Samuel Crockett.

The White Plumes of Navarre: A Romance of the Wars of Religion





"I was wrong," she said; "let me help you only I ask no more. Come!"

And without another word she led him into a narrow passage, between two high walls. They passed door after door, all closed, one of them being the chamber of Mariana, in which he sat like a spider spinning webs for the Society of the Ges?. What might have happened if that door had been suddenly opened in their faces also remains a mystery. For Valentine's arm was strong, and the dagger her hand held was sharp.

However, as it chanced, the doors remained shut, so that when they came to a little wicket, of solid iron like all the rest, the steel blade of the dagger still shone bright.

Then Valentine la Ni?a snatched from a nail the long black mantle, with which any who left the House of the Holy Office by that door concealed from the curious their rank or errand. She flung it about John d'Albret's shoulders with a single movement of her arm.

"I do what I can," she said, "yield me the justice to allow that. I am giving you a chance to return to her. There take it now you are armed!"

She gave him the knife, and the sheath from which she had drawn it in her uncle's bureau.

"And now, bid me farewell no thanks I do not want them! You will not, I know, forget me, and I only ask you to pray that I may be able to forget you!"

The Abb? John stooped to kiss her hand, but she snatched it behind her quickly.

"I think I deserve so much," she said softly, holding up her face, "not even she would deny me!"

And the Abb? John, quieting his soul by the vow of necessity, future confession, and absolution, kissed Valentine la Ni?a.

She gave one little sobbing cry, and would have fallen, had he not caught her. But she shook him off, striking angrily at his wrist with her clenched hand.

"No! No! No!" she cried; "go I bid you go, do not heed me. I am well. They may be here any moment. They are ever on the watch. It cannot be long. Go. I am repaid. She has never risked as much for you! Lock the door without!"

And she pushed him into the street, shut the door, and fell in a white heap fainting behind it, as John d'Albret turned the key outside.

CHAPTER XXXIX.
SAVED BY SULKS

When the so-called uncle of Valentine la Ni?a, Mariana the Jesuit, found that even his acute ears could distinguish no sound within the darkened parlour of his niece, he did what he had often done before. He opened the door with the skill of an evil-doer, and peered through the crack. The evening sun struck on a spray of scattered blooms which Valentine had thrown down in her haste grenadine flowers, red as blood upon a broidery frame, the needle stuck transversely, an open book of devotion, across which the shadows of the window bars slowly passed, following, as on a dial of illuminated capitals, the swift westering of the sun. But he heard no sound save the flick-flick of the leaves of the Judas tree against the window, in the light airs from the Canigou, already damp with the early mist of the foot-hills.

The Jesuit listened, carefully opened the door a little more widely, and listened again, holding his hand to his lips.

Still only the stirring air and the leaves that tapped. Mariana drew a long breath and stepped within. The room was empty.

Then he brought his hand hard down on his thigh, and turned as if to cry a hasty order. He stopped, however, before the words found vent.

"She has freed him fled with him, the jade," he murmured; "she was playing to me also what a woman ah, what a woman!"

Then admiration took and held possession of him a kind of connoisseur's envy in the presence of a masterpiece of guile. The great Jesuit felt himself beaten at his own weapons.

"Used for sanctified ends," he murmured, "what a power she would be!" And again, "What a woman!"

But the order did not leave his lips. He felt that it were better to leave the matter as it was. If only he could find Valentine la Ni?a, no one would know of her part in the prisoner's escape. It could be put down to the carelessness of the watchers. The principal familiars were at their work deep in the caves of the Inquisition. The eyes in the prisoner's cell were painted eyes only their effect merely moral. None had seen John d'Albret go into the summer parlour of Valentine. None had heard her interview, stormy as it was, with her uncle. They had other things to do in the House of the Street of the Money. If only, then, he could find La Ni?a. All turned on that.

"Ah," he thought suddenly, "the key! She has the key of the little door giving upon the ancient bed of the Tet."

And, hastening down the passage by which, a few minutes before, Valentine la Ni?a had led the Abb? John, he stumbled upon his niece, fallen by the gate, her white dress and white face sombre under the dusk of vine-leaves, which clambered over the porch as if it had been a lady's bower.

But the key was not in her hand. With the single flash of intuition he showed in the matter, John d'Albret had thrown it away, and it now reposed in the bed of the Tet, not half a mile from the lost seal of the Holy Office which, some time previously, his friend Jean-aux-Choux had so obligingly disposed of there.

