A Gentleman of France by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter XXIX. Pestilence and Famine.
While Maignan was away about this business I despatched two men to catch our horses, which were running loose in the valley, and to remove those of Bruhl's party to a safe distance from the castle. I also blocked up the lower part of the door leading into the courtyard, and named four men to remain under arms beside it, that we might not be taken by surprise; an event of which I had the less fear, however, since the enemy were now reduced to eight swords, and could only escape, as we could only enter, through this doorway. I was still busied with these arrangements when M. d'Agen joined me, and I broke off to compliment him on his courage, acknowledging in particular the service he had done me personally. The heat of the conflict had melted the young man's reserve, and flushed his face with pride; but as he listened to me he gradually froze again, and when I ended he regarded me with the same cold hostility.
'I am obliged to you,' he said, bowing. 'But may I ask what next, M. de Marsac?'
'We have no choice,' I answered. 'We can only starve them out.'
'But the ladies?' he said, starting slightly. 'What of them?'
'They will suffer less than the men,' I replied. 'Trust me, the latter will not bear starving long.'
He seemed surprised, but I explained that with our small numbers we could not hope to storm the tower, and might think ourselves fortunate that we now had the enemy cooped up where he could not escape, and must eventually surrender.
'Ay, but in the meantime how will you ensure the women against violence?' he asked, with an air which showed he was far from satisfied.
'I will see to that when Maignan comes back,' I answered pretty confidently.
The equerry appeared in a moment with the assurance that egress from the farther side of the tower was impossible. I bade him nevertheless keep a horseman moving round the hill, that we might have intelligence of any attempt. The order was scarcely given when a man--one of those I had left on guard at the door of the courtyard--came to tell me that Fresnoy desired to speak with me on behalf of M. de Bruhl.
'Where is he?' I asked.
'At the inner door with a flag of truce,' was the answer.
'Tell him, then,' I said, without offering to move, 'that I will communicate with no one except his leader, M. de Bruhl. And add this, my friend,' I continued. 'Say it aloud that if the ladies whom he has in charge are injured by so much as a hair, I will hang every man within these walls, from M. de Bruhl to the youngest lackey.' And I added a solemn oath to that effect.
The man nodded, and went on his errand, while I and M. d'Agen, with Maignan, remained standing outside the gate, looking idly over the valley and the brown woods through which we had ridden in the early morning. My eyes rested chiefly on the latter, Maignan's as it proved on the former. Doubtless we all had our own thoughts. Certainly I had, and for a while, in my satisfaction at the result of the attack and the manner in which we had Bruhl confined, I did not remark the gravity which was gradually overspreading the equerry's countenance. When I did I took the alarm, and asked him sharply what was the matter. 'I don't like that, your Excellency,' he answered, pointing into the valley.
I looked anxiously, and looked, and saw nothing.
'What?' I said in astonishment.
'The blue mist,' he muttered, with a shiver. 'I have been watching it this half-hour, your Excellency. It is rising fast.'
I cried out on him for a maudlin fool, and M. d'Agen swore impatiently; but for all that, and despite the contempt I strove to exhibit, I felt a sudden chill at my heart as I recognised in the valley below the same blue haze which had attended us through yesterday's ride, and left us only at nightfall. Involuntarily we both fell to watching it as it rose slowly and more slowly, first enveloping the lower woods, and then spreading itself abroad in the sunshine. It is hard to witness a bold man's terror and remain unaffected by it; and I confess I trembled. Here, in the moment of our seeming success, was something which I had not taken into account, something against which I could not guard either myself or others!
'See!' Maignan whispered hoarsely, pointing again with his linger. 'It is the Angel of Death, your Excellency! Where he kills by ones and twos, he is invisible. But when he slays by hundreds and by thousands, men see the shadow of his wings!'
'Chut, fool!' I retorted with, anger, which was secretly proportioned to the impression his weird saying made on me. 'You have been in battles! Did you ever see him there? or at a sack? A truce to this folly,' I continued. 'And do you go and inquire what food we have with us. It may be necessary to send for some.'
