As he rose to his feet, his senses began to take in the scene; he remembered what had happened and where he was. The shutters were lowered and open. The cold grey light of the early morning at this deadest season of the year fell cheerlessly on the living-room; in which for the greater safety of the house he had insisted on passing the night. Anne, whose daily task it was to open the shutters, had been down then: she must have been down, or whence the pile of fresh cones and splinters that crackled, and spirted flame about the turned log. Perhaps it was her mother's cry that had roused him; and she had re-ascended to her room.
He strode to the staircase door, opened it softly and listened. No, all was silent above; and then a new notion struck him, and he glanced round. Her hood was gone. It was not on the table on which he had seen it last night.
It was so unlikely, however, that she had gone out without telling him, that he dismissed the notion; and, something recovered from the strange agitation into which the cry had cast him, he yawned. He returned to the hearth and knelt and re-arranged the sticks so that the air might have freer access to the fire. Presently he would draw the water for her, and fill the great kettle, and sweep the floor. The future might be gloomy, the prospect might lower, but the present was not without its pleasures.
All his life his slowness to guess the truth on this occasion was a puzzle to him. For the materials were his. Slowly, gradually, as he crouched sleepily before the fire, it grew upon him that there was a noise in the air; a confused sound, not of one cry, but of many, that came from the street, from the rampart. A noise, now swelling a little, now sinking a little, that seemed as he listened not so distant as it had sounded a while ago. Not distant at all, indeed; quite close—now! A sound of rushing water, rather soothing; or, as it swelled, a sound of a crowd, a gibing, mocking crowd. Yes, a crowd. And then in one instant the change was wrought.
He was on his feet; he was at the door. He, who a moment before had nodded over the fire, watching the flames grow, was transformed in five seconds into a furious man, tugging at the door, wrestling madly with the unyielding oak. Wrestling, and still the noise rose! And still he strained in vain, back and sinew, strained until with a cry of despair he found that he could not win. The door was locked, the key was gone! He was a prisoner!
And still the noise that maddened him, rose. He sprang to the right-hand window, the window nearest the commotion. He tore open a panel of the small leaded panes, and thrust his head between the bars. He saw a crowd; for an instant, in the heart of the crowd and raised above it, he saw an uplifted arm and a white woman's face from which blood was flowing. He drew in his head, and laid his hands to one of the bars and flung his weight this way and that, flung it desperately, heedless of injury. But in vain. The lead that soldered the bar into the strong stone mullion held, and would have held against the strength of four. With heaving breast, and hands from which the blood was starting, he stood back, glared round him, then with a cry flung himself upon the other window, tore it open and seized a bar—the middle one of the three. It was loose he remembered. God! why had he not thought of it before? Why had he wasted time?
He wasted no more, with those shouts of cruel glee in his ears. The bar came out in his hands. He thrust himself feet first through the aperture. Slight as he was, it was small for him, and he stuck fast at the hips, and had to turn on his side. The rough edges of the bars scraped the skin, but he was through, and had dropped to his feet, the bar which he had plucked out still in his hands. For a fraction of a second, as he alighted, his eyes took in the crowd, and the girl at bay against the wall. She was raised a little above her tormentors by the steps on which she had taken refuge.
On one side her hair hung loose, and the cheek beneath it was cut and bleeding, giving her a piteous and tragic aspect. Four out of five of her assailants were women; one of these had torn her face with her nails. Streaks of mud were mingled with the blood which ran down her neck; and even as Claude recovered himself after the drop from the window, a missile, eluding the bent arm with which she strove to shield her face, struck and bespattered her throat where the collar of her frock had been torn open—perhaps by the same rough clutch which had dragged down her hair. The ring about her—like all crowds in the beginning—were strangely silent; but a yell of derision greeted this success, and a stone flew, narrowly missing her, and another, and another. A woman, holding a heavy Bible after the fashion of a shield, was stooping and striking at her knees with a stick, striving to bring her to the ground; and with the cruel laughter that hailed the hag's ungainly efforts were mingled other and more ugly sounds, low curses, execrations, and always one fatal word, "Witch! Witch!"—fatal word spat at her by writhing mouths, hissed at her by pale lips, tossed broadcast on the cold morning wind, to breed wherever it flew fear and hate and suspicion. For, even while they mocked her they feared her, and shielded themselves against her power with signs and crossings and the Holy Book.
To all, curse and blow and threat, she had only one word. Striving patiently to shield her face, "Let me go!" she wailed pitifully. "Let me go! Let me go!" Strange to say, she cried even that but softly; as who should say, "If you will not, kill me quietly, kill me without noise!" Ay, even then, with the blood running down her face, and with those eyes more cruel than men's eyes hemming her in, she was thinking of the mother whom she had sheltered so long.
"Let me go! Let me go!" she repeated.
"Witch, you shall go!" they answered ruthlessly. "To hell!"
"Ay, with her dam! To the water with her! To the water!"
"Look for the devil's mark! Search her! Again, Martha! Bring her down! Bring her down, and we'll soon see whether——"
Then he reached them. The man, one of the few present, who had bidden them search her fell headlong on his face in the gutter, struck behind as by a thunder-bolt. The great Bible flew one way, the hag's stick flew another—and in its flight felled a second woman. In a twinkling Claude was on the steps, and in the heart of the crowd stood two people, not one; in a twinkling his arm was round the girl, his pale, furious face confronted her tormentors, his blazing eyes beat down theirs! More than all, his iron bar, brandished recklessly this way and that, threatened the brains of the man or the woman who was bold enough to withstand him.
For he was beside himself with rage. He learned in that moment that he was of those who fight with joy and rejoicing, and laugh where others shake. The sight of that white, bleeding face, of that hanging hair, of that suppliant arm, above all, the sound of that patient "Let me go! Let me go!" that expected nothing and hoped nothing, had turned his blood to fire. The more numerous his opponents—if they were men—the better he would be pleased; and if they were women, such women, unsexed by hate and superstition, as he saw before him, women looking a millionfold more like witches than the girl they accused, the worse for them! His arm would not falter!
It seemed of steel indeed. The bar quivered like a reed in his grasp, his eyes darted hither and thither, he stood an inch taller than at other times. He was like the war-horse that sniffs the battle.
And yet he was cool after a fashion. He must get her home, and to do so he must not lose a moment. The vantage of the steps on which they stood, raised a hand's breath above their assailants, was a thing to be weighed; but it would not serve them if these cursed women mustered, and the cowardly crew before him throve to a mob. He must home with her. But the door was locked, and she could only go in as he had come out. Still, she must go.
He thought all this between one stride and another—and other thoughts thick as leaves falling in a wind. Then, "Fools!" he thundered, and had her down the steps, and was dragging her towards her door before they awoke from their surprise, or thought of attacking him. The woman with the big Bible had had her fill—though he had not struck her but her stick—and sat where she had fallen in the mud. The other woman hugged herself in pain. The man was in no hurry to be up, having once felt Claude's knee in the small of his back. For a few seconds no one moved; and when they recovered themselves he was half-way to the Royaumes' door.
They snatched up mud, then, and flung it after the pair with shrill execrations. And the woman who had picked up the stick hurled it in a frenzy after them, but wide of the mark. A dozen stones fell round them, and the cry of "The Witch! The Witch!"—cry so ominous, so cruel, cry fraught with death for so many poor creatures—followed hard on them. But they were within five paces of the door now, and if he could lift her to the window——
"The key," she murmured in his ear. "The key is in the lock!"
She had her wits, too, then, and her courage! He felt a glow of pride, his arm pressed her more closely to him. "Unlock it!" he answered, and leaving her to it, having now no fear that she would faint or fall, he turned on the rabble with his bar.
But they were for words, not blows, a rabble of cowards and women. They turned tail with screams and fled to a distance, more than one falling in the sudden volte-face. He made no attempt to pursue them along the rampart, but looked behind him, and found that she had opened the door. She had taken out the key, and was waiting for him to enter.
He went up the steps, entered, and she closed the door quickly. It shut out in a moment the hootings of the returning women. While she locked it on the inside, he raised the bars and slid them into their places. Then, not till then, he turned to her.
Her face averted, she was staunching the blood which trickled from her cheek. "It was the child's mother!" she faltered, a sob in her voice. "I went to her. I thought—that she would believe. Get me some water, please! I must go upstairs. My mother will be frightened."
