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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Abbess Of Vlaye » CHAPTER XXI. THE CASTLE OF VLAYE.
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 Roger had little faith in the priest's power, and less in his willingness to aid them. But at worst he was not to be kept in suspense. By good luck, Father Benet was walking at the moment of their arrival in his potherb garden. As they dismounted, they espied the Father peeping at them between the tall sunflowers and budding hollyhocks; his ruddy face something dismayed and fallen, and his mien that of a portly man caught in the act of wrong-doing. Finding himself detected, he came forward with an awkward show of joviality.
"Welcome, sister," he said. "There is naught the matter at the Abbey, I trust, that I see you thus late in the day?"
"No, the matter is here," the Abbess replied, with a look in her eyes that told him she knew all. "And we are here to see about it. Let us in, Father. The time is short, for at any moment your master"--she indicated the castle by a gesture--"may hear of our arrival and send for us."
"I am sure," the priest answered glibly, "that anything that I can do for you, sister----"
She cut him short. "No words, no words, but let us in!" she said sharply. And when with pursed lips and a shrug of resignation he had complied, and they stood in the cool stone-floored room--communicating by an open door with the chapel--in which he received his visitors, she came with the same abruptness to the point.
"At what hour are you going up to the castle?" she asked.
He tried to avoid her eyes. "To the castle?" he repeated.
"Ay," she said, watching him keenly. "To the castle. Are there more castles than one? Or first, when were you there last, Father?"
His look wandered, full of calculation. "Last?" he said. "When was I at the castle last?"
"The truth! The truth!" she cried impatiently.
He chid her, but with a propitiatory smile akin to those which the augurs exchanged. "Sister! Sister!" he said. "Nil nisi verum clericus! I was there no more than an hour back."
"And got your orders? And got your orders, I suppose?" she repeated with rude insistence. "Out with it, Father. I see that you are no more easy than I am!"
He flung out his hands in sudden abandonment. "God knows I am not!" he said. "God knows I am not! And that is the truth, and I am not hiding it. God knows I am not! But what am I to do? He is a violent man--you know him!--and I am a man of peace. I must do his will or go. And I am better than nothing! I may"--there was a whine in his voice--"I may do some good still. You know that, sister. I may do some good. I baptise. I bury. But if I go, there is no one."
"And if you go, you are no one," she answered keenly. "For your suffragan has you in no good favour, I am told. So that if you go you happen on but a sackcloth welcome. So it is said, Father. I know not if it be said truly."
"Untruly! Untruly!" he protested earnestly. "He has never found fault with me, sister, on good occasion. But I have enemies, all men have enemies----"
"You are like to make more," Roger struck in, with a dark look.
The priest wrung his hands. "I know! I know!" he said. "He carries it too highly. Too highly! They say that he has caught the King's governor now, and has him in keeping there."
"It is true."
"Well, I have warned him; he cannot say I have not!"
"And what said he to your warning?" the Abbess asked with a sneer.
"He threatened me with the stirrup leathers."
"And you are now to marry him?"
He turned a shade paler. "You know it?" he gasped.
"I know it, but not the time," she answered. And as he hesitated, silent and appalled, "Come," she continued, "the truth, Father. And then I will tell you what I am going to do."
"At sunset," he muttered, "I am to be there."
"Good," she said. "Now we know. Then you will go up an hour earlier. And I shall go with you."
He protested feebly. He knew something of that which had gone before, something of her history, something of her passion for the Captain of Vlaye; and he was sure that she was not bent on good. "I dare not!" he said, "I dare not, sister! You ask too much."
"Dare not what?" the Abbess retorted, bending her handsome brows in wrath. "Dare not go one hour earlier?"
"But you--you want to go?"
"If I go with you, what is that to you?"
"But what, Father, but what?"
"You want something of me?" he faltered. He was not to be deceived. "Something dangerous, I know it!"
"I want your company to the door of the room where she lies," the Abbess replied. "That is all. You have leave to visit her? Do not"--overwhelming him with swift fierce words--"deny it. Do not tell me that you have not! Think you I do not know you, Father? Think you I do not know how well you are with him, how late you sit with him, how deep you drink with him, when he lacks better company? And that this--though you are frightened now, and would fain be clear of it, knowing who she is--is the thing which you have vowed to do for him a hundred times and a hundred times to that, if it would help him!"
"Never! Never!" he protested, paler than before.
