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When Jeanne, after accomplishing her errands the next time she went out, entered Madam Vipon's, she found Ronald and Malcolm awaiting her.
"You have told my mother?" the former asked eagerly as she entered.
"Yes, I have told her, and if I had been an angel from heaven, with a special message to her, the poor lady could not have looked more happy."
"And you have been like an angel to us!" Ronald exclaimed, taking her hand. "How can I thank you for your goodness?"
"For shame, sir!" Jeanne said, smiling and colouring as Ronald, in his delight, threw his arms round her and kissed her. "Remember I am a lay sister."
"I could not have helped it," Ronald said, "if you had been the lady superior. And now," he went on eagerly, "is all arranged? See, I have brought a ladder of silk rope, light and thin, but quite strong enough to bear her."
"You take all for granted then, sir. You know I said I would take your message, but that I would not engage to meddle further in it."
"I know you said so; but I was sure that having gone so far you would do the rest. You will, won't you, Jeanne?"
"I suppose I must," Jeanne said; "for what with the countess on one side and you on the other, I should get no peace if I said no. Well, then, it is all arranged. At eleven o'clock tonight you are to be on the terrace, and you can expect her there. If she does not come you will know that something has occurred to prevent her, and she will come the following night at the same hour."
Jeanne took the silken cords and wound them round her, under her lay sister's robe, and then, with a kindly nod at Ronald, and an injunction to be as noiseless as a mouse in climbing up the terrace, and above all not to raise his voice in speaking to his mother, she tripped away across the street to the convent.
Malcolm and Ronald sallied out from Tours before the city gates were closed at sunset, and sat down on the slope which rises from the other side of the river and waited till it was time to carry the plan into operation. Gradually the lights disappeared from the various windows and the sounds which came across the water ceased, and by ten o'clock everything was profoundly still. They had, in the course of the afternoon, hired a boat, saying they were going out for a night's fishing. This they had moored a short distance below the town, on the side of the river where they now were. They now made their way to it and rowed quietly across the stream; then they left it and waded through the water, which flowed knee deep at the foot of the walls.
Although Tours was still a walled town the habit of keeping sentry in time of peace had long since died out, and they had no fear, at that hour, of discovery. There was no moon, but the night was bright and clear, and they had no difficulty in finding that part of the wall which now formed the terrace of the convent.
They were provided with a rope knotted at every foot, and with a grapnel attached to one end. At the second attempt this caught on the parapet of the wall, and Ronald at once climbed it and stood on the terrace, where, a minute later, he was joined by Malcolm. The convent itself could not be seen, for a screen of trees at the foot of the wall shut it off from the view of people on the opposite bank of the river. They waited quietly until a sudden peal of the bells of the numerous churches announced that it was the hour. Then they moved towards the steps leading down into the garden. A minute later a figure was seen approaching. Malcolm fell back, and Ronald advanced towards it. As the countess approached she held our her arms, exclaiming:
"My boy, my boy!" and with a cry of "Mother!" Ronald sprang forward into her embrace.
For a short time not a word was spoken, and then the countess murmured:
"My God, I thank thee for this great happiness. And now, my son," she said, recovering herself, "tell me everything. First, have you news of your father?"
"Alas, no!" Ronald said. "Nothing has been heard of him since the fatal day when he was seized; but I am convinced that he is still alive, and since I have found you, surely I shall be able to find him."
"Who is that with you, Ronald?"
"That is Malcolm Anderson; it is to him I owe everything. He carried me off and took me away with him to Scotland the day my father was arrested. He has been my best friend ever since, and it is he who brought me here to you."
The countess advanced to Malcolm.
"My son has told me that we owe everything to you, my brave Malcolm!" she said, holding out her hand. "I guessed that it was to you that my husband had confided the care of the child when I learned that it had disappeared. I remember what confidence he had in your devotion, and how he confided everything to you."
"He was like a brother to me, madam," Malcolm replied; "and glad indeed am I that I have been able to befriend his son and to bring him back to you a gentleman who will be an honour even to his father's name and yours."
