THE TRAMPLING OF THE LILIES
By Rafael Sabatini
THE OLD RULE
I. MONSIEUR THE SECRETARY
II. LORDS OF LIFE AND DEATH
III. THE WORD OF BELLECOUR
IV. THE DISCIPLES OF ROUSSEAU
THE NEW RULE
V. THE SHEEP TURNED WOLVES
VI. THE CITIZEN COMMISSIONER
VII. LA BOULAYE DISCHARGES A DEBT
VIII. THE INVALIDS AT BOISVERT
IX. THE CAPTIVES
X. THE BAISER LAMOURETTE
XI. THE ESCAPE
XII. THE AWAKENING
XIII. THE ROAD TO LIEGE
XIV. THE COURIER
XV. LA BOULAYE BAITS HIS HOOK
THE EVERLASTING RULE
XVI. CECILE DESHAIX
XVII. LA BOULAYE'S PROMISE
XVIII. THE INCORRUPTIBLE
XIX. THE THEFT
XX. THE GRATITUDE OF OMBREVAL
XXI. THE ARREST
XXII. THE TRIBUNAL
XXIII. THE CONCIERGERIE
PART I. THE OLD RULE
These are they Who ride on the court gale, control its tides;
Whose frown abases and whose smile exalts. They shine like any rainbow—and, perchance, Their colours are as transient.
CHAPTER I. MONSIEUR THE SECRETARY
It was spring at Bellecour—the spring of 1789, a short three months before the fall of the Bastille came to give the nobles pause, and make them realise that these new philosophies, which so long they have derided, were by no means the idle vapours they had deemed them.
By the brook, plashing its glittering course through the park of Bellecour, wandered La Boulaye, his long, lean, figure clad with a sombreness that was out of harmony in that sunlit, vernal landscape. But the sad-hued coat belied that morning a heart that sang within his breast as joyously as any linnet of the woods through which he strayed. That he was garbed in black was but the outward indication of his clerkly office, for he was secretary to the most noble the Marquis de Fresnoy de Bellecour, and so clothed in the livery of the ink by which he lived. His face was pale and lean and thoughtful, but within his great, intelligent eyes there shone a light of new-born happiness. Under his arm he carried a volume of the new philosophies which Rousseau had lately given to the world, and which was contributing so vastly to the mighty change that was impending. But within his soul there dwelt in that hour no such musty subject as the metaphysical dreams of old Rousseau. His mood inclined little to the "Discourses upon the Origin of Inequality" which his elbow hugged to his side. Rather was it a mood of song and joy and things of light, and his mind was running on a string of rhymes which mentally he offered up to his divinity. A high-born lady was she, daughter to his lordly employer, the most noble Marquis of Bellecour. And he a secretary, a clerk! Aye, but a clerk with a great soul, a secretary with a great belief in the things to come, which in that musty tome beneath his arm were dimly prophesied.
And as he roamed beside the brook, his feet treading the elastic, velvety turf, and crushing heedlessly late primrose and stray violet, his blood quickened by the soft spring breeze, fragrant with hawthorn and the smell of the moist brown earth, La Boulaye's happiness gathered strength from the joy that on that day of spring seemed to invest all Nature. An old-world song stole from his firm lips-at first timidly, like a thing abashed in new surroundings, then in bolder tones that echoed faintly through the trees
"Si le roi m'avait donne Paris, sa grande ville, Et qui'il me fallut quitter L'amour de ma mie, Je dirais au roi Louis Reprenez votre Paris. J'aime mieux ma mie, O gai! J'aime mieux ma mie!"
How mercurial a thing is a lover's heart! Here was one whose habits were of solemnity and gloomy thought turned, so joyous that he could sing aloud, alone in the midst of sunny Nature, for no better reason than that Suzanne de Bellecour had yesternight smiled as—for some two minutes by the clock—she had stood speaking with him.
"Presumptuous that I am," said he to the rivulet, to contradict himself the next moment. "But no; the times are changing. Soon we shall be equals all, as the good God made us, and—"
He paused, and smiled pensively. And as again the memory of her yesternight's kindness rose before him, his smile broadened; it became a laugh that went ringing down the glade, scaring a noisy thrush into silence and sending it flying in affright across the scintillant waters of the brook. Then that hearty laugh broke sharply off, as, behind him, the sweetest voice in all the world demanded the reason of this mad-sounding mirth.
La Boulaye's breath seemed in that instant to forsake him and he grew paler than Nature and the writer's desk had fashioned him. Awkwardly he turned and made her a deep bow.
"Mademoiselle! You—you see that you surprised me!" he faltered, like a fool. For how should he, whose only comrades had been books, have learnt to bear himself in the company of a woman, particularly when she belonged to the ranks of those whom—despite Rousseau and his other dear philosophers—he had been for years in the habit of accounting his betters?
"Why, then, I am glad, Monsieur, that I surprised you in so gay a humour—for, my faith, it is a rare enough thing."
"True, lady," said he foolishly, yet politely agreeing with her, "it is a rare thing." And he sighed—"Helas!"
At that the laughter leapt from her young lips, and turned him hot and cold as he stood awkwardly before her.
"I see that we shall have you sad at the thought of how rare is happiness, you that but a moment back were—or so it seemed—so joyous. Or is it that my coming has overcast the sky of your good humour?" she demanded archly.
He blushed like a school-girl, and strenuously protested that it was not so. In his haste he fell headlong into the sin of hastiness—as was but natural—and said perhaps too much.
"Your coming, Mademoiselle?" he echoed. "Nay but even had I been sad, your coming must have dispelled my melancholy as the coming of the sun dispels the mist upon the mountains."
"A poet?" She mocked him playfully, with a toss of black curls and a distracting glance of eyes blue as the heavens above them. "A poet, Monsieur, and I never suspected it, for all that I held you a great scholar. My father says you are."
"Are we not all poets at some season of our lives?" quoth he, for growing accustomed to her presence—ravished by it, indeed—his courage was returning fast and urging him beyond the limits of discretion.
"And in what season may this rhyming fancy touch us?" she asked. "Enlighten me, Monsieur."
He smiled, responsive to her merry mood, and his courage ever swelling under the suasion of it, he answered her in a fearless, daring fashion that was oddly unlike his wont. But then, he was that day a man transformed.
"It comes, Mademoiselle, upon some spring morning such as this—for is not spring the mating season, and have not poets sung of it, inspired and conquered by it? It comes in the April of life, when in our hearts we bear the first fragrant bud of what shall anon blossom into a glorious summer bloom red as is Love's livery and perfumed beyond all else that God has set on earth for man's delight and thankfulness."
The intensity with which he spoke, and the essence of the speech itself, left her a moment dumb with wonder and with an incomprehensible consternation, born of some intuition not yet understood.
"And so, Monsieur, the Secretary," said she at last, a nervous laugh quivering in her first words, "from all this wondrous verbiage I am to take it that you love?"
"Aye, that I love, dear lady," he cried, his eyes so intent upon her that her glance grew timid and fell before them. And then, a second later, she could have screamed aloud in apprehension, for the book of Jean Jacques Rousseau lay tumbled in the grass where he had flung it, even as he flung himself upon his knees before her. "You may take it indeed that I love—that I love you, Mademoiselle."
The audacious words being spoken, his courage oozed away and anti-climax, followed. He paled and trembled, yet he knelt on until she should bid him rise, and furtively he watched her face. He saw it darken; he saw the brows knit; he noted the quickening breath, and in all these signs he read his doom before she uttered it.
"Monsieur, monsieur," she answered him, and sad was her tone, "to what lengths do you urge this springtime folly? Have you forgotten so your station—yes, and mine—that because I talk with you and laugh with you, and am kind to you, you must presume to speak to me in this fashion? What answer shall I make you, Monsieur—for I am not so cruel that I can answer you as you deserve."
An odd thing indeed was La Boulaye's courage. An instant ago he had felt a very coward, and had quivered, appalled by the audacity of his own words. Now that she assailed him thus, and taxed him with that same audacity, the blood of anger rushed to his face—anger of the quality that has its source in shame. In a second he was on his feet before her, towering to the full of his lean height. The words came from him in a hot stream, which for reckless passion by far outvied his erstwhile amatory address.
"My station?" he cried, throwing wide his arms. "What fault lies in my station? I am a secretary, a scholar, and so, by academic right, a gentleman. Nay, Mademoiselle, never laugh; do not mock me yet. In what do you find me less a man than any of the vapid caperers that fill your father's salon? Is not my shape as good? Are not my arms as strong, my hands as deft, my wits as keen, and my soul as true? Aye," he pursued with another wild wave of his long arms, "my attributes have all these virtues, and yet you scorn me—you scorn me because of my station, so you say!"
