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The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 10

 

CHAPTER X

IN THE HOUSE OF BERTRAND

IT would now have been a most simple matter for me to go out unmolested beside the princess. And this is what I should have done had it not been for an accident. While Vauban was talking to the princess, I glanced round the room to see if Yvard was there, or any other person likely to know of this business. There was one figure strolling about in the rear which wore a familiar look, yet I could not say I had seen the man before.

When Vauban gave the order to allow us to pass "and none else," this man very visibly took on an air of apprehension. He looked from one door to the other and, finding all guarded, was quite alarmed, then, without perceiving himself observed, he manned himself with his former unconcerned manner. There was something in the poise of his head, his walk, which came as a well remembered thing from some secret niche of memory.

Now as the princess and I walked out in front of our guard, this man fell, as if naturally, into the rear of our company, and attempted nonchalantly to saunter out behind us. The guard at the door locked their bayonets across, barring his exit.

"By whose orders," he demanded with some show of haughty indignation, "do you hold me a prisoner with this disorderly rabble?"

"Marshal Vauban's," the sentry replied, unmoved.

The man shrank back perceptibly; as I took a longer sight of him the familiarity of voice and figure recurred more strongly. I stood still to look. He turned his face. Broussard! I almost spoke the name. Yes, beyond all peradventure it was Broussard, disguised, but still Broussard.

What a world of vain speculation this opened on the instant, speculation to which no answer came. How much and what had I told him during our voyage? How had he treasured it and where repeated it? For I had now no other thought than he was the spy who brought Yvard the packet designed for Spain.

"Come my lord, are you dreaming?" the princess broke in impatiently. I had quite forgotten her.

"No madame, I crave your patience, and beg attention a moment."

I then asked hurriedly whether she knew the young officer in charge of our escort, and whether she would trust him to see her to a place of safety. She knew the lad as a gentleman of birth and reputed honour, so with the guard and the marshal's orders felt herself safe. Despite the effort to speak coolly my whole frame and voice quivered with excitement at prospect of winding up the entire affair by one more stroke of luck. Seeing which my lady icily inquired:

"But why? Why do you fear? Surely these soldiers are sufficient to afford protection."

The half veiled scorn of her manner cut me to the quick, but I determined not to be drawn aside from my purpose. My face still a-flush at her suggestion of cowardice, I replied earnestly:

"Mademoiselle la Princesse—"

"Ah, you know me?"

I nodded.

"And yet are willing to relinquish the honour of my escort?"

"It is duty, Mademoiselle la Princesse; stern and imperative duty."

"Sh!" Placing her finger to her lips, "address me simply as Madame."

"Madame, you wrong me; I would not desert you while in danger; now I may give you into safer hands with honour. A most urgent matter demands my presence there," pointing inside, "it may cost my life. Had I better not acquaint M. de Verrue with your character? He will then be more circumspect?" She thought a space.

"No, you may tell him I am a woman—tell him of the stupid folly which led me here to-night and brought a brave gentleman into danger—but not my name."

She would have thanked me further, but I was all impatience to be inside, seeing which she graciously bade me go. I bethought me then of the packet yet in my bosom, and knowing all those within were to be searched I took a hasty resolution, born of my confidence in the Princess. It may be said here that the lady whom I escorted on that memorable night was known throughout the kingdom for her eccentric tastes, and noted for never meddling with intrigues of either state or love. Her passion lay with her dogs and horses, the hunt, and not in the trifles of a court.

"Madame, will you not render me a service in return?" I felt my whole attitude to be imploring, so warmly did I bespeak her grace.

"I have here some papers of the utmost value to myself, to no one else. My honour requires that they be delivered to M. Jerome de Greville before to-morrow's sun arises. He keeps his lodging in Rue St. Denis, at the sign of the Austrian Arms. Can Madame not dispatch a trusted messenger and secure their delivery?"

The fervour of the appeal touched her, for she listened with interest.

"Oh, Madame, I beseech you, as I have obeyed you without question this night, do not fail me as you love the glory of France. You may have M. de Greville informed how and where you came by them, in case aught of ill should happen to me this night."

She took the packet.

"Upon my royal word," she whispered, in such a tone of sincerity I felt relieved of any uneasiness concerning the papers.

I had a real regret at seeing her leave the hall. Walking so regally in front of the guard I wondered at my thick-headedness which had not before perceived in her every movement the princely pride of Bourbon. I threw my cloak, which fettered me, to one of the men, and wearing still my mask, re-entered the hall. They were already engaged in the search, questioning closely each man in rotation. None was allowed to depart without being questioned and examined. I immediately sought for Broussard. He had gone over towards another small door, the same through which I had escaped the night before. There were two guards posted here.

Broussard dawdled about with the air of a man very much bored, who only waited his turn to go through a disagreeable ordeal that he might leave. I fancied his wits were actively at work beneath so impassive an exterior. He had spoken privately to several men, one at a time, in careless fashion, and then tapping the legs of the tables, and kicking the chairs as he passed, he again came near the door. I managed to keep close to him. As he stood talking to the sentries the four men came up two by two from opposite directions, and at a sign from him, grappled with the guard. While they were thus engaged Broussard bolted through the door. I drew my sword and plunged after him.

