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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Abbess Of Vlaye » CHAPTER VII. A SOLDIERS' FROLIC.
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 A few hours later the chateau of Villeneuve, buried in the lonely woods, wore a strange and unusual aspect.
To all things there comes an end, even to long silences and the march of uneventful years. Summer evening after summer evening had looked its last through darkening tree-tops on the house of Villeneuve, and marked but a spare taper burning here and there in its recesses. Winter evening after winter evening had fallen on the dripping woods and listened in vain for the sounds of revelry that had once beaconed the lost wayfarer, and held wolves doubting on the extremest edge of pasture. Night after night for well-nigh a generation--with the one exception of the historic night of Coutras, when the pursuers feasted in its hall--the house had stood shadowy and silent in the dim spaces of its clearing, and prowling beasts had haunted without fear its threshold. A rotten branch, falling in the depth of the forest, now scared more than its loudest orgy; nay, the dead lords, at rest in the decaying graveyard where the Abbey had stood, made as much impression on the night--for often the will o' the wisp burned there--as their fallen descendants in his darkling house.
Until this night, when the wild things of the wood saw with wonder the glow in the tree-tops and cowered in their lairs, and the owl mousing in the uplands beyond the river shrank from the light in the meadows, and flew to shelter. Beside the well in the courtyard blazed such a bonfire as frightened the sparrows from the ivy; and the wolf had been brave indeed that ventured within half a mile of the singers, whose voices woke the echoes of the ancient towers.
"Les femmes ne portent pas moustache,
Mordieu, Marion!
Les femmes ne portent pas moustache!
C'était des m?res qu'ell' mangeait
Mon dieu, mon ami!
C'était des m?res qu'ell' mangeait!"
As the troopers, seated, some on the well-curb, and some on logs and buckets, beat out the chorus, or broke off to quarrel across the flames, a chance passer might have thought the night of the great battle come again. Old Solomon, listening to the roar of the wood, and watching the train of sparks fly upwards, trembled for his haystacks; nor would the man of peace have been a coward who, looking in at the open gate, preferred a bed in the greenwood to the peril of entrance. The more timid of the serving-men had hidden themselves with sunset; the dogs had fled to kennel with drooping tails. The noise was such that but for one thing a stranger must have supposed that a mutiny was on the point of breaking out. This was the cool demeanour of Ampoule, M. de Vlaye's lieutenant; who with a couple of confidants sat drinking in the outer hall, where the flames of an unwonted fire shone on torn pennons and dusty head-pieces. When asked by Roger to reduce the men to order, as the women could not sleep, he had shown himself offhand to the point of insolence, curt to the point of brutality. "Have a care of yourselves, and I'll have a care of my men!" he said. "You go to your own!" And he would hear no more.
The Vicomte for a while noticed none of these things. The events of the morning had aged and shaken him, and for hours he sat speechless, with dull eyes, thinking of God knows what--perhaps of the son he had cast off, or of his own fallen estate, or of the peril of his guest. In vain did Roger and his younger daughter try to rouse him from his reverie--try to gain some counsel, some comfort from him. They could not. But that which their timid efforts failed to effect, the rising tempest of joviality at last and suddenly wrought.
"Where is Solomon?" he cried, lifting his head as one awakened from sleep. And he looked about him in great wrath. "Where is Solomon? Why does he not put a stop to this babel? 'Sdeath, man, am I to put up with this? Do you hear me?" looking round. "Do you want them to bring the Abbess downstairs?"
Bonne and Roger, who were crouching with the little Countess in one of the two window-recesses that overlooked the courtyard, rose to go to him. But Solomon, who had been hiding in the shadows about the door, was before them. "To be sure, my lord, to be sure!" the old servant said gallantly, though his troubled face and twitching beard bespoke his knowledge of the real position. "To be sure, my lord, it is not the first time by a many hundred the knaves have forgot themselves, and I've had to go with a stirrup-leather and bring them to their senses! The liquor that has run in this house"--he lifted his hands in admiration--"'tis no wonder, my lord, it goes sometimes to the head!"
"Go out, man! Go out and put a stop to it!" the Vicomte retorted passionately. "Your chattering does but add to it!"
"To be sure, my lord, I am going," Solomon answered bravely. But his eyes asked Roger a question. "To be sure it is like old days, my lord, and I thought that may-be you would like them to have their way a while."
"I should like it, fool?"
