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Title: A Maid of Brittany
Author: Knowles, Mabel Winifred
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Maid of Brittany" ***

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[Transcriber’s note: Chapters 22, 23, and 24 are somewhat confusing.  In
22, Guillaume de Coray is thrown from his horse and injured, but in 23
he’s OK, then in 24 he’s dying.  I don’t have access to another edition
to see if perhaps there’s something wrong with the source edition for
this etext.]



[Illustration: Cover art]



[Illustration: "Do your work knave, and quickly." (p. 282)]



                          *A MAID OF BRITTANY*

                              *A Romance*


                                   BY

                               MAY WYNNE

                               AUTHOR OF
             "HENRY OF NAVARRE," "WHEN TERROR RULED," ETC.



                            _POPULAR EDITION
                                  with
                      FRONTISPIECE BY H. M. BROCK_



                                 LONDON
                          GREENING & CO., LTD.
                                  1909

                        (_All rights reserved_)



                               Dedicated
                                   TO
                               MY MOTHER



                           *MAID OF BRITTANY*


                              *CHAPTER I*


"A spy—a French spy! tiens, monsieur! but it is assured."  The speaker,
a man of about thirty years of age, dressed in hunting costume, was
standing by his horse’s side, looking down, with flushed face and
knitted brows, upon a figure which lay stretched on the ground before
him, the figure of a man also young, but even in unconsciousness of far
more prepossessing appearance than he who stood frowning over him.
Gathered at a short distance and watching the scene with keen interest
stood a hawking party, fresh from their chase, and consisting of a
broad-shouldered, handsome old man of some seventy summers, a young
girl, whose beautiful face wore a compassionate look as she bent forward
on her palfrey to catch a glimpse at the unconscious stranger, and
several attendants bearing trophies of the chase, and carrying hooded
falcons on their wrists.

"Nay, then, Guillaume," interposed the girl, before her father could
reply, "but wherefore such assurance? Surely he is no spy, for see, the
golden spurs upon his heels proclaim his knighthood."

"Ay," replied her cousin mockingly, as he pointed to a horse standing
with bent head and distended nostrils by the prostrate man’s side.  "As
plainly, fair cousin, as yonder steed’s docked ears and mane proclaim
him Brittany’s enemy."[#]


[#] It was the fashion at the time for French knights to cut off their
horse’s ears and manes, as also never to ride mares.


There was a sparkle of indignation in the girl’s eyes as she turned to
her father.

"At least," she urged, as if pleading against some unspoken verdict, "we
judge no man unheard. See, my father, there may be many explanations of
his presence here; it is surely so, for assured I am that he is no spy.
Nay, cousin, your wits are too keen in this case, for a spy would not
thus proclaim his nationality, if a horse’s mane speaks so plainly."

"Tush, Gwennola!" reproved her father with a smile.  "This is no matter
for woman’s interference that thou shouldst argue like a wandering
scholar. Still, there is fairness in what thou sayest, and I would lief
tender mercy with justice even to a Frenchman, though, if he be a spy,
by the bones of St Yves, he shall hang as fast as any acorn to the
nearest oak."

So saying, and in spite of his kinsman’s obvious disapproval, he ordered
two of his servants to dismount and raise the unconscious object of
their argument.

It was clear that a fall from his horse had stunned the stranger, and
the cause was not far to seek in the twisted roots of the trees partly
concealed by grass and fern, which might well prove dangerous to an
unwary rider.

As they raised him the young man moaned, half opening his dark eyes,
then closing them again in a fresh swoon.

"He is hurt," said Gwennola compassionately. "See, he groans again: be
careful how thou liftest him, Job.  Yes—on thy shoulders—so, and bid
them prepare the eastern room for his reception: I will myself attend to
his hurts when I return."

"A good Samaritan, fair mistress," observed her cousin with a sneer, as
he vaulted again into his saddle.  "Yet, be warned, lest the hand that
nourishes it is bitten by the viper of treachery."

"Nay," said her father, with a smile towards his daughter, "Gwennola is
right, though over-forward for a maid, due, I fear me, to her old
father’s spoiling. Is it not so, my Nola?  Methinks the stranger were
best left to Father Ambrose’s ministrations, so there shall be the less
fear of the truth of Guillaume’s ill prophecies."

Gwennola allowed her palfrey to draw even closer to her father’s steed
as she raised a smiling face to his.

"Nay, my father," she said tenderly.  "’Tis but that I love justice as
thou dost, and, moreover, my heart tells me that yon poor knight, even
if he be a Frenchman, is no spy."

"Nevertheless," said her father sternly, "a Frenchman is the enemy of
the Breton; he comes not by chance to the forest of Arteze, my child,
and, though I fail not in hospitality to a sick man, yet scant welcome
will the servant of the King of France find under the roof of a soldier
of the Duchess Anne."

"Better the welcome of the halter for the spy, without more ado," said
Guillaume de Coray with a malicious smile.  "Remember St Aubin du
Cormier, monsieur, and be warned by one who tells you that yonder false
caitiff is a spy, for all his golden spurs and fair looks," he added,
with another meaning look towards his cousin, "which have gone so far to
soften the heart of my sweet mistress here."

"Nay," said the old man sternly, "I will abide by what I have said.  The
Frenchman shall have justice, but no more—the nearest tree for the spy,
and short shrift too, if he cannot bring good account of his presence
here."

Gwennola sighed.  "He is no spy," she whispered to herself, but to her
father she dared return no answer, but bent low over the beautiful bird
attached to her wrist by a slender golden chain, to hide perchance the
tears in her blue eyes rather than from any desire to gaze at her pet’s
bright plumage, or count the tiny golden bells on its hood.  So in
silence they rode through the forest glades and up through the long
avenue of whispering oaks where the sunshine of a June evening shed
slanting rays of golden glory through the rustling foliage overhead.

The Château de Mereac stood on the outskirts of the forest of Arteze,
not many leagues distant from the little Breton town of Martigue.  The
country on this side of Rennes had from time immemorial been the
debatable land between Brittany and her overweening sister France;
countless feuds raged constantly between the peoples, such as were
fought in the Middle Ages, and even later, along our own Scottish
border, and every Breton eyed his French neighbour as a natural and
implacable enemy.  But, in the year 1491, this natural animosity had
grown from a smouldering antagonism into active flame of bitter hatred;
for some years past the red angel of war had stood between the two
countries with a blood-stained sword in her hand.  Ever since the
accession of Charles VIII., the rich prize of Brittany had been coveted
by his ambitious sister and gouvernante, Anne of Beaujeu, now Duchesse
de Bourbon, in all but name mistress of France.  French armies had from
time to time devastated the domain, but still Brittany, stubborn,
gallant, untameable, had resisted the greedy hand outstretched to seize
her.  With enthusiastic loyalty the Bretons had rallied round their
little Duchess, left an orphan at the age of thirteen, to face the
perils of her exalted position alone.  Her beauty, her helplessness, but
above all her courage, appealed to the love and chivalry of her
indomitable people.  It is true that amongst the great nobles there were
traitors to her cause, waverers who proffered allegiance first to one
side then the other, disappointed suitors, who, like the Comte d’Albret,
vented his spleen at a child’s scorn by betraying his country; yet
amongst the vast majority of her subjects Anne was worshipped, and her
name inspired deeds of chivalry and devotion which had hitherto kept the
all too greedy foe at bay.  But her case was desperate, and well every
Breton knew it; the armies of France might sweep across their borders at
any moment, bringing destruction and devastation with them.  What wonder
that a Frenchman’s name was poison to a Breton’s ear?  What wonder if
those dwelling, as it were, under the shadow of the great and powerful
enemy meted out scant mercy to their foes when opportunity arose?

Yet for the moment a lull had fallen on the strife; the attitude of
France seemed, for the present, to be quiescent, if not friendly.  It
was rumoured that the Count Dunois, cousin to the French King, and
friend of the Duchess Anne’s, as he had been of her father, was striving
to unite the two countries in bonds of peace.  Already he had succeeded
in bringing about the release of his friend Louis of Orleans, the bitter
enemy of the Duchess of Bourbon, and some said the lover of the Duchess
of Brittany, for all her tender years, and the fact that he was already
the husband of Yeanne, the deformed younger daughter of Louis XI., whom
her royal father had forced him to marry.

The air was, in fact, thick with rumours and intrigues, with the ominous
thunder of war growling threateningly in the distance.  It was said that
the bond Dunois proposed was the holy one of matrimony between France’s
King and Brittany’s Duchess, yet the rumour ran vaguely and doubtfully,
and was scarcely credited by those who remembered that Anne was already
married by proxy to the King of the Romans, whose little daughter was
also affianced, at the tender age of two, to Charles VIII.

It was a time, therefore, when men went warily, mistrustfully, with eyes
glancing to right and left for fear of enemies, and ears open to listen
to the breath of treachery.  Above all, on the borders of Brittany was
such watchfulness needed.  What wonder then if the Sieur de Mereac,
riding homewards from the chase with his daughter and kinsman beside
him, pondered first on the counsel of one and then of the other, finally
deciding that the Frenchman’s fate must be tempered with justice, but
small mercy, and that the rope end was the best meed for the enemy of
the Duchess Anne?



                              *CHAPTER II*


With the vague wonderment of returning consciousness, Henri d’Estrailles
lay striving, at first feebly, then with growing clearness, to recall
the events which had preceded his fall.  From out of the mists of
elusive shadows, which seemed to paralyse his brain, he remembered how
he had set out for Rennes in the train of the Count Dunois, who went on
an embassy to the young Duchess from the King of France; of how he had
lost his way on the preceding day, wandering aimlessly over vast heaths
and landes, through valleys and forests, till the stumbling of his good
horse Rollo brought a blank to his train of thought.  Then, as the mists
cleared still more from his weary brain, came the further wonderment of
his present situation.  He was lying on no mossy sward, with Rollo
nozzling his face with dumb endearments, but instead, in a bed of which
the fine linen and rich hangings bespoke a seigneur’s castle rather than
a peasant’s hut, whilst, as the pain in his side caught his laboured
breath, he became aware that he had been bandaged by no unskilled hand.
Too weak to rise, he lay, still vaguely conning over those last hours of
consciousness, and striving in vain to fit them in to the present, till
at last, outwearied, he closed his eyes and would have slept, had he not
been aroused by the soft withdrawal of the heavy curtain at the foot of
the bed, and his eyes, in opening, fell, he told himself, on the fairest
vision they had ever beheld.  It was the figure of a young maiden, slim
and tall; the high, heart-shaped headdress, with its long dependent
veil, framing a beautiful, childish face, for the bloom of early youth
was on the soft colouring of her cheeks and rosy lips, and a look of
innocent bashfulness in the great blue eyes which looked down, half
smiling, into his wondering brown ones; the red gold of the curls which
peeped beneath the stiff headdress contrasting with the dark green of
her tight-fitting bodice and long hanging sleeves.  For full a minute
the sick man gazed with all the boldness of one whose brain had yet
scarcely realised whether it were vision or substance that he saw, and
as the blue eyes met his eager glance they drooped, the colour rose in a
wave of soft crimson to the girl’s cheeks, and the curtain was allowed
to slip to its place.

He was alone once more, but no longer did Henri d’Estrailles desire
sleep; his pulses still beat with the emotions created by the vision;
more than ever he desired to know where fate had led him.  ’Twas no
unkindly destiny, he told himself, but verily the star of Venus herself
which had so unwittingly guided him.  His restless excitement boded ill
for his hurts, as he tossed from side to side, and his face was already
flushed with fever, when again the curtain was drawn aside, and he
caught back his breath with disappointment, as this time, instead of the
beautiful face of his dreams, there appeared the wrinkled, kindly face
of a priest in the black robe of a Benedictine.

"Ah, my son," he murmured gently, as he drew back the curtain by the
side of the patient’s bed and seated himself by his side, "it is well.
I see that you have already benefited by my salves and ointments, and
perchance"—he paused, smiling, as he read the hundred questions in the
eager face turned to him—"you are doubtless as anxious, my son," he
added kindly, "to know under whose roof you are resting, as we are to
inquire what brought a stranger to wander unattended in our forest of
Arteze?"

There was no hiding the anxiety in the old man’s eyes as he awaited the
answer to his question, and the sick man smiled as he replied—

"Perchance you had e’en taken me for a spy of the King of France?  No,
no, father, the d’Estrailles of d’Estrailles have never yet stooped to
so vile a task, and, by our Lady’s help, will never so soil one of the
proudest scutcheons in France; my errand here in Brittany was the Count
Dunois’ business, for I rode in his train to Rennes on an embassy to
your Duchess from my master, but losing my way in this so dreary and
perilous country, I had nearly met my fate at the hand of an unruly tree
stump, had it not been, I ween, for the unknown benefactor who has
played the good Samaritan."

Father Ambrose drew a sigh of relief.  "’Twill be good news to my lord,"
he said heartily, "as also to the fair Demoiselle de Mereac, who pleaded
so prettily with her father that you were no spy, that he was fain to
spare you from the hanging which Monsieur de Coray deemed your fittest
end."

A flush of anger deepened on the young man’s cheek.

"Parbleu!" he cried softly, "Breton justice indeed, to hang an
unconscious man because, forsooth! he rides unattended and cannot speak
for himself!  This monsieur——"

"Nay," interrupted the priest, laying a soothing hand upon the other’s
clenched fist.  "Calm yourself, my son, or I fear you will suffer ill
from fever to your hurts.  Be patient, and I will tell you how it
chanced, as the demoiselle herself told me," he added, smiling.

"And the demoiselle?" questioned d’Estrailles eagerly, as the priest
concluded his tale of the brief episode which had been so near to
terminating his career.  "She is without doubt the angel who anon looked
down upon me as I lay a-wondering, and who did so far entangle my
thoughts that I deemed I must have reached Paradise itself?"

"She is a good maid and a beautiful," said the old priest, with a touch
of asperity in his tones. "Moreover," he added, with a smiling glance
askance at his interrogator, "she is betrothed to her kinsman, Monsieur
Guillaume de Coray."

"De Coray?" echoed the young Frenchman with scorn.  "What! the hound who
would have strung me to the first tree because, parbleu! I had not the
honour of his acquaintance?  Nay, father, so sweet and gentle a maid
would ill mate with so unknightly a spouse!"

Father Ambrose sighed.  "It is the will of her father, monsieur," he
said, "and therefore it is a thing that must be—though from small
choice, I ween, on the part of the Lady Gwennola."

"Gwennola," murmured d’Estrailles, lingering tenderly over the
syllables.  "It is a name altogether suited to one so
beautiful—Gwennola.  Ah, my father, although I have but seen her for a
moment, my heart grows bitter when I think of her betrothed to one whose
knightly instincts can well be no higher than a butcher’s scullion; but
tell me, if you can indeed spare the time to a stranger such as I, hath
this Sieur de Mereac no other child but this fair maid?"

The priest shook his head, sighing heavily.  "Alas!" he replied, "none
now, monsieur; although scarce three years since he rejoiced in the
possession of as gallant a son as father might desire; handsome,
noble-minded and brave, it seemed impossible but that Yvon de Mereac
should become a great knight whose name should resound throughout
Brittany; but, alas! alas! the holy saints had not so willed it—he fell,
monsieur, this gallant youth, scarce twenty years of age, in the bloody
battle of St Aubin du Cormier, and the hopes which had gathered so
fondly round the budding promise of his noble manhood were quenched in
the darkness of the grave; not even was it possible to recover his body,
though long and terrible search was made amongst the mangled slain on
the battle-field, and since that day when Guillaume de Coray brought
news of his death, the Sieur de Mereac has been an old and heart-broken
man, ever cherishing his anger in wrath and bitterness against the
French who thus worked the ruin of his hopes."

"’Tis a sad tale," said d’Estrailles.  "Yet, my father, after all, ’tis
the risk all soldiers must run; some are born to fight a hundred battles
and come scathless through all, whilst another, like yon poor boy,
perishes ere he had dyed his maiden sword in the blood of his enemies.
Such is Fate, and we must fain abye it. For the rest, it appears to me
that this Monsieur de Mereac might well mourn his living heir rather
than his dead son, if he is to be succeeded by this poltroon knave who
would hang noble knights in cold blood."

"Yes," sighed the priest, "the inheritance falls indeed to this same
Guillaume de Coray, and therefore it becomes plain to you, my son, that
of necessity he marries Gwennola de Mereac; so the old inheritance comes
back again to the child of her father, and in their turn his grandsons
may yet rule over the lands of Mereac."

But to this d’Estrailles replied not, seeing that to him it was a thing
impossible to dream of, that poltroon lips should touch those rosy ones
that had smiled down so short a while since into his heart. The very
thought kept him tossing feverishly upon his bed long after the old
priest had left him and he lay in darkness.

"Gwennola," he whispered to himself, "Gwennola," and fell to wondering
when he might see the vision of her beauty once more.



                             *CHAPTER III*


The Château de Mereac stood on a slight elevation, overlooking, on one
side, the forest of Arteze, whilst far away on the other stretched vast
heaths and landes covered with patches of gorse and whin, briars and
thistles, whilst here and there huge boulders of rock lay scattered
about.  A very land of desolation this, yet grand and even beautiful in
its rugged, mournful way, for there is a vein of poetry which runs
throughout Brittany, even in its loneliest and most desolate parts, a
poetry which finds its expression in the history of its people, set as
it is to the music of its wild winds, waves, and rugged moorlands, music
in a minor key wailing across wastes and through valleys and forests,
music which sings of love and passion, the free untamable spirit of the
Celt, with all its romance and love of the supernatural.  Like their
Scottish brethren, they revel, these people, in legend, folklore, and
hero-worship, over which for ever reign King Arthur and his fairy
Morgana to inspire chivalry, passion, and love ideals.  The keen air and
salt spray of their shores act, too, as an inspiration to these
great-hearted men and women, bracing them up to deeds of heroism and
glory—glory such as their ancestors fought for and won in the olden
days.

A river ran in front of the old Château de Mereac, with orchards and
gardens sloping down to the water’s edge, and it was here that, that
June morning, walked the Demoiselle de Mereac with an attendant maiden,
both, it would seem, intent on their devotions, seeing that they raised
not their heads from their livres d’heures even when a man’s shadow
crossed the path of the young châtelaine.  But when the shadow became
stationary substance, she was fain to look up, though with a frown on
her smooth white brow, and a most decidedly unfriendly glance in her
blue eyes. The accompanying maiden discreetly withdrew to the distance
as the cavalier made his obeisance before the lady.

"I crave thy pardon, sweet mistress," he observed, smiling, "for
disturbing thy devotions.  Methought I heard the very rustle of angels’
wings on the air as I approached."

The Demoiselle de Mereac drew herself up stiffly, facing him with
flashing eyes.

"You do well, monsieur," she retorted coldly, "to observe that they
departed on your arrival."

Guillaume de Coray shrugged his shoulders.

"Nay, sweet," he observed coolly, "I came not to discourse on angels,
though I ventured to intrude upon one, but rather because I would fain
speak with you anent the stranger who lies so sorely sick yonder," and
he pointed towards the château.

"My father, monsieur," replied Gwennola haughtily, "would, methinks,
best reply to any questions concerning Monsieur d’Estrailles.  Doubtless
he has already informed you," she added scornfully, "that he is
satisfied that he is no spy, this French knight, but a noble gentleman
of the train of the Count Dunois."

"So I have heard," retorted her kinsman.  "But it is also my habit,
sweet mistress, to believe little that is not proved.  Moreover, I am
well assured that this fellow has less right than you dream of to your
father’s mercy.  Were I," he added in a low, menacing tone, "to tell him
all I knew, the nearest branch and short shrift would be the hospitality
extended to him by the Sieur de Mereac."

"Indeed, monsieur," replied the girl, her face flushing crimson with
anger, "you are very wise; but wherefore spare to strike so crushing a
blow?—not for love, I trow, of the poor knight who lies sick yonder."

"Nay," he returned, trying to soften his tones, till they resembled the
angry purr of a cat, "but rather for love of thee, sweet Gwennola, for
well I know how grieved thy tender heart would be to see yon miscreant
meet his just doom."

"Just doom!" she retorted, the crimson once more dyeing her cheeks.
"Nay, monsieur, surely it comports not with knightly honour to hint at
what it is difficult to assert or prove—nay, I will hear no more of your
base insinuations against a brave man. Begone, monsieur, and leave me to
my devotions."

"Nay," he snarled, "surely, sweet, ’tis no time for devotions when the
star of Venus is on high; let us walk together, and, since it pleases
thee not to talk of sick traitors and spies, let us converse on sweeter
themes: of our love, fair lady, and of the day when thou shalt be my
bride."

She shuddered and drew back from his proffered arm as if he had stung
her.

"No, monsieur," she replied, "have done with mockery; you know well my
will with regard to our betrothal—as for marriage——"

She checked herself, startled by a sudden change of expression on his
face; instead of the suave, mocking smile it had grown grave and hard,
whilst the cruel mouth tightened over his gums till his teeth showed
white below them, but into the eyes had crept an unmistakable look of
fear, as he gazed across the river towards the forest beyond; then, with
a quick side glance at her and her maiden, he murmured some excuse for
leaving them to their prayers, and with a hurried bow turned and walked
swiftly towards the castle.

"What can it be?  Saw you aught, Marie?" asked Gwennola, as her maiden,
seeing her alone, hastened towards her.  "What was it that so startled
Monsieur de Coray?—he turned as pale as if he had seen a spirit from the
other world."

Both girls crossed themselves, Marie adding that she fancied she had
seen a man’s figure amongst the trees, but it had disappeared so swiftly
that she could not be sure.

"At least it has rid us of an unwelcome intruder," smiled Gwennola.
"See, Marie, let us gather some violets and then return to Mass; I would
fain demand of the good father how his patient is this morning. Last
night he feared fever from the wound in his side where the poor knight’s
own sword pierced him; only a hair’s-breadth more and it would have
entered his lung.  I must in truth offer three candles at the shrine of
our Blessed Lady for sparing so gallant a knight. Think then, my Marie,
a hair’s-breadth and he had been no more!"

The maid smiled slyly.  "The saints be praised, mistress," she replied,
adding beneath her breath that the hair’s-breadth might well have been
passed had the accident befallen _some_ knights, whereat both laughed
and fell to picking the violets with light hearts.

It was indeed a fair dawn, and the fragrance and sweetness of it seemed
to have entered the turret room where Henri d’Estrailles lay, with the
presence of the young châtelaine of the castle..  No fleeting vision
this morning, but verily a living presence, stately, smiling, beautiful
as she stood by his side, inquiring of Father Ambrose how his patient
fared.

In spite of her childish appearance—she was scarce seventeen
summers—Gwennola bore herself with all the stately airs befitting to the
lady of a great house, for, since her mother’s death, she had filled the
post of châtelaine at Mereac, and had grown, it must be confessed, from
a spoilt child to a wilful maiden, whose self-importance sat so sweetly
upon her that her father could find no word of chiding for his oft-times
wayward darling.  Only, alas! in one matter had he proved firm, and that
concerned her betrothal to her kinsman, and even Gwennola, indulged as
she was beyond the custom of those stern days of parental authority,
dared not oppose herself against the decree, though, with all the
strenuous force of her womanhood, she would fain have striven against
it, had she dared, ever more too as the months showed her a lover so
contrary to all her maiden dreams.  How well she knew that for all his
empty phrases and mocking vows this kinsman of hers had no love in his
heart for her; his very endearments were an insult against which her
hot, impetuous young nature revolted. Bitter were the tears shed in
secret, and none to see or comfort her but Father Ambrose and her
maiden, Marie Alloadec, her trusted friend and companion. And, after
all, it was surprising how ill they comprehended, these two.  The good
father would strive to comfort her with a homily on the necessity of
obedience and submission to Heaven, and would only shake his head
gravely when she replied, weeping, that Heaven could have no share in
breaking a maiden’s heart, or else suggest, half hesitatingly, that
perhaps her father might listen to her entreaties to enter the cloister.
But this latter suggestion found small favour in the eyes of one whose
warm young life shrank back appalled from the cold vocation of a nun’s
monotonous existence.  Surely, she told herself, there was some other
way, some other loophole of escape from the fate in store for her.
Marie Alloadec’s consolations were more congenial than the worthy
father’s, but even they fell short of Gwennola’s need; sympathy was all
her foster sister held out to her, hope there seemed none.  With all the
tragedy of youth and all the young girl’s exaggerations of woe, Gwennola
saw herself condemned to an early grave or broken heart.  But somehow,
as she stood there, glancing shyly from time to time towards the sick
man, the rosy finger of hope seemed busy at the locked door of her
heart, which beat swiftly at the messenger’s knock, for all her outward
calm.  And so it came that she lingered in the turret-room, passing from
questions of his wound to talk, hesitatingly at first, but with growing
curiosity, of that distant home of his in fair Touraine, sunny, laughing
Touraine, with its langorous breezes and fair meadows, its fruits and
flowers, and the dancing waters of the Loire, so different to their own
grey Vilaine.  Then, as if half ashamed of her eagerness, or because the
brown eyes that looked up into hers brought the blushes to her cheeks
and a sudden inexplicable thrill to her beating heart, or because she
had caught a grave reproof in Father Ambrose’s face which seemed to warn
her of unmaidenliness, she became of a sudden the quaintly-stiff little
châtelaine once more, speaking to the priest instead of to the patient
concerning salves and ointments and such like with the air of a matron
of fifty.

"The wound heals favourably," said Father Ambrose, and for all his
reverent estate there was a twinkle of amusement, or perhaps sympathy,
in his kind old eyes as he glanced from the flushed, childish face, with
its framing of red-gold curls and white headdress, to the eager one on
the bed, which looked up with such an admiring gaze at the now averted
face of his fair visitor.  "Monsieur will doubtless be able to continue
his journey in a week’s time, but he must be careful, for the reopening
of an old wound is ever more dangerous than a new one."

"Except the new one be at the heart," smiled d’Estrailles slyly.

Gwennola turned, answering the smile half shyly, half coquettishly, as
she replied: "But Monsieur’s heart is unscathed?  The sword——"

"Truly, mademoiselle is right; the sword spared my heart, but nathless I
fear it has not gone unscathed, for what is a sword point compared to a
maiden’s eyes—if," he added softly, "those eyes be cold?"

Gwennola’s face flushed again, and the blue eyes in question drooped, to
hide perchance a tell-tale light which shone in them, but Father
Ambrose’s gentle voice interrupted the conversation.

"Nay, nay, monsieur," he urged reprovingly, "French compliments suit ill
to a Breton maiden’s ears; for the rest, it is not well that you should
talk too long, lest the threatened fever of last night overcome you; if
you would be again in the saddle before a week has passed you must e’en
be obedient."

"Verily," sighed Henri d’Estrailles with a faint grimace, "your words
are doubtless golden, my father, though scarcely sweet to the ear, yet I
must e’en obey, seeing that I do ill to grasp too greedily at
hospitality which must needs be more pain than pleasure to bestow."

"Nay, monsieur," interrupted Gwennola gently, "we of Mereac grudge no
man our hospitality, but——"

"Ay, the but," replied d’Estrailles wistfully. "Mademoiselle, believe
me, my gratitude is unbounded, yet I cannot but comprehend how
distasteful is the presence of a Frenchman to a family bereaved as the
good father here has told me, nor would I linger one moment longer than
it is necessary to my hurt; though," he added softly, "I must needs
leave behind me for ever somewhat that I had dreamed to keep my own for
all time."

She did not reply, only met his pleading glance with one which was half
wonder, half glad comprehension, the look of a child who sees before it
joys hitherto undreamt of, yet gazes, doubting whether they be for him.
The look lingered in her eyes even when she had left the sick man’s
chamber, and gone slowly down the winding stairway into the great hall.

"Ah, my Nola, so there thou art.  Comest thou not with thy old father
to-day a-hawking?"

The Sieur de Mereac stood by the long table booted and spurred, his
falcon on his wrist, his cloak flung over his shoulder, a gallant
figure, in brave attire, his kindly, keen grey eyes fixed questioningly
on his daughter.  She ran to him, curtsying and smiling, and slipped one
slim arm round his caressingly.

"I knew not that it was your pleasure, monsieur my father," she replied,
smiling up at him with loving eyes.  He stroked back her ruddy curls
fondly as he looked down into the beautiful face.

"Thy father always wants thee, little one," he said tenderly, "as thou
knowest very well, spoilt child as thou art.  And so thou dost not want
to come and see me try my new gerfalcon!  Donna Maria? tiens! look then
how beautiful a bird she is!"

"She is altogether perfect," murmured Gwennola, stroking the bird’s soft
plumage, "and to-morrow thou shalt again take her hawking, my father,
and I will accompany thee on my little Croisette.  Say, is it not so?"

"But why not to-day, little bird?" he asked, half impatiently.  "See,
the sun shines, and the air is glorious.  Fie, then! is it because
Guillaume is not here?"

A shadow fell across the bright face, and she drew back with a sigh.

"No, my father," she said in a low voice; "that thou knowest very
well,—oh, father!"—and once again she clung to him with a sudden,
new-born tenderness—"thou knowest that I want none but thee,—only thee
for always."

"Nay, child," he replied, patting her cheek kindly "that would never do;
but see, when thou art married to Guillaume we shall still be together;
there will come no stranger lord to carry my little sunbeam away from
Mereac, leaving it cold and grey for ever. Say then, little one, is that
not well?—thou and Guillaume, and the old father here?  Tiens! give me a
kiss, my Gwennola, for her Spanish Majesty waxes as impatient as my good
Barbe without.  Adieu, petite, and be kind to the poor Guillaume when he
returns."

But Gwennola did not reply; perhaps her voice was too choked with tears
just then to make answer to her father’s words, but, if so, she quickly
dashed the bright drops from her eyes as she met the curious gaze of a
youth who sat perched on a stool by the side of the empty hearth: a
narrow-faced, undersized lad clad in a fool’s motley, his quick beady
eyes roving restlessly from his young mistress to watch the gambols of a
small ape, which, dressed in quaint imitation of his master, chattered
and clambered about, first over the rush-strewn floor, then up the dark
tapestries, finally alighting between the outstretched forms of two
wolf-hounds, which lay dreaming doubtless of the chase, for, as the
impudent little jester sprang to their side, they raised their heads
with an ominous growl, and might in sleepy anger have terminated a
mischievous career, had not the little creature with an agile bound
sprung over their bodies on to the knee of his master, where he sat
gibbering and chattering like some mocking imp of darkness, whilst the
fool rocked himself backwards and forwards on his stool, chuckling
shrilly.

"Silence, Pierre!" commanded Gwennola, the more sharply because she had
with difficulty regained her composure; "and go quickly, bid Marie and
Job Alloadec come hither; tell them that I would have them accompany me
to Mereac to see old Mère Fanchonic.  And bid Marie bring the warm wrap
I promised the old woman."

Pierre obeyed sullenly enough, for it displeased him to have his sport
thus interrupted, but Gwennola paid no heed to his frowns, but stood
awaiting her attendants with a little smile hovering around her lips,
though why she smiled she could not have told, unless it were that she
recalled to mind Father Ambrose’s shocked face when the Frenchman spoke
of maidens’ eyes.  Tiens! what harm then was it?  It was true,—so she
supposed,—but could it also be true that her eyes——?  She broke off,
blushing crimson at the unmaidenly thought, then sighed as, instead of
Henri d’Estrailles’ handsome face, she recalled another face which had
looked so mockingly into hers that very morn, yonder on the terrace, a
cruel, evil face, with sallow cheeks and pale, cold eyes, the
recollection of which started another train of thought.  What had it
been that had so startled Guillaume de Coray?  Why had he been absent
since that moment when he had parted from her so suddenly?  She was
still wondering vaguely when the entrance of Marie and Job Alloadec
broke in on her meditations.

"Come," she said, a little impatiently, "I have been awaiting thee this
long time, my Marie; it grows late, and I would fain be home before the
twilight deepens; but, ma foi, what ails the good Jobik?"

It certainly appeared as if somewhat greatly ailed the poor retainer;
his usually ruddy cheeks were flabby and pale, and his blue eyes glanced
from side to side, with the nervous stare of one who has been badly
frightened.  Marie crossed herself, paling too as she replied—

"Ah, mademoiselle, pardon, it is true that I delayed, but poor Job was
at first so fear-stricken that I deemed he would verily have become
crazed outright."

Gwennola stamped her foot impatiently.  "Foolish one!" she cried, though
there was a ripple of laughter mingled with the anger in her tones.
"Say then what has befallen? has the poor Jobik seen the same vision
that affrighted Monsieur de Coray this morning?"

"Truly, I know not," replied Marie in a whisper. "But he says—nay, lady,
he says—tiens, Job! tell the Lady Gwennola what thou sawest yonder in
the forest."

For reply the poor Breton poured forth a mumbled string of vows and
prayers, from amongst which Gwennola at last extracted the startling
fact that, as he stood by the river bank, he had seen amongst the trees,
on the other side, a vision of Yvon de Mereac, his young lord, who had
perished on the bloody field of St Aubin du Cormier nearly three years
since.

Even Gwennola grew pale as she devoutly crossed herself, murmuring a
prayer to her patron saint before she faltered out an inquiry as to the
manner of the vision.  It was this, it appeared, which had so puzzled
the faithful Jobik, who had worshipped his young master with all a
Breton’s devotion: he had not stood before him clad in armour as he had
fallen, but in ragged and poor attire, with wasted cheeks and eyes at
once haunting and terrible, as if, so Job averred, the tortured spirit
were in some great peril, from which it pleaded with Job to release it.

In vain Gwennola strove to convince the poor fellow that the vision
could be naught but some phantasy of the brain, or that the figure seen
was that of some wandering madman who bore a likeness to her dead
brother.  Job clung to his tale, at last breaking down utterly in his
terror and perplexity, and sobbing out prayers to every saint in the
calendar to enlighten him as to what the vision would have him do.

It was some time before all were sufficiently calm to set out on their
expedition, an expedition from which Marie in vain strove to dissuade
her mistress. The thought of so immediately entering the now
horror-haunted forest was agony to the poor waiting woman; but in spite
of her own inward qualms, Gwennola was firm in her purpose.  Truth to
tell, the young mistress was inclined to be of an obstinate and
tenacious disposition, and, having decided on her plan of action,
carried it through in spite of opposition, so that Marie, knowing well
her wilful temper, was fain to yield to her wishes, and strive, if
vainly, to conquer her fears.

Gwennola, on the contrary, gave no outward sign of her misgivings; some
strange elation seemed suddenly to have over-mastered them, and her
merry laugh rang cheerily through the sunlit glades as she challenged
Marie to a race.

Mère Fanchonic’s humble dwelling was reached at last, and the young
châtelaine’s gracious sympathy and kindly words brought many a blessing
down on her head from the old woman ere they departed once more on their
homeward way, Mère Fanchonic herself hobbling slowly to the door to
scream shrill injunctions to Job to guard well his young mistress, for,
though the way was short, there were perils on all sides.

That such was the case in those lawless times Gwennola knew only too
well, but she possessed the daring spirit of her race, and her father
had ever yielded to her more licence than was deemed fitting for a young
girl in those days.  Therefore Gwennola had been accustomed from
childhood to wander in the woods around Mereac, accompanied only by the
faithful Job and Marie, or perchance by her father, or brother.  The
thought of that brother, so dear and so long mourned, brought a sadness
afresh to her bright face as she turned her steps towards the château.
The thrill of elation had gone, and a sudden gloom seemed to have
plunged her from unaccountable mirth to melancholy; neither could she
altogether explain what oppressed her, unless indeed it could be Job
Alloadec’s strange vision.

Twilight was creeping with stealthy footsteps upon them, in spite of
their haste, as they passed swiftly along the narrow woodland path, and
Marie had shrunk closer to her mistress’s side, when a sudden crackling
of boughs in a thicket close by caused both girls to scream aloud in
fear, as a man leapt out from the wood on to the path in front of them.
Flesh and blood without doubt was the intruder, no hollow-eyed
apparition of the dead, such as they had half dreaded: a man, short,
thick-set, with a red stubbly beard and hard, reckless eyes, which
stared now into theirs with a fierce, yet frightened defiance.

"Monsieur de Coray?" he gasped, and looked eagerly behind the girls
towards Job, who had hurried up to his young mistress’s side.

"De Coray?" questioned Gwennola, who was the first of the three to
regain her self-possession, signing at the same time to Job to keep by
her side.  "Is it then Monsieur de Coray with whom you desire speech?"

"Yes—no," stammered the man, glancing from right to left.  "Pardon,
mademoiselle, I feared—nay—methought——"  And then, with the gasp of one
who sees safety but in flight, he sprang once more into the brushwood,
and disappeared, as suddenly as he had come, amongst the trees.

"Nay," said Gwennola de Mereac gently, as Job, with a suspicious grunt,
made as though he would set off in pursuit, "there was no harm; the poor
man is half crazed with fear or something worse.  Besides," she added
with a smile, "thou wouldest not leave us alone, good Job, to find our
way home through these twilight woods.  Parbleu! it was well that yon
poor, frightened rogue had no business with us, for he wore an ugly
look, and it is possible that he hath friends, beside Monsieur de Coray,
in yon dark forest.  Come, my Marie, tremble not now danger is past, but
let us return the more quickly, seeing that perchance my father even now
grows anxious."

"’Twas a strange knave," muttered Job as he followed his sister and her
mistress on their way. "But, by the beard of the holy St Gildas!  I had
liefer meet two such than——"  And the gallant Job crossed himself
devoutly, though he did not complete his sentence.



                              *CHAPTER IV*


The shadows fell heavily in the great hall of the Château de Mereac.  In
one corner the fool Pierre had lain himself down on the rushes to sleep,
clasping his smaller namesake to his narrow chest.  By the empty hearth
Gaspard de Mereac leant back in his great chair, half dozing after his
hawking, the gay gerfalcon perched on the back of the seat, preening
herself with stately grace, as one who would say, "See one who has
proved her worth and won the praises of all who beheld her prowess."  At
their master’s feet lay the wolf-hounds, Gloire and Reine, the former
raising his stately head from time to time to softly lick the hand which
hung over the oaken chair.  A step coming hastily across the hall roused
the lord of the castle into a sudden, irritated wakefulness, for well he
knew it was not the gentle tread of his little Gwennola, but instead, as
one sleepy glance told him, his nephew Guillaume de Coray.  Something
however, in the latter’s disordered dress and pale face roused him from
his dreams of gallant hawks and screaming herons to demand abruptly what
had chanced.

"Chanced?" echoed de Coray vaguely.  "Chanced, monsieur my uncle?  Nay,
naught hath chanced, but——"  He paused, as if striving to collect a
train of wandering thoughts, leaning his chin on his hand as he sat down
on a bench opposite to his interrogator.

"Where hast been all day?" demanded de Mereac, stretching out his legs
with a sleepy yawn and pausing to pat Gloire’s faithful head as he
raised himself in his seat.  "Verily thou hast missed as fair a day’s
sport as I have had for many a day.  De Plöernic rated not his fair
Spaniard too highly after all.  Seldom have I seen so straight a flight;
but thou shalt judge for thyself on the morrow, for I have promised to
take the little Gwennola with me, and thou, too, Guillaume, wilt
doubtless accompany us?"

"Doubtless," replied the younger man, but his listless tone and moody
face drew fresh inquiries from his uncle as to his day’s doings.  De
Coray replied evasively, still preserving the same gloomy manner, whilst
his knitted brow seemed to speak of perplexity and indecision.

"What ails thee, man?" cried de Mereac heartily, "thou art as gloomy as
any fat abbot on a fast day. Say then, has my lady been flouting thee?
A plague on the little rogue, she hath scarce been near me this day!"

De Coray glanced sideways towards his uncle, then downwards, whilst a
sinister smile played round his mouth.

"Perchance the French knight’s wounds have needed too much of my fair
mistress’s care," he said maliciously, noting with satisfaction how the
shaft went home, from the old man’s sudden start and angry frown.  Then,
dropping his hesitating manner, he leant forward, speaking slowly but
emphatically. "Monsieur," he said softly, "it is in my mind that I
should tell you clearly that which I alone have knowledge of; perchance
you will blame me for not having spoken sooner, but knightly honour
forbade me.  Now, however, the necessity seemeth to me greater even than
any false sense of magnanimity, seeing that we cross not swords with the
viper, but rather crush him under heel before he does us mortal ill, and
so——"  He paused, to give perhaps greater weight to his words, narrowly
watching the stern, set face opposite him, which seemed to have
stiffened into an iron mask.

"Speak thy mind, man," demanded the old noble curtly.  "If there is ill
to tell, tell it me—the saints know I have borne such before—but cease
to prate of that which is beside the purpose, as is the way with women
and fools—not men."

"Nay," said de Coray, flushing under the reproof, "there is that to tell
which will be hard for you to hear, monsieur, and I would but prepare
you for the tale; as you may well guess, it concerneth this Frenchman
whom fate, by strange trickery, cast at your gates."

De Mereac’s jaw closed with a snap.

"He hath satisfied me that he is no spy," he replied sternly.  "I have
accepted his knightly word, and though it be bitter for me to extend
hospitality to the enemy of my country and one of my son’s slayers,
still, by all the laws of knighthood and chivalry he goes free as soon
as he is fit to travel."

"So," said de Coray, "he hath satisfied you, monsieur?  That may well
be, since he knew not the name of his victim, and yet I may well wonder
how he trains his tongue to speak smooth words in a Breton’s ear when he
remembereth St Aubin du Cormier."

The old man’s face paled.  "St Aubin du Cormier?" he murmured.

"Yes, St Aubin du Cormier," repeated de Coray, moving a little nearer,
as if he feared his words might be overheard.  "Listen, monsieur, and
you will understand why, at sight of yon dog lying under the greenwood,
I cried to you to yield him no mercy, but to mete out to him the dog’s
death he deserved."

"Speak," said de Mereac hoarsely, "I can ill brook such preamble."

"The battle was a bloody one, as you may well remember," began de Coray.
"We of Brittany fought gallantly, as we ever do, and the English archers
of Lord Woodville yielded only to the French with their lives; for
myself, I had escaped throughout the fight, and towards evening found
myself driven back, close to a wood, by the side of the Prince of
Orange, who, seeing the chances of the day had gone against us, tore
from his breast the black cross of Brittany, urging us, his followers,
to do the same, for that nothing remained to us but flight.  His words
were true, but, for all that, no true Breton amongst us tore the cross
from his tunic, though we sought flight readily enough amongst the
trees, and in so doing it chanced that I became separated from the rest,
and, wandering alone through the wood, came suddenly in sight of a man
clad in the armour of a Frenchman, who walked stealthily; for an instant
I paused, and, alas! monsieur, before I could conceive the meaning of
the situation, it was too late.  A Breton knight, whom I recognised on
the instant as my cousin Yvon, was standing spent and weary by his
horse’s side, whilst the animal drank greedily of the water from a brook
which ran hard by.  Yvon’s vizor was up, and I could see he was pale
with excitement and exhaustion, though methinks unwounded.  His back was
turned towards his enemy, and before I could cry a word of warning, the
cowardly traitor had sprung forward and cloven him from brow to chin, so
that he fell dead by his horse’s side.  I sprang forward also, with a
cry, but the Frenchman was true to his colours; for one instant he
looked at me, then, fearing doubtless that friends of mine and the dead
man’s might be near, he drove fiercely at me with his sword, and fled,
so that in the twilight I missed him, though, so thirsty grew my own
good blade for his blood, that I searched till darkness fell and all
hope of finding him was gone."

