Chapter III. Boot and Saddle.
 

As was natural, I meditated deeply and far into the night on the difficulties of the task, entrusted to me. I saw that it fell into two parts: the release of the lady, and her safe conduct to Blois, a distance of sixty leagues. The release I thought it probable I could effect single-handed, or with one companion only; but in the troubled condition of the country at this time, more particularly on both sides of the Loire, I scarcely saw how I could ensure a lady's safety on the road northwards unless I had with me at least five swords.

To get these together at a few hours' notice promised to be no easy task; although the presence of the Court of Navarre had filled St. Jean with a crowd of adventurers. Yet the king's command was urgent, and at some sacrifice, even at some risk, must be obeyed. Pressed by these considerations, I could think of no better man to begin with than Fresnoy.

His character was bad, and he had long forfeited such claim as he had ever possessed--I believe it was a misty one, on the distaff side--to gentility. But the same cause which had rendered me destitute I mean the death of the prince of Conde--had stripped him to the last rag; and this, perhaps, inclining me to serve him, I was the more quick to see his merits. I knew him already for a hardy, reckless man, very capable of striking a shrewd blow. I gave him credit for being trusty, as long as his duty jumped with his interest.

Accordingly, as soon as it was light, having fed and groomed the Cid, which was always the first employment of my day, I set out in search of Fresnoy, and was presently lucky enough to find him taking his morning draught outside the 'Three Pigeons,' a little inn not far from the north gate. It was more than a fortnight since I had set eyes on him, and the lapse of time had worked so great a change for the worse in him that, forgetting my own shabbiness, I looked at him askance, as doubting the wisdom of enlisting one who bore so plainly the marks of poverty and dissipation. His great face--he was a large man--had suffered recent ill-usage, and was swollen and discoloured, one eye being as good as closed. He was unshaven, his hair was ill-kempt, his doublet unfastened at the throat, and torn and stained besides. Despite the cold--for the morning was sharp and frosty, though free from wind--there were half a dozen packmen drinking and squabbling before the inn, while the beasts they drove quenched their thirst at the trough. But these men seemed with one accord to leave him in possession of the bench at which he sat; nor did I wonder much at this when I saw the morose and savage glance which he shot at me as I approached. Whether he read my first impressions in my face, or for some other reason felt distaste for my company, I could not determine. But, undeterred by his behaviour, I sat down beside him and called for wine.

He nodded sulkily in answer to my greeting, and cast a half- shamed, half-angry look at me out of the corners of his eyes. 'You need not look at me as though I were a dog,' he muttered presently. 'You are not so very spruce yourself, my friend. But I suppose you have grown proud since you got that fat appointment at Court!' And he laughed out loud, so that I confess I was in two minds whether I should not force the jest down his ugly throat.

However I restrained myself, though my cheeks burned. 'You have heard about it, then,' I said, striving to speak indifferently.

'Who has not?' he said, laughing with his lips, though his eyes were far from merry. 'The Sieur de Marsac's appointment! Ha! ha! Why, man--'

'Enough of it now!' I exclaimed. And I dare say I writhed on my seat. 'As far as I am concerned the jest is a stale one, sir, and does not amuse me.'

'But it amuses me,' he rejoined with a grin.

'Let it be, nevertheless,' I said; and I think he read a warning in my eyes. 'I have come to speak to you upon another matter.'

He did not refuse to listen, but threw one leg over the other, and looking up at the inn-sign began to whistle in a rude, offensive manner. Still, having an object in view, I controlled myself and continued. 'It is this, my friend: money is not very plentiful at present with either of us.'

Before I could say any more he turned on me savagely, and with a loud oath thrust his bloated face, flushed with passion, close to mine. 'Now look here, M. de Marsac!' he cried violently, 'once for all, it is no good! I have not got the money, and I cannot pay it. I said a fortnight ago, when you lent it, that you should have it this week. Well,' slapping his hand on the bench, I have not got it, and it is no good beginning upon me. You cannot have it, and that is flat!'

'Damn the money!' I cried.

'What?' he exclaimed, scarcely believing his ears.

'Let the money be!' I repeated fiercely. 'Do you hear? I have not come about it, I am here to offer you work--good, well-paid work--if you will enlist with me and play me fair, Fresnoy.'

'Play fair!' he cried with an oath.

'There, there,' I said, 'I am willing to let bygones be bygones if you are. The point is, that I have an adventure on hand, and, wanting help, can pay you for it.'

He looked at me cunningly, His eye travelling over each rent and darn in my doublet. 'I will help you fast enough,' he said at last. 'But I should like to see the money first.'

'You shall,' I answered.

'Then I am with you, my friend. Count on me till death!' he cried, rising and laying his hand in mine with a boisterous frankness which did not deceive me into trusting him far. 'And now, whose is the affair, and what is it?'

