Read CHAPTER XXXI. THE FLIGHT FROM ANGERS of Count Hannibal, free online book, by Stanley J. Weyman, on ReadCentral.com.

But that only the more roused the devil in the man; that, and the knowledge that he had his own headstrong act to thank for the position. He looked on the panic-stricken people who, scared by the turmoil without, had come together in the courtyard, wringing their hands and chattering; and his face was so dark and forbidding that fear of him took the place of all other fear, and the nearest shrank from contact with him. On any other entering as he had entered, they would have hailed questions; they would have asked what was amiss, and if the city were rising, and where were Bigot and his men. But Count Hannibal’s eye struck curiosity dumb. When he cried from his saddle, “Bring me the landlord!” the trembling man was found, and brought, and thrust forward almost without a word.

“You have a back gate?” Tavannes said, while the crowd leaned forward to catch his words.

“Yes, my lord,” the man faltered.

“Into the street which leads to the ramparts?”

“Ye-yes, my lord.”

“Then” to Badelon “saddle! You have five minutes. Saddle as you never saddled before,” he continued in a low tone, “or ” His tongue did not finish the threat, but his hand waved the man away. “For you” he held Tignonville an instant with his lowering eye “and the preaching fool with you, get arms and mount! You have never played aught but the woman yet; but play me false now, or look aside but a foot from the path I bid you take, and you thwart me no more, Monsieur! And you, Madame,” he continued, turning to the Countess, who stood bewildered at one of the doors, the Provost’s daughter clinging and weeping about her, “you have three minutes to get your women to horse! See you, if you please, that they take no longer!”

She found her voice with difficulty. “And this child?” she said. “She is in my care.”

“Bring her,” he muttered with a scowl of impatience. And then, raising his voice as he turned on the terrified gang of hostlers and inn servants who stood gaping round him, “Go help!” he thundered. “Go help! And quickly!” he added, his face growing a shade darker as a second bell began to toll from a neighbouring tower, and the confused babel in the Place Ste .-Croix settled into a dull roar of “ Sacrilege ! sacrilege .” “Hasten!”

Fortunately it had been his first intention to go to the Council attended by the whole of his troop; and eight horses stood saddled in the stalls. Others were hastily pulled out and bridled, and the women were mounted. La Tribe, at a look from Tavannes, took behind him the Provost’s daughter, who was helpless with terror. Between the suddenness of the alarm, the uproar without, and the panic within, none but a man whose people served him at a nod and dreaded his very gesture could have got his party mounted in time. Javette would fain have swooned, but she dared not. Tignonville would fain have questioned, but he shrank from the venture. The Countess would fain have said something, but she forced herself to obey and no more. Even so the confusion in the courtyard, the mingling of horses and men and trappings and saddle-bags, would have made another despair; but wherever Count Hannibal, seated in his saddle in the middle, turned his face, chaos settled into a degree of order, servants, ceasing to listen to the yells and cries outside, ran to fetch, women dropped cloaks from the gallery, and men loaded muskets and strapped on bandoliers.

Until at last but none knew what those minutes of suspense cost him he saw all mounted, and, pistol in hand, shepherded them to the back gates. As he did so he stooped for a few scowling words with Badelon, whom he sent to the van of the party: then he gave the word to open. It was done; and even as Montsoreau’s horsemen, borne on the bosom of a second and more formidable throng, swept raging into the already crowded square, and the cry went up for “a ram! a ram!” to batter in the gates, Tavannes, hurling his little party before him, dashed out at the back, and putting to flight a handful of rascals who had wandered to that side, cantered unmolested down the lane to the ramparts. Turning eastward at the foot of the frowning Castle, he followed the inner side of the wall in the direction of the gate by which he had entered the preceding evening.

To gain this his party had to pass the end of the Rue Toussaint, which issues from the Place Ste .-Croix and runs so straight that the mob seething in front of the inn had only to turn their heads to see them. The danger incurred at this point was great; for a party as small as Tavannes’ and encumbered with women would have had no chance if attacked within the walls.

Count Hannibal knew it. But he knew also that the act which he had committed rendered the north bank of the Loire impossible for him. Neither King nor Marshal, neither Charles of Valois nor Gaspard of Tavannes, would dare to shield him from an infuriated Church, a Church too wise to forgive certain offences. His one chance lay in reaching the southern bank of the Loire roughly speaking, the Huguenot bank and taking refuge in some town, Rochelle or St. Jean d’Angely, where the Huguenots were strong, and whence he might take steps to set himself right with his own side.

But to cross the great river which divides France into two lands widely differing he must leave the city by the east gate; for the only bridge over the Loire within forty miles of Angers lay eastward from the town, at Ponts de Ce , four miles away. To this gate, therefore, past the Rue Toussaint, he whirled his party daringly; and though the women grew pale as the sounds of riot broke louder on the ear, and they discovered that they were approaching instead of leaving the danger and though Tignonville for an instant thought him mad, and snatched at the Countess’s rein his men-at-arms, who knew him, galloped stolidly on, passed like clockwork the end of the street, and, reckless of the stream of persons hurrying in the direction of the alarm, heedless of the fright and anger their passage excited, pressed steadily on. A moment and the gate through which they had entered the previous evening appeared before them. And a sight welcome to one of them it was open.

