Dusk of the following day was falling when the homing André-Louis approached Gavrillac . Realizing fully what a hue and cry there would presently be for the apostle of revolution who had summoned the people of Nantes to arms, he desired as far as possible to conceal the fact that he had been in that maritime city. Therefore he made a wide détour, crossing the river at Bruz, and recrossing it a little above Chavagne, so as to approach Gavrillac from the north, and create the impression that he was returning from Rennes, whither he was known to have gone two days ago.
Within a mile or so of the village he caught in the fading light his first glimpse of a figure on horseback pacing slowly towards him. But it was not until they had come within a few yards of each other, and he observed that this cloaked figure was leaning forward to peer at him, that he took much notice of it. And then he found himself challenged almost at once by a woman's voice.
"It is you, André–at last!"
He drew rein, mildly surprised, to be assailed by another question, impatiently, anxiously asked.
"Where have you been?"
"Where have I been, Cousin Aline? Oh ... seeing the world."
"I have been patrolling this road since noon to-day waiting for you."
She spoke breathlessly, in haste to explain. "A troop of the maréchaussée from Rennes descended upon Gavrillac this morning in quest of you. They turned the château and the village inside out, and at last discovered that you were due to return with a horse hired from the Breton Armé. So they have taken up their quarters at the inn to wait for you. I have been here all the afternoon on the lookout to warn you against walking into that trap."
"My dear Aline! That I should have been the cause of so much concern and trouble!"
"Never mind that. It is not important."
"On the contrary; it is the most important part of what you tell me. It is the rest that is unimportant."
"Do you realize that they have come to arrest you?" she asked him, with increasing impatience. "You are wanted for sedition, and upon a warrant from M. de Lesdiguières."
"Sedition?" quoth he, and his thoughts flew to that business at Nantes. It was impossible they could have had news of it in Rennes and acted upon it in so short a time.
"Yes, sedition. The sedition of that wicked speech of yours at Rennes on Wednesday."
"Oh, that!" said he. "Pooh!" His note of relief might have told her, had she been more attentive, that he had to fear the consequences of a greater wickedness committed since. "Why, that was nothing."
"I almost suspect that the real intentions of these gentlemen of the maréchaussee have been misunderstood. Most probably they have come to thank me on M. de Lesdiguières' behalf. I restrained the people when they would have burnt the Palais and himself inside it."
"After you had first incited them to do it. I suppose you were afraid of your work. You drew back at the last moment. But you said things of M. de Lesdiguières, if you are correctly reported, which he will never forgive."
"I see," said André-Louis, and he fell into thought.
But Mlle. de Kercadiou had already done what thinking was necessary, and her alert young mind had settled all that was to be done.
"You must not go into Gavrillac," she told him, "and you must get down from your horse, and let me take it. I will stable it at the château to-night. And sometime tomorrow afternoon, by when you should be well away, I will return it to the Breton Armé."
"Oh, but that is impossible."
"For several reasons. One of them is that you haven't considered what will happen to you if you do such a thing."
"To me? Do you suppose I am afraid of that pack of oafs sent by M. Lesdiguières? I have committed no sedition."
"But it is almost as bad to give aid to one who is wanted for the crime. That is the law."
"What do I care for the law? Do you imagine that the law will presume to touch me?"
"Of course there is that. You are sheltered by one of the abuses I complained of at Rennes. I was forgetting."
"Complain of it as much as you please, but meanwhile profit by it. Come, André, do as I tell you. Get down from your horse." And then, as he still hesitated, she stretched out and caught him by the arm. Her voice was vibrant with earnestness. "André, you don't realize how serious is your position. If these people take you, it is almost certain that you will be hanged. Don't you realize it? You must not go to Gavrillac. You must go away at once, and lie completely lost for a time until this blows over. Indeed, until my uncle can bring influence to bear to obtain your pardon, you must keep in hiding."
"That will be a long time, then," said André-Louis. M. de Kercadiou has never cultivated friends at court."
"There is M. de La Tour d'Azyr," she reminded him, to his astonishment.
"That man!" he cried, and then he laughed. "But it was chiefly against him that I aroused the resentment of the people of Rennes. I should have known that all my speech was not reported to you."
"It was, and that part of it among the rest."
"Ah! And yet you are concerned to save me, the man who seeks the life of your future husband at the hands either of the law or of the people? Or is it, perhaps, that since you have seen his true nature revealed in the murder of poor Philippe, you have changed your views on the subject of becoming Marquise de La Tour d'Azyr?"
"You often show yourself without any faculty of deductive reasoning."
"Perhaps. But hardly to the extent of imagining that M. de La Tour d'Azyr will ever lift a finger to do as you suggest."
"In which, as usual, you are wrong. He will certainly do so if I ask him."
"If you ask him?" Sheer horror rang in his voice.
"Why, yes. You see, I have not yet said that I will be Marquise de La Tour d'Azyr. I am still considering. It is a position that has its advantages. One of them is that it ensures a suitor's complete obedience."