"And?" groaned de Mereac.

De Coray smiled pensively.  "Monsieur," he added, "the French traitor’s
vizor was also raised, so that I read well the features which I saw not
again till I beheld them yonder in the forest."

With a bitter curse the old man sprang to his feet with such vigour that
Gloire and Reine raised their great heads with a short bark of
excitement.

"He?" cried de Mereac, his voice quivering with fury, "he?—the man whose
life I spared? the man who has partaken of my hospitality and eaten my
salt?  He? the base murderer of my Yvon?—my boy—my boy!"  In spite of
his anger his voice broke over the last words; then a fresh tempest
seized him. "Fool!" he cried, gripping de Coray by the shoulder,
"wherefore didst thou not tell me this when we found him yonder?
wherefore prolong by an hour the life of so foul a thing?"

"Nay," faltered de Coray, paling before the storm he had evoked.
"Methought—the Lady Gwennola——"

"Gwennola!" shouted the old man.  "Thrice double fool! thinkest thou
there would be one throb of pity in her pure maiden’s heart for such an
one as the murderer of her brother?  Ay, murderer he is, and as such
shall die.  Hie thee, varlet, bid come hither on the instant Job and
Henri.  Ay! and bid them drag down yon foul thing from the chamber where
he lieth so softly, and he shall learn what Breton justice is.  Bah! the
rope that should hang him would be for ever a thing dishonoured; rather
would I give him to my good hounds yonder to tear limb from limb;
though, by the bones of St Yves, such death even were too gentle and
easy a thing for him."

Pierre the fool, thus roughly roused from slumber to be sent in search
of Job and his comrade, stood gaping and gasping before his master’s
anger, whilst the ape from his shoulder grinned and gibbered in mocking
imitation of its lord’s wrath; but before de Mereac’s fury could burst
forth again upon the head of his witless retainer, a voice beside him
turned the swift current of his thoughts into another channel. It was
his daughter Gwennola who stood before him, pale but resolute, with no
look of fear in her blue eyes as they met his stormy frown, but rather
returning look for look, boldly and bravely.

"My father," she said steadily, laying one white hand upon the sleeve of
his long furred gown, "I have heard what"—her voice trembled—"what
Monsieur de Coray has been saying, and," she added, turning a blazing
face of indignation towards the younger man, who stood leaning against
the tapestry near, "I call him coward and liar to his face!"

There was an instant’s pause, de Mereac’s brows drawn ominously down as
he glanced from his daughter to de Coray, whose mocking smile seemed to
sting the girl to fresh anger.

"Liar and coward!" she cried, stamping her little foot, her blue eyes
still ablaze.  "Ah, monsieur my father, it is incredible that you
believe him."

"Incredible?" said the old man slowly, "and wherefore, child?  More
incredible to me that my daughter should take the part of a foul
murderer, an enemy to her country and house, rather than the word of her
betrothed husband."

De Coray’s smile deepened.  "Monsieur," he said, with a mocking bow,
"you asked me why I told a traitor’s secret now rather than
yesterday—perhaps monsieur is answered."

De Mereac’s eyes sought his daughter’s face sternly, but again she met
them with a glance almost defiant, then softening, as she read a dumb
agony behind the anger, till her own blue eyes brimmed with tears.

"Oh, my father!" she cried, drawing nearer to his side with outstretched
hands, "in the name of justice listen to me, and heed not the words of
yon cruel man.  See, my father, if Monsieur d’Estrailles has done this
thing, willingly would my hands tie the knot which bound the rope round
his coward’s throat, but, my father, is it justice? is it a thing of
honour to strike like the adder in the dark?  I, yes, I, Gwennola de
Mereac, challenge you, Guillaume de Coray, to repeat your lying tale
before the man you accuse, and let my father judge between true knight
and false."

De Coray’s smile faded as he met her fearless gaze, then glanced
sideways towards de Mereac, who stood hesitating, eagerly, it seemed,
awaiting his answer.

"So be it, my fairest law-giver," he said at last, with a forced smile.
"To-morrow will be as good a hanging day as to-night, and perchance, as
you suggest, the office shall fall to your own fair hands."

She did not reply, but turned, curtsying gravely to her father as she
quitted the hall.

Not another word was spoken between the two men left standing there
amongst the shadows.  De Mereac, whose transport of rage seemed to have
died down, since his daughter’s interference, into a sullen moodiness,
soon strode away, leaving Guillaume alone.  The young man’s meditations
seemed perchance to be scarcely of a soothing nature, for, till darkness
fell, he continued pacing up and down the hall, lost in thought, till a
hand touching his roused him with a startled curse, and, looking down,
he saw to his surprise the thin, shrewd face of Pierre the fool looking
wistfully up into his.

"Monsieur," said the boy softly, "I am monsieur’s slave; if I may be
allowed to serve monsieur, perchance I can do much."

Guillaume de Coray looked thoughtfully down into the oblique, uncanny
eyes, then he smiled.  "A friend," he quoth lightly, "is at times a
necessity, and should not be refused, mon Pierre, even when the friend
is but a fool.  Yes, I will accept, and," he added, drawing a piece of
money from his pocket, and placing it in the lad’s outstretched palm, "I
will pay the price of true friendship, mon ami.  See, there is already a
service you can render me."  He drew Pierre as he spoke into a recess,
dropping his voice, as if fearing that the pictured figures on the
tapestry had ears to hear.  "Yonder in the forest," he said softly,
"there wanders a man whom I would fain have speech with, a man, short,
thick-set, with a red beard and black eyes; tell him," he added,
speaking slowly and impressively, with both hands on Pierre’s shoulders,
"that his _friend_, his _friend_, mark you, boy, Guillaume de Coray,
would have speech with him; that there is naught to fear and much to
gain, and that to any rendezvous he may appoint I will come alone."

Pierre’s black eyes shone as he looked up into de Coray’s pale face,
nodding slowly.  "Pierre understands," he muttered.  "Monsieur has
trusted to Pierre the fool, who is now the friend of monsieur, and
therefore it is understood that the man with the red beard shall be
found.  Is it not so, mon choux?" he added, caressing the ape, which he
still carried in his arms.  "Tiens! it is clear that Pierre the fool
will soon be rich and great, and the little Gabrielle far away in the
forest shall no more weep for hunger."  And as he turned away, the boy
looked lovingly down at the piece of leather money with its small centre
of silver which de Coray had given him. "Without doubt monsieur has a
great heart," he murmured softly.  "As for the Lady Gwennola, I have no
love for her, though she be fair as the dawn, for she has no love for
monsieur, and none also for petit Pierre.  Is it not so, mon petit?
Bah! we shall be great soon, thou and I, mon Pierrot, very great."



                              *CHAPTER V*


"Ah, Marie, Marie, what shall I do?  Tiens! petite, canst say no word to
comfort me?  Bah! with thy great eyes thou hast no more sense than the
owls which cry all night in the forest yonder. Nay! forgive me, Marie,
and comfort me, because, because——"

"Nay, lady," sighed the waiting-maid, "I fear me there is little to be
said, for see, you tell me that on the morrow Monsieur de Mereac——"

"Ah, listen then, Marie, and I will explain all to thee," said Gwennola,
clasping her hands as she looked piteously across into Marie’s
sympathetic face.

"Monsieur de Coray, viper that he is, has for some reason I know not
conceived a hatred for Monsieur d’Estrailles, therefore he has told to
monsieur my father many false lies, saying that Monsieur d’Estrailles
foully murdered the poor Yvon, whose soul rest in peace, at the battle
of St Aubin du Cormier, three years since; but Marie, it is false
Monsieur d’Estrailles could do no such unknightly deed—nay, I am assured
of it."

"But wherefore, mistress?" demanded Marie stolidly.  "We know nothing of
this French monsieur; it may be that his tongue is no smoother than his
heart false.  Jobik hath ofttimes bid me beware if a Frenchman cross my
path, for they are altogether children of the devil in their deceitful
ways."

"Jobik is a fool!" declared his young mistress tartly, "and thou also
art lacking in all sense, my Marie, to listen to him.  See then how many
noble Frenchmen have been true friends to Brittany; think of Monsieur
d’Orléans and Monsieur the Count Dunois, who even now seeks to aid our
sweet Duchess; but all such talk is foolishness.  Be assured, Marie,
that I, thy mistress, am convinced that Monsieur d’Estrailles is a good
and true knight, and yet, alas! alas! to-morrow morn it may well chance
that he will hang as if he were some cowardly traitor or foul
murderer—for see then, Marie, it is the word of a Frenchman against a
Breton, and though the latter be thrice times a traitor knave, yet well
I know he hath the trick of lying with as smooth a brow as any guileless
babe, and so—and so—my father will believe him.  Alas! alas!" and the
young girl broke down into a flood of tears.

Marie stood watching her mistress’s distress, tears brimming in her own
brown eyes, although in her heart was still some doubting of the
Frenchman’s honour.  But, after all, what maid of any age is proof
against romance? and the fact that Gwennola was deeply interested in the
handsome stranger was apparent enough to the waiting-woman’s eyes.  And
what wonder, seeing that fate had hitherto offered naught but so sorry a
lover as Monsieur de Coray? There was no love for the latter in Marie’s
heart, which went the farther in his rival’s favour.

"Alas! my lady," she murmured, with a sob, "’tis grievous to think of,
and that he should die, this poor monsieur, at dawn, on the word of such
an one as Monsieur de Coray!  If it had been that he were not injured,
we might even have helped him to escape, but alas——"

"Alas!" sobbed Gwennola, "with such a wound ’twere death to attempt it.
No, Marie, he will die, and I, it may be, will find shelter in a
convent, as Father Ambrose hath ofttimes suggested, for well I wot I
would marry no murderer, liar and coward, such as Guillaume de Coray."

The passion of her hatred against her betrothed husband for the moment
had roused Gwennola from her grief.  Now she dried her tears, and,
rising, began slowly to pace the room, her head thrown back, and a light
gradually dawning in her blue eyes.  The wild untamable spirit of daring
which had raced so madly through the veins of countless generations of
ancestors had lifted her from the weak and unavailing grief of
womanhood.

"I will save him," she said slowly, as she faced Marie Alloadec; "yes,
it is possible.  See, little one," she added, pointing reverently to a
small figure of the Madonna placed on a table near, "it is the Holy
Mother herself who has shown me how to do it; but go, my Marie, for
there is little time to lose, even in prayers, go, tell Father Ambrose
that I would see him now, quickly, if may be, in the chapel."

Marie stared.  "But, mademoiselle!" she gasped.

Gwennola laid both hands firmly on the other’s shoulders, looking down
kindly but commandingly into the frightened brown eyes upraised to hers.

"Listen, Marie," she said quietly; "thou must obey without questioning.
A noble knight’s life hangs perchance in the issue, therefore ’tis no
time for woman’s fears or weakness; but what I purpose doing I tell
neither to thee nor any other, seeing that it were ill for any save
myself alone to refuse to answer when my father commands; only this
thing I ask thee: go, tell Father Ambrose that I await him in the
chapel, see that he fails me not, and, for the rest, be silent.  Nay,"
she added, as tears rose in the girl’s eyes, "’tis not that I doubt thy
faithfulness, child, but that I would spare thee pain, ay, and myself
too, though one thing more there is I would ask of thee which I had
well-nigh forgotten.  Bid Job lead the stranger’s horse from the stables
in an hour’s time and tether him within the wood close by the river’s
bank; let none see him do it, neither let him speak of what he does.
Also, should he fancy he seeth a figure pass him by whilst he standeth
on guard at the outer postern, let him cross himself and deem ’tis a
spirit, such as he already dreamt to see to-day, and take heed that he
goeth not to inquire too closely as to whether there is aught of flesh
and blood about it, for to-morrow mayhap it will have been well for him
to have been somewhat blind and deaf."

Marie curtsied, not daring to reply, as she saw the determination in her
mistress’s face.  Nevertheless, as she sped on her errand, she muttered
many an ave to her patron saint, knowing well what the fury of the lord
of the château would be did his daughter succeed in her daring
intention.

It may have been that even Gwennola’s heart half failed her as she sank
on her knees in the dimly lighted chapel of the castle.  Wrapped in a
long hooded cloak, she might well have passed for a shadow amongst the
shadows which the moonlight flung around.  Involuntarily the young girl
crossed herself as she watched the cold, clear beams which fell long and
pale across the altar, streaming down in flickering waves of light
towards where she knelt in one of the stalls; for, high-born as she was,
the superstitions of the day ran riot in her mind, and well she knew the
baneful influence of the moon on the destiny of the Breton, and yet—as
she argued to herself—the evil omen of the ghostly light might be
averted, seeing that he whom she would fain succour was no Breton; and
with the thought came others, more mocking and bewildering.  Why did she
thus dare brave her father’s anger, and outrage her maiden modesty for
the sake of a stranger and an enemy? The burning blushes which
overspread her cheeks at the thought of the plan she had conceived might
have convinced her, but the mad whirl of her mind refused to be analysed
too closely.  In vain she argued with herself that it was but her own
keen sense of justice, so certain was she that the tale of Guillaume de
Coray was false.  But why should it be false?  That she could not reply
to, except by the illogical, but all-convincing, sense of her woman’s
intuition.  A false quantity that in a hall of justice.  Gwennola
shuddered as she felt the frailty of such an argument, shuddered as she
saw how fast the net of fate had immeshed this stranger.  There was a
little sob in her throat as she bowed her head in her hands, a sob
which, like her deeper thoughts, she refused to analyse.  Surely it was
but a note of pity for an innocent man whom jealous hatred or some
passion she could not divine was condemning to death?  A hand laid on
her shoulder roused her, and with a little frightened cry she sprang to
her feet, but it was only Father Ambrose, that good father who had known
and loved her ever since she had first lisped out baby confessions of
infantine sin and wickedness at his knee.  Yes, it had been a happy
thought to send for him, though for his own good she must deceive him as
to her intentions.

"The hour is late, my daughter," said the old priest gently.  "What
wouldest thou with me, child?  Surely ’tis no time," he added with a
smile, "even for confessions?"

"Nay, my father," she said softly, "’tis no confession, but perchance
more of pity for one unjustly condemned to death that moves me to crave
thy help."

"To death?" he echoed, glancing keenly at her. "Nay, daughter, but what
hath chanced? and who in the château of thy gallant father may dare to
condemn unjustly?"

"Nay," she replied, "listen, my father, and thou shalt judge for
thyself," and in a few hurried sentences she told her tale.

Father Ambrose listened with bent brows, narrowly watching the fair face
of the narrator as she spoke.

"Yes," he said gently, when she had finished, "I too am of thy opinion,
my child, for I have watched by this sick man’s side for many hours, and
methinks truly he is a brave and loyal knight, with no such cruel smirch
of treachery lying at his heart; but for all that, daughter, we have
scarce known him for two days, and it may well be that we are deceived,
for wherefore should Guillaume de Coray conceive so terrible a tale in
falseness?"

"Nay, that I know not," replied Gwennola, sighing, "except that he is
false, father, false to the heart’s core, and speaketh lies as easily as
he who is the father of them.  Nay, father, reprove me not, for never
husband of mine shall he be, by the grace of St Enora herself I swear
it; rather would I die, far, far rather bury myself behind convent walls
than marry a traitor and coward."

"Nay, daughter," rebuked Father Ambrose, "talk not so wildly, though in
the life of the convent there be much peace and happiness for those who
find little without; but thou, my child," he added with a shrewd smile,
"wert no more born to be a nun than to be the wife of a traitor.  But
see, the night grows apace, and methinks we do little good in speaking
ill of thy kinsman; better it were to pray for the soul of this poor
gentleman who dies with the morrow’s sun, or rather, that if it please
the holy saints to alter so sad a destiny, to send succour to one whom
we, at least, do look upon as innocent of this black crime whereof he is
accused."

"Pray for his soul?" murmured Gwennola with a sigh; then a half smile
parted her lips.  "Nay, father," she murmured, "surely ’twill be a
fairer division between us if thou prayest for his soul and I for his
body.  But nay, look not reprovingly, dear father, but listen to the
prayer of thy little Gwennola, who called thee hither to crave a favour,
besides telling thee of this sad work of the morrow."

"And that, my daughter?" questioned the old priest with a whimsical
smile, well knowing the coaxing tones with which she pleaded.

"That," she whispered, whilst the colour surged back into her pale
cheeks, "is to bring hither Monsieur d’Estrailles, that I myself may
tell him of his danger and—and bid him farewell, for I will not be
present on the morrow to see a noble knight suffer such cruel
injustice."

For a moment Father Ambrose was silent, eyeing her gravely and
thoughtfully.

"Child," he said at last, "this knight is but a stranger who scarcely
knoweth thee.  Deemest thou it be seemly or maidenly on thy part thus to
crave audience with such an one, alone, at night?"

With crimson cheeks but undaunted eyes Gwennola faced the old man.

"Nay, father," she said steadily, "deem me not unmaidenly.  Hast ever
found thy little Gwennola aught but discreet and jealous of her honour?
Nay, father, had I known this poor knight better, I could not have
craved such an interview, but seeing he is but a stranger whom—whom I
pity, surely there were no harm!"

"But wherein the good?" questioned the priest. "Surely it were best for
me to seek Monsieur d’Estrailles’ chamber and tell him all; then, when I
have shriven him, we may well pass the night in prayer for his soul, and
that the saints may give him fortitude for the morrow."

"Nay, father," whispered Gwennola pleadingly, "I too am praying for the
good knight’s body, as thou didst agree, and I would fain give him one
word anent the preserving of it, which can be but for his ears alone.
Nay, dear father, thy little Gwennola pleads with thee not to deny so
trifling a boon. What ill can befall?  A few simple words of comfort and
farewell to a poor stranger who to-morrow must die, and then for the
rest of the night thou mayest wrestle alone with him in needful prayer
for his soul."

"Nay, child, but ’tis scarce seemly," sighed Father Ambrose.  "And didst
thy father hear of it, methinks my office of confessor would be held but
a brief space. Still——"

"Still," urged Gwennola softly, "thou wilt not deny me so small a
boon—but ten minutes, my father, and then thou and he may spend the
hours that remain in making peace with Heaven."

"I fear me," sighed the priest heavily, "that thou hast inherited the
spirit of our first mother, my daughter, and temptest man with fair
words as she did with pleasant fruit.  Yet—well I wot thou art discreet,
child, and thy heart is soft and warm with pity, doubtless,—nay, there
can be no warmer feeling in thy breast for this poor knight.  ’Twere
impossible that love can find an entrance in so brief a space."  He
looked curiously into the flushed, smiling face as he spoke.

"Nay, father," laughed Gwennola softly.  "Fie on thee!  Am I not
betrothed to my cousin?"

Father Ambrose sighed as his keen ear caught the ring of defiance in the
last words.

"I pray our Blessed Lady that I do no harm," he murmured, crossing
himself devoutly.  "Methinks there can be little ill in so kind a
thought of pity, and it may be that the poor monsieur will regard more
thy words than mine.  Mary, Mother, have pity on his soul!"

"And his body," whispered Gwennola.  "See, father, we say amen to both
petitions; and now, haste thee quickly, for the time, as thou sayest,
draws on apace."

Slowly shaking his head, as if still beset with doubts as to his wisdom
in thus yielding to what he considered a wild, if generous whim, Father
Ambrose went his way, leaving Gwennola to pace the chapel with eager
steps, finally flinging herself down before the great crucifix which
stood upon the little altar. But even prayers at that moment were little
better than a wild, incoherent cry, so great a turmoil raged in the
young girl’s heart.  Now fears beset her as to the folly of an
undertaking as perilous as it was daring; only the thought of de Goray’s
cruel triumph on the next day goaded her forward to persevere in what
had been the impulse of a moment, and even this thought scarcely held
her to a purpose which of a sudden seemed to grow impracticable,
unmaidenly, almost unseemly.  Girt round as the young girls of the
period were with a host of restrictions and proprieties, the part she
now proposed to play seemed almost impossible; only the daring blood of
a Breton maid would have made such a thought conceivable, and now
outraged modesty rang a host of warnings in her ears.  This stranger
knight, what would he think of such a suggestion?  What would he deem
her, thus boldly to seek an interview, herself unsought?  She had been
mad to have thought of such a possibility of escape, and now perhaps he
would scorn her for her unmaidenly forwardness.

The burning blush which swept over her cheeks had scarce had time to
cool when her quick ear caught the sound of footsteps, halting and slow,
as if their owner walked with difficulty, and at the sound her woman’s
pity forgot the false sense of shame which had agonized within her.  Ay,
and she forgot too to question wherefore she took such interest in a
stranger, as he stood before her, and her quick heart throb told her
swiftly that it was more than pity and love of justice which had brought
her to dare risk so much for his sake.

Only ten minutes, and a life weighing in the balances!  Parbleu! was it
a time for maiden coyness and false bashfulness?  He stood still in the
moonlight, looking towards her with an eager, questioning glance in his
dark eyes.  How handsome he was and noble, and yet how pale!  Ah! that
unhealed wound in his side—doubtless he suffered much, and yet——

She was at his side now, her hood slipping back from her flushed face;
for even at that moment she was a woman, and the ill-omened moonlight
had no grudge against the gleaming tresses of her hair.

"Monsieur," she whispered.  "Ah, monsieur, think me not unmaidenly, but
it was your life that was in danger, which is——"

"Unmaidenly?" he interrupted gently.  "Nay, mademoiselle, to me, though,
alas! I have known you so short a space, you must always be the
embodiment of all that is most fair and lovely in womankind; but," he
added, seeing that though the colour on her cheeks deepened, she had too
much to say to listen to tender words, "you would fain have speech with
me, mademoiselle, on a matter of much gravity, the good father saith?"

Rapidly she told the tale, with every now and then a catch in her breath
of sheer excitement, but when she would have gone on to what was deepest
in her heart, he checked her with a little imperative gesture of
command.

"Nay, mademoiselle," he said firmly, "before aught else let me clear
myself of this foul calumny.  Ma foi! that this accursed wound prevents
me from driving the lie down the dog’s throat.  Pardon, mademoiselle,
but it is hard for a d’Estrailles to listen to so deep an insult and yet
wear his sword sheathed; but no—well I understand how matters lie—the
word of a Frenchman is naught against that of a Breton whose face hath
not yet been unmasked. Nay, mademoiselle, with your father there rests
no blame save blindness of sight perhaps in not reading traitor in false
eyes; but to you, whose pure heart hath read so truly, it were but right
to tell the tale as it stands, though methinks ’tis no easy one to read
in all its blackness.  Yet at the battle of St Aubin du Cormier I saw
that chance of which your kinsman has made so tangled a story; ’tis for
you to help me to spell its meaning.  The battle was over, and, as yon
villain truly saith, the Prince of Orange was taken prisoner in a
neighbouring wood, whilst Louis of Orleans was found wounded amongst the
slain. It chanced, as we searched for other prisoners of less note, that
in this self-same wood I lighted on a man who wore the black cross of
Brittany struggling with a soldier of France, but as I came near the
Frenchman was overcome, and the Breton knight was about to turn aside,
when another, wearing the same black cross as himself, stole swiftly up
behind and smote him a foul blow which caused him to fall, methinks a
corpse, almost at my feet.  Enraged at such treachery, I strove mightily
with the murderer, inflicting, however, but a flesh wound on his left
arm, and another of less import which clove his lower lip, his vizor
being raised; but before I could slay or take him prisoner he dealt me a
caitiff’s blow which stunned me for a moment, and before I could recover
he had fled through the trees."

Gwennola’s face had grown white to the lips, as d’Estrailles told his
tale, but her blue eyes blazed, as she cried with a sob—

"Monsieur, it is plain, the murderer was de Coray himself.  Oh, mon
Dieu! mon Dieu! and I might even have married him."  Then, drawing her
cloak round her, she signed to the young man to follow her.  "There is
no time for further speech," she whispered softly; "all explanations,
monsieur, I must tell you afterwards; for though it is clear to me that
your story needs must be true, yon viper with his crooked tongue may
well ensnare my father’s wit and cruel injustice be done.  Yet it shall
not be; I, Gwennola de Mereac, will save you, monsieur, because—because
I love justice, and will not see foul murder done again by yon false and
evil man."

"But, mademoiselle?" said d’Estrailles in surprise. "What is your will?
The good father——"

"The good father knoweth not everything," she replied imperiously; "for
the rest, monsieur, you may ask questions later, but at present we have
but four minutes ere the too anxious father returns to bear you off to
confession."

She smiled up at his questioning face, and the beauty of it, seen but
dimly from under the now close-drawn hood, set his pulses tingling and
his heart throbbing in a way to which even the sense of his present
perilous position had failed to stir them.

Silently, however, in obedience to her command, he followed the slender,
cloaked figure, though his surprise deepened as the raising of a piece
of heavy tapestry disclosed a small postern door.

"Do not speak," whispered Gwennola’s soft voice in his ear, "until I bid
you, and keep close beside me, monsieur, for your life."

Out into the moonlight they crept as she finished speaking, a waning
light now as the great silver orb sank westwards, flinging more fickle
shafts of pale glory over the shadowed landscape.  Yet treacherous and
fickle though she was, the Queen of Night smiled kindly for once on the
two fugitives, and sent no searching rays to inquire wherefore those
blacker shadows amongst shadows moved so haltingly down the broad
terraces and across the little bridge which spanned the river.  How
still the night was and how beautiful!

So fascinating indeed had Job Alloadec found the contemplation of the
starry heavens overhead that he had no eyes for shadows, stationary or
otherwise, and so enchanting were the low, weird cries which filled the
forest yonder, where bird and beast sought their nightly prey, that the
good Job’s ears were equally deaf to the sound of stealthy footsteps
which passed him by, though, as the tail of one vaguely innocent eye
glanced sideways towards the river, Job crossed himself, murmuring: "By
our Blessed Lady, it cannot be that it is the little mademoiselle
herself?"  And thereafter his faithful ears listened the more keenly for
any sound other than the distant cries of the wolves and low melancholy
note of the owl which rose from time to time from the neighbouring
woods.

"Tiens! monsieur," murmured Gwennola, as they paused at last under the
safe shelter of the thicket. "Let us pause; your wound—ah, monsieur, it,
I fear me, causes you much pain."

"Nay," muttered d’Estrailles with white lips. "’Tis only a passing
spasm; but, mademoiselle, the pain is naught compared to my wonderment,
my gratitude, yet——"  He hesitated, as Gwennola, throwing back her hood,
laughed merrily up into his astonished yet doubting face.

"See, monsieur," she cried, the dare-devil light of triumph dancing in
her blue eyes.  "You doubt! you wonder!  You say to yourself, ’She is
mad, this demoiselle of Brittany, who brings a sick man into a desolate
forest, from whence it is impossible to flee from his enemies’; and yet,
monsieur, though doubtless it is mad, this scheme of mine, it is more
sensible than it appears.  Yonder then is your horse, whom we must
approach cautiously, for I would not that he proclaimed his master’s
presence.  ’But,’ you say to yourself, ’what use is even my good horse
to me in this present plight? for, did I attempt to mount, my wound
would give me such pain that I should fall swooning to the ground.’
Doubtless monsieur is right. But, see, I do not say, ’Mount, ride,
monsieur, it is finished, my scheme.’  No, I say instead, ’Let us hasten
a little way through this dreary forest, you and I and the good steed,
and it will chance that we come in time to a spot more lonely and
desolate than any in all the region round; here we shall find
shelter—poor and strange it may appear, but the gracious saints will
have monsieur in their fair keeping, and so it shall be that he will be
safe from his enemies until such time as he is able to mount and ride on
his way.’"

"Mademoiselle," stammered d’Estrailles, as he raised her little hand to
his lips.  "Ah, mademoiselle, I am overwhelmed at such goodness, such
generosity! Surely it is an angel in the garb of fairest womanhood whom
the Blessed Mother hath sent to aid me from so black a snare!"

"Nay, monsieur," she cried softly, smiling through the tears which
filled her soft eyes, "’tis no angel, but only a poor Breton maid who
loveth justice and bravery, and who hateth a lie and a false coward.
But," she added with a glance half coquettish, half doubtful, "monsieur
thanks me too soon; it may be that he will find his refuge less to his
liking than his prison, for truly if monsieur hath the fears of many——"
She paused, smiling still as she looked at him, hesitating; but as his
smile met hers the indecision in her manner passed.  "See, monsieur,"
she said, "I will explain; though let us not delay, lest darkness fall
too soon.  This refuge to which I take monsieur is but a ruin at best, a
ruin of what once was a chapel, very renowned, very beautiful, but for
many years, ah! very many, it has ceased to be visited, save by the bats
and owls, by reason of a very evil legend, which tells how one of the
monks of a monastery hard by committed there a very evil and terrible
deed, in punishment of which, seeing he escaped the justice of men, he
is condemned to wander for ever in ghostly shape around the chapel where
in his days on earth he served as the good God’s servant, and so
terrible is the sight of the poor brown friar that none dare pass within
sight of the chapel walls, nay, not even in the broad light of day, for
fear of encountering so dread a spectre; therefore monsieur will be safe
if, if——"

"I fear the monk’s spectre less than thy kinsman’s treachery and thy
father’s rope," smiled Henri d’Estrailles.  "Nay, mademoiselle, how can
the sight of so harmless a spirit affright when I wear so sweet an
amulet?"

"An amulet?" she questioned, looking with curious eyes into his.

"Ay," he replied softly, "the amulet, mademoiselle, of a brave maiden’s
aid and the tender memory of sweet eyes."

"Nay," she said hastily, drawing her hood over her hair again, with a
shy bashfulness, to hide perchance her blushes, "monsieur must remember
that I but aid him, because—because——"

"Ay—because?" he questioned eagerly, as he bent to look into the
downcast face.  "Because?"

"See, monsieur," she said hastily, pointing towards an opening in the
path which they were treading; "yonder is the place.  Mary, Mother,
protect us!" and she crossed herself rapidly as, with half-scared looks,
she pointed to the rugged outline of a half-ruined chapel which stood on
the very outskirts of the forest, sheltered only by a thick belt of
trees from a wide stretch of moorland which lay, scarcely visible from
where they stood, on their left.  Behind them, in the rapidly darkening
thicket, rose the murmurous cries of the forest creatures; but in the
open space around the ruin the flickering rays of the waning moon shone
clear.  Wild and desolate was the spot, ghostly and weird the hour, yet
Henri d’Estrailles smiled as he turned from scanning the refuge thus
found to the trembling girl at his side.

"Mademoiselle," he said, "what can I say to tell you of my gratitude?
how prove my devotion for one who has at such risk sought to save me
from my enemies?  Truly, methinks, I may safely abide in such a shelter
without fear of too bold intruders; the very presence of monsieur the
good priest, my friend, seems to haunt such a fitting dwelling-place.
Nay, I do not jest, though I thank the saints I have not the fears which
prove so strong a safeguard against my foes, for who could fear, I again
demand, with such an amulet as you have given me?"

"Nay," she whispered fearfully, "speak not lightly, monsieur, for though
I—I have little fear, seeing that the saints ever have the innocent,
Father Ambrose saith, in their keeping, still, ’tis ill speaking thus at
midnight of the spirits of the dead, be they good or ill, and, and," she
continued, trying to speak more bravely, "I have yet to show you your
lodging, monsieur."  She stepped forward as she spoke, glancing back for
him to follow, with a look in her blue eyes which might well have
haunted those of martyr times, so brave yet so fearful it was.

"See," she whispered, as she led the way towards the ruin, "Yvon and I
discovered the secret in our childhood’s days, and none other know it, I
ween, for Yvon, ever fearless of aught, would ofttimes make me play here
with him against my will, and so it chanced one day that we lighted on a
chamber beneath the ruined altar.  ’Tis but a narrow, evil place,
monsieur, but at least a safe one."

"And the horse?" questioned d’Estrailles eagerly, for now for the first
time hope seemed verily to be opening a way of escape before him.

"Nay," sighed Gwennola, "’tis our chiefest difficulty; but there is
beyond the chapel yonder a small shed, monsieur, a shed also ruined, it
is true, as the chapel, but ’twill serve as shelter, and, should the
poor beast be discovered, still you may well lie hid in safety and
security."

The underground chamber, perchance in bygone days the chapel crypt, was,
as the girl had said, small and ill lodging, but a man in extremity
needs not to lie softly, and to Henri d’Estrailles it was more welcome
in his need than a palace chamber might have been.  Yet the young man
found it difficult with so full a heart to stammer forth his gratitude.

"Nay," smiled Gwennola, her courage returning as he held her hands in
his and she met the glance of his dark eyes, "’tis small thanks I need,
monsieur, seeing I owed it to my father to save him from a crime of
which he wots little; but now, monsieur, I must say farewell, do I
desire to return ere the moonlight fades from the forest," and she made
a laughing grimace of misgiving as she pointed towards the gloomy path.
"To-morrow e’en," she added, "food shall be brought to you, monsieur, if
not by my hand, then by that of a faithful servant; till then I fear me
your fare must be frugal, for Marie could bring me no more than this,"
and with an apologetic smile she laid upon the ground a small basket
containing bread and a flask of wine, which she had carried beneath her
cloak.

"Nay," exclaimed d’Estrailles vehemently, "mademoiselle, I cannot permit
that you shall return alone and unattended through yon dark forest.
Shame would it be on my knighthood and my honour to allow one who has
already dared for me far beyond my deserts to run so terrible a risk."

"Indeed," she pleaded, "I have no fear.  Nay, monsieur, I lay my
commands upon you not to advance one step; already you faint with the
pain of your wound, also it would be impossible that you should retrace
your steps to this place.  Adieu, monsieur, I shall have reached the
château ere ten minutes have passed."

"Pardon, mademoiselle," he replied gently, but resolutely, holding her
little hand so firmly in his that she could not escape him, "but it may
not be; weak though I am, and but poor protection, I have at least my
sword; as for finding my way, I have hunted too often in my own woods of
d’Estrailles not to be able to follow any trail; for the rest,
mademoiselle, I shall accompany you."

The power of his will overcame her, yet her red lips pouted rebelliously
under her hood.

"I would fain return alone, monsieur," she reiterated with the
persistence of a wilful child.  "’Tis but a short distance, and little
ill is likely to betide."

"The shorter to return," he replied coolly.  "As for ill, there will, I
ween, be less likelihood with me beside you, mademoiselle."

She yielded with an ill grace, though glad, as women ever are, to be
mastered, for all her rebellion, and so, till they came to the river
bank once more, there was silence between them.

"And now perchance it may be your pleasure to let me go forward alone,
monsieur," she cried with a toss of her pretty head, as they halted
within the shadow of the trees, "seeing that the good Job awaits me
yonder by the bridge.  Au revoir, therefore, monsieur, though methinks I
had better say adieu, for small likelihood is there, I fear, that you
will chance to retrace your footsteps in safety through yon black
darkness."

"I have no fear, mademoiselle," replied d’Estrailles, bowing low over
her hand, "seeing that the light of your eyes would guide a man safely,
however gloomy his path.  Nay," he said gently, still holding her hand
in his, "pardon me, mademoiselle, if I allow the gratitude of an
overfull heart too free a speech, or that I speak to the betrothed of
another of what should remain for all time the secret of my heart."

"Nay," she said, "monsieur has already spoken too much of gratitude for
a service which after all was but a duty; though," she added softly, as
she withdrew her hand, "as for being betrothed to Monsieur de Coray, it
is a thing no more to be spoken of; a de Mereac mates not with a
murderer, monsieur, least of all the murderer of a brother; methinks
rather the convent walls shall find shelter for one whose life seems
destined to be shrouded in so much of sorrow."

"Nay," said d’Estrailles, still detaining her hand, "fairest lady, speak
not of convent walls; too much of sunshine dwells in those tender eyes
to be quenched in the gloomy grave of a convent life. Believe me,
troubles are but as passing clouds, which come but to make the sun more
joyous when it shines again, and methinks that very surely behind the
clouds the sunshine of true love awaits one so gracious and beautiful;
happy knight is he who shall inspire it: nay, could I but dream that
such destiny might be mine for but one instant, it would be verily the
opening of the gates of Paradise."

"Nay, monsieur," she laughed softly, a roguish dimple deepening in her
cheek, though her eyes grew tender as they looked half shyly into his.
"The gates of such a Paradise are ever on the latch for the gallant and
the brave."  And before he could reply, she had slipped her hand away
and was gone, flitting like some dark shadow from out of the forest
shade and across the little bridge which led through the orchard to the
outer postern of the château, where Job still gazed in vague fascination
towards the darkening sky with watchful ears and an anxious heart.



                              *CHAPTER VI*


Again at early morn Mademoiselle de Mereac walked in the château gardens
with her maiden by her side. It was the same book of hours over which
her head was bent in seeming devotion, whilst one hand strayed
listlessly over the black rosary she wore; but the devotions were, alas!
but in the seeming, the words and illuminations which danced before her
eyes conveyed not the slightest intelligence to the reader’s mind.

How strange it was that only yesterday she had paced up and down this
very path, read the same words, viewed the same flowers, breathed the
same air, and yet between that day and this a whole lifetime seemed to
yawn!

"Ah, Marie," the girl sighed, as at last, giving up the impossible task,
she closed her book and flung herself down on the grassy sward which
sloped riverwards, "I cannot read, nor certainly pray, to-day, except to
say the same words which run like chariot wheels through my head, and
which I fear me will shock poor Father Ambrose when I confess them. But
come, let us talk!—sing!—laugh!—do somewhat! for if thou sittest with so
grave a face I shall deem—nay, I know not what I shall deem," and,
unclasping her hands, Gwennola began picking the pink-tipped daisies
from the grass beside her, threading them into a fantastic chaplet with
feverish fingers.

Marie Alloadec eyed her mistress with solemn, curious eyes.  Of a
temperament less excitable and impetuous, the slower train of her mind
was seeking vainly to find a clue for this eccentric and wayward mood.
Of her mistress’s nocturnal adventure she had not ventured a question,
though ever since Job’s whispered hints concerning the shadow which had
flitted by him in the moonlight, she had been devoured with curiosity.
But for once Gwennola was reticent, and only gave evidence of the
anxious stirrings of her mind by her variable and uncertain moods: now
plunged in melancholy, now bursting forth into a wild hilarity which
surprised, if it did not shock, her staid handmaiden.

"See!" cried Gwennola, holding up her chain for admiration.  "Is it not
altogether charming?  I must e’en make another.  Gather me some more
flowerets thou idle wench, seeing that thy tongue seemeth somewhat tied
this gay morn."

"Nay," sighed Marie lugubriously, "I thought, my mistress, rather of the
fate of the poor knight in yonder turret room than of the sunshine."

"And wherefore shouldst thou think of him?" laughed Gwennola teasingly,
as she bent forward, either to gather a more deeply-tinted daisy which
caught her fancy, or to hide a sudden wave of colour which flushed her
cheeks.  "Fie on thee, Marie! heardest thou not that he is a foul
traitor and murderer to boot?"

Marie gaped, but ere she could open her mouth for a reply, a shadow
falling athwart the grass between them warned her of the reason for her
mistress’s high-pitched words of virtuous reproof.

"Ah, my cousin, a fair morrow to thee," cried Mademoiselle de Mereac, as
she sprang lightly to her feet to face the new-comer.  "What! another
gloomy brow?  ’Tis certain that you and Marie both must have walked on
the weed of straying yesternight and seen more unwelcome visions in
yonder forest."

De Coray’s face grew more sullen than before at her mocking words, as he
glanced from one to the other.

"You do ill to jest, mademoiselle," he said sternly, "seeing what hath
chanced."

"Chanced?" she echoed innocently, cutting short his speech with a gay
little laugh.  "Nay, mon ami, naught hath chanced to my knowledge this
morn, save that I have made this chaplet of flowers to crown the head of
wisdom, justice, and mercy."  And she made as though she would have
flung him the daisy wreath.

"A truce to such folly," he snarled.  "Well enough you know, maiden, of
what is in my mind, and dost strive therefore to hide knowledge behind
the mask of foolery."

"Nay," she cried again, her blue eyes flashing at him, though she still
smiled.  "Truly, I forgot my reverence to so illustrious a personage.
Marie, my child, thy best curtsy to monsieur, the high chief executioner
and hangman of Mereac."  And she swept a deep and mocking obeisance, her
eyes still on his face.

"Ay," he retorted, scowling at her this time without disguise.  "But
better the executioner of a foul traitor and murderer than a——"

She checked him with an imperious gesture.

"Have a care, monsieur," she said in a low voice, which trembled
nevertheless with anger as she read the insult in his eyes.  "Have a
care lest I tell my father your words, ay, and not only of words,
monsieur, but of deeds done in that dark wood at St Aubin du Cormier."

He laughed aloud, though there was an ugly look in his eyes.

"Your opportunity has already come then, mademoiselle," he replied
sneeringly, "for your father hath bidden me summons you to his
presence."

Again she swept him a curtsy, but this time with statelier grace, as she
turned and walked onwards alone towards the château, ignoring altogether
his proffered arm.  Her face had grown paler, but her blue eyes were
bright and undaunted as her spirit rose to the ordeal before her;
perhaps it was steeled as she glanced wistfully towards, the forest and
stood once more in fancy under yonder oak tree, looking up with swiftly
beating heart into dark eyes which told their tale so far more
eloquently than their owner’s halting words.

The Sieur de Mereac stood erect in the midst of the great hall, his tall
form towering there like some giant figure of old as he swept an eagle
glance over the little group of retainers who stood, scared and
panic-stricken, in the background, and whom he waved aside with an
imperious gesture as his daughter, as erect as himself, with her face
upraised, pale, but proud, came slowly forward, curtsying silently as
she stood before him, but without attempting to embrace or smile at him,
as she had ever done before.

Unconsciously the old man sighed as his stern glance met hers.  Was this
his little Gwennola?—the child with the ruddy curls and laughing eyes,
who so short a time since would scramble up on to his knee, and, laying
her shining head against his breast, plead with all a spoilt child’s
boldness for a tale of his battles with the cruel French.

