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    Chapter 13

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    Chapter 13
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    A MYSTERY SOLVED.

    Whether Basterga, seeing that Claude was less pliant than he had looked
    to find him, shunned occasion of collision with him, or the Paduan being
    in better spirits was less prone to fall foul of his companions, certain
    it is that life for a time after the outbreak at supper ran more quietly
    in the house in the Corraterie. Claude's gloomy face--he had not
    forgiven--bade beware of him; and little save on the subject of Louis'
    disfigured cheek--of which the most pointed questions could extract no
    explanation--passed among them at table. But outward peace was preserved
    and a show of ease. Grio's brutal nature broke out once or twice when he
    had had wine; but discouraged by Basterga, he subsided quickly. And
    Louis, starting at a voice and trembling at a knock, with the fear of
    the Syndic always upon him, showed a nervousness which more than once
    drew the Italian's eye to him. But on the whole a calm prevailed; a
    stranger entering at noon or during the evening meal might have deemed
    the party ill-assorted and silent, but lacking neither in amity nor
    ease.

    Meantime, under cover of this calm, destined to be short-lived and
    holding in suspense the makings of a storm of no mean violence, two
    persons were drawing nearer to one another. A confidence, even a
    confidence not perfect, is a tie above most. Nor does love play at any
    time a higher part than when it repeats "I do not understand--I trust".
    By the common light of day, which showed Anne moving to and fro about
    her household tasks, at once the minister and the providence of the
    home, the dark suspicion that had for a moment--a moment only!--mastered
    Claude's judgment, lost shape and reality. It was impossible to see her
    bending over the hearth, or arranging her mother's simple meal, it was
    impossible to witness her patience, her industry, her deftness, to
    behold her, ever gentle yet supporting with a man's fortitude the trials
    of her position, trials of the bitterness of which she had given him
    proof--it was impossible, in a word, to watch her in her daily life,
    without perceiving the wickedness as well as the folly of the thought
    which had possessed him.

    True, the more he saw of her the graver seemed the mystery; and the more
    deeply he wondered. But he no longer dreaded the answer to the riddle;
    nor did he fear to meet at some turn or corner a Megæra head that should
    freeze his soul. Wickedness there might be, cruelty there might be, and
    shame; but the blood ran too briskly in his veins and he had looked too
    often into the girl's candid eyes--reading something there which had not
    been there formerly--to fear to find either at her door.

    He had taken to coming to the living-room a little before nightfall;
    there he would seat himself beside the hearth while she prepared the
    evening meal. The glow of the wood-fire, reflected in rows of burnished
    pewters, or given back by the night-backed casements, the savour of the
    coming meal, the bubbling of the black pot between which and the table
    her nimble feet carried her a dozen times in as many minutes, the
    pleasant, homely room with its touches of refinement and its winter
    comfort, these were excuses enough had he not brought the book which lay
    unheeded on his knee.

    But in truth he offered her no excuse. With scarce a word an
    understanding had grown up between them that not a million words could
    have made more clear. Each played the appropriated part. He looked and
    she bore the look, and if she blushed the fire was warrant, and if he
    stared it was the blind man's hour between day and night, and why should
    he not sit idle as well as another? Soon there was not a turn of her
    head or a line of her figure that he did not know; not a trick of her
    walk, not a pose of her hand as she waited for a pot to boil that he
    could not see in the dark; not a gleam from her hair as she stooped to
    the blaze, nor a turn of her wrist as she shielded her face that was not
    as familiar to him as if he had known her from childhood.

    In these hours she let the mask fall. The apathy, which had been the
    least natural as it had been the most common garb of her young face, and
    which had grown to be the cover and veil of her feelings, dropped from
    her. Seated in the shadow, while she moved, now in the glow of the
    burning embers, now obscured, he read her mind without disguise--save in
    one dark nook--watched unrebuked the eye fall and the lip tremble, or in
    rarer moments saw the shy smile dimple the corner of her cheek. Not
    seldom she stood before him sad: sad without disguise, her bowed head
    and drooping shoulders the proof of gloomy thoughts, that strayed, he
    fancied, far from her work or her companion. And sometimes a tear fell
    and she wiped it away, making no attempt to hide it; and sometimes she
    would shiver and sigh as if in pain or fear.

