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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Abbess Of Vlaye » CHAPTER XV. FEARS.
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CHAPTER XV. FEARS.
 The Abbess was not present that evening when the hostages transferred themselves to the peasants' side of the camp. Had she witnessed the scene she had found, it is possible, matter for reflection. Hard as he had struggled against the surrender, the Lieutenant struggled almost as hard, now it was inevitable, to put a good face on it. But his easy word and laugh fell flat in face of a crowd so watchful and so ominously silent that it was useless to pretend that the step was no more than a change from a hut in this part to a hut in that. He who knew that he must, in the morning, face the men and deny them their prisoner--knew this too well. But, in truth, the downcast faces of his troopers and the furtive glances of the Vicomte's party were evidence that the matter meant much, and that these, also, recognised it; nor did the peasants, who fell in beside the two when they started, and accompanied them in an ever growing mob, seem unaware of the fact. The movement was their triumph; a sign of victory to the dullest as he ran and stared, and ran again. A section indeed there were who stood aloof and eyed the thing askance: but two of the Vicomte's party, who recognised among these the men whom the Lieutenant had denounced in the morning--the tall, light-eyed fanatic and the dwarf--held it the worst sign of all; and had it lain in their power they would even at that late hour have called back their friends.
 
Those two were Roger and his younger sister. With what feelings they saw des Ageaux and the Countess ride away to share a solitude full alike of danger and of alarm may be more easily imagined than described. But this is certain; whatever pangs of jealousy gnawed at Bonne's heart or reddened her brother's cheek, neither forgot the bargain they had made on the hill-side, or wished their rival aught but a safe deliverance.
 
As it was, could the one or the other, by the lifting of a finger, have injured the person who stood in the way, they had not lifted it or desired to lift it. But--to be in her place! To be in his place! To share that solitude and that peril! To know that round them lay half a thousand savages, ready at the first sign of treachery to take their lives, and yet to know that to the other it was bliss to be there--this, to the two who remained in the Vicomte's huts and gave their fancy rein, seemed happiness. Yet were they sorely anxious; anxious in view of the abiding risk of such a situation, more anxious in view of the crisis that must come when the peasants learned that the prisoner had escaped. Nevertheless, they did not talk of this, even to one another.
 
If Roger kept vigil that night his sister did not know it. And if Bonne, whose secret was her own, started and trembled at every sound--and such a camp as that bred many a sound and some alarming ones--she told no one. But when the first grey light fell thin on the basin in the hills, disclosing here the shapeless mass of a hut, and there only the dark background of the encircling ridge, her pale face, as she peered from her lodging, confronted Roger's as he paced the turf outside. The same thought, the same fear was in the mind of brother and sister, and had been since earliest cock-crow; and for Roger's part he was not slow to confess it. Presently they found that there was another whom care kept waking. A moment and the Bat's lank form loomed through the mist. He found the two standing side by side; and the old soldier's heart warmed to them. He nodded his comprehension.
 
"The trouble will not be yet awhile," he said. "He will send the lady back before he tells them. I doubt"--he shrugged his shoulders with a glance at Bonne--"if she has had a bed of roses this night."
 
Bonne sighed involuntarily. "At what hour do you think she will be back?" Roger asked.
 
"My orders are to send six riders for her half an hour after sunrise."
 
"A little earlier were no worse," Roger returned, his face flushing slightly as he made the suggestion.
 
"Nor better," the Bat replied drily. "Orders are given to be obeyed, young sir."
 
"And the rest of your men?" Bonne asked timidly. "They will go to support M. des Ageaux as soon as she arrives, I suppose?"
 
The Bat read amiss the motive that underlay her words. "Have no fear, mademoiselle," he said, "we shall see to your safety. You know the Lieutenant little if you think he will look to his own before he has ensured that of others. My lady the Countess once back with us, not a man is to stir from here. And, with warning, and the bank behind us, it will be hard if with a score of pikes we cannot push back the attack of such a crew as this!"
 
"But you do not mean," Bonne cried, her eyes alight, "that you are going to leave M. des Ageaux alone--to face those savages?"
 
"Those are my orders," the Bat replied gently; for the girl's face, scarlet with protest, negatived the idea of fear. "And orders where the Lieutenant commands, mademoiselle, are made to be obeyed; and are obeyed. Moreover," he continued seriously, "in this case they are common sense, since with a score of pikes something may be done, but with half a score here, and half a score there"--shrugging his shoulders--"nothing! Which no one knows better than my lord!"
 
"But----"
 
"The Lieutenant allows no 'buts,'" the old soldier answered, smiling at her eagerness. "Were you with him, mademoiselle--were you under his orders, I mean--it would not be long before you learned that!"
 
