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    Chapter 19

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    Chapter 19
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    IN THE ORLEANNAIS.

    "But you fear him?"

    "Fear him?" Madame St. Lo answered; and, to the surprise of the Countess,
    she made a little face of contempt. "No; why should I fear him? I fear
    him no more than the puppy leaping at old Sancho's bridle fears his tall
    playfellow! Or than the cloud you see above us fears the wind before
    which it flies!" She pointed to a white patch, the size of a man's hand,
    which hung above the hill on their left hand and formed the only speck in
    the blue summer sky. "Fear him? Not I!" And, laughing gaily, she put
    her horse at a narrow rivulet which crossed the grassy track on which
    they rode.

    "But he is hard?" the Countess murmured in a low voice, as she regained
    her companion's side.

    "Hard?" Madame St. Lo rejoined with a gesture of pride. "Ay, hard as the
    stones in my jewelled ring! Hard as flint, or the nether millstone--to
    his enemies! But to women? Bah! Who ever heard that he hurt a woman?"

    "Why, then, is he so feared?" the Countess asked, her eyes on the subject
    of their discussion--a solitary figure riding some fifty paces in front
    of them.

    "Because he counts no cost!" her companion answered. "Because he killed
    Savillon in the court of the Louvre, though he knew his life the forfeit.
    He would have paid the forfeit too, or lost his right hand, if Monsieur,
    for his brother the Marshal's sake, had not intervened. But Savillon had
    whipped his dog, you see. Then he killed the Chevalier de Millaud, but
    'twas in fair fight, in the snow, in their shirts. For that, Millaud's
    son lay in wait for him with two, in the passage under the Chatelet; but
    Hannibal wounded one, and the others saved themselves. Undoubtedly he is
    feared!" she added with the same note of pride in her voice.

    The two who talked, rode at the rear of the little company which had left
    Paris at daybreak two days before, by the Porte St. Jacques. Moving
    steadily south-westward by the lesser roads and bridle-tracks--for Count
    Hannibal seemed averse from the great road--they had lain the second
    night in a village three leagues from Bonneval. A journey of two days on
    fresh horses is apt to change scenery and eye alike; but seldom has an
    alteration--in themselves and all about them--as great as that which
    blessed this little company, been wrought in so short a time. From the
    stifling wynds and evil-smelling lanes of Paris, they had passed to the
    green uplands, the breezy woods and babbling streams of the upper
    Orleannais; from sights and sounds the most appalling, to the solitude of
    the sandy heath, haunt of the great bustard, or the sunshine of the
    hillside, vibrating with the songs of larks; from an atmosphere of terror
    and gloom to the freedom of God's earth and sky. Numerous enough--they
    numbered a score of armed men--to defy the lawless bands which had their
    lairs in the huge forest of Orleans, they halted where they pleased: at
    mid-day under a grove of chestnut-trees, or among the willows beside a
    brook; at night, if they willed it, under God's heaven. Far, not only
    from Paris, but from the great road, with its gibbets and pillories--the
    great road which at that date ran through a waste, no peasant living
    willingly within sight of it--they rode in the morning and in the
    evening, resting in the heat of the day. And though they had left Paris
    with much talk of haste, they rode more at leisure with every league.

    For whatever Tavannes' motive, it was plain that he was in no hurry to
    reach his destination. Nor for that matter were any of his company.
    Madame St. Lo, who had seized the opportunity of escaping from the
    capital under her cousin's escort, was in an ill-humour with cities, and
    declaimed much on the joys of a cell in the woods. For the time the
    coarsest nature and the dullest rider had had enough of alarums and
    conflicts.

