Chapter VIII. A Master Stroke--Continued
 

I took from my breast a little packet wrapped in soft leather, and I held it towards her.

'Will you open this?' I said. 'I believe that it contains what your brother lost. That it contains all I will not answer, Mademoiselle, because I spilled the stones on the floor of my room, and I may have failed to find some. But the others can be recovered; I know where they are.'

She took the packet slowly and began to unroll it, her fingers shaking. A few turns and the mild lustre of the stones shone out, making a kind of moonlight in her hands--such a shimmering glory of imprisoned light as has ruined many a woman and robbed many a man of his honour. Morbleu! as I looked at them and as she stood looking at them in dull, entranced perplexity--I wondered how I had come to resist the temptation.

While I gazed her hands began to waver.

'I cannot count,' she muttered helplessly. 'How many are there?'

'In all, eighteen.'

'There should be eighteen,' she said.

She closed her hand on them with that, and opened it again, and did so twice, as if to reassure herself that the stones were real and that she was not dreaming. Then she turned to me with sudden fierceness, and I saw that her beautiful face, sharpened by the greed of possession, was grown as keen and vicious as before.

'Well?' she muttered between her teeth.

'Your price, man? Your price?'

'I am coming to it now, Mademoiselle,' I said gravely. 'It is a simple matter. You remember the afternoon when I followed you --clumsily and thoughtlessly perhaps--through the wood to restore these things? In seeming that happened about a month ago. I believe that it happened the day before yesterday. You called me then some very harsh names, which I will not hurt you by repeating. The only price I ask for the restoration of your jewels is that you on your part recall those names.'

'How?' she muttered. 'I do not understand.'

I repeated my words very slowly. 'The only price or reward I ask, Mademoiselle, is that you take back those names and say that they were not deserved.'

'And the jewels?' she exclaimed hoarsely.

'They are yours. They are not mine. They are nothing to me. Take them, and say that you do not think of me--Nay, I cannot say the words, Mademoiselle.'

'But there is something--else! What else?' she cried, her head thrown back, her eyes, bright as any wild animal's, searching mine. 'Ha! my brother? What of him? What of him, sir?'

'For him, Mademoiselle--I would prefer that you should tell me no more than I know already,' I answered in a low voice. 'I do not wish to be in that affair. But yes; there is one thing I have not mentioned. You are right.'

She sighed so deeply that I caught the sound.

'It is,' I continued slowly, 'that you will permit me to remain at Cocheforet for a few days while the soldiers are here. I am told that there are twenty men and two officers quartered in your house. Your brother is away. I ask to be permitted, Mademoiselle, to take his place for the time, and to be privileged to protect your sister and yourself from insult. That is all.'

She raised her hand to her head. After a long pause,--

'The frogs!' she muttered, 'they croak! I can not hear.'

Then, to my surprise, she turned quickly and suddenly on her heel, and walked over the bridge, leaving me standing there. For a moment I stood aghast, peering after her shadowy figure, and wondering what had taken her. Then, in a minute or less, she came quickly back to me, and I understood. She was crying.

'M. de Barthe,' she said, in a trembling voice, which told me that the victory was won, 'is there nothing else? Have you no other penance for me?'

'None, Mademoiselle.'

She had drawn the shawl over her head, and I no longer saw her face.

'That is all you ask?' she murmured.

'That is all I ask--now,' I answered.

'It is granted,' she said slowly and firmly. 'Forgive me if I seem to speak lightly--if I seem to make little of your generosity or my shame; but I can say no more now. I am so deep in trouble and so gnawed by terror that--I cannot feel anything keenly to-night, either shame or gratitude. I am in a dream; God grant that it may pass as a dream! We are sunk in trouble. But for you and what you have done, M. de Barthe--I--' she paused and I heard her fighting with the sobs which choked her--'forgive me... I am overwrought. And my--my feet are cold,' she added, suddenly and irrelevantly. 'Will you take me home?'

'Ah, Mademoiselle,' I cried remorsefully, 'I have been a beast! You are barefoot, and I have kept you here.'

'It is nothing,' she said in a voice which thrilled me. 'My heart is warm, Monsieur--thanks to you. It is many hours since it has been as warm.'

She stepped out of the shadow as she spoke--and there, the thing was done. As I had planned, so it had come about. Once more I was crossing the meadow in the dark to be received at Cocheforet, a welcome guest. The frogs croaked in the pool and a bat swooped round us in circles; and surely never--never, I thought, with a kind of exultation in my breast--had man been placed in a stranger position.

