IT drew towards ten o'clock. The storm had ceased about sunset; the big rock-like clouds had given way to one unvaried covering of grey vapour; the violent rain and thunder had died away in a thin penetrating mist-like shower; and this weather still continued, as if to replace force by pertinacity. The bursts of merriment from the rambling old kitchen came fainter and further between; for one by one the peasants were dropping homewards; and neither the excellence of the wine, nor the excitement of the military talk of the escort, nor the kindness and hearty good-will of Madame Le Brun, could detain the cottagers of Cerisay beyond that, for them, unprecedentedly late hour of the night.
"Well, my children," said Father Laval, rising, "I must wish you good-night. I will come up early in the morning; for it may be long before we meet again."
"Oh, you will come up to breakfast, of course," said Marie; "I am only sorry that you should have to return in such a wet night."
"Oh, my cassock is used to worse rain than this," said the good father, "and I ought to be back, for I have a sick child to look in upon, or at least to inquire after, before I go to bed. You look sufficiently comfortable, I must say, if I had not that duty, to make me willing to stop a few minutes longer with you."
And the priest said but the truth. The winter-parlour was not very large; not larger than a party of three or four might occupy without feeling themselves lost in it. A small, a very small wood fire was burning on the old dogs; for at nightfall the intense heat of the weather had given way to a damp and chilly rawness. At one side of the fire sat Marie, in a low cane arm-chair, striving in vain to make herself feel at home in her own house with the strange consciousness that her husband was at her side, and that henceforth, in resting or in wandering, his home must be hers also. On her right hand, one arm thrown over the back of her chair, was Charles Duchenier, too happy to heed anything except his bride, and, if the truth must be spoken, not taking a particularly brilliant part in the conversation. Then came Father Laval, with his usual expression of half-happy, half-sorrowful calmness. And at his right, and in the opposite corner of the fireplace to that occupied by Marie, sat Rose, happy in the happiness of others, though sometimes musing sadly on the dangers of her father, and her own condition, severed so far, and, as it seemed, so hopelessly, from the home and from the friends of her youth.
"You will be with us, then, to-morrow, father," inquired Marie, "and as early as may be?"
"I will, my daughter; for GOD knows when we may meet again.--M. Duchenier, if you feel the slightest apprehensions that the chateau is insecure for these ladies, it will be very easy, I doubt not, to send you up a dozen of stout fellows from the village, late as it is."
"Oh, no, father; there can be no possible ground for apprehension; and I am sure I should be the first to discover it, if there were. I should only like to see the Blue that would dare to show himself within five miles of us."
"I should not at all, Charles," said Marie, smiling.
"Nor I," said Father Laval, "Well,--good-night, my children; our good Lady watch over you all." And he left the room, Charles Duchenier accompanying him to the door.
"Dear Rose," said Marie, as they were thus left alone for a few moments," I fear we have let you feel too much of a stranger here to-night. I know how strange everything must seem to you."
"Oh, no, you have not," answered Rose. "It does, indeed, seem strange, this change of circumstances; and so, I think, it must do to you."
"Yes," said Marie; "think of our companionship that dreadful night at Saumur, not a fortnight ago; and what have we not to be thankful for now!"
"What, indeed!" returned her fair companion. "I could almost wish, though, that we had been able to reach La Boulaye. These rapid changes, and the dangers we have gone through, make me a very coward."
"Nay, nay, Rose, that you never were, and I do not think ever will be. I, too, could have wished it, had it been possible; but I am sure Charles acted wisely."
"I intended at least to do so," said Duchenier, who at that moment entered the room. "It is a dreadful night still,--the rain seems to me heavier than it was,--and if we had not been able to cross the Sevre, we should have found ourselves in a very unpleasant position indeed."
"But if this weather should continue?" inquired Marie.
"Oh, there is no chance of that. Besides, if it should, we must go round by Chatillon--that is all: only there would not have been time for that this afternoon."
"I am very glad that Madame de Lescure knows where we are," said Marie; "it may save her some uneasiness, and her household some sitting up."
Yes; it was very thoughtful in her to send. I only wonder she thought of sending so soon.--Come in," he added, as a knock was heard at the door.
"Monsieur," he said, "the messenger from La Boulaye has come back again: he cannot cross the Sevre; and he asked me which was the best inn up at the village. But I thought that you would, perhaps, hardly like to send him away, as the night is so bad."
"What say you, dearest?" said Duchenier, smiling; "the house is not mine, you know."
