The House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter XI. A Night of Sorrow.
He turned with a start at the sound of my voice, joy and bewilderment--and no wonder--in his countenance. He had not supposed us to be within a hundred leagues of him. And lo! here we were, knee to knee, hand meeting hand in a long grasp, while his eyes, to which tears sprang unbidden, dwelt on my face as though they could read in it the features of his sweetheart. Some one had furnished him with a hat, and enabled him to put his dress in order, and wash his wound, which was very slight, and these changes had improved his appearance; so that the shadow of grief and despondency passing for a moment from him in the joy of seeing me, he looked once more his former self: as he had looked in the old days at Caylus on his return from hawking, or from some boyish escapade among the hills. Only, alas! he wore no sword.
"And now tell me all," he cried, after his first exclamation of wonder had found vent. "How on earth do you come here? Here, of all places, and by my side? Is all well at Caylus? Surely Mademoiselle is not--"
"Mademoiselle is well! perfectly well! And thinking of you, I swear!" I answered passionately. "For us," I went on, eager for the moment to escape that subject--how could I talk of it in the daylight and under strange eyes?--"Marie and Croisette are behind, We left Caylus eight days ago. We reached Paris yesterday evening. We have not been to bed! We have passed, Louis, such a night as I never--"
He stopped me with a gesture. "Hush!" he said, raising his hand. "Don't speak of it, Anne!" and I saw that the fate of his friends was still too recent, the horror of his awakening to those dreadful sights and sounds was still too vivid for him to bear reference to them. Yet after riding for a time in silence-- though his lips moved--he asked me again what had brought us up.
"We came to warn you--of him," I answered, pointing to the solitary, moody figure of the Vidame, who was riding ahead of the party. "He--he said that Kit should never marry you, and boasted of what he would do to you, and frightened her. So, learning he was going to Paris, we followed him--to put you on your guard, you know." And I briefly sketched our adventures, and the strange circumstances and mistakes which had delayed us hour after hour, through all that strange night, until the time had gone by when we could do good.
His eyes glistened and his colour rose as I told the story. He wrung my hand warmly, and looked back to smile at Marie and Croisette. "It was like you!" he ejaculated with emotion. "It was like her cousins! Brave, brave lads! The Vicomte will live to be proud of you! Some day you will all do great things! I say it!"
"But oh, Louis!" I exclaimed sorrowfully, though my heart was bounding with pride at his words, "if we had only been in time! If we had only come to you two hours earlier!"
"You would have spoken to little purpose then, I fear," he replied, shaking his head. "We were given over as a prey to the enemy. Warnings? We had warnings in plenty. De Rosny warned us, and we scoffed at him. The king's eye warned us, and we trusted him. But--" and Louis' form dilated and his hand rose as he went on, and I thought of his cousin's prediction--"it will never be so again in France, Anne! Never! No man will after this trust another! There will be no honour, no faith, no quarter, and no peace! And for the Valois who has done this, the sword will never depart from his house! I believe it! I do believe it!"
How truly he spoke we know now. For two-and-twenty years after that twenty-fourth of August, 1572, the sword was scarcely laid aside in France for a single month. In the streets of Paris, at Arques, and Coutras, and Ivry, blood flowed like water that the blood of the St. Bartholomew might be forgotten--that blood which, by the grace of God, Navarre saw fall from the dice box on the eve of the massacre. The last of the Valois passed to the vaults of St. Denis: and a greater king, the first of all Frenchmen, alive or dead, the bravest, gayest, wisest of the land, succeeded him: yet even he had to fall by the knife, in a moment most unhappy for his country, before France, horror- stricken, put away the treachery and evil from her.
Talking with Louis as we rode, it was not unnatural--nay, it was the natural result of the situation--that I should avoid one subject. Yet that subject was the uppermost in my thoughts. What were the Vidame's intentions? What was the meaning of this strange journey? What was to be Louis' fate? I shrank with good reason from asking him these questions. There could be so little room for hope, even after that smile which I had seen Bezers smile, that I dared not dwell upon them. I should but torture him and myself.
