THE HOUSE IN THE WOOD
My words fairly startled the three men out of their anger. For a moment they glared at me as if they had seen a ghost. Then the wine-merchant clapped his hand on the table. ‘That is enough,’ he said, with a look at his companions. ‘I think that there can be no mistake about that. As damnable treason as ever I heard whispered! I congratulate you, Sir, on your boldness. As for you,’ he continued, turning with an ugly sneer to the landlord, ‘I shall know now the company you keep! I was not aware that my wine wet whistles to such a tune!’
But if he was startled, the innkeeper was furious, seeing his character thus taken away; and, being at no time a man of many words, he vented his rage exactly in the way I wished. In a twinkling he raised such an uproar as can scarcely be conceived. With a roar like a bull’s, he ran headlong at the table, and overturned it on the top of me. The woman saved the lamp and fled with it into a corner, whence she and the man from the Château watched the skirmish in silence; but the pewter cups and platters flew spinning across the floor, while the table pinned me to the ground among the ruins of my stool. Having me at this disadvantage—for at first I made no resistance—the landlord began to belabour me with the first thing he snatched up, and when I tried to defend myself cursed me with each blow for a treacherous rogue and a vagrant. Meanwhile the three merchants, delighted with the turn things had taken, skipped round us laughing, and now hounded him on, now bantered me with ‘How is that for the Duke of Orleans?’ and ‘How now, traitor?’
When I thought that this had lasted long enough—or, to speak more plainly, when I could stand the innkeeper’s drubbing no longer—I threw him off, and struggled to my feet; but still, though the blood was trickling down my face, I refrained from drawing my sword. I caught up instead a leg of the stool which lay handy, and, watching my opportunity, dealt the landlord a shrewd blow under the ear, which laid him out in a moment on the wreck of his own table.
‘Now,’ I cried, brandishing my new weapon, which fitted the hand to a nicety, ‘come on! Come on! if you dare to strike a blow, you peddling, truckling, huckstering knaves! A fig for you and your shaveling Cardinal!’
The red-faced wine merchant drew his sword in a one-two. ‘Why, you drunken fool,’ he said wrathfully, ‘put that stick down, or I will spit you like a lark!’
‘Lark in your teeth!’ I cried, staggering as if the wine were in my head. ‘Another word, and I—’
He made a couple of savage passes at me, but in a twinkling his sword flew across the room.
‘Voilà!’ I shouted, lurching forward, as if I had luck and not skill to thank for my victory. ‘Now, the next! Come on, come on—you white-livered knaves!’ And, pretending a drunken frenzy, I flung my weapon bodily amongst them, and seizing the nearest, began to wrestle with him.
In a moment they all threw themselves upon me, and, swearing copiously, bore me back to the door. The wine-merchant cried breathlessly to the woman to open it, and in a twinkling they had me through it, and half way across the road. The one thing I feared was a knife-thrust in the mêlée; but I had to run that risk, and the men were honest, and, thinking me drunk, indulgent. In a trice I found myself on my back in the dirt, with my head humming; and heard the bars of the door fall noisily into their places.
I got up and went to the door, and, to play out my part, hammered on it frantically; crying out to them to let me in. But the three travellers only jeered at me, and the landlord, coming to the window, with his head bleeding, shook his fist at me, and cursed me for a mischief-maker.
Baffled in this, I retired to a log which lay in the road a few paces from the house, and sat down on it to await events. With torn clothes and bleeding face, hatless and covered with dirt, I was in little better case than my opponent. It was raining, too, and the dripping branches swayed over my head. The wind was in the south—the coldest quarter. I began to feel chilled and dispirited. If my scheme failed, I had forfeited roof and bed to no purpose, and placed future progress out of the question. It was a critical moment.
But at last that happened for which I had been looking. The door swung open a few inches, and a man came noiselessly out; it was quickly barred behind him. He stood a moment, waiting on the threshold and peering into the gloom; and seemed to expect to be attacked. Finding himself unmolested, however, and all quiet, he went off steadily down the street—towards the Château.
I let a couple of minutes go by, and then I followed. I had no difficulty in hitting on the track at the end of the street, but when I had once plunged into the wood, I found myself in darkness so intense that I soon strayed from the path, and fell over roots, and tore my clothes with thorns, and lost my temper twenty times before I found the path again. However, I gained the bridge at last, and thence caught sight of a light twinkling before me. To make for it across the meadow and terrace was an easy task; yet, when I had reached the door and had hammered upon it, I was so worn out, and in so sorry a plight that I sank down, and had little need to play a part, or pretend to be worse than I was.
