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To be frank, however, it was not the old wound that touched me so nearly, but Madame's words; which, finishing what Clon's sudden appearance in the garden had begun, went a long way towards hardening me and throwing me back into myself. I saw with bitterness--what I had perhaps forgotten for a moment--how great was the chasm that separated me from these women; how impossible it was that we could long think alike; how far apart in views, in experience, in aims we were. And while I made a mock in my heart of their high-flown sentiments--or thought I did--I laughed no less at the folly which had led me to dream, even for a, moment, that I could, at my age, go back--go back and risk all for a whim, a scruple, the fancy of a lonely hour.
I daresay something of this showed in my face; for Madame's eyes mirrored a dim reflection of trouble as she looked at me, and Mademoiselle talked nervously and at random. At any rate, I fancied so, and I hastened to compose myself; and the two, in pressing upon me the simple dainties of the table soon forgot, or appeared to forget, the incident.
Yet in spite of this contretemps, that first meal had a strange charm for me. The round table whereat we dined was spread inside the open door which led to the garden, so that the October sunshine fell full on the spotless linen and quaint old plate, and the fresh balmy air filled the room with the scent of sweet herbs. Louis served us with the mien of a major-domo, and set on each dish as though it had been a peacock or a mess of ortolans. The woods provided the larger portion of our meal; the garden did its part; the confections Mademoiselle had cooked with her own hand.
By-and-by, as the meal went on, as Louis trod to and fro across the polished floor, and the last insects of summer hummed sleepily outside, and the two gracious faces continued to smile at me out of the gloom--for the ladies sat with their backs to the door--I began to dream again, I began to sink again into folly, that was half-pleasure, half-pain. The fury of the gaming-house and the riot of Zaton's seemed far away. The triumphs of the fencing-room--even they grew cheap and tawdry. I thought of existence as one outside it, I balanced this against that, and wondered whether, after all, the red soutane were so much better than the homely jerkin, or the fame of a day than ease and safety.
And life at Cocheforet was all after the pattern of this dinner. Each day, I might almost say each meal, gave rise to the same sequence of thoughts. In Clon's presence, or when some word of Madame's, unconsciously harsh, reminded me of the distance between us, I was myself. At other times, in face of this peaceful and intimate life, which was only rendered possible by the remoteness of the place and the peculiar circumstances in which the ladies stood, I felt a strange weakness, The loneliness of the woods that encircled the house, and only here and there afforded a distant glimpse of snow-clad peaks; the absence of any link to bind me to the old life, so that at intervals it seemed unreal; the remoteness of the great world, all tended to sap my will and weaken the purpose which had brought me to this place.
On the fourth day after my coming, however, something happened to break the spell. It chanced that I came late to dinner, and entered the room hastily and without ceremony, expecting to find Madame and her sister already seated. Instead, I found them talking in a low tone by the open door, with every mark of disorder in their appearance; while Clon and Louis stood at a little distance with downcast faces and perplexed looks.
I had time to see all this, and then my entrance wrought a sudden change. Clon and Louis sprang to attention; Madame and her sister came to the table and sat down, and all made a shallow pretence of being at their ease. But Mademoiselle's face was pale, her hand trembled; and though Madame's greater self-command enabled her to carry off the matter better, I saw that she was not herself. Once or twice she spoke harshly to Louis; she fell at other times into a brown study; and when she thought that I was not watching her, her face wore a look of deep anxiety.
I wondered what all this meant; and I wondered more when, after the meal, the two walked in the garden for an hour with Clon. Mademoiselle came from this interview alone, and I was sure that she had been weeping. Madame and the dark porter stayed outside some time longer; then she, too, came in, and disappeared.
Clon did not return with her, and when I went into the garden five minutes later, Louis also had vanished. Save for two women who sat sewing at an upper window, the house seemed to be deserted. Not a sound broke the afternoon stillness of room or garden, and yet I felt that more was happening in this silence than appeared on the surface. I begin to grow curious-- suspicious, and presently slipped out myself by way of the stables, and skirting the wood at the back of the house, gained with a little trouble the bridge which crossed the stream and led to the village.