How she had angered him! All the pent-up gall of years against the supercilia of the class from which she sprang surged in that moment to his lips. He bethought him now of the thousand humiliations his proud spirit had suffered at their hands when he noted the disdain with which they addressed him, speaking to him—because he was compelled to carve his living with a quill—as though he were less than mire. It was not so much against her scorn of him that he voiced his bitter grievance, but against the entire noblesse of France, which denied him the right to carry a high head because he had not been born of Madame la Duchesse, Madame la Marquise, or Madame la Comtesse. All the great thoughts of a wondrous transformation, which had been sown in him by the revolutionary philosophers he had devoured with such appreciation, welled up now, and such scraps of that infinity of thought as could find utterance he cast before the woman who had scorned him for his station. Presumptuous he had accounted himself—but only until she had found him so. By that the presumption, it seemed, had been lifted from him, and he held that what he had said to her of the love he bore her was no more than by virtue of his manhood he had the right to say.
She drew back before him, and shrank in some measure of fear, for he looked very fierce. Moreover, he had said things which professed him a revolutionist, and the revolutionists, whilst being a class which she had been taught to despise and scorn, dealt, she knew, in a violence which it might be ill to excite.
"Monsieur," she faltered, and with her hand she clutched at her riding-habit of green velvet, as if preparing to depart, "you are not yourself. I am beyond measure desolated that you should have so spoken to me. We have been good friends, M. La Boulaye. Let us forget this scene. Shall we?" Her tones grew seductively conciliatory.
La Boulaye half turned from her, and his smouldering eye fell upon "The Discourses" lying on the grass. He stooped and picked up the volume. The act might have seemed symbolical. For a moment he had cast aside his creed to woo a woman, and now that she had denied him he returned to Rousseau, and gathered up the tome almost in penitence at his momentary defection.
"I am quite myself, Mademoiselle," he answered quietly. His cheeks were flushed, but beyond that, his excitement seemed to have withered. "It is you who yesternight, for one brief moment and again to-day—were not yourself, and to that you owe it that I have spoken to you as I have done."
Between these two it would seem as the humour of the one waned, that of the other waxed. Her glance kindled anew at his last words.
"I?" she echoed. "I was not myself? What are you saying, Monsieur the Secretary?"
"Last night, and again just now, you were so kind, you—you smiled so sweetly—"
"Mon Dieu!" she exclaimed, angrily interrupting him. "See what you are for all your high-sounding vaunts of yourself and your attributes! A woman may not smile upon you, may not say one kind word to you, but you must imagine you have made a conquest. Ma foi, you and yours do not deserve to be treated as anything but vassals. When we show you a kindness, see how you abuse it. We extend to you our little finger and you instantly lay claim to the whole arm. Because last night I permitted myself to exchange a jest with you, because I chance to be kind to you again to-day, you repay me with insults!"
"Stop!" he cried, rousing himself once more. "That is too much to say, Mademoiselle. To tell a woman that you love her is never to insult her. To be loved is never to be slighted. Upon the meanest of His creatures it is enjoined to love the same God whom the King loves, and there is no insult to God in professing love for Him. Would you make a woman more than that?"
"Monsieur, you put questions I have no mind to answer; you suggest a discussion I have no inclination to pursue. For you and me let it suffice that I account myself affronted by your words, your tone, and your manner. You drive me to say these things; by your insistence you compel me to be harsh. We will end this matter here and now, Monsieur, and I will ask you to understand that I never wish it reopened, else shall I be forced to seek protection at the hands of my father or my brother."
"You may seek it now, Suzanne," quoth a voice from the thicket at her back, a voice which came to startle both of them though in different ways. Before they had recovered from their surprise the Marquis de Bellecour stood before them. He was a tall man of some fifty years of age, but so powerful of frame and so scrupulous in dress that he might have conveyed an impression of more youth. His face, though handsome in a high-bred way, was puffed and of an unhealthy yellow. But the eyes were as keen as the mouth was voluptuous, and in his carefully dressed black hair there were few strands of grey.
He came slowly forward, and his lowering glance wandered from his daughter to his secretary in inquiry. At last—
"Well?" he demanded. "What is the matter?"
"It is nothing, Monsieur," his daughter answered him. "A trifling affair 'twixt M. la Boulaye and me, with which I will not trouble you."
"It is not nothing, my lord," cried La Boulaye, his voice vibrating oddly. "It is that I love your daughter and that I have told her of it." He was in a very daring mood that morning.
The Marquis glanced at him in dull amazement. Then a flush crept into his sallow cheeks and mounted to his brow. An inarticulate grunt came from his thick lips.
"Canaille!" he exclaimed, through set teeth. "Can you have presumed so far?"
He carried a riding-switch, and he seemed to grasp it now in a manner peculiarly menacing. But La Boulaye was nothing daunted. Lost he already accounted himself, and on the strength of the logic that if a man must hang, a sheep as well as a lamb may be the cause of it, he took what chances the time afforded him to pile up his debt.
"There is neither insolence nor presumption in what I have done," he answered, giving back the Marquis look for look and scowl for scowl. "You deem it so because I am the secretary to the Marquis de Bellecour and she is the daughter of that same Marquis. But these are no more than the fortuitous circumstances in which we chance to find ourselves. That she is a woman must take rank before the fact that she is your daughter, and that I am a man must take rank before the fact that I am your secretary. Not, then, as your secretary speaking to your daughter have I told this lady that I love her, but as a man speaking to a woman. To utter that should be—nay, is—the right of every man; to hear it should be honouring to every woman worthy of the name. In a primitive condition—"
"A thousand devils!" blazed the Marquis, unable longer to contain himself. "Am I to have my ears offended by this braying? Miserable scum, you shall be taught what is due to your betters."
His whip cracked suddenly, and the lash leapt serpentlike into the air, to descend and coil itself about La Boulaye's head and face. A cry broke from the young man, as much of pain as of surprise, and as the lash was drawn back, he clapped his hands to his seared face. But again he felt it, cutting him now across the hand with which he had masked himself. With a maddened roar he sprang upon his aggressor. In height he was the equal of the Marquis, but in weight he seemed to be scarce more than the half of his opponent's. Yet a nervous strength dwelt unsuspected in those lean arms and steely wrists.
Mademoiselle stood by looking on, with parted lips and eyes that were intent and anxious. She saw that figure, spare and lithe as a greyhound, leap suddenly upon her father, and the next instant the whip was in the secretary's hands, and he sprang back from the nobleman, who stood white and quivering with rage, and perhaps, too, with some dismay.
"That I do not break it across your back, M. le Marquis, said the young man," as he snapped the whip on his knee, "you may thank your years." With that he flung the two pieces wide into the sunlit waters of the brook. "But I will have satisfaction, Monsieur. I will take payment for this." And he pointed to the weal that disfigured his face.
"Satisfaction?" roared the Marquis, hoarse in his passion. "Would you demand satisfaction of me, animal?"
"No," answered the young man, with a wry smile. "Your years again protect you. But you have a son, and if by to-morrow it should come to pass that you have a son no more, you may account yourself, through this"—and again he pointed to the weal—"his murderer."
"Do you mean that you would seek to cross swords with the Vicomte?" gasped the nobleman, in an unbelief so great that it gained the ascendency over his anger.
"That is what I mean, Monsieur. In practice he has often done so. He shall do so for once in actual earnest."
"Fool!" was the contemptuous answer, more coldly delivered now, for the Marquis was getting himself in hand. "If you come near Bellecour again, if you are so much as found within the grounds of the park, I'll have you beaten to death by my grooms for your presumption. Keep you the memory of that promise in mind, Sir Secretary, and let it warn you to avoid Bellecour, as you would a plague-house. Come, Suzanne," he said, turning abruptly to his daughter, "Enough of this delightful morning have we already wasted on this canaille."
With that he offered her his wrist, and so, without so much as another glance at La Boulaye, she took her departure.
The secretary remained where they had left him, pale of face—saving the fortuitous crimson mark which the whip had cut—and very sick at heart. The heat of the moment being spent, he had leisure to contemplate his plight. A scorned lover, a beaten man, a dismissed secretary! He looked sorrowfully upon his volume of "The Discourses," and for the first time a doubt crossed his mind touching the wisdom of old Jean Jacques. Was there would there ever be any remedy for such a condition of things as now prevailed?
Already the trees had hidden the Marquis and his daughter from La Boulaye's sight. The young revolutionist felt weary and lonely—dear God, how lonely! neither kith nor kin had he, and of late all the interest of his life—saving always that absorbed by Jean Jacques—had lain in watching Suzanne de Bellecour, and in loving her silently and distantly. Now that little crumb of comfort was to be his no more, he was to go away from Bellecour, away from the sight of her for all time. And he loved her, loved her, loved her!
He tossed his arms to Heaven with a great sigh that was a sob almost, then he passed his hands over his face, and as they came in contact with the swollen ridge that scored it, love faded from his mind, and vindictiveness came to fill its room.
"But for this," he cried aloud. "I shall take payment—aye, as there is a God!"
Then turning, and with "The Discourses" held tightly to his side, he moved slowly away, following the course of the gleaming waters.
CHAPTER II. LORDS OF LIFE AND DEATH
One friend did La Boulaye count in the village of Bellecour. This was old Duhamel, the schoolmaster, an eccentric pedant and a fellow-worshipper of the immortal Jean Jacques. It was to him that La Boulaye now repaired intent upon seeking counsel touching a future that wore that morning a singularly gloomy outlook.