Alas! the child had gone.  For the first moment he realized it, and in
her place stood this pale, defiant woman, who, he bitterly told himself,
had deceived him so cruelly.

Perchance it was the memory of the blue-eyed child running to meet him,
hand in hand with that tall, handsome youth, his lost Yvon, which
steeled his proud, passionate heart against her; or perhaps it was that
he read the reflection of his own indomitable will and dauntless courage
in her clear eyes.  To him it seemed more meet that womankind should
bend, humbly and submissively, to his sovereign will, little dreaming
that this slim girl from her cradle had, instead, bent him to hers, till
the two imperious tempers had chanced to clash on so dire a field.

"Child," said the old man hoarsely, "what is it that thou hast done?
that thou—daughter of mine—hast dared to do?  Nay," he cried, his voice
breaking in a cry of almost piteous entreaty, "’tis impossible that thou
hast done so treacherously, my Gwennola, my little Gwennola!  Tell me
then, child, and I will believe thy word, though all the angels in
heaven, ay, and the devils in hell witness against thee—tell me that
thou hast not done this thing; that the escape of this thrice accursed
murderer of thy brother is not known to thee; that thou hast had naught
to do with so evil a deed."

"Father," cried the girl, clasping her hands, whilst her blue eyes
brimmed with tears at the note of pleading anguish in his voice.  "My
father, listen to me.  Verily, I have had naught to do with the escape
of my brother’s murderer, seeing that he standeth here, yet will I not
deny that I, and I alone, aided the escape of a noble and gallant
knight, whose life might well have been forfeit to the foul slander of
his enemies."

As she spoke she would have drawn nearer to her father’s side, have
taken the trembling hand which played with the girdle of his long robe,
but that he motioned her back with a fierce gesture, half despair, half
loathing.

"A noble knight!" he cried furiously.  "A noble knight indeed to blacken
the honour not only of my daughter, but of his just accuser, for well I
can guess the lies with which his viper’s tongue hath filled thy foolish
ears.  Nay, girl, speak no more, but rather go from my presence ere my
hand strike down the child who hath stooped so low to save the murderer
of her only brother, and a lying traitor."

"Nay, monsieur," murmured de Coray smoothly, as he stepped forward,
"surely you would not thus leave so grave a matter, painful as it must
be to your noble heart to unveil so black a story; but it may be," he
added softly, glancing towards the young girl’s bowed figure, "that the
righteous wrath of a just parent hath brought remorse to a daughter’s
heart; perchance her eyes are opened to what may well have been but the
foolish impulse of a generous heart, and now that she seeth her act in
its true light, she may be able to guide us in our search for the
traitor."

At the words, through whose silky softness it were easy for a keen ear
to detect the note of bitter mockery, Gwennola flung back her head with
a gesture of angry pride; her cheeks were flushed, and her blue eyes
sparkled with an indignant fury.

"Liar and traitor!" she cried bitterly, "viper, monsieur, that you are,
thus to strive to poison the fame of a noble knight, because, forsooth!
he chanced to witness the foul deed whereof you accuse him; but be
warned, monsieur, sin wings its homeward way to the heart that brought
it forth, and foully shall perish the hand that sought thy kinsman’s
life, and the tongue that strove to tarnish his sister’s name."

"Peace, woman!" snarled de Coray angrily, though his face grew pale as
her words rang in the rhythm of a curse; then, turning to de Mereac with
a shrug of his shoulders, "Monsieur my uncle sees," he said, his voice
trembling with suppressed anger; "verily it would seem as though this
Frenchman had bewitched the poor lady; perchance a little solitary
confinement would best bring her to see the error of her ways, whilst
we, monsieur, strive to undo what at worst might well be a foolish
maiden’s mad whim, by seeking in yonder forest for the murderer, who
doubtless could scarce ride far, if it be true that his wound was so
sore."

"Go to thy chamber, girl!" commanded de Mereac of his daughter sternly,
"and seek repentance of thy waywardness and sin in prayer; it may be
that if thy heart still remaineth obdurate, a convent cell shall be made
to cure it."

"Nay," interrupted de Coray with a smile; "methinks ’twere wiser, mon
oncle, to give to me the sweet task. When I have the felicity to call
mademoiselle my wife, be assured that I shall take good care to teach
her how much foolishness there is in such acts which leave even the
shadow of reproach upon so fair a fame."

He looked for a tempest of anger or scorn doubtless from the girl beside
him; but this time he was mistaken. White to the lips, Gwennola curtsied
silently to her father, and without so much as a glance towards de
Coray, walked with head erect and proud step down the long hall and up
the narrow winding stairway which led to her own apartment.  But
coldness and pride vanished as, in a tempest of tears, she flung herself
into Marie’s arms.

"Would I were dead," she sobbed passionately. "Oh, Marie, Marie, such
cruel words my father flung at me, and he scorned me, Marie—me, his
little Gwennola, till I thought my very heart would break; and oh! the
bitterness of it when that foul traitor, my kinsman, stood near, pouring
forth his venomous lies into my father’s open ears; and he believed him,
Marie. Ah! the shame of it, he believed him rather than trusting the
fair honour of his daughter."

"Ah, mademoiselle," cried Marie, whose rosy face was pale also with
fear, and whose eyelids were swollen with the tears of sympathy she had
already shed for her young mistress, "how terrible a mischance is here!
But, mademoiselle, ’tis, I warrant me, much the doing of that evil imp,
Pierre the fool, for Job hath been telling me what chanced whilst we
were out yonder plucking daisies and dreaming little of the ill in store
for us."

"Pierre the fool?" echoed Gwennola, drying her tears and looking at her
handmaiden in surprise. "Nay, what hath the saucy varlet to do in the
brewing of such pickle?"

"He loveth well Monsieur de Coray," said Marie, nodding her head wisely,
"and hath as little liking for thee, sweet lady, as he hath for aught
that is good and true and unlike his own crooked person and soul; and so
it chanced that last night, instead of sleeping beside Reine and Gloire,
as any well-ordered Christian fool should have done, he poked and pryed
into what concerned him not, and, creeping softly in the darkness down
the chapel steps, because, forsooth! he thought to hear voices, he
cometh so suddenly upon Father Ambrose—who, for some purpose of which
the saints alone wot, was waiting there near the chapel door—that the
poor priest fell backwards in his alarm down the two steps that
remained, and so cracked his head that he hath lain unconscious ever
since, and cannot be questioned, which perchance is well for him, as it
may be that my lord’s anger against him will have time to cool, as he
suspects him of aiding you also, dear lady, seeing that the mischievous
Pierre, not content with well-nigh killing the good father, goeth into
the chapel, where, failing to find aught to account for voices, he
further pryeth till it seemeth he picked up your kerchief on the very
steps of the altar, and this with his lying tale he carries to his
master at dawn, whereupon Monsieur de Coray laid his accusations upon
you for the escape of the French monsieur."

"Nay," said Gwennola quietly.  "That were a tale I must needs have told,
were it but for the saving of the poor Father Ambrose, of whose sorry
plight I grieve to hear.  Fain would I to his side, Marie, but that even
is forbidden me, for here must I bide a prisoner, whilst, alas! alas! it
may be that even now they discover the hiding-place of—of——"  She
checked herself, meeting Marie’s curious eyes. "Nay, wench," she said
sharply, "heed not my foolish words; and yet, oh, Marie, Marie! my heart
breaks with fears and sorrow.  Was ever maid so unhappy as thy poor
mistress?"

"Nay, dear lady," said the girl affectionately, laying her hand softly
on her mistress’s.  "Courage! it may yet be that all will be well.  See,
we will pray to our Blessed Lady, whose protection and aid will most
surely be vouchsafed to the persecuted and innocent."

But in her distress and excitement even prayer proved small solace to
the impatient spirit of the unhappy maiden.  To and fro she paced with
all the restless agony of a newly caged, wild creature, now weeping, now
crying to Marie to aid her, though in what she neither said nor seemed
to know.  But presently the paroxysm of her passion passed, and after
kneeling for a lengthy space before the carved figure of her patron
saint, she rose and smiled more calmly into Marie’s anxious face.

"I was distraught," she said simply, "methinks with very weariness as
well as grief.  Now go, Marie, leave me to compose myself in sleep; last
night I rested little and my eyes are heavy for need of slumber. Go
then, little one, and glean for me what news thou canst anent the return
of my father; ’twill be a fruitless quest, I wot well, on which they
ride, seeing that the holy saints have him I love in their keeping."

Her foster-sister, with wide eyes of wonder, not unmingled with dismay,
echoed her last words.

Gwennola smiled, and though her colour rose, she replied quietly—

"Nay, Marie, thou art over-bold, wench, and yet, ah! there is none other
to whom I may confess it, and by the love we bear each other, my Marie,
well I know my secret is safe with thee.  Yes," she added softly, whilst
a glad light stole into her tired eyes; "yes, it is true, my Marie, I
love him, this noble Frenchman, who is a true and noble knight, neither
traitor nor murderer, but my faithful servant and lover."

"But," stammered Marie, forgetful of aught in her sheer amazement, "he
is a Frenchman, mademoiselle! an enemy! one who would take away liberty
from us of Brittany and bend our necks in the yoke of servitude."

"Tush, little foolish one!" replied her mistress severely.  "Thou
pratest of that of which thou knowest naught.  Indeed," she added, with
an air of knowledge which sat quaintly on her childish head, "the love
of Breton maid to French knight may well be, since men say our Duchess
herself would fain have given her heart to the Prince of Orleans, had he
not been already wed."

"Nay," murmured Marie, abashed, yet persistent, "but Madame the Duchess
is the bride of the noble King of the Romans."

"That goeth not to say that she loveth him," retorted Gwennola wisely;
"indeed, poor Duchess! how can she, seeing she hath never seen him?  And
ill is it to wed without love, be a maid queen or peasant wench; and
verily I will have none of it on such terms, though my father command me
to take the veil in choice.  Ah, Marie!" she cried, stretching out her
hands towards the hesitating girl, "thou wilt help me, wilt thou not?
For I love him, this poor, persecuted knight, Frenchman though he be—ay,
and shall love him and none other for all time: and love is sweet, my
Marie, though as yet mayhap thou hast not tasted of its sweetness; but
when it cometh——"

"Nay," retorted Marie tossing her head, "small love have I for any man,
save only for my father and brother Job, for well I wot, as my mother
hath oft told me, that they are but poor creatures at best, and little
worth the tears and pains they put us foolish women to.  Yet, sweet
mistress," she added, laying her hand affectionately on Gwennola’s, "I
would aid _you_ with my very life, ay, though my lord verily putteth me
to the torture for so doing."

"Nay," murmured Gwennola, turning pale, "that my father would never do,
as well thou knowest, foolish one."

"As for that," replied Marie with a shrug of her buxom shoulders, "I
know little of the kind, for my lord is a terrible man in passion, and
for the torture—did not my Lord of Quimperel so do to death one of his
wife’s maidens who refused to confess her mistress’s secrets?"

"Nay," sighed Gwennola with a shudder, "my Lord of Quimperel is a man of
bloodthirsty moods and evil repute, ever loving to inflict pain; but my
father, changed though he be to his little Gwennola, by the poisoned
tongue of lies, would never so forget his honour."

"Be that as it may, sweet mistress," replied Mane, smiling, "I am yours,
to do your will, even to the death; command me then, and blithely will I
obey!"

"I must e’en think," murmured Gwennola, pressing her hand to her
forehead, "for well I can guess that at least my kinsman will leave no
unguarded door of escape from his watchful eye.  Yet methinks we may
outwit even him, my Marie, with caution and daring, if so be that my
father’s search to-day is fruitless."

"Then monsieur lies yonder?" inquired Marie, eager, now that her
scruples and surprise were overcome, to assist in this unexpected
romance.

"Hush!" whispered her mistress with raised finger. "Better it were not
to speak on such matters, seeing that even walls have ears; but hie
thee, Marie, below, and see what news thou canst bring me of how matters
go."

Those were days when the romance of love indeed reigned paramount in
every woman’s heart, from the lady who, from her casement, smiled down
at her knight riding by with her favour in his helmet, to the serving
wench who watched her swain go from her to the wars with a tear in her
eye and a choking pride in her throat at sight of his gallant bearing
and the bunch of bright ribbons she had herself pinned to his breast.
And, alone now in her chamber, Gwennola was dreaming tenderly of the
romance which had been borne so swiftly and unexpectedly into the grey
gloom of her young life, flushing it with all the rosy dawn of love and
beauty.  She told herself, as her heart throbbed gladly to her thoughts,
that she had loved him from the moment she had seen him lying all
unconscious in the forest.  And what wonder, seeing how empty of such
dreams her heart had been before?—and yet how hungry for them, with the
hunger for such romance as is dear to seventeen summers in any century!
And she had found him, her knight, noble, handsome, surrounded with the
glamour of strange and thrilling circumstances, chivalrous and devoted.
Ah! it could not be that a foul lie and a hempen rope of shame should,
rudely terminate so sweet an idyll?  Her heart seemed to beat to
suffocation as she strove against the thought, listening with anxious
ears for the return of Marie.

How long the time seemed, and yet all too short, ere she heard the swift
sound of returning feet!  Was it possible that even now the news would
be that all was over, and that guile had triumphed bloodily over
innocence and truth?

"Mother of Help," she moaned, sinking once more on her knees before the
little shrine—"Mother of Help, save him!"

"Nay, lady," whispered Marie’s voice behind her. "Have no fear, I have
no news but what is good to hear, although I fear me that my lord and
Monsieur de Coray have returned in no holy frame of mind from their
bootless search, and resignation to failure sits not placidly on either
brow.  I had speech with Jobik, poor fool! who, it seems, would fain
have been cursing yon poor French monsieur for killing his young master,
and perchance might have spoken evil words of you, had I not twitted him
for a moon-faced oaf and told him all the truth."

"Mother of Mercies, I thank thee!" cried Gwennola softly, as she bowed
her head in thanksgiving.  Then, raising a radiant face to Marie, "Now,"
she cried softly, "cometh the time for brave hearts and wise heads, my
Marie, for we must e’en find some mode of taking to monsieur both food
and drink, for starvation were little better than the rope, though
perchance more honourable."

"Nay, mademoiselle," said Marie earnestly; "you must leave such work to
Jobik or to me.  Tell me but where the noble knight lies, and, I warrant
me, he shall not die of starvation."

But Gwennola shook her head, laughing and blushing as she replied—

"Nay, Marie, be not too ready with thy offers, for, alas! what would the
poor Job say"—she dropped her voice to a whisper—"did I bid him go by
moonlight to the Chapel of the Brown Friar?"

"Merciful saints!" gasped Marie, paling as she crossed herself.  "Nay,
lady, you do but jest; it is not possible that a noble knight could find
so fearful a resting-place?"

"I say nothing," smiled Gwennola, "because, little curious one, it is
better for thee not to be too wise; but verily it is truth that I must
to the forest, this night, alone, to take food and wine to this gallant
knight."

Marie hesitated; the thought of her young mistress going alone into the
dark and lonely forest was terrible, but honest and steadfast as was the
girl’s devotion, she would a hundred-fold rather have faced death itself
than the grim spectre of the haunted chapel.

"I beseech you, sweet mistress," she murmured through rising tears—"nay,
I implore you—it is not possible that you, Mademoiselle de Mereac,
should go alone, at midnight, through yon forest, for the sake of—the
sake of——"

"One whom I love," whispered Gwennola, half shyly, half defiantly.
"Nay, maiden, chide me not; the name of Gwennola de Mereac shall lose
none of its honour by so daring; and for cruel tongues, see you, my
Marie, there will be none.  Fie on thee, child! dost not know yet, or
hast listened to minstrel lays in vain, that love hath no fear so long
as it reigns in purity and virtue?—and therefore such love shall be my
amulet, did the Brown Friar himself strive against me."

Again Marie crossed herself, with pale cheeks and frightened eyes, yet
silenced by her mistress’s glance more than her words, for well she knew
by the compression of those small, rosy lips, and the sparkle in those
bright eyes, that there was no resisting the proud young will.

"An this be love," murmured the handmaiden as she turned aside, "may the
holy St Catherine protect me from such spells! for verily my lady is
distraught with it to dream of so mad an enterprise.  The saints
preserve us from the wrath of my lord should some evil chance reveal
it!"



                             *CHAPTER VII*


Softly the moonlight stole through the interlacing branches of the
trees, like white-robed fairies who come earthward to kiss the sleeping
flowers into fresh beauty for the morrow’s sun.  Darkly against the
silver sheen stood out the rugged, ivy-grown walls of the forest chapel.
It was a spot sufficiently romantic for the youngest and tenderest of
lovers, and yet not without its thrill of that gloom and foreboding
which seems to haunt the land of Brittany, where such stern shadows seem
indissolubly mingled with the wild beauties of poetry and romance.

But, for the moment at least, shadows had fled into the darkness of the
surrounding forest, and romance reigned clear and beautiful as the Queen
of Heaven, who shed her silver beams down so softly on the two lovers
sitting there amongst the ruins which superstition had clad with such
terror and awe.

It was the third night that Gwennola had successfully stolen out from
her father’s château, leaving two faithful hearts to beat in anxious
fear for her safety until her return.  So little dreamt any of such an
undertaking, that the task had been less difficult than she had
supposed, and so, night after night Job had watched with gloomy fear the
dark, hooded figure slip past him and vanish like some grim shadow into
the grimmer blackness of the forest, and there, divided betwixt love and
the overpowering fear of superstition, he had been fain to watch for her
return, whilst the moments dragged by leaden-footed, till more than once
love overcame fear, and he started from his post in search of his young
mistress, only to come to a halt midway down the terrace path, whilst
the beads of perspiration stood thickly on his brow as he muttered aves
and paters, and finally with a groan of terror fled back to his place as
he recalled the dread vision which had already looked at him,
hollow-eyed and beseeching, from amongst the trees, till his knees
knocked together in a perfect frenzy of terror.

But no such fears now troubled Gwennola, for love had bidden such
phantom terrors a mocking adieu. Yes, they were lovers now, not bowing
and curtsying to each other, with eyes more bold and eloquent than the
stiff phrases of their tongues; there was no more speech of gratitude or
duty, or the many foolish subterfuges by which love must first hide
himself, but instead all the glamour and passion of first love, which
exaggerates itself and its dreams of sentiment and finds in itself so
sweet a delirium that it forgets all else and mocks gaily at staid
middle age, which shakes its head so wisely at such quaint fantasies and
preaches truisms against its tender madness which are listened to with
deaf ears; for youth must have its way and dream its dreams of love and
fair ideals, which clothe it in all its springtide of beauty, little
recking of the winter that must perchance disperse all, or sober them
down to greyer tints.

"Ah, sweet," whispered d’Estrailles as he bent down to look into the
blue eyes raised so happily to his; "what shall I say to prove to thee
the devotion with which thou hast inspired me, or thank thee for the
tender heroism which brings thee thus to me through such perils?"

"Nay," she replied gaily, "speak not of thanks, my Henri, but rather of
our love.  What fear have I, my beloved, save for thy safety?  Ah," she
cried, clasping her hands with a sudden gesture of pain, "every time my
father rides forth my heart beats with terror for fear that by some
unlucky chance he should discover thy hiding-place, for his heart is
still bitter against thee, my Henri, for de Coray still distilleth his
poisoned words into his ears; neither will he so much as look on me, his
daughter; whilst for the poor Father Ambrose, he hath sworn to send him
back to his monastery in disgrace so soon as his sickness is healed."

"Nay, weep not, little one," said d’Estrailles gently, as he drew her
into his embrace, "but let us rather dream of the days when all this
suffering and wrong be past, and when thou, sweet Gwennola, art my wife,
and ridest with me to our château on the gay Loire, where I will give
thee sunshine and mirth, beauty and laughter instead of these dreary
forests and grey gloom, which seem fitting surroundings for traitor
hearts and sad forebodings."

"Nay," she said with a sigh, "it is of my Brittany thou speakest, dear
heart, and I would not that thou shouldst find it so ill a place, for I
love it dearly, ay, so dearly!" she whispered, clinging to him, "though
perchance in time thy château of sunshine shall be more dear, my Henri,
because of thy presence; but I would have thee also to love in some
measure the Château of Mereac, and in time, it may be, my father, who is
good—ah! so good, so noble, so brave!—although now it would seem his
ears are closed and his eyes blinded by a treacherous foe."

"Nay," said her lover tenderly, "I was wrong, sweet, to speak of gloom
where I found such sunshine as hath before never lighted the fairest
spot of fair Touraine.  See then, it shall be that which thou lovest, I
love, and what thou hatest——"

He broke off to turn swiftly in the direction of the forest, his hand on
his sword, as though he had caught a sound other than the constant
murmur of cries from bird and beast which arose in plaintive cadences
around.

"What is it?" breathed Gwennola, with a little gasp of fear, as she bent
forward to gaze in the same direction as that in which his eyes were
still turned.

"Methinks ’twas but a fancy," he replied softly; "and yet—see, sweet,
what is that which moves yonder?  Nay, ’tis naught, but some animal,
or——"

But Gwennola’s face had grown white with terror, as with horror-stricken
eyes she gazed across the open space towards where, in a bright patch of
moonlight, sat a small, wizened creature perched on its haunches, the
very impersonation of some imp of darkness, which, after pausing one
brief instant to mouth at them in seeming mockery, fled nimbly back into
the forest with a shrill cry.

"Bah," murmured d’Estrailles, devoutly crossing himself, "’tis verily a
spirit of evil, little one, that fled at the glance of thy sweet eyes."

"Nay, rather," faltered Gwennola tremulously, "’twas the ape of Pierre
the fool, and verily the spirit of evil was doubtless lurking unseen in
the shadows behind," and in a few brief words she told her lover of
Marie’s tale and the devotion of the fool to Guillaume de Coray.

"Fly, Henri, fly!" she pleaded.  "Surely there is yet time; thy wound
heals well, and methinks even at some pain ’twere better to fly before
discovery overtakes us.  Alas, alas, how evil grows our case when it
seemed to promise so fairly!"

"Nay," laughed d’Estrailles undauntedly, "’twere better first to strive
to teach fools their foolishness," and without awaiting her reply he
plunged into the forest, only to emerge some moments later crestfallen
and indignant.  "Truly the knave is in league with de Coray’s own
master," he said with a grimace of discomfiture.  "Not a trace of him is
to be seen.  But come, sweet, wear not so troubled a brow; methinks the
danger is as little pressing as heretofore, seeing that none know of yon
snug chamber, where I may well mock their vigilance for many days."

"Nay, Henri," entreated Gwennola, as she clung afresh to him.  "Go, I
beseech thee, whilst there is yet time.  Oh, what agony shall I endure
till thou art in safety!"

But for all her pleading he refused to be turned from his purpose of
lingering another day, yet less, perchance, from selfish motives as from
fear of what might befall her did the fool’s tale move her father’s
anger more mightily upon her.

"To-morrow eve," he cried, laughing at her fears, as he held her two
white hands in his, and kissed her on her quivering lips.  "Courage,
little one, ’tis but a terror that will pass with the dawn, and if thou
fearest the malice of this crooked fool, why, smile upon him with thy
sweet eyes, and thou must needs make him thy slave for ever."

So, perforce, seeing he was a man and wilful, she was fain to yield,
though her blue eyes still looked into his with wistful foreboding as
she entreated him to be careful, and remain in the safe shelter of his
hiding-place.  So back through the forest they went together till they
caught sight of Job Alloadec’s broad figure standing stiff and straight
by the outer postern of the wall, when they bade each other once more a
tender adieu.

"Farewell, little one," whispered d’Estrailles, the more gaily as he
felt his cheek wet with a stray teardrop which had fallen from her soft
lashes.  "Fear not yon impish fool, who dared thus insolently to look
within the gates of Paradise; seal his tongue with sweet looks, and
perchance a silver piece, and to-morrow——"

"Ah, to-morrow," she sighed.  "Alas! to-morrow."

"Ay, alas indeed," he murmured, "since I must needs, it seems, bid
farewell to my sweet lady, and yet not farewell, but only au revoir,
dear love, for if thy father relents not, nor opens his eyes to
treachery and falsehood, I shall very speedily return to steal thee
away, since till thy coming there will be no sunshine in the Château
d’Estrailles, and the hours will go slowly for the very weariness of the
waiting."

She smiled sadly back into his face.

"Ah, my Henri," she murmured, "what lies between those days and these?
Verily my heart groweth heavy in wondering whether they will ever be."

"Nay," he cried boldly, with all a man’s insistence and scorn of
danger’s shadows, "they must needs be, sweet one, since love demands
it."

"Our Lady grant it," said she, and passed on her way towards the gloomy
château, leaving him to ponder on what lay so dimly and mysteriously
before them on the path of life; for verily it seemed that the course of
true love was little likely to run smoothly for Breton maid and French
noble in those days of bitter enmity and danger.



                             *CHAPTER VIII*


The next day was at last drawing to a close.  All through the long hours
Gwennola had sat waiting in torturing suspense for what news Marie might
bring her.  Still a prisoner in her chamber, she had seen none save her
foster-sister and brother since the day of Henri d’Estrailles’
mysterious disappearance.  Had it not been for de Coray’s insistent
suggestions of ill, the Sieur de Mereac’s heart would long since have
softened towards his cherished daughter, and he would, perchance, after
the fashion of love, have found some excuse for conduct which his inmost
heart told him had some other motive than those maliciously suggested by
de Coray’s evil tongue; as it was, the latter so successfully kept the
warmth of his anger stirred within him that he fiercely shunned any
suggestion either of seeing or being reconciled to Gwennola, whilst upon
Father Ambrose’s innocent head were heaped the bitterest invectives of
his fury.

But even the news of her father’s unrelenting anger towards her failed
to move Gwennola’s heart.  All thought, all feeling, was for the time
being centred on her lover, after the manner of foolish and wayward
maidens who, in the awakening of such passion, forget the love which has
sheltered them from childhood; and in the case of Gwennola de Mereac
such forgetfulness might in some measure be excused, seeing that love
had been born with her twin-sister pity for a sick and innocent man, and
such pity roused to the depths the finer fibres of her woman’s heart.
The instinctive feeling of protection towards one who was helpless had,
even more than the vague, unnamed whisperings of love, steeled her to
her purpose and inspired her courage in defiance of what she felt to be
foul injustice to an innocent man.  But now pity was
forgotten—submerged, as it were, in her passionate love, for Gwennola
was a true daughter of Brittany, strong to hate as to love, undaunted,
brave with that powerful tenacity of purpose which seems inherent in
these people whose whole lives are set, as it were, against the adverse
forces of nature, which strive for the mastery of that grey, bleak
shore.  She had given her love to Henri d’Estrailles, and for that
love’s sake all ties were swept aside, save only those which upheld her
own pure young soul and guarded the honour which must ever be more
cherished even than love itself in a noble woman’s heart.  Yet honour
itself seemed to call her now to act the part she had set herself,
honour not only her own but her father’s, who little knew the part that
fate was striving to force upon him.

So it was with a clear conscience that Gwennola knelt in prayer before
the little shrine of the Virgin Mother, asking help in her secret
enterprise.

"And oh, Blessed Mother of Heaven," she cried with a sob, as she buried
her face in her hands, "grant that all may be well, and that the saints
may have him in their good keeping till we meet again."  But even with
the words her heart grew chill as she pondered how that meeting might
be, and how, even did he escape present danger, they, whom circumstances
had called to enmity rather than love, might hope to meet to plight
their troth in happier days.  Instead, there uprose before her eyes the
mocking, cruel face of Guillaume de Coray, and when she turned with
loathing from it, there seemed to meet her only the sunless gloom of
grey, convent walls.

"At least," whispered hope and youth, "there is still to-night; once
more his arms shall hold thee in his tender embrace, and thou shalt read
fresh vows of love in those dark eyes which speak only of faith and
constancy; surely it will be that love hereafter shall find another way
in the darkness of the future."

So she comforted herself, and listened also to Marie’s cheering words of
confidence with a smile on her lips; but the smile faded as amongst the
dark shadows of the trees gloomy forebodings gathered once more and
pressed their weight of sad presentiment on her beating heart as she
hurried along the narrow path.

How foolish it was to pause with a fresh throb of fear as from the
thicket near the rustle of a scurrying rabbit startled her ear!  And why
should she tremble so violently when a great white owl almost swept her
cheek with its soft wings as it vanished into the darkness with a low
melancholy hoot?  So overstrung indeed were the poor girl’s nerves that
she must have fled homewards in sheer terror of she knew not what, did
not a stronger emotion impel her forward.

At last, however, the outskirts of the wood were reached; yonder through
the trees she caught a glimpse of the grey, ivy-covered walls.  How
still all seemed!  Even for the moment the distant cries of birds and
beasts were hushed; the sound of her own footsteps alone broke the
silence—a silence which had oppressed her ever since she had left the
slumber-bound château.  Her heart bounded as she hurried forward,
looking, with eager eyes, to see the tall figure standing there with
outstretched arms and welcoming whispers of love.  It was strange that
he had not heard her approach and hurried forth to greet her, as he had
before, but still——

The wondering thought was suddenly checked as she stepped from the
shadow of the trees into the moonlit space surrounding the forest
chapel.  All was as silent and untenanted as that first night when she
and her lover had stood there glancing with half-scared looks towards
the weird old ruin.

"Henri," she cried, and in the silence her voice seemed to ring shrill
and clear, "Henri!"

A vague note of terror rang in the cry as she hurried with panting
breath towards the ruin itself, telling herself that he might perchance
have fallen asleep in his hiding-place.  But no; no answer was returned
to her cries; the chamber under the altar was empty and deserted.  For a
moment she stood there, paralyzed with fear, yet scarcely realizing what
could have happened.  It could not be that he was taken?  She put the
idea from her in agony.  No, no, not that! How foolish she was!—how
could he have been taken without the knowledge of Job or Marie?  All day
neither her father nor de Coray had left the castle, not even for their
favourite hawking or boar hunting; no whisper of suspicion had been
breathed in the hearing of either of her faithful servants; it had
seemed, so Marie said, that all thought—if they thought at all—that the
French knight had long since ridden away far beyond pursuit.  Then a
hundred eager suggestions filled her mind: he had gone to meet her as
she came, and had missed his way; or perhaps, learning of some new
danger, had been forced to fly without awaiting her coming.  But a
hurried search of the shed close by convinced her at least of the
futility of this last idea, for Rollo still stood in his place, turning
with a low whinny of inquiry to see if it was his master who had come
with his evening meal.

"Alas! alas!" moaned Gwennola, fresh fears assailing her, as she turned
once more towards the gloomy ruin, "what hath chanced?  Oh, wherefore
heeded he not my warning to fly yesternight?  Ah, if——"  She had
stooped, with the last words on her lips, and, with the confirmation of
her fears before her, raised from the ground a tiny cap decorated with
one tiny bell—it was the cap of Petit Pierre, the fool’s ape.  "He is
taken," whispered the girl to herself in a dull, unrealizing tone; "he
is taken."

With dawning comprehension she gazed round with a shiver, picturing the
scene which, like the vision of a crystal-gazer, began slowly but
clearly to rise before her.

Here he had waited for her, unconscious of danger, with a smile on his
lips and the love-light in his eyes, perchance in his folly humming the
air of a ballad, as he had yesternight.  Then through the trees
treachery had stolen upon him, and where he had looked to see love,
death himself had stalked grimly on the scene.  She shuddered, covering
her face with her hands, as if to shut out the sight of some terrible
phantom.  Yet for all that her restless brain conjured up before her
unwilling eyes fresh scenes of terror; her father, stern, implacable,
revengeful, as he remembered the fair-haired boy so cruelly done to
death in that far-off wood of St Aubin, and beside him the true
perpetrator of the deed, smiling, triumphant, full of cruel and evil
suggestions and words, with the cunning, vacant face of Pierre the fool,
gleeful at the part he had been doubtless paid to play, at his elbow;
whilst the background was filled up with grim, curious faces, pitiless,
for the most part, save where Job and Marie Alloadec stood fearful, and
perchance weeping, yet not for his sake, but for hers.  Alas! not one
there to pity _him_, to look kindly on _him_; he was alone, surrounded
by cruel enemies, with death standing in the shadows beside him—death,
in all its hideous garb, without even the golden glamour of glory to
hide its mocking features. A resolve to hasten back to the château and
to stand beside the man she loved overcame the sense of faintness which
at first threatened her, but even as she rose, with that aching pain of
sorrow, too deep for tears, at her heart, a cold touch on her hand sent
the blood throbbing back with a sudden frenzy of fear.  The memory of
the unrepentant friar who so grimly strolled around the earthly scene of
his sins came vividly before her, and as she bent her eyes she fully
expected to see them rest upon the shadowy cowl of the chapel’s ghostly
inhabitant.  Instead it was the lean, grey form of the wolf-hound Gloire
on which her eyes fell, meeting the beast’s dumb, affectionate gaze with
the thrill which sympathy in distress ever brings, even if that sympathy
is but a dog’s—perchance at times a truer and more helpful one than his
human master’s.

"Gloire," she whispered, bending down with a sudden impulse to kiss the
shaggy, faithful head. "Ah, Gloire, how camest thou hither?  Was it
because thou knewest—wise beast!—that thy mistress was in sore need of a
comforter, and alone in this terrible place, with a heart which, I fear
me, must break ere dawn?"

The great animal whined as it licked her face, then suddenly drew back
with a low, ominous growl as a rustle of branches near caught their
ears.  In an instant Gloire was transformed from the sympathizer into
the outraged guardian, his grey hairs bristling, his teeth gleaming
white from drawn-back gums, his whole aspect one of angry antagonism.
But the quick footsteps, instead of coming up the path towards them, had
turned aside, as if their owner were hastening towards the open heath
beyond the forest.  But Gloire was not minded to let even an unseen
intruder go without his passport of approval, and, breaking loose from
the gentle, restraining hand of his mistress, leapt forward, with an
angry bay, in pursuit.

"Gloire, Gloire, come back!" cried Gwennola softly, in much alarm, as
she hastened forward in the direction which the great hound had taken.
"Shame on thee, Gloire! return instantly."

But Gloire was little minded to obey the gentle command, for he had
already reached the open, and his quarry was in view.

It was a wild, picturesque scene, with a weird grimness in it which was
to remain ever imprinted on Gwennola’s memory.  The clear moonlight
shone over the vast tract of heath with the radiance of day, clumps of
broom and gorse here and there casting black shadows in the white light.
No sign of habitation was visible, naught seeming to flourish in this
desolate region saving only briars and thistles.  Here and there piles
of stone, almost druidical in shape, lay scattered about, these, the
people of the country affirming to be the houses of the Torrigans or
Courils, wanton dwarfs, who at night bar your road, and force you to
dance with them until you die of fatigue, whilst others declare that
they are fairies, who, descending from the mountains, spinning, have
brought away these rocks in their aprons.  For the most part these
shapeless monuments consisted of three or four standing stones with
another laid flat on the top, and, seen by moonlight, presented a
fantastic appearance, dotted as they were over the barren heath.

From the forest, where Gwennola stood, the ground stretched away in a
sharp declivity, to rise again beyond, thus forming a small valley.  It
was down this valley that the figure of a man was seen flying, it would
seem for very life, as indeed he was, though, perchance, scarcely yet
aware of the fact, for behind him, swift upon his track, came Gloire, a
gaunt, grey figure of doom, seen thus in the moonlight.

For a moment Gwennola stood uncertain, swiftly weighing in her mind what
she had best do, but the man’s peril decided her, and in imperious tones
she called the hound to return.  At the sound of her voice both man and
dog paused, turning towards her for an instant, and with a throb of
alarm the girl recognised in the clear moonlight the features of the man
who had so suddenly sprung on to her path the day she returned through
the forest from her visit to Mère Fanchonic.

It was not a face to be easily forgotten, with its red, stubbly beard,
broad, flat nose, and bold, insolent eyes, and Gwennola, with an
instinctive cry, had stepped back towards the shadow of the forest, when
Gloire, with a sudden bay of fury, leapt forward, and, before he had
time to spring aside or draw his sword, had borne the man backwards upon
the ground, with his mighty fangs fixed firmly into his flesh.

Forgetful of herself at sight of the unexpected tragedy which was going
forward before her eyes, Gwennola sped down the valley, crying
frantically to Gloire to leave his unfortunate victim; but a very demon
of rage seemed to have entered the great beast, and he continued
furiously to rend his quarry, until, at Gwennola’s approach, he crouched
with a whine, which was half a growl, crept aside, and lay panting on
the heath with gory jaws, and eyes which pleaded almost defiantly the
excuse that he had done but his duty in defending her.

Meantime, with a shudder of horror, Gwennola knelt beside the mangled
figure, even then her thoughts flying back in agony to that judgment
hall at the Château de Mereac.  But torn as she was with the desire to
be beside the man she loved, her womanly pity forbade her to forsake the
obviously dying wretch who lay panting out his life before her.

With her dainty kerchief she softly wiped away the froth of blood upon
his lips, and hastily fetched water from a pool close by to bathe his
brow, for it was evident that, dying as the unfortunate man was, he
fought stubbornly to regain power of speech before he passed out into
the land of silence and mystery.

It was a terrible sight to the poor girl, scarcely more than a child, to
witness this death-struggle of a strong man, brought thus swiftly to his
end, and the terror was enhanced by the eeriness of both time and place.
But Gwennola was no nervous, timorous woman to start at her own shadow;
born of a hardy, undaunted race, in rough and warlike times she did not
shrink from the spectacle of death, grim and terrible as it was.  The
nervous fears of superstition, too, which had haunted her an hour ago,
had passed with this awful reality of suffering.

Presently the man’s gasping breath became calmer, and though the death
sweat stood out thickly on his brow, he appeared to be capable of both
thought and speech.

"Mademoiselle?" he gasped with an upward look of inquiry.

"De Mereac," she said gently, raising his head and resting it upon her
knee, whilst she, wiped the sweat from his brow.  "Is there aught you
would tell me, poor fellow? or shall we not rather pray together for
your soul, since here is no priest to shrive you?"

"My soul," muttered the man with a groan.  "He had that long since—my
soul," and he smiled mockingly into the fair face bent over him.  "Nay,"
he continued with another groan; "’tis ill to jest in death’s own face,
though I have laughed in outwitting him many a time before, but yon
devil hath brought me to bay at last, though I’ll not go without my
revenge."

He muttered the last words over several times, as if trying to recollect
something, then continued to speak rapidly and pantingly, as one who,
having raced, would fain deliver his message without delay; and, verily,
it was a grim race he ran, with death swift on his heels to cut the tale
short.

"Guillaume de Coray," he muttered, "he was my master, I, his slave, body
and soul, mistress—body and soul.  Ah! I could tell you stories, but
there is not time, suffice to say that he was the tool—the thing—of the
tailor of Vitré[#]—and I—well, no matter, the past is dead, but there is
still revenge.....  It was the battle of St Aubin—the son of de Mereac
was there—his heir—my master was the next in succession.....  He slew
young Yvon, as he thought, in the wood there .... by treachery, and came
to Mereac to be welcomed as the heir, and to marry the sister of the
slain youth.  Is it not so, mademoiselle? Ah!  I read it in your eyes
that the bridegroom was not to your pleasing, for your eyes are true and
his .... Well, Guillaume de Coray rode to Mereac, but before he did so,
it chanced that he had found that he had no more occasion for my
services, therefore he had bidden another to hasten my departure to
another land, from whence no tales return to inconvenience monsieur; but
he who was so clever made a mistake.....  The man was my friend..... He
told me his mission.....  We drank to each other’s health and the
confusion of our master.  So it came to pass that when he fled from that
wood at St Aubin with a murderer’s fear in his heart, I sought the body
of Yvon de Mereac.  He was not dead .... nay, he was not dead.  Merciful
God! why then does he haunt me with those eyes?  Nay .... was it not I
who saved him, and tended him for months?—aye years?—for, for long the
blow on his head had rendered him little better than a fool.  Then, when
understanding returned, he demanded many things......  Ah! but he was
proud and impatient .... that youth .... perchance I pleased him not for
a guardian..... He commanded to be set free .... he raved at times ....
foolish one .... saying that I kept him prisoner to murder him .... I,
who but bided my time till the fruit was ripe for the picking..... But
he escaped from my safe shelter.  I was angry .... I followed him
quickly.  What, mademoiselle, after these years was I to be robbed of my
reward? Grand Dieu! not so, I arrived whilst he still wandered in the
forest, so far still distraught that he had lost his way.  I found him
.... but ere I did so was myself seen by ill fate by my enemy, Guillaume
de Coray.  It became impossible that I should escape too hastily with my
friend, therefore we concealed ourselves .... de Coray and his devil’s
imp seeking us all the time.....  To-night"—the blood in his throat
well-nigh choked him as he spoke—"to-night—we—we...."


[#] The nickname of Pierre Laudais, the hated and infamous minister of
François II., Duke of Brittany.  The angry nobles at last took justice
into their own hands, and hanged the miscreant who had ruined their
country.


He stared vaguely up at the moon—already the finger of death was resting
on his shoulder.

"But my brother—Yvon—he lives?  Oh, where—where is he?" cried Gwennola,
whose emotions had scarcely been controlled during the gasping
confession which seemed to foreshadow forth so grim a tragedy. "Speak!"

But already death had sealed those lips with his cold kiss, only with a
convulsive effort the man raised his arm and pointed towards one of the
heaps of piled stones which gleamed white in the moonlight halfway up
the opposite slope.  Then a spasm seized him, and he lay in the last
dread struggle, with his black eyes fixed upwards in horror, as if
around him he saw crowding the reproachful victims of a sinful life,
gathering about to arraign him before the dread Judge Who awaited him
beyond the veil.

Falling on her knees, Gwennola whispered a prayer into the dying ears,
till, with one last gasping groan, the jaws relaxed, the dark eyes,
still terror-haunted, became fixed, and a soul fled forth in shame and
awe into the silence of eternity.

With a sob—the outcome of overwrought nerves—the young girl rose to her
feet, and stood looking from the dead man at her feet towards the rude
cairn which seemed to form so poor a clue to her search.  And yet her
heart beat rapidly as she thought of what that search might mean, and
recalled that not only a brother’s but a lover’s life lay as a guerdon
for success. Then with a low breathed prayer she hastened to turn and
scramble up the slope towards the spot indicated by the dead man’s
finger.



                              *CHAPTER IX*


For a few minutes Gwennola’s heart sank; in spite of a rapid but careful
search, the possibility of a human presence anywhere in the
neighbourhood of that rough pile of stones seemed impossible.  But once
again Gloire was to come to her assistance, and retrieve his lost
character, which he seemed to feel instinctively had seriously suffered
in the late encounter,—though why he should be reproached for thus
ridding the world of one whom canine sagacity had recognised as a
black-hearted villain, he could not altogether realize.  Nevertheless,
the sound of his mistress’s reproving voice had damped poor Gloire’s
self-congratulations, and he had followed her with drooping tail and
melancholy mien towards the reputed home of the mischievous dwarfs.
Here, however, his spirit of inquiry was freshly aroused, and with a
short yelp of excitement he proceeded to investigate a hole, partly
concealed by gorse, partly by a slab of stone which had apparently
slipped from the pile near.

