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The Pomp of the Lavilettes (Chapter20)

2006-08-28 14:32

  Volume 2 Chapter XX

  An hour later he stood among a few companies of British soldiers in front of the massive stone store-house of the Lavilettes' abandoned farmhouse, with its thick shuttered windows and its solid oak doors. It was too late to attempt the fugitive's escape, save by strategy. Over half an hour Nic had kept them at bay. He had made loopholes in the shutters and the door, and from these he fired upon his assailants. Already he had wounded five and killed two.

  Men had been sent for timber to batter down the door and windows. Meanwhile, the troops stood at a respectful distance, out of the range of Nic's firing, awaiting developments.

  Ferrol consulted with the officers, advising a truce and parley, offering himself as mediator to induce Nic to surrender. To this the officers assented, but warned him that his life might pay the price of his temerity. He laughed at this. He had been talking, with his head and throat well muffled, and the collar of his greatcoat drawn about his ears. Once or twice he coughed, a hacking, wrenching cough, which struck the ears of more than one of the officers painfully; for they had known him in his best and gayest days at Quebec.

  It was arranged that he should advance, holding out a flag of truce. Before he went he drew aside one of the younger lieutenants, in whose home at Quebec his sister had always been a welcome visitor, and told him briefly the story of his marriage, of his wife and of Nicolas. He sent Christine a message, that she should not forget to carry his last token to his sister! Then turning, he muffled up his face against the crisp, harsh air (there was design in this also), and, waving a white handkerchief, advanced to the door of the store-room.

  The soldiers waited anxiously, fearing that Nic would fire, in spite of all; but presently a spot of white appeared at one of the loopholes; then the door was slowly opened. Ferrol entered, and it was closed again.

  Nicolas Lavilette grasped his hand.

  "I knew you wouldn't go back on me," said he. "I knew you were my friend. What the devil do they want out there?"

  "I am more than your friend: I'm your brother," answered Ferrol, meaningly. Then, quickly taking off his greatcoat, cap, muffler and boots: "Quick, on with these!" he said. "There's no time to lose!"

  "What's all this?" asked Nic.

  "Never mind; do exactly as I say, and there's a chance for you."

  Nic put on the overcoat. Ferrol placed the cap on his head, and muffled him up exactly as he himself had been, then made him put on his own top- boots.

  "Now, see," he said, "everything depends upon how you do this thing. You are about my height. Pass yourself off for me. Walk loose and long as I do, and cough like me as you go."

  There was no difficulty in showing him what the cough was like: he involuntarily offered an illustration as he spoke.

  "As soon as I shut the door and you start forward, I'll fire on them. That'll divert their attention from you. They'll take you for me, and think I've failed in persuading you to give yourself up. Go straight on- don't hurry——coughing all the time; and if you can make the dark, just beyond the soldiers, by the garden bench, you'll find two men. They'll help you. Make for the big tree on the Seigneury road——you know: where you were robbed. There you'll find the fastest horse from your father's stables. Then ride, my boy, ride for your life to the State of New York!"

  "And you——you?" asked Nicolas. Ferrol laughed.

  "You needn't worry about me, Nic. I'll get out of this all right; as right as rain! Are you ready? Steady now, steady. Let me hear you cough." Nic coughed.

  "No, that isn't it. Listen and watch." Ferrol coughed. "Here," he said, taking something from his pocket, "open your mouth." He threw some pepper down the other's throat. "Now try it."

  Nic coughed almost convulsively.

  "Yes, that's it, that's it! Just keep that up. Come along now. Quick- not a moment to lose! Steady! You're all right, my boy; you've got nerve, and that's the thing. Good-bye, Nic, good luck to you!"

  They grasped hands: the door opened swiftly, and Nic stepped outside. In an instant Ferrol was at the loophole. Raising a rifle, he fired, then again and again. Through the loophole he could see a half-dozen men lift a log to advance on the door as Nic passed a couple of officers, coughing hard, and making spasmodic motions with his hand, as though exhausted and unable to speak.

  He fired again, and a soldier fell. The lust of fighting was on him now. It was not a question of country or of race, but only a man crowding the power of old instincts into the last moments of his life. The vigour and valour of a reconquered youth seemed to inspire him; he felt as he did when a mere boy fighting on the Danube. His blood rioted in his veins; his eyes flashed. He lifted the flask of whiskey and gulped down great mouthfuls of it, and fired again and again, laughing madly.

  "Let them come on, let them come on," he cried. "By God, I'll settle them!" The frenzy of war possessed him. He heard the timber crash against the door——once, twice, thrice, and then give away. He swung round and saw men's faces glowing in the light of the fire, and then another face shot in before the others——that of Vanne Castine.

  With a cry of fury he ran forward into the doorway. Castine saw him at the same moment. With a similar instinct each sprang for the other's throat, Castine with a knife in his hand.

  A cry of astonishment went up from the officers and the men without. They had expected to see Nic; but Nic was on his way to the horse beneath the great elm tree, and from the elm tree to the State of New York——and safety.

  The men and the officers fell back as Castine and Ferrol clinched in a death struggle. Ferrol knew that his end had come. He had expected it, hoped for it. But, before the end, he wanted to kill this man, if he could. He caught Castine's head in his hands, and, with a last effort, twisted it back with a sudden jerk.

  All at once, with the effort, blood spurted from his mouth into the other's face. He shivered, tottered and fell back, as Castine struck blindly into space. For a moment Ferrol swayed back and forth, stretched out his hands convulsively and gasped, trying to speak, the blood welling from his lips. His eyes were wild, anxious and yearning, his face deadly pale and covered with a cold sweat. Presently he collapsed, like a loosened bundle, upon the steps.

  Castine, blinded with blood, turned round, and the light of the fire upon his open mouth made him appear to grin painfully——an involuntary grimace of terror.

  At that instant a rifle shot rang out from the shrubbery, and Castine sprang from the ground and fell at Ferrol's feet. Then, with a contortive shudder, he rolled over and over the steps, and lay face downward upon the ground-dead.

  A girl ran forward from the trees, with a cry, pushing her way through to Ferrol's body. Lifting up his head, she called to him in an agony of entreaty. But he made no answer.

  "That's the woman who fired the shot!" said a subaltern officer excitedly. "I saw her!"

  "Shut up, you fool——it was his wife!" exclaimed the young captain to whom Ferrol had given his last message for Christine.

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