‘You!’ she cried, in a voice which pierced my heart. ‘You—M. de Berault? Impossible!’ But, glancing askance at her—I could not face her—I saw that the blood had left her cheeks.
‘Yes, Mademoiselle,’ I answered in a low tone. ‘De Barthe was my mother’s name. When I came here, a stranger, I took it that I might not be known; that I might again speak to a good woman, and not see her shrink. That—but why trouble you with all this?’ I continued proudly, rebelling against her silence, her turned shoulder, her averted face. ‘You asked me, Mademoiselle, how I could take a blow and let the striker go. I have answered. It is the one privilege M. de Berault possesses.’
‘Then,’ she replied quickly, but almost in a whisper, ‘if I were M. de Berault, I would use it, and never fight again.’
‘In that event, Mademoiselle,’ I answered cynically, ‘I should lose my men friends as well as my women friends. Like Monseigneur, the Cardinal, rule by fear.’
She shuddered, either at the name or at the idea my words called up; and, for a moment, we stood awkwardly silent. The shadow of the sundial fell between us; the garden was still; here and there a leaf fluttered slowly down. With each instant of that silence, of that aversion, I felt the gulf between us growing wider, I felt myself growing harder; I mocked at her past which was so unlike mine; I mocked at mine, and called it fate. I was on the point of turning from her with a bow—and with a furnace in my breast—when she spoke.
‘There is a late rose lingering there,’ she said, a slight tremor in her voice. ‘I cannot reach it. Will you pluck it for me, M. de Berault?’
I obeyed her, my hand trembling, my face on fire. She took the rose from me, and placed it in the bosom of her dress, And I saw that her hand trembled too, and that her cheek was dark with blushes.
She turned at once, and began to walk towards the house. Presently she spoke. ‘Heaven forbid that I should misjudge you a second time!’ she said, in a low voice. ‘And, after all, who am I that I should judge you at all? An hour ago I would have killed that man had I possessed the power.’
‘You repented, Mademoiselle,’ I said huskily. I could scarcely speak.
‘Do you never repent?’
‘Yes. But too late, Mademoiselle.’
‘Perhaps it is never too late,’ she answered softly.
‘Alas, when a man is dead—’
‘You may rob a man of worse than life!’ she replied with energy, stopping me by a gesture. ‘If you have never robbed a man—or a woman—of honour! If you have never ruined boy or girl, M. de Berault! If you have never ruined boy or girl, M. de Berault! If you have never pushed another into the pit and gone by it yourself! If—but for murder? Listen. You may be a Romanist, but I am a Huguenot, and have read. “Thou shall not kill!” it is written; and the penalty, “By man shall thy blood be shed!” But, “If you cause one of these little ones to offend, it were better for you that a mill-stone were hanged about your neck, and that you were cast into the depths of the sea.”’
‘Mademoiselle, you are too merciful,’ I muttered.
‘I need mercy myself,’ she answered, sighing. ‘And I have had few temptations. How do I know what you have suffered?’
‘Or done!’ I said, almost rudely.
‘Where a man has not lied, nor betrayed, nor sold himself or others,’ she answered firmly, but in a low tone, ‘I think I can forgive all else. I can better put up with force,’ she added, smiling sadly, ‘than with fraud.’
Ah, Dieu! I turned away my face that she might not see how paled, how I winced; that she might not guess how her words, meant in mercy, stabbed me to the heart. And yet, then, for the first time, while viewing in all its depth and width the gulf which separated us, I was not hardened; I was not cast back upon myself. Her gentleness, her pity, her humility softened me, while they convicted me. My God! How could I do that which I had come to do? How could I stab her in the tenderest part, how could I inflict on her that rending pang, how could I meet her eyes, and stand before her, a Caliban, a Judas, the vilest, lowest, basest thing she could conceive?
I stood, a moment, speechless and disordered; stunned by her words, by my thoughts—as I have seen a man so stand when he has lost all, his last, at the tables. Then I turned to her; and for an instant I thought that my tale was told already. I thought that she had pierced my disguise, for her face was aghast, stricken with sudden fear. Then I saw that she was not looking at me, but beyond me, and I turned quickly and saw a servant hurrying from the house to us. It was Louis. His eyes were staring, his hair waved, his cheeks were flabby with dismay, He breathed as if he had been running.
