The Golden Whistle
THE GOLDEN WHISTLE
BY H. C. BAILEY
PEAL THE FIRST
THEY had called her Claire-Denise-Cécile-Bênoite de la Ferté, but she was quite small. So the honeysuckle eluded her. A little gray woman, she stood on a boulder above the brook, one arm uplifted, and still the cream-pink petals nodded two good inches over the tips of her twitching brown fingers. The sun found her face and flashed in her brown eyes and showed the faint flush of crimson in her ivory cheek, the full lips parted in anxious longing for her flower. So she stood in Auvergne three hundred years ago.
Bright and blue a sword gleamed over her head. The honeysuckle stalk was cloven, and the flower came fluttering down to brown fingers. The Demoiselle Claire-Denise-Cécile-Bênoite de la Ferté turned swiftly upon her boulder. All in one moment she beheld the gray eyes, the stiff, little yellow muustachios and peaked beard, the sunburnt face and square jaw, of a slim fellow in gray frieze. He saluted her with his sword. Denise sprang down from her boulder to curtsey.
"I thank you a thousand times, sir," she murmured.
"It is, mademoiselle, a thousand times too many."
"But guess how I wanted my honeysuckle."
"I conceive. One wishes always for what one has not."
"Faith, sir, you are a philosopher."
"On the contrary, mademoiselle, I am sane."
Denise gave him another curtsey. "My felicitations, sir," she murmured, with mocking eyes. "Now, I wish very much for what I have."
"But you have great treasures, mademoiselle," says he of the gray frieze; and then, as she started, "of beauty at the least," he explained quickly.
Denise exalted her chin. "I thought you were sane, sir."
"Pardieu, I had almost forgotten," the gray frieze admitted. "Mademoiselle, pardon. I promise to be—quite sane. But (pardon again) you spoke of wishing for what you have. You fear, then, to lose it. Here is Raoul de Ratine, a poor Norman gentleman, will defend it to the end."
"Infinite thanks, M. de Ratine." Her lips curled. "I see that you do not know what I am."
"It suffices, mademoiselle, that you are what I see. Ah, pardon, pardon, I become insane again."
"Know then, sir, that I am Claire-Denise-Cécile-Bênoite—she spoke the names slowly with a vast contempt and ended in a rush—"de ta Ferté, and I have nothing in all the world."
"Accept, mademoiselle, my entire devotion," says M. de Ratine.
"And I ought at this hour to be a nun."
"By the faith of my body, no!" cried M. de Ratine, with enthusiasm.
"At least my cousin commended me to a convent," says Denise in a small, contemptuous voice.
M. de Ratine turned up his moustachios. "I inform your cousin that he is a fool," he remarked.
The ivory cheeks of Denise dimpled. She looked at M. de Ratine under her eyelashes. "My cousin is the Duc de Contal," she said meekly.
M. de Ratine addressed heaven and earth. "M. le Due de Contal, you are a fool: I would say it to your face if I could."
"He is only a ninth cousin," said Denise.
"Even that is presumption," said M. de Ratine.
Denise looked up a moment with a gleam of laughter in her brown eyes, then turned away and sat down on the boulder and played with her honeysuckle. M. de Ratine contemplated her gravely, Denise set the flowers in her bosom. "M. de Ratine," she said, and paused awhile. Then she looked up. His gray eyes met hers honestly. "M. de Ratine—my father was the Sieur de Verneuil. That—all that"—the little brown hand made a wide gesture over the rolling pasture to the terraces of vines and the round blue mountains—"all that was his, and my dear château. And a year ago he—he died—and all passes to the Duc de Contal. M. le Duc wrote to me and counseled me the convent at Clermont. I—I could not." She blushed and looked down and was silent. M. de Ratine bowed gravely, and he, too, regarded the ground. "Then M. le Duc wrote and 'regretted my lack of vocation to Heaven' (oh, yes, he was pleased to be witty), and begged me 'be my own abbess at Verneuil till I found a vocation on earth.' " Flashing eyes, flaming cheeks were displayed to M. de Ratine. "And I stay there," cried Denise; "I live in his house, eating his bread. And I hate it, I hate it. But I can no other."
"I desire infinitely to say two words to Contal alone," says M. de Ratine.
"You know him?" cried Denise.
"Till now, mademoiselle, I believed that I did. I thought him a gentleman."
"He!" cried Denise in scorn.
M. de Ratine turned up his moustachios. "The comment suffices," he remarked. Then he looked at her keenly. "But you, mademoiselle, at least are safe here? None dares to trouble, to annoy?"
