The Bright Face of Danger
Being an Account of Some Adventures of Henri de Launay, Son of the Sieur de la Tournoire. Freely Translated into Modern English
By Robert Neilson Stephens
Author of "An Enemy to the King," "Philip Winwood," "The Mystery of Murray Davenport," etc.
Illustrated by H. C. Edwards
Boston L. C. Page & Company Mdcccciiii
Copyright, 1904 By L. C. Page & Company
Entered at Stationers' Hall, London All rights reserved
Published April, 1904 Colonial Press
Electrotyped and Printed by C. H. Simonds & Co. Boston. Mass., U.S.A.
THE BRIGHT FACE OF DANGER is, in a distant way, a sequel to "An Enemy to the King," but may be read alone, without any reference to that tale. The title is a phrase of Robert Louis Stevenson's.
I. MONSIEUR HENRI DE LAUNAY SETS OUT ON A JOURNEY
II. A YOUNG MAN WHO WENT SINGING
III. WHERE THE LADY WAS
IV. WHO THE LADY WAS
V. THE CHATEAU DE LAVARDIN
VI. WHAT THE PERIL WAS
VII. STRANGE DISAPPEARANCES
IX. THE WINDING STAIRS
X. MORE THAN MERE PITY
XI. THE RAT-HOLE AND THE WATER-JUG
XII. THE ROPE LADDER
XIII. THE PARTING
XIV. IN THE FOREST
XV. THE TOWER OF MORLON
XVI. THE MERCY OF CAPTAIN FERRAGANT
XVII. THE SWORD OF LA TOURNOIRE
XVIII. THE MOUSTACHES OF BRIGNAN DE BRIGNAN
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"'I GIVE YOU ONE CHANCE FOR YOUR LIFE,' SAID I QUICKLY"
"'AND NOW SHE WILL WAIT FOR HIM IN VAIN!'"
"WE WERE INTERRUPTED BY A LOW CRY"
"'THE WRETCHES!' SAID THE TORTURED COUNT, STAGGERING TO HIS FEET"
"I LEAPED OVER THE BED, AND UPON THE MAN WHO WAS TRYING TO STRANGLE THE COUNTESS"
"MY FATHER'S THRUSTS BECAME NOW SO QUICK AND CONTINUOUS"
THE BRIGHT FACE OF DANGER
MONSIEUR HENRI DE LAUNAY SETS OUT ON A JOURNEY
If, on the first Tuesday in June, in the year 1608, anybody had asked me on what business I was riding towards Paris, and if I had answered, "To cut off the moustaches of a gentleman I have never seen, that I may toss them at the feet of a lady who has taunted me with that gentleman's superiorities,"—if I had made this reply, I should have been taken for the most foolish person on horseback in France that day. Yet the answer would have been true, though I accounted myself one of the wisest young gentlemen you might find in Anjou or any other province.
I was, of a certainty, studious, and a lover of books. My father, the Sieur de la Tournoire, being a daring soldier, had so often put himself to perils inimical to my mother's peace of mind, that she had guided my inclinations in the peaceful direction of the library, hoping not to suffer for the son such alarms as she had undergone for the husband. I had grown up, therefore, a musing, bookish youth, rather shy and solitary in my habits: and this despite the care taken of my education in swordsmanship, riding, hunting, and other manly accomplishments, both by my father and by his old follower, Blaise Tripault. I acquired skill enough to satisfy these well-qualified instructors, but yet a volume of Plutarch or a book of poems was more to me than sword or dagger, horse, hound, or falcon. I was used to lonely walks and brookside meditations in the woods and meads of our estate of La Tournoire, in Anjou; and it came about that with my head full of verses I must needs think upon some lady with whom to fancy myself in love.
Contiguity determined my choice. The next estate to ours, separated from it by a stream flowing into the Loir, had come into the possession of a rich family of bourgeois origin whom heaven had blessed (or burdened, as some would think) with a pretty daughter. Mlle. Celeste was a small, graceful, active creature, with a clear and well-coloured skin, and quick-glancing black eyes which gave me a pleasant inward stir the first time they rested on me. In my first acquaintance with this young lady, the black eyes seemed to enlarge and soften when they fell on me: she regarded me with what I took to be interest and approval: her face shone with friendliness, and her voice was kind. In this way I was led on.
When she saw how far she had drawn me, her manner changed: she became whimsical, never the same for five minutes: sometimes indifferent, sometimes disdainful, sometimes gay at my expense. This treatment touched my pride, and would have driven me off, but that still, when in her presence, I felt in some degree the charm of the black eyes, the well-chiselled face, the graceful swift motions, and what else I know not. When I was away from her, this charm declined: nevertheless I chose to keep her in my mind as just such a capricious object of adoration as poets are accustomed to lament and praise in the same verses.
But indeed I was never for many days out of reach of her attractive powers, for several of her own favourite haunts were on her side of the brook by which I was in the habit of strolling or reclining for some part of almost every fair day. Attended by a fat and sleepy old waiting-woman, she was often to be seen running along the grassy bank with a greyhound that followed her everywhere. For this animal she showed a constancy of affection that made her changefulness to me the more heart-sickening.
Thus, half in love, half in disgust, I sat moodily on my side of the stream one sunny afternoon, watching her on the other side. She had been running a race with the dog, and had just settled down on the green bank, with the hound sitting on his haunches beside her. Both dog and girl were panting, and her face was still merry with the fun of the scamper. Her old attendant had probably been left dozing in some other part of the wood. Here now was an opportunity for me to put in a sweet speech or two. But as I looked at her and thought of her treatment of me, my pride rebelled, and I suppose my face for the moment wore a cloud. My expression, whatever it was, caught the quick eyes of Mlle. Celeste. Being in merriment herself, she was the readier to make scorn of my sulky countenance. She pealed out a derisive laugh.
"Oh, the sour face! Is that what comes of your eternal reading?"
I had in my hand a volume of Plutarch in the French of Amyot. Her ridicule of reading annoyed me.
"No, Mademoiselle, it isn't from books that one draws sourness. I find more sweetness in them than in—most things." I was looking straight at her as I said this.
She pretended to laugh again, but turned quite red.
"Nay, forgive me," I said, instantly softened. "Ah, Celeste, you know too well what is the sweetest of all books for my reading." By my look and sigh, she knew I meant her face. But she chose to be contemptuous.
"Poh! What should a pale scholar know of such books? I tell you, Monsieur de Launay, you will never be a man till you leave your books and see a little of the world."
Though she called me truly enough a pale scholar, I was scarlet for a moment.
"And what do you know of the world, then?" I retorted. "Or of men either?"
"I am only a girl. But as to men, I have met one or two. There is your father, for example. And that brave and handsome Brignan de Brignan."
Whether I loved or not, I was certainly capable of jealousy; and jealousy of the fiercest arose at the name of Brignan de Brignan. I had never seen him; but she had mentioned him to me before, too many times indeed for me to hear his name now with composure. He was a young gentleman of the King's Guard, of whom, by reason of a distant relationship, her family had seen much during a residence of several months in Paris.
"Brignan de Brignan," I echoed. "Yes, I dare say he has looked more into the faces of women than into books."
"And more into the face of danger than into either. That's what has made him the man he is."
"Tut!" I cried, waving my Plutarch; "there's more manly action in this book than a thousand Brignans could perform in all their lives—more danger encountered."
"An old woman might read it for all that. Would it make her manly? Well, Monsieur Henri, if you choose to encounter danger only in books, there's nobody to complain. But you shouldn't show malice toward those who prefer to meet it in the wars or on the road."
"Malice? Not I. What is Brignan de Brignan to me? You may say what you please—this Plutarch is as good a school of heroism as any officer of the King's Guard ever went to."
"Yet the officers of the King's Guard aren't pale, moping fellows like you lovers of books. Ah, Monsieur Henri, if you mean to be a monk, well and good. But otherwise, do you know what would change your complexion for the better? A lively brush with real dangers on the field, or in Paris, or anywhere away from your home and your father's protection. That would bring colour into your cheeks."
"You may let my cheeks alone, Mademoiselle."
"You may be sure I will do that."
"I'm quite satisfied with my complexion, and I wouldn't exchange it for that of Brignan de Brignan. I dare say his face is red enough."
"Yes, a most manly colour. And his broad shoulders—and powerful arms—and fine bold eyes—ah! there is the picture of a hero—and his superb moustaches—"
Now I was at the time not strong in respect of moustaches. I was extremely sensitive upon the point. My frame, though not above middle size, was yet capable of robust development, my paleness was not beyond remedy, and my eyes were of a pleasant blue, so there was little to rankle in what she said of my rival's face and body; but as to the moustaches——!
I scrambled to my feet.
"I tell you what it is, Mademoiselle. Just to show what your Brignan really amounts to, and whether I mean to be a monk, and what a reader of books can do when he likes, I have made up my mind to go to Paris; and there I will find your Brignan, and show my scorn of such an illiterate bravo, and cut off his famous moustaches, and bring them back to you for proof! So adieu, Mademoiselle, for this is the last you will see of me till what I have said is done!"
