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    Chapter 33

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    Chapter 33
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    THE AMBUSH.

    The start they made at daybreak was gloomy and ill-omened, through one of
    those white mists which are blown from the Atlantic over the flat lands
    of Western Poitou. The horses, looming gigantic through the fog, winced
    as the cold harness was girded on them. The men hurried to and fro with
    saddles on their heads, and stumbled over other saddles, and swore
    savagely. The women turned mutinous and would not rise; or, being
    dragged up by force, shrieked wild, unfitting words, as they were driven
    to the horses. The Countess looked on and listened, and shuddered,
    waiting for Carlat to set her on her horse. She had gone during the last
    three weeks through much that was dreary, much that was hopeless; but the
    chill discomfort of this forced start, with tired horses and wailing
    women, would have darkened the prospect of home had there been no fear or
    threat to cloud it.

    He whose will compelled all stood a little apart and watched all, silent
    and gloomy. When Badelon, after taking his orders and distributing some
    slices of black bread to be eaten in the saddle, moved off at the head of
    his troop, Count Hannibal remained behind, attended by Bigot and the
    eight riders who had formed the rearguard so far. He had not approached
    the Countess since rising, and she had been thankful for it. But now, as
    she moved away, she looked back and saw him still standing; she marked
    that he wore his corselet, and in one of those revulsions of
    feeling--which outrun man's reason--she who had tossed on her couch
    through half the night, in passionate revolt against the fate before her,
    took fire at his neglect and his silence; she resented on a sudden the
    distance he kept, and his scorn of her. Her breast heaved, her colour
    came, involuntarily she checked her horse, as if she would return to him,
    and speak to him. Then the Carlats and the others closed up behind her,
    Badelon's monotonous "Forward, Madame, _en avant_!" proclaimed the day's
    journey begun, and she saw him no more.

    Nevertheless, the motionless figure, looming Homeric through the fog,
    with gleams of wet light reflected from the steel about it, dwelt long in
    her mind. The road which Badelon followed, slowly at first, and with
    greater speed as the horses warmed to their work, and the women, sore and
    battered resigned themselves to suffering, wound across a flat expanse
    broken by a few hills. These were little more than mounds, and for the
    most part were veiled from sight by the low-lying sea-mist, through which
    gnarled and stunted oaks rose mysterious, to fade as strangely. Weird
    trees they were, with branches unlike those of this world's trees, rising
    in a grey land without horizon or limit, through which our travellers
    moved, weary phantoms in a clinging nightmare. At a walk, at a trot,
    more often at a jaded amble, they pushed on behind Badelon's humped
    shoulders. Sometimes the fog hung so thick about them that they saw only
    those who rose and fell in the saddles immediately before them; sometimes
    the air cleared a little, the curtain rolled up a space, and for a minute
    or two they discerned stretches of unfertile fields, half-tilled and
    stony, or long tracts of gorse and broom, with here and there a thicket
    of dwarf shrubs or a wood of wind-swept pines. Some looked and saw these
    things; more rode on sulky and unseeing, supporting impatiently the toils
    of a flight from they knew not what.

    To do Tignonville justice, he was not of these. On the contrary, he
    seemed to be in a better temper on this day and, where so many took
    things unheroically, he showed to advantage. Avoiding the Countess and
    riding with Carlat, he talked and laughed with marked cheerfulness; nor
    did he ever fail, when the mist rose, to note this or that landmark, and
    confirm Badelon in the way he was going.

    "We shall be at Lege by noon!" he cried more than once, "and if M. le
    Comte persists in his plan, may reach Vrillac by late sunset. By way of
    Challans!"

    And always Carlat answered, "Ay, by Challans, Monsieur, so be it!"

    He proved, too, so far right in his prediction that noon saw them drag, a
    weary train, into the hamlet of Lege, where the road from Nantes to
    Olonne runs southward over the level of Poitou. An hour later Count
    Hannibal rode in with six of his eight men, and, after a few minutes'
    parley with Badelon, who was scanning the horses, he called Carlat to
    him. The old man came.

    "Can we reach Vrillac to-night?" Count Hannibal asked curtly.

