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   Chapter 31 THE EPIC OF THE HUNTING HUT

The Grey Cloak By Harold MacGrath Characters: 22636

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


So the amiable dog became a lion, bold, impudent, mocking; the mask was gone forever, both from his face and his desires. He wore his empty scabbard with all the effrontery of a man who had fought and won his first duel. Du Puys had threatened to hang the man who gave the vicomte a sword. As the majority of the colonists were ignorant of what lay behind this remarkable quarrel, they naturally took sides with the man whose laugh was more frequent than his frown. Thus, the vicomte still shuffled the ebon dominoes of a night and sang out jovially, "Doubles!" Whenever the man he had so basely wronged passed him, he spat contemptuously and cried: "See, Messieurs, what it is to be without a sword!" And as for Brother Jacques, it was: "And how is Monsieur Jacques's health this fine morning?" or "What a handsome rogue of a priest you are!" or "Can you tell me where I may find a sword?" He laughed at D'Hérouville, and bantered the poet on his silence,-the poet whose finer sense and intuition had distrusted the vicomte from the first.

One day madame came out to feed the mission's chickens. Her hand swung to and fro, and like a stream of yellow gold the shelled corn trailed through the air to the ground. The fowls clustered around her noisily. She was unaware of the vicomte, who leaned against the posts of the palisade.

There was in his glance which said: "Madame, I offered to make you my wife; now I shall make you something less." And seeing the Chevalier stirring inside the fort, he mused: "My faith, but that old marquis must have had an eye. The fellow's mother must have been a handsome wench."

Once the vicomte came secretly upon D'Hérouville, Frémin, Pauquet, and the woodsman named The Fox because of his fiery hair and beard, peaked face and beady eyes. When the party broke up, the vicomte emerged from his hiding place, wearing a smile which boded no good to whatever plot or plan D'Hérouville had conceived. And that same night he approached each of D'Hérouville's confederates and spoke. What passed only they themselves knew; but when the vicomte left them they were irrevocably his.

"Eye of the bull!" murmured Corporal Frémin, "but this vicomte is much of a man. As for the Chevalier, what the devil! his fingers have been sunken into my throat."

A mile from the mission, toward the north, of the lake, stood a hut of Indian construction. It had been erected long before the mission. It served as a half-way to the savages after days of hunting in the northern confines of the country of the Onondagas. Here the savages would rest of a night before carrying the game to the village in the hills. It was well hidden from the eyes, thick foliage and vines obscuring it from the view of those at the mission. But there was a well worn path leading to it. It was here that tragedy entered into the comedy of these various lives.

Indian summer. The leaves rustled and sighed upon the damp earth. The cattails waved their brown tassels. Wild ducks passed in dark flocks. A stag sent a challenge across the waters. The lord-like pine looked lordlier than ever among the dismantled oak and maple. The brown nuts pattered softly to the ground, and the chatter of the squirrel was heard. The Chevalier stood at the door of the hunting hut, and all the varying glories of the dying year stirred the latent poetry in his soul. In his hand he held a slip of paper which he read and reread. There was a mixture of joy and puzzlement in his eyes. Diane. It had a pleasant sound; what had she to say that necessitated this odd trysting place? He glanced at the writing again. Evidently she had written it in a hurry. What, indeed, had she to say? They had scarce exchanged a word since the day in the hills when he told her that she was not honest.

A leaf drifted lazily down from the overhanging oak, and another and still another; and he listened. There was in the air the ghostly perfume of summer; and he breathed. He was still young. Sorrow had aged his thought, not his blood; and he loved this woman with his whole being, dishonest though she might be. He carried the note to his lips. She would be here at four. What she had to tell him must be told here, not at the settlement. There was the woman and the caprice. Strange that she had written when early that morning it had been simple to speak. And the Indian who had given him the note knew nothing.

