The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 17
THE FLIGHT FROM SCEAUX.
THE responsibility brought by the possession of such valuable state papers oppressed me greatly, to say nothing of the perils which would beset their custodian if it became Jerome's purpose to reclaim them. I thought it most prudent and proper under present conditions to see the dispatches safe in de Serigny's hands—then, at least, I would be absolved from any blame in the matter. Serigny held me responsible, and it would perhaps be the part of wisdom to act independently of Jerome, report fully to Serigny, and if it were then his wish that the investigation concerning Yvard and Madame du Maine be pressed to further discoveries, nothing would be easier than to return to Paris almost before Jerome could miss me. I need tell Serigny nothing of my suspicion of Jerome; even if true, his animosity would vanish with the cause which gave it birth.
There was much to acquaint Serigny with, much perchance he knew already. Paris swarmed with rumors. Every lip was busy with second-hand gossip coming, as each relator declared, from the most reliable sources. "My cousin, who is laundress to the Countess de Lanois, says," and upon this immaculate authority the butcher upon his morning rounds detailed the most delightful and impossible gossip to his customers.
"Pierre, my son, the valet, who is in the confidence of the Duke of Gesvres, heard His Grace say with his own lips"—and so the wine-room stories flew, gathering strength and falsehood as they went. But the story of to-day gave the lie to that of yesterday, and no man knew the truth.
War with Spain filled every mouth, yet none had a why or a wherefore. The King said "war," and all his nation echoed. No, not all. Many there were who gave voice to the cry with hearts that rebelled, with clear brains questioning the right of one man to plunge a whole people into renewed slaughter. These held their peace for the sake of their necks. "I am the State," Louis had declared, and such ideas were not for the canaille to have; they must curb their tongues to cheat the gibbet. Being a soldier and under orders, I had no right to form opinions, but, sobered in some degree by these reflections, paced about until it came time to take horse and away.
"In the name of the wandering Ulysses, Placide, where have you been these two good hours?" said Jerome, suddenly coming toward me.
"Has it been so long? I tired of the crowd and strolled alone through the gardens."
His quick eye caught sight of the handkerchief tucked snugly in my belt.
"A lady? And so soon?" he bantered me.
My tell-tale flush permitted no denial, nor did I care to discuss it. As we talked we drifted into a small room just off the main hall.
"By the way, Placide, had we better not place our dispatches in some safe hiding until we leave here? It might be suspected we have them. The devil only knows what that scheming de Valence and du Maine may not unearth. Their spies are everywhere."
I agreed with him. It was as well; anything to gain time and allay suspicion. But I understood my lady's warning was true; his earnestness convinced me.
"Where do you carry them?"
"Sewn in the lining of my cloak," I replied. A lie, but pardonable.
"Why, you careless fellow; they maybe lost. Where is your cloak?" seeing I did not have it.
"In charge of Damien; he is trusty."
"Better have it yourself; wait here, I will go and fetch it."
I congratulated myself on this diplomatic stroke, for Jerome was about to start off in all haste when Damien himself appeared, and before I could stop him, delivered the message.
"The horses are saddled and at the door."
"Go and wait with them."
Jerome had taken my cloak from the fellow's arm, for in fact he had it, and now laid it across his knee. His blank expression showed utter astonishment at the disclosure.
"What does this mean? We are to rest here to-night?"
"No; I ride to Paris."
"I am afraid."
"Of everything. We are in the house of our enemies, and it is the quality of courage to be discreet."
During this brief dialogue Jerome was stealthily running his hands through the lining of my cloak until he comprehended I had misled him. I could almost put his thought in words. Together we arose, laying each our hands upon the half-closed door, he to hold it, I to open it, steady-eyed, and each reluctant to cause the breach we knew must come.
"Placide, the papers are not here," he said in a quiet tone, yet full of determination.
"I know it."
"Why have you deceived me then?" for he could mask his purposes no longer, "Hand me those dispatches."
"No. My orders are to place them in the hands of Serigny."
"But I must have them."
"And I tell you as firmly, you can not."
"Listen, Captain," he begged in altered tones, "those dispatches may compromise Celeste. Let us take from them anything which implicates her in this miserable intrigue, and deliver the rest. That is easy. I can open and close them again so it can not be told."
"My orders are not to open them."
"By God, you will!" he burst out with volcanic fury, "no, no; I am too hot. We can lose them; tell Serigny they were never found; tell him Yvard carried them off; tell him he never had them. We can fix a tale."
"It would be a long story, and a liar must needs have a good memory."
I was playing for time, time to think, time to get away.
"But I will go with you to Serigny," he insisted, "tell the lie and make him to believe. 'Pshaw, man, you know not the ways of the world, at least not at the Court of France."
"Think, Jerome, of the war, of our people in the colonies, of our honour?"
"I care not for it all," the wild passion in his voice made me almost fear him. "All that is as nothing to me where Celeste is concerned. Oh, Placide, think of it! I love her, love her, love her—do you comprehend what that means to such a man as I? I, who have loved her almost from her birth, have seen her taken from me and sold—yes, sold by her money-loving father, sold, sold! I, who have borne all her husband's leers when, flushed with the insolence of rank and wine, this shrivelled bridegroom bore her as a piece of ornament to his house in Paris. Can I bear to lose her now?