    "By Challans, my lord," the steward answered, "I think we can. We call
    it seven hours' riding from here."

    "And that route is the shortest?"

    "In time, M. le Comte, the road being better."

    Count Hannibal bent his brows. "And the other way?" he said.

    "Is by Commequiers, my lord. It is shorter in distance."

    "By how much?"

    "Two leagues. But there are fordings and a salt marsh; and with Madame
    and the women--"

    "It would be longer?"

    The steward hesitated. "I think so," he said slowly, his eyes wandering
    to the grey misty landscape, against which the poor hovels of the village
    stood out naked and comfortless. A low thicket of oaks sheltered the
    place from south-westerly gales. On the other three sides it lay open.

    "Very good," Tavannes said curtly. "Be ready to start in ten minutes.
    You will guide us."

    But when the ten minutes had elapsed and the party were ready to start,
    to the astonishment of all the steward was not to be found. To
    peremptory calls for him no answer came; and a hurried search through the
    hamlet proved equally fruitless. The only person who had seen him since
    his interview with Tavannes turned out to be M. de Tignonville; and he
    had seen him mount his horse five minutes before, and move off--as he
    believed--by the Challans road.

    "Ahead of us?"

    "Yes, M. le Comte," Tignonville answered, shading his eyes and gazing in
    the direction of the fringe of trees. "I did not see him take the road,
    but he was beside the north end of the wood when I saw him last.
    Thereabouts!" and he pointed to a place where the Challans road wound
    round the flank of the wood. "When we are beyond that point, I think we
    shall see him."

    Count Hannibal growled a word in his beard, and, turning in his saddle,
    looked back the way he had come. Half a mile away, two or three dots
    could be seen approaching across the plain. He turned again.

    "You know the road?" he said, curtly addressing the young man.

    "Perfectly. As well as Carlat."

    "Then lead the way, Monsieur, with Badelon. And spare neither whip nor
    spur. There will be need of both, if we would lie warm to-night."

    Tignonville nodded assent and, wheeling his horse, rode to the head of
    the party, a faint smile playing about his mouth. A moment, and the main
    body moved off behind him, leaving Count Hannibal and six men to cover
    the rear. The mist, which at noon had risen for an hour or two, was
    closing down again, and they had no sooner passed clear of the wood than
    the trees faded out of sight behind them. It was not wonderful that they
    could not see Carlat. Objects a hundred paces from them were completely
    hidden.

    Trot, trot! Trot, trot! through a grey world so featureless, so unreal
    that the riders, now dozing in the saddle, and now awaking, seemed to
    themselves to stand still, as in a nightmare. A trot and then a walk,
    and then a trot again; and all a dozen times repeated, while the women
    bumped along in their wretched saddles, and the horses stumbled, and the
    men swore at them.

    Ha! La Garnache at last, and a sharp turn southward to Challans. The
    Countess raised her head, and began to look about her. There, should be
    a church, she knew; and there, the old ruined tower built by wizards, or
    the Carthaginians, so old tradition ran; and there, to the westward, the
    great salt marshes towards Noirmoutier. The mist hid all, but the
    knowledge that they were there set her heart beating, brought tears to
    her eyes, and lightened the long road to Challans.

    At Challans they halted half an hour, and washed out the horses' mouths
    with water and a little _guignolet_--the spirit of the country. A dose
    of the cordial was administered to the women; and a little after seven
    they began the last stage of the journey, through a landscape which even
    the mist could not veil from the eyes of love. There rose the windmill
    of Soullans! There the old dolmen, beneath which the grey wolf that ate
    the two children of Tornic had its lair. For a mile back they had been
    treading my lady's land; they had only two more leagues to ride, and one
    of those was crumbling under each dogged footfall. The salt flavour,
    which is new life to the shore-born, was in the fleecy reek which floated
    by them, now thinner, now more opaque; and almost they could hear the
    dull thunder of the Biscay waves falling on the rocks.

