Seven hours had passed.
The moon had just dropped below the narrow horizon of the camp, but to eyes which looked up from the blackness of the hollow the form of the nearest sentinel, erect on the edge of the cup, showed plain against the paler background of sky. The hour was the deadest of the night; but, as the stillest night has its noises, the camp was not without noises. The dull sound of horses browsing, the breath of a thousand sleepers, the low whinny of a mare, or the muttered word of one who dreamed heavily and spoke in his dream, these and the like sounds fed a murmurous silence that was one with the brooding heaviness of a June night.
Odette de Villeneuve--the ears that drank in the voices of the slumbering host were hers--stood half-hidden in the doorway of her quarters and listened. The inner darkness had become intolerable to her. The wattled walls, though they were ventilated by a hundred crevices, stifled her. Pent behind them she fancied a hundred things; she saw on the curtain of blackness drawn faces and staring eyes; she made of the faintest murmur that entered now a roar of voices, and now the hoarse beginnings of a scream. Outside, with the cooler air fanning her burning face, she could at least lay hold on reality. She was no longer the sport and plaything of her own strained senses. She could at least be sure that nothing was happening, that nothing had happened--yet. And though she still breathed quickly and crouched like a fearful thing in the doorway, here she could call hate to her support, she could reckon her wrongs and think of her lover, and persuade herself that this was but a nightmare from which she would awake to find all well with herself and with him.
If only the thing were over and done! Ah, if only it were done! That was her feeling. If only the thing were done! She bent her ear to listen; but nothing stirred, no alarm clove the night; and it could want little of morning. She fancied that the air struck colder, laden with that chill which comes before the dawn: and eastwards she thought that she discerned the first faint lightening of the sky. The day was at hand and nothing had happened.
She could not say on the instant whether she was sorry or glad. But she was sure that she would be sorry when the sun rose high and shone on her enemy's triumph, and Charles and Roger and Bonne, whom she had taught herself to despise, saw their choice justified, and the side they had supported victorious. The triumph of those beneath us is hard to bear; and at that picture the Abbess's face grew hard, though there was no one to see it. The blood throbbed in her head as she thought of it; throbbed so loudly that she questioned the reality of a sound that a moment later forced itself upon her senses. It was a sound not unlike the pulsing of the blood; not terrible nor loud, but rhythmical, such as the tide makes when it rises slowly but irresistibly to fill some channel left bare at the ebb.
What was it? She stood arrested. Was it only the blood surging in her ears? Or was it the silent uprising of a multitude of men, each from the place where he lay? Or was it, could it be the stealthy march of countless feet across the camp?
It might be that. She listened more intently, staying with one hand the beating of her heart. She decided that it was that.
Thereon it was all she could do to resist the impulse to give the alarm. She had no means of knowing in which direction the unseen band was moving. She could guess, but she might be wrong; and in that case, at any moment the night might hurl upon her a hundred brutes whose first victim as they charged through the encampment she must be. She fancied that the darkness wavered; and here and there bred shifting forms. She fancied that the dull sound was drawing nearer and growing louder. And--a scream rose in her throat.
She choked it down. An instant later she had her reward, if that was a reward which left her white and shuddering--a coward clinging for support to the frail wall beside her.
It was a shrill scream rending the night; such an one as had distended her own throat an instant before--but stifled in mid-utterance in a fashion horrible and suggestive. Upon it followed a fierce outcry in several voices, cut short two seconds later with the same abruptness, and followed by--silence. Then, while she clung cold, shivering, half fainting to the wattle, the darkness gave forth again that dull shuffling, moving sound, a little quickened perhaps, and a little more apparent.
This time it caused an alarm. Sharp and clear came a voice from the ridge, "What goes there? Answer!"
No answer was given, and "Who goes there?" cried a voice from a different point, and then "To arms!" cried a third. "To arms! To arms!" And on a rising wave of hoarse cries the camp awoke.
The tall form of the Bat seemed to start up within a yard of the Abbess. He seized a stick that hung beside a drum on a post, and in a twinkling the hurried notes of the Alert pulsed through the camp. On the instant men rose from the earth about him; while frightened faces, seen by the rays of a passing light, looked from hut-doors, and the cries of a waiting-maid struggling in hysterics mingled with the words of command that brought the troopers into line and manned the ground in front of the Vicomte's quarters. A trooper flew up the sloping rampart to learn from the sentry what he had seen, and was back as quickly with the news that the guards knew no more than was known below. They had only heard a suspicious outcry, and following on it sounds which suggested the movement of a body of men.
The Bat, bringing order out of confusion--and in that well aided by Roger, though the lad's heart was bursting with fears for his mistress--could do naught at the first blush but secure his position. But when he had got his men placed, and lanthorns so disposed as to advantage them and hamper an attack, he turned sharply on the man. "Did they hear my lord's voice?" he asked.
"It was their fancy. Certainly the outcry came from that part of the camp."
"Then out on them!" Roger exclaimed, unable to control himself. "Out on them. To saddle and let us charge, and woe betide them if they stand!"
"Softly, softly," the Bat said. "Orders, young sir! Mine are to stand firm, whatever betides, and guard the women! And that I shall do until daylight."
"Daylight?" Roger cried.
"Which is not half an hour off!"
"Half an hour!" The lad's tone rang with indignation. "Are you a man and will you leave a woman at their mercy?" He was white with rage and shaking. "Then I will go alone. I will go to their quarters--I, alone!" As he thought of the girl he loved and her terrors his heart was too big for his breast.
"And throw away another life?" the Bat replied sternly. "For shame!"
"For shame, I?"
"Ay, you! To call yourself a soldier and cry fie on orders!"
He would have added more, but he was forestalled by the Vicomte. In his high petulant tone he bade his son stand for a fool. "There are women here," he continued, sensibly enough, "and we are none too many to guard them, as we are."
"Ay, but she" Roger retorted, trembling, "is alone there."
"A truce to this!" the Bat struck in, with heat. "To your post, sir, and do your duty, or we are all lost together. Steady, men, steady!" as a slight movement of the troopers at the breastwork made itself felt rather than seen. "Pikes low! Pikes low! What is it?"
He saw then. The commotion was caused by the approach of a group of men, three or four in number, whose neighbourhood one of the lights had just betrayed. "Who comes there?" cried the leader of the Countess's troopers, who was in charge of that end of the line. "Are you friends?"
"Ay, ay! Friends!"
If so, they were timorous friends. For when they were bidden to advance to the spot where the Bat with the Vicomte and Roger awaited them, their alarm was plain. The foremost was the man who had spoken for the peasants at the debate some days before. But the smith's boldness and independence were gone; he was ashake with fear. "I have bad news," he stammered. "Bad news, my lords!"
"The worse for some one!" the Bat answered with a grim undernote that should have satisfied even Roger. As he spoke he raised one of the lights from the ground, and held it so that its rays fell on the peasants' faces. "Has harm happened to the hostages?"
"God avert it! But they have been carried off," the man faltered through his ragged beard. It was evident that he was thoroughly frightened.
"Ay, carried off!"
"By whom? By whom, rascal?" The Bat's eyes glared dangerously. "By Heaven, if you have had hand or finger in it----" he added.
"Should I be here if I had?" the man answered, piteously extending his open hands.
"I know not. But now you are here, you will stay here! Surround them!" And when the order had been carried out, "Now speak, or your skin will pay for it," the Bat continued. "What has happened, spawn of the dung-heap?"
"Some of our folk--God knows without our knowledge"--the smith whined--"brought in a party of the men on the hill----"
"The Old Crocans from the town?"
"Ay! And they seized the--my lord and the lady--and got off with them! As God sees me, they were gone before we were awake!" he protested, seeing the threatening blade with which Roger was advancing upon him.
The Lieutenant held the lad back. "Very good," he said. "We shall follow with the first light. If a hair of their heads be injured, I shall hang you first, and the rest of you by batches as the trees will bear!" And with a black and terrible look the Bat swore an oath to chill the blood. The leader of the Countess's men repeated it after him, word for word; and Roger, silent but with rage in his eyes, stood shaking between them, his blade in his hand.
The Vicomte, his fears for the safety of his own party allayed, turned to see who were present. He discovered his eldest daughter, leaning as if not far from fainting, against the doorway of the Duke's quarters. "Courage, girl," he said, in a tone of rebuke. "We are in no peril ourselves, and should set an example. Where is your sister?"
"I do not know," the Abbess replied shakily. It was being borne in on her that not two lives, but the lives of many, of scores and of hundreds, might pay for what she had done. And she was new to the work. "I have not seen her," she repeated with greater firmness, as she summoned hate to her support, and called up before her fancy the Countess's childish attractions. "She must be sleeping."
"Sleeping?" the Vicomte echoed in astonishment. He was going to add more when another took the words out of his mouth.
"What is that?" It was Roger's voice fiercely raised. "By Heaven! It is Fulbert."
It was Fulbert. As the men, of whom some were saddling--for the light was beginning to appear--pressed forward to look, the steward crawled out of the gloom about the brook, and, raising himself on one hand, made painful efforts to speak. He looked like a dead man risen; nor did the uncertain light of the lanthorns take from the horror of his appearance. Probably he had been left for dead, for the smashing blow of some blunt weapon had beaten in one temple and flooded his face and beard with blood. The Abbess, faint and sick, appalled by this first sign of her handiwork, hid her eyes.
"Follow! Follow!" the poor creature muttered, swaying as he strove to rise to his feet. "A rescue!"
"With the first light," the Bat answered him. "With the first light! How many are they?"
But he only muttered, "Follow! A rescue! A rescue!" and repeated those words in such a tone that it was plain that he no longer understood them, but said them mechanically. Perhaps they had been the last he had uttered before he was struck down.
The Bat saw how it was with him; he had seen men in that state before. "With the first light!" he said, to soothe him. "With the first light we follow!" Then turning to his men he bade them carry the poor fellow in and see to his hurts.
Roger sprang forward, eager to help. And they were bearing the man to the rear, and the Abbess had taken heart to uncover her eyes, while still averting them, when a strange sound broke from her lips--lips blanched in an instant to the colour of paper. It caught the ear of the Bat, who stood nearest to her. He turned. The Abbess, with arm outstretched, was pointing to the door of the Countess's hut. There, visible, though she seemed to shrink from sight, and even raised her hand in deprecation, stood the Countess herself.
"By Heaven!" the Bat cried. And he stood. While Roger, in place of advancing, gazed on her as on a ghost.
She tried to speak, but no sound came. And for the Abbess she had as easily spoken as the dead. Her senses tottered, the slim figure danced before her eyes, the voices of those who spoke came from a great way off.
It was the Vicomte who, being the least concerned, was first to find his voice. "Is it you, Countess?" he quavered.
The Countess nodded. She could not speak.
"But how--how have you escaped?"
"Ay, how?" the Bat chimed in more soberly. He saw that it was no phantom, though the mystery seemed none the less for that. "How come you here, Countess? How--am I mad, or did you not go to their quarters at sundown?"
"No," she whispered. "I did not go." She framed the words with difficulty. Between shame and excitement she seemed ready to sink into the earth.
"No? You did not? Then who--who did go? Some one went."
She made a vain attempt to speak. Then commanding herself--
"Bonne went--in my place," she cried. And clapping her hands to her face in a paroxysm of grief, she leant, weeping, against the post of the door.
They looked at one another and began to understand, and to see. And one had opened his mouth to speak, when a strangled cry drew all eyes to the Abbess. She seemed to be striving to put something from her. Her staring eyes, her round mouth of horror, her waving fingers made up a picture of terror comparable only to one of those masks which the Greeks used in their tragedies of fate. A moment she showed thus, and none of those who turned eye on her doubted that they were looking on a stress of passion beside which the Countess's grief was but a puny thing. The next moment she fell her length in a swoon.
* * * * *
When she came to herself an hour later she lay for a time with eyes open but vacant, eyes which saw but conveyed no image to the ailing brain. The sun was still low. Its shafts darting through the interstices in the wall of the hut were laden with a million dancing motes, which formed a shifting veil of light between her eyes and the roof. She seemed to have been gazing at this a whole æon when the first conscious thought pierced her mind, and she asked herself where she was.
Where? Not in her own lodging, nor alone. This was borne in on her. For on one side of her couch crouched one of her women; on the other knelt the Countess, her face hidden. In the doorway behind the head of the bed, and so beyond the range of her vision, were others; the low drone of voices, her father's, the Duke's, penetrated one by one to her senses still dulled by the shock she had suffered. Something had happened then; something serious to her, or she would not lie thus surrounded with watchers on all sides of her bed. Had she been ill?
She considered this silently, and little by little began to remember: the flight to the camp, the camp life, the Duke's hut in which she had passed most of her time in the camp. Yes, she was in the Duke's hut, and that was his voice. She was lying on his couch. They had been besieged, she remembered. Had she been wounded? From under half-closed lids she scrutinised the two women beside her. The one she knew. The other must be her sister. Yes, her sister would be the first to come, the first to aid her. But it was not her sister. It was----
She called on God and lay white and mute, shaking violently, but with closed eyes. The women rose and looked at her, and suggested remedies, and implored her to speak. But she lay cold and dumb, and only from time to time by violent fits of trembling showed that she was alive. What had she done? What had she done?
The women could make nothing of her. Nor when they had tried their utmost could her father, though he came and chid her querulously; his tone the sharper for the remorse he was feeling. He had had an hour to think; and during that hour the obedience which his less cherished daughter had ever paid him, her cheerful care of him, her patience with him, had risen before him; and, alas, with these thoughts, the memory of many an unkind word and act, many a taunt flung at her as lightly as at the dog that cumbered the hearth. To balance the account, and a little perhaps because the way in which Odette took it was an added reproach to him, he spoke harshly to the Abbess--such is human nature! But, for all the effect his words had on her, he might have addressed a stone. That which she had done thundered too loudly in her ears for another's voice to enter.
She had not loved her sister over dearly, and into such love as she had given contempt had entered largely. But she was her sister. She was her sister! Memories of childish days in the garden at Villeneuve, when Bonne had clung to her hand and run beside her, and prattled, and played, and quarrelled, and yielded to her--being always the gentler--rose in her mind; and memories of little words and acts, and of Bonne's face on this occasion and on that! And dry-eyed she shook with horror of the thing she had done. Her sister! She had done her sister to death more cruelly, more foully, more barbarously, than if she had struck her lifeless at her feet.
An age, it seemed to her, she lay in this state, cold, paralysed, without hope. Then a word caught her ear and fixed her attention.
"They have been away two hours," Joyeuse muttered, speaking low to the Vicomte. "They should be back."
"What could they do?" the Vicomte answered in a tone of despair.
"Forty swords can do much," Joyeuse answered hardily. "Were I sound I should know what to do. And that right well!"
"They started too late."
"The greater reason they should be back! Were all over they would be back."
"I have no hope."
"I have. Had they desired to kill them only," the Duke continued with reason, "the brutes had done it here, in a moment! If they did not hope to use them why carry them off?"
But the Vicomte with a quivering lip shook his head. He was still thinking--with marvellous unselfishness for him--of the daughter who had borne with him so long and so patiently. For des Ageaux there might be hope and a chance. But a woman in the hands of savages such as those he had seen in the town on the hill! He shuddered as he thought of it. Better death, better death a hundred times than that. He did not wish to see her again.
But in one heart the mention of hope had awakened hope. The Abbess raised herself on her elbow. "Who have gone?" she asked in a voice so hollow and changed they started as at the voice of a stranger. "Who are gone?" she repeated.
"All but eight spears!" the Duke answered.
"Why not all?" she cried feverishly. "Why not all?"
"Some it was necessary to keep," Joyeuse replied gently. "Not one has been kept that could go. If your sister can be saved, she will be saved."
"Too late!" the Vicomte muttered. And he shook his head.
The Abbess sank back with a groan. But a moment later she broke into a passion of weeping. The cord that had bound her heart had snapped. The first horror of the thing which she had done was passing. The first excuse, the first suggestion that for that which she had not intended she was not answerable, was whispering at the threshold of her ear. As she wept in passionate, in unrestrained abandonment, regarding none of those about her, wonder, an almost resentful wonder, grew in the Vicomte's heart. He had not given her credit for a tithe, for a hundredth part of the affection she felt for her sister! For the Duke, he, who had seen her consistently placid, garbed in gentle dignity, and as unemotional as she was beautiful, marvelled for a different reason. He hailed the human in her with delight; he could have blessed the weeping girl for every tear that proclaimed her woman. By the depth of her love for her sister he plumbed her capacity for a more earthly passion. He rejoiced, therefore, as much as he marvelled.
There was one other upon whom Odette's sudden breakdown wrought even more powerfully; and that was the Countess. While the sister remained stunned by the dreadful news and deaf to consolation, the poor child, who took all to herself and mingled shame with her grief, had not dared to speak; she had not found the heart or the courage to speak. Awed by the immensity of the catastrophe, and the Abbess's stricken face, she had cowered on her knees beside the bed with her face hidden; and weeping silently and piteously, had not presumed to trouble the other with her remorse or her useless regret. But the tears of a woman appeal to another woman after a fashion all their own. They soften, they invite. No sooner, then, had Odette proclaimed herself human by the abandonment of her grief than the Countess felt the impulse to throw herself into her arms and implore her forgiveness. She knew, none better, that Bonne had suffered in her place; that in her place and because of her fears--proved only too real--she had gone to death or worse than death; that the fault lay with herself. And that she took it to herself, that her heart was full of remorse and love and contrition--all this she longed to say to the sister. Before Odette knew what to expect or to fear, the younger woman was in her arms.
One moment. The next Odette struck her--struck her with furious, frantic rage, and flung her from her. "It is you! You have done this! You!" she cried, panting, and with blazing eyes. "You have killed her! You!"
The young girl staggered back with the mark of the Abbess's fingers crimson on her cheek. She stood an instant breathing hard, the combative instinct awakened by the blow showing in her eyes and her small bared teeth. Then she flung her hands to her face. "It is true! It is true!" she sobbed. "But I did not know!"
"Know?" the Abbess cried back relentlessly; and she was going to add other and madder and more insulting words, when her father's face of amazement checked her. She fell back sullenly, and with a gesture of despair turned her face to the wall.
The Vicomte was on his feet, shocked by what had passed. He began to babble words of apology, of excuse; while Joyeuse, ravished, strange to say, by the spirit of the woman he had deemed above anger and above passion, smiled exultant, wondering what new, what marvellous, what incomparable side of herself this wonderful woman would next exhibit. He who had exhausted all common types, all common moods, saw that he had here the quintessence both of heaven and earth. Her beauty, her meekness, her indignation, her sorrow--what an amalgam was here! And how all qualities became her!
Had Roger been there he had taken, it is possible, another view. But he was not; and presently into the halting flow of the Vicomte's words crept a murmur, a tramp of feet, a sound indescribable, but proclaiming news. He broke off. "What is it?" he said. "What is it?"
"News! Ay, news, for a hundred crowns!" the Duke answered. He moved to the door.
The Countess, her face bedabbled with tears, tears of outraged pride as well as grief, stayed her sobs and looked in the same direction. Even the Abbess caught the infection, and raising her head from the pillow listened with parted lips and staring eyes. News! There was news. But what was it? Good or bad? The Abbess, her heart standing still, bit her lip till the blood came.
The murmur of voices drew nearer.
It is possible that Bonne did not herself know in what proportions pity and a warmer sentiment entered into her motives when she undertook to pass for the Countess and assume the girl's risks. Certainly her first thought was for the Countess; and, for the rest, she felt herself cleared from the reproach of unmaidenliness by the danger of the step which she was taking. Even so, as she rode across the camp in the dusk of the first evening, into the half pain, half pleasure that burned her cheeks under the disguising hood entered some heat of shame.
Not that it formed a part of her plan that des Ageaux should discover her. To be near him unknown, to share his peril whom she loved, while he remained unwitting, to give and take nothing--this was the essence of the mystery that charmed her fancy, this was the heart of the adventure on which her affection had settled. He, by whose side she rode, and near whom she must pass the dark hours in a solitude which only love could rob of its terrors, must never know what she had done for love of him; or know it only from her lips in a delicious future on which reason forbade her to count.
In supporting her disguise she was perfectly successful. No suspicion that the girl riding beside him in depressed silence was other than the Countess, the unwilling sharer of his exile, crossed his mind. Bonne, hooded to the eyes and muffled in her cloak, sat low-hunched on her horse. Fulbert, who was in the secret, and to whom nothing which any one could do for his adored mistress seemed odd or extraordinary, helped her to mount and dismount, and nightly lay grim and stark across the door of her hut repelling inquiry. Add the fact that the Lieutenant on his side had his delicacy. Fortune compelled the Countess into his company, forced her on his protection. It behoved him to take no advantage, and, short of an indifference that might appear brutal, to leave her as much as possible to herself.
Bonne therefore had her wish. He had no slightest suspicion who was with him. She had, too, if she needed it, proof of his honour; proof certain that if he loved the great lady, he respected her to the same extent. Love her he might, see in her a grand alliance he might; but had he been the adventurer the Abbess styled him, he had surely made more of this opportunity, more of her helplessness and her dependence. The Countess's fortune, the wide lands that had tempted Vlaye, what a chance of making them sure was his! No great lady was here, but a young girl helpless, terrified, hedged in by perils. Such an one would be ready at the first word, at a sign, to fling herself into the arms of her only friend, her only protector, and promise him all and everything if he would but save her scatheless.
