of the rider, to hold her securely in her place. All this was done with great rapidity and dexterity, as if her captors were accustomed to such manoeuvres, and then the horseman, who held her firmly with one hand, shook his bridle with the other, drove his spurs into the horse's sides, and was off like a flash—the whole thing being done in less time than it takes to describe it. Meanwhile de Sigognac was struggling fiercely and wildly under the heavy cloak that enveloped him—like a gladiator entangled in his adversary's net—beside himself with rage and despair, as he gasped for breath in his stifling prison, and realized that this diabolical outrage must be the work of the Duke of Vallombreuse. Suddenly, like an inspiration, the thought flashed into his mind of using his dagger to free himself from the thick, clinging folds, that weighed him down like the leaden cloaks of the wretched condemned spirits we read of with a shudder in Dante's Inferno. With two or three strong, quick strokes he succeeded in cutting through it, and casting it from him, with a fierce imprecation, perceived Isabelle's abductors, still near at hand, galloping across a neighbouring field, and apparently making for a thick grove at a considerable distance from where he was standing. As to the blind beggar and the child, they had disappeared—probably hiding somewhere near by—but de Sigognac did not waste a second thought on them; throwing off his own cloak, lest it should impede him, he started swiftly in pursuit of the flying enemy and their fair prize, with fury and despair in his heart. He was agile and vigorous, lithe of frame, fleet of foot, the very figure for a runner, and he quickly began to gain on the horsemen. As soon as they became aware of this one of them drew a pistol from his girdle and fired at their pursuer, but missed him; whereupon de Sigognac, bounding rapidly from side to side as he ran, made it impossible for them to take aim at him, and effectually prevented their arresting his course in that way. The man who had Isabelle in front of him tried to ride on in advance, and leave the other two to deal with the baron, but the young actress struggled so violently on the horse's neck, and kept clutching so persistently at the bridle, that his rider could not urge him to his greatest speed. Meantime de Sigognac was steadily gaining upon them; without slackening his pace he had managed to draw his sword from the scabbard, and brandished it aloft, ready for action, as he ran. It is true that he was one against three—that he was on foot while they were on horseback—but he had not time to consider the odds against him, and he seemed possessed of the strength of a giant in Isabelle's behalf. Making a prodigious effort, he suddenly increased his speed, and coming up with the two horsemen, who were a little behind the other one, quickly disposed of them, by vigorously pricking their horses' flanks with the point of his sword; for, what with fright and pain, the animals, after plunging violently, threw off all restraint and bolted—dashing off across country as if the devil were after them, and carrying their riders with them, just as de Sigognac had expected and intended that they should do. The brave young baron was nearly spent—panting, almost sobbing, as he struggled desperately on—feeling as if his heart would burst at every agonizing throb; but he was indued with supernatural strength and endurance, and as Isabelle's voice reached his ear calling, "Help, de Sigognac, help!" he cleared with a bound the space that separated them, and leaping up to catch the broad leathern strap that was passed round her and her captor, answered in a hoarse, shrill tone, "I am here." Clinging to the strap, he ran along beside the galloping horse—like the grooms that the Romans called desultores—and strove with all his might to pull the rider down out of his saddle. He did not dare to use his sword to disable him, as they struggled together, lest he should wound Isabelle also; and, meantime, the man on horseback was trying his utmost to shake off his fierce assailant-unsuccessfully, because he had both hands fully occupied with his horse and his captive, who was doing all she could to slip from his grasp, and throw herself into her lover's arms. Loosing his hold on the rein for a second, the horseman managed to draw a knife from his girdle, and with one blow severed the strap to which the baron was clinging; then, driving his spurs into the horse's sides made the frightened animal spring suddenly forward, while de Sigognac—who was not prepared for this emergency, and found himself deprived of all support—fell violently upon his back in the road. He was up again in an instant, and flying after Isabelle, who was now being borne rapidly away from him, and whose cries for help came more and more faintly to his ear; but the moment he had lost made his pursuit hopeless, and he knew that it was all in vain when he saw her disappear behind the thicket her ravisher had been aiming for from the first. His heart sank within him, and he staggered as he still ran feebly on—feeling now the effects of his superhuman exertions, and fearing at each step that his feet would carry him no farther. He was soon overtaken by Herode and Scapin, who, alarmed by the pistol shot, and fearing that something was wrong, had started in hot pursuit, though the lackey who served them as guide had done all that he possibly could to hinder them, and in a few faltering words he told them what had occurred.
"Vallombreuse again!" cried the tyrant, with an oath. "But how the devil did he get wind of our expedition to the Chateau de Pommereuil? or can it be possible that it was all a plot from the beginning, and we are bound on a fool's errand? I really begin to think it must be so. If it is true, I never saw a better actor in my life than that respectable old major-domo, confound him! But let us make haste and search this grove thoroughly; we may find some trace of poor Isabelle; sweet creature that she is! Rough old tyrant though I be, my heart warms to her, and I love her more tenderly than I do myself. Alas! I'm afraid, that this poor, innocent, little fly is caught in the toils of a cruel spider, who will take care never to let us get sight of her again."
"I will crush him," said de Sigognac, striking his heel savagely on the ground, as if he actually had the spider under it. "I will crush the life out of him, the venomous beast!" and the fierce, determined expression of his usually calm, mild countenance showed that this was no idle threat, but that he was terribly in earnest.
"Look," cried Herode, as they dashed through the thicket, "there they are!"
They could just discern, through the screen of leafless but thickly interlaced branches, a carriage, with all the curtains carefully closed, and drawn by four horses lashed to a gallop, which was rapidly rolling away from them in the distance. The two men whose horses had run away with them had them again under control, and were riding on either side of it—one of them leading the horse that had carried Isabelle and her captor. HE was doubtless mounting guard over her in the carriage—perhaps using force to keep her quiet—at thought of which de Sigognac could scarcely control the transport of rage and agony that shook him. Although the three pursuers followed the fugitives, as fast as they could run, it was all of no avail, for they soon lost sight of them altogether, and nothing remained to be done but to ascertain, if possible, the direction they had taken, so as to have some clew to poor Isabelle's whereabouts. They had considerable difficulty in making out the marks of the carriage wheels, for the roads were very dry; and when at length they had succeeded in tracing them to a place where four roads met they lost them entirely—it was utterly impossible to tell which way they had gone. After a long and fruitless search they turned back sorrowfully to join their companions, trying to devise some plan for Isabelle's rescue, but feeling acutely how hopeless it was. They found the others in the chariot waiting for them, just where the tyrant and Scapin had left them, for their false guide had put spurs to his horse and ridden off after his confederates, as soon as he became aware that their undertaking had proved successful. When Herode asked an old peasant woman, who came by with a bundle of fagots on her back, how far it was to the Chateau de Pommereuil, she answered that there was no place of that name anywhere in the country round. Upon being questioned closely, she said that she had lived in the neighbourhood for seventy years, knew every house within many leagues, and could positively assure them that there was no such Chateau within a day's journey. So it was only too evident that they were the dupes of the clever agents of the Duke of Vallombreuse, who had at last succeeded in getting possession of Isabelle, as he had sworn that he would do. Accordingly, all of the party turned back towards Paris, excepting de Sigognac, the tyrant and Scapin, who had decided to go on to the next village, where they hoped to be able to procure horses, with which to prosecute their search for Isabelle and her abductors.
After the baron's fall, she had been swiftly taken on to the other side of the thicket, where the carriage stood awaiting her; then lifted down from the horse and put into it, in spite of her frantic struggles and remonstrances. The man who had held her in front of him got down also and sprang in after her, closing the door with a bang, and instantly they were off at a tremendous pace. He seated himself opposite to her, and when she impetuously tried to pull aside the curtain, so that she could see out of the window nearest to her, he respectfully but firmly restrained her.
"Mademoiselle, I implore you to keep quiet," he said, with the utmost politeness, "and not oblige me to use forcible means to restrain so charming and adorable a creature as your most lovely self. No harm shall come to you—do not be afraid!—only kindness is intended; therefore I beseech you do not persist in vain resistance. If you will only submit quietly, you shall be treated with as much consideration and respect as a captive queen, but if you go on acting like the devil, struggling and shrieking, I have means to bring you to terms, and I shall certainly resort to them. THIS will stop your screaming, mademoiselle, and THIS will prevent your struggling."
As he spoke he drew out of his pocket a small gag, very artistically made, and a long, thick, silken cord, rolled up into a ball.
"It would be barbarous indeed," he continued, "to apply such a thing as this to that sweet, rosy mouth of yours, mademoiselle, as I am sure that you will admit—or to bind together those pretty, delicate, little wrists, upon which no worse fetters than diamond bracelets should ever be placed."
Poor Isabelle, furious and frightened though she was, could not but acknowledge to herself that further physical resistance then would be worse than useless, and determined to spare herself at least such indignities as she was at that moment threatened with; so, without vouchsafing a word to her attendant, she threw herself back into the corner of the carriage, closed her eyes, and tried to keep perfectly still. But in spite of her utmost endeavours she could not altogether repress an occasional sob, nor hold back the great tears that welled forth from under her drooping eyelids and rolled down over her pale cheeks, as she thought of de Sigognac's despair and her own danger.
"After the nervous excitement comes the moist stage;" said her masked guardian to himself, "things are following their usual and natural course. I am very glad of it, for I should have greatly disliked to be obliged to act a brutal part with such a sweet, charming girl as this."
Now and then Isabelle opened her eyes and cast a timid glance at her abductor, who finally said to her, in a voice he vainly strove to render soft and mild:
"You need not be afraid of me, mademoiselle! I would not harm you in any way for the world. If fortune had been more generous to me I certainly would never have undertaken this enterprise against such a lovely, gentle young lady as you are; but poor men like me are driven to all sorts of expedients to earn a little money; they have to take whatever comes within their reach, and sacrifice their scruples to their necessities."