"Father," she retorted, stooping forward and speaking low, "be warned. Be warned! Get you a foot in the other camp while you may! You are over-well fed for the dry crust and the sack bed of the bishop's prison! You drink too much red wine to take kindly to the moat puddle! And that not for months, but for years and years! Have you not heard of men who lay forgotten, ay, forgotten even by their gaoler at last, until they starved in the bishop's prison? The bishop's prison, Father!" she continued cruelly. "Who comes out thence, but the rats, and they fat? Who comes out thence----"
"Don't! Don't!" the priest cried, his complexion mottled, his flabby cheeks trembling with fear of the thing which her words called up, with fear of the thing that had often kept him quaking in the night hours. "You will not do it?"
"I?" she answered drily. "No, not I perhaps. But is a Countess of Rochechouart to be abducted so lightly, or so easily? Has she so few friends? So poor a kindred? A cousin there is, I think--my lord Bishop of Comminges--who has one of those very prisons. And, if I mistake not, she has another cousin, who is in Flanders now, but will know well how to avenge her when he returns."
"What is it you want me to do?" he faltered.
"Go with me to her door--that I may gain admission. Then, whether you go to him or not, your silence, for one half-hour."
"You will not do her any harm?" he muttered.
"Fool, it is to do her good I am here."
"And that is all? You swear it?"
"That is all."
He heaved a deep sigh. "I will do it," he said. He wiped his brow with the sleeve of his cassock. "I will do it."
"You are wise," she replied, "and wise in time, Father, for it is time we went. The sun is within an hour of setting." Then, turning to Roger, who had never ceased to watch the priest as a cat watches a mouse, "The horses may wait in the lane or where you please," she said. "They are hidden from the castle where they stand, and perhaps they are best there. In any case"--with a meaning glance--"I return to this spot. Expect me in half an hour. After that, the rest is for you to contrive. I wash my hands of it."
The words in which he would have assented stuck in the lad's throat. He could not speak. She turned again to the priest. "One moment and I am ready," she said. "Have you a mirror?"
"A mirror?" he exclaimed in astonishment.
"But of course you have not," she replied. She looked about her an instant, then with a quick step she passed through the doorway into the chapel. There her eye had caught a polished sheet of brass, recording in monkish Latin the virtues of that member of the old family who had founded this "Capella extra muros," as ancient deeds style it. She placed herself before the tablet, and paying as little heed to her brother or the priest--though they were within sight--as to the sacred emblems about her, or the scene in which she stood, she cast back her hood, and drew from her robes a small ivory case. From this she took a morsel of sponge, and a tiny comb, also of ivory; and with water taken from the stoup beside the door, she refreshed her face, and carefully recurled the short ringlets upon her forehead. With a pencil drawn from the same case, she retouched her eyelashes and the corners of her eyes, and with deft fingers she straightened and smoothed the small ruff about her neck. Finally, with no less care, she drew the hood of her habit close round her face, and after turning herself about a time or two before the mirror went back to the others. They had not taken their eyes off her.
"Come," she said. And she led the way out without a second word, passed by the waiting horses and the servants, and, attended by the reluctant Father, walked at a gentle pace along the lane towards the main street.
The priest went in fear, his stout legs trembling under him. But until the two reached a triangular open space, graced by an Italian fountain, and used, though it sloped steeply, for a market site, the street they pursued was not exposed to view from the castle. Above the marketplace, however, the road turned abruptly to the left, and, emerging from the houses, ascended between twin mounds, of which the nearer bore the castle, and the other, used on occasion as a tilt-yard, was bare. The road ascended the gorge between the two, then wound about, this time to the right, and gained the summit of the unoccupied breast; whence, leaping its own course by a drawbridge, it entered the grey stronghold that on every other side looked down from the brow of a precipice--here on the clustering roofs of the town, and there, and there again, on the wide green vale and silvery meanders of the Dronne.
Looking to the south, where the valley opened into a plain, the eye might almost discern Coutras--that famous battlefield that lies on the Dronne bank. Northward it encountered the wooded hills beyond which lay Villeneuve, and the town of Barbesieux on the great north road, and the plain towards Angoulême. Fairer eyrie, or stronger, is scarce to be found in the width of three provinces.
