"What, Desmarais?" rejoined Gerald. "Yes, he is the only servant, besides the old portress, which these poor ruins will allow me to entertain in the same dwelling with myself; the rest of my suite are left behind at Lord———'s. But Desmarais is not now within; he went out about two hours ago."
"Ha!" said I, "in all likelihood to meet the priest; shall we wait his return, and extort some information of Montreuil's lurking-hole?"
Before Gerald could answer, we heard a noise without, and presently I distinguished the bland tones of the hypocritical Fatalist, in soft expostulation with the triumphant voice of Mr. Marie Oswald. I hastened out, and discovered that the lay-brother, whom I left in the chaise, having caught a glimpse of the valet gliding among the ruins, had recognized, seized, and by the help of the postilions, dragged him to the door of the tower. The moment Desmarais saw me he ceased to struggle: he met my eye with a steady but not disrespectful firmness; he changed not even the habitual hue of his countenance,—he remained perfectly still in the hands of his arresters; and if there was any vestige of his mind discoverable in his sallow features and glittering eye, it was not the sign of fear, or confusion, or even surprise; but a ready promptness to meet danger, coupled, perhaps, with a little doubt whether to defy or to seek first to diminish it.
Long did I gaze upon him,—struggling with internal rage and loathing, the mingled contempt and desire of destruction with which we gaze upon the erect aspect of some small but venomous and courageous reptile,—long did I gaze upon him before I calmed and collected my voice to speak:
"So I have thee at last! First comes the base tool, and that will I first break, before I lop off the guiding hand."
"So please Monsieur my Lord the Count," answered Desmarais, bowing to the ground, "the tool is a file, and it would be useless to bite against it."
"We will see that," said I, drawing my sword; "prepare to die!" and I pointed the blade to his throat with so sudden and menacing a gesture that his eyes closed involuntarily, and the blood left his thin cheek as white as ashes: but he shrank not.
"If Monsieur," said he, with a sort of smile, "will kill his poor, old, faithful servant, let him strike. Fate is not to be resisted; and prayers are useless!"
"Oswald," said I, "release your prisoner; wait here, and keep strict watch. Jean Desmarais, follow me!"
I ascended the stairs, and Desmarais followed. "Now," I said, when he was alone with Gerald and myself, "your days are numbered: you will fall; not by my hand, but by that of the executioner. Not only your forgery, but your robbery, your abetment of murder, are known to me; your present lord, with an indignation equal to my own, surrenders you to justice. Have you aught to urge, not in defence—for to that I will not listen—but in atonement? Can you now commit any act which will cause me to forego justice on those which you have committed?" Desmarais hesitated. "Speak," said I. He raised his eyes to mine with an inquisitive and wistful look.
"Monsieur," said the wretch, with his obsequious smile, "Monsieur has travelled, has shone, has succeeded; Monsieur must have made enemies: let him name them, and his poor, old, faithful servant will do his best to become the humble instrument of their fate!"
Gerald drew himself aside, and shuddered. Perhaps till then he had not been fully aware how slyly murder, as well as fraud, can lurk beneath urbane tones and laced ruffles.
"I have no enemy," said I, "but one; and the hangman will do my office upon him; but point out to me the exact spot where at this moment he is concealed, and you shall have full leave to quit this country forever. That enemy is Julian Montreuil!"
"Ah, ah!" said Desmarais, musingly, and in a tone very different from that in which he usually spoke; "must it be so, indeed? For twenty years of youth and manhood I have clung to that man, and woven my destiny with his, because I believed him born under the star which shines on statesmen and pontiffs. Does dread Necessity now impel me to betray him?—him, the only man I ever loved. So—so—so! Count Devereux, strike me to the core: I will not betray Bertrand Collinot!"
"Mysterious heart of man!" I exclaimed inly, as I gazed upon the low brow, the malignant eye, the crafty lip of this wretch, who still retained one generous and noble sentiment at the bottom of so base a breast. But if it sprang there, it only sprang to wither!
"As thou wilt," said I; "remember, death is the alternative. By thy birth-star, Jean Desmarais, I should question whether perfidy be not better luck than hanging: but time speeds; farewell; I shall meet thee on thy day of trial."
