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The Pomp of the Lavilettes (Chapter8)

2006-08-28 14:28

  Volume 1 Chapter VIII

  The weeks went by. Sophie had become the wife of the member for the country, and had instantly settled down to a quiet life. This was disconcerting to Madame Lavilette, who had hoped that out of Farcinelle's official position she might reap some praise and pence of ambition. Meanwhile, Ferrol became more and more a cherished and important figure in the Manor Casimbault, where the Lavilettes had made their home soon after the wedding. The old farmhouse had also secretly become a rendezvous for the mysterious Nicolas Lavilette and his rebel comrades. This was known to Mr. Ferrol. One evening he stopped Nic as he was leaving the house, and said:

  "See, Nic, my boy, what's up? I know a thing or so——what's the use of playing peek-a-boo?"

  "What do you know, Ferrol?"

  "What's between you and Vanne Castine, for instance. Come, now, own up and tell me all about it. I'm British; but I'm Nic Lavilette's friend anyhow."

  He insinuated into his tone that little touch of brogue which he used when particularly persuasive. Nic put out his hand with a burst of good- natured frankness.

  "Meet me in the store-room of the old farmhouse at nine o'clock, and I'll tell you. Here's a key." Handing over the key, he grasped Ferrol's hand with an effusive confidence, and hurried out. Nic Lavilette was now an important person in his own sight and in the sight of others in Bonaventure. In him the pomp of his family took an individual form.

  Earlier than the appointed time, Ferrol turned the key and stepped inside the big despoiled hallway of the old farmhouse. His footsteps sounded hollow in the empty rooms. Already dust had gathered, and an air of desertion and decay filled the place in spite of the solid timbers and sound floors and window-sills. He took out his watch; it was ten minutes to nine. Passing through the little hallway to the store-room, he opened the door. It was dark inside. Striking a match, he saw a candle on the window-sill, and, going to it, he lighted it with a flint and steel lying near. The window was shut tight. From curiosity only he tried to open the shutter, but it was immovable. Looking round, he saw another candle on the window-sill opposite. He lighted it also, and mechanically tried to force the shutters of the window, but they were tight also.

  Going to the door, which opened into the farmyard, he found it securely fastened. Although he turned the lock, the door would not open.

  Presently his attention was drawn by the glitter of something upon one of the crosspieces of timber halfway up the wall. Going over, he examined it, and found it to be a broken bayonet——left there by a careless rebel. Placing the steel again upon the ledge, he began walking up and down thoughtfully.

  Presently he was seized with a fit of coughing. The paroxysm lasted a minute or more, and he placed his arm upon the window-sill, leaning his head upon it. Presently, as the paroxysm lessened, he thought he heard the click of a lock. He raised his head, but his eyes were misty, and, seeing nothing, he leaned his head on his arm again.

  Suddenly he felt something near him. He swung round swiftly, and saw Vanne Castine's bear not fifteen-feet away from him! It raised itself on its hind legs, its red eyes rolling, and started towards him. He picked up the candle from the window-sill, threw it in the animal's face, and dashed towards the door.

  It was locked. He swung round. The huge beast, with a loud snarl, was coming down upon him.

  Here he was, shut within four solid walls, with a wild beast hungry for his life. All his instincts were alive. He had little hope of saving himself, but he was determined to do what lay in his power.

  His first impulse was to blow out the other candle. That would leave him in the dark, and it struck him that his advantage would be greater if there were no light. He came straight towards the bear, then suddenly made a swift movement to the left, trusting to his greater quickness of movement. The beast was nearly as quick as he, and as he dashed along the wall towards the candle, he could hear its breath just behind him.

  As he passed the window, he caught the candle in his hands, and was about to throw it on the floor or in the bear's face, when he remembered that, in the dark, the bear's sense of smell would be as effective as eyesight, while he himself would be no better off.

  He ran suddenly to the centre of the room, the candle still in his hand, and turned to meet his foe. It came savagely at him. He dodged, ran past it, turned, doubled on it, and dodged again. A half-dozen times this was repeated, the candle still flaring. It could not last long. The bear was enraged. Its movements became swifter, its vicious teeth and lips were covered with froth, which dripped to the floor, and sometimes spattered Ferrol's clothes as he ran past. No matador ever played with the horns of a mad bull as Ferrol played his deadly game with Michael, the dancing bear. His breath was becoming shorter and shorter; he had a stifling sensation, a terrible tightness across his chest. He did not cough, however, but once or twice he tasted warm drops of his heart's blood in his mouth. Once he drew the back of his hand across his lips mechanically, and a red stain showed upon it.

