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While they stood wondering, a dull wave of sound broke on their ears from the westward, and another, and yet another--the booming of cannon far up the river.
"That will be at La Galette," said the Commandant, answering the question in Dominique's eyes. "Come up to your quarters, my children, and get some sleep. We have work before us." He motioned the others to fall back out of hearing while he and Dominique mounted the slope together. "You had audience, then, of the Governor?" he asked.
"He declined to see us, Monseigneur, and I do not blame him, since he could not send us back telling you to fight. Doubtless it does not become one in M. de Vaudreuil's position to advise the other thing-- aloud."
"I do not understand you. Why could not M. de Vaudreuil order me to fight?"
Dominique stared at his master. "Why, Monseigneur,--seeing that he sends no troops, it would be a queer message. He could not have the face."
"Yet he must be intending to strike at the English coming from Quebec?"
"They are already arrived and encamped at Isle Sainte-Therese below the city, and another army has come down the Richelieu from the south and joined them."
"It is clear as daylight. M. de Vaudreuil must be meaning to attack them instantly, and therefore he cannot spare a detachment--You follow me?"
"It may be so, Monseigneur," Dominique assented doubtfully.
"'May be so'! It must be so! But unhappily he does not know of this third army descending upon him; or, rather, he does not know how near it is. Yet, to win time for him, we must hold up this army at all costs."
"It is I, Monseigneur, who am puzzled. You cannot be intending--"
"Eh? Speak it out, man!"
"You cannot be intending to await these English!"
"Name of thunder! What else do you suppose? Pray, my dear Dominique, use your wits. We have to gain time, I tell you--time for our friends below at Montreal."
"With twenty odd men against as many hundreds? Oh, pardon me, Monseigneur, but I cannot bring my mind to understand you."
"But since it gains time--"
"They will not stay to snap up such a mouthful. They will sail past your guns, laughing; unless--great God, Monseigneur! If in truth you intend this folly, where is Mademoiselle Diane? I did not see her in any of the boats from La Galette. Whither have you sent her, and in whose charge?"
"She is yonder on the wall, looking down on us. She will stay; I have given her my promise."
Dominique came to a halt, white as a ghost. His tongue touched his dry lips. "Monseigneur!"--the cry broke from him, and he put out a hand and caught his seigneur by the coat sleeve.
"What is the matter with the man?" The Commandant plucked his arm away and stood back, outraged by this breach of decorum.
But Dominique, having found his voice, continued heedless. "She must go! She shall go! It is a wickedness you are doing--do you hear me, Monseigneur?--a wickedness, a wickedness! But you shall not keep her here; I will not allow it!"
"Are you stark mad, Dominique Guyon?"
"I will not allow it. I love her, I tell you--there, I have said it! Listen again, Monseigneur, if you do not understand: I love her, I love her--oh, get that into your head! I love her, and will not allow it!"
"Certainly your brain is turned. Go to your quarters, sir; it must be sleep you want. Yes, yes, my poor fellow, you are pale as a corpse! Go, get some sleep, and when you wake we will forget all this."
"Before God, Monseigneur, I am telling you the truth. I need no sleep but the sleep of death, and that is like to come soon enough. But since we were children I have loved your daughter, and in the strength of that love I forbid you to kill her."
The Commandant swung round on his heel.
"Follow me, if you please."
He led the way to his orderly-room, seated himself at the table, and so confronted the young man, who stood humbly enough, though with his pale face twitching.
"Dominique Guyon, once in my life I made a great mistake; and that was when, to save my poor son's honour, I borrowed money of one of my censitaires. I perceive now what hopes you have nursed, feeding them on my embarrassments. You saw me impoverished, brought low, bereaved by God's will of my only son; you guessed that I lay awake of nights, troubled by the thought of my daughter, who must inherit poverty; and on these foundations you laid your schemes. You dreamed of becoming a gentilhomme, of marrying my daughter, of sitting in my chair at Boisveyrac and dealing justice among the villagers. And a fine dream it seemed to you, eh?" He paused.
"Monseigneur," Dominique answered simply, "you say some things that are true; but you say them so that all seems false and vile. Yes, I have dreamed dreams--even dreams of becoming a gentilhomme, as you say; but my dreams were never wicked as you colour them, seeing that they all flowed from love of Mademoiselle Diane, and returned to her."
He glanced towards the window, through which the pair could see Diane pacing the terre-plein in the sunlight. The sight kindled the elder man to fresh anger.