They were fortunate indeed, for a few seconds later they had been too late. The alarm had preceded them. As they dashed up, a man ran to the chains of the portcullis and tried to lower it. He failed to do so at the first touch, and, quailing, fled from Badelon’s levelled pistol. A watchman on one of the bastions of the wall shouted to them to halt or he would fire: but the riders yelled in derision, and thundering through the echoing archway, emerged into the open, and saw, extended before them, in place of the gloomy vistas of the Black Town, the glory of the open country and the vine-clad hills, and the fields about the Loire yellow with late harvest.

The women gasped their relief, and one or two who were most out of breath would have pulled up their horses and let them trot, thinking the danger at an end. But a curt savage word from the rear set them flying again, and down and up and on again they galloped, driven forward by the iron hand which never relaxed its grip of them. Silent and pitiless he whirled them before him until they were within a mile of the long Ponts de Ce a series of bridges rather than one bridge and the broad shallow Loire lay plain before them, its sandbanks grilling in the sun, and grey lines of willows marking its eyots. By this time some of the women, white with fatigue, could only cling to their saddles with their hands; while others were red-hot, their hair unrolled, and the perspiration mingled with the dust on their faces. But he who drove them had no pity for weakness in an emergency. He looked back and saw, a half-mile behind them, the glitter of steel following hard on their heels: and “Faster! faster!” he cried, regardless of their prayers: and he beat the rearmost of the horses with his scabbard. A waiting-woman shrieked that she should fall, but he answered ruthlessly, “Fall then, fool!” and the instinct of self-preservation coming to her aid, she clung and bumped and toiled on with the rest until they reached the first houses of the town about the bridges, and Badelon raised his hand as a signal that they might slacken speed.

The bewilderment of the start had been so great that it was then only, when they found their feet on the first link of the bridge, that two of the party, the Countess and Tignonville, awoke to the fact that their faces were set southwards. To cross the Loire in those days meant much to all: to a Huguenot, very much. It chanced that these two rode on to the bridge side by side, and the memory of their last crossing the remembrance that, on their journey north a month before, they had crossed it hand-in-hand with the prospect of passing their lives together, and with no faintest thought of the events which were to ensue, flashed into the mind of each of them. It deepened the flush which exertion had brought to the woman’s cheek, then left it paler than before. A minute earlier she had been wroth with her old lover; she had held him accountable for the outbreak in the town and this hasty retreat; now her anger died as she looked and she remembered. In the man, shallower of feeling and more alive to present contingencies, the uppermost emotion as he trod the bridge was one of surprise and congratulation.

He could not at first believe in their good fortune. “ Mon Dieu !” he cried, “we are crossing!” And then again in a lower tone, “We are crossing! We are crossing!” And he looked at her.

It was impossible that she should not look back; that she who had ceased to be angry should not feel and remember; impossible that her answering glance should not speak to his heart. Below them, as on that day a month earlier, when they had crossed the bridges going northward, the broad shallow river ran its course in the sunshine, its turbid currents gleaming and flashing about the sandbanks and osier-beds. To the eye, the landscape, save that the vintage was farther advanced and the harvest in part gathered in, was the same. But how changed were their relations, their prospects, their hopes, who had then crossed the river hand-in-hand, planning a life to be passed together.

The young man’s rage boiled up at the thought. Too vividly, too sharply it showed him the wrongs which he had suffered at the hands of the man who rode behind him, the man who even now drove him on and ordered him and insulted him. He forgot that he might have perished in the general massacre if Count Hannibal had not intervened. He forgot that Count Hannibal had spared him once and twice. He laid on his enemy’s shoulders the guilt of all, the blood of all: and, as quick on the thought of his wrongs and his fellows’ wrongs followed the reflection that with every league they rode southwards the chance of requital grew, he cried again, and this time joyously

“We are crossing! A little, and we shall be in our own land!”

The tears filled the Countess’s eyes as she looked westwards and southwards.

“Vrillac is there!” she cried; and she pointed. “I smell the sea!”

“Ay!” he answered, almost under his breath. “It lies there! And no more than thirty leagues from us! With fresh horses we might see it in two days!”

Badelon’s voice broke in on them. “Forward!” he cried, as the party reached the southern bank. “ En avant !” And, obedient to the word, the little company, refreshed by the short respite, took the road out of Ponts de Ce at a steady trot. Nor was the Countess the only one whose face glowed, being set southwards, or whose heart pulsed to the rhythm of the horses’ hoofs that beat out “Home!” Carlat’s and Madame Carlat’s also. Javette even, hearing from her neighbour that they were over the Loire, plucked up courage; while La Tribe, gazing before him with moistened eyes, cried “Comfort” to the scared and weeping girl who clung to his belt. It was singular to see how all sniffed the air as if already it smacked of the sea and of the south; and how they of Poitou sat their horses as if they asked nothing better than to ride on and on and on until the scenes of home arose about them. For them the sky had already a deeper blue, the air a softer fragrance, the sunshine a purity long unknown.

