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    Chapter 32

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    Chapter 32
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    THE ORDEAL BY STEEL.

    The women for the most part fell like sacks and slept where they
    alighted, dead weary. The men, when they had cared for the horses,
    followed the example; for Badelon would suffer no fire. In less than
    half an hour, a sentry who stood on guard at the edge of the wood, and
    Tignonville and La Tribe, who talked in low voices with their backs
    against a tree, were the only persons who remained awake, with the
    exception of the Countess. Carlat had made a couch for her, and screened
    it with cloaks from the wind and the eye; for the moon had risen and
    where the trees stood sparsest its light flooded the soil with pools of
    white. But Madame had not yet retired to her bed. The two men, whose
    voices reached her, saw her from time to time moving restlessly to and
    fro between the road and the little encampment. Presently she came and
    stood over them.

    "He led His people out of the wilderness," La Tribe was saying; "out of
    the trouble of Paris, out of the trouble of Angers, and always, always
    southward. If you do not in this, Monsieur, see His finger--"

    "And Angers?" Tignonville struck in, with a faint sneer. "Has He led
    that out of trouble? A day or two ago you would risk all to save it, my
    friend. Now, with your back safely turned on it, you think all for the
    best."

    "We did our best," the minister answered humbly. "From the day we met in
    Paris we have been but instruments."

    "To save Angers?"

    "To save a remnant."

    On a sudden the Countess raised her hand. "Do you not hear horses,
    Monsieur?" she cried. She had been listening to the noises of the night,
    and had paid little heed to what the two were saying.

    "One of ours moved," Tignonville answered listlessly. "Why do you not
    lie down, Madame?"

    Instead of answering, "Whither is he going?" she asked. "Do you know?"

    "I wish I did know," the young man answered peevishly. "To Niort, it may
    be. Or presently he will double back and recross the Loire."

    "He would have gone by Cholet to Niort," La Tribe said. "The direction
    is rather that of Rochelle. God grant we be bound thither!"

    "Or to Vrillac," the Countess cried, clasping her hands in the darkness.
    "Can it be to Vrillac he is going?"

    The minister shook his head.

    "Ah, let it be to Vrillac!" she cried, a thrill in her voice. "We should
    be safe there. And he would be safe."

    "Safe?" echoed a fourth and deeper voice. And out of the darkness beside
    them loomed a tall figure.

    The minister looked and leapt to his feet. Tignonville rose more slowly.

    The voice was Tavannes'. "And where am I to be safe?" he repeated
    slowly, a faint ring of saturnine amusement in his tone.

    "At Vrillac!" she cried. "In my house, Monsieur!"

    He was silent a moment. Then, "Your house, Madame? In which direction
    is it, from here?"

    "Westwards," she answered impulsively, her voice quivering with eagerness
    and emotion and hope. "Westwards, Monsieur--on the sea. The causeway
    from the land is long, and ten can hold it against ten hundred."

    "Westwards? And how far westwards?"

    Tignonville answered for her; in his tone throbbed the same eagerness,
    the same anxiety, which spoke in hers. Nor was Count Hannibal's ear deaf
    to it.

    "Through Challans," he said, "thirteen leagues."

    "From Clisson?"

    "Yes, Monsieur le Comte."

    "And by Commequiers less," the Countess cried.

    "No, it is a worse road," Tignonville answered quickly; "and longer in
    time."

    "But we came--"

    "At our leisure, Madame. The road is by Challans, if we wish to be there
    quickly."

    "Ah!" Count Hannibal said. In the darkness it was impossible to see his
    face or mark how he took it. "But being there, I have few men."

    "I have forty will come at call," she cried with pride. "A word to them,
    and in four hours or a little more--"

    "They would outnumber mine by four to one," Count Hannibal answered
    coldly, dryly, in a voice like ice-water flung in their faces. "Thank
    you, Madame; I understand. To Vrillac is no long ride; but we will not
    ride it at present." And he turned sharply on his heel and strode from
    them.

    He had not covered thirty paces before she overtook him in the middle of
    a broad patch of moonlight, and touched his arm. He wheeled swiftly, his
    hand halfway to his hilt. Then he saw who it was.

    "Ah," he said, "I had forgotten, Madame. You have come--"

    "No!" she cried passionately; and standing before him she shook back the
    hood of her cloak that he might look into her eyes. "You owe me no blow
    to-day. You have paid me, Monsieur. You have struck me already, and
    foully, like a coward. Do you remember," she continued rapidly, "the
    hour after our marriage, and what you said to me? Do you remember what
    you told me? And whom to trust and whom to suspect, where lay our
    interest and where our foes'? You trusted me then! What have I done
    that you now dare--ay, dare, Monsieur," she repeated fearlessly, her face
    pale and her eyes glittering with excitement, "to insult me? That you
    treat me as--Javette? That you deem me capable of _that_? Of luring you
    into a trap, and in my own house, or the house that was mine, of--"

    "Treating me as I have treated others."

