Read CHAPTER VIII. TWO HENS AND AN EGG of Count Hannibal, free online book, by Stanley J. Weyman, on ReadCentral.com.

M. de Tignonville was shaken by the fall, and in the usual course of things he would have lain where he was, and groaned. But when a man has once turned his back on death he is apt to fancy it at his shoulder. He has small stomach for surprises, and is in haste to set as great a distance as possible between the ugly thing and himself. So it was with the Huguenot. Shot suddenly into the full publicity of the street, he knew that at any instant danger might take him by the nape; and he was on his legs and glancing up and down before the clatter of his fall had travelled the length of three houses.

The rabble were still a hundred paces away, piled up and pressed about a house where men were being hunted as men hunt rats. He saw that he was unnoted, and apprehension gave place to rage. His thoughts turned back hissing hot to the thing that had happened, and in a paroxysm of shame he shook his fist at the gaping casement and the sneering face of his rival, dimly seen in the background. If a look would have killed Tavannes and her it had not been wanting.

For it was not only the man M. de Tignonville hated at this moment; he hated Mademoiselle also, the unwitting agent of the other’s triumph. She had thrust him from her; she had refused to be guided by him; she had resisted, thwarted, shamed him. Then let her take the consequences. She willed to perish: let her perish!

He did not acknowledge even to himself the real cause of offence, the proof to which she had put his courage, and the failure of that courage to stand the test. Yet it was this, though he had himself provoked the trial, which burned up his chivalry, as the smuggler’s fire burns up the dwarf heath upon the Landes. It was the discovery that in an heroic hour he was no hero that gave force to his passionate gesture, and next moment sent him storming down the beetling passage to the Rue du Roule, his heart a maelstrom of fierce vows and fiercer menaces.

He had reached the further end of the alley and was on the point of entering the street before he remembered that he had nowhere to go. His lodgings were no longer his, since his landlord knew him to be a Huguenot, and would doubtless betray him. To approach those of his faith whom he had frequented was to expose them to danger; and, beyond the religion, he had few acquaintances and those of the newest. Yet the streets were impossible. He walked them on the utmost edge of peril; he lurked in them under the blade of an impending axe. And, whether he walked or lurked, he went at the mercy of the first comers bold enough to take his life.

The sweat stood on his brow as he paused under the low arch of the alley-end, tasting the bitter forlornness of the dog banned and set for death in that sunlit city. In every window of the gable end which faced his hiding-place he fancied an eye watching his movements; in every distant step he heard the footfall of doom coming that way to his discovery. And while he trembled, he had to reflect, to think, to form some plan.

In the town was no place for him, and short of the open country no safety. And how could he gain the open country? If he succeeded in reaching one of the gates St. Antoine, or St. Denis, in itself a task of difficulty it would only be to find the gate closed, and the guard on the alert. At last it flashed on him that he might cross the river; and at the notion hope awoke. It was possible that the massacre had not extended to the southern suburb; possible, that if it had, the Huguenots who lay there Frontenay, and Montgomery, and Chartres, with the men of the North might be strong enough to check it, and even to turn the tables on the Parisians.

His colour returned. He was no coward, as soldiers go; if it came to fighting he had courage enough. He could not hope to cross the river by the bridge, for there, where the goldsmiths lived, the mob were like to be most busy. But if he could reach the bank he might procure a boat at some deserted point, or, at the worst, he might swim across.

From the Louvre at his back came the sound of gunshots; from every quarter the murmur of distant crowds, or the faint lamentable cries of victims. But the empty street before him promised an easy passage, and he ventured into it and passed quickly through it. He met no one, and no one molested him; but as he went he had glimpses of pale faces that from behind the casements watched him come and turned to watch him go; and so heavy on his nerves was the pressure of this silent ominous attention, that he blundered at the end of the street. He should have taken the southerly turning; instead he held on, found himself in the Rue Ferronerie, and a moment later was all but in the arms of a band of city guards, who were making a house-to-house visitation.

He owed his safety rather to the condition of the street than to his presence of mind. The Rue Ferronerie, narrow in itself, was so choked at this date by stalls and bulkheads, that an edict directing the removal of those which abutted on the cemetery had been issued a little before. Nothing had been done on it, however, and this neck of Paris, this main thoroughfare between the east and the west, between the fashionable quarter of the Marais and the fashionable quarter of the Louvre, was still a devious huddle of sheds and pent-houses. Tignonville slid behind one of these, found that it masked the mouth of an alley, and, heedless whither the passage led, ran hurriedly along it. Every instant he expected to hear the hue and cry behind him, and he did not halt or draw breath until he had left the soldiers far in the rear, and found himself astray at the junction of four noisome lanes, over two of which the projecting gables fairly met. Above the two others a scrap of sky appeared, but this was too small to indicate in which direction the river lay.

