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   Chapter 6 THE PURSUIT

The Lane That Had No Turning, Volume 4 By Gilbert Parker Characters: 15114

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


There was but one thing to do. She must go straight to George Fournel at Quebec. She knew only too well that Tardif was speeding thither as fast as horses could carry him. He had had several hours' start, but there was still a chance of overtaking him. And suppose she overtook him? She could not decide definitely what she should do, but she would do anything, sacrifice anything, to secure again that fatal document which, in George Fournel's hands, must bring a collapse worse than death. A dozen plans flashed before her, and now that her mind was set upon the thing, compunction would not stay her. She had gone so far, she was prepared to go further to save this Seigneury to Louis. She put in her pocket the silver-handled pistol from the fatal cupboard.

In an hour from the time she found the note, the horses and coach were at the door, and the faithful Havel, cloaked and armed, was ready for the journey. A note to Louis, with the excuse of a sudden and important call to Quebec, which he was to construe into business concerning her profession; hurried yet careful arrangements for his comfort during her absence; a letter to the Cure begging of him a daily visit to the Manor House; and then, with the flurried Madame Marie, she entered the coach with Havel on the box, and they were off.

The coach rattled through the village and stopped for a moment at the smithy. A few words of cheerful good-bye to her father-she carried the spring in her face and the summer of gaiety in her face however sore her heart was-and they were once more upon the road.

Their first stage was twenty-five miles, and it led through the ravine where Parpon and his comrades had once sought to frighten George Fournel. As they passed the place Madelinette shuddered, and she remembered Fournel's cynical face as he left the house three months ago. She felt that it would not easily soften to mercy or look upon her trouble with a human eye, if once the will were in his hands. It was a silent journey, but Madame Marie asked no questions, and there was comfort in her unspoken sympathy.

Five hours, and at midnight they arrived at the end of the first stage of their journey, at the village tavern of St. Stanislaus. Here Madame Marie urged Madelinette to stay and sleep, but this she refused to do, if horses could be got to go forward. The sight of two gold pieces made the thing possible in the landlord's eyes, and Madame Marie urged no more, but found some refreshment, of which she gently insisted that Madelinette should partake. In another hour from their arrival they were on the road again, with the knowledge that Tardif had changed horses and gone forward four hours before, boasting as he went that when the bombshell he was carrying should burst, the country would stay awake o' nights for a year.

Madelinette herself had made the inquiries of the landlord, whose easily-bought obsequiousness now knew no bounds, and he gave a letter to Havel to hand to his cousin the landlord at the next change, which, he said, would be sure to secure them the best of accommodation and good horses.

As the night grew to morning, Madelinette drooped a little, and Madame Marie, who had, to her own anger and disgust, slept three hours or more, quietly drew Madelinette towards her. With a little sob the girl-for what was she but a girl-let her head drop on the old woman's shoulder, and she fell into a troubled sleep, which lasted till, in the flush of sunrise, they drew up at the solitary inn on the outskirts of the village of Beaugard. They had come fifty miles since the evening before.

Here Madelinette took Havel into her confidence, in so far as to tell him that Tardif had stolen a valuable paper from her, the loss of which might bring most serious consequences.

Whatever Havel had suspected he was the last man in the world to show or tell. But before leaving the Manor House of Pontiac he had armed himself with pistols, in the grim hope that he might be required to use them. Havel had been used hard in the world, Madelinette had been kind to him, and he was ready to show his gratitude-and he little recked what form it might take. When he found that they were following Tardif, and for what purpose, an ugly joy filled his heart, and he determined on revenge-so long delayed-on the scoundrel who had once tried to turn the parish against him by evil means. He saw that his pistols were duly primed, he learned that Tardif had passed but two hours before, boasting again that Europe would have gossip for a year, once he reached Quebec. Tardif too had paid liberally for his refreshment and his horses, for here he had taken a carriage, and had swaggered like a trooper in a conquered country.

Havel had every hope of overtaking Tardif, and so he told Madelinette, adding that he would secure the paper for her at any cost. She did not quite know what Havel meant, but she read purpose in his eye, and when Havel said: "I won't say 'Stop thief' many times," she turned away without speaking-she was choked with anxiety. Yet in her own pocket was a little silver-handled pistol.

