Chapter XII. The Road to Paris
 

I remember hearing Marshal Bassompierre, who, of all the men within my knowledge, had the widest experience, say that not dangers but discomforts prove a man and show what he is; and that the worst sores in life are caused by crumpled rose-leaves and not by thorns.

I am inclined to think him right, for I remember that when I came from my room on the morning after the arrest, and found hall and parlour and passage empty, and all the common rooms of the house deserted, and no meal laid; and when I divined anew from this discovery the feeling of the house towards me--however natural and to be expected--I remember that I felt as sharp a pang as when, the night before, I had had to face discovery and open rage and scorn. I stood in the silent, empty parlour, and looked on the familiar things with a sense of desolation, of something lost and gone, which I could not understand. The morning was grey and cloudy, the air sharp, a shower was falling. The rose-bushes outside swayed in the wind, and inside, where I could remember the hot sunshine lying on floor and table, the rain beat in and stained the boards. The inner door flapped and creaked on its hinges. I thought of other days and of meals I had taken there, and of the scent of flowers; and I fled to the hall in despair.

But here, too, were no signs of life or company, no comfort, no attendance. The ashes of the logs, by whose blaze Mademoiselle had told me the secret, lay on the hearth white and cold fit emblem of the change that had taken place; and now and then a drop of moisture, sliding down the great chimney, pattered among them. The main door stood open, as if the house had no longer anything to guard. The only living thing to be seen was a hound which roamed about restlessly, now gazing at the empty hearth now lying down with pricked cars and watchful eyes. Some leaves, which had been blown in by the wind, rustled in a corner.

I went out moodily into the garden and wandered down one path and up another, looking at the dripping woods, and remembering things, until I came to the stone seat. On it, against the wall, trickling with raindrops, and with a dead leaf half filling its narrow neck, stood the pitcher of food. I thought how much had happened since Mademoiselle took her hand from it and the sergeant's lanthorn disclosed it to me; and, sighing grimly, I went in again through the parlour door.

A woman was on her knees, on the hearth kindling the belated fire. She had her back to me, and I stood a moment looking at her doubtfully, wondering how she would bear herself and what she would say to me. Then she turned, and I started back, crying out her name in horror--for it was Madame! Madame de Cocheforet!

She was plainly dressed, and her childish face was wan and piteous with weeping; but either the night had worn out her passion and drained her tears, or some great exigency had given her temporary calmness, for she was perfectly composed. She shivered as her eyes met mine, and she blinked as if a bright light had been suddenly thrust before her; but that was all, and she turned again to her task without speaking.

'Madame! Madame!" I cried in a frenzy of distress. 'What is this?'

'The servants would not do it,' she answered in a low but steady voice. 'You are still our guest, Monsieur.'

'But I cannot suffer it!' I cried. 'Madame de Cocheforet, I will not--'

She raised her hand with a strange patient expression in her face.

'Hush! please,' she said. 'Hush! you trouble me.'

The fire blazed up as she spoke, and she rose slowly from it, and with a lingering look at it went out, leaving me to stand and stare and listen in the middle of the floor. Presently I heard her coming back along the passage, and she entered bearing a tray with wine and meat and bread. She set it down on the table, and with the same wan face, trembling always on the verge of tears, she began to lay out the things. The glasses clinked fitfully against the plates as she handled them; the knives jarred with one another. And I stood by, trembling myself; and endured this strange kind of penance.

She signed to me at last to sit down; and she went herself, and stood in the garden doorway with her back to me. I obeyed. I sat down. But though I had eaten nothing since the afternoon of the day before, I could not swallow. I fumbled with my knife, and drank; and grew hot and angry at this farce; and then looked through the window at the dripping bushes, and the rain and the distant sundial--and grew cold again.

Suddenly she turned round and came to my side. 'You do not eat,' she said.

I threw down my knife, and sprang up in a frenzy of passion. 'Mon Dieu! Madame,' I cried, 'do you think that I have no heart?'

And then in a moment I knew what I had done, what a folly I had committed. For in a moment she was on her knees on the floor, clasping my knees, pressing her wet cheeks to my rough clothes, crying to me for mercy--for life! life! his life! Oh, it was horrible! It was horrible to hear her gasping voice, to see her fair hair falling over my mud-stained boots, to mark her slender little form convulsed with sobs, to feel that it was a woman, a gentlewoman, who thus abased herself at my feet!

