UNDER THE RED ROBE
By Stanley J. Weyman
In this Etext, text in italics has been written in capital letters.
Many French words in the text have accents, etc. which have been omitted.
CHAPTER I. AT ZATON'S
CHAPTER II. AT THE GREEN PILLAR
CHAPTER III. THE HOUSE IN THE WOOD
CHAPTER IV. MADAM AND MADEMOISELLE
CHAPTER V. REVENGE
CHAPTER VI. UNDER THE PIC DU MIDI
CHAPTER VII. A MASTER STROKE
CHAPTER VIII. A MASTER STROKE—Continued
CHAPTER IX. THE QUESTION
CHAPTER X. CLON
CHAPTER XI. THE ARREST
CHAPTER XII. THE ROAD TO PARIS
CHAPTER XIII. AT THE FINGER-POST
CHAPTER XIV. ST MARTIN'S EVE
CHAPTER XV. ST MARTIN'S SUMMER
UNDER THE RED ROBE
CHAPTER I. AT ZATON'S
There were a score round us when the fool, little knowing the man with whom he had to deal, and as little how to lose like a gentleman, flung the words in my teeth. He thought, I'll be sworn, that I should storm and swear and ruffle it like any common cock of the hackle. But that was never Gil de Berault's way. For a few seconds after he had spoken I did not even look at him. I passed my eye instead—smiling, BIEN ENTENDU—round the ring of waiting faces, saw that there was no one except De Pombal I had cause to fear; and then at last I rose and looked at the fool with the grim face I have known impose on older and wiser men.
'Marked cards, M. l'Anglais?' I said, with a chilling sneer. 'They are used, I am told, to trap players—not unbirched schoolboys.'
'Yet I say that they are marked!' he replied hotly, in his queer foreign jargon. 'In my last hand I had nothing. You doubled the stakes. Bah, sir, you knew! You have swindled me!'
'Monsieur is easy to swindle—when he plays with a mirror behind him,' I answered tartly.
At that there was a great roar of laughter, which might have been heard in the street, and which brought to the table everyone in the eating-house whom his voice had not already attracted. But I did not relax my face. I waited until all was quiet again, and then waving aside two or three who stood between us and the entrance, I pointed gravely to the door.
'There is a little space behind the church of St Jacques, M. l'Etranger,' I said, putting on my hat and taking my cloak on my arm. 'Doubtless you will accompany me thither?'
He snatched up his hat, his face burning with shame and rage.
'With pleasure!' he blurted out. 'To the devil, if you like!'
I thought the matter arranged, when the Marquis laid his hand on the young fellow's arm and checked him.
'This must not be,' he said, turning from him to me with his grand, fine-gentleman's air. 'You know me, M. de Berault. This matter has gone far enough.'
'Too far! M. de Pombal,' I answered bitterly. 'Still, if you wish to take your friend's place, I shall raise no objection.'
'Chut, man!' he retorted, shrugging his shoulders negligently. 'I know you, and I do not fight with men of your stamp. Nor need this gentleman.'
'Undoubtedly,' I replied, bowing low, 'if he prefers to be caned in the streets.'
That stung the Marquis.
'Have a care! have a care!' he cried hotly. 'You go too far, M. Berault.'
'De Berault, if you please,' I objected, eyeing him sternly. 'My family has borne the DE as long as yours, M. de Pombal.'
He could not deny that, and he answered, 'As you please;' at the same time restraining his friend by a gesture. 'But none the less,' he continued, 'take my advice. The Cardinal has forbidden duelling, and this time he means it! You have been in trouble once and gone free. A second time it may fare worse with you. Let this gentleman go, therefore, M. de Berault. Besides—why, shame upon you, man!' he exclaimed hotly; 'he is but a lad!'
Two or three who stood behind me applauded that, But I turned and they met my eye; and they were as mum as mice.
'His age is his own concern,' I said grimly. 'He was old enough a while ago to insult me.'
'And I will prove my words!' the lad cried, exploding at last. He had spirit enough, and the Marquis had had hard work to restrain him so long. 'You do me no service, M. de Pombal,' he continued, pettishly shaking off his friend's hand. 'By your leave, this gentleman and I will settle this matter.'
'That is better,' I said, nodding drily, while the Marquis stood aside, frowning and baffled. 'Permit me to lead the way.'
Zaton's eating-house stands scarcely a hundred paces from St Jacques la Boucherie, and half the company went thither with us. The evening was wet, the light in the streets was waning, the streets themselves were dirty and slippery. There were few passers in the Rue St Antoine; and our party, which earlier in the day must have attracted notice and a crowd, crossed unmarked, and entered without interruption the paved triangle which lies immediately behind the church. I saw in the distance one of the Cardinal's guard loitering in front of the scaffolding round the new Hotel Richelieu; and the sight of the uniform gave me pause for a moment. But it was too late to repent.
The Englishman began at once to strip off his clothes. I closed mine to the throat, for the air was chilly. At that moment, while we stood preparing, and most of the company seemed a little inclined to stand off from me, I felt a hand on my arm, and turning, saw the dwarfish tailor at whose house, in the Rue Savonnerie, I lodged at the time. The fellow's presence was unwelcome, to say the least of it; and though for want of better company I had sometimes encouraged him to be free with me at home, I took that to be no reason why I should be plagued with him before gentlemen. I shook him off, therefore, hoping by a frown to silence him.
He was not to be so easily put down, however, and perforce I had to speak to him.
'Afterwards, afterwards,' I said hurriedly. 'I am engaged now.
'For God's sake, don't, sir!' the poor fool cried, clinging to my sleeve. 'Don't do it! You will bring a curse on the house. He is but a lad, and—'
'You, too!' I exclaimed, losing patience. 'Be silent, you scum! What do you know about gentlemen's quarrels? Leave me; do you hear?'
'But the Cardinal!' he cried in a quavering voice. 'The Cardinal, M. de Berault! The last man you killed is not forgotten yet. This time he will be sure to—'
'Leave me, do you hear?' I hissed. The fellow's impudence passed all bounds. It was as bad as his croaking. 'Begone!' I added. 'I suppose you are afraid that he will kill me, and you will lose your money.'
Frison fell back at that almost as if I had struck him, and I turned to my adversary, who had been awaiting my motions with impatience. God knows he did look young as he stood with his head bare and his fair hair drooping over his smooth woman's forehead—a mere lad fresh from the college of Burgundy, if they have such a thing in England. I felt a sudden chill as I looked at him: a qualm, a tremor, a presentiment. What was it the little tailor had said? That I should—but there, he did not know. What did he know of such things? If I let this pass I must kill a man a day, or leave Paris and the eating-house, and starve.
'A thousand pardons,' I said gravely, as I drew and took my place. 'A dun. I am sorry that the poor devil caught me so inopportunely. Now however, I am at your service.'
He saluted and we crossed swords and began. But from the first I had no doubt what the result would be. The slippery stones and fading light gave him, it is true, some chance, some advantage, more than he deserved; but I had no sooner felt his blade than I knew that he was no swordsman. Possibly he had taken half-a-dozen lessons in rapier art, and practised what he learned with an Englishman as heavy and awkward as himself. But that was all. He made a few wild clumsy rushes, parrying widely. When I had foiled these, the danger was over, and I held him at my mercy.
I played with him a little while, watching the sweat gather on his brow and the shadow of the church tower fall deeper and darker, like the shadow of doom, on his face. Not out of cruelty—God knows I have never erred in that direction!—but because, for the first time in my life, I felt a strange reluctance to strike the blow. The curls clung to his forehead; his breath came and went in gasps; I heard the men behind me and one or two of them drop an oath; and then I slipped—slipped, and was down in a moment on my right side, my elbow striking the pavement so sharply that the arm grew numb to the wrist.
He held off. I heard a dozen voices cry, 'Now! now you have him!' But he held off. He stood back and waited with his breast heaving and his point lowered, until I had risen and stood again on my guard.
'Enough! enough!' a rough voice behind me cried. 'Don't hurt the man after that.'
'On guard, sir!' I answered coldly—for he seemed to waver, and be in doubt. 'It was an accident. It shall not avail you again.'
Several voices cried 'Shame!' and one, 'You coward!' But the Englishman stepped forward, a fixed look in his blue eyes. He took his place without a word. I read in his drawn white face that he had made up his mind to the worst, and his courage so won my admiration that I would gladly and thankfully have set one of the lookers-on—any of the lookers-on—in his place; but that could not be. So I thought of Zaton's closed to me, of Pombal's insult, of the sneers and slights I had long kept at the sword's point; and, pressing him suddenly in a heat of affected anger, I thrust strongly over his guard, which had grown feeble, and ran him through the chest.
When I saw him lying, laid out on the stones with his eyes half shut, and his face glimmering white in the dusk—not that I saw him thus long, for there were a dozen kneeling round him in a twinkling—I felt an unwonted pang. It passed, however, in a moment. For I found myself confronted by a ring of angry faces—of men who, keeping at a distance, hissed and cursed and threatened me, calling me Black Death and the like.
They were mostly canaille, who had gathered during the fight, and had viewed all that passed from the farther side of the railings. While some snarled and raged at me like wolves, calling me 'Butcher!' and 'Cut-throat!' or cried out that Berault was at his trade again, others threatened me with the vengeance of the Cardinal, flung the edict in my teeth, and said with glee that the guard were coming—they would see me hanged yet.
'His blood is on your head!' one cried furiously. 'He will be dead in an hour. And you will swing for him! Hurrah!'
'Begone,' I said.
'Ay, to Montfaucon,' he answered, mocking me.
'No; to your kennel!' I replied, with a look which sent him a yard backwards, though the railings were between us. And I wiped my blade carefully, standing a little apart. For—well, I could understand it—it was one of those moments when a man is not popular. Those who had come with me from the eating-house eyed me askance, and turned their backs when I drew nearer; and those who had joined us and obtained admission were scarcely more polite.
But I was not to be outdone in SANG FROID. I cocked my hat, and drawing my cloak over my shoulders, went out with a swagger which drove the curs from the gate before I came within a dozen paces of it. The rascals outside fell back as quickly, and in a moment I was in the street. Another moment and I should have been clear of the place and free to lie by for a while—when, without warning, a scurry took place round me. The crowd fled every way into the gloom, and in a hand-turn a dozen of the Cardinal's guards closed round me.
