A gentleman of france b.., p.28
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       A Gentleman of France: Being the Memoirs of Gaston de Bonne Sieur de Marsac, p.28

           Stanley John Weyman
 

  CHAPTER XXVIII. THE CASTLE ON THE HILL.

  The certainty that Bruhl and his captives were not far off, and thelikelihood that we might be engaged within the hour, expelled from theminds of even the most timorous among us the vapourish fears which hadbefore haunted them. In the hurried scramble which presently landed uson the bank of the stream, men who had ridden for hours in sulkysilence found their voices, and from cursing their horses' blunders soonadvanced to swearing and singing after the fashion of their kind. Thischange, by relieving me of a great fear, left me at leisure to considerour position, and estimate more clearly than I might have done theadvantages of hastening, or postponing, an attack. We numbered eleven;the enemy, to the best of my belief, twelve. Of this slight superiorityI should have reeked little in the daytime; nor, perhaps, countingMaignan as two, have allowed that it existed. But the result of anight attack is more difficult to forecast; and I had also to take intoaccount the perils to which the two ladies would be exposed, between thedarkness and tumult, in the event of the issue remaining for a time indoubt.

  These considerations, and particularly the last, weighed so powerfullywith me, that before I reached the bottom of the gorge I had decided topostpone the attack until morning. The answers to some questions whichI put to the inhabitant of the house by the ford as soon as I reachedlevel ground only confirmed me in this resolution. The road Bruhl hadtaken ran for a distance by the riverside, and along the bottom ofthe gorge; and, difficult by day, was reported to be impracticable forhorses by night. The castle he had mentioned lay full two leagues away,and on the farther edge of a tract of rough woodland. Finally, I doubtedwhether, in the absence of any other reason for delay, I could havemarched my men, weary as they were, to the place before daybreak.

  When I came to announce this decision, however, and to inquire whataccommodation the peasant could afford us, I found myself in trouble.Fanchette, mademoiselle's woman, suddenly confronted me, her facescarlet with rage. Thrusting herself forward into the circle of lightcast by the lanthorn, she assailed me with a virulence and fiercenesswhich said more for her devotion to her mistress than her respect forme. Her wild gesticulations, her threats, and the appeals which shemade now to me, and now to the men who stood in a circle round us, theirfaces in shadow, discomfited as much as they surprised me.

  'What!' she cried violently, 'you call yourself a gentleman, and liehere and let my mistress be murdered, or worse, within a league of you!Two leagues? A groat for your two leagues! I would walk them barefoot,if that would shame you. And you, you call yourselves men, and sufferit! It is God's truth you are a set of cravens and sluggards. Give me asmany women, and I would--'

  'Peace, woman!' Maignan said in his deep voice. 'You had your way andcame with us, and you will obey orders as well as another! Be off, andsee to the victuals before worse happen to you!'

  'Ay, see to the victuals!' she retorted. 'See to the victuals, forsooth!That is all you think of--to lie warm and eat your fill! A set ofdastardly, drinking, droning guzzlers you are! You are!' she retorted,her voice rising to a shriek. 'May the plague take you!'

  'Silence!' Maignan growled fiercely, 'or have a care to yourself! For acopper-piece I would send you to cool your heels in the water below--forthat last word! Begone, do you hear,' he continued, seizing her by theshoulder and thrusting her towards the house, 'or worse may happen toyou. We are rough customers, as you will find if you do not lock up yourtongue!'

  I heard her go wailing into the darkness; and Heaven knows it was notwithout compunction I forced myself to remain inactive in the face of adevotion which seemed so much greater than mine. The men fell away oneby one to look to their horses and choose sleeping-quarters for thenight; and presently M. d'Agen and I were left alone standing beside thelanthorn, which the man had hung on a bush before his door. The brawlingof the water as it poured between the banks, a score of paces from us,and the black darkness which hid everything beyond the little ringof light in which we stood--so that for all we could see we were in apit--had the air of isolating us from all the world.

  I looked at the young man, who had not once lisped that day; and Iplainly read in his attitude his disapproval of my caution. Though hedeclined to meet my eye, he stood with his arms folded and his headthrown back, making no attempt to disguise the scorn and ill-temperwhich his face expressed. Hurt by the woman's taunts, and possiblyshaken in my opinion, I grew restive under his silence, and unwiselygave way to my feelings.

  'You do not appear to approve of my decision, M. d'Agen?' I said.

  'It is yours to command, sir,' he answered proudly.

