Read CHAPTER XI - THE LUCK OF THE CAPTAIN of Captain Dieppe , free online book, by Anthony Hope, on ReadCentral.com.

It is easy to say that the Captain should not have been so shocked, and that it would have been becoming in him to remember his own transgression committed in the little hut in the hollow of the hill.  But human nature is not, as a rule at least, so constituted that the immediate or chief effect of the sight of another’s wrong-doing is to recall our own.  The scene before him outraged all the Captain’s ideas of how his neighbours ought to conduct themselves, and (perhaps a more serious thing) swept away all memory of the caution contained in the Countess’s letter.

The Count rose with a smile, still holding the Countess by the hand.

“My dear friend,” he cried, “we ’re delighted to see you.  But what?  You ’ve been in the wars!”

Dieppe made no answer.  His stare attracted his host’s attention.

“Ah,” he pursued, with a laugh, “you wonder to see us like this?  We are treating you too much en famille!  But indeed you ought to be glad to see it.  We owe it almost all to you.  No, she would n’t be here but for you, my friend.  Would you, dear?”

“No, I ­I don’t suppose I should.”

Did they refer to Dieppe’s assisting her across the ford?  If he had but known ­

“Come,” urged the Count, “give me your hand, and let my wife and me ­”

“What?” cried the Captain, loudly, in unmistakable surprise.

The Count looked from him to the Countess.  The Countess began to laugh.  Her husband seemed as bewildered as Dieppe.

“Oh, dear,” laughed the Countess, “I believe Captain Dieppe did n’t know me!"’

“Did n’t know you?”

“He ’s only seen me once, and then in the dark, you know.  Oh, what did you suspect?  But you recognise me now?  You will believe that I really am Andrea’s wife?”

The Captain could not catch the cue.  It meant to him so complete a reversal of what he had so unhesitatingly believed, such an utter upsetting of all his notions.  For if this were in truth the Countess of Fieramondi, why, who was the other lady?  His want of quickness threatened at last to ruin the scheme which he had, although unconsciously, done so much to help; for the Count was growing puzzled.

“I ­I ­Of course I know the Countess of Fieramondi,” stammered Dieppe.

The Countess held out her hand gracefully.  There could, at least, be little harm in kissing it.  Dieppe walked across the room and paid his homage.  As he rose from this social observance he heard a voice from the doorway saying: 

“Are n’t you glad to see me, Andrea?”

The Captain shot round in time to see the Count paying the courtesy which he had himself just paid ­and paying it to a lady whom he did know very well.  The next instant the Count turned to him, saying: 

“Captain, let me present you to my wife’s cousin, the Countess Lucia Bonavia d’Orano.  She has arrived to-night from Rome.  How did you leave the Bishop of Mesopotamia, Lucia?”

But the Countess interposed very quickly.

“Now, Andrea, you promised me not to bother Lucia about her journey, and especially not about the Bishop.  You don’t want to talk about it, do you, Lucia?”

“Not at all,” said Lucia, and the Count laughed rather mockingly.  “And you need n’t introduce me to Captain Dieppe, either,” she went on.  “We ’ve met before.”

“Met before?” The Count turned to Dieppe.  “Why, where was that?”

“At the ford over the river.”  It was Lucia now who interposed.  “He helped me across.  Oh, I ’ll tell you all about it.”

She began her narrative, which she related with particular fulness.  For a while Dieppe watched her.  Then he happened to glance towards the Countess.  He found that lady’s eyes set on him with an intentness full of meaning.  The Count’s attention was engrossed by Lucia.  Emilia gave a slight but emphatic nod.  A slow smile dawned on Captain Dieppe’s face.

“Indeed,” ended Lucia, “I ’m not at all sure that I don’t owe my life to Captain Dieppe.”  And she bestowed on the Captain a very kindly glance.  The Count turned to speak to his wife.  Lucia nodded sharply at the Captain.

“You were ­er ­returning from Rome?” he asked.

“From visiting the Bishop of Mesopotamia,” called the Countess.

“Yes,” said Lucia.  “I should never have got across but for you.”

“But tell me about yourself, Dieppe,” said the Count.  “You ’re really in a sad state, my dear fellow.”

The Captain felt that the telling of his story was ticklish work.  The Count sat down on the sofa; the two ladies stood behind it, their eyes were fixed on the Captain in warning glances.

“Well, I got a message from a fellow to-night to meet him on the hill outside the village ­by the Cross there, you know.  I fancied I knew what he wanted, so I went.”

“That was after you parted from me, I suppose?” asked Emilia.

“Yes,” said the Captain, boldly.  “It was as I supposed.  He was after my papers.  There was another fellow with him.  I ­I don’t know who ­”

“Well, I daresay he did n’t mention his name,” suggested Lucia.

“No, no, he did n’t,” agreed the Captain, hastily.  “I knew only Guillaume ­and that name ’s an alias of a certain M. Sevier, a police spy, who had his reasons for being interested in me.  Well, my dear friend, Guillaume tried to bribe me.  Then with the aid of ­” Just in time the Captain checked himself ­“of the other rascal he ­er ­attacked me ­”

“All this was before you met me, I suppose?” inquired Lucia.

“Certainly, certainly,” assented the Captain.  “I had been pursuing the second fellow.  I chased him across the river ­”

“You caught him!” cried the Count.

“No.  He escaped me and made off in the direction of Sasellano.”

“And the first one ­this Guillaume?”

“When I got back he was gone,” said the Captain.  “But I bear marks of a scratch which he gave me, you perceive.”

He looked at the Count.  The Count appeared excellently well satisfied with the story.  He looked at the ladies; they were smiling and nodding approval.

“Deuce take it,” thought the Captain, “I seem to have hit on the right lies by chance!”

