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    Chapter 24

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    Chapter 24
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    AT THE KING'S INN.

    The Countess sat up in the darkness of the chamber. She had writhed
    since noon under the stings of remorse; she could bear them no longer.
    The slow declension of the day, the evening light, the signs of coming
    tempest which had driven her company to the shelter of the inn at the
    crossroads, all had racked her, by reminding her that the hours were
    flying, and that soon the fault she had committed would be irreparable.
    One impulsive attempt to redeem it she had made; but it had failed, and,
    by rendering her suspect, had made reparation more difficult. Still, by
    daylight it had seemed possible to rest content with the trial made; not
    so now, when night had fallen, and the cries of little children and the
    haggard eyes of mothers peopled the darkness of her chamber. She sat up,
    and listened with throbbing temples.

    To shut out the lightning which played at intervals across the heavens,
    Madame St. Lo, who shared the room, had covered the window with a cloak;
    and the place was dark. To exclude the dull roll of the thunder was less
    easy, for the night was oppressively hot, and behind the cloak the
    casement was open. Gradually, too, another sound, the hissing fall of
    heavy rain, began to make itself heard, and to mingle with the regular
    breathing which proved that Madame St. Lo slept.

    Assured of this fact, the Countess presently heaved a sigh, and slipped
    from the bed. She groped in the darkness for her cloak, found it, and
    donned it over her night gear. Then, taking her bearings by her bed,
    which stood with its head to the window and its foot to the entrance, she
    felt her way across the floor to the door, and after passing her hands a
    dozen times over every part of it, she found the latch, and raised it.
    The door creaked, as she pulled it open, and she stood arrested; but the
    sound went no farther, for the roofed gallery outside, which looked by
    two windows on the courtyard, was full of outdoor noises, the rushing of
    rain and the running of spouts and eaves. One of the windows stood wide,
    admitting the rain and wind, and as she paused, holding the door open,
    the draught blew the cloak from her. She stepped out quickly and shut
    the door behind her. On her left was the blind end of the passage; she
    turned to the right. She took one step into the darkness and stood
    motionless. Beside her, within a few feet of her, some one had moved,
    with a dull sound as of a boot on wood; a sound so near her that she held
    her breath, and pressed herself against the wall.

    She listened. Perhaps some of the servants--it was a common usage--had
    made their beds on the floor. Perhaps one of the women had stirred in
    the room against the wall of which she crouched. Perhaps--but, even
    while she reassured herself, the sound rose anew at her feet.

    Fortunately at the same instant the glare of the lightning flooded all,
    and showed the passage, and showed it empty. It lit up the row of doors
    on her right and the small windows on her left, and discovered facing her
    the door which shut off the rest of the house. She could have
    thanked--nay, she did thank God for that light. If the sound she had
    heard recurred she did not hear it; for, as the thunder which followed
    hard on the flash crashed overhead and rolled heavily eastwards, she felt
    her way boldly along the passage, touching first one door, and then a
    second, and then a third.

    She groped for the latch of the last, and found it, but, with her hand on
    it, paused. In order to summon up her courage, she strove to hear again
    the cries of misery and to see again the haggard eyes which had driven
    her hither. And if she did not wholly succeed, other reflections came to
    her aid. This storm, which covered all smaller noises, and opened, now
    and again, God's lantern for her use, did it not prove that He was on her
    side, and that she might count on His protection? The thought at least
    was timely, and with a better heart she gathered her wits. Waiting until
    the thunder burst over her head, she opened the door, slid within it, and
    closed it. She would fain have left it ajar, that in case of need she
    might escape the more easily. But the wind, which beat into the passage
    through the open window, rendered the precaution too perilous.

    She went forward two paces into the room, and as the roll of the thunder
    died away she stooped forward and listened with painful intensity for the
    sound of Count Hannibal's breathing. But the window was open, and the
    hiss of the rain persisted; she could hear nothing through it, and
    fearfully she took another step forward. The window should be before
    her; the bed in the corner to the left. But nothing of either could she
    make out. She must wait for the lightning.

