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Chauvelin and his picked escort had in the meanwhile detached themselves from the main body of the squad. Soon the dull thud of their horses' hoofs treading the soft ground came more softly-- then more softly still as they turned into the wood, and the purple shadows seemed to enfold every sound and finally to swallow them completely.
Armand and Marguerite from the depth of the carriage heard Heron's voice ordering his own driver now to take the lead. They sat quite still and watched, and presently the other coach passed them slowly on the road, its silhouette standing out ghostly and grim for a moment against the indigo tones of the distant country.
Heron's head, with its battered sugar-loaf hat, and the soiled bandage round the brow, was as usual out of the carriage window. He leered across at Marguerite when he saw the outline of her face framed by the window of the carriage.
"Say all the prayers you have ever known, citizeness," he said with a loud laugh, "that my friend Chauvelin may find Capet at the chateau, or else you may take a last look at the open country, for you will not see the sun rise on it to-morrow. It is one or the other, you know."
She tried not to look at him; the very sight of him filled her with horror--that blotched, gaunt face of his, the fleshy lips, that hideous bandage across his face that hid one of his eyes! She tried not to see him and not to hear him laugh.
Obviously he too laboured under the stress of great excitement. So far everything had gone well; the prisoner had made no attempt at escape, and apparently did not mean to play a double game. But the crucial hour had come, and with it darkness and the mysterious depths of the forest with their weird sounds and sudden flashes of ghostly lights. They naturally wrought on the nerves of men like Heron, whose conscience might have been dormant, but whose ears were nevertheless filled with the cries of innocent victims sacrificed to their own lustful ambitions and their blind, unreasoning hates.
He gave sharp orders to the men to close tip round the carriages, and then gave the curt word of command:
Marguerite could but strain her ears to listen. All her senses, all her faculties had merged into that of hearing, rendering it doubly keen. It seemed to her that she could distinguish the faint sound--that even as she listened grew fainter and fainter yet--of Chauvelin and his squad moving away rapidly into the thickness of the wood some distance already ahead.
Close to her there was the snorting of horses, the clanging and noise of moving mounted men. Heron's coach had taken the lead; she could hear the creaking of its wheels, the calls of the driver urging his beasts.
The diminished party was moving at foot-pace in the darkness that seemed to grow denser at every step, and through that silence which was so full of mysterious sounds.
The carriage rolled and rocked on its springs; Marguerite, giddy and overtired, lay back with closed eyes, her hand resting in that of Armand. Time, space and distance had ceased to be; only Death, the great Lord of all, had remained; he walked on ahead, scythe on skeleton shoulder, and beckoned patiently, but with a sure, grim hand.
There was another halt, the coach-wheels groaned and creaked on their axles, one or two horses reared with the sudden drawing up of the curb.
"What is it now?" came Heron's hoarse voice through the darkness.
"It is pitch-dark, citizen," was the response from ahead. The drivers cannot see their horses' ears. They wait to know if they may light their lanthorns and then lead their horses."
"They can lead their horses," replied Heron roughly, "but I'll have no lanthorns lighted. We don't know what fools may be lurking behind trees, hoping to put a bullet through my head--or yours, sergeant--we don't want to make a lighted target of ourselves--what? But let the drivers lead their horses, and one or two of you who are riding greys might dismount too and lead the way--the greys would show up perhaps in this cursed blackness."
While his orders were being carried out, he called out once more:
"Are we far now from that confounded chapel?"
"We can't be far, citizen; the whole forest is not more than six leagues wide at any point, and we have gone two since we turned into it."
"Hush!" Heron's voice suddenly broke in hoarsely. What was that? Silence, I say. Damn you--can't you hear?"
There was a hush--every ear straining to listen; but the horses were not still--they continued to champ their bits, to paw the ground, and to toss their heads, impatient to get on. Only now and again there would come a lull even through these sounds--a second or two, mayhap, of perfect, unbroken silence--and then it seemed as if right through the darkness a mysterious echo sent back those same sounds--the champing of bits, the pawing of soft ground, the tossing and snorting of animals, human life that breathed far out there among the trees.
