Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 7
No sooner had the curé recognised Edmée than he started back with an exclamation of surprise. But this was nothing to the stupefaction of Patience when he had examined my features by the light of the burning brand that served him as torch.
"The lamb in the company of the wolf!" he cried. "What has happened, then?"
"My friend," replied Edmée, putting, to my infinite astonishment, her little white hand into the sorcerer's big rough palm, "welcome him as you welcome me. I was a prisoner at Roche-Mauprat, and it was he who rescued me."
"May the sins of his fathers be forgiven him for this act!" said the curé.
Patience took me by the arm, without saying anything, and led me nearer the fire. They seated me on the only chair in the house, and the curé took upon himself the task of attending to my leg, while Edmée gave an account, up to a certain point, of our adventure. Then she asked for information about the hunt and about her father. Patience, however, could give her no news. He had heard the horn in the woods, and the firing at the wolves had disturbed his tranquility several times during the day. But since the storm broke over them the noise of the wind had drowned all other sounds, and he knew nothing of what was taking place in Varenne. Marcasse, meanwhile, had very nimbly climbed a ladder which served as an approach to the upper stories of the house, now that the staircase was broken. His dog followed him with marvellous skill. Soon they came down again, and we learned that a red light could be distinguished on the horizon in the direction of Roche-Mauprat. In spite of the loathing I had for this place and its owners, I could not repress a felling very much like consternation on hearing that the hereditary manor which bore my own name had apparently been taken and set on fire. It meant disgrace, defeat; and this fire was as a seal of vassalage affixed to my arms by those I called clodhoppers and serfs. I sprang up from my chair, and had I not been held back by the violent pain in my foot, I believe I should have rushed out.
"What is the matter?" said Edmée, who was by my side at the time.
"The matter is," I answered abruptly, "that I must return yonder; for it is my duty to get killed rather than let my uncles parley with the rabble."
"The rabble!" cried Patience, addressing me for the first time since I arrived. "Who dares to talk of rabble here? I myself am of the rabble. It is my title, and I shall know how to make it respected."
"By Jove! Not by me," I said, pushing away the curé, who had made me sit down again.
"And yet it would not be for the first time," replied Patience, with a contemptuous smile.
"You remind me," I answered, "that we two have some old accounts to settle."
And heedless of the frightful agony caused by my sprain, I rose again, and with a backhander I sent Don Marcasse, who was endeavouring to play the curé's part of peacemaker, head over heels into the middle of the ashes. I did not mean him any harm, but my movements were somewhat rough, and the poor man was so frail that to my hand he was but as a weasel would have been to his own. Patience was standing before me with his arms crossed, in the attitude of a stoic philosopher, but the fire was flashing in his eyes. Conscious of his position as my host, he was evidently waiting until I struck the first blow before attempting to crush me. I should not have kept him waiting long, had not Edmée, scorning the danger of interfering with a madman, seized my arm and said, in an authoritative tone:
"Sit down again, and be quiet; I command you."
So much boldness and confidence surprised and pleased me at the same time. The rights which she arrogated to herself over me were, in some measure, a sanction of those I claimed to have over her.
"You are right," I answered, sitting down.
And I added, with a glance at Patience:
"Some other time."
"Amen," he answered, shrugging his shoulders.
Marcasse had picked himself up with much composure, and shaking off the ashes with which he was covered, instead of finding fault with me, he tried, after his fashion, to lecture Patience. This was in reality by no means easy to do; yet nothing could have been less irritating than that monosyllabic censure throwing out its little note in the thick of a quarrel like an echo in a storm.
"At your age," he said to his host; "not patient at all! Wholly to blame—yes—wrong—you!"
"How naughty you are!" Edmée said to me, putting her hand on my shoulder; "do not begin again, or I shall go away and leave you."
