Chapter XIII. At the Finger-Post
 

Through all, it will have been noticed, Mademoiselle had not spoken to me, nor said one word, good or bad. She had played her part grimly, had taken defeat in silence if with tears, had tried neither prayer nor defence nor apology. And the fact that the fight was now over, and the scene left behind, made no difference in her conduct. She kept her face studiously turned from me, and affected to ignore my presence. I caught my horse feeding by the roadside, a furlong forward, and mounted and fell into place behind the two, as in the morning. And just as we had plodded on then in silence we plodded on now; almost as if nothing had happened; while I wondered at the unfathomable ways of women, and marvelled that she could take part in such an incident and remain unchanged.

Yet, though she strove to hide it, it had made a change in her. Though her mask served her well it could not entirely hide her emotions; and by-and-by I marked that her head drooped, that she rode listlessly, that the lines of her figure were altered. I noticed that she had flung away, or furtively dropped, her riding-whip; and I began to understand that, far from the fight having set me in my former place, to the old hatred of me were now added shame and vexation on her own account; shame that she had so lowered herself, even to save her brother, vexation that defeat had been her only reward.

Of this I saw a sign at Lectoure, where the inn had but one common room and we must all dine in company. I secured for them a table by the fire, and leaving them standing by it, retired myself to a smaller one near the door. There were no other guests; which made the separation between us more marked. M. de Cocheforet seemed to feel this. He shrugged his shoulders and looked across the room at me with a smile half sad half comical. But Mademoiselle was implacable. She had taken off her mask, and her face was like stone. Once, only once during the meal, I saw a change come over her. She coloured, I suppose at her thoughts, until her face flamed from brow to chin. I watched the blush spread and spread; and then she slowly and proudly turned her shoulder to me and looked through the window at the shabby street.

I suppose that she and her brother had both built on this attempt, which must have been arranged at Auch. For when we went on in the afternoon, I marked a change in them. They rode like people resigned to the worst. The grey realities of the position, the dreary future began to hang like a mist before their eyes, began to tinge the landscape with sadness, robbed even the sunset of its colours. With each hour Monsieur's spirits flagged and his speech became less frequent; until presently when the light was nearly gone and the dusk was round us the brother and sister rode hand in hand, silent, gloomy, one at least of them weeping. The cold shadow of the Cardinal, of Paris, of the scaffold fell on them, and chilled them. As the mountains which they had known all their lives sank and faded behind us, and we entered on the wide, low valley of the Garonne, their hopes sank and faded also--sank to the dead level of despair. Surrounded by guards, a mark for curious glances, with pride for a companion, M. de Cocheforet could have borne himself bravely; doubtless would bear himself bravely still when the end came. But almost alone, moving forward through the grey evening to a prison, with so many measured days before him, and nothing to exhilarate or anger--in this condition it was little wonder if he felt, and betrayed that he felt, the blood run slow in his veins; if he thought more of the weeping wife and ruined home which he had left behind him than of the cause in which he had spent himself.

But God knows, they had no monopoly of gloom. I felt almost as sad myself. Long before sunset the flush of triumph, the heat of battle, which had warmed my heart at noon, were gone, giving place to a chill dissatisfaction, a nausea, a despondency such as I have known follow a long night at the tables. Hitherto there had been difficulties to be overcome, risks to be run, doubts about the end. Now the end was certain and very near; so near that it filled all the prospect. One hour of triumph I might have, and would have, and I hugged the thought of it as a gambler hugs his last stake, planning the place and time and mode, and trying to occupy myself wholly with it. But the price? Alas! that too would intrude itself, and more frequently as the evening waned; so that as I marked this or that thing by the road, which I could recall passing on my journey south with thoughts so different, with plans that now seemed so very, very old, I asked myself grimly if this were really I; if this were Gil de Berault, known at Zaton's, premier joueur, or some Don Quichotte from Castille, tilting at windmills and taking barbers' bowls for gold.

We reached Agen very late that evening, after groping our way through a by-road near the river, set with holes and willow- stools and frog-spawn--a place no better than a slough; so that after it the great fires and lights at the Blue Maid seemed like a glimpse of a new world, and in a twinkling put something of life and spirits into two at least of us. There was queer talk round the hearth here, of doings in Paris, of a stir against the Cardinal with the Queen-mother at bottom, and of grounded expectations that something might this time come of it. But the landlord pooh-poohed the idea; and I more than agreed with him. Even M. de Cocheforet, who was at first inclined to build on it, gave up hope when he heard that it came only by way of Montauban; whence--since its reduction the year before--all sort of canards against the Cardinal were always on the wing.

