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And full of black rage! Had she only reproached me, or, turning on me in the hour of my victory, said all that she had now said in the moment of her own, I could have borne it. She might have shamed me then, and I might have taken the shame to myself and forgiven her. But, as it was, I stood there in the gathering dusk, between the darkening hedges, baffled, tricked, defeated! And by a woman! She had pitted her wits against mine, her woman's will against my experience, and she had come off the victor. And then she had reviled me! As I took it all in, and began to comprehend also the more remote results, and how completely her move had made further progress on my part impossible, I hated her. She had tricked me with her gracious ways and her slow-coming smile. And, after all--for what she had said--it was this man's life or mine. 'What had I done that another man would not do? Mon Dieu! in the future there was nothing I would not do. I would make her smart for those words of hers! I would bring her to her knees!
Still, hot as I was, an hour might have restored me to coolness. But when I started to return, I fell into a fresh rage, for I remembered that I did not know my way out of the maze of rides and paths into which she had drawn me; and this and the mishaps which followed, kept my rage hot. For a full hour I wandered in the wood, unable, though I knew where the village lay, to find any track which led continuously in one direction. Whenever, at the end of each attempt, the thicket brought me up short, I fancied that I heard her laughing on the farther side of the brake; and the ignominy of this chance punishment, and the check which the confinement placed on my rage, almost maddened me. In the darkness I fell, and rose cursing; I tore my hands with thorns; I stained my suit, which had suffered sadly once before. At length, when I had almost resigned myself to lie in the wood, I caught sight of the lights of the village, and, trembling between haste and anger, pressed towards them. In a few minutes I stood in the little street.
The lights of the inn shone only fifty yards away; but before I could show myself even there pride suggested that I should do something to repair my clothes. I stopped, and scraped and brushed them; and, at the same time, did what I could to compose my features. Then I advanced to the door and knocked. Almost on the instant the landlord's voice cried from the inside, 'Enter, Monsieur!'
I raised the latch and went in. The man was alone, squatting over the fire warming his hands. A black pot simmered on the ashes, As I entered he raised the lid and peeped inside. Then he glanced over his shoulder.
'You expected me?' I said defiantly, walking to the hearth, and setting one of my damp boots on the logs.
'Yes,' he answered, nodding curtly. 'Your supper is just ready. I thought that you would be in about this time.'
He grinned as he spoke, and it was with difficulty I suppressed my wrath.
'Mademoiselle de Cocheforet told you,' I said, affecting indifference, 'where I was?'
'Ay, Mademoiselle--or Madame,' he replied, grinning afresh.
So she had told him; where she had left me, and how she had tricked me! She had, made me the village laughing- stock! My rage flashed out afresh at the thought, and, at the sight of his mocking face, I raised my fist.
But he read the threat in my eyes, and was up in a moment, snarling, with his hand on his knife.
'Not again, Monsieur!' he cried, in his vile patois. 'My head is sore still. raise your hand and I will rip you up as I would a pig!'
'Sit down, fool,' I said. 'I am not going to harm you. Where is your wife?'
'About her business.'
'Which should be getting my supper,' I retorted.
He rose sullenly, and, fetching a platter, poured the mess of broth and vegetables into it. Then he went to a cupboard and brought out a loaf of black bread and a measure of wine, and set them also on the table.
'You see it,' he said laconically.
'And a poor welcome!' I replied.
He flamed into sudden passion at that. Leaning with both his hands on the table he thrust his rugged face and blood-shot eyes close to mine. His moustachios bristled, his beard trembled.
'Hark ye, sirrah!' he muttered, with sullen emphasis, 'be content! I have my suspicions. And if it were not for my lady's orders I would put a knife into you, fair or foul, this very night. You would lie snug outside, instead of inside, and I do not think anyone would be the worse. But as it is, be content. Keep a still tongue; and when you turn your back on Cocheforet to-morrow keep it turned.'
'Tut! tut!' I said--but I confess that I was a little out of countenance. 'Threatened men live long, you rascal!'
'In Paris!' he answered significantly. 'Not here, Monsieur.'