He found Duhamel's door open, and he stepped across the threshold into the chief room of the house. But there he paused, and hesitated. The chamber was crowded with people in holiday attire, and the centre of attraction was a well-set-up peasant with a happy, sun-tanned face, whose golden locks were covered by a huge round hat decked with a score of gaily-coloured ribbons.
At sight of him La Boulaye remembered that it was Charlot's wedding-day. Popular amongst the women by virtue of his comeliness, and respected by the men by virtue of his strength, Charlot Tardivet was a general favourite of the countryside, and here, in the room of old Duhamel, the schoolmaster, was half the village gathered to do him honour upon his wedding morn. It was like Duhamel, who, in fatherliness towards the villagers, went near out-rivalling M. le Cure, to throw open his house for the assembling of Charlot's friends, and La Boulaye was touched by this fresh sign of kindliness from a man whose good heart he had not lacked occasion to observe and appreciate. But it came to the secretary that there was no place for him in this happy assemblage. His advent would, probably, but serve to cast a gloom upon them, considering the conditions under which he came, with the signs of violence upon his face to remind them of the lords of life and death who dwelt at the Chateau up yonder. And such a reminder must fall upon them as does the reminder of some overhanging evil clutch suddenly at our hearts in happy moments of forgetfulness. To let them be happy that day, to leave their feasts free of a death's head, La Boulaye would have withdrawn had he not already been too late. Duhamel had espied him, and the little, wizened old man came hurrying forward, his horn-rimmed spectacles perched on the very end of his nose, his keen little eyes beaming with delight and welcome.
"Ah, Caron, you are very choicely come," he cried, holding out both hands to La Boulaye. "You shall embrace our happy Hercules yonder, and wish him joy of the wedded life he has the audacity to exploit." Then, as he espied the crimson ridge across the secretary's countenance, "Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed, "what have you done to yourself, Caron?"
"Pish! It is nothing," answered La Boulaye hurriedly, and would have had the subject dismissed, but that one of the onlooking peasants swore by the memory of some long-dead saint that it was the cut of a whip. Duhamel's eyes kindled and his parchment-like skin was puckered into a hundred evil wrinkles.
"Who did it, Caron?" he demanded.
"Since you insist, old master," answered the secretary, still endeavouring to make light of it, "learn that is the lord Marquis's signature to his order of my dismissal from his service."
"The dog!" ejaculated the school-master.
"Sh! let it be. Perhaps I braved him overmuch. I will tell you of it when these good folks have gone. Do not let us cast a gloom over their happiness, old master. And now to embrace this good Charlot."
Though inwardly burning with curiosity and boiling with indignation, Duhamel permitted himself to be guided by La Boulaye, and for the moment allowed the matter to rest. La Boulaye himself laughingly set aside the many questions with which they pressed him. He drank the health of the bride-elect—who was not yet of the party—and he pledged the happiness of the pair. He embraced Charlot, and even went so far as to urge upon him, out of his own scanty store, a louis d'or with which to buy Marie a trinket in memory of him.
Then presently came one with the announcement that M. le Cure was waiting, and in answer to that reminder that there was a ceremony to be gone through, Charlot and his friends flung out of the house in joyous confusion, and went their way with laughter and jest to the little church of St. Ildefonse.
"We will follow presently—M. la Boulaye and I—Charlot," Duhamel had said, as the sturdy bridegroom was departing. "We shall be there to shake Madame by the hand and wish her joy of you."
When at last they were alone in the schoolmaster's room, the old man turned to La Boulaye, the very embodiment of a note of interrogation. The secretary told him all that had passed. He reddened slightly when it came to speaking of his love for Mlle. de Bellecour, but he realised that if he would have guidance he must withhold nothing from his friend.
Duhamel's face grew dark as the young man spoke, and his eyes became sad and very thoughtful.
"Alas!" he sighed, when La Boulaye had ended. "What shall I say to you, my friend? The time is not yet for such as we—you and I—to speak of love for a daughter of the Seigneurie. It is coming, I doubt it not. All things have their climax, and France is tending swiftly to the climax of her serfdom. Very soon we shall have the crisis, this fire that is already smouldering, will leap into a great blaze, that shall lick the old regime as completely from the face of history as though it had never been. A new condition of things will spring up, of that I am convinced. Does not history afford us many instances? And what is history but the repetition of events under similar circumstances with different peoples. It will come in France, and it will come soon, for it is very direly needed."
"I know, I know, old master," broke in La Boulaye; "but how shall all this help me? For all that I have the welfare of France at heart, it weighs little with me at the moment by comparison with my own affairs. What am I to do, Duhamel? How am I to take payment for this?" And he pressed his finger to his seared cheek.
"Wait," said the old man impressively. "That is the moral you might have drawn from what I have said. Be patient. I promise you your patience shall not be overtaxed. To-day they say that you presume; that you are not one of them—although, by my soul, you have as good an air as any nobleman in France." And he eyed the lean height of the secretary with a glance of such pride as a father might take in a well-grown son.
Elegant of figure, La Boulaye was no less elegant in dress, for all that, from head to foot—saving the silver buckles on his shoes and the unpretentious lace at throat and wrists—he was dressed in the black that his office demanded. His countenance, too, though cast in a mould of thoughtfulness that bordered on the melancholy, bore a lofty stamp that might have passed for birth and breeding, and this was enhanced by the careful dressing of his black unpowdered hair, gathered into a club by a broad ribbon of black silk.
"But what shall waiting avail me?" cried the young man, with some impatience. "What am I to do in the meantime?"
"Go to Amiens," said the other. "You have learning, you have eloquence, you have a presence and an excellent address. For success no better attributes could be yours." He approached the secretary, and instinctively lowered his voice. "We have a little club there—a sort of succursal to the Jacobins. We are numerous, but we have no very shining member yet. Come with me, and I will nominate you. Beginning thus, I promise you that you shall presently become a man of prominence in Picardy. Anon we may send you to Paris to represent us in the States-General. Then, when the change comes, who shall say to what heights it may not be yours to leap?"
"I will think of it," answered La Boulaye cordially, "and not a doubt of it but that I will come. I did not know that you had gone so far—"
"Sh! You know now. Let that suffice. It is not good to talk of these things just yet."
"But in the meantime," La Boulaye persisted, "what of this?" And again he pointed to his cheek.
"Why, let it heal, boy."
"I promised the Marquis that I would demand satisfaction of his son, and I am tempted to do so and risk the consequences."
"I am afraid the consequences will be the only satisfaction that you will get. In fact, they will be anticipations rather than consequences, for they'll never let you near the boy."
"I know not that," he answered. "The lad is more generous than his sire, and if I were to send him word that I have been affronted, he might consent to meet me. For the rest, I could kill him blindfolded," he added, with a shrug.
"Bloodthirsty animal!" rejoined Duhamel. "Unnatural tutor! Do you forget that you were the boy's preceptor?"
With that Duhamel carried the argument into new fields, and showed La Boulaye that to avenge upon the young Vicomte the insults received at the hands of the old Marquis was hardly a worthy method of taking vengeance. At last he won him to his way, and it was settled that on the morrow La Boulaye should journey with him to Amiens.
"But, Caron, we are forgetting our friend Charlot and his bride," he broke off suddenly. "Come, boy; the ceremony will be at an end by this."
He took La Boulaye by the arm, and led him out and down the street to the open space opposite St. Ildefonse. The wedding-party was streaming out through the door of the little church into the warm sunshine of that April morning. In the churchyard they formed into a procession of happy be-ribboned and nosegayed men and women—the young preceding, the old following, the bridal couple. Two by two they came, and the air rang with their laughter and joyous chatter. Then another sound arose, and if the secretary and the pedagogue could have guessed of what that beating of hoofs was to be the prelude, they had scarce smiled so easily as they watched the approaching cortege.
From a side street there now emerged a gaily apparelled cavalcade. At its head rode the Marquis de Bellecour, the Vicomte, and a half-dozen other gentlemen, followed by, perhaps, a dozen lacqueys. It was a hunting party that was making its way across the village to the open country beyond. The bridal procession crossing their path caused them to draw rein, and to wait until it should have passed—which argued a very condescending humour, for it would not have been out of keeping with their habits to have ridden headlong through it. Their presence cast a restraint upon the peasants. The jests were silenced, the laughter hushed, and like a flight of pigeons under the eye of the hawk, they scurried past the Seigneurie, and some of them prayed God that they might be suffered to pass indeed.
Bellecour eyed them in cold disdain, until presently Charlot and his bride were abreast of him. Then his eye seemed to take life and his sallow face to kindle into expression. He leant lightly from the saddle.
"Stay!" he commanded coldly, and as they came to a halt, daring not to disobey him—"approach, girl," he added.
Charlot's brows grew black. He looked up at the Marquis, but if his glance was sullen and threatening, it was also not free from fear. Marie obeyed, with eyes downcast and a heightened colour. If she conjectured at all why they had been stopped, it was but to conclude that M. le Marquis was about to offer her some mark of appreciation. Uneasiness, in her dear innocence, she knew none.
