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It had come, and I saw no way of escape. The sergeant was between us and I could not strike him. And I found no words. A score of times I had thought with shrinking how I should reveal my secret to Mademoiselle--what I should say, and how she would take it; but in my mind it had been always a voluntary act, this disclosure, it had been always I who unmasked myself and she who listened--alone; and in this voluntariness and this privacy there had been something which took from the shame of anticipation. But here--here was no voluntary act on my part, no privacy, nothing but shame. And I stood mute, convicted, speechless, under her eyes--like the thing I was.
Yet if anything could have braced me it was Mademoiselle's voice when she answered him.
'Go on, Monsieur,' she said calmly, 'you will have done the sooner.'
'You do not believe me?' he replied. 'Then, I say, look at him! Look at him! If ever shame--'
'Monsieur,' she said abruptly--she did not look at me, 'I am ashamed of myself.'
'But you don't hear me,' the Lieutenant rejoined hotly. 'His very name is not his own! He is not Barthe at all. He is Berault, the gambler, the duellist, the bully; whom if you--'
Again she interrupted him.
'I know it,' she said coldly. 'I know it all; and if you have nothing more to tell me, go, Monsieur. Go!' she continued in a tone of infinite scorn. 'Be satisfied, that you have earned my contempt as well as my abhorrence.'
He looked for a moment taken aback. Then,--
'Ay, but I have more,' he cried, his voice stubbornly triumphant.
'I forgot that you would think little of that. I forgot that a swordsman has always the ladies' hearts---but I have more. Do you know, too, that he is in the Cardinal's pay? Do you know that he is here on the same errand which brings us here--to arrest M. de Cocheforet? Do you know that while we go about the business openly and in soldier fashion, it is his part to worm himself into your confidence, to sneak into Madame's intimacy, to listen at your door, to follow your footsteps, to hang on your lips, to track you--track you until you betray yourselves and the man? Do you know this, and that all his sympathy is a lie, Mademoiselle? His help, so much bait to catch the secret? His aim blood-money--blood-money? Why, morbleu!' the Lieutenant continued, pointing his finger at me, and so carried away by passion, so lifted out of himself by wrath and indignation, that I shrank before him--'you talk, lady, of contempt and abhorrence in the same breath with me, but what have you for him--what have you for him--the spy, the informer, the hired traitor? And if you doubt me, if you want evidence, look at him. Only look at him, I say.'
And he might say it; for I stood silent still, cowering and despairing, white with rage and hate. But Mademoiselle did not look. She gazed straight at the Lieutenant.
'Have you done?' she said.
'Done?' he stammered; her words, her air, bringing him to earth again. 'Done? Yes, if you believe me.'
'I do not,' she answered proudly. 'If that be all, be satisfied, Monsieur. I do not believe you.'
'Then tell me this,' he retorted, after a moment of stunned surprise. 'Answer me this! Why, if he was not on our side, do you think that we let him remain here? Why did we suffer him to stay in a suspected house, bullying us, annoying us, thwarting us, taking your part from hour to hour?'
'He has a sword, Monsieur,' she answered with fine contempt,
'Mille diables!' he cried, snapping his fingers in a rage. 'That for his sword! It was because he held the Cardinal's commission, I tell you, because he had equal authority with us. Because we had no choice.'
'And that being so, Monsieur, why are you now betraying him?' she asked. He swore at that, feeling the stroke go home.
'You must be mad!' he said, glaring at her. 'Cannot you see that the man is what I tell you? Look at him! Look at him, I say! Listen to him! Has he a word to say for himself?'
Still she did not look.
'It is late,' she replied coldly. 'And I am not very well. If you have done, quite done--perhaps, you will leave me, Monsieur.'
'Mon Dieu! he exclaimed, shrugging his shoulders, and grinding his teeth in impotent rage. You are mad! I have told you the truth, and you will not believe it. Well--on your head be it then, Mademoiselle. I have no more to say! You will see.'
And with that, without more, fairly conquered by her staunchness, he saluted her, gave the word to the sergeant, turned and went down the path.
