FOR THE ADMIRAL
Author of "Scouting for Buller," "The British Legion," etc.
HODDER AND STOUGHTON PUBLISHERS LONDON
Printed in 1906
Butler and Panner, The Selwood Printing Works, Frome, and London
TO MY WIFE
BUT FOR WHOSE ENCOURAGEMENT
THIS STORY WOULD NEVER
HAVE BEEN WRITTEN.
CHAPTER I A PERILOUS RIDE
CHAPTER II TRACKED, OR NOT?
CHAPTER III THE FIGHT BY THE WAY
CHAPTER IV HOW WE KEPT THE FORD
CHAPTER V A TRAITOR TO THE KING
CHAPTER VI THE UNKNOWN CAVALIER
CHAPTER VII A COMMISSION FOR THE ADMIRAL
CHAPTER VIII THE TRAGEDY OF JARNAC
CHAPTER IX A GLORIOUS VICTORY
CHAPTER X I REJOIN THE ADVANCE
CHAPTER XI A DESPERATE CONFLICT
CHAPTER XII THE RETURN TO ROCHELLE
CHAPTER XIII A DARING ENTERPRISE
CHAPTER XIV SCOUTING FOR COLIGNY
CHAPTER XV A GLORIOUS TRIUMPH
CHAPTER XVI A GLEAM OF SUNSHINE
CHAPTER XVII THE KING'S PROMISE
CHAPTER XVIII A WARNING FROM L'ESTANG
CHAPTER XIX WHO KILLED THE COURIER?
CHAPTER XX L'ESTANG'S COURIER
CHAPTER XXI I SAVE CORDEL'S LIFE
CHAPTER XXII L'ESTANG TELLS HIS STORY
CHAPTER XXIII A ROYAL MARRIAGE
CHAPTER XXIV A MYSTERIOUS WARNING
CHAPTER XXV A DASTARDLY DEED
CHAPTER XXVI WHAT WILL THE KING DO?
CHAPTER XXVII THE DAY OF THE MASSACRE
CHAPTER XXVIII FAREWELL FRANCE
A Perilous Ride
"I trust no harm has happened to my father, Jacques. The night grows late and there are strange rumours afloat. 'Tis said that the Guises are eager to break the peace."
"Better open warfare than this state of things, monsieur. The peace is no peace: the king's troops are robbing and slaying as they please. Francois of the mill told me a pretty tale of their doings to-day. But listen, I hear the beat of hoofs on the road below."
"There are two horses, Jacques, and they approach very slowly. My father does not usually ride like that."
"No, faith!" said Jacques, with a laugh; "if his horse went at that pace the Sieur Le Blanc would get down and walk! But the travellers are coming here, nevertheless. Shall we go to the gate, monsieur?"
"It may be as well," I answered. "One can never tell these days what mischief is brewing."
By the peasantry for miles around my home was called the Castle of Le Blanc. It stood on the brow of a hill, overlooking a wide plain, and was defended by a dry moat and massive walls. A score of resolute men inside might easily have kept two hundred at bay, and more than once, indeed, the castle had stood a regular siege.
According to Jacques it might have to do so again, for in that year, 1586, of which I write, France was in a terrible state. The nation was divided into two hostile parties—those who fiercely resisted any changes being made in the Church, and the Huguenots, those of the Religion—and the whole land was given over to brawling and disorder.
My father, who was held in high esteem by the Huguenot party, had fought through three campaigns under Gaspard de Coligny, the Admiral, as men, by virtue of his office, generally called him. Severely wounded in one of the numerous skirmishes, he had returned home to be nursed back to health by my mother. Before he recovered a peace was patched up between the two parties, and he had since remained quietly on his estate.
He it was who, rather to my surprise, now came riding at a foot pace into the courtyard. The stranger accompanying him sat his horse limply, and seemed in some danger of falling from the saddle.
"Take the bridle, Jacques," cried my father. "Edmond, let your mother know I am bringing with me a wounded man."
When we had assisted the stranger into one of the chambers I saw that he was of medium height, spare in figure, but tough and sinewy. He had a swarthy complexion, and small, black, twinkling eyes that gave the impression of good-humour. His right arm, evidently broken, was carried in a rough, hastily-made sling; his doublet was bloodstained, and his forehead had been scored by the slash of a knife.
He must have been suffering agony, yet he did not even wince when my father, who had considerable experience of wounds, set the broken limb, while I, after sponging his face with warm water, applied some salve to the gash. But he kept muttering to himself, "This is a whole night wasted; I must set out at daybreak."
"We are going to get you into bed, and dress the wound in your side," said my father cheerily. "I hope that at daybreak you will be sleeping soundly."
"The cut is a bagatelle, monsieur, and I must to the road again. A murrain on those rascally bandits!"
"At least you will be none the worse for an hour's rest," said my father, humouring his fancy. "Edmond, get off his boots, and do it gently: we must keep this wound from bleeding afresh."
Between us we removed his clothes, and in spite of his protests got him into bed, when my father bathed and bandaged his side, saying, "It looks worse than it really is. Now, a cup of hot broth, and you should sleep comfortably."
"The broth will be welcome, monsieur, but I have no time for sleep. An hour lost here may plunge thousands of good Frenchmen into mourning."
I thought at first the pain had turned his brain; but he spoke sensibly enough, and appeared deeply in earnest.
"Can we help you?" my father asked. "It will be a week yet before you are able to sit in the saddle. Do you know me?"
"Yes," said the other, and his face brightened, "you are the Sieur Le Blanc. I have seen you at Rochelle with the Admiral."
"Then you know I am to be trusted! Mind, I have no wish to pry into your business; but perhaps we can be of service. Are you travelling far?"
"A week's ride," groaned the man; then, raising himself in bed, he said, "Monsieur, I must go forward!"
"Pshaw, man, you talk nonsense! You haven't sufficient strength to carry you across the room, and the wound in your side would start bleeding before you reached the courtyard. Come, throw aside your fears; I make no secret of my friendship for Gaspard de Coligny, and it is easy to guess you have fought under his banner before now. But here is Jacques with the broth! Drink this, and afterwards we will talk."
I raised him up while he drank, and presently he said, "Monsieur, if I rested till midday I should be strong enough."
"A week at the least," my father replied, "and even then a score of miles would overtax your strength."
After lying quietly for a few minutes, he whispered, "Monsieur, make the door fast. Now, hand me my doublet. A murrain on the knaves who brought me to this! A knife, monsieur, and slit the lining. Do you feel a packet? 'Tis a small one. Ah, that is it. Look, monsieur, at the address."
"The Admiral!" said my father with a start of surprise, "and he is at Tanlay. Man, it will be a month before you can reach Tanlay; and the packet is marked 'All speed!' Do you know the purport of the message?"
"It conveys a warning, monsieur, and it will arrive too late. The Guises and the Queen-Mother have laid their plans; the Loire is guarded along its banks, and the troops are collecting for a swoop on Tanlay."
"And Conde is at Noyers!"
"The Prince is included, monsieur. 'Let us take off the heads of the two leaders,' is what the Italian woman says, 'and there will be no more Huguenots.' And the chiefs at Rochelle chose me to carry the warning. 'There is none braver or more prudent than Ambroise Devine,' they said. Monsieur, I would rather have lost my right hand!"
"Cheer up, man. I warrant you have no cause for reproach. Guise has his spies in Rochelle, and they would follow you on the chance of picking up some information. When were you attacked?"
"At the close of the afternoon, monsieur, in the wood a few miles to the west. They sprang out upon me suddenly—there were three of them—and I was taken unawares. But it was a good fight," and, in spite of his pain and distress of mind, his face lit up with a smile of satisfaction. "There is one trooper the less in Guise's ranks, and another who won't earn his pay for months to come."
"And best of all, the papers are safe," my father observed. "Now, what is to be done? That is the important point. The Admiral must have them without loss of time, and you cannot carry them to him. My duties keep me here, but I could send Jacques——"
"Jacques?" said the sick man questioningly.
"He is a trusty servant; I will vouch for his loyalty."
Devine shook his head. It was plain he did not welcome the proposal.
"Trust the papers to me," I said, on a sudden impulse, "and I will take Jacques for company."
"'Tis a long journey, Edmond, and full of danger," said my father. "I fear an older head than yours is needed."
"Jacques can supply the older head, and I will take charge of the papers."
"You are only a boy," objected Devine.
"So much the better: no one will suspect I am engaged on an errand of importance."
"There is something in that, but this is no child's game; 'tis an affair of life and death. You must travel day and night, and from the moment the papers are in your hands your life belongs to the Admiral. If you fail to reach Tanlay in time, the death of the noblest gentleman in France will lie on your shoulders."
"I will do my best."
"He is young," remarked my father, "but he can bear fatigue. He has a sure seat in the saddle, and he is more thoughtful than most boys of his age. With Jacques at his elbow the venture is not as desperate as it may seem."
Since nothing better offered, Devine at length agreed to the proposal, and having informed Jacques that we should start at dawn I went straight to bed, in the hope of getting a couple of hours' sleep before beginning the journey.
The morning had scarcely broken when Jacques wakened me; I sprang up quickly, dressed—my mother had sewn the precious papers securely inside my doublet—and made a hearty meal.
My mother, who had risen in order to bid me farewell, was full of anxiety; but, like the brave woman she was, she put aside her fears; for the Admiral's safety was at stake, and we of the Religion were well content to make any sacrifice for our beloved leader. I embraced her fondly, assuring her I would be careful, and proceeded to the chamber where Ambroise Devine lay. He had not slept, but was eagerly awaiting the time of my departure.
"You have the papers?" he asked. "Give them into the Admiral's own hands, and remember that a single hour's delay may ruin the Cause."
"He carries a full purse," said my father, "and can buy fresh horses on the road."
Wishing the sick man good-bye, and bidding him be of good courage, I descended to the courtyard, where Jacques awaited me with the horses.
"Do not be sparing of your money, Edmond; if need arises, spend freely," my father advised. "And now, may God bless you, and bring you safely through. Do not forget, Jacques, that a shrewd brain will pay better than a strong arm in this venture."
"We will be as prudent as the Admiral himself, monsieur," declared Jacques, as he vaulted into the saddle; and, with a last word of counsel from my father, we crossed the drawbridge and rode down the hill to the high road.
"'Tis a long journey before us, monsieur, and an unexpected one," observed my companion, as, turning sharply to the left, we rode through the still sleeping village. "'Tis odd what a chance encounter may bring about; but for the Sieur's meeting with the wounded man we should still be snug abed. There is some one stirring at the inn. Old Pierre will be none too pleased at having guests who rise so early; but there, 'twill be another coin or so to add to his hoard."
