Chapter VI.
 

So that was their plan. Two or three hours to the southward, the long, white, glittering wall stretched east and west above the brown woods. Beyond that lay Spain. Once across the border, I might be detained, if no worse happened to me, as a prisoner of war; for we were then at war with Spain on the Italian side. Or I might be handed over to one of the savage bands, half smugglers, half brigands, that held the passes; or be delivered, worse fate of all, into the power of the French exiles, of whom some would be likely to recognise me and cut my throat.

'It is a long way into Spain,' I muttered, watching in a kind of fascination Clon handling his pistols.

'I think you will find the other road longer still,' the landlord answered grimly. 'But choose, and be quick about it.'

They were three to one, and they had firearms. In effect I had no choice.

'Well, if I must I must?' I cried, making up my mind with seeming recklessness. 'Vogue la galere! Spain be it. It will not be the first time I have heard the dons talk.'

The men nodded, as much as to say that they had known what the end would be; the landlord released my rein; and in a trice we were riding down the narrow track, with our faces set towards the mountains.

On one point my mind was now more easy. The men meant fairly by me, and I had no longer to fear, as I had feared, a pistol-shot in the back at the first convenient ravine. As far as that went, I might ride in peace. On the other hand, if I let them carry me across the border my fate was sealed. A man set down without credentials or guards among the wild desperadoes who swarmed in war-time in the Asturian passes might consider himself fortunate if an easy death fell to his lot. In my case I could make a shrewd guess what would happen. A single nod of meaning, one muttered word, dropped among the savage men with whom I should be left, and the diamonds hidden in my boot would go neither to the Cardinal nor back to Mademoiselle--nor would it matter to me whither they went.

So while the others talked in their taciturn fashion, or sometimes grinned at my gloomy face, I looked out over the brown woods with eyes that saw yet did not see. The red squirrel swarming up the trunk, the startled pigs that rushed away grunting from their feast of mast, the solitary rider who met us, armed to the teeth, and passed northwards after whispering with the landlord--all these I saw. But my mind was not with them. It was groping and feeling about like a hunted mole for some way of escape. For time pressed. The slope we were on was growing steeper. By-and-by we fell into a southward valley, and began to follow it steadily upwards, crossing and recrossing a swiftly rushing stream. The snow peaks began to be hidden behind the rising bulk of hills that overhung us, and sometimes we could see nothing before or behind but the wooded walls of our valley rising sheer and green a thousand paces high on either hand; with grey rocks half masked by fern and ivy jutting here and there through the firs and alders.

It was a wild and sombre scene even at that hour, with the mid- day sun shining on the rushing water and drawing the scent out of the pines; but I knew that there was worse to come, and sought desperately for some ruse by which I might at least separate the men. Three were too many; with one I might deal. At last, when I had cudgelled my brain for an hour, and almost resigned myself to a sudden charge on the men single-handed--a last desperate resort --I thought of a plan: dangerous, too, and almost desperate, but which still seemed to promise something. It came of my fingers resting, as they lay in my pocket, on the fragments of the orange sachet; which, without having any particular design in my mind, I had taken care to bring with me. I had torn the sachet into four pieces--four corners. As I played mechanically with them, one of my fingers fitted into one, as into a glove; a second finger into another. And the plan came.

Before I could move in it, however, I had to wait until we stopped to bait the flagging horses, which we did about noon at the head of the valley. Then, pretending to drink from the stream, I managed to secure unseen a handful of pebbles, slipping them into the same pocket with the morsels of stuff. On getting to horse again, I carefully fitted a pebble, not too tightly, into the largest scrap, and made ready for the attempt.

The landlord rode on my left, abreast of me; the other two knaves behind. The road at this stage favoured me, for the valley, which drained the bare uplands that lay between the lower hills and the base of the real mountains, had become wide and shallow. Here were no trees, and the path was a mere sheep-track covered with short, crisp grass, and running sometimes on this bank of the stream and sometimes on that.

I waited until the ruffian beside me turned to speak to the men behind. The moment he did so, and his eyes were averted, I slipped out the scrap of satin in which I had placed the pebble, and balancing it carefully on my right thigh as I rode, I flipped it forward with all the strength of my thumb and finger. I meant it to fall a few paces before us in the path, where it could be seen. But alas for my hopes! At the critical moment my horse started, my finger struck the scrap aslant, the pebble flew out, and the bit of stuff fluttered into a whin-bush close to my stirrup--and was lost!