Attracted by his excitement, Gwennola ran to his side, and, after some
moments of desperate tugging and pulling, succeeded in rolling the stone
aside.

Yes! the dead man’s clue was a true one; the opening obviously led into
one of those natural caves so often found in Brittany.  Gloire, with
cocked ears and wagging tail, stood by the side of the aperture,
evidently only awaiting his mistress’s bidding to continue his
investigations.  But Gwennola waved him back, and, bending low, looked
down eagerly into the darkness.

"Yvon," she called softly, her voice trembling as she pronounced the
long-unused name, "Yvon—brother—are you there?"

In the silence that followed she could hear only the panting of Gloire’s
breath close to her ear.

"Yvon," she cried again, "Yvon."

Then faint but clear came back the answer, in the voice of a man who
answers as in a trance—

"Gwennola."

"Mother of Mercies, I thank thee!" cried the girl, tears of joy
streaming down her cheeks, as without hesitation she scrambled quickly
through the aperture. All was darkness within, although she gathered
from the faint glimmer of moonlight at the cave’s mouth that she was in
a small subterranean chamber. In breathless suspense she called her
brother’s name again, and this time the reply came from somewhere close
beside her, almost, it would seem, at her feet. But still the voice
which spoke upwards through the darkness was that of a man who speaks as
one who replies rather to some inward call than answering to his name
from the lips of a fellow-creature.

"Where art thou, Yvon?" cried Gwennola, sinking on her knees and
spreading forth her hands vaguely in the darkness.  "Brother, brother,
is it indeed thou?"

"Gwennola—my sister."  This time the voice beside her rang with a sudden
feeble exultation, as of one who, for the first time, realized that his
name had verily been pronounced by a denizen of earth. "Gwennola,
Gwennola! nay, it is impossible. Hence, mocking demon, and taunt me not
in my last hours!"

But already, groping in the darkness, guided by the feeble voice, the
girl had found the object of her search, and bent over the prostrate
figure, weeping and laughing in a very paroxysm of joy.

"Yvon, Yvon!" she cried, as she clung to him, pressing her warm young
lips to the damp brow. "Ah, my brother, whom for these past years we
have mourned as dead, is it possible that thou livest? What mystery is
here? what foul and terrible plot? But, what is this?—thou art bound and
helpless? a prisoner!  Oh, tell me, Yvon, tell me all! and yet no, we
must not linger one instant in this terrible place, for already a still
fouler wrong is being done to one altogether innocent."

"Nay," groaned Yvon de Mereac faintly, "in that thou speakest wisely,
little sister, if it indeed be thou thyself, as these tears and kisses
assure me, rather than one of the mocking fiends of delirium which ever
haunt me, for truly the chief fiend himself will return anon, and
then——"

Gwennola felt the shudder that ran through the gaunt frame, and the
thought of Gloire’s vengeance seemed to her less terrible than
heretofore.

"He is dead!" she cried, divining swiftly of whom he spoke.  "Gloire
hath killed him but now, on the heath without; but ere he died methinks
he repented of the ill he did thee, which the rather took the form of
vengeance to another, even blacker-hearted than himself, than from
hatred to thee."

"Dead?" echoed Yvon with a sob of sudden joy. "François Kerden dead? and
thou here, little Gwennola, to save me?  Nay! tell me not it is a dream,
but rather free me from these bonds, and let me breathe once more the
pure air of heaven."

"These bonds?" cried Gwennola in dismay, as her slender hands felt the
tight thongs which bound the helpless man beside her.  "Nay, but how
shall I unloose them, Yvon?  They are too strong for me to break, and,
alas! I have no dagger."

Yvon groaned.  "Can naught be done?" he sighed. "I faint for very
longing of the cool night breezes; for days have I lain here, little
sister, waiting for death, but he delayed; yon fiend suffered me not to
die, though he kept me looking ever down into the abyss, and now——"  His
voice quivered, as with the feeble insistence of a child he repeated his
plea to be liberated.

"Ay, verily," cried Gwennola joyfully, a sudden inspiration coming to
her, "and so thou shalt, my Yvon; tarry but one instant, and I wot well
I shall find what we seek."

"Ah, go not," cried her brother in despair, "lest thou return not, but
instead that evil one with his cruel eyes and sharp dagger."

"Nay," laughed the girl, stooping once more to smooth and kiss the
clammy brow, "’tis indeed his dagger which lieth yonder on the hillside
that I go to seek.  Peace, brother, have no fear; he will return no more
to fright thee, and speedily shall thy cruel bonds be cut and we will
return home."

He echoed the last word softly, as one whose brain is too weary to take
in its full meaning, but he did not again seek to detain her as she
groped her way towards the glimmer of light which was already growing
fainter as the moonlight faded.  To her surprise, Gloire stood not at
the cave’s mouth as she emerged, and for a moment she looked round her
with a thrill of fear, wondering what new foes might not have arisen to
fight against.  But Gloire’s absence was not far to seek, seeing that
the wolves from the forest had already scented their human feast, and
had crept stealthily forth to rend it, and as Gwennola stood there in
the dim light, she perceived two gaunt forms flit in swift pursuit of
one another across the hill towards the shadow of the trees, and
shuddered, well guessing what they meant.

Daggers there were in plenty in the dead man’s leathern belt, and
Gwennola hastened to draw a small keen weapon forth and hurry back, for
it was ill work to bend so over a dead man’s body, and feel the close
stare of sightless eyes.  But Gwennola’s nerves were re-strung now to
meet the desperate necessity of her case, for well she knew that the
moments fled swiftly and already the sands of an innocent man’s life
were running low, and not only of one innocent of crime, but her own
true lover, without whom life must be as dark and gloomy as yon forest
from whence came the yelping howls of beasts of prey, kept back by fear,
for the nonce, from their evening feast.

One by one the tight leathern thongs were severed, and Yvon with a cry
of thankfulness rose slowly to his knees, though so cramped were his
limbs that even after the space of some minutes he could but crawl to
the entrance of his prison on hands and knees.  But the cool night air
revived him, like a draught of wine, as he sank down on the heath
without.  Gwennola could ill repress a cry of dismay as the feeble
moonlight revealed a face which, but for the eyes, it were difficult to
recognise as that of the handsome boy who, but three short years ago,
had left the château in all the pride and glory of youth and noble
manhood.  The rosy cheeks were sunken, and so emaciated that the skin
seemed but drawn over the high cheek-bones; the smooth chin was covered
with a short, unkempt beard; and the fair golden curls were long,
matted, and discoloured; but the eyes, blue as Gwennola’s own, were the
same as they looked up into hers, and yet, with a sob in her throat, she
realized they were not the same, for the glad, merry light with which
youth faces life had gone, and instead there seemed to lurk within them
an almost vacant look of terror, such as one sees in a frightened child.
It was a face which told its own tragedy without need of words, and with
a shudder of pity his sister bent, raising him tenderly as he struggled
vainly to his feet, passing a strong, protecting young arm around him,
and softly bidding him lean on her.

He gazed round vaguely, shivering as his glance fell on the forest.

"It was there I wandered," he said faintly.  "I could not remember the
way, but I had found it at last, and had stood already in sight of the
château itself, when I saw him creeping upon me; then, like a mad fool,
I fled once more into the forest, instead of crying for help from the
soldier who stood sentry near the gateway."

"And who took thee for a spirit of the dead," smiled Gwennola,
remembering Job Alloadec’s terror, "and small blame, I trow; but dwell
not on past years, my brother; yonder lies the miscreant dead, in just
reward for the evil he did, and we may not delay seeing what passeth at
the château."

The poor girl was indeed a prey to feverish emotion, the thought of what
injustice might even now be doing weighing like lead upon her heart, and
yet she might not speed on her way as she desired, seeing that salvation
to the man she loved came only with halting and painful steps, stopping
from time to time for very faintness and weakness.  And not only was
their progress slow, but dangerous, as Gwennola knew well, for the
yelping howls from the forest grew ever more importunate.  Did the
wolves escape Gloire’s vigilance and break in a pack into the open,
death awaited them both, for Gloire, gallant hound as he was, could be
no match against numbers on that bare heath side, whilst within the
forest he could dodge and worry his enemies, thus keeping many times his
number at bay.

Yvon was walking more steadily as they came at length to the outskirts
of the trees; his limbs were less cramped, his brain clearer, as the
shadow of death, which had haunted him for so long, was dispelled by
Gwennola’s bright voice and tender care. Still, even so, he seemed
little to realize their present danger, which grew ever more terrible.

Already Gwennola could see through the nearly total darkness the gleam
of cruel eyes shining on them from out of the thicket, and once a dark,
wolfish form leapt out on to the very path before them, only to be
driven back by the faithful Gloire, who, bleeding but undaunted, kept
gallant guard around them. Many of the beasts had gone unrestrainedly
now to fight for the meal awaiting them on the heath, but with appetites
whetted they would return anon, and then——

"Canst walk but a little faster, Yvon?" whispered Gwennola with a gasp,
as the howls and yelps grew nearer and more insistent on every side.
But Yvon shook his head; indeed, in the very attempt to obey her
petition he nearly stumbled, and would have fallen, had it not been for
her arm.  "Alas!" she cried, with a sob of terror, "Yvon, we are
lost—the wolves——"

A short bark of anger from Gloire changed suddenly into a glad yelp of
welcome, and Gwennola echoed it with a little cry of surprise as a man
bearing aloft a flaming torch came hurrying towards them, stopping
indeed to echo her cry as he perceived the two figures standing before
him.

"Job—ah! my good Jobik," cried Gwennola joyfully. "See, Yvon, we are
saved—we are saved!"

"Yvon—Monsieur Yvon!" stammered Job, his eyes fixed in wonder, not
unmixed with horror, on his young master’s face.  "Monsieur Yvon!
Mother of Heaven! it is impossible!"  And so violent was the fear that
overcame the honest fellow, that he nearly let fall the torch, and with
it their safety, for the wolves, scared, as they ever are, by the light,
had fled, howling with disappointment, back into the forest.

"Nay," said Yvon, smiling faintly, "’tis I myself, good Job, though more
in the bone than the flesh, I warrant me."

"Monsieur Yvon," still repeated Job, with undiminished wonder in his
eyes—"Monsieur Yvon."  Then, as he realized that in some miraculous way
it was indeed his beloved master who stood before him, he fell a-weeping
for very joy, repeating the name over and over again, as though to
convince himself of what was apparently beyond reason or understanding.

"Nay, foolish fellow," cried Gwennola sharply, being in no mood just
then, with nerves stretched to breaking, for idle tears.  "Cease such
maundering, or wait till fitter time and place to give vent to thy joy.
Wouldst have tears verily to take the place of laughter by delaying,
when—when——"  She broke off abruptly, adding in a lower key, "And
Monsieur d’Estrailles?—the French knight—what of him? Nay, stand not
gaping, there, as if thou awaitest the moon to swallow thee up, as she
did poor Pierre Laroc, but take the arm of Monsieur Yvon, who is weak,
as thou seest.  There, support him well, good Job, and let us hasten
onwards whilst thou tellest me."

Her heart beat fast as she waited, all eagerly, for the answer which she
so dreaded to know that she was fain to stop her ears or fly from
hearing into the forest.  But Job’s wits were still astray for very joy
and wonder, as he felt Yvon’s gaunt form lean against his stout arm, and
read recognition in the great blue eyes, which had stared so
despairingly into his, scarce a week back, from the forest shade.

It was not till Gwennola had impatiently repeated her question that the
former events of that strange night came back to his slowly revolving
brain.

"The French knight?" he repeated.  "Ah, yes, mademoiselle, it was Marie
herself who sent me in search of you, because, forsooth! it would seem
you had gone to bid farewell to one in the forest who came instead, but
sorely against his will, to the château to bid farewell to life."

"How chanced it?  How came he thither?  Who discovered his hiding-place?
Nay, thou shalt not tell me he is already sped," cried Gwennola
passionately.

"How chanced it?" echoed Job, clinging to the first question.  "Nay,
mistress, that I know not. I was on guard at the outer postern when,
scarce two hours agone, Marie cometh to me, weeping. ’He is taken,’ she
cried.  ’Alas! the poor monsieur is taken, and mademoiselle will die.’
Thou knowest, mademoiselle, the foolish tongue of my sister.  At first I
could comprehend nothing, but at last it appeared that Monsieur de Coray
had learnt, by some means, of which I know naught, that the French
knight lay hidden in the forest; he divined also his hiding-place, but
of this no word did he say to my lord, only commanding six soldiers, as
by my lord’s order, to be ready shortly before midnight to accompany him
secretly, and without telling their comrades one word of what they did.
It would appear then that Monsieur de Coray led them to this so secret
hiding-place and captured the poor knight, whom they brought back to the
château.

"The foolish Marie was distraught with grief, and for mademoiselle’s
sake, I will confess, my heart was also heavy, but a soldier hath his
duty, and therefore I remained where I was until a short half hour ago,
when Marie returneth to me, white and weeping still more sorely.
’Alas!’ she saith, ’the poor monsieur—the lover of mademoiselle—is
condemned to death; only hath he been given time for the good father to
shrive him of his sins, and then, alas! he will be hanged, even ere
dawn.’  After which the foolish one wept upon my shoulder, and I—I also
wept for the sake of mademoiselle, for of the sins of this monsieur I
comprehended naught, except that he was falsely accused of murdering
Monsieur Yvon.  But anon, Marie drieth her tears, and biddeth me light
my torch speedily and go in search of you, mademoiselle, for she feared
greatly for your safety, seeing that two hours had passed and you had
not returned.  At first I refused, for I am a soldier, mademoiselle, who
must think of his post, but when Marie represented to me your danger,
and promised to guard well my post till my return, I hesitated no
longer, for, for myself, I also had my fears as I listened to the
howlings of the wolves.  And so, mademoiselle, I came, and the holy
saints directed my footsteps in the way."

"And he is not dead?" whispered Gwennola, with a quick gasp for breath,
as she hurried forward. "He is not dead?"

It was the only point which remained in her memory of all the honest
Breton’s preamble.

"Nay!" said Job slowly.  "He was given time to be shriven, and Father
Ambrose, being sick, had to be brought carefully from his bed, and
methinks the good priest is little like to hurry over the last
confessions of one who goes to death; nay, mistress, methinks he will
surely yet live."

"Merciful Mother of God, grant it!" cried Gwennola in agony.  "Ah, see,
Yvon, we are near at last; there, yonder, is the château; a few
minutes——"

No more was spoken as the three hurried swiftly onwards.  Job almost
bearing Yvon in his stalwart arms, whilst Gwennola held aloft the
flaring torch. A strange trio truly the yellow light gleamed on: the
sick man’s thin, emaciated features and drooping form; the thickly-set,
dark-browed Breton soldier with his honest, wondering eyes and bushy
beard; and the slender, dark-robed figure with pale, agonized face,
eager eyes, and a tumbled mass of red-gold curls, from which the hood
had fallen.

No word was spoken even as they passed the outer postern, where the
wondering Marie still held impatient guard, but swiftly onwards they
sped through the darkness of the little chapel, till they stood at
length to pause and listen in the shadow of the tapestries which hung
around the great hall.  The flaring light of the torches fastened in the
iron cressets on the walls revealed a strange scene.  By the long table
sat the Sieur de Mereac, and close to his side Guillaume de Coray, the
former, stern, implacable judge, the latter, mocking, triumphant
accuser; in the foreground, a small group of soldiers surrounding the
tall, slender figure of the condemned man, his hands bound tightly
behind him, even now on his way to execution, and by his side the
black-robed form of the old confessor.

Although d’Estrailles’ back was towards them, those standing there in
the shadows could see the proud bearing of his mien as he listened to
his judges last words.

"Henri d’Estrailles," said the old man sternly, "you are found guilty
and condemned to die; murderer and traitor that you are, the death of a
felon is fitting ending to such a life.  My son’s life you spared not to
take by foul and cruel means, and still more, in reward for the
hospitality I all unwittingly bestowed upon you, you have robbed me of a
daughter’s soul.  Coward and villain! have you made your peace with
God?—if so, it were well, for even in death the hand of every true and
upright man shall be against you."

"Nay, my son," interrupted Father Ambrose gently, "beware how you pass
unjust sentence on a man whom my soul telleth me is innocent.  Nay,
frown not, but listen to the warning of an old man, who from early youth
hath learnt to read men’s hearts. Have I not but now listened to the
confessions of one about to pass to the judgment of One with Whom no
deception is possible? and in the face of eternity itself would he look
back upon his fellow-men with lies upon his lips?  I tell thee, no,
Sieur de Mereac, no, a hundred times!  And so I tell thee, that having
read the secrets of this man’s soul, I find him innocent of the crime
whereof he is accused."

"Nay, my father," interrupted de Coray with a sneer, "you speak well,
but, bethink you, it was _I_ who saw this man strike the very blow which
he so glibly denies; _I_ who saw him creep so treacherously behind my
poor kinsman—the noble young Yvon—and cleave him from brow to chin ere
he could turn to see his foe; _I_——"

"Liar!"

The single word rang down the hall like the challenging blast of a
trumpet, as all turned to see standing there against the tapestry the
tall, gaunt figure of a man.



                              *CHAPTER X*


For a few minutes there reigned a breathless silence. All eyes seemed
indeed riveted on that strange, emaciated figure, which half leant, as
if for support, against Gwennola’s slender form as she stood beside him,
her pale face flushed now rosy red with joy and triumph, as she glanced
from the bound, helpless figure between the soldiers towards her father.

The Sieur de Mereac had risen, and was standing, one trembling hand
clutching the back of his chair, the other shading his eyes, as if the
flickering torchlight blinded his sight, as he gazed in mute wonder
towards the speaker.  Then, as the blue eyes met the black with an
up-leaping light of recognition, another cry, more faltering, yet
trembling with a very wonderment of joy, rang out in the silence—

"Yvon!  Yvon! my boy! my boy!"

For the time all were forgotten: prisoners, accusers, false and true; to
the old man striding forwards with outstretched arms, the world, for the
moment, contained nothing but that haggard, dishevelled figure, and the
blue eyes of his long-lost, long-mourned son.

"Father," cried Yvon with a sob, as he staggered forward to meet him.
"Father, at last!"

De Coray had sprung to his feet with an oath, half fury, half dismay, as
Yvon de Mereac sent down his challenge through the hall.

Little as he had dreamt that his blow had not been fatal in that dark
wood of St Aubin du Cormier, he was sufficiently keen-witted to vaguely
guess the sequel, his conclusion being more easily drawn from the fact
of the unexplained presence of his old comrade and late enemy, François
Kerden.  Without giving himself time or trouble to fit into its place
every piece of the puzzle, he grasped the meaning of the whole, and
realized that it was indeed Yvon de Mereac who stood before him, and
also that his own position was one of imminent danger.

These calculations passed like lightning through his ready mind as he
looked eagerly round for means of escape.  None noticed him or his
movements, all attention being fixed on the two central figures of the
little drama.  All indeed but one, for, as he turned, he encountered the
sympathetic and comprehensive gaze of Pierre the fool.  That the
strange, dwarfed jester had evinced an unaccountable devotion for him
had puzzled de Coray more than once, little used as he had ever been to
be loved for his own sake, and he was more than half inclined to treat
the little fellow’s overtures with suspicion.  But in the present crisis
it would be well to have even a fool for a friend rather than an enemy,
and de Coray, obeying Pierre’s obvious signs, crept unseen behind the
tapestry.

"Quick, monsieur!" whispered the boy in his ear. "You are as yet
unperceived, but we must not delay. To your right, monsieur, so—there is
a passage there which leadeth to the chapel.  Methinks few know it but I
myself.  The outer postern is unguarded; we can escape to the forest."

Not unwilling to be guided by so ready an ally, de Coray followed, his
hand, however, on his sword, ready to draw it should he have cause to
suspect treachery.  But Pierre had apparently no such intention, and ere
many minutes had elapsed they had both reached the shelter of the
forest.

Scarcely knowing whither he went, de Coray hurried along by the boy’s
side, black rage in his heart as he recalled how swiftly the tables had
been turned upon him by the girl whom he had intended to force into
marriage with him, and how complete had been her triumph.  Only five
minutes more, and at least one witness against him would have been
removed from his path, the only witness indeed that he need have feared,
trusting to his ready wit to weave some fresh fiction to account for his
error in supposing Yvon de Mereac dead.  Now, he felt, even in the
moment of flight, that by so escaping he was severing the last
possibility of deceiving his uncle into disbelief of the Frenchman’s
word, coupled as it was by Yvon’s reappearance.  Yet he dared not stay,
for behind all lay the risk of Kerden’s discovery and subsequent
confession, which might well damn him beyond hope of redress, and
perchance bring him within reach of the noose which he had hoped to see
tightening round the neck of an innocent man.

Well might de Coray feel blank despair clutching him as he began the
more clearly to realize the hopelessness of his position were he
captured—and yet such capture was imminent.  Once persuaded of his
treachery, he was assured that de Mereac would leave no stone unturned
to find and bring him to justice, and that such persuasion would be easy
he doubted not, seeing that his own flight sealed his guilt.

"Fool," he cried angrily, as he suddenly halted on the forest path which
they were treading, "where dost thou lead me?  I tell thee that there
will be pursuit, and I, wandering on foot here, alone, must needs be
captured without hope of escape."  And in his fury he turned on the
dwarfed lad, who stood looking up at him with a face on which cunning
and fear were mingled with a strange, half-comic expression of dog-like
devotion.

"Nay, monsieur," said Pierre deprecatingly, as he spread forth his hands
as if to arrest the movement which de Coray made to draw his sword.
"Fool though I be, monsieur shall find that I have yet some wisdom in
this thick skull of mine."  And he nodded his head gravely as he tapped
his forehead.  "Yes," he said thoughtfully, "Pierre the fool has eyes,
also ears, and he says to monsieur, ’Hasten, quickly, for there is
safety only in flight.’"

"Safety!" echoed de Coray bitterly; "ay, fool’s safety, I trow, such as
I merit for entrusting myself to thy guidance.  How, forsooth, Sir Wise
Fool, wouldst have me escape de Mereac’s fleet steeds and keen blades?
Thinkest thou that he and his retainers are as dull of wit and sight as
thou art, thou ape of iniquity?"

The lad shrank back as if struck by a lash, putting up his thin hands as
though to protect himself from a blow.

"Ah, monsieur, listen," he moaned, "and be not angry with one who would
die for you.  Nay!" he added eagerly, stung by de Coray’s sneer,
"monsieur _shall_ believe.  See, far in the depths of the forest is a
hut, small but well sheltered; it is there that my sister Gabrielle
dwells, who blesses monsieur’s name nightly in her prayers for the money
which saved us from misery when the hunger-wolf knocked loudly at the
door but a few days since.  In this hut monsieur will be safely hidden
for, perchance, a few hours only, whilst Pierre the fool watcheth to see
whither his enemies ride; then, when danger lies with her back to him,
monsieur will mount and ride to where he will be in safety."

De Coray’s brow cleared, though he looked doubtfully into the puckered,
upturned face, as if still suspicious.

"If thou betrayest me thou shalt die, boy," he said menacingly; then, in
a kinder tone, "nevertheless, if all goes as thou sayest, and I escape,
Guillaume de Coray shall be found neither an ungenerous nor forgetful
master."

With a shrewd smile the jester stooped to kiss the hand outstretched to
him, then, drawing himself up, said, with the simple dignity of his
race, be they noble or peasant—

"Monsieur, I too am a Breton."

"Lead on," said de Coray peremptorily—-"for the rest, we shall see."

The wolves, which still howled dismally in distant parts of the forest,
did not molest the two travellers as they hurried on their way, though
from time to time de Coray started with all the nervousness of a guilty
man as a bough or twig snapped under their feet or a night bird brushed
their faces in the darkness with her wings.

Dawn was already faintly tinging the sky in the far east when Pierre
halted before the door of a hut so quaintly built against an overhanging
crag of rock as to be easily passed by unobserved.

"See, monsieur," he said thoughtfully, "it will not be well to enter
now; it may be that ere long the enemies of monsieur will think of the
hut of Pierre the fool, for there are those who know not only of it, but
of the love I bear you; therefore it were best to seek shelter till day
arrives in a secure hiding-place. Tenez, monsieur, behold such an one as
will mock those who pursue!"  And with pride the boy showed a deep
fissure in the crag close by, so carefully concealed that a man might
lie in perfect safety between the two high boulders without fear of
detection. "Monsieur will rest here till danger has passed," observed
Pierre, waving a lean hand towards the fissure of rock with the air of a
host who invites his guest to partake of his sumptuous hospitality, "and
afterwards the little Gabrielle will keep watch, as also she will tend
to the needs of monsieur."

"And for yourself?" demanded de Coray sharply, even now distrustful.

The jester shrugged his shoulders and spread out his hands with a
gesture of self-importance.

"For myself, monsieur, I return to the château, for it were not well
that I should be missed.  Be assured, monsieur, that my ears and eyes
will be open, so that in the evening when I return there may be news
which will guide you on your journey."

"Journey!" exclaimed de Coray bitterly; "a long and safe journey, I
trow, with neither horse nor provision for the way; ’twill be a journey
into the arms of my good uncle, I ween, and, by the beard of St Gildas,
I trow his embrace will be scarce to my liking."

But Pierre shook his head with an air of superior wisdom.

"Monsieur misjudges me," he said reproachfully. "Pierre the fool is
surely less fool than the words of monsieur imply.  This evening when I
return I will bring a horse fleet and sure-footed, also news of the
pursuit of monsieur’s enemies; the rest, if monsieur rides with caution,
will be altogether easy."

The lad’s words were reassuring, his manner simple and straightforward,
and, in spite of the inward misgivings, which must ever haunt a man
whose own ways are crooked when they are fain to entrust themselves to
the honour of another, de Coray was forced, for very necessity, to
accept Pierre’s apparently honest promises of assistance.  Yet, shut up
in his gloomy hiding-place, the traitor felt the inward qualms and fears
growing rapidly, coupled as they were with the dread of capture.  A
swift review of his broken schemes showed him how small a hope of mercy
there must needs be did he fall into his outraged kinsman’s hands.

The tissue of lies which he had woven around d’Estrailles and Gwennola
de Mereac would now wing themselves against him and prove fresh voices
of accusation as his true motives and own deadly deeds were brought to
view.  As he thought of all he could not but glance with some vague
dread on that shrouded past of his.  Little did any guess the traitor’s
way he had trodden so blithely since youth.  With a shame which was yet
half-mocking pride at his own shrewdness and cunning, he recalled how
he, a noble of Brittany, had been content to become a tool in the hands
of the infamous Landais, and yet, whilst earning a rich reward for his
services, had escaped sharing his low-born master’s fate, when an
outraged and too long-suffering people had taken the law into their own
hands and hanged the tyrant in defiance of their Sovereign Duke.  Then
he recalled, lying there looking back over the past, how he had
bethought him of his kinsfolk of Mereac, and, riding westward, had come,
like some ill-omened bird, to prey on an inheritance which he found well
to his liking.  The treacherous death of the young heir had seemed to
him a master stroke of cunning, and no sooner had he deemed it safely
accomplished than he set to work to ingratiate himself with the old
Sieur and his daughter.

But Gwennola had proved a stumbling-block to his ambitions, and
conceiving that her father, who was devoted to this sole surviving
child, would be likely to leave her whatever fortune it was possible to
divide from the inheritance of his lands, he decided to wed her—not that
he loved her; but, bah! what did that matter?  Neither did it concern
him that the maiden took no pains to conceal her hatred of him. It
pleased the inherent cruelty of his nature to cause pain, and it
delighted him to watch the shudder that shook her when he alluded, with
mock devotion, to their union.  For the scorn he endured at her hands he
promised himself a charming and protracted revenge when she was his
wife.  Now, to his chagrin, his dreams were in an instant shattered,
and, instead of the presumptive heir and honoured guest, he found
himself a hunted murderer, condemned already without trial, and all, he
bitterly told himself, through the machinations of a puling girl and her
lover—a lover whom he had been on the brink of consigning to a felon’s
grave as reward for his inopportune presence at Mereac.

Thus pondering, de Coray fell into a heavy slumber, out-wearied by the
events of a long and unpleasantly exciting day, nor did he awake till
the warm rays of the sun struck downwards, sending long, bright shafts
of light almost to the heart of the dark shadows of his hiding-place.

Consumed with hunger and thirst, still it was some time before he could
summons up sufficient courage to creep forth from his lair.  It was a
day of dazzling sunshine, which illuminated even the depths of that grey
and gloomy forest, and for a moment de Coray stood there, blinking, like
some suddenly disturbed owl, before his sight grew accustomed to the
brilliant glare. Presently, however, he became aware of a girl’s slim
figure seated in the doorway of the hut, beside her spinning wheel.  A
pretty enough picture was thus formed—the dark background of forest, the
quaint and dilapidated woodland hut, and stray rays of golden glory
lighting up the figure in the foreground, in its picturesque dress and
cap of a Breton peasant girl, a dress which set off to perfection the
beauty of the face bent low over the humming wheel. It was in fact the
face rather of a Madonna than a mere peasant, for the beauty lay not
only, or chiefly, in the delicate oval of her cheeks, the regularity of
her features, or the glossy luxuriance of the long plaits of black hair
which fell over her shoulders, but in the soft and tender expression of
her lips and dark eyes, which were swiftly raised to meet de Coray’s
curious gaze.

A sudden flush of joy, rather than maidenly bashfulness, crimsoned the
girl’s cheeks as she rose hastily, and with a deep curtsy welcomed her
visitor.

To his surprise, de Coray found himself treated with a respect and
gratitude wholly unlocked for. It was evident that her brother had
breathed no word of his patron’s true character or the reason of his
present difficulties, but instead had sung such praises into his simple
sister’s ears that she looked upon de Coray in the light of some poor,
persecuted saint.

If is a strange experience thus to be taken for what one is too
obviously not, and de Coray listened, half amused, half pleased, to her
shy, faltering words of gratitude.

The suspicions which had lurked around his heart as to the
trustworthiness of his little ally faded away before the clear truth of
his sister’s dark eyes, and involuntarily he made an effort to assume
the rôle which she had given him so innocently.  It was the wolf in
sheep’s clothing once more, but this time the wolf was more anxious to
hide his own dark skin than to devour the trusting lamb.

So, after the meal was over, they sat there together, those two
ill-assorted companions, whilst in still shy but more confiding
sentences Gabrielle related to her visitor the simple story of her life.
It was so simple, so humble, yet, as he sat there by her side, watching
the innocent beauty of her face and listening to her murmured words,
interrupted as they were by an occasional burst of bird song from the
whispering woodlands around, it seemed a very idyll of beauty.

The glamour of an entirely new experience had crept over the cruel,
scheming man of many crimes as he sat there waiting for the twilight to
fall, the glamour which hangs around the days of early childhood and
innocence, and seems to whisper of things holy and beautiful.  It
thrilled him with a new sense of what life might be, and made him shrink
back appalled from what his had already been.

It was shame, and yet not without its sweetness, to see himself mirrored
in this peasant girl’s eyes as a noble knight whose goodness and
untarnished honour had been already the theme of her girlish thoughts,
and he almost shivered as he pictured how the light of reverence and
admiration would fade from her sweet face did she know the truth.

"Ah, monsieur," murmured Gabrielle as she paused in her busy work to
look across to where he was sitting, "my heart aches to think of the
cruelty of those who seek to do you harm, nor can I conceive how one so
good and noble as the Sieur de Mereac could be so deceived by lying
tongues."

De Coray shrugged his shoulders.  "Nay, mademoiselle," he said
carelessly, "doubtless in time the noble Sieur will find out his error
and regret his hasty judgment; for the rest, if I can but ride in safety
to my own château at Pontivy, I shall not forget the succour which you
and your brother have bestowed."

"Nay," cried the girl softly, "monsieur must not speak of reward for
what it has been our joy to give; monsieur has already saved us from
want, for, see, I was sick—I could do but little spinning—and my brother
had but small money to bestow on me, until monsieur, in the generosity
of his heart, gave him much silver, for which may our Lady and all the
saints for ever bless you, monsieur, and deliver you from the hands of
cruel men."

"Nay," said de Coray gallantly, "methinks, fair maid, one of the
sweetest saints hath already undertaken my deliverance."

She looked at him innocently, not comprehending the compliment he
intended to convey, seeing that her thoughts were not of herself, but
for him.

And so they sat there, talking softly, as the spell and glamour of the
moment bade them, and she told him with the simplicity of a child how
she lived here alone in the forest hut, all alone, spinning for the most
part, for she was lame and could walk but little, and how her brother
Pierre would come often to see her, when it was possible.  And at
Pierre’s name her eyes grew tender, for her love for him was great. Ah!
the poor little Pierre!—he who would have been so gallant a soldier had
it not been for his affliction. The poor Pierre!  It had been long ago
that the Sieur de Mereac, hunting in his forests, had passed the little
hut where François Laurent lived with his wife and two children, and
alas! the little Pierre, playing out there in the sunshine, had paused
to gaze at the gay trappings of the cavalcade rather than run to the
safe shelter of his mother’s arms, so that one of the horses had struck
him down underfoot and injured his spine.

That was the story of poor Pierre; that was why instead of a
strong-limbed, gallant man, he must shuffle through life as the crooked,
puny Pierre the fool.  It is true the Sieur de Mereac regretted what had
happened, and when Pierre was old enough he had taken him into his
service, and finding the sharp-faced lad had a wit of his own, had made
him jester, with Petit Pierre the ape for company.

But for herself? de Coray asked.  Had she no fear dwelling alone in so
desolate a hut, with nothing but the howlings of wolves and the wailings
of the wind to keep her company?

The little Gabrielle smiled.  Surely not!  How could she fear, when the
Blessed Mother of God and all the holy saints were near to protect her
from evil?  So simple, childish innocence argued with guilt and crime,
which go ever hand in hand with fear and terror; and again, de Coray,
looking into her great, dark eyes, felt a thrill of joy that she did not
know him for what he was; for truly, had he spent that long day of
secret fears and suspense with an angel from heaven, no softer or more
purifying hand could have been lain on the hardened blackness of his
heart, causing it to leap with a sudden vague, yet momentary yearning
towards what was pure, noble, and good.

So the twilight fell, and neither Pierre nor his enemies had come; but
as the dim, mysterious time of shadows passed into the darkness of
night, the two watchers saw through the trees the approaching figure of
a boy leading a horse by its bridle.

"It is Pierre!" cried Gabrielle joyfully, and rose from her work, though
she waited still in the doorway till her brother came towards her,
smiling his welcome first into her flushed, glad face, before he turned
to de Coray.

"Monsieur," he said, bowing low with a sweep of his tall fool’s cap,
which seemed more mockery than deference, though perchance he meant it
not—"monsieur, all is well.  The enemies of monsieur ride towards Nantes
and Angers; it is evident that they have forgotten so humble an abode as
that of Pierre the fool.  Moreover, methinks they scarce suspect me of
assisting you, seeing that I was found sleeping this morning between the
good hounds Gloire and Reine."

"And the forest?" questioned de Coray eagerly.

"That also they have searched, monsieur, though it is evident not yet
with sufficient care; my lord indeed hath commanded that every corner of
Brittany be searched till you are found, and hath offered a goodly
reward for your capture, but for the present he himself is too much
occupied with attending upon Monsieur Yvon to direct the search in
person."

De Coray smiled, casting a side glance towards Gabrielle, who had
entered the hut to prepare supper, as he added in a lower key—

"Heardst aught, my friend, of one Kerden?  In their search for me did
they light, perchance, on a man who bears that name, who methinks might
even now be haunting yon woods?"

Pierre glanced up to meet his patron’s inquiry with a look as shrewd as
de Coray’s own.

"Monsieur," he said simply, "it appears that this Kerden will no longer
haunt the forest of Arteze in the flesh, and if all be true of which men
talk at the château, the devil will have been too swift in bearing off
his spirit to its own place to leave it chance of roaming yonder at
nightfall."

"Dead?" echoed de Coray, with a long-drawn sigh of relief.  "Thou art
sure of it?"

"Verily," retorted Pierre, "if the word of mademoiselle, and the bloody
jaws of Gloire are sufficiently to be trusted.  The hound killed him, so
’tis said, out yonder on the heath, where the courils dance on moonlit
nights; but monsieur will be wise to delay no longer.  See, the horse is
a good one, and fresh too; there are also provisions for a journey,
though methinks they were prepared for other jaws to consume than those
of monsieur, but they will taste none the less sweet for that."  And the
strange lad chuckled gleefully over his jest.

"Nay, ’tis the steed of the Frenchman!" exclaimed de Coray, as his eye
glanced over the bay horse which Pierre held by the bridle.  "Tiens! my
friend, I know it by its white star and cropped ears.  But how came you
by it, little knave?  Methinks monsieur yonder would scarce have such
ardent desire for my escape as to lend me his own steed?"

"Nay," replied Pierre wisely, "in that you speak truth, monsieur; but I
will explain.  The horse of the French knight I discovered two days
since, when Petit Pierre and I went at midnight in the footsteps of
mademoiselle; it was stabled close to the chapel of the brown friar, and
hath there remained till the present.  Methinks in his expected exit
from the present life, monsieur’s thoughts were too busy with the next
to remember his poor steed; and so this morning, ere I returned to the
château, I visited the shed and unloosed the poor beast, and, after
giving him a meal, I led him to a distant part of the forest, where I
tethered him, trusting in the saints that none should chance to pass
that way. Also near the chapel I discovered a basket of provisions which
the thoughtful care of the beautiful mademoiselle had prepared for her
lover; these also I appropriated for the needs of monsieur, therefore
methinks that for a fool I have done right well.  Is it not so,
monsieur?"

"Nay," said de Coray warmly, "thou hast done right gallantly, my friend,
and great shalt be thy reward in due time, though for the present an
empty gratitude must be thy guerdon; but when fortune smiles once more
on me, then there shall be golden smiles for thee too, my manikin, as
also for thy sweet sister here."

"Ay," replied Pierre, drawing himself up proudly, as he led the way into
his humble abode, "peasants though we be, monsieur, still there is
nobility too in the blood of the Laurents of Arteze, for truly in the
veins of our ancestors ran the blood of King Arthur himself, and the
renowned Morgana.  Is it not so, Gabrielle?"

The girl smiled from one to the other.

"Nay, my brother," she replied softly, "so our parents told us, but I
wot well that there is better truth in the words of our father, that
nobility is of the soul rather than the body, and it little matters who
our ancestors were, so long as we ourselves wooed honour and virtue for
our spouses."

"Mademoiselle is wise," said de Coray smoothly, as his glance met hers.
And, to his shame perchance, his own fell not beneath the steadfast
gaze, but met it, as if he too cherished the ideals imprinted on her
pure young brow.

Nevertheless, perhaps his heart, false though it was, reproached him as
he rode away into the darkness of the night, bearing with him the memory
of an upturned face full of sweet, confiding trust and reverence, and
eyes which hailed him by a name he had never known.



                              *CHAPTER XI*


"And so we say farewell, my Henri?" sighed Gwennola mournfully, and
there were tears in the blue eyes raised to Henri d’Estrailles’ dark,
handsome face.

"Nay, rather, ’au revoir,’ sweet," he replied tenderly, "though I trow
that be hard enough to say."

They were standing, those two, on the terrace path close by the river
side.  Beyond them lay the grey gloom of the forest, with its air of
tragedy and mystery, and behind them the château, standing on the
outskirts of a dreary heath, grim and forbidding. But around them life
took a gladder note; the sunshine of summer played amongst flowers and
orchard blossoms, and birds sang sweetly in the boughs overhead.  Above
all youth and happiness smiled the glad story, old and for ever new, of
love and devotion, into each other’s eyes.  Yet, even in the tender
beauty of the present, the music of joy struck a minor note in the sad
word of farewell.

It was hard—so hard—to part, when love was but newly born, and yet part
they must.  The Sieur de Mereac was inflexible in his decision.

Convinced of d’Estrailles’ innocence, he had offered his injured guest
the courteous apologies due to him, apologies as sincere as they were
hearty, though perchance small blame could be attached to his conduct,
seeing what had passed; whilst apologies would have been of small value
had Yvon de Mereac appeared in the hall of judgment a few moments later.

Great and bitter had been the old noble’s anger and mortification at
finding that his own kinsman should have played so base a part, and
terrible was the retribution which he swore to repay him with.

But even in his desire to offer amends for an injustice so nearly
consummated, Gaspard de Mereac turned a deaf ear to d’Estrailles’
pleadings concerning his daughter.  To him it was a thing altogether
beyond comprehension that a Mereac should mate with the natural enemy of
her country, for here, on the borderland of the distracted dukedom,
hatred of France was drawn in with the first breath of life.

Only at last, yielding most unwillingly to his cherished darling’s
entreaties, did he agree to temporize.  Did the mission of the Count
Dunois meet with success, and the bond between mutual enemies be
cemented in one of love and marriage, then perchance, if Gwennola were
still unchanged, natural prejudice should give way and a betrothal
between the two be permitted.  Yet even this temporizing would scarce
have been, had not de Mereac convinced himself of the certainty of his
Duchess’s rejection of any offer of union betwixt herself and the man
whom she must needs regard as her bitterest foe, in defiance of the
troth she had already plighted to the King of the Romans.

So the wily old Breton, yielding no whit in his purpose to mate his
daughter to none but her own countryman, outwardly consented to
conditions little likely of fulfilment, and so silenced the
importunities of the child he adored and the man whom he had so nearly
condemned unjustly to death.  But to Yvon he confided his secret
purpose.

"’Tis but the passing whim of a foolish maid," he said lightly, "and one
not to be regarded seriously, my son; yet ’tis wisest to yield in
outward seeming, for, did I oppose her will, the little Gwennola would
sigh and weep as any love-lorn maiden of romance, such as our minstrels
picture wherewith to turn the heads of other silly maids; but if she
have her way, she will soon forget a stranger when another noble lover
comes a-wooing.  Nay, nay, the child is too true a Mereac to long love a
French lover; another shall soon steal the fancy from her heart and
leave a truer one in its place.  Alain de Plöernic seeks a bride, and
where shall he find a fairer or a sweeter than the demoiselle of
Mereac?"

So the old father built his schemes, all unwitting of his daughter’s
mind, dreaming; that maids, forsooth! must needs be all of one pattern,
and ready enough to change lovers at a father’s command, or because,
perchance, the name of one sounded ill in a father’s ear, little recking
that here was a slip from his own stern, iron-willed stock, which,
having found its mate, responded not to the call of any other, even at
the command of a parent, however beloved.