"Pierre is a wise man," I said.
"I think not, monsieur. There is little wisdom in saving money for others to spend. The king's troopers will ride through here some day, and Pierre will be a cunning man if they do not strip him as bare as a trussed fowl. 'Tis more satisfactory these days to spend one's money while one has the chance. And things will never be any better until they send the Italian woman out of the country."
Jacques generally spoke of the Queen-Mother as the Italian woman, and he regarded her as the chief cause of all our troubles.
"She cares for no one but herself," he continued, "not even for the boy king, and the Guises have her under their thumb. What with them and her Italian favourites there is no room in France for an honest Frenchman. Listen, some one rides behind us! 'Tis the early riser from the inn perhaps. Faith, he is a keen judge of horseflesh."
"And he has a firm seat," I remarked, glancing round. "He will overtake us in a few minutes. Shall we quicken our pace?"
"No, monsieur. If he is a friend there is no need; should he be an enemy 'twill but arouse suspicion."
"Good-day, messieurs," cried a pleasant voice, "I trust we are well met. I am a stranger in the district, and wish to discover the whereabouts of one Etienne Cordel. He is an advocate from Paris, but he owns a small estate in the neighbourhood."
"A tall man," said Jacques, "with a nose like a hawk's beak, and eyes that look in opposite directions?"
"Faith, my friend," laughed the stranger jovially, "you have his picture to a nicety. That is Etienne Cordel. Are you acquainted with him?"
"I have met him," replied Jacques carelessly. "We shall pass within a mile or two of his place, if you care to travel in our company."
"Nothing would please me more," declared the cavalier. "This is a stroke of good fortune on which I had not counted. I spent the night at the inn yonder, but the dolt of a landlord might have been one of the staves of his own barrels: he could not answer me a question!"
"Ha! my dashing friend," I thought to myself, "old Pierre must have had his reasons for making a fool of you," for in truth the landlord knew every one, and everything that happened, for miles around.
The stranger had drawn his horse abreast of mine, and was riding on my left. He was a man of perhaps thirty years, richly but quietly dressed, wearing a sword, and carrying two pistols in his holsters. His dark brown hair escaped over his forehead in short curls; his face was strong and capable; he had good features, and a rounded chin. His eyes were blue, deep, expressive, and beautiful as a woman's, and he had a most engaging air of candour and sincerity. The horse he rode was a splendid animal; my father had not its equal in his stables.
"This place of Etienne's," said he, addressing Jacques, "is it far?"
"Within a dozen miles, monsieur. You might easily have reached it last night by pushing on."
"Had I been acquainted with the road! But it was late when I arrived at the inn, and my horse had done a heavy's day work. You are a native of the district, monsieur?" turning to me.
"If you make the district wide enough," I answered, with a laugh.
"You have escaped the ravages of war in these parts; you are fortunate. One can ride here without loosening his sword."
"Yes," assented Jacques, "'tis a peaceful neighbourhood."
"A pity one cannot say the same of all France," replied the other with a deep sigh, as if saddened at the mere thought of bloodshed; "and yet it is whispered that the war is likely to break out again. Has the rumour reached you down here?"
"We hear little news of the outside world," I replied.
"Excuse me, monsieur," exclaimed Jacques suddenly, "but it will suit us to quicken the pace. We have pressing business to transact," to which our chance acquaintance replied that he was quite willing to be guided by our wishes.
Accordingly we broke into a canter, and for the next hour or so no sound was heard save the beat of our horses' hoofs on the hard road. But once, when the stranger had shot a few paces to the front—for as I have said he rode a splendid animal—Jacques made me a swift sign that I should be cautious.
Tracked, or Not?
"That is your road, monsieur. At the end of a mile a cross-road leads straight to Etienne Cordel's dwelling. You will see the house from the spot where the road branches. You will pardon us for our hasty departure, but time presses. If you put up again at the inn, we may have the pleasure of meeting you on our return."
Taking the cue from Jacques, who evidently did not intend holding a prolonged conversation, I said: "Adieu, monsieur, and a pleasant ending to your journey. You cannot mistake the way, now," and directly he had thanked us for our assistance we rode on.
"Rather an abrupt departure, Jacques," I remarked presently, feeling somewhat puzzled.
"Better that, monsieur, than wait to be asked inconvenient questions. Did you notice that slash across his doublet? He has been pretty close to a naked sword, and not long ago either! What does he want with Etienne Cordel? He looks more fitted for the camp than the law courts."
"Monsieur Cordel no doubt transacts his private business for him."
"No doubt," said Jacques, with a shrug of his shoulders. "But I did not like his appearance, and if we could spare the time I would ride back to discover what made Pierre suddenly dumb. I warrant he misliked his questioner; but if the stranger is seeking information, he can obtain all he wants from Cordel."
"You are no friend to the advocate, Jacques!"
"He is a spy, monsieur, and a maker of mischief. One of these days men will learn his true character."
"I have no liking for Cordel," I said, "but still all this has nothing to do with our errand."
"Perhaps not, monsieur; we will hope not," replied my companion, "but all the same, I wish we had started an hour earlier."
Honestly I felt rather inclined to laugh at Jacques' vague fears, for the stranger's pleasant speech and affable manner had impressed me, and I could not think of him in any other light than that of a courteous and gallant gentleman. In spite of wise saws, one is often tempted to believe that occasionally fine feathers make fine birds.
We rode on steadily, stopping for an hour or two during the hottest part of the day, and putting up late at night at a dilapidated inn in a half-deserted village. The landlord, a bent, feeble, old man, had gone to bed, but he set about preparing some supper, while, since there was no ostler, we fed and groomed the animals ourselves.
"We must start at daybreak," said Jacques, when we had finished our meal; "that will give us four hours' sleep."
"Fourteen would suit me better!" I laughed, as we followed our host to the guest-chamber, and, indeed, I was so thoroughly tired that my head scarcely touched the pillow before I was sound asleep.
It was still dark when Jacques roused me, and by dawn we were once more on the road. On this second day's journey the ravages of the late war were plainly apparent, and the sights made one's heart ache. The fields lay waste and untilled; the cattle, few in number, were mere bundles of skin and bone; the villages were half-emptied of their inhabitants, while those who remained resembled skeletons rather than human beings.
"And all this," exclaimed my companion bitterly, "is the work of the Italian woman and her friends. It is time that Frenchmen took their country into their own hands again, and out of the clutches of these foreign harpies!"
"That can be done only by another war, Jacques, and surely we have had enough of cutting one another's throats!"
"It must be either war or murder," he responded. "The Guises won't rest until they become masters. France will swim in blood one of these days. Do you know, monsieur, I am glad that Mademoiselle Jeanne is not at the castle!"
Jeanne was my sister, who, since the peace, had been living at Rochelle with an invalid aunt. She was seventeen years of age, a year older than myself, and a girl of beauty and courage.
"You are in a gloomy mood, Jacques, and fancying all kinds of dangers that are not likely to happen. Why, even the stranger we met at Le Blanc alarmed you."
"He alarms me yet," replied Jacques gravely; "he is a bird of ill omen."
"Come," I said banteringly, "let us have a canter; it will clear the cobwebs from your brain, besides helping us on our way to Saintbreuil," the little town where we intended to pass the night and to procure fresh horses. Jacques had an acquaintance at Saintbreuil—an innkeeper who secretly favoured the Cause without possessing sufficient courage to declare his opinions.
The night had grown somewhat late by the time of our arrival, but we managed to secure admittance, and Jacques had no difficulty in finding the inn—a fairly decent house in a small square.
"A quiet room, Edouard, and some supper," said my companion to the host, "and serve us yourself. There is no need that all Saintbreuil should learn of our being here. And be quick, for we are tired and hungry, and there is business to transact."
The landlord, a nervous-looking fellow, took us quickly to a chamber at the farther end of the house, and in a short time we were sitting down to a well-spread table.
"Is the town quiet?" asked Jacques presently.
"Quiet, but uneasy. The citizens are afraid of they know not what. There is a whisper that the peace will be broken."
"Humph! there is more than a whisper in some parts; but listen to me, Edouard; monsieur and I are travelling fast. We have nearly foundered our animals, and yet it is necessary to push on again directly the gates are opened. You must procure us fresh horses, the best that can be got."
"And the two in the stables?"
"Can go in exchange."
"You will have to pay heavily."
"Of course we shall, my dear Edouard, but monsieur is prepared to open his purse. Get them into the stable to-night, and call us at daybreak."
"Can you trust him to procure really good animals?" I asked, when the man had gone out.
"There are few keener judges of horseflesh than Edouard, monsieur; and now let us to bed."
Jacques had lost his gloomy fit; there seemed little likelihood of danger, and I slept soundly till wakened by our host. Dressing hastily we went straight to the stables, and were more than satisfied with our new animals. They were beautiful creatures, shaped for both speed and endurance, and I did not grudge the money the landlord had spent.
"They should carry us to our journey's end," said Jacques in a whisper; "the sight of them gives me fresh courage. I care not a rap of the fingers now for our chance acquaintance!"
"The cavalier seems to have turned your brain!" I laughed.
"Maybe 'twas only an idle fancy, but I mistrusted the fellow. Perhaps you will laugh, but I thought he might be one of those who attacked Monsieur Devine."
"Well?" I said, startled by this statement, and yet puzzled to understand how it affected us.
"If so, he must be trying to obtain possession of the papers. He would follow the wounded man, and suddenly lose him. He failed to get any information from old Pierre, and he learned little from us; but the advocate would tell him everything."
"What could Cordel tell?" I asked, still puzzled.
"That your father, monsieur, is the chief person in the district—that he is of the Religion—that the wounded messenger might have found shelter in the castle."
"Yes, the advocate would certainly mention that."
"The stranger would speak of us, too, and the lawyer, recognizing the description, would inform him who we were. That would arouse his suspicions, for you must admit that we chose a strange hour to ride."
"And you think he would follow us?"
"That is what I feared. He is splendidly mounted, and could easily overtake us; but now," and Jacques laughed, "the case is different."
"Even should he come up with us," I said, "he is but one against two, and we can both handle a sword!"
My companion shrugged his shoulders. "What chance should we have in Saintbreuil, monsieur? A word to a king's officer, and we should either be dead, or in prison."
"Faith," I said laughing, though not with much heartiness, "you draw a lively picture! Once outside these walls, I shall not care to venture into a town again until we reach Tanlay."