'Oh, Madame! Madame!' I cried in my pain, 'I beg you to rise. Rise, or I must go!'

'His life! only his life!' she moaned passionately. 'What had he done to you--that you should hunt him down? what have we done to you that you should slay us? Oh! have mercy! Have mercy! Let him go, and we will pray for you, I and my sister will pray for you, every morning and night of our lives.'

I was in terror lest someone should come and see her lying there, and I stooped and tried to raise her. But she only sank the lower, until her tender little hands touched the rowels of my spurs. I dared not move, At last I took a sudden resolution.

'Listen, then, Madame!' I said almost sternly, 'if you will not rise. You forget everything, both how I stand, and how small my power is! You forget that if I were to release your husband to- day he would be seized within the hour by those who are still in the village and who are watching every road--who have not ceased to suspect my movements and my intentions. You forget, I say my circumstances--'

She cut me short on that word. She sprang to her feet and faced me. One moment more and I should have said something to the purpose. But at that word she stood before me, white, breathless, dishevelled, struggling for speech.

'Oh, yes, yes!' she panted eagerly. 'I know--I know!' And she thrust her hand into her bosom and plucked something out and gave it to me--forced it upon me. 'I know--I know!' she said again. 'Take it, and God reward you, Monsieur! God reward you! We give it freely--freely and thankfully!'

I stood and looked at her and it; and slowly I froze. She had given me the packet--the packet I had restored to Mademoiselle-- the parcel of jewels. I weighed it in my hands, and my heart grew hard again, for I knew that this was Mademoiselle's doing; that it was she who, mistrusting the effect of Madame's tears and prayers, had armed her with this last weapon--this dirty bribe. I flung it down on the table among the plates.

'Madame!' I cried ruthlessly, all my pity changed to anger, 'you mistake me altogether! I have heard hard words enough in the last twenty-four hours, and I know what you think of me! But you have yet to learn that I have never done one thing. I have never turned traitor to the hand that employed me, nor sold my own side! When I do so for a treasure ten times the worth of that, may my hand rot off!'

She sank on a seat with a moan of despair; and precisely at that moment M. de Cocheforet opened the door and came in. Over his shoulder I had a glimpse of Mademoiselle's proud face, a little whiter than of yore, with dark marks under the eyes, but like Satan's for coldness.

'What is this?' he said, frowning, as his eyes lighted on Madame.

'It is--that we start at eleven o'clock, Monsieur,' I answered, bowing curtly. And I went out by the other door.

. . . . .

That I might not be present at their parting I remained in the garden until the hour I had appointed was well past; and then, without entering the house, I went to the stable entrance. Here I found all in readiness, the two troopers whose company I had requisitioned as far as Auch, already in the saddle, my own two knaves waiting with my sorrel and M. de Cocheforet's chestnut. Another horse was being led up and down by Louis, and, alas! my heart moved at the sight, for it bore a lady's saddle. We were to have company then. Was it Madame who meant to come with us, or Mademoiselle? And how far? To Auch?

I suppose that they had set some kind of a watch on me, for as I walked up M. de Cocheforet and his sister came out of the house; he with a pale face and bright eyes, and a twitching visible in his cheek--though he still affected a jaunty bearing; she wearing a black mask.

'Mademoiselle accompanies us?' I said formally.

'With your permission, Monsieur,' he answered with bitter politeness. But I saw that he was choking with emotion; he had just parted from his wife, and I turned away.

When we were all mounted he looked at me.

'Perhaps--as you have my parole, you will permit me to ride alone?' he said with a little hesitation. 'And--'

'Without me!' I rejoined keenly. 'Assuredly, so far as is possible.'

Accordingly I directed the troopers to ride before him, keeping out of earshot, while my two men followed him at a little distance with their carbines on their knees. Last of all, I rode myself with my eyes open and a pistol loose in my holster. M. de Cocheforet muttered a sneer at so many precautions and the mountain made of his request; but I had not done so much and come so far, I had not faced scorn and insults to be cheated of my prize at last; and aware that until we were beyond Auch there must be hourly and pressing danger of a rescue, I was determined that he who should wrest my prisoner from me should pay dearly for it. Only pride, and, perhaps, in a degree also, appetite for a fight, had prevented me borrowing ten troopers instead of two.