He straightened himself with that, nodded once, and went back to the fire; and I shrugged my shoulders and began to eat, affecting to forget his presence. The logs on the hearth burned sullenly, and gave no light. The poor oil-lamp, casting weird shadows from wall to wall, served only to discover the darkness. The room, with its low roof and earthen floor, and foul clothes flung here and there, reeked of stale meals and garlic and vile cooking. I thought of the parlour at Cocheforet, and the dainty table, and the stillness, and the scented pot-herbs; and though I was too old a soldier to eat the worse because my spoon lacked washing, I felt the change, and laid it savagely at Mademoiselle's door.
The landlord, watching me stealthily from his place by the hearth, read my thoughts and chuckled aloud.
'Palace fare, palace manners!' he muttered scornfully. 'Set a beggar on horseback, and he will ride--back to the inn!'
'Keep a civil tongue, will you!' I answered, scowling at him.
'Have you finished?' he retorted.
I rose, without deigning to reply, and, going to the fire, drew off my boots, which were wet through. He, on the instant, swept off the wine and loaf to the cupboard, and then, coming back for the platter I had used, took it, opened the back door, and went out, leaving the door ajar. The draught which came in beat the flame of the lamp this way and that, and gave the dingy, gloomy room an air still more miserable. I rose angrily from the fire, and went to the door, intending to close it with a bang.
But when I reached it, I saw something, between door and jamb, which stayed my hand. The door led to a shed in which the housewife washed pots and the like. I felt some surprise, therefore, when I found a light there at this time of night; still more surprise when I saw what she was doing.
She was seated on the mud floor, with a rush-light before her, and on either side of her a high-piled heap of refuse and rubbish. From one of these, at the moment I caught sight of her, she was sorting things--horrible filthy sweepings of road or floor--to the other; shaking and sifting each article as she passed it across, and then taking up another and repeating the action with it, and so on--all minutely, warily, with an air of so much patience and persistence that I stood wondering. Some things--rags--she held up between her eyes and the light, some she passed through her fingers, some she fairly tore in pieces. And all the time her husband stood watching her greedily, my platter still in his hand, as if her strange occupation fascinated him.
I stood looking, also, for half a minute, perhaps; then the man's eye, raised for a single second to the door- way, met mine. He started, muttered something to his wife, and, quick as thought, he kicked the light out, leaving the shed in darkness. Cursing him for an ill- conditioned fellow, I walked back to the fire, laughing. In a twinkling he followed me, his face dark with rage. 'Ventre-saint-gris!' he exclaimed, thrusting himself close to me. 'Is not a man's house his own?'
'It is, for me,' I answered coolly, shrugging my shoulders. 'And his wife: if she likes to pick dirty rags at this hour, that is your affair.'
'Pig of a spy!' he cried, foaming with rage.
I was angry enough at bottom, but I had nothing to gain by quarrelling with the fellow; and I curtly bade him remember himself.
'Your mistress gave you orders,' I said contemptuously. 'Obey them.'
He spat on the floor, but at the same time he grew calmer.
'You are right there,' he answered spitefully. 'What matter, after all, since you leave to-morrow at six? Your horse has been sent down, and your baggage is above.'
'I will go to it,' I retorted. 'I want none of your company. Give me a light, fellow!'
He obeyed reluctantly, and, glad to turn my back on him, I went up the ladder, still wondering faintly, in the midst of my annoyance, what his wife was about that my chance detection of her had so enraged him. Even now he was not quite himself. He followed me with abuse, and, deprived by my departure of any other means of showing his spite, fell to shouting through the floor, bidding me remember six o'clock, and be stirring; with other taunts, which did not cease until he had tired himself out.
The sight of my belongings--which I had left a few hours before at the Chateau--strewn about the floor of this garret, went some way towards firing me again. But I was worn out. The indignities and mishaps of the evening had, for once, crushed my spirit, and after swearing an oath or two I began to pack my bags. Vengeance I would have; but the time and manner I left for daylight thought. Beyond six o'clock in the morning I did not look forward; and if I longed for anything it was for a little of the good Armagnac I had wasted on those louts of merchants in the kitchen below. It might have done me good now.
I had wearily strapped up one bag, and nearly filled the other, when I came upon something which did, for the moment, rouse the devil in me. This was the tiny orange-coloured sachet which Mademoiselle had dropped the night I first saw her at the inn, and which, it will be remembered, I picked up. Since that night I had not seen it, and had as good as forgotten it. Now, as I folded up my other doublet, the one I had then been wearing, it dropped from my pocket.
