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    Chapter 34

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    Chapter 34
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    WHICH WILL YOU, MADAME?

    It was in the grey dawning of the next day, at the hour before the sun
    rose, that word of M. de Tignonville's fate came to them in the castle.
    The fog which had masked the van and coming of night hung thick on its
    retreating skirts, and only reluctantly and little by little gave up to
    sight and daylight a certain thing which night had left at the end of the
    causeway. The first man to see it was Carlat, from the roof of the
    gateway; and he rubbed eyes weary with watching, and peered anew at it
    through the mist, fancying himself back in the Place Ste.-Croix at
    Angers, supposing for a wild moment the journey a dream, and the return a
    nightmare. But rub as he might, and stare as he might, the ugly outlines
    of the thing he had seen persisted--nay, grew sharper as the haze began
    to lift from the grey, slow-heaving floor of sea. He called another man
    and bade him look.

    "What is it?" he said. "D'you see, there? Below the village?"

    "'Tis a gibbet," the man answered, with a foolish laugh; they had watched
    all night. "God keep us from it."

    "A gibbet?"

    "Ay!"

    "But what is it for? What is it doing there?"

    "It is there to hang those they have taken, very like," the man answered,
    stupidly practical. And then other men came up, and stared at it and
    growled in their beards. Presently there were eight or ten on the roof
    of the gateway looking towards the land and discussing the thing; and by-
    and-by a man was descried approaching along the causeway with a white
    flag in his hand.

    At that Carlat bade one fetch the minister. "He understands things," he
    muttered, "and I misdoubt this. And see," he cried after the messenger,
    "that no word of it come to Mademoiselle!" Instinctively in the maiden
    home he reverted to the maiden title.

    The messenger went, and came again bringing La Tribe, whose head rose
    above the staircase at the moment the envoy below came to a halt before
    the gate. Carlat signed to the minister to come forward; and La Tribe,
    after sniffing the salt air, and glancing at the long, low, misty shore
    and the stiff ugly shape which stood at the end of the causeway, looked
    down and met the envoy's eyes. For a moment no one spoke. Only the men
    who had remained on the gateway, and had watched the stranger's coming,
    breathed hard.

    At last, "I bear a message," the man announced loudly and clearly, "for
    the lady of Vrillac. Is she present?"

    "Give your message!" La Tribe replied.

    "It is for her ears only."

    "Do you want to enter?"

    "No!" The man answered so hurriedly that more than one smiled. He had
    the bearing of a lay clerk of some precinct, a verger or sacristan; and
    after a fashion the dress of one also, for he was in dusty black and wore
    no sword, though he was girded with a belt. "No!" he repeated, "but if
    Madame will come to the gate, and speak to me--"

    "Madame has other fish to fry," Carlat blurted out. "Do you think that
    she has naught to do but listen to messages from a gang of bandits?"

    "If she does not listen she will repent it all her life!" the fellow
    answered hardily. "That is part of my message."

    There was a pause while La Tribe considered the matter. In the end,
    "From whom do you come?" he asked.

    "From His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor of Saumur," the envoy
    answered glibly, "and from my Lord Bishop of Angers, him assisting by his
    Vicar; and from others gathered lawfully, who will as lawfully depart if
    their terms are accepted. Also from M. de Tignonville, a gentleman, I am
    told, of these parts, now in their hands and adjudged to die at sunset
    this day if the terms I bring be not accepted."

    There was a long silence on the gate. The men looked down fixedly; not a
    feature of one of them moved, for no one was surprised. "Wherefore is he
    to die?" La Tribe asked at last.

    "For good cause shown."

    "Wherefore?"

    "He is a Huguenot."

    The minister nodded. "And the terms?" Carlat muttered.

    "Ay, the terms!" La Tribe repeated, nodding afresh. "What are they?"

    "They are for Madame's ear only," the messenger made answer.

    "Then they will not reach it!" Carlat broke forth in wrath. "So much for
    that! And for yourself, see you go quickly before we make a target of
    you!"

