With fresh vigour she rose, and found her way through lane and field-path to the paddock where she had so often played. Here a couple of huge dogs dashed forward with an explosion of barks, dying away into low growls as she spoke to them by their names, and called aloud on 'Blaise!' and 'Mere Perrine!' The cottage door was opened, the light streamed forth, and a man's head in a broad had appeared. 'Veronique, girl, is this an hour to be gadding abroad?'
'Blaise, do you not know me?'
'It is our Lady. Ah!'
The next moment the wanderer was seated in the ample wooden chair of the head of the family, the farmer and his two stout sons standing before her as their liege Lady, and Mere Perrine hanging over her, in great anxiety, not wholly dispelled by her low girlish laugh, partly of exultation at her successful evasion, partly of amusement at their wonder, and partly, too, because it was so natural to her to enjoy herself at that hearth that she could not help it. A savoury mess from the great caldron that was for ever stewing over the fire was at once fished out for her, before she was allowed to explain herself; and as she ate with the carved spoon and from the earthenware crock that had been called Mademoiselle's ever since her baby-days, Perrine chafed and warmed her feet, fondled her, and assured her, as if she were still their spoiled child, that they would do all she wished.
Pierre and Tiennot, the two sons, were sent out to fodder the cattle, and keep careful watch for any sounds of pursuers from the convent; and Blaise, in the plenitude of his respects and deference, would have followed them, but Eustacie desired him to remain to give her counsel.
Her first inquire was after the watch-tower. She did not care for any discomfort if her vassals would be faithful, and hold it out for her, till she could send for help to the allies of her husband's house, and her eyes glanced as she spoke.
But Blaise shook his head. He had looked at the tower as Madame bade, but it was all in ruins, crumbling away, and, moreover, M. le Chevalier had put a forester there—a grim, bad subject, who had been in the Italian wars, and cared neither for saint nor devil, except Chevalier Narcisse. Indeed, even if he had not been there, the place was untenable, it would only be getting into a trap.
'Count Hebert held it out for twelve days against the English!' said Eustacie, proudly.
'Ah! ah! but there were none of your falconets, or what call you those cannons then. No; if Madame would present herself as a choice morsel for Monsieur le Chevalier to snap up, that is the place.'
Then came the other plan of getting an escort of the peasants together, and riding with them towards the Huguenot territories around La Rochelle, where, for her husband's sake, Eustacie could hardly fail to obtain friends. It was the more practicable expedient, but Blaise groaned over it, wondered how many of the farmers could be trusted, or brought together, and finally expressed his intention of going to consult Martin, his staunch friend, at the next farm. Meantime, Madame had better lie down and sleep. And Madame did sleep, in Perrine's huge box-bedstead, with a sweet, calm, childlike slumber, whilst her nurse sat watching her with eyes full of tears of pity and distress; the poor young thing's buoyant hopefulness and absence of all fear seemed to the old woman especially sad, and like a sort of want of comprehension of the full peril in which she stood.
Not till near dawn was Eustacie startled from her rest by approaching steps. 'Nurse, is all ready?' she cried. 'Can we set off? Are the horses there?'
'No, my child; it is but my good man and Martin who would speak with you. Do not hasten. There is nothing amiss as yet.'
'Oh, nurse,' cried Eustacie, as she quickly arranged the dress in which she had lain down, 'the dear old farm always makes me sleep well. This is the first time I have had no dream of the whirling wheel and fiery gates! Oh, is it a token that HE is indeed at rest? I am so well, so strong. I can ride anywhere now. Let them come in and tell me.'
Martin was a younger, brisker, cleverer man than Blaise, and besides being a vassal of the young Lady, was a sort of agent to whom the Abbess instructed many of the matters of husbandry regarding the convent lands. He stood, like Blaise, bareheaded as he talked to little Lady, and heard her somewhat peremptorily demand why they had not brought the horses and men for her escort.
It was impossible that night, explained Martin. Time was needed to bring in the farm-horses, and summon the other peasants, without whom the roads were unsafe in these times of disorder. He and Blaise must go round and warn them to be ready. A man could not be ready in a wink of the eye, as Madame seemed to think, and the two peasants looked impenetrable in stolidity.
'Laggards that you are!' cried Eustacie, petulantly, clasping her hands; 'and meantime all will be lost. They will be upon me!'
'Not so, Madame. It is therefore that I came here,' said Martin, deferentially, to the little fuming impatient creature; 'Madame will be far safer close at hand while the pursuit and search are going on. But she must not stay here. This farm is the first place they will come to, while they will never suspect mine, and my good woman Lucette will be proud to keep watch for her. Madame knows that the place is full of shrubs and thickets, where one half of an army might spend a fine day in looking for the other.'
'And at night you will get together the men and convoy me?' asked Eustacie, eagerly.
'All in good time, Madame. Now she must be off, ere the holy mothers be astir. I have brought an ass for her to ride.'
Eustacie had no choice but compliance. None of the Orchard family could go with her, as it was needful that they should stay at home and appear as unconcerned as possible; but they promised to meet her at the hour and place to be appointed, ad if possible to bring Veronique.
Eating a piece of rye-bread as she went, Eustacie, in her gray cloak, rode under Martin's guardianship along the deep lanes, just budding with spring, in the chill dewiness before sunrise. She was silent, and just a little sullen, for she had found stout shrewd Martin less easy to talk over than the admiring Blaise, and her spirit was excessively chafed by the tardiness of her retainers. But the sun rose and cleared away all clouds of temper, the cocks crew, the sheep bleated, and fresh morning sounds met her ear, and seemed to cheer and fill her with hope; and in some compunction for her want of graciousness, she thanked Martin, and praised his ass with a pretty cordiality that would have fully compensated for her displeasure, even if the honest man had been sensible of it.
He halted under the lee of a barn, and gave a low whistle. At the sound, Lucette, a brown, sturdy young woman with a red handkerchief over her head, and another over her shoulders, came running round the corner of the barn, and whispered eagerly under her breath, 'Ah! Madame, Madame, what an honour!' kissing Eustacie's hand with all her might as she spoke; 'but, alas! I fear Madame cannot come into the house. The questing Brother Francois—plague upon him!—has taken it into his head to drop in to breakfast. I longed to give him the cold shoulder, but it might have brought suspicion down.'
'Right, good woman,' said Martin; 'but what shall Madame do? It is broad way, and no longer safe to run the lanes!'
'Give me a distaff,' said Eustacie, rising to the occasion; 'I will go to that bushy field, and herd the cows.'
Madame was right, the husband and wife unwillingly agreed. There, in her peasant dress, in the remote field, sloping up into a thick wood, she was unlikely to attract attention; and though the field was bordered on one side by the lane leading to the road to Paris, it was separated from it by a steep bank, crowned by one of the thick hedgerows characteristic of the Bocage.
Here, then, they were forced to leave her, seated on a stone beneath a thorn-bush, distaff in hand, with bread, cheese, and a pitcher of milk for her provisions, and three or four cows grazing before her. From the higher ground below the wood of ash and hazel, she could see the undulating fields and orchards, a few houses, and that inhospitable castle of her own.
She had spent many a drearier day in the convent than this, in the free sun and air, with the feeling of liberty, and unbounded hopes founded on this first success. She told her beads diligently, trusting that the tale of devotions for her husband's spirit would be equally made up in the field as in the church, and intently all day were her ears and eyes on the alert. Once Lucette visited her, to bring her a basin of porridge, and to tell her that all the world at the convent was in confusion, that messengers had been sent out in all directions, and that M. le Chevalier had ridden out himself in pursuit; but they should soon hear all about it, for Martin was pretending to be amongst the busiest, and he would know how to turn them away. Again, much later in the day, Martin came striding across the field, and had just reached her, as she sat in the hedgerow, when the great dog who followed him pricked his ears, and a tramping and jingling was audible in the distance in the lane. Eustacie held up her finger, her eyes dilating.
'It must be M. le Chevalier returning. Madame must wait a little longer. I must be at home, or they may send out to seek me here, and that would be ruin. I will return as soon as it is safe, if Madame will hide herself in the hedgerow.'
Into the hedgerow accordingly crept Eustacie, cowering close to a holly-tree at the very summit of the bank, and led by a strange fascination to choose a spot where, unseen herself, she could gaze down on the party who came clanking along the hollow road beneath. Nearer, nearer, they came; and she shuddered with more of passion than of fear, as she beheld, not only her uncle in his best well-preserved green suit, but Narcisse, muddy with riding, though in his court braveries. Suddenly they came to a halt close beneath her! Was she detected? Ah! just below was the spot where the road to the convent parted from the road to the farm; and, as Martin had apprehended, they were stopping for him. The Chevalier ordered one of the armed men behind him to ride up to the farm and summon Martin to speak with him; and then he and his son, while waiting under the holly-bush, continued their conversation.
