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    Chapter 9

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    Chapter 9
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    MELUSINA.

    Even then, with the daylight about him, he crept into the house under a
    weight of awe and dread. He left the door ajar that the daylight might
    enter with him and dispel the shadows: and when he had crossed the
    threshold it was with a pale and frowning face that he advanced to the
    middle of the floor, and stood peering round the deserted living-room.
    No one was stirring above or below, the house and all within it slept:
    the rushlight stand, its wick long extinguished, remained where he had
    set it down in the panic of his flight.

    With that exception--he eyed it darkly--no trace of the mysterious event
    of the night was visible. The room wore, or minute by minute assumed,
    its daylight aspect. Nor had he stood long gazing upon it before he
    breathed more freely and felt his heart lightened. What was to be
    thought, what could be thought in the circumstances, he was not prepared
    to say. But the panic of the night was gone with the darkness; and with
    it all thought--if in the depths he had really sunk so low--of
    relinquishing the woman he loved to the powers of evil.

    To the powers of evil! To a fate as much worse than death as the soul
    and the mind are higher than the body! Was he really face to face with
    that? Was this house, so quiet, so peaceful, so commonplace, in reality
    the theatre of one of those manifestations of Satan's power which were
    the horror of the age? His senses affirmed it, and yet he doubted. Such
    things were, he did not deny it. Few men of the time denied it. But
    presented to him, brought within his experience, they shocked him to the
    point of disbelief. He found that from the thing which he was prepared
    to admit in the general, he dissented fiercely and instinctively in the
    particular.

    What, the woman he loved! Was he to believe her delivered, soul and
    body, to the power of Satan? Never! All that was sane and wholesome and
    courageous in the man rebelled against the thought. He would not believe
    it. The pots and pans on the hearth, the simple implements of work and
    life, on which his eyes alighted wherever he turned them, and to none of
    which her hand was stranger, his memory of the love that was between her
    and her mother, his picture of the sacred life led by those two above
    stairs, all gave the lie to it! Her subjection to Basterga, her
    submission to contumely and to insult--there must be a reason for these,
    a natural and innocent reason could he hit on it. The strange
    occurrences of the night, the blasphemous words, the mocking laughter,
    at the worst they might not import a mastery over her. He shuddered as
    he recalled them, they rang in his ears and brain, the vividness of his
    memory of them was remarkable. But they might not have relation to her.

    He stood long in moody thought, but his ears never for an instant
    relaxed their vigil, their hearkening for he knew not what. At length he
    passed into his bedcloset, and cooled his hot face with water and
    repaired his dress. Coming out again, he found the house still quiet,
    the door as he had left it, the daylight pouring in through the
    aperture. No one was moving, he was still safe from interruption; and a
    curiosity to visit the passage above and learn if aught abnormal was to
    be seen, took possession of him. It was just possible that Basterga had
    not returned; that the key still lay where he had dropped it!

    He opened the door of the staircase and listened. He heard nothing, and
    he stole half-way up the flight and again stood. Still all was silent.
    He mounted more boldly then, and he was within four steps of the
    top--whence, turning his head a little, he could command the
    passage--when a sound arrested him. It was a sound easily explicable
    though it startled him; for a moment later Anne Royaume appeared at the
    foot of the upper flight of stairs, and moved along the passage towards
    him.

    She did not see him, and he could have escaped unnoticed, had he retired
    at once. But he stood fixed to the spot by something in her appearance;
    a something that, as she moved slowly towards him, fancying herself
    alone, filled him with dread, and with something worse than
    dread--suspicion.

    For if ever woman looked as if she had come from a witch's Sabbath, if
    ever girl, scarce more than child, walked as if she had plucked the
    fruit of the Tree and savoured it bitter, it was the girl before him.
    Despair--it seemed to him--rode her like a hag. Dejection, fear, misery,
    were in her whole bearing. Her eyes looked out from black hollows, her
    cheeks were pallid, her mouth was nerveless. Three sleepless nights, he
    thought, could not have changed a woman thus--no, nor thrice three; and
    he who had seen her last night and saw her now, gazed fascinated and
    bewildered, asking himself what had happened, what it meant.

