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    Chapter 31

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    Chapter 31
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    THE FLIGHT FROM ANGERS.

    But that only the more roused the devil in the man; that, and the
    knowledge that he had his own headstrong act to thank for the position.
    He looked on the panic-stricken people who, scared by the turmoil
    without, had come together in the courtyard, wringing their hands and
    chattering; and his face was so dark and forbidding that fear of him took
    the place of all other fear, and the nearest shrank from contact with
    him. On any other entering as he had entered, they would have hailed
    questions; they would have asked what was amiss, and if the city were
    rising, and where were Bigot and his men. But Count Hannibal's eye
    struck curiosity dumb. When he cried from his saddle, "Bring me the
    landlord!" the trembling man was found, and brought, and thrust forward
    almost without a word.

    "You have a back gate?" Tavannes said, while the crowd leaned forward to
    catch his words.

    "Yes, my lord," the man faltered.

    "Into the street which leads to the ramparts?"

    "Ye-yes, my lord."

    "Then"--to Badelon--"saddle! You have five minutes. Saddle as you never
    saddled before," he continued in a low tone, "or--" His tongue did not
    finish the threat, but his hand waved the man away. "For you"--he held
    Tignonville an instant with his lowering eye--"and the preaching fool
    with you, get arms and mount! You have never played aught but the woman
    yet; but play me false now, or look aside but a foot from the path I bid
    you take, and you thwart me no more, Monsieur! And you, Madame," he
    continued, turning to the Countess, who stood bewildered at one of the
    doors, the Provost's daughter clinging and weeping about her, "you have
    three minutes to get your women to horse! See you, if you please, that
    they take no longer!"

    She found her voice with difficulty. "And this child?" she said. "She
    is in my care."

    "Bring her," he muttered with a scowl of impatience. And then, raising
    his voice as he turned on the terrified gang of hostlers and inn servants
    who stood gaping round him, "Go help!" he thundered. "Go help! And
    quickly!" he added, his face growing a shade darker as a second bell
    began to toll from a neighbouring tower, and the confused babel in the
    Place Ste.-Croix settled into a dull roar of "_Sacrilege_!
    _sacrilege_."--"Hasten!"

    Fortunately it had been his first intention to go to the Council attended
    by the whole of his troop; and eight horses stood saddled in the stalls.
    Others were hastily pulled out and bridled, and the women were mounted.
    La Tribe, at a look from Tavannes, took behind him the Provost's
    daughter, who was helpless with terror. Between the suddenness of the
    alarm, the uproar without, and the panic within, none but a man whose
    people served him at a nod and dreaded his very gesture could have got
    his party mounted in time. Javette would fain have swooned, but she
    dared not. Tignonville would fain have questioned, but he shrank from
    the venture. The Countess would fain have said something, but she forced
    herself to obey and no more. Even so the confusion in the courtyard, the
    mingling of horses and men and trappings and saddle-bags, would have made
    another despair; but wherever Count Hannibal, seated in his saddle in the
    middle, turned his face, chaos settled into a degree of order, servants,
    ceasing to listen to the yells and cries outside, ran to fetch, women
    dropped cloaks from the gallery, and men loaded muskets and strapped on
    bandoliers.

    Until at last--but none knew what those minutes of suspense cost him--he
    saw all mounted, and, pistol in hand, shepherded them to the back gates.
    As he did so he stooped for a few scowling words with Badelon, whom he
    sent to the van of the party: then he gave the word to open. It was
    done; and even as Montsoreau's horsemen, borne on the bosom of a second
    and more formidable throng, swept raging into the already crowded square,
    and the cry went up for "a ram! a ram!" to batter in the gates, Tavannes,
    hurling his little party before him, dashed out at the back, and putting
    to flight a handful of rascals who had wandered to that side, cantered
    unmolested down the lane to the ramparts. Turning eastward at the foot
    of the frowning Castle, he followed the inner side of the wall in the
    direction of the gate by which he had entered the preceding evening.

