Read CHAPTER XXXIII. THE AMBUSH of Count Hannibal, free online book, by Stanley J. Weyman, on

The start they made at daybreak was gloomy and ill-omened, through one of those white mists which are blown from the Atlantic over the flat lands of Western Poitou. The horses, looming gigantic through the fog, winced as the cold harness was girded on them. The men hurried to and fro with saddles on their heads, and stumbled over other saddles, and swore savagely. The women turned mutinous and would not rise; or, being dragged up by force, shrieked wild, unfitting words, as they were driven to the horses. The Countess looked on and listened, and shuddered, waiting for Carlat to set her on her horse. She had gone during the last three weeks through much that was dreary, much that was hopeless; but the chill discomfort of this forced start, with tired horses and wailing women, would have darkened the prospect of home had there been no fear or threat to cloud it.

He whose will compelled all stood a little apart and watched all, silent and gloomy. When Badelon, after taking his orders and distributing some slices of black bread to be eaten in the saddle, moved off at the head of his troop, Count Hannibal remained behind, attended by Bigot and the eight riders who had formed the rearguard so far. He had not approached the Countess since rising, and she had been thankful for it. But now, as she moved away, she looked back and saw him still standing; she marked that he wore his corselet, and in one of those révulsions of feeling which outrun man’s reason she who had tossed on her couch through half the night, in passionate revolt against the fate before her, took fire at his neglect and his silence; she resented on a sudden the distance he kept, and his scorn of her. Her breast heaved, her colour came, involuntarily she checked her horse, as if she would return to him, and speak to him. Then the Carlats and the others closed up behind her, Badelon’s monotonous “Forward, Madame, en avant !” proclaimed the day’s journey begun, and she saw him no more.

Nevertheless, the motionless figure, looming Homeric through the fog, with gleams of wet light reflected from the steel about it, dwelt long in her mind. The road which Badelon followed, slowly at first, and with greater speed as the horses warmed to their work, and the women, sore and battered resigned themselves to suffering, wound across a flat expanse broken by a few hills. These were little more than mounds, and for the most part were veiled from sight by the low-lying sea-mist, through which gnarled and stunted oaks rose mysterious, to fade as strangely. Weird trees they were, with branches unlike those of this world’s trees, rising in a grey land without horizon or limit, through which our travellers moved, weary phantoms in a clinging nightmare. At a walk, at a trot, more often at a jaded amble, they pushed on behind Badelon’s humped shoulders. Sometimes the fog hung so thick about them that they saw only those who rose and fell in the saddles immediately before them; sometimes the air cleared a little, the curtain rolled up a space, and for a minute or two they discerned stretches of unfertile fields, half-tilled and stony, or long tracts of gorse and broom, with here and there a thicket of dwarf shrubs or a wood of wind-swept pines. Some looked and saw these things; more rode on sulky and unseeing, supporting impatiently the toils of a flight from they knew not what.

To do Tignonville justice, he was not of these. On the contrary, he seemed to be in a better temper on this day and, where so many took things unheroically, he showed to advantage. Avoiding the Countess and riding with Carlat, he talked and laughed with marked cheerfulness; nor did he ever fail, when the mist rose, to note this or that landmark, and confirm Badelon in the way he was going.

“We shall be at Lege by noon!” he cried more than once, “and if M. lé Comte persists in his plan, may reach Vrillac by late sunset. By way of Challans!”

And always Carlat answered, “Ay, by Challans, Monsieur, so be it!”

He proved, too, so far right in his prediction that noon saw them drag, a weary train, into the hamlet of Lege, where the road from Nantes to Olonne runs southward over the level of Poitou. An hour later Count Hannibal rode in with six of his eight men, and, after a few minutes’ parley with Badelon, who was scanning the horses, he called Carlat to him. The old man came.

“Can we reach Vrillac to-night?” Count Hannibal asked curtly.

“By Challans, my lord,” the steward answered, “I think we can. We call it seven hours’ riding from here.”

“And that route is the shortest?”

“In time, M. lé Comte , the road being better.”

Count Hannibal bent his brows. “And the other way?” he said.

“Is by Commequiers, my lord. It is shorter in distance.”

“By how much?”

“Two leagues. But there are fordings and a salt marsh; and with Madame and the women ”

“It would be longer?”

The steward hesitated. “I think so,” he said slowly, his eyes wandering to the grey misty landscape, against which the poor hovels of the village stood out naked and comfortless. A low thicket of oaks sheltered the place from south-westerly gales. On the other three sides it lay open.

“Very good,” Tavannes said curtly. “Be ready to start in ten minutes. You will guide us.”