    Alas, for answer there rose the spectre which he had been striving to
    lay; the spectre that had for the men of that day so appalling, so
    shocking a reality. Witchcraft! The word rang in his brain. Witchcraft
    would account for this, ay, for all; for her long submission to vile
    behests and viler men; for that which he had heard in this house at
    midnight; for that which the Syndic had whispered of Basterga; for that
    which he noted in her now! Would account for it; ay, but by fixing her
    with a guilt, not of this world, terrible, abnormal: by fixing her with
    a love of things vile, unspeakable, monstrous, a love that must deprive
    her life of all joy, all sweetness, all truth, all purity! A guilt and a
    love that showed her thus!

    But thus, for a moment only. The next she espied his face above the
    landing-edge, perceived that he watched her, detected, perhaps,
    something of his feeling. With startling abruptness her features
    underwent a change. Her cheeks flamed high, her eyes sparkled with
    resentment. "You!" she cried--and her causeless anger, her impatience of
    his presence, confirmed the dreadful idea he had conceived. "You!" she
    repeated. "How dare you come here? How dare you? What are you doing
    here? Your room is below. Go down, sir!"

    He did not move, but he met her eyes; he tried to read her soul, his own
    quaking. And his look, sombre and stern--for he saw a gulf opening at
    his feet--should have given her pause. Instead, her anger faced him down
    and mastered him. "Do you hear me?" she flung at him. "Do you hear me?
    If you have aught to say, if you are not as those others, go down! Go
    down, and I will hear you there!"

    He went down then, giving way to her, and she followed him. She closed
    the staircase door behind them; and that done, in the living-room with
    her he would have spoken. But with a glance at Gentilis' door, she
    silenced him, and led the way through the outer door to the open air.
    The hour was still early, the sun was barely risen. Save for a sentry
    sleeping at his post on the ramparts, there was no one within sight, and
    she crossed the open space to the low wall that looked down upon the
    Rhone. There, in a spot where the partly stripped branches which shaded
    the rampart hid them from the windows, she turned to him. "Now," she
    said--there was a smouldering fire in her eyes--"if you have aught to
    say to me, say it. Say it now!"

    He hesitated. He had had time to think, and he found the burden laid
    upon him heavy. "I do not know," he answered, "that I have any right to
    speak to you."

    "Right!" she cried; and let her bitterness have way in that word.
    "Right! Does any stay for that where I am concerned? Or ask my leave, or
    crave my will, sir? Right? You have the same right to flout and jeer and
    scorn me, the same right to watch and play the spy on me, to hearken at
    my door, and follow me, that they have! Ay, and the same right to bid me
    come and go, and answer at your will, that others have! Do you scruple a
    little at beginning?" she continued mockingly. "It will wear off. It
    will come easy by-and-by! For you are like the others!"

    "No!"

    "You are as the others! You begin as they began!" she repeated, giving
    the reins to her indignation. "The day you came, last night even, I
    thought you different. I deemed you"--she pressed her hand to her bosom
    as if she stilled a pain--"other than you are! I confess it. But you are
    their fellow. You begin as they began, by listening on stairs and at
    doors, by dogging me and playing eavesdropper, by hearkening to what I
    say and do. Right?" she repeated the word bitterly, mockingly, with
    fierce unhappiness. "You have the right that they have! The same right!"

    "Have I?" he asked slowly. His face was sombre and strangely old.

    "Yes!"

    "Then how did I gain it?" he retorted with a dark look. "How"--his tone
    was as gloomy as his face--"did they gain it? Or--he?"

    "He?" The flame was gone from her face. She trembled a little.

    "Yes, he--Basterga," he replied, his eyes losing no whit of the change
    in her. "How did he gain the right which he has handed on to others, the
    right to shame you, to lay hand on you, to treat you as he does? This is
    a free city. Women are no slaves here. What then is the secret between
    you and him?" Claude continued grimly. "What is your secret?"

