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The Sire De Maletroits Door

Denis de Beaulieu was not yet two-and-twenty, but he counted
himself a grown man, and a very accomplished cavalier into the
bargain. Lads were early formed in that rough, warfaring epoch;
and when one has been in a pitched battle and a dozen raids, has
killed one's man in an honourable fashion, and knows a thing or two
of strategy and mankind, a certain swagger in the gait is surely to
be pardoned. He had put up his horse with due care, and supped
with due deliberation; and then, in a very agreeable frame of mind,
went out to pay a visit in the grey of the evening. It was not a
very wise proceeding on the young man's part. He would have done
better to remain beside the fire or go decently to bed. For the
town was full of the troops of Burgundy and England under a mixed
command; and though Denis was there on safe-conduct, his safe-
conduct was like to serve him little on a chance encounter.

It was September 1429; the weather had fallen sharp; a flighty
piping wind, laden with showers, beat about the township; and the
dead leaves ran riot along the streets. Here and there a window
was already lighted up; and the noise of men-at-arms making merry
over supper within, came forth in fits and was swallowed up and
carried away by the wind. The night fell swiftly; the flag of
England, fluttering on the spire-top, grew ever fainter and fainter
against the flying clouds - a black speck like a swallow in the
tumultuous, leaden chaos of the sky. As the night fell the wind
rose, and began to hoot under archways and roar amid the tree-tops
in the valley below the town.

Denis de Beaulieu walked fast and was soon knocking at his friend's
door; but though he promised himself to stay only a little while
and make an early return, his welcome was so pleasant, and he found
so much to delay him, that it was already long past midnight before
he said good-bye upon the threshold. The wind had fallen again in
the meanwhile; the night was as black as the grave; not a star, nor
a glimmer of moonshine, slipped through the canopy of cloud. Denis
was ill-acquainted with the intricate lanes of Chateau Landon; even
by daylight he had found some trouble in picking his way; and in
this absolute darkness he soon lost it altogether. He was certain
of one thing only - to keep mounting the hill; for his friend's
house lay at the lower end, or tail, of Chateau Landon, while the
inn was up at the head, under the great church spire. With this
clue to go upon he stumbled and groped forward, now breathing more
freely in open places where there was a good slice of sky overhead,
now feeling along the wall in stifling closes. It is an eerie and
mysterious position to be thus submerged in opaque blackness in an
almost unknown town. The silence is terrifying in its
possibilities. The touch of cold window bars to the exploring hand
startles the man like the touch of a toad; the inequalities of the
pavement shake his heart into his mouth; a piece of denser darkness
threatens an ambuscade or a chasm in the pathway; and where the air
is brighter, the houses put on strange and bewildering appearances,
as if to lead him farther from his way. For Denis, who had to
regain his inn without attracting notice, there was real danger as
well as mere discomfort in the walk; and he went warily and boldly
at once, and at every corner paused to make an observation.

He had been for some time threading a lane so narrow that he could
touch a wall with either hand, when it began to open out and go
sharply downward. Plainly this lay no longer in the direction of
his inn; but the hope of a little more light tempted him forward to
reconnoitre. The lane ended in a terrace with a bartizan wall,
which gave an out-look between high houses, as out of an embrasure,
into the valley lying dark and formless several hundred feet below.
Denis looked down, and could discern a few tree-tops waving and a
single speck of brightness where the river ran across a weir. The
weather was clearing up, and the sky had lightened, so as to show
the outline of the heavier clouds and the dark margin of the hills.
By the uncertain glimmer, the house on his left hand should be a
place of some pretensions; it was surmounted by several pinnacles
and turret-tops; the round stern of a chapel, with a fringe of
flying buttresses, projected boldly from the main block; and the
door was sheltered under a deep porch carved with figures and
overhung by two long gargoyles. The windows of the chapel gleamed
through their intricate tracery with a light as of many tapers, and
threw out the buttresses and the peaked roof in a more intense
blackness against the sky. It was plainly the hotel of some great
family of the neighbourhood; and as it reminded Denis of a town
house of his own at Bourges, he stood for some time gazing up at it
and mentally gauging the skill of the architects and the
consideration of the two families.

There seemed to be no issue to the terrace but the lane by which he
had reached it; he could only retrace his steps, but he had gained
some notion of his whereabouts, and hoped by this means to hit the
main thoroughfare and speedily regain the inn. He was reckoning
without that chapter of accidents which was to make this night
memorable above all others in his career; for he had not gone back
above a hundred yards before he saw a light coming to meet him, and
heard loud voices speaking together in the echoing narrows of the
lane. It was a party of men-at-arms going the night round with
torches. Denis assured himself that they had all been making free
with the wine-bowl, and were in no mood to be particular about
safe-conducts or the niceties of chivalrous war. It was as like as
not that they would kill him like a dog and leave him where he
fell. The situation was inspiriting but nervous. Their own
torches would conceal him from sight, he reflected; and he hoped
that they would drown the noise of his footsteps with their own
empty voices. If he were but fleet and silent, he might evade
their notice altogether.