I was bitterly disappointed, for the same thing might happen again, and I had now only three scraps left. But fortune favoured me, by putting it into my neighbour's head to plunge into a hot debate with the shock-headed man on the nature of some animals seen on a distant brow; which he said were izards, while the other maintained that they were common goats. He continued, on this account, to ride with his face turned from me, and I had time to fit another pebble into the second piece of stuff. Sliding it on to my thigh, I poised it, and flipped it.

This time my finger struck the tiny missile fairly in the middle, and shot it so far and so truly that it dropped exactly in the path ten paces in front of us. The moment I saw it fall I kicked my neighbour's nag in the ribs; it started, and he, turning in a rage, hit it. The next instant he pulled it almost on to its haunches.

'Saint Gris!' he cried; and sat glaring at the bit of yellow satin, with his face turned purple and his jaw fallen.

'What is it!' I said, staring at him in turn, 'What is the matter, fool?'

'Matter?' he blurted out. 'Mon Dieu!'

But Clon's excitement surpassed even his. The dumb man no sooner saw what had attracted his comrade's attention, than he uttered an inarticulate and horrible noise, and tumbling off his horse, more like a beast than a man threw himself bodily on the precious morsel.

The innkeeper was not far behind him. An instant and he was down, too, peering at the thing; and for an instant I thought that they would fight over it. However, though their jealousy was evident, their excitement cooled a little when they discovered that the scrap of stuff was empty; for, fortunately, the pebble had fallen out of it. Still, it threw them into such a fever of eagerness as it was wonderful to witness. They nosed the ground where it had lain, they plucked up the grass and turf, and passed it through their fingers, they ran to and fro like dogs on a trail; and, glancing askance at one another, came back always together to the point of departure. Neither in his jealousy would suffer the other to be there alone.

The shock-headed man and I sat our horses and looked on; he marvelling, and I pretending to marvel. As the two searched up and down the path, we moved a little out of it to give them space; and presently, when all their heads were turned from me, I let a second morsel drop under a gorse-bush. The shock-headed man, by-and-by, found this, and gave it to Clon; and as from the circumstances of the first discovery no suspicion attached to me, I ventured to find the third and last scrap myself. I did not pick it up, but I called the innkeeper, and he pounced upon it as I have seen a hawk pounce on a chicken.

They hunted for the fourth morsel, but, of course, in vain, and in the end they desisted, and fitted the three they had together; but neither would let his own portion out of his hands, and each looked at the other across the spoil with eyes of suspicion. It was strange to see them in that wide-stretching valley, whence grey boar-backs of hills swelled up into the silence of the snow --it was strange, I say, in that vast solitude, to see these two, mere dots on its bosom, circling round one another in fierce forgetfulness of the outside world, glaring and shifting their ground like cocks about to engage, and wholly engrossed--by three scraps of orange-colour, invisible at fifty paces!

At last the innkeeper cried with an oath, 'I am going back. This must be known down yonder. Give me your pieces, man, and do you go on with Antoine. It will be all right.'

But Clon, waving a scrap of the stuff in either hand, and thrusting his ghastly mask into the other's face, shook his head in passionate denial. He could not speak, but he made it as clear as daylight that if anyone went back with the news, he was the man to go.

'Nonsense!' the landlord rejoined fiercely, 'We cannot leave Antoine to go on alone with him. Give me the stuff.'

But Clon would not. He had no thought of resigning the credit of the discovery; and I began to think that the two would really come to blows. But there was an alternative--an alternative in which I was concerned; and first one and then the other looked at me. It was a moment of peril, and I knew it. My stratagem might react on myself, and the two, to put an end to their difficulty, agree to put an end to me. But I faced them so coolly, and showed so bold a front, and the ground where we stood was so open, that the idea took no root. They fell to wrangling again more viciously than before. One tapped his gun and the other his pistols. The landlord scolded, the dumb man gurgled. At last their difference ended as I had hoped it would.

'Very well then, we will both go back!' the innkeeper cried in a rage. 'And Antoine must see him on. But the blame be on your head. Do you give the lad your pistols.'

Clon took one pistol, and gave it to the shock-headed man.

'The other!' the innkeeper said impatiently.

But Clon shook his head with a grim smile, and pointed to the arquebuss.

By a sudden movement, the landlord snatched the pistol, and averted Clon's vengeance by placing both it and the gun in the shock-headed man's hands.

'There!' he said, addressing the latter, 'now can you do? If Monsieur tries to escape or turn back, shoot him! But four hours' riding should bring you to the Roca Blanca. You will find the men there, and will have no more to do with it.'