'The affair is mine,' I said coldly. 'It is to carry off a lady.'

He whistled and looked me over again, an impudent leer in his eyes. 'A lady?' he exclaimed. 'Umph! I could understand a young spark going in for such--but that's your affair. Who is it?'

'That is my affair, too,' I answered coolly, disgusted by the man's venality and meanness, and fully persuaded that I must trust him no farther than the length of my sword. 'All I want you to do, M. Fresnoy,' I continued stiffly, 'is to place yourself at my disposal and under my orders for ten days. I will find you a horse and pay you--the enterprise is a hazardous one, and I take that into account--two gold crowns a day, and ten more if we succeed in reaching a place of safety.'

'Such a place as--'

'Never mind that,' I replied. 'The question is, do you accept?'

He looked down sullenly, and I could see he was greatly angered by my determination to keep the matter to myself. 'Am I to know no more than that?' he asked, digging the point of his scabbard again and again into the ground.

'No more,' I answered firmly. 'I am bent on a desperate attempt to mend my fortunes before they fall as low as yours; and that is as much as I mean to tell living man. If you are loth to risk your life with your eyes shut, say so, and I will go to someone else.'

But he was not in a position, as I well knew, to refuse such an offer, and presently he accepted it with a fresh semblance of heartiness. I told him I should want four troopers to escort us, and these he offered to procure, saying that he knew just the knaves to suit me. I bade him hire two only, however, being too wise, to put myself altogether in his hands; and then, having given him money to buy himself a horse--I made it a term that the men should bring their own--and named a rendezvous for the first hour after noon, I parted from him and went rather sadly away.

For I began to see that the king had not underrated the dangers of an enterprise on which none but desperate men and such as were down in the world could be expected to embark. Seeing this, and also a thing which followed clearly from it--that I should have as much to fear from my own company as from the enemy--I looked forward with little hope to a journey during every day and every hour of which I must bear a growing weight of fear and responsibility.

It was too late to turn back, however, and I went about my preparations, if with little cheerfulness, at least with steadfast purpose. I had my sword ground and my pistols put in order by the cutler over whom I lodged, and who performed this last office for me with the same goodwill which had characterised, all his dealings with me. I sought out and hired a couple of stout fellows whom I believed to be indifferently honest, but who possessed the advantage of having horses; and besides bought two led horses myself for mademoiselle and her woman. Such other equipments as were absolutely necessary I purchased, reducing my stock of money in this way to two hundred and ten crowns. How to dispose of this sum so that it might be safe and yet at my command was a question which greatly exercised me. In the end I had recourse to my friend the cutler, who suggested hiding a hundred crowns of it in my cap, and deftly contrived a place for the purpose. This, the cap being lined with steel, was a matter of no great difficulty. A second hundred I sewed up in the stuffing of my saddle, placing the remainder in my pouch for present necessities.

A small rain was falling in the streets when, a little after noon, I started with my two knaves behind me and made for the north gate. So many were moving this way and the other that we passed unnoticed, and might have done so had we numbered six swords instead of three. When we reached the rendezvous, a mile beyond the gate, we found Fresnoy already there, taking shelter in the lee of a big holly-tree. He had four horsemen with him, and on our appearance rode forward to meet us, crying heartily, 'Welcome, M. le Capitaine!'

'Welcome, certainly,' I answered, pulling the Cid up sharply, and holding off from him. 'But who are these, M. Fresnoy?' and I pointed with my riding-cane to his four companions.

He tried to pass the matter off with a laugh. 'Oh! these?' he said. 'That is soon explained. The Evangelists would not be divided, so I brought them all--Matthew Mark, Luke, and John-- thinking it likely you might fail to secure your men. And I will warrant them for four as gallant boys as you will ever find behind you!'

They were certainly four as arrant ruffians as I had ever seen before me, and I saw I must not hesitate. 'Two or none, M. Fresnoy,' I said firmly. 'I gave you a commission for two, and two I will take--Matthew and Mark, or Luke and John, as you please.'

''Tis a pity to break the party,' said he, scowling.

'If that be all,' I retorted, 'one of my men is called John. And we will dub the other Luke, if that will mend the matter.'

'The Prince of Conde,' he muttered sullenly, 'employed these men.'

'The Prince of Conde employed some queer people sometimes, M. Fresnoy,' I answered, looking him straight between the eyes, 'as we all must. A truce to this, if you please. We will take Matthew and Mark. The other two be good enough to dismiss.'

He seemed to waver for a moment, as if he had a mind to disobey, but in the end, thinking better of it, he bade the men return; and as I complimented each of them with a piece of silver, they went off, after some swearing, in tolerably good humour. Thereon Fresnoy was for taking the road at once, but having no mind to be followed, I gave the word to wait until the two were out of sight.