So on the terrace walk the lovers, so ill assorted, yet so faithful,
pledged undying constancy and truth, and in the hall of the château the
Sieur de Mereac smiled at his new-found serpent’s wisdom, then
altogether dismissed from his mind the ill thought of Gwennola’s
unwelcome lover, to turn instead to think of the man to whom he had
pledged his daughter’s troth, and to swear vengeance on the subtle brain
which had so nearly wrought the undoing of his house.  Even in his
racial hatred he could not but admit that Henri d’Estrailles claimed his
gratitude in striving, even though vainly, against the coward hand which
had struck the traitor’s blow on his Yvon.  And so, from thoughts of
that scene in the wood of St Aubin, once more the old man’s wandering
reflections went back with a shuddering fury to the tale which Yvon
himself had so haltingly told them as he stood there in the dim hall,
with his father and sister beside him, his hands—such thin, trembling
hands!—locked in theirs as he spoke.

And the tale itself!  Ah! why had the chief actor in it gone so
summarily from justice—his justice? Almost he could find it in his heart
to quarrel with the faithful hound that had done its work of retribution
so swiftly and so well.  At first it had been almost impossible to
believe that this broken, feeble-minded man with Yvon’s eyes could
really be the gallant youth on whom his fond hopes had been set.  And
then he had heard—yes, heard of the little cellar chamber in the old
house at Rennes where his son had awaked from his long unconsciousness
and found it so hard to struggle back through the shadowland of delirium
into realization of where he was, and in whose keeping.  And the
realization, too, when it came, how terrible and how bitter!  The
father, conning over the tale, could well fit in the bare outline of it
all, with lurid touches of imagination.  As he stared, leaning his elbow
on the table before him, with unseeing eyes on the faded tapestries of
the wall, he could picture that dark cell, the sick, fevered man, whose
youth struggled so madly within him for life; then the mocking, jeering
face of his captor as he told him the truth which there was no need to
hide—the truth that he was to lie there as this villain’s trump card,
the instrument with which he was to work on another’s fears; how indeed
that he was to be kept there to pine and languish, but not to die, until
his kinsman should enter upon his inheritance, when his captor would be
able to use him as a constant menace to the unlawful Sieur de Mereac,
wherewith to extort gold and favour for himself.  Oh, it was a cunning
scheme! and how gleefully the originator of it would have laughed as he
unfolded it to his victim!  And then the long waiting time, the dragging
by of month after month, in which death indeed must have been yearned
for as the best good, and yet came not at his call.  Then the delirious
fancy, born of that terrible captivity, that his gaoler was ever waiting
an opportunity to come creeping into his cell with his murderous dagger.
And even though he had prayed for death and longed for her restful kiss,
yet the terror of this swift and bloody end must have become
unendurable.  Then, when hope seemed dead, the sudden fresh upleaping of
it in the pity and friendship of the old crone who brought him food,
and, on rare occasions, fresh garments—the resolve for flight, the
breathless excitement of creeping up those long and winding flights of
stairs, with the old hag muttering and sobbing out fears that her master
would kill her when he heard the truth, then the mad joy of drawing in
once more the pure draught of outer air, and finally the ill-timed
escape—an escape so nearly successful, however, that he had reached the
river side and stood in very view of the château, when the sight of his
cruel captor had unbalanced the weak, cowed spirit once more, and he had
incontinently fled into the forest, only to be easily overtaken and
overpowered by Kerden, who with oaths and blows threatened torture and
punishment for his temerity when once more he had brought him back to
his prison.  But here the ruffian had been himself outwitted, for, in
his search for his victim, he had himself been seen and recognised by
his late master, and anxious, not only to elude, but put the latter off
his scent entirely, he had determined to lie low until de Coray’s
suspicions were allayed. Accordingly he had carried Yvon to the cave he
had found on the hillside, and had secreted himself beside him, only to
steal out at night in search of provisions, which he procured from the
peasants of Mereac and the little town of Martigue close at hand.  That
very night he had told Yvon of his intention of fetching his horse and
returning to Rennes, leaving his trembling prisoner in suspense as to
his own fate. Whether he had changed his mind, or whether the vigilant
search of Pierre the fool had alarmed him, it was impossible to say,
seeing that death had so swiftly overtaken the heartless schemer; but as
de Mereac recalled the terror-haunted face of his son as he told his
story, he brought down his clenched fist on the table before him with a
fierce curse on the soul of the man who had done this deed.

"My son," said a gentle voice at his side, "saith not the Holy Script,
’Forgive, as we forgive to others their trespasses’?"

De Mereac turned swiftly with outstretched hand towards the black-robed
figure standing by his chair.

"Ambrose!" he cried softly.  "Nay, it does me good to hear thee speak of
forgiveness, seeing how much I need at thy hands."

The Benedictine smiled as he laid his slender hand on the other’s broad
shoulder.

"Nay," he replied, "it is not for thee to crave my forgiveness, Gaspard,
for in very truth methinks I was to blame for yielding to a maiden’s
whim, albeit a generous one."

"Bah!" laughed de Mereac heartily, as he drew forward a chair and gently
pushed the old priest into it.  "Thou wert not to blame for that, my
friend. Gwennola, I fear me, is her father’s own daughter, and when she
setteth her mind to a thing there is no rest till it is performed.  But
truly all was ordered for the best, and my little maid’s judgment was
not ill, though whether she defied her father from love of justice, or
because she so hated the man whom in my folly I would have had her wed,
I know not."

Father Ambrose’s smile was somewhat whimsical, for from his window he
had seen the two figures by the river side.

"Nay, old friend," he said gently, "perchance ’twas neither altogether
justice nor hatred that made a heroine of romance of the child, but a
stronger power than both, namely, love, which ever moveth a maid to
strange deeds and fancies."

De Mereac stared across at the priest for a moment with knitted brow,
then, as he divined his meaning, he frowned.

"A foolish whim," he retorted shortly, "and one that I trow well will
fade fast enough when this Frenchman hath taken his departure, which,
thanks be to Mary! he doth speedily.  I would sooner the maid became a
dismal nun, all prayers and melancholy, than the wife of a French
robber."

"Truly to be a bride of Heaven is a happy and exalted vocation," said
Father Ambrose reprovingly, "though," he added, with a twinkle in his
keen old eyes, "methinks scarcely fitted for our Gwennola."

"Nay," replied de Mereac bluffly, "the maid hath too high a spirit and
too warm blood to endure the cramping life of a convent cell.  A noble
maid, father, a noble maid, and one who shall be as nobly wed.  I have
thought of young Alain de Plöernic or Count Maurice de la Ferrière, both
worthy mates for the dove of Arteze, who, alas!" he added with a shrug
of his shoulders, "was so nigh to falling a prey to yonder bloody hawk,
whose neck I would fain wring ere the morrow’s sun.  False caitiff!
Nay, father, speak not to me of forgiveness, when I remember yon lying
tongue and think that I might have given my daughter’s hand into the red
one which had thought to slay my son."

"Peace, Gaspard," said the priest soothingly, as de Mereac leapt from
his seat to stride wrathfully up and down the hall, "and rather than
vengeance think of the mercies vouchsafed to thee in that thou hast son
and daughter safely restored to thine arms."

"Restored!" cried de Mereac bitterly.  "Nay, Ambrose, think of yon poor
lad’s face and drooping form, all haggard and terrible, and recall the
morning when young Yvon rode forth so blithely across the bridge,
calling back to me, as I lay, cursing my ill luck in being unable to
move with rheumatic pains, that he would bring back our banner in
triumph with fresh laurels twined around it."

"It may yet be that he will recover," said Father Ambrose gently.  "But
now, I left him sleeping peacefully; he is young, and life still runs
swiftly in his veins; here at Mereac, with love and friends surrounding
him, we may well hope to blot out those years which would altogether
have crazed one less strong and courageous."

"My poor Yvon! my poor son!" moaned the father. "My curses on these, his
all but murderers.  Nay, father, reprove me not, for curse them I must
and will; I grow verily weary of delay when I think of de Coray even now
escaping my justice.  Nay, father, your pardon, for whilst I thus rave I
forget to ask after thy hurts.  Thou art still pale and worn; methinks
it were not well to rise so soon from thy couch."

"Nay," said the priest with a smile, "’twas but a cracked pate, which
truly somewhat acheth still, but which I trow will soon mend.  Better a
pain in the head, my son, than one at the heart; therefore listen to thy
old friend’s advice, and pray rather for thine enemies’ souls than for
the destruction of their bodies."

"Nay, that will I not," retorted de Mereac sturdily, "for I would not
rob the devil of such choice morsels.—How now, Job, what news dost thou
bring? Where is thy prisoner?"

"Nay, my lord," faltered Job Alloadec, as he advanced, sweating and
abashed, towards his irate master, "I fear me that he hath escaped, for,
though we searched the forest from the château walls to Martigue itself,
we could find no trace of the miscreant."

"Curses on him!" growled de Mereac.  "But I know thy searchings, knave,
with one eye shut and the other gazing upwards, as if thou expectest thy
quarry to drop like a ripe nut from the boughs overhead.  Why, the
fellow must needs be within reach, since he had no steed to carry him."

"Nay, monsieur," replied the soldier with a perplexed stare at his
master, "craving your pardon, methinks he found a steed awaiting him
yonder in the forest, for when we rode to the ruined chapel" (Job
involuntarily crossed himself) "to fetch hitherward Monsieur
d’Estrailles’ steed, which he told us was harboured close by, we found
no trace of it, though we searched not only the shed but the ruins too."

"By the beard of St Efflam, the villain hath escaped!" growled de Mereac
furiously, "the fiends verily having assisted him, for else, how knew he
where to find the Frenchman’s horse?"

Job scratched his head doubtfully.  It was to him altogether an affair
of Satanic agencies, and as he left his lord’s presence with fresh
orders to continue the search, however hopeless, he again crossed
himself, little dreaming that he and his fellow-searchers had been more
than once that day within a stone’s throw not only of the Frenchman’s
horse, but of de Coray himself, sitting quietly within the sheltered hut
of Pierre the fool.

It was a grief indeed to Henri d’Estrailles when he heard of the loss of
his favourite horse—that the poor Rollo should be condemned to carry his
master’s would-be murderer out of reach of the hand of justice seemed a
fate altogether unworthy of so gallant a beast, and one which filled
d’Estrailles with so keen a sorrow as could not well be compensated by
the generous gift of a splendid grey Arab from the Sieur de Mereac
himself.

The old Breton noble bade his guest a characteristic adieu, bluff,
hearty, yet in no way concealing his satisfaction at his departure.

But though Henri d’Estrailles found little encouragement from his host’s
evident, though courteously concealed antagonism, he still clung to hope
as he bade a tender farewell to Gwennola.  That love must triumph over
all obstacles is the gospel of youth, and so thought those two as they
looked their last into each other’s eyes.

"I shall return," whispered Henri gently as he leant from his saddle bow
to kiss the tears from the beautiful upturned face—"I shall return ere
long, little one, to claim thy promises, and perchance remind thy father
of his, and for troth I shall guard this ring which thou hast given me,
and thy favour, which I shall bind in my helmet in the day of battle."

She smiled at him through her tears.

"Thou hast given me no guerdon," she whispered softly.

"Have I not?" he replied tenderly.  "Nay, sweet, the only guerdon I have
to give is myself, and the heart that thou hast already in thy keeping,
and which I shall surely return anon to claim at thy hands."

"Thou shalt not have it then," she retorted, smiling again as she raised
her blue eyes to meet his dark ones.  "For thou hast given it me for all
time, and in place—in place——"

"In place?" he echoed, bending still lower.

"Foolish one!" she cried, with a little laugh which ended in a sob,
"thou knowest very well what heart thou hast in exchange—a heart of
Brittany, monsieur, for whose sake thou must be tender of its
countrymen."

"I swear it," he replied—"I swear it, little Gwennola," and so rode away
through the forest, and out over the wild heaths beyond, on the road to
Rennes.



                             *CHAPTER XII*


The long-cherished dream of the astute and far-seeing François Dunois,
Comte de Longueville, had apparently been brought to an untimely end by
the imperious will of a young girl.  In spite of the representations of
her guardian and trusted councillors, as well as those of her faithful
friend, the Count Dunois himself, Anne remained firm in her rejection of
the proposal to unite herself with the King of France, and thus form an
indissoluble bond of union between the kingdom and duchy.

"King Charles," she said, "is an unjust prince, who wishes to despoil me
of the inheritance of my fathers.  Has he not desolated my duchy,
pillaged my subjects, destroyed my towns?  Has he not entered into the
most deceitful alliances with my allies, the Kings of Spain and England,
endeavouring to overreach and ruin me?  And have I not, by the advice of
all of you who now counsel the contrary, just contracted anew a solemn
alliance with the King of the Romans, approved by you and all my people?
Do not believe that I will so falsify my word, nor that I will burthen
my conscience with an act which I feel to be so reprehensible."

In vain her council urged upon her the necessity of yielding to their
suggestions; in vain de Rieux, de Montauban, and the Prince of Orange
joined with Dunois in pleading the state of Britanny, the impossibility
of its defending itself, the certainty of its falling a prey to the
first ambitious neighbour who attacked it, since their Duchess would be
in a distant country, married to a man whose own subjects were
continually in a state of rebellion.

Anne haughtily refused to listen to these arguments. In spite of her
tender years, her will was indomitable, and her mind clear as to what
her actions should be.

"Rather," she replied at length to her discomfited council, "than be
found wanting in the honour and duty I owe to the King of the Romans,
whom I look upon as my husband, I will set forth to join him, since he
finds it impossible to come hither to fetch me."

Such a reply was decisive, and Dunois was fain to ride back chagrined
and discomfited, but not yet baffled, to give Anne’s answer of defiance
to her royal wooer.

So also seemed to terminate the vague hopes to which Gwennola de Mereac
had clung during those summer days—days which were bringing, alas! fresh
sorrows to the lonely maiden of the old Breton château. For, scarce two
months after her lover’s departure, a fall from his horse during a boar
hunt had left her to mourn a father who had ever been tender and loving
to his daughter, although for the past few weeks somewhat sterner than
his wont at her—to him—obstinate refusal to listen to the command he
laid on her to accept the hand—if not the heart—of the young Comte de
Laferrière, a betrothal which might indeed have been forced upon her had
not death intervened to save her from an unwelcome lover, at the same
time that he deprived her of a tenderly loved parent.

The mourning of those days was long, and sufficiently trying even for
those whose grief was the most sincere; etiquette demanding that a
daughter should retire to bed for six weeks in a funereally draped
chamber, at most only being permitted to rise and sit upon a couch, also
hung with trappings of woe.

Deeply as she mourned her father, Gwennola could not but breathe a sigh
of relief as she stole out into the September sunshine at the conclusion
of the stated period of retirement.  How dreary all seemed, she told
herself, and yet,—why, the sun shone, and the birds sang, and after all
life was young, and death,—she shuddered as she glanced down at her
black robe; but even whilst the tears dimmed her eyes, her thoughts,
with the inconsequence of youth, flew back to the lover from whom she
had parted, and wondered when he would come again a-wooing, and what
Yvon would say when he asked her hand of him.  Those months of rest and
peace had wrought a great change in her brother.  Much of the lost
beauty of youth had returned, and the attenuated limbs had regained
their strength and vigour, but still in the blue eyes there lurked that
vague terror which three years of haunting dread and suffering had
indelibly stamped within them.  Neither would Yvon de Mereac ever be the
noble, gallant knight his boyhood had foreshadowed.  Cruelty and
mind-torture had crushed and enfeebled a strong, brave nature in their
ruthless clutch, and Gwennola’s own eyes would often fill with tears of
sympathy as they met the restless, anxious glance of her brother’s,
which betokened a mind still clouded with nervous fears.  Yet, in spite
of weakness, Yvon possessed an obstinate determination, when once his
mind was set, from which neither argument nor entreaty would move him,
and it was this vein of obstinacy which Gwennola trembled to evoke by
mention of her lover’s name, seeing that her brother inherited all his
father’s implacable animosity to their natural foes of France. Still,
the love of brother and sister for each other was strong, and it would
often seem as if Yvon would lean on the stronger nature of Gwennola for
guidance and advice, whilst her own sisterly affection had, at times,
the motherly instinct of protection for one whose mind still became
shadowed with dread of an unseen, indefinable fear.

Accompanied by Marie and the faithful Gloire Gwennola was returning some
few days later from her weekly visit to the now bed-ridden old peasant
dame, Mère Fanchonic, when she was surprised to note the signs of an
arrival at the gates of the château. Two strange men-at-arms were
leading away horses, on the backs of which were pillions.

"See, Marie," Gwennola exclaimed, as she hurried forward, "what can it
mean?  It is without doubt visitors who have but lately arrived, and
look, pillions also!  Verily, what dames can so unexpectedly have
honoured us, here at Arteze?"

"Some travellers doubtless who have lost their way," suggested Marie.
"But see, lady, here cometh Job, with his foolish face all agog with
news."

"Which we are as fain to hear as he to tell," cried Gwennola, laughing
gaily, for her spirits had risen to hail any change which came to break
the monotony of existence; besides, might this strange visit not be in
some way connected with her absent lover?

"Perchance ’tis the Dame of Laferrière come hither with her noble son,"
suggested Marie slyly, as she watched the flush of annoyance which
instantly rose to her young mistress’s brow.

"’Tis little likely," retorted Gwennola with some asperity, "seeing that
the good dame hath been as bed-ridden as Mère Fanchonic these past two
years. An thou hast no better suggestion to give, wench, ’twere wisest
to bear in mind the good Father Ambrose’s homily on the virtue of
silence, which he delivered last Sunday."

Marie did not reply to this rebuke, though she pursed her rosy mouth,
round which the dimples played, and tossed her dark, comely head with an
air of great sagacity, as one who knew well what lay in her mistress’s
thoughts behind the sharp speech.

But the maidens’ curiosity was in no way gratified by the worthy Jobik,
who conveyed only the intelligence that a dame had but lately arrived at
the château, and that his master had bidden him speedily seek his
mistress and acquaint her with the news.

"A dame?  Alone and unattended?" queried Gwennola eagerly.  "Tell me
then, good Jobik, what name did she give? and what appearance hath she?
Is she old or young? and hath knowledge of her features?"

To which Job Alloadec responded that to his knowledge the lady had given
no name, and that so closely was she hooded that he had not seen her
features, but that she was tall and slender, and spoke with the air of a
great lady, very haughtily and proudly.  For the rest, he knew naught
save that she had come in company with a waiting damsel and three
men-at-arms, and that the Sieur de Mereac had bidden him hasten.

Seeing that it was useless to waste time in further questions, Gwennola
hastened on, wondering greatly what such a visit portended, and who the
lady might be who thus rode in such troublous times with so small an
escort and unattended by any cavalier.

The hall of the château was deserted, save for two men-at-arms who
lounged near the lower end, and Pierre the fool, who lay on his stomach
sporting with his ape, and emitting from time to time shrill screams of
merriment in mimicry of his wizened little companion’s cries of anger at
being thus mocked, much to the amusement of little Henri, the page, who
squatted opposite him.  In reply to his mistress’s inquiries, the page
informed her that his master was awaiting her coming in the solar room,
whilst he ran before her to raise the tapestries which hung before the
inner apartment.

The solar room was one in which Gwennola most often sat with her maidens
over her tapestry or embroidery work, and was more sumptuously furnished
than the rest of the château; the floor being covered with a fine
Flemish carpet, and the hangings of dark velvet, whilst in the corner
stood a harp and embroidery frame.

Standing by the high, narrow window, his head leaning against the stone
work, as if he strove to see beyond into the courtyard, was Yvon de
Mereac, and Gwennola noted the restless, uneasy expression of his
handsome face as he turned to greet her.

"Fair sister," he began nervously, as he bowed with the courtesy which
in those days of chivalry even brothers paid to their sisters.  "Pardon
me for so hasty a summons, but—but——"

"Jobik bade me hasten to greet an unexpected guest," replied Gwennola,
glancing round the room in surprise at seeing no other occupant saving
her brother.

"Ay," replied Yvon with growing uneasiness.  "I pray you, my Gwennola,
of your courtesy, greet the lady graciously, for——"

"Nay," retorted his sister with some haughtiness. "Am I then accustomed
to treat guests so unbecomingly, that thou needest to school me in my
manners, Yvon?"

"Nay, nay," he replied anxiously.  "Again thy pardon, little sister, but
methought,—methought perchance the name might strike unpleasingly upon
thine ear, did I not first explain."

"The name?" repeated Gwennola wonderingly. "In sooth, brother, I take
not thy meaning."

"It is Mademoiselle de Coray," he muttered hurriedly.  "Nay, sister,
look not so angrily; she hath come, poor maid, on an errand of peace."

"Peace!" echoed Gwennola, her face hardening into lines so proud and
cold as to recall the stern look of her father, "a de Coray bound on
peace?  Sooner would I trust the serpent who spoke soft words to our
Mother Eve to have come on an errand of love to mankind than the sister
of Guillaume de Coray to be bound on such a mission."

"Nay, thy words are unjust," said Yvon hotly. "But stay, thou shalt not
judge till thou hast seen her, for once look into her eyes and thou
shalt read there such wells of innocence and truth as shall shame thee
of suspicion."

"Innocence and truth!" replied Gwennola scornfully. "So perchance
thought Adam when he looked into Eve’s eyes and plucked the apple from
her hand; but tell me, then, what hath brought this paragon of beauty
and perfection to our poor Château of Mereac? There must e’en be good
reason to bring so fair a dame across Brittany in these times."

"Thy mocking becomes thee not," retorted Yvon coldly.  "As for the
errand of Mademoiselle de Coray, thou shalt judge for thyself whether it
augurs more of deceit than of such sweetness of disposition as I fear me
thou wilt scarce appreciate in thy present wayward mood."

"Wayward mood!" echoed Gwennola indignantly, for a seventeen-year-old
châtelaine could hardly thus calmly brook being chidden as a child.
"Wayward mood, forsooth! but we shall see in good time who is the wise
one.  Yet mayhap thou wilt tell me, most wise and well-discerning
brother, of what import the story was?  Whereof it was made I wot I know
already."

Perhaps Yvon did not hear the last few words, in his eagerness to
convert his sister to a more amenable mood concerning their guest.

"She had heard," he said, "that our father was no more, and would, in
spite of her brother’s opposition, insist straightway on coming to
Mereac, deeming the time a fitting one to heal a sore breach betwixt
loving kinsmen, by an explanation which should have been made long
since."

"Loving kinsmen!" murmured Gwennola, plucking at the girdle round her
waist.  "Bah!  I would have little of such love, I trow."

"And so," continued Yvon, heeding her not, "she hath come to Mereac, and
told me her story."

"Which thou hast believed with all the simplicity of a yearling babe."

"Tush! child, thou pratest of what thou knowest not; little like was I
to be deceived.  Yet verily there was no deception in the eyes of
mademoiselle; whilst, as for the story, it is simplicity itself."

"As was the hearer," whispered Gwennola.  "And the story, brother?"

"Truly for the most part I knew it before.  My sole enemy was François
Kerden, who himself stole upon me in the wood, and would have killed me,
for no reason but wanton cruelty, had not the fouler scheme entered his
head.  Yet, even as it came to him, fate furthered the plot, for
Guillaume de Coray, seeing in part what was chancing, sprang to the
spot, and would have revenged my death, as he supposed, on my murderer,
had not the Frenchman intervened and robbed him of his prey and me."
Yvon stopped with a groan as the memory of those three years of
imprisonment returned to him.

"But," said Gwennola coldly, "the story scarce bears the light of truth,
brother, seeing that Henri d’Estrailles saw the traitor blow struck;
besides, if so innocent, why fled this so noble kinsman when he saw thee
appear? and why did he strive to doom to death another, when he saw who
had in reality struck thee down, according to this pretty fable?"

"Nay," said Yvon, knitting his brows, "it is easily explained, didst
thou but listen, girl.  It was in this way.  Guillaume had already been
wounded, and, faint with loss of blood, could scarce distinguish betwixt
Frenchman or Breton.  Both wore closed vizors, and both were near at the
time of my fall; which had struck the blow Guillaume could scarce
realize. The Breton fled, however, and whilst he turned to strike him
down in the act, the Frenchman opened his vizor, and de Coray clearly
saw his features. Methinks it was this that confused him in claiming
that d’Estrailles had done the coward’s act, for but one face was
imprinted on his reeling memory, and surely ’twere easy thus to confuse
which of the twain he had seen actually to perform the foul deed.  That
it was Kerden himself is shown by the part he afterwards played in so
torturing me."

"Nay," said Gwennola shortly, "the story is false, my brother, and
should not deceive a babe—false as the weaver of it.  Did I not kneel
beside this Kerden and listen to his dying words, which fitted so aptly
with those of Monsieur d’Estrailles?  It is impossible, Yvon, that for a
moment thou couldest believe so lying a tale, or shelter beneath thy
roof one who proves herself traitress with her first breath."

"Nay, mademoiselle," said a laughing voice in the doorway, and, turning,
brother and sister perceived the object of their conversation standing
there, the tapestry curtain half raised by one arm, as she smiled from
one to the other, as if aware of the dainty picture she thus formed.

That Diane de Coray was beautiful there was no denying, but her beauty
was not of the kind which perchance Gwennola had already imagined her to
possess. No possibility of deceit seemed to lurk in her clear, hazel
eyes, which shone with frankness and merriment. Her rosy cheeks, full
red lips, and delicate features, all combined to give her an appearance
of extreme youth, an embodiment of springtime, in truth, and a fair one
to boot.  The hair under the white head-dress was soft and wavy, and of
a rich, dark brown; her figure was slender and tall, set off to
advantage in a sleeveless gown of crimson velvet, edged with lettice, a
fur much in vogue then amongst the fashionable, whilst round her waist
she wore a handsome girdle with jewelled tassels.

As they turned to face her, Diane dropped the tapestry and with a deep
curtsy towards her young hostess advanced with outstretched hands.

"Nay," she cried, still laughing, "thou shalt not thus judge me unheard,
little one.  Fie on thee! thy kinswoman a traitress?  I pray thee tell
me wherein? See!  I come as a hostage for my brother’s truth."

"And one that we shall hope to keep for long," responded Yvon
courteously, as he placed a seat for her.

She laughed up at him, showing a set of small, pearly teeth as she did
so.

"Thy sister would not too warmly echo thy words, fair kinsman," she
replied with a sly glance towards Gwennola.

But Mademoiselle de Mereac was not to be moved by roguish glances,
dimples, or sweet words. She had responded to her cousin’s effusive
greeting with a stiff curtsy, taking not the slightest notice of the
outstretched hands.

"Mademoiselle," she replied icily, in answer to Diane’s rallying words,
"is as welcome as the sister of Guillaume de Coray is likely to be at
Mereac."

Diane pouted her lips, with the sweet coquetry of a spoilt child; there
would even seem to have been tears in the eyes which she raised first to
Yvon and from him to Gwennola.

"It is cruel," she murmured softly, "that thou wilt not believe my word,
but it is as Guillaume warned me, for oft he hath told me with sorrow of
the hatred you bear him, sweet Gwennola.  But no," she cried, springing
from her seat and clasping her slim hands together with a pretty little
air of supplication, "thou shalt be convinced, fair cousin.  See, I
swear to thee it is true.  Wilt thou not believe me?"

"If Monsieur de Coray were innocent, why did he fly?" demanded Gwennola
inexorably.

"Fly?" echoed Diane innocently.  "Nay, cousin, scarcely fly!  That he
left in haste it is true; yet not so much from fear as from another
sin—shall I confess it?"  Her arch smile was met by Gwennola’s grave,
set face, which, however, seemed in no way to abash her.  "It was
jealousy," she murmured, glancing up towards Yvon and addressing him
more than Gwennola.  "Fie! it is an evil passion.  Is it not, monsieur?
but one to which poor mortals are prone. He had verily proved, as he
thought, that Monsieur d’Es—d’Es—monsieur the Frenchman was guilty of
his cousin’s blood, and unworthy though it might be, he was the more
glad to see him die as he fancied the lady of his love looked more
kindly on him than he deemed befitting.  So, when he found that his
rival was like to be restored to liberty, in a foolish fit of
unreasoning rage he hurried homewards, little dreaming how ill a
construction so weak an act could have placed upon it."

"And how knew he of such construction, seeing he fled in such haste?"
demanded Gwennola shrewdly; but Diane de Coray had suddenly become
afflicted with deafness.

"To such foolishness doth unrequited love lead us," she sighed,
addressing Yvon solely now.  "Alas! ’tis a cruel passion at best, is it
not, monsieur? and one better eschewed by the wise."

"Nay," replied he slowly, looking down with undisguised admiration into
her face.  "Not when it cometh in the guise of an angel of peace and
love, mademoiselle."

"Peace and love!" whispered Gwennola to herself as she withdrew.  "Mary,
Mother, grant that it be not strife and bitter hate; for, alas! she is
false, this demoiselle, false to the heart’s core, for all her beauty."



                             *CHAPTER XIII*


It would seem indeed that Diane de Coray had come,—if come for that
purpose she had,—to play hostage for life against her brother’s truth,
for almost imperceptibly she slipped into her niche in the simple,
family life at the Château of Mereac.

Not that her presence brought peace in its train, for it seemed that
where she found peace she would fain leave a sword, and many and bitter
were the tears that Gwennola shed in the solitude of her chamber as she
watched her enemy gaining daily more undisputed sway over her pliable
and weak-minded brother.  Yes, it was tacitly agreed that it was to be
warfare between these two kinswomen, yet such warfare as only women can
play, the scratching of claws from velvet paws, and the sweet smile
veiling bitter words.  Not that Gwennola was an adept at such fencing;
her nature was too straightforward, perhaps also too tempestuous, to
repay veiled insult with veiled insult.  She would reply hotly, even
angrily, thus bringing the odium of a quarrel entirely on her own
shoulders, leaving her rival to smile indulgently, as if at the stormy
outburst of a child, till Gwennola could have wept for very
mortification. These unequal trials of strength had, however, the effect
at which Diane aimed; brother and sister grew gradually more estranged,
for Yvon, hot with the infatuation with which his beautiful kinswoman
had inspired him, hesitated not to rebuke his sister, ofttimes with
anger, for replying indignantly to Diane’s sugared taunts. So the days
wore on, and Gwennola’s heart grew ever heavier, and the hopes which
summer had whispered in her ears faded before the shrill blasts of
autumn.

It had been rumoured that King Charles had taken ill the refusal of the
young Duchess to listen to his proposals, and was even now assembling a
mighty army to march into Brittany and demand by force what could not be
his by pleading.

In face of such rumours the bitter hatred of their overweening and
powerful neighbours became intensified, and Gwennola knew that her rival
would make use of such national indignation to crush her hopes that Yvon
would allow of a betrothal between herself and Henri d’Estrailles.

Indeed, that such was in truth the case, Yvon, all too soon, took no
pains to conceal, telling his sister coldly that since she so resented
the thoughts of a betrothal with Guillaume de Coray, she must choose
between a nun’s veil and the bridegroom her father had already designed
for her, Maurice de Laferrière.

In vain Gwennola pleaded her father’s promise that, should peace at
length bind the two countries together, her hand might follow the
dictates of her heart.  With an obstinacy which, when once aroused, was
immovable, Yvon refused to listen to tears or entreaties, bidding her
choose without delay, seeing that it was time that her destiny should be
settled, and at the same time announcing his own betrothal to Diane de
Coray.

Prepared as she was for this, still, the shock was terrible to the
unhappy Gwennola.  The prejudice she had conceived against the sister of
de Coray had ripened during those past weeks into something akin to
hatred, a feeling she felt to be heartily reciprocated by Diane herself.
That young lady, however, was sufficiently mistress of her emotions to
conceal her dislike under a very pretty show of friendship, which
entirely deceived the love-sick Yvon, who felt that his sister only was
to blame in the dissensions which rose from time to time between
châtelaine and guest.

Thus matters stood that October morning, as Diane de Coray entered the
hall of the château with her falcon on her wrist, and a smile of triumph
in her hazel eyes.

"Come, Pierre," she said softly, as the fool, who had been crouched
shivering over the fire, at her entrance rose to his feet.  "I would
talk with thee yonder, on the terrace path.  The Sieur de Mereac will
not yet be ready for the chase, and meantime I have somewhat to say to
thee.  Tell me," she added, still further lowering her voice, as she
reached the broad terrace and stood facing her shivering companion,
"hath thy master arrived?"

"He has been for some days past at the hut of Henri Lefroi," muttered
the lad, eyeing his interrogator curiously.

"For some days?" echoed Diane in surprise. "Nay, ’tis strange; to what
purport should he linger thus?"

"I know not," replied Pierre moodily, "that being my master’s business,
and none of mine.  But what is your will, lady? for methinks I hear
monsieur’s voice yonder, calling your name."

"No matter," said Diane lightly; "he can wait for the nonce.  But attend
then, little knave: thou must go this day to the house of this Lefroi,
and bid my brother ride hitherward as if he had come from a journey.
Tell him that his welcome is assured from all, except perchance the
little fool Gwennola de Mereac; but tell him on no account to delay
longer, for I am at a loss how to proceed without him."  She repeated
the last words emphatically, as if desirous of imprinting them on
Pierre’s mind, then with a brief nod she turned from him to welcome with
sunny smiles the young lord of the château, who came striding towards
her, his handsome face flushed with pleasure, his blue eyes aflame with
love.

"Nay, sweetheart," he cried reproachfully, "didst not hear me call?
See, I grow jealous even of a fool, who is thus overwhelmed with honour
at receiving one smile from those sweet lips."

Perhaps Pierre the fool, slipping back to his corner by the fire, found
the honour less burdensome than his lord supposed, seeing that he sat
there chuckling at the merry flames that blazed and leapt on the open
hearth.  It was manifestly an effort to drag himself away from the warm
glow, out once more into the keen air, yet, so pleasant seemed his
thoughts, that he still chuckled softly, as he trotted along the forest
path with Petit Pierre perched on his shoulder, chattering and scolding
in unison.

The hut of Henri Lefroi bore almost as ill a reputation as the ruined
chapel of the Brown Friar, for, folk said, this was the habitation of a
wizard whose powers in the occult science were so great as to defy both
heaven and hell, wherefore at the name men and women crossed themselves
and repeated an ave, for very fear of incurring the wrath of so dread a
personage.

But it was not to the hut of old Lefroi that Pierre turned his steps,
but rather to the little dwelling-place where Gabrielle, his sister,
would be sitting spinning.

It was two weeks since that her brother had also started spinning, but
not in his case from flaxen thread, but the woof of romance, which had
been born suddenly in his cunning mind.  Why should Monsieur de Coray,
he asked himself, come so many days before the time appointed by his
sister?  And why, instead of acquainting her with the fact of his
presence, should he strive to conceal it?  And also, why should he daily
steal away from Henry Lefroi’s dismal abode to spend the long hours of
the autumn days beside the pretty Gabrielle?  Aha! a pretty romance that
was, which the little fool watched, safe hidden from prying eyes,
amongst the undergrowth of the thicket.  Yes, he told himself, without
doubt Monsieur de Coray had lost his heart to Gabrielle, his sister, and
without doubt the day would come when Gabrielle should be the mistress
of a noble château, and he, Pierre the fool, would for ever doff the
motley and play the rôle of Monsieur Laurent.  Ah! how grand it sounded,
how distinguished!  Yet for all that he kept jealous guard over those
two, for not altogether did he trust the honour of Monsieur de Coray,
although he marked shrewdly with what respect he spoke to the little
sister, such respect as he had surely not even shown Mademoiselle de
Mereac, the proud, haughty demoiselle of the château yonder.

And Pierre, for all his foolishness, was right, for the passion of a bad
and evil man had become purified in the presence of this child of the
forest.  He loved her, not as he had loved others, but with a reverence,
such as one has for saints, combined with the passion he felt for the
woman, and, as he sat there, day by day, watching her as she span, or
listening entranced when she sang to him a sweet, simple ballad of
Brittany, filled with the romance and sadness of her land, in a voice
such as the birds might have envied, he swore to himself that this
peasant girl should be his wife, and that for her sake he would do all
things. But the snake of old ever lurks in the fairest garden of dreams,
and so the very purpose of his presence in these forests became one that
he swore to fulfil, evil and cruel as it was, for the sake of this
beautiful child, whose guileless glances had won his sin-hardened heart.
So the devil tempts us.  For the sake, we say, of one we love, however
pure and good, we will do evil so that we may lavish its fruits on the
object of our devotion, who, forsooth! would shrink back appalled if it
knew from whence those fruits came.

So in the autumn woods three souls dreamed out their dreams.  Pierre the
fool strutting, in his mind’s eye, in a suit of velvet and chain of
gold, no longer the jester or object of jest, but "Monsieur Laurent,"
brother, honoured and esteemed, of Madame la Châtelaine.  Guillaume de
Coray clasping in his arms the lovely girl whose image had blotted out
so many and so varied dreams of ambitions, and leading her with proud
and triumphant steps to his Château of Mereac, won at last by means to
which he involuntarily closed his eyes.  And Gabrielle Laurent, seeing
only the face of the man to whom she had given her heart, and whom she
must love for all time, indifferent to whether he were great lord or
simple peasant, with all the pure tenderness of her young heart.  Whilst
at night, as she knelt in prayer within her lonely hut, she would thank
the good God and all her guardian saints, with child-like simplicity and
gratitude, for sending into her life one so noble and so good as
Guillaume de Coray, repeating the name softly and reverently to herself,
as though it possessed some charm to drive away all dreams of ill, as
she lay in her wooden bed, watching the flickering moonlight as it fell
across the threshold—the white, beautiful moonlight, which was no purer
than her thoughts as she fell to sleep murmuring her lover’s name.
Alas! the poor little Gabrielle!



                             *CHAPTER XIV*


It was some three hours after Pierre the fool had delivered Diane de
Coray’s message that the brother and sister sat together in her chamber
at the Château de Mereac.

"So thou hast succeeded?" inquired Guillaume, scanning with curiosity,
not unmixed with admiration, his sister’s beautiful face.

"Beyond our expectations."

There was a mocking intonation in her words which did not escape him.

"So," he said, crossing his legs and leaning his elbow against the
table, so that his eyes were bent nearly opposite to hers.  "Beyond our
expectations? That is well.  And so the poor fool, Yvon de Mereac, loves
you?"

"As warmly as his sister hates me."

"Equally to their own destruction."

She laughed a trifle uneasily.

"The idea causes you amusement?"

His tone was not pleasant.

"Amusement," she said vaguely.  Then, changing her tone, "Is it after
all so necessary?"

"Altogether necessary.  Remember your oath."

She changed colour, but clung to her point.

"Nay, but seeing—seeing he loves me?"

"Scarcely with such devotion that he would give up his inheritance to
the brother of his adored."

She winced under the sneer.

"But will nothing else content you, mon frère?  If I were his wife, I—I
would arrange matters altogether to your will.  You shall be lord in all
but name. Consider, he is, after all, but a poor, weak fool, who will
ever do my bidding."

Her words were rapid, and rang with a note of pleading, but Guillaume de
Coray only frowned.

"It is necessary that he shall be altogether removed, or, if plain
speaking be necessary, he must die.  The means are already in our
hands."

She shuddered involuntarily.

"Bah!" he said lightly.  "Thou surely dost not love this weakling lover
of thine, Diane?  Grieve not for him, ma chère; the new Sieur de Mereac
will wed thee to a nobler suitor when he comes to his own."

"I cannot do it," she moaned.  "Nay, brother, I sicken at the very
thought.  ’Tis not in truth that I love him, but—but——"

"A foolish fancy," quoth her brother mockingly. "Nay, Diane, thou art
not wont to blanch so easily, and bethink thee of thy sweet revenge on
yon proud and scornful maid."

Her hazel eyes grew hard.

"Yes," she said, "I hate her; yes, hate her with all my soul, for she
scorns me, Guillaume, and flouts me too, for all her brother’s anger.
Ay, revenge is sweet, and yet——"

"Courage," mocked Guillaume, leaning closer to her across the
table—"courage, little sister.  After all——"

He paused, watching her eyes dilate with sudden dread as she filled in
the unspoken words.

"No," she cried at length, and her voice rose in a quick, decisive tone,
"I cannot do it, Guillaume; sooner than be thy tool in this work I
will—I will——"

"Die thyself belike," he said coolly, his eyes never leaving her
changing face.  "Think well, Diane, yes, very well, before thou breakest
thine oath—remember the fate that awaits thee, did I so much as breathe
one word concerning thy dealings in matters which have brought many a
fairer maid than thee to the stake, or the torture chamber.  Did I
proclaim thee witch, what arm, even of love itself, would be strong
enough in Brittany, ay, and in all France, to save thee?"

"I am no witch," she cried passionately, "as thou knowest well, liar and
coward that thou art."

"No witch," he replied smoothly, "yet sufficiently akin to seal thy
doom, were I to reveal thy secret dealings with one at whose name all
Brittany shudders.  And thou thyself hast been no mean pupil, my
sister—therefore——"

The significant pause was sufficient, and the unfortunate girl covered
her face in her hands as she moaned out—

"Nay, spare me the taunt, Guillaume.  It is true I have sinned, and yet
I am no witch, before Heaven I am no witch.  Did I not flee from the
beldame’s accursed dwelling in very terror from such deeds as they would
have me do?  Nay, brother, little I knew with what black terror I
played, I, a motherless girl, led astray by one whom I had deemed a
friend."

"A fair friend," he sneered, "truly a fair friend; but enough.  That
thou didst flee is known to me; that thou wert _there_ shall be known,
ay, and proved to the world if thou art obstinate, and thou shalt pay
the penalty as surely as if thou wert as truly a servant of Satan as any
hag who gathers nightly on the sands of Seville or around the nut tree
of Benevento."

Diane crossed herself, white to the lips, whilst her eyes crept to his
face with the fear of a dog who looks up in very terror of the lash he
knows he shall see descending.

"What is thy will?" she whispered mechanically, as she read no sign of
relenting in the hard face before her.

He smiled triumphantly.

"Thou wilt obey?"

"I will obey."

"That is well, but for the rest, thou knowest very well my will, and
wherefore thou camest hither."

She shuddered.

"Still," continued her brother, "if thou wilt hear it again I will
repeat our plan, _our_ plan, thou mindest, Diane, which thou helpedst me
to form so cleverly at Pontivy."

"I had not known him then," she cried with a little sob, "and—and he
loves me well."