"It is citizen Chauvelin and his men," said the sergeant after a while, and speaking in a whisper.
"Silence--I want to hear," came the curt, hoarsely-whispered command.
Once more every one listened, the men hardly daring to breathe, clinging to their bridles and pulling on their horses' mouths, trying to keep them still, and again through the night there came like a faint echo which seemed to throw back those sounds that indicated the presence of men and of horses not very far away.
"Yes, it must be citizen Chauvelin," said Heron at last; but the tone of his voice sounded as if he were anxious and only half convinced; "but I thought he would be at the chateau by now."
"He may have had to go at foot-pace; it is very dark, citizen Heron," remarked the sergeant.
"En avant, then," quoth the other; "the sooner we come tip with him the better."
And the squad of mounted men, the two coaches, the drivers and the advance section who were leading their horses slowly restarted on the way. The horses snorted, the bits and stirrups clanged, and the springs and wheels of the coaches creaked and groaned dismally as the ramshackle vehicles began once more to plough the carpet of pine-needles that lay thick upon the road.
But inside the carriage Armand and Marguerite held one another tightly by the hand.
"It is de Batz--with his friends," she whispered scarce above her breath.
"De Batz?" he asked vaguely and fearfully, for in the dark he could not see her face, and as he did not understand why she should suddenly be talking of de Batz he thought with horror that mayhap her prophecy anent herself had come true, and that her mind wearied and over-wrought--had become suddenly unhinged.
"Yes, de Batz," she replied. "Percy sent him a message, through me, to meet him--here. I am not mad, Armand," she added more calmly. "Sir Andrew took Percy's letter to de Batz the day that we started from Paris."
"Great God!" exclaimed Armand, and instinctively, with a sense of protection, he put his arms round his sister. "Then, if Chauvelin or the squad is attacked--if--"
"Yes," she said calmly; "if de Batz makes an attack on Chauvelin, or if he reaches the chateau first and tries to defend it, they will shoot us ... Armand, and Percy."
"But is the Dauphin at the Chateau d'Ourde?"
"No, no! I think not."
"Then why should Percy have invoked the aid of de Batz? Now, when--"
"I don't know," she murmured helplessly. "Of course, when he wrote the letter he could not guess that they would hold us as hostages. He may have thought that under cover of darkness and of an unexpected attack he might have saved himself had he been alone; but now--now that you and I are here-- Oh! it is all so horrible, and I cannot understand it all."
"Hark!" broke in Armand, suddenly gripping her arm more tightly.
"Halt !" rang the sergeant's voice through the night.
This time there was no mistaking the sound; already it came from no far distance. It was the sound of a man running and panting, and now and again calling out as he ran.
For a moment there was stillness in the very air, the wind itself was hushed between two gusts, even the rain had ceased its incessant pattering. Heron's harsh voice was raised in the stillness.
"What is it now?" he demanded.
"A runner, citizen," replied the sergeant, "coming through the wood from the right."
"From the right?" and the exclamation was accompanied by a volley of oaths; "the direction of the chateau? Chauvelin has been attacked; he is sending a messenger back to me. Sergeant--sergeant, close up round that coach; guard your prisoners as you value your life, and--"
The rest of his words were drowned in a yell of such violent fury that the horses, already over-nervous and fidgety, reared in mad terror, and the men had the greatest difficulty in holding them in. For a few minutes noisy confusion prevailed, until the men could quieten their quivering animals with soft words and gentle pattings.
Then the troopers obeyed, closing up round the coach wherein brother and sister sat huddled against one another.
One of the men said under his breath:
"Ah! but the citizen agent knows how to curse! One day he will break his gullet with the fury of his oaths."
In the meanwhile the runner had come nearer, always at the same breathless speed.
The next moment he was challenged:
"Qui va la?"