Was it wonderful, when they had suffered so much on that northern bank? When their experience during the month had been comparable only with the direst nightmare? Yet one among them, after the first impulse of relief and satisfaction, felt differently. Tignonville’s gorge rose against the sense of compulsion, of inferiority. To be driven forward after this fashion, whether he would or no, to be placed at the back of every base-born man-at-arms, to have no clearer knowledge of what had happened or of what was passing, or of the peril from which they fled, than the women among whom he rode these things kindled anew the sullen fire of hate. North of the Loire there had been some excuse for his inaction under insult; he had been in the man’s country and power. But south of the Loire, within forty leagues of Huguenot Niort, must he still suffer, still be supine?

His rage was inflamed by a disappointment he presently underwent. Looking back as they rode clear of the wooden houses of Ponts de Ce , he missed Tavannes and several of his men; and he wondered if Count Hannibal had remained on his own side of the river. It seemed possible; and in that event La Tribe and he and Carlat might deal with Badelon and the four who still escorted them. But when he looked back a minute later, Tavannes was within sight, following the party with a stern face; and not Tavannes only. Bigot, with two of the ten men who hitherto had been missing, was with him.

It was clear, however, that they brought no good news, for they had scarcely ridden up before Count Hannibal cried, “Faster! faster!” in his harshest voice, and Bigot urged the horses to a quicker trot. Their course lay almost parallel with the Loire in the direction of Beaupreau; and Tignonville began to fear that Count Hannibal intended to recross the river at Nantes, where the only bridge below Angers spanned the stream. With this in view it was easy to comprehend his wish to distance his pursuers before he recrossed.

The Countess had no such thought. “They must be close upon us!” she murmured, as she urged her horse in obedience to the order.

“Whoever they are!” Tignonville muttered bitterly. “If we knew what had happened, or who followed, we should know more about it, Madame. For that matter, I know what I wish he would do. And our heads are set for it.”

“What?”

“Make for Vrillac!” he answered, a savage gleam in his eyes.

“For Vrillac?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, if he would!” she cried, her face turning pale. “If he would. He would be safe there!”

“Ay, quite safe!” he answered with a peculiar intonation. And he looked at her askance.

He fancied that his thought, the thought which had just flashed into his brain, was her thought; that she had the same notion in reserve, and that they were in sympathy. And Tavannes, seeing them talking together, and noting her look and the fervour of her gesture, formed the same opinion, and retired more darkly into himself. The downfall of his plan for dazzling her by a magnanimity unparalleled and beyond compare, a plan dependent on the submission of Angers his disappointment in this might have roused the worst passions of a better man. But there was in this man a pride on a level at least with his other passions: and to bear himself in this hour of defeat and flight so that if she could not love him she must admire him, checked in a strange degree the current of his rage.

When Tignonville presently looked back he found that Count Hannibal and six of his riders had pulled up and were walking their horses far in the rear. On which he would have done the same himself; but Badelon called over his shoulder the eternal “Forward, Monsieur, en avant !” and sullenly, hating the man and his master more deeply every hour, Tignonville was forced to push on, with thoughts of vengeance in his heart.

Trot, trot! Trot, trot! Through a country which had lost its smiling wooded character and grew more sombre and less fertile the farther they left the Loire behind them. Trot, trot! Trot, trot! for ever, it seemed to some. Javette wept with fatigue, and the other women were little better. The Countess herself spoke seldom except to cheer the Provost’s daughter; who, poor girl, flung suddenly out of the round of her life and cast among strangers, showed a better spirit than might have been expected. At length, on the slopes of some low hills, which they had long seen before them, a cluster of houses and a church appeared; and Badelon, drawing rein, cried

“Beaupreau, Madame! We stay an hour!”

It was six o’clock. They had ridden some hours without a break. With sighs and cries of pain the women dropped from their clumsy saddles, while the men laid out such food it was little as had been brought, and hobbled the horses that they might feed. The hour passed rapidly, and when it had passed Badelon was inexorable. There was wailing when he gave the word to mount again; and Tignonville, fiercely resenting this dumb, reasonless flight, was at heart one of the mutineers. But Badelon said grimly that they might go on and live, or stay and die, as it pleased them; and once more they climbed painfully to their saddles, and jogged steadily on through the sunset, through the gloaming, through the darkness, across a weird, mysterious country of low hills and narrow plains which grew more wild and less cultivated as they advanced. Fortunately the horses had been well saved during the long leisurely journey to Angers, and now went well and strongly. When they at last unsaddled for the night in a little dismal wood within a mile of Clisson, they had placed some forty miles between themselves and Angers.