But when the ten minutes had elapsed and the party were ready to start, to the astonishment of all the steward was not to be found. To peremptory calls for him no answer came; and a hurried search through the hamlet proved equally fruitless. The only person who had seen him since his interview with Tavannes turned out to be M. de Tignonville; and he had seen him mount his horse five minutes before, and move off as he believed by the Challans road.

“Ahead of us?”

“Yes, M. lé Comte ,” Tignonville answered, shading his eyes and gazing in the direction of the fringe of trees. “I did not see him take the road, but he was beside the north end of the wood when I saw him last. Thereabouts!” and he pointed to a place where the Challans road wound round the flank of the wood. “When we are beyond that point, I think we shall see him.”

Count Hannibal growled a word in his beard, and, turning in his saddle, looked back the way he had come. Half a mile away, two or three dots could be seen approaching across the plain. He turned again.

“You know the road?” he said, curtly addressing the young man.

“Perfectly. As well as Carlat.”

“Then lead the way, Monsieur, with Badelon. And spare neither whip nor spur. There will be need of both, if we would lie warm to-night.”

Tignonville nodded assent and, wheeling his horse, rode to the head of the party, a faint smile playing about his mouth. A moment, and the main body moved off behind him, leaving Count Hannibal and six men to cover the rear. The mist, which at noon had risen for an hour or two, was closing down again, and they had no sooner passed clear of the wood than the trees faded out of sight behind them. It was not wonderful that they could not see Carlat. Objects a hundred paces from them were completely hidden.

Trot, trot! Trot, trot! through a grey world so featureless, so unreal that the riders, now dozing in the saddle, and now awaking, seemed to themselves to stand still, as in a nightmare. A trot and then a walk, and then a trot again; and all a dozen times repeated, while the women bumped along in their wretched saddles, and the horses stumbled, and the men swore at them.

Ha! La Garnache at last, and a sharp turn southward to Challans. The Countess raised her head, and began to look about her. There, should be a church, she knew; and there, the old ruined tower built by wizards, or the Carthaginians, so old tradition ran; and there, to the westward, the great salt marshes towards Noirmoutier. The mist hid all, but the knowledge that they were there set her heart beating, brought tears to her eyes, and lightened the long road to Challans.

At Challans they halted half an hour, and washed out the horses’ mouths with water and a little guignolet the spirit of the country. A dose of the cordial was administered to the women; and a little after seven they began the last stage of the journey, through a landscape which even the mist could not veil from the eyes of love. There rose the windmill of Soullans! There the old dolmen, beneath which the grey wolf that ate the two children of Tornic had its lair. For a mile back they had been treading my lady’s land; they had only two more leagues to ride, and one of those was crumbling under each dogged footfall. The salt flavour, which is new life to the shore-born, was in the fleecy reek which floated by them, now thinner, now more opaque; and almost they could hear the dull thunder of the Biscay waves falling on the rocks.

Tignonville looked back at her and smiled. She caught the look; she fancied that she understood it and his thoughts. But her own eyes were moist at the moment with tears, and what his said, and what there was of strangeness in his glance, half-warning, half-exultant, escaped her. For there, not a mile before them, where the low hills about the fishing village began to rise from the dull inland level hills green on the land side, bare and scarped towards the sea and the island she espied the wayside chapel at which the nurse of her early childhood had told her beads. Where it stood, the road from Commequiers and the road she travelled became one: a short mile thence, after winding among the hillocks, it ran down to the beach and the causeway and to her home.

At the sight she bethought herself of Carlat, and calling to M. de Tignonville, she asked him what he thought of the steward’s continued absence.

“He must have outpaced us!” he answered, with an odd laugh.

“But he must have ridden hard to do that.”

He reined back to her. “Say nothing!” he muttered under his breath. “But look ahead, Madame, and see if we are expected!”

“Expected? How can we be expected?” she cried. The colour rushed into her face.

He put his finger to his lip, and looked warningly at Badelon’s humped shoulders, jogging up and down in front of them. Then, stooping towards her, in a lower tone, “If Carlat has arrived before us, he will have told them,” he said.

“Have told them?”

“He came by the other road, and it is quicker.”

She gazed at him in astonishment, her lips parted; and slowly she understood, and her eyes grew hard.

“Then why,” she said, “did you say it was longer. Had we been overtaken, Monsieur, we had had you to thank for it, it seems!”

He bit his lip. “But we have not been overtaken,” he rejoined. “On the contrary, you have me to thank for something quite different.”

“As unwelcome, perhaps!” she retorted. “For what?”

“Softly, Madame.”

“For what?” she repeated, refusing to lower her voice. “Speak, Monsieur, if you please.” He had never seen her look at him in that way.

“For the fact,” he answered, stung by her look and tone, “that when you arrive you will find yourself mistress in your own house! Is that nothing?”

“You have called in my people?”

