Read CHAPTER XXXII. THE ORDEAL BY STEEL of Count Hannibal, free online book, by Stanley J. Weyman, on ReadCentral.com.

The women for the most part fell like sacks and slept where they alighted, dead weary. The men, when they had cared for the horses, followed the example; for Badelon would suffer no fire. In less than half an hour, a sentry who stood on guard at the edge of the wood, and Tignonville and La Tribe, who talked in low voices with their backs against a tree, were the only persons who remained awake, with the exception of the Countess. Carlat had made a couch for her, and screened it with cloaks from the wind and the eye; for the moon had risen and where the trees stood sparsest its light flooded the soil with pools of white. But Madame had not yet retired to her bed. The two men, whose voices reached her, saw her from time to time moving restlessly to and fro between the road and the little encampment. Presently she came and stood over them.

“He led His people out of the wilderness,” La Tribe was saying; “out of the trouble of Paris, out of the trouble of Angers, and always, always southward. If you do not in this, Monsieur, see His finger ”

“And Angers?” Tignonville struck in, with a faint sneer. “Has He led that out of trouble? A day or two ago you would risk all to save it, my friend. Now, with your back safely turned on it, you think all for the best.”

“We did our best,” the minister answered humbly. “From the day we met in Paris we have been but instruments.”

“To save Angers?”

“To save a remnant.”

On a sudden the Countess raised her hand. “Do you not hear horses, Monsieur?” she cried. She had been listening to the noises of the night, and had paid little heed to what the two were saying.

“One of ours moved,” Tignonville answered listlessly. “Why do you not lie down, Madame?”

Instead of answering, “Whither is he going?” she asked. “Do you know?”

“I wish I did know,” the young man answered peevishly. “To Niort, it may be. Or presently he will double back and recross the Loire.”

“He would have gone by Cholet to Niort,” La Tribe said. “The direction is rather that of Rochelle. God grant we be bound thither!”

“Or to Vrillac,” the Countess cried, clasping her hands in the darkness. “Can it be to Vrillac he is going?”

The minister shook his head.

“Ah, let it be to Vrillac!” she cried, a thrill in her voice. “We should be safe there. And he would be safe.”

“Safe?” echoed a fourth and deeper voice. And out of the darkness beside them loomed a tall figure.

The minister looked and leapt to his feet. Tignonville rose more slowly.

The voice was Tavannes’. “And where am I to be safe?” he repeated slowly, a faint ring of saturnine amusement in his tone.

“At Vrillac!” she cried. “In my house, Monsieur!”

He was silent a moment. Then, “Your house, Madame? In which direction is it, from here?”

“Westwards,” she answered impulsively, her voice quivering with eagerness and emotion and hope. “Westwards, Monsieur on the sea. The causeway from the land is long, and ten can hold it against ten hundred.”

“Westwards? And how far westwards?”

Tignonville answered for her; in his tone throbbed the same eagerness, the same anxiety, which spoke in hers. Nor was Count Hannibal’s ear deaf to it.

“Through Challans,” he said, “thirteen leagues.”

“From Clisson?”

“Yes, Monsieur lé Comte .”

“And by Commequiers less,” the Countess cried.

“No, it is a worse road,” Tignonville answered quickly; “and longer in time.”

“But we came ”

“At our leisure, Madame. The road is by Challans, if we wish to be there quickly.”

“Ah!” Count Hannibal said. In the darkness it was impossible to see his face or mark how he took it. “But being there, I have few men.”

“I have forty will come at call,” she cried with pride. “A word to them, and in four hours or a little more ”

“They would outnumber mine by four to one,” Count Hannibal answered coldly, dryly, in a voice like ice-water flung in their faces. “Thank you, Madame; I understand. To Vrillac is no long ride; but we will not ride it at present.” And he turned sharply on his heel and strode from them.

He had not covered thirty paces before she overtook him in the middle of a broad patch of moonlight, and touched his arm. He wheeled swiftly, his hand halfway to his hilt. Then he saw who it was.