"With these horses there should be no need."
The officer of the guard gazed at us suspiciously. "You travel early, monsieur!" he remarked.
"Too early for comfort!" I replied, "but I must reach Nevers before Marshal Tavannes leaves. He does not like idle excuses."
"You are right, monsieur!" replied the man, with an instant change of expression, "one does not play tricks with the marshal. But I did not know he was at Nevers."
"'Tis but a flying visit, I believe."
"Well, a pleasant journey to you. Have a care, though, if you ride late; the country is infested with brigands."
Thanking him for his advice I followed after Jacques, who had taken advantage of the conversation to ride on.
"I thought the officer might take a fancy to ask me some questions, and I am not so intimately acquainted as you with the doings of the king's general!" he said with a chuckle. "'Twas a bold stroke, monsieur, but it paid."
"Yes," I said, "it paid. And now let us push forward."
Strangely enough, now that Jacques had recovered his composure I began to feel nervous, and more than once caught myself glancing round as if half expecting to see a body of pursuers on our track. However, we proceeded all day without adventure, slept for two or three hours at a village inn, and resumed our journey in high spirits.
"We should reach the Loire by midday," remarked Jacques. "Shall we go into the town and cross by the bridge, or try for a ford? There is one a little to the north."
"The ford will suit our purpose," I said, "and I hardly care about trusting myself in the town."
There still wanted two hours to noon when, coming to a grassy and tree-shaded plateau through which ran a sparkling stream, Jacques proposed that we should rest the horses. So we dismounted, gave them a drink, fastened them to a tree, and lay down beside them.
"Monsieur might be able to sleep," suggested Jacques. "I will watch, but we cannot afford more than an hour."
"We will take turns," I said.
"Not at all, monsieur. I do not feel sleepy. I will waken you in good time."
Feeling refreshed by the short rest I was just remounting when a rough, sturdy-looking fellow came along, riding a powerful horse.
"Good-day, messieurs," he said, glancing at us, I thought, very keenly; "am I on the right track for Nevers?"
"Yes," I answered rather curtly.
"Perhaps monsieur is himself going there? I am a stranger in these parts."
"No," I replied, "we are not going to the town, but you cannot miss the way."
He hung about for some time, trying to make conversation, but presently rode on, and a bend in the road hid him from our view.
"An ugly customer to meet on a dark night, Jacques," I remarked.
"Let us push on, monsieur; that fellow meant us no good. Did you notice his speech?"
"I did; he comes from our own neighbourhood. It is possible he has seen us before."
"And what of that?"
"Nothing, except that it is curious," and Jacques quickened his pace.
At the end of a quarter of a mile a cross-road to the left led to the river, and along this track we travelled. It was very narrow, so narrow, indeed, that we were forced to ride in single file, Jacques going before. The stranger had disappeared; no one was in sight; the countryside seemed deserted.
"Do you know where the ford is situated?" I asked.
"I have a fairly good notion. Ah, what is that?" and he reined up sharply.
From our position we could just catch a glimpse of several horsemen riding swiftly along the bank of the river. They were out of sight in a few minutes, and we proceeded in a somewhat uncomfortable frame of mind.
"They can have nothing to do with us, Jacques," I said cheerily.
"No, monsieur, nothing," he replied.
"How much farther do we go before descending?"
"About a quarter of a mile."
"Once across the river we shall be in no danger at all."
"None at all, monsieur."
"A plague on you, Jacques!" I cried, "can't you make some sensible remark?"
"I was but agreeing with monsieur."
We had gone about four hundred yards when the track began to descend in winding fashion toward the water. My companion was still in front, and I noticed he had loosened his sword. I had done the same, and in addition had seen that my pistols were in order. Somehow, a strange sense of approaching peril, for which I could not account, hung about me.
"There is the ford," said Jacques, drawing rein, and pointing straight ahead of him. "That is where we must cross."
"Yes," I said.
"But I cannot see the horsemen, and they should be visible from here. It is very absurd, of course, but still, I would advise monsieur to look to his pistols."
"I am ready, Jacques."
"Come, then, and if I say 'Gallop!' stretch your horse to his utmost."
He advanced carefully, I following, and watching him intently. Presently, without turning round, he said: "It is as I thought; the horsemen are there; we cannot get through without a fight."
"Then we must fight, Jacques; it is impossible to turn back. They will not expect a rush, and we may catch them off their guard. But it will be amusing if they turn out to be simply peaceful travellers."
"Amusing and satisfactory, monsieur. Are you ready? We will ride abreast at the bottom; it will give us greater strength."
Jacques was a splendid horseman, and he had taught me to ride almost from the first day I could sit a horse's back. From him, too, as well as from my father, I had learned how to use a sword, though my weapon had never yet been drawn in actual conflict, and even now I hoped against hope that the horsemen below were not waiting for us.
But if Jacques' view were correct, then we must fight. Because of the trust reposed in me, I could not yield; either I must win a way through, or leave my dead body there on the bank.
My companion's voice recalled me to action. "Fire your pistol directly we come within range," he said, "and then lay on with the sword."
"But we must give them warning, Jacques!"
"It is needless; they have seen us, and are preparing. Corbleu! it is as I thought! See, there is the man who overtook us in the village. Monsieur, there is no escape; it is a fight to the death!"
"I am ready!"
The Fight by the Way
They watched us furtively, as, with seeming carelessness, we descended the slope, slowly at first, but gradually increasing the pace as the ground became less steep. There were five of them in all, and presently I perceived that the one a little in advance of the group was the unknown cavalier whom we had directed to the house of Etienne Cordel.
"Draw level, monsieur. Now!" and the next instant we were dashing down the remaining part of the slope at terrific speed.
It was a wild ride, a ride so mad that many a night afterwards I started from sleep with the sensation of being hurled through space. The horses flew, their hoofs seeming not to touch the ground; had we wished, we should have found it impossible to check their headlong career. Nearer and nearer we approached; the horsemen wavered visibly, their leader alone remaining unmoved.
There was a loud report; a ball whizzed past, and we heard a cry of "In the king's name!"
For answer we discharged our pistols almost at point-blank distance, and a horse rolled over heavily with its rider.
"One down!" cried Jacques in triumph, drawing his sword and aiming a desperate blow at the leader, who called out—"The boy! Capture the boy! Shoot his horse, you dolts!"
He thrust at me vigorously, but, parrying the attack more by luck than good management, I dashed on, Jacques crying, "This way, monsieur, quick!"
With a tremendous leap we sprang into the river, the poor animals struggling franticly to keep their footing.
"This way!" shouted Jacques, "we are too far to the right; the ford lies here. Forward, forward! Use your spurs; they are after us. To the front; I will hold them at bay!"
"No, no; we will stand by each other."
"Nonsense!" he cried, "remember the packet!" and, having no answer to that, I pushed forward, though with reluctance.
It was a wild scramble, now swimming, now wading, stumbling, and floundering along with the yells of the pursuers in our ears. I reached the opposite bank, and while my gallant animal clambered up, Jacques turned to face the enemy. Almost immediately there came the clash of swords, and, looking back, I saw him engaged in desperate conflict with the foremost of the pursuers.
The contest was short. With a howl of pain the fellow dropped his sword, and the water reddened with his blood.
"Spread out!" cried the cavalier angrily, "'tis the boy we want!" and at that, Jacques being powerless to prevent them from slipping past, rode after me.
"Only three to two now!" he exclaimed joyfully; "shall we stop? It will be a good fight."
"No, no, we may get away; we are the better mounted."
"I do not think so, monsieur; their horses are the fresher."
Once again Jacques proved correct. The three men, the cavalier leading, hung stubbornly on our track, and began steadily to ride us down.
"If we could reach a village," I gasped, "the people might be for us!"
"Or against us, monsieur."
On we went across the open stretch of upland, the pace becoming perceptibly slower, the pursuers approaching steadily nearer. Below us, white and dusty in the sunlight, wound a broad road, with a high bank on one side of it.
"If we could get there," remarked Jacques, "we could fight with our backs to the wall, and the odds are not so heavy."
"Let us try."
The animals responded nobly to our urging, though their nostrils were blood-red, and their quivering haunches flaked with spume. Panting and straining, they raced along, so that we gained the road a considerable distance ahead of our pursuers; but the pace could not be maintained and Jacques counselled a halt.
"The horses will get back their wind," he said, "and we shall engage at an advantage. If we go on, the creatures will be completely blown. Only three against two, monsieur; your father would laugh at such odds!"
"I am not thinking of myself, Jacques, but of the Admiral. The papers make a coward of me."
"This is the best chance of saving them. Let us wait here. Fortunately their firearms are useless, and they must trust to the sword. Just fancy you are engaged in a fencing bout in the courtyard, Monsieur Edmond, and we shall beat them easily."
We drew up on the dusty road, with our backs to the high bank, and waited—perhaps for death. The sobbing animals, trembling in every limb, were grateful for the rest, and drew in deep breaths. The sun beat down on our heads; not a ripple of air stirred the branches of the trees; for a few moments not a sound broke the eerie stillness.
"Here they come!"
They had struck the highroad some distance above us, and it gave me heart to see how blown their animals were. But the cavalier, catching sight of us, spurred his jaded beast and advanced, crying out loudly, "Surrender, Edmond Le Blanc! I arrest you in the king's name!"
"What charge have you against me?" I asked.
"I have an order for your arrest. Lay down your sword."
"Faith!" broke in Jacques, "those who want our swords must take them. We are free men."
"Then your blood be on your own heads!" exclaimed the cavalier. "Forward, my lads. Capture or kill; 'tis all one."
"Keep cool, monsieur," advised Jacques, "those two cut-throats are no sworders. They are far handier with a knife than a sword, and are unused to fighting in the sunlight."
"A truce to words!" cried their leader; "at them, my lads!" and he himself led the way.
Jacques met him boldly, while I found myself furiously engaged with his followers. They were sturdy fellows, both, and fearless of danger; but fortunately for me without trick of fence, and almost in the first blush of the fight I had pricked one in the side. The misadventure taught them caution, and they renewed the attack more warily.
Jacques was on my left, but I dared not look to see how he fared, though fearing that in the unknown cavalier he had met his equal, if not his master.
Thrust and parry—thrust and parry; now a lunge in front, now a half-turn to the right, till my arm ached, and my eyes became dazzled with watching the movements of the flashing steel. A laugh of triumph from the leader of our foes warned me that some misfortune had happened to my comrade, but whatever the mishap the gallant fellow continued to keep his adversary fully employed.