The sergeant went after him, the lanthorn swaying in his hand. And we two were left alone. The frogs were croaking in the pool, a bat flew round in circles; the house, the garden, all lay quiet under the darkness, as on the night which I first came to it.
And would to Heaven I had never come that was the cry in my heart. Would to Heaven I had never seen this woman, whose nobleness and faith were a continual shame to me; a reproach branding me every hour I stood in her presence with all vile and hateful names. The man just gone, coarse, low-bred, brutal soldier as he was, manflogger and drilling-block, had yet found heart to feel my baseness, and words in which to denounce it. What, then, would she say, when the truth came home to her? What shape should I take in her eyes then? How should I be remembered through all the years then?
Then? But now? What was she thinking now, at this moment as she stood silent and absorbed near the stone seat, a shadowy figure with face turned from me? Was she recalling the man's words, fitting them to the facts and the past, adding this and that circumstance? Was she, though she had rebuffed him in the body, collating, now he was gone, all that he had said, and out of these scraps piecing together the damning truth? Was she, for all that she had said, beginning to see me as I was? The thought tortured me. I could brook uncertainty no longer. I went nearer to her and touched her sleeve.
'Mademoiselle,' I said in a voice which sounded hoarse and unnatural even in my own ears, 'do you believe this of me?'
She started violently, and turned.
'Pardon, Monsieur!' she murmured, passing her hand over her brow; 'I had forgotten that you were here. Do I believe what?'
'What that man said of me,' I muttered.
'That!' she exclaimed. And then she stood a moment gazing at me in a strange fashion. 'Do I believe that, Monsieur? But come, come!' she continued impetuously. 'Come, and I will show you if I believe it. But not here.'
She turned as she spoke, and led the way on the instant into the house through the parlour door, which stood half open. The room inside was pitch dark, but she took me fearlessly by the hand and led me quickly through it, and along the passage, until we came to the cheerful lighted hall, where a great fire burned on the hearth. All traces of the soldiers' occupation had been swept away. But the room was empty.
She led me to the fire, and there in the full light, no longer a shadowy creature, but red-lipped, brilliant, throbbing with life and beauty, she stood opposite me--her eyes shining, her colour high, her breast heaving.
'Do I believe it?' she said in a thrilling voice. 'I will tell you. M. de Cocheforet's hiding-place is in the hut behind the fern-stack, two furlongs beyond the village on the road to Auch. You know now what no one else knows, he and I and Madame excepted. You hold in your hands his life and my honour; and you know also, M. de Berault, whether I believe that tale.'
'My God!' I cried. And I stood looking at her until something of the horror in my eyes crept into hers, and she shuddered and stepped back from me.
'What is it? What is it?' she whispered, clasping her hands. And with all the colour gone suddenly from her cheeks she peered trembling into the corners and towards the door. 'There is no one here.'
I forced myself to speak, though I was trembling all over like a man in an ague. 'No, Mademoiselle, there is no one here,' I muttered. 'There is no one here.' And then I let my head fall on my breast, and I stood before her, the statue of despair. Had she felt a grain of suspicion, a grain of doubt, my bearing must have opened her eyes; but her mind was cast in so noble a mould that, having once thought ill of me and been converted, she could feel no doubt again. She must trust all in all. A little recovered from her fright, she stood looking at me in great wonder; and at last she had a thought--
'You are not well?' she said suddenly. 'It is your old wound, Monsieur. Now I have it?'
'Yes, Mademoiselle,' I muttered faintly, 'it is.'
'I will call Clon!' she cried impetuously. And then, with a sob: 'Ah! poor Clon! He is gone. But there is still Louis. I will call him and he will get you something.'
She was gone from the room before I could stop her, and I stood leaning against the table possessor at last of the secret which I had come so far to win; able in a moment to open the door and go out into the night, and make use of it--and yet the most unhappy of men. The sweat stood on my brow; my eyes wandered round the room; I turned towards the door, with some mad thought of flight --of flight from her, from the house, from everything; and I had actually taken a step towards this, when on the door, the outer door, there came a sudden hurried knocking which jarred every nerve in my body. I started, and stopped. I stood a moment in the middle of the floor gazing at the door, as at a ghost. Then, glad of action, glad of anything that might relieve the tension of my feelings, I strode to it and pulled it sharply open.
