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    Chapter 23

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    Chapter 23
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    A MIND, AND NOT A MIND.

    La Tribe tore through the thicket, imagining Carlat and Count Hannibal
    hot on his heels. He dared not pause even to listen. The underwood
    tripped him, the lissom branches of the alders whipped his face and
    blinded him; once he fell headlong over a moss-grown stone, and picked
    himself up groaning. But the hare hard-pushed takes no account of the
    briars, nor does the fox heed the mud through which it draws itself into
    covert. And for the time he was naught but a hunted beast. With elbows
    pinned to his sides, or with hands extended to ward off the boughs, with
    bursting lungs and crimson face, he plunged through the tangle, now
    slipping downwards, now leaping upwards, now all but prostrate, now
    breasting a mass of thorns. On and on he ran, until he came to the verge
    of the wood, saw before him an open meadow devoid of shelter or hiding-
    place, and with a groan of despair cast himself flat. He listened. How
    far were they behind him?

    He heard nothing--nothing, save the common noises of the wood, the angry
    chatter of a disturbed blackbird as it flew low into hiding, or the harsh
    notes of a flock of starlings as they rose from the meadow. The hum of
    bees filled the air, and the August flies buzzed about his sweating brow,
    for he had lost his cap. But behind him--nothing. Already the stillness
    of the wood had closed upon his track.

    He was not the less panic-stricken. He supposed that Tavannes' people
    were getting to horse, and calculated that, if they surrounded and beat
    the wood, he must be taken. At the thought, though he had barely got his
    breath, he rose, and keeping within the coppice crawled down the slope
    towards the river. Gently, when he reached it, he slipped into the
    water, and stooping below the level of the bank, his head and shoulders
    hidden by the bushes, he waded down stream until he had put another
    hundred and fifty yards between himself and pursuit. Then he paused and
    listened. Still he heard nothing, and he waded on again, until the water
    grew deep. At this point he marked a little below him a clump of trees
    on the farther side; and reflecting that that side--if he could reach it
    unseen--would be less suspect, he swam across, aiming for a thorn bush
    which grew low to the water. Under its shelter he crawled out, and,
    worming himself like a snake across the few yards of grass which
    intervened, he stood at length within the shadow of the trees. A moment
    he paused to shake himself, and then, remembering that he was still
    within a mile of the camp, he set off, now walking, and now running in
    the direction of the hills which his party had crossed that morning.

    For a time he hurried on, thinking only of escape. But when he had
    covered a mile or two, and escape seemed probable, there began to mingle
    with his thankfulness a bitter--a something which grew more bitter with
    each moment. Why had he fled and left the work undone? Why had he given
    way to unworthy fear, when the letters were within his grasp? True, if
    he had lingered a few seconds longer, he would have failed to make good
    his escape; but what of that if in those seconds he had destroyed the
    letters, he had saved Angers, he had saved his brethren? Alas! he had
    played the coward. The terror of Tavannes' voice had unmanned him. He
    had saved himself and left the flock to perish; he, whom God had set
    apart by many and great signs for this work!

    He had commonly courage enough. He could have died at the stake for his
    convictions. But he had not the presence of mind which is proof against
    a shock, nor the cool judgment which, in the face of death, sees to the
    end of two roads. He was no coward, but now he deemed himself one, and
    in an agony of remorse he flung himself on his face in the long grass. He
    had known trials and temptations, but hitherto he had held himself erect;
    now, like Peter, he had betrayed his Lord.

    He lay an hour groaning in the misery of his heart, and then he fell on
    the text "Thou art Peter, and on this rock--" and he sat up. Peter had
    betrayed his trust through cowardice--as he had. But Peter had not been
    held unworthy. Might it not be so with him? He rose to his feet, a new
    light in his eyes. He would return! He would return, and at all costs,
    even at the cost of surrendering himself, he would obtain access to the
    letters. And then--not the fear of Count Hannibal, not the fear of
    instant death, should turn him from his duty.

