A gentleman of france b.., p.10
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       A Gentleman of France: Being the Memoirs of Gaston de Bonne Sieur de Marsac, p.10

           Stanley John Weyman
 

  CHAPTER X. THE FIGHT ON THE STAIRS.

  The certainty, which this sound gave me, that I was in the right house,and that it held also the villain to whom I owed all my misfortunes--forwho but Fresnoy could have furnished the broken coin which had deceivedmademoiselle?--had a singularly inspiriting effect upon me. I felt everymuscle in my body grow on the instant; hard as steel, my eyes more keen,my ears sharper--all my senses more apt and vigorous. I stole off likea cat from the balustrade, over which I had been looking, and without asecond's delay began the search for mademoiselle's room; reflecting thatthough the garrison now amounted to four, I had no need to despair. If Icould release the prisoners without noise--which would be easy were thekey in the lock--we might hope to pass through the hall by a tour deforce of one kind or another. And a church-clock at this moment strikingFive, and reminding me that we had only half an hour in which to do alland reach the horses, I was the more inclined to risk something.

  The light which I had seen from below hung in a flat-bottomed lanternjust beyond the head of the stairs, and outside the entrance to oneof two passages which appeared to lead to the back part of the house.Suspecting that M. de Bruhl's business had lain with mademoiselle, Iguessed that the light had been placed for his convenience. With thisclue and the position of the window to guide me, I fixed on a door onthe right of this passage, and scarcely four paces from the head of thestairs. Before I made any sign, however, I knelt down and ascertainedthat there was a light in the room, and also that the key was not in thelock.

  So far satisfied, I scratched on the door with my finger-nails, at firstsoftly, then with greater force, and presently I heard someone in theroom rise. I felt sure that the person whoever it was had taken thealarm and was listening, and putting my lips to the keyhole I whisperedmademoiselle's name.

  A footstep crossed the room sharply, and I heard muttering just withinthe door. I thought I detected two voices. But I was impatient, and,getting no answer, whispered in the same manner as before, 'Mademoisellede la Vire, are you there?'

  Still no answer. The muttering, too, had stopped, and all was still--inthe room, and in the silent house. I tried again. 'It is I, Gaston deMarsac,' I said. 'Do you hear? I am come to release you.' I spoke asloudly as I dared, but most of the sound seemed to come back on me andwander in suspicious murmurings down the staircase.

  This time, however, an exclamation of surprise rewarded me, and a voice,which I recognised at once as mademoiselle's, answered softly:

  'What is it? Who is there?'

  'Gaston de Marsac,' I answered. 'Do you need my help?'

  The very brevity of her reply; the joyful sob which accompanied it,and which I detected even through the door; the wild cry ofthankfulness--almost an oath--of her companion--all these assured meat once that I was welcome--welcome as I had never been before--and, soassuring me, braced me to the height of any occasion which might befall.

  'Can you open the door? I muttered. All the time I was on my knees, myattention divided between the inside of the room and the stray soundswhich now and then came up to me from the hall below. 'Have you thekey?'

  'No; we are locked in,' mademoiselle answered.

  I expected this. 'If the door is bolted inside,' I whispered, 'unfastenit, if you please!'

  They answered that it was not, so bidding them stand back a little fromit, I rose and set my shoulder against it. I hoped to be able to burstit in with only one crash, which by itself, a single sound, might notalarm the men downstairs. But my weight made no impression upon thelock, and the opposite wall being too far distant to allow me to get anypurchase for my feet, I presently desisted. The closeness of the doorto the jambs warned me that an attempt to prise it open would be equallyfutile; and for a moment I stood gazing in perplexity at the solidplanks, which bid fair to baffle me to the end.