As was wont I looked with a lingering eye and many memories at the little bridge, the narrow woodland path, the first roofs of the village; all now familiar, all seen for the last time. Up the brook a party of soldiers were dragging for the captain's body. A furlong farther on, a cottage, burned by some carelessness in the night, lay a heap of black ashes. Louis ran beside us weeping; the last brown leaves fluttered down in showers. And between my eyes and all, the slow steady rain fell and fell. And so I left Cocheforet.

Louis went with us to a point a mile beyond the village, and there stood and saw us go, cursing me furiously as I passed. Looking back when we had ridden on, I still saw him standing, and after a moment's hesitation I rode back to him.

'Listen, fool!' I said, cutting him short in the midst of his mowing and snarling, 'and give this message to your mistress. Tell her from me that it will be with her husband as it was with M. de Regnier, when he fell into the hands of his enemy--no better and no worse.'

'You want to kill her, too, I suppose?' he answered glowering at me.

'No, fool, I want to save her,' I retorted wrathfully. 'Tell her that, just that and no more, and you will see the result.'

'I shall not,' he said sullenly. 'A message from you indeed!' And he spat on the ground.

'Then on your head be it,' I answered solemnly, And I turned my horse's head and galloped fast after the others. But I felt sure that he would report what I had said, if it were only out of curiosity; and it would be strange if Madame, a gentlewoman of the south, bred among old family traditions, did not understand the reference.

And so we began our journey; sadly, under dripping trees and a leaden sky. The country we had to traverse was the same I had trodden on the last day of my march southwards, but the passage of a month had changed the face of everything. Green dells, where springs welling out of the chalk had once made of the leafy bottom a fairies' home, strewn with delicate ferns and hung with mosses, were now swamps into which our horses sank to the fetlock. Sunny brews, whence I had viewed the champaign and traced my forward path, had become bare, wind-swept ridges. The beech woods that had glowed with ruddy light were naked now; mere black trunks and rigid arms pointing to heaven. An earthy smell filled the air; a hundred paces away a wall of mist closed the view. We plodded on sadly up hill and down hill, now fording brooks, already stained with flood-water, now crossing barren heaths. But up hill or down hill, whatever the outlook, I was never permitted to forget that I was the jailor, the ogre, the villain; that I, riding behind in my loneliness, was the blight on all--the death-spot. True, I was behind the others--I escaped their eyes. But there was not a line of Mademoiselle's figure that did not speak scorn to me; not a turn of head that did not seem to say, 'Oh, God, that such a thing should breathe.'

I had only speech with her once during the day, and that was on the last ridge before we went down into the valley to climb up again to Auch. The rain had ceased; the sun, near its setting, shone faintly; for a few moments we stood on the brow and looked southwards while we breathed the horses. The mist lay like a pall on the country we had traversed; but beyond and above it, gleaming pearl-like in the level rays, the line of the mountains stood up like a land of enchantment, soft, radiant, wonderful!-- or like one of those castles on the Hill of Glass of which the old romances tell us. I forgot for an instant how we were placed, and I cried to my neighbour that it was the fairest pageant I had ever seen.

She--it was Mademoiselle, and she had taken off her mask--cast one look at me in answer; only one, but it conveyed disgust and loathing so unspeakable that scorn beside them would have been a gift. I reined in my horse as if she had struck me, and felt myself go first hot and then cold under her eyes. Then she looked another way.

But I did not forget the lesson; and after that I avoided her more sedulously than before. We lay that night at Auch, and I gave M. de Cocheforet the utmost liberty, even permitting him to go out and return at his will. In the morning, believing that on the farther side of Auch we ran little risk of attack, I dismissed the two dragoons, and an hour after sunrise we set out again. The day was dry and cold, the weather more promising. I proposed to go by way of Lectoure, crossing the Garonne at Agen; and I thought that, with roads continually improving as we moved northwards, we should be able to make good progress before night. My two men rode first, I came last by myself.

