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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Abbess Of Vlaye » CHAPTER XX. THE ABBESS MOVES.
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 That Bonne failed to read the dark scroll of her sister's thoughts need not surprise us; since apart from the tie of blood the two women had nothing in common. But that she failed also to interpret Roger's inaction; that, blaming herself for an acquiescence which love made inevitable, she did not spare him, whom love should have moved in the opposite direction--this was more remarkable. For a closer bond never united brother and sister. But misery is a grand engrosser. She had her lover in her thoughts, the poor girl whom she sacrificed on her mind; and she left the Duke's quarters without that last look at her brother which might have enlightened her.
Had she questioned him he had discovered his mind. She did not, and she had barely passed from sight before he was outside and had got a fresh horse saddled. One thing only it was prevented his leaving the camp in advance of the Countess, whose people were not ready. His foot was raised to the stirrup when he bethought him of this thing. He left the horse in charge of a trooper and hurried back to the Duke's quarters, found him alone and put his question.
"You made a man fight the other night against his will," he said, his head high. "Tell me, my lord, how I can do the same thing."
The Duke stared, then laughed. "Is it that you want?" he answered. "Tell me first whom it is you would fight, my lad?"
"The Captain of Vlaye."
"You said a while ago," Roger continued, his eyes sparkling, "that you would presently make her a widow. Better a widow before she is wed, I say!"
The Duke smiled whimsically. "Sits the wind in that quarter?" he answered. "You have no mind to see her wed at all, my lad? That is it, is it? I had some notion of it."
"Tell me how I can make him fight," Roger replied, sticking to his question and refusing even to blush.
"Tell me how I can get the moon!" Joyeuse answered, but not unkindly. "Why should he risk his life to rid himself of you, who are no drawback to him? Tell me that! Or why should he surrender the advantage of his strong place and his four hundred spears to enter the lists with a man who is naught to him?"
"Because if he does not I will kill him where I find him!" Roger replied with passion. And the mode of the day, which was not nice in the punctilios of the duel, and forgave the most irregular assault if it were successful, which cast small blame on Guise for the murder of St. Pol, or on Montsoreau for the murder of Bussy, justified the threat. "I will kill him!" he repeated. "Fair or foul, light or dark----"
"He shall not wed her!" the Duke cried in a mocking tone and with an extravagant gesture. But in truth the raillery was on the surface only. The lad's spirit touched the corresponding note in his own nature. None the less he shook his head. "Brave words, brave words, young man," he continued; "but you are not Vitaux, who counted his life for nothing, and whose sword was a terror to all."
"But if I count my life for nothing?"
"Ay, if! If!"
"And why should I not?" Roger retorted, his soul rising to his lips. "Tell me, my lord, why should I count it for more? What am I, the son of a poor gentleman, misshapen, rough, untutored, that I should hold my life dear? That I should spare it, and save it, as a thing so valuable? What have I in prospect of all the things other men look to? Glory? See me! Fine I should be," with a bitter laugh covering tears, "in a triumph, or marching up the aisle to a Te Deum! Court favour? Ay, I might be the dwarf in a masque or the fool in motley! Naught besides! Naught besides, my lord! And for love?" He laughed still more bitterly. "I tell you my own father winces when he sees me! My own sister and my own brother--well, they are blind perhaps. They, they only, and old Solomon, and the woman who nursed me and dropped me--see in me a man like other men. Leave them out, and, as I live, until this man came----"
"Des Ageaux?"
"Des Ageaux--until he came and spoke gently to me and said, 'do this, and do that, and you shall be as Gourdon or as Guesclin!'--even he could not promise me love--as I live, till then no man pitied me or gave me hope! And shall I let him die to save my stunted life?"
"But it is not the saving him that is in question," the Duke replied gently, and with respect in his tone. He was honestly moved by this unveiling of poor Roger's thoughts. "She saved him."
"And I'll save her," Roger replied with fervour. "I will save her though I die a hundred deaths. For she, too----"
He paused. The Duke looked at him, a spice of humour mingling with his sympathy. "She, too, sees in you a man like other men," he said, "I suppose?"
"She pitied me," Roger answered. "No more; she pitied me, my lord! What more could she do, being what she is? And I being what I am?" His chin sank on his breast.
The Duke nodded kindly. "May-be," he said. "Less likely things have happened." And then, "But what will you do?" he asked.