He entered the hut and looked carelessly around. A rude table stood at one side. On the top of it Victor had carved his initials. The Chevalier's eyes filled. Brave poet! Always ready with the jest, light of heart and cheery, gentle and tender, brave as a lion, too. Here was a man such as God intended all men to be. A beggar himself, he gave his last crown to the beggar; undismayed, he would borrow from his friend, paying the crown back in golden louis. How he loved the lad! Only that morning he had romped about the mess-room like a boy escaped from the school-room; imitated Mazarin, Uncle Gaston, the few great councillors, and the royal actors themselves. Even the austere visage of the Father Superior had relaxed and Du Puys had roared with laughter. What was this sudden chill? Or was it his fancy? He stepped into the open again, and found it warm.

"She will be here soon. It is after four. What can she have to say?"

Even as he spoke he heard a sound. It was madame, alone, and she was hurrying along the path. A moment later and they stood together before the threshold of the hut. There was mutual embarrassment which was difficult to analyze. The exertion of the walk had filled her cheeks with a color as brilliant as the bunch of maple leaves which she had fastened at her throat. She was first to speak.

"Well, Monsieur," not over warmly, "what is it you have to say to me which necessitates my coming so far? I believed we had not much more to say." There was no distrust in her eyes, only a cold inquiry. "Are you going to apologize for applying to me the term 'dishonest'?"

The joy vanished from his face, to be replaced by an anxiety which lightened the tan on his cheeks. "Madame, it was your note which brought me here. Read it."

"A clumsy imitation," quickly; "it is not my writing. I suppose, then, that this is also a forgery?" handing him a note which was worded identically the same as his own, "Some one has been playing us a sorry trick." She was angered.

"Let us go back immediately, Madame. We stand in the midst of some secret danger."

But even as he spoke she uttered a suppressed cry and clutched his arm.

The Chevalier saw four men advancing with drawn swords. They formed a semicircle around the hut, cutting off all avenues of escape. Quickly he thrust madame into the hut, whipped out his blade, bared his arm, and waited just inside the doorway. Everything was plain to him. Eh! well, some one would take the journey with him; he would not set out alone. And madame! He was unnerved for a moment.

"Diane," he said, "forgive me as easily as I forgive you," he said quietly. "And pray for us both. I shall be too busy."

She fell upon her knees, folding her hands across her heaving bosom. Her lips moved, but without sound. She saw, possibly, farther into this dark design than the Chevalier. Women love brave men, even as brave men love woman's beauty; and persistently into her prayers stole the thought that this man who was about to defend her honor with his life was among the bravest. A sob choked her.

"D'Hérouville, you black scoundrel, why do you come so slowly?" challenged the Chevalier. "The single window is too small for a man to crawl through. Think you to pass this way?"

"I am going to try!" cried D'Hérouville, triumphantly. How well everything had turned out. "Now, men, stand back a little; there will be some sword play."

"I'll engage the four of you in the open, if madame is permitted to go free." The Chevalier urged, this simply to gain time. He knew what the answer would be.

D'Hérouville appealed to Corporal Frémin. "Is that not an excellent joke, my Corporal?"

"Eye of the bull, yes!"

"Ho! D'Hérouville, wait for me!"

Madame sprang to her feet screaming: "Vicomte, save us!" She flew to the door.

"Back, Madame," warned the Chevalier, "or you will have me killed." With his left arm he barred the door.

"Have patience, sweet bird, whom I shall soon take to an eery nest. To be sure I shall save you!" From behind a clumb of hazel the vicomte came forth, a sword in his hand.

It was the tone, not the words, which enveloped madame's heart in a film of ice. One way or the other, it did not matter, she was lost.

"Guard the Chevalier, men!" cried D'Hérouville, wheeling. "We shall wipe out all bad debts while we are at it. D'Halluys, look to yourself!"

"You fat head!" laughed the vicomte, parrying in a circle. "Did I not tell you that I should kill you?"

Had he been alone the Chevalier would have rushed his opponents. God help madame when he fell, for he could not kill all these men; sooner or later he must fall. The men made no attempt to engage him. They merely held ready in case he should make a rush.