Until they came to the market-place the Abbess and her unwilling companion had little to fear unless they met M. de Vlaye himself. As far as others were concerned, Father Benet's coarse, plump face, albeit less ruddy than ordinary, was warrant enough to avert both suspicion and inquiry. But thence onwards they walked in full view not only of the lounge upon the ramparts which the Captain of Vlaye most affected at the cool hour, but of a dozen lofty casements from any one of which an officious sentry or a servant might mark their approach and pass word of it. Father Benet pursued this path as one under fire. The sun was low, but at its midday height it had not burned the stout priest more than the fancied fury of those eyes. The sweat poured down his face as he climbed and panted and crossed himself in a breath.
"Believe me, you are better here than in the bishop's prison," his companion said, to cheer him.
"But he will see us from the ramparts," he groaned, not daring to look up and disprove the fact. "He will see us! He will meet us at the gate."
"Then it will be my affair," the Abbess answered.
"We are mad--stark, staring mad!" he protested.
"You were madder to go back," she said.
He looked at her viciously, as if he wished her dead. Fortunately they had reached the narrow defile under the bridge, and a feverish longing to come to an end of the venture took place of all other feelings in the priest's breast. Doggedly he panted up the Tilt Mound, as it was called, and passed three or four groups of troopers, who were taking the air on their backs or playing at games of chance. Thence they crossed the drawbridge. The iron-studded doors, with their clumsy grilles, above which the arms of the old family still showed their quarterings, stood open; but in the depths of the low-browed archway, where the shadows were beginning to gather, lounged a dozen rogues whose insolent eyes the Abbess must confront.
But she judged, and rightly, that the priest's company would make that easy which she could not have compassed so well alone, though she might have won entrance. The men, indeed, were surprised to see her, and stared; some recognised her with respect, others with grins half-knowing, half-insolent. But no one stepped forward or volunteered to challenge her entrance. And although a wit, as soon as her back was turned, hummed
"Je suis amoureuse,
J'ai perdu mon galant!"
and another muttered, "Oh, la, la, the bridesmaid!" with a wink at his fellows, they were soon clear of the gate and the starers, and crossing the wide paved court, that, bathed in quiet light, was pervaded none the less by an air of subdued expectation. Here a man cleaned a horse or his harness, there a group chatted on the curb of the well; here a white-capped cook showed himself, and there, beside the entrance, a couple teased the brown bear that inhabited the stone kennel, and on high days made sport for the Captain of Vlaye's dogs.
Vlaye's quarters and those of his household and officers lay in the wing on the left, which overlooked the town; his men were barracked and the horses stabled in the opposite wing. The fourth side, facing the entrance, was open, but was occupied by a garden raised two steps above the court and separated from it, first by a tall railing of curiously wrought iron, and secondly by a row of clipped limes, whose level wall of foliage hid the pleasaunce from the come-and-go of the vulgar.
The Abbess knew the place intimately, and she felt no surprise when the Father, in place of making for the common doorway on the left, which led into M. de Vlaye's wing, bore across the open to the floriated iron gates of the garden. He passed through these and turned to the left along the cool green lime walk, which was still musical with the hum of belated bees.
"She is in the demoiselles' wing then?" the Abbess murmured. She had occupied those rooms herself on more than one occasion. They opened by a door on the garden and enjoyed a fair and airy outlook over the Dronne. As she recalled them and the memories they summoned up her features worked.
"Where else should she be--short of this evening?" Father Benet answered, with full knowledge of the sting he inflicted. Her secret was no secret from him. "But I need come no farther," he added, pausing awkwardly.
"To the door," she answered firmly. "To the door! That is the bargain."
"Well, we are there," he said, halting when he had taken another dozen paces, which brought them to the door in the garden end of the left wing. "Now, I will retire by your leave, sister."
He complied with a faltering hand, and the moment he had done so he turned to flee, as if the sound terrified him. But with an unexpected movement she seized his wrist in her strong grasp, and though he stammered a remonstrance, and even resisted her weakly, she held him until the opening door surprised them.
A grim-faced woman looked out at them. "To see the Countess," the Abbess muttered. Then to the priest, as she released him, "I shall not be more than ten minutes, Father," she continued. "You will wait for me, perhaps. Until then!"
She nodded to him after a careless, easy fashion, and the door closed on her. In the half-light of the passage within, which faded tapestry and a stand of arms relieved from utter bareness, the woman who had admitted her faced her sourly. "You have my lord's leave?" she asked suspiciously.
"Should I be here without it?" the Abbess retorted in her proudest manner. "Be speedy, and let me to her. My lord will not be best pleased if the priest be kept waiting."