The thing had come into my head in one hot moment, indeed it formed itself as I spoke it; and so I, the quiet and studious, stood committed to an act which the most harebrained brawler in Anjou would have deemed childish folly. Truly, I did lack knowledge of the world.
I turned from Mlle. Celeste's look of incredulous wonderment, and went off through the woods, with swifter strides than I usually took, to our chateau. Of course I dared not tell my parents my reason for wishing to go to Paris. It was enough, to my mother at least, that I should desire to go on any account. The best way in which I could put my resolution to them, which I did that very afternoon, on the terrace where I found them sitting, was thus:
"I have been thinking how little I know of the world. It is true, you have taken me to Paris; but I was only a lad then, and what I saw was with a lad's eyes and under your guidance. I am now twenty-two, and many a man at that age has begun to make his own career. To be worthy of my years, of my breeding, of my name, I ought to know something of life from my own experience. So I have resolved, with your permission, my dear father and mother, to go to Paris and see what I may see."
My mother had turned pale as soon as she saw the drift of my speech, and was for putting every plea in the way. But my father, though he looked serious, seemed not displeased. We talked upon the matter—as to how long I should wish to stay in Paris, whether I had thought of aiming at any particular career there, and of such things. I said I had formed no plans nor hopes: these might or might not come after I had arrived in Paris and looked about me. But see something of the world I must, if only that I might not be at disadvantage in conversation afterward. It was a thing I could afford, for on the attainment of my majority my father had made over to me the income of a portion of our estate, a small enough revenue indeed, but one that looked great in my eyes. He could not now offer any reasonable objection to my project, and he plead my cause with my mother, without whose consent I should not have had the heart to go. Indeed, knowing what her dread had always been, and seeing the anxious love in her eyes as she now regarded me, I almost wavered. But of course she was won over, as women are, though what tears her acquiescence caused her afterwards when she was alone I did not like to think upon.
She comforted herself presently with the thought that our faithful Blaise Tripault should attend me, but here again I had to oppose her. For Blaise, by reason of his years and the service he had done my father in the old wars, was of a dictatorial way with all of us, and I knew he would rob me of all responsibility and freedom, so that I should be again a lad under the thumb of an elder and should profit nothing in self-reliance and mastership. Besides this reason, which I urged upon my parents, I had my own reason, which I did not urge, namely, that I should never dare let Blaise know the special purpose of my visit to Paris. He would laugh me out of countenance, and yet ten to one he would in the end deprive me of the credit of keeping my promise, by taking its performance upon himself. That I might be my own master, therefore, I chose as my valet the most tractable fellow at my disposal, one Nicolas, a lank, knock-kneed jack of about my own age, who had hitherto made himself of the least possible use, with the best possible intentions, between the dining-hall and the kitchen. And yet he was clever enough among horses, or anywhere outdoors. My mother, though she wondered at my choice and trembled to think how fragile a reed I should have to rely on, was yet not sorry, I fancy, at the prospect of ridding her house of poor blundering Nicolas in a kind and creditable way. I had reason to think Nicolas better suited for this new service, and, by insisting, I gained my point in this also.
I made haste about my equipment, and in a few days we set forth, myself on a good young chestnut gelding, Nicolas on a strong black mule, which carried also our baggage. Before I mounted, and while my mother, doing her best to keep back her tears, was adding some last article of comfort to the contents of my great leather bag, my father led me into the window recess of the hall, and after speaking of the letters of introduction with which he had provided me, said in his soldierly, straightforward manner:
"I know you have gathered wisdom from books, and it will serve you well, because it will make you take better heed of experience and see more meaning in it. But then it will require the experience to give your book-learned wisdom its full force. Often at first, in the face of emergency, when the call is for action, your wisdom will fly from your mind; but this will not be the case after you have seen life for yourself. Experience will teach you the full and living meaning of much that you now know but as written truth. It may teach you also some things you have never read, nor even dreamt of. What you have learned by study, and what you must learn by practice only, leave no use for any good counsel I might give you now. Only one thing I can't help saying, though you know it already and will doubtless see it proved again and again. There are many deceivers in the world. Don't trust the outward look of things or people. Be cautious; yet conceal your caution under courtesy, for nothing is more boorish than open suspicion. And remember, too, not to think bad, either, from appearances alone. You may do injustice that way. Hold your opinion till the matter is tested. When appearances are fair, be wary without showing it; when they are bad, regard your safety but don't condemn. In other words, always mingle caution with urbanity, even with kindness.—I need not speak of the name you have to keep unsullied. Honour is a thing about which you require no admonitions. You know that it consists as much in not giving affronts as in not enduring them, though many who talk loudest about it seem to think otherwise. Indeed this is an age in which honour is prated of most by those who practise it least. Well, my son, there are a thousand things I would say, but that is all I shall say. Good-bye—may the good God bless and protect you."
I had much to do to speak firmly and to perceive what I was about, in taking my leave, for my mother could no longer refrain from sobbing as she embraced me at the last, and my young brother and sister, catching the infection, began to whimper and to rub their eyes with their fists. Knowing so much more of my wild purpose than they did, and realizing that I might never return alive, I was the more tried in my resolution not to disgrace with tears the virgin rapier and dagger at my side. But finally I got somehow upon my horse, whose head Blaise Tripault was holding, and threw my last kisses to the family on the steps. I then managed voice enough to say "Good-bye, Blaise," to the old soldier.
"Nay, I will walk as far as to the village," said he, in his gruff, autocratic way. "I have a word or two for you at parting."
Throwing back a somewhat pallid smile to my people, tearfully waving their adieus, I turned my horse out of the court-yard, followed by Nicolas on the mule, and soon emerging from the avenue, was upon the road. Blaise Tripault strode after me. When I came in front of the inn at the end of the village, he called out to stop. I did so, and Blaise, coming up to my stirrup, handed me a folded paper and thus addressed me:
"Of course your father has given you all the advice you need. Nobody is more competent than he to instruct a young man setting out to see the world. His young days were the days of hard knocks, as everybody knows. But as I was thinking of your journey, there came into my head an old tale a monk told me once—for, like your father, I was never too much of a Huguenot to get what good I might out of any priest or monk the Lord chose to send my way. It's a tale that has to do with travelling, and that's what made me think of it—a tale about three maxims that some wise person once gave a Roman emperor who was going on a journey. I half forget the tale itself, for it isn't much of a tale; but the maxims I remembered, because I had had experience enough to realize their value. I've written them out for you there: and if you get them by heart, and never lose sight of them, you'll perhaps save yourself much repentance."
He then bade me good-bye, and the last I saw of him he was entering the inn to drink to my good fortune.
When I had got clear of the village, I unfolded Blaise's paper and read the maxims:
1. "Never undertake a thing unless you can see your way to the end of it."
2. "Never sleep in a house where the master is old and the wife young."
3. "Never leave a highway for a byway."
Very good counsel, thought I, and worth bearing in mind. It was true, my very journey itself was, as to its foolhardy purpose, a violation of the first maxim. But that could not be helped now, and I could at least heed that piece of advice, as well as the others, in the details of my mission. When I thought of that mission, I felt both foolish and heavy-hearted. I had not the faintest idea yet of how I should go about encountering Brignan de Brignan and getting into a quarrel with him, and I had great misgivings as to how I should be able to conduct myself in that quarrel, and as to its outcome. Certainly no man ever took the road on a more incredible, frivolous quest. Of all the people travelling my way, that June morning, T was probably one of the most thoughtful and judiciously-minded; yet of every one but myself the business in being abroad was sober and reasonable, while mine was utterly ridiculous and silly. And the girl whose banter had driven me to it—perhaps she had attached no seriousness whatever to my petulant vow and had even now forgotten it. With these reflections were mingled the pangs of parting from my home and family; and for a time I was downcast and sad.
But the day was fine. Presently my thoughts, which at first had flown back to all I had left behind, began to concern themselves with the scenes around me; then they flew ahead to the place whither I was bound:—this is usually the way on journeys. At least, thought I, I should see life, and perchance meet dangers, and so far be the gainer. And who knows but I might even come with credit out of the affair with Monsieur de Brignan?—it is a world of strange turnings, and the upshot is always more or less different from what has been predicted. So I took heart, and already I began to feel I was not exactly the pale scholar of yesterday. It was something to be my own master, on horseback and well-armed, my eyes ranging the wide and open country, green and brown in the sunlight, dotted here and there with trees, sometimes traversed by a stream, and often backed by woods of darker green, which seemed to hold secrets dangerous and luring.
Riding gave me a great appetite, and I was fortunate in coming upon an inn at Durtal whose table was worthy of my capacity. After dinner, we took the road again and proceeded at an easy pace toward La Fleche.
Toward the middle of the afternoon a vague uneasiness stole over me, as if some tragic circumstance lay waiting on the path—to me unknown—ahead.