On the threshold, his flushed face lit up by the light behind me, stood one of the knaves whom I had brought with me to Auch. He had been running, and panted heavily; but he had kept his wits, and the instant I, appeared he grasped my sleeve.
'Ah! Monsieur, the very man!' he cried. 'Quick! come this instant, lose not a moment, and you may yet be first. They have the secret! The soldiers have found Monsieur!'
'Found him?' I echoed. 'M. de Cocheforet?'
'No; but they know the place where he lies. It was found by accident. The Lieutenant was gathering his men when I came away. If we are quick, we may yet be first.'
'But the place?' I said.
'I could not hear,' he answered bluntly. 'We must hang on their skirts, and at the last moment strike in. It is the only way, Monsieur.'
The pair of pistols I had taken from the shock-headed man lay on a chest by the door. Without waiting for more I snatched them up and my hat, and joined him, and in a moment we were running down the garden. I looked back once before we passed the gate, and I saw the light streaming out through the door which. I had left open; and I fancied that for an instant a figure darkened the gap. But the fancy only strengthened the one single purpose, the iron resolve, which had taken possession of me and all my thoughts. I must be first; I must anticipate the Lieutenant; I must make the arrest myself. I must be first. And I ran on only the faster.
We were across the meadow and in the wood in a moment. There, instead of keeping along the common path, I boldly singled out-- my senses seemed to be preternaturally keen--the smaller trail by which Clon had brought us. Along this I ran unfalteringly, avoiding logs and pitfalls as by instinct, and following all its turns and twists, until we came to the back of the inn, and could hear the murmur of subdued voices in the village street, the sharp low word of command, and the clink of weapons; and could see over and between the houses the dull glare of lanthorns and torches.
I grasped my man's arm, and crouched down listening. When I had heard enough, 'Where is your mate?' I said in his ear.
'With them,' he muttered.
'Then come,' I whispered rising. 'I have seen what I want. Let us go.'
But he caught me by the arm and detained me.
'You don't know the way,' he said. 'Steady, steady, Monsieur. You go too fast. They are just moving. Let us join them, and strike in when the time comes. We must let them guide us.'
'Fool!' I said, shaking off his hand. 'I tell you, I know where he is! I know where they are going. Come, and we will pluck the fruit while they are on the road to it.'
His only answer was an exclamation of surprise. At that moment the lights began to move. The Lieutenant was starting. The moon was not yet up, the sky was grey and cloudy; to advance where we were was to step into a wall of blackness. But we had lost too much already, and I did not hesitate. Bidding my companion follow me and use his legs, I sprang through a low fence which rose before us; then stumbling blindly over some broken ground in the rear of the houses, I came with a fall or two to a little watercourse with steep sides. Through this I plunged recklessly and up the farther side, and, breathless and panting, gained the road, beyond the village, and fifty yards in advance of the Lieutenant's troop.
They had only two lanthorns burning, and we were beyond the circle of light cast by these; while the steady tramp of so many footsteps covered the noise we made. We were in no danger of being noticed, and in a twinkling we turned our backs, and as fast as we could we ran down the road. Fortunately, they were thinking more of secrecy than speed, and in a minute we had doubled the distance between them and us. In two minutes their lights were mere sparks shining in the gloom behind us. We lost even the tramp of their feet. Then I began to look out and go more slowly, peering into the shadows on either side for the fernstack.
On one hand the hill rose steeply, on the other it fell away to the stream. On neither side was close wood, or my difficulties had been immensely increased; but scattered oak trees stood here and there among the bracken. This helped me, and presently, on the upper side, I came upon the dense substance of the stack looming black against the lighter hill.
