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    Chapter 22

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    Chapter 22
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    PLAYING WITH FIRE.

    The impulse of La Tribe's foot as he landed had driven the boat into the
    stream. It drifted slowly downward, and if naught intervened, would take
    the ground on Count Hannibal's side, a hundred and fifty yards below him.
    He saw this, and walked along the bank, keeping pace with it, while the
    Countess sat motionless, crouching in the stern of the craft, her fingers
    strained about the fatal packet. The slow glide of the boat, as almost
    imperceptibly it approached the low bank; the stillness of the mirror-
    like surface on which it moved, leaving only the faintest ripple behind
    it; the silence--for under the influence of emotion Count Hannibal too
    was mute--all were in tremendous contrast with the storm which raged in
    her breast.

    Should she--should she even now, with his eyes on her, drop the letters
    over the side? It needed but a movement. She had only to extend her
    hand, to relax the tension of her fingers, and the deed was done. It
    needed only that; but the golden sands of opportunity were running
    out--were running out fast. Slowly and more slowly, silently and more
    silently, the boat slid in towards the bank on which he stood, and still
    she hesitated. The stillness, and the waiting figure, and the watching
    eyes now but a few feet distant, weighed on her and seemed to paralyze
    her will. A foot, another foot! A moment and it would be too late, the
    last of the sands would have run out. The bow of the boat rustled softly
    through the rushes; it kissed the bank. And her hand still held the
    letters.

    "You are not hurt?" he asked curtly. "The scoundrel might have drowned
    you. Was he mad?"

    She was silent. He held out his hand, and she gave him the packet.

    "I owe you much," he said, a ring of gaiety, almost of triumph, in his
    tone. "More than you guess, Madame. God made you for a soldier's wife,
    and a mother of soldiers. What? You are not well, I am afraid?"

    "If I could sit down a minute," she faltered. She was swaying on her
    feet.

    He supported her across the belt of meadow which fringed the bank, and
    made her recline against a tree. Then as his men began to come up--for
    the alarm had reached them--he would have sent two of them in the boat to
    fetch Madame St. Lo to her. But she would not let him.

    "Your maid, then?" he said.

    "No, Monsieur, I need only to be alone a little! Only to be alone," she
    repeated, her face averted; and believing this he sent the men away, and,
    taking the boat himself, he crossed over, took in Madame St. Lo and
    Carlat, and rowed them to the ferry. Here the wildest rumours were
    current. One held that the Huguenot had gone out of his senses; another,
    that he had watched for this opportunity of avenging his brethren; a
    third, that his intention had been to carry off the Countess and hold her
    to ransom. Only Tavannes himself, from his position on the farther bank,
    had seen the packet of letters, and the hand which withheld them; and he
    said nothing. Nay, when some of the men would have crossed to search for
    the fugitive, he forbade them, he scarcely knew why, save that it might
    please her; and when the women would have hurried to join her and hear
    the tale from her lips he forbade them also.

    "She wishes to be alone," he said curtly.

    "Alone?" Madame St. Lo cried, in a fever of curiosity. "You'll find her
    dead, or worse! What? Leave a woman alone after such a fright as that!"

    "She wishes it."

    Madame laughed cynically; and the laugh brought a tinge of colour to his
    brow.

    "Oh, does she?" she sneered. "Then I understand! Have a care, have a
    care, or one of these days, Monsieur, when you leave her alone, you'll
    find them together!"

    "Be silent!"

    "With pleasure," she returned. "Only when it happens don't say that you
    were not warned. You think that she does not hear from him--"

    "How can she hear?" The words were wrung from him.

    Madame St. Lo's contempt passed all limits. "How can she!" she retorted.
    "You trail a woman across France, and let her sit by herself, and lie by
    herself, and all but drown by herself, and you ask how she hears from her
    lover? You leave her old servants about her, and you ask how she
    communicates with him?"

    "You know nothing!" he snarled.

    "I know this," she retorted. "I saw her sitting this morning, and
    smiling and weeping at the same time! Was she thinking of you, Monsieur?
    Or of him? She was looking at the hills through tears; a blue mist hung
    over them, and I'll wager she saw some one's eyes gazing and some one's
    hand beckoning out of the blue!"

    "Curse you!" he cried, tormented in spite of himself. "You love to make
    mischief!"

    "No!" she answered swiftly. "For 'twas not I made the match. But go
    your way, go your way, Monsieur, and see what kind of a welcome you'll
    get!"

    "I will," Count Hannibal growled. And he started along the bank to
    rejoin his wife.