I had some acquaintance with the officer in command, and he saluted me civilly.
'This is a bad business, M. de Berault,' he said. 'The man is dead they tell me.'
'Neither dying nor dead,' I answered lightly. 'If that be all you may go home again.'
'With you,' he replied, with a grin, 'certainly. And as it rains, the sooner the better. I must ask you for your sword, I am afraid.'
'Take it,' I said, with the philosophy which never deserts me. 'But the man will not die.'
'I hope that may avail you,' he answered in a tone I did not like. 'Left wheel, my friends! To the Chatelet! March!'
'There are worse places,' I said, and resigned myself to fate. After all, I had been in a prison before, and learned that only one jail lets no prisoner escape.
But when I found that my friend's orders were to hand me over to the watch, and that I was to be confined like any common jail-bird caught cutting a purse or slitting a throat, I confess my heart sank. If I could get speech with the Cardinal, all would probably be well; but if I failed in this, or if the case came before him in strange guise, or if he were in a hard mood himself, then it might go ill with me. The edict said, death!
And the lieutenant at the Chatelet did not put himself to much trouble to hearten me. 'What! again M. de Berault?' he said, raising his eyebrows as he received me at the gate, and recognised me by the light of the brazier which his men were just kindling outside. 'You are a very bold man, or a very foolhardy one, to come here again. The old business, I suppose?'
'Yes, but he is not dead,' I answered coolly. 'He has a trifle—a mere scratch. It was behind the church of St Jacques.'
'He looked dead enough, my friend,' the guardsman interposed. He had not yet left us.
'Bah!' I answered scornfully. 'Have you ever known me make a mistake When I kill a man I kill him. I put myself to pains, I tell you, not to kill this Englishman. Therefore he will live.'
'I hope so,' the lieutenant said, with a dry smile. 'And you had better hope so, too, M. de Berault, For if not—'
'Well?' I said, somewhat troubled. 'If not, what, my friend?'
'I fear he will be the last man you will fight,' he answered. 'And even if he lives, I would not be too sure, my friend. This time the Cardinal is determined to put it down.'
'He and I are old friends,' I said confidently.
'So I have heard,' he answered, with a short laugh. 'I think that the same was said of Chalais. I do not remember that it saved his head.'
This was not reassuring. But worse was to come. Early in the morning orders were received that I should be treated with especial strictness, and I was given the choice between irons and one of the cells below the level. Choosing the latter, I was left to reflect upon many things; among others, on the queer and uncertain nature of the Cardinal, who loved, I knew, to play with a man as a cat with a mouse; and on the ill effects which sometimes attend a high chest-thrust however carefully delivered. I only rescued myself at last from these and other unpleasant reflections by obtaining the loan of a pair of dice; and the light being just enough to enable me to reckon the throws, I amused myself for hours by casting them on certain principles of my own. But a long run again and again upset my calculations; and at last brought me to the conclusion that a run of bad luck may be so persistent as to see out the most sagacious player. This was not a reflection very welcome to me at the moment.
Nevertheless, for three days it was all the company I had. At the end of that time, the knave of a jailor who attended me, and who had never grown tired of telling me, after the fashion of his kind, that I should be hanged, came to me with a less assured air.
'Perhaps you would like a little water?' he said civilly.
'Why, rascal?' I asked.
'To wash with,' he answered.
'I asked for some yesterday, and you would not bring it,' I grumbled. 'However, better late than never. Bring it now. If I must hang, I will hang like a gentleman. But depend upon it, the Cardinal will not serve an old friend so scurvy a trick.'
'You are to go to him,' he announced, when he came back with the water.
'What? To the Cardinal?' I cried.
'Yes,' he answered.
'Good!' I exclaimed; and in my joy and relief I sprang up at once, and began to refresh my dress. 'So all this time I have been doing him an injustice,' I continued. 'VIVE MONSEIGNEUR! Long live the little Bishop of Luchon! I might have known it, too.'
'Don't make too sure!' the man answered spitefully. Then he went on, 'I have something else for you. A friend of yours left it at the gate,' and he handed me a packet.
'Quite so!' I said, leading his rascally face aright. 'And you kept it as long as you dared—as long as you thought I should hang, you knave! Was not that so? But there, do not lie to me. Tell me instead which of my friends left it.' For, to confess the truth, I had not so many friends at this time and ten good crowns—the packet contained no less a sum—argued a pretty staunch friend, and one of whom a man might reasonably be proud.
The knave sniggered maliciously. 'A crooked dwarfish man left it,' he said. 'I doubt I might call him a tailor and not be far out.'
'Chut!' I answered—but I was a little out of countenance, nevertheless. 'I understand. An honest fellow enough, and in debt to me! I am glad he remembered. But when am I to go, friend?'
'In an hour,' he answered sullenly. Doubtless he had looked to get one of the crowns; but I was too old a hand for that. If I came back I could buy his services; and if I did not I should have wasted my money.
Nevertheless, a little later, when I found myself on my way to the Hotel Richelieu under so close a guard that I could see nothing in the street except the figures that immediately surrounded me, I wished that I had given him the money. At such times, when all hangs in the balance and the sky is overcast, the mind runs on luck and old superstitions, and is prone to think a crown given here may avail there—though THERE be a hundred leagues away.
The Palais Richelieu was at this time in building, and we were required to wait in a long, bare gallery, where the masons were at work. I was kept a full hour here, pondering uncomfortably on the strange whims and fancies of the great man who then ruled France as the King's Lieutenant-General, with all the King's powers, and whose life I had once been the means of saving by a little timely information. On occasion he had done something to wipe out the debt; and at other times he had permitted me to be free with him, and so far we were not unknown to one another.
Nevertheless, when the doors were at last thrown open, and I was led into his presence, my confidence underwent a shock. His cold glance, that, roving over me, regarded me not as a man but an item, the steely glitter of his southern eyes, chilled me to the bone. The room was bare, the floor without carpet or covering. Some of the woodwork lay about, unfinished and in pieces. But the man—this man, needed no surroundings. His keen pale face, his brilliant eyes, even his presence—though he was of no great height, and began already to stoop at the shoulders—were enough to awe the boldest. I recalled, as I looked at him, a hundred tales of his iron will, his cold heart, his unerring craft. He had humbled the King's brother, the splendid Duke of Orleans, in the dust. He had curbed the Queen-mother. A dozen heads, the noblest in France, had come to the block through him. Only two years before he had quelled Rochelle; only a few months before he had crushed the great insurrection in Languedoc: and though the south, stripped of its old privileges, still seethed with discontent, no one in this year 1630 dared lift a hand against him—openly, at any rate. Under the surface a hundred plots, a thousand intrigues, sought his life or his power; but these, I suppose, are the hap of every great man.
No wonder, then, that the courage on which I plumed myself sank low at sight of him; or that it was as much as I could do to mingle with the humility of my salute some touch of the SANG FROID of old acquaintanceship.
And perhaps that had been better left out. For it seemed that this man was without bowels. For a moment, while he stood looking at me, and before he spoke to me, I gave myself up for lost. There was a glint of cruel satisfaction in his eyes that warned me, before he opened his mouth, what he was going to say to me.
'I could not have made a better catch, M. de Berault,' he said, smiling villainously, while he gently smoothed the fur of a cat that had sprung on the table beside him. 'An old offender, and an excellent example. I doubt it will not stop with you. But later, we will make you the warrant for flying at higher game.'
'Monseigneur has handled a sword himself,' I blurted out. The very room seemed to be growing darker, the air colder. I was never nearer fear in my life.
'Yes?' he said, smiling delicately. 'And so—?'
'Will not be too hard on the failings of a poor gentleman.'
'He shall suffer no more than a rich one,' he replied suavely as he stroked the cat. 'Enjoy that satisfaction, M. de Berault. Is that all?'
'Once I was of service to your Eminence,' I said desperately.
'Payment has been made,' he answered, 'more than once. But for that I should not have seen you.'
'The King's face!' I cried, snatching at the straw he seemed to hold out.
He laughed cynically, smoothly. His thin face, his dark moustache, and whitening hair, gave him an air of indescribable keenness.
'I am not the King,' he said. 'Besides, I am told that you have killed as many as six men in duels. You owe the King, therefore, one life at least. You must pay it. There is no more to be said, M. de Berault,' he continued coldly, turning away and beginning to collect some papers. 'The law must take its course.'
I thought that he was about to nod to the lieutenant to withdraw me, and a chilling sweat broke out down my back. I saw the scaffold, I felt the cords. A moment, and it would be too late!
'I have a favour to ask,' I stammered desperately, 'if your Eminence will give me a moment alone.'
'To what end?' he answered, turning and eyeing me with cold disfavour. 'I know you—your past—all. It can do no good, my friend.'
'No harm!' I cried. 'And I am a dying man, Monseigneur!'
'That is true,' he said thoughtfully. Still he seemed to hesitate; and my heart beat fast. At last he looked at the lieutenant. 'You may leave us,' he said shortly. 'Now,' he continued, when the officer had withdrawn and left us alone, 'what is it? Say what you have to say quickly. And, above all, do not try to fool me, M. de Berault.'
But his piercing eyes so disconcerted me now that I had my chance, and was alone with him, that I could not find a word to say, and stood before him mute. I think this pleased him, for his face relaxed.
'Well?' he said at last. 'Is that all?'
'The man is not dead,' I muttered.
He shrugged his shoulders contemptuously.
'What of that?' he said. 'That was not what you wanted to say to me.'
'Once I saved your Eminence's life,' I faltered miserably.
'Admitted,' he answered, in his thin, incisive voice. 'You mentioned the fact before. On the other hand, you have taken six to my knowledge, M. de Berault. You have lived the life of a bully, a common bravo, a gamester. You, a man of family! For shame! Do you wonder that it has brought you to this! Yet on that one point I am willing to hear more,' he added abruptly.
'I might save your Eminence's life again,' I cried. It was a sudden inspiration.
'You know something?' he said quickly, fixing me with his eyes. 'But no,' he continued, shaking his head gently. 'Pshaw! The trick is old. I have better spies than you, M. de Berault.'
'But no better sword,' I cried hoarsely. 'No, not in all your guard!'
'That is true,' he said slowly. 'That is true.' To my surprise, he spoke in a tone of consideration; and he looked down at the floor. 'Let me think, my friend,' he continued.