A YOUNG MAN WHO WENT SINGING
It was about five o'clock when we rode into La Fleche, and the feeling of ill foreboding still possessed me. Partly considering this, and partly as it was improbable I should find the best accommodations anywhere else short of Le Mans, I decided to put up here for the night. As I rode into the central square of the town, I saw an inn there: it had a prosperous and honest look, so I said, "This is the place for my money," and made for it. The square was empty and silent when I entered it, but just as I reached the archway of the inn, I heard a voice singing, whereupon I looked around and saw a young man riding into the square from another street than that I had come from. He was followed by a servant on horseback, and was bound for the same inn. It seems strange in the telling, that a gentleman should ride singing into a public square, as if he were a mountebank or street-singer, yet it appeared quite natural as this young fellow did it. The song was something about brave soldiers and the smiles of ladies—just such a gay song as so handsome a young cavalier ought to sing. I looked at him a moment, then rode on into the inn-yard. This little act, done in all thoughtlessness, and with perfect right, was the cause of momentous things in my life. If I had waited to greet that young gentleman at the archway, I believe my history would have gone very differently. As it was, I am convinced that my carelessly dropping him from my regard, as if he were a person of no interest, was the beginning of what grew between us. For, as he rode in while I was dismounting, he threw at me a look of resentment for which there was nothing to account but the possible wound to his vanity. His countenance, symmetrically and somewhat boldly formed, showed great self-esteem and a fondness for attention. His singing had suddenly stopped. I could feel his anger, which was probably the greater for having no real cause, I having been under no obligation to notice him or offer him precedence.
He called loudly for an ostler, and, when one came out of the stables, he coolly gave his orders without waiting for me, though I had been first in the yard. He bade his own servant see their horses well fed, and then made for the inn-door, casting a scornful glance at me, and resuming his song in a lower voice. It was now my turn to be angry, and justly, but I kept silence. I knew not exactly how to take this sort of demonstration: whether it was a usual thing among travellers and to be paid back only in kind, or whether for the sake of my reputation I ought to treat it as a serious affront. It is, of course, childish to take offence at a trifle. In my ignorance of what the world expects of a man upon receipt of hostile and disparaging looks, I could only act as one always must who cannot make up his mind—do nothing. After seeing my horse and mule attended to, I bade Nicolas follow with the baggage, and entered the inn.
The landlord was talking with my young singing gentleman, but made to approach me as I came in. The young gentleman, however, speaking in a peremptory manner, detained him with questions about the roads, the town of La Fleche, and such matters. As I advanced, the young gentleman got between me and the host, and continued his talk. I waited awkwardly enough for the landlord's attention, and began to feel hot within. A wench now placed on a table some wine that the young man had ordered, and the landlord finally got rid of him by directing his attention to it. As he went to sit down, he bestowed on me the faintest smile of ridicule. I was too busy to think much of it at the moment, in ordering a room for the night and sending Nicolas thither with my bag. I then called for supper and sat down as far as possible from the other guest. He and I were the only occupants of the room, but from the kitchen adjoining came the noise of a number of the commonalty at food and drink.
"Always politeness," thought I, when my wine had come, and so, in spite of his rudeness and his own neglect of the courtesy, as I raised my glass I said to him, "Your health, Monsieur."
He turned red at the reproach implied in my observance, then very reluctantly lifted his own glass and said, "And yours," in a surly, grudging manner.
"It has been a pleasant day," I went on, resolved not to be churlish, at all hazards.
"Do you think so?" he replied contemptuously, and then turned to look out of the window, and hummed the tune he had been singing before.
I thought if such were the companions my journey was to throw me in with, it would be a sorry time till I got home again. But my young gentleman, for all his temporary sullenness, was really of a talkative nature, as these vain young fellows are apt to be, and when he had warmed himself a little with wine even his dislike of me could not restrain his tongue any longer.
"You are staying here to-night, then?" he suddenly asked.
"Yes, and you?"
"I shall ride on after supper. There will be starlight."
"I have used my horse enough to-day."
"And I mine, for that matter. But there are times when horses can't be considered."
"You are travelling on important business, then?"
"On business of haste. I must put ground behind me."
"I drink to the success of your business, then."
"Thank you, I am always successful. There is another toast, that should have first place. The ladies, Monsieur."
"With all my heart."
"That's a toast I never permit myself to defer. Mon dieu, I owe them favours enough!"
"You are fortunate," said I.
"I don't complain. And you?"
"Even if I were fortunate in that respect, I shouldn't boast of it."
He coloured; but laughed shortly, and said, "It's not boasting to tell the mere truth."
"I was thinking of myself, not of you, Monsieur." This was true enough.
"I can readily believe you've had no great luck that way," he said spitefully, pretending to take stock of my looks. I knew his remark was sheer malice, for my appearance was good enough—well-figured and slender, with a pleasant, thoughtful face.
"Let us talk of something else," I answered coldly, though I was far from cool in reality.
"Certainly. What do you think of the last conspiracy?"
"That it was very rash and utterly without reason. We have the best king France ever knew."
"Yes, long live Henri IV.! They say there are still some of the malcontents to be gathered in. Have you heard of any fresh arrests?"
"Nothing within two weeks. I don't understand how these affairs can possibly arise, after that of Biron. Men must be complete fools."
"Oh, there are always malcontents who still count on Spain, and some think even the League may be revived."
"But why should they not be contented? I can't imagine any grievances."
"Faith, my child, where have you been hiding yourself? Don't you know the talk? Do you suppose everybody is pleased with this Dutch alliance? And the way in which the King's old Huguenot comrades are again to be seen around him?"
"And why not? Through everything, the King's heart has always been with the protestants."
"Oho! So you are one of the psalm-singers, then?" His insulting tone and jeering smile were intolerable.
"I have sung no psalms here, at least," I replied trembling with anger; "or anything else, to annoy the ears of my neighbours."
"So you don't like my singing?" he cried, turning red again.
I had truly rather admired it, but I said, "I have heard better."
"Indeed? But how should you know. For your education in taste, I may tell you that good judges have thought well of my singing."
"Ay, brag of it, as you do of your success with the ladies."
He stared at me in amazement, then cried. "Death of my life, young fellow!—" But at that instant his servant brought in his supper, and he went no further. My own meal was before me a minute later, and we both devoted ourselves in angry silence to our food. I was still full of resentment at his obtrusive scorn of myself and my religious party, and I could see that he felt himself mightily outraged at my retorts. From the rapid, heedless way in which he ate, I fancied his mind was busy with all sorts of revenge upon me.
When he had finished, at the same time as I did, and our servants had gone to eat their supper in the kitchen, he leaned against the wall, and said, "I am going to sing, Monsieur, whether it pleases you or not." And forthwith he began to do so.
My answer was to put on a look of pain, and walk hastily from the room, as if the torture to my ears were too great for endurance.
I was not half-way across the court-yard before I heard him at my heels though not singing.
"My friend," said he, as I turned around, "I don't know where you were bred, but you should know this: it's not good manners to break from a gentleman's company so unceremoniously."
It occurred to me that because I had taken his insults from the first, through not knowing how much a sensible man should bear, he thought he might safely hector me to the full satisfaction of his hurt vanity.
"So you do know something of good manners, after all?" I replied. "I congratulate you."
His eyes flashed new wrath, but before he knew how to answer, and while we were glaring at each other like two cocks, though at some distance apart, out came Nicolas from the kitchen to ask if I wished my cloak brought down, which he had taken up with the bag. In his rustic innocence he stepped between my nagging gentleman and myself. The gentleman at this ran forward in an access of rage, and threw Nicolas aside, saying, "Out of the way, knave! You're as great a clown as your master."
"Hands off! How dare you?" I cried, clapping my hand to my sword.
"If you come a step nearer, I'll kill you!" he replied, grasping his own hilt.
I sent a swift glance around. There was no witness but Nicolas. Yet a scuffle would draw people in ten seconds. Even at that moment, with my heart beating madly, I thought of the edict against duelling: so I said, as calmly as I could:
"If you dare draw that sword, I see trees beyond that gateway—a garden or something. It will be quieter there." I pointed to a narrow exit at the rear of the yard.
"I will show you whom you're dealing with, my lad!" he said, breathlessly, and made at once for the gate. I followed. I could see now that, though a bully, he was not a coward, and the discovery fell upon me with a sense of how grave a matter I had been drawn into.
At the gate I looked around, and saw Nicolas following, his eyes wide with alarm. "Stay where you are, and not a word to anybody," I ordered, and closed the gate after me. My adversary led the way across a neglected garden, and out through a postern in a large wall, to where there was a thicker growth of trees. We passed among these to a little open space near the river, from which it was partly veiled by a tangled mass of bushes. The unworn state of the green sward showed that this was a spot little visited by the townspeople.
"We have stumbled on the right place," said the young gentleman, with an assumption of coolness. "It's a pity the thing can't be done properly, with seconds and all that." And he proceeded to take off his doublet.
