They met the landlord in the passage.
“Welcome, messieurs,” said he, taking off his cap, with a low bow.
“Come, we are not in Germany,” said Gerard.
In the public room they found the mistress, a buxom woman of forty. She curtsied to them, and smiled right cordially “Give yourself the trouble of sitting ye down, fair sir,” said she to Gerard, and dusted two chairs with her apron, not that they needed it.
“Thank you, dame,” said Gerard. “Well,” thought he, “this is a polite nation: the trouble of sitting down? That will I with singular patience; and presently the labour of eating, also the toil of digestion, and finally, by Hercules his aid, the strain of going to bed, and the struggle of sinking fast asleep.
“Why, Denys, what are you doing? ordering supper for only two?”
“What, can we sup without waiting for forty more? Burgundy forever!”
“Aha! Courage, camarade. Le dia —”
The salic law seemed not to have penetrated to French inns. In this one at least wimple and kirtle reigned supreme; doublets and hose were few in number, and feeble in act. The landlord himself wandered objectless, eternally taking off his cap to folk for want of thought; and the women, as they passed him in turn, thrust him quietly aside without looking at him, as we remove a live twig in bustling through a wood.
A maid brought in supper, and the mistress followed her, empty handed.
“Fall to, my masters,” said she cheerily; “y’have but one enemy here; and he lies under your knife.” (I shrewdly suspect this of formula.)
They fell to. The mistress drew her chair a little toward the table; and provided company as well as meat; gossiped genially with them like old acquaintances: but this form gone through, the busy dame was soon off and sent in her daughter, a beautiful young woman of about twenty, who took the vacant seat. She was not quite so broad and genial as the elder, but gentle and cheerful, and showed a womanly tenderness for Gerard on learning the distance the poor boy had come, and had to go. She stayed nearly half-an-hour, and when she left them Gerard said, “This an inn? Why, it is like home.”
“Qui fit Francois il fit courtois,” said Denys, bursting with gratified pride.
“Courteous? nay, Christian; to welcome us like home guests and old friends, us vagrants, here to-day and gone to-morrow. But indeed who better merits pity and kindness than the worn traveller far from his folk? Hola! here’s another.”
The new-comer was the chambermaid, a woman of about twenty-five, with a cocked nose, a large laughing mouth, and a sparkling black eye, and a bare arm very stout but not very shapely.
The moment she came in, one of the travellers passed a somewhat free jest on her; the next the whole company were roaring at his expense, so swiftly had her practised tongue done his business. Even as, in a passage of arms between a novice and a master of fence, foils clash — novice pinked. On this another, and then another, must break a lance with her; but Marion stuck her great arms upon her haunches, and held the whole room in play. This country girl possessed in perfection that rude and ready humour which looks mean and vulgar on paper, but carries all before it spoken: not wit’s rapier; its bludgeon. Nature had done much for her in this way, and daily practice in an inn the rest.
Yet shall she not be photographed by me, but feebly indicated: for it was just four hundred years ago, the raillery was coarse, she returned every stroke in kind, and though a virtuous woman, said things without winking, which no decent man of our day would say even among men.
Gerard sat gaping with astonishment. This was to him almost a new variety of “that interesting species,” homo. He whispered “Denys, Now I see why you Frenchmen say ‘a woman’s tongue is her sword:’” just then she levelled another assailant; and the chivalrous Denys, to console and support “the weaker vessel,” the iron kettle among the clay pots, administered his consigne, “Courage, ma mie, le ——” etc.
She turned on him directly. “How can he be dead as long as there is an archer left alive?” (General laughter at her ally’s expense.)
“It is ‘washing day,’ my masters,” said she, with sudden gravity.
“Apres? We travellers cannot strip and go bare while you wash our clothes,” objected a peevish old fellow by the fireside, who had kept mumchance during the raillery, but crept out into the sunshine of commonplaces.
“I aimed not your way, ancient man,” replied Marion superciliously. “But since you ask me” (here she scanned him slowly from head to foot), “I trow you might take a turn in the tub, clothes and all, and no harm done” (laughter). “But what I spoke for, I thought this young sire might like his beard starched.”
Poor Gerard’s turn had come; his chin crop was thin and silky.
The loudest of all the laughers this time was the traitor Denys, whose beard was of a good length, and singularly stiff and bristly; so that Shakespeare, though he never saw him, hit him in the bull’s eye.
“Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard.”
— As You Like It.
Gerard bore the Amazonian satire mighty calmly. He had little personal vanity. “Nay, ‘chambriere,’” said he, with a smile, “mine is all unworthy your pains; take you this fair growth in hand!” and he pointed to Denys’s vegetable.
“Oh, time for that, when I starch the besoms.”
Whilst they were all shouting over this palpable hit, the mistress returned, and in no more time than it took her to cross the threshold, did our Amazon turn to a seeming Madonna meek and mild.
Mistresses are wonderful subjugators. Their like I think breathes not on the globe. Housemaids, decide! It was a waste of histrionic ability though; for the landlady had heard, and did not at heart disapprove, the peals of laughter.
“Ah, Marion, lass,” said she good-humouredly, “if you laid me an egg every time you cackle, ‘L’es Trois Poissons’ would never lack an omelet.”
“Now, dame,” said Gerard, “what is to pay?”
“Where is the hurry? cannot you be content to pay when you go? lose the guest, find the money, is the rule of ‘The Three Fish.’”
“But, dame, outside ‘The Three Fish’ it is thus written —‘Ici-on ne loge —”
“Bah! Let that flea stick on the wall! Look hither,” and she pointed to the smoky ceiling, which was covered with hieroglyphics. These were accounts, vulgo scores; intelligible to this dame and her daughter, who wrote them at need by simply mounting a low stool, and scratching with a knife so as to show lines of ceiling through the deposit of smoke. The dame explained that the writing on the wall was put there to frighten moneyless folk from the inn altogether, or to be acted on at odd times when a non-paying face should come in and insist on being served. “We can’t refuse them plump, you know. The law forbids us.”
“And how know you mine is not such a face?”
“Out fie! it is the best face that has entered ‘The Three Fish’ this autumn.”
“And mine, dame?” said Denys; “dost see no knavery here?”
She eyed him calmly. “Not such a good one as the lad’s; nor ever will be. But it is the face of a true man. For all that,” added she drily, “an I were ten years younger, I’d as lieve not meet that face on a dark night too far from home.”
Gerard stared. Denys laughed. “Why, dame, I would but sip the night dew off the flower; and you needn’t take ten years off, nor ten days, to be worth risking a scratched face for.”
“There, our mistress,” said Marion, who had just come in, “said I not t’other day you could make a fool of them still, an if you were properly minded?”
“I dare say ye did; it sounds like some daft wench’s speech.”