Unfortunately, as he turned to beat a retreat, his foot rolled upon
a pebble; he fell against the wall with an ejaculation, and his
sword rang loudly on the stones. Two or three voices demanded who
went there - some in French, some in English; but Denis made no
reply, and ran the faster down the lane. Once upon the terrace, he
paused to look back. They still kept calling after him, and just
then began to double the pace in pursuit, with a considerable clank
of armour, and great tossing of the torchlight to and fro in the
narrow jaws of the passage.

Denis cast a look around and darted into the porch. There he might
escape observation, or - if that were too much to expect - was in a
capital posture whether for parley or defence. So thinking, he
drew his sword and tried to set his back against the door. To his
surprise, it yielded behind his weight; and though he turned in a
moment, continued to swing back on oiled and noiseless hinges,
until it stood wide open on a black interior. When things fall out
opportunely for the person concerned, he is not apt to be critical
about the how or why, his own immediate personal convenience
seeming a sufficient reason for the strangest oddities and
resolutions in our sublunary things; and so Denis, without a
moment's hesitation, stepped within and partly closed the door
behind him to conceal his place of refuge. Nothing was further
from his thoughts than to close it altogether; but for some
inexplicable reason - perhaps by a spring or a weight - the
ponderous mass of oak whipped itself out of his fingers and clanked
to, with a formidable rumble and a noise like the falling of an
automatic bar.

The round, at that very moment, debauched upon the terrace and
proceeded to summon him with shouts and curses. He heard them
ferreting in the dark corners; the stock of a lance even rattled
along the outer surface of the door behind which he stood; but
these gentlemen were in too high a humour to be long delayed, and
soon made off down a corkscrew pathway which had escaped Denis's
observation, and passed out of sight and hearing along the
battlements of the town.

Denis breathed again. He gave them a few minutes' grace for fear
of accidents, and then groped about for some means of opening the
door and slipping forth again. The inner surface was quite smooth,
not a handle, not a moulding, not a projection of any sort. He got
his finger-nails round the edges and pulled, but the mass was
immovable. He shook it, it was as firm as a rock. Denis de
Beaulieu frowned and gave vent to a little noiseless whistle. What
ailed the door? he wondered. Why was it open? How came it to shut
so easily and so effectually after him? There was something
obscure and underhand about all this, that was little to the young
man's fancy. It looked like a snare; and yet who could suppose a
snare in such a quiet by-street and in a house of so prosperous and
even noble an exterior? And yet - snare or no snare, intentionally
or unintentionally - here he was, prettily trapped; and for the
life of him he could see no way out of it again. The darkness
began to weigh upon him. He gave ear; all was silent without, but
within and close by he seemed to catch a faint sighing, a faint
sobbing rustle, a little stealthy creak - as though many persons
were at his side, holding themselves quite still, and governing
even their respiration with the extreme of slyness. The idea went
to his vitals with a shock, and he faced about suddenly as if to
defend his life. Then, for the first time, he became aware of a
light about the level of his eyes and at some distance in the
interior of the house - a vertical thread of light, widening
towards the bottom, such as might escape between two wings of arras
over a doorway. To see anything was a relief to Denis; it was like
a piece of solid ground to a man labouring in a morass; his mind
seized upon it with avidity; and he stood staring at it and trying
to piece together some logical conception of his surroundings.
Plainly there was a flight of steps ascending from his own level to
that of this illuminated doorway; and indeed he thought he could
make out another thread of light, as fine as a needle and as faint
as phosphorescence, which might very well be reflected along the
polished wood of a handrail. Since he had begun to suspect that he
was not alone, his heart had continued to beat with smothering
violence, and an intolerable desire for action of any sort had
possessed itself of his spirit. He was in deadly peril, he
believed. What could be more natural than to mount the staircase,
lift the curtain, and confront his difficulty at once? At least he
would be dealing with something tangible; at least he would be no
longer in the dark. He stepped slowly forward with outstretched
hands, until his foot struck the bottom step; then he rapidly
scaled the stairs, stood for a moment to compose his expression,
lifted the arras and went in.