"Oh, let him sleep here, by all means," replied Marie.
"Remember, Texier," said Duchenier, "we know nothing of the man, though I dare say he is an honest fellow enough: best have him put where he can do no harm." And with a "Yes, monsieur," Texier left the room.
Some few minutes afterwards the door opened, and Madame Le Brun made her appearance, followed by a servant with cake and wine. "I thought, madame," she said, "that you and mademoiselle would not be the worse for something to take. I am sure you have had fatigue enough to-day."
"Oh, thank you, Le Brun," answered Marie. "You shall take a glass of wine with us yourself."
"That I will with pleasure, madame,"--and Charles gave her one. "Many happy returns of the day," said the old lady, setting it down. "All the men are on the ground-floor, monsieur, except the young man from La Boulaye, whom I have put up on this side, out of the way; and the house is carefully locked up; for ever since that night we have been very particular."
"And quite right, Madame Le Brun," replied Duchenier; "though there is not the slightest cause for apprehension now. Mademoiselle Le Grand, you must let me give you some wine."
"Just listen to the rain, Charles," said Marie, as it swept against the windows. "Poor Father Laval must have had a miserable walk back."
So the party sat conversing for about a quarter of an hour longer. Madame Le Brun again made her appearance with lights, and escorted the young ladies to their respective apartments; and Charles Duchenier was left alone.
We must now return to the ruffians whom we left in the chestnut wood. By eight o'clock it was duskish, owing to the clouds and rain; and riding out, in miserable plight, from their retreat, they followed the guidance of La Force. Anxious to avoid Cerisay, he led them by the high road to La Grange Neuve; then, turning sharp to the right, he brought them up the hill where De Cailly's troop had thrown the Vendeans into disorder; but, instead of coming up as far as the gate of the avenue, he cut off across the fields, and directing his party to leave their horses in a shed belonging to some outhouses a little way to the east of the chateau, he led them stealthily on, through the shrubberies, and behind the laurel-hedges that skirted the flower-beds, till they were at a distance of not more than a hundred yards from the house itself. By this time it was as dark as it was likely to be,--for it was past nine,--and lights were seen in several of the rooms of the chateau. Nearest and brightest was that in the winter-parlour, which, as the reader will remember, looked towards Bressuire, and consequently faced east. In the back part of the other wing of the house,--which was the housekeeper's room,--there was a steady light; and in one or two of the bedrooms there was an unsteady flickering blaze, as if a fire had been kindled to air them for their unexpected visitors.
Chilled to the very heart with their long exposure to the rain, the party with La Force and Oncques, under the shelter of a laurel-hedge, made their observations on what lay before them. Every now and then a boisterous shout of merriment came from the kitchen and the servants' hall; and once or twice Oncques, the most accustomed among the party to listen for such sounds, fancied he might detect voices in the room nearest to him, the winter-parlour.
"I'll tell you what, La Force," said Oncques in a whisper, "this matter will not be over-safe. We must not delay so long as on other accounts we ought to do, because else we shall not get them clear off before daylight. As soon as ever those riotous fools, whom I take to be the party that came with Duchenier, are quiet, we must see what can be done. I wonder where they will be lodged."
"I wish one of us could get in, and learn somewhat that is going on," observed La Force.
"So do I, with all my heart," answered his friend. "What say you to my getting my horse again, boldly riding up, swearing that I could not cross the Sevre, and asking for a night's lodging?"
"If you can venture to do it, it will be a capital plan. How say you, friends?"
The proposition seemed to meet general approbation. "But I say," proceeded Oncques, "you must keep a sharp look-out round the house for any signal I may be able to make."
"Ay, ay," answered La Force. "They seem to be getting quieter now; and I think we may venture to draw a little closer in:--but whatever you do, lose no time. We have none to spare."
"No, no, I warrant you," said the other. He stole back again to the place where the horses had been left; and in a short time his companions had the satisfaction of hearing him ride up the avenue towards the house. They heard him ring the bell--the door was opened--and he was admitted. Presently the horse was led round to the stables; and all seemed quiet. Another quarter of an hour's waiting changed the appearance of the house. The light in the winter-parlour grew much fainter; for Charles, on being left to his own meditations, had extinguished the wax candles which had been burning on the mantelpiece and on a side table. That in the housekeeper's room went out; but the flickering brilliance in the upper windows was exchanged for a more steady glare, as if the persons who occupied them were retiring to rest. Once or twice a shadow seemed to cross the curtains; and then the light burned clear and uneclipsed again.