"So, so. I see the crooked logic of your mind. You might go so far as to say to him: 'Refuse me this, and I shall refuse to be your marquise.' You would go so far as that?"
"At need, I might."
"And do you not see the converse implication? Do you not see that your hands would then be tied, that you would be wanting in honour if afterwards you refused him? And do you think that I would consent to anything that could so tie your hands? Do you think I want to see you damned, Aline?"
Her hand fell away from his arm.
"Oh, you are mad!" she exclaimed, quite out of patience.
"Possibly. But I like my madness. There is a thrill in it unknown to such sanity as yours. By your leave, Aline, I think I will ride on to Gavrillac."
"Andre, you must not! It is death to you!" In her alarm she backed her horse, and pulled it across the road to bar his way.
It was almost completely night by now; but from behind the wrack of clouds overhead a crescent moon sailed out to alleviate the darkness.
"Come, now," she enjoined him. "Be reasonable. Do as I bid you. See, there is a carriage coming up behind you. Do not let us be found here together thus."
He made up his mind quickly. He was not the man to be actuated by false heroics about dying, and he had no fancy whatever for the gallows of M. de Lesdiguierès' providing. The immediate task that he had set himself might be accomplished. He had made heard—and ringingly—the voice that M. de La Tour d'Azyr imagined he had silenced. But he was very far from having done with life.
"Aline, on one condition only."
"That you swear to me you will never seek the aid of M. de La Tour d'Azyr on my behalf."
"Since you insist, and as time presses, I consent. And now ride on with me as far as the lane. There is that carriage coming up."
The lane to which she referred was one that branched off the road some three hundred yards nearer the village and led straight up the hill to the château itself. In silence they rode together towards it, and together they turned into that thickly hedged and narrow bypath. At a depth of fifty yards she halted him.
"Now!" she bade him.
Obediently he swung down from his horse, and surrendered the reins to her.
"Aline," he said, "I have n't words in which to thank you."
"It isn't necessary," said she.
"But I shall hope to repay you some day."
"Nor is that necessary. Could I do less than I am doing? I do not want to hear of you hanged, Andre; nor does my uncle, though he is very angry with you."
"I suppose he is."
"And you can hardly be surprised. You were his delegate, his representative. He depended upon you, and you have turned your coat. He is rightly indignant, calls you a traitor, and swears that he will never speak to you again. But he doesn't want you hanged, André."
"Then we are agreed on that at least, for I don't want it myself."
"I'll make your peace with him. And now—good-bye, André. Send me a word when you are safe."
She held out a hand that looked ghostly in the faint light. He took it and bore it to his lips.
"God bless you, Aline."
She was gone, and he stood listening to the receding clopper-clop of hooves until it grew faint in the distance. Then slowly, with shoulders hunched and head sunk on his breast, he retraced his steps to the main road, cogitating whither he should go. Quite suddenly he checked, remembering with dismay that he was almost entirely without money. In Brittany itself he knew of no dependable hiding-place, and as long as he was in Brittany his peril must remain imminent. Yet to leave the province, and to leave it as quickly as prudence dictated, horses would be necessary. And how was he to procure horses, having no money beyond a single louis d'or and a few pieces of silver?
There was also the fact that he was very weary. He had had little sleep since Tuesday night, and not very much then; and much of the time had been spent in the saddle, a wearing thing to one so little accustomed to long rides. Worn as he was, it was unthinkable that he should go far to-night. He might get as far as Chavagne, perhaps. But there he must sup and sleep; and what, then, of to-morrow?
Had he but thought of it before, perhaps Aline might have been able to assist him with the loan of a few louis. His first impulse now was to follow her to the château. But prudence dismissed the notion. Before he could reach her, he must be seen by servants, and word of his presence would go forth.
There was no choice for him; he must tramp as far as Chavagne, find a bed there, and leave to-morrow until it dawned. On the resolve he set his face in the direction whence he had come. But again he paused. Chavagne lay on the road to Rennes. To go that way was to plunge further into danger. He would strike south again. At the foot of some meadows on this side of the village there was a ferry that would put him across the river. Thus he would avoid the village; and by placing the river between himself and the immediate danger, he would obtain an added sense of security.
A lane, turning out of the highroad, a quarter of a mile this side of Gavrillac, led down to that ferry. By this lane some twenty minutes later came André-Louis with dragging feet. He avoided the little cottage of the ferryman, whose window was alight, and in the dark crept down to the boat, intending if possible to put himself across. He felt for the chain by which the boat was moored, and ran his fingers along this to the point where it was fastened. Here to his dismay he found a padlock.
He stood up in the gloom and laughed silently. Of course he might have known it. The ferry was the property of M. de La Tour d'Azyr, and not likely to be left unfastened so that poor devils might cheat him of seigneurial dues.
There being no possible alternative, he walked back to the cottage, and rapped on the door. When it opened, he stood well back, and aside, out of the shaft of light that issued thence.
"Ferry!" he rapped out, laconically.