So it was he who first spoke about it. Not at that time, but after sunset, when the dusk had fallen upon us, and found us still plodding southward with tired horses; a link outwardly like other links in the long chain of riders, toiling onwards. Then he said suddenly, "Do you know whither we are going, Anne?"
I started, and found myself struggling with a strange confusion before I could reply. "Home," I suggested at random.
"Home? No. And yet nearly home. To Cahors," he answered with an odd quietude. "Your home, my boy, I shall never see again, Nor Kit! Nor my own Kit!" It was the first time I had heard him call her by the fond name we used ourselves. And the pathos in his tone as of the past, not the present, as of pure memory--I was very thankful that I could not in the dusk see his face --shook my self-control. I wept. "Nay, my lad," he went on, speaking softly and leaning from his saddle so that he could lay his hand on my shoulder "we are all men together. We must be brave. Tears cannot help us, so we should leave them to the-- women."
I cried more passionately at that. Indeed his own voice quavered over the last word. But in a moment he was talking to me coolly and quietly. I had muttered something to the effect that the Vidame would not dare--it would be too public.
"There is no question of daring in it," he replied. "And the more public it is, the better he will like it. They have dared to take thousands of lives since yesterday. There is no one to call him to account since the king--our king forsooth!--has declared every Huguenot an outlaw, to be killed wherever he be met with. No, when Bezers disarmed me yonder," he pointed as he spoke to his wound, "I looked of course for instant death. Anne! I saw blood in his eyes! But he did not strike."
"Why not?" I asked in suspense.
"I can only guess," Louis answered with a sigh. "He told me that my life was in his hands, but that he should take it at his own time. Further that if I would not give my word to go with him without trying to escape, he would throw me to those howling dogs outside. I gave my word. We are on the road together. And oh, Anne! yesterday, only yesterday, at this time I was riding home with Teligny from the Louvre, where we had been playing at paume with the king! And the world--the world was very fair."
"I saw you, or rather Croisette did," I muttered as his sorrow-- not for himself, but his friends--forced him to stop. "Yet how, Louis, do you know that we are going to Cahors?"
"He told me, as we passed through the gates, that he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Quercy to carry out the edict against the religion. Do you not see, Anne?" my companion added bitterly, "to kill me at once were too small a revenge for him! He must torture me--or rather he would if he could--by the pains of anticipation.
Besides, my execution will so finely open his bed of justice. Bah!" and Pavannes raised his head proudly, "I fear him not! I fear him not a jot!"
For a moment he forgot Kit, the loss of his friends, his own doom. He snapped his fingers in derision of his foe.
But my heart sank miserably. The Vidame's rage I remembered had been directed rather against my cousin than her lover; and now by the light of his threats I read Bezers' purpose more clearly than Louis could. His aim was to punish the woman who had played with him. To do so he was bringing her lover from Paris that he might execute him--after giving her notice! That was it: after giving her notice, it might be in her very presence! He would lure her to Cahors, and then--
I shuddered. I well might feel that a precipice was opening at my feet. There was something in the plan so devilish, yet so accordant with those stories I had heard of the Wolf, that I felt no doubt of my insight. I read his evil mind, and saw in a moment why he had troubled himself with us. He hoped to draw Mademoiselle to Cahors by our means.
Of course I said nothing of this to Louis. I hid my feelings as well as I could. But I vowed a great vow that at the eleventh hour we would baulk the Vidame. Surely if all else failed we could kill him, and, though we died ourselves, spare Kit this ordeal. My tears were dried up as by a fire. My heart burned with a great and noble rage: or so it seemed to me!
