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    Chapter 19

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    Chapter 19
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    THE DEPARTURE OF THE RATS.

    The wood-ash on the hearth had sunk lower and grown whiter. The last
    flame that had licked the black sides of the great pot had died down
    among the expiring embers. Only under the largest log glowed a tiny
    cavern, carbuncle-hued; and still Claude walked restlessly from the
    window to the door, or listened with a frowning face at the foot of the
    stairs. One hour, two hours had passed since the Syndic's departure with
    Basterga; and still Anne remained with her mother and made no sign.
    Once, spurred by anxiety and the thought that he might be of use, Claude
    had determined to mount and seek her; but half-way up the stairs his
    courage had failed he had recoiled from a scene so tender, and so
    sacred. He had descended and fallen again to moving to and fro, and
    listening, and staring remorsefully at the weapon--it lay where he had
    dropped it on the floor--that had failed him in his need.

    He had their threats in his ears, and by-and-by the horror of inaction,
    the horror of sitting still and awaiting the worst with folded hands,
    overcame him; and in a panic planning flight for them all, flight,
    however hopeless, however desperate, he hurried into his bed-closet, and
    began to pack his possessions. He packed impulsively until even the fat
    text-books bulked in his bundle, and the folly of flying for life with a
    Cæsar and Melancthon on his back struck him. Then he turned all out on
    the floor in a fury of haste lest she should surprise him, and think
    that he had had it in his mind to desert her.

    Back he went on that to the living-room with its dying fire and
    lengthening shadows; and there he resumed his solitary pacing. The room
    lay silent, the house lay silent; even the rampart without, which the
    biting wind kept clear of passers. He tried to reason on the position,
    to settle what would happen, what steps Basterga and Blondel would take,
    how the blow they threatened would fall. Would the officers of the
    Syndic enter and seize the two helpless women and drag them to the
    guard-house? In that case, what should he do, what could he do, since it
    was most unlikely that he would be allowed to go with them or see them?
    For a time the desperate notion of bolting and barring the house and
    holding it against the law possessed his mind; but only to be quickly
    dismissed. He was not yet mad enough for that. In the meantime was there
    any one to whom he could appeal? Any course he could adopt?

    The sound of the latch rising in its socket drew his eyes to the outer
    door. It opened, and he saw Louis Gentilis on the threshold. Holding the
    door ajar, the young man peered in. Meeting Claude's eyes, he looked to
    the stairs, as if to seek the protection of Anne's presence; failing to
    find her, he made for an instant as if he would shut the door again, and
    go. But apparently he saw that Claude, thoroughly dispirited, was making
    no motion to carry out his threats of vengeance; and he thought better
    of it. He came in slowly, and closed the door after him. Turning his cap
    in his hand, and with his eyes slyly fixed on Claude, he made without a
    word for his bed-closet, entered it, and closed the door behind him.

    His silence was strange, and his furtive manner impressed Claude
    unpleasantly. They seemed to imply a knowledge that boded ill; nor was
    the impression they made weakened when, two minutes later, the closet
    door opened again, and he came out.

    "What is it?" Claude asked, speaking sharply. He was not going to put up
    with mystery of this sort.

    For answer Louis' eyes met his a moment; then the young man, without
    speaking, slid across the room to a chair on which lay a book. He took
    up the volume; it was his. Next he discovered another possession--or so
    it seemed--approached it and took seisin of it in the same dumb way; and
    so with another and another. Finally, blinking and looking askance, he
    passed his eyes from side to side to learn if he had overlooked
    anything.

    But Claude's patience, though prolonged by curiosity, was at an end. He
    took a step forward, and had the satisfaction of seeing Louis drop his
    air of mystery, and recoil two paces. "If you don't speak," Claude
    cried, "I will break every bone in your body! Do you hear, you sneaking
    rogue? Do you forget that you are in my debt already? Tell me in two
    words what this dumb show means, or I will have payment for all!"

    Master Louis cringed, divided between the desire to flee and the fear of
    losing his property. "You will be foolish if you make any fuss here," he
    muttered, his arm raised to ward off a blow. "Besides, I'm going," he
    continued, swallowing nervously as he spoke. "Let me go."

    "Going?"

    "Yes."

    "Do you mean," Claude exclaimed in astonishment, "that you are going for
    good?"

    "Yes, and if you will take my advice"--with a look of sinister
    meaning--"you will go too. That is all."

    "Why? Why?" Claude repeated.