'So that is the state of things! A fine overthrow!' quoth Narcisse.
'Bah! not at all. She will soon be in our hands again. I have spoken with, or written to, every governor of the cities she must pass through, and not one will abet the little runaway. At the first barrier she is ours.'
'Oh, we shall have her mild as a sheep.' (Eustacie set her teeth.) 'Every one will be in the same story, that her marriage was a nullity; she cannot choose but believe, and can only be thankful that we overlook the escapade and rehabilitate her.'
'Thank you, my good uncle,' almost uttered his unseen auditor.
'Well! There is too much land down here to throw away; but the affair has become horribly complicated and distasteful.'
'No such thing. All the easier. She can no longer play the spotless saint—get weak-minded priests on her side—be all for strict convents. No, no; her time for that is past! Shut her up with trustworthy persons from whom she will hear nothing from without, and she will understand her case. The child? It will scarce be born alive, or at any rate she need not know whether it is. Then, with no resource, no hope, what can she do but be too thankful for pardon, and as glad to conceal the past as we could wish?'
Eustacie clenched her fist. Had a pistol been within her reach, the speaker's tenure of life had been short! She was no chastened, self-restrained, forgiving saint, the poor little thing, only a hot-tempered, generous, keenly-sensitive being, well-nigh a child in years and in impulses, though with the instincts of a mother awakening within her, and of a mother who heard the life of her unborn babe plotted against. She was absolutely forced to hold her lips together, to repress the sobbing scream of fury that came to her throat; and the struggles with her gasping breath, the surging of the blood in her ears, hindered her from hearing or seeing anything for some seconds, though she kept her station. By the time her perceptions had cleared themselves, Martin, cap in hand, was in the lane below, listening deferentially to the two gentlemen, who were assuring him that inquiry had been made, and a guard carefully set at the fugitive could have passed those, or be able to do so. She must certainly be hidden somewhere near home, and Martin had better warn all his friends against hiding her, unless they wished to be hung up on the thresholds of their burning farm-steads. Martin bowed, and thought the fellows would know their own interest and Mademoiselle's better.
'Well,' said the Chevalier, 'we must begin without loss of time. My son has brought down a set of fellows here, who are trained to ferret out heretics. Not a runaway weasel cold escape them! We will set them on as soon as ever they have taken a bit of supper up there at the Chateau; and do you come up with us just to show them the way across to Leonard's. That's no unlikely place for her to lurk in, as you said this morning, good fellow.'
It was the most remote farm from that of Martin, and Eustacie felt how great were his services, even while she flushed with anger to hear him speaking of her as Mademoiselle. He was promising to follow immediately to the castle, to meet ces Messieurs there almost as soon as they could arrive, but excusing himself from accompanying them, by the need of driving home the big bull, whom no one else could manage.
They consented, and rode on. Martin watched them out of sight, then sprang up by some stepping-stones in the bank, a little below where Eustacie sat, and came crackling through the boughs to where she was crouching down, with fierce glittering eyes and panting breath, like a wild animal ready to spring.
'Madame has heard,' said Martin, under his breath.
'If I have heard! Oh that I were a man, to slay them where they stood! Martin, Martin! you will not betray me. Some day WE will reward you.'
'Madame need not have said THAT to me,' said Martin, rather hurt. 'I am only thinking what she can do. Alas! I fear that she must remain in this covert till it is dark, for these men's eyes are all on the alert. At dark, I or Lucette will come and find a shelter for her for the night.'
Long, long, then, did Eustacie sit, muffled in her gray cloak, shrinking together to shelter herself from the sunset chill of early spring, but shuddering more with horror than with cold as the cruel cold-blooded words she had heard recurred to her, and feeling as if she were fast within a net, every outlet guarded against her, and search everywhere; yet still with the indomitable determination to dare and suffer to the utmost ere that which was dearer than her own life should come into peril from her enemies.
The twilight closed in, the stars came out, sounds of life died away, and still she sat on, becoming almost torpid in the cold darkness, until at length she heard the low call of Lucette, 'MADAME! AH!la pauvre Madame.' She started up, so stiff that she could hardly more, and only guided by the voice to feel her way through the hedgerow in the right direction. Another moment, and Lucette's warn arms had received her; and she was guided, scarce knowing how or where, in cautious silence to the farmyard, and into the house, where a most welcome sight, a huge fire, blazed cheerfully on the hearth, and Martin himself held open the door for her. The other occupants of the kitchen were the sleeping child in its wooden cradle, some cocks and hens upon the rafters, and a big sheep-dog before the fire.
The warmth, and the chicken that Lucette had killed and dressed, brought the colour back to the exhausted wanderer's cheek, and enabled her again to hold council for her safety. It was plain, as Martin had found in conversation with the men-at-arms, that precautions had been taken against her escaping in any of the directions where she might hope to have reached friends. Alone she could not go, and any escort sufficient to protect her would assuredly be stopped at the first town; besides which, collecting it in secret was impossible under present circumstances, and it would be sure to be at once overtaken and demolished by the Chevalier Narcisse's well-armed followers. Martin, therefore, saw no alternative but for her to lurk about in such hiding-places as her faithful vassals could afford her, until the search should blow over, and the vigilance of her uncle and cousin relax. Hope, the high-spirited hope of early youth, looked beyond to indefinite but infinite possibility. Anything was better than the shame and horror of yielding, and Eustacie trusted herself with all her heart for the present, fancying, she knew not what, the future.
Indeed, the Vendean fidelity has often been tested, and she made full proof of it among the lanes, copses, and homesteads of her own broad lands. The whole country was a network of deep lanes, sunk between impenetrable hedgerows, inclosing small fields, orchards, and thickets, and gently undulating in low hills and shallow valleys, interspersed with tall wasp-waisted windmills airily waving their arms on the top of lofty masts. It was partitioned into small farms, inhabited by a simple-hearted peasantry, religious and diligent, with a fair amount of rural wealth and comfort. Their love for their lords was loyally warm, and Eustacie monopolized it, from their detestation of her uncle's exactions; they would risk any of the savage punishments with which they were threatened for concealing her; and as one by one it was needful to take them into the secret, so as to disarm suspicion, and she was passed from one farm to another, each proved his faithful attachment, and though himself repaid by her thankful smile and confiding manner.
The Chevalier and his son searched vigorously. On the slightest suspicion, they came down to the farm, closed up the outlets, threatened the owners, turned out the house, and the very place they had last searched would become her quarters on the next night! Messages always had warned her in time. Intelligence was obtained by Martin, who contrived to remain a confidential agent, and warnings were dispatched to her by many a strange messenger—by little children, by old women, or even by the village innocent.
The most alarming days were those when she was not the avowed object of the chase, but when the pursuit of game rendered the coverts in the woods and fields unsafe, and the hounds might lead to her discovery. On one of these occasions Martin locked her up in the great hayloft of the convent, where she could actually hear the chants in the chapel, and distinguish the chatter of the lay-sisters in the yard. Another time, in conjunction with the sacristan, he bestowed her in the great seigneurial tribune (or squire's pew) in the village church, a tall carved box, where she was completely hidden; and the only time when she had failed to obtain warning beforehand, she stood kneading bread at a tub in Martin's cottage, while the hunt passed by, and a man-at-arms looked in and questioned the master on the last traces of the runaway.
It was seldom possible to see Mere Perrine, who was carefully watched, under the conviction that she must know where her nursling was; but one evening Veronique ventured up to Martin's farm, trusting to tidings that the gentlemen had been Eustacie's only secure harbour; and when, in a bright evening gleam of the setting sun from beneath the clouds, Veronique came in sight of her Lady, the Queen's favourite, it was to see her leading by a string a little shaggy cow, with a bell round its neck, her gray cloak huddled round her, though dank with wet, a long lock of black hair streaming over her brow, her garments clinging with damp, her bare ankles scratched with thorns, her heavy SABOTS covered with mire, her cheeks pale with cold and wet.
The contrast overwhelmed poor Veronique. She dropped on her knees, sobbing as if her heart would break, and declaring that this was what the Abbess had feared; her Lady was fast killing herself.
'Hush! Veronique,' said Eustacie; 'that is all folly. I am wet and weary now, but oh! if you knew how much sweeter to me life is now than it was, shut up down there, with my fears. See,' and she held up a bunch of purple pasque-flowers and wood-sorrel, 'this is what I found in the wood, growing out of a rugged old dead root; and just by, sheltered by the threefold leaves of the alleluia-flower, was a bird's nest, the mother-bird on her eggs, watching me with the wise black eye that saw I would not hurt her. And it brought back the words I had heard long ago, of the good God caring for the sparrows; and I knew He would care the more for me and mine, because I have not where to lay my head.'