He was astonished: on fire himself, with every pulse beating madly, he was prepared for her to faint, to fall, to fling herself into his arms in gratitude; prepared for everything but this self-forgetfulness. "Water?" he said doubtfully, "but had you not better—take some wine, Anne?"
"To wash! To wash!" she replied sharply, almost angrily. "How can I go to her in this state? And do you shut the shutters."
A stone had that moment passed through a pane of one of the windows. The rout of women were gathering before the house; the step she advised was plainly necessary. Fortunately the Royaumes' house, like all in the Corraterie—which formed an inner line of defence pierced by the Tertasse gate—had outside shutters of massive thickness, capable of being lowered from within. He closed these in haste and found, when he turned from the task and looked for her—a small round hole in each shutter made things dimly visible—that she was gone to soothe her mother.
He could not but love her the more for it. He could not but respect her the more for her courage, for her thoughtfulness, her self-denial. But when the heart is full and would unburden itself, when the brain teems with pent-up thoughts, when the excitement of action and of peril wanes and the mind would fain tell and hear and compare and remember—then to be alone, to be solitary, is to sink below one's self.
For a time, while his pulses still beat high, while the heat of battle still wrought in him, and the noise without continued, and there seemed a prospect of things to be done, he stood up against this. Thump! Thump! They were stoning the shutters. Let them! He placed the settle across the hearth, and in this way cut off the firelight that might have betrayed those in the room to eyes peeping through the holes. By-and-by the shrill vixenish cries rose louder, he caught the sound of voices in altercation, and of hoarse orders: and slowly and reluctantly the babel seemed to pass away. An anxious moment followed: fearfully he listened for the knock of the law, the official summons which must make all his efforts useless. But it did not come.
It was when the silence which ensued had lasted some minutes that the strangeness and aloofness of his position in this darkened room began to weigh on his spirits. His eyes had adapted themselves to the gloom, and he could make out the shapes of the furniture. But it was morning! It was day! Outside, the city was beginning to go about its ordinary work, its ordinary life. The streets were filling, the classes were mustering. And he sat here in the dark! The longer he stared into the strange, depressing gloom, the farther he seemed from life; the more solitary, the more hopeless, the more ominous seemed the position.
Alone with two women whom the worst of fates threatened! Whose pains and ultimate lot the brawl in which he had taken part foreshadowed too clearly. For thus and with as little cause perished in those days thousands of the helpless and the friendless. Alone with these two, under the roof from which all others had fled, barred with them behind the gloomy shutters until the hour came, and their fellows, shuddering, cast them out—what chance had he of escaping their lot?
Or what desire to escape it? None, he told himself. None! But he who fights best when blows are to be struck and things can be done finds it hard to sit still where it is the inevitable that must be faced. And while Claude told himself that he had no desire to escape, since escape for her was impossible, his mind sought desperately the means of saving all. The frontier lay but a league away. Conceivably they might lower themselves from the wall by night; conceivably his strength might avail to carry her mother to the frontier. But, alas! the crime of witchcraft knew no frontier; the reputation of a witch once thrown abroad, flew fast as the swiftest horse. Before they had been three days in Savoy, the women would be reported, seized and examined; and their fate at Faucigny or Bonneville would be no less tragic than in the Bourg du Four of Geneva.
Yet, something must be done, something could surely be done. But what? The bravest caught in a net struggles the most desperately, and involves himself the most hopelessly. And Claude felt himself caught in a net. He felt the deadly meshes cling about his limbs, the ropes fetter and benumb him. From the sunshine of youth, from freedom, from a life without care, he had passed in a few days into the grip of this [Greek: anagke], this dire necessity, this dark ante-chamber of death. Was it wonderful that for a moment, recognising the sacrifice he was called upon to make and its inefficacy to save, he rebelled against the love that had drawn him to this fate, that had led him to this, that in others' eyes had ruined him? Ay, but for a moment only. Then with a heart bursting with pity for her, with love for her, he was himself. If it must be, it must be. The prospect was dark as the room in which he stood, confined and stifling, sordid and shameful; the end one which would make his name a marvel and an astonishment. But the prospect and the end were hers too; they would face them together. Haply he might spare her some one pang, haply he might give her some one moment of happiness, the support of one at least who knew her pure and spotless. And while he thought of it—surprise of surprises—he bowed his head on his folded arms and wept.
Not in pity for himself, but for her. It was the thought of her gentleness, her loving nature, her harmlessness—and the end this, the reward this—which overcame him; which swelled his breast until only tears could relieve it. He saw her as a dove struggling in cruel hands; and the pity which, had there been chance or hope, or any to smite, would have been rage, could find no other outlet. He wept like a woman; but it was for her.
And she, who had descended unheard, and stood even now at the door, with a something almost divine in her face—a something that was neither love nor compassion, maid's fancy nor mother's care, but a mingling of all these, saw. And her heart bled for him; her arms in fancy went round him, in fancy his head was on her breast, she comforted him. She, who a moment before had almost sunk down on the stairs, worn out by her sufferings and the strain of hiding them from her mother's eyes, forgot her weakness in thought for him.
She had no contempt for his tears. She had seen him stand between herself and her tormentors, she had seen the flash of his eye, heard his voice, knew him brave. But the fate, for which long thought and hours on her knees had prepared her—so that it seemed but a black and bitter passage with peace beyond—appalled her for him; and might well appal him. The courage of men is active, of women passive; with a woman's instinct she knew this, allowed for it, and allowed, too, for another thing—that he was fasting.
When he looked up, startled by the tinkle of pewter and the rustle of her skirt, she was kneeling between the settle and the fire, preparing food. He flattered himself that in the dark she had not seen him, and when he had regained his self-control he stepped to the settle-back and looked over it.
"You did not see me?" he said.
She did not answer at once, but finished what she was doing. Then she stood up and handed him a bowl. "The bread is on the table," she said, indicating it. She was a woman, and, dark as it was, she kept the disfigured cheek turned from him.
He would have replied, but she made a sign to him to eat, and, seating herself on a stool in the corner with her plate on her lap, she set him an example. Apart from her weary attitude, and the droop of her head, he might have deemed the scene in which they had taken part a figment of his brain. But round them was the gloom of the closed room!
"You did not see me?" he repeated presently.
She stood up. "I would I had never seen you!" she cried; and her anguished tone bore witness to the truth of her words. "It is the worst, it is the bitterest thing of all! of all!" she repeated. The settle was between them, and she rested her hands on the back of it. He stooped, and, in the darkness, covered them with kisses, while his breast heaved with the swell of the storm which her entrance had cut short. "For all but that I was prepared," she continued; "I was ready. I have seen for weeks the hopelessness of it, the certain end, the fate before us. I have counted the cost, and I have learned to look beyond for—for all we desire. It is a sharp passage, and peace. But you"—her voice rested on the same tragic note of monotony—"are outside the sum, and spoil all. A little suffering will kill my mother, a little, a very little fear. I doubt if she will live to be taken hence. And I—I can suffer. I have known all, I have foreseen all—long! I have learned to think of it, and I can learn by God's help to bear it! And in a little while, a very little while, it will be over, and I shall be at rest. But you—you, my love——"
Her voice broke, her head sunk forward. His lips met hers in a first kiss; a kiss, salted by the tears that ran unchecked down his face. For a long minute there was silence in the room, a silence broken only by the low, inarticulate murmur of his love—love whispered brokenly on her tear-wet lips, on her cold, closed eyelids. She made no attempt to withdraw her face, and presently the murmur grew to words of defiance, of love that mocked at peril, mocked at shame, mocked at death, having assurance of its own, having assurance of her.
They fell on her ears as warm thaw-rain on frozen sward; and slowly into the pallor of her face, the whiteness of her closed eyelids, crept a tender blush. Strange that for a few brief moments they were happy; strange, proof marvellous of the dominance of the inner life over the outer, of love over death.
"My love, my love!"
"My love, my love!"
But at length she came to herself, she remembered. "You will go?" she said. She put him from her and held him fondly at arm's length, her hands on his shoulders. "You will go? It is all you can do for me. You will go and live?"
"Yes. Better, a hundred times better so—for me."
"And for me? Why may I not save you and her?"
"It is impossible!"
"Nothing is impossible to love," he answered. "The nights are long, the wall is not too high! No wall is too high for love! It is but a league to the frontier, and I am strong."
"Who would receive us?" she asked sadly. "Who would shelter us? In Savoy, if we were not held for sorcery, we should be delivered to the Inquisition."
"We might gain friends?"
