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The Pomp of the Lavilettes (Chapter16)

2006-08-28 14:31

  Volume 2 Chapter XVI

  The fight was over. The childish struggle against misrule had come to a childish end. The little toy loyalists had been broken all to pieces. A few thousand Frenchmen, with a vague patriotism, had shied some harmless stones at the British flag-staff on the citadel: that was all. Obeying the instincts of blood, religion, race, and language, they had made a haphazard, sidelong charge upon their ancient conquerors, had spluttered and kicked a little, and had then turned tail upon disaster and defeat. An incoherent little army had been shattered into fugitive factors, and every one of these hurried and scurried for a hole of safety into which he could hide. Some were mounted, but most were on foot.

  Officers fared little better than men. It was "Save who can": they were all on a dead level of misfortune. Hundreds reached no cover, but were overtaken and driven back to British headquarters. In their terror, twenty brave rebels of two hours ago were to be captured by a single British officer of infantry speaking bad French.

  Two of these hopeless fugitives were still fortunate enough to get a start of the hounds of retaliation and revenge. They were both mounted, and had far to go to reach their destination. Home was the one word in the mind of each; and they both came from Bonaventure.

  The one was a tall, athletic young man, who had borne a captain's commission in Papineau's patriot army. He rode a sorel horse——a great, wiry raw-bone, with a lunge like a moose, and legs that struck the ground with the precision of a piston-rod. As soon as his nose was turned towards Bonaventure he smelt the wind of home in his nostrils; his hatchet head jerked till he got the bit straight between his teeth; then, gripping it as a fretful dog clamps the bone which his master pretends to wrest from him, he leaned down to his work, and the mud, the new-fallen snow and the slush flew like dirty sparks, and covered man and horse.

  Above, an uncertain, watery moon flew in and out among the shifting clouds; and now and then a shot came through the mist and the half dusk, telling of some poor fugitive fighting, overtaken, or killed.

  The horse neither turned head nor slackened gait. He was like a living machine, obeying neither call nor spur, but travelling with an unchanging speed along the level road, and up and down hill, mile after mile.

  In the rider's heart were a hundred things; among them fear, that miserable depression which comes with the first defeats of life, the falling of the mercury from passionate activity to that frozen numbness which betrays the exhausted nerve and despairing mind. The horse could not go fast enough; the panic of flight was on him. He was conscious of it, despised himself for it; but he could not help it. Yet, if he were overtaken, he would fight; yes, fight to the end, whatever it might be. Nicolas Lavilette had begun to unwind the coil of fortune and ambition which his mother had long been engaged in winding.

  A mile or two behind was another horse and another rider. The animal was clean of limb, straight and shapely of body, with a leg like a lady's, and heart and wind to travel till she dropped. This mare the little black notary, Shangois, had cheerfully stolen from beside the tent of the English general. The bridle-rein hung upon the wrist of the notary's palsied left hand, and in his right hand he carried the long sabre of an artillery officer, which he had picked up on the battlefield. He rode like a monkey clinging to the back of a hound, his shoulder hunched, his body bent forward even with the mare's neck, his knees gripping the saddle with a frightened tenacity, his small, black eyes peering into the darkness before him, and his ears alert to the sound of pursuers.

  Twenty men of the British artillery were also off on a chase that pleased them well. The hunt was up. It was not only the joy of killing, but the joy of gain, that spurred them on; for they would have that little black thief who stole the general's brown mare, or they would know the reason why.

  As the night wore on, Lavilette could hear hoof-beats behind him; those of the mare growing clearer and clearer, and those of the artillerymen remaining about the same, monotonously steady. He looked back, and saw the mare lightly leaning to her work, and a little man hanging to her back. He did not know who it was; and if he had known he would have wondered. Shangois had ridden to camp to fetch him back to Bonaventure for two purposes: to secure the five thousand dollars from Ferrol, and to save Nic's sister from marrying a highwayman. These reasons he would have given to Nic Lavilette, but other ulterior and malicious ideas were in his mind. He had no fear, no real fear. His body shrank, but that was because he had been little used to rough riding and to peril. But he loved this game too, though there was a troop of foes behind him; and as long as they rode behind him he would ride on.

  He foresaw a moment when he would stop, slide to the ground, and with his sabre kill one man——or more. Yes, he would kill one man. He had a devilish feeling of delight in thinking how he would do it, and how red the sabre would look when he had done it. He wished he had a hundred hands and a hundred sabres in those hands. More than once he had been in danger of his life, and yet he had had no fear.

  He had in him the power of hatred; and he hated Ferrol as he had never hated anything in his life. He hated him as much as, in a furtive sort of way, he loved the rebellious, primitive and violent Christine.

  As he rode on a hundred fancies passed through his brain, and they all had to do with killing or torturing. As a boy dreams of magnificent deeds of prowess, so he dreamed of deeds of violence and cruelty. In his life he had been secret, not vicious; he had enjoyed the power which comes from holding the secrets of others, and that had given him pleasure enough. But now, as if the true passion, the vital principle, asserted itself at the very last, so with the shadow of death behind him, his real nature was dominant. He was entirely sane, entirely natural, only malicious.

  The night wore on, and lifted higher into the sky, and the grey dawn crept slowly up: first a glimmer, then a neutral glow, then a sort of darkness again, and presently the candid beginning of day.

  As they neared the Parish of Bonaventure, Lavilette looked back again, and saw the little black notary a few hundred yards behind. He recognised him this time, waved a hand, and then called to his own fagged horse. Shangois's mare was not fagged; her heart and body were like steel.

  Not a quarter of a mile behind them both were three of the twenty artillerymen. Lavilette came to the bridge shouting for Baby, the keeper. Baby recognised him, and ran to the lever even as the sorel galloped up. For the first time in the ride, Nic stuck spurs harshly into the sorel's side. With a grunt of pain the horse sprang madly on. A half-dozen leaps more and they were across, even as the bridge began to turn; for Baby had not recognised the little black notary, and supposed him to be one of Nic's pursuers; the others he saw further back in the road. It was only when Shangois was a third of the way across, that he knew the mare's rider. There was no time to turn the bridge back, and there was no time for Shangois to stop the headlong pace of the mare. She gave a wild whinny of fright, and jumped cornerwise, clear out across the chasm, towards the moving bridge. Her front feet struck the timbers, and then, without a cry, mare and rider dropped headlong down to the river beneath, swollen by the autumn rains.

  Baby looked down and saw the mare's head thrust above the water, once, twice; then there was a flash of a sabre——and nothing more.

  Shangois, with his dreams of malice and fighting, and the secrets of a half-dozen parishes strapped to his back, had dropped out of Bonaventure, as a stone crumbles from a bank into a stream, and many waters pass over it, and no one inquires whither it has gone, and no one mourns for it.

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