"No great matter that," the woman muttered rebelliously. But having said it she led the visitor up the stairs and ushered her into the well-remembered room. It was a spacious, pleasant chamber, with a view of the garden, and beyond the garden of the widening valley spread far beneath. Nothing of the prison-house hung about it, nor was it bare or coldly furnished.
The woman did not enter with her, but the gain was not much. For the Abbess had no sooner crossed the threshold than she discovered a second gaoler. This was a young waiting-woman, who, perched on a stool within the door, sat eyeing her prisoner with something of pity and more of ill-humour. The little Countess, indeed, was a pitiful sight. She lay, half-crouching, half-huddled together, in the recess of the farther window, on the seat of which she hid her face in the abandonment of despair. Her loosened hair flowed dishevelled upon her neck and shoulders; and from minute to minute a dry, painful sob--for she was not weeping--shook the poor child from head to foot.
The Abbess, after one keen glance, which took in every particular, from the waiting-woman's expression to the attitude of the captive, nodded to the attendant. Then for a moment she did not speak. At last, "She takes it ill?" she muttered under her breath.
The other slightly shrugged her shoulders. "She has been like that since he left her," she whispered. Whether the words and the movement expressed more pity, or more contempt, or more envy, it was hard to determine; for all seemed to meet in them. "She could not take it worse."
"I am here to mend that," the Abbess rejoined. And she moved a short way into the room. But there she came to a stand. Her eyes had fallen on a pile of laces and dainty fabrics arranged upon one of the seats of the nearer window. Her face underwent a sudden change; she seemed about to speak, but the words stuck in her throat. At last "Those are for her?" she said.
"Ay, but God knows how I am to get them on," the girl answered in a low tone. "She is such a baby! But there it is! Whatever she is now, she'll be mistress to-morrow, and I--I am loath to use force."
"I will contrive it," the Abbess replied, a light in her averted eyes. "Do you leave us. Come back in a quarter of an hour, and if I have succeeded take no notice. Take no heed, do you hear," she continued, turning to the girl, "if you find her dressed. Say nothing to her, but let her be until she is sent for."
"I am only too glad to let her be."
"That is enough," the Abbess rejoined sternly. "You can go now. Already the time is short for what I have to do."
"You will find it too short, my lady, unless I am mistaken," the waiting-woman answered under her breath. But she went. She was glad to escape; glad to get rid of the difficulty. And she went without suspicion. How the other came to be there, or how her interest lay in arraying this child for a marriage with her lover--these were questions which the girl proposed to put to her gossips at a proper opportunity; for they were puzzling questions. But that the Abbess was there without leave--the Abbess who not a month before had been frequently in Vlaye's company, hawking and hunting, and even supping--to the scandal of the convent, albeit no strait-laced one nor unwont to make allowance for its noble mistresses--that the Abbess was there without the knowledge of her master she never suspected. It never for an instant entered the woman's mind.
Meanwhile Odette, the moment the door closed on the other, took action. Before the latch ceased to rattle her hand was on the Countess's shoulder, her voice was in her ear. "Up, girl, if you wish to be saved!" she hissed. "Up, and not a word!"
The Countess sprang up--startled simultaneously by hand and voice. But once on her feet she recoiled. She stood breathing hard, her hands raised to ward the other off. "You?" she cried. "You here?" And shaking her head as if she thought she dreamed, she retreated another step. Her distrust of the Abbess was apparent in every line of her figure.
"Yes, it is I," Odette answered roughly. "It is I."
"But why? Why are you here? Why you?"
"To save you, girl," the Abbess answered. "To save you--do you hear? But every moment is of value. Hold your tongue, ask no questions, do as I tell you, and all may be well. Hesitate, and it will be too late. See, the sun still shines on the head of that tall tree! Before it leaves that tree you must be away from here. Is it true that he weds you to-night?"
The other uttered a cry of despair. "And for naught!" she said. "Do you understand, for naught! He has not let him go! He lied to us! He has not released him! He holds me, but he will not release him."
"And he will not!" the Abbess replied, with something like a jeer. "So, if you would not give all for naught, listen to me! Put some wrapping about your shoulders, and a kerchief on your head to heighten you, and over these my robes and hood. And be speedy! On your feet these"--with a rapid movement she drew from some hiding-place in her garments a pair of thick-soled shoes. "Hold yourself up, be bold, and you may pass out in my place."
"In your place?" the girl stammered, staring in astonishment.
The Abbess had scant patience with her rival's obtuseness. "That is what I said," she replied, with a look that was not pleasant in her eyes.