"Ride him down!" cried the leader, and once more the two ruffians attacked me furiously. One of them paid the penalty of his recklessness. With a rapid lunge I got beneath his guard, and my sword passed between his ribs. He fell forward on his horse's neck, groaning, and I cried exultingly, "Courage, Jacques! Two to two!"
But disaster followed swiftly on the heels of my triumph. A half-suppressed cry of pain came from my comrade, and I saw his horse roll over. Warding off a blow from my opponent, I turned and attacked the cavalier so hotly that he was forced back several paces, and Jacques disengaged himself from the fallen animal.
"Look to yourself, monsieur," he said, "I still count."
I had only a momentary glimpse of him as he staggered to his feet, but the sight was not encouraging. His face was covered with blood, his left arm hung limply at his side, and he had received a wound in the shoulder. But in spite of his injuries he faced his opponent boldly, using his horse's body as some sort of protection.
"Yield!" cried the cavalier, "and I will spare your lives. You are brave fellows."
"Fight on, monsieur," said Jacques stolidly.
"As you will," exclaimed the other, and once more the clash of steel broke on the air.
How would it end? The contest was going steadily against us. I could easily hold my opponent in check, but Jacques was seriously wounded; he was on foot, and must inevitably be beaten. I thought once of riding off in the hope of drawing the others after me, but they might stop to kill my comrade, and that I dared not risk.
He still fought with his accustomed skill, but he was becoming weaker every minute; he could no longer attack, and had much ado to defend himself. Our sole chance lay in disabling my opponent before Jacques was over-powered. I rode at him recklessly, but he was a wary knave, and, judging how matters were likely to go, he remained on the defensive.
We were still battling vigorously, though I was fast losing all hope, when the tramp of hoofs sounded in the distance. Who were the travellers? They could not make our situation worse; they might improve it. Our assailants seemed to be of the same opinion, and, leaving Jacques, they flung themselves at me.
Could I hold out a few minutes longer? I set my teeth hard, and braced myself for the effort. Twice the unknown cavalier missed my breast by a hair's breadth; but I was still unwounded, save for a slight scratch, when a body of mounted men turned the bend in the road. They appeared to be a nobleman's bodyguard, and wore blue favours, but this told me nothing.
Jacques, however, was better informed. "Lord St. Cyr!" he cried feebly. "For the Admiral!" and sank to the ground.
Echoing my comrade's words, I cried lustily, "For the Admiral!" at which the gentlemen set spurs to their horses, while our assailants as hastily rode off.
Before the troop came up, I dismounted, and bending over my comrade whispered, "Who is this St. Cyr?"
"A friend," he replied; "the papers are safe now; you can trust him."
A noble-looking gentleman rode in front of the troop. He was well advanced in years—at least fourscore, as I afterwards learned—but he sat erect in his saddle, and his eyes were keen and vigorous.
"What is the meaning of this, monsieur?" he asked sternly, as I went toward him.
"Am I speaking to the Lord St. Cyr?" I asked.
"I am the Count of St. Cyr."
"Then, my lord, I can speak freely. My name is Edmond Le Blanc; my father is the Sieur Le Blanc——"
"Sufficient recommendation," he interrupted, with a genial smile.
"My servant and I were on our way to Tanlay, carrying important despatches to the Admiral. At the ford we were attacked by five ruffians. Two were wounded; the others followed us here."
"What was their object?"
"I fear, my lord, they must have learned the nature of my mission."
"And wished to obtain possession of the papers! Are they really of great importance?"
"The original bearer, my lord, was waylaid and grievously wounded near my home. He assured me solemnly that their loss would probably plunge thousands of Frenchmen into mourning. He hinted at some special peril to the Admiral."
"You have made a gallant fight," said the count, "and Providence has plainly sent us to your aid. Your servant is wounded I see. Leave him to my care, and meanwhile I will provide you with suitable escort. The ruffians will think twice before venturing to attack my gentlemen."
"One of our assailants is hurt, my lord."
"We will attend to him also; he cannot be left to die."
During this conversation, a man soberly clad and evidently a minister of the Religion—he was, in truth, though wearing a sword, the count's private chaplain—had been attending to Jacques. Now he stepped forward, and said, "The man is weak from loss of blood, but his wounds are not serious; he should speedily recover his strength."
"That is good hearing for Monsieur Le Blanc," said the count. "Pray tell your servant that he has fallen into friendly hands."
I ran joyfully to Jacques, who looked at me with a smile. "It is all right now, monsieur," said he; "the journey is as good as done."
"Still, I wish we could finish it together, but that is impossible. I must leave you with Lord St. Cyr, and push on. He has promised to furnish me with an escort."
"Do not delay, monsieur; time is precious."
I gave him a portion of my money, bade him be of good cheer, and returned to the count, who had already selected six of his gentlemen to accompany me.
"Keep free from brawls," he advised their leader, "and ride with all speed. Remember that you are engaged on a matter that may involve the life of our chief."
"We will waste no time on the road, my lord."
Amidst a cheer from the rest of the bodyguard we rode forward, and were soon out of sight. My new comrades were kindly, gallant gentlemen, in whose company I soon recovered my spirits. Jacques was in no danger, while it was certain that I should now be able to place the paper in the Admiral's hands.
Indeed, the remainder of the journey can be passed over almost without comment. We travelled fast, making few halts, and on the evening of the next day rode into Tanlay.
The Admiral, who had just finished prayers, granted me immediate audience, and my heart throbbed with excitement as I entered his room. I was about to see, for the first time, this splendid gentleman, who was to many thousands of Frenchmen the pride and glory of France.
He was of medium height, strongly made, well proportioned, and of a ruddy complexion. His eyes had a grave but kindly expression; his countenance was severe and majestic. "Here," was my first thought, "is a true leader of men!" He spoke slowly, but his voice was soft, pleasant, and musical.
"Well, my young friend," he said, "you have something of importance to communicate to me?"
I had ripped the lining of my doublet, and now handed him the packet. "My story can wait, my lord," I said, "this is the more pressing matter."
He broke the seal and read the letter, slowly, as if committing each word to heart. Then he said in his grave manner, "This is from La Rochelle, and should have reached me by the hand of Ambroise Devine. Where is he?"
"There are those who desired that you should not receive this communication, my lord, and the original messenger lies in my father's house, grievously wounded. As there was none other to bring it, the packet was even entrusted to my keeping."
"You are of the Religion?"
"The son of the Sieur Le Blanc could not well be otherwise, my lord."
"The Sieur Le Blanc has proved his devotion on more than one battlefield. So you are his son! And you have risked your life to help me! I am grateful, my young friend, and others will be grateful also; but I will speak with you again. For the present I must place you under the care of my gentlemen. There is much here," touching the packet, "to be considered, and that without delay. But you have deserved well of the Cause, boy, and the Sieur Le Blanc can be justly proud of his son."
I was thoroughly tired by my long, hazardous journey, but I lay awake for hours that night, my cheeks burning at the remembrance of the Admiral's words. He had praised me—Edmond Le Blanc—this hero whom I regarded as the highest, the bravest, the noblest gentleman in the whole world! It seemed incredible that I should have obtained such honour!
How We Kept the Ford
Early next morning I was summoned to attend the Admiral, who received me very graciously.
"I trust you have rested well," he said, "as I am about to send you on another journey. There is, however, no danger in it," he added, smiling. "I wish you to go to the Prince of Conde at Noyers, to tell him your story, and to answer any questions he may put to you. I am setting out myself in an hour or two, but my preparations are not complete. Monsieur Bellievre will accompany you as guide; he has received my instructions."
The Admiral could not have chosen for me a more suitable comrade than Felix Bellievre. He was quite young, barely more than eighteen, tall, slim, and good-looking. He had large, expressive, dark eyes, thick, curling hair, and beautiful white teeth. His smile was sweet and winning, and he had an air of candour very engaging. Indeed, he so won upon me, that, after the first mile or two of our journey, we were chatting like old friends.
"You must be a person of importance," he declared merrily. "Your coming has created a tremendous commotion at Tanlay. Is it true that the Guises are bent on a fresh war?"
"I cannot tell; I am nothing more than a messenger."
"'Twas said last night you were the bearer of startling news. There was whisper of a plot to swoop down upon the Admiral and on Conde, and to whisk them off to Paris. Faith, if the Guises once got them there we should see little of them again."
"Why has the Admiral no soldiers?"
"Because he is too honourable to distrust others. He believes they will keep their word. As for me, I would as soon trust a starving wolf as a Guise, or the Queen-Mother. The Admiral is foolish, but he is too good-hearted to think about himself."
Praise of the Admiral entered largely into Bellievre's conversation, as indeed it did into that of all his retinue. No one was so wise or strong, so full of courage and good sense, so patient and forbearing, so grand and noble as Gaspard de Coligny. It was hero worship, perhaps, but hero worship of the truest kind. Not one of his household but would have died for him.
"Do you know," I said presently, "that the Admiral is coming to Noyers?"
"And his gentlemen! It looks as if rumour for once spoke true."
"But we cannot defend ourselves at Noyers against an army!"
"No, that is impossible. Besides, our leaders must be free, or there will be no one to command the troops. Fancy an army without Conde or the Admiral at its head!" and he laughed merrily.
"Then what is likely to be done?"
"Faith, I have no notion!" he answered lightly.
"We march and countermarch and fight, just as we are bidden; it is all one to those of Coligny's household. We never ask questions."
It was a glorious day, with a fresh breeze tempering the heat of the sun, and we rode along gaily. My comrade had already learned habits of caution, but there was really no danger, and late in the afternoon we reached Noyers, where, after a short delay, I was admitted into Conde's presence.
He had received a message from Tanlay some hours previously, and he said at once: "You are Edmond Le Blanc, who brought the packet from La Rochelle."
"From the Castle of Le Blanc, my lord, where it was given me by Ambroise Devine."
"Ah, yes, he was attacked and wounded. What did he tell you?"
"That troops were being collected secretly to surround Tanlay and Noyers, that the banks of the Loire were guarded"—the Prince gave a start of surprise—and that unless you moved quickly, your escape would be cut off."
"And you rode from Le Blanc to Tanlay? Did you hear anything of this on the journey?"
"No, my lord, but there seemed to be a general feeling of uneasiness abroad, as if people thought something strange was about to happen."
"Did you notice any movement of troops?"
"No, my lord."
"Where did you cross the Loire?"
"At the ford a little to the north of Nevers."
