As he groped his way towards the door, he came into contact with Roger, who was also making for it. Roger gripped him and tried to hold him. "Is there no other way?" the lad muttered. The situation appalled him. "No other way? You are no match for him!"
"That we shall see!" the stranger retorted curtly.
"Then I shall help you!" the lad declared.
"Would you take on another of them?" the stranger answered eagerly. "But no, you are over young for it! You are over young by your voice." Then, as the key grated in the lock, "Stand at my back if you will," he continued, "and if they--would play me foul, it may serve. But I shall give him brief occasion! You will see a pretty thing, my lad."
Crash! The door was forced open, letting a flood of smoky light into the dark place. He who had opened the door, Ampoule himself, strode back, when he had done it, across the wooden bridge, and flinging a hoarse taunt, a "Come if you dare!" over his shoulder, swaggered to the farther end of the hollow space which the men had formed by ranging themselves in three lines; the bridge and moat forming the fourth. One in every three or four held up a blazing firebrand, plucked from the flames; the light of which, falling on the intervening space, rendered it as clear as in the day.
The stranger, a little to Roger's surprise, but less to the surprise of Ampoule's comrades, did not obey the summons with much alacrity. He waited in the doorway, accustoming his eyes to the light, and the lad, whose heart overflowed with pity and apprehension--for he could not think his ally a match for Ampoule's skill and strength--had time to mark the weird mingling of glare and shadow, and to wonder if this lurid space encircled by unreal buildings were indeed the peaceful courtyard which he had known from childhood. Meanwhile Ampoule waited disdainfully at the other end of the lists, and as one who scarcely expected his adversary to appear made his blade whistle in the air. Or, in turn, to show how lightly he held the situation, he aimed playful thrusts at the legs of the man who stood nearest, and who skipped to escape them.
"Must we fetch you out, dirty rogue?" he cried, after a minute of this. "Or----"
"Oh, tace! tace!" the stranger answered in a peevish tone. He showed himself on the drawbridge, and with an air of great caution began to cross it. He still wore his mask. "You are more anxious than most to reach the end of your life," he continued in the same querulous tone. "You are ready?"
"Ready, when you please!" Ampoule retorted fuming. "It is not I----"
"Who hang back?" the stranger answered. As he spoke he stepped from the end of the bridge like a man stepping into cold water. He even seemed to hold himself ready to flee if attacked too suddenly. "But you are sure you are ready now?" he queried. "Quite ready? Do not let me"--with a backward glance--"take you by surprise!"
Ampoule began to think that it would not be without trouble he would draw his adversary within reach. The duels of those days, be it remembered, were not formal. Often men fought without seconds; sometimes in full armour, sometimes in their shirts. Advantages that would now be deemed dishonourable were taken by the most punctilious. So, to lure on his man and show his own contempt for the affair, Ampoule tossed up his sword, and caught it again by the hilt. "I'm ready!" he said. He came forward three paces, and again tossing up his sword, recovered it.
But the masked man seemed to be unwilling to quit the shelter of the drawbridge; so unwilling that Roger, who had taken up his position on the bridge behind him, felt his cheek grow hot. His ally had proved himself such a master of tongue fence as he had never imagined. Was he, ready as he had been to provoke the quarrel, of those who blench when the time comes to make good the taunt?
It seemed so. For the stranger still hung undecided, a foot as it were either way. "You are sure that I should not now take you by surprise?" he babbled, venturing at length a couple of paces in the direction of the foe--but glancing behind between his steps.
"I am quite sure," Ampoule answered scornfully, "that I see before me a poltroon and a coward!"
The word was still on his lips, when like a tiger-cat, like that which in all the world is most swift to move, like, if you will, the wild boar that will charge an army, the mask darted rather than ran upon his opponent. But at the same time with an incredible lightness. Before Ampoule could place himself in the best posture, before he could bring his sword-point to the level, or deal one of those famous "estramaçons" which he had been wasting on the empty air, the other was within his guard, they were at close quarters, the advantage of the bigger man's length of arm was gone. How it went after that, who struck, who parried, not the most experienced eye could see. So quick on one another, so furious, so passionate were the half-dozen blows the masked man dealt, that the clearest vision failed to follow them. It was as if a wild cat, having itself nine lives, had launched itself at Ampoule's throat, and gripped, and stabbed, and struck, and in ten seconds borne him to the ground, falling itself with him. But whereas in one second the masked man was up again and on his guard, Ampoule rose not. A few twitches of the limbs, a stifled groan, an arm flung wide, a gasp, and as he had seen many another pass, through the gate by which he had sent not a few, Ampoule passed himself. Of so thin a texture is the web of life, and so slight the thing that suffices to tear it. Had the masked stranger ridden another road that night, had he been a little later, had he been a little sooner; had the trooper refrained from his jest or the men from the wine-pot, had Roger kept his distance, or the arrow-slit looked another way--had any one of these chance occasions fallen other than it fell, Ampoule had lived, and others perchance had died by his hand!
All passed, it has been said, with incredible swiftness; the attack so furious, the end a lightning-stroke. Roger on the bridge awoke from a doubt of his ally's courage to see a whirl, a blow, a fall; and then on the ground ill-lighted and indistinct--for half the men had dropped their lights in their excitement--he saw a grim picture, a man dying, and another crouching a pace from him, watching with shortened point and bent knees for a possible uprising.
But none came; Ampoule had lived. And presently, still watching cautiously, the mask raised himself and dropped his point. A shiver, a groan passed round the square. A single man swore aloud. Finally three or four, shaking off the stupor of amazement, moved forwards, and with their eyes assured themselves that their officer was dead.
At that Roger, still looking on as one fascinated, shook himself awake, in fear for his principal. He expected that an attack would be made on the masked man. None was made, however, no one raised hand or voice. But as he moved towards him, to support him were it needful, the unexpected happened. The unknown tottered a pace or two, leant a moment on his sword-point, swayed, and slowly sank down on the ground.
With a cry of despair Roger sprang to him, and by the gloomy light of the three brands which still remained ablaze, he saw that blood was welling fast from a wound in the masked man's shoulder. Ampoule had passed, but not without his toll.
Roger forgot the danger. Kneeling, following his instinct, he took the fainting man's head on his shoulder. But he was helpless in his ignorance; he knew not how to aid him. And it was one of the troopers, late his enemies, who, kneeling beside him, quickly and deftly cut away the breast of the injured man's shirt, and with a piece of linen, doubled and redoubled, staunched the flow of blood. The others stood round the while, one or two lending a light, their fellows looking on in silence. Roger, even in his distress, wondered at their attitude. It would not have surprised him if the men had fallen on the stranger and killed him out of hand. Instead they bent over the wounded man with looks of curiosity; with looks gloomy indeed, but in which awe and admiration had their part. Presently at his back a man muttered.
"The devil, or a Joyeuse!" he said. "No other, I'll be sworn!"
No one answered, but the man who was dressing the wound lifted the unknown's hand and silently showed a ring set with stones that even by that flickering and doubtful light dazzled the eye. They were stones such as Roger had never seen, and he fancied that they must be of inestimable value.
"Ay, ay!" the man who had spoken muttered. "I thought it was so when I saw him join! I mind his brother, the day he died, taking two of his own men so, and--pouf! I saw him drown an hour after, and he took the water just so, cursing and swearing; but the Tarn was too strong for him."
"That was Duke Antony?" a second whispered.
"I never saw him," the second speaker answered softly. "Duke Anne at Coutras--I saw him die; and des Ageaux, that is now Governor of Périgord, got just such a wound as that in trying to save him."
"Pouf! All the world knew him!" he who had first spoken rejoined with the scorn of superior knowledge. "But"--to the man who was binding up the hurt, and who had all but finished his task--"you had better look and make sure that we shall not have our trouble for nothing."
The trooper nodded and began to feel for the fastening of the mask, which was of strong silk on a stiff frame. Roger raised his hand to prevent him, but as quickly repressed the impulse. The men were saving the man's life, and had a right to learn who he was. Besides, sooner or later, the thing must come off.
Its removal was not easy. But at length the man found the catch, it gave way, and the morsel of black fell and disclosed the pale, handsome face of an effeminate, fair-haired man of about thirty. "Ay, it is he! It is he, sure enough!" went around the circle, with here and there an oath of astonishment.
"Has any one a mouthful of Armagnac?" the impromptu surgeon asked. "No, not wine. There now, gently between his lips. When he has swallowed a little we must lift him into the house. He will do well, I think."
"But," Roger asked, after in vain interrogating their faces with his eyes, "who is it? Who it is, if you please? You know him?"
"Ay, we know him," the trooper answered sententiously. And, rising to his feet, he looked about him. "Best close that gate," he said, raising his voice. "If his people be on his track, as is likely, and come on us before we can make it clear, it may be awkward! See to it, some of you. And do you, Jasper, take horse and tell the Captain, and get his orders."
Two or three of the men, whom the event had most sobered, strode across the court to do his bidding. Roger looked from one to another of those who remained. "But who is he?" he asked. His curiosity was piqued, the more sharply as it was evident that the presence of this man who lay before him, wounded and unconscious, altered, in some fashion, the whole position.
"Who is he?" the former spokesman answered roughly. "Father Angel, to be sure! You have heard of him, I suppose, young sir?"
"Father Angel?" Roger repeated incredulously. "A priest? Impossible!"
"Well, a monk."
"Ay, and a marshal for the matter of that!" the trooper rejoined impatiently. "Here, lift him, you! Gently, gently! Man, it is the Duke of Joyeuse," he continued, addressing Roger. "You have heard of him, I take it? Now, step together, men, and you won't shake him! We must lay him in the dining-hall. He will do well there." And again to Roger, who walked with him behind the bearers, "If you don't believe me, see here," he said. "Tis plain enough still!" And taking a burning splinter of wood from one of the others he held it so that the light fell on the crown of the wounded man's head. There discernible amid the long fair hair was the pale shadow of a tonsure.
"Father Angel?" Roger repeated in wonder, as the men bearing their burden stepped slowly and warily on to the bridge.
"Ay, no other! And riding on what mad errand God knows! It was an unlucky one for Ampoule. But they are all mad in that house! Coutras saw the end of one brother, Villemar of another; there are but this one and the Cardinal left! Look your fill," he continued, as the men under his direction carried their burden up the three or four steps that led from the outer hall--where the fire Ampoule had knocked together still burned on the dogs--to the dining-hall. "Monk and Marshal, Duke and Capuchin, angel and devil, you'll never see the like again!"
Probably his words were not far from the mark. Anne, the eldest of the four brothers, by whom and by whose interest with King Henry the Third the house had risen from mediocrity to greatness, from respectability to fame, had fallen at Coutras encircled by the old nobility whom he had led to defeat. His brother, Antony Scipio, young as he was, had taken charge for the League in Languedoc, had pitted himself against the experience of Montmorency, and for a time had carried it. But his minor successes had ended in a crushing defeat at Villemar on the Tarn, and he had drowned his chagrin in its icy waters, cursing and swearing, says the old chronicler, to the last. The event had drawn from his monastery the singular man on whom Roger now looked, Henry, third of the brothers, third Duke of the name, the fame of whose piety within the cloister was only surpassed by that of his excesses in the world; who added to an emotional temperament and its sister gift of eloquence the feverish energy and headlong courage of his race. Snatching the sword fallen from his brother's hands, in five and twenty months he had used it with such effect as to win from the King the baton of a marshal as the price of his obedience.
"M. de Joyeuse!" Roger muttered, as he watched them lay the unconscious man on an improvised couch in the corner. "M. de Joyeuse? It seems incredible!"
"There is nothing credible about them," the man answered darkly. "The old fool who keeps the gate here would try the belief of most with his fables. But he'll never put the handle to their hatchet," with a nod of meaning. "Yet to listen to him, Charlemagne and the twelve were not on a level with his master--once! But where are you going, young sir?" in an altered tone.
"To tell the Vicomte what has occurred," Roger answered, his hand on the latch of the inner door--the door that led to the stairs and the upper rooms.
"By your leave!"
"I don't understand."
"By your leave, I say!" the trooper answered more sharply, and in a twinkling he had intervened, turned the key in the lock and withdrawn it. "I am sorry, young sir," he continued, coolly facing about again, "but until we know what is to do, and what the Captain's orders are--he has a trump card in his hand now, or I am mistaken--I must keep you here, by your leave."
"Against my leave!"
"As you please for that."
"I should have though that you had had enough of keeping people!" Roger retorted angrily.
"May-be Ampoule has," the man answered with a faint sneer. "I'll see if I have not better luck. Come, young sir," he continued with good-humour, "you cannot say that I have been aught but gentle so far. You've fared better with me, ay, a mort better, than you'd have fared if the Captain had been here. But I don't want to have to hurt you if it comes to blows upstairs. You are safer here looking after the Duke. And trust me, you'll thank me, some day."
Roger glared at him in resentment. He felt that he who lay helpless in the corner would have known how to deal with the man and the situation; but, for himself, he did not. To attempt force was out of the question, and the trooper had withdrawn and closed the door, leaving Roger alone with the patient, before the idea of bribery occurred to the lad. It was as well perhaps; for what was there at Villeneuve, what had they in that poverty-stricken home of such a value as to outweigh the wrath of Vlaye? Or to corrupt men who had seen, without daring to touch, a ring worth a King's ransom?
Nothing, for certain, which it was in Roger's power to give. Moreover, the situation, though full of peril, seemed less desperate. The Duke's act, if it had wrought no more, had sobered the men, and his presence, wounded as he was, was a factor Roger could not estimate. The respect with which the men treated him when he lay at their mercy, and their care to do the best for him, to say nothing of the feelings of awe and admiration in which they held him--these things promised well. The question was, how would his presence affect M. de Vlaye? And his pursuit of the Countess?
Roger had no notion. The possession of the person of a prince who ruled a great part of Languedoc might touch the Captain of Vlaye--a minnow by comparison, but in his own water--in a number of ways. It might strengthen him in his present design, or it might turn him from it by opening some new prospect to his ambition. Again, M. de Vlaye might treat the Duke in one of several modes; as an enemy, as a friend, as a hostage. He might use the occasion well or ill. He might work on fears or gratitude. All to Roger was dark and uncertain; as dark as the courtyard, where the flames of the huge fire had sunk low, and men by the dull glow of the red embers were removing in a cloak the body of the unfortunate Ampoule. Ay, and as uncertain as the breathing of the wounded man in the corner, which now seemed to stop, and now hurried weakly on.
Roger paced the room. He did not know for certain what had become of the Countess, or of his sister, or of his father. He took it for granted that they had sought the greater safety of the upper rooms. He had himself, earlier in the evening, suggested that if the worst threatened they might retreat to the tower chamber, and there defend themselves; but the Vicomte had pooh-poohed the suggestion, and though Bonne, who persisted in expecting help from outside, had supported it, the plan had been given up. Still they were gone, and they could have retired no other way. He listened at the locked door, hoping to hear feet on the stairs; for they must be anxious about him. But all was still. His sister, the Countess, the Vicomte, might have melted into the air--as far as he was concerned.
And this, anxious as he was for them, vexed him. He had failed! The long silence that had brooded over the decaying house, the dull life against which he and his brother had fretted, were come to an end with a vengeance. But what use had he made of the opportunity? When he should have been playing the hero upstairs, when he should have been the head and front of the defence, directing all, inspiring all, he lay here in a locked room like a naughty child who must be shielded from harm.
A movement on the part of the sick man cut short his thoughts. The Duke was making futile attempts to raise himself on his elbow. "Ageaux! Des Ageaux!" he muttered. "You are satisfied now! I struck him fairly."
Roger hurried to him and leant over him. "Lie still and do not speak," he said, hoping to soothe him.
"We are quits now," the Duke whispered. "We are quits now. Say so, man!" he continued querulously. "I tell you Vlaye will trouble you no more. I struck him fairly in the throat."
"Yes, yes," Roger replied. It was evident that the Duke was rambling in his mind, and took him for some one else. "We are quits now."
"Quits," the wounded man muttered, as if he found some magic in the words. And he drowsed off again into the half-sleep, half-swoon of exhaustion.
Roger could make nothing of it, except that the Duke had Vlaye in his mind, and fancied that it was he whom he had killed. But des Ageaux, whom he fancied he was addressing? Roger knew him by name and that he was Governor of Périgord, a man of name and position beyond his rank. But how came he in this galley? Oh, yes. He remembered now. His name had been mentioned in connection with the death of the eldest Joyeuse at Coutras.
Roger snuffed the candles, and mixing a little wine with water, put it by the Duke's side. Then he wandered to the locked door, and again listened fruitlessly. Thence, for he could not rest, he went to the window, where he pressed his forehead against the cool glass. The fire had sunk lower; it was now no more than an angry eye glowing in the darkness. He could discern little by its light. No one moved, the courtyard seemed as vacant and deserted as the house. Or no. In the direction of the gate he caught the glint of a lanthorn and the movement of several figures, revealed for an instant and as suddenly obscured. He continued to watch the place where the light had vanished, and presently out of the obscurity grew a black mass that slowly took the form of a number of men crossing the court in a silent body, five or six abreast. The tramp of their feet, inaudible on the soil, rumbled hollowly as they mounted the bridge, which creaked beneath them. He caught the gleam of weapons, heard a low order given, fell back from the window. He had little doubt what they were about to do.
He was right. The heavy, noisy entry into the outer hall had scarcely prepared him before the door was thrown open and they filed into the room in which he stood.
What could he do? Resistance was out of the question. "What is it?" he asked, making a show of confronting them.
"No matter, young sir," the man who had before taken charge answered gruffly. "Stand you on one side and no harm will happen to you."
"Stand back! Stand back!" the man answered sternly. "We are on no boy's errand!" Then to his party, "Bring the lights," he continued, and advancing to the inner door he unlocked it. "Who has the hammer? Good, do you come first with me. And let the last two stand here and keep the door."
He went through without more words, and disappeared up the staircase, followed by his men in single file. The two last remained on guard at the door, and they and Roger waited in the semi-darkness listening to the lumbering tread of the troopers as they stumbled on the wooden stairs, or their weapons clanged against the wall. Roger clenched his hands hard, vowing vengeance; but what could he do? And he had one consolation. Ampoule's death had sobered the men. They would execute their orders, but the fear of outrage and excess which had dwelt on his mind earlier in the evening no longer seemed serious.
The sound of the men's feet on the stairs had ceased; he guessed that they were searching the rooms overhead. A moment later their movements made this clear. He heard their returning footsteps and their raised voices in the upper passage. They seemed to confer, and to halt for a minute undecided. Then a door, doubtless the one which led to the roof, was tried, and tried again. But in vain, for the next moment a voice cried harshly, "Open! Open!" and after an interval a crash, twice repeated, proclaimed that the hammer was being brought into use. A scrambling of hasty feet followed, and then silence--doubtless they were crossing the roof--and then a pistol shot! One pistol shot!
Roger glared at the men who had been left with him. They opened the door more widely, and stepping through seemed to listen. For a moment the wild notion of locking the door on them, of locking the door on all, occurred to Roger. But he discarded it.
The elder of the Villeneuve brothers was less happy than Roger, in that the Vicomte had passed to him a portion of his crabbed nature. Something of the bitterness, something of the hardness of the father lurked in the son; who in the like unfortunate circumstances might have grown to be such another as his sire, but with more happy surroundings and a better fate still had it in him to become a generous and kindly gentleman.
It was this latent crabbedness that had kept the injustice of his lot ever before his gaze. Roger bore lightly with his heavier burden, and only the patient sweetness of his eyes told tales. Bonne was almost content; if she fretted it was for others, and if she dreamed of the ancient glories of the house, it was not for the stiff brocades and jewelled stomacher of her grandame that she pined.
But with Charles it was otherwise. The honour of the family was more to him, for he was the heir. Its dignity and welfare were his in a particular sense; and had he been of the most easy disposition, he must still have found it hard to see all passing; to see the end, and to stand by with folded arms. But when to the misery of inaction and the hopelessness of the outlook were added the Vicomte's daily and hourly taunts, and all fell on a nature that had in it the seeds of unhappiness, what wonder if the young man broke away and sought in action, however desperate, a remedy for his pains?
A step which he would now have given the world to undo. As he rode a prisoner along the familiar track, which he had trodden a thousand times in freedom and safety, the iron entered into his soul. The sun shone, the glades were green, in a hundred brakes the birds sang, in shady dells and under oaks the dew sparkled; but he rode, his feet fastened under his horse's belly, his face set towards Vlaye. In an hour the dungeon door would close on him. He would have given the world, had it been his, to undo the step.
Not that he feared the dungeon so much, or even death; though the thought of death, amid the woodland beauty of this June day, carried a chill all its own, and death comes cold to him who awaits it with tied hands. But he could have faced death cheerfully--or he thought so--had he fallen into a stranger's power; had the victory not been so immediately, so easily, so completely with Vlaye--whom he hated. To be dragged thus before his foe, to read in that sneering face the contempt which events had justified, to lie at his mercy who had treated him as a silly clownish lad, to be subjected, may-be, to some contemptuous degrading punishment--this was a prospect worse than death, a prospect maddening, insupportable! Therefore he looked on the woodland with eyes of despair, and now and again, in fits of revolt, had much ado not to fight with his bonds, or hurl unmanly insults at his captors.
They, for their part, took little heed of him. They had not bound his hands, but had tied the reins of his horse to one of their saddles, and, satisfied with this precaution, they left him to his reflections. By-and-by those reflections turned, as the thoughts of all captives turn, to the chance of escape; and he marked that the men--they numbered five--seemed to be occupied with something which interested them more than their prisoner. What it was, of what nature or kind, he had no notion; but he observed that as surely as they recalled their duty and drew round him, so surely did the lapse of two or three minutes find them dispersed again in pairs--it might be behind, it might be before him.
When this happened they talked low, but with an absorption so entire that once he saw a man jam his knee against a sapling which he failed to see, though it stood in his path; and once a man's hat was struck from his head by a bough which he might have avoided by stooping.
Naturally the trooper to whose saddle he was attached had no part in these conferences. And by-and-by this man, a grizzled, thick-set fellow with small eyes, grew impatient, and even, it seemed, suspicious. For a time he vented his dissatisfaction in grunts and looks, but at last, when the four others had got together and were colloguing with heads so close that a saddle-cloth would have covered them, he could bear it no longer.
"Come, enough of that!" he cried surlily. "One of you take him, and let me hear what you have settled. I'd like my say as well as another."