  There are truisms which have more power to annoy than the veriestreproaches. I should have borne in mind the suspense and anxiety he wassuffering, and which had so changed him that I scarcely knew him forthe gay young spark on whose toe I had trodden. I should have rememberedthat he was young and I old, and that it behoved me to be patient. Buton my side also there was anxiety, and responsibility as well; and,above all, a rankling soreness, to which I refrain from giving the nameof jealousy, though it came as near to that feeling as the differencein our ages and personal advantages (whereof the balance was all on hisside) would permit. This, no doubt, it was which impelled me to continuethe argument.

  'You would go on?' I said persistently.

  'It is idle to say what I would do,' he answered with a flash of anger.

  'I asked for your opinion, sir,' I rejoined stiffly.

  'To what purpose?' he retorted, stroking his small moustache haughtily,'We look at the thing from opposite points. You, are going about yourbusiness, which appears to be the rescuing of ladies who are--may Iventure to say it? so unfortunate as to entrust themselves to yourcharge. I, M. de Marsac, am more deeply interested. More deeplyinterested,' he repeated lamely. 'I--in a word, I am prepared, sir, todo what others only talk of--and if I cannot follow otherwise, wouldfollow on my feet!'

  'Whom?' I asked curtly, stung by this repetition of my own words.

  He laughed harshly and bitterly. 'Why explain? or why quarrel?'he replied cynically. 'God knows, if I could afford to quarrel withyou, I should have done so fifty hours ago. But I need your help; and,needing it, I am prepared to do that which must seem to a person of yourcalm passions and perfect judgment alike futile and incredible--pay thefull price for it.'

  'The full price for it!' I muttered, understanding nothing, except thatI did not understand.

  'Ay, the full price for it!' he repeated. And as he spoke he looked atme with an expression of rage so fierce that I recoiled a step. Thatseemed to restore him in some degree to himself, for without giving mean opportunity of answering he turned hastily from me, and, stridingaway, was in a moment lost in the darkness.

  He left me amazed beyond measure. I stood repeating his phrase about'the full price' a hundred times over, but still found it and hispassion inexplicable. To cut the matter short, I could come to no otherconclusion than that he desired to insult me, and aware of my povertyand the equivocal position in which I stood towards mademoiselle, chosehis words accordingly. This seemed a thing unworthy of one of whom Ihad before thought highly; but calmer reflection enabling me to seesomething of youthful bombast in the tirade he had delivered, I smileda little sadly, and determined to think no more of the matter for thepresent, but to persist firmly in that which seemed to me to be theright course.

  Having settled this, I was about to enter the house, when Maignanstopped me, telling me that the plague had killed five people in it,letting only the man we had seen; who had, indeed, been seized, butrecovered. This ghastly news had scared my company to such a degree thatthey had gone as far from the house as the level ground permitted, andthere lighted a fire, round which they were going to pass the night.Fanchette had taken up her quarters in the stable, and the equerryannounced that he had kept a shed full of sweet hay for M. d'Agen andmyself. I assented to this arrangement, and after supping off soup andblack bread, which was all we could procure, bade the peasant rouse ustwo hours before sunrise; and s
o, being too weary and old in service toremain awake thinking, I fell asleep, and slept; soundly till a littleafter four.

  My first business on rising was to see that the men before mounting madea meal, for it is ill work fighting empty. I went round also and sawthat all had their arms, and that such as carried pistols had themloaded and primed. Francois did not put in an appearance until this workwas done, and then showed a very pale and gloomy countenance. I took noheed of him, however, and with the first streak of daylight we startedin single file and at a snail's pace up the valley, the peasant, whom Iplaced in Maignan's charge, going before to guide us, and M. d'Agen andI riding in the rear. By the time the sun rose and warmed our chilledand shivering frames we were over the worst of the ground, and were ableto advance at some speed along a track cut through a dense forest ofoak-trees.

  Though we had now risen out of the valley, the close-set trunks and theundergrowth round them prevented our seeing in any direction. For a mileor more we rode on blindly, and presently started on finding ourselveson the brow of a hill, looking down into a valley, the nearer end ofwhich was clothed in woods, while the farther widened into green slopingpastures. From the midst of these a hill or mount rose sharply up,until it ended in walls of grey stone scarce to be distinguished at thatdistance from the native rock on which they stood.

  'See!' cried our guide. 'There is the castle!'