"And it was unguarded? But there, it matters little; it will be guarded by now. How do the folks in your own neighbourhood talk?"
"That the present state of things cannot continue, and that one side or the other must begin a fresh war."
"Humph," he said, half to himself, "if we unsheath the sword again, we will not lay it down until the work is finished. Monsieur, you need rest and refreshment; my gentlemen will attend to you. The Admiral will be here by nightfall. We have to thank you for your services. It was a very gallant enterprise."
Bellievre, who was no stranger at Noyers, introduced me to several of his acquaintances, and we spent a merry evening together. The rumour of some impending calamity had spread rapidly, and all sorts of opinions were expressed by Conde's cavaliers.
"I hope," said one, "if war does break out that the Prince will not make peace until the Guises and the Queen-Mother are swept out of the country. The king is but a cat's-paw."
"True," cried another. "His mother rules him completely."
"And the Guises rule her!"
"Not at all," said the first man, "she is ruled by her own fears. Catherine wants all the power in her own hands, and she is afraid of the Prince's influence. That is the root of the evil."
"She has too many Spaniards and Italians around her," said Bellievre; "France is drained dry by foreigners. A plague on the leeches!"
"Bravo, Felix, that is well said; but if this rumour is really true, it is time we were doing something. A hundred sworders would make little impression on an army."
"Trust our chiefs! The Admiral will be here in an hour or two. I shall be surprised if we are not out of Noyers by this time to-morrow."
Bellievre and I were in bed when the Admiral arrived, but the next morning we discovered that preparations were being made for almost instant departure. We numbered about a hundred and fifty horsemen, and by ourselves could have made a spirited fight; but we were hampered by the presence of our leaders' wives and children, and more than one man shook his head doubtfully at the thought of meeting the king's troops. I asked my comrade where we were going, and he replied that there were as many different opinions as horsemen. "But for my part," said he, "I believe our destination is La Rochelle. That has always been the rallying-place."
"'Tis a long journey, and with the women and children a dangerous one!" I remarked. "We can be ambushed at a thousand places on the road."
"Then," said he gaily, "there are a thousand chances of a fight. My dear Edmond—we seem such good friends that I cannot call you Le Blanc—do not look so gloomy. To us of the Admiral's house a brush with the enemy is as natural as breaking one's fast. They know the Coligny battle-cry by now, I assure you."
"I am not thinking of ourselves, but of the women and children."
"Ah," said he brightly, "that gives us a chance of gaining greater glory."
The sun was always shining and the sky always blue for Felix Bellievre, and if there were any clouds, he failed to see them. He and I rode in the rear of the cavalcade, with the Sieur Andelot, Coligny's brother, and a number of cavaliers belonging to his household. The weather, fortunately, was dry, but the sun beat down fiercely, and at times we were half-choked by the dust that rose from beneath our feet.
As Felix had foretold, we struck westward, travelling at a steady pace, and seeing no sign of the king's troops till shortly before reaching the Loire, near Sancerre. Then the few cavaliers forming the extreme rear came riding hurriedly with the information that a large body of the enemy was pushing on at a tremendous pace with the object of overtaking us.
"The rear is the post of honour, gentlemen," said Andelot, with his pleasant smile—he was, I think, even more kindly than his famous brother—"but it is also the post of danger. We must keep these troops at bay until our comrades succeed in discovering a ford," and we greeted his words with a loyal cheer.
The situation was in truth an awkward one. Unless our scouts could find some way of crossing the river we must either surrender or suffer annihilation, and the word had gone forth that there must be no yielding. "Faith, Edmond," exclaimed Felix merrily, "it seems you are to have a good baptism. One could not wish a better introduction to knightly feats. Ah, here comes one of Conde's men with news."
A cavalier galloping back from the advance-guard informed Andelot that the ford was passable, and that the Prince expected us to keep off the foe until the ladies, with a small escort, had crossed to the opposite side.
"The Prince can trust in our devotion," replied Andelot briefly.
We proceeded steadily and in perfect order, Andelot last of all, when presently we heard the thunder of hoofs and a loud shout of "For the King!" as the foremost of the enemy tore pell-mell toward us. We quickened our pace in seeming alarm, and the royalists rushed on cheering as if their prey were already secured.
Suddenly Andelot gave the signal; we wheeled as one man, and with a yell of defiance dashed at them. The surprise was complete. Confident in their numbers they were riding anyhow, and before they could form we were upon them. Down they went, horses and riders, while the air was rent by shouts of "Conde!" "For the Cause!" "For the Admiral!" "Guise! Guise!" In three minutes after the shock they were flying in wild confusion back to their infantry.
"Bravo, gentlemen!" cried our leader, as we checked the pursuit and reformed our ranks, "that is worth half an hour to our friends!"
"A smart affair that," remarked Bellievre, "but soon over. If Guise is with the troops we shan't come off so well next time; he is a fine soldier. But the women and children must have crossed the ford by now."
We proceeded steadily till the road turned, and here Andelot halted, evidently expecting another attack. Nor had we long to wait. With a sweeping rush the enemy returned, headed by a richly-dressed cavalier on a superb horse, and shouting: "Guise! Guise!"
They outnumbered us by four to one, but we were well placed, and not a man budged.
"Let them spend their strength," said our leader, "and when they waver, charge home!"
The onset was terrific, but not a horseman broke through our ranks; they crowded upon one another in the narrow pass; they had no room for the play of their weapons, and while those in the rear were striving to push forward, the foremost were thrust back upon them in a confused heap.
Then, above the din, was heard Andelot's voice, crying: "Charge, gentlemen!" and with the force of a hurricane rush we swept them before us like leaves scattered by an autumn gale. And as we returned, flushed but triumphant, a second messenger met us.
"They are across, my lord," he cried, "all but ourselves; and the Prince is preparing to defend the ford on the farther side of the river. He begs that you will come immediately; the waters are rising."
"Forward! Forward!" Laughing and cheering, we raced along, a few wounded, but none seriously, and most of us unharmed. Our comrades were marshalled on the opposite bank, and they cried to us to hasten. From what cause—unless by a direct intervention of Providence—I know not, but the river was rising rapidly, and the last of our troop were compelled to swim several yards.
But we reached the bank without mishap, and turning round perceived our stubborn pursuers advancing at full speed. The foremost horsemen reaching the river drew rein; the ford was no longer visible, and they had no means of passage. They wandered along the bank disconsolately, while we, sending them one last cheer, rode after our van.
"A point in the game to us, Edmond," said my comrade, "and oddly gained too. The Admiral's chaplain will make use of that in his next discourse. He will say that Providence is fighting on our side."
"'Tis at least a good omen! Had the enemy crossed, we must have been defeated."
"Perhaps so; perhaps not. I'll wager Guise is storming over yonder, at the escape of his prey."
"But why wasn't the ford guarded?" I asked.
"An oversight, most likely, and a fortunate one for us. However, we are out of the trap."
"There is still a long distance to go."
"Yes, but every day's journey improves our position. Conde feels secure now; he dreaded only the passage of the Loire. Guise made a huge blunder which, in the future, will cost him dear."
Encouraged by our escape, and more so by the strange manner of it, we rode on with light hearts, chatting gaily about our past adventures, and looking forward with confidence to our safe arrival at Rochelle.
"I suppose you will throw in your lot with us," said Bellievre, as we lay sheltering one noon from the sun's heat; "it is a great honour to belong to the Admiral's household."
"I should like it of all things, but there are two objections to the plan. In the first place the Admiral has not offered me the privilege, and in the second I must return home. My parents will be alarmed at such a long absence."
"Yes," he said slowly, "you must visit your father and mother. As for the first objection," he added mysteriously, "it can be remedied easily."
I did not understand his meaning, but the very next day, as we were proceeding on our journey, the Admiral came to my side.
"Bellievre tells me," he said, "that you wish to join my household!"
"My lord," I replied, flushing crimson—for this speech was very startling and unexpected—"I can hardly credit that such honour is within my reach."
"There is no honour to which the son of the Sieur Le Blanc cannot aspire," he said, "and you have already proved yourself a brave lad. But first you must lay the proposal before your father; if he consents, you will find me at my house in Rochelle. We pass, I believe, within a day or two's march of Le Blanc. Is your purse empty?"
"No, my lord, I thank you; I have sufficient for my needs."
"Very well; you know where to find me, but I warrant Bellievre will be looking out for you!"
"I shall watch for him eagerly, my lord," interposed Felix; "he is too good a comrade to be lost."
"I owe this to your kindness, Felix," I remarked when the Admiral had ridden off.
"Not kindness, my friend, but selfishness. I was thinking not so much of you, as of Felix Bellievre. I foresee many happy days in store for us, Edmond."
"Like the one at Sancerre, for instance!"
"Ah," he replied brightly, "that is a day to be marked in red. But there will be others; and, Edmond, do not waste too much time between Le Blanc and La Rochelle."
"Unless I am laid by the heels," I answered laughing, "I shall be at Rochelle shortly after you!"
A Traitor to the King
It was on the evening of the first day in August, 1568, that I rode into the village of Le Blanc. All day long a pitiless sun had been beating down on the arid earth, with not one freshening breeze to temper the intense heat, and even now not a breath of air stirred so much as a solitary leaf on the trees.
My poor beast dragged wearily along, and his fatigue was scarcely greater than my own.
"Good old fellow!" I said, stroking his neck affectionately, "a few hundred yards more and we shall be at home. Food and water, clean straw, and a shady place for you. Ha, ha, old fellow, that makes you prick up your ears!"
We trailed along the sun-baked street; the door of every house was wide open; the villagers, men, women, and children sprawled listlessly in the coolest places, hardly raising their eyes at the beat of my horse's hoofs.
But those who did glance up gazed at me curiously, and once or twice I heard a muttered, "'Tis Monsieur Edmond!" as if I were the last person they expected to see in my own home. Their strange glances, half surprise, half pity, made me uncomfortable, and set me wondering whether any accident had happened.
However, I proceeded slowly as far as the inn, outside which half a dozen men had congregated, while old Pierre himself stood in the doorway. They greeted me in wonder, and again I heard some one say, "'Tis Monsieur Edmond!"
"Well, my friends," I exclaimed, with perhaps a suggestion of annoyance in my voice, "is there any reason why it should not be Monsieur Edmond? Did you think me dead, or has the heat affected your brains? Speak up, some of you!"
"Is monsieur going to the castle?" asked Pierre.
"Of course I am!" I answered half angrily.