“Carlat has done so, or should have,” he answered. “Henceforth,” he continued, a ring of exultation in his voice, “it will go hard with M. lé Comte, if he does not treat you better than he has treated you hitherto. That is all!”

“You mean that it will go hard with him in any case?” she cried, her bosom rising and falling.

“I mean, Madame But there they are! Good Carlat! Brave Carlat! He has done well!”


“Ay, there they are! And you are mistress in your own land! At last you are mistress, and you have me to thank for it! See!” And heedless in his exultation whether Badelon understood or not, he pointed to a place before them where the road wound between two low hills. Over the green shoulder of one of these, a dozen bright points caught and reflected the last evening light; while as he spoke a man rose to his feet on the hillside above, and began to make signs to persons below. A pennon, too, showed an instant over the shoulder, fluttered, and was gone.

Badelon looked as they looked. The next instant he uttered a low oath, and dragged his horse across the front of the party.

“Pierre!” he cried to the man on his left, “ride for your life! To my lord, and tell him we are ambushed!” And as the trained soldier wheeled about and spurred away, the sacker of Rome turned a dark scowling face on Tignonville. “If this be your work,” he hissed, “we shall thank you for it in hell! For it is where most of us will lie to-night! They are Montsoreau’s spears, and they have those with them are worse to deal with than themselves!” Then in a different tone, and throwing off all disguise, “Men to the front!” he shouted. “And you, Madame, to the rear quickly, and the women with you! Now, men, forward, and draw! Steady! Steady! They are coming!”

There was an instant of confusion, disorder, panic; horses jostling one another, women screaming and clutching at men, men shaking them off and forcing their way to the van. Fortunately the enemy did not fall on at once, as Badelon expected, but after showing themselves in the mouth of the valley, at a distance of three hundred paces, hung for some reason irresolute. This gave Badelon time to array his seven swords in front; but real resistance was out of the question, as he knew. And to none seemed less in question than to Tignonville.

When the truth, and what he had done, broke on the young man, he sat a moment motionless with horror. It was only when Badelon had twice summoned him with opprobrious words that he awoke to the relief of action. Even after that he hung an instant trying to meet the Countess’s eyes, despair in his own; but it was not to be. She had turned her head, and was looking back, as if thence only and not from him could help come. It was not to him she turned; and he saw it, and the justice of it. And silent, grim, more formidable even than old Badelon, the veteran fighter, who knew all the tricks and shifts of the melee , he spurred to the flank of the line.

“Now, steady!” Badelon cried again, seeing that the enemy were beginning to move. “Steady! Ha! Thank God, my lord! My lord is coming! Stand! Stand!” The distant sound of galloping hoofs had reached his ear in the nick of time. He stood in his stirrups and looked back. Yes, Count Hannibal was coming, riding a dozen paces in front of his men. The odds were still desperate for he brought but six the enemy were still three to one. But the thunder of his hoofs as he came up checked for a moment the enemy’s onset; and before Montsoreau’s people got started again Count Hannibal had ridden up abreast of the women, and the Countess, looking at him, knew that, desperate as was their strait, she had not looked behind in vain. The glow of battle, the stress of the moment, had displaced the cloud from his face; the joy of the born fighter lightened in his eye. His voice rang clear and loud above the press.

“Badelon! wait you and two with Madame!” he cried. “Follow at fifty paces’ distance, and, when we have broken them, ride through! The others with me! Now forward, men, and show your teeth! A Tavannes! A Tavannes! A Tavannes! We carry it yet!”

And he dashed forward, leading them on, leaving the women behind; and down the sward to meet him, thundering in double line, came Montsoreau’s men-at-arms, and with the men-at-arms, a dozen pale, fierce-eyed men in the Church’s black, yelling the Church’s curses. Madame’s heart grew sick as she heard, as she waited, as she judged him by the fast-failing light a horse’s length before his men with only Tignonville beside him.

She held her breath would the shock never come? If Badelon had not seized her rein and forced her forward, she would not have moved. And then, even as she moved, they met! With yells and wild cries and a mare’s savage scream, the two bands crashed together in a huddle of fallen or rearing horses, of flickering weapons, of thrusting men, of grapples hand-to-hand. What happened, what was happening to any one, who it was fell, stabbed through and through by four, or who were those who still fought single combats, twisting round one another’s horses, those on her right and on her left, she could not tell. For Badelon dragged her on with whip and spur, and two horsemen who obscured her view galloped in front of her, and rode down bodily the only man who undertook to bar her passage. She had a glimpse of that man’s face, as his horse, struck in the act of turning, fell sideways on him; and she knew it, in its agony of terror, though she had seen it but once. It was the face of the man whose eyes had sought hers from the steps of the church in Angers; the lean man in black, who had turned soldier of the Church to his misfortune.