    Louis' only answer was a shudder, which told Claude that if the other
    did not know all, he knew much. Dismayed and confounded, Mercier
    stepped back, and, with a secret grin of satisfaction, Louis turned
    again to his task of searching the room. He found presently that for
    which he had been looking--his cloak. He disentangled it, with a
    peculiar look, from a woman's hood, contact with which he avoided with
    care. That done, he cast it over his arm, and got back into his closet.
    Claude heard him moving there, and presently he emerged a second time.

    Precisely as he did so Claude caught the sound of a light footstep on
    the stairs, the stair door opened, and Anne, her face weary, but
    composed, came in. Her first glance fell on Louis, who, with his sack
    and cloak on his arm, was in the act of closing the closet door. Habit
    carried her second look to the hearth.

    "You have let the fire go out," she said. Then, turning to Louis, in a
    voice cold and free from emotion, "Are you going?" she asked.

    He muttered that he was, his face a medley of fear and spite and shame.

    She nodded, but to Claude's astonishment expressed no surprise.
    Meanwhile Louis, after dropping first his cloak and then his sack, in
    his haste to be gone, shuffled his way to the door. The two looked on,
    without moving or speaking, while he opened it, carried out his bag,
    and, turning about, closed the door upon himself. They heard his
    footsteps move away.

    At length Claude spoke. "The rats, I see, are leaving," he muttered.

    "Yes, the rats!" she echoed, and carried for a moment her eyes to his.
    Then she knelt on the hearth, and uncovering the under side of the log,
    where a little fire still smouldered, she fed it with two or three
    fir-cones, and, stooping low, blew steadily on them until they caught
    fire and blazed. He stood looking down at her, and marvelled at the
    strength of mind that allowed her to stoop to trifles, or to think of
    fires at such a time as this. He forgot that habit is of all stays the
    strongest, and that to women a thousand trifles make up--God reward them
    for it--the work of life: a work which instinct moves them to pursue,
    though the heavens fall.

    Several hours had elapsed since he had entered hotfoot to see her; and
    the day was beginning to wane. The flame of the blazing fir-cones, a
    hundred times reflected in the rows of pewter plates and the surface of
    the old oaken dressers, left the corners of the room in shadow.
    Immediately within the windows, indeed, the daylight held its own; but
    when she rose and turned to him her back was towards the casement, and
    the firelight which lit up her face flickered uncertainly, and left him
    in doubt whether she were moved or not.

    "You have eaten nothing!" she said, while he stood pondering what she
    would say. "And it is four o'clock! I am sorry!" Her tone, which took
    shame to herself, gave him a new surprise.

    He stopped her as she turned to the dresser. "Your mother is better?" he
    said gently.

    "She is herself now," she replied, with a slight quaver, and without
    looking at him. And she went about her work.

    Did she know? Did she understand? In his world was only one fact, in his
    mind only one tremendous thought: the fact of their position, the
    thought of their isolation and peril. In her treatment of Louis she had
    seemed to show knowledge and a comprehension as wide as his own. But if
    she knew all, could she be as calm as she was? Could she go about her
    daily tasks? Could she cut and lay and fetch with busy fingers, and all
    in silence?

    He thought not; and though he longed to consult her, to assure her and
    comfort her, to tell her that the very isolation, the very peril in
    which they stood were a happiness and a joy to him, whatever the issue,
    because he shared them with her, he would not, by reason of that doubt.
    He did not yet know the courage which underlies the gentlest natures:
    nor did he guess that even as it was a joy to him to stand beside her in
    peril, so it was a joy to her, even in that hour, to come and go for
    him, to cut his bread and lay for him, to draw his wine from the great
    cask under the stairs, and pour for him in the tall horn mug.

    And little said. By him, because he shrank from opening her eyes to the
    danger of their position; by her, because her mind was full and she
    could not trust herself to speak calmly. But he knew that she, too, had
    fasted since morning, and he made her eat with him: and it was in the
    thoughts of each that they had never eaten together before. For commonly
    Anne took her meal with her mother, or ate as the women of her time
    often ate, standing, alone, when others had finished. There are moments
    when the simplest things put on the beauty and significance of rites,
    and this first eating together at the small table on the fire-lit hearth
    was one of such moments. He saw that she did eat; and this care for her,
    and the reverence of his manner, so moved her, that at last tears rose
    and choked her, and to give her time and to hide his own feelings, he
    stood up and affected to get something from the fireside.