Turning round at this point I could see the house, and I moved a little aside into the underwood, and stood gazing at the windows, trying to unriddle the matter. It was not likely that M. de Cocheforet would repeat his visit so soon; and, besides, the women's emotions had been those of pure dismay and grief, unmixed with any of the satisfaction to which such a meeting, though snatched by stealth, must give rise. I discarded my first thought therefore--that he had returned unexpectedly--and I sought for another solution.
But no other was on the instant forthcoming. The windows remained obstinately blind, no figures appeared on the terrace, the garden lay deserted, and without life. My departure had not, as I half expected it would, drawn the secret into light.
I watched awhile, at times cursing my own meanness; but the excitement of the moment and the quest tided me over that. Then I determined to go down into the village and see whether anything was moving there. I had been down to the inn once, and had been received half sulkily, half courteously, as a person privileged at the great house, and therefore to be accepted. It would not be thought odd if I went again, and after a moment's thought, I started down the track.
This, where it ran through the wood, was so densely shaded that the sun penetrated to it little, and in patches only. A squirrel stirred at times, sliding round a trunk, or scampering across the dry leaves. Occasionally a pig grunted and moved farther into the wood. But the place was very quiet, and I do not know how it was that I surprised Clon instead of being surprised by him.
He was walking along the path before me with his eyes on the ground--walking so slowly, and with his lean frame so bent that I might have supposed him ill if I had not remarked the steady movement of his head from right to left, and the alert touch with which he now and again displaced a clod of earth or a cluster of leaves. By-and-by he rose stiffly, and looked round him suspiciously; but by that time I had slipped behind a trunk, and was not to be seen; and after a brief interval he went back to his task, stooping over it more closely, if possible, than before, and applying himself with even greater care.
By that time I had made up my mind that he was tracking someone. But whom? I could not make a guess at that. I only knew that the plot was thickening, and began to feel the eagerness of the chase. Of course, if the matter had not to do with Cocheforet, it was no affair of mine; but though it seemed unlikely that anything could bring him back so soon, he might still be at the bottom of this. And, besides, I felt a natural curiosity. When Clon at last improved his pace, and went on to the village, I took up his task. I called to mind all the wood-lore I had ever learned, and scanned trodden mould and crushed leaves with eager eyes. But in vain. I could make nothing of it all, and rose at last with an aching back and no advantage.
I did not go on to the village after that, but returned to the house, where I found Madame pacing the garden. She looked up eagerly on hearing my step; and I was mistaken if she was not disappointed--if she had not been expecting someone else. She hid the feeling bravely, however, and met me with a careless word; but she turned to the house more than once while we talked, and she seemed to be all the while on the watch, and uneasy. I was not surprised when Clon's figure presently appeared in the doorway, and she left me abruptly, and went to him. I only felt more certain than before that there was something strange on foot. What it was, and whether it had to do with M. de Cocheforet, I could not tell. But there it was, and I grew more curious the longer I remained alone.
She came back to me presently, looking thoughtful and a trifle downcast.
'That was Clon, was it not?' I said, studying her face,
'Yes,' she answered. She spoke absently, and did not look at me.
'How does he talk to you?' I asked, speaking a trifle curtly.
As I intended, my tone roused her. 'By signs,' she said.
'Is he--is he not a little mad?" I ventured. I wanted to make her talk and forget herself.
She looked at me with sudden keenness, then dropped her eyes,
'You do not like him?' she said, a note of challenge in her voice. 'I have noticed that, Monsieur.'
'I think he does not like me,' I replied.
'He is less trustful than we are,' she answered naively. 'It is natural that he should be. He has seen more of the world.'
That silenced me for a moment, but she did not seem to notice it.
'I was looking for him a little while ago, and I could not find him,' I said, after a pause
'He has been into the village,' she answered.
I longed to pursue the matter further; but though she seemed to entertain no suspicion of me, I dared not run the risk. I tried her, instead, on another tack.
'Mademoiselle de Cocheforet does not seem very well to-day?' I said.
'No?' she answered carelessly. 'Well, now you speak of it, I do not think that she is. She is often anxious about--one we love.'
