Read CHAPTER XXV. THE COMPANY OF THE BLEEDING HEART of Count Hannibal, free online book, by Stanley J. Weyman, on ReadCentral.com.

“But why,” Madame St. Lo asked, sticking her arms akimbo, “why stay in this forsaken place a day and a night, when six hours in the saddle would set us in Angers?”

“Because,” Tavannes replied coldly he and his cousin were walking before the gateway of the inn “the Countess is not well, and will be the better, I think, for staying a day.”

“She slept soundly enough! I’ll answer for that!”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“She never raised her head this morning, though my women were shrieking ‘Murder!’ next door, and Name of Heaven!” Madame resumed, after breaking off abruptly, and shading her eyes with her hand, “what comes here? Is it a funeral? Or a pilgrimage? If all the priests about here are as black, no wonder M. Rabelais fell out with them!”

The inn stood without the walls for the convenience of those who wished to take the road early: a little also, perhaps, because food and forage were cheaper, and the wine paid no town-dues. Four great roads met before the house, along the most easterly of which the sombre company which had caught Madame St. Lo’s attention could be seen approaching. At first Count Hannibal supposed with his companion that the travellers were conveying to the grave the corpse of some person of distinction; for the cortege consisted mainly of priests and the like mounted on mules, and clothed for the most part in black. Black also was the small banner which waved above them, and bore in place of arms the emblem of the Bleeding Heart. But a second glance failed to discover either litter or bier; and a nearer approach showed that the travellers, whether they wore the tonsure or not, bore weapons of one kind or another.

Suddenly Madame St. Lo clapped her hands, and proclaimed in great astonishment that she knew them.

“Why, there is Father Boucher, the Cure of St. Benoist!” she said, “and Father Pezelay of St. Magloire. And there is another I know, though I cannot remember his name! They are preachers from Paris! That is who they are! But what can they be doing here? Is it a pilgrimage, think you?”

“Ay, a pilgrimage of Blood!” Count Hannibal answered between his teeth. And, turning to him to learn what moved him, she saw the look in his eyes which portended a storm. Before she could ask a question, however, the gloomy company, which had first appeared in the distance, moving, an inky blot, through the hot sunshine of the summer morning, had drawn near, and was almost abreast of them. Stepping from her side, he raised his hand and arrested the march.

“Who is master here?” he asked haughtily.

“I am the leader,” answered a stout pompous Churchman, whose small malevolent eyes belied the sallow fatuity of his face. “I, M. de Tavannes, by your leave.”

“And you, by your leave,” Tavannes sneered, “are ”

“Archdeacon and Vicar of the Bishop of Angers and Prior of the Lesser Brethren of St. Germain, M. lé Comte . Visitor also of the Diocese of Angers,” the dignitary continued, puffing out his cheeks, “and Chaplain to the Lieutenant-Governor of Saumur, whose unworthy brother I am.”

“A handsome glove, and well embroidered!” Tavannes retorted in a tone of disdain. “The hand I see yonder!” He pointed to the lean parchment mask of Father Pezelay, who coloured ever so faintly, but held his peace under the sneer. “You are bound for Angers?” Count Hannibal continued. “For what purpose, Sir Prior?”

“His Grace the Bishop is absent, and in his absence ”

“You go to fill his city with strife! I know you! Not you!” he continued, contemptuously turning from the Prior, and regarding the third of the principal figures of the party. “But you! You were the Cure who got the mob together last All Souls’.”

“I speak the words of Him Who sent me!” answered the third Churchman, whose brooding face and dull curtained eyes gave no promise of the fits of frenzied eloquence which had made his pulpit famous in Paris.

“Then Kill and Burn are His alphabet!” Tavannes retorted, and heedless of the start of horror which a saying so near blasphemy excited among the Churchmen, he turned to Father Pezelay. “And you! You, too, I know!” he continued. “And you know me! And take this from me. Turn, father! Turn! Or worse than a broken head you bear the scar, I see will befall you. These good persons, whom you have moved, unless I am in error, to take this journey, may not know me; but you do, and can tell them. If they will to Angers, they must to Angers. But if I find trouble in Angers when I come, I will hang some one high. Don’t scowl at me, man!” in truth, the look of hate in Father Pezelay’s eyes was enough to provoke the exclamation. “Some one, and it shall not be a bare patch on the crown will save his windpipe from squeezing!”

A murmur of indignation broke from the preachers’ attendants; one or two made a show of drawing their weapons. But Count Hannibal paid no heed to them, and had already turned on his heel when Father Pezelay spurred his mule a pace or two forward. Snatching a heavy brass cross from one of the acolytes, he raised it aloft, and in the voice which had often thrilled the heated congregation of St. Magloire, he called on Tavannes to pause.

“Stand, my lord!” he cried. “And take warning! Stand, reckless and profane, whose face is set hard as a stone, and his heart as a flint, against High Heaven and Holy Church! Stand and hear! Behold the word of the Lord is gone out against this city, even against Angers, for the unbelief thereof! Her place shall be left unto her desolate, and her children shall be dashed against the stones! Woe unto you, therefore, if you gainsay it, or fall short of that which is commanded! You shall perish as Achan, the son of Charmi, and as Saul! The curse that has gone out against you shall not tarry, nor your days continue! For the Canaanitish woman that is in your house, and for the thought that is in your heart, the place that was yours is given to another! Yea, the sword is even now drawn that shall pierce your side!”

“You are more like to split my ears!” Count Hannibal answered sternly. “And now mark me! Preach as you please here. But a word in Angers, and though you be shaven twice over, I will have you silenced after a fashion which will not please you! If you value your tongue therefore, father Oh, you shake off the dust, do you? Well, pass on! ’Tis wise, perhaps.”