  Bidding the men dismount in haste, that the chance of our being seen bythe enemy--which was not great--might be farther lessened, I began toinspect the position at leisure; my first feeling while doing so beingone of thankfulness that I had not attempted a night attack, whichmust inevitably have miscarried, possibly with loss to ourselves, andcertainly with the result of informing the enemy of our presence. Thecastle, of which we had a tolerable view, was long and narrow in shape,consisting of two towers connected by walls, The nearer tower, throughwhich lay the entrance, was roofless, and in every way seemed to be moreruinous than the inner one, which appeared to be perfect in both itsstories. This defect notwithstanding, the place was so strong that myheart sank lower the longer I looked; and a glance at Maignan's faceassured me that his experience was also at fault. For M. d'Agen, Iclearly saw, when I turned to him, that he had never until this momentrealised what we had to expect, but, regarding our pursuit in the lightof a hunting-party, had looked to see it end in like easy fashion. Hisblank, surprised face, as he stood eyeing the stout grey walls, said asmuch as this.

  'Arnidieu!' Maignan muttered, 'give me ten men, and I would hold itagainst a hundred!'

  'Tut, man, There is more than one way to Rome!' I answered oracularly,though I was far from feeling as confident as I seemed. 'Come, let usdescend and view this nut a little nearer.'

  We began to trail downwards in silence, and as the path let us for awhile, out of sight of the castle, we were able to proceed with lesscaution. We had nearly reached without adventure the father skirts ofthe wood, between which and the ruin lay an interval of open ground,when we came suddenly, at the edge of a little clearing, on an old hag;who was so intent; upon tying up faggots that she did not see us untilMaignan's hand was on her shoulder. When she did, she screamed out, andescaping from him with an activity wonderful in a woman of her age, ranwith great swiftness to the side of an old man who lay at the foot of atree half a bowshot off; and whom we had not before seen. Snatching upan axe, she put herself in a posture of defence before him with gesturesand in a manner as touching in the eyes of some among us as they wereludicrous in those of others; who cried to Maignan that he had met hismatch at last, with other gibes of the kind that pass current in camps.

  I called to him to let her be, and went forward myself to the old man,who lay on a rude bed of leaves, and seemed unable to rise. Appealingto me with a face of agony not to hurt his wife, he bade her again andagain lay down her axe; but she would not do this until I had assuredher that we meant him no harm, and that my men should molest neither theone nor the other.

  'We only want to know this,' I said, speaking slowly, in fear lest mylanguage should be little more intelligible to them than their PATOIS tome. 'There are a dozen horsemen in the old castle there, are there not?'

  The man stilled his wife, who continued to chatter and mow at us, andanswered eagerly that there were; adding, with a trembling oath, thatthe robbers had beaten him, robbed him of his small store of meal, andwhen he would have protested, thrown him out, breaking his leg.

  'Then how came you here?' I said.

  'She brought me on her back,' he answered feebly.

  Doubtless there were men in my train who would have done all that theseothers had done; but hearing the simple story told, they stamped andswore great oaths of indignation; and one, the roughest of the party,took out some black bread and gave it to the woman, whom under othercircumstances he would not have hesitated to rob. Maignan, who knewall arts appertaining to war, examined the man's leg and made a kind ofcradle for it, while I questioned the woman.

  'They are there still?' I said. 'I saw their horses tethered under thewalls.'

  'Yes, God requite them!' she answered, trembling violently.

  'Tell me about the castle, my good woman,' I said. 'How many roads intoit are there?'

  'Only one.'

  'Through the nearer tower?'

  She said yes, and finding that she understood me, and was less dull ofintellect than her wretched appearance led me to expect, I put a seriesof questions to her which it would be tedious to detail. Suffice itthat I learned that it was impossible to enter or leave the ruin exceptthrough the nearer tower; that a rickety temporary gate barred theentrance, and that from this tower, which was a mere shell of fourwalls, a narrow square-headed doorway without a door led into the court,beyond which rose the habitable tower of two stories.

  'Do you know if they intend to stay there?' I asked

  'Oh, ay, they bade me bring them faggots for their fire this morning,and I should have a handful of my own meal back,' she answered bitterly;and fell thereon into a passion of impotent rage, shaking both herclenched hands in the direction of the castle, and screaming frenziedmaledictions in her cracked and quavering voice.