I turned to the door to summon Oswald to his prisoner. Desmarais roused himself from the revery in which he appeared to have sunk.
"Why do I doubt?" said he, slowly. "Were the alternative his, would he not hang me as he would hang his dog if it went mad and menaced danger? My very noble and merciful master," continued the Fatalist, turning to me, and relapsing into his customary manner, "it is enough! I can refuse nothing to a gentleman who has such insinuating manners. Montreuil may be in your power this night; but that rests solely with me. If I speak not, a few hours will place him irrevocably beyond your reach. If I betray him to you, will Monsieur swear that I shall have my pardon for past errors?"
"On condition of leaving England," I answered, for slight was my comparative desire of justice against Desmarais; and since I had agreed with Gerald not to bring our domestic records to the glare of day, justice against Desmarais was not easy of attainment; while, on the other hand, so precarious seemed the chance of discovering Montreuil before he left England, without certain intelligence of his movements, that I was willing to forego any less ardent feeling, for the speedy gratification of that which made the sole surviving passion of my existence.
"Be it so," rejoined Desmarais; "there is better wine in France! And Monsieur my present master, Monsieur Gerald, will you too pardon your poor Desmarais for his proof of the great attachment he always bore to you?"
"Away, wretch!" cried Gerald, shrinking back; "your villany taints the very air!"
Desmarais lifted his eyes to heaven, with a look of appealing innocence; but I was wearied with this odious farce.
"The condition is made," said I: "remember, it only holds good if Montreuil's person is placed in our power. Now explain."
"This night, then," answered Desmarais, "Montreuil proposes to leave England by means of a French privateer, or pirate, if that word please you better. Exactly at the hour of twelve, he will meet some of the sailors upon the seashore, by the Castle Cave; thence they proceed in boats to the islet, off which the pirate's vessel awaits them. If you would seize Montreuil, you must provide a force adequate to conquer the companions he will meet. The rest is with you; my part is fulfilled."
"Remember! I repeat if this be one of thy inventions, thou wilt hang."
"I have said what is true," said Desmarais, bitterly; "and were not life so very pleasant to me, I would sooner have met the rack."
I made no reply; but, summoning Oswald, surrendered Desmarais to his charge. I then held a hasty consultation with Gerald, whose mind, however, obscured by feelings of gloomy humiliation, and stunned perhaps by the sudden and close following order of events, gave me but little assistance in my projects. I observed his feelings with great pain; but that was no moment for wrestling with them. I saw that I could not depend upon his vigorous co-operation; and that even if Montreuil sought him, he might want the presence of mind and the energy to detain my enemy. I changed therefore the arrangement we had first proposed.
"I will remain here," said I, "and I will instruct the old portress to admit to me any one who seeks audience with you. Meanwhile, Oswald and yourself, if you will forgive, and grant my request to that purport, will repair to———, and informing the magistrate of our intelligence, procure such armed assistance as may give battle to the pirates, should that be necessary, and succeed in securing Montreuil; the assistance may be indispensable; at all events, it will be prudent to secure it: perhaps for Oswald alone, the magistrates would not use that zeal and expedition which a word of yours can command."
"Of mine?" said Gerald, "say rather of yours; you are the lord of these broad lands!"
"Never, my dearest brother, shall they pass to me from their present owner: but let us hasten now to execute justice; we will talk afterwards of friendship."
I then sought Oswald, who, if a physical coward, was morally a ready, bustling, and prompt man; and I felt that I could rely more upon him than I could at that moment upon Gerald. I released him therefore of his charge, and made Desmarais a close prisoner in the inner apartment of the tower. I then gave Oswald the most earnest injunctions to procure the assistance we might require, and to return with it as expeditiously as possible; and cheered by the warmth and decision of his answer, I saw him depart with Gerald, and felt my heart beat high with the anticipation of midnight and retribution.