He walked two or three times up and down the room, while I stood trembling. I confess it, trembling. The man whose pulses danger has no power to quicken, is seldom proof against suspense; and the sudden hope his words awakened in me so shook me that his figure as he trod lightly to and fro with the cat rubbing against his robe and turning time for time with him, wavered before my eyes. I grasped the table to steady myself. I had not admitted even in my own mind how darkly the shadow of Montfaucon and the gallows had fallen across me.
I had leisure to recover myself, for it was some time before he spoke. When he did, it was in a voice harsh, changed, imperative. 'You have the reputation of a man faithful, at least, to his employer,' he said. 'Do not answer me. I say it is so. Well, I will trust you. I will give you one more chance—though it is a desperate one. Woe to you if you fail me! Do you know Cocheforet in Bearn? It is not far from Auch.'
'No, your Eminence.'
'Nor M. de Cocheforet?'
'No, your Eminence.'
'So much the better,' he replied. 'But you have heard of him. He has been engaged in every Gascon plot since the late King's death, and gave more trouble last year in the Vivarais than any man twice his years. At present he is at Bosost in Spain, with other refugees, but I have learned that at frequent intervals he visits his wife at Cocheforet which is six leagues within the border. On one of these visits he must be arrested.'
'That should be easy,' I said.
The Cardinal looked at me. 'Chut, man! what do you know about it?' he answered bluntly. 'It is whispered at Cocheforet if a soldier crosses the street at Auch. In the house are only two or three servants, but they have the countryside with them to a man, and they are a dangerous breed. A spark might kindle a fresh rising. The arrest, therefore, must be made secretly.'
'One resolute man inside the house,' the Cardinal continued, thoughtfully glancing at a paper which lay on the table, 'with the help of two or three servants whom he could summon to his aid at will, might effect it. The question is, Will you be the man, my friend?'
I hesitated; then I bowed. What choice had I?
'Nay, nay, speak out!' he said sharply. 'Yes or no, M. de Berault?'
'Yes, your Eminence,' I said reluctantly. Again, I say, what choice had I?
'You will bring him to Paris, and alive. He knows things, and that is why I want him. You understand?'
'I understand, Monseigneur,' I answered.
'You will get into the house as you can,' he continued with energy. 'For that you will need strategy, and good strategy. They suspect everybody. You must deceive them. If you fail to deceive them, or, deceiving them, are found out later, I do not think that you will trouble me again, or break the edict a second time. On the other hand, should you deceive me'—he smiled still more subtly, but his voice sank to a purring note—'I will break you on the wheel like the ruined gamester you are!'
I met his look without quailing. 'So be it!' I said recklessly. 'If I do not bring M. de Cocheforet to Paris, you may do that to me, and more also!'
'It is a bargain!' he answered slowly. 'I think that you will be faithful. For money, here are a hundred crowns. That sum should suffice; but if you succeed you shall have twice as much more. That is all, I think. You understand?'
'Then why do you wait?'
'The lieutenant?' I said modestly.
The Cardinal laughed to himself, and sitting down wrote a word or two on a slip of paper. 'Give him that,' he said in high good-humour. 'I fear, M. de Berault, you will never get your deserts—in this world!'
CHAPTER II. AT THE GREEN PILLAR
Cocheforet lies in a billowy land of oak and beech and chestnuts—a land of deep, leafy bottoms and hills clothed with forest. Ridge and valley, glen and knoll, the woodland, sparsely peopled and more sparsely tilled, stretches away to the great snow mountains that here limit France. It swarms with game—with wolves and bears, deer and boars. To the end of his life I have heard that the great king loved this district, and would sigh, when years and State fell heavily on him, for the beech groves and box-covered hills of South Bearn. From the terraced steps of Auch you can see the forest roll away in light and shadow, vale and upland, to the base of the snow peaks; and, though I come from Brittany and love the smell of the salt wind, I have seen few sights that outdo this.
It was the second week of October, when I came to Cocheforet, and, dropping down from the last wooded brow, rode quietly into the place at evening. I was alone, and had ridden all day in a glory of ruddy beech leaves, through the silence of forest roads, across clear brooks and glades still green. I had seen more of the quiet and peace of the country than had been my share since boyhood, and for that reason, or because I had no great taste for the task before me—the task now so imminent—I felt a little hipped. In good faith, it was not a gentleman's work that I was come to do, look at it how you might.
But beggars must not be choosers, and I knew that this feeling would not last. At the inn, in the presence of others, under the spur of necessity, or in the excitement of the chase, were that once begun, I should lose the feeling. When a man is young he seeks solitude, when he is middle-aged, he flies it and his thoughts. I made therefore for the 'Green Pillar,' a little inn in the village street, to which I had been directed at Auch, and, thundering on the door with the knob of my riding switch, railed at the man for keeping me waiting.
Here and there at hovel doors in the street—which was a mean, poor place, not worthy of the name—men and women looked out at me suspiciously. But I affected to ignore them; and at last the host came. He was a fair-haired man, half-Basque, half-Frenchman, and had scanned me well, I was sure, through some window or peephole; for when he came out he betrayed no surprise at the sight of a well-dressed stranger—a portent in that out-of-the-way village—but eyed me with a kind of sullen reserve.
'I can lie here to-night, I suppose?' I said, dropping the reins on the sorrel's neck. The horse hung its head.
'I don't know,' he answered stupidly.
I pointed to the green bough which topped a post that stood opposite the door.
'This is an inn, is it not?' I said.
'Yes,' he answered slowly. 'It is an inn. But—'
'But you are full, or you are out of food, or your wife is ill, or something else is amiss,' I answered peevishly. 'All the same, I am going to lie here. So you must make the best of it, and your wife too—if you have one.'
He scratched his head, looking at me with an ugly glitter in his eyes. But he said nothing, and I dismounted.
'Where can I stable my horse?' I asked.
'I'll put it up,' he answered sullenly, stepping forward and taking the reins in his hand.
'Very well,' I said. 'But I go with you. A merciful man is merciful to his beast, and wherever I go I see my horse fed.'
'It will be fed,' he said shortly. And then he waited for me to go into the house. 'The wife is in there,' he continued, looking at me stubbornly.
'IMPRIMIS—if you understand Latin, my friend,' I answered, 'the horse in the stall.'
He saw that it was no good, turned the sorrel slowly round, and began to lead it across the village street. There was a shed behind the inn, which I had already marked, and taken for the stable, I was surprised when I found that he was not going there, but I made no remark, and in a few minutes saw the horse made comfortable in a hovel which seemed to belong to a neighbour.
This done, the man led the way back to the inn, carrying my valise.
'You have no other guests?' I said, with a casual air. I knew that he was watching me closely.
'No,' he answered.
'This is not much in the way to anywhere, I suppose?'
That was so evident, that I never saw a more retired place. The hanging woods, rising steeply to a great height, so shut the valley in that I was puzzled to think how a man could leave it save by the road I had come. The cottages, which were no more than mean, small huts, ran in a straggling double line, with many gaps—through fallen trees and ill-cleared meadows. Among them a noisy brook ran in and out, and the inhabitants—charcoal-burners, or swine-herds, or poor devils of the like class, were no better than their dwellings. I looked in vain for the Chateau. It was not to be seen, and I dared not ask for it.
The man led me into the common room of the tavern—a low-roofed, poor place, lacking a chimney or glazed windows, and grimy with smoke and use. The fire—a great half-burned tree—smouldered on a stone hearth, raised a foot from the floor. A huge black pot simmered over it, and beside one window lounged a country fellow talking with the goodwife. In the dusk I could not see his face, but I gave the woman a word, and sat down to wait for my supper.
She seemed more silent than the common run of her kind; but this might be because her husband was present. While she moved about getting my meal, he took his place against the door-post and fell to staring at me so persistently that I felt by no means at my ease. He was a tall, strong fellow, with a shaggy moustache and brown beard, cut in the mode Henri Quatre; and on the subject of that king—a safe one, I knew, with a Bearnais—and on that alone, I found it possible to make him talk. Even then there was a suspicious gleam in his eyes that bade me abstain from questions; so that as the darkness deepened behind him, and the firelight played more and more strongly on his features, and I thought of the leagues of woodland that lay between this remote valley and Auch, I recalled the Cardinal's warning that if I failed in my attempt I should be little likely to trouble Paris again.
The lout by the window paid no attention to me; nor I to him, when I had once satisfied myself that he was really what he seemed to be. But by-and-by two or three men—rough, uncouth fellows—dropped in to reinforce the landlord, and they, too seemed to have no other business than to sit in silence looking at me, or now and again to exchange a word in a PATOIS of their own. By the time my supper was ready, the knaves numbered six in all; and, as they were armed to a man with huge Spanish knives, and made it clear that they resented my presence in their dull rustic fashion—every rustic is suspicious—I began to think that, unwittingly, I had put my head into a wasps' nest.
Nevertheless, I ate and drank with apparent appetite; but little that passed within the circle of light cast by the smoky lamp escaped me. I watched the men's looks and gestures at least as sharply as they watched mine; and all the time I was racking my wits for some mode of disarming their suspicions, or failing that, of learning something more of the position, which far exceeded in difficulty and danger anything that I had expected. The whole valley, it would seem, was on the look-out to protect my man!
I had purposely brought with me from Auch a couple of bottles of choice Armagnac; and these had been carried into the house with my saddle bags. I took one out now and opened it and carelessly offered a dram of the spirit to the landlord. He took it. As he drank it, I saw his face flush; he handed back the cup reluctantly, and on that hint I offered him another, The strong spirit was already beginning to work, and he accepted, and in a few minutes began to talk more freely and with less of the constraint which had before marked us all. Still, his tongue ran chiefly on questions—he would know this, he would learn that; but even this was a welcome change. I told him openly whence I had come, by what road, how long I had stayed in Auch, and where; and so far I satisfied his curiosity. Only, when I came to the subject of my visit to Cocheforet I kept a mysterious silence, hinting darkly at business in Spain and friends across the border, and this and that; in this way giving the peasants to understand, if they pleased, that I was in the same interest as their exiled master.
