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   Chapter 29 A JOURNEY INTO THE HILLS AND

The Grey Cloak By Harold MacGrath Characters: 23035

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


THE TEN LIVRES OF CORPORAL FREMIN

"Madame, you have studiously avoided me." The vicomte twirled his hat.

"And with excellent reason, you will agree."

"You have been here six days, and you have not given me the barest chance of speaking to you." There was a suspicion of drollery in his reproachful tones.

"Monsieur," replied madame, who, finding herself finally trapped with no avenue of escape, quickly adapted herself to the situation, the battle of evasion, "our last meeting has not fully escaped my recollection."

"All is fair in love and war. It came near being a good trick,-that blank paper."

"Not quite so near as might be. It is true that I did not suspect your ruse; but it is also true that I had but one idea and one intention, to gain the paper."

"And supposing it had been real, genuine?"

"Why, then, I should have at least half of it, which would be the same thing as having all of it." Contact with this man always put a delicate edge to her wit and sense of defense. She could not deny a particle of admiration for this strange man, who proceeded toward his ends with the most intricate subterfuge, and who never drew a long face, who accepted rebuffs with smiles and banter.

"You know, Madame, that whatever I have done or shall do is out of love for you."

"I would you were out of love with me!"

"The quality of my love …"

"Ah, that is what disturbs me-the quality!" shrewdly.

"There is quality and quantity without end. I am not a lover who pines and goes without his meals. Madame, observe me-I kneel. I tell you that I adore you. Will you be my wife?"

"No, a thousand times no! I know you to be a brave man, Monsieur le Vicomte; but who can put a finger on your fancy? To-day it is I; to-morrow, elsewhere. You would soon tire of me who could bring you no dowry save lost illusions and confiscated property. Doubtless you have not heard that his Eminence the cardinal has posted seals upon all that which fell to me through Monsieur de Brissac."

"What penetration!" thought the vicomte, rising and dusting his knees.

"And yet, Monsieur," impulsively, "I would not have you for an enemy."

"One would think that you are afraid of me."

"I am," simply.

"Why?"

"You are determined that I shall love you, and I am equally determined that I shall not."

"Ah! a matter of the stronger mind and will."

"My will shall never bend toward yours, Monsieur. What I fear is your persecution. Let us put aside love, which is impossible, and turn our attention to something nearer and quite possible-friendship." She extended her hand, frankly, without reservation. If only she could in some manner disarm this man!

"What!" mockingly, "you forgive my attempt at Quebec to coerce you?"

"Frankly, since you did not succeed, Monsieur, I have seen too much of men not to appreciate a brilliant stroke. Had I not torn that paper from your hand, you might have scored at least half a trick. There is a high place somewhere in this world for a man of your wit and courage."

"Mazarin's interpretation of that would be a gibbet on Montfaucon."

"I am offering you friendship, Monsieur." The hand remained extended.

The vicomte bowed, placed his hands behind his back and bowed again. "Friendship and love; oil and water. Madame, when they mix well, I will come in the guise of a friend. Sometimes I've half a mind to tell the Chevalier who you are; for, my faith! it is humorous in the extreme. I understand that you and he were affianced, once upon a time; and here he is, making violent love to you, not knowing your name any more than Adam knew Eve's."

"Very well, then, Monsieur. Since there can be no friendship, there can be nothing. Hereafter you will do me the kindness not to intrude into my affairs."

"Madame, I am a part of your destiny. I told you so long ago."

"I am a woman, and women are helpless." Madame was discouraged. What with that insane D'Hérouville, the Chevalier, and this mocking suitor, her freedom was to prove but small. France, France! "And I am here in exile, Monsieur, innocent of any wrong."

"You are guilty of beautiful eyes."

"I should have thrown myself upon Mazarin's mercy."

"Which is like unto the flesh of the fish-little blood and that cold. You forget your beauty, Madame, and your wit. Mazarin would have found you very guilty of these. And is not Madame de Montbazon your mother? Mazarin loves her not overwell. Ah, but that paper! What the devil did we sign it for? I would give a year of my life could I but put my hands upon it."