    It came, and for a second or more the room shone. The window, the low
    truckle-bed, the sleeper, she saw all with dazzling clearness, and before
    the flash had well passed she was crouching low, with the hood of her
    cloak dragged about her face. For the glare had revealed Count Hannibal;
    but not asleep! He lay on his side, his face towards her; lay with open
    eyes, staring at her.

    Or had the light tricked her? The light must have tricked her, for in
    the interval between the flash and the thunder, while she crouched
    quaking, he did not move or call. The light must have deceived her. She
    felt so certain of it that she found courage to remain where she was
    until another flash came and showed him sleeping with closed eyes.

    She drew a breath of relief at that, and rose slowly to her feet. But
    she dared not go forward until a third flash had confirmed the second.
    Then, while the thunder burst overhead and rolled away, she crept on
    until she stood beside the pillow, and, stooping, could hear the
    sleeper's breathing.

    Alas! the worst remained to be done. The packet, she was sure of it, lay
    under his pillow. How was she to find it, how remove it without rousing
    him? A touch might awaken him. And yet, if she would not return empty-
    handed, if she would not go back to the harrowing thoughts which had
    tortured her through the long hours of the day, it must be done, and done
    now.

    She knew this, yet she hung irresolute a while, blenching before the
    manual act, listening to the persistent rush and downpour of the rain.
    Then a second time she drew courage from the storm. How timely had it
    broken. How signally had it aided her! How slight had been her chance
    without it! And so at last, resolutely but with a deft touch, she slid
    her fingers between the pillow and the bed, slightly pressing down the
    latter with her other hand. For an instant she fancied that the
    sleeper's breathing stopped, and her heart gave a great bound. But the
    breathing went on the next instant--if it had stopped--and dreading the
    return of the lightning, shrinking from being revealed so near him, and
    in that act--for which the darkness seemed more fitting--she groped
    farther, and touched something. Then, as her fingers closed upon it and
    grasped it, and his breath rose hot to her burning cheek, she knew that
    the real danger lay in the withdrawal.

    At the first attempt he uttered a kind of grunt and moved, throwing out
    his hand. She thought that he was going to awake, and had hard work to
    keep herself where she was; but he did not move, and she began again with
    so infinite a precaution that the perspiration ran down her face and her
    hair within the hood hung dank on her neck. Slowly, oh so slowly, she
    drew back the hand, and with it the packet; so slowly, and yet so
    resolutely, being put to it, that when the dreaded flash surprised her,
    and she saw his harsh swarthy face, steeped in the mysterious aloofness
    of sleep, within a hand's breadth of hers, not a muscle of her arm moved,
    nor did her hand quiver.

    It was done--at last! With a burst of gratitude, of triumph, of
    exultation, she stood erect. She realized that it was done, and that
    here in her hand she held the packet. A deep gasp of relief, of joy, of
    thankfulness, and she glided towards the door.

    She groped for the latch, and in the act fancied his breathing was
    changed. She paused, and bent her head to listen. But the patter of the
    rain, drowning all sounds save those of the nearest origin, persuaded her
    that she was mistaken, and, finding the latch, she raised it, slipped
    like a shadow into the passage, and closed the door behind her.

    That done she stood arrested, all the blood in her body running to her
    heart. She must be dreaming! The passage in which she stood--the
    passage which she had left in black darkness--was alight; was so far
    lighted, at least, that to eyes fresh from the night, the figures of
    three men, grouped at the farther end, stood out against the glow of the
    lanthorn which they appeared to be trimming--for the two nearest were
    stooping over it. These two had their backs to her, the third his face;
    and it was the sight of this third man which had driven the blood to her
    heart. He ended at the waist! It was only after a few seconds, it was
    only when she had gazed at him awhile in speechless horror, that he rose
    another foot from the floor, and she saw that he had paused in the act of
    ascending through a trapdoor. What the scene meant, who these men were,
    or what their entrance portended, with these questions her brain refused
    at the moment to grapple. It was much that--still remembering who might
    hear her, and what she held--she did not shriek aloud.