Poor Bonne was silenced. With a quivering lip she averted her face: and for a few moments no one spoke. Then, "I wish M. de Joyeuse were on his feet," the Bat said thoughtfully. "He is worth a dozen men in such a pinch as this!"
 
"The sun is up!" This from Roger.
 
"Ah!"
 
"How will you know when half an hour is past?"
 
The Bat raised his eyebrows. "I can guess it within two or three minutes," he said. "There is no hurry for a minute or two!"
 
"No hurry?" Roger retorted. "But the Countess--won't she be in peril?"
 
The Bat looked curiously at him. "For the matter of that," he said, "we are all in peril. And may-be we shall be in greater before the day is out. We must take the rough with the smooth, young sir. However--perhaps you would like to make one to fetch her?"
 
Roger blushed. "I will go," he said.
 
"Very good," the old soldier answered. "I don't know that it is against orders. For you, mademoiselle, I fear that I cannot satisfy you so easily. Were I to send you," he continued with a sly smile, "to escort my lord back----"
 
"Could you not go yourself?" Bonne interrupted, her face reflecting the brightest colours of Roger's blush.
 
"I, indeed? No, mademoiselle. Orders! Orders!"
 
They did not reply. By this time the dense grey mist, forerunner of heat, had risen and discovered the camp, which here and there stirred and awoke. The open ground about the rivulet, which formed a neutral space between the peasants' hovels and the quarters assigned to the Vicomte, still showed untenanted, though marred and poached by the trampling of a thousand feet. But about the fringe of the huts that, low and mean as the shops of some Oriental bazaar, clustered along the foot of the bank, figures yawned and stretched, gazed up at the morning, or passed bending under infants, to fetch water. Everywhere a rising hum told of renewed life. And behind the Vicomte's quarters the brisk jingle of bits and stirrups announced that the troopers were saddling.
 
In those days of filthy streets, and founderous sloughy roads, the great went ever on horseback, if it were but to a house two doors distant. To ride was a sign of rank, no matter how short the journey. Across the street, across the camp it was the same; and Bonne, as she watched Roger and the five troopers proceeding with three led horses across the open, saw nothing strange in the arrangement.
 
But when some minutes had passed, and the little troop did not emerge again from the ruck of hovels which had swallowed them, Bonne began to quake. Before her fears had time to take shape, however, the riders appeared; and the anxiety she still felt--for she knew that des Ageaux was not with them--gave way for a moment to a natural if jealous curiosity. How would she look, how would she carry herself, who had but this moment parted from him, who had shared through the night his solitude and his risk, his thoughts, perhaps, and his ambitions? Would happiness or anxiety or triumph be uppermost in her face?
 
She looked; she saw. Her gaze left no shade of colour, no tremor of eye or lip unnoticed. And certainly for happiness or triumph she failed to find a trace of either in the Countess's face. The young girl, pale and depressed, drooped in her saddle, drooped still more when she stood on her feet. No blush, no smile betrayed remembered words or looks, caresses or promises; and if it was anxiety that clouded her, she showed it strangely. For when she had alighted from her horse she did not wait. Although, as her feet touched the ground, a murmur rose from the distant huts, she did not heed it; but looking neither to right nor left, she hastened to hide herself in her quarters.
 
She seemed to be in trouble, and Bonne, melted, would have gone to her. But a sound stayed the elder girl at the door. The murmur in the peasants' quarter had risen to a louder note; and borne on this--as treble on base--came to the ear the shrill screech that tells of fanaticism. Such a sound has terrors for the boldest; for, irrational itself, it deprives others of reason. It gathers up all that is weak, all that is nighty, all that is cruel, even all that is cowardly, and hurls the whole, imbued with its own qualities, against whatever excites its rage. Bonne, who had never heard that note before, but knew by intuition its danger, stood transfixed, staring with terrified eyes at the distant huts. She was picturing what one instant of time, one savage blow, one shot at hazard, might work under that bright morning sky! She saw des Ageaux alone, hemmed in, surrounded by the ignorant crowd which the enthusiast was stirring to madness! She saw their lowering brows, their cruel countenances, their small, fierce eyes under matted locks; and she looked trembling to the Bat, who, stationed a few paces from her, was also listening to the shrill voice.
 
Had he sworn she had borne it better. But his compressed lips told of a more tense emotion; of fidelity strained to the utmost. Even this iron man shook, then! Even he to whom his master's orders were heaven's first law felt anxiety! She could bear no more in silence.
 
"Go!" she murmured. "Oh, go! Surely twenty men might ride through them!"
 
He did not look at her. "Orders!" he muttered hoarsely. "Orders!" But the perspiration stood on his brow.
 
