Chapter XXXI. Under the Greenwood.
 

To escape from my companions on some pretext, which should enable me to ensure their safety without arousing their fears, was the one thought which possessed me on the subsidence of my first alarm. Probably it answered to that instinct in animals which bids them get away alone when wounded or attacked by disease; and with me it had the fuller play as the pain prevailed rather by paroxysms, than in permanence, and, coming and going, allowed intervals of ease, in which I was able to think clearly and consecutively, and even to sit firmly in the saddle.

The moment one of these intervals enabled me to control myself, I used it to think where I might go without danger to others; and at once and naturally my thoughts turned to the last place we had passed; which happened to be the house in the gorge where we had received news of Bruhl's divergence from the road. The man who lived there alone had had the plague; therefore he did not fear it. The place itself was solitary, and I could reach it, riding slowly, in half an hour. On the instant and without more delay I determined on this course. I would return, and, committing myself to the fellow's good offices, bid him deny me to others, and especially to my friends--should they seek me.

Aware that I bad no time to lose if I would put this plan into execution before the pains returned to sap my courage, I drew bridle at once, and muttered some excuse to madame; if I remember rightly, that I had dropped my gauntlet. Whatever the pretext-- and my dread was great lest she should observe any strangeness in my manner--it passed with her; by reason, chiefly, I think, of the grief which monopolised her. She let me go, and before anyone else could mark or miss me I was a hundred yards away on the back-track, and already sheltered from observation by a turn in the road.

The excitement of my evasion supported me for a while after leaving her; and then for another while, a paroxysm of pain deprived me of the power of thought. But when this last was over, leaving me weak and shaken, yet clear in my mind, the most miserable sadness and depression that can be conceived came upon me; and, accompanying me through the wood, filled its avenues (which doubtless were fair enough to others' eyes) with the blackness of despair. I saw but the charnel-house, and that everywhere. It was not only that the horrors of the first discovery returned upon me and almost unmanned me; nor only that regrets and memories, pictures of the past and plans for the future, crowded thick upon my mind, so that I could have wept at the thought of all ending here. But in my weakness mademoiselle's face shone where the wood was darkest, and, tempting and provoking me to return--were it only to tell her that, grim and dull as I seemed, I loved her--tried me with a subtle temptation almost beyond my strength to resist. All that was mean in me rose in arms, all that was selfish clamoured to know why I must die in the ditch while others rode in the sunshine; why I must go to the pit, while others loved and lived!

And so hard was I pressed that I think I should have given way had the ride been longer or my horse less smooth and nimble. But in the midst of my misery, which bodily pain was beginning to augment to such a degree that I could scarcely see, and had to ride gripping the saddle with both hands, I reached the mill. My horse stopped of its own accord. The man we had seen before came out. I had I just strength left to tell him what was the matter, and what I wanted and then a fresh attack came on, with sickness, and overcome by vertigo I fell to the ground.

I have but an indistinct idea what happened after that; until I found myself inside the house, clinging to the man's arm. He pointed to a box-bed in one corner of the room (which was, or seemed to my sick eyes, gloomy and darksome in the extreme), and would have had me lie down in it. But something inside me revolted against the bed, and despite the force he used, I broke away, and threw myself on a heap of straw which I saw in another corner.

'Is not the, bed good enough for you?' he grumbled.

I strove to tell him it was not that.

'It should be good enough to die on,' he continued brutally. 'There's five have died on that bed, I'd have you know! My wife one, and my son another, and my daughter another; and then my son again, and a daughter again. Five! Ay, five in that bed!'

Brooding in the gloom of the chimney-corner, where he was busied about a black pot, he continued to mutter and glance at me askance; but after a while I swooned away with pain.

When I opened my eyes again the room was darker. The man still sat where I had last seen him, but a noise, the same, perhaps, which had roused me, drew him as I looked to the unglazed window. A voice outside, the tones of which I seemed to know, inquired if he had seen me; and so carried away was I by the excitement of the moment that I rose on my elbow to hear the answer. But the man was staunch. I heard him deny all knowledge of me, and presently the sound of retreating hoofs and the echo of voices dying in the distance assured me I was left.

