Chapter V. The Road to Blois.
 

We gained the road without let or hindrance, whence a sharp burst in the moonlight soon brought us to the village. Through this we swept on to the inn, almost running over the four evangelists, whom we found standing at the door ready for the saddle. I bade them, in a quick peremptory tone, to get to horse, and was overjoyed to see them obey without demur or word of Fresnoy. In another minute, with a great clatter of hoofs, we sprang clear of the hamlet, and were well on the road to Melle, with Poitiers some thirteen leagues before us. I looked back, and thought I discerned lights moving in the direction of the chateau; but the dawn was still two hours off, and the moonlight left me in doubt whether these were real or the creatures of my own fearful fancy.

I remember, three years before this time, on the occasion of the famous retreat from Angers--when the Prince of Conde had involved his army beyond the Loire, and saw himself, in the impossibility of recrossing the river, compelled to take ship for England, leaving every one to shift for himself--I well remember on that occasion riding, alone and pistol in hand, through more than thirty miles of the enemy's country without drawing rein. But my anxieties were then confined to the four shoes of my horse. The dangers to which I was exposed at every ford and cross road were such as are inseparable from a campaign, and breed in generous hearts only a fierce pleasure, rarely to be otherwise enjoyed. And though I then rode warily, and where I could not carry terror, had all to fear myself, there was nothing secret or underhand in my business.

It was very different now. During the first few hours of our flight from Chize I experienced a painful excitement, an alarm, a feverish anxiety to get forward, which was new to me; which oppressed my spirits to the very ground; which led me to take every sound borne to us on the wind for the sound of pursuit, transforming the clang of a hammer on the anvil into the ring of swords, and the voices of my own men into those of the pursuers. It was in vain mademoiselle rode with a free hand, and leaping such obstacles as lay in our way, gave promise of courage and endurance beyond my expectations. I could think of nothing but the three long day's before us, with twenty-four hours to every day, and each hour fraught with a hundred chances of disaster and ruin.

In fact, the longer I considered our position--and as we pounded along, now splashing through a founderous hollow, now stumbling as we wound over a stony shoulder, I had ample time to reflect upon it--the greater seemed the difficulties before us. The loss of Fresnoy, while it freed me from some embarrassment, meant also the loss of a good sword, and we had mustered only too few before. The country which lay between us and the Loire, being the borderland between our party and the League, had been laid desolate so often as to be abandoned to pillage and disorder of every kind. The peasants had flocked into the towns. Their places had been taken by bands of robbers and deserters from both parties, who haunted the ruined villages about Poitiers, and preyed upon all who dared to pass. To add to our perils, the royal army under the Duke of Nevers was reported to be moving slowly southward, not very far to the left of our road; while a Huguenot expedition against Niort was also in progress within a few leagues of us.

With four staunch and trustworthy comrades at my back, I might have faced even this situation with a smile and a light heart; but the knowledge that my four knaves might mutiny at any moment, or, worse still, rid themselves of me and all restraint by a single treacherous blow such as Fresnoy had aimed at me, filled me with an ever-present dread; which it taxed my utmost energies to hide from them, and which I strove in vain to conceal from mademoiselle's keener vision.

Whether it was this had an effect upon her, giving her a meaner opinion of me than that which I had for a while hoped she entertained, or that she began, now it was too late, to regret her flight and resent my part in it, I scarcely know; but from daybreak onwards she assumed an attitude of cold suspicion towards me, which was only less unpleasant than the scornful distance of her manner when she deigned, which was seldom, to address me.

Not once did she allow me to forget that I was in her eyes a needy adventurer, paid by her friends to escort her to a place of safety, but without any claim to the smallest privilege of intimacy or equality. When I would have adjusted her saddle, she bade her woman come and hold up her skirt, that my hands might not touch its hem even by accident. And when I would have brought wine to her at Melle, where we stayed for twenty minutes, she called Fanchette to hand it to her. She rode for the most part in her mask; and with her woman. One good effect only her pride and reserve had; they impressed our men with a strong sense of her importance, and the danger to which any interference with her might expose them.

The two men whom Fresnoy had enlisted I directed to ride a score of paces in advance. Luke and John I placed in the rear. In this manner I thought to keep them somewhat apart. For myself, I proposed to ride abreast of mademoiselle, but she made it so clear that my neighbourhood displeased her that I fell back, leaving her to ride with Fanchette; and contented myself with plodding at their heels, and striving to attach the later evangelists to my interests.

