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The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 12

 

CHAPTER XII

FLORINE TO THE RESCUE

A SHROUD of consuming terror now possessed me. I crouched in the dank corner clutching my sword, listening, vainly listening, for some sound out of which to conjure up an assassin. A rat ran across my foot. Screaming out I bounded erect and beat about me with blind desperation. One hand touched the other and shrank from its mate. They were as ice.

Oh, God, the horrid silence! How weightily it bore upon me, stripping me of voice, of courage and of hope. How many, many times I braced myself against the wall, cold with fear at the apprehension of an attack by some demon of the night. How many, many times I sank again into the same dumb misery when no enemy appeared to do me hurt.

So long it had been since the tones of human speech blessed my ears, I almost hoped the marshal's men might come, that I might hear his stern command, "Hang him to yonder window ledge." A rasping thirst roasted my throat until my tongue gritted and ground as a rusted clapper in a bell. I touched it with my hand. It was as dry as Broussard's.

Broussard! A quiver in the musty air set me all a shudder; in every rustle I felt again the last convulsions of the dead. Dull lights gathered when I closed my eyes, and rested upon his swollen features, their white eyes following me in hate.

Coolly and logically as if it concerned someone else, the reason of it all crept into my morbid brain. I was mad; mad from hunger, thirst and terror. Yes, mad, and felt not one whit sorry of it; nay, rejoiced rather, for it meant a freedom of the spirit. So insidiously this knowledge forced itself upon me, it brought no shock, I even dimly wondered that any other condition ever existed. Verily, men are happier for a gentle frenzy. Then, indeed, are all things levelled, all barriers removed. Gone were all my pigmy troubles, vanished into nothingness. Engulfed in a common ruin lay all fragments of desire; the search for reward, the dread of punishment—all petty figments of the imagination were powerful now no more. The fall of reason crushed every human hope and dulled the edge of every human fear. What cared I now for food, for water; for honour or for shame? My mind, imperial and free from artificial restraints, plunged riotously into forbidden realms, I revelled in the exaltation of chainless thought, and drank from the deepest wells of rebellion delicious draughts of secret sin, thanking, yea thanking, this sweet madness which gave a glorious independence.

What repugnance had I now for yon piece of foul and rotting carrion! What mattered if but lately a breathing man it had strangled in my grip. By the gods, a knightly feat and most bravely done! And I laughed at my former fear, not loud, but such as laughed the fiends of hell when Lucifer rose against his Prince. Low I chuckled, then shivered at my own unnatural voice.

Dead now to every sense of physical loathing I advanced steadfastly towards where he lay. Shorn of human companions my wretchedness sought a lonely comradeship with the piece of mortal clay. Turning now and again to beat back some skinny hand which snatched my garments, to slap in the face some evil sprite which thrust its sneer upon me, I walked in resolution across the floor. I fancied again I heard the tread of men in the passage. Pleased at the babble of the children of my own imagination, I stood to listen. Yes, by the wit of a fool, I'll indulge the jest, a joyous jibe and a merry.

The low shuffle of cautious feet came again. The latch clanked ever so softly as if some hand without lifted it gently, oh so gently raised it. "Ha! here you are, seeking to frighten me again, but I know you well. No, no, you'll scare me no more; I'll play a merry game with you." So I hid myself in the dark, and thought to play a prank upon the evil Thing. Held my breath.

Elated to find I owned so wondrously fertile a brain I saw the door open little by little without a creak. A current of liberated air brushed by my cheek. So real it was, I smiled. The door swung wider and wider yet, in the dark I saw it. Verily the sight of a madman is sharp. The wind blew more chill and strong. I saw a gleam peeping beneath a cloak as from a hidden lanthorn; I bethought me I would catch the tiny wanderer from the floor and hold it in my hand. It came crawling and crawling, on and on, wavering to my feet. So many times that night had I manned myself valiantly to fight a shadow, I only laughed in silence and contempt at this.

Behold the folly of a madman's thought. Yet the creation of it all gave me exquisite pleasure, as a child might find delight in some strange toy from which it could call weird shapes at will. On it moved with a noiseless, gliding motion; now inside the door, now coming, coming, coming—nearly to me. Now it let fall a timorous blade of light along the floor. It reached Broussard's body. Its foot struck him. It stooped, threw the light full upon him. Open fell the concealing mantle, showing the barren stones, the corpse, the ghastly upturned face of the strangled man.

