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A Gentleman of France by Stanley Weyman

Part 7 out of 9

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with sunshine, which made its desolation seem a hundred times
more formidable, stretched away before us, bare and empty; or
haunted only by a few slinking dogs, and prowling wretches, who
fled, affrighted at the unaccustomed sounds, or stood and eyed us
listlessly as me passed. A bell tolled; in the distance we heard
the wailing of women. The silent ways, the black cross which
marked every second door, the frightful faces which once or twice
looked out from upper windows and blasted our sight, infected my
men with terror so profound and so ungovernable that at last
discipline was forgotten; and one shoving his horse before
another in narrow places, there was a scuffle to be first. One,
and then a second, began to trot. The trot grew into a shuffling
canter. The gates of the inn lay open, nay seemed to invite us
to enter; but no one turned or halted. Moved by a single impulse
we pushed breathlessly on and on, until the open country was
reached, and we who had entered the streets in silent awe, swept
out and over the bridge as if the fiend were at our heels.

That I shared in this flight causes me no shame even now, for my
men were at the time ungovernable, as the best-trained troops are
when seized by such panics; and, moreover, I could have done no
good by remaining in the town, where the strength of the
contagion was probably greater and the inn larder like to be as
bare, as the hillside. Few towns are without a hostelry outside
the gates for the convenience of knights of the road or those who
would avoid the dues, and Chateauroux proved no exception to this
rule. A short half-mile from the walls we drew rein before a
second encampment raised about a wayside house. It scarcely
needed the sound of music mingled with brawling voices to inform
us that the wilder spirits of the town had taken refuge here, and
were seeking to drown in riot and debauchery, as I have seen
happen in a besieged place, the remembrance of the enemy which
stalked abroad in the sunshine. Our sudden appearance, while it
put a stop to the mimicry of mirth, brought out a score of men
and women in every stage of drunkenness and dishevelment, of whom
some, with hiccoughs and loose gestures, cried to us to join
them, while others swore horridly at being recalled to the
present, which, with the future, they were endeavouring to
forget.

I cursed them in return for a pack of craven wretches, and
threatening to ride down those who obstructed us, ordered my men
forward; halting eventually a quarter of a mile farther on, where
a wood of groundling oaks which still wore last year's leaves
afforded fair shelter. Afraid to leave my men myself, lest some
should stray to the inn and others desert altogether, I requested
M. d'Agen to return thither with Maignan and Simon, and bring us
what forage and food we required. This he did with perfect
success, though not until after a scuffle, in which Maignan
showed himself a match for a hundred. We watered the horses at a
neighbouring brook, and assigning two hours to rest and
refreshment--a great part of which M. d'Agen and I spent walking
up and down in moody silence, each immersed in his own thoughts--
we presently took the road again with renewed spirits.

But a panic is not easily shaken off, nor is any fear so
difficult to combat and defeat as the fear of the invisible. The
terrors which food and drink had for a time thrust out presently
returned with sevenfold force. Men looked uneasily in one
another's faces, and from them to the haze which veiled all
distant objects. They muttered of the heat, which was sudden,
strange, and abnormal at that time of the year. And by-and-by
they had other things to speak of. We met a man, who ran beside
us and begged of us, crying out in a dreadful voice that his wife
and four children lay unburied in the house. A little farther
on, beside a well, the corpse of a woman with a child at her
breast lay poisoning the water; she had crawled to it to appease
her thirst, and died of the draught. Last of all, in, a beech-
wood near Lotier we came upon a lady living in her coach, with
one or two panic-stricken women for her only attendants. Her
husband was in Paris, she told me; half her servants were dead,
the rest had fled. Still she retained in a remarkable degree
both courage and courtesy, and accepting with fortitude my
reasons and excuses for perforce leaving her in such a plight,
gave me a clear account of Bruhl and his party, who had passed
her some, hours before. The picture of this lady gazing after us
with perfect good-breeding, as we rode away at speed, followed by
the lamentations of her women, remains with me to this day;
filling my mind at once with admiration and melancholy. For, as
I learned later, she fell ill of the plague where we left her in
the beech-wood, and died in a night with both her servants.

The intelligence we had from her inspired us to push forward,
sparing neither spur nor horseflesh, in the hope that we might
overtake Bruhl before night should expose his captives to fresh
hardships and dangers. But the pitch to which the dismal sights
and sounds I have mentioned, and a hundred like them, had raised
the fears of my following did much to balk my endeavours. For a
while, indeed, under the influence of momentary excitement, they
spurred their horses to the gallop, as if their minds were made
up to face the worst; but presently they checked them despite all
my efforts, and, lagging slowly and more slowly, seemed to lose
all spirit and energy. The desolation which met our eyes on
every side, no less than the death-like stillness which
prevailed, even the birds, as it seemed to us, being silent,
chilled the most reckless to the heart. Maignan's face lost its
colour, his voice its ring. As for the rest, starting at a sound
and wincing if a leather galled them, they glanced backwards
twice for once they looked forwards, and held themselves ready to
take to their heels and be gone at the least alarm.

Noting these signs, and doubting if I could trust even Maignan, I
thought it prudent to change my place, and falling to the rear,
rode there with a grim face and a pistol ready to my hand. It
was not the least of my annoyances that M. d'Agen appeared to be
ignorant of any cause for apprehension save such as lay before
us, and riding on in the same gloomy fit which had possessed him
from the moment of starting, neither sought my opinion nor gave
his own, but seemed to have undergone so complete and mysterious
a change that I could think of one thing only that could have
power to effect so marvellous a transformation. I felt his
presence a trial rather than a help, and reviewing the course of
our short friendship, which a day or two before had been so great
a delight to me--as the friendship of a young man commonly is to
one growing old--I puzzled myself with much wondering whether
there could be rivalry between us.

Sunset, which was welcome to my company, since it removed the
haze, which they regarded with superstitious dread, found us
still plodding through a country of low ridges and shallow
valleys, both clothed in oak-woods. Its short brightness died
away, and with it my last hope of surprising Bruhl before I
slept. Darkness fell upon us as we wended our way slowly down a
steep hillside where the path was so narrow and difficult as to
permit only one to descend at a time. A stream of some size, if
we might judge from the noise it made, poured through the ravine
below us, and presently, at the point where we believed the
crossing to be, we espied a solitary light shining in the
blackness. To proceed farther was impossible, for the ground
grew more and more precipitous; and, seeing this, I bade Maignan
dismount, and leaving us where we were, go for a guide to the
house from which the light issued.

He obeyed, and plunging into the night, which in that pit;
between the hills was of an inky darkness, presently returned
with a peasant and a lanthorn. I was about to bid the man guide
us to the ford, or to some level ground where we could picket the
horses, when Maignan gleefully cried out that he had news. I
asked what news.

'Speak up, MANANT!' he said, holding up his lanthorn so that the
light fell on the man's haggard face and unkempt hair. 'Tell his
Excellency what you have told me, or I will skin you alive,
little man!'

'Your other party came to the ford an hour before sunset,' the
peasant answered, staring dully at us. 'I saw them coming, and
hid myself. They quarrelled by the ford. Some were for
crossing, and some not.'

'They had ladies with them?' M. d'Agen said suddenly.

'Ay, two, your Excellency,' the clown answered, 'riding like men.
In the end they did not cross for fear of the plague, but turned
up the river, and rode westwards towards St. Gaultier.'

'St. Gaultier!' I said, 'Where is that? Where does the road to
it go to besides?'

But the peasant's knowledge was confined to his own
neighbourhood. He knew no world beyond St. Gaultier, and could
not answer my question. I was about to bid him show us the way
down, when Maignan cried out that he knew more.

'What?' I asked.

'Arnidieu! he heard them say where they were going to spend the
night!'

'Ha!' I cried. 'Where?'

'In an old ruined castle two leagues from this, and between here
and St. Gaultier,' the equerry answered, forgetting in his
triumph both plague and panic. 'What do you say to that, your
Excellency? It is so, sirrah, is it not?' he continued, turning
to the peasant. 'Speak, Master Jacques, or I will roast you
before a slow fire!'

But I did not wait to hear the answer. Leaping to the ground, I
took the Cid's rein on my arm, and cried impatiently to the man
to lead us down.

CHAPTER XXVIII.

THE CASTLE ON THE HILL.

The certainty that Bruhl and his captives were not far off, and
the likelihood that we might be engaged within the hour, expelled
from the minds of even the most timorous among us the vapourish
fears which had before haunted them. In the hurried scramble
which presently landed us on the bank of the stream, men who had
ridden for hours in sulky silence found their voices, and from
cursing their horses' blunders soon advanced to swearing and
singing after the fashion of their kind. This change, by
relieving me of a great fear, left me at leisure to consider our
position, and estimate more clearly than I might have done the
advantages of hastening, or postponing, an attack. We numbered
eleven; the enemy, to the best of my belief, twelve. Of this
slight superiority I should have reeked little in the daytime;
nor, perhaps, counting Maignan as two, have allowed that it
existed. But the result of a night attack is more difficult to
forecast; and I had also to take into account the perils to which
the two ladies would be exposed, between the darkness and tumult,
in the event of the issue remaining for a time in doubt.

These considerations, and particularly the last, weighed so
powerfully with me, that before I reached the bottom of the gorge
I had decided to postpone the attack until morning. The answers
to some questions which I put to the inhabitant of the house by
the ford as soon as I reached level ground only confirmed me in
this resolution. The road Bruhl had taken ran for a distance by
the riverside, and along the bottom of the gorge; and, difficult
by day, was reported to be impracticable for horses by night.
The castle he had mentioned lay full two leagues away, and on the
farther edge of a tract of rough woodland. Finally, I doubted
whether, in the absence of any other reason for delay, I could
have marched my men, weary as they were, to the place before
daybreak.

When I came to announce this decision, however, and to inquire
what accommodation the peasant could afford us, I found myself in
trouble. Fanchette, mademoiselle's woman, suddenly confronted
me, her face scarlet with rage. Thrusting herself forward into
the circle of light cast by the lanthorn, she assailed me with a
virulence and fierceness which said more for her devotion to her
mistress than her respect for me. Her wild gesticulations, her
threats, and the appeals which she made now to me, and now to the
men who stood in a circle round us, their faces in shadow,
discomfited as much as they surprised me.

'What!' she cried violently, 'you call yourself a gentleman, and
lie here and let my mistress be murdered, or worse, within a
league of you! Two leagues? A groat for your two leagues! I
would walk them barefoot, if that would shame you. And you, you
call yourselves men, and suffer it! It is God's truth you are a
set of cravens and sluggards. Give me as many women, and I
would--'

'Peace, woman!' Maignan said in his deep voice. 'You had your
way and came with us, and you will obey orders as well as
another! Be off, and see to the victuals before worse happen to
you!'