"Ay, ay, Baptist," one of the four answered. "In a minute, my lad."
Baptist swore under his breath. Still he waited, and by-and-by one of the men came grudgingly back, took over the prisoner, and suffered Baptist to join the council. But Villeneuve, whose attention was now roused, noted that this man also, after an interval, became restless. He watched his comrades with jealous eyes, and from time to time he pressed nearer, as if he would fain surprise their talk. Things were in this position when the party arrived at a brook, bordered on either side by willow beds and rushes, and passable at a tiny ford. Beyond the brook the hill rose suddenly and steeply. Charles knew the place as he knew his hand, and that from the brook the track wound up through the brushwood to a nick in the summit of the hill, whence Vlaye could be seen a league below.
The four troopers paused at the ford, and letting their horses drink, permitted the prisoner and his guard to come up. The man they called Baptist approached the latter. "If you will wait here," he said, with a look of meaning, "we'll look to the--you know what."
"I? No, cursed if I do!" the man answered plumply, his swarthy face growing dark. "I'm not a fool!"
"Then how in the devil's name are we to do it?" Baptist retorted with irritation.
"Stay yourself and take care of him!"
"And let you find the stuff!" with an ugly look. "A nice reckoning I should get afterwards."
"Well, I won't stay, that's flat!"
The men looked at one another, and their lowering glances disclosed their embarrassment. The prisoner could make no guess at the subject of discussion, but he saw that they were verging on a quarrel, and his heart beat fast. Given the slightest chance he was resolved to take it. But, that his thoughts might not be read, he kept his eyes on the ground, and feigned a sullenness which he no longer felt.
Suddenly, "Tie him to a tree!" muttered one of the men with a sidelong look at him.
"And leave him?"
"Ay, why not?"
"Why not?" Baptist, the eldest of the men, rejoined with an oath. "Because if harm happen to him, it will be I will pay for it, and not you! That is why not!"
"Tie him well and what can happen?" the other retorted. And then, "Must risk something, Baptist," he added with a grin, which showed that he saw his advantage, "since you are in charge."
The secret was simple. The men had got wind that morning of a saddle and saddle-bags--and a dead horse, but that counted for nothing--that in the search after the attack on the Countess's party had been overlooked in the scrub. Detached to guard the prisoner to Vlaye they had grinned at the chance of forestalling their comrades and gaining what there was to gain; which fancy, ever sanguine, painted in the richest colours. But the five could neither trust one another nor their prisoner; for Charles might inform Vlaye, and in that case they would not only lose the spoil but taste the strapado--the Captain of Vlaye permitting but one robber in his band. Hence they stood in the position of the ass between two bundles of hay, and dared not leave their prisoner, nor would leave the spoil.
At length, after some debate, made up in the main of oaths, "Draw lots who stays!" one suggested.
"We have no cards."
"There are other ways."
"Well," said he who had charge of the prisoner, "whose horse stops drinking first--let him stay!"
"Oh, yes!" retorted Baptist. "And we have watered our horses and you have not!"
The man grinned feebly; the others laughed. "Well," he said, "do you hit on something then! You think yourself clever."
Villeneuve bethought him of the prince who set, his guards to race, and, when their horses were spent, galloped away laughing. But he dared not suggest that, though he tingled with anxiety. "Who sees a heron first," said one.
But "Pooh!" with a grin, "we are all liars!" put an end to that.
"Well," said Baptist sulkily, "if we stay here a while longer we shall all lie for nothing, for we shall have the Captain upon us."
Thus spurred a man had an idea that seemed fair. "We've no two horses alike," he said. "Let us pluck a hair from the tail of each. He"--pointing to Charles--"shall draw one with his eyes shut, and whoever is drawn shall stay on guard."
They agreed to this, and Charles, being applied to, consented with a sulky air to play his part. The hairs were plucked, a grey, a chestnut, a bay, a black, and a sorrel; and the prisoner, foreseeing that he would be left with a single trooper, and determined in that case to essay escape, shut his eyes and felt for the five hairs, and selected one. The man drawn was the man who had last had him in charge, and to whose saddle his reins were still attached.
The man cursed his ill-fortune; the others laughed. "All the same," he cried, "if you play me false you'll laugh on the other side of your faces!"
"Tut, tut, Martin!" they jeered in answer. "Have no fear!" And they scarce made a secret of their intention to cheat him.
The four turned, laughing, and plunged into the undergrowth which clothed the hill. Still their course could be traced by the snapping of dry sticks, the scramble of a horse on a steep place, or the scared notes of blackbirds, fleeing low among the bushes. Slowly Martin's eyes followed their progress along the hill, and as his eyes moved, he moved also, foot by foot, through the brook, glaring, listening, and now and then muttering threats in his beard.
Had he glanced round once, however impatiently, and seen the pale face and feverish eyes at his elbow, he had taken the alarm. Charles knew that the thing must be done now or not at all; and that there must be one critical moment. If nerve failed him then, or the man turned, or aught happened to thwart his purpose midway, he had far better have left the thing untried.
Now or not at all! He glanced over his shoulder and saw the sun shining on the flat rushy plat beyond the ford, which the horses' feet had fouled while their riders debated. He saw no sign of Vlaye coming up, nor anything to alarm him. The road was clear were he once free. Martin's horse had stepped from the water, his own was in act to follow, his guard sat, therefore, a little higher than himself; in a flash he stooped, seized the other's boot, and with a desperate heave flung him over on the off side.
He clutched, as the man fell, at his reins; they were life or death to him. But though the fellow let them slip, the frightened horse sprang aside, and swung them out of reach. There remained but one thing he could do; he struck his own horse in the hope it would run away and drag the other with it.
But the other, rearing and plunging, backed from him, and the two, pulling in different directions, held their ground until the trooper had risen, run to his horse's head and caught the reins. "Body of Satan!" he panted with a pale scowl; the fall had shaken him. "I'll have your blood for this! Quiet, beast! Quiet!"
In his passion he struck the horse on the head; an act which carried its punishment. The beast backed from him and dragged him, still clinging to the reins, into the brook. In a moment the two horses were plunging about in the water, and he following them was knee deep. Unfortunately Villeneuve was helpless. All he could do was to strike his horse and excite it further. But the man would not let go, and the horses, fastened together, circled round one another until the trooper, notwithstanding their movements, managed to shorten the reins, and at last got his horse by the bit.
"Curse you!" he said again. "Now I've got you! And in a minute, my lad, I'll make you pay for this!"
But Villeneuve, seeing defeat stare him in the face, had made use of the last few seconds. He had loosened the stirrup-leather from the trooper's saddle, and as the fellow, thinking the struggle over, grinned at him, he swung the heavy iron in the air, and brought it down on the beast's withers. It leapt forward, maddened by pain, dashed the man to the ground, and dragging Villeneuve's horse with it, whether it would or no, in a moment both were clear of the brook and plunging along the bank.
Villeneuve struck the horses again to urge them forward; but only to learn that which he should have recognised before; that to escape on a horse, fastened to a second, over difficult ground and through a wood, was not possible. Half-maddened, half-bewildered, they bore him into a mass of thorns and bushes. It was all he could do to guard his eyes and head, more than they could do to keep their feet. A moment and a tough sapling intervened, the rein which joined them snapped, and his horse, giving to the tug at its mouth, fell on its near shoulder.
Bound to his saddle, he could not save himself, but fortunately the soil was soft, the leg that was under the horse was not broken, and for a moment the animal made no effort to rise. Villeneuve, despair in his heart, and the sweat running down his face, had no power to rise. Nor would the power have availed him, for before he could have gone a dozen paces through the tangle of thorns, the troopers, some on horseback, and some on foot, were on him.
The man from whom he had escaped was a couple of paces in front of the others. He had snatched up a stick, and black with rage, raised it to strike the prostrate horse. Had the blow fallen and the horse struggled to his feet, Villeneuve must have been trampled. Fortunately Baptist was in time to catch the man's arm and stay the blow. "Fool!" he said. "Do you want to kill the man?"
"Ay, by Heaven!" the fellow shrieked. "He nearly killed me!"
"Well, you'll not do it!" Baptist retorted, and he pushed him back. "Do you hear? I have no mind to account for his loss to the Captain, if you have."
"Do you think that I am going to be pitched on my head by a Jack-a-dandy like that," the fellow snarled, "and do naught? And where is my share?"
The grizzled man stooped, and, while one of his comrades held down the horse's head, untied Villeneuve's feet, and drew him from under the beast. "Share?" he answered with a sneer as he rose. "What time had we to find the thing?"
"You have not found it?"
"No--thanks to you! What kind of a guard do you call yourself?" Baptist continued ferociously. "By this time, had you done your part, we had done ours! If there is to be any accounting, you'll account to us!"
"Ay," the others cried, "Baptist is right, my lad!"
The man, seeing himself outnumbered, cast a devilish look at them. He turned on his heel. When he was gone a couple of paces, "Very good," he said over his shoulder, "but when I get you alone----"
"You!" Baptist roared, and took three strides towards him. "You, when you get me alone! Stand to me now, then, and let them see what you will do!"
But the malcontent, with the same look of hate, continued to retreat. Baptist jeered. "That is better!" he said. "But we knew what you were before! Now, lads, to horse, we've lost time enough!"
Flinging a mocking laugh after the craven the troopers turned. But to meet with a surprise. By their horses' heads stood a strange man smiling at them. "I arrest all here!" he said quietly. He had nothing but a riding switch in his hand, and Villeneuve's eyes opened wide as he recognised in him the guest of the Tower Chamber. "In the King's name, lay down your arms!"
They stared at him as if he had fallen from the skies. Even Baptist lost the golden moment, and, in place of flinging himself upon the stranger, repeated, "Lay down our arms? Who, in the name of thunder, are you?"
"No matter!" the other answered. "You are surrounded, my man. See! And see!" He pointed in two directions with his switch.
Baptist glared through the bushes, and saw eight or ten horsemen posted along the hill-side above him. He looked across the brook, and there also were two or three stalwart figures, seated motionless in their saddles.
The others looked helplessly to Baptist. "Understand," he said, with uneasy defiance. "You will answer for this. We are the Captain of Vlaye's men!"
"I know naught of the Captain of Vlaye," was the stern reply. "Surrender, and your lives shall be spared. Resist, and your blood be on your own heads!"
Baptist counted heads rapidly, and saw that he was outnumbered. He gave the word, and after one fashion or another, some recklessly, some stolidly, the men threw down their arms. "Only--you will answer for this!" Baptist repeated.
"I shall answer for it," des Ageaux replied gravely. "In the meantime I desire a word with your prisoner. M. de Villeneuve, this way if you please."
He was proceeding to lead Charles a little apart. But his back had not been turned three seconds when a thing happened. The man who had slunk away before Baptist's challenge had got to horse unnoticed. At a little distance from the others, he had not surrendered his arms. Whether he could not from where he was see the horsemen who guarded the further side of the brook, and so thought escape in that direction open, or he could not resist the temptation to wreak his spite on Baptist at all risks, he chose this moment to ride up behind him, draw a pistol from the holster, and fire it into the unfortunate man's back. Then with a yell that echoed his victim's death-cry he crashed through the undergrowth in the direction of the brook.
But already, "Seize him! Seize him!" rose above the wood in a dozen voices. "On your life, seize him!"
The order was executed almost as soon as uttered. As the horse leaping the water alighted on the lower bank, it swerved to avoid a trooper who barred the way. The turn surprised the rider; he lost his balance. Before he could get back into his seat, a trooper knocked him from the saddle with the flat of his sword. In a trice he was seized, disarmed, and dragged across the brook.
But by that time Baptist, with three slugs under his shoulder-blade, lay still among the moss and briars, the hand that had beaten time to a thousand camp-ditties in a thousand quarters from Fontarabie to Flanders flung nerveless beside a wood-wren's nest. As they gathered round him Charles, who had never seen a violent death, gazed on the limp form with a pale face, questioning, with that wonder which the thoughtful of all times have felt, whither the mind that a minute before looked from those sightless eyes had taken its flight.
He was roused by the Lieutenant's voice, speaking in tones measured and stern as fate. "Let him have five minutes," he said, "and then--that tree will be best!"
They began to drag the wretch, now pale as ashes, in the direction indicated. Half way to the tree the man began to struggle, breaking into piercing shrieks that he was Vlaye's man, that they had no right----
"Stay, right he shall have!" des Ageaux cried solemnly. "He is judged and doomed by me, Governor of Périgord, for murder in Curia. In the King's name! Now take him!"
The wretch was dragged off, his judge to all appearance deaf to his cries. But Charles could close neither his ears nor his heart. The man had earned his doom richly. But to stand by while a fellow-creature, vainly shrieking for mercy, mercy, was strangled within his hearing, turned him sick and faint.
Des Ageaux read his thoughts. "To spare here were to kill there," he said coldly. "Learn, my friend, that to rule men is no work for a soft heart or a gentle hand. But you are shaken. Come this way," he continued in a different tone; "you will be the better for some wine." He took out a flask and gave it to Charles, who, excessively thirsty now he thought of it, drank greedily. "That is better," des Ageaux went on, seeing the colour return to his cheeks. "Now I wish for information. Where are the nearest Crocans?"
The young man's face fell. "The nearest Crocans?" he muttered mechanically.
"Are there any within three hours' ride of us?"
But Charles had by this time pulled himself together. He held out his wrists. "I am your prisoner," he said. "Call up your men and bind me. You can do with me as you please. But I am a Villeneuve, and I do not betray."
"You saw me turn pale?" the young man continued. "Believe me, I can bear to go to the tree better than to see another dragged there!"
Des Ageaux smiled. "Nay, but you mistake me, M. de Villenueve," he said. "I ask you to betray no one. It is I who wish to enlist with you."
"With us?" Charles exclaimed. And he stared in bewilderment.
"With you. In fact you see before you," des Ageaux continued, his eyes twinkling, his hand stroking his short beard, "a Crocan. Frankly, and to be quite plain, I want their help; a little later my help may save them. They fear an attack by the Captain of Vlaye? I am prepared to aid them against him. Afterwards----"
"If they will hear reason, what can be done in their behalf I will do! But there must be no Jacquerie, no burning, and no plundering. In a word," with a flitting smile, "it is now for the Crocans to say whether the Captain of Vlaye shall earn the King's pardon by quelling them--or they by quelling him."
"But you are the Governor of Périgord?" Charles exclaimed.
"I am the King's Lieutenant in Périgord, which is the same thing."
"And in this business?"
"I am in the position of the finger which is set between the door and the jamb! But no matter for that, you will not understand. Only do you tell me where these Crocans lie, and we will visit them if it can be done before night. To-night I must be back"--with a peculiar look--"for I have other business."
Charles told him, and with joy. Ay, with joy. As a sail to the raft-borne seaman awash in the Biscayan Gulf, or a fountain to the parched wanderer in La Mancha, this and more to him was the prospect suddenly opened before his eyes. To be snatched at a word from the false position in which he had placed himself, and from which naught short of a miracle could save him! To find for ally, instead of the broken farmers and ruined clowns, the governor of a great province! To be free to carve his fortune with his right hand where he would! These, indeed, were blessings that a minute before had seemed as far from him as home from the seaman who feels his craft settling down in a shoreless water.
Bonne's first thought when her brother darted to the stranger's rescue was to seek aid from Ampoule, who, it will be remembered, sat drinking beside the fire in the outer hall. But the man's coarse address, and the nature of his employment at the moment, checked the impulse; and the girl returned to the window, and, flattening her face against the panes, sought to learn what fortune her brother had. The fire, still burning high, cast its light as far as the gateway. But the tower to which Roger had hastened, being in a line with the window, was not visible, and though Bonne pressed her face as closely as possible against the panes, she could discover nothing. Yet her brother did not come back. The murmur of jeers and laughter persisted, but he did not appear.
She turned at last, impelled to seek aid from some one. But at sight of the room, womanish panic took her by the throat, and the hysterical fit almost overcame her. For what help, what hope of help, lay in any of those whom she saw round her? The Countess indeed had crept to her side, and cast her arm about her, but she was a child, and ashake already. For the others, the Vicomte sat sunk in lethargy, heeding no one, ignorant apparently that his son had left the room; and Fulbert, whose wits had exhausted themselves in the effort that had saved his mistress, stood faithful indeed, but brainless, dull, dumb. Only Solomon, who leant against the wall beside the door, his old face gloomy, his eyebrows knit, only to him could she look for a spark of comfort or suggestion. He, it was clear, appreciated the crisis, for he was listening intently, his head inclined, his hand on a weapon. But he was old, and there was not a man of Vlaye's troopers who was not more than a match for him foot to foot.
Still, he was her only hope, if her brother did not return. And she turned again to the casement, and, scarcely breathing, listened with a keenness of anxiety almost indescribable. If only Roger would return! Roger, who had seemed so weak a prop a few minutes before, and who, now that she had lost him, seemed everything! But the voices of Ampoule and his companion disputing in the outer hall rose louder, drowning more distant sounds; and the minutes were passing. And still Roger did not return.
Then a thought came to her; or rather two thoughts. The first was that all now hung on her--and that steadied her. The second, that he whose grasp had brought the blood to her cheeks that morning had bidden her hold out to the last, fight to the last, play the man to the last; and this moved her to action. Better do anything than succumb like her father. She flew to Solomon, dragging the Countess with her.
"We are not safe here," she said. "These men are drinking. They have kept Roger, and that bodes us no good. Were it not better to go upstairs to the Tower Room?"
"It were the best course," the old man answered slowly, with his eyes on the Vicomte. "Out and away the best course, mademoiselle. Fulbert and I could guard the stairs awhile at any rate."
"Then let us go!"
But he looked at the Vicomte. "If my lord says so," he answered. All his life the Vicomte's word had been his law.
In a moment she was at her father's side. "The Countess will be safer upstairs, sir," she said, speaking with a boldness that surprised herself--but who could long remain in fear of the failing old man whose leaden eyes met hers with scarce a gleam of meaning? "The Countess is frightened here, sir," she continued. "If you would guard us upstairs----"
"Have done!" he struck at her with feeble passion, and waved her off. "Let me alone."
"Peace, girl, I say!" he repeated irascibly. "Who are you to fix comings and goings? Get to your stool and your needle. God knows," in a burst of childish petulance, "what the world is coming to--when children order their elders! But since--there, begone! Begone!"
She wrung her hands in despair. Outside, fuel was beginning to fail, the fire was burning low, the court growing dark. Within, the two guttering candles showed only the Vicomte's figure sunk low in his chair, and here and there a pale face projected from the shadow. But the noise of riot and disorder did not slacken, rather it grew more menacing; and what was she to do? Desperate, she returned to the attack.
"Sir," she said, "there is no one to escort the Countess of Rochechouart to her room. She wishes to retire, and it is late."
He got abruptly to his feet, and looked about him with something of his ordinary air. "Where is the Countess?" he asked peevishly. And then addressing Solomon, "Take candles! Take candles!" he continued. "And you, sirrah, light the way! Don't you know your duty? The Countess to her room! Mordieu, girl, we are fallen low indeed if we don't know how to behave to our guests. Madame--or, to be sure, Mademoiselle la Comtesse," with a puzzled look at the shrinking child, "let me have the honour. Things are out of gear to-night, and we must do the best we can. But to-morrow--to-morrow all shall be in order."
He marshalled Solomon out and followed, bowing the young Countess before him. Bonne overjoyed went next; Fulbert, like a patient dog, brought up the rear. All was not done yet, however, as Bonne knew; and she nerved herself for the effort. On the landing her father would have stopped, but she passed him lightly and opened the door that led by way of the roof, to the Tower Chamber. "This way!" she muttered to Solomon, as he hesitated. "The Countess is timid to-night, sir," she continued aloud, "and craves leave to lie in the Tower as the room is empty."
He frowned. "Still this silliness!" he exclaimed, and then passing his hand over his brow, "There was something said about it, I remember. But I thought I----"
"Gave permission, sir? Yes!" Bonne murmured, pushing the girl steadily forward. "Solomon, do you hear? Light along the leads!"
Great as was his fear of the Vicomte, the old porter succumbed to her will, and all were on the point of following, when a door on the landing opened, and the Abbess appeared on the threshold of her room. She held a light above her head, and with a sneer on her handsome face, contemplated the group.
"What is this?" she asked. And then, gathering their intention from their looks--possibly she had had some inkling of it, "You do not mean to tell me," she continued, partly in temper, and partly in feigned surprise, "that a half-dozen of roystering troopers, sir, are driving the Vicomte de Villeneuve from his own chamber? To take refuge among the owls and bats? For shame, sir, for shame!"
Bonne tried to stay her by a gesture.
In vain. "A fine tale they will have to tell to-morrow!" the elder sister continued in tones of savage raillery. "M. de Villeneuve afraid of a handful of rascals, whom their master keeps within bounds with a stick! The Lord of Villeneuve bearded in his own house by a scum of riders!"
"Peace, daughter!" the Vicomte cried; he even raised his hand in anger. "You lie! It is not I"--his head trembling--"I indeed, but the Countess! You don't see her. The Countess of Rochechouart----"
"Oh!" said the Abbess. And, the light she held shining on her arrogant beauty, she swept a great curtsy, as if she had not seen her intended guest before; as if her scornful eyes had not from the first descried the girl; as if the small beginnings of hate, hate that scarcely knew itself, were not already in her breast. "Oh," she said again, "it is the Countess of Rochechouart, is it, who is afraid?"
"And with reason," Bonne answered, intervening hurriedly, but in a low voice. "The men are drinking and growing violent. Roger went to them some time ago, and has not come back."
"Roger!" the Abbess ejaculated, shrugging her shoulders. "Did you think that he could do anything?"
But she who of all those present seemed least likely to interfere spoke up at that. Whether the young Countess resented--Heaven knows why she should--the sneer at Roger's expense, or only the contempt of herself which the Abbess's manner expressed, she plucked up a spirit. After all she was not only a Rochechouart, but she was a woman; and there is in all women, even the meekest, a spark of temper that, being fanned by one of their own sex, blazes up. "It is true," she replied coldly, her face faintly pink. "It is I who am afraid, mademoiselle. But it is not of the men downstairs. It is their master whom I fear."
"You fear M. de Vlaye?" the Abbess repeated. And she laughed aloud, a little over merrily, at the absurdity of the notion. "You--fear M. de Vlaye? Why? If I may venture to ask?"
"Why?" the Countess replied. She had learned somewhat during the day, and was too young to hide her knowledge, being provoked. "Do you ask why, mademoiselle? Because, to be plain, I fear that which it may be you do not fear."