“Dame,” said Gerard, “this is wonderful.”
“What? Oh! no, no, that is no wonder at all. Why, I have been here all my life; and reading faces is the first thing a girl picks up in an inn.”
Marion. “And frying eggs the second; no, telling lies; frying eggs is the third, though.”
The Mistress. “And holding her tongue the last, and modesty the day after never at all.”
Marion. “Alack! Talk of my tongue. But I say no more. She under whose wing I live now deals the blow. I’m sped —’tis but a chambermaid gone. Catch what’s left on’t!” and she staggered and sank backwards on to the handsomest fellow in the room, which happened to be Gerard.
“Tic! tic!” cried he peevishly; “there, don’t be stupid! that is too heavy a jest for me. See you not I am talking to the mistress?”
Marion resumed her elasticity with a grimace, made two little bounds into the middle of the floor, and there turned a pirouette. “There, mistress,” said she, “I give in; ’tis you that reigns supreme with the men, leastways with male children.”
“Young man,” said the mistress, “this girl is not so stupid as her deportment; in reading of faces, and frying of omelets, there we are great. ‘Twould be hard if we failed at these arts, since they are about all we do know.”
“You do not quite take me, dame,” said Gerard. “That honesty in a face should shine forth to your experienced eye, that seems reasonable: but how by looking on Denys here could you learn his one little foible, his insanity, his miserable mulierosity?” Poor Gerard got angrier the more he thought of it.
“His mule — his what?” (crossing herself with superstitious awe at the polysyllable).
“Nay, ’tis but the word I was fain to invent for him.”
“Invent? What, can a child like you make other words than grow in Burgundy by nature? Take heed what ye do! why, we are overrun with them already, especially bad ones. Lord, these be times. I look to hear of a new thistle invented next.”
“Well then, dame, mulierose — that means wrapped up, body and soul, in women. So prithee tell me; how did you ever detect the noodle’s mulierosity?”
“Alas! good youth, you make a mountain of a molehill. We that are women be notice-takers; and out of the tail of our eye see more than most men can, glaring through a prospect glass. Whiles I move to and fro doing this and that, my glance is still on my guests, and I did notice that this soldier’s eyes were never off the womenfolk: my daughter, or Marion, or even an old woman like me, all was gold to him: and there a sat glowering; oh, you foolish, foolish man! Now you still turned to the speaker, her or him, and that is common sense.”
Denys burst into a hoarse laugh. “You never were more out. Why, this silky, smooth-faced companion is a very Turk — all but his beard. He is what d’ye call ’em oser than ere an archer in the Duke’s body-guard. He is more wrapped up in one single Dutch lass called Margaret, than I am in the whole bundle of ye, brown and fair.”
“Man alive, that is just the contrary,” said the hostess. “Yourn is the bane, and hisn the cure. Cling you still to Margaret, my dear. I hope she is an honest girl.”
“Dame, she is an angel.”
“Ay, ay, they are all that till better acquainted. I’d as lieve have her no more than honest, and then she will serve to keep you out of worse company. As for you, soldier, there is trouble in store for you. Your eyes were never made for the good of your soul.”
“Nor of his pouch either,” said Marion, striking in, “and his lips, they will sip the dew, as he calls it, off many a bramble bush.”
“Overmuch clack! Marion overmuch clack.”
“Ods bodikins, mistress; ye didn’t hire me to be one o’ your three fishes, did ye?” and Marion sulked thirty seconds.
“Is that the way to speak to our mistress?” remonstrated the landlord, who had slipped in.
“Hold your whisht,” said his wife sharply; “it is not your business to check the girl; she is a good servant to you.”
“What, is the cock never to crow, and the hens at it all day?”
“You can crow as loud as you like, my man out o’ doors. But the hen means to rule the roost.”
“I know a byword to that tune.” said Gerard.
“Do ye, now? out wi’t then.”
“Femme veut en toute saison,
Estre dame en sa mason.”
“I never heard it afore; but ’tis as sooth as gospel. Ay, they that set these bywords a rolling had eyes and tongues, and tongues and eyes. Before all the world give me an old saw.”
“And me a young husband,” said Marion. “Now there was a chance for you all, and nobody spoke. Oh! it is too late now, I’ve changed my mind.”
“All the better for some poor fellow,” suggested Denys.
And now the arrival of the young mistress, or, as she was called, the little mistress, was the signal for them all to draw round the fire, like one happy family, travellers, host, hostess, and even servants in the outer ring, and tell stories till bedtime. And Gerard in his turn told a tremendous one out of his repertory, a MS. collection of “acts of the saints,” and made them all shudder deliciously; but soon after began to nod, exhausted by the effort, I should say. The young mistress saw, and gave Marion a look. She instantly lighted a rush, and laying her hand on Gerard’s shoulder, invited him to follow her. She showed him a room where were two nice white beds, and bade him choose.
“Either is paradise,” said he. “I’ll take this one. Do you know, I have not lain in a naked bed once since I left my home in Holland.”
“Alack! poor soul!” said she; “well, then, the sooner my flax and your down (he! he!) come together, the better; so — allons!” and she held out her cheek as business-like as if it had been her hand for a fee.
“Allons? what does that mean?”
“It means ‘good-night.’ Ahem! What, don’t they salute the chambermaid in your part?”
“Not all in a moment.”
“What, do they make a business on’t?”
“Nay, perverter of words, I mean we make not so free with strange women.
“They must be strange women if they do not think you strange fools, then. Here is a coil. Why, all the old greasy greybeards that lie at our inn do kiss us chambermaids; faugh! and what have we poor wretches to set on t’other side the compt but now and then a nice young ——? Alack! time flies, chambermaids can’t be spared long in the nursery, so how is’t to be?”
“An’t please you arrange with my comrade for both. He is mulierose; I am not.”
“Nay, ’tis the curb he will want, not the spur. Well! well! you shall to bed without paying the usual toll; and oh, but ’tis sweet to fall in with a young man who can withstand these ancient ill customs, and gainsay brazen hussies. Shalt have thy reward.”
“Thank you! But what are you doing with my bed?”
“Me? oh, only taking off these sheets, and going to put on the pair the drunken miller slept in last night.”
“Oh, no! no! You cruel, black-hearted thing! There! there!”
“A la bonne heure! What will not perseverance effect? But note now the frowardness of a mad wench! I cared not for’t a button. I am dead sick of that sport this five years. But you denied me; so then forthwith I behoved to have it; belike had gone through fire and water for’t. Alas, young sir, we women are kittle cattle; poor perverse toads: excuse us: and keep us in our place, savoir, at arm’s length; and so good-night!”
At the door she turned and said, with a complete change of tone and manner: “The Virgin guard thy head, and the holy Evangelists watch the bed where lies a poor young wanderer far from home! Amen!”