He found himself in a large apartment of polished stone. There
were three doors; one on each of three sides; all similarly
curtained with tapestry. The fourth side was occupied by two large
windows and a great stone chimney-piece, carved with the arms of
the Maletroits. Denis recognised the bearings, and was gratified
to find himself in such good hands. The room was strongly
illuminated; but it contained little furniture except a heavy table
and a chair or two, the hearth was innocent of fire, and the
pavement was but sparsely strewn with rushes clearly many days old.

On a high chair beside the chimney, and directly facing Denis as he
entered, sat a little old gentleman in a fur tippet. He sat with
his legs crossed and his hands folded, and a cup of spiced wine
stood by his elbow on a bracket on the wall. His countenance had a
strongly masculine cast; not properly human, but such as we see in
the bull, the goat, or the domestic boar; something equivocal and
wheedling, something greedy, brutal, and dangerous. The upper lip
was inordinately full, as though swollen by a blow or a toothache;
and the smile, the peaked eyebrows, and the small, strong eyes were
quaintly and almost comically evil in expression. Beautiful white
hair hung straight all round his head, like a saint's, and fell in
a single curl upon the tippet. His beard and moustache were the
pink of venerable sweetness. Age, probably in consequence of
inordinate precautions, had left no mark upon his hands; and the
Maletroit hand was famous. It would be difficult to imagine
anything at once so fleshy and so delicate in design; the taper,
sensual fingers were like those of one of Leonardo's women; the
fork of the thumb made a dimpled protuberance when closed; the
nails were perfectly shaped, and of a dead, surprising whiteness.
It rendered his aspect tenfold more redoubtable, that a man with
hands like these should keep them devoutly folded in his lap like a
virgin martyr - that a man with so intense and startling an
expression of face should sit patiently on his seat and contemplate
people with an unwinking stare, like a god, or a god's statue. His
quiescence seemed ironical and treacherous, it fitted so poorly
with his looks.

Such was Alain, Sire de Maletroit.

Denis and he looked silently at each other for a second or two.

"Pray step in," said the Sire de Maletroit. "I have been expecting
you all the evening."

He had not risen, but he accompanied his words with a smile and a
slight but courteous inclination of the head. Partly from the
smile, partly from the strange musical murmur with which the Sire
prefaced his observation, Denis felt a strong shudder of disgust go
through his marrow. And what with disgust and honest confusion of
mind, he could scarcely get words together in reply.

"I fear," he said, "that this is a double accident. I am not the
person you suppose me. It seems you were looking for a visit; but
for my part, nothing was further from my thoughts - nothing could
be more contrary to my wishes - than this intrusion."

"Well, well," replied the old gentleman indulgently, "here you are,
which is the main point. Seat yourself, my friend, and put
yourself entirely at your ease. We shall arrange our little
affairs presently."

Denis perceived that the matter was still complicated with some
misconception, and he hastened to continue his explanations.

"Your door . . . " he began.

"About my door?" asked the other, raising his peaked eyebrows. "A
little piece of ingenuity." And he shrugged his shoulders. "A
hospitable fancy! By your own account, you were not desirous of
making my acquaintance. We old people look for such reluctance now
and then; and when it touches our honour, we cast about until we
find some way of overcoming it. You arrive uninvited, but believe
me, very welcome."

"You persist in error, sir," said Denis. "There can be no question
between you and me. I am a stranger in this countryside. My name
is Denis, damoiseau de Beaulieu. If you see me in your house, it
is only - "

"My young friend," interrupted the other, "you will permit me to
have my own ideas on that subject. They probably differ from yours
at the present moment," he added with a leer, "but time will show
which of us is in the right."

Denis was convinced he had to do with a lunatic. He seated himself
with a shrug, content to wait the upshot; and a pause ensued,
during which he thought he could distinguish a hurried gabbling as
of prayer from behind the arras immediately opposite him.
Sometimes there seemed to be but one person engaged, sometimes two;
and the vehemence of the voice, low as it was, seemed to indicate
either great haste or an agony of spirit. It occurred to him that
this piece of tapestry covered the entrance to the chapel he had
noticed from without.

The old gentleman meanwhile surveyed Denis from head to foot with a
smile, and from time to time emitted little noises like a bird or a
mouse, which seemed to indicate a high degree of satisfaction.
This state of matters became rapidly insupportable; and Denis, to
put an end to it, remarked politely that the wind had gone down.

The old gentleman fell into a fit of silent laughter, so prolonged
and violent that he became quite red in the face. Denis got upon
his feet at once, and put on his hat with a flourish.

"Sir," he said, "if you are in your wits, you have affronted me
grossly. If you are out of them, I flatter myself I can find
better employment for my brains than to talk with lunatics. My
conscience is clear; you have made a fool of me from the first
moment; you have refused to hear my explanations; and now there is
no power under God will make me stay here any longer; and if I
cannot make my way out in a more decent fashion, I will hack your
door in pieces with my sword."

