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    Chapter 36

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    Chapter 36
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    HIS KINGDOM.

    Count Hannibal could not have said why he did not speak to her at once.
    Warned by an instinct vague and ill-understood, he remained silent, his
    eyes riveted on her, until she rose from the floor. A moment later she
    met his gaze, and he looked to see her start. Instead, she stood quiet
    and thoughtful, regarding him with a kind of sad solemnity, as if she saw
    not him only, but the dead; while first one tremor and then a second
    shook her frame.

    At length "It is over!" she whispered. "Patience, Monsieur; have no
    fear, I will be brave. But I must give a little to him."

    "To him!" Count Hannibal muttered, his face extraordinarily, pale.

    She smiled with an odd passionateness. "Who was my lover!" she cried,
    her voice a-thrill. "Who will ever be my lover, though I have denied
    him, though I have left him to die! It was just. He who has so tried me
    knows it was just! He whom I have sacrificed--he knows it too, now! But
    it is hard to be--just," with a quavering smile. "You who take all may
    give him a little, may pardon me a little, may have--patience!"

    Count Hannibal uttered a strangled cry, between a moan and a roar. A
    moment he beat the coverlid with his hands in impotence. Then he sank
    back on the bed.

    "Water!" he muttered. "Water!"

    She fetched it hurriedly, and, raising his head on her arm, held it to
    his lips. He drank, and lay back again with closed eyes. He lay so
    still and so long that she thought that he had fainted; but after a pause
    he spoke.

    "You have done that?" he whispered; "you have done that?"

    "Yes," she answered, shuddering. "God forgive me! I have done that! I
    had to do that, or--"

    "And is it too late--to undo it?"

    "It is too late." A sob choked her voice.

    Tears--tears incredible, unnatural--welled from under Count Hannibal's
    closed eyelids, and rolled sluggishly down his harsh cheek to the edge of
    his beard.

    "I would have gone," he muttered. "If you had spoken, I would have
    spared you this."

    "I know," she answered unsteadily; "the men told me."

    "And yet--"

    "It was just. And you are my husband," she replied. "More, I am the
    captive of your sword, and as you spared me in your strength, my lord, I
    spared you in your weakness."

    "Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu, Madame!" he cried, "at what a cost!"

    And that arrested, that touched her in the depths of her grief and her
    horror; even while the gibbet on the causeway, which had burned itself
    into her eyeballs, hung before her. For she knew that it was the cost to
    _her_ he was counting. She knew that for himself he had ever held life
    cheap, that he could have seen Tignonville suffer without a qualm. And
    the thoughtfulness for her, the value he placed on a thing--even on a
    rival's life--because its was dear to her, touched her home, moved her as
    few things could have moved her at that moment. She saw it of a piece
    with all that had gone before, with all that had passed between them,
    since that fatal Sunday in Paris. But she made no sign. More than she
    had said she would not say; words of love, even of reconciliation, had no
    place on her lips while he whom she had sacrificed awaited his burial.

    And meantime the man beside her lay and found it incredible. "It was
    just," she had said. And he knew it; Tignonville's folly--that and that
    only had led them into the snare and caused his own capture. But what
    had justice to do with the things of this world? In his experience, the
    strong hand--that was justice, in France; and possession--that was law.
    By the strong hand he had taken her, and by the strong hand she might
    have freed herself.

    And she had not. There was the incredible thing. She had chosen instead
    to do justice! It passed belief. Opening his eyes on a silence which
    had lasted some minutes, a silence rendered more solemn by the lapping
    water without, Tavannes saw her kneeling in the dusk of the chamber, her
    head bowed over his couch, her face hidden in her hands. He knew that
    she prayed, and feebly he deemed the whole a dream. No scene akin to it
    had had place in his life; and, weakened and in pain, he prayed that the
    vision might last for ever, that he might never awake.

    But by-and-by, wrestling with the dread thought of what she had done, and
    the horror which would return upon her by fits and spasms, she flung out
    a hand, and it fell on him. He started, and the movement, jarring the
    broken limb, wrung from him a cry of pain. She looked up and was going
    to speak, when a scuffling of feet under the gateway arch, and a confused
    sound of several voices raised at once, arrested the words on her lips.
    She rose to her feet and listened. Dimly he could see her face through
    the dusk. Her eyes were on the door, and she breathed quickly.