The Jesuit, in order to keep up his credit in the house of his friends, was obliged to carry his niece to her summer bower, and leave her there to recover in the coolness and quiet. Then he put on his out-of-doors soutane, and passed calmly through the main portal to dispatch a messenger of his own Order to the frontier with a description of a certain John d'Albret, evaded from the prison of the Holy Office in the Street of the Money at Perpignan who, if caught, was by no means to be returned thither, but to be held at the disposition of Father Mariana, chief of the Order of the Ges? in the North of Spain, and bearing letters mandatory to that effect from the King himself.

"For the present he is gone and lost," he murmured, as he went back; "the minx has outwitted me" here he chuckled, and all the soft childish dimples came out "yet why should I complain? It was I who taught her. Or, rather, to say the truth, I outwitted myself I, and that incalculable something in women which wrecks the wisdom of the wisest men!"

And, comforting himself with these reflections, Mariana returned alone to the House of the Holy Office in the Street of the Money, which, of necessity, he entered by the main door.

Now that buzzed like a hive, which had been silent and deserted enough when he went out. The Jesuit stood in apparent bewilderment, his lips moving as if to ask a question. He could hear Dom Teruel storming that he would burn every assistant, every familiar in the building, from roof to cellar, while Frey Tullio and Serra, the huge Murcian, made tumultuary perquisition into every chamber in search of the runaway.

"Hold there I will open for you," commanded Mariana, as he saw that they were approaching the door within which lay Valentine; "I will go in, and you can follow. But let no one dare to disturb the repose of the lady, my niece. Or ye know well the seal and mandate of the King concerning her!"

Mariana went softly in, not closing the door, and having satisfied himself that all was well, he beckoned the inquisitors to approach. Valentine la Ni?a lay on the oaken settle, her head on the pillow, exactly as he had placed her, but thanks to the few drops from the phial which he had compelled her to swallow, she was now sleeping peacefully, her bosom rising and falling with her measured breathing.

The men stood a moment uncertain, perhaps a little awestruck. Serra would have retreated, but the suspicious Neapolitan walked softly across and tested the bars of the window. They were firmly and deeply enough sunk in the stone to convince even Frey Tullio.

So it chanced that while the messenger of the Ges? sped northward to the frontier with orders to arrest one Jean d'Albret, a near relative of the Bearnais, clad in frayed court-suit of pale blue, and even while the couriers of the Holy Office posted in the same direction seeking a criminal whom it was death to shelter or succour, the Abb? John, looking most abbatical in his decent black cloak, passed out of the city by the empty bed of the Tet, the same which it had occupied before the straight cut known as the Basse led it to southward of the town. Then marvel of marvels the hunted man turned to the south and made across the hills in the direction of the House of La Masane upon the slopes of the hills behind Collioure.

And as he went he communed with himself.

"I will show her!" affirmed the Abb? John grimly (for there was a hot and lasting temper under that light exterior, perhaps that of the aboriginal Bourbon, who to this day "never learns and never forgives"). "I will show her! If I loved her as an ordinary man, I would hasten to follow and overtake her! But she is safe and has no need of me. If she has any thought for me any care (he did not say 'any love'), it will be none the worse for keeping. I will go back to Jean-aux-Choux. He was to return and care for all that remained at La Masane. Well, surely he is no braver than I. What he does I can do. I will go and help him. Also, I shall be able to keep an eye on that rascal, Raphael Llorient!"

And so, with these excellent intentions he turned his face resolutely to the south a determination which completely threw his pursuers off the scent. For it was a natural axiom in Spanish Roussillon, that whosoever embroiled himself with the powers-that-were in that province made instantly, by sea or by land, for the nearest French border.

Thus was John d'Albret saved by the Bourbon blood of his mother, or by his own native cross-grained temper. In short, he sulked. And for the time being, the sulking saved his neck.

CHAPTER XL.
THE MAS OF THE MOUNTAIN

It was a day of "mistral" in the valley of the Rhone high, brave, triumphant mistral, the wind of God sent to sweep out the foul odours of little tightly-packed towns with tortuous streets, to dry the good rich earth after the rain, and to call forth the corn from the corn-land, the grapes from the ranged vines, and to prove for the thousandth time the strength and endurance of the misty, dusty, grey-blue olive trees, that streamed away from the north-east like a faint-blown river of smoke.

A brave day it was for those who loved such days of whom was not Claire Agnew certainly a brave day for the whirling wheels, the vast bird-pinions of Jean-Marie's new windmills on the mountain of Barbentane.