    To gain this his party had to pass the end of the Rue Toussaint, which
    issues from the Place Ste.-Croix and runs so straight that the mob
    seething in front of the inn had only to turn their heads to see them.
    The danger incurred at this point was great; for a party as small as
    Tavannes' and encumbered with women would have had no chance if attacked
    within the walls.

    Count Hannibal knew it. But he knew also that the act which he had
    committed rendered the north bank of the Loire impossible for him.
    Neither King nor Marshal, neither Charles of Valois nor Gaspard of
    Tavannes, would dare to shield him from an infuriated Church, a Church
    too wise to forgive certain offences. His one chance lay in reaching the
    southern bank of the Loire--roughly speaking, the Huguenot bank--and
    taking refuge in some town, Rochelle or St. Jean d'Angely, where the
    Huguenots were strong, and whence he might take steps to set himself
    right with his own side.

    But to cross the great river which divides France into two lands widely
    differing he must leave the city by the east gate; for the only bridge
    over the Loire within forty miles of Angers lay eastward from the town,
    at Ponts de Ce, four miles away. To this gate, therefore, past the Rue
    Toussaint, he whirled his party daringly; and though the women grew pale
    as the sounds of riot broke louder on the ear, and they discovered that
    they were approaching instead of leaving the danger--and though
    Tignonville for an instant thought him mad, and snatched at the
    Countess's rein--his men-at-arms, who knew him, galloped stolidly on,
    passed like clockwork the end of the street, and, reckless of the stream
    of persons hurrying in the direction of the alarm, heedless of the fright
    and anger their passage excited, pressed steadily on. A moment and the
    gate through which they had entered the previous evening appeared before
    them. And--a sight welcome to one of them--it was open.

    They were fortunate indeed, for a few seconds later they had been too
    late. The alarm had preceded them. As they dashed up, a man ran to the
    chains of the portcullis and tried to lower it. He failed to do so at
    the first touch, and, quailing, fled from Badelon's levelled pistol. A
    watchman on one of the bastions of the wall shouted to them to halt or he
    would fire: but the riders yelled in derision, and thundering through the
    echoing archway, emerged into the open, and saw, extended before them, in
    place of the gloomy vistas of the Black Town, the glory of the open
    country and the vine-clad hills, and the fields about the Loire yellow
    with late harvest.

    The women gasped their relief, and one or two who were most out of breath
    would have pulled up their horses and let them trot, thinking the danger
    at an end. But a curt savage word from the rear set them flying again,
    and down and up and on again they galloped, driven forward by the iron
    hand which never relaxed its grip of them. Silent and pitiless he
    whirled them before him until they were within a mile of the long Ponts
    de Ce--a series of bridges rather than one bridge--and the broad shallow
    Loire lay plain before them, its sandbanks grilling in the sun, and grey
    lines of willows marking its eyots. By this time some of the women,
    white with fatigue, could only cling to their saddles with their hands;
    while others were red-hot, their hair unrolled, and the perspiration
    mingled with the dust on their faces. But he who drove them had no pity
    for weakness in an emergency. He looked back and saw, a half-mile behind
    them, the glitter of steel following hard on their heels: and "Faster!
    faster!" he cried, regardless of their prayers: and he beat the rearmost
    of the horses with his scabbard. A waiting-woman shrieked that she
    should fall, but he answered ruthlessly, "Fall then, fool!" and the
    instinct of self-preservation coming to her aid, she clung and bumped and
    toiled on with the rest until they reached the first houses of the town
    about the bridges, and Badelon raised his hand as a signal that they
    might slacken speed.

    The bewilderment of the start had been so great that it was then only,
    when they found their feet on the first link of the bridge, that two of
    the party, the Countess and Tignonville, awoke to the fact that their
    faces were set southwards. To cross the Loire in those days meant much
    to all: to a Huguenot, very much. It chanced that these two rode on to
    the bridge side by side, and the memory of their last crossing--the
    remembrance that, on their journey north a month before, they had crossed
    it hand-in-hand with the prospect of passing their lives together, and
    with no faintest thought of the events which were to ensue, flashed into
    the mind of each of them. It deepened the flush which exertion had
    brought to the woman's cheek, then left it paler than before. A minute
    earlier she had been wroth with her old lover; she had held him
    accountable for the outbreak in the town and this hasty retreat; now her
    anger died as she looked and she remembered. In the man, shallower of
    feeling and more alive to present contingencies, the uppermost emotion as
    he trod the bridge was one of surprise and congratulation.