They took the bait, winked at one another, and began to look at me in a more friendly way—the landlord foremost. But when I had led them so far, I dared go no farther, lest I should commit myself and be found out. I stopped, therefore, and, harking back to general subjects, chanced to compare my province with theirs. The landlord, now become almost talkative, was not slow to take up this challenge; and it presently led to my acquiring a curious piece of knowledge. He was boasting of his great snow mountains, the forests that propped them, the bears that roamed in them, the izards that loved the ice, and the boars that fed on the oak mast.
'Well,' I said, quite by chance, 'we have not these things, it is true. But we have things in the north you have not. We have tens of thousands of good horses—not such ponies as you breed here. At the horse fair at Fecamp my sorrel would be lost in the crowd. Here in the south you will not meet his match in a long day's journey.'
'Do not make too sure of that,' the man replied, his eyes bright with triumph and the dram. 'What would you say if I showed you a better—in my own stable?'
I saw that his words sent a kind of thrill through his other hearers, and that such of them as understood for two or three of them talked their PATOIS only—looked at him angrily; and in a twinkling I began to comprehend. But I affected dullness, and laughed in scorn.
'Seeing is believing,' I said. 'I doubt if you knows good horse when you see one, my friend.'
'Oh, don't I?' he said, winking. 'Indeed!'
'I doubt it,' I answered stubbornly.
'Then come with me, and I will show you one,' he retorted, discretion giving way to vain-glory. His wife and the others, I saw, looked at him dumbfounded; but, without paying any heed to them, he rose, took up a lanthorn, and, assuming an air of peculiar wisdom, opened the door. 'Come with me,' he continued. 'I don't know a good horse when I see one, don't I? I know a better than yours, at any rate!'
I should not have been surprised if the other men had interfered; but I suppose he was a leader among them, they did not, and in a moment we were outside. Three paces through the darkness took us to the stable, an offset at the back of the inn. My man twirled the pin, and, leading the way in, raised his lanthorn. A horse whinnied softly, and turned its bright, mild eyes on us—a baldfaced chestnut, with white hairs in its tail and one white stocking.
'There!' my guide exclaimed, waving the lanthorn to and fro boastfully, that I might see its points. 'What do you say to that? Is that an undersized pony?'
'No,' I answered, purposely stinting my praise. 'It is pretty fair—for this country.'
'Or any country,' he answered wrathfully. 'Or any country, I say—I don't care where it is! And I have reason to know! Why, man, that horse is—But there, that is a good horse, if ever you saw one!' And with that he ended—abruptly and lamely; lowered the lanthorn with a sudden gesture, and turned to the door. He was on the instant in such hurry to leave that he almost shouldered me out.
But I understood. I knew that he had neatly betrayed all—that he had been on the point of blurting out that that was M. de Cocheforet's horse! M. Cocheforet's COMPRENEZ BIEN! And while I turned away my face in the darkness that he might not see me smile, I was not surprised to find the man in a moment changed, and become, in the closing of the door, as sober and suspicious as before, ashamed of himself and enraged with me, and in a mood to cut my throat for a trifle.
It was not my cue to quarrel, however. I made therefore, as if I had seen nothing, and when we were back in the inn praised the horse grudgingly, and like a man but half convinced. The ugly looks and ugly weapons I saw round me were fine incentives to caution; and no Italian, I flatter myself, could have played his part more nicely than I did. But I was heartily glad when it was over, and I found myself, at last, left alone for the night in a little garret—a mere fowl-house—upstairs, formed by the roof and gable walls, and hung with strings of apples and chestnuts. It was a poor sleeping-place—rough, chilly, and unclean. I ascended to it by a ladder; my cloak and a little fern formed my only bed. But I was glad to accept it, for it enabled me to be alone and to think out the position unwatched.
Of course M. de Cocheforet was at the Chateau. He had left his horse here, and gone up on foot; probably that was his usual plan. He was therefore within my reach, in one sense—I could not have come at a better time—but in another he was as much beyond it as if I were still in Paris. For so far was I from being able to seize him that I dared not ask a question, or let fall a rash word, or even look about me freely. I saw I dared not. The slightest hint of my mission, the faintest breath of distrust, would lead to throat-cutting—and the throat would be mine; while the longer I lay in the village, the greater suspicion I should incur, and the closer would be the watch kept upon me.
In such a position some men might have given up the attempt in despair, and saved themselves across the border. But I have always valued myself on my fidelity, and I did not shrink. If not to-day, to-morrow; if not this time, next time. The dice do not always turn up aces. Bracing myself, therefore, to the occasion, I crept, as soon as the house was quiet, to the window, a small, square, open lattice, much cobwebbed, and partly stuffed with hay. I looked out. The village seemed to be asleep. The dark branches of trees hung a few feet away, and almost obscured a grey, cloudy sky, through which a wet moon sailed drearily. Looking downwards, I could at first see nothing; but as my eyes grew used to the darkness—I had only just put out my rushlight—I made out the stable door and the shadowy outlines of the lean-to roof.
I had hoped for this, for I could now keep watch, and learn at least whether Cocheforet left before morning. If he did not, I should know he was still here. If he did, I should be the better for seeing his features, and learning, perhaps, other things that might be of use to me in the future.
Making up my mind to the uncomfortable, I sat down on the floor by the lattice, and began a vigil that might last, I knew, until morning. It did last about an hour, at the end of which time I heard whispering below, then footsteps; then, as some persons turned a corner, a voice speaking aloud and carelessly. I could not catch the words or meaning, but the voice was a gentleman's, and its bold accents and masterful tone left me in no doubt that the speaker was M. de Cocheforet himself. Hoping to learn more, I pressed my face nearer to the opening, and had just made out through the gloom two figures—one that of a tall, slight man, wearing a cloak, the other, I fancied, a woman's, in a sheeny white dress—when a thundering rap on the door of my garret made me spring back a yard from the lattice, and lie down hurriedly on my couch. The summons was repeated.
'Well?' I cried, rising on my elbow, and cursing the untimely interruption. I was burning with anxiety to see more. 'What is it? What is the matter?'
The trap-door was lifted a foot or more. The landlord thrust up his head.
'You called, did you not?' he said.
He held up a rushlight, which illumined half the room and lit up his grinning face.
'Called—at this hour of the night, you fool?' I answered angrily. 'No! I did not call. Go to bed, man!'
But he remained on the ladder, gaping stupidly. 'I heard you,' he said.
'Go to bed! You are drunk,' I answered, sitting up. 'I tell you I did not call.'
'Oh, very well,' he answered slowly. 'And you do not want anything?'
'Nothing—except to be left alone,' I replied sourly.
'Umph!' he said. 'Good-night!'
'Good-night! Good-night!' I answered with what patience I might. The tramp of the horse's hoofs as it was led out of the stable was in my ears at the moment. 'Good-night!' I continued feverishly, hoping that he would still retire in time, and I have a chance to look out. 'I want to sleep.'
'Good,' he said, with a broad grin. 'But it is early yet, and you have plenty of time.'
And then, at last, he slowly let down the trap-door, and I heard him chuckle as he went down the ladder.
Before he reached the bottom I was at the window. The woman, whom I had seen, still stood below in the same place, and beside her was a man in a peasant's dress, holding a lanthorn. But the man, the man I wanted to see, was no longer there. He was gone, and it was evident that the others no longer feared me; for while I gazed the landlord came out to them with another lanthorn swinging in his hand, and said something to the lady, and she looked up at my window and laughed.
It was a warm night, and she wore nothing over her white dress. I could see her tall, shapely figure and shining eyes, and the firm contour of her beautiful face, which, if any fault might be found with it, erred in being too regular. She looked like a woman formed by nature to meet dangers and difficulties, and to play a great part; even here, at midnight, in the midst of these desperate men, she did not seem out of place. I could fancy—I did not find it impossible to fancy—that under her queenly exterior, and behind the contemptuous laugh with which she heard the landlord's story, there lurked a woman's soul, a soul capable of folly and tenderness. But no outward sign betrayed its presence—as I saw her then.
I scanned her very carefully; and secretly, if the truth be told, I was glad to find that Madame de Cocheforet was such a woman. I was glad that she had laughed as she had—with a ring of disdain and defiance; glad that she was not a little, tender, child-like woman, to be crushed by the first pinch of trouble. For if I succeeded in my task, if I contrived to—but, pish! Women, I told myself, were all alike. She would find consolation quickly enough.
I watched until the group broke up, and Madame, with one of the men, went her way round the corner of the inn, and out of my sight. Then I retired to bed again, feeling more than ever perplexed what course I should adopt. It was clear that to succeed I must obtain admission to the house, which was garrisoned, according to my instructions, by two or three old men-servants only, and as many women; since Madame, to disguise her husband's visits the more easily, lived, and gave out that she lived, in great retirement. To seize her husband at home, therefore, might be no impossible task; though here, in the heart of the village, a troop of horse might make the attempt, and fail.
But how was I to gain admission to the house—a house guarded by quick-witted women, and fenced with all the precautions love could devise? That was the question; and dawn found me still debating it, still as far as ever from an answer. Anxious and feverish, I was glad when the light came, and I could get up. I thought that the fresh air might inspire me, and I was tired of my stuffy closet. I crept stealthily down the ladder, and managed to pass unseen through the lower room, in which several persons were snoring heavily. The outer door was not fastened, and in a hand-turn I was in the street.
It was still so early that the trees stood up black against the reddening sky, but the bough upon the post before the door was growing green, and in a few minutes the grey light would be everywhere. Already, even in the roadway, there was a glimmering of it; and as I stood at the corner of the house—where I could command both the front and the side on which the stable opened—sniffing the fresh air, and looking for any trace of the midnight departure, my eyes detected something light-coloured lying on the ground. It was not more than two or three paces from me, and I stepped to it and picked it up curiously, hoping that it might be a note. It was not a note, however, but a tiny orange-coloured sachet such as women carry in the bosom. It was full of some faintly-scented powder, and bore on one side the initial 'E,' worked in white silk; and was altogether a dainty little toy, such as women love.
Doubtless Madame de Cocheforet had dropped it in the night. I turned it over and over; and then I put it in my pouch with a smile, thinking that it might be useful sometime, and in some way. I had scarcely done this, and turned with the intention of exploring the street, when the door behind me creaked on its leather hinges, and in a moment the host stood at my elbow, and gave me a surly greeting.
