Read CHAPTER VI. WHO TOUCHES TAVANNES? of Count Hannibal, free online book, by Stanley J. Weyman, on ReadCentral.com.

In saying that the storm was rising Count Hannibal had said no more than the truth. A new mob had a minute before burst from the eastward into the Rue St. Honore; and the roar of its thousand voices swelled louder than the importunate clangour of the bells. Behind its moving masses the dawn of a new day Sunday, the 24th of August, the feast of St. Bartholomew was breaking over the Bastille, as if to aid the crowd in its cruel work. The gabled streets, the lanes, and gothic courts, the stifling wynds, where the work awaited the workers, still lay in twilight; still the gleam of the torches, falling on the house-fronts, heralded the coming of the crowd. But the dawn was growing, the sun was about to rise. Soon the day would be here, giving up the lurking fugitive whom darkness, more pitiful, had spared, and stamping with legality the horrors that night had striven to hide.

And with day, with the full light, killing would grow more easy, escape more hard. Already they were killing on the bridge where the rich goldsmiths lived, on the wharves, on the river. They were killing at the Louvre, in the courtyard under the King’s eyes, and below the windows of the Medicis. They were killing in St. Martin and St. Denis and St. Antoine; wherever hate, or bigotry, or private malice impelled the hand. From the whole city went up a din of lamentation, and wrath, and foreboding. From the Cour des Miracles , from the markets, from the Boucherie , from every haunt of crime and misery, hordes of wretched creatures poured forth; some to rob on their own account, and where they listed, none gainsaying; more to join themselves to one of the armed bands whose business it was to go from street to street, and house to house, quelling resistance, and executing through Paris the high justice of the King.

It was one of these swollen bands which had entered the street while Tavannes spoke; nor could he have called to his aid a more powerful advocate. As the deep “A bas! A bas!” rolled like thunder along the fronts of the houses, as the more strident “Tuez! Tuez!” drew nearer and nearer, and the lights of the oncoming multitude began to flicker on the shuttered gables, the fortitude of the servants gave way. Madame Carlat, shivering in every limb, burst into moaning; the tiring-maid, Javette, flung herself in terror at Mademoiselle’s knees, and, writhing herself about them, shrieked to her to save her, only to save her! One of the men moved forward on impulse, as if he would close the shutters; and only old Carlat remained silent, praying mutely with moving lips and a stern, set face.

And Count Hannibal? As the glare of the links in the street grew brighter, and ousted the sickly daylight, his form seemed to dilate. He stilled the shrieking woman by a glance.

“Choose! Mademoiselle, and quickly!” he said. “For I can only save my wife and her people! Quick, for the pinch is coming, and ’twill be no boy’s play.”

A shot, a scream from the street, a rush of racing feet before the window seconded his words.

“Quick, Mademoiselle!” he cried. And his breath came a little faster. “Quick, before it be too late! Will you save life, or will you kill?”

She looked at her lover with eyes of agony, dumbly questioning him. But he made no sign, and only Tavannes marked the look.

“Monsieur has done what he can to save himself,” he said, with a sneer. “He has donned the livery of the King’s servants; he has said, ’Whoever perishes, I will live!’ But ”

“Curse you!” the young man cried, and, stung to madness, he tore the cross from his cap and flung it on the ground. He seized his white sleeve and ripped it from shoulder to elbow. Then, when it hung by the string only, he held his hand.

“Curse you!” he cried furiously. “I will not at your bidding! I may save her yet! I will save her!”

“Fool!” Tavannes answered but his words were barely audible above the deafening uproar. “Can you fight a thousand? Look! Look!” and seizing the other’s wrist he pointed to the window.

The street glowed like a furnace in the red light of torches, raised on poles above a sea of heads; an endless sea of heads, and gaping faces, and tossing arms which swept on and on, and on and by. For a while it seemed that the torrent would flow past them and would leave them safe. Then came a check, a confused outcry, a surging this way and that; the torches reeled to and fro, and finally, with a dull roar of “Open! Open!” the mob faced about to the house and the lighted window.

For a second it seemed that even Count Hannibal’s iron nerves shook a little. He stood between the sullen group that surrounded the disordered table and the maddened rabble, that gloated on the victims before they tore them to pieces. “Open! Open!” the mob howled: and a man dashed in the window with his pike.

In that crisis Mademoiselle’s eyes met Tavannes’ for the fraction of a second. She did not speak; nor, had she retained the power to frame the words, would they have been audible. But something she must have looked, and something of import, though no other than he marked or understood it. For in a flash he was at the window and his hand was raised for silence.

“Back!” he thundered. “Back, knaves!” And he whistled shrilly. “Do what you will,” he went on in the same tone, “but not here! Pass on! Pass on! do you hear?”

But the crowd were not to be lightly diverted. With a persistence brutal and unquestioning they continued to howl, “Open! Open!” while the man who had broken the window the moment before, Jehan, the cripple with the hideous face, seized the lead-work, and tore away a great piece of it. Then, laying hold of a bar, he tried to drag it out, setting one foot against the wall below. Tavannes saw what he did, and his frame seemed to dilate with the fury and violence of his character.