"What is your name, child?" inquired the Marquis more gently.
"It was Marie Michelin, Monseigneur," she made answer timidly. "But it has just been changed to Marie Tardivet."
"You have just been wed, eh?"
"We are on our way from church, Monseigneur."
"C'est ca," he murmured, as if to himself, and his eyes taking such stock of her as made Charlot burn to tear him from his horse. Then, in a kindly, fatherly voice, he added: "My felicitations, Marie; may you be a happy wife and a happier mother."
"Merci, Monseigneur," she murmured, with crimson cheeks, whilst Charlot breathed once more, and from his heart gave thanks to Heaven, believing the interview at an end. But he went too fast.
"Do you know, Marie, that you are a very comely child?" quoth the Marquis, in tones which made the bridegroom's blood run cold.
Some in that noble company nudged one another, and one there was who burst into a loud guffaw.
"Charlot has often told me so," she laughed, all unsuspicious.
The Marquis moved on his horse that he might bend lower. With his forefinger he uptilted her chin, and now, as she met his glance thus at close quarters, an unaccountable fear took possession of her, and the colour died out of her plump cheeks.
"Yes," said Bellecour, with a smile, "this Tardivet has good taste. My congratulations, to him. We must find you a wedding gift, little woman," he continued more briskly. "It is an ancient and honoured custom that is falling somewhat into neglect. Go up to the Chateau with Blaise and Jean there. This good Tardivet must curb his impatience until to-morrow."
He turned in his saddle, and beckoning the two servants he had named, he bade Marie to mount behind Blaise.
She drew back now, her cheeks white as those of the dead. With a wild terror in her eyes she turned to Charlot, who stood the very picture of anguish and impotent rage. In the cortege, where but a few moments ago all had been laughter, a sob or two sounded now from some of the women.
"By my faith," laughed Bellecour contemptuously eyeing their dejection, "you have more the air of a burial than a bridal party."
"Mercy my lord!" cried the agonised voice of Charlot, as, distraught with grief, he flung himself before the Marquis.
"Who seeks to harm you, fool?" was Bellecour's half-derisive rejoinder.
"Do not take her from me, my lord," the young man pleaded piteously.
"She shall return to-morrow, booby," answered the noble. "Out of the way!"
But Charlot was obstinate. The Marquis might be claiming no more than by ancient law was the due of the Seigneur, but Charlot was by no means minded to submit in craven acquiescence to that brutal, barbarous law.
"My lord," he cried, "you shall not take her. She is my wife. She belongs to me. You shall not take her!"
He caught hold of the Marquis's bridle with such a strength and angry will that the horse was forced to back before him.
"Insolent clod!" exclaimed Bellecour, with an angry laugh and a sharp, downward blow of the butt of his whip upon the peasant's head. Charlot's hand grew nerveless and released the bridle as he sank stunned to the ground. Bellecour touched his horse with the spur and rode over the prostrate fellow with no more concern than had he been a dog's carcase. "Blaise, see to the girl," he called over his shoulder, adding to his company: "Come, messieurs, we have wasted time enough."
Not a hand was raised to stay him, not a word of protest uttered, as the nobles rode by, laughing, and chatting among themselves, with the utmost unconcern of the tragedy that was being enacted.
Like a flock of frightened sheep the peasants stood huddled together and watched them go. In the same inaction—for all that not a little grief was blent with the terror on their countenances—they stood by and allowed Blaise to lift the half-swooning girl to the withers of his horse. No reply had they to the coarse jest with which he and his fellow-servant rode off. But La Boulaye, who, from the point where he and Duhamel had halted, had observed the whole scene from its inception, turned now a livid face upon his companion.
"Shall such things be?" he cried passionately. "Merciful God! Are we men, Duhamel, and do we permit such things to take place?"
The old pedagogue shrugged his shoulders in despair. His face was heavily scored by sorrow.
"Helas!" he sighed. "Are they not masters of all that they may take? The Marquis goes no further than is by ancient law allowed his class. It is the law needs altering, my friend, and then the men will alter. Meanwhile, behold them—lords of life and death."
"Lords of hell are they!" blazed the young revolutionist. "That is where they belong, whence they are come, and whither they shall return. Poltroons!" he cried, shaking his fist at the group of cowed peasants that surrounded the prostrate Charlot "Sheep! Worthless clods! The nobles do well to despise you, for, by my faith, you invite nothing but contempt, you that will suffer rape and murder to be done under your eyes, and never do more than look scared encouragement upon your ravishers!"
"Blame not these poor wretches, Caron," sighed the old man. "They dare not raise a hand."
"Then, pardieu! here, at least, is one who does dare," he cried furiously, as from the breast pocket of his coat he drew a pistol.
Blaise, with the girl across the withers of his horse, was approaching them, followed by Jean.
"What would you do?" cried the old man fearfully, setting a restraining hand upon La Boulaye's sleeve. But Caron shook himself free.
"This," was all he answered, and simultaneously, he levelled his pistol and fired at Blaise.
Shot through the head, the servant collapsed forward; then, as the horse reared and started off at a gallop, he toppled sideways and fell. The girl went down with him and lay in the road whilst he was dragged along, his head bumping horribly on the stones as faster and faster went the frightened horse.
With a shout that may have been either anger or dismay Jean reined in his horse, and sat for a second hesitating whether to begin by recovering the girl, or avenging his comrade. But his doubts were solved for him by La Boulaye, who took a deliberate aim at him.
"Begone!" cried the secretary, "unless you prefer to go by the road I've sent your fellow." And being a discreet youth, Jean made off in silence by the street down which poor Blaise had been dragged.
"Carom" cried Duhamel, in a frenzy of apprehension. "I tremble for you, my son. Fly from Bellecour at once—now, this very instant. Go to my friends at Amiens; they will—"
But Caron had already left his side to repair to the spot where Marie was lying. The peasantry followed him, though leisurely, in their timid hesitation. They were asking themselves whether, even so remotely as by tending the girl, they dared participate in the violence La Boulaye had committed. That a swift vengeance would be the Seigneur's answer they were well assured, and a great fear possessed them that in that vengeance those of the Chateau might lack discrimination. Charlot was amongst them, and on his feet, but still too dazed to have a clear knowledge of the circumstances. Presently, however, his faculties awakening and taking in the situation, he staggered forward, and came lurching towards La Boulaye, who was assisting the frightened Marie to rise. With a great sob the girl flung herself into her husband's arms.
"Charlot, mon Charlot!" she cried, and added a moment later: "It was he—this brave gentleman—who rescued me."
"Monsieur," said Charlot, "I shall remember it to my dying day."
He would have said more, but the peasants, stirred by fear, now roused themselves and plucked at his coat.
"Get you gone, Charlot, Get you gone quickly," they advised him. "And if you are wise you will leave Bellecour without delay. It is not safe for you here."
"It is not safe for any of us," exclaimed one. "I have no mind to be caught when the Seigneur returns. There will be a vengeance. Ah Dieu! what a vengeance!"
The warning acted magically. There were hurried leave-takings, and then, like a parcel of scuttling rabbits, they made for their burrows to hide from the huntsman that would not be long in coming. And ere the last of them was out of sight there arose a stamping of hoofs and a chorus of angry voices. Down tine street thundered the Marquis's cavalcade, brought back by the servant who had escaped and who had ridden after them. Some anger there was—particularly in the heart of the Lord of Bellecour—but greater than their anger was their excitement at the prospect of a man-hunt, with which the chase on which they had been originally bent made but a poor comparison.
"There he is, Monseigneur" cried Jean, as he pointed to La Boulaye. "And yonder are the girl and her husband."
"Ah! The secretary again, eh?" laughed the nobleman, grimly, as he came nearer. "Ma foi, life must have grown wearisome to him. Secure the woman, Jean."
Caron stood before him, pale in his impotent rage, which was directed as much against the peasants who had fled as against the nobles who approached. Had these clods but stood there, and defended themselves and their manhood with sticks and stones and such weapons as came to their hands, they might have taken pride in being trampled beneath the hoofs of the Seigneurie. Thus, at least, might they have proved themselves men. But to fly thus—some fifty of them from the approach of less than a score—was to confess unworthiness of a better fate than that of which their seigneurs rendered themselves the instruments.
Himself he could do no more than the single shot in his pistol would allow. That much, however, he would do, and like him whose resources are reduced, and yet who desires to spend the little that he has to best advantage, he levelled the weapon boldly at the advancing Marquis, and pulled the trigger. But Bellecour was an old campaigner, and by an old campaigner's trick he saved himself at the last moment. At sight of that levelled barrel he pulled his horse suddenly on to its haunches, and received the charge in the animal's belly. With a shriek of pain the horse sought to recover its feet, then tumbled forward hurling the Marquis from the saddle. La Boulaye had an inspiration to fling himself upon the old roue and seek with his hands to kill him before they made an end of himself. But ere he could move to execute his design a horseman was almost on top of him. He received a stunning blow on the head. The daylight faded in his eyes, he felt a sensation of sinking, and a reverberating darkness engulfed him.