Evidently his suspicions were again aroused, for from this time he managed to be with me, on one pretence or another until noon. Moreover, his manner grew each moment more churlish, his hints plainer; until I could scarcely avoid noticing the one or the other. About mid-day, having followed me for the twentieth time into the street, he came to the point by asking me rudely if I did not need my horse.
'No,' I said. 'Why do you ask?'
'Because,' he answered, with an ugly smile, 'this is not a very healthy place for strangers.'
'Ah!' I retorted. 'But the border air suits me, you see,'
It was a lucky answer, for, taken with my talk the night before, it puzzled him, by suggesting that I was on the losing side, and had my reasons for lying near Spain. Before he had done scratching his head over it, the clatter of hoofs broke the sleepy quiet of the village street, and the lady I had seen the night before rode quickly round the corner, and drew her horse on to its haunches. Without looking at me, she called to the innkeeper to come to her stirrup.
He went. The moment his back was turned, I slipped away, and in a twinkling was hidden by a house. Two or three glum-looking fellows stared at me as I passed down the street, but no one moved; and in two minutes I was clear of the village, and in a half-worn track which ran through the wood, and led—if my ideas were right—to the Chateau. To discover the house and learn all that was to be learned about its situation were my most pressing needs; and these, even at the risk of a knife thrust, I was determined to satisfy.
I had not gone two hundred paces along the path, however, before I heard the tread of a horse behind me, and I had just time to hide myself before Madame came up and rode by me, sitting her horse gracefully, and with all the courage of a northern woman. I watched her pass, and then, assured by her presence that I was in the right road, I hurried after her. Two minutes walking at speed brought me to a light wooden bridge spanning a stream. I crossed this, and, as the wood opened, saw before me first a wide, pleasant meadow, and beyond this a terrace. On the terrace, pressed upon on three sides by thick woods, stood a grey mansion, with the corner tourelles, steep, high roofs, and round balconies, that men loved and built in the days of the first Francis.
It was of good size, but wore a gloomy aspect. A great yew hedge, which seemed to enclose a walk or bowling-green, hid the ground floor of the east wing from view, while a formal rose garden, stiff even in neglect, lay in front of the main building. The west wing, of which the lower roofs fell gradually away to the woods, probably contained the stables and granaries.
I stood a moment only, but I marked all, and noted how the road reached the house, and which windows were open to attack; then I turned and hastened back. Fortunately, I met no one between the house and the village, and was able to enter my host's with an air of the most complete innocence.
Short as had been my absence, however, I found things altered there. Round the door lounged three strangers—stout, well-armed fellows, whose bearing, as they loitered and chattered, suggested a curious mixture of smugness and independence. Half a dozen pack-horses stood tethered to the post in front of the house; and the landlord's manner, from being rude and churlish only, had grown perplexed and almost timid. One of the strangers, I soon found, supplied him with wine; the others were travelling merchants, who rode in the first one's company for the sake of safety. All were substantial men from Tarbes—solid burgesses; and I was not long in guessing that my host, fearing what might leak out before them, and, particularly, that I might refer to the previous night's disturbance, was on tenter-hooks while they remained.
For a time this did not suggest anything to me. But when we had all taken our seats for supper, there came an addition to the party. The door opened, and the fellow whom I had seen the night before with Madame de Cocheforet entered and took a stool by the fire. I felt sure that he was one of the servants at the Chateau; and in a flash his presence inspired me with the most feasible plan for obtaining admission which I had yet hit upon. I felt myself grow hot at the thought—it seemed so full of promise, yet so doubtful—and, on the instant, without giving myself time to think too much, I began to carry it into effect.
I called for two or three bottles of better wine, and, assuming a jovial air, passed it round the table. When we had drunk a few glasses I fell to talking, and, choosing politics, took the side of the Languedoc party and the malcontents in so reckless a fashion that the innkeeper was beside himself at my imprudence. The merchants, who belonged to the class with whom the Cardinal was always most popular, looked first astonished and then enraged. But I was not to be checked; hints and sour looks were lost upon me. I grew more outspoken with every glass, I drank to the Rochellois, I swore it would not be long before they raised their heads again; and, at last, while the innkeeper and his wife were engaged lighting the lamp, I passed round the bottle and called on all for a toast.
'I'll give you one to begin,' I bragged noisily. 'A gentleman's toast! A southern toast! Here is confusion to the Cardinal, and a health to all who hate him!'
'MON DIEU!' one of the strangers cried, springing from his seat in a rage. 'I am not going to stomach that! Is your house a common treason-hole,' he continued, turning furiously on the landlord, 'that you suffer this?'
'Hoity-toity!' I answered, coolly keeping my seat. 'What is all this? Don't you relish my toast, little man?'
'No—nor you!' he retorted hotly; 'whoever you may be!'
'Then I will give you another,' I answered, with a hiccough. 'Perhaps it will be more to your taste. Here is the Duke of Orleans, and may he soon be King!'
CHAPTER III. THE HOUSE IN THE WOOD
Words so reckless fairly shook the three men out of their anger. For a moment they glared at me as if they had seen a ghost. Then the wine merchant clapped his hand on the table.
'That is enough,' he said, with a look at his companions. 'I think that there can be no mistake about that. As damnable treason as ever I heard whispered! I congratulate you, sir, on your boldness. As for you,' he continued, turning with an ugly sneer to the landlord, 'I shall know now the company you keep! I was not aware that my wine wet whistles to such a tune!'
But if he was startled, the innkeeper was furious, seeing his character thus taken away; and, being at no time a man of many words, he vented his rage exactly in the way I wished, raising in a twinkling such an uproar as can scarcely be conceived. With a roar like a bull's, he ran headlong at the table, and overturned it on the top of me. Fortunately the woman saved the lamp, and fled with it into a corner, whence she and the man from the Chateau watched the skirmish in silence; but the pewter cups and platters flew spinning across the floor, while the table pinned me to the ground among the ruins of my stool. Having me at this disadvantage—for at first I made no resistance the landlord began to belabour me with the first thing he snatched up, and when I tried to defend myself, cursed me with each blow for a treacherous rogue and a vagrant. Meanwhile the three merchants, delighted with the turn things had taken, skipped round us laughing, and now hounded him on, now bantered me with 'how is that for the Duke of Orleans?' and 'How now, traitor?'
When I thought that this had lasted long enough—or, to speak more plainly, when I could stand the innkeeper's drubbing no longer—I threw him off, and struggled to my feet; but still, though the blood was trickling down my face, I refrained from drawing my sword. I caught up instead a leg of the stool which lay handy, and, watching my opportunity, dealt the landlord a shrewd blow under the ear, which laid him out in a moment on the wreck of his own table.
'Now,' I cried, brandishing my new weapon, which fitted the hand to a nicety, 'come on! Come on! if you dare to strike a blow, you peddling, truckling, huckstering knaves! A fig for you and your shaveling Cardinal!'
The red-faced wine merchant drew his sword in a one-two.
'Why, you drunken fool,' he said wrathfully, 'put that stick down, or I will spit you like a lark!'
'Lark in your teeth!' I cried, staggering as if the wine were in my head. 'And cuckoo, too! Another word, and I—'
He made a couple of savage passes at me, but in a twinkling his sword flew across the room.
'VOILA!' I shouted, lurching forward, as if I had luck and not skill to thank for my victory. 'Now, the next! Come on, come on—you white-livered knaves!' And, pretending a drunken frenzy, I flung my weapon bodily amongst them, and seizing the nearest, began to wrestle with him.
In a moment they all threw themselves upon me, and, swearing copiously, bore me back to the door. The wine merchant cried breathlessly to the woman to open it, and in a twinkling they had me through it, and half-way across the road. The one thing I feared was a knife-thrust in the MELEE; but I had to run that risk, and the men were honest, and, thinking me drunk, indulgent. In a trice I found myself on my back in the dirt, with my head humming; and heard the bars of the door fall noisily into their places.
I got up and went to the door, and, to play out my part, hammered on it frantically; crying out to them to let me in. But the three travellers only jeered at me, and the landlord, coming to the window, with his head bleeding, shook his fist at me, and cursed me for a mischief-maker.
Baffled in this, I retired to a log which lay in the road a few paces from the house, and sat down on it to await events. With torn clothes and bleeding face, hatless and covered with dirt, I was in little better case than my opponent. It was raining, too, and the dripping branches swayed over my head. The wind was in the south—the coldest quarter. I began to feel chilled and dispirited. If my scheme failed, I had forfeited roof and bed to no purpose, and placed future progress out of the question. It was a critical moment.
But at last that happened for which I had been looking. The door swung open a few inches, and a man came noiselessly out; it was quickly barred behind him. He stood a moment, waiting on the threshold and peering into the gloom; and seemed to expect to be attacked. Finding himself unmolested, however, and all quiet, he went off steadily down the street—towards the Chateau.
I let a couple of minutes go by, and then I followed. I had no difficulty in hitting on the track at the end of the street, but when I had once plunged into the wood, I found myself in darkness so intense that I soon strayed from the path, and fell over roots, and tore my clothes with thorns, and lost my temper twenty times before I found the path again. However, I gained the bridge at last, and thence caught sight of a light twinkling before me. To make for it across the meadow and terrace was an easy task; yet, when I had reached the door and had hammered upon it, I was so worn out, and in so sorry a plight that I sank down, and had little need to play a part, or pretend to be worse than I was.
For a long time no one answered. The dark house towering above me remained silent. I could hear, mingled with the throbbings of my heart, the steady croaking of the frogs in a pond near the stables; but no other sound. In a frenzy of impatience and disgust, I stood up again and hammered, kicking with my heels on the nail-studded door, and crying out desperately,—
'A MOI! A MOI!'
Then, or a moment later, I heard a remote door opened; footsteps as of more than one person drew near. I raised my voice and cried again,—
'Who is there?' a voice asked.
'A gentleman in distress,' I answered piteously, moving my hands across the door. 'For God's sake open and let me in. I am hurt, and dying of cold.'
'What brings you here?' the voice asked sharply. Despite its tartness, I fancied that it was a woman's.
'Heaven knows!' I answered desperately. 'I cannot tell. They maltreated me at the inn, and threw me into the street. I crawled away, and have been wandering in the wood for hours. Then I saw a light here.'
