The House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter II. The Vidame's Threat.
Croisette used to tell a story, of the facts of which I have no remembrance, save as a bad dream. He would have it that I left my pallet that night--I had one to myself in the summer, being the eldest, while he and Marie slept on another in the same room --and came to him and awoke him, sobbing and shaking and clutching him; and begging him in a fit of terror not to let me go. And that so I slept in his arms until morning. But as I have said, I do not remember anything of this, only that I had an ugly dream that night, and that when I awoke I was lying with him and Marie; so I cannot say whether it really happened.
At any rate, if I had any feeling of the kind it did not last long; on the contrary--it would be idle to deny it--I was flattered by the sudden respect, Gil and the servants showed me. What Catherine thought of the matter I could not tell. She had her letter and apparently found it satisfactory. At any rate we saw nothing of her. Madame Claude was busy boiling simples, and tending the messenger's hurts. And it seemed natural that I should take command.
There could be no doubt--at any rate we had none that the assault on the courier had taken place at the Vidame's instance. The only wonder was that he had not simply cut his throat and taken the letter. But looking back now it seems to me that grown men mingled some childishness with their cruelty in those days--days when the religious wars had aroused our worst passions. It was not enough to kill an enemy. It pleased people to make--I speak literally--a football of his head, to throw his heart to the dogs. And no doubt it had fallen in with the Vidame's grim humour that the bearer of Pavannes' first love letter should enter his mistress's presence, bleeding and plaistered with mud. And that the riff-raff about our own gates should have part in the insult.
Bezers' wrath would be little abated by the issue of the affair, or the justice I had done on one of his men. So we looked well to bolts, and bars, and windows, although the castle is well-nigh impregnable, the smooth rock falling twenty feet at least on every side from the base of the walls. The gatehouse, Pavannes had shown us, might be blown up with gunpowder indeed, but we prepared to close the iron grating which barred the way half-way up the ramp. This done, even if the enemy should succeed in forcing an entrance he would only find himself caught in a trap-- in a steep, narrow way exposed to a fire from the top of the flanking walls, as well as from the front. We had a couple of culverins, which the Vicomte had got twenty years before, at the time of the battle of St. Quentin. We fixed one of these at the head of the ramp, and placed the other on the terrace, where by moving it a few paces forward we could train it on Bezers' house, which thus lay at our mercy,
Not that we really expected an attack. But we did not know what to expect or what to fear. We had not ten servants, the Vicomte having taken a score of the sturdiest lackeys and keepers to attend him at Bayonne. And we felt immensely responsible. Our main hope was that the Vidame would at once go on to Paris, and postpone his vengeance. So again and again we cast longing glances at the House of the Wolf hoping that each symptom of bustle heralded his departure.
Consequently it was a shock to me, and a great downfall of hopes, when Gil with a grave face came to me on the terrace and announced that M. le Vidame was at the gate, asking to see Mademoiselle.
"It is out of the question that he should see her," the old servant added, scratching his head in grave perplexity.
"Most certainly. I will see him instead," I answered stoutly. "Do you leave Francis and another at the gate, Gil. Marie, keep within sight, lad. And let Croisette stay with me."
These preparations made--and they took up scarcely a moment--I met the Vidame at the head of the ramp. "Mademoiselle de Caylus," I said, bowing, "is, I regret to say, indisposed to-day, Vidame."
"She will not see me?" he asked, eyeing me very unpleasantly.
"Her indisposition deprives her of the pleasure," I answered with an effort. He was certainly a wonderful man, for at sight of him, three-fourths of my courage, and all my importance, oozed out at the heels of my boots.
"She will not see me. Very well," he replied, as if I had not spoken. And the simple words sounded like a sentence of death. "Then, M. Anne, I have a crow to pick with you. What compensation do you propose to make for the death of my servant? A decent, quiet fellow, whom you killed yesterday, poor man, because his enthusiasm for the true faith carried him away a little."
"Whom I killed because he drew a dagger on M. St. Croix de Caylus at the Vicomte's gate," I answered steadily. I had thought about this of course and was ready for it. "You are aware, M. de Bezers," I continued, "that the Vicomte has jurisdiction extending to life and death over all persons within the valley?"