“Dogs!” he shouted, “must I call out my riders and scatter you? Must I flog you through the streets with stirrup-leathers? I am Tavannes; beware of me! I have claws and teeth and I bite!” he continued, the scorn in his words exceeding even the rage of the crowd, at which he flung them. “Kill where you please, rob where you please, but not where I am! Or I will hang you by the heels on Montfaucon, man by man! I will flay your backs. Go! Go! I am Tavannes!”

But the mob, cowed for a moment by the thunder of his voice, by his arrogance and recklessness, showed at this that their patience was exhausted. With a yell which drowned his tones they swayed forward; a dozen thundered on the door, crying, “In the King’s name!” As many more tore out the remainder of the casement, seized the bars of the window, and strove to pull them out or to climb between them. Jehan, the cripple, with whom Tignonville had rubbed elbows at the rendezvous, led the way.

Count Hannibal watched them a moment, his harsh face bent down to them, his features plain in the glare of the torches. But when the cripple, raised on the others’ shoulders, and emboldened by his adversary’s inactivity, began to squeeze himself through the bars, Tavannes raised a pistol, which he had held unseen behind him, cocked it at leisure, and levelled it at the foul face which leered close to his. The dwarf saw the weapon and tried to retreat; but it was too late. A flash, a scream, and the wretch, shot through the throat, flung up his hands, and fell back into the arms of a lean man in black who had lent him his shoulder to ascend.

For a few seconds the smoke of the pistol filled the window and the room. There was a cry that the Huguenots were escaping, that the Huguenots were resisting, that it was a plot; and some shouted to guard the back and some to watch the roof, and some to be gone. But when the fumes cleared away, the mob saw, with stupor, that all was as it had been. Count Hannibal stood where he had stood before, a grim smile on his lips.

“Who comes next?” he cried in a tone of mockery. “I have more pistols!” And then with a sudden change to ferocity, “You dogs!” he went on. “You scum of a filthy city, sweepings of the Halles ! Do you think to beard me? Do you think to frighten me or murder me? I am Tavannes, and this is my house, and were there a score of Huguenots in it, you should not touch one, nor harm a hair of his head! Begone, I say again, while you may! Seek women and children, and kill them. But not here!”

For an instant the mingled scorn and brutality of his words silenced them. Then from the rear of the crowd came an answer the roar of an arquebuse . The ball whizzed past Count Hannibal’s head, and, splashing the plaster from the wall within a pace of Tignonville, dropped to the ground.

Tavannes laughed. “Bungler!” he cried. “Were you in my troop I would dip your trigger-finger in boiling oil to teach you to shoot! But you weary me, dogs. I must teach you a lesson, must I?” And he lifted a pistol and levelled it. The crowd did not know whether it was the one he had discharged or another, but they gave back with a sharp gasp. “I must teach you, must I?” he continued with scorn. “Here, Bigot, Badelon, drive me these blusterers! Rid the street of them! A Tavannes! A Tavannes!”

Not by word or look had he before this betrayed that he had supports. But as he cried the name, a dozen men armed to the teeth, who had stood motionless under the Croix du Tiroir , fell in a line on the right flank of the crowd. The surprise for those nearest them was complete. With the flash of the pikes before their eyes, with the cold steel in fancy between their ribs, they fled every way, uncertain how many pursued, or if any pursuit there was. For a moment the mob, which a few minutes before had seemed so formidable that a regiment might have quailed before it, bade fair to be routed by a dozen pikes.

And so, had all in the crowd been what he termed them, the rabble and sweepings of the streets, it would have been. But in the heart of it, and felt rather than seen, were a handful of another kidney; Sorbonne students and fierce-eyed priests, with three or four mounted archers, the nucleus that, moving through the streets, had drawn together this concourse. And these with threats and curse and gleaming eyes stood fast, even Tavannes’ dare-devils recoiling before the tonsure. The check thus caused allowed those who had budged a breathing space. They rallied behind the black robes, and began to stone the pikes; who in their turn withdrew until they formed two groups, standing on their defence, the one before the window, the other before the door.

Count Hannibal had watched the attack and the check, as a man watches a play; with smiling interest. In the panic, the torches had been dropped or extinguished, and now between the house and the sullen crowd which hung back, yet grew moment by moment more dangerous, the daylight fell cold on the littered street and the cripple’s huddled form prone in the gutter. A priest raised on the shoulders of the lean man in black began to harangue the mob, and the dull roar of assent, the brandished arms which greeted his appeal, had their effect on Tavannes’ men. They looked to the window, and muttered among themselves. It was plain that they had no stomach for a fight with the Church, and were anxious for the order to withdraw.