The Countess saw the look, and, fearful and doubting, hung back. She could not yet grasp the position. "But you!" she murmured. "What of you?"
"What is that to you?"
"Fear nothing for me!" the Abbess cried vehemently. "Think only of yourself! Think only of your own safety. I"--with scorn--"am no weak thing to suffer and make no cry. I can take care of myself. But, there"--impatiently--"we have lost five minutes! Are you going to do this or not? Are you going to stay here, or are you going to escape?"
"Oh, escape! Escape, if it be possible!" the Countess answered, shuddering. "Anywhere, from him!"
"You are certain?"
"Oh, yes, yes! But it is not possible! He is too clever."
"We will see if that be so," the Abbess answered, smiling grimly. And taking the matter into her own hands, she began to strip off her robe and hood.
That decided the girl. Gladly would she have learned how the other came to be there, and why and to what she trusted. Gladly would she have asked other things. But the prospect of escape--of escape from a fate which she dreaded the more the nearer she saw it--took reality in view of the Abbess's actions. And she, too, began. Escape? Was it possible? Was it possible to escape? With shaking fingers she snatched up a short cloak, and wrapped it about her shoulders and figure, tying it this way and that. She made in the same way a turban of a kerchief, and stood ready to clothe herself. By this time the Abbess's outer garments lay on the floor, and in three or four minutes the travesty, as far as the younger woman was concerned, was effected.
Meantime, while they both wrought, and especially while the Countess, stooping, stuffed the large shoes and fitted them and buckled them on, the Abbess never ceased explaining the remainder of the plan.
"Go down the stairs," she said, "and if you have to speak mutter but a word. Outside the door, turn to the right until you come to the gate in the iron railing. Pass through it, cross the court, and go out through the great gate, speaking to no one. Then follow the road, which makes a loop to the left and passes under itself. Descend by it to the market-place, and then to the right until you see the town gate fifty paces before you. At that point take the lane on the left, and a score of yards will show you the horses waiting for you, and with them a friend. You understand? Then I will repeat it."
And she did so from point to point in such a way and so clearly that the other, distracted as she was, could not but learn the lesson.
"And now," the Abbess said, when all was told, "give me something to put on." Her beautiful arms and shoulders were bare. "Something--anything," she continued, looking about her impatiently. "Only be quick! Be quick, girl!"
"There is only this," the Countess answered, producing her heavy riding-cloak. "Unless"--doubtfully--"you will put on those." She indicated the little pile of wedding-clothes, of dainty silk and lace and lawn, that lay upon the window-seat.
"Those!" the Abbess exclaimed. And she looked at the pile as at a snake. "No, not those! Not those! Why do you want me to put on those? Why should I?" with a suspicious look at the other's face.
"If you will not----"
"Will not?"--violently. "No, I will not. And why do you ask me? But I prate as badly as you, and we lose time. Are you ready now? Let me look at you." And feverishly, while she kicked off her own shoes and donned the riding-cloak and drew its hood over her head, she turned the Countess about to assure herself that the disguise was tolerable--in a bad light.
Then, "You will do," she said roughly, and she pushed the girl from her. "Go now. You know what you have to do."
"But you?" the little Countess ventured. Words of gratitude were trembling on her lips; there were tears in her eyes. "You--what will you do?"
"You need not trouble about me," the Abbess retorted. "Play your part well; that is all I ask."
"At least," the Countess faltered, "let me thank you." She would have flung her arms round the other's neck.
But the Abbess backed from her. "Go, silly fool!" she cried savagely, "unless, after all, you repent and want to keep him."
The insult gave the needed fillip to the other's courage. She turned on her heel, opened the door with a firm hand, and, closing it behind her, descended the stairs. The waiting-maid and the grim-faced woman were talking in the passage, but they ceased their gossip on her appearance, and turned their eyes on her. Fortunately the place was ill-lit and full of shadows, and the Countess had the presence of mind to go steadily down to them without word or sign.
"I hope mademoiselle has succeeded," the waiting-woman murmured respectfully. "It is not a business I favour, I am sure."
The Countess shrugged her shoulders--despair giving her courage--and the grim-faced woman moved to the door, unlocked it, and held it wide. The escaping one acknowledged the act by a slight nod, and, passing out, she turned to the right. She walked, giddily and uncertainly, to the open gate in the railing, and then, with some difficulty--for the shoes were too large for her--she descended the two steps to the court. She began to cross the open, and a man here and there, raising his head from his occupation, turned to watch her.


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