We were so fortunate, despite my fears, as to find the road nearly deserted--as, alas, was much of the country on either side--and to meet none but small parties travelling along it; who were glad enough, seeing the villainous looks of our outriders, to give us a wide berth, and be quit of us for the fright. We skirted Lusignan, shunning the streets, but passing near enough for me to point out to mademoiselle the site of the famous tower built, according to tradition, by the fairy Melusina, and rased thirteen years back by the Leaguers. She received my information so frigidly, however, that I offered no more, but fell back shrugging my shoulders, and rode in silence, until, some two hours after noon, the city of Poitiers came into sight, lying within its circle of walls and towers on a low hill in the middle of a country clothed in summer with rich vineyards, but now brown and bare and cheerless to the eye.

Fanchette turned and asked me abruptly if that were Poitiers.

I answered that it was, but added that for certain reasons I proposed not to halt, but to lie at a village a league beyond the city, where there was a tolerable inn.

'We shall do very well here,' the woman answered rudely. 'Any way, my lady will go no farther. She is tired and cold, and wet besides, and has gone far enough.'

'Still,' I answered, nettled by the woman's familiarity, 'I think mademoiselle will change her mind when she hears my reasons for going farther.'

'Mademoiselle does not wish to hear them, sir,' the lady replied herself, and very sharply.

'Nevertheless, I think you had better hear them,' I persisted, turning to her respectfully. 'You see, mademoiselle--'

'I see only one thing, sir,' she exclaimed, snatching off her mask and displaying a countenance beautiful indeed, but flushed for the moment with anger and impatience, 'that, whatever betides, I stay at Poitiers to-night.'

'If it would content you to rest an hour?' I suggested gently.

'It will not content me!' she rejoined with spirit. 'And let me tell you, sir,' she went on impetuously, 'once for all, that you take too much upon yourself. You are here to escort me, and to give orders to these ragamuffins, for they are nothing better, with whom you have thought fit to disgrace our company; but not to give orders to me or to control my movements. Confine yourself for the future, sir, to your duties, if you please.'

'I desire only to obey you,' I answered, suppressing the angry feelings which rose in my breast, and speaking as coolly as lay in my power. 'But, as the first of my duties is to provide for your safety, I am determined to omit nothing which can conduce to that end. You have not considered that, if a party in pursuit of us reaches Poitiers to-night, search will be made for us in the city, and we shall be taken. If, on the other hand, we are known to have passed through, the hunt may go no farther; certainly will go no farther to-night. Therefore we must not, mademoiselle,' I added firmly, 'lie in Poitiers to-night.'

'Sir,' she exclaimed, looking at me, her face crimson with wonder and indignation, 'do you dare to--?'

'I dare do my duty, mademoiselle,' I answered, plucking up a spirit, though my heart was sore. 'I am a man old enough to be your father, and with little to lose, or I had not been here. I care nothing what you think or what you say of me, provided I can do what I have undertaken to do and place you safely in the hands of your friends. But enough, mademoiselle, we are at the gate. If you will permit me, I will ride through the streets beside you. We shall so attract less attention.'

Without waiting for a permission which she was very unlikely to give, I pushed my horse forward, and took my place beside her, signing to Fanchette to fall back. The maid obeyed, speechless with indignation; while mademoiselle flashed a scathing glance at me and looked round in helpless anger, as though it was in her mind to appeal against me even to the passers-by. But she thought better of it, and contenting herself with muttering the word 'Impertinent' put on her mask with fingers which trembled, I fancy, not a little.

A small rain was falling and the afternoon was well advanced when we entered the town, but I noticed that, notwithstanding this, the streets presented a busy and animated appearance, being full of knots of people engaged in earnest talk. A bell was tolling somewhere, and near the cathedral a crowd of no little size was standing, listening to a man who seemed to be rending a placard or manifesto attached to the wall. In another place a soldier, wearing the crimson colours of the League, but splashed and stained as with recent travel, was holding forth to a breathless circle who seemed to hang upon his lips. A neighbouring corner sheltered a handful of priests who whispered together with gloomy faces. Many stared at us as we passed, and some would have spoken; but I rode steadily on, inviting no converse. Nevertheless at the north gate I got a rare fright; for, though it wanted a full half-hour of sunset, the porter was in the act of closing it. Seeing us, he waited grumbling until we came up, and then muttered, in answer to my remonstrance, something about queer times and wilful people having their way. I took little notice of what he said, however, being anxious only to get through the gate and leave as few traces of our passage as might be.