I think, as we sat our horses in the rain, the holly-bush not being large enough to shelter us all, we were as sorry a band as ever set out to rescue a lady; nor was it without pain that I looked round and saw myself reduced to command such people. There was scarcely one whole unpatched garment among us, and three of my squires had but a spur apiece. To make up for this deficiency we mustered two black eyes, Fresnoy's included, and a broken nose. Matthew's nag lacked a tail, and, more remarkable still, its rider, as I presently discovered, was stone-deaf; while Mark's sword was innocent of a scabbard, and his bridle was plain rope. One thing, indeed, I observed with pleasure. The two men who had come with me looked askance at the two who had come with Fresnoy, and these returned the stare with interest. On this division and on the length of my sword I based all my hopes of safety and of something more. On it I was about to stake, not my own life only--which was no great thing, seeing what my prospects were--but the life and honour of a woman, young, helpless, and as yet unknown to me.

Weighed down as I was by these considerations, I had to bear the additional burden of hiding my fears and suspicions under a cheerful demeanour. I made a short speech to my following, who one and all responded by swearing to stand by me to the death. I then gave the word, and we started, Fresnoy and I leading the way, Luke and John with the led horses following, and the other two bringing up the rear.

The rain continuing to fall and the country in this part being dreary and monotonous, even in fair weather, I felt my spirits sink still lower as the day advanced. The responsibility I was going to incur assumed more serious proportions each time I scanned my following; while Fresnoy, plying me with perpetual questions respecting my plans, was as uneasy a companion as my worst enemy could have wished me.

'Come!' he grumbled presently, when we had covered four leagues or so, 'you have not told me yet, sieur, where we stay to-night. You are travelling so slowly that--'

'I am saving the horses,' I answered shortly. 'We shall do a long day to-morrow.'

'Yours looks fit for a week of days,' he sneered, with an evil look at my Sardinian, which was, indeed, in better case than its master. 'It is sleek enough, any way!'

'It is as good as it looks,' I answered, a little nettled by his tone.

'There is a better here,' he responded.

'I don't see it,' I said. I had already eyed the nags all round, and assured myself that, ugly and blemished as they were, they were up to their work. But I had discerned no special merit among them. I looked them over again now, and came to the same conclusion--that, except the led horses, which I had chosen with some care, there was nothing among them to vie with the Cid, either in speed or looks. I told Fresnoy so.

'Would you like to try?' he said tauntingly.

I laughed, adding, 'If you think I am going to tire our horses by racing them, with such work as we have before us, you are mistaken, Fresnoy. I am not a boy, you know.'

'There need be no question of racing,' he answered more quietly. 'You have only to get on that rat-tailed bay of Matthew's to feel its paces and say I am right.'

I looked at the bay, a bald-faced, fiddle-headed horse, and saw that, with no signs of breeding, it was still a big-boned animal with good shoulders and powerful hips. I thought it possible Fresnoy might be right, and if so, and the bay's manners were tolerable, it might do for mademoiselle better than the horse I had chosen. At any rate, if we had a fast horse among us, it was well to know the fact, so bidding Matthew change with me, and be careful of the Cid, I mounted the bay, and soon discovered that its paces were easy and promised speed, while its manners seemed as good as even a timid rider could desire.

Our road at the time lay across a flat desolate heath, dotted here and there with, thorn-bushes; the track being broken and stony, extended more than a score of yards in width, through travellers straying to this side and that to escape the worst places. Fresnoy and I, in making the change, had fallen slightly behind the other three, and were riding abreast of Matthew on the Cid.

'Well,' he said, 'was I not right?'

'In part,' I answered. 'The horse is better than its looks.'

'Like many others,' he rejoined, a spark of resentment in his tone--'men as well as horses, M. de Marsac. But What do you say? Shall we canter on a little and overtake the others?'

Thinking it well to do so, I assented readily, and we started together. We had ridden, however, no more than a hundred yards, and I was only beginning to extend the bay, when Fresnoy, slightly drawing rein, turned in his saddle and looked back. The next moment he cried, 'Hallo! what is this? Those fellows are not following us, are they?'

I turned sharply to look. At that moment, without falter or warning, the bay horse went down under me as if shot dead, throwing me half a dozen yards over its head; and that so suddenly that I had no time to raise my arms, but, falling heavily on my head and shoulder, lost consciousness.

I have had many falls, but no other to vie with that in utter unexpectedness. When I recovered my senses I found myself leaning, giddy and sick, against the bole of an old thorn-tree. Fresnoy and Matthew supported me on either side, and asked me how I found myself; while the other three men, their forms black against the stormy evening sky, sat their horses a few paces in front of me. I was too much dazed at first to see more, and this only in a mechanical fashion; but gradually, my brain grew clearer, and I advanced from wondering who the strangers round me were to recognising them, and finally to remembering what had happened to me.