    The whole company, indeed, though it moved in some fashion of array with
    an avant and a rear-guard, the ladies riding together, and Count Hannibal
    proceeding solitary in the midst, formed as peaceful a band, and one as
    innocently diverted, as if no man of them had ever grasped pike or blown
    a match. There was an old rider among them who had seen the sack of
    Rome, and the dead face of the great Constable the idol of the Free
    Companies. But he had a taste for simples and much skill in them; and
    when Madame had once seen Badelon on his knees in the grass searching for
    plants, she lost her fear of him. Bigot, with his low brow and matted
    hair, was the abject slave of Suzanne, Madame St. Lo's woman, who twitted
    him mercilessly on his Norman _patois_, and poured the vials of her scorn
    on him a dozen times a day. In all, with La Tribe and the Carlats,
    Madame St. Lo's servants, and the Countess's following, they numbered not
    far short of two score; and when they halted at noon, and under the
    shadow of some leafy tree, ate their mid-day meal, or drowsed to the
    tinkle of Madame St. Lo's lute, it was difficult to believe that Paris
    existed, or that these same people had so lately left its blood-stained
    pavements.

    They halted this morning a little earlier than usual. Madame St. Lo had
    barely answered her companion's question before the subject of their
    discussion swung himself from old Sancho's back, and stood waiting to
    assist them to dismount. Behind him, where the green valley through
    which the road passed narrowed to a rocky gate, an old mill stood among
    willows at the foot of a mound. On the mound behind it a ruined castle
    which had stood siege in the Hundred Years' War raised its grey walls;
    and beyond this the stream which turned the mill poured over rocks with a
    cool rushing sound that proved irresistible. The men, their horses
    watered and hobbled, went off, shouting like boys, to bathe below the
    falls; and after a moment's hesitation Count Hannibal rose from the grass
    on which he had flung himself.

    "Guard that for me, Madame," he said. And he dropped a packet, bravely
    sealed and tied with a silk thread, into the Countess's lap. "'Twill be
    safer than leaving it in my clothes. Ohe!" And he turned to Madame St.
    Lo. "Would you fancy a life that was all gipsying, cousin?" And if
    there was irony in his voice, there was desire in his eyes.

    "There is only one happy man in the world," she answered, with
    conviction.

    "By name?"

    "The hermit of Compiegne."

    "And in a week you would be wild for a masque!" he said cynically. And
    turning on his heel he followed the men.

    Madame St. Lo sighed complacently. "Heigho!" she said. "He's right! We
    are never content, _ma mie_! When I am trifling in the Gallery my heart
    is in the greenwood. And when I have eaten black bread and drank spring
    water for a fortnight I do nothing but dream of Zamet's, and white
    mulberry tarts! And you are in the same case. You have saved your round
    white neck, or it has been saved for you, by not so much as the thickness
    of Zamet's pie-crust--I declare my mouth is beginning to water for
    it!--and instead of being thankful and making the best of things, you are
    thinking of poor Madame d'Yverne, or dreaming of your calf-love!"

    The girl's face--for a girl she was, though they called her Madame--began
    to work. She struggled a moment with her emotion, and then broke down,
    and fell to weeping silently. For two days she had sat in public and not
    given way. But the reference to her lover was too much for her strength.

    Madame St. Lo looked at her with eyes which were not unkindly.

    "Sits the wind in that quarter?" she murmured. "I thought so! But
    there, my dear, if you don't put that packet in your gown you'll wash out
    the address! Moreover, if you ask me, I don't think the young man is
    worth it. It is only that what we have not got--we want!"

    But the young Countess had borne to the limit of her powers. With an
    incoherent word she rose to her feet, and walked hurriedly away. The
    thought of what was and of what might have been, the thought of the lover
    who still--though he no longer seemed, even to her, the perfect hero--held
    a place in her heart, filled her breast to overflowing. She longed for
    some spot where she could weep unseen; where the sunshine and the blue
    sky would not mock her grief; and seeing in front of her a little clump
    of alders, which grew beside the stream, in a bend that in winter was
    marshy, she hastened towards it.

    Madame St. Lo saw her figure blend with the shadow of the trees.

