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The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 1

 

CHAPTER I

THE MASTER

IT was late one clear moonlight night in the spring of 17—, when three silent figures emerged from the woodland darkness and struck across the wide extent of rank grass which yet separated us from the bay. Tuskahoma led the way, a tall grim Choctaw chieftain, my companion on many a hunt, his streaming plumes fluttering behind him as he strode. I followed, and after me, Le Corbeau Rouge, a runner of the Choctaws. We were returning to Biloxi from a reconnaissance in the Chickasaw country.

Each straight behind the other, dumb and soundless shadows, we passed along the way, hardly bruising a leaf or brushing the rustling reeds aside.

"See, there is the light," grunted Tuskahoma, pointing to a glimmer through the trees. "Yes, the White Prophet never sleeps," assented Le Corbeau Rouge.

The light which marked our almost ended journey came from a window in one of those low, square log houses, fortress-dwellings, so common in the provinces.

Here, however, the strong pine palisades were broken down in many places; the iron-studded gate hung unhinged and open, the accumulated sand at its base showed it had not been closed in many years.

But the decay and neglect everywhere manifest in its defenses extended no further, for inside the enclosure was a garden carefully tended; a trailing vine clung lovingly to a corner of the wide gallery, and even a few of the bright roses of France lent their sweetness to a place it seemed impossible to associate with a thought of barbaric warfare.

I loved this humble home, for in such a one my mother and I had spent those last years of sweet good-comradeship before her death—the roses, the rude house, all reminded me of her, of peace, of gentler things.

The character of its lone occupant protected this lowly abode far better than the armies of France, the chivalry of Spain, or the Choctaw's ceaseless vigilance could possibly have done. He came there it was said, some fifteen years before, a Huguenot exile, seemingly a man of education and birth. He built his castle of refuge on a knoll overlooking the sheltered bay, hoping there to find the toleration denied him in his native land. The edict of Nantes had been revoked by King Louis, and thousands of exiled Frenchmen of high and low degree sought new fortunes in newer lands.

Many had reached America, and strove with energetic swords and rapacious wallets to wrest blood and gold and fame from whatsoever source they might.

This man alone of all those first explorers had shown no disposition to search out the hidden treasures of the wilderness, to prey upon the natives. He became their friend and not their plunderer.

His quiet life, his kindness, his charity, his knowledge of the simple arts of healing, so endeared him to every warring faction that at his house the Choctaw and the Chickasaw, the Frenchman, Spaniard and the Englishman met alike in peace. So the needless fortifications fell into unrepaired decay.

Many an afternoon I had paddled across the bay and spent a quiet hour with him, as far from the jars and discord at Biloxi as if we were in some other world.

As, this night, we drew nearer the house we saw no signs of life save the chinks of light creeping beneath the door. I rapped, and his voice bade me enter.

The master sat at his table in the center of a great room, about which were a number of surgical and scientific instruments, all objects of mistrust to my Indian friends.

These curious weapons of destruction or of witchcraft, for so the Indians regarded them, contributed to make him an object of fear, which doubtless did much to strengthen his influence among the tribes.

He was at this time somewhat more than sixty, slender and rather above the medium height. With his usual grave courtesy he welcomed us and readily loaned the small pirogue necessary to carry our party across the bay.

The Indians were restless and the governor waited, so I only thanked our host and turned to go.

He rose, and laying his hand upon my arm detained me. "Wait, Placide; I am glad you returned this way, for I have long wished to speak with you; especially do I wish it on this night—on this night. Sit down."

Mechanically I obeyed, for I could see there was something of more than usual import on his mind. The Indians had withdrawn, and the master, pacing uncertainly about the room, paused and regarded me intently, as if he almost regretted his invitation to stay. After several efforts he abruptly began:

"I fear I have not very long to live, and dread to meet death, leaving a solemn duty unperformed. It is of this I would speak."

I listened in silence. He spoke hurriedly as though he doubted his resolution to tell it all.

"You, and every one in these colonies, know me only as Colonel d'Ortez, the Huguenot refugee. So I have been known by the whites ever since I came here to escape persecution at home, and to get forever beyond the sound of a name which has become hateful to me—my own.

"The Counts d'Artin have been a proud race in France for centuries, yet I, the last d'Artin, find the name too great a burden to bear with me in shameful silence to my grave. See this," and he took from his throat a pearl-studded locket, swung by a substantial golden chain, which he opened and handed to me. Inside were the arms of a noble family exquisitely blazoned upon a silver shield.

"What is it; what device is there?"

I knew something of heraldry and read aloud without
 
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What is it; what device is there?

 
hesitation the bearings upon the shield, prominent among which were three wolves' heads, chevroned, supported by two black wolves, rampant, the coronet and motto "Praeclare factum."

"Aye," he mused half coherently, "the wolf; 'tis the crest of the d'Artins, quartered with those of many of the most ancient houses of France. So do those arms appear to men. But see."

He took the locket quickly from me and with a swift forceful movement turned the plate in its place, exposing the reverse side.

"What is this? Look!"

I glanced at it and started, looking inquiringly into my old friend's face. He avoided my eye.

I saw now upon the plate the same arms, the same quarterings, but over all there ran diagonally across the scutcheon a flaming bar of red which blazed evilly upon the silver ground. I understood.

"What is it?" he demanded impatiently. I still could find no word to answer.

"Speak out boy, what is it?"

"The same, but here, overall, is the bendlet sinister." I scarcely dared to look up into his face.

"Aye," he replied, his countenance livid with shame. "It is the bar sinister, the badge of dishonor. So do those proud arms appear in the sight of God, and so shall they be seen of men. And for generations each Lord of Cartillon has added to that crimson stripe the indelible stain of cowardice."

The master, his features working convulsively with humbled pride, his eyes never leaving the floor, continued resolutely.

"The story is short. Over a hundred years ago the Count d'Artin was murdered in his castle by the son of a peasant woman, his half brother, who assumed the title and seized the estates. This was easy in those times, for the murdered man was a Huguenot, his slayer a Catholic in the service of Guise, and it was the day after St. Bartholomew's. The count had sent his infant son for safety to an old friend, the abbott of a neighboring monastery. This child was brought up in the Catholic faith, and in him and his descendants resided the true right of the Counts d'Artin. Of this they have always been ignorant. The usurper on his death bed repented, and calling his own son to him, told him the whole story, exacting a solemn oath that he would find the disinherited one and restore to him his own. This oath was kept in part. His son, Raoul d'Ortez, found the child, then an officer in the army, but lacked the courage to declare his own shame, and relinquish the price of his father's crime. By that Raoul d'Ortez this locket was made, and the same vow and the same tradition were handed down to me. I have no child. God knows I would give up the accursed heritage if I could.

"During all these years a careful record has been kept of the true lineage, which was only broken in my father's time. Here in this packet are the papers which prove it; I confide them to you upon my death. After I am gone I want you to find the last d'Artin."

He was silent now a long time, then continued in a lower tone: "My mother was of the reformed religion and I embraced her faith. It seems like a judgment of God that I, a Huguenot, should lose under King Louis what my Catholic ancestor gained under King Charles. Now go, lad."

I could say nothing, but touching his hand in mute sympathy turned away without a word.

I had almost reached the door when he sprang after and again detained me. His glance searched apprehensively into the shadowy corners of the room, his voice wavered, the look of a hunted animal crept into his eyes.

"’Tis said," he whispered, "the restless spirits of my fathers yet haunt our castle in Normandy—oh, merciful God, do you believe it? Oh no, no, after all these troubled years I fain would find a dreamless slumber in my grave."

I soothed him as I would a frightened child, and left him standing at the door.