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   Chapter 3 No.3

A Ladder of Swords By Gilbert Parker Characters: 16712

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


FOR weeks De la Forêt and Buonespoir had lain in hiding at St. Brieuc. At last Buonespoir declared all was ready once again. He had secured for the Camisard the passport and clothes of a priest who had but just died at Granville. Once again they made the attempt to reach English soil.

Standing out from Carteret on the Belle Suzanne, they steered for the light upon the Marmotier Rocks of the Ecréhos, which Angèle had paid a fisherman to keep going every night. This light had caused the French and English frigates some uneasiness, and they had patrolled the Channel from Cap de la Hague to the Bay of St. Brieuc with a vigilance worthy of a larger cause. One fine day an English frigate anchored off the Ecréhos, and the fisherman was seized. He, poor man, swore that he kept the light burning to guide his brother fishermen to and fro between Boulay Bay and the Ecréhos. The captain of the frigate tried severities; but the fisherman stuck to his tale, and the light burned on as before-a lantern stuck upon a pole. One day, with a telescope, Buonespoir had seen the exact position of the staff supporting the light and had mapped out his course accordingly. He would head straight for the beacon and pass between the Marmotier and the Ma?tre Ile, where is a narrow channel for a boat drawing only a few feet of water. Unless he made this he must run south and skirt the écrivière Rock and bank, where the streams setting over the sandy ridges make a confusing, perilous sea to mariners in bad weather. Or he must sail north between the Ecréhos and the Dirouilles, in the channel called étoc, a tortuous and dangerous passage save in good weather, and then safe only to the mariner who knows the floor of that strait like his own hand. De la Forêt was wholly in the hands of Buonespoir, for he knew nothing of these waters and coasts; also he was a soldier and no sailor.

They cleared Cape Carteret with a fair wind from the northeast, which should carry them safely as the bird flies to the haven of Rozel. The high, pinkish sands of Hatainville were behind them; the treacherous Taillepied rocks lay to the north, and a sweet sea before. Nothing could have seemed fairer and more hopeful. But a few old fishermen on shore at Carteret shook their heads dubiously, and at Port Bail, some miles below, a disabled naval officer, watching through a glass, rasped out, "Criminals or fools!" But he shrugged his shoulders, for if they were criminals he was sure they would expiate their crimes this night, and if they were fools-he had no pity for fools.

But Buonespoir knew his danger. Truth is, he had chosen this night because they would be safest from pursuit, because no sensible seafaring man, were he king's officer or another, would venture forth upon the impish Channel save to court disaster. Pirate and soldier in priest's garb had frankly taken the chances.

With a fair wind they might, with all canvas set-mainsail, foresail, jib, and foretopsail-make Rozel Bay within two hours and a quarter. All seemed well for a brief half-hour. Then, even as the passage between the Marmotier and the Ecréhos opened out, the wind suddenly shifted from the northeast to the southwest and a squall came hurrying on them-a few moments too soon; for, had they been clear of the Ecréhos, clear of the Taillepieds, Felée Bank, and the écrivière, they could have stood out towards the north in a more open sea.

Yet there was one thing in their favor: the tide was now running hard from the northwest, so fighting for them while the wind was against them. Their only safety lay in getting beyond the Ecréhos. If they attempted to run in to the Marmotier for safety, they would presently be at the mercy of the French. To trust their doubtful fortunes and bear on was the only way. The tide was running fast. They gave the mainsail to the wind still more, and bore on towards the passage. At last, as they were opening on it, the wind suddenly veered full northeast. The sails flapped, the boat seemed to hover for a moment, and then a wave swept her towards the rocks. Buonespoir put the helm hard over, she went about, and they close-hauled her as she trembled towards the rocky opening.

This was the critical instant. A heavy sea was running, the gale was blowing hard from the northeast, and under the close-hauled sail the Belle Suzanne was lying over dangerously. But the tide, too, was running hard from the south, fighting the wind, and at the moment when all seemed terribly uncertain swept them past the opening and into the swift-running channel, where the indraught sucked them through to the more open water beyond.

Although the Belle Suzanne was in more open water now, the danger was not over. Ahead lay a treacherous sea, around them roaring winds, and the perilous coast of Jersey beyond all.

"Do you think we shall land?" quietly asked De la Forêt, nodding towards the Jersey coast.

"As many chances 'gainst it as for it, m'sieu'," said Buonespoir, turning his face to the north, for the wind had veered again to northeast, and he feared its passing to the northwest, giving them a head-wind and a swooping sea.

Night came down, but with a clear sky and a bright moon, the wind, however, not abating. The next three hours were spent in tacking, in beating towards the Jersey coast under seas which almost swamped them. They were standing off about a mile from the island, and could see lighted fires and groups of people upon the shore, when suddenly a gale came out from the southwest, the wind having again shifted. With an oath Buonespoir put the helm hard over, the Belle Suzanne came about quickly, but as the gale struck her the mast snapped like a pencil, she heeled over, and the two adventurers were engulfed in the waves.