The Abbess flushed crimson to her very throat. "And what, to be plain, do you mean by that?" she retorted in a tone that shook with passion. "If you think that this story is true that they tell----"
"That M. de Vlaye waylaid and would have seized me?" the little Countess retorted undismayed. "It is quite true."
"You say that!" The young Abbess was pale and red by turns. "How do you know? What do you know?"
"I know the Captain of Vlaye," the girl answered firmly. "I have seen him more than once at Angoulême, His mask fell yesterday, and I could not be mistaken. It was he!"
The Abbess bit her lip until the blood came in the vain attempt to mask feelings which her temper rendered her impotent to control. She no longer doubted the story. She saw that it was true; and jealousy, rage, and amazement--amazement at Vlaye's treachery, amazement at the discovery of a rival in one so insignificant in all save rank--deprived her of the power of speech. Fortunately at this moment the clash of steel reached Solomon's ears, and, startled, the porter gave the alarm.
"My lord, they are fighting!" he cried. And then emboldened by the emergency, "Were it not well," he continued, "to put the ladies in a place of safety?"
The Vicomte, urged up the steps by the women, leant over the parapet, and learned the truth for himself. Bonne, the Countess, the Abbess and her women, all followed, and in a twinkling were standing on the roof in the dark night, the round tower rising beside them, and the croaking of the frogs coming up to them from below.
But the brief clash of weapons was over, and they could make out no more than a group of figures gathered about two prostrate men. The movement of the lights, now here now there, augmented the difficulty of seeing, and for a while Bonne's heart stood still. She made no lamentations, for she came of the old blood, but she thought Roger dead. And then a man raised a light, and she distinguished his figure leaning over one of the injured men.
"Thank God!" she murmured. "There is Roger. He is not hurt!"
"Who are they? Who are they?" the Vicomte babbled, clinging to the parapet. "Eh? Who are they? Cannot any one see?"
But no one could see, and the Abbess's women began to cry. She paid no heed to them. She leant with the others over the parapet, and she listened with them to the shuffling feet of the men below, as slowly in a double line they bore the cloaked form towards the house. But whether their thoughts were her thoughts, their anxiety her anxiety, whether she was wrapt, as they were, in the scene that passed below, or chewed instead the cud of other and more bitter reflections, was known only to herself. Her proud spirit, whose worst failings hitherto had not gone beyond selfishness and vanity, hung, it may be, during those moments between good and evil, the better and the worse; took, perhaps, the turn that must decide its life; flung from it, perhaps, in passionate abandonment the last heart-strings that bound it to the purer and more generous affections.
Perhaps; but none of those who stood beside her had an inkling of her mood. For the troopers had passed with their mysterious burden into the house, and no sooner were they gone than one of the Abbess's women cried in a panic that they would be murdered, and in a trice all, succumbing to the impulse, made for the Tower Chamber, and herded into it pell-mell, some shrugging their shoulders and showing that they gave way to the more timid, and the men not knowing from whom to take orders. In the chamber were already two or three of the house-women, who had sought that refuge earlier in the evening, and these, seeing the Vicomte, looked for nothing but slaughter, and by their shrill lamentations added to the confusion.
The security of all depended entirely on their holding the way across the leads, and here the men should have remained; but the women would not part with them and all entered together. Some one locked the outer door, and there they were, in all eleven or twelve persons, in the great, dreary chamber, where a few feeble candles that served to make darkness visible disclosed their blanched faces. At the slightest sound the women shrieked or clung to one another, and with every second the boldest expected to hear the tramp of feet without, and the clatter of weapons on the oak.
There was something ridiculous in this noisy panic; yet something terrifying also to those who, like Bonne, kept their heads. She strove in vain to make herself heard; her voice was drowned; the disorder overwhelmed her as a flood overwhelms a strong swimmer. She seized a girl by the arm to silence her: the wench took it for a fresh alarm and squalled the louder. She flew to her father and begged him to interpose; flurried, he fell into a rage with her, and stormed at her as if it were she who caused the confusion. For the others the young Countess, though quiet, was scared; and Odette, seated at a distance, noticed her companions only at intervals in the dark current of her thoughts--and then with a look of disdain.
At length Bonne betook herself to Solomon. "Some one should hold the roof!" she said.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Ay, ay, mademoiselle," he said, "but we have no orders and the door is locked, and he has the key."
"You could do something there?"
"Ay, if we had orders."
She flew to the Vicomte at that. "Some one should be holding the roof, sir," she said. "Solomon and Fulbert could maintain it awhile. Could you not give them orders?"
He swore at her. "We are mad to be here," he exclaimed, veering about on an instant. "This comes of letting women have a voice! Silence, you hell-babes!" he continued, turning with his staff raised upon two of the women, who had chosen that moment to raise a new outcry. "We are all mad! Mad, I say!"
"I will silence them, sir," she answered. And stepping on a bed, "Listen! Listen to me!" she cried stoutly. "We are in little danger here if we are quiet. Therefore let us make no noise. They will not then know where to find us. And let the men go to the door, and the maids to the other end of the room. And----"
Shrieks stopped her. The two whom the Vicomte had upbraided flung themselves screaming on Solomon. "The window! The window!" they cried, glaring over their shoulders. And before the astonished old man could free himself, or the Vicomte give vent to his passion, "The window! They are coming in!" they shrieked.
The words were the signal for a wild rush towards the door. Two or three of the candles were knocked down, the Vicomte was well-nigh carried off his legs, the Abbess, who tried to rise, was pinned where she was by her women; who flung themselves on their knees before her and hid their faces in her robe. Only Bonne, interrupted in the midst of her appeal, retained both her presence of mind and her freedom of action. After obeying the generous instinct which bade her thrust the young Countess behind her, she remained motionless, staring intently at the window--staring in a mixture of hope and fear.
The hope was justified. They were the faces of friends that showed in the dark opening of the window. They were friends who entered--Charles first, that the alarm might be the sooner quelled, des Ageaux second; if first and second they could be called, when the feet of the two touched the floor almost at the same instant. But Charles wore a new and radiant face, and des Ageaux a look of command, that to Bonne after what she had gone through was as wine to a fainting man. There were some whom that look did not reach, but even these--women with their faces hidden--stilled their cries, and raised their heads when he spoke. For a trumpet could not have rung more firm in that panic-laden air.
"We are friends!" he said. "And we are in time! M. le Vicomte, we must act and ask your leave afterwards." Turning again to the window he spoke to the night.
Not in vain. At the word troopers came tumbling in man after man; the foremost, a lean, lank-visaged veteran, who looked neither to right nor left, but in three strides, and with one salute in the Vicomte's direction, put himself at the door and on guard. He had a long, odd-looking sword with a steel basket hilt, with which he signed to the men to stand here or there.
For they continued to come in, until the Vicomte, stunned by the sight of his son, awoke to fresh wonder; and, speechless, counted a round dozen and three to boot, besides his guest and Charles. Moreover they were men of a certain stamp, quiet but grim, who, being bidden, did and asked no questions.
When they had all filed through the group of staring women now fallen silent, and had ranged themselves beside the Bat--for he it was--at the door, des Ageaux spoke.
"Do you hear them?"
"No, my lord."
"Unlock softly, then, but do not open! And wait the word! M. le Vicomte"--he turned courteously to the old man--"the occasion presses, or I would ask your pardon. Mademoiselle"--but as he turned to Bonne he lowered his voice, and what he said escaped other ears. Not her ears, for from brow to neck, though he had but praised her courage and firmness, she blushed vividly.
"I did only what I could," she replied, lifting her eyes once to his and as quickly dropping them. "Roger----"
"Ha! What of Roger?"
She told him as concisely as she could.
He knit his brows. "That was not of my contrivance," he said. And then with a gleam of humour in his eyes, "Masked was he? Another knight-errant, it seems, and less fortunate than the first! You do not lack supporters in your misfortunes, mademoiselle. But--what is it?"
"They come, my lord," the Bat answered, raising his hand to gain attention.
All, at the word, listened with quickened pulses, and in the silence the harsh rending of wood came to the ear, a little dulled by distance. Then a murmur of voices, then another crash! The men about the door poised themselves, each with a foot advanced, and his weapon ready; their strained muscles and gleaming eyes told of their excitement. A moment and they would be let loose! A moment--and then, too late, Bonne saw Charles beside the Bat.
Too late; but it mattered nothing. She might have spoken, but he, panting for the fight, exulting in the occasion, would not have heeded if an angel had spoken. And before she could find words, the thing was done. The Bat flung the door open, and with a roar of defiance the mob of men charged out and across the roof, Charles among the foremost.
A shot, a scream, a tumult of cries, the jarring of steel on steel, and the fight rolled down through the house in a whirl of strident voices. The candles, long-wicked and guttering, flamed wildly in the wind; the room was half in shadow, half in light. The Vicomte, who had seen all in a maze of stupefaction, stiffened himself--as the old war-horse that scents the battle. Bonne hid her face and prayed.
Not so the Abbess. She sat unmoved, a sneer on her face, a dark look in her eyes. And so Bonne, glancing up, saw her; and a strange pang shot through the younger girl's breast. If he had praised her courage--and that with a look and in a tone that had brought the blood to her cheeks--what would he think of her handsome sister? How could he fail to admire her, not for her beauty only, but for her stately pride, for the composure that not even this could alter, for the challenge that shone in her haughty eyes?
The next moment Bonne reproached herself for entertaining such a thought, while Charles's life and perhaps Roger's hung in the balance, and the cries of men in direst straits still rung in her ears. What a worm she was, what a crawling thing! God pardon her! God protect them!
The Abbess's voice--she had risen at last and moved--cut short her supplications. "Who is he?" Odette de Villeneuve muttered in a fierce whisper. "Who is he, girl?" She pointed to des Ageaux, who kept his station on the threshold, his ear following the course of the fight. "Who is that man? They call him my lord! Who is he?"
"I do not know," Bonne said.
"You do not know?"
The candles flared higher. The Lieutenant turned and saw the two sisters standing together looking at him.
He crossed the room to them, halting midway to listen, his attention divided between them and the conflict below. His eyes dwelt awhile on the Abbess, but settled, as he drew nearer, on Bonne. He desired to reassure her. "Have no fear, mademoiselle," he said quietly. "Your brother runs little risk. They were taken by surprise. By this time it is over."
The Vicomte heard and his lips trembled, but no words came. It was the Abbess who spoke for him. "And what next?" she asked harshly.
Des Ageaux, still lending an ear to the sounds below, looked at her with attention, but did not answer.
"What next?" she repeated. "You have entered forcibly. By what right?"
"The right, mademoiselle," he replied, "that every man has to resist a wrong. The right that every man has to protect women, and to save his friends. If you desire more than this," he continued, with a change of tone that answered the challenge of her eyes, "in the King's name, mademoiselle, and my own!"
"And you are?"
"His Majesty's Lieutenant in Périgord," he answered, bowing. His attention was fixed on her, yet he was vividly conscious of the colour that mounted suddenly to Bonne's cheeks, dyed her brows, shone in her eyes.
"Of Périgord?" the Abbess repeated in astonishment.
"Of Périgord," he replied, bowing again. "It is true," he continued, shrugging his shoulders, "that I am a league or two beyond my border, but great wrongs beget little ones, mademoiselle."
She hated him. As he stood there successful, she hated him. But she had not found an answer, nor had Bonne stilled the fluttering, half painful, half pleasant, of her heart, when the tread of returning feet heralded news. The Bat and two others entered, bearing a lanthorn that lit up their damp swarthy faces. The first was Roger.
He was wildly excited. "Great news!" he cried, waving his hand. "Great news! I have downstairs----"
One look from des Ageaux's eyes silenced him. Des Ageaux looked from him to the Bat. "What have you done?" he asked curtly.
"Taken two unwounded, three wounded," the tall man answered as briefly. "The others escaped."
"We have their horses."
Des Ageaux paused an instant. Then, "You have closed the gates?"
"And set a guard, my lord!" the Bat answered. "We have no wounded, but----"
"The Duke of Joyeuse lies below, and is wounded!" Roger cried in a breath. He could restrain himself no longer.
If his object was to shatter des Ageaux's indifference, he succeeded to a marvel. "The Duke of Joyeuse?" the Lieutenant exclaimed in stupefaction. "Impossible!"
"But no!" Roger retorted. "He is lying below--wounded. It is not impossible!"
"But he was not--of those?" des Ageaux returned, indicating by a gesture the men whom they had just expelled. For an instant the notion that he had attacked and routed friends instead of foes darkened his face.
"No!" Roger explained fluently--excitement had rid him of his diffidence. "No! He was the man who rode into the courtyard--but you have not heard? They were going to maltreat him, and he killed their leader, Ampoule--that was before you came!" Roger's eyes shone; it was evident that he had transferred his allegiance.
Des Ageaux's look sought the Bat and asked a question. "There is a dead man below," the Bat answered. "He had it through the throat."
"And the Duke of Joyeuse?"
"He is there--alone apparently."
The Bat's eyes sought the wall and gazed on it stonily. "There are more fools than one in the world," he said gruffly.
Des Ageaux pondered an instant. Then, "I will see him," he said. "But first," he turned courteously to the Vicomte, "I have to provide for your safety, M. le Vicomte, and that of your family. I can only ensure it, I fear, by removing you from here. I have not sufficient force to hold the château, and short of that I see no way of protecting you from the Captain of Vlaye's resentment."
The Vicomte, who had aged years in the last few days, as the old sometimes do, sat down weakly on a bed. "Go--from here?" he muttered, his hands moving nervously on his knees. "From my house?"
"It is necessary."
"Why?" A younger and stronger voice flung the question at des Ageaux. The Abbess stood forward beside her father. "Why?" she repeated imperiously. "Why should we go from here--from our own house? Or why should we fear M. de Vlaye?"
"To the latter question--because he does not lightly forgive, mademoiselle," des Ageaux replied drily. "To the former because I have neither men nor means to defend this house. To both, because you have with you"--he pointed to the Countess--"this lady, whom it is not consonant with the Vicomte's honour either to abandon or to surrender. To be plain, M. de Vlaye's plans have been thwarted and his men routed, and to-morrow's sun will not be an hour high before he takes the road. To remain here were to abide the utmost of his power; which," he added drily, "is at present of importance, however it may stand in a week's time."
She looked at him darkly beautiful, temper and high disdain in her face. And as she looked there began to take shape in her mind the wish to destroy him; a wish that even as she looked, in a space of time too short to be measured by our clumsy methods, became a fixed thought. Why had he intervened? Who had invited him to intervene? With a woman's inconsistency she left out of sight the wrong M. de Vlaye would have done her, she forgot the child-Countess, she overlooked all except that this man was the enemy of the man she loved. She felt that but for him all would have been well! But for him--for even that she laid at his door--and his hostility the Captain of Vlaye had never been driven to think of that other way of securing his fortunes.
These thoughts passed through her mind in a pause so short that the listeners scarcely marked it for a pause. Then, "And if we will not go?" she cried.
"All in the house will go," he replied.
"I shall decide that," he answered coldly. And he turned from her. Before she could retort he was giving orders, and men were coming and going and calling to one another, and lights were flitting in all directions through the house, and all about her was hubbub and stir and confusion. She saw that resistance was vain. Her father was passive, her brothers were des Ageaux's most eager ministrants. The servants were awed into silence, or, like old Solomon, who for once was mute on the glories of the race, were anxious to escape for their own sakes.
Then into her hatred of him entered a little of that leaven of fear which makes hatred active. For amid the confusion he was cool. His voice was firm, his eye commanded on this side, his hand beckoned on that, men ran for him. She knew the dread in which M. de Vlaye was held. But this she saw was not the awe in which men hold him whose caprice it may be to punish, but the awe in which men stand of him who is just; whose nature it is out of chaos to create order, and who to that end will spend himself and all. A man cold of face and something passionless; even hard, we have seen, when a rope, a bough, and a villain forced themselves on his attention.
She would not have known him had she seen him leaning over Joyeuse a few minutes later, while his lean subaltern held a shaded taper on the other side of the makeshift pallet. The door was locked on them, they had the room to themselves, and between them the Duke lay in the dead sleep of exhaustion. "I do not think that we can move him," des Ageaux muttered, his brow clouded by care.
The Bat, with the light touch of one who had handled many a dying man, felt the Duke's pulse, without rousing him. "He will bear it," he said, "in a litter."
"Over that road? Think what a road it is!"
"He brought the money, found me gone, and followed," des Ageaux murmured in a voice softening by feeling. "You think we dare take him?"
"To leave him to the Captain of Vlaye were worse."
"Worse for us," des Ageaux muttered doubtfully. "That is true."
"Worse for all," the Bat grunted. He took liberties in private that for all the world he would not have had suspected.
Still his master, who had been so firm above-stairs, hung undecided over the sick man's couch. "M. de Vlaye would not be so foolish as to harm him," he said.
"He would only pluck him!" the Bat retorted. "And wing us with the first feather, the Lady Countess with the second, the Crocans with the third, and the King with the fourth." He stopped. It was a long speech for him.
Des Ageaux assented. "Yes, he is the master-card," he said slowly. "I suppose we must take him. But Heavens knows how we shall get him there."
"Leave that to me!" said the Bat, undertaking more than he knew. Nor did he guess with whose assistance he was to perform the task.
It was after midnight, and the young moon had set when they came, a long procession of riders, to the ford in which des Ageaux had laved his horse's legs on the evening of his arrival. But the night was starlight, and behind them the bonfire, which the men had rekindled that its blaze might aid their preparations, was reflected in a faint glow above the trees. As they splashed through the shallows the frogs fell silent, scared by the invasion, but an owl that was mousing on the slope of the downs between them and the dim lifted horizon continued its melancholy hooting. The women shivered as the cool air embraced them, and one here and there, as her horse, deceived by the waving weeds, set a foot wrong, shrieked low.
But no one hesitated, for the Bat had put fear into them.
He had told them in the fewest possible words that in ninety minutes M. de Vlaye would be knocking at the gate they left! And how long the pursuit would tarry after that he left to their imaginations. The result justified his course; the ford, that in daylight was a terror to the timid, was passed without demur. One by one their horses stepped from its dark smooth-sliding water, turned right-handed, and falling into line set their heads up-stream towards the broken hills and obscure winding valleys whence the river flowed.
Hampered by the wounded man's litter and the night, they could not hope to make more than a league in the hour, and with the first morning light might expect to be overtaken. But des Ageaux considered that the Captain of Vlaye, ignorant of his force, would not dare to follow at speed. And in the beginning all went well.
Over smooth turf, they made for half a league good progress, the long bulk of the chalk hill accompanying them on the left, while on the right the vague gloom of the wooded valley, teeming with mysterious rustlings and shrill night cries, drew many a woman's eyes over her shoulder. But, as the bearers of the litter could only proceed at a walking pace, the long line of shadowy riders had not progressed far before a gap appeared in its ranks and insensibly grew wider. Presently the two bodies were moving a hundred yards apart, and henceforward the rugged surface of the road, which was such as to hamper the litter without delaying the riders, quickly augmented the interval.
The Vicomte was mounted on his own grizzled pony, and with his two daughters and Roger rode at the head of the first party. They had not proceeded far before Bonne remarked that her sister was missing. She was sure that the Abbess had been at her side when she crossed the ford, and for a short time afterwards. Why had she left them? And where was she?
Not in front, for only the Bat and Charles, who had attached himself to the veteran, and was drinking in gruff tales of leaguer at his lips, were in front. Behind, then?
Bonne turned her head and strove to learn. But the light of the stars and the night--June nights are at no hour quite dark--allowed her to see only the persons who rode immediately behind her. They were Roger and the Countess. On their heels came two more--men for certain. The rest were shadows, bobbing vaguely along, dim one moment, lost the next.
Presently Charles, also, missed the Abbess, and asked where she was.
Roger could only answer: "To the rear somewhere."
"Learn where she is," Charles returned. "Pass the word back, lad. Ask who is with her."
Presently, "She is not with us," Roger passed back word. "She is with the litter, they say. And it has fallen behind. But the Lieutenant is with it, so that she is safe there."
"She were better here," Charles answered shortly. "She is not wanted there, I'll be sworn!"
Wanted or not, the Abbess had not put herself where she was without design. Her passage of arms with des Ageaux had not tended to soften her feelings. She was now bent on his punishment. The end she knew; the means were to seek. But with the confidence of a woman who knew herself beautiful, she doubted not that she would find or create them. Bitterly, bitterly should he rue the day when he had forced her to take part against the man she loved. And if she could involve in his fall this child, this puling girl on whom the Captain of Vlaye had stooped an eye, not in love or adoration, but solely to escape the toils in which they were seeking to destroy him--so much the better! The two were linked inseparably in her mind. The guilt was theirs, the cunning was theirs, the bait was theirs; and M. de Vlaye's the misfortune only. So women reason when they love.
If she could effect the ruin of these two, and at the same time save the man she adored, her triumph would be complete. If--but, alas, in that word lay the difficulty; nor as she rode with a dark face of offence had she a notion how to set about her task. But women's wits are better than their logic. Men spoke in her hearing of the litter and of the delay it caused, and in a flash the Abbess saw the means she lacked, and the man she must win. In the litter lay the one and the other.
For the motives that led des Ageaux to bear it with him at the cost of trouble, of delay, of danger, were no secret to a quick mind. The man who lay in it was the key to the situation. She came near to divining the very phrase--a master-card--which des Ageaux had used to the Bat in the security of the locked room. A master-card he was; a card that at all costs must be kept in the Lieutenant's hands, and out of Vlaye's power.
Therefore, even in this midnight flight they must burden themselves with his litter. A Duke, a Marshal of France, in favour at Court, and lord of a fourth of Languedoc, he had but to say the word, and Vlaye was saved--for this time at any rate. The Duke need but give some orders, speak to some in power, call on some of those to whom his will was law, and his protégé would not fall for lack of means. Up to this point indeed, after a fashion which the Abbess did not understand--for the man had fallen from the clouds--he was ranged against her friend. But if he could be put into Vlaye's hands, or fairly or foully led to take Vlaye's side, then the Captain of Vlaye would be saved. And if she could effect this, would be saved by her. By her!
The sweetness of such a revenge only a woman can understand. Her lover had fancied the Rochechouart's influence necessary to his safety, and to gain that influence he had been ready to repudiate his love. What a sweet savour of triumph if she--she whom he was ready to abandon--could save him by this greater influence, and in the act show him that a mightier than he was at her feet!