"You do admit then," said Isabelle vehemently, "that you have been bribed to carry me off? An infamous, cruel, outrageous thing it is."
"After what I have had to do," he replied, "it would be idle to deny it. There are a good many philosophers like myself in Paris, mademoiselle, who, instead of indulging in love affairs, and intrigues of various sorts, of their own, interest themselves in those of other people, and, for a consideration, make use of their courage, ingenuity and strength to further them. But to change the subject, how charming you were in that last new play! You went through the scene of the avowal with a grace I have never seen equalled. I applauded you to the echo; the pair of hands that kept it up so perseveringly and vigorously, you know, belonged to me."
"I beg you to dispense with these ill-judged remarks and compliments, and to tell me where you are taking me, in this strange, outrageous manner, against my will, and, in despite of all the ordinary usages of civilized society."
"I cannot tell you that, mademoiselle, and besides, it would do you no sort of good to know. In our profession, you see, we are obliged to observe as much secrecy and discretion as confessors and physicians. Indeed, in such affairs as this we often do not know the names of the parties we are working for ourselves."
"Do you mean to say that you do not know who has employed you to commit this abominable, cruel crime?"
"It makes no difference whether I know his name or not, since I am not at liberty to disclose it to you. Think over your numerous admirers, mademoiselle! the most ardent and least favoured one among them would probably be at the bottom of all this."
Finding that she could not get any information from him, Isabelle desisted, and did not speak again. She had not the slightest doubt that the Duke of Vallombreuse was the author of this new and daring enterprise. The significant and threatening way in which he had said "au revoir, mademoiselle," as he quitted her presence after she had repulsed him a few days before, had haunted her, and she had been in constant dread ever since of some new outrage. She hoped, against hope, that de Sigognac, her valiant lover, would yet come to her rescue, and thought proudly of the gallant deeds he had already done in her behalf that day—but how was he to find out where to seek her?
"If worst comes to worst," she said to herself, "I still have Chiquita's knife, and I can and will escape from my persecutor in that way, if all other means fail."
For two long hours she sat motionless, a prey to sad and terrible thoughts and fears, while the carriage rolled swiftly on without slackening its speed, save once, for a moment, when they changed horses. As the curtains were all lowered, she could not catch even a glimpse of the country she was passing through, nor tell in what direction she was being driven. At last she heard the hollow sound of a drawbridge under the wheels; the carriage stopped, and her masked companion, promptly opening the door, jumped nimbly out and helped her to alight. She cast a hurried glance round her, as she stepped down, saw that she was in a large, square court, and that all the tall, narrow windows in the high brick walls that surrounded it had their inside shutters carefully closed. The stone pavement of the spacious courtyard was in some places partly covered with moss, and a few weeds had sprung up in the corners, and along the edges by the walls. At the foot of a broad, easy flight of steps, leading up to a covered porch, two majestic Egyptian sphinxes lay keeping guard; their huge rounded flanks mottled here and there with patches of moss and lichens. Although the large chateau looked lonely and deserted, it had a grand, lordly air, and seemed to be kept in perfect order and repair. Isabelle was led up the steps and into the vestibule by the man who had brought her there, and then consigned to the care of a respectable-looking majordomo, who preceded her up a magnificent staircase, and into a suite of rooms furnished with the utmost luxury and elegance. Passing through the first—which was enriched with fine old carvings in oak, dark with age—he left her in a spacious, admirably proportioned apartment, where a cheery wood fire was roaring up the huge chimney, and she saw a bed in a curtained alcove. She chanced to catch sight of her own face in the mirror over an elaborately furnished dressing-table, as she passed it, and was startled and shocked at its ghastly pallor and altered expression; she scarcely could recognise it, and felt as if she had seen a ghost—poor Isabelle! Over the high, richly ornamented chimney-piece hung a portrait of a gentleman, which, as she approached the fire, at once caught and riveted her attention. The face seemed strangely familiar to her, and yet she could not remember where she had seen it before. It was pale, with large, black eyes, full red lips, and wavy brown hair, thrown carelessly back from it-apparently the likeness of a man about forty years of age and it had a charming air of nobility and lofty pride, tempered with benevolence and tenderness, which was inexpressibly attractive. The portrait was only half-length—the breast being covered with a steel cuirass, richly inlaid with gold, which was partly concealed by a white scarf, loosely knotted over it. Isabelle, despite her great alarm and anxiety, could not long withdraw her eyes or her thoughts from this picture, which seemed to exert a strange fascination over her. There was something about it that at the first glance resembled the Duke of Vallombreuse, but the expression was so different that the likeness disappeared entirely upon closer examination. It brought vague memories to Isabelle's mind that she tried in vain to seize—she felt as if she must be looking at it in a dream. She was still absorbed in reverie before it when the major-domo reappeared, followed by two lackeys, in quiet livery, carrying a small table set for one person, which they put down near the fire; and as one of them took the cover off an old-fashioned, massive silver tureen, he announced to Isabelle that her dinner was ready. The savoury odour from the smoking soup was very tempting, and she was very hungry; but after she had mechanically seated herself and dipped her spoon into the broth, it suddenly occurred to her that the food might contain a narcotic—such things had been done—and she pushed away the plate in front of her in alarm. The major-domo, who was standing at a respectful distance watching her, ready to anticipate her every wish, seemed to divine her thought, for he advanced to the table and deliberately partook of all the viands upon it, as well as of the wine and water—as if to prove to her that there was nothing wrong or unusual about them. Isabelle was somewhat reassured by this, and feeling that she would probably have need of all her strength, did bring herself to eat and drink, though very sparingly. Then, quitting the table, she sat down in a large easy-chair in front of the fire to think over her terrible position, and endeavour to devise some means of escape from it. When the servants had attended to their duties and left her alone again, she rose languidly and walked slowly to the window—feeling as weak as though she had had a severe illness, after the violent emotions and terrors of the day, and as if she had aged years in the last few hours. Could it be possible that only that very morning she and de Sigognac had been walking together, with hearts full of happiness and peace—and she had rapturously hailed the appearance of the first spring violet as an omen of good, and gathered the sweet little blossom to bestow upon the devoted lover who adored her? And now, alas! alas! they were as inexorably and hopelessly separated as if half the globe lay between them. No wonder that her breast heaved tumultuously with choking sobs, and hot tears rained down over her pallid cheeks, as she wept convulsively at the thought of all she had lost. But she did not long indulge her grief—she remembered that at any moment she might have need of all her coolness and fortitude—and making a mighty effort, like the brave heroine that she was, she regained control over herself, and drove back the gushing tears to await a more fitting season. She was relieved to find that there were no bars at the window, as she had feared; but upon opening the casement and leaning out she saw immediately beneath her a broad moat, full of stagnant water, which surrounded the chateau, and forbade any hope of succour or escape on that side. Beyond the moat was a thick grove of large trees, which entirely shut out the view; and she returned to her seat by the fire, more disheartened and cast down than ever. She was very nervous, and trembled at the slightest sound—casting hasty, terrified glances round the vast apartment, and dreading lest an unseen door in some shadowy corner should be softly opened, or a hidden panel in the wall be slipped aside, to admit her relentless enemy to her presence. She remembered all the horrible tales she had ever heard of secret passages and winding staircases in the walls, that are supposed to abound in ancient castles; and the mysterious visitants, both human and supernatural, that are said to be in the habit of issuing from them, in the gloaming, and at midnight. As the twilight deepened into darkness, her terror increased, and she nearly fainted from fright when a servant suddenly entered with lights.
While poor Isabelle was suffering such agony in one part of the chateau, her abductors were having a grand carouse in another. They were to remain there for a while as a sort of garrison, in case of an attack by de Sigognac and his friends; and were gathered round the table in a large room down on the ground floor—as remote as possible from Isabelle's sumptuous quarters. They were all drinking like sponges, and making merry over their wine and good cheer, but one of them especially showed the most remarkable and astounding powers of ingurgitation—it was the man who had carried off the fair prize before him on his horse; and, now that the mask was thrown aside, he disclosed to view the deathly pale face and fiery red nose of Malartic, bosom friend and "alter ego" of Maitre Jacquemin Lampourde.