"And now let us sit down here," the countess said, taking a seat upon a bench. "It gets light very early, and you must not stay after two o'clock, and there is so much for me to hear."
For the next two hours Ronald sat holding his mother's hand, while he told her the story of his life. "And now, mother," he said, when he had concluded, "we have but an hour left, for it has just struck one, and we have not said a word yet about the principal thing of all. How are we to obtain your freedom? Cannot you arrange to escape with us? I do not, of course, mean tonight, for we have nothing prepared, and, moreover, I promised Jeanne that there should be no attempt at escape; but we can come again when everything is ready. We shall, of course, need a disguise for you, for there will be a hot pursuit when your escape is known. But we might manage to reach the coast and cross over to England, and so make our way north."
"No, my son," the countess said. "I have thought it over in every way since I knew you were here, and I am resolved to remain here. Were I to fly, the last hope that your father might be freed would be lost. My father would be more than ever incensed against him and me; and, moreover, although that is but a minor consideration, there would be no hope whatever of your ever recovering the rank and estate to which you are entitled. No, I am resolved to wait here, at any rate so long as my father lives. At his death doubtless there will be some change, for as heiress to his estates my existence must be in some way recognized, and my family may be enabled to obtain my release when his powerful opposition is removed; if not, it will be time to take the idea of flight into consideration; till then I remain here. Now that I have seen you, now that I know you as you are, for I can just make out your face by the light of the stars, I shall be as near contentment and happiness as I can be till I meet your father again. In the meantime your good friend here can advise you far better than I can as to what your course had better be. If you can obtain any high influence, use it for obtaining your father's release. If it be accompanied by a sentence of exile from France it matters not, so that he is freed. You can then return here, and I will gladly fly with you to join him in Scotland."
Malcolm now rose from his seat and left mother and son half an hour together. When two o'clock struck he returned to them.
"There is the signal," the countess said, rising, "and now we must part." She had already refused to accede to Ronald's entreaty that she would meet him there again.
"No, my son, we have been permitted to meet this once, but we must not tempt fortune again. Sooner or later something would be sure to occur which would lead to discovery, and bring ruin upon all our plans. It is hard to say no, and to refuse the chance of seeing you again now that we have come together, but I am fully resolved that I will not risk it."
"We will see you safe up the ladder, mother," Ronald said. "It is no easy matter to climb up a rope ladder swinging loosely."
"No, I discovered that in descending," the countess said; "but if you come with me you must take off your boots -- the print of a man's footstep in the garden would ruin us all; and mind, not a word must be spoken when we have once left the terrace."
Taking off their boots they accompanied her through the garden. There was a last passionate embrace at the foot of the ladder, then the countess mounted it while they held it steady. Directly she entered the window she undid the fastening of the rope inside and let the ladder drop down to them. Five minutes later Ronald descended the rope into the river. Malcolm shifted the grapnel so that it caught only on the edge of the parapet and could be shaken off from below when the strain on the rope was removed, then he slid down to Ronald's side. A sharp jerk brought down the grapnel, and they returned along the edge of the river as they had come, crossed in the boat, and waited for morning.
They waited two days longer in Tours in order that they might receive, through Jeanne from the countess, a list of the noble families to which she was related, with notes as to those persons of whom she had seen most before her marriage, and who she believed would be most disposed to exert their influence on her behalf.
"Jeanne," Ronald said, "I am troubled that I do not know what I can do to show you how grateful I am. I should so like to give you some souvenir, but what can I do -- you could not wear brooches, or earrings, or trinkets."
"That I could not, monsieur," Jeanne broke in with a smile; "and if I could I would not accept them from you. I have done what I have done because I pitied your mother and you, and I am content that if I have broken the rules I have done it with a good purpose."
"Well, Jeanne," Ronald said, "you may not be a lay sister all your life; you have taken no vows that will bind you for ever, and I have no doubt that the lady superior can absolve you from your engagements should you at any time wish to go back to the world; if so, and if I am still in France, I will come to dance at your wedding, and will promise you as pretty a necklace and earrings as are to be found in Touraine."