    "Quite _a la_ Ronsard, I give my word!" she murmured. "And now she is
    out of sight! _La, la_! I could play at the game myself, and carve
    sweet sorrow on the barks of trees, if it were not so lonesome! And if I
    had a man!"

    And gazing pensively at the stream and the willows, my lady tried to work
    herself into a proper frame of mind; now murmuring the name of one
    gallant, and now, finding it unsuited, the name of another. But the soft
    inflection would break into a giggle, and finally into a yawn; and, tired
    of the attempt, she began to pluck grass and throw it from her. By-and-by
    she discovered that Madame Carlat and the women, who had their place a
    little apart, had disappeared; and affrighted by the solitude and
    silence--for neither of which she was made--she sprang up and stared
    about her, hoping to discern them. Right and left, however, the sweep of
    hillside curved upward to the skyline, lonely and untenanted; behind her
    the castled rock frowned down on the rugged gorge and filled it with
    dispiriting shadow. Madame St. Lo stamped her foot on the turf.

    "The little fool!" she murmured pettishly. "Does she think that I am to
    be murdered that she may fatten on sighs? Oh, come up, Madame, you must
    be dragged out of this!" And she started briskly towards the alders,
    intent on gaining company as quickly as possible.

    She had gone about fifty yards, and had as many more to traverse when she
    halted. A man, bent double, was moving stealthily along the farther side
    of the brook, a little in front of her. Now she saw him, now she lost
    him; now she caught a glimpse of him again, through a screen of willow
    branches. He moved with the utmost caution, as a man moves who is
    pursued or in danger; and for a moment she deemed him a peasant whom the
    bathers had disturbed and who was bent on escaping. But when he came
    opposite to the alder-bed she saw that that was his point, for he
    crouched down, sheltered by a willow, and gazed eagerly among the trees,
    always with his back to her; and then he waved his hand to some one in
    the wood.

    Madame St. Lo drew in her breath. As if he had heard the sound--which
    was impossible--the man dropped down where he stood, crawled a yard or
    two on his face, and disappeared.

    Madame stared a moment, expecting to see him or hear him. Then, as
    nothing happened, she screamed. She was a woman of quick impulses,
    essentially feminine; and she screamed three or four times, standing
    where she was, her eyes on the edge of the wood. "If that does not bring
    her out, nothing will!" she thought.

    It brought her. An instant, and the Countess appeared, and hurried in
    dismay to her side.

    "What is it?" the younger woman asked, glancing over her shoulder; for
    all the valley, all the hills were peaceful, and behind Madame St. Lo--but
    the lady had not discovered it--the servants who had returned were laying
    the meal. "What is it?" she repeated anxiously.

    "Who was it?" Madame St. Lo asked curtly. She was quite calm now.

    "Who was--who?"

    "The man in the wood?"

    The Countess stared a moment, then laughed. "Only the old soldier they
    call Badelon, gathering simples. Did you think that he would harm me?"

    "It was not old Badelon whom I saw!" Madame St. Lo retorted. "It was a
    younger man, who crept along the other side of the brook, keeping under
    cover. When I first saw him he was there," she continued, pointing to
    the place. "And he crept on and on until he came opposite to you. Then
    he waved his hand."

    "To me?"

    Madame nodded.

    "But if you saw him, who was he?" the Countess asked.

    "I did not see his face," Madame St. Lo answered. "But he waved to you.
    That I saw."

    The Countess had a thought which slowly flooded her face with crimson.
    Madame St. Lo saw the change, saw the tender light which on a sudden
    softened the other's eyes; and the same thought occurred to her. And
    having a mind to punish her companion for her reticence--for she did not
    doubt that the girl knew more than she acknowledged--she proposed that
    they should return and find Badelon, and learn if he had seen the man.

    "Why?" Madame Tavannes asked. And she stood stubbornly, her head high.
    "Why should we?"

    "To clear it up," the elder woman answered mischievously. "But perhaps,
    it were better to tell your husband and let his men search the coppice."