“Ah,” he said, “I had forgotten, Madame. You have come ”

“No!” she cried passionately; and standing before him she shook back the hood of her cloak that he might look into her eyes. “You owe me no blow to-day. You have paid me, Monsieur. You have struck me already, and foully, like a coward. Do you remember,” she continued rapidly, “the hour after our marriage, and what you said to me? Do you remember what you told me? And whom to trust and whom to suspect, where lay our interest and where our foes’? You trusted me then! What have I done that you now dare ay, dare, Monsieur,” she repeated fearlessly, her face pale and her eyes glittering with excitement, “to insult me? That you treat me as Javette? That you deem me capable of that ? Of luring you into a trap, and in my own house, or the house that was mine, of ”

“Treating me as I have treated others.”

“You have said it!” she cried. She could not herself understand why his distrust had wounded her so sharply, so home, that all fear of him was gone. “You have said it, and put that between us which will not be removed. I could have forgiven blows,” she continued, breathless in her excitement, “so you had thought me what I am. But now you will do well to watch me! You will do well to leave Vrillac on one side. For were you there, and raised your hand against me not that that touches me, but it will do and there are those, I tell you, would fling you from the tower at my word.”

“Indeed?”

“Ay, indeed! And indeed, Monsieur!”

Her face was in moonlight, his was in shadow.

“And this is your new tone, Madame, is it?” he said, slowly and after a pregnant pause. “The crossing of a river has wrought so great a change in you?”

“No!” she cried.

“Yes,” he said. And, despite herself, she flinched before the grimness of his tone. “You have yet to learn one thing, however: that I do not change. That, north or south, I am the same to those who are the same to me. That what I have won on the one bank I will hold on the other, in the teeth of all, and though God’s Church be thundering on my heels! I go to Vrillac ”

“You go?” she cried. “You go?”

“I go,” he repeated, “to-morrow. And among your own people I will see what language you will hold. While you were in my power I spared you. Now that you are in your own land, now that you lift your hand against me, I will show you of what make I am. If blows will not tame you, I will try that will suit you less. Ay, you wince, Madame! You had done well had you thought twice before you threatened, and thrice before you took in hand to scare Tavannes with a parcel of clowns and fisherfolk. To-morrow, to Vrillac and your duty! And one word more, Madame,” he continued, turning back to her truculently when he had gone some paces from her. “If I find you plotting with your lover by the way I will hang not you, but him. I have spared him a score of times; but I know him, and I do not trust him.”

“Nor me,” she said, and with a white, set face she looked at him in the moonlight. “Had you not better hang me now?”

“Why?”

“Lest I do you an injury!” she cried with passion; and she raised her hand and pointed northward. “Lest I kill you some night, Monsieur! I tell you, a thousand men on your heels are less dangerous than the woman at your side if she hate you.”

“Is it so?” he cried. His hand flew to his hilt; his dagger flashed out. But she did not move, did not flinch, only she set her teeth; and her eyes, fascinated by the steel, grew wider.

His hand sank slowly. He held the weapon to her, hilt foremost; she took it mechanically.

“You think yourself brave enough to kill me, do you?” he sneered. “Then take this, and strike, if you dare. Take it strike, Madame! It is sharp, and my arms are open.” And he flung them wide, standing within a pace of her. “Here, above the collar-bone, is the surest for a weak hand. What, afraid?” he continued, as, stiffly clutching the weapon which he had put into her hand, she glared at him, trembling and astonished. “Afraid, and a Vrillac! Afraid, and ’tis but one blow! See, my arms are open. One blow home, and you will never lie in them. Think of that. One blow home, and you may lie in his. Think of that! Strike, then, Madame,” he went on, piling taunt on taunt, “if you dare, and if you hate me. What, still afraid! How shall I give you heart? Shall I strike you? It will not be the first time by ten. I keep count, you see,” he continued mockingly. “Or shall I kiss you? Ay, that may do. And it will not be against your will, either, for you have that in your hand will save you in an instant. Even” he drew a foot nearer “now! Even ” And he stooped until his lips almost touched hers.

She sprang back. “Oh, do not!” she cried. “Oh, do not!” And, dropping the dagger, she covered her face with her hands, and burst into weeping.

He stooped coolly, and, after groping some time for the poniard, drew it from the leaves among which it had fallen. He put it into the sheath, and not until he had done that did he speak. Then it was with a sneer.

“I have no need to fear overmuch,” he said. “You are a poor hater, Madame. And poor haters make poor lovers. ’Tis his loss! If you will not strike a blow for him, there is but one thing left. Go, dream of him!”

And, shrugging his shoulders contemptuously, he turned on his heel.