    The light in his eyes had died down. Yet would they have been more
    sombre, and his face more harsh, had he known the mind of the woman to
    whom he was hastening. The Countess had begged to be left alone; alone,
    she found the solitude she had craved a cruel gift. She had saved the
    packet. She had fulfilled her trust. But only to experience, the moment
    the deed was done, the full poignancy of remorse. Before the act, while
    the choice had lain with her, the betrayal of her husband had loomed
    large; now she saw that to treat him as she had treated him was the true
    betrayal, and that even for his own sake, and to save him from a fearful
    sin, it had become her to destroy the letters.

    Now, it was no longer her duty to him which loomed large, but her duty to
    the innocent, to the victims of the massacre which she might have stayed,
    to the people of her faith whom she had abandoned, to the women and
    children whose death-warrant she had preserved. Now, she perceived that
    a part more divine had never fallen to woman, nor a responsibility so
    heavy been laid upon woman. Nor guilt more dread!

    She writhed in misery, thinking of it. What had she done? She could
    hear afar off the sounds of the camp; an occasional outcry, a snatch of
    laughter. And the cry and the laughter rang in her ears, a bitter
    mockery. This summer camp, to what was it the prelude? This forbearance
    on her husband's part, in what would it end? Were not the one and the
    other cruel make-believes? Two days, and the men who laughed beside the
    water would slay and torture with equal zest. A little, and the husband
    who now chose to be generous would show himself in his true colours. And
    it was for the sake of such as these that she had played the coward. That
    she had laid up for herself endless remorse. That henceforth the cries
    of the innocent would haunt her dreams.

    Racked by such thoughts she did not hear his step, and it was his shadow
    falling across her feet which first warned her of his presence. She
    looked up, saw him, and involuntarily recoiled. Then, seeing the change
    in his face--

    "Oh! Monsieur," she stammered, affrighted, her hand pressed to her side,
    "I ask your pardon! You startled me!"

    "So it seems," he answered. And he stood over her regarding her dryly.

    "I am not quite--myself yet," she murmured. His look told her that her
    start had betrayed her feelings.

    Alas! the plan of taking a woman by force has drawbacks, and among others
    this one: that he must be a sanguine husband who deems her heart his, and
    a husband without jealousy, whose suspicions are not aroused by the
    faintest flush or the lightest word. He knows that she is his
    unwillingly, a victim, not a mistress; and behind every bush beside the
    road and behind every mask in the crowd he espies a rival.

    Moreover, where women are in question, who is always strong? Or who can
    say how long he will pursue this plan or that? A man of sternest temper,
    Count Hannibal had set out on a path of conduct carefully and
    deliberately chosen; knowing--and he still knew--that if he abandoned it
    he had little to hope, if the less to fear. But the proof of fidelity
    which the Countess had just given him had blown to a white heat the
    smouldering flame in his heart, and Madame St. Lo's gibes, which should
    have fallen as cold water alike on his hopes and his passion, had but fed
    the desire to know the best. For all that, he might not have spoken now,
    if he had not caught her look of affright; strange as it sounds, that
    look, which of all things should have silenced him and warned him that
    the time was not yet, stung him out of patience. Suddenly the man in him
    carried him away.

    "You still fear me, then?" he said, in a voice hoarse and unnatural. "Is
    it for what I do or for what I leave undone that you hate me, Madame?
    Tell me, I beg, for--"

    "For neither!" she said, trembling. His eyes, hot and passionate, were
    on her, and the blood had mounted to his brow. "For neither! I do not
    hate you, Monsieur!"

    "You fear me then? I am right in that."

    "I fear--that which you carry with you," she stammered, speaking on
    impulse and scarcely knowing what she said.

    He started, and his expression changed. "So?" he exclaimed. "So? You
    know what I carry, do you? And from whom? From whom," he continued in a
    tone of menace, "if you please, did you get that knowledge?"

    "From M. La Tribe," she muttered. She had not meant to tell him. Why
    had she told him?

    He nodded. "I might have known it," he said. "I more than suspected it.
    Therefore I should be the more beholden to you for saving the letters.
    But"--he paused and laughed harshly--"it was out of no love for me you
    saved them. That too I know."

    She did not answer or protest; and when he had waited a moment in vain
    expectation of her protest, a cruel look crept into his eyes.

    "Madame," he said slowly, "do you never reflect that you may push the
    part you play too far? That the patience, even of the worst of men, does
    not endure for ever?"

    "I have your word!" she answered.

    "And you do not fear?"

    "I have your word," she repeated. And now she looked him bravely in the
    face, her eyes full of the courage of her race.

    The lines of his mouth hardened as he met her look. "And what have I of
    yours?" he said in a low voice. "What have I of yours?"

    Her face began to burn at that, her eyes fell and she faltered.

    "My gratitude," she murmured, with an upward look that prayed for pity.
    "God knows, Monsieur, you have that!"

