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Under the Red Robe (Chapter2)

2006-08-22 21:48

  Chapter II. At the Green Pillar

  Cocheforet lies in a billowy land of oak and beech and chestnuts ——a land of deep, leafy bottoms and hills clothed with forest. Ridge and valley, glen and knoll, the woodland, sparsely peopled and more sparsely tilled, stretches away to the great snow mountains that here limit France. It swarms with game——with wolves and bears, deer and boars. To the end of his life I have heard that the great king loved this district, and would sigh, when years and State fell heavily on him, for the beech groves and box-covered hills of South Bearn. From the terraced steps of Auch you can see the forest roll away in light and shadow, vale and upland, to the base of the snow peaks; and, though I come from Brittany and love the smell of the salt wind, I have seen few sights that outdo this.

  It was the second week of October, when I came to Cocheforet, and, dropping down from the last wooded brow, rode quietly into the place at evening. I was alone, and had ridden all day in a glory of ruddy beech leaves, through the silence of forest roads, across clear brooks and glades still green. I had seen more of the quiet and peace of the country than had been my share since boyhood, and for that reason, or because I had no great taste for the task before me——the task now so imminent——I felt a little hipped. In good faith, it was not a gentleman's work that I was come to do, look at it how you might.

  But beggars must not be choosers, and I knew that this feeling would not last. At the inn, in the presence of others, under the spur of necessity, or in the excitement of the chase, were that once begun, I should lose the feeling. When a man is young he seeks solitude, when he is middle-aged, he flies it and his thoughts. I made therefore for the 'Green Pillar,' a little inn in the village street, to which I had been directed at Auch, and, thundering on the door with the knob of my riding switch, railed at the man for keeping me waiting.

  Here and there at hovel doors in the street——which was a mean, poor place, not worthy of the name——men and women looked out at me suspiciously. But I affected to ignore them; and at last the host came. He was a fair-haired man, half-Basque, half- Frenchman, and had scanned me well, I was sure, through some window or peephole; for when he came out he betrayed no surprise at the sight of a well-dressed stranger——a portent in that out- of-the-way village——but eyed me with a kind of sullen reserve.

  'I can lie here to-night, I suppose?' I said, dropping the reins on the sorrel's neck. The horse hung its head.

  'I don't know,' he answered stupidly.

  I pointed to the green bough which topped a post that stood opposite the door.

  'This is an inn, is it not?' I said.

  'Yes,' he answered slowly. 'It is an inn. But——'

  'But you are full, or you are out of food, or your wife is ill, or something else is amiss,' I answered peevishly. 'All the same, I am going to lie here. So you must make the best of it, and your wife too——if you have one.'

  He scratched his head, looking at me with an ugly glitter in his eyes. But he said nothing, and I dismounted.

  'Where can I stable my horse?' I asked.

  'I'll put it up,' he answered sullenly, stepping forward and taking the reins in his hand.

  'Very well,' I said. 'But I go with you. A merciful man is merciful to his beast, and wherever I go I see my horse fed.'

  'It will be fed,' he said shortly. And then he waited for me to go into the house. 'The wife is in there,' he continued, looking at me stubbornly.

  'Imprimis——if you understand Latin, my friend,' I answered. 'the horse in the stall.'

  He saw that it was no good, turned the sorrel slowly round, and began to lead it across the village street. There was a shed behind the inn, which I had already marked, and taken for the stable, I was surprised when I found that he was not going there, but I made no remark, and in a few minutes saw the horse made comfortable in a hovel which seemed to belong to a neighbour.

  This done, the man led the way back to the inn, carrying my valise.

  'You have no other guests?' I said, with a casual air. I knew that he was watching me closely.

  'No,' he answered.

  'This is not much in the way to anywhere, I suppose?'

  'No.'

  That was so evident, that I never saw a more retired place. The hanging woods, rising steeply to a great height, so shut the valley in that I was puzzled to think how a man could leave it save by the road I had come. The cottages, which were no more than mean, small huts, ran in a straggling double line, with many gaps——through fallen trees and ill-cleared meadows. Among them a noisy brook ran in and out, and the inhabitants——charcoal- burners, or swine-herds, or poor devils of the like class, were no better than their dwellings. I looked in vain for the Chateau. It was not to be seen, and I dared not ask for it.

  The man led me into the common room of the tavern——a low-roofed, poor place, lacking a chimney or glazed windows, and grimy with smoke and use. The fire——a great half-burned tree——smouldered on a stone hearth, raised a foot from the floor. A huge black pot simmered over it, and beside one window lounged a country fellow talking with the goodwife. In the dusk I could not see his face, but I gave the woman a word, and sat down to wait for my supper.

