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Cocheforet lies in a billowy land of oak and beech and chestnuts --a land of deep, leafy bottoms and hills clothed with forest. Ridge and valley, glen and knoll, the woodland, sparsely peopled and more sparsely tilled, stretches away to the great snow mountains that here limit France. It swarms with game--with wolves and bears, deer and boars. To the end of his life I have heard that the great king loved this district, and would sigh, when years and State fell heavily on him, for the beech groves and box-covered hills of South Bearn. From the terraced steps of Auch you can see the forest roll away in light and shadow, vale and upland, to the base of the snow peaks; and, though I come from Brittany and love the smell of the salt wind, I have seen few sights that outdo this.
It was the second week of October, when I came to Cocheforet, and, dropping down from the last wooded brow, rode quietly into the place at evening. I was alone, and had ridden all day in a glory of ruddy beech leaves, through the silence of forest roads, across clear brooks and glades still green. I had seen more of the quiet and peace of the country than had been my share since boyhood, and for that reason, or because I had no great taste for the task before me--the task now so imminent--I felt a little hipped. In good faith, it was not a gentleman's work that I was come to do, look at it how you might.
But beggars must not be choosers, and I knew that this feeling would not last. At the inn, in the presence of others, under the spur of necessity, or in the excitement of the chase, were that once begun, I should lose the feeling. When a man is young he seeks solitude, when he is middle-aged, he flies it and his thoughts. I made therefore for the 'Green Pillar,' a little inn in the village street, to which I had been directed at Auch, and, thundering on the door with the knob of my riding switch, railed at the man for keeping me waiting.
Here and there at hovel doors in the street--which was a mean, poor place, not worthy of the name--men and women looked out at me suspiciously. But I affected to ignore them; and at last the host came. He was a fair-haired man, half-Basque, half- Frenchman, and had scanned me well, I was sure, through some window or peephole; for when he came out he betrayed no surprise at the sight of a well-dressed stranger--a portent in that out- of-the-way village--but eyed me with a kind of sullen reserve.
'I can lie here to-night, I suppose?' I said, dropping the reins on the sorrel's neck. The horse hung its head.
'I don't know,' he answered stupidly.
I pointed to the green bough which topped a post that stood opposite the door.
'This is an inn, is it not?' I said.
'Yes,' he answered slowly. 'It is an inn. But--'
'But you are full, or you are out of food, or your wife is ill, or something else is amiss,' I answered peevishly. 'All the same, I am going to lie here. So you must make the best of it, and your wife too--if you have one.'
He scratched his head, looking at me with an ugly glitter in his eyes. But he said nothing, and I dismounted.
'Where can I stable my horse?' I asked.
'I'll put it up,' he answered sullenly, stepping forward and taking the reins in his hand.
'Very well,' I said. 'But I go with you. A merciful man is merciful to his beast, and wherever I go I see my horse fed.'
'It will be fed,' he said shortly. And then he waited for me to go into the house. 'The wife is in there,' he continued, looking at me stubbornly.
'Imprimis--if you understand Latin, my friend,' I answered. 'the horse in the stall.'
He saw that it was no good, turned the sorrel slowly round, and began to lead it across the village street. There was a shed behind the inn, which I had already marked, and taken for the stable, I was surprised when I found that he was not going there, but I made no remark, and in a few minutes saw the horse made comfortable in a hovel which seemed to belong to a neighbour.
This done, the man led the way back to the inn, carrying my valise.
'You have no other guests?' I said, with a casual air. I knew that he was watching me closely.
'No,' he answered.
'This is not much in the way to anywhere, I suppose?'
That was so evident, that I never saw a more retired place. The hanging woods, rising steeply to a great height, so shut the valley in that I was puzzled to think how a man could leave it save by the road I had come. The cottages, which were no more than mean, small huts, ran in a straggling double line, with many gaps--through fallen trees and ill-cleared meadows. Among them a noisy brook ran in and out, and the inhabitants--charcoal- burners, or swine-herds, or poor devils of the like class, were no better than their dwellings. I looked in vain for the Chateau. It was not to be seen, and I dared not ask for it.
The man led me into the common room of the tavern--a low-roofed, poor place, lacking a chimney or glazed windows, and grimy with smoke and use. The fire--a great half-burned tree--smouldered on a stone hearth, raised a foot from the floor. A huge black pot simmered over it, and beside one window lounged a country fellow talking with the goodwife. In the dusk I could not see his face, but I gave the woman a word, and sat down to wait for my supper.