For a long time no one answered. The dark house towering above me remained silent. I could hear, mingled with the throbbings of my heart, the steady croaking of the frogs in a pond near the stables; but no other sound. In a frenzy of impatience and disgust, I stood up again and hammered, kicking with my heels on the nail-studded door, and crying out desperately, ‘A moi! A moi!’
Then, or a moment later, I heard a remote door opened; footsteps as of more than one person drew near. I raised my voice and cried again, ‘A moi!’
‘Who is there?’ a voice asked.
‘A gentleman in distress,’ I answered piteously, moving my hands across the door. ‘For God’s sake open and let me in. I am hurt, and dying of cold.’
‘What brings you here?’ the voice asked sharply. Despite its tartness, I fancied that it was a woman’s.
‘Heaven knows!’ I answered desperately. ‘I cannot tell. They maltreated me at the inn, and threw me into the street. I crawled away, and have been wandering in the wood for hours. Then I saw a light here.’
Thereon some muttering took place on the other side of the door—to which I had my ear. It ended in the bars being lowered. The door swung partly open and a light shone out, dazzling me. I tried to shade my eyes with my fingers, and as I did so fancied I heard a murmur of pity. But when I looked in under screen of my hand I saw only one person—the man who held the light, and his aspect was so strange, so terrifying, that, shaken as I was by fatigue, I recoiled a step.
He was a tall and very thin man, meanly dressed in a short, scanty jacket and well-darned hose. Unable, for some reason, to bend his neck, he carried his head with a strange stiffness.
And that head—never did living man show a face so like death. His forehead was bald and white, his cheek-bones stood out under the strained skin, all the lower part of his face fell in, his jaws receded, his cheeks were hollow, his lips and chin were thin and fleshless. He seemed to have only one expression—a fixed grin.
While I stood looking at this formidable creature he made a quick movement to shut the door again, smiling more widely. I had the presence of mind to thrust in my foot, and, before he could resent the act, a voice in the background cried, ‘For shame, Clon! Stand back. Stand back, do you hear? I am afraid, Monsieur, that you are hurt.’
Those words were my welcome to that house; and, spoken at an hour and in circumstances so gloomy, they made a lasting impression. Round the hall ran a gallery, and this, the height of the apartment, and the dark panelling seemed to swallow up the light. I stood within the entrance (as it seemed to me) of a huge cave; the skull-headed porter had the air of an ogre. Only the voice which greeted me dispelled the illusion. I turned trembling towards the quarter whence it came, and, shading my eyes, made out a woman’s form standing in a doorway under the gallery. A second figure, which I took to be that of the servant I had seen at the inn, loomed uncertainly beside her.
I bowed in silence. My teeth were chattering. I was faint without feigning, and felt a kind of terror, hard to explain, at the sound of this woman’s voice.
‘One of our people has told me about you,’ she continued, speaking out of the darkness. ‘I am sorry that this has happened to you here, but I am afraid that you were indiscreet.’
‘I take all the blame, Madame,’ I answered humbly. ‘I ask only shelter for the night.’
‘The time has not yet come when we cannot give our friends that!’ she answered with noble courtesy. ‘When it does, Monsieur, we shall be homeless ourselves.’
I shivered, looking anywhere but at her; for I had not sufficiently pictured this scene of my arrival—I had not foreseen its details; and now I took part in it I felt a miserable meanness weigh me down. I had never from the first liked the work! But I had had no choice. And I had no choice now. Luckily, the guise in which I came, my fatigue, and wound were a sufficient mask, or I should have incurred suspicion at once. For I am sure that if ever in this world a brave man wore a hang-dog air, or Gil de Berault fell below himself, it was then and there—on Madame de Cocheforêt’s threshold, with her welcome sounding in my ears.
One, I think, did suspect me. Clon, the porter, continued to hold the door obstinately ajar and to eye me with grinning spite, until his mistress, with some sharpness, bade him drop the bars and conduct me to a room.