    Instead, she stood in the gloom at her end of the passage, gazing with
    all her eyes until she had seen the third man step clear of the trap. She
    could see him; but the light intervened and blurred his view of her. He
    stooped, almost as soon as he had cleared himself, to help up a fourth
    man, who rose with a naked knife between his teeth. She saw then that
    all were armed, and something stealthy in their bearing, something cruel
    in their eyes as the light of the lanthorn fell now on one dark face and
    now on another, went to her heart and chilled it. Who were they, and why
    were they here? What was their purpose? As her reason awoke, as she
    asked herself these questions, the fourth man stooped in his turn, and
    gave his hand to a fifth. And on that she lost her self-control, and
    cried out. For the last man to ascend was La Tribe--La Tribe, from whom
    she had parted that morning.

    The sound she uttered was low, but it reached the men's ears, and the two
    whose backs were towards her turned as if they had been pricked. He who
    held the lanthorn raised it, and the five glared at her and she at them.
    Then a second cry, louder and more full of surprise, burst from her lips.
    The nearest man, he who held the lanthorn high that he might view her,
    was Tignonville, was her lover!

    "_Mon Dieu_!" she whispered. "What is it? What is it?"

    Then, not till then, did he know her. Until then the light of the
    lanthorn had revealed only a cloaked and cowled figure, a gloomy phantom
    which shook the heart of more than one with superstitious terror. But
    they knew her now--two of them; and slowly, as in a dream, Tignonville
    came forward.

    The mind has its moments of crisis, in which it acts upon instinct rather
    than upon reason. The girl never knew why she acted as she did; why she
    asked no questions, why she uttered no exclamations, no remonstrances;
    why, with a finger on her lips and her eyes on his, she put the packet
    into his hands.

    He took it from her, too, as mechanically as she gave it--with the hand
    which held his bare blade. That done, silent as she, with his eyes set
    hard, he would have gone by her. The sight of her _there_, guarding the
    door of him who had stolen her from him, exasperated his worst passions.
    But she moved to hinder him, and barred the way. With her hand raised
    she pointed to the trapdoor.

    "Go!" she whispered, her tone stern and low, "you have what you want!
    Go!"

    "No!" And he tried to pass her.

    "Go!" she repeated in the same tone. "You have what you need." And
    still she held her hand extended; still without faltering she faced the
    five men, while the thunder, growing more distant, rolled sullenly
    eastward, and the midnight rain, pouring from every spout and dripping
    eave about the house, wrapped the passage in its sibilant hush. Gradually
    her eyes dominated his, gradually her nobler nature and nobler aim
    subdued his weaker parts. For she understood now; and he saw that she
    did, and had he been alone he would have slunk away, and said no word in
    his defence.

    But one of the men, savage and out of patience, thrust himself between
    them.

    "Where is he?" he muttered. "What is the use of this? Where is he?" And
    his bloodshot eyes--it was Tuez-les-Moines--questioned the doors, while
    his hand, trembling and shaking on the haft of his knife, bespoke his
    eagerness. "Where is he? Where is he, woman? Quick, or--"

    "I shall not tell you," she answered.

    "You lie," he cried, grinning like a dog. "You will tell us! Or we will
    kill you too! Where is he? Where is he?"

    "I shall not tell you," she repeated, standing before him in the
    fearlessness of scorn. "Another step and I rouse the house! M. de
    Tignonville, to you who know me, I swear that if this man does not
    retire--"

    "He is in one of these rooms?" was Tignonville's answer. "In which? In
    which?"

    "Search them!" she answered, her voice low, but biting in its contempt.
    "Try them. Rouse my women, alarm the house! And when you have his
    people at your throats--five as they will be to one of you--thank your
    own mad folly!"

    Tuez-les-Moines' eyes glittered. "You will not tell us?" he cried.

    "No!"

    "Then--"

    But as the fanatic sprang on her, La Tribe flung his arms round him and
    dragged him back.

    "It would be madness," he cried. "Are you mad, fool? Have done!" he
    panted, struggling with him. "If Madame gives the alarm--and he may be
    in any one of these four rooms, you cannot be sure which--we are undone."
    He looked for support to Tignonville, whose movement to protect the girl
    he had anticipated, and who had since listened sullenly. "We have
    obtained what we need. Will you requite Madame, who has gained it for us
    at her own risk--"

    "It is Monsieur I would requite," Tignonville muttered grimly.