She had heard stories of the Duke's character, which promised well for her schemes. At the time of her short sojourn at Court, he had but lately left his cloister, drawn forth by the tragical death of his brother. He was then entering upon that career of extravagance, eccentricity, and vice which, along with his reputation for eloquence and for strange fits of repentance, astonished even the dissolute circles of the Court. His name and his fame were in all mouths; a man quick to love, quick to hate, report had it; a man in whom remorse followed sharp on sin, and sin on remorse. A man easy to win, she supposed, if a woman were beautiful and knew how to go about it.
Ay, if she knew; but there was the difficulty. For he was no common man, no man of narrow experience, and the ordinary bait of beauty might not by itself avail. The Abbess, high as her opinion of her charm stood, perceived this. She recognised that in the circle; in which he had moved of late beauty was plentiful, and she bent her wits to the point. After that she might have been riding in daylight, for all she saw of her surroundings. She passed through the ford and in her deep thinking saw it not. The long, dark hill on her left, and the low woods on her right with their strange night noises, and their teeming evidences of that tragedy of death which fills the world, did not exist for her. The gleam of the star-lit river caught her eye, but failed to reach her brain. And if she fell back slowly and gradually until she found herself but a few paces before the litter and its convoy, it was not by design only, but in obedience to a subtle attraction at work within her.
When her women presently roused her by their complaints that she was being left behind with the litter, she took it for an omen, and smiled in the darkness. They, on the contrary, were frightened, nor without reason. The road they pursued followed the bank of the river; but the wide vale had been left behind. They had passed into a valley more strait and gloomy; a winding trough, close pressed by long, hog-shaped hills, between which the travellers became every moment more deeply engaged. The stars were fading from the sky, the darkness which comes before the dawn was on them, and with the darkness a chill.
This change alarmed the women. But it did not terrify them one half as much as the marked anxiety of the litter-party. More than once des Ageaux' voice could be heard adjuring the bearers to move faster. More than once a rider passed between them and the main body, and on each of these occasions men fell back and took the places of the old carriers. But still the cry was "Faster! Faster!"
In truth the day was on the point of breaking, and the fugitives were still little more than two leagues from Villeneuve. At any moment they might be overtaken, when the danger of an attack would be great, since the light must reveal the paucity of their numbers. In this pinch even the Lieutenant's stoicism failed him, and moment by moment he trembled lest the sound of galloping horses reach his ear. Less than an hour's riding at speed would place his charges in safety; yet for the sake of a wounded man he must risk all. No wonder that he cried again, "Faster, men, faster!" and pressed the porters to their utmost speed.
Soon out of the darkness ahead loomed the Bat. "This will never do, my lord," he said, reining in his horse beside his leader. He spoke in a low voice, but the Abbess, a dozen paces ahead, could hear his words, and even the heavy breathing of the carriers. "To go on at this pace is to hazard all."
"You must go forward with the main body!" des Ageaux replied shortly. "Let the women who are with us ride on and join the others, and do you--but, no, that will not do."
"For certain it will not do!" the Bat answered. "It is I must stay, for the fault is mine. But for me you would have left him, my lord."
"Do you think we could support him on a horse?"
"It would kill him!" the Bat rejoined. "But it is not two hundred paces to the chapel by the ford that you remarked this morning. If we leave him there, and M. de Vlaye finds him, he will be as anxious to keep life in him as we are. If, on the other hand, M. de Vlaye overlooks him, we can bring him in to-morrow."
"If it must be," des Ageaux answered reluctantly, "we must leave him. But we cannot leave him without some assistance. Who will stay with him?"
"Diable!" the Bat muttered.
"I will not leave him without some one," des Ageaux repeated firmly. "Some one must stay."
Out of the darkness came the answer. "I," the Abbess said, "will stay with him!"
"You, mademoiselle?" in a tone of astonishment.
"I," she repeated, "and my women. I," she continued haughtily, "have nothing to fear from the Captain of Vlaye or his men."
"And mademoiselle's robe," the Bat muttered with the faintest suspicion of irony in his tone, "protects her."
Charles, who had joined them with the Bat, thoughtlessly assented. "To be sure!" he cried. "Let my sister stay! She can stay without danger."
Alone of the three des Ageaux remained silent--pondering. He had seen enough of the Abbess to suspect that it was not humanity alone which dictated her offer. Probably she desired to rejoin her admirer. In that case, did she know enough of the fugitives' plans and strength to render her defection formidable?
He thought not. At any rate it seemed well to take the chance. He was taking, he was beginning to see that he was taking a good many chances. "It seems a good plan, if mademoiselle be indeed willing," he said. He wished that he could see her face.
"I have said," she replied coldly, "that I am willing."
But her women showed forthwith that they were not. What? Remain in this wilderness in the dark with a dying man? They would be eaten by wolves, they would be strangled by witches, they would be ravished by thieves! Never! And in a trice one was in hysterics, deaf to her mistress's threats and to the Bat's grim hints. The other, after a conflict, allowed herself to be browbeaten, and sullenly, and with tears, yielded. But not until the water of the ford rippled about their horses' hoofs, and the tiny spark of light that through the open door beaconed the shallows shone in their eyes.
Had it been day they would have had before them a scene at once wild and peaceful. On their right, below the ford--which was formed by the passage of the stream from one side of the narrow valley to the other--a lofty bluff overhung a black pool. Above the ford, on the level meadow, and a stone's-throw from the track--if track that could be called which was not used by a hundred persons in a year--stood a tiny chapel and cell, which some hermit in past ages had built with his own hands. The approach of the Crocans had driven his latest successor from his post; but des Ageaux, passing that way in the day, had noted the chapel, and with the forethought of the soldier who expected to return in the dark he had seen the earthen lamp relit. Its light, he knew, would, in case of need, direct him to the ford.
At present that lamp, a tiny spark in the blackness, was all they saw. They made for it through the shallows and over a bed of shingle across which the horses clattered noisily. In haste they reached the door of the chapel, and there in a trice--for if the thing was to be done it must be done quickly--they aided the Abbess and the lay sister to alight, bore in the litter with the wounded man, and closed the door on all; this last, that the light might no longer be visible from the ford. Then they, the men, got themselves to horse again, and away at a round trot.
Not without repugnance on the part of several; not without regret and misgiving. Des Ageaux's heart smote him as his horse's feet carried him farther and farther away; it seemed so cowardly a thing to leave women to bear in that wild and lonely place the brunt of whatever might befall. And Charles, ready as he had been to acclaim the notion, wondered if he had erred in leaving his sister thus lightly. But in truth they were embarked in an enterprise whose full perils it lay with time to disclose. And other and more pressing anxieties soon had possession of their minds.
They had been less troubled had they been able to witness the Abbess's demeanour in her solitude. While her companion, overcome by her fears, sank down in a fit of hysterical weeping, Odette de Villeneuve remained standing within the low doorway, and with head erect listened frowning until the last sound of the horses' hoofs died to the ear. Then she drew a deep breath, and, turning slowly, she allowed her eyes to take stock of the place in which she so strangely found herself.
It was a tiny building of rough-hewn stones, with an altar and crucifix, also of stone, erected at the end remote from the door. Along either wall ran a stone bench, on one or other of which the good fathers must have spent many a summer day watching the ford; for at a certain point the stone was polished and worn by friction. The litter and the wounded man filled half the open space, leaving visible only a floor of trodden earth foul with the droppings of birds and sheep, and betraying in other respects the results of neglect. Here and there on some stone larger than its fellows, and particularly on the lintel, a prentice hand had carved symbols; but, this notwithstanding, the whole wore by the light of the smoky lamp an aspect far from sacred.
Yet the prospect of spending several hours in so poor a place did not appear to depress the Abbess. Her inspection finished, she nodded an answer to her thoughts, and sitting down on the bench beside the litter, rested her elbow on her knee and her chin on her hand, and fixing her large dark eyes on the wounded man, gave herself up, as completely as if she had been in her own chamber, to her thoughts.
Her woman, whose complaining, half fractious, half fearful, had sunk to an occasional sob, presently looked at her, and fascinated by that gloomy absorption--which might have dealt with the mysteries of the faith, but turned in fact on the faithlessness of man--she could not look away. And moments passed; the first pale glimmer of dawn appeared, and still the two women faced one another across the insensible man whose heavy breathing, broken from time to time by some obstruction, was the one sound that vied with the low murmur of the stream.
Suddenly the Abbess lifted her head. Mingled with the water's chatter was a harsher sound--a sound of rattling stones, of jingling steel and, a second later, of men's voices. She rose slowly to her feet, and as the other woman, alarmed by the expression of her features, would have screamed, she silenced her by a fierce gesture. Then she stood, her hand resting against the wall beside her, and listened.
She had no doubt that it was he. Her parted lips her eyes, half fierce, half tender, told as much. It was he, and she had but to open the door, she had but to show herself in the lighted doorway, and he would come to her! As the voices of the riders grew, and the rattle of hoofs among the pebbles ceased, she pictured him abreast of the hermitage; she fancied, but it must have been fancy, that she could distinguish his voice. Or no, he would not be speaking. He would be riding, silent, alone, his hand on his hip, the grey light of morning falling on his stern face. And at that, at that picture of him, his deeds and his career, his greatness who had made himself, his firmness whom no obstacle stayed, rose before her embodied in the solitary figure riding foremost through the dawn. Her breast rose and fell tumultuously. The hand that rested on the wall shook. She had only to open the door, she had only to cry his name aloud, only to show herself, and he would be at her side! And she would be no longer against him but with him, no longer would be ranked with his foes--who were so many--but for him against the world!
The temptation was so strong that her form seemed to droop and sway as if a physical charm drew her in the direction of the man she loved, the man to whom, in spite of his faults, or by reason of them, she clung in the face of defection. But powerful as was the spell laid upon her, pride--pride and her will proved stronger. She stiffened herself; for an instant she did not seem to breathe. Nor was it until the last faint clink of iron died away that she turned feverish eyes in search of some crevice, some loophole, some fissure, through which she might yet see him; yet see, if it were but the waving of his plume.
She found none. The only windows, two tiny arrow-slits that had never known glass, were in the wall remote from the track. On that she set her teeth to control the moan of disappointment that rose from her heart; and slowly she sank into her old seat.
But not into her old reverie. The eyes which she bent on the sick man were no longer dreamy. On the contrary, they were fixed in a gaze of eager scrutiny that sought to drag from the Duke's pallid features the secret of his weakness and waywardness, of his strange nature and bizarre fame. And unconsciously as she gazed, she bent nearer and nearer to him; her look grew sharper and more imperious. All hung on him now--all! Her mind was made up. Fortune had not cast him so timely in her path, fate had not afforded her the opportunity of which she had dreamed, without intending her to profit by it, without proposing to crown the scheme with success. The spell of her lover's presence, the spell that had obsessed her so short a time before that the interval could be reckoned by seconds, was broken! Never should it be hers to play that creeping part, to regain him that way, to return to him tamely, empty-handed, a suppliant for his love! No, not while it might be hers to return a conqueror, an equal, with a greater than the Captain of Vlaye in her toils!
She rose to her feet, and tasting triumph in advance, she smiled. With a firm hand, disregarding her woman's remonstrance, she extinguished the lamp. The pale light of early morning stole in through the narrow slits, and then for a brief instant the Abbess held her breath; for the light falling on the Duke's face so sharpened his thin temples and nervous features, showed him so livid and wan and death-like, that she thought him gone. He was not gone, but she acted upon the hint. If he died, where were her schemes and the clever combinations she had been forming? Quickly she drew from the litter a flagon of broth that had been mixed with a cunning cordial; and first moistening his lips with the liquor, by-and-by she contrived to make him swallow some. In the act he opened his eyes, and they were clear and sensible; but it was only to close them again with a sigh, half of satisfaction, half of weakness. Nevertheless, from this time his state was rather one of sleep, the sleep craved by exhausted nature, than of insensibility or fever, and with every hour the forces of his youth and constitution wrought at the task of restoration.
Odette, brooding over him, watched with satisfaction the return of a more healthy colour to his cheeks. Time passed, and presently, while the light was still cold and young, there came an interruption. A murmur of voices, and the jingle of spur and bit, warned her that M. de Vlaye, baffled in his attempt to cut off the fugitives before they found refuge, was returning through the valley. This time, how different were her sensations. She started to her feet and listened, and her face grew hard, but under pressure of suspense, not of desire. Suspense--for if they turned aside, if they entered the deserted chapel and discovered her, her plan--and her very soul was now set on its success--perished still-born.
It was a trying moment, but it passed. Probably Vlaye knew the chapel of old, and knew that the good father had fled from it. At any rate he passed by it, and rode on his way. She heard the trampling of the horses break the singing of the ford; and then she heard only the murmur of the water and the morning hymn of a lark that, startled by the passage of the riders, soared above the glen, and with the sunshine on its throbbing breast, hailed the warm rising of another day.
Whether the lark's song appealed to the softer strain in her, or she began to hate the sordid interior with its grey half-light, the moment she was sure that the riders had gone on their way she opened the door and went out. The sun was peeping into the valley and all nature was astir. The laughing waters of the ford, the steep bluff, darksome by night, now clad in waving tree-tops, the floor of meadow emerald-green, all reflected the brightness of a sky in which not one but half a dozen songsters trilled forth the joy of life. After the gloom, the vigil, the danger of the night, the scene appealed to her strongly; and for a brief time, while she stood gazing on the vale unmarred by human works or human presence, she felt a compunction; such a feeling as in a similar scene invades the breast of the veteran hunter, and whispers to him that to carry death into the haunts of nature is but a sorry task.
A feeling as quickly suppressed in the one case as in the other. A few minutes later the Abbess appeared in the doorway, and beckoned to the woman to join her outside.
"Give me your hood and veil," she said in a tone that forestalled demur. "And I need your outer robe! Don't stare, woman!" she continued fiercely. "Is there any one to see you? Can the hills hurt you? Obey. It is my pleasure to wear the dress of the order, and I have it not with me!"
"Obey, woman, and take my cloak!" the Abbess retorted. "Wrap yourself in that!" And when the change was made, and she had assumed over her dress the loose black and white robe of the order, "Now wait for me here," she said. "And if he call, as is possible, do not go to him, but fetch me!"
She departed towards the pool below the ford, and, disappearing behind a clump of low willows, made, using the still water for a mirror, some further changes in her toilet.
Not fruitlessly, for when she returned to the door of the chapel, the woman who awaited her stared, thinking that she had never seen her mistress show fairer in her silks than in this black and white, which she so seldom favoured. And soon there was another who thought--if not that thought, a similar one. The Duke, opening on the glory of sunshine and summer warmth, the eyes that had so nearly closed for good, saw at the foot of his litter a wondrous figure kneeling before the altar.
The face of the figure was turned from him, and for a time, between sleeping and waking, he considered her idly, supposing her now an angel interceding for him in the other life on which he had entered, now a nun praying beside his bier; for he took it for certain he was dead. By-and-by he passed over to the theory of the angel, for the figure moved, and the sunlight passing in through a tiny window-slit formed a nimbus about her head. And then again, moving afresh, as in an ecstacy of devotion, she lifted her eyes to the crucifix, and the hood falling back with the movement revealed a profile of a beauty and purity almost unearthly.
The Duke sighed. He had sighed before, but apparently, for the sigh had not changed her rapt expression, she had not heard. Now she did hear. She rose, and with a deep genuflection turned from the altar, and glided with downcast eyes to his side. Eyes softened to the meekness of a dove's looked into his, and found that he was awake. Then, angel or saint, or whatever she was, she made a sign to him not to speak; and producing, by magic as it seemed, ambrosial food, she fed him, and with a finger on his lip bade him in gentle accents, "Sleep!"
Sleep? To think he could sleep when an angel--and while he laughed in ridicule of the notion he slept, that heavenly face framed in its nun's hood, that drooping form with the hands crossed upon the breast moving before him into the land of visions. He was back again in those earliest days of his cloistered existence, when to live in an atmosphere, pure and apart, innocent of the passions and desires of the world, had been his dream. He had learned--only too soon--that that atmosphere and that innocence were not to be maintained, though the walls of a monastery be ten feet through. For the nature which the thought of such a life had charmed was of all natures the one most open to worldly fascinations. He had fallen; and he had presently replaced the vision of being good by the enthusiasm of doing good. He had lifted his voice, and the preaching of Père Ange had moved half Paris to a twenty-four hours' repentance. His own had lasted a little longer.
Now, weak and unnerved, he reverted at sight of this beautiful nun's face to his old visions of a saintly life; and in innocent adoration he dreamt of naught but her countenance. When he awoke again and found her still at her devotions, though the sun was high, still at his service when she found him waking, still moving dovelike and silent about her ministrations--he watched her everywhere. Several times he wished to speak, but she laid a finger on her lips, and covering her hands with her sleeves, sat on the bench beside him, reading her book of hours. And so during the hazy period of his return to consciousness he saw her. Awake or drowsing, stung to life by the smart of his hurt or lulled to sleep by the music of the stream, he had her face always before him.
At length there came a time, a little before high noon, when he awoke with a clearer eye and a mind capable of feeling surprise at his position. He saw her sitting beside him, but he saw also the rough grey walls, the altar, the crucifix; and to wonder succeeded curiosity. What had happened, and how came he there? His eyes sought her face and remained riveted to it.
"Where am I?" he whispered.
She marked that his eyes were clear and his strength greater, and, "You are in the chapel in the upper valley of the Dronne," she answered.
"But I----" He stopped and closed his eyes, brought up by some confusion in his thoughts. At last, "I fancied I fought with some one," he whispered. "It was in a courtyard--at night? And there were lights? It was one of Vlaye's men, and the place was----" He broke off in the painful effort to remember. His lips moved without sound.
"Villeneuve," she said.
"Villeneuve," he whispered gratefully. "But this is not Villeneuve?"
"We are two leagues from Villeneuve."
"How come I here?"
She told him, preserving the gentle placidity which, not without thought, she had adopted for her rôle. The repulse of Vlaye's men and the Lieutenant's decision to quit the château, that and the night retreat up to the arrival of the party at the ford--all were told. Then she broke off.
"But des Ageaux?" he murmured. "Where is he?" And again, that he might look round him, he tried to rise. "Where are they all?" he continued in wonder. "They have not left me?" with a querulous note in his voice.
"They are not here," she answered. And gently she induced him to lie back again. "Be still, I pray," she said. "Be still. You do yourself no good by moving."
He sighed. "Where are they?" he persisted.
"We were hard pressed at the ford," she answered with feigned reluctance. "And your litter delayed them. It was necessary to leave you or all had been lost."
He lay in silence awhile with closed eyes, considering what she had told him. At last, "And you stayed?" he murmured in so low a voice that the words were barely audible. "You stayed!"
"It was necessary," she answered.
"And you have been beside me all night?"
She bowed her head.
His eyes filled with tears, and his lips trembled, for he was very weak. He groped for her hand, and would have carried it to his lips, but as men kiss relics or the hands of saints--if she had not withheld it from him. Settling the thin coverings more comfortably round him, she gave him to drink again, softly chiding him and bidding him be silent--be silent and sleep.
But, "You have been beside me all night!" he repeated. "All night, alone here, and a woman! A woman!"
She did not tell him that she was not alone; that her woman was even then sitting outside, under strict orders not to show herself. For now she was assured that she was in the right path. She had had opportunities of studying his countenance while he slept, and she had traced in it those qualities of enthusiasm and weakness, of the libertine and the ascetic, which his career so remarkably displayed. The beauty which in ordinary circumstances his jaded eye, versed in woman's wiles, might neglect, would appeal with irresistible force in a garb of saintliness. Nay, more; as he recovered his strength and returned to his common feelings, it would prove, she felt sure, more provocative than the most worldly lures. Her resolve to carry the matter through was now fixed and immutable: and with her eye on the goal, she neglected no precaution that occurred to her mind.
Something after high noon des Ageaux appeared and, whatever the Abbess's feelings, he was overjoyed to find the three undisturbed. He despatched a flying party down the valley that he might have notice if the enemy approached, and then he bent himself to remove the Duke in safety to his camp. In this the Abbess had her own line to take, and took it with decision. She represented the patient as worse than he was, described the fever as still lingering upon him, and using the authority which her devotion of the night gave her, she insisted that the Duke should see no one. A kind of shelter from the sun was woven of boughs, and placed over the litter. He was then lifted and borne out with care, the Abbess walking on one side, and her woman on the other. In the open air des Ageaux would have approached and spoken to him, for between gratitude and remorse the Lieutenant was much touched. But the authority of the sick-nurse was great then as it is now. The Abbess repelled him firmly, and, refusing the horse which had been brought for her, she persisted in walking the whole distance to the camp--a full league--by the side of the litter. In this way she fenced others off, and the Duke had her always before him. Always the opening at the side of the litter framed her face.
She gave her mind so completely to him that she took no note of their route, save that they kept the valley, which preserving its flat bottom now ran between hills of a wilder aspect. It was only when the troopers, at a word from the Lieutenant, closed in about the litter, that she observed--though it had been some time in sight--the object which caused the movement. This was a small hill-town, girt by a ruinous wall, and buckled with crazy towers, which topped an acclivity on the right of the valley, and commanded the road. The suspicion with which her escort regarded the place did not surprise her when she remarked the filthy forms and wild and savage faces which swarmed upon the wall. There were women and children as well as men in the place, and all, ragged and half naked, mopped and mowed at the passers, or, leaping to their feet, defied them with unspeakable words and gestures.
The Abbess looked at them with daunted eyes. There was something inhuman in their squalor and wildness. "Who are they?" she asked.
"Crocans," the nearest rider answered.
"But we are not going to them?" she returned in astonishment. She had heard that they were bound for the peasants' camp, and her lip had curled at the information. But if these were Crocans--horror!
The man spat on the ground. "That is one band, and ours is another," he replied. "All canaille, but--not all like that, or we had some strange bed-fellows indeed!"
He would have said more, but he caught the Lieutenant's eye, and was silent and five minutes later the Abbess saw a strange sight. The riders before her wheeled to the left, and, bending low in their saddles, vanished bodily in the rock that walled the road on that side.