The woman—for it was a woman—dropped to her knees beside him, called him, felt of his clammy head, and suffered but a single scream of swift affright to leave her lips. From the unhooded lanthorn burst out a spreading yellow glow. Her scream awoke me to a consciousness of reality. From my own unlocked tongue of terror came its answer. I joined my voice to hers, defied the hush of slumbering centuries and filled that quaking room with a perfect deluge of reverberating shrieks. Many others, men, with cloaks, some having lights, some none, rushed in behind the woman. From that time I knew nothing

*******

I awakened from a dreamy languor; a subtle essence of perfume floated through my senses. A gentle touch of some kindly hand was bathing my temples. Fearful lest this sweet illusion vanish with the others, I kept my eyes firmly closed, and soon abandoned myself wholly to the subduing influences of natural slumber.

"Has he stirred, Florine?"

"No, Monsieur, but his head is cooler now—he sleeps, hush! Perhaps another day he will be better. How he raved through the night. Poor, young gentleman, he quite exhausted himself."

"Ah, well, Florine, he is young, and with such nurses as thou and Nannette he will of a surety recover."

I turned my head and smiled a feeble recognition of Jerome and Florine. The other woman I had never seen; she was much older than Florine and had a kind, motherly face.

"What day is it?"

"The morning of Sunday."

It was Wednesday night when Jerome and I went to the ball.

I looked about me. The lodgings were those I had taken at the Austrian Arms, yet much changed in little things. The vase of flowers there in the window, the neat-swept hearth, the cheerful fire, and that indefinable something which gives a touch of womanliness to a room. Florine, perhaps.

"Ugh! I'm so glad to be here," and I shuddered at the remembrance of my prison and suffering.

"Poor dear," said the older woman in a voice full of sympathy, "don't worry; you are in comfort now, and will soon be strong again."

"Am I wounded in any wise?" I inquired, for I knew not the manner of my coming there.

"No, no, my lad," broke in Jerome's hearty reassurance, "not a bit, just worn and starved out. Truly, boy, you had a rough adventure. By 'Od's blood, I'd hate to have the like! Has he taken any food Florine?"

"Nothing but the wine, and a sup or two of broth. Here is something for him now," and she brought me a most tempting array of soup, hot viands and victuals of which I feared to eat as I desired.

Though Florine and Jerome would not permit me to disturb myself with vain conversation, yet by dint of questions and listening when they talked apart, thinking I slept, I found how it all came about. It seems Florine saw and recognized me when I returned to the gaming room, having left Madame la Princesse. She knew too, in some way which I did not learn, that neither Broussard nor I had left Bertrand's that night. This, though the Provost's men had been searching the city for us both. She kept her knowledge to herself. When the turbulence calmed down somewhat and sentries were placed to guard the house, she occupied herself in slipping about looking for my hiding place. It took but a little while for her, familiar as she was with the house, to find the room where Broussard and I had taken refuge. Listening at the door she heard our angry voices and the scuffle within. This may have been when I was choking him. Horrible! horrible!

At any rate she feared to intrude, and at once set out to seek help. The girl throughout acted with astonishing promptness and judgment. Florine had recognized Madame la Princesse—all Paris knew the eccentric lady—so went straight to her. At first denied admission she sent up a note couched in such terms as gained for her an immediate private interview—indeed the Princess herself was careful it should be strictly private.

Madame knew nothing of me except the request I made concerning Jerome, and sending the papers to the Austrian Arms. Florine went without delay to that place. This was about midday. Meanwhile Jerome, much troubled that I did not appear during the night, pursued our original plan of watching the house, and arranged his men at windows, and in the street, in such a way as not to attract attention. One of them had seen me working at the window but never dreamed it was I. Jerome found the house already doubly guarded by the Provost's men, to his infinite disgust. He was a handy chap though, and not to be outdone. Dressing himself as a clumsy lout, he found little difficulty in worming the transactions of the night before out of one of the guard off duty. A drink or two together at the sign of the "Yellow Flagon" fetched this information.

Jerome was much wearied through his long watching and anxiety when he returned to the Austrian Arms. The hostler at the inn turned him aside from the front door by a gesture, so that he entered by another way. Claude acquainted him that a lady in the public room desired to speak with M. Jerome de Greville, and would not be denied. Jerome's custom with visitors was to see them first himself, before Claude told them whether he was in or no.