The sight of it recalled all--that night, and Mademoiselle's face in the lantern light, and my fine plans, and the end of them; and, in a fit of childish fury, the outcome of long suppressed passion, I snatched up the sachet from the floor and tore it across and across, and flung the pieces down. As they fell, a cloud of fine pungent dust burst from them, and with the dust, something more solid, which tinkled sharply on the boards, as it fell. I looked down to see what this was --perhaps I already repented of my act; but for a moment I could see nothing. The floor was grimy and uninviting, the light bad.
In certain moods, however, a man is obstinate about small things, and I moved the taper nearer. As I did so a point of light, a flashing sparkle that shone for a second among the dirt and refuse on the floor, caught my eye. It was gone in a moment, but I had seen it. I stared, and moved the light again, and the spark flashed out afresh, this time in a different place. Much puzzled, I knelt, and, in a twinkling, found a tiny crystal. Hard by it lay another--and another; each as large as a fair-sized pea. I took up the three, and rose to my feet again, the light in one hand, the crystals in the palm of the other.
They were diamonds! Diamonds of price! I knew it in a moment. As I moved the taper to and fro above them, and watched the fire glow and tremble in their depths, I knew that I held in my hand that which would buy the crazy inn and all its contents a dozen times over! They were diamonds! Gems so fine, and of so rare a water--or I had never seen gems--that my hand trembled as I held them, and my head grew hot and my heart beat furiously. For a moment I thought that I dreamed, that my fancy played me some trick; and I closed my eyes and did not open them again for a minute. But when I did, there they were, hard, real, and angular. Convinced at last, in a maze of joy and fear, I closed my hand upon them, and, stealing on tip-toe to the trap-door, laid first my saddle on it and then my bags, and over all my cloak, breathing fast the while.
Then I stole back, and, taking up the light again, began to search the floor, patiently, inch by inch, with naked feet, every sound making me tremble as I crept hither and thither over the creaking boards. And never was search more successful or better paid. In the fragments of the sachet I found six smaller diamonds and a pair of rubies. Eight large diamonds I found on the floor. One, the largest and last found, had bounded away, and lay against the wall in the farthest corner. It took me an hour to run that one to earth; but afterwards I spent another hour on my hands and knees before I gave up the search, and, satisfied at last that I had collected all, sat down on my saddle on the trap-door, and, by the last flickering light of a candle which I had taken from my bag, gloated over my treasure--a treasure worthy of fabled Golconda.
Hardly could I believe in its reality, even now. Recalling the jewels which the English Duke of Buckingham wore on the occasion of his visit to Paris in 1625, and whereof there was so much talk, I took these to be as fine, though less in number. They should be worth fifteen thousand crowns, more or less. Fifteen thousand crowns! And I held them in the hollow of my hand--I, who was scarcely worth ten thousand sous.
The candle going out cut short my admiration. Left in the dark with these precious atoms, my first thought was hour I might dispose of them safely; which I did, for the time, by secreting them in the lining of my boot. My second thought turned on the question how they had come where I had found them, among the powdered spice and perfumes in Mademoiselle de Cocheforet's sachet.
A minute's reflection enabled me to come very near the secret, and at the same time shed a flood of light on several dark places, What Clon had been seeking on the path between the house and the village, what the goodwife of the inn had sought among the sweepings of yard and floor, I knew now the sachet--knew, too, what had caused the marked and sudden anxiety I had noticed at the Chateau--the loss of this sachet.
And there for a while I came to a check But one step more up the ladder of thought brought all in view. In a flash I guessed how the jewels had come to be in the sachet; and that it was not Mademoiselle but M. de Cocheforet who had mislaid them. I thought this last discovery so important that I began to pace the room softly, unable, in my excitement, to remain still.
Doubtless he had dropped the jewels in the hurry of his start from the inn that night! Doubtless, too, he had carried them in that bizarre hiding-place for the sake of safety, considering it unlikely that robbers, if he fell into their hands, would take the sachet from him; as still less likely that they would suspect it to contain anything of value. Everywhere it would pass for a love-gift, the work of his mistress.
Nor did my penetration stop there. I guessed that the gems were family property, the last treasure of the house; and that M. de Cocheforet, when I saw him at the inn, was on his way to convey them out of the country; either to secure them from seizure by the Government, or to raise money by selling them--money to be spent in some last desperate enterprise. For a day or two, perhaps, after leaving Cocheforet, while the mountain road and its chances occupied his thoughts, he had not discovered his loss. Then he had searched for the precious sachet, missed it, and returned hot-foot on his tracks.