'Ay, see to the victuals!' she retorted. 'See to the victuals,
forsooth! That is all you think of--to lie warm and eat your
fill! A set of dastardly, drinking, droning guzzlers you are!
You are!' she retorted, her voice rising to a shriek. 'May the
plague take you!'

'Silence!' Maignan growled fiercely, 'or have a care to
yourself! For a copper-piece I would send you to cool your heels
in the water below--for that last word! Begone, do you hear,' he
continued, seizing her by the shoulder and thrusting her towards
the house, 'or worse may happen to you. We are rough customers,
as you will find if you do not lock up your tongue!'

I heard her go wailing into the darkness; and Heaven knows it was
not without compunction I forced myself to remain inactive in the
face of a devotion which seemed so much greater than mine. The
men fell away one by one to look to their horses and choose
sleeping-quarters for the night; and presently M. d'Agen and I
were left alone standing beside the lanthorn, which the man had
hung on a bush before his door. The brawling of the water as it
poured between the banks, a score of paces from us, and the black
darkness which hid everything beyond the little ring of light in
which we stood--so that for all we could see we were in a pit--
had the air of isolating us from all the world.

I looked at the young man, who had not once lisped that day; and
I plainly read in his attitude his disapproval of my caution.
Though he declined to meet my eye, he stood with his arms folded
and his head thrown back, making no attempt to disguise the scorn
and ill-temper which his face expressed. Hurt by the woman's
taunts, and possibly shaken in my opinion, I grew restive under
his silence, and unwisely gave way to my feelings.

'You do not appear to approve of my decision, M. d'Agen?' I
said.

'It is yours to command, sir,' he answered proudly.

There are truisms which have more power to annoy than the veriest
reproaches. I should have borne in mind the suspense and anxiety
he was suffering, and which had so changed him that I scarcely
knew him for the gay young spark on whose toe I had trodden. I
should have remembered that he was young and I old, and that it
behoved me to be patient. But on my side also there was anxiety,
and responsibility as well; and, above all, a rankling soreness,
to which I refrain from giving the name of jealousy, though it
came as near to that feeling as the difference in our ages and
personal advantages (whereof the balance was all on his side)
would permit. This, no doubt, it was which impelled me to
continue the argument.

'You would go on?' I said persistently.

'It is idle to say what I would do,' he answered with a flash of
anger.

'I asked for your opinion, sir,' I rejoined stiffly.

'To what purpose?' he retorted, stroking his small moustache
haughtily, 'We look at the thing from opposite points. You, are
going about your business, which appears to be the rescuing of
ladies who are--may I venture to say it? so unfortunate as to
entrust themselves to your charge. I, M. de Marsac, am more
deeply interested. More deeply interested,' he repeated lamely.
'I--in a word, I am prepared, sir, to do what others only talk
of--and if I cannot follow otherwise, would follow on my feet!'

'Whom?' I asked curtly, stung by this repetition of my own
words.

He laughed harshly and bitterly. 'Why explain? or why quarrel?'

he replied cynically. 'God knows, if I could afford to quarrel
with you, I should have done so fifty hours ago. But I need your
help; and, needing it, I am prepared to do that which must seem
to a person of your calm passions and perfect judgment alike
futile and incredible--pay the full price for it.'

'The full price for it!' I muttered, understanding nothing,
except that I did not understand.

'Ay, the full price for it!' he repeated. And as he spoke he
looked at me with an expression of rage so fierce that I recoiled
a step. That seemed to restore him in some degree to himself,
for without giving me an opportunity of answering he turned
hastily from me, and, striding away, was in a moment lost in the
darkness.

He left me amazed beyond measure. I stood repeating his phrase
about 'the full price' a hundred times over, but still found it
and his passion inexplicable. To cut the matter short, I could
come to no other conclusion than that he desired to insult me,
and aware of my poverty and the equivocal position in which I
stood towards mademoiselle, chose his words accordingly. This
seemed a thing unworthy of one of whom I had before thought
highly; but calmer reflection enabling me to see something of
youthful bombast in the tirade he had delivered, I smiled a
little sadly, and determined to think no more of the matter for
the present, but to persist firmly in that which seemed to me to
be the right course.

Having settled this, I was about to enter the house, when Maignan
stopped me, telling me that the plague had killed five people in
it, letting only the man we had seen; who had, indeed, been
seized, but recovered. This ghastly news had scared my company
to such a degree that they had gone as far from the house as the
level ground permitted, and there lighted a fire, round which
they were going to pass the night. Fanchette had taken up her
quarters in the stable, and the equerry announced that he had
kept a shed full of sweet, hay for M. d'Agen and myself. I
assented to this arrangement, and after supping off soup and
black bread, which was all we could procure, bade the peasant
rouse us two hours before sunrise; and so, being too weary and
old in service to remain awake thinking, I fell asleep, and
slept; soundly till a little after four.

My first business on rising was to see that the men before
mounting made a meal, for it is ill work fighting empty. I went
round also and saw that all had their arms, and that such as
carried pistols had them loaded and primed. Francois did not put
in an appearance until this work was done, and then showed a very
pale and gloomy countenance. I took no heed of him, however, and
with the first streak of daylight we started in single file and
at a snail's pace up the valley, the peasant, whom I placed in
Maignan's charge, going before to guide us, and M. d'Agen and I
riding in the rear. By the time the sun rose and warmed our
chilled and shivering frames we were over the worst of the
ground, and were able to advance at some speed along a track cut
through a dense forest of oak-trees.

Though we had now risen out of the valley, the close-set trunks
and the undergrowth round them prevented our seeing in any
direction. For a mile or more we rode on blindly, and presently
started on finding ourselves on the brow of a hill, looking down
into a valley, the nearer end of which was clothed in woods,
while the farther widened into green sloping pastures. From the
midst of these a hill or mount rose sharply up, until it ended in
walls of grey stone scarce to be distinguished at that distance
from the native rock on which they stood.

'See!' cried our guide. 'There is the castle!'

Bidding the men dismount in haste, that the chance of our being
seen by the enemy--which was not great--might be farther
lessened, I began to inspect the position at leisure; my first
feeling while doing so being one of thankfulness that I had not
attempted a night attack, which must inevitably have miscarried,
possibly with loss to ourselves, and certainly with the result of
informing the enemy of our presence. The castle, of which we had
a tolerable view, was long and narrow in shape, consisting of two
towers connected by walls, The nearer tower, through which lay
the entrance, was roofless, and in every way seemed to be more
ruinous than the inner one, which appeared to be perfect in both
its stories. This defect notwithstanding, the place was so
strong that my heart sank lower the longer I looked; and a glance
at Maignan's face assured me that his experience was also at
fault. For M. d'Agen, I clearly saw, when I turned to him, that
he had never until this moment realised what we had to expect,
but, regarding our pursuit in the light of a hunting-party, had
looked to see it end in like easy fashion. His blank, surprised
face, as he stood eyeing the stout grey walls, said as much as
this.

'Arnidieu!' Maignan muttered, 'give me ten men, and I would hold
it against a hundred!'

'Tut, man, There is more than one way to Rome!' I answered
oracularly, though I was far from feeling as confident as I
seemed. 'Come, let us descend and view this nut a little
nearer.'

We began to trail downwards in silence, and as the path let us
for a while, out of sight of the castle, we were able to proceed
with less caution. We had nearly reached without adventure the
father skirts of the wood, between which and the ruin lay an
interval of open ground, when we came suddenly, at the edge of a
little clearing, on an old hag; who was so intent; upon tying up
faggots that she did not see us until Maignan's hand was on her
shoulder. When she did, she screamed out, and escaping from him
with an activity wonderful in a woman of her age, ran with great
swiftness to the side of an old man who lay at the foot of a tree
half a bowshot off; and whom we had not before seen. Snatching
up an axe, she put herself in a posture of defence before him
with gestures and in a manner as touching in the eyes of some
among us as they were ludicrous in those of others; who cried to
Maignan that he had met his match at last, with other gibes of
the kind that pass current in camps.

I called to him to let her be, and went forward myself to the old
man, who lay on a rude bed of leaves, and seemed unable to rise.
Appealing to me with a face of agony not to hurt his wife, he
bade her again and again lay down her axe; but she would not do
this until I had assured her that we meant him no harm, and that
my men should molest neither the one nor the other.

'We only want to know this,' I said, speaking slowly, in fear
lest my language should be little more intelligible to them than
their PATOIS to me. 'There are a dozen horsemen in the old
castle there, are there not?'

The man stilled his wife, who continued to chatter and mow at us,
and answered eagerly that there were; adding, with a trembling
oath, that the robbers had beaten him, robbed him of his small
store of meal, and when he would have protested, thrown him out,
breaking his leg.

'Then how came you here?' I said.

'She brought me on her back,' he answered feebly.

Doubtless there were men in my train who would have done all that
these others had done; but hearing the simple story told, they
stamped and swore great oaths of indignation; and one, the
roughest of the party, took out some black bread and gave it to
the woman, whom under other circumstances he would not have
hesitated to rob. Maignan, who knew all arts appertaining to
war, examined the man's leg and made a kind of cradle for it,
while I questioned the woman.

'They are there still?' I said. 'I saw their horses tethered
under the walls.'

'Yes, God requite them!' she answered, trembling violently.

'Tell me about the castle, my good woman,' I said. 'How many
roads into it are there?'

'Only one.'

'Through the nearer tower?'

She said yes, and finding that she understood me, and was less
dull of intellect than her wretched appearance led me to expect,
I put a series of questions to her which it would be tedious to
detail. Suffice it that I learned that it was impossible to
enter or leave the ruin except through the nearer tower; that a
rickety temporary gate barred the entrance, and that from this
tower, which was a mere shell of four walls, a narrow square-
headed doorway without a door led into the court, beyond which
rose the habitable tower of two stories.

'Do you know if they intend to stay there?' I asked

'Oh, ay, they bade me bring them faggots for their fire this
morning, and I should have a handful of my own meal back,' she
answered bitterly; and fell thereon into a passion of impotent
rage, shaking both her clenched hands in the direction of the
castle, and screaming frenzied maledictions in her cracked and
quavering voice.

I pondered awhile over what she had said; liking very little the
thought of that narrow square-headed doorway through which we
must pass before we could effect anything. And the gate, too,
troubled me. It might not be a strong one, but we had neither
powder, nor guns, nor any siege implements, and could not pull
down stone walls with our naked hands. By seizing the horses we
could indeed cut off Bruhl's retreat; but he might still escape
in the night; and in any case our pains would only increase the
women's hardships while adding fuel to his rage. We must have
some other plan.

