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    Chapter 20

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    Chapter 20
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    ON THE CASTLE HILL.

    Thrice she hummed it, bland and smiling. Then from the neighbouring
    group came an interruption. The wine he had drunk had put it into
    Bigot's head to snatch a kiss from Suzanne; and Suzanne's modesty, which
    was very nice in company, obliged her to squeal. The uproar which
    ensued, the men backing the man and the women the woman, brought Tavannes
    to his feet. He did not speak, but a glance from his eyes was enough.
    There was not one who failed to see that something was amiss with him,
    and a sudden silence fell on the party.

    He turned to the Countess. "You wished to see the castle?" he said. "You
    had better go now, but not alone." He cast his eyes over the company,
    and summoned La Tribe, who was seated with the Carlats. "Go with
    Madame," he said curtly. "She has a mind to climb the hill. Bear in
    mind, we start at three, and do not venture out of hearing."

    "I understand, M. le Comte," the minister answered. He spoke quietly,
    but there was a strange light in his face as he turned to go with her.

    None the less he was silent until Madame's lagging feet--for all her
    interest in the expedition was gone--had borne her a hundred paces from
    the company. Then--

    "Who knoweth our thoughts and forerunneth all our desires," he murmured.
    And when she turned to him, astonished, "Madame," he continued, "I have
    prayed, ah, how I have prayed, for this opportunity of speaking to you!
    And it has come. I would it had come this morning, but it has come. Do
    not start or look round; many eyes are on us, and, alas! I have that to
    say to you which it will move you to hear, and that to ask of you which
    it must task your courage to perform."

    She began to tremble, and stood looking up the green slope to the broken
    grey wall which crowned its summit.

    "What is it?" she whispered, commanding herself with an effort. "What is
    it? If it have aught to do with M. Tignonville--"

    "It has not!"

    In her surprise--for although she had put the question she had felt no
    doubt of the answer--she started and turned to him.

    "It has not?" she exclaimed almost incredulously.

    "No."

    "Then what is it, Monsieur?" she replied, a little haughtily. "What can
    there be that should move me so?"

    "Life or death, Madame," he answered solemnly. "Nay, more; for since
    Providence has given me this chance of speaking to you, a thing of which
    I despaired, I know that the burden is laid on us, and that it is guilt
    or it is innocence, according as we refuse the burden or bear it."

    "What is it, then?" she cried impatiently. "What is it?"

    "I tried to speak to you this morning."

    "Was it you, then, whom Madame St. Lo saw stalking me before dinner?

    "It was."

    She clasped her hands and heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank God,
    Monsieur!" she replied. "You have lifted a weight from me. I fear
    nothing in comparison of that. Nothing!"

    "Alas!" he answered sombrely, "there is much to fear, for others if not
    for ourselves! Do you know what that is which M. de Tavannes bears
    always in his belt? What it is he carries with such care? What it was
    he handed to you to keep while he bathed to-day?"

    "Letters from the King."

    "Yes, but the import of those letters?"

    "No."

    "And yet, should they be written in letters of blood!" the minister
    exclaimed, his face kindling. "They should scorch the hands that hold
    them and blister the eyes that read them. They are the fire and the
    sword! They are the King's order to do at Angers as they have done in
    Paris. To slay all of the religion who are found there--and they are
    many! To spare none, to have mercy neither on the old man nor the unborn
    child! See yonder hawk!" he continued, pointing with a shaking hand to a
    falcon which hung light and graceful above the valley, the movement of
    its wings invisible. "How it disports itself in the face of the sun! How
    easy its way, how smooth its flight! But see, it drops upon its prey in
    the rushes beside the brook, and the end of its beauty is slaughter! So
    is it with yonder company!" His finger sank until it indicated the
    little camp seated toy-like in the green meadow four hundred feet below
    them, with every man and horse, and the very camp-kettle, clear-cut and
    visible, though diminished by distance to fairy-like proportions. "So it
    is with yonder company!" he repeated sternly. "They play and are merry,
    and one fishes and another sleeps! But at the end of the journey is
    death. Death for their victims, and for them the judgment!"