‘Do you go also, Louis,’ she continued, speaking to the man beside her, ‘and see this gentleman comfortably disposed. I am sorry,’ she added, addressing me in the graceful tone she had before used, and I thought that I could see her head bend in the darkness, ‘that our present circumstances do not permit us to welcome you more fitly, Monsieur. But the troubles of the times—however, you will excuse what is lacking. Until to-morrow, I have the honour to bid you good-night.’
‘Good-night, Madame,’ I stammered, trembling. I had not been able to distinguish her face in the gloom of the doorway, but her voice, her greeting, her presence unmanned me. I was troubled and perplexed; I had not spirit to kick a dog. I followed the two servants from the hall without heeding how we went; nor was it until we came to a full stop at a door in a whitewashed corridor, and it was forced upon me that something was in question between my two conductors, that I began to take notice.
Then I saw that one of them, Louis, wished to lodge me here where we stood. The porter, on the other hand, who held the keys, would not. He did not speak a word, nor did the other—and this gave a queer ominous character to the debate; but he continued to jerk his head towards the farther end of the corridor, and, at last, he carried his point. Louis shrugged his shoulders, and moved on, glancing askance at me; and I, not understanding the matter in debate, followed the pair in silence.
We reached the end of the corridor, and there for an instant the monster with the keys paused and grinned at me. Then he turned into a narrow passage on the left, and after following it for some paces, halted before a small, strong door. His key jarred in the lock, but he forced it shrieking round, and with a savage flourish threw the door open.
I walked in and saw a mean, bare chamber with barred windows. The floor was indifferently clean, there was no furniture. The yellow light of the lanthorn falling on the stained walls gave the place the look of a dungeon. I turned to the two men. ‘This is not a very good room,’ I said. ‘And it feels damp. Have you no other?’
Louis looked doubtfully at his companion. But the porter shook his head stubbornly.
‘Why does he not speak?’ I asked with impatience.
‘He is dumb,’ Louis answered.
‘Dumb!’ I exclaimed. ‘But he hears.’
‘He has ears,’ the servant answered drily. ‘But he has no tongue, Monsieur.’
I shuddered. ‘How did he lose it?’ I asked.
‘At Rochelle. He was a spy, and the king’s people took him the day the town surrendered. They spared his life, but cut out his tongue.’
‘Ah!’ I said. I wished to say more, to be natural, to show myself at my ease. But the porter’s eyes seemed to burn into me, and my own tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. He opened his lips and pointed to his throat with a horrid gesture, and I shook my head and turned from him— ‘You can let me have some bedding?’ I murmured hastily, for the sake of saying something, and to escape.
‘Of course, Monsieur,’ Louis answered. ‘I will fetch some.’
He went away, thinking doubtless that Clon would stay with me. But after waiting a minute the porter strode off also with the lanthorn, leaving me to stand in the middle of the damp, dark room, and reflect on the position. It was plain that Clon suspected me. This prison-like room, with its barred window at the back of the house, and in the wing farthest from the stables, proved so much. Clearly, he was a dangerous fellow, of whom I must beware. I had just begun to wonder how Madame could keep such a monster in her house, when I heard his step returning. He came in, lighting Louis, who carried a small pallet and a bundle of coverings.
The dumb man had, besides the lanthorn, a bowl of water and a piece of rag in his hand. He set them down, and going out again, fetched in a stool. Then he hung up the lanthorn on a nail, took the bowl and rag, and invited me to sit down.
I was loth to let him touch me; but he continued to stand over me, pointing and grinning with dark persistence, and, rather than stand on a trifle I sat down at last and gave him his way. He bathed my head carefully enough, and I daresay did it good; but I understood. I knew that his only desire was to learn whether the cut was real or a pretence. I began to fear him more and more, and, until he was gone from the room, I dared scarcely lift my face lest he should read too much in it.
Alone, even, I felt uncomfortable, this seemed so sinister a business, and so ill begun. I was in the house. But Madame’s frank voice haunted me, and the dumb man’s eyes, full of suspicion and menace. When I presently got up and tried my door, I found it locked. The room smelt dank and close—like a vault. I could not see through the barred window, but I could hear the boughs sweep it in ghostly fashion; and I guessed that it looked out where the wood grew close to the walls of the house, and that even in the day the sun never peeped through it.
Nevertheless, tired and worn out, I slept at last. When I awoke the room was full of grey light, the door stood open, and Louis, looking ashamed of himself, waited by my pallet with a cup of wine in his hand, and some bread and fruit on a platter.