"Go with her and see him, take him aside, and if he will fight me, well! And if he will not, I will strike him down where he stands!"
"But that will not save des Ageaux."
"No! On the contrary, it will be he," Joyeuse retorted somewhat grimly, "who will pay for it. Do you not see that?"
"Then I will wait," Roger replied, "until he is released."
"And then," the Duke asked, still opposing, though the man and the plan were alike after his own heart, "what of the Countess? M. de Vlaye dead, who will protect her? His men----"
"They would not dare!" Roger cried, trembling. "They would not dare!"
"Well, perhaps not," the Duke answered, after a moment's thought. "Perhaps not. Probably his lieutenant would protect her, for his own sake. And des Ageaux free would be worth two hundred men to us. Not that, if I were well, he would be in question. But I am but half a man, and we need him!"
"You shall have him," Roger answered, his eyes glittering. "Have no doubt of it! But advise me, my lord. Were it better I escorted her to the gate and sought entrance later, after he had released des Ageaux? Or that I kept myself close until the time came?"
"The time? For what?"
The speaker was the Abbess. Unseen by the two men, she had that moment glided across the threshold. The pallor of her features and the brightness of her eyes were such as to strike both; but differently. To the Duke these results of a night passed in vivid emotions, and of a morning that had crowned her schemes with mockery, only brought her into nearer keeping with the dress she wore--only enhanced her charms. To her brother, on the other hand, who now hated Vlaye with a tenfold hatred, they were grounds for suspicion--he knew not why. But not even he came nearer to guessing the truth. Not even he dreamt that behind that mask were passions at work which, had they discovered them, would have cast the Duke into a stupor deeper than any into which his own mad freaks had ever flung a wondering world. As it was, the Duke's eyes saw only the perfection of womankind; the lily of the garden, drooping, pale, under the woes of her frailer sisters. Of the jealousy with which she contemplated the surrender of her rival to her lover's power, much less of the step which that surrender was pressing upon her, he caught no glimpse.
"The time for what?" the Duke repeated, with looks courteous to the point of reverence. "Ah--pardon, my sister, but we cannot take you into our counsel. Men must sometimes do things it is not for saints to know or women to witness."
"Saints!" The involuntary irony of her tone must have penetrated ears less dulled by prejudgment. "Saints!" and then, "I am no saint, my lord," she said modestly.
"Still," he answered, "it were better you did not know, mademoiselle. It is but a plan by which we think it possible that we may yet get the better of M. de Vlaye and save the child before--before, in fact----"
"Ay?" the Abbess said, a flicker of pain in her eyes. "Before--I understand."
"Before it be too late."
"Yes. And how?"
The Duke shook his head with a smile meant to propitiate. "How?" he repeated. "That--pardon me--that is the point upon which--we would fain be silent."
"Yet you must not be silent," she replied. "You must tell me." And pale, almost stern, she looked from one to the other, dominating them. "You must tell me," she repeated. "Or perhaps," fixing Roger with a glance keen as steel, "I know already. You would save her by killing him. It is of that you are thinking. It is for that your horse is waiting saddled by the gate. You would ride after her, and gain access to him--and----"
"She has not started?" Roger exclaimed.
"She started ten minutes ago," the Abbess answered coldly. "Nay, stay!" For Roger was making for the door. "Stay, boy! Do you hear?"
"I cannot stay!"
"If you do not stay you will repent it all your life!" the Abbess made answer in a voice that shook even his resolution. "And she all hers! Ha! that stays you?" with a gleam of passion she could not restrain. "I thought it would. Now, if you will listen, I have something to say that will put another complexion on this."
They gazed expectant, but she did not at once continue. She stood reflecting deeply; while each of her listeners regarded her after his knowledge of her; Roger sullenly and with suspicion, doubting what she would be at, the Duke in admiration, expecting that with which gentle wisdom might inspire her.
Secretly she was heart-sick, and the sigh which she could not restrain declared it. But at last, "There is no need of violence," she said wearily. "No," addressing Roger, who had raised his hand in remonstrance, "hear me out before you interrupt me. How will the loss of a minute harm you? Or of five or ten? I repeat, there is no need of violence. Heaven knows there has been enough! We must go another way to work to release her. It is my turn now."
"I would rather trust myself," Roger muttered; but so low that the words, frank to rudeness, did not reach Joyeuse's ears.
"Yet you must trust me," she answered. "Do so, trust me, and follow my directions, and I will take on myself to say that before nightfall she shall be free."