'Alas!' sobbed Veronique, 'now she is getting to be a saint outright. She will be sure to die! Ah, Madame—dear Madame! do but listen to me. If you did but know how Madame de Bellaise is afflicting herself on your account! She sent for me—ah! do not be angry, dear Lady?'
'I wish to hear nothing about her,' said Eustacie.
'Nay, listen, de grace—one moment, Madame! She has wept, she has feared for you, all the lay-sisters say so. She takes no pleasure in hawking, nor in visiting; and she did not eat more than six of Soeur Bernardine's best conserves. She does nothing but watch for tidings of Madame. And she sent for me, as I told you, and conjured me, if I knew where you were, or had any means of finding out, to implore you to trust to her. She will swear on all the relics in the chapel never to give a hint to Messieurs les Chevaliers if only you would trust her, and not slay yourself with all this dreadful wandering.'
'Never!' said Eustacie; 'she said too much!'
'Ah! but she declares that, had she known the truth, she never would have said that. Ah, yes, Madame, the Abbess is good!' And Veronique, holding her mistress's cloak to secure a hearing, detailed the Abbess' plan for lodging her niece in secret apartments within the thickness of the convent walls, where Mere Perrine could be with her, and every sacred pledge should be given that could remove her fears.
'And could they make me believe them, so that the doubt and dread would not kill me in themselves?' said Eustacie.
'But it is death—certain death, as it is. Oh, if Madame would hear reason!—but she is headstrong! She will grieve when it is too late!'
'Listen, Veronique. I have a far better plan. The sacristan has a sister who weaves red handkerchiefs at Chollet. She will receive me, and keep me as long as there is need. Martin is to take me in his cart when he carries the hay to the garrison. I shall be well hidden, and within reach of your mother. And then, when my son is once come—then all will be well! The peasants will rise in behalf of their young Lord, though not for a poor helpless woman. No one will dare to dispute his claim, when I have appealed to the King; and then, Veronique, you shall come back to me, and all will be well!'
Veronique only began to wail aloud at her mistress' obstinacy. Martin came up, and rudely silenced her, and said afterwards to his wife, 'Have a care! That girl has—I verily believe—betrayed her Lady once; and if she do not do so again, from pure pity and faintness of heart, I shall be much surprised.'
CHAPTER XVII. THE GHOSTS OF THE TEMPLARS
'Tis said, as through the aisles they passed, They heard strange voices on the blast, And through the cloister galleries small, Which at mid-height thread the chancel wall, Loud sobs and laughter louder ran, And voices unlike the voice of man, As if the fiends kept holiday. Scott, LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL
'Ill news, Martin, I see by your look!' cried Eustacie, starting to her feet from the heap of straw on which she was sitting in his cowhouse, one early April day, about seven weeks since her evasion from the convent.
'Not so, I hope, Madame, but I do not feel at ease. Monsieur has not sent for me, nor told me his plans for the morrow, and I much doubt me whether that bode not a search here. Now I see a plan, provided Madame would trust herself to a Huguenot.'
'They would guard me for my husband's sake.'
'And could Madame walk half a league, as far as the Grange du Temple? There live Matthieu Rotrou and his wife, who have, they say, baffled a hundred times the gendarmes who sought their ministers. No one ever found a pastor, they say, when Rotrou had been of the congregation; and if they can do so much for an old preacher with a long tongue, surely they can for a sweet young lady; and if they could shelter her just for tomorrow, till the suspicion is over, then would I come for Madame with my cart, and carry her into Chollet among the trusses of hay, as we had fixed.'
Eustacie was already tying her cloak, and asking for Lucette; but she was grieved to hear that Martin had sent her to vespers to disarm suspicion, and moreover that he meant not to tell her of his new device. 'The creature is honest enough,' he said, 'but the way to be safe with women is not to let them know.'
He cut short all messages and expressions of gratitude, and leading Eustacie to a small stream, he made her creep along its course, with her feet in the water so as to be sheltered by the boughs that hung over the banks, while he used his ling strides to enable him to double back and enter into conversation with passers-by, quite of the track of the Grange du Temple, but always telling her where he should join her again, and leaving with her the great dog, whom she had come to regard as a friend and protector. Leaving the brook, he conducted her beneath hedges and by lonely woodland paths beyond the confines of her own property, to a secluded valley, so shut in by wooded hills that she had not been aware of its existence. Through an extensive orchard, she at length, when nearly spent with the walk, beheld the cluster of stone buildings, substantial as the erections of religious orders were wont to be.
Martin found a seat for her, where she might wait while he went on alone to the house, and presently returned with both the good people of the farm. They were more offhand and less deferential than were her own people, but were full of kindliness. They were middle-aged folk, most neatly clad, and with a grave, thoughtful look about them, as if life were a much heavier charge to them than to their light-hearted neighbours.
'A fair day to you, Madame,' said the farmer, doffing his wide-flapped hat. 'I am glad to serve a sufferer for the truth's sake.'
'My husband was,' faltered Eustacie.
'AH! la pauvre,' cried the good woman, pressing forward as she saw how faint, heated, and exhausted was the wanderer. 'Come in, ma pauvrette. Only a bride at the Bartholomew! Alas! There, lean on me, my dear.'
To be tutoyee by the Fermiere Rotrou was a shock; yet the kind manner was comfortable, and Eustacie suffered herself to be led into the farm-house, where, as the dame observed, she need not fear chance-comers, for they lived much to themselves, and no one would be about till their boy Robinet came in with the cows. She might rest and eat there in security, and after that they would find a hiding-place for her—safe as the horns of the altar—for a night or two; only for two nights at most.
'Nor do I ask more,' said Eustacie. 'Then Martin will come for me.'
'Ah, I or Blaise, or whichever of us can do it with least suspicion.'
'She shall meet you here,' added Rotrou.
'All right, good man; I understand; it is best I should not know where you hide her. Those rogues have tricks that make it as well to know nothing. Farewell, Madame, I commend you to all the saints till I come for you on Monday morning.'
Eustacie gave him her hand to kiss, and tried to thank him, but somehow her heart sank, and she felt more lonely than ever, when entirely cast loose among these absolute strangers, than amongst her own vassals. Even the farm-kitchen, large, stone-built, and scrupulously clean, seemed strange and dreary after the little, smoky, earth-built living-rooms in which her peasantry were content to live, and she never had seemed to herself so completely desolate; but all the time she was so wearied out with her long and painful walk, that she had no sooner taken some food than she began to doze in her chair.
'Father,' said the good wife, 'we had better take la pauvrette to her rest at once.'
'Ah! must I go any farther?' sighed Eustacie.
'It is but a few fields beyond the yard, ma petite,' said the good woman consolingly; 'and it will be safer to take you there ere we need a light.'
The sun had just set on a beautiful evening of a spring that happily for Eustacie had been unusually warm and mild, when they set forth, the dame having loaded her husband with a roll of bedding, and herself taking a pitcher of mild and a loaf of bread, whilst Eustacie, as usual, carried her own small parcel of clothes and jewels. The way was certainly not long to any one less exhausted than she; it was along a couple of fields, and then through a piece of thicket, where Rotrou held back the boughs and his wife almost dragged her on with kind encouraging words, till they came up to a stone ivy-covered wall, and coasting along it to a tower, evidently a staircase turret. Here Rotrou, holding aside an enormous bush of ivy, showed the foot of a winding staircase, and his wife assured her that she would not have far to climb.
She knew where she was now. She had heard of the old Refectory of the Knights Templars. Partly demolished by the hatred of the people upon the abolition of the Order, it had ever since lain waste, and had become the centre of all the ghostly traditions of the country; the locality of all the most horrid tales of REVENANTS told under the breath at Dame Perrine's hearth or at recreation hour at Bellaise. Her courage was not proof against spiritual terrors. She panted and leant against the wall, as she faintly exclaimed, 'The Temple—there—and alone!'
'Nay, Lady, methought as Monsieur votre mari knew the true light, you would fear no vain terror nor power of darkness.'
Should these peasants—these villeins—be bold, and see the descendant of the 'bravest of knights,' the daughter of the house of Ribaumont, afraid? She rallied herself, and replied manfully, 'I FEAR not, no!' but then, womanfully, 'But it is the Temple! It is haunted! Tell me what I must expect.'
'I tell you truly, Madame,' said Rotrou; 'none whom I have sheltered here have seen aught. On the faith of a Christian, no evil spirit—no ghost—has ever alarmed them; but they were fortified by prayer and psalm.'