I watched him go doggedly off, and knowing the stout nature of the man and his devotion to his master, I had no fear that he would fail us; but there were others, almost as necessary to us, in whom I could not place the same confidence. And these had also taken the alarm. When I turned I found groups of pale-faced men, standing by twos and threes at my back; who, pointing and muttering and telling one another what Maignan had told us, looked where we had looked. As one spoke and another listened, I saw the old panic revive in their eyes. Men who an hour or two before had crossed the court under fire with the utmost resolution, and dared instant death without a thought, grew pale, and looking from this side of the valley to that; with faltering eyes, seemed to be seeking, like hunted animals, a place of refuge. Fear, once aroused, hung is the air. Men talked in whispers of the abnormal heat, and, gazing at the cloudless sky, fled from the sunshine to the shadow; or, looking over the expanse of woods, longed to be under cover and away from this lofty eyrie, which to their morbid eyes seemed a target for all the shafts of death.
'I was not slow to perceive the peril with which these fears and apprehensions, which rapidly became general, threatened my plans. I strove to keep the men employed, and to occupy their thoughts as far as possible with the enemy and his proceedings; but I soon found that even here a danger lurked; for Maignan, coming to me by-and-by with a grave face, told me that one of Bruhl's men had ventured out, and was parleying with the guard on our side of the court. I went at once and broke the matter off, threatening to shoot the fellow if he was not under cover before I counted ten. But the scared, sultry faces he left behind him told me that the mischief was done, and I could think of no better remedy for it than to give M. d'Agen a hint, and station him at the outer gate with his pistols ready.
The question of provisions, too, threatened to become a serious one; I dared not leave to procure them myself, nor could I trust any of my men with the mission. In fact the besiegers were rapidly becoming the besieged. Intent on the rising haze and their own terrors, they forgot all else. Vigilance and caution were thrown to the winds. The stillness of the valley, its isolation, the distant woods that encircled us and hung quivering in the heated air, all added to the panic. Despite all my efforts and threats, the men gradually left their posts, and getting together in little parties at the gate, worked themselves up to such a pitch of dread that by two hours after noon they were fit for any folly; and at the mere cry of 'plague!' would have rushed to their horses and ridden in every direction.
It was plain that I could depend for useful service on myself and three others only--of whom, to his credit be it said, Simon Fleix was one. Seeing this, I was immensely relieved when I presently heard that Fresnoy was again seeking to speak with me. I was no longer, it will be believed, for standing on formalities; but glad to waive in silence the punctilio on which I had before insisted, and anxious to afford him no opportunity of marking the slackness which prevailed among my men, I hastened to meet him at the door of the courtyard where Maignan had detained him.
I might have spared my pains, however. I had no more than saluted him and exchanged the merest preliminaries before I saw that he was in a state of panic far exceeding that of my following. His coarse face, which had never been prepossessing, was mottled and bedabbled with sweat; his bloodshot eyes, when they met mine, wore the fierce yet terrified expression of an animal caught in a trap. Though his first word was an oath, sworn for the purpose of raising his courage, the bully's bluster was gone. He spoke in a low voice, and his hands shook; and for a penny-piece I saw he would have bolted past me and taken his chance in open flight.
I judged from his first words, uttered, as I have said, with an oath, that he was aware of his state. 'M. de Marsac,' he said, whining like a cur, 'you know me, to be a man of courage.'
I needed nothing after this to assure me that he meditated something of the basest; and I took care how I answered him. 'I have known you stiff enough upon occasions,' I replied drily. 'And then, again, I have known you not so stiff, M. Fresnoy.'
'Only when you were in question,' he muttered with another oath. 'But flesh and blood cannot stand this. You could not yourself. Between him and them I am fairly worn out. Give me good terms-- good terms, you understand, M. de Marsac?' he whispered eagerly, sinking his voice still lower, 'and you shall have all you want.'
'Your lives, and liberty to go where you please,' I answered coldly. 'The two ladies to be first given up to me uninjured. Those are the terms.'
'But for me?' he said anxiously.
'For you? The same as the others,' I retorted. 'Or I will make a distinction for old acquaintance sake, M. Fresnoy; and if the ladies have aught to complain of, I will hang you first.'
He tried to bluster and hold out for a sum of money, or at least for his horse to be given up to him. But I had made up my mind to reward my followers with a present of a horse apiece; and I was besides well aware that this was only an afterthought on his part, and that he had fully decided to yield. I stood fast, therefore. The result justified my firmness, for he presently agreed to surrender on those terms.
'Ay, but M. de Bruhl?' I said, desiring to learn clearly whether he had authority to treat for all. 'What of him?'