"Or the man who stole it."

"Or the man who stole it," repeated he.

"When I return to France, I shall have a deal to revenge," her hands clenching.

"Let me be the sword of wrath, Madame. You have but to say the word. You love no one, you say. You are young; I will devote my life to teaching you."

Madame's gesture was of protest and of resignation. "Monsieur, if you address me again, I shall appeal to Father Le Mercier or Father Chaumonot. I will not be persecuted longer."

"Ah, well!" He moved aside for her and leaned against a tree, watching her till she disappeared within the palisade. "Now, that is a woman! She lacks not one attribute of perfection, save it be a husband, and that shall be found. I wonder what that fool of a D'Hérouville was doing this morning with those dissatisfied colonists and that man Pauquet? I will watch. Something is going on, and it will not harm to know what." He laughed silently.

Before the women entered the wilderness to create currents and eddies in the sluggish stream which flowed over the colonists, Victor began to compile a book on Indian lore. He took up the work the very first night of his arrival; took it up as eagerly as if it were a gift from the gods, as indeed it was, promising as it did to while away many a long night. He depended wholly upon Father Chaumonot's knowledge of the tongue and the legends; and daring the first three nights he and Chaumonot divided a table between them, the one to scribble his lore and the other to add a page to those remarkable memoirs, the Jesuit Relations. The Chevalier watched them both from a corner where he sat and gravely smoked a wooden pipe.

And then the manuscript of the poet was put aside.

"Why?" asked Chaumonot one night. He had been greatly interested in the poet's work.

Victor flushed guiltily. "Perhaps it may be of no value. There are but half a dozen thoughts worth remembering."

"And who may say that immortality does not dwell in these thoughts?" said the priest. "All things are born to die save thought; and if in passing we leave but a single thought which will alleviate the sufferings of man or add beauty to his existence, one does not live and die in vain." Chaumonot's afterthought was: "This good lad is in love with one or the other of these women."

But Clio knew Victor no more. On the margins he drew faces or began rondeaux which came to no end.

"Laughter has a pleasant sound in my ears, Paul," said Victor; "and I have not heard you laugh in some time."

"Perhaps the thought has not occurred to me," replied the Chevalier, glancing at the entrance to the palisade. Madame had only that moment passed through, having left the vicomte. "I have lost the trick of laughing. No thought of mine is spontaneous. With a carpenter's ell I mark out each thought; it is all edges and angles."

"Something must be done, then, to make you laugh. Madame and mademoiselle have promised to take a canoe trip back into the hills this afternoon. Come with us."

"They suggested … ?" the Chevalier stammered.

"No. But haven't you the right? At least you know madame."

"Madame?"

"Madame, always madame. Here formalities would only be ridiculous. You will go with us for safety's sake, if for nothing more."

"I will go … with that understanding. Ah, lad, if only I knew what you know!"

"We should still be where we are," evasively. The poet had a plan in regard to madame and the Chevalier. It twisted his brave heart, yet he clung to it.

Caprice is an exquisite trait in a woman; a woman who has it-and what woman has not?-is all the seasons of the year compressed into an hour-the mildness of spring, the warmth of summer, the glory of autumn, and the chill of winter. And when madame saw the Chevalier that afternoon, she put a foot into the canoe, and immediately withdrew it.

"What is it?" asked Victor.

"Is Monsieur le Chevalier going?"

"Yes." Victor waited. "Why?" he said finally.

"Nothing, nothing." Madame took her place in the canoe.

"It is necessary for our general safety, Madame, that the Chevalier goes with us."

"There is danger, then?"

"There will he none," emphatically.

"Let us be off," was madame's rejoinder.