    "My secret!" Her passion dwindled under his eyes, under his words.

    "Ay," Claude answered, "and his! His secret and yours. What is the thing
    between you and him?" he continued, his eyes fixed on her, "so dark, so
    weighty, so dangerous, you must needs for it suffer his touch, bear his
    look, be smooth to him though you loathe him? What is it?"

    "Perhaps--love," she muttered, with a forced smile. But it did not
    deceive him.

    "You loathe him!" he said.

    "I may have loved him--once," she faltered.

    "You never loved him," he retorted. All the shyness of youth, all the
    bashfulness of man with maiden were gone. Under the weight of that
    thought, that dreadful thought, he had grown old in a few minutes. His
    tone was hard, his manner pitiless. "You never loved him!" he repeated,
    the very immodesty of her excuse confirming his fears. "And I ask you,
    what is it? What is it that is between you and him? What is it that
    gives him this power over you?"

    "Nothing," she stammered, pale to the lips.

    "Nothing! And was it for nothing that you were startled when you found
    me upstairs? When you found me watching you five minutes ago, was it for
    nothing that you flamed with rage----"

    "You had no right to be there."

    "No? Yet it was an innocent thing enough--to be there," he answered. "To
    be there, this morning." And then, giving the words all the meaning of
    which his voice was capable, "To have been there last night," he
    continued, "were a different thing perhaps."

    "Were you there?" Her voice was barely audible.

    "I was."

    It was dreadful to see how she sank under that, how she cringed before
    him, her anger gone, her colour gone, the light fled from her eyes--eyes
    grown suddenly secretive. It was a minute, it seemed a minute at least,
    before she could frame a word, a single word. Then, "What do you know?"
    she whispered. But for the wall against which she leant, she must have
    fallen.

    "What do I know?"

    She nodded, unable to repeat the words.

    "I was at the door of Basterga's room last night."

    "Last night!"

    "Yes. I had the key of his room in my hand. I was putting it into the
    lock when I heard----"

    "Hush!" She stepped forward, she would have put her hand over his mouth.
    "Hush! Hush!"

    The terror of her eyes, the glance she cast behind her, echoed the word
    more clearly than her lips. "Hush! Hush!"

    He could not bear to look at her. Her voice, her terror, the very
    defence she had striven to make confirmed him in his worst suspicions.
    The thing was too certain, too apparent; in mercy to himself as well as
    to her, he averted his eyes.

    They fell on the hills on which he had gazed that morning barely a
    fortnight earlier, when the autumn haze had mirrored her face; and all
    his thoughts, his heart, his fancy had been hers, her prize, her easy
    capture. And now he dared not look on her face. He could not bear to see
    it distorted by the terrors of an evil conscience. Even her words when
    she spoke again jarred on him.

    "You knew the voice?" she whispered.

    "I did not know it," he answered brokenly. "I knew--whose it was."

    "Mine?"

    "Yes." He scarcely breathed the word.

    She did not cry "Hush!" this time, but she caught her breath; and after
    a moment's pause, "Still--you did not recognise it?" she murmured. "You
    did not know that it was my voice?" Could it be that after all she hoped
    to blind him?

    "I did not."

    "Thank God!"

    "Thank God?" He stared at her, echoing the words in his astonishment.
    How dared she name the sacred name?

    She read his thoughts. "Yes," she said hardily, "why not?"

    He turned on her. "Why not?" he cried. "Why not? You dare to thank Him,
    who last night denied Him? You dare to name His name in the light, who
    in the darkness----You! And you are not afraid?"

    "Afraid?" she repeated. There was a strange light, almost a smile he
    would have deemed it had he thought that possible, in her face, "Nay,
    perhaps; perhaps. For even the devils, we are told, believe and
    tremble."