"You might think it better----"
"Nay," Roger said, approaching the Vicomte. "Nay, if any one goes, sir, I must. Solomon is old, and they may mishandle him."
"Mishandle him?" the Vicomte said, opening his eyes in astonishment. "Mishandle my steward? My----" He broke off, his hands feeling tremulously for the arms of his chair; he found them and sank back in it. "I--I had forgotten!" he muttered, his head sinking on his breast. "I had forgotten. I dreamt, and now I am awake. I dreamt," he continued, speaking with increasing bitterness, "that I was Seigneur and Vicomte of Villeneuve, and Baron of Vlaye! With swords at my will, and steeds in stall, and a lusty son to take him by the beard who crossed me! And I am a beggar! A beggar, with no son to call a son, with no sword but that old fool's blade! Mishandle him?" gloomily. "Ay, they may mishandle him!" he continued feebly, his head sinking yet lower on his breast. "But there. It is over. Let them do what they will!"
He continued to mutter, but incoherently, and Roger, signing to Solomon to go to his place again, slunk back to the window recess. The lad had no hope of effecting more with Ampoule, a brutal man where rein was given him; and he crouched once more where he could see the dark figures carousing in the glare that reached to the range of stables. In order that those in the room might see without being seen, Solomon had lighted no more than two candles, and these were not behind the window, where Roger and the two girls sat in the shadow. They could therefore look out unchecked.
The day had been--and not many hours past--when the lad's cheek would have burned under the sneer just flung at him. Now, though a stranger and a girl had heard it, he was unmoved. For petty feelings of that kind his mind had no longer space. The conduct of the man whom Vlaye had left on guard, the increasing disorder and babel of the half-drunken troopers, awoke in him neither indignation nor anger, nor astonishment, but only fear. Not a fear that unmanned him, though he faced his first real peril, nor a fear that disarmed him, but one that braced him to do his best, that enabled him to think, and plan, and determine--crook-shouldered as he was--with a coolness which some day, as des Ageaux had said, might make of him a commander of men.
He was convinced that the men's unruliness was a thing planned and arranged. The Captain of Vlaye had conceived the wickedness of doing by others what he dared not do himself. The men, unless Roger was mistaken, would pass still more out of hand; the officer would profess himself impotent. Then, it might not be this evening, but to-morrow, or to-morrow evening at latest, the men would burst all bounds, cast aside respect, seize the young Countess, and bear her off. At the ford, or where you will, Vlaye would encounter them, rescue her, and while he gained a hold on her gratitude, would effect that which he had shrunk from doing openly.
It was a wicked, nay, a devilish plan, because in the course of its execution there must come a moment when all in the house--and not the young girl only at whom the plan was aimed--would lie at the men's mercy. For a time the men, half-drunk, must be masters. A moment there must be of extreme danger, threatening all, embracing all; and he, a lad, stood alone to meet it. Alone, save for one old man; for the Vicomte was past such work, and the servants had fled. And though Bonne, to whom as well as to the young Countess he had disclosed his fears, persisted in the hope of rescue, and based that hope on their strange guest's promise, he had little or no hope.
As he crouched with the two girls in the dark window recess, he faced the danger coolly, though the scene was one to depress an older heart. The scanty rays of the two candles which lighted a small part of the chamber fell full on the Vicomte, where he sat sunk low in his chair, a shiver passing now and again over his inert and feeble limbs. The only figure visible against the gloomy, dust-coloured hangings, he seemed the type of a race fallen hopelessly; his features, once imperious, hung flaccid, his hands clung weakly to the arms of his chair. He was capable still of one brief, foolish outburst, one passionate stroke; but no help or wise counsel could be expected from him. He was astonishingly aged in one day; even his power to wound the mind seemed near its end.
In contrast with that drooping figure, seated amid the shadows of the room in which generations of Villeneuves had lorded it royally, the scene without struck with an appalling sense of virility. The lusty troopers lolling in the hot blaze of the bonfire, on which one or another constantly flung fresh wood, and now roaring out some gutter-stave, now flinging coarse badinage hither and thither, were such as years of license and cruel campaigning had made them; men such as it took a Vlaye or a Montluc to curb. And had the lad who watched them with burning eyes and a beating heart lacked one jot of the perfect courage, he had as soon thought of pitting himself against them as of raising dead bones to life.
