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- The Companions of Jehu - 40/133 -
"Yes, it is I," she said. Then, going close to her brother, and letting him kiss her forehead, she added in a supplicating voice: "You won't go, will you, dear Roland?"
"Go where?" asked Roland.
"To the Chartreuse."
"Good! Who told you that?"
"Oh! for one who knows, how difficult it is to guess!"
"And why don't you want me to go to the Chartreuse?"
"I'm afraid something might happen to you."
"What! So you believe in ghosts, do you?" he asked, looking fixedly into Amélie's eyes.
Amélie lowered her glance, and Roland felt his sister's hand tremble in his.
"Come," said Roland; "Amélie, at least the one I used to know, General de Montrevel's daughter and Roland's sister, is too intelligent to yield to these vulgar terrors. It's impossible that you can believe these tales of apparitions, chains, flames, spectres, and phantoms."
"If I did believe them, Roland, I should not be so alarmed. If ghosts do exist, they must be souls without bodies, and consequently cannot bring their material hatred from the grave. Besides, why should a ghost hate you, Roland; you, who never harmed any one?"
"Good! You forget all those I have killed in war or in duels."
Amélie shook her head. "I'm not afraid of them."
"Then what are you afraid of?"
The young girl raised her beautiful eyes, wet with tears, to Roland, and threw herself in his arms, saying: "I don't know, Roland. But I can't help it, I am afraid."
The young man raised her head, which she was hiding in his breast, with gentle force, and said, kissing her eyelids softly and tenderly: "You don't believe I shall have ghosts to fight with to-morrow, do you?"
"Oh, brother, don't go to the Chartreuse!" cried Amélie, eluding the question.
"Mother told you to say this to me, didn't she?"
"Oh, no, brother! Mother said nothing to me. It is I who guessed that you intended to go."
"Well, if I want to go," replied Roland firmly, "you ought to know, Amélie, that I shall go."
"Even if I beseech you on my knees, brother?" cried Amélie in a tone of anguish, slipping down to her brother's feet; "even if I beseech you on my knees?"
"Oh! women! women!" murmured Roland, "inexplicable creatures, whose words are all mystery, whose lips never tell the real secrets of their hearts, who weep, and pray, and tremble--why? God knows, but man, never! I shall go, Amélie, because I have resolved to go; and when once I have taken a resolution no power on earth can make me change it. Now kiss me and don't be frightened, and I will tell you a secret."
Amélie raised her head, and gazed questioningly, despairingly, at Roland.
"I have known for more than a year," replied the young man, "that I have the misfortune not to be able to die. So reassure yourself, and don't be afraid."
Roland uttered these words so dolefully that Amélie, who had, until then, kept her emotion under control, left the room sobbing.
The young officer, after assuring himself that her door was closed, shut his, murmuring: "We'll see who will weary first, Fate or I."
The next evening, at about the same hour, the young officer, after convincing himself that every one in the Château des Noires-Fontaines had gone to bed, opened his door softly, went downstairs holding his breath, reached the vestibule, slid back the bolts of the outer door noiselessly, and turned round to make sure that all was quiet. Reassured by the darkened windows, he boldly opened the iron gate. The hinges had probably been oiled that day, for they turned without grating, and closed as noiselessly as they had opened behind Roland, who walked rapidly in the direction of Pont d'Ain at Bourg.
He had hardly gone a hundred yards before the clock at Saint-Just struck once; that of Montagnac answered like a bronze echo. It was half-past ten o'clock. At the pace the young man was walking he needed only twenty minutes to reach the Chartreuse; especially if, instead of skirting the woods, he took the path that led direct to the monastery. Roland was too familiar from youth with every nook of the forest of Seillon to needlessly lengthen his walk ten minutes. He therefore turned unhesitatingly into the forest, coming out on the other side in about five minutes. Once there, he had only to cross a bit of open ground to reach the orchard wall of the convent. This took barely another five minutes.
At the foot of the wall he stopped, but only for a few seconds. He unhooked his cloak, rolled it into a ball, and tossed it over the wall. The cloak off, he stood in a velvet coat, white leather breeches, and top-boots. The coat was fastened round the waist by a belt in which were a pair of pistols. A broad-brimmed hat covered his head and shaded his face.
With the same rapidity with which he had removed his garment that might have hindered his climbing the wall, he began to scale it. His foot readily found a chink between the stones; he sprang up, seizing the coping, and was on the other side without even touching the top of the wall over which he bounded. He picked up his cloak, threw it over his shoulder, hooked it, and crossed the orchard to a little door communicating with the cloister. The clock struck eleven as he passed through it. Roland stopped, counted the strokes, and slowly walked around the cloister, looking and listening.
He saw nothing and heard no noise. The monastery was the picture of desolation and solitude; the doors were all open, those of the cells, the chapel, and the refectory. In the refectory, a vast hall where the tables still stood in their places, Roland noticed five or six bats circling around; a frightened owl flew through a broken casement, and perched upon a tree close by, hooting dismally.
"Good!" said Roland, aloud; "I'll make my headquarters here; bats and owls are the vanguards of ghosts."
The sound of that human voice, lifted in the midst of this solitude, darkness and desolation, had something so uncanny, so lugubrious about it, that it would have caused even the speaker to shudder, had not Roland, as he himself said, been inaccessible to fear. He looked about for a place from which he could command the entire hall. An isolated table, placed on a sort of stage at one end of the refectory, which had no doubt been used by the superior of the convent to take his food apart from the monks, to read from pious books during the repast, seemed to Roland best adapted to his needs. Here, backed by the wall, he could not be surprised from behind, and, once his eye grew accustomed to the darkness, he could survey every part of the hall. He looked for a seat, and found an overturned stool about three feet from the table, probably the one occupied by the reader or the person dining there in solitude.
Roland sat down at the table, loosened his cloak to insure greater freedom of movement, took his pistols from his belt, laid one on the table, and striking three blows with the butt-end of the other, he said, in a loud voice: "The meeting is open; the ghosts can appear!"
Those who have passed through churches and cemeteries at night have often experienced, without analyzing it, the supreme necessity of speaking low and reverently which attaches to certain localities. Only such persons can understand the strange impression produced on any one who heard it by that curt, mocking voice which now disturbed the solitude and the shadows. It vibrated an instant in the darkness, which seemed to quiver with it; then it slowly died away without an echo, escaping by all the many openings made by the wings of time.
As he had expected, Roland's eyes had accustomed themselves to the darkness, and now, by the pale light of the rising moon, whose long, white rays penetrated the refectory through the broken windows, he could see distinctly from one end to the other of the vast apartment. Although Roland was as evidently without fear internally as externally, he was not without distrust, and his ear caught the slightest sounds.
He heard the half-hour strike. In spite of himself the sound startled him, for it came from the bell of the convent. How was it that, in this ruin where all was dead, a clock, the pulse of time, was living?
"Oh! oh!" said Roland; "that proves that I shall see something."
The words were spoken almost in an aside. The majesty of the place and the silence acted upon that heart of iron, firm as the iron that had just tolled the call of time upon eternity. The minutes slowly passed, one after the other. Perhaps a cloud was passing between earth and moon, for Roland fancied that the shadows deepened. Then, as midnight approached, he seemed to hear a thousand confused, imperceptible sounds, coming no doubt from the nocturnal universe which wakes while the other sleeps. Nature permits no suspension of life, even for repose. She created her nocturnal world, even as she created her daily world, from
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