And the next moment he heard her run tearing down the stairs, and soon a peal of laughter from the salle betrayed her whereabouts.
“Now that is a character,” said Gerard profoundly, and yawned over the discovery.
In a very few minutes he was in a dry bath of cold, clean linen, inexpressibly refreshing to him after so long disuse: then came a delicious glow; and then — Sevenbergen.
In the morning Gerard awoke infinitely refreshed, and was for rising, but found himself a close prisoner. His linen had vanished. Now this was paralysis; for the nightgown is a recent institution. In Gerard’s century, and indeed long after, men did not play fast and loose with clean sheets (when they could get them), but crept into them clothed with their innocence, like Adam: out of bed they seem to have taken most after his eldest son.
Gerard bewailed his captivity to Denys; but that instant the door opened, and in sailed Marion with their linen, newly washed and ironed, on her two arms, and set it down on the table.
“Oh you good girl,” cried Gerard.
“Alack, have you found me out at last?”
“Yes, indeed. Is this another custom?”
“Nay, not to take them unbidden: but at night we aye question travellers, are they for linen washed. So I came into you, but you were both sound. Then said I to the little mistress, ‘La! where is the sense of waking wearied men, t’ask them is Charles the Great dead, and would they liever carry foul linen or clean, especially this one with a skin like cream? ‘And so he has, I declare,’ said the young mistress.”
“That was me,” remarked Denys, with the air of a commentator.
“Guess once more, and you’ll hit the mark.”
“Notice him not, Marion, he is an impudent fellow; and I am sure we cannot be grateful enough for your goodness, and I am sorry I ever refused you — anything you fancied you should like.”
“Oh, are ye there,” said l’espiegle. “I take that to mean you would fain brush the morning dew off, as your bashful companion calls it; well then, excuse me, ’tis customary, but not prudent. I decline. Quits with you, lad.”
“Stop! stop!” cried Denys, as she was making off victorious, “I am curious to know how many, of ye were here last night a-feasting your eyes on us twain.
“’Twas so satisfactory a feast as we weren’t half a minute over’t. Who? why the big mistress, the little mistress, Janet, and me, and the whole posse comitatus, on tiptoe. We mostly make our rounds the last thing, not to get burned down; and in prodigious numbers. Somehow that maketh us bolder, especially where archers lie scattered about.”
“Why did not you tell me? I’d have lain awake.”
“Beau sire, the saying goes that the good and the ill are all one while their lids are closed. So we said, ‘Here is one who will serve God best asleep, Break not his rest!’”
“She is funny,” said Gerard dictatorially.
“I must be either that or knavish.”
“Because ‘The Three Fish’ pay me to be funny. You will eat before you part? Good! then I’ll go see the meat be fit for such worshipful teeth.”
“What is your will?”
“I wish that was a great boy, and going along with us, to keep us cheery.”
“So do not I. But I wish it was going along with us as it is.”
“Now Heaven forefend! A fine fool you would make of yourself.”
They broke their fast, settled their score, and said farewell. Then it was they found that Marion had not exaggerated the “custom of the country.” The three principal women took and kissed them right heartily, and they kissed the three principal women. The landlord took and kissed them, and they kissed the landlord; and the cry was, “Come back, the sooner the better!”
“Never pass ‘The Three Fish’; should your purses be void, bring yourselves: ‘le sieur credit’ is not dead for you.”
And they took the road again.
They came to a little town, and Denys went to buy shoes. The shopkeeper was in the doorway, but wide awake. He received Denys with a bow down to the ground. The customer was soon fitted, and followed to the street, and dismissed with graceful salutes from the doorstep.
The friends agreed it was Elysium to deal with such a shoemaker as this. “Not but what my German shoes have lasted well enough,” said Gerard the just.
Outside the town was a pebbled walk.
“This is to keep the burghers’s feet dry, a-walking o’ Sundays with their wives and daughters,” said Denys.
Those simple words of Denys, one stroke of a careless tongue, painted “home” in Gerard’s heart. “Oh, how sweet!” said he.
“Mercy! what is this? A gibbet! and ugh, two skeletons thereon! Oh, Denys, what a sorry sight to woo by!”
“Nay,” said Denys, “a comfortable sight; for every rogue i’ the air there is one the less a-foot.”
A little farther on they came to two pillars, and between these was a huge wheel closely studded with iron prongs; and entangled in these were bones and fragments of cloth miserably dispersed over the wheel.
Gerard hid his face in his hands. “Oh, to think those patches and bones are all that is left of a man! of one who was what we are now.”
“Excusez! a thing that went on two legs and stole; are we no more than that?”
“How know ye he stole? Have true men never suffered death and torture too?”
“None of my kith ever found their way to the gibbet, I know.”
“The better their luck. Prithee, how died the saints?”
“Hard. But not in Burgundy.”
“Ye massacred them wholesale at Lyons, and that is on Burgundy’s threshold. To you the gibbet proves the crime, because you read not story. Alas! had you stood on Calvary that bloody day we sigh for to this hour, I tremble to think you had perhaps shouted for joy at the gibbet builded there; for the cross was but the Roman gallows, Father Martin says.”
“The blaspheming old hound!”
“Oh, fie! fie! a holy and a book-learned man. Ay, Denys, y’had read them, that suffered there, by the bare light of the gibbet. ‘Drive in the nails!’ y’had cried: ‘drive in the spear!’ Here be three malefactors. Three ‘roues.’ Yet of those little three one was the first Christian saint, and another was the Saviour of the world which gibbeted him.”
Denys assured him on his honour they managed things better in Burgundy. He added, too, after profound reflection, that the horrors Gerard had alluded to had more than once made him curse and swear with rage when told by the good cure in his native village at Eastertide: “but they chanced in an outlandish nation, and near a thousand years agone. Mort de ma vie, let us hope it is not true; or at least sore exaggerated. Do but see how all tales gather as they roll!”
Then he reflected again, and all in a moment turned red with ire. “Do ye not blush to play with your book-craft on your unlettered friend, and throw dust in his eyes, evening the saints with these reptiles?”
Then suddenly he recovered his good humour. “Since your heart beats for vermin, feel for the carrion crows! they be as good vermin as these; would ye send them to bed supperless, poor pretty poppets? Why, these be their larder; the pangs of hunger would gnaw them dead, but for cold cut-purse hung up here and there.”
Gerard, who had for some time maintained a dead silence, informed him the subject was closed between them, and for ever. “There are things,” said he, “in which our hearts seem wide as the poles asunder, and eke our heads. But I love thee dearly all the same,” he added, with infinite grace and tenderness.