I was sobered by the time spent in walking to the place, so I said, "It's not too late. Monsieur, if you are willing to apologize."
"I apologize! Death of my life! You pile insult on insult."
"I assure you, it is you who have been the insulter."
He laughed in a way that revived my heat, and asked, "Swords alone, or swords and daggers?"
"As you please." By this time I had cast off my own doublet.
"Rapiers and daggers, then," he said, and flung away his scabbard and sheath. I saw the flash of my own weapons a moment later, and ere I had time for a second thought on the seriousness of this event—my first fight in earnest—he was keeping me busy to parry his point and watch his dagger at the same time. I was half-surprised at my own success in turning away his blade, but after I had guarded myself from three or four thrusts, I took to mind that offence is the best defence, and ventured a lunge, which he stopped with his dagger only in the nick of time to save his breast. His look of being almost caught gave me encouragement, making me realize I had received good enough lessons from my father and Blaise Tripault to enable me to practise with confidence. So I pushed the attack, but never lost control of myself nor became reckless. It was an inspiriting revelation to me to find that I could indeed use my head intelligently, and command my motions so well, at a time of such excitement. We grew hot, perspired, breathed fast and loud, kept our muscles tense, and held each other with glittering eyes as we moved about on firm but springy feet. We must have fought very swiftly, for the ring of the steel sounded afterward in my ears as if it had been almost continuous. How long we kept it up, I do not exactly know. We came to panting more deeply, and I felt a little tired, and once or twice a mist was before my eyes. At last he gave me a great start by running his point through my shirt sleeve above the elbow. Feeling myself so nearly stung, I instinctively made a long swift thrust: up went his dagger, but too late: my blade passed clear of it, sank into his left breast. He gave a sharp little cry, and fell, and the hole I had made in his shirt was quickly circled with crimson.
"Victory!" thought I, with an exultant sense of prowess. I had fleshed my sword and brought low my man! But, as I looked down at him and he lay perfectly still, another feeling arose. I knelt and felt for his heart: my new fear was realized. With bitter regret I gazed at him. All the anger and scorn had gone out of his face: it was now merely the handsome boyish face of a youth like myself, expressing only a manly pride and the pain and surprise of his last moment. It was horrible to think that I had stopped this life for ever, reduced this energy and beauty to eternal silence and nothingness. A weakness overwhelmed me, a profound pity and self-reproach.
I heard a low ejaculation behind me, which made me start. But I saw it was only Nicolas, who, in spite of my orders, had stolen after me, in terror of what might happen.
"Oh, heaven!" he groaned, as he stared with pale face and scared eyes at the prostrate form. "You have killed him, Monsieur Henri."
"Yes. It is a great pity. After all, he merely thought a little too well of himself and was a little inconsiderate of other people's feelings. But who is not so, more or less? Poor young man!"
"Ah, but think of us, Monsieur Henri—think of yourself, I mean! We had better be going, or you will have to answer for this."
"That is so. We must settle with the landlord and get away from this town before this gentleman is missed."
"And alas! you arranged to stay all night. The landlord will be sure to smell something. Come, I beg of you: there's not a moment to lose. Think what there's to do—the bag to fetch down, the horse and mule to saddle. We shall be lucky if the officers aren't after us before we're out of the town."
"You are right.—Poor young man! At least I will cover his face with his doublet before I go."
"I'll do that, Monsieur. You put on your own doublet, and save time."
I did so. As Nicolas ran past me with the slain man's doublet, something fell out of the pocket of it. This proved to be a folded piece of paper, like a letter, but with no name outside. I picked it up. Fancying it might give a clue to my victim's identity, and as the seal was broken, I opened it. There was some writing, in the hand of a woman,—two lines only:
"For heaven's sake and pity's, come to me at once. My life and honour depend on you alone."
As the missive was without address, so was it without signature. It must have been delivered by some confidential messenger who knew the recipient, and yet by whom a verbal message was either not thought expedient, or required to be confirmed by the written appeal. The recipient must be familiar with the sender's handwriting. The note looked fresh and clean, and therefore must have been very lately received.
"Come, Monsieur Henri," called Nicolas, breaking in upon my whirling thoughts. "Why do you wait?—What is the matter? What do you see on that paper?"
"And this," I answered, though of course Nicolas could not understand me, "is the business he was on! This is why he had need to put ground behind him. He was going on to-night. He must have stopped only to refresh his horses."
"Yes, certainly, but what of that? What has his business to do with us?"
"I have prevented his carrying it out. My God!—a woman's life and honour—a woman who relies on him—and now she will wait for him in vain! At this very moment she may be counting the hours till he should arrive!—What have I done?"
"You, Monsieur? It's not your fault if he chose to get into a quarrel with you. He must have valued his business highly if he dared risk it in a fight."
"Of course he thought from my manner that he could have his own way with me. There would be no loss of time—his horses needed rest, for greater speed in the long run. He knew what he was about—there's no doubt of his haste. 'Come to me at once. My life and honour depend on you alone.' And while she waits and trusts, I step in and cut off her only hope!—not this poor young fellow's life alone, but hers also, Nicolas! It mustn't be so—not if I can any way help it. I see now what I am called upon to do."
"What is that, Monsieur Henri?" asked Nicolas despairingly.
"To carry out this gentleman's task which I have interrupted—to go in his stead to the assistance of this lady, whoever and wherever she may be!"
WHERE THE LADY WAS
"Very well, Monsieur," said Nicolas after a pause, in a tone which meant anything but very well. "But first you will have enough to do to save yourself. This gentleman will soon be missed. He was in haste to go on, as you say. His servant will be wondering why he delays, and the landlord will become curious about his bill."
"Yes, but I must think a moment. Where is this poor lady? Who is the gentleman? There may be another letter—a clue of some sort."
I hurriedly examined the young man's pockets, but found nothing written. His purse I thought best to leave where it was: to whom, indeed, could I entrust it with any chance of its being more honestly dealt with than by those who should find the body? The innkeeper and the gentleman's servant, with their claims for payment, would see to that. But I kept the lady's note.
"Well," said I, "I must have a talk with the valet. I must find out where this gentleman was going, for that must be the place where the lady is."
"But the valet doesn't know where the gentleman was going. He was talking to me about that in the stables."
"That's very strange—not to know his master's destination."
"He knows very little of his master's affairs: he was hired only yesterday, at Sable. The gentleman was staying at the inn there. Yesterday he engaged this man, and said he was going to travel on at the end of the week. But this morning he suddenly made up his mind to start at once, and came off without saying where he was bound for. Until I told him, the man didn't know that the name of this town was La Fleche."
"And what else did he tell you?"
"That's all. He was only grumbling about having to come away so unexpectedly, and being so in the dark about his master's plans."
"You're sure he didn't say what caused his master to change his mind and start at once?"
"He said nothing more, Monsieur."
"Did he mention his master's name?"
"No, we didn't get as far as that. It was only his desire to complain to somebody, that made him speak to me; and I was too busy with the horses to say much in reply."
"Then you didn't give my name—to him or any one else here?"
"Not to a soul, Monsieur."
"That's fortunate. Well, we must be attending to our business. I will pay the landlord, and give him some reason for riding on. While you are getting the animals ready, I will try to sound this valet a little deeper. Come."
Without another look behind, we hastened back to the inn.
"It's a fine evening," said I to the landlord, "and that gentleman I saw here awhile ago has given me the notion of riding on while the air is cool." I spoke as steadily as I could, and I suppose if the landlord detected any want of ease he put it down to the embarrassment of announcing a change of mind. In any case, he was not slow to compute the reckoning, nor I to pay it. Then, after seeing my bag and cloak brought down, I went in search of the young gentleman's valet. I found him in the kitchen, half way through a bottle of wine.
"Your master has not yet ridden on, then?" said I, dropping carelessly on the bench opposite him.
"No, Monsieur," he replied unsuspectingly. He seemed more like a country groom than a gentleman's body servant.
"I have decided to go on this evening, in imitation of him," I continued.
"Then your servant had better come back and finish his supper. It's getting cold yonder. Just as he was going to begin eating, he thought of something, and went out, and hasn't returned yet."
It was, alas, true. In my excitement I had forgotten all about Nicolas's supper, which he had left in order to see if I wanted my cloak for the cool of the evening.
"I sent him on an errand," I replied. "He shall sup doubly well later. As I was about to say, your master—by the way, if I knew his name I could mention him properly: we have so far neglected to give each other our names."
"Monsieur de Merri is my master's name, as far as I know it. I have been with him only since yesterday." He spoke in a somewhat disgruntled way, as if not too well satisfied with his new place.
"So I have heard." I said. "And it seems you were hustled off rather sooner than you expected, this morning."
"My master did change his mind suddenly. Yesterday he said he wouldn't leave Sable till the end of the week."
"Yes; but of course when he received the letter—" I stopped, as if not thinking worth while to finish, and idly scrutinized the floor.