The sun was high by this time; the edge of the wood scarcely a
hundred paces from us. By advancing a few yards through the
trees I could see the horses feeding peacefully at the foot of
the sunny slope, and even follow with my eyes the faint track
which zigzagged up the hill to the closed gate. No one appeared
--doubtless they were sleeping off the fatigue of the journey--
and I drew no inspiration thence; but as I turned to consult
Maignan my eye lit on the faggots, and I saw in a flash that here
was a chance of putting into practice a stratagem as old as the
hills, yet ever fresh, and not seldom successful.

It was no time for over-refinement. My knaves were beginning to
stray forward out of curiosity, and at any moment one of our
horses, scenting those of the enemy, might neigh and give the
alarm. Hastily calling M. d'Agen and Maignan to me, I laid my
plan before them, and satisfied myself that it had their
approval; the fact that I had reserved a special part for the
former serving to thaw the reserve which had succeeded to his
outbreak of the night before. After some debate Maignan
persuaded me that the old woman had not sufficient nerve to play
the part I proposed for her, and named Fanchette; who being
called into council, did not belie the opinion we had formed of
her courage. In a few moments our preparations were complete: I
had donned the old charcoal-burner's outer rags, Fanchette had
assumed those of the woman, while M. d'Agen, who was for a time
at a loss, and betrayed less taste for this part of the plan than
for any other, ended by putting on the jerkin and hose of the man
who had served us as guide.

When all was ready I commended the troop to Maignan's discretion,
charging him in the event of anything happening to us to continue
the most persistent efforts for mademoiselle's release, and on no
account to abandon her. Having received his promise to this
effect, and being satisfied that he would keep it, we took up
each of us a great faggot, which being borne on the head and
shoulders served to hide the features very effectually; and thus
disguised we boldly left the shelter of the trees. Fanchette and
I went first, tottering in a most natural fashion under the
weight of our burdens, while M. d'Agen followed a hundred yards
behind. I had given Maignan orders to make a dash for the gate
the moment he saw the last named start to run.

The perfect stillness of the valley, the clearness of the air,
and the absence of any sign of life in the castle before us--
which might have been that of the Sleeping Princess, so fairy-
like it looked against the sky--with the suspense and excitement
in our own breasts, which these peculiarities seemed to increase
a hundred-fold, made the time that followed one of the strangest
in my experience. It was nearly ten o'clock, and the warm
sunshine flooding everything about us rendered the ascent, laden
as we were, laborious in the extreme. The crisp, short turf,
which had scarcely got its spring growth, was slippery and
treacherous. We dared not hasten, for we knew not what eyes were
upon us, and we dared as little after we had gone half-way--lay
our faggots down, lest the action should disclose too much of our
features.

When we had reached a point within a hundred paces of the gate,
which still remained obstinately closed, we stood to breathe
ourselves, and balancing my bundle on my head, I turned to make
sure that all was right behind us. I found that M. d'Agen,
intent on keeping his distance, had chosen the same moment for
rest, and was sitting in a very natural manner on his faggot,
mopping his face with the sleeve of his jerkin. I scanned the
brown leafless wood, in which we had left Maignan and our men;
but I could detect no glitter among the trees nor any appearance
likely to betray us. Satisfied on these points, I muttered a few
words of encouragement to Fanchette, whose face was streaming
with perspiration; and together we turned and addressed ourselves
to our task, fatigue--for we had had no practice in carrying
burdens on the head--enabling us to counterfeit the decrepitude
of age almost to the life.

The same silence prevailing as we drew nearer inspired me with
not a few doubts and misgivings. Even the bleat of a sheep would
have been welcome in the midst of a stillness which seemed
ominous. But no sheep bleated, no voice hailed us. The gate,
ill-hung and full of fissures, remained closed. Step by step we
staggered up to it, and at length reached it. Afraid to speak
lest my accent should betray me, I struck the forepart of my
faggot against it and waited: doubting whether our whole
stratagem had not been perceived from the beginning, and a
pistol-shot might not be the retort.

Nothing of the kind happened, however. The sound of the blow,
which echoed dully through the building, died away, and the old
silence resumed its sway. We knocked again, but fully two
minutes elapsed before a grumbling voice, as of a man aroused
from sleep, was heard drawing near, and footsteps came slowly and
heavily to the gate. Probably the fellow inspected us through a
loophole, for he paused a moment, and my heart sank; but the
next, seeing nothing suspicious, he unbarred the gate with a
querulous oath, and, pushing it open, bade us enter and be quick
about it.

I stumbled forward into the cool, dark shadow, and the woman
followed me, while the man, stepping out with a yawn, stood in
the entrance, stretching himself in the sunshine. The roofless
tower, which smelled dank and unwholesome, was empty, or cumbered
only with rubbish and heaps of stones; but looking through the
inner door I saw in the courtyard a smouldering fire and half a
dozen men in the act of rousing themselves from sleep. I stood a
second balancing my faggot, as if in doubt where to lay it down;
and then assuring myself by a swift glance that the man who had
let us in still had his back towards us, I dropped it across the
inner doorway, Fanchette, as she had been instructed, plumped
hers upon it, and at the same moment I sprang to the door, and
taking the man there by surprise, dealt him a violent blow
between the shoulders, which sent him headlong down the slope.

A cry behind me, followed by an oath of alarm, told me that the
action was observed and that now was the pinch. In a second I
was back at the faggots, and drawing a pistol from under my
blouse was in time to meet the rush of the nearest man, who,
comprehending all, sprang up, and made for me, with his sheathed
sword. I shot him in the chest as he cleared the faggots--which,
standing nearly as high as a man's waist, formed a tolerable
obstacle--and he pitched forward at my feet.

This balked his companions, who drew back; but unfortunately it
was necessary for me to stoop to get my sword, which was hidden
in the faggot I had carried. The foremost of the rascals took
advantage of this. Rushing at me with a long knife, he failed to
stab me--for I caught his wrist--but he succeeded in bringing me
to the ground. I thought I was undone. I looked to have the
others swarm over upon us; and so it would doubtless have
happened had not Fanchette, with rare courage, dealt the first
who followed a lusty blow on the body with a great stick she
snatched up. The man collapsed on the faggots, and this hampered
the rest. The check was enough. It enabled M. d'Agen to come
up, who, dashing in through the gate, shot down the first he saw
before him, and running at the doorway with his sword with
incredible fury and the courage which I had always known him to
possess, cleared it in a twinkling. The man with whom I was
engaged on the ground, seeing what had happened, wrested himself
free with the strength of despair, and dashing through the outer
door, narrowly escaped being ridden down by my followers as they
swept up to the gate at a gallop, and dismounted amid a whirlwind
of cries.

In a moment they thronged in on us pell-mell, and as soon as I
could lay my hand on my sword I led them through the doorway with
a cheer, hoping to be able to enter the farther tower with the
enemy. But the latter had taken the alarm too early and too
thoroughly. The court was empty. We were barely in time to see
the last man dart up a flight of outside stairs, which led to the
first story, and disappear, closing a heavy door behind him. I
rushed to the foot of the steps and would have ascended also,
hoping against hope to find the door unsecured; but a shot which
was fired through a loop hole and narrowly missed my head, and
another which brought down one of my men, made me pause.
Discerning all the advantage to be on Bruhl's side, since he
could shoot us down from his cover, I cried a retreat; the issue
of the matter leaving us masters of the entrance-tower, while
they retained the inner and stronger tower, the narrow court
between the two being neutral ground unsafe for either party.

Two of their men had fled outwards and were gone, and two lay
dead; while the loss on our side was confined to the man who was
shot, and Fanchette, who had received a blow on the head in the
MELEE, and was found, when we retreated, lying sick and dazed
against the wall.

It surprised me much, when I came to think upon it, that I had
seen nothing of Bruhl, though the skirmish had lasted two or
three minutes from the first outcry, and been attended by an
abundance of noise. Of Fresnoy, too, I now remembered that I had
caught a glimpse only. These two facts seemed so strange that I
was beginning to augur the worst, though I scarcely know why,
when my spirits were marvellously raised and my fears relieved by
a thing which Maignan, who was the first to notice it, pointed
out to me. This was the appearance at an upper window of a white
'kerchief, which was waved several times towards us. The window
was little more than an arrow-slit, and so narrow and high
besides that it was impossible to see who gave the signal; but my
experience of mademoiselle's coolness and resource left me in no
doubt on the point. With high hopes and a lighter heart than I
had worn for some time I bestirred myself to take every
precaution, and began by bidding Maignan select two men and ride
round the hill, to make sure that the enemy had no way of retreat
open to him.

CHAPTER XXIX.

PESTILENCE AND FAMINE.

While Maignan was away about this business I despatched two men
to catch our horses, which were running loose in the valley, and
to remove those of Bruhl's party to a safe distance from the
castle. I also blocked up the lower part of the door leading
into the courtyard, and named four men to remain under arms
beside it, that we might not be taken by surprise; an event of
which I had the less fear, however, since the enemy were now
reduced to eight swords, and could only escape, as we could only
enter, through this doorway. I was still busied with these
arrangements when M. d'Agen joined me, and I broke off to
compliment him on his courage, acknowledging in particular the
service he had done me personally. The heat of the conflict had
melted the young man's reserve, and flushed his face with pride;
but as he listened to me he gradually froze again, and when I
ended he regarded me with the same cold hostility.

'I am obliged to you,' he said, bowing. 'But may I ask what
next, M. de Marsac?'

'We have no choice,' I answered. 'We can only starve them out.'

'But the ladies?' he said, starting slightly. 'What of them?'

'They will suffer less than the men,' I replied. 'Trust me, the
latter will not bear starving long.'

He seemed surprised, but I explained that with our small numbers
we could not hope to storm the tower, and might think ourselves
fortunate that we now had the enemy cooped up where he could not
escape, and must eventually surrender.

'Ay, but in the meantime how will you ensure the women against
violence?' he asked, with an air which showed he was far from
satisfied.

'I will see to that when Maignan comes back,' I answered pretty
confidently.

The equerry appeared in a moment with the assurance that egress
from the farther side of the tower was impossible. I bade him
nevertheless keep a horseman moving round the hill, that we might
have intelligence of any attempt. The order was scarcely given
when a man--one of those I had left on guard at the door of the
courtyard--came to tell me that Fresnoy desired to speak with me
on behalf of M. de Bruhl.

'Where is he?' I asked.

'At the inner door with a flag of truce,' was the answer.

