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The Commandant tapped the dispatch on the table before him, with a ruse smile.
"I was right then, after all, M. a Clive, in maintaining that your comrade carried a message from the General. My daughter has told me how you came, between you, to discover it. That you should have preserved the tunic is no less than providential; indeed, I had all along supposed it to be your own."
John waited, with a glance at the document, which lay with the seal downward, seemingly intact.
"It is addressed," the Commandant pursued, "in our ordinary cypher to the Marquis de Vaudreuil at Montreal. In my own mind I have not the least doubt that it instructs him--the pressure to the south having been relieved by the victory at Fort Carillon--to send troops up to us and to M. de Noyan at Fort Frontenac. My good friend up there has been sending down appeals for reinforcements at the rate of two a week, and has only ceased of late in stark despair. It is evident that your comrade carried a message of some importance to Montreal; and I have sent for you, monsieur, to ask: Are you in a condition to travel?"
"You wish me to carry this dispatch, monsieur?"
"If you tell me that you are fit to travel. Indeed it is a privilege which you have a right to claim, and M. de Vaudreuil will doubtless find some reward for the bearer. Young men were ambitious in my day--eh, M. a Clive?"
John, averting his face, gazed out of window upon the empty courtyard, the slope of the terrace and the line of embrasures above it. Diane was not there beside her accustomed gun, and he wondered if he should see her again before departing. He wondered if he desired to see her. To be sure he must accept this mission, having gone so far in deceit. It would set him free from Fort Amitie; and, once free, he could devise with Menehwehna some plan of escaping southward. Within the fort he could devise nothing. He winced under the Commandant's kindness; yet blessed it for offering, now at last, a term to his humiliation.
"M. de Vaudreuil will not be slow, I feel sure, to recognise your services," pursued the Commandant genially. "But, that there may be no mistake about it, I have done myself the pleasure to write him a letter commending you. Would you care to hear a sentence or two? No?"--for John's hand went up in protest--"Well, youth is never the worse for a touch of modesty. Be so good, then, monsieur, as to pass me the seal yonder."
John picked up and handed the seal almost without glancing at it. His thoughts were elsewhere as the Commandant lit a taper, heated the wax, and let it drop upon the letter. But just as the seal was impressed, old Jeremie Tripier entered without knocking, and in a state of high perturbation. "Monseigneur! Monseigneur! A whole fleet of boats in sight--coming down the river!"
The Commandant pushed back his chair.
"Boats? Down the river? Nonsense, Jeremie, it is up the river you mean; you have the message wrong. They must be the relief from Montreal!"
"Nay, Monseigneur, it is down the river they are approaching. The news came in from Sans Quartier, who is on sentry-go upstream. He has seen them from Mont-aux-Ours, and reports them no more than three miles away."
"Please God no ill has befallen de Noyan!" muttered the Commandant. "Excuse me, M. a Clive; I must look into this. We will talk of our business later."
But John scarcely heard. His eyes had fallen on the seal of the Commandant's letter. It stared back at him--a facsimile of the one hidden in his pocket--a flying Mercury, with, cap, winged sandals, and caduceus.
He pulled his wits together to answer the Commandant politely, he scarcely knew how, and followed him out to the postern gate. Half a dozen of the garrison--all, in fact, who happened to be off duty--were hurrying along the ridge to verify Sans Quartier's news. John, still weak from his wound, could not maintain the pace. Halting on the slope for breath, while the Commandant with an apology left him and strode ahead, he turned, caught sight of Diane, and waited for her.
She came as one who cannot help herself, with panting bosom and eyes that supplicated him for mercy. But Love, not John a Cleeve, was the master to grant her remission--and who can supplicate Love?
They met without greeting, and for a while walked on in silence, he with a flame in his veins and a weight of lead in his breast.
"Is papa sending you to Montreal?" she asked, scarcely above a whisper.
"He was giving me orders when this news came."
There was a long pause now, and when next she spoke he could hardly catch her words. "You will come again?"
His heart answered, "My love! O my love!" But he could not speak it. He looked around upon sky, forest, sweeping river--all the landscape of his bliss, the prison of his intolerable shame. A fierce peremptory longing seized him to kill his bliss and his shame at one stroke. Four words would do it. He had but to stand up and cry aloud, "I am an Englishman!" and the whole beautiful hideous dream would crack, shiver, dissolve. Only four words! Almost he heard his voice shouting them and saw through the trembling heat her body droop under the stab, her love take the mortal hurt and die with a face of scorn. Only four words, and an end desirable as death! What kept him silent then? He checked himself on the edge of a horrible laugh. The thing was called Honour: and its service steeped him in dishonour to the soul.
"You will come again?" her eyes repeated.
He commanded himself to say, "It may be that there is now no need to go. If Fort Frontenac has fallen--"
"Why should you believe that Fort Frontenac has fallen?" she broke in; and then, clasping her hands, added in a sort of terror, "Do you know that--that now--I hardly seem able to think about Fort Frontenac, or to care whether it has fallen or not? What wickedness has come to me that I should be so cruelly selfish?"
He set his face. Even to comfort her he must not let his look or voice soften; one touch of weakness now would send him over the abyss.
"Let us go forward," said he. "At the next bend we shall know what has happened."
But around the bend came a procession which told plainly enough what had happened; a procession of boats filled with dark-coated provincial soldiers, a few white-coats, many women and children. No flags flew astern; the very lift of the oars told of disgrace and humiliation. Thus came Payan de Noyan with his garrison, prisoners on parole, sent down by the victorious British to report the fall of Frontenac and be exchanged for prisoners taken at Ticonderoga.