  She seemed more silent than the common run of her kind; but this might be because her husband was present. While she moved about getting my meal, he took his place against the door-post and fell to staring at me so persistently that I felt by no means at my ease. He was a tall, strong fellow, with a shaggy moustache and brown beard, cut in the mode Henri Quatre; and on the subject of that king——a safe one, I knew, with a Bearnais——and on that alone, I found it possible to make him talk. Even then there was a suspicious gleam in his eyes that bade me abstain from questions; so that as the darkness deepened behind him, and the firelight played more and more strongly on his features, and I thought of the leagues of woodland that lay between this remote valley and Auch, I recalled the Cardinal's warning that if I failed in my attempt I should be little likely to trouble Paris again.

  The lout by the window paid no attention to me; nor I to him, when I had once satisfied myself that he was really what he seemed to be. But by-and-by two or three men——rough, uncouth fellows——dropped in to reinforce the landlord, and they, too seemed to have no other business than to sit in silence looking at me, or now and again to exchange a word in a patois of their own. By the time my supper was ready, the knaves numbered six in all; and, as they were armed to a man with huge Spanish knives, and made it clear that they resented my presence in their dull rustic fashion——every rustic is suspicious——I began to think that, unwittingly, I had put my head into a wasps' nest.

  Nevertheless, I ate and drank with apparent appetite; but little that passed within the circle of light cast by the smoky lamp escaped me. I watched the men's looks and gestures at least as sharply as they watched mine; and all the time I was racking my wits for some mode of disarming their suspicions, or failing that, of learning something more of the position, which far exceeded in difficulty and danger anything that I had expected. The whole valley, it would seem, was on the look-out to protect my man!

  I had purposely brought with me from Auch a couple of bottles of choice Armagnac; and these had been carried into the house with my saddle bags. I took one out now and opened it and carelessly offered a dram of the spirit to the landlord. He took it. As he drank it, I saw his face flush; he handed back the cup reluctantly, and on that hint I offered him another, The strong spirit was already beginning to work, and he accepted, and in a few minutes began to talk more freely and with less of the constraint which had before marked us all. Still, his tongue ran chiefly on questions——he would know this, he would learn that; but even this was a welcome change. I told him openly whence I had come, by what road, how long I had stayed in Auch, and where; and so far I satisfied his curiosity. Only, when I came to the subject of my visit to Cocheforet I kept a mysterious silence, hinting darkly at business in Spain and friends across the border, and this and that; in this way giving the peasants to understand, if they pleased, that I was in the same interest as their exiled master.

  They took the bait, winked at one another, and began to look at me in a more friendly way——the landlord foremost. But when I had led them so far, I dared go no farther, lest I should commit myself and be found out. I stopped, therefore, and, harking back to general subjects, chanced to compare my province with theirs. The landlord, now become almost talkative, was not slow to take up this challenge; and it presently led to my acquiring a curious piece of knowledge. He was boasting of his great snow mountains, the forests that propped them, the bears that roamed in them, the izards that loved the ice, and the boars that fed on the oak mast.

  'Well,' I said, quite by chance, 'we have not these things, it is true. But we have things in the north you have not. We have tens of thousands of good horses——not such ponies as you breed here. At the horse fair at Fecamp my sorrel would be lost in the crowd. Here in the south you will not meet his match in a long day's journey.'

  'Do not make too sure of that,' the man replied, his eyes bright with triumph and the dram. 'What would you say if I showed you a better——in my own stable?'

  I saw that his words sent a kind of thrill through his other hearers, and that such of them as understood for two or three of them talked their patois only——looked at him angrily; and in a twinkling I began to comprehend. But I affected dullness, and laughed in scorn.

  'Seeing is believing,' I said. 'I doubt if you knows good horse when you see one, my friend.'

  'Oh, don't I?' he said, winking. 'Indeed!'

  'I doubt it,' I answered stubbornly.

  'Then come with me, and I will show you one,' he retorted, discretion giving way to vain-glory. His wife and the others, I saw, looked at him dumbfounded; but, without paying any heed to them, he rose, took up a lanthorn, and, assuming an air of peculiar wisdom, opened the door. 'Come with me,' he continued. 'I don't know a good horse when I see one, don't I? I know a better than yours, at anyrate!'

  I should not have been surprised if the other men had interfered; but I suppose he was a leader among them, they did not, and in a moment we were outside. Three paces through the darkness took us to the stable, an offset at the back of the inn. My man twirled the pin, and, leading the way in, raised his lanthorn. A horse whinnied softly, and turned its bright, mild eyes on us——a baldfaced chestnut, with white hairs in its tail and one white stocking.