    Before he turned again, the latch rattled and the door flew open. The
    freezing draught that entered, arrested him between the table and the
    fire. The intruder was Grio. He stood an instant scowling on them, then
    he entered and closed the door. He eyed the two with a sneering laugh,
    and, turning, flung his cloak on a chair. It was ill-aimed and fell to
    the ground.

    "Why the devil don't you light?" he cried violently. "Eh?" He added
    something in which the words "Old hag's devilry!" were alone audible.
    "Do you hear?" he continued, more coherently. "Why don't you light? What
    black games are you playing, I'd like to know? I want my things!"

    Claude's fingers tingled, but danger and responsibility are sure
    teachers, and he restrained himself. Neither of them answered, but Anne
    fetched the lamp, and kindling a splinter of wood lighted it, and placed
    it on the table. Then bringing the Spaniard's rushlight from the three
    or four that stood on the dresser, she lighted it and held it out to
    him.

    "Set it down!" he said, with tipsy insolence. He was not quite sober.
    "Set it down! I am not going to--hic!--risk my salvation! Avaunt, Satan!
    It is possible to palm the evil one, like a card I am told,
    and--hic!--soul out, devil in, all lost as easy as candle goes out!"

    He had taken his candle with an unsteady hand, and unconsciously had
    blown it out himself. She restrained Claude by a look, and patiently
    taking the rushlight from Grio, she re-lit it and set it on the table
    for him to take.

    "As a candle goes out!" he repeated, eyeing it with drunken wisdom.
    "Candle out, devil in, soul lost, there you have it in three
    words--clever as any of your long-winded preachers! But I want my
    things. I am going before it is too late. Advise you to go too, young
    man," he hiccoughed, "before you are overlooked. She is a witch! She's
    the devil's mark on her, I tell you! I'd like to have the finding it!"
    And with an ugly leer he advanced a step as if he would lay hands on
    her.

    She shrank back, and Claude's eyes blazed. Fortunately, the bully's mind
    passed to the first object of his coming; or it may be that he was sober
    enough to read a warning in the younger man's face.

    "Oh! time enough," he said. "You are not so nice always, I'll be bound.
    And things come--hic!--to those who wait! I don't belong to your
    Sabbaths, I suppose, or you'd be freer! But I want my things, and I am
    going to have them! I defy thee, Satan! And all thy works!"

    Still growling under his breath he burst open the staircase door, and
    stumbled noisily upwards, the light wavering in his hand. Anne's eyes
    followed him; she had advanced to the foot of the stairs, and Claude
    understood the apprehension that held her. But the sounds did not
    penetrate to the room on the upper floor, or Madame Royaume did not take
    the alarm; perhaps she slept. And after assuring herself that Grio had
    entered his room the girl returned to the table.

    The Spaniard had spoken with brutal plainness; it was no longer possible
    to ignore what he had said, or to lie under any illusion as to the
    girl's knowledge of her peril. Claude's eyes met hers: and for a moment
    the anguished human soul peered through the mask of constancy, for a
    moment the woman in her, shrinking from the ordeal and the fire, from
    shame and death, thrust aside the veil, and held out quivering, piteous
    hands to him. But it was for a moment only. Before he could speak she
    was brave as before, quiet as he had ever seen her, patient, mistress of
    herself. "It is as you said," she muttered, smiling wanly, "the rats are
    leaving us."

    "Vermin!" he whispered. He could not trust himself to say more. His
    voice shook, his eyes were full.

    "They have not lost time," she continued in a low tone. She did not
    cease to listen, nor did her eyes leave the staircase door. "Louis
    first, and now Grio. How has it reached them so quickly, do you think?"

    "Louis is hand in glove with the Syndic," he murmured.

    "And Grio?"

    "With Basterga."

    She nodded. "What do you think they will do--first?" she whispered. And
    again--it went to his heart--the woman's face, fear-drawn, showed as it
    were beneath the mask with which love and faith and a noble resignation
    had armed her. "Do you think they will denounce us at once?"

    He shook his head in sheer inability to foresee; and then, seeing that
    she continued to look anxiously for his answer, that answer which he
    knew to be of no value, for minute by minute the sense of his
    helplessness was weighing upon him, "It may be," he muttered. "God
    knows. When Grio is gone we will talk about it."