"What letter, Monsieur?" inquired the fellow, after a moment.
"Why, the letter that made him change his mind. Didn't you see the messenger?"
"Oh, and did that man bring a letter, then?"
"Certainly. How secretive your master is. The man from—from—where did he come from, anyhow?"
"A man came to see my master at Sable early this morning—the only man I know of. I heard him say that he had ridden all the way from Montoire, following my master from one town to another."
"Yes, that is the man, certainly," said I in as careless a manner as possible, fearful lest my face should betray the interest of this revelation to me. "Well, I think I will go and see what has become of my servant. When you have finished that bottle, drink another to me." I tossed him a silver piece, and sauntered out. Nicolas was fastening the saddle girth of my horse in the yard. An ostler was attending to the mule. The innkeeper was looking on. I asked him about the different roads leading from the place, and by the time I had got this information all was ready. We mounted, I replied to the landlord's adieu, threw a coin to the ostler, and clattered out under the archway. From the square I turned South to cross the Loir, passing not far from the place where, surrounded by trees and bushes, the body of my adversary must still be lying.
"Poor young man!" said I. "Once we get safe off, I hope they will find him soon."
"They will soon be seeking him, at least," replied Nicolas. "Before you came out of the kitchen, the landlord was wondering to the ostler what had become of him."
"As he was to ride on at once, his absence will appear strange. Well, I'm not sorry to think he will be found before he lies long exposed. The authorities, no doubt, will take all measures to find out who he is and notify his people."
"And to find the person who left him in that state," said Nicolas fearfully.
"Well, I have a start, and shall travel as fast as my horse can safely carry me."
"But wherever you go, Monsieur, the law will in time come up with you."
"I have thought of that; and now listen. This is what you are to do. We shall come very soon to a meeting of roads. You will there turn to the right—"
"And leave you, Monsieur Henri?"
"Yes, it is necessary for my safety."
"And you will go on to Paris alone?"
"I am not going to Paris immediately—at least, I shall not go by way of Le Mans and Chartres, as I had intended. We have already turned our backs on that road, when we left the square in front of the inn. I shall go by way of Vendome." Montoire—where the letter had evidently come from and where therefore the lady probably was—lay on the road to Vendome.
"And I, Monsieur?"
"You are to go back to La Tournoire, but not by the way we have come over. This road to the right that you will soon take leads first to Jarze, and there you will find a road to the West which will bring you to our own highway not two leagues from home." I repeated these directions as we left La Fleche behind us, till they seemed firmly lodged in Nicolas's head. "I don't know how long it will take you to do this journey," I added, "nor even when you may expect to reach Jarze. You mustn't overdo either the mule or yourself. Stop at the first country inn and get something to eat, before it is too late at night to be served. Go on to-night as far as you think wise. It may be best, or necessary, to sleep in some field or wood, not too near the road, as I shall probably do toward the end of the night."
"I shall certainly do that, Monsieur. It is a fine night."
"When you get to La Tournoire, you are to tell my father that I am going on without an attendant, but by way of Vendome. You needn't say anything about what you suppose my purpose to be: you needn't repeat what you heard me say about that lady, or the letter: you aren't to mention the lady or the letter at all."
"I understand, Monsieur Henri; but I do hope you will keep out of other people's troubles. You have enough of your own now, over this unlucky duel."
"It's to get me out of that trouble that you are going home. Give my father a full account of the duel. Tell him the gentleman insulted my religion as well as myself; that he tried my patience beyond endurance. My father will understand, I trust. And say that I shall leave it to him to solicit my pardon of the King. I know he would prefer I should place the matter all in his hands."
"Yes, to be sure, Monsieur Henri. And of course to a gentleman who has served him so well, the King can't refuse anything."
"He is scarce likely to refuse him that favour, at any rate. My father will know just what to do; just whom to make his petition through, and all that. Perhaps he will go to Paris himself about it; or he may send Blaise Tripault with letters to some of his old friends who are near the King. But he will do whatever is best. The pardon will doubtless be obtained before I reach Paris, as I am going by this indirect way and may stop for awhile in the neighbourhood of Vendome. But I shall eventually turn up at the inn we were bound for, in the Rue St. Honore."
"Yes, Monsieur, and may God land you there safe and sound!"
"Tell my father that the only name by which I know my antagonist is Monsieur de Merri. Perhaps he belonged to Montoire; at any rate, he was acquainted there."
We soon reached the place where the roads diverge. I took over my travelling bag and cloak from Nicolas's mule to my horse, hastily repeated my directions in summary form, supplied him with money, and showed him his road, he very disconsolate at parting, and myself little less so. As night was falling, and so much uncertainty lay over my immediate future, the trial of our spirits was the greater. However, as soon as he was moving on his way, I turned my horse forward on mine, and tried, by admiring the stars, to soften the sense of my loneliness and danger.
I began to forget the peril of my present situation by thinking of the affair I had undertaken. In the first place, how to find the lady? All I knew of her was that she was probably at Montoire, that she had been associated in some way with Monsieur de Merri, and that she now thought herself in imminent danger. And I had in my possession a piece of her handwriting, which, however, I should have to use very cautiously if at all. There was, indeed, little to start with toward the task of finding her out, but, as Montoire could not be a large place, I need not despair. I would first, I thought, inquire about Monsieur de Merri and what ladies were of his acquaintance. If Monsieur de Merri himself was of Montoire, and had people living there, my presence would be a great risk. I could not know how soon the news of his death might reach them after my own arrival at the place, nor how close a description would be given of his slayer—for there was little doubt that the innkeeper would infer the true state of affairs on the discovery of the body. The dead man's people would be clamorous for justice and the officers would be on their mettle. Even if I might otherwise tarry in Montoire unsuspected, my insinuating myself into the acquaintance of one of Monsieur de Merri's friends would in itself be a suspicious move. The more I considered the whole affair, the more foolish seemed my chosen course. And yet I could not bear to think of that unknown lady in such great fear, with perhaps none to aid her: though, indeed, since none but Monsieur de Merri could save her honour and life, how could I do so? Well, I could offer my services, at least; perhaps she meant she had nobody else on whose willingness she could count; perhaps she really could make as good use of me as of him. But on what pretext could I offer myself? How could I account to her for my knowledge of her affairs and for Monsieur de Merri's inability to come to her? To present myself as his slayer would not very well recommend my services to her. Would she, indeed, on any account accept my services? And even if she did, was I clever enough to get her out of the situation she was in, whatever that might be? Truly the whole case was a cloud. Well, I must take each particular by itself as I came to it; be guided by circumstance, and proceed with delicacy. The first thing to do was to find out who the lady was; and even that could not be done till I got to Montoire, which, being near Vendome, must be at least two days' journey from La Fleche.
As I thought how much in the dark was the business I had taken on myself, my mind suddenly reverted to the first of the monk's three maxims that Blaise Tripault had given me, which now lay folded in my pocket, close to the lady's note.
"Never undertake a thing unless you can see your way to the end of it."
I could not help smiling to think how soon chance had led me to violate this excellent rule. But I am not likely to be confronted again by such circumstances, thought I, and this affair once seen through, I shall be careful; while the other maxims, being more particular, are easier to obey, and obey them I certainly will.
I rode on till near midnight, and then, for the sake of the horse as well as the rider, I turned out of the road at a little stream, unsaddled among some poplar trees, and lay down, with my travelling bag for pillow, and my cloak for bed and blanket. The horse, left to his will, chose to lie near me; and so, in well-earned sleep, we passed the rest of the night.
The next morning, when we were on the road again, I decided to exchange talk with as many travellers as possible who were going my way, in the hope of falling in with one who knew Montoire. At a distance from the place, I might more safely be inquisitive about Monsieur de Merri and his friendships than at Montoire itself. The news of what had happened at La Fleche would not have come along the road any sooner than I had done, except by somebody who had travelled by night and had passed me while I slept. In the unlikelihood of there being such a person, I could speak of Monsieur de Merri without much danger of suspicion. But even if there was such a person, and the news had got ahead, nobody could be confident in suspecting me. I was not the only young gentleman of my appearance, mounted on a horse like mine, to be met on the roads that day. And besides, I was no longer attended by a servant on a mule, as I had been at La Fleche. So I determined to act with all freedom, accost whom I chose, and speak boldly.
Passing early through Le Lude, I breakfasted at last, and talked with various travellers, both on the road and at the inn there, but none of them showed any such interest, when I casually introduced the name of Montoire, as a dweller of that place must have betrayed. To bring in the name of the town was easy enough. As thus:—in the neighbourhood of Le Lude one had only to mention the fine chateau there, and after admiring it, to add: "They say there is one very like it, at some other town along this river—I forget which—is it Montoire?—or La Chartre?—I have never travelled this road before." A man of Montoire, or who knew that town well, would have answered with certainty, and have added something to show his acquaintance there. The chateau of Le Lude served me in this manner all the way to Vaas, where there is a great church, which answered my purpose thence to Chateau du Loir. But though I threw out my conversational bait to dozens of people, of all conditions, not one bite did I get anywhere on the road between Le Lude and La Chartre.