But he had that thought, and even planned and plotted as he watched them. "Where is Odette?" he asked in a whisper. He had Bonne's hand in his, her other arm held the Countess to her. "They may be afraid of her. If she spoke to the officer, he might listen to her."
"She will not believe there is danger," Bonne answered with something like a sob. "She will not hear a word. I began to explain about the Countess and she flew into a passion. She has shut herself up and says that we are all mad, stark mad from living alone, and afraid of our shadows. And she and her women have shut themselves up in her chamber. I have been to the door twice, but she will hear nothing."
"She will hear too much by and by!" Roger muttered.
Then a thing happened. The light cast by the bonfire embraced, it has been said, the whole of the courtyard. The men, confident in their strength, had left the gate open. As Roger ceased to speak, a single horseman emerged, silent as a spectre, from the low gateway, and advancing at a foot-pace three or four steps, drew rein, and gazed in astonishment at the scene of hilarity presented to him.
The three at the window were the first to see him. Roger's hand closed on his sister's; hers, so cold a moment before, grew on a sudden hot. "Who is it?" Roger muttered. "Who is it?" The court, which sloped a little from the house, was wide, but it might have been narrow and still he had asked, for the stranger wore--it was no uncommon fashion in those days--a mask. It was a slender thing, hiding only the upper part of the face, but it sufficed. "Who is it?" Roger repeated.
"M. des Voeux!" Bonne answered involuntarily. In their excitement the three rose to their feet.
Whether it were M. des Voeux or not, the masked man seemed in two minds about advancing. He had even turned his horse as if he would go out again, when some of the revellers espied him, and on the instant a silence, broken only by the crackling of the logs, and as striking as the previous din, proclaimed the fact.
The change seemed to encourage the stranger to advance. As he wheeled again and paced nearer, the men who sat on the farther side of the fire from him, and for that reason could not see him, rose and stood gaping at him through the smoke. He moved nearer to the outer ring.
"Who lives here, my good people?" he asked in a voice peculiarly sweet and clear; his tone smacked even a little womanish.
One of the men stifled a drunken laugh. Another turned, and after winking at his neighbours--who passed the joke round--advanced a pace or two, uncovered elaborately and bowed with ceremony to match. "M. le Vicomte de Villeneuve, if it please you, my lord--I should say your excellency!" with another low bow.
"Curse on it!" the stranger exclaimed.
The men's spokesman stared an instant, taken aback by the unexpected rejoinder. Then, aware that his reputation among his fellows was at stake, he recovered himself. "Did your excellency, my lord duke"--another delighted chuckle among the men--"please to speak?"
"Go and tell him I am here," the masked man answered, disregarding their horse-play; and he released his feet from the stirrups. The window of the dining-hall was open, and the three at it could mark him well, and hear every word of the dialogue.
"If your excellency--would enter?" the man rejoined with the same travesty of politeness. "The Vicomte would not wish you, I am sure, to await his coming."
"Very good. And do you, fellow, tell him that I crave the favour of a night's lodging. That I am alone, and my--but the rest I will tell him myself!"
The troopers nudged one another. "Go, Jasper," said the spokesman aloud, "and carry his excellency's commands to M. le Vicomte. Your horse, my lord duke, shall be taken care of! This way, if it please you my lord duke! And do some of you," turning, and making, unseen by the stranger, the motion of turning a key--"bring lights! Lights to the west tower, do you hear?"
The faces of the three within the window were pressed against the panes. "Who can he be?" Bonne muttered. "They call him----"
"They are fooling him!" Roger replied In wrath. "They know no more who he is than we do! He is not des Voeux. He has not his height, and not half his width. But what," angrily, "are they doing now? Where are they taking the man? Why are they taking him to the old tower?"
Why indeed?
Instead of conducting the guest over the bridge which led to the inhabited part of the house, the trooper, attended by four or five of his half-drunken comrades, was ushering him with ceremony to the lesser bridge which led to the western tower; the ground floor of which, a cold damp dungeon-like place, was used as a wood store. It had been opened a few hours before, that fagots might be taken from it, and this circumstance had perhaps suggested the joke to the prime conspirator.
"Lights are coming, my lord duke!" he said, taking a flaring brand from one of his comrades and holding it aloft. He was chuckling inwardly at the folly of the stranger in swallowing his egregious titles without demur. "The Vicomte shall be told. Beware of the step, my lord!" lowering his light that the other might see it. They were on the threshold now, and he pushed open the door that already stood ajar. "The step is somewhat awkward, your excellency! We have to go through the--it is somewhat old-fashioned, but craving your excellency's pardon for bringing you this way--Yah!"