"Very well, that is a bargain," Jeanne said laughing; "and it is not impossible, young sir, that some day I may hold you to your promise, for only last market day I met my father, and he spoke more kindly to me than he used to, and even said that he missed me; and I hear that the miller has found someone who will put up with him for the sake of his money. I shouldn't be surprised if, when that comes off, father wants me home again; but I sha'n't go directly he asks me, you may be sure, but shall bargain that if there be again any question of a husband it will be for me to decide and not him."
The next day Ronald and his companion started for Paris. They were highly gratified with the success which had attended them, and Ronald felt his whole life brightened now that he had found the mother who had been so long lost to him. On arriving at Paris they found that Colonel Hume's regiment had returned to the capital. It was not expected that there would at present be any further fighting on the frontier, and two or three of the Scotch regiments had been brought back. Ronald at once called on Colonel Hume and related to him the success which had attended the first portion of his undertaking.
"I congratulate you indeed," Colonel Hume said. "I own that I thought your enterprise was a hopeless one, for it seemed to me impossible that you should be able to obtain an interview with a lady closely imprisoned in a convent. Why, Anderson, it is plain now that your talents have been lost, and that you ought to have been a diplomatist instead of wasting your time as a soldier. The way you carried out your plan was indeed admirable, and I shall really begin to think that Ronald will yet succeed; and now, my young friend, what do you mean to do next?"
"Would it be possible, sir, to ascertain where my father is confined?"
"I think not, my lad," the colonel said gravely. "In addition to the four or five prisons in Paris there are a score of others in different parts of France. The names of the prisoners in each are known only to the governors; to all others within the walls they exist as numbers only. The governors themselves are sworn to secrecy, and even if we could get at one or two of them, which would be difficult enough, we could hope for no more. Nor would it be much satisfaction to you merely to know in which prison your father is lying, for it is a very different matter to communicate with a prisoner in one of the royal fortresses to passing a message to a lady detained in a convent. I can see nothing for you but to follow the example of your mother and to practise patience, so conducting yourself as to gain friends and make a name and influence, so that at your grandfather's death we may bring as strong a pressure as possible to bear upon the king."
"How old is my grandfather?" Ronald asked.
"He is a man about sixty."
"Why, he may live twenty years yet!" Ronald exclaimed bitterly.
"Do not look at the worst side of the question," Colonel Hume replied with a smile. "But he may live some years," he went on more gravely, "and in the meantime you must think what you had better do. I will tell you as a great secret, that it has been finally resolved that an expedition shall sail this winter for Scotland, and fifteen thousand troops will assemble at Dunkirk under Marshal Saxe. Nothing could be more opportune. We are to form part of the expedition, with several other Scottish regiments. You are too young as yet for me to ask for a commission for you, but if you like I will enroll you as a gentleman volunteer; in this way you may have an opportunity of distinguishing yourself. I will introduce you to the Chevalier, and it may be that if he succeeds in gaining the crown of Scotland, if not of England, he will himself ask King Louis as a personal favour to release and restore to him Colonel Leslie of Glenlyon, who fought bravely with him in '15. If the expedition fails, and we get back alive to France, I will then obtain for you a commission in the regiment, and we can carry out our plan as we arranged. What do you say to that?"
"I thank you greatly, sir, and accept your offer most gratefully. I see that I am powerless to do anything for my father now, and your plan gives at least a prospect of success. In any case nothing will give me so much delight as to serve with the regiment he formerly commanded, and under so kind a friend as yourself."
"That is settled then," Colonel Hume said; "and now about outfit. A gentleman volunteer wears the uniform of the officers of the regiment, and indeed is one in all respects except that he draws no pay. My purse will be at your disposal. Do not show any false modesty, my lad, about accepting help from me. Your father would have shared his last penny with me had I needed it."