Somewhere in the black wood behind us--probably in the outskirts of the village--lurked M. de Cocheforet. In the great house before us, outlined by a score of lighted windows, were the soldiers come from Auch to take him. Between the two, moving side by side in the darkness, in a silence which each found to be eloquent, were Mademoiselle and I: she who knew so much, I who knew all--all but one little thing!

We reached the house, and I suggested that she should steal in first by the way she had come out, and that I should wait a little and knock at the door when she had had time to explain matters to Clon.

'They do not let me see Clon,' she answered slowly.

'Then your woman must tell him,' I rejoined, 'or he may do something and betray me.'

'They will not let our women come to us.'

'What?' I cried, astonished. 'But this is infamous. You are not prisoners!'

Mademoiselle laughed harshly.

'Are we not? Well, I suppose not; for if we wanted company, Captain Larolle said that he would be delighted to see us--in the parlour.'

'He has taken your parlour?' I said.

'He and his lieutenant sit there. But I suppose that we rebels should be thankful,' she added bitterly; 'we have still our bedrooms left to us.'

'Very well,' I said. 'Then I must deal with Clon as I can. But I have still a favour to ask, Mademoiselle. It is only that you and your sister will descend to-morrow at your usual time. I shall be in the parlour.'

'I would rather not,' she said, pausing and speaking in a troubled voice.

'Are you afraid?'

'No, Monsieur, I am not afraid,' she answered proudly, 'but--'

'You will come?' I said.

She sighed before she spoke. At length,--

'Yes, I will come--if you wish it,' she answered. And the next moment she was gone round the corner of the house, while I laughed to think of the excellent watch these gallant gentlemen were keeping. M. de Cocheforet might have been with her in the garden, might have talked with her as I had talked, might have entered the house even, and passed under their noses scot-free. But that is the way of soldiers. They are always ready for the enemy, with drums beating and flags flying--at ten o'clock in the morning. But he does not always come at that hour.

I waited a little, and then I groped my way to the door and knocked on it with the hilt of my sword. The dogs began to bark at the back, and the chorus of a drinking-song, which came fitfully from the east wing, ceased altogether. An inner door opened, and an angry voice, apparently an officer's, began to rate someone for not coming. Another moment, and a clamour of voices and footsteps seemed to pour into the hall, and fill it. I heard the bar jerked away, the door was flung open, and in a twinkling a lanthorn, behind which a dozen flushed visages were dimly seen, was thrust into my face.

'Why, who the fiend is this?' one cried, glaring at me in astonishment.

'Morbleu! It is the man!' another shrieked. 'Seize him!'

In a moment half a dozen hands were laid on my shoulders, but I only bowed politely.

'The officer, my friends,' I said, 'M. le Capitaine Larolle. 'Where is he?'

'Diable! but who are you, first?' the lanthorn-bearer retorted bluntly. He was a tall, lanky sergeant, with a sinister face.

'Well, I am not M. de Cocheforet,' I replied; 'and that must satisfy you, my man. For the rest, if you do not fetch Captain Larolle at once and admit me, you will find the consequences inconvenient.'

'Ho! ho!' he said with a sneer. 'You can crow, it seems. Well, come in.'

They made way, and I walked into the hall keeping my hat on. On the great hearth a fire had been kindled, but it had gone out. Three or four carbines stood against one wall, and beside them lay a heap of haversacks and some straw. A shattered stool, broken in a frolic, and half a dozen empty wine-skins strewed the floor, and helped to give the place an air of untidiness and disorder. I looked round with eyes of disgust, and my gorge rose. They had spilled oil, and the place reeked foully.

'Ventre bleu!' I said. 'Is this conduct in a gentleman's house, you rascals? Ma vie! If I had you I would send half of you to the wooden horse!'

They gazed at me open-mouthed; my arrogance startled them. The sergeant alone scowled. When he could find his voice for rage--

'This way!' he said. 'We did not know that a general officer was coming, or we would have been better prepared!' And muttering oaths under his breath, he led me down the well-known passage. At the door of the parlour he stopped. 'Introduce yourself!' he said rudely. 'And if you find the air warm, don't blame me!'

I raised the latch and went in. At a table in front of the hearth, half covered with glasses and bottles, sat two men playing hazard. The dice rang sharply as I entered, and he who had just thrown kept the box over them while he turned, scowling, to see who came in. He was a fair-haired, blonde man, large- framed and florid. He had put off his cuirass and boots, and his doublet showed frayed and stained where the armour had pressed on it. Otherwise he was in the extreme of last year's fashion. His deep cravat, folded over so that the laced ends drooped a little in front, was of the finest; his great sash of blue and silver was a foot wide. He had a little jewel in one ear, and his tiny beard was peaked a l'Espagnole. Probably when he turned he expected to see the sergeant, for at the sight of me he rose slowly, leaving the dice still covered.