‘What is it?’ Mademoiselle cried, while he was still some way off. ‘Speak, man. My sister? Is she—’
‘Clon,’ he gasped.
The name changed her to stone. ‘Clon?’ she muttered. ‘What of him?’
‘In the village!’ Louis panted, his tongue stuttering with terror. ‘They are flogging him. They are killing him, Mademoiselle! To make him tell!’
Mademoiselle grasped the sundial and leant against it, her face colourless; and, for an instant, I thought that she was fainting. ‘Tell?’ I said mechanically. ‘But he cannot tell. He is dumb, man.’
‘They will make him guide them,’ Louis groaned, covering his ears with his shaking hands, his face the colour of paper. ‘And his cries! Oh, Monsieur, go!’ he continued, suddenly appealing to me in a thrilling tone. ‘Save him. All through the wood I heard them. It was horrible! horrible!’
Mademoiselle uttered a low moan, and I turned to support her, thinking each second to see her fall. But with a sudden movement she straightened herself, and, slipping by me, with eyes that seemed to see nothing, she set off swiftly down the walk towards the meadow gate.
I ran after her, but, taken by surprise as I was, it was only by a great effort I reached the gate before her, and thrusting myself in the road, barred the way. ‘Let me pass!’ she panted fiercely, striving to thrust me on one side. ‘Out of my way, Sir! I am going to the village.’
‘You are not going to the village,’ I said sternly. ‘Go back; to the house, Mademoiselle, and at once.’
‘My servant!’ she wailed. ‘Let me go! Oh, let me go! Do you think I can rest here while they torture him? He cannot speak, and they—they—’
‘Go back, Mademoiselle,’ I said, cutting her short, with decision. ‘You would only make matters worse! I will go myself, and what one man can do against many, I will! Louis, give your mistress your arm and take her to the house. Take her to Madame.’
‘But you will go?’ she cried. Before I could stay her—I swear I would have done so if I could—she raised my hand and carried it to her trembling lips. ‘You will go! Go and stop them! Stop them,’ she continued, in a tone which stirred my heart, ‘and Heaven reward you, Monsieur!’
I did not answer; nor did I once look back, as I crossed the meadow; but I did not look forward either. Doubtless it was grass I trod; doubtless the wood was before me with the sun shining aslant on it, and behind me the house with a flame here and there on the windows. But I went in a dream, among shadows; with a racing pulse, in a glow from head to heel; conscious of nothing but the touch of Mademoiselle’s warm lips, seeing neither meadow nor house, nor even the dark fringe of wood before me, but only Mademoiselle’s passionate face. For the moment I was drunk: drunk with that to which I had been so long a stranger, with that which a man may scorn for years, to find it at last beyond his reach—drunk with the touch of a good woman’s lips.
I passed the bridge in this state; and my feet were among the brushwood before the heat and fervour in which I moved found on a sudden their direction. Something began to penetrate to my veiled senses—a hoarse inarticulate cry, now deep, now shrilling horribly, that of itself seemed to fill the wood. It came at intervals of half a minute or so, and made the flesh creep, it was so full of dumb pain, of impotent wrestling, of unspeakable agony. I am a man and have seen things. I saw the Concini beheaded, and Chalais ten years later—they gave him thirty-four blows; and when I was a boy I escaped from the college and viewed from a great distance Ravaillac torn by horses—that was in the year ten. But the horrible cries I now heard filled me, perhaps because I was alone and fresh from the sight of Mademoiselle, with loathing that was intense. The very wood, though the sun wanted an hour of setting, seemed to grow dark. I ran on through it, cursing, until the hovels of the village came in sight. Again the shriek rose, a pulsing horror, and this time I could hear the lash fall on the sodden flesh, I could see in fancy the strong man, trembling, quivering, straining against his bonds. And then, in a moment, I was in the street, and, as the scream once more tore the air, I dashed round the corner by the inn, and came upon them.