'Is the horse hurt?' I muttered as soon as I could speak.

'Not a whit,' Fresnoy answered, chuckling, or I was much mistaken. 'I am afraid you came off the worse of the two, captain.'

He exchanged a look with the men on horseback as he spoke, and in a dull fashion I fancied I saw them smile. One even laughed, and another turned in his saddle as if to hide his face. I had a vague general sense that there was some joke on foot in which I had no part. But I was too much shaken at the moment to be curious, and gratefully accepted the offer of one, of the men to fetch me a little water. While he was away the rest stood round me, the same look of ill-concealed drollery on their faces. Fresnoy alone talked, speaking volubly of the accident, pouring out expressions of sympathy and cursing the road, the horse, and the wintry light until the water came; when, much refreshed by the draught, I managed to climb to the Cid's saddle and plod slowly onwards with them.

'A bad beginning,' Fresnoy said presently, stealing a sly glance at me as we jogged along side by side, Chize half a league before us, and darkness not far off.

By this time, however, I was myself again, save for a little humming is the head, and, shrugging my shoulders, I told him so. 'All's well that ends well,' I added. 'Not that it was a pleasant fall, or that I wish to have such another.'

'No, I should think not,' he answered. His face was turned from me, but I fancied I heard him snigger.

Something, which may have been a vague suspicion, led me a moment later to put my hand into my pouch. Then I understood. I understood too well. The sharp surprise of the discovery was such that involuntarily I drove my spurs into the Cid, and the horse sprang forward.

'What is the matter?' Fresnoy asked.

'The matter?' I echoed, my hand still at my belt, feeling --feeling hopelessly.

'Yes, what is it?' he asked, a brazen smile on his rascally face.

I looked at him, my brow as red as fire. 'Oh! nothing --nothing,' I said. 'Let us trot on.'

In truth I had discovered that, taking advantage of my helplessness, the scoundrels had robbed me, while I lay insensible, of every gold crown in my purse! Nor was this all, or the worst, for I saw at once that in doing so they had effected something which was a thousandfold more ominous and formidable--established against me that secret understanding which it was my especial aim to prevent, and on the absence of which I had been counting. Nay, I saw that for my very life I had only my friend the cutler and my own prudence to thank, seeing that these rogues would certainly have murdered me without scruple had they succeeded in finding the bulk of my money. Baffled in this, while still persuaded that I had other resources, they had stopped short of that villany--or this memoir had never been written. They had kindly permitted me to live until a more favourable opportunity of enriching themselves at my expense should put them in possession of my last crown!

Though I was sufficiently master of myself to refrain from complaints which I felt must be useless, and from menaces which it has never been my habit to utter unless I had also the power to put them into execution, it must not be imagined that I did not, as I rode on by Fresnoy's side, feel my position acutely or see how absurd a figure I cut in my dual character of leader and dupe. Indeed, the reflection that, being in this perilous position, I was about to stake another's safety as well as my own, made me feel the need of a few minutes' thought so urgent that I determined to gain them, even at the risk of leaving my men at liberty to plot further mischief. Coming almost immediately afterwards within sight, of the turrets of the Chateau of Chize, I told Fresnoy that we should lie the night at the village; and bade him take the men on and secure quarters at the inn. Attacked instantly by suspicion and curiosity, he demurred stoutly to leaving me, and might have persisted in his refusal had I not pulled up, and clearly shown him that I would have my own way in this case or come to an open breach. He shrank, as I expected, from the latter alternative, and, bidding me a sullen adieu, trotted on with his troop. I waited until they were out of sight, and then, turning the Cid's head, crossed a small brook which divided the road from the chase, and choosing a ride which seemed to pierce the wood in the direction of the Chateau, proceeded down it, keeping a sharp look-out on either hand.

It was then, my thoughts turning to the lady who was now so near, and who, noble, rich, and a stranger, seemed, as I approached her, not the least formidable of the embarrassments before me--it was then that I made a discovery which sent a cold shiver through my frame, and in a moment swept all memory of my paltry ten crowns from my head. Ten crowns! Alas! I had lost that which was worth all my crowns put together--the broken coin which the King of Navarre had entrusted to me, and which formed my sole credential, my only means of persuading Mademoiselle de la Vire that I came from him. I had put it in my pouch, and of course, though the loss of it only came home to my mind now, it had disappeared with the rest.

I drew rein and sat for some time motionless, the image of despair. The wind which stirred the naked boughs overhead, and whirled the dead leaves in volleys past my feet, and died away at last among the whispering bracken, met nowhere with wretchedness greater, I believe, than was mine at that moment.