Antoine did not see things quite in that light, however. He looked at me, and then at the wild track in front of us; and he muttered an oath and said he would die if he would.

But the landlord, who was in a frenzy of impatience, drew him aside and talked to him, and in the end seemed to persuade him; for in a few minutes the matter was settled.

Antoine came back, and said sullenly, 'Forward, Monsieur,' the two others stood on one side, I shrugged my shoulders and kicked up my horse, and in a twinkling we two were riding on together --man to man. I turned once or twice to see what those we had left behind were doing, and always found them standing in apparent debate; but my guard showed so much jealousy of these movements that I presently shrugged my shoulders again and desisted.

I had racked my brains to bring about this state of things. Strange to say, now I had succeeded, I found it less satisfactory than I had hoped. I had reduced the odds and got rid of my most dangerous antagonists; but Antoine, left to himself, proved to be as full of suspicion as an egg of meat. He rode a little behind me, with his gun across his saddlebow, and a pistol near his hand; and at the slightest pause on my part, or if I turned to look at him, he muttered his constant 'Forward, Monsieur!' in a tone which warned me that his finger was on the trigger. At such a distance he could not miss; and I saw nothing for it but to go on meekly before him to the Roca Blanca--and my fate.

What was to be done? The road presently reached the end of the valley and entered a narrow pine-clad defile, strewn with rocks and boulders, over which the torrent plunged and eddied with a deafening roar. In front the white gleam of waterfalls broke the sombre ranks of climbing trunks. The snow line lay less than half a mile away on either hand; and crowning all--at the end of the pass, as it seemed to the eye--rose the pure white pillar of the Pic du Midi shooting up six thousand feet into the blue of heaven. Such a scene so suddenly disclosed, was enough to drive the sense of danger from my mind; and for a moment I reined in my horse. But 'Forward, Monsieur!' came the grating order. I fell to earth again, and went on. What was to be done?

I was at my wits' end to know. The man refused to talk, refused to ride abreast of me, would have no dismounting, no halting, no communication at all. He would have nothing but this silent, lonely procession of two, with the muzzle of his gun at my back. And meanwhile we were fast climbing the pass. We had left the others an hour--nearly two. The sun was declining; the time, I supposed, about half-past three.

If he would only let me come within reach of him! Or if anything would fall out to take his attention! When the pass presently widened into a bare and dreary valley, strewn with huge boulders and with snow lying here and there in the hollows, I looked desperately before me, and scanned even the vast snow-fields that overhung us and stretched away to the base of the ice-peak. But I saw nothing. No bear swung across the path, no izard showed itself on the cliffs. The keen, sharp air cut our cheeks and warned me that we were approaching the summit of the ridge. On all sides were silence and desolation.

Mon Dieu! And the ruffians on whose tender mercies I was to be thrown might come to meet us! They might appear at any moment. In my despair I loosened my hat on my head, and let the first gust carry it to the ground, and then with an oath of annoyance tossed my feet from the stirrups to go after it. But the rascal roared to me to keep my seat.

'Forward, Monsieur!' he shouted brutally. 'Go on!'

'But my hat!' I cried. 'Mille tonnerres, man! I must--'

'Forward, Monsieur, or I shoot!' he replied inexorably raising his gun. 'One--two--'

And I went on. But, ah, I was wrathful! That I, Gil de Berault, should be outwitted, and led by the nose like a ringed bull, by this Gascon lout! That I, whom all Paris knew and feared--if it did not love--the terror of Zaton's, should come to my end in this dismal waste of snow and rock, done to death by some pitiful smuggler or thief! It must not be. Surely in the last resort I could give an account of one man, though his belt were stuffed with pistols.

But how? Only, it seemed, by open force. My heart began to flutter as I planned it; and then grew steady again. A hundred paces before us a gully or ravine on the left ran up into the snow-field. Opposite its mouth a jumble of stones and broken rocks covered the path, I marked this for the place. The knave would need both his hands to hold up his nag over the stones, and, if I turned on him suddenly enough, he might either drop his gun or fire it harmlessly.

But, in the meantime, something happened; as, at the last moment, things do happen. While we were still fifty yards short of the place, I found his horse's nose creeping forward on a level with my crupper; and, still advancing, still advancing, until I could see it out of the tail of my eye, and my heart gave a great bound. He was coming abreast of me: he was going to deliver himself into my hands! To cover my excitement, I began to whistle.