"But, Jerome, you would not be such a coward as to permit our brethren in the colonies to be slaughtered, while you tell your pitiful lie to shield a woman? It can not be done. What a fool you are come to be. Man, man, where is your courage?"
"I care not. Love for such a woman would make of Truth a liar, and of Jove a fool. Think, Placide, think of her, Celeste, in the Bastille, the irons cutting into her delicate hands, those hands which I have so fondly held within my own—the cold stones for her bed. Or, worse: The block, the headsman and the jeering rabble. Have you no feeling, man? Suppose there was some woman whom you loved—a guilty love, I grant—but so strong, so deep, so overpowering, you could not master it? Suppose she were threatened, would you not protect her even if you lost your life; yea, bartered away your honor?"
A pale little tearful face thrust itself before me as he spoke, and I knew my own weak heart. I confess his pleading staggered me, and I hesitated. He came closer; all the love and fear of a strong and desperate man wove itself into his words.
"Could you only have seen her two hours ago when you left her chamber; have heard her sobs, felt the tremble of her heart when she threw herself, just as when a child she used to do, into my arms pleading for protection! Those dispatches will ruin her. She so calm, so proud, so brave to all the world, wept like a terrified baby upon my breast. Placide, I'd die and go to hell to save her. She so cold and pure, her very name is a reproach to this flock of butterfly women. This woman loves me, loves me even though that love be what men call dishonor. Bah! I hate the word. Her father never sold her heart. No, that was mine, forever mine. Had I but foreseen this I'd have left you rotting in Bertrand's dungeon. No, no. Placide, I meant it not; I'm not myself; forgive me, comrade; pity her and pity me."
I vaguely wondered what there could be in the packet to cause him so sincere an apprehension. But I must think of my people and be strong. I denied him once for all. He sprang at me with the fury of a demon. Being the cooler and stronger, I threw him off easily and reached the door as he came again with his sword. It was a delicate predicament. I could easily kill him. Wild with a lover's fear, he left his front open to my blade, but I'd had enough of death. He paused to shove a table from his path, which gave me time to open and slip through the door.
In a moment he rushed out behind me, pale and panting. The corridor, deserted, echoed to our flying steps. I ran on ahead making my way toward the horses. Meeting people outside, we had to slacken our gait, smile, and conceal the realities of the situation, the necessity for which he apprehended as quickly as I.
Four horses stood ready, and choosing the one I thought best fitted for a hard chase—it was evident we could not afford to fight it out at Sceaux—and to fight seemed now his purpose—I vaulted lightly into the saddle, and before Jerome could hinder, had jumped the low wall and taken the direct road to Paris.
Practiced horseman as Jerome was, it took him no time to follow, and his grooms joined in the chase.
On, on, we sped. Trees, fences, walls and people all melted into one motley and indistinguishable stream. In the open road we strung out, according to the speed of our mounts, one of the grooms dropping farther and farther in the rear. The distance between Jerome and myself, despite his frantic belabourings of his brave steed, grew steadily greater.
Just before we passed a crooked lane off to the left, leading whither I knew not, Jerome turned in his saddle and called to the two grooms now well to the rear.
"That way quick; to the Versailles road. Cut him off."
The fellows obeyed, reining their horses into a swinging lope, as, less hurried, they took the lane indicated. Jerome thence rode on after me alone. The situation was now becoming awkward. I had acted without cool consideration heretofore, taking the Paris road because it was the only one I knew, and trusting thereafter largely to fortune. Now, as I caught occasional glimpses of the city spires, the towers of Notre Dame, I must perforce remember I had no hopes from them. The crazed man behind knew the city well, while to me it was a labyrinth of difficulty. I had no friends, while he counted many. I must act, and that quickly. Had I but known enough to turn down that lane into the Versailles road I could have reached the palace without molestation, thanks to my good luck in picking the best horse of the lot. Thinking of the lane brought an idea which promised well.
Moderating my speed gradually I suffered Jerome to draw nearer. I then called over my shoulder that as we were now man to man, we might dismount and fight it out upon a piece of level sward beside the road. His horse was nearly spent, and inflamed to fury by the fear of my escape, he eagerly agreed. While we parleyed, I worked myself into a position near his horse's head, and as he prepared to alight, snatched my sword and with a quick upper cut severed one rein near the bit. The blade having cut his horse slightly under his throat, he reared and plunged, and finding himself uncontrolled started madly off down the road, Jerome cursing, screaming and clinging to his mane.
I had to laugh at the success of my stratagem, for though it was a scurvy trick to play an old friend, it was much the simplest way out of the difficulty to dispose of him in this bloodless fashion. I put my horse about now without interference. When I wheeled down the lane toward Versailles, Jerome's clatter and dust was just dying away over the crest of a distant hill, making most excellent time in the direction of Paris.