    At these times he longed for Basterga's throat; and the blood of old
    Enguerrande de Beauvais, his ancestor, dust these four hundred years at
    "Damietta of the South," raced in him, and he choked with rage and
    grief, and for the time could scarcely see. Yet with this pulse of wrath
    were mingled delicious thrills. The tear which she did not hide from
    him was his gage of love. The brooding eye, the infrequent smile, the
    start, the reverie were for him only, and for no other. They were the
    gift to him of her secret life, her inmost heart.

    It was an odd love-making, and bizarre. To Grio, even to men more
    delicate and more finely wrought, it might have seemed no love-making at
    all. But the wood-smoke that perfumed the air, sweetened it, the
    firelight wrapped it about, the pots and pans and simple things of life,
    amid which it passed, hallowed it. His eyes attending her hither and
    thither without reserve, without concealment, unabashed, laid his heart
    at her feet, not once, but a hundred times in the evening; and as often,
    her endurance of the look, more rarely her sudden blush or smile,
    accepted the offering.

    And scarce a word said: for though they had the room to themselves, they
    knew that they were never alone or unheeded. Basterga, indeed, sat above
    stairs and only descended to his meals; and Grio also was above when he
    was not at the tavern. But Louis sulked in his closet beside them,
    divided from them only by a door, whence he might emerge at any minute.
    As a fact he would have emerged many times, but for two things. The
    first was his marked face, which he was chary of showing; the second,
    the notion which he had got that the balance of things in the house was
    changing, and the reign of petty bullying, in which he had so much
    delighted, approaching its end. With Basterga exposed to arrest, and the
    girl's help become of value to the authorities, it needed little acumen
    to discern this. He still feared Basterga; nay, he lived in such terror,
    lest the part he had played should come to the scholar's ears, that he
    prayed for his arrest night and morning, and whenever during the day an
    especial fit of dread seized him. But he feared Anne also, for she might
    betray him to Basterga; and of young Mercier's quality--that he was no
    Tissot to be brow-beaten, or thrust aside--he had had proof on the night
    of the fracas at supper. Essentially a coward, Louis' aim was to be on
    the stronger side; and once persuaded that this was the side on which
    they stood, he let them be.

    On several consecutive evenings the two passed an hour or more in this
    silent communion. On the last the door of Louis' room stood open, the
    young man had not come in, and for the first time they were really
    alone. But the fact did not at once loosen Claude's tongue; and if the
    girl noticed it, or expected aught to come of it, more than had come of
    their companionship on other evenings, she hid her feelings with a
    woman's ease. He remarked, however, that she was more thoughtful and
    downcast than usual, and several times he saw her break off in the
    middle of a task and listen nervously as for something she expected.
    Presently:--

    "Are you listening for Louis?" he asked.

    She turned on him, her eyes less kind than usual. "No," she said, almost
    defiantly. "Was I listening?"

    "I thought so," he said.

    She turned away again, and went on with her work. But by-and-by as she
    stooped over the fire a tear fell and pattered audibly in the wood-ash
    on the hearth; and another. With an impatient gesture she wiped away a
    third. He saw all--she made no attempt to hide them--and he bit his lip
    and drove his finger-ends into his palms in the effort to be silent.
    Presently he had his reward.

    "I am sorry," she said in a low tone. "I was listening, and I knew I
    was. I do not know why I deceived you."

    "Why will you not tell me all?" he cried.

    "I cannot!" she answered, her breast heaving passionately. "I cannot!"
    For the first time in his knowledge of her, she broke down completely,
    and sinking on a bench with her back to the table she sobbed bitterly,
    her face in her hands. For some minutes she rocked herself to and fro in
    a paroxysm of trouble.