I sprang through the line of soldiers
I did not look at him. I saw Captain Larolle and the lieutenant, and a ring of troopers, and one man, bare-armed, teasing out with his fingers the thongs of a whip. The thongs dripped blood, and the sight fired the mine. The rage I had suppressed when the lieutenant bearded me earlier in the afternoon, the passion with which Mademoiselle’s distress had filled my breast, at last found vent. I sprang through the line of soldiers; and striking the man with the whip a buffet between the shoulders, which hurled him breathless to the ground, I turned on the leaders. ‘You devils!’ I cried. ‘Shame on you! The man is dumb! I tell you if I had ten men with me, I would sweep you and your scum out of the village with broomsticks. Lay on another lash,’ I continued recklessly, ‘and I will see whether you or the Cardinal be the stronger.’
The lieutenant glared at me, his grey moustache bristling, his eyes almost starting from his head. Some of the troopers laid their hands on their swords, but no one moved, and only the captain spoke. ‘Mille diables!’ he swore. ‘What is all this about? Are you mad, Sir?’
‘Mad or sane!’ I cried, still in a fury. ‘Lay on another lash, and you shall repent it.’
For an instant there was a pause of astonishment. Then, to my surprise, the captain laughed—laughed loudly. ‘Very heroic,’ he said. ‘Quite magnificent, M. le Chevalier-errant. But you see, unfortunately, you come too late.’
‘Too late,’ I said incredulously.
‘Yes, too late,’ he replied, with a mocking smile. And the lieutenant grinned too. ‘You see the man has just confessed. We have only been giving him an extra touch or two, to impress his memory, and save us the trouble of tying him up again.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ I said bluntly—but I felt the check, and fell to earth. ‘The man cannot speak.’
‘No, but he has managed to tell us that he will guide us to the place we want,’ the captain answered drily. ‘The whip, if it cannot find a man a tongue, can find him wits. What is more, I think that he will keep his word,’ he continued, with a hideous smile. ‘For I warn him that if he does not, all your heroics shall not save him! He is a rebel dog, and known to us of old, and I will flay his back to the bones—ay, until we can see his heart beating through his ribs—but I will have what I want—in your teeth, too, you d——d meddler.’
‘Steady, steady!’ I said, sobered. I saw that he was telling the truth. ‘He is going to take you to M. de Cocheforêt’s hiding-place, is he?’
‘Yes, he is!’ the captain retorted offensively. ‘Have you any objection to that, Master Spy?’
‘None,’ I replied. ‘But I shall go with you. And if you live three months, I shall kill you for that name-behind the barracks at Auch, M. le Capitaine.’
He changed colour, but he answered me boldly enough. ‘I don’t know that you will go with us. That is as we please.’ he continued, with a snarl.
‘I have the Cardinal’s orders,’ I said sternly.
‘The Cardinal?’ he exclaimed, stung to fury by this repetition of the name. ‘The Cardinal be—’
But the lieutenant laid his hand on his lips and stopped him. ‘Hush!’ he said. Then more quietly, ‘Your pardon, M. le Capitaine. Shall I give orders to the men to fall in?’
The captain nodded sullenly.
The lieutenant turned to his prisoner.
‘Take him down!’ the lieutenant ordered, in his harsh, monotonous voice. ‘Throw his blouse over him, and tie his hands. And do you two, Paul and Lebrun, guard him. Michel, bring the whip, or he may forget how it tastes. Sergeant, choose four good men, and dismiss the rest to their quarters.’
‘Shall we need the horses?’ the sergeant asked.
‘I don’t know,’ the captain answered peevishly. ‘What does the rogue say?’
The lieutenant stepped up to him. ‘Listen!’ he said grimly. ‘Nod if you mean yes, and shake your head if you mean no. And have a care you answer truly. Is it more than a mile to this place? the place you know of?’
They had loosened the poor wretch’s fastenings, and covered his back. He stood leaning his shoulder against the wall, his mouth still panting, the sweat running down his hollow cheeks; his sunken eyes were closed; a quiver now and again ran through his frame. The lieutenant repeated his question, and, getting no answer, looked round for orders. The captain met the look, and crying savagely, ‘Answer will you, you mute!’ struck the half-swooning miserable across the back with his switch. The effect was magical. Covered, as his shoulders were, the man sprang erect with a shriek of pain, raising his chin, and hollowing his back; and in that attitude stood an instant with starting eyes, gasping for breath. Then he sank back against the wall, moving his mouth spasmodically. His face was the colour of lead.