I willingly let myself be scolded by her; nor did I realize that during the last few minutes we had exchanged parts. It was she who was now commanding and threatening. The moment we crossed the threshold of Gazeau Tower she had given evidence of that superiority over me which was really hers. This wild place, too, these strange witnesses, this fierce host, had already furnished a taste of the society into which I had entered, and whose fetters I was soon to feel.
"Come," she said, turning to Patience, "we do not understand each other here; and, for my part, I am devoured by anxiety about my poor father, who is no doubt searching for me, and wringing his hands at this very moment. My good Patience, do find me some means of rejoining him with this unfortunate boy, whom I dare not leave to your care, since you have not sufficient love for me to be patient and compassionate with him."
"What do you say?" cried Patience, putting his hand to his brow as if waking from a dream. "Yes, you are right; I am an old brute, an old fool. Daughter of God, tell this boy, this nobleman, that I ask his pardon for the past, and that, for the present, my poor cell is at his disposal. Is that well said?"
"Yes, Patience," answered the curé. "Besides, everything may be managed. My horse is quiet and steady, and Mademoiselle de Mauprat can ride it, while you and Marcasse lead it by the bridle. For myself, I will remain here with our invalid. I promise to take good care of him and not to annoy him in any way. That will do, won't it, Monsieur Bernard? You don't bear me any ill-will, and you may be very sure that I am not your enemy."
"I know nothing about it," I answered; "it is as you please. Look after my cousin; take her home safely. For my own part, I need nothing and care for no one. A bundle of straw and a glass of wine, that is all I should like, if it were possible to have them."
"You shall have both," said Marcasse, handing me his flask, "but first of all here is something to cheer you up. I am going to the stable to get the horse ready."
"No, I will go myself," said Patience; "you see to the wants of this young man."
And he passed into another lower hall, which served as a stable for the curé's horse during the visits which the good priest paid him. They brought the animal through the room where we were; and Patience, after arranging the curé's cloak on the saddle, with fatherly care helped Edmée to mount.
"One moment," she said, before letting them lead her out. " Monsieur le Curé, will you promise me on the salvation of your soul not to leave my cousin before I return with my father to fetch him?"
"I promise solemnly," replied the curé.
"And you, Bernard," said Edmée, "will you give me your word of honour to wait for me here?"
"I can't say," I answered; "that will depend on the length of your absence and on my patience; but you know quite well, cousin, that we shall meet again, even if it be in hell; and for my part, the sooner the better."
By the light of the brand which Patience was holding to examine the horse's harness, I saw her beautiful face flush and then turn pale. Then she raised her eyes, which had been lowered in sorrow, and looked at me fixedly with a strange expression.
"Are we ready to start?" said Marcasse, opening the door.
"Yes, forward," said Patience, taking the bridle. "Edmée, my child, take care to bend down while passing under the door."
"What is the matter, Blaireau?" said Marcasse, stopping on the threshold and thrusting out the point of his sword, gloriously rusted by the blood of the rodent tribe.
Blaireau did not stir, and if he had not been born dumb, as his master said, he would have barked. But he gave warning as usual by a sort of dry cough. This was his most emphatic sign of anger and uneasiness.
"There must be something down there," said Marcasse; and he boldly advanced into the darkness, after making a sign to the rider not to follow. The report of firearms made us all start. Edmée jumped down lightly from her horse, and I did not fail to notice that some impulse at once prompted her to come and stand behind my chair. Patience rushed out of the tower. The curé ran to the frightened horse, which was rearing and backing toward us. Blaireau managed to bark. I forgot my sprain, and in a single bound I was outside.