A cry of dismay went up from the watchers on the shore. They turned with a half-conscious sympathy towards Angèle, for her story was known by all, and in her face they read her mortal fear, though she made no cry, but only clasped her hands in agony. Her heart told her that yonder Michel de la Forêt was fighting for his life. For an instant only she stood, the terror of death in her eyes, then she turned to the excited fishermen near.

"Men, oh men!" she cried, "will you not save them? Will no one come with me?"

Some shook their heads sullenly, others appeared uncertain, but their wives and children clung to them, and none stirred. Looking round helplessly, Angèle saw the tall figure of the Seigneur of Rozel. He had been watching the scene for some time. Now he came quickly to her.

"Is it the very man?" he asked her, jerking a finger towards the struggling figures in the sea.

"Yes, oh yes," she replied, nodding her head, piteously. "God tells my heart it is." Her father drew near and interposed.

"'LET US KNEEL AND PRAY FOR TWO DYING MEN'"

"Let us kneel and pray for two dying men," said he, and straightway knelt upon the sand.

"By St. Martin, we've better medicine than that, apothecary!" said Lemprière of Rozel, loudly, and, turning round, summoned two serving-men. "Launch my strong boat," he added. "We will pick these gentlemen from the brine or know the end of it all."

The men hurried gloomily to the long boat, ran her down to the shore and into the surf.

"You are going-you are going to save him, dear seigneur?" asked the girl, tremulously.

"To save him-that's to be seen, mistress," answered Lemprière, and advanced to the fishermen. By dint of hard words and as hearty encouragement and promises, he got a half-dozen strong sailors to man the boat.

A moment after, they were all in. At a motion from the seigneur the boat was shot out into the surf, and a cheer from the shore gave heart to De la Forêt and Buonespoir, who were being driven upon the rocks.

The Jerseymen rowed gallantly, and the seigneur, to give them heart, promised a shilling, a capon, and a gallon of beer to each if the rescue was made. Again and again the two men seemed to sink beneath the sea, and again and again they came to the surface and battled further, torn, battered, and bloody, but not beaten. Cries of, "We're coming, gentles, we're coming!" from the Seigneur of Rozel came ringing through the surf to the dulled ears of the drowning men, and they struggled on.

There never was a more gallant rescue. Almost at their last gasp t

he two were rescued.

"Mistress Aubert sends you welcome, sir, if you be Michel de la Forêt," said Lemprière of Rozel, and offered the fugitive his horn of liquor as he lay blown and beaten in the boat.

"I am he," De la Forêt answered. "I owe you my life, monsieur," he added.

Lemprière laughed. "You owe it to the lady; and I doubt you can properly pay the debt," he answered, with a toss of the head; for had not the lady refused him, the Seigneur of Rozel, six feet six in height, and all else in proportion, while this gentleman was scarce six feet.

"We can have no quarrel upon the point," answered De la Forêt, reaching out his hand; "you have at least done tough work for her, and if I cannot pay in gold I can in kind. It was a generous deed, and it has made a friend forever of Michel de la Forêt."

"Raoul Lemprière of Rozel they call me, Michel de la Forêt, and, by Rollo the Duke, but I'll take your word in the way of friendship, as the lady yonder takes it for riper fruit! Though, faith, 'tis fruit of a short summer, to my thinking."

All this while Buonespoir the pirate, his face covered with blood, had been swearing by the little finger of St. Peter that each Jerseyman there should have the half of a keg of rum. He went so far in gratitude as to offer the price of ten sheep which he had once secretly raided from the Seigneur of Rozel and sold in France, for which he had been seized on his later return to the island and had escaped without punishment.

Hearing, Lemprière of Rozel roared at him in anger: "Durst speak to me! For every fleece you thieved I'll have you flayed with bowstrings if ever I sight your face within my boundaries."

"Then I'll fetch and carry no more for M'sieu' of Rozel," said Buonespoir, in an offended tone, but grinning under his reddish beard.

"When didst fetch and carry for me, varlet?" Lemprière roared again.

"When the Seigneur of Rozel fell from his horse, overslung with sack, the night of the royal duke's visit, and the footpads were on him, I carried him on my back to the lodge of Rozel Manor. The footpads had scores to settle with the great Rozel."

For a moment the seigneur stared, then roared again, but this time with laughter.

"By the devil and Rollo, I have sworn to this hour that there was no man in the isle could have carried me on his shoulders. And I was right, for Jersiais you're none, neither by adoption nor grace, but a citizen of the sea."

He laughed again as a wave swept over them, drenching them, and a sudden squall of wind came out of the north. "There's no better head in the isle than mine for measurement and thinking, and I swore no man under eighteen stone could carry me, and I am twenty-five-I take you to be nineteen stone, eh?"

"Nineteen, less two ounces," grinned Buonespoir.