She saw that, and that his sinewy hands gripped nail to palm; and as the distant roar gathered volume, and the note of peril in it grew more acute, "Oh, go!" she cried, holding out her hands to him. "Go, Roger! Some one!" wildly. "Will you let them tear him limb from limb!"
 
Still "Orders! Orders!" the Bat muttered. And though his eyes flickered an instant in the direction of the waiting troopers, he set his teeth. And then in a flash, in a second, the roar died down and was followed by silence.
 
Silence; no one moved, no one spoke. As if fascinated every eye remained glued to the low, irregular line of huts that hid from sight the inner part of the peasants' camp. What had happened, what was passing there? On the earthen ramparts high overhead were men, Charles among them, who could see, and must know; but so taken up were the group below, from Bonne to the troopers, in looking for what was to come, that no one diverted eye or thought to these men who knew. And though either the abrupt cessation of sound, or the subtle excitement in the air, drew the Abbess at this moment from the Duke's hut, no one noted her appearance, or the Duke's pale eager face peering over her shoulder. What had happened? What had happened behind the line of hovels, under the morning sunshine that filled the camp and rendered only more grim the fear, the suspense, the tragedy that darkened all?
 
Something more than a minute they spent in that absorbed gazing. Then a deep blush dyed Bonne's cheeks. The Bat, who had not sworn, swore. The Duke laughed softly. The troopers, if their officer had not raised his hand to check them, would have cheered. Des Ageaux had shown himself in one of the openings that pierced the peasants' town. He was on horseback, giving directions, with gestures on this side and that. A score of naked urchins ran before him, gazing up at him; and a couple of men at his bridle were taking orders from him.
 
He was safe, he had conquered. And Bonne, uncertain what she had said in her anxiety, but certain that she had said too much, cast a shamed look at the Bat. Fortunately his eye was on the troopers; and it was not his look but her sister's smile which drove the girl from the scene. She remembered the Countess: she bethought her that, in the solitude of her hut, the child might be suffering. Bonne hastened to her, with the less scruple as the two shared a hut.
 
The impulse that moved her was wholly generous. Yet when her hasty entrance surprised the young girl in the act of rising from her knees, there entered into the embarrassment which checked her one gleam of triumph. While the other had prayed for her lover, she had acted. She had acted!
 
The next moment she quelled the mean thought. The girl before her looked so wan, so miserable, so forlorn, that it was impossible to think of her hardly, or judge her strictly. "I am afraid that I scared you," Bonne said, and stooped and kissed her. "But all is well, I bring you good news. He is safe! You can see him if you look from the door of the hut."
 
She thought that the child would spring to the door and feast her eyes on the happy assurance of his safety. But the young Countess did not move. She stared at Bonne as if she had a difficulty in taking in the meaning of her words. "Safe?" she stammered. "Who is safe?"
 
"Who?" Bonne ejaculated.
 
The young girl passed her hand over her brow. "I am very sorry," she replied humbly. "I did not understand. You said that some one was safe?"
 
"M. des Ageaux, of course!"
 
"Of course! I am very glad."
 
"Glad?" Bonne repeated, with indignation she could not control. "Glad? Only that?"
 
The girl, her lip trembling, her face working, cast a frightened look at her, and then with a piteous gesture, as if she could no longer control herself, she turned from her and burst into tears.
 
Bonne stared. What did this mean? Relief? Joy? The relaxation of nerves too tightly strained? No. She should have thought of it before. It was not likely, it was not possible that this child had already conceived for des Ageaux such an affection as casts out fear. It was not she, but he, who had to gain by the marriage; and prepared as the Countess might be to look favourably on his suit, ready as she might be to give her heart, she had not yet given it.
 
"You are overwrought!" Bonne said, to soothe her. "You have been frightened."
 
"Frightened!" the girl replied through her sobs. "I shall die--if I have to go through it again! And I have to go through it, I must go through it. And I shall die! Oh, the night I have spent listening and waiting and"--she cowered away, with a stifled scream. "What was that?" She stared at the door, her eyes wild with terror. "What was that?" she repeated, seizing Bonne, and clinging to her.
 
"Nothing! Nothing!" Bonne answered gently, seeing that the girl was thoroughly shaken and unnerved. "It was only a horse neighing."
 
The Countess controlled her sobs, but her scared eyes and white face revealed the impression which the suspense of the night had made on one not bold by nature, and only supported by the pride of rank. "A horse neighing?" she repeated. "Was it only that? I thought--oh! if you knew what it was to hear them creeping and crawling, and rustling and whispering every hour of the night! To fancy them coming, and to sit up gasping! And then to lie down again and wait and wait, expecting to feel their hands on your throat! Ah, I tell you"--she hid her face on Bonne's shoulder and clasped her to her passionately--"every minute was an hour, and every hour a day!"
 