  The position was, indeed, one of great difficulty, nor can I now thinkof any way out of it better or other than that which I adopted. Againstthe wall near the head of the stairs I had noticed, as I came up, astout wooden stool. I stole out and fetched this, and setting it againstthe opposite wall, endeavoured in this way to get sufficient purchasefor my feet. The lock still held; but, as I threw my whole weight on thedoor, the panel against which I leaned gave way and broke inwards witha loud, crashing sound, which echoed through the empty house, and mightalmost have been beard in the street outside.

  It reached the ears, at any rate, of the men sitting below, and I heardthem troop noisily out and stand in the hall, now talking loudly, andnow listening. A minute of breathless suspense followed--it seemed along minute; and then, to my relief, they tramped back again, and Iwas free to return to my task. Another thrust, directed a little lower,would, I hoped, do the business; but to make this the more certain Iknelt down and secured the stool firmly against the wall. As I roseafter settling it, something else, without sound or warning, rose also,taking me completely by surprise--a man's head above the top stair,which, as it happened, faced me. His eyes met mine, and I knew I wasdiscovered.

  He turned and bundled downstairs again with a scared face, going soquickly that I could not have caught him if I would, or had had the witto try. Of silence there was so longer need. In a few seconds the alarmwould be raised. I had small time for thought. Laying myself bodilyagainst the door, I heaved and pressed with all my strength; but whetherI was careless in my haste, or the cause was other, the lock did notgive. Instead the stool slipped, and I fell with a crash on the floor atthe very moment the alarm reached the men below.

  I remember that the crash of my unlucky fall seemed to release all theprisoned noises of the house. A faint scream within the room was buta prelude, lost the next moment in the roar of dismay, the clatter ofweapons, and volley of oaths and cries and curses which, rolling up frombelow, echoed hollowly about me, as the startled knaves rushed to theirweapons, and charged across the flags and up the staircase. I had spacefor one desperate effort. Picking myself up, I seized the stool by twoof its legs and dashed it twice against the door, driving in the panelI had before splintered. But that was all. The lock held, and I had notime for a third blow. The men were already halfway up the stairs. In abreath almost they would be upon me. I flung down the useless stool andsnatched up my sword, which lay unsheathed beside me. So far the matterhad gone against us, but it was time for a change of weapons now, andthe end was not yet. I sprang to the head of the stairs and stood there,my arm by my side and my point resting on the floor, in such an attitudeof preparedness as I could compass at the moment.

  For I had not been in the house all this time, as may well be supposed,without deciding what I would do in case of surprise, and exactly whereI could best stand on the defensive. The flat bottom of the lamp whichhung outside the passage threw a deep shadow on the spot immediatelybelow it, while the light fell brightly on the steps beyond. Standing inthe shadow I could reach the edge of the stairs with my point, and swingthe blade freely, without fear of the balustrade; and here I postedmyself with a certain grim satisfaction as Fresnoy, with his threecomrades behind him, came bounding up the last flight.

  They were four to one, but I laughed to see how, not abruptly, butshamefacedly and by degrees, they came to a stand halfway up the flight,and looked at me, measuring the steps and the advantage which the lightshining in their eyes gave me. Fresnoy's ugly face was rendered uglierby a great strip of plaister which marked the place where the hilt ofmy sword had struck him in our last encounter at Chize; and this and thehatred he bore to me gave a peculiar malevolence to his look. The deafman Matthew, whose savage stolidity had more than once excited my angeron our journey, came next to him, the two strangers whom I had seen inthe hall bringing up the rear. Of the four, these last seemed the mostanxious to come to blows, and had Fresnoy not barred the way with hishand we should have crossed swords without parley.

  'Halt, will you!' he cried, with an oath, thrusting one of them back.And then to me he said, 'So, so, my friend! It is you, is it?'

  I looked at him in silence, with
a scorn which knew no bounds, and didnot so much as honour him by raising my sword, though I watched himheedfully.

  'What are you doing here? he continued, with an attempt at bluster.

  Still I would not answer him, or move, but stood looking down at him.After a moment of this, he grew restive, his temper being churlish andimpatient at the best. Besides, I think he retained just so much of agentleman's feelings as enabled him to understand my contempt and smartunder it. He moved a step upward, his brow dark with passion.