"What are we to do?" the Duke asked.
"You? Nothing. I, all. I must take her place, as she has taken M. des Ageaux'."
For an instant they were silent in sheer astonishment. Then, "But M. de Vlaye may have something to say to that!" Roger ejaculated before the Duke could find words. The lad spoke on impulse. He knew a little and suspected more of the lengths to which Vlaye's courtship of his sister had gone.
If she had not put force on herself, she had flung him a retort that must have opened the Duke's eyes. Instead, "I shall not consult M. de Vlaye," she replied coldly. "I have visited him on various occasions, and we are on terms. My appearance in Vlaye, seeing that the Abbey of Vlaye is but a half-league from the town, will cause no surprise. Once in the town, if I can enter the castle and gain speech of the Countess, she may escape in my habit."
"I hate this shifting and changing!" Roger grumbled.
"But if it will save her?"
"Ay, but will it?" Roger returned, shrugging his shoulders. He suspected that her aim was to save M. de Vlaye rather than the Countess. "Will it? Can you, in the first place, get speech of her?"
"I think I can," the Abbess answered quietly. "Many of the men know me. And I will take with me Father Benet, who is at the Captain of Vlaye's beck and call. He will serve me within limits, if a friend be needed. I shall wear my robes, and though she is shorter and smaller I see no reason why she should not pass out in them in the twilight or after dark."
"But what of you?" the Duke asked, staring much.
"I shall remain in her place."
"Remain in her place?" Joyeuse said slowly, in the voice he would have used had Our Lady appeared before him. "You will dare that for her?"
A faint colour stole into the Abbess's cheeks. "It is my expiation," she murmured modestly. "I struck her--God forgive me!"
"And I run no risk. M. de Vlaye knows me, and this"--with a gesture which drew attention to her conventual garb--"will protect me."
The Duke gazed at the object of his adoration in a kind of rapture, seeing already the wings on her shoulders, the aureole about her head. "Mademoiselle, you will do that?" he cried. "Then you are no woman! You are an angel!" In his enthusiasm he knelt--not without difficulty, for he was still weak--and kissed her hand. To him the thing seemed an act of pure heroism, pure self-denial, pure good-doing.
But Roger, who knew more of his sister's nature and past history, and whose knowledge left less room for fancy's gilding, stood lost in gloomy thought. What did she mean? Was she going as friend or enemy? Influence with Vlaye she had, or lately had; but, the Countess released, in what a position would she, his sister, stand? Could he, could her father, could her friends let her do this thing?
Yet the chance--to a lover--was too good to reject; the position, moreover, was too desperate for niceties. The thought that she was going, not for the sake of the Countess, but of the Captain of Vlaye, the suspicion that she was not unwilling to take the Countess's place and the Countess's risks, occurred to him. But he thrust, he strove to thrust the suspicion and the thought from him. Her motive and her meaning, even though that motive and meaning were to save the Captain of Vlaye, were small things beside the Countess's safety.
"At any rate I shall go with you," he said at length, and with more of suspicion than of gratitude in his tone. "When will you be ready?"
"I think it likely that he will have bidden Father Benet to be with him at sunset," she answered. "If we are at the priest's, therefore, an hour earlier, it should do."
"And for safe-conduct?"
"I will answer for that," she replied with boldness, "so far as M. de Vlaye's men are concerned."
The answer chafed Roger anew. Her reliance on her influence with Vlaye and Vlaye's people--he hated it; and for an instant he hesitated. But in the end he swallowed his vexation: had he not made up his mind to shut his eyes? And the three separated after a few more words relating to the arrangements to be made. The Duke, standing with a full heart in the doorway, watched her to her quarters, marked the grace of her movements, and in his mind doomed the Captain of Vlaye to unspeakable deaths if he harmed her; while she, as she passed away, thought--but we need not enter into her thoughts. She was doing this, lest a worse thing happen; doing it in a passion of jealousy, in a frenzy of disgust. But she had one consolation. She would see the Captain of Vlaye! She would see the man she loved. Through the dark stuff of her thoughts that prospect ran like a golden thread.
Roger, on the other hand, should have been content. He should have been more than satisfied, as an hour later he rode beside her down the river valley to the chapel beside the ford, and thence to the open country about Villeneuve. For if things were still dark, there was a prospect of light. A few hours earlier he had despaired; he had seen no means of saving the woman he adored, save at the expense of his own life. Now he had hope and a chance, now he had prospects, now he might look, if fortune favoured him, to be her escort into safety before the sun rose again.