But Count Hannibal gave no order, and, much as his people feared the cowls, they feared him more. Meanwhile the speaker’s eloquence rose higher; he pointed with frenzied gestures to the house. The mob groaned, and suddenly a volley of stones fell among the pikemen, whose corselets rattled under the shower. The priest seized that moment. He sprang to the ground, and to the front. He caught up his robe and waved his hand, and the rabble, as if impelled by a single will, rolled forward in a huge one-fronted thundering wave, before which the two handfuls of pikemen afraid to strike, yet afraid to fly were swept away like straws upon the tide.

But against the solid walls and oak-barred door of the house the wave beat, only to fall back again, a broken, seething mass of brandished arms and ravening faces. One point alone was vulnerable, the window, and there in the gap stood Tavannes. Quick as thought he fired two pistols into the crowd; then, while the smoke for a moment hid all, he whistled.

Whether the signal was a summons to his men to fight their way back as they were doing to the best of their power or he had resources still unseen, was not to be known. For as the smoke began to rise, and while the rabble before the window, cowed by the fall of two of their number, were still pushing backward instead of forward, there rose behind them strange sounds yells, and the clatter of hoofs, mingled with screams of alarm. A second, and into the loose skirts of the crowd came charging helter-skelter, pell-mell, a score of galloping, shrieking, cursing horsemen, attended by twice as many footmen, who clung to their stirrups or to the tails of the horses, and yelled and whooped, and struck in unison with the maddened riders.

“On! on!” the foremost shrieked, rolling in his saddle, and foaming at the mouth. “Bleed in August, bleed in May! Kill!” And he fired a pistol among the rabble, who fled every way to escape his rearing, plunging charger.

“Kill! Kill!” cried his followers, cutting the air with their swords, and rolling to and fro on their horses in drunken emulation. “Bleed in August, bleed in May!”

“On! On!” cried the leader, as the crowd which beset the house fled every way before his reckless onset. “Bleed in August, bleed in May!”

The rabble fled, but not so quickly but that one or two were ridden down, and this for an instant checked the riders. Before they could pass on

“ Ohé !” cried Count Hannibal from his window. “ Ohé !” with a shout of laughter, “ride over them, dear brother! Make me a clean street for my wedding!”

Marshal Tavannes for he, the hero of Jarnac, was the leader of this wild orgy turned that way, and strove to rein in his horse.

“What ails them?” he cried, as the maddened animal reared upright, its iron hoofs striking fire from the slippery pavement.

“They are rearing like thy Bayard!” Count Hannibal answered. “Whip them, whip them for me! Tavannes! Tavannes!”

“What? This canaille ?”

“Ay, that canaille !”

“Who touches my brother, touches Tavannes!” the Marshal replied, and spurred his horse among the rabble, who had fled to the sides of the street and now strove hard to efface themselves against the walls. “Begone, dogs; begone!” he cried, still hunting them. And then, “You would bite, would you?” And snatching another pistol from his boot, he fired it among them, careless whom he hit. “Ha! ha! That stirs you, does it!” he continued, as the wretches fled headlong. “Who touches my brother, touches Tavannes! On! On!”

Suddenly, from a doorway near at hand, a sombre figure darted into the roadway, caught the Marshal’s rein, and for a second checked his course. The priest for a priest it was, Father Pezelay, the same who had addressed the mob held up a warning hand.

“Halt!” he cried, with burning eyes. “Halt, my lord! It is written, thou shalt not spare the Canaanitish woman. ’Tis not to spare the King has given command and a sword, but to kill! ’Tis not to harbour, but to smite! To smite!”

“Then smite I will!” the Marshal retorted, and with the butt of his pistol struck the zealot down. Then, with as much indifference as he would have treated a Huguenot, he spurred his horse over him, with a mad laugh at his jest. “Who touches my brother, touches Tavannes!” he yelled. “Touches Tavannes! On! On! Bleed in August, bleed in May!”

“On!” shouted his followers, striking about them in the same desperate fashion. They were young nobles who had spent the night feasting at the Palace, and, drunk with wine and mad with excitement, had left the Louvre at daybreak to rouse the city. “A Jarnac! A Jarnac!” they cried, and some saluted Count Hannibal as they passed. And so, shouting and spurring and following their leader, they swept away down the now empty street, carrying terror and a flame wherever their horses bore them that morning.

Tavannes, his hands on the ledge of the shattered window, leaned out laughing, and followed them with his eyes. A moment, and the mob was gone, the street was empty; and one by one, with sheepish faces, his pikemen emerged from the doorways and alleys in which they had taken refuge. They gathered about the three huddled forms which lay prone and still in the gutter: or, not three two. For even as they approached them, one, the priest, rose slowly and giddily to his feet. He turned a face bleeding, lean, and relentless towards the window at which Tavannes stood. Solemnly, with the sign of the cross, and with uplifted hands, he cursed him in bed and at board, by day and by night, in walking, in riding, in standing, in the day of battle, and at the hour of death. The pikemen fell back appalled, and hid their eyes; and those who were of the north crossed themselves, and those who came from the south bent two fingers horse-shoe fashion. But Hannibal de Tavannes laughed; laughed in his moustache, his teeth showing, and bade them move that carrion to a distance, for it would smell when the sun was high. Then he turned his back on the street, and looked into the room.