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    Chapter 30

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    Chapter 30
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    SACRILEGE!

    M. de Montsoreau, Lieutenant-Governor of Saumur almost rose from his seat
    in his astonishment.

    "What! No letters?" he cried, a hand on either arm of the chair.

    The Magistrates stared, one and all. "No letters?" they muttered.

    And "No letters?" the Provost chimed in more faintly.

    Count Hannibal looked smiling round the Council table. He alone was
    unmoved.

    "No," he said. "I bear none."

    M. de Montsoreau, who, travel-stained and in his corselet, had the second
    place of honour at the foot of the table, frowned.

    "But, M. le Comte," he said, "my instructions from Monsieur were to
    proceed to carry out his Majesty's will in co-operation with you, who, I
    understood, would bring letters _de par le Roi_."

    "I had letters," Count Hannibal answered negligently. "But on the way I
    mislaid them."

    "Mislaid them?" Montsoreau cried, unable to believe his ears; while the
    smaller dignitaries of the city, the magistrates and churchmen who sat on
    either side of the table, gaped open-mouthed. It was incredible! It was
    unbelievable! Mislay the King's letters! Who had ever heard of such a
    thing?

    "Yes, I mislaid them. Lost them, if you like it better."

    "But you jest!" the Lieutenant-Governor retorted, moving uneasily in his
    chair. He was a man more highly named for address than courage; and,
    like most men skilled in finesse, he was prone to suspect a trap. "You
    jest, surely, Monsieur! Men do not lose his Majesty's letters, by the
    way."

    "When they contain his Majesty's will, no," Tavannes answered, with a
    peculiar smile.

    "You imply, then?"

    Count Hannibal shrugged his shoulders, but had not answered when Bigot
    entered and handed him his sweetmeat box; he paused to open it and select
    a prune. He was long in selecting; but no change of countenance led any
    of those at the table to suspect that inside the lid of the box was a
    message--a scrap of paper informing him that Montsoreau had left fifty
    spears in the suburb without the Saumur gate, besides those whom he had
    brought openly into the town. Tavannes read the note slowly while he
    seemed to be choosing his fruit. And then--

    "Imply?" he answered. "I imply nothing, M. de Montsoreau."

    "But--"

    "But that sometimes his Majesty finds it prudent to give orders which he
    does not mean to be carried out. There are things which start up before
    the eye," Tavannes continued, negligently tapping the box on the table,
    "and there are things which do not; sometimes the latter are the more
    important. You, better than I, M. de Montsoreau, know that the King in
    the Gallery at the Louvre is one, and in his closet is another."

    "Yes."

    "And that being so--"

    "You do not mean to carry the letters into effect?"

    "Had I the letters, certainly, my friend. I should be bound by them. But
    I took good care to lose them," Tavannes added naively. "I am no fool."

    "Umph!"

    "However," Count Hannibal continued, with an airy gesture, "that is my
    affair. If you, M. de Montsoreau, feel inclined, in spite of the absence
    of my letters, to carry yours into effect, by all means do so--after
    midnight of to-day."

    M. de Montsoreau breathed hard. "And why," he asked, half sulkily and
    half ponderously, "after midnight only, M. le Comte?"

    "Merely that I may be clear of all suspicion of having lot or part in the
    matter," Count Hannibal answered pleasantly. "After midnight of to-night
    by all means do as you please. Until midnight, by your leave, we will be
    quiet."

    The Lieutenant-Governor moved doubtfully in his chair, the fear--which
    Tavannes had shrewdly instilled into his mind--that he might be disowned
    if he carried out his instructions, struggling with his avarice and his
    self-importance. He was rather crafty than bold; and such things had
    been, he knew. Little by little, and while he sat gloomily debating, the
    notion of dealing with one or two and holding the body of the Huguenots
    to ransom--a notion which, in spite of everything, was to bear good fruit
    for Angers--began to form in his mind. The plan suited him: it left him
    free to face either way, and it would fill his pockets more genteelly
    than would open robbery. On the other hand, he would offend his brother
    and the fanatical party, with whom he commonly acted. They were looking
    to see him assert himself. They were looking to hear him declare
    himself. And--

    Harshly Count Hannibal's voice broke in on his thoughts; harshly, a
    something sinister in its tone.

    "Where is your brother?" he said. And it was evident that he had not
    noted his absence until then. "My lord's Vicar of all people should be
    here!" he continued, leaning forward and looking round the table. His
    brow was stormy.

    Lescot squirmed under his eye; Thuriot turned pale and trembled. It was
    one of the canons of St.-Maurice, who at length took on himself to
    answer.

    "His lordship requested, M. le Comte," he ventured, "that you would
    excuse him. His duties--"

    "Is he ill?"

    "He--"

    "Is he ill, sirrah?" Tavannes roared. And while all bowed before the
    lightning of his eye, no man at the table knew what had roused the sudden
    tempest. But Bigot knew, who stood by the door, and whose ear, keen as
    his master's, had caught the distant report of a musket shot. "If he be
    not ill," Tavannes continued, rising and looking round the table in
    search of signs of guilt, "and there be foul play here, and he the
    player, the Bishop's own hand shall not save him! By Heaven it shall
    not! Nor yours!" he continued, looking fiercely at Montsoreau. "Nor
    your master's!"