    She stood, as he spoke, in the ruined gateway, a walled grass-plot behind
    her, and at her feet the stream, the smiling valley, the alders, and the
    little camp. The sky was cloudless, the scene drowsy with the stillness
    of an August afternoon. But his words went home so truly that the sunlit
    landscape before the eyes added one more horror to the picture he called
    up before the mind.

    The Countess turned white and sick. "Are you sure?" she whispered at
    last.

    "Quite sure."

    "Ah, God!" she cried, "are we never to have peace?" And turning from the
    valley, she walked some distance into the grass court, and stood. After
    a time, she turned to him; he had followed her doggedly, pace for pace.
    "What do you want me to do?" she cried, despair in her voice. "What can
    I do?"

    "Were the letters he bears destroyed--"

    "The letters?"

    "Yes, were the letters destroyed," La Tribe answered relentlessly, "he
    could do nothing! Nothing! Without that authority the magistrates of
    Angers would not move. He could do nothing. And men and women and
    children--men and women and children whose blood will otherwise cry for
    vengeance, perhaps for vengeance on us who might have saved them--will
    live! Will live!" he repeated, with a softening eye. And with an all-
    embracing gesture he seemed to call to witness the open heavens, the
    sunshine and the summer breeze which wrapped them round. "Will live!"

    She drew a deep breath. "And you have brought me here," she said, "to
    ask me to do this?"

    "I was sent here to ask you to do this."

    "Why me? Why me?" she wailed, and she held out her open hands to him,
    her face wan and colourless. "You come to me, a woman! Why to me?"

    "You are his wife!"

    "And he is my husband!"

    "Therefore he trusts you," was the unyielding, the pitiless answer. "You,
    and you alone, have the opportunity of doing this."

    She gazed at him in astonishment. "And it is you who say that?" she
    faltered, after a pause. "You who made us one, who now bid me betray
    him, whom I have sworn to love? To ruin him whom I have sworn to
    honour?"

    "I do!" he answered solemnly. "On my head be the guilt, and on yours the
    merit."

    "Nay, but--" she cried quickly, and her eyes glittered with passion--"do
    you take both guilt and merit! You are a man," she continued, her words
    coming quickly in her excitement, "he is but a man! Why do you not call
    him aside, trick him apart on some pretence or other, and when there are
    but you two, man to man, wrench the warrant from him? Staking your life
    against his, with all those lives for prize? And save them or perish?
    Why I, even I, a woman, could find it in my heart to do that, were he not
    my husband! Surely you, you who are a man, and young--"

    "Am no match for him in strength or arms," the minister answered sadly.
    "Else would I do it! Else would I stake my life, Heaven knows, as gladly
    to save their lives as I sit down to meat! But I should fail, and if I
    failed all were lost. Moreover," he continued solemnly, "I am certified
    that this task has been set for you. It was not for nothing, Madame, nor
    to save one poor household that you were joined to this man; but to
    ransom all these lives and this great city. To be the Judith of our
    faith, the saviour of Angers, the--"

    "Fool! Fool!" she cried. "Will you be silent?" And she stamped the
    turf passionately, while her eyes blazed in her white face. "I am no
    Judith, and no madwoman as you are fain to make me. Mad?" she continued,
    overwhelmed with agitation, "My God, I would I were, and I should be free
    from this!" And, turning, she walked a little way from him with the
    gesture of one under a crushing burden.

    He waited a minute, two minutes, three minutes, and still she did not
    return. At length she came back, her bearing more composed; she looked
    at him, and her eyes seized his and seemed as if they would read his
    soul.

    "Are you sure," she said, "of what you have told me? Will you swear that
    the contents of these letters are as you say?"

    "As I live," he answered gravely. "As God lives."

    "And you know--of no other way, Monsieur? Of no other way?" she repeated
    slowly and piteously.

    "Of none, Madame, of none, I swear."

    She sighed deeply, and stood sunk in thought. Then, "When do we reach
    Angers?" she asked heavily.

    "The day after to-morrow."

    "I have--until the day after to-morrow?"

    "Yes. To-night we lie near Vendome."

    "And to-morrow night?"