'They kill him about once a month,' our host said with a grin. 'Sometimes it is Monsieur is to prove a match for him, sometimes Cesar Monsieur--the Duke of Vendome, you understand--and sometimes the Queen-mother. But since M. de Chalais and the Marshal made a mess of it and paid forfeit, I pin my faith to his Eminence--that is his new title, they tell me.'

'Things are quiet round here?' I asked.

'Perfectly. Since the Languedoc business came to an end, all goes well,' he answered.

Mademoiselle had retired on our arrival, so that her brother and I were for an hour or two this evening thrown together. I left him at liberty to separate himself from me if he pleased, but he did not use the opportunity. A kind of comradeship, rendered piquant by our peculiar relations, had begun to spring up between us. He seemed to take an odd pleasure in my company, more than once rallied me on my post of jailor, would ask humorously if he might do this or that; and once even inquired what I should do if he broke his parole.

'Or take it this way,' he continued flippantly, 'Suppose I had struck you in the back this evening in that cursed swamp by the river, M. de Berault? What then! Pardieu, I am astonished at myself that I did not do it. I could have been in Montauban within twenty-four hours, and found fifty hiding-places and no one the wiser.'

'Except your sister,' I said quietly.

He made a wry face. 'Yes,' he said, 'I am afraid that I must have stabbed her too, to preserve my self-respect. You are right.' And he fell into a reverie which held him for a few minutes. Then I found him looking at me with a kind of frank perplexity that invited question.

'What is it?' I said.

'You have fought a great many duels?'

'Yes,' I said.

'Did you ever strike a foul blow in one?'

'Never,' I answered. 'Why do you ask?'

'Well, because I--wanted to confirm an impression. To be frank, M. de Berault, I seem to see in you two men.

'Two men?'

'Yes, two men. One, the man who captured me; the other, the man who let my friend go free to-day.'

'It surprised you that I let him go? That was prudence, M. de Cocheforet,' I replied. 'I am an old gambler. I know when the stakes are too high for me. The man who caught a lion in his wolf-pit had no great catch.'

'No, that is true,' he answered smiling, 'And yet--I find two men in your skin.'

'I daresay that there are two in most men's skins,' I answered with a sigh. 'But not always together. Sometimes one is there, and sometimes the other.'

'How does the one like taking up the other's work?' he asked keenly.

I shrugged my shoulders. 'That is as may be,' I said. 'You do not take an estate without the debts.'

He did not answer for a moment, and I fancied that his thoughts had reverted to his own case. But on a sudden he looked at me again. 'Will you answer a question, M. de Berault?' he said winningly.

'Perhaps,' I replied.

'Then tell me--it is a tale I am sure worth the telling. What was it that, in a very evil hour for me, sent you in search of me?'

'My Lord Cardinal,' I answered

'I did not ask who,' he replied drily. 'I asked, what. You had no grudge against me?'

'No.'

'No knowledge of me?'

'No.'

'Then what on earth induced you to do it? Heavens! man,' he continued bluntly, and speaking with greater freedom than he had before used, 'Nature never intended you for a tipstaff. What was it then?'

I rose. It was very late, and the room was empty, the fire low.

'I will tell you--to-morrow,' I said. 'I shall have something to say to you then, of which that will be part.'

He looked at me in great astonishment, and with a little suspicion. But I called for a light, and by going at once to bed, cut short his questions. In the morning we did not meet until it was time to start.

Those who know the south road to Agen, and how the vineyards rise in terraces north of the town, one level of red earth above another, green in summer, but in late autumn bare and stony, may remember a particular place where the road, two leagues from the town, runs up a steep hill. At the top of the hill four roads meet; and there, plain to be seen against the sky, is a finger- post indicating which way leads to Bordeaux, and which to old tiled Montauban, and which to Perigueux.

This hill had impressed me greatly on my journey south; perhaps because I had enjoyed from it my first extended view of the Garonne Valley, and had there felt myself on the verge of the south country where my mission lay. It had taken root in my memory, so that I had come to look upon its bare rounded head, with the guide-post and the four roads, as the first outpost of Paris, as the first sign of return to the old life.

Now for two days I had been looking forward to seeing it again, That long stretch of road would do admirably for something I had in my mind. That sign-post, with the roads pointing north, south, east, and west--could there be a better place for meetings and partings?

We came to the bottom of the ascent about an hour before noon, M. de Cocheforet, Mademoiselle, and I. We had reversed the order of yesterday, and I rode ahead; they came after at their leisure. Now, at the foot of the hill I stopped, and letting Mademoiselle pass on, detained M. de Cocheforet by a gesture.