    He had risen and stood watching her awkwardly, longing to comfort her,
    but ignorant how to go about it, and feeling acutely his helplessness
    and his _gaucherie_. Sad she had always been, and at her best
    despondent, with gleams of cheerfulness as fitful as brief. But this
    evening her abandonment to her grief convinced him that something more
    than ordinary was amiss, that some danger more serious than ordinary
    threatened. He felt no surprise therefore when, a little later, she
    arrested her sobbing, raised her head, and with suspended breath and
    tear-stained face listened with that scared intentness which had
    impressed him before.

    She feared! He could not be mistaken. Fear looked out of her strained
    eyes, fear hung breathless on her parted lips. He was sure of it. And
    "Is it Basterga?" he cried. "Is it of him that you are afraid? If you
    are----"

    "Hush!" she cried, raising her hand in warning. "Hush!" And then, "You
    did not--hear anything?" she asked. For an instant her eyes met his.

    "No." He met her look, puzzled; and, obeying her gesture, he listened
    afresh. "No, I heard nothing. But----"

    He heard nothing even now, nothing; but whatever it was sharpened her
    hearing to an abnormal pitch, it was clear that she did. She was on her
    feet; with a startled cry she was round the table and half-way across
    the room, while he stared, the word suspended on his lips. A second, and
    her hand was on the latch of the staircase door. Then as she opened it,
    he sprang forward to accompany her, to help her, to protect her if
    necessary. "Let me come!" he said. "Let me help you. Whatever it is, I
    can do something."

    She turned on him fiercely. "Go back!" she said. All the confidence,
    the gentleness, the docility of the last three days were gone; and in
    their place suspicion glared at him from eyes grown spiteful as a cat's.
    "Go back!" she repeated. "I do not want you! I do not want any one, or
    any help! Or any protection! Go, do you hear, and let me be!"

    As she ceased to speak, a sound from above stairs--a sound which this
    time, the door being open, did reach his ears, froze the words on his
    lips. It was the sound of a voice, yet no common voice, Heaven be
    thanked! A moment she continued to confront him, her face one mute,
    despairing denial! Then she slammed the door in his teeth, and he heard
    her panting breath and fleeing footsteps speed up the stairs and along
    the passage, and--more faintly now--he heard her ascend the upper
    flight. Then--silence.

    Silence! But he had heard enough. He paused a moment irresolute,
    uncertain, his hand raised to the latch. Then the hand fell to his side,
    he turned, and went softly--very softly back to the hearth. The
    firelight playing on his face showed it much moved; moved and softened
    almost to the semblance of a woman's. For there were tears in his
    eyes--eyes singularly bright; and his features worked, as if he had some
    ado to repress a sob. In truth he had. In a breath, in the time it takes
    to utter a single sound, he had hit on the secret, he had come to the
    bottom of the mystery, he had learnt that which Basterga, favoured by
    the position of his room on the upper floor, had learned two months
    before, that which Grio might have learned, had he been anything but the
    dull gross toper he was! He had learned, or in a moment of intuition
    guessed--all. The power of Basterga, that power over the girl which had
    so much puzzled and perplexed him, was his also now, to use or misuse,
    hold or resign.

    Yet his first feeling was not one of joy; nor for that matter his
    second. The impression went deeper, went to the heart of the man. An
    infinite tenderness, a tenderness which swelled his breast to bursting,
    a yearning that, man as he was, stopped little short of tears, these
    were his, these it was thrilled his soul to the point of pain. The room
    in which he stood, homely as it showed, plain as it was, seemed
    glorified, the hearth transfigured. He could have knelt and kissed the
    floor which the girl had trodden, coming and going, serving and making
    ready--under that burden; the burden that dignified and hallowed the
    bearer. What had it not cost her--that burden? What had it not meant to
    her, what suspense by day, what terror of nights, what haggard
    awakenings--such as that of which he had been the ignorant witness--what
    watches above, what slights and insults below! Was it a marvel that the
    cheeks had lost their colour, the eyes their light, the whole face its
    life and meaning? Nay, the wonder was that she had borne the weight so
    long, always expecting, always dreading, stabbed in the tenderest
    affection; with for confidant an enemy and for stay an ignorant! Viewed
    through the medium of the man's love, which can so easily idealise where
    it rests, the love of the daughter for the mother, that must have
    touched and softened the hardest--or so, but for the case of Basterga,
    one would have judged--seemed so holy, so beautiful, so pure a thing
    that the young man felt that, having known it, he must be the better for
    it all his life.