Then, at that instant, a doubt of the man on whose compassion I had thrown myself entered my mind. Plague-stricken, hopeless as I was, it chilled me to the very heart; staying in a moment the feeble tears I was about to shed, and curing even the vertigo, which forced me to clutch at the straw on which I lay. Whether the thought arose from a sickly sense of my own impotence, or was based on the fellow's morose air and the stealthy glances he continued to cast at me, I am as unable to say as I am to decide whether it was well-founded, or the fruit of my own fancy. Possibly the gloom of the room and the man's surly words inclined me to suspicion; possibly his secret thoughts portrayed themselves in his hang-dog visage. Afterwards it appeared that he had stripped me, while I lay, of everything of value; but he may have done this in the belief that I should die.

All I know is that I knew nothing certain, because the fear died almost as soon as it was born. The man had scarcely seated himself again, or I conceived the thought, when a second alarm outside caused him to spring to his feet. Scowling and muttering as he went, he hurried to the window. But before he reached it the door was dashed violently open, and Simon Fleix stood in the entrance.

There came in with him so blessed a rush of light and life as in a moment dispelled the horror of the room, and stripped me at one and the same time of fear and manhood. For whether I would or no, at sight of the familiar face, which I had fled so lately, I burst into tears; and, stretching out my hands to him, as a frightened child might have done, called on him by name. I suppose the plague was by this time so plainly written on my face that all who looked might read; for he stood at gaze, staring at me, and was still so standing when a hand put him aside and a slighter, smaller figure, pale-faced and hooded, stood for a moment between me and the sunshine. It was mademoiselle!

That, I thank God, restored me to myself, or I had been for ever shamed. I cried to them with all the voice I had left to take her away; and calling out frantically again and again that I had the plague and she would die, I bade the man close the door. Nay, regaining something of strength in my fear for her, I rose up, half-dressed as I was, and would have fled into some corner to avoid her, still calling out to them to take her away, to take her away--if a fresh paroxysm had not seized me, so that I fell blind and helpless where I was.

For a time after that I knew nothing; until someone held water to my lips, and I drank greedily, and presently awoke to the fact that the entrance was dark with faces and figures all gazing at me as I lay. But I could not see her; and I had sense enough to know and be thankful that she was no longer among them. I would fain have bidden Maignan to begone too, for I read the consternation in his face. But I could not muster strength or voice for the purpose, and when I turned my head to see who held me--ah me! it comes back to me still in dreams--it was mademoiselle's hair that swept my forehead and her hand that ministered to me; while tears she did not try to hide or wipe away fell on my hot cheek. I could have pushed her away even then, for she was slight and small; but the pains came upon me, and with a sob choking my voice I lost all knowledge.

I am told that I lay for more than a month between life and death, now burning with fever and now in the cold fit; and that but for the tendance which never failed nor faltered, nor could have been outdone had my malady been the least infectious in the world. I must have died a hundred times, as hundreds round me did die week by week in that year. From the first they took me out of the house (where I think I should have perished quickly, so impregnated was it with the plague poison) and laid me under a screen of boughs in the forest, with a vast quantity of cloaks and horse-cloths cunningly disposed to windward. Here I ran some risk from cold and exposure and the fall of heavy dews; but, on the other hand, had all the airs of heaven to clear away the humours and expel the fever from my brain.

Hence it was that when the first feeble beginnings of consciousness awoke in me again, they and the light stole in on me through green leaves, and overhanging boughs, and the freshness and verdure of the spring woods. The sunshine which reached my watery eyes was softened by its passage through great trees, which grew and expanded as I gazed up into them, until each became a verdant world, with all a world's diversity of life. Grown tired of this, I had still long avenues of shade, carpeted with flowers, to peer into; or a little wooded bottom --where the ground fell away on one side--that blazed and burned with redthorn. Ay, and hence it was that the first sounds I heard, when the fever left me at last, and I knew morning from evening, and man from woman, were the songs of birds calling to their mates.

Mademoiselle and Madame de Bruhl, with Fanchette and Simon Fleix, lay all this time in such shelter as could be raised for them where I lay; M. Francois and three stout fellows, whom Maignan left to guard us living in a hut within hail. Maignan himself, after seeing out a week of my illness, had perforce returned to his master, and no news had since been received from him. Thanks to the timely move into the woods, no other of the party fell ill, and by the time I was able to stand and speak the ravages of the disease had so greatly decreased that fear was at an end.