From inside, the sentries cried out: "The two spies have gone this way," and the whole mob surged out and divided in chase. Some perhaps were in league with Broussard, others were in the service of Vauban, I could not tell.

The hall was densely dark; I knew not the way, but I had Broussard but a few feet in front to guide me; behind, some twenty or thirty stout varlets strung out in pursuit, not a dozen paces to the rear.

It so happened that there was a door which stood half open, and Broussard being hard pressed doubled by this and darted in. He was but a couple of yards ahead and I alone observed this stratagem. When he vanished to the right, I slipped in behind, just as our foremost pursuers swept by. The great noises they made and the resounding echoes effectually prevented their notice of a cessation of sounds from us. Nor did they pause to listen. Crushing through the narrow passage their pressure slammed the door behind us. I heard the clank of a heavy bolt as it dropped into place. Thinking Broussard had sought some secret means of escape known to himself, and fearing he would get away, I dashed madly on, only to fetch up with a terrific thump against a stone wall.

The shock dazed me and I fell in a heap to the floor. Perhaps it was as well, for I made no further noise. But I listened.

The place was intensely dark, and not a sound save the heightened beating of my own heart disturbed it. I was afraid to move, lest I bring upon me the crowd outside. Had not one of the men cried "two spies." It did look as if I too was a confederate of Broussard, and I could not have explained. The echoes of the chase died away, and all was still. My mind and ears were very busy then trying to make out what sort of a hole this was I had so unceremoniously fallen into. And Broussard? Where had he disappeared? I knew he could not be far, for there had been no footsteps since the door shut. I took it that he must be in the room, and that the reasons which enforced quiet upon me were also powerful to him.

He was worse off though than I, for he had doubtless heard me blunder into the wall, and thought one of the marshal's men had followed him. This idea suggested he would probably then lay perfectly still and wait for the man to recover and go out. Or, the thought made me shiver—he might steal up and finish me with the dagger. As quietly as I could I loosened my own knife in its sheath and got it well in hand. In spite of all the caution I used, the sheath rattled against a buckle. I knew my position was betrayed. I thought then to reach a corner where I could the better protect myself against a stealthy attack.

Immediately overhead an almost indistinguishable blur marked a high, square window, some seven feet from the floor. There was but one. In all probability the door lay directly opposite. That being true, the natural inclination of a man flying down the hall in the direction we came would be to go further to the right. Reasoning in this wise, hoping to avoid a struggle with Broussard in the dark, I edged my way along the wall toward the left. Inch by inch I went, holding my sword extended at arm's length in front of me, and lifting each foot carefully to avoid the scraping. Every few feet I made a complete sweep in all directions with my blade, to guard against approach. Proceeding in this way, I felt my sword's point at length touch something—something soft. Before I had time to wonder what it was, the sharp hiss of a blade cut close to my cheek, and struck clanging against the wall. I sprang back beyond reach.

"Broussard," and in the extreme excitement I spoke his name unwittingly, "Broussard, stand still; I had no thought to attack you. Stay where you are, and I will seek another place."

There came a voice, "Who are you to call me Broussard?" but I answered not.

In the absence of any preparation for assault, I took it that he would remain where he was. Thereupon I backed into the diagonal corner, and stood stock still.

After some period—hours or minutes, I knew not what, they were interminable—Broussard spoke again. His voice sounded sharp, and unnaturally loud.

"Who are you, and what do you want? I know you; is it Nortier, Lireux?"

"Hush, fool; dost not hear the tread of Vauban's men outside? You will call them down upon us with your babble." They were stamping through the passage as I spoke.

"Ah!" and there was a world of relief and incredulity in his lowered tone. "Then you are not with Vauban? Who are you?" I made no reply.

During the long period of absolute and profound silence which succeeded I had much time to reflect. I judged myself to be in an unused chamber, which, if square, would be about thirty feet across—calculating by the distance from the diagonal corner—if in fact Broussard lay in the corner. There was but one opening, for I could hear the wind stirring outside, and no draught came in. Did the window open on the street, or on an inner court? There was no way of telling.

If it be true that men live in thoughts rather than in deeds, if the changing phantoms of our brain carve deeper impressions than the petty part we play with our hands, then, indeed, that frightful night would form by far the longest chapter in the history of my soul.

Darkness, darkness, darkness; quivering, soundless, hopeless night.

I feared to move, and no sense save that of hearing bound me to the world of living men. Living men? What place had I among them?

A party of drunken roisterers staggered beneath the window, singing coarse songs and bandying their brutal jests. But it no longer interested me to know the window opened on a street.

Hour after hour plodded in slow procession through the night.

Outside, a clattering vehicle whipped past over the rough stones, the driver swearing at his team. The day was coming at last. Did I wish it? Perhaps the night were kinder, for it at least obscured my misery. I almost prayed the darkness might last.