    And then his mind turned to another point in the story, and he recalled
    what had passed above stairs on that day when he had entered a stranger,
    and gone up. With what a smiling face of love had she leant over her
    mother's bed. With what cheerfulness had she lied of that which passed
    below, what a countenance had she put on all--no house more prosperous,
    no life more gay--how bravely had she carried it! The peace and neatness
    and comfort of the room with its windows looking over the Rhone valley,
    and its spinning-wheel and linen chest and blooming bow-pot, all came
    back to him; so that he understood many things which had passed before
    him then, and then had roused but a passing and a trifling wonder.

    Her anxiety lest he should take lodging there and add one more to the
    chances of espial, one more to the witnesses of her misery; her secret
    nods and looks, and that gently checked outburst of excitement on Madame
    Royaume's part, which even at the time had seemed odd--all were plain
    now. Ay, plain; but suffused with a light so beautiful, set in an
    atmosphere so pure and high, that no view of God's earth, even from the
    eyrie of those lofty windows, and though dawn or sunset flung its
    fairest glamour over the scene, could so fill the heart of man with
    gratitude and admiration!

    Up and down in the days gone by, his thoughts followed her through the
    house. Now he saw her ascend and enter, and finding all well, mask--but
    at what a cost--her aching heart under smiles and cheerful looks and
    soft laughter. He heard the voice that was so seldom heard downstairs
    murmur loving words, and little jests, and dear foolish trifles; heard
    it for the hundredth time reiterate the false assurances that affection
    hallowed. He was witness to the patient tendance, the pious offices, the
    tireless service of hand and eye, that went on in that room under the
    tiles; witness to the long communion hand in hand, with the world shut
    out; to the anxious scrutiny, to the daily departure. A sad departure,
    though daily and more than daily taken; for she who descended carried a
    weight of fear and anxiety. As she came down the weary stairs, stage by
    stage, he saw the brightness die from eye and lip, and pale fear or dull
    despair seize on its place. He saw--and his heart was full--the slender
    figure, the pallid face enter the room in which he stood--it might be at
    the dawning when the cold shadow of the night still lay on all, from the
    dead ashes on the hearth to the fallen pot and displaced bench; or it
    might be at mid-day, to meet sneers and taunts and ignoble looks; and
    his heart was full. His face burned, his eyes filled, he could have
    kissed the floor she had walked over, the wooden spoon her hand had
    touched, the trencher-edge--done any foolish thing to prove his love.

    Love? It was a deeper thing than love, a holier, purer thing--that which
    he felt. Such a feeling as the rough spearsmen of the Orléannais had for
    Joan the maid; or the great Florentine for the girl whom he saw for the
    first time at the banquet in the house of the Portinari; or as that man,
    who carried to his grave the Queen's glove, yet had never touched it
    with his bare hand.

    Alas, that such feelings cannot last, nor such moments endure; that in
    the footsteps of the priest, be he never so holy, treads ever the
    grinning acolyte with his mind on sweet things. They pass, these
    feelings, and too quickly. But once to have had them, once to have lived
    such moments, once to have known a woman and loved her in such wise
    leaves no man as he was before; leaves him at the least with a memory of
    a higher life.

    That the acolyte in Claude's case took the form of Louis Gentilis made
    him no more welcome. Claude was still dreaming on his feet, still
    viewing in a kind of happy amaze the simple things about him, things
    that for him wore

    The light that never was on land or sea,

    and that this world puts on but once for each of us, when Gentilis
    opened the door and entered, bringing with him a rush of rain, and a
    gust of night air. He breathed quickly as if he had been running, yet
    having closed the door, he paused before he advanced into the room; and
    he seemed surprised, and at a nonplus. After a moment, "Supper is not
    ready?" he said.

    "It is not time," Claude answered curtly. The vision of an angel does
    not necessarily purify at all points, and he had small stomach for
    Master Louis at any time.