"Perhaps monsieur will dismount and enter the inn. Things have happened since monsieur went away."
A great fear seized me, but, keeping my features under control, I slipped from the saddle, and, bidding the ostler take charge of the animal, followed Pierre into the one private room the inn contained.
"Now, Pierre," I exclaimed, "tell me the story quickly, in as few words as possible."
"First then, monsieur," began the old man in his quavering voice, "it is useless going to the castle, as it is shut up."
"The castle shut up!" I cried in astonishment. "Well, go on with the story; it promises plenty of interest."
"Shortly after your departure, monsieur, many rumours spread abroad. Some said one thing, some mother; but no one knew the truth. Then, one night, your father sent for me to the castle. He ordered me to watch for your return, and to tell you he had gone to Rochelle. Not another word, monsieur, except that you were to join him, and to keep out of the way of the king's troops."
"This is strange news!" I said.
"Your father must have gone away that night, monsieur, for next day the castle was deserted. And it was well he did not stay longer," the old man concluded, with a wise shake of the head.
"Why?" I asked anxiously.
"The next night, monsieur, we were roused from sleep by the tramping of soldiers. I ran to the window and looked out. There were more than two hundred of them marching through the village. On arriving at the castle, they found they were too late. Their leader was very angry; he raved like a madman."
"Did you go to listen to him?"
"No, monsieur, he slept here at the inn. The next day he had all the villagers drawn up outside, and made them a grand speech. Had it not been for his soldiers, I think he would not have left the village alive."
"Then he made the good folk angry?"
"Monsieur, it was terrible. He said the Sieur Le Blanc was a traitor to the king, that he had harboured one of the king's enemies, and that his life was forfeit to the law. Any man was to shoot him like a dog. He said all this, monsieur, and more, much more. Then he called in the leading men one by one, and questioned them closely, but they knew nothing."
"He should have asked you, Pierre."
"He did, monsieur, but he said I was a stupid dolt, with no more sense than one of my own casks!" and the old man broke into a hearty laugh.
"You had a guest the night I went away; he left early in the morning. Who was he?"
"I do not know, monsieur. He was a stranger who wished to learn all he could about the chief folk in the district; but he was an enemy to the Cause, and he did not carry away much information. Old Pierre was too dense to understand his questions," and the old man chuckled again.
"Well," I said after a pause, "since it is useless going to the castle, I must put up here for the night. I am tired and hungry. Get me some supper and a bed; meanwhile I must attend to my horse; the poor beast has carried me far."
Pierre's information was very disquieting, but, as my father had evidently received timely warning, I trusted he had effected his escape, and that by this time he was safely sheltered behind the strong walls of La Rochelle.
When Pierre brought in the supper I asked after Jacques, and, hearing he had not returned, told the landlord to inform him of what had happened. Whether he would endeavour to get into Rochelle or not I left to himself.
I ate my supper slowly, my mind fully occupied with this extraordinary occurrence. Why had my father thus suddenly been marked down for vengeance? He was a noted Huguenot, 'twas true, but he was not a leader such as Conde or the Admiral. He had sheltered the wounded messenger, and had allowed me to carry the warning to Tanlay.
This, of course, was sufficient to incur the Queen-Mother's displeasure; but how had the knowledge reached her? Who was there at Le Blanc able and willing to betray our secrets? Not a soul, unless——! Ah, the name leaped of itself into my mind. Who was the maker of mischief but Etienne Cordel?
I put together all that I had heard of this man whom Jacques detested so thoroughly. He was a lawyer, who, by some means, had amassed wealth and lands. Numerous stories, all evil, were related of him, and it was rumoured that he had long served as a useful tool to persons in high places. At least he had prospered exceedingly in some mysterious manner, and it was said he had been promised a patent of nobility. I called for Pierre, and asked if he had heard anything fresh lately of this upstart lawyer.
"No, monsieur," he answered, "Cordel had gone away before the soldiers came, and he has not yet returned. He went hurriedly, after a visit from the cavalier who slept here. Monsieur does not think——"
"For the present I think nothing, Pierre. I am tired and will go to bed. Get me an early breakfast, so that I can proceed on my journey in the cool of the morning."
Of what use were my suspicions, even if I proved them to be correct? The mischief was done, and I could not undo it. My father was a fugitive from his home, to which he dared not return, and it only remained for me to join him.
I went to bed, and, in spite of my anxiety, was soon asleep, for the long journey from Noyers had been both tedious and fatiguing. Pierre called me early, and while the village still slumbered I set forth.
"Monsieur goes to Rochelle?" asked the old man, as I vaulted lightly into the saddle.
"Yes, at present I intend going to Rochelle."
"It is said here that the war has begun again."
"If it has not, it soon will, Pierre, and when it is finished, the Sieur Le Blanc will once more be master of his castle."
"Heaven grant it, monsieur," said he earnestly, as I rode off.
The state of the country west of Le Blanc was even more deplorable than what I had seen during my journey to Tanlay. The fields were bare both of corn and of cattle; the villagers were starving; the people of the towns went about in fear and trembling; the king's troops robbed as they pleased without restraint.
At Poictiers I found the citizens in a state of dangerous excitement. Armed bands, some Huguenots, some Catholics, patrolled the streets, singing and shouting, and uttering threats of vengeance. Fearful of being mixed up in these disturbances, I alighted before the door of the first decent inn, gave my horse to the ostler, and entered.
"Your streets are a trifle dangerous for a peaceful traveller," I remarked to the landlord, who showed me to a room.
"What would you, monsieur?" he asked, with a shrug of the shoulders; "the times are evil. These miserable heretics disturb the whole country with their senseless brawls. But the mischief will be stamped out before long."
"How?" I said. "Has not the king granted them the privilege of worshipping in their own way?"
"Ah, monsieur, that was meant but for a time. The Queen-Mother will make a clean sweep of their rights as soon as she has power enough. And it is said," here he lowered his voice to a confidential whisper, "that a royal army is already marching from Paris. But monsieur is hungry?"
"Hungry and thirsty both," I replied. "What is that?" for the sounds of angry voices came from the outside.
"It is nothing, monsieur; some one has drawn a knife, perhaps, and there is a little fighting, but that is all. One does not regard these things," and he hurried off to prepare my meal.
After leaving Poictiers, I avoided the towns as much as possible, though travelling in the country districts was nearly as hazardous. The peasants having no work, and being without food, had formed themselves into robber bands, and more than once I owed my safety to the fleetness of my horse.
However, on the evening of the second day, I reached Rochelle, just as the gates were being closed. The streets were filled with citizens and Huguenot soldiers, and it was apparent that the illustrious fugitives had arrived safely at their stronghold.
Being a stranger to the city I rode slowly along the street, noting the houses, and scanning the people closely, on the chance of discovering a familiar face. In all my solitary wanderings I had not felt as lonely as I did now, amidst a seething crowd of my fellow-creatures.
The first thing, of course, was to find my father, but on coming to the Hotel Coligny, I resolved to dismount and to seek out Felix Bellievre. Fortunately, he was within, and I received a hearty welcome, which caused me to feel once more as if I belonged to the world of human beings.
"Faith, Edmond," he cried cheerily, "the grass has not grown under your feet! I did not expect you until to-morrow, at the earliest."
"One does not care to linger around an empty nest," I replied moodily.
"Empty only for a short time, I hope. Do not look so astonished. I have seen your father. More than that, I have been presented to your sister. Already I am a friend of the family! I will conduct you to the house, if you wish. Come, I have plenty of leisure, and you will serve as an excellent excuse for my visit."
"How did you happen to become acquainted with my father?" I asked, as we walked along.
"In the simplest way imaginable, my dear Edmond. He called to pay his respects to the Admiral; being on duty at the time, I heard his name, and made myself known as your friend. He was eager to hear news of you, and carried me off. I met your sister, and you will not be surprised that within twenty-four hours I was repeating my visit. You see there were so many things to tell her about yourself," and he laughed roguishly.
"Are they depressed by what has happened?"
"Not in the least; they regard it as a trial of their faith; but here we are at the house. I fear you will not see your estimable aunt; she is an invalid, and keeps strictly to her own rooms. Ah, here is one of the servants; let him attend to your animal, and I will announce you. Your sister will fall on your neck and embrace you. Do you think it possible for us to change parts for a few minutes?"
He was still laughing and talking in his madcap way when a door opened, and my father came towards us.
"Edmond!" he cried, on seeing me, "now this is indeed bright sunshine gleaming through the dark clouds. Monsieur Bellievre, you are doubly welcome, for your own sake and for what you bring with you!"
The memory of the pleasant evening that followed I treasured for many years. I sat beside my mother, my hand clasped in hers, telling her the story of my adventures. Jeanne was full of high spirits, while Felix was simply overflowing with wit and good-humoured drollery.
The only drawback to our enjoyment was the absence of the trusted Jacques, but even that was slight, as he was not seriously wounded, and from the household of the noble Count St. Cyr he was certain to receive every attention.
Nothing was said that evening about the visit of the troops to Le Blanc, but the next morning I had a long talk with my father on the subject. I told him what I had learned from old Pierre, and also my suspicions concerning Etienne Cordel.
"The advocate is a scheming rogue," he said, "who bears me no goodwill because I have laughed at his pretensions to be considered our equal. He is in the pay of Monseigneur, and he has acted as a spy on those of the Religion; but, unless he heard of the affair of the letter, he could do me no harm."
"He must have heard of it from the stranger with whom we travelled," I declared. "Jacques distrusted him from the first, and believed he was one of those who attacked Devine. Did he recover?"
"Yes; he is in Rochelle, fretting and fuming at having been prevented from fulfilling his mission. But to return to our own affairs. Have you considered what this proclamation means?"
"That your life is in danger."
"A bagatelle, Edmond. It has been in danger these many years. There is something far more serious. As a traitor to the king, my estates are forfeit, and you will grow up to see another man master of the land which by right is yours. It is a heavy price for you to pay, my boy."
Now I hold it folly to pretend that this caused me no grief, but I was young and enthusiastic, and sensible enough to know that any sign of sorrow would add to my father's unhappiness. So I looked straight into his eyes and said brightly, "Others have paid a heavy price for their faith without murmuring; I am strong enough to do the same."
He held me in his arms and kissed my cheeks, saying: "Now God bless and reward you for those brave words, my son," and never before in all my life had I seen him so deeply moved.
The Unknown Cavalier
My father had already accepted the Admiral's kind offer, so, after a few days of idleness, I began my new duties, meeting with a genial reception from my future comrades, several of whom were but a little older than myself.