    "God knows I do not want it!" he answered. And he laughed derisively.
    "Your gratitude!" And he mocked her tone rudely and coarsely. "Your
    gratitude!" Then for a minute--for so long a time that she began to
    wonder and to quake--he was silent. At last, "A fig for your gratitude,"
    he said. "I want your love! I suppose--cold as you are, and a
    Huguenot--you can love like other women!"

    It was the first, the very first time he had used the word to her; and
    though it fell from his lips like a threat, though he used it as a man
    presents a pistol, she flushed anew from throat to brow. But she did not
    quail.

    "It is not mine to give," she said.

    "It is his?"

    "Yes, Monsieur," she answered, wondering at her courage, at her audacity,
    her madness. "It is his."

    "And it cannot be mine--at any time?"

    She shook her head, trembling.

    "Never?" And, suddenly reaching forward, he gripped her wrist in an iron
    grasp. There was passion in his tone. His eyes burned her.

    Whether it was that set her on another track, or pure despair, or the cry
    in her ears of little children and of helpless women, something in a
    moment inspired her, flashed in her eyes and altered her voice. She
    raised her head and looked him firmly in the face.

    "What," she said, "do you mean by love?"

    "You!" he answered brutally.

    "Then--it may be, Monsieur," she returned. "There is a way if you will."

    "A way!"

    "If you will!"

    As she spoke she rose slowly to her feet; for in his surprise he had
    released her wrist. He rose with her, and they stood confronting one
    another on the strip of grass between the river and the poplars.

    "If I will?" His form seemed to dilate, his eyes devoured her. "If I
    will?"

    "Yes," she replied. "If you will give me the letters that are in your
    belt, the packet which I saved to-day--that I may destroy them--I will be
    yours freely and willingly."

    He drew a deep breath, still devouring her with his eyes.

    "You mean it?" he said at last.

    "I do." She looked him in the face as she spoke, and her cheeks were
    white, not red. "Only--the letters! Give me the letters."

    "And for them you will give me your love?"

    Her eyes flickered, and involuntarily she shivered. A faint blush rose
    and dyed her cheeks.

    "Only God can give love," she said, her tone low.

    "And yours is given?"

    "Yes."

    "To another?"

    "I have said it."

    "It is his. And yet for these letters--"

    "For these lives!" she cried proudly.

    "You will give yourself?"

    "I swear it," she answered, "if you will give them to me! If you will
    give them to me," she repeated. And she held out her hands; her face,
    full of passion, was bright with a strange light. A close observer might
    have thought her distraught; still excited by the struggle in the boat,
    and barely mistress of herself.

    But the man whom she tempted, the man who held her price at his belt,
    after one searching look at her turned from her; perhaps because he could
    not trust himself to gaze on her. Count Hannibal walked a dozen paces
    from her and returned, and again a dozen paces and returned; and again a
    third time, with something fierce and passionate in his gait. At last he
    stopped before her.

    "You have nothing to offer for them," he said, in a cold, hard tone.
    "Nothing that is not mine already, nothing that is not my right, nothing
    that I cannot take at my will. My word?" he continued, seeing her about
    to interrupt him. "True, Madame, you have it, you had it. But why need
    I keep my word to you, who tempt me to break my word to the King?"

    She made a weak gesture with her hands. Her head had sunk on her
    breast--she seemed dazed by the shock of his contempt, dazed by his
    reception of her offer.

    "You saved the letters?" he continued, interpreting her action. "True,
    but the letters are mine, and that which you offer for them is mine also.
    You have nothing to offer. For the rest, Madame," he went on, eyeing her
    cynically, "you surprise me! You, whose modesty and virtue are so great,
    would corrupt your husband, would sell yourself, would dishonour the love
    of which you boast so loudly, the love that only God gives!" He laughed
    derisively as he quoted her words. "Ay, and, after showing at how low a
    price you hold yourself, you still look, I doubt not, to me to respect
    you, and to keep my word. Madame!" in a terrible voice, "do not play
    with fire! You saved my letters, it is true! And for that, for this
    time, you shall go free, if God will help me to let you go! But tempt me
    not! Tempt me not!" he repeated, turning from her and turning back again
    with a gesture of despair, as if he mistrusted the strength of the
    restraint which he put upon himself. "I am no more than other men!
    Perhaps I am less. And you--you who prate of love, and know not what
    love is--could love! could love!"

    He stopped on that word as if the word choked him--stopped, struggling
    with his passion. At last, with a half-stifled oath, he flung away from
    her, halted and hung a moment, then, with a swing of rage, went off again
    violently. His feet as he strode along the river-bank trampled the
    flowers, and slew the pale water forget-me-not, which grew among the
    grasses.
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