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    Chapter 21

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    Chapter 21
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    SHE WOULD, AND WOULD NOT.

    We noted some way back the ease with which women use one concession as a
    stepping-stone to a second; and the lack of magnanimity, amounting almost
    to unscrupulousness, which the best display in their dealings with a
    retiring foe. But there are concessions which touch even a good woman's
    conscience; and Madame de Tavannes, free by the tenure of a blow, and
    with that exception treated from hour to hour with rugged courtesy,
    shrank appalled before the task which confronted her.

    To ignore what La Tribe had told her, to remain passive when a movement
    on her part might save men, women, and children from death, and a whole
    city from massacre--this was a line of conduct so craven, so selfish,
    that from the first she knew herself incapable of it. But to take the
    only other course open to her, to betray her husband and rob him of that,
    the loss of which might ruin him, this needed not courage only, not
    devotion only, but a hardness proof against reproaches as well as against
    punishment. And the Countess was no fanatic. No haze of bigotry
    glorified the thing she contemplated, or dressed it in colours other than
    its own. Even while she acknowledged the necessity of the act and its
    ultimate righteousness, even while she owned the obligation which lay
    upon her to perform it, she saw it as he would see it, and saw herself as
    he would see her.

    True, he had done her a great wrong; and this in the eyes of some might
    pass for punishment. But he had saved her life where many had perished;
    and, the wrong done, he had behaved to her with fantastic generosity. In
    return for which she was to ruin him? It was not hard to imagine what he
    would say of her, and of the reward with which she had requited him.

    She pondered over it as they rode that evening, with the weltering sun in
    their eyes and the lengthening shadows of the oaks falling athwart the
    bracken which fringed the track. Across breezy heaths and over downs,
    through green bottoms and by hamlets, from which every human creature
    fled at their approach, they ambled on by twos and threes; riding in a
    world of their own, so remote, so different from the real world--from
    which they came and to which they must return--that she could have wept
    in anguish, cursing God for the wickedness of man which lay so heavy on
    creation. The gaunt troopers riding at ease with swinging legs and
    swaying stirrups--and singing now a refrain from Ronsard, and now one of
    those verses of Marot's psalms which all the world had sung three decades
    before--wore their most lamb-like aspect. Behind them Madame St. Lo
    chattered to Suzanne of a riding mask which had not been brought, or
    planned expedients, if nothing sufficiently in the mode could be found at
    Angers. And the other women talked and giggled, screamed when they came
    to fords, and made much of steep places, where the men must help them. In
    time of war death's shadow covers but a day, and sorrow out of sight is
    out of mind. Of all the troop whom the sinking sun left within sight of
    the lofty towers and vine-clad hills of Vendome, three only wore faces
    attuned to the cruel August week just ending; three only, like dark beads
    strung far apart on a gay nun's rosary, rode, brooding and silent, in
    their places. The Countess was one--the others were the two men whose
    thoughts she filled, and whose eyes now and again sought her, La Tribe's
    with sombre fire in their depths, Count Hannibal's fraught with a gloomy
    speculation, which belied his brave words to Madame St. Lo.

    He, moreover, as he rode, had other thoughts; dark ones, which did not
    touch her. And she, too, had other thoughts at times, dreams of her
    young lover, spasms of regret, a wild revolt of heart, a cry out of the
    darkness which had suddenly whelmed her. So that of the three only La
    Tribe was single-minded.

    This day they rode a long league after sunset, through a scattered oak-
    wood, where the rabbits sprang up under their horses' heads and the
    squirrels made angry faces at them from the lower branches. Night was
    hard upon them when they reached the southern edge of the forest, and
    looked across the dusky open slopes to a distant light or two which
    marked where Vendome stood.

    "Another league," Count Hannibal muttered; and he bade the men light
    fires where they were, and unload the packhorses. "'Tis pure and dry
    here," he said. "Set a watch, Bigot, and let two men go down for water.
    I hear frogs below. You do not fear to be moonstruck, Madame?"

    "I prefer this," she answered in a low voice.

    "Houses are for monks and nuns!" he rejoined heartily. "Give me God's
    heaven."

    "The earth is His, but we deface it," she murmured, reverting to her
    thoughts, and unconscious that it was to him she spoke.

    He looked at her sharply, but the fire was not yet kindled; and in the
    gloaming her face was a pale blot undecipherable. He stood a moment, but
    she did not speak again; and Madame St. Lo bustling up, he moved away to
    give an order. By-and-by the fires burned up, and showed the pillared
    aisle in which they sat, small groups dotted here and there on the floor
    of Nature's cathedral. Through the shadowy Gothic vaulting, the groining
    of many boughs which met overhead, a rare star twinkled, as through some
    clerestory window; and from the dell below rose in the night, now the
    monotonous chanting of the frogs, and now, as some great bull-frog took
    the note, a diapason worthy of a Brescian organ. The darkness walled all
    in; the night was still; a falling caterpillar sounded. Even the rude
    men at the farthest fire stilled their voices at times; awed, they knew
    not why, by the silence and vastness of the night.