'Tell him, then,' I said, without offering to move, 'that I will
communicate with no one except his leader, M. de Bruhl. And add
this, my friend,' I continued. 'Say it aloud that if the ladies
whom he has in charge are injured by so much as a hair, I will
hang every man within these walls, from M. de Bruhl to the
youngest lackey.' And I added a solemn oath to that effect.

The man nodded, and went on his errand, while I and M. d'Agen,
with Maignan, remained standing outside the gate, looking idly
over the valley and the brown woods through which we had ridden
in the early morning. My eyes rested chiefly on the latter,
Maignan's as it proved on the former. Doubtless we all had our
own thoughts. Certainly I had, and for a while, in my
satisfaction at the result of the attack and the manner in which
we had Bruhl confined, I did not remark the gravity which was
gradually overspreading the equerry's countenance. When I did I
took the alarm, and asked him sharply what was the matter. 'I
don't like that, your Excellency,' he answered, pointing into the
valley.

I looked anxiously, and looked, and saw nothing.

'What?' I said in astonishment.

'The blue mist,' he muttered, with a shiver. 'I have been
watching it this half-hour, your Excellency. It is rising fast.'

I cried out on him for a maudlin fool, and M. d'Agen swore
impatiently; but for all that, and despite the contempt I strove
to exhibit, I felt a sudden chill at my heart as I recognised in
the valley below the same blue haze which had attended us through
yesterday's ride, and left us only at nightfall. Involuntarily
we both fell to watching it as it rose slowly and more slowly,
first enveloping the lower woods, and then spreading itself
abroad in the sunshine. It is hard to witness a bold man's
terror and remain unaffected by it; and I confess I trembled.
Here, in the moment of our seeming success, was something which I
had not taken into account, something against which I could not
guard either myself or others!

'See!' Maignan whispered hoarsely, pointing again with his
linger. 'It is the Angel of Death, your Excellency! Where he
kills by ones and twos, he is invisible. But when he slays by
hundreds and by thousands, men see the shadow of his wings!'

'Chut, fool!' I retorted with, anger, which was secretly
proportioned to the impression his weird saying made on me. 'You
have been in battles! Did you ever see him there? or at a sack?
A truce to this folly,' I continued. 'And do you go and inquire
what food we have with us. It may be necessary to send for
some.'

I watched him go doggedly off, and knowing the stout nature of
the man and his devotion to his master, I had no fear that he
would fail us; but there were others, almost as necessary to us,
in whom I could not place the same confidence. And these had
also taken the alarm. When I turned I found groups of pale-faced
men, standing by twos and threes at my back; who, pointing and
muttering and telling one another what Maignan had told us,
looked where we had looked. As one spoke and another listened, I
saw the old panic revive in their eyes. Men who an hour or two
before had crossed the court under fire with the utmost
resolution, and dared instant death without a thought, grew pale,
and looking from this side of the valley to that; with faltering
eyes, seemed to be seeking, like hunted animals, a place of
refuge. Fear, once aroused, hung is the air. Men talked in
whispers of the abnormal heat, and, gazing at the cloudless sky,
fled from the sunshine to the shadow; or, looking over the
expanse of woods, longed to be under cover and away from this
lofty eyrie, which to their morbid eyes seemed a target for all
the shafts of death.

'I was not slow to perceive the peril with which these fears and
apprehensions, which rapidly became general, threatened my plans.
I strove to keep the men employed, and to occupy their thoughts
as far as possible with the enemy and his proceedings; but I soon
found that even here a danger lurked; for Maignan, coming to me
by-and-by with a grave face, told me that one of Bruhl's men had
ventured out, and was parleying with the guard on our side of the
court. I went at once and broke the matter off, threatening to
shoot the fellow if he was not under cover before I counted ten.
But the scared, sultry faces he left behind him told me that the
mischief was done, and I could think of no better remedy for it
than to give M. d'Agen a hint, and station him at the outer gate
with his pistols ready.

The question of provisions, too, threatened to become a serious
one; I dared not leave to procure them myself, nor could I trust
any of my men with the mission. In fact the besiegers were
rapidly becoming the besieged. Intent on the rising haze and
their own terrors, they forgot all else. Vigilance and caution
were thrown to the winds. The stillness of the valley, its
isolation, the distant woods that encircled us and hung quivering
in the heated air, all added to the panic. Despite all my
efforts and threats, the men gradually left their posts, and
getting together in little parties at the gate, worked themselves
up to such a pitch of dread that by two hours after noon they
were fit for any folly; and at the mere cry of 'plague!' would
have rushed to their horses and ridden in every direction.

It was plain that I could depend for useful service on myself and
three others only--of whom, to his credit be it said, Simon Fleix
was one. Seeing this, I was immensely relieved when I presently
heard that Fresnoy was again seeking to speak with me. I was no
longer, it will be believed, for standing on formalities; but
glad to waive in silence the punctilio on which I had before
insisted, and anxious to afford him no opportunity of marking the
slackness which prevailed among my men, I hastened to meet him at
the door of the courtyard where Maignan had detained him.

I might have spared my pains, however. I had no more than
saluted him and exchanged the merest preliminaries before I saw
that he was in a state of panic far exceeding that of my
following. His coarse face, which had never been prepossessing,
was mottled and bedabbled with sweat; his bloodshot eyes, when
they met mine, wore the fierce yet terrified expression of an
animal caught in a trap. Though his first word was an oath,
sworn for the purpose of raising his courage, the bully's bluster
was gone. He spoke in a low voice, and his hands shook; and for
a penny-piece I saw he would have bolted past me and taken his
chance in open flight.

I judged from his first words, uttered, as I have said, with an
oath, that he was aware of his state. 'M. de Marsac,' he said,
whining like a cur, 'you know me, to be a man of courage.'

I needed nothing after this to assure me that he meditated
something of the basest; and I took care how I answered him. 'I
have known you stiff enough upon occasions,' I replied drily.
'And then, again, I have known you not so stiff, M. Fresnoy.'

'Only when you were in question,' he muttered with another oath.
'But flesh and blood cannot stand this. You could not yourself.
Between him and them I am fairly worn out. Give me good terms--
good terms, you understand, M. de Marsac?' he whispered eagerly,
sinking his voice still lower, 'and you shall have all you want.'

'Your lives, and liberty to go where you please,' I answered
coldly. 'The two ladies to be first given up to me uninjured.
Those are the terms.'

'But for me?' he said anxiously.

'For you? The same as the others,' I retorted. 'Or I will make
a distinction for old acquaintance sake, M. Fresnoy; and if the
ladies have aught to complain of, I will hang you first.'

He tried to bluster and hold out for a sum of money, or at least
for his horse to be given up to him. But I had made up my mind
to reward my followers with a present of a horse apiece; and I
was besides well aware that this was only an afterthought on his
part, and that he had fully decided to yield. I stood fast,
therefore. The result justified my firmness, for he presently
agreed to surrender on those terms.

'Ay, but M. de Bruhl?' I said, desiring to learn clearly whether
he had authority to treat for all. 'What of him?'

He looked at me impatiently. 'Come and see!' he said, with an
ugly sneer.

'No, no, my friend,' I answered, shaking my head warily. 'That
is not according to rule. You are the surrendering party, and it
is for you to trust us. Bring out the ladies, that I may have
speech with them, and then I will draw off my men.'

'Nom de Dieu!' he cried hoarsely, with so much fear and rage in
his face that I recoiled from him. 'That is just what I cannot
do.'

'You cannot?' I rejoined with a sudden thrill of horror. 'Why
not? why not, man?' And in the excitement of the moment,
conceiving the idea that the worst had happened to the women, I
pushed him back with so much fury that he laid his hand on his
sword.

'Confound you!' he stuttered, 'stand back! It is not that, I
tell you! Mademoiselle is safe and sound, and madame, if she had
her senses, would be sound too. It is not our fault if she is
not. But I have not got the key of the rooms. It is in Bruhl's
pocket, I tell you!'

'Oh!' I made answer drily. 'And Bruhl?'

'Hush, man,' Fresnoy replied, wiping the perspiration from his
brow, and bringing his pallid, ugly face, near to mine, 'he has
got the plague!'

I stared at him for a moment in silence; which he was the first
to break. 'Hush!' he muttered again, laying a trembling hand on
my arm, 'if the men knew it--and not seeing him they are beginning
to suspect it--they would rise on us. The devil himself could
not keep them here. Between him and them I am on a razor's edge.
Madame is with him, and the door is locked. Mademoiselle is in a
room upstairs, and the door is locked. And he has the keys.
What can I do? What can I do, man?' he cried, his voice hoarse
with terror and dismay.

'Get the keys,' I said instinctively.

'What?' From him?' he muttered, with an irrepressible shudder,
which shook his bloated cheeks. 'God forbid I should see him!
It takes stout men infallibly. I should be dead by night! By
God, I should!' he continued, whining. 'Now you are not stout,
M. de Marsac. If you will come with me I will draw off the men
from that part; and you may go in and get the key from him.'

His terror, which surpassed all feeling, and satisfied me without
doubt that he was in earnest, was so intense that it could not
fail to infect me. I felt my face, as I looked into his, grow to
the same hue. I trembled as he did and grew sick. For if there
is a word which blanches the soldier's cheek and tries his heart
more than another, it is the name of the disease which travels in
the hot noonday, and, tainting the strongest as he rides in his
pride, leaves him in a few hours a poor mass of corruption. The
stoutest and the most reckless fear it; nor could I, more than
another, boast myself indifferent to it, or think of its presence
without shrinking. But the respect in which a man of birth holds
himself saves him from the unreasoning fear which masters the
vulgar; and in a moment I recovered myself, and made up my mind
what it behoved me to do.

'Wait awhile,' I said sternly, 'and I will come with you.'

He waited accordingly, though with manifest impatience, while I
sent for M. d'Agen, and communicated to him what I was about to
do. I did not think it necessary to enter into details, or to
mention Bruhl's state, for some of the men were well in hearing.
I observed that the young gentleman received my directions with a
gloomy and dissatisfied air. But I had become by this time so
used to his moods, and found myself so much mistaken in his
character, that I scarcely gave the matter a second thought. I
crossed the court with Fresnoy, and in a moment had mounted the
outside staircase and passed through the heavy doorway.

The moment I entered, I was forced to do Fresnoy the justice of
admitting that he had not come to me before he was obliged. The
three men who were on guard inside tossed down their weapons at
sight of me, while a fourth, who was posted at a neighbouring
window, hailed me with a cry of relief. From the moment I
crossed the threshold the defence was practically at an end. I
might, had I chosen or found it consistent with honour, have
called in my following and secured the entrance. Without
pausing, however, I passed on to the foot of a gloomy stone
staircase winding up between walls of rough masonry; and here
Fresnoy stood on one side and stopped. He pointed upwards with a
pale face and muttered,'The door on the left.'