With the fury of a maddened bull, D'Hérouville engaged the vicomte. He was the vicomte's equal in all save generalship. The vicomte loved, next to madame, the game of fence, and he loved it so thoroughly that his coolness never fell below the level of his superb courage. Physically, there was scarce a hair's difference in the weight of the two men. But a parried stroke, or a nicely balked assault, stirred D'Hérouville's heat; if repeated the blood surged into his head, and he was often like to throw caution to the winds. Once his point scratched the vicomte's jaw.

"Very good," the vicomte admitted, lunging in flanconade. His blade grated harshly against D'Hérouville's hilt. It was close work.

They disengaged. D'Hérouville's weapon flashed in a circle. The vicomte's parry was so fine that his own blade lay flat against his side.

"Count, you would be wonderful if you could keep cool that fat head of yours. That is as close as I ever expect to come and pull out."

Presently the end came. D'Hérouville feinted and thrust for the throat. Quick as a wind-driven shadow the vicomte dropped on a knee; his blade taking an acute angle, glided under D'Hérouville's arm and slid noiselessly into the broad chest of his opponent, who opened his mouth as if to speak, gasped, stumbled and fell upon his face, dead. The vicomte sank his blade into the earth to cleanse it.

Madame had covered her eyes. The Chevalier, however, had watched the contest, but without any sign of emotion on his face. He had nothing to do but wait. He had gained some advantage; one of these men would be tired.

The vicomte came within a yard of the hut, and stopped. He smiled evilly and twisted his mustache. By the attitude of the men, the Chevalier could see that the vicomte had outplanned D'Hérouville.

"Chevalier," the vicomte began softly, "for me this is the hour of hours. You will never learn who your mother was. Gabrielle, sweet one with the shadowful eyes, you once asked me why this fellow left France. I will tell you. His father is Monsieur le Marquis de Périgny, but his mother … who can say as to that?"

He could see the horror gather and grow

in madame's eyes, but he misinterpreted it.

"Gabrielle, Gabrielle Diane de Brissac, Montbazon that was, it has been a long chase. Offer me your congratulations. 'Twas I who made you so charming a widow. That grey cloak! It has played the very devil with us all. The tailor who made it must have sprinkled it with the devil's holy water. I wanted only that paper, but the old fool made me fight for it. Monsieur, but for me you would still have lorded it in France. 'Twas the cloak that brought you to Rochelle, induced your paternal parent to declare your illegitimacy, made you wind up the night by flaunting abroad your spotted ticket."

"I am waiting for you," suggested the Chevalier.

"Presently. But what a fine comedy it has been! My faith, it was your poet who had the instinct. Somehow he saw vaguely through the screen, but he could not join the separate parts. It was all droll, my word for it, when I paid you those fifty pistoles that night. But see! those who stand in my path go out of it one by one; De Brissac, D'Hérouville, and now comes your turn. D'Hérouville planned it well; but it is the old story of the monkey and the cat and the chestnuts in the fire. You shall wear a crown of agony, Chevalier. The waiting has been worth while. We shall not kill you; we shall only crucify your heart … by the way of possessing madame."

"Over my body!" The Chevalier cared nothing for these vile insults. He knew the history of his birth; he knew that he was Madame la Marquise's son. He refused to allow these taunts to affect his calm as the vicomte had hoped they would. If he passed through this crisis, he would tell madame the truth. … De Brissac! A blur swept across his eyes, and for a moment his hand shook. De Brissac, De Montbazon! It came to him now, the truth of all this coquetry, this fast and loose, this dangling of promises: the vengeance of a woman's vanity. The irony of this moment, the stinging, bitter irony!

The vicomte never knew how close victory was to him in that moment.

"Monsieur le Comte," said madame, "fight bravely, and God be with you. As for me, be easy; Monsieur le Vicomte will not so much as put a finger on me while I live." She drew a knife from the bosom of her blouse and held it in her hand significantly.