'Hush!' he muttered fiercely, his voice sounding so strange and unnatural, that my first thought was that he was ill; and I turned to him. But he only said again,--

'Hush! Pass by here quietly, Monsieur.'

'Why?' I asked mutinously, curiosity getting the better of me. For had I been wise I had taken no notice; every second his horse was coming up with mine. Its nose was level with my stirrup already.

'Hush, man!' he said again. This time there was no mistake about the panic in his voice. 'They call this the Devil's Chapel, God send us safe by it! It is late to be here. Look at those!' he continued, pointing with a finger which visibly shook.

I looked. At the mouth of the gully, in a small space partly cleared of stones, stood three broken shafts, raised on rude pedestals.

'Well?' I said in a low voice. The sun, which was near setting, flushed the great peak above to the colour of blood; but the valley was growing grey and each moment more dreary. 'Well, what of those?' I said.

In spite of my peril and the excitement of the coming struggle I felt the chill of his fear. Never had I seen so grim, so desolate, so God-forsaken a place! Involuntarily I shivered.

'They were crosses,' he muttered in a voice little above a whisper, while his eyes roved this way and that in terror. 'The Cure of Gabas blessed the place, and set them up. But next morning they were as you see them now. Come on, Monsieur; come on!' he continued, plucking at my arm. 'It is not safe here after sunset. Pray God, Satan be not at home!'

He had completely forgotten in his panic that he had anything to fear from me. His gun dropped loosely across his saddle, his leg rubbed mine. I saw this, and I changed my plan of action. As our horses reached the stones I stooped, as if to encourage mine, and, with a sudden clutch, snatched the gun bodily from his hand, at the same time that I backed my horse with all my strength. It was done in a moment! A second and I had him at the end of the gun, and my finger was on the trigger. Never was victory more easily gained.

He looked at me between rage and terror, his jaw fallen.

'Are you mad?' he cried, his teeth chattering as he spoke. Even in this strait his eyes left me and wandered round in alarm.

'No, sane!' I retorted fiercely. 'But I do not like this place any better than you do.' Which was true enough, if not quite true. 'So, by your right, quick march!' I continued imperatively. 'Turn your horse, my friend, or take the consequences.'

He turned like a lamb, and headed down the valley again, without giving a thought to his pistols. I kept close to him, and in less than a minute we had left the Devil's Chapel well behind us, and were moving down again as we had come up. Only now I held the gun.

When we had gone have a mile or so--until then I did not feel comfortable myself, and though I thanked heaven that the place existed, I thanked heaven also that I was out of it--I bade him halt.

'Take off your belt,' I said curtly, 'and throw it down. But, mark me, if you turn I fire.'

The spirit was quite gone out of him, and he obeyed mechanically. I jumped down, still covering him with the gun, and picked up the belt, pistols and all. Then I remounted, and we went on. By- and-by he asked me sullenly what I was going to do.

'Go back,' I said, 'and take the road to Auch when I come to it.'

'It will be dark in an hour,' he answered sulkily.

'I know that,' I retorted. 'We must camp and do the best we can.'

And as I said, we did. The daylight held until we gained the skirts of the pine-wood at the head of the pass. Here I chose a corner a little off the track, and well sheltered from the wind, and bade him light a fire. I tethered the horses near this and within sight. Then it remained only to sup. I had a piece of bread: he had another and an onion. We ate in silence, sitting on opposite sides of the fire.

But after supper I found myself in a dilemma; I did not see how I was to sleep. The ruddy light which gleamed on the knave's swart face and sinewy hands showed also his eyes, black, sullen, and watchful. I knew that the man was plotting revenge; that he would not hesitate to plant his knife between my ribs should I give him the chance; and I could find only one alternative to remaining awake. Had I been bloody-minded, I should have chosen it and solved the question at once and in my favour by shooting him as he sat.

But I have never been a cruel man, and I could not find it in my heart to do this. The silence of the mountain and the sky-which seemed a thing apart from the roar of the torrent and not to be broken by it--awed me. The vastness of the solitude in which we sat, the dark void above, through which the stars kept shooting, the black gulf below in which the unseen waters boiled and surged, the absence of other human company or other signs of human existence, put such a face upon the deed that I gave up the thought of it with a shudder, and resigned myself, instead, to watch through the night--the long, cold, Pyrenean night. Presently he curled himself up like a dog and slept in the blaze, and then for a couple of hours I sat opposite him, thinking. It seemed years since I had seen Zaton's or thrown the dice. The old life, the old employments--should I ever go back to them?-- seemed dim and distant. Would Cocheforet, the forest and the mountain, the grey Chateau and its mistresses, seem one day as dim? And if one bit of life could fade so quickly at the unrolling of another, and seem in a moment pale and colourless, would all life some day and somewhere, and all the things we--But enough! I was growing foolish. I sprang up and kicked the wood together, and, taking up the gun, began to pace to and fro under the cliff. Strange that a little moonlight, a few stars, a breath of solitude should carry a man back to childhood and childish things.