It was evening when I arrived at La Chartre, and I was now thirteen leagues from La Fleche, thanks to having journeyed half the previous night. Anybody having left La Fleche that morning would be satisfied with a day's journey of nine leagues to Chateau du Loir, the last convenient stopping-place before La Chartre. So I decided to stay at La Chartre for the night, and give my horse the rest he needed.
At the inn I talked to everybody I could lay hold of, dragging in the name of Montoire, all to no purpose, until I began to think the inhabitants of Montoire must be the most stay-at-home people, and their town the most unvisited town, in the world. In this manner, in the kitchen after supper, I asked a fat bourgeois whether the better place for me to break my next day's journey for dinner would be Troo or Montoire.
"I know no better than you," he replied with a shrug.
"Pardon, Monsieur; I think you will find the better inn at Montoire," put in a voice behind my shoulder. I turned and saw, seated on a stool with his back to the wall, a bright-looking, well-made young fellow who might, from his dress, have been a lawyer's clerk, or the son of a tradesman, but with rather a more out-of-doors appearance than is usually acquired in an office or shop.
"Ah," said I, "you know those towns, then?"
"I live at Montoire," said he, interestedly, as if glad to get into conversation. "There is a fine public square there, you will see."
"But it is rather a long ride before dinner, isn't it?"
"Only about five leagues. I shall ride there for dinner to-morrow, at all events."
"You are returning home, then?"
"Have you been far away?"
"That is as one may think," he replied after a moment's hesitation, during which he seemed to decide it best to evade the question. His travels were none of my business, and I cared not how secretive he might be upon them. But to teach him a lesson in openness, I said:
"I have travelled from Le Lude to-day."
"And I too," said he, with his former interest.
"I didn't see you at the inn there," said I. "You must have left early this morning."
"Yes, after arriving late last night. Yesterday evening I was at La Fleche."
I gave an inward start; but said quietly enough: "Ah?—and yet you talk as if you had slept at Le Lude."
"So I did. I travelled part of the night."
"And arrived at Le Lude before midnight, perhaps?"
"Yes, a little before. Luckily, the innkeeper happened to be up, and he let me in."
I breathed more freely. This young man must have left La Fleche before I had: he could know nothing of the man slain.
"There is a good inn at La Fleche," I said, to continue the talk.
"No doubt. I stopped only a short while, at a small house at the edge of the town. I was in some haste."
"Then you will be starting early to-morrow?"
I resolved to be watchful and start at the same time. But lest he should have other company, or something should interfere, I decided not to lose the present opportunity. So I began forthwith:
"I have met a gentleman who comes, I think, from Montoire, or at least is acquainted there,—a Monsieur de Merri, of about my own age."
The young fellow looked at me with a sudden sharpness of curiosity, which took me back: but I did not change countenance, and he had repossessed himself by the time he replied:
"There is a Monsieur de Merri, who is about as old as you, but he does not live at Montoire. He sometimes comes there."
Here was comfort, at least: I should not find myself among the dead man's relations, seeking vengeance.
"No doubt he has friends there?" I ventured.
"No doubt, Monsieur," answered the young man, merely out of politeness, and looking vague.
"Probably he visits people in the neighbourhood," I tried again.
"I cannot say," was the reply, still more absently given.
"Or lives at the inn," I pursued.
"It may be so." The young fellow was now glancing about the kitchen, as if to rid himself of this talk.
"Or perhaps he dwells in private lodgings when he is at Montoire," I went on resolutely.
"It might well be. There are private lodgings to be had there."
"Do you know much of this Monsieur de Merri?" I asked pointblank, in desperation.
"I have seen him two or three times."
"Where? At Montoire, of course." The speaker, in surprise, scrutinized me again with the keen look he had shown before.
It was plain, from his manner, that he chose to be close-mouthed on the subject of Monsieur de Merri. He was one of those people who generally have a desire to talk of themselves and all their affairs, but who can be suddenly very secretive on some particular matter or occasion. I saw that I must give him up, for that time at least. Perhaps on the road next day his unwillingness to be communicative about Monsieur de Merri would have passed away. But meanwhile, what was the cause of that unwillingness? Did he know, after all, what had occurred at La Fleche, and had he begun to suspect me? I inwardly cursed his reticence, and went soon to bed, that I might rise the earlier.
But early as I rose, my young friend had beaten me. The ostler to whom I described him said he had ridden off half-an-hour ago. In no very amiable mood, I rode after him. Not till the forenoon was half spent, did I catch up. He saluted me politely, and gave me his views of the weather, but was not otherwise talkative. We rode together pleasantly enough, but there was no more of that openness in him which would have made me feel safe in resuming the subject of Monsieur de Merri. As we approached noon and our destination, I asked him about the different families of consequence living thereabouts, and he mentioned several names and circumstances, but told me nothing from which I could infer the possibility of danger to any of their ladies. It was toward mid-day when we rode into the great square of Montoire, and found ourselves before the inn of the Three Kings.
I turned to take leave of my travelling companion, thinking that as he belonged to this town he would go on to his own house.
"I'm going to stop here for a glass of wine and to leave my horse awhile," he said, noticing my movement.
He followed me through the archway. A stout innkeeper welcomed me, saw me dismount, and then turned to my young fellow-traveller, speaking with good-natured familiarity:
"Ah, my child, so you are back safe after your journey. Let us see, how long have you been away? Since Sunday morning—four days and a half. I might almost guess where you've been, from the time—for all the secret you make of it."
The young man laughed perfunctorily, and led his horse to the stable after the ostler who had taken mine.
"A pleasant young man," said I, staying with the landlord. "He lives in this town, he tells me."
"Yes, an excellent youth. He owns his bit of land, and though his father was a miller, his children may come near being gentlemen."
I went into the kitchen, and ordered dinner. Presently my young man entered and had his wine, which he poured down quickly. He then bowed to me, and went away, like one who wishes to lose no time.
Suddenly the whole probability of the case appeared to me in a flash. Regardless of the wine before me, and of the dinner I had ordered, I rose and followed him.
I had put together his reticence about Monsieur de Merri, his having been away from Montoire just four and a half days, the direction of his journey, and his errand to be done immediately on returning. He must be the messenger who had carried the lady's note to Sable, and he was now going to report its delivery and, perhaps, Monsieur de Merri's answer. If I could dog his steps unseen, he would lead me to the lady who was in danger.
WHO THE LADY WAS
By the time I was in the court-yard, the messenger was walking out of the archway. By the time I was at the outer end of the archway, he was well on his way toward one of the streets that go from the square. I waited in the shelter of the archway till he had got into that street—or road, I should say, for it soon leaves the town, proceeding straight in a South-easterly direction for about half a league through the country. As soon as he was out of the square, I was after him, stepping so lightly I could scarce hear my own footfalls. He walked rapidly, and as one who does not think of turning to look behind, a fact which I observed with comfort.
If he was indeed the messenger, he must have been content with a very short rest for his horse after delivering the note to Monsieur de Merri;—must have started from Sable as soon as, or little later than, Monsieur de Merri himself, to be in La Fleche on the same evening that gentleman arrived there, and to be out of it again before I was, as he must have been if he reached Le Lude by midnight. Perhaps he was passing through La Fleche at the very time the duel was going on; but the sum of all was, that he could not know Monsieur de Merri was killed, and this I felt to be fortunate for me.
Another thought which I had while following him along the straight white road that day, was that if the lady could command the services of this able young fellow to bear a message so far, why could she not use him directly for the saving of her life and honour? Evidently there was a reason why mere zeal and ability would not suffice. Perhaps the necessary service was one in which only a gentleman could be accepted. But I feared rather that there might be some circumstance to make Monsieur de Merri the only possible instrument; and my heart fell at this, thinking what I had done. But I hoped for the best, and did not lose sight of the young man ahead of me.
After we had walked about twenty minutes, the road crossed a bridge and rose to the gates of a chateau which had at one corner a very high old tower. In front of the chateau, the road turned off sharply to the left. A few small houses constituted such a village as one often sees huddled about the feet of great castles. A drawbridge, which I could see between the gate towers, indicated that the chateau and its immediate grounds were surrounded by a moat. The messenger did not approach the gates, nor did he follow the road to its turning. He disappeared down a lane to the right.
When I got to the lane, he had already passed out of it at the other end. I hastened through, and caught sight of him in the open fields that lay along the side wall of the chateau. Near the outer edge of the moat, grew tangled bushes, and I noticed that he kept close to these, as if to be out of sight from the chateau. At a distance ahead, skirting the rear of the chateau enclosure, stretched the green profile of what appeared to be a deep forest. It was this which my unconscious guide was approaching. I soon reached the bushes by the fosse, and used them for my own concealment in following him. When he came to the edge of the forest, at a place near a corner of the wall environing the chateau grounds, what did he do but stop before the first tree—a fine oak—and proceed to climb up it? I crouched among the bushes, and looked on.
