Read CHAPTER XXI of Jason, free online book, by Justus Miles Forman, on ReadCentral.com.

A MIST DIMS THE SHINING STAR

Ste. Marie remained in his room all the rest of that day, and he did not see Mlle. O’Hara again, for Michel brought him his lunch and the old Justine his dinner. For the greater part of the time he sat in bed reading, but rose now and then and moved about the room. His wound seemed to have suffered no great inconvenience from the morning’s outing. If he stood or walked too long it burned somewhat, and he had the sensation of a tight band round the leg; but this passed after he had lain down for a little while, or even sat in a chair with the leg straight out before him; so he knew that he was not to be crippled very much longer, and his thoughts began to turn more and more keenly upon the matter of escape.

He realized, of course, that now, since he was once more able to walk, he would be guarded with unremitting care every moment of the day, and quite possibly every moment of the night as well, though the simple bolting of his door on the outside would seem to answer the purpose save when he was out-of-doors. Once he went to the two east windows and hung out of them, testing as well as he could with his hands the strength and tenacity of the ivy which covered that side of the house. He thought it seemed strong enough to give hand and foot hold without being torn loose, but he was afraid it would make an atrocious amount of noise if he should try to climb down it, and, besides, he would need two very active legs for that.

At another time a fresh idea struck him, and he put it at once into action. There might be just a chance, when out one day with Michel, of getting near enough to the wall which ran along the Clamart road to throw something over it when the old man was not looking. In one of his pockets he had a card-case with a little pencil fitted into a loop at the edge, and in the case it was his custom to carry postage-stamps. He investigated and found pencil and stamps. Of course he had nothing but cards to write upon, and they were useless. He looked about the room and went through an empty chest of drawers in vain, but at last, on some shelves in the closet where his clothes had hung, he found several large sheets of coarse white paper. The shelves were covered with it loosely for the sake of cleanliness. He abstracted one of these sheets, and cut it into squares of the ordinary note-paper size, and he sat down and wrote a brief letter to Richard Hartley, stating where he was, that Arthur Benham was there, the O’Haras, and, he thought, Captain Stewart. He did not write the names out, but put instead the initial letters of each name, knowing that Hartley would understand. He gave careful directions as to how the place was to be reached, and he asked Hartley to come as soon as possible by night to that wall where he himself had made his entrance, to climb up by the cedar-tree, and to drop his answer into the thick leaves of the lilac bushes immediately beneath an answer naming a day and hour, preferably by night, when he could return with three or four to help him, surprise the household at La Lierre, and carry off young Benham.

Ste. Marie wrote this letter four times, and each of the four copies he enclosed in an awkwardly fashioned envelope, made with infinite pains so that its flaps folded in together, for he had no gum. He addressed and stamped the four envelopes, and put them all in his pocket to await the first opportunity.

Afterward he lay down for a while, and as, one after another, the books he had in the room failed to interest him, his thoughts began to turn back to Mlle. Coira O’Hara and his hour with her upon the old stone bench in the garden. He realized all at once that he had been putting off this reflection as one puts off a reckoning that one a little dreads to face, and rather vaguely he realized why.

The spell that the girl wielded quite without being conscious of it; he granted her that grace was too potent. It was dangerous, and he knew it. Even imaginative and very unpractical people can be in some things surprisingly matter-of-fact, and Ste. Marie was matter-of-fact about this. The girl had made a mysterious and unprecedented appeal to him at his very first sight of her, long before, and ever since that time she had continued, intermittently at least, to haunt his dreams. Now he was in the very house with her. It was quite possible that he might see her and speak with her every day, and he knew there was peril in that.