'I do pray! I have a psalm-book,' said Eustacie, and she added to herself, 'No, they shall never see that I fear. After all, REVENANTS can do nothing worse than scare one; they cannot touch one; the saints and angels will not let them—and my uncle would do much worse.'
But to climb those winding stairs, and resign herself to be left alone with the Templars for the night, was by far the severest trial that had yet befallen the poor young fugitive. As her tire feet dragged up the crumbling steps, her memory reverted to the many tales of the sounds heard by night within those walls—church chants turning into diabolical songs, and bewildered travelers into thickets and morasses, where they had been found in the morning, shuddering as they told of a huge white monk, with clanking weapons, and a burning cross of fire printed on his shoulder and breast, who stood on the walls and hurled a shrieking babe into the abyss. Were such spectacles awaiting her? Must she bear them? And could her endurance hold out? Our Lady be her aid, and spare her in her need!
At the top of the stairs she found Rotrou's hand, ready to help her out on a stone floor, quite dark, but thickly covered, as she felt and smelt, with trusses of hay, between which a glimmering light showed a narrow passage. A few steps, guided by Rotrou's hand, brought her out into light again, and she found herself in a large chamber, with the stone floor broken away in some places, and with a circular window, thickly veiled with ivy, but still admitting a good deal of evening light.
It was in fact a chamber over the vaulted refectory of the knights. The walls and vaults still standing in their massive solidity, must have tempted some peasant, or mayhap some adventurer, rudely to cover in the roof (which had of course been stripped of its leading), and thus in the unsuspected space to secure a hiding-place, often for less innocent commodities than the salt, which the iniquitous and oppressive gabelle had always led the French peasant to smuggle, ever since the days of the first Valois. The room had a certain appearance of comfort; there was a partition across it, a hearth with some remains of wood-ashes, a shelf, holding a plate, cup, lamp, and a few other necessaries; and altogether the aspect of the place was so unlike what Eustacie had expected, that she almost forgot the Templar as she saw the dame begin to arrange a comfortable-looking couch for her wearied limbs. Yet she felt very unwilling to let them depart, and even ventured on faltering out the inquiry whether the good woman could not stay with her,—she would reward her largely.
'It is for the love of Heaven, Madame, not for gain,' said Nanon Rotrou, rather stiffly. 'If you were ill, or needed me, all must then give way; but for me to be absent this evening would soon be reported around the village down there, for there are many who would find occasion against us.' But, by way of consolation, they gave her a whistle, and showed her that the window of their cottage was much nearer to a loophole-slit looking towards the east than she had fancied. The whistle perpetrated a mist unearthly screech, a good deal like that of an owl, but more discordant, and Nanon assured her that the sound would assuredly break her slumbers, and bring her in a few minutes at any moment of need. In fact, the noise was so like the best authenticated accounts of the shrieks indulged in by the spirits of the Temple, that Eustacie had wit enough to suspect that it might be the foundation of some of the stories; and with that solace to her alarms, she endured the departure of her hosts, Nanon promising a visit in the early morning.
The poor child was too weary to indulge in many terrors, the beneficent torpor of excessive fatigue was upon her, happily bringing slumberous oblivion instead of feverish restlessness. She strove to repeat her accustomed orisons; but sleep was too strong for her, and she was soon lying dreamlessly upon the clean homely couch prepared for her.
When she awoke, it was with a start. The moon was shining in through the circular window, making strange white shapes on the floor, all quivering with the shadows of the ivy sprays. It looked strange and eerie enough at the moment, but she understood it the next, and would have been reassured if she had not become aware that there was a low sound, a tramp, tramp, below her. 'Gracious saints! The Templar! Have mercy on me! Oh! I was too sleepy to pray! Guard me from being driven wild by fright!' She sat upright, with wide-spread eyes, and, finding that she herself was in the moonlight, through some opening in the roof, she took refuge in the darkest corner, though aware as she crouched there, that if this were indeed the Templar, concealment would be vain, and remembering suddenly that she was out of reach of the loophole-window.
And therewith there was a tired sound in the tread, as if the Templar found his weird a very length one; then a long heavy breath, with something so essentially human in its sound that the fluttering heart beat more steadily. If reason told her that the living were more perilous to her than the dead, yet feeling infinitely preferred them! It might be Nanon Rotrou after all; then how foolish to be crouching there in a fright! It was rustling through the hay. No-no Nanon; it is a male figure, it has a long cloak on. Ah! it is in the moonlight-silver hair—silver beard. The Templar! Fascinated with dismay, yet calling to mind that no ghost has power unless addressed, she sat still, crossing herself in silence, but unable to call to mind any prayer or invocation save a continuous 'Ave Mary,' and trying to restrain her gasping breath, lest, if he were not the Templar after all, he might discover her presence.
He moved about, took off his cloak, laid it down near the hay, then his cap, not a helmet after all, and there was no fiery cross.
He was in the gloom again, and she heard him moving much as though he were pulling down the hay to form a bed. Did ghosts ever do anything so sensible? If he were an embodied spirit, would it be possible to creep past him and escape while he lay asleep? She was almost becoming familiarized with the presence, and the supernatural terror was passing off into a consideration of resources, when, behold, he was beginning to sing. To sing was the very way the ghosts began ere they came to their devilish outcries. 'Our Lady keep it from bringing frenzy. But hark! hark!' It was not one of the chants, it was a tune and words heard in older times of her life; it was the evening hymn, that the little husband and wife had been wont to sing to the Baron in the Chateau de Leurre—Marot's version of the 4th Psalm.
'Plus de joie m'est donnee Par ce moyen, O Dieu Tres-Haut, Que n'ont ceux qui ont grand annee De froment et bonne vinee, D'huile et tout ce qu'il leur faut.'
If it had indeed been the ghostly chant, perhaps Eustacie would not have been able to help joining it. As it was, the familiar home words irresistibly impelled her to mingle her voice, scarce knowing what she did, in the verse—
'Si qu'en paix et surete bonne Coucherai et reposerai; Car, Seigneur, ta bonte tout ordonne Et elle seule espoir me donne Que sur et seul regnant serai.'
The hymn died away in its low cadence, and then, ere Eustacie had had time to think of the consequences of thus raising her voice, the new-comer demanded:
'Is there then another wanderer here?'
'Ah! sir, pardon me!' she exclaimed. 'I will not long importune you, but only till morning light—only till the Fermiere Rotrou comes.'
'If Matthieu and Anne Rotrou placed you here, then all is well,' replied the stranger. 'Fear not, daughter, but tell me. Are you one of my scattered flock, or one whose parents are known to me?' Then, as she hesitated, 'I am Isaac Gardon—escaped, alas! alone, from the slaughter of the Barthelemy.'
'Master Gardon!' cried Eustacie. 'Oh, I know! O sir, my husband loved and honoured you.'
'Yes, sir, le Baron de Ribaumont.'
'That fair and godly youth! My dear old patron's son! You—you! But—' with a shade of doubt, almost of dismay, 'the boy was wedded—wedded to the heiress—-'
'Yes, yes, I am that unhappy one! We were to have fled together on that dreadful night. He came to meet me to the Louvre—to his doom!' she gasped out, nearer to tears than she had ever been since that time, such a novelty was it to her to hear Berenger spoken of in kind or tender terms; and in her warmth of feeling, she came out of her corner, and held our her hand to him.
'Alas! poor thing!' said the minister, compassionately, 'Heaven has tried you sorely. Had I known of your presence here, I would not have entered; but I have been absent long, and stole into my lair here without disturbing the good people below. Forgive the intrusion, Madame.'
The minister replied warmly that surely persecution was a brotherhood, even had she not been the window of one he had loved and lamented.
'Ah! sir, it does me good to hear you say so.'
And therewith Eustacie remembered the hospitalities of her loft. She perceived by the tones of the old man's voice that he was tired, and probably fasting, and she felt about for the milk and bread with which she had been supplied. It was a most welcome refreshment, though he only partook sparingly; and while he ate, the two, so strangely met, came to a fuller knowledge of one another's circumstances.
Master Isaac Gardon had, it appeared, been residing at Paris, in the house of the watchmaker whose daughter had been newly married to his son; but on the fatal eve of St. Bartholomew, he had been sent for to pray with a sick person in another quarter of the city. The Catholic friends of the invalid were humane, and when the horrors began, not only concealed their kinsman, but almost forcibly shut up the minister in the same cellar with him. And thus, most reluctantly, had he been spared from the fate that overtook his son and daughter-in-law. A lone and well-night broken-hearted man, he had been smuggled out of the city, and had since that time been wandering from one to another of the many scattered settlements of Huguenots in the northern part of France, who, being left pastorless, welcomed visits from the minister of their religion, and passed him on from one place to another, as his stay in each began to be suspected by the authorities. He was now on his way along the west side of France, with no fixed purpose, except so far as, since Heaven had spared his life when all that made it dear had been taken from him, he resigned himself to believe that there was yet some duty left for him to fulfil.