CHAPTER XVI. VALLOMBREUSE
Isabelle sat for a long time perfectly motionless in her luxurious chamber, sunk in a sad reverie, apparently entirely oblivious of the glow of light, warmth, and comfort that closed her in—glancing up occasionally at the portrait over the chimney-piece, which seemed to be smiling down upon her and promising her protection and peace, while it more than ever reminded her of some dear face she had known and loved long ago. After a time, however, her mood changed. She grew restless, and rising, began to wander aimlessly about the room; but her uneasiness only increased, and finally, in desperation, she resolved to venture out into the corridor and look about her, no matter at what risk. Anything would be better than this enforced inactivity and suspense. She tried the door with a trembling hand, dreading to find herself locked in, but it was not fastened, and seeing that all was dark outside, she took up a small lamp, that had been left burning on a side table, and boldly setting forth, went softly down the long flight of stairs, in the hope of finding some means of exit from the chateau on the lower floor. At the foot of the stairs she came to a large double door, one leaf of which yielded easily when she timidly tried to open it, but creaked dolefully as it turned on its hinges. She hesitated for a moment, fearing that the noise would alarm the servants and bring them out to see what was amiss; but no one came, and taking fresh courage, she moved on and passed into a lofty, vaulted hall, with high-backed, oaken benches ranged against the tapestry-covered walls, upon which hung several large trophies of arms, and sundry swords, shields, and steel gauntlets, which caught and flashed back the light from her lamp as she held it up to examine them. The air was heavy, chilly, and damp. An awful stillness reigned in this deserted hall. Isabelle shivered as she crept slowly along, and nearly stumbled against a huge table, with massive carved feet, that stood in the centre of the tesselated marble pavement. She was making for a door, opposite the one by which she had entered; but, as she approached it, was horror-stricken when she perceived two tall men, clad in armour, standing like sentinels, one on either side of it. She stopped short, then tried to turn and fly, but was so paralyzed with terror that she could not stir, expecting every instant that they would pounce upon her and take her prisoner, while she bitterly repented her temerity in having ventured to leave her own room, and vainly wished herself back by the quiet fireside there. Meanwhile the two dread figures stood as motionless as herself—the silence was unbroken, and "the beating of her own heart was the only sound she heard." So at last she plucked up courage to look more closely at the grim sentinels, and could not help smiling at her own needless alarm, when she found that they were suits of armour, indeed, but without men inside of them—just such as one sees standing about in the ancient royal palaces of France. Passing them with a saucy glance of defiance, and a little triumphant toss of the head, Isabelle entered a vast dining room, with tall, sculptured buffets, on which stood many superb vessels of gold and silver, together with delicate specimens of exquisite Venetian and Bohemian glass, and precious pieces of fine porcelain, fit for a king's table. Large handsome chairs, with carved backs, were standing round the great dining-table, and the walls, above the heavy oaken wainscot, were hung with richly embossed Cordova leather, glowing with warm, bright tints and golden arabesques.
She did not linger to examine and admire all the beautified things dimly revealed to her by the feeble light of her small lamp, but hurried on to the third door, which opened into an apartment yet more spacious and magnificent than the other two. At one end of it was a lordly dais, raised three steps above the inlaid floor, upon which stood a splendid great arm-chair, almost a throne, under a canopy emblazoned with a brilliant coat of arms and surmounted by a tuft of nodding plumes. Still hurrying on, Isabelle next entered a sumptuous bed-chamber, and, as she paused for an instant to hold up her lamp and look about her, fancied that she could hear the regular breathing of a sleeper in the immense bed, behind the crimson silk curtains which were closely drawn around it. She did not dare to stop and investigate the matter, but flew on her way, as lightly as any bird, and next found herself in a library, where the white busts surmounting the well-filled book-cases stared down at her with their hard, stony eyes, and made her shudder as she nervously sought for an exit, without delaying one moment to glance at the great variety of curious and beautiful objects scattered lavishly about, which, under any ordinary circumstances, would have held her enthralled.
Running at right angles with the library, and opening out of it, was the picture gallery, where the family portraits were arranged in chronological order on one side, while opposite to them was a long row of windows, looking into the court. The shutters were closed, but near the top of each one was a small circular opening, through which the moon shone and faintly lighted the dusky gallery, striking here and there directly upon the face of a portrait, with an indescribably weird and startling effect. It required all of Isabelle's really heroic courage to keep on past the long line of strange faces, looking down mockingly it seemed to her from their proud height upon her trembling form as she glided swiftly by, and she was thankful to find, at the end of the gallery, a glass door opening out upon the court. It was not fastened, and after carefully placing her lamp in a sheltered corner, where no draughts could reach it, she stepped out under the stars. It was a relief to find herself breathing freely in the fresh, pure air, though she was actually no less a prisoner than before, and as she stood looking up into the clear evening sky, and thinking of her own true lover, she seemed to feel new courage and hope springing up in her heart.
In one corner of the court she saw a strong light shining out through the crevices in the shutters that closed several low windows, and heard sounds of revelry from the same direction—the only signs of life she had detected about the whole place. Her curiosity was excited by them, and she stole softly over towards the quarter from whence they came, keeping carefully in the shadow of the wall, and glancing anxiously about to make sure that no one was furtively watching her. Finding a considerable aperture in one of the wooden shutters she peeped through it, and saw a party of men gathered around a table, eating and drinking and making merry in a very noisy fashion. The light from a lamp with three burners, which was suspended by a copper chain from the low ceiling, fell full upon them, and although she had only seen them masked before, Isabelle instantly recognised those who had been concerned in her abduction. At the head of the table sat Malartic, whose extraordinary face was paler and nose redder than ever, and at sight of whom the young girl shuddered and drew back. When she had recovered herself a little, she looked in again upon the repulsive scene, and was surprised to see, at the other end of the table, and somewhat apart from the others, Agostino, the brigand, who had now laid aside the long white beard in which he had played the part of the old blind beggar so successfully. A great deal of loud talking was going on, constantly interrupted by bursts of laughter, but Isabelle could not hear distinctly enough through the closed window to make out what they were saying. Even if she had been actually in the room with them, she would have found much of their conversation incomprehensible, as it was largely made up of the extraordinary slang of the Paris street Arabs and rascals generally. From time to time one or the other of the participants in this orgy seemed to propose a toast, whereupon they would all clink their glasses together before raising them to their lips, drain them at a draught, and applaud vociferously, while there was a constant drawing of corks and placing of fresh bottles on the table by the servant who was waiting upon them. Just as Isabelle, thoroughly disgusted with the brutality of the scene before her, was about to turn away, Malartic rapped loudly on the table to obtain a hearing, and after making a proposition, which met with ready and cordial assent, rose from his seat, cleared his throat, and began to sing, or rather shout, a ribald song, all the others joining in the chorus, with horrible grimaces and gesticulations, which so frightened poor Isabelle that she could scarcely find strength to creep away from the loathsome spectacle.
Before re-entering the house she went to look at the drawbridge, with a faint hope that she might chance upon some unexpected means of escape, but all was secure there, and a little postern, opening on the moat, which she discovered near by, was also carefully fastened, with bolts and bars strong enough to keep out an army. As these seemed to be the only means of exit from the chateau, she felt that she was a prisoner indeed, and understood why it had not been deemed necessary to lock any of the inner doors against her. She walked slowly back to the gallery, entered it by the glass door, found her lamp burning tranquilly just where she had left it, retraced her steps swiftly through the long suite of spacious apartments already described and flew up the grand staircase to her own room, congratulating herself upon not having been detected in her wanderings. She put her lamp down in the antechamber, but paused in terror on the threshold of the inner room, stifling a shriek that had nearly escaped her as she caught sight of a strange, wild figure crouching on the hearth. But her fears were short-lived, for with an exclamation of delight the intruder sprang towards her and she saw that it was Chiquita—but Chiquita in boy's clothes.
"Have you got the knife yet?" said the strange little creature abruptly to Isabelle—"the knife with three bonny red marks."
"Yes, Chiquita, I have it here in my bosom," she replied. "But why do you ask? Is my life in danger?"
"A knife," said the child with fierce, sparkling eyes, "a knife is a faithful friend and servant; it never betrays or fails its master, if he is careful to give it a drink now and then, for a knife is often thirsty you know."
"You frighten me, you naughty child!" exclaimed Isabelle, much troubled and agitated by these sinister, extravagant words, which perhaps, she thought, might be intended as a friendly warning.
"Sharpen the edge on the marble of the chimney-piece, like this," continued Chiquita, "and polish the blade on the sole of your shoe."
"Why do you tell me all this?" cried Isabelle, turning very pale.
"For nothing in particular, only he who would defend himself gets his weapons ready—that's all."
These odd, fierce phrases greatly alarmed Isabelle, yet Chiquita's presence in her room was a wonderful relief and comfort to her. The child apparently cherished a warm and sincere affection for her, which was none the less genuine because of its having arisen from such a trivial incident—for the pearl beads were more precious than diamonds to Chiquita. She had given a voluntary promise to Isabelle never to kill or harm her, and with her strange, wild, yet exalted notions of honour she looked upon it as a solemn obligation and vow, by which she must always abide—for there was a certain savage nobility in Chiquita's character, and she could be faithful unto death. Isabelle was the only human being, excepting Agostino, who had been kind to her. She had smiled upon the unkempt child, and given her the coveted necklace, and Chiquita loved her for it, while she adored her beauty. Isabelle's sweet countenance, so angelically mild and pure, exercised a wonderful influence over the neglected little savage, who had always been surrounded by fierce, haggard faces, expressive of every evil passion, and disfigured by indulgence in the lowest vices, and excesses of every kind.
"But how does it happen that you are here, Chiquita?" asked Isabelle, after a short silence. "Were you sent to keep guard over me?"
"No, I came alone and of my own accord," answered Chiquita, "because I saw the light and fire. I was tired of lying all cramped up in a corner, and keeping quiet, while those beastly men drank bottle after bottle of wine, and gorged themselves with the good things set before them. I am so little, you know, so young and slender, that they pay no more attention to me than they would to a kitten asleep under the table. While they were making a great noise I slipped quietly away unperceived. The smell of the wine and the food sickened me. I am used to the sweet perfume of the heather, and the pure resinous odour of the pines. I cannot breathe in such an atmosphere as there is down below there."
"And you were not afraid to wander alone, without a light, through the long, dark corridors, and the lonely, deserted rooms?"
"Chiquita does not know what it is to be afraid—her eyes can see in the dark, and her feet never stumble. The very owls shut their eyes when they meet her, and the bats fold their wings when she comes near their haunts. Wandering ghosts stand aside to let her pass, or turn back when they see her approaching. Night is her comrade and hides no secrets from her, and Chiquita never betrays them to the day."
Her eyes flashed and dilated as she spoke, and Isabelle looked at her with growing wonder, not unmixed with a vague sensation of fear.