"With what? No," she continued, her hands cleaving more tightly to him; "you must go, dear love! Dear love! You must go! It is all you can do for me, and it is much! Oh, indeed, it is much! It is very much!"
He drew her to him as near as the settle would permit, until she was kneeling on it, and in spite of her faint resistance he could look into her eyes. "Were you in my place, would you leave me?" he asked.
"Yes," she lied bravely, "I would."
But the flash of resentment in her eyes gave her voice the lie, and he laughed joyfully. "You would not!" he said. "You would not leave me on this side of death!"
She tried to protest.
"Nor will I you," he continued, stopping her mouth with fresh kisses. "Nor will I you till death! Did you think me a coward?" He held her from him and looked into her reproachful eyes. "Or a Tissot? Tissot left you. Or Louis Gentilis?"
But she made him know that he was none of these in a way that satisfied him; and a moment later her mother's voice called her from the room. He thought, having no experience of a woman's will, that he had done with that; and in her absence he betook himself to examining the defences of the house. He replaced the bar which he had wrested from the window; wedging it into its socket with a morsel or two of molten lead. The windows of the bedrooms, his own and Louis', looked into a narrow lane, the Rue de la Cite, that ran at the back of the Corraterie in a line with the ramparts; but not only were they almost too small to permit the passage of a full-grown man, they were strongly barred. Against such a rabble, as had assaulted Anne, or even a more formidable mob, the house was secure. But if the law intervened neither bar nor bolt could save them.
He fell to thinking of this, and stood, arrested in the middle of the darkened room that, as the hours went by, was beginning to take on a familiar look. The day was passing, all without remained quiet, nothing had happened. Was it possible that nothing would happen? Was it possible that the girl through long brooding exaggerated the peril? And that the worst to be feared was such an outbreak as had occurred that morning? Such an outbreak as might not take place again, since mobs were fickle things.
He dwelt a while on this more hopeful view of things. Then he recalled Basterga's threats, the Syndic's face, the departure of Louis and Grio; and his heart sank as lead sinks. The rumour so quickly spread—by what hints, what innuendoes, what cunning inquiries, what references to the old, invisible, bedridden woman, he could but guess—that rumour bore witness to a malice and a thirst for revenge which were not likely to stop at words. And Louis' flight? And Grio's? And Basterga's?—for he did not return. To believe that all these, taken together, these and the outrage of the morning, portended anything but danger, anything but the worst, demanded a hopefulness that even his youth and his love could not compass.
Yet when she descended he met her with brave looks.
Blondel's thin lips were warrant—to such of the world as had eyes to see—that in the ordinary things of life he would have been one of the last to put faith in a man of Basterga's stamp: and one of the first, had the case been other than his own, to laugh at the credulity he was displaying. He would have seen—no one more clearly—that, in making the bargain he had made, he was in the position of a drowning man who clutches at a straw; not because he believes that the straw will support him, but because he has no other hope, and is loth to sink.
He would have seen, too, another thing, which indeed he did see dimly. This was that, talk as he might, make terms as he might, repeat as firmly as he pleased, "The remedium first and then Geneva," he would be forced when the time came to take the word for the deed. If he dared not trust Basterga, neither dared the scholar trust him. Once safe, once snatched from the dark fate that scared him, he would laugh at the notion of betraying the city. He would snap his fingers in the Paduan's face; and Basterga knew it. The scholar, therefore, dared not trust him; and either there was an end of the matter or he must trust Basterga, must eat his own words, and, content with the possession of something, must wait for proof of its efficacy until the die was cast!
In his heart he knew this. He knew that on the brink of the extremity to which circumstances and Basterga were slowly pushing him it might not be in his power to check himself: that he must trust, whether he would or no, and where instinct bade him place no trust. And this doubt, this suspicion that when all was done he might find himself tricked, and learn that for nothing he had given all, added immeasurably to the torment of his mind; to the misery of his reflections when he awoke in the small hours and saw things coldly and clearly, and to the fever and suspense in which he passed his days.
He clung to one thought and got what consolation he could from it; a bitter and saturnine comfort it was. The thought was this: if it turned out that, after all, he had been tricked, he could but die; and die he must if he made no bargain. And to a dead man what matter was it what price he had paid that he might live! What matter who won or who lost Geneva, who lived, who died, who were slaves, who free!
And again, the very easiness of the thing he was asked to do tempted him. It was a thing that to one in his position presented no difficulty and scarcely any danger. He had but to withdraw the guards, or the greater part of them, from a portion of the wall, and to stop on one pretext or another—the bitter cold of the wintry weather would avail—the rounds that at stated intervals visited the various posts. That was all; as a man of tried loyalty, intrusted with the safeguarding of the city, and to whom the officer of the watch was answerable, he might make the necessary arrangements without incurring, even after the catastrophe, more than a passing odium, a breath of suspicion.
And Baudichon and Petitot? He tasted, when he thought of them, the only moments of comfort, of pleasure, of ease, that fell to his lot throughout these days. They would thwart him no more. Petty worms, whose vision went no farther than the walls of the city, he would have done with them when the flag of Savoy fluttered above St. Pierre; and when for the confines of a petty canton was substituted, for those who had eyes to see and courage to adapt themselves, the wide horizon of the Italian Kingdom. When he thought of them—and then only—he warmed to the task before him; then only he could think of it without a shiver and without distaste. And not the less because on that side, in their suspicion, in their grudging jealousy, in their unwinking integrity, lay the one difficulty.
A difficulty exasperated by the insult that, in a moment of bitter disappointment, he had flung in Baudichon's face. That hasty word had revealed to the speaker a lack of self-control that terrified him, even as it had revealed to Baudichon a glimpse of something underneath the Fourth Syndic's dry exterior that might well set a man thinking as well as talking. This matter Blondel saw plainly he must deal with at once, or it might do harm. To absent himself from the next day's council might rouse a storm beyond his power to weather, or short of that might give rise at a later period to a dangerous amount of gossip and conjecture.
He was early at the meeting, therefore, but to his surprise found it in session before the hour. This, and the fact that the hubbub of voices and discussion died down at his entrance—died down and was succeeded by a chilling silence—put him on his guard. He had not come unprepared for opposition; to meet it he had wound himself to a pitch, telling himself that after this all would be easy; that he had this one peril to face, this one obstacle to surmount, and having succeeded might rest. Nevertheless, as he passed up the Great Council Chamber amid that silence, and met strange looks on faces which were wont to smile, his courage for one moment, even in that familiar scene—conscience makes cowards of all—wavered. His smile grew sickly, his nerves seemed suddenly unstrung, his knees shook under him. It was a dreadful instant of physical weakness, of mental terror, under the eyes of all. To himself, he seemed to stand still; to be self-betrayed, self-convicted!
Then—and so brief was the moment of weakness no eye detected it—he moved on to his place, and with his usual coolness took his seat. He looked round.
"You are early," he said, ignoring the glances, hostile or doubtful, that met his gaze. "The hour has barely struck, I believe?"
"We were of opinion," Fabri answered, with a dry cough, "that minutes were of value."
"That not even one must be lost, Messer Blondel!"
"In doing?" Blondel asked in a negligent tone, well calculated to annoy those who were eager in the matter. "In doing what, if I may ask?"
"In doing, Messer Syndic," Petitot answered sharply, "that which should have been done a week ago; and better still a fortnight ago. In issuing a warrant for the arrest of the person whose name has been several times in question here."
"You may save yourselves the trouble," the Syndic replied, with a little contempt. "The warrant has been issued. It was issued yesterday, and would have been executed in the afternoon, if he had not got wind of it, and left the town. And on this let me say one more word," Blondel continued, leaning forward and speaking in sudden heat, before any one could take up the question. "That word is this. If it had not been for the importunity of some who are here, the warrant had not been issued, the man had still been within the walls, and we had been able still to trace his plans! We had not been as we now are, and as I foretold we should be, in the dark, ignorant from which quarter the blow may fall, and not a whit the wiser for the hint given us."
"You have let him escape!" The words were Petitot's.
"I? No! I have not let him escape, but those who forced my hand!" Blondel retorted in passion, so real, or so well simulated, that it swept away the majority of his listeners. "They have let him escape! Those who had no patience or craft! Those whose only notion of statesmanship, whose only method of making use of the document we had under our hand was to tear it up. Only yesterday morning I was with him——"
"Ay?" Baudichon cried, his eyes glowing with dull passion. "You were with him! And he went in the afternoon! Mark that!" He turned quickly to his fellows. "He went in the afternoon! Now, I would like to know——"
Blondel stood up. "Whether I am a traitor?" he said, in a tone of fury; and he extended his arms in protest. "Whether I am in league with this Italian, I, Philibert Blondel of Geneva? That is what you ask, what you wish to know! Whether I sought him yesterday in the hope of worming his secrets from him, and doing what I could for the benefit of the State in a matter too delicate to be left to underlings? Or went there, one with him, to betray my country? To sell the Free City? That—that is what you ask?"