"I'll laugh De Carteret of St. Ouen's out of his stockings over this," answered Lemprière. "Trust me for knowing weights and measures! Look you, varlet, thy sins be forgiven thee. I care not about the fleeces, if there be no more stealing. St. Ouen's has no head-I said no one man in Jersey could have done it-I'm heavier by three stone than any man in the island."

Thereafter there was little speaking among them, for the danger was greater as they neared the shore. The wind and the sea were against them; the tide, however, was in their favor. Others besides M. Aubert offered up prayers for the safe landing of the rescued and rescuers. Presently an ancient fisherman broke out into a rude sailor's chantey, and every voice, even those of the two Huguenots, took it up:

"When the Four Winds, the Wrestlers, strive with the Sun,

When the Sun is slain in the dark;

When the stars burn out, and the night cries

To the blind sea-reapers, and they rise,

And the water-ways are stark-

God save us when the reapers reap!

When the ships sweep in with the tide to the shore,

And the little white boats return no more;

When the reapers reap,

Lord give Thy sailors sleep,

If Thou cast us not upon the shore,

To bless Thee evermore:

To walk in Thy sight as heretofore

Though the way of the Lord be steep!

By Thy grace,

Show Thy face,

Lord of the land and the deep!"

The song stilled at last. It died away in the roar of the surf, in the happy cries of foolish women and the laughter of men back from a dangerous adventure. As the seigneur's boat was drawn up the shore Angèle threw herself into the arms of Michel de la Forêt, the soldier dressed as a priest.

Lemprière of Rozel stood abashed before this rich display of feeling. In his hottest youth he could not have made such passionate motions of affection. His feelings ran neither high nor broad, but neither did they run low and muddy. His nature was a straight level of sensibility-a rough stream between high banks of prejudice, topped with the foam of vanity, now brawling in season, and now going steady and strong to the sea. Angèle had come to feel what he was beneath the surface. She felt how unimaginative he was, and how his humor, which was but the horse-play of vanity, helped him little to understand the world or himself. His vanity was ridiculous, his self-importance was against knowledge or wisdom; and Heaven had given him a small brain, a big and noble heart, a pedigree back to Rollo, and the absurd pride of a little lord in a little land. Angèle knew all this, but realized also that he had offered her all he was able to offer to any woman.

She went now and put out both hands to him. "I shall ever pray God's blessing on the Lord of Rozel," she said, in a low voice.

"'Twould fit me no better than St. Ouen's sword fits his fingers. I'll take thine own benison, lady-but on my cheek, not on my hand as this day before at four of the clock." His big voice lowered. "Come, come, the hand thou kissed, it hath been the hand of a friend to thee, as Raoul Lemprière of Rozel said he'd be. Thy lips upon his cheek, though it be but a rough fellow's fancy, and I warrant, come good, come ill, Rozel's face will never be turned from thee. Pooh, pooh! let yon soldier-priest shut his eyes a minute; this is 'tween me and thee; and what's done before the world's without shame."

He stopped short, his black eyes blazing with honest mirth and kindness, his breath short, having spoken in such haste.

Her eyes could scarce see him, so full of tears were they, and, standing on tiptoe, she kissed him upon each cheek.

"'Tis much to get for so little given," she said, with a quiver in her voice; "yet this price for friendship would be too high to pay to any save the Seigneur of Rozel."

She hastily turned to the men who had rescued Michel and Buonespoir. "If I had riches, riches ye should have, brave men of Jersey," she said, "but I have naught save love and thanks, and my prayers, too, if ye will have them."

"'Tis a man's duty to save his fellow an' he can," cried a gaunt fisherman, whose daughter was holding to his lips a bowl of congereel soup.

"'Twas a good deed to send us forth to save a priest of Holy Church," cried a weazened boat-builder with a giant's arm, as he buried his face in a cup of sack and plunged his hand into a fishwife's basket of limpets.

"Ay, but what means she by kissing and arm-getting with a priest?" cried a snarling vraic-gatherer. "'Tis some jest upon Holy Church, or yon priest is no better than common men, but an idle shame."

By this time Michel was among them. "Priest I am none, but a soldier," he said, in a loud voice, and told them bluntly the reasons for his disguise; then, taking a purse from his pocket, thrust into the hands of his rescuers and their families pieces of silver and gave them brave words of thanks.

But the seigneur was not to be outdone in generosity. His vanity ran high; he was fain to show Angèle what a gorgeous gentleman she had failed to make her own; and he was in ripe good-humor all round.

"Come, ye shall come, all of ye, to the Manor of Rozel, every man and woman here. Ye shall be fed, and fuddled too ye shall be an' ye will; for honest drink which sends to honest sleep hurts no man. To my kitchen with ye all; and you, messieurs"-turning to M. Aubert and De la Forêt-"and you, mademoiselle, come, know how open is the door and full the table at my Manor of Rozel-St. Ouen's keeps a beggarly board."

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