Swords of the Red Brotherhood/Chapter 4
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Chapter 4: A Black Drum Droning
|Chapter 5: A Man from the Wilderness→|
Francoise never knew how long she lay crushed and senseless. She was first aware of Tina's arms about her and the sobbing of the child in her ear. Mechanically she straightened herself and drew the girl into her arms. She sat there, dry-eyed, staring unseeingly at the flickering candle. There was no sound in the castle. The singing of the buccaneers on the strand had ceased. Dully she reviewed her problem.
Clearly, the story of the mysterious black man had driven Henri mad and it was to escape this man that he meant to abandon the settlement and flee with Villiers. That much was obvious. Equally obvious was the fact that he was ready to sacrifice her for that opportunity to escape. In the blackness which surrounded her, she saw no glint of light. The serving men were dull or callous brutes, their women stupid and apathetic. They would neither dare nor care to help her. She was utterly helpless.
Tina lifted her tear-stained face as if listening to the prompting of some inner voice. The child's understanding of Francoise's inmost thoughts was almost uncanny, as was her recognition of the inexorable drive of Fate and the only alternative left them.
"We must go, my Lady!" she whispered. "Villiers shall not have you. Let us go far away into the forest. We shall go until we can go no further, and then we shall lie down and die together."
The tragic strength that is the last refuge of the weak entered Francoise's soul. It was the only escape from the shadows that had been closing in upon her since that day when they fled from France.
"We shall go, child."
She rose and was fumbling for a cloak, when an exclamation from Tina brought her about. The child was on her feet, a finger pressed to her lips, her eyes wide and bright with sudden terror.
"What is it, Tina?" Francoise whispered, seized by a nameless dread.
"Someone outside in the hall," whispered Tina, clutching her arm convulsively. "He stopped at our door, and then went on down the hall."
"Your ears are keener than mine," murmured Francoise. "But there's nothing strange in that. It was the Count, perchance, or Gallot."
She moved to open the door, but Tina threw her arms about her neck, and Francoise could feel the wild beating of her heart.
"Do not open the door, my Lady! I am afraid! Some evil thing is near!"
Impressed, Francoise reached a hand toward the metal disk that masked a tiny peep-hole in the door.
"He is coming back!" shivered the girl. "I hear him."
Francoise heard something too -a stealthy pad which she realized, with a chill of fear, was not the step of anyone she knew. Nor was it the tread of Villiers, or any booted man. But who could it be? None slept upstairs besides herself, Tina, the Count, and Gallot.
With a quick motion she extinguished the candle so it would not shine through the hole in the door, and pushed aside the metal disk. Staring through she sensed rather than saw a dim bulk moving past her door, but she could make nothing of its shape except that it was manlike. But a blind unreasoning terror froze her tongue to her palate.
The figure passed on to the stairhead, where it was limned momentarily against the faint glow that came up from below--a vague, monstrous image, black against the red-then it was gone down the stair. She crouched in the darkness, awaiting some outcry to announce that the soldiers on guard had sighted the intruder. But the fort remained silent; somewhere a wind wailed shrilly. That was all.
Francoise's hands were moist with perspiration as she groped to relight the candle. She did not know just what there had been about that black figure etched against the red glow of the fireplace below that had roused such horror in her soul. But she knew she had seen something sinister and grisly beyond comprehension, and that the sight had robbed her of all her new-found resolution. She was demoralized.
The candle flared up, limning Tina's white face in the grow.
"It was the black man!" whispered Tina. "I know! My blood turned cold just as it did when I saw him on the beach! Shall we go and tell the Count?"
Francoise shook her head. She did not wish a repetition of what had occurred at Tina's first mention of the black invader. At any event, she dared not venture into that darkened hallway. She knew men were patrolling the stockade, and were stationed outside the manor house. How the stranger had got into the fort she could not guess. It smacked of the diabolical. But she began to have a strong intuition that the creature was no longer within the fortress; that he had departed as mysteriously as he had come.