M. de Ratine seemed to know how peaceable was Auvergne under the good King Francois I.
The girl's eyes fell before his, and furrows came deep on his brow. She flushed, and did not answer for a while. "I thank you, sir; I believe I am safe," she said at last.
M. de Ratine made a bow. "Permit me, mademoiselle," he said, and held out on the palm of his hand a golden whistle. "If any knave should dare to annoy, let the whistle sound. Believe me, it will be heard."
Denise looked at him doubtfully. "By you, M. de Ratine?" He bowed. "You stay here, then? Your pardon, sir—why?"
M. de Ratine turned up a moustachio. "I study," he remarked, "the natural products of Auvergne."
"Oh, I trust they please you?"
"Mademoiselle, I have never seen the like."
"But, then,"—her brow puckered,—"do you purpose to live here?"
"I still hope," says M. de Ratine. He fell on his knee by her side and took her hand. "Mademoiselle—"
Denise started up. "Do not forget that you are sane, sir," she cried, laughing and blushing.
"I was offering, mademoiselle, not my heart, but my whistle," says M. de Ratine.
"Then I need not refuse," said Denise, laughing still, and took it and made him a curtsey and went lightfoot over the pasture.
Left alone, M. de Ratine kicked three stones splashing into the brook. "Contal," said he, "I desire to say two words. I think one suffices: Contal, bête."
Denise found a cavalier among the pines—a cavalier in crimson and cloth of gold, who stood across her path, smiling with lips and eyes.
"Again, M. de Canillac!" she cried sharply.
"Again! Always, my queen of loveliness, always your slave."
"Have the kindness, sir, to be my slave elsewhere," said Denise, with her chin exalted, and tried to pass him.
M. de Canillac was broad. "Ah, Denise, cruel always," he sighed, still barring the way.
"Sir, must I say 'always coward'?" cried Denise as he caught her arm.
"Mordieu! not that at least!" cried Canillac, holding her still. He threw his head back and his chest forward. "Prove me!" said he, and looked handsome.
"Faith, sir, you prove yourself," said Denise, with curling lip.
"Nay, listen, my fair." Black curls fell about his face as he bent to her ear, black eyes were aglow. "I dare your wrath, for I love you, Denise, and, pardieu, with that same cause I will dare your cousin Contal."
But still her cheeks were ivory white.
"Oh, remember he is not a woman, sir," says she.
"Were he King Francois I would dare him still," cried the amorous, valorous gentleman. "Whisper one word, my queen, and I uphold you in Verneuil forever, and Contal may do his worst. Make me happy, Denise, and you shall hold your loved lands of Verneuil—"
"For the profit of M. de Canillac!" cried Denise. "So here is the end of romance: We are to be two thieves together! Oh, indeed, I thank you for the honor. Pray, sir, give me the path." And again she tried to pass him, but Canillac, only smiling, always smiling, took her in his arms.
The golden whistle pealed clear.
"Why that?" cried Canillac, laughing. "Little one, who will dare touch Canillac?"
"The devil, some day," said M. de Ratine.
At the placid voice, Canillac let go his prey and started round. "Thank you," said M. de Ratine, and knocked him down. Canillac started up red with wrath and the blow, and whipped out his sword and ran upon Ratine. M. de Ratine shook out his gray cloak, caught the wild thrust in it, and closed. In a moment the Comte de Canillac was again upon his broad back on the pine needles, and M. de Ratine was breaking the sword across his knee. When Canillac had struggled up again, M. de Ratine politely offered him the two pieces. "I thought you might like one for each hand," he explained.
M. de Canillac amazed him with a loud laugh.
"Pardieu, sir, you teach me a lesson, and I thank you."
"It was a pure pleasure," says M. de Ratine.
But Canillac had turned to Denise. "But to you, mademoiselle, to you, how can I excuse myself? Ah, I think I was mad." He made a sweeping bow. "Pardon, pardon, ten thousand times!" Then he laughed a little. "And yet, and yet, mademoiselle, when you look into the mirror you will see a great excuse for my ardor."
"M. de Canillac," Ratine drawled, "try not to be so very ardent again."
"Sir, my word for it! Mademoiselle, I have learned a lesson. I kiss your hands." M. de Canillac bowed low and strode off to the sycamore whereto his horse was tethered.