Surely, then, he should have been content; yet he was not. Not even when after a journey of four hours the two, having passed Villeneuve, gained without misadventure the summit of that hill on the scarped side of which the Countess had met with her first misfortune. From that point, they and the two armed servants who followed them could look down upon the wide green valley that framed the town of Vlaye, and that, somewhat lower, opened into the wide plain of the Dronne. They could discern the bridge over the river; they could almost count the red roofs of the small town that crept up from the water to the coronet of grey walls and towers that crowned all. Those walls and towers basking in the sunshine were the eyrie that lorded it over leagues of country seen and unseen--the hawk's nest, the plebis flagellum, as the old chronicler has it. They might, in sight of those towers, count the preliminaries over and all but the supreme risk run.
For quite easily they might have fallen in with Vlaye's people on the road and been taken; or with M. de Vlaye himself, and with that there had been an end of the plan. But they had escaped these dangers. And yet Roger was not content; still he rode with a gloomy brow and pinched lips. The longer he thought of his sister's plan, the more he suspected and the less he liked it. There was in it a little which he did not understand, and more which he understood too well. His sister and M. de Vlaye! He hated the collocation; he hated to think that she must be left, willingly and by her own act, in the adventurer's power; and this at a moment when disappointment would aggravate a temper tried by the attack on him and by the part which the Vicomte had played in it. On what did she depend for her safety, for her honour, for all that she put wantonly at stake? On his respect? His friendship? Or his love?
"I will take her place," she had said. Could it be that she was willing, that she desired, to take it altogether? Was she, after the rebuffs, after the scornful and contumelious slight which M. de Vlaye had put upon her, willing still to seek him, willing still to be in his power?
It seemed so. Certainly it could not be denied that she was seeking him, and that he, her brother, was escorting her. In that light people would look upon his action.
The thought stung him, and he halted midway on the woodland track that descended the farther side of the hill. His face wore a mixture of shame and appeal--with ill-humour underlying both. "See here, Odette," he said abruptly, "I do not see the end of this."
Though she raised her eyebrows contemptuously, a faint tinge of colour crept into her face.
"I thought," she replied, "that the end was to save this little fool who is too weak to save herself!"
"But you?"
"Oh, for me?" contemptuously. "Take no heed of me. I am of other stuff, and can manage my own affairs."
"You think so," he retorted. "But the Captain of Vlaye, he, too, is of other stuff."
"Do you fancy I am afraid of M. de Vlaye?" she answered. And her eyes flashed scorn on him. "You may be! You should be!" with a glance which marked his deformity and stabbed the sense of it deep into his heart. "How should you be otherwise, seeing that in no circumstances could you be a match for him! But I? I say again that I am of other stuff."
"All the same," he muttered darkly, "I would not go on----"
"Would not go on?" she retorted in mockery. "Not with your sweet Countess in danger? Not with the dear light of your eyes in Vlaye's arms? Not go on? Oh, brave lover! Oh, brave man! Not go on, and your Countess, your pretty Countess----"
"Be silent!" he cried. She stung him to rage.
"Ah! We go back then?"
But he could not face that, he could not say yes to that; and, defeated, he turned in dumb sullen anger and resumed the road.
Necessarily the danger of arrest increased as they approached the town. The last mile, which brought them to the bridge over the river, was traversed under the eyes of the castle; it would not have surprised Roger had they been met and stopped long before they came to the town gate. But the Captain of Vlaye, it seemed, held the danger still remote, and troubled his followers with few precautions. The place lay drowsing in the late heat of the summer afternoon. It was still as the dead, and though their approach was doubtless seen and noted, no one issued forth or challenged them. Even the men who lounged in the shade of the low-browed archway--that still bore the scutcheon of its ancient lords--contented themselves with a long stare and a sulky salute. The bridge passed, a narrow street paved and steep, and overhung by ancient houses of brick and timber, opened before them. It led upwards in the direction of the castle, but after pursuing it in single file some fifty paces, the Abbess turned from it into a narrow lane that brought them in a bow-shot--for the town was very small--to the wall again. This was their present destination. For crowded into an angle of the wall under the shadow of one of the old brick watch-towers stood the chapel and cell that owned the lax rule of M. de Vlaye's chaplain, Father Benet.


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