    The Countess long remembered that vigil--for she lay late awake; the cool
    gloom, the faint wood-rustlings, the distant cry of fox or wolf, the soft
    glow of the expiring fires that at last left the world to darkness and
    the stars; above all, the silent wheeling of the planets, which spoke
    indeed of a supreme Ruler, but crushed the heart under a sense of its
    insignificance, and of the insignificance of all human revolutions.

    "Yet, I believe!" she cried, wrestling upwards, wrestling with herself.
    "Though I have seen what I have seen, yet I believe!"

    And though she had to bear what she had to bear, and do that from which
    her soul shrank! The woman, indeed, within her continued to cry out
    against this tragedy ever renewed in her path, against this necessity for
    choosing evil, or good, ease for herself or life for others. But the
    moving heavens, pointing onward to a time when good and evil alike should
    be past, strengthened a nature essentially noble; and before she slept no
    shame and no suffering seemed--for the moment at least--too great a price
    to pay for the lives of little children. Love had been taken from her
    life; the pride which would fain answer generosity with generosity--that
    must go, too!

    She felt no otherwise when the day came, and the bustle of the start and
    the common round of the journey put to flight the ideals of the night.
    But things fell out in a manner she had not pictured. They halted before
    noon on the north bank of the Loir, in a level meadow with lines of
    poplars running this way and that, and filling all the place with the
    soft shimmer of leaves. Blue succory, tiny mirrors of the summer sky,
    flecked the long grass, and the women picked bunches of them, or, Italian
    fashion, twined the blossoms in their hair. A road ran across the meadow
    to a ferry, but the ferryman, alarmed by the aspect of the party, had
    conveyed his boat to the other side and hidden himself.

    Presently Madame St. Lo espied the boat, clapped her hands and must have
    it. The poplars threw no shade, the flies teased her, the life of a
    hermit--in a meadow--was no longer to her taste.

    "Let us go on the water!" she cried. "Presently you will go to bathe,
    Monsieur, and leave us to grill!"

    "Two livres to the man who will fetch the boat!" Count Hannibal cried.

    In less than half a minute three men had thrown off their boots, and were
    swimming across, amid the laughter and shouts of their fellows. In five
    minutes the boat was brought.

    It was not large and would hold no more than four. Tavannes' eye fell on
    Carlat.

    "You understand a boat," he said. "Go with Madame St. Lo. And you, M.
    La Tribe."

    "But you are coming?" Madame St. Lo cried, turning to the Countess. "Oh,
    Madame," with a curtsey, "you are not? You--"

    "Yes, I will come," the Countess answered.

    "I shall bathe a short distance up the stream," Count Hannibal said. He
    took from his belt the packet of letters, and as Carlat held the boat for
    Madame St. Lo to enter, he gave it to the Countess, as he had given it to
    her yesterday. "Have a care of it, Madame," he said in a low voice, "and
    do not let it pass out of your hands. To lose it may be to lose my
    head."

    The colour ebbed from her cheeks. In spite of herself her shaking hand
    put back the packet. "Had you not better then--give it to Bigot?" she
    faltered.

    "He is bathing."

    "Let him bathe afterwards."

    "No," he answered almost harshly; he found a species of pleasure in
    showing her that, strange as their relations were, he trusted her. "No;
    take it, Madame. Only have a care of it."

    She took it then, hid it in her dress, and he turned away; and she turned
    towards the boat. La Tribe stood beside the stern, holding it for her to
    enter, and as her fingers rested an instant on his arm their eyes met.
    His were alight, his arm even quivered; and she shuddered.

    She avoided looking at him a second time, and this was easy, since he
    took his seat in the bows beyond Carlat, who handled the oars. Silently
    the boat glided out on the surface of the stream, and floated downwards,
    Carlat now and again touching an oar, and Madame St. Lo chattering gaily
    in a voice which carried far on the water. Now it was a flowering rush
    she must have, now a green bough to shield her face from the sun's
    reflection; and now they must lie in some cool, shadowy pool under fern-
    clad banks, where the fish rose heavily, and the trickle of a rivulet
    fell down over stones.

    It was idyllic. But not to the Countess. Her face burned, her temples
    throbbed, her fingers gripped the side of the boat in the vain attempt to
    steady her pulses. The packet within her dress scorched her. The great
    city and its danger, Tavannes and his faith in her, the need of action,
    the irrevocableness of action hurried through her brain. The knowledge
    that she must act now--or never--pressed upon her with distracting force.
    Her hand felt the packet, and fell again nerveless.