She seemed more silent than the common run of her kind; but this might be because her husband was present. While she moved about getting my meal, he took his place against the door-post and fell to staring at me so persistently that I felt by no means at my ease. He was a tall, strong fellow, with a shaggy moustache and brown beard, cut in the mode Henri Quatre; and on the subject of that king--a safe one, I knew, with a Bearnais--and on that alone, I found it possible to make him talk. Even then there was a suspicious gleam in his eyes that bade me abstain from questions; so that as the darkness deepened behind him, and the firelight played more and more strongly on his features, and I thought of the leagues of woodland that lay between this remote valley and Auch, I recalled the Cardinal's warning that if I failed in my attempt I should be little likely to trouble Paris again.
The lout by the window paid no attention to me; nor I to him, when I had once satisfied myself that he was really what he seemed to be. But by-and-by two or three men--rough, uncouth fellows--dropped in to reinforce the landlord, and they, too seemed to have no other business than to sit in silence looking at me, or now and again to exchange a word in a patois of their own. By the time my supper was ready, the knaves numbered six in all; and, as they were armed to a man with huge Spanish knives, and made it clear that they resented my presence in their dull rustic fashion--every rustic is suspicious--I began to think that, unwittingly, I had put my head into a wasps' nest.
Nevertheless, I ate and drank with apparent appetite; but little that passed within the circle of light cast by the smoky lamp escaped me. I watched the men's looks and gestures at least as sharply as they watched mine; and all the time I was racking my wits for some mode of disarming their suspicions, or failing that, of learning something more of the position, which far exceeded in difficulty and danger anything that I had expected. The whole valley, it would seem, was on the look-out to protect my man!
I had purposely brought with me from Auch a couple of bottles of choice Armagnac; and these had been carried into the house with my saddle bags. I took one out now and opened it and carelessly offered a dram of the spirit to the landlord. He took it. As he drank it, I saw his face flush; he handed back the cup reluctantly, and on that hint I offered him another, The strong spirit was already beginning to work, and he accepted, and in a few minutes began to talk more freely and with less of the constraint which had before marked us all. Still, his tongue ran chiefly on questions--he would know this, he would learn that; but even this was a welcome change. I told him openly whence I had come, by what road, how long I had stayed in Auch, and where; and so far I satisfied his curiosity. Only, when I came to the subject of my visit to Cocheforet I kept a mysterious silence, hinting darkly at business in Spain and friends across the border, and this and that; in this way giving the peasants to understand, if they pleased, that I was in the same interest as their exiled master.
They took the bait, winked at one another, and began to look at me in a more friendly way--the landlord foremost. But when I had led them so far, I dared go no farther, lest I should commit myself and be found out. I stopped, therefore, and, harking back to general subjects, chanced to compare my province with theirs. The landlord, now become almost talkative, was not slow to take up this challenge; and it presently led to my acquiring a curious piece of knowledge. He was boasting of his great snow mountains, the forests that propped them, the bears that roamed in them, the izards that loved the ice, and the boars that fed on the oak mast.
'Well,' I said, quite by chance, 'we have not these things, it is true. But we have things in the north you have not. We have tens of thousands of good horses--not such ponies as you breed here. At the horse fair at Fecamp my sorrel would be lost in the crowd. Here in the south you will not meet his match in a long day's journey.'
'Do not make too sure of that,' the man replied, his eyes bright with triumph and the dram. 'What would you say if I showed you a better--in my own stable?'
I saw that his words sent a kind of thrill through his other hearers, and that such of them as understood for two or three of them talked their patois only--looked at him angrily; and in a twinkling I began to comprehend. But I affected dullness, and laughed in scorn.
'Seeing is believing,' I said. 'I doubt if you knows good horse when you see one, my friend.'
'Oh, don't I?' he said, winking. 'Indeed!'
'I doubt it,' I answered stubbornly.
'Then come with me, and I will show you one,' he retorted, discretion giving way to vain-glory. His wife and the others, I saw, looked at him dumbfounded; but, without paying any heed to them, he rose, took up a lanthorn, and, assuming an air of peculiar wisdom, opened the door. 'Come with me,' he continued. 'I don't know a good horse when I see one, don't I? I know a better than yours, at anyrate!'
I should not have been surprised if the other men had interfered; but I suppose he was a leader among them, they did not, and in a moment we were outside. Three paces through the darkness took us to the stable, an offset at the back of the inn. My man twirled the pin, and, leading the way in, raised his lanthorn. A horse whinnied softly, and turned its bright, mild eyes on us--a baldfaced chestnut, with white hairs in its tail and one white stocking.