. . . . . .

It was three in the afternoon of the next day, and the sun lay hot on the oak groves, and the air was full of warmth as we began to climb the slope, midway up which the road to Auch shoots out of the track. The yellow bracken and the fallen leaves underfoot seemed to throw up light of themselves; and here and there a patch of ruddy beech lay like a bloodstain on the hillside. In front a herd of pigs routed among the mast, and grunted lazily; and high above us a boy lay watching them. 'We part here,' I said to my companion.

It was my plan to ride a little way along the road to Auch so as to blind his eyes; then, leaving my horse in the forest, I would go on foot to the Chateau. 'The sooner the better!' he answered with a snarl. 'And I hope I may never see your face again, Monsieur.'

But when we came to the wooden cross at the fork of the roads, and were about to part, the boy we had seen leapt out of the fern and came to meet us.

'Hollo!' he cried in a sing-song tone.

'Well,' my companion answered, drawing rein impatiently. 'What is it?'

'There are soldiers in the village.'

'Soldiers" Antoine cried incredulously.

'Ay, devils on horseback,' the lad answered, spitting on the ground. 'Three score of them. From Auch.'

Antoine turned to me, his face transformed with fury.

'Curse you!' he cried. 'This is some of your work. Now we are all undone. And my mistresses? Sacre! if I had that gun I would shoot you like a rat.'

'Steady, fool,' I answered roughly. 'I know no more of this than you do.'

Which was so true that my surprise was at least as great as his, and better grounded. The Cardinal, who rarely made a change of front, had sent me hither that he might not be forced to send soldiers, and run the risk of all that might arise from such a movement. What of this invasion, then, than which nothing could be less consistent with his plans? I wondered. It was possible that the travelling merchants, before whom I had played at treason, had reported the facts; and that on this the Commandant at Auch had acted. But it seemed unlikely since he had had his orders too, and under the Cardinal's rule there was small place for individual enterprise. Frankly I could not understand it, and found only one thing clear; I might now enter the village as I pleased.

'I am going on to look into this,' I said to Antoine. 'Come, my man.' He shrugged his shoulders, and stood still.

'Not I!' be answered, with an oath. 'No soldiers for me I have lain out one night, and I can lie out another.'

I nodded indifferently, for I no longer wanted him; and we parted. After this, twenty minutes' riding brought me to the entrance of the village, and here the change was great indeed. Not one of the ordinary dwellers in the place was to be seen: either they had shut themselves up in their hovels, or, like Antoine, they had fled to the woods. Their doors were closed, their windows shuttered. But lounging about the street were a score of dragoons, in boots and breastplates, whose short- barrelled muskets, with pouches and bandoliers attached, were piled near the inn door. In an open space, where there was a gap in the street, a long row of horses, linked head to head, stood bending their muzzles over bundles of rough forage; and on all sides the cheerful jingle of chains and bridles and the sound of coarse jokes and laughter filled the air.

As I rode up to the inn door an old sergeant, with squinting eyes and his tongue in his cheek, scanned me inquisitively, and started to cross the street to challenge me. Fortunately, at that moment the two knaves whom I had brought from Paris with me, and whom I had left at Auch to await my orders, came up. I made them a sign not to speak to me, and they passed on; but I suppose that they told the sergeant that I was not the man he wanted, for I saw no more of him.

After picketing my horse behind the inn--I could find no better stable, every place being full--I pushed my way through the group at the door, and entered. The old room, with the low, grimy roof and the reeking floor, was half full of strange figures, and for a few minutes I stood unseen in the smoke and confusion. Then the landlord came my way, and as he passed me I caught his eye. He uttered a low curse, dropped the pitcher he was carrying, and stood glaring at me like a man possessed.

The soldier whose wine he was carrying flung a crust in his face, with,--

'Now, greasy fingers! What are you staring at?'

'The devil!' the landlord muttered, beginning to tremble.

'Then let me look at him!' the man retorted, and he turned on his stool.

He started, finding me standing over him.

'At your service!' I said grimly. 'A little time and it will be the other way, my friend.