Read CHAPTER X. MADAME ST. LO of Count Hannibal, free online book, by Stanley J. Weyman, on ReadCentral.com.

So far excitement had supported Tignonville in his escape. It was only when he knew himself safe, when he heard Madame St. Lo’s footstep in the courtyard and knew that in a moment he would see her, that he knew also that he was failing for want of food. The room seemed to go round with him; the window to shift, the light to flicker. And then again, with equal abruptness, he grew strong and steady and perfectly master of himself. Nay, never had he felt a confidence in himself so overwhelming or a capacity so complete. The triumph of that which he had done, the knowledge that of so many he, almost alone, had escaped, filled his brain with a delicious and intoxicating vanity. When the door opened, and Madame St. Lo appeared on the threshold, he advanced holding out his arms. He expected that she would fall into them.

But Madame only backed and curtseyed, a mischievous light in her eyes.

“A thousand thanks, Monsieur!” she said, “but you are more ready than I!” And she remained by the door.

“I have come to you through all!” he cried, speaking loudly because of a humming in his ears. “They are lying in the streets! They are dying, are dead, are hunted, are pursued, are perishing! But I have come through all to you!”

She curtseyed anew. “So I see, Monsieur!” she answered. “I am flattered!” But she did not advance, and gradually, light-headed as he was, he began to see that she looked at him with an odd closeness. And he took offence.

“I say, Madame, I have come to you!” he repeated. “And you do not seem pleased!”

She came forward a step and looked at him still more oddly.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I am pleased, M. de Tignonville. It is what I intended. But tell me how you have fared. You are not hurt?”

“Not a hair!” he cried boastfully. And he told her in a dozen windy sentences of the adventure of the haycart and his narrow escape. He wound up with a foolish meaningless laugh.

“Then you have not eaten for thirty-six hours?” she said. And when he did not answer, “I understand,” she continued, nodding and speaking as to a child. And she rang a silver handbell and gave an order.

She addressed the servant in her usual tone, but to Tignonville’s ear her voice seemed to fall to a whisper. Her figure she was small and fairy-like began to sway before him; and then in a moment, as it seemed to him, she was gone, and he was seated at a table, his trembling fingers grasping a cup of wine which the elderly servant who had admitted him was holding to his lips. On the table before him were a spit of partridges and a cake of white bread. When he had swallowed a second mouthful of wine which cleared his eyes as by magic the man urged him to eat. And he fell to with an appetite that grew as he ate.

By-and-by, feeling himself again, he became aware that two of Madame’s women were peering at him through the open doorway. He looked that way and they fled giggling into the court; but in a moment they were back again, and the sound of their tittering drew his eyes anew to the door. It was the custom of the day for ladies of rank to wait on their favourites at table; and he wondered if Madame were with them, and why she did not come and serve him herself.

But for a while longer the savour of the roasted game took up the major part of his thoughts; and when prudence warned him to desist, and he sat back, satisfied after his long fast, he was in no mood to be critical. Perhaps for somewhere in the house he heard a lute Madame was entertaining those whom she could not leave? Or deluding some who might betray him if they discovered him?

From that his mind turned back to the streets and the horrors through which he had passed; but for a moment and no more. A shudder, an emotion of prayerful pity, and he recalled his thoughts. In the quiet of the cool room, looking on the sunny, vine-clad court, with the tinkle of the lute and the murmurous sound of women’s voices in his ears, it was hard to believe that the things from which he had emerged were real. It was still more unpleasant, and as futile, to dwell on them. A day of reckoning would come, and, if La Tribe were right, the cause would rally, bristling with pikes and snorting with war-horses, and the blood spilled in this wicked city would cry aloud for vengeance. But the hour was not yet. He had lost his mistress, and for that atonement must be exacted. But in the present another mistress awaited him, and as a man could only die once, and might die at any minute, so he could only live once, and in the present. Then vogue la galère !

As he roused himself from this brief reverie and fell to wondering how long he was to be left to himself, a rosebud tossed by an unseen hand struck him on the breast and dropped to his knees. To seize it and kiss it gallantly, to spring to his feet and look about him were instinctive movements. But he could see no one; and, in the hope of surprising the giver, he stole to the window. The sound of the lute and the distant tinkle of laughter persisted. The court, save for a page, who lay asleep on a bench in the gallery, was empty. Tignonville scanned the boy suspiciously; a male disguise was often adopted by the court ladies, and if Madame would play a prank on him, this was a thing to be reckoned with. But a boy it seemed to be, and after a while the young man went back to his seat.

Even as he sat down, a second flower struck him more sharply in the face, and this time he darted not to the window but to the door. He opened it quickly and looked out, but again he was too late.