"If," said he harshly, "I tried to explain to you exactly how you insult us, it would be wasting my time and yours; and, however much you deserve it, I have no wish to wound your feelings beyond need. Let us come to business." He unlocked a drawer and drew out three bundles of notes. "As my farmer you will know better than I the current discount on these. You come from Montreal. At what price was the Government redeeming its paper there?"
As he unfolded them, Dominique glanced at the notes, and then let his gaze wander out through the window.
"Is Monseigneur proposing to pay me the interest on his bonds?"
"To be sure I am."
"I do not ask for it."
"Devil care I if you ask or not! Count the notes, if you please."
Dominique took a packet in his hands for a moment, still with his eyes bent absently on the window, fingered the notes, and laid them back on the table.
"Monseigneur will do me the justice to own that in former times I have given him good advice in business. I beg him to keep these notes for a while. In a month or two their value will have trebled, whichever Government redeems them."
The Commandant struck the table. "In a few hours, sir, I shall be a dead man. My honour cannot wait so long; and since the question is now of honour, not of business, you will keep your advice to yourself. Be quick, please; for time presses, and I have some instructions to leave to my brother. At my death he will sell the Seigniory. The Government will take its quint of the purchase-money, and out of the remainder you shall be paid. My daughter will then go penniless, but at least I shall have saved her from a creditor with such claims as you are like to press. And so, sir, I hope you have your answer."
"No, Monseigneur, not my answer. That I will never take but from Mademoiselle Diane herself."
"By God, you shall have it here and now!" The Commandant stepped to the window and threw open the casement. "Diane!" he called.
She came. She stood in the doorway; and Dominique--a moment before so bold--lowered his eyes before hers. At sight of him her colour rose, but bravely. She was young, and had been making her account with death. She had never loved Dominique; she had feared him at times, and at times pitied him; but now fate had lifted her and set her feet on a height from which she looked down upon love and fear with a kind of wonder that they had ever seemed important, and even her pity for him lost itself in compassion for all men and women in trouble. In truth, Dominique looked but a miserable culprit before her.
The Commandant eyed him grimly for a moment before turning to her.
"Diane," he said with grave irony, "you will be interested to learn that Monsieur Dominique Guyon here has done you the honour to request your hand in marriage."
She did not answer, but stood reading their faces.
"Moreover, on my declining that honour, he tells me that he will take his answer from you alone."
Still for a few seconds she kept silence.
"Why should I not answer him, papa?" she said at length, and softly. "It is not for us to choose what he should ask." She paused. "All his life Dominique Guyon has been helping us; see how he has, even in these few days, worn himself in our service!"
Her father stared at her, puzzled, not following her thought. He had expected her to be shocked, affronted; he did not know that Dominique's passion was an old tale to her; and as little did he perceive that in her present mood she put herself aside and thought only of Dominique as in trouble and needing help.
But apparently something in her face reassured him, for he stepped toward the door.
"You prefer to give him his answer alone?"
She bent her head.
For a while after the door had closed upon the Commandant, Dominique stood with eyes abased. Then, looking up and meeting the divine compassion in hers, he fell on his knees and stretched out both hands to her.
"Is there no hope for me, ma'amzelle?"
She shook her head. Looking down on him through tears, she held out a hand; he took it between his palms and clung to it, sobbing like a child.
Terrible, convulsive sobs they were at first, but grew quieter by degrees, and as the outburst spent itself a deep silence fell upon the room.
A tear had fallen upon his clasped knuckles. He put his lips to it and, imprisoning her fingers, kissed them once, reverently.
He was a man again. He stood up, yet not releasing her hand, and looked her in the face.
"Ma'amzelle, you will leave the Fort? You will let Bateese carry you out of danger? For me, of course, I stay with the Seigneur."
"No, Dominique. All New France is dying around us, and I stay with my father to see the end. Perhaps at the last I shall need you to help me." She smiled bravely. "You have been trying to persuade my father, I know."
"I have been trying to persuade him, and yet--yet--Oh, I will tell to you a wickedness in my heart that I could not tell even to Father Launoy! There was a moment when I thought to myself that even to have you die here and to die beside you were better than to let you go. Can you forgive me such a thought as that?"
"And will you grant one thing more?"
"What is it, Dominique?"
"A silly favour, ma'amzelle--but why not? The English will be here soon, maybe in a few hours. Let me call Bateese, and we three will be children again and go up to the edge of the forest and watch for our enemies. They will be real enemies, this time; but even that we may forget, perhaps."
She stood back a pace and laughed--yes, laughed--and gaily, albeit with dewy eyes. Her hands went up as if she would have clapped them. "Why, to be sure!" she cried. "Let us fetch Bateese at once!"