As soon as we were outside the town I fell back, permitting Fanchette to take my place. For another league, a long and dreary one, we plodded on in silence, horses and men alike jaded and sullen, and the women scarcely able to keep their saddles for fatigue. At last, much to my relief, seeing that I began to fear I had taxed mademoiselle's strength too far, the long low buildings of the inn at which I proposed to stay came in sight, at the crossing of the road and river. The place looked blank and cheerless, for the dusk was thickening; but as we trailed one by one into the courtyard a stream of firelight burst on us from doors and windows, and a dozen sounds of life and comfort greeted our ears.

Noticing that mademoiselle was benumbed and cramped with long sitting, I would have helped her to dismount; but she fiercely rejected my aid, and I had to content myself with requesting the landlord to assign the best accommodation he had to the lady and her attendant, and secure as much privacy for them as possible. The man assented very civilly and said all should be done; but I noticed that his eyes wandered while I talked, and that he seemed to have something on his mind. When he returned, after disposing of them, it came out.

'Did you ever happen to see him, sir?' he asked with a sigh; yet was there a smug air of pleasure mingled with his melancholy.

'See whom?' I answered, staring at him, for neither of us had mentioned any one.

'The Duke, sir.'

I stared again between wonder and suspicion. 'The Duke of Nevers is not in this part, is he?' I said slowly. 'I heard he was on the Brittany border, away to the westward.'

'Mon Dieu!' my host exclaimed, raising his hands in astonishment. 'You have not heard, sir?'

'I have heard nothing,' I answered impatiently.

'You have not heard, sir, that the most puissant and illustrious lord the Duke of Guise is dead?'

'M. de Guise dead? It is not true!' I cried astonished.

He nodded, however, several times with an air of great importance, and seemed as if he would have gone on to give me some particulars. But, remembering, as I fancied, that he spoke in the hearing of half-a-dozen guests who sat about the great fire behind me, and had both eyes and ears open, he contented himself with shifting his towel to his other arm and adding only, 'Yes, sir, dead as any nail. The news came through here yesterday, and made a pretty stir. It happened at Blois the day but one before Christmas, if all be true.'

I was thunderstruck. This was news which might change the face of France. 'How did it happen?' I asked.

My host covered his mouth with his hand and coughed, and, privily twitching my sleeve, gave me to understand with some shamefacedness that he could not say more in public. I was about to make some excuse to retire with him, when a harsh voice, addressed apparently to me, caused me to turn sharply. I found at my elbow a tall thin-faced monk in the habit of the Jacobin order. He had risen from his seat beside the fire, and seemed to be labouring under great excitement.

'Who asked how it happened?' he cried, rolling his eyes in a kind of frenzy, while still observant, or I was much mistaken, of his listeners. Is there a man in France to whom the tale has not been told? Is there?'

'I will answer for one,' I replied, regarding him with little favour. 'I have heard nothing.'

'Then you shall! Listen!' he exclaimed, raising his right hand and brandishing it as though he denounced a person then present. 'Hear my accusation, made in the name of Mother Church and the saints against the arch hypocrite, the perjurer and assassin sitting in high places! He shall be Anathema Maranatha, for he has shed the blood of the holy and the pure, the chosen of Heaven! He shall go down to the pit, and that soon. The blood that he has shed shall be required of him, and that before he is one year older.'

'Tut-tut. All that sounds very fine, good father,' I said, waxing impatient, and a little scornful; for I saw that he was one of those wandering and often crazy monks in whom the League found their most useful emissaries. 'But I should profit more by your gentle words, if I knew whom you were cursing.'

'The man of blood!' he cried; 'through whom the last but not the least of God's saints and martyrs entered into glory on the Friday before Christmas.'

Moved by such profanity, and judging him, notwithstanding the extravagance of his words and gestures, to be less mad than he seemed, and at least as much knave as fool, I bade him sternly have done with his cursing, and proceed to his story if he had one.

He glowered at me for a moment, as though he were minded to launch his spiritual weapons at my head; but as I returned his glare with an unmoved eye--and my four rascals, who were as impatient as myself to learn the news, and had scarce more reverence for a shaven crown, began to murmur--he thought better of it, and cooling as suddenly as he had flamed up, lost no more time in satisfying our curiosity.