He looked at me impatiently. 'Come and see!' he said, with an ugly sneer.
'No, no, my friend,' I answered, shaking my head warily. 'That is not according to rule. You are the surrendering party, and it is for you to trust us. Bring out the ladies, that I may have speech with them, and then I will draw off my men.'
'Nom de Dieu!' he cried hoarsely, with so much fear and rage in his face that I recoiled from him. 'That is just what I cannot do.'
'You cannot?' I rejoined with a sudden thrill of horror. 'Why not? why not, man?' And in the excitement of the moment, conceiving the idea that the worst had happened to the women, I pushed him back with so much fury that he laid his hand on his sword.
'Confound you!' he stuttered, 'stand back! It is not that, I tell you! Mademoiselle is safe and sound, and madame, if she had her senses, would be sound too. It is not our fault if she is not. But I have not got the key of the rooms. It is in Bruhl's pocket, I tell you!'
'Oh!' I made answer drily. 'And Bruhl?'
'Hush, man,' Fresnoy replied, wiping the perspiration from his brow, and bringing his pallid, ugly face, near to mine, 'he has got the plague!'
I stared at him for a moment in silence; which he was the first to break. 'Hush!' he muttered again, laying a trembling hand on my arm, 'if the men knew it--and not seeing him they are beginning to suspect it--they would rise on us. The devil himself could not keep them here. Between him and them I am on a razor's edge. Madame is with him, and the door is locked. Mademoiselle is in a room upstairs, and the door is locked. And he has the keys. What can I do? What can I do, man?' he cried, his voice hoarse with terror and dismay.
'Get the keys,' I said instinctively.
'What?' From him?' he muttered, with an irrepressible shudder, which shook his bloated cheeks. 'God forbid I should see him! It takes stout men infallibly. I should be dead by night! By God, I should!' he continued, whining. 'Now you are not stout, M. de Marsac. If you will come with me I will draw off the men from that part; and you may go in and get the key from him.'
His terror, which surpassed all feeling, and satisfied me without doubt that he was in earnest, was so intense that it could not fail to infect me. I felt my face, as I looked into his, grow to the same hue. I trembled as he did and grew sick. For if there is a word which blanches the soldier's cheek and tries his heart more than another, it is the name of the disease which travels in the hot noonday, and, tainting the strongest as he rides in his pride, leaves him in a few hours a poor mass of corruption. The stoutest and the most reckless fear it; nor could I, more than another, boast myself indifferent to it, or think of its presence without shrinking. But the respect in which a man of birth holds himself saves him from the unreasoning fear which masters the vulgar; and in a moment I recovered myself, and made up my mind what it behoved me to do.
'Wait awhile,' I said sternly, 'and I will come with you.'
He waited accordingly, though with manifest impatience, while I sent for M. d'Agen, and communicated to him what I was about to do. I did not think it necessary to enter into details, or to mention Bruhl's state, for some of the men were well in hearing. I observed that the young gentleman received my directions with a gloomy and dissatisfied air. But I had become by this time so used to his moods, and found myself so much mistaken in his character, that I scarcely gave the matter a second thought. I crossed the court with Fresnoy, and in a moment had mounted the outside staircase and passed through the heavy doorway.
The moment I entered, I was forced to do Fresnoy the justice of admitting that he had not come to me before he was obliged. The three men who were on guard inside tossed down their weapons at sight of me, while a fourth, who was posted at a neighbouring window, hailed me with a cry of relief. From the moment I crossed the threshold the defence was practically at an end. I might, had I chosen or found it consistent with honour, have called in my following and secured the entrance. Without pausing, however, I passed on to the foot of a gloomy stone staircase winding up between walls of rough masonry; and here Fresnoy stood on one side and stopped. He pointed upwards with a pale face and muttered,'The door on the left.'
Leaving him there watching me as I went upwards, I mounted slowly to the landing, and by the light of an arrow-slit which dimly lit the ruinous place found the door he had described, and tried it with my hand. It was locked, but I heard someone moan in the room, and a step crossed the floor, as if he or another came to the door and listened. I knocked, hearing my heart beat in the silence. At last a voice quite strange to me cried, 'Who is it?'
'A friend,' I muttered, striving to dull my voice that they might not hear me below.
'A friend!' the bitter answer came. 'Go! You have made a mistake! We have no friends.'