Towards afternoon they heard a faint wailing noise on ahead; it grew distincter as they proceeded. Being fast walkers they soon came up with its cause: a score of pikemen, accompanied by several constables, were marching along, and in advance of them was a herd of animals they were driving. These creatures, in number rather more than a hundred, were of various ages, only very few were downright old: the males were downcast and silent. It was the females from whom all the outcry came. In other words, the animals thus driven along at the law’s point were men and women.
“Good Heaven!” cried Gerard, “what a band of them! But stay, surely all those children cannot be thieves; why, there are some in arms. What on earth is this, Denys?”
Denys advised him to ask that “bourgeois” with the badge; “This is Burgundy: here a civil question ever draws a civil reply.”
Gerard went up to the officer, and removing his cap, a civility which was immediately returned, said, “For our Lady’s sake, sir, what do ye with these poor folk?”
“Nay, what is that to you, my lad?” replied the functionary suspiciously.
“Master, I’m a stranger, and athirst for knowledge.”
“That is another matter. What are we doing? ahem. Why we — Dost hear, Jacques? Here is a stranger seeks to know what we are doing,” and the two machines were tickled that there should be a man who did not know something they happened to know. In all ages this has tickled. However, the chuckle was brief and moderated by the native courtesy, and the official turned to Gerard again. “What we are doing? hum!” and now he hesitated, not from any doubt as to what he was doing, but because he was hunting for a single word that should convey the matter.
“Ce que nous faisons, mon gars? — Mais — dam — NOUS TRANSVASONS.”
“You decant? that should mean you pour from one vessel to another.”
“Precisely.” He explained that last year the town of Charmes had been sore thinned by a pestilence, whole houses emptied and trades short of hands. Much ado to get in the rye, and the flax half spoiled. So the bailiff and aldermen had written to the duke’s secretary; and the duke he sent far and wide to know what town was too full. “That are we,” had the baillie of Toul writ back. “Then send four or five score of your townsfolk,” was the order. “Was not this to decant the full town into the empty, and is not the good duke the father of his people, and will not let the duchy be weakened, nor its fair towns laid waste by sword nor pestilence; but meets the one with pike, and arbalest (touching his cap to the sergeant and Denys alternately), and t’other with policy? LONG LIVE THE DUKE!”
The pikemen of course were not to be outdone in loyalty; so they shouted with stentorian lungs “LONG LIVE THE DUKE!” Then the decanted ones, partly because loyalty was a non-reasoning sentiment in those days, partly perhaps because they feared some further ill consequence should they alone be mute, raised a feeble, tremulous shout, “Long live the Duke!”
But, at this, insulted nature rebelled. Perhaps indeed the sham sentiment drew out the real, for, on the very heels of that royal noise, a loud and piercing wail burst from every woman’s bosom, and a deep, deep groan from every man’s; oh! the air filled in a moment with womanly and manly anguish. Judge what it must have been when the rude pikemen halted unbidden, all confused; as if a wall of sorrow had started up before them.
“En avant,” roared the sergeant, and they marched again, but muttering and cursing.
“Ah the ugly sound,” said the civilian, wincing. “Les malheureux!” cried he ruefully: for where is the single man can hear the sudden agony of a multitude and not be moved? “Les ingrats! They are going whence they were de trop to where they will be welcome: from starvation to plenty — and they object. They even make dismal noises. One would think we were thrusting them forth from Burgundy.”
“Come away,” whispered Gerard, trembling; “come away,” and the friends strode forward.
When they passed the head of the column, and saw the men walk with their eyes bent in bitter gloom upon the ground, and the women, some carrying, some leading little children, and weeping as they went, and the poor bairns, some frolicking, some weeping because “their mammies” wept, Gerard tried hard to say a word of comfort, but choked and could utter nothing to the mourners; but gasped, “Come on, Denys, I cannot mock such sorrow with little words of comfort.” And now, artist-like, all his aim was to get swiftly out of the grief he could not soothe. He almost ran not to hear these sighs and sobs.
“Why, mate,” said Denys, “art the colour of a lemon. Man alive, take not other folk’s troubles to heart! not one of those whining milksops there but would see thee, a stranger, hanged without winking.”
Gerard scarce listened to him.
“Decant them?” he groaned; “ay, if blood were no thicker than wine. Princes, ye are wolves. Poor things! Poor things! Ah, Denys! Denys! with looking on their grief mine own comes home to me. Well-a-day! ah, well-a-day!”
“Ay, now you talk reason. That you, poor lad, should be driven all the way from Holland to Rome is pitiful indeed. But these snivelling curs, where is their hurt? There is six score of ’em to keep one another company: besides, they are not going out of Burgundy.”
“Better for them if they had never been in it.”
“Mechant, va! they are but going from one village to another, a mule’s journey! whilst thou — there, no more. Courage, camarade, le diable est mort.”
Gerard shook his head very doubtfully, but kept silence for about a mile, and then he said thoughtfully, “Ay, Denys, but then I am sustained by booklearning. These are simple folk that likely thought their village was the world: now what is this? more weeping. Oh! ’tis a sweet world Humph! A little girl that hath broke her pipkin. Now may I hang on one of your gibbets but I’ll dry somebody’s tears,” and he pounced savagely upon this little martyr, like a kite on a chick, but with more generous intentions. It was a pretty little lass of about twelve; the tears were raining down her two peaches, and her palms lifted to heaven in that utter, though temporary, desolation which attends calamity at twelve; and at her feet the fatal cause, a broken pot, worth, say the fifth of a modern farthing.
“What, hast broken thy pot, little one?” said Gerard, acting intensest sympathy.
“Helas! bel gars; as you behold;” and the hands came down from the sky and both pointed at the fragments. A statuette of adversity.
“And you weep so for that?”
“Needs I must, bel gars. My mammy will massacre me. Do they not already” (with a fresh burst of woe) “c-c-call me J-J-Jean-net-on C-c-casse tout? It wanted but this; that I should break my poor pot. Helas! fallait-il donc, mere de Dieu?”
“Courage, little love,” said Gerard; “’tis not thy heart lies broken; money will soon mend pots. See now, here is a piece of silver, and there, scarce a stone’s throw off, is a potter; take the bit of silver to him, and buy another pot, and the copper the potter will give thee keep that to play with thy comrades.”
The little mind took in all this, and smiles began to struggle with the tears: but spasms are like waves, they cannot go down the very moment the wind of trouble is lulled. So Denys thought well to bring up his reserve of consolation “Courage, ma mie, le diable est mort!” cried that inventive warrior gaily. Gerard shrugged his shoulders at such a way of cheering a little girl,
“What a fine thing
Is a lute with one string,”
The little girl’s face broke into warm sunshine.
“Oh, the good news! oh, the good news!” she sang out with such heartfelt joy, it went off into a honeyed whine; even as our gay old tunes have a pathos underneath “So then,” said she, “they will no longer be able to threaten us little girls with him, making our lives a burden!” And she bounded off “to tell Nanette,” she said.