I should waste words were I to try to describe how the peace and quietude of the life we led in the forest during the time of my recovery sank into my heart; which had known, save by my mother's bedside, little of such joys. To awake in the morning to sweet sounds and scents, to eat with reviving appetite and feel the slow growth of strength, to lie all day in shade or sunshine as it pleased me, and hear women's voices and tinkling laughter, to have no thought of the world and no knowledge of it, so that we might have been, for anything we saw, in another sphere--these things might have sufficed for happiness without that which added to each and every one of them a sweeter and deeper and more lasting joy. Of which next.

I had not begun to take notice long before I saw that M. Francois and madame had come to an understanding; such an one, at least, as permitted him to do all for her comfort and entertainment without committing her to more than was becoming at such, a season. Naturally this left mademoiselle much in my company; a circumstance which would have ripened into passion the affection I before entertained for her, had not gratitude and a nearer observance of her merits already elevated my regard into the most ardent worship that even the youngest lover ever felt for his mistress.

In proportion, however, as I and my love grew stronger, and mademoiselle's presence grew more necessary to my happiness--so that were she away but an hour I fell a-moping--she began to draw off from me, and absenting herself more and more on long walks in the woods, by-and-by reduced me to such a pitch, of misery as bid fair to complete what the fever had left undone,

If this had happened in the world I think it likely that I should have suffered in silence. But here, under the greenwood, in common enjoyment of God's air and earth, we seemed more nearly equal. She was scarce better dressed, than a sutler's wife; while recollections of her wealth and station, though they assailed me nightly, lost much of their point in presence of her youth and of that fair and patient gentleness which forest life and the duties of a nurse had fostered.

So it happened that one day, when she had been absent longer than usual, I took my courage in my hand and went to meet her as far as the stream which ran through the bottom by the redthorn. Here, at a place where there were three stepping-stones, I waited for her; first taking away the stepping-stones, that she might have to pause, and, being at a loss, might be glad to see me.

She came presently, tripping through an alley in the low wood, with her eyes on the ground, and her whole carriage full of a sweet pensiveness which it did me good to see. I turned my back on the stream before she saw me, and made a pretence of being taken up with something in another direction. Doubtless she espied me soon, and before she came very near; but she made no sign until she reached the brink, and found the stepping-stones were gone.

Then, whether she suspected me or not, she called out to me, not once, but several times. For, partly to tantalise her, as lovers will, and partly because it charmed me to hear her use my name, I would not turn at once.

When I did, and discovered her standing with one small foot dallying with the water, I cried out with well-affected concern; and in a great hurry ran towards her, paying no attention to her chiding or the pettish haughtiness with which she spoke to me.

'The stepping-stones are all on your side,' she said imperiously.

'Who has moved them?'

I looked about without answering, and at last pretended to find them; while she stood watching me, tapping the ground with one foot the while. Despite her impatience, the stone which was nearest to her I took care to bring last--that she might not cross without my assistance. But after all she stepped over so lightly and quickly that the hand she placed in mine seemed scarcely to rest there a second. Yet when she was over I managed to retain it; nor did she resist, though her cheek, which had been red before, turned crimson and her eyes fell, and bound to me by the link of her little hand, she stood beside me with her whole figure drooping.

'Mademoiselle,' I said gravely, summoning all my resolution to my aid, 'do you know of what that stream with its stepping-stones reminds me?'

She shook her head but did not answer.

'Of the stream which has flowed between us from the day when I first saw you at St. Jean,' said in a low voice. 'It has flowed between us, and it still does--separating us.'

'What stream?' she murmured, with her eyes cast down, and her foot playing with the moss. 'You speak in riddles, sir.'

'You understand this one only too well, mademoiselle, 'I answered. 'Are you not young and gay and beautiful, while I am old, or almost old, and dull and grave? You are rich and well- thought-of at Court, and I a soldier of fortune, not too successful. What did you think of me when you first saw me at St. Jean? What when I came to Rosny? That, mademoiselle,' I continued with fervour, 'is the stream which flows between us and separates us; and I know of but one stepping-stone that can bridge it.'