"A friend!" he replied, panting and exhausted. "Where is citizen Heron?"
"Here!" came the reply in a voice hoarse with passionate excitement. "Come up, damn you. Be quick!"
"A lanthorn, citizen," suggested one of the drivers.
"No--no--not now. Here! Where the devil are we?"
"We are close to the chapel on our left, citizen," said the sergeant.
The runner, whose eyes were no doubt accustomed to the gloom, had drawn nearer to the carriage.
"The gates of the chateau," he said, still somewhat breathlessly, "are just opposite here on the right, citizen. I have just come through them."
"Speak up, man!" and Heron's voice now sounded as if choked with passion. "Citizen Chauvelin sent you?"
"Yes. He bade me tell you that he has gained access to the chateau, and that Capet is not there."
A series of citizen Heron's choicest oaths interrupted the man's speech. Then he was curtly ordered to proceed, and he resumed his report.
"Citizen Chauvelin rang at the door of the chateau; after a while he was admitted by an old servant, who appeared to be in charge, but the place seemed otherwise absolutely deserted--only--"
"Only what? Go on; what is it?"
"As we rode through the park it seemed to us as if we were being watched, and followed. We heard distinctly the sound of horses behind and around us, but we could see nothing; and now, when I ran back, again I heard. There are others in the park to-night besides us, citizen."
There was silence after that. It seemed as if the flood of Heron's blasphemous eloquence had spent itself at last.
"Others in the park!" And now his voice was scarcely above a whisper, hoarse and trembling. "How many? Could you see?"
"No, citizen, we could not see; but there are horsemen lurking round the chateau now. Citizen Chauvelin took four men into the house with him and left the others on guard outside. He bade me tell you that it might be safer to send him a few more men if you could spare them. There are a number of disused farm buildings quite close to the gates, and he suggested that all the horses be put up there for the night, and that the men come up to the chateau on foot; it would be quicker and safer, for the darkness is intense."
Even while the man spoke the forest in the distance seemed to wake from its solemn silence, the wind on its wings brought sounds of life and movement different from the prowling of beasts or the screeching of night-birds. It was the furtive advance of men, the quick whispers of command, of encouragement, of the human animal preparing to attack his kind. But all in the distance still, all muffled, all furtive as yet.
"Sergeant!" It was Heron's voice, but it too was subdued, and almost calm now; "can you see the chapel?"
"More clearly, citizen," replied the sergeant. "It is on our left; quite a small building, I think."
"Then dismount, and walk all round it. See that there are no windows or door in the rear."
There was a prolonged silence, during which those distant sounds of men moving, of furtive preparations for attack, struck distinctly through the night.
Marguerite and Armand, clinging to one another, not knowing what to think, nor yet what to fear, heard the sounds mingling with those immediately round them, and Marguerite murmured under her breath:
"It is de Batz and some of his friends; but what can they do? What can Percy hope for now?"
But of Percy she could hear and see nothing. The darkness and the silence had drawn their impenetrable veil between his unseen presence and her own consciousness. She could see the coach in which he was, but Heron's hideous personality, his head with its battered hat and soiled bandage, had seemed to obtrude itself always before her gaze, blotting out from her mind even the knowledge that Percy was there not fifty yards away from her.
So strong did this feeling grow in her that presently the awful dread seized upon her that he was no longer there; that he was dead, worn out with fatigue and illness brought on by terrible privations, or if not dead that he had swooned, that he was unconscious--his spirit absent from his body. She remembered that frightful yell of rage and hate which Heron had uttered a few minutes ago. Had the brute vented his fury on his helpless, weakened prisoner, and stilled forever those lips that, mayhap, had mocked him to the last?
Marguerite could not guess. She hardly knew what to hope. Vaguely, when the thought of Percy lying dead beside his enemy floated through her aching brain, she was almost conscious of a sense of relief at the thought that at least he would be spared the pain of the final, inevitable cataclysm.
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