The Chevalier stepped in and took the paddle, while Victor pushed the canoe into the water. He and Anne followed presently. Madame sat in the bow, her back to the Chevalier, her hands resting lightly on the sides. The rings which the Chevalier had seen on those beautiful hands while in Quebec were gone, even to the wedding ring. They were doubtless bedecking the pudgy digits of one Corn Planter's wife, far away in the Seneca country. The canoe quivered as the Chevalier's strong arms swung the narrow-bladed paddle. Past marshes went the painted canoes; they swam the singing shallows; they glided under shading willow; they sped by wild grape-vine and spreading elm. The stream was embroidered with a thousand grasses, dying daisies, paling goldenrod, berry bushes, and wild-rose thorn. A thousand elusive perfumes rose to greet them, a thousand changing scenes. October, in all her gorgeous furbelows, sat upon her throne. The Chevalier never uttered a word, but studied madame's half-turned cheek. Once he was conscious that the color on that cheek deepened, then faded.

"It is the wind," he thought. "She is truly the most beautiful woman in all the world; and fool that I am, I have vowed to her face that I shall make her love me!" He could hear Victor's voice from time to time, coming with the wind.

"Monsieur," madame said abruptly, when the silence Could no longer be endured, "since you are here … Well, why do you not speak?"

The paddle turned so violently that the canoe came dangerously near upsetting.

"What shall I say, Madame?"

"Eh! must I think for you?" impatiently.

The fact that her eye was not upon him, gave him a vestige of courage. "It is a far cry from the galleries of the Louvre, Madame, to this spot."

"We have gone back to the beginning of the world. No music save Nicot's violin, which he plays sadly enough; no masks, no parties, no galloping to the hunt, no languishing in the balconies. Were it not pregnant with hidden dangers, I should love this land. I wonder who is the latest celebrity at the old Rambouillet; a poet possibly, a swashbuckler, more probably."

"Move back a little, Madame. We shall land on that stretch of sand by the willows."

Madame did as he required, and with a dexterous stroke the Chevalier sent the craft upon the beach and jumped out. This manoeuver to assist her did not pass, for she was up and out almost as soon as he. In a moment Victor came to the spot. The two canoes were hidden with a cunning which the Chevalier had learned from the Indian.

Above them was a hill which was almost split in twain by a gorge or gully, down through which a brook leaped and hounded and tumbled, rolling its musical "r's." The four

started up the long incline, the women gathering the belated flowers and the men picking up curious sticks or sending boulders hurtling down the hillside. Higher and higher they mounted till the summit was reached. Hill after hill rolled away to the east, to the south, to the west, while toward the north the lake glittered with all the brilliancy of a cardinal's plate.

"Can it be," said Victor, breaking the spell, "can it be that we once knew Paris?"

"Paris!" repeated madame. Her eyes took in her beaded skirt and moccasins and replaced them with glowing silks and shimmering laces.

Paris! Many a phantom was stirred from its tomb at the sound of this magic name.

Anne perched herself upon a boulder and the Chevalier rested beside her, while madame and the poet strolled a short distance away.

"Shall we ever see our dear Paris again, Gabrielle?" asked the poet.

"I hope so; and soon, soon!"

"How came you to sign that paper?"

"He would have broken my arm, else. How I hated him! Tricks, subterfuges, lies, menaces; I was surrounded by them. And I believed in so many things those early days!"

"How softly breathes this last, lingering ghost of summer," he said. "How lovingly the pearls and opals and amethysts of heaven linger on the crimsoning hills! See how the stream runs like a silver thread, laughing and singing, to join the grave river. We can not see the river from here, but we know how gravely it journeys to the sea. Can you not smell the odor of mint, of earth, of the forest, and the water? Hark! I hear a bird singing. There he goes, a yellow bird, a golden rouleau of song. How the yellow flower stands out against the dark of the grasses! It is all beautiful. It is the immortality in us which nature enchants. See how the wooded lands fade and fade till they and the heavens meet and dissolve! And all this is yours, Gabrielle, for the seeing and the hearing. Some day I shall know all things, but never again shall I know the perfect beauty of this day. Some day I shall know the reason for this and for that, why I made a bad step here and a short one there; but never again, this hour." He picked up a chestnut-bur and opened it, extending the plump chestnuts to her.