"So much the better; the less chance of suspicion falling upon us.  See,
child, have done with these foolish vapourings, and mark how all falls
in with our purpose. The Sieur de Mereac loves thee—a love which he will
doubtless in time extend in some measure to me, thy brother, seeing that
thou hast set his mind at rest concerning the affair at St Aubin.  All
then are at peace and filled with content, saving only Mademoiselle de
Mereac, who, for some unknown reason, is consumed with hatred and
jealousy against her brother’s beloved friends, a hatred which, indeed,
also estranges her from her brother.  Suddenly, without warning, the
Sieur de Mereac falls ill, wasting away, in some strange and
inexplicable sickness, till in due time it is apparent that death claims
him for a comrade.  A whisper is rumoured throughout the house coupling
the name of Gwennola de Mereac with witchcraft; the whisper grows to an
outcry; proofs of guilt are discovered in the maiden’s chamber; she is
condemned to death, but it is too late to save her ill-fated brother,
who perishes, a victim to an execrated sister’s malevolence, and
Guillaume de Coray, his cousin, reigns in his stead over the broad lands
of Mereac.  Voilà, my sister, how charming and how simple a history!
And the means, the _means_," he emphasized, "of its fulfilment lie
here."

As he spoke he handed her a small phial containing a dark liquid,
watching her, as the cat does the mouse, as she took it in her trembling
hand.

"You comprehend?" he asked softly.

"I comprehend."

He smiled pensively.

"That is very well, and in due course my delightful history will unfold
itself.  For the whisper of mademoiselle’s guilt it would be well to
employ the services of the good Jeanne.  She is discreet, that girl, and
worthy of reward."

But Diane did not answer; she was still staring in horror at the tiny
phial she held in her hand—the phial that was the price of a life.

"A charming love potion, the dear Lefroi informed me," said de Coray,
spreading out his hands with an airy gesture.  "Ah, what a man is that,
and what a dwelling!—a very charnel-house; and yet not without its
amusement.  Thou mightest have done worse, my Diane, than stay to listen
to thy fair friend’s discourse on the occult science, that night at
Pontivy.  But thou dost not agree?  Bah! what foolishness!—’tis surely
better to mix one’s own potions rather than trust to the discretion of
another.  But, as for Lefroi, he is no gossip, and, if one foresaw
danger, a dagger thrust is a sure seal to unruly lips.  And now, my
sister, I will bid thee au revoir, seeing that I go to greet the
beautiful demoiselle who did me the honour not long since to become my
betrothed bride.  Parbleu! it may well be that ere long she shall regret
having scorned the hand which was once offered her in love and
friendship."

"Love and friendship!" echoed Diane drearily to herself, as with a bow
her brother withdrew.  "Thy love and friendship!  Merciful heavens!
methinks the love of such an one would but bring damnation in its train,
and I——"  A sob choked her whispered words.

"Ah, Yvon! poor Yvon!" she muttered softly, "and thou must die!"  Then,
shaking back her hair, which had partly fallen across her face, she drew
herself up defiantly.  "At least," she said softly, as she faced her
mirror, and noted the haggard countenance reflected therein—"at least I
shall have revenge on yon proud girl.  For her I have no pity—the
scornful one!"

Meantime, so strange is human nature, Guillaume de Coray was standing
looking out from his turret chamber towards the forest with a look so
softened and tender that his sister would have failed to recognise the
man who but a short hour before had planned murder in mocking tones.
Now he was dreaming of the time when he should lead his Gabrielle forth
from those forest shades, a proud and happy bride.  In that dream of the
future, when he saw himself at last at the summit of ambition, lord of
the surrounding lands, husband of a woman already adored, it was strange
that he saw himself also attaining to an honour and nobility which he
could never possess.  The husband of Gabrielle Laurent, he told himself,
should close for ever the gates of the past which shrouded Guillaume de
Coray, the blood-stained, unprincipled villain who, from serving an evil
master, had afterwards served, more evilly still, his own lusts,
trampling underfoot on his way any who opposed his progress to his goal,
only mindful of his ends, caring no jot by what villainy they were
accomplished.  Yes, the gates should be shut on this man, and in the
Sieur de Mereac should arise a new creature, upright, honourable,
knightly, a phantom figure striving to be ever what the woman he loved
had pictured him.  Strange freak of complex human nature, seldom found
so lost as to be beyond the pale of redemption; cruel and sin-hardened
as this man was, there must needs have been a heart somewhere buried
deeply within him, which afar off worshipped goodness and truth,—a heart
which had been roused into life, amidst corruption, by a woman’s pure
touch.  She had believed in him, this simple peasant girl, with the face
and mind of a holy Madonna, and the trust had awakened within him that
long silent chord of chivalry and honour from which love itself had
sprung.  In her presence he was no longer the Guillaume de Coray whom
the world knew, but one who strove to cloak that evil presence in a garb
of honour and nobility.  And in the deception itself lay the very germ
of a new-born nobler self, a desire to lay aside for ever that hidden
being of sin and become that which he read himself to be in her pure
eyes.  He shuddered as he pictured her realization of himself as he was,
and swore that sooner than that this should be he would cast the old
self aside.  Yet,—mark the insidious whisper of Satan,—such dreams of
goodness and virtue were garments to be donned after he had accomplished
his purpose. Sin was the necessary tool he must employ to win for his
white dove the fair nest he coveted; therefore sin should be his boon
companion till the work was done, and he almost forgot to shudder at her
uncomely countenance or shrink from the foul whispers of her counsel in
his haste to use her far his will. Afterwards he would spurn her—yes,
afterwards, when Gabrielle reigned at Mereac—afterwards—but not now.



                              *CHAPTER XV*


The sound of revelry rose high in the great hall of Mereac.  On the dais
at the head of the table the young Sieur, with flushed cheeks and
sparkling eyes, raised his goblet of wine and drank deeply as he looked
into the hazel eyes of the beautiful woman beside him.  The guests
around the table whispered together that Yvon de Mereac’s taste had not
been amiss when he chose the lovely Diane de Coray for his betrothed,
and toasts were freely drunk to the future châtelaine of the castle, and
admiring glances flung towards the youthful beauty who sat there
laughing and smiling so gaily and happily.

Guillaume de Coray laughed too as he pledged the fair dame beside him
and quaffed the choice hippocras which filled his cup.  All indeed went
well with those castles in the air which he was so intent on building.
The first seeds were already sown, and his keen glance noted with a
thrill of pleasurable excitement that the flushed cheek and sparkling
eye of his young host wore anything but the bloom of health.  His own
eyes roamed slowly round the board as he followed the tenor of his
thoughts, and fell at length on the face of Gwennola de Mereac.

The young girl was sitting silent and pale amongst her brother’s guests,
her listless eyes and apathetic replies to the cavalier beside her
telling how far away were thoughts and heart.  In vain the Comte de
Laferrière whispered tender words in her unwilling ears.  She replied in
accents so cold that they must necessarily have chilled the warmest
admirer; and at length the Count, weary of repulses, turned his
attentions and compliments to a more sprightly damsel on his left, who
seemed only too willing to respond to his wit and gallantry.  If he had
thought to chagrin his destined bride, the effect was quite contrary to
his expectations, for Gwennola seemed entirely indifferent, if not
oblivious, to his neglect, but sat in her place, pale, listless, and
indifferent as before, except when for a moment’s space she raised her
blue eyes to encounter de Coray’s mocking smile, when a flush of anger
swept over her pale cheeks, and for a moment her eyes flashed with their
old scorn and defiance.

In spite of her passionate indignation and pleading, this man had been
welcomed as an honoured guest by her infatuated brother, who listened
with ready ears to the lame and feeble excuses with which de Coray
strove to explain the past.  All was forgiven and forgotten to the
brother of the lovely Diane, and it needed but a brief space for de
Coray to attain a firm command over his future brother-in-law’s weak and
wavering will.  That she should be forced into some hateful marriage or
condemned to a convent cell was Gwennola’s daily expectation, but so far
the blow had not fallen.  It is true that Maurice de Laferrière still
wooed, but no formal betrothal had taken place.  Yet all hopes of a
marriage with her lover were shattered for ever, not only by reason of
France’s threatening attitude towards the persecuted duchy, but because
of the bitter enmity of de Coray, who had successfully persuaded de
Mereac that the Frenchman had been the ally of François Kerden.

No wonder, therefore, that Gwennola’s heart was heavy as she sat,
perforce, alone and solitary, amidst the revelry around.

"A new minstrel!" cried Yvon with a gay laugh. "Nay, my friend, by the
bones of St Yves, thou comest in a fortunate hour.  Thy name, good
fellow? and a cup of wine to clear thy throat before thy song."

The stranger bowed as he accepted the cup and glanced towards the
speaker.

"My name, monsieur," he replied in the Breton tongue, "is Jean Marcille,
and my birthplace near to Cape Raz."

"Good," replied the host.  "A true Breton; and a Breton ballad of Breton
prowess is ever welcome at the Château de Mereac.  Eh, old Antoine?  A
new strain will be as welcome to us as a rest is to thee; therefore sing
us a stirring lay, Sir Minstrel, and see that its theme be of love and
war, for of such things all true knights make their dreams and fair
ladies welcome."

Again the minstrel bowed, and, taking his vielle in his hand, swept the
chords ere he began his song, glancing as he did so round the long
board, though his eye seemingly rested on none.  He himself was a
sufficiently striking figure to cause interest, especially at the lower
end of the table, where the waiting-women eyed with appreciation the
slight, well-formed figure in its corset of scarlet cloth and wide
hanging sleeves, and the cap of velvet, nearly half a yard in height,
set jauntily on the man’s dark hair, which well matched his bronzed
complexion and black, merry eyes, which seemed to promise a boon
companion of a gay wit and keen tongue.

The visit of such a vielleur was not uncommon to the châteaux of the
great; for although nearly all possessed a minstrel of their own, a
fresh repertoire was always welcomed, music and singing being an almost
necessary accompaniment to the meal.

Jean Marcille was evidently the possessor of a voice of no mean merit,
and thunderous applause greeted song after song.  Wild ballads of
ancient Brittany he sang, telling of the fate of the wizard Myrddyn,
who, for all his wisdom, was beguiled to tell his secret to the
treacherous Vyvyan, knowing all the while of her cruel intention, yet
unable to withstand the siren wiles of her woman’s tongue, and so lies
sleeping for ever in his tomb in the forest of Broceliande, under the
fatal stone where his false love has enchanted him.  Then, still
pursuing the mournful themes with which Brittany seems to abound, and
which her children hold so dear, he sang of the romantic loves of
Abelard the sage and Helöise the beautiful—loves which, crushed and
killed in sorrow and despair, bloomed immortally in poetry and song. But
presently his voice rang with a more martial strain, as, sweeping the
chords of his harp, he sang the inspiriting songs of valour—songs these,
perchance, of his own weaving, for they told of the distresses of the
fair young Duchess Anne, of her helpless condition amongst ravening
enemies, of her gallant Bretons rallying around her, of the intrepidity
of Breton heroes, of the siege of Gwengamp, where the brave Captains
Chero and Gouicket defied the traitor Rohan’s call, and declared that
whilst there was a Duchess in Brittany they would not give up her towns;
and of Tomina Al-Léan, the wife of Gouicket, who took her husband’s
place on the walls when he lay helpless and wounded below.

Such ballads, at such a time, when deeds of chivalry were brave men’s
daily acts, and ladies had no smiles for recreant knight or coward
lover, never failed to stir their listeners to a frenzy of enthusiasm,
and knights drew their swords as they sprang to their feet, and, with
goblets in their right hands, drank to their little Duchess, and flung
the shivering glass to the ground.

Only, perhaps, the enthusiasm of Guillaume de Coray was a little forced,
and his lips curved more than once into a mocking smile as he watched
the ring of flushed faces, and reflected how small a concern it was of
his did Duchess or King rule in Brittany, provided his own schemes went
well.

The stranger minstrel needed little pressing to stay at the Château of
Mereac, for truly it seemed that he fell almost naturally into his place
in the household. A welcome addition, indeed, to enliven the shortening
and gloomy days, for the voice of old Antoine was growing cracked and
faltering, and his songs became wearisome by reason of oft repetition;
nor had the elder man the facility in weaving new ones which his young
rival seemed to possess—a fact which tended to jealousy, though Antoine
was too wise to let such be apparent.

Meantime, Jean Marcille proved to have as soft and winning a tongue in
speech as in song, and so Marie Alloadec found, as she sat busily
employed in her needlework, whilst the minstrel sat on the wide ledge
beside her with crossed legs and a face bent perhaps a little nearer to
Marie’s swiftly flying needle than was judicious.

He was telling her of his home, near the wild and mournful Cape Raz, and
from time to time Marie would allow her work to fall as she listened to
the graphic descriptions of that dreary and romantic coast.  The very
name of Raz causes the trembling sailor to pray aloud to his patron
saints as he thinks of the time when his boat must glide by the red
rocks where the hell of Plogoff yearns for its prey.  No wonder the
Breton proverbs say, "None pass the Raz without hurt or fright," and
"Help me, great God, at Cape Raz;—my ship is so small, and the sea is so
great."

A terrible dwelling-place this, with a brooding fear in the air and a
melancholy mingled with every legend and fancy which haunts the coast
around.  Far away there beyond Dead Man’s Bay lies the island of Sein, a
desolate sandbank inhabited by a few compassionate families, who yearly
strive to save the shipwrecked mariners.  This[#] island was the abode
of the sacred virgins, who gave the Celts fine weather or shipwreck.
There they celebrated their gloomy and murderous orgies; and the seamen
heard with terror, far off at sea, the clash of the barbaric cymbals.
Yonder, too, watchers may see two ravens flying heavily on the shore:
they are the souls of the dread King Grallo and his daughter; whilst the
shrill whistling, which one would take for the voice of the tempest, is
the _crierien_, or ghosts of the shipwrecked, clamouring for burial.


[#] See Michelet’s _History of France_.


"But see," Marie exclaimed, with great eyes grown even greater with
wonder and awe as she listened to the wild tales which Marcille poured
into her ears, "they are gloomy, these tales, and very terrible; and
yet, how is it that you laugh and are gay, and have altogether the air
of joy and happiness?"

"A good conscience," quoth Jean lightly, as with absent fingers he
twanged the strings of his vielle. "Also, mademoiselle, perchance the
good gift of my mother, who came from laughing Touraine, where all sing
and are gay, and where the waters of the Loire dance with the happy
sunshine, instead of being grey with melancholy, as here in Brittany."

"Of Touraine?" questioned Marie, dropping her voice, whilst her bright
eyes searched curiously the dark, smiling face of the minstrel.  "And
thy mother came from Touraine?  But that perchance was long since, and
thou hast never journeyed so far?"

"I?" laughed Jean Marcille.  "Nay, mademoiselle, a minstrel wanders oft
in many lands, and I have seen not only the orchards and meadows of
Touraine, but the blue skies of Italy, and the white mountains of
Switzerland in my day."

"But of Touraine?" persisted Marie.  "If thy mother is of that country,
thou knowest perchance much—almost as much as of thy native Brittany?"

"Verily," replied Marcille, with a shrug of his shoulders, "seeing that
my father died long since, when I was but a little lad, and my mother,
wearying of grey skies and the wails of lost spirits, was fain to return
to the sunshine of her own land."

"And so," said Marie, her colour deepening as her eager eyes again
sought his, "you have long dwelt in the land of our enemies, Sir
Minstrel? Aha! but you told not that to our lord yesternight when he
asked from whence you came."

Marcille spread out his hands with a careless gesture of indifference.

"Monsieur asked me only of my name and birthplace," he replied with a
smile.

"But if perchance mademoiselle fears I am a spy——"  He paused, watching
her face as she turned it to him.

"Nay," she murmured, glancing around to be sure that they were unheard;
"I asked,—I asked—because,—because I would have inquired of a noble
monsieur from Touraine who journeyed hitherward in the early summer, and
in whom my mistress took somewhat of an interest."

"For that matter," said her companion, "there is scarce a château in all
Touraine whose lord I do not know; for there is ever a flagon of wine
ready for the minstrel bard."

"But not ever for Breton ballads," slyly replied Marie, with a
coquettish side-glance.

"Nay," he laughed, "I suit my songs to my company, mademoiselle, for
’tis a foolish bird that sings only on one note, and there are chansons
and rondeaux of Touraine and Anjou with which I can woo the dimples to
thy cheeks, sweet mistress, as well as ballads of Brittany, to bring
tears to those bright eyes."

"But," she said, shaking her head at him with a dimpling smile to
moderate her rebuke—"but you are foolish, altogether foolish, and I want
no compliments of France, but rather listen to what I would ask of you.
In this fair Touraine, where all laugh and are gay, have you perchance
met one who is named Monsieur Henri d’Estrailles, whose château lies not
far from the banks of the Loire?"

"So well I know him," replied Marcille, eyeing her steadily, as if he
would fain read her very heart—"so well I know him, that at his bidding
I am here; pretty maiden, to bring his message to thy fair mistress."

"A messenger from Monsieur d’Estrailles!" gasped Marie, whilst the work
slipped from her hands and lay unheeded on the floor.  "A messenger from
Monsieur d’Estrailles!"

"Ay, verily," whispered the minstrel.  "But speak not so loudly,
mademoiselle, for, from what I gather, there were short shrift for me
did some here suspect me or my errand."

"But I cannot believe it," murmured Marie, her eyes still round with
wonder.  "It is impossible."

For reply Marcille slipped his hand into his vest and brought forth a
small ring which lay safely shrouded in his brown palm.

"It is the token," he said simply.  "Do not fear, Mademoiselle Marie;
all is as I say.  I am in truth the servant of Monsieur d’Estrailles,
who hath a message for his mistress’s ear, but knew too well that he
might not come hither in his own proper person to tell it, seeing that
even now the French army crosses the Breton border, and he feared that
his presence at such a time might be less than welcome."

"Less than welcome!" echoed Marie.  "Nay, at the moment I ween it would
be death itself to the gallant knight.  But your message shall be
delivered, monsieur, and at once.  See, I go with haste to my mistress’s
chamber, and it shall be that I will return anon to summon you to her
presence."

So saying, Marie Alloadec, without waiting to gather up her fallen
embroidery, tripped quickly away, to return with haste in a few moments,
softly calling to Marcille to follow her.

Neither of them noticed that close to the embrasure in which they had
been seated knelt the figure of a woman, who withdrew almost behind the
heavy tapestry hangings as they passed.  But there was a smile on the
face of Jeanne, the dark-browed waiting-woman of Diane de Coray, as she
watched furtively their departing figures.



                             *CHAPTER XVI*


The Sieur de Mereac was sick.  No longer could there be any disguising
of the fact; he had grown in the past week thin and emaciated, whilst
his great blue eyes, so like his young sister’s, looked out of his
sunken face with a pathetic wistfulness which touched a chord of pity in
the hardest heart.

Yet what the reason of so strange and deadly a sickness might be it
seemed impossible to say.  Vague suspicions, indeed, seemed to float
like faint and evil breaths upon the air of the château; but so
intangible were they, that men scarce dared to look into the thought
which from time to time stirred within them. Gloom had suddenly seemed
to fall upon the household which had before resounded with a mirth
scarcely befitting, seeing that so short a time had elapsed since the
death of the old Sieur.  And now it would seem that death again
stretched forth his hand, but not this time to gather to his full garner
one whose head was already white with the snows of age, but to snatch
greedily at youth, with its swift pulsations of joy and life.  What did
death here?  What place had he at the betrothal board?  What right had
his shadow to fall between the sunshine of love and its fulfilment?
Such questions were hard indeed to answer, and by reason of them the
shadow of fear fell on those who pitied, whilst they loved, the young
master, whose footsteps through life had led him in such tragic paths,
and who now seemed, in the dawn of happiness, before unknown, to stand
before the yawning chasm of a grave.

Yet, strangest and most mysterious of all did it seem that Gwennola de
Mereac—she who, in past days, had been so tenderly attached to her
brother—should scarcely heed the fact of his altered appearance, and,
from brooding melancholy, herself assume all suddenly an aspect of
content and happy expectation.

So the retainers of Mereac gazed at the mysterious march of events,
whilst the whisper on the air grew clearer day by day.  But Gwennola
suspected none of these things.  True, her heart ached for her brother
as she noted his altered looks; yet so wide had grown the gulf which
Diane de Coray had made between them, that her pride refused to allow
her to show the anxious solicitude she felt; whilst Diane herself strove
secretly to make such solicitude the more impossible by her attitude
towards the girl she hated.  Yvon was made silently to know that he must
choose between his sister and his lady-love; and there was no hesitation
possible in his mind as Diane bent tenderly over his couch, whilst
Gwennola held coldly aloof, allowing no one to guess the bursting grief
and jealousy which raged in her heart.

But it was not altogether pride alone which set Gwennola’s lips into a
calm and serene smile of seeming unconcern for her brother’s sickness;
for, setting apart her anxiety for him,—and youth is skilful in
persuading itself that such fears are groundless,—she was rejoicing
secretly in the message brought to her by the hand of Jean Marcille.

Ah! what a joy it had been, and yet how fierce an anxiety brooded behind
it!  As she sat by her window, watching the brown leaves of the forest
trees caught and whirled away in the autumn wind, her heart was singing,
yet shuddering, as she thought of the time, but three days hence, when
she should creep forth as she had done months ago and find, under that
forest shade, the lover, faithful and true, who laughed at perils for
the joy of clasping her once more in his arms.  How sweet it was to
rehearse over and over again that meeting—the terrors of the woodland
path, the haunting dread of spying eyes, all forgotten and swallowed up
in the glad moment when she should feel those strong arms holding her to
him, and should look up to read the old, old story in eyes so full of
love’s deepest tenderness.  Then the exquisite joy of the picture faded,
as fears crowded with jeering, mocking faces around the dream.  What if
he should be discovered?  This time there would, she knew, be no escape.
No shadow of suspicion would be too faint to seal his doom.  Revenge,
she knew, was smouldering deeply in de Coray’s heart, and the hatred and
jealousy of his sister would but too eagerly seize upon this means of
repaying her rival, whose influence, she knew, would fain have been
exerted to drive her from the château gates.

But Marie Alloadec had no such fears.  The faithful maiden rejoiced not
only in her mistress’s romance, but in one of her own which was being
woven at the same time.  The handsome face of Monsieur d’Estrailles’
messenger had already made its impression on the Breton girl’s
susceptible heart; and Jean Marcille had been no backward wooer, finding
it altogether to his own pleasure, as well as his master’s interests, to
make love to the pretty waiting-woman whilst he attended to her
mistress’s commands.

All three were keenly aware of the dangers that beset them; but love
laughs at such dangers, and the happy optimism of Marie and Marcille
comforted, if it did not convince, Gwennola.  For Marie it was easy to
be gay, for her lover was beside her; but for her own part, Gwennola
shivered even whilst she smiled, so fearful of ill was she.

But at last the night had arrived, a night so calm, so peaceful, that it
seemed as one born out of time in that wild month of November.  True,
there was but a dying moon to light the way through the forest path, and
from time to time even her wavering light was dimmed by the scudding
clouds which obscured her.  But this time Gwennola went not to her tryst
unattended; indeed, such a course was fraught with dangers, which had
necessarily multiplied since the summer, for the hungry wolves grew more
importunate than ever for their prey.  Shielded, however, by the strong
arm of Jean Marcille, and accompanied by Marie, who pleaded to be
allowed to follow her mistress on her dangerous errand, she felt little
fear of these four-footed enemies; whilst behind, she knew, Job Alloadec
guarded faithfully the open postern gate.

It was, however, only discreet that Jean and Marie should remain behind
in the shadow of the trees, whilst she advanced alone towards the ruined
chapel.

Ah! the memories that thronged around the spot!—memories of terror long
past, as also of that father, so dear and yet so imperious, whose anger
she had braved, and whose forgiveness she had won, all for the sake of
the man who stood now once more before her.  No gallant knight was here,
however, as in those other days when the warm summer breezes stirred the
ivy round the grey walls, and the scent of the flowers was sweet on the
night air.  The very moonlight seemed to shrink at sight of the tall
figure whose brown cowl was drawn so closely round its head, as it stood
waiting there alone.  But as Gwennola, with a little cry, ran forward,
the cowl fell back from a dark head which was assuredly not that of any
spirit of ill, and strong, human arms caught and held her in their warm
embrace, whilst passionate kisses were pressed on the rosy, trembling
lips which whispered over and over again his name.  No wonder that the
white owl who sheltered herself amongst the ivy of the ruin fled
shrieking dismally against the sacrilege which thus desecrated with
human love the haunt of her ghostly friends; no wonder that the lizard
which crept up the crumbling wall paused to peep with cunning,
glittering eyes at the scene which his forefathers had watched in the
garden of man’s innocence.  But at that supreme moment what cared those
two for watching eyes?—so oblivious were they of any other in the wide
world than the ones into which each looked.

True eyes, brave eyes, eyes in which the story of love and faithfulness
was so easy to read!  And then once more down to earth and the perilous
present they must come, and leave the all-absorbing joy of that first
moment of oblivion to the past and to the dim, sweet future to which
both were looking with eager longing, the more impatient for that brief
moment of rapture.

But it was no time for love dreams then, with the keen winter wind
whistling around, and the still colder fear of danger which whispered of
separation.

There was so much to tell, so much to hear, so much to plan, and oh! so
short a time for the speaking of it all.

Together they sat there amongst the ruins of a dead past, and built
golden castles for the future; shining, gorgeous castles, all
love-illumined and beautiful.  But even as they built them, difficulties
innumerable and insuperable blew them once more to their feet.  The
situation was indeed one which well might dismay lovers so devoted.  The
vast army of Charles was already advancing towards Rennes; and though it
appeared to menace rather than to attack, still the danger to the duchy
seemed imminent if the Duchess Anne held fast to her determination, as
it seemed only too likely she would do.

In faltering tones Gwennola told the story of the past months: of her
father’s death, of the coming of Diane de Coray, of Yvon’s fatal
infatuation, of the return of Guillaume de Coray and of the complete
sway he and his sister held over her brother’s weak mind; of Yvon’s
illness and her own estrangement from him; finally, of Diane’s veiled
persecution and her fears for her own future.

A stormy picture, so dark that for the moment it held both lovers
speechless; till, as he bent to look into the face half hidden on his
shoulder, Henri caught sight of a bright tear which trembled on the
drooping lashes.

"Nay, weep not, my darling," he whispered passionately.  "Thou shalt not
thus weep and fear such things; it shall not be permitted.  Sooner than
that I will mount thee on good Charlemagne yonder, and ride with thee to
Touraine, where we will laugh together at these vile plotters—ay, and at
thy brother too for bringing such unhappiness to his little sister’s
heart.  Fie on him! hath he forgotten that but for thy bravery he would
even now have been rotting in some foul dungeon?"

"Nay," she whispered, smiling, "but that also was more for thy sake,
Henri, than for his, though well I loved him—ay, and love him still for
all his harshness, for I know that his eyes are, for the time, blinded
by reason of this woman."

"But, say," cried d’Estrailles pleadingly, "is it then so impossible to
aid thee, little one?  Would I might go boldly to yonder château and
claim thee for my bride, for it seemeth to me but a coward’s part to
hide like any evil-doer in such a manner."

"Ah, Henri," she sighed, "what foolishness thou wouldest speak!  Surely,
little couldst thou aid me by entering the lion’s den, or save me from a
dreary fate by dying as a spy, as thou wouldst surely be dubbed if thou
camest hitherward in thy proper guise."

"The lion’s den!" he echoed scornfully.  "Rather I would term them
jackals, seeing that their ways are cowards’ ways, and their thoughts
the thoughts of traitors.  But tell me, sweet, is then my plan so
impossible?  or wilt thou fear to trust all,—even thyself,—to my
honour?"

"Fear?" she smiled; "fear!"—and she raised her lips to meet his caress.
"Nay, Henri, ’tis no fear that causeth me to hesitate, but
because—because——"

"Because?" he questioned, holding her hands in his.  "Because, little
one?"

"Truly, I know not," she whispered softly; "only, perchance ’tis
foolishness, but my mind misgiveth me as to what is best.  Let us wait,
my Henri, till to-morrow, and I will ask the advice of dear Father
Ambrose, who loves me well, and who, methinks, hath no more liking for
these de Corays, brother and sister both, than have I.  Moreover, I am
assured that he pitieth me, and would fain see me happy, which he
wotteth well I could never be in convent cell or other arms than thine.
So till to-morrow, Henri, let us wait, and it may be—it may be I will
come."

So again they sat there side by side, dreaming of all the bliss that
coming would make, whilst he told her again of the happy, merry life of
Touraine, so vividly that it seemed to Gwennola that she was already
riding by his side through the laughing meadows and sunny orchards
singing rondeaux and virelais gay and sweet as their surroundings, with
no weird melancholy such as every song reverberated with in this grey,
yet for ever dear, land of Brittany. But dreams must fade ofttimes
before the dawn, and erelong they must say farewell, those foolish young
lovers, who found the world so entirely made for them alone.  And yet
not farewell, but _au revoir—au revoir_ until the morrow, with,
perchance, Father Ambrose’s approval, if not his blessing, on their
flight from troubles and shadows, suspicions and jealousies.

"Au revoir!  Au revoir!"  The very sweetness of the words made a melody
in Gwennola’s heart as she and her attendants hurried homewards, and her
lips trembled in a smiling happiness, warm with the memory of his
kisses.  As for Marcille and the rosy-faced little Marie, they also had
found the waiting time less irksome than might have been supposed; for
the example of one’s betters, see you, is a fine thing to follow, and
the atmosphere of love is so infectious that perchance it had even
become wafted towards the shadow of the trees where the two waited; and
that may explain, the reason why Marie’s rosy lips dimpled too as she
smiled in the darkness and a hand which should have been holding her
cloak slid downwards to meet and be grasped by another hand, strong and
tender, which held it so fast that the smile nearly overflowed into a
merry laugh for the very happiness of youth.



                             *CHAPTER XVII*


"Alas, poor Yvon!  Nay, rest thy head so,—yes, that seemeth better; and
place thy hand in mine. Ah! how cold it is! and how thou shiverest, even
before this warm blaze!"

"Ay, cold as grows my heart when I think of what this sickness
portendeth," groaned Yvon, as he lay back wearily on his couch, looking
up with loving yet wistful eyes into the glowing, beautiful face bent so
close to his.  An angel of light and grace did Diane de Coray appear in
her graceful, clinging gown of heavy white material, the long sleeves
and throat edged with gleaming gold, whilst the high head-dress framed a
face fair enough to soothe and gladden any man, and soft hazel eyes
filled with sympathy, tenderness—and perhaps some other vague, undefined
expression impossible to read.

She repeated his name over softly many times as she stroked the thin
hand which lay listlessly at his side.

"Thou wilt be better anon," she said gently at length, in reply to his
weary sigh.  "See, Yvon, for my sake thou _must_ be better."

He shook his head sadly.  "Nay," he replied, "I fear not, little Diane;
for me there is naught but the grave—the grave in which shall be buried
all the hopes and the great love with which thou hast inspired me.  Yes,
little one, weep not, for it is even so, bitter as it seemeth to say
it,—and how bitter the holy saints only know; for death is a sorry guest
when love has stepped in before him.  And I love thee, my Diane, I love
thee, with all this poor heart of mine—not worthy of thee, sweet, nay,
not worthy, for suffering and fear have left but a sorry wreck of the
Yvon de Mereac who once was.  And yet, Diane, thou hast loved this poor,
weak one, so unworthy of thee!  See, thou shalt hold my hands in thine
and say it softly,—thus,—’I love thee, Yvon de Mereac, I love thee,
although thou art but a poor, unworthy lover at best for the sweetest,
fairest damsel that the good God ever made.’"

"Nay!" she cried passionately, dashing away a tear, and bending to kiss
the white, upturned face; "thou knowest well that I love thee, Yvon, the
saints aid me!  But thou shalt not die!  Listen!—I will tell thee my
secret thoughts, though I fear me thou wilt be angry."

"Angry?" he questioned, smiling; "angry with thee, Diane?"

"Yes," she said, turning a flushed, half-shamed face to him, and
speaking in a hard, even voice; "thou wilt be angry, Yvon; and yet I
will dare that anger for the love I bear thee."

She glanced around as she spoke, but none were near; only the tapestried
faces met hers as they looked calmly down from the walls as if, lifeless
as they were, they scorned this woman who knelt there, knowing and
hailing her as liar and traitress.

But the swift pang of remorse and fear which held the words trembling on
her lips passed, and, steeling herself to her task, the girl drew close
to the sick man’s side.

"Listen," she said softly, "and judge, Yvon, my betrothed.  Hath it not
caused thee wonderment, this sore sickness of thine?  None can tell its
name; skilled leech as he is, Father Ambrose hath no knowledge of it;
and yet, so deadly is its nature, that truly death seemeth near."

Yvon’s blue eyes were fixed curiously on the speaker’s face, a vague
horror growing in them as she proceeded.

"Hath all this never struck thee, my Yvon?  Hast thou not searched in
vain for the cause of thy suffering?"

"Nay," he muttered, "I understand not what thou speakest of, Diane."

"Of witchcraft," she said softly but very clearly. "Of witchcraft,
dearest love, which hath been brought to work so evilly upon thee that
death stands already awaiting thee."

She crossed herself, shuddering as she saw the horror deepening in the
wide eyes so close to hers.

"Witchcraft?" he echoed faintly.  "But wherefore? and by whose hand
should such spells be wrought?"

"By the cruel hand of Gwennola, thy sister!"

Instantly the blue eyes blazed, a red, angry flush swiftly dyeing the
pale, sunken cheeks.

"Gwennola! my sister Gwennola a witch!  Nay, Diane, thou ravest.  Unsay
such words, maiden!  By my faith, they shall not be breathed again in my
presence,—the honour of the house of Mereac may not lightly be bandied
by careless lips."

She had expected his anger, and faced it coolly enough.

"I cannot unsay the truth, Yvon de Mereac, even when thy house’s honour
is at stake.  Nay! blame not me, but rather her who so cruelly hath
dragged it in the mire."

"But it is a lie," he cried passionately, "a foul and cruel lie.  Who
dared speak such words to thee, Diane?  I will have him hanged to the
nearest tree for thus smirching the fair name of a noble maiden."

Diane laid a soft, caressing hand on his clenched palm; the eyes she
turned to his sparkling and indignant ones were full of tears.

"Alas! alas! my Yvon!" she whispered.  "Should I have dared thus to
speak of thy sister had I not for myself discovered the truth of the
accusation?"

He lay back on his couch, panting and almost breathless with emotion;
but his eyes dilated still with fear and horror as he listened to her
smooth, softly spoken words.

"But for the love I bear thee, Yvon, no word should have crossed my
lips; but because even now it may not be too late to save thee, love
hath unsealed my lips, and I hereby do solemnly declare to thee that thy
sister Gwennola, and she alone, is answerable for this thy deadly
sickness."

"Nay, I cannot believe it," he cried with a quick sob.  "What!  Gwennola
try to slay me? my father’s little Gwennola a witch?  It is beyond
reason, I tell thee, Diane."

"So said I at first," said Diane softly; "yet nevertheless it is truth."

"Gwennola!" he echoed dreamily, as on the instant all the old childish
days seemed to surge forward in his memory—"little Gwennola!"

He was seeing her, a tiny, lovely maiden of five innocent summers, being
held up in his own strong young arms to kiss the forehead of his horse;
and remembering how she turned from loving the black steed to fling a
pair of soft, baby arms round his neck and kiss him again and again.
Then other pictures stole back to him in the darkening room: pictures of
the same child grown into a slim little maiden, beautiful as the flowers
which bent their fair heads to the summer breezes; with great blue eyes
which were always watching for father and brother, whom she must ever
run to greet, if but for the excuse of slipping away from the embroidery
frame and her mother’s rebukeful eye.  But at the last the pictures
faded, shrivelling up before a poisoned breath—and Diana’s voice rang in
his ears, "Gwennola is a witch!"

"No," he cried fiercely, as if to drown the accusing voice; "it is no
truth, but a lie—a lie fashioned in the blackest hell!"

But Diane was not to be moved by his harsh words. She was playing for a
stake, and knew she must win, though in her heart she was the more angry
to find that the love she had hoped to have already destroyed had so
strong a root.

"It is for thine own sake I spoke, my Yvon," she pleaded, with a break
in her soft voice.  "Alas! alas! I have but angered thee, and all to no
purpose, seeing thou wilt neither believe nor strive to save thyself
from her spells."

"Nay, sweet one, thou must forgive my angry words," said her lover,
melting to tenderness as his ear caught the sob in the gentle tones.
"Well I know that it is but thy zeal for my welfare which hath led thee
astray in believing such false words.  But bethink thee, my Diane, what
proof can these evil tale-bearers bring? what knowledge have they?"

"Ah, me!" moaned Diana, "I must anger thee again, Yvon; and yet, so
cruelly has she deceived and wronged thee, that I will have no pity—no,
for so foul a wrong deserves none, and her sin be on her own head!"

"Speak," muttered Yvon hoarsely, as once more the fear crept into his
eyes; "speak, Diane."

"When my maid, Jeanne Dubois, told me the tale," said Diane softly, "I
bade her be silent; for, for evil tongues there was sharp punishment,
and slanderers, to my thinking, should have small mercy.  But the wench
persisted, and so perforce I listened, merely at first to point to her
the danger of such lying falsehoods.  Yet the story smacked so vividly
of sincerity that I listened at length with more attention, whilst she
told me that the Demoiselle de Mereac kept strange company, and that
ofttimes passing her chamber door at nightfall she had had reason to
cross herself for very fear of the weird chantings and voices she heard
within.  Yet knowing it was naught of her business, the girl said
nothing till, chancing one day to be conversing with Pierre the fool,
the knave whispered somewhat in her ear of his own suspicions, and told
Jeanne that he could also prove to her how that the young châtelaine not
only gathered evil company under the very roof of the château, but also
went into the heart of the forest at the midnight hour to celebrate
terrible orgies with her foul friends, and converse with her dread
familiar, who appeareth to her in the garb of a brown friar, who, for
his evil deeds on earth, hath been condemned to haunt the shades of a
ruined chapel and assist still further those whose sins are as black as
those of his own lost soul."

Again Diane looked steadily into Yvon’s eyes, and with a thrill of
triumph marked the look of dread which had stolen into them.

"I myself," she said sadly, "have already proved the truth of Jeanne’s
words; it remains with thee, Yvon, to also convince thyself of a guilt
which, alas! shineth as clearly as noonday.  In very truth, I beg thee
thus to prove the words I have dared to speak, for little doubt is there
in my mind that in this lost maiden’s evil practices lies the secret of
thy fatal illness.  And because I love thee, Yvon, with all my heart and
soul I pray thee strive to save thyself from these cruel spells, and
even, if need be, tear from its parent-tree this smitten branch and cast
it into the fire."

"Gwennola!—Gwennola!" moaned Yvon; "my father’s darling,—his little
Gwennola!  Is it possible that thou hast so fallen—art become so lost?
Diane," he cried, turning almost fiercely upon her, "I accept thy word.
Prove to me my sister’s guilt, and I will myself light the faggots which
shall purify the honour of the house of Mereac.  Yet I warn thee that if
this tale be false, the very love I bear thee shall shrivel and burn
away till nothing be left but the ashes of hatred."

"I will prove it," said Diane, returning his look unflinchingly.  "This
very night, with thine own eyes shalt thou behold thy sister clasped to
the arms of one of hell’s foulest shades, and with him plotting for thy
destruction."



                            *CHAPTER XVIII*


It is difficult to realize how tremendous a hold the superstition of
witchcraft had upon the minds of our ancestors from the earliest ages.
And in the fifteenth century the fear of wizards and witches and belief
in their supernatural powers was almost unlimited. Indeed, the repute of
madness was not more fatal to dogs than that of witchcraft to human
beings.[#]  So destructive was it, that there is scarcely a hamlet of
ancient date west of the Carpathians wherein crowds of witches have not
been massacred during the middle ages.  For a considerable period
Cologne burnt four hundred of these wretches, Paris three hundred, and a
multitude of second-rate towns two hundred a-piece every year.  To be
stigmatised as a witch was to be condemned, sooner or later, to the
stake; and so well was this understood, that the malicious had only to
fix that evil name on their victims in order to secure their execution.
A list remains of some hundred and fifty witches slain in three years by
that insignificant place, Wurzburg; and among the sufferers we find
half-a-dozen vagrants, children, and others; a scold, a learned judge, a
skilful linguist, several popular preachers, and "Goebel Babelin, the
prettiest girl in Wurzburg."


[#] See _Witches and their Craft_.


It was a fundamental axiom of the witch-codes, as explained by Bodin,
that no witch might be acquitted unless her innocence shone "as clear as
the noontide sun"; and every care was taken to render that impossible.
But by far the most powerful means of effecting their
conviction—surpassing false witness and torture by an infinite
length—was the infamous scrutiny to which the miserable creatures were
subjected.  The search for devil mark and amulet, as prescribed by the
Church, was regarded as worse than death itself, and of the thousands
who perished, a vast proportion died self-accused, preferring the deadly
search of the flame to that of the monkish inquisitors.

Considering how fearfully and inevitably witches were punished, it seems
astonishing that any, much less such myriads, should have professed them
of the craft.  But, on the other hand, it must be remembered that the
acquisition of power to inflict storm and devastation, disease and
death, was an irresistible temptation to the savage nature that then
predominated in the lower classes.  For everybody sought the fraternity.
Those who suffered, or apprehended suffering, bought their services
equally with those who desired to have suffering inflicted.  The latter,
however, were by far the more numerous, and the witches had a very
singular way of gratifying them.  One of the strangest was to fashion an
image of the hated individual during the celebration of certain infernal
rites.  The simulacrum was usually of virgin wax; but when it was meant
to make the work of vengeance thoroughly sure, the clay taken from the
depth of a well-used grave was generally preferred.  The image being
moulded according to rule, and baptized by a properly qualified priest,
whatever injury was inflicted on the model was believed to have a
similar effect on the original. Did they tie up a member of the effigy,
paralysis attacked the corresponding limb of the person represented.
Intense pain and fearful mutilation were thus assumed to be produced;
nor was even death itself beyond the wizard’s power.  To secure this
fatal result there were several approved recipes. Some pierced the heart
of the statuette with a new needle; others melted it slowly before a
fire; a third set interred it at dead of night in consecrated ground
with horrible burlesque of the burial service; and a fourth gathered the
hair into the stomach of the model, and concealed it in the chamber—if
possible under the pillow—of the intended victim. Such images were
prepared by Robert of Artois for the destruction of his enemies.  In
this way Enguerrand de Marigny was said to have slain Philip the Fair.
Thus, too, Eleanor Cobhan, wife of Duke Humphrey, was said to have
attempted the life of Henry VI.