His passion was full, overpowering, convincing; so convincing—it almost stopped his speech—that he believed in it himself, so convincing that it swept away all but his steady and professed opponents. "No, no!" cried a dozen voices, in tones that reflected his indignation. "No, no! Shame!"
"No?" Blondel took up the word, his eyes sparkling, his adust complexion heated and full of fire. "But it is—yes, they say! Yes, they say whom you have to thank if we have lost our clue, they who met me going to him but yesterday and threatened me! Threatened me!" he repeated, in a voice of astonishment. "Me, who desired only, sought only, was going only to do my duty! I used, I admit the fault," he allowed his voice to drop to a tone more like his own, "words on that occasion that I now regret. But is blood water? Does no man besides Councillor Baudichon love his country? Is the suspicion, the open suspicion of such an one, no insult, that he must cavil if he be repaid in insult? I have given my proofs. If any man can be trusted to sound the enemy, it is I! But I have done! Had Messer Baudichon not pressed me to issue the warrant, not driven me beyond my patience, it had not been issued yesterday. It had been in the office, and the man within the walls! Ay, and not only within the walls, but fresh from a conference with the Sieur d'Albigny, primed with all we need to know, and in doubt by which side he could most profit!"
"It was about that you saw him?" Petitot said slowly, his eyes fixed like gimlets to the other's face.
"It was about that I saw him," Blondel answered. "And I think in a few hours more I had won him. But in the street he had some secret word or warning; for when I handed the warrant—against my better sense—to the officers, they, who had never lost sight of him between gate and gate, answered that he had crossed the bridge and left the town an hour before. Mon Dieu!"—he struck his two hands together and snapped his teeth—"when I think how foolish I was to be over-ridden, I could—I could say more, Messer Baudichon"—with a saturnine look—"than I said yesterday!"
"At any rate the bird is flown!" Baudichon replied, with sullen temper. "That is certain! And it was you who were set to catch him!"
"But it was not I who scared him," Blondel rejoined.
"I don't know what you would have had of him!"
"Oh, I see that plainly enough," said Fabri. He was an honest man, without prejudice, and long the peace-maker between the two parties.
"I thank you," Blondel replied dryly. "But, by your leave, I will make it clear to Messer Baudichon also, who will doubtless like to know. I would have had of him the time and place and circumstance of the attack, if such be in preparation. And then, when I knew all, I would have made dispositions, not only to safeguard the city, but to give the enemy such a reception that Italy should ring with it! Ay, and such as should put an end for the rest of our lives to these treacherous attacks!"
The picture which he drew thus briefly of a millennium of safety, charmed not only his own adherents, but all who were neutral, all who wavered. They saw how easily the thing might have been done, how completely the treacherous blow might have been parried and returned. Veering about they eyed Baudichon, on whom the odium of the lost opportunity seemed to rest, with resentment—as an honest man, but a simpleton, a dullard, a block! And when Blondel added, after a pause, "But there, I have done! The office of Fourth Syndic I leave to you to fill," they barely allowed him to finish.
"No! No!" came from almost all mouths, and from every part of the council table.
"No," Fabri said, when silence was made. "There is no provision for a change, unless a definite accusation be laid."
"But Messer Baudichon may have one to make," Blondel said proudly. "In that case, let him speak."
Baudichon breathed hard, and seemed to be on the point of pouring forth a torrent of words. But he said nothing. Instinct told him that his enemy was not to be trusted, but he had the wit to discern that Blondel had forestalled him, and had drawn the sting from his charges. He could have wept in dull, honest indignation; but for accusations, he saw that the other held the game, and he was silent. "Fat hog!" the man had called him. "Fat hog!" A tear gathered slowly in his eye as he recalled it.
Fabri gave him time to speak; and then with evident relief, "He has none to make, I am sure," he said.
"Let him understand, then," Blondel replied firmly, "let all understand, that while I will do my duty I am no longer in the position to guard against sudden strokes, in which I should have been, had I been allowed to go my own way. If a misfortune happen, it is not on me the blame must rest." He spoke solemnly, laughing in his sleeve at the cleverness with which he was turning his enemy's petard against him. "All that man can do in the dark shall be done," he continued. "And I do not—I am free to confess that—anticipate anything while the negotiations with the President Rochette are in progress."
"No, it is when they are broken off, they will fall back on the other plan," one of the councillors said with an air of much wisdom.
"I think that is so. Nor do I think that anything will be done during the present severe weather."
"They like it no better than we do!"
"But the roads are good in this frost," Fabri said. "If it be a question of moving guns or wagons——"
"But it is not, by your leave, Messer Fabri, as I am informed," the man who had spoken before objected; supporting his opinion simply because he had voiced it, a thing seen every day in such assemblies. Fabri replied on him in the other sense: and presently Blondel had the satisfaction of listening to a discussion in which the one party said a dozen things that he saw would be of use to him—some day.
One only said not a word, and that was Petitot. He listened to all with a puzzled look. He resented the insult which Blondel had flung at his friend Baudichon, but he saw all going against them, and no chance of redress; nay, capital was being made out of that which should have been a disadvantage. Worst of all, he was uneasy, fancying—he was very shrewd—that he caught a glimpse, under the Fourth Syndic's manner, of another man: that he detected signs of emotion, a feverishness and imperiousness not quite explained by the circumstances.
He got the notion from this that the Fourth Syndic had learned more from Basterga than he had disclosed. His notion, even so, went no further than the suspicion that Blondel was hiding knowledge out of a desire to reap all the glory. But he did not like it. "He was always for risking, for risking!" he thought. "This is another case of it. God grant it go well!" His wife, his children, his daughters, rose in a picture before him, and he hated Blondel, who had none of these. He would have put him to death for running the tithe of a risk.
When the council broke up, Fabri drew Blondel aside. "The bird is flown, but what of the nest?" he asked. "Has he left nothing?"
"Between you and me," Blondel replied under his breath, as his eyes sought the other's, "I hope to make him speak yet. But not a word!"
"Not a word! But there is just a chance. And it will be everything to us if I can induce him to speak."
"I see that. But the house? Could you not search it?"
"That would be to scare him finally."
"You have made no perquisition there?"
"None. I have heard," Blondel continued, hesitating as if he had not quite made up his mind to speak, "some things—strange things in respect to the house. But I will tell you more of that when I know more."
He was too clever to state that he held the house in suspicion for sorcery and kindred things. Charges such as that spread, he knew, upwards from the lower classes, not downwards to them. The poison, disseminated as he had known how to disseminate it, by hints and innuendoes dropped among his officers and ushers, was already in the air, and would do its work. Fabri, a man of sense, might laugh to-day, and to-morrow; but the third day, when the report came to him from a dozen quarters, mainly by women's mouths, he would not laugh. And presently he would shrug his shoulders and stand aside, and leave the matter in more earnest hands.
Blondel dropped no more than that hint, therefore, and as he passed homeward applauded his discretion. He was proud of the turn things had taken at the Council; elated by the part he had played, and the proof he had given of his mastery, he felt able to carry anything through. His mind, leaping over the immediate future, pictured a wider theatre, in which his powers would have full scope, and a larger stage on which he might aspire to play the first part. He saw himself not only wealthy, but ennobled, the fount of honour, the favourite, and, in time, the master of princes. Such as he was to-day the Medicis had been, and many another whom the world held noble. He had but to live and to dare; only to live and to dare! Only in order to do the one he must—it was no choice of his—do the other!
Before he was five minutes older he was reminded of the necessity. At the door of his house the pains of the disease from which he suffered—aggravated, perhaps, by the excitement through which he had just passed, or by the cold of the weather—seized him with unusual violence. He leant, pale and almost fainting, against the door-jamb, unable at the moment to do so much as raise the latch. The golden dreams in which he had lost himself by the way, the visions of power and fame, vanished as he had so many times seen the after-glow vanish from the snow-peaks; leaving only cold images of death and desolation. Presently, with an effort, he staggered within doors, poured out such medicine as he had, and, bent double and almost without breath, swallowed it; and so, by-and-by, a wan and wild-eyed image of himself came out of the fit.