Our way lay down the valley of the Gers, under poplars and by long rows of willows, and presently the sun came out and warmed us. Unfortunately the rain of the day before had swollen the brooks which crossed our path, and we more than once had a difficulty in fording them. Noon found us little more than half way to Lectoure, and I was growing each minute more impatient when our road, which had for a little while left the river bank, dropped down to it again, and I saw before us another crossing, half ford half slough. My men tried it gingerly and gave back and tried it again in another place; and finally, just as Mademoiselle and her brother came up to them, floundered through and sprang slantwise up the farther bank.

The delay had been long enough to bring me, with no good will of my own, close upon the Cocheforets. Mademoiselle's horse made a little business of the place, and in the result we entered the water almost together; and I crossed close on her heels. The bank on either side was steep; while crossing we could see neither before nor behind. But at the moment I thought nothing of this nor of her delay; and I was following her quite at my leisure and picking my way, when the sudden report of a carbine, a second report, and a yell of alarm in front thrilled me through.

On the instant, while the sound was still in my ears, I saw it all. Like a hot iron piercing my brain the truth flashed into my mind. We were attacked! We were attacked, and I was here helpless in this pit, this trap! The loss of a second while I fumbled here, Mademoiselle's horse barring the way, might be fatal.

There was but one way. I turned my horse straight at the steep bank, and he breasted it. One moment he hung as if he must fall back. Then, with a snort of terror and a desperate bound, he topped it, and gained the level, trembling and snorting.

Seventy paces away on the road lay one of my men. He had fallen, horse and man, and lay still. Near him, with his back against a bank, stood his fellow, on foot, pressed by four horsemen, and shouting. As my eye lighted on the scene he let fly with a carbine, and dropped one. I clutched a pistol from my holster and seized my horse by the head. I might save the man yet, I shouted to him to encourage him, and was driving in my spurs to second my voice, when a sudden vicious blow, swift and unexpected, struck the pistol from my hand.

I made a snatch at it as it fell, but missed it, and before I could recover myself, Mademoiselle thrust her horse furiously against mine, and with her riding-whip lashed the sorrel across the ears. As the horse reared up madly, I had a glimpse of her eyes flashing hate through her mask; of her hand again uplifted; the next moment, I was down in the road, ingloriously unhorsed, the sorrel was galloping away, and her horse, scared in its turn, was plunging unmanageably a score of paces from me.

But for that I think that she would have trampled on me. As it was, I was free to rise, and draw, and in a twinkling was running towards the fighters. All had happened in a few seconds. My man was still defending himself, the smoke of the carbine had scarcely risen. I sprang across a fallen tree that intervened, and at the same moment two of the men detached themselves and rode to meet me. One, whom I took to be the leader, was masked. He came furiously at me to ride me down, but I leaped aside nimbly, and, evading him, rushed at the other, and scaring his horse, so that he dropped his point, cut him across the shoulder, before he could guard himself. He plunged away, cursing and trying to hold in his horse, and I turned to meet the masked man.

'You villain!' he cried, riding at me again. This time he manoeuvred his horse so skilfully that I was hard put to it to prevent him knocking me down; while I could not with all my efforts reach him to hurt him. 'Surrender, will you?' he cried, 'you bloodhound!'

I wounded him slightly in the knee for answer; before I could do more his companion came back, and the two set upon me, slashing at my head so furiously and towering above me with so great an advantage that it was all I could do to guard it. I was soon glad to fall back against the bank. In this sort of conflict my rapier would have been of little use, but fortunately I had armed myself before I left Paris with a cut-and-thrust sword for the road; and though my mastery of the weapon was not on a par with my rapier play, I was able to fend off their cuts, and by an occasional prick keep the horses at a distance. Still, they swore and cut at me; and it was trying work. A little delay might enable the other man to come to their help, or Mademoiselle, for all I knew, might shoot me with my own pistol. I was unfeignedly glad when a lucky parade sent the masked man's sword flying across the road. On that he pushed his horse recklessly at me, spurring it without mercy; but the animal, which I had several times touched, reared up instead, and threw him at the very moment that I wounded his companion a second time in the arm, and made him give back.