On that some muttering took place on the other side of the door—to which I had my ear. It ended in the bars being lowered. The door swung partly open, and a light shone out, dazzling me. I tried to shade my eyes with my fingers, and, as did so, fancied I heard a murmur of pity. But when I looked in under screen of my hand, I saw only one person—the man who held the light, and his aspect was so strange, so terrifying, that, shaken as I was by fatigue, I recoiled a step.
He was a tall and very thin man, meanly dressed in a short, scanty jacket and well-darned hose. Unable, for some reason, to bend his neck, he carried his head with a strange stiffness.
And that head—never did living man show a face so like death. His forehead was bald and yellow, his cheek-bones stood out under the strained skin, all the lower part of his face fell in, his jaws receded, his cheeks were hollow, his lips and chin were thin and fleshless. He seemed to have only one expression—a fixed grin.
While I stood looking at this formidable creature, he made a quick movement to shut the door again, smiling more widely. I had the presence of mind to thrust in my foot, and, before he could resent the act, a voice in the background cried,—
'For shame, Clon! Stand back, stand back! do you hear? I am afraid, Monsieur, that you are hurt.'
Those words were my welcome to that house; and, spoken at an hour and in circumstances so gloomy, they made a lasting impression. Round the hall ran a gallery, and this, the height of the apartment, and the dark panelling seemed to swallow up the light. I stood within the entrance (as it seemed to me) of a huge cave; the skull-headed porter had the air of an ogre. Only the voice which greeted me dispelled the illusion. I turned trembling towards the quarter whence it came, and, shading my eyes, made out a woman's form standing in a doorway under the gallery. A second figure, which I took to be that of the servant I had seen at the inn, loomed uncertainly beside her.
I bowed in silence. My teeth were chattering. I was faint without feigning, and felt a kind of terror, hard to explain, at the sound of this woman's voice.
'One of our people has told me about you, she continued, speaking out of the darkness. 'I am sorry that this has happened to you here, but I am afraid that you were indiscreet.'
'I take all the blame, Madame,' I answered humbly. 'I ask only shelter for the night.'
'The time has not yet come when we cannot give our friends that!' she answered with noble courtesy. 'When it does, Monsieur, we shall be homeless ourselves.'
I shivered, looking anywhere but at her; for, if the truth be told, I had not sufficiently pictured this scene of my arrival—I had not foredrawn its details; and now I took part in it I felt a miserable meanness weigh me down. I had never from the first liked the work, but I had had no choice, and I had no choice now. Luckily, the guise in which I came, my fatigue, and wound were a sufficient mask, or I should have incurred suspicion at once. For I am sure that if ever in this world a brave man wore a hang-dog air, or Gil de Berault fell below himself, it was then and there—on Madame de Cocheforet's threshold, with her welcome sounding in my ears.
One, I think, did suspect me. Clon, the porter, continued to hold the door obstinately ajar and to eye me with grinning spite, until his mistress, with some sharpness, bade him drop the bars and conduct me to a room.
'Do you go also, Louis,' she continued, speaking to the man beside her, 'and see this gentleman comfortably disposed. I am sorry,' she added, addressing me in the graceful tone she had before used, and I thought that I could see her head bend in the darkness, 'that our present circumstances do not permit us to welcome you more fitly, Monsieur. But the troubles of the times—however, you will excuse what is lacking. Until to-morrow, I have the honour to bid you good-night.'
'Good-night, Madame,' I stammered, trembling. I had not been able to distinguish her face in the gloom of the doorway, but her voice, her greeting, her presence unmanned me. I was troubled and perplexed; I had not spirit to kick a dog. I followed the two servants from the hall without heeding how we went; nor was it until we came to a full stop at a door in a white-washed corridor, and it was forced upon me that something was in question between my two conductors that I began to take notice.
Then I saw that one of them, Louis, wished to lodge me here where we stood. The porter, on the other hand, who held the keys, would not. He did not speak a word, nor did the other—and this gave a queer ominous character to the debate; but he continued to jerk his head towards the farther end of the corridor; and, at last, he carried his point. Louis shrugged his shoulders, and moved on, glancing askance at me; and I, not understanding the matter in debate, followed the pair in silence.
We reached the end of the corridor, and there for an instant the monster with the keys paused and grinned at me. Then he turned into a narrow passage on the left, and after following it for some paces, halted before a small, strong door. His key jarred in the lock, but he forced it shrieking round, and with a savage flourish threw the door open.
I walked in and saw a mean, bare chamber with barred windows. The floor was indifferently clean, there was no furniture. The yellow light of the lanthorn falling on the stained walls gave the place the look of a dungeon. I turned to the two men. 'This is not a very good room,' I said. 'And it feels damp. Have you no other?'
Louis looked doubtfully at his companion. But the porter shook his head stubbornly.
'Why does he not speak?' I asked with impatience.
'He is dumb,' Louis answered.
'Dumb!' I exclaimed. 'But he hears.'
'He has ears,' the servant answered drily. 'But he has no tongue, Monsieur.'
I shuddered. 'How did he lose it?' I asked.
'At Rochelle. He was a spy, and the king's people took him the day the town surrendered. They spared his life, but cut out his tongue.'
'Ah!' I said. I wished to say more, to be natural, to show myself at my ease. But the porter's eyes seemed to burn into me, and my own tongue clave to the roof of my mouth. He opened his lips and pointed to his throat with a horrid gesture, and I shook my head and turned from him—'You can let me have some bedding?' I murmured hastily, for the sake of saying something, and to escape.
'Of course, Monsieur,' Louis answered. 'I will fetch some.'
He went away, thinking doubtless that Clon would stay with me. But after waiting a minute the porter strode off also with the lanthorn, leaving me to stand in the middle of the damp, dark room and reflect on the position. It was plain that Clon suspected me. This prison-like room, with its barred window, at the back of the house, and in the wing farthest from the stables, proved so much. Clearly, he was a dangerous fellow, of whom I must beware. I had just begun to wonder how Madame could keep such a monster in her house, when I heard his step returning. He came in, lighting Louis, who carried a small pallet and a bundle of coverings.
The dumb man had, besides the lanthorn, a bowl of water and a piece of rag in his hand. He set them down, and going out again, fetched in a stool. Then he hung up the lanthorn on a nail, took the bowl and rag, and invited me to sit down.
I was loth to let him touch me; but he continued to stand over me, pointing and grinning with dark persistence, and rather than stand on a trifle I sat down at last and gave him his way. He bathed my head carefully enough, and I daresay did it good; but I understood. I knew that his only desire was to learn whether the cut was real or a pretence, and I began to fear him more and more; until he was gone from the room, I dared scarcely lift my face lest he should read too much in it.
Alone, even, I felt uncomfortable, this seemed so sinister a business, and so ill begun. I was in the house. But Madame's frank voice haunted me, and the dumb man's eyes, full of suspicion and menace. When I presently got up and tried my door, I found it locked. The room smelt dank and close—like a vault. I could not see through the barred window, but I could hear the boughs sweep it in ghostly fashion; and I guessed that it looked out where the wood grew close to the walls of the house, and that even in the day the sun never peeped through it.
Nevertheless, tired and worn out, I slept at last. When I awoke the room was full of grey light, the door stood open, and Louis, looking ashamed of himself, waited by my pallet with a cup of wine in his hand, and some bread and fruit on a platter.
'Will Monsieur be good enough to rise?' he said. 'It is eight o'clock.'
'Willingly,' I answered tartly. 'Now that the door is unlocked.'
He turned red. 'It was an oversight,' he stammered 'Clon is accustomed to lock the door, and he did it inadvertently, forgetting that there was anyone—'
'Inside,' I said drily.
'Ah!' I replied. 'Well, I do not think the oversight would please Madame de Cocheforet if she heard of it?'
'If Monsieur would have the kindness not to—'
'Mention it, my good fellow?' answered, looking at him with meaning as I rose. 'No. But it must not occur again.'
I saw that this man was not like Clon. He had the instincts of the family servant, and freed from the influences of fear and darkness felt ashamed of his conduct. While he arranged my clothes, he looked round the room with an air of distaste, and muttered once or twice that the furniture of the principal chambers was packed away.
'M. de Cocheforet is abroad, I think?' I said as I dressed.
'And likely to remain there,' the man answered carelessly, shrugging his shoulders. 'Monsieur will doubtless have heard that he is in trouble. In the meantime, the house is TRISTE, and Monsieur must overlook much, if he stays. Madame lives retired, and the roads are ill-made and visitors few.'
'When the lion was ill the jackals left him,' I said.
Louis nodded. 'It is true,' he answered simply. He made no boast or brag on his own account, I noticed; and it came home to me that he was a faithful fellow, such as I love. I questioned him discreetly, and learned that he and Clon and an older man who lived over the stables were the only male servants left of a great household. Madame, her sister-in-law, and three women completed the family.
It took me some time to repair my wardrobe, so that I daresay it was nearly ten when I left my dismal little room. I found Louis waiting in the corridor, and he told me that Madame de Cocheforet and Mademoiselle were in the rose garden, and would be pleased to receive me. I nodded, and he guided me through several dim passages to a parlour with an open door, through which the sun shone gaily on the floor. Cheered by the morning air and this sudden change to pleasantness and life, I stepped lightly out.
The two ladies were walking up and down a wide path which bisected the garden. The weeds grew rankly in the gravel underfoot, the rose bushes which bordered the walk thrust their branches here and there in untrained freedom, a dark yew hedge which formed the background bristled with rough shoots and sadly needed trimming. But I did not see any of these things. The grace, the noble air, the distinction of the two women who paced slowly to meet me—and who shared all these qualities, greatly as they differed in others—left me no power to notice trifles.
Mademoiselle was a head shorter than her BELLE-SOEUR—a slender woman and petite, with a beautiful face and a fair complexion; a woman wholly womanly. She walked with dignity, but beside Madame's stately figure she had an air almost childish. And it was characteristic of the two that Mademoiselle as they drew near to me regarded me with sorrowful attention, Madame with a grave smile.
I bowed low. They returned the salute. 'This is my sister,' Madame de Cocheforet said, with a very slight air of condescension, 'Will you please to tell me your name, Monsieur?'
'I am M. de Barthe, a gentleman of Normandy,' I said, taking on impulse the name of my mother. My own, by a possibility, might be known.
Madame's face wore a puzzled look. 'I do not know that name, I think,' she said thoughtfully. Doubtless she was going over in her mind all the names with which conspiracy had made her familiar.