He told himself in after days that it was that decided him; that but for that sharp fit of pain and the prospect of others like it, he would not have yielded to the temptation, no, not to be the Grand Duke's favourite, not to be Minister of Savoy! He ignored, in his looking backward, the visions of glory and ambition in which he had revelled. He saw himself on the rack, with life and immunity from pain drawing him one way, the prospect of a miserable death the other; and he pleaded that no man would have decided otherwise. After that experience the straw did not float, so thin that he was not ready to grasp it rather than die, rather than suffer again. Nor did the fact that the straw at that moment lay on the table beside him go for much.
It did lie there. When he felt a little stronger and began to look about him, he found a note at his elbow. It was a small, common-looking letter, sealed with a B, that might signify Blondel or Basterga, or, for the matter of that, Baudichon. He did not know the handwriting, and he opened it idly, in the scorn of small things that pain induced.
He had not read a line of the contents, before his countenance changed. The letter was from Basterga, and cunningly contrived. It gave him the directions he needed, yet it was so worded that even after the event it might pass for a trifling communication from a physician. The place and the hour were specified—the latter so near that for a moment his cheek grew pale. On that ensued the part which interested him most; but as the whole was brief, the whole may be given.
"Sir" (here followed a cabalistic sign such as physicians were in the habit of using to impose on the vulgar). "After paying a visit in the Corraterie, where I have an appointment on Saturday evening next between late and early, I will be with you. But the mixture with the necessary directions shall be sent to you twelve hours in advance, so that before my visit you may experience its good effects. As surely as the wrong potion in the case you wot of deprived of reason, so surely (as I hope for salvation) will this potion have the desired effect.
"The Physician of Aleppo."
"Saturday next, between late and early!" Blondel muttered, gazing at the words with fascinated eyes. "It is for the day after to-morrow! The day after to-morrow!" And in his thoughts he passed again over the road he had travelled since his first visit to Basterga's room, since the hour when the scholar had unrolled before him the map of the town he called "Aurelia," and had told him the story of Ibn Jasher and the Physician of Aleppo.
"No, I am not well," he answered. He sat, warmly wrapped up, in the high chair in his parlour, his face so drawn with want of sleep that Captain Blandano of the city guard, who had come to take his orders, had no difficulty in believing him. "I am not well," he repeated peevishly. "It is the weather." He had some soup before him. Beside it stood a tiny phial of medicine; a phial strangely shaped and strange looking, containing something not unlike the green cordial of the Carthusians.
"It troubles me a good deal, too," Blandano said. "There are seven men absent in the fourth ward. And two men, whose wives are urgent with me that they should have leave."
"Leave?" the Syndic cried. "Do they think naught"—leaning forward in a passion—"of the safety of the city? If I were not ill, I would take service on the wall myself to set an example!"
"There is no need of that," the Captain answered respectfully, "if I might have permission to withdraw a few men from the west side so as to fill the places on the east——"
"From the Rhone side of the town——"
"From the Corraterie? That is least open to assault."
"Yes, from that part perhaps would be best," Blandano assented, nodding. "Yes, I think so. If I might do that, I think I could manage."
"Well, then do it," Blondel answered. "And make a note that I assented to your suggestion to take them from the Corraterie and put them on the lower part of the wall. After all, the nights are very bitter now, and there are limits. Do the men grumble much?"
"It is as much as I can do to make them go the rounds," Blandano answered. "Some plead the weather; and some argue that, with President Rochette, whose word is as good as his bond, on the point of coming to an agreement with us, the rounds are a farce!"
The Syndic shrugged his shoulders. "Well!" he muttered, rubbing his chin and looking thoughtfully before him, "we must not wear the men out. There is no moon now, is there?"
"And the enemy can attempt nothing without light," Blondel continued, thinking aloud. "See here, Blandano, we must not put too heavy a burden on our people. I see that. As it is so cold, I think you may pass the word to pretermit the rounds to-night—save two. At what hours would you suggest?"
Blandano considered his own comfort—as the other expected he would—and answered, "Early and late, say an hour before midnight and an hour before dawn".
"Then let be it as you suggest. But see"—with returning asperity—"that those rounds go, and at their hours. Let there be no remissness. I will make a note," he continued, "of the hours fixed. An hour before midnight and an hour before dawn".
He extended his arm and drew the ink-horn towards him. Midway in the act, whether it was that his hand shook by reason of his illness, or that he was in a hurry to close an interview which tried him more severely than appeared, his sleeve caught the little phial of green water that stood beside the soup on the table. It reeled an instant on its edge, toppled on its side, and rolling, in one-tenth of the time it takes to tell the tale, to the verge of the table—fell over.
Messer Blondel made a strange noise in his throat.
But the Captain had seen what was happening. Dexterously he caught the bottle in his huge palm, and with an air of modest achievement was going to set it on the table, when he saw that the Syndic had fallen back in his chair, his face ghastly. Blandano was more used to death in the field than in the house; and in a panic he took two steps towards the door to call for help. Before he could take a third, Blondel gasped, and made an uncertain movement with his hand, as if he would reassure him.
Blandano returned and leant over him. "You are ill, Messer Syndic," he said anxiously. "Let me call some one."
The Syndic could not speak, but he pointed to the table. And when Blandano, unable to make out what he wanted, and suspecting a stroke of a mortal disease, turned again to the door, persisting in his intention of getting aid, the Syndic found strength to seize his sleeve, and almost instantly regained his speech. "There!" he gasped, "there! The phial! Put it down!"
Captain Blandano placed it on the table, wondering much. "I was afraid you were ill, Messer Blondel," he said.
"I was ill," the Syndic answered; and he pushed his chair back so that no part of him was in contact with the table. He looked at the little bottle with fascinated eyes, and slowly, as he looked, the colour returned to his face. "I—was ill," he repeated, with a sigh that seemed to relieve his breast. "I had a fright!"
"You thought it was broken?" Blandano said, wondering much, and looking in his turn at the phial.
"Yes, I thought that it was broken. I am much obliged to you. Much, very much obliged to you," the Syndic repeated, with a deep sigh, his hands still moving nervously about his dress. Then, after a moment's pause, "Will you ring the bell?" he said.
The Captain, marvelling much, rang the hand-bell which lay on a neighbouring table. He marvelled still more when he heard Messer Blondel order the servant to place six bottles of his best wine in a basket and take them to the Captain's lodging.
Blandano stared. He knew the wine to be choice and valuable; and he eyed the tiny phial respectfully. "It is something rare, I expect?" he said.
The Syndic nodded.
"And costly too, I doubt not?" with an admiring glance.
"Costly?" Messer Blondel repeated the word, and when he had done so turned on the other a look that led the Captain to think that he was going to be ill again. Then, "It cost me—it will cost me"—again a spasm contorted the Syndic's face—"I don't know what it will not have cost me before it is paid for, Messer Blandano!"
TWO NAILS IN THE WALL.
The long day during which the lovers had drained a cup at once so sweet and so bitter, and one of the two had felt alike the throb of pain and the thrill of kisses, came to an end at last; and without further incident. Encouraged by the respite—for who that is mortal does not hope against hope—they ventured on the following morning to lower the shutters, and this to a great extent restored the house to its normal aspect. Anne would have gone so far as to attend the morning preaching at St. Pierre, for it was Friday; but her mother awoke low and nervous, the girl dared not quit her side, and Claude had no field for the urgent dissuasions which he had prepared himself to use.
The greater part of the day she remained above stairs, busied in the petty offices, and moving to and fro—he could hear her tread—upon the errands of love, to see her in the midst of which might well have confuted the slanders that crept abroad. But there were times in the day when Madame Royaume slept; and then, who can blame Anne, if she stole down and sat hand in hand with Claude on the settle, whispering sometimes of those things of which lovers whisper, and will whisper to the world's end; but more often of the direr things before these two lovers, and so of faith and hope and the love that does not die. For the most part it was she who talked. She had so much to tell him of the long nightmare, the nightmare of months, that had oppressed her; of her prayers, and fears and fits of terror; of Basterga's discovery of the secret and the cruel use he had made of it; of the slow-growing resignation, the steadfast resolve, the onward look to something, beyond that which the world could do to her, that had come to be hers. With her face hidden on his breast she told him of her thoughts upon her knees, of the pain and obloquy through which, if the worst came, she knew she must pass, and of her trust that she would be able to bear them; speaking in such terms, so simply, so bravely, and with so lofty a contemplation, that he who listened, and had been but a week before a young man as other young men, grew as he listened to another stature, and thought for himself thoughts that no man can have and remain as he was, before the tongues of fire touched his heart.