IT happened unfortunately that the mission to———was indispensable. The slender accommodation of the tower forbade Gerald the use of his customary attendants, and the neighbouring villagers were too few in number, and too ill provided with weapons, to encounter men cradled in the very lap of danger; moreover, it was requisite, above all things, that no rumour or suspicion of our intended project should obtain wind, and, by reaching Montreuil's ears, give him some safer opportunity of escape. I had no doubt of the sincerity of the Fatalist's communications, and if I had, the subsequent conversation I held with him, when Gerald and Oswald were gone, would have been sufficient to remove it. He was evidently deeply stung by the reflection of his own treachery, and, singularly enough, with Montreuil seemed to perish all his worldly hopes and aspirations. Desmarais, I found, was a man of much higher ambition than I had imagined; and he had linked himself closely to Montreuil, because, from the genius and the resolution of the priest, he had drawn the most sanguine auguries of his future power. As the night advanced, he grew visibly anxious; and, having fully satisfied myself that I might count indisputably upon his intelligence, I once more left him to his meditations, and, alone in the outer chamber, I collected myself for the coming event. I had fully hoped that Montreuil would have repaired to the tower in search of Gerald, and this was the strongest reason which had induced me to remain behind: but time waned; he came not, and at length it grew so late that I began to tremble lest the assistance from———should not arrive in time.
It struck the first quarter after eleven: in less than an hour my enemy would be either in my power or beyond its reach; still Gerald and our allies came not; my suspense grew intolerable, my pulse raged with fever; I could not stay for two seconds in the same spot; a hundred times had I drawn my sword, and looked eagerly along its bright blade. "Once," thought I, as I looked, "thou didst cross the blade of my mortal foe, and to my danger rather than victory; years have brought skill to the hand which then guided thee, and in the red path of battle thou hast never waved in vain. Be stained but once more with human blood, and I will prize every drop of that blood beyond all the triumphs thou hast brought me!" Yes, it had been with a fiery and intense delight that I had learned that Montreuil would have companions to his flight in lawless and hardened men, who would never yield him a prisoner without striking for his rescue; and I knew enough of the courageous and proud temper of my purposed victim to feel assured that, priest as he was, he would not hesitate to avail himself of the weapons of his confederates or to aid them with his own. Then would it be lawful to oppose violence to his resistance, and with my own hand to deal the death-blow of retribution. Still as these thoughts flashed over me my heart grew harder, and my blood rolled more burningly through my veins. "They come not; Gerald returns not," I said, as my eye dwelt on the clock, and saw the minutes creep one after the other: "it matters not; HE at least shall not escape!—were he girt by a million, I would single him from the herd; one stroke of this right hand is all that I ask of life, then let them avenge him if they will." Thus resolved, and despairing at last of the return of Gerald, I left the tower, locked the outer door, as a still further security against my prisoner's escape, and repaired with silent but swift strides to the beach by the Castle Cave. It wanted about half an hour to midnight: the night was still and breathless; a dim mist spread from sea to sky, through which the stars gleamed forth heavily, and at distant intervals. The moon was abroad, but the vapours that surrounded her gave a watery and sicklied dulness to her light, and whereever in the niches and hollows of the cliff the shadows fell, all was utterly dark and unbroken by the smallest ray; only along the near waves of the sea and the whiter parts of the level sand were objects easily discernible. I strode to and fro for a few minutes before the Castle Cave; I saw no one, and I seated myself in stern vigilance upon a stone, in a worn recess of the rock, and close by the mouth of the Castle Cave. The spot where I sat was wrapped in total darkness, and I felt assured that I might wait my own time for disclosing myself. I had not been many minutes at my place of watch before I saw the figure of a man approach from the left; he moved with rapid steps, and once when he passed along a place where the wan light of the skies was less obscured I saw enough of his form and air to recognize Montreuil. He neared the cave; he paused; he was within a few paces of me; I was about to rise, when another figure suddenly glided from the mouth of the cave itself.
"Ha!" cried the latter, "it is Bertrand Collinot: Fate be lauded!"
Had a voice from the grave struck my ear, it would have scarcely amazed me more than that which I now heard. Could I believe my senses? the voice was that of Desmarais, whom I had left locked within the inner chamber of the tower! "Fly," he resumed, "fly instantly; you have not a moment to lose: already the stern Morton waits thee; already the hounds of justice are on thy track; tarry not for the pirates, but begone at once."