Many and varied were the powers and mischievous contrivances of the
witches and wizards for every possible purpose.  A decoction made of a
toad baptized by the name of John, and fed on consecrated wafers, was
thrown under a farmer’s table by a witch at Soissons, and all who sat
round the board died immediately.  Every witch possessed her agent, or
familiar imp, who on her inauguration into the sisterhood sucked her
blood, thus leaving the fatal "devil-mark."

In Brittany, not more than fifty years before the opening of our tale,
the far-famed and execrable Gilles de Retz had been led to the stake,
there to pay the penalty of his horrible career as wizard, murderer, and
devil-worshipper.  The crimes of this fiend of iniquity are too many and
too terrible to bear repetition.  His chief delight, however, was to
lure children to his castle by the agency of an old hag named la
Meffraie, who went about the country enticing any children she met, with
false promises, to her master’s abode; and from that moment they were
heard of no more.  When, after fourteen years, his horrible practices
were disclosed and search was made, there was found in the tower of
Chantoce a tunnel of calcined bones—of children’s bones in such number,
that it was supposed there must have been full forty of them.[#]  A like
quantity was found in the castle of La Suze and in other places; in
short, wherever he had been.  The number of children destroyed by this
exterminating brute was computed to be a hundred and forty, the motive
of the destruction of these unfortunate innocents being more horrible
than the manner of death.  He offered them up to the devil, invoking the
demons Barren, Orient, Beelzebub, Satan, and Belial to grant him in
return gold, knowledge, and power.  He had with him a young priest of
Pistoia in Italy, who promised to show him these demons; and an
Englishman, who helped to conjure them.[#]  It was a difficult matter.
One of the means essayed was to chant the service for All Saints’ Day,
in honour of evil spirits.  And yet this blood-stained villain, who
revelled in listening to the piteous death-cries of little children and
gloated over their suffering, who from worship of demons had himself
become more devil than man, commended his evil assistant and magician,
who was condemned with him, to the grace of God—Whose living image he
had murdered—in the following terms, "Adieu, François, my friend; may
God grant you patience and knowledge, and rest assured, provided you
have patience and hope in God, we shall meet in the joys of Paradise."
The horror inspired by this blasphemous wretch still lingered in the
hearts of the Bretons, and small wonder was it that wizardry or
witchcraft found little mercy at the hands of an ignorant and fanatic
people; although often wizards or witches were allowed to practise their
craft unmolested for many years, the fear of suffering from their
vengeance, even in death, keeping their enemies at bay, whilst they
drove a profitable business with those patrons who desired their aid.


[#] _Depositions of Etienne Corillant_.

[#] Michelet’s _History of France_.


It will be the more easily understood from these foregoing remarks how
skilfully Diane de Coray had woven the web of her plot around her
unfortunate victim, who remained in total ignorance of her danger, the
retainers of the château having been before instructed by the wily
Jeanne to breathe no word of their suspicions into the ears of those
likely to warn her.  Therefore it was with no presentiment of coming ill
that Gwennola de Mereac stole forth to her lover’s trysting-place once
more, full of happy thoughts and a heart the lighter by very contrast
with its weary heaviness of so many weeks past.  Little did she or her
attendants guess what sharp eyes had been watching their movements, or
what stealthy feet had already crept after them through the forest
shade.

It was the maid Jeanne Dubois who had been the first to discover the
identity of the wandering minstrel whose advent had been hailed with so
much joy by the young Sieur de Mereac.  Hiding in the shadow of the
heavy tapestries, she had heard what had passed between Marie Alloadec
and her would-be lover, and had hastily carried the news to her
mistress.  The clue thus given had been carefully followed up, but it
was Pierre the fool whose cunning had discovered the fatal rendezvous
and pierced the disguise of the cowled figure.  So the threads of the
web were gathered more surely around the weavers’ fingers, and now the
time drew near to prove their strength.

A cold wind whistled through the bare trees overhead, but so close grew
the undergrowth of the thickets around the ruined chapel as to shelter
any watchers not only from the keen blast but from curious or inquiring
eyes.  But Gwennola’s eyes and thoughts were far from suspicion of
treachery or evil. She was thinking, as she hurried on her way, of
Father Ambrose’s kind and tender counsel.  He had promised, the good old
man, to use his influence to the utmost with Yvon to persuade him either
to allow his sister to wed the man she loved, or at least to leave her
unmolested by unwelcome suggestions of betrothal till it could more
clearly be seen how matters fell out between the two contending
countries.  If Yvon were still obdurate—well, it might be that Father
Ambrose would be willing to risk the anger of his lord for the sake of
the little maid he loved so tenderly; but she must be patient—very
patient—whilst he prayed that his way might be made clear before his
eyes.

So gentle, so loving had the old man been, with such tears of fatherly
fondness had he besought her, that Gwennola had listened to his
pleadings, and had promised to wait with patience for his further
counsel, instead of lending an all too willing ear to her lover’s
importunity in urging the hasty flight which had appeared in so
favourable a light to her eyes as he whispered eloquent reasons to the
heart which readily responded to his entreaties.  Yet her step grew
slower as she neared her trysting-place, as if she found her promise
weighing almost too heavily upon her as she pictured the disappointment
in the dark eyes which would look down their eager inquiry into hers.

Marie and Jean Marcille lingered behind their mistress as they had done
yesternight.  They had their own concerns, these two, which perhaps—and
who may blame?—dulled their ears and clouded the watchfulness of their
eyes.  Very certain it is that neither of them saw amidst a clump of
trees not far from where they stood, four cloaked figures bending low,
as if furtively watching those who already stood in the waning moonlight
close by the ivied ruins.

"It is enough," whispered Yvon de Mereac in a low, stifled voice as he
raised himself and stood facing the woman at his side.  "It is enough."

Yes! he had been convinced where he felt conviction to be impossible, by
the evidence of his own eyes; for, stooping there, he had seen,
shuddering in horror, the shadowy outline of a tall, monkish figure, and
even as he crossed himself in fear, he had seen another figure, slender
and hooded, steal from amongst the trees to be clasped in the close
embrace of the Brown Friar himself; and, as the feeble moonlight
straggled downwards from behind a passing cloud, the hood had slipped
back, revealing the red-gold curls and pale face of Gwennola.

Diane de Coray was a skilful conspirator.  To linger there might
speedily reveal to the agonized brother that his sister’s lover was
verily in the flesh and no ghostly agent from the unseen world; and so,
with murmurs of sympathy, she hastened back with him towards the
château, followed by her brother and Pierre the fool.  But to her
whispered words Yvon de Mereac answered not at all; the blow had been so
sudden, so overpowering, that his weak spirit reeled under it.  To a
Breton honour stands even before love itself, the Duchess Anne voicing
the sentiments of her people in her chivalrous motto, "Death is
preferable to dishonour."  And now dishonour in its blackest form was to
fall on the fairest flower of his house!  No wonder that the poor, weak
brother groaned in helpless bewilderment at such a fate. Paralysed with
the horror of what he had seen, his failing brain refused at first to
realize what his outer senses told him, and he allowed himself to be led
back to the château by his apparently sympathizing friends; nor, till he
sank down once more on his couch and drank from the goblet of wine which
the tender Diane raised to his lips, did his mind become sufficiently
clear to understand the full meaning of that midnight adventure.

"Gwennola a witch!" he whispered, with a hoarse sob, at length.  "The
little Gwennola a witch!  Holy Mother of God! what shall I do?  Alas!
what shall I do?  The little Gwennola!—the little Gwennola!"

"Nay," said Diane, speaking in a low, clear voice, as she bent over him
where he lay moaning out his sister’s name again and again, "she
deserves no pity, Yvon.  She is lost,—ay, lost,—bethink thee of her
sins,—of the awful sin against thee, my Yvon. For my sake, since I live
but for thee, she must pay the penalty of her crime, so that thou mayest
once more be restored to health."

Her beautiful face was close to his; he could feel her warm breath stir
his hair, which lay damp with sweat on his forehead; her hazel eyes
seemed to burn her very will into his numbed brain and to force him to
it as if with magnetic power.  Weak and helpless, he was as utterly in
her hands as if he had been indeed but a yearling babe; and as his eyes
followed hers he slowly repeated her words as if she drew them from him.

"She is a witch, and as a witch she must die—for thy sake, Diane,—for
thy sake."



                             *CHAPTER XIX*


"Thou, Marcille?  In the name of the blessed saints, what dost thou
here?—and thus!"

The grey dawn of a November day was creeping slowly upwards in the east,
but the air was damp and chill with frost and dew, and the men who stood
there looked into each other’s faces through a vaporous mist.  The face
of Jean Marcille was blanched with fear, and his dark eyes looked into
his master’s with an expression of terror and dismay.

"How now, varlet!" cried d’Estrailles anxiously, "hath aught of ill
befallen the demoiselle?  Why hast thou come thus with such fear in thy
looks?"

"Alas, my master!" gasped the man.  "Alas! how can I tell you? ill
indeed has befallen the noble lady, such ill as men dread to speak of
and Marie saith——"

"Peace, fool," cried d’Estrailles angrily, "what care I for the words of
Marie or any other; tell me only, and instantly, what ill hath chanced
to mademoiselle, or I will go without wasting more words on thee to the
château."

"It was thus," muttered Marcille, as he stood, still panting for breath,
and with head thrust forward, as if he were awaiting a blow.  "We
journeyed in safety through the forest, but as we neared the château,
who should come running towards us, with wide eyes and mouth agape, but
the honest fool, Job Alloadec, brother to the pretty Marie.  ’Nay,
mistress,’ he cried, barring our progress, ’go no step forwards, for
naught but evil awaits thee,’ and, so saying, he fell a-sobbing like any
foolish maid, so that his sister was fain to upbraid him roundly, and
bid him tell his news in brief. But that was more than the good Jobik
could essay, and it was some time ere we could gather from his tale what
had chanced, and even then ’twas but a tale’s shadow.  The Sieur de
Mereac, it appeared, had been ill at ease all day, but towards nightfall
he had seemed calmer and bade all a good night’s rest as he retired.
But scarcely had the midnight hour struck than the great bell pealed
forth a summons for all to assemble, and behold, there, in the hall,
stood Monsieur de Coray, dressed and cloaked, with his sister, Pierre
the fool, and Jeanne Dubois beside him. His face, the good Job added,
was bent in a terrible frown, and as he spake to those around it grew
still sterner.  But for his words, monsieur, Job saith they were ten
thousand times more terrible than his face, for he bade the retainers
hear of how their master, whose sickness they had all watched with so
much dread, had been seized with a fit, and that Father Ambrose, who was
with him, despaired of his very life; then with smooth words and
well-simulated horror and indignation, he told of how this sickness was
the work of witchcraft, and of how such witchcraft, to the incredible
dismay of his sister and himself, had been proved beyond all doubt to
have been practised by Gwennola de Mereac, their mistress and
châtelaine. And at his words there was a confusion of voices, for some
cried this, and some that, and some called for death to the witch who
had slain their master, and some that it was false and that the
demoiselle was an angel of light and not of darkness.  But the answer of
Monsieur de Coray—or rather I will say, Monsieur le Diable—was that all
should be proved, and bade two of the maidens go with Jeanne Dubois to
their mistress’s room and fetch thither the lady and her waiting-woman,
Marie Alloadec.  On hearing which, Job came in haste to tell the news
and to warn us of the danger ere we set foot in the château."

"And mademoiselle?" muttered d’Estrailles hoarsely.

Marcille groaned.  "Alas, monsieur!" he said. "Mademoiselle has the
courage of a man.  She stood there, in the darkness, so that we who were
near could scarce see her face; but her voice was steady and calm as she
replied that, though she thanked the good Job with all her heart, her
place was there, in the hall of the Château, to prove her innocence of
the foul crime of which she had been so maliciously accused, and if
possible to save her brother from the cruel clutches of his false
friends.  In vain Marie entreated her, whilst I also could not refrain
from showing the many dangers to which she might be exposed; but she
would not be shaken from her purpose by tears or warnings, protesting
that a maid’s innocence and honour were dearer to her than life itself,
and that she would uphold them before the bitterest foes, knowing that
God would not forsake her cause.  Nevertheless, monsieur, she did not
forget you, but bade me conceal myself in safety and return with the
first streak of light to bid you escape before the cunning of your
enemies discovered you; for well did she guess that soft-footed
treachery must have long crept in her shadow.  Also did she strive to
persuade Marie to seek safety in flight with Job; for if the charge of
witchcraft were truly brought against her, there might be much danger
for her too, seeing that such fiends would be little likely to spare the
torture they were at liberty to inflict in the hopes of wringing a false
confession from lips which writhed in agony till twisted to their will.
But the brave Marie was also firm, declaring that if her mistress were
to die she would die with her, for it would be impossible that she
should forsake her; but, as at length we went forward, she bade me wait
close there by the river side, and that before dawn she would contrive
to bring or send me news of her lady’s case and her own.  Therefore,
monsieur, in much fear I waited, for it is little to an honest man’s
liking to thus skulk in safety behind trees when perchance the maid he
loves is in danger of her life; but I knew it was no work then for
muscles, but for wisdom, and so with sore heart I lay watching for dawn;
and in due time from the shadow of the Château walls there stole forth a
man who came swiftly to where I waited, and I perceived that it was once
more the good friend Job, though by his distraught appearance I augured
ill even before he spake.  And ill it was, such ill that methought hell
itself must be already yawning for the plotters of such villainy; for it
appeared that they were clever, these devils, so clever that the plight
of mademoiselle and the little Marie was terrible indeed.  It was
already rumoured throughout the Château that Monsieur de Mereac was
dead; and whether that were the case or not, Monsieur de Coray assumed
very speedily his place, whilst the false demoiselle his sister, with
the black-browed wench her maiden, and Pierre the fool, whose neck
should long since have been wrung, told their lying tale.  Ah! how he
wept, the poor Job, monsieur, as he repeated it!  Such a ring of evil,
cruel faces, said he, full of Satan’s own malice, and opposite them the
Demoiselle de Mereac, beautiful, calm, innocent as an angel, looking at
these her accusers with the proud scorn of a noble lady who sees the
canaille howling execrations at her from below. And yet, calm and
innocent as she was, even she blanched to hear the foul lies with which
these slanderers blackened her fair name, and to see with what skill
they had plotted for her life.  It was the lying wench Jeanne Dubois who
brought the first false statements against her, speaking of voices she
had heard talking at midnight in mademoiselle’s closet, of weird
laughter and chantings and such-like foolishness, till even de Coray
himself cut her short, seeing the discontent on the faces of the men
around, who looked, Job said, little pleased to see their young mistress
in such a plight, and on such slender grounds. But the next to speak was
the devil’s imp Pierre the fool; and when he told of the Brown Friar
with whom the lady talked and walked at midnight by the chapel, there
were many who looked askance and crossed themselves.  But no word spoke
mademoiselle herself, only standing there in all the purity and pride of
her innocence, facing her accusers with contempt. But it was now the
turn of Mademoiselle de Coray herself, and, as she spoke to those
gathered around, even the heart of Job himself sank, for the very tones
of her voice possessed the fascination which engenders belief.  In
mournful tones she dwelt on the love she had possessed not only for
Monsieur de Mereac, but for his sister also; of how sorrow had filled
her heart at the sudden and mysterious sickness which had laid so low
the one to whom she was already betrothed; of Mademoiselle Gwennola’s
strange behaviour; of her own suspicions; of her scorn, however, of
Jeanne’s allegations and the story of Pierre the fool until she had
proved the truth for herself.  In a few vivid words she pictured the
meeting of mademoiselle with you, monsieur, declaring you to be the
agent of evil by whose aid she worked her hideous spells; the horror of
her lover at discovering also for himself the infamous dealings of his
sister; his fierce denunciation of her, and command that she should be
brought to death, ere a fresh seizure robbed him of speech and, she
feared, of life. Finally, amidst the murmured execrations from those
around, she produced a small waxen figure, bearing a vague resemblance
to Monsieur de Mereac, which had apparently been partly melted before a
fire, and which she declared had been discovered in the accused’s own
chamber.  Yet in spite of the loud murmurs of horror and loathing which
now rilled the hall, Mademoiselle Gwennola flinched not at all.  ’I am
innocent,’ she said once, loudly and clearly.  ’May our Lord and Lady
forgive you, Diane and Guillaume de Coray, for the false tale you have
brought against me.’  But Mademoiselle Diane only laughed, pointing to
the black hood and cloak which were damp with night dews.  ’A lie!’ she
cried in mockery, so that Job would fain have struck her down as she
stood there, mouthing and grinning.  ’A lie, sayest thou?—witch and
murderess that thou art.  Whence comest thou, then, honest maiden, with
the dews of night around thee, instead of from thy slumbers?  Thy
chamber was empty when they went to search for thee, and anon thou
comest to us fresh from thy unholy revels, and darest thus to upbraid me
with a lie!  Nay! thou canst not thus hope to hoodwink justice, girl,
with the signs of thy guilt clinging around thee, or turn outraged love
from its righteous vengeance!’  But mademoiselle replied not at all,
only drawing her cloak more closely around her, as if to guard her
secret the safer; and truly, as Job said, the words of Mademoiselle de
Coray savoured of truth to those who knew not the sequel."

"Alas! alas!" cried d’Estrailles passionately, "why was I not there to
proclaim that truth? Better a hundred deaths than that one breath of
such shame should soil the purity of such a maiden’s honour!  But it is
not too late,—fool that I was to delay!  Let us hasten then, quickly,
Jean, and tell to these foolish ones the truth."

"Nay, master," said Marcille, laying a detaining hand on his master’s
arm; "methinks ’twould little benefit the lady to run your head into a
sure and certain noose.  Moreover, even so the charge would still stand
good, so craftily have they contrived it. Besides, already are the poor
demoiselle and the pretty Marie on their way to Martigue under the
escort of Monsieur de Coray himself, who declared that ere dawn they
should be delivered to justice."

"To justice?" echoed d’Estrailles, whilst his eyes stared in horror
before him, as if he were indeed viewing already the dread picture which
the significant words brought before him.  "To justice?"

"Ay," groaned Marcille with a sob; "they would fain burn her as a witch,
my master; and alas! perchance also the little Marie beside her,—devils
that they are!"

But Henri d’Estrailles had as yet scarcely grasped the full import of
the stunning blow which had fallen so swiftly upon the sweetness of
love’s dream.  As vaguely as Yvon de Mereac himself he repeated the
words to himself, "Gwennola a witch!—to be burnt as a witch!—She!"  His
voice choked in a sudden wild rush of emotion and fury, as his
imagination conjured up the terrible picture of his beloved standing
alone and helpless amongst her enemies. He could see her, ah! so
vividly, with her proud, girlish figure drawn to the utmost of its
slender height, and the great, blue eyes challenging haughtily her false
accusers,—those eyes which had so short a time ago looked with love and
tenderness into his, and which—Holy Mother of God shield him from the
thought!—might ere long be staring in the agony of death from amidst the
smoke and flames of the cruel stake.

But, though his blood leapt madly in his veins to ride in all the
strength of his love and anger and wrench her single-handed from her
enemies’ hands, he knew the thought was too hopeless, such a scheme so
impossible that it would but seal afresh her doom. Yes!—doom!  For full
well he knew how inexorably it was written already; well he knew that
with such evidence to hand there would be short shrift for the noblest
or the fairest, more especially with the powerful hand of the new Sieur
de Mereac behind to push his victim forwards to the flames awaiting her.
The situation was indeed desperate.  So closely were the threads of the
web woven that there was no breaking them.  Did he come forward and
reveal the identity of the Brown Friar, there would still be the deadly
evidence of the waxen image and the unaccountable and mysterious death
of Yvon de Mereac. Clear as the plot of de Coray was to him, its very
boldness rendered the plotter’s position impregnable, and all
d’Estrailles might expect to gain by attempting to disclose his rival’s
perfidy and murderous schemes was the death of a French spy caught
wandering in disguise within the borders of Brittany.

Only one last desperate hope there seemed, and to this hope he turned
with the energy of despair.  He would ride to Rennes with all speed,
where, close to the city, lay the passive armies of the King of France.
Seeking his master, the Count Dunois, he would pray to be allowed to
take a body of French troops wherewith to ride to Martigue in the hopes
that by threats, backed with military power, he might induce the
authorities to deliver up their prisoners.  A wild hope, so wild that he
dared not glance too closely at its shadowy outline; yet the only one to
which he might cling in his extremity.

"Farewell, Marcille," he cried, as, doffing robe and cowl, he sprang
into his saddle.  "Nay, my friend, I will not take thee, and short time
I ween is there for instructions.  All I can bid thee is to watch, and
should immediate peril threaten thy lady, ride with loose rein towards
Rennes.  Thou shalt find me on the road, I warrant; and can I not beg a
company from Dunois, I will e’en steal one, for, by the faith of a
French knight, I swear to save her!"

But there were tears in the eyes of Jean Marcille as he watched his
impetuous young master’s retreating form, as with spurs struck deep into
his horse’s sides Henri d’Estrailles galloped madly away, over the heath
where the morning mists still hung heavily.

"Alas!" he sighed, as he turned back towards the forest, "it is of no
avail; and not only mademoiselle, but also the little Marie will perish;
and for me there will be nothing left but revenge."



                              *CHAPTER XX*


The wizard Lefroi lived alone in his little hut in the forest of Arteze.
It was very lonely, that hut, and within it had an appearance altogether
execrable. But that was the purpose of his trade; for, what! you would
not go to inquire into mysteries from the grave, or seek means of
conveying your enemies to the latter, in a parlour clean and bright and
orderly, with the pure sunshine of heaven pouring in through the
windows, and perchance flowers of purity and innocence blooming within?
No! the abode of sorcery and evil must necessarily be dim and gloomy,
with the usual accessories of the trade surrounding one.  The hut of old
Lefroi was not lacking in this way.  The light of a taper burnt low and
dim indeed that wild November night, as the wizard bent, absorbed, over
his nocturnal incantations.  He was wise, this old man, with the wisdom
of many ages, learnt, some said, from his master the devil, and others
that he had been taught by some of those wandering Bohemians and
sorcerers who were so often to be met with at that time in France.
These sons of Egypt had been kindly treated in the little forest hut,
and for reward they had imparted to the owner, it was affirmed, not only
knowledge of the stars, but the secrets of many wonderful and deadly
drugs which were found often so useful by old Lefroi’s customers, and
did not always partake of the nature of love-philtres.  Perhaps he was
even now decocting some of his noxious draughts as he bent over his
crucible, for his wizened old face was drawn together into a twisted
mockery of a smile, which gave it still more the appearance of crinkled
parchment. His costume was effective, being a long, loose wrapper
embellished with numerous quaint cabalistic signs and hieroglyphics.  On
his head he wore the usual skull-cap; whilst by his side perched the
familiar black cat, whose purrings played a suitable accompaniment to
the bubbling of the pot into which a huge black raven peered with
curious eyes from her master’s shoulder.  Altogether the picture was a
familiar one, such as might have been seen in any abode of those
jugglers and quacks of the age who practised the occult science and grew
rich on the superstitions of the ignorant.

A tap at the wooden door roused the old man from his absorbing
occupation, and with a muttered curse he hobbled across to withdraw the
bolt and peer out into the darkness.

The visitor, however, waited for no invitation to enter, but pushed in
almost rudely, as if fearing that the owner of the hut might wish to
refuse admittance. It was a woman, who lost no time in flinging back her
hood and facing her companion.

"I am Diane de Coray," she said briefly, "and have been sent in haste by
my brother, whom you know, old man, to ask of you the antidote for the
poison you gave to him some time since."

Lefroi peered curiously into the pale, beautiful face which looked down
so anxiously into his.  Then he nodded.

"It is very well," he observed shrewdly, "it is very well; but how am I
to know, fair mistress, that you are indeed she whose name you give, for
in truth you resemble monsieur, your noble brother, not at all?"

"Fool!" she cried impatiently, "I swear to you I am Diane de Coray—is
that sufficient?  Give me the antidote quickly, else it will be too
late."

Still he eyed her furtively, hesitating to do her will.

"Indeed, I know not of what you speak, mistress," he whined at length.
"Poison?  I know of no poison.  A love-philtre, mistress—a love-philtre
or the prediction of the horoscope now——"

"Have done!" she cried angrily, and he noted the gleam of despair in her
eyes.  "Have done, old foolish one; I have no time to lose, and well
thou knowest of what I speak: the poison that was to be administered
drop by drop, which was so slowly yet so surely to do its work.  What!
should I know all this were I not indeed the sister of the man to whom
you gave it?"

"But wherefore," he questioned, half convinced and yet still doubtful,
"wherefore doth the noble lord require an antidote?  Was the draught too
slow, or too quick? did it not fulfil its purpose as I predicted?"

"Ay! but too surely," cried the girl, with a shudder.  "But there is yet
time, old man; quick, give me the antidote, and thou shalt have
gold—yes, gold."

She drew forth a bag as she spoke, and in the dim light the wizard’s
keen eyes sparkled as he caught the gleam of the glittering coins.  Yet
still he held back another instant.

"Gold cannot purchase the secrets of life," he muttered with a grin.

"Can it not?" she pleaded, and in a moment was kneeling on the grimy
floor pouring forth a stream of golden coins on to the seat near her.

The temptation was strong, yet its very strength made him hesitate
again.

"But wherefore dost thou need the antidote?" he persisted.  "And how
know I that it is thy brother who sent thee?  If there be a trick in
this, he will have his revenge upon me, who am but a poor, innocent old
man who——"

"Innocent!" she cried, rising to her feet; then changing her scornful
tones, she turned a pleading face towards her companion.

"I swear to thee that there is no trick, I swear by all the saints in
heaven, or"—she added bitterly as she noted the suspicion in his eye—"by
all the devils of hell, if that be an oath more in keeping with this
abode."

He laughed softly, turning a tender eye on the gold, then on the face
above it, finally on the closed door.

As if divining a menace in the glance, the girl placed her hand within
her dress, and the ominous glitter of steel warned the man that this was
no occasion for foul play, did he meditate such.

"Nay," he said, as if suddenly yielding to the temptation which lay
glittering before him, "I will trust thee, maiden; thou shalt have the
phial.  But the price is high."

He repeated the last words softly, glancing again from her face to the
pile of gold.

"Gold!" she cried, flinging the word from her in scorn; "yes, you shall
have gold—see, more gold than this,—much more; I have it here,—only
hasten, hasten, else it will be too late."

He watched her with greedy eyes as she poured forth more money upon the
already goodly pile.  No leather money this, the impoverished coin of an
impoverished land—but good gold,—French gold, warm-hued and glittering.

"And so he still liveth," quoth the wizard slowly, as he bent once more
over his crucible.  "I had heard—nay, what matter what I heard?  The
wind singeth strange songs in yon sere branches, and the night owls
bring many a false tale.  And so he lives?—and you, fair lady, are glad
that death hath not yet taken him from your warm embrace?  Ah! it is
good to love in youth.  See, once also I was young too, and I remember;
that is why I prepare here my love-charms for the young and joyous,
although for me the branches of the forest bear no green leaves and my
arms are empty."

But Diane de Coray made no reply to the mocking words, only standing
there, pale and fear-stricken, yet with a defiance in her dark eyes
which seemed to challenge death itself to mortal combat.

"Love and hate," maundered the old man, half to himself, as he stirred
the drugs he held in a tiny crystal bowl; "love and hate, love and hate,
they are strong masters, mistress, strong masters, and lead by strange
paths.  It is I who know—aha! who so well?  There have been secrets
whispered in these ears—have they not, my Pedro?  Yes, such secrets as
might well blanch those fair cheeks yonder; but she shall not hear—no,
no, for secrets have their price. Yes, a goodly price!"

The raven croaked dismally, as if in reply to its master’s words, and
rubbed its beak against the skull-cap in weird caress; whilst the cat,
as though jealous, rose, purring, to push her sleek body against his
legs.  But Diane’s eyes were fixed only on the dark drops of liquid
which, with steady hand, were being slowly poured into the phial.

"It is ready," said Lefroi, as he handed it to her. "Tell thy noble
brother that I send it with my most humble salutations.  Also, if later
thou requirest a love-potion for thine own use, sweet maiden, thou wilt
not forget Henri Lefroi, the magician."

"Forget," muttered the girl hysterically.  "Forget!"  She said no more,
but seizing the phial eagerly, drew her cloak around her, quitting the
hut with no further word of thanks or farewell.



                             *CHAPTER XXI*


"He lives?" whispered a soft voice, which trembled nevertheless with
fear.

Father Ambrose raised a grave, anxious face, looking with some surprise
into the pale one bent close beside him.  But Diane de Coray’s eyes were
looking not at him for answer, but at the drawn, white face which lay
back amongst the cushions of the great bed.  There were ominous blue
lines round the closed mouth and under the sunken eyes, whilst one
burning spot of colour on each cheek but intensified their pallor.  It
was the face of a man who hovers on the brink of death, and already the
curls which lay thick on the white forehead were damp with the death
sweat, whilst the thin hands which strayed aimlessly over the coverlet
plucked at it from time to time, as if some spasm contracted them.

"He lives," replied the Benedictine mournfully; "but already, daughter,
is his soul winged for flight. Leave him in peace, so that, if
consciousness return ere the last, his thoughts may be fixed rather on
the confession of his sins and the eternal love to which he goes forth
than to the perishing flame of human passion."

But Diane shrank back no whit at the reproof, or the priest’s cold
manner.

"Nay," she cried piteously, "he shall not die, father; see, I,—I have
prayed to the holy saints, and it shall be that they will save him."

"Hush, my daughter," said Father Ambrose, in a sterner tone.  "Rebel not
at the Divine Will, nor bring in opposition to it thine own unavailing
and perishing love.  Yvon de Mereac is dying, and no power of thine
shall prevail to drag him back from the grave to which he hastens."

"Will it not?" she cried softly, and the light of challenge and defiance
which had shone in her eyes in the wizard’s hut brightened them again,
as they met the rebukeful glance of the priest.  Then, changing her tone
to one of gentle pleading, "Father," she cried, "forgive one who is mad
belike for very grief; and yet I pray thee not to say that Yvon shall
die by the will of Heaven; for, see, he shall live in answer to my
prayers.  I——" her voice faltered—"I,—I have here a draught given me by
a skilled and learned leech—a very elixir of life, father;—give it to
him now,—now, ere it be too late, and truly thou shalt prove the truth
of my words."

The old man took the tiny phial, gazing suspiciously the while from it
to the pale, agonized face near his own. "Daughter," he said solemnly,
"what meaneth this? Whence came this phial?"

"Nay, ask me not," she cried passionately, "but give it to him,
now,—now!  See, his eyes unclose, he knows me!  Yvon!  Yvon!"

The blue eyes of the sick man shone faintly with the light of
recognition; then, even as she sank on her knees beside the bed, closed
heavily again.

"Delay not, delay not, father!" cried the girl imploringly, "or it will
be too late.  See, he gasps for breath! he,—nay, he _shall_ have it,"
and snatching the phial from the Benedictine’s fingers, she raised
Yvon’s head and poured a few drops of the contents down his throat.
Then, with a sigh, she let the sick man sink back amongst the supporting
cushions, and turned with flushed face to meet the priest’s stern look.

"Daughter," he said slowly, "what hast thou done?"

The accusing note rang out sharply in the quiet chamber, and
involuntarily Diane glanced towards the bed; but the sufferer stirred
not—even the restless fingers were still, his breathing came already
more easily.

"He will live!" cried Diane, clasping her hands; "he will live, father!"

But Father Ambrose replied not; instead, he was looking with curious,
thoughtful eyes into the half-emptied phial which the girl had yielded
into his outstretched hand.  But whatever the thoughts that stirred in
the old man’s brain, they were at present too intangible to resolve into
words; the shadow of suspicion was too vague, his mind in too chaotic a
whirl, for him to realize what this strange happening portended.  He,
the friend of the little Gwennola, who had loved her from a child with
an affection almost paternal, had long watched with concern and
suspicion the machinations of this woman against his darling. But with
regard to her dealings with Yvon he was more perplexed; from the first
he had doubted her love for the young Sieur de Mereac, and readily
guessed that she acted a part under the influence of her brother. As for
that brother, it is to be confessed that there was little of the spirit
of charity in the gentle old man’s breast towards this man whose
presence had proved ever so baneful to those under whose roof he lived,
and who had won his love.  It was the same natural repulsion of a human
creature to some gliding, treacherous snake, which he watched in fear
and suspicion, knowing that where the reptile coils most lovingly around
its object it is but in preparation to strike a fatal blow.  And now the
blow had fallen, but so unexpectedly that it seemed impossible that it
should have been struck by the serpent in question. That Gwennola was
innocent Father Ambrose would have staked his soul; but who was the
guilty, if guilty one there were?  Was not this illness, perhaps, rather
the finger of Heaven?  Puzzled and bewildered by the very contrariety of
his thoughts, this fresh development completely mystified the good man.
If this woman were guilty of the apparently wanton act of poisoning her
lover, wherefore this distress, this simulated agony of love and
devotion?  As for the draught, what was it?  A fresh potion from the
sorcerer?  A love-philtre? or what?  Did it bring death or healing with
the quaffing?  His experienced eye saw, to its infinite surprise, that
already a change had stolen over his patient.  The drawn, pinched look
had gone; the blue lines, around lips, nose, and eyes, were fading into
a more healthful white; the breathing was more regular and less
laboured.  And, whilst still wondering at the apparent miracle, Father
Ambrose turned to speak to his strange visitor, behold! her place was
empty, and he heard the soft swish of the tapestry curtain as it fell
again into its place.

There was a smile on the lips of Diane de Coray as, a few hours later,
she stood gazing out of her window in the chamber which had been set
aside for her use.  She was meditating deeply, it would seem, on things
pleasant and joyful, for she did not hear the door softly open, nor was
she aware that she was no longer alone till a hand grasped her shoulder.

"Guillaume!" she cried, facing him with the rich colour surging swiftly
to her cheeks; but it had faded again, leaving them the paler by
contrast, before he spoke.

"It is I, Diane."

"So I may well see for myself," she laughed, but the laugh flickered a
little tremulously as her eyes fell before his.

"He is not dead," he said in a low, menacing tone; "what means it,
Diane?"

"Means it?" she echoed vaguely.  "What should it mean?  Perchance the
drug was less potent than Lefroi told thee, or Yvon too strong to
succumb beneath its power."

"Thou knowest it is neither," he hissed.  "Traitress and fool that thou
art, but now Father Ambrose told me, with shrewd looks of suspicion,
that the noble Sieur lay at the point of death, but that, since he had
partaken of a draught given him by the lady, my sister, he had rallied
in a manner truly miraculous."

She laughed merrily and stood there defying him, seeing that concealment
of her act was useless.

"And the old man speaks truth," she cried gaily; "I have saved him—saved
him!  Ah! thanks be to the holy saints that I have done so!—saved him,
Guillaume, my brother!  And wherefore? askest thou.  Why, because I love
him—love him with all my heart and soul; because riches,
greatness—all—would be nothing to me if he lay cold and silent in the
grave.  Dost thou not understand?  Cannot thy cold heart learn what such
love is?—what fires it kindles in the breast, what passion it arouses?
Nay!  I care little for thy anger—I love him, I tell thee."

"Fool!" he snarled, "and thrice times fool for thy pains!  Dost think
that I shall be balked by thy puling fancy, now, on the eve of all my
plans’ fulfilment?  Love! ay, perchance I also know the flame that burns
within, and which shall consume all else which stands as barrier to its
fulfilment.  But to compare my love with thine——!"  He broke off with a
scornful laugh, changing his tone to one of cold sarcasm.

"And so thou lovest him, this weak fool whom thou plottedst to destroy?
Nay, blanch not, but picture to thyself how great will be his love to
thee when he knoweth the truth!  Picture to yourself his rage, his
despair, his agony, when he learns that his sister perished in
innocence, and the woman who dragged her to the stake, the woman whose
arms clung around his neck, whose warm kisses were passed to his lips,
whose siren tongue whispered of faith and devotion, was also the one to
pour into the betrothal cup the deadly drops that should send the proud
bridegroom to keep festival with Death!"

She covered her face with her hands, shuddering.

"Would he love thee?" mocked Guillaume de Coray; "would his arms again
seek to clasp so foul a bride to his heart?  Would he woo thy kisses to
his lips when the death-cries of his sister rang in his ears?"

"But it is not yet too late," cried Diane passionately. "Alas! alas! my
sin hath been great,—the sin which thou didst conceive, cruel demon that
thou art; but I will yet save her—I will tell all,—all; and it may be
that he will forgive me, even though he cannot love me again."

"Not so," replied de Coray softly, as with a sudden spring he caught her
in his arms; "not so, fair lady. Nay, struggle not with me, else will it
be the worse for thee."  And, clasping her with one arm, he placed his
hand before her mouth, bearing, or rather dragging, her towards the bed
as he did so.  She was powerless in his grasp, and after a few vain
attempts to free herself lay passive as he gagged and bound her.

"So," he said softly, as he stood over her, meeting the helpless glare
of her eyes with a mocking smile, "thy wings are clipped for the
present, my bird.  So thou thoughtest to cross the path of thy dear and
well-beloved brother, didst thou, sweetest maiden? Alas!  I fear me
’twas rash—too rash.  Adieu, little one, adieu!  All will, I am assured,
regret to hear of the sudden and dangerous sickness of mademoiselle; it
will be altogether clear to them that she has been bewitched—alas! poor
maid!  In the meantime I must bid thee rest, Diane; thou art weary—so
weary. ’Tis too long and too perilous a walk for one so tender and so
innocent, to Henri Lefroi’s hut,—fie on thee for so forward and
unmaidenly an undertaking! What wouldst have done hadst thou met the
Brown Friar himself?  Nevertheless, I will not distract thee with
reproaches, but will leave thee to thy orisons, or perchance to still
sweeter meditations,—of thy lover, it may be, or of thy brother.  In the
meantime, have no fear that the dear Yvon shall miss thy tender care; I
will myself usurp thy place for very love’s sake. Ah!  I will tend him
right well, my Diane; he also shall have rest, such peace and rest!
Slumber is good for the sick, say the leeches; therefore he shall
sleep—so long, so well, I fear me it will need warmer kisses than thine,
my sister, to rouse him again.  But I go at once, for it seemeth that
thou carest little for my presence.  Take comfort, for I swear none
shall disturb thee, not even the worthy Jeanne, and anon I will myself
bring thee food and wine; for if in truth thou art bewitched, the evil
spirit may not leave thee till the hot flames have devoured her who had
so ill a will upon thee."

With a sinking and agonized heart the unhappy girl saw the mocker turn
away, heard the bolts shoot back into their places, and knew that she
was as close a prisoner as any who languished in dungeon cell.

"Yvon!—Yvon!—Yvon!"  It was the dumb cry of pain and terror which surged
within her so helplessly, so passionately.  Bound and gagged as she lay,
she could neither move nor cry aloud; and, in the midst of all her
agony, came the fatal intuition that even now, once again, death would
be awaiting her lover.  Terrible hours those; the limits of human
endurance stretched to their utmost on the rack, not only of love’s
fears but the crudest torture of remorse. Vividly there came before the
eyes of Diane de Coray the picture of her life,—a picture so sad, so
melancholy, so pathetic, that the tears of self-pity and sympathy
splashed down her pale cheeks.

An orphan from earliest youth, she had been left under the guardianship
of a brother little fitted to govern so tender a maid.  Himself the tool
of an infamous scoundrel, his friends were little likely to be fitting
companions to a young girl of gentle birth; and so Diane had grown up
amidst wild and reckless surroundings, courted and flattered for her
beauty and sparkling wit by men with whom she should never have been
associated.  For friends of her own sex she had neither taste nor
inclination; and, of the few she possessed, one had so ill an influence
over her as had successfully placed her in her brother’s power.
Ignorant girl that she was, she had yet shrunk back appalled from the
practice of the black art of which she was invited to be a devotee; but,
even in escaping from the peril, the smirch of contamination had
sufficiently soiled the whiteness of her honour to lead her to believe
that her brother, if he chose, might denounce her as a witch.

And so terrible had been the thought, that she had been willing to
accede to any command of his which would insure his silence.  Brought up
to regard lightly all sorts of treachery, the plan conceived by de Coray
for his own enrichment and revenge struck her with no pangs of horror,
and she had started on her journey comparatively light of heart.  But
all had fallen out so strangely beyond her expectations.  The gentle,
tender Yvon de Mereac, with his weak, wavering will, but chivalrous
heart, had by degrees inflamed her with a passion hitherto unknown. From
contempt at first had sprung pity, and, from pity, love itself; not the
calm, sweet love of the smoothly-flowing stream, but the mad, tumultuous
rush of the mountain torrent, which sweeps aside all obstructions, and
dashing blindly over rocks and boulders flings itself with exhausted
passion into the deep, still pool below.  The mutual dislike between
Gwennola and herself had risen, on her own part, from inborn jealousy.
She hated instantly this proud, pure girl who had never looked on
temptations such as had beset her path, or been lured into such danger
as had nearly ended in her own destruction; and as she met the glance of
the clear, blue eyes it seemed that Gwennola must read, perforce, her
guilty secret.  Yet she had hardened herself against shame or the first
mysterious whisperings of her own heart.  Goaded by Gwennola’s cold
contempt, she had for long continued to do her brother’s will, and it
was only the rush of the last few days’ terrible events that had opened
her eyes to the intensity of her passion, and inspired her with the
resolution to save her lover at all risks—ay! even at the price of her
own life; even,—and this was hardest of all,—even at the risk of losing
for ever the love which had grown so precious a thing.  And now,—now
when she had seen hope burst radiant and glorious upon the darkness of
night—hope, love, and life itself seemed as suddenly quenched; and all
that she could do was to moan forth short, agonized prayers for succour,
in her despair, to Him Who alone could still protect the doomed house of
Mereac.



                             *CHAPTER XXII*


The chamber in which Diane de Coray lay had grown light at last,—light,
at least, as the grey dawn of a November day could make it as it crept
through the narrow slits which served as windows.  Yet there were
shadows everywhere; she could see them as she moved her weary eyes to
look through the opening where her brother’s hand had rudely torn aside
the bed hangings.  Half-fainting with suffocation and the strain on her
over-burdened heart, she felt no throb of surprise or fear as she saw
the feeble light swiftly blotted out by a dark-robed figure.  Yet, as
the figure moved, coming quickly to her side with a low exclamation of
horror, her senses began to return to her, and her eyes looked up in
joyful recognition to meet the stern but puzzled glance of Father
Ambrose.

"Daughter," said the old man gravely, "what meaneth this?"

He had severed her bonds and removed the gag, helping the poor girl,
whose limbs at first were cramped and useless, to raise herself into a
sitting posture.