My heart beat fast, but it was no time for thought. Bidding the man in a whisper to follow me and be ready to back me up, I climbed the bank softly, and, with a pistol in my hand, felt my way to the rear of the stack, thinking to find a hut there, set against the fern, and M. Cocheforet in it. But I found no hut. There was none; and, moreover, it was so dark now we were off the road, that it came upon me suddenly, as I stood between the hill and the stack, that I had undertaken a very difficult thing. The hut behind the fern stack. But how far behind? how far from it? The dark slope stretched above us, infinite, immeasurable shrouded in night. To begin to climb it in search of a tiny hut, possibly well hidden and hard to find in daylight, seemed an endeavour as hopeless as to meet with the needle in the hay! And now while I stood, chilled and doubting, almost despairing, the steps of the troop in the road began to grow audible, began to come nearer.
'Well, Monsieur le Capitaine?' the man beside me muttered--in wonder why I stood. 'Which way? or they will be before us yet.'
I tried to think, to reason it out; to consider where the hut should be; while the wind sighed through the oaks, and here and there I could hear an acorn fall. But the thing pressed too close on me; my thoughts would not be hurried, and at last I said at a venture,--
'Up the hill. Straight up from the stack.'
He did not demur, and we plunged at the ascent, knee-deep in bracken and furze, sweating at every pore with our exertions, and hearing the troop come every moment nearer on the road below. Doubtless they knew exactly whither to go! Forced to stop and take breath when we had scrambled up fifty yards or so, I saw their lanthorns shining like moving glow-worms; I could even hear the clink of steel. For all I could tell, the hut might be down there, and we be moving from it. But it was too late to go back now--they were close to the fern-stack; and in despair I turned to the hill again. A dozen steps and I stumbled. I rose and plunged on again; again stumbled. Then I found that I was treading level earth. And--was it water I saw before me, below me? or some mirage of the sky?
Neither; and I gripped my fellow's arm, as he came abreast of me, and stopped him sharply. Below us in the middle of a steep hollow, a pit in the hill-side, a light shone out through some aperture and quivered on the mist, like the pale lamp of a moorland hobgoblin. It made itself visible, displaying nothing else; a wisp of light in the bottom of a black bowl. Yet my spirits rose with a great bound at sight of it; for I knew that I had stumbled on the place I sought.
In the common run of things I should have weighed my next step carefully, and gone about it slowly. But here was no place for thought, nor room for delay; and I slid down the side of the hollow on the instant, and the moment my feet touched the bottom sprang to the door of the little hut, whence the light issued. A stone turned under my feet in my rush, and I fell on my knees on the threshold; but the fall only brought my face to a level with the face of the man who lay inside on a bed of fern. He had been reading. Startled by the sound I made, he dropped his book, and in a flash stretched out his hand for a weapon. But the muzzle of my pistol covered him, he was not in a posture from which he could spring, and at a sharp word from me he dropped his hand; the tigerish glare which flickered for an instant in his eyes gave place to a languid smile, and he shrugged his shoulders.
'Eh bien!,' he said with marvellous composure. 'Taken at last! Well, I was tired of it.'
'You are my prisoner, M. de Cocheforet,' I answered. 'Move a hand and I kill you. But you have still a choice.'
'Truly?' he said, raising his eyebrows.
'Yes. My orders are to take you to Paris alive or dead. Give me your parole that you will make no attempt to escape, and you shall go thither at your ease and as a gentleman. Refuse, and I shall disarm and bind you, and you go as a prisoner.'
'What force have you?' he asked curtly. He still lay on his elbow, his cloak covering him, the little Marot in which he had been reading close to his hand. But his quick black eyes, which looked the keener for the pallor and thinness of his face, roved ceaselessly over me, probed the darkness behind me, took note of everything.
'Enough to compel you, Monsieur,' I replied sternly; 'but that is not all. There are thirty dragoons coming up the hill to secure you, and they will make you no such offer. Surrender to me before they come, and give me your parole, and I will do all I can for your comfort. Delay, and you must fall into their hands. There can be no escape.'
'You will take my word?' he said slowly.
'Give it, and you may keep your pistols, M. de Cocheforet.'
'Tell me at least that you are not alone.'
'I am not alone.'
'Then I give it,' he said with a sigh. 'And for Heaven's sake get me something to eat and a bed. I am tired of this pig-sty. Mon Dieu! it is a fortnight since I slept between sheets.'