Bonne held her to her full of pity. And presently, "But he was near you?" she ventured. "Did not his--his neighbourhood----"
 
"The Lieutenant's?"
 
"Yes. Did not that"--Bonne spoke with averted eyes: she would know for certain now if the child loved him!--"did not that make you feel safer?"
 
"One man!" the Countess's voice rang querulous. "What could one man do? What could he have done if they had come? Besides they would have killed him first. I did not think of him. I thought of myself. Of my throat!" She clasped it with a sudden movement of her two hands--it was white and very slender. "I thought of that, and the knife, and how it would feel--all night! All night, do you understand? And I could have screamed! I could have screamed every minute. I wonder I did not."
 
Bonne saw that the child had gone to the ordeal, and passed through it, in the face of a terror that would have turned brave men. And she felt no contempt for her. She saw indeed that the child did not love; for love, as Bonne's maiden fancy painted it, was an all-powerful impervious armour. She was sure that in the other's place she would have known fear, but it would have been fear on his account, not on her own. She might have shuddered as she thought of the steel, but it would have been of the steel at his breast. Whereas the Countess--no, the Countess did not love.
 
"And I must go again! I must go again!" the child wailed, in the same abandonment of terror. "Oh, how shall I do it? How shall I do it?"
 
The cry went to Bonne's heart. "You shall not do it," she said. "If you feel about it like this, you shall not do it. It is not right nor fit."
 
"But I cannot refuse!" the Countess shook violently as she said it. "I dare not refuse. Afraid and a Rochechouart! A Rochechouart and a coward! No, I must go. I must die of fear there; or of shame here."
 
"Perhaps it may not be necessary," Bonne murmured.
 
"No? Why, even if my men come I must go! If they come to-day I must still go to-night. And lie trembling, and starting, and dying a death at every sound!"
 
"But perhaps----"
 
"Don't--don't!" the Countess cried, moving feverishly in her arms. "And, ah, God, I was cold a moment ago, and now I am hot! Oh, I am so hot! So hot! Let me go." Her parched lips and bright eyes told of the fever of fear that ran through her veins.
 
But Bonne still held her.
 
"It may not be necessary," she murmured. "Tell me, did you see M. des Ageaux--after you went from here last night?"
 
"See him?" querulously. "No! He has his hut and I mine. I see no one! No one!"
 
"And he does not come and talk to you?"
 
"Talk? No. Talk? You do not know what it is like. I am alone, I tell you, alone!"
 
"Then if I were to take your place he would not find it out?"
 
The Countess started violently--and then was still. "Take my place?" she echoed in a different tone. "In their camp, do you mean?"
 
"Yes."
 
"But you would not," the other retorted. "You would not." Then before Bonne could answer, "What do you mean? Do you mean anything?" she cried. "Do you mean you would go?"
 
"Yes."
 
"In my place?"
 
"If you will let me," Bonne replied. She flushed a little, conscience telling her that it was not entirely, not quite entirely for the other's sake that she was willing to do this. "If you will let me I will go," she continued. "I am bigger than you, but I can stoop, and in a riding-cloak and hood I think I can pass for you. And it will be dusk too. I am sure I can pass for you."
 
The Countess shivered. The boon was so great, the gift so tremendous, if she could accept it! But she was Rochechouart. What would men say if they discovered that she had not gone, that she had let another take her place and run her risk? She pondered with parted lips. If it might be!
 
"You are not fit to go," Bonne continued. "You will faint or fall. You are ill now."
 
"But they will find out!" the Countess wailed, hiding her face on Bonne's shoulder. "They will find out!"
 
"They will not find out," Bonne replied firmly. "And I--why should I not go? You have done one night. I will do one."
 
"Oh, if you would! But will you--not be afraid?" The Countess's eyes were full of longing. If only she could accept with honour!
 
"I shall not be afraid," Bonne answered confidently. "And no one need know, no one shall know. M. des Ageaux does not talk to you?"
 
"No. But if it be found out, everybody--ah, I shall die of shame! Your brother, Roger, too--and everybody!"
 
"No one shall know," Bonne answered stoutly. "No one. Besides, you have been once. It is not as if you had not been!"
 
And the child, with the memory of the night pressing upon her, jumped at that. "Then I shall go to-morrow night," she said. "I shall go to-morrow night."
 
Bonne was clear that she was not fit to go again. But she let that be for the moment. "That shall be as you wish," she answered comfortably. "We will talk about that to-morrow. For to-night it is settled. And now you must try if you cannot go to sleep. If you do not sleep you will be ill."
 


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