La Force now drew up his party close round the house, leaving, as far as his power lay, no side or angle that was not exposed to observation. He himself took up his position right under the eastern parlour, which he judged, and rightly judged, to be the only room where any one was sitting up. "I wonder who that is," thought he to himself. "Colonel Duchenier, I suppose. Well, I trust he will not be long; for we must be doing something quickly. Surely Oncques might have given us some sign by this time." He looked uneasily at the various lights yet remaining. "Three still," he said, "and two of them, I take it, in bedrooms. Well, it cannot be eleven yet.--Hush! what's that?"
As he spoke, he heard an indistinct noise of talking on the southern side of the old part of the house; and he stepped back to the concealment of a thick holly-bush that grew in the middle of the lawn. Presently the man, by name Chemille, who had been left to watch that part, came round the corner, saying cautiously, "La Force! La Force!"
"Here I am," said that personage, emerging from his retreat. "What's the matter?"
"Oncques is up at a little window here, and wants to see you," replied he.
"Thank GOD!" cried La Force. "Pshaw! how strong habit is!--I mean that it is all right." And he followed.
"La Force," said Oncques, looking from a small window on the second storey, "get the men together up to that little door at the corner. It is only bolted inside. I will come down and draw the bolt."
"Run round, Chemille", and bring them here," said La Force. "Make haste, make haste, Oncques."
He waited outside the door; one after another the men came up; and at last a stealthy step was heard inside. The bolt was drawn back, and the whole party entered, and found Oncques, with a light, in the small hall, or vestibule, to which they had gained access.
"It is all safe," said he. "Before I spoke to you, I fastened the door at yonder end of the passage, and so shut off all the servants. They are quite at the other end of the house. If we can do it without any noise, we may have no occasion to interfere with them."
"Where do we go, then?" said La Force.
"I can't tell you how the rooms lie; but this back stair-case leads up to all of them. Was that light out we were looking at?"
"No," answered La Force.
"Colonel Duchenier is up, then. Take off your shoes, every one, and follow me."
He led them along the passage of which he had spoken, then up a short flight of stairs, then motioned to La Force and two others to accompany him, while the rest stayed; and in a moment they were outside the door of the parlour. This room, of which we have spoken so often, lay about half-way up the house; that is, there was a short staircase up to it, and another short staircase to the sleeping-rooms above it. There was a strong rim of light under the door, and no sound whatever in the room.
Having placed the three men there, Oncques returned to the rest, merely saying to those he left, "Take him as he comes out--he will not be long." Then he proceeded, with the remainder of his party, up the flight of stairs which lay to the left, for he was pretty sure that he should find those whom he was seeking in that direction. Indeed, he had been at one time a housebreaker by profession, and had never entirely retired from that occupation; so that he was accustomed, by such lengthened observations without, and such hurried glances within the walls as he had that night obtained, to form a very accurate guess at the respective locality of the rooms.
La Force, after waiting two or three minutes at his post, bethought himself of applying his eye to the keyhole, for the purpose of obtaining some precise information as to its tenant. Kneeling down on one knee, he saw Colonel Duchenier sitting by the now almost expiring fire--a book in his hand; and he watched him thus for about half-a-minute. Then that officer rose, took out his watch, wound it up, went up to the table and poured out a glass of wine, drank it, and was just replacing the glass on the table, when a shrill, short, stifled scream was heard from the top of the staircase to the left. La Force sprang to his feet; Duchenier, who had probably heard it less distinctly, seemed to listen half-a-moment, and then flew to the door.
"Now!" said La Force; and in a second the three men were upon him. Duchenier was very strong, and struggled violently; but his assailants were also very powerful men, and in half-a-minute he was secured and gagged. Tying him hand and foot, they laid him down in the parlour, and left the man Chemill4 with a pistol in his hand, to watch over him, while they themselves went to seek their comrades.
Those comrades we must now follow. On coming out on the upper landing, they saw, from the light under the door, that two rooms were occupied, and, without further ceremony, knocked at the nearest.
"Come in, dear Madame Duchenier," replied Rose, thinking that it could be no one else, as she had already bidden the housekeeper good-night, and declined all assistance in her toilette.
Oncques opened the door. Rose was kneeling by the side of a trunk, and about to open it; and she did not turn her head for a moment, being engaged in fitting the key to the lock. A heavy step, however, made her start up, and on seeing the two ruffians, who were now close by her side, she gave the shriek which has already been mentioned as startling Duchenier.