"You rave, man! What mean you? the boats will be here immediately. While you yet speak methinks I can descry them on the sea. Something of this I dreaded when, some hours ago, I caught a glimpse of Gerald on the road to———. I saw not the face of his companion; but I would not trust myself in the tower: yet I must await the boats; flight is indeed requisite, but they make the only means by which flight is safe!"
"Pray, then, thou who believest, pray that they may come soon, or thou diest and I with thee! Morton is returned,—is reconciled to his weak brother. Gerald and Oswald are away to———for men to seize and drag thee to a public death. I was arrested,—threatened; but one way to avoid prison and cord was shown me. Curse me, Bertrand, for I embraced it. I told them thou wouldst fly to-night, and with whom. They locked me in the inner chamber of the tower; Morton kept guard without. At length I heard him leave the room; I heard him descend the stairs, and lock the gate of the tower. Ha! ha! little dreamed he of the wit of Jean Desmarais! Thy friend must scorn bolt and bar, Bertrand Collinot. They had not searched me: I used my instruments; thou knowest that with those instruments I could glide through stone walls!—I opened the door; I was in the outer room; I lifted the trap door which old Sir William had had boarded over, and which thou hadst so artfully and imperceptibly replaced, when thou wantedst secret intercourse with thy pupils; I sped along the passage, came to the iron door, touched the spring thou hadst inserted in the plate which the old knight had placed over the key-hole, and have come to repair my coward treachery, to save and to fly with thee. But while I speak we tread on a precipice. Morton has left the house, and is even now perhaps in search of thee."
"Ha! I care not if he be," said Montreuil, in a low but haughty tone. "Priest though I am, I have not assumed the garb, without assuming also the weapon, of the layman. Even now I have my hand upon the same sword which shone under the banners of Mar; and which once, but for my foolish mercy, would have rid me forever of this private foe."
"Unsheath it now, Julian Montreuil!" said I, coming from my retreat, and confronting the pair.
Montreuil recoiled several paces. At that instant a shot boomed along the waters.
"Haste, haste!" cried Desmarais, hurrying to the waves, as a boat, now winding the cliff, became darkly visible: "haste, Bertrand, here are Bonjean and his men; but they are pursued!"
Once did Montreuil turn, as if to fly; but my sword was at his breast, and, stamping fiercely on the ground, he drew his rapier and parried and returned my assault; but he retreated rapidly towards the water while he struck; and wild and loud came the voices from the boat, which now touched the shore.
"Come—come—come—the officers are upon us; we can wait not a moment!" and Montreuil, as he heard the cries, mingled with oaths and curses, yet quickened his pace towards the quarter whence they came. His steps were tracked by his blood: twice had my sword passed through his flesh; but twice had it failed my vengeance, and avoided a mortal part. A second boat, filled also with the pirates, followed the first; but then another and a larger vessel bore black and fast over the water; the rush and cry of men were heard on land; again and nearer a shot broke over the heavy air,—another and another,—a continued fire. The strand was now crowded with the officers of justice. The vessel beyond forbade escape to the opposite islet. There was no hope for the pirates but in contest, or in dispersion among the cliffs or woods on the shore. They formed their resolution at once, and stood prepared and firm, partly on their boats, partly on the beach around them. Though the officers were far more numerous, the strife—fierce, desperate, and hand to hand seemed equally sustained. Montreuil, as he retreated before me, bore back into the general melee, and, as the press thickened, we were for some moments separated. It was at this time that I caught a glimpse of Gerald; he seemed also then to espy me, and made eagerly towards me. Suddenly he was snatched from my view. The fray relaxed; the officers, evidently worsted, retreated towards the land, and the pirates appeared once more to entertain the hope of making their escape by water. Probably they thought that the darkness of the night might enable them to baffle the pursuit of the adverse vessel, which now lay expectant and passive on the wave. However this be, they made simultaneously to their boats, and among their numbers I descried Montreuil. I set my teeth with a calm and prophetic wrath. But three strokes did my good blade make through that throng before I was by his side; he had at that instant his hold upon the boat's edge, and he stood knee-deep in the dashing waters. I laid my grasp upon his shoulder, and my cheek touched his own as I hissed in his ear, "I am with thee yet!" He turned fiercely; he strove in vain to shake off my grasp. The boat pushed away, and his last hope of escape was over. At this moment the moon broke away from the mist, and we saw each other plainly, and face to face. There was a ghastly but set despair in Montreuil's lofty and proud countenance, which changed gradually to a fiercer aspect, as he met my gaze. Once more, foot to foot and hand to hand, we engaged; the increased light of the skies rendered the contest more that of skill than it had hitherto been, and Montreuil seemed to collect all his energies, and to fight with a steadier and a cooler determination. Nevertheless the combat was short. Once my antagonist had the imprudence to raise his arm and expose his body to my thrust: his sword grazed my cheek,—I shall bear the scar to my grave,—mine passed twice through his breast, and he fell, bathed in his blood, at my feet.