When he gained the boughs he worked his way out on one that extended toward the moat. From that height he could see across the wall. He took a slender pole that had been concealed among the branches, tied a handkerchief thereto, and ran it out so that the bit of white could be seen against the leaves.
"Oho! a signal!" said I to myself.
Keeping the handkerchief in its position, he waited. I know not just what part of an hour went by. I listened to the birds and sometimes to the soft sound of a gentle breeze among the tree tops of the forest.
At last the handkerchief suddenly disappeared, and my man came quickly down the tree. Watching the chateau beyond the walls, he had evidently seen the person approach for whom he had hung out his signal. He now stood waiting under the tree. My heart beat fast.
I heard a creaking sound, and saw a little postern open in the wall, near the tree. A girl appeared, ran nimbly across a plank that spanned the moat, and into the arms of my young man.
Could this, then, be the woman whose life and honour was in peril? No, for though she had some beauty, I could see at a glance that she was a dependent. Moreover, her face shone gaily at sight of the messenger, and she gave herself to his embrace with smothered laughter. But a moment later, she attended seriously, and with much concern, to what he had to say, of which I could hear nothing. I then saw what the case was: this was a serving-maid whom the endangered lady had taken into confidence, and who had impressed her lover into service to carry that lady's message. The lady herself must be in that chateau,—perhaps a prisoner. My first step must be to find out who were the dwellers in the chateau, and as much of their affairs as the world could tell me.
The interview between the two young people was not long. It ended in another embrace; the girl ran back over the plank, waved her hand at her lover, and disappeared, the postern door closing after her. The young man, with a last tender look at the door, hastened back as he had come. I had to crawl suddenly under some low bushes to avoid his sight, making a noise which caused him to stop within six feet of me. But I suppose he ascribed the sound to some bird or animal, for he soon went on again.
I lay still for some time, being under no further necessity of observing him. I then walked back to the inn at Montoire at a leisurely pace. Looking into the stables when I arrived, I saw that the messenger's horse was gone. He lived, as I afterwards learned from the innkeeper, on another road than that which led to the chateau. I suppose he had chosen to go afoot to the chateau for the sake of easier concealment.
The innkeeper was looking amazed and injured, at my having gone away and let my dinner spoil.
"I was taken with a sudden sickness," I explained. "There's nothing like a walk in the fresh air when the stomach is qualmish. I am quite well now. I'll have another dinner, just what I ordered before."
As this meant my paying for two dinners, the landlord was soon restored to good-nature. He was a cheerful, hearty soul, and as communicative as I could desire.
"That is a strong chateau about half a league yonder," I said to him, as I sipped his excellent white wine.
"Yes, the Chateau de Lavardin," he replied. "Strong?—yes, indeed."
"Who lives there?"
"The Count de Lavardin."
"What sort of man is he?"
"What sort? Well!—an old man, for one thing,—or growing old. Or maybe you mean, what does he look like?"
"Yes, of course."
"A lean old grey wolf, I have heard him likened to—without offence, of course. Yes, he is a thin old man, but of great strength, for all that."
"Is he a good landlord?"
"Oh, he is not my landlord," said the innkeeper, looking as if he would have added "Thank God!" but for the sake of prudence. "No; his estate is very large, but it extends in the other direction from Montoire."
"Is he a pleasant neighbour, then?"
"Oh, I have no fault to find, for my part. One mustn't believe all the grumblers. You may hear it said of him that his smile is more frightful than another man's rage. But people will say things, you know, when they think they have grievances."
I fancied that the innkeeper shared this opinion which he attributed to the grumblers, and took satisfaction in getting it expressed, though too cautious to father it himself.
"Then he has no great reputation for benevolence?"
"Oh, I don't say that. We must take what we hear, with a grain of salt. He is certainly one of the great noblemen of this neighbourhood; certainly a brave man. You will hear silly talk, of course: how that he is a man whose laugh makes one think of dungeon chains and the rack. But some people will give vent to their envy of the great."
I shuddered inwardly, to think that my undertaking might bring me across the path of a man as sinister and formidable as these bits of description seemed to indicate.
"What family has he?" I asked, trying the more to seem indifferent as I came closer to the point.
"No family. His children are all dead. Some foolish folk say he expected too much of them, and tried to bring them up too severely, as if they had been Spartans. But that is certainly a slander, for his eldest son was killed in battle in the last civil war."
"Then he has no daughter—or grand-daughter—or niece, perhaps?"
"Not that I know of. Why do you ask, Monsieur?"
"I thought I saw a lady at one of the windows," said I, inventing.
"No doubt. It must have been his wife. She would be the only lady there."
"Oh, but this was surely a young lady," I said, clinging to my preconceptions.
"Certainly. His new wife is young. The children I spoke of were by his first wife, poor woman! Oh, yes, his new wife is young—beautiful too, they say."
"And how do she and the Count agree together, being rather unevenly matched?"
"That is the question. Nobody sees much of their life. She never comes out of the grounds of the chateau, except to church sometimes, when she looks neither to the right nor to the left."
"But who are her people, to have arranged her marriage with such a man?"
"Oh. I believe she has no people. An orphan, whom he took out of a convent. A gentlewoman, yes, but of obscure family."
"I can't suppose she is very happy."
"Who knows, Monsieur? They do say the old wolf—I mean the Count, Monsieur,—we are sometimes playful in our talk here at Montoire,—they say he is terribly jealous. They say that is why he keeps her so close. Of course I know nothing of it.—You noticed, perhaps, that the moat was full of water. The drawbridge is up half the time. One would suppose the Civil wars were back again. To be sure, some people hint that there may be another reason for all that: but I, for one, take no interest in politics."
"You mean the Count is thought to be one of those who are disaffected toward the King?"
"H-sh, Monsieur! We mustn't say such things. If idle whispers go around, we can't help hearing them; but as for repeating them, or believing them, that's another matter. I mention only what all can see—that the Chateau de Lavardin is kept very much closed against company. The saying is, that it's as hard to get into the Chateau de Lavardin nowadays as into heaven. It's very certain, the Count has no welcome for strangers."
And yet somehow I should have to get into the chateau, and obtain private speech with the Countess,—for it must be she who had summoned Monsieur de Merri.
"In that case," said I, "they must have no visitors at all. But I recall meeting a young gentleman the other day, who was acquainted with some great family near Montoire, and, from certain things, I think it must be this very Lavardin family. He was a Monsieur de Merri."
"Ah, yes. He has stayed at this inn. It was here the Count met him, one day when the Count was returning from the hunt. The Count was thirsty and stopped to drink, and the young gentleman began to talk with him about the hounds. At that time half the Count's pack were suffering from a strange disease, which threatened the others. When the Count described the disease, Monsieur de Merri said he knew all about it and could cure it. The Count took him to the chateau, where he stayed a fortnight, for you see, however jealous the count may be of his wife, he cares more for his hounds. Monsieur de Merri cured them, and that is how he got admission to the Chateau de Lavardin. But besides him and the red Captain, there aren't many who can boast of that privilege."
"The red Captain? Who is he?"
"Captain Ferragant. He is a friend of the Count's, who comes to the chateau sometimes and makes long visits there. Where he comes from, of what he does when he is elsewhere, I cannot tell. He is at the chateau now, I believe."
"Why did you call him the red Captain?"
"The people have given him that name. He has a great red splash down one side of his face. They say it was caused by a burn."
"Received in the wars, perhaps."
"No doubt. He has fought under many banners, it is said. Some declare he still keeps his company together, always ready for the highest bidder; but if that's true, I don't know where he keeps it, or how he does so without a loss when not at the wars. It is true, he brings a suite of sturdy fellows when he comes to Lavardin; but not enough to make what you would call a company."
"Perhaps he has made his fortune and retired."
"He's not an old man, Monsieur, though he is the friend of the Count. He is at the prime of life, I should say. A tall, strong man. He would be handsome but for the red stamp on his face. He has great influence over the Count. They drink, hunt, and play together. In many ways they are alike. The red Captain, too, has a smile that some people are afraid of, and a laugh that is merciless, but they are broad and bold, if you can understand what I mean,—not like the wily chuckle of the Count. He has big, ferocious eyes, too; while the Count's are small and half-closed. If people will fear those two men because of their looks, I can't for my life say which is to be feared the more."
"A pleasant pair for anybody to come in conflict with," said I, as lightly as I could.
"Yes, Monsieur, and seeing that strangers are so unwelcome there, you will do well to pass by the Chateau de Lavardin without stopping to exchange compliments." With a jocular smile, the innkeeper went about his business, while I finished my dinner with a mind full of misgivings.