"Keep quiet," said Oncques, "as you value your life!" And grasping her with his right arm, he pressed his left arm on her mouth. "Scream again," he said, "and you shall be gagged. I can manage her well enough: you go on to the other room."
"What's the matter? what's the matter?" asked Madame Le Brun, looking out from her young mistress's room, and mistaking the intruders, in the hurry and confusion of the moment, and in the imperfect light, for Texier and his friends.
"Stand back, old woman!" cried one of the men; and before the terrified housekeeper could reclose the door, his heavy hand was upon it, and it was pushed back. In a moment the other ruffians had seized Marie Duchenier, and threatened her with instant death if she screamed.
"We have them all now," said one of the party. "What are we to do next?"
"Off with them as soon as may be," replied Oncques, who at that moment entered the room. "We shall find Santerre at Angers."
Marie, though beyond measure terrified, retained presence of mind enough to see that the men who surrounded her were not soldiers; and in that circumstance she saw a gleam of hope.
"I will not scream or cry out," she said; "but I surely may speak. What is your object in making us prisoners?"
"Ask no questions, and I'll tell no lies," replied Oncques. "Better carry them down-stairs, Chemille."
"If you mean to make a gain by selling us," persisted Marie, "to the national officers, you would be paid more for carrying us back to La Chateignerie than they will give you."
Oncques seemed to pause for a moment, and what might have been the result of his meditations it is hard to say; bat at that moment La Force came upstairs.
"It is not altogether for gain," replied Oncques. "We took you for the purpose of making you over to those from whom you ran away, and we shall do what we intended."
"Not to Santerre! not to Santerre!" cried Marie, clasping her hands in agony.
"Oh, yes, to Santerre, Madame Duchenier," said La Force. "You know you got away from him cleverly enough, and cleverly enough we shall bring you back to him. You know I owed your lover--I beg pardon, your husband--a little debt of gratitude; and when I get him to Paris, I will pay it him."
"Come," said Oncques, "there is no time to waste. We don't seem to have disturbed any one, except this old lady; and what are we to do with her?"
"Oh, tie her up here!" replied La Force. "She may scream her throat out, without any one hearing her till morning."
"Well," said the housekeeper, "I mayn't live long; but I shall live long enough to see you brought to the guillotine, you bloodthirsty villains."
"You will have a good spell of life, then, old lady," cried Oncques. "Come, Madame Duchenier, we can't wait here for ever."
"At least," said Marie, "you will give me five minutes to dress myself for the journey: you won't refuse that? You may satisfy yourselves that I can't escape."
With some difficulty this request was granted; and the men left the room, and waited outside the door. Oncques and La Force there held a hurried and rapid conversation in whispers.
"Well," said the former, "well, perhaps you are right. We will separate: you to Angers with the ladies, I to Nantes with the colonel. You have two, I have but one. I will take two of the men, and you five--then we shall be just six and three; and each party must make the best bargain for themselves they can."
"Agreed," said La Force. "We shall perhaps meet again; if not, we have both of us done a good night's work."
"Ay," answered Oncques. "And now I'll be off. Good-night."
To describe the agony of Marie Duchenier, when she found that her husband was carried off in another direction, and that she was to be left in perfect ignorance of his destination and his fate, is impossible. It served for the time to throw into the shade her own intense terror of again falling into the hands of Santerre, and being conveyed to Paris. She and Rose were carried back into the winter-parlour, which they had recently left under circumstances so different. The fire was not yet out; the chair, which Duchenier had pushed back from the chimney-corner, remained as he had left it; and the hearts of both the fair girls were almost bursting with the thought, that did the villagers of Cerisay know of their condition, even yet they would be saved: and that there were enough brave defenders within those very walls to render the success of their captors more than doubtful.
"I will take care of them," said La Force to his division of the party. "Do you go down for the horses, and get a couple more out of the stable."
He was thus left alone with his prisoners. The wine was standing on the table: he poured a glass out, and drank to their very pleasant journey. Marie resolved to make one last effort.
"La Force," she said, "if you take M. Duchenier and ourselves back again to La Chateignerie, I promise you, on his part and on my father's, twenty thousand francs, and no questions shall be asked."
"I would not do it," he replied, "for a hundred thousand; "and looked out at the door, as if to see whether his companions were returning.