‘Will Monsieur be good enough to rise?’ he said. ‘It is eight o’clock.’
‘Willingly,’ I answered tartly. ‘Now that the door is unlocked.’
He turned red. ‘It was an oversight,’ he stammered ‘Clon is accustomed to lock the door, and he did it inadvertently, forgetting that there was any one—’
‘Inside,’ I said drily.
‘Ah!’ I replied. ‘Well, I do not think the oversight would please Madame de Cocheforêt if she heard of it?’
‘If Monsieur would have the kindness not to—’
‘Mention it, my good fellow?’ answered, looking at him with meaning as I rose. ‘No. But it must not occur again.’
I saw that this man was not like Clon. He had the instincts of the family servant, and freed from the influences of darkness, felt ashamed of his conduct. While he arranged my clothes, he looked round the room with an air of distaste, and muttered once or twice that the furniture of the principal chambers was packed away.
‘M. de Cocheforêt is abroad, I think?’ I said as I dressed.
‘And likely to remain there,’ the man answered carelessly, shrugging his shoulders. ‘Monsieur will doubtless have heard that he is in trouble. In the meantime, the house is triste, and Monsieur must overlook much, if he stays. Madame lives retired, and the roads are ill-made and visitors few.’
‘When the lion was ill the jackals left him,’ I said.
Louis nodded. ‘It is true,’ he answered simply. He made no boast or brag on his own account, I noticed; and it came home to me that he was a faithful fellow, such as I love. I questioned him discreetly, and learned that he and Clon and an older man who lived over the stables were the only male servants left of a great household. Madame, her sister-in-law, and three women completed the family.
It took me some time to repair my wardrobe, so that I daresay it was nearly ten when I left my dismal little room. I found Louis waiting in the corridor, and he told me that Madame de Cocheforêt and Mademoiselle were in the rose garden, and would be pleased to receive me. I nodded, and he guided me through several dim passages to a parlour with an open door, through which the sun shone gaily on the floor. Cheered by the morning air and this sudden change to pleasantness and life, I stepped lightly out.
The two ladies were walking up and down a wide path which bisected the garden. The weeds grew rankly in the gravel underfoot, the rose bushes which bordered the walk thrust their branches here and there in untrained freedom, a dark yew hedge which formed the background bristled with rough shoots and sadly needed trimming. But I did not see any of these things. The grace, the noble air, the distinction of the two women who paced slowly to meet me—and who shared all these qualities, greatly as they differed in others—left me no power to notice trifles.
Mademoiselle was a head shorter than her belle sœur—a slender woman and petite, with a beautiful face and a fair complexion; a woman wholly womanly. She walked with dignity, but beside Madame’s stately figure she had an air almost childish. And it was characteristic of the two that Mademoiselle as they drew near to me regarded me with sorrowful attention, Madame with a grave smile.
I bowed low. They returned the salute. ‘This is my sister,’ Madame de Cocheforêt said, with a slight, a very slight air of condescension, ‘Will you please to tell me your name, Monsieur?’
"I am M. De Barthe, a gentleman of Normandy"
‘I am M. de Barthe, a gentleman of Normandy,’ I said, taking on impulse the name of my mother. My own, by a possibility, might be known.
Madame’s face wore a puzzled look. ‘I do not know that name, I think,’ she said thoughtfully. Doubtless she was going over in her mind all the names with which conspiracy had made her familiar.
That is my misfortune, Madame,’ I said humbly.
‘Nevertheless I am going to scold you,’ she rejoined, still eyeing me with some keenness. ‘I am glad to see that you are none the worse for your adventure—but others may be. And you should have borne that in mind.’
‘I do not think that I hurt the man seriously,’ I stammered.
‘I do not refer to that,’ she answered coldly. ‘You know, or should know, that we are in disgrace here; that the Government regards us already with an evil eye, and that a very small thing would lead them to garrison the village, and perhaps oust us from the little the wars have left us. You should have known this, and considered it,’ she continued. ‘Whereas—I do not say that you are a braggart, M. de Barthe. But on this one occasion you seem to have played the part of one.’
‘Madame, I did not think,’ I stammered.