"Lift him!" I said, to the men who now crowded round. They did so, and he unclosed his eyes, and glared upon me as the death-pang convulsed his features, and gathered in foam to his lips. But his thoughts were not upon his destroyer, nor upon the wrongs he had committed, nor upon any solitary being in the linked society which he had injured.
"Order of Jesus," he muttered, "had I but lived three months longer, I—"
So died Julian Montreuil.
MONTREUIL was not the only victim in the brief combat of that night; several of the pirates and their pursuers perished, and among the bodies we found Gerald. He had been pierced, by a shot, through the brain, and was perfectly lifeless when his body was discovered. By a sort of retribution, it seems that my unhappy brother received his death-wound from a shot, fired (probably at random) by Desmarais; and thus the instrument of the fraud he had tacitly subscribed to became the minister of his death. Nay, the retribution seemed even to extend to the very method by which Desmarais had escaped; and, as the reader has perceived, the subterranean communication which had been secretly reopened to deceive my uncle made the path which had guided Gerald's murderer to the scene which afterwards ensued. The delay of the officers had been owing to private intelligence, previously received by the magistrate to whom Gerald had applied, of the number and force of the pirates, and his waiting in consequence for a military reinforcement to the party to be despatched against them. Those of the pirates who escaped the conflict escaped also the pursuit of the hostile vessel; they reached the islet, and gained their captain's ship. A few shots between the two vessels were idly exchanged, and the illicit adventurers reached the French shore in safety. With them escaped Desmarais, and of him, from that hour to this, I have heard nothing: so capriciously plays Time with villains!
Marie Oswald has lately taken unto himself a noted inn on the North Road, a place eminently calculated for the display of his various talents; he has also taken unto himself a WIFE, of whose tongue and temper he has been known already to complain with no Socratic meekness; and we may therefore opine that his misdeeds have not altogether escaped their fitting share of condemnation.
Succeeding at once, by the death of my poor brother, to the DEVEREUX estates, I am still employed in rebuilding, on a yet more costly scale, my ancestral mansion. So eager and impatient is my desire for the completion of my undertaking that I allow rest neither by night nor day, and half of the work will be done by torchlight. With the success of this project terminates my last scheme of Ambition.
Here, then, at the age of thirty-four, I conclude the history of my life. Whether in the star which, as I now write, shines in upon me, and which a romance, still unsubdued, has often dreamed to be the bright prophet of my fate, something of future adventure, suffering, or excitement is yet predestined to me; or whether life will muse itself away in the solitudes which surround the home of my past childhood and the scene of my present retreat,—creates within me but slight food for anticipation or conjecture. I have exhausted the sources of those feelings which flow, whether through the channels of anxiety or of hope, towards the future; and the restlessness of my manhood, having attained its last object, has done the labour of time, and bequeathed to me the indifference of age.
If love exists for me no longer, I know well that the memory of that which has been is to me far more than a living love is to others; and perhaps there is no passion so full of tender, of soft, and of hallowing associations as the love which is stamped by death. If I have borne much, and my spirit has worked out its earthly end in travail and in tears, yet I would not forego the lessons which my life has bequeathed me, even though they be deeply blended with sadness and regret. No! were I asked what best dignifies the present and consecrates the past; what enables us alone to draw a just moral from the tale of life; what sheds the purest light upon our reason; what gives the firmest strength to our religion; and, whether our remaining years pass in seclusion or in action, is best fitted to soften the heart of man, and to elevate the soul to God,—I would answer, with Lassus, "it is EXPERIENCE!"