Tignonville hesitated, but not for long; a burst of voices heralded a new danger, and he shrank into a doorway. Along one of the lanes a troop of children, the biggest not twelve years old, came dancing and leaping round something which they dragged by a string. Now one of the hindmost would burl it onward with a kick, now another, amid screams of childish laughter, tripped headlong over the cord; now at the crossways they stopped to wrangle and question which way they should go, or whose turn it was to pull and whose to follow. At last they started afresh with a whoop, the leader singing and all plucking the string to the cadence of the air. Their plaything leapt and dropped, sprang forward, and lingered like a thing of life. But it was no thing of life, as Tignonville saw with a shudder when they passed him. The object of their sport was the naked body of a child, an infant!

His gorge rose at the sight. Fear such as he had not before experienced chilled his marrow. This was hate indeed, a hate before which the strong man quailed; the hate of which Mademoiselle had spoken when she said that the babes crossed themselves at her passing, and the houses tottered to fall upon her!

He paused a minute to recover himself, so deeply had the sight moved him; and as he stood, he wondered if that hate already had its cold eye fixed on him. Instinctively his gaze searched the opposite wall, but save for two small double-grated windows it was blind; time-stained and stone-built, dark with the ordure of the city lane, it seemed but the back of a house, which looked another way. The outer gates of an arched doorway were open, and a loaded haycart, touching either side and brushing the arch above, blocked the passage. His gaze, leaving the windows, dropped to this he scanned it a moment; and on a sudden he stiffened. Between the hay and the arch a hand flickered an instant, then vanished.

Tignonville stared. At first he thought his eyes had tricked him. Then the hand appeared again, and this time it conveyed an unmistakable invitation. It is not from the unknown or the hidden that the fugitive has aught to fear, and Tignonville, after casting a glance down the lane which revealed a single man standing with his face the other way slipped across and pushed between the hay and the wall. He coughed.

A voice whispered to him to climb up; a friendly hand clutched him in the act, and aided him. In a second he was lying on his face, tight squeezed between the hay and the roof of the arch. Beside him lay a man whose features his eyes, unaccustomed to the gloom, could not discern. But the man knew him and whispered his name.

“You know me?” Tignonville muttered in astonishment.

“I marked you, M. de Tignonville, at the preaching last Sunday,” the stranger answered placidly.

“You were there?”

“I preached.”

“Then you are M. la Tribe!”

“I am,” the clergyman answered quietly. “They seized me on my threshold, but I left my cloak in their hands and fled. One tore my stocking with his point, another my doublet, but not a hair of my head was injured. They hunted me to the end of the next street, but I lived and still live, and shall live to lift up my voice against this wicked city.”

The sympathy between the Huguenot by faith and the Huguenot by politics was imperfect. Tignonville, like most men of rank of the younger generation, was a Huguenot by politics; and he was in a bitter humour. He felt, perhaps, that it was men such as this who had driven the other side to excesses such as these; and he hardly repressed a sneer.

“I wish I felt as sure!” he muttered bluntly. “You know that all our people are dead?”

“He can save by few or by many,” the preacher answered devoutly. “We are of the few, blessed be God, and shall see Israel victorious, and our people as a flock of sheep!”

“I see small chance of it,” Tignonville answered contemptuously.

“I know it as certainly as I knew before you came, M. de Tignonville, that you would come!”

“That I should come?”

“That some one would come,” La Tribe answered, correcting himself. “I knew not who it would be until you appeared and placed yourself in the doorway over against me, even as Obadiah in the Holy Book passed before the hiding-place of Elijah.”

The two lay on their faces side by side, the rafters of the archway low on their heads. Tignonville lifted himself a little, and peered anew at the other. He fancied that La Tribe’s mind, shaken by the horrors of the morning and his narrow escape, had given way.

“You rave, man,” he said. “This is no time for visions.”

“I said naught of visions,” the other answered.

“Then why so sure that we shall escape?”

“I am certified of it,” La Tribe replied. “And more than that, I know that we shall lie here some days. The time has not been revealed to me, but it will be days and a day. Then we shall leave this place unharmed, as we entered it, and, whatever betide others, we shall live.”

Tignonville shrugged his shoulders. “I tell you, you rave, M. la Tribe,” he said petulantly. “At any moment we may be discovered. Even now I hear footsteps.”

“They tracked me well-nigh to this place,” the minister answered placidly.

“The deuce they did!” Tignonville muttered, with irritation. He dared not raise his voice. “I would you had told me that before I joined you, Monsieur, and I had found some safer hiding-place! When we are discovered ”

“Then,” the other continued calmly, “you will see.”

“In any case we shall be better farther back,” Tignonville retorted. “Here, we are within an ace of being seen from the lane.” And he began to wriggle himself backwards.

The minister laid his hand on him. “Have a care!” he muttered. “And do not move, but listen. And you will understand. When I reached this place it would be about five o’clock this morning breathless, and expecting each minute to be dragged forth to make my confession before men, I despaired as you despair now. Like Elijah under the juniper tree, I said, ’It is enough, O Lord! Take my soul also, for I am no better than my fellows!’ All the sky was black before my eyes, and my ears were filled with the wailings of the little ones and the lamentations of women. ‘O Lord, it is enough,’ I prayed. ’Take my soul, or, if it be Thy will, then, as the angel was sent to take the cakes to Elijah, give me also a sign that I shall live.’”