    The Lieutenant-Governor sprang to his feet. "M. le Comte," he stammered,
    "I do not understand this language! Nor this heat, which may be real or
    not! All I say is, if there be foul play here--"

    "If!" Tavannes retorted. "At least, if there be, there be gibbets too!
    And I see necks!" he added, leaning forward. "Necks!" And then, with a
    look of flame, "Let no man leave this table until I return," he cried,
    "or he will have to deal with me. Nay," he continued, changing his tone
    abruptly, as the prudence, which never entirely left him--and perhaps the
    remembrance of the other's fifty spearmen--sobered him in the midst of
    his rage, "I am hasty. I mean not you, M. de Montsoreau! Ride where you
    will; ride with me, if you will, and I will thank you. Only remember,
    until midnight Angers is mine!"

    He was still speaking when he moved from the table, and, leaving all
    staring after him, strode down the room. An instant he paused on the
    threshold and looked back; then he passed out, and clattered down the
    stone stairs. His horse and riders were waiting, but, his foot in the
    stirrup, he stayed for a word with Bigot.

    "Is it so?" he growled.

    The Norman did not speak, but pointed towards the Place Ste.-Croix,
    whence an occasional shot made answer for him.

    In those days the streets of the Black City were narrow and crooked,
    overhung by timber houses, and hampered by booths; nor could Tavannes
    from the old Town Hall--now abandoned--see the Place Ste.-Croix. But
    that he could cure. He struck spurs to his horse, and, followed by his
    ten horsemen, he clattered noisily down the paved street. A dozen groups
    hurrying the same way sprang panic-stricken to the walls, or saved
    themselves in doorways. He was up with them, he was beyond them! Another
    hundred yards, and he would see the Place.

    And then, with a cry of rage, he drew rein a little, discovering what was
    before him. In the narrow gut of the way a great black banner, borne on
    two poles, was lurching towards him. It was moving in the van of a dark
    procession of priests, who, with their attendants and a crowd of devout,
    filled the street from wall to wall. They were chanting one of the
    penitential psalms, but not so loudly as to drown the uproar in the Place
    beyond them.

    They made no way, and Count Hannibal swore furiously, suspecting
    treachery. But he was no madman, and at the moment the least reflection
    would have sent him about to seek another road. Unfortunately, as he
    hesitated a man sprang with a gesture of warning to his horse's head and
    seized it; and Tavannes, mistaking the motive of the act, lost his self-
    control. He struck the fellow down, and, with a reckless word, rode
    headlong into the procession, shouting to the black robes to make way,
    make way! A cry, nay, a shriek of horror, answered him and rent the air.
    And in a minute the thing was done. Too late, as the Bishop's Vicar,
    struck by his horse, fell screaming under its hoofs--too late, as the
    consecrated vessels which he had been bearing rolled in the mud, Tavannes
    saw that they bore the canopy and the Host!

    He knew what he had done, then. Before his horse's iron shoes struck the
    ground again, his face--even his face--had lost its colour. But he knew
    also that to hesitate now, to pause now, was to be torn in pieces; for
    his riders, seeing that which the banner had veiled from him, had not
    followed him, and he was alone, in the middle of brandished fists and
    weapons. He hesitated not a moment. Drawing a pistol, he spurred
    onwards, his horse plunging wildly among the shrieking priests; and
    though a hundred hands, hands of acolytes, hands of shaven monks,
    clutched at his bridle or gripped his boot, he got clear of them. Clear,
    carrying with him the memory of one face seen an instant amid the crowd,
    one face seen, to be ever remembered--the face of Father Pezelay, white,
    evil, scarred, distorted by wicked triumph.

    Behind him, the thunder of "Sacrilege! Sacrilege!" rose to Heaven, and
    men were gathering. In front the crowd which skirmished about the inn
    was less dense, and, ignorant of the thing that had happened in the
    narrow street, made ready way for him, the boldest recoiling before the
    look on his face. Some who stood nearest to the inn, and had begun to
    hurl stones at the window and to beat on the doors--which had only the
    minute before closed on Badelon and his prisoners--supposed that he had
    his riders behind him; and these fled apace. But he knew better even
    than they the value of time; he pushed his horse up to the gates, and
    hammered them with his boot while be kept his pistol-hand towards the
    Place and the cathedral, watching for the transformation which he knew
    would come!

    And come it did; on a sudden, in a twinkling! A white-faced monk, frenzy
    in his eyes, appeared in the midst of the crowd. He stood and tore his
    garments before the people, and, stooping, threw dust on his head. A
    second and a third followed his example; then from a thousand throats the
    cry of "Sacrilege! Sacrilege!" rolled up, while clerks flew wildly
    hither and thither shrieking the tale, and priests denied the Sacraments
    to Angers until it should purge itself of the evil thing.

    By that time Count Hannibal had saved himself behind the great gates, by
    the skin of his teeth. The gates had opened to him in time. But none
    knew better than he that Angers had no gates thick enough, nor walls of a
    height, to save him for many hours from the storm he had let loose!
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