'You shall sleep to-night in your own house, if you please,' I answered hurriedly. 'But here they come. Be good enough to stay where you are for a moment, and I will meet them.'
I stepped out into the darkness, just as the Lieutenant, after posting his men round the hollow, slid down with a couple of sergeants to make the arrest. The place round the open door was pitch-dark. He had not espied my man, who had lodged himself in the deepest shadow of the hut, and when he saw me come out across the light he took me for Cocheforet. In a twinkling he thrust a pistol into my face, and cried triumphantly,--'You are my prisoner!' while one of the sergeants raised a lanthorn and threw its light into my eyes.
'What folly is this?' I said savagely.
The Lieutenant's jaw fell, and he stood for a moment paralysed with astonishment. Less than an hour before he had left me at the Chateau. Thence he had come hither with the briefest delay; yet he found me here before him. He swore fearfully, his face black, his moustachios stiff with rage.
'What is this? What is it?' he cried. 'Where is the man?'
'What man?' I said.
'This Cocheforet!' he roared, carried away by his passion. 'Don't lie to me! He is here, and I will have him!'
'You are too late,' I said, watching him heedfully. 'M. de Cocheforet is here, but he has already surrendered to me, and is my prisoner."
'Certainly!' I answered, facing the man with all the harshness I could muster. 'I have arrested him by virtue of the Cardinal's commission granted to me. And by virtue of the same I shall keep him.'
'You will keep him?'
He stared at me for a moment, utterly aghast; the picture of defeat. Then on a sudden I saw his face lighten with, a new idea.
'It is a d--d ruse!' he shouted, brandishing his pistol like a madman. 'It is a cheat and a fraud! By God! you have no commission! I see through it! I see through it all! You have come here, and you have hocussed us! You are of their side, and this is your last shift to save him!'
'What folly is this?' I said contemptuously.
'No folly at all,' he answered, perfect conviction in his tone. 'You have played upon us. You have fooled us. But I see through it now. An hour ago I exposed you to that fine Madame at the house there, and I thought it a marvel that she did not believe me. I thought it a marvel that she did not see through you, when you stood there before her, confounded, tongue-tied, a rogue convicted. But I understand now. She knew you. She was in the plot, and you were in the plot, and I, who thought that I was opening her eyes, was the only one fooled. But it is my turn now. You have played a bold part and a clever one,' he continued, a sinister light in his little eyes,' and I congratulate you. But it is at an end now, Monsieur. You took us in finely with your talk of Monseigneur, and his commission and your commission, and the rest. But I am not to be blinded any longer--or bullied. You have arrested him, have you? You have arrested him. Well, by G--, I shall arrest him, and I shall arrest you too.'
'You are mad!' I said staggered as much by this new view of the matter as by his perfect certainty. 'Mad, Lieutenant.'
'I was,' he snarled. 'But I am sane now. I was mad when you imposed upon us, when you persuaded me to think that you were fooling the women to get the secret out of them, while all the time you were sheltering them, protecting them, aiding them, and hiding him--then I was mad. But not now. However, I ask your pardon. I thought you the cleverest sneak and the dirtiest hound Heaven ever made. I find you are cleverer than I thought, and an honest traitor. Your pardon.'
One of the men, who stood about the rim of the bowl above us, laughed. I looked at the Lieutenant and could willingly have killed him.
'Mon Dieu!' I said--and I was so furious in my turn that I could scarcely speak. 'Do you say that I am an impostor--that I do not hold the Cardinal's commission?'
'I do say that,' he answered coolly.
'And that I belong to the rebel party?'
'I do,' he replied in the same tone. 'In fact,' with a grin, 'I say that you are an honest man on the wrong side, M. de Berault. And you say that you are a scoundrel on the right. The advantage, however, is with me, and I shall back my opinion by arresting you.'
A ripple of coarse laughter ran round the hollow. The sergeant who held the lanthorn grinned, and a trooper at a distance called out of the darkness 'a bon chat bon rat!' This brought a fresh burst of laughter, while I stood speechless, confounded by the stubbornness, the crassness, the insolence of the man. 'You fool!' I cried at last, 'you fool!' And then M. de Cocheforet, who had come out of the hut and taken his stand at my elbow, interrupted me.