Meantime the old man was wearied out; and after due courtesies had passed between him and the lady in the dark, he prayed long and fervently, as Eustacie could judge from the intensity of the low murmurs she heard; and then she heard him, with a heavy irrepressible sigh, lie down on the couch of hay he had already prepared for himself, and soon his regular breathings announced his sound slumbers. She was already on the bed she had so precipitately quitted, and not a thought more did she give to the Templars, living or dead, even though she heard an extraordinary snapping and hissing, and in the dawn of the morning saw a white weird thing, like a huge moth, flit in through the circular window, take up its station on a beam above the hay, and look down with the brightest, roundest eyes she had ever beheld. Let owls and bats come where they would, she was happier than she had been for months. Compassion for herself was plentiful enough, but to have heard Berenger spoken of with love and admiration seemed to quiet the worst ache of her lonely heart.
CHAPTER XVIII. THE MOONBEAM
She wandered east, she wandered west, She wandered out and in; And at last into the very swine's stythe The queen brought forth a son.—Fause Foodrage
The morrow was Sunday, and in the old refectory, in the late afternoon, a few Huguenots, warned by messages from the farm, met to profit by one of their scanty secret opportunities for public worship. The hum of the prayer, and discourse of the pastor, rose up through the broken vaulting to Eustacie, still lying on her bed; for she had been much shaken by the fatigues of the day and alarm of the night, and bitterly grieved, too, by a message which Nanon conveyed to her, that poor Martin was in no state to come for her in the next day; but he and his wife having been seized upon by Narcisse and his men, and so savagely beaten in order to force from them a confession of her hiding-place, that both were lying helpless on their bed; and could only send an entreaty by the trustworthy fool, that Rotrou would find means of conveying Madame into Chollet in some cart of hay or corn, in which she could be taken past the barriers.
But this was not to be. Good Nanon had sacrificed the sermon to creep up to Eustacie, and when the congregation were dispersing in the dusk, she stole down the stairs to her husband; and a few seconds after he was hurrying as fast as detours would allow him to Blaise's farm. An hour and a half later, Dame Perrine, closely blindfolded for the last mile, was dragged up the spiral staircase, and ere the bandage was removed heard Eustacie's voice, with a certain cheeriness, say, 'Oh! nurse; my son will soon come!'
The full moon gave her light, and the woman durst not have any other, save from the wood-fire that Nanon had cautiously lighted and screened. The moonshine was still supreme, when some time later a certain ominous silence and half-whisper between the two women at the hearth made Eustacie, with a low cry of terror, exclaim, 'Nurse, nurse, what means this? Oh! He lives! I know he lives! Perrine, I command you tell me!'
'Living! Oh, yes, my love, my Lady,' answered Perrine, returning towards her; 'fair and perfect as the day. Be not disquieted for a moment.'
'I will—I will disquiet myself,' panted Eustacie, 'unless you tell me what is amiss.'
'Nothing amiss,' said Nanon, gruffly. 'Madame will give thanks for this fair gift of a daughter.'
It must be owned the words felt chill. She had never thought of this! It was as if the being for whom she had dared and suffered so much, in the trust that he would be Berenger's representative and avenger, had failed her and disappointed her. No defender, no paladin, no so to be proud of! Her heart and courage sank down in her weakness as they had never done before; and, without speaking, she turned her head away towards the darkness, feeling as if had been for nothing, and she might as well sink away in her exhaustion. Mere Perrine was more angry with Nanon than conscious of her Lady's weakness. 'Woman, you speak as if you knew not the blow to this family, and to all who hoped for better days. What, that my Lady, the heiress, who ought to be in a bed of state, with velvet curtains, lace pillows, gold caudle-cups, should be here in a vile ruin, among owls and bats, like any beggar, and all for the sake, not of a young Lord to raise up the family, but of a miserable little girl! Had I known how it would turn out, I had never meddled in this mad scheme.'
Before Nanon could express her indignation, Eustacie had turned her head opened her eyes, and called out, 'Miserable! Oh! what do you mean? Oh, it is true, Nanon? is it well with her?
'As well as heart could wish,' answered Nanon, cheerily. 'Small, but a perfect little piece of sugar. There, Lady, she shall speak for herself.'
And as Nanon laid the babe on the young mother's bosom, the thrilling touch at once put an end to all the repinings of the heiress, and awoke far other instincts.
'My child! my little one, my poor little orphan—all cruel to her! Oh, no welcome even from thy mother! Babe, babe, pardon me, I will make it up to thee; indeed I will! Oh! let me see her! Do not take her away, dear good woman, only hold her in the moonlight!'
The full rays of the moon, shining through the gable window, streamed down very near where Eustacie lay, and by a slight movement Dame Rotrou was able to render the little face as distinctly visible to her as if it had been daylight, save that the blanching light was somewhat embellishing to the new-born complexion, and increased that curious resemblance so often borne for the first few hours of life to the future self. Eustacie's cry at once was, 'Himself, himself—his very face! Let me have her, my own moonbeam—his child—my joy!'
The tears, so long denied, rushed down like summer rain as she clasped the child in her arms. Dame Perrine wandered to and fro, like one beside herself, not only at her Lady's wretched accommodations, but at the ill omens of the moonlight illumination, of the owls who snapped and hissed incessantly over the hay, and above all the tears over the babe's face. She tried to remonstrate with Eustacie, but was answered only, 'Let me weep! Oh, let me weep! It eases my heart! It cannot hurt my little one! She cannot weep for her father herself, so I must weep for her.'
The weeping was gentle, not violent; and Dame Rotrou thought it did good rather than harm. She was chiefly anxious to be quit of Perrine, who, however faithful to the Lady of Ribaumont, must not be trusted to learn the way to this Huguenot asylum, and must be escorted back by Rotrou ere peep of dawn. The old woman knew that her own absence from home would be suspicious, and with many grumblings submitted; but first she took the child from Eustacie's reluctant arms, promising to restore her in a few moments, after finishing dressing her in the lace-edged swaddling bands so carefully preserved ever since Eustacie's own baby hood. In these moments she had taken them all by surprise by, without asking any questions, sprinkling the babe with water, and baptizing her by the hereditary name of Berangere, the feminine of the only name Eustacie had always declared her son should bear. Such baptisms were not unfrequently performed by French nurses, but Eustacie exclaimed with a sound half dismay, half indignation.
'Eh quoi!' said Perrine, 'it is only ondoyee. You can have all the ceremonies if ever time shall fit; but do you think I could leave my Lady's child—mere girl though it be—alone with owls, and follets, and REVENANTS, and heretics, and she unbaptized? She would be a changeling long ere morning, I trow.'
'Come, good woman,' said Rotrou, from between the trusses of hay at the entrance; 'you and I must begin our Colin-Mail-lard again, or it may be the worse for us both.'
And with the promise of being conducted to Eustacie again in three nights' time, if she would meet her guide at the cross-roads after dark, Perrine was forced to take her leave. She had never suspected that all this time Maitre Gardon had been hidden in the refectory below, and still less did she guess that soon after her departure the old man was installed as her Lady's chief attendant. It was impossible that Nanon should stay with Eustacie; she had her day's work to attend to, and her absence would have excited suspicion. He, therefore, came partly up the stairs, and calling to Nanon, proffered himself to sit with 'cette pauvre,' and make a signal in case Nanon should be wanted. The good woman was thus relieved of a great care. She would not have dared to ask it of him, but with a low reverence, she owned that it was an act of great charity towards the poor lady, who, she hoped, was falling into a tranquil sleep, but who she would hardly have dared to leave. The pastor, though hardships, battles, and persecutions had left him childless, had been the father of a large family; and perhaps he was drawn the more strongly towards the mother and child, because he almost felt as if, in fulfilling the part of a father towards the widow of Berenger de Ribaumont, he was taking her in the stead of the widow of his own Theodore.