“I shall catch you presently, ma reine !” he murmured tenderly, with intent to be heard. And he closed the door. But, wiser this time, he waited with his hand on the latch until he heard the rustling of a skirt, and saw the line of light at the foot of the door darkened by a shadow. That moment he flung the door wide, and, clasping the wearer of the skirt in his arms, kissed her lips before she had time to resist.

Then he fell back as if he had been shot! For the wearer of the skirt, she whom he had kissed, was Madame St. Lo’s woman, and behind her stood Madame herself, laughing, laughing, laughing with all the gay abandonment of her light little heart.

“Oh, the gallant gentleman!” she cried, and clapped her hands effusively. “Was ever recovery so rapid? Or triumph so speedy? Suzanne, my child; you surpass Venus. Your charms conquer before they are seen!”

M. de Tignonville had put poor Suzanne from him as if she burned; and hot and embarrassed, cursing his haste, he stood looking awkwardly at them.

“Madame,” he stammered at last, “you know quite well that ”

“Seeing is believing!”

“That I thought it was you!”

“Oh, what I have lost!” she replied. And she looked archly at Suzanne, who giggled and tossed her head.

He was growing angry. “But, Madame,” he protested, “you know ”

“I know what I know, and I have seen what I have seen!” Madame answered merrily. And she hummed,

“’ Ce fût lé plus grand jour d’este
Que m’embrassa la belle Suzanne!’

Oh yes, I know what I know!” she repeated. And she fell again to laughing immoderately; while the pretty piece of mischief beside her hung her head, and, putting a finger in her mouth, mocked him with an affectation of modesty.

The young man glowered at them between rage and embarrassment. This was not the reception, nor this the hero’s return to which he had looked forward. And a doubt began to take form in his mind. The mistress he had pictured would not laugh at kisses given to another; nor forget in a twinkling the straits through which he had come to her, the hell from which he had plucked himself! Possibly the court ladies held love as cheap as this, and lovers but as playthings, butts for their wit, and pegs on which to hang their laughter. But but he began to doubt, and, perplexed and irritated, he showed his feelings.

“Madame,” he said stiffly, “a jest is an excellent thing. But pardon me if I say that it is ill played on a fasting man.”

Madame desisted from laughter that she might speak. “A fasting man?” she cried. “And he has eaten two partridges!”

“Fasting from love, Madame.”

Madame St. Lo held up her hands. “And it’s not two minutes since he took a kiss!”

He winced, was silent a moment, and then seeing that he got nothing by the tone he had adopted he cried for quarter.

“A little mercy, Madame, as you are beautiful,” he said, wooing her with his eyes. “Do not plague me beyond what a man can bear. Dismiss, I pray you, this good creature whose charms do but set off yours as the star leads the eye to the moon and make me the happiest man in the world by so much of your company as you will vouchsafe to give me.”

“That may be but a very little,” she answered, letting her eyes fall coyly, and affecting to handle the tucker of her low ruff. But he saw that her lip twitched; and he could have sworn that she mocked him to Suzanne, for the girl giggled.

Still by an effort he controlled his feelings. “Why so cruel?” he murmured, in a tone meant for her alone, and with a look to match. “You were not so hard when I spoke with you in the gallery, two evenings ago, Madame.”

“Was I not?” she asked. “Did I look like this? And this?” And, languishing, she looked at him very sweetly after two fashions.

“Something.”

“Oh, then I meant nothing!” she retorted with sudden vivacity. And she made a face at him, laughing under his nose. “I do that when I mean nothing, Monsieur! Do you see? But you are Gascon, and given, I fear, to flatter yourself.”

Then he saw clearly that she played with him: and resentment, chagrin, pique got the better of his courtesy.

“I flatter myself?” he cried, his voice choked with rage. “It may be I do now, Madame, but did I flatter myself when you wrote me this note?” And he drew it out and flourished it in her face. “Did I imagine when I read this? Or is it not in your hand? It is a forgery, perhaps,” he continued bitterly. “Or it means nothing? Nothing, this note bidding me be at Madame St. Lo’s at an hour before midnight it means nothing? At an hour before midnight, Madame!”

“On Saturday night? The night before last night?”

“On Saturday night, the night before last night! But Madame knows nothing of it? Nothing, I suppose?”

She shrugged her shoulders and smiled cheerfully on him. “Oh yes, I wrote it,” she said. “But what of that, M. de Tignonville?”

“What of that?”

“Yes, Monsieur, what of that? Did you think it was written out of love for you?”