    "Near a place called La Fleche. It is possible," he went on with
    hesitation--for he did not understand her--"that he may bathe to-morrow,
    and may hand the packet to you, as he did to-day when I vainly sought
    speech with you. If he does that--"

    "Yes?" she said, her eyes on his face.

    "The taking will be easy. But when he finds you have it not"--he
    faltered anew--"it may go hard with you."

    She did not speak.

    "And there, I think, I can help you. If you will stray from the party, I
    will meet you and destroy the letter. That done--and would God it were
    done already--I will take to flight as best I can, and you will raise the
    alarm and say that I robbed you of it! And if you tear your dress--"

    "No," she said.

    He looked a question.

    "No!" she repeated in a low voice. "If I betray him I will not lie to
    him! And no other shall pay the price! If I ruin him it shall be
    between him and me, and no other shall have part in it!"

    He shook his head. "I do not know," he murmured, "what he may do to
    you!"

    "Nor I," she said proudly. "That will be for him."

    * * * * *

    Curious eyes had watched the two as they climbed the hill. For the path
    ran up the slope to the gap which served for gate, much as the path leads
    up to the Castle Beautiful in old prints of the Pilgrim's journey, and
    Madame St. Lo had marked the first halt and the second, and, noting every
    gesture, had lost nothing of the interview save the words. But until the
    two, after pausing a moment, passed out of sight she made no sign. Then
    she laughed. And as Count Hannibal, at whom the laugh was aimed, did not
    heed her, she laughed again. And she hummed the line of Ronsard.

    Still he would not be roused, and, piqued, she had recourse to words.

    "I wonder what you would do," she said, "if the old lover followed us,
    and she went off with him!"

    "She would not go," he answered coldly, and without looking up.

    "But if he rode off with her?"

    "She would come back on her feet!"

    Madame St. Lo's prudence was not proof against that. She had the woman's
    inclination to hide a woman's secret; and she had not intended, when she
    laughed, to do more than play with the formidable man with whom so few
    dared to play. Now, stung by his tone and his assurance, she must needs
    show him that his trustfulness had no base. And, as so often happens in
    the circumstances, she went a little farther than the facts bore her.

    "Any way, he has followed us so far!" she cried viciously.

    "M. de Tignonville?"

    "Yes. I saw him this morning while you were bathing. She left me and
    went into the little coppice. He came down the other side of the brook,
    stooping and running, and went to join her."

    "How did he cross the brook?"

    Madame St. Lo blushed. "Old Badelon was there, gathering simples," she
    said. "He scared him. And he crawled away."

    "Then he did not cross?"

    "No. I did not say he did!"

    "Nor speak to her?"

    "No. But if you think it will pass so next time--you do not know much of
    women!"

    "Of women generally, not much," he answered, grimly polite. "Of this
    woman a great deal!"

    "You looked in her big eyes, I suppose!" Madame St. Lo cried with heat.
    "And straightway fell down and worshipped her!" She liked rather than
    disliked the Countess; but she was of the lightest, and the least
    opposition drove her out of her course. "And you think you know her! And
    she, if she could save you from death by opening an eye, would go with a
    patch on it till her dying day! Take my word for it, Monsieur, between
    her and her lover you will come to harm."

    Count Hannibal's swarthy face darkened a tone, and his eyes grew a very
    little smaller.

    "I fancy that he runs the greater risk," he muttered.

    "You may deal with him, but, for her--"

    "I can deal with her. You deal with some women with a whip--"

    "You would whip me, I suppose?"

    "Yes," he said quietly. "It would do you good, Madame. And with other
    women otherwise. There are women who, if they are well frightened, will
    not deceive you. And there are others who will not deceive you though
    they are frightened. Madame de Tavannes is of the latter kind."

    "Wait! Wait and see!" Madame cried in scorn.

    "I am waiting."

    "Yes! And whereas if you had come to me I could have told her that about
    M. de Tignonville which would have surprised her, you will go on waiting
    and waiting and waiting until one fine day you'll wake up and find Madame
    gone, and--"

    "Then I'll take a wife I can whip!" he answered, with a look which
    apprised her how far she had carried it. "But it will not be you, sweet
    cousin. For I have no whip heavy enough for your case."
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