"I like much better to stay here, in this heavenly quiet, by the fire with you," continued the child, "than down there in all the uproar. You are so beautiful that I love to look at you-you are like the Blessed Virgin that I have seen shining above the altar. Only from afar though, for they always chase me out of the churches with the dogs, because I am so shabby and forlorn. How white your hand is! Mine looks like a monkey's paw beside it—and your hair is as fine and soft as silk, while mine is all rough and tangled. Oh! I am so horribly ugly—you must think so too."
"No, my dear child," Isabelle replied, touched by her naive expressions of affection and admiration, "I do not think so. You have beauty too—you only need to make yourself neat and clean to be as pretty a little girl as one would wish to see."
"Do you really think so? Are you telling me true? I would steal fine clothes if they would make me pretty, for then Agostino would love me."
This idea brought a little flush of colour to her thin brown cheeks, and for a few minutes she seemed lost in a pleasant reverie.
"Do you know where we are?" asked Isabelle, when Chiquita looked up at her again.
"In a chateau that belongs to the great seignior who has so much money, and who wanted to carry you off at Poitiers. I had only to draw the bolt and it would have been done then. But you gave me the pearl necklace, and I love you, and I would not do anything you did not like."
"Yet you have helped to carry me off this time," said Isabelle reproachfully. "Is it because you don't love me any more that you have given me up to my enemies?"
"Agostino ordered me, and I had to obey; besides, some other child could have played guide to the blind man as well as I, and then I could not have come into the chateau with you, do you see?—here I may be able to do something to help you. I am brave, active and strong, though I am so small, and quick as lightning too—and I shall not let anybody harm you."
"Is this chateau very far from Paris?" asked Isabelle, drawing Chiquita up on her lap. "Did you hear any one mention the name of this place?"
"Yes, one of them called it—now what was it?" said the child, looking up at the ceiling and absently scratching her head, as if to stimulate her memory.
"Try to remember it, my child!" said Isabelle, softly stroking Chiquita's brown cheeks, which flushed with delight at the unwonted caress—no one had ever petted the poor child in her life before.
"I think that it was Val-lom-breuse," said Chiquita at last, pronouncing the syllables separately and slowly, as if listening to an inward echo. "Yes, Vallombreuse, I am sure of it now. It is the name of the seignior that your Captain Fracasse wounded in a duel—he would have done much better if he had killed him outright—saved a great deal of trouble to himself and to you. He is very wicked, that rich duke, though he does throw his gold about so freely by the handfuls—just like a man sowing grain. You hate him, don't you? and you would be glad if you could get away from him, eh?"
"Oh yes, indeed!" cried Isabelle impetuously. "But alas! it is impossible—a deep moat runs all around this chateau the drawbridge is up, the postern securely fastened—there is no way of escape."
"Chiquita laughs at bolts and bars, at high walls and deep moats. Chiquita can get out of the best guarded prison whenever she pleases, and fly away to the moon, right before the eyes of her astonished jailer. If you choose, before the sun rises your Captain Fracasse shall know where the treasure that he seeks is hidden."
Isabelle was afraid, when she heard these incoherent phrases, that the child was not quite sane, but her little face was so calm, her dark eyes so clear and steady, her voice so earnest, and she spoke with such an air of quiet conviction, that the supposition was not admissible, and the strange little creature did seem to be possessed of some of the magic powers she claimed. As if to convince Isabelle that she was not merely boasting, she continued, "Let me think a moment, to make a plan—don't speak nor move, for the least sound interferes with me—I must listen to the spirit."
Chiquita bent down her head, put her hand over her eyes, and remained for several minutes perfectly motionless; then she raised her head and without a word went and opened the window, clambered up on the sill, and gazed out intently into the darkness.
"Is she really going to take flight?" said Isabelle to herself, as she anxiously watched Chiquita's movements, not knowing what to expect. Exactly opposite to the window, on the other side of the moat, was an immense tree, very high and old, whose great branches, spreading out horizontally, overhung the water; but the longest of them did not reach the wall of the chateau by at least ten feet. It was upon this tree, however, that Chiquita's plan for escape depended. She turned away from the window, drew from her pocket a long cord made of horse-hair, very fine and strong, which she carefully unrolled to its full length and laid upon the floor; then produced from another pocket an iron hook, which she fastened securely to the cord. This done to her satisfaction, she went to the window again, and threw the end of the cord with the hook into the branches of the tree. The first time she was unsuccessful; the iron hook fell and struck against the stone wall beneath the casement; but at the second attempt the hook caught and held, and Chiquita, drawing the cord taut, asked Isabelle to take hold of it and bear her whole weight on it, until the branch was bent as far as possible towards the chateau—coming five or six feet nearer to the window where they were. Then Chiquita tied the cord firmly to the ornamental iron railing of the tiny balcony, with a knot that could not slip, climbed over, and grasping the cord with both hands, swung herself off, and hung suspended over the waters of the moat far below. Isabelle held her breath. With a rapid motion of the hands Chiquita crossed the clear space, reached the tree safely, and climbed down into it with the agility of a monkey.
"Now undo the knot so that I can take the cord with me," she said, in a low but very distinct tone of voice to Isabelle, who began to breathe freely again, "unless, indeed, you would like to follow me. But you would be frightened and dizzy, and might fall, so you had better stay where you are. Good-bye! I am going straight to Paris, and shall soon be back again; I can get on quickly in this bright moonlight."
Isabelle did as she was bid, and the branch, being no longer held by the cord, swung back to its original position. In less than a minute Chiquita had scrambled down to the ground, and the captive soon lost sight of her slender little figure as she walked off briskly towards the capital.
All that had just occurred seemed like a strange dream to Isabelle, now that she found herself alone again. She remained for some time at the open casement, looking at the great tree opposite, and trembling as she realized the terrible risk Chiquita had run for her sake—feeling warm gratitude and tender affection for the wild, incomprehensible little creature, who manifested such a strong attachment for herself, and a new hope sprang up in her heart as she thought that now de Sigognac would soon know where to find her. The cold night air at last forced her to close the window, and after arranging the curtains over it carefully, so as to show no signs of having been disturbed, she returned to her easy-chair by the fire; and just in time, for she had scarcely seated herself when the major-domo entered, followed by the two servants, again carrying the little table, set for one, with her supper daintily arranged upon it. A few minutes earlier and Chiquita's escape would have been discovered and prevented. Isabelle, still greatly agitated by all that had passed, could not eat, and signed to the servants to remove the supper untouched. Whereupon the major-domo himself put some bread and wine on a small table beside the bed, and placed on a chair near the fire a richly trimmed dressing-gown, and everything that a lady could require in making her toilet for the night. Several large logs of wood were piled up on the massive andirons, the candles were renewed, and then the major-domo, approaching Isabelle with a profound obeisance, said to her that if she desired the services of a maid he would send one to her. As she made a gesture of dissent he withdrew, after again bowing to her most respectfully. When they had all gone, Isabelle, quite worn out, threw herself down on the outside of the bed without undressing, so as to be ready in case of any sudden alarm in the night; then took out Chiquita's knife, opened it, and laid it beside her. Having taken these precautions, she closed her eyes, and hoped that she could for a while forget her troubles in sleep; but she had been so much excited and agitated that her nerves were all quivering, and it was long before she even grew drowsy. There were so many strange, incomprehensible noises in the great, empty house to disturb and startle her; and in her own room, the cracking of the furniture, the ticking of a death-watch in the wall near her bed, the gnawing of a rat behind the wainscot, the snapping of the fire. At each fresh sound she started up in terror, with her poor heart throbbing as if it would burst out of her breast, a cold perspiration breaking out on her forehead, and trembling in every limb. At last, however, weary nature had to succumb, and she fell into a deep sleep, which lasted until she was awakened by the sun shining on her face. Her first thought was to wonder that she had not yet seen the Duke of Vallombreuse; but she was thankful for his absence, and hoped that it would continue until Chiquita should have brought de Sigognac to the rescue.
The reason why the young duke had not yet made his appearance was one of policy. He had taken especial pains to show himself at Saint Germain on the day of the abduction—had joined the royal hunting party, and been exceedingly and unwontedly affable to all who happened to come in contact with him. In the evening he had played at cards, and lost ostentatiously sums that would have been of importance to a less wealthy man—being all the time in a very genial mood—especially after the arrival of a mounted messenger, who brought him a little note. Thus the duke's desire to be able to establish an incontestable alibi, in case of need, had spared Isabelle thus far the infliction of his hated presence; but while she was congratulating herself upon it, and welcoming the sunshine that streamed into her room, she heard the drawbridge being let down, and immediately after a carriage dashed over it and thundered into the court. Her heart sank, for who would be likely to enter in that style save the master of the house? Her face grew deathly pale, she reeled, and for one dreadful moment felt as if she should faint; but, rallying her courage, she reminded herself that Chiquita had gone to bring de Sigognac to her aid, and determined afresh to meet bravely whatever trials might be in store for her, until her beloved knight and champion should arrive, to rescue her from her terrible danger and irksome imprisonment. Her eyes involuntarily sought the portrait over the chimney-piece, and after passionately invoking it, and imploring its aid and protection, as if it had been her patron saint, she felt a certain sense of ease and security, as if what she had so earnestly entreated would really be accorded to her.
A full hour had elapsed, which the young duke had employed in the duties of the toilet, and in snatching a few minutes of repose after his rapid night-journey, when the major-domo presented himself, and asked respectfully if Isabelle would receive the Duke of Vallombreuse.
"I am a prisoner," she replied, with quiet dignity, "and this demand, which would be fitting and polite in any ordinary case, is only a mockery when addressed to one in my position. I have no means of preventing your master's coming into this room, nor can I quit it to avoid him. I do not accept his visit but submit to it. He must do as he pleases about it, and come and go when he likes. He allows me no choice in the matter. Go and tell him exactly what I have said to you."