It would ill become me, however, to set down the extravagant and often blasphemous harangue in which, styling M. de Guise the martyr of God, he told the story now so familiar--the story of that dark wintry morning at Blois, when the king's messenger, knocking early at the duke's door, bade him hurry, for the king wanted him. The story is trite enough now. When I heard it first in the inn on the Clain, it was all new and all marvellous.

The monk, too, telling the story as if he had seen the events with his own eyes, omitted nothing which might impress his hearers. He told us how the duke received warning after warning, and answered in the very antechamber, 'He dare not!' How his blood, mysteriously advised of coming dissolution, grew chill, and his eye, wounded at Chateau Thierry, began to run, so that he had to send for the handkerchief he had forgotten to bring. He told us, even, how the duke drew his assassins up and down the chamber, how he cried for mercy, and how he died at last at the foot of the king's bed, and how the king, who had never dared to face him living, came and spurned him dead!

There were pale faces round the fire when he ceased, and bent brows and lips hard pressed together. Then he stood and cursed the King of France--cursing him openly by the name of Henry of Valois, a thing I had never looked to hear in France--though no one said 'Amen,' and all glanced over their shoulders, and our host pattered from the room as if he had seen a ghost, it seemed to be no man's duty to gainsay him.

For myself, I was full of thoughts which it would have been unsafe to utter in that company or so near the Loire. I looked back sixteen years. Who but Henry of Guise had spurned the corpse of Coligny? And who but Henry of Valois had backed him in the act? Who but Henry of Guise had drenched Paris with blood, and who but Henry of Valois had ridden by his side? One 23rd of the month--a day never to be erased from France's annals--had purchased for him a term of greatness. A second 23rd saw him, pay the price--saw his ashes cast secretly and by night no man knows where!

Moved by such thoughts, and observing that the priest was going the round of the company collecting money for masses for the duke's soul, to which object I could neither give with a good conscience nor refuse without exciting suspicion, I slipped out; and finding a man of decent appearance talking with the landlord in a small room beside the kitchen, I called for a flask of the best wine, and by means of that introduction obtained my supper in their company.

The stranger was a Norman horsedealer, returning home, after disposing of his string. He seemed to be in a large way of business, and being of a bluff, independent spirit, as many of those Norman townsmen are, was inclined at first to treat me with more familiarity than respect; the fact of my nag, for which he would have chaffered, excelling my coat in quality, leading him to set me down as a steward or intendant. The pursuit of his trade, however, had brought him into connection with all classes of men and he quickly perceived his mistake; and as he knew the provinces between the Seine and Loire to perfection, and made it part of his business to foresee the chances of peace and war, I obtained a great amount of information from him, and indeed conceived no little liking for him. He believed that the assassination of M. de Guise would alienate so much of France from the king that his majesty would have little left save the towns on the Loire, and some other places lying within easy reach of his court at Blois.

'But,' I said,'things seem quiet now. Here, for instance.'

'It is the calm before the storm,' he answered. 'There is a monk in there. Have you heard him?'

I nodded.

'He is only one among a hundred--a thousand,' the horsedealer continued, looking at me and nodding with meaning. He was a brown-haired man with shrewd grey eyes, such as many Normans have. 'They will get their way too, you will see,' he went on. 'Well, horses will go up, so I have no cause to grumble; but, if I were on my way to Blois with women or gear of that kind, I should not choose this time for picking posies on the road. I should see the inside of the gates as soon as possible.'

I thought there was much in what he said; and when he went on to maintain that the king would find himself between the hammer and the anvil--between the League holding all the north and the Huguenots holding all the south--and must needs in time come to terms with the latter seeing that the former would rest content with nothing short of his deposition, I began to agree with him that we should shortly see great changes and very stirring times.

'Still if they depose the king,' I said, 'the King of Navarre must succeed him. He is the heir of France.'

'Bah!' my companion replied somewhat contemptuously. 'The League will see to that. He goes with the other.'

'Then the kings are in one cry, and you are right,' I said with conviction. 'They must unite.'

'So they will. It is only a question of time,' he said.

In the morning, having only one man with him, and, as I guessed, a considerable sum of money, he volunteered to join our party as far as Blois. I assented gladly, and he did so, this addition to our numbers ridding me at once of the greater part of my fears. I did not expect any opposition on the part of mademoiselle, who would gain in consequence as well as in safety. Nor did she offer any. She was content, I think, to welcome any addition to our party which would save her from the necessity of riding in the company of my old cloak.