Jean-Marie found his abode to his taste. At first he had installed Claire with a decent Proven?al couple at the famous cross-roads called in folk-speech "Le Long le Chemin," till he should find some resting-place other than the ground-floor of the creaking and straining monsters where he himself spread his mattress, and slept, bearded and night-capped, among his rich farina dust and the pell-mell of bags of corn yet to be ground.

By the time, however, that Madame Am?lie with Professor Anatole was able to reach France (thanks to the care of the good Bishop of Elne, and the benevolence of the more secular powers set in motion by the Viceroy of Catalonia), a new Mas had been bought. The gold laid carefully up with Pereira, the honest Hebrew of Bayonne, had been paid out, and the scattered wanderers had once more a home, secure and apart, in the fairest and quietest province of France.

Nay more, though the way was long, the cattle-tracks across the lower Canigou were so well known and so constantly followed, that Jean-aux-Choux had been able to bring forward the most part of Dame Am?lie's bestial. Even her beloved goats bleated on the rocks round the Mas of the mountain. The fowls indeed were other, but to the common eye even they seemed unchanged, for Jean-Marie had been at some pains to match them before the arrival of his mother. Doves roo-cooed about the sheds and circled the tall pigeon-cote on its black pole with flapping wings.

The house mistress was coming home.

That day Madame Am?lie was to arrive with her son, the Professor, and Jean-aux-Choux for an escort. And then at last Claire would learn what she had been wilfully kept in ignorance of by Jean-Marie the reason for the sudden desertion of the Abb? John on the sea-shore at Collioure.

There had been a struggle long and mighty within the stout breast of the Miller-Alcalde before he could bring himself to play the traitor. After all (so he argued with his conscience), he was only keeping his promise. John d'Albret had bidden him be silent. Nevertheless, when he saw Claire's wan and anxious face, he was often prompted to speak, even though by so doing he might lose all hope of securing a mistress for the new Mas of the Mountain, who in course of time would succeed Madame Am?lie there.

The grave, strong, sententious ex-Alcalde had allowed no lines of meal dust to gather in the frosty curls of his beard since he had brought Claire Agnew to France. Busy all day, he had rejoiced in working for her. Then, spruce as any love-making youth, he had promenaded lengthily and silently with her in the twilight, looking towards the distant sea, across which from the southward his mother and his brothers were to come.

The Miller Jean-Marie loved after a fashion, his own silent, dour, middle-aged fashion the young girl Claire Agnew, whom he called his "niece" in that strange land. For in this he followed the example of his brother, judging that what was right for a learned professor of the Sorbonne could not be wrong for a rough miller, earning his bread (and his "niece's") by the turning of his grindstones and the gigantic whirl of his sails.

Still, he had never spoken his love, but on this final morning the miller had not gone forth. He was determined to speak at last. His mother and brother were soon to arrive. The mistral drave too strong for work. He had indeed little corn to grind nothing that an hour earlier on the morrow could not put to rights. Then and there he would speak to Claire. At long and last he was sure of himself. His courage would not, as usual, ooze away from his finger nails. He and she were alone in the newly-furnished rooms of the Mas of the Mountain for only a few portable items such as his mother's chair and the ancient pot-bellied horologe had been brought in a tartana from La Masane to the little harbour of Les Saintes Maries, where the big mosquitoes are.

"It is not good for man to be alone," began Jean-Marie, even more sententiously than usual; "I have heard you read that out of your Bible of Geneva do you believe it, Claire?"

"Indeed I do," said the girl, looking up brightly; "I have longed ah, how I have longed all these weeks for your mother!"

"I was thinking of myself!" said the miller heavily.

"Ah, well, that will soon be at an end," returned Claire; "I am sorry, but I did my best. I have often heard you sigh and sigh and sigh when you and I walked together of the evening. And I knew I was no company for you. I was too young and too foolish, was it not so? But now you will have your mother and your brother, the Professor, who is learned. He knows all about how to grow onions according to the methods of Virgil! He told me so himself!"

The big ex-Alcalde looked doubtfully sidelong at his little friend. He was not a suspicious man, and usually considered Claire as innocent as a frisking lambling. But now no, it could not be. She was not making fun of him of the man who had done all these things, who had brought her in safety by paths perilous to this new home!

So very wisely he decided to take Claire's words at their face value.

"My mother is my mother," he said, deciding that the time had come at last, and that nothing was to be gained by putting it off. "Doctor Anatole is my elder brother, and as for me, I have all the family affections. But a man of my age needs something else!"