They passed out into the sunlight together, and she waited in the courtyard while Dominique ran upstairs to fetch Bateese. In five minutes' time the two brothers appeared together, Bateese with his pockets enormously bulging--whereat Diane laughed again.
"So you have brought the larder, as ever. Bateese was always prudent, and never relied on the game he killed in hunting. You remember, Dominique?"
"He was always a poor shot, ma'amzelle," answered Dominique gravely.
"But this is not the larder!" Bateese began to explain with a queer look at his brother.
"Never mind explanations! Come along, all three!" cried Dominique, and led the way. They passed out by the postern unobserved--for the garrison was assembled in the lunette under the river wall--and hurried toward the shade of the forest.
How well Diane remembered the old childish make-believe! How many scores of times had they played it together, these three, in the woods around Boisveyrac!--when Dominique and Bateese were bold huntsmen, and she kept house for them, cooking their imaginary spoils of the chase.
"We must have a fire!" she exclaimed, and hurried off to gather sticks. But when she returned with the lap of her gown well filled, a fire was already lit and blazing.
"How have you managed it so quickly?" she asked, and with that her eyes fell on a scrap of ashes. "Where did you get this? You have been lighting with paper, Bateese--and that is not playing fair!"
Bateese, very red in the face, stooped in the smoke and crammed another handful upon the blaze.
"They were papers, ma'amzelle, upon which Dominique and I for a long time could not agree. But now "--he turned to Dominique--"there is no longer any quarrel between us. Eh, brother?"
"None, Bateese; none, if you forgive."
"What did I tell you?" cried Bateese triumphantly. "Did I not always tell you that your heart would be lighter, with this shadow gone? And there was never any shadow but this; none--none!"
"That is all very well," Diane remonstrated; "but you two have no business to hide a secret from me to-day, even though it make you happier."
"We have burnt it for a propitiation, ma'amzelle; it no longer exists." Bateese cast himself on his back at full length in the herbage and gazed up through the drifting smoke into the tree-tops and sky. "A-ah!" said he with a long sigh, "how good God has been to me! How beautiful He has made all my life!" He propped himself on one elbow and continued with shining eyes: "What things we were going to do, in those days! What wonders we looked forward to! And all the while we were doing the most wonderful thing in the world, for we loved one another." He stretched out a hand and pointed. "There, by the bend, the English boats will come in sight. Suppose, Dominique, that as they come you launched out against them, and fought and sank the fleet single-handed, like the men in the old tales--"
"He would save New France, and live in song," Diane put in. "Would that not content any man, Bateese?" She threw back her head with a gesture which Dominique noted; a trick of her childhood, when in moments of excitement her long hair fell across her eyes and had to be shaken back.
"Ma'amzelle," he pleaded, "there is yet one favour."
"Can I grant it easily?"
"I hope so; it is that you will let down your hair for us."
Diane blushed, but put up a hand and began to uncoil the tresses. "Bateese has not answered me," she insisted. "I tell him that a man who should do such a feat as he named would live in song for ever and ever."
"But I say to you humbly, ma'amzelle, that though he lived in song for ever and ever, the true sweetness of his life would be unknown to the singers; for he found it here under the branches, and, stepping forth to his great deed, he left the memory for a while, to meet him again and be his reward in Heaven."
"And I say to you 'no,' and 'no,' and again 'no'!" cried Diane, springing to her feet--the childish, impetuous Diane of old. "It is in the great deed that he lives--the deed, and the moment that makes him everlasting! If Dominique now, or I, as these English came round the bend--"
She paused, meeting Dominique's eyes. She had not said "or you," and could not say it. Why? Because Bateese was a cripple. "Bateese's is a cripple's talk," said their glances one to another, guiltily, avoiding him.
Dominique's gaze, flinching a little, passed down the splendid coils of her hair and rested on the grass at her feet. She lifted a tress on her forefinger and smoothed it against the sunlight.
"There was a war once," said she, "between the Greeks and the Persians; and the Persians overran the Greeks' country until they came to a pass in the mountains where a few men could stand against many. There three hundred of the Greeks had posted themselves, despising death, to oppose an army of tens and hundreds of thousands. The Persian king sent forward a horseman, and he came near and looked along the pass and saw but a few Greeks combing their hair and dressing it carefully, as I am dressing mine."
"What happened, ma'amzelle?"
"They died, and live in song for ever and ever!"
She faced them, her cheeks glowing, and lifted a hand as the note of a sweet-toned bell rose upon the morning air above the voices of the birds; of the chapel-bell ringing the garrison to Mass.
The two young men scrambled to their feet.
"Come!" said Diane, and they walked back to the Fort together.
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