Leaving him there watching me as I went upwards, I mounted slowly
to the landing, and by the light of an arrow-slit which dimly lit
the ruinous place found the door he had described, and tried it
with my hand. It was locked, but I heard someone moan in the
room, and a step crossed the floor, as if he or another came to
the door and listened. I knocked, hearing my heart beat in the
silence. At last a voice quite strange to me cried, 'Who is it?'

'A friend,' I muttered, striving to dull my voice that they might
not hear me below.

'A friend!' the bitter answer came. 'Go! You have made a
mistake! We have no friends.'

'It is I, M. de Marsac,' I rejoined, knocking more imperatively.
'I would see M. de Bruhl. I must see him.'

The person inside, at whose identity I could now make a guess,
uttered a low exclamation, and still seemed to hesitate. But on
my repeating my demand I heard a rusty bolt withdrawn, and Madame
de Bruhl, opening the door a few inches, showed her face in the
gap. 'What do you want?' she murmured jealously.

Prepared as I was to see her, I was shocked by the change in her
appearance, a change which even that imperfect light failed to
hide. Her blue eyes had grown larger and harder, and there were
dark marks under them. Her face, once so brilliant, was grey and
pinched; her hair had lost its golden lustre. 'What do you
want?' she repeated, eyeing me fiercely.

'To see him,' I answered.

'You know?' she muttered. 'You know that he--'

I nodded.

And you still want to come in? My God! Swear you will not hurt
him?'

'Heaven forbid!' I said; and on that she held the door open that
I might enter. But I was not half-way across the room before she
had passed me, and was again between me and the wretched
makeshift pallet. Nay, when I stood and looked down at him, as
he moaned and rolled in senseless agony, with livid face and
distorted features (which the cold grey light of that miserable
room rendered doubly appalling), she hung over him and fenced him
from me: so that looking on him and her, and remembering how he
had treated her, and why he came to be in this place, I felt
unmanly tears rise to my eyes. The room was still a prison, a
prison with broken mortar covering the floor and loopholes for
windows; but the captive was held by other chains than those of
force. When she might have gone free, her woman's love surviving
all that he had done to kill it, chained her to his side with
fetters which old wrongs and present danger were powerless to
break.

It was impossible that I could view a scene so strange without
feelings of admiration as well as pity; or without forgetting for
a while, in my respect for Madame de Bruhl's devotion, the risk
which had seemed so great to me on the stairs. I had come simply
for a purpose of my own, and with no thought of aiding him who
lay here. But so great, as I have noticed on other occasions, is
the power of a noble example, that, before I knew it, I found
myself wondering what I could do to help this man, and how I
could relieve madame, in the discharge of offices which her
husband had as little right to expect at her hands as at mine.
At the mere sound of the word Plague I knew she would be deserted
in this wilderness by all, or nearly all; a reflection which
suggested to me that I should first remove mademoiselle to a
distance, and then consider what help I could afford here.

I was about to tell her the purpose with which I had come when a
paroxysm more than ordinarily violent, and induced perhaps by the
excitement of my presence--though he seemed beside himself--
seized him, and threatened to tax her powers to the utmost. I
could not look on and see her spend herself in vain; and almost
before I knew what I was doing I had laid my hands on him and
after a brief struggle thrust him back exhausted on the couch.

She looked at me so strangely after that that in the half-light
which the loopholes afforded I tried in vain to read her meaning.
'Why did you come?' she cried at length, breathing quickly.
'You, of all men? Why did you come? He was no friend of yours,
Heaven knows!'

'No, madame, nor I of his,' I answered bitterly,
with a sudden revulsion of feeling.

'Then why are you here?' she retorted.

'I could not send one of my men,' I answered. 'And I want the
key of the room above.'

At the mention of that the room above--she flinched as if I had
struck her, and looked as strangely at Bruhl as she had before
looked at me. No doubt the reference to Mademoiselle de la Vire
recalled to her mind her husband's wild passion for the girl,
which for the moment she had forgotten. Nevertheless she did not
speak, though her face turned very pale. She stooped over the
couch, such as it was, and searching his clothes, presently stood
up, and held out the key to me. 'Take it, and let her out,' she
said with a forced smile. 'Take it up yourself, and do it. You
have done so much for her it is right that you should do this.'

I took the key, thanking her with more haste than thought, and
turned towards the door, intending to go straight up to the floor
above and release mademoiselle. My hand was already on the door,
which madame, I found, had left ajar in the excitement of my
entrance, when I heard her step behind me. The next instant she
touched me on the shoulder. 'You fool!' she exclaimed, her eyes
flashing, 'would you kill her?' Would you go from him to her,
and take the plague to her? God forgive me, it was in my mind to
send you. And men are such puppets you would have gone!'

I trembled with horror, as much at my stupidity as at her craft.
For she was right: in another moment I should have gone, and
comprehension and remorse would have come too late. As it was,
in my longing at once to reproach her for her wickedness and to
thank her for her timely repentance, I found no words; but I
turned away in silence and went out with a full heart.

CHAPTER XXX.

STRICKEN.

Outside the door, standing in the dimness of the landing, I found
M. d'Agen. At any other time I should have been the first to ask
him why he had left the post which I had assigned to him. But at
the moment I was off my balance, and his presence suggested
nothing more than that here was the very person who could best
execute my wishes. I held out the key to him at arms length, and
bade him release Mademoiselle de la Vire, who was in the room
above, and escort her out of the castle. 'Do not let her linger
here,' I continued urgently. 'Take her to the place where we
found the wood-cutters. You need fear no resistance.'

'But Bruhl?' he said, as he took the key mechanically from me.

'He is out of the question,' I answered in a low voice. 'We have
done with him. He has the plague.'

He uttered a sharp exclamation. 'What of madame, then?' he
muttered.

'She is with him,' I said.

He cried out suddenly at that, sucking in his breath, as I have
known men do in pain. And but that I drew back he would have
laid his hand on my sleeve. 'With him?' he stammered. 'How is
that?'

'Why, man, where else should she be?' I answered, forgetting
that the sight of those two together had at first surprised me
also, as well as moved me. 'Or who else should be with him? He
is her husband.'

He stared at me for a moment at that, and then he turned slowly
away and began to go up; while I looked after him, gradually
thinking out the clue to his conduct. Could it be that it was
not mademoiselle attracted him, but Madame de Bruhl?

And with that hint I understood it all. I saw in a moment; the
conclusion to which he had come on hearing of the presence of
madame in my room. In my room at night! The change had dated
from that time; instead of a careless, light-spirited youth he
had become in a moment a morose and restive churl, as difficult
to manage as an unbroken colt. Quite clearly I saw now the
meaning of the change; why he had shrunk from me, and why all
intercourse between us had been so difficult; and so constrained.

I laughed to think how he had deceived himself, and how nearly I
had come to deceiving myself also. And what more I might have
thought I do not know, for my meditations were cut short at this
point by a loud outcry below, which, beginning in one or two
sharp cries of alarm and warning, culminated quickly in a roar of
anger and dismay.

Fancying I recognised Maignan's voice, I ran down the stairs,
seeking a loophole whence I could command the scene; but finding
none, and becoming more and more alarmed, I descended to the
court, which I found, to my great surprise, as empty and silent
as an old battle-field. Neither on the enemy's side nor on ours
was a single man to be seen. With growing dismay I sprang across
the court and darted through the outer tower, only to find that
and the gateway equally unguarded. Nor was it until I had passed
through the latter, and stood on the brow of the slope, which we
had had to clamber with so much toil, that I learned what was
amiss.

Far below me a string of men, bounding and running at speed,
streamed down the hill towards the horses. Some were shouting,
some running silently, with their elbows at their sides and their
scabbards leaping against their calves. The horses stood
tethered in a ring near the edge of the wood, and by some
oversight had been left unguarded. The foremost runner I made
out to be Fresnoy; but a number of his men were close upon him,
and then after an interval came Maignan, waving his blade and
emitting frantic threats with every stride. Comprehending at
once that Fresnoy and his following, rendered desperate by panic
and the prospective loss of their horses, had taken advantage of
my absence and given Maignan the slip, I saw I could do nothing
save watch the result of the struggle.

This was not long delayed. Maignan's threats, which seemed to me
mere waste of breath, were not without effect on those he
followed. There is nothing which demoralises men like flight.
Troopers who have stood charge after charge while victory was
possible will fly like sheep, and like sheep allow themselves to
he butchered, when they have once turned the back. So it was
here. Many of Fresnoy's men were stout fellows, but having
started to run they had no stomach for fighting. Their fears
caused Maignan to appear near, while the horses seemed distant;
and one after another they turned aside and made like rabbits for
the wood. Only Fresnoy, who had taken care to have the start of
all, kept on, and, reaching the horses, cut the rope which
tethered the nearest, and vaulted nimbly on its back. Safely
seated there, he tried to frighten the others into breaking
loose; but not succeeding at the first attempt, and seeing
Maignan, breathing vengeance, coming up with him, he started his
horse, a bright bay, and rode off laughing along the edge of the
wood.

Fully content with the result--for our carelessness might have
cost us very dearly--I was about to turn away when I saw that
Maignan had mounted and was preparing to follow. I stayed
accordingly to see the end, and from my elevated position enjoyed
a first-rate view of the race which ensued. Both were heavy
weights, and at first Maignan gained no ground. But when a
couple of hundred yards had been covered Fresnoy had the ill-luck
to blunder into some heavy ground, and this enabling his pursuer,
who had time to avoid it, to get within two-score paces of him,
the race became as exciting as I could wish. Slowly and surely
Maignan, who had chosen the Cid, reduced the distance between
them to a score of paces--to fifteen--to ten. Then Fresnoy,
becoming alarmed, began to look over his shoulder and ride in
earnest. He had no whip, and I saw him raise his sheathed sword,
and strike his beast on the flank. It sprang forward, and
appeared for a few strides to be holding its own. Again he
repeated the blow but this time with a different result. While
his hand was still in the air, his horse stumbled, as it seemed
to me, made a desperate effort to recover itself, fell headlong
and rolled over and over.

Something in the fashion of the fall, which reminded me of the
mishap I had suffered on the way to Chize led me to look more
particularly at the horse as it rose trembling to its feet, and
stood with drooping head. Sure enough, a careful glance enabled
me, even at that distance, to identify it as Matthew's bay--the
trick-horse. Shading my eyes, and gazing on the scene with
increased interest, I saw Maignan, who had dismounted, stoop over
something on the ground, and again after an interval stand
upright.