It was true that Tardif was a thief, but she knew that his theft would be counted a virtue before the world. This she could not tell Havel, but when the critical moment came-if it did come-she would then act upon the moment's inspiration. If Tardif was a thief, what was she!-But this she could not tell Havel or the world. Even as she thought it for this thousandth time, her face flushed deeply, and a mist came before her eyes. But she hardened her heart and gave orders to proceed as soon as the horses were ready. After a hasty breakfast they were again on their way, and reached the third stage of their journey by eleven o'clock. Tardif had passed two hours before.

So, for two days they travelled, with no sleep save what they could catch as the coach rolled on. They were delayed three hours at one inn because of the trouble in getting horses, since it appeared that Tardif had taken the only available pair in the place; but a few gold pieces brought another pair galloping from a farm two miles away, and they were again on the road. Fifty miles to go, and Tardif with three hours' start of them! Unless he had an accident there was faint chance of overtaking him, for at this stage he had taken to the saddle again. As time had gone on, and the distance between them and Quebec had decreased, Madelinette had grown paler and stiller. Yet she was considerate of Madame Marie, and more than once insisted on Havel lying down for a couple of hours, and herself made him a strengthening bowl of soup at the kitchen fire of the inn. Meanwhile she inquired whether it might be possible to get four horses at the next change, and she offered five gold pieces to a man who would ride on ahead of them and secure the team.

Some magic seemed to bring her the accomplishment of the impossible, for even as she made the offer, and the downcast looks of the landlord were assuring her that her request was futile, there was the rattle of hoofs without, and a petty Government official rode up. He had come a journey of three miles only, and his horse was fresh. Agitated, yet ruling herself to composure, Madelinette approached him and made her proposal to him. He was suspicious, as became a petty Government official, and replied sullenly. She offered him money-before the landlord, unhappily-and his refusal was now unnecessarily bitter. She turned away sadly, but Madame Marie had been roused by the official's churlishness, and fo

r once the placid little body spoke in that vulgar tongue which needs no interpretation. She asked the fellow if he knew to whom he had been impolite, to whom he had refused a kindly act.

"You-you, a habitant road-watcher, a pound-keeper, a village tax-collector, or something less!" she said. "You to refuse the great singer Madelinette Lajeunesse, the wife of the Seigneur of Pontiac, the greatest patriot in the land; to refuse her whom princes are glad to serve-" She stopped and gasped her indignation.

A hundred speeches and a hundred pounds could not have done so much. The habitant official stared in blank amazement, the landlord took a glass of brandy to steady himself.

"The Lajeunesse-the Lajeunesse, the singer of all the world-ah, why did she not say so then!" said the churl. "What would I not do for her! Money-no, it is nothing, but the Lajeunesse, I myself would give my horse to hear her sing."

"Tell her she can have M'sieu's horse," said the landlord, excitedly interposing.

"Tiens, who the devil-the horse is mine! If Madame-if she will but let me offer it to her myself!" said the agitated official. "I sing myself-I know what singing is. I have sung in an opera-a sentinel in armour I was. Ah, but bring me to her, and you shall see what I will do, by grace of heaven! I will marry you if you haven't a husband," he added with ardour to the dumfounded Madame Marie, who hurried to the adjoining room.

An instant afterwards the official was making an oration in tangled sentences which brought him a grateful smile and a hand-clasp from Madelinette. She could not prevent him from kissing her hand, she could not refrain from laughing when, outside the room, he tried to kiss Madame Marie. She was astounded, however, an hour later, to see him still at the inn door, marching up and down, a whip in his hand. She looked at him reproachfully, indignantly.

"Why are you not on the way?" she asked.

"Your man, that M'sieu' Havel, has rode on; I am to drive," he said. "Yes, Madame, it is my everlasting honour that I am to drive you. Havel has a good horse, the horse has a good rider, you have a good servant in me. I, Madame, have a good mistress in you-I am content. I am overjoyed-I am proud-I am ready, I, Pierre Lapierre."

The churlish official had gone back to the natural state of an excitable habitant, ready to give away his heart or lose his head at an instant's notice, the temptation being sufficient. Madelinette was frightened. She knew well why Havel had ridden on ahead without her permission, and shaking hands with the landlord and getting into the coach, she said hastily to her new coachman: "Lose not an instant. Drive hard."