She uttered the last words with a little hesitation, and looked at me quickly when she had spoken them. We were sitting at the moment on a stone seat which had the wall of the house for a back; and, fortunately, I was toying with the branch of a creeping plant that hung over it, so that she could not see more than the side of my face. For I knew that it altered. Over my voice, however, I had more control, and I hastened to answer, 'Yes, I suppose so,' as innocently as possible.
'He is at Bosost, in Spain. You knew that, I conclude?' she said, with a certain sharpness. And she looked me in the face again very directly.
'Yes,' I answered, beginning to tremble.
'I suppose you have heard, too, that he--that he sometimes crosses the border?' she continued in a low voice, but with a certain ring of insistence in her tone. 'Or, if you have not heard it, you guess it?'
I was in a quandary, and grew, in one second, hot all over. Uncertain what amount of knowledge I ought to admit, I took refuge in gallantry.
'I should be surprised if he did not,' I answered, with a bow, 'being, as he is, so close, and having such an inducement to return, Madame.'
She drew a long, shivering sigh, at the thought of his peril, I fancied, and she sat back against the wall. Nor did she say any more, though I heard her sigh again. Is a moment she rose.
'The afternoons are growing chilly,' she said; 'I will go in and see how Mademoiselle is. Sometimes she does not come to supper. If she cannot descend this evening, I am afraid that you must excuse me too, Monsieur.'
I said what was right, and watched her go in; and, as I did so, I loathed my errand, and the mean contemptible curiosity which it had planted in my mind, more than at any former time. These women--I could find it in my heart to hate them for their frankness, for their foolish confidence, and the silly trustfulness that made them so easy a prey!
Nom de Dieu! What did the woman mean by telling me all this? To meet me in such a way, to disarm one by such methods, was to take an unfair advantage. It put a vile--ay, the vilest--aspect, on the work I had to do.
Yet it was very odd! What could M. de Cocheforet mean by returning so soon, if M. de Cocheforet was here? And, on the other hand, if it was not his unexpected presence that had so upset the house, what was the secret? Whom had Clon been tracking? And what was the cause of Madame's anxiety? In a few minutes I began to grow curious again; and, as the ladies did not appear at supper, I had leisure to give my brain full licence, and, in the course of an hour, thought of a hundred keys to the mystery. But none exactly fitted the lock, or laid open the secret.
A false alarm that evening helped to puzzle me still more. I was sitting about an hour after supper, on the same seat in the garden--I had my cloak and was smoking--when Madame came out like a ghost, and, without seeing me, flitted away through the darkness toward the stables. For a moment I hesitated, and then I followed her. She went down the path and round the stables, and, so far, I saw nothing strange in her actions; but when she had in this way gained the rear of the west wing, she took a track through the thicket to the east of the house again, and so came back to the garden. This gained, she came up the path and went in through the parlour door, and disappeared--alter making a clear circuit of the house, and not once pausing or looking to right or left! I confess I was fairly baffled. I sank back on the seat I had left, and said to myself that this was the lamest of all conclusions. I was sure that she had exchanged no word with anyone. I was equally sure that she had not detected my presence behind her. Why, then, had she made this strange promenade, alone, unprotected, an hour after nightfall? No dog had bayed, no one had moved, she had not once paused, or listened, like a person expecting a rencontre. I could not make it out. And I came no nearer to solving it, though I lay awake an hour beyond my usual time.
In the morning, neither of the ladies descended to dinner, and I heard that Mademoiselle was not so well. After a lonely meal, therefore I missed them more than I should have supposed--I retired to my favourite seat and fell to meditating.
The day was fine, and the garden pleasant. Sitting there with my eyes on the old fashioned herb-beds, with the old-fashioned scents in the air, and the dark belt of trees bounding the view on either side, I could believe that I had been out of Paris not three weeks, but three months. The quiet lapped me round. I could fancy that I had never loved anything else. The wood-doves cooed in the stillness; occasionally the harsh cry of a jay jarred the silence. It was an hour after noon, and hot. I think I nodded.