‘Diable! I think that we have gone too far with him!’ the captain muttered.
‘Bring some wine!’ the lieutenant replied. ‘Quick with it!’
I looked on, burning with indignation, and wondering besides what would come of this. If the man took them to the place, and they succeeded in seizing Cocheforêt, there was an end of the matter as far as I was concerned. It was off my shoulders, and I might leave the village when I pleased; nor was it likely—since he would have his man, though not through me—that the Cardinal would refuse me an amnesty. On the whole, I thought that he would prefer that things should take this course; and assuming the issue, I began to wonder whether it would be necessary in that event that Madame should know the truth. I had a kind of vision of a reformed Berault, dead to play and purging himself at a distance from Zaton’s; winning, perhaps, a name in the Italian war, and finally—but, pshaw! I was a fool.
However, be that as it might, it was essential that I should see the arrest made; and I waited patiently while they revived the tortured man, and made their dispositions. These took some time; so that the sun was down, and it was growing dusk when we marched out, Clon going first, supported by his two guards, the captain and I following,—abreast, and eyeing one another suspiciously,—the lieutenant, with the sergeant and five troopers, bringing up the rear. Clon moved slowly, moaning from time to time, and but for the aid given him by the two men with him, must have sunk down again and again.
He went out between two houses close to the inn, and struck a narrow track, scarcely discernible, which ran behind other houses, and then plunged into the thickest part of the wood. A single person, traversing the covert, might have made such a track; or pigs, or children. But it was the first idea that occurred to us, and put us all on the alert. The captain carried a cocked pistol, I held my sword drawn, and kept a watchful eye on him; and the deeper the dusk fell in the wood, the more cautiously we went, until at last we came out with a sort of jump into a wider and lighter path.
I looked up and down, and saw before me a wooden bridge, and an open meadow, lying cold and grey in the twilight; and I stood in astonishment. It was the old path to the Château! I shivered at the thought that he was going to take us there, to the house—to Mademoiselle!
The captain also recognised the place, and swore aloud. But the dumb man went on unheeding, until he reached the wooden bridge. There he paused as if in doubt, and looked towards the dark outline of the building, which was just visible, one faint light twinkling sadly in the west wing. As the captain and I pressed up behind him, he raised his hands and seemed to wring them towards the house.
‘Have a care!’ the captain growled. ‘Play me no tricks, or—’ But he did not finish the sentence; for Clon turning back from the bridge, and, entering the wood to the left, began to ascend the bank of the stream. We had not gone a hundred yards before the ground grew rough, and the undergrowth thick; and yet through all ran a kind of path which enabled us to advance, dark as it was growing. Very soon the bank on which we moved began to rise above the water, and grew steep and rugged. We turned a shoulder, where the stream swept round a curve, and saw we were in the mouth of a small ravine, dark and steep-walled. The water brawled along the bottom, over boulders and through chasms. In front, the slope on which we stood shaped itself into a low cliff; but half-way between its summit and the water, a ledge, or narrow terrace, running along the face, was dimly visible.
‘Ten to one, a cave!’ the Captain muttered. ‘It is a likely place.’
‘And an ugly one!’ I replied with a sneer. ‘Which one against ten might hold for hours!’
‘If the ten had no pistols—yes!’ he answered viciously. ‘But you see we have. Is he going that way?’
He was. ‘Lieutenant,’ Larolle said, turned and speaking in a low voice, though the chafing of the stream below us covered ordinary sounds; ‘shall we light the lanthorns, or press on while there is still a glimmering of day?’