Bonne had imagination enough, and perhaps jealousy enough, to picture the temptation. And finding him superior to it--so that in the sweetness of her secret nearness to him was mingled no gall--she whispered to herself that if he loved he did not love overmuch. Was it possible that he did not love--in that direction? Was it possible that he had no more feeling for the Countess than she had for him?
Perhaps for an hour Bonne was happy--happy in these thoughts. Happy while the tones of his even and courteous voice, telling her that she need fear nothing, dwelt in her ears. For that period the pleasures of fancy overcame the tremors of the real. Then--for sleep was in no haste to visit her--a chance rustle, caused by something moving in her neighbourhood, the passage it might be of a prowling dog, made her prick her ears, forced her against her will to listen, sent a creepy chill down her back. After that she was lost. She did not wish to think of such things, it was foolish to think of such things; but how flimsy were the walls of her hut! How defenceless she lay, in the midst of the savage, grisly horde, whose looks even in the daylight had paled her cheeks. How useless must two swords prove against a multitude!
She must divert her thoughts. Alas, when she tried to do so, she found it impossible. It was in vain that she chid herself, in vain that she asked herself what she was doing there, if des Ageaux' presence were no charm against fear, if with him at hand she was a coward! Always some sound, something that seemed the shuffle of feet or the whisper of murder, brought her to earth with quivering nerves; and as by the Lieutenant's desire she burned no light, she could not interpret the most innocent alarm or learn its origin. She was no coward. But to lie in the dark, expecting and trembling, and thrice in the hour to sit up bathed in perspiration--a short experience of this left her no right to despise the younger girl whose place she had taken. When at last the longed-for light pierced the thin walls, and she knew that the night was past, she knew also that she looked forward to a second with dread. And she hated herself for it.
Not that to escape a hundred such nights would she withdraw. If she suffered, what must the child have suffered? She was clear that the Countess must not go again. But during the day she was more grave than usual; more tender with her father, more affectionate to her sister. And when she rode across the camp in the evening, exciting as little suspicion as before, she carried with her, hidden in her dress, a thing that she touched now and again to assure herself of its safety. She took it with her to the rough pallet on which she lay in her clothes; and her hand clasped it under the pillow. Something of a link it seemed between her and des Ageaux, so near yet so unwitting; for as she held it her mind ran on him. It kept at bay, albeit it was a strange amulet for a woman's hand, the thought that had troubled her the previous night; and though more than once she raised herself on her elbow, fancying that she heard some one moving outside, the panic-terror that had bedewed her brow was absent. She lay down again on these occasions with her fingers on her treasure. And towards morning she slept--slept so soundly that when the light touched her eyelids and woke her, she sprang up in pleased confusion. They were calling her, the horses were waiting at the door. And in haste she wrapped herself in her travesty.
"I give you joy of your courage, Countess!" the Lieutenant said, as he came forward to assist her to mount. Fortunately Fulbert, with apparent clumsiness, interposed and did her the office. "You have slept?" des Ageaux continued, as he swung himself into his saddle and took his place by her side. "That's good," accepting her inarticulate murmur for assent. "Well, one more night will end it, I fancy. I greatly, very greatly regret," he continued, speaking with more warmth than usual, "that it has been necessary to expose you to this strain, Countess."
Again she muttered something through her closely drawn hood. Fortunately a chill, grey mist, through which the huts loomed gigantic, swathed the camp, and he thought that it was to guard herself from this that she kept her mouth covered. He suspected nothing, though, at dismounting, Fulbert interposed again. In two minutes from starting she was safe within the shelter of the Countess's hut, with the Countess's arms about her, and the child's grateful kisses warm on her cheek.
He had praised her courage! That was something; nay, it was much if he learned the truth. But he should never learn it from her, she was resolved. She had the loyalty which, if it gives, gives nobly; nor by telling robs the gift of half its virtue. She had saved the younger woman some hours of fear and misery, but at a price too high were she ever to speak and betray her confidence. No one saw that more clearly than Bonne, or was more firmly resolved to hide her share in the matter.
The third night she set out, not with indifference, since she rode by his side whose presence could never be indifferent to her, but with a heart comparatively light. If she took with her the charm which had served her so well, if it attended her to her couch and lay beneath her pillow, it was no longer the same thing to her; she smiled as she placed it there. And if her fingers closed on it in silence and darkness and she derived some comfort from it, she fell asleep with scarce a thought of the things its presence imported. For two nights she had slept little; now, worn-out, she was proof against all ordinary sounds, the rustle of a dog prowling in search of food, or the restless movements of a horse tethered near. Ay, and against other sounds as stealthy as these and more dangerous, that by-and-by crept rustling and whispering through the camp; sounds caused by a cloud of low stooping figures that moved and halted, lurked behind huts, and anon swept forward across an open space, and again lurking showed like some dark shadow of the night.
A shadow fraught, when it bared its face, with horror! For what was that cry, sharp, wild, stopped in mid-utterance?
Even as Bonne sprang up palpitating, and glared at the open doorway, the cry rose again--close by her; and the doorway melted into a press of dark forms that hurled themselves on her as soon as they were seen. She was borne back, choked, stifled; and desperately writhing, vainly striving to shriek, or to free mouth or hands from the folds of the coverlets that blinded her, she felt herself lifted up in a grasp against which it was vain to struggle. A moment, and with a shock that took away what breath was left in her, she was flung head and heels across something--across a horse; for the moment the thing felt her weight it moved under her.
Whoever rode it held her pitilessly, cruelly heedless of the pain her position caused her. She could hardly breathe, she could not see, the movement was torture; for her arms, pinned above her head, were caught in the folds of the thing that swathed her, and she could not use them to support herself. Her one thought, her only thought was to keep her senses; her one instinct to maintain her grip on the long sharp knife which had lain under her pillow; and which had become more valuable to her than the wealth of the world. The hand that had rested on it in her sleep had tightened on it in the moment of surprise. She had it, she felt it, her fingers, even while she groaned in pain, stiffened about its haft.
It was useless to struggle, but by a movement she managed at last to relieve the pressure on her side. The blood ceased to run so tumultuously to her head. And by-and-by, under the mufflings, she freed her hands, and by holding apart the edges of the stuff was able to breathe more easily, and even to learn something of what was happening about her. Abreast of her horse moved another horse, and on either side of the two ran and trotted a score of pattering naked feet, feet of the unkempt filthy Crocans from the hill-town, or of the more desperate spirits in the camp--feet of men from whom no ruth or mercy was to be expected.
Were they clear of the camp? Yes, for to one side the water of the stream glimmered between the pattering feet. As she made the discovery the other horse sidled against the one that bore her, and all but crushed her head and shoulders between their bodies. She only saved herself by lifting herself convulsively; on which the man who held her thrust her down brutally with an oath as savage as the action. She uttered a moan of pain, but it was wrung from her against her will. She would have suffered twice as much and gladly to learn what she knew now.
The horse beside her also carried double; and the after rider was a prisoner, a man with his hands bound behind him, and his feet roped under the horse's body. A prisoner? If so it could be no other than des Ageaux. As she swung, painfully, to the movement of the horse across whose withers she lay, her pendant hands lacked little of touching, under cover of the stuff, his bound wrists.
Little? Nay, nothing. For suddenly the footmen, for a reason which she did not immediately divine, fell away leftwards, and the horse that bore the other prisoner strove to turn with them. Being spurred it sidled once more against hers, and though she raised herself, her head rubbed the rider's leg. The man noticed it, patted her head, and made a jest upon it. "She wants to come to me," he said. "My burden for yours, Matthias!"
"Wait until we are through the ford and I'll talk," her captor answered. "What will you offer for her? But it is so cursed dark here"--with an oath--"I can see nothing! We had better have crossed with them at the stepping-stones and led over." As he spoke he turned his horse to the ford.
She knew then that the footmen had crossed by the stepping-stones, a hundred yards short of the ford. And she felt that Heaven itself had given her, weak as she was, this one opportunity. As the men urged their horses warily into the stream she stretched herself out stiffly, and gripping the bound hands that hung within her reach, she cut recklessly, heeding little whether she cut to the bone if she could only cut the cords. The man who held her felt her body writhing under his hand; for she knew that any instant the other horse might move out of reach. But he was thinking most of his steed's footing, he had no fear that she could wrest herself from him, and he contented himself for the moment with a curse and a threat.
"Burn the wench," he cried, "she won't be still!"
"Don't let her go!" the other answered.
"No fear! And when we have her on the hill she shall pay for this! When----"
It was his last word. The keen long knife had passed from her hands to des Ageaux', from her weak fingers to his practised grip. As the man who held her paused to peer before him--for the ford, shadowed by spreading trees, was dark as pitch--des Ageaux drove the point straight and sure into the throat above the collar-bone. The action was so sudden, so unexpected, that the man he struck had no time to cry out, but with a low gurgling moan fell forward on his burden.
His comrade who rode before the Lieutenant knew little more. Before he could turn, almost before he could give the alarm, the weapon was driven in between his shoulders, and the Lieutenant, availing himself of the purchase which his bound feet gave him, hurled him over the horse's head. Unfortunately the man had time to utter one shriek, and the cry with the splash, and the plunging of the terrified horse, bore the alarm to his comrades on the bank.
"What is it? What is the matter?" a voice asked. And a score of feet could be heard pounding hurriedly along the bank.
The Lieutenant had one moment only in which to make his choice. If he remained on the horse, which he could not restrain, for the reins had fallen, he might escape, but the girl must perish. He did not hesitate. As the frightened horse reared he cut his feet loose, and slid from it. He made one clutch at the floating reins but missed them. Before he could make a second the terrified animal was on the bank.
There remained the girl's horse. But Bonne, drenched by the dying man's blood, had flung herself off--somehow, anyhow, in irrepressible horror. As des Ageaux turned she rose, dripping and panting beside him, her nerve quite gone. "Oh, oh!" she cried. "Save me! Save me!" and she clung to him.
Alas, while she clung to him her horse floundered out of the stream, and trotted after its fellow.
The pursuers were no more than thirty yards away, and but for the deep shadow which lay on the ford must have seen them. The Lieutenant had no time to think. He caught the girl up, and as quickly as he could he waded with her to the bank from which they had entered the water. Once on dry land he set her on her feet, seized her wrist and gripped it firmly.
"Courage!" he said. "We must run! Run for your life, and if we can reach the wind-mill we may escape!"
He spoke harshly, but his words had the effect he intended. She straightened herself, caught up her wet skirt and set off with him across the road and up the bare hill-side. He knew that not far above them stood a wind-mill with a narrow doorway in which one man might make some defence against numbers. The chance was slight, the hope desperate; but he could see no other. Already the pursuers were splashing through the ford and scattering on the trail, some running up the stream, some down, some stooping cunningly to listen. To remain beside the water was to be hunted as otters are hunted.
His plan answered well at first. For a few precious instants their line of retreat escaped detection. They even increased their start, and had put fifty or sixty yards of slippery hill-side between themselves and danger before a man of sharper ears than his fellows caught the sound of a stone rolling down the slope, and drew the hue and cry in the right direction. By that time the dark form of the wind-mill was faintly visible sixty or eighty yards above the fugitives. And the race was not ill set.
But Bonne's skirt hung heavy, her knees shook; and nearer and nearer she heard the pursuers' feet. She could do no more! She must fall, her lungs were bursting! But des Ageaux dragged her on ruthlessly, and on; and now the wind-mill was not ten paces before them.
"In!" he cried. "In!" And loosing her hand, he turned, quick as a hare, the knife gleaming in his hand.
But the nearest man--the Lieutenant's ear had told him that only one was quite near--saw the action and the knife, and as quickly sheered off, to wait for his companions. The Lieutenant turned again, and in half a dozen bounds was through the low narrow doorway and in the mill tower.
He had no sword, he had only the knife, still reeking. But he made no complaint. Instead, "There were sheep penned here yesterday," he panted. "There are some bars somewhere. Grope for them and find them."
"Yes!" she said. And she groped bravely in the darkness, though her breath came in sobs. She found the bars. Before the half-dozen men who led the chase had squeezed their courage to the attacking point, the bars that meant so much to the fugitives were in their places. Then des Ageaux bade her keep on one side, while he crouched with his knife beside the opening.
The men outside were chattering and scolding furiously. At length they scattered, and instead of charging the doorway, fired a couple of shots into it and held off, waiting for reinforcements. "Courage, we have a fair chance now," the Lieutenant muttered. And then in a different tone, "Thanks to you! Thanks to you!" with deep emotion. "Never woman did braver thing!"
"Then do you one thing for me!" she answered, her voice shaking. "Promise that I shall not fall into their hands! Promise, sir, promise," she continued hysterically, "that you will kill me yourself! I have given you my knife. I have given you all I had. If you will not promise you must give it back to me."
"God forbid!" he said. And then, "Dear Lord, am I mad? Who was it I picked up at the ford? Am I mad or dreaming? You are not the Countess?"
"I took her place," she panted. "I am Bonne de Villeneuve." The place was so dark that neither could see the other's face, nor so much as the outline of the figure.
"I might have known it," he cried impulsively. And even in that moment of danger, of discomfort, of uncertainty, the girl's heart swelled at the inference she drew from his words. "I might have known it!" he repeated with emotion. "No other woman would have done it, sweet, would have done it' But how--I am as far from understanding as ever--how come you to be here? And not the Countess?"
"I took her place," Bonne repeated--the truth must out now. "She is very young and it was hurting her. She was ill."
"You took her place? To-night?"
"This is--the third night."
"And I"--in a tone of wonder that a second time brought the blood to her cheeks--"I never discovered you! You rode beside me all those nights--all those nights and I never knew you! Is it possible?"
She did not answer.
He was silent a moment. Then, "By Heaven, it was well for me that you did!" he murmured. "Very well! Very well! Without you where should I be now?" His eyes strove to pierce the darkness in which she crouched on the farther side of the opening, scarce out of reach of his hand. "Where should I be now? A handsome situation," he continued bitterly, "for the Governor of Périgord to be seized and hurried to a dog's death by a band of brigands! And to be rescued by a woman!"
"Is it so dreadful to you," she murmured, "to owe your life to a woman?"
"Is it so dreadful to me," he repeated in an altered tone, "to owe my life to you, do you mean? I am willing to owe all to you. You are the only woman----"
But there, even as her heart began to flutter, he stopped. He stopped and she fell to earth. "They are coming!" he muttered. "Keep yourself close! For God's sake, keep yourself close!"
"And you too!" she cried impulsively. "Your life is mine."
He did not answer: perhaps he did not hear. The Crocans who had spent some minutes in consultation had brought a beam up the hill. They were about to drive it against the stout wooden bars, of which they must have guessed the presence, since they could not see them. The plan was not unwise; and as they fell into a ragged line on either side of the ram, while three skirmished forward, with a view to leaping into the opening before the defenders could recover from the shock, the Lieutenant's heart sank. The form of attack was less simple than he had hoped. He had exulted too soon.
Whether Bonne knew this or not, she acted as if she knew it. As the leader of the assault shouted to his men to be ready, and the men lifted the beam hip high, she flitted across the opening, and des Ageaux felt her fingers close upon his arm.
He did not misunderstand her: he knew that she meant only to remind him of his promise. But at the touch a wave of feeling, as unexpected as it was irresistible, filled the breast of the case-hardened soldier; who, something cold by nature, had hitherto found in his career all that he craved. At that touch the admiration and interest which had been working within him since his talk with Bonne in the old garden at Villeneuve blossomed into a feeling infinitely more tender, infinitely stronger--into a love that craved return. The girl who had saved him, who had proved herself so brave, so true, so gentle, what a wife would she be! What a mother of brave and loyal and gentle children, meet sons and daughters of a loyal sire! And even as he thought that thought and was conscious of the love that pervaded his being, he felt her shiver against him, and before he knew it his arm was round her, he was clasping her to him, giving her assurance that until the end--until the end he would not let her go! He would never let her go.
And the end was not yet. For his lips in that moment which he thought might be their last found hers in the darkness, and she knew seconds of a great joy that seemed to her long as hours as she crouched against him unresisting; while the last orders of the men who sought their lives found strange echo in his words of love.
Crash! The splinters flew to right and left, the two upper bars were gone, dully the beam struck the back of the mill. But he had drawn her behind him, and was waiting with the tight-grasped knife for the man bold enough to leap through the opening. Woe betide the first, though he must keep his second blow for her. After that--if he had to strike her--there would be one moment of joy, while he fought them.
But the stormers, poor-hearted, deemed the breach insufficient. They drew back the beam, intending to break the lowest bar, which still held place. Once more they cried, "One! Two!" But not "Three!" In place of the word a yell of pain rang loud, down crashed the battering-ram, and high rose--as all fled headlong--a clamour of shrieks and curses. A moment and the thunder of hoofs followed, and mail-clad men, riding recklessly along the steep hill-side, fell on the poor naked creatures, and driving them pell-mell before them amid stern cries of vengeance, cut and hacked them without mercy.
Trembling violently, Bonne clung to her lover. "Oh, what is it? What is it?" she cried. "What is it?" Her spirits could endure no more.
"Safety!" he replied, the harder nature of the man asserting itself. "Safety, sweetheart! Hold up your head, brave! What, swooning now when all is well!"
Ay, swooning now. The word safety sufficed. She fell against him, her head dropped back.
As soon as he was assured of it, he lifted her in his arms with a new feeling of ownership. And climbing, not without difficulty, over the bar that remained, he emerged into something that, in comparison of the darkness within the mill, was light--for the day was coming. Before the door two horsemen, still in their saddles, awaited him. One was tall, the other stout and much shorter.
"Is that you, Roger?" he asked. It was not light enough to discern faces.
The shorter figure to which he addressed himself did not answer. The other, advancing a pace and reining up, spoke.
"No," he said, in a tone that at once veiled and exposed his triumph, "I am the Captain of Vlaye. And you are my prisoner."
The four who looked to the door of the Duke's hut, and waited for the news, were not relieved as quickly as they expected. When men return with no news they are apt to forget that others are less wise than themselves; and where, with something to impart, they had flown to relieve the anxious, they are prone to forget that the negative has its value for those who are in suspense.
Hence some minutes elapsed before Roger presented himself. And when he came and they cried breathlessly, "Well, what news?" his answer was a look of reproach.
"Should I not have come at once if there had been any?" he said. "Alas, there is none."
"But you must have some!" they cried.
"Nothing," he answered, almost sullenly. "All we know is that they quarrelled over their prisoners. The hill above the ford is a shambles."
The Vicomte repressed the first movement of horror. "Above the ford?" he said. "How came they there?"
Roger shrugged his shoulders. "We don't know," he said. And then reading a dreadful question in his sister's eyes, "No, there is no sign of them," he continued. "We crossed to the old town on the hill, but found it locked and barred. The brutes mopped and mowed at us from the wall, but we could get no word of Christian speech from them. They seemed to be in terror of us--which looks ill. But we had no ladders and no force sufficient to storm it, and the Bat sent me back with ten spears to make you safe here while he rode on with Charles towards Villeneuve."
"Villeneuve?" the Vicomte asked, raising his eyebrows. "Why?"
"There were tracks of a large body of horsemen moving in that direction. The Bat hopes that some of the wretches quarrelled with the others, and carried off the prisoners, and are holding them safe--with an eye to their own necks."
"God grant it!" Odette muttered in a low tone, and with so much feeling that all looked at her in wonder. Nor had the prayer passed her lips many seconds before it was answered. The sound of voices drew their looks to the door, a shadow fell across the threshold, the substance followed. As the little Countess sprang forward with a shriek of joy and the Abbess dropped back in speechless emotion, Bonne stood before them.
"He has granted her prayer," the Duke muttered in astonishment. "Laus Deo!" While Roger, scarcely less surprised than if a ghost had appeared before them, stared at his sister with all his eyes.
She barely looked at them. "I am tired," she said. "Bear with me a moment. Let me sit down." Then, as if she were not content with the surprise which her words caused, "Don't touch me!" she continued, recoiling before the Countess's approach. "Wait until you have heard all. You have little cause for joy. Wait!"
The Vicomte thought his worst fears justified. "But, my child," he faltered, "is that all you have to say to us?" And to the others, in a lower voice, "She is distraught! She is beside herself. Can those wretches----"
"I escaped them," she replied, in the same dull tones. "They have done me no harm. Let me rest a minute before I tell you."
Roger stayed the inquiry after the Lieutenant which was on his lips. It was evident to him and to all that something serious had happened: that the girl before them was not the girl who had ridden away yesterday with so brave a heart. But, freed from that fear of the worst which the Vicomte had entertained, they knew not what to think. Some signs of shock, some evidences of such an experience as she had passed through, were natural; but the reaction should have cast her into their arms, not withheld her--should have flung her weeping on her sister's shoulder, not frozen her in this strange apathy.
The Abbess, indeed, who had recovered from the paroxysm of gratitude into which Bonne's return had cast her, eyed her sister with the shadow of a terror. Conscience, which makes cowards of us all, suggested to her an explanation of her sister's condition, adequate and more than adequate. A secret alarm kept her silent therefore: while the young Countess, painfully aware that she had escaped all that Bonne had suffered, sank under new remorse. For the others, they did not know what to think: and stealthily reading one another's eyes, felt doubts that they dared not acknowledge. Was it possible, notwithstanding her denial, that she had suffered ill-treatment?
"Perhaps it were better," the Duke muttered, "if we left mademoiselle in the care of her sister?"
But low as he spoke, Bonne heard. She raised her head wearily. "This does not lie with her," she said.
The Abbess breathed more freely. The colour came back to her cheeks. She sat upright, relieved from the secret fear that had oppressed her. "With whom, then, child?" she asked in her natural voice. "And why this mystery? But we--have forgotten"--her voice faltered, "we have forgotten," she repeated hardily, "M. des Ageaux. Is he safe?"