There is a theory that everything has its counterpart; if true, Denys it would seem had found the mind his consigne fitted.
While he was roaring with laughter at its unexpected success and Gerard’s amazement, a little hand pulled his jerkin and a little face peeped round his waist. Curiosity was now the dominant passion in that small but vivid countenance.
“Est-ce toi qui l’a tue, beau soldat?”
“Oui, ma mie,” said Denys, as gruffly as ever he could, rightly deeming this would smack of supernatural puissance to owners of bell-like trebles. “C’est moi. Ca vaut une petite embrassade — pas?”
“Je crois ben. Aie! aie!”
“Ca pique! ca pique!”
“Quel dommage! je vais la couper.”
“Nein, ce n’est rien; et pisque t’as tue ce mechant. T’es fierement beau, tout d’ meme, toi; t’es lien miex que ma grande soeur.
“Will you not kiss me, too, ma mie?” said Gerard.
“Je ne demande par miex. Tiens, tiens, tiens! c’est doulce celle-ci. Ah! que j’aimons les hommes! Des fames, ca ne m’aurait jamais donne l’arjan, blanc, plutot ca m’aurait ri au nez. C’est si peu de chose, les fames. Serviteur, beaulx sires! Bon voiage; et n’oubliez point la Jeanneton!”
“Adieu, petit coeur,” said Gerard, and on they marched; but presently looking back they saw the contemner of women in the middle of the road, making them a reverence, and blowing them kisses with little May morning face.
“Come on,” cried Gerard lustily. “I shall win to Rome yet. Holy St. Bavon, what a sunbeam of innocence hath shot across our bloodthirsty road! Forget thee, little Jeanneton? not likely, amidst all this slobbering, and gibbeting, and decanting. Come on, thou laggard! forward!”
“Dost call this marching?” remonstrated Denys; “why, we shall walk o’er Christmas Day and never see it.”
At the next town they came to, suddenly an arbalestrier ran out of a tavern after them, and in a moment his beard and Denys’s were like two brushes stuck together. It was a comrade. He insisted on their coming into the tavern with him, and breaking a bottle of wine. In course of conversation, he told Denys there was an insurrection in the Duke’s Flemish provinces, and soldiers were ordered thither from all parts of Burgundy. “Indeed, I marvelled to see thy face turned this way.
“I go to embrace my folk that I have not seen these three years. Ye can quell a bit of a rising without me I trow.”
Suddenly Denys gave a start. “Dost hear Gerard? this comrade is bound for Holland.”
“What then? ah, a letter! a letter to Margaret! but will he be so good, so kind?”
The soldier with a torrent of blasphemy informed him he would not only take it, but go a league or two out of his way to do it.
In an instant out came inkhorn and paper from Gerard’s wallet; and he wrote a long letter to Margaret, and told her briefly what I fear I have spun too tediously; dwelt most on the bear, and the plunge in the Rhine, and the character of Denys, whom he painted to the life. And with many endearing expressions bade her to be of good cheer; some trouble and peril there had been, but all that was over now, and his only grief left was, that he could not hope to have a word from her hand till he should reach Rome. He ended with comforting her again as hard as he could. And so absorbed was he in his love and his work, that he did not see all the people in the room were standing peeping, to watch the nimble and true finger execute such rare penmanship.
Denys, proud of his friend’s skill, let him alone, till presently the writer’s face worked, and soon the scalding tears began to run down his young cheeks, one after another, on the paper where he was then writing comfort, comfort. Then Denys rudely repulsed the curious, and asked his comrade with a faltering voice whether he had the heart to let so sweet a love-letter miscarry? The other swore by the face of St. Luke he would lose the forefinger of his right hand sooner.
Seeing him so ready, Gerard charged him also with a short, cold letter to his parents; and in it he drew hastily with his pen two hands grasping each other, to signify farewell. By-the-by, one drop of bitterness found its way into his letter to Margaret. But of that anon.
Gerard now offered money to the soldier. He hesitated, but declined it. “No, no! art comrade of my comrade; and may” (etc.) “but thy love for the wench touches me. I’ll break another bottle at thy charge an thou wilt, and so cry quits.”
“Well said, comrade,” cried Denys. “Hadst taken money, I had invited thee to walk in the courtyard and cross swords with me.”
“Whereupon I had cut thy comb for thee,” retorted the other.
“Hadst done thy endeavour, drole, I doubt not.”
They drank the new bottle, shook hands, adhered to custom, and parted on opposite routes.
This delay, however, somewhat put out Denys’s calculations, and evening surprised them ere they reached a little town he was making for, where was a famous hotel. However, they fell in with a roadside auberge, and Denys, seeing a buxom girl at the door, said, “This seems a decent inn,” and led the way into the kitchen. They ordered supper, to which no objection was raised, only the landlord requested them to pay for it beforehand. It was not an uncommon proposal in any part of the world. Still it was not universal, and Denys was nettled, and dashed his hand somewhat ostentatiously into his purse and pulled out a gold angel. “Count me the change, and speedily,” said he. “You tavern-keepers are more likely to rob me than I you.”
While the supper was preparing, Denys disappeared, and was eventually found by Gerard in the yard, helping Manon, his plump but not bright decoy duck, to draw water, and pouring extravagant compliments into her dullish ear. Gerard grunted and returned to table, but Denys did not come in for a good quarter of an hour.
“Uphill work at the end of a march,” said he, shrugging his shoulders.
“What matters that to you!” said Gerard drily. “The mad dog bites all the world.”
“Exaggerator. You know I bite but the fairer half. Well, here comes supper; that is better worth biting.”
During supper the girl kept constantly coming in and out, and looking point-blank at them, especially at Denys; and at last in leaning over him to remove a dish, dropped a word in his ear; and he replied with a nod.
As soon as supper was cleared away, Denys rose and strolled to the door, telling Gerard the sullen fair had relented, and given him a little rendezvous in the stable-yard.
Gerard suggested that the calf-pen would have been a more appropriate locality. “I shall go to bed, then,” said he, a little crossly. “Where is the landlord? out at this time of night? no matter. I know our room. Shall you be long, pray?”
“Not I. I grudge leaving the fire and thee. But what can I do? There are two sorts of invitations a Burgundian never declines.”
Denys found a figure seated by the well. It was Manon; but instead of receiving him as he thought he had a right to expect, coming by invitation, all she did was to sob. He asked her what ailed her? She sobbed. Could he do anything for her? She sobbed.
The good-natured Denys, driven to his wits’ end, which was no great distance, proffered the custom of the country by way of consolation. She repulsed him roughly. “Is it a time for fooling?” said she, and sobbed.
“You seem to think so,” said Denys, waxing wroth. But the next moment he added tenderly, “and I, who could never bear to see beauty in distress.”