"I thank you heartily, colonel, for your offer, and should it be necessary I will avail myself of it, but at present I have ample funds. Malcolm carried off with me a bag with a hundred louis, and up to the day when I landed in France these had never been touched. I have eighty of them still remaining, which will provide my outfit and my maintenance for a long time to come."
"There is another advantage in your being a volunteer, rather than on the list of officers, Ronald; in that if it is necessary at any time, you can, after a word with me, lay aside your uniform and go about your affairs as long as you choose without question, which would be hard to do if you belonged regularly to the regiment."
At the end of a week Ronald had procured his uniform, and was presented by the colonel to the officers of the regiment as Ronald Leslie, the son of an old friend of his, who was joining the regiment as a gentleman volunteer. Malcolm joined only in the capacity of Ronald's servant. It was painful to the lad that his old friend and protector should assume such a relation towards him, but Malcolm laughed at his scruples.
"My dear Ronald," he said, "I was your father's servant, and yet his friend. Why should I not act in the same capacity to you? As to the duties, they are so light that, now I do not belong to the regiment, my only difficulty will be to kill time. There is nothing to do save to polish up your arms and your equipment. Your horse will be looked after by a trooper so long as you are with the regiment. I shall call you in the morning, get your cup of chocolate, and prepare your dinner when you do not dine abroad, carry your messages when you have any messages to send, and escort you when you go about any business in which it is possible that a second sword would be of use to you. As I have said, the only trouble will be to know what to do with myself when you do not want me."
It was now the end of August, and for the next four months Ronald worked hard at drill. He soon became a general favourite with the officers. The fact that his name was Leslie, and that he was accompanied by Malcolm, who was known to many of the old soldiers as being devoted to their former colonel and as having in some strange way disappeared from the regiment at the same time, gave ground to a general surmise that Leslie was the colonel's son.
Malcolm himself, when questioned, neither denied nor acknowledged the fact, but turned it off with a joke and a laugh. He was soon as much at home in his old regiment as if he formed a part in it, and when not required by Ronald passed the greater part of his time with his former comrades. As was natural, the opinion entertained by the men as to Leslie's identity was shared by the officers. The avoidance by Ronald of any allusion to his family, his declining when he first came among them to say to which branch of the Leslies he belonged, and the decided manner in which Colonel Hume, the first time the question was broached in his hearing in Ronald's absence, said that he begged no inquiries would be made on that score; all he could assure them was that Leslie's father was a gentleman of good family, and a personal friend of his own -- put a stop to all further questioning, but strengthened the idea that had got abroad that the young volunteer was the son of Colonel Leslie.
Early in January the 2d Scottish Dragoons marched for Dunkirk, where twenty thousand men assembled, while a large number of men of war and transports were gathered in the port. One day, when Ronald was walking in the street with Malcolm at his heels, the latter stepped up to him and touched him.
"Do you see that officer in the uniform of a colonel of the Black Musketeers, in that group at the opposite corner; look at him well, for he is your father's greatest enemy, and would be yours if he knew who you are; that is the Duke de Chateaurouge."
Ronald gazed at the man who had exercised so evil an influence upon the fate of his parents. He was a tall dark man with a pointed moustache, and of from forty to forty-five years of age. His features were regular and handsome; but in his thin straight eyebrows, the curl of his lips, and a certain supercilious drooping of the eyelids, Ronald read the evil passions which rendered him so dangerous and implacable an enemy.
"So that is the duke!" Ronald said when he had passed on. "I did not know he was a soldier."
"He is an honorary colonel of the regiment, and only does duty when it is called on active service; but he served in it for some years as a young man, and had the reputation of being a good soldier, though I know that he was considered a harsh and unfeeling officer by the men who served under him. That is the man, Ronald, and if you could get six inches of your sword between his ribs it would go a good long way towards obtaining your father's release; but I warn you he is said to be one of the best swordsmen in France."
"I care not how good a swordsmen he is," Ronald said hotly, "if I do but get a fair chance."