The major-domo bowed low, and retired backward to the door, having received strict orders to treat Isabelle with the greatest respect and consideration. In a few minutes he returned, and announced the Duke of Vallombreuse.
Isabelle half rose from her chair by the fire, but turned very pale and fell back into it, as her unwelcome visitor made his appearance at the door. He closed it and advanced slowly towards her, hat in hand, but when he perceived that she was trembling violently, and looked ready to faint, he stopped in the middle of the room, made a low bow, and said in his most dulcet, persuasive tones:
"If my presence is too unbearably odious now to the charming Isabelle, and she would like to have a little time to get used to the thought of seeing me, I will withdraw. She is my prisoner, it is true, but I am none the less her slave."
"This courtesy is tardy," Isabelle replied coldly, "after the violence you have made use of against me."
"That is the natural result," said the duke, with a smile, "of pushing people to extremity by a too obstinate and prolonged resistance. Having lost all hope, they stop at nothing—knowing that they cannot make matters any worse, whatever they do. If you had only been willing to suffer me to pay my court to you in the regular way, and shown a little indulgence to my love, I should have quietly remained among the ranks of your passionate adorers; striving, by dint of delicate attentions, chivalrous devotion, magnificent offerings, and respectful yet ardent solicitations, to soften that hard heart of yours. If I could not have succeeded in inspiring it with love for me, I might at least have awakened in it that tender pity which is akin to love, and which is so often only its forerunner. In the end, perhaps, you would have repented of your cruel severity, and acknowledged that you had been unjust towards me. Believe me, my charming Isabelle, I should have neglected nothing to bring it about."
"If you had employed only honest and honourable means in your suit," Isabelle rejoined, "I should have felt very sorry that I had been so unfortunate as to inspire an attachment I could not reciprocate, and would have given you my warm sympathy, and friendly regard, instead of being reluctantly compelled, by repeated outrages, to hate you instead.
"You do hate me then?—you acknowledge it?" the duke cried, his voice trembling with rage; but he controlled himself, and after a short pause continued, in a gentler tone, "Yet I do not deserve it. My only wrongs towards you, if any there be, have come from the excess and ardour of my love; and what woman, however chaste and virtuous, can be seriously angry with a gallant gentleman because he has been conquered by the power of her adorable charms? whether she so desired or not."
"Certainly, that is not a reason for dislike or anger, my lord, if the suitor does not overstep the limits of respect, as all women will agree. But when his insolent impatience leads him to commit excesses, and he resorts to fraud, abduction, and imprisonment, as you have not hesitated to do, there is no other result possible than an unconquerable aversion. Coercion is always and inevitably revolting to a nature that has any proper pride or delicacy. Love, true love, is divine, and cannot be furnished to order, or extorted by violence. It is spontaneous, and freely given—not to be bought, nor yet won by importunity."
"Is an unconquerable aversion then all that I am to expect from you?" said Vallombreuse, who had become pale to ghastliness, and been fiercely gnawing his under lip, while Isabelle was speaking, in her sweet, clear tones, which fell on his ear like the soft chiming of silver bells, and only served to enhance his devouring passion.
"There is yet one means of winning my friendship and gratitude—be noble and generous, and give me back the liberty of which you have deprived me. Let me return to my companions, who must be anxiously seeking for me, and suffering keenly because of their fears for my safety. Let me go and resume my lowly life as an actress, before this outrageous affair—which may irreparably injure my reputation—has become generally known, or my absence from the theatre been remarked by the public."
"How unfortunate it is," cried the duke, angrily, "that you should ask of me the only thing I cannot do for you. If you had expressed your desire for an empire, a throne, I would have given it to you—or if you had wished for a star, I would have climbed up into the heavens to get it for you. But here you calmly ask me to open the door of this cage, little bird, to which you would never come back of your own accord, if I were stupid enough to let you go. It is impossible! I know well that you love me so little, or rather hate me so much, that you would never see me again of your own free will—that my only chance of enjoying your charming society is to lock you up—keep you my prisoner. However much it may cost my pride, I must do it—for I can no more live without you than a plant without the light. My thoughts turn to you as the heliotrope to the sun. Where you are not, all is darkness for me. If what I have dared to do is a crime, I must make the best of it, and profit by it as much as I can—for you would never forgive nor overlook it, whatever you may say now. Here at least I have you—I hold you. I can surround you with my love and care, and strive to melt the ice of your coldness by the heat of my passion. Your eyes must behold me—your ears must listen to my voice. I shall exert an influence over you, if only by the alarm and detestation I am so unfortunate as to inspire in your gentle breast; the sound of my footsteps in your antechamber will make you start and tremble. And then, besides all that, this captivity separates you effectually from the miserable fellow you fancy that you love—and whom I abhor; because he has dared to turn your heart away from me. I can at least enjoy this small satisfaction, of keeping you from him; and I will not let you go free to return to him—you may be perfectly sure of that, my fair lady!"
"And how long do you intend to keep me captive?—not like a Christian gentleman, but like a lawless corsair."
"Until you have learned to love me—or at least to say that you have, which amounts to the same thing."
Then he made her a low bow, and departed, with as self-satisfied and jaunty an air as if he had been in truth a favoured suitor. Half an hour later a lackey brought in a beautiful bouquet, of the rarest and choicest flowers, while the stems were clasped by a magnificent bracelet, fit for a queen's wearing. A little piece of folded paper nestled among the flowers—a note from the duke—and the fair prisoner recognised the handwriting as the same in which "For Isabelle" was written, on the slip of paper that accompanied the casket of jewels at Poitiers. The note read as follows:
"DEAR ISABELLE—I send you these flowers, though I know they will be ungraciously received. As they come from me, their beauty and fragrance will not find favour in your eyes. But whatever may be their fate, even though you only touch them to fling them disdainfully out of the window, they will force you to think for a moment—if it be but in anger—of him who declares himself, in spite of everything, your devoted adorer,
This note, breathing of the most specious gallantry, and tenacity of purpose, did produce very much the effect it predicted; for it made Isabelle exceedingly angry; and, without even once inhaling the delicious perfume of the flowers, or pausing for an instant to admire their beauty, she flung the bouquet, diamond bracelet and all, out into the antechamber. Never surely were lovely blossoms so badly treated; and yet Isabelle was excessively fond of them; but she feared that if she even allowed them to remain a little while in her room, their donor would presume upon the slight concession. She had scarcely resumed her seat by the fire, after disposing of the obnoxious bouquet, when a maid appeared, who had been sent to wait upon her. She was a pretty, refined looking girl, but very pale, and with an air of deep melancholy—as if she were brooding over a secret sorrow. She offered her services to Isabelle without looking up, and in a low, subdued voice, as if she feared that the very walls had ears. Isabelle allowed her to take down and comb out her long, silky hair, which was very much dishevelled, and to arrange it again as she habitually wore it; which was quickly and skilfully done. Then the maid opened a wardrobe and took out several beautiful gowns, exquisitely made and trimmed, and just Isabelle's size; but she would not even look at them, and sharply ordered that they should instantly be put back where they belonged, though her own dress was very much the worse for the rough treatment it had been subjected to on the preceding day, and it was a trial to the sweet, dainty creature to be so untidy. But she was determined to accept nothing from the duke, no matter how long her captivity might last. The maid did not insist, but acceded to her wishes with a mild, pitying air—just as indulgence is shown, as far as possible, to all the little whims and caprices of prisoners condemned to death. Isabelle would have liked to question her attendant, and endeavour to elicit some information from her, but the girl was more like an automaton than anything else, and it was impossible to gain more than a monosyllable from her lips. So Isabelle resigned herself with a sigh to her mute ministerings, not without a sort of vague terror.
After the maid had retired, dinner was served as before, and Isabelle made a hearty meal—feeling that she must keep up her strength, and also hopeful of hearing something in a few hours more from her faithful lover. Her thoughts were all of him, and as she realized the dangers to which he would inevitably be exposed for her sake, her eyes filled with tears, and a sharp pang shot through her heart. She was angry with herself for being the cause of so much trouble, and fain to curse her own beauty—the unhappy occasion of it all. She was absorbed in these sad thoughts when a little noise as if a hail-stone had struck against the window pane, suddenly aroused her. She flew to the casement, and saw Chiquita, in the tree opposite, signing to her to open it, and swinging back and forth the long horse-hair cord, with the iron hook attached to it. She hastened to comply with the wishes of her strange little ally, and, as she stepped back in obedience to another sign, the hook, thrown with unerring aim, caught securely in the iron railing of the little balcony. Chiquita tied the other end of the cord to the branch to which she was clinging, and then began to cross over the intervening space as before; but ere she was half-way over, the knot gave way, and poor Isabelle for one moment of intense agony thought that the child was lost. But, instead of falling into the moat beneath her, Chiquita, who did not appear to be in the least disconcerted by this accident, swung over against the wall below the balcony, and climbing up the cord hand over hand, leaped lightly into the room, before Isabelle had recovered her breath. Finding her very pale, and tremulous, the child said smilingly, "You were frightened, eh? and thought Chiquita would fall down among the frogs in the moat. When I tied my cord to the branch, I only made a slip-knot, so that I could bring it back with me. I must have looked like a big spider climbing up its thread," she added, with a laugh.
"My dear child," said Isabelle, with much feeling, and kissing Chiquita's forehead, "you are a very brave little girl."