Through? Yes, through, the way was clear before them! The fight with its screams and curses died away behind them. The horses swayed and all but sank under them. But Badelon knew it no time for mercy; iron-shod hoofs rang on the road behind, and at any moment the pursuers might be on their heels. He flogged on until the cots of the hamlet appeared on either side of the way; on, until the road forked and the Countess with strange readiness cried “The left!” on, until the beach appeared below them at the foot of a sharp pitch, and beyond the beach the slow heaving grey of the ocean.

The tide was high. The causeway ran through it, a mere thread lipped by the darkling waves, and at the sight a grunt of relief broke from Badelon. For at the end of the causeway, black against the western sky, rose the gateway and towers of Vrillac; and he saw that, as the Countess had said, it was a place ten men could hold against ten hundred!

They stumbled down the beach, reached the causeway and trotted along it; more slowly now, and looking back. The other women had followed by hook or by crook, some crying hysterically, yet clinging to their horses and even urging them; and in a medley, the causeway clear behind them and no one following, they reached the drawbridge, and passed under the arch of the gate beyond.

There friendly hands, Carlat’s foremost, welcomed them and aided them to alight, and the Countess saw, as in a dream, the familiar scene, all unfamiliar: the gate, where she had played, a child, aglow with lantern-light and arms. Men, whose rugged faces she had known in infancy, stood at the drawbridge chains and at the winches. Others blew matches and handled primers, while old servants crowded round her, and women looked at her, scared and weeping. She saw it all at a glance the lights, the black shadows, the sudden glow of a match on the groining of the arch above. She saw it, and turning swiftly, looked back the way she had come; along the dusky causeway to the low, dark shore, which night was stealing quickly from their eyes. She clasped her hands.

“Where is Badelon?” she cried. “Where is he? Where is he?”

One of the men who had ridden before her answered that he had turned back.

“Turned back!” she repeated. And then, shading her eyes, “Who is coming?” she asked, her voice insistent. “There is some one coming. Who is it? Who is it?”

Two were coming out of the gloom, travelling slowly and painfully along the causeway. One was La Tribe, limping; the other a rider, slashed across the forehead, and sobbing curses.

“No more!” she muttered. “Are there no more?”

The minister shook his head. The rider wiped the blood from his eyes, and turned up his face that he might see the better. But he seemed to be dazed, and only babbled strange words in a strange patois .

She stamped her foot in passion. “More lights!” she cried. “Lights! How can they find their way? And let six men go down the digue , and meet them. Will you let them be butchered between the shore and this?”

But Carlat, who had not been able to collect more than a dozen men, shook his head; and before she could repeat the order, sounds of battle, shrill, faint, like cries of hungry seagulls, pierced the darkness which shrouded the farther end of the causeway. The women shrank inward over the threshold, while Carlat cried to the men at the chains to be ready, and to some who stood at loopholes above, to blow up their matches and let fly at his word. And then they all waited, the Countess foremost, peering eagerly into the growing darkness. They could see nothing.

A distant scuffle, an oath, a cry, silence! The same, a little nearer, a little louder, followed this time, not by silence, but by the slow tread of a limping horse. Again a rush of feet, the clash of steel, a scream, a laugh, all weird and unreal, issuing from the night; then out of the darkness into the light, stepping slowly with hanging head, moved a horse, bearing on its back a man or was it a man? bending low in the saddle, his feet swinging loose. For an instant the horse and the man seemed to be alone, a ghostly pair; then at their heels came into view two figures, skirmishing this way and that; and now coming nearer, and now darting back into the gloom. One, a squat figure, stooping low, wielded a sword with two hands; the other covered him with a half-pike. And then beyond these abruptly as it seemed the night gave up to sight a swarm of dark figures pressing on them and after them, driving them before them.

Carlat had an inspiration. “Fire!” he cried; and four arquebuses poured a score of slugs into the knot of pursuers. A man fell, another shrieked and stumbled, the rest gave back. Only the horse came on spectrally, with hanging head and shining eyeballs, until a man ran out and seized its head, and dragged it, more by his strength than its own, over the drawbridge. After it Badelon, with a gaping wound in his knee, and Bigot, bleeding from a dozen hurts, walked over the bridge, and stood on either side of the saddle, smiling foolishly at the man on the horse.

“Leave me!” he muttered. “Leave me!” He made a feeble movement with his hand, as if it held a weapon; then his head sank lower. It was Count Hannibal. His thigh was broken, and there was a lance-head in his arm. The Countess looked at him, then beyond him, past him into the darkness.

“Are there no more?” she whispered tremulously. “No more? Tignonville my ”

Badelon shook his head. The Countess covered her face and wept.