Chapter VII. A Master Stroke
 

I have a way with me which commonly commands respect; and when the landlord's first terror was over and he would serve me, I managed to get my supper--the first good meal I had had in two days--pretty comfortably in spite of the soldiers' presence. The crowd, too, which filled the room, soon began to melt. The men strayed off in groups to water their horses, or went to hunt up their quarters, until only two or three were left. Dusk had fallen outside; the noise in the street grew less. The firelight began to glow and flicker on the walls, and the wretched room to look as homely as it was in its nature to look. I was pondering for the twentieth time what step I should take next, and questioning why the soldiers were here, and whether I should let the night pass before I moved, when the door, which had been turning on its hinges almost without pause for an hour, opened again, and a woman came in.

She paused a moment on the threshold looking round, and I saw that she had a shawl on her head and a milk-pitcher in her hand, and that her feet and ankles were bare. There was a great rent in her coarse stuff petticoat, and the hand which held the shawl together was brown and dirty. More I did not see: for, supposing her to be a neighbour stolen in, now that the house was quiet, to get some milk for her child or the like, I took no farther heed of her. I turned to the fire again and plunged into my thoughts.

But to get to the hearth where the goodwife was fidgeting the woman had to pass in front of me; and as she passed I suppose that she stole a look at me from under her shawl. For just when she came between me and the blaze she uttered a low cry and shrank aside--so quickly that she almost stepped on the hearth. The next moment she turned her back to me, and was stooping whispering in the housewife's ear. A stranger might have thought that she had trodden on a hot ember.

But another idea, and a very strange one, came into my mind; and I stood up silently. The woman's back was towards me, but something in her height, her shape, the pose of her head hidden as it was by her shawl, seemed familiar. I waited while she hung over the fire whispering, and while the goodwife slowly filled her pitcher out of the great black pot. But when she turned to go, I took a step forward so as to bar her way. And our eyes met.

I could not see her features; they were lost in the shadow of the hood. But I saw a shiver run through her from head to foot. And I knew then that I had made no mistake.

'That is too heavy for you, my girl,' I said familiarly, as I might have spoken to a village wench. 'I will carry it for you.'

One of the men, who remained lolling at the table, laughed, and the other began to sing a low song. The woman trembled in rage or fear; but she kept silence and let me take the jug from her hands; and when I went to the door and opened it, she followed mechanically. An instant, and the door fell to behind us, shutting off the light and glow, and we two stood together in the growing dusk.

'It is late for you to be out, Mademoiselle,' I said politely. 'You might meet with some rudeness, dressed as you are. Permit me to see you home.'

She shuddered, and I thought that I heard her sob, but she did not answer. Instead, she turned and walked quickly through the village in the direction of the Chateau, keeping in the shadow of the houses. I carried the pitcher and walked close to her, beside her; and in the dark I smiled. I knew how shame and impotent rage were working in her. This was something like revenge!

Presently I spoke.

'Well, Mademoiselle,' I said, 'where are your grooms?'

She gave me one look, her eyes blazing with anger, her face like hate itself; and after that I said no more, but left her in peace, and contented myself with walking at her shoulder until we came to the end of the village, where the track to the great house plunged into the wood. There she stopped, and turned on me like a wild creature at bay.

'What do you want?' she cried hoarsely, breathing as if she had been running.

'To see you safe to the house,' I answered coolly. 'Alone you might be insulted.'

'And if I will not?' she retorted.

'The choice does not lie with you, Mademoiselle,' I answered sternly, 'You will go to the house with me, and on the way you will give me an interview--late as it is; but not here. Here we are not private enough. We may be interrupted at any moment, and I wish to speak to you at length.'

'At length?' she muttered.

'Yes, Mademoiselle.'

I saw her shiver. 'What if I will not?" she said again.

'I might call to the nearest soldiers and tell them who you are,' I answered coolly. 'I might do that, but I should not. That were a clumsy way of punishing you, and I know a better way. I should go to the Captain, Mademoiselle, and tell him whose horse is locked up in the inn stable. A trooper told me--as someone had told him--that it belonged to one of his officers; but I looked through the crack, and I knew the horse again.'