Had the little Baronne de Ribaumont been lodged in a tapes-tried chamber, between curtains of velvet and gold, with a beauffet by her side glistening with gold and silver plate, as would have befitted her station, instead of lying on a bed of straw, with no hangings to the walls save cobwebs and hay, and wallflowers, no beauffet but the old rickety table, no attendants but Nanon and M. Gardon, no visitors but the two white owls, no provisions save the homely fare that rustic mothers lived upon—neither she nor her babe could have thriven better, and probably not half so well. She had been used to a hardy, out-of-door life, like the peasant women; and she was young and strong, so that she recovered as they did. If the April shower beat in at the window, or the hole in the roof, they made a screen of canvas, covered her with cloaks, and heaped them with hay, and she took no harm; and the pure open air that blew in was soft with all the southern sweetness of early spring-tide, and the little one throve in it like the puff-ball owlets in the hayloft, or the little ring-doves in the ivy, whose parent's cooing voice was Eustacie's favourite music. Almost as good as these her fellow-nestlings was the little Moonbeam, la petite Rayonette, as Eustacie fondly called this light that had come back to her from the sunshine she had lost. Had she cried or been heard, the sounds would probably have passed for the wailings of the ghostly victims of the Templars, but she exercised an exemplary forbearance in that respect, for which Eustacie thought she could not be sufficiently admired.
Like the child she was, Eustacie seemed to have put care from her, and to be solely taken up with the baby, and the amusement of watching the owl family.
There was a lull in the search at this moment, for the Chevalier had been recalled to Paris by the fatal illness of his son-in-law, M. de Selinvine. The old soldier, after living half his life on bread and salad, that he might keep up a grand appearance at Paris, had, on coming into the wealth of the family, and marrying a beautiful wife, returned to the luxuries he had been wont only to enjoy for a few weeks at a time, with in military occupation of some Italian town. Three months of festivities had been enough to cause his death; and the Chevalier was summoned to assist his daughter in providing for his obsequies, and in taking possession of the huge endowments which, as the last of his race, he had been able to bequeath to her. Such was the news brought by the old nurse Perrine, who took advantage of the slackening vigilance of the enemy to come to see Eustacie. The old woman was highly satisfied; for one of the peasants' wives had—as if on purpose to oblige her Lady—given birth to twins, one of whom had died almost immediately; and the parents had consented to conceal their loss, and at once take the little Demoiselle de Ribaumont as their own—guarding the secret till her mother should be able to claim her. It was so entirely the practice, under the most favourable circumstances, for French mothers to send their infants to be nursed in cottages, that Perrine was amazed by the cry of angry refusal that burst from Eustacie: 'Part with my child! leave her to her enemies!—never! never! Hold your tongue, Perrine! I will not hear of such a thing!'
'But, Madame, hear reason. She will pass for one of Simonette's!'
'She shall pass for none but mine!—I part with thee, indeed! All that is left me of thy father!—the poor little orphaned innocent, that no one loves but her mother!'
'Madame—Mademoiselle, this is not common sense! Why, how can you hide yourself? how travel with a baby on your neck, whose crying may betray you?'
'She never cries—never, never! And better I were betrayed than she.'
'If it were a boy—-' began Perrine.
'If it were a boy, there would be plenty to care for it. I should not care for it half so much. As for my poor little lonely girl, whom every one wishes away but her mother—ah! yes, baby, thy mother will go through fire and water for thee yet. Never fear, thou shalt not leave her!'
'No nurse can go with Madame. Simonette could not leave her home.'
'What needs a nurse when she has me?'
'But, Madame,' proceeded the old woman, out of patience, 'you are beside yourself! What noble lady ever nursed her babe?'
'I don't care noble ladies—I care for my child,' said the vehement, petulant little thing.
'And how—what good will Madame's caring for it do? What knows she of infants? How can she take care of it?'
'Our Lady will teach me,' said Eustacie, still pressing the child passionately to her heart; 'and see—the owl—the ring-dove—can take care of their little ones; the good God shows them how—He will tell me how!'
Perrine regarded her Lady much as if she were in a naughty fit, refusing unreasonably to part with a new toy, and Nanon Rotrou was much of the same mind; but it was evident that if at the moment they attempted to carry off the babe, the other would put herself into an agony of passion, that they durst not call forth; and they found it needful to do their best to soothe her out of the deluge of agitated tears that fell from her eyes, as she grasped the child so convulsively that she might almost have stifled it at once. They assured her that they would not take it away now—not now, at any rate; and when the latent meaning made her fiercely insist that it was to leave her neither now nor ever, Perrine made pacifying declarations that it should be just as she pleased—promises that she knew well, when in that coaxing voice, meant nothing at all. Nothing calmed her till Perrine had been conducted away; and even then Nanon could not hush her into anything like repose, and at last called in the minister, in despair.
'Ah! sir, you are a wise man; can you find how to quiet the poor little thing? Her nurse has nearly driven her distracted with talking of the foster-parents she has found for the child.'
'Not found!' cried Eustacie. 'No, for she shall never go!'
'There!' lamented Nanon—'so she agitates herself, when it is but spoken of. And surely she had better make up her mind, for there is no other choice.'
'Nay, Nanon,' said M. Gardon, 'wherefore should she part with the charge that God has laid on her?'
Eustacie gave a little cry of grateful joy. 'Oh, sir, come nearer! Do you, indeed, say that they have no right to tear her from me?'
'Surely not, Lady. It is you whose duty it is to shield and guard her.'
'Oh, sir, tell me again! Yours is the right religion. Oh, you are the minister for me! If you will tell me I ought to keep my child, then I will believe everything else. I will do just as you tell me.' And she stretched out both hands to him, with vehement eagerness.
'Poor thing! This is no matter of one religion or another,' said the minister; 'it is rather the duty that the Almighty hath imposed, and that He hath made an eternal joy.'
'Truly,' said Nanon, ashamed at having taken the other side: 'the good pasteur says what is according to nature. It would have gone hard with me if any one had wished to part me from Robin or Sara; but these fine ladies, and, for that matter, BOURGEOISES too, always do put out their babes; and it seemed to me that Madame would find it hard to contrive for herself—let alone the little one.'
'Ah! but what would be the use of contriving for myself, without her?' said Eustacie.
If all had gone well and prosperously with Madame de Ribaumont, probably she would have surrendered an infant born in purple and in pall to the ordinary lot of its contemporaries; but the exertions and suffering she had undergone on behalf of her child, its orphanhood, her own loneliness, and even the general disappointment in its sex, had given it a hold on her vehement, determined heart, that intensified to the utmost the instincts of motherhood; and she listened as if to an angle's voice as Maitre Gardon replied to Nanon—
'I say not that it is not the custom; nay, that my blessed wife and myself have not followed it; but we have so oft had cause to repent the necessity, that far be it from me ever to bid a woman forsake her sucking child.'
'Is that Scripture?' asked Eustacie. 'Ah! sir, sir, tell me more! You are giving me all—all—my child! I will be—I am—a Huguenot like her father! and, when my vassals come, I will make them ride with you to La Rochelle, and fight in your cause!'
'Nay,' said Maitre Gardon, taken by surprise; 'but, Lady, your vassals are Catholic.'
'What matters it? In my cause they shall fight!' said the feudal Lady, 'for me and my daughter!'
And as the pastor uttered a sound of interrogative astonishment, she continued—
'As soon as I am well enough, Blaise will send out messages, and they will meet me at midnight at the cross-roads, Martin and all, for dear good Martin is quite well now, and we shall ride across country, avoiding towns, wherever I choose to lead them. I had thought of Chantilly, for I know M. de Montmorency would stand my friend against a Guisard; but now, now I know you, sir, let me escort you to La Rochelle, and do your cause service worthy of Nid de Merle and Ribaumont!' And as she sat up on her bed, she held up her little proud head, and waved her right hand with the grace and dignity of a queen offering an alliance of her realm.
Maitre Gardon, who had hitherto seen her as a childish though cheerful and patient sufferer, was greatly amazed, but he could not regard her project as practicable, or in his conscience approve it; and after a moment's consideration he answered, 'I am a man of peace, Lady, and seldom side with armed men, nor would I lightly make one of those who enroll themselves against the King.'
'Not after all the Queen-mother had done!' cried Eustacie.
'Martyrdom is better than rebellion,' quietly answered the old man, folding his hands. Then he added 'Far be it from me to blame those who have drawn the sword for the faith; yet, Lady, it would not be even thus with your peasants; they might not follow you.'
'Then,' said Eustacie, with flashing eyes, 'they would be traitors.'
'Not to the King,' said the pastor, gently. 'Also, Lady, how will it be with their homes and families—the hearths that have given you such faithful shelter?'
'The women would take to the woods,' readily answered she; 'it is summer-time, and they should be willing to bear something for my sake. I should grieve indeed,' she added, 'if my uncle misused them. They have been very good to me, but then they belong to me.'
'Ah! Lady, put from you that hardening belief of seigneurs. Think what their fidelity deserves from their Lady.'
'I will be good to them! I do love them! I will be their very good mistress,' said Eustacie, her eyes filling.
'The question is rather of forbearing than of doing,' said the minister.