I do not think that there was ever any journey so strange as this one of ours. We met with the same incidents which had pleased us on the road to Paris. But their novelty was gone. Gone too were the cosy chats with old rogues of landlords and good-natured dames. We were travelling now in such force that our coming was rather a terror to the innkeeper than a boon. How much the Lieutenant-Governor of Quercy, going down to his province, requisitioned in the king's name; and for how much he paid, we could only judge from the gloomy looks which followed us as we rode away each morning. Such looks were not solely due I fear to the news from Paris, although for some time we were the first bearers of the tidings.
Presently, on the third day of our journey I think, couriers from the Court passed us: and henceforth forestalled us. One of these messengers--who I learned from the talk about me was bound for Cahors with letters for the Lieutenant-Governor and the Count-Bishop--the Vidame interviewed and stopped. How it was managed I do not know, but I fear the Count-Bishop never got his letters, which I fancy would have given him some joint authority. Certainly we left the messenger--a prudent fellow with a care for his skin--in comfortable quarters at Limoges, whence I do not doubt he presently returned to Paris at his leisure.
The strangeness of the journey however arose from none of these things, but from the relations of our party to one another. After the first day we four rode together, unmolested, so long as we kept near the centre of the straggling cavalcade. The Vidame always rode alone, and in front, brooding with bent head and sombre face over his revenge, as I supposed. He would ride in this fashion, speaking to no one and giving no orders, for a day together. At times I came near to pitying him. He had loved Kit in his masterful way, the way of one not wont to be thwarted, and he had lost her--lost her, whatever might happen. He would get nothing after all by his revenge. Nothing but ashes in the mouth. And so I saw in softer moments something inexpressibly melancholy in that solitary giant-figure pacing always alone.
He seldom spoke to us. More rarely to Louis. When he did, the harshness of his voice and his cruel eyes betrayed the gloomy hatred in which he held him. At meals he ate at one end of the table: we four at the other, as three of us had done on that first evening in Paris. And sometimes the covert looks, the grim sneer he shot at his rival--his prisoner--made me shiver even in the sunshine. Sometimes, on the other hand, when I took him unawares, I found an expression on his face I could not read.
I told Croisette, but warily, my suspicions of his purpose. He heard me, less astounded to all appearance than I had expected. Presently I learned the reason. He had his own view. "Do you not think it possible, Anne?" he suggested timidly--we were of course alone at the time-- "that he thinks to make Louis resign Mademoiselle?"
"Resign her!" I exclaimed obtusely. "How?"
"By giving him a choice--you understand?"
I did understand I saw it in a moment. I had been dull not to see it before. Bezers might put it in this way: let M. de Pavannes resign his mistress and live, or die and lose her.
"I see," I answered. "But Louis would not give her up. Not to him!"
"He would lose her either way," Croisette answered in a low tone. "That is not however the worst of it. Louis is in his power. Suppose he thinks to make Kit the arbiter, Anne, and puts Louis up to ransom, setting Kit for the price? And gives her the option of accepting himself, and saving Louis' life; or refusing, and leaving Louis to die?"
"St. Croix!" I exclaimed fiercely. "He would not be so base!" And yet was not even this better than the blind vengeance I had myself attributed to him?
"Perhaps not," Croisette answered, while he gazed onwards through the twilight. We were at the time the foremost of the party save the Vidame; and there was nothing to interrupt our view of his gigantic figure as he moved on alone before us with bowed shoulders. "Perhaps not," Croisette repeated thoughtfully. "Sometimes I think we do not understand him; and that after all there may be worse people in the world than Bezers."
I looked hard at the lad, for that was not what I had meant. "Worse?" I said. "I do not think so. Hardly!"
"Yes, worse," he replied, shaking his head. "Do you remember lying under the curtain in the box-bed at Mirepoix's?"
"Of course I do! Do you think I shall ever forget it?"
"And Madame d'O coming in?"
"With the Coadjutor?" I said with a shudder. "Yes."
"No, the second time," he answered, "when she came back alone. It was pretty dark, you remember, and Madame de Pavannes was at the window, and her sister did not see her?"