A moment later she probed the mystery. In the rock wall which fenced the track on the left, as the river fenced it on the right, was an arched opening, resembling the mouth of a cave--of one of those caves so common in the Limousin. Within was no cave, however, but a spacious circus of smooth green turf open to the heaven, though walled on every side by grassy slopes which ran steeply to a height of a hundred feet. There was no entrance to the basin, but neither its defensible strength, nor the wisdom of the Crocans in choosing it, was apparent until the green rampart cast about it by nature was examined and found to be so scarped on the outer side as to form here a sheer precipice, there a descent trying to the most active foot.
A spring near the inner margin of this natural amphitheatre fed a rivulet which, after passing across it, and dividing it into two unequal parts, escaped to the river through the rocky gateway.
The smaller portion of the sward thus divided, a portion raised very slightly above the rest, had something of the aspect of a stage on a great scale. About its middle a flat-topped rock rising to a man's height from the ground had the air of an altar, and this was shaded by the only tree in the enclosure, a single plane-tree of vast size, which darkened with its ancient smooth-barked limbs a half-acre of ground. Probably this rock and this tree had witnessed the meetings of some primitive people, had borne part in their human sacrifices, and echoed the cries with which they acclaimed the moment of the summer solstice.
To-day this basin, long abandoned to the solitude of the hills, presented once more a scene of turmoil, such as for strangeness might rival the gatherings of that remote age. Nor, save for a circumstance presently to be named, could even the Abbess's sullen curiosity have withheld a meed of admiration as the panorama unfolded itself before her.
Round the edge of the larger half of the amphitheatre ran a long line--in parts double and treble, of booths open at the front, and formed, some of branches of trees, some of plaited rushes or osier. Under these, swarms of men, women, and children lounged in every posture, while others strolled about the ground before the sheds, which, crowded with sheep, oxen and horses, wore the aspect of a rustic fair. The turf that had been so fair a fortnight before was trodden bare in places, and in others poached and stained by the crowds that moved on it. Only the immediate bank of the rivulet had been kept clear.
The smaller portion of the sward had been given up to des Ageaux and his band of troopers and refugees. A dozen horses tethered in an orderly row at the rear of the plane-tree, with a pile of gear at the head of each, spoke of military order, as did the three or four booths which had been erected for the accommodation of the Vicomte's party. But as in such a place and under such circumstances it was impossible to enforce strict discipline, the curious among the peasants, and not men only, but women and children, roved in small parties on this side also, staring and questioning; some with furtive eyes as expecting a trap and treachery, others watching in clownish amazement the evolutions of a picked band of three score peasants whom the Bat was beginning to instruct in the use of their weapons and in the simplest movements of the field. Here and there on the steep slopes about the saucer were groups of peasants; and on the top of the ridge, which was forbidden to the crowd, were five sentinels, stationed beside as many cairns of stones piled for the purpose at fixed distances from one another. These were of the Lieutenant's institution, for though the safety of the camp hung wholly on the command of its natural battlement, which captured would convert the basin into a death-trap, the Crocans had kept no regular guard on it. He on his arrival had entrusted its oversight to the two young Villeneuves, and one or the other was ever patrolling the length of the vallum, or from the highest point searching the chaos of uninhabited hills and glens that stretched on every side.
This hasty sketch of the scene leaves to be fancied those worst traits of the camp, of its wildness and savagery, that could not fail to disquiet the mind even of a bold woman. Many of the peasants were half naked, others were clad in cow-skins, in motley armour, in sordid, blood-stained finery. All went unshaven, and many had long, filthy elf-locks hanging about their faces, and ragged beards reaching to their girdles. Some had squalid bandages on head or limb, and all were armed grotesquely with bill-hooks or scythes, or with stakes pointed and hardened in the fire, or with knotty clubs. M. de Vlaye and his kind would have seen in them only a horde to be exterminated without pity or remorse. Nor could their looks have failed to startle the Abbess, high as was her natural courage--if a thing had not at the very entrance engaged her attention.
For there, under the archway, a group of six men sat on their hams, their backs against the rock. And these were so foul in garb, and repulsive in aspect, that the common peasants of the camp seemed by comparison civilised. The Abbess shuddered at the mere look of them, and would have averted her eyes if they had not, as des Ageaux entered, risen and barred the way. The foremost, a tall, meagre figure with a long white beard, and the gleam of madness in his eyes, seized the Lieutenant's bridle and raising his other hand seemed to forbid his entrance. "Give us," he cried in a strange patois, "our man! Our man!"
The Abbess expected des Ageaux to strike him from his path, or bid his men ride him down. But the Lieutenant considered with patience the strange figure clad much as John the Baptist is portrayed in pictures, and when he answered he spoke calmly. "You are from the town on the hill?" he said.
"Ay, and we claim our man!"
"The man, you mean, whom we took from your hands last night?"
"Ay, that man!"
"That we may burn him," the savage answered, his face lit up by a gleam of frightful cruelty. "That we may do to him as he has done to us and our little ones. That we may burn him as he and his have burned us, from father to son, father to son, by the light of our own thatch. They have smoked us in our holes," he continued with ferocity, "as they smoke foxes; and we will smoke him. He has done to us that! And that!" He turned, and at a sign two of his five fellows stepped forward and held aloft the maimed and ghastly stumps of their arms. "And that! And that!" Again two stepped forward and pointed to their eyeless sockets. "And what he has done to us we will do to him!"
The Abbess turned sick at the sight. But des Ageaux answered with quietness. "Yet what has he done to you, old man," he asked, "that you stand foremost?"
"He has blinded me there!" the madman answered, and with a strangely dramatic gesture pointed to his brow. "I am dark at times, and boys mock me! But to-day I am whole and well!"
"I will not give him up to you!" the Lieutenant replied with calm decision. "But if he has done the things of which you tell me, I will judge him myself and punish him. Nay"--staying them sternly as they began to cry out upon him, "listen to me now! I have listened to you. For all who come in to me, and cease from pillage, and burning, and murder. I give my warrant that the past shall be overlooked. They shall be free to go back to their villages, or if they dare not go back they shall be settled elsewhere, with pardon for life and limb. But for those who do not come in, the burden of all will fall upon them! The law will pass upon them without mercy, and their gibbets will be on every road!"
"Not so!" the other cried, raising himself to his full height and flinging his lean arms to heaven. "Not so, lord, for the time is full! Hear me, too, man of blood. We know you. You speak softly because the time is full, and you would fain cast in your lot with us and escape. But you are of those who ride in blood, and who trust in the strength of your armour, and who eat of the fat and drink of the strong, while the poor man perishes under the feet of your horses, while the earth groans under the load of your wickedness, and God is mocked. But the time is full, and there comes an end of your gyves and your gibbets, your wheels and your molten lead! The fire is kindled that shall burn you. Is there one of you for ten of us? Can your horses bear you through the sea when the fire fills all the land? Nay, three months have we burned all ways, and no man has been able to withstand our fire! For it grows! It grows!"
The fierce murmurings of the madman's fellows almost drowned des Ageaux' voice when he went to answer. "Your blood be on your own heads!" he said solemnly. "I have spoken you fairly, I have given you the choice of good and of evil."
"Nought but evil," the other cried, "can proceed out of your mouth! Now give us our man!"
"Then will we burn you for him," the madman shrieked, in sudden frenzy, "when you fall into our hands. You and these--women with breasts of flint and hearts of the rock-core, who bathe in the blood of our infants, and make a holiday of our torments! Beware, for when next we meet, you die!"
"Be it so!" des Ageaux replied, sternly restraining his men, who would have fallen on the hideous group. "But begone!"
They turned away, mopping and mowing--one was a leper--and lifting hands of imprecation. And the Abbess, while the litter was being lifted, was left for a moment with des Ageaux. She hated him, but she did not understand him; and it was the desire to understand him that led her to speak.
"Why did you not seize the wretches," she asked, "and punish them?"
"Their turn will come," he replied coldly. "I would have saved them if I could."
"Saved them?" she exclaimed. "Why?"
"Who knows what they have suffered to bring them to this?"
She laughed in scorn of his weakness--who fancied himself a match for the Captain of Vlaye! His cold words, his even manner, had somewhat deceived her. But now she saw that he was a fool, a fool. She saw that if she detached Joyeuse there was nothing in this man M. de Vlaye need fear.
She left him then. She had had no sleep the previous night, and loth as she was to lose sight of the Duke or to give another the chance of supplanting her, she knew that she must rest. So weary was she after she had eaten that the rough couch in the hut set apart for her--her women after the mode of the day slept across the door or where they could--might have been a chamber in the heart of some guarded palace instead of a nook sheltered from curious eyes only by a wall of boughs. She had that healthiness which makes nerves and even conscience superfluous, and could not anywhere have slept better or been less aware of the wild life about her. The slow tramp of armed men, the voices of the watch upon the earth-wall, that to waking ears told of danger and suspicion--these were no more to her in her fatigue than the silent march of the summer stars across the sky.
When she awoke on the following morning, refreshed and full of energy, the sun was an hour high, and the peasants' camp was astir. In one place the Bat was drilling his three score men as if he had never ceased; in another food was being apportioned, and forage assigned. Neither des Ageaux nor her brothers were visible, but hard by her door the Vicomte, attended by Bonne and Solomon, sat with a hand on either knee, and gazed piteously on the abnormal scene.
The uppermost feeling in the old man's mind was a querulous wonder; first that he had allowed himself to be dragged from his house, secondly that, even since Coutras, things were suffered to come to this pass. How things had come to this, why his life and home had been broken up, why he had had no voice in the matter, and why his sons, even crooked-back Roger, went, and came, and ordered, without so much as a by your leave or an if you please--these were points that by turns puzzled and enraged him, and in the consideration of which he found no comfort so great as that which Solomon assiduously administered.
"Ah!" the old servant remarked more than once, as he surveyed with a jaundiced eye the crowded camp beyond the rivulet, "they are full of themselves! But I mind the day--it was when you entertained the Governors, my lord--when they'd have looked a few beside the servants we had to supper in the courtyard! A few they'd look. I'd sixty-two men, all men of their hands, and not naked gipsies like these, to my own table!"
Which was true; but Solomon forgot to add that it was the only table.
"Ay!" the Vicomte said, pleased, though he knew that Solomon was lying. "Times are changed."
"Since Coutras--devil take them!" Solomon rejoined, wagging his beard. "There were men then. 'Twas a word and a blow, and if we didn't run fast enough it was to the bilboes with us, and we smarted. Your lordship remembers. But now, Heaven help us," he continued with growing despondency as his eye alighted on des Ageaux, who had just appeared in the distance, "the men might be women! Might be women, and mealy-mouthed at that!"
The Vicomte laughed an elderly cackling laugh. "You didn't think, man, that the Villeneuves would come to this?" he said.
"Never! And would no wise ha' believed it!"
"Who were once masters of all from Barbesieux to Vlaye!"
"And many a mile further!" Solomon cried, leaping on the proffered hobby. "There were the twenty manors of Passirac"--he began to count on his hands. "And the farms of Perneuil, more than I have fingers and toes. And the twenty manors of Corde, and the great mill there--the five wind-mills of Passirac I don't think worth mentioning, though they would make many a younger son a portion. Then the Abbey lands of Vlaye, and the great mill there that took in toll as much as would keep a vicomte of these times, saving your lordship's presence. And then at Brenan----"
Bonne, listening idly, heard so much. Then the Abbess, who, unnoticed, had joined the group, touched her elbow, and muttered in her ear: "Do you see?"
"What?" Bonne asked innocently.
The Abbess raised her hand. "Why he has dragged us all here," she said.
Bonne followed the direction of her sister's hand, and slowly the colour mounted to her cheeks. But, "Why?" she asked, "I don't understand."
"You don't understand," Odette answered, "don't you? It is plain enough--for the blind." And she pointed again to the Lieutenant, who was standing at same distance from the group in close talk with the Countess. "The Lieutenant of Périgord is a great man while the King pleases, and when the King no longer pleases is an adventurer like another! A broken officer living at ordinaries," with a sneer, "at other men's charges. Such another as the creature they call the Bat! No better and no worse! But the Lieutenant of Périgord with the lands and lordships of Rochechouart were another and a different person. And none sees that more clearly than the Lieutenant of Périgord. He has made his opportunity, and he is not going to waste it. He has brought her here, and not for nothing."
Bonne had an easy retort. "At least he is not the first to see his interest there!" lay ready to her tongue. But she did not utter it. She was silent. Her colour fluttered, as the tender, weakling hope that she had been harbouring, for a few hours, died within her. Of course she should have known it! The prize that had attracted the Captain of Vlaye, the charm that had ousted her handsome sister from his heart--was it likely that M. des Ageaux would be proof against these--proof against them when she herself had no prior claim nor such counter-claims as beauty and brilliance? When she was but plain, homely, and country-bred, as her father often told her? She had been foolish; foolish in harbouring the unmaidenly hope, the forward thought; foolish now in feeling so sharp and numbing a pain.
But perhaps most foolish in her inability to await his coming. For he and the little Countess were approaching the group, at a slow pace; the girl talking with an animation that showed she had quite forgotten her shyness. Bonne marked the manner, the smile, the confiding upward look, the lifted hand; and she muttered something, and escaped before the two came within earshot.
She wanted to be alone, quite alone, to have this out with herself; and she made for a tiny cup in the hillside, hidden from the camp by the thick branches of the plane-tree. She had discovered it the day before, but when she gained it now, there in the hollow sat Roger, looking down on the scene below.
He nodded as if he were not in the best of tempers; which was strange, for he had been in high spirits an hour before. She sat down beside him, having no choice, but some minutes elapsed before he opened his mouth. Then, "Lord," he exclaimed, with something between a groan and a laugh, "what a fool a man can be!"
She did not answer; perhaps for the word "man" she was substituting the word "woman." He moved irritably in his seat. "Hang it!" he exclaimed. "Say something, Bonne! Of course it seems funny to you that because she thanked me prettily the day I tried to cover her retreat to the house and--and because she talked to me the night before last as we rode--as if she liked it, I mean--I should forget who she is!"
"Who she is," Bonne repeated quietly, thinking of some one else who had forgotten.
"And who I am!" he answered. "As if the Vicomte had not ground it into me enough! If I were Charles, she would still be--who she is, and meat for my master. But as I am what I am," he laughed ruefully, "would you have thought I could be such a fool, Bonne?"
"Poor Roger," she said gently.
"She clung to me that day, when I ran with her. But, dash it"--rubbing his head--"I must not think of it. I suppose she would have clung to old Solomon just the same!"
"I am afraid so!" Bonne said, smiling faintly. It was certain that she had not clung to any one. Yet there were analogies.
"I suppose you--you saw them just now?"
"Yes, I saw them."
"She never talked to me like that! Why should she--a thing like me." Poor Roger! "I knew the moment I cast eyes on them. You did, too, I suppose?"
"Yes," she answered.
Perhaps Roger had hoped in his heart for a different reply, for he stared gloomily at the swarming huts visible above the tree. And finally, "There is Charles," he said, "walking the ridge--against the sky-line there! Why cannot I be like him, as happy as a king, with my head full of battles and sieges, and the Bat more to me than any woman in the world! Why cannot I? With such a pair of shoulders as I have--"
"I should be in his shoes and he in mine! Lord, what a fool!" with gloomy unction. "What a fool! I must needs think of her when a peasant girl would not look at me. I must needs think of the Countess of Rochechouart! Oh, Lord, as if I had anything to give her! Or aught I could do for her!"
Bonne did not reply on the instant, But presently, "There is something you can do for her," she ventured. "It is not much, but----"
"What?" he said. "I know nothing."
"You can help him."
"The mouse helped the lion. You can help him and be at his side, and guard him in danger--for her sake. Just as," Bonne continued, her voice sinking a little, "if you were a girl, and--and felt for him as you feel for her, you could watch over her and protect her and keep her safe--for his sake. Though it would be harder for a woman, because women are jealous," Bonne added thoughtfully.
"And men too!" Roger rejoined from the depths of his small experience. "All the same I will do it. And I am glad it is he. He won't beat her, or shut her up and leave her in some lonely house as Court people do. I believe," he continued gloomily, "I'd as soon it was he as any one."
Bonne nodded. "That is agreed then," she said softly, though a moment before she had sighed.
"Agreed?" rather grumpily. "Well, if one person can agree, it is!" And then, thinking he had spoken thanklessly to the sister who had been his friend and consoler in many a dark hour when the shadow of his deformity had hidden the sun, he laid his hand on hers and pressed it. "Well, agreed it is!" he said more brightly. "They came from their outside world to our poor little life, and we must help them back again, I suppose. I would not wish them ill, if--if it would make me straight again."
"That is a big bribe," she said, smiling. "But neither would I--if it would make me as handsome as Odette!"
They sat silent then. Far away on their left, where lay the entrance to the camp from the river gorge, men were piling stones under the archway, so as to leave but a narrow passage. Below them on the right the Bat was drilling his pikemen, and alternately launching his lank form this way and that in a fever of impatience. On the sky-line men were pacing to and fro, searching with keen eyes the misty distance of glen and hill; and ever and anon the squeal of a war-horse rang above the multitudinous sounds of the camp. On every side, wherever the eye rested, it discovered signs of strife and turmoil, harbingers of pain and death.
But though the two who looked down on the scene neither knew it nor thought of it, with them in their little hollow was a power mightier than any, the power that in its highest form does indeed make the world go round; the one power in the world that is above fortune, above death, above the creeds--or, shall we say, behind them. For with them was love in its highest form, the love that gives and does not ask, and being denied--loves. In their clear moments men know that this love is the only real thing in the world; and a thousand times more substantial, more existent, than the objects we grasp and see.
There is born of the enthusiasm of self-denial a happiness that while the fervour lasts seems all-sufficing. The skirmish that has routed the van of jealousy stands for the battle; nor does the victor foresee that with the fall of night the enemy will flock again to the attack, and by many an insidious onset strive to change the fortune of the day.
Still once to have felt the generous impulse, once to have trodden self underfoot and risen god-like above the baser thoughts, is something. And if Bonne and her brother were destined to find the victory less complete than they thought, if they were to know moments when the worst in them raised its head, they were but as the best of us. And again--a reflection somewhat more humorous--had these two been able to read the mind of the man of whom each was thinking, they had met with so curious an enlightenment that they had hardly been able to look at one another. To say that des Ageaux entertained no tender feeling for any one were to say more than the truth; for during the last few days a weakness had crept unwelcome and unbidden into his heart. But he kept it sternly in the background--he who had naught to do with such things--and it did not tend in the direction of the Countess. In point of fact the Lieutenant had other and more serious food for thought; other and more pressing anxieties than love. Forty-eight hours had disclosed the weakness of the position in which he had chosen to place himself. He foresaw, if not the certainty, the probability of defeat. And defeat in the situation he had taken up might be attended by hideous consequences.
These were not slow to cast their shadows. The two on the hill had not sat long in silent companionship before the sounds which rose from the camp began to take a sterner note. Roger was the first to mark the change. Rousing himself and shaking off his lugubrious mood, "What is that?" the lad asked. "Do you hear, Bonne? It sounds like trouble somewhere."
"Trouble?" she repeated, still half in dreams.
"Yes, by Jove, but--listen! And what has become"--he was on his feet by this time--"of the Bat's ragged regiment? They have vanished."
"They must be behind the tree," Bonne answered. And moved by the same impulse they walked a little aside along the slope until they could see the section of the camp immediately below them, which had been hidden hitherto by the branches of the great plane-tree.
The little group which Bonne had left when her feelings compelled her to flight remained in the same place. But all who formed it, the Vicomte and his eldest daughter as well as des Ageaux and the Countess, were now on their feet. The Vicomte and the ladies stood together in the background, while des Ageaux, who had placed himself before them, confronted an excited body of men, some hundred in number, and composed in part at least of those whom the Bat had been lately drilling. Whether these had broken from his control and gathered their fellows as they moved, or the impulse had come from outside and they were but recruits, their presence rendered the movement more formidable. They were not indeed of so low and savage a type as the creatures who had met des Ageaux in the gate the previous day, but viewed in this serried mass, their lowering brutish faces and clenched hands called up a vivid sense of danger. They must have made some outcry as they approached, or Roger had not noticed their assemblage. But now they were fallen silent. A grim mass of scowling, hard-breathing men, then small suspicious eyes glaring through tangled locks irresistibly reminded the observer of that quarry the most dangerous of all the beasts of chase, the wild boar.
Bonne's colour faded as her eyes took in the meaning of the scene. She grew still paler as her brain pictured for the first time the things that might happen in this camp of clowns of whose real sentiments the intruders had so little knowledge, at whose possible treachery it was so easy to guess. Time has not wiped, time never will wipe from the French memory the fear of a Jacquerie. The horrors of that hideous revolt, of its rise and its suppression are stamped on the minds of the unborn. "What is it?" she repeated more than once, her heart fluttering. How very, very near he stood--on whom all depended--to the line of scowling men!
"A mutiny, I fear!" Roger answered hastily. "Come!" And, with face slightly flushed, he hurried, running and sliding down the slope.
She was not three paces behind him when he reached the foot. Here they lost sight of the scene, but quickly passed between two huts and reached the Vicomte's side. Des Ageaux was speaking.
"I cannot give you the man," he was saying, "but I can give you justice."
"Justice?" the spokesman of the peasants retorted bitterly--he wore the dress of a smith, and belonged to that craft. "Who ever heard but of one sort of justice for the poor man? Justice, Sir Governor, is the poor man's right to be hung! The poor man's right to be scourged! The poor man's right to be broken on the wheel! To see his hut burned and his wife borne off! That is the justice"--rudely--"the poor man gets-- be it high or low, king's or lord's!"
"Ay, ay!" the stern chorus rose from a hundred throats behind him, "that is the poor man's justice!"
"It is to put an end to such things I am here!" des Ageaux replied, marking with a watchful eye the faces before him. He was far from easy, but he had handled men of their kind before, and thought that he knew them.
"There was never a beginning of such things, and there will never be an end!" the smith returned, the hopelessness of a thousand years of wrong in his words. "Never! But give us this man--he has done all these things, he and his master, and we will believe you."
"I cannot give him to you," des Ageaux answered. The same prisoner, one of Vlaye's followers, was in question whom the Old Crocans had yesterday required to be given up to them. "But I have told you and I tell you again," the Lieutenant continued, reading mischief in the men's faces, "that you shall have justice. If this man has wronged you and you can prove it----"
"If!" the peasant cried, and baring his right arm he raised his clenched fist to heaven.
But the Lieutenant went on as if the man had not spoken. "If you can prove these things upon him by witnesses here present----"
"You will give him to us?"
"No, I will not do that!"