For reply Diane stared vaguely into the troubled eyes bent upon her; her
brain was cramped too with the long agony of those terrible hours, but
at last comprehension slowly returned as the stinging blood began once
more to circulate in her numbed members.

"How came you hither, father?" she questioned faintly, staring from her
unexpected visitor to the closely barred door.

"Suffice that I am here," was the enigmatical reply.  "Yet time presses,
daughter, and I must have an answer to my question.  Alas! it may even
now be too late!"

"Too late?" she echoed, a fresh fear striking its chill to her heart.
"Nay, tell me, father—he lives?—he is better?—he will recover?"

"I spake not of Yvon de Mereac," said the priest in a stifled tone, "but
of the pure and innocent maid, his sister, who hath been condemned
falsely by wicked men, to suffer death at noon; and yet," he added
slowly, fixing a piercing glance on Diane’s pale face,—"I can see
already that there lieth much behind this.  Speak, maiden, without
delay—confess all thou knowest of this plot, and save thy soul from the
blood of the innocent."

"To die!" whispered Diane slowly; "to die!"

On the instant the whole picture of her guilt flared before her eyes,
and the words of her brother rang in her ears: "Picture to yourself his
rage, his despair, his agony, when he learns that his sister perished in
innocence, and the woman who dragged her to the stake, the woman whose
warm kisses were pressed to his lips, whose siren tongue whispered of
faith and devotion, was also the one to pour into the betrothal cup the
deadly drops that should send the proud bridegroom to keep festival with
Death."

"To die!" she cried again, flinging out her hands as if in supplication
to the priest, who stood there stern, grave, and immovable.  "To
die!—and for my sin!  Merciful Virgin, Mother of Help! save her!—save
her!—for she is innocent!"

She had sunk on to the ground at the old man’s feet, at the last words,
and, clinging to his robe, sobbed out her terrible confession.  In the
remorse and shame of her agony she hid nothing; and as he listened,
Father Ambrose’s stern face relaxed into a softer expression of pity.

"Daughter," he said gently, as he raised the weeping girl from the
floor, "Daughter, be of good comfort; to one also who had greatly sinned
were words of pardon spoken for love’s sake, and it may be that
repentance hath not come too late.  But," he added, his face hardening,
"we may not delay; come, child—see, I will trust thee to play thy part
in the salvation, not only of the innocent, but of the man whom thou
lovest.  Come speedily, for it may be that that man of blood and
treachery,—upon whose soul shall rest the curse of God and whose
damnation shall be quick,—may come hither to bring thee food.  But we
shall yet escape the snare and pluck the innocent lamb in time from the
cruel death prepared for her."

As he spoke he was supporting the weeping Diane across the room,
pressing back an unseen door, cunningly secreted from view in the shape
of a sliding panel, through which he passed, still guiding her carefully
as they descended a winding, spiral stair which led downwards to another
part of the château.

"Child," he said again softly, as they paused, close to the tapestry
curtain which separated them from Yvon’s room—"child, the way of
repentance is no easy one.  Confession must be made, not only to God,
the Judge of all, but to him whom thou hast so injured, and against whom
thou plannedst this ill.  I leave to thee this task, so terrible yet so
necessary, weak and sick though he be, for the sake of one whose life I
go to save, if the will of the Lord and our Lady permit it, as I well
wot shall be, seeing that they ever guard the innocent from the snares
of the evil-doers."

"But it will kill him," moaned Diane; "it will kill him, father!  Oh!
say that I may wait until he grows stronger,—then I will confess
all—yes, all, even to the uttermost!"

But the priest shook his head.

"Confession must be made without delay," he said gravely.  "Thou thyself
mayest well see the necessity, daughter; for, weak and sick though he
be, Yvon de Mereac must know the truth of his sister’s innocence, and
also the guilt and evil intentions of the man who hath thus plotted
against his life and who hath but used thee, poor maid, as his tool.
But delay not, for I may not linger with the sweet voice of Gwennola
calling me to hasten to her deliverance."

With a sob, Diane yielded to the old man’s will, and with trembling
fingers raised the curtain and entered her lover’s room.

He was lying there, still, amongst his cushions; but even in those few,
short hours the change in the emaciated face was marvellous.  It was no
longer the face of a dying man, drawn, blue-hued, and pinched with
suffering.  Haggard and gaunt still, yet the eyes which met Diane’s were
bright with recognition.

"Diane!  Diane!" he whispered; "fairest love, with what an aching heart
I have awaited thy coming! She is condemned, Diane—the little Gwennola
is condemned to death; and yet so fair a dream I had of her but
yesternight, for methought she was a child again, lily-crowned and
laughing, and that she ran to me, crying my name in joy, and, clinging
to my neck, pressed her flowers upon me, saying she had gathered them
for love’s sake; and her eyes looked into mine with so sweet a
tenderness that I awoke sobbing, calling to remembrance that she was a
witch who had striven for my death."

"No witch!" cried Diane, as she knelt, weeping, at his side; "no witch,
Yvon, but pure and innocent as the child of thy dreams.  Alas! alas!
that, for the sake of thy love for her, thy love for me must die; and
yet I am unworthy of it, unworthy of aught but thy hatred, thy loathing,
and thy scorn!"

"My hatred?" he whispered tenderly, whilst his feeble hands strayed
fondly towards the tresses of her bowed head.  "My hatred, little Diane?
That could never be, wert thou—wert thou—ah! all that thou art not, my
sweetest one!"

"Alas! alas! thou knowest not!" sobbed the girl. "Ah! the bitterness of
telling thee, Yvon!  Why may I not die the sooner, so that I shall not
look into thine eyes and see the scorn and loathing which thou must
needs feel towards a thing so foul?"

"Hush!" he whispered faintly, "thou shalt not say such words, Diane, my
adored."

The very tenderness of his speech, the quiver in his voice, made the
task more terrible; yet it had to be essayed, and with bowed head and
sobbing breath she faltered it forth.

When it was finished there was silence in the room. Outside the wind
moaned and shrieked; reproachful voices, they sounded, calling to those
within that that very day innocence was suffering for the guilty.  The
raindrops that splattered against the grey walls without seemed to be
fingers knocking for admittance, ghostly fingers which mocked and gibed
whilst the wind voices wept and lamented the louder.  And as she
listened, Diane de Coray crouched the lower in a very agony of
self-abasement and remorse, not daring to look up and find the eyes she
had learnt to love so passionately grow hard and cruel as love died
within them.

"Diane!"

The voice roused her, and in spite of her forebodings she slowly raised
her head.  The face on the pillows was deathly pale, and the poor lips
quivered piteously in their pain and horror; but the eyes—ah! those
eyes! love was not dead there, but so mortally wounded that his agony
was the more terrible to witness.

"Yvon!  Yvon!" she moaned.  "Ah! why may I not die?  Why may I not die?
I may not ask thee to forgive me, but oh! for the sake of our sweet Lady
of Pity, curse me not!"

"Curse thee?" he muttered faintly, "nay, myself the rather, seeing I
love thee still, and as truly as ever; and yet the little Gwennola——"

A smothered sob choked him, and Diane knew that though love stood there
calling to her with outstretched arms of forgiveness, there lay between
them the irrevocable shadow of a sister’s blood.

"Oh, merciful heavens!" she cried, clasping her hands, wringing them
together in a paroxysm of grief and entreaty, "grant that they may be in
time!"

"In time?" faintly whispered the sick man; "in time?"

"Ay," she sobbed, "ay, Yvon, there is yet a hope, for Father Ambrose and
Alain Fanchonic ride at full speed to Martigue to proclaim her
innocence."

"And—and thou hast told Father Ambrose all?" he murmured, and the thin
hand on the coverlet strayed once more nearer to the bent figure at his
side.

"All—all!" she cried passionately; "for thy sake, Yvon, for thy sake—and
for love’s!"

                     *      *      *      *      *

"For love’s sake!"  Yes, that was the goad which added wings to the good
horse’s feet as Alain Fanchonic, with Father Ambrose, seated on a
pillion behind him clasping the stalwart man-at-arm’s waist, rode forth
into the tempest which shrieked raging through the forest.  A wild ride,
with the wind beating in their faces, and dead leaves whirling in a very
hurricane around them; but neither of the two had thought for wind or
weather, for ever before their eyes stood the slender figure of a young
girl bound to a burning stake with arms outstretched in pleading, whilst
her voice cried to them to hasten to her aid.  It is true that Alain
Fanchonic, grandson of the old dame upon whom Gwennola so often bestowed
her bounty, had crossed himself in devout horror when he heard the story
of the Brown Friar and the waxen image; but so severely had his
grandmother upbraided him for his credulity in believing such slander
against one of Heaven’s own angels, that he had lived in a state of
doubt and horror during the few days which had elapsed since Gwennola’s
arrest and condemnation.  So that when Father Ambrose had come to him,
telling him to saddle Barbe, the fleetest mare in the stables, and ride
with him to Martigue to save his mistress and proclaim her innocence, he
had lost little time in complying, muttering curses and prayers alike,
whilst the tears ran down his brown cheeks as he sprang into the saddle,
and, with the good priest clinging on for dear life behind, dashed out,
across the drawbridge and away through the forest so madly that surely
Providence only could have upheld the grey mare’s feet as she sped along
the narrow, dangerous path. But not once did she stumble as she galloped
swiftly along, and Father Ambrose felt his heart beat with joy and
gladness as they gradually neared their goal. Yet not without
interruption were they thus to journey, for, as they rode, they were
startled suddenly by another horseman who leapt unexpectedly on to the
path before them.  It was Guillaume de Coray; and even as their glances
met, the old priest felt a thrill of wonderment as he saw the traitor’s
face.  It was not indeed that of a man who hastens from the scene of his
triumph, and the consummation of his hopes and plots, but rather that of
baffled hatred and anger.  His fierce gaze met the Benedictine’s for an
instant only, as he reined back his horse, which trembled as it stood
there, as if its master had spared it little in his ride.  Then, even
before either had time to speak, a blast of wind, sweeping through the
forest, brought one of the mighty trees close by to the ground with a
terrific crash.  The noise so near and so unexpected startled de Coray’s
horse; rearing on its hind legs, it pawed the ground in terror, then,
with a snort of fear it leapt forward so wildly as to unseat its rider,
who, flung heavily against one of the trees, lay senseless and bleeding
on the ground.

In a moment Father Ambrose was beside him; yet, even before he stooped
to examine the injured man’s hurts, he paused to address the
man-at-arms.

"Ride on with speed, Alain Fanchonic," he cried authoritatively; "spare
not thy steed, but ride for thy life, or rather for hers whom thou
lovest; save thy mistress, ere it be too late."

Without hesitation, the man plunged his spurs into the good horse’s
sides, quickly disappearing amongst the trees; and Father Ambrose was
left alone beside his unconsious enemy, struck down in the hour of his
vengeance by what, to the simple faith of the priest, was nothing less
than the finger of the Eternal Judge.



                            *CHAPTER XXIII*


It was a great day in the little town of Martigue, for they were out of
the world, here on the borders of the forest of Arteze, and life was
inclined to grow monotonous.  True, there were the festivals and
such-like mild excitements; but they could not bear comparison with the
burning of a witch in the marketplace.  And she was no ordinary witch,
see you, but a beautiful and high-born demoiselle, whose evil practices
no one had even dreamt of till they had been brought to light in so
wonderful a manner. And she had murdered her own brother!  Was it to be
conceived?  But it was terrible!—nevertheless, very interesting.  Some
said they did not believe it, and, that the new Sieur de Mereac was a
foul fiend himself, and Pierre the fool his attendant imp; but these
were only the foolish ones, for had it not been quickly proved, and
beyond all doubt, that this beautiful young witch had ofttimes attended
Satanic meetings yonder in the forest, and had been seen dancing with
the Brown Friar himself, whilst she and her dread partner chanted
incantations so deadly that it was a wonder that all in the Château de
Mereac had not fallen under their spell instead of only the unfortunate
young Sieur?

It had been easy work, that condemnation of so terrible a malefactor;
there had been no need of search or torture to prove the guilt both of
mistress and maid.  Justice moves quickly when there is a powerful arm
behind to arrange the machinery, and Guillaume de Coray was already
looked upon as Sieur de Mereac, seeing that Yvon was reported to have
died in agonies, shrieking for vengeance against his guilty sister.  And
vengeance he should have; the good folk of Martigue and Mereac were
determined on that, promising themselves a day’s holiday and enjoyment
into the bargain.

That the day itself should be so tempestuous was but another proof of
the witches’ guilt and malevolence; clearly it had been raised by demon
power to arrest the course of justice.  But justice should not be
arrested. Pile high the faggots!—yes! higher,—higher! Parbleu! what a
blaze there would be!—how they would shriek and curse!—how they would
writhe and groan!  The prospect, appealing to the savagery of ignorant
natures, thrilled all with pleasurable excitement and delight. Some
wondered if the fiend himself would appear to carry his devotees away;
others looked forward to hearing hideous confessions wrung from writhing
lips by the torture of the flames.  Altogether there were few to pity
two young and beautiful girls who were going forth to die a cruel death,
so fiercely ran the passions and superstitions of the peasantry of the
age. Yet there were those in the little town whose hearts beat in the
agony of horror and suspense, and whose eyes were turned, not on the
grim spectacle preparing in the market-place, but upon the wild heath
which stretched away westwards, half hidden by the blinding rain and
wind.

Close to the gates stood Job Alloadec and a small knot of men of Mereac
who were loyal to their unfortunate young mistress.  Even if the help
for which they looked came not, Gwennola de Mereac and Marie his sister
should not die alone that day in the market-place,—so Job had sworn,
with hands held fast in the hands of those who promised to stand side by
side with him.  But out yonder, through the mist and rain, a man rode
hastily along the road to Rennes.  The peasants tramping towards
Martigue wondered amongst themselves as they watched him gallop by.  It
was urgent business, they said one to another, which sent a man away
from Martigue that day! and therewith they fell afresh to speculations
on what would occur when the witches of Mereac met their doom.  But on
galloped the horseman, with spurs in his horse’s flanks and his mouth
tight set as if he rode on a matter of life and death.  Yes! and life
and death it was to be for some that day in the little town behind him.

The hour of noon was approaching, already a bell tolled forth from the
church close by, and in the market-place the people thronged so closely
that they trod one on another in their eagerness to behold. By the gate
Job Alloadec and his men waited, with an eye towards the market-place as
the minutes crept by.  In their prison cell two girls knelt in prayer.
Marie was weeping, her head resting on her mistress’s shoulder; but
Gwennola was calm, a shadowy smile even seemed to flicker around her
mouth as she raised her face towards the faint light which struggled in
through the narrow slit above them.

The tolling bell, the roar of the crowd, came faintly to them, and sent
fresh shudderings through Marie’s frame.

"Courage, child," whispered Gwennola; "remember we are innocent, and the
Holy Mother will not forsake us even in this our extremity.  For myself
I have no fears; if death indeed be our lot, grace shall be sent to
strengthen us for the trial, and I will pray to die as Gwennola de
Mereac should die, defying her accusers to the last.  But I have hope so
strong within my breast that it seemeth I can take little thought for
death.  Dry then those tears, my Marie; look into my eyes and fear
not;—I tell thee it is life, not death, before us."

But though her foster-sister struggled bravely with her emotions, sobs
of terror still shook her as at length their prison door was flung open
and their guards appeared.  A yell of fury greeted them as, a little
later, the two unfortunate girls, tightly bound, were led forth to their
doom.  Yet, even as the outcry died, a fresh and more compassionate
murmur arose from many at sight of the captives.

Innocence indeed seemed written on every lineament of the faces turned
towards their enemies, and men and women pressed forward with
exclamations in which pity mingled with admiration and indignation
against the sentence about to be executed.  But the guards around kept
back the populace as the victims were fastened to the stakes prepared
for them.  Yet, even as the executioner stepped forward with lighted
torch, a loud shout arose, the thunder of horses’ hoofs was heard at the
gate, and, turning, all beheld a strong body of soldiery riding at full
speed towards the market-place.

"Do your work, knave, and quickly!" shouted a horseman, who, with his
hat drawn closely over his eyes, had stood close to the centre of the
crowd, near to the stakes.  "Delay not an instant—fire the faggots!"

Recognising the voice, Gwennola turned, and, from her awful position
looked into the face of Guillaume de Coray.

"Fire the faggots!" cried he again imperatively to the man, who stood,
with flaming torch, hesitating as he watched, first the changing faces
of the populace, and then the soldiers who were advancing at a gallop.

"The French! the French are upon us!" shouted a voice from the crowd,
and in an instant panic reigned. Yet still the guard around the stake
drew close, the executioner still hesitated,—it was not too late.

With white face and furious looks de Coray, whose swift instinct had
told him what the diversion meant, sprang to the ground and, snatching
the brand from the executioner’s hand, rushed forward.  For an instant
he stood opposite his victim, glaring at her with baffled hatred and
malice as he stooped to thrust the flaming torch into the brushwood
piled around her; but even as it seemed that his purpose was
accomplished, a strong arm intervened, and Job Alloadec, with an oath,
had snatched the torch from his grasp, and would have hurled de Coray to
the ground had not one of the guard come quickly to his rescue.  But the
opportunity had gone, and de Coray knew, that, for the present at least,
safety lay only in flight.  He had seen that the French soldiers, with
d’Estrailles at their head, far outnumbered the soldiers of the town
guard; also he had watched the changing mood of the crowd, and foresaw
that their rage might be quickly turned against him, the principal
witness in procuring the sentence against the supposed witches.
Therefore with creditable discretion the gallant knight leapt upon his
horse’s back, and by dint of some hard blows and many curses succeeded
in struggling out of the seething crowd and gaining in safety the
shelter of the forest.

But Gwennola had no thought to bestow on her enemies.  Bound and
helpless as she was, she had caught a glimpse from afar of a bronzed,
flushed face under a raised vizor, had heard the shouts that arose on
all sides, and knew that deliverance had indeed come.

Job Alloadec was sobbing at her side as he cut the bonds that bound her
still to the cruel stake; whilst, close at hand, she was aware that
Marie was already in her lover’s arms.  In a dazed, half-unconscious way
she wondered why Henri delayed, and even as she did so she was aware of
a tall, knightly form at her side, felt herself lifted into a close
embrace and heard a voice whispering her name again and again in her
ear: "Gwennola, Gwennola, thou art saved!"

Yes, he had come, this faithful lover—come, by the Providence of God, in
time to save her from the death which had appeared so inevitable, and
even now, as he held her in his arms, still loomed all too dangerously
near.  The garrison of the little town might indeed have proved a
stubborn foe had it not been for Job Alloadec’s presence at the gate;
and d’Estrailles full well knew the peril he ran in thus snatching
reputed witches from death, and that even his own men might turn against
him for so doing.  But one thing was in his favour: the peasantry had
changed from their savage mood of the morning, and had welcomed at first
the rescuers.  It was an appeal to the romantic side of their natures,
but an appeal which d’Estrailles knew would not last.  All too soon
their slow reasoning would put a different complexion on the affair.
That the enemies of their country should thus summarily snatch from them
their lawful prey would not commend itself to stubborn Breton pride.
The brief pity which the beauty of their victims had inspired would fade
away as they remembered their dreaded vocation, and the pleasurable
excitement they had anticipated from their sufferings.  Therefore there
was no time for delay; one brief kiss, one word of joyous assurance, and
Henri d’Estrailles had raised Gwennola to his horse’s back, and swinging
himself into the saddle, turned to force his way back through the crowd,
which already began to murmur as a pack of hungry wolves may howl when
they see their prey borne from them into safety.  Murmured execrations
on the hated Frenchmen rose to a clamour, which, however, was partly
subdued by the formidable array which gathered around their leader.  At
the gate the Breton captain of the guard called them to a halt. He could
not understand what had occurred, poor man, so unexpectedly and so
suddenly had this intervention of justice taken place.  How had it been
possible that the gates had been so readily opened? Why was it that
these French desired to save a witch from her well-merited punishment?
Altogether the mind of Captain Maurice d’Yvec was as chaotic as the
crowd behind him.

It was easily explained: the demoiselle and her woman, whom the French
captain carried away, were no witches; they were falsely accused, as
doubtless monsieur would soon be informed.  In the meantime, Monsieur
d’Estrailles had commands to carry the demoiselle, and also her woman,
to Rennes; surely Monsieur le Capitaine would raise no objection when he
heard it was the command of Madame la Duchesse herself.

"Vive la Duchesse!"  That was a cry that these Breton soldiers could
understand.  "Vive la Duchesse!"—and confusion to her enemies!  Well, it
was a thing most extraordinary that the Duchess should send enemies as
her messengers to rescue reputed witches from burning; and yet—Captain
Maurice d’Yvec hesitated, but there was a soft corner in this heart,
which was not all of grey Breton flint-stone, and perchance the beauty
of Gwennola de Mereac had found it out, and perchance also the gallant
captain had no great love for the new Sieur de Mereac.  Moreover, the
Sieur had unaccountably disappeared; and even did he himself oppose this
fair-speaking, gallant enemy, it was probable that he and his soldiers
would be out-numbered and killed. So at length the hesitation came to an
end, and Henri d’Estrailles rode out of Martigue with Gwennola de Mereac
clinging to his saddle-bow and the wild landes before them, where the
wind howled its welcome and the rain beat in their faces as if laughing
at their triumph over its rival element.  But what cared Henri or
Gwennola for wind or rain? Behind them lay their enemies, vanquished and
overcome, and before them through the mists of wind and rain shone the
sunshine of love and life—love, life, and each other.

"En avant—to Rennes!" cried d’Estrailles gaily, as he rode forward with
one arm round Gwennola’s slender waist.  "To Rennes!"

"To Rennes!" echoed Jean Marcille, and stooped with a merry laugh to
kiss the rosy lips of little Marie, which pouted up at him from under
the hood drawn tightly about her face.  "To Rennes, little
sweetheart—where thou and I wilt wed."

"Wed!" whispered Marie coyly, as she nestled closely to him.  "How
knowest thou that, great foolish one?—perchance I have no mind to wed at
all; and as for wedding _thee_——"  But he did not allow her to complete
her sentence.



                             *CHAPTER XXIV*


Back through the vague shadowland of unconsciousness, back once more to
a still vaguer, more terrible realization of life—life all drawn into
one great and hideous contraction of pain, where thoughts became at
first impossible, till, the mists clearing aside, recollections of the
past claimed fresh tortures of the mind.  It was so that Guillaume de
Coray crept back once more into conscious existence, to find himself
lying on a couch in a chamber of the Château de Mereac. What chamber it
was his weary brain refused to realize: all he was aware of was the
agony which shot through his body with the first attempt to move. Then
swiftly came the unerring intuition that this was death—death, terrible,
unrelenting, inexorable, come to claim him all unready, sin-stained,
fear-stricken. A shudder passed through the quivering, broken body,
which suffered now less than the man’s soul.  Clearly they stood out,
those sins,—hideous sins, arraigning him before the judgment seat of One
Whose Eyes must needs search deep to the heart’s core.  Was it all black
within?—all black, irredeemable guilt? Far back in the secret chambers
of his heart there flickered a feeble light; it was the inner shrine, so
long empty, but filled now with the image, not of its Creator, but of
His creature.  Gabrielle Laurent, the humble peasant-girl of Arteze—it
was she who alone had found that sanctuary and filled it so strangely.
Cruel, evil, treacherous to all, his love for her had been the one pure
spot in a shameless life.  For her sake indeed he might have striven to
become other than he was, had it not been for the devil-whisper which
prompted him to win for her by foul and wicked means what she, had she
known, would have shrunk from in horror.  So the powers of evil twist us
to their will, and Guillaume had plotted with no thought for the undoing
of his soul, even whilst he felt stirring within him the birth of a pure
love.  And now——?  Again the shiver ran through him.  He had played for
a high stake, and he had lost.  Death was the penalty.  In solitude his
lost soul must steal forth to its doom, and even in so going leave
behind it a memory of shame which should be read in grief and horror by
eyes from which he had striven so carefully to hide so horrible a story.
What would she think of him when she knew him for what he was?  What
would she say when she learnt that her noble lover was but the phantom
of her own pure spirit, and that the thing she had loved was that from
which all true and upright men and women must turn shuddering away? Even
in death the thought tormented him above all bodily sufferings.  If only
he could have explained,—if only he could have told her that his love at
least was true,—if only he could have had time.  But it was too late,
all too late; never again would he see her as he had seen her that
summer morning, innocent and beautiful, sitting there in the sunshine
beside her spinning-wheel.  The destiny she might have woven for him
with those tender hands had been snapped by his own reckless touch, and
love, life, and hope,—that purer life and hope of which he had vaguely
dreamt,—were quenched in the utter gloom of death and sin.

With a groan his eyelids flickered and unclosed, staring out into the
whirling darkness.  But even as life seemed rushing from him in a mad
agony of mind and body, a hand was laid on his, and a face bent close to
his twisted, death-distorted one.  Was it the face of an angel come to
taunt him in those last moments with a glance into the Paradise he had
lost?  Somewhere near he fancied he heard a low, monotonous voice
chanting prayers, but the words were lost in the tumultuous surgings of
his brain.

Then suddenly mental vision and recollection became clear, with that
strange, unearthly clearness which comes to the dying, and reveals past
and present in the intense, mysterious light of summer moonlight.  He
remembered all, realizing that he lay a-dying in the great hall of the
Château de Mereac. He realized that he was stretched on a low couch
close to the blaze of the fire, although the heat failed to warm the
chill of his body; as in a dream he saw Pierre the fool crouched at his
feet, sobbing as if in pain, as he knelt there.  He had often wondered
what had made this strange, uncanny lad evince such affection to him; he
wondered vaguely now as his languid eyes gazed into the wizened face of
the ape, perched on the boy’s shoulder.  Then he became aware that there
were other figures around him; that close by, gazing down at him in awed
and pitying silence, were his sister and Yvon de Mereac—Yvon de Mereac,
the man whose life he had so often and so vainly sought. He tried to
wonder why he had sought it, tried to wonder why he looked at him so
curiously,—was he spirit, or flesh and blood?  He had heard that Yvon
was dead, but that had been a lie—his own lie, perchance; but he was not
dead, although he stood there so gaunt, so pale, so reproachful; he was
alive, and it was he himself who was to die—not Yvon de Mereac.  The
chanting voice of the priest was clearer now—were those the prayers for
the dying he was saying?  What mockery it was!—prayers for a lost
soul—lost beyond redemption! Then the hand that held his closed again
over his cold fingers in a warm, strong clasp.  Whose was it? Once again
his eyes fell on that other face which had floated before his
half-conscious gaze.

"Gabrielle!"  It was a cry of anguish, of pleading, of despair, though
it rose little above a whisper.  But she understood, for there is a
language of the soul which but one other pair of eyes beside our own can
read.

"Guillaume!" she said, and the soft utterance of his name seemed to stir
within him that which he had thought already dead.

"I love thee," said the eyes that looked into his. "Yes, I know all,
poor, broken, sin-stained soul, and yet I love thee—for love is of God
and changeth never."

He was looking up into those eyes, reading all their message of pity and
tenderness, till in his own there dawned something less than despair.

"Thou knowest, Gabrielle?" he whispered, and for answer she bent,
kissing the trembling lips.

How fast rushed the voiceless chaos in his brain! Whirling faces long
dead looked into his as they passed, voices were crying in his ears of
the memories of old sins; and yet, through the mists and vanishing forms
those tender eyes looked down into his; and beyond, far away in the
distance, a Voice Which had calmed that other tempest of wind and waves
called softly his name.

A lost soul!—a lost soul!  What use was it to call?  He had sinned too
deeply for aught but damnation, swift and terrible, damnation to which
he must turn his shuddering eyes as the hand of Death claimed him.  And
yet, those eyes which looked into his still spoke their message of hope.
She, this angel of purity and goodness, knew all his guilty secrets, and
yet—she loved him; her kiss of tender love and forgiveness still
lingered on his parched lips.  Was it then so impossible that he should
find a forgiveness greater than that of earth?  His eyes wandered
involuntarily from the face above him to the pictured image of a
Figure,—a Figure thorn-crowned, suffering, dying,—a Figure of Love
incarnate, with wide-stretched Arms which seemed to invite him to Their
embrace. The voice of Father Ambrose rose clearer and sweeter, but it
was not the Latin prayers which held the dying man’s attention, but a
Voice, more sweet, more clear than all, which seemed to soothe the
tempest of his soul.

Then with a lightning flash another memory stole upon him.  Gwennola de
Mereac,—the girl he had tried to wrong more cruelly than he had her
brother, the innocent girl who perhaps had already suffered the last
agony of death through his sin and treachery.

"Gwennola?" he whispered faintly, and the peace which had stolen over
him seemed for the moment shaken to its foundation as he listened for
the answer.

It was Diane who replied.  Slipping from Yvon’s side, she knelt beside
him, looking gladly into his eyes.

"She is safe," she whispered, with a happy sob. which told the tale of
the great joy that deliverance had brought to her; "she is safe!"

Guillaume de Coray’s eyes closed.  Yes! she was safe, and the golden
gates of mercy which he had fancied to see slowly opening were not shut
against him by reason of this deadly sin.  And so the mocking, cruel
voices sank slowly to rest—those voices which cried in his ears that
terrible sentence of eternal death.  And though the bodily pains grew
ever more agonizing, he could smile once more into the beautiful face so
close to his.

"Forgiven?" he whispered in a faint, yet awestruck tone, whilst with a
last effort he strove to clasp his hands in prayer.  "Forgiven?"

He saw her lips move in prayer too, as together they turned to look
towards the great crucifix Father Ambrose held aloft.  It was growing
dark to the dying man—dark and cold; he did not hear the words of
absolution which freed his penitent soul from its load of sin; he did
not feel the purifying touch of the holy oil.  All he saw was the bowed
Head of a crucified Saviour; all he heard was the voice of the woman he
had loved with so strange and passionate a devotion, as into the Unknown
his soul passed forth, with the echo of her words to guide him on his
last journey.

"For love’s sake, my Guillaume,—for love’s sake!"



                             *CHAPTER XXV*


Dark and gloomy had been those November days to the young Duchess of
Brittany.  Her defiant reply to her over-bearing Suzerain had brought
the banners of France within the sight of the castle walls of her town
of Rennes, and great had been not only the terror of Anne herself, but
apparently that of her councillors and ladies.

But Charles had seemed strangely disinclined to show any hostilities,
but instead had sent a deputation proposing a treaty.  To this Anne had
perforce to agree, and at the dictation of the King twelve persons were
appointed on each side to examine the claims each had on the duchy of
Brittany.  Meanwhile, the city of Rennes was placed in sequestration, in
the hands of the Dukes of Orleans and Bourbon, to be governed for the
time by the Prince of Orange. The King, on this being agreed to,
promised to withdraw his troops, and allow passage and safe conduct to
the Duchess and ambassadors of Maximilian to Germany, where she might
join the husband who had been too impecunious to come in person for his
bride.

All arrangements having been thus settled, the King had ordered his
troops to retire from Brittany, and had, it was reported, himself
returned to Touraine, whilst the Duke of Orleans, as
Ambassador-Extraordinary, was despatched to the Duchess to confirm the
treaty and compliment her on its conclusion.

Whilst these events of historical interest were occupying the minds of
the chief actors in the destiny of Brittany, the lesser destinies of
Gwennola de Mereac and Henri d’Estrailles were trembling in the
balances.

To ride with his rescued bride to his château by the Loire was the first
impulse of the young knight; but there is a power stronger even than,
love, and duty called him inexorably to his master’s side. The Count
Dunois was not a man lightly to be disobeyed, and Dunois had bidden him
take the Demoiselle de Mereac, if he succeeded in saving her from her
threatened fate, to be placed under the care of the Duchess Anne.  That
in so doing Dunois had his own schemes at work, d’Estrailles did not
doubt, for Dunois was one to hold carefully in his hand every thread of
the slenderest fibre which might further the weaving of his darling
scheme. Debarred by his enormous bulk from following in the warlike
footsteps of his gallant father, there was no man in the kingdom of more
service to Charles than François Dunois, Comte de Longueville, and for
the present the heart of Dunois was set upon the uniting of his royal
master to the heiress of Brittany, or, in other words, the binding of
the refractory duchy by indissoluble bonds to its parent kingdom.

Anne had indeed welcomed to her persecuted little court one whose perils
and misfortunes had been, in a different manner, even greater than her
own.  In former years Gwennola de Mereac had ofttimes stayed with her
father and brother at the court of Francis II., and the little Anne had
learnt to know and love the playmate who was scarcely three years her
senior. Therefore it was with ready and sympathetic ears that she
listened to Gwennola’s tale of her misfortunes, and promised that when
her own affairs gave her leisure she would not spare trouble in clearing
her fair subject’s fame and bringing to justice the wrongdoers, little
knowing that justice had already been administered by a higher Power
than even the Duchess of Brittany’s.

But the kindly and generous protection of Anne meant for a time
separation from her lover, and bitter such separation must needs be,
seeing that neither knew when they should again meet; and Gwennola
readily mingled her tears with those of the disconsolate Marie, who wept
unrestrainedly at the thought of parting from the faithful Marcille. But
duty was imperative, and it needs had to be that Henri d’Estrailles and
Jean Marcille must follow the retreating lilies of France, vowing to
return as soon as it should be possible.

The possibility came sooner, indeed, than it was expected, seeing that
Henri d’Estrailles, to his infinite delight, was chosen to accompany the
Duke of Orleans himself on his mission to Rennes. Yet another
disappointment awaited him, for, to his surprise, he was bidden to
remain outside the city walls whilst Louis proceeded alone to his
interview.

The Duchess Anne received her Ambassador but coldly, with all the proud
haughtiness of one who feels herself to have been treated unjustly and
tyrannically.  Whatever her feelings were, when Louis of Orleans,
apparently ignoring the fact that he had once pleaded his own cause into
the same ears, urged with all the persuasive eloquence of which he was
so complete a master that she should yield to the King’s desire and the
wishes of her most trusted councillors in becoming Queen of France, she
was outwardly the same cold, inflexible girl who had refused to listen
to the pleadings of Dunois and others, finally referring him, with a
lofty and indifferent air, to her council, "who," she informed him,
"were acquainted with her pleasure."

Seemingly defeated, Louis of Orleans quitted the presence chamber, but
not before humbly begging, as a special favour, that his young attendant
might have speech with his mistress, the Demoiselle de Mereac. The
request was granted, and Louis went on his way more elated than
apparently his audience had given him cause for.

That evening two interviews took place in the old Castle of Rennes, one
of which only is recorded in history, and even that in so vague a way as
to leave its purport and sequel shrouded for ever in mystery. Henri
d’Estrailles did not enter the castle gates alone; neither was his
companion, whose face was partly concealed by a cloak, the faithful
Jean, for whose coming the little Marie looked in vain.  And so it
chanced that all unexpectedly there appeared before Anne the man whom
she had pictured as a monster of cruelty—the man whom she had fondly
thought to be in far-off Touraine.  It was indeed Charles himself, the
gentle, kindly king whom his people had nicknamed "le Petit Roy."  Not
perhaps the ideal lover to woo a beautiful but refractory maiden.
Handsome, Charles was certainly not.  His head was large,—as was also
his aquiline nose,—with large, prominent eyes, round dimpled chin, thin
flat lips, compressed body and long, thin legs; whilst his slow speech,
nervous movements, and constantly open mouth added to his appearance of
foolishness.  His great charm, however, lay in a singularly sweet voice
and an expression of gentle amiability which appealed instantly to the
generous side of those around him. Such was the royal wooer, the very
opposite indeed of the bride he so vainly sought.  Scarcely more than a
child in years, Anne had already proved herself of a high-spirited,
resolute disposition.  In outward appearance she was undoubtedly
beautiful, with black eyes, well-marked brows, dazzling complexion,
dimpled chin, long, black hair, and fine features.  Her carriage was
majestic in spite of a slight lameness, and her manner somewhat haughty;
but in spite of her pride and love of vengeance, she had many fine and
noble qualities, being generous, truthful, and faithful to her friends.

Of what passed during that secret interview little has ever transpired;
but it would seem that though Anne may have been softened to kindlier
feelings towards the man she had formerly hated, she still remained firm
in adhering to her resolution in considering her marriage to Maximilian
binding, and Charles, perforce, had to retire as unsuccessful as his
ambassadors.  But the King did not go far; his friends in Rennes were
many and powerful, or assuredly he would never have so dared to enter a
hostile city practically alone and in disguise.

Meanwhile, the second interview was fraught with more happiness.  There
was so much that Gwennola had to tell—so much of joy and gladness, for a
messenger had arrived from Mereac itself, a messenger who was no other
than the faithful Job, who had watched his young mistress ride away
through the mists and rain on that winter’s day, across the wind-swept
landes—away from the dangers and perils which had surrounded her, into
safety.  And yet the faithful Breton had sometimes misdoubted even that
safety, for his jealous heart had rebelled against the fact that the
protectors who surrounded her were Frenchmen—for it takes long to
convince the obstinate nature of the Breton, whose ideas travel slowly,
and all his life Job Alloadec had read "Frenchman" as "enemy."
Therefore he had been glad enough to carry Father Ambrose’s messages and
letter to his mistress, and see how it fared with her and his sister,
and whether they were truly safe under the protection of the Duchess.
But the coming of Job was of less import to Gwennola than the good news
he brought.  Her innocence was proved.  Diane had confessed, and the
guilty brain that had planned all the evil against her and her brother
was still for ever from such plots. Then, too, her brother was
better,—far better; and though the betrothal between him and Diane de
Coray had been cemented afresh by new bonds of a deeper and truer
devotion, still there was no more to fear from such a love.  Indeed, as
Father Ambrose said, the unfortunate girl seemed only too eager to make
reparation for the past and plead forgiveness from those she had
injured.  And so it had come to pass that, owing greatly to her
influence, Yvon had given his sanction to his sister’s marriage with
Henri d’Estrailles.

How happy were the lovers as they sat together whispering of what joy
and happiness this good news brought to them both!  Yes, the dream was
near to realization now; the tempest was past, and the sunshine shone
across the path of youth and love without the shadow of a cloud between.
But when would the time come when they should ride together, as they had
so often done in fancy, and see the grey walls of the Château
d’Estrailles rise close to the laughing waters of the Loire?  Ah! when?
Perhaps even sooner than she thought—it was possible.  Only, there was
one word of whispered counsel for her ears ere he bade her farewell:
should the Duchess claim her attendance for a sudden and unexpected
journey, she must not hesitate to comply, strange as it might seem;—that
was all that he might say.  And so, with fresh vows of love, they
parted, though Gwennola little guessed that neither lover nor cloaked
attendant went so far that night as the city walls.

A deputation of her councillors waited the following morning upon the
young Duchess.  It would seem that they were filled with anxiety; in
fact, truly a new danger appeared to have arisen.  That they were
cognizant to the secret interview of the night before they made no
attempt to hide, pleading that in their Duchess’s interests they had
permitted it to take place.  Finding her inexorable with regard to the
French marriage, they apparently yielded to her wishes, yet urged her,
by reason of the dangers of her position, to make at least a compromise.
Charles was set upon a betrothal, by some means or other; and the
councillors hinted that there would be small scruple in taking by force
what was not yielded to request.  He had sworn to make Anne his bride.
The armies of France were at no great distance; Maximilian was far away.
What they would suggest was that Anne should in fair seeming yield
acquiescence to the importunities of the King and allow herself to be
secretly betrothed.  Then, his suspicions lulled to rest, Anne would,
with the greater ease, escape from her town and fly with a small
retinue, including the ambassadors of Maximilian, to her husband’s
protection.  Such craft and duplicity were little suited to Anne’s
straightforward nature; but, beset as she was with enemies and
difficulties, she yielded at length, and that very night, in the utmost
secrecy, was celebrated in the church of Notre Dame, this strange and
romantic betrothal of the King of France to the Duchess of Brittany,
witnessed by the Duchess of Bourbon, the Count Dunois, Philippe de
Montauban, and Louis of Orleans, who thus saw consummated the match he
had both desired and dreaded.

The betrothal over, Anne retired in haste to her castle, with scant
ceremony, there to await the development of events promised her so
glibly by her Chancellor and council.

All had impressed on the young Duchess the strict necessity of making
her flight secret—so secret, indeed, that it had been communicated to no
one; in fact, the Chancellor told her that the ambassadors themselves
would only be acquainted with her plans at the last moment.

In due time, however, the hour arrived, and, attended by Gwennola de
Mereac, Marie Alloadec, and Madame de Laval, her gouvernante, Anne stole
from her castle to commence a journey which she could not but foresee
would be both arduous and dangerous; and yet we are told, in minute
detail, that the Duchess’s travelling dress was of cloth of velvet,
trimmed with one hundred and thirty-two sable skins, whilst her palfrey
was adorned with three ells of crimson velvet!

But who can tell the anger and terror of this unfortunate girl, to find
how craftily she had been duped, and how, instead of the ambassadors of
Maximilian, the man who rode at her bridle rein, so closely cloaked and
disguised, was no other than King Charles himself!

Morning had broken when the Duchess made the fatal discovery and
perceived how hopeless was her case.  To return, to explain, would be
useless.  The midnight betrothal, taken in conjunction with the secret
flight, would appear in a light impossible to explain away to the
outraged ambassadors of the husband to whom she had thought to go.  To
the high-spirited Anne even death itself were better than dishonour, and
surely to return to Rennes after such an adventure would give rise to
countless surmises and ill talking.  Moreover, by her side rode one who
could well plead his own cause; and though she wept and upbraided both
him and the Breton nobles who surrounded her, Anne perforce had to yield
to the exigencies of her position.  And so forward they rode, a strange
bridal party: a weeping bride, and a groom divided, perchance, ’twixt
shame and triumph; whilst behind them came the men who had betrayed
their mistress for the sake of their country—or for some more ulterior
motive, amongst them being the Chancellor de Montauban, the Sieur de
Pontbrient, and the Grand-Master Coetquen.  A strange party indeed, but
four at least of the company heeded it little.  Close by the bridle of
Gwennola de Mereac rode Henri d’Estrailles, whilst in the background
Jean Marcille had already discovered the bright eyes of Marie Alloadec.

The clear, chill dawn of a December day was breaking in the east, as in
the distance rose the grey turrets of Langeais, where Anne of Brittany
was to become Queen of France.

"Touraine!  Touraine!" whispered Henri d’Estrailles, as he bent his
dark, handsome face down to meet the fair, flushed one so close beside
him.  "Welcome, my bride, welcome home!"

The sun rose high, illuminating a cold and cheerless world.  Before them
lay France and happiness; but above all, shining cloudless and
imperishable in their hearts, rose the star of love.  It was surely her
welcome to his heart that Henri d’Estrailles whispered as their lips met
in a lingering kiss.



                 Printed at The Mercat Press, Edinburgh



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