“It is not for myself.”
“Who then? your sweetheart?”
“Oh, que nenni. My sweetheart is not on earth now: and to think I have not an ecu to buy masses for his soul;” and in this shallow nature the grief seemed now to be all turned in another direction.
“Come, come,” said Denys, “shalt have money to buy masses for thy dead lad; I swear it. Meantime tell me why you weep.”
“For me? Art mad?”
“No; I am not mad. ’Tis you that were mad to open your purse before him.”
The mystery seemed to thicken, and Denys, wearied of stirring up the mud by questions, held his peace to see if it would not clear of itself. Then the girl, finding herself no longer questioned, seemed to go through some internal combat. At last she said, doggedly and aloud, “I will. The Virgin give me courage? What matters it if they kill me, since he is dead? Soldier, the landlord is out.”
“Oh, is he?”
“What, do landlords leave their taverns at this time of night? also see what a tempest! We are sheltered here, but t’other side it blows a hurricane.”
Denys said nothing.
“He is gone to fetch the band.”
“The band! what band?”
“Those who will cut your throat and take your gold. Wretched man; to go and shake gold in an innkeeper’s face!”
The blow came so unexpectedly it staggered even Denys, accustomed as he was to sudden perils. He muttered a single word, but in it a volume.
“Gerard! What is that? Oh, ’tis thy comrade’s name, poor lad. Get him out quick ere they come; and fly to the next town.”
“They will kill me.”
“That shall they not. Fly with us.”
“’Twill avail me nought: one of the band will be sent to kill me. They are sworn to slay all who betray them.”
“I’ll take thee to my native place full thirty leagues from hence, and put thee under my own mother’s wing, ere they shall hurt a hair o’ thy head. But first Gerard. Stay thou here whilst I fetch him!”
As he was darting off, the girl seized him convulsively, and with all the iron strength excitement lends to women. “Stay me not! for pity’s sake,” he cried; “’tis life or death.”
“Sh! — sh!” whispered the girl, shutting his mouth hard with her hand, and putting her pale lips close to him, and her eyes, that seemed to turn backwards, straining towards some indistinct sound.
He heard footsteps, many footsteps, and no voices. She whispered in his ear, “They are come.” And trembled like a leaf.
Denys felt it was so. Travellers in that number would never have come in dead silence.
The feet were now at the very door.
“How many?” said he, in a hollow whisper.
“Hush!” and she put her mouth to his very ear. And who, that had seen this man and woman in that attitude, would have guessed what freezing hearts were theirs, and what terrible whispers passed between them?
“Sword and dagger: and the giant with his axe. They call him the Abbot.”
“And my comrade?”
“Nothing can save him. Better lose one life than two. Fly!”
Denys’s blood froze at this cynical advice. “Poor creature, you know not a soldier’s heart.”
He put his head in his hands a moment, and a hundred thoughts of dangers baffled whirled through his brain.
“Listen, girl! There is one chance for our lives, if thou wilt but be true to us. Run to the town; to the nearest tavern, and tell the first soldier there, that a soldier here is sore beset, but armed, and his life to be saved if they will but run. Then to the bailiff. But first to the soldiers. Nay, not a word, but buss me, good lass, and fly! men’s lives hang on thy heels.”
She kilted up her gown to run. He came round to the road with her, saw her cross the road cringing with fear, then glide away, then turn into an erect shadow, then melt away in the storm.
And now he must get to Gerard. But how? He had to run the gauntlet of the whole band. He asked himself, what was the worst thing they could do? for he had learned in war that an enemy does, not what you hope he will do, but what you hope he will not do. “Attack me as I enter the kitchen! Then I must not give them time.”
Just as he drew near to the latch, a terrible thought crossed him. “Suppose they had already dealt with Gerard. Why, then,” thought he, “nought is left but to kill, and be killed;” and he strung his bow, and walked rapidly into the kitchen. There were seven hideous faces seated round the fire, and the landlord pouring them out neat brandy, blood’s forerunner in every age.
“What? company!” cried Denys gaily; “one minute, my lads, and I’ll be with you;” and he snatched up a lighted candle off the table, opened the door that led to the staircase, and went up it hallooing. “What, Gerard! whither hast thou skulked to?” There was no answer. He hallooed louder, “Gerard, where art thou?”
After a moment, in which Denys lived an hour of agony, a peevish, half-inarticulate noise issued from the room at the head of the little stairs. Denys burst in, and there was Gerard asleep.
“Thank God!” he said, in a choking voice, then began to sing loud, untuneful ditties. Gerard put his fingers into his ears; but presently he saw in Denys’s face a horror that contrasted strangely with this sudden merriment.
“What ails thee?” said he, sitting up and staring.
“Hush!” said Denys, and his hand spoke even more plainly than his lips. “Listen to me.”
Denys then pointing significantly to the door, to show Gerard sharp ears were listening hard by, continued his song aloud but under cover of it threw in short muttered syllables.
“(Our lives are in peril.)
“Put off time.” Then aloud —
“Well, now, wilt have t’other bottle? — Say nay.”
“No, not I.”
“But I tell thee, there are half-a-dozen jolly fellows. Tired.”
“Ay, but I am too wearied,” said Gerard. “Go thou.”
“Nay, nay!” Then he went to the door and called out cheerfully “Landlord, the young milksop will not rise. Give those honest fellows t’other bottle. I will pay for’t in the morning.”
He heard a brutal and fierce chuckle.
Having thus by observation made sure the kitchen door was shut, and the miscreants were not actually listening, he examined the chamber door closely: then quietly shut it, but did not bolt it; and went and inspected the window.
It was too small to get out of, and yet a thick bar of iron had been let in the stone to make it smaller; and just as he made this chilling discovery, the outer door of the house was bolted with a loud clang.
Denys groaned. “The beasts are in the shambles.”
But would the thieves attack them while they were awake? Probably not.
Not to throw away this their best chance, the poor souls now made a series of desperate efforts to converse, as if discussing ordinary matters; and by this means Gerard learned all that had passed, and that the girl was gone for aid.
“Pray Heaven she may not lose heart by the way,” said Denys, sorrowfully.
And Denys begged Gerard’s forgiveness for bringing him out of his way for this.
Gerard forgave him.
“I would fear them less, Gerard, but for one they call the Abbot. I picked him out at once. Taller than you, bigger than us both put together. Fights with an axe. Gerard, a man to lead a herd of deer to battle. I shall kill that man to-night, or he will kill me. I think somehow ’tis he will kill me.”
“Saints forbid! Shoot him at the door! What avails his strength against your weapon?”
“I shall pick him out; but if it comes to hand fighting, run swiftly under his guard, or you are a dead man. I tell thee neither of us may stand a blow of that axe: thou never sawest such a body of a man.”