"What, another windmill?" cried Claire; "well, I will help you. I saw such a splendid place for one yesterday, right at the top of the rocky ridge they call Frigolet. It is not too high, yet it catches every wind, and oh you can see miles and miles all about right to the white towers of Arles, and away to the twin turrets of Ch?teau Renard among the green vineyards. There is no such view in all the mountains. And I will go up there every day and knit my stocking!"

"Oh, if only it were my stocking!" groaned the miserable, tongue-tied miller, "then I might think about the matter of the windmill."

Foiled in a direct line, he was trying to arrive at his affair by a side-wind.

But Claire clapped her hands joyously, glad to get her own way on such easy terms.

"Of course, Jean-Marie, I will knit you a pair of hose most gladly winter woollen ones of the right Canigon fashion "

"I did not mean one pair only," said the miller, with a slightly more brisk air, and an attempt at a knowing smile, "but for all my life!"

"Come, you are greedy," cried Claire; "and must your mother go barefoot and your brother the Professor, and Don Jordy, and "

She was about to add another name, which ought to have been that of Jean-aux-Choux, but was not. She stopped, however, the current of her gay words swiftly arrested by that unspoken name.

"Jean-Marie, answer me," she said, standing with her back resolutely to the door, "there is a thing I must know. Tell me, as you are an honest man, what became of Jean d'Albret that night on the sand-dunes at Collioure? It is in my mind that you know more than you have told me. You do know, my brave Alcalde! I am sure of it. For it was you who came to borrow my hood and mantle, also my long riding-cape to give to him. And I have never seen them since. If, then, this Abb? John is a thief and a robber, you are his accomplice. Nothing better. Come out with it!"

Jean-Marie stood mumbling faintly words without order or significance.

Claire crossed her arms and set her back to the oaken panels. The miller would gladly have escaped by the window, but the sill was high. Moreover, he felt that escalade hardly became either his age or habit of body.

Therefore, like many another in a like difficulty, he took refuge in prevarication to use which well requires, in a man, much practice and considerable solidity of treatment. Women are naturally gifted in this direction.

"He bade I mean he forbade me to reveal the matter to you!"

"Then it had to do with me," she cried, fixing the wretched man with her forefinger; "now I have a right I demand to know. I will not stay a moment longer in the house if I am not told."

As she spoke Claire turned the key twice in the lock, extracted it, and slid it into her pocket. These are not the usual preliminaries for quitting a house for ever in hot indignation. But the ex-Alcalde was too flustered to notice the inconsistency.

"Speak!" she cried, stamping her foot. And the broad, serious-faced Jean-Marie found, among all his wise saws and instances, none wherewith to answer her. "Where did he go, and what did he do with my long cloak and lace mantilla?" she demanded. "Were they a disguise to provide only for his own safety the coward?"

The miller flushed. Up till now he had sheltered himself behind the Abb? John's express command to say nothing. Now he must speak, and this proud girl must take that which she had brought on her own head. It was clear to Jean-Marie, as it had been to numerous others, that she had no heart. She was a block of ice, drifted from far northern seas.

"Well, since you will have it, I will tell you," he said, speaking slowly and sullenly, "but do not blame me if the news proves unwelcome. Jean d'Albret borrowed your cloak and mantilla so that he might let himself be taken in your place so as to give you you youhe cared not for the others time to escape from the familiars of the Inquisition sent to take you!"

He nodded his head almost at each word and opened his hand as if disengaging himself from further responsibility. He looked to see the girl overwhelmed. But instead she rose, as it were, to the stature of a goddess, her face flushed and glorious.

"Tell it me again," she said hoarsely, even as Valentine la Ni?a had once pleaded to be told, "tell me again he did that for me?"

"Aye, for you! Who else?" said the miller scornfully "for whom does a man do anything but for a silly girl not worth the trouble!"

She did not heed him.

"He went to the death for me to save me he did what none else could have done saying nothing about it, bidding them keep it from me, lest I should know! Oh, oh!"

The miller turned away in disgust. He pronounced an anathema on the hearts of women. But she wheeled him round and, laying her hands on both his shoulders, flashed wet splendid eyes upon him, the like of which he had never seen.

"Oh, I am glad I am glad!" she cried; "I could kiss you for your news, Jean-Marie!"

And she did so, her tears dropping on his hands.

"This thing I do not understand!" said the miller to himself, when, no longer a prisoner, he left Claire to sink her brow into a freshly-lavendered pillow in her own chamber.





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