'There!' my guide exclaimed, waving the lanthorn to and fro boastfully, that I might see its points. 'What do you say to that? Is that an undersized pony?'
'No,' I answered, purposely stinting my praise. 'It is pretty fair--for this country.'
'Or any country,' he answered wrathfully. 'Or any country, I say--I don't care where it is! And I have reason to know! Why, man, that horse is--But there, that is a good horse, if ever you saw one!' And with that he ended--abruptly and lamely; lowered the lanthorn with a sudden gesture, and turned to the door. He was on the instant in such hurry to leave that he almost shouldered me out.
But I understood. I knew that he had neatly betrayed all--that he had been on the point of blurting out that that was M. de Cocheforet's horse! M. Cocheforet's comprenez bien! And while I turned away my face in the darkness that he might not see me smile, I was not surprised to find the man in a moment changed, and become, in the closing of the door, as sober and suspicious as before, ashamed of himself and enraged with me, and in a mood to cut my throat for a trifle.
It was not my cue to quarrel, however. I made therefore, as if I had seen nothing, and when we were back in the inn praised the horse grudgingly, and like a man but half convinced. The ugly looks and ugly weapons I saw round me were fine incentives to caution; and no Italian, I flatter myself, could have played his part more nicely than I did. But I was heartily glad when it was over, and I found myself, at last, left alone for the night in a little garret--a mere fowl-house--upstairs, formed by the roof and gable walls, and hung with strings of apples and chestnuts. It was a poor sleeping-place--rough, chilly, and unclean. I ascended to it by a ladder; my cloak and a little fern formed my only bed. But I was glad to accept it, for it enabled me to he alone and to think out the position unwatched.
Of course M. de Cocheforet was at the Chateau. He had left his horse here, and gone up on foot; probably that was his usual plan. He was therefore within my reach, in one sense--I could not have come at a better time--but in another he was as much beyond it as if I were still in Paris. For so far was I from being able to seize him that I dared not ask a question, or let fall a rash word, or even look about me freely. I saw I dared not. The slightest hint of my mission, the faintest breath of distrust, would lead to throat-cutting--and the throat would be mine; while the longer I lay in the village, the greater suspicion I should incur, and the closer would be the watch kept upon me.
In such a position some men might have given up the attempt in despair, and saved themselves across the border. But I have always valued myself on my fidelity, and I did not shrink. If not to-day, to-morrow; if not this time, next time. The dice do not always turn up aces. Bracing myself, therefore, to the occasion, I crept, as soon as the house was quiet, to the window, a small, square, open lattice, much cobwebbed, and partly stuffed with hay. I looked out. The village seemed to be asleep. The dark branches of trees hung a few feet away, and almost obscured a grey, cloudy sky, through which a wet moon sailed drearily. Looking downwards, I could at first see nothing; but as my eyes grew used to the darkness--I had only just put out my rushlight-- I made out the stable door and the shadowy outlines of the lean-to roof.
I had hoped for this, for I could now keep watch, and learn at least whether Cocheforet left before morning. If he did not, I should know he was still here. If he did, I should be the better for seeing his features, and learning, perhaps, other things that might be of use to me in the future.
Making up my mind to the uncomfortable, I sat down on the floor by the lattice, and began a vigil that might last, I knew, until morning. It did last about an hour, at the end of which time I heard whispering below, then footsteps; then, as some persons turned a corner, a voice speaking aloud and carelessly. I could not catch the words or meaning, but the voice was a gentleman's, and its bold accents and masterful tone left me in no doubt that the speaker was M. de Cocheforet himself. Hoping to learn more, I pressed my face nearer to the opening, and had just made out through the gloom two figures--one that of a tall, slight man, wearing a cloak, the other, I fancied, a woman's, in a sheeny white dress--when a thundering rap on the door of my garret made me spring back a yard from the lattice, and lie down hurriedly on my couch. The summons was repeated.
'Well?' I cried, rising on my elbow, and cursing the untimely interruption. I was burning with anxiety to see more. 'What is it? What is the matter?'
The trap-door was lifted a foot or more. The landlord thrust up his head.
'You called, did you not?' he said.
He held up a rushlight, which illumined half the room and lit up his grinning face.
'Called--at this hour of the night, you fool?' I answered angrily. 'No! I did not call. Go to bed, man!'
But he remained on the ladder, gaping stupidly. 'I heard you,' he said.