CHAPTER III. THE WORD OF BELLECOUR
When La Boulaye recovered consciousness he was lying on his back in the middle of the courtyard of the Chateau de Bellecour. From a great stone balcony above, a little group, of which Mademoiselle de Bellecour was the centre, observed the scene about the captive, who was being resuscitated that he might fittingly experience the Seigneur's vengeance.
She had returned from the morning's affair in the park with a conscience not altogether easy. To have stood by whilst her father had struck Caron, and moreover, to have done so without any sense of horror, or even of regret, was a matter in which she asked herself whether she had done well. Certainly La Boulaye had presumed unpardonably in speaking to her as he had spoken, and for his presumption it was fitting that he should be punished. Had she interfered she must have seemed to sympathise, and thus the lesson might have suffered in salutariness. And yet Caron La Boulaye was a man of most excellent exterior, and, when passion had roused him out of his restraint and awkwardness, of most ardent and eloquent address. The very sombreness that—be it from his mournful garments or from a mind of thoughtful habit—seemed to envelop him was but an additional note of poetry in a personality which struck her now as eminently poetical. In the seclusion of her own chamber, as she recalled the burning words and the fall of her father's whip upon the young man's pale face, she even permitted herself to sigh. Had he but been of her own station, he had been such a man as she would have taken pride in being wooed by. As it was—she halted there and laughed disdainfully, yet with never so faint a note of regret. It was absurd! She was Mademoiselle de Bellecour, and he her father's secretary; educated, if you will—aye, and beyond his station—but a vassal withal, and very humbly born. Yes, it was absurd, she told herself again: the eagle may not mate with the sparrow.
And when presently she had come from her chamber, she had been greeted with the story of a rebellion in the village, and an attempted assassination of her father. The ringleader, she was told, had been brought to the Chateau, and he was even then in the courtyard and about to be hanged by the Marquis. Curious to behold this unfortunate, she had stepped out on to the balcony where already an idle group had formed. Inexpressible had been her shock upon seeing him that lay below, his white face upturned to the heavens, his eyes closed.
"Is he dead?" she asked, when presently she had overcome her feelings.
"Not yet Mademoiselle," answered the graceful Chevalier de Jacquelin, toying with his solitaire. "Your father is bringing him to life that he may send him back to death."
And then she heard her father's voice behind her. The Marquis had stepped out on to the balcony to ascertain whether La Boulaye had yet regained consciousness.
"He seems to be even now recovering," said someone.
"Ah, you are there, Suzanne," cried Bellecour. "You see your friend the secretary there. He has chosen to present himself in a new role to-day. From being my servant, it seems that he would constitute himself my murderer."
However unfilial it might be, she could not stifle a certain sympathy for this young man. She imagined that his rebellion, whatever shape it had assumed, had been provoked by that weal upon his face; and it seemed to her then that he had been less than a man had he not attempted to exact some reparation for the hurt the whip had inflicted at once upon his body and his soul.
"But what is it that he has done, Monsieur?" she asked, seeking more than the scant information which so far she had received.
"Enough, at least, to justify my hanging him," answered Bellecour grimly. "He sought to withstand my authority; he incited the peasants of Bellecour to withstand it; he has killed Blaise, and he would have killed me but that I preferred to let him kill my horse."
"In what way did he seek to withstand your authority!" she persisted.
He stared at her, half surprised, half angry.
"What doers the manner of it signify?" he asked impatiently. "Is not the fact enough? Is it not enough that Blaise is dead, and that I have had a narrow escape, at his hands?"
"Insolent hound that he is!" put in Madame la Marquise—a fleshly lady monstrously coiffed. "If we allow such men as thus to live in France our days are numbered."
"They say that you are going to hang him," said Suzanne, heedless of her mother's words, and there was the faintest note of horror in her voice.
"They are mistaken. I am not."
"You are not?" cried the Marquise. "But what, then, do you intend to do?"
"To keep my word, madame," he answered her. "I promised that canaille that if he ever came within the grounds of Bellecour I would have him flogged to death. That is what I propose."
"Father," gasped Suzanne, in horror, a horror that was echoed by the other three or four ladies present. But the Marquise only laughed.
"He will be; richly served," she approved, with a sage nod of her pumpkin-like head-dress—"most richly served."
A great pity arose now in the heart of Mademoiselle, as her father went below that he might carry out his barbarous design. She was deaf to the dainty trifles which the most elegant Chevalier de Jacquelin was murmuring into her ear. She stood, a tall, queenly figure, at the balcony's parapet and watched the preparations that were being made.
She heard her father's harshly-voiced commands. She saw them literally tear the clothes from the unfortunate secretary's back, and lash him—naked to the waist—to the pump that stood by the horse-trough at the far end of the yard. His body was now hidden from her sight, but his head appeared surmounting the pillar of the pump, his chin seeming to rest upon its summit, and his face was towards her. At his side stood a powerful knave armed with a stout, leather-thonged whip.
"How many strokes, Monseigneur?" she heard the man inquire.
"How many?" echoed the Marquise. "Do I know how many it will take to make an end of him? Beat him to death, man. Allons! Set about it."
She saw the man uncoil his lash and step forward. In that instant Caron's eyes were raised, and they met hers across the intervening space. He smiled a valedictory smile that seemed to make her heart stand still. She and her mother were now the only women on the balcony. The others had made haste to withdraw as soon as La Boulaye had been pilloried. The Marquise remained because she seemed to find entertainment in the spectacle. Suzanne remained because horror rooted her to the spot—horror and a great pity for this unfortunate who had looked so strong and brave that morning, when he had had the audacity to tell her that he loved her.
The lash sang through the air, quivered, hummed, and cut with a sickening crackle into the young man's flesh.
The hideous sound roused her. She shuddered from head to foot, and turning she put her hands to her face and rushed within, followed by the Marquise's derisive laughter.
"Mon Dieu! It is horrible! Horrible!" she cried as she sank into the nearest chair, and clapped her hands to her ears. But she could not shut it out. Still she heard the humming of the whip and the cruel sound of the falling blows. Mechanically she counted them, unconsciously almost, and at twenty she heard them cease. Was it over? Was he dead, this poor unfortunate? Moved by a curiosity that was greater than her loathing, she rose and went to the threshold of the balcony.
"Is it ended?" she asked.
"Ended?" echoed Monsieur de Jacquelin, with a shrug. "It is scarce begun, it seems. The executioner is pausing for breath, that is all. The fellow has not uttered a sound. He is as obstinate as a mule."
"As enduring as a Spartan," more generously put in the Vicomte, her brother. "Look at him, Suzanne."
Almost involuntarily she obeyed, and moved forward a step that she might behold him. A face, deathly pale, she saw, which in the sunshine glistened with the sweat of agony that bedewed it; but the lips were tightly closed and the countenance grimly expressionless. Even as she looked she heard her father command the man to lay on anew. Then, as before, his eyes met hers; but this time no smile did she see investing them.
Again the whip cracked and fell. She drew back, but his glance seemed to haunt her even when she no longer saw his face. A sudden resolution moved her, and in a frenzy of anger and compassion she flung out of the room. A moment later she burst like a beautiful virago into the courtyard.
"Stop!" she commanded shrilly, causing both her father and the executioner to turn, and the latter pausing in his hideous work. But a glance from the Marquis bade him resume, and resume he did, as though there had been no interruption.
"What is this?" demanded Bellecour, half amused, half vexed, whilst a sudden new light leapt to the eyes of La Boulaye, which but a moment back had been so full of agony.
But Mademoiselle never paused to answer her father. Seeing the executioner proceeding, despite her call to cease, she sprang upon him, caught him by the arms and wrested the whip from hands that dared not resist her.
"Did I not bid you stop?" she blazed, her face white, her eyes on fire; and raising the whip she brought it down upon his head and shoulders, not once but half-a-dozen times in quick succession, until he fled, howling, to the other side of the horse trough for shelter. "It stings you, does it" she cried, whilst the Marquis, from angered that at first he had been, now burst into a laugh at her fury and at this turning of tables upon the executioner. She made shift to pursue the fellow to his place of refuge, but coming of a sudden upon the ghastly sight presented by La Boulaye's lacerated back, she drew back in horror. Then, mastering herself—for girl though she was, her courage was of a high order—she turned to her father.
"Give this man to me, Monsieur," she begged.
"To you!" he exclaimed. "What will you do with him?"
"I will see that you are rid of him," she promised. "What more can you desire? You have tortured him enough."
"Maybe. But am I to blame that he dies so hard?"
She answered him with renewed insistence, and unexpectedly she received an ally in M. des Cadoux—an elderly gentleman who had been observing the flogging with disapproval, and who had followed her into the courtyard.
"He is too brave a man to die like this, Bellecour," put in the newcomer. "I doubt if he can survive the punishment he has already received. Yet I would ask you, in the name of courage, to give him the slender chance he may have."