M. de Ratine turned up his yellow moustachios and watched. He was surprised by two little cold hands clasping his. M. de Ratine looked down and saw himself in misty brown eyes, saw little full lips tremble betwixt a laugh and a sob. M. de Ratine grasped the cold hands close. "Ah, my friend, my friend," said the little full lips. M. de Ratine drew her closer, her heart beat against his arm, and she did not flinch from the light in his eyes.
Suddenly M. de Ratine let fall her hands.
"Mademoiselle," says he, "do not let me imitate M. de Canillac."
Denise hung her head and blushed. "M. de Ratine—you will come to the château?"
M. de Ratine stiffened. "How, mademoiselle?" he cried. "Shall I eat the bread of Contal?"
Denise stared a moment, then gave a little gasping sob. "Ah, I see how base you think me, then!" she murmured, and turned faltering away.
In a moment M. de Ratine was down on his knee, holding her hand: "Mademoiselle, I think you a saint and angel; I—but let me be sane!" He kissed her hand and rose and went quickly through the trees.
For, in fact, M. de Ratine desired to observe M. de Canillac. M. de Ratine lay down at the edge of the wood and watched Canillac ride away over the pastures. M. de Ratine communed with himself: "In fact, M. de Canillac, you were too polite. Why were you so polite? I desire infinitely to know. And that dear Canillac, he only recedes into the sunset." On went Canillac toward the valley past a herd of mountain ponies that flung up their heads to the wind and sniffed at him. "I suppose, my dear Canillac," says Ratine, "you wished us to think you a gentleman, to believe that we need not fear your malice. In fact, we do not fear you greatly, my dear. We—" M. de Ratine stopped his communings and started up. He stood on the hill-side and his gray eyes dwindled to points of light. "By the faith of my body," cried M. de Ratine, "he is gone to church! That good Canillac!"
PEAL THE SECOND.
In the morning before the sun was high Denise, in her silver-gray, came through the rose-garden and out to the pine wood. Sure, she needed more honeysuckle. In the gloom of the wood M. de Canillac met her again. Still he was smiling. Denise drew herself up to her little height. "Sweet, I am come for my answer," says M. de Canillac.
"You have had it, sir," cried Denise, flushing.
"Is it still the same?"—he was always smiling.—"Bed has not made you wiser?"
"It is still, it is always, the same!" cried Denise, with a stamp of her foot.
"I cannot believe it, pardieu. Confess, my fair, it is changed. It is now, ' I am yours, Francois'? Whisper it, then, my queen of blushes."
"Never!" cried Denise.
"Now!" cried Canillac, and sprang at her.
The golden whistle pealed again.
But feebly and short, for her hand was torn from her lips, a kerchief was pressed upon them. Other men were about her; roughly her hands were bound, and her ankles; the kerchief was tied over her mouth. Gasping, and hot with shame, she was borne away in Canillac's arms. The troop mounted and went off at speed over the pastures, and M. de Canillac, holding the writhing girl close to his bosom, said in her ear, "Confess, my fair, the answer is changed," and laughed and kissed her. And Denise moaned.
Soon they came to the little gray church, and M. de Canillac dismounted and bore in his prey. One man, his squire, went in with him.
Before the altar waited a priest with his book. Canillac set the girl down and held her so that she could not fall. Still she was gagged and bound, and still Canillac was smiling.
"My son," said the priest, "I trust the maiden comes of her own good will?"
"My father, you perceive her joy," said Canillac.
The priest looked an instant at her face, crimson and twisted in her agony. "Peace be with her!" said the priest, with a snuffle. "There is promise of bliss, my son." And he opened his book and began to read the Latin hastily. The words burned into the girl's brain, but she could not move or cry; only she set her eyes on the white face of the Virgin painted above the altar and prayed.
Canillac was gripping her bound hand in his, Canillac was drawing her closer, when, like rolling thunder, broke the thud of galloping horses and the ground began to tremble.
"France! France! St. Denis! Death!" the shouts of war rose loud.
For M. de Ratine, having ears, had heard his whistle peal; but, having eyes also, had seen Canillac's troop; and so, being only one man on foot, had not come to the rescue. Breathing short through his nostrils, M. de Ratine ran back to the cave where he made his lodging, endued himself in his cuirass of Milan steel, and flung a leg over his Normandy mare. Discreetly and afar he followed M. de Canillac's troop; but his tawny brows were drawn and he communed with himself in oaths. Then suddenly with a glad cry, "St. Denis de Contal!" he clapped his hand on his thigh and his spurs to his mare and laughed.
