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    Chapter 14

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    Chapter 14
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    TOO SHORT A SPOON.

    Count Hannibal remained seated, his chin sunk on his breast, until his
    ear assured him that the three men had descended the stairs to the floor
    below. Then he rose, and, taking the lanthorn from the table, on which
    Peridol had placed it, he went softly to the door, which, like the
    window, stood in a recess--in this case the prolongation of the passage.
    A brief scrutiny satisfied him that escape that way was impossible, and
    he turned, after a cursory glance at the floor and ceiling, to the dark,
    windy aperture which yawned at the end of the apartment. Placing the
    lanthorn on the table, and covering it with his cloak, he mounted the
    window recess, and, stepping to the unguarded edge, looked out.

    He knew, rather than saw, that Peridol had told the truth. The smell of
    the aguish flats which fringed that part of Paris rose strong in his
    nostrils. He guessed that the sluggish arm of the Seine which divided
    the Arsenal from the Ile des Louviers crawled below; but the night was
    dark, and it was impossible to discern land from water. He fancied that
    he could trace the outline of the island--an uninhabited place, given up
    to wood piles; but the lights of the college quarter beyond it, which
    rose feebly twinkling to the crown of St. Genevieve, confused his sight
    and rendered the nearer gloom more opaque. From that direction and from
    the Cite to his right came sounds which told of a city still heaving in
    its blood-stained sleep, and even in its dreams planning further
    excesses. Now a distant shot, and now a faint murmur on one of the
    bridges, or a far-off cry, raucous, sudden, curdled the blood. But even
    of what was passing under cover of the darkness, he could learn little;
    and after standing awhile with a hand on either side of the window he
    found the night air chill. He stepped back, and, descending to the
    floor, uncovered the lanthorn and set it on the table. His thoughts
    travelled back to the preparations he had made the night before with a
    view to securing Mademoiselle's person, and he considered, with a grim
    smile, how little he had foreseen that within twenty-four hours he would
    himself be a prisoner. Presently, finding his mask oppressive, he
    removed it, and, laying it on the table before him, sat scowling at the
    light.

    Biron had jockeyed him cleverly. Well, the worse for Armand de Gontaut
    de Biron if after this adventure the luck went against him! But in the
    mean time? In the mean time his fate was sealed if harm befell Biron.
    And what the King's real mind in Biron's case was, and what the Queen-
    Mother's, he could not say; just as it was impossible to predict how far,
    when they had the Grand Master at their mercy, they would resist the
    temptation to add him to the victims. If Biron placed himself at once in
    Marshal Tavannes' hands, all might be well. But if he ventured within
    the long arm of the Guises, or went directly to the Louvre, the fact that
    with the Grand Master's fate Count Hannibal's was bound up, would not
    weigh a straw. In such crises the great sacrificed the less great, the
    less great the small, without a scruple. And the Guises did not love
    Count Hannibal; he was not loved by many. Even the strength of his
    brother the Marshal stood rather in the favour of the King's heir, for
    whom he had won the battle of Jarnac, than intrinsically; and, durable in
    ordinary times, might snap in the clash of forces and interests which the
    desperate madness of this day had let loose on Paris.

    It was not the peril in which he stood, however--though, with the cold
    clear eye of the man who had often faced peril, he appreciated it to a
    nicety--that Count Hannibal found least bearable, but his enforced
    inactivity. He had thought to ride the whirlwind and direct the storm,
    and out of the danger of others to compact his own success. Instead he
    lay here, not only powerless to guide his destiny, which hung on the
    discretion of another, but unable to stretch forth a finger to further
    his plans.

    As he sat looking darkly at the lanthorn, his mind followed Biron and his
    riders through the midnight streets along St. Antoine and La Verrerie,
    through the gloomy narrows of the Rue la Ferronerie, and so past the
    house in the Rue St. Honore where Mademoiselle sat awaiting the
    morrow--sat awaiting Tignonville, the minister, the marriage! Doubtless
    there were still bands of plunderers roaming to and fro; at the barriers
    troops of archers stopping the suspected; at the windows pale faces
    gazing down; at the gates of the Temple, and of the walled enclosures
    which largely made up the city, strong guards set to prevent invasion.
    Biron would go with sufficient to secure himself; and unless he
    encountered the bodyguard of Guise his passage would quiet the town. But
    was it so certain that _she_ was safe? He knew his men, and while he had
    been free he had not hesitated to leave her in their care. But now that
    he could not go, now that he could not raise a hand to help, the
    confidence which had not failed him in straits more dangerous grew weak.
    He pictured the things which might happen, at which, in his normal frame
    of mind, he would have laughed. Now they troubled him so that he started
    at a shadow, so that he quailed at a thought. He, who last night, when
    free to act, had timed his coming and her rescue to a minute! Who had
    rejoiced in the peril, since with the glamour of such things foolish
    women were taken! Who had not flinched when the crowd roared most
    fiercely for her blood!