"It is of him I am going to speak," Bonne replied heavily.
"He has not--he has not fallen."
"He is alive."
"Thank Heaven for that!" Roger cried with heartiness, his eyes sparkling. "Has he gone on with Charles and the Bat?"
"Then where is he?" She did not answer, and, startled, Roger looked at her, the others looked at her. All waited for the reply.
"He is in the Captain of Vlaye's hands," she said slowly. And a gentle spasm, the beginning of weeping which did not follow, convulsed her features. "He saved me," she continued in trembling tones, "from the peasants, only to fall into M. de Vlaye's hands."
"Well, that was better!" Roger answered.
Her lips quivered, but she did not reply. Perhaps she was afraid of losing that control over herself which it had cost her much to compass.
But the Vicomte's patience, never great, was at an end. He saw that this was going to prove a troublesome matter. Hence his sudden querulousness. "Come, come, girl," he said petulantly. "Tell us what has happened, and no nonsense! Come, an end, I say! Tell us what has happened from the beginning, and let us have no mysteries!"
She began. In a low voice, and with the same tokens of repressed feeling, she detailed what had happened from the moment of the invasion of her hut by the peasants to the release of des Ageaux and the struggle in the river-bed.
"He owes us a life there," the Vicomte exclaimed, while Roger's eyes beamed with pride.
She paid no heed to her father's interjection, but continued the story of the succeeding events--the assault on the mill, and the arrival of Vlaye and his men.
"Who in truth and fact saved your lives then," Roger said. "I forgive him much for that! It is the best thing I have heard of him."
"He saved my life," Bonne replied, with a faint but perceptible shudder. She kept her eyes down as if she dared not meet their looks.
"But the Lieutenant's too," the Vicomte objected. "You told us that he was alive."
"He is alive," she murmured. And the trembling began to overpower her. "Still alive."
"But to-morrow at sunrise--" her voice shook with the pent-up misery, the long-repressed pain of her three hours' ride from Vlaye--"to-morrow at sunrise, he--he must die!"
The word came from one who so far had been silent. And the Duke rising from his place by the door stood upright, supporting his weakened form against the wall of the hut. "What?" he repeated in a voice that in spite of his weakness rang clear and loud with anger. "He will not dare!"
"M. de Vlaye?" the Vicomte muttered in a discomfited tone, "I am sure--I am sure he will not--dream of such a thing. Certainly not!"
"M. de Vlaye says that if--if----" Bonne paused as if she could not force her pallid lips to utter the words--"he says that at sunrise to-morrow he will hang him as the Lieutenant last week hung one of his men."
"For murder! Clear proved murder!" Roger cried in an agitated voice. "Before witnesses!"
"Then by my salvation I will hang him!" Joyeuse retorted in a voice which shook with rage; and one of those frantic, blasphemous passions to which all of his race were subject overcame him. "I will hang him high as Haman, and like a dog as he is!" He snatched a glove from a peg on the wall beside him, and flung it down with violence. "Give him that, the miserable upstart!" he shrieked, "and tell him that as surely as he keeps his word, I, Henry of Joyeuse, who for every spear he boasts can set down ten to that, will hang him though God and all His saints stand between! Give it him! Give it him! On foot or on horse, in mail or in shirt, alone or by fours, I am his and will drag his filthy life from him! Go!" he continued, turning, his eyes suffused with rage, on Roger. "Or bid them bring me my horse and arms! I will to him now, now, and pluck his beard! I----"
"My lord, my lord," Roger remonstrated. "You are not fit."
Joyeuse sank back exhausted on his stool. "For him and such as he more than fit," he muttered. "More than fit--coward as he is!" But his tone and evident weakness gave him the lie. He looked feebly at his hand, opening and closing it under his eyes. "Well, let him wait," he said. "Let him wait awhile. But if he does this, I will kill him as surely as I sit here!"
"Ay, to be sure!" the Vicomte chimed in. "But unless I mistake, my lord, we are on a false scent. There was something of a condition unless I am in error. This silly girl, who is more moved than is needful, said--if, if--that M. de Vlaye would hang him, unless---- What was it, child, you meant?"
She did not answer.
It was Roger whose wits saved her the necessity. His eyes were sharpened by affection; he knew what had gone before. He guessed that which held her tongue.
"We must give up the Countess!" he cried in generous scorn. "That is his condition. I guess it!"
Bonne bowed her head. She had felt that to state the condition to the helpless, terrified girl at whose expense it must be performed was a shame to her; that to state it as if she craved its performance, expected its performance, looked for its performance, was a thing still baser, a thing dishonouring to her family, not worthy a Villeneuve--a thing that must smirch them all and rob them of the only thing left to them, their good name.
Yet if she did not speak, if she did not make it known? If she did not do this for him who loved her and whom she loved? If he perished because she was too proud to crave his life, because she feared lest her cloak be stained ever so little? That, too, was--she could not face that.
She was between the hammer and the anvil. The question, what she should do, had bowed her to the ground. She had seen as she rode that she must choose between honour and life; her lover's life, her own honour!
Meanwhile, "Give up the Countess?" the Vicomte muttered, staring at his son in dull perplexity. "Give up the Countess? Why?"
"Unless she is surrendered," Roger explained in a low voice, "he will carry out his threat. He goes back, sir, to his old plan of strengthening himself. It is very clear. He thinks that with the Countess in his power he can make use of her resources, and by their means defy us."
"He is a villain!" the Vicomte cried, touched in his tenderest point.
"Villain or no villain, I will cut his throat!" Joyeuse exclaimed, his rage flaming up anew. "If he touch but a hair of des Ageaux' head--who was wounded striving to save my brother's life at Coutras, as all the world knows--I will never leave him nor forsake him till I have his life!"
"I fear that will not avail the Lieutenant," Roger muttered despondently.
"No. No, it may not," the Vicomte agreed, "but we cannot help that." He, in truth, was able to contemplate the Lieutenant's fate without too much vexation, or any overweening temptation to abandon the Countess. "We cannot help it, and that is all that remains to be said. If he will do this he must do it. And when his own time comes his blood be upon his own head!"
But the girl who shared with Bonne the tragedy of the moment had something to say. Slowly the Countess stood up. Timid she was, but she had the full pride of her race, and shame had been her portion since the discovery of the thing Bonne had done to save her. The smart of the Abbess's fingers still burned her cheek and seared her pride. Here, Heaven-sent, as it seemed, was the opportunity of redressing the wrong which she had done to Bonne and of setting herself right with the woman who had outraged her.
The price which she must pay, the costliness of the sacrifice did not weigh with her at this moment, as it would weigh with her when her blood was cool. To save Bonne's lover stood for something; to assert herself in the eyes of those who had seen her insulted and scorned stood for much.
"No," she said with simple dignity. "There is something more to be said, M. le Vicomte. If it be a question of M. des Ageaux' life, I will go to the Captain of Vlaye."
"You will go?" the Vicomte cried, astounded. "You, mademoiselle?"
"Yes," she replied slowly, and with a little hardening of her childish features. "I will go. Not willingly, God knows! But rather than M. des Ageaux should die, I will go."
They cried out upon her, those most loudly who were least interested in her decision. But the one for whose protest she listened--Roger--was silent. She marked that; for she was a woman, and Roger's timid attentions had not passed unnoticed, nor, it may be, unappreciated. And the Abbess was silent. She, whose heart this latest proof of her lover's infidelity served but to harden, she whose soul revolted from the possibility that the deed which she had done to separate Vlaye from the Countess might cast the girl into his arms, was silent in sheer rage. Into far different arms had she thought to cast the Countess! Now, if this were to be the end of her scheme, the devil had indeed mocked her!
Nor did Bonne speak, though her heart was full. For her feelings dragged her two ways, and she would not, nay, she could not speak. That much she owed to her lover. Yet the idea of sacrificing a woman to save a man shocked her deeply, shocked alike her womanliness and her courage; and not by a word, not by so much as the raising of a finger would she press the girl, whose very rank and power left her friendless among them, and made her for the time their sport. But neither--though her heart was racked with pity and shame--would she dissuade her. In any other circumstances which she could conceive, she had cast her arms about the child and withheld her by force. But her lover--her lover was at stake. How could she sacrifice him? How prefer another to him? And after all--she, too, acknowledged, she, too, felt the force of the argument--after all, the Countess would be only where she would have been but for her. But for her the young girl would be already in Vlaye's power; or worse, in the peasants' hands. If she went now she did but assume her own perils, take her own part, stand on her own feet.
"I shall go the rather," the Countess continued coldly, using that very argument, "since I should be already in his power had I gone myself to the peasants' camp!"
"You shall not go! You cannot go!" the Vicomte repeated with stupid iteration.
"M. le Vicomte," she answered, "I am the Countess of Rochechouart." And the little figure, the infantine face, assumed a sudden dignity.
"It is unbecoming!"
"It becomes me less to let a gallant gentleman die."
"But you will be in Vlaye's power."
"God willing," she replied, her spirit still sustaining her. Was not the Abbess, whom she was beginning to hate, looking at her?
Ay, looking at her with such eyes, with such thought, as would have overwhelmed her could she have read them. Bitter indeed, were Odette's reflections at this moment--bitter! She had stained her hands and the end was this. She had stooped to a vile plot, to an act that might have cost her sister her life, and with this for reward. The triumph was her rival's. Before her eyes and by her act this silly chit, with heroics on her lips, was being forced into his arms! And she, Odette, stood powerless to check the issue of her deed, impotent to interfere, unable even to vent the words of hatred that trembled on her lips.
For the Duke was listening, and she had still enough prudence, enough self-control, to remember that she must not expose her feelings in his presence. On him depended what remained: the possibility of vengeance, the chances of ambition. She knew that she could not speak without destroying the image of herself which she had wrought so patiently to form. And even when he added his remonstrances to her father's, and hot words imputing immodesty rose to the Abbess's lips--words that must have brought the blood to the Countess's cheeks and might have stung her to the renunciation of her project, she dared not utter them. She swallowed her passion, and showed only a cold mask of surprise.
Not that the Duke said much. For after a while, "Well, perhaps it is best," he said. "What if she pass into his power! It is better a woman marry than a man die. We can make the one a widow; whereas to bring the other to life would puzzle the best swordsman in France!"
The Vicomte persisted. "But there is no burden laid on the Countess to do this," he said. "And I for one will be no party to it! What? Have it said that I surrendered the Countess of Rochechouart who sought my protection?"
"Sir," the girl replied, trembling slightly, "no one surrenders the Countess save the Countess. But that the less may be said to your injury, my own people shall attend me thither, and----"
"They will avail you nothing!" the Vicomte replied with a frankness that verged on brutality. "You do not understand, mademoiselle. You are scarcely more than a child, and do not know to what you are going. You have been wont to be safe in your own resources, and now, were a fortnight given you to gather your power, you could perhaps make M. de Vlaye tremble. But you go from here, in three hours you will be there, and then you will be as much in his power, despite your thirty or forty spears, as my daughter was this morning!"
"I count on nothing else," she said. But her face burned. And Bonne, who suffered with her, Bonne who was dragged this way and that, and would and would not, in whom love struggled with pity and shame with joy, into her face, too, crept a faint colour. How cowardly, oh, how cowardly seemed her conduct! How base in her to buy her happiness at the price of this child's misery! To ransom her lover at a woman's cost! It was a bargain that in another's case she had repudiated with scorn, with pride, almost with loathing. But she loved, she loved. And who that loved could hesitate? One here and there perhaps, some woman of a rare and noble nature, cast in a higher mould than herself. But not Bonne de Villeneuve.
Yet the word she would not utter trembled on her tongue. And once, twice the thought of Roger shook her. He, too, loved, yet he bore in silence to see his mistress delivered, tied and bound, to his rival!
How, she asked herself, how could he do it, how could he suffer it? How could he stand by and see this innocent depart to such a fate, to such a lot!
That puzzled her. She could understand the acquiescence of the others; of her sister, whom M. de Vlaye's inconstancy must have alienated, of Joyeuse, who was under an obligation to des Ageaux, of the Vicomte, who, affecting to take the Countess's part, thought in truth only of himself. But Roger? In his place she felt that she must have spoken whatever came of it, that she must have acted whatever the issue.
Yet Roger, noble, generous Roger--for even while she blamed him with one half of her mind, she blessed him with the other--stood silent.
Silent, even when the Countess with a quivering lip and a fleeting glance in his direction--perhaps she, too, had looked for something else at his hands--went out, her surrender a settled thing; and it became necessary to give orders to her servants, to communicate with the Bat, and to make such preparations as the withdrawal of her men made necessary. The Duke's spears were expected that day or the next, but it needed no sharp eye to discern that Vlaye's capture of the Lieutenant had taken much of the spirit out of the attack. The Countess's men must now be counted on the Captain of Vlaye's side; while the peasants, weakened by the slaughter which Vlaye had inflicted on them at the mill, and by the distrust which their treachery must cause, no longer stood for much in the reckoning. It was possible that the Lieutenant's release might reanimate the forces of the law, that a second attempt to use the peasants might fare better than the first, that Joyeuse's aid might in time place des Ageaux in a position to cope with his opponent. But these were possibilities only, and the Vicomte for one put no faith in them.
He was utterly disgusted, indeed, with the turn which things were taking. Nor was his disgust at any time greater than when he stood an hour later and viewed the Countess and her escort marching out of the camp. If his life since Coutras had been obscure and ignoble, at least it had been safe. While his neighbours had suffered at the Captain of Vlaye's hands, he had been favoured. He had sunk something of his pride, and counted in return on an alliance for his daughter, solid if not splendid. Now, by the act of this meddling Lieutenant--for he ignored Vlaye's treatment both of his daughter and the Countess--all was changed. He had naught to expect now but Vlaye's enmity; Villeneuve would no longer be safe for him. He must go or he must humble himself to the ground. He had taken, he had been forced by his children to take, the wrong side in the struggle. And the time was fast approaching when he must pay for it, and smartly.
That Bonne failed to read the dark scroll of her sister's thoughts need not surprise us; since apart from the tie of blood the two women had nothing in common. But that she failed also to interpret Roger's inaction; that, blaming herself for an acquiescence which love made inevitable, she did not spare him, whom love should have moved in the opposite direction--this was more remarkable. For a closer bond never united brother and sister. But misery is a grand engrosser. She had her lover in her thoughts, the poor girl whom she sacrificed on her mind; and she left the Duke's quarters without that last look at her brother which might have enlightened her.
Had she questioned him he had discovered his mind. She did not, and she had barely passed from sight before he was outside and had got a fresh horse saddled. One thing only it was prevented his leaving the camp in advance of the Countess, whose people were not ready. His foot was raised to the stirrup when he bethought him of this thing. He left the horse in charge of a trooper and hurried back to the Duke's quarters, found him alone and put his question.
"You made a man fight the other night against his will," he said, his head high. "Tell me, my lord, how I can do the same thing."
The Duke stared, then laughed. "Is it that you want?" he answered. "Tell me first whom it is you would fight, my lad?"
"The Captain of Vlaye."
"You said a while ago," Roger continued, his eyes sparkling, "that you would presently make her a widow. Better a widow before she is wed, I say!"
The Duke smiled whimsically. "Sits the wind in that quarter?" he answered. "You have no mind to see her wed at all, my lad? That is it, is it? I had some notion of it."
"Tell me how I can make him fight," Roger replied, sticking to his question and refusing even to blush.
"Tell me how I can get the moon!" Joyeuse answered, but not unkindly. "Why should he risk his life to rid himself of you, who are no drawback to him? Tell me that! Or why should he surrender the advantage of his strong place and his four hundred spears to enter the lists with a man who is naught to him?"
"Because if he does not I will kill him where I find him!" Roger replied with passion. And the mode of the day, which was not nice in the punctilios of the duel, and forgave the most irregular assault if it were successful, which cast small blame on Guise for the murder of St. Pol, or on Montsoreau for the murder of Bussy, justified the threat. "I will kill him!" he repeated. "Fair or foul, light or dark----"
"He shall not wed her!" the Duke cried in a mocking tone and with an extravagant gesture. But in truth the raillery was on the surface only. The lad's spirit touched the corresponding note in his own nature. None the less he shook his head. "Brave words, brave words, young man," he continued; "but you are not Vitaux, who counted his life for nothing, and whose sword was a terror to all."
"But if I count my life for nothing?"
"Ay, if! If!"
"And why should I not?" Roger retorted, his soul rising to his lips. "Tell me, my lord, why should I count it for more? What am I, the son of a poor gentleman, misshapen, rough, untutored, that I should hold my life dear? That I should spare it, and save it, as a thing so valuable? What have I in prospect of all the things other men look to? Glory? See me! Fine I should be," with a bitter laugh covering tears, "in a triumph, or marching up the aisle to a Te Deum! Court favour? Ay, I might be the dwarf in a masque or the fool in motley! Naught besides! Naught besides, my lord! And for love?" He laughed still more bitterly. "I tell you my own father winces when he sees me! My own sister and my own brother--well, they are blind perhaps. They, they only, and old Solomon, and the woman who nursed me and dropped me--see in me a man like other men. Leave them out, and, as I live, until this man came----"
"Des Ageaux--until he came and spoke gently to me and said, 'do this, and do that, and you shall be as Gourdon or as Guesclin!'--even he could not promise me love--as I live, till then no man pitied me or gave me hope! And shall I let him die to save my stunted life?"
"But it is not the saving him that is in question," the Duke replied gently, and with respect in his tone. He was honestly moved by this unveiling of poor Roger's thoughts. "She saved him."
"And I'll save her," Roger replied with fervour. "I will save her though I die a hundred deaths. For she, too----"
He paused. The Duke looked at him, a spice of humour mingling with his sympathy. "She, too, sees in you a man like other men," he said, "I suppose?"
"She pitied me," Roger answered. "No more; she pitied me, my lord! What more could she do, being what she is? And I being what I am?" His chin sank on his breast.
The Duke nodded kindly. "May-be," he said. "Less likely things have happened." And then, "But what will you do?" he asked.
"Go with her and see him, take him aside, and if he will fight me, well! And if he will not, I will strike him down where he stands!"
"But that will not save des Ageaux."
"No! On the contrary, it will be he," Joyeuse retorted somewhat grimly, "who will pay for it. Do you not see that?"
"Then I will wait," Roger replied, "until he is released."
"And then," the Duke asked, still opposing, though the man and the plan were alike after his own heart, "what of the Countess? M. de Vlaye dead, who will protect her? His men----"
"They would not dare!" Roger cried, trembling. "They would not dare!"
"Well, perhaps not," the Duke answered, after a moment's thought. "Perhaps not. Probably his lieutenant would protect her, for his own sake. And des Ageaux free would be worth two hundred men to us. Not that, if I were well, he would be in question. But I am but half a man, and we need him!"
"You shall have him," Roger answered, his eyes glittering. "Have no doubt of it! But advise me, my lord. Were it better I escorted her to the gate and sought entrance later, after he had released des Ageaux? Or that I kept myself close until the time came?"
"The time? For what?"
The speaker was the Abbess. Unseen by the two men, she had that moment glided across the threshold. The pallor of her features and the brightness of her eyes were such as to strike both; but differently. To the Duke these results of a night passed in vivid emotions, and of a morning that had crowned her schemes with mockery, only brought her into nearer keeping with the dress she wore--only enhanced her charms. To her brother, on the other hand, who now hated Vlaye with a tenfold hatred, they were grounds for suspicion--he knew not why. But not even he came nearer to guessing the truth. Not even he dreamt that behind that mask were passions at work which, had they discovered them, would have cast the Duke into a stupor deeper than any into which his own mad freaks had ever flung a wondering world. As it was, the Duke's eyes saw only the perfection of womankind; the lily of the garden, drooping, pale, under the woes of her frailer sisters. Of the jealousy with which she contemplated the surrender of her rival to her lover's power, much less of the step which that surrender was pressing upon her, he caught no glimpse.
"The time for what?" the Duke repeated, with looks courteous to the point of reverence. "Ah--pardon, my sister, but we cannot take you into our counsel. Men must sometimes do things it is not for saints to know or women to witness."
"Saints!" The involuntary irony of her tone must have penetrated ears less dulled by prejudgment. "Saints!" and then, "I am no saint, my lord," she said modestly.
"Still," he answered, "it were better you did not know, mademoiselle. It is but a plan by which we think it possible that we may yet get the better of M. de Vlaye and save the child before--before, in fact----"
"Ay?" the Abbess said, a flicker of pain in her eyes. "Before--I understand."
"Before it be too late."
"Yes. And how?"
The Duke shook his head with a smile meant to propitiate. "How?" he repeated. "That--pardon me--that is the point upon which--we would fain be silent."
"Yet you must not be silent," she replied. "You must tell me." And pale, almost stern, she looked from one to the other, dominating them. "You must tell me," she repeated. "Or perhaps," fixing Roger with a glance keen as steel, "I know already. You would save her by killing him. It is of that you are thinking. It is for that your horse is waiting saddled by the gate. You would ride after her, and gain access to him--and----"
"She has not started?" Roger exclaimed.
"She started ten minutes ago," the Abbess answered coldly. "Nay, stay!" For Roger was making for the door. "Stay, boy! Do you hear?"
"I cannot stay!"
"If you do not stay you will repent it all your life!" the Abbess made answer in a voice that shook even his resolution. "And she all hers! Ha! that stays you?" with a gleam of passion she could not restrain. "I thought it would. Now, if you will listen, I have something to say that will put another complexion on this."