  'You beggarly son of a scarecrow!' he broke out on a sudden, adding astring of foul imprecations, 'will you speak, or are you going to waitto be spitted where you stand? If we once begin, my bantam, we shall notstop until we have done your business! If you have anything to say, sayit, and--' But I omit the rest of his speech, which was foul beyond theordinary.

  Still I did not move or speak, but looked at him unwavering, though itpained me to think the women heard. He made a last attempt.' Come, oldfriend,' he said, swallowing his anger again, or pretending to do so,and speaking with a vile bonhomie which I knew to be treacherous, 'ifwe come to blows we shall give you no quarter. But one chance you shallhave, for the sake of old days when we followed Conde. Go! Take thechance, and go. We will let you pass, and that broken door shall be theworst of it. That is more,' he added with a curse, 'than I would do forany other man in your place, M. de Marsac.'

  A sudden movement and a low exclamation in the room behind me showedthat his words were heard there; and these sounds being followedimmediately by a noise as of riving wood, mingled with the quickbreathing of someone hard at work, I judged that the women were strivingwith the door--enlarging the opening it might be. I dared not lookround, however, to see what progress they made, nor did I answerFresnoy, save by the same silent contempt, but stood watching the menbefore me with the eye of a fencer about to engage. And I know nothingmore keen, more vigilant, more steadfast than that.

  It was well I did, for without signal or warning the group wavered amoment, as though retreating, and the next instant precipitated itselfupon me. Fortunately, only two could engage me at once, and Fresnoy, Inoticed, was not of the two who dashed forward up the steps. One of thestrangers forced himself to the front, and, taking the lead, pressed mebriskly, Matthew seconding him in appearance, while really watchingfor an opportunity of running in and stabbing me at close quarters, amanoeuvre I was not slow to detect.

  That first bout lasted half a minute only. A fierce exultant joy ranthrough me as the steel rang and grated, and I found that I had notmistaken the strength of wrist or position. The men were mine. Theyhampered one another on the stairs, and fought in fetters, being unableto advance or retreat, to lunge with freedom, or give back without fear.I apprehended greater danger from Matthew than from my actual opponent,and presently, watching my opportunity, disarmed the latter by a strongparade, and sweeping Matthew's sword aside by the same movement, slashedhim across the forehead; then, drawing back a step, gave my firstopponent the point. He fell in a heap on the floor, as good as dead,and Matthew, dropping his sword, staggered backwards and downwards intoFresnoy's arms.

  'Bonne Foi! France et Bonne Foi!' It seemed to me that I bad not spoken,that I had plied steel in grimmest silence; and yet the cry still rangand echoed in the roof as I lowered my point, and stood looking grimlydown at them. Fresnoy's face was disfigured with rage and chagrin. Theywere now but two to one, for Matthew, though his wound was slight, wasdisabled by the blood which ran down into his eyes and blinded him.'France et Bonne Foi!'

  'Bonne Foi and good sword!' cried a voice behind me. And looking swiftlyround, I saw mademoiselle's face thrust through the hole in the door.Her eyes sparkled with a fierce light, her lips were red beyond theordinary, and her hair, loosened and thrown into disorder by herexertions, fell in thick masses about her white cheeks, and gave her theaspect of a war-witch, such as they tell of in my country of Brittany.'Good sword!' she cried again, and clapped her hands.

  'But better board, mademoiselle!' I answered gaily. Like most of themen of my province, I am commonly melancholic, but I have the habit ofgrowing witty at such times as these. 'Now, M. Fresnoy,' I continued,'I am waiting your convenience. Must I put on my cloak to keep myselfwarm?'

  He answered by a curse, and stood looking at me irresolutely. 'If youwill come down,' he said.

  'Send your man away and I will come,' I answered briskly. 'Thereis space on the landing, and a moderate light. But I must be quick.Mademoiselle and I are due elsewhere, and we are late already.'