    He could not at first believe in their good fortune. "_Mon Dieu_!" he
    cried, "we are crossing!" And then again in a lower tone, "We are
    crossing! We are crossing!" And he looked at her.

    It was impossible that she should not look back; that she who had ceased
    to be angry should not feel and remember; impossible that her answering
    glance should not speak to his heart. Below them, as on that day a month
    earlier, when they had crossed the bridges going northward, the broad
    shallow river ran its course in the sunshine, its turbid currents
    gleaming and flashing about the sandbanks and osier-beds. To the eye,
    the landscape, save that the vintage was farther advanced and the harvest
    in part gathered in, was the same. But how changed were their relations,
    their prospects, their hopes, who had then crossed the river
    hand-in-hand, planning a life to be passed together.

    The young man's rage boiled up at the thought. Too vividly, too sharply
    it showed him the wrongs which he had suffered at the hands of the man
    who rode behind him, the man who even now drove him on and ordered him
    and insulted him. He forgot that he might have perished in the general
    massacre if Count Hannibal had not intervened. He forgot that Count
    Hannibal had spared him once and twice. He laid on his enemy's shoulders
    the guilt of all, the blood of all: and, as quick on the thought of his
    wrongs and his fellows' wrongs followed the reflection that with every
    league they rode southwards the chance of requital grew, he cried again,
    and this time joyously--

    "We are crossing! A little, and we shall be in our own land!"

    The tears filled the Countess's eyes as she looked westwards and
    southwards.

    "Vrillac is there!" she cried; and she pointed. "I smell the sea!"

    "Ay!" he answered, almost under his breath. "It lies there! And no more
    than thirty leagues from us! With fresh horses we might see it in two
    days!"

    Badelon's voice broke in on them. "Forward!" he cried, as the party
    reached the southern bank. "_En avant_!" And, obedient to the word, the
    little company, refreshed by the short respite, took the road out of
    Ponts de Ce at a steady trot. Nor was the Countess the only one whose
    face glowed, being set southwards, or whose heart pulsed to the rhythm of
    the horses' hoofs that beat out "Home!" Carlat's and Madame Carlat's
    also. Javette even, hearing from her neighbour that they were over the
    Loire, plucked up courage; while La Tribe, gazing before him with
    moistened eyes, cried "Comfort" to the scared and weeping girl who clung
    to his belt. It was singular to see how all sniffed the air as if
    already it smacked of the sea and of the south; and how they of Poitou
    sat their horses as if they asked nothing better than to ride on and on
    and on until the scenes of home arose about them. For them the sky had
    already a deeper blue, the air a softer fragrance, the sunshine a purity
    long unknown.

    Was it wonderful, when they had suffered so much on that northern bank?
    When their experience during the month had been comparable only with the
    direst nightmare? Yet one among them, after the first impulse of relief
    and satisfaction, felt differently. Tignonville's gorge rose against the
    sense of compulsion, of inferiority. To be driven forward after this
    fashion, whether he would or no, to be placed at the back of every base-
    born man-at-arms, to have no clearer knowledge of what had happened or of
    what was passing, or of the peril from which they fled, than the women
    among whom he rode--these things kindled anew the sullen fire of hate.
    North of the Loire there had been some excuse for his inaction under
    insult; he had been in the man's country and power. But south of the
    Loire, within forty leagues of Huguenot Niort, must he still suffer,
    still be supine?

    His rage was inflamed by a disappointment he presently underwent. Looking
    back as they rode clear of the wooden houses of Ponts de Ce, he missed
    Tavannes and several of his men; and he wondered if Count Hannibal had
    remained on his own side of the river. It seemed possible; and in that
    event La Tribe and he and Carlat might deal with Badelon and the four who
    still escorted them. But when he looked back a minute later, Tavannes
    was within sight, following the party with a stern face; and not Tavannes
    only. Bigot, with two of the ten men who hitherto had been missing, was
    with him.

