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- The Chaplet of Pearls - 40/101 -
'It is but a few fields beyond the yard, _ma petite_,' said the good woman consolingly; 'and it will be safer to take you there ere we need a light.'
The sun had just set on a beautiful evening of a spring that happily for Eustacie had been unusually warm and mild, when they set forth, the dame having loaded her husband with a roll of bedding, and herself taking a pitcher of mild and a loaf of bread, whilst Eustacie, as usual, carried her own small parcel of clothes and jewels. The way was certainly not long to any one less exhausted than she; it was along a couple of fields, and then through a piece of thicket, where Rotrou held back the boughs and his wife almost dragged her on with kind encouraging words, till they came up to a stone ivy-covered wall, and coasting along it to a tower, evidently a staircase turret. Here Rotrou, holding aside an enormous bush of ivy, showed the foot of a winding staircase, and his wife assured her that she would not have far to climb.
She knew where she was now. She had heard of the old Refectory of the Knights Templars. Partly demolished by the hatred of the people upon the abolition of the Order, it had ever since lain waste, and had become the centre of all the ghostly traditions of the country; the locality of all the most horrid tales of REVENANTS told under the breath at Dame Perrine's hearth or at recreation hour at Bellaise. Her courage was not proof against spiritual terrors. She panted and leant against the wall, as she faintly exclaimed, 'The Temple--there--and alone!'
'Nay, Lady, methought as _Monsieur votre mari_ knew the true light, you would fear no vain terror nor power of darkness.'
Should these peasants--these villeins--be bold, and see the descendant of the 'bravest of knights,' the daughter of the house of Ribaumont, afraid? She rallied herself, and replied manfully, 'I FEAR not, no!' but then, womanfully, 'But it is the Temple! It is haunted! Tell me what I must expect.'
'I tell you truly, Madame,' said Rotrou; 'none whom I have sheltered here have seen aught. On the faith of a Christian, no evil spirit--no ghost--has ever alarmed them; but they were fortified by prayer and psalm.'
'I do pray! I have a psalm-book,' said Eustacie, and she added to herself, 'No, they shall never see that I fear. After all, REVENANTS can do nothing worse than scare one; they cannot touch one; the saints and angels will not let them--and my uncle would do much worse.'
But to climb those winding stairs, and resign herself to be left alone with the Templars for the night, was by far the severest trial that had yet befallen the poor young fugitive. As her tire feet dragged up the crumbling steps, her memory reverted to the many tales of the sounds heard by night within those walls--church chants turning into diabolical songs, and bewildered travelers into thickets and morasses, where they had been found in the morning, shuddering as they told of a huge white monk, with clanking weapons, and a burning cross of fire printed on his shoulder and breast, who stood on the walls and hurled a shrieking babe into the abyss. Were such spectacles awaiting her? Must she bear them? And could her endurance hold out? Our Lady be her aid, and spare her in her need!
At the top of the stairs she found Rotrou's hand, ready to help her out on a stone floor, quite dark, but thickly covered, as she felt and smelt, with trusses of hay, between which a glimmering light showed a narrow passage. A few steps, guided by Rotrou's hand, brought her out into light again, and she found herself in a large chamber, with the stone floor broken away in some places, and with a circular window, thickly veiled with ivy, but still admitting a good deal of evening light.
It was in fact a chamber over the vaulted refectory of the knights. The walls and vaults still standing in their massive solidity, must have tempted some peasant, or mayhap some adventurer, rudely to cover in the roof (which had of course been stripped of its leading), and thus in the unsuspected space to secure a hiding- place, often for less innocent commodities than the salt, which the iniquitous and oppressive _gabelle_ had always led the French peasant to smuggle, ever since the days of the first Valois. The room had a certain appearance of comfort; there was a partition across it, a hearth with some remains of wood-ashes, a shelf, holding a plate, cup, lamp, and a few other necessaries; and altogether the aspect of the place was so unlike what Eustacie had expected, that she almost forgot the Templar as she saw the dame begin to arrange a comfortable-looking couch for her wearied limbs. Yet she felt very unwilling to let them depart, and even ventured on faltering out the inquiry whether the good woman could not stay with her,--she would reward her largely.