Now that this new danger was past, I rode on heavy-hearted enough, for I had grown to love Jerome, and blamed him little for his sudden touch of fury. For I was nearly in the same boat, borne on by the same strong currents as Jerome.
Verily, what will man not do for woman? Love had turned him from a courteous nobleman of France, a brave and kindly gentleman, into the frenzied coward who would lie to his master, slay his friend, and turn traitor to his countrymen. A god could not love and be wise.I jogged along slowly, seeking to rest my horse, for I could not tell how soon I must look to his speed for safety. It was necessary also that I should see the two fellows who watched the Versailles road before they caught sight of me. Possibly an artifice might avail me where force would fail.
Presently from a slight eminence the broad highway could be seen winding out of Paris, glistening in the starlight, for it was now after dusk, twisting in dusty undulations toward the distant palace of the King. I drew rein among some trees which served for shelter, and scanned the way to see if the watchers were in sight. The lane, before it entered the Versailles road, branched out into two portions, one bearing away toward Paris, while the other traversed a piece of low ground that struck the main road several hundred yards in the other direction. Within the irregular triangle thus formed the two grooms had thrown themselves upon the ground, being distinctly visible in a little clearing.
Their position commanded quite a considerable stretch of road toward the city, and as by going that way it would take a good hour and a half of hard riding to get so far, it was certain they did not expect me to pass for some time. That cut-off through the lane must have been ten miles the shorter journey.
This reflection gave me some hope that I might be able to slip by in a gallop before they could take horse. Yet I could not afford to waste much time, for Jerome might perchance find means to follow, and would not be in a pleasant humour. There could be no accounting for the lengths to which his desperation and folly might carry him. I had need for both haste and caution.
I was now at the top of a slight hillock, the grooms resting at the foot. As ill fortune would have it, my horse's hoof loosened a stone, and one of them looking up recognized my figure clear drawn against the fading colours of the sky. They both jumped up with an alertness which would have done credit to old woodsmen, and before I could dodge by, had remounted and taken possession of the road. My more elevated position and perhaps better hearing, too, enabled me to detect the coming of persons along the road from Paris. Certainly as many as three or four horsemen, perhaps a vehicle. It could hardly be possible that Jerome had made the trip so quickly, yet I did not know what other and shorter way he might find. At any rate every instant intensified the danger, for if it were Jerome, then, indeed, I could not hope to make Versailles that night.
Listening more critically I decided they were travelling too slowly to be Jerome's party.
I would then most gladly have charged the insolents in front and taken all chances, but my half hour of quiet thought had brought me the conclusion it was too much to risk my life, at least until Serigny was acquainted with the information we had gained. I, too, was the only person who knew of the traitors on board le Dauphin.
"Who are you, and what do you mean stopping a gentleman's path?" I called to the twain who had drawn a little away from the foot of the hill seeing the disadvantage of their former position in case I charged them, and preferring to receive me on the open ground.
"No harm, Monsieur, we only mean to detain you until M. de Greville comes up," the slender man spoke quite politely.
"M. de Greville will not come up this night—may God have mercy on his soul," I added solemnly.
"Why not, fine sir?" the gruffer fellow on the big bay questioned with some heat. I made no quibble on his manner, but replied:
"I doubt I have slain him. He lies back yonder in the road to Sceaux, and I know not whether he be dead or still lives."
They hesitated and consulted together in a low tone; I saw my opportunity to press their indecision.
"What excuse can you make and what authority have you for halting an officer of the King with dispatches to the King? With M. Jerome de Greville to stand between you and harm it was dangerous enough; now it is a matter of hanging."
"But M. de Greville is not dead," they protested together, "we left him a few minutes since alive and well." I seized upon the vacillation manifest in their voices and proceeded with confidence.
"Then how think you I came along this road? Think you M. Jerome would let me go so easily? You know his temper too well. Does he change his mind like a woman? I turned about to take the nearer path, and see, his blood is not yet dry upon my sword."
"We do not believe you. It is some trick."
"If you will but move this way and give me clear passage to Versailles, I will go and say nothing. You can then return and minister to your master."
"Nay, we'll hold the road an hour, which gives him time to come up. An hour gone and you may pursue your journey."
"Then, forsooth, one of you can make his peace with God. I'll shoot your stoutest bully and try blades with the other."
I raised the pistol which had been concealed unknown to Jerome, and to say the truth, it looked formidable enough all a-glitter beneath the rising moon, though I doubted much if I could strike my mark.
As I started resolutely onward I warned them: "Pull your nags off in yonder level space, leave the left fork free, or by the gods, you burly black-haired rascal, I'll take the first shot at you, you make the fairest target. Way there, in the King's name!"
As is ever so with low-born churls, and no gentleman to command, each looked to the other for some act of heroism, and each sought his own safety.
They stood their ground only an instant, then pulled aside as I had bidden them. As soon as I passed them a decent distance as if I had no fear, I put spurs to my good steed, and, breathing more freely than I had done for many days, heard the merry pounding of his hoofs upon the open way to my mission's end.