"Don't do anything rash, Ronald; I have no fear about your swordsmanship, for I know in the last four months you have practised hard, and that Francois says that young as you are you could give a point to any officer in the regiment. But at present it were madness to quarrel with the duke; you have everything to lose and nothing to gain. If he killed you there would be an end of you and your plans; if you killed him you would have to fly the country, for a court favourite is not to be slain with as much impunity as a bourgeois, and equally would there be an end of all hope of obtaining your father's release.
"No, for the present you must be content to bide your time. Still it is as well for you to know your foe when you see him, and in the meantime go on frequenting the various schools of arms and learn every trick of the sword that is to be taught. Look!" he went on, as a group of mounted officers rode down the street; "that is Marshal Saxe, one of the best soldiers in France, if not the best, and just as wild and reckless in private life as he is calm and prudent as a general."
Ronald looked with some surprise at the great general. He had expected to see a dashing soldier. He saw a man who looked worn and bent with disease, and as if scarce strong enough to sit on his horse; but there was still a fire in his eye, and as he uttered a joke to an officer riding next to him and joined merrily in the laugh, it was evident that his spirit was untouched by the disease which had made a wreck of his body.
A few days later a messenger arrived with the news that the French fleet from Brest had sailed, and had met the English fleet which had gone off in pursuit of it, and the coast of Kent was in consequence unguarded. Orders were instantly given that the troops should embark on board the transports, and as fast as these were filled they set sail. The embarkation of the cavalry naturally took longer time than that of the infantry, and before the Scottish Dragoons had got their horses on board a portion of the fleet was already out of sight.
"Was there ever such luck!" Malcolm exclaimed, after assisting in getting the horses on board, a by no means easy task, as the vessel was rolling heavily at her mooring. "The wind is rising every moment, and blowing straight into the harbour; unless I mistake not, there will be no sailing tonight."
This was soon evident to all. Signals were made from ship to ship, fresh anchors were let down, and the topmast housed. By midnight it was blowing a tremendous gale, which continued for three days. Several of the transports dragged their anchors and were washed ashore, and messages arrived from different parts of the coast telling of the wreck of many of those which had sailed before the storm set in.
The portion of the fleet which had sailed had indeed been utterly dispersed by the gale. Many ships were lost, and the rest, shattered and dismantled, arrived at intervals at the various French ports. The blow was too heavy to be repaired. The English fleet had again returned to the coast, and were on the lookout to intercept the expedition, and as this was now reduced to a little more than half of its original strength no surprise was felt when the plan was abandoned altogether.
Marshal Saxe with a portion of the troops marched to join the army in Flanders, and the Scotch Dragoons were ordered to return to Paris for the present.
For a year Ronald remained with the regiment in Paris. He had during that time been introduced by Colonel Hume to several members of his mother's family. By some of these who had known her before her marriage he was kindly received; but all told him that it would be hopeless to make any efforts for the release of his father as long as the Marquis de Recambours remained alive and high in favour at court, and that any movement in that direction would be likely to do harm rather than good. Some of the others clearly intimated to him that they considered that the countess had, by making a secret marriage and defying her father's authority, forfeited all right to the assistance or sympathy of her mother's family.
Twice Ronald travelled to Tours and sent messages to his mother through Jeanne, and received answers from the countess. She had, however, refused to meet him again on the terrace, saying that in spite of the love she had for him, and her desire to see him again, she was firmly resolved not to run the risk of danger to him and the failure of all their hopes, by any rash step.
At the end of the summer campaign in Flanders Marshal Saxe returned to Paris, and Colonel Hume one day took Ronald and introduced him to him, having previously interested the marshal by relating his history to him. The marshal asked Ronald many questions, and was much pleased with his frank manner and bearing.