    "By using violence to her?" the minister retorted passionately. He and
    Tuez were still gripping one another. "I tell you, to go on is to risk
    what we have got! And I for one--"

    "Am chicken-hearted!" the young man sneered. "Madame--" He seemed to
    choke on the word. "Will you swear that he is not here?"

    "I swear that if you do not go I will raise the alarm!" she hissed--all
    their words were sunk to that stealthy note. "Go! if you have not stayed
    too long already. Go! Or see!" And she pointed to the trapdoor, from
    which the face and arms of a sixth man had that moment risen--the face
    dark with perturbation, so that her woman's wit told her at once that
    something was amiss. "See what has come of your delay already!"

    "The water is rising," the man muttered earnestly. "In God's name come,
    whether you have done it or not, or we cannot pass out again. It is
    within a foot of the crown of the culvert now, and it is rising."

    "Curse on the water!" Tuez-les-Moines answered in a frenzied whisper.
    "And on this Jezebel. Let us kill her and him! What matter afterwards?"
    And he tried to shake off La Tribe's grasp.

    But the minister held him desperately. "Are you mad? Are you mad?" he
    answered. "What can we do against thirty? Let us be gone while we can.
    Let us be gone! Come."

    "Ay, come," Perrot cried, assenting reluctantly. He had taken no side
    hitherto. "The luck is against us! 'Tis no use to-night, man!" And he
    turned with an air of sullen resignation. Letting his legs drop through
    the trap, he followed the bearer of the tidings out of sight. Another
    made up his mind to go, and went. Then only Tignonville, holding the
    lanthorn, and La Tribe, who feared to release Tuez-les-Moines, remained
    with the fanatic.

    The Countess's eyes met her old lover's, and whether old memories
    overcame her, or, now that the danger was nearly past, she began to give
    way, she swayed a little on her feet. But he did not notice it. He was
    sunk in black rage--rage against her, rage against himself.

    "Take the light," she muttered unsteadily. "And--and he must follow!"

    "And you?"

    But she could bear it no longer. "Oh, go," she wailed. "Go! Will you
    never go? If you love me, if you ever loved me, I implore you to go."

    He had betrayed little of a lover's feeling. But he could not resist
    that appeal, and he turned silently. Seizing Tuez-les-Moines by the
    other arm, he drew him by force to the trap.

    "Quiet, fool," he muttered savagely when the man would have resisted,
    "and go down! If we stay to kill him, we shall have no way of escape,
    and his life will be dearly bought. Down, man, down!" And between them,
    in a struggling silence, with now and then an audible rap, or a ring of
    metal, the two forced the desperado to descend.

    La Tribe followed hastily. Tignonville was the last to go. In the act
    of disappearing he raised his lanthorn for a last glimpse of the
    Countess. To his astonishment the passage was empty; she was gone. Hard
    by him a door stood an inch or two ajar, and he guessed that it was hers,
    and swore under his breath, hating her at that moment. But he did not
    guess how nicely she had calculated her strength; how nearly exhaustion
    had overcome her; or that, even while he paused--a fatal pause had he
    known it--eyeing the dark opening of the door, she lay as one dead, on
    the bed within. She had fallen in a swoon, from which she did not
    recover until the sun had risen, and marched across one quarter of the
    heavens.

    Nor did he see another thing, or he might have hastened his steps. Before
    the yellow light of his lanthorn faded from the ceiling of the passage,
    the door of the room farthest from the trap slid open. A man, whose
    eyes, until darkness swallowed him, shone strangely in a face
    extraordinarily softened, came out on tip-toe. This man stood awhile,
    listening. At length, hearing those below utter a cry of dismay, he
    awoke to sudden activity. He opened with a turn of the key the door
    which stood at his elbow, the door which led to the other part of the
    house. He vanished through it. A second later a sharp whistle pierced
    the darkness of the courtyard, and brought a dozen sleepers to their
    senses and their feet. A moment, and the courtyard hummed with voices,
    above which one voice rang clear and insistent. With a startled cry the
    inn awoke.
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