"I saw your friends. They had been searching and searching for you; but without Chiquita they would never have found out where you were hidden. The captain was rushing about like an angry lion—his eyes flashed fire—he was magnificent. I came back with him. He rode, and held me in front of him. He is hidden in a little wood not far off, he and his comrades—they must keep out of sight, you know. This evening, as soon as it is dark, they will try to get in here to you—by the tree, you know. There's sure to be a scrimmage—pistol shots and swords clashing—oh! it will be splendid; for there's nothing so fine as a good fight; when the men are in earnest, and fierce and brave. Now don't you be frightened and scream, as silly women do; nothing upsets them like that. You must just remain perfectly quiet, and keep out of their way. If you like, I will come and stay by you, so that you will not be afraid."
"Don't be uneasy about that, Chiquita! I will not annoy my brave friends, who come to save my life at the risk of their own, by any foolish fears or demonstrations; that I promise you."
"That's right," the child replied, "and until they come, you can defend yourself with my knife, you know. Don't forget the proper way to use it. Strike like this, and then do so; you can rip him up beautifully. As for me, I'm going to hunt up a quiet corner where I can get a nap. No, I can't stay here, for we must not be seen together; it would never do. Now do you be sure to keep away from that window. You must not even go near it, no matter what you hear, for fear they might suspect that you hoped for help from that direction. If they did, it would be all up with us; for they would send out and search the woods, and beat the bushes, and find our friends where they lie hidden. The whole thing would fall through, and you would have to stop here with this horrid duke that you hate so much."
"I will not go near the window," Isabelle answered, "nor even look towards it, however much I may wish to. You may depend upon my discretion, Chiquita, I do assure you."
Reassured upon this important point, Chiquita crept softly away, and went back to the lower room where she had left the ruffians carousing. They were still there—lying about on the benches and the floor, in a drunken sleep, and evidently had not even missed her. She curled herself up in a corner, as far as might be from the loathsome brutes, and was asleep in a minute. The poor child was completely tired out; her slender little feet had travelled eight leagues the night before, running a good part of the way, and the return on horseback had perhaps fatigued her even more, being unaccustomed to it. Although her fragile little body had the strength and endurance of steel, she was worn out now, and lay, pale and motionless, in a sleep that seemed like death.
"Dear me! how these children do sleep to be sure," said Malartic, when he roused himself at last and looked about him. "In spite of our carouse, and all the noise we made, that little monkey in the corner there has never waked nor stirred. Halloa! wake up you fellows! drunken beasts that you are. Try to stand up on your hind legs, and go out in the court and dash a bucket of cold water over your cursed heads. The Circe of drunkenness has made swine of you in earnest—go and see if the baptism I recommend will turn you back into men, and then we'll take a little look round the place, to make sure there's no plot hatching to rescue the little beauty we have in charge."
The men scrambled to their feet slowly and with difficulty, and staggered out into the court as best they might, where the fresh air, and the treatment prescribed by Malartic, did a good deal towards reviving them; but they were a sorry looking set after all, and there were many aching heads among them. As soon as they were fit for it, Malartic took three of the least tipsy of them, and leading the way to a small postern that opened on the moat, unchained a row-boat lying there, crossed the broad ditch, ascended a steep flight of steps leading up the bank on the other side, and, leaving one man to guard the boat, proceeded to make a tour of inspection in the immediate vicinity of the chateau; fortunately without stumbling on the party concealed in the wood, or seeing anything to arouse their suspicions; so they returned to their quarters perfectly satisfied that there was no enemy lurking near.
Meantime Isabelle, left quite alone, tried in vain to interest herself in a book she had found lying upon one of the side-tables. She read a few pages mechanically, and then, finding it impossible to fix her attention upon it, threw the volume from her and sat idly in front of the fire, which was blazing cheerily, thinking of her own true lover, and praying that he might be preserved from injury in the impending struggle. Evening came at last—a servant brought in lights, and soon after the major-domo announced a visit from the Duke of Vallombreuse. He entered at once, and greeted his fair captive with the most finished courtesy. He looked very handsome, in a superb suit of pearl gray satin, richly trimmed with crimson velvet, and Isabelle could not but admire his personal appearance, much as she detested his character.
"I have come to see, my adorable Isabelle, whether I shall be more kindly received than my flowers," said he, drawing up a chair beside hers. "I have not the vanity to think so, but I want you to become accustomed to my presence. To-morrow another bouquet, and another visit."
"Both will be useless, my lord," she replied, "though I am sorry to have to be so rude as to say so—but I had much better be perfectly frank with you."
"Ah, well!" rejoined the duke, with a malicious smile, "I will dispense with hope, and content myself with reality. You do not know, my poor child, what a Vallombreuse can do—you, who vainly try to resist him. He has never yet known what it was to have an unsatisfied desire—he invariably gains his ends, in spite of all opposition—nothing can stop him. Tears, supplication, laments, threats, even dead bodies and smoking ruins would not daunt him. Do not tempt him too powerfully, by throwing new obstacles in his way, you imprudent child!"
Isabelle, frightened by the expression of his countenance as he spoke thus, instinctively pushed her chair farther away from his, and felt for Chiquita's knife. But the wily duke, seeing that he had made a mistake, instantly changed his tone, and begging her pardon most humbly for his vehemence, endeavoured to persuade her, by many specious arguments, that she was wrong in persistently turning a deaf ear to his suit—setting forth at length, and in glowing words, all the advantages that would accrue to her if she would but yield to his wishes, and describing the happiness in store for her. While he was thus eloquently pleading his cause, Isabelle, who had given him only a divided attention, thought that she heard a peculiar little noise in the direction whence the longed-for aid was to come, and fearing that Vallombreuse might hear it also, hastened to answer him the instant that he paused, in a way to vex him still further—for she preferred his anger to his love-making. Also, she hoped that by quarrelling with him she would be able to prevent his perceiving the suspicious little sound—now growing louder and more noticeable.
"The happiness that you so eloquently describe, my lord, would be for me a disgrace, which I am resolved to escape by death, if all other means fail me. You never shall have me living. Formerly I regarded you with indifference, but now I both hate and despise you, for your infamous, outrageous and violent behaviour to me, your helpless victim. Yes, I may as well tell you openly—and I glory in it—that I do love the Baron de Sigognac, whom you have more than once so basely tried to assassinate, through your miserable hired ruffians."
The strange noise still kept on, and Isabelle raised her voice to drown it. At her audacious, defiant words, so distinctly and impressively enunciated—hurled at him, as it were—Vallombreuse turned pale, and his eyes flashed ominously; a light foam gathered about the corners of his mouth, and he laid hold of the handle of his sword. For an instant he thought of killing Isabelle himself, then and there. If he could not have her, at least no one else should. But he relinquished that idea almost as soon as it occurred to him, and with a hard, forced laugh said, as he sprang up and advanced impetuously towards Isabelle, who retreated before him:
"Now, by all the devils in hell, I cannot help admiring you immensely in this mood. It is a new role for you, and you are deucedly charming in it. You have got such a splendid colour, and your eyes are so bright—you are superb, I declare. I am greatly flattered at your blazing out into such dazzling beauty on my account—upon my word I am. You have done well to speak out openly—I hate deceit. So you love de Sigognac, do you? So much the better, say I—it will be all the sweeter to call you mine. It will be a pleasing variety to press ardent kisses upon sweet lips that say 'I hate you,' instead of the insipid, everlasting 'I love you,' that one gets a surfeit of from all the pretty women of one's acquaintance."
Alarmed at this coarse language, and the threatening gestures that accompanied it, Isabelle started back and drew out Chiquita's knife.
"Bravo!" cried the duke—"here comes the traditional poniard. We are being treated to a bit of high tragedy. But, my fierce little beauty, if you are well up in your Roman history, you will remember that the chaste Mme. Lucretia did not make use of her dagger until AFTER the assault of Sextus, the bold son of Tarquin the Proud. That ancient and much-cited example is a good one to follow."
And without paying any more attention to the knife than to a bee-sting, he had violently seized Isabelle in his arms before she could raise it to strike.
Just at that moment a loud cracking noise was heard, followed by a tremendous crash, and the casement fell clattering to the floor, with every pane of glass in it shattered; as if a giant had put his knee against it and broken it in; while a mass of branches protruded through the opening into the room. It was the top of the tree that Chiquita had made such good use of as a way of escape and return. The trunk, sawed nearly through by de Sigognac and his companions, was guided in its fall so as to make a means of access to Isabelle's window; both bridging the moat, and answering all the purposes of a ladder.
The Duke of Vallombreuse, astonished at this most extraordinary intrusion upon his love-making, released his trembling victim, and drew his sword. Chiquita, who had crept into the room unperceived when the crash came, pulled Isabelle's sleeve and whispered, "Come into this corner, out of the way; the dance is going to begin."
As she spoke, several pistol shots were heard without, and four of the duke's ruffians—who were doing garrison duty came rushing up the stairs, four steps at a time, and dashed into the room-sword in hand, and eager for the fray.
CHAPTER XVII. THE AMETHYST RING
The topmost branches of the tree, protruding through the window, rendered the centre of the room untenable, so Malartic and his three aids ranged themselves two and two against the wall on either side of it, armed with pistols and swords—ready to give the assailants a warm welcome.
"You had better retire, my lord duke, or else put on a mask," whispered Malartic to the young nobleman, "so that you may not be seen and recognised in this affair."
"What do I care?" cried Vallombreuse, flourishing his sword. "I am not afraid of anybody in the world—and besides, those who see me will never go away from this to tell of it."
"But at least your lordship will place this second Helen in some safe retreat. A stray bullet might so easily deprive your highness of the prize that cost so dear—and it would be such a pity."