Before him the herd of mountain ponies were feeding calmly. Waving his sword aloft, shouting loud, M. de Ratine galloped down upon them, and the frightened beasts stared an instant, then turned tail, and the whole herd went galloping headlong over the pasture. Down upon the church swept a tempest of tossing manes. Shouting, swearing, wrenching at their bridles, Canillac's men were whirled away in the mad charge of the herd.
"France! France! St. Denis! Death!" roared Ratine, reining up at the door. Down he sprang, cast his reins about the bridle-spike, drew his sword, and rushed in.
Canillac's man met him in the doorway with a howl—"Dog!"
"I bite," said Ratine, and ran him through and sprang over him up the aisle. The priest fled.
Canillac cast Denise down on the stones and plucked out his sword and turned on Ratine, crying, "Devil!"
"Go greet him," said Ratine, and thrust straight. Then, as Canillac reeled back gurgling, M. de Ratine caught Denise up and cast her over his shoulder and ran hot-foot to his mare. He sprang to the saddle, he spoke to the mare, and she tossed her head and thundered off with her double burden.
Canillac's men were drawing out of the herd and spurring back.
PEAL THE THIRD
M. de Ratine wiped his sword on the mare's broad flank, then with light drawing strokes cut the cords at the girl's wrists and ankles. Then Denise caught the kerchief from her mouth and gasped and sneezed. "Oh, my friend, my friend!" said Denise, and held M. de Ratine very tight.
The gray eyes looked down into hers. "You believe that?" asked M. de Ratine.
Denise laughed a little: "Do I believe it? Truly yes."
"Believe it always, Denise," said M. de Ratine. "Also hold by the sword-belt." The graven, gleaming cuirass was cool to her burning cheek as she clung to him.
Over the short mountain grass they thundered. M. de Ratine had his head a little turned, with an ear to judge the distance of Canillac's men, with his eye searching for landmarks. The blue mountains ranged themselves anew and once more anew as the mare galloped on. A breath of heather, a keener, cold air, stung their nostrils as the plateau rose higher. The round peaks came nearer, the grass changed to tufted pink heather, gray-blue stones broke bare through the earth. More steeply still rose the ground. They were out on a narrow, bare track with the mountains closing in on each hand. The mare's deep flanks were heaving. Nearer and nearer yet came the clatter of Canillac's men.
Anxious-eyed, Denise looked up at M. de Ratine. But Ratine was leaning forward over her and peering ahead. He laid his hand on the mare's neck and, "Mimi, Mimi," he said gently, and Mimi tossed her wet head bravely, and gathered herself for one last struggle. And now Canillac's men were shouting, "Death, murderer, death!" Ratine turned in his saddle and let out a roar, "Death! Death!"
Swiftly bare walls of rock drew closer on each side; then Mimi felt the bit, and checked. Down sprang Ratine and set Denise on her feet. "Run and blow!" he said.
"Blow?" gasped Denise.
"Your whistle. Run! Run!" and Denise ran.
And the golden whistle pealed high and clear, and the mountains echoed its voice.
Ratine sprang to the saddle again and reined round to meet the charge. Howling, it came in column. There was no room for two cavaliers abreast in the pass above Montluçon. Came the first with his sword like a lance in rest, and Ratine swayed in his saddle and let the point go by and stabbed the man in the side before the second was on him. As the point slid along his cuirass. Ratine slashed at the man's neck, and so two horses went rushing by with their riders falling, limply thudding. Tail to nose, the rest of the troop reined up in a hurry.
Then with a cry: "On foot, lads, and together!" and down they sprang, and rushed in a mass to stab the mare and get her rider down. With an oath. Ratine made Mimi rear above the swords and sprang down to fight for his mare. Back to the rock in the narrow path he was foining and thrusting madly, and his tanned face grew darker and the muscles bulged in his jaw.
But the Demoiselle Claire-Denise-Céile-Bênoite de la Ferté had been very much surprised. To her whistle had come an answering shout, and, lo! as she ran and the little town of Montluçon broke on her view through the rocks, the houses began to vomit forth men and horses. A wild squadron came galloping up, and the leader of them howled at Denise: "Where is he? Where?" And Denise, amazed, drew back from the rush and pointed up the pass. The leader stood in his stirrups as he galloped and, gaining the crest of the track, shouted: "Contal! St. Denis de Contal! Contal!" and the squadron took up the cry.
Ganillac's men heard it and fell back from Ratine's darting point, gazed an instant, liked not the sight, and ran to their horses. M. de Ratine leaned back against the rock panting, and the mare Mimi came to him and put her nose on his shoulder. "Pardieu, Mimi, we conquer—thus far," panted Ratine, caressing.