"Half the victory gone already, Vicomte!" cried the Chevalier. Madame had addressed him as "Monsieur le Comte."

"Do not disfigure your beauty, Madame; I desire that," was the vicomte's mocking retort. "Now, my friends, if you all would see la belle France again! But mind; the man who strikes the Chevalier a fatal blow shall by my own hand peg out."

In a twinkling of an eye the bright tongues of steel met, flashed, sparkled, ground upon each other, pressed and beat down. As the full horror of the situation came to her, madame saw the figures reel, and there were strangling sensations in her throat and bubbling noises in her ears. The knife slipped from her fingers. She rocked on her knees, sobbing. The power to pray had gone; she could only watch, watch, watch. Ah God! if he should die before her eyes! Her hands rose from her bosom and pressed against her cheeks. Dimly she could hear the gonk-gonk of flying water-fowl: that murder should be done in so fair a place!

The unequal duel went on. Presently The Fox stepped back, his arm gashed. He cursed and took up his sword with his left hand. They tried to lure the Chevalier from his vantage point; but he took no step, forward or backward. He was like a wall. The old song of battle hummed in his ears. Would that Victor were here. It would be a good fight.

"These Pérignys are living sword blades," murmured the vicomte. "Come, come; this must end."

They were all hardy men, the blood was rich, the eye keen, the wrist sure; but they could not break down the Chevalier's guard. They knew that in time they must wear him out, but time was very precious to the vicomte. The Chevalier's point laid open the rascal's cheek, it ripped open Frémin's forehead, it slid along Pauquet's hand. A cold smile grew upon the Chevalier's lips and remained there. They could not reach him. There was no room for four blades, and soon the vicomte realized this.

"Satan of hell, back, three of you! We can gain nothing this way. Let me have him alone for a while."

The vicomte's allies drew away, not unreluctantly; and the two engaged. Back a little, then forward a little, lunging, parrying, always that strange, nerve-racking noise of grating steel. It seemed to madame that she must eventually go mad. The vicomte tried all the tricks at his command, but to no avail; he could make no impression on the man in the doorway. Indeed, the vicomte narrowly escaped death three or four different times. The corporal, alive to the shade of advantage which the Chevalier was gaining and to the disaster which would result from the vicomte's defeat, crept slowly up from the side. Madame saw him; but her cry of warning turned into a moan of horror. It was all over. The Chevalier lay motionless on the ground, the blood trickling from a ragged cut above the temple. The corporal had used the hilt of his heavy sword, and no small power had forced the blow.

The vicomte sprang forward just as madame was groping for the knife. He put his foot on it, laughing.

"Not at present, Madame; later, if you are inclined that way. That was well done, Corporal."

The vicomte bound the Chevalier's hands and ankles securely and took the dripping hat from Pauquet, dashing the contents into the Chevalier's face.

"Help me set him up against the wall."

The Chevalier shuddered, and by and by opened his eyes. The world came back to him. He looked at his enemies calmly.

"Well?" he said. He would waste no breath asking for mercy. There was no mercy here.

"You shall be left where you are, Monsieur," replied the vicomte, "while I hold converse with madame inside. You are where you can hear but not see. Corporal, take the men to the canoe and wait for me. Warn me if there is any danger. I shall be along presently. Chevalier, I compliment you upon your fight. I know but a dozen men in all France who are your match."

"What are you going to do?" The Chevalier felt his heart swell with agony.

"What am I going to do? Listen. You shall hear even if you can not see." The vicomte entered the hut.

Madame was standing in a corner … The Chevalier lived. If she could but hold the vicomte at arm's length for a space!

"Well, Madame, have you no friendly welcome for one who loves you fondly? I offered to make you my wife; but now! What was it that Monsieur Shakspere says? … 'Sit you down, sweet, till I wring your heart'? Was that it?"