The longer I considered the circumstances the more certain I was that I had hit on the true solution; and all that night I sat wakeful in the darkness, pondering what I should do. The stones, unset as they were, could never be identified, never be claimed. The channel by which they had come to my hands could never be traced. To all intents they were mine; mine, to do with as I pleased! Fifteen thousand crowns, perhaps twenty thousand crowns, and I to leave at six in the morning, whether I would or no! I might leave for Spain with the jewels in my pocket. Why not?
I confess I was tempted. And indeed the gems were so fine that I doubt not some indifferently honest men would have sold salvation for them. But--a Berault his honour? No. I was tempted, I say; but not for long. Thank God, a man may be reduced to living by the fortunes of the dice, and may even be called by a woman 'spy' and 'coward,' without becoming a thief! The temptation soon left me--I take credit for it--and I fell to thinking of this and that plan for making use of them. Once it occurred to me to take the jewels to the Cardinal and buy my pardon with them; again, to use them as a trap to capture Cocheforet; again, to--and then, about five in the morning, as I sat up on my wretched pallet, while the first light stole slowly in through the cobwebbed, hay-stuffed lattice, there came to me the real plan, the plan of plans, on which I acted.
It charmed me I smacked my lips over it, and hugged myself, and felt my eyes dilate in the darkness, as I conned it. It seemed cruel, it seemed mean; I cared nothing. Mademoiselle had boasted of her victory over me, of her woman's wits and her acuteness and of my dullness. She had said that her grooms should flog me. She had rated me as if I had been a dog. Very well; we would see now whose brains were the better, whose was the master mind, whose should be the whipping.
The one thing required by my plan was that I should get speech with her; that done, I could trust myself and my new-found weapon for the rest. But that was absolutely necessary, and, seeing that there might be some difficulty about it, I determined to descend as if my mind were made up to go; then, on pretence of saddling my horse, I would slip away on foot, and lie in wait near the Chateau until I saw her come out. Or if I could not effect my purpose in that way--either by reason of the landlord's vigilance, or for any other cause--my course was still easy. I would ride away, and when I had proceeded a mile or so, tie up my horse in the forest and return to the wooden bridge. Thence I could watch the garden and front of the Chateau until time and chance gave me the opportunity I sought.
So I saw my way quite clearly; and when the fellow below called me, reminding me rudely that I must be going, and that it was six o'clock, I was ready with my answer. I shouted sulkily that I was coming, and, after a decent delay, I took up my saddle and bags and went down.
Viewed by the light of a cold morning, the inn-room looked more smoky, more grimy, more wretched than when I had last seen it. The goodwife was not visible. The fire was not lighted. No provision, not so much as a stirrup-cup or bowl of porridge cheered the heart.
I looked round, sniffing the stale smell of last night's lamp, and grunted.
'Are you going to send me out fasting?' I said, affecting a worse humour than I felt.
The landlord was standing by the window, stooping over a great pair of frayed and furrowed thigh-boots which he was labouring to soften with copious grease.
'Mademoiselle ordered no breakfast,' he answered, with a malicious grin.
'Well it does not much matter,' I replied grandly. 'I shall be at Auch by noon.'
'That is as may be,' he answered with another grin.
I did not understand him, but I had something else to think about, and I opened the door and stepped out, intending to go to the stable. Then in a second I comprehended. The cold air laden with woodland moisture met me and went to my bones; but it was not that which made me shiver. Outside the door, in the road, sitting on horseback in silence, were two men. One was Clon. The other, who had a spare horse by the rein--my horse-- was a man I had seen at the inn, a rough, shock-headed, hard-bitten fellow. Both were armed, and Clon was booted. His mate rode barefoot, with a rusty spur strapped to one heel.
The moment I saw them a sure and certain fear crept into my mind: it was that which made me shiver But I did not speak to them. I went in again and closed the door behind me. The landlord was putting on his boots.
'What does this mean?' I said hoarsely--though I had a clear prescience of what was coming. 'Why are these men here?'
'Orders,' he answered laconically.
'Whose orders?' I retorted.
'Whose?' he answered bluntly. 'Well, Monsieur, that is my business. Enough that we mean to see you out of the country, and out of harm's way.'