The scene was now changed. The man in the mask staggered to his feet, and felt stupidly for a pistol. But he could not find one, and he was in no state to use it if he had. He reeled helplessly to the bank and leaned against it. The man I had wounded was in scarcely better condition. He retreated before me, but in a moment, losing courage, let drop his sword, and, wheeling round, cantered off, clinging to his pommel. There remained only the fellow engaged with my man, and I turned to see how they were getting on. They were standing to take breath, so I ran towards them; but on seeing me coming, this rascal, too, whipped round his horse and disappeared in the wood, and left us victors.

The first thing I did--and I remember it to this day with pleasure--was to plunge my hand into my pocket, take out half of all the money I had in the world, and press it on the man who had fought for me so stoutly. In my joy I could have kissed him! It was not only that I had escaped defeat by the skin of my teeth-- and his good sword; but I knew, and felt, and thrilled with the knowledge, that the fight had, in a sense, redeemed my character. He was wounded in two places, and I had a scratch or two, and had lost my horse; and my other poor fellow was dead as a herring. But, speaking for myself, I would have spent half the blood in my body to purchase the feeling with which I turned back to speak to M. de Cocheforet and his sister. Mademoiselle had dismounted, and with her face averted and her mask pushed on one side, was openly weeping. Her brother, who had faithfully kept his place by the ford from the beginning of the fight to the end, met me with raised eyebrows and a peculiar smile.

'Acknowledge my virtue,' he said airily. 'I am here, M. de Berault; which is more than can be said of the two gentlemen who have just ridden off.'

'Yes,' I answered with a touch of bitterness. 'I wish that they had not shot my poor man before they went.'

He shrugged his shoulders.

'They were my friends,' he said. 'You must not expect me to blame them. But that is not all, M. de Berault.'

'No,' I said, wiping my sword. 'There is this gentleman in the mask.' And I turned to go towards him.

'M. de Berault!' Cocheforet called after me, his tone strained and abrupt.

I stood. 'Pardon?' I said, turning,

'That gentleman?' he said, hesitating and looking at me doubtfully. 'Have you considered what will happen to him if you give him up to the authorities?'

'Who is he?' I asked sharply.

'That is rather a delicate question,' he answered frowning.

'Not for me,' I replied brutally, 'since he is in my power. If he will take off his mask I shall know better what I intend to do with him.'

The stranger had lost his hat in his fall, and his fair hair, stained with dust, hung in curls on his shoulders. He was a tall man, of a slender, handsome presence, and, though his dress was plain and almost rough, I espied a splendid jewel on his hand, and fancied that I detected other signs of high quality. He still lay against the bank in a half-swooning condition, and seemed unconscious of my scrutiny.

'Should I know him if he unmasked?' I said suddenly, a new idea in my head.

'You would,' M. de Cocheforet answered.

'And?'

'It would be bad for everyone.'

'Ho! ho!' I replied softly, looking hard first at my old prisoner, and then at my new one. 'Then--what do you wish me to do?'

'Leave him here!' M. de Cocheforet answered, his face flushed, the pulse in his cheek beating.

I had known him for a man of perfect honour before, and trusted him. But this evident earnest anxiety on behalf of his friend touched me not a little. Besides, I knew that I was treading on slippery ground: that it behoved me to be careful.

'I will do it,' I said after a moment's reflection. 'He will play me no tricks, I suppose? A letter of--'

'Mon Dieu, no! He will understand,' Cocheforet answered eagerly. 'You will not repent it. Let us be going.'

'Well, but my horse?' I said, somewhat taken aback by this extreme haste. 'How am I to--'

'We shall overtake it,' he assured me. 'It will have kept the road. Lectoure is no more than a league from here, and we can give orders there to have these two fetched and buried.'

I had nothing to gain by demurring, and so, after another word or two, it was arranged. We picked up what we had dropped, M. de Cocheforet helped his sister to mount, and within five minutes we were gone. Casting a glance back from the skirts of the wood I fancied that I saw the masked man straighten himself and turn to look after us, but the leaves were beginning to intervene, the distance may have cheated me. And yet I was not indisposed to think the unknown a trifle more observant, and a little less seriously hurt, than he seemed.