    His jaw fell; for a moment he gazed at her in sheer bewilderment. Then,
    as the full import of her words and her look overwhelmed him, he turned
    to the wall and bowed his face on his arms. His whole being shook, his
    soul was sick. What was he to say to her? What was he to do? Flee from
    her presence as from the presence of Antichrist? Avoid her henceforth as
    he valued his soul? Pluck even the memory of her from his mind? Or
    wrestle with her, argue with her, snatch her from the foul spells and
    enchantments that now held her, the tool and chosen instrument of the
    evil one, in their fiendish grip?

    He felt a Churchman's horror--Protestant as he was--at the thought of a
    woman possessed. But for that reason, and because he was in the way of
    becoming a minister, was it not his duty to measure his strength with
    the Adversary? Alas! he could conceive of no words, no thoughts, no
    arguments adequate to that strife. Had he been a Papist he might have
    turned with hope, even with pious confidence, to the Holy Stoup, the
    Bell and Book and Candle, to the Relics, and hundred Exorcisms of his
    Church. But the colder and more abstract faith of Calvin, while it
    admitted the possibility of such possessions, supplied no weapons of a
    material kind.

    He groaned in his impotence, stifled by the unwholesome atmosphere of
    his thoughts. He dared not even ponder too long on what she was who
    stood beside him; nor peer too closely through the murky veil that hid
    her being. To do so might be to risk his soul, to become a partner in
    her guilt. He might conjecture what dark thoughts and dreadful aptitudes
    lurked behind the girl's gentle mask, he might strive to learn by what
    black arts she had been seduced, what power over visible things had been
    the price of her apostasy, what Sabbath-mark, seal and pledge of that
    apostasy she bore--but at what peril! At what risk of soul and body! His
    brain reeled, his blood raced at the thought.

    Such things had lately been, he knew. Had there not been a dreadful
    outbreak in Alsace--Alsace, the neighbour almost of Geneva--within the
    last few years. In Thann and Turckheim, places within a couple of days'
    journey of Geneva, scores had suffered for such practices; and some of
    these not old and ugly, but young and handsome, girls and pages of the
    Court and young wives! Had not the most unlikely persons confessed to
    practices the most dreadful? The most innocent in appearance to things
    unspeakable!

    But--with a sudden revulsion of feeling--that was in Alsace, he told
    himself. That was in Alsace! Such things did not happen here at men's
    elbows! He must have been mad to think it or dream it. And, lifting his
    head, he looked about him. The sun had risen higher, the rich vale of
    the Rhone, extended at his feet, lay bathed in air and light and
    brightness. The burnished hills, the brown, tilled slopes, the gleaming
    river, the fairness of that rare landscape clad in morning freshness,
    gave the lie to the suspicions he had been indulging, gave the lie,
    there and then, to possibilities he dared not have denied in school or
    pulpit. Nature spoke to his heart, and with smiling face denied the
    unnatural. In Bamberg and Wurzburg and Alsace, but not here! In
    Magdeburg, but not here! In Edinburgh, but not here! The world of beauty
    and light and growth on which he looked would have none of the dark
    devil's world of which he had been dreaming: the dark devil's world
    which the sophists and churchmen and the weak-witted of twoscore
    generations had built up!

    He turned and looked at her, the scales fallen from his eyes. Though she
    was still pale, she had recovered her composure and she met his gaze
    without blenching. But now, behind the passive defiance, grave rather
    than sullen, which she presented to his attack, the weakness, the
    helplessness, the heart pain of the woman were plain.

    He discerned them, and while he hungered for a more explicit denial, for
    a cry of indignant protest, for a passionate repudiation, he found some
    comfort in that look. And his heart spoke. "I do not believe it!" he
    cried impetuously, in perfect forgetfulness of the fact that he had not
    put his charge into words. "I do not--I will not! Only say that it is
    false! And I will say no more."

    Her answer was as cold water thrown upon him. "I will tell you nothing,"
    she answered.

    "Why not? Why not?" he cried.

    "You ask why not," she answered slowly. "Are you so short of memory? Is
    it so long since, against my will and prayers, you came into yonder
    house--that you forget what I said and what I did? And what you
    promised?"