'Pardon me one moment,' he said, airily, looking at the Lieutenant with raised eyebrows and pointing to me with his thumb, 'but I am puzzled between you. This gentleman's name? Is it de Berault or de Barthe?'
'I am M. de Berault,' I said, brusquely, answering for myself.
'Yes, Monsieur, of Paris.'
'You are not, then, the gentleman who has been honouring my poor house with his presence?'
'Oh, yes!' the Lieutenant struck in, grinning. 'He is that gentleman, too.'
'But I thought--I understood that that was M. de Barthe!'
'I am M. de Barthe, also,' I retorted impatiently. 'What of that, Monsieur? It was my mother's name. I took it when I came down here.'
'To--er--to arrest me, may I ask?'
'Yes,' I said, doggedly; 'to arrest you. What of that?'
'Nothing,' he replied slowly and with a steady look at me--a look I could not meet. 'Except that, had I known this before, M. de Berault I should have thought longer before I surrendered to you.'
The Lieutenant laughed, and I felt my cheek burn; but I affected to see nothing, and turned to him again. 'Now, Monsieur,' I said, 'are you satisfied?'
'No,' he answered? 'I am not! You two may have rehearsed this pretty scene a dozen times. The word, it seems to me, is--Quick march, back to quarters.'
At length I found myself driven to play my last card; much against my will.
'Not so,' I said. 'I have my commission.'
'Produce it!' he replied incredulously.
'Do you think that I carry it with me?' I cried in scorn. 'Do you think that when I came here, alone, and not with fifty dragoons at my back, I carried the Cardinal's seal in my pocket for the first lackey to find. But you shall have it. Where is that knave of mine?'
The words were scarcely out of my mouth before a ready hand thrust a paper into my fingers. I opened it slowly, glanced at it, and amid a pause of surprise gave it to the Lieutenant. He looked for a moment confounded. Then, with a last instinct of suspicion, he bade the sergeant hold up the lanthorn; and by its light he proceeded to spell through the document.
'Umph!' he ejaculated with an ugly look when he had come to the end, 'I see.' And he read it aloud:--
'By these presents, I command and empower Gilles de Berault, Sier de Berault, to seek for, hold, and arrest, and deliver to the governor of the Bastille the body of Henri de Cocheforet, and to do all acts and things as shall be necessary to effect such arrest and delivery, for which these shall be his warrant. (Signed) The Cardinal de Richelieu.'
When he had done--he read the signature with a peculiar intonation--someone said softly, 'Vive le roi!' and there was a moment's silence. The sergeant lowered his lanthorn. 'Is it enough?' I said hoarsely, glaring from face to face.
The Lieutenant bowed stiffly.
'For me?' he said. 'Quite, Monsieur. I beg your pardon again. I find that my first impressions were the correct ones. Sergeant! give the gentleman his papers!' and, turning his shoulder rudely, he tossed the commission to the sergeant, who gave it to me, grinning.
I knew that the clown would not fight, and he had his men round him; and I had no choice but to swallow the insult. I put the paper in my breast, with as much indifference as I could assume; and as I did so, he gave a sharp order. The troopers began to form on the edge above; the men who had descended to climb the bank again.
As the group behind him began to open and melt away, I caught sight of a white robe in the middle of it. The next moment, appearing with a suddenness which was like a blow on the cheek to me, Mademoiselle de Cocheforet glided forward towards me. She had a hood on her head, drawn low; and for a moment I could not see her face, I forgot her brother's presence at my elbow, I forgot other things, and, from habit and impulse rather than calculation, I took a step forward to meet her; though my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth, and I was dumb and trembling.
But she recoiled with such a look of white hate, of staring, frozen-eyed abhorrence, that I stepped back as if she had indeed struck me. It did not need the words which accompanied the look --the 'do not touch me!' which she hissed at me as she drew her skirts together--to drive me to the farther edge of the hollow; where I stood with clenched teeth, and nails driven into the flesh, while she hung, sobbing tearless sobs, on her brother's neck.
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