'Pardon me, one moment,' I said. 'I want to ask a favour.'

He looked at me somewhat fretfully; with a gleam of wildness in his eyes that betrayed how the iron was, little by little, eating into his heart. He had started after breakfast as gaily as a bridegroom, but gradually he had sunk below himself; and now he had much ado to curb his impatience.

'Of me?' he said bitterly. 'What is it?'

'I wish to have a few words with Mademoiselle--alone,' I said.

'Alone?' he exclaimed in astonishment,

'Yes,' I replied, without blenching, though his face grew dark. 'For the matter of that, you can be within call all the time, if you please. But I have a reason for wishing to ride a little way with her.'

'To tell her something?'

'Yes.'

'Then you can tell it to me,' he retorted suspiciously. 'Mademoiselle, I will answer for it, has no desire to--'

'See me or speak to me? No,' I said. 'I can understand that. Yet I want to speak to her.'

'Very well, you can speak in my presence,' he answered rudely. 'If that be all, let us ride on and join her.' And he made a movement as if to do so.

'That will not do, M. de Cocheforet,' I said firmly, stopping him with my hand. 'Let me beg you to be more complaisant. It is a small thing I ask, a very small thing; but I swear to you that if Mademoiselle does not grant it, she will repent it all her life.'

He looked at me, his face growing darker and darker.

'Fine words,' he said, with a sneer. 'Yet I fancy I understand them.' And then with a passionate oath he broke out. 'But I will not have it! I have not been blind, M. de Berault, and I understand. But I will not have it. I will have no such Judas bargain made. Pardieu! Do you think I could suffer it and show my face again?'

'I don't know what you mean,' I said, restraining myself with difficulty. I could have struck the fool.

'But I know what you mean,' he replied, in a tone of suppressed rage. 'You would have her sell herself; sell herself to you to save me. And you would have me stand by and see the thing done. No, sir, never; never, though I go to the wheel. I will die a gentleman, if I have lived a fool.'

'I think that you will do the one as certainly as you have done the other,' I retorted in my exasperation. And yet I admired him.

'Oh, I am not quite a fool!' he cried, scowling at me. 'I have used my eyes.'

'Then be good enough to favour me with your ears!' I answered drily. 'For just a moment. And listen when I say that no such bargain has ever crossed my mind. You were kind enough to think well of me last night, M. de Cocheforet. Why should the mention of Mademoiselle in a moment change your opinion? I wish simply to speak to her. I have nothing to ask from her, nothing to expect from her, either favour or anything else. What I say she will doubtless tell you. Ciel man! what harm can I do to her, in the road in your sight?'

He looked at me sullenly, his face still flushed, his eyes suspicious.

'What do you want to say to her?' he asked jealously. He was quite unlike himself. His airy nonchalance, his careless gaiety were gone.

'You know what I do not want to say to her, M. de Cocheforet,' I answered. 'That should be enough.'

He glowered at me a moment, still ill content. Then, without a word, be made me a gesture to go to her.

She had halted a score of paces away; wondering, doubtless, what was on foot. I rode towards her. She wore her mask, so that I missed the expression of her face as I approached; but the manner in which she turned her horse's head uncompromisingly towards her brother and looked past me was full of meaning. I felt the ground suddenly cut from under me. I saluted her, trembling.

'Mademoiselle,' I said, 'will you grant me the privilege of your company for a few minutes as we ride?'

'To what purpose?' she answered; surely, in the coldest voice in which a woman ever spoke to a man.

'That I may explain to you a great many things you do not understand,' I murmured.

'I prefer to be in the dark,' she replied. And her manner was more cruel than her words.

'But, Mademoiselle,' I pleaded--I would not be discouraged--'you told me one day, not so long ago, that you would never judge me hastily again.'

'Facts judge you, not I,' she answered icily. 'I am not sufficiently on a level with you to be able to judge you--I thank God.'

I shivered though the sun was on me, and the hollow where we stood was warm.

'Still, once before you thought the same,' I exclaimed after a pause, 'and afterwards you found that you had been wrong. It may be so again, Mademoiselle.'

'Impossible,' she said.

That stung me.

'No,' I cried. 'It is not impossible. It is you who are impossible. It is you who are heartless, Mademoiselle. I have done much in the last three days to make things lighter for you, much to make things more easy; now I ask you to do something in return which can cost you nothing.'

