coarse and ungenial host, she had herself admitted: that she was a mere menial, was an idea to be scouted ere it was formed: and yet that this was her home was nevertheless evident. The bouquet of roses upon his dressing-table attested it; it had been arranged by no vulgar or servile hand. The graceful grouping of the somewhat scanty furniture, and the very sweep of the snowy draperies that depended from the windows and the bed, spoke of her care and taste. Who could she be?
As he reached this point of his reverie a log from the summit of the fire, fell noisily on the hearth. It was necessary to replace it, and this little domestic care sufficed to break the spell. After all, what was it to him? He was travel-worn and weary: and so M. le Sous-Lieutenant Adolphe de Rosval hastily divested himself of his clothes, and, without extinguishing his light, threw himself on his bed.
When Marie returned to the kitchen she found that her peasant-lover had availed himself of a sudden change in the weather to wend his way homeward, and that the two boys had retired to their bed in the grenier; but her father was not alone. A second traveller had taken up his rest at Le Grand Roi, and she examined him with a sudden and inexplicable feeling of curiosity. He was a man of between forty and fifty years of age, tall and powerful, with broad shoulders and ample chest; his grizzled hair was brushed low upon his forehead, and there was a sinister expression in his eyes; but his features were well-formed, and his manner self-possessed and easy. It was at once evident to her that his appearance had greatly impressed her step-father, who was waiting upon him with the utmost obsequiousness.
“I imagine,” he said, just as she entered, “that I must be your only pratique to-night, for the weather will have kept all comfort-loving people under their own roofs.”
“Pardon me, monsieur,” was the reply; “the room next to your own is already occupied by a young man who arrived little more than an hour ago; but there is no fear that he will disturb you, for he appears to be a perfect gentleman, and is moreover so tired, and so anxious to get on, that he leaves us at daybreak tomorrow.”
The brow of the stranger darkened, and he made no reply.
“Be careful,” he said, a few minutes after wards; “to call me in the morning at seven o’clock, for I must be at Tours by mid-day. Ah! by the bye, I shall require a saddle-horse—let one be ready for me, as my time is precious.”
“My neighbour Marie-Joseph Carnac,” responded the landlord, “has the best roadster in the district; he can be here by half-past six.”
“Good,” said the guest; “then I will follow the example of your other inmate, and betake myself to rest.”
“Marie, a light!” cried Ebrard; and the young girl once more ascended the stairs to marshal the new-comer to his room.
Adolphe was, as we have stated, already in bed, with the candle still burning upon his table. He had, as yet, been unable to sleep; his brain was too busy. His newly-acquired rank; the anticipated meeting with his parents and his sisters; and, mingled with these proud and happy thoughts, the mystery attached to Marie, had made him wakeful; so that when he heard the heavy tread of a man’s foot traversing the passage, and passing the door of his room, he was conscious of every sound. Suddenly a thought struck him; and, springing to the floor, he took a key from his waistcoat-pocket, opened his trunk, and seizing his uniform sword which lay upon the top, placed it under his pillow.
Midnight struck from the old clock in the kitchen, and all was profoundly silent in the house, but still Adolphe remained sleepless; when suddenly he was startled by a sound, which appeared to him like that of a key slowly turned in the lock. He listened attentively; but, as it was not repeated, he concluded that he had been the sport of his own over-excited nerves, and drawing the bed-clothes closer about him, he determined to profit by the few hours which were left, and to endeavour to obtain some rest. He had scarcely begun to sleep, however, when he was a second time disturbed, and on this occasion he was at once convinced that he had made no mistake. Some one was endeavouring to enter his room. The candle had burnt out; but, grasping his sword, he noiselessly groped his way to the door, and stood motionless beside it. About five minutes afterwards the noise ceased, and he began to hope that the would-be intruder had abandoned all hope of invading his privacy, whatever might have been his motive for seeking to do so. He had carefully locked the door of his room, and had little fear that the fastening could be forced; but, accidentally casting his eyes on the floor, he saw by the light of the moon which gleamed full upon the window of his room, and which, rendered more vivid by its contrast from the subsided storm, was pouring out its chastened radiance from a now cloudless sky, that a hand had been introduced between the boards of his chamber and the bottom of the door, and was seeking to lift it from its hinges. This was too much: and steadily raising his sword above his head, he struck downwards with all his force upon the hand thus traitorously employed. A smothered groan fell upon his ear, and then a half-articulated curse. These were succeeded by a sound of stealthy steps retreating along the passage, and ere long all was still—but two bleeding fingers remained lying upon the floor!
Adolphe rushed to the fireplace; a few warm fragments of wood enabled him to light a second candle which stood upon the chimney-piece, and he then proceeded to examine the hideous trophy of his victory. For a moment he shrank from touching the first “fleshing” of his maiden sword, but he rapidly overcame the weakness, and picking up the severed fingers, he carefully washed away the blood, and folded them up in his handkerchief.
“On the honour of a sous-lieutenant,” he murmured to himself, “that was a lucky stroke, and really, for a robber, the fingers are passably slender, and the nails tolerably clean. Well, I suppose that all is over for to-night; so, as I am shivering with cold, I had better go to my bed again.”