Volume 2
Chapter XIII
 

About half-way between the Seigneury and the main street of the village there was a huge tree, whose limbs stretched across the road and made a sort of archway. In the daytime, during the summer, foot travellers, carts and carriages, with their drivers, loitered in its shade as they passed, grateful for the rest it gave; but at night, even when it was moonlight, the wide branches threw a dark and heavy shadow, and the passage beneath them was gloomy travel. Many a foot traveller hesitated to pass into that umbrageous circle, and skirted the fence beyond the branches on the further side of the road instead.

When Nicolas Lavilette, returning from the Seigneury with the precious bag of gold for Papineau, came hurriedly along the road towards the village, he half halted, with sudden premonition of danger, a dozen feet or so from the great tree. But like most young people, who are inclined to trust nothing but their own strong arms and what their eyes can see, he withstood the temptation to skirt the fence; and with a little half- scornful laugh at himself, yet a little timidity also (or he would not have laughed at all), he hurried under the branches. He had not gone three steps when the light of a dark lantern flashed suddenly in his face, and a pistol touched his forehead. All he could see was a figure clothed entirely in black, even to hands and face, with only holes for eyes, nose and mouth.

He stood perfectly still; the shock was so sudden. There was something determined and deadly in the pose of the figure before him, in the touch of the weapon, in the clearness of the light. His eyes dropped, and fixed involuntarily upon the lantern.

He had a revolver with him; but it was useless to attempt to defend himself with it. Not a word had been spoken. Presently, with the fingers that held the lantern, his assailant made a motion of Hands up! There was no reason why he should risk his life without a chance of winning, so he put up his hands. At another motion he drew out the bag of gold with his left hand, and, obeying the direction of another gesture, dropped it on the ground. There was a pause, then another gesture, which he pretended not to understand.

"Your pistol!" said the voice in a whisper through the mask.

He felt the cold steel at his forehead press a little closer; he also felt how steady it was. He was no fool. He had been in trouble before in his lifetime; he drew out the pistol, and passed it, handle first, to three fingers stretched out from the dark lantern.

The figure moved to where the money and the pistol were, and said, in a whisper still:

"Go!"

He had one moment of wild eagerness to try his luck in a sudden assault, but that passed as suddenly as it came; and with the pistol still covering him, he moved out into the open road, with a helpless anger on him.

A crescent moon was struggling through floes of fleecy clouds, the stars were shining, and so the road was not entirely dark. He went about thirty steps, then turned and looked back. The figure was still standing there, with the pistol and the light. He walked on another twenty or thirty steps, and once again looked back. The light and the pistol were still there. Again he walked on. But now he heard the rumble of buggy wheels behind. Once more he looked back: the figure and the light had gone. The buggy wheels sounded nearer. With a sudden feeling of courage, he turned round and ran back swiftly. The light suddenly flashed again.

"It's no use," he said to himself, and turned and walked slowly along the road.

The sound of the buggy wheels came still nearer. Presently it was obscured by passing under the huge branches of the tree. Then the horse, buggy and driver appeared at the other side, and in a few moments had overtaken him. He looked up sharply, scrutinisingly. Suddenly he burst out:

"Holy mother, Chris, is that you! Where've you been? Are you all right?"

She had whipped up her horse at first sight of him, thinking he might be some drunken rough.

"Mais, mon dieu, Nic, is that you? I thought at first you were a highwayman!"

"No, you've passed the highwayman! Come, let me get in."

Five minutes afterwards she knew exactly what had happened to him.

"Who could it be?" she asked.

"I thought at first it was that beast Vanne Castine!" he answered; "he's the only one that knew about the money, besides the agent and the old seigneur. He brought word from Papineau. But it was too tall for him, and he wouldn't have been so quiet about it. Just like a ghost. It makes my flesh creep now!"

It did not seem such a terrible thing to her at the moment, for she had in her pocket the licence to marry the Honourable Tom Ferrol upon the morrow, and she thought, with joy, of seeing him just as soon as she set foot in the doorway of the Manor Casimbault.

It was something of a shock to her that she did not see him for quite a half hour after she arrived home, and that was half past ten o'clock. But women forget neglect quickly in the delight of a lover's presence; so her disappointment passed. Yet she could not help speaking of it.

"Why weren't you at the door to meet me when I came back to-night with that-that in my pocket?" she asked him, his arm round her.

"I've got a kicking lung, you know," he said, with a half ironical, half self-pitying smile.

"Oh, forgive me, forgive me, Tom, my love!" she said as she buried her face on his breast.