For a moment he paused, struggling with overpowering emotion. Even his impatient listener, hitherto incredulous, caught the infection, and in a tone of awe murmured

“Yes? And then, M. la Tribe!”

“The sign was given me. The words were scarcely out of my mouth when a hen flew up, and, scratching a nest in the hay at my feet, presently laid an egg.”

Tignonville stared. “It was timely, I admit,” he said. “But it is no uncommon thing. Probably it has its nest here and lays daily.”

“Young man, this is new-mown hay,” the minister answered solemnly. “This cart was brought here no further back than yesterday. It smells of the meadow, and the flowers hold their colour. No, the fowl was sent. To-morrow it will return, and the next, and the next, until the plague be stayed and I go hence. But that is not all. A while later a second hen appeared, and I thought it would lay in the same nest. But it made a new one, on the side on which you lie and not far from your foot. Then I knew that I was to have a companion, and that God had laid also for him a table in the wilderness.”

“It did lay, then?”

“It is still on the nest, beside your foot.”

Tignonville was about to reply when the preacher grasped his arm and by a sign enjoined silence. He did so not a moment too soon. Preoccupied by the story, narrator and listener had paid no heed to what was passing in the lane, and the voices of men speaking close at hand took them by surprise. From the first words which reached them, it was clear that the speakers were the same who had chased La Tribe as far as the meeting of the four ways, and, losing him there, had spent the morning in other business. Now they had returned to hunt him down; and but for a wrangle which arose among them and detained them, they had stolen on their quarry before their coming was suspected.

“’Twas this way he ran!” “No, ’twas the other!” they contended; and their words, winged with vile threats and oaths, grew noisy and hot. The two listeners dared scarcely to breathe. The danger was so near, it was so certain that if the men came three paces farther, they would observe and search the haycart, that Tignonville fancied the steel already at his throat. He felt the hay rustle under his slightest movement, and gripped one hand with the other to restrain the tremor of overpowering excitement. Yet when he glanced at the minister he found him unmoved, a smile on his face. And M. de Tignonville could have cursed him for his folly.

For the men were coming on! An instant, and they perceived the cart, and the ruffian who had advised this route pounced on it in triumph.

“There! Did I not say so?” he cried. “He is curled up in that hay, for the Satan’s grub he is! That is where he is, see you!”

“Maybe,” another answered grudgingly, as they gathered before it. “And maybe not, Simon!”

“To hell with your maybe not!” the first replied. And he drove his pike deep into the hay and turned it viciously.

The two on the top controlled themselves. Tignonville’s face was livid; of himself he would have slid down amongst them and taken his chance, preferring to die fighting, to die in the open, rather than to perish like a rat in a stack. But La Tribe had gripped his arm and held him fast.

The man whom the others called Simon thrust again, but too low and without result. He was for trying a third time, when one of his comrades who had gone to the other side of the lane announced that the men were on the top of the hay.

“Can you see them?”

“No, but there’s room and to spare.”

“Oh, a curse on your room!” Simon retorted. “Well, you can look.”

“If that’s all, I’ll soon look!” was the answer. And the rogue, forcing himself between the hay and the side of the gateway, found the wheel of the cart, and began to raise himself on it.

Tignonville, who lay on that hand, heard, though he could not see his movements. He knew what they meant, he knew that in a twinkling he must be discovered; and with a last prayer he gathered himself for a spring.

It seemed an age before the intruder’s head appeared on a level with the hay; and then the alarm came from another quarter. The hen which had made its nest at Tignonville’s feet, disturbed by the movement or by the newcomer’s hand, flew out with a rush and flutter as of a great firework. Upsetting the startled Simon, who slipped swearing to the ground, it swooped scolding and clucking over the heads of the other men, and reaching the street in safety, scuttled off at speed, its outspread wings sweeping the earth in its rage.

They laughed uproariously as Simon emerged, rubbing his elbow.

“There’s for you! There’s your preacher!” his opponent jeered.

“D –­n her! she gives tongue as fast as any of them!” gibed a second. “Will you try again, Simon? You may find another love-letter there!”

“Have done!” a third cried impatiently. “He’ll not be where the hen is! Let’s back! Let’s back! I said before that it wasn’t this way he turned! He’s made for the river.”

“The plague in his vitals!” Simon replied furiously. “Wherever he is, I’ll find him!” And, reluctant to confess himself wrong, he lingered, casting vengeful glances at the hay.

But one of the other men cursed him for a fool; and presently, forced to accept his defeat or be left alone, he rejoined his fellows. Slowly the footsteps and voices receded along the lane; slowly, until silence swallowed them, and on the quivering strained senses of the two who remained behind, descended the gentle influence of twilight and the sweet scent of the new-mown hay on which they lay.

La Tribe turned to his companion, his eyes shining. “Our soul is escaped,” he murmured, “even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler. The snare is broken and we are delivered!” His voice shook as he whispered the ancient words of triumph.

But when they came to look in the nest at Tignonville’s feet there was no egg!