"You will give him to us!" the smith repeated, refusing to hear the denial. And all along the line of scowling faces--the line that wavered ominously at moments of emotion as if it would break about the little group--ran a swift gleam of white teeth.
But des Ageaux did not blench. He raised his hand for silence, and his voice was steady as a rock as he made answer. "No," he said, "I will not give him to you. He belongs neither to me nor to you, but to God and the King, whose is justice."
"To God!" the other snarled, "whose is justice! Rather, whose servants hold the lamb that the devils may flay it! And for the King, Sir Governor, a fig for him! Our own hands are worth a dozen kings!"
"Stay!" The line was swaying; in the nick of time des Ageaux' voice, and perhaps something in his eye, stayed it. "Listen to me one moment," he continued. "To-morrow morning--for I have not time to-day--the man you accuse shall be tried. If he be guilty, before noon he shall die. If he be not guilty, he shall go!"
A murmur of protest.
But des Ageaux raised his head higher and spoke more sternly. "He shall go!" he repeated--and for the moment he mastered them. "If he be innocent he shall go! What more do you claim? To what beyond have you a right? And now," he continued, as he saw them pause angry but undecided, "for yourselves! I have told you, I tell you again that this is your last chance. That I and the offer I make you are your last hope! There is a man there"--with his forefinger he singled out a tall youth with a long, narrow face and light blue eyes--"who promises that when you are attacked he will wave his arm, and Vlaye and his riders will fall on their faces as fell the walls of Jericho! Do you believe him? Will you trust your wives and children to him? And another"--again he singled out a man, a beetle-browed dwarf, hideous of aspect, survivor of some ancient race--"who promises victory if you will sacrifice your captives on yonder stone! Do you believe him? And if you do not trust these, in what do you trust? Can naked men stand before mailed horses? Can you take castles with your bare hands? You have left your villages, you have slain your oxen, you have burned your tools, you have slain your lords' men, you have taken the field. Have peasants ever done these things--and not perished sooner or later on gibbets and in dungeons? And such will be your fate, and the fate of your women and your children, if you will go your way and will not listen!"
"What do you promise us?" The question in various forms broke from a dozen throats.
"First, justice on the chief of your oppressors."
"The Captain of Vlaye?"
"Ay, ay!" Their harsh cries marked approval. Some with dark looks spat on their hands and worked their right arms to and fro.
"Next," des Ageaux continued, "that which never peasant who took the field had yet--pardon for the past. To those who fear not to go back, leave to return to their homes. To those who have broken their lords' laws a settlement elsewhere with their wives and children. To every man of his hands, when he leaves, ten deniers out of the spoils of Vlaye to carry him to his home."
Nine out of ten marked their approval by a shout; and des Ageaux heaved a sigh of relief, thinking all well. But the smith turned and exchanged some words with the men nearest him, chiding them and reminding them of something. Then he turned again.
"Fine words! But for all this what pledge, Sir Governor?" he asked with a sneer. "What warranty that when we have done our part we shall not to gibbet or gallows like our fellows?"
"The King's word!"
"Ay? And hostages? What hostages?"
"Hostages?" The Lieutenant's voice rang sharp with anger.
"Ay, hostages!" the man answered sturdily, informed by the murmurs of his fellows that he had got them back into the road from which des Ageaux' arguments had led them. "We must have hostages."
Clearly they had made up their minds to this, they had determined on it beforehand. For with one voice, "We must have hostages!" they thundered.
Des Ageaux paused before he answered--paused in dismay. It looked as if--already he feared it--he had put out his hand too far. As if he had trusted too implicitly to his management of men, and risked not himself only, but women; women of the class to which these human beasts set down their wrongs, women on whom the least accident or provocation might lead them to wreak their vengeance! If it were so! But he dared not follow up the thought, lest the coolness on which all depended should leave him. Instead, "We are all your hostages," he said.
"And what of those? And those?" the smith answered. With a cunning look he pointed to the two knots of troopers whom des Ageaux had brought with him. "And by-and-by there will be more. Madame"--he pointed to the little Countess who had shrunk to Bonne's side, and stood with the elder girl's arm about her--"Madame has sent for fifty riders from her lands in the north--on, we know! And the Duke who is ill, for another hundred and fifty from Bergerac! When they come"--with a leer--"where will be our hostages? No, it is now we must talk, Sir Governor, or not at all."
Des Ageaux, his cheek flushed, reflected amid an uneasy silence. He knew that two of his riders were away bearing letters, and that four more were patrolling the valley; that two with Charles de Villeneuve were isolated on the ridge, unable to help; in a word, that no more than twelve or thirteen were within call, who, separated from their horses, were no match for a mob of men outnumbering them by five or six to one, and whom the first blow would recruit from every quarter of the seething camp. He had miscalculated, and saw it. He had miscalculated, and the consequences he dare not weigh. The men in whose power he had placed himself--and so much more than himself--were not the dull clods he had deemed them, but alike ferocious and suspicious, ready on the first hint of treachery to exact a fearful vengeance. No man had ever kept faith with them; why should they believe that he would keep faith? He shut his teeth hard. "I will consider the matter," he said, "and let you know my answer to-morrow at noon." He spoke as ending the conference, and he made as if he would turn on his heel.
"Ay, when madame's fifty spears are come?" the smith cried. "That will not do! If you mean us well give us hostages. If you mean us ill," taking one step forward with an insolent gesture----
"Fool, I mean you no ill!" the Lieutenant answered sternly. "If I meant you ill, why should I be here?"
But "Hostages! Hostages!" the crowd answered, raising weapons and fists.
Their cries drowned his words. A score of hands threatened him. Without looking, he felt that the Bat and his troopers, a little clump apart, were preparing to intervene, and he knew that on his next movement all depended. The pale faces behind him he could not see, for he was aware that if his eye left his opponents, they would fall upon him. At any second a hurried gesture, or the least sign of fear might unloose the torrent, and well was it for all that in many a like scene his nerve had been tempered to hardness. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Well," he said, "you shall have your hostages."
"Ay, ay!" A sudden relaxation, a falling back into quietude of the seething mass approved the consent.
"You shall have my lieutenant," he continued, "and----"
"And I will be the other," cried Roger manfully. He stepped forward. "I am the son of M. le Vicomte there! I will be your hostage," he repeated.
But the smith, turning to his followers, grinned. "We'd be little the better for them," he said. "Eh? No, Sir Governor! We must have our choice!"
"Your choice, rogues?"
"Ay, we'll have the pick!" the crowd shouted. "The best of the basket!" Amid ferocious laughter.
Des Ageaux had suspected for some hours past that he had done a foolish, a fatally foolish thing in trusting these men, whom no man had ever trusted. He saw now that only two courses stood open to him. He might strike the smith down at his feet, and risk all on the effect which the act might have on his followers; or he might yield what they asked, allow them to choose their hostages, and trust to time and skill for the rest. His instincts were all for the bolder course, but he had women behind him, and their chance in a conflict so unequal must be desperate. With a quietness and firmness characteristic of the man he accepted his defeat.
"Very well," he said. "It matters nothing. Whom will you have?"
"We'll have you," the smith replied grinning, "and her!" With a grimy hand he pointed to the little Countess who with Bonne's arm about her and Fulbert at her elbow was staring fascinated at the line of savage faces.
"You cannot have a lady!" the Lieutenant answered with a chill at his heart.
"Ay, but it is she who has the riders who are coming!" the smith retorted shrewdly. "It is her we want and it is her we'll have! We'll do her no harm, and she may have her own hut on our side, and her woman with her, and a man if she pleases. And you may have a hut beside hers, if one," with a wink, "won't do for the two."
"But, man," des Ageaux cried, his brow dark, "how can I take Vlaye and his castle while I lie a hostage?"
"Oh, you shall go to and fro, to and fro, Sir Governor!" the smith answered lightly. "We'll not be too strict if you are there of nights. And we will know ourselves safe. And as we live by bread," he continued stoutly, "we'll do her no harm if faith be kept with us!"
Des Ageaux endeavoured to hide his emotion, but the sweat stood on his brow. Defeat is bitter to all. To the man who has long been successful most bitter.
Suddenly, "I will go!" said the Countess bravely. And she stepped forward by the Lieutenant's side, a little figure, shrinking, yet resolute. "I will go," she repeated, trembling with excitement, yet facing the men.
"No!" Roger cried--and then was silent. It was not for him to speak. What could he do?
"We will all go!" Bonne said.
"Nay, but that will not do," the smith replied, with a sly grimace. "For then they"--he pointed to the little knot of troopers who waited with sullen faces a short arrow-shot away--"would be coming as well. The lady may bring a woman if she pleases, and her man there, as I said." He nodded towards Fulbert. "But no more, or we are no gainers!"
To the Lieutenant that moment was one of the bitterest of his life. He, the King's Governor, who had acted as master, who had forced the Vicomte and his party to come into his plans, whether they would or no, stood out-generalled by a mob of peasants, whom he had thought to use as tools! And not only that, but the young Countess, whose safety he had made the pretext for the abandonment of the château, must surrender herself to a risk more serious--ay, far more serious, than that from which he had made this ado to save her!
Humiliation could scarcely go farther. It was to his credit, it was perhaps some proof of his capacity for government that, seeing the thing inevitable, he refrained from useless words or protest, and sternly agreed. He and the Countess would remove to the farther side of the camp in the course of the day.
"With a man and a maid only?" the smith persisted, knitting his brows. Having got what he had asked he doubted.
"The Countess of Rochechouart will be so attended," the Lieutenant answered sternly. "And you, Sir Governor?"
"I am a soldier," he retorted, so curtly that they were abashed. With some muttering they began to melt away. Awhile they stood in groups, discussing the matter. Then gradually they retired across the rivulet to their quarters.
The Lieutenant had been almost happy had that ended it. But he had to face those whom he had led into this trap, those whom he had forced to trust him, those whom he had carried from their home. He was not long in learning their views.
"A soldier!" the Vicomte repeated, taking up his last word in a voice shaking with passion. "You call yourself a soldier and you bring us to this! To this!" With loathing he described the outline of the camp with his staff. "You a soldier, and cast women to these devils! Pah! Since Coutras there may be such soldiers! But in my time, no!"
He did not reply: and the Abbess took up the tale. "Excellent!" she said, with bitterest irony. "We are all now assured of your prudence and sagacity, sir! The safety and freedom which we enjoy here, the ease of mind which the Countess will doubtless enjoy tonight----"
"Do not frighten her, mademoiselle!" he said, repressing himself. Then, as if an impulse moved him, he turned slowly to Bonne. "Have you nothing to add, mademoiselle?" he asked, in a peculiar tone.
"Nothing!" she answered bravely. And then--it needed some courage to speak before her father and sister, "Were I in the Countess's place I should not fear. I am sure she will be safe with you."
"Safe!" Odette cried, her eyes flashing. In the excitement of the moment the plans she had so recently made were forgotten. "Ay, as safe as a lamb among wolves! As safe as a nun among robbers! So safe that I for one am for leaving this moment. Ay, for leaving, and now!" she continued, stamping her foot on the sward "What is it to us if this gentleman, who calls himself the Governor of Périgord--and may be such, I care not whether he is or not--has a quarrel with M. de Vlaye and would fain use us in it as he uses these brute beasts? What, I say, is it to us? Or why do we take part? M. le Vicomte"--she turned to her father--"if you are still master of Villeneuve, you will order our horses and take us thither. We have naught to fear, I say it again, we have naught to fear at M. de Vlaye's hands; and if we fall into them between this and Villeneuve, so much the better! But if we stay here we have all to fear." In truth she was honestly frightened. She thought the case desperate.
"No, sir!" she retorted, turning from him. "I did not speak to you; but to you, M. le Vicomte! Sir, you hear me? Is it not your will that we order the horses and go from here?"
"If we can go safely----"
"You cannot go safely!" des Ageaux said, with returning decision. "If you have nothing to fear from the Captain of Vlaye, the Countess has. Nor is that all. These men"--he pointed in the direction of the peasants, who were buzzing about their huts like a swarm of bees--"have forced my hand, but through fear and distrust, not in malice. They mean us no harm if we mean them none. But the Old Crocans, as they call themselves, in the town on the hill--if you fall into their hands, M. le Vicomte--and beyond the lines of this camp no one is safe from their prowling bands--then indeed God help you!"
"God help us whether or no!" the Vicomte answered in senile anger. "I wash my hands of it all, of it all! I am nothing here, and have been nothing! Let who will do! The world is mad!"
"Certainly we were mad when we trusted you!" the Abbess cried, addressing des Ageaux. "Never so mad! But if I mistake not, here is another with good news! Oh!" to the Bat, who, with a shamefaced air, was hovering on the skirts of the group, as if he were not sure of his reception, "speak, sir, without reserve! We all know"--in a tone of mockery--"how fair and safely we stand!"
Des Ageaux turned to his follower. "What is it?" he asked.
"The prisoner is missing, my lord." The Abbess laughed bitterly. The others looked at the Bat with faces of dismay. "Missing? The man we have promised to hold for them. How?" des Ageaux exclaimed sternly. This was a fresh blow and a serious one.
"When I saw, my lord, that we were like to be in trouble here, I drew off the two men who were guarding him. He was bound, and--we had too few as it was."
"But he cannot have passed the ramparts."
"Anyway we cannot find him," the Bat answered, looking ashamed and uncomfortable. "I've searched the huts, and----"
"Is it known?"
"No, my lord."
"Then set the guards as before over the hut in which you had him, and see that the matter does not leak out to-night."
"But if," the Bat objected, "they discover that he is gone while you are with them to-night, my lord, they are in an ugly mood, and----"
"They must not discover it!" des Ageaux answered firmly. "Go, see to it yourself. And let two men whom you can trust continue the search, but as if they had lost something of their own."
The Bat went on his errand; and the Abbess, with this fresh weapon in her quiver, prepared to resume the debate. But the Lieutenant would not have it. "Mademoiselle," he said, with a look which silenced her, "if you say more to alarm the Countess, whose courage"--he bowed in the direction of the pale frightened girl--"is an example to us all, she will not dare to go this evening. And if she does not go, the lives of all will be in danger. An end of this, if you please!"
And he turned on his heel, and left them.
An hour later the Lieutenant was with the Duke in his quarters, and had imparted to him what he knew of the position. The Duke listened, not much affected; nay, with something approaching indifference.
"It is a question of four days then?" he rejoined, as he painfully moved himself on his litter. They had made him as comfortable as they could, screening the head of his couch, which was towards the hut door, with a screen of wattle. Against one wall, if wall that could be called which was of like make with the screen, ran a low bench of green turves, and on this des Ageaux was seated.
"Of four days--and nights," the Lieutenant made answer, masking a slight shiver. He was not thinking of his own position, but of the young Countess; neither her fears nor the courage with which she controlled them were a secret from him. "To-day is Saturday. The Countess's men should be here by Monday, your men, M. de Joyeuse, by Wednesday. All will be well then; and I doubt not with such support we can handle the Captain of Vlaye. But until then we run a double risk."
"Of Vlaye, of course."
"And of our own people if anything occur to exasperate them."
Joyeuse laughed recklessly. "Vogue la galère!" he cried. "The plot grows thicker. I came for adventure, and I have it. Ah, man, if you had lived within the four walls of a convent!"
Des Ageaux shook his head. He knew the wanton courage of the man, who, sick and helpless, found joy in the peril that surrounded them. But he was very far from sharing the feeling. The dangers that threatened the party lay heavy on the man who was responsible for all. The tremors of the young girl who must share his risk that evening, the bitter reproaches of the Abbess and her father, even the confidence that Bonne's eyes rather than her lips avowed, all tormented him; so that to see this man revelling in that which troubled him so sorely, insulted his reason.
"I fancy, my lord," he said, a faint note of resentment in his tone, "if you had had to face these rogues this morning you had been less confident this evening."
"Were they so spiteful?" The Duke raised himself on his elbow. "Well, I say again, you made a mistake. You should have run the spokesman through the throat! Ca! Sa!" He made a pass through the air. "And trust me, the rest of the knaves----"
"Might have left none of us alive to tell the tale!" the Lieutenant retorted.
"I don't know that!"
"But I suspect it!" des Ageaux replied warmly. "And I do beg you, my lord, to be guided in this. I am more than grateful for the impulse which led you to come to my assistance. But honestly I had been more glad if you had brought a couple of hundred spears with you. As it is, the least imprudence may cost us more than our own lives! And it behoves us all to remember that!"
"The least imprudence!"
The Duke laughed softly--at nothing that appeared. "So!" he said. "The least imprudence may destroy us, may it? The least imprudence!" And then, suddenly sobered, he fixed his eyes on the Lieutenant. "But what of letting your prisoner go, eh? What of that? Was not that an imprudence, most wise Solomon?"
"A very great one!" des Ageaux replied with a sigh.
"What shall you do when, to-morrow morning, they claim his trial?"
"What I can," the Lieutenant answered, frowning and sitting more erect. "See that the Countess returns early to this side; where the Bat must make the best dispositions he can for your safety. Meanwhile, I shall tell them and make them see reason if I can!"
"Lord!" the Duke said with genuine gusto, "I wish I were in your place!"
"I wish you were," des Ageaux replied. "And still more that I had the rogue by the leg again."
"Do I?" the Lieutenant repeated in astonishment. "I do indeed. The odds are they will maintain that we released him on purpose, and dearly we may pay for it!"
For a moment the Duke, flat on his back, looked thoughtful. Then, "Umph!" he said, "you think so? But you were always a croaker, des Ageaux, and you are making the worst of it! Still--you would like to lay your hand on him, would you?"
"I would indeed!"
The Duke rose on his elbow. "Would you mind giving me--I am a little cold--that cloak?" he said. "No," as des Ageaux moved to do it, "not that one under your hand--the small one! Thank you. I----"
He could not finish. He was shaking with laughter--which he vainly tried to repress. Des Ageaux stared. And then, "What have I done to amuse you so much, my lord?" he asked coldly, as he rose.
"Much and little," the Duke answered, still shaking.
"Much or little," des Ageaux retorted, "you will do yourself no good by laughing so violently. If your wound, my lord, sets to bleeding again----"
"Pray for the soul of Henry, Duke of Joyeuse, Count of Bouchage!" the Duke replied lightly. Yet on the instant, and by a transition so abrupt as to sound incredible to men of these days, he composed his face, groped for his rosary, and began to say his offices. The suddenness of the change, the fervour of his manner, the earnestness of his voice astonished the Lieutenant, intimately as he knew this strange man. Awhile he waited, then he rose and made for the door.
But Joyeuse--not the Duke of three minutes before, but Frère Ange of the Capuchin convent--stopped him with a movement of his eyes. "And why not," said he, "to-day as well as to-morrow? No man need be afraid to die who prepares himself. The soldier above all, Lieutenant, for the true secret of courage is to repent. Ay, to repent," he continued in a voice, sweet and thrilling, and with a look in his eyes strangely gentle and compelling. "Friend, are you prepared? Have you confessed lately? If not, kneel down! Kneel, man, and let us say a dozen aves, and a couple of Paternosters! It will be no time wasted," he continued anxiously. "No man has sinned more than I have. No man, no man! Yet I face death like one in a thousand! And why? Why, man? Because it is not I, but----"
But there are things too high for the level of such narrations as this, and too grave for such treatment as is here essayed. The character of this man was so abnormal, he played with so much enthusiasm his alternate rôles, that without this passing glimpse of his rarer side--that side which in the intervals of wild revelry led him to dying beds and sick men's couches--but one-half of him could be understood. Not that he was quite alone in the possession of this trait. It was a characteristic of the age to combine the most flagrant sins with the strictest observances; and a few like M. de Joyeuse added to both a real, if intermittent and hysterical, repentance.
On this occasion it was not long before he showed his other face. The Abbess, after waiting without and fretting much--for she had returned to the purpose momentarily abandoned, and the length of the interview alarmed her--won entrance at last. She exchanged a cold greeting with the departing Lieutenant, then took his place, book in hand, on the green bench. For a while there was silence. She had so far played her part with success. The Duke knew not whether to call her saint or woman; and that he might remain in that doubt she now left it to him to speak. At the same time she left him at liberty to look: for she knew that bending thus at her devotions she must appear more striking to his jaded senses. And he, for a time, was mute also, and thoughtful; so much he gave to the scene just ended.
It is possible that the silence was prolonged by the chance of considering her at leisure which she was careful to afford him. He was still weak, the better side of him was still uppermost; and handsome as she was, he saw her through a medium of his own, in a halo of meekness and goodness and purity. Thus viewed she fell in with his higher mood, she was a part of it, she prolonged it. A time would come, would most certainly come, when one of the wildest libertines of his day would see her otherwise, and in the woman forget the saint. But it had not yet come. And the Abbess, with her pure, cold profile, bent over her book, and, with her thoughts apparently in heaven, knew also that her time had not yet come.
Though her face betrayed nothing, she was in an angry mood. She had gained little by the altercation with des Ageaux; and though the simplicity which he had betrayed in his dealings with the peasants excited her boundless contempt--he, to pit himself against M. de Vlaye!--the peril which it brought upon all heightened that contempt to anger. If the peril had been his only, or included the Countess only, if it had threatened those only whom she could so well spare, and towards whose undoing her brain was busily working, she could have borne it bravely and gaily.
But the case was far other; and something she regretted that she had not bowed to her first impulse in the chapel and called to M. de Vlaye, and gone to him--ay, gone to him empty-handed as she was, without the triumph of which she had dreamed. For the jeopardy in which she and all her family now stood put her in a dilemma. If the Lieutenant kept faith with the peasants and all went well, it would go ill with her lover. If, on the contrary, M. des Ageaux failed to restrain the peasants, it might go ill with herself.
It came always to this: she must win over the Duke. Of the allies against Vlaye, he, with his hundred and fifty horse, due to arrive on the Wednesday, with the larger support which he could summon if it were necessary, and with his favour at Court, was by far the most formidable. Detach him, and the Lieutenant with his handful of riders, backed though he might be by the Countess's men, and the peasant rout would be very likely to fail. It came back then always to this: she must win the Duke. As she pondered, with her eyes on her book, as she considered again and anew this resolution, the noises of the camp, the Bat's sharp word of command--for he had fallen imperturbably to drilling as if that were the one thing necessary--the Vicomte's querulous voice, and the more distant babel of the peasants' quarter, all added weight to her thoughts. And then on a sudden an alien sound broke the current. The man lying beside her laughed.