'Nothing?' she answered slowly--and she looked at me; and her eyes and her voice cut me as if they had been knives. 'Nothing? Do you think, Monsieur, it costs me nothing to lose my self- respect, as I do with every word I speak to you? Do you think it costs me nothing to be here when I feel every look you cast upon me an insult, every breath I take in your presence a contamination? Nothing, Monsieur?' she continued with bitter irony. 'Nay, something! But something which I could not hope to make clear to you.'

I sat for a moment confounded, quivering with pain. It had been one thing to feel that she hated and scorned me, to know that the trust and confidence which she had begun to place in me were transformed to loathing. It was another to listen to her hard, pitiless words, to change colour under the lash of her gibing tongue. For a moment I could not find voice to answer her. Then I pointed to M. de Cocheforet.

'Do you love him?' I said hoarsely, roughly. The gibing tone had passed from her voice to mine.

She did not answer.

'Because if you do you will let me tell my tale. Say no, but once more, Mademoiselle--I am only human--and I go. And you will repent it all your life.'

I had done better had I taken that tone from the beginning. She winced, her head dropped, she seemed to grow smaller. All in a moment, as it were, her pride collapsed.

'I will hear you,' she murmured.

'Then we will ride on, if you please,' I said keeping the advantage I had gained. 'You need not fear. Your brother will follow.'

I caught hold of her rein and turned her horse, and she suffered it without demur; and in a moment we were pacing side by side, with the long straight road before us. At the end where it topped the hill, I could see the finger-post, two faint black lines against the sky. When we reached that--involuntarily I checked my horse and made it move more slowly.

'Well, sir?' she said impatiently. And her figure shook as with cold.

'It is a tale I desire to tell you, Mademoiselle,' I answered. 'Perhaps I may seem to begin a long way off, but before I end I promise to interest you. Two months ago there was living in Paris a man--perhaps a bad man--at any rate, by common report a hard man; a man with a peculiar reputation.'

She turned on me suddenly, her eyes gleaming through her mask.

'Oh, Monsieur, spare me this!' she said, quietly scornful. 'I will take it for granted.'

'Very well,' I replied steadfastly. 'Good or bad, he one day, in defiance of the Cardinal's edict against duelling, fought with a young Englishman behind St Jacques' Church. The Englishman had influence, the person of whom I speak had none, and an indifferent name; he was arrested, thrown into the Chatelet, cast for death, left for days to face death. At last an offer was made to him. If he would seek out and deliver up another man, an outlaw with a price upon his head, he should himself go free.'

I paused and drew a deep breath. Then I continued, looking not at her, but into the distance, and speaking slowly.

'Mademoiselle, it seems easy now to say what course he should have chosen. It seems hard now to find excuses for him. But there was one thing which I plead for him. The task he was asked to undertake was a dangerous one. He risked, he knew that he must risk, and the event proved him to be right, his life against the life of this unknown man. And one thing more; time was before him. The outlaw might be taken by another, might be killed, might die, might--But there, Mademoiselle, we know what answer this person made. He took the baser course, and on his honour, on his parole, with money supplied to him, he went free; free on the condition that he delivered up this other man.'

I paused again, but I did not dare to look at her; and after a moment of silence I resumed.

'Some portion of the second half of the story you know, Mademoiselle; but not all. Suffice it that this man came down to a remote village, and there at risk, but, Heaven knows, basely enough, found his way into his victim's home. Once there, however, his heart began to fail him. Had he found the house garrisoned by men, he might have pressed to his end with little remorse. But he found there only two helpless loyal women; and I say again that from the first hour of his entrance he sickened at the work which he had in hand, the work which ill-fortune had laid upon him. Still he pursued it. He had given his word; and if there was one tradition of his race which this man had never broken, it was that of fidelity to his side--to the man who paid him. But he pursued it with only half his mind, in great misery, if you will believe me; sometimes in agonies of shame. Gradually, however, almost against his will, the drama worked itself out before him, until he needed only one thing.

I looked at Mademoiselle, trembling. But her head was averted: I could gather nothing from the outlines of her form; and I went on.

'Do not misunderstand me,' I said in a lower voice. 'Do not misunderstand what I am going to say next. This is no love- story; and can have no ending such as romancers love to set to their tales. But I am bound to mention, Mademoiselle, that this man who had lived almost all his life about inns and eating- houses and at the gaming-tables met here for the first time for years a good woman, and learned by the light of her loyalty and devotion to see what his life had been, and what was the real nature of the work he was doing. I think--nay, I know,' I continued, 'that it added a hundredfold to his misery that when he learned at last the secret he had come to surprise, he learned it from her lips, and in such a way that, had he felt no shame, Hell could have been no place for him. But in one thing I hope she misjudged him. She thought, and had reason to think, that the moment he knew her secret he went out, not even closing the door, and used it. But the truth was that while her words were still in his ears news came to him that others had the secret; and had he not gone out on the instant and done what he did, and forestalled them, M. de Cocheforet would have been taken, but by others.'

