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    Chapter 26

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    Chapter 26
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    TEMPER.

    It was his gaiety, that strange unusual gaiety, still continuing, which
    on the following day began by perplexing and ended by terrifying the
    Countess. She could not doubt that he had missed the packet on which so
    much hung and of which he had indicated the importance. But if he had
    missed it, why, she asked herself, did he not speak? Why did he not cry
    the alarm, search and question and pursue? Why did he not give her that
    opening to tell the truth, without which even her courage failed, her
    resolution died within her?

    Above all, what was the secret of his strange merriment? Of the snatches
    of song which broke from him, only to be hushed by her look of
    astonishment? Of the parades which his horse, catching the infection,
    made under him, as he tossed his riding-cane high in the air and caught
    it?

    Ay, what? Why, when he had suffered so great a loss, when he had been
    robbed of that of which he must give account--why did he cast off his
    melancholy and ride like the youngest? She wondered what the men
    thought, and looking, saw them stare, saw that they watched him
    stealthily, saw that they laid their heads together. What were they
    thinking of it? She could not tell; and slowly a terror, more insistent
    than any to which the extremity of violence would have reduced her, began
    to grip her heart.

    Twenty hours of rest had lifted her from the state of collapse into which
    the events of the night had cast her; still her limbs at starting had
    shaken under her. But the cool freshness of the early summer morning,
    and the sight of the green landscape and the winding Loir, beside which
    their road ran, had not failed to revive her spirits; and if he had shown
    himself merely gloomy, merely sunk in revengeful thoughts, or darting
    hither and thither the glance of suspicion, she felt that she could have
    faced him, and on the first opportunity could have told him the truth.

    But his new mood veiled she knew not what. It seemed, if she
    comprehended it at all, the herald of some bizarre, some dreadful
    vengeance, in harmony with his fierce and mocking spirit. Before it her
    heart became as water. Even her colour little by little left her cheeks.
    She knew that he had only to look at her now to read the truth; that it
    was written in her face, in her shrinking figure, in the eyes which now
    guiltily sought and now avoided his. And feeling sure that he did read
    it and know it, she fancied that he licked his lips, as the cat which
    plays with the mouse; she fancied that he gloated on her terror and her
    perplexity.

    This, though the day and the road were warrants for all cheerful
    thoughts. On one side vineyards clothed the warm red slopes, and rose in
    steps from the valley to the white buildings of a convent. On the other
    the stream wound through green flats where the black cattle stood knee-
    deep in grass, watched by wild-eyed and half-naked youths. Again the
    travellers lost sight of the Loir, and crossing a shoulder, rode through
    the dim aisles of a beech-forest, through deep rustling drifts of last
    year's leaves. And out again and down again they passed, and turning
    aside from the gateway, trailed along beneath the brown machicolated wall
    of an old town, from the crumbling battlements of which faces
    half-sleepy, half-suspicious, watched them as they moved below through
    the glare and heat. Down to the river-level again, where a squalid
    anchorite, seated at the mouth of a cave dug in the bank, begged of them,
    and the bell of a monastery on the farther bank tolled slumberously the
    hour of Nones.

    And still he said nothing, and she, cowed by his mysterious gaiety, yet
    spurning herself for her cowardice, was silent also. He hoped to arrive
    at Angers before nightfall. What, she wondered, shivering, would happen
    there? What was he planning to do to her? How would he punish her?
    Brave as she was, she was a woman, with a woman's nerves; and fear and
    anticipation got upon them; and his silence--his silence which must mean
    a thing worse than words!

    And then on a sudden, piercing all, a new thought. Was it possible that
    he had other letters? If his bearing were consistent with anything, it
    was consistent with that. Had he other genuine letters, or had he
    duplicate letters, so that he had lost nothing, but instead had gained
    the right to rack and torture her, to taunt and despise her?

    That thought stung her into sudden self-betrayal. They were riding along
    a broad dusty track which bordered a stone causey raised above the level
    of winter floods. Impulsively she turned to him.

    "You have other letters!" she cried. "You have other letters!" And
    freed for the moment from her terror, she fixed her eyes on his and
    strove to read his face.

    He looked at her, his mouth grown hard. "What do you mean, Madame?" he
    asked,

    "You have other letters?"

    "For whom?"

    "From the King, for Angers!"

    He saw that she was going to confess, that she was going to derange his
    cherished plan; and unreasonable anger awoke in the man who had been more
    than willing to forgive a real injury.

    "Will you explain?" he said between his teeth. And his eyes glittered
    unpleasantly. "What do you mean?"

    "You have other letters," she cried, "besides those which I stole."

    "Which you stole?" He repeated the words without passion. Enraged by
    this unexpected turn, he hardly knew how to take it.

    "Yes, I!" she cried. "I! I took them from under your pillow!"

    He was silent a minute. Then he laughed and shook his head.

    "It will not do, Madame," he said, his lip curling. "You are clever, but
    you do not deceive me."

    "Deceive you?"

    "Yes."

    "You do not believe that I took the letters?" she cried in great
    amazement.