She glanced at him, startled for the moment out of her rôle. The Duke was shaking with merriment. Confused, not understanding, she rose. "My lord," she said, half offended, "what is it? What moves you?"
"A rare joke," he answered. "I was loth to interrupt your thoughts, fair sister, but 'twas too much for me." He fell to laughing again.
"You will injure yourself, my lord," she said, chiding him gently, "if you laugh so violently."
"Oh, but----" The litter shook under him.
"At least," she said, with a look more tender and less saintly than she had yet permitted herself, "you will tell me what it is! What----"
"Raise that--the cloak!" he said. He pointed with his hand. "Remove it, I mean, and you will see what--what you will see!"
She obeyed and immediately recoiled with a low cry, the cloak in her hand. "Mon Dieu!" she whispered, with the colour gone from her cheeks. "Who--who is he? Who is he?" She shuddered.
The man her act had revealed rose from his hiding-place, his face whiter than hers, his haggard, shifty eyes betraying his terror.
"My lord!" he cried, "you will not betray me? My lord, you passed your word!"
"Pah, coward, be silent!" the Duke answered. He turned to the Abbess, his eyes dancing. "Do you know him?" he asked.
"He is M. de Vlaye's man," she said. "The prisoner!" She was pale and she frowned, her hands pressed to her breast.
"Whom they are so anxious to hang!" the Duke replied, chuckling. "And whom des Ageaux is so anxious to have under his hand! Ha! ha! Those were his words! Under his hand! When he touched the cloak I thought I should have died. And you, rascal, what did you think? You thought you were going to die, I'll be sworn!"
"My lord--my lord!" the man faltered the words, holding out imploring hands.
"Ay, I'll wager you did!" Joyeuse replied. "Wished you had let me confess you then, I'll be sworn! He'd not have it, good sister, when I offered it, because it was too like the end--the rope and the tree!"
"My lord! My lord!" Fear had driven all but those two words from the man's mouth.
And certainly if man had ever ground for fear, he had. In that hut of wattle, open to the sky, open in a dozen places to the curious eye, he had heard the voices, the cries, the threats of his pursuers. The first that entered must see him, even if this mad lord who played with his life as lightly as he had in the beginning shielded it did not summon them to take him.
Verily, as he stood, the cloak plucked from him, with every opening in the hut's walls an eye, he tasted the bitterness of death. And in the amused face of his protector, in the girl's cold frowning gaze, what of sympathy, of feeling, of pity? Not a jot. Not a sign. To the one a jest, to the other a peril, he was to neither akin.
As it seemed. But a few seconds saw a change. The Abbess, in the first flush of amazement, had come near to forgetting her part. Under other circumstances the trembling wretch before her might have claimed and gained her sympathy, for he was one of Vlaye's men. At any rate, his punishment by des Ageaux would have added one more to the list of the Lieutenant's offences. But as it was she saw in him only a root, so long as he lay hidden, of utmost peril to all her party; a thing to be cast to the wolves, if she and those who rode in the chariot with her were to escape. Her first feeling, therefore--and her face must have betrayed it had the Duke looked at her at the first--had been one of fierce repulsion. Her natural impulse had been the impulse to call for help and give the man up!
But in time, with a kind of shock of the mind that turned her hot, she remembered. The Duke was not one to see his will or his whim thwarted lightly. And she, the saint, whose book of offices still lay where it had fallen at her feet, she to lend herself to harshness! She to show herself void of pity! Hurriedly she forced words to her lips, and did what she could to match her face to their meaning.
"My lord, blessed are the merciful," she murmured with a slight but irrepressible shudder. "You who"--her words stuck a little--"have been spared so lately should be mercy itself."
"My sister," the Duke said slowly, "you are more than mercy!" And he looked at her, his lips still smiling, but his eyes grave. He knew--was ever Frenchman who did not know--the value of his own courage. He knew that to act as a mere whim led him to act was not in many, where life was in question; and to see a woman rise thus to his level, ay, and rise in a moment and unasked, touched him with a new and ardent admiration. His eyes, as he looked, grew tender.
"You, too, will protect him?" he said.
"Who am I that I should do otherwise?" she answered. She spoke the words so well she seemed to him an angel. And to the man----
The man fell at her feet, seized the hem of her robe, kissed it, clung to it, sobbed broken words of thanks over it, gave way to transports of gratitude. To him, too, she was an angel. And while she reflected, "I can still give him up if I think better of it," the Duke watched her with moist eyes, finding that holy in her case which in his own had been but a jest, the freak of a man in love with danger, and proud of seeking it by every road.
Presently "Now, man, to your cloak!" he said. "And you, sister," he continued, willing to hear the words again, "you are sure that you are not afraid?"
"I am no more afraid," she replied, with downcast eyes and hands crossed upon her breast, "than I was when I stayed alone with you by the river, my lord. There was no other who could stay."
"Say instead, who dared to stay."
"There is no other now who can shelter him!"
"Mon Dieu!" he whispered.
He followed her with his eyes after that, all his impressions confirmed; and as it was rare in those days to find the good also the beautiful, the imprint made on him was deep. She thrilled him as no woman had thrilled him since the days of his boyhood and his first gallantries. His feeling for her elevated him, purified him. As he watched her moving to and fro in his service, a great content stole over him. Once, when she bent to his couch to do him some office, he contrived to touch her hand with his. So might an anchorite have touched the wood of the true Cross--so reverent, so humble, so full of adoration and worship was the touch.
But it was the first step--that touch--and she knew it. She went back to her bench, and veiling her eyes with her long lashes that he might not read the triumph which shone in them, she fell again to her devotions--but with content in her breast. A little more, a little while, and she would have him at her beck, she would have him on his knees; and then it should not be long before his alliance with des Ageaux was broken, and his lances sent home. Not long! But meanwhile time pressed. There was the trouble; time pressed, yet she dared not be hasty. He was no simple boy, and one false move might open his eyes. He might see that she was no angel, but of the same clay as those of whom he had made toys all his life!
As she pondered, the near prospect of success set the possibility of failure, through some accident, through some mischance, in a more terrible aspect. She hated the trembling fugitive cowering in his hiding-place behind the Duke's bed; she wished to heaven he were in des Ageaux' hands again. The danger of a mutiny on his account, a danger that despite her courage chilled her, would then be at an end. True, such a mutiny menaced the Lieutenant in the first place and the Countess in the second; and she could spare them. But she could not be sure that it would go no farther. She could not be sure that its burning breath would not lap all in the camp. Had she been sure--that had been another matter. And behold, as she thought of it, from some cell of the brain leapt full-grown a plan; a plan wicked enough, cruel enough, terrible enough, to shock even her, but a clever plan if it could be executed!
She had little doubt that the Lieutenant would overcome the difficulty of the morning and succeed in persuading the peasants that he was guiltless of the escape of the prisoner. Suppose he succeeded, what would happen if it leaked out later that the prisoner had been hidden all the time in the Lieutenant's huts? Particularly if it leaked out at a time when the Lieutenant and the Countess lay in the peasants' power in the peasants' camp? And for choice after the arrival of the first batch of spears had secured the rest of the party from danger? What would happen to des Ageaux and the Countess in that event?
It was a black thought. The beautiful face bent over the book of offices grew perceptibly harder. But what better fate did they deserve who took on themselves to mar and meddle? They who incited her very brothers, clownish hobbledehoys, and her mawkish sister to rise up against her and against him? If fault there was, the fault lay with those who threw down the glove. The Lieutenant was come for naught else but her lover's destruction: and if he fell into the pit that he digged for another he could blame himself only. As for the girl, the white-faced puling child whose help M. de Vlaye's enemies were driving him to seek, if she, with her castles and her wealth, her lands and horse and foot, could not protect herself, the issue was her affair! Of a surety it was not her rival's!
Odette de Villeneuve's breath came a little quickly, a fine dew stood on her white forehead. Meantime the Duke watched her and wondered in an enthusiasm of piety what prayer it was that so stirred that angelic breast, what aspirations for the good of her sinning and suffering sisters swelled that saintly bosom! A vision of an ascetic life spent by her side, of Fathers read page by page in her company, of the good and the noble pursued with her under cloistered yews, of an Order such as the modern Church had never seen--such a vision wrapt him for a few blissful minutes from the cold, lower world of sense.
The Abbess was not present that evening when the hostages transferred themselves to the peasants' side of the camp. Had she witnessed the scene she had found, it is possible, matter for reflection. Hard as he had struggled against the surrender, the Lieutenant struggled almost as hard, now it was inevitable, to put a good face on it. But his easy word and laugh fell flat in face of a crowd so watchful and so ominously silent that it was useless to pretend that the step was no more than a change from a hut in this part to a hut in that. He who knew that he must, in the morning, face the men and deny them their prisoner--knew this too well. But, in truth, the downcast faces of his troopers and the furtive glances of the Vicomte's party were evidence that the matter meant much, and that these, also, recognised it; nor did the peasants, who fell in beside the two when they started, and accompanied them in an ever growing mob, seem unaware of the fact. The movement was their triumph; a sign of victory to the dullest as he ran and stared, and ran again. A section indeed there were who stood aloof and eyed the thing askance: but two of the Vicomte's party, who recognised among these the men whom the Lieutenant had denounced in the morning--the tall, light-eyed fanatic and the dwarf--held it the worst sign of all; and had it lain in their power they would even at that late hour have called back their friends.
Those two were Roger and his younger sister. With what feelings they saw des Ageaux and the Countess ride away to share a solitude full alike of danger and of alarm may be more easily imagined than described. But this is certain; whatever pangs of jealousy gnawed at Bonne's heart or reddened her brother's cheek, neither forgot the bargain they had made on the hill-side, or wished their rival aught but a safe deliverance.
As it was, could the one or the other, by the lifting of a finger, have injured the person who stood in the way, they had not lifted it or desired to lift it. But--to be in her place! To be in his place! To share that solitude and that peril! To know that round them lay half a thousand savages, ready at the first sign of treachery to take their lives, and yet to know that to the other it was bliss to be there--this, to the two who remained in the Vicomte's huts and gave their fancy rein, seemed happiness. Yet were they sorely anxious; anxious in view of the abiding risk of such a situation, more anxious in view of the crisis that must come when the peasants learned that the prisoner had escaped. Nevertheless, they did not talk of this, even to one another.
If Roger kept vigil that night his sister did not know it. And if Bonne, whose secret was her own, started and trembled at every sound--and such a camp as that bred many a sound and some alarming ones--she told no one. But when the first grey light fell thin on the basin in the hills, disclosing here the shapeless mass of a hut, and there only the dark background of the encircling ridge, her pale face, as she peered from her lodging, confronted Roger's as he paced the turf outside. The same thought, the same fear was in the mind of brother and sister, and had been since earliest cock-crow; and for Roger's part he was not slow to confess it. Presently they found that there was another whom care kept waking. A moment and the Bat's lank form loomed through the mist. He found the two standing side by side; and the old soldier's heart warmed to them. He nodded his comprehension.
"The trouble will not be yet awhile," he said. "He will send the lady back before he tells them. I doubt"--he shrugged his shoulders with a glance at Bonne--"if she has had a bed of roses this night."
Bonne sighed involuntarily. "At what hour do you think she will be back?" Roger asked.
"My orders are to send six riders for her half an hour after sunrise."
"A little earlier were no worse," Roger returned, his face flushing slightly as he made the suggestion.
"Nor better," the Bat replied drily. "Orders are given to be obeyed, young sir."
"And the rest of your men?" Bonne asked timidly. "They will go to support M. des Ageaux as soon as she arrives, I suppose?"
The Bat read amiss the motive that underlay her words. "Have no fear, mademoiselle," he said, "we shall see to your safety. You know the Lieutenant little if you think he will look to his own before he has ensured that of others. My lady the Countess once back with us, not a man is to stir from here. And, with warning, and the bank behind us, it will be hard if with a score of pikes we cannot push back the attack of such a crew as this!"
"But you do not mean," Bonne cried, her eyes alight, "that you are going to leave M. des Ageaux alone--to face those savages?"
"Those are my orders," the Bat replied gently; for the girl's face, scarlet with protest, negatived the idea of fear. "And orders where the Lieutenant commands, mademoiselle, are made to be obeyed; and are obeyed. Moreover," he continued seriously, "in this case they are common sense, since with a score of pikes something may be done, but with half a score here, and half a score there"--shrugging his shoulders--"nothing! Which no one knows better than my lord!"
"The Lieutenant allows no 'buts,'" the old soldier answered, smiling at her eagerness. "Were you with him, mademoiselle--were you under his orders, I mean--it would not be long before you learned that!"
Poor Bonne was silenced. With a quivering lip she averted her face: and for a few moments no one spoke. Then, "I wish M. de Joyeuse were on his feet," the Bat said thoughtfully. "He is worth a dozen men in such a pinch as this!"
"The sun is up!" This from Roger.
"How will you know when half an hour is past?"
The Bat raised his eyebrows. "I can guess it within two or three minutes," he said. "There is no hurry for a minute or two!"
"No hurry?" Roger retorted. "But the Countess--won't she be in peril?"
The Bat looked curiously at him. "For the matter of that," he said, "we are all in peril. And may-be we shall be in greater before the day is out. We must take the rough with the smooth, young sir. However--perhaps you would like to make one to fetch her?"
Roger blushed. "I will go," he said.
"Very good," the old soldier answered. "I don't know that it is against orders. For you, mademoiselle, I fear that I cannot satisfy you so easily. Were I to send you," he continued with a sly smile, "to escort my lord back----"
"Could you not go yourself?" Bonne interrupted, her face reflecting the brightest colours of Roger's blush.
"I, indeed? No, mademoiselle. Orders! Orders!"
They did not reply. By this time the dense grey mist, forerunner of heat, had risen and discovered the camp, which here and there stirred and awoke. The open ground about the rivulet, which formed a neutral space between the peasants' hovels and the quarters assigned to the Vicomte, still showed untenanted, though marred and poached by the trampling of a thousand feet. But about the fringe of the huts that, low and mean as the shops of some Oriental bazaar, clustered along the foot of the bank, figures yawned and stretched, gazed up at the morning, or passed bending under infants, to fetch water. Everywhere a rising hum told of renewed life. And behind the Vicomte's quarters the brisk jingle of bits and stirrups announced that the troopers were saddling.
In those days of filthy streets, and founderous sloughy roads, the great went ever on horseback, if it were but to a house two doors distant. To ride was a sign of rank, no matter how short the journey. Across the street, across the camp it was the same; and Bonne, as she watched Roger and the five troopers proceeding with three led horses across the open, saw nothing strange in the arrangement.
But when some minutes had passed, and the little troop did not emerge again from the ruck of hovels which had swallowed them, Bonne began to quake. Before her fears had time to take shape, however, the riders appeared; and the anxiety she still felt--for she knew that des Ageaux was not with them--gave way for a moment to a natural if jealous curiosity. How would she look, how would she carry herself, who had but this moment parted from him, who had shared through the night his solitude and his risk, his thoughts, perhaps, and his ambitions? Would happiness or anxiety or triumph be uppermost in her face?
She looked; she saw. Her gaze left no shade of colour, no tremor of eye or lip unnoticed. And certainly for happiness or triumph she failed to find a trace of either in the Countess's face. The young girl, pale and depressed, drooped in her saddle, drooped still more when she stood on her feet. No blush, no smile betrayed remembered words or looks, caresses or promises; and if it was anxiety that clouded her, she showed it strangely. For when she had alighted from her horse she did not wait. Although, as her feet touched the ground, a murmur rose from the distant huts, she did not heed it; but looking neither to right nor left, she hastened to hide herself in her quarters.
She seemed to be in trouble, and Bonne, melted, would have gone to her. But a sound stayed the elder girl at the door. The murmur in the peasants' quarter had risen to a louder note; and borne on this--as treble on base--came to the ear the shrill screech that tells of fanaticism. Such a sound has terrors for the boldest; for, irrational itself, it deprives others of reason. It gathers up all that is weak, all that is nighty, all that is cruel, even all that is cowardly, and hurls the whole, imbued with its own qualities, against whatever excites its rage. Bonne, who had never heard that note before, but knew by intuition its danger, stood transfixed, staring with terrified eyes at the distant huts. She was picturing what one instant of time, one savage blow, one shot at hazard, might work under that bright morning sky! She saw des Ageaux alone, hemmed in, surrounded by the ignorant crowd which the enthusiast was stirring to madness! She saw their lowering brows, their cruel countenances, their small, fierce eyes under matted locks; and she looked trembling to the Bat, who, stationed a few paces from her, was also listening to the shrill voice.
Had he sworn she had borne it better. But his compressed lips told of a more tense emotion; of fidelity strained to the utmost. Even this iron man shook, then! Even he to whom his master's orders were heaven's first law felt anxiety! She could bear no more in silence.
"Go!" she murmured. "Oh, go! Surely twenty men might ride through them!"
He did not look at her. "Orders!" he muttered hoarsely. "Orders!" But the perspiration stood on his brow.
She saw that, and that his sinewy hands gripped nail to palm; and as the distant roar gathered volume, and the note of peril in it grew more acute, "Oh, go!" she cried, holding out her hands to him. "Go, Roger! Some one!" wildly. "Will you let them tear him limb from limb!"
Still "Orders! Orders!" the Bat muttered. And though his eyes flickered an instant in the direction of the waiting troopers, he set his teeth. And then in a flash, in a second, the roar died down and was followed by silence.
Silence; no one moved, no one spoke. As if fascinated every eye remained glued to the low, irregular line of huts that hid from sight the inner part of the peasants' camp. What had happened, what was passing there? On the earthen ramparts high overhead were men, Charles among them, who could see, and must know; but so taken up were the group below, from Bonne to the troopers, in looking for what was to come, that no one diverted eye or thought to these men who knew. And though either the abrupt cessation of sound, or the subtle excitement in the air, drew the Abbess at this moment from the Duke's hut, no one noted her appearance, or the Duke's pale eager face peering over her shoulder. What had happened? What had happened behind the line of hovels, under the morning sunshine that filled the camp and rendered only more grim the fear, the suspense, the tragedy that darkened all?
Something more than a minute they spent in that absorbed gazing. Then a deep blush dyed Bonne's cheeks. The Bat, who had not sworn, swore. The Duke laughed softly. The troopers, if their officer had not raised his hand to check them, would have cheered. Des Ageaux had shown himself in one of the openings that pierced the peasants' town. He was on horseback, giving directions, with gestures on this side and that. A score of naked urchins ran before him, gazing up at him; and a couple of men at his bridle were taking orders from him.
He was safe, he had conquered. And Bonne, uncertain what she had said in her anxiety, but certain that she had said too much, cast a shamed look at the Bat. Fortunately his eye was on the troopers; and it was not his look but her sister's smile which drove the girl from the scene. She remembered the Countess: she bethought her that, in the solitude of her hut, the child might be suffering. Bonne hastened to her, with the less scruple as the two shared a hut.
The impulse that moved her was wholly generous. Yet when her hasty entrance surprised the young girl in the act of rising from her knees, there entered into the embarrassment which checked her one gleam of triumph. While the other had prayed for her lover, she had acted. She had acted!
The next moment she quelled the mean thought. The girl before her looked so wan, so miserable, so forlorn, that it was impossible to think of her hardly, or judge her strictly. "I am afraid that I scared you," Bonne said, and stooped and kissed her. "But all is well, I bring you good news. He is safe! You can see him if you look from the door of the hut."
She thought that the child would spring to the door and feast her eyes on the happy assurance of his safety. But the young Countess did not move. She stared at Bonne as if she had a difficulty in taking in the meaning of her words. "Safe?" she stammered. "Who is safe?"
"Who?" Bonne ejaculated.
The young girl passed her hand over her brow. "I am very sorry," she replied humbly. "I did not understand. You said that some one was safe?"
"M. des Ageaux, of course!"
"Of course! I am very glad."
"Glad?" Bonne repeated, with indignation she could not control. "Glad? Only that?"
The girl, her lip trembling, her face working, cast a frightened look at her, and then with a piteous gesture, as if she could no longer control herself, she turned from her and burst into tears.
Bonne stared. What did this mean? Relief? Joy? The relaxation of nerves too tightly strained? No. She should have thought of it before. It was not likely, it was not possible that this child had already conceived for des Ageaux such an affection as casts out fear. It was not she, but he, who had to gain by the marriage; and prepared as the Countess might be to look favourably on his suit, ready as she might be to give her heart, she had not yet given it.
"You are overwrought!" Bonne said, to soothe her. "You have been frightened."
"Frightened!" the girl replied through her sobs. "I shall die--if I have to go through it again! And I have to go through it, I must go through it. And I shall die! Oh, the night I have spent listening and waiting and"--she cowered away, with a stifled scream. "What was that?" She stared at the door, her eyes wild with terror. "What was that?" she repeated, seizing Bonne, and clinging to her.
"Nothing! Nothing!" Bonne answered gently, seeing that the girl was thoroughly shaken and unnerved. "It was only a horse neighing."
The Countess controlled her sobs, but her scared eyes and white face revealed the impression which the suspense of the night had made on one not bold by nature, and only supported by the pride of rank. "A horse neighing?" she repeated. "Was it only that? I thought--oh! if you knew what it was to hear them creeping and crawling, and rustling and whispering every hour of the night! To fancy them coming, and to sit up gasping! And then to lie down again and wait and wait, expecting to feel their hands on your throat! Ah, I tell you"--she hid her face on Bonne's shoulder and clasped her to her passionately--"every minute was an hour, and every hour a day!"
Bonne held her to her full of pity. And presently, "But he was near you?" she ventured. "Did not his--his neighbourhood----"
"Yes. Did not that"--Bonne spoke with averted eyes: she would know for certain now if the child loved him!--"did not that make you feel safer?"
"One man!" the Countess's voice rang querulous. "What could one man do? What could he have done if they had come? Besides they would have killed him first. I did not think of him. I thought of myself. Of my throat!" She clasped it with a sudden movement of her two hands--it was white and very slender. "I thought of that, and the knife, and how it would feel--all night! All night, do you understand? And I could have screamed! I could have screamed every minute. I wonder I did not."
Bonne saw that the child had gone to the ordeal, and passed through it, in the face of a terror that would have turned brave men. And she felt no contempt for her. She saw indeed that the child did not love; for love, as Bonne's maiden fancy painted it, was an all-powerful impervious armour. She was sure that in the other's place she would have known fear, but it would have been fear on his account, not on her own. She might have shuddered as she thought of the steel, but it would have been of the steel at his breast. Whereas the Countess--no, the Countess did not love.
