The Trail of The Sword by Gilbert Parker
Epoch the Fourth
Chapter XXI. An Untoward Messenger
A few days after this, Jessica, at her home in Boston,--in the room where she had promised her father to be George Gering's wife,--sat watching the sea. Its slow swinging music came up to her through the October air. Not far from her sat an old man, his hands clasping a chair-arm, a book in his lap, his chin sunk on his breast. The figure, drooping helplessly, had still a distinguished look, an air of honourable pride. Presently he raised his head, his drowsy eyes lighted as they rested on her, and he said: "The fleet has not returned, my dear? Quebec is not yet taken?"
"No, father," she replied, "not yet."
"Phips is a great man--a great man!" he said, chuckling. "Ah, the treasure!"
Jessica did not reply. Her fingers went up to her eyes; they seemed to cool the hot lids.
"Ay, ay, it was good," he added, in a quavering voice, "and I gave you your dowry!"
Now there was a gentle, soft laugh of delight and pride, and he reached out a hand towards her. She responded with a little laugh which was not unlike his, but there was something more: that old sweet sprightliness of her youth, shot through with a haunting modulation,--almost pensiveness, but her face was self-possessed. She drew near, pressed the old man's hand, and spoke softly. Presently she saw that he was asleep.
She sat for some time, not stirring. At last she was about to rise and take him to his room, but hearing noises in the street she stepped to the window. There were men below, and this made her apprehensive. She hurried over, kissed the old man, passed from the room, and met her old servant Hulm in the passage, who stretched out her hand in distress.
"What is it, Hulm?" she asked, a chill at her heart. "Oh, how can I tell you!" was the answer. "Our fleet was beaten, and--and my master is a prisoner." The wife saw that this was not all. "Tell me everything, Hulm," she said trembling, yet ready for the worst.
"Oh, my dear, dear mistress, I cannot!"
"Hulm, you see that I am calm," she answered. "You are only paining me."
"They are to try him for his life!" She caught her mistress by the waist, but Jessica recovered instantly. She was very quiet, very pale, yet the plumbless grief of her eyes brought tears to Hulm's face. She stood for a moment in deep thought.
"Is your brother Aaron in Boston, Hulm?" she asked presently.
"He is below, dear mistress."
"Ask him to step to the dining-room. And that done, please go to my father. And, Hulm, dear creature, you can aid me better if you do not weep."
She then passed down a side staircase and entered the dining-room. A moment afterwards Aaron Hulm came in.
"Aaron," she said, as he stood confused before her misery, "know you the way to Quebec?"
"Indeed, madame, very well. Madame, I am sorry--"
"Let us not dwell upon it, Aaron. Can you get a few men together to go there?"
"Within an hour."
"Very well, I shall be ready."
"You, madame--ready? You do not think of going?"
"Yes, I am going."
"But, madame, it is not safe. The Abenaquis and Iroquois are not friendly, and--"
"Is this friendly? Is it like a good friend, Aaron Hulm? Did I not nurse your mother when--"
He dropped on one knee, took her hand and kissed it. "Madame," he said loyally, "I will do anything you ask; I feared only for your safety."
An hour afterwards she came into the room where her father still slept. Stooping, she kissed his forehead, and fondled his thin grey hair. Then she spoke to Hulm.
"Tell him," she said, "that I will come back soon: that my husband needs me, and that I have gone to him. Tell him that we will both come back-- both, Hulm, you understand!"
"Dear mistress, I understand." But the poor soul made a gesture of despair.
"It is even as I say. We will both come back," was the quiet reply. "Something as truthful as God Himself tells me so. Take care of my dear father--I know you will; keep from him the bad news, and comfort him."
Then with an affectionate farewell she went to her room, knelt down and prayed. When she rose she said to herself: "I am thankful now that I have no child."
In ten minutes a little company of people, led by Aaron Hulm, started away from Boston, making for a block-house fifteen miles distant, where they were to sleep.
The journey was perilous, and more than once it seemed as if they could not reach Quebec alive, but no member of the party was more cheerful than Jessica. Her bravery and spirit never faltered before the others, though sometimes at night, when lying awake, she had a wild wish to cry out or to end her troubles in the fast-flowing Richelieu. But this was only at night. In the daytime action eased the strain, and at last she was rewarded by seeing from the point of Levis, the citadel of Quebec.
They were questioned and kept in check for a time, but at length Aaron and herself were let cross the river. It was her first sight of Quebec, and its massive, impregnable form struck a chill to her heart: it suggested great sternness behind it. They were passed on unmolested towards the Chateau St. Louis. The anxious wife wished to see Count Frontenac himself and then to find Iberville. Enemy of her country though he was, she would appeal to him. As she climbed the steep steps of Mountain Street, worn with hard travel, she turned faint. But the eyes of curious folk were on her, and she drew herself up bravely.