    It was clear, however, that they brought no good news, for they had
    scarcely ridden up before Count Hannibal cried, "Faster! faster!" in his
    harshest voice, and Bigot urged the horses to a quicker trot. Their
    course lay almost parallel with the Loire in the direction of Beaupreau;
    and Tignonville began to fear that Count Hannibal intended to recross the
    river at Nantes, where the only bridge below Angers spanned the stream.
    With this in view it was easy to comprehend his wish to distance his
    pursuers before he recrossed.

    The Countess had no such thought. "They must be close upon us!" she
    murmured, as she urged her horse in obedience to the order.

    "Whoever they are!" Tignonville muttered bitterly. "If we knew what had
    happened, or who followed, we should know more about it, Madame. For
    that matter, I know what I wish he would do. And our heads are set for
    it."

    "What?"

    "Make for Vrillac!" he answered, a savage gleam in his eyes.

    "For Vrillac?"

    "Yes."

    "Ah, if he would!" she cried, her face turning pale. "If he would. He
    would be safe there!"

    "Ay, quite safe!" he answered with a peculiar intonation. And he looked
    at her askance.

    He fancied that his thought, the thought which had just flashed into his
    brain, was her thought; that she had the same notion in reserve, and that
    they were in sympathy. And Tavannes, seeing them talking together, and
    noting her look and the fervour of her gesture, formed the same opinion,
    and retired more darkly into himself. The downfall of his plan for
    dazzling her by a magnanimity unparalleled and beyond compare, a plan
    dependent on the submission of Angers--his disappointment in this might
    have roused the worst passions of a better man. But there was in this
    man a pride on a level at least with his other passions: and to bear
    himself in this hour of defeat and flight so that if she could not love
    him she must admire him, checked in a strange degree the current of his
    rage.

    When Tignonville presently looked back he found that Count Hannibal and
    six of his riders had pulled up and were walking their horses far in the
    rear. On which he would have done the same himself; but Badelon called
    over his shoulder the eternal "Forward, Monsieur, _en avant_!" and
    sullenly, hating the man and his master more deeply every hour,
    Tignonville was forced to push on, with thoughts of vengeance in his
    heart.

    Trot, trot! Trot, trot! Through a country which had lost its smiling
    wooded character and grew more sombre and less fertile the farther they
    left the Loire behind them. Trot, trot! Trot, trot!--for ever, it
    seemed to some. Javette wept with fatigue, and the other women were
    little better. The Countess herself spoke seldom except to cheer the
    Provost's daughter; who, poor girl, flung suddenly out of the round of
    her life and cast among strangers, showed a better spirit than might have
    been expected. At length, on the slopes of some low hills, which they
    had long seen before them, a cluster of houses and a church appeared; and
    Badelon, drawing rein, cried--

    "Beaupreau, Madame! We stay an hour!"

    It was six o'clock. They had ridden some hours without a break. With
    sighs and cries of pain the women dropped from their clumsy saddles,
    while the men laid out such food--it was little--as had been brought, and
    hobbled the horses that they might feed. The hour passed rapidly, and
    when it had passed Badelon was inexorable. There was wailing when he
    gave the word to mount again; and Tignonville, fiercely resenting this
    dumb, reasonless flight, was at heart one of the mutineers. But Badelon
    said grimly that they might go on and live, or stay and die, as it
    pleased them; and once more they climbed painfully to their saddles, and
    jogged steadily on through the sunset, through the gloaming, through the
    darkness, across a weird, mysterious country of low hills and narrow
    plains which grew more wild and less cultivated as they advanced.
    Fortunately the horses had been well saved during the long leisurely
    journey to Angers, and now went well and strongly. When they at last
    unsaddled for the night in a little dismal wood within a mile of Clisson,
    they had placed some forty miles between themselves and Angers.
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