'But what would you have me do?' asked Eustacie, petulantly.
'This, Lady. I gather that you would not return to your relations.'
'Never! never! They would rend my babe from me; they would kill her, or at least hide her for ever in a convent—they would force me into this abhorrent marriage. No—no—no—my child and I would die a hundred deaths together rather than fall into the hands of Narcisse.'
'Calm yourself, Lady; there is no present fear, but I deem that the safest course for the little one would be to place her in England. She must be heiress to lands and estates there; is she not?'
'Yes; and in Normandy.'
'And your husband's mother lives? Wherefore then should you not take me for your guide, and make your way—more secretly than would be possible with a peasant escort—to one of your Huguenot towns on the coast, whence you could escape with the child to England?'
'My belle-mere has re-married! She has children! I would not bring the daughter of Ribaumont as a suppliant to be scorned!' said Eustacie, pouting. 'She has lands enough of her own.'
'There is no need to discuss the question now,' said M. Gardon, gravely; for a most kind offer, involving much peril and inconvenience to himself, was thus petulantly flouted. 'Madame will think at her leisure of what would have been the wishes of Monsieur le Baron for his child.'
He then held himself aloof, knowing that it was not well for her health, mental or bodily, to talk any more, and a good deal perplexed himself by the moods of his strange little impetuous convert, if convert she could be termed. He himself was a deeply learned scholar, who had studied all the bearings of the controversy; and, though bound to the French Reformers who would gladly have come to terms with the Catholics at the Conference of Plassy, and regretted the more decided Calvinism that his party had since professed, and in which the Day of St. Bartholomew confirmed them. He had a strong sense of the grievous losses they suffered by their disunion from the Church. The Reformed were less and less what his ardent youthful hopes had trusted to see them; and in his old age he was a sorrow-stricken man, as much for the cause of religion as for personal bereavements. He had little desire to win proselytes, but rather laid his hand to build up true religion where he found it suffering shocks in these unsettled, neglected times; and his present wish was rather to form and guide this little willful warm-hearted mother—whom he could not help regarding with as much affection as pity—to find a home in the Church that had been her husband's, than to gain her to his own party. And most assuredly he would never let her involve herself, as she was ready to do, in the civil war, without even knowing the doctrine which grave and earnest men had preferred to their loyalty.
He could hear her murmuring to her baby, 'No, no, little one, we are not fallen so low as to beg our bread among strangers.' To live upon her own vassals had seemed to her only claiming her just rights, but it galled her to think of being beholden to stranger Huguenots; and England and her mother-in-law, without Berenger, were utterly foreign and distasteful to her.
Her mood was variable. Messages from Blaise and Martin came and went, and it became known that her intended shelter at Chollet, together with all the adjacent houses, had been closely searched by the younger Ribaumont in conjunction with the governor; so that it was plain that some treachery must exist, and that she only owed her present freedom to her detention in the ruined temple; and it would be necessary to leave that as soon as it was possible for her to attempt the journey.
The plan that seemed most feasible to the vassals was, that Rotrou should convey her in a cart of fagots as far as possible on the road to Paris; that there his men should meet her by different roads, riding their farm-horses—and Martin even hoped to be able to convey her own palfrey to her from the monastery stable, and thence, taking a long stretch across country, they trusted to be able to reach the lands of a dependant of the house of Montmorency, who would not readily yield her up to a Guise's man. But, whether instigated by Perrine, or by their own judgment, the vassals declared that, though Madame should be conducted wherever she desired, it was impossible to encumber themselves with the infant. Concealment would be impossible; rough, hasty rides would be retarded, her difficulties would be tenfold increased, and the little one would become a means of tracing her. There was no choice but to leave it with Simonette.
Angrily and haughtily did Eustacie always reject this alternative, and send fresh commands back by her messenger, to meet the same reply in another form. The strong will and practical resolution of the stout farmers, who were about to make a terrible venture for her, and might reasonably think they had a right to prescribe the terms that they thought best. All this time Maitre Gardon felt it impossible to leave her, still weak and convalescent, alone in the desolate ruin with her young child; though still her pride would not bend again to seek the counsel that she had so much detested, nor to ask for the instruction that was to make her 'believe like her husband.' If she might not fight for the Reformed, it seemed as if she would none of their doctrine!
But, true lady that she was, she sunk the differences in her intercourse with him. She was always prettily and affectionately grateful for every service that he rendered her, and as graciously polite as though she had been keeping house in the halls of Ribaumont. Then her intense love for her child was so beautiful, and there was so much sweetness in the cheerful patience with which she endured the many hardships of her situation, that he could not help being strongly interested in the willful, spirited little being.
And thus time passed, until one night, when Martin ventured over the farm with a report so serious that Rotrou, at all risks, brought him up to communicate his own tidings. Some one had given information, Veronique he suspected, and the two Chevaliers were certainly coming the next day to search with fire the old buildings of the temple. It was already dawning towards morning, and it would be impossible to do more at present than to let Rotrou build up the lady in a vault, some little way off, whence, after the search was over, she could be released, and join her vassals the next night according to the original design. As to the child, her presence in the vault was impossible, and Martin had actually brought her intended nurse, Simonette, to Rotrou's cottage to receive her.
'Never!' was all Eustacie answered. 'Save both of us, or neither.'
'Lady,' said M. Gardon as she looked towards him, 'I go my way with my staff.'
'And you—you more faithful than her vassals—will let me take her?'
'Then, sir, even to the world's end will I go with you'
Martin would have argued, have asked, but she would not listen to him. It was Maitre Gardon who made him understand the project. There was what in later times has been termed an underground railway amid the persecuted Calvinists, and M. Gardon knew his ground well enough to have little doubt of being able to conduct the lady safely to some town on the coast, whence she might reach her friends in England. The plan highly satisfied Martin. It relieved him and his neighbours from the necessity of provoking perilous wrath, and it was far safer for her herself than endeavouing to force her way with an escort too large not to attract notice, yet not warlike enough for efficient defence. He offered no further opposition, but augured that after all she would come back a fine lady, and right them all.
Eustacie, recovering from her anger, and recollecting his services, gave him her hand to kiss, and bade him farewell with a sudden effusion of gratitude and affection that warmed the honest fellow's heart. Rewards could not be given, lest they should become a clue for her uncle; and perhaps they would have wounded both him and their kind hosts, who did their best to assist her in their departure. A hasty meal was provided by Nanon, and a basket so stored as to obviate the need of entering a village, on that day at least, to purchase provisions; Eustacie's money and jewels again formed the nucleus of the bundle of clothes and spare swaddling-banks of her babe; her peasant dress was carefully arranged—a stout striped cloth skit and black bodice, the latter covered by a scarlet Chollet kerchief. The winged white cap entirely hid her hair; a gray cloak with a hood could either fold round her and her child or be strapped on her shoulders. Her sabots were hung on her shoulder, for she had learnt to go barefoot, and walked much more lightly thus; and her little bundle was slung on a staff on the back of Maitre Gardon, who in his great peasant's hat and coat looked so like a picture of St. Joseph, that Eustacie, as the light of the rising sun fell on his white beard and hair, was reminded of the Flight into Egypt, and came close to him, saying shyly, 'Our Blessed Lady will bless and feel for my baby. She knows what this journey is.'
'The Son of the Blessed Mary assuredly knows and blesses,' he answered.
CHAPTER XIX. LA RUE DES TROIS FEES
And round the baby fast and close Her trembling grasp she folds. And with a strong convulsive grasp The little infant holds.—SOUTHEY.
A wild storm had raged all the afternoon, hail and rain had careered on the wings of the wind along the narrow street of the Three Fairies, at the little Huguenot bourg of La Sablerie; torrents of rain had poached the unpaved soil into a depth of mud, and thunder had reverberated over the chimney-tops, and growled far away over the Atlantic, whose angry waves were tossing on the low sandy coast about two miles from the town.
The evening had closed in with a chill, misty drizzle, and, almost May though it were, the Widow Noemi Laurent gladly closed the shutters of her unglazed window, where small cakes and other delicate confections were displayed, and felt the genial warmth of the little fire with which she heated her tiny oven. She was the widow of a pastor who had suffered for his faith in the last open persecution, and being the daughter of a baker, the authorities of the town had permitted her to support herself and her son by carrying on a trade in the more delicate 'subtilties' of the art, which were greatly relished at the civic feasts. Noemi was a grave, sad woman, very lonely ever since she had saved enough to send her son to study for the ministry in Switzerland, and with an aching heart that longed to be at rest from the toil that she looked on as a steep ladder on her way to a better home. She occupied two tiny rooms on the ground-floor of a tall house; and she had just arranged her few articles of furniture with the utmost neatness, when there was a low knock at her door, a knock that the persecuted well understood, and as she lifted the latch, a voice she had known of old spoke the scriptural salutation, 'Peace be with this house.'