She could not repress a groan. I waited; still she did not speak.

'Shall I go to the Captain?' I said ruthlessly.

She shook the hood back from her face and looked at me.

'Oh, you coward! you coward!' she hissed through her teeth. 'If I had a knife!'

'But you have not, Mademoiselle,' I answered, unmoved. 'Be good enough, therefore, to make up your mind which it is to be. Am I to go with my news to the captain, or am I to come with you?'

'Give me the pitcher,' she said harshly.

I did so, wondering. In a moment she flung it with a savage gesture far into the bushes.

'Come!' she said, 'if you will. But some day God will punish you!'

Without another word she turned and entered the path through the trees, and I followed her. I suppose that every one of its windings, every hollow and broken place in it had been known to her from childhood, for she followed it swiftly and unerringly, barefoot as she was. I had to walk fast through the darkness to keep up with her. The wood was quiet, but the frogs were beginning to croak in the pool, and their persistent chorus reminded me of the night when I had come to the house-door, hurt and worn out, and Clon had admitted me, and she had stood under the gallery in the hall. Things had looked dark then. I had seen but a very little way ahead then. Now all was plain. The commandant might be here with all his soldiers, but it was I who held the strings.

We came to the little wooden bridge and saw beyond the dark meadows the lights of the house. All the windows were bright. Doubtless the troopers were making merry.

'Now, Mademoiselle,' I said quietly, 'I must trouble you to stop here, and give me your attention for a few minutes. Afterwards you may go your way.'

'Speak!' she said defiantly. 'And be quick! I cannot breathe the air where you are! It poisons me!'

'Ah!' I said slowly. 'Do you think that you make things better by such speeches as those?'

'Oh!' she cried and I heard her teeth click together. 'Would you have me fawn on you?'

'Perhaps not,' I answered. 'Still you make one mistake.'

'What is it?' she panted.

'You forget that I am to be feared as well as--loathed, Mademoiselle! Ay, Mademoiselle, to be feared!' I continued grimly. 'Do you think that I do not know why you are here in this guise? Do you think that I do not know for whom that pitcher of broth was intended? Or who will now have to fast to- night? I tell you I know all these things. Your house was full of soldiers; your servants were watched and could not leave. You had to come yourself and get food for him?'

She clutched at the handrail of the bridge, and for an instant clung to it for support. Her face, from which the shawl had fallen, glimmered white in the shadow of the trees. At last I had shaken her pride. At last!

'What is your price?' she murmured faintly.

'I am going to tell you,' I replied, speaking so that every word might fall distinctly on her ears, and sating my eyes the while on her proud face. I had never dreamed of such revenge as this! 'About a fortnight ago, M. de Cocheforet left here at night with a little orange-coloured sachet in his possession.'

She uttered a stifled cry, and drew herself stiffly erect.

'It contained--but there, Mademoiselle, you know its contents,' I went on. 'Whatever they were, M. de Cocheforet lost it and them at starting. A week ago he came back--unfortunately for himself --to seek them.'

She was looking full in my face now. She seemed scarcely to breathe in the intensity of her surprise and expectation.

'You had a search made, Mademoiselle,' I continued quietly. 'Your servants left no place unexplored The paths, the roads, the very woods were ransacked, But in vain, because all the while the orange sachet lay whole and unopened in my pocket.'

'No!' she cried impetuously. 'There, you lie sir, as usual! The sachet was found, torn open, many leagues from this place!'

'Where I threw it, Mademoiselle,' I replied, 'that I might mislead your rascals and be free to return to you. Oh! believe me,' I continued, letting something of my true self, something of my triumph, appear at last in my voice. 'You have made a mistake! You would have done better had you trusted me. I am no bundle of sawdust, Mademoiselle, though once you got the better of me, but a man; a man with an arm to shield and a brain to serve, and--as I am going to teach you--a heart also!'

She shivered.

'In the orange-coloured sachet that you lost I believe that there were eighteen stones of great value?'

She made no answer, but she looked at me as if I fascinated her. Her very breath seemed to pause and wait on my words. She was so little conscious of anything else, of anything outside ourselves, that a score of men might have come up behind her, unseen and unnoticed.