"Well, well, I remember," I said impatiently. I knew from the tone of his voice that he had something to tell me about Madame d'O, and I was not anxious to hear it. I shrank, as a wounded man shrinks from the cautery, from hearing anything about that woman; herself so beautiful, yet moving in an atmosphere of suspicion and horror. Was it shame, or fear, or some chivalrous feeling having its origin in that moment when I had fancied myself her knight? I am not sure, for I had not made up my mind even now whether I ought to pity or detest her; whether she had made a tool of me, or I had been false to her.
"She came up to the bed, you remember, Anne?" Croisette went on. "You were next to her. She saw you indistinctly, and took you for her sister. And then I sprang from the bed."
"I know you did!" I exclaimed sharply. All this time I had forgotten that grievance. "You nearly frightened her out of her wits, St. Croix. I cannot think what possessed you--why you did it?"
"To save your life, Anne" he answered solemnly, "and her from a crime! an unutterable, an unnatural crime. She had come back to I can hardly tell it you--to murder her sister. You start. You do not believe me. It sounds too horrible. But I could see better than you could. She was exactly between you and the light. I saw the knife raised. I saw her wicked face! If I had not startled her as I did, she would have stabbed you. She dropped the knife on the floor, and I picked it up and have it. See!"
I looked furtively, and turned away again, shivering. "Why," I muttered, "why did she do it?"
"She had failed you know to get her sister back to Pavannes' house, where she would have fallen an easy victim. Bezers, who knew Madame d'O, prevented that. Then that fiend slipped back with her knife; thinking that in the common butchery the crime would be overlooked, and never investigated, and that Mirepoix would be silent!"
I said nothing. I was stunned. Yet I believed the story. When I went over the facts in my mind I found that a dozen things, overlooked at the time and almost forgotten in the hurry of events, sprang up to confirm it. M. de Pavannes'--the other M. de Pavannes'--suspicions had been well founded. Worse than Bezers was she? Ay! worse a hundred times. As much worse as treachery ever is than violence; as the pitiless fraud of the serpent is baser than the rage of the wolf.
"I thought," Croisette added softly, not looking at me, "when I discovered that you had gone off with her, that I should never see you again, Anne. I gave you up for lost. The happiest moment of my life I think was when I saw you come back."
"Croisette," I whispered piteously, my cheeks burning, "let us never speak of her again."
And we never did--for years. But how strange is life. She and the wicked man with whom her fate seemed bound up had just crossed our lives when their own were at the darkest. They clashed with us, and, strangers and boys as we were, we ruined them. I have often asked myself what would have happened to me had I met her at some earlier and less stormy period--in the brilliance of her beauty. And I find but one answer. I should bitterly have rued the day. Providence was good to me. Such men and such women, we may believe have ceased to exist now. They flourished in those miserable days of war and divisions, and passed away with them like the foul night-birds of the battle- field.
To return to our journey. In the morning sunshine one could not but be cheerful, and think good things possible. The worst trial I had came with each sunset. For then--we generally rode late into the evening--Louis sought my side to talk to me of his sweetheart. And how he would talk of her! How many thousand messages he gave me for her! How often he recalled old days among the hills, with each laugh and jest and incident, when we five had been as children! Until I would wonder passionately, the tears running down my face in the darkness, how he could--how he could talk of her in that quiet voice which betrayed no rebellion against fate, no cursing of Providence! How he could plan for her and think of her when she should be alone!
Now I understand it. He was still labouring under the shock of his friends' murder. He was still partially stunned. Death seemed natural and familiar to him, as to one who had seen his allies and companions perish without warning or preparation. Death had come to be normal to him, life the exception; as I have known it seem to a child brought face to face with a corpse for the first time.