On a sudden, as if in a dream, I saw Clon's face peering at me round the angle of the parlour door. He looked, and in a moment withdrew, and I heard whispering. The door was gently closed. Then all was still again.
But I was wide awake now, and thinking. Clearly the people of the house wished to assure themselves that I was asleep and safely out of the way. As clearly, it was to my interest to be in the way. Giving place to the temptation, I rose quietly, and, stooping below the level of the windows, slipped round the east end of the house, passing between it and the great yew hedge. Here I found all still and no one stirring; so, keeping a wary eye about me, I went on round the house--reversing the route which Madame had taken the night before--until I gained the rear of the stables. Here I had scarcely paused a second to scan the ground before two persons came out of the stable-court. They were Madame and the porter.
They stood a brief while outside and looked up and down. Then Madame said something to the man, and he nodded. Leaving him standing where he was, she crossed the grass with a quick, light step, and vanished among the trees.
In a moment my mind was made up to follow; and, as Clon turned at once and went in, I was able to do so before it was too late. Bending low among the shrubs, I ran hotfoot to the point where Madame had entered the wood. Here I found a narrow path, and ran nimbly along it, and presently saw her grey robe fluttering among the trees before me. It only remained to keep out of her sight and give her no chance of discovering that she was followed; and this I set myself to do. Once or twice she glanced round, but the wood was of beech, the light which passed between the leaves was mere twilight, and my clothes were dark-coloured. I had every advantage, therefore, and little to fear as long as I could keep her in view and still remain myself at such a distance that the rustle of my tread would not disturb her.
Assured that she was on her way to meet her husband, whom my presence kept from the house, I felt that the crisis had come at last, and I grew more excited with each step I took. I detested the task of watching her; it filled me with peevish disgust. But in proportion as I hated it I was eager to have it done and be done with it, and succeed, and stuff my ears and begone from the scene. When she presently came to the verge of the beech wood, and, entering a little open clearing, seemed to loiter, I went cautiously. This, I thought, must be the rendezvous; and I held back warily, looking to see him step out of the thicket.
But he did not, and by-and-by she quickened her pace. She crossed the open and entered a wide ride cut through a low, dense wood of alder and dwarf oak--a wood so closely planted and so intertwined with hazel and elder and box that the branches rose like a solid wall, twelve feet high, on either side of the track.
Down this she passed, and I stood and watched her go, for I dared not follow. The ride stretched away as straight as a line for four or five hundred yards, a green path between green walls. To enter it was to be immediately detected, if she turned, while the thicket itself permitted no passage. I stood baffled and raging, and watched her pass along. It seemed an age before she at last reached the end, and, turning sharply to the right, was in an instant gone from sight.
I waited then no longer. I started off, and, running as lightly and quietly as I could, I sped down the green alley. The sun shone into it, the trees kept off the wind, and between heat and haste I sweated finely. But the turf was soft, and the ground fell slightly, and in little more than a minute I gained the end. Fifty yards short of the turning I stopped, and, stealing on, looked cautiously the way she had gone.
I saw before me a second ride, the twin of the other, and a hundred and fifty paces down it her grey figure tripping on between the green hedges. I stood and took breath, and cursed the wood and the heat and Madame's wariness. We must have come a league, or two-thirds of a league, at least. How far did the man expect her to plod to meet him? I began to grow angry. There is moderation even in the cooking of eggs, and this wood might stretch into Spain, for all I knew!
Presently she turned the corner and was gone again, and I had to repeat my manoeuvre. This time, surely, I should find a change. But no! Another green ride stretched away into the depths of the forest, with hedges of varying shades--here light and there dark, as hazel and elder, or thorn, and yew and box prevailed--but always high and stiff and impervious. Halfway down the ride Madame's figure tripped steadily on, the only moving thing in sight. I wondered, stood, and, when she vanished, followed-only to find that she had entered another track, a little narrower but in every other respect alike.