    The youth winced under the tone, but stood his ground.

    "Where is Anne?" he asked, something sullenly.

    "Upstairs. Why do you ask?"

    "Messer Basterga is not coming to supper. Nor Grio. They bade me tell
    her. And that they would be late."

    "Very well, I will tell her."

    But it was evident that that was not all Louis had in his mind. He
    remained fidgeting by the door, his cap in his hand; and his face, had
    Claude marked it--but he had already turned a contemptuous shoulder on
    him--was a picture of doubt and indecision. At length, "I've a message
    for you," he muttered nervously. "From Messer Blondel the Syndic. He
    wants to see you--now."

    Claude turned, and if he had not looked at the other before, he made up
    for it now. "Oh!" he said at last, after a stare that bespoke both
    surprise and suspicion. "He does, does he? And who made you his
    messenger?"

    "He met me in the street--just now."

    "He knows you, then?"

    "He knows I live here," Louis muttered.

    "He pays us a vast amount of attention," Claude replied with polite
    irony. "Nevertheless"--he turned again to the fire--"I cannot pleasure
    him," he continued curtly, "this time."

    "But he wants to see you," Gentilis persisted desperately. It was plain
    that he was on pins and needles. "At his house. Cannot you believe me?"
    in a querulous tone. "It is all fair and above board. I swear it is."

    "Is it?"

    "It is--I swear it is. He sent me. Do you doubt me?" he added with
    undisguised eagerness.

    Claude was about to say, with no politeness at all, that he did, and to
    repeat his refusal in stronger terms, when his ear caught the same sound
    which had revealed so much to him a few minutes earlier at the foot of
    the stairs. It came more faintly this time, deadened by the closed door
    of the staircase, but to his enlightened senses it proclaimed so clearly
    what it was--the echo of a cracked, shrill voice, of a laugh insane,
    uncanny, elfish--that he trembled lest Louis should hear it also and
    gain the clue. That was a thing to be avoided at all costs; and even as
    this occurred to him he saw the way to avoid it. Basterga and Grio were
    absent: if this fool could be removed, even for an hour or two, Anne
    would have the house to herself, and by midnight the crisis might be
    overpast.

    "I will come with you," he said.

    Louis uttered a sigh of relief. He had expected--and he had very nearly
    received--another answer. "Good," he said. "But he does not want me."

    "Both or neither," Claude replied coolly. "For all I know 'tis an
    ambush."

    "No, no!"

    "In which event I shall see that you share it. Or it may be a scheme to
    draw me from here, and then if harm be done while I am away----"

    "Harm? What harm?" Louis muttered.

    "Any harm! If harm be done, I say, I shall then have you at hand to pay
    me for it. So--both or neither!"

    For a moment Louis' hang-dog face--none the handsomer for the mark of
    the Syndic's cane--spelt refusal. Then he changed his mind. He nodded
    sulkily. "Very well," he said. "But it is raining, and I have no great
    wish to--Hush! What is that?" He raised his hand in the attitude of one
    listening and his eyes sought his companion's. "What is that? Did you
    not hear something--like a scream upstairs?"

    "I hear something like a fool downstairs!" Claude retorted gruffly.

    "But it was--I certainly heard something!" Louis persisted, raising his
    hand again. "It sounded----"

    "If we are to go, let us go!" Claude cried with temper. "Come, if you
    want me to go! It is not my expedition," he continued, moving noisily
    hither and thither in search of his staff and cloak. "It is your affair,
    and--where is my cap?"

    "I should think it is in your room," Louis answered meekly. "It was only
    that I thought it might be Anne. That there might be----"

    "Two fools in the house instead of one!" Claude broke in, emerging
    noisily, and slamming the door of his closet behind him. "There, come,
    and we may hope to be back to supper some time to-night! Do you hear?"
    And jealously shepherding the other out of the house, he withdrew the
    key when both had passed the threshold. Locking the door on the outside,
    he thrust the key under it. "There!" he said, smiling at his cleverness,
    "now, who enters--knocks!"
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