That is my misfortune, Madame,' I said humbly.
'Nevertheless I am going to scold you,' she rejoined, still eyeing me with some keenness. 'I am glad to see that you are none the worse for your adventure—but others may be. And you should have borne that in mind, sir.'
'I do not think that I hurt the man seriously,' I stammered.
'I do not refer to that,' she answered coldly. 'You know, or should know, that we are in disgrace here; that the Government regards us already with an evil eye, and that a very small thing would lead them to garrison the village, and perhaps oust us from the little the wars have left us. You should have known this, and considered it,' she continued. 'Whereas—I do not say that you are a braggart, M. de Barthe. But on this one occasion you seem to have played the part of one.'
'Madame, I did not think,' I stammered.
'Want of thought causes much evil,' she answered, smiling. 'However, I have spoken, and we trust that while you stay with us you will be more careful. For the rest, Monsieur,' she continued graciously, raising her hand to prevent me speaking, 'we do not know why you are here, or what plans you are pursuing. And we do not wish to know. It is enough that you are of our side. This house is at your service as long as you please to use it. And if we can aid you in any other way we will do so.'
'Madame!' I exclaimed; and there I stopped. I could say no more. The rose garden, with its air of neglect, the shadow of the quiet house that fell across it, the great yew hedge which backed it, and was the pattern of one under which I had played in childhood—all had points that pricked me. But the women's kindness, their unquestioning confidence, the noble air of hospitality which moved them! Against these and their placid beauty in its peaceful frame I had no shield, no defence. I turned away, and feigned to be overcome by gratitude.
'I have no words—to thank you!' I muttered presently. 'I am a little shaken this morning. I—pardon me.'
'We will leave you for a while,' Mademoiselle de Cocheforet said in gentle pitying tones. 'The air will revive you. Louis shall call you when we go to dinner, M. de Barthe. Come, Elise.'
I bowed low to hide my face, and they nodded pleasantly—not looking closely at me—as they walked by me to the house. I watched the two gracious, pale-robed figures until the doorway swallowed them, and then I walked away to a quiet corner where the shrubs grew highest and the yew hedge threw its deepest shadow, and I stood to think.
And, MON DIEU, strange thoughts. If the oak can think at the moment the wind uproots it, or the gnarled thorn-bush when the landslip tears it from the slope, they may have such thoughts, I stared at the leaves, at the rotting blossoms, into the dark cavities of the hedge; I stared mechanically, dazed and wondering. What was the purpose for which I was here? What was the work I had come to do? Above all, how—my God! how was I to do it in the face of these helpless women, who trusted me, who believed in me, who opened their house to me? Clon had not frightened me, nor the loneliness of the leagued village, nor the remoteness of this corner where the dread Cardinal seemed a name, and the King's writ ran slowly, and the rebellion long quenched elsewhere, still smouldered. But Madame's pure faith, the younger woman's tenderness—how was I to face these?
I cursed the Cardinal—would he had stayed at Luchon. I cursed the English fool who had brought me to this, I cursed the years of plenty and scarceness, and the Quartier Marais, and Zaton's, where I had lived like a pig, and—
A touch fell on my arm. I turned. It was Clon. How he had stolen up so quietly, how long he had been at my elbow, I could not tell. But his eyes gleamed spitefully in their deep sockets, and he laughed with his fleshless lips; and I hated him. In the daylight the man looked more like a death's-head than ever. I fancied that I read in his face that he knew my secret, and I flashed into rage at sight of him.
'What is it?' I cried, with another oath. 'Don't lay your corpse-claws on me!'
He mowed at me, and, bowing with ironical politeness, pointed to the house.
'Is Madame served?' I said impatiently, crushing down my anger. 'Is that what you mean, fool?'
'Very well,' I retorted. 'I can find my way then. You may go!'
He fell behind, and I strode back through the sunshine and flowers, and along the grass-grown paths, to the door by which I had come I walked fast, but his shadow kept pace with me, driving out the unaccustomed thoughts in which I had been indulging. Slowly but surely it darkened my mood. After all, this was a little, little place; the people who lived here—I shrugged my shoulders. France, power, pleasure, life, everything worth winning, worth having, lay yonder in the great city. A boy might wreck himself here for a fancy; a man of the world, never. When I entered the room, where the two ladies stood waiting for me by the table, I was nearly my old self again. And a chance word presently completed the work.
'Clon made you understand, then?' the young woman said kindly, as I took my seat.
'Yes, Mademoiselle,' I answered. On that I saw the two smile at one another, and I added: 'He is a strange creature. I wonder that you can bear to have him near you.'
'Poor man! You do not know his story?' Madame said.
'I have heard something of it,' I answered. 'Louis told me.'
'Well, I do shudder at him sometimes,' she replied, in a low voice. 'He has suffered—and horribly, and for us. But I wish that it had been on any other service. Spies are necessary things, but one does not wish to have to do with them! Anything in the nature of treachery is so horrible.'
'Quick, Louis!' Mademoiselle exclaimed, 'the cognac, if you have any there! I am sure that you are—still feeling ill, Monsieur.'
'No, I thank you,' I muttered hoarsely, making an effort to recover myself. 'I am quite well. It was—an old wound that sometimes touches me.'
CHAPTER IV. MADAME AND MADEMOISELLE
To be frank, however, it was not the old wound that touched me so nearly, but Madame's words; which, finishing what Clon's sudden appearance in the garden had begun, went a long way towards hardening me and throwing me back into myself. I saw with bitterness—what I had perhaps forgotten for a moment—how great was the chasm that separated me from these women; how impossible it was that we could long think alike; how far apart in views, in experience, in aims we were. And while I made a mock in my heart of their high-flown sentiments—or thought I did—I laughed no less at the folly which had led me to dream, even for a moment, that I could, at my age, go back—go back and risk all for a whim, a scruple, the fancy of a lonely hour.
I daresay something of this showed in my face; for Madame's eyes mirrored a dim reflection of trouble as she looked at me, and Mademoiselle talked nervously and at random. At any rate, I fancied so, and I hastened to compose myself; and the two, in pressing upon me the simple dainties of the table soon forgot, or appeared to forget, the incident.
Yet in spite of this CONTRETEMPS, that first meal had a strange charm for me. The round table whereat we dined was spread inside the open door which led to the garden, so that the October sunshine fell full on the spotless linen and quaint old plate, and the fresh balmy air filled the room with the scent of sweet herbs. Louis served us with the mien of a major-domo, and set on each dish as though it had been a peacock or a mess of ortolans. The woods provided the larger portion of our meal; the garden did its part; the confections Mademoiselle had cooked with her own hand.
By-and-by, as the meal went on, as Louis trod to and fro across the polished floor, and the last insects of summer hummed sleepily outside, and the two gracious faces continued to smile at me out of the gloom—for the ladies sat with their backs to the door—I began to dream again, I began to sink again into folly, that was half-pleasure, half-pain. The fury of the gaming-house and the riot of Zaton's seemed far away. The triumphs of the fencing-room—even they grew cheap and tawdry. I thought of existence as one outside it, I balanced this against that, and wondered whether, after all, the red soutane were so much better than the homely jerkin, or the fame of a day than ease and safety.
And life at Cocheforet was all after the pattern of this dinner. Each day, I might almost say each meal, gave rise to the same sequence of thoughts. In Clon's presence, or when some word of Madame's, unconsciously harsh, reminded me of the distance between us, I was myself. At other times, in face of this peaceful and intimate life, which was only rendered possible by the remoteness of the place and the peculiar circumstances in which the ladies stood, I felt a strange weakness, The loneliness of the woods that encircled the house, and only here and there afforded a distant glimpse of snow-clad peaks; the absence of any link to bind me to the old life, so that at intervals it seemed unreal; the remoteness of the great world, all tended to sap my will and weaken the purpose which had brought me to this place.
On the fourth day after my coming, however, something happened to break the spell. It chanced that I came late to dinner, and entered the room hastily and without ceremony, expecting to find Madame and her sister already seated. Instead, I found them talking in a low tone by the open door, with every mark of disorder in their appearance; while Clon and Louis stood at a little distance with downcast faces and perplexed looks.
I had time to see all this, and then my entrance wrought a sudden change. Clon and Louis sprang to attention; Madame and her sister came to the table and sat down, and all made a shallow pretence of being at their ease. But Mademoiselle's face was pale, her hand trembled; and though Madame's greater self-command enabled her to carry off the matter better, I saw that she was not herself. Once or twice she spoke harshly to Louis; she fell at other times into a brown study; and when she thought that I was not watching her, her face wore a look of deep anxiety.
I wondered what all this meant; and I wondered more when, after the meal, the two walked in the garden for an hour with Clon. Mademoiselle came from this interview alone, and I was sure that she had been weeping. Madame and the dark porter stayed outside some time longer; then she, too, came in, and disappeared.
Clon did not return with her, and when I went into the garden five minutes later, Louis also had vanished. Save for two women who sat sewing at an upper window, the house seemed to be deserted. Not a sound broke the afternoon stillness of room or garden, and yet I felt that more was happening in this silence than appeared on the surface. I begin to grow curious—suspicious, and presently slipped out myself by way of the stables, and skirting the wood at the back of the house, gained with a little trouble the bridge which crossed the stream and led to the village.
Turning round at this point I could see the house, and I moved a little aside into the underwood, and stood gazing at the windows, trying to unriddle the matter. It was not likely that M. de Cocheforet would repeat his visit so soon; and, besides, the women's emotions had been those of pure dismay and grief, unmixed with any of the satisfaction to which such a meeting, though snatched by stealth, must give rise. I discarded my first thought therefore—that he had returned unexpectedly—and I sought for another solution.
But no other was on the instant forthcoming. The windows remained obstinately blind, no figures appeared on the terrace, the garden lay deserted, and without life. My departure had not, as I half expected it would, drawn the secret into light.
I watched awhile, at times cursing my own meanness; but the excitement of the moment and the quest tided me over that. Then I determined to go down into the village and see whether anything was moving there. I had been down to the inn once, and had been received half sulkily, half courteously, as a person privileged at the great house, and therefore to be accepted. It would not be thought odd if I went again, and after a moment's thought, I started down the track.