They gazed expectant, but she did not at once continue. She stood reflecting deeply; while each of her listeners regarded her after his knowledge of her; Roger sullenly and with suspicion, doubting what she would be at, the Duke in admiration, expecting that with which gentle wisdom might inspire her.
Secretly she was heart-sick, and the sigh which she could not restrain declared it. But at last, "There is no need of violence," she said wearily. "No," addressing Roger, who had raised his hand in remonstrance, "hear me out before you interrupt me. How will the loss of a minute harm you? Or of five or ten? I repeat, there is no need of violence. Heaven knows there has been enough! We must go another way to work to release her. It is my turn now."
"I would rather trust myself," Roger muttered; but so low that the words, frank to rudeness, did not reach Joyeuse's ears.
"Yet you must trust me," she answered. "Do so, trust me, and follow my directions, and I will take on myself to say that before nightfall she shall be free."
"What are we to do?" the Duke asked.
"You? Nothing. I, all. I must take her place, as she has taken M. des Ageaux'."
For an instant they were silent in sheer astonishment. Then, "But M. de Vlaye may have something to say to that!" Roger ejaculated before the Duke could find words. The lad spoke on impulse. He knew a little and suspected more of the lengths to which Vlaye's courtship of his sister had gone.
If she had not put force on herself, she had flung him a retort that must have opened the Duke's eyes. Instead, "I shall not consult M. de Vlaye," she replied coldly. "I have visited him on various occasions, and we are on terms. My appearance in Vlaye, seeing that the Abbey of Vlaye is but a half-league from the town, will cause no surprise. Once in the town, if I can enter the castle and gain speech of the Countess, she may escape in my habit."
"I hate this shifting and changing!" Roger grumbled.
"But if it will save her?"
"Ay, but will it?" Roger returned, shrugging his shoulders. He suspected that her aim was to save M. de Vlaye rather than the Countess. "Will it? Can you, in the first place, get speech of her?"
"I think I can," the Abbess answered quietly. "Many of the men know me. And I will take with me Father Benet, who is at the Captain of Vlaye's beck and call. He will serve me within limits, if a friend be needed. I shall wear my robes, and though she is shorter and smaller I see no reason why she should not pass out in them in the twilight or after dark."
"But what of you?" the Duke asked, staring much.
"I shall remain in her place."
"Remain in her place?" Joyeuse said slowly, in the voice he would have used had Our Lady appeared before him. "You will dare that for her?"
A faint colour stole into the Abbess's cheeks. "It is my expiation," she murmured modestly. "I struck her--God forgive me!"
"And I run no risk. M. de Vlaye knows me, and this"--with a gesture which drew attention to her conventual garb--"will protect me."
The Duke gazed at the object of his adoration in a kind of rapture, seeing already the wings on her shoulders, the aureole about her head. "Mademoiselle, you will do that?" he cried. "Then you are no woman! You are an angel!" In his enthusiasm he knelt--not without difficulty, for he was still weak--and kissed her hand. To him the thing seemed an act of pure heroism, pure self-denial, pure good-doing.
But Roger, who knew more of his sister's nature and past history, and whose knowledge left less room for fancy's gilding, stood lost in gloomy thought. What did she mean? Was she going as friend or enemy? Influence with Vlaye she had, or lately had; but, the Countess released, in what a position would she, his sister, stand? Could he, could her father, could her friends let her do this thing?
Yet the chance--to a lover--was too good to reject; the position, moreover, was too desperate for niceties. The thought that she was going, not for the sake of the Countess, but of the Captain of Vlaye, the suspicion that she was not unwilling to take the Countess's place and the Countess's risks, occurred to him. But he thrust, he strove to thrust the suspicion and the thought from him. Her motive and her meaning, even though that motive and meaning were to save the Captain of Vlaye, were small things beside the Countess's safety.
"At any rate I shall go with you," he said at length, and with more of suspicion than of gratitude in his tone. "When will you be ready?"
"I think it likely that he will have bidden Father Benet to be with him at sunset," she answered. "If we are at the priest's, therefore, an hour earlier, it should do."
"And for safe-conduct?"
"I will answer for that," she replied with boldness, "so far as M. de Vlaye's men are concerned."
The answer chafed Roger anew. Her reliance on her influence with Vlaye and Vlaye's people--he hated it; and for an instant he hesitated. But in the end he swallowed his vexation: had he not made up his mind to shut his eyes? And the three separated after a few more words relating to the arrangements to be made. The Duke, standing with a full heart in the doorway, watched her to her quarters, marked the grace of her movements, and in his mind doomed the Captain of Vlaye to unspeakable deaths if he harmed her; while she, as she passed away, thought--but we need not enter into her thoughts. She was doing this, lest a worse thing happen; doing it in a passion of jealousy, in a frenzy of disgust. But she had one consolation. She would see the Captain of Vlaye! She would see the man she loved. Through the dark stuff of her thoughts that prospect ran like a golden thread.
Roger, on the other hand, should have been content. He should have been more than satisfied, as an hour later he rode beside her down the river valley to the chapel beside the ford, and thence to the open country about Villeneuve. For if things were still dark, there was a prospect of light. A few hours earlier he had despaired; he had seen no means of saving the woman he adored, save at the expense of his own life. Now he had hope and a chance, now he had prospects, now he might look, if fortune favoured him, to be her escort into safety before the sun rose again.
Surely, then, he should have been content; yet he was not. Not even when after a journey of four hours the two, having passed Villeneuve, gained without misadventure the summit of that hill on the scarped side of which the Countess had met with her first misfortune. From that point, they and the two armed servants who followed them could look down upon the wide green valley that framed the town of Vlaye, and that, somewhat lower, opened into the wide plain of the Dronne. They could discern the bridge over the river; they could almost count the red roofs of the small town that crept up from the water to the coronet of grey walls and towers that crowned all. Those walls and towers basking in the sunshine were the eyrie that lorded it over leagues of country seen and unseen--the hawk's nest, the plebis flagellum, as the old chronicler has it. They might, in sight of those towers, count the preliminaries over and all but the supreme risk run.
For quite easily they might have fallen in with Vlaye's people on the road and been taken; or with M. de Vlaye himself, and with that there had been an end of the plan. But they had escaped these dangers. And yet Roger was not content; still he rode with a gloomy brow and pinched lips. The longer he thought of his sister's plan, the more he suspected and the less he liked it. There was in it a little which he did not understand, and more which he understood too well. His sister and M. de Vlaye! He hated the collocation; he hated to think that she must be left, willingly and by her own act, in the adventurer's power; and this at a moment when disappointment would aggravate a temper tried by the attack on him and by the part which the Vicomte had played in it. On what did she depend for her safety, for her honour, for all that she put wantonly at stake? On his respect? His friendship? Or his love?
"I will take her place," she had said. Could it be that she was willing, that she desired, to take it altogether? Was she, after the rebuffs, after the scornful and contumelious slight which M. de Vlaye had put upon her, willing still to seek him, willing still to be in his power?
It seemed so. Certainly it could not be denied that she was seeking him, and that he, her brother, was escorting her. In that light people would look upon his action.
The thought stung him, and he halted midway on the woodland track that descended the farther side of the hill. His face wore a mixture of shame and appeal--with ill-humour underlying both. "See here, Odette," he said abruptly, "I do not see the end of this."
Though she raised her eyebrows contemptuously, a faint tinge of colour crept into her face.
"I thought," she replied, "that the end was to save this little fool who is too weak to save herself!"
"Oh, for me?" contemptuously. "Take no heed of me. I am of other stuff, and can manage my own affairs."
"You think so," he retorted. "But the Captain of Vlaye, he, too, is of other stuff."
"Do you fancy I am afraid of M. de Vlaye?" she answered. And her eyes flashed scorn on him. "You may be! You should be!" with a glance which marked his deformity and stabbed the sense of it deep into his heart. "How should you be otherwise, seeing that in no circumstances could you be a match for him! But I? I say again that I am of other stuff."
"All the same," he muttered darkly, "I would not go on----"
"Would not go on?" she retorted in mockery. "Not with your sweet Countess in danger? Not with the dear light of your eyes in Vlaye's arms? Not go on? Oh, brave lover! Oh, brave man! Not go on, and your Countess, your pretty Countess----"
"Be silent!" he cried. She stung him to rage.
"Ah! We go back then?"
But he could not face that, he could not say yes to that; and, defeated, he turned in dumb sullen anger and resumed the road.
Necessarily the danger of arrest increased as they approached the town. The last mile, which brought them to the bridge over the river, was traversed under the eyes of the castle; it would not have surprised Roger had they been met and stopped long before they came to the town gate. But the Captain of Vlaye, it seemed, held the danger still remote, and troubled his followers with few precautions. The place lay drowsing in the late heat of the summer afternoon. It was still as the dead, and though their approach was doubtless seen and noted, no one issued forth or challenged them. Even the men who lounged in the shade of the low-browed archway--that still bore the scutcheon of its ancient lords--contented themselves with a long stare and a sulky salute. The bridge passed, a narrow street paved and steep, and overhung by ancient houses of brick and timber, opened before them. It led upwards in the direction of the castle, but after pursuing it in single file some fifty paces, the Abbess turned from it into a narrow lane that brought them in a bow-shot--for the town was very small--to the wall again. This was their present destination. For crowded into an angle of the wall under the shadow of one of the old brick watch-towers stood the chapel and cell that owned the lax rule of M. de Vlaye's chaplain, Father Benet.
Roger had little faith in the priest's power, and less in his willingness to aid them. But at worst he was not to be kept in suspense. By good luck, Father Benet was walking at the moment of their arrival in his potherb garden. As they dismounted, they espied the Father peeping at them between the tall sunflowers and budding hollyhocks; his ruddy face something dismayed and fallen, and his mien that of a portly man caught in the act of wrong-doing. Finding himself detected, he came forward with an awkward show of joviality.
"Welcome, sister," he said. "There is naught the matter at the Abbey, I trust, that I see you thus late in the day?"
"No, the matter is here," the Abbess replied, with a look in her eyes that told him she knew all. "And we are here to see about it. Let us in, Father. The time is short, for at any moment your master"--she indicated the castle by a gesture--"may hear of our arrival and send for us."
"I am sure," the priest answered glibly, "that anything that I can do for you, sister----"
She cut him short. "No words, no words, but let us in!" she said sharply. And when with pursed lips and a shrug of resignation he had complied, and they stood in the cool stone-floored room--communicating by an open door with the chapel--in which he received his visitors, she came with the same abruptness to the point.
"At what hour are you going up to the castle?" she asked.
He tried to avoid her eyes. "To the castle?" he repeated.
"Ay," she said, watching him keenly. "To the castle. Are there more castles than one? Or first, when were you there last, Father?"
His look wandered, full of calculation. "Last?" he said. "When was I at the castle last?"
"The truth! The truth!" she cried impatiently.
He chid her, but with a propitiatory smile akin to those which the augurs exchanged. "Sister! Sister!" he said. "Nil nisi verum clericus! I was there no more than an hour back."
"And got your orders? And got your orders, I suppose?" she repeated with rude insistence. "Out with it, Father. I see that you are no more easy than I am!"
He flung out his hands in sudden abandonment. "God knows I am not!" he said. "God knows I am not! And that is the truth, and I am not hiding it. God knows I am not! But what am I to do? He is a violent man--you know him!--and I am a man of peace. I must do his will or go. And I am better than nothing! I may"--there was a whine in his voice--"I may do some good still. You know that, sister. I may do some good. I baptise. I bury. But if I go, there is no one."
"And if you go, you are no one," she answered keenly. "For your suffragan has you in no good favour, I am told. So that if you go you happen on but a sackcloth welcome. So it is said, Father. I know not if it be said truly."
"Untruly! Untruly!" he protested earnestly. "He has never found fault with me, sister, on good occasion. But I have enemies, all men have enemies----"
"You are like to make more," Roger struck in, with a dark look.
The priest wrung his hands. "I know! I know!" he said. "He carries it too highly. Too highly! They say that he has caught the King's governor now, and has him in keeping there."
"It is true."
"Well, I have warned him; he cannot say I have not!"
"And what said he to your warning?" the Abbess asked with a sneer.
"He threatened me with the stirrup leathers."
"And you are now to marry him?"
He turned a shade paler. "You know it?" he gasped.
"I know it, but not the time," she answered. And as he hesitated, silent and appalled, "Come," she continued, "the truth, Father. And then I will tell you what I am going to do."
"At sunset," he muttered, "I am to be there."
"Good," she said. "Now we know. Then you will go up an hour earlier. And I shall go with you."
He protested feebly. He knew something of that which had gone before, something of her history, something of her passion for the Captain of Vlaye; and he was sure that she was not bent on good. "I dare not!" he said, "I dare not, sister! You ask too much."
"Dare not what?" the Abbess retorted, bending her handsome brows in wrath. "Dare not go one hour earlier?"
"But you--you want to go?"
"If I go with you, what is that to you?"
"But what, Father, but what?"
"You want something of me?" he faltered. He was not to be deceived. "Something dangerous, I know it!"
"I want your company to the door of the room where she lies," the Abbess replied. "That is all. You have leave to visit her? Do not"--overwhelming him with swift fierce words--"deny it. Do not tell me that you have not! Think you I do not know you, Father? Think you I do not know how well you are with him, how late you sit with him, how deep you drink with him, when he lacks better company? And that this--though you are frightened now, and would fain be clear of it, knowing who she is--is the thing which you have vowed to do for him a hundred times and a hundred times to that, if it would help him!"
"Never! Never!" he protested, paler than before.
"Father," she retorted, stooping forward and speaking low, "be warned. Be warned! Get you a foot in the other camp while you may! You are over-well fed for the dry crust and the sack bed of the bishop's prison! You drink too much red wine to take kindly to the moat puddle! And that not for months, but for years and years! Have you not heard of men who lay forgotten, ay, forgotten even by their gaoler at last, until they starved in the bishop's prison? The bishop's prison, Father!" she continued cruelly. "Who comes out thence, but the rats, and they fat? Who comes out thence----"
"Don't! Don't!" the priest cried, his complexion mottled, his flabby cheeks trembling with fear of the thing which her words called up, with fear of the thing that had often kept him quaking in the night hours. "You will not do it?"
"I?" she answered drily. "No, not I perhaps. But is a Countess of Rochechouart to be abducted so lightly, or so easily? Has she so few friends? So poor a kindred? A cousin there is, I think--my lord Bishop of Comminges--who has one of those very prisons. And, if I mistake not, she has another cousin, who is in Flanders now, but will know well how to avenge her when he returns."
"What is it you want me to do?" he faltered.
"Go with me to her door--that I may gain admission. Then, whether you go to him or not, your silence, for one half-hour."
"You will not do her any harm?" he muttered.
"Fool, it is to do her good I am here."
"And that is all? You swear it?"
"That is all."
He heaved a deep sigh. "I will do it," he said. He wiped his brow with the sleeve of his cassock. "I will do it."
"You are wise," she replied, "and wise in time, Father, for it is time we went. The sun is within an hour of setting." Then, turning to Roger, who had never ceased to watch the priest as a cat watches a mouse, "The horses may wait in the lane or where you please," she said. "They are hidden from the castle where they stand, and perhaps they are best there. In any case"--with a meaning glance--"I return to this spot. Expect me in half an hour. After that, the rest is for you to contrive. I wash my hands of it."
The words in which he would have assented stuck in the lad's throat. He could not speak. She turned again to the priest. "One moment and I am ready," she said. "Have you a mirror?"
"A mirror?" he exclaimed in astonishment.
"But of course you have not," she replied. She looked about her an instant, then with a quick step she passed through the doorway into the chapel. There her eye had caught a polished sheet of brass, recording in monkish Latin the virtues of that member of the old family who had founded this "Capella extra muros," as ancient deeds style it. She placed herself before the tablet, and paying as little heed to her brother or the priest--though they were within sight--as to the sacred emblems about her, or the scene in which she stood, she cast back her hood, and drew from her robes a small ivory case. From this she took a morsel of sponge, and a tiny comb, also of ivory; and with water taken from the stoup beside the door, she refreshed her face, and carefully recurled the short ringlets upon her forehead. With a pencil drawn from the same case, she retouched her eyelashes and the corners of her eyes, and with deft fingers she straightened and smoothed the small ruff about her neck. Finally, with no less care, she drew the hood of her habit close round her face, and after turning herself about a time or two before the mirror went back to the others. They had not taken their eyes off her.
"Come," she said. And she led the way out without a second word, passed by the waiting horses and the servants, and, attended by the reluctant Father, walked at a gentle pace along the lane towards the main street.
The priest went in fear, his stout legs trembling under him. But until the two reached a triangular open space, graced by an Italian fountain, and used, though it sloped steeply, for a market site, the street they pursued was not exposed to view from the castle. Above the marketplace, however, the road turned abruptly to the left, and, emerging from the houses, ascended between twin mounds, of which the nearer bore the castle, and the other, used on occasion as a tilt-yard, was bare. The road ascended the gorge between the two, then wound about, this time to the right, and gained the summit of the unoccupied breast; whence, leaping its own course by a drawbridge, it entered the grey stronghold that on every other side looked down from the brow of a precipice--here on the clustering roofs of the town, and there, and there again, on the wide green vale and silvery meanders of the Dronne.
Looking to the south, where the valley opened into a plain, the eye might almost discern Coutras--that famous battlefield that lies on the Dronne bank. Northward it encountered the wooded hills beyond which lay Villeneuve, and the town of Barbesieux on the great north road, and the plain towards Angoulême. Fairer eyrie, or stronger, is scarce to be found in the width of three provinces.
Until they came to the market-place the Abbess and her unwilling companion had little to fear unless they met M. de Vlaye himself. As far as others were concerned, Father Benet's coarse, plump face, albeit less ruddy than ordinary, was warrant enough to avert both suspicion and inquiry. But thence onwards they walked in full view not only of the lounge upon the ramparts which the Captain of Vlaye most affected at the cool hour, but of a dozen lofty casements from any one of which an officious sentry or a servant might mark their approach and pass word of it. Father Benet pursued this path as one under fire. The sun was low, but at its midday height it had not burned the stout priest more than the fancied fury of those eyes. The sweat poured down his face as he climbed and panted and crossed himself in a breath.
"Believe me, you are better here than in the bishop's prison," his companion said, to cheer him.
"But he will see us from the ramparts," he groaned, not daring to look up and disprove the fact. "He will see us! He will meet us at the gate."
"Then it will be my affair," the Abbess answered.
"We are mad--stark, staring mad!" he protested.
"You were madder to go back," she said.
He looked at her viciously, as if he wished her dead. Fortunately they had reached the narrow defile under the bridge, and a feverish longing to come to an end of the venture took place of all other feelings in the priest's breast. Doggedly he panted up the Tilt Mound, as it was called, and passed three or four groups of troopers, who were taking the air on their backs or playing at games of chance. Thence they crossed the drawbridge. The iron-studded doors, with their clumsy grilles, above which the arms of the old family still showed their quarterings, stood open; but in the depths of the low-browed archway, where the shadows were beginning to gather, lounged a dozen rogues whose insolent eyes the Abbess must confront.
But she judged, and rightly, that the priest's company would make that easy which she could not have compassed so well alone, though she might have won entrance. The men, indeed, were surprised to see her, and stared; some recognised her with respect, others with grins half-knowing, half-insolent. But no one stepped forward or volunteered to challenge her entrance. And although a wit, as soon as her back was turned, hummed
"Je suis amoureuse,
J'ai perdu mon galant!"
J'ai perdu mon galant!"
and another muttered, "Oh, la, la, the bridesmaid!" with a wink at his fellows, they were soon clear of the gate and the starers, and crossing the wide paved court, that, bathed in quiet light, was pervaded none the less by an air of subdued expectation. Here a man cleaned a horse or his harness, there a group chatted on the curb of the well; here a white-capped cook showed himself, and there, beside the entrance, a couple teased the brown bear that inhabited the stone kennel, and on high days made sport for the Captain of Vlaye's dogs.
Vlaye's quarters and those of his household and officers lay in the wing on the left, which overlooked the town; his men were barracked and the horses stabled in the opposite wing. The fourth side, facing the entrance, was open, but was occupied by a garden raised two steps above the court and separated from it, first by a tall railing of curiously wrought iron, and secondly by a row of clipped limes, whose level wall of foliage hid the pleasaunce from the come-and-go of the vulgar.
The Abbess knew the place intimately, and she felt no surprise when the Father, in place of making for the common doorway on the left, which led into M. de Vlaye's wing, bore across the open to the floriated iron gates of the garden. He passed through these and turned to the left along the cool green lime walk, which was still musical with the hum of belated bees.
"She is in the demoiselles' wing then?" the Abbess murmured. She had occupied those rooms herself on more than one occasion. They opened by a door on the garden and enjoyed a fair and airy outlook over the Dronne. As she recalled them and the memories they summoned up her features worked.
"Where else should she be--short of this evening?" Father Benet answered, with full knowledge of the sting he inflicted. Her secret was no secret from him. "But I need come no farther," he added, pausing awkwardly.
"To the door," she answered firmly. "To the door! That is the bargain."
"Well, we are there," he said, halting when he had taken another dozen paces, which brought them to the door in the garden end of the left wing. "Now, I will retire by your leave, sister."
He complied with a faltering hand, and the moment he had done so he turned to flee, as if the sound terrified him. But with an unexpected movement she seized his wrist in her strong grasp, and though he stammered a remonstrance, and even resisted her weakly, she held him until the opening door surprised them.