‘On, I should say, M. le Capitaine,’ the lieutenant answered. ‘Prick him in the back if he falters. I will warrant he has a tender place or two.’ the brute added, with a chuckle,
The captain gave the word and we moved forward; it being very evident now that the cliff-path was our destination. It was possible for the eye to follow the track all the way to it, through rough stones and brushwood; and though Clon climbed feebly and with many groans, two minutes saw us step on to it. It did not prove out to be the perilous place it looked at a distance. The ledge, grassy and terrace-like, sloped slightly downwards and outwards, and in parts was slippery; but it was as wide as a highway, and the fall to the water did not exceed thirty feet. Even in such a dim light as now displayed it to us, and by increasing the depth and unseen dangers of the gorge gave a kind of impressiveness to our movements, a nervous woman need not have feared to tread it, I wondered how often Mademoiselle had passed along it with her milk-pitcher.
‘I think that we have him now,’ Captain Larolle muttered, twisting his moustachios, and looking about to make his last dispositions. ‘Paul and Lebrun, see that your man makes no noise. Sergeant, come forward with your carbine, but do not fire without orders. Now, silence, all, and close up, Lieutenant. Forward!’
We advanced about a hundred paces, keeping the cliff on our left, then turned a shoulder, and saw, a few paces in front of us, a slight hollow, a black blotch standing out from the grey duskiness of the cliff-side. The prisoner stopped, and raising his bound hands, pointed to it.
‘There?’ the captain whispered, pressing forward. ‘Is it the place?’
Clon nodded. The captain’s voice shook with excitement. ‘You two remain here with him!’ he muttered, in a low tone. ‘Sergeant, come forward with me. Now, are you ready? Forward!’
He and the sergeant passed quickly, one on either side of Clon and his guards. The path grew narrow here, and the captain passed outside. The eyes of all but one were on the black blotch, the hollow in the cliff-side, and no one saw exactly what happened. But somehow, as the captain passed abreast of him, the prisoner thrust back his guards, and leaping sideways, flung his unbound arms round Larolle’s body, and in an instant swept him, shouting, to the verge of the precipice.
It was done in a moment. By the time the lieutenant's startled wits and eyes were back, the two were already tottering on the edge, looking in the gloom like one dark form. The sergeant, who was the first to find his head, levelled his carbine; but, as the wrestlers twirled and twisted, the captain shrieking out oaths and threats, the mute silent as death, it was impossible to see which was which; and the sergeant lowered his gun again, while the men held back nervously. The ledge sloped steeply there, the edge was vague, already the two seemed to be wrestling in mid air,—and the mute was a man beyond hope or fear.
That moment of hesitation was fatal. Clon’s long arms were round the other’s arms, crushing them into his ribs; Clon’s skull-like face grinned hate into the other’s eyes; his long limbs curled round him like the folds of a snake. Suddenly Larolle’s strength gave way. ‘Damn you all! Why don’t you—Mercy! mercy!’ came in a last scream from his lips; and then, as the Lieutenant, taken aback before, sprang forward to his aid, the two toppled over the edge, and in a second hurtled out of sight.
‘Mon Dieu!’ the lieutenant cried, in horror, The answer was a dull splash in the depths below.
He flung up his arms. ‘Water!’ he said. ‘Quick, men, get down. We may save him yet. They have fallen into water!’
But there was no path, and night was come, and the men’s nerves were shaken. The lanthorns had to be lit, and the way to be retraced; by the time we reached the dark pool which lay below, the last bubbles were gone from the surface, the last ripples had beaten themselves out against the banks. True, the pool still rocked sullenly, and the yellow light showed a man’s hat floating, and near it a glove three parts submerged. But that was all. The mute’s dying grip had known no loosening, nor his hate any fear. Later, I heard that when they dragged the two out next day, his fingers were in the other’s eye-sockets, his teeth in his throat. If ever man found death sweet, it was he!
As we turned slowly from the black water, some shuddering, some crossing themselves, the lieutenant looked at me. ‘Curse you!’ he said, in sudden fury. ‘I believe you are glad.’
He deserved his fate,’ I answered coldly. ‘Why should I pretend to be sorry? It was now or in three months. And for the other poor devil’s sake I am glad.’
He glared at me for a moment in speechless anger. At last, ‘I should like to have you tied up!’ he said between his teeth.