'Eh quoi, Master Issac, is it thou? Come in—in a good hour—ah!'
As, dripping all round his broad hat and from every thread of his gray mantle, the aged traveller drew into the house a female figure whom he had been supporting on his other arm, muffled head and shoulders in a soaked cloak, with a petticoat streaming with wet, and feet and ankles covered with mire, 'Here we are, my child,' he said tenderly, as he almost carried her to Noemi's chair. Noemi, with kind exclamations of 'La pauvre! la pauvre!' helped the trembling cold hand to open the wet cloak, and then cried out with fresh surprise and pity at the sight of the fresh little infant face, nestled warm and snug under all the wrappings in those weary arms.
'See,' said the poor wanderer, looking up to the old man, with a faint smile; 'she is well—she is warm—it hurts her not.'
'Can you take us in?' added M. Gardon, hastily; 'have you room?'
'Oh yes; if you can sleep on the floor here, I will take this poor dear to my own bed directly,' said Noemi. 'Tenez' opening a chest; 'you will find dry clothes there, of my husband's. And thou,' helping Eustacie up with her strong arm, and trying to take the little one, 'let me warm and dry thee within.'
Too much worn out to make resistance, almost past speaking, knowing merely that she had reached the goal that had been promised her throughout these weary days, feeling warmth, and hearing kind tones, Eustacie submitted to be led into the inner room; and when the good widow returned again, it was in haste to fetch some of the warm potage she had already been cooking over the fire, and hastily bade M. Gardon help himself to the rest. She came back again with the babe, to wash and dress it in the warmth of her oven fire. Maitre Gardon, in the black suit of a Calvinist pastor, had eaten his potage, and was anxiously awaiting her report. 'Ah! la pauvre, with His blessing she will sleep! she will do well. But how far did you come to-day?'
'From Sainte Lucie. From the Grange du Temple since Monday.'
'Ah! is it possible? The poor child! And this little one—sure, it is scarce four weeks old?'
'Four weeks this coming Sunday.'
'Ah! the poor thing. The blessing of Heaven must have been with you to bear her through. And what a lovely infant—how white—what beauteous little limbs! Truly, she has sped well. Little did I think, good friend, that you had this comfort left, or that our poor Theodore's young wife had escaped.'
'Alas! no, Noemi; this is no child of Theodore's. His wife shared his martyrdom. It is I who am escaped alone to tell thee. But, nevertheless, this babe is an orphan of that same day. Her father was the son of the pious Baron de Ribaumont, the patron of your husband, and of myself in earlier days.'
'Ah!' exclaimed Noemi, startled. 'Then the poor young mother—is she—can she be the lost Demoiselle de Nid de Merle?'
'Is the thing known here? The will of Heaven be done; but she can send to her husband's kindred in England.'
'She might rest safely enough, if others beside myself believed in her being your son's widow,' said Noemi. 'Wherefore should she not be thought so?'
'Poor Esperance! She would willingly have lent her name to guard another,' said Master Gardon, thoughtfully; 'and, for the sake of the child, my little lady may endure it. Ah! there is the making of a faithful and noble woman in that poor young thing. Bravely, patiently, cheerfully, hath she plodded this weary way; and, verily, she hath grown like my own daughter to me—as I never thought to love earthly thing again; and had this been indeed my Theodore's child, I could hardly care for it more.'
And as he related how he had fallen in with the forlorn Lady of Ribaumont, and all that she had dared, done, and left undone for the sake of her little daughter, good Noemi Laurent wept, and agreed with him that a special providence must have directed them to his care, and that some good work must await one who had been carried through so much. His project was to remain here for a short time, to visit the flock who had lost their pastor on the day of the massacre, and to recruit his own strength; for he, too, had suffered severely from the long travelling, and the exposure during many nights, especially since all that was warm and sheltered had been devoted to Eustacie. And after this he proposed to go to La Rochelle, and make inquiries for a trusty messenger who could be sent to England to seek out the family of the Baron de Ribaumont, or, mayhap, a sufficient escort with whom the lady could travel; though he had nearly made up his mind that he would not relinquish the care of her until he had safely delivered her to her husband's mother.
Health and life were very vigorous in Eustacie; and though at first she had been completely worn out, a few days of comfort, entire rest, and good nursing restored her. Noemi dressed her much like herself, in a black gown, prim little white starched ruff, and white cap,—a thorough Calvinist dress, and befitting a minister's widow. Eustacie winced a little at hearing of the character that had been fastened upon her; she disliked for her child, still more than for herself, to take this bourgeois name of Gardon; but there was no help for it, since, though he chief personages of the town were Huguenot, there could be no safety for her if the report were once allowed to arise that the Baronne de Ribaumont had taken refuge there.
It was best that she should be as little noticed as possible; nor, indeed, had good Noemi many visitors. The sad and sorrowful woman had always shut herself up with her Bible and her meditations, and sought no sympathy from her neighbours, nor encourage gossip in her shop. In the first days, when purchasers lingered to ask if it were true that Maitre Gardon had brought his daughter-in-law and grandchild, her stern-faced, almost grim answer, that 'la pauvre was ill at ease,' silenced them, and forced them to carry off their curiosity unsatisfied; but it became less easy to arrange when Eustacie herself was on foot again—refreshed, active, and with an irrepressible spring of energy and eagerness that could hardly be caged down in the Widow Laurent's tiny rooms. Poor child, had she not been ill and prostrate at first, and fastened herself on the tender side of the good woman's heart by the sweetness of an unselfish and buoyant nature in illness, Noemi could hardly have endured such an inmate, not even half a Huguenot, full of little Catholic observances like second nature to her; listening indeed to the Bible for the short time, but always, when it was expounded, either asleep, or finding some amusement indispensable for her baby; eager for the least variety, and above all spoilt by Maitre Gardon to a degree absolutely perplexing to the grave woman.
He would not bid her lay aside the observances that, to Noemi, seemed almost worship of the beast. He rather reverted to the piety which originated them; and argued with his old friend that it was better to build than to destroy, and that, before the fabric of truth, superstition would crumble away of itself. The little he taught her sounded to Noemi's puzzled ears mere Christianity instead of controversial Calvinism. And, moreover, he never blamed her for wicked worldliness when she yawned; but even devised opportunities for taking her out for a walk, to see as much life as might be on a market-day. He could certainly not forget—as much as would have been prudent—that she was a high-born lady; and even seemed taken aback when he found her with her sleeves turned up over her shapely-delicate arms, and a thick apron before her, with her hands in Veuve Laurent's flour, showing her some of those special mysterious arts of confectionery in which she had been initiated by Soeur Bernardine, when, not three years ago, she had been the pet of the convent at Bellaise. At first it was half sport and the desire of occupation, but the produce of her manipulations was so excellent as to excite quite a sensation in La Sablerie, and the echevins and baillis sent in quite considerable orders for the cakes and patties of Maitre Gardon's Paris-bred daughter-in-law.
Maitre Gardon hesitated. Noemi Laurent told him she cared little for the gain—Heaven knew it was nothing to her—but that she thought it wrong and inconsistent in him to wish to spare the poor child's pride, which was unchristian enough already. 'Nay,' he said sadly, 'mortifications from without do little to tame pride; nor did I mean to bring her here that she should turn cook and confectioner to pamper the appetite of Baillis La Grasse.'
But Eustacie's first view was a bright pleasure in the triumph of her skill; and when her considerate guardian endeavoured to impress on her that there was no necessity for vexing herself with the task, she turned round on him with the exclamation, 'Nay, dear father, do you not see it is my great satisfaction to be able to do something for our good hostess, so that my daughter and I be not a burden to her?'
'Well spoken, my Lady,' said the pastor; 'there is real nobility in that way of thinking. Yet, remember, Noemi is not without means; she feels not the burden. And the flock contribute enough for the shepherd's support, and yours likewise.'
'Then let her give it to the poor creatures who so often come in begging, and saying they have been burned out of house and home by one party or the other,' said Eustacie. 'Let me have my way, dear sir; Soeur Bernadine always said I should be a prime menagere. I like it so much.'
And Madame de Ribaumont mixed sugar and dough, and twisted quaint shapes, and felt important and almost light-hearted, and sang over her work and over her child songs that were not always Marot's psalms; and that gave the more umbrage to Noemi, because she feared that Maitre Gardon actually like to hear them, though, should their echo reach the street, why it would be a peril, and still worse, a horrible scandal that out of that sober, afflicted household should proceed profane tunes such as court ladies sang.