"I promised him he should be flogged to death—" began the Marquis, when Des Cadoux and Mademoiselle jointly interrupted him to renew their intercessions.
"But, sangdieu," the Marquis protested "you seem to forget that he has killed one of my servants."
"Why, then, you should have hanged him out of hand, not tortured him thus," answered Des Cadoux shortly.
For a moment it almost seemed as if the pair of them would have fallen a-quarrelling. Their words grew more heated, and then, while they were still wrangling, the executioner came forward to solve matters with the news that the secretary had expired. To Bellecour this proved a very welcome conclusion.
"Most opportunely!" he laughed "Had the rascal lived another minute I think we had quarrelled, Cadoux." He turned to the servant, "You are certain that it is so?" he asked.
"Look, Monsieur," said the fellow, as he pointed with his whip to the pilloried figure of La Boulaye. The Marquis looked, and saw that the secretary had collapsed, and hung limp in his bonds, his head fallen back upon his shoulders and his eyes closed.
With a shrug and a short laugh Bellecour turned to his daughter.
"You may take the carrion, if you want to. But I think you can do no more than order it to be flung into a ditch and buried there."
But she had no mind to be advised by him. She had the young man's body cut down from the pump, and she bade a couple of servants convey it to the house of Master Duhamel, she for remembered that La Boulaye and the old pedagogue were friends.
"An odd thing is a woman's heart," grumbled the Marquis, who begrudged La Boulaye even his last act of mercy. "She may care never a fig for a man, and yet, if he has but told her that he loves her, be he never so mean and she never so exalted, he seems thereby to establish some measure of claim to her."
CHAPTER IV. THE DISCIPLES OF ROUSSEAU
The Marquis of Bellecour would, perhaps have philosophised less complacently had he known that the secretary was far from dead, and that what the executioner had, genuinely enough, mistaken for death was no more than a passing swoon. Under ordinary circumstances he might not have been satisfied to have taken the fellow's word; he would himself have ascertained the truth of the statement by a close inspection of the victim. But, as we have seen, the news came as so desirable a solution to the altercation that was waxing 'twixt himself and Des Cadoux that he was more than glad to avail himself of it.
The discovery that Caron lived was made while they were cutting him down from his pillory, and just as the Marquis was turning to go within. A flutter of the eyelids and a gasp for breath announced the fact, and the executioner was on the point of crying out his discovery when Mademoiselle's eyes flashed him a glance of warning, and her voice whispered feverishly:
"Hush! There are ten louis for each of you if you but keep silent and carry him to Master Duhamel as I told you."
The secretary opened his eyes but saw nothing, and a low moan escaped him. She shot a fearful glance at the retreating figure of her father, whilst Gilles—the executioner—hissed sharply into his ear:
"Mille diables! be still, man. You are dead."
Thus did he escape, and thus was he borne—a limp, agonised, and bleeding mass, to the house of Duhamel. The old schoolmaster received them with tears in his eyes—nor were they altogether tears of sorrow, for all that poor Caron's mangled condition grieved him sorely; they were in a measure tears of thankfulness; for Duhamel had not dared hope to see the young man alive again.
At the pedagogue's door stood a berline, and within his house there was a visitor. This was a slight young man of medium stature, who had not the appearance of more than twenty-five years of age, for all that, as a matter of fact, he was just over thirty. He was dressed with so scrupulous a neatness as to convey, in spite of the dark colour of his garments, an impression almost of foppishness. There was an amplitude about his cravat, an air of extreme care about the dressing of his wig and the powdering of it, and a shining brightness about his buttons and the buckles of his shoes which seemed to proclaim the dandy, just as the sombreness of the colour chosen seemed to deny it. In his singularly pale countenance a similar contradiction was observable. The weak, kindly eyes almost appeared to give the lie to the astute prominence of his cheekbones; the sensitiveness of the mouth seemed neutralised by the thinness of the lips, whilst the oddly tip-tilted nose made a mock of the austerity of the brow.
He was perfectly at ease in his surroundings, and as La Boulaye was carried into the schoolmaster's study and laid on a couch, he came forward and peered curiously at the secretary's figure, voicing an inquiry concerning him.
"It is the young man of whom I was telling you, Maximilien," answered Duhamel. "I give thanks to God that they have not killed him outright. It is a mercy I had not expected from those wolves, and one which, on my soul, I cannot understand."
"Monsieur," said Gilles, "will understand it better perhaps if I tell you that the Marquis believes him to be dead. He was cut down for dead, and when we discovered that he still lived it was Mademoiselle who prevailed upon us to save him. She is paying us to keep the secret, but not a fortune would tempt me if I thought the Seigneur were ever likely to hear of it. He must be got away from Bellecour; indeed, he must be got out of Picardy at once, Monsieur. And you must promise me that this shall be done or we will carry him back to the Chateau and tell the Marquis that he has suddenly revived. I must insist, Monsieur; for if ever it should transpire that he was not dead the Seigneur would hang us."
The stranger's weak eyes seemed to kindle in anger, and his lips curled until they exaggerated the already preposterous tilt of his nose.
"He would hang you, eh?" said he. "Ma foi, Duhamel, we shall change all this very soon, I promise you."
"God knows it needs changing," growled Duhamel. "It seems that it was only in the Old Testament that Heaven interfered with human iniquity. Why it does not rain fire and brimstone on the Chateau de Bellecour passes the understanding of a good Christian. I'll swear that in neither Sodom nor Gomorrah was villainy more rampant."
The stranger plucked at his sleeve to remind him of the presence of the servants from the Chateau. Duhamel turned to them.
"I will keep him concealed here until he is able to get about," he assured them. "Then I shall find him the means to leave the province."
But Gilles shook his head, and his companion grunted an echo of his disapproval.
"That will not serve, master," he answered sullenly. "What if the Seigneur should have word of his presence here? It is over-dangerous. Someone may see him. No, no, Either he leaves Bellecour this very night, and you swear that he shall, or else we carry him back to the Chateau."
"But how can I swear this?" cried Duhamel impatiently.
"Why, easily enough," put in the stranger. "Let me take him in my berline. I can leave him at Amiens or at Beauvais, or any one of the convenient places that I pass. Or I can even carry him on to Paris with me."
"You are very good, Maximilien," answered the old man, to which the other returned a gesture of deprecation.
In this fashion, then, was the matter settled to the satisfaction of the Seigneur's retainers, and upon having received Duhamel's solemn promise that Caron should be carried out of Bellecour, and, for that matter, out of Picardy, before the night was spent, they withdrew.
Within the schoolmaster's study he whom Duhamel called Maximilien strode to and fro, his hands clasped behind his back, his head bent, his chin thrust forward, denouncing the seigneurial system, of whose atrocity he had received that evening instances enough—for he had heard the whole story of La Boulaye's rebellion against the power of Bellecour and the causes that had led to it.
"We will mend all this, I promise you, Duhamel," he was repeating. "But not until we have united to shield the weak from oppression, to restrain the arrogant and to secure to each the possession of what belongs to him; not until all men are free and started upon equal terms in the race of life; not until we shall have set up rules of justice and of peace, to which all—rich and poor, noble and simple alike—shall be obliged to conform. Thus only can we repair the evil done by the caprice of fortune, which causes the one to be born into silk and the other into fustian. We must subject the weak and the mighty alike to mutual duties, collecting our forces into the supreme power to govern us all impartially by the same laws, to protect alike all members of the community, to repel our common foes and preserve us in never-ending concord. How many crimes, murders, wars, miseries, horrors shall thus be spared us, Duhamel? And it will come; it will come soon, never fear."
Caron stirred on the couch where Duhamel was tending him, and raised his head to glance at the man who was voicing the doctrines that for years had dwelt in his heart.
"Dear Jean Jacques," he murmured.
The stranger turned sharply and stepped to the young man's side.
"You have read the master?" he inquired, with a sudden, new-born interest in the secretary.
"Read him?" cried Carom forgetting for the moment the sore condition of his body in the delight of discovering one who was bound to him by such bonds of sympathy as old Rousseau established.
"Read him, Monsieur? There is scarce a line in all his 'Discourses' that I do not know by heart, and that I do not treasure, vaguely hoping and praying that some day such a state as he dreamt of may find itself established, and may sweep aside these corrupt, tyrannical conditions."
Maximilien's eyes kindled.
"Boy," he answered impressively, "Your hopes are on the eve of fruition, your prayers are about to be heard. Yes—even though it should entail trampling the Lilies of France into the very dust.
"Who are you, Monsieur?" asked La Boulaye, eyeing this prophet with growing interest.
"Robespierre is my name," was the answer, and to La Boulaye it conveyed no enlightenment, for the name of Maximilien Marie Isidore de Robespierre, which within so very short a time was to mean so much in France, as yet meant nothing.
La Boulaye inclined his head as if acknowledging an introduction, then turned his attention to Duhamel who was offering him a cup of wine. He drank gratefully, and the invigorating effects were almost instantaneous.