    "Very well, I go," the envoy answered sullenly. "But--"

    "But what?" La Tribe cried, gripping Carlat's shoulder to quiet him. "But
    what? Say what you have to say, man! Speak out, and have done with it!'

    "I will say it to her and to no other."

    "Then you will not say it!" Carlat cried again. "For you will not see
    her. So you may go. And the black fever in your vitals."

    "Ay, go!" La Tribe added more quietly.

    The man turned away with a shrug of the shoulders, and moved off a dozen
    paces, watched by all on the gate with the same fixed attention. But
    presently he paused; he returned.

    "Very well," he said, looking up with an ill grace. "I will do my office
    here, if I cannot come to her. But I hold also a letter from M. de
    Tignonville, and that I can deliver to no other hands than hers!" He
    held it up as he spoke, a thin scrap of greyish paper, the fly-leaf of a
    missal perhaps. "See!" he continued, "and take notice! If she does not
    get this, and learns when it is too late that it was offered--"

    "The terms," Carlat growled impatiently. "The terms! Come to them!"

    "You will have them?" the man answered, nervously passing his tongue over
    his lips. "You will not let me see her, or speak to her privately?"

    "No."

    "Then hear them. His Excellency is informed that one Hannibal de
    Tavannes, guilty of the detestable crime of sacrilege and of other gross
    crimes, has taken refuge here. He requires that the said Hannibal de
    Tavannes be handed to him for punishment, and, this being done before
    sunset this evening, he will yield to you free and uninjured the said M.
    de Tignonville, and will retire from the lands of Vrillac. But if you
    refuse"--the man passed his eye along the line of attentive faces which
    fringed the battlement--"he will at sunset hang the said Tignonville on
    the gallows raised for Tavannes, and will harry the demesne of Vrillac to
    its farthest border!"

    There was a long silence on the gate. Some, their gaze still fixed on
    him, moved their lips as if they chewed. Others looked aside, met their
    fellows' eyes in a pregnant glance, and slowly returned to him. But no
    one spoke. At his back the flush of dawn was flooding the east, and
    spreading and waxing brighter. The air was growing warm; the shore
    below, from grey, was turning green.

    In a minute or two the sun, whose glowing marge already peeped above the
    low hills of France, would top the horizon.

    The man, getting no answer, shifted his feet uneasily. "Well," he cried,
    "what answer am I to take?"

    Still no one moved.

    "I've done my part. Will no one give her the letter?" he cried. And he
    held it up. "Give me my answer, for I am going."

    "Take the letter!" The words came from the rear of the group in a voice
    that startled all. They turned, as though some one had struck them, and
    saw the Countess standing beside the hood which covered the stairs. They
    guessed that she had heard all or nearly all; but the glory of the
    sunrise, shining full on her at that moment, lent a false warmth to her
    face, and life to eyes woefully and tragically set. It was not easy to
    say whether she had heard or not. "Take the letter," she repeated.

    Carlat looked helplessly over the parapet.

    "Go down!"

    He cast a glance at La Tribe, but he got none in return, and he was
    preparing to do her bidding when a cry of dismay broke from those who
    still had their eyes bent downwards. The messenger, waving the letter in
    a last appeal, had held it too loosely; a light air, as treacherous, as
    unexpected, had snatched it from his hand, and bore it--even as the
    Countess, drawn by the cry, sprang to the parapet--fifty paces from him.
    A moment it floated in the air, eddying, rising, falling; then, light as
    thistledown, it touched the water and began to sink.

    The messenger uttered frantic lamentations, and stamped the causeway in
    his rage. The Countess only looked, and looked, until the rippling crest
    of a baby wave broke over the tiny venture, and with its freight of
    tidings it sank from sight.

    The man, silent now, stared a moment, then shrugged his shoulders.

    "Well, 'tis fortunate it was his," he cried brutally, "and not His
    Excellency's, or my back had suffered! And now," he added impatiently,
    "by your leave, what answer?"

    What answer? Ah, God, what answer? The men who leant on the parapet,
    rude and coarse as they were, felt the tragedy of the question and the
    dilemma, guessed what they meant to her, and looked everywhere save at
    her.

    What answer? Which of the two was to live? Which die--shamefully?
    Which? Which?