One afternoon a strange thing happened. We could see the Auvergne hills at no great distance on our left--the Puy de Dome above them--and we four were riding together. We had fallen--an unusual thing--to the rear of the party. Our road at the moment was a mere track running across moorland, sprinkled here and there with gorse and brushwood. The main company had straggled on out of sight. There were but half a dozen riders to be seen an eighth of a league before us, a couple almost as far behind. I looked every way with a sudden surging of the heart. For the first time the possibility of flight occurred to me. The rough Auvergne hills were within reach. Supposing we could get a lead of a quarter of a league, we could hardly be caught before darkness came and covered us. Why should we not put spurs to our horses and ride off?
"Impossible!" said Pavannes quietly, when I spoke.
"Why?" I asked with warmth.
"Firstly," he replied, "because I have given my word to go with the Vidame to Cahors."
My face flushed hotly. But I cried, "What of that? You were taken by treachery! Your safe conduct was disregarded. Why should you be scrupulous? Your enemies are not. This is folly?"
"I think not. Nay," Louis answered, shaking his head, "you would not do it yourself in my place."
"I think I should," I stammered awkwardly.
"No, you would not, lad," he said smiling. "I know you too well. But if I would do it, it is impossible." He turned in the saddle and, shading his eyes with his hand from the level rays of the sun, looked back intently. "It is as I thought," he continued. "One of those men is riding grey Margot, which Bure said yesterday was the fastest mare in the troop. And the man on her is a light weight. The other fellow has that Norman bay horse we were looking at this morning. It is a trap laid by Bezers, Anne. If we turned aside a dozen yards, those two would be after us like the wind."
"Do you mean," I cried, "that Bezers has drawn his men forward on purpose?"
"Precisely; was Louis's answer. "That is the fact. Nothing would please him better than to take my honour first, and my life afterwards. But, thank God, only the one is in his power."
And when I came to look at the horsemen, immediately before us, they confirmed Louis's view. They were the best mounted of the party: all men of light weight too. One or other of them was constantly looking back. As night fell they closed in upon us with their usual care. When Bure joined us there was a gleam of intelligence in his bold eyes, a flash of conscious trickery. He knew that we had found him out, and cared nothing for it.
And the others cared nothing. But the thought that if left to myself I should have fallen into the Vidame's cunning trap filled me with new hatred towards him; such hatred and such fear--for there was humiliation mingled with them--as I had scarcely felt before. I brooded over this, barely noticing what passed in our company for hours--nay, not until the next day when, towards evening, the cry arose round me that we were within sight of Cahors. Yes, there it lay below us, in its shallow basin, surrounded by gentle hills. The domes of the cathedral, the towers of the Vallandre Bridge, the bend of the Lot, where its stream embraces the town--I knew them all. Our long journey was over.
And I had but one idea. I had some time before communicated to Croisette the desperate design I had formed--to fall upon Bezers and kill him in the midst of his men in the last resort. Now the time had come if the thing was ever to be done: if we had not left it too long already. And I looked about me. There was some confusion and jostling as we halted on the brow of the hill, while two men were despatched ahead to announce the governor's arrival, and Bure, with half a dozen spears, rode out as an advanced guard.
The road where we stood was narrow, a shallow cutting winding down the declivity of the hills. The horses were tired, It was a bad time and place for my design, and only the coming night was in my favour. But I was desperate.
Yet before I moved or gave a signal which nothing could recall, I scanned the landscape eagerly, scrutinizing in turn the small, rich plain below us, warmed by the last rays of the sun, the bare hills here glowing, there dark, the scattered wood-clumps and spinneys that filled the angles of the river, even the dusky line of helm-oaks that crowned the ridge beyond--Caylus way. So near our own country there might be help! If the messenger whom we had despatched to the Vicomte before leaving home had reached him, our uncle might have returned, and even be in Cahors to meet us.
But no party appeared in sight: and I saw no place where an ambush could be lying. I remembered that no tidings of our present plight or of what had happened could have reached the Vicomte. The hope faded out of life as soon as despair had given it birth. We must fend for ourselves and for Kit.