I rose from the table, left the inn, and walked back, by the straight road of half a league, to Lavardin, pondering on the problem before me. It was a natural feeling that I might come by an inspiration more probably in the presence of the chateau than away from it. There was a little cabaret in the village, in full sight of the chateau gates, and just far enough back from the road to give room for two small tables in front. At one of these tables a man was already sitting, so I took possession of the other and called for a bottle of wine. I then sat there, slowly sipping, with my eyes on the chateau, hoping that by contemplation thereof, or perhaps by some occurrence thereabout, I might arrive at some idea of how to proceed. The drawbridge was not up, but the gates were closed. From where I sat, I could see the gate towers, a part of the outer wall, the turreted top of the chateau itself beyond the court, and the great high tower, which looked very ancient and sombre. But the more I looked, the more nearly impossible it appeared that I could devise means of getting into the place and to the ear of the Countess.
As I was gazing at the chateau, I had a feeling that the man at the other table was gazing at me. I glanced at him, but seemed to have been mistaken. He was looking absently at the sky over my head. I now took thought of what a very silent, motionless, undemonstrative man this was. He was thin and oldish, and of moderate stature, with a narrow face, pale eyes, and a very long nose. He was dressed in dull brown cloth, and was in all respects—save his length of nose—one of those persons of whom nobody ever takes much note. And he in turn did not seem to take much note of the world. He looked at the sky, the house roofs and the road, but his thoughts did not appear to concern themselves with these things, or with anything, unless with the wine which he, like myself, sipped in a leisurely manner.
I dismissed him from my attention, and resumed my observation of the chateau. But nobody came nor went, the gates did not open, nothing happened to give me an idea. When I looked again at the other table, the long-nosed man was gone. It was as if he had simply melted away.
"Who was the man sitting there?" I asked the woman of the cabaret.
"I don't know, Monsieur. He arrived here this morning. I never saw him before to-day."
In the evening I went back to Montoire, no nearer the solution of my problem than before. Nor did a sleepless night help me any: I formed a dozen fantastic schemes, only to reject every one of them as impossible. What made all this worse, was the consideration that time might be of the utmost importance in the affairs of the imperilled lady.
The next morning I went to view the chateau from other points than the village cabaret. This time I took the way the messenger had led me,—turned down the lane, and traversed the fields by the moat. I sat where I had hid the day before; staring at the postern and the wall, over which birds flew now and then, indicating that there was a garden on the other side. Receiving no suggestion here, I took up my station at the tree from which the messenger had shown the handkerchief. I thought of climbing it, to see over the wall. But just as I had formed my resolution, I happened to glance over the fields and see a man strolling idly along near the edge of the moat. As he came nearer, I recognized him as the long-nosed gentleman in the brown doublet and hose.
He saw me, and gazed, in his absent way, with a momentary curiosity. Angry at being caught almost in the act of spying out the land, I hastened off, passing between the rear wall and the forest which grew nearly to the moat, and to which the tree itself belonged. In this way, I soon left my long-nosed friend behind, and came out on the opposite side of the chateau.
Here I found a hillock, from the top of which I could see more of the chateau proper and the other contents of the great walled enclosure. I sat for some time regarding them, but the towers, turrets, roofs, windows, and tree tops engendered no project in my mind.
Suddenly I heard a low, discreet cough behind me, and, looking around, saw the long-nosed man standing not six feet away.
The sight gave me a start, for I had neither heard nor seen him approach, though the way I had come was within my field of vision. He must have made a wide circle through the woods.
His mild eyes were upon me. "Good morning, Monsieur," said he, in a dry, small voice.
"Good morning," said I, rather ungraciously.
He came close to me, and said, with a faint look of amusement:
"May I tell you what is your chief thought at present, Monsieur?"
After a moment, I deemed it best to answer, "If you wish."
"It is that you would give half the money in your purse to get into that chateau yonder."
At first I could only look astonishment. Then I considered it wise to take his remark as a joke; accordingly I laughed, and asked, "How do you know that?"
"Oh, I have observed you yesterday and to-day. You have a very eloquent countenance, Monsieur. Well, I don't blame you for wishing you could get over those walls. I have been young myself: I know what an attraction a pretty maid is."
So he thought it was some love affair with a lady's maid that lay behind the wish he had divined in me. I saw no reason to undeceive him; so I merely said, "And what is all this to you, Monsieur?"
"Hum!—that depends," he replied. "Tell me first, are you known to the Count de Lavardin or his principal people—by sight, I mean?"
"Neither by sight nor otherwise."
"Good! Excellent!" said the man, looking really pleased. "I dared hope as much, when the woman at the cabaret said you were a stranger. What is all this to me? you ask. Well, as I have taken the liberty to read your thoughts, I will be frank with you in regard to my own. I also have a desire to see the inside of that chateau, and, as I haven't the honour of the Count's acquaintance, and he is very suspicious of strangers, I must resort to my devices. My reasons for wanting to be admitted yonder are my own secret, but I assure you they won't conflict with yours. So, as I have been studying you a little, and think you a gentleman to be trusted, I propose that we shall help each other, as far as our object is the same. In other words, Monsieur, if you will do as I say, I believe we may both find ourselves freely admitted to the Chateau de Lavardin before this day is over. Once inside, each shall go about his purposes without any concern for the other. What do you think of it, Monsieur?"
THE CHATEAU DE LAVARDIN
All that I could think was that, if genuine, the offer came as a most unexpected piece of good luck, and that, if it was a trick, my acceptance of it could not much add to the danger which attended my purpose at best. In any case, this man already had me under scrutiny. So, after some little display of surprise and doubt, I took him at his word, inwardly reserving the right to draw back if I found myself entering a trap. The man's very proposal involved craft as against the master of the chateau, but toward me he seemed to be acting with the utmost simplicity and honesty, so straightforward and free from excessive protestation he was.
He led me away to a quiet, secluded place by the riverside, out of sight of the chateau, that we might talk the matter over in safety. And first he asked me what I knew of the disposition and habits of the Count de Lavardin. I told him as much as the innkeeper had told me.
"Hum!" said he, reflectively; "it agrees with what I have heard. I have been pumping people a little, in a harmless way. The first thing I learned was the Count's churlish practice of closing his gates to strangers, which forces us to use art in obtaining the hospitality we are entitled to by general custom. So I had to discover some inclination or hobby of the man's, that I could make use of to approach him. I don't see how we can reach him through his love of dogs, without having prepared ourselves with special knowledge and a fine hound or so to attract his attention. As for his jealousy, it would be too hazardous to play upon that: besides, I shouldn't like to cook up a tale about his wife, unless put to it."
"Monsieur, don't speak of such a thing," I said indignantly.
"No, it wouldn't do. I can't think of a better plan than the one that first occurred to me. As it required a confederate, I put it aside. But when I observed you yesterday regarding the chateau so wistfully, I said to myself, 'No doubt heaven has sent this young man to help me, and that I in turn may help him.' But I waited to make sure, watching you last night and this morning till I was convinced of your desire to get into the chateau."
It was a surprise to me to learn that I had been watched, but I took it coolly.
"The plan I had thought of," he went on, "required that my confederate should be unknown to the Count and those near him. When I find that you, who are anxious for your own reasons to enter the chateau, fulfil that requirement, I can only think the more that heaven has brought us together. It is more than heaven usually does for one."
"But what else does your plan require of me?" I asked, impatient to know what must be faced.
"You play chess, of course?" was his interrogative answer.
"A little," said I, wondering what that had to do with the case.
"Then all is fair ahead of us. Luckily. I play rather well myself. As I said just now, I have been nosing among the people—nosing is a good word in my case, isn't it?"—he pointed to his much-extended proboscis—"I have been nosing about to learn the Count's ruling passions and so forth. When you have anybody to hoodwink, or obtain access to without creating suspicion, find out what are his likings and preoccupations: be sure there will be something there of which you can avail yourself. From the village priest I learned that, along with his fondness for hunting and drinking and the lower forms of gaming, the Count has a taste for more intellectual amusements, and chiefly for the game of chess. He is a most excellent player, and doesn't often find a worthy antagonist. His bosom friend, one Captain Ferragant, who is now living at the chateau, has no skill at chess, so the Count has been put to sending for this priest to come and play a game now and then, but the Count beats him too easily for any pleasure and the result of their games is that the Count only curses the rarity of good chess-players."
"And so you think of proposing a game with him?"
"Not exactly," said the long-nosed man, with a faint smile at my simplicity. "An obscure man like me, travelling without a servant, doesn't propose games to a great nobleman, at the great nobleman's own gates. The great nobleman may condescend to invite, but the obscure traveller may not presume to offer himself,—not, at least, without creating wonder and some curiosity as to his motives. No; that would be too direct, moreover. It would suggest that I had been inquisitive about him, to have learned that he is fond of chess. I may tell you that the Count has his reasons for imagining that strangers may come trying to get access to him, who have taken pains to learn something of his ways beforehand. He has his reasons for suspecting every stranger who seeks to enter his gates. No; we must neither show any knowledge of him, more than his name, nor any desire to get into his house. We must play upon his hobby without openly appealing to it. That is why two of us are necessary. This is what we will do."