And then again, once—but that was in the darkening of the Friday evening when the wound in her cheek burned and smarted and recalled the wretched moment of infliction—she showed him another side; as if she would have him know that she was not all heroic. Without warning, she broke down; overcome by the prospect of death, she clung to him, weeping and shuddering, and begging him and imploring him to save her. To save her! Only to save her! At that sight and at those sounds, under the despairing grasp of her arms about his neck, the young man's heart was red-hot; his eyes burned. Vainly he held her closer and closer to him; vainly he tried to comfort her. Vainly he shed tears of blood. He felt her writhe and shudder in his arms.
And what could he do? He strove to argue with her. He strove to show her that accusation of her mother, condemnation of her mother, dreadful as they must be to her, so dreadful that he scarcely dared speak of them, need not involve her own condemnation. She was young, of blameless life, and without enemies. What could any cast up against her, what adduce in proof of a charge so dark, so improbable, so abnormal?
For answer she touched the pulsing wound in her cheek.
"And this?" she said. "And the child that I killed?"—with a bitter laugh unlike her own. "If they say so much already, if they say that to-day, what will they say to-morrow? What will they say when they have heard her ravings? Will it not be, the old and the young, the witch and her brood—to the fire? To the fire?"
The spasm that shook her as she spoke defied his efforts to soothe her. And how could he comfort her? He knew the thing to be too likely, the argument too reasonable, as men reasoned then; strange and foolish as their reasoning seems to us now. But what could he do. What? He who sat there alone with her, a prisoner with her, witness to her agony, scalded by her tears, tortured by her anguish, burning with pity, sorrow, indignation—what could he do to help her or save her?
He had wild thoughts, but none of them effectual; the old thoughts of defending the house, or of escaping by night over the town wall; and some new ones. He weighed the possibility of Madame Royaume's death before the arrest; surely, then, he could save the girl, and they two, young, active and of ordinary aspect, might escape some whither? Again, he thought of appealing to Beza, the aged divine, whom Geneva revered and Calvinism placed second only to Calvin. He was a Frenchman, a man of culture and of noble birth; he might stand above the common superstition, he might listen, discern, defend. But, alas, he was so old as to be bed-ridden and almost childish. It was improbable, nay, it was most unlikely, that he could be induced to interfere.
All these thoughts Anne drove out of his head by begging him, in moving terms of self-reproach, to forgive her her weakness. She had regained her composure as abruptly, if not as completely, as she had lost it; and would have had him believe that the passion he had witnessed was less deep than it seemed, and rather a womanish need of tears than a proof of suffering. A minute later she was quietly preparing the evening meal, while he, with a sick heart, raised the shutters and lighted the lamp. As he looked up from the latter task, he found her eyes fixed upon him, with a peculiar intentness: and for a while afterwards he remarked that she wore an absent air. But she said nothing, and by-and-by, promising to return before bed-time, she went upstairs to her mother.
The nights were at their longest, and the two had closed and lighted before five. Outside the cold stillness of a winter night and a freezing sky settled down on Geneva; within, Claude sat with sad eyes fixed on the smouldering fire. What could he do? What could he do? Wait and see her innocence outraged, her tenderness racked, her gentle body given up to unspeakable torments? The collapse which he had witnessed gave him as it were a foretaste, a bitter savour of the trials to come. It did not seem to him that he could bear even the anticipation of them. He rose, he sat down, he rose again, unable to endure the intolerable thought. He flung out his arms; his eyes, cast upwards, called God to witness that it was too much! It was too much!
Some way of escape there must be. Heaven could not look down on, could not suffer such deeds in a Christian land. But men and women, girls and young children had suffered these things; had appealed and called Heaven to witness, and gone to death, and Heaven had not moved, nor the angels descended! But it could not be in her case. Some way of escape there must be. There must be.
Why should she not leave her mother to her fate? A fate that could not be evaded? Why need she, whose capacity for suffering was so great, who had so much of life and love and all good things before her, remain to share the pains of one whose span in any case was nearing its end? Of one who had no longer power—or so it seemed—to meet the smallest shock, and must succumb before she knew more of suffering than the name. One whom a rude word might almost extinguish, and a rough push thrust out of life? Why remain, when to remain was to sacrifice two lives in lieu of one, to give and get nothing, to die for a prejudice? Why remain, when by remaining she could not save her mother, but, on the contrary, must inflict the sharpest pang of all, since she destroyed the being who was dearest to her mother, the being whom her mother would die to save?
He grew heated as he dwelt on it. Of what use to any, the feeble flickering light upstairs, that must go out were it left for a moment untended? The light that would have gone out this long time back had she not fostered it and cherished it and sheltered it in her bosom? Of what avail that weak existence? Or, if it were of avail, why, for its sake, waste this other and more precious life that still could not redeem it?
He must speak to her. He must persuade her, press her, convince her; carry her off by force were it necessary. It was his duty, his clear call. He rose and walked the room in excitement, as he thought of it. He had pity for the old, abandoned and left to suffer alone; and an enlightening glimpse of the weight that the girl must carry through life by reason of this desertion. But no doubt, no hesitation—he told himself—no scruple. To die that her mother might live was one thing. To die—and so to die—merely that her mother's last hours might be sheltered and comforted, was another, and a thing unreasonable.
He must speak to her. He would not hesitate to tell her what he thought.
But he did hesitate. When she descended half an hour later, and paused at the foot of the stairs to assure herself that her passage downstairs had not roused her mother from sleep, the light fell on her listening face and tender eyes; and he read that in them which checked the words on his lips; that which, whether it were folly or wisdom—a wisdom higher than the serpent's, more perfect than the most accurate calculation of values and chances—drove for ever from his mind the thought that she would desert her charge. He said not a word of what he had thought; the indignant reasoning, the hot, conclusive arguments fell from him and left him bare. With her hands in his, seeking no more to move her or convince her, he sat silent; and by mute looks and dumb love—more potent than eloquence or oratory—strove to support and console her.
She, too, was silent. Stillness had fallen on both of them. But her hands clung to his, and now and again pressed them convulsively; and now and again, too, she would lift her eyes to his, and gaze at him with a pathetic intentness, as if she would stamp his likeness on her brain. But when he returned the look, and tried to read her meaning in her eyes, she smiled. "You are afraid of me?" she whispered. "No, I shall not be weak again."
But even as she reassured him he detected a flicker of pain in her eyes, he felt that her hands were cold; and but that he feared to shake her composure he would not have rested content with her answer.
This sudden silence, this new way of looking at him, were the only things that perplexed him. In all else, silent as they sat, their communion was perfect. It was in the mind of each that the women might be arrested on the morrow; in the mind of each that this was their last evening together, the last of few, yet not so few that they did not seem to the man and the girl to bulk large in their lives. On that hearth they had met, there she had proved to him what she was, there he had spoken, there spent the clouded never-to-be-forgotten days of their troubled courtship. No wonder that as they sat hand in hand, their hair almost mingling, their eyes on the red glow of the smouldering log, and, not daring to look forward, looked back—no wonder that their love grew to be something other than the common love of man and maid, something higher and more beautiful, touched—as the hills are touched at sunset—by the evening glow of parting and self-sacrifice.
Silent amid the silence of the house; living moments never to be forgotten; welcoming together the twin companions, love and death.
But from the darkest outlook of the mind, as of the eye, morning dispels some shadows; into the most depressing atmosphere daylight brings hope, brings actuality, brings at least the need to be doing. Claude's heart, as he slipped from his couch on the settle next morning, and admitted the light and turned the log and stirred the embers, was sad and full of foreboding. But as the room, its disorder abated, took on a more pleasant aspect, as the fire crackled and blazed on the hearth, and the flush of sunrise spread over the east, he grew—he could not but grow, for he was young—more cheerful also. He swept the floor and filled the kettle and let in the air; and had done almost all he knew how to do, before he heard Anne's foot upon the stairs.
She had slept little and looked pale and haggard; almost more pale and wan than he had ever seen her look. And this must have sunk his heart to zero, if a certain item in her aspect had not at the same time diverted his attention. "You are not going out?" he cried in astonishment. She wore her hood.
"I am not going to defend myself again," she answered, smiling sadly. "Have no fear. I shall not repeat that mistake. I am only going——"
"You are not going anywhere!" he answered firmly.