With the word a sudden push thrust the unsuspecting stranger forward. Involuntarily he stumbled, tripped and with a cry of rage found himself on his hands and knees among the fagots. Before he could rise the door clanged horridly on him, the key grated in the lock, he was in darkness, a prisoner!
The men, reckless and half-drunk, roared with delight at the jest. "Welcome, my lord duke!" the ringleader cried, holding aloft his light, and bowing to the ground before the thick oaken door. "Welcome to Villeneuve!"
"Welcome!" cried the others, waving their lights, and clutching one another in fits of laughter. "Welcome to Villeneuve! A good night to you! An appetite to your supper, my lord duke!"
So they gibed awhile. Then, beginning to weary of it, they turned and, still shaking with laughter, discovered an addition to their party: Roger stood before them, his eyes glittering with excitement. The lad had not been able to look on and see the trick played on a guest; the more as that guest represented his one solitary, feeble hope of help. The men might still be sober enough to listen; at any rate he would try. Much against their wills he had broken away from the girls. He was here.
"Open that door!" he said.
The man to whom he spoke, the ringleader, looked almost as much astonished as he was. The others ceased to laugh, and waited to see what would happen.
"That door?" the man concerned answered slowly as soon as he could bring his thoughts to bear on the emergency.
"Yes, that door!" Roger cried imperiously, all the Villeneuve in him rising to the surface. "And instantly, fellow!"
"So be it, if you will have it so," the man replied, shrugging his shoulders. "But it was only a jest, and----"
"There is enough of the jest, and too much!" Roger retorted. He spoke so bravely that not a man remembered his crooked shoulders. "Open, I say!"
The man shook his head. "Best not," he said.
"It shall be done!"
"Well, you can open, if you please," the man replied. "But I am M. de Vlaye's man and take orders nowhere else!" And with an insolent gesture he flung the key on the ground.
To punish him for his insolence, when they were a score to one, was impossible. Roger took up the key, set it in the lock, turned, opened, and, tricked in his turn, plunged head first into the darkness, impelled by a treacherous thrust from behind. Crash! The door was shut on him.
But he knew naught of that. As he fell forward a savage blow from the front, from the darkness, hurled him breathless against a pile of fagots. At the same moment a voice cried in his ear, "There is one is spent, Deo Laus!" A hand groped for him, a foot was set hard against him, and something wrenched at his clothes.
"Why," quoth the same voice a second later--the darkness was almost perfect--"did I not run the rascal through?"
"No!" Roger said, and as the stranger's sword, which had only passed through his clothes, was dragged clear, he nimbly shifted his place. "And I beg you will not," he continued hurriedly. "I was coming to your aid, and those treacherous dogs played the same trick on me!" "Then who are you?"
"I am Roger de Villeneuve, my father's son."
"Then it is Villeneuve, this place? They did not lie in that?"
"No, it is Villeneuve, but these scoundrels are Vlaye's people," Roger answered. He was in the depths of despair, for the girls were alone now and unprotected. "They are in possession here," he continued, almost weeping. "M. de Vlaye----"
"The Captain of Vlaye, do you mean?"
"Yes. He tried to seize the Countess of Rochechouart as she passed this way yesterday. She took refuge here and he did not dare to drag her away. So he left these men to guard her, as he said; but really to carry her off as soon as they should be drunk enough to venture on it." Poor Roger's voice shook. He was lamenting his folly, his dreadful folly, in leaving the women.
The stranger took the news, as was natural, after a different fashion, and one strange enough. First he swore with a deliberate fluency that shocked the country lad; and then he laughed with a light-hearted joyousness that was still more alien from the circumstances. "Well, it is an adventure!" he cried. "It is an adventure! And for what did I come? To the fool his folly! And one fool makes many! But do you think, my friend," he continued, speaking in a different strain, "that they will carry off the Countess while we lie here?"
Roger, raging in the dark, had no other thought. "Why not?" he cried. "Why not? And there are other women in the house." He groaned.
"Yes, yes."
"And one of them--lovely?" There was amusement in the stranger's tone.
"One of them is my sister," Roger retorted fiercely. And for an instant the other was silent.
Then, "With what attendance?" he asked. "Whom have they with them that you can trust?"