    Why had he suffered himself to be trapped? Why indeed? And thrice in
    passion he paced the room. Long ago the famous Nostradamus had told him
    that he would live to be a king, but of the smallest kingdom in the
    world. "Every man is a king in his coffin," he had answered. "The grave
    is cold and your kingdom shall be warm," the wizard had rejoined. On
    which the courtiers had laughed, promising him a Moorish island and a
    black queen. And he had gibed with the rest, but secretly had taken note
    of the sovereign counties of France, their rulers and their heirs. Now
    he held the thought in horror, foreseeing no county, but the cage under
    the stifling tiles at Loches, in which Cardinal Balue and many another
    had worn out their hearts.

    He came to that thought not by way of his own peril, but of
    Mademoiselle's; which affected him in so novel a fashion that he wondered
    at his folly. At last, tired of watching the shadows which the draught
    set dancing on the wall, he drew his cloak about him and lay down on the
    straw. He had kept vigil the previous night, and in a few minutes, with
    a campaigner's ease, he was asleep.

    Midnight had struck. About two the light in the lanthorn burned low in
    the socket, and with a soft sputtering went out. For an hour after that
    the room lay still, silent, dark; then slowly the grey dawn, the greyer
    for the river mist which wrapped the neighbourhood in a clammy shroud,
    began to creep into the room and discover the vague shapes of things.
    Again an hour passed, and the sun was rising above Montreuil, and here
    and there the river began to shimmer through the fog. But in the room it
    was barely daylight when the sleeper awoke, and sat up, his face
    expectant. Something had roused him. He listened.

    His ear, and the habit of vigilance which a life of danger instils, had
    not deceived him. There were men moving in the passage; men who shuffled
    their feet impatiently. Had Biron returned? Or had aught happened to
    him, and were these men come to avenge him? Count Hannibal rose and
    stole across the boards to the door, and, setting his ear to it,
    listened.

    He listened while a man might count a hundred and fifty, counting slowly.
    Then, for the third part of a second, he turned his head, and his eyes
    travelled the room. He stooped again and listened more closely, scarcely
    breathing. There were voices as well as feet to be heard now; one
    voice--he thought it was Peridol's--which held on long, now low, now
    rising into violence. Others were audible at intervals, but only in a
    growl or a bitter exclamation, that told of minds made up and hands which
    would not be restrained. He caught his own name, _Tavannes_--the mask
    was useless, then! And once a noisy movement which came to nothing,
    foiled, he fancied, by Peridol.

    He knew enough. He rose to his full height, and his eyes seemed a little
    closer together; an ugly smile curved his lips. His gaze travelled over
    the objects in the room, the bare stools and table, the lanthorn, the
    wine-pitcher; beyond these, in a corner, the cloak and straw on the low
    bed. The light, cold and grey, fell cheerlessly on the dull chamber, and
    showed it in harmony with the ominous whisper which grew in the gallery;
    with the stern-faced listener who stood, his one hand on the door. He
    looked, but he found nothing to his purpose, nothing to serve his end,
    whatever his end was; and with a quick light step he left the door,
    mounted the window recess, and, poised on the very edge, looked down.

    If he thought to escape that way his hope was desperate. The depth to
    the water-level was not, he judged, twelve feet. But Peridol had told
    the truth. Below lay not water, but a smooth surface of viscid slime,
    here luminous with the florescence of rottenness, there furrowed by a
    tiny runnel of moisture which sluggishly crept across it to the slow
    stream beyond. This quicksand, vile and treacherous, lapped the wall
    below the window, and more than accounted for the absence of bars or
    fastenings. But, leaning far out, he saw that it ended at the angle of
    the building, at a point twenty feet or so to the right of his position.

    He sprang to the floor again, and listened an instant; then, with guarded
    movements--for there was fear in the air, fear in the silent room, and at
    any moment the rush might be made, the door burst in--he set the lanthorn
    and wine-pitcher on the floor, and took up the table in his arms. He
    began to carry it to the window, but, halfway thither, his eye told him
    that it would not pass through the opening, and he set it down again and
    glided to the bed. Again he was thwarted; the bed was screwed to the
    floor. Another might have despaired at that, but he rose with no sign of
    dismay, and listening, always listening, he spread his cloak on the
    floor, and deftly, with as little noise and rustling as might be, be
    piled the straw in it, compressed the bundle, and, cutting the bed-cords
    with his dagger, bound all together with them. In three steps he was in
    the embrasure of the window, and, even as the men in the passage thrust
    the lieutenant aside and with a sudden uproar came down to the door, he
    flung the bundle lightly and carefully to the right--so lightly and
    carefully, and with so nice and deliberate a calculation, that it seemed
    odd it fell beyond the reach of an ordinary leap.

    An instant and he was on the floor again. The men had to unlock, to draw
    back the bolts, to draw back the door which opened outwards; their
    numbers, as well as their savage haste, impeded them. When they burst in
    at last, with a roar of "To the river! To the river!"--burst in a rush
    of struggling shoulders and lowered pikes, they found him standing, a
    solitary figure, on the further side of the table, his arms folded. And
    the sight of the passive figure for a moment stayed them.