A grim-faced woman looked out at them. "To see the Countess," the Abbess muttered. Then to the priest, as she released him, "I shall not be more than ten minutes, Father," she continued. "You will wait for me, perhaps. Until then!"
She nodded to him after a careless, easy fashion, and the door closed on her. In the half-light of the passage within, which faded tapestry and a stand of arms relieved from utter bareness, the woman who had admitted her faced her sourly. "You have my lord's leave?" she asked suspiciously.
"Should I be here without it?" the Abbess retorted in her proudest manner. "Be speedy, and let me to her. My lord will not be best pleased if the priest be kept waiting."
"No great matter that," the woman muttered rebelliously. But having said it she led the visitor up the stairs and ushered her into the well-remembered room. It was a spacious, pleasant chamber, with a view of the garden, and beyond the garden of the widening valley spread far beneath. Nothing of the prison-house hung about it, nor was it bare or coldly furnished.
The woman did not enter with her, but the gain was not much. For the Abbess had no sooner crossed the threshold than she discovered a second gaoler. This was a young waiting-woman, who, perched on a stool within the door, sat eyeing her prisoner with something of pity and more of ill-humour. The little Countess, indeed, was a pitiful sight. She lay, half-crouching, half-huddled together, in the recess of the farther window, on the seat of which she hid her face in the abandonment of despair. Her loosened hair flowed dishevelled upon her neck and shoulders; and from minute to minute a dry, painful sob--for she was not weeping--shook the poor child from head to foot.
The Abbess, after one keen glance, which took in every particular, from the waiting-woman's expression to the attitude of the captive, nodded to the attendant. Then for a moment she did not speak. At last, "She takes it ill?" she muttered under her breath.
The other slightly shrugged her shoulders. "She has been like that since he left her," she whispered. Whether the words and the movement expressed more pity, or more contempt, or more envy, it was hard to determine; for all seemed to meet in them. "She could not take it worse."
"I am here to mend that," the Abbess rejoined. And she moved a short way into the room. But there she came to a stand. Her eyes had fallen on a pile of laces and dainty fabrics arranged upon one of the seats of the nearer window. Her face underwent a sudden change; she seemed about to speak, but the words stuck in her throat. At last "Those are for her?" she said.
"Ay, but God knows how I am to get them on," the girl answered in a low tone. "She is such a baby! But there it is! Whatever she is now, she'll be mistress to-morrow, and I--I am loath to use force."
"I will contrive it," the Abbess replied, a light in her averted eyes. "Do you leave us. Come back in a quarter of an hour, and if I have succeeded take no notice. Take no heed, do you hear," she continued, turning to the girl, "if you find her dressed. Say nothing to her, but let her be until she is sent for."
"I am only too glad to let her be."
"That is enough," the Abbess rejoined sternly. "You can go now. Already the time is short for what I have to do."
"You will find it too short, my lady, unless I am mistaken," the waiting-woman answered under her breath. But she went. She was glad to escape; glad to get rid of the difficulty. And she went without suspicion. How the other came to be there, or how her interest lay in arraying this child for a marriage with her lover--these were questions which the girl proposed to put to her gossips at a proper opportunity; for they were puzzling questions. But that the Abbess was there without leave--the Abbess who not a month before had been frequently in Vlaye's company, hawking and hunting, and even supping--to the scandal of the convent, albeit no strait-laced one nor unwont to make allowance for its noble mistresses--that the Abbess was there without the knowledge of her master she never suspected. It never for an instant entered the woman's mind.
Meanwhile Odette, the moment the door closed on the other, took action. Before the latch ceased to rattle her hand was on the Countess's shoulder, her voice was in her ear. "Up, girl, if you wish to be saved!" she hissed. "Up, and not a word!"
The Countess sprang up--startled simultaneously by hand and voice. But once on her feet she recoiled. She stood breathing hard, her hands raised to ward the other off. "You?" she cried. "You here?" And shaking her head as if she thought she dreamed, she retreated another step. Her distrust of the Abbess was apparent in every line of her figure.
"Yes, it is I," Odette answered roughly. "It is I."
"But why? Why are you here? Why you?"
"To save you, girl," the Abbess answered. "To save you--do you hear? But every moment is of value. Hold your tongue, ask no questions, do as I tell you, and all may be well. Hesitate, and it will be too late. See, the sun still shines on the head of that tall tree! Before it leaves that tree you must be away from here. Is it true that he weds you to-night?"
The other uttered a cry of despair. "And for naught!" she said. "Do you understand, for naught! He has not let him go! He lied to us! He has not released him! He holds me, but he will not release him."
"And he will not!" the Abbess replied, with something like a jeer. "So, if you would not give all for naught, listen to me! Put some wrapping about your shoulders, and a kerchief on your head to heighten you, and over these my robes and hood. And be speedy! On your feet these"--with a rapid movement she drew from some hiding-place in her garments a pair of thick-soled shoes. "Hold yourself up, be bold, and you may pass out in my place."
"In your place?" the girl stammered, staring in astonishment.
The Abbess had scant patience with her rival's obtuseness. "That is what I said," she replied, with a look that was not pleasant in her eyes.
The Countess saw the look, and, fearful and doubting, hung back. She could not yet grasp the position. "But you!" she murmured. "What of you?"
"What is that to you?"
"Fear nothing for me!" the Abbess cried vehemently. "Think only of yourself! Think only of your own safety. I"--with scorn--"am no weak thing to suffer and make no cry. I can take care of myself. But, there"--impatiently--"we have lost five minutes! Are you going to do this or not? Are you going to stay here, or are you going to escape?"
"Oh, escape! Escape, if it be possible!" the Countess answered, shuddering. "Anywhere, from him!"
"You are certain?"
"Oh, yes, yes! But it is not possible! He is too clever."
"We will see if that be so," the Abbess answered, smiling grimly. And taking the matter into her own hands, she began to strip off her robe and hood.
That decided the girl. Gladly would she have learned how the other came to be there, and why and to what she trusted. Gladly would she have asked other things. But the prospect of escape--of escape from a fate which she dreaded the more the nearer she saw it--took reality in view of the Abbess's actions. And she, too, began. Escape? Was it possible? Was it possible to escape? With shaking fingers she snatched up a short cloak, and wrapped it about her shoulders and figure, tying it this way and that. She made in the same way a turban of a kerchief, and stood ready to clothe herself. By this time the Abbess's outer garments lay on the floor, and in three or four minutes the travesty, as far as the younger woman was concerned, was effected.
Meantime, while they both wrought, and especially while the Countess, stooping, stuffed the large shoes and fitted them and buckled them on, the Abbess never ceased explaining the remainder of the plan.
"Go down the stairs," she said, "and if you have to speak mutter but a word. Outside the door, turn to the right until you come to the gate in the iron railing. Pass through it, cross the court, and go out through the great gate, speaking to no one. Then follow the road, which makes a loop to the left and passes under itself. Descend by it to the market-place, and then to the right until you see the town gate fifty paces before you. At that point take the lane on the left, and a score of yards will show you the horses waiting for you, and with them a friend. You understand? Then I will repeat it."
And she did so from point to point in such a way and so clearly that the other, distracted as she was, could not but learn the lesson.
"And now," the Abbess said, when all was told, "give me something to put on." Her beautiful arms and shoulders were bare. "Something--anything," she continued, looking about her impatiently. "Only be quick! Be quick, girl!"
"There is only this," the Countess answered, producing her heavy riding-cloak. "Unless"--doubtfully--"you will put on those." She indicated the little pile of wedding-clothes, of dainty silk and lace and lawn, that lay upon the window-seat.
"Those!" the Abbess exclaimed. And she looked at the pile as at a snake. "No, not those! Not those! Why do you want me to put on those? Why should I?" with a suspicious look at the other's face.
"If you will not----"
"Will not?"--violently. "No, I will not. And why do you ask me? But I prate as badly as you, and we lose time. Are you ready now? Let me look at you." And feverishly, while she kicked off her own shoes and donned the riding-cloak and drew its hood over her head, she turned the Countess about to assure herself that the disguise was tolerable--in a bad light.
Then, "You will do," she said roughly, and she pushed the girl from her. "Go now. You know what you have to do."
"But you?" the little Countess ventured. Words of gratitude were trembling on her lips; there were tears in her eyes. "You--what will you do?"
"You need not trouble about me," the Abbess retorted. "Play your part well; that is all I ask."
"At least," the Countess faltered, "let me thank you." She would have flung her arms round the other's neck.
But the Abbess backed from her. "Go, silly fool!" she cried savagely, "unless, after all, you repent and want to keep him."
The insult gave the needed fillip to the other's courage. She turned on her heel, opened the door with a firm hand, and, closing it behind her, descended the stairs. The waiting-maid and the grim-faced woman were talking in the passage, but they ceased their gossip on her appearance, and turned their eyes on her. Fortunately the place was ill-lit and full of shadows, and the Countess had the presence of mind to go steadily down to them without word or sign.
"I hope mademoiselle has succeeded," the waiting-woman murmured respectfully. "It is not a business I favour, I am sure."
The Countess shrugged her shoulders--despair giving her courage--and the grim-faced woman moved to the door, unlocked it, and held it wide. The escaping one acknowledged the act by a slight nod, and, passing out, she turned to the right. She walked, giddily and uncertainly, to the open gate in the railing, and then, with some difficulty--for the shoes were too large for her--she descended the two steps to the court. She began to cross the open, and a man here and there, raising his head from his occupation, turned to watch her.
The Countess knew that her knees were shaking under her. The gaze, too, of the men who watched was dreadful to her. She felt her feet slipping from the shoes; she felt the kerchief, that, twined in her hair, gave her height, shift with the movement; she felt her limbs yielding. And she despaired. She was certain that she could not pass; she must faint, she must fall. Then the scornful words of the woman she had left recurred to her, stung her, whipped her courage once more; and, before she was aware of it, she had reached the gateway. She was conscious of a crowd of men about her, of all eyes fixed on her, of a jeering voice that hummed:
J'ai perdu mon gallant!"
J'ai perdu mon gallant!"
and--and then she was beyond the gate! The cool air blowing in the gorge between the two breasts fanned her burning cheeks--never breeze more blessed!--and with hope, courage, confidence all in a moment revived and active, she began to descend the winding road that led to the town.
There were men lounging on the road, singly or in groups, who stared at her as she passed; some with thinly-veiled insolence, others in pure curiosity. But they did not dare to address her; though they thought, looking after her, that she bore herself oddly. And she came unmolested to the spot where the road passed under the drawbridge. Here for an instant sick fear shook her anew. Some of the men in the gateway had come out to watch her pass below; she thought that they came to call her back. But save for a muttered jeer and the voice of the jester repeating slyly:
A perdu son gallant!"
A perdu son gallant!"
no one spoke; and as pace by pace her feet carried her from them, carried her farther and farther, her courage returned, she breathed again. She came at the foot of the descent, to the carved stone fountain and the sloping market-place. She took, as ordered, the road that fell away to the right, and in a twinkling she was hidden by the turn from the purview of the castle.
She ventured then--the town seemed to stifle her--to move more quickly; as quickly as her clumsy shoes would let her move on stones sloping and greasy. Here and there a person, struck by something in her walk, turned to take a second glance at her; or a woman in a low doorway bent curious eyes on her as she came and went. She could not tell whether she bred suspicion in them or not, or whether she seemed the same woman--but a trifle downcast--who had passed that way before. For she dared not look back nor return their gaze. Her heart beat quickly, and more quickly as the end drew near. Success that seemed within her grasp impelled her at last almost to a run. And then--she was round the corner in the side lane that had been indicated to her, and she saw before her the horses and the men gathered before the chapel gate. And Roger--yes, Roger himself, with a face that worked strangely and words that joy stifled in his throat, was leading her to a horse and lending his knee to mount her. And they were turning, and moving back again into the street.
"There is only the gate now," he muttered, "only the gate! Courage, mademoiselle! Be steady!"
And the gate proved no hindrance. Though not one moment of all she had passed was more poignant, more full of choking fear, than that which saw them move slowly through, under the gaze of the men on guard, who seemed for just one second to be rising to question them. Then--the open country! The open country with its air, its cool breezes, its spacious evening light and its promise of safety. And quick on this followed the delicious moment when they began to trot, slowly at first and carelessly, that suspicion might not be awakened; and then more swiftly, and more swiftly, urging the horses with sly kicks and disguised spurrings until the first wood that hid them saw them pounding forward at a gallop, with the Countess's robe flapping in the wind, her kerchief fallen, her hair loosened. Two miles, three miles flew by them; they topped the wooded hill that looked down on Villeneuve. Then, midway in the descent on the farther side, they left the path at a word from Roger, plunged into the scrub and rode at risk--for it was dark--along a deer-trail with which he was familiar. This brought them presently, by many windings and through thick brush, to a spot where the brook was fordable. Thence, in silence, they plodded and waded and jogged along damp woodland ways and through watery lanes that attended the brook to its junction with the river.
Here, at length, in the lowest bottom of the Villeneuve valley, they halted. For the time they deemed themselves safe; since night had fallen and hidden their tracks, and Vlaye, if he followed, would take the ordinary road. It had grown so dark indeed, that until the moon rose farther retreat was impossible; and though the river beside which they stood was fordable at the cost of a wetting, Roger thought it better to put off the attempt. One of the servants, the man at the Countess's bridle, would have had him try now, and rest in the increased security of the farther bank. But Roger demurred, for a reason which he did not explain; and the party dismounted where they were, in a darkness which scarcely permitted the hand to be seen before the face.
"The moon will be up in three hours," Roger said. "If we cannot flee they cannot pursue. Mademoiselle," he continued, in a voice into which he strove to throw a certain aloofness, "if you will give me your hand," he felt for it, "there is a dry spot here. I will break down these saplings and put a cloak over them, and you may get some sleep. You will need it, for the moment the moon is up we must ride on."
The snapping of alder boughs announced that he was preparing her resting-place. She felt for the spot, but timidly, and he had to take her hand again and place her in it.
"I fear it is rough," he said, "but it is the best we can do. For food, alas, we have none."
"I want none," she answered. And then hurriedly, "You are not going?"
"Only a few yards."
"Stay, if you please. I am frightened."
"Be sure I will," he answered. "But we are in little danger here."
He made a seat for himself not far from her, and he sat down. And if she was frightened he was happy, though he could not see her. He was in that stage of love when no familiarity has brought the idol too near, no mark of favour has declared her human, no sign of preference has fostered hope. He had done her, he was doing her a service; and all his life it would be his to recall her as he had seen her during their flight--battered, blown about, with streaming hair and draggled clothes, the branches whipping colour into her cheeks, her small brown hand struggling with her tangled locks. In such a stage of love to be near is enough, and Roger asked no more. He forgot his sister's position, he forgot des Ageaux' danger. Listening in the warm summer night to the croaking of the frogs, he gazed unrebuked into the darkness that held her, and he was content.
Not that he had hope of her, or even in fancy thought of her as his. But this moment was his, and while he lived he would possess the recollection of it. All his life he would think of her, as the monk in the cloister bears with him the image of her he loved in the world; or as the maid remembers blamelessly the lover who died between betrothal and wedding, and before one wry word or one divided thought had risen to dim the fair mirror of her future.
Alas, of all the dainty things in the world, too delicate in their nature to be twice tasted, none is more evanescent than this first worship; this reverence of the lover for her who seems rather angel than woman, framed of a clay too heavenly for the coarse touch of passion.
Once before, in the hay-field, he had tried to save her, and he had failed. This time--oh, he was happy when he thought of it--he would save her. And he fell into a dream of a life--impossible in those days, however it might have been in the times of Amadis of Gaul, or Palmerin of England--devoted secretly to her service and her happiness; a beautiful, melancholy dream of unrequited devotion, attuned to the solemnity of the woodland night with its vast spaces, its mysterious rustlings and gurgling waters. Those who knew Roger best, and best appreciated his loyal nature, would have deemed him sleepless for the Lieutenant's sake--whose life hung in the balance; or tormented by thoughts of the Abbess's position. But love is of all things the most selfish; and though Roger ground his teeth once and again as Vlaye's breach of faith occurred to him, his thoughts were quickly plunged anew in a sweet reverie, in which she had part. The wind blew from her to him, and he fancied that some faint scent from her loosened hair, some perfume of her clothing came to him.
It was her voice that at last and abruptly dragged him from his dream. "Are you not ashamed of me?" she whispered.
"Ashamed?" he cried, leaping in his seat.
"Once--twice, I have failed," she went on, her voice trembling a little. "Always some one must take my place. Bonne first, and now your other sister! I am a coward, Monsieur Roger. A coward!"
"No!" he said firmly. "No!"
"Yes, a coward. But you do not know," she continued in the tone of one who pleaded, "how lonely I have been, and what I have suffered. I have been tossed from hand to hand all my life, and mocked with great names and great titles, and been with them all a puppet, a thing my family valued because they could barter it away when the price was good--just as they could a farm or a manor! I give orders, and sometimes they are carried out, and sometimes not--as it suits," bitterly. "I am shown on high days as Madonnas are shown, carried shoulder high through the streets. And I am as far from everybody, as lonely, as friendless," her voice broke a little, "as they! What wonder if I am a coward?"
"You are tired," Roger answered, striving to control his voice, striving also to control a mad desire to throw himself at her feet and comfort her. "You will feel differently to-morrow. You have had no food, mademoiselle."
"You too?" in a voice of reproach.
He did not understand her, and though he trembled he was silent.
"You too treat me as a child," she continued. "You talk as if food made up for friends and no one was lonely save when alone! Think what it must be to be always alone, in a crowd! Bargained for by one, snatched at by another, fawned on by a third, a prize for the boldest! And not one--not one thinking of me!" pathetically. And then, as he rose, "What is it?"
"I think I hear some one moving," Roger faltered. "I will tell the men!" And without waiting for her answer, he stumbled away. For, in truth, he could listen no longer. If he listened longer, if he stayed, he must speak! And she was a child, she did not know. She did not know that she was tempting him, trying him, putting him to a test beyond his strength. He stumbled away into the darkness, and steering for the place where the horses were tethered he called the men by name.
One answered sleepily that all was well. The other, who was resting, snored. Roger, his face on fire, hesitated, not knowing what to do. To bid the man who watched come nearer and keep the lady company would be absurd, would be out of reason; and so it would be to bid him stand guard over them while they talked. The man would think him mad. The only alternative, if he would remove himself from temptation, was to remain at a distance from her. And this he must do.
He found, therefore, a seat a score of paces away, and he sat down, his head between his hands. But his heart cried--cried pitifully that he was losing moments that would never recur--moments on which he would look back all his life with regret. And besides his heart, other things spoke to him; the warm stillness of the summer night, the low murmur of the water at his feet, the whispering breeze, the wood-nymphs--ay, and the old song that recurred to his memory and mocked him--
"Je ris de moi, je ris de toi,
Je ris de ta sottise!"
Je ris de ta sottise!"
Here, indeed, was his opportunity, here was such a chance as few men had, and no man would let slip. But he was not as other men--there it was. He was crook-backed, poor, unknown! And so thinking, so telling himself, he fixed himself in his resolve, he strove to harden his heart, he covered his ears with his hands. For she was a child, a child! She did not understand!
He would have played the hero perfectly but for one fatal thought that presently came to him--a thought fatal to his rectitude. She would take fright! Left alone, ignorant of the feeling that drove him from her--what if she moved from the place where he had left her, and lost herself in the wood, or fell into the river, or--and just then she called him.
"Monsieur Roger! Where are you?"
He went back to her slowly, almost sullenly; partly in surrender to his own impulse, partly in response to her call. But he did not again sit down beside her. "Yes," he said. "You are quite safe, mademoiselle. I shall not be out of earshot. You are quite safe."
"Why did you go away?"
"Away?" he faltered.
"Are you afraid of me?" gently.
"Afraid of you?" He tried to speak gaily.
"Pray," she said in a queer, stiff tone, "do not repeat all my words. I asked if you were afraid of me, Monsieur Roger?"
"No," he faltered, "but--but I thought that you would rather be alone."
"I?" in a tone that went to poor Roger's heart. "I, who have told you that I am always alone? Who have told you that I have not"--her voice shook--"a friend--one real friend in the world!"
"You are tired now," Roger faltered, finding no other words than those he had used before.
"Not one real friend!" she repeated piteously. "Not one!"
He was not proof against that. He bent towards her in the darkness--almost in spite of himself. "Yes, one," he said, in a voice as unsteady as hers. "One you have, mademoiselle, who would die for you and ask not a look in return! Who would set, and will ever set, your honour and your happiness above the prizes of the world! Who asks only to serve you at a distance, by day and dark, now and always! If it be a comfort for you to know that you have a friend, know it! Know----"
"I do not know," she struck in, in a voice both incredulous and ironical, "where I am to find such an one save in books! In the Seven Champions or in Amadis of Gaul--perhaps. But in the world--where?"
He was silent. He had said too much already. Too much, too much!
"Where?" she repeated.
Still he did not answer.
Then, "Do you mean yourself, Monsieur Roger?"
She spoke with a certain keenness of tone that was near to, ay, that threatened offence.
He stood, his hands hanging by his side. "Yes," he faltered. "But no one knows better than myself that I cannot help you, mademoiselle. That I can be no honour to you. For the Countess of Rochechouart to have a crook-backed knight at the tail of her train--it may make some laugh. It may make women laugh. Yet----" he paused on the word.
"Yet what, sir?"
"While he rides there," poor Roger whispered, "no man shall laugh."