    A moment or two passed in this way, and then from the hurly-burly in the
    gateway the footsteps of two men--one limped--detached themselves and
    came nearer and nearer. They stopped without. A gleam of light shone
    under the door, and some one knocked.

    She went to the door, and, withdrawing the bar, stepped quickly back to
    the bedside, where for an instant the light borne by those who entered
    blinded her. Then, above the lanthorn, the faces of La Tribe and Bigot
    broke upon her, and their shining eyes told her that they bore good news.
    It was well, for the men seemed tongue-tied. The minister's fluency was
    gone; he was very pale, and it was Bigot who in the end spoke for both.
    He stepped forward, and, kneeling, kissed her cold hand.

    "My lady," he said, "you have gained all, and lost nothing. Blessed be
    God!"

    "Blessed be God!" the minister wept. And from the passage without came
    the sound of laughter and weeping and many voices, with a flutter of
    lights and flying skirts, and women's feet.

    She stared at him wildly, doubtfully, her hand at her throat.

    "What?" she said, "he is not dead--M. de Tignonville?"

    "No, he is alive," La Tribe answered, "he is alive." And he lifted up
    his hands as if he gave thanks.

    "Alive?" she cried. "Alive! Oh, Heaven is merciful. You are sure? You
    are sure?"

    "Sure, Madame, sure. He was not in their hands. He was dismounted in
    the first shock, it seems, and, coming to himself after a time, crept
    away and reached St. Gilles, and came hither in a boat. But the enemy
    learned that he had not entered with us, and of this the priest wove his
    snare. Blessed be God, who put it into your heart to escape it!"

    The Countess stood motionless, and with closed eyes pressed her hands to
    her temples. Once she swayed as if she would fall her length, and Bigot
    sprang forward to support and save her. But she opened her eyes at that,
    sighed very deeply, and seemed to recover herself.

    "You are sure?" she said faintly. "It is no trick?"

    "No, Madame, it is no trick," La Tribe answered. "M. de Tignonville is
    alive, and here."

    "Here!" She started at the word. The colour fluttered in her cheek.
    "But the keys," she murmured. And she passed her hand across her brow.
    "I thought--that I had them."

    "He has not entered," the minister answered, "for that reason. He is
    waiting at the postern, where he landed. He came, hoping to be of use to
    you."

    She paused a moment, and when she spoke again her aspect had undergone a
    subtle change. Her head was high, a flush had risen to her cheeks, her
    eyes were bright.

    "Then," she said, addressing La Tribe, "do you, Monsieur, go to him, and
    pray him in my name to retire to St. Gilles, if he can do so without
    peril. He has no place here--now; and if he can go safely to his home it
    will be well that he do so. Add, if you please, that Madame de Tavannes
    thanks him for his offer of aid, but in her husband's house she needs no
    other protection."

    Bigot's eyes sparkled with joy.

    The minister hesitated. "No more, Madame?" he faltered. He was tender-
    hearted, and Tignonville was of his people.

    "No more," she said gravely, bowing her head. "It is not M. de
    Tignonville I have to thank, but Heaven's mercy, that I do not stand here
    at this moment unhappy as I entered--a woman accursed, to be pointed at
    while I live. And the dead"--she pointed solemnly through the dark
    casement to the shore--"the dead lie there."

    La Tribe went.

    She stood a moment in thought, and then took the keys from the rough
    stone window-ledge on which she had laid them when she entered. As the
    cold iron touched her fingers she shuddered. The contact awoke again the
    horror and misery in which she had groped, a lost thing, when she last
    felt that chill.

    "Take them," she said; and she gave them to Bigot. "Until my lord can
    leave his couch they will remain in your charge, and you will answer for
    all to him. Go, now, take the light; and in half an hour send Madame
    Carlat to me."