    She began, but always with a listening ear and an eye to the open door,
    to remove from the table the remains of their meal. Midway in her task,
    she glanced askance at the window, under the impression that some one
    was looking through it; and in any case now the lamp was lit it exposed
    them to the curiosity of the rampart. She was going to close the
    shutters when Claude interposed, raised the heavy shutters and bolted
    and barred them. He was turning from them when Grio's step was heard
    descending.

    Strange to say the Spaniard's first glance was at the windows, and he
    looked genuinely taken aback when he saw that they were closed. "Why the
    devil did you shut?" he exclaimed, in a rage; and passing Anne with a
    sidelong movement, he flung a heavy bundle on the floor by the door. As
    he turned to ascend again he met her eyes, and backing from her he made
    with two of his fingers the ancient sign which southern people still use
    to ward off the evil eye. Then, half shamefacedly, half recklessly, he
    blundered upstairs again. A moment, and he came stumbling down; but this
    time he was careful to keep the great bundle he bore between himself
    and her eyes, until he had got the door open.

    That precaution taken, as if he thought the free cold air which entered
    would protect him from spells, he showed himself at his ease, threw down
    his bundle and faced her with an air of bravado.

    "I need not have feared," he said with a tipsy grin, "but I had
    forgotten what I carry. I have a hocus-pocus here "--he touched his
    breast--"written by a wise man in Ravenna, and sealed with a dead Goth's
    hand, that is proof against devil or dam! And I defy thee, mistress."

    "Why?" she cried. "Why?" And the note of indignation in her voice, the
    passionate challenge of her eyes, enforced the question. In the human
    mind is a desire for justice that will not be denied; and even from this
    drunken ruffian a sudden impulse bade her demand it. "Why should you
    defy me or fear me? What have I done to you, what have I done to any
    one," she continued, with noble resentment, "that you should spread this
    of me? You have eaten and drunk at my hand a hundred times; have I
    poisoned or injured you? I have looked at you a hundred times; have I
    overlooked you? You have lain down under this roof by night a hundred
    times; have I harmed you sleeping or waking, full moon or no moon?"

    For answer he leered at her slyly. "Not a whit," he said. "No."

    "No?" Her colour rose.

    "No; but you see"--with a grin--"it never leaves me, my girl." He
    touched his breast. "While I wear that I am safe."

    She gasped. "Do you mean that I----"

    "I do not know what you would have done--but for that!" he retorted.
    "Maimed me or wizened me, perhaps! Or, may be, made me waste away as
    you did the child that died three doors away last Sunday!"

    Her face changed slowly. Prepared as she had been for the worst by many
    an hour of vigil beside her mother's bed, the horror of this precise
    accusation--and such an accusation--overcame her. "What?" she cried.
    "You dare to say that I--that I----" She could not finish.

    But her eyes lightened, her form dilated with passion; and tipsy,
    ignorant, brutish as he was, the Spaniard could not be blind to the
    indignation, the resentment, the very wonder which stopped her breath
    and choked her utterance. At the sight some touch of shame, some touch
    of pity, made itself felt in the dull recesses even of that brain. "I
    don't say it," he muttered awkwardly. "It is what they are saying in the
    street."

    "In the street?"

    "Ay, where else?" He knew who said it, for he knew whence his orders
    came: but he was not going to tell her. Yet the spark of kindliness
    which she had kindled still lived--how could it be otherwise in presence
    of her youth and gentleness? "If you'll take my advice," he continued
    roughly, "you'll not show yourself in the streets unless you wish to be
    mishandled, my girl. It will be time enough when the time comes. Even
    now, if you were to leave your old witch of a mother and get good
    protection, there is no knowing but you might be got clear! You are a
    fair bit of red and white," with a grin. "And it is not far to Savoy!
    Will you come if I risk it?"

    A gesture, half refusal, half loathing, answered him.

    "Oh, very well!" he said. The short-lived fit of pity passed from him;
    he scowled. "You'll think differently when they have the handling of
    you. I'm glad to be going, for where there's one fire there are apt to
    be more; and I am a Christian, no matter who's not! Let who will burn,
    I'll not!"

    He picked up one bundle and, carrying it out, raised his voice. A man,
    who had shrunk, it seemed, from entering the house, showed his face in
    the light which streamed from the door. To this fellow he gave the
    bundle, and shouldering the other, he went heavily out, leaving the door
    wide open behind him.

    Claude strode to it and closed it; but not so quickly that he had not a
    glimpse of three or four pairs of eyes staring in out of the darkness;
    eyes so curious, so fearful, so quickly and noiselessly withdrawn--for
    even while he looked, they were gone--that he went back to the hearth
    with a shiver of apprehension.

