hanged, it would bring to the verge of despair a charming girl who adores you, who was created expressly for you, and whom you will shortly marry. When will the ceremony take place?”  26
  “If I dared hope that you would do me the honor of being present, princess, I should postpone it until your return from England.”  27
  “You are too amiable; but I could not on any consideration retard the happiness of Mademoiselle Moriaz. There, my dear count, I congratulate you sincerely. I had the pleasure to meet here the future Countess Larinski. She is adorable! It is an exquisite nature, hers—a true poet’s wife. She must have brains, discernment; she has chosen you—that says everything. As to her fortune, I dare not ask you if she has any; you would turn away from me in disgust. Do idealists trouble their heads with such vile questions?”  28
  She leaned toward him, and fanning herself excitedly, added, “These poor idealists! they have one misfortune.”  29
  “And what is that, princess?”  30
  “They dream with open eyes, and the awakening is sometimes disagreeable. Ah, my dear Count Larinski, this, that, and the other, et cætera. Thus endeth the adventure.”  31
  Then stretching out her neck until her face was close to his, she darted at him a venomous viper-like look, and in a voice that seemed to cut into his tympanum like a sharp-toothed saw, she hissed, “Samuel Brohl, the man with the green eyes, sooner or later the mountains must meet!”  32
  It seemed to him that the candelabra on the mantel-piece darted out jets of flame, whose green, blue, and rose-colored tongues ascended to the ceiling; and it appeared to him as though his heart was beating as noisily as a clock pendulum, and that every one would turn to inquire whence came the noise. But every one was occupied; no one turned round; no one suspected that there was a man present on whom a thunderbolt had just fallen.  33
  The man passed his hand over his brow, which was covered with a cold sweat; then dispelling by an effort of will the cloud that veiled his eyes, he in turn leaned toward the princess and with quivering lip and evil sardonic glance, said to her in a low voice:—  34
  “Princess, I have a slight acquaintance with this Samuel Brohl of whom you speak. He is not a man who will allow himself to be strangled without a great deal of outcry. You are not much in the habit of writing; nevertheless he received from you two letters, which he copied, placing the originals in safety. If ever he sees the necessity of appearing in a court of justice, these two letters can be made to create quite a sensation, and unquestionably they will be the delight of all the petty journals of Paris.”  35
  Thereupon he made a profound bow, respectfully took leave of Madame de Lorcy, and retired, followed by Abbé Miollens, who inflicted a real torture by insisting on accompanying him to the station.  36

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