    He had cast himself down in a woodland glade which lay near the path
    along which he had ridden that morning. But the mental conflict from
    which he rose had shaken him so violently that he could not recall the
    side on which he had entered the clearing, and he turned himself about,
    endeavouring to remember. At that moment the light jingle of a bridle
    struck his ear; he caught through the green bushes the flash and sparkle
    of harness. They had tracked him then, they were here! So had he clear
    proof that this second chance was to be his. In a happy fervour he stood
    forward where the pursuers could not fail to see him.

    Or so he thought. Yet the first horseman, riding carelessly with his
    face averted and his feet dangling, would have gone by and seen nothing
    if his horse, more watchful, had not shied. The man turned then; and for
    a moment the two stared at one another between the pricked ears of the
    horse. At last--

    "M. de Tignonville!" the minister ejaculated.

    "La Tribe!"

    "It is truly you?"

    "Well--I think so," the young man answered.

    The minister lifted up his eyes and seemed to call the trees and the
    clouds and the birds to witness.

    "Now," he cried, "I know that I am chosen! And that we were instruments
    to do this thing from the day when the hen saved us in the haycart in
    Paris! Now I know that all is forgiven and all is ordained, and that the
    faithful of Angers shall to-morrow live and not die!" And with a face
    radiant, yet solemn, he walked to the young man's stirrup.

    An instant Tignonville looked sharply before him. "How far ahead are
    they?" he asked. His tone, hard and matter-of-fact, was little in
    harmony with the other's enthusiasm.

    "They are resting a league before you, at the ferry. You are in pursuit
    of them?"

    "Yes."

    "Not alone?"

    "No." The young man's look as he spoke was grim. "I have five behind
    me--of your kidney, M. la Tribe. They are from the Arsenal. They have
    lost one his wife, and one his son. The three others--"

    "Yes?"

    "Sweethearts," Tignonville answered dryly. And he cast a singular look
    at the minister.

    But La Tribe's mind was so full of one matter, he could think only of
    that.

    "How did you hear of the letters?" he asked.

    "The letters?"

    "Yes."

    "I do not know what you mean."

    La Tribe stared. "Then why are you following him?" he asked.

    "Why?" Tignonville echoed, a look of hate darkening his face. "Do you
    ask why we follow--" But on the name he seemed to choke and was silent.

    By this time his men had come up, and one answered for him.

    "Why are we following Hannibal de Tavannes?" he said sternly. "To do to
    him as he has done to us! To rob him as he has robbed us--of more than
    gold! To kill him as he has killed ours, foully and by surprise! In his
    bed if we can! In the arms of his wife if God wills it!"

    The speaker's face was haggard from brooding and lack of sleep, but his
    eyes glowed and burned, as his fellows growled assent.

    "'Tis simple why we follow," a second put in. "Is there a man of our
    faith who will not, when he hears the tale, rise up and stab the nearest
    of this black brood--though it be his brother? If so, God's curse on
    him!"

    "Amen! Amen!"

    "So, and so only," cried the first, "shall there be faith in our land!
    And our children, our little maids, shall lie safe in their beds!"

    "Amen! Amen!"

    The speaker's chin sank on his breast, and with his last word the light
    died out of his eyes. La Tribe looked at him curiously, then at the
    others. Last of all at Tignonville, on whose face he fancied that he
    surprised a faint smile. Yet Tignonville's tone when he spoke was grave
    enough.

    "You have heard," he said. "Do you blame us?"

    "I cannot," the minister answered, shivering. "I cannot." He had been
    for a while beyond the range of these feelings; and in the greenwood,
    under God's heaven, with the sunshine about him, they jarred on him. Yet
    he could not blame men who had suffered as these had suffered; who were
    maddened, as these were maddened, by the gravest wrongs which it is
    possible for one man to inflict on another. "I dare not," he continued
    sorrowfully. "But in God's name I offer you a higher and a nobler
    errand."

    "We need none," Tignonville muttered impatiently.

    "Yet many others need you," La Tribe answered in a tone of rebuke. "You
    are not aware that the man you follow bears a packet from the King for
    the hands of the magistrates of Angers?"