And undismayed by the scowling brows, and the cross ostentatiously lifted to heaven, he gazed after the procession as it moved on under its swaying banner, now one and now another of the acolytes looking back and raising his hands to invoke the bolt of Heaven on the blasphemer. As the cortege passed the huge watering-troughs, and the open gateway of the inn, the knot of persons congregated there fell on their knees. In answer the Churchmen raised their banner higher, and began to sing the Eripe me, Domine ! and to its strains, now vengeful, now despairing, now rising on a wave of menace, they passed slowly into the distance, slowly towards Angers and the Loire.

Suddenly Madame St. Lo twitched his sleeve. “Enough for me!” she cried passionately. “I go no farther with you!”

“Ah?”

“No farther!” she repeated. She was pale, she shivered. “Many thanks, my cousin, but we part company here. I do not go to Angers. I have seen horrors enough. I will take my people, and go to my aunt by Tours and the east road. For you, I foresee what will happen. You will perish between the hammer and the anvil.”

“Ah?”

“You play too fine a game,” she continued, her face quivering. “Give over the girl to her lover, and send away her people with her. And wash your hands of her and hers. Or you will see her fall, and fall beside her! Give her to him, I say give her to him!”

“My wife?”

“Wife?” she echoed, for, fickle, and at all times swept away by the emotions of the moment, she was in earnest now. “Is there a tie,” and she pointed after the vanishing procession, “that they cannot unloose? That they will not unloose? Is there a life which escapes if they doom it? Did the Admiral escape? Or Rochefoucauld? Or Madame de Luns in old days? I tell you they go to rouse Angers against you, and I see beforehand what will happen. She will perish, and you with her. Wife? A pretty wife, at whose door you took her lover last night.”

“And at your door!” he answered quietly, unmoved by the gibe.

But she did not heed. “I warned you of that!” she cried. “And you would not believe me. I told you he was following. And I warn you of this. You are between the hammer and the anvil, M. lé Comte ! If Tignonville does not murder you in your bed ”

“I hold him in my power.”

“Then Holy Church will fall on you and crush you. For me, I have seen enough and more than enough. I go to Tours by the east road.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “As you please,” he said.

She flung away in disgust with him. She could not understand a man who played fast and loose at such a time. The game was too fine for her, its danger too apparent, the gain too small. She had, too, a woman’s dread of the Church, a woman’s belief in the power of the dead hand to punish. And in half an hour her orders were given. In two hours her people were gathered, and she departed by the eastward road, three of Tavannes’ riders reinforcing her servants for a part of the way. Count Hannibal stood to watch them start, and noticed Bigot riding by the side of Suzanne’s mule. He smiled; and presently, as he turned away, he did a thing rare with him he laughed outright.

A laugh which reflected a mood rare as itself. Few had seen Count Hannibal’s eye sparkle as it sparkled now; few had seen him laugh as he laughed, walking to and fro in the sunshine before the inn. His men watched him, and wondered, and liked it little, for one or two who had overheard his altercation with the Churchmen had reported it, and there was shaking of heads over it. The man who had singed the Pope’s beard and chucked cardinals under the chin was growing old, and the most daring of the others had no mind to fight with foes whose weapons were not of this world.

Count Hannibal’s gaiety, however, was well grounded, had they known it. He was gay, not because he foresaw peril, and it was his nature to love peril; not in the main, though a little, perhaps because he knew that the woman whose heart he desired to win had that night stood between him and death; not, though again a little, perhaps, because she had confirmed his choice by conduct which a small man might have deprecated, but which a great man loved; but chiefly, because the events of the night had placed in his grasp two weapons by the aid of which he looked to recover all the ground he had lost lost by his impulsive departure from the pall of conduct on which he had started.

Those weapons were Tignonville, taken like a rat in a trap by the rising of the water; and the knowledge that the Countess had stolen the precious packet from his pillow. The knowledge for he had lain and felt her breath upon his cheek, he had lain and felt her hand beneath his pillow, he had lain while the impulse to fling his arms about her had been almost more than he could tame! He had lain and suffered her to go, to pass out safely as she had passed in. And then he had received his reward in the knowledge that, if she robbed him, she robbed him not for herself; and that where it was a question of his life she did not fear to risk her own.

When he came, indeed, to that point, he trembled. How narrowly had he been saved from misjudging her! Had he not lain and waited, had he not possessed himself in patience, he might have thought her in collusion with the old lover whom he found at her door, and with those who came to slay him. Either he might have perished unwarned; or escaping that danger, he might have detected her with Tignonville and lost for all time the ideal of a noble woman.

He had escaped that peril. More, he had gained the weapons we have indicated; and the sense of power, in regard to her, almost intoxicated him. Surely if he wielded those weapons to the best advantage, if he strained generosity to the uttermost, the citadel of her heart must yield at last!

He had the defect of his courage and his nature, a tendency to do things after a flamboyant fashion. He knew that her act would plunge him in perils which she had not foreseen. If the preachers roused the Papists of Angers, if he arrived to find men’s swords whetted for the massacre and the men themselves awaiting the signal, then if he did not give that signal there would be trouble. There would be trouble of the kind in which the soul of Hannibal de Tavannes revelled, trouble about the ancient cathedral and under the black walls of the Angevin castle; trouble amid which the hearts of common men would be as water.

Then, when things seemed at their worst, he would reveal his knowledge. Then, when forgiveness must seem impossible, he would forgive. With the flood of peril which she had unloosed rising round them, he would say, “Go!” to the man who had aimed at his life; he would say to her, “I know, and I forgive!” That, that only, would fitly crown the policy on which he had decided from the first, though he had not hoped to conduct it on lines so splendid as those which now dazzled him.