But Fresnoy did not rise. Nor was it without awe that, guessing
what had happened to him, I remembered how he had used this very
horse to befool me; how heartlessly he had abandoned Matthew, its
owner; and by what marvellous haps--which men call chances--
Providence had brought it to this place, and put it in his heart
to choose it out of a score which stood ready to his hand!

I was right. The man's neck was broken. He was quite dead.
Maignan passed the word to one, and he to another, and so it
reached me on the hill. It did not fail to awaken memories both
grave and wholesome. I thought of St. Jean d'Angely, of Chize,
of the house in the Ruelle d'Arcy; then in the midst of these
reflections I heard voices, and turned to find mademoiselle, with
M. d'Agen behind me.

Her hand was still bandaged, and her dress, which she had not
changed since leaving Blois, was torn and stained with mud. Her
hair was in disorder; she walked with a limp. Fatigue and
apprehension had stolen the colour from her cheeks, and in a word
she looked, when I turned, so wan and miserable that for a moment
I feared the plague had seized her.

The instant, however, that she caught sight of me a wave of
colour invaded, not her cheeks only, but her brow and neck. From
her hair to the collar of her gown she was all crimson. For a
second she stood gazing at me, and then, as I saluted her, she
sprang forward. Had I not stepped back she would have taken my
hands.

My heart so overflowed with joy at this sight, that in the
certainty her blush gave me I was fain to toy with my happiness.
All jealousy of M. d'Agen was forgotten; only I thought it well
not to alarm her by telling her what I knew of the Bruhls.
'Mademoiselle,' I said earnestly, bowing, but retreating from
her, 'I thank God for your escape. One of your enemies lies
helpless here, and another is dead yonder.'

'It is not of my enemies I am thinking,' she answered quickly,
'but of God, of whom you rightly remind me; and then of my
friends.'

'Nevertheless,' I answered as quickly, 'I beg you will not stay
to thank them now, but go down to the wood with M. d'Agen, who
will do all that may be possible to make you comfortable.'

'And you, sir?' she said, with a charming air of confusion.

'I must stay here,' I answered, 'for a while.'

'Why?' she asked with a slight frown.

I did not know how to tell her, and I began lamely. 'Someone
must stop with madame,' I said without thought.

'Madame?' she exclaimed. 'Does she require assistance? I will
stop.'

'God forbid!' I cried.

I do not know how she understood the words, but her face, which
had been full of softness, grew hard. She moved quickly towards
me; but, mindful of the danger I carried about me, I drew farther
back. 'No nearer, mademoiselle,' I murmured, 'if you please.'

She looked puzzled, and finally angry, turning away with a
sarcastic bow. 'So be it, then, sir,' she said proudly, 'if you
desire it. M. d'Agen, if you are not afraid of me, will you lead
me down?'

I stood and watched them go down the hill, comforting myself with
the reflection that to-morrow, or the next day, or within a few
days at most, all would be well. Scanning her figure as she
moved, I fancied that she went with less spirit as the space
increased between us. And I pleased myself with the notion. A
few days, a few hours, I thought, and all would be well. The
sunset which blazed in the west was no more than a faint
reflection of the glow which for a few minutes pervaded my mind,
long accustomed to cold prospects and the chill of neglect.

A term was put to these pleasant imaginings by the arrival of
Maignan; who, panting from the ascent of the hill, informed me
with a shamefaced air that the tale of horses was complete, but
that four of our men were missing, and had doubtless gone off
with the fugitives. These proved to be M. d'Agen's two lackeys
and the two varlets M. de Rambouillet had lent us. There
remained besides Simon Fleix only Maignan's three men from Rosny;
but the state in which our affairs now stood enabled us to make
light of this. I informed the equerry--who visibly paled at the
news--that M. de Bruhl lay ill of the plague, and like to die;
and I bade him form a camp in the wood below, and, sending for
food to the house where we had slept the night before, make
mademoiselle as comfortable as circumstances permitted.

He listened with surprise, and when I had done asked with concern
what I intended to do myself.

'Someone must remain with Madam de Bruhl,' I answered. 'I have
already been to the bedside to procure the key of mademoiselle's
room, and I run no farther risk. All I ask is that you will
remain in the neighbourhood, and furnish us with supplies should
it be necessary.'

He looked at me with emotion, which, strongly in conflict with
his fears as it was, touched me not a little. 'But morbleu! M.
de Marsac,' he said, 'you will take the plague and die.'

'If God wills,' I answered, very lugubriously I confess, for pale
looks in one commonly so fearless could not but depress me. 'But
if not, I shall escape. Any way, my friend,' I continued, 'I owe
you a quittance. Simon Fleix has an inkhorn and paper. Bid him
bring them to this stone and leave them, and I will write that
Maignan, the equerry of the Baron de Rosny, served me to the end
as a brave soldier and an honest friend. 'What, MON AMI?' I
continued, for I saw that he was overcome by this, which was,
indeed, a happy thought of mine. 'Why not? It is true, and will
acquit you with the Baron. Do it, and go. Advise M. d'Agen, and
be to him what you have been to me.'

He swore two or three great oaths, such as men of his kind use to
hide an excess of feeling, and after some further remonstrance
went away to carry out my orders; leaving me to stand on the brow
in a strange kind of solitude, and watch horses and men withdraw
to the wood, until the whole valley seemed left to me and
stillness and the grey evening. For a time I stood in thought.
Then reminding myself, for a fillip to my spirits, that I had
been far more alone when I walked the streets of St. Jean
friendless and threadbare (than I was now), I turned, and
swinging my scabbard against my boots for company, stumbled
through the dark, silent courtyard, and mounted as cheerfully as
I could to madame's room.

To detail all that passed during the next five days would be
tedious and in indifferent taste, seeing that I am writing this
memoir for the perusal of men of honour; for though I consider
the offices which the whole can perform for the sick to be worthy
of the attention of every man, however well born, who proposes to
see service, they seem to be more honourable in the doing than
the telling. One episode, however, which marked those days
filled me then, as it does now, with the most lively pleasure;
and that was the unexpected devotion displayed by Simon Fleix,
who, coming to me, refused to leave, and showed himself at this
pinch to be possessed of such sterling qualities that I freely
forgave him the deceit he had formerly practised on me. The fits
of moody silence into which he still fell at times and an
occasional irascibility seemed to show that he had not altogether
conquered his insane fancy; but the mere fact that; he had come
to me in a situation of hazard, and voluntarily removed himself
from mademoiselle's neighbourhood, gave me good hope for the
future.

M. de Bruhl died early on the morning of the second day, and
Simon and I buried him at noon. He was a man of courage and
address, lacking only principles. In spite of madame's grief and
prostration, which were as great as though she had lost the best
husband in the world, we removed before night to a separate camp
in the woods; and left with the utmost relief the grey ruin on
the hill, in which, it seemed to me, we had lived an age. In our
new bivouac, where, game being abundant, and the weather warm, we
lacked no comfort, except the society of our friends, we remained
four days longer. On the fifth morning we met the others of our
company by appointment on the north road, and commenced the
return journey.

Thankful that we had escaped contagion, we nevertheless still
proposed to observe for a time such precautions in regard to the
others as seemed necessary; riding in the rear and having no
communication with them, though they showed by signs the pleasure
they felt at seeing us. From the frequency with which
mademoiselle turned and looked behind her, I judged she had
overcome her pique at my strange conduct; which the others should
by this time have explained to her. Content, therefore, with the
present, and full of confidence in the future, I rode along in a
rare state of satisfaction; at one moment planning what I would
do, and at another reviewing what I had done.

The brightness and softness of the day, and the beauty of the
woods, which in some places, I remember, were bursting into leaf,
contributed much to establish me in this frame of mind. The
hateful mist, which had so greatly depressed us, had disappeared;
leaving the face of the country visible in all the brilliance of
early spring. The men who rode before us, cheered by the happy
omen, laughed and talked as they rode, or tried the paces of
their horses, where the trees grew sparsely; and their jests and
laughter coming pleasantly to our ears as we followed, warmed
even madame's sad face to a semblance of happiness.

I was riding along in this state of contentment when a feeling of
fatigue, which the distance we had come did not seem to justify,
led me to spur the Cid into a brisker pace. The sensation of
lassitude still continued, however, and indeed grew worse; so
that I wondered idly whether I had over-eaten myself at my last
meal. Then the thing passed for awhile from my mind, which the
descent of a steep hill sufficiently occupied.

But a few minutes later, happening to turn in the saddle, I
experienced a strange and sudden dizziness; so excessive as to
force me to grasp the cantle, and cling to it, while trees and
hills appeared to dance round me. A quick, hot pain in the side
followed, almost before I recovered the power of thought; and
this increased so rapidly, and was from the first so definite,
that, with a dreadful apprehension already formed in my mind, I
thrust my hand inside my clothes, and found that swelling which
is the most sure and deadly symptom of the plague.

The horror of that moment--in which I saw all those things on the
possession of which I had just been congratulating myself, pass
hopelessly from me, leaving me in dreadful gloom--I will not
attempt to describe in this place. Let it suffice that the world
lost in a moment its joyousness, the sunshine its warmth. The
greenness and beauty round me, which an instant before had filled
me with pleasure, seemed on a sudden no more than a grim and
cruel jest at my expense, and I an atom perishing unmarked and
unnoticed. Yes, an atom, a mote; the bitterness of that feeling
I well remember. Then, in no long time--being a soldier--I
recovered my coolness, and, retaining the power to think, decided
what it behoved me to do.

CHAPTER XXXI.

UNDER THE GREENWOOD.

To escape from my companions on some pretext, which should enable
me to ensure their safety without arousing their fears, was the
one thought which possessed me on the subsidence of my first
alarm. Probably it answered to that instinct in animals which
bids them get away alone when wounded or attacked by disease; and
with me it had the fuller play as the pain prevailed rather by
paroxysms, than in permanence, and, coming and going, allowed
intervals of ease, in which I was able to think clearly and
consecutively, and even to sit firmly in the saddle.

The moment one of these intervals enabled me to control myself, I
used it to think where I might go without danger to others; and
at once and naturally my thoughts turned to the last place we had
passed; which happened to be the house in the gorge where we had
received news of Bruhl's divergence from the road. The man who
lived there alone had had the plague; therefore he did not fear
it. The place itself was solitary, and I could reach it, riding
slowly, in half an hour. On the instant and without more delay I
determined on this course. I would return, and, committing
myself to the fellow's good offices, bid him deny me to others,
and especially to my friends--should they seek me.

Aware that I bad no time to lose if I would put this plan into
execution before the pains returned to sap my courage, I drew
bridle at once, and muttered some excuse to madame; if I remember
rightly, that I had dropped my gauntlet. Whatever the pretext--
and my dread was great lest she should observe any strangeness in
my manner--it passed with her; by reason, chiefly, I think, of
the grief which monopolised her. She let me go, and before
anyone else could mark or miss me I was a hundred yards away on
the back-track, and already sheltered from observation by a turn
in the road.