And so it went on for quite half an hour. Sometimes Madame turned to the right, sometimes to the left. The maze seemed to be endless. Once or twice I wondered whether she had lost her way, and was merely seeking to return. But her steady, purposeful gait, her measured pace, forbade the idea. I noticed, too, that she seldom looked behind her--rarely to right or left. Once the ride down which she passed was carpeted not with green, but with the silvery, sheeny leaves of some creeping plant that in the distance had a shimmer like that of water at evening. As she trod this, with her face to the low sun, her tall grey figure had a pure air that for the moment startled me--she looked unearthly. Then I swore in scorn of myself, and at the next corner I had my reward. She was no longer walking on. She had stopped, I found, and seated herself on a fallen tree that lay in the ride.
For some time I stood in ambush watching her, and with each minute I grew more impatient. At last I began to doubt--to have strange thoughts. The green walls were growing dark. The sun was sinking; a sharp, white peak, miles and miles away, which closed the vista of the ride, began to flush and colour rosily. Finally, but not before I had had leisure to grow uneasy, she stood up and walked on more slowly. I waited, as usual, until the next turning hid her. Then I hastened after her, and, warily passing round the corner came face to face with her!
I knew all in a moment saw all in a flash: that she had fooled me, tricked me, lured me away. Her face was white with scorn, her eyes blazed; her figure, as she confronted me, trembled with anger and infinite contempt.
'You spy!' she cried. 'You hound! You--gentleman! Oh, mon Dieu! if you are one of us--if you are really not of the canaille--we shall pay for this some day! We shall pay a heavy reckoning in the time to come! I did not think,' she continued, and her every syllable was like the lash of a whip, 'that there was anything so vile as you in this world!'
I stammered something--I do not know what. Her words burned into me--into my heart! Had she been a man, I would have struck her dead!
'You thought that you deceived me yesterday,' she continued, lowering her tone, but with no lessening of the passion, the contempt, the indignation, which curled her lip and gave fullness to her voice. 'You plotter! You surface trickster! You thought it an easy task to delude a woman--you find yourself deluded. God give you shame that you may suffer!' she continued mercilessly. 'You talked of Clon, but Clon beside you is the most spotless, the most honourable of men!'
'Madame,' I said hoarsely--and I know that my face was grey as ashes--'let us understand one another.'
'God forbid!' she cried on the instant. 'I would not soil myself!'
'Fie! Madame,' I said, trembling. But then, you are a woman. That should cost a man his life!'
She laughed bitterly.
'You say well,' she retorted. 'I am not a man--and if you are one, thank God for it. Neither am I Madame. Madame de Cocheforet has spent this afternoon--thanks to your absence and your imbecility--with her husband. Yes, I hope that hurts you!' she went on, savagely snapping her little white teeth together. 'I hope that stings you; to spy and do vile work, and do it ill, Monsieur Mouchard--Monsieur de Mouchard, I should say--I congratulate you!'
'You are not Madame de Cocheforet?' I cried, stunned, even in the midst of my shame and rage, by this blow.
'No, Monsieur!' she answered grimly. 'I am not! I am not. And permit me to point out--for we do not all lie easily--that I never said I was. You deceived yourself so skilfully that we had no need to trick you.'
'Mademoiselle, then?' I muttered.
'Is Madame!' she cried. 'Yes, and I am Mademoiselle de Cocheforet. And in that character, and in all others, I beg from this moment to close our acquaintance, sir. When we meet again --if we ever do meet, which God forbid!' she went on, her eyes sparkling--'do not presume to speak to me, or I will have you flogged by the grooms. And do not stain our roof by sleeping under it again. You may lie to-night in the inn. It shall not be said that Cocheforet,' she continued proudly, 'returned even treachery with inhospitality; and I will give orders to that end. But to-morrow begone back to your master, like the whipped cur you are! Spy and coward!'
With those last words she moved away. I would have said something, I could almost have found it in my heart to stop her and make her hear. Nay, I had dreadful thoughts; for I was the stronger, and I might have done with her as I pleased. But she swept by me so fearlessly, as I might pass some loathsome cripple on the road, that I stood turned to stone. Without looking at me, without turning her head to see whether I followed or remained, or what I did, she went steadily down the track until the trees and the shadow and the growing darkness hid her grey figure from me; and I found myself alone.
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