  Still he hesitated. Still he looked at the man lying at his feet--whohad stretched himself out and passed, quietly enough, a minutebefore--and stood dubious, the most pitiable picture of cowardiceand malice--he being ordinarily a stout man--I ever saw. I called himpoltroon and white-feather, and was considering whether I had not bettergo down to him, seeing that our time must be up, and Simon would bequitting his post, when a cry behind me caused me to turn, and I sawthat mademoiselle was no longer looking through the opening in the door.

  Alarmed on her behalf, as I reflected that there might be other doors tothe room, and the men have other accomplices in the house, I sprang tothe door to see, but had basely time to send a single glance round-theinterior--which showed me only that the room was still occupied--beforeFresnoy, taking advantage of my movement and of my back being turned,dashed up the stairs, with his comrade at his heels, and succeeded inpinning me into the narrow passage where I stood.

  I had scarcely time, indeed, to turn and put myself on guard before hethrust at me. Nor was that all. The superiority in position no longerlay with me. I found myself fighting between walls close to the openingin the door, through which the light fell athwart my eyes, baffling andperplexing me. Fresnoy was not slow to see the aid this gave him, andpressed me hard and desperately; so that we played for a full minute atclose quarters, thrusting and parrying, neither of us having room to usethe edge, or time to utter word or prayer.

  At this game we were so evenly matched that for a time the end was hardto tell. Presently, however, there came a change. My opponent's habitof wild living suited ill with a prolonged bout, and as his strength andbreath failed and he began to give ground I discerned I had only to wearhim out to have him at my mercy. He felt this himself, and even by thatlight I saw the sweat spring in great drops to his forehead, saw theterror grow in his eyes. Already I was counting him a dead man and thevictory mine, when something hashed behind his blade, and his comrade'sponiard, whizzing past his shoulder, struck me fairly on the chin,staggering me and hurling me back dizzy and half-stunned, uncertain whathad happened to me.

  Sped an inch lower it, would have done its work and finished mine. Evenas it was, my hand going up as I reeled back gave Fresnoy an opening, ofwhich he was not slow to avail himself. He sprang forward, lunging at mefuriously, and would have run me through there and then, and ended thematter, bad not his foot, as he advanced, caught in the stool, whichstill lay against the wall. He stumbled, his point missed my hip by ahair's breadth, and he himself fell all his length on the floor, hisrapier breaking off short at the hilt.

  His one remaining backer stayed to cast a look at him, and that was all.The man fled, and I chased him as far as the head of the stairs; whereI left him, assured by the speed and agility he displayed in clearingflight after flight that I had nothing to fear from him. Fresnoy lay,apparently stunned, and completely at my mercy. I stood an instantlooking down at him, in two minds whether I should not run him through.But the memory of old days, when he had played his part in morehonourable fashion and shown a coarse good-fellowship in the field, heldmy hand; and flinging a curse at him, I turned in anxious haste to thedoor, the centre of all this bloodshed and commotion. The light stillshone through the breach in the panel, but for some minutes--sinceFresnoy's rush up the stairs, indeed--I had heard no sound fromthis quarter. Now, looking in with apprehensions which grew with thecontinuing silence, I learned the reason. The room was empty!

  Such a disappointment
in the moment of triumph was hard to bear. I sawmyself, after all done and won, on the point of being again outwitted,distanced, it might be fooled. In frantic haste and excitement Isnatched up the stool beside me, and, dashing it twice against the lock,forced it at last to yield. The door swung open, and I rushed into theroom, which, abandoned by those who had so lately occupied it, presentednothing to detain me. I cast a single glance round, saw that it wassqualid, low-roofed, unfurnished, a mere prison; then swiftly crossingthe floor, I made for a door at the farther end, which my eye had markedfrom the first. A candle stood flaring and guttering on a stool, and asI passed I took it up.