She was silent quite a long time, as if she had not heard him. Then,
"Do you not know," she said, "that the Countess of Rochechouart can have but one friend--her husband?"
He winced. She was right; but if that was her feeling, why had she complained of the lack of friends?
"Only one friend, her husband," the Countess continued softly. "If you would be that friend--but perhaps you would not, Roger? Still, if you would, I say, you must be kind to her ever and gentle to her. You must not leave her alone in woods on dark nights. You must not slight her. You must not,"--she was half laughing, half crying, and hanging towards him in the darkness, her childish hands held out in a gesture of appeal, irresistible had he seen it--but it was dark, or she had not dared--"you must not make anything too hard for her!"
He stepped one pace from her, shaking.
"I dare not! I dare not!" he said.
"Not if I dare?" she retorted gently. "Not if I dare, who am a coward? Are you a coward, too, that when you have said so much and I have said so much you will still leave me alone and unprotected, and--and friendless? Or is it that you do not love me?"
"Not love you?" Roger cried, in a tone that betrayed more than a volume of words had told. And beaten out of his last defence by that shrewd dilemma, he threw his pride to the winds; he sank down beside her, and seized her hands and carried them to his lips--lips that were hot with the fever of sudden passion. "Not love you, mademoiselle? Not love you?"
"So eloquent!" she murmured, with a last flicker of irony. "He does not even now say that he loves me. It is still his friendship, I suppose, that he offers me."
"Or is it that you think me a nun because I wear this dress?"
He convinced her by means more eloquent than all the words lovers' lips have framed that he did not so think her; that she was the heart of his heart, the desire of his desire. Not that she needed to be convinced. For when the delirium of his joy began to subside he ventured to put a certain question to her--that question which happy lovers never fail to put.
"Do you think women are blind?" she answered. "Did you think I did not see your big eyes following me in and out and up and down? That I did not see your blush when I spoke to you and your black brow when I walked with M. des Ageaux? Dear Roger, women are not so blind! I was not so blind that I did not know as much before you spoke as I know now."
And in the dark of the wood they talked, while the water glinted slowly by them and the frogs croaked among the waving weeds, and in the stillness under the trees the warmth of the summer night and of love wrapped them round. It was an hour between danger and danger, made more precious by uncertainty. For the moment the world held for each of them but one other person. The Lieutenant's peril, Bonne's suspense, the Abbess--all were forgotten until the moon rose above the trees and flung a chequered light on the dark moss and hart's-tongue and harebells about the lovers' feet. And with a shock of self-reproach the two rose to their feet.
They gave to inaction not a moment after that. With difficulty and some danger the river was forded by the pale light, and they resumed their journey by devious ways until, mounting from the lower ground that fringed the water, they gained the flank of the hills. Thence, crossing one shoulder after another by paths known to Roger, they reached the hill at the rear of the Old Crocans' town. In passing by this and traversing the immediate neighbourhood of the peasants' camp lay their greatest danger. But the dawn was now at hand, the moon was fading; and in the cold, grey interval between dawn and daylight they slipped by within sight of the squalid walls, and with the fear of surprise on them approached the gate of the camp. Nor, though all went well with them, did they breathe freely until the challenge of the guard at the gate rang in their ears.
After that there came with safety the sense of their selfishness. They thought of poor Bonne, who, somewhere in the mist-wrapped basin before them, lay waiting and listening and praying. How were they to face her? with what heart tell her that her lover, that des Ageaux, still lay in his enemy's power. True, Vlaye had gone back on his word, and, in face of the Countess's surrender, had refused to release him; so that they were not to blame. But would Bonne believe this? Would she not rather set down the failure to the Countess's faint heart, to the Countess's withdrawal?
"I should not have come!" the girl cried, turning to Roger in great distress. "I should not have come!" Her new happiness fell from her like a garment, and, shivering, she hung back in the entrance and wrung her hands. "I dare not face her!" she said. "I dare not, indeed!" And, "Wait!" to the men who wished to hurry off and proclaim their return. "Wait!" she said imperatively.
The grey fog of the early morning, which had sheltered their approach and still veiled the lower parts of the camp, seemed to add to the hopelessness of the news they bore. Roger himself was silent, looking at the waiting men, and wondering what must be done. Poor Bonne! He had scarcely thought of her--yet what must she be feeling? What had he himself felt a few hours before?
"Some one must tell her," he said presently. "If you will not----"
"I will! I will!" she answered, her lip beginning to tremble.
Roger hesitated. "Perhaps she is sleeping," he said; "and then it were a pity to rouse her."
But the Countess shook her head in scorn of his ignorance. Bonne would not be sleeping. Sleeping, when her lover had not returned! Sleeping, at this hour of all hours, the hour M. de Vlaye had fixed for--for the end! Sleeping, when at any moment news, the best or the worst, might come!
And Bonne was not sleeping. The words had scarcely passed Roger's lips when she appeared, gliding out of the mist towards them, the Bat's lank form at her elbow. Their appearance in company was, in truth, no work of chance. Six or seven times already, braving the dark camp and its possible dangers, she had gone to the entrance to inquire; and on each occasion--so strong is a common affection--the Bat had appeared as it were from the ground, and gone silently with her, learned in silence that there was no news, and seen her in silence to her quarters again. The previous afternoon she had got some rest. She had lain some hours in the deep sleep of exhaustion; and longer in a heavy doze, conscious of the dead weight of anxiety, yet resting in body.
Save for this she had not had strength both to bear and watch. As it was, deep shadows under her eyes told of the strain she was enduring; and her face, though it had not lost its girlish contours, was white and woeful. When she saw them standing together in the entrance a glance told her that they bore ill news. Yet, to Roger's great astonishment, she was quite calm.
"He has not released him?" she said, a flicker of pain distorting her face.
The Countess clasped her hand in both her own, and with tears running down her face shook her head.
"He is not dead?"
And they told her. "When I said 'You will release him?'" the Countess explained, speaking with difficulty, "he--he--laughed. 'I did not promise to release him,' he answered. 'I said if you did not accept my hospitality, I should hang him!' That was all."
"And now?" Bonne murmured. A pang once more flickered in her eyes. "What of him now?"
"I think," Roger said, "there is a hope. I do indeed."
Bonne stood a moment silent. Then, in a voice so steady that it surprised even the Bat, who had experience of her courage, "There is a hope," she said, "if it be not too late. M. de Joyeuse, whose father's life he would have saved--I will go to him! I will kneel to him! He must save him. There must still be ways of saving him, and the Duke's power is great." She turned to the Bat. "Take me to him," she said.
He stooped his rugged beard to her hand, and kissed it with reverence. Then, while the others stood astonished at her firmness, he passed with her into the mist in the direction of the Duke's hut.
The Abbess left alone in the garden-chamber listened intently; looking now on the door which had closed on her rival, now on the windows, whence it was just possible that she might catch the flutter of the girl's flying skirts. But she did not move to the windows, nor make any attempt to look down. She knew that her ears were her best sentinels; and motionless, scarcely breathing, in the middle of the floor, she strained them to the utmost to catch the first sounds of discovery and alarm.
None reached her, and after the lapse of a minute she breathed more freely. On the other hand, the waiting-maid--glad to prolong her freedom--did not return. The Abbess, still listening, still intent, fell to considering, without moving from the spot, other things. The light was beginning to wane in the room--the room she remembered so well--the corners were growing shadowy. All things promised to favour and prolong her disguise. Between the inset windows lay a block of deep gloom; she had only to fling herself down in that place and hide her face on her arms, as the Countess, in her abandonment, had hidden hers, and the woman would discover nothing when she entered--nothing until she took courage to disturb the bride--and would dress her.
The bride? Even in the last minute the room had grown darker--dark and vague as her sombre thoughts. But it happened that amid its shadows one object still gleamed white--a tiny oasis of brightness in a desert of gloom. The pile of dainty bride-clothes, lawn and lace, that lay on the window-seat caught and gave back what light there was. It seemed to concentrate on itself all that remained of the day. Presently she could not take her eyes from the things. They had at first repelled her. Now, and more powerfully, they fascinated her. She dreamed, with her gaze fixed on them; and slowly the colour mounted to her brow, her face softened, her breast heaved. She took a step towards the bride-clothes and the window, paused, hesitated; and, flushed and frowning, looked at the door.
But no one moved outside, no footstep threatened entrance; and her eyes returned to the lace and lawn, emblems of a thing that from Eve's day to ours has stirred women's hearts. She was not over-superstitious. But it could not be for nothing, a voice whispered her it could not be for nothing that the things lay there and, while night swallowed all besides, still shone resplendent in the gloaming. Were they not only an emblem, but a token? A sign to her, a finger pointing through the vagueness of her future to the clear path of safety?
The Abbess had thought of that path, that way out of her difficulties, not once only, nor twice. It had lain too open, too plain to be missed. But she had marked it only to shrink from it as too dangerous, too bold even for her. Were she to take it she must come into fatal collision, into irremediable relations with the man whom she loved; but whom others feared, and of whom his little world stood in an awe so dire and so significant.
Yet still the things beckoned her; and omens in those days went for more than in these. Things still done in sport or out of a sentimental affection for the past--on All-hallows' E'en or at the new moon--were then done seriously, their lessons taken to heart, their dictates followed. The Abbess felt her heart beat high. She trembled and shook on the verge of a great resolve.
Had she time? The cloak slipped a little lower, discovering her bare shoulders. She looked at the door and listened, looked again at the pale bride-clothes. The stillness encouraged her, urged her. And, for the rest, had she not boasted a few minutes before that, whoever feared him, she did not; that, whoever drifted helpless on the tide of fate, she could direct her life, she could be strong?
She had the chance now if she dared to take it! If she dared? Already she had thwarted him in a thing dear to him. She had released his prisoner, conveyed away his bride, wrecked his plans. Dared she thwart him in this last, this greatest thing? Dared she engage herself and him in a bond from which no power could free them, a bond that, the deed done, must subject her to his will and pleasure--and his wrath--till death?
She did fear him, she owned it. And she had not dared the venture had she not loved him more. But love kicked the beam. Love won--as love ever wins in such contests. Swiftly her mind reviewed the position: so much loss, so much gain. If he would stand worse here he would stand better there. And then she did not come empty-handed. Fain would she have come to him openly and proudly, with her dower in her hands, as she had dreamed that she would come. But that was not possible. Or, if it were possible, the prospect was distant, the time remote; while, this way, love, warm, palpitating, present love, held out arms to her.
The end was certain. For all things, the time, the gathering darkness, her gaoler's absence, seconded the temptation. Had she resisted longer she had been more than woman. As it was, she had time for all she must do. When the waiting-maid returned, and glanced around the darkened room, she was not surprised to find her crouching on the floor in the posture in which she had left her, with head bowed on the window-seat. But she was surprised to see that she had donned the bride-clothes set for her. True, the shimmer of white that veiled the head and shoulders agreed ill with the despondency of the figure; but that was to be expected. And at least--the woman recognised with relief--there would be no need of force, no scene of violence, no cries to Heaven. She uttered a word of thanksgiving for that; and then, thinking that light would complete the improvement and put a more cheerful face on the matter, she asked if she should fetch candles.
"For I think the priest is below, my lady," she continued doubtfully; she had no mind to quarrel with her future mistress if it could be avoided. "And my lord may be looked for at any moment."
The crouching figure stirred a foot fretfully, but did not answer.
"If I might fetch them----"
"But, if it please you, it is nearly dark. And----"
"Am I not shamed enough already?" The bride as she spoke--in a tone half ruffled, half hysterical--raised her arms with a passionate gesture. "If I must be married against my will, I will be married thus! Thus! And without more light to shame me!"
"Still it grows--so dark, my lady!" the maid ventured again, though timidly.
"I tell you I will have it dark! And"--with another movement as of a trapped animal--"if they must come, bid them come!" Then, in a choking voice, "God help me!" she murmured, as she let her head fall again on her arms.
The woman wondered, but felt no suspicion; there was something of reason in the demand. She went and told the elder woman who waited below. She left the room door ajar, and the Abbess, raising her pale, frowning face from the window-seat, could hear the priest's voice mingling in the whispered talk. Light steps passed hurriedly away through the garden, and after an interval came again; and by-and-by she heard more steps, and voices under the window--and a smothered laugh, and then a heavier, firmer tread, and--his voice--his! She pictured them making way for the master to pass through and enter.
She had need of courage now, need of the half-breathed prayer; for there is no cause so bad men will not pray in it. Need of self-control, too, lest she give way and fall in terror at his feet. Yet less need of this last; for fear was in her part, and natural to the right playing of it. So that it was not weakness or modest tremors or prostration would betray her.
She clutched this thought to her, and had it for comfort. And when the door opened to its full width, and they appeared on the threshold and entered, the priest first, the lord of Vlaye's tall presence next, and after these three or four witnesses, with the two women behind all, those less concerned found nothing to marvel at in the sight; nor in the dim crouching figure, lonely in the dark room, that rose unsteadily and stood cowering against the wall, shrinking as if in fear of a blow. It was what they had looked to see, what they had expected; and they eyed it, one coveting, another in pity, seeing by the half-light which was reflected from the pale evening sky little more than is here set down. For the priest, appearances might have been trebly suspicious, and he had suspected nothing; for he was terribly afraid himself. And M. de Vlaye, ignorant of the Abbess's visit and exulting in the success of his plan, a success won in the teeth of his enemy, had no grounds for suspicion. Even the marriage in the gloaming seemed only natural; for modesty in a woman seems natural to a man. He was more than content if the little fool would raise no disturbance, voice no cries, but let herself be married without the need of open force.
With something of kindness in his tone, "The Countess prefers it thus, does she?" he said, raising his head, as he took in the scene. "Then thus let it be! Her will is mine, and shall be mine. Still it is dark! You do, in fact, Countess," he continued smoothly, "prefer it so? I gathered your meaning rightly--from those you sent?"
With averted face she made a shamed gesture with her hand.
"You do not----"
"If it must be--let it be so!" she whispered. "And now!" And suddenly she covered her face--they could picture it working pitifully--with her hands.
M. de Vlaye turned to his witnesses. "You hear all present," he said, "that it is with the Countess of Rochechouart's consent that I wed her. For me it is my part now and will be my part always to do her pleasure." Then turning his face again to the shrinking figure, that uttered no protest or word of complaint, "Father, you hear?" he continued, a note of triumph in his voice. "Do your office on us I pray, and quickly." And he advanced a step towards his bride.
The Romish sacrament of marriage is short, and reduced to its essentials is of the simplest. Father Benet had his orders, and thankful to be so cheaply quit of his task--for she might have appealed to him, might have shrieked and struggled, might have made of his work a public crime--he hastened to bind the two together. For one second, at the most critical part of the rite--if that could be said to have parts which was done within the minute--the bride hung, wavered, hesitated--seemed about to protest or faint. The next, as by a supreme effort, she tottered a step nearer to the bridegroom, and placed her hand, burning with fever, in his. In a few seconds the words that made them man and wife, the irrevocable "Conjungo vos," were spoken.
Then followed a single moment of awkwardness. The Captain of Vlaye's heart was high and uplifted. All had gone well, all had gone better than his hopes. Yet he was prudent as he was bold. He would fain have raised her veil before them all and kissed her, and proved beyond cavil her willingness. But he doubted the wisdom of the act. He reflected that women were strange beings and capricious. She might be foolish enough to shriek--more, to faint, to resist, to speak; she might realise, now that it was too late, the thing which she had done. And a dozen curious eyes were on them, were watching them, were judging them. He contented himself with bowing over her hand.
"Would you be alone, madame?" he said gently. "If so, say so, sweet. And you shall be alone, while you please."
The answer, low and half-stifled as it was, astonished him. "With you," she murmured, with face half-averted. And as the others, smiling and with raised eyebrows, looked at one another, and then at a glance from him turned to withdraw, "And a light," she added, in the same subdued tone, "if you please."
"Bring a light," he said to the waiting-woman. "And, mark you, see that when your lady wants supper it be ready for her."
She had still, before they withdrew, a surprise for him. "I would have a draught of wine--now," she murmured.
He passed the order to them with a gay air, thinking the while of the queer nature of women. And he stood waiting by the door until the order was carried out. The footsteps of the witnesses and their laughter rose from the garden below as the maid brought in lights and wine and set them on the table beside him. "You can go," he said; and after a fleeting glance, half of envy, half of wonder at her new mistress--who had sunk into a sitting posture on the window-seat--the woman went out.
"May I serve you?" he murmured gallantly. And he poured for her.
With her face turned from him she lifted the gauzy veil with one hand and with the other--it trembled violently--she raised the wine to her lips. Still with her shoulder to him--but he set this down to modesty--she gave him back the empty cup, and he went and set it down on the table beside the door. When he turned again to her she had raised her veil and risen to her feet, and stood facing him with shining eyes.
"By Heaven!" he cried. And he recoiled a pace, his swarthy face gone sallow. Was he mad? Was he dreaming? The priest had been silent on the Abbess's visit. He believed her leagues distant. He had no reason to think otherwise. And he had not been more astonished if the one woman had turned into the other before his eyes. "By Heaven!" he repeated. For the moment sheer astonishment, the stupor of bewilderment, held him dumb.
She did not speak, but neither did she quail. She stood confronting him, erect and stately, her beauty never more remarkable than now, her breast heaving slightly under the lace.
"Am I mad?" he muttered again. And he closed his eyes and opened them. "Or dreaming?"
"Neither!" she replied.
"Then who in God's name are you?" he retorted, in something approaching his natural voice; though the awe of the unnatural still held his mind.
"Your wife," she answered.
"My wife!" With the words the full shock of that which had happened struck him.
"Your wife," she rejoined unblenching, though her heart beat wildly, furiously, in her bosom, and she feared, ah, how she feared! "Your wife! And which of us two"--she continued proudly--"has a better right to be your wife? I,"--and with the word she flung the lace superbly from her head and shoulders, and stood before him in the full splendour of her beauty--"or that child? That puny weakling? That doll? I," with increasing firmness--he had not struck her yet!--"who have your vows, sir, your promises, your sacred oath--and all my due, as God knows and you know--or that puppet? I, who dare, and for your sake have dared--you know it only too well!--or that craven, puling and weeping and waiting for the first chance to flee you or betray you? What I have done for you"--and proudly she held out her hands to him--"you know, sir. What she would have done you know not."
"I know that you have ruined me," he said, looking darkly at her.
"And in return for--what?" she answered, with a look as dark.
His nostrils quivered, a pulse beat hard in his cheek. Only the sheer boldness of that which she had done, only the appeal of the lioness in her to the lion in him--and her beauty--held his hand; held his hand from striking her down, woman though she was, at his feet. Had she faltered, had she turned pale or trembled, had she uttered but one word of supplication, or done aught but defy him, he had flung her brutally to the floor and trampled upon her.
For the Captain of Vlaye was no knight of romance. And no scruple on his part, no helplessness on hers would have restrained his hand. But he loved her after his fashion. He loved her beauty, which had never been more brilliant or alluring; he loved the spirit that proved her fit helpmeet for such as he. And thwarted, tricked, baffled, hanging still on the verge of violence over which the least recoil on her part would push him, he still owned reason in her claim. She was the more worthy--of the two; such beauty, such spirit, such courage would go far. And not many weeks back he had looked no higher, aimed no farther, but had deemed her birth fit dower. But love sits lightly on the ambitious, and driven by a new danger to a new shift, forced to look abroad for aid, he had put her aside at the first temptation--not without a secret thought that she might be still what she had been to him.
Her eyes, her words told a different story, and in his secret heart he gave her credit for her act; and he held his hand. But his looks were dark and bitter and passionate, as he told her again that she had ruined him, and flung it coarsely in her face that she brought herself, and naught besides to the bargain.
"It is but a little since you thought that enough!" she replied, with flashing eyes.
"You are bold to speak to me thus!" he said between his teeth. "What? You that call yourself my wife, to beard me!"
"That am your wife!" she answered, though sick fear rapped at her heart.
"Then for that the greater need to heed what you say!" he replied. "Wives that come empty-handed to husbands that ask them not had best be silent and be patient! Or in a very little time they creep as low as before they went high! You beautiful fool!" he continued, in a tone of mingled rage and admiration, "to do this in haste and forget I could punish at leisure! To do me ill, ay, to ruin me, and forget that henceforth my pleasure must be yours, my will your rule! My wife, say you?" with increasing bitterness. "Ay! And therefore my creature, helpless as the scullion I send to the scourge, or the trooper I hang up by the heels for sleeping! You--you----" and with a movement as fierce as it was sudden he grasped her wrist and twisted her round forcibly so that her eyes at close quarters looked into his. "Do you not yet repent? Do you not begin to see that in tricking the Captain of Vlaye you have made your master?"
She could have screamed with pain, for the bones of her slender wrist seemed to be cracking in his cruel grip--but she knew that in her courage, and in that only, lay her one hope. "I know this," she replied hardily, forcing herself to meet his eyes without flinching, "that you mistake! I do not come empty--or I had not come," with pride. "I bring you that will save you--if you treat me well. But if you hold me so----"
"What will you do?" savagely.
"Release me and I will tell you," she answered. "I shall not fly. And if I say nothing to the purpose, I shall still be in your power."
He yielded, moved in secret by her spirit. "Well," he said, "speak! But let it be to the purpose, madam, that is all."
"Said I not it should be to the purpose?" she answered, her eyes bright. "And I keep my word, if you do not. Tell me, sir, frankly, what had that child, that doll"--bitterly--"to put in the scales against me? Beauty?"