Already the Commandant and his men had surmised the truth, and were hurrying back along the ridge to meet the unhappy procession at the quay. John and Diane turned with them and walked homeward in silence.
The flotilla passed slowly beneath their eyes, but did not head in toward the quay. An old man in the leading boat waved an arm from mid-stream--or rather, lifted it in salutation and let it fall again dejectedly.
This was de Noyan himself, and apparently his parole forbade him to hold converse with his countrymen before reaching Montreal. On them next, for aught the garrison of Fort Amitie could learn, the enemy were even now descending.
Diane, halting on the slope, heard her father call across the water to de Noyan, who turned, but shook his head and waved a hand once more with a gesture of refusal.
"He was asking him to carry the dispatch to Montreal. Since he will not, or cannot, you must follow with it."
"For form's sake," John agreed. "It can have no other purpose now."
They were standing at the verge of the forest, and she half turned towards him with a little choking cry that asked, as plainly as words, "Is this all you have to say? Are you blind, that you cannot see how I suffer?"
He stepped back a pace into the shadow of the trees. She lifted her head and, as their eyes met, drooped it again, faint with love. He stretched out his arms.
But as she ran to him he caught her by the shoulders and held her at arms' length. Her eyes, seeking his, saw that his gaze travelled past her and down the slope. And turning in his grasp she saw Menehwehna running towards them across the clearing from the postern gate, and crouching as he ran.
He must have seen them; for he came straight to where they stood, and gripping John by the arm pointed towards the quay, visible beyond the edge of the flagstaff tower.
"Who are these newcomers?" cried Diane, recovering herself. "Why, yes, it is Father Launoy and Dominique Guyon! Yes, yes--and Bateese!--whom you have never seen."
John turned to her quietly, without haste.
"Mademoiselle," said he in a voice low and firm, and not altogether unhappy, "I have met Bateese Guyon before now. And these men bring death to me. Run, Menehwehna! For me, I return to the Fort with mademoiselle."
She stared at him. "Death?" she echoed, wondering.
"Death," he repeated, "and I deserve it. On many accounts I have deserved it, but most of all for having stolen your trust. I am an Englishman."
For a moment she did not seem to hear. Then slowly, very slowly, she put out both hands and cowered from him.
"Return, Menehwehna!" commanded John firmly. "Yes, mademoiselle, I cannot expiate what I have done. But I go to expiate what I can."
He took a step forward; but she had straightened herself up and stood barring his path with her arm, fronting him with terrible scorn.
"Expiate! What can you expiate? You can only die; and are you so much afraid of death that you think it an atonement? You can only die, and--and--" she hid her face in her hands. "Oh, Menehwehna, help me! He can only die, and I cannot let him die!"
Menehwehna stepped forward with impassive face. "If my brother goes down the hill, I go with him," he announced calmly.
"You see?" Diane turned on John wildly. "You will only kill your friend--and to what purpose? The wrong you have done you cannot remedy; the remedy you seek would kill me surely. Ah, go! go! Do not force me to kneel and clasp your knees--you that have already brought me so low! Go, and let me learn to hate as well as scorn you. You wish to expiate? This only will I take for expiation."
"Come, brother!" urged Menehwehna, taking him by the arm.
Diane bent close to the Indian, whispered a word in his ear, and, turning about, looked John in the face.
"Are you sorry at all? If you are sorry, you will obey me now."
With one long searching look she left him and walked down the slope. Menehwehna dragged him back into the undergrowth as the postern door opened, and M. Etienne came through it, followed by Father Launoy, Dominique, and Bateese.
Peering over the bushes Menehwehna saw Diane descend to meet them--he could not see with what face.
Marvellous is woman. She met them with a gay and innocent smile.
Her whispered word to Menehwehna had been to keep by the waterside. And later that night, when the garrison had given over beating the woods for the fugitives, a canoe stole up the river, close under the north bank. One man sat in it; and after paddling for a couple of miles up-stream he began to sing as he went--softly at first, but raising his voice by little and little--
"Chante, rossignol, chante, Toi qui as le coeur gai; Tu as le coeur a rire, Moi je l'ai-t a pleurer."
No answer came from the dark forest. He took up his chant again, more boldly:
"Tu as le coeur a rire, Moi je l'ai-t a pleurer; J'ai perdu ma maitresse Sans pouvoir la trouver. --Lui y a longtemps que je t'aime, Jamais je ne t'oublierai."
He listened. A low call sounded from the trees on his right, and he brought the canoe under the bank.
"Is that you, Bateese?"
"Monsieur, forgive me! I said as little as I could, but the Reverend Father and Dominique were too clever for me. And how was I to have known? . . . . Take the canoe and travel fast, my friends; they will be searching again at dawn."
"Did mademoiselle send the canoe?"
"Yes; and she charged you to answer one question. It was her brother--M. Armand--whom the Iroquois slew in the Wilderness. Ah, that cry! Can one ever forget?"
"Her brother!" John's hand went to his breast in the darkness.
"Monsieur did not know, then? I was sure that monsieur could not have known! For myself I did not know until four days ago. The Iroquois had not seen us, and we escaped back to the Richelieu-- to Sorel--to Montreal, where I left my wounded man. Ah, monsieur, but we suffered on the way! And from Montreal I made for Boisveyrac, and there my tongue ran loose--but in all innocence. And there I heard that M. Armand had been crossing the Wilderness . . . but monsieur did not know it was her brother?"
"That, at least, I never knew nor guessed, Bateese. Was this the question Mademoiselle Diane desired you to ask me?"
"It was, monsieur. And, according to your answer, I was to give you her word."
"What is her word, Bateese?"
"She commends you to God, monsieur, and will pray for you."
"Take back my word that I will pray to deserve her prayers, who can never deserve her pardon."
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