“All ends most happily,” cried the Count.  “Happily for you, my dear friend, and most happily for me.  And here is Lucia with us again too!  In truth it ’s a most auspicious evening.  I propose that we allow Lucia time to change her travelling-dress, and Dieppe a few moments to wash off the stains of battle, and then we ’ll celebrate the joyous occasion with a little supper.”

The Count’s proposal met with no opposition ­least of all from Dieppe, who suddenly remembered that he was famished.

The next morning, the garden of the Castle presented a pleasing sight.  Workmen were busily engaged in pulling down the barricade, while the Count and Countess sat on a seat hard by.  Sometimes they watched the operations, sometimes the Count read in a confidential and tender voice from a little sheaf of papers which he held in his hand.  When he ceased reading, the Countess would murmur, “Beautiful!” and the Count shake his head in a poet’s affectation of dissatisfaction with his verse.  Then they would fall to watching the work of demolition again.  At last the Count remarked: 

“But where are Lucia and our friend Dieppe?”

“Walking together down there by the stream,” answered the Countess.  And, after a pause, she turned to him, and, in a very demure fashion, hazarded a suggestion.  “Do you know, Andrea, I think Lucia and Captain Dieppe are inclined to take to one another very much?”

“It ’s an uncommonly sudden attachment,” laughed the Count.

“Yes,” agreed his wife, biting her lip.  “It ’s certainly sudden.  But consider in what an interesting way their acquaintance began!  Do you know anything about him?”

“I know he ’s a gentleman, and a clever fellow,” returned the Count.  “And from time to time he makes some money, I believe.”

“Lucia’s got some money,” mused the Countess.

Down by the stream they walked, side by side, showing indeed (as the Countess remarked) every sign of taking to one another very much.

“You really think we shall hear no more of Paul de Roustache?” asked Lucia.

“I ’m sure of it; and I think M. Guillaume will let me alone too.  Indeed there remains only one question.”

“What’s that?” asked Lucia.

“How you are going to treat me,” said the Captain.  “Think what I have suffered already!”

“I could n’t help that,” she cried.  “My word was absolutely pledged to Emilia.  ‘Whatever happens,’ I said to her, ’I promise I won’t tell anybody that I ‘m not the Countess.’  If I had n’t promised that, she could n’t have gone to Rome at all, you know.  She ’d have died sooner than let Andrea think she had left the Castle.”

“You remember what you said to her.  Do you remember what you said to me?”

“When?”

“When we talked in the hut in the hollow of the hill.  You said you would be all that you could be to me.”

“Did I say as much as that?  And when I was Countess of Fieramondi!  Oh!”

“Yes, and you let me do something ­even when you were Countess of Fieramondi, too!”

“That was not playing the part well.”

The Captain looked just a little doubtful, and Lucia laughed.

“Anyhow,” said he, “you ’re not Countess of Fieramondi now.”

She looked up at him.

“You ’re a very devout young lady,” he continued, “who goes all the way to Rome to consult the Bishop of Mesopotamia.  Now, that” ­the Captain took both her hands in his ­“is exactly the sort of wife for me.”

Monsieur Capitaine, I have always thought you a courageous man, and now I am sure of it.  You have seen ­and aided ­all my deceit; and now you want to marry me!”

“A man can’t know his wife too well,” observed the Captain.  “Come, let me go and communicate my wishes to Count Andrea.”

“What?  Why, you only met me for the first time last night!”

“Oh, but I can explain ­”

“That you had previously fallen in love with the Countess of Fieramondi?  For your own sake and ours too ­”

“That’s very true,” admitted the Captain.  “I must wait a little, I suppose.”

“You must wait to tell Andrea that you love me, but ­”

“Precisely!” cried the Captain.  “There is no reason in the world why I should wait to tell you.”

And then and there he told her again in happiness the story which had seemed so tragic when it was wrung from him in the shepherd’s hut.

“Undoubtedly, I am a very fortunate fellow,” he cried, with his arm round Lucia’s waist.  “I come to this village by chance.  By chance I am welcomed here instead of having to go to the inn.  By chance I am the means of rescuing a charming lady from a sad embarrassment.  I am enabled to send a rascal to the right-about.  I succeed in preserving my papers.  I inflict a most complete and ludicrous defeat on that crafty old fellow, Guillaume Sevier!  And, by heaven! when I do what seems the unluckiest thing of all, when, against my will, I fall in love with my dear friend’s wife, when my honour is opposed to my happiness, when I am reduced to the saddest plight ­why, I say, by heaven, she turns out not to be his wife at all!  Lucia, am I not born under a lucky star?”

“I think I should be very foolish not to ­to do my best to share your luck,” said she.

“I am the happiest fellow in the world,” he declared.  “And that,” he added, as though it were a rare and precious coincidence, “with my conscience quite at peace.”

Perhaps it is rare, and perhaps the Captain’s conscience had no right to be quite at peace.  For certainly he had not told all the truth to his dear friend, the Count of Fieramondi.  Yet since no more was heard of Paul de Roustache, and the Countess’s journey remained an unbroken secret, these questions of casuistry need not be raised.  After all, is it for a man to ruin the tranquillity of a home for the selfish pleasure of a conscience quite at peace?

But as to the consciences of those two very ingenious young ladies, the Countess of Fieramondi, and her cousin, Countess Lucia, the problem is more difficult.  The Countess never confessed, and Lucia never betrayed, the secret.  Yet they were both devout!  Indeed, the problem seems insoluble.

Stay, though!  Perhaps the counsel and aid of the Bishop of Mesopotamia (in partibus) were invoked again.  His lordship’s position, that you must commit your sin before you can be absolved from the guilt of it, not only appears most logical in itself, but was, in the circumstances of the case, not discouraging.