    Fortunately, she had not seen them. She stood where he had left her, in
    the same attitude of amazement into which Grio's accusation had cast
    her. As she met his gaze--then, at last, she melted. The lamplight
    showed her eyes brimming over with tears; her lips quivered, her breast
    heaved under the storm of resentment.

    "How dare they say it?" she cried. "How dare they? That I would harm a
    child? A child?" And, unable to go on, she held out protesting hands to
    him. "And my mother? My mother, who never injured any one or harmed a
    hair of any one's head! That she--that they should say that of her! That
    they should set that to her! But I will go this instant," impetuously,
    "to the child's mother. She will hear me. She will know and believe me.
    A mother? Yes, I will go to her!"

    "Not now," he said. "Not now, Anne!"

    "Yes, now," she persisted, deaf to his voice. She snatched up her hood
    from the ground on which it had fallen, and began to put it on.

    He seized her arm. "No, not now," he said firmly. "You shall not go now.
    Wait until daylight. She will listen to you more coolly then."

    She resisted him. "Why?" she said. "Why?"

    "People fancy things at night," he urged. "I know it is so. If she saw
    you enter out of the darkness"--the girl with her burning eyes, her wet
    cheeks, her disordered hair looked wild enough--"she might refuse to
    believe you. Besides----"

    "What?"

    "I will not have you go now," he said firmly. That instant it had
    flashed upon him that one of the faces he had seen outside was the face
    of the dead child's mother. "I will not let you go," he repeated. "Go in
    the daylight. Go to-morrow morning. Go then, if you will!" He did not
    choose to tell her that he feared for her instant safety if she went
    now; that, if he had his will, the streets would see her no more for
    many a day.

    She gave way. She took off her hood, and laid it on the table. But for
    several minutes she stood, brooding darkly and stormily, her hands
    fingering the strings. To foresee is not always to be forearmed. She had
    lived for months in daily and hourly expectation of the blow which had
    fallen; but not the more easily for that could she brook the concrete
    charge. Her heart burned, her soul was on fire. Justice, give us justice
    though the heavens fall, is an instinct planted deep in man's nature! Of
    the Mysterious Passion of our Lord our finite minds find no part worse
    than the anguish of innocence condemned. A child? She to hurt a child?
    And her mother? Her mother, so harmless, so ignorant, so tormented! She
    to hurt a child?

    After a time, nevertheless, the storm began to subside. But with it died
    the hope which is inherent in revolt; in proportion as she grew more
    calm the forlornness of her situation rose more clearly before her. At
    last that had happened which she had so long expected to happen. The
    thing was known. Soon the full consequences would be upon her, the
    consequences on which she dared not dwell. Shudderingly she tried to
    close her eyes to the things that might lie before her, to the things at
    which Grio had hinted, the things of which she had lain thinking--even
    while they were distant and uncertain--through many a night of bitter
    fear and fevered anticipation.

    They were at hand now, and though she averted her thoughts, she knew it.
    But the wind is tempered to the shorn. Even as the prospect of future
    ill can dominate the present, embitter the sweetest cup, and render
    thorny the softest bed, so, sometimes, present good has the power to
    obscure the future evil. As Anne sank back on the settle, her trembling
    limbs almost declining to bear her, her eyes fell on her companion.
    Failing to rouse her, he had seated himself on the other side of the
    hearth, his elbows on his knees, his chin on his hands, in an attitude
    of deep thought. And little by little, as she looked at him, her cheeks
    grew, if not red, less pale, her eyes lost their tense and hopeless
    gaze. She heaved a quivering sigh, and slowly carried her look round the
    room.

    Its homely comfort, augmented by the hour and the firelight, seemed to
    lap them round. The door was locked, the shutters were closed, the lamp
    burned cheerfully. And he sat opposite--sat as if they had been long
    married. The colour grew deeper in her face as she gazed; she breathed
    more quickly; her eyes shone. What evil cannot be softened, what
    misfortune cannot be lightened to a woman by the knowledge that she is
    loved by the man she loves? That where all have fled, he remains, and
    that neither fear of death nor word of man can keep him from her side?

    He looked up in the end, and caught the look on her face, the look that
    a woman bestows on one man only in her life. In a moment he was on his
    knees beside her, holding her hands, covering them with kisses, vowing
    to save her, to save her--or to die with her!
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    Chapter 19
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