"Now let us see to your hurts," said the schoolmaster, who had taken some linen and a pot of unguents from a cupboard. La Boulaye sat up, and what time Duhamel was busy dressing his lacerated back, the young man talked with Robespierre.
"You are going to Paris, you say, Monsieur?"
"Yes, to the States-General," answered Maximilien.
"As a deputy?" inquired Caron, with ever-heightening interest.
"As a deputy, Monsieur. My friends of Arras have elected me to the Third Estate of Artois."
"Dieu! How I envy you!" exclaimed La Boulaye, to cry out a moment later in the pain to which Duhamel's well-intentioned operations were subjecting him. "I would it might be mine," he added presently, "to take a hand in legislation, and the mending of it; for as it stands at present it is inferior far to the lawless anarchy of the aborigines. Among them, at least, the conditions are more normal, they offer better balance between faculty and execution; they are by far more propitious to happiness and order than is this broken wreck of civilisation that we call France. It is to equality alone," he continued, warming to his subject, "that Nature has attached the preservation of our social faculties, and all legislation that aims at being efficient should be directed to the establishment of equality. As it is, the rich will always prefer their own fortune to that of the State, whilst the poor will never love—nor can love—a condition of laws that leaves them in misery."
Robespierre eyed the young man in some surprise. His delivery was impassioned, and although in what he said there was perhaps nothing that was fresh to the lawyer of Arras, yet the manner in which he said it was impressive to a degree.
"But Duhamel," he cried to the schoolmaster, "you did not tell me this young patriot was an orator."
"Nor am I, Monsieur," smiled La Boulaye. "I am but the mouthpiece of the great Rousseau. I have so assimilated his thoughts that they come from me as spontaneously as if they were my own, and often I go so far as to delude myself into believing that they are."
No better recommendation than this could he have had to the attention of Robespierre, who was himself much in the same case, imbued with and inspired by those doctrines, so ideal in theory, but, alas! so difficult, so impossible in practice. For fully an hour they sat and talked, and each improved in his liking of the other, until at last, bethinking him of the flight of time, Robespierre announced that he must start.
"You will take him to Paris with you, Maximilien?" quoth the old pedagogue.
"Ma foi, yes; and if with such gifts as Nature appears to have given him, and such cultivation of them as, through the teachings of Rousseau, he has effected, I do not make something of him, why, then, I am unworthy of the confidence my good friends of Arras repose in me."
They made their adieux, and the schoolmaster, opening his door, peered out. The street was deserted save for de Robespierre's berline and his impatient postillion. Between them Duhamel and Maximilien assisted Caron to the door of the carriage. The moving subjected him to an excruciating agony, but he caught his nether lip in his teeth, and never allowed them to suspect it. As they raised him into the berline, however, he toppled forward, fainting. Duhamel hastened indoors for a cordial, and brought also some pillows with which to promote the young man's comfort on the journey that was before him—or, rather, to lessen the discomfort which the jolting was likely to occasion him.
Caron recovered before they started, and with tears in his eyes he thanked old Duhamel and voiced a hope that they might meet again ere long.
Then Robespierre jumped nimbly into the berline. The door closed, the postillion's whip cracked briskly, and they set out upon a journey which to La Boulaye was to be as the passing from one life to another.
PART II. THE NEW RULE
Allons! Marchons! Qu'un sang impur Abreuve nos sillons! La Marseillaise.
CHAPTER V. THE SHEEP TURNED WOLVES
There were roars of anger and screams of terror in the night, and above the Chateau de Bellecour the inky blackness of the heavens was broken by a dull red glow, which the distant wayfarer might have mistaken for the roseate tint of dawn, were it possible for the dawn to restrict itself to so narrow an area.
Ever and anon a tongue of flame would lick up into the night towards that russet patch of sky, betraying the cause of it and proclaiming that incendiaries were at work. Above the ominous din that told of the business afoot there came now and again the crack of a musket, and dominating all other sounds was the sullen roar of the revolted peasants, the risen serfs, the rebellious vassals of the Siegneur de Bellecour.
For time has sped and has much altered in the speeding. Four years have gone by since the night on which the lacerated Caron la Boulaye was smuggled out of Bellecour in Robespierre's berline and in that four years much of the things that were prophesied have come to pass —aye, and much more besides that was undreamt of at the outset by the revolutionaries. A gruesome engine that they facetiously called the National Razor—invented and designed some years ago by one Dr. Guillotin—is but an item in the changes that have been, yet an item that in its way has become a very factor. It stands not over-high, yet the shadow of it has fallen athwart the whole length and breadth of France, and in that shadow the tyrants have trembled, shaken to the very souls of them by the rude hand of fear; in that shadow the spurned and downtrodden children of the soil have taken heart of grace. The bonds of servile cowardice that for centuries had trammelled them have been shaken off like cobwebs, and they that were as sheep are now become the wolves that prey on those that preyed on them for generations.
There is, in the whole of France, no corner so remote but that, sooner or later, this great upheaval has penetrated to it. Louis XVI.—or Louis Capet, as he is now more generally spoken of—has been arraigned, condemned and executed. The aristocrats are in full emigratory flight across the frontiers—those that have not been rent by the vassals they had brought to bay, the people they had outraged. The Lilies of France lie trampled under foot in the shambles they have made of that fair land, whilst overhead the tricolour—that symbol of the new trinity, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—is flaunted in the breeze.
A few of the more proud and obstinate—so proud and obstinate as to find it a thing incredible that the order should indeed change and the old regime pass away—still remain, and by their vain endeavours to lord it in their castles provoke such scenes as that enacted at Bellecour in February of '93 (by the style of slaves) or Pluviose of the year One of the French Republic, as it shall presently come to be known in the annals of the Revolution.
Bellecour, the most arrogant of arrogants, had stood firm, and desperately contrived through all these months of revolution to maintain his dominion in his corner of Picardy. But even he was beginning to realise that the end was at hand, and he made his preparations to emigrate. Too proud, however, to permit his emigration to savour of a flight, he carried the leisureliness of his going to dangerous extremes. And now, on the eve of departure, he must needs pause to give a fete at once of farewell and in honour of his daughter's betrothal to the Vicomte Anatole d'Ombreval. This very betrothal at so unpropitious a season was partly no more than contrived by the Marquis that he might mark his ignoring and his serene contempt of the upheaval and the new rule which it had brought.
All that was left of the noblesse in Picardy had flocked that day to the Chateau de Bellecour, and the company there assembled numbered perhaps some thirty gallants and some twenty ladies. A banquet there had been, which in the main was a gloomy function, for the King's death was too recent a matter to be utterly lost sight of. Later, however, as the generous supply of wine did its work and so far thawed the ice of apprehension that bound their souls as to dispose them to enjoy, at least, the present hour in forgetfulness, there was a better humour in the air. This developed, and so far indeed did it go that in the evening a Pavane was suggested, and, the musicians being found, it was held in the great salon of the Chateau.
It was then that the first alarm had penetrated to their midst. It had found them a recklessly merry crew, good to behold in their silks and satins, powder and patches, gold lace and red heels, moving with waving fans, or hand on sword, and laced beaver under elbow, through the stately figures of the gavotte.
Scared, white-faced lackeys had brought the news, dashing wildly in upon that courtly assembly. The peasants had risen and were marching on Bellecour.
Some of his sudden rage the Marquis vented by striking the servants' spokesman in the face.
"Dare you bring me such a message?" he cried furiously.
"But, my lord, what are we to do?" gasped the frightened lackey.
"Do, fool?" returned Bellecour. "Why, close the gates and bid them return home as they value their lives. For if they give me trouble I'll hang a round dozen of them."
Still was there that same big talk of hanging men. Still did it seem that the Marquis of Bellecour accounted himself the same lord of life and death that he and his forbears had been for generations. But there were others who thought differently. The music had ceased abruptly, and a little knot of gentlemen now gathered about the host, and urged him to take some measures of precaution. In particular they desired to ensure the safety of the ladies who were being thrown into a great state of alarm, so that of some of these were the screams that were heard in that night of terror. Bellecour's temper was fast gaining, and as he lost control of himself the inherent brutality of his character came uppermost.
"Mesdames," he cried rudely, "this screeching will profit us nothing. Even if we must die, let us die becomingly, not shrieking like butchered geese."
A dozen men raised their voices angrily against him in defence of the women he had slighted. But he waved them impatiently away.
"Is this an hour in which to fall a-quarrelling among ourselves?" he exclaimed. "Or do you think it one in which a man can stop to choose his words? Sang-dieu! That screaming is a more serious matter than at first may seem. If these rebellious dogs should chance to hear it, it will be but so much encouragement to them. A fearless front, a cold contempt, are weapons unrivalled if you would prevail against these mutinous cravens."
But his guests were insistent that something more than fearless fronts and cold contempts should be set up as barriers between themselves and the advancing peasantry. And in the end Bellecour impatiently quitted the room to give orders for the barricading of the gates and the defending of the Chateau, leaving behind him in the salon the very wildest of confusions.