The excitement of my evasion supported me for a while after
leaving her; and then for another while, a paroxysm of pain
deprived me of the power of thought. But when this last was
over, leaving me weak and shaken, yet clear in my mind, the most
miserable sadness and depression that can be conceived came upon
me; and, accompanying me through the wood, filled its avenues
(which doubtless were fair enough to others' eyes) with the
blackness of despair. I saw but the charnel-house, and that
everywhere. It was not only that the horrors of the first
discovery returned upon me and almost unmanned me; nor only that
regrets and memories, pictures of the past and plans for the
future, crowded thick upon my mind, so that I could have wept at
the thought of all ending here. But in my weakness
mademoiselle's face shone where the wood was darkest, and,
tempting and provoking me to return--were it only to tell her
that, grim and dull as I seemed, I loved her--tried me with a
subtle temptation almost beyond my strength to resist. All that
was mean in me rose in arms, all that was selfish clamoured to
know why I must die in the ditch while others rode in the
sunshine; why I must go to the pit, while others loved and lived!

And so hard was I pressed that I think I should have given way
had the ride been longer or my horse less smooth and nimble. But
in the midst of my misery, which bodily pain was beginning to
augment to such a degree that I could scarcely see, and had to
ride gripping the saddle with both hands, I reached the mill. My
horse stopped of its own accord. The man we had seen before came
out. I had I just strength left to tell him what was the matter,
and what I wanted and then a fresh attack came on, with sickness,
and overcome by vertigo I fell to the ground.

I have but an indistinct idea what happened after that; until I
found myself inside the house, clinging to the man's arm. He
pointed to a box-bed in one corner of the room (which was, or
seemed to my sick eyes, gloomy and darksome in the extreme), and
would have had me lie down in it. But something inside me
revolted against the bed, and despite the force he used, I broke
away, and threw myself on a heap of straw which I saw in another
corner.

'Is not the, bed good enough for you?' he grumbled.

I strove to tell him it was not that.

'It should be good enough to die on,' he continued brutally.
'There's five have died on that bed, I'd have you know! My wife
one, and my son another, and my daughter another; and then my son
again, and a daughter again. Five! Ay, five in that bed!'

Brooding in the gloom of the chimney-corner, where he was busied
about a black pot, he continued to mutter and glance at me
askance; but after a while I swooned away with pain.

When I opened my eyes again the room was darker. The man still
sat where I had last seen him, but a noise, the same, perhaps,
which had roused me, drew him as I looked to the unglazed window.
A voice outside, the tones of which I seemed to know, inquired if
he had seen me; and so carried away was I by the excitement of
the moment that I rose on my elbow to hear the answer. But the
man was staunch. I heard him deny all knowledge of me, and
presently the sound of retreating hoofs and the echo of voices
dying in the distance assured me I was left.

Then, at that instant, a doubt of the man on whose compassion I
had thrown myself entered my mind. Plague-stricken, hopeless as
I was, it chilled me to the very heart; staying in a moment the
feeble tears I was about to shed, and curing even the vertigo,
which forced me to clutch at the straw on which I lay. Whether
the thought arose from a sickly sense of my own impotence, or was
based on the fellow's morose air and the stealthy glances he
continued to cast at me, I am as unable to say as I am to decide
whether it was well-founded, or the fruit of my own fancy.
Possibly the gloom of the room and the man's surly words inclined
me to suspicion; possibly his secret thoughts portrayed
themselves in his hang-dog visage. Afterwards it appeared that
he had stripped me, while I lay, of everything of value; but he
may have done this in the belief that I should die.

All I know is that I knew nothing certain, because the fear died
almost as soon as it was born. The man had scarcely seated
himself again, or I conceived the thought, when a second alarm
outside caused him to spring to his feet. Scowling and muttering
as he went, he hurried to the window. But before he reached it
the door was dashed violently open, and Simon Fleix stood in the
entrance.

There came in with him so blessed a rush of light and life as in
a moment dispelled the horror of the room, and stripped me at one
and the same time of fear and manhood. For whether I would or
no, at sight of the familiar face, which I had fled so lately, I
burst into tears; and, stretching out my hands to him, as a
frightened child might have done, called on him by name. I
suppose the plague was by this time so plainly written on my face
that all who looked might read; for he stood at gaze, staring at
me, and was still so standing when a hand put him aside and a
slighter, smaller figure, pale-faced and hooded, stood for a
moment between me and the sunshine. It was mademoiselle!

That, I thank God, restored me to myself, or I had been for ever
shamed. I cried to them with all the voice I had left to take
her away; and calling out frantically again and again that I had
the plague and she would die, I bade the man close the door.
Nay, regaining something of strength in my fear for her, I rose
up, half-dressed as I was, and would have fled into some corner
to avoid her, still calling out to them to take her away, to take
her away--if a fresh paroxysm had not seized me, so that I fell
blind and helpless where I was.

For a time after that I knew nothing; until someone held water to
my lips, and I drank greedily, and presently awoke to the fact
that the entrance was dark with faces and figures all gazing at
me as I lay. But I could not see her; and I had sense enough to
know and be thankful that she was no longer among them. I would
fain have bidden Maignan to begone too, for I read the
consternation in his face. But I could not muster strength or
voice for the purpose, and when I turned my head to see who held
me--ah me! it comes back to me still in dreams--it was
mademoiselle's hair that swept my forehead and her hand that
ministered to me; while tears she did not try to hide or wipe
away fell on my hot cheek. I could have pushed her away even
then, for she was slight and small; but the pains came upon me,
and with a sob choking my voice I lost all knowledge.

I am told that I lay for more than a month between life and
death, now burning with fever and now in the cold fit; and that
but for the tendance which never failed nor faltered, nor could
have been outdone had my malady been the least infectious in the
world. I must have died a hundred times, as hundreds round me
did die week by week in that year. From the first they took me
out of the house (where I think I should have perished quickly,
so impregnated was it with the plague poison) and laid me under a
screen of boughs in the forest, with a vast quantity of cloaks
and horse-cloths cunningly disposed to windward. Here I ran some
risk from cold and exposure and the fall of heavy dews; but, on
the other hand, had all the airs of heaven to clear away the
humours and expel the fever from my brain.

Hence it was that when the first feeble beginnings of
consciousness awoke in me again, they and the light stole in on
me through green leaves, and overhanging boughs, and the
freshness and verdure of the spring woods. The sunshine which
reached my watery eyes was softened by its passage through great
trees, which grew and expanded as I gazed up into them, until
each became a verdant world, with all a world's diversity of
life. Grown tired of this, I had still long avenues of shade,
carpeted with flowers, to peer into; or a little wooded bottom
--where the ground fell away on one side--that blazed and burned
with redthorn. Ay, and hence it was that the first sounds I
heard, when the fever left me at last, and I knew morning from
evening, and man from woman, were the songs of birds calling to
their mates.

Mademoiselle and Madame de Bruhl, with Fanchette and Simon Fleix,
lay all this time in such shelter as could be raised for them
where I lay; M. Francois and three stout fellows, whom Maignan
left to guard us living in a hut within hail. Maignan himself,
after seeing out a week of my illness, had perforce returned to
his master, and no news had since been received from him. Thanks
to the timely move into the woods, no other of the party fell
ill, and by the time I was able to stand and speak the ravages of
the disease had so greatly decreased that fear was at an end.

I should waste words were I to try to describe how the peace and
quietude of the life we led in the forest during the time of my
recovery sank into my heart; which had known, save by my mother's
bedside, little of such joys. To awake in the morning to sweet
sounds and scents, to eat with reviving appetite and feel the
slow growth of strength, to lie all day in shade or sunshine as
it pleased me, and hear women's voices and tinkling laughter, to
have no thought of the world and no knowledge of it, so that we
might have been, for anything we saw, in another sphere--these
things might have sufficed for happiness without that which added
to each and every one of them a sweeter and deeper and more
lasting joy. Of which next.

I had not begun to take notice long before I saw that M. Francois
and madame had come to an understanding; such an one, at least,
as permitted him to do all for her comfort and entertainment
without committing her to more than was becoming at such, a
season. Naturally this left mademoiselle much in my company; a
circumstance which would have ripened into passion the affection
I before entertained for her, had not gratitude and a nearer
observance of her merits already elevated my regard into the most
ardent worship that even the youngest lover ever felt for his
mistress.

In proportion, however, as I and my love grew stronger, and
mademoiselle's presence grew more necessary to my happiness--so
that were she away but an hour I fell a-moping--she began to draw
off from me, and absenting herself more and more on long walks in
the woods, by-and-by reduced me to such a pitch, of misery as bid
fair to complete what the fever had left undone,

If this had happened in the world I think it likely that I should
have suffered in silence. But here, under the greenwood, in
common enjoyment of God's air and earth, we seemed more nearly
equal. She was scarce better dressed, than a sutler's wife;
while recollections of her wealth and station, though they
assailed me nightly, lost much of their point in presence of her
youth and of that fair and patient gentleness which forest life
and the duties of a nurse had fostered.

So it happened that one day, when she had been absent longer than
usual, I took my courage in my hand and went to meet her as far
as the stream which ran through the bottom by the redthorn.
Here, at a place where there were three stepping-stones, I waited
for her; first taking away the stepping-stones, that she might
have to pause, and, being at a loss, might be glad to see me.

She came presently, tripping through an alley in the low wood,
with her eyes on the ground, and her whole carriage full of a
sweet pensiveness which it did me good to see. I turned my back
on the stream before she saw me, and made a pretence of being
taken up with something in another direction. Doubtless she
espied me soon, and before she came very near; but she made no
sign until she reached the brink, and found the stepping-stones
were gone.

Then, whether she suspected me or not, she called out to me, not
once, but several times. For, partly to tantalise her, as lovers
will, and partly because it charmed me to hear her use my name, I
would not turn at once.

When I did, and discovered her standing with one small foot
dallying with the water, I cried out with well-affected concern;
and in a great hurry ran towards her, paying no attention to her
chiding or the pettish haughtiness with which she spoke to me.

'The stepping-stones are all on your side,' she said imperiously.

'Who has moved them?'

I looked about without answering, and at last pretended to find
them; while she stood watching me, tapping the ground with one
foot the while. Despite her impatience, the stone which was
nearest to her I took care to bring last--that she might not
cross without my assistance. But after all she stepped over so
lightly and quickly that the hand she placed in mine seemed
scarcely to rest there a second. Yet when she was over I managed
to retain it; nor did she resist, though her cheek, which had
been red before, turned crimson and her eyes fell, and bound to
me by the link of her little hand, she stood beside me with her
whole figure drooping.