"A skin as white as mine or arms as round?" She held them out to him. "Or brighter eyes? You have looked in mine often enough and sworn you loved me, sworn that you would do me no wrong! You should know them-- and hers!"
"It was none of these."
"Her birth? Nay, but she is no better born than I am! A Rochechouart is what a Villeneuve was. Her rank? No. Then what was it?"
"No one thing," he answered drily. "But five hundred things."
"You are quick-witted. Spears."
"And her manors also, I suppose?" with contempt. "Her lordships here and there! Her farms and castles in Poitou and the Limousin and Beauce and the Dordogne! Her mills in the Bourbonnais and her fishings in Sologne!"
"Not one of these!"
"The spears only, as God sees me!" he answered firmly. "For without these I could enjoy not the smallest of those. Without these, of which you, beautiful fool, have robbed me--robbing me therewith of my last chance--I take no farm nor smallest mill, nor hold one groat of that I have won! Do you think, my girl," he continued grimly, "that I was not pressed when I gave up your lips and your kisses for that child's company? Do you think it was for a whim, a fancy, a light thing that I turned my back on you and your smiles, and at risk sought a puling girl, when I could have had you without risk? Bah! I tell you it was not to gain, but to hold--because he had no other choice and no other way--it was not for love but for life, that the King went to his Mass! And I to mine!"
"All this I thought," she said quietly. She was no longer afraid of him.
"You thought it?"
"I knew it."
"You knew it? You knew, madam," he repeated, his face darkening, "on what a narrow edge I stood, and you dashed away my one holdfast?"
"To replace it by another," she replied, her figure welling with confidence. "I tell you, sir, I come not to you empty-handed, if I come unasked. I bring my dowry."
He eyed her gloomily. "It should be a large one," he muttered, "if it is to take the place of that I have lost."
"It is a large one," she answered. "But," with a change to gentleness, "do me credit. I have not puled nor wept. I have uttered no cry, I have made no complaint. But I have righted myself, doing what not one woman in a hundred would have dared to do! I have wit that has tricked you, and courage that has not quailed before you. And henceforward I claim to be no puppet for your play, no doll for your dull hours! But your equal, my lord, and your mate; deepest in your counsels, the heart of your plans, your other brain, your other soul! Make me this, hold me thus--close to you, and----
"Is that the thing you bring me?" he said, with sarcasm. Yet she had moved him.
"No!" She fell a little from her height, she looked appeal. "My dowry is different. But say first, sir, I shall be this!"
"Bring me the spears," he answered, his eyes gleaming, "and you shall be that and more. Bring me the spears, and----" He made as if he would take her forcibly in his arms.
She recoiled, but her eyes shone. "I am yours," she said, "when you will! Do you not know it? But, for the present, listen. I have a husband, but I have also a lover. A lover of whom"--she continued more slowly, marking with joy how he started at the word--"my lord and master has no need to be jealous. He has not touched of me more than the tips of my fingers; yet if I raise but those fingers he has spears and to spare--five hundred and five hundred to that!--and I have but to play the laggard a little, and dangle a hope, and they dance to my piping."
He understood. A deep flush tinged the brown of his lean face. "You have brought," he said, "the Duke to parley."
"To parley!" She pointed superbly to the floor. "Nay, but to my feet! What will you of him? Spears, his good word, his intercession with the King, a post? Name what you will, and it shall be yours."
He looked at her shrewdly, with a new admiration, a new and stronger esteem. Already she filled the place which she had claimed, already she was to him what she had prayed to be. "You are sure?" he said.
"In a week, had I not loved you, I had had him and his Duchy, and all those spears! And mills and manors and lordships and governments, all had been mine, sir! Mine, had I wished this man; mine, had I been willing to take him! But I"--letting her arms fall by her sides and standing submissive before him--"am more faithful than my master!"
He stood staring at her. "But if this be so," he said at last, his brows coming together, "what of it? How does it help us? You are now my wife?"
"He need not know that yet."
"He need not know it," she continued firmly, "until he has played his part, and wrung your pardon from the King! Or at the least--for that may take time--until he has drawn off his power and left you to face those whom you can easily match!"
"He would have wedded you?" he asked, eyeing her in wonder.
"I am sweet now!" she said, with tender raillery.
"To do this you must go to him?"
"He shall touch of me no more than the tips of my fingers," she answered smiling. "Nor"--and at the word a blush stole upward from her neck to her brow, "need I go on the instant, if your men can be trusted not to talk, my lord."
"He is soon without a tongue," he replied grimly, "who talks too fast here! You should know that of old."
She lowered her eyes, the colour mounting anew to her brow. "Yes," she murmured. "I know that your people can be silent. But the Lieutenant of Périgord is here. You have not"--with a quick, frightened look--"injured him?"
"Have no fear."
"For that were fatal," she continued anxiously. "Fatal! If things go wrong, he may prove our safety."
"Pooh, I know it well," Vlaye replied, with a nod of intelligence. "None better, my girl. But have no fear, he will hear naught of our doings. Not, I suppose"--with a searching look, half humorous, half suspicious--"that he is also a captive of your bow and spear."
"I hate him," she answered.
Her tone, vehement, yet low, struck the corresponding chord in his nature. He took her into his arms with a reckless laugh. "You were right and I was wrong!" he cried, as he fondled her. "You will bring me more than a clump of spears, my beauty! More than that foolish child! God! In a month I had strangled her! But you and I--you and I, sweet, will go far together! And now, to supper! To supper! And the devil take to-morrow and our cares!"
Though it was not des Ageaux' fate to lie in one of those underground dungeons, noisome and dark, which the lords of an earlier century had provided in the foundations of the castle, he was not greatly the better for the immunity. The humiliations of the mind are sometimes sharper than the pains of the body; and the Lieutenant of Périgord, defeated and a prisoner, was little the happier though a dry strong-room looking on a tiny inner court held him, and though he suffered nothing from cold or the slimy companionship of the newt and frog. On the ambitious man defeat sits more heavily than chains; into the nature that would fain be at work inaction gnaws deeper than a shackle-bolt. Never while he lived would des Ageaux forget the long hours which he spent, gazing drearily on the blank wall that faced his window, while his mind measured a hundred times over the depth and the completeness of his fall.
He feared little for his life if he deigned to fear at all. He knew that he was a prize too valuable to be wasted. In the last resort, indeed, when all hopes had failed the Captain of Vlaye, and ruin stared him in the face, he might wreak his vengeance on the King's governor. But short of that moment--and it depended upon many things--the Lieutenant accounted himself safe. Safe as to life, but a beaten man, a prisoner, a failure; a blot, every moment he lay there, on the King's dignity, whose deputy he was; an unfortunate, whose ill hap would never be forgiven by the powers he had represented so ill.
The misfortune was great, and, to a proud man, well-nigh intolerable. Moreover, this man was so formed that he loved the order which it was his mission to extend, and the good government which it was his to impose. To make straight the crooked--gently, if it might be, but by the strong hand if it must be--was his part in life, and one which he pursued with the utmost zest. Every breach of order, therefore, every trespass in his province, every outrage wounded him. But the breach and the trespass which abased in his person the King's name--he writhed, he groaned as he thought of this! Even the blow to his career, fatal as it promised to be, scarce hurt him worse or cut him so deeply.
The more as that career which had been all in all to him yesterday was not quite all in all to him to-day. Bonne's voice, the touch of her hands as she appealed to him, the contact of her figure with his as he carried her, these haunted him, and moved him, in his solitude and his humiliation. Her courage, her constancy, her appeal to him, when all seemed lost, he could not think of them--he who had thought of naught but himself for years--without a softening of his features, without a flood of colour invading the darkness of his face. Strong, he had estranged himself from the tender emotions, only to own their sway now. With half his mind he dwelt upon his mishap; the other half, the better half, found consolation in the prospect of her sympathy, of her fidelity, of her gentle eyes and quivering lips--who loved him. He found it strange to remember that he filled all a woman's thoughts; that, as he sat there brooding in his prison, she was thinking of him and dreaming of him, and perhaps praying for him!
It is not gladly, it is never without a pang that the man of affairs sees the world pass from him. And if there be nothing left, it is bad for him. Des Ageaux acknowledged that he had something left. A hand he could trust would lie in his, and one brave heart, when all others forsook him would accompany him whither he went. He might no longer aspire to government and the rule of men, the work of his life was over; but Bonne would hold to him none the less, would love him none the less, would believe in him truly. The cares of power would no longer trouble his head, or keep it sleepless; but her gentle breast would pillow it, her smiles would comfort him, her company replace the knot of followers to whom he had become accustomed. He told himself that he was content. He more than half believed it.
In the present, however, he had not her company; and the present was very miserable. He did not fear for his life, but he lay in ignorance of all that had happened since his capture, of all that went forward; and the tedium of imprisonment tried him. He knew that he might lie there weeks and months and come forth at last--for the world moved quickly in this period of transition--to find himself forgotten. Seventy years earlier, a king, misnamed the Great, standing where he stood, had said that all was lost but honour--and had hastened to throw that also away. For him all was lost but love. All!
He had passed four days--they seemed to him a fortnight--in this weary inaction, and on the last evening of the four he was expecting his supper with impatience, when it occurred to him that the place was more noisy than ordinary. For some time sounds had reached him without making any definite impression on his mind; now they resolved themselves into echoes of distant merry-making. Little spirts of laughter, the catch of a drinking-song, the shrill squeal of a maid pinched or kissed, the lilt of a hautboy--he began with quickened ears to make these out. And straightway that notion which is never out of a prisoner's mind and which the least departure from routine fosters raised its head. Escape! Ah, if he could escape! Freedom would set him where he had been, freedom would undo the worst of his mishap. It might even give him the victory he had counted lost.
But the grated window or the barred door, the paved floor or the oaken roof--one of these must be pierced; or the gaoler, who never visited him without precautions and company, must be overcome and robbed of his keys. And even then, with that done which was well-nigh impossible, he would be little nearer to freedom than before. He would be still in the heart of his enemy's fortress, with no knowledge of the passages or the turnings, no clue to the stone labyrinth about him, no accomplice.
Yet, beyond doubt, there was merry-making afoot--such merry-making as accounted for the tarrying of his supper. Probably the man had forgotten him. By-and-by the notes of the hautboy rose louder and fuller, and on the wave of sound bursts of applause and laughter came to him. He made up his mind that some were dancing and others were looking on and encouraging them. Could it be that the Captain of Vlaye had surprised the peasants' camp? and that this was his way of celebrating his success? Or was it merely some common-place orgie, held, it might be, in the Captain's absence? Or---- But while he turned this and that in his thoughts the footsteps he had been expecting sounded at the end of the stone passage and approached. A light shone under the door, a key turned in the lock, and the man who brought him his meals appeared on the threshold. He entered, his hands full, while his comrade, who had opened for him, remained in the passage.
"You are gay this evening?" the Lieutenant said as the man set down his light.
The fellow grinned. "Ay, my lord," he replied good-humouredly, "you may say it. Wedding-bells and the rest of it!" He was not drunk, but he was flushed with wine. "That is the way the world goes--and comes."
"A wedding?" des Ageaux exclaimed. The news was strange.
"To be sure, my lord.
'En revenant des noces,
"And whose, my man?"
The fellow, in the act of putting a bowl of soup on the table, held his hand. He looked at the Lieutenant with a grin. "Ay, whose?" he said. "But that would be talking. And we have orders not to talk, see you, my lord. Still, it is not many you'll have the chance of telling. And, if I tell you it is the Captain himself, what matter? Should we be footing it and drinking it and the rest for another?"
"M. de Vlaye married?" des Ageaux exclaimed in astonishment. "To-day?"
"Married for sure, and as tight as Father Benet could marry him! But to-day"--with his head on one side--"that is another matter."
"And the bride?"
"Ay, that is another matter, tool" with a wink. "Not that you can let it out to many either! So, if you must know----"
"Best not," intervened his comrade in the passage, speaking for the first time.
"Perhaps you do not know yourself?" the Lieutenant said shrewdly. He saw that the man was sufficiently in drink to be imprudent. With a little provocation he would tell.
"Not know?"--with indignation. "Didn't I----"
"Know or not, don't tell!" growled the other.
"Of course," said des Ageaux, "if you don't know you cannot tell."
"Oh!" the fool rejoined. "Cannot I? Well, I can tell you it is Mademoiselle de Villeneuve. So there's for knowing!"
Des Ageaux sprang to his feet, his face transformed. "What!" he cried. "Say that again!"
But his excitement overreached itself. His movement warned the other that he had spoken too freely. With an uneasy look--what had he done?--he refused to say more, and backed to the door. "I have said too much already," he muttered sullenly.
"Don't answer him!" commanded the man in the passage. "And hurry! You have stayed too long as it is! I would not be in your shoes for something if the Captain comes to know."
Des Ageaux stepped forward, pressing him again to speak. But the man, sobered and frightened, was obdurate. "I've said too much already," he answered with a resentful scowl. "What is it to you, my lord?" And he slipped out hurriedly, and secured the door behind him.
Des Ageaux remained glaring at the closed door. Bonne de Villeneuve had been taken with him. Bonne de Villeneuve also was a prisoner. Was it possible that she had become by force or willingly Vlaye's bride? Possible? Ah, God, it must be so! And, if so, by force surely! Surely, by force; his faith in her told him that! But if by force, what consolation could he draw from that? For that, if he loved her, were worst of all, most cruel of all! That were a thing intolerable by God or man!
So it seemed to this man, who only a few days before had not known what love was. But who now, stung with sudden passion, flung himself from wall to wall of his narrow prison. Now, when he saw it snatched from him, now, when he saw himself denuded of that solace at which he had grasped, but for which he had not been sufficiently thankful, now he learned what love was, its pains as well as its promise, its burning fevers, its heart-stabbing pity! He lost himself in rage. He who for years had practised himself in calmness, who had made it his aim to hide his heart, forgot his lesson, flung to the night his habit. He seized the iron bars of his window and shook them in a paroxysm of fury, as if only by violence he could retain his sanity. When the bars, which would have resisted the strength of ten, declined to leave the stone, he flung himself on the door, and beat on it and shouted, maddened by the thought that she was under the same roof, that she was within call, yet he could not help her! He called Vlaye by dreadful names, challenging him, and defying him, and promising him terrible deaths. And only when echo and silence answered all and the iron sense of his helplessness settled down slowly upon him and numbed his faculties did he, too, fall silent and, covering his face with his hands, stagger to a seat and sit in a stupor of despair.
He had put love aside, he had despised it through years--for this! He had held it cheap when it promised to be his--for this! He had accepted it grudgingly, and when all else was like to fail him--for this! He was punished, and sorely. She was near him. He pictured her in the man's power, in the man's hands, in the man's arms! And he could not help her.
Had his impotent cries and threats been heard they had only covered him with humiliation. Fortunately they were not heard: the merry-making was at its height, and no one came near him. The Captain of Vlaye, aware that his marriage could not be hidden from his own men--for he had made no secret of it beforehand--had not ventured to forbid some indulgence. He could make it known that the man who named his bride outside the gate would lose his tongue; but, that arranged, he must wink--for every despotism is tempered by something--at a few hours of riot, and affect not to see things that at another time had called for swift retribution.
The men had used his permission to the full. They had brought in some gipsies to make sport for them, a treble allowance of wine was on draught, and the hour that saw des Ageaux beating in impotent fury on his door saw the license and uproar of which he had marked the beginning grown to a head. In the great hall the higher officers, their banquet finished, were deep in their cups. In the cavernous kitchens drunken cooks probed cauldrons for the stray capon that still floated amid the spume; or half-naked scullions thrust a forgotten duck or widgeon on the spit at the request of a hungry friend. About the fires in the courtyard were dancing and singing and some romping; for there were women within the walls, and others had come in with the gipsies. Here a crowd surrounded the bear, and laid furious bets for or against; while yelps and growls and fierce barkings deafened all within hearing. There a girl, the centre of a leering ring, danced to the music of her tambour; and there again a lad tumbled, and climbed a pole at risk of his limbs. Everywhere, save in the dark garden under the "demoiselle's" windows, where a sentry walked, and at the great gates, where were some sober men picked for the purpose, wantonness and jollity held reign, and the noise of brawling and riot cast fear on the town that listened and quaked below.
A stranger entering the castle would have judged the reins quite fallen, all discipline fled, all control lost. But he had been wrong. Not only did a sentry walk the garden path--and soberly and shrewdly too--but no man in his wildest and tipsiest moment ventured a foot within the railing that fenced the lime avenue, or even approached the gates that led to it without lowering his voice and returning to something like his normal state. For in the rooms looking over the garden M. de Vlaye entertained his bride of two days--and he had relaxed, not loosed, the reins.
They sat supping in the room in which they had been wedded, and, unmoved by the sounds of uproar that came fitfully to their ears, discussed their plans; she, glowing and handsome, animated by present love and future hope; he, content, if not enraptured, conquered by her wit, and almost persuaded that all was for the best--that her charms and beauty would secure him more than the dowry of her rival. Their brief honeymoon over, they were to part on the morrow; she to pursue her plans for the Duke's detachment, he to take the field and strike such a blow as should scatter the peasants and dissipate what strength remained in them. They were to part; and some shadow of the coming separation had been natural. But her nerves as well as his were strong, and the gloom of parting had not yet fallen on them. The lights that filled the room were not brighter than her eyes; the snowy linen that covered the round table at which they sat was not whiter than her uncovered shoulders. He had given her jewels, the spoils of many an enterprise; and they glittered on her queenly neck and in her ears, gleamed through the thin lace of her dress, and on her round and beautiful arms. He called her his Abbess and his nun in fond derision; and she, in answering badinage, rallied him on his passion for the Countess and his skill in abduction. So cleverly had she wrought on him, so well managed him, that she dared even that.
The room had been hung for her with tapestries brought from another part of the house; the windows more richly curtained; and a door, long closed, had been opened, through which and an ante-room the chambers connected with M. de Vlaye's apartments. Where the wedding robes had lain on the window-seat a ribboned lute and a gay music-book lay on rich draperies, and elbowed a gilded head-piece of Milanese work surmounted by M. de Vlaye's crest, which had been brought in for his lady's approval. A mighty jar of Provence roses scented the apartment; and intoxicated by their perfume or their meaning, she presently seized the lute, and gaily, between jest and earnest, broke into the old Angoumois song:--
"Si je suis renfermée.
Ah, c'est bien sans raison;
Ma plus belle journée,
Se pass'ra-z-en prison.
Mais mon amant sans peine
Pourra m'y venir voir,
Son cœur sait bien qu'il m'aime,
Il viendra'-z-au parloir!"
Ah, c'est bien sans raison;
Ma plus belle journée,
Se pass'ra-z-en prison.
Mais mon amant sans peine
Pourra m'y venir voir,
Son cœur sait bien qu'il m'aime,
Il viendra'-z-au parloir!"
And he answered her--
"Oh, Madame l'Abbesse,
Qu'on tire les verrous,
Qu'on sorte ma maîtresse
Le plus beau des bijoux;
Car je suis capitaine,
Je suis son cher amant,
J'enfoncerai sans peine
Les portes du couvent!"
Qu'on tire les verrous,
Qu'on sorte ma maîtresse
Le plus beau des bijoux;
Car je suis capitaine,
Je suis son cher amant,
J'enfoncerai sans peine
Les portes du couvent!"
As he finished, disturbed by some noise, he turned his head. "I told your wench to go," he said, rising. "I suppose she took herself off?" With a frown, he strode to the screen that masked the door, and made sure by looking behind it that they had no listeners.
She smiled as she laid aside the lute. "I thought that your people obeyed at a word?" she said.
"They do, or they suffer," he answered.
"And is that to apply to me?" with a mocking grimace.
"When we come to have two wills, sweet, yes!" he retorted. "It will not be yet awhile. In the meantime I would this enterprise of yours were over. I doubt your success, though all looks well."
"If I had been half as sure of you two days ago as I am of him to-morrow!" she retorted.
"Yet you must not go too far with him."
She waved her finger-tips across the table. "So far, and no farther," she said lightly. "Have I not promised you? For the rest--what I have done I can do. Am I not armed?" And she rose from her seat, and stood before him in all the seduction of her charms. "Count it done, my master. Set Joyeuse aside. He is captive of my bow and spear. The question is, can you deal with the rest?"
"And what remains of des Ageaux' power? And the Countess's levies?"
"For certain, if the Duke be out of the reckoning," he answered. "He is a man. Remove him and des Ageaux--and the latter I have already--and there is no one. Your brothers----"
"Bah!" She dismissed them with a contemptuous gesture.
"Just so. And the Countess's people have no leader. The Vicomte is old. There is no one. Detach the Duke, and there will be a speedy end of them. And before a new governor can set to work to make head against me, many things may happen, my girl!"
"Many things will happen," she answered with confidence. "If I can win one man, why not another? If a Duke, why not"--she made an extraordinary face at him, half-sportive, half-serious--"why not a greater? Eh, my lord?"
He stared. "No!" he answered, striking the table with sudden violence. "No!" He knew well what she meant and whom she meant. "Not that! Even to make all good, not that!" Yet his eyes glittered as he looked at her; and it was plain that his thoughts travelled far and fast on the wings of her words. While she, in the pride of her mastery, returned his look fondly.
"No, not that--never that!" she replied in a voice that more than reassured him. "It is for you and only for you that I do this. I am yours, all and always--always! But, short of that, something may be done. And, with friends at Court, from Captain of Vlaye to Governor of Périgord is but a step!"
He nodded. "And a step that might save his Majesty much trouble," he said with a smile. "Do that---- But I doubt your power, my girl."