    "You have said it!" she cried. She could not herself understand why his
    distrust had wounded her so sharply, so home, that all fear of him was
    gone. "You have said it, and put that between us which will not be
    removed. I could have forgiven blows," she continued, breathless in her
    excitement, "so you had thought me what I am. But now you will do well
    to watch me! You will do well to leave Vrillac on one side. For were
    you there, and raised your hand against me--not that that touches me, but
    it will do--and there are those, I tell you, would fling you from the
    tower at my word."

    "Indeed?"

    "Ay, indeed! And indeed, Monsieur!"

    Her face was in moonlight, his was in shadow.

    "And this is your new tone, Madame, is it?" he said, slowly and after a
    pregnant pause. "The crossing of a river has wrought so great a change
    in you?"

    "No!" she cried.

    "Yes," he said. And, despite herself, she flinched before the grimness
    of his tone. "You have yet to learn one thing, however: that I do not
    change. That, north or south, I am the same to those who are the same to
    me. That what I have won on the one bank I will hold on the other, in
    the teeth of all, and though God's Church be thundering on my heels! I
    go to Vrillac--"

    "You--go?" she cried. "You go?"

    "I go," he repeated, "to-morrow. And among your own people I will see
    what language you will hold. While you were in my power I spared you.
    Now that you are in your own land, now that you lift your hand against
    me, I will show you of what make I am. If blows will not tame you, I
    will try that will suit you less. Ay, you wince, Madame! You had done
    well had you thought twice before you threatened, and thrice before you
    took in hand to scare Tavannes with a parcel of clowns and fisherfolk. To-
    morrow, to Vrillac and your duty! And one word more, Madame," he
    continued, turning back to her truculently when he had gone some paces
    from her. "If I find you plotting with your lover by the way I will hang
    not you, but him. I have spared him a score of times; but I know him,
    and I do not trust him."

    "Nor me," she said, and with a white, set face she looked at him in the
    moonlight. "Had you not better hang me now?"

    "Why?"

    "Lest I do you an injury!" she cried with passion; and she raised her
    hand and pointed northward. "Lest I kill you some night, Monsieur! I
    tell you, a thousand men on your heels are less dangerous than the woman
    at your side--if she hate you."

    "Is it so?" he cried. His hand flew to his hilt; his dagger flashed out.
    But she did not move, did not flinch, only she set her teeth; and her
    eyes, fascinated by the steel, grew wider.

    His hand sank slowly. He held the weapon to her, hilt foremost; she took
    it mechanically.

    "You think yourself brave enough to kill me, do you?" he sneered. "Then
    take this, and strike, if you dare. Take it--strike, Madame! It is
    sharp, and my arms are open." And he flung them wide, standing within a
    pace of her. "Here, above the collar-bone, is the surest for a weak
    hand. What, afraid?" he continued, as, stiffly clutching the weapon
    which he had put into her hand, she glared at him, trembling and
    astonished. "Afraid, and a Vrillac! Afraid, and 'tis but one blow! See,
    my arms are open. One blow home, and you will never lie in them. Think
    of that. One blow home, and you may lie in his. Think of that! Strike,
    then, Madame," he went on, piling taunt on taunt, "if you dare, and if
    you hate me. What, still afraid! How shall I give you heart? Shall I
    strike you? It will not be the first time by ten. I keep count, you
    see," he continued mockingly. "Or shall I kiss you? Ay, that may do.
    And it will not be against your will, either, for you have that in your
    hand will save you in an instant. Even"--he drew a foot nearer--"now!
    Even--" And he stooped until his lips almost touched hers.

    She sprang back. "Oh, do not!" she cried. "Oh, do not!" And, dropping
    the dagger, she covered her face with her hands, and burst into weeping.

    He stooped coolly, and, after groping some time for the poniard, drew it
    from the leaves among which it had fallen. He put it into the sheath,
    and not until he had done that did he speak. Then it was with a sneer.

    "I have no need to fear overmuch," he said. "You are a poor hater,
    Madame. And poor haters make poor lovers. 'Tis his loss! If you will
    not strike a blow for him, there is but one thing left. Go, dream of
    him!"

    And, shrugging his shoulders contemptuously, he turned on his heel.
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