"My household excepted," he rejoined quietly.
"Precisely; while they are within the curtilage of your house," I retorted. "However as the punishment was summary, and the man had no time to confess himself, I am willing to--"
"To pay Father Pierre to say ten masses for his soul."
The way the Vidame received this surprised me. He broke into boisterous laughter. "By our Lady, my friend," he cried with rough merriment, "but you are a joker! You are indeed. Masses? Why the man was a Protestant!"
And that startled me more than anything which had gone before; more indeed than I can explain. For it seemed to prove that this man, laughing his unholy laugh was not like other men. He did not pick and choose his servants for their religion. He was sure that the Huguenot would stone his fellow at his bidding; the Catholic cry "Vive Coligny!" I was so completely taken aback that I found no words to answer him, and it was Croisette who said smartly, "Then how about his enthusiasm for the true faith, M. le Vidame?"
"The true faith," he answered--"for my servants is my faith." Then a thought seemed to strike him. "What is more." he continued slowly, "that it is the true and only faith for all, thousands will learn before the world is ten days older. Bear my words in mind, boy! They will come back to you. And now hear me," he went on in his usual tone, "I am anxious to accommodate a neighbour. It goes without saying that I would not think of putting you, M. Anne, to any trouble for the sake of that rascal of mine. But my people will expect something. Let the plaguy fellow who caused all this disturbance be given up to me, that I may hang him; and let us cry quits."
"That is impossible!" I answered coolly. I had no need to ask what he meant. Give up Pavannes' messenger indeed! Never!
He regarded me--unmoved by my refusal--with a smile under which I chafed, while I was impotent to resent it. "Do not build too much on a single blow, young gentleman," he said, shaking his head waggishly. "I had fought a dozen times when I was your age. However, I understand that you refuse to give me satisfaction?"
"In the mode you mention, certainly," I replied. "But--"
"Bah!" he exclaimed with a sneer, "business first and pleasure afterwards! Bezers will obtain satisfaction in his own way, I promise you that! And at his own time. And it will not be on unfledged bantlings like you. But what is this for?" And he rudely kicked the culverin which apparently he had not noticed before, "So! so! understand," he continued, casting a sharp glance at one and another of us. "You looked to be besieged! Why you, booby, there is the shoot of your kitchen midden, twenty feet above the roof of old Fretis' store! And open, I will be sworn! Do you think that I should have come this way while there was a ladder in Caylus! Did you take the wolf for a sheep?"
With that he turned on his heel, swaggering away in the full enjoyment of his triumph. For a triumph it was. We stood stunned; ashamed to look one another in the face. Of course the shoot was open. We remembered now that it was, and we were so sorely mortified by his knowledge and our folly, that I failed in my courtesy, and did not see him to the gate, as I should have done. We paid for that later.
"He is the devil in person!" I exclaimed angrily, shaking my fist at the House of the Wolf, as I strode up and down impatiently. "I hate him worse!"
"So do I!" said Croisette, mildly. "But that he hates us is a matter of more importance. At any rate we will close the shoot."
"Wait a moment!" I replied, as after another volley of complaints directed at our visitor, the lad was moving off to see to it. What is going on down there?"
"Upon my word, I believe he is leaving us!" Croisette rejoined sharply.
For there was a noise of hoofs below us, clattering on the pavement. Half-a-dozen horsemen were issuing from the House of the Wolf, the ring of their bridles and the sound of their careless voices coming up to us through the clear morning air Bezers' valet, whom we knew by sight, was the last of them. He had a pair of great saddle-bags before him, and at sight of these we uttered a glad exclamation. "He is going!" I murmured, hardly able to believe my eyes. "He is going after all!"
"Wait!" Croisette answered drily.
But I was right. We had not to wait long. He was going. In another moment he came out himself, riding a strong iron-grey horse: and we could see that he had holsters to his saddle. His steward was running beside him, to take I suppose his last orders. A cripple, whom the bustle had attracted from his usual haunt, the church porch, held up his hand for alms. The Vidame as he passed, cut him savagely across the face with his whip, and cursed him audibly.