'But if I will not go?' I cried.
'Monsieur will go,' he answered coolly. 'There are no strangers in the village to-day,' he added, with a significant smile.
'Do you mean to kidnap me?' I replied, in a rage.
But behind the rage was something else--I will not call it terror, for the brave feel no terror but it was near akin to it. I had had to do with rough men all my life, but there was a grimness and truculence in the aspect of these three that shook me. When I thought of the dark paths and narrow lanes and cliff sides we must traverse, whichever road we took, I trembled.
'Kidnap you, Monsieur?' he answered, with an every-day air. 'That is as you please to call it. One thing is certain, however,' he continued, maliciously touching an arquebuss which he had brought out, and set upright against a chair while I was at the door; if you attempt the slightest resistance, we shall know how to put an end to it, either here or on the road.'
I drew a deep breath, the very imminence of the danger restoring me to the use of my faculties. I changed my tone and laughed aloud.
'So that is your plan, is it?' I said. 'The sooner we start the better, then. And the sooner I see Auch and your back turned, the more I shall be pleased.'
He rose. 'After you, Monsieur,' he said.
I could not restrain a slight shiver. His new-born politeness alarmed me more than his threats. I knew the man and his ways, and I was sure that it boded ill to me.
But I had no pistols, and only my sword and knife, and I knew that resistance at this point must be worse than vain. I went out jauntily, therefore, the landlord coming after me with my saddle and bags.
The street was empty, save for the two waiting horsemen who sat in their saddles looking doggedly before them, The sun had not yet risen, the air was raw. The sky was grey, cloudy, and cold. My thoughts flew back to the morning on which I had found the sachet--at that very spot, almost at that very hour, and for a moment I grew warm again at the thought of the little packet I carried in my boot. But the landlord's dry manner, the sullen silence of his two companions, whose eyes steadily refused to meet mine, chilled me again. For an instant the impulse to refuse to mount, to refuse to go, was almost irresistible; then, knowing the madness of such a course, which might, and probably would, give the men the chance they desired, I crushed it down and went slowly to my stirrup.
'I wonder you do not want my sword,' I said by way of sarcasm, as I swung myself up.
'We are not afraid of it,' the innkeeper answered gravely. 'You may keep it--for the present.'
I made no answer--what answer had I to make?--and we rode at a footpace down the street; he and I leading, Clon and the shock-headed man bringing up the rear. The leisurely mode of our departure, the absence of hurry or even haste, the men's indifference whether they were seen, or what was thought, all served to sink my spirits and deepen my sense of peril. I felt that they suspected me, that they more than half guessed the nature of my errand at Cocheforet, and that they were not minded to be bound by Mademoiselle's orders. In particular, I augured the worst from Clon's appearance. His lean malevolent face and sunken eyes, his very dumbness chilled me. Mercy had no place there.
We rode soberly, so that nearly half an hour elapsed before we gained the brow from which I had taken my first look at Cocheforet. Among the dwarf oaks whence I had viewed the valley we paused to breathe our horses, and the strange feelings with which I looked back on the scene may be imagined. But I had short time for indulging in sentiment or recollections. A curt word, and we were moving again.
A quarter of a mile farther on, the road to Auch dipped into the valley. When we were already half way down this descent the innkeeper suddenly stretched out his hand and caught my rein.
'This way!' he said.
I saw that he would have me turn into a by-path leading south-westwards--a mere track, faint and little trodden and encroached on by trees, which led I knew not whither. I checked my horse.
'Why?' I said rebelliously. 'Do you think I do not know the road? The road we are in is the way to Auch.'
'To Auch--yes,' he answered bluntly. 'But we are not going to Auch,'
'Whither then?' I said angrily.
'You will see presently,' he replied with an ugly smile.
'Yes, but I will know now!' I retorted, passion getting the better of me. 'I have come so far with you. You will find it more easy to take me farther if you tell me your plans.'
'You are a fool!' he cried with a snarl.
'Not so,' I answered. 'I ask only to know whither I am going.'
'Into Spain,' he said. 'Will that satisfy you?'
'And what will you do with me there?' I asked, my heart giving a great bound.
'Hand you over to some friends of ours,' he answered curtly, 'if you behave yourself. If not, there is a shorter way, and one that will save us some travelling. Make up your mind, Monsieur. Which shall it be?'
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