'What folly is this?' he cried, wrathfully. Here, sergeant! Sergeant!--without there! What the--! Who are you, sir?'

'Captain Larolle,' I said uncovering politely, 'I believe?'

'Yes, I am Captain Larolle,' he retorted. 'But who, in the fiend's name, are you?' You are not the man we are after!'

'I am not M. Cocheforet,' I said coolly. 'I am merely a guest in the house, M. le Capitaine. I have been enjoying Madame de Cocheforet's hospitality for some time, but by an evil chance I was away when you arrived.' And with that I walked to the hearth, and, gently pushing aside his great boots which stood there drying, I kicked the logs into a blaze.

'Mille diables!' he whispered. And never did I see a man more confounded. But I affected to be taken up with his companion, a sturdy, white-moustachioed old veteran, who sat back in his chair, eyeing me with swollen cheeks and eyes surcharged with surprise.

'Good evening, M. le Lieutenant,' I said, bowing gravely. 'It is a fine night.'

Then the storm burst.

'Fine night!' the Captain shrieked, finding his voice at last. 'Mille diables! Are you aware, sir, that I am in possession of this house, and that no one harbours here without my permission? Guest? Hospitality? Bundle of fiddle-faddle! Lieutenant, call the guard! Call the guard!' he continued passionately. 'Where is that ape of a sergeant?'

The Lieutenant rose to obey, but I lifted my hand.

'Gently, gently, Captain,' I said. 'Not so fast. You seem surprised to see me here. Believe me, I am much more surprised to see you.'

'Sacre!' he cried, recoiling at this fresh impertinence, while the Lieutenant's eyes almost jumped out of his head.

But nothing moved me.

'Is the door closed?' I said sweetly. 'Thank you; it is, I see. Then permit me to say again, gentlemen, that I am much more surprised to see you than you can be to see me. For when Monseigneur the Cardinal honoured me by sending me from Paris to conduct this matter, he gave me the fullest--the fullest powers, M. le Capitaine--to see the affair to an end. I was not led to expect that my plans would be spoiled on the eve of success by the intrusion of half the garrison from Auch.'

'Oh, ho!' the Captain said softly--in a very different tone, and with a very different face. 'So you are the gentleman I heard of at Auch?'

'Very likely,' I said drily. 'But I am from Paris, not from Auch.'

'To be sure,' he answered thoughtfully. 'Eh, Lieutenant?'

'Yes, M. le Capitaine, no doubt,' the inferior replied. And they both looked at one another, and then at me, in a way I did not understand.

'I think,' said I, to clinch the matter, 'that you have made a mistake, Captain; or the Commandant has. And it occurs to me that the Cardinal will not be best pleased.'

'I hold the King's commission,' he answered rather stiffly.

'To be sure,' I replied. 'But, you see, the Cardinal--'

'Ay, but the Cardinal--' he rejoined quickly; and then he stopped and shrugged his shoulders. And they both looked at me.

'Well?' I said.

'The King,' he answered slowly.

'Tut-tut!' I exclaimed, spreading out my hands. 'The Cardinal. Let us stick to him. You were saying?'

'Well, the Cardinal, you see--' And then again, after the same words, he stopped--stopped abruptly, and shrugged his shoulders.

I began to suspect something.

'If you have anything to say against Monseigneur,' I answered, watching him narrowly, 'say it. But take a word of advice. Don't let it go beyond the door of this room, my friend, and it will do you no harm.'

'Neither here nor outside,' he retorted, looking for a moment at his comrade. 'Only I hold the King's commission. That is all, and, I think, enough.'

'Well--for the rest, will you throw a main?' he answered evasively. 'Good! Lieutenant, find a glass, and the gentleman a seat. And here, for my part, I will give you a toast The Cardinal--whatever betide!'

I drank it, and sat down to play with him; I had not heard the music of the dice for a month, and the temptation was irresistible. But I was not satisfied. I called the mains and won his crowns--he was a mere baby at the game--but half my mind was elsewhere. There was something here that I did not understand; some influence at work on which I had not counted; something moving under the surface as unintelligible to me as the soldiers' presence. Had the Captain repudiated my commission altogether, and put me to the door or sent me to the guard-house, I could have followed that. But these dubious hints, this passive resistance, puzzled me. Had they news from Paris, I wondered? Was the King dead? Or the Cardinal ill? I asked them, but they said no, no, no to all, and gave me guarded answers. And midnight found us still playing; and still fencing.