The duke, finding this advice judicious, went at once over to where Isabelle was standing beside Chiquita, and throwing his arms round her attempted to carry her into the next room. The poor girl made a desperate resistance, and slipping from the duke's grasp rushed to the window, regardless of danger, crying, "Save me, de Sigognac! save me!" A voice from without answered, "I am coming," but, before he could reach the window, Vallombreuse had again seized his prey, and succeeded in carrying her into the adjoining room, closing and bolting the stout oaken door behind him just as de Sigognac bounded into the chamber he had quitted. His entrance was so sudden, and so swiftly and boldly made, that he entirely escaped the pistol shots aimed at him, and the four bullets all fell harmless. When the smoke had cleared away and the "garrison" saw that he was unhurt, a murmur of astonishment arose, and one of the men exclaimed aloud that Captain Fracasse—the only name by which THEY knew him—must bear a charmed life; whereupon, Malartic cried, "Leave him to me, I'll soon finish him, and do you three keep a strict guard over the window there; for there will be more to follow this one if I am not mistaken."
But he did not find his self-imposed task as easy as he supposed—for de Sigognac was ready for him, and gave him plenty to do, though his surprise and disappointment were overwhelming when he found that Isabelle was nowhere to be seen.
"Where is she?" he cried impetuously. "Where is Isabelle? I heard her voice in here only a moment ago."
"Don't ask me!" Malartic retorted. "YOU didn't give her into my charge." And all this time their swords were flashing and clashing, as the combat between them grew more animated.
A moment later, before the men had finished reloading their pistols, Scapin dashed in through the window, throwing a remarkable somersault like an acrobat as he came, and seeing that the three ruffians had laid down their swords beside them on the floor while attending to their other weapons, he seized upon them all, ere their owners had recovered from their astonishment at his extraordinary advent, and hurled them through the broken casement down into the moat. Then, laying hold of one of the three from behind, and pinning down his arms securely, he placed him in front of himself for a shield—turning him dexterously this way and that, in order to keep his body always between his own and the enemy; so that they dared not fire upon him lest they should kill their comrade, who was vehemently beseeching them to spare his life, and vainly struggling to escape from Scapin's iron grip.
The combat between de Sigognac and Malartic was still going on, but at last, the baron—who had already wounded his adversary slightly, and whose agony and desperation at being kept from prosecuting his search for Isabelle were intense—wrested Malartic's sword from his grasp, by a dexterous manoeuvre with his own, and putting his foot upon it as it lay on the floor raised the point of his blade to the professional ruffian's throat, crying "Surrender, or you are a dead man!"
At this critical moment another one of the besieging party burst in through the window, who, seeing at a glance how matters stood, said to Malartic in an authoritative tone, "You can surrender without dishonour to this valiant hero—you are entirely at his mercy. You have done your duty loyally—now consider yourself a prisoner of war."
Then turning to de Sigognac, he said, "You may trust his word, for he is an honourable fellow in his way, and will not molest you again—I will answer for him."
Malartic made a gesture of acquiescence, and the baron let him go—whereupon the discomfited bully picked up his sword, and with a crestfallen air walked off very disconsolately to a corner, where he sat down and occupied himself in staunching the blood that was flowing from his wound. The other three men were quickly conquered, and, at the suggestion of the latest comer, were securely bound hand and foot as they lay upon the floor, and then left to reflect upon their misfortunes.
"They can't do any more mischief now," said Jacquemin Lampourde, mockingly; for it was that famous fighting man in person, who, in his enthusiastic admiration, or rather adoration, for de Sigognac, had offered his services on this momentous occasion—services by no means to be despised. As to the brave Herode, he was doing good service in fighting the rest of the garrison below. They had hastened out and crossed the moat in the little row-boat as quickly as possible after the alarm was given, but arrived too late, as we have seen, to prevent the assailants from ascending their strange scaling ladder. So they determined to follow, hoping to overtake and dislodge some of them. But Herode, who had found the upper branches bending and cracking in a very ominous manner under his great weight, was forced to turn about and make his way back to the main trunk, where, under cover of darkness, he quietly awaited the climbing foe. Merindol, who commanded this detachment of the garrison, was first, and being completely taken by surprise was easily dislodged and thrown down into the water below. The next one, aroused to a sense of his danger by this, pulled out a pistol and fired, but in the agitation of the moment, and the darkness, missed his aim, so that he was entirely at the tyrant's mercy, and in an instant was held suspended over the deep waters of the moat. He clung desperately to a little branch he had managed to lay hold of, and made such a brave fight for his life, that Herode, who was merciful by nature, though so fierce of aspect, decided to make terms with him, if he could do so without injuring the interests of his own party; and upon receiving a solemn promise from him to remain strictly neutral during the remainder of the fray, the powerful actor lifted him up, with the greatest ease, and seated him in safety upon the tree-trunk again. The poor fellow was so grateful that he was even better than his word, for, making use of the password and giving a pretended order from Merindol to the other two, who were some distance behind him and ignorant of what had happened, he sent them off post-haste to attend to an imaginary foe at some distance from the chateau; availing himself of their absence to make good his escape, after heartily thanking Herode for his clemency. The moon was just rising, and by its light the tyrant spied the little row-boat, lying not very far off at the foot of a flight of steps in the steep bank, and he was not slow to make use of it to cross the moat, and penetrate into the interior court of the chateau—the postern having been fortunately left open. Looking about him, to see how he could best rejoin his comrades within the building, his eyes fell upon the porch guarded by the two huge, calm sphinxes, and he wisely concluded that through it must lie his way to the scene of action.
Meantime de Sigognac, Scapin and Lampourde, having a chance to look about them, were horrified to find that they were prisoners in the room where the battle had been fought. In vain they tried to burst open the stout oaken door which was their only means of egress—for the tree had, but a moment before, given way and fallen with a loud crash into the moat; in vain they strove to cut through one of the panels, or force the lock from its fastenings. To de Sigognac this delay was maddening, for he knew that the Duke of Vallombreuse had carried Isabelle away, and that he must still be with her. He worked like a giant himself, and incited the others to redouble their efforts; making battering rams of various pieces of furniture—resorting to every means that their ingenuity could devise—but without making the least impression on the massive barrier. They had paused in dismay, when suddenly a slight, grinding noise was heard, like a key turning in a lock, and the door, so unsuccessfully attacked, opened as if by magic before them.
"What good angel has come to our aid?" cried de Sigognac; "and by what miracle does this door open of itself, after having so stoutly resisted all our efforts?"
"There is neither angel nor miracle; only Chiquita," answered a quiet little voice, as the child appeared from behind the door, and fixed her great, dark, liquid eyes calmly on de Sigognac. She had managed to slip out with Vallombreuse and Isabelle, entirely unnoticed by the former, and in the hope of being of use to the latter.
"Where is Isabelle?" cried the baron, as he crossed the threshold and looked anxiously round the anteroom, which was dimly lighted by one little flickering lamp. For a moment he did not perceive her; the Duke of Vallombreuse, surprised at the sudden opening of the door, which he had believed to be securely fastened and impenetrable, had retreated into a corner, and placed Isabelle, who was almost fainting from terror and exhaustion, behind him. She had sunk upon her knees, with her head leaning against the wall, her long hair, which had come down, falling about her, and her dress in the utmost disorder; for she had struggled desperately in the arms of her captor; who, feeling that his fair victim was about to escape from his clutches, had vainly striven to snatch a few kisses from the sweet lips so temptingly near his own.
"Here she is," said Chiquita, "in this corner, behind the Duke of Vallombreuse; but to get to her you must first kill him."
"Of course I shall kill him," cried de Sigognac, advancing sword in hand towards the young duke, who was ready to receive him.
"We shall see about that, Sir Captain Fracasse—doughty knight of Bohemiennes!" said Vallombreuse disdainfully, and the conflict began. The duke was not de Sigognac's equal at this kind of work, but still he was skilful and brave, and had had too much good instruction to handle his sword like a broom-stick, as Lampourde expressed it. He stood entirely upon the defensive, and was exceedingly wary and prudent, hoping, as his adversary must be already considerably fatigued by his encounter with Malartic, that he might be able to get the better of him this time, and retrieve his previous defeat. At the very beginning he had succeeded in raising a small silver whistle to his lips with his left hand—and its shrill summons brought five or six armed attendants into the room.
"Carry away this woman," he cried, "and put out those two rascals. I will take care of the captain myself."
The sudden interruption of these fresh forces astonished de Sigognac, and as he saw two of the men lift up and carry off Isabelle—who had fainted quite away—he was thrown for an instant off his guard, and very nearly run through the body by his opponent.
Roused to a sense of his danger, he attacked the duke with renewed fury, and with a terrible thrust, that made him reel, wounded him seriously in the upper part of the chest.
Meanwhile Lampourde and Scapin had shown the duke's lackeys that it would not be a very easy matter to put them out, and were handling them rather roughly, when the cowardly fellows, seeing that their master was wounded, and leaning against the wall, deathly pale, thought that he was done for, and although they were fully armed, took to their heels and fled, deaf to his feeble cry for assistance. While all this was going on, the tyrant was making his way up the grand staircase, as fast as his corpulence would permit, and reached the top just in time to see Isabelle, pale, dishevelled, motionless, and apparently dead, being borne along the corridor by two lackeys. Without stopping to make any inquiries, and full of wrath at the thought that the sweet girl had fallen a victim to the wickedness of the cruel Duke of Vallombreuse, he drew his sword, and fell upon the two men with such fury that they dropped their light burden and fled down the stairs as fast as their legs could carry them. Then he knelt down beside the unconscious girl, raised her gently in his arms, and found that her heart was beating, though but feebly, and that she apparently had no wound, while she sighed faintly, like a person beginning to revive after a swoon. In this position he was found by de Sigognac, who had effectually gotten rid of Vallombreuse, by the famous and well-directed thrust that had thrown Jacquemin Lampourde into a rapture of admiration and delight. He knelt down beside his darling, took both her hands in his, and said, in the most tender tones, that Isabelle heard vaguely as if in a dream:
"Rouse yourself, dear heart, and fear nothing. You are safe now, with your own friends, and your own true lover—nobody can harm or frighten you again."