"I have done that already should persuade you."
"You have tricked me," he said, smiling. "That is true. And it is no mean thing, I grant."
"More than that!" she retorted. The wine she had drunk had flushed her cheek and perhaps loosed her tongue. "More than that I have done! Who took the first step for you? Who put the Lieutenant in your hands--and my sister? And so, in place of my sister, the Countess?"
He looked at her in astonishment. "Who?" he rejoined. "Why, who but I myself? Did I not take them with my own hands--at the old windmill on the hill? What had you to do with that?"
"And who sent them to the windmill?"
"Why, the rabble to be sure, who seized them, took them as far as the ford."
"And who set the rabble on them?" As she asked the question she rose from her seat. In the excitement of her triumph, in the intoxication of her desire to please him she forgot the despair into which the act which she boasted had cast her but a week before. She forgot all except that she had done it for him whom she loved, for him who now was hers, and whose she was! "Who," she repeated, "set the rabble upon them?"
"You?" he murmured. "Not you?"
"I!" she said, "I!"--and held out her hands to him. "It was I who told the brute beasts that he--des Ageaux--had your man in hiding! It was I who wrought them to the attempt and listened while they did it! I thought, indeed, that it was your Countess who was with him. And I hated her! I was jealous of her! But, Countess or no Countess, 'twas done by me!--by me! And now do you think that there is anything I will not do for you? That there is anything I cannot do for you?"
He was not shocked; it took much to shock the Captain of Vlaye. But he was so much astonished, he marvelled so much that he was silent. And she, reading the astonishment in his face, and seeing it grow, felt a qualm--now she had spoken--and lost colour, and faltered. Had she been foolish to tell it? Perhaps. Had she passed some boundary, sacred to him, unknown to her? It must be so. For as she gazed, no word spoken, there came into his face a change, a strange hardening. He rose.
"My lord!" she cried, clapping her hands to her head, "what have I done?" She recoiled a pace, affrighted. "I did it for you!"
"Some one has heard you," he answered between his teeth. And then she saw that he was looking not at her, but beyond her--beyond her. "There is some one behind that screen."
She faced about, affrighted, and instinctively seized his arm and hung on it, her eyes on the screen. Her attitude as she listened, and her pallor, were in strange contrast with the gay glitter of the table, the lights, the luxury, the fairness of her dress.
"Yes, listening," he said grimly. "Some one has been listening. The worse for them! For they will never tell what they have heard!"
And bounding forward without warning, he dashed the screen down and aside--and recoiled. Face to face with him, cowering against the doorpost, and pale as ashes, was the very man she had mentioned a minute before--that very man of his whose hidden presence in the camp she had betrayed to the malcontents. Vlaye glared at him. "You!" he cried. "You!"
"But! But die, fool!" the Captain retorted savagely. "Die!" And, swift as speech, the dagger he had stealthily drawn gleamed above his shoulder and sank in the poor wretch's throat.
The man's hands groped in the air, his eyes opened wide; but he attempted no return-stroke. Choked by the life-stream that gushed from his mouth, he sank back inert like a bundle of clothes, while the Abbess's low shriek of terror mingled with his stifled cry.
And, with a sterner sound, another sound. For as the man collapsed, and fell in on himself, a figure hitherto hidden in the doorway sprang over his falling body, a long blade flashed in the candle-light, and the Captain of Vlaye staggered back, one hand pressed to his breast. He made a futile attempt to ward with his poniard, but it fell from his grasp. And the pitiless steel found his heart again. Silent, grim, with unquenchable hate in his eyes, he reeled against the table. And then from the table, dragging with him all--silver and glass and fruit--in one common crash, he rolled to the floor--dying.
Ay, in five seconds, dead! And she saw it with her eyes! Saw it! And frozen, stiff, clinging to the bare edge of the table, she stood looking at him, her brain numbed by the horror, by the suddenness, the hopelessness of the catastrophe. In a twinkling, in a time measured by seconds, it was done. The olives that fell from the dish had not ceased to roll, the wine still crept upon the floor, the man who had struck the blow still panted, his point delivered--but he was dead whom she had loved. Dead!
The man who had struck the blow, and whose eyes still sparkled with fury, turned them upon her. He took note of her stupor, frowned, and with a swift, cruel glance searched the room. The lights were in sconces on the walls, and had not suffered. The rest was wreck--a splendid wreck, mingled terror and luxury, with the woman's Medusa-like face gazing on it. The Duke--for he it was--still breathing quickly, still with malevolence in his eyes, listened and looked; but the alarm had not been taken. The lilt of a song and faint distant laughter, borne on the night air, alone broke the night silence. He passed to a window, and putting aside a curtain, peered into the darkness of the garden. Then he went to the door, and listened. Still all was quiet without and within. But to the scene in the room his gliding figure, his bent, listening head gave the last touch of tragedy.
Presently--before, it would appear, he had made up his mind how to act--he saw a change come over the woman. Her breathing, which had been no more apparent for a time than the breath of the dead at her feet, became evident, her figure relaxed. Her attitude lost its stoniness; yet she did not stir to the eye. Only her eyes moved; and then at last her foot. Stealthily her foot--the man listening at the door marked it--slid from her robe, and unshod in its thin silken stocking--so thin of web that the skin showed through it--covered the poniard, still wet with blood, that had fallen from her husband's hand. Slowly she drew it nearer and nearer to her.
He at the door made as if he did not heed. But when she had drawn the weapon within reach, and furtive and silent as a cat, stooped to grasp it, he was before her--so far before her, at least, that, though she gained it, he clutched her wrist as she rose. "No, madam!" he cried fiercely. "No! Enough!" And he tried to force it from her hand.
No words came from her lips, but an animal cry of unutterable fury. She seized on his wrist with her left hand--she tried to seize it with her teeth; she fought to free herself, clinging to the knife and wrestling with him in the midst of the trampled fruit, the shivered glass, the mingled wine and blood that made the floor slippery.
"Let it fall!" he repeated, hard put to it and panting. "Enough, I say, enough!" If he had loved her once he showed scant tenderness now.
And she--her lips writhed, her hair uncoiled and fell about her. He began to wish that he had not dropped his sword when he sprang upon her. For he was still weak; and if she persevered she was more than a match for him. In her normal condition she had been more than a match for him; but the shock had left its secret sap. Suddenly, without cry or warning, her grasp relaxed, her head fell back, and she sank--all her length, but sideways--amid the ruin.
He nursed his wrist a moment, looking askance at her, and thinking deeply and darkly. Assured at length that the swoon was no feint to take him unawares, he went to the door by which he had entered, passed through the empty ante-room, and thence into the Captain of Vlaye's apartments. In the passage outside the farther door of these a sleepy valet was on guard. He was not surprised by the Duke's appearance, for half an hour before--only half an hour!--he had allowed him and his guide to enter.
"M. de Vlaye wishes to see the Captain of the gate," the Duke said curtly. "Bid him come, and quickly." And to show that he looked for no answer he turned his back on the man, and, without looking behind him, passed through the rooms again to the one he had left.
Here he did a strange thing. On a side table which had escaped the general disaster stood some dishes removed from the chief table, a plate or two, a bread trencher, and a silver decanter of wine. After a moment's thought he drew a chair to this table, laid his sword on it beside the dishes, and, helping himself to food, began to eat and drink, with his eyes on the door. After the lapse of two or three minutes, during which he more than once scanned the room with a strange and inexplicable satisfaction, a knock was heard at the door.
"Enter!" said the Duke, his mouth half-full.
The door opened, and a grizzled man with a square-cut beard stepped in. He wore a breastpiece over a leather coat, and held his steel cap in his hand.
"Shut the door!" the Duke said sharply.
The man did so mechanically, and turned again, and--his mouth opened. After a few seconds of silence "Mon Dieu!" he whispered. "Mon Dieu!"
"He is quite dead," the Duke said, raising his glass to his lips. "But you had better satisfy yourself. When you have done so, listen to me."
Had the Duke been in any other attitude it is probable that the man had turned in a panic, flung the door wide, and yelled for help. But, seeing a stranger calmly eating and drinking and addressing him with a morsel on the point of his knife, the man stared helplessly, and then did mechanically as he was told--stooped, listened, felt for the life that had for ever departed. When he rose again "Now, listen to me," said the other. "I am the Duke of Joyeuse--you know my name? You know me? Yes, I did it. That is not your affair--but I did it. Your affair is with the thing we have next to do. No--she is not dead."
"Mon Dieu!" the man whispered. Old war-dog as he was, his cheeks were sallow, his hand trembled. A hundred dead, in the open, on the rampart, under God's sky, had not scared him as this lighted room with its medley of horror and wealth, its curtained windows and its suffocating tapestry, scared him.
"Your affair," the Duke repeated, "is with what is to follow." He raised his glass, and held it between his eye and the light. "Do you take my side or his? He is dead--you see him. I am alive--you know me. Now hear my terms. But first, my man, what do you number?"
The man made an effort, vain for the most part, to collect himself. But he managed to whisper, after a moment's hesitation, that they mustered four hundred and thirty, all told.
The man moved his lips without sound, but the other understood that he assented.
"Very well," the Duke said. "All that is here I give you. Understand, all. Divide, sack, spoil; make your bundles. He is dead," with a glance at Vlaye's body, "he'll not say you nay. And a free pardon for all; and for as many as please--my service. All that I give, on condition that you open your gates to me and render the place three hours after sunrise to-morrow."
The man gaped. The position was new, but he began to see his way. "I can do nothing by myself," he muttered.
"You can have first search," Joyeuse retorted brutally. "There he lies, and his buttons are jewelled. And ten gold crowns I will give you for yourself when the place is mine. You know me, and I keep my word. I told your friend there, who got me entrance"--he pointed to the man Vlaye had stabbed--"that if his master laid a finger on him I would kill his master with these hands. I did it. And there's an end."
The grizzled man's face was changed. It had grown cunning. His eyes shone with cupidity. His cheekbones were flushed. "And if they will not come into your terms, my lord?" he asked, his head on one side, his fingers in his beard, "what must I say you will do?"
"Hang while rope lasts," the Duke answered. "But, name of God, man!"--staring--"beyond the spoils of the place what do you want? He is dead, you have no leader. What matter is it of yours or of theirs who leads?"
The old soldier nodded. "That is true," he said: "we follow our wages."
"One thing more--nay, three things," Joyeuse continued, pushing his cup and plate aside and rising to his feet. "The lady there--I trust her to you. Lock her up where she will be safe, and at daybreak see that she is sent to the convent. M. des Ageaux, whom you have below--not a hair of his head must be injured. Lastly, you must do no harm in the town."
"I will remember, my lord, and tell them."
"And now see me through the gates."
The man grinned cunningly; but as one who wished to prove his astuteness, not as one who intended to refuse. "That is number four, my lord," he said, "and the chiefest of all."
"Not so," the Duke answered. "It was on that condition I spared your life, fool, when you came in."
"Then you knew----"
"I knew that his buttons were jewelled."
"My lord," the man said with admiration, "I vow you'd face the devil."
"You will do that whether you will or no," the Duke replied drily, "some day. But that reminds me." He turned from his companion. He looked on the bloodshed about him, and gradually his face showed the first signs of compunction that had escaped him. Something of disgust, almost of distress, appeared in his manner. He glanced from one prostrate form to another as if he scarce knew what to do and presently he crossed himself. "Lift her to the couch there," he said. And when it was done, "My friend," he continued, in a lower tone, "wait without the door one minute. But do not go beyond call."
The old soldier raised his eyebrows, but he, thoroughly won over, obeyed. Once outside, however, he pondered cunningly. Why had he been sent out? And thoughts of his jewelled buttons overcame him. After a moment's hesitation--for Joyeuse had put fear into him--he dropped softly to his knee and set his eye to a crack in the door.
M. de Joyeuse was kneeling between the dead, his palms joined before his breast, his rosary between them. The lights of the feast, that shone ghastly on the grim faces and on the blood-pool about them, shone also on his uplifted face, from which the last trace of the tremendous rages to which he was prone had fled, leaving it pale indeed and worn--for the marks of his illness were still upon it--but calm and sublime. His eyes were upward bent. Those eyes that a few minutes earlier had burned with a hatred almost sub-human now shone with a light soft and ecstatic, such as shines in the eyes of those who see visions and hear voices. His lips moved without sound. The beads dropped one by one through his fingers.
* * * * *
The hewers of wood and feeders of oxen who herded together in the town under the castle walls were timidly aware of the festivities above their heads. The sounds of brawling and dancing, of the tambour and glee, descended to them and kept them waiting far into the night. On occasions, rare, it is true, the war-lords above had broken loose from their bonds, and, mad with drink and frenzied with excitement, had harried their own town. Once, to teach a lesson, the thing had been done--but more completely and cruelly--by Vlaye's express order. The memory of these occasions remained, burned shamefully into the towns-folk's mind; and many a cotter looked up this night in trembling from his humble window, many a woman with her hood about her head stood in the alley whispering to her neighbour and quaked as she listened. Something beyond the ordinary was passing above, in the stronghold that at once protected and plundered them; something that a sad experience told them boded no good. Two or three young women of the better class went so far as to seek a sanctuary in Father Benet's chapel; while their fathers hid their little hoards, and their mothers took heed to quench the fires, and some threw water on the thatch--sad precautions which necessity had made second nature in many a hamlet and many a market-town of France.
Had they known, these poor folk who paid for all, that their lord lay dead in the lighted room above, had they guessed that the hand which had held those turbulent troopers in order was nerveless at last, never again to instil fear or strike a blow, not even these precautions had contented them. They would have risen and fled, and in the marshes by the river or in remote meadows would have hidden themselves from the first violence of the troopers' outbreak. But they did not know, and they remained. And though those who were most fearful or least sleepy, women or men, noted that the lights above burned all night and that the tumult, albeit its note changed, held till dawn, they slept or kept vigil in security. The Duke's command availed. And no man, until the day was broad, left the castle.
Then the gates were opened, and a procession numbering four score troopers--those who had the most to fear from justice or the least bent towards honest service--issued from them, and rode two abreast down the hill and through the town, They were in strange guise. Every man had a great bundle on his crupper, and some a woman; and every man rode gorgeous in silk or Genoa, or rich furs, with feathers and such like gewgaws. One had a headpiece damascened beyond price swinging at his shoulders, another flaunted trappings of silver, a third had a jewelled hilt, a fourth a bunch of clinking cups or a swollen belt. Behind them came a dozen spare horses, roped head and tail and high laden with casks and skins of wine; while hunting-dogs ran at the stirrups, and two or three monkeys and thrice as many chained hawks balanced themselves on the swaying casks. The men rode jauntily, with high looks and defiant voices, jesting and singing as they passed; and now and again a one aimed a blow at a clown, or, with rude laughter, flung a handful of coppers to the townsfolk, who shrank into their doorways to see them pass. But no man vouchsafed a word of explanation; only the last rider as he passed under the arch of the town gate turned, and, with his hands joined, flung behind him a derisive gesture of farewell.
The townsfolk wondered, for the men were rich laden. Many a one carried a year's pay on his shoulders; and what they hid in their bundles might amount to many times as much. Moreover, they swaggered as men who mind no master. What then had happened? Nay, what was still happening? For it was plain that something was amiss above. From the castle proceeded a strange and continuous hum; a dull noise, as of bees swarming; a murmur compound of many sounds, and full of menace.
But no man who was not in the secret guessed the truth or even came near it. And the sun had travelled far and the lads had driven the cows to pasture before the green valley of the Dronne, that had lain so long under the spell of fear, awoke to find its burden gone and to learn that a better time, bringing law, order, and justice, was at hand. About seven a body of horsemen were seen crossing the narrow plain which divided the place from the northern heights; and as these approached the bridge a lad, one of those who had first espied them, was sent to carry the alarm to the castle. The townsfolk looked to see a rush of armed men to the outer gate; or, if not that, something akin. But nothing of the kind followed, and while they stood gaping, uncertain whether to stand their ground or flee to hiding, the advancing horsemen, who numbered about two hundred, marched across the bridge with every sign of confidence.
The Duke was not among them. Fatigue and the weakness caused by his wound had stood in the way of his return, and at this hour he lay in utter collapse in his quarters in the peasants' camp. His place was occupied by the Bat, who rode in the van with Charles de Villeneuve on his right and Roger on his left. The young men's minds were clouded by thoughts of their sister and her plight; but, in spite of this, it was a day of pride to them, a day of triumph and revenge--and they rode in that spirit. The Bat, to whom Hecuba was naught--it was long since a woman had troubled his peace--wore none the less a grave face. For time had pressed, the Duke's explanation had been brief though fervid, and the men had saddled and started within an hour of his return. Consequently all might be well, or it might be ill. The Captain of Vlaye's troops might surrender the place without a blow, or they might not. For his part, the Bat would not have risked his purse on their promise.
But to risk his life and his men was in the way of war. And he moved steadily up the street, and gave no sign of doubt. Nevertheless it was his ear that, as they debouched into the market-place, caught the tread of a galloping horse on the flat beyond the river; and it was his hand that halted the men--apparently that the stragglers might move up and take their places.
A minute or two later the galloping horse pounded under the gateway and clattered recklessly up the paved street. The sound of those hurrying hoofs told of news; and the men turned in their saddles and looked to learn who followed. The rider appeared in the open. It was Bonne de Villeneuve.
Charles wheeled his horse, and rode down the column to meet his sister. "You have not come alone?" he said in astonishment, mingled with anger.
She nodded, breathing quickly; and, supporting herself by one hand on the sweating horse, she pulled up. She was unable to speak for a moment. Then "I must go first!" she gasped. "I must go first."
"I must! I must!" she replied. Her distress was painful.
Her brother frowned. The Bat eyed her, in doubt and perplexity. But Roger spoke. "Let her go," he said in a low voice. "I understand. She is right."
And though no one else understood, the Bat let her pass the head of the file of horsemen and ride alone up the way that led to the castle. The men, with wondering faces, watched her figure and her horse until the turn in the road hid her, and watched again until she was seen crossing the bridge which spanned the road. Immediately she vanished without let or hindrance.
"The gates are open," some one muttered in a tone of relief. And the men's faces lost their gravity. They fell into postures of ease, and began to talk and exchange jests. Some gazed up at the castle windows or at that rampart walk, high above the town, which had been the Captain of Vlaye's favourite lounge of evenings. Only the foremost ranks, who could see the road before them and the bridge that crossed it, continued to look to the front with curiosity.
It was one of these whose exclamation presently stilled all tongues and recalled all thoughts to the work in hand. An instant later the Bat's face turned a dull red colour. Roger laughed nervously. Some of the men swayed, and seemed inclined to cheer; others raised their hands, but thought better of it. The rear ranks rose in their stirrups. A moment and all could see des Ageaux coming down the road on foot. The Bat and the two Villeneuves went forward to meet him.
He nodded to them without speaking. Then, "Why are you waiting?" he asked in a low voice. "Is it not all arranged?"
"But mademoiselle," the Bat answered, staring. "Have you not seen her?"
"But I thought--she asked us to wait."
The Lieutenant of Périgord looked along the line of horsemen, whose bronzed faces and smiling eyes--all striving at once to catch his--gave him welcome. "I don't understand," he said. "I know nothing of this."
"I do," Roger muttered. "I think Charles and I should go forward, and----"
He did not continue. The Bat, by a movement which silenced him, called his attention to the bridge. On it a number of persons had that moment appeared, issuing from the castle gates, and directing their course to the tilt-yard crest. Their progress was slow, yet the gazers below could not, from the place where they stood, discern why; or precisely who they were. But presently, after an interval of suspense and waiting, the little company reappeared in the road below and began to descend the slope towards them. Then here and there a man caught his breath, and, as by one consent, all edged their horses to the side. M. des Ageaux bared his head, and the troopers, from front to rear, followed his example.
It was a brief and mournful procession. In the van, riding where he had ridden so often, to foray and skirmish, the Captain of Vlaye rode his last ride, with a man at either rein and either stirrup, his war-cloak about him, and his steel headpiece nodding above his clay-cold face. His lance, with its drooping pennon, rose upright from his stirrup, and the faithful four who brought him forth had so fixed it that he seemed to grasp its shaft rather than to be supported by it. The sun twinkled on his steel, the light breeze caught and lifted the ends of his sash. As the old war-horse paced slowly and quietly along, conscious of its burden and of death, it was hard to say at a glance that the Lord of all the Valley was not passing forth as of old to battle; that, instead, he was moving to his last rest in the cloister which rose among the trees a half-league from the walls.
A few paces behind him, in a mule-litter, was borne a woman swathed in black cloth from head to foot, so that not so much as her eyes appeared. On one side of the litter walked Bonne, her chin on her breast, and her hand resting on the litter's edge. On the other side walked a frightened waiting-woman.
M. de Vlaye passed, the litter passed, all passed. But until the procession disappeared in the narrow street that led to the town gate no man covered himself or moved. Then, at a low word of command, the line of troopers rode on with a sudden merry jingle of bits and spurs, and, winding up the little gorge between the crests, marched over the bridge and through the open gates.
The Lieutenant's first act was to go to a low rampart on the west side of the courtyard, whence it was possible to trace with the eye the road to the Abbey. Bonne had not looked at him as she passed, nor so much as raised her eyes. But he knew by some subtle sense that she had been aware of his presence and that he had her promise that she would return.
Doubtless he looked forward to the moment of meeting; doubtless he looked forward to other things. But it was characteristic of the man that as soon as he had assured himself of her safe passage he turned without more ado to the work of restoring order, of raising the King's standard, and enforcing the King's peace.