‘Want of thought causes much evil,’ she answered, smiling. ‘However, I have spoken, and we trust that while you stay with us you will be more careful. For the rest, Monsieur,’ she continued graciously, raising her hand to prevent me speaking, ‘we do not know why you are here, or what plans you are pursuing. And we do not wish to know. It is enough that you are of our side. This house is at your service as long as you please to use it. And if we can aid you in any other way we will do so.’
‘Madame!’ I exclaimed; and there I stopped. I could say no more. The rose garden, with its air of neglect, the shadow of the quiet house that fell across it, the great yew hedge which backed it, and was the pattern of one under which I had played in childhood—all had points that pricked me. But the women’s kindness, their unquestioning confidence, the noble air of hospitality which moved them! Against these and their placid beauty in its peaceful frame I had no shield. I turned away, and feigned to be overcome by gratitude. ‘I have no words—to thank you!’ I muttered presently. ‘I am a little shaken this morning. I—pardon me.’
‘We will leave you for a while,’ Mademoiselle de Cocheforêt said in gentle pitying tones. ‘The air will revive you. Louis shall call you when we go to dinner, M. de Barthe. Come, Elise.’
I bowed low to hide my face, and they nodded pleasantly—not looking closely at me—as they walked by me to the house. I watched the two gracious, pale-robed figures until the doorway swallowed them, and then I walked away to a quiet corner where the shrubs grew highest and the yew hedge threw its deepest shadow, and I stood to think.
They were strange thoughts, I remember. If the oak can think at the moment the wind uproots it, or the gnarled thorn-bush when the landslip tears it from the slope, they may have such thoughts, I stared at the leaves, at the rotting blossoms, into the dark cavities of the hedge; I stared mechanically, dazed and wondering. What was the purpose for which I was here? What was the work I had come to do? Above all, how—my God! how was I to do it in the face of these helpless women, who trusted me—who opened their house to me? Clon had not frightened me, nor the loneliness of the leagued village, nor the remoteness of this corner where the dread Cardinal seemed a name, and the King’s writ ran slowly, and the rebellion long quenched elsewhere, still smouldered. But Madame’s pure faith, the younger woman’s tenderness—how was I to face these?
I cursed the Cardinal, I cursed the English fool who had brought me to this, I cursed the years of plenty and scarceness, and the Quartier Marais, and Zaton’s, where I had lived like a pig, and—
A touch fell on my arm. I turned. It was Clon. How he had stolen up so quietly, how long he had been at my elbow, I could not tell. But his eyes gleamed spitefully in their deep sockets, and he laughed with his fleshless lips; and I hated him. In the daylight the man looked more like a death’s-head than ever. I fancied that I read in his face that he knew my secret, and I flashed into rage at sight of him.
‘What is it?’ I cried, with another oath. ‘Don’t lay your corpse-claws on me!’
He mowed at me, and, bowing with ironical politeness, pointed to the house. ‘Is Madame served?’ I said impatiently, crushing down my anger. ‘Is that what you mean, fool?’
‘Very well,’ I retorted. ‘I can find my way then. You may go!’
He fell behind, and I strode back through the sunshine and flowers, and along the grass-grown paths, to the door by which I had come I walked fast, but his shadow kept pace with me, driving out the unaccustomed thoughts in which I had been indulging. Slowly but surely it darkened my mood. After all, this was a little, little place; the people who lived here—I shrugged my shoulders. France, power, pleasure, life, lay yonder in the great city. A boy might wreck himself here for a fancy; a man of the world, never. When I entered the room, where the two ladies stood waiting for me by the table, I was myself again.
‘Clon made you understand, then?’ the young woman said kindly, as I took my seat.
‘Yes, Mademoiselle,’ I answered. On that I saw the two smile at one another, and I added: ‘He is a strange creature. I wonder that you can bear to have him near you.’
‘Poor man! You do not know his story?’ Madame said.
‘I have heard something of it,’ I answered. ‘Louis told me.’
‘Well, I do shudder at him sometimes,’ she replied, in a low voice. ‘He has suffered—and horribly, and for us. But I wish that it had been on any other service. Spies are necessary things, but one does not wish to have to do with them! Anything in the nature of treachery is so horrible.’
‘Quick, Louis! the cognac, if you have any there!’ Mademoiselle exclaimed, ‘I am sure that you are—still feeling ill, Monsieur.’
‘No, I thank you,’ I muttered hoarsely, making an effort to recover myself. ‘I am quite well. It was—an old wound that sometimes touches me.’