Then the wild squadron came up to him and checked, saluting. "Ah, Contras," said M. de Ratine, "chase me these rascals a little, Contras." He pointed with red sword at Canillac's flying troop. "They disfigure my landscape."
PEAL THE FOURTH
M. de Ratine put up his sword, put his arm through Mimi's bridle, and walked on down the pass to Montluçon. Close above the town a little gray woman waited with her hand to her eyes, peering anxiously through the sunlight.
"My gratitude, mademoiselle, for your whistle," said M. de Ratine.
Denise came to him very quickly. "Ah, sir, you are safe?" she cried. "You are not wounded, sir?"
"I regret, mademoiselle, that I have shed for you only the blood of others. But doubtless they regret that, too. Let us pass to Montluçon." And he offered his arm.
Denise put her little brown hand in it. "And these men who came, are they yours?"
"Pardieu, no, mademoiselle. Yours."
"Mine?" cried Denise, round-eyed.
"At least they came to your whistle," said M. de Ratine.
"M. de Ratine, I do not understand you."
Ratine gazed a moment into the wide brown eyes.
"Unhappily," he said in a lower voice—"unhappily now you must."
While he spoke they came upon a big white pavilion. Two grooms ran to take Mimi. Into the pavilion, while she gazed at him wondering, M. de Ratine led Denise. The golden carpet was like down beneath her feet, roses lay fragrant in bowls of silver on the white tables; the canvas walls were hidden behind brocade.
"Mademoiselle, Raoul-Denis-Philibert-Geoffroi, Duc de Contal, presents to you his obeisances and begs you honor him as his guest." So M. de Ratine, to flushing cheeks, to parting lips, to wondering brown eyes.
"But—but—where is M. le Duc?" Denise stammered. M. de Ratine looked down at the hand in his arm. "Mademoiselle, where he would most desire to be."
Denise drew her hand from his arm and started back.
"You are he?" she cried, and her eyes kindled.
He bowed. "But it is, mademoiselle, what I cannot help."
The ivory cheeks were crimson now, her eyes aflame, her bosom was rising fast. "Then—then you were false!" she cried. "You lied to me! You cheated—you tricked me! Yes! To surprise my secrets—you spied—"
"Does anything surprise you in the Duc de Contal?" he said gravely.
"Ah—you—" cried Denise, and a sob broke her voice and she turned away a moment. Then, meeting his eyes again with cheeks all white. "M. le Duc!" she cried fiercely, "I hated you before I knew you—now—I despise!"
"Mademoiselle, you were" logical; you are now just," said Contal.
"Aye, sneer at me, sir! You have the power."
"Neither power nor will, mordieu!" cried Contal, sharply, flushing beneath the tan. Then he drew himself up and bowed. "Mademoiselle, I will beg you yet rest here till I may provide you safety at Verneuil. That shall be yours by law, as it has always been by right. And the Duc de Contal—eh, the Duc de Contal promises to trouble your eyes no more—unless yourself command him." He bowed low and went out.
Denise watched the slim figure stalk out to the sunshine, stood looking long, with her hands clasped on her bosom. Tears began to dim the brown eyes, her throat was trembling, and she bit at her lip.
The Duc de Contal was in the stable with his arm round Mimi's glossy neck. "Ah, Mimi, Mimi, after all—we lose," said he. But Mimi devoured her hard-earned mash. The Duc de Contal sighed for her insensibility and for himself.
Then the golden whistle pealed faintly.
Within the pavilion Denise was vastly concerned with a bowl of crimson roses. Sure, she could not hear the swift step or see Raoul-Denis-Philibert-Geoffroi. Nay, who in all the world could have foretold the coming of him? And yet, "Mademoiselle, one is here to obey," said the Duc de Contal.
Denise looked down most intent on her roses. "You remember—you told me—one wishes always for what one has not—I—I wish for your pardon."
Contal went down on his knees and took her hand. It trembled a little in his. "We are, then, companions," said he; "for 'tis your pardon I desire very much, Denise," and he kissed her hand.
Denise smiled down at him with misty eyes.
"There was never any one made me so ashamed," said Denise; and then, mildly: "We—we are friends?"
The Duc de Contal rose up. "Denise, one wishes always for what one has not," he said softly.
Denise looked into his eyes a moment, then put her other hand in his. "Still?" said Denise. And was engulfed.