She was admitted almost at once to the governor. He was at dinner when she came. When her message was brought to him, his brows twitched with surprise and perplexity. He called Maurice Joval, and ordered that she be shown to his study and tendered every courtesy. A few moments later he entered the room. Wonder and admiration crossed his face. He had not thought to see so beautiful a woman. Himself an old courtier, he knew women, and he could understand how Iberville had been fascinated. She had arranged her toilette at Levis, and there were few traces of the long, hard journey, save that her hands and face were tanned. The eloquence of her eyes, the sorrowful, distant smile which now was natural to her, worked upon the old soldier before she spoke a word. And after she had spoken, had pleaded her husband's cause, and appealed to the nobleman's chivalry, Frontenac was moved. But his face was troubled. He drew out his watch and studied it.
Presently he went to the door and called Maurice Joval. There was whispering, and then the young man went away.
"Madame, you have spoken of Monsieur Iberville," said the governor. "Years ago he spoke to me of you."
Her eyes dropped, and then they raised steadily, clearly. "I am sure, sir," she said, "that Monsieur Iberville would tell you that my husband could never be dishonourable. They have been enemies, but noble enemies."
"Yet, Monsieur Iberville might be prejudiced," rejoined the governor. "A brother's life has weight."
"A brother's life!" she broke in fearfully. "Madame, your husband killed Iberville's brother."
She swayed. The governor's arm was as quick to her waist as a gallant's of twenty-five: not his to resist the despair of so noble a creature. He was sorry for her; but he knew that if all had gone as had been planned by Iberville, within a half-hour this woman would be a widow.
With some women, perhaps, he would not have hesitated: he would have argued that the prize was to the victor, and that, Gering gone, Jessica would amiably drift upon Iberville. But it came to him that she was not as many other women. He looked at his watch again, and she mistook the action.
"Oh, your excellency," she said, "do not grudge these moments to one pleading for a life-for justice."
"You mistake, madame," he said; "I was not grudging the time--for myself."
At that moment Maurice Joval entered and whispered to the governor. Frontenac rose.
"Madame," he said, "your husband has escaped." A cry broke from her. "Escaped! escaped!"
She saw a strange look in the governor's eyes.
"But you have not told me all," she urged; "there is more. Oh, your excellency, speak!"
"Only this, madame: he may be retaken and--"
"And then? What then?" she cried.
"Upon what happens then," he as drily as regretfully added, "I shall have no power."
But to the quick searching prayer, the proud eloquence of the woman, the governor, bound though he was to secresy, could not be adamant.
"There is but one thing I can do for you," he said at last. "You know Father Dollier de Casson?"
To her assent, he added: "Then go to him. Ask no questions. If anything can be done, he may do it for you; that he will I do not know."
She could not solve the riddle, but she must work it out. There was the one great fact: her husband had escaped.
"You will do all you can do, your excellency?" she said.
"Indeed, madame, I have done all I can," he said. With impulse she caught his hand and kissed it. A minute afterwards she was gone with Maurice Joval, who had orders to bring her to the abbe's house--that, and no more.
The governor, left alone, looked at the hand that she had kissed and said: "Well, well, I am but a fool still. Yet--a woman in a million!" He took out his watch. "Too late," he added. "Poor lady!"
A few minutes afterwards Jessica met the abbe on his own doorstep. Maurice Joval disappeared, and the priest and the woman were alone together. She told him what had just happened.
"There is some mystery," she said, pain in her voice. "Tell me, has my husband been retaken?"
"Madame, he has."
"Is he in danger?"
The priest hesitated, then presently inclined his head in assent.
"Once before I talked with you," she said, "and you spoke good things. You are a priest of God. I know that you can help me, or Count Frontenac would not have sent me to you. Oh, will you take me to my husband?"
If Count Frontenac had had a struggle, here was a greater. First, the man was a priest in the days when the Huguenots were scattering to the four ends of the earth. The woman and her husband were heretics, and what better were they than thousands of others? Then, Sainte-Helene had been the soldier-priest's pupil. Last of all, there was Iberville, over whom this woman had cast a charm perilous to his soul's salvation. He loved Iberville as his own son. The priest in him decided against the woman; the soldier in him was with Iberville in this event--for a soldier's revenge was its mainspring. But beneath all was a kindly soul which intolerance could not warp, and this at last responded.
His first words gave her a touch of hope. "Madame," he said, "I know not that aught can be done, but come."