    "Ha! Does he?"

    "Bidding them do at Angers as his Majesty has done in Paris?"

    The men broke into cries of execration. "But he shall not see Angers!"
    they swore. "The blood that he has shed shall choke him by the way! And
    as he would do to others it shall be done to him."

    La Tribe shuddered as he listened, as he looked. Try as he would, the
    thirst of these men for vengeance appalled him.

    "How?" he said. "He has a score and more with him and you are only six."

    "Seven now," Tignonville answered with a smile.

    "True, but--"

    "And he lies to-night at La Fleche? That is so?"

    "It was his intention this morning."

    "At the old King's Inn at the meeting of the great roads?"

    "It was mentioned," La Tribe admitted, with a reluctance he did not
    comprehend. "But if the night be fair he is as like as not to lie in the
    fields."

    One of the men pointed to the sky. A dark bank of cloud fresh risen from
    the ocean, and big with tempest, hung low in the west.

    "See! God will deliver him into our hands!" he cried.

    Tignonville nodded. "If he lie there," he said, "He will." And then to
    one of his followers, as he dismounted, "Do you ride on," he said, "and
    stand guard that we be not surprised. And do you, Perrot, tell Monsieur.
    Perrot here, as God wills it," he added, with the faint smile which did
    not escape the minister's eye, "married his wife from the great inn at La
    Fleche, and he knows the place."

    "None better," the man growled. He was a sullen, brooding knave, whose
    eyes when he looked up surprised by their savage fire.

    La Tribe shook his head. "I know it, too," he said. "'Tis strong as a
    fortress, with a walled court, and all the windows look inwards. The
    gates are closed an hour after sunset, no matter who is without. If you
    think, M. de Tignonville, to take him there--"

    "Patience, Monsieur, you have not heard me," Perrot interposed. "I know
    it after another fashion. Do you remember a rill of water which runs
    through the great yard and the stables?"

    La Tribe nodded.

    "Grated with iron at either end and no passage for so much as a dog? You
    do? Well, Monsieur, I have hunted rats there, and where the water passes
    under the wall is a culvert, a man's height in length. In it is a stone,
    one of those which frame the grating at the entrance, which a strong man
    can remove--and the man is in!"

    "Ay, in! But where?" La Tribe asked, his eyebrows drawn together.

    "Well said, Monsieur, where?" Perrot rejoined in a tone of triumph.
    "There lies the point. In the stables, where will be sleeping men, and a
    snorer on every truss? No, but in a fairway between two stables where
    the water at its entrance runs clear in a stone channel; a channel
    deepened in one place that they may draw for the chambers above with a
    rope and a bucket. The rooms above are the best in the house, four in
    one row, opening all on the gallery; which was uncovered, in the common
    fashion until Queen-Mother Jezebel, passing that way to Nantes, two years
    back, found the chambers draughty; and that end of the gallery was closed
    in against her return. Now, Monsieur, he and his Madame will lie there;
    and he will feel safe, for there is but one way to those four
    rooms--through the door which shuts off the covered gallery from the open
    part. But--" he glanced up an instant and La Tribe caught the
    smouldering fire in his eyes--"we shall not go in by the door."

    "The bucket rises through a trap?"

    "In the gallery? To be sure, monsieur. In the corner beyond the fourth
    door. There shall he fall into the pit which he dug for others, and the
    evil that he planned rebound on his own head!"

    La Tribe was silent.

    "What think you of it?" Tignonville asked.

    "That it is cleverly planned," the minister answered.

    "No more than that?"

    "No more until I have eaten."

    "Get him something!" Tignonville replied in a surly tone. "And we may as
    well eat, ourselves. Lead the horses into the wood. And do you, Perrot,
    call Tuez-les-Moines, who is forward. Two hours' riding should bring us
    to La Fleche. We need not leave here, therefore, until the sun is low.
    To dinner! To dinner!"