    The colour left the Countess's face as quickly as it had come. For a
    moment she was tongue-tied. Then--

    "Have we not had enough of seeking and being sought?" she cried, more
    bitterly than befitted the occasion. "Why should we hunt him? I am not
    timid, and he did me no harm. I beg, Madame, that you will do me the
    favour of being silent on the matter."

    "Oh, if you insist? But what a pother--"

    "I did not see him, and he did not see me," Madame de Tavannes answered
    vehemently. "I fail, therefore, to understand why we should harass him,
    whoever he be. Besides, M. de Tavannes is waiting for us."

    "And M. de Tignonville--is following us!" Madame St. Lo muttered under
    her breath. And she made a face at the other's back.

    She was silent, however. They returned to the others and nothing of
    import, it would seem, had happened. The soft summer air played on the
    meal laid under the willows as it had played on the meal of yesterday
    laid under the chestnut-trees. The horses grazed within sight, moving
    now and again, with a jingle of trappings or a jealous neigh: the women's
    chatter vied with the unceasing sound of the mill-stream. After dinner,
    Madame St. Lo touched the lute, and Badelon--Badelon who had seen the
    sack of the Colonna's Palace, and been served by cardinals on the
    knee--fed a water-rat, which had its home in one of the willow-stumps,
    with carrot-parings. One by one the men laid themselves to sleep with
    their faces on their arms; and to the eyes all was as all had been
    yesterday in this camp of armed men living peacefully.

    But not to the Countess! She had accepted her life, she had resigned
    herself, she had marvelled that it was no worse. After the horrors of
    Paris the calm of the last two days had fallen on her as balm on a wound.
    Worn out in body and mind, she had rested, and only rested; without
    thought, almost without emotion, save for the feeling, half fear, half
    curiosity, which stirred her in regard to the strange man, her husband.
    Who on his side left her alone.

    But the last hour had wrought a change. Her eyes were grown restless,
    her colour came and went. The past stirred in its shallow--ah, so
    shallow--grave; and dead hopes and dead forebodings, strive as she might,
    thrust out hands to plague and torment her. If the man who sought to
    speak with her by stealth, who dogged her footsteps and hung on the
    skirts of her party, were Tignonville--her lover, who at his own request
    had been escorted to the Arsenal before their departure from Paris--then
    her plight was a sorry one. For what woman, wedded as she had been
    wedded, could think otherwise than indulgently of his persistence? And
    yet, lover and husband! What peril, what shame the words had often
    spelled! At the thought only she trembled and her colour ebbed. She
    saw, as one who stands on the brink of a precipice, the depth which
    yawned before her. She asked herself, shivering, if she would ever sink
    to _that_.

    All the loyalty of a strong nature, all the virtue of a good woman,
    revolted against the thought. True, her husband--husband she must call
    him--had not deserved her love; but his bizarre magnanimity, the gloomy,
    disdainful kindness with which he had crowned possession, even the unity
    of their interests, which he had impressed upon her in so strange a
    fashion, claimed a return in honour.

    To be paid--how? how? That was the crux which perplexed, which
    frightened, which harassed her. For, if she told her suspicions, she
    exposed her lover to capture by one who had no longer a reason to be
    merciful. And if she sought occasion to see Tignonville and so to
    dissuade him, she did it at deadly risk to herself. Yet what other
    course lay open to her if she would not stand by? If she would not play
    the traitor? If she--

    "Madame,"--it was her husband, and he spoke to her suddenly,--"are you
    not well?" And, looking up guiltily, she found his eyes fixed curiously
    on hers.

    Her face turned red and white and red again, and she faltered something
    and looked from him, but only to meet Madame St. Lo's eyes. My lady
    laughed softly in sheer mischief.

    "What is it?" Count Hannibal asked sharply.

    But Madame St. Lo's answer was a line of Ronsard.
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    Chapter 19
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