    Tignonville looked back at her and smiled. She caught the look; she
    fancied that she understood it and his thoughts. But her own eyes were
    moist at the moment with tears, and what his said, and what there was of
    strangeness in his glance, half-warning, half-exultant, escaped her. For
    there, not a mile before them, where the low hills about the fishing
    village began to rise from the dull inland level--hills green on the land
    side, bare and scarped towards the sea and the island--she espied the
    wayside chapel at which the nurse of her early childhood had told her
    beads. Where it stood, the road from Commequiers and the road she
    travelled became one: a short mile thence, after winding among the
    hillocks, it ran down to the beach and the causeway--and to her home.

    At the sight she bethought herself of Carlat, and calling to M. de
    Tignonville, she asked him what he thought of the steward's continued
    absence.

    "He must have outpaced us!" he answered, with an odd laugh.

    "But he must have ridden hard to do that."

    He reined back to her. "Say nothing!" he muttered under his breath. "But
    look ahead, Madame, and see if we are expected!"

    "Expected? How can we be expected?" she cried. The colour rushed into
    her face.

    He put his finger to his lip, and looked warningly at Badelon's humped
    shoulders, jogging up and down in front of them. Then, stooping towards
    her, in a lower tone, "If Carlat has arrived before us, he will have told
    them," he said.

    "Have told them?"

    "He came by the other road, and it is quicker."

    She gazed at him in astonishment, her lips parted; and slowly she
    understood, and her eyes grew hard.

    "Then why," she said, "did you say it was longer. Had we been overtaken,
    Monsieur, we had had you to thank for it, it seems!"

    He bit his lip. "But we have not been overtaken," he rejoined. "On the
    contrary, you have me to thank for something quite different."

    "As unwelcome, perhaps!" she retorted. "For what?"

    "Softly, Madame."

    "For what?" she repeated, refusing to lower her voice. "Speak, Monsieur,
    if you please." He had never seen her look at him in that way.

    "For the fact," he answered, stung by her look and tone, "that when you
    arrive you will find yourself mistress in your own house! Is that
    nothing?"

    "You have called in my people?"

    "Carlat has done so, or should have," he answered. "Henceforth," he
    continued, a ring of exultation in his voice, "it will go hard with M. le
    Comte, if he does not treat you better than he has treated you hitherto.
    That is all!"

    "You mean that it will go hard with him in any case?" she cried, her
    bosom rising and falling.

    "I mean, Madame--But there they are! Good Carlat! Brave Carlat! He has
    done well!"

    "Carlat?"

    "Ay, there they are! And you are mistress in your own land! At last you
    are mistress, and you have me to thank for it! See!" And heedless in
    his exultation whether Badelon understood or not, he pointed to a place
    before them where the road wound between two low hills. Over the green
    shoulder of one of these, a dozen bright points caught and reflected the
    last evening light; while as he spoke a man rose to his feet on the
    hillside above, and began to make signs to persons below. A pennon, too,
    showed an instant over the shoulder, fluttered, and was gone.

    Badelon looked as they looked. The next instant he uttered a low oath,
    and dragged his horse across the front of the party.

    "Pierre!" he cried to the man on his left, "ride for your life! To my
    lord, and tell him we are ambushed!" And as the trained soldier wheeled
    about and spurred away, the sacker of Rome turned a dark scowling face on
    Tignonville. "If this be your work," he hissed, "we shall thank you for
    it in hell! For it is where most of us will lie to-night! They are
    Montsoreau's spears, and they have those with them are worse to deal with
    than themselves!" Then in a different tone, and throwing off all
    disguise, "Men to the front!" he shouted. "And you, Madame, to the rear
    quickly, and the women with you! Now, men, forward, and draw! Steady!
    Steady! They are coming!"

    There was an instant of confusion, disorder, panic; horses jostling one
    another, women screaming and clutching at men, men shaking them off and
    forcing their way to the van. Fortunately the enemy did not fall on at
    once, as Badelon expected, but after showing themselves in the mouth of
    the valley, at a distance of three hundred paces, hung for some reason
    irresolute. This gave Badelon time to array his seven swords in front;
    but real resistance was out of the question, as he knew. And to none
    seemed less in question than to Tignonville.