The Sire de Maletroit raised his right hand and wagged it at Denis
with the fore and little fingers extended.

"My dear nephew," he said, "sit down."

"Nephew!" retorted Denis, "you lie in your throat;" and he snapped
his fingers in his face.

"Sit down, you rogue!" cried the old gentleman, in a sudden, harsh
voice, like the barking of a dog. "Do you fancy," he went on,
"that when I had made my little contrivance for the door I had
stopped short with that? If you prefer to be bound hand and foot
till your bones ache, rise and try to go away. If you choose to
remain a free young buck, agreeably conversing with an old
gentleman - why, sit where you are in peace, and God be with you."

"Do you mean I am a prisoner?" demanded Denis.

"I state the facts," replied the other. "I would rather leave the
conclusion to yourself."

Denis sat down again. Externally he managed to keep pretty calm;
but within, he was now boiling with anger, now chilled with
apprehension. He no longer felt convinced that he was dealing with
a madman. And if the old gentleman was sane, what, in God's name,
had he to look for? What absurd or tragical adventure had befallen
him? What countenance was he to assume?

While he was thus unpleasantly reflecting, the arras that overhung
the chapel door was raised, and a tall priest in his robes came
forth and, giving a long, keen stare at Denis, said something in an
undertone to Sire de Maletroit.

"She is in a better frame of spirit?" asked the latter.

"She is more resigned, messire," replied the priest.

"Now the Lord help her, she is hard to please!" sneered the old
gentleman. "A likely stripling - not ill-born - and of her own
choosing, too? Why, what more would the jade have?"

"The situation is not usual for a young damsel," said the other,
"and somewhat trying to her blushes."

"She should have thought of that before she began the dance. It
was none of my choosing, God knows that: but since she is in it,
by our Lady, she shall carry it to the end." And then addressing
Denis, "Monsieur de Beaulieu," he asked, "may I present you to my
niece? She has been waiting your arrival, I may say, with even
greater impatience than myself."

Denis had resigned himself with a good grace - all he desired was
to know the worst of it as speedily as possible; so he rose at
once, and bowed in acquiescence. The Sire de Maletroit followed
his example and limped, with the assistance of the chaplain's arm,
towards the chapel door. The priest pulled aside the arras, and
all three entered. The building had considerable architectural
pretensions. A light groining sprang from six stout columns, and
hung down in two rich pendants from the centre of the vault. The
place terminated behind the altar in a round end, embossed and
honeycombed with a superfluity of ornament in relief, and pierced
by many little windows shaped like stars, trefoils, or wheels.
These windows were imperfectly glazed, so that the night air
circulated freely in the chapel. The tapers, of which there must
have been half a hundred burning on the altar, were unmercifully
blown about; and the light went through many different phases of
brilliancy and semi-eclipse. On the steps in front of the altar
knelt a young girl richly attired as a bride. A chill settled over
Denis as he observed her costume; he fought with desperate energy
against the conclusion that was being thrust upon his mind; it
could not - it should not - be as he feared.

"Blanche," said the Sire, in his most flute-like tones, "I have
brought a friend to see you, my little girl; turn round and give
him your pretty hand. It is good to be devout; but it is necessary
to be polite, my niece."

The girl rose to her feet and turned towards the new comers. She
moved all of a piece; and shame and exhaustion were expressed in
every line of her fresh young body; and she held her head down and
kept her eyes upon the pavement, as she came slowly forward. In
the course of her advance, her eyes fell upon Denis de Beaulieu's
feet - feet of which he was justly vain, be it remarked, and wore
in the most elegant accoutrement even while travelling. She paused
- started, as if his yellow boots had conveyed some shocking
meaning - and glanced suddenly up into the wearer's countenance.
Their eyes met; shame gave place to horror and terror in her looks;
the blood left her lips; with a piercing scream she covered her
face with her hands and sank upon the chapel floor.

"That is not the man!" she cried. "My uncle, that in not the man!"

The Sire de Maletroit chirped agreeably. "Of course not," he said;
"I expected as much. It was so unfortunate you could not remember
his name."

"Indeed," she cried, "indeed, I have never seen this person till
this moment - I have never so much as set eyes upon him - I never
wish to see him again. Sir," she said, turning to Denis, "if you
are a gentleman, you will bear me out. Have I ever seen you - have
you ever seen me - before this accursed hour?"

"To speak for myself, I have never had that pleasure," answered the
young man. "This is the first time, messire, that I have met with
your engaging niece."

The old gentleman shrugged his shoulders.