  In his boyhood and early manhood he had been a good sportsman; had been quick of eye, swift of foot, and fearless. But what could fearlessness avail him in this strait? With the best of rifles he would have felt himself at a disadvantage. He was certain his time had come; and with that conviction upon him, the terror of the thing and the horrible physical shrinking almost passed away from him. The disease, eating away his life, had diminished that revolt against death which is in the healthy flesh of every man. He was levying upon the vital forces remaining in him, which, distributed naturally, might cover a year or so, to give him here and now a few moments of unnatural strength for the completion of a hopeless struggle.

  It was also as if two brains in him were working: one busy with all the chances and details of his wild contest, the other with the events of his life.

  Pictures flashed before him. Some having to do with the earliest days of his childhood; some with fighting on the Danube, before he left the army, impoverished and ashamed; some with idle hours in the North Tower in Stavely Castle; and one with the day he and his sister left the old castle, never to return, and looked back upon it from the top of Farcalladen Moor, waving a "God bless you" to it. The thought of his sister filled him with a desire, a pitiful desire to live.

  Just then another picture flashed before his eyes. It was he himself, riding the mad stallion, Bolingbroke, the first year he followed the hounds: how the brute tried to smash his leg against a stone wall; how it reared until it almost toppled over and backwards; how it jibbed at a gate, and nearly dashed its own brains out against a tree; and how, after an hour's hard fighting, he made it take the stiffest fence and water- course in the county.

  This thought gave him courage now. He suddenly remembered the broken bayonet upon the ledge against the wall. If he could reach it there might be a chance——chance to strike one blow for life. As his eye glanced towards the wall he saw the steel flash in the light of the candle.

  The bear was between him and it. He made a feint towards the left, then as quickly to the right. But doing so, he slipped and fell. The candle dropped to the floor and went out. With a lightning-like instinct of self-preservation he swung over upon his face just as the bear, in its wild rush, passed over his head. He remembered afterwards the odour of the hot, rank body, and the sprawling huge feet and claws. Scrambling to his feet swiftly, he ran to the wall. Fortune was with him. His hand almost instantly clutched the broken bayonet. He whipped out his handkerchief, tore the scarf from his neck, and wound them around his hand, that the broken bayonet should not tear the flesh as he fought for his life; then, seizing it, he stood waiting for the bear to come on. His body was bent forwards, his eyes straining into the dark, his hot face dripping, dripping sweat, his breath coming hard and laboured from his throat.

  For a minute there was absolute silence, save for the breathing of the man and the savage panting of the beast. Presently he felt exactly where the bear was, and listened intently. He knew that it was now but a question of minutes, perhaps seconds. Suddenly it occurred to him that if he could but climb upon the ledge where the bayonet had been, there might be safety. Yet again, in getting up, the bear might seize him, and there would be an end to all immediately. It was worth trying, however.

  Two things happened at that moment to prevent the trial: the sound of knocking on a door somewhere, and the roaring rush of the bear upon him. He sprang to one side, striking at the beast as he did so. The bayonet went in and out again. There came voices from the outside; evidently somebody was trying to get in.

  The bear roared again and came on. It was all a blind man's game. But his scent, like the animal's, was keen. He had taken off his coat, and he now swung it out before him in a half-circle, and as it struck the bear it covered his own position. He swung aside once more and drove his arm into the dark. The bayonet struck the nose of the beast.

  Now there was a knocking and a hammering at the window, and the wrenching of the shutters. He gathered himself together for the next assault. Suddenly he felt that every particle of strength had gone out of him. He pulled himself up with a last effort. His legs would not support him; he shivered and swayed. God, would they never get that window open!

  His senses were abnormally acute. Another sound attracted him: the opening of the door, and a voice——Vanne Castine's——calling to the bear.

  His heart seemed to give a leap, then slowly to roll over with a thud, and he fell to the floor as the bear lunged forwards upon him.

  A minute afterwards Vanne Castine was goading the savage beast through the door and out to the hallway into the yard as Nic swung through the open window into the room.

  Castine's lantern stood in the middle of the floor, and between it and the window lay Ferrol, the broken bayonet still clutched in his right hand. Lavilette dropped on his knees beside him and felt his heart. It was beating, but the shirt and the waistcoat were dripping with blood where the bear had set its claws and teeth in the shoulder of its victim.

  An hour later Nic Lavilette stood outside the door of Ferrol's bedroom in the Manor Casimbault, talking to the Regimental Surgeon, as Christine, pale and wildeyed, came running towards them.

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