    When the truth, and what he had done, broke on the young man, he sat a
    moment motionless with horror. It was only when Badelon had twice
    summoned him with opprobrious words that he awoke to the relief of
    action. Even after that he hung an instant trying to meet the Countess's
    eyes, despair in his own; but it was not to be. She had turned her head,
    and was looking back, as if thence only and not from him could help come.
    It was not to him she turned; and he saw it, and the justice of it. And
    silent, grim, more formidable even than old Badelon, the veteran fighter,
    who knew all the tricks and shifts of the _melee_, he spurred to the
    flank of the line.

    "Now, steady!" Badelon cried again, seeing that the enemy were beginning
    to move. "Steady! Ha! Thank God, my lord! My lord is coming! Stand!
    Stand!" The distant sound of galloping hoofs had reached his ear in the
    nick of time. He stood in his stirrups and looked back. Yes, Count
    Hannibal was coming, riding a dozen paces in front of his men. The odds
    were still desperate--for he brought but six--the enemy were still three
    to one. But the thunder of his hoofs as he came up checked for a moment
    the enemy's onset; and before Montsoreau's people got started again Count
    Hannibal had ridden up abreast of the women, and the Countess, looking at
    him, knew that, desperate as was their strait, she had not looked behind
    in vain. The glow of battle, the stress of the moment, had displaced the
    cloud from his face; the joy of the born fighter lightened in his eye.
    His voice rang clear and loud above the press.

    "Badelon! wait you and two with Madame!" he cried. "Follow at fifty
    paces' distance, and, when we have broken them, ride through! The others
    with me! Now forward, men, and show your teeth! A Tavannes! A
    Tavannes! A Tavannes! We carry it yet!"

    And he dashed forward, leading them on, leaving the women behind; and
    down the sward to meet him, thundering in double line, came Montsoreau's
    men-at-arms, and with the men-at-arms, a dozen pale, fierce-eyed men in
    the Church's black, yelling the Church's curses. Madame's heart grew
    sick as she heard, as she waited, as she judged him by the fast-failing
    light a horse's length before his men--with only Tignonville beside him.

    She held her breath--would the shock never come? If Badelon had not
    seized her rein and forced her forward, she would not have moved. And
    then, even as she moved, they met! With yells and wild cries and a
    mare's savage scream, the two bands crashed together in a huddle of
    fallen or rearing horses, of flickering weapons, of thrusting men, of
    grapples hand-to-hand. What happened, what was happening to any one, who
    it was fell, stabbed through and through by four, or who were those who
    still fought single combats, twisting round one another's horses, those
    on her right and on her left, she could not tell. For Badelon dragged
    her on with whip and spur, and two horsemen--who obscured her
    view--galloped in front of her, and rode down bodily the only man who
    undertook to bar her passage. She had a glimpse of that man's face, as
    his horse, struck in the act of turning, fell sideways on him; and she
    knew it, in its agony of terror, though she had seen it but once. It was
    the face of the man whose eyes had sought hers from the steps of the
    church in Angers; the lean man in black, who had turned soldier of the
    Church--to his misfortune.

    Through? Yes, through, the way was clear before them! The fight with
    its screams and curses died away behind them. The horses swayed and all
    but sank under them. But Badelon knew it no time for mercy; iron-shod
    hoofs rang on the road behind, and at any moment the pursuers might be on
    their heels. He flogged on until the cots of the hamlet appeared on
    either side of the way; on, until the road forked and the Countess with
    strange readiness cried "The left!"--on, until the beach appeared below
    them at the foot of a sharp pitch, and beyond the beach the slow heaving
    grey of the ocean.

    The tide was high. The causeway ran through it, a mere thread lipped by
    the darkling waves, and at the sight a grunt of relief broke from
    Badelon. For at the end of the causeway, black against the western sky,
    rose the gateway and towers of Vrillac; and he saw that, as the Countess
    had said, it was a place ten men could hold against ten hundred!

    They stumbled down the beach, reached the causeway and trotted along it;
    more slowly now, and looking back. The other women had followed by hook
    or by crook, some crying hysterically, yet clinging to their horses and
    even urging them; and in a medley, the causeway clear behind them and no
    one following, they reached the drawbridge, and passed under the arch of
    the gate beyond.