"I am distressed to hear it," he said. "But it is never too late
to begin. I had little more acquaintance with my own late lady ere
I married her; which proves," he added with a grimace, "that these
impromptu marriages may often produce an excellent understanding in
the long-run. As the bridegroom is to have a voice in the matter,
I will give him two hours to make up for lost time before we
proceed with the ceremony." And he turned towards the door,
followed by the clergyman.

The girl was on her feet in a moment. "My uncle, you cannot be in
earnest," she said. "I declare before God I will stab myself
rather than be forced on that young man. The heart rises at it;
God forbids such marriages; you dishonour your white hair. Oh, my
uncle, pity me! There is not a woman in all the world but would
prefer death to such a nuptial. Is it possible," she added,
faltering - "is it possible that you do not believe me - that you
still think this" - and she pointed at Denis with a tremor of anger
and contempt - "that you still think THIS to be the man?"

"Frankly," said the old gentleman, pausing on the threshold, "I do.
But let me explain to you once for all, Blanche de Maletroit, my
way of thinking about this affair. When you took it into your head
to dishonour my family and the name that I have borne, in peace and
war, for more than three-score years, you forfeited, not only the
right to question my designs, but that of looking me in the face.
If your father had been alive, he would have spat on you and turned
you out of doors. His was the hand of iron. You may bless your
God you have only to deal with the hand of velvet, mademoiselle.
It was my duty to get you married without delay. Out of pure
goodwill, I have tried to find your own gallant for you. And I
believe I have succeeded. But before God and all the holy angels,
Blanche de Maletroit, if I have not, I care not one jack-straw. So
let me recommend you to be polite to our young friend; for upon my
word, your next groom may be less appetising."

And with that he went out, with the chaplain at his heels; and the
arras fell behind the pair.

The girl turned upon Denis with flashing eyes.

"And what, sir," she demanded, "may be the meaning of all this?"

"God knows," returned Denis gloomily. "I am a prisoner in this
house, which seems full of mad people. More I know not; and
nothing do I understand."

"And pray how came you here?" she asked.

He told her as briefly as he could. "For the rest," he added,
"perhaps you will follow my example, and tell me the answer to all
these riddles, and what, in God's name, is like to be the end of
it."

She stood silent for a little, and he could see her lips tremble
and her tearless eyes burn with a feverish lustre. Then she
pressed her forehead in both hands.

"Alas, how my head aches!" she said wearily - "to say nothing of my
poor heart! But it is due to you to know my story, unmaidenly as
it must seem. I am called Blanche de Maletroit; I have been
without father or mother for - oh! for as long as I can recollect,
and indeed I have been most unhappy all my life. Three months ago
a young captain began to stand near me every day in church. I
could see that I pleased him; I am much to blame, but I was so glad
that any one should love me; and when he passed me a letter, I took
it home with me and read it with great pleasure. Since that time
he has written many. He was so anxious to speak with me, poor
fellow! and kept asking me to leave the door open some evening that
we might have two words upon the stair. For he knew how much my
uncle trusted me." She gave something like a sob at that, and it
was a moment before she could go on. "My uncle is a hard man, but
he is very shrewd," she said at last. "He has performed many feats
in war, and was a great person at court, and much trusted by Queen
Isabeau in old days. How he came to suspect me I cannot tell; but
it is hard to keep anything from his knowledge; and this morning,
as we came from mass, he took my hand in his, forced it open, and
read my little billet, walking by my side all the while. When he
had finished, he gave it back to me with great politeness. It
contained another request to have the door left open; and this has
been the ruin of us all. My uncle kept me strictly in my room
until evening, and then ordered me to dress myself as you see me -
a hard mockery for a young girl, do you not think so? I suppose,
when he could not prevail with me to tell him the young captain's
name, he must have laid a trap for him: into which, alas! you have
fallen in the anger of God. I looked for much confusion; for how
could I tell whether he was willing to take me for his wife on
these sharp terms? He might have been trifling with me from the
first; or I might have made myself too cheap in his eyes. But
truly I had not looked for such a shameful punishment as this! I
could not think that God would let a girl be so disgraced before a
young man. And now I have told you all; and I can scarcely hope
that you will not despise me."

Denis made her a respectful inclination.

"Madam," he said, "you have honoured me by your confidence. It
remains for me to prove that I am not unworthy of the honour. Is
Messire de Maletroit at hand?"

"I believe he is writing in the salle without," she answered.

"May I lead you thither, madam?" asked Denis, offering his hand
with his most courtly bearing.

She accepted it; and the pair passed out of the chapel, Blanche in
a very drooping and shamefast condition, but Denis strutting and
ruffling in the consciousness of a mission, and the boyish
certainty of accomplishing it with honour.