He was staggered for the moment by her coolness. “Out of what, then?” he cried hoarsely. “Out of what, then, if not out of love?”

“Why, out of pity, my little gentleman!” she answered sharply. “And trouble thrown away, it seems. Love!” And she laughed so merrily and spontaneously it cut him to the heart. “No; but you said a dainty thing or two, and smiled a smile; and like a fool, and like a woman, I was sorry for the innocent calf that bleated so prettily on its way to the butcher’s! And I would lock you up, and save your life, I thought, until the blood-letting was over. Now you have it, M. de Tignonville, and I hope you like it.”

Like it, when every word she uttered stripped him of the selfish illusions in which he had wrapped himself against the blasts of ill-fortune? Like it, when the prospect of her charms had bribed him from the path of fortitude, when for her sake he had been false to his mistress, to his friends, to his faith, to his cause? Like it, when he knew as he listened that all was lost, and nothing gained, not even this poor, unworthy, shameful compensation? Like it? No wonder that words failed him, and he glared at her in rage, in misery, in shame.

“Oh, if you don’t like it,” she continued, tossing her head after a momentary pause, “then you should not have come! It is of no profit to glower at me, Monsieur. You do not frighten me.”

“I would I would to God I had not come!” he groaned.

“And, I dare say, that you had never seen me since you cannot win me!”

“That too,” he exclaimed.

She was of an extraordinary levity, and at that, after staring at him a moment, she broke into shrill laughter.

“A little more, and I’ll send you to my cousin Hannibal!” she said. “You do not know how anxious he is to see you. Have you a mind,” with a waggish look, “to play bride’s man, M. de Tignonville? Or will you give away the bride? It is not too late, though soon it will be!”

He winced, and from red grew pale. “What do you mean?” he stammered; and, averting his eyes in shame, seeing now all the littleness, all the baseness of his position, “Has he married her?” he continued.

“Ho, ho!” she cried in triumph. “I’ve hit you now, have I, Monsieur? I’ve hit you!” And mocking him, “Has he married her?” she lisped. “No; but he will marry her, have no fear of that! He will marry her. He waits but to get a priest. Would you like to see what he says?” she continued, playing with him as a cat plays with a mouse. “I had a note from him yesterday. Would you like to see how welcome you’ll be at the wedding?” And she flaunted a piece of paper before his eyes.

“Give it me,” he said.

She let him seize it the while she shrugged her shoulders. “It’s your affair, not mine,” she said. “See it if you like, and keep it if you like. Cousin Hannibal wastes few words.”

That was true, for the paper contained but a dozen or fifteen words, and an initial by way of signature.

“I may need your shaveling to-morrow afternoon. Send him, and Tignonville in safeguard if he come. H.”

“I can guess what use he has for a priest,” she said. “It is not to confess him, I warrant. It’s long, I fear, since Hannibal told his beads.”

M. de Tignonville swore. “I would I had the confessing of him!” he said between his teeth.

She clapped her hands in glee. “Why should you not?” she cried. “Why should you not? ’Tis time yet, since I am to send to-day and have not sent. Will you be the shaveling to go confess or marry him?” And she laughed recklessly. “Will you, M. de Tignonville? The cowl will mask you as well as another, and pass you through the streets better than a cut sleeve. He will have both his wishes, lover and clerk in one then. And it will be pull monk, pull Hannibal with a vengeance.”

Tignonville gazed at her, and as he gazed courage and hope awoke in his eyes. What if, after all, he could undo the past? What if, after all, he could retrace the false step he had taken, and place himself again where he had been by her side?

“If you meant it!” he exclaimed, his breath coming fast. “If you only meant what you say, Madame.”

“If?” she answered, opening her eyes. “And why should I not mean it?”

“Because,” he replied slowly, “cowl or no cowl, when I meet your cousin ”

“’Twill go hard with him?” she cried, with a mocking laugh. “And you think I fear for him. That is it, is it?”

He nodded.

“I fear just so much for him!” she retorted with contempt. “Just so much!” And coming a step nearer to Tignonville she snapped her small white fingers under his nose. “Do you see? No, M. de Tignonville,” she continued, “you do not know Count Hannibal if you think that he fears, or that any fear for him. If you will beard the lion in his den, the risk will be yours, not his!”

The young man’s face glowed. “I take the risk!” he cried. “And I thank you for the chance; that, Madame, whatever betide. But ”

“But what?” she asked, seeing that he hesitated and that his face fell.

“If he afterwards learn that you have played him a trick,” he said, “will he not punish you?”

“Punish me?”

He nodded.

Madame laughed her high disdain. “You do not yet know Hannibal de
Tavannes,” she said. “He does not war with women.”