All her courage returned at the sound of his voice. Her tongue spoke not, but the hate in her eyes was a language he read well enough.

"Mine! … For a day, or a week, or for life! Has it not occurred to you, sweet? You are mine. Here we are, alone together, you and I; and I am a man in all things, and you are a beautiful woman." His glance, critical and admiring, ran over her face and form. "You would look better in silks. Well, you shall have them. You stood at the door of a convent; why did you not enter? You love the world too well; eh? … Like your mother."

Her eyes were steady.

"In my father's orchards there used to be a peach-tree. It had the whimsical habit of bearing one large peach each season. When it ripened I used to stand under it and gloat over it for hours, to fill my senses with its perfect beauty. At length I plucked it. I never regretted the waiting; the fruit tasted only the sweeter. … You are like that peach, Madame. By the Cross, over which these Jesuits mumble, but you are worth a dance with death!"

"Had you a mother, Monsieur?"

This unexpected question made him widen his eyes. "Truly, else I had not been here."

"Did she die in peace?"

He frowned. "It matters not how she died." He sat on the edge of the table and swung one leg to and fro. "Some men would give their chance of heaven for a taste of those lips."

"Your chance of heaven, Monsieur, is remote." The setting sun came in through the door and filled her eyes with a golden haze. If there was any fear, the pride on her face hid it.

"Ye gods, but you are a beauty! I can wait no longer for that kiss."

His leg slid from the table. He walked toward her, and she shrank back till she met with the wall. He sprang forward, laughing. She struggled in his strong arms, uselessly. With one hand he pressed up her chin and kissed her squarely on the lips. Then he let her go. She drew her hand across her mouth and spat upon the floor.

"What! So soon, Madame?"

Her bosom rose and fell quickly, as much from rage and hate as from the exertion of the struggle.

"God will punish you, Monsieur, as he punishes all men who abuse their strength as you have done,-punish you for the misery you have brought upon me."

"What! and I bring you love?"

She wiped her lips again, this time on her sleeve.

"Does it burn like that, then?" laughing.

"It is poison," simply.

Outside the Chevalier writhed and twisted and strained. The agony! She was alone in there, helpless. To be free, free! He wept, strove vainly to loose his bonds. He cried aloud in his anguish. And the vicomte heard him. He came to the door where he could see his enemy in torture and at the same time prevent madame's escape.

"Is that you, Chevalier? Do you recollect the coin? I am a generous debtor. I am paying you a hundred for one. Madame and I shall soon be on the way to Montreal. Remember her kindly. And you will tarry here till they find you, eh?"

"Vicomte, you were a brave man once. Be brave again. Do not torture me like this. Take your sword and run it through my heart, and I shall thank you."

Somberly the vicomte gazed down at him. He drowned the glimmer of pity in the thought of how this man had thwarted him in the past. "What!" he said, "spoil the comedy with a death-scene? I am too much of an artist, Monsieur. I had rather you should live." He went back into the hut. "The Chevalier grows restive, like an audience which can not see what is going on behind the curtain. Will you give me a kiss of your own volition, or must I use force again? It is like sin; the first step leads to another."

Madame stood passive. She would have killed this man with laughter on her lips had a knife been in her hand. He came toward her again. She strove to put the table between. He laughed, leaping the table lightly. She fled to the door, but ere she had taken a dozen steps he was in front of her. The Chevalier heard all these sounds. He prayed to God to end his miseries quickly.

"One more kiss, and we take the river, you and I. We will find some outcast priest to ease your conscience. The kisses will not be so fresh after that."

Far away came a call, but the vicomte did not hear it. He was too busy feasting his eyes. He had forgotten.

"So be it," he said. "This kiss shall last a full breath. Then we must be on the way."

A shadow darkened the doorway.

"Monsieur, here is a kiss for you, cold with death."

Madame cried out in joy. The vicomte whirled around, with an oath, his sword in his hand. Victor, pale but serene and confident, stood between him and freedom.

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