The Sire de Maletroit rose to meet them with an ironical obeisance.

"Sir," said Denis, with the grandest possible air, "I believe I am
to have some say in the matter of this marriage; and let me tell
you at once, I will be no party to forcing the inclination of this
young lady. Had it been freely offered to me, I should have been
proud to accept her hand, for I perceive she is as good as she is
beautiful; but as things are, I have now the honour, messire, of
refusing."

Blanche looked at him with gratitude in her eyes; but the old
gentleman only smiled and smiled, until his smile grew positively
sickening to Denis.

"I am afraid," he said, "Monsieur de Beaulieu, that you do not
perfectly understand the choice I have to offer you. Follow me, I
beseech you, to this window." And he led the way to one of the
large windows which stood open on the night. "You observe," he
went on, "there is an iron ring in the upper masonry, and reeved
through that, a very efficacious rope. Now, mark my words; if you
should find your disinclination to my niece's person
insurmountable, I shall have you hanged out of this window before
sunrise. I shall only proceed to such an extremity with the
greatest regret, you may believe me. For it is not at all your
death that I desire, but my niece's establishment in life. At the
same time, it must come to that if you prove obstinate. Your
family, Monsieur de Beaulieu, is very well in its way; but if you
sprang from Charlemagne, you should not refuse the hand of a
Maletroit with impunity - not if she had been as common as the
Paris road - not if she were as hideous as the gargoyle over my
door. Neither my niece nor you, nor my own private feelings, move
me at all in this matter. The honour of my house has been
compromised; I believe you to be the guilty person; at least you
are now in the secret; and you can hardly wonder if I request you
to wipe out the stain. If you will not, your blood be on your own
head! It will be no great satisfaction to me to have your
interesting relics kicking their heels in the breeze below my
windows; but half a loaf is better than no bread, and if I cannot
cure the dishonour, I shall at least stop the scandal."

There was a pause.

"I believe there are other ways of settling such imbroglios among
gentlemen," said Denis. "You wear a sword, and I hear you have
used it with distinction."

The Sire de Maletroit made a signal to the chaplain, who crossed
the room with long silent strides and raised the arras over the
third of the three doors. It was only a moment before he let it
fall again; but Denis had time to see a dusky passage full of armed
men.

"When I was a little younger, I should have been delighted to
honour you, Monsieur de Beaulieu," said Sire Alain; "but I am now
too old. Faithful retainers are the sinews of age, and I must
employ the strength I have. This is one of the hardest things to
swallow as a man grows up in years; but with a little patience,
even this becomes habitual. You and the lady seem to prefer the
salle for what remains of your two hours; and as I have no desire
to cross your preference, I shall resign it to your use with all
the pleasure in the world. No haste!" he added, holding up his
hand, as he saw a dangerous look come into Denis de Beaulieu's
face. "If your mind revolts against hanging, it will be time
enough two hours hence to throw yourself out of the window or upon
the pikes of my retainers. Two hours of life are always two hours.
A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.
And, besides, if I understand her appearance, my niece has still
something to say to you. You will not disfigure your last hours by
a want of politeness to a lady?"

Denis looked at Blanche, and she made him an imploring gesture.

It is likely that the old gentleman was hugely pleased at this
symptom of an understanding; for he smiled on both, and added
sweetly: "If you will give me your word of honour, Monsieur de
Beaulieu, to await my return at the end of the two hours before
attempting anything desperate, I shall withdraw my retainers, and
let you speak in greater privacy with mademoiselle."

Denis again glanced at the girl, who seemed to beseech him to
agree.

"I give you my word of honour," he said.

Messire de Maletroit bowed, and proceeded to limp about the
apartment, clearing his throat the while with that odd musical
chirp which had already grown so irritating in the ears of Denis de
Beaulieu. He first possessed himself of some papers which lay upon
the table; then he went to the mouth of the passage and appeared to
give an order to the men behind the arras; and lastly he hobbled
out through the door by which Denis had come in, turning upon the
threshold to address a last smiling bow to the young couple, and
followed by the chaplain with a hand-lamp.

No sooner were they alone than Blanche advanced towards Denis with
her hands extended. Her face was flushed and excited, and her eyes
shone with tears.

"You shall not die!" she cried, "you shall marry me after all."

"You seem to think, madam," replied Denis, "that I stand much in
fear of death."

"Oh no, no," she said, "I see you are no poltroon. It is for my
own sake - I could not bear to have you slain for such a scruple."

"I am afraid," returned Denis, "that you underrate the difficulty,
madam. What you may be too generous to refuse, I may be too proud
to accept. In a moment of noble feeling towards me, you forgot
what you perhaps owe to others."