    "Tell him--to come back--an hour before sunset," she muttered.

    They told him and he went; and one by one the men began to go too, and
    stole from the roof, leaving her standing alone, her face to the shore,
    her hands resting on the parapet. The light breeze which blew off the
    land stirred loose ringlets of her hair, and flattened the thin robe
    against her sunlit figure. So had she stood a thousand times in old
    days, in her youth, in her maidenhood. So in her father's time had she
    stood to see her lover come riding along the sands to woo her! So had
    she stood to welcome him on the eve of that fatal journey to Paris!
    Thence had others watched her go with him. The men remembered--remembered
    all; and one by one they stole shamefacedly away, fearing lest she should
    speak or turn tragic eyes on them.

    True, in their pity for her was no doubt of the end, or thought of the
    victim who must suffer--of Tavannes. They, of Poitou, who had not been
    with him, knew nothing of him; they cared as little. He was a northern
    man, a stranger, a man of the sword, who had seized her--so they heard--by
    the sword. But they saw that the burden of choice was laid on her;
    there, in her sight and in theirs, rose the gibbet; and, clowns as they
    were, they discerned the tragedy of her _role_, play it as she might, and
    though her act gave life to her lover.

    When all had retired save three or four, she turned and saw these
    gathered at the head of the stairs in a ring about Carlat, who was
    addressing them in a low eager voice. She could not catch a syllable,
    but a look hard and almost cruel flashed into her eyes as she gazed; and
    raising her voice she called the steward to her.

    "The bridge is up," she said, her tone hard, "but the gates? Are they
    locked?"

    "Yes, Madame."

    "The wicket?"

    "No, not the wicket." And Carlat looked another way.

    "Then go, lock it, and bring the keys to me!" she replied. "Or stay!"
    Her voice grew harder, her eyes spiteful as a cat's. "Stay, and be
    warned that you play me no tricks! Do you hear? Do you understand? Or
    old as you are, and long as you have served us, I will have you thrown
    from this tower, with as little pity as Isabeau flung her gallants to the
    fishes. I am still mistress here, never more mistress than this day. Woe
    to you if you forget it."

    He blenched and cringed before her, muttering incoherently.

    "I know," she said, "I read you! And now the keys. Go, bring them to
    me! And if by chance I find the wicket unlocked when I come down, pray,
    Carlat, pray! For you will have need of prayers."

    He slunk away, the men with him; and she fell to pacing the roof
    feverishly. Now and then she extended her arms, and low cries broke from
    her, as from a dumb creature in pain. Wherever she looked, old memories
    rose up to torment her and redouble her misery. A thing she could have
    borne in the outer world, a thing which might have seemed tolerable in
    the reeking air of Paris or in the gloomy streets of Angers wore here its
    most appalling aspect. Henceforth, whatever choice she made, this home,
    where even in those troublous times she had known naught but peace, must
    bear a damning stain! Henceforth this day and this hour must come
    between her and happiness, must brand her brow, and fix her with a deed
    of which men and women would tell while she lived! Oh, God--pray? Who
    said, pray?

    "I!" And La Tribe with tears in his eyes held out the keys to her. "I,
    Madame," he continued solemnly, his voice broken with emotion. "For in
    man is no help. The strongest man, he who rode yesterday a master of
    men, a very man of war in his pride and his valour--see him, now, and--"

    "Don't!" she cried, sharp pain in her voice. "Don't!" And she stopped
    him with her hand, her face averted. After an interval, "You come from
    him?" she muttered faintly.

    "Yes."

    "Is he--hurt to death, think you?" She spoke low, and kept her face
    hidden from him.

    "Alas, no!" he answered, speaking the thought in his heart. "The men who
    are with him seem confident of his recovery."

    "Do they know?"

    "Badelon has had experience."

    "No, no. Do they know of this?" she cried. "Of this!" And she pointed
    with a gesture of loathing to the black gibbet on the farther strand.

    He shook his head. "I think not," he muttered. And after a moment, "God
    help you!" he added fervently. "God help and guide you, Madame!"