    "No," he answered, "and for a good reason." He had hardened his heart
    now. He had chosen his line, and he would not spare her.

    "Why, then?" she cried. "Why?"

    "For the best of all reasons," he answered. "Because the person who
    stole the letters was seized in the act of making his escape, and is now
    in my power."

    "The person--who stole the letters?" she faltered.

    "Yes, Madame."

    "Do you mean M. de Tignonville?"

    "You have said it."

    She turned white to the lips, and trembling, could with difficulty sit
    her horse. With an effort she pulled it up, and he stopped also. Their
    attendants were some way ahead.

    "And you have the letters?" she whispered, her eyes meeting his. "You
    have the letters?"

    "No, but I have the thief!" Count Hannibal answered with sinister
    meaning. "As I think you knew, Madame," he continued ironically, "a
    while back before you spoke."

    "I? Oh no, no!" and she swayed in her saddle. "What--what are you--going
    to do?" she muttered after a moment's stricken silence.

    "To him?"

    "Yes."

    "The magistrates will decide, at Angers."

    "But he did not do it! I swear he did not."

    Count Hannibal shook his head coldly.

    "I swear, Monsieur, I took the letters!" she repeated piteously. "Punish
    me!" Her figure, bowed like an old woman's over the neck of her horse,
    seemed to crave his mercy.

    Count Hannibal smiled.

    "You do not believe me?"

    "No," he said. And then, in a tone which chilled her, "If I did believe
    you," he continued, "I should still punish him!" She was broken; but he
    would see if he could not break her further. He would try if there were
    no weak spot in her armour. He would rack her now, since in the end she
    must go free. "Understand, Madame," he continued in his harshest tone,
    "I have had enough of your lover. He has crossed my path too often. You
    are my wife, I am your husband. In a day or two there shall be an end of
    this farce and of him."

    "He did not take them!" she wailed, her face sinking lower on her breast.
    "He did not take them! Have mercy!"

    "Any way, Madame, they are gone!" Tavannes answered. "You have taken
    them between you; and as I do not choose that you should pay, he will pay
    the price."

    If the discovery that Tignonville had fallen into her husband's hands had
    not sufficed to crush her, Count Hannibal's tone must have done so. The
    shoot of new life which had raised its head after those dreadful days in
    Paris, and--for she was young--had supported her under the weight which
    the peril of Angers had cast on her shoulders, died, withered under the
    heel of his brutality. The pride which had supported her, which had won
    Tavannes' admiration and exacted his respect, sank, as she sank herself,
    bowed to her horse's neck, weeping bitter tears before him. She
    abandoned herself to her misery, as she had once abandoned herself in the
    upper room in Paris.

    And he looked at her. He had willed to crush her; he had his will, and
    he was not satisfied. He had bowed her so low that his magnanimity would
    now have its full effect, would shine as the sun into a dark world; and
    yet he was not happy. He could look forward to the morrow, and say, "She
    will understand me, she will know me!" and, lo, the thought that she wept
    for her lover stabbed him, and stabbed him anew; and he thought, "Rather
    would she death from him, than life from me! Though I give her creation,
    it will not alter her! Though I strike the stars with my head, it is he
    who fills her world."

    The thought spurred him to further cruelty, impelled him to try if,
    prostrate as she was, he could not draw a prayer from her.

    "You don't ask after him?" he scoffed. "He may be before or behind? Or
    wounded or well? Would you not know, Madame? And what message he sent
    you? And what he fears, and what hope he has? And his last wishes?
    And--for while there is life there is hope--would you not learn where the
    key of his prison lies to-night? How much for the key to-night, Madame?"

    Each question fell on her like the lash of a whip; but as one who has
    been flogged into insensibility, she did not wince. That drove him on:
    he felt a mad desire to hear her prayers, to force her lower, to bring
    her to her knees. And he sought about for a keener taunt. Their
    attendants were almost out of sight before them; the sun, declining
    apace, was in their eyes.

    "In two hours we shall be in Angers," he said. "Mon Dieu, Madame, it was
    a pity, when you two were taking letters, you did not go a step farther.
    You were surprised, or I doubt if I should be alive to-day!"

    Then she did look up. She raised her head and met his gaze with such
    wonder in her eyes, such reproach in her tear-stained face, that his
    voice sank on the last word.

    "You mean--that I would have murdered you?" she said. "I would have cut
    off my hand first. What I did"--and now her voice was as firm as it was
    low--"what I did, I did to save my people. And if it were to be done
    again, I would do it again!"

    "You dare to tell me that to my face?" he cried, hiding feelings which
    almost choked him. "You would do it again, would you? Mon Dieu, Madame,
    you need to be taught a lesson!"

    And by chance, meaning only to make the horses move on again, he raised
    his whip. She thought that he was going to strike her, and she flinched
    at last. The whip fell smartly on her horse's quarters, and it sprang
    forward. Count Hannibal swore between his teeth.

    He had turned pale, she red as fire. "Get on! Get on!" he cried
    harshly. "We are falling behind!" And riding at her heels, flipping her
    horse now and then, he forced her to trot on until they overtook the
    servants.
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