A man covered with wounds, and with the blood streaming from him, was lying across the doorway. It was my Uncle Laurence. He had been mortally wounded at the siege of Roche-Mauprat, and had come to die under our eyes. With him was his brother Leonard, who had just fired his last pistol shot at random, luckily without hitting any one. Patience's first impulse was to prepare to defend himself. On recognising Marcasse, however, the fugitives, far from showing themselves hostile, asked for shelter and help. As their situation was so desperate no one thought that assistance should be refused. The police were pursuing them. Roche-Mauprat was in flames; Louis and Peter had died fighting; Antony, John, and Walter had fled in another direction, and, perhaps, were already prisoners. No words could paint the horror of Laurence's last moments. His agony was brief but terrible. His blasphemy made the cure turn pale. Scarce had the door been shut and the dying man laid on the floor than the horrible death-rattle was heard. Leonard, who knew of no remedy but brandy, snatched Marcasse's flask out of my hand (not without swearing and scornfully reproaching me for my flight), forced open his brother's clinched teeth with the blade of his hunting-knife, and, in spite of our warning, poured half the flask down his throat. The wretched man bounded into the air, brandished his arms in desperate convulsions, drew himself up to his full height, and fell back stone dead upon the blood-stained floor. There was no time to offer up a prayer over the body, for the door resounded under the furious blows of our assailants.
"Open, in the King's name!" cried several voices; "open to the police!"
"Help! help!" cried Leonard, seizing his knife and rushing towards the door. "Peasants, prove yourselves nobles! And you, Bernard, atone for your fault; wash out your shame; do not let a Mauprat fall into the hands of the gendarmes alive!"
Urged on by native courage and by pride, I was about to follow his example, when Patience rushed at him, and exerting his herculean strength, threw him to the ground. Putting one knee on his chest, he called to Marcasse to open the door. This was done before I could take my uncle's part against his terrible assailant. Six gendarmes at once rushed into the tower and, with their guns pointed, bade us move at our peril.
"Stay, gentlemen," said Patience, "don't harm any one. This is your prisoner. Had I been alone with him, I should either have defended him or helped him to escape; but there are honest people here who ought not to suffer for a knave; and I did not wish to expose them to a fight. Here is the Mauprat. Your duty, as you know, is to deliver him safe and sound into the hands of justice. This other is dead."
"Monsieur, surrender!" said the sergeant of the gendarmes, laying his hand on Leonard.
"Never shall a Mauprat drag his name into the dock of a police court," replied Leonard, with a sullen expression. "I surrender, but you will get nothing but my skin."
And he allowed himself to be placed in a chair without making any resistance.
But while they were preparing to bind him he said to the curé:
"Do me one last kindness, Father. Give me what is left in the flask; I am dying of thirst and exhaustion."
The good curé handed him the flask, which he emptied at a draught. His distorted face took on an expression of awful calm. He seemed absorbed, stunned, incapable of resistance. But as soon as they were engaged in binding his feet, he snatched a pistol from the belt of one of the gendarmes and blew his brains out.
This frightful spectacle completely unnerved me. Sunk in a dull stupor, no longer conscious of what was happening around me, I stood there as if turned to stone, and it was only after some minutes that I realized that I was the subject of a serious discussion between the police and my hosts. One of the gendarmes declared that he recognised me as a Hamstringer Mauprat. Patience declared that I was nothing but M. Hubert de Mauprat's gamekeeper, in charge of his daughter. Annoyed at the discussion, I was about to make myself known when I saw a ghost rise by my side. It was Edmée. She had taken refuge between the wall and the curé's poor frightened horse, which, with outstretched legs and eyes of fire, made her a sort of rampart with its body. She was as pale as death, and her lips were so compressed with horror that at first, in spite of desperate efforts to speak, she was unable to express herself otherwise than by signs. The sergeant, moved by her youth and her painful situation, waited with deference until she could manage to make herself understood. At last she persuaded them not to treat me as a prisoner, but to take me with her to her father's château, where she gave her word of honour that satisfactory explanations and guarantees would be furnished on my account. The curé and the other witnesses, having pledged their words to this, we set out all together, Edmée on the sergeant's horse, he on an animal belonging to one of his men, myself on the curé's, Patience and the cure afoot between us, the police on either side, and Marcasse in front, still impassive amid the general terror and consternation. Two of the gendarmes remained behind to guard the bodies and prepare a report.