Every day now some fresh note of alarm sounded. The king withdrew the privileges he had granted to those of the Religion, and from several quarters we learned that civil war in all but the name had broken out afresh. It was said, too, that the king had given command of the royal army to his brother, the Duke of Anjou, with orders to exterminate us, root and branch.
"Anjou!" laughed my comrade, "why, he is only a boy! He should be doing his lessons. Has the king provided him with a nurse?"
"Yes," I replied, "he will find Marshal Tavannes a very capable nurse."
"Oh, that is the way of it, eh? Faith, 'tis a good plan, for, see you, Edmond, if there be any glory 'twill go to Anjou, while Tavannes can take the discredit. A capital arrangement—that is, from Monseigneur's point of view!"
Meanwhile numbers of Huguenot gentlemen with their retainers were arriving at Rochelle, and our leaders were soon able to muster a respectable little army.
"Anjou must make haste if he wishes to cover himself with glory," said Felix one morning. "The Queen of Navarre will be here to-morrow, bringing four thousand Bearnese with her. They are sturdy fellows and splendid fighters."
"There is another item of news," I said. "The English queen is sending money and guns!"
"Ah," responded my comrade, "the English are stupid! Why don't they join us boldly? We are fighting for the same object, and against the same enemy. For, mark you, Edmond, our real foes are Spain and the Pope, which these English will find out one of these days! If we get beaten, it will be their turn next."
We gave the brave Queen of Navarre and her troops a right royal reception, but to me the most interesting figure in the procession was her son, Henry, on whom in the years to come the hopes of so many Frenchmen were centred. He was quite a boy, only fifteen years old, but he had a strong and capable face, full of fire and energy. His hair had a reddish tinge, his skin was brown but clear, and he had well-shaped regular features. His eyes had a sweet expression, and when he smiled his whole face lit up with animation. He sat his horse with extreme grace, and responded to the plaudits of the crowd with courtly bows.
"A gallant lad!" exclaimed Felix delightedly. "He has the makings of a soldier, and in a year or two will be a tower of strength to us."
The talk now among the younger men was of moving out from Rochelle, scattering the Royalists, marching on Paris, and dictating peace in the palace. It was astonishing how easy these things appeared to be, as we sat and gossiped idly in the Admiral's ante-chamber! Fortunately, however, our leaders, being in possession of cooler heads and clearer brains, decided otherwise, and when winter came, making a campaign impossible, we were still inside the walls.
During the autumn we were joined by a troop of English gentlemen, about a hundred strong, under the leadership of one named Henry Champernoun. They were mostly young, of good birth and family, very gallant fellows, and as eager to fight as the most headstrong of us.
With one of them—Roger Braund, a lad about the same age as Felix—we soon became very friendly. He was fair and handsome, with sparkling blue eyes and shapely features. He was tall and well made, a skilful horseman, and an astonishing master of fence. Few of us could equal him with the sword, but he was modest and unassuming, and had a genial manner, very captivating.
He was a frequent visitor at my aunt's house, where he speedily became as great a favourite as Felix. Indeed, I sometimes thought that Jeanne regarded him with even more favour. She spent much time in his company, listening to his accounts of the English Court and of his own home, which was situated in a district called Devonshire. I think Felix was not too well pleased with this intimacy, but whatever sorrow it caused him he kept locked up in his own breast.
One evening, they started together to the house, expecting me to follow as soon as I was relieved of my duty. It was, I remember, about a half after six, when I left the hotel. The streets as usual were thronged with citizens and soldiers, who in some places almost blocked the road. In front of me was a horseman, to all appearance but newly arrived. He was proceeding at a foot pace, and evidently looking for suitable accommodation.
"A fine beast!" I thought, glancing at the animal, and then—"Surely I have seen that horse before!"
The knowledge did not come to me at once, but by degrees I remembered the early morning ride through the sleeping village of Le Blanc, and the richly-dressed cavalier with whom we had travelled some distance. I quickened my steps, and scanned the rider closely. I could not see his face well, but there could be no mistaking the alert, soldierly figure, and the short, brown curls escaping over the forehead.
"Faith, my friend," I said to myself, "the tables are turned now! One word from me, and you would be torn in pieces; but you must be a brave rascal to venture alone into Rochelle! If Anjou has many spies as fearless as you, he must be well served."
I walked close behind him, wondering what was best to be done. He was certainly a spy, who had entered the city for the purpose of searching out our strength and weakness. Perhaps it would be best to call a patrol, and have him arrested on the spot. I was still considering this, when he turned up a side street and dismounted before the door of an inn. An ostler led his horse to the stables, and he entered the house.
Now the fellow was so completely in my power that I had the mind to watch him a little further. Several persons were in the room, but he had taken his place at an unoccupied table in the corner, and called for the host.
"Some food and a little wine," he said, "but serve me quickly; I have important business on hand."
"Monsieur has travelled?" said the landlord, with a glance at his boots.
"Yes," he answered, "and one feels safer inside Rochelle than beyond its walls, let me tell you!"
"What is Anjou doing now, monsieur?" asked a man at one of the other tables.
"Killing," said the stranger briefly. "Rochelle will soon be able to hold all those left of the Religion."
"I vow," exclaimed an iron-featured trooper, "it makes one wonder our leaders should keep us cooped up here."
"You had better offer your opinion to the Admiral, or to Conde," said the stranger with a laugh, and he turned his attention to the food that had been set before him.
He ate and drank quickly, taking no further part in the conversation, but apparently as much at ease as if sitting at Anjou's table.
"You will require a room, monsieur?" said the host presently.
"I will pay for one, though I may not use it."
"And your horse, monsieur?"
"Will remain in the stables."
He had nearly finished his meal now, and, acting on a sudden impulse, I crossed the room and sat down opposite him. He looked up at me in a casual way, and the next instant understood he was discovered. But the man had nerves of iron; not a muscle of his face moved; only by the sudden light in his eyes did I know that he recognized me.
"The game is to me, monsieur," I said simply.
"Yes," he agreed, "the game is yours, but do not claim the stakes until I have spoken with you."
"The game is altogether finished, monsieur, and you have lost; you cannot throw again."
"A fig for the game!" he said; "you have but to raise your voice, and these bloodhounds will bury their fangs in my heart. I know that, and do not complain. I ask only a few hours' freedom."
"Surely, monsieur, in the circumstance, that is a strange request!"
"A riddle is always strange when one does not possess the key. For instance, you believe I have entered Rochelle as a spy."
"And yet you are mistaken. I suppose you will laugh at my story, but I must tell it you. You know me only as an opponent."
"A clever and a daring one."
"And yet you foiled me! But that is not to the point. My name is Renaud L'Estang. My father was a gentleman, poor and without influence; I had good blood in my veins but no money in my purse. My only chance of wealth lay in my sword. I sold it to the highest bidder. In short, monsieur, I am an adventurer, no better and no worse than thousands of others."
"And in the pay of the League!"
"At present," he corrected, with a courteous inclination of the head, "in the service of the Duke of Anjou."
"Why did you attack me at Nevers?"
"To obtain possession of the letter of whose contents we were in ignorance."
"And you denounced my father to the Duke!"
"There you wrong me. I endeavoured to capture the letter; I failed, and my part in the affair was over; but again I am wandering from the point, which is to explain my presence in Rochelle. Monsieur, has it ever occurred to you that a man who earns his livelihood by his sword may have a heart the same as more innocent persons?"
"No one is without some virtue," I said.
"There is one person in the world," he continued, in low earnest tones, almost as if communing with himself, "who has all my love and affection. For her I would willingly die, or suffer the worst tortures a fiend could invent. Monsieur, there is but one person on earth who loves me and whom I love; and she is in Rochelle, lying at the point of death."
"Your wife?" I said questioningly.
"My mother!" he replied. "In her eyes, monsieur, I possess all the virtues. It is strange, is it not?" and he laughed a trifle bitterly.
"And you risked your life to comfort her before she died?"
"Bah!" he exclaimed impatiently, "what is a trifle like that? Monsieur, I never yet begged a favour, but I beg one now. Not for myself, but for her. You are young, and have a mother of your own! I shall not plead to you vainly. I tried to kill you, but you will not take your revenge on her. And I am altogether in your power."
"Yes," I said slowly, "that is true."
"You can send for a guard, but without explaining your object. They can surround the house, while I close my mother's eyes, and afterwards I am at your service. The gallows, the block, or the wheel, as your leaders direct; you will not lose much."
"No, I shall not lose much," I repeated.
Now, strangely perhaps, I felt not the slightest doubt of the man's story. His good faith was apparent in every tone and every gesture. Whatever his vices, he loved his mother with his whole heart. And he was entirely in my power! Even if he got away from me in the streets he could not leave Rochelle! I thought of my own mother, and hesitated no longer. I could not keep these two apart.
"Monsieur," I said, "for good or ill I intend to trust you. We will go together to your home, and—and afterwards you will return with me to the Hotel Coligny. If you abuse my confidence, I will leave your punishment in the hands of God, who judges Huguenot and Catholic alike. Come, let us hasten."
He made no violent protestations, but murmured brokenly: "May the blessing of a dying woman reward you!"
We passed out of the inn together, and walked briskly through the streets, until we reached a house not far from the harbour. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman who gazed at my companion in astonishment.
"Hush!" he said softly, "am I in time?"
"For the end," she answered, "only for that. Madame has already received the last rites."
The woman showed us into an empty room, where my companion laid aside his weapons.
"You do not repent of your generosity?" he asked.
"I have trusted you fully," I replied, and his face lit up with a gratified smile as he left the room, stepping noiselessly into the corridor.
The servant brought a light, and some refreshments, but they stood before me untasted. I was busy with my thoughts. The house was very still; not a sound broke the silence, not the murmur of a voice, nor the fall of a footstep. I might have been in a house of the dead.
Suddenly the door was pushed open noiselessly, and the adventurer stood before me beckoning. I rose from my seat and followed him without a word into another apartment. In the bed in the alcove a woman lay dying. She must have been beautiful in her youth, and traces of beauty still lingered on her face. She stretched out her hands and drew my head down to hers.
"Renaud tells me you have done him a great service," she said feebly. "It is through you that he was able to come to me. A dying woman blesses you, monsieur, and surely the saints will reward you. A goodly youth! A goodly youth! May God hold you in His holy keeping! Treasure him, Renaud, my son, even to the giving of your life for his!"
