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
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,
!” 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
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
At a walk, at a trot, more often
at a jaded amble, they pushed on behind Badelon’s
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.
Comte persists in his plan, may reach Vrillac by late
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.
, the road being
Count Hannibal bent his brows.
other way?” he said.
“Is by Commequiers, my lord.
It is shorter
“By how much?”
are fordings and a salt marsh; and with Madame and
“It would be longer?”
The steward hesitated.
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
On the other three sides it lay open.
“Very good,” Tavannes
“Be ready to start in ten
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.
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
the Challans road.
“Ahead of us?”
Tignonville answered, shading his eyes and gazing in
the direction of the fringe of trees.
did not see him take the road, but he was beside the
north end of the wood when I saw him last.
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.
As well as Carlat.”
“Then lead the way, Monsieur,
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.
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
It was not wonderful that they could not
Objects a hundred paces from them
were completely hidden.
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.
La Garnache at last, and
a sharp turn southward to Challans.
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.
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
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
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
Tignonville looked back at her and
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
she espied the wayside chapel at
which the nurse of her early childhood had told her
Where it stood, the road from Commequiers
and the road she travelled became one:
mile thence, after winding among the hillocks, it
ran down to the beach and the causeway
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
“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.
nothing!” he muttered under his breath.
“But look ahead, Madame, and see if we are
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.
towards her, in a lower tone, “If Carlat has
arrived before us, he will have told them,”
“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,
He bit his lip.
have not been overtaken,” he rejoined.
“On the contrary, you have me to thank for something
“As unwelcome, perhaps!” she retorted.
“For what?” she repeated,
refusing to lower her voice.
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.
he continued, a ring of exultation in his voice, “it
will go hard with M.
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
there they are!
He has done well!”
“Ay, there they are!
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
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
“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.
you, Madame, to the rear quickly, and the women with
Now, men, forward, and draw!
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.
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
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
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.
had turned her head, and was looking back, as if thence
only and not from him could help come.
not to him she turned; and he saw it, and the justice
And silent, grim, more formidable even
than old Badelon, the veteran fighter, who knew all
the tricks and shifts of the
, he spurred
to the flank of the line.
“Now, steady!” Badelon
cried again, seeing that the enemy were beginning
God, my lord!
My lord is coming!
Stand!” The distant sound of galloping hoofs
had reached his ear in the nick of time.
stood in his stirrups and looked back.
Hannibal was coming, riding a dozen paces in front
of his men.
The odds were still desperate
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
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,
The others with me!
forward, men, and show your teeth!
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.
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
She held her breath
the shock never come?
If Badelon had not seized
her rein and forced her forward, she would not have
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.
dragged her on with whip and spur, and two horsemen
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
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
to his misfortune.
Yes, through, the way
was clear before them!
The fight with its screams
and curses died away behind them.
swayed and all but sank under them.
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!”
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.
ran through it, a mere thread lipped by the darkling
waves, and at the sight a grunt of relief broke from
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,
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
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
“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.
is some one coming.
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.
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.
he seemed to be dazed, and only babbled strange words
in a strange
She stamped her foot in passion.
“More lights!” she cried.
How can they find their way?
And let six men
go down the
, and meet them.
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
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.
they all waited, the Countess foremost, peering eagerly
into the growing darkness.
They could see nothing.
A distant scuffle, an oath, a cry,
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
or was it a man?
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
night gave up to sight a swarm of dark figures pressing
on them and after them, driving them before them.
Carlat had an inspiration.
he cried; and
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
It was Count Hannibal.
thigh was broken, and there was a lance-head in his
The Countess looked at him, then beyond
him, past him into the darkness.
“Are there no more?” she
Badelon shook his head.
Countess covered her face and wept.