They reached the next change by noon, and here they found four horses awaiting them. Tardif, and Havel also, had come and gone. An hour's rest, and they were away again upon the last stage of the journey. They should reach Quebec soon after dusk, all being well. At first, Lapierre the official had been inclined to babble, but at last he relieved his mind by interjections only. He kept shaking his head wisely, as though debating on great problems, and he drove his horses with a master-hand-he had once been a coach driver on that long river-road, which in summer makes a narrow ribbon of white, mile for mile with the St. Lawrence from east to west. This was the proudest moment of his life. He knew great things were at stake, and they had to do with the famous singer, Lajeunesse; and what tales for his grandchildren in years to come!

The flushed and comfortable Madame Marie sat upright in the coach, holding the hand of her mistress, and Madelinette grew paler as the miles diminished between her and Quebec. Yet she was quiet and unmoving, now and then saying an encouraging word to Lapierre, who smacked his lips for miles afterwards, and took out of his horses their strength and paces by masterly degrees. So that when, at last, on the hill they saw far off the spires of Quebec, the team was swinging as steadily on as though they had not come twenty-five miles already. This was a moment of pride for Lapierre, but of apprehension for Madelinette. At the last two inns on the road she had got news of both Tardif and Havel. Tardif had had the final start of half-an-hour. A half-hour's start, and fifteen miles to go! But one thing was sure, Havel, the wiry Havel, was the better man, with sounder nerve and a fostered strength.

Yet, as they descended the hill and plunged into the wild wooded valley, untenanted and uncivilised, where the road wound and curved among giant boulders and twisted through ravines and gorges, her heart fell within her. Evening was at hand, and in the thick forest the shadows were heavy, and night was settling upon them before its time.

They had not gone a mile, however, when, as they swung creaking round a great boulder, Lapierre pulled up his horses with a loud exclamation, for almost under his horses' feet lay a man apparently dead, his horse dead beside him.

It was Havel. In an instant Madelinette and Ma dame Marie were bending over him. The widow of the Little Chemist had skill and presence of mind.

"He is not dead, dear mine," said she in a low voice, feeling Havel's heart.

"Thank God," was all that Madelinette could say. "Let us lift him into the coach."

Now Lapierre was standing beside them, the reins in his hand. "Leave that to me," he said, and passed the reins into Madame Marie's hands, then with muttered imprecations on persons unmentioned he lifted up the slight form of Havel, and carried him to the coach. Meanwhile Madelinette had stooped to a little stream at the side of the road, and filled her silver drinking-cup with water.

As she bent over Havel and sprinkled his face, Lapierre examined the insensible man.

"He is but stunned," he said. "He will come to in a moment."

Then he went to the spot where Havel had lain, and found a pistol lying at the side of the road. Examining it, he found it had been discharged-both barrels. Rustling with importance he brought it to Madelinette, nodding and looking wise, yet half timorous too in sharing in so remarkable a business. Madelinette glanced at the pistol, her lips tightened, and she shuddered. Havel had evidently failed, and she must face the worst. Yet now that it had come, she was none the less determined to fight on.

Havel opened his eyes and looked round in a startled way. He saw Madelinette.

"Ah, Madame, Madame, pardon! He got away. I fired twice and winged him, but he shot my horse and I fell on my head. He has got away. What time is it, Madame?" he suddenly asked. She told him. "Ah, it is too late," he added. "It happened over half-an-hour ago. Unless he is badly hurt and has fallen by the way, he is now in the city. Madame, I have failed you-pardon, Madame!"

She helped him to sit up, and made a cushion of her cloak for his head, in a corner of the coach. "There is nothing to ask pardon for, Havel," she said; "you did your best. It was to be-that's all. Drink the brandy now."

A moment afterwards Lapierre was on the box, Madame Marie was inside, and Madelinette said to the coachman:

"Drive hard-the White Calvary by the church of St. Mary Magdalene."

In another hour the coach drew up by the White Calvary, where a soft light burned in memory of some departed soul.

The three alighted. Madelinette whispered to Havel, he got up on the box beside Lapierre, and the coach rattled away to a tavern, as the two women disappeared swiftly into the darkness.

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