This, where it ran through the wood, was so densely shaded that the sun penetrated to it little, and in patches only. A squirrel stirred at times, sliding round a trunk, or scampering across the dry leaves. Occasionally a pig grunted and moved farther into the wood. But the place was very quiet, and I do not know how it was that I surprised Clon instead of being surprised by him.
He was walking along the path before me with his eyes on the ground—walking so slowly, and with his lean frame so bent that I might have supposed him ill if I had not remarked the steady movement of his head from right to left, and the alert touch with which he now and again displaced a clod of earth or a cluster of leaves. By-and-by he rose stiffly, and looked round him suspiciously; but by that time I had slipped behind a trunk, and was not to be seen; and after a brief interval he went back to his task, stooping over it more closely, if possible, than before, and applying himself with even greater care.
By that time I had made up my mind that he was tracking someone. But whom? I could not make a guess at that. I only knew that the plot was thickening, and began to feel the eagerness of the chase. Of course, if the matter had not to do with Cocheforet, it was no affair of mine; but though it seemed unlikely that anything could bring him back so soon, he might still be at the bottom of this. And, besides, I felt a natural curiosity. When Clon at last improved his pace, and went on to the village, I took up his task. I called to mind all the wood-lore I had ever learned, and scanned trodden mould and crushed leaves with eager eyes. But in vain. I could make nothing of it all, and rose at last with an aching back and no advantage.
I did not go on to the village after that, but returned to the house, where I found Madame pacing the garden. She looked up eagerly on hearing my step; and I was mistaken if she was not disappointed—if she had not been expecting someone else. She hid the feeling bravely, however, and met me with a careless word; but she turned to the house more than once while we talked, and she seemed to be all the while on the watch, and uneasy. I was not surprised when Clon's figure presently appeared in the doorway, and she left me abruptly, and went to him. I only felt more certain than before that there was something strange on foot. What it was, and whether it had to do with M. de Cocheforet, I could not tell. But there it was, and I grew more curious the longer I remained alone.
She came back to me presently, looking thoughtful and a trifle downcast.
'That was Clon, was it not?' I said, studying her face.
'Yes,' she answered. She spoke absently, and did not look at me.
'How does he talk to you?' I asked, speaking a trifle curtly.
As I intended, my tone roused her. 'By signs,' she said.
'Is he—is he not a little mad?' I ventured. I wanted to make her talk and forget herself.
She looked at me with sudden keenness, then dropped her eyes.
'You do not like him?' she said, a note of challenge in her voice. 'I have noticed that, Monsieur.'
'I think he does not like me,' I replied.
'He is less trustful than we are,' she answered naively. 'It is natural that he should be. He has seen more of the world.'
That silenced me for a moment, but she did not seem to notice it.
'I was looking for him a little while ago, and I could not find him,' I said, after a pause.
'He has been into the village,' she answered.
I longed to pursue the matter further; but though she seemed to entertain no suspicion of me, I dared not run the risk. I tried her, instead, on another tack.
'Mademoiselle de Cocheforet does not seem very well to-day?' I said.
'No?' she answered carelessly. 'Well, now you speak of it, I do not think that she is. She is often anxious about—one we love.'
She uttered the last words with a little hesitation, and looked at me quickly when she had spoken them. We were sitting at the moment on a stone seat which had the wall of the house for a back; and, fortunately, I was toying with the branch of a creeping plant that hung over it, so that she could not see more than the side of my face. For I knew that it altered. Over my voice, however, I had more control, and I hastened to answer, 'Yes, I suppose so,' as innocently as possible.
'He is at Bosost, in Spain. You knew that, I conclude?' she said, with a certain sharpness. And she looked me in the face again very directly.
'Yes,' I answered, beginning to tremble.
'I suppose you have heard, too, that he—that he sometimes crosses the border?' she continued in a low voice, but with a certain ring of insistence in her tone. 'Or, if you have not heard it, you guess it?'
I was in a quandary, and grew, in one second, hot all over. Uncertain what amount of knowledge I ought to admit, I took refuge in gallantry.
'I should be surprised if he did not,' I answered, with a bow, 'being, as he is, so close, and having such an inducement to return, Madame.'
She drew a long, shivering sigh, at the thought of his peril, I fancied, and she sat back against the wall. Nor did she say any more, though I heard her sigh again. In a moment she rose.
'The afternoons are growing chilly,' she said; 'I will go in and see how Mademoiselle is. Sometimes she does not come to supper. If she cannot descend this evening, I am afraid that you must excuse me too, Monsieur.'
I said what was right, and watched her go in; and, as I did so, I loathed my errand, and the mean contemptible curiosity which it had planted in my mind, more than at any former time. These women—I could find it in my heart to hate them for their frankness, for their foolish confidence, and the silly trustfulness that made them so easy a prey!
NOM DE DIEU! What did the woman mean by telling me all this? To meet me in such a way, to disarm one by such methods, was to take an unfair advantage. It put a vile—ay, the vilest—aspect, on the work I had to do.
Yet it was very odd! What could M. de Cocheforet mean by returning so soon, if M. de Cocheforet was here? And, on the other hand, if it was not his unexpected presence that had so upset the house, what was the secret? Whom had Clon been tracking? And what was the cause of Madame's anxiety? In a few minutes I began to grow curious again; and, as the ladies did not appear at supper, I had leisure to give my brain full licence, and, in the course of an hour, thought of a hundred keys to the mystery. But none exactly fitted the lock, or laid open the secret.
A false alarm that evening helped to puzzle me still more. I was sitting about an hour after supper, on the same seat in the garden—I had my cloak and was smoking—when Madame came out like a ghost, and, without seeing me, flitted away through the darkness toward the stables. For a moment I hesitated, and then I followed her. She went down the path and round the stables, and, so far, I saw nothing strange in her actions; but when she had in this way gained the rear of the west wing, she took a track through the thicket to the east of the house again, and so came back to the garden. This gained, she came up the path and went in through the parlour door, and disappeared—alter making a clear circuit of the house, and not once pausing or looking to right or left! I confess I was fairly baffled. I sank back on the seat I had left, and said to myself that this was the lamest of all conclusions. I was sure that she had exchanged no word with anyone. I was equally sure that she had not detected my presence behind her. Why, then, had she made this strange promenade, alone, unprotected, an hour after nightfall? No dog had bayed, no one had moved, she had not once paused, or listened, like a person expecting a rencontre. I could not make it out. And I came no nearer to solving it, though I lay awake an hour beyond my usual time.
In the morning, neither of the ladies descended to dinner, and I heard that Mademoiselle was not so well. After a lonely meal, therefore I missed them more than I should have supposed—I retired to my favourite seat and fell to meditating.
The day was fine, and the garden pleasant. Sitting there with my eyes on the old fashioned herb-beds, with the old-fashioned scents in the air, and the dark belt of trees bounding the view on either side, I could believe that I had been out of Paris not three weeks, but three months. The quiet lapped me round. I could fancy that I had never loved anything else. The wood-doves cooed in the stillness; occasionally the harsh cry of a jay jarred the silence. It was an hour after noon, and hot. I think I nodded.
On a sudden, as if in a dream, I saw Clon's face peering at me round the angle of the parlour door. He looked, and in a moment withdrew, and I heard whispering. The door was gently closed. Then all was still again.
But I was wide awake now, and thinking. Clearly the people of the house wished to assure themselves that I was asleep and safely out of the way. As clearly, it was to my interest to be in the way. Giving place to the temptation, I rose quietly, and, stooping below the level of the windows, slipped round the east end of the house, passing between it and the great yew hedge. Here I found all still and no one stirring; so, keeping a wary eye about me, I went on round the house—reversing the route which Madame had taken the night before—until I gained the rear of the stables. Here I had scarcely paused a second to scan the ground before two persons came out of the stable-court. They were Madame and the porter.
They stood a brief while outside and looked up and down. Then Madame said something to the man, and he nodded. Leaving him standing where he was, she crossed the grass with a quick, light step, and vanished among the trees.
In a moment my mind was made up to follow; and, as Clon turned at once and went in, I was able to do so before it was too late. Bending low among the shrubs, I ran hotfoot to the point where Madame had entered the wood. Here I found a narrow path, and ran nimbly along it, and presently saw her grey robe fluttering among the trees before me. It only remained to keep out of her sight and give her no chance of discovering that she was followed; and this I set myself to do. Once or twice she glanced round, but the wood was of beech, the light which passed between the leaves was mere twilight, and my clothes were dark-coloured. I had every advantage, therefore, and little to fear as long as I could keep her in view and still remain myself at such a distance that the rustle of my tread would not disturb her.
Assured that she was on her way to meet her husband, whom my presence kept from the house, I felt that the crisis had come at last, and I grew more excited with each step I took. I detested the task of watching her; it filled me with peevish disgust. But in proportion as I hated it I was eager to have it done and be done with it, and succeed, and stuff my ears and begone from the scene. When she presently came to the verge of the beech wood, and, entering a little open clearing, seemed to loiter, I went cautiously. This, I thought, must be the rendezvous; and I held back warily, looking to see him step out of the thicket.
But he did not, and by-and-by she quickened her pace. She crossed the open and entered a wide ride cut through a low, dense wood of alder and dwarf oak—a wood so closely planted and so intertwined with hazel and elder and box that the branches rose like a solid wall, twelve feet high, on either side of the track.
Down this she passed, and I stood and watched her go, for I dared not follow. The ride stretched away as straight as a line for four or five hundred yards, a green path between green walls. To enter it was to be immediately detected, if she turned, while the thicket itself permitted no passage. I stood baffled and raging, and watched her pass along. It seemed an age before she at last reached the end, and, turning sharply to the right, was in an instant gone from sight.
I waited then no longer. I started off, and, running as lightly and quietly as I could, I sped down the green alley. The sun shone into it, the trees kept off the wind, and between heat and haste I sweated finely. But the turf was soft, and the ground fell slightly, and in little more than a minute I gained the end. Fifty yards short of the turning I stopped, and, stealing on, looked cautiously the way she had gone.
I saw before me a second ride, the twin of the other, and a hundred and fifty paces down it her grey figure tripping on between the green hedges. I stood and took breath, and cursed the wood and the heat and Madame's wariness. We must have come a league, or two-thirds of a league, at least. How far did the man expect her to plod to meet him? I began to grow angry. There is moderation even in the cooking of eggs, and this wood might stretch into Spain, for all I knew!