He had the decency to keep his eyes upon the floor as he said this,
and after he had finished, so as not to spy upon her confusion.
She stood silent for a moment, then walked suddenly away, and
falling on her uncle's chair, fairly burst out sobbing. Denis was
in the acme of embarrassment. He looked round, as if to seek for
inspiration, and seeing a stool, plumped down upon it for something
to do. There he sat, playing with the guard of his rapier, and
wishing himself dead a thousand times over, and buried in the
nastiest kitchen-heap in France. His eyes wandered round the
apartment, but found nothing to arrest them. There were such wide
spaces between the furniture, the light fell so baldly and
cheerlessly over all, the dark outside air looked in so coldly
through the windows, that he thought he had never seen a church so
vast, nor a tomb so melancholy. The regular sobs of Blanche de
Maletroit measured out the time like the ticking of a clock. He
read the device upon the shield over and over again, until his eyes
became obscured; he stared into shadowy corners until he imagined
they were swarming with horrible animals; and every now and again
he awoke with a start, to remember that his last two hours were
running, and death was on the march.

Oftener and oftener, as the time went on, did his glance settle on
the girl herself. Her face was bowed forward and covered with her
hands, and she was shaken at intervals by the convulsive hiccup of
grief. Even thus she was not an unpleasant object to dwell upon,
so plump and yet so fine, with a warm brown skin, and the most
beautiful hair, Denis thought, in the whole world of womankind.
Her hands were like her uncle's; but they were more in place at the
end of her young arms, and looked infinitely soft and caressing.
He remembered how her blue eyes had shone upon him, full of anger,
pity, and innocence. And the more he dwelt on her perfections, the
uglier death looked, and the more deeply was he smitten with
penitence at her continued tears. Now he felt that no man could
have the courage to leave a world which contained so beautiful a
creature; and now he would have given forty minutes of his last
hour to have unsaid his cruel speech.

Suddenly a hoarse and ragged peal of cockcrow rose to their ears
from the dark valley below the windows. And this shattering noise
in the silence of all around was like a light in a dark place, and
shook them both out of their reflections.

"Alas, can I do nothing to help you?" she said, looking up.

"Madam," replied Denis, with a fine irrelevancy, "if I have said
anything to wound you, believe me, it was for your own sake and not
for mine."

She thanked him with a tearful look.

"I feel your position cruelly," he went on. "The world has been
bitter hard on you. Your uncle is a disgrace to mankind. Believe
me, madam, there is no young gentleman in all France but would be
glad of my opportunity, to die in doing you a momentary service."

"I know already that you can be very brave and generous," she
answered. "What I WANT to know is whether I can serve you - now or
afterwards," she added, with a quaver.

"Most certainly," he answered with a smile. "Let me sit beside you
as if I were a friend, instead of a foolish intruder; try to forget
how awkwardly we are placed to one another; make my last moments go
pleasantly; and you will do me the chief service possible."

"You are very gallant," she added, with a yet deeper sadness . . .
"very gallant . . . and it somehow pains me. But draw nearer, if
you please; and if you find anything to say to me, you will at
least make certain of a very friendly listener. Ah! Monsieur de
Beaulieu," she broke forth - "ah! Monsieur de Beaulieu, how can I
look you in the face?" And she fell to weeping again with a
renewed effusion.

"Madam," said Denis, taking her hand in both of his, "reflect on
the little time I have before me, and the great bitterness into
which I am cast by the sight of your distress. Spare me, in my
last moments, the spectacle of what I cannot cure even with the
sacrifice of my life."

"I am very selfish," answered Blanche. "I will be braver, Monsieur
de Beaulieu, for your sake. But think if I can do you no kindness
in the future - if you have no friends to whom I could carry your
adieux. Charge me as heavily as you can; every burden will
lighten, by so little, the invaluable gratitude I owe you. Put it
in my power to do something more for you than weep."

"My mother is married again, and has a young family to care for.
My brother Guichard will inherit my fiefs; and if I am not in
error, that will content him amply for my death. Life is a little
vapour that passeth away, as we are told by those in holy orders.
When a man is in a fair way and sees all life open in front of him,
he seems to himself to make a very important figure in the world.
His horse whinnies to him; the trumpets blow and the girls look out
of window as he rides into town before his company; he receives
many assurances of trust and regard - sometimes by express in a
letter - sometimes face to face, with persons of great consequence
falling on his neck. It is not wonderful if his head is turned for
a time. But once he is dead, were he as brave as Hercules or as
wise as Solomon, he is soon forgotten. It is not ten years since
my father fell, with many other knights around him, in a very
fierce encounter, and I do not think that any one of them, nor so
much as the name of the fight, is now remembered. No, no, madam,
the nearer you come to it, you see that death is a dark and dusty
corner, where a man gets into his tomb and has the door shut after
him till the judgment day. I have few friends just now, and once I
am dead I shall have none."