Mademoiselle broke her long silence so suddenly that her horse sprang forward.

'Would to Heaven he had!' she wailed.

'Been taken by others?' I exclaimed, startled out of my false composure.

'Oh, yes, yes!' she answered with a passionate gesture. 'Why did you not tell me? Why did you not confess to me, sir, even at the last moment? But, no more! No more!' she continued in a piteous voice; and she tried to urge her horse forward. 'I have heard enough. You are racking my heart, M. de Berault. Some day I will ask God to give me strength to forgive you.'

'But you have not heard me out,' I said.

'I will hear no more,' she answered in a voice she vainly strove to render steady. 'To what end? Can I say more than I have said? Or did you think that I could forgive you now--with him behind us going to his death? Oh, no, no!' she continued. 'Leave me! I implore you to leave me, sir. I am not well.'

She drooped over her horse's neck as she spoke, and began to weep so passionately that the tears ran down her cheeks under her mask, and fell and sparkled like dew on the mane; while her sobs shook her so that I thought she must fall. I stretched out my hand instinctively to give her help, but she shrank from me. 'No!' she gasped, between her sobs. 'Do not touch me. There is too much between us.'

'Yet there must be one thing more between us,' I answered firmly. 'You must listen to me a little longer whether you will or no, Mademoiselle: for the love you bear to your brother. There is one course still open to me by which I may redeem my honour; and it has been in my mind for some time back to take that course. 'To-day, I am thankful to say, I can take it cheerfully, if not without regret; with a steadfast heart, if no light one. Mademoiselle,' I continued earnestly, feeling none of the triumph, none of the vanity, none of the elation I had foreseen, but only simple joy in the joy I could give her, 'I thank God that it is still in my power to undo what I have done: that it is still in my power to go back to him who sent me, and telling him that I have changed my mind, and will bear my own burdens, to pay the penalty.'

We were within a hundred paces of the top and the finger-post. She cried out wildly that she did not understand. 'What is it you--you--have just said?' she murmured. 'I cannot hear.' And she began to fumble with the ribbon of her mask.

'Only this, Mademoiselle,' I answered gently. 'I give your brother back his word, his parole. From this moment he is free to go whither he pleases. Here, where we stand, four roads meet. That to the right goes to Montauban, where you have doubtless friends, and can lie hid for a time. Or that to the left leads to Bordeaux, where you can take ship if you please. And in a word, Mademoiselle,' I continued, ending a little feebly, 'I hope that your troubles are now over.'

She turned her face to me--we had both come to a standstill--and plucked at the fastenings of her mask. But her trembling fingers had knotted the string, and in a moment she dropped her hand with a cry of despair. 'But you? You?' she wailed in a voice so changed that I should not have known it for hers. 'What will you do? I do not understand, Monsieur.'

'There is a third road,' I answered. 'It leads to Paris. That is my road, Mademoiselle. We part here.'

'But why?' she cried wildly.

'Because from to-day I would fain begin to be honourable,' I answered in a low voice. 'Because I dare not be generous at another's cost. I must go back whence I came.'

'To the Chatelet?' she muttered.

'Yes, Mademoiselle, to the Chatelet.'

She tried feverishly to raise her mask with her hand.

'I am not well,' she stammered. 'I cannot breathe.'

And she began to sway so violently in her saddle that I sprang down, and, running round her horse's head, was just in time to catch her as she fell. She was not quite unconscious then, for as I supported her, she cried out,--

'Do not touch me! Do not touch me! You kill me with shame!'

But as she spoke she clung to me; and I made no mistake. Those words made me happy. I carried her to the bank, my heart on fire, and laid her against it just as M. de Cocheforet rode up. He sprang from his horse, his eyes blazing, 'What is this?' he cried. 'What have you been saying to her, man?'

'She will tell you,' I answered drily, my composure returning under his eye. 'Amongst other things, that you are free. From this moment, M. de Cocheforet, I give you back your parole, and I take my own honour. Farewell.'

He cried out something as I mounted, but I did not stay to heed or answer. I dashed the spurs into my horse, and rode away past the cross-roads, past the finger-post; away with the level upland stretching before me, dry, bare, almost treeless; and behind me, all I loved. Once, when I had gone a hundred yards, I looked back and saw him standing upright against the sky, staring after me across her body. And again a minute later I looked back. This time saw only the slender wooden cross, and below it a dark blurred mass.