The ferryman, a burly scoundrel well known to him, turned aside to pick up a lantern, and came forth as he was bidden. As he stepped from the little porch, he levelled the lantern so that its light fell on the face of this traveller.
"My God!" he ejaculated.
"You realize, I see, that I am pressed," said André-Louis, his eyes on the fellow's startled countenance.
"And well you may be with the gallows waiting for you at Rennes," growled the ferryman. "Since you've been so foolish as to come back to Gavrillac, you had better go again as quickly as you can. I will say nothing of having seen you."
I thank you, Fresnel. Your advice accords with my intention. That is why I need the boat."
"Ah, that, no," said Fresnel, with determination. "I'll hold my peace, but it's as much as my skin is worth to help you.
"You need not have seen my face. Forget that you have seen it."
"I'll do that, monsieur. But that is all I will do. I cannot put you across the river."
"Then give me the key of the boat, and I will put myself across."
"That is the same thing. I cannot. I'll hold my tongue, but I will not—I dare not—help you."
André-Louis looked a moment into that sullen, resolute face, and understood. This man, living under the shadow of La Tour d'Azyr, dared exercise no will that might be in conflict with the will of his dread lord.
"Fresnel," he said, quietly, "if, as you say, the gallows claim me, the thing that has brought me to this extremity arises out of the shooting of Mabey. Had not Mabey been murdered there would have been no need for me to have raised my voice as I have done. Mabey was your friend, I think. Will you for his sake lend me the little help I need to save my neck?"
The man kept his glance averted, and the cloud of sullenness deepened on his face.
"I would if I dared, but I dare not." Then, quite suddenly he became angry. It was as if in anger he sought support. "Don't you understand that I dare not? Would you have a poor man risk his life for you? What have you or yours ever done for me that you should ask that? You do not cross to-night in my ferry. Understand that, monsieur, and go at once—go before I remember that it may be dangerous even to have talked to you and not give information. Go!"
He turned on his heel to reenter his cottage, and a wave of hopelessness swept over André-Louis.
But in a second it was gone. The man must be compelled, and he had the means. He bethought him of a pistol pressed upon him by Le Chapelier at the moment of his leaving Rennes, a gift which at the time he had almost disdained. True, it was not loaded, and he had no ammunition. But how was Fresnel to know that?
He acted quickly. As with his right hand he pulled it from his pocket, with his left he caught the ferryman by the shoulder, and swung him round.
"What do you want now?" Fresnel demanded angrily. "Have n't I told you that I..."
He broke off short. The muzzle of the pistol was within a foot of his eyes.
"I want the key of the boat. That is all, Fresnel. And you can either give it me at once, or I'll take it after I have burnt your brains. I should regret to kill you, but I shall not hesitate. It is your life against mine, Fresnel; and you'll not find it strange that if one of us must die I prefer that it shall be you."
Fresnel dipped a hand into his pocket, and fetched thence a key. He held it out to André-Louis in fingers that shook—more in anger than in fear.
"I yield to violence," he said, showing his teeth like a snarling dog. "But don't imagine that it will greatly profit you."
André-Louis took the key. His pistol remained levelled.
"You threaten me, I think," he said. "It is not difficult to read your threat. The moment I am gone, you will run to inform against me. You will set the maréchaussée on my heels to overtake me."
"No, no!" cried the other. He perceived his peril. He read his doom in the cold, sinister note on which André-Louis addressed him, and grew afraid. "I swear to you, monsieur, that I have no such intention."
"I think I had better make quite sure of you."
"O my God! Have mercy, monsieur!" The knave was in a palsy of terror. "I mean you no harm—I swear to Heaven I mean you no harm. I will not say a word. I will not... "
"I would rather depend upon your silence than your assurances. Still, you shall have your chance. I am a fool, perhaps, but I have a reluctance to shed blood. Go into the house, Fresnel. Go, man. I follow you."
In the shabby main room of that dwelling, André-Louis halted him again. "Get me a length of rope," he commanded, and was readily obeyed.
Five minutes later Fresnel was securely bound to a chair, and effectively silenced by a very uncomfortable gag improvised out of a block of wood and a muffler.
On the threshold the departing André-Louis turned.
"Good-night, Fresnel," he said. Fierce eyes glared mute hatred at him. "It is unlikely that your ferry will be required again to-night. But some one is sure to come to your relief quite early in the morning. Until then bear your discomfort with what fortitude you can, remembering that you have brought it entirely upon yourself by your uncharitableness. If you spend the night considering that, the lesson should not be lost upon you. By morning you may even have grown so charitable as not to know who it was that tied you up. Good-night."
He stepped out and closed the door.
To unlock the ferry, and pull himself across the swift-running waters, on which the faint moonlight was making a silver ripple, were matters that engaged not more than six or seven minutes. He drove the nose of the boat through the decaying sedges that fringed the southern bank of the stream, sprang ashore, and made the little craft secure. Then, missing the footpath in the dark, he struck out across a sodden meadow in quest of the road.