  'There!' my guide exclaimed, waving the lanthorn to and fro boastfully, that I might see its points. 'What do you say to that? Is that an undersized pony?'

  'No,' I answered, purposely stinting my praise. 'It is pretty fair——for this country.'

  'Or any country,' he answered wrathfully. 'Or any country, I say——I don't care where it is! And I have reason to know! Why, man, that horse is——But there, that is a good horse, if ever you saw one!' And with that he ended——abruptly and lamely; lowered the lanthorn with a sudden gesture, and turned to the door. He was on the instant in such hurry to leave that he almost shouldered me out.

  But I understood. I knew that he had neatly betrayed all——that he had been on the point of blurting out that that was M. de Cocheforet's horse! M. Cocheforet's comprenez bien! And while I turned away my face in the darkness that he might not see me smile, I was not surprised to find the man in a moment changed, and become, in the closing of the door, as sober and suspicious as before, ashamed of himself and enraged with me, and in a mood to cut my throat for a trifle.

  It was not my cue to quarrel, however. I made therefore, as if I had seen nothing, and when we were back in the inn praised the horse grudgingly, and like a man but half convinced. The ugly looks and ugly weapons I saw round me were fine incentives to caution; and no Italian, I flatter myself, could have played his part more nicely than I did. But I was heartily glad when it was over, and I found myself, at last, left alone for the night in a little garret——a mere fowl-house——upstairs, formed by the roof and gable walls, and hung with strings of apples and chestnuts. It was a poor sleeping-place——rough, chilly, and unclean. I ascended to it by a ladder; my cloak and a little fern formed my only bed. But I was glad to accept it, for it enabled me to he alone and to think out the position unwatched.

  Of course M. de Cocheforet was at the Chateau. He had left his horse here, and gone up on foot; probably that was his usual plan. He was therefore within my reach, in one sense——I could not have come at a better time——but in another he was as much beyond it as if I were still in Paris. For so far was I from being able to seize him that I dared not ask a question, or let fall a rash word, or even look about me freely. I saw I dared not. The slightest hint of my mission, the faintest breath of distrust, would lead to throat-cutting——and the throat would be mine; while the longer I lay in the village, the greater suspicion I should incur, and the closer would be the watch kept upon me.

  In such a position some men might have given up the attempt in despair, and saved themselves across the border. But I have always valued myself on my fidelity, and I did not shrink. If not to-day, to-morrow; if not this time, next time. The dice do not always turn up aces. Bracing myself, therefore, to the occasion, I crept, as soon as the house was quiet, to the window, a small, square, open lattice, much cobwebbed, and partly stuffed with hay. I looked out. The village seemed to be asleep. The dark branches of trees hung a few feet away, and almost obscured a grey, cloudy sky, through which a wet moon sailed drearily. Looking downwards, I could at first see nothing; but as my eyes grew used to the darkness——I had only just put out my rushlight—— I made out the stable door and the shadowy outlines of the lean-to roof.

  I had hoped for this, for I could now keep watch, and learn at least whether Cocheforet left before morning. If he did not, I should know he was still here. If he did, I should be the better for seeing his features, and learning, perhaps, other things that might be of use to me in the future.

  Making up my mind to the uncomfortable, I sat down on the floor by the lattice, and began a vigil that might last, I knew, until morning. It did last about an hour, at the end of which time I heard whispering below, then footsteps; then, as some persons turned a corner, a voice speaking aloud and carelessly. I could not catch the words or meaning, but the voice was a gentleman's, and its bold accents and masterful tone left me in no doubt that the speaker was M. de Cocheforet himself. Hoping to learn more, I pressed my face nearer to the opening, and had just made out through the gloom two figures——one that of a tall, slight man, wearing a cloak, the other, I fancied, a woman's, in a sheeny white dress——when a thundering rap on the door of my garret made me spring back a yard from the lattice, and lie down hurriedly on my couch. The summons was repeated.

  'Well?' I cried, rising on my elbow, and cursing the untimely interruption. I was burning with anxiety to see more. 'What is it? What is the matter?'

  The trap-door was lifted a foot or more. The landlord thrust up his head.

  'You called, did you not?' he said.

  He held up a rushlight, which illumined half the room and lit up his grinning face.

  'Called——at this hour of the night, you fool?' I answered angrily. 'No! I did not call. Go to bed, man!'

  But he remained on the ladder, gaping stupidly. 'I heard you,' he said.

  'Go

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