'It is I, M. de Marsac,' I rejoined, knocking more imperatively. 'I would see M. de Bruhl. I must see him.'
The person inside, at whose identity I could now make a guess, uttered a low exclamation, and still seemed to hesitate. But on my repeating my demand I heard a rusty bolt withdrawn, and Madame de Bruhl, opening the door a few inches, showed her face in the gap. 'What do you want?' she murmured jealously.
Prepared as I was to see her, I was shocked by the change in her appearance, a change which even that imperfect light failed to hide. Her blue eyes had grown larger and harder, and there were dark marks under them. Her face, once so brilliant, was grey and pinched; her hair had lost its golden lustre. 'What do you want?' she repeated, eyeing me fiercely.
'To see him,' I answered.
'You know?' she muttered. 'You know that he--'
And you still want to come in? My God! Swear you will not hurt him?'
'Heaven forbid!' I said; and on that she held the door open that I might enter. But I was not half-way across the room before she had passed me, and was again between me and the wretched makeshift pallet. Nay, when I stood and looked down at him, as he moaned and rolled in senseless agony, with livid face and distorted features (which the cold grey light of that miserable room rendered doubly appalling), she hung over him and fenced him from me: so that looking on him and her, and remembering how he had treated her, and why he came to be in this place, I felt unmanly tears rise to my eyes. The room was still a prison, a prison with broken mortar covering the floor and loopholes for windows; but the captive was held by other chains than those of force. When she might have gone free, her woman's love surviving all that he had done to kill it, chained her to his side with fetters which old wrongs and present danger were powerless to break.
It was impossible that I could view a scene so strange without feelings of admiration as well as pity; or without forgetting for a while, in my respect for Madame de Bruhl's devotion, the risk which had seemed so great to me on the stairs. I had come simply for a purpose of my own, and with no thought of aiding him who lay here. But so great, as I have noticed on other occasions, is the power of a noble example, that, before I knew it, I found myself wondering what I could do to help this man, and how I could relieve madame, in the discharge of offices which her husband had as little right to expect at her hands as at mine. At the mere sound of the word Plague I knew she would be deserted in this wilderness by all, or nearly all; a reflection which suggested to me that I should first remove mademoiselle to a distance, and then consider what help I could afford here.
I was about to tell her the purpose with which I had come when a paroxysm more than ordinarily violent, and induced perhaps by the excitement of my presence--though he seemed beside himself-- seized him, and threatened to tax her powers to the utmost. I could not look on and see her spend herself in vain; and almost before I knew what I was doing I had laid my hands on him and after a brief struggle thrust him back exhausted on the couch.
She looked at me so strangely after that that in the half-light which the loopholes afforded I tried in vain to read her meaning. 'Why did you come?' she cried at length, breathing quickly. 'You, of all men? Why did you come? He was no friend of yours, Heaven knows!'
'No, madame, nor I of his,' I answered bitterly, with a sudden revulsion of feeling.
'Then why are you here?' she retorted.
'I could not send one of my men,' I answered. 'And I want the key of the room above.'
At the mention of that the room above--she flinched as if I had struck her, and looked as strangely at Bruhl as she had before looked at me. No doubt the reference to Mademoiselle de la Vire recalled to her mind her husband's wild passion for the girl, which for the moment she had forgotten. Nevertheless she did not speak, though her face turned very pale. She stooped over the couch, such as it was, and searching his clothes, presently stood up, and held out the key to me. 'Take it, and let her out,' she said with a forced smile. 'Take it up yourself, and do it. You have done so much for her it is right that you should do this.'
I took the key, thanking her with more haste than thought, and turned towards the door, intending to go straight up to the floor above and release mademoiselle. My hand was already on the door, which madame, I found, had left ajar in the excitement of my entrance, when I heard her step behind me. The next instant she touched me on the shoulder. 'You fool!' she exclaimed, her eyes flashing, 'would you kill her?' Would you go from him to her, and take the plague to her? God forgive me, it was in my mind to send you. And men are such puppets you would have gone!'
I trembled with horror, as much at my stupidity as at her craft. For she was right: in another moment I should have gone, and comprehension and remorse would have come too late. As it was, in my longing at once to reproach her for her wickedness and to thank her for her timely repentance, I found no words; but I turned away in silence and went out with a full heart.