VIII. As Vain as Absalom
 

Gabord, coming in to me one day after I had lain down to sleep, said, "See, m'sieu' the dormouse, 'tis holiday-eve; the King's sport comes to-morrow."

I sat up in bed with a start, for I knew not but that my death had been decided on without trial; and yet on second thought I was sure this could not be, for every rule of military conduct was against it.

"Whose holiday?" asked I after a moment; "and what is King's sport?"

"You're to play bear in the streets to-morrow--which is sport for the King," he retorted; "we lead you by a rope, and you dance the quickstep to please our ladies all the way to the Chateau, where they bring the bear to drum-head."

"Who sits behind the drum?" I questioned.

"The Marquis de Vaudreuil," he replied, "the Intendant, Master Devil Doltaire, and the little men." By these last he meant officers of the colonial soldiery.

So then, at last I was to be tried, to be dealt with definitely on the abominable charge. I should at least again see light and breathe fresh air, and feel about me the stir of the world. For a long year I had heard no voice but my own and Gabord's, had had no friends but my pale blades of corn and a timid mouse, day after day no light at all; and now winter was at hand again, and without fire and with poor food my body was chilled and starved. I had had no news of the world, nor of her who was dear to me, nor of Juste Duvarney save that he lived, nor of our cause. But succeeding the thrill of delight I had at thought of seeing the open world again there came a feeling of lassitude, of indifference; I shrank from the jar of activity. But presently I got upon my feet, and with a little air of drollery straightened out my clothes and flicked a handkerchief across my gaiters. Then I twisted my head over my shoulder as if I were noting the shape of my back and the set of my clothes in a mirror, and thrust a leg out in the manner of an exquisite. I had need to do some mocking thing at the moment, or I should have given way to tears like a woman, so suddenly weak had I become.

Gabord burst out laughing.

An idea came to me. "I must be fine to-morrow," said I. "I must not shame my jailer." I rubbed my beard--I had none when I came into this dungeon first.

"Aho!" said he, his eyes wheeling.

I knew he understood me. I did not speak, but went on running my fingers through my beard.

"As vain as Absalom," he added. "Do you think they'll hang you by the hair?"

"I'd have it off," said I, "to be clean for the sacrifice."

"You had Voban before," he rejoined; "we know what happened--a dainty bit of a letter all rose-lily scented, and comfits for the soldier. The pretty wren perches now in the Governor's house--a-cousining, a-cousining. Think you it is that she may get a glimpse of m'sieu' the dormouse as he comes to trial? But 'tis no business o' mine; and if I bring my prisoner up when called for, there's duty done!"

I saw the friendly spirit in the words.

"Voban," urged I, "Voban may come to me?"

"The Intendant said no, but the Governor yes," was the reply; "and that M'sieu' Doltaire is not yet come back from Montreal, so he had no voice. They look for him here to-morrow."

"Voban may come?" I asked again.

"At daybreak Voban--aho!" he continued. "There's milk and honey to-morrow," he added, and then, without a word, he drew forth from his coat, and hurriedly thrust into my hands, a piece of meat and a small flask of wine, and, swinging round like a schoolboy afraid of being caught in a misdemeanor, he passed through the door and the bolts clanged after him. He left the torch behind him, stuck in the cleft of the wall.

I sat down on my couch, and for a moment gazed almost vacantly at the meat and wine in my hands. I had not touched either for a year, and now I could see that my fingers, as they closed on the food nervously, were thin and bloodless, and I realized that my clothes hung loose upon my person. Here were light, meat, and wine, and there was a piece of bread on the board covering my water-jar. Luxury was spread before me, but although I had eaten little all day I was not hungry. Presently, however, I took the knife which I had hidden a year before, and cut pieces of the meat and laid them by the bread. Then I drew the cork from the bottle of wine, and, lifting it towards that face which was always visible to my soul, I drank--drank--drank!

The rich liquor swam through my veins like glorious fire. It wakened my brain and nerved my body. The old spring of life came back. This wine had come from the hands of Alixe--from the Governor's store, maybe; for never could Gabord have got such stuff. I ate heartily of the rich beef and bread with a new-made appetite, and drank the rest of the wine. When I had eaten and drunk the last, I sat and looked at the glowing torch, and felt a sort of comfort creep through me. Then there came a delightful thought. Months ago I had put away one last pipeful of tobacco, to save it till some day when I should need it most. I got it, and no man can guess how lovingly I held it to a flying flame of the torch, saw it light, and blew out the first whiff of smoke into the sombre air; for November was again piercing this underground house of mine, another winter was at hand. I sat and smoked, and--can you not guess my thoughts? For have you all not the same hearts, being British born and bred? When I had taken the last whiff, I wrapped myself in my cloak and went to sleep. But twice or thrice during the night I waked to see the torch still shining, and caught the fragrance of consuming pine, and minded not at all the smoke the burning made.