'Mademoiselle,' I said gravely, summoning all my resolution to my
aid, 'do you know of what that stream with its stepping-stones
reminds me?'

She shook her head but did not answer.

'Of the stream which has flowed between us from the day when I
first saw you at St. Jean,' said in a low voice. 'It has flowed
between us, and it still does--separating us.'

'What stream?' she murmured, with her eyes cast down, and her
foot playing with the moss. 'You speak in riddles, sir.'

'You understand this one only too well, mademoiselle, 'I
answered. 'Are you not young and gay and beautiful, while I am
old, or almost old, and dull and grave? You are rich and well-
thought-of at Court, and I a soldier of fortune, not too
successful. What did you think of me when you first saw me at
St. Jean? What when I came to Rosny? That, mademoiselle,' I
continued with fervour, 'is the stream which flows between us and
separates us; and I know of but one stepping-stone that can
bridge it.'

She looked aside, toying with a piece of thorn-blossom she had
picked. It was not redder than her cheeks.

'That one stepping-stone,' I said, after waiting vainly for any
word or sign from her, 'is Love. Many weeks ago, mademoiselle,
when I had little cause to like you, I loved you; I loved you
whether I would or not, and without thought or hope of return. I
should have been mad had I spoken to you then. Mad, and worse
than mad. But now, now that I owe you my life, now that I have
drunk from your hand in fever, and, awaking early and late, have
found you by my pillow--now that, seeing you come in and out in
the midst of fear and hardship, I have learned to regard you as a
woman kind and gentle as my mother--now that I love you, so that
to be with you is joy, and away from you grief, is it presumption
in me now, mademoiselle, to think that that stream may be
bridged?'

I stopped, out of breath, and saw that she was trembling. But
she spoke presently. 'You said one stepping-stone?' she
murmured.

'Yes,' I answered hoarsely, trying in vain to look at her face,
which she kept averted from me.

'There should be two,' she said, almost in a whisper. 'Your
love, sir, and--and mine. You have said much of the one, and
nothing of the other. In that you are wrong, for I am proud
still. And I would not cross the stream you speak of for any
love of yours!'

'Ah!' I cried in sharpest pain.

'But,' she continued, looking up at me on a sudden with eyes that
told me all, 'because I love you I am willing to cross it--to
cross it once for ever, and to live beyond it all my life--if I
may live my life with you.'

I fell on my knee and kissed her hand again and again in a
rapture of joy and gratitude. By-and-by she pulled it from me.
'If you will, sir,' she said, 'you may kiss my lips. If you do
not, no man ever will.'

After that, as may be guessed, we walked every day in the forest,
making longer and longer excursions as my strength came back to
me, and the nearer parts grew familiar. From early dawn, when I
brought my love a posy of flowers, to late evening, when
Fanchette hurried her from me, our days were passed in a long
round of delight; being filled full of all beautiful things--
love, and sunshine, and rippling streams, and green banks, on
which we sat together under scented limes, telling one another
all we had ever thought, and especially all we had ever thought
of one another. Sometimes--when the light was low in the
evening--we spoke of my mother; and once--but that was in the
sunshine, when the bees were humming and my blood had begun to
run strongly in my veins--I spoke of my great and distant
kinsman, Rohan. But mademoiselle would hear nothing of him,
murmuring again and again in my ear, 'I have crossed, my love, I
have crossed.'

Truly the sands of that hour-glass were of gold. But in time
they ran out. First M. Francois, spurred by the restlessness of
youth, and convinced that madame would for a while yield no
further, left us, and went back to the world. Then news came of
great events that could not fail to move us. The King of France
and the King of Navarre had met at Tours, and embracing in the
sight of an immense multitude, had repulsed the League with
slaughter in the suburb of St. Symphorien. Fast on this followed
the tidings of their march northwards with an overwhelming army
of fifty-thousand men of both religions, bent, rumour had it, on
the signal punishment of Paris.

I grew--shame that I should say it--to think more and more of
these things; until mademoiselle, reading the signs, told me one
day that we must go. 'Though never again,' she added with a
sigh, 'shall we be so happy.'

'Then why go?' I asked foolishly.

'Because you are a man,' she answered with a wise smile, 'as I
would have you be, and you need something besides love. To-
morrow we will go.'

'Whither?' I said in amazement.

'To the camp before Paris,' she answered. 'We will go back in
the light of day--seeing that we have done nothing of which to
be ashamed--and throw ourselves on the justice of the King of
Navarre. You shall place me with Madame Catherine, who will not
refuse to protect me; and so, sweet, you will have only yourself
to think of. Come, sir,' she continued, laying her little hand
in mine, and looking into my eyes, 'you are not afraid?'

'I am more afraid than ever I used to be,' I said trembling.

'So I would have it,' she whispered, hiding her face on my
shoulder. 'Nevertheless we will go.'

And go we did. The audacity of such a return in the face of
Turenne, who was doubtless in the King of Navarre's suite, almost
took my breath away; nevertheless, I saw that it possessed one
advantage which no other course promised--that, I mean, of
setting us right in the eyes of the world, and enabling me to
meet in a straightforward manner such as maligned us. After some
consideration I gave my assent, merely conditioning that until we
reached the Court we should ride masked, and shun as far as
possible encounters by the road.

CHAPTER XXXII.

A TAVERN BRAWL.

On the following day, accordingly, we started. But the news of
the two kings' successes, and particularly the certainty which
these had bred in many minds that nothing short of a miracle
could save Paris, had moved so many gentlemen to take the road
that we found the inns crowded beyond example, and were
frequently forced into meetings which made the task of concealing
our identity more difficult and hazardous than I had expected.
Sometimes shelter was not to be obtained on any terms, and then
we had to lie in the fields or in any convenient shed. Moreover,
the passage of the army had swept the country so bare both of
food and forage, that these commanded astonishing prices; and a
long day's ride more than once brought us to our destination
without securing for us the ample meal we had earned, and
required.

Under these circumstances, it was with joy little short of
transport that I recognised the marvellous change which had come
over my mistress. Bearing all without a murmur, or a frown, or
so much as one complaining word, she acted on numberless
occasions so as to convince me that she spoke truly--albeit I
scarcely dared to believe it--when she said that she had but one
trouble in the world, and that was the prospect of our coming
separation.

For my part, and despite some gloomy moments, when fear of the
future overcame me, I rode in Paradise riding by my mistress. It
was her presence which glorified alike the first freshness of the
morning, when we started with all the day before us, and the
coolness of the late evening, when we rode hand-in-hand. Nor
could I believe without an effort that I was the same Gaston de
Marsac who she had once spurned and disdained. God knows I was
thankful for her love. A thousand times, thinking of my grey
hairs, I asked her if she did not repent; and a thousand times
she answered No, with so much happiness in her eyes that I was
fain to thank God again and believe her.

Notwithstanding the inconvenience of the practice, we made it a
rule to wear our masks whenever we appeared in public; and this
rule me kept more strictly as we approached Paris. It exposed us
to some comment and more curiosity, but led to no serious trouble
until we reached Etampes, twelve leagues from the capital; where
we found the principal inn so noisy and crowded, and so much
disturbed by the constant coming and going of couriers, that it
required no experience to predicate the neighbourhood of the
army. The great courtyard seemed to be choked with a confused
mass of men and horses, through which we made our way with
difficulty. The windows of the house were all open, and offered
us a view of tables surrounded by men eating and drinking
hastily, as the manner of travellers is. The gateway and the
steps of the house were lined with troopers and servants and
sturdy rogues; who scanned all who passed in or out, and not
unfrequently followed them with ribald jests and nicknames.
Songs and oaths, brawling and laughter, with the neighing of
horses and the huzzas of the beggars, who shouted whenever a
fresh party arrived, rose above all, and increased the reluctance
with which I assisted madame and mademoiselle to dismount.

Simon was no match for such an occasion as this; but the stalwart
aspect of the three men whom Maignan had left with me commanded
respect, and attended by two of these I made a way for the
ladies--not without some opposition and a few oaths--to enter the
house. The landlord, whom we found crushed into a corner inside,
and entirely overborne by the crowd which had invaded his
dwelling, assured me that he had not the smallest garret he could
place at my disposal; but I presently succeeded in finding a
small room at the top, which I purchased from the four men who
had taken possession of it. As it was impossible to get anything
to eat there, I left a man on guard, and myself descended with
madame and mademoiselle to the eating-room, a large chamber set
with long boards, and filled with a rough and noisy crew. Under
a running fire of observations we entered, and found with
difficulty three seats in an inner corner of the room.

I ran my eye over the company, and noticed among them, besides a
dozen travelling parties like our own, specimens of all those
classes which are to be found in the rear of an army. There were
some officers and more horse-dealers; half a dozen forage-agents
and a few priests; with a large sprinkling of adventurers,
braves, and led-captains, and here and there two or three whose
dress and the deference paid to them by their neighbours seemed
to indicate a higher rank. Conspicuous among these last were a
party of four who occupied a small table by the door. An attempt
had been made to secure some degree of privacy for them by
interposing a settle between them and the room; and their
attendants, who seemed to be numerous, did what they could to add
to this by filling the gap with their persons. One of the four,
a man of handsome dress and bearing, who sat in the place of
honour, was masked, as we were. The gentleman at his right hand
I could not see. The others, whom I could see, were strangers to
me.

Some time elapsed before our people succeeded in procuring us any
food, and during the interval we were exposed to an amount of
comment on the part of those round us which I found very little
to my liking. There were not half a dozen women present, and
this and our masks rendered my companions unpleasantly
conspicuous. Aware, however, of the importance of avoiding an
altercation which might possibly detain us, and would be certain
to add to our notoriety, I remained quiet; and presently the
entrance of a tall, dark-complexioned man, who carried himself
with a peculiar swagger, and seemed to be famous for something or
other, diverted the attention of the company from us.

The new-comer was somewhat of Maignan's figure. He wore a back
and breast over a green doublet, and had an orange feather in his
cap and an orange-lined cloak on his shoulder. On entering he
stood a moment in the doorway, letting his bold black eyes rove
round the room, the while he talked in a loud braggart fashion to
his companions. There was a lack of breeding in the man's air,
and something offensive in his look; which I noticed produced
wherever it rested a momentary silence and constraint. When he
moved farther into the room I saw that he wore a very long sword,
the point of which trailed a foot behind him.

He chose out for his first attentions the party of four whom I
have mentioned; going up to them and accosting them with a
ruffling air, directed especially to the gentleman in the mask.

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