‘I should think that you had had enough of tying up for one day!’ I retorted. ‘But there,’ I went on contemptuously, ‘it comes of making officers out of the canaille. Dogs love blood. The teamster must sill lash something, if he can no longer lash his horses.’
We were back, a sombre little procession, at the wooden bridge when I said this. He stopped suddenly. ‘Very well,’ he replied, nodding viciously. ‘That decides me. Sergeant, light me this way with a lanthorn. The rest of you to the village. Now, Master Spy,’ he continued, glancing at me with gloomy spite, ‘Your road is my road. I think I know how to cook your goose.’
I shrugged my shoulders in disdain, and together, the sergeant leading the way with the light, we crossed the dim meadow, and passed through the gate where Mademoiselle had kissed my hand, and up the ghostly walk between the rose-bushes. I wondered uneasily what the lieutenant would be at, and what he intended; but the lanthorn-light which now fell on the ground at our feet, and now showed one of us to the other, high-lit in a frame of blackness, discovered nothing in his grizzled face but settled hostility. He wheeled at the end of the walk to go to the main door, but as he did so I saw the flutter of a white skirt by the stone seat against the house, and I stepped that way. ‘Mademoiselle?’ I said softly. ‘Is it you?’
‘Clon?’ she muttered, her voice quivering. ‘What of him?’
‘He is past pain,’ I answered gently. ‘He is dead, but in his own way. Take comfort, Mademoiselle.’ And then before I could say more, the lieutenant with his sergeant and light were at my elbow. He saluted Mademoiselle roughly. She looked at him with shuddering abhorrence.
‘Are you come to flog me, Sir?’ she said passionately. ‘Is it not enough that you have murdered my servant?’
‘On the contrary, it was he who killed my captain,’ the Lieutenant answered, in another tone than I had expected. ‘If your servant is dead, so is my comrade.’
She looked with startled eyes, not at him but at me. ‘What! Captain Larolle?’ she muttered.
‘How?’ she asked.
‘Clon flung the captain and himself—into the river-pool,’ I explained, in a low voice. ‘The pool above the bridge.’
She uttered an exclamation of awe, and stood silent. But her lips moved; and I think that she prayed for Clon, though she was a Huguenot. Meanwhile I had a fright. The lanthorn, swinging in the sergeant’s hand, and now throwing its smoky light on the stone seat, now on the rough wall above it, showed me something else. On the seat, doubtless where Mademoiselle’s hand had lain, as she sat in the dark, listening and watching, stood a pitcher of food. Beside her, in that place, it was damning evidence. I trembled lest the lieutenant’s eye should fall upon it, lest the sergeant should see it; I thought what I could do to hide it; and then in a moment I forgot all about it. The lieutenant was speaking and his voice was like doom. My throat grew dry as I listened. My tongue stuck to my mouth; I tried to look at Mademoiselle, but I could not.
‘It is true, the captain is gone,’ he said stiffly. ‘But others are alive, and about one of them, a word with you,—by your leave, Mademoiselle. I have listened to a good deal of talk from this fine gentleman friend of yours. He has spent the last twenty-four hours saying “You shall!” and “You shall not!” He came from you, and took a very high tone because we laid a little whip-lash about that dumb devil of yours. He called us brutes and beasts, and but for him I am not sure that my friend would not now be alive. But when he said a few minutes ago that he was glad,—glad of it, damn him!—then I fixed it in my mind that I would be even with him. And I am going to be!’
‘What do you mean?’ Mademoiselle asked, wearily interrupting him. ‘If you think that you can prejudice me against this gentleman—’
‘That is precisely what I think! And am going to do it. And a little more than that!’
‘You will be only wasting your breath!’ she answered proudly.
‘Wait! wait, Mademoiselle, until you have heard,’ he said. ‘If ever a black-hearted scoundrel, a dastardly sneaking spy trod the earth, it is this fellow! This friend of yours! And I am going to expose him. Your own eyes and your own ears shall persuade you. Why, I would not eat, I would not drink, I would not sit down with him! I would rather be beholden to the meanest trooper in my squadron than to him! Ay, I would, so help me Heaven!’ And the lieutenant, turning squarely on his heel, spat on the ground.