Peeping through an aperture he saw the lady walking impatiently up and down the room, tapping at the window, mending the fire, and expressing her haste in many other pettish manners so truly feminine. It was Florine. He knew the girl well from his frequenting Bertrand's during this piece of business. Jerome sent her word he would be in, and changing his costume to one he usually wore, presented himself before her in the public room.

"Is it I you seek, M. de Greville, Mademoiselle?" he inquired, politely.

"Oh! Monsieur de Greville, it is you; I'm so glad." She came forward with a pretty air of perplexity and surprise, for Florine had a dainty woman's way about her, showing even through her present trouble. She bore herself more steadily that she had not to deal with some severe-faced stranger, but a gallant gentleman, whose mien was not that from which timid maidens were prone to fly.

"Oh, Monsieur de Greville, I know not what to say, now that I am well met with you."

"And by my faith, Mademoiselle, I am sure no word of mine would grace those pretty lips as well as thine own sweet syllables. So I can not tell you what to say."

Florine pouted her dissent, yet was not in earnest angered—she was a woman. Jerome saw her business lay deeper than mere jest and badinage, so he spoke her more seriously.

"I pray you Mademoiselle—Florine?—am I right? Be seated."

Florine had no thought for gallantries; she declined the proffered seat, and, standing, proceeded at once to the point of her mission.

"There is a young gentleman in our house," and she blushed a little, Jerome declared to me afterwards, "in Bertrand's wine room—you know the place? locked up, and I am not certain whether he lives or is dead. I can not tell Monsieur his name, but you know him. Oh, he was kind to me, and I would willingly do something to save him. It is so hard to be only a woman. The Provost has the house guarded."

"I know it," Jerome put in drily.

"This gentleman gave your name and lodgings to the lady who was with him there last night, and she it was who sent you the packet." Florine had run on hurriedly, unheeding Jerome's blank look of astonishment. This was probably a shrewd guess on her part, yet it squarely struck the mark.

"Lady? Sent the papers? Who? What lady?" Jerome asked before she could answer anything.

"That I must not tell, Monsieur. Oh, come, quick; get him away from there; if our people find him they may do him harm. Monsieur is a brave gentleman, a friend of his, is it not true? Come."

Jerome drew the facts pretty well out of the excited girl, knowing somewhat of the circumstances and guessing the rest—all in an exceeding short space of time. Florine told him as accurately as she could in what room I lay, leaving him to locate the window from the street. From this point the plan was simple enough. Jerome and Florine arrived at Bertrand's by different routes, Florine passing in unconcernedly, and Jerome, clad again as a stupid country knave, walked by the house to discover my outer window.

It was at this time that the falling of the spur conveyed to him the intelligence of my life and place of confinement. After this Jerome had to depend greatly upon the quick-witted woman.

It would be a long story, and a bootless, were I to tell how it fell out that Florine had a friend, the same kind-faced woman who helped her watch beside my bed; the window of this friend's garret room opened almost directly opposite Florine's own poor apartment. Only a narrow, dingy alley lay between; so scant was the space the upper stories came near to touching across it. Florine's friend, after some tearful persuasion, consented to aid the rescue of such a gallant gentleman as I was described to be. The girl could come and go at will. The friend permitted Jerome and three of his men to hide in her room. From her window Jerome cast a light cord into Florine's window, she drawing a stouter rope across with it, and made fast. It now became a trifling feat for these nimble adventurers to swing themselves across to Florine's room, but twelve feet or so away. Once inside Bertrand's they proceeded with abundant caution, all of which near came to naught through Florine's sudden shriek and my own nervous clamour. It shamed me heartily.

"Truly, comrade, thou hast good lungs," Jerome told me days afterward. "It took all our strength to shut thee of thy wind."

When the four men found me a helpless body in their hands, they were greatly troubled. However, Florine insisted that I be carried to her room where she could conceal me.

Once there they found means to truss me up like a bale of merchandise and sling me across the alley again, whence I was conveyed, still unconscious, through out-of-the-way streets to the Austrian Arms.

And so it was I came to my strength, safe in my own lodgings in Rue St. Denis, with Florine and her kind-hearted friend to nurse me.