He closed his eyes and she came to him, dark and beautiful, magnetically vital, spreading enchantment about her like a fragrance. She sat beside him on the moss-stained bench in the garden, holding out her hand cup-wise, and a sunbeam lay in the hand like a little, golden, fluttering bird. His thoughts ran back to that first morning when he had narrowly escaped death by poison. He remembered the girl’s agony of fear and horror. He felt her hands once more upon his shoulders, and he was aware that his breath was coming faster and that his heart beat quickly. He got to his feet and went across to one of the windows, and he stood there for a long time frowning out into the summer day. If ever in his life, he said to himself with some deliberation, he was to need a cool and clear head, faculties unclouded and unimpaired by emotion, it was now in these next few days. Much more than his own well-being depended upon him now. The fates of a whole family, and quite possibly the lives of some of them, were in his hands. He must not fail, and he must not, in any least way, falter.

For enemies he had a band of desperate adventurers, and the very boy himself, the centre and reason for the whole plot, had been, in some incomprehensible way, so played upon that he, too, was against him.

The man standing by the window forced himself quite deliberately to look the plain facts in the face. He compelled himself to envisage this beautiful girl with her tragic eyes for just what his reason knew her to be an adventuress, a decoy, a lure to a callow, impressionable, foolish lad, the tool of that arch-villain Stewart and of the lesser villain her father. It was like standing by and watching something lovely and pitiful vilely befouled. It turned his heart sick within him, but he held himself to the task. He brought to aid him the vision of his lady, in whose cause he was pursuing this adventure. For strength and determination he reached eye and hand to her where she sat enthroned, calm-browed, serene.

For the first time since the beginning of all things his lady failed him, and Ste. Marie turned cold with fear.

Where was that splendid frenzy that had been wont to sweep him all in an instant into upper air set his feet upon the stars? Where was it? The man gave a sudden, voiceless cry of horror. The wings that had such countless times upborne him fluttered weakly near the earth and could not mount. His lady was there; through infinite space he was aware of her, but she was cold and aloof, and her eyes gazed very serenely beyond at something he could not see.

He knew well enough that the fault lay somewhere within himself. She was as she had ever been, but he lacked the strength to rise to her. Why? Why? He searched himself with a desperate earnestness, but he could find no answer to his questioning. In himself, as in her, there had come no change. She was still to him all that she ever had been the star of his destiny, the pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day, to guide him on his path. Where, then, the fine, pure fervor that should, at thought of her, whirl him on high and make a god of him?

He stood wrapped in bewilderment and despair, for he could find no answer.

In plain words, in commonplace black-and-white, the man’s anguish has an over-fanciful, a well-nigh absurd look, but to Ste. Marie the thing was very real and terrible, as real and as terrible as, to a half-starved monk in his lonely cell, the sudden failure of the customary exaltation of spirit after a night’s long prayer.

He went, after a time, back to the bed, and lay down there with one upflung arm across his eyes to shut out the light. He was filled with a profound dejection and a sense of hopelessness. Through all the long week of his imprisonment he had been cheerful, at times even gay. However evil his case might have looked, his elastic spirits had mounted above all difficulties and cares, confident in the face of apparent defeat. Now at last he lay still, bruised, as it were, and battered and weary. The flame of courage burned very low in him. From sheer exhaustion he fell after a time into a troubled sleep, but even there the enemy followed him and would not let him rest. He seemed to himself to be in a place of shadows and fears. He strained his eyes to make out above him the bright, clear star of guidance, for so long as that shone he was safe; but something had come between cloud or mist and his star shone dimly in fitful glimpses.

On the next morning he went out once more with the old Michel into the garden. He went with a stronger heart, for the morning had renewed his courage, as bright, fresh mornings do. From the anguish of the day before he held himself carefully aloof. He kept his mind away from all thought of it, and gave his attention to the things about him. It would return, doubtless, in the slow, idle hours; he would have to face it again and yet again; he would have to contend with it; but for the present he put it out of his thoughts, for there were things to do.

It was no more than human of him and certainly it was very characteristic of Ste. Marie that he should be half glad and half disappointed at not finding Coira O’Hara in her place at the rond point. It left him free to do what he wished to do make a careful reconnaissance of the whole garden enclosure but it left him empty of something he had, without conscious thought, looked forward to.