'Go to bed! You are drunk,' I answered, sitting up. 'I tell you I did not call.'
'Oh, very well,' he answered slowly. 'And you do not want anything?'
'Nothing--except to be left alone,' I replied sourly.
'Umph!' he said. 'Good-night!'
'Good-night! Good-night!' I answered with what patience I might. The tramp of the horse's hoofs as it was led out of the stable was in my ears at the moment. 'Good-night!' I continued feverishly, hoping that he would still retire in time, and I have a chance to look out. 'I want to sleep.'
'Good,' he said, with a broad grin. 'But it is early yet, and you have plenty of time.'
And then, at last, he slowly let down the trap-door, and I heard him chuckle as he went down the ladder.
Before he reached the bottom I was at the window. The woman, whom I had seen, still stood below in the same place, and beside her was a man in a peasant's dress, holding a lanthorn. But the man, the man I wanted to see, was no longer there. He was gone, and it was evident that the others no longer feared me; for while I gazed the landlord came out to them with another lanthorn swinging in his hand, and said something to the lady, and she looked up at my window and laughed.
It was a warm night, and she wore nothing over her white dress. I could see her tall, shapely figure and shining eyes, and the firm contour of her beautiful face, which, if any fault might be found with it, erred in being too regular. She looked like a woman formed by nature to meet dangers and difficulties, and to play a great part; even here, at midnight, in the midst of these desperate men, she did not seem out of place. I could fancy--I did not find it impossible to fancy--that under her queenly exterior, and behind the contemptuous laugh with which she heard the landlord's story, there lurked a woman's soul, a soul capable of folly and tenderness. But no outward sign betrayed its presence--as I saw her then.
I scanned her very carefully; and secretly, if the truth be told, I was glad to find that Madame de Cocheforet was such a woman. I was glad that she had laughed as she had--with a ring of disdain and defiance; glad that she was not a little, tender, child-like woman, to be crushed by the first pinch of trouble. For if I succeeded in my task, if I contrived to--but, pish! Women, I told myself, were all alike. She would find consolation quickly enough.
I watched until the group broke up, and Madame, with one of the men, went her way round the corner of the inn, and out of my sight. Then I retired to bed again, feeling more than ever perplexed what course I should adopt. It was clear that to succeed I must obtain admission to the house, which was garrisoned, according to my instructions, by two or three old men-servants only, and as many women; since Madame, to disguise her husband's visits the more easily, lived, and gave out that she lived, in great retirement. To seize her husband at home, therefore, might be no impossible task; though here, in the heart of the village, a troop of horse might make the attempt, and fail.
But how was I to gain admission to the house--a house guarded by quick-witted women, and fenced with all the precautions love could devise? That was the question; and dawn found me still debating it, still as far as ever from an answer. Anxious and feverish, I was glad when the light came, and I could get up. I thought that the fresh air might inspire me, and I was tired of my stuffy closet. I crept stealthily down the ladder, and managed to pass unseen through the lower room, in which several persons were snoring heavily. The outer door was not fastened, and in a hand-turn I was in the street.
It was still so early that the trees stood up black against the reddening sky, but the bough upon the post before the door was growing green, and in a few minutes the grey light would be everywhere. Already, even in the roadway, there was a glimmering of it; and as I stood at the corner of the house--where I could command both the front and the side on which the stable opened --sniffing the fresh air, and looking for any trace of the midnight departure, my eyes detected something light-coloured lying on the ground. It was not more than two or three paces from me, and I stepped to it and picked it up curiously, hoping that it might be a note. It was not a note, however, but a tiny orange-coloured sachet such as women carry in the bosom. It was full of some faintly-scented powder, and bore on one side the initial 'E,' worked in white silk; and was altogether a dainty little toy, such as women love.
Doubtless Madame de Cocheforet had dropped it in the night. I turned it over and over; and then I put it in my pouch with a smile, thinking that it might be useful sometime, and in some way. I had scarcely done this, and turned with the intention of exploring the street, when the door behind me creaked on its leather hinges, and in a moment the host stood at my elbow, and gave me a surly greeting.
Evidently his suspicions were again aroused, for from this time he managed to be with me, on one pretence or another until noon. Moreover, his manner grew each moment more churlish, his hints plainer; until I could scarcely avoid noticing the one or the other. About mid-day, having followed me for the twentieth time into the street, he came to the point by asking me rudely if I did not need my horse.
'No,' I said. 'Why do you ask?'
'Because,' he answered, with an ugly smile, 'this is not a very healthy place for strangers.'