She looked aside, toying with a piece of thorn-blossom she had picked. It was not redder than her cheeks.

'That one stepping-stone,' I said, after waiting vainly for any word or sign from her, 'is Love. Many weeks ago, mademoiselle, when I had little cause to like you, I loved you; I loved you whether I would or not, and without thought or hope of return. I should have been mad had I spoken to you then. Mad, and worse than mad. But now, now that I owe you my life, now that I have drunk from your hand in fever, and, awaking early and late, have found you by my pillow--now that, seeing you come in and out in the midst of fear and hardship, I have learned to regard you as a woman kind and gentle as my mother--now that I love you, so that to be with you is joy, and away from you grief, is it presumption in me now, mademoiselle, to think that that stream may be bridged?'

I stopped, out of breath, and saw that she was trembling. But she spoke presently. 'You said one stepping-stone?' she murmured.

'Yes,' I answered hoarsely, trying in vain to look at her face, which she kept averted from me.

'There should be two,' she said, almost in a whisper. 'Your love, sir, and--and mine. You have said much of the one, and nothing of the other. In that you are wrong, for I am proud still. And I would not cross the stream you speak of for any love of yours!'

'Ah!' I cried in sharpest pain.

'But,' she continued, looking up at me on a sudden with eyes that told me all, 'because I love you I am willing to cross it--to cross it once for ever, and to live beyond it all my life--if I may live my life with you.'

I fell on my knee and kissed her hand again and again in a rapture of joy and gratitude. By-and-by she pulled it from me. 'If you will, sir,' she said, 'you may kiss my lips. If you do not, no man ever will.'

After that, as may be guessed, we walked every day in the forest, making longer and longer excursions as my strength came back to me, and the nearer parts grew familiar. From early dawn, when I brought my love a posy of flowers, to late evening, when Fanchette hurried her from me, our days were passed in a long round of delight; being filled full of all beautiful things-- love, and sunshine, and rippling streams, and green banks, on which we sat together under scented limes, telling one another all we had ever thought, and especially all we had ever thought of one another. Sometimes--when the light was low in the evening--we spoke of my mother; and once--but that was in the sunshine, when the bees were humming and my blood had begun to run strongly in my veins--I spoke of my great and distant kinsman, Rohan. But mademoiselle would hear nothing of him, murmuring again and again in my ear, 'I have crossed, my love, I have crossed.'

Truly the sands of that hour-glass were of gold. But in time they ran out. First M. Francois, spurred by the restlessness of youth, and convinced that madame would for a while yield no further, left us, and went back to the world. Then news came of great events that could not fail to move us. The King of France and the King of Navarre had met at Tours, and embracing in the sight of an immense multitude, had repulsed the League with slaughter in the suburb of St. Symphorien. Fast on this followed the tidings of their march northwards with an overwhelming army of fifty-thousand men of both religions, bent, rumour had it, on the signal punishment of Paris.

I grew--shame that I should say it--to think more and more of these things; until mademoiselle, reading the signs, told me one day that we must go. 'Though never again,' she added with a sigh, 'shall we be so happy.'

'Then why go?' I asked foolishly.

'Because you are a man,' she answered with a wise smile, 'as I would have you be, and you need something besides love. To- morrow we will go.'

'Whither?' I said in amazement.

'To the camp before Paris,' she answered. 'We will go back in the light of day--seeing that we have done nothing of which to be ashamed--and throw ourselves on the justice of the King of Navarre. You shall place me with Madame Catherine, who will not refuse to protect me; and so, sweet, you will have only yourself to think of. Come, sir,' she continued, laying her little hand in mine, and looking into my eyes, 'you are not afraid?'

'I am more afraid than ever I used to be,' I said trembling.

'So I would have it,' she whispered, hiding her face on my shoulder. 'Nevertheless we will go.'

And go we did. The audacity of such a return in the face of Turenne, who was doubtless in the King of Navarre's suite, almost took my breath away; nevertheless, I saw that it possessed one advantage which no other course promised--that, I mean, of setting us right in the eyes of the world, and enabling me to meet in a straightforward manner such as maligned us. After some consideration I gave my assent, merely conditioning that until we reached the Court we should ride masked, and shun as far as possible encounters by the road.