    There friendly hands, Carlat's foremost, welcomed them and aided them to
    alight, and the Countess saw, as in a dream, the familiar scene, all
    unfamiliar: the gate, where she had played, a child, aglow with lantern-
    light and arms. Men, whose rugged faces she had known in infancy, stood
    at the drawbridge chains and at the winches. Others blew matches and
    handled primers, while old servants crowded round her, and women looked
    at her, scared and weeping. She saw it all at a glance--the lights, the
    black shadows, the sudden glow of a match on the groining of the arch
    above. She saw it, and turning swiftly, looked back the way she had
    come; along the dusky causeway to the low, dark shore, which night was
    stealing quickly from their eyes. She clasped her hands.

    "Where is Badelon?" she cried. "Where is he? Where is he?"

    One of the men who had ridden before her answered that he had turned
    back.

    "Turned back!" she repeated. And then, shading her eyes, "Who is
    coming?" she asked, her voice insistent. "There is some one coming. Who
    is it? Who is it?"

    Two were coming out of the gloom, travelling slowly and painfully along
    the causeway. One was La Tribe, limping; the other a rider, slashed
    across the forehead, and sobbing curses.

    "No more!" she muttered. "Are there no more?"

    The minister shook his head. The rider wiped the blood from his eyes,
    and turned up his face that he might see the better. But he seemed to be
    dazed, and only babbled strange words in a strange _patois_.

    She stamped her foot in passion. "More lights!" she cried. "Lights! How
    can they find their way? And let six men go down the _digue_, and meet
    them. Will you let them be butchered between the shore and this?"

    But Carlat, who had not been able to collect more than a dozen men, shook
    his head; and before she could repeat the order, sounds of battle,
    shrill, faint, like cries of hungry seagulls, pierced the darkness which
    shrouded the farther end of the causeway. The women shrank inward over
    the threshold, while Carlat cried to the men at the chains to be ready,
    and to some who stood at loopholes above, to blow up their matches and
    let fly at his word. And then they all waited, the Countess foremost,
    peering eagerly into the growing darkness. They could see nothing.

    A distant scuffle, an oath, a cry, silence! The same, a little nearer, a
    little louder, followed this time, not by silence, but by the slow tread
    of a limping horse. Again a rush of feet, the clash of steel, a scream,
    a laugh, all weird and unreal, issuing from the night; then out of the
    darkness into the light, stepping slowly with hanging head, moved a
    horse, bearing on its back a man--or was it a man?--bending low in the
    saddle, his feet swinging loose. For an instant the horse and the man
    seemed to be alone, a ghostly pair; then at their heels came into view
    two figures, skirmishing this way and that; and now coming nearer, and
    now darting back into the gloom. One, a squat figure, stooping low,
    wielded a sword with two hands; the other covered him with a half-pike.
    And then beyond these--abruptly as it seemed--the night gave up to sight
    a swarm of dark figures pressing on them and after them, driving them
    before them.

    Carlat had an inspiration. "Fire!" he cried; and four arquebuses poured
    a score of slugs into the knot of pursuers. A man fell, another shrieked
    and stumbled, the rest gave back. Only the horse came on spectrally,
    with hanging head and shining eyeballs, until a man ran out and seized
    its head, and dragged it, more by his strength than its own, over the
    drawbridge. After it Badelon, with a gaping wound in his knee, and
    Bigot, bleeding from a dozen hurts, walked over the bridge, and stood on
    either side of the saddle, smiling foolishly at the man on the horse.

    "Leave me!" he muttered. "Leave me!" He made a feeble movement with his
    hand, as if it held a weapon; then his head sank lower. It was Count
    Hannibal. His thigh was broken, and there was a lance-head in his arm.
    The Countess looked at him, then beyond him, past him into the darkness.

    "Are there no more?" she whispered tremulously. "No more?
    Tignonville--my--"

    Badelon shook his head. The Countess covered her face and wept.
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    Chapter 33
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