'Ah!' I retorted. 'But the border air suits me, you see,'
It was a lucky answer, for, taken with my talk the night before, it puzzled him, by suggesting that I was on the losing side, and had my reasons for lying near Spain. Before he had done scratching his head over it, the clatter of hoofs broke the sleepy quiet of the village street, and the lady I had seen the night before rode quickly round the corner, and drew her horse on to its haunches. Without looking at me, she called to the innkeeper to come to her stirrup.
He went. The moment his back was turned, I slipped away, and in a twinkling was hidden by a house. Two or three glum-looking fellows stared at me as I passed down the street, but no one moved; and in two minutes I was clear of the village, and in a half-worn track which ran through the wood, and led--if my ideas were right--to the Chateau. To discover the house and learn all that was to be learned about its situation were my most pressing needs; and these, even at the risk of a knife thrust, I was determined to satisfy.
I had not gone two hundred paces along the path, however, before I heard the tread of a horse behind me, and I had just time to hide myself before Madame came up and rode by me, sitting her horse gracefully, and with all the courage of a northern woman. I watched her pass, and then, assured by her presence that I was in the right road, I hurried after her. Two minutes walking at speed brought me to a light wooden bridge spanning a stream. I crossed this, and, as the wood opened, saw before me first a wide, pleasant meadow, and beyond this a terrace. On the terrace, pressed upon on three sides by thick woods, stood a grey mansion, with the corner tourelles, steep, high roofs, and round balconies, that men loved and built in the days of the first Francis.
It was of good size, but wore a gloomy aspect. A great yew hedge, which seemed to enclose a walk or bowling-green, hid the ground floor of the east wing from view, while a formal rose garden, stiff even in neglect, lay in front of the main building. The west wing, of which the lower roofs fell gradually away to the woods, probably contained the stables and granaries.
I stood a moment only, but I marked all, and noted how the road reached the house, and which windows were open to attack; then I turned and hastened back. Fortunately, I met no one between the house and the village, and was able to enter my host's with an air of the most complete innocence.
Short as had been my absence, however, I found things altered there. Round the door lounged three strangers--stout, well-armed fellows, whose bearing, as they loitered and chattered, suggested a curious mixture of smugness and independence. Half a dozen pack-horses stood tethered to the post in front of the house; and the landlord's manner, from being rude and churlish only, had grown perplexed and almost timid. One of the strangers, I soon found, supplied him with wine; the others were travelling merchants, who rode in the first one's company for the sake of safety. All were substantial men from Tarbes--solid burgesses; and I was not long in guessing that my host, fearing what might leak out before them, and, particularly, that I might refer to the previous night's disturbance, was on tenter-hooks while they remained.
For a time this did not suggest anything to me. But when we had all taken our seats for supper, there came an addition to the party. The door opened, and the fellow whom I had seen the night before with Madame de Cocheforet entered and took a stool by the fire. I felt sure that he was one of the servants at the Chateau; and in a flash his presence inspired me with the most feasible plan for obtaining admission which I had yet hit upon. I felt myself grow hot at the thought--it seemed so full of promise, yet so doubtful--and, on the instant, without giving myself time to think too much, I began to carry it into effect.
I called for two or three bottles of better wine, and, assuming a jovial air, passed it round the table. When we had drunk a few glasses I fell to talking, and, choosing politics, took the side of the Languedoc party and the malcontents in so reckless a fashion that the innkeeper was beside himself at my imprudence. The merchants, who belonged to the class with whom the Cardinal was always most popular, looked first astonished and then enraged. But I was not to be checked; hints and sour looks were lost upon me. I grew more outspoken with every glass, I drank to the Rochellois, I swore it would not be long before they raised their heads again; and, at last, while the innkeeper and his wife were engaged lighting the lamp, I passed round the bottle and called on all for a toast.
'I'll give you one to begin,' I bragged noisily. 'A gentleman's toast! A southern toast! Here is confusion to the Cardinal, and a health to all who hate him!'
'Mon Dieu!' one of the strangers cried, springing from his seat in a rage. 'I am not going to stomach that! Is your house a common treason-hole,' he continued, turning furiously on the landlord, 'that you suffer this?'
'Hoity-toity!' I answered, coolly keeping my seat. 'What is all this? Don't you relish my toast, little man?'
'No--nor you!' he retorted hotly; 'whoever you may be!'
'Then I will give you another,' I answered, with a hiccough. 'Perhaps it will be more to your taste. Here is the Duke of Orleans, and may he soon be King!'
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