    "The sun has caught you, _ma mie_," Madame St. Lo said. "You should ride
    in a mask as I do."

    "I have not one with me," she muttered, her eyes on the water.

    "And I but an old one. But at Angers--"

    The Countess heard no more; on that word she caught La Tribe's eye. He
    was beckoning to her behind Carlat's back, pointing imperiously to the
    water, making signs to her to drop the packet over the side. When she
    did not obey--she felt sick and faint--she saw through a mist his brow
    grow dark. He menaced her secretly. And still the packet scorched her;
    and twice her hand went to it, and dropped again empty.

    On a sudden Madame St. Lo cried out. The bank on one side of the stream
    was beginning to rise more boldly above the water, and at the head of the
    steep thus formed she had espied a late rosebush in bloom; nothing would
    now serve but she must land at once and plunder it. The boat was put in
    therefore, she jumped ashore, and began to scale the bank.

    "Go with Madame!" La Tribe cried, roughly nudging Carlat in the back. "Do
    you not see that she cannot climb the bank? Up, man, up!"

    The Countess opened her mouth to cry "No!" but the word died half-born on
    her lips; and when the steward looked at her, uncertain what she had
    said, she nodded.

    "Yes, go!" she muttered. She was pale.

    "Yes, man, go!" cried the minister, his eyes burning. And he almost
    pushed the other out of the boat.

    The next second the craft floated from the bank, and began to drift
    downwards. La Tribe waited until a tree interposed and hid them from the
    two whom they had left; then he leaned forward.

    "Now, Madame!" he cried imperiously. "In God's name, now!"

    "Oh!" she cried. "Wait! Wait! I want to think."

    "To think?"

    "He trusted me!" she wailed. "He trusted me! How can I do it?"
    Nevertheless, and even while she spoke, she drew forth the packet.

    "Heaven has given you the opportunity!"

    "If I could have stolen it!" she answered.

    "Fool!" he returned, rocking himself to and fro, and fairly beside
    himself with impatience. "Why steal it? It is in your hands! You have
    it! It is Heaven's own opportunity, it is God's opportunity given to
    you!"

    For he could not read her mind nor comprehend the scruple which held her
    hand. He was single-minded. He had but one aim, one object. He saw the
    haggard faces of brave men hopeless; he heard the dying cries of women
    and children. Such an opportunity of saving God's elect, of redeeming
    the innocent, was in his eyes a gift from Heaven. And having these
    thoughts and seeing her hesitate--hesitate when every movement caused him
    agony, so imperative was haste, so precious the opportunity--he could
    bear the suspense no longer. When she did not answer he stooped forward,
    until his knees touched the thwart on which Carlat had sat; then, without
    a word, he flung himself forward, and, with one hand far extended,
    grasped the packet.

    Had he not moved, she would have done his will; almost certainly she
    would have done it. But, thus attacked, she resisted instinctively; she
    clung to the letters.

    "No!" she cried. "No! Let go, Monsieur!" And she tried to drag the
    packet from him.

    "Give it me!"

    "Let go, Monsieur! Do you hear?" she repeated. And, with a vigorous
    jerk, she forced it from him--he had caught it by the edge only--and held
    it behind her. "Go back, and--"

    "Give it me!" he panted.

    "I will not!"

    "Then throw it overboard!"

    "I will not!" she cried again, though his face, dark with passion, glared
    into hers, and it was clear that the man, possessed by one idea only, was
    no longer master of himself. "Go back to your place!"

    "Give it me," he gasped, "or I will upset the boat!" And, seizing her by
    the shoulder, he reached over her, striving to take hold of the packet
    which she held behind her. The boat rocked; and, as much in rage as
    fear, she screamed.

    A cry uttered wholly in rage answered hers; it came from Carlat. La
    Tribe, however, whose whole mind was fixed on the packet, did not heed,
    nor would have heeded, the steward. But the next moment a second cry,
    fierce as that of a wild beast, clove the air from the lower and farther
    bank; and the Huguenot, recognizing Count Hannibal's voice, involuntarily
    desisted and stood erect. A moment the boat rocked perilously under him;
    then--for unheeded it had been drifting that way--it softly touched the
    bank on which Carlat stood staring and aghast.

    La Tribe's chance was gone; he saw that the steward must reach him before
    he could succeed in a second attempt. On the other hand, the undergrowth
    on the bank was thick, he could touch it with his hand, and if he fled at
    once he might escape.

    He hung an instant irresolute; then, with a look which went to the
    Countess's heart, he sprang ashore, plunged among the alders, and in a
    moment was gone.

    "After him! After him!" thundered Count Hannibal. "After him, man!" and
    Carlat, stumbling down the steep slope and through the rough briars, did
    his best to obey. But in vain. Before he reached the water's edge, the
    noise of the fugitive's retreat had grown faint. A few seconds and it
    died away.
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