  Somewhat to my surprise the door yielded to my touch. In tremblinghaste--for what might not befall the women while I fumbled with doorsor wandered in passages?--I flung it wide, and passing through it, foundmyself at the head of a narrow, mean staircase, leading, doubtless, tothe servants' offices. At this, and seeing no hindrance before me, Itook heart of grace, reflecting that mademoiselle might have escapedfrom the house this way. Though it would now be too late to quit thecity, I might still overtake her, and all end well. Accordingly Ihurried down the stairs, shading my candle as I went from a cold draughtof air which met me, and grew stronger as I descended; until reachingthe bottom at last, I came abruptly upon an open door, and an old,wrinkled, shrivelled woman.

  The hag screamed at sight of me, and crouched down on the floor; anddoubtless, with my drawn sword, and the blood dripping from my chinand staining all the front of my doublet, I looked fierce and uncannyenough. But I felt it was no time for sensibility--I was panting to beaway--and I demanded of her sternly where they were. She seemed to havelost her voice--through fear, perhaps--and for answer only stared at mestupidly; but on my handling my weapon with some readiness she so farrecovered her senses as to utter two loud screams, one after the other,and point to the door beside her. I doubted her; and yet I thought inher terror she must be telling the truth, the more as I saw no otherdoor. In any case I must risk it, so, setting the candle down on thestep beside her, I passed out.

  For a moment the darkness was so intense that I felt my way with mysword before me, in absolute ignorance where I was or on what my footmight next rest. I was at the mercy of anyone who chanced to be lyingin wait for me; and I shivered as the cold damp wind struck my cheek andstirred my hair. But by-and-by, when I had taken two or three steps, myeyes grew accustomed to the gloom, and I made, out the naked boughs oftrees between myself and the sky, and guessed that I was in a garden. Myleft hand, touching a shrub, confirmed me in this belief, and in anothermoment I distinguished something like the outline of a path stretchingaway before me. Following it rapidly--as rapidly as I dared--I came toa corner, as it seemed to me, turned it blindly, and stopped short,peeping into a curtain of solid blackness which barred my path, andoverhead mingled confusedly with the dark shapes of trees. But this,too, after a brief hesitation, I made out to be a wall. Advancing toit with outstretched hands, I felt the woodwork of a door, and, gropingabout, lit presently on a loop of cord. I pulled at this, the dooryielded, and I went out.

  I found myself in a narrow, dark lane, and looking up and downdiscovered, what I might have guessed before, that it, was the Ruelled'Arcy. But mademoiselle? Fanchette? Simon? Where were they? No one wasto be seen, Tormented by doubts, I lifted up my voice and called on themin turn; first on mademoiselle, then on Simon Fleix. In vain; I got noanswer. High up above me I saw, as I stood back a little, lights movingin the house I had left; and the suspicion that, after all, the enemyhad foiled me grew upon me. Somehow they had decoyed mademoiselle toanother part of the house, and then the old woman had misled me!

  I turned fiercely to the door, which I had left ajar, resolved tore-enter by the way I had come, and have an explanation whether or no.To my surprise--for I had not moved six paces from the door nor heardthe slightest sound--I found it not; only closed but bolted--bolted bothat top and bottom, as I discovered on trying it.

  I fell on that to kicking it furiously, desperately; partly in a tempestof rage and chagrin, partly in the hope that I might frighten the oldwoman, if it was she who had closed it, into opening it again. In vain,of course; and presently I saw this and desisted, and, still in a whirlof haste and excitement, set off running towards the place where I hadleft Simon Fleix and the horses. It was fully six o'clock as I judged;but some faint hope that I might find him there with mademoiselle andher woman still lingered in my mind. I reached the end of the lane, Iran to the very foot; of the ramparts, I looked right and left. In vain.The place was dark, silent, deserted.

  I called 'Simon! Simon! Simon Fleix!' but my only answer wasthe soughing of the wind in the eaves, and the slow tones of theconvent-bell striking Six.

 
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