Gerard was for bolting the door; but Denys with a sign showed him that half the door-post turned outward on a hinge, and the great bolt was little more than a blind. “I have forborne to bolt it,” said he, “that they may think us the less suspicious.”
Near an hour rolled away thus. It seemed an age. Yet it was but a little hour, and the town was a league distant. And some of the voices in the kitchen became angry and impatient.
“They will not wait much longer,” said Denys, “and we have no chance at all unless we surprise them.”
“I will do whate’er you bid,” said Gerard meekly.
There was a cupboard on the same side as the door; but between it and the window. It reached nearly to the ground, but not quite. Denys opened the cupboard door and placed Gerard on a chair behind it. “If they run for the bed, strike at the napes of their necks! a sword cut there always kills or disables.” He then arranged the bolsters and their shoes in the bed so as to deceive a person peeping from a distance, and drew the short curtains at the head.
Meantime Gerard was on his knees. Denys looked round and saw him.
“Ah!” said Denys, “above all, pray them to forgive me for bringing you into this guet-apens!”
And now they grasped hands and looked in one another’s eyes oh, such a look! Denys’s hand was cold, and Gerard’s warm.
They took their posts.
Denys blew out the candle.
“We must keep silence now.”
But in the terrible tension of their nerves and very souls they found they could hear a whisper fainter than any man could catch at all outside that door. They could hear each other’s hearts thump at times.
“Good news!” breathed Denys, listening at the door. “They are casting lots.”
“Pray that it may be the Abbot.”
“If he comes alone I can make sure of him.”
“I fear I shall go mad, if they do not come soon.”
“Shall I feign sleep? Shall I snore?”
“Will that ————?
“Do then and God have mercy on us!”
Denys snored at intervals.
There was a scuffling of feet heard in the kitchen, and then all was still.
Denys snored again. Then took up his position behind the door.
But he, or they, who had drawn the lot, seemed determined to run no foolish risks. Nothing was attempted in a hurry.
When they were almost starved with cold, and waiting for the attack, the door on the stairs opened softly and closed again. Nothing more.
There was another harrowing silence.
Then a single light footstep on the stair; and nothing more.
Then a light crept under the door and nothing more.
Presently there was a gentle scratching, not half so loud as a mouse’s, and the false door-post opened by degrees, and left a perpendicular space, through which the light streamed in. The door, had it been bolted, would now have hung by the bare tip of the bolt, which went into the real door-post, but as it was, it swung gently open of itself. It opened inwards, so Denys did not raise his crossbow from the ground, but merely grasped his dagger.
The candle was held up, and shaded from behind by a man’s hand.
He was inspecting the beds from the threshold, satisfied that his victims were both in bed.
The man glided into the apartment. But at the first step something in the position of the cupboard and chair made him uneasy. He ventured no further, but put the candle on the floor and stooped to peer under the chair; but as he stooped, an iron hand grasped his shoulder, and a dagger was driven so fiercely through his neck that the point came out at his gullet. There was a terrible hiccough, but no cry; and half-a-dozen silent strokes followed in swift succession, each a death-blow, and the assassin was laid noiselessly on the floor.
Denys closed the door, bolted it gently, drew the post to, and even while he was going whispered Gerard to bring a chair. It was done.
“Help me set him up.”
“Frighten them! Gain time.”
Even while saying this, Denys had whipped a piece of string round the dead man’s neck, and tied him to the chair, and there the ghastly figure sat fronting the door.
“Denys, I can do better. Saints forgive me!”
“What? Be quick then, we have not many moments.”
And Denys got his crossbow ready, and tearing off his straw mattress, reared it before him and prepared to shoot the moment the door should open, for he had no hope any more would come singly, when they found the first did not return.
While thus employed, Gerard was busy about the seated corpse, and to his amazement Denys saw a luminous glow spreading rapidly over the white face.
Gerard blew out the candle; and on this the corpse’s face shone still more like a glowworm’s head.
Denys shook in his shoes, and his teeth chattered.
“What, in Heaven’s name, is this?” he whispered.
“Hush! ’tis but phosphorus, but ’twill serve.”
“Away! they will surprise thee.”
In fact, uneasy mutterings were heard below, and at last a deep voice said, “What makes him so long? is the drole rifling them?”
It was their comrade they suspected then, not the enemy. Soon a step came softly but rapidly up the stairs: the door was gently tried.
When this resisted, which was clearly not expected, the sham post was very cautiously moved, and an eye no doubt peeped through the aperture: for there was a howl of dismay, and the man was heard to stumble back and burst into the kitchen, here a Babel of voices rose directly on his return.
Gerard ran to the dead thief and began to work on him again.
“Back, madman!” whispered Denys.
“Nay, nay. I know these ignorant brutes; they will not venture here awhile. I can make him ten times more fearful.”
“At least close that opening! Let them not see you at your devilish work.”
Gerard closed the sham post, and in half a minute his brush gave the dead head a sight to strike any man with dismay. He put his art to a strange use, and one unparalleled perhaps in the history of mankind. He illuminated his dead enemy’s face to frighten his living foe: the staring eyeballs he made globes of fire; the teeth he left white, for so they were more terrible by the contrast; but the palate and tongue he tipped with fire, and made one lurid cavern of the red depths the chapfallen jaw revealed: and on the brow he wrote in burning letters “La Mort.” And, while he was doing it, the stout Denys was quaking, and fearing the vengeance of Heaven; for one mans courage is not another’s; and the band of miscreants below were quarrelling and disputing loudly, and now without disguise.
The steps that led down to the kitchen were fifteen, but they were nearly perpendicular: there was therefore in point of fact no distance between the besiegers and besieged, and the latter now caught almost every word. At last one was heard to cry out, “I tell ye the devil has got him and branded him with hellfire. I am more like to leave this cursed house than go again into a room that is full of fiends.”
“Art drunk? or mad? or a coward?” said another.
“Call me a coward, I’ll give thee my dagger’s point, and send thee where Pierre sits o’ fire for ever.
“Come, no quarrelling when work is afoot,” roared a tremendous diapason, “or I’ll brain ye both with my fist, and send ye where we shall all go soon or late.”
“The Abbot,” whispered Denys gravely.
He felt the voice he had just heard could belong to no man but the colossus he had seen in passing through the kitchen. It made the place vibrate. The quarrelling continued some time, and then there was a dead silence.
“Look out, Gerard.”
“Ay. What will they do next?”
“We shall soon know.”
“Shall I wait for you, or cut down the first that opens the door?”
“Wait for me, lest we strike the same and waste a blow. Alas! we cannot afford that.”
Sudden came into the room a thing that made them start and their hearts quiver.
And what was it? A moonbeam.
Even so can this machine, the body, by the soul’s action, be strung up to start and quiver. The sudden ray shot keen and pure into that shamble.