His wounded leg was stronger and more flexible than on the day before; it burned and prickled less, and could be bent a little at the knee with small distress; so he led the old Michel at a good pace down the length of the enclosure, past the rose-gardens, a tangle of unkempt sweetness, and so to the opposite wall. He found the gates there, very formidable-looking, made of vertical iron bars connected by cross-pieces and an ornamental scroll. They were fastened together by a heavy chain and a padlock. The lock was covered with rust, as were the gates themselves, and Ste. Marie observed that the lane outside upon which they gave was overgrown with turf and moss, and even with seedling shrubs; so he felt sure that this entrance was never used. The lane, he noted, swept away to the right toward Issy and not toward the Clamart road. He heard, as he stood there, the whir of a tram from far away at the left, a tram bound to or from Clamart, and the sound brought to his mind what he wished to do. He turned about and began to make his way round the rose-gardens, which were partly enclosed by a low brick wall some two or three feet high. Beyond them the trees and shrubbery were not set out in orderly rows as they were near the house, but grew at will without hindrance or care. It was like a bit of the Meudon wood.

He found the going more difficult here for his bad leg, but he pressed on, and in a little while saw before him that wall which skirted the Clamart road. He felt in his pocket for the four sealed and stamped letters, but just then the old Michel spoke behind him:

“Pardon, Monsieur! Ce n’est pas permis.”

“What is not permitted?” demanded Ste. Marie, wheeling about.

“To approach that wall, Monsieur,” said the old man, with an incredibly gnomelike and apologetic grin.

Ste. Marie gave an exclamation of disgust. “Is it believed that I could leap over it?” he asked. “A matter of five metres? Merci, non! I am not so agile. You flatter me.”

The old Michel spread out his two gnarled hands.

Pas de ma faute. I have orders, Monsieur. It will be my painful duty to shoot if Monsieur approaches that wall.” He turned his strange head on one side and regarded Ste. Marie with his sharp and beadlike eye. The smile of apology still distorted his face, and he looked exactly like the Punchinello in a street show.

Ste. Marie slowly withdrew from his pocket two louis d’or and held them before him in the palm of his hand. He looked down upon them, and Michel looked, too, with a gaze so intense that his solitary eye seemed to project a very little from his withered face. He was like a hypnotized old bird.

Mon vieux,” said Ste. Marie. “I am a man of honor.”

Sûrement! Sûrement, Monsieur!” said the old Michel, politely, but his hypnotized gaze did not stir so much as a hair’s-breadth. “Ca va sans dire.”

“A man of honor,” repeated Ste. Marie. “When I give my word I keep it. Voila! I keep it. And,” said he, “I have here forty francs. Two louis. A large sum. It is yours, my brave Michel, for the mere trouble of turning your back just thirty seconds.”

“Monsieur,” whispered the old man, “it is impossible. He would kill me by torture.”

“He will never know,” said Ste. Marie, “for I do not mean to try to escape. I give you my word of honor that I shall not try to escape. Besides, I could not climb over that wall, as you see. Two louis, Michel! Forty francs!”

The old man’s hands twisted and trembled round the barrel of the carbine, and he swallowed once with some difficulty. He seemed to hesitate, but in the end he shook his head. It was as if he shook it in grief over the grave of his first-born. “It is impossible,” he said again. “Impossible.” He tore the beadlike eye away from those two beautiful, glowing golden things, and Ste. Marie saw that there was nothing to be done with him just now. He slipped the money back into his pocket with a little sigh and turned away toward the rose-gardens.

“Ah, well,” said he. “Another time, perhaps. Another time. And there are more louis still, mon vieux. Perhaps three or four. Who knows?”

Michel emitted a groan of extreme anguish, and they moved on.

But a few moments later Ste. Marie gave a sudden low exclamation, and then a soundless laugh, for he caught sight of a very familiar figure seated in apparent dejection upon a fallen tree-trunk and staring across the tangled splendor of the roses.