  I pondered awhile over what she had said; liking very little the thoughtof that narrow square-headed doorway through which we must pass beforewe could effect anything. And the gate, too, troubled me. It might notbe a strong one, but we had neither powder, nor guns, nor any siegeimplements, and could not pull down stone walls with our naked hands. Byseizing the horses we could indeed cut off Bruhl's retreat; but he mightstill escape in the night; and in any case our pains would only increasethe women's hardships while adding fuel to his rage. We must have someother plan.

  The sun was high by this time; the edge of the wood scarcely a hundredpaces from us. By advancing a few yards through the trees I could seethe horses feeding peacefully at the foot of the sunny slope, and evenfollow with my eyes the faint track which zigzagged up the hill tothe closed gate. No one appeared--doubtless they were sleeping offthe fatigue of the journey--and I drew no inspiration thence; but asI turned to consult Maignan my eye lit on the faggots, and I saw in aflash that here was a chance of putting into practice a stratagem as oldas the hills, yet ever fresh, and not seldom successful.

  It was no time for over-refinement. My knaves were beginning to strayforward out of curiosity, and at any moment one of our horses, scentingthose of the enemy, might neigh and give the alarm. Hastily callingM. d'Agen and Maignan to me, I laid my plan before them, and satisfiedmyself that it had their approval; the fact that I had reserved aspecial part for the former serving to thaw the reserve which hadsucceeded to his outbreak of the night before. After some debate Maignanpersuaded me that the old woman had not sufficient nerve to play thepart I proposed for her, and named Fanchette; who being called intocouncil, did not belie the opinion we had formed of her courage. Ina few moments our preparations were complete: I had donned the oldcharcoal-burner's outer rags, Fanchette had assumed those of the woman,while M. d'Agen, who was for a
time at a loss, and betrayed less tastefor this part of the plan than for any other, ended by putting on thejerkin and hose of the man who had served us as guide.

  When all was ready I commended the troop to Maignan's discretion,charging him in the event of anything happening to us to continue themost persistent efforts for mademoiselle's release, and on no accountto abandon her. Having received his promise to this effect, and beingsatisfied that he would keep it, we took up each of us a great faggot,which being borne on the head and shoulders served to hide the featuresvery effectually; and thus disguised we boldly left the shelter of thetrees. Fanchette and I went first, tottering in a most natural fashionunder the weight of our burdens, while M. d'Agen followed a hundredyards behind. I had given Maignan orders to make a dash for the gate themoment he saw the last named start to run.

  The perfect stillness of the valley, the clearness of the air, and theabsence of any sign of life in the castle before us--which might havebeen that of the Sleeping Princess, so fairy-like it looked against thesky--with the suspense and excitement in our own breasts, which thesepeculiarities seemed to increase a hundred-fold, made the time thatfollowed one of the strangest in my experience. It was nearly teno'clock, and the warm sunshine flooding everything about us renderedthe ascent, laden as we were, laborious in the extreme. The crisp,short turf, which had scarcely got its spring growth, was slippery andtreacherous. We dared not hasten, for we knew not what eyes were uponus, and we dared as little after we had gone half-way--lay our faggotsdown, lest the action should disclose too much of our features.

  When we had reached a point within a hundred paces of the gate, whichstill remained obstinately closed, we stood to breathe ourselves, andbalancing my bundle on my head, I turned to make sure that all was rightbehind us. I found that M. d'Agen, intent on keeping his distance,had chosen the same moment for rest, and was sitting in a very naturalmanner on his faggot, mopping his face with the sleeve of his jerkin.I scanned the brown leafless wood, in which we had left Maignan and ourmen; but I could detect no glitter among the trees nor any appearancelikely to betray us. Satisfied on these points, I muttered a fewwords of encouragement to Fanchette, whose face was streaming withperspiration; and together we turned and addressed ourselves to ourtask, fatigue--for we had had no practice in carrying burdens on thehead--enabling us to counterfeit the decrepitude of age almost to thelife.

  The same silence prevailing as we drew nearer inspired me with not a fewdoubts and misgivings. Even the bleat of a sheep would have been welcomein the midst of a stillness which seemed ominous. But no sheep bleated,no voice hailed us. The gate, ill-hung and full of fissures, remainedclosed. Step by step we staggered up to it, and at length reached it.Afraid to speak lest my accent should betray me, I struck the forepartof my faggot against it and waited: doubting whether our whole stratagemhad not been perceived from the beginning, and a pistol-shot might notbe the retort.