She shook her head with the same wan smile. "We must live," she said.
"And to live must have water."
"I have filled the kettle."
"And emptied the water-pot," she retorted.
"True," he said. "But surely it will be time to refill it when we want it."
"I shall attract less attention now," she answered quietly, "than later in the day. There are few abroad. I will draw my hood about my face, and no one will heed me."
He laughed in tender derision. "You will not go!" he said. "Did you think that I would let you run a risk rather than fetch the water from the conduit."
"You will go?"
"Where is the pot?"
He fetched the jar from its place under the stairs, snatched up his cap, and turning the key in the lock was in the act of passing out when she seized his arm. "Kiss me," she murmured. She lifted her face to his, her eyes half closed.
He drew her to him, but her lips were cold; and as he released her she sank passively from his embrace, and was near falling. He hesitated. "You are not afraid to be left?" he said. "You are sure?"
"I am afraid of nothing if I know you safe," she answered faintly. "Go! go quickly, and God be with you!"
"Tut! I run no danger," he rejoined. "I have a strong arm and they will leave me alone." He thought that she was overwrought, that the strain was telling on her; his thoughts did not go beyond that. "I shall be back in five minutes," he continued cheerfully. And he went, bidding her lock the door behind him and open only at his knock.
He made the more haste for her fears, passed into the town through the Porte Tertasse, and hastened to the conduit. The open space in front of the fountain, which a little later in the day would be the favourite resort of gossips and idlers, was a desert; the bitter morning wind saw to that. But about the fountain itself three or four women closely muffled were waiting their turns to draw. One looked up, and, as he fancied, recognised him, for she nudged her neighbour. And then first the one woman and then the other, looking askance, muttered something; it might have been a prayer, or a charm, or a mere word of gossip. But he liked neither the glance nor the action, nor the furtive, curious looks of the women; and as quickly as he could he filled his pot and carried it away.
He had splashed his fingers, and the cold wind quickly numbed them. At the Tertasse Gate, where the view commanding the river valley opened before him, he was glad to set down the vessel and change hands. On his left, the watch at the Porte Neuve, the gate in the ramparts which admitted from the country to the Corraterie—as the Tertasse admitted from the Corraterie to the town proper—was being changed, and he paused an instant, gazing on the scene. Then remembering himself, and the need of haste, he snatched up his jar and, turning to the right, hurried to the steps before the Royaumes' door, swung up them and, with his eyes on the windows, set down his burden.
He knocked gently, sure that she would not keep him waiting. But she did not come at once; and by-and-by, seeing that a woman at an open door a little farther down the Corraterie was watching him with scowling eyes—and that strange look, half fear, half loathing, which he was growing to know—he knocked more loudly, and stamped to warm his feet.
Still, to his astonishment, she did not come; he waited, and waited, and she did not come. He would have begun to feel alarmed for her, but, what with the cold and the early hour, the place was deserted; no idle gazers such as a commotion leaves behind it were to be seen. The wind, however, began to pierce his clothes; he had not brought his cloak, and he shivered. He knocked more loudly.
Perhaps she had been called to her mother? That must be it. She had gone upstairs and could not on the instant leave her charge. He clothed himself in reproaches; but they did not warm him, and he was beginning to stamp his feet again when, happening to look down, he saw beside the water-can and partly hidden by its bulge, a packet about the size of a letter, but a little thicker. If he had not mounted the steps with his eyes on the windows, searching for her face, he would have seen it at once, and spared himself these minutes of waiting. He took it up in bewilderment, and turned it in his numbed hands; it was heavy, and from it, leaving only a piece of paper in his grasp, his purse fell to the ground. More and more astonished, he picked up the purse, and put it in his pocket. He looked at the window, but no one showed; then at the paper in his hand. Inside the letter were three lines of writing.
His face fell as he read them. "I shall not admit you," they ran. "If you try to enter, you will attract notice and destroy me. Go, and God bless and reward you. You cannot save me, and to see you perish were a worse pang than the worst."
The words swam before his eyes. "I will beat down the door," he muttered, tears in his voice, tears welling up in his heart and choking him. And he raised his hand. "I will——"
But he did nothing. "You will attract notice and destroy me." Ah, she had thought it out too well. Too well, out of the wisdom of great love, she had known how to bridle him. He dared not do anything that would direct notice to the house.
But desert her? Never; and after a moment's thought he drew off, his plans formed. As he retired, when he had gone some yards from the door, he heard the window closed sharply behind him. He looked back and saw his cloak lying on the ground. Tears rose again to his eyes, as he returned, took it up, donned it, and with a last lingering look at the window, turned away. She would think that he had taken her at her word; but no matter!
He walked along the Corraterie, and passing the four square watch-towers with pointed roofs that stood at intervals along the wall, he came to the two projecting demilunes, or bastions, that marked the angle where the ramparts met the Rhone; a point from which the wall descended to the bridge. In one of these bastions he ensconced himself; and selecting a place whence he could, without being seen, command the length of the Corraterie, he set himself to watch the Royaumes' house. By-and-by he would go into the town and procure food, and, returning, keep guard until nightfall. After dark, if the day passed without event, he would find his way into the house by force or fraud. In a rapture of anticipation he pictured his entrance, her reluctant joy, her tears and smiles, and fond reproaches. As he loved her, as he must love her the more for the trick she had played him, she must love him the more for his return in her teeth. And the next day was Sunday, when it was unlikely that any steps would be taken. That whole day he would have with her, through it he would sit with her! A whole day without fear? It seemed an age. He did not, he would not look beyond it!
He had not broken his fast, and hunger presently drove him into the town. But within half an hour he was at his post again. A glance at the Royaumes' house showed him that nothing had happened, and, resuming his seat in the deserted bastion, he began a watch that as long as he lived stood clear in his memory of the past. The day was cold and bright, and frosty with a nipping wind. Mont Blanc and the long range of snow-clad summits that flanked it rose dazzlingly bright against the blue sky. The most distant object seemed near; the wavelets on the unfrozen water of the lake gave to the surface, usually so blue, a rough, grey aspect. The breeze which produced this appearance kept the ramparts clear of loiterers; and even those who were abroad preferred the more sheltered streets, or went hurriedly about their business. The guards were content to shiver in the guardrooms of the gate-towers, and if Claude blessed once the kind afterthought which had dropped his cloak from the window, he blessed it a dozen times. Wrapt in its thick folds, it was all he could do to hold his ground against the cold. Without it he must have withdrawn or succumbed.
Through the morning he watched the house jealously, trembling at every movement which took place at the Tertasse Gate; lest it herald the approach of the officers to arrest the women. But nothing happened, and as the day wore on he grew more hopeful. He might, indeed, have begun to think Anne over-timid and his fears unwarranted, if he had not seen, a little before sunset, a thing which opened his eyes.
Two women and some children came out of a house not far from the bastion. They passed towards the Tertasse Gate, and he watched them. Before they came to the Royaumes' house, the children paused, flung their cloaks over their heads, and, thus protected, ran past the house. The women followed, more slowly, but gave the house a wide berth, and each passed with a flap of her hood held between her face and the windows; when they had gone by they exchanged signals of abhorrence. The sight was no more than of a piece with the outrage on Anne; but, coming when it did, coming when he was beginning to think that he had been mistaken, when he was beginning to hope, it depressed Claude dismally.
For comfort he looked forward to the hour when it would be dark. "By hook or by crook," he muttered, "I shall enter then."
He had barely finished the sentence, when he observed moving along the ramparts towards him a figure he knew. It was Grio. There was nothing strange in the man's presence in that place, for he was an idler and a sot; but Claude did not wish to meet him, and debated in his mind whether he should retreat before the other came up. Pride said one thing, discretion another. He wanted no fracas, and he was still hanging doubtful, measuring the distance between them, when—away went his thoughts. What was Grio doing?
The Spaniard had come to a stand, and was leaning on the wall, looking idly into the fosse. The posture would have been the most natural in the world on a warm day. On that day it caught Claude's attention; and—was he mistaken, or were the hands that, under cover of Grio's cloak, rested on the wall busy about something?
In any case he must make up his mind whether he moved or stayed. For Grio was coming on again. Claude hesitated a moment. Then he determined to stay. The next he was glad he had so determined, for Grio after strolling on in seeming carelessness to a point not twenty yards from him, and well commanded from his seat, leant again on the wall, and seemed to be enjoying the view. This time Claude was sure, from the movement of his shoulders, that his hands were employed.