    Probably he did not feel the indifference he affected, for his face as he
    ate grew darker, and from time to time he shot a glance, barbed with
    suspicion, at the minister. La Tribe on his side remained silent,
    although the men ate apart. He was in doubt, indeed, as to his own
    feelings. His instinct and his reason were at odds. Through all,
    however, a single purpose, the rescue of Angers, held good, and gradually
    other things fell into their places. When the meal was at an end, and
    Tignonville challenged him, he was ready.

    "Your enthusiasm seems to have waned," the younger man said with a sneer,
    "since we met, monsieur! May I ask now if you find any fault with the
    plan?"

    "With the plan, none."

    "If it was Providence brought us together, was it not Providence
    furnished me with Perrot who knows La Fleche? If it was Providence
    brought the danger of the faithful in Angers to your knowledge, was it
    not Providence set us on the road--without whom you had been powerless?"

    "I believe it!"

    "Then, in His name, what is the matter?" Tignonville rejoined with a
    passion of which the other's manner seemed an inadequate cause. "What
    will you! What is it?"

    "I would take your place," La Tribe answered quietly.

    "My place?"

    "Yes."

    "What, are we too many?"

    "We are enough without you, M. Tignonville," the minister answered.
    "These men, who have wrongs to avenge, God will justify them."

    Tignonville's eyes sparkled with anger. "And have I no wrongs to
    avenge?" he cried. "Is it nothing to lose my mistress, to be robbed of
    my wife, to see the woman I love dragged off to be a slave and a toy? Are
    these no wrongs?"

    "He spared your life, if he did not save it," the minister said solemnly.
    "And hers. And her servants."

    "To suit himself."

    La Tribe spread out his hands.

    "To suit himself! And for that you wish him to go free?" Tignonville
    cried in a voice half-choked with rage. "Do you know that this man, and
    this man alone, stood forth in the great Hall of the Louvre, and when
    even the King flinched, justified the murder of our people? After that
    is he to go free?"

    "At your hands," La Tribe answered quietly. "You alone of our people
    must not pursue him." He would have added more, but Tignonville would
    not listen.

    Brooding on his wrongs behind the wall of the Arsenal, he had let hatred
    eat away his more generous instincts. Vain and conceited, he fancied
    that the world laughed at the poor figure he had cut; and the wound in
    his vanity festered until nothing would serve but to see the downfall of
    his enemy. Instant pursuit, instant vengeance--only these, he fancied,
    could restore him in his fellows' eyes.

    In his heart he knew what would become him better. But vanity is a
    potent motive: and his conscience, even when supported by La Tribe,
    struggled but weakly. From neither would he hear more.

    "You have travelled with him, until you side with him!" he cried
    violently. "Have a care, monsieur, have a care, lest we think you
    papist!" And walking over to the men, he bade them saddle; adding a sour
    word which turned their eyes, in no friendly gaze, on the minister.

    After that La Tribe said no more. Of what use would it have been?

    But as darkness came on and cloaked the little troop, and the storm which
    the men had foreseen began to rumble in the west, his distaste for the
    business waxed. The summer lightning which presently began to play
    across the sky revealed not only the broad gleaming stream, between which
    and a wooded hill their road ran, but the faces of his companions; and
    these, in their turn, shed a grisly light on the bloody enterprise
    towards which they were set. Nervous and ill at ease, the minister's
    mind dwelt on the stages of that enterprise: the stealthy entrance
    through the waterway, the ascent through the trap, the surprise, the
    slaughter in the sleeping-chamber. And either because he had lived for
    days in the victim's company, or was swayed by the arguments he had
    addressed to another, the prospect shook his soul.

    In vain he told himself that this was the oppressor; he saw only the man,
    fresh roused from sleep, with the horror of impending dissolution in his
    eyes. And when the rider, behind whom he sat, pointed to a faint spark
    of light, at no great distance before them, and whispered that it was St.
    Agnes's Chapel, hard by the inn, he could have cried with the best
    Catholic of them all, "Inter pontem et fontem, Domine!" Nay, some such
    words did pass his lips.

    For the man before him turned halfway in his saddle. "What?" he asked.

    But the Huguenot did not explain.
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