  Nothing of the kind happened, however. The sound of the blow, whichechoed dully through the building, died away, and the old silenceresumed its sway. We knocked again, but fully two minutes elapsed beforea grumbling voice, as of a man aroused from sleep, was heard drawingnear, and footsteps came slowly and heavily to the gate. Probably thefellow inspected us through a loophole, for he paused a moment, and myheart sank; but the next, seeing nothing suspicious, he unbarred thegate with a querulous oath, and, pushing it open, bade us enter and bequick about it.

  I stumbled forward into the cool, dark shadow, and the woman followedme, while the man, stepping out with a yawn, stood in the entrance,stretching himself in the sunshine. The roofless tower, which smelleddank and unwholesome, was empty, or cumbered only with rubbish and heapsof stones; but looking through the inner door I saw in the courtyard asmouldering fire and half a dozen men in the act of rousing themselvesfrom sleep. I stood a second balancing my faggot, as if in doubt whereto lay it down; and then assuring myself by a swift glance that the manwho had let us in still had his back towards us, I dropped it across theinner doorway, Fanchette, as she had been instructed, plumped hers uponit, and at the same moment I sprang to the door, and taking the manthere by surprise, dealt him a violent blow between the shoulders, whichsent him headlong down the slope.

  A cry behind me, followed by an oath of alarm, told me that the actionwas observed and that now was the pinch. In a second I was back at thefaggots, and drawing a pistol from under my blouse was in time to meetthe rush of the nearest man, who, comprehending all, sprang up, and madefor me, with his sheathed sword. I shot him in the chest as he clearedthe faggots--which, standing nearly as high as a man's waist, formed atolerable obstacle--and he pitched forward at my feet.

  This balked his companions, who drew back; but unfortunately it wasnecessary for me to stoop to get my sword, which was hidden in thefaggot I had carried. The foremost of the rascals took advantage ofthis. Rushing at me with a long knife, he failed to stab me--for Icaught his wrist--but he succeeded in bringing me to the ground. Ithought I was undone. I looked to have the others swarm over upon us;and so it would doubtless have happened had not Fanchette, with rarecourage, dealt the first who followed a lusty blow on the body with agreat stick she snatched up. The man collapsed on the faggots, and thishampered the rest. The check was enough. It enabled M. d'Agen to comeup, who, dashing in through the gate, shot down the first he saw beforehim, and running at the doorway with his sword with incredible fury andthe courage which I had always known him to possess, cleared it in atwinkling. The man with whom I was engaged on the ground, seeing whathad happened, wrested himself free with the strength of despair, anddashing through the outer door, narrowly escaped being ridden down by myfollowers as they swept up to the gate at a gallop, and dismounted amida whirlwind of cries.

  In a moment they thronged in on us pell-mell, and as soon as I could laymy hand on my sword I led them through the doorway with a cheer, hopingto be able to enter the farther tower with the enemy. But the latter hadtaken the alarm too early and too thoroughly. The court was empty. Wewere barely in time to see the last man dart up a flight of outsidestairs, which led to the first story, and disappear, closing a heavydoor behind him. I rushed to the foot of the steps and would haveascended also, hoping against hope to find the door unsecured; but ashot which was fired through a loop hole and narrowly missed my head,and another which brought down one of my men, made me pause. Discerningall the advantage to be on Bruhl's side, since he could shoot us downfrom his cover, I cried a retreat; the issue of the matter leavingus masters of the entrance-tower, while they retained the inner andstronger tower, the narrow court between the two being neutral groundunsafe for either party.

  Two of their men had fled outwards and were gone, and two lay dead;while the loss on our side was confined to the man who was shot, andFanchette, who had received a blow on the head in the MELEE, and wasfound, when we retreated, lying sick and dazed against the wall.

  It surprised me much, when I came to think upon it, that I had seennothing of Bruhl, though the skirmish had lasted two or three minutesfrom the first outcry, and been attended by an abundance of noise. OfFresnoy, too, I now remembered that I had caught a glimpse only. Thesetwo facts seemed so strange that I was beginning to augur the worst,though I scarcely know why, when my spirits were marvellously raised andmy fears relieved by a thing which Maignan, who was the first to noticeit, pointed out to me. This was the appearance at an upper window of awhite 'kerchief, which was waved several times towards us. The windowwas little more than an arrow-slit, and so narrow and high besidesthat it was impossible to see who gave the signal; but my experience ofmademoiselle's coolness and resource left me in no doubt on the point.With high hopes and a lighter heart than I had worn for some time Ibestirred myself to take every precaution, and began by bidding Maignanselect two men and ride round the hill, to make sure that the enemy hadno way of retreat open to him.

 
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