"In what?" The young man asked himself the question; and noted that beside Grio's left heel lay a piece of broken tile of a peculiar colour. The next moment he had an inspiration. He drew up his feet on the seat, drew his cloak over his head and affected to be asleep. What Grio, when he came upon him, thought of a man who chose to sleep in the open in such weather he did not learn, for after standing a while—as Claude's ears told him—opposite the sleeper, the Spaniard turned and walked back the way he had come. This time, and though he now had the wind at his back, he walked briskly; as a man would walk in such weather, or as a man might walk who had done his business.
Claude waited until his coarse, heavy figure had disappeared through the Porte Tertasse; nay, he waited until the light began to fail. Then, while he could still pick out the red potsherd, he approached the wall, leant over it, and, failing to detect anything with his eyes, passed his fingers down the stones.
They alighted on a nail; a nail thrust lightly into the mortar below the coping stone. For what purpose? His blood beginning to move more quickly Claude asked himself the question. To support a rope? And so to enable some one to leave the town? The nail, barely pushed into the mortar, would hardly support the weight of a dozen yards of twine.
Perhaps the nail was there by chance, and Grio had naught to do with it. He could settle that doubt. In a few moments he had settled it. Under cover of the growing darkness, he walked to the place at which he had seen Grio pause for the first time. A short search discovered a second nail as lightly secured as the other. Had he not been careful it would have fallen beneath his touch.
What did the nails there? Claude was not stupid, yet he was long in hitting on an explanation. It was a fanciful, extravagant notion when he got it, but one that set his chilled blood running, and his hands tingling, one that might mean much to himself and to others. It was unlikely, it was improbable, it was out of the common; but it was an explanation. It was a mighty thing to hang upon two weak nails; but such as it was—and he turned it over and over in his mind before he dared entertain it—he could find no other. And presently, his eyes alight, his pulses riotous, his foot dancing, he walked down the Corraterie—with scarce a look at the house which had held his thoughts all day—and passed into the town. As he passed through the gateway he hung an instant and cast an inquisitive eye into the guard-room of the Tertasse. It was nearly empty. Two men sat drowsing before the fire, their boot-heels among the embers, a black jack between them.
The fact weighed something in the balance of probabilities: and in growing excitement, Claude hurried on, sought the cookshop at which he had broken his fast—a humble place, licensed for the scholars—and ate his supper, not knowing what he ate, nor with whom he ate it. It was only by chance that his ear caught, at a certain moment, a new tone in the goodwife's voice; and that he looked up, and saw her greet her husband.
"Ay!" the man said, putting off his bandoleer, and answering the exclamation of surprise which his entrance had evoked. "It's bed for me to-night. It's so cold they will send but half the rounds."
"Whose order is that?" asked a scholar at Claude's table.
"Shows his sense!" the goodwife cried roundly. "A good man, and knows when to watch and when to ha' done!"
Claude said nothing, but he rose with burning cheeks, paid his share—it was seven o'clock—and, passing out, made his way back. It should be said that in addition to the Tertasse Gate, two lesser gates, the Treille on the one hand and the Monnaye on the other, led from the town proper to the Corraterie; and this time he chose to go out by the Treille. Having ascertained that the guard-room there also was almost denuded of men, he passed along the Corraterie to his bastion, hugging the houses on his right, and giving the wall a wide berth. Although the cold wind blew in his face he paused several times to listen, nor did he enter his bastion until he had patiently made certain that it was untenanted.
The night was very dark: it was the night of December the 12th, old style, the longest and deadest of the year. Far below him in the black abyss on which the wall looked down, a few oil lamps marked the island and the town beyond the Rhone. Behind him, on his left, a glimmer escaping here and there from the upper windows marked the line of the Corraterie, of which the width is greatest at the end farthest from the river. Near the far extremity of the rampart a bright light marked the Porte Neuve, distant about two hundred yards from his post, and about seventy or eighty from the Porte Tertasse, the inner gate which corresponded with it. Straight from him to the Porte Neuve ran the rampart a few feet high on the inner side, some thirty feet high on the outer, but shrouded for the present in a black gloom that defied his keenest vision.
He waited more than an hour, his ears on the alert. At the end of that time, he drew a deep breath of relief. A step that might have been the step of a sentry pacing the rampart, and now pausing, now moving on, began to approach him. It came on, paused, came on, paused—this time close at hand. Two or three dull sounds followed, then the sharper noise of a falling stone. Immediately the foot of the sentry, if sentry it was, began to retreat.
Claude drove his nails into the palms of his hands and waited, waited through an eternity, waited until the retreating foot had almost reached, as he judged, the Porte Tertasse. Then he stole out, groped his way to the wall, and passed his hand along the outer side until he came to the nail. He found it. It had been made secure, and from it depended a thin string.
He set to work at once to draw up the string. There was a small weight attached to it, which rose slowly until it reached his hand. It was a stone about as large as the fist, and of a whitish colour.
IN TWO CHARACTERS.
After the wave, the trough of the wave; after action, passion. Not to sink a little after rising to the pitch of self-sacrifice, not to shed, when the deed is done, some bitter tears of regret and self-pity, were to be cast in a mould above the human.
When the cloak—dear garment!—had slipped from her hands and the head bent that its owner might raise the cloak had passed from sight—when Anne had fled to the farther side of the room, to the farther side of the settle, and had heard his step die away, she would have given the world to see him again, to feel his arm about her, to hear the sound of his voice. The tears streamed down her face; in vain she tried to stay them with her hands, in vain she chid herself for her weakness. "It is for him! for him!" she moaned, and hid her face in her hands. But words stay no tears; and on the hearth which his coming had changed for her, standing where she had first seen him, where she had heard his first words of love, where she had tried him, she wept bitter tears for him.
The storm died away at last—for after every storm falls a calm—but it left the empty house, the empty heart, silence. Her mother? She had still her mother, and with lagging footsteps she went upstairs to her. But she found her in a deep sleep, and she descended again, and going to his room began to put together his few belongings, the clothes he had worn, the books he had read; that if the house were entered they might not be lost to him. She buried her face in his garments and kissed them, fondly, tenderly, passionately, lingering over the task, and at last putting the things from her with reluctance. A knot of ribbon which she had seen him wear in the neck of his shirt on holidays she took and hid in her bosom, and fetching a length of her own ribbon she put it in place of the other. This she thought she could do without fear of bringing suspicion on him, for he alone would discern the exchange. Would he notice it? Would he weep when he found the ribbon as she wept now? And fondle it tenderly? At the thought her tears gushed forth.
The day wore on. Supported by the knowledge that even a slight shock might cast her mother into one of her fits, Anne hid her fears from her, though the effort was as the lifting of a great weight. On the pretext that the light hurt the invalid's sight, she shaded the window, and so hid the hollows under her eyes and the wan looks that must have betrayed the forced nature of her cheerfulness. As a rule Madame Royaume's eyes, quickened by love, were keen; but this day she slept much, and the night was fairly advanced when Anne, in the act of preparing to lie down, turned and saw her mother sitting erect in the bed.
The old woman's eyes were strangely bright. Her face wore an intent expression which arrested her daughter where she stood.
"Mother, what is it?" she cried.
"Listen!" Madame Royaume answered. "What is that?"
"I hear nothing," Anne said, hoping to soothe her. And she approached the bed.
"I hear much," her mother retorted. "Go! Go and see, child, what it is!" She pointed to the door, but, before Anne could reach it, she raised her hand for silence. "They are crossing the ditch," she muttered, her eyes dilated. "One, two, many, many of them! Many of them! They are throwing down hurdles, and wattles, and crossing on them! And there is a priest with them——"
"A priest!" Her voice dropped a little. "The ladders are black," she whispered. "Black ladders! Ay, swathed in black cloth; and now they set them against the wall. The priest absolves them, and they begin to mount. They are mounting! They are mounting now."
"Mother!" There was sharp pain in Anne's voice. Who does not know the heartache with which it is seen that the mind of a loved one is wandering from us? And yet she was puzzled. She dreaded one of those scenes in which her young strength was barely sufficient to control and soothe the frail form before her. But they did not begin as a rule in this fashion; here, though the mind wandered, was an absence of the wildness to which she had become inured. Here—and yet as she listened, as she looked, now at her mother, now into the dimly lighted corners of the room, where those dilated eyes seemed to see things unseen by her, black things, she found this phase no less disquieting than the other.