"We dare not go into the forest!" shuddered Tina. "He will be lurking there..."
Francoise did not ask the girl how she knew the black man would be in the forest; it was the logical hiding place for any evil thing, man or devil. And she knew Tina was right. They dared not leave the fort now. Her determination which had not faltered at the prospect of certain death, gave way at the thought of traversing those gloomy woods with that black shambling creature at large among them. Helplessly she sat down and covered her face with her hands.
Finally, Tina slept, whimpering occasionally in her sleep. Tears gleamed on her long lashes. She moved her smarting body restlessly. 'Toward dawn, Francoise was aware that the atmosphere had become stifling. She heard a low rumble of thunder off to seaward. Extinguishing the candle, which had burned to its socket, she went to a window whence she could see both the ocean and a belt of the forest.
The fog had disappeared, but out to sea a dusky mass was rising from the horizon. From it lightning flickered and low thunder growled. Then an answering rumble came from the black woods. Startled, she turned and stared at the forest. A rhythmic pulsing reached her ears-a droning reverberation that was not the thumping of an Indian drum.
"The drum!" sobbed Tina, spasmodically opening and closing her fingers in her sleep. "The black man-beating on a black drum--in the black woods! Oh, save us!"
Francoise shuddered. Along the eastern horizon ran a thin white line that presaged dawn. But that black cloud on the western rim expanded swiftly. She watched in surprise, for storms were practically unknown on that coast at that time of year, and she had never seen such a cloud.
It came pouring up over the world-rim in great boiling masses of fire-veined blackness. It rolled and billowed with the wind in its belly. Its thundering made the air vibrate. And another sound mingled awesomely with the thunder-the voice of the wind, that raced before its coming. The inky horizon was torn and convulsed in the lightning flashes; far at sea she saw the white-capped waves racing before the wind. She heard its droning roar, rising in volume as it swept shoreward. But as yet no wind stirred on the land. The air was hot, breathless. Somewhere below her a shutter slammed, and a woman's voice was lifted, shrill with alarm. But the manor still slumbered.
She still heard that mysterious drum droning, and her flesh crawled. The forest was a black rampart her sight could not penetrate, but she visualized a hideous black figure squatting under black branches and smiting incessantly on a drum gripped between its knees. But why?
She shook off her ghoulish conviction and looked seaward as a blaze of lightning split the sky. Outlined against the glare she saw the masts of Villiers' ship, the tents on the beach, the sandy ridges of the south point and the rocky cliffs of the north point. Louder and louder rose the roar of the wind, and now the manor was awake. Feet came pounding up the stair, and Villiers' voice yelled, edged with fright.
Doors slammed and Henri answered him, shouting to make himself heard.
"Why didn't you warn me of a storm from the west?" howled the buccaneer. "If the anchors don't hold she'll drive on the rocks!"
"A storm never came from the west before at this time of year!" shrieked Henri, rushing from his chamber in his night shirt, his face white and his hair standing on end. "This is the work of-" His words were drowned as he raced up the ladder that led to the lookout tower, followed by the swearing buccaneer.
Francoise crouched at her window, awed and deafened. The wind drowned all other sound-all except that maddening droning which rose now like a chant of triumph. It roared inshore, driving before it a foaming league long crest of white--and then all hell was loosed on that coast. Rain swept the beaches in driving torrents. The wind hit like a thunder-clap, making the timbers of the fort quiver. The surf roared over the sands, drowning the coals of the seamen's fires. In the lightning glare Francoise saw, through the curtain of the slashing rain, the tents of the buccaneers ripped to ribbons and washed away, saw the men themselves staggering toward the fort, beaten almost to the sands by the fury of torrent and blast.
And limned against the blue glare she saw Villiers' ship, ripped loose from her moorings, driven headlong against the jagged cliffs that jutted up to receive her.