"You shall have any protection I can give you," the marshal said. "No man has loved adventures more than I, nor had a fairer share of them, and my sympathies are altogether with you; besides, I remember your father well, and many a carouse have we had together in Flanders. But I am a soldier, you know, and though the king is glad enough to employ our swords in fighting his enemies, we have but little influence at court. I promise you, however, that after the first great victory I win I will ask the release of your father as a personal favour from the king, on the ground that he was an old comrade of mine. I can only hope, for your sake, that the marquis, your grandfather, may have departed this world before that takes place, for he is one of the king's prime favourites, and even the request of a victorious general would go for little as opposed to his influence the other way. And now, if you like, I will give you a commission in Colonel Hume's regiment. You have served for a year as a volunteer now, and younger men than you have received commissions."
Ronald thanked the marshal most heartily for his kind promise, but said that at present he would rather remain as a volunteer, because it gave him greater freedom of action.
"Perhaps you are right," the marshal said. "But at any rate you had better abstain from attempting any steps such as Colonel Hume tells me you once thought of for obtaining the release of your father. Success will be all but impossible, and a failure would destroy altogether any hopes you may have of obtaining his release from the king."
It seemed that some of his mother's family with whom he had communicated must have desired to gain the favour of the favourite of the king by relating the circumstances to him, for a short time after Ronald's interview with the marshal the marquis came up to Colonel Hume when he was on duty in the king's antechamber, and, in the presence of a number of courtiers, said to him:
"So, Colonel Hume, I find that I have to thank you for harbouring in your regiment an imposter, who claims to be my grandson. I shall know, sir, how to repay the obligation."
"The gentleman in question is no imposter, marquis, as I have taken the pains to inform myself. And I am not aware of any reason why I should not admit the son of a Scottish gentleman into my regiment, even though he happen to be a grandson of yours. As to your threat, sir, as long as I do my duty to his majesty I fear the displeasure of no man."
Two nights later, as Ronald was returning from dining with Colonel Hume and some of his officers, he was suddenly attacked in a narrow street by six men. Malcolm was with him, for Colonel Hume had at once related to him the conversation he had had with the marquis, and had warned him to take the greatest precautions.
"He is perfectly capable of having you suddenly put out of his way by a stab in the back, Ronald. And if there were anywhere for you to go I should advise you to leave Paris at once; but nowhere in France would you be safe from him, and it would upset all your plans to return to Scotland at present. However, you cannot be too careful."
Ronald had related what had passed to Malcolm, who determined to watch more carefully than ever over his safety, and never left his side when he was outside the barracks.
The instant the six men rushed out from a lane, at whose entrance a lantern was dimly burning, Malcolm's sword was out, and before the assailants had time to strike a blow he had run the foremost through the body.
Ronald instantly recovered from his surprise and also drew. He was now nearly eighteen, and although he had not yet gained his full height he was a match for most men in strength, while his constant exercise in the school of arms had strengthened the muscle of his sword arm, until in strength as well as in skill he could hold his own against the best swordsman in the regiment. The men were for a moment checked by the fall of their leader; but then seeing that they had opposed to them only one man, and another whom they regarded as a lad, scarcely to be taken into consideration, they rushed upon them. They were quickly undeceived. Ronald parried the first blow aimed at him, and with his riposte stretched his opponent on the pavement, and then springing forward, after a few rapid thrusts and parries ran the next through the shoulder almost at the same moment that Malcolm stretched another opponent on the ground.
Terrified at the downfall of three of their number, while a fourth leaned against a door post disabled, the two remaining ruffians took to their heels and fled at the top of their speed, the whole affair having lasted scarce a minute.
"Tell your employer," Ronald said to the wounded man, "that I am not to be disposed of so easily as he imagined. I should be only giving you what you deserve if I were to pass my sword through your body; but I disdain to kill such pitiful assassins except in self defence."
The next morning Ronald communicated to Colonel Hume what had happened.
"It's just as well, my young friend, that you are going to leave Paris. I received orders half an hour ago for the regiment to march to the frontier at once. That is the marquis's doing, no doubt. He thought to get rid of you last night and to punish me this morning; but he has failed both ways. You have defeated his cutthroats; I shall be heartily glad to be at the front again, for I am sick of this idle life in Paris."
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