"And I must go again! I must go again!" the child wailed, in the same abandonment of terror. "Oh, how shall I do it? How shall I do it?"
The cry went to Bonne's heart. "You shall not do it," she said. "If you feel about it like this, you shall not do it. It is not right nor fit."
"But I cannot refuse!" the Countess shook violently as she said it. "I dare not refuse. Afraid and a Rochechouart! A Rochechouart and a coward! No, I must go. I must die of fear there; or of shame here."
"Perhaps it may not be necessary," Bonne murmured.
"No? Why, even if my men come I must go! If they come to-day I must still go to-night. And lie trembling, and starting, and dying a death at every sound!"
"Don't--don't!" the Countess cried, moving feverishly in her arms. "And, ah, God, I was cold a moment ago, and now I am hot! Oh, I am so hot! So hot! Let me go." Her parched lips and bright eyes told of the fever of fear that ran through her veins.
But Bonne still held her.
"It may not be necessary," she murmured. "Tell me, did you see M. des Ageaux--after you went from here last night?"
"See him?" querulously. "No! He has his hut and I mine. I see no one! No one!"
"And he does not come and talk to you?"
"Talk? No. Talk? You do not know what it is like. I am alone, I tell you, alone!"
"Then if I were to take your place he would not find it out?"
The Countess started violently--and then was still. "Take my place?" she echoed in a different tone. "In their camp, do you mean?"
"But you would not," the other retorted. "You would not." Then before Bonne could answer, "What do you mean? Do you mean anything?" she cried. "Do you mean you would go?"
"In my place?"
"If you will let me," Bonne replied. She flushed a little, conscience telling her that it was not entirely, not quite entirely for the other's sake that she was willing to do this. "If you will let me I will go," she continued. "I am bigger than you, but I can stoop, and in a riding-cloak and hood I think I can pass for you. And it will be dusk too. I am sure I can pass for you."
The Countess shivered. The boon was so great, the gift so tremendous, if she could accept it! But she was Rochechouart. What would men say if they discovered that she had not gone, that she had let another take her place and run her risk? She pondered with parted lips. If it might be!
"You are not fit to go," Bonne continued. "You will faint or fall. You are ill now."
"But they will find out!" the Countess wailed, hiding her face on Bonne's shoulder. "They will find out!"
"They will not find out," Bonne replied firmly. "And I--why should I not go? You have done one night. I will do one."
"Oh, if you would! But will you--not be afraid?" The Countess's eyes were full of longing. If only she could accept with honour!
"I shall not be afraid," Bonne answered confidently. "And no one need know, no one shall know. M. des Ageaux does not talk to you?"
"No. But if it be found out, everybody--ah, I shall die of shame! Your brother, Roger, too--and everybody!"
"No one shall know," Bonne answered stoutly. "No one. Besides, you have been once. It is not as if you had not been!"
And the child, with the memory of the night pressing upon her, jumped at that. "Then I shall go to-morrow night," she said. "I shall go to-morrow night."
Bonne was clear that she was not fit to go again. But she let that be for the moment. "That shall be as you wish," she answered comfortably. "We will talk about that to-morrow. For to-night it is settled. And now you must try if you cannot go to sleep. If you do not sleep you will be ill."
To do or not to do? How many a one has turned the question in his mind; this one in the solitude of his locked room, seated with frowning face and eyes fixed on nothingness; that one amid the babble of voices and laughter, masking anxious thought under set smiles. How many a one has viewed the act she meditated this way and that, askance and across, in the hope of making the worse appear the better, and so of doing her pleasure with a light heart. Others again, trampling the scruple under foot, have none the less hesitated, counting the cost and striving to view dispassionately--with eyes that, the thing done, will never see it in that light again--how it will be with them afterwards, how much better outwardly, how much worse inwardly, and so to strike a balance for or against--to do or not to do. And some with burning eyes, and minds unswervingly bent on the thing they desire have yet felt hands pluck at them, and something--be it God or the last instinct of good--whispering them to pause--to pause, and not to do!
The Abbess pondered, while the Duke, reclining in the opening of his hut, from which the screen had been drawn back that he might enjoy the air, had no more accurate notion of her thoughts than had the Lieutenant's dog sleeping a few paces away. The missal had fallen from her hands and lay in her lap. Her eyes fixed on the green slope before her betrayed naught that was not dove-like; while the profound stillness of her form which permitted the Duke to gaze at will breathed only the peace of the cloister and the altar, the peace that no change of outward things can long disturb. Or so the Duke fancied; and eyeing her with secret rapture, felt himself uplifted in her presence. He felt that here was a being congenial with his better self, and a beauty as far above the beauty to which he had been a slave all his life as his higher moods rose above his worst excesses.
He had gained strength in the three days which had elapsed since his arrival in the camp. He could now sit up for a short time and even stand, though giddily and with precaution. Nor were these the only changes which the short interval had produced. The Countess's spears, to the number of thirty, were here, and their presence augmented the safety of the Vicomte's party. But indirectly, in so far as it fed the peasants' suspicions, it had a contrary effect. The Crocans submitted indeed to be drilled, sometimes by the Bat, sometimes by his master; and reasonable orders were not openly disobeyed. But the fear of treachery which a life-time of ill-usage had instilled was deepened by the presence of the Countess's men. The slightest movements on des Ageaux' part were scanned with jealousy. If he conferred too long with the Villeneuves or the Countess men exchanged black looks, or muttered in their beards. If he strayed a hundred paces down the valley a score were at his heels. Nor were there wanting those who, moving secretly between the camp and the savage horde upon the hill--the Old Crocans, as they were called--kept these apprised of their doubts and fears.
To eyes that could see, the position was critical, even dangerous. Nor was it rendered more easy by a feat of M. de Vlaye's men, who, reconnoitring up to the gates one evening, cut off a dozen peasants. The morning light discovered the bodies of six of these hanged on a tree below the Old Crocans' station, and well within view from the ridge about the camp. That the disaster might not have occurred had des Ageaux been in his quarters, instead of being a virtual prisoner, went for nothing. He bore the blame, some even thought him privy to the matter. From that hour the gloom grew deeper. Everywhere, and at all times, the more fanatical or the more suspicious drew together in corners, and while simpler clowns cursed low or muttered of treachery, darker spirits whispered devilish plans. Those who had their eyes open noted the more frequent presence of the Old Crocans, who wandered by twos and threes through the camp; and though these, when des Ageaux' eye fell on them, fawned and cringed, or hastened to withdraw themselves, they spat when his back was turned, and with stealthy gestures they gave him to hideous deaths.
In a word, fear like a dark presence lay upon the camp; and to add to the prevailing irritation, the heat was great. The giant earth-wall which permitted the Lieutenant to mature his plans and await his reinforcements shut out the evening breezes. Noon grilled his men as in a frying-pan; all night the air was hot and heavy. The peasants sighed for the cool streams of Brantôme and the voices of the frogs. The troopers, accustomed to lord it and impatient of discomfort, were quick with word and hand, and prone to strike, when a blow was as dangerous as a light behind a powder screen. Without was Vlaye, within was fear; while, like ravens waiting for the carnage, the horde of Old Crocans on the hill looked down from their filthy eyrie.
No one knew better than the Abbess that the least thing might serve for a spark. And she pondered. Not for an hour since its birth had the plan she had imagined been out of her mind; and still--there was so much good in her, so much truth--she recoiled. The two whom she doomed, if she acted, were her enemies; and yet she hesitated. Her own safety, her father's, her sister's, the safety of all, those two excepted, was secured by the Rochechouart reinforcement. Only her enemies would perish, and perhaps the poor fool whose presence she must disclose. And yet she could not make up her mind. To do or not to do?
It might suffice to detach Joyeuse. But the time was short, and the Duke's opinion of her high; and she shrank from risking it by a premature move. He had placed her on a pinnacle and worshipped her: if she descended from the pinnacle he might worship no longer. Meantime, if she waited until his troopers rode in, and on their heels a second levy from Rochechouart, it might be too late to act, too late to detach him, too late to save Vlaye. To do or not to do?
A dozen paces from her, old Solomon was pouring garrulous inventions into the ear of the Countess's steward; who, dull, faithful man, took all for granted, and gaped more widely at every lie. Insensibly her mind began to follow and take in the sense of their words.
"Six on one tree!" Solomon was saying, in the contemptuous tone of one to whom Montfaucon was an every-day affair. "'Tis nothing. You never saw the like at Rochechouart, say you? Perhaps not. Your lady is merciful."
"Three I have!"
"And who were they?" Solomon asked, with a sniff of contempt.
"Cattle-stealers. At least so it was said. But the wife of one came down next day and put it on another, and it was complained that they had suffered wrongfully. But three they were."
"Three?" Solomon's nose rose in scorn. "If you had seen the elm at Villeneuve in my lord's father's time! They were as acorns on an oak. Ay, they were! Fifteen in one forenoon."
"God ha' mercy on us!"
"And ten more when he had dined!"
"God ha' mercy on us!" Fulbert replied, staring in stricken surprise. "And what had they done?"
"Done?" Solomon answered, shrugging his shoulders after a careless fashion. "Just displeased him. And why should he not?" he continued, bristling up. "What worse could they do? Was he not lord of Villeneuve?"
And she was making a scruple of two lives. Of two lives that stood in her path! Still--life was life. But what was that they were saying now? Hang Vlaye? Hang--the Captain of Vlaye?
It was Solomon had the word; and this time the astonishment was on his side. "What is that you say?" he repeated. "Hang M. de Vlaye?"
"And why for not?" the steward replied doggedly, his face red with passion, his dull intelligence sharpened by his lady's wrongs. "And why for not?"
Solomon was scandalised by the mere mention of it. Hang like any clod or clown a man who had been a constant visitor at his master's house! "Oh, but he--you don't hang such as he!" he retorted. "The Captain of Vlaye? Tut, tut! You are a fool!"
"A fool? Not I! They will hang him!"
"Wait until he speaks!" Fulbert replied, nodding mysteriously in the direction of the Lieutenant, who, at no great distance from the group, was watching a band of peasants at their drill. "When he speaks 'tis the King speaks. And when the King speaks, it is hang a man must, whoever he be!"
"Whoever he be!" Fulbert repeated with stolid obstinacy. And then, "It is not for nothing," he added with a menacing gesture, "that a man stops the Countess of Rochechouart on the King's road! No, no!"
Not for nothing? No, and it is not for nothing, the Abbess cried in her heart, that you threaten the man I love with the death of a dog! Dogs yourselves! Dogs!
It was well that the Duke was not looking at her at that moment, for her heaving bosom, her glowing eyes, the rush of colour to her face all betrayed the force of her passion. Hang him? Hang her lover? So that was what they were saying, thinking, planning behind her back, was it! That was the camp talk! That!
She could have borne it better had the Lieutenant proclaimed his aim aloud. It was the sedateness of his preparations, the slow stealth of his sap, the unswerving calmness of his approaches at which her soul revolted. The ceaseless drilling, the arming, the watch by day and night, all the life about her, every act, every thought had her lover's ruin for their aim, his death for their end! A loathing, a horror seized her. She felt a net closing about her, a net that enmeshed her and fettered her, and threatened to hold her motionless and powerless, while they worked their will on him before her eyes!
But she could still break the net. She could still act. Two lives? What were two lives, lives of his enemies, in comparison of his life? At the thought a spring of savage passion welled up in her heart, and clouded her eyes. The die was cast. It remained only to do. To do!
But softly--softly. As she rose, having as yet no formed plan, a last doubt stayed her. It was not a doubt of his enemies' intentions, but of their power. He whose words had opened her eyes to their grim purpose was a dullard, almost an imbecile. He could be no judge of the means they possessed, or of their chances of success. The swarm of unkempt, ill-armed peasants, who disgusted her eyes, the troop of spears, who even now barely sufficed to secure the safety of her party, what chance had they against M. de Vlaye and the four or five hundred men-at-arms who for years had lorded it over the marches of the province, and made themselves the terror of a country-side? Surely a small chance if it deserved the name. Surely she was permitting a shadow to frighten her.
"Something," the Duke murmured near her ear, "has interrupted the even current of your thoughts, mademoiselle. What is it, I pray?"
"I feel the heat," she answered, holding her hand to her brow, that behind its shelter she might recover her composure. "Do not you?"
"It is like an oven," he answered, "within these earth-walls."
"How I hate them!" she cried, unable to repress the spirit of irritation.
"Do you? Well, so do I," he replied. "But within them--it is nowhere cooler than here."
"I will put that to the proof, my lord," she returned with a smile. And, gliding from him, in spite of the effort he made to detain her, she crossed the grass to her father. Sinking on the sward beside his stool, she began to fan herself.
The Vicomte was in an ill-humour of some days' standing; nor without reason. Dragged, will he nill he, from the house in which his whim had been law, he found himself not only without his comforts, but a cipher in the camp. Not once, but three or four times he had let his judgment be known, and he had looked to see it followed. He might have spoken to the winds. No one, not even his sons, though they listened respectfully, took heed of it. It followed that he saw himself exposed to dangers against which he was not allowed to guard himself, and to a catastrophe which he must await in inaction; while all he possessed stood risked on a venture that for him had neither interest nor motive.
In such a position a man of easier temper and less vanity might be pardoned if he complained. For the Vicomte, fits of senile rage shook him two or three times a day. He learned what it was to be thwarted: and if he hated any one or anything more than the filthy peasants on whom his breeding taught him to look with loathing, it was the man with whose success his safety was bound up, the man who had forced him into this ignominious position.
Of him he could believe no good. When the Abbess, after fanning herself in silence, mentioned the arrival of the Countess's troopers, and asked him if he thought that the Lieutenant was now strong enough to attack, he derided the notion.
"M. de Vlaye will blow this rabble to the winds," he said, with a contemptuous gesture. "We may grill here as long as we please, but the moment we show ourselves outside, pouf! It will be over! What can a handful of riders do against five hundred men as good as themselves?"
"But the peasants?" she suggested, willing to know the worst. "There are some hundreds of them."
"Food for steel!" he answered, with the same contemptuous pantomime.
"Then you think--we were wrong to come here?"
"I think, girl, that we were mad to come here. But not so mad," he continued spitefully, "as those who brought us!"
"Yet Charles thinks that the Governor of Périgord will prevail."
"Charles had his own neck in the noose," the Vicomte growled, "and was glad of company. Since Coutras it is the young lead the old, and the issue you will see. Lieutenant of Périgord? What has the Lieutenant of Périgord or any other governor to do with canaille such as this?"
Odette heaved a sigh of relief and her face lightened. "It will be better so," she said softly. "M. de Vlaye knows, sir, that we had no desire to hurt him, and he will not reckon it against us."
The Vicomte fidgeted in his stool. "I wish I could think so," he answered with a groan. "Curse him! Who is more to blame? If he had left the Countess alone, this would not have happened. They are no better one than the other! But what is this? Faugh!" And he spat on the ground.
There was excuse for his disgust. Across the open ground a group of men were making their way in the direction of the Lieutenant's quarters. They were the same men who had met him at the entrance on his return with the Abbess and Joyeuse: nor had the lapse of four or five days lessened the foulness of their aspect, or robbed them of the slinking yet savage bearing--as of beasts of prey half tamed--which bade beware of them. They shambled forward until they neared des Ageaux, who was writing at an improvised table not far from the Vicomte; then cringing they saluted him. Their eyes squinting this way and that from under matted locks--as if at a gesture they were ready to leap back--added to their beast-like appearance.
The Lieutenant's voice, as he asked the men with asperity what they needed, came clearly to the ears of the group about the Vicomte. But the Old Crocans' answer, expressed at length in a patois of the country, was not audible.
"Foul carrion!" the Vicomte muttered. "What do they here?" while the Abbess and Bonne, who had joined her, contemplated them with eyes of shuddering dislike.
"What, indeed?" Bonne muttered, her cheek pale. She seemed to be unable to take her eyes from them. "They frighten me! Oh, I hope they will not be suffered to remain in the camp!"
"Is it that they wish?" the Vicomte asked.
"Yes, my lord," Solomon answered: he had gone forward, listened awhile and returned. "They say that eleven more of their people were surprised by Vlaye's men three hours ago, and cut to pieces. This is the second time it has happened. They think that they are no longer safe on the hill, and wish to join us."
"God forbid!" Bonne cried, with a strange insistence.
The Abbess looked at her. "Why so frightened?" she said contemptuously. "One might suppose you were in greater danger than others, girl!"
Bonne did not answer, but her distended eyes betrayed the impression which the wretches' appearance made on her. Nor when Charles--who was seldom off the ridge which was his special charge--remarked that after all a man was a man, and they had not too many, could she refrain from a word. "But not those!" she murmured. "Not those!"
Charles, who in these days saw more of the Bat than of any one else, shrugged his shoulders. "I shall be surprised if he does not receive them," he answered. "They are vermin and may give us trouble. But we must run the risk. If we are to succeed we must run some risks."
Not that risk, however, it appeared. For he had scarcely uttered the words when des Ageaux was seen to raise his hand, and point with stern meaning to the entrance. "No," he said, his voice high and clear. "Begone to your own and look to yourselves! You chose to go your own way and a bloody one! Now your blood be on your own heads! Here is no place for you, nor will I cover you!"
"My lord!" one cried in protest. "My lord, hear us!"
"No!" the Lieutenant replied harshly. "You had your warning and did not heed it! M. de Villeneuve, when he came to you, warned you, and I warned you. It was your own will to withdraw yourselves. You would have naught but blood. You would burn and kill! Now, on your own heads," he concluded with severity, "be your blood!"
They would have protested anew, but he dismissed them with a gesture which permitted no denial. And sullenly, with stealthy gestures of menace, they retreated towards the entrance; and gabbling more loudly as they approached it, seemed to be imprecating vengeance on those who cast them out. In the gate they lingered awhile, turning about and scolding the man on guard. Then they passed out of sight, and were gone.
As the last of them disappeared des Ageaux, who had kept a vigilant eye on their retreat, approached the group about the Vicomte. The old man, though he approved the action, could not refrain from giving his temper vent.
"You are sure that you can do without them," he said, with a sneer. His shaking hand betrayed his dislike of the man to whom he spoke.
"I believe I can," the Lieutenant answered. He spoke with unusual gravity, but the next moment a smile--smiles had been rare with him of late--curved the corners of his mouth. His eyes travelled from one to another, and in a low voice, but one that betrayed his relief, "I will tell you why, if you wish to know, M. le Vicomte."
Des Ageaux' smile grew broader, but his tone remained low. "Because I have news," he returned. "And it is good news. I have had word within the last hour that I may expect M. de Joyeuse's levies about nightfall to-morrow, and a day or two later a reinforcement beyond my hope--fifty men-at-arms whom the Governor of Agen has lent me, and fifty from my garrison of Périgueux. With those we should have enough--though not too many."
They received the news with words of congratulation or with grunts of disdain, according as each felt about it. And all began to discuss the tidings, though still in the tone of caution which the Lieutenant's look enjoined. One only was silent, and with averted face saw the cup of respite dashed from her lips. A hundred men beyond those looked for! Such an accession must change hope to certainty, hazard to surety. A few days would enable the Lieutenant to match rider for rider with Vlaye, and still boast a reserve of four or five hundred undisciplined allies. While jubilant voices hummed in her ears, and those whom she was ready to kill because they hated him rejoiced, the Abbess rose slowly and, detaching herself from the group, walked away.
No one followed her even with the eye; for the Duke, fatigued, and a little hurt that she did not return, had retired into his quarters. Nor would the most watchful have learned much from her movements, or, unless jealous beyond the ordinary, have found aught to suspect in what she did.
She strolled very slowly along the foot of the slope, as if in pure idleness or to stretch limbs cramped by over-long sitting. Presently she came to some tethered horses, and stood and patted them, and looked them over; nor could any but the horses tell--and they could not speak--that while her hand was on them her eyes were roving the camp. Perhaps she found what she sought; perhaps it was chance only that guided her steps in the direction of the tall young man with pale eyes, whose violence had raised him to a certain leadership among the peasants.
It must have been chance, for when she reached his neighbourhood she did not address him. She stooped and--what could be more womanly or more natural?--she spoke to a naked child that rolled on the trampled turf within arm's length of him. What she said--in French or patois, or that infant language of which no woman's tongue is ignorant--the baby could not say, for, like the horses, it could not speak. Yet it must have found something unusual in her face, for it cowered from her, as in terror. And what she said could have no interest for the man who lounged near, though he seemed disturbed by it.
She toyed with the shrinking child a moment, then turned and walked slowly back to the Vicomte's quarters. Her manner was careless, but her face was pale. No wonder. For she had taken a step--and she knew it--which she could never retrace. She had done that which she could not undo. Between her and Bonne and Roger and Charles was a gulf henceforth, though they might not know it. And the Duke? She winced a little, recognising more plainly than before how far she stood below the notion he had of her.
Yet she felt no remorse. On the contrary, the uppermost feeling in her mind--and it ran riot there--was a stormy exultation. They who had dragged her at their chariot wheels would learn that in forcing her to take part against her lover they had made the most fatal of mistakes. They triumphed now. They counted on sure success now. They thought to hang him, as they would hang any low-bred thief! Very good! Let them wait until morning, and talk then of hanging!
Once or twice, indeed, in the afternoon she was visited by misgivings. The man she had seen was a mere savage; he might not have understood. Or he might betray her, though that could hurt her little since no one would believe him. Or the peasants, though wrought to fury, might recoil at the last like the cowards they were!
But these and the like doubts arose not from compunction, but from mistrust. Compunction was to come later, when evening fell and from the door of the Duke's quarters she viewed the scene, now familiar, of the hostages' departure in the dusk--saw the horses drawn up and the two whom she was dooming in act to mount. It was then that a sudden horror of what she was about seized her--she was young, a mere girl--and she rose with a stifled cry from her stool. It was not yet too late. A cry, a word would save them. Would save them still! Impulsively she moved a pace towards them, intending--ay, for a moment, intending to say that word.
But she stopped. A word would save them, but--she was forgetting--it would doom her lover! And on that thought, and to reinforce it, there rose before her mind's eye the pale puling features of the Countess--her rival! Was she to be put aside for a thing like that? Was it to such a half-formed child as that she must surrender her lover? She pressed her hands together, and, returning to her seat, she turned it about that her eyes might not see them as they went through the dusk.
The Abbess Of Vlaye by Stanley J. Weyman – Full Text (Part 3)