"May the devil take him!" exclaimed Croisette in just rage. But I said nothing, remembering that the cripple was a particular pet of Catherine's. I thought instead of an occasion, not so very long ago, when the Vicomte being at home, we had had a great hawking party. Bezers and Catherine had ridden up the street together, and Catherine giving the cripple a piece of money, Bezers had flung to him all his share of the game. And my heart sank.
Only for a moment, however. The man was gone; or was going at any rate. We stood silent and motionless, all watching, until, after what seemed a long interval, the little party of seven became visible on the white road far below us--to the northward, and moving in that direction. Still we watched them, muttering a word to one another, now and again, until presently the riders slackened their pace, and began to ascend the winding track that led to the hills and Cahors; and to Paris also, if one went far enough.
Then at length with a loud "Whoop!" we dashed across the terrace, Croisette leading, and so through the courtyard to the parlour; where we arrived breathless. "He is off!" Croisette cried shrilly. "He has started for Paris! And bad luck go with him!" And we all flung up our caps and shouted.
But no answer, such as we expected, came from the women folk. When we picked up our caps, and looked at Catherine, feeling rather foolish, she was staring at us with a white face and great scornful eyes. "Fools!" she said. "Fools!"
And that was all. But it was enough to take me aback. I had looked to see her face lighten at our news; instead it wore an expression I had never seen on it before. Catherine, so kind and gentle, calling us fools! And without cause! I did not understand it. I turned confusedly to Croisette. He was looking at her, and I saw that he was frightened. As for Madame Claude, she was crying in the corner. A presentiment of evil made my heart sink like lead. What had happened?
"Fools!" my cousin repeated with exceeding bitterness, her foot tapping the parquet unceasingly. "Do you think he would have stooped to avenge himself on you? On you! Or that he could hurt me one hundredth part as much here as--as--" She broke off stammering. Her scorn faltered for an instant. "Bah! he is a man! He knows!" she exclaimed superbly, her chin in the air, "but you are boys. You do not understand!"
I looked amazedly at this angry woman. I had a difficulty in associating her with my cousin. As for Croisette, he stepped forward abruptly, and picked up a white object which was lying at her feet.
"Yes, read it!" she cried, "read it! Ah!" and she clenched her little hand, and in her passion struck the oak table beside her, so that a stain of blood sprang out on her knuckles. Why did you not kill him? Why did you not do it when you had the chance? You were three to one," she hissed. "You had him in your power! You could have killed him, and you did not! Now he will kill me!"
Madame Claude muttered something tearfully; something about Pavannes and the saints. I looked over Croisette's shoulder, and read the letter. It began abruptly without any term of address, and ran thus, "I have a mission in Paris, Mademoiselle, which admits of no delay, your mission, as well as my own--to see Pavannes. You have won his heart. It is yours, and I will bring it you, or his right hand in token that he has yielded up his claim to yours. And to this I pledge myself."
The thing bore no signature. It was written in some red fluid-- blood perhaps--a mean and sorry trick! On the outside was scrawled a direction to Mademoiselle de Caylus. And the packet was sealed with the Vidame's crest, a wolfs head.
"The coward! the miserable coward!" Croisette cried. He was the first to read the meaning of the thing. And his eyes were full of tears--tears of rage.
For me I was angry exceedingly. My veins seemed full of fire, as I comprehended the mean cruelty which could thus torture a girl.
"Who delivered this?" I thundered. "Who gave it to Mademoiselle? How did it reach her hands? Speak, some one!"
A maid, whimpering in the background, said that Francis had given it to her to hand to Mademoiselle.
I ground my teeth together, while Marie, unbidden, left the room to seek Francis--and a stirrup leather. The Vidame had brought the note in his pocket no doubt, rightly expecting that he would not get an audience of my cousin. Returning to the gate alone he had seen his opportunity, and given the note to Francis, probably with a small fee to secure its transmission.
Croisette and I looked at one another, apprehending all this. "He will sleep at Cahors to-night," I said sullenly.
The lad shook his head and answered in a low voice, "I am afraid not. His horses are fresh. I think he will push on. He always travels quickly. And now you know--"
I nodded, understanding only too well.