Her eyes closed, she sank back exhausted, and I stole from the room. How my heart ached that night! "Treasure him, Renaud!" Poor soul! How merciful that she should die ignorant of the wretched truth! "Even to the giving of your life for his!" And his life was in my hands already! Oh, the pity, the horror of it! She called on God to bless me, and I was about to lead her only son straight from her death-bed to the executioner!
For I could not disguise from myself the fact that this man would die the death of a spy. Ambroise Devine was in Rochelle, and he would show no mercy. And, terrible as it might seem, there were those in the city who would scout the idea that Renaud L'Estang had risked his life solely to visit his dying mother. "He is a spy," they would declare hotly; "let him die a spy's death!"
"It is not my fault," I said to myself angrily; "he has lost; he must pay forfeit!"
"A dying woman blesses you, and surely the saints will reward you!" The room was filled with the words; they buzzed in my ears, and beat into my brain continually; I could not rid myself of them. "A dying woman!" Ay, perhaps a dead woman by now, and her son following swiftly as the night the day! I could have cried aloud in my agony of mind.
A Commission for the Admiral
"It is over, monsieur."
Renaud L'Estang stood before me, his face drawn and haggard, and heavy with a great grief. He had stolen in noiselessly; his sword and pistol lay within reach of his hand; he might have killed me without effort, and saved his own life. The thought flashed into my mind, but died away instantly. From the moment when he told his story I had never once mistrusted him.
"Your mother has passed away?" I questioned in a tone of sympathy.
"She died in my arms; her last moments were full of peace. Now, I am at your service."
"You are faint," I said. "Will it not be advisable to break your fast before starting out? You will need all your strength."
"I cannot eat."
"Yet it is necessary. Pardon me if I summon your servant."
He allowed himself to be treated almost as a child, eating and drinking mechanically what was set before him, hardly conscious of my presence, unable to detach his thoughts from the sombre picture in the adjoining apartment. At last he had finished, and I said gently, "Have you made arrangements for your mother's burial?"
"They are all made," he replied gravely.
"There is your sword," I remarked, pointing to the weapon lying on the table.
"Let it lie monsieur," he answered with a mournful smile; "a dead man has no use for a sword."
Now I may have done a very foolish thing, for this L'Estang was a daring soldier, crafty, able, and resolute. He was an enemy to be feared far more than many a general in the armies of the League. All this was well known to me, and yet I could not harden my heart against him. I had meant to denounce him to the Admiral, but at the last moment my courage failed. How could I condemn to death this man who had freely risked his life to comfort his mother's last moments?
"Monsieur," I said awkwardly, "listen to me. When I met you in the city, I jumped to the conclusion that you had come to Rochelle as a spy. You told me your story, and I believed it; but you have doubtless many enemies who will laugh at it. They will say——"
"Nothing, monsieur; I shall go to the block without words. Renaud L'Estang will find no mercy in Rochelle, and asks none."
There was no hint of bravado in his speech; it was but the expression of a man of intrepid courage and iron will.
"Once more listen," I said. "Had you come to Rochelle as a spy I should have handed you over to our troops without hesitation; but I am regarding you, not as the servant of Anjou but as a tender and loving son. I cannot have on my hands the blood of a man who has shown such affection for his mother. I propose to accompany you to the gate, and there to set you at liberty."
He stood like one suddenly stricken dumb. His limbs trembled, the muscles of his face twitched convulsively; he gazed at me with unseeing eyes.
"Monsieur," he said after a time, "I do not comprehend. Is it that you give me, Renaud L'Estang, my life? No, I must have mistaken your words."
"You have made no mistake. As far as I am concerned you are free. I ask but one thing, Renaud L'Estang. Some day you may be able to show mercy to one of your foes. Should such a time arrive, remember that once mercy was not withheld from you."
He did not speak, but motioned me with his hand to follow him. We entered the chamber of death, and he knelt reverently by the bedside. Then, in low, passionate tones, calling on the dead woman by name, he made a solemn vow that, should it ever be in his power, he would repay the debt he owed me, even at the sacrifice of life and all he held most dear.
"I must fight for my side," he said, "but no Huguenot shall ever seek quarter from me in vain."
He buckled on his sword, and we went out together in the dull grey morning. Few persons were abroad, and none presumed to question one of the Admiral's household. My companion fetched his horse from the inn, and I walked with him until we were well beyond the walls of the town.
Then I came to a halt, saying: "Here we part; now you must depend on yourself for safety."
He doffed his plumed hat. "Monsieur," he said, "the friends of Renaud L'Estang would laugh on being told he was at a loss for words; yet it is true. I cannot express my gratitude; I can but pray that I may have an opportunity of proving it. Good-bye!"
"Good-bye!" I replied, and when he had ridden some distance I returned thoughtfully to the city.
Felix, who was on duty at the hotel, looked at me curiously. "Where have you been?" he asked. "We expected you last night, and concluded you must have been detained on some special service. I have been wearing myself to a shadow on your account!"
I made some commonplace excuse and left him, saying I was tired and wished to sleep; for, though I did not regret my action, I could hardly refrain from doubting its wisdom.
At first the incident occupied a large portion of my thoughts, but as the days passed into weeks the memory of it wore off.
Winter had set in, and we knew the campaign would not open until the spring of the next year. It was a trying time; the cold was intense—the oldest veteran had never known such a keen frost—and much sickness broke out among the troops. The good Admiral tended them with the devotion of a father, spending himself in their service, and we of his household were kept busy from morning till night.
In spite of every care, however, our losses were enormous, and the prospect became very gloomy. Every one looked forward with eagerness to the coming of spring.
"If the winter lasts much longer," said Roger Braund, one night when we had all met at my aunt's house, "there will be no army left."
"A little more patience," my father exclaimed smilingly; "once the campaign begins you will have no cause to complain of inaction!"
"Faith," laughed Felix, "if he rides with the Admiral, he will be regretting sometimes having left the comforts of Rochelle."
"I shall probably do that," said Roger, glancing at my sister, "even without the hard riding."
"Then you are a caitiff knight and no true soldier," I broke in hastily, for Jeanne was blushing furiously, and my comrade's face had lost its merriment; "but, really, things are becoming serious; more than a score of men have died to-day!"
"Poor fellows!" said my mother tenderly; "if those who force us into these cruel wars could only realize the misery they cause!"
"I fear, madame," remarked Roger, "that the suffering troubles them little, as long as they can gain their ends."
About a week after this conversation there were signs that our long inactivity was drawing to a close. The weather became far milder; the ice began to thaw, and it was possible for the soldiers to pass the nights in some degree of comfort. Orders were issued to the various leaders, carts were collected and filled with stores, bodies of troops marched out from the city, and preparations for the campaign were actively pushed forward.
"I really believe," said Felix one morning, "that we are about to move. Conde has issued instructions for all his followers to hold themselves in readiness, and a body of infantry left Rochelle an hour ago."
We were on duty in the Admiral's ante-chamber, and my comrade had just finished speaking when our leader, attended as usual by the Sieur de Guerchy, ascended the staircase. He glanced round at us with his kindly smile, and, clapping me lightly on the shoulder, exclaimed: "A word with you in my room, Monsieur Le Blanc."
Expecting some trifling commission, such as often fell to his gentlemen of the bodyguard, I followed him into the apartment, and stood waiting to hear his commands.
"A prudent youth, De Guerchy," he remarked to his companion, "and not without experience. He it was who brought the timely warning to Tanlay. His father is the Sieur Le Blanc."
"A gallant soldier!" said De Guerchy with decision.
"And I think the lad will follow in his father's footsteps. I am about to send him to Saint Jean d'Angely, and to Cognac," adding, with a laugh, "'tis a far less distance than to Tanlay."
"But the commission is almost as important," said De Guerchy.
"Much less dangerous though," and, turning to me, he added: "Can you carry a letter to the commandant at Cognac?"
"I will do my best, my lord."
"Then make your preparations; I shall be ready for you at the end of two hours."
I saluted and returned to the ante-chamber, where Felix, catching sight of my smiling face, exclaimed: "More good fortune, Edmond? I shall be jealous of you soon! Why do the Fates select you for their favours?"
"It is an affair of little importance," I said.
"Does it carry you away from Rochelle?"
"A short distance; but I must attend to my horse; our patron is in a hurry," and expecting that we should meet later I hurried away.
Having saddled my horse and put my pistols in order I paid a hasty visit home, though fully expecting to be back in the city within a few days. My father, however, thought my absence would be for a longer period.
"The truth is, Edmond," he said, "that the campaign has opened. Some of the troops have already started, and Coligny himself leaves the city before night. So, should you be charged with a message for him, you are not likely to return to Rochelle."
"And you?" I asked.
"I am waiting for orders, I may march with the troops, or remain here; it depends on our leaders."
My father's information put a greyer colour on the farewell; Jeanne and my mother embraced me very tenderly, and neither could altogether keep back the tell-tale tears. Still, they were very brave, and when at last I rode off, they stood at the window waving their handkerchiefs and smiling, though I suspect the smiles quickly faded after I disappeared from sight.
I found the hotel in a state of commotion, and Felix, who met me in the lobby, exclaimed excitedly: "It has begun, Edmond; we march almost immediately. I am just going to say good-bye to your sister. Will you be away from us long?"
"I think not. I am carrying a despatch to the commandants at Saint Jean d'Angely and Cognac. Afterwards I shall rejoin you."
"Till we meet again then," said he, hurriedly, anxious to make the most of the short time still at his disposal.
Several of our leaders besides De Guerchy were with the Admiral, and from time to time one of them came out, mounted his horse, and galloped off. Presently the door opened, and De Guerchy called me inside, where the Admiral handed me two packets.
"One for the commandant at Saint Jean d'Angely," he said, "and one for him at Cognac. From Cognac you will proceed to Angouleme, unless you meet with us on the way. I need not warn you to be prudent and vigilant, nor remind you that these despatches must not fall into the hands of an enemy. Start at once; you should reach Saint Jean d'Angely before norning."
I took the packets, placed them securely inside my doublet, and, after a last word of caution from De Guerchy, left the room. The news of the coming movement had spread throughout the town and the streets were crowded. The excitement was intense, and I witnessed many sad scenes; for every one understood that of the thousands who marched from Rochelle comparatively few would return.
Heavy carts, and big, clumsy guns—chiefly useful for making a noise—rumbled along; dashing cavaliers with flaunting favours bestrode their horses proudly; sturdy foot-soldiers carrying murderous pike or deadly arquebus tramped steadily onward, while weeping children and silent, white-faced women stood bowed with grief.