"The Countess's steward and one old man. And my father, but he is old also."
"Pheugh!" the stranger whistled. "An adventure indeed!" From the sound of the fagots it seemed that he was moving. "We must out of this," he said, "and to the rescue! But how? There is no other door than the one by which we entered?"
"There is one, but the key is lost, and it has not been opened for years."
"Then we must go out as we came in," the stranger answered gaily. "But how? But how? Let me think! Let me think, lad!"
The smell of damp earth mingled with rotting wood pervaded the darkness in which they stood. They could not see one another, but at a certain height from the ground a shaft of reddish light pierced the gloom and disclosed about a foot of the cobweb vault above them. This light entered through an arrow-slit which looked toward the bonfire, and apparently it suggested a plan, for presently the stranger could be heard stumbling and groping towards it.
"You cannot go out that way!" Roger said.
"No, but I can get them in!" the other answered drily, and from certain noises which came to his ear Roger judged that the man was piling wood under the opening that he might climb to it. He succeeded by-and-by; his head and shoulders became darkly visible at the window--if window that could be called which was but a span wide.
"There is some one in command?" he asked. "Who is it? His name, my friend?" And when Roger, who fortunately remembered Ampoule's name, had told him: "Do you pile," he said, "some wood behind the door, so that it cannot be opened to the full or too quickly. It is only to give us time to transact the punctilios."
Roger complied. He hoped--but with doubt--that the man was not mad. He supposed that out in the world men were of these odd and surprising kinds. The Lieutenant had impressed him. This strange man, who after coming within an ace of killing him jested, who laughed and blasphemed in a breath, and who was no sooner down than he was up, impressed him more vividly, though differently. And was to impress him still more. For when he had set the wood behind the door, the unknown, raised on his pile of fagots, thrust his face into the opening of the arrow-slit, and in a shrill voice of surprising timbre began to pour on the ill-starred Ampoule a stream of the grossest and most injurious abuse. Amid stinging gibes and scalding epithets, and words that blistered, the name rang out at intervals only to sink again under the torrent of vile charges and outrageous insinuations. The lad's ears burned as he listened; burned still more hotly as he reflected that the girls might be within hearing. As for the men at the fire, twenty seconds saw them silent with amazement. Their very laughter died out under that steady stream of epithets, for any one of which a man of honour must have cut his fellow's throat. A moment or two passed in this stark surprise; still the voice, ever attaining lower depths of abuse, went on.
At length, whether some one told him or he heard it himself, the lieutenant came out, and, flushed with drink, listened for a while incredulous. But when he caught his name, undoubtedly his name, "Ampoule! Ampoule!" again and again, and the tale was told him, and he began to comprehend that in the tower was a man who dared to say of him, Vlaye's right hand in many a dark adventure, of him who had cut many a young cock's comb--to say of him the things he heard--he stood an instant in the blaze of the fire and bellowed like a bull.
"His own sister, fifteen years old," the pitiless voice repeated. "Sold her to a Spanish Jew and divided the money with his mother!"
Ampoule's mouth opened wide, but this time breath failed him. He gasped.
"And being charged with it at Fontarabie," continued the voice, "as he returned, showed the white feather before four men at the inn, who took him and dipped him in a dye vat."
"Son of a dog!" Ampoule shrieked, getting his voice at last. "This is too much! This is----"
"Why, he never bullies when he is unsupported!" his tormentor went on. "But a craven he has always been when put to it! If he be not, let him say it now, and face me in a ring!"
The exasperated man ground his teeth and flung out his arms. "Face you!" he roared. "You! You! Face me, and I will cut out your heart!"
"Fine talk! Fine talk!" came the answer. "So you have said many a time and run! Meet me in a ring, foot to foot and fairly, in your shirt!"
"I'll meet you!" the lieutenant answered passionately. "I'll meet you, fool of the world. Little you know whom you have bearded. You must be mad; but mad or not, say your prayer, for 'twill be the last time!"
There was a momentary pause. Then "Promise me a ring and fair-play!" cried the high, delicate voice, "and a clear way of escape if I kill you!"
"Ay, ay! That will I! All that! And much good may it do you!"
"Nay, but swear it," the stranger persisted, "by--by our Lady of Rocamadour!"
"I swear it! I swear it!"
"Then," the stranger replied with a sneer, "it is for you to open. I've no key!" And he leapt lightly from his pile of fagots to the floor.


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