    "My God!" he cried in excitement. "You do not know where you stand! You
    do not know what perils threaten you. This is no time," he continued,
    holding out his hands to her in growing agitation, "for sticking on
    scruples or raising trifles. Tell me all!"

    "I will tell you nothing!" she replied with the same quiet firmness. "I
    have suffered. I suffer. Can you not suffer a little?"

    "Not blasphemy!" he said. "Not that! Tell me"--his voice, his face grew
    suppliant--"tell me only that it was not your voice, Anne. Tell me that
    it was not you who spoke! Tell me--but that."

    "I will tell you nothing!" she answered in the same tone.

    "You do not know----"

    "I know what it is you have in your mind!" she replied. "What it is you
    are thinking of me. That they will burn me in the Bourg du Four
    presently, as they burned the girl in Aix last year! As they burned the
    woman in Besançon not many months since; I have seen those who saw it.
    As they did to two women in Zurich--my mother was there! As they did to
    five hundred people in Geneva in my grandfather's time. It is that," she
    continued, a strange wild light in her eyes, "that you think they will
    do to me?"

    "God forbid!" he cried.

    "Nay, you may do it, too, if you choose," she answered, gravely
    regarding him. "But I do not think you will, for you are young, almost
    as young as I am, and, having done it, you would have many years to live
    and think. You would remember in those years that it was my mother who
    nursed your father, that it was you who came to us not we to you, that
    it was you who promised to aid us, not I who sought your aid! You would
    remember all these things of a morning when you awoke early: and
    this--that in the end you gave me up to the law and burned me."

    "God forbid!" he cried, and hid his face with his hands. The very
    quietness of her speech set an edge on horror. "God forbid!"

    "Ay, but men allow!" she answered drearily. "What if I was mad last
    night, and in my madness denied my Maker? I am sane to-day, but I must
    burn, if it be known! I must burn!"

    "Not by my mouth!" he cried, his brow damp with sweat. "Never, I swear
    it! If there be guilt, on my head be the guilt!"

    "You mean it? You mean that?" she said.

    "I do."

    "You will be silent?"

    "I will."

    Her lips parted, hope in her eyes shone--hope which showed how deep her
    despair had been. "And you will ask no questions?" she whispered.

    "I will ask no questions," he answered. He stifled a sigh.

    She drew a deep breath of relief, but she did not thank him. It was a
    thing for which no thanks could be given. She stood a while, sad and
    thoughtful, reflecting, it seemed, on what had passed; then she turned
    slowly and left him, crossed the open space, and entered the house,
    walking as one under a heavy burden.

    And he? He remained, troubled at one time by the yearning to follow and
    comfort and cherish her; cast at another into a cold sweat by the
    recollection of that voice in the night, and the strange ties which
    bound her to Basterga. Innocent, it seemed to him, that connection could
    not be. Based on aught but evil it could hardly be. Yet he must endure,
    witness, cloak it. He must wait, helpless and inactive, the issue of it.
    He must lie on the rack, drawn one way by love of her, drawn the other
    by daily and hourly suspicions, suspicions so strong and so terrible
    that even love could hardly cast them out.

    For the voice he had heard at midnight, and the horrid laughter, which
    greeted the words of sacrilege--were facts. And her subjection to
    Basterga, the man of evil past the evil name, was a fact. And her terror
    and her avowal were facts. He could not doubt, he could not deny them.
    Only--he loved her. He loved her even while he doubted her, even while
    he admitted that women as young and as innocent had been guilty of the
    blackest practices and the most evil arts. He loved her and he suffered:
    doubting, though he could not abandon her. The air was fresh about him,
    the world lay sunlit under his eyes. But the beauty of the world had not
    saved young and tender women, who on such mornings had walked barefoot,
    none comforting them, to the fiery expiation of their crimes.
    Perhaps--perhaps among the thousands who had witnessed their last agony,
    one man hidden in the crowd, had vainly closed ears and eyes, one man
    had died a hundred deaths in one.
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