    "Say your prayers, child of Satan!" cried the leader, waving his weapon.
    "We give you one minute!"

    "Ay, one minute!" his followers chimed in. "Be ready!"

    "You would murder me?" he said with dignity. And when they shouted
    assent, "Good!" he answered. "It is between you and M. de Biron, whose
    guest I am. But"--with a glance which passed round the ring of glaring
    eyes and working features--"I would leave a last word for some one. Is
    there any one here who values a safe-conduct from the King? 'Tis for two
    men coming and going for a fortnight." And he held up a slip of paper.

    The leader cried, "To hell with his safe-conduct! Say your prayers!"

    But all were not of his mind. On one or two of the savage faces--the
    faces, for the most part, of honest men maddened by their wrongs--flashed
    an avaricious gleam. A safe-conduct? To avenge, to slay, to kill--and
    to go safe! For some minds such a thing has an invincible fascination. A
    man thrust himself forward.

    "Ay, I'll have it!" he cried. "Give it here!"

    "It is yours," Count Hannibal answered, "if you will carry ten words to
    Marshal Tavannes--when I am gone."

    The man's neighbour laid a restraining hand on his shoulder.

    "And Marshal Tavannes will pay you finely," he said.

    But Maudron, the man who had offered, shook off the hand.

    "If I take the message!" he muttered in a grim aside. "Do you think me
    mad?" And then aloud he cried, "Ay, I'll take your message! Give me the
    paper."

    "You swear you will take it?"

    The man had no intention of taking it, but he perjured himself and went
    forward. The others would have pressed round too, half in envy, half in
    scorn; but Tavannes by a gesture stayed them.

    "Gentlemen, I ask a minute only," he said. "A minute for a dying man is
    not much. Your friends had as much."

    And the fellows, acknowledging the claim and assured that their victim
    could not escape, let Maudron go round the table to him.

    The man was in haste and ill at ease, conscious of his evil intentions
    and the fraud he was practising; and at once greedy to have, yet ashamed
    of the bargain he was making. His attention was divided between the slip
    of paper, on which his eyes fixed themselves, and the attitude of his
    comrades; he paid little heed to Count Hannibal, whom he knew to be
    unarmed. Only when Tavannes seemed to ponder on his message, and to be
    fain to delay, "Go on," he muttered with brutal frankness; "your time is
    up!"

    Tavannes started, the paper slipped from his fingers. Maudron saw a
    chance of getting it without committing himself, and quick as the thought
    leapt up in his mind he stooped, and grasped the paper, and would have
    leapt back with it! But quick as he, and quicker, Tavannes too stooped,
    gripped him by the waist, and with a prodigious effort, and a yell in
    which all the man's stormy nature, restrained to a part during the last
    few minutes, broke forth, he flung the ill-fated wretch head first
    through the window.

    The movement carried Tavannes himself--even while his victim's scream
    rang through the chamber--into the embrasure. An instant he hung on the
    verge; then, as the men, a moment thunderstruck, sprang forward to avenge
    their comrade, he leapt out, jumping for the struggling body that had
    struck the mud, and now lay in it face downwards.

    He alighted on it, and drove it deep into the quaking slime; but he
    himself bounded off right-handed. The peril was appalling, the
    possibility untried, the chance one which only a doomed man would have
    taken. But he reached the straw-bale, and it gave him a momentary, a
    precarious footing. He could not regain his balance, he could not even
    for an instant stand upright on it. But from its support he leapt on
    convulsively, and, as a pike, flung from above, wounded him in the
    shoulder, he fell his length in the slough--but forward, with his
    outstretched hands resting on soil of a harder nature. They sank, it is
    true, to the elbow, but he dragged his body forward on them, and forward,
    and freeing one by a last effort of strength--he could not free both,
    and, as it was, half his face was submerged--he reached out another yard,
    and gripped a balk of wood, which projected from the corner of the
    building for the purpose of fending off the stream in flood-time.

    The men at the window shrieked with rage as he slowly drew himself from
    the slough, and stood from head to foot a pillar of mud. Shout as they
    might, they had no firearms, and, crowded together in the narrow
    embrasure, they could take no aim with their pikes. They could only look
    on in furious impotence, flinging curses at him until he passed from
    their view, behind the angle of the building.

    Here for a score of yards a strip of hard foreshore ran between mud and
    wall. He struggled along it until he reached the end of the wall; then
    with a shuddering glance at the black heaving pit from which he had
    escaped, and which yet gurgled above the body of the hapless Maudron--a
    tribute to horror which even his fierce nature could not withhold--he
    turned and painfully climbed the river-bank. The pike-wound in his
    shoulder was slight, but the effort had been supreme; the sweat poured
    from his brow, his visage was grey and drawn. Nevertheless, when he had
    put fifty paces between himself and the buildings of the Arsenal he
    paused, and turned. He saw that the men had run to other windows which
    looked that way; and his face lightened and his form dilated with
    triumph.

    He shook his fist at them. "Ho, fools!" he cried, "you kill not Tavannes
    so! Till our next meeting at Montfaucon, fare you well!"
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