Although she did not yet open her eyes, a faint smile dawned upon the colourless lips, and her cold, trembling, little fingers feebly returned the tender pressure of de Sigognac's warm hands. Lampourde stood by, and looked down with tearful eyes upon this touching group—for he was exceedingly romantic and sentimental, and always intensely interested in a love affair. Suddenly, in the midst of the profound silence that had succeeded to the uproar of the melee, the winding of a horn was heard without, and in a moment energetically repeated. It was evidently a summons that had to be instantly obeyed; the drawbridge was lowered in haste, with a great rattling of chains, and a carriage driven rapidly into the court, while the red flaring light of torches flashed through the windows of the corridor. In another minute the door of the vestibule was thrown open, and hasty steps ascended the grand staircase. First came four tall lackeys, in rich liveries, carrying lights, and directly behind them a tall, noble-looking man, who was dressed from head to foot in black velvet, with an order shining on his breast—of those that are usually reserved for kings and princes of the blood, and only very exceptionally bestowed, upon the most illustrious personages.
When the four lackeys reached the landing at the head of the stairs, they silently ranged themselves against the wall, and stood like statues bearing torches; without the raising of an eyelid, or the slightest change in the stolid expression of their countenances to indicate that they perceived anything out of the usual way—exhibiting in perfection that miraculous imperturbability and self-command which is peculiar to well-bred, thoroughly trained menservants. The gentleman whom they had preceded paused ere he stepped upon the landing. Although age had brought wrinkles to his handsome face, and turned his abundant dark hair gray, it was still easy to recognise in him the original of the portrait that had so fascinated Isabelle, and whose protection she had passionately implored in her distress.
It was the princely father of Vallombreuse—the son bearing a different name, that of a duchy he possessed, until he in his turn should become the head of the family, and succeed to the title of prince.
At sight of Isabelle, supported by de Sigognac and the tyrant, whose ghastly pallor made her look like one dead, the aged gentleman raised his arms towards heaven and groaned.
"Alas! I am too late," said he, "for all the haste I made," and advancing a few steps he bent over the prostrate girl, and took her lifeless hand in his. Upon this hand, white, cold and diaphanous, as if it had been sculptured in alabaster, shone a ring, set with an amethyst of unusual size. The old nobleman seemed strangely agitated as it caught his eye. He drew it gently from Isabelle's slender finger, with a trembling hand signed to one of the torch-bearers to bring his light nearer, and by it eagerly examined the device cut upon the stone; first holding it close to the light and then at arm's length; as those whose eyesight is impaired by age are wont to do. The Baron de Sigognac, Herode and Lampourde anxiously watched the agitated movements of the prince, and his change of expression, as he contemplated this jewel, which he seemed to recognise; and which he turned and twisted between his fingers, with a pained look in his face, as if some great trouble had befallen him.
"Where is the Duke of Vallombreuse?" he cried at last, in a voice of thunder. "Where is that monster in human shape, who is unworthy of my race?"
He had recognised, without a possibility of doubt, in this ring, the one bearing a fanciful device, with which he had been accustomed, long ago, to seal the notes he wrote to Cornelia—Isabelle's mother, and his own youthful love. How happened it that this ring was on the finger of the young actress, who had been forcibly and shamefully abducted by Vallombreuse? From whom could she have received it? These questions were torturing to him.
"Can it be possible that she is Cornelia's daughter and mine?" said the prince to himself. "Her profession, her age, her sweet face, in which I can trace a softened, beautified likeness of her mother's, but which has a peculiarly high bred, refined expression, worthy of a royal princess, all combine to make me believe it must be so. Then, alas! alas! it is his own sister that this cursed libertine has so wronged, and he has been guilty of a horrible, horrible crime. Oh! I am cruelly punished for my youthful folly and sin."
Isabelle at length opened her eyes, and her first look fell upon the prince, holding the ring that he had drawn from her finger. It seemed to her as if she had seen his face before—but in youth, without the gray hair and beard. It seemed also to be an aged copy of the portrait over the chimney-piece in her room, and a feeling of profound veneration filled her heart as she gazed at him. She saw, too, her beloved de Sigognac kneeling beside her, watching her with tenderest devotion; and the worthy tyrant as well—both safe and sound. To the horrors of the terrible struggle had succeeded the peace and security of deliverance. She had nothing more to fear, for her friends or for herself—how could she ever be thankful enough?
The prince, who had been gazing at her with passionate earnestness, as if her fair face possessed an irresistible charm for him, now addressed her in low, moved tones:
"Mademoiselle, will you kindly tell me how you came by this ring, which recalls very dear and sacred memories to me? Has it been long in your possession?"
"I have had it ever since my infancy; it is the only thing that my poor mother left me," Isabelle replied, with gentle dignity.
"And who was your mother? Will you, tell me something about her?" continued the prince, with increasing emotion.
"Her name was Cornelia, and she was an actress, belonging to the same troupe that I am a member of now."
"Cornelia! then there is no possible doubt about it," murmured the prince to himself, in great agitation. "Yes, it is certainly she whom I have been seeking all these years—and now to find her thus!"
Then, controlling his emotion, he resumed his usual calm, majestic demeanour, and turning back to Isabelle, said to her, "Permit me to keep this ring for the present; I will soon give it back to you."
"I am content to leave it in your lordship's hands," the young actress replied, in whose mind the memory of a face, that she had seen long years ago bending over her cradle, was growing clearer and more distinct every moment.
"Gentlemen," said the prince, turning to de Sigognac and his companions, "under any other circumstances I might find your presence here, in my chateau, with arms in your hands, unwarranted, but I am aware of the necessity that drove you to forcibly invade this mansion, hitherto sacred from such scenes as this—I know that violence must be met with violence, and justifies it; therefore I shall take no further notice of what has happened here to-night, and you need have no fears of any evil consequences to yourselves because of your share in it. But where is the Duke of Vallombreuse? that degenerate son who disgraces my old age."
As if in obedience to his father's call, the young duke at that moment appeared upon the threshold of the door leading into what had been Isabelle's apartment, supported by Malartic. He was frightfully pale, and his clinched hand pressed a handkerchief tightly upon his wounded chest. He came forward with difficulty, looking like a ghost. Only a strong effort of will kept him from falling—an effort that gave to his face the immobility of a marble mask. He had heard the voice of his father, whom, depraved and shameless as he was, he yet respected and dreaded, and he hoped to be able to conceal his wound from him. He bit his lips so as not to cry out or groan in his agony, and resolutely swallowed down the bloody foam that kept rising and filling his mouth. He even took off his hat, in spite of the frightful pain the raising of his arm caused him, and stood uncovered and silent before his angry parent.
"Sir," said the prince, severely, "your misdeeds transcend all limits, and your behaviour is such that I shall be forced to implore the king to send you to prison, or into exile. You are not fit to be at large. Abduction—imprisonment—criminal assault. These are not simple gallantries; and though I might be willing to pardon and overlook many excesses, committed in the wildness of licentious youth, I never could bring myself to forgive a deliberate and premeditated crime. Do you know, you monster," he continued approaching Vallombreuse, and whispering in his ear, so that no one else could hear, "do you know who this young girl is? this good and chaste Isabelle, whom you have forcibly abducted, in spite of her determined and virtuous resistance! She is your own sister!
"May she replace the son you are about to lose," the young duke replied, attacked by a sudden faintness, and an agony of pain which he felt that he could not long endure and live; "but I am not as guilty as you suppose. Isabelle is pure—stainless. I swear it, by the God before whom I must shortly appear. Death does not lie, and you may believe what I say, upon the word of a dying gentleman."
These words were uttered loudly and distinctly, so as to be heard by all. Isabelle turned her beautiful eyes, wet with tears, upon de Sigognac, and read in those of her true and faithful lover that he had not waited for the solemn attestation, "in extremis," of the Duke of Vallombreuse to believe in the perfect purity of her whom he adored.
"But what is the matter?" asked the prince, holding out his hand to his son, who staggered and swayed to and fro in spite of Malartic's efforts to support him, and whose face was fairly livid.
"Nothing, father," answered Vallombreuse, in a scarcely articulate voice, "nothing—only I am dying"—and he fell at full length on the floor before the prince could clasp him in his arms, as he endeavoured to do.
"He did not fall on his face," said Jacquemin Lampourde, sententiously; "it's nothing but a fainting fit. He may escape yet. We duellists are familiar with this sort of thing, my lord; a great deal more so than most medical men, and you may depend upon what I say."
"A doctor! a doctor!" cried the prince, forgetting his anger as he saw his son lying apparently lifeless at his feet. "Perhaps this man is right, and there may be some hope for him yet. A fortune to whomsoever will save my son!—my only son!—the last scion of a noble race. Go! run quickly! What are you about there?—don't you understand me? Go, I say, and run as fast as you can; take the fleetest horse in the stable."
Whereupon two of the imperturbable lackeys, who had held their torches throughout this exciting scene without moving a muscle, hastened off to execute their master's orders. Some of his own servants now came forward, raised up the unconscious Duke of Vallombreuse with every possible care and precaution, and by his father's command carried him to his own room and laid him on his own bed, the aged prince following, with a face from which grief and anxiety had already driven away all traces of anger. He saw his race extinct in the death of this son, whom he so dearly loved—despite his fault—and whose vices he forgot for the moment, remembering only his brilliant and lovable qualities. A profound melancholy took complete possession of him, as he stood for a few moments plunged in a sorrowful reverie that everybody respected.