'It is for the love of Heaven, Madame, not for gain,' said Nanon Rotrou, rather stiffly. 'If you were ill, or needed me, all must then give way; but for me to be absent this evening would soon be reported around the village down there, for there are many who would find occasion against us.' But, by way of consolation, they gave her a whistle, and showed her that the window of their cottage was much nearer to a loophole-slit looking towards the east than she had fancied. The whistle perpetrated a mist unearthly screech, a good deal like that of an owl, but more discordant, and Nanon assured her that the sound would assuredly break her slumbers, and bring her in a few minutes at any moment of need. In fact, the noise was so like the best authenticated accounts of the shrieks indulged in by the spirits of the Temple, that Eustacie had wit enough to suspect that it might be the foundation of some of the stories; and with that solace to her alarms, she endured the departure of her hosts, Nanon promising a visit in the early morning.
The poor child was too weary to indulge in many terrors, the beneficent torpor of excessive fatigue was upon her, happily bringing slumberous oblivion instead of feverish restlessness. She strove to repeat her accustomed orisons; but sleep was too strong for her, and she was soon lying dreamlessly upon the clean homely couch prepared for her.
When she awoke, it was with a start. The moon was shining in through the circular window, making strange white shapes on the floor, all quivering with the shadows of the ivy sprays. It looked strange and eerie enough at the moment, but she understood it the next, and would have been reassured if she had not become aware that there was a low sound, a tramp, tramp, below her. 'Gracious saints! The Templar! Have mercy on me! Oh! I was too sleepy to pray! Guard me from being driven wild by fright!' She sat upright, with wide-spread eyes, and, finding that she herself was in the moonlight, through some opening in the roof, she took refuge in the darkest corner, though aware as she crouched there, that if this were indeed the Templar, concealment would be vain, and remembering suddenly that she was out of reach of the loophole- window.
And therewith there was a tired sound in the tread, as if the Templar found his weird a very length one; then a long heavy breath, with something so essentially human in its sound that the fluttering heart beat more steadily. If reason told her that the living were more perilous to her than the dead, yet feeling infinitely preferred them! It might be Nanon Rotrou after all; then how foolish to be crouching there in a fright! It was rustling through the hay. No-no Nanon; it is a male figure, it has a long cloak on. Ah! it is in the moonlight-silver hair--silver beard. The Templar! Fascinated with dismay, yet calling to mind that no ghost has power unless addressed, she sat still, crossing herself in silence, but unable to call to mind any prayer or invocation save a continuous 'Ave Mary,' and trying to restrain her gasping breath, lest, if he were not the Templar after all, he might discover her presence.
He moved about, took off his cloak, laid it down near the hay, then his cap, not a helmet after all, and there was no fiery cross.
He was in the gloom again, and she heard him moving much as though he were pulling down the hay to form a bed. Did ghosts ever do anything so sensible? If he were an embodied spirit, would it be possible to creep past him and escape while he lay asleep? She was almost becoming familiarized with the presence, and the supernatural terror was passing off into a consideration of resources, when, behold, he was beginning to sing. To sing was the very way the ghosts began ere they came to their devilish outcries. 'Our Lady keep it from bringing frenzy. But hark! hark!' It was not one of the chants, it was a tune and words heard in older times of her life; it was the evening hymn, that the little husband and wife had been wont to sing to the Baron in the Chateau de Leurre-- Marot's version of the 4th Psalm.
'_Plus de joie m'est donnee_ _Par ce moyen, O Dieu Tres-Haut_, _Que n'ont ceux qui ont grand annee_ _De froment et bonne vinee_, _D'huile et tout ce qu'il leur faut_.'
If it had indeed been the ghostly chant, perhaps Eustacie would not have been able to help joining it. As it was, the familiar home words irresistibly impelled her to mingle her voice, scarce knowing what she did, in the verse--
'_Si qu'en paix et surete bonne_ _Coucherai et reposerai_ ; _Car, Seigneur, ta bonte tout ordonne_ _Et elle seule espoir me donne_ _Que sur et seul regnant serai_.'
The hymn died away in its low cadence, and then, ere Eustacie had had time to think of the consequences of thus raising her voice, the new-comer demanded:
'Is there then another wanderer here?'
'Ah! sir, pardon me!' she exclaimed. 'I will not long importune you, but only till morning light--only till the Fermiere Rotrou comes.'
'If Matthieu and Anne Rotrou placed you here, then all is well,' replied the stranger. 'Fear not, daughter, but tell me. Are you one of my scattered flock, or one whose parents are known to me?' Then, as she hesitated, 'I am Isaac Gardon--escaped, alas! alone, from the slaughter of the Barthelemy.'
'Master Gardon!' cried Eustacie. 'Oh, I know! O sir, my husband loved and honoured you.'
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