    She turned on him suddenly, fiercely. "Is that all you can do?" she
    cried. "Is that all the help you can give? You are a man. Go down,
    lead them out; drive off these cowards who drain our life's blood, who
    trade on a woman's heart! On them! Do something, anything, rather than
    lie in safety here--here!"

    The minister shook his head sadly. "Alas, Madame!" he said, "to sally
    were to waste life. They outnumber us three to one. If Count Hannibal
    could do no more than break through last night, with scarce a man
    unwounded--"

    "He had the women!"

    "And we have not him!"

    "He would not have left us!" she cried hysterically.

    "I believe it."

    "Had they taken me, do you think he would have lain behind walls? Or
    skulked in safety here, while--while--" Her voice failed her.

    He shook his head despondently.

    "And that is all you can do?" she cried, and turned from him, and to him
    again, extending her arms, in bitter scorn. "All you will do? Do you
    forget that twice he spared your life? That in Paris once, and once in
    Angers, he held his hand? That always, whether he stood or whether he
    fled, he held himself between us and harm? Ay, always? And who will now
    raise a hand for him? Who?"

    "Madame!"

    "Who? Who? Had he died in the field," she continued, her voice shaking
    with grief, her hands beating the parapet--for she had turned from
    him--"had he fallen where he rode last night, in the front, with his face
    to the foe, I had viewed him tearless, I had deemed him happy! I had
    prayed dry-eyed for him who--who spared me all these days and weeks! Whom
    I robbed and he forgave me! Whom I tempted, and he forbore me! Ay, and
    who spared not once or twice him for whom he must now--he must now--" And
    unable to finish the sentence she beat her hands again and passionately
    on the stones.

    "Heaven knows, Madame," the minister cried vehemently, "Heaven knows, I
    would advise you if I could."

    "Why did he wear his corselet?" she wailed, as if she had not heard him.
    "Was there no spear could reach his breast, that he must come to this? No
    foe so gentle he would spare him this? Or why did _he_ not die with me
    in Paris when we waited? In another minute death might have come and
    saved us this."

    With the tears running down his face he tried to comfort her.

    "Man that is a shadow," he said, "passeth away--what matter how? A
    little while, a very little while, and we shall pass!"

    "With his curse upon us!" she cried. And, shuddering, she pressed her
    hands to her eyes to shut out the sight her fancy pictured.

    He left her for a while, hoping that in solitude she might regain control
    of herself. When he returned he found her seated, and outwardly more
    composed; her arms resting on the parapet-wall, her eyes bent steadily on
    the long stretch of hard sand which ran northward from the village. By
    that route her lover had many a time come to her; there she had ridden
    with him in the early days; and that way they had started for Paris on
    such a morning and at such an hour as this, with sunshine about them, and
    larks singing hope above the sand-dunes, and with wavelets creaming to
    the horses' hoofs!

    Of all which La Tribe, a stranger, knew nothing. The rapt gaze, the
    unchanging attitude only confirmed his opinion of the course she would
    adopt. He was thankful to find her more composed; and in fear of such a
    scene as had already passed between them, he stole away again. He
    returned by-and-by, but with the greatest reluctance, and only because
    Carlat's urgency would take no refusal.

    He came this time to crave the key of the wicket, explaining that--rather
    to satisfy his own conscience and the men than with any hope of
    success--he proposed to go halfway along the causeway, and thence by
    signs invite a conference.

    "It is just possible," he added, hesitating--he feared nothing so much as
    to raise hopes in her--"that by the offer of a money ransom, Madame--"

    "Go," she said, without turning her head. "Offer what you please.
    But"--bitterly--"have a care of them! Montsoreau is very like Montereau!
    Beware of the bridge!"

    He went and came again in half an hour. Then, indeed, though she had
    spoken as if hope was dead in her, she was on her feet at the first sound
    of his tread on the stairs; her parted lips and her white face questioned
    him. He shook his head.

    "There is a priest," he said in broken tones, "with them, whom God will
    judge. It is his plan, and he is without mercy or pity."

    "You bring nothing from--him?"

    "They will not suffer him to write again."

    "You did not see him?"

    "No."
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