Catherine had flung herself into a chair. Her arms lay nerveless on the table. Her face was hidden in them. But now, overhearing us, or stung by some fresh thought, she sprang to her feet in anguish. Her face twitched, her form seemed to stiffen as she drew herself up like one in physical pain. "Oh, I cannot bear it!" she cried to us in dreadful tones. "Oh, will no one do anything? I will go to him! I will tell him I will give him up! I will do whatever he wishes if he will only spare him!"
Croisette went from the room crying. It was a dreadful sight for us--this girl in agony. And it was impossible to reassure her! Not one of us doubted the horrible meaning of the note, its covert threat. Civil wars and religious hatred, and I fancy Italian modes of thought, had for the time changed our countrymen to beasts. Far more dreadful things were done then than this which Bezers threatened--even if he meant it literally--far more dreadful things were suffered. But in the fiendish ingenuity of his vengeance on her, the helpless, loving woman, I thought Raoul de Bezers stood alone. Alas! it fares ill with the butterfly when the cat has struck it down. Ill indeed!
Madame Claude rose and put her arms round the girl, dismissing me by a gesture. I went out, passing through two or three scared servants, and made at once for the terrace. I felt as if I could only breathe there. I found Marie and St. Croix together, silent, the marks of tears on their faces. Our eyes met and they told one tale.
We all spoke at the same time. "When?" we said. But the others looked to me for an answer.
I was somewhat sobered by that, and paused to consider before I replied. "At daybreak to-morrow," I decided presently. "It is an hour after noon already. We want money, and the horses are out. It will take an hour to bring them in. After that we might still reach Cahors to-night, perhaps; but more haste less speed you know No. At daybreak to-morrow we will start"
They nodded assent.
It was a great thing we meditated. No less than to go to Paris-- the unknown city so far beyond the hills--and seek out M. de Pavannes, and warn him. It would be a race between the Vidame and ourselves; a race for the life of Kit's suitor. Could we reach Paris first, or even within twenty-four hours of Bezers' arrival, we should in all probability be in time, and be able to put Pavannes on his guard. It had been the first thought of all of us, to take such men as we could get together and fall upon Bezers wherever we found him, making it our simple object to kill him. But the lackeys M. le Vicomte had left with us, the times being peaceful and the neighbours friendly, were poor-spirited fellows. Bezers' handful, on the contrary, were reckless Swiss riders--like master, like men. We decided that it would be wiser simply to warn Pavannes, and then stand by him if necessary.
We might have despatched a messenger. But our servants--Gil excepted, and he was too old to bear the journey--were ignorant of Paris. Nor could any one of them be trusted with a mission so delicate. We thought of Pavannes' courier indeed. But he was a Rochellois, and a stranger to the capital. There was nothing for it but to go ourselves.
Yet we did not determine on this adventure with light hearts, I remember. Paris loomed big and awesome in the eyes of all of us. The glamour of the court rather frightened than allured us. We felt that shrinking from contact with the world which a country life engenders, as well as that dread of seeming unlike other people which is peculiar to youth. It was a great plunge, and a dangerous which we meditated. And we trembled. If we had known more--especially of the future--we should have trembled more.
But we were young, and with our fears mingled a delicious excitement. We were going on an adventure of knight errantry in which we might win our spurs. We were going to see the world and play men's parts in it! to save a friend and make our mistress happy!
We gave our orders. But we said nothing to Catherine or Madame Claude; merely bidding Gil tell them after our departure. We arranged for the immediate despatch of a message to the Vicomte at Bayonne, and charged Gil until he should hear from him to keep the gates closed, and look well to the shoot of the kitchen midden. Then, when all was ready, we went to our pallets, but it was with hearts throbbing with excitement and wakeful eyes.
"Anne! Anne!" said Croisette, rising on his elbow and speaking to me some three hours later, "what do you think the Vidame meant this morning when he said that about the ten days?"
"What about the ten days?" I asked peevishly. He had roused me just when I was at last falling asleep.
"About the world seeing that his was the true faith--in ten days?"
"I am sure I do not know. For goodness' sake let us go to sleep," I replied. For I had no patience with Croisette, talking such nonsense, when we had our own business to think about.