    A wave broke heavily on the causeway and ran down seething to the sea;
    and another and another, filling the room with rhythmical thunders. But
    the voice of the sea was no longer the same in the darkness, where the
    Countess knelt in silence beside the bed--knelt, her head bowed on her
    clasped hands, as she had knelt before, but with a mind how different,
    with what different thoughts! Count Hannibal could see her head but
    dimly, for the light shed upwards by the spume of the sea fell only on
    the rafters. But he knew she was there, and he would fain, for his heart
    was full, have laid his hand on her hair.

    And yet he would not. He would not, out of pride. Instead he bit on his
    harsh beard, and lay looking upward to the rafters, waiting what would
    come. He who had held her at his will now lay at hers, and waited. He
    who had spared her life at a price now took his own a gift at her hands,
    and bore it.

    "_Afterwards, Madame de Tavannes_--"

    His mind went back by some chance to those words--the words he had
    neither meant nor fulfilled. It passed from them to the marriage and the
    blow; to the scene in the meadow beside the river; to the last ride
    between La Fleche and Angers--the ride during which he had played with
    her fears and hugged himself on the figure he would make on the morrow.
    The figure? Alas! of all his plans for dazzling her had come--_this_!
    Angers had defeated him, a priest had worsted him. In place of releasing
    Tignonville after the fashion of Bayard and the Paladins, and in the
    teeth of snarling thousands, he had come near to releasing him after
    another fashion and at his own expense. Instead of dazzling her by his
    mastery and winning her by his magnanimity, he lay here, owing her his
    life, and so weak, so broken, that the tears of childhood welled up in
    his eyes.

    Out of the darkness a hand, cool and firm, slid into his, clasped it
    tightly, drew it to warm lips, carried it to a woman's bosom.

    "My lord," she murmured, "I was the captive of your sword, and you spared
    me. Him I loved you took and spared him too--not once or twice. Angers,
    also, and my people you would have saved for my sake. And you thought I
    could do this! Oh! shame, shame!" But her hand held his always.

    "You loved him," he muttered.

    "Yes, I loved him," she answered slowly and thoughtfully. "I loved him."
    And she fell silent a minute. Then, "And I feared you," she added, her
    voice low. "Oh, how I feared you--and hated you!"

    "And now?"

    "I do not fear him," she answered, smiling in the darkness. "Nor hate
    him. And for you, my lord, I am your wife and must do your bidding,
    whether I will or no. I have no choice."

    He was silent.

    "Is that not so?" she asked.

    He tried weakly to withdraw his hand.

    But she clung to it. "I must bear your blows or your kisses. I must be
    as you will and do as you will, and go happy or sad, lonely or with you,
    as you will! As you will, my lord! For I am your chattel, your
    property, your own. Have you not told me so?"

    "But your heart," he cried fiercely, "is his! Your heart, which you told
    me in the meadow could never be mine!"

    "I lied," she murmured, laughing tearfully, and her hands hovered over
    him. "It has come back! And it is on my lips."

    And she leant over and kissed him. And Count Hannibal knew that he had
    entered into his kingdom, the sovereignty of a woman's heart.

    * * * * *

    An hour later there was a stir in the village on the mainland. Lanthorns
    began to flit to and fro. Sulkily men were saddling and preparing for
    the road. It was far to Challans, farther to Lege--more than one day,
    and many a weary league to Ponts de Ce and the Loire. The men who had
    ridden gaily southwards on the scent of spoil and revenge turned their
    backs on the castle with many a sullen oath and word. They burned a
    hovel or two, and stripped such as they spared, after the fashion of the
    day; and it had gone ill with the peasant woman who fell into their
    hands. Fortunately, under cover of the previous night every soul had
    escaped from the village, some to sea, and the rest to take shelter among
    the sand-dunes; and as the troopers rode up the path from the beach, and
    through the green valley, where their horses shied from the bodies of the
    men they had slain, there was not an eye to see them go.

    Or to mark the man who rode last, the man of the white face--scarred on
    the temple--and the burning eyes, who paused on the brow of the hill,
    and, before he passed beyond, cursed with quivering lips the foe who had
    escaped him. The words were lost, as soon as spoken, in the murmur of
    the sea on the causeway; the sea, fit emblem of the Eternal, which rolled
    its tide regardless of blessing or cursing, good or ill will, nor spared
    one jot of ebb or flow because a puny creature had spoken to the night.

    THE END.
    Chapter 36
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