Its calm, cold, silvery soul traversed the apartment in a stream of no great volume, for the window was narrow.
After the first tremor Gerard whispered, “Courage, Denys! God’s eye is on us even here.” And he fell upon his knees with his face turned towards the window.
Ay it was like a holy eye opening suddenly on human crime and human passions. Many a scene of blood and crime that pure cold eye had rested on; but on few more ghastly than this, where two men, with a lighted corpse between them, waited panting, to kill and be killed. Nor did the moonlight deaden that horrible corpse-light. If anything it added to its ghastliness: for the body sat at the edge of the moonbeam, which cut sharp across the shoulder and the ear, and seemed blue and ghastly and unnatural by the side of that lurid glow in which the face and eyes and teeth shone horribly. But Denys dared not look that way.
The moon drew a broad stripe of light across the door, and on that his eyes were glued. Presently he whispered, “Gerard!”
Gerard looked and raised his sword.
Acutely as they had listened, they had heard of late no sound on the stair. Yet therein the door-post, at the edge of the stream of moonlight, were the tips of the fingers of a hand.
The nails glistened.
Presently they began to crawl and crawl down towards the bolt, but with infinite slowness and caution. In so doing they crept into the moonlight. The actual motion was imperceptible, but slowly, slowly, the fingers came out whiter and whiter; but the hand between the main knuckles and the wrist remained dark.
Denys slowly raised his crossbow.
He levelled it. He took a long steady aim.
Gerard palpitated. At last the crossbow twanged. The hand was instantly nailed, with a stern jar, to the quivering door-post. There was a scream of anguish. “Cut,” whispered Denys eagerly, and Gerard’s uplifted sword descended and severed the wrist with two swift blows. A body sank down moaning outside.
The hand remained inside, immovable, with blood trickling from it down the wall. The fierce bolt, slightly barbed, had gone through it and deep into the real door-post.
“Two,” said Denys, with terrible cynicism.
He strung his crossbow, and kneeled behind his cover again.
“The next will be the Abbot.”
The wounded man moved, and presently crawled down to his companions on the stairs, and the kitchen door was shut.
There nothing was heard now but low muttering. The last incident had revealed the mortal character of the weapons used by the besieged.
“I begin to think the Abbot’s stomach is not so great as his body,” said Denys.
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the following events happened all in a couple of seconds. The kitchen door was opened roughly, a heavy but active man darted up the stairs without any manner of disguise, and a single ponderous blow sent the door not only off its hinges, but right across the room on to Denys’s fortification, which it struck so rudely as nearly to lay him flat. And in the doorway stood a colossus with a glittering axe.
He saw the dead man with the moon’s blue light on half his face, and the red light on the other half and inside his chapfallen jaws: he stared, his arms fell, his knees knocked together, and he crouched with terror.
“LA MORT!” he cried, in tones of terror, and turned and fled. In which act Denys started up and shot him through both jaws. He sprang with one bound into the kitchen, and there leaned on his axe, spitting blood and teeth and curses.
Denys strung his bow and put his hand into his breast.
He drew it out dismayed.
“My last bolt is gone,” he groaned.
“But we have our swords, and you have slain the giant.”
“No, Gerard,” said Denys gravely, “I have not. And the worst is I have wounded him. Fool! to shoot at a retreating lion. He had never faced thy handiwork again, but for my meddling.”
“Ha! to your guard! I hear them open the door.”
Then Denys, depressed by the one error he had committed in all this fearful night, felt convinced his last hour had come. He drew his sword, but like one doomed. But what is this? a red light flickers on the ceiling. Gerard flew to the window and looked out. There were men with torches, and breastplates gleaming red. “We are saved! Armed men!” And he dashed his sword through the window shouting, “Quick! quick! we are sore pressed.”
“Back!” yelled Denys; “they come! strike none but him!”
That very moment the Abbot and two men with naked weapons rushed into the room. Even as they came, the outer door was hammered fiercely, and the Abbot’s comrades hearing it, and seeing the torchlight, turned and fled. Not so the terrible Abbot: wild with rage and pain, he spurned his dead comrade, chair and all, across the room, then, as the men faced him on each side with kindling eyeballs, he waved his tremendous axe like a feather right and left, and cleared a space, then lifted it to hew them both in pieces.
His antagonists were inferior in strength, but not in swiftness and daring, and above all they had settled how to attack him. The moment he reared his axe, they flew at him like cats, and both together. If he struck a full blow with his weapon he would most likely kill one, but the other would certainly kill him: he saw this, and intelligent as well as powerful, he thrust the handle fiercely in Denys’s face, and, turning, jobbed with the steel at Gerard. Denys went staggering back covered with blood. Gerard had rushed in like lightning, and, just as the axe turned to descend on him, drove his sword so fiercely through the giant’s body, that the very hilt sounded on his ribs like the blow of a pugilist, and Denys, staggering back to help his friend, saw a steel point come out of the Abbot behind.
The stricken giant bellowed like a bull, dropped his axe, and clutching Gerard’s throat tremendously, shook him like a child. Then Denys with a fierce snarl drove his sword into the giant’s back. “Stand firm now!” and he pushed the cold steel through and through the giant and out at his breast.
Thus horribly spitted on both sides, the Abbot gave a violent shudder, and his heels hammered the ground convulsively. His lips, fast turning blue, opened wide and deep, and he cried, “LA MORT!-LA MORT!-LA MORT!!” the first time in a roar of despair, and then twice in a horror-stricken whisper, never to be forgotten.
Just then the street door was forced.
Suddenly the Abbot’s arms whirled like windmills, and his huge body wrenched wildly and carried them to the doorway, twisting their wrists and nearly throwing them off their legs.
“He’ll win clear yet,” cried Denys: “out steel! and in again!”
They tore out their smoking swords, but ere they could stab again, the Abbot leaped full five feet high, and fell with a tremendous crash against the door below, carrying it away with him like a sheet of paper, and through the aperture the glare of torches burst on the awe-struck faces above, half blinding them.
The thieves at the first alarm had made for the back door, but driven thence by a strong guard ran back to the kitchen, just in time to see the lock forced out of the socket, and half-a-dozen mailed archers burst in upon them. On these in pure despair they drew their swords.
But ere a blow was struck on either side, the staircase door behind them was battered into their midst with one ponderous blow, and with it the Abbot’s body came flying, hurled as they thought by no mortal hand, and rolled on the floor spouting blood from back and bosom in two furious jets, and quivered, but breathed no more.
The thieves smitten with dismay fell on their knees directly, and the archers bound them, while, above, the rescued ones still stood like statues rooted to the spot, their dripping swords extended in the red torchlight, expecting their indomitable enemy to leap back on them as wonderfully as he had gone.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12