How delicately this man was telling her that he still loved her! Absently her hand closed over the chestnuts, and the thought in her eyes was far away. If only it had been written that she might love him!

"Monsieur de Saumaise," said Anne, "will you take me to the pool? You told me that it would make a fine mirror, and I have not seen my face in so long a time that I declare I have quite forgotten how it looks."

"Come along, Mademoiselle; into the heart of the wood. I had a poem to recite to you, but I have forgotten part of it. It is heroic, and begins like this:

"Laughing at fate and her chilling frown,

Plunging through wilderness, cavern, and cave,

Building the citadel, fortress, and town,

Fearing nor desert, the sea, nor the grave:

Courage finds her a niche in the knave,

Fame is not niggard with laurel or pain;

Pathways with blood and bones do they pave:

These are the hazards that kings disdain!

"Bright are the jewels they add to the crown,

Levied on savage and pilfered from slave:

Under the winds and the suns that brown,

Fearing nor desert, the sea, nor the grave!

High shall the Future their names engrave,

For these are lives that are not spent in vain,

Though their reward be a tomb 'neath the wave.

These are the hazards that kings disdain!

"I will try to remember the last stanza and the envoi as we go along," added Victor.

And together they passed down the ravine, two brave hearts assuming a gaiety which deceived only the Chevalier, who still reclined against the boulder and was proceeding silently to inspect the golden plush of an empty bur. Two or three minutes passed; Victor's voice became indistinct and finally was heard no longer, Madame surveyed the Chevalier with a lurking scornful smile. This man was going to force her to love him!

"Monsieur, you seem determined to annoy me. I shall not ask you to speak again."

"Is it possible that I can still annoy you, Madame?"

Madame crushed a bur with her foot … and gasped. She had forgotten the loose seam in her moccasin. The delicate needles had penetrated the flesh. This little comedy, however, passed over his head.

"I did not ask you to accompany me to-day."

"So I observed. Nor did I ask to come. That is why I believed in silence. Besides, I have said all I have to say," quietly. He cast aside the bur.

"Then your vocabulary consists of a dozen words, such as, 'It is a far cry from the Louvre to this spot'?"

"I believe I used the word 'galleries.'" Their past was indissolubly linked to this word.

"On a certain day you vowed that you should force me to love you. What progress have you made, Monsieur? I am curious."

"No man escapes being an ass sometimes, Madame. That was my particular morning."

Decidedly, this lack of interest on his part annoyed her. He had held her in his arms one night, and had not kissed her; he had vowed to force her to love him, and now he sat still and unruffled under her contempt. What manner of man was it?

"When are we to be returned to Quebec? I am weary, very weary, of all this. There are no wits; men have no tongues, but purposes."

"Whenever Father Chaumonot thinks it safe and men can be spared, he will make preparations. It will be before the winter sets in."

Madame sat down upon an adjacent boulder, and reflected.

"Shall I gather you some chestnuts, Madame? They are not so ripe as they might be, but I daresay the novelty of eating them here in the wilderness will appeal to your appetite."

"If you will be so kind," grudgingly.

So he set to work gathering the nuts while she secretly took off her moccasin in a vain attempt to discover the disquieting bur-needles. He returned presently and deposited a hatful of nuts in her lap. Then he went back to his seat from where he watched her calmly as she munched the starchy meat. It gradually dawned on him that the situation was absurd; and he permitted a furtive smile to soften his firm lips. But furtive as it was, she saw it, and colored, her quick intuition translating the smile.

"It is absurd; truthfully, it is." She swept the nuts to the ground.

"But supposing I change all this into something more than absurd? Supposing I should suddenly take you in my arms? There is no one in sight. I am strong. Supposing, then, I kissed you, taking a tithe of your promises?"

She looked at him uneasily. Starting a fire was all very well, but the touch of it!

"Supposing that I took you away somewhere, alone, with me, to a place where no one would find us? I do not speak, you say; but I am thinking, thinking, and every thought means danger to you, to myself, to the past and the future. How do these suppositions appeal to you, Madame?"