"Ah, Monsieur de Beaulieu!" she exclaimed, "you forget Blanche de
Maletroit."

"You have a sweet nature, madam, and you are pleased to estimate a
little service far beyond its worth."

"It is not that," she answered. "You mistake me if you think I am
so easily touched by my own concerns. I say so, because you are
the noblest man I have ever met; because I recognise in you a
spirit that would have made even a common person famous in the
land."

"And yet here I die in a mouse-trap - with no more noise about it
than my own squeaking," answered he.

A look of pain crossed her face, and she was silent for a little
while. Then a fight came into her eyes, and with a smile she spoke
again.

"I cannot have my champion think meanly of himself. Any one who
gives his life for another will be met in Paradise by all the
heralds and angels of the Lord God. And you have no such cause to
hang your head. For . . . Pray, do you think me beautiful?" she
asked, with a deep flush.

"Indeed, madam, I do," he said.

"I am glad of that," she answered heartily. "Do you think there
are many men in France who have been asked in marriage by a
beautiful maiden - with her own lips - and who have refused her to
her face? I know you men would half despise such a triumph; but
believe me, we women know more of what is precious in love. There
is nothing that should set a person higher in his own esteem; and
we women would prize nothing more dearly."

"You are very good," he said; "but you cannot make me forget that I
was asked in pity and not for love."

"I am not so sure of that," she replied, holding down her head.
"Hear me to an end, Monsieur de Beaulieu. I know how you must
despise me; I feel you are right to do so; I am too poor a creature
to occupy one thought of your mind, although, alas! you must die
for me this morning. But when I asked you to marry me, indeed, and
indeed, it was because I respected and admired you, and loved you
with my whole soul, from the very moment that you took my part
against my uncle. If you had seen yourself, and how noble you
looked, you would pity rather than despise me. And now," she went
on, hurriedly checking him with her hand, "although I have laid
aside all reserve and told you so much, remember that I know your
sentiments towards me already. I would not, believe me, being
nobly born, weary you with importunities into consent. I too have
a pride of my own: and I declare before the holy mother of God, if
you should now go back from your word already given, I would no
more marry you than I would marry my uncle's groom."

Denis smiled a little bitterly.

"It is a small love," he said, "that shies at a little pride."

She made no answer, although she probably had her own thoughts.

"Come hither to the window," he said, with a sigh. "Here is the
dawn."

And indeed the dawn was already beginning. The hollow of the sky
was full of essential daylight, colourless and clean; and the
valley underneath was flooded with a grey reflection. A few thin
vapours clung in the coves of the forest or lay along the winding
course of the river. The scene disengaged a surprising effect of
stillness, which was hardly interrupted when the cocks began once
more to crow among the steadings. Perhaps the same fellow who had
made so horrid a clangour in the darkness not half-an-hour before,
now sent up the merriest cheer to greet the coming day. A little
wind went bustling and eddying among the tree-tops underneath the
windows. And still the daylight kept flooding insensibly out of
the east, which was soon to grow incandescent and cast up that red-
hot cannon-ball, the rising sun.

Denis looked out over all this with a bit of a shiver. He had
taken her hand, and retained it in his almost unconsciously.

"Has the day begun already?" she said; and then, illogically
enough: "the night has been so long! Alas, what shall we say to
my uncle when he returns?"

"What you will," said Denis, and he pressed her fingers in his.

She was silent.

"Blanche," he said, with a swift, uncertain, passionate utterance,
"you have seen whether I fear death. You must know well enough
that I would as gladly leap out of that window into the empty air
as lay a finger on you without your free and full consent. But if
you care for me at all do not let me lose my life in a
misapprehension; for I love you better than the whole world; and
though I will die for you blithely, it would be like all the joys
of Paradise to live on and spend my life in your service."

As he stopped speaking, a bell began to ring loudly in the interior
of the house; and a clatter of armour in the corridor showed that
the retainers were returning to their post, and the two hours were
at an end.

"After all that you have heard?" she whispered, leaning towards him
with her lips and eyes.

"I have heard nothing," he replied.

"The captain's name was Florimond de Champdivers," she said in his
ear.

"I did not hear it," he answered, taking her supple body in his
arms and covering her wet face with kisses.

A melodious chirping was audible behind, followed by a beautiful
chuckle, and the voice of Messire de Maletroit wished his new
nephew a good morning.

Robert Louis Stevenson