That was my justification. I leaned from my saddle towards Croisette--I was riding by his side--and muttered, as I felt my horse's head and settled myself firmly in the stirrups, "You remember what I said? Are you ready?"
He looked at me in a startled way, with a face showing white in the shadow: and from me to the one solitary figure seated like a pillar a score of paces in front with no one between us and it. "There need be but two of us," I muttered, loosening my sword. "Shall it be you or Marie? The others must leap their horses out of the road in the confusion, cross the river at the Arembal Ford if they are not overtaken, and make for Caylus."
He hesitated. I do not know whether it had anything to do with his hesitation that at that moment the cathedral bell in the town below us began to ring slowly for Vespers. Yes, he hesitated. He--a Caylus. Turning to him again, I repeated my question impatiently. "Which shall it be? A moment, and we shall be moving on, and it will be too late."
He laid his hand hurriedly on my bridle, and began a rambling answer. Rambling as it was I gathered his meaning. It was enough for me! I cut him short with one word of fiery indignation, and turned to Marie and spoke quickly. "Will you, then?" I said.
But Marie shook his head in perplexity, and answering little, said the same. So it happened a second time.
Strange! Yet strange as it seemed, I was not greatly surprised. Under other circumstances I should have been beside myself with anger at the defection. Now I felt as if I had half expected it, and without further words of reproach I dropped my head and gave it up. I passed again into the stupor of endurance. The Vidame was too strong for me. It was useless to fight against him. We were under the spell. When the troop moved forward, I went with them, silent and apathetic.
We passed through the gate of Cahors, and no doubt the scene was worthy of note; but I had only a listless eye for it--much such an eye as a man about to be broken on the wheel must have for that curious instrument, supposing him never to have seen it before. The whole population had come out to line the streets through which we rode, and stood gazing, with scarcely veiled looks of apprehension, at the procession of troopers and the stern face of the new governor.
We dismounted passively in the courtyard of the castle, and were for going in together, when Bure intervened. "M. de Pavannes," he said, pushing rather rudely between us, "will sup alone to- night. For you, gentlemen, this way, if you please."
I went without remonstrance. What was the use? I was conscious that the Vidame from the top of the stairs leading to the grand entrance was watching us with a wolfish glare in his eyes. I went quietly. But I heard Croisette urging something with passionate energy.
We were led through a low doorway to a room on the ground floor; a place very like a cell. Were we took our meal in silence. When it was over I flung myself on one of the beds prepared for us, shrinking from my companions rather in misery than in resentment.
No explanation had passed between us. Still I knew that the other two from time to time eyed me doubtfully. I feigned therefore to be asleep, but I heard Bure enter to bid us good- night--and see that we had not escaped. And I was conscious too of the question Croisette put to him, "Does M. de Pavannes lie alone to-night, Bure?"
"Not entirely," the captain answered with gloomy meaning. Indeed he seemed in bad spirits himself, or tired. "The Vidame is anxious for his soul's welfare, and sends a priest to him."
They sprang to their feet at that. But the light and its bearer, who so far recovered himself as to chuckle at his master's pious thought, had disappeared. They were left to pace the room, and reproach themselves and curse the Vidame in an agony of late repentance. Not even Marie could find a loop-hole of escape from here. The door was double-locked; the windows so barred that a cat could scarcely pass through them; the walls were of solid masonry.
Meanwhile I lay and feigned to sleep, and lay feigning through long, long hours; though my heart like theirs throbbed in response to the dull hammering that presently began without, and not far from us, and lasted until daybreak. From our windows, set low and facing a wall, we could see nothing. But we could guess what the noise meant, the dull, earthy thuds when posts were set in the ground, the brisk, wooden clattering when one plank was laid to another. We could not see the progress of the work, or hear the voices of the workmen, or catch the glare of their lights. But we knew what they were doing. They were raising the scaffold.