Had he moved, madame would have been frightened; but as he remained in the same easy attitude, her fear had no depths.

"But I shall do none of these things because … because it would be hardly worth while. I tried to win your love honestly; but as I failed, let us say no more about it. I shall make no inquiries into your peculiar purpose; since you have accomplished it, there is nothing more to be said, save that you are not honest."

"Let us be going," she said, standing. "It will be twilight ere we reach the settlement."

"Very well;" and he halloed for Victor.

The way back to the fort was one of unbroken silence. Neither madame nor the Chevalier spoke again.

The Chevalier had some tasks to perform that evening which employed his time far beyond the meal hour. When he entered the mess-room it was deserted save for the presence of Corporal Frémin, one of the dissatisfied colonists. Several times he had been found unduly under the influence of apricot brandy. Du Puys had placed him in the guardhouse at three different periods for this misdemeanor. Where he got the brandy none could tell, and the corporal would not confess to the Jesuit Fathers, nor to his brother, who was a priest. Unfortunately, he had been drinking again to-day. He sat opposite the Chevalier, smoking moodily, his little eyes blinking, blinking.

"Corporal," said the Chevalier, "will you pass me the corn?"

"Reach for it yourself," replied the corporal, insolently. He went on smoking.

The Chevalier sat back in his chair, dumfounded. "Pass me that corn!" peremptorily.

The intoxicated soldier saw nothing in the flashing eyes; so he shrugged. "I am not your lackey."

The Chevalier was up in an instant. Passing quickly around the table he inserted his fingers between the corporal's collar and his neck, twisting him out of his chair and literally lifting him to his feet.

"What do you mean by this insolence? Pah!" scenting the brandy; "you have been drinking."

"What's that to you? You are not my superior officer. Let go of my collar."

"I am an officer in the king's army, and there is an unwritten law that all non-commissioned officers are my inferiors, here or elsewhere, and must obey me. You shall go to the guardhouse. I asked nothing of you but a common courtesy, and you became insolent. To the guardhouse you shall go."

"My superior, eh?" tugging uselessly at the hand of iron gripping his collar. "I know one thing, and it is something you, fine gentleman that you are, do not know. I know who my mother was …"

The corporal lay upon his back, his eyes bulging, his face purple, his breaths coming in agonizing gasps.

"Who told you to say that? Quick, or you shall this instant stand in judgment before the God who made you! Quick!"

There was death in the Chevalier's eyes, and the corporal saw it. He struggled.

"Quick!"

"Monsieur d'Hérouville! … You are killing me!"

The Chevalier released the man's throat.

"Get up," contemptuously.

The corporal crawled to his knees and staggered to his feet. "By God, Monsieur! …" adjusting his collar.

"Not a word. How much did he pay you to act thus basely?"

"Pay me?"

"Answer!" taking a step forward.

"Ten livres," sullenly.

The Chevalier's hands opened and closed, convulsively. "Give me those livres," he commanded.

"To you?" The corporal's jaw fell. "What do you … ?"

"Be quick about it, man, if you love your worthless life!"

There was no gainsaying the devil in the Chevalier's eyes.

Scowling blackly, the corporal emptied his pockets. Immediately the Chevalier scooped up the coin in his hand.

"When did D'Hérouville give these to you?"

"This afternoon."

"You lie, wretch!"

Both the corporal and the Chevalier turned. D'Hérouville's form stood, framed in the doorway.

"Leave the room!" pointing toward the door.

D'Hérouville stepped aside, and the corporal slunk out.

The two men faced each other.

"He lies. If I have applied epithets to you, it has been done openly and frankly. I have not touched you over some one's shoulder, as in the De Leviston case. I entertain for you the greatest hatred. It will be a pleasure some day to kill you."

The Chevalier looked at the coin in his hand, at D'Hérouville, then back at the coin.

"Believe me or not, Monsieur. I overheard what took place, and in justice to myself I had to speak." D'Hérouville touched his hat and departed.

The Chevalier stood alone, staring with blurred eyes at the sinister contents of his hand.

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