From the windows the peasantry could now be seen, by the light of their torches, marching up the long avenue that fronted the Chateau, and headed by a single drum on which the bearer did no more than beat the step. They were a fierce, unkempt band, rudely armed—some with scythes, some with sickles, some with hedge-knives, and some with hangers; whilst here and there was one who carried a gun, and perhaps a bayonet as well. Nor were there men only in the rebellious ranks. There were an almost equal number of women in crimson caps, their bosoms bare, their heads dishevelled, their garments filthy and in rags—for the tooth of poverty had bitten deeply into them during the past months.
As they swung along to the rhythmical thud of the drum, their voices were raised in a fearful chorus that must have made one think of the choirs of hell, and the song they sang was the song of Rouget de l'Isle, which all France had been singing these twelve months past:
"Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons. Allons, marchons! Qu'un sang inpur Abreuve nos sillons!"
Ever swelling as they drew nearer came the sound of that terrible hymn to the ears of the elegant, bejewelled, bepowdered company in the Chateau. The gates were reached and found barred. An angry roar went up to Heaven, followed by a hail of blows upon the stout, ironbound oak, and an imperious call to open.
In the courtyard below the Marquis had posted the handful of servants that remained faithful—for reasons that Heaven alone may discern—to the fortunes of the house. He had armed them with carbines and supplied them with ammunition. He had left them orders to hold off the mob from the outer gates as long as possible; but should these be carried, they were to fall back into the Chateau itself, and make fast the doors. Meanwhile, he was haranguing the gentlemen—some thirty of them, as we have seen—in the salon and urging them to arm themselves so that they might render assistance.
His instances were met with a certain coldness, which at last was given expression by the most elegant Vicomte d'Ombreval—the man who was about to become his son-in-law.
"My dear Marquis," protested the young man, his habitually supercilious mouth looking even more supercilious than usual as he now spoke, "I beg that you will consider what you are proposing. We are your guests, we others, and you ask us to defend your gates against your own people for you! Surely, surely, sir, your first duty should have been to have ensured our safety against such mutinies on the part of the rabble of Bellecour."
The Seigneur angrily stamped his foot. In his choler he was within an ace of striking Ombreval, and might have done so had not the broad-minded and ever-reasonable old Des Cadoux interposed at that moment to make clear to the Marquis's guests a situation than which nothing could have been clearer. He put it to them that the times were changed, and that France was no longer what France had been; that allowances must be made for M. de Bellecour, who was in no better case than any other gentleman in that unhappy country! and finally, that either they must look to arming and defending themselves or they must say their prayers and submit to being butchered with the ladies.
"For ourselves," he concluded calmly, tapping his gold snuffbox and holding it out to Bellecour, for all the world with the air of one who was discussing the latest fashion in wigs, "I can understand your repugnance at coming to blows with this obscene canaille. It is doing them an honour of which they are not worthy. But we have these ladies to think of, Messieurs, and—" he paused to apply the rappee to his nostrils—"and we must exert ourselves to save them, however disagreeable the course we may be compelled to pursue. Messieurs, I am the oldest here; permit that I show you the way."
His words were not without effect; they kindled chivalry in hearts that, after all, were nothing if not prone to chivalry—according to their own lights—and presently something very near enthusiasm prevailed. But the supercilious and very noble Ombreval still grumbled.
"To ask me to fight this scum!" he ejaculated in horror "Pardi! It is too much. Ask me to beat them off with a whip like a pack of curs, and I'll do it readily. But fight them—!"
"Nothing could delight us more, Vicomte, than to see you beat them off with a whip," Des Cadoux assured him. "Arm yourself with a whip, by all means, my friend, and let us witness the prodigies you can perform with it."
"See what valour inflames the Vicomte, Suzanne," sneered a handsome woman into Mademoiselle's ear. "With what alacrity he flies to arms that he may defend you, even with his life."
"M. d'Ombreval is behaving according to his lights," answered Suzanne coldly.
"Ma foi, then his lights are unspeakably dim," was the contemptuous answer.
Mademoiselle gave no outward sign of the deep wound her pride was receiving. The girl of nineteen, who had scorned the young secretary-lover in the park of Bellecour that morning four years ago, was developed into a handsome lady of three-and-twenty.
"It would be beneath the dignity of his station to soil his hands in such a conflict as my father has suggested," she said at last.
"I wonder would it be beneath the dignity of his courage," mused the same caustic friend. "But surely not, for nothing could be beneath that."
"Madame!" exclaimed Suzanne, her cheeks reddening; for as of old, and like her father, she was quickly moved to anger. "Will it please you to remember that M. d'Ombreval is my affianced husband?"
"True," confessed the lady, no whit abashed. "But had I not been told so I had accounted him your rejected suitor, who, broken-hearted, gives no thought either to his own life or to yours."
In a pet, Mademoiselle gave her shoulder to the speaker and turned away. In spite of the words with which she had defended him, Suzanne was disappointed in her betrothed, and yet, in a way, she understood his bearing to be the natural fruit of that indomitable pride of which she had observed the outward signs, and for which, indeed as much as for the beauty of his person, she had consented to become his wife. After all, it was the outward man she knew. The marriage had been arranged, and this was but their third meeting, whilst never for an instant had they been alone together. By her mother she had been educated up to the idea that it was eminently desirable she should become the Vicomtesse d'Ombreval. At first she had endured dismay at the fact that she had never beheld the Vicomte, and because she imagined that he would be, most probably, some elderly roue, as did so often fall to the lot of maidens in her station. But upon finding him so very handsome to behold, so very noble of bearing, so lofty and disdainful that as he walked he seemed to spurn the very earth, she fell enamoured of him out of very relief, as well as because he was the most superb specimen of the other sex that it had ever been hers to observe.
And now that she had caught a glimpse of the soul that dwelt beneath that mass of outward perfections it had cost her a pang of disappointment, and the poisonous reflection cast upon his courage by that sardonic lady with whom she had talked was having its effect.
But the time was too full of other trouble to permit her to indulge her thoughts overlong upon such a matter. A volley of musketry from below came to warn them of the happenings there. The air was charged with the hideous howls of the besieging mob, and presently there was a cry from one of the ladies, as a sudden glare of light crimsoned the window-panes.
"What is that?" asked Madame de Bellecour of her husband.
"They have fired the stables," he answered, through set teeth. "I suppose they need light to guide them in their hell's work."
He strode to the glass doors opening to the balcony the same balcony from which four years ago his guests had watched the flogging of La Boulaye—and, opening them, he passed out. His appearance was greeted by a storm of execration. A sudden shot rang out, and the bullet, striking the wall immediately above him, brought down a shower of plaster on his head. It had been fired by a demoniac who sat astride the great gates waving his discharged carbine and yelling such ordures of speech as it had never been the most noble Marquis's lot to have stood listening to. Bellecour never flinched. As calmly as if nothing had happened, he leant over the parapet and called to his men below.
"Hold, there! Of what are you dreaming slumberers. Shoot me that fellow down."
Their guns had been discharged, but one of them, who had now completed his reloading, levelled the carbine and fired. The figure on the gates seemed to leap up from his sitting posture, and then with a scream he went over, back to his friends without.
The fired stables were burning gaily by now, and the cheeriest bonfire man could have desired on a dark night, and in the courtyard it was become as light as day.
The Marquis on the balcony was taking stock of his defences and making rapid calculations in his mind. He saw no reason why, so well protected by those stout oaken gates they should not—if they were but resolute—eventually beat back the mob. And then, even as his courage was rising at the thought, a deafening explosion seemed to shake the entire Chateau, and the gates—their sole buckler, upon whose shelter he had been so confidently building—crashed open, half blown away by the gunpowder keg that had been fired against it.
He had a fleeting glimpse of a stream of black fiends pouring through the dark gap and dashing with deafening yells into the crimson light of the courtyard. He saw his little handful of servants retreat precipitately within the Chateau. He heard the clang of the doors that were swung to just as the foremost of the rabble reached the threshold—With all this clearly stamped upon his mind, he turned, and springing into the salon he drew his sword.
"To the stairs, Messieurs!" he cried "To the stairs!"
And to the stairs they went. The extremity was now too great for argument. They dared not so much as look at their women-folk, lest they should be unmanned by the sight of those huddled creatures—their finery but serving to render them the more pitiable in their sickly affright. In a body the whole thirty of them swept from the room, and with Bellecour at their head and Ombreval somewhere in the rearmost rank, they made their way to the great staircase.
Here, armed with their swords and a brace of pistols to each man, whilst for a few the Marquis had even found carbines, they waited, with faces set and lips tight pressed for the end that they knew approached.
Nor was their waiting long. As the peasants had blown down the gates so now did they blow down the doors of the Chateau, and in the explosion three of Bellecour's servants—who had stood too near—were killed. Over the threshold they swarmed into the dark gulf of the great hall to the foot of the staircase. But here they were at a disadvantage. The light of the burning stables, shining through the open doorway, revealed them to the defenders, whilst they themselves looked up into the dark. There was a sudden cracking of pistols and a few louder reports from the guns, and the mob fled, screaming, back into the yard, leaving a score of dead and wounded on the polished floor of the hall.