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- The Seats Of The Mighty, Volume 1. - 10/15 -
himself as he tied the bandages, and then he reached down for the knife to cut the flying strings. I could see this out of a little corner of my eye. When he did not find it, he settled back on his haunches and looked at me. I could feel his lips puffing out, and I was ready for the "Poom!" that came from him. Then I could feel him stooping over me, and his hot strong breath in my face. I was so near to unconsciousness at that moment by a sudden anxiety that perhaps my feigning had the look of reality. In any case, he thought me unconscious and fancied that he had taken the knife away with him; for he tucked in the strings of the bandage. Then, lifting my head, he held the flask to my lips; for which I was most grateful--I was dizzy and miserably faint.
I think I came to with rather more alacrity than was wise, but he was deceived, and his first words were, "Ho, ho! the devil's knocking; who's for home, angels?"
It was his way to put all things allusively, using strange figures and metaphors. Yet, when one was used to him and to them, their potency seemed greater than polished speech and ordinary phrase.
He offered me more brandy, and then, without preface, I asked him the one question which sank back on my heart like a load of ice even as I sent it forth. "Is he alive?" I inquired. "Is Monsieur Juste Duvarney alive?"
With exasperating coolness he winked an eye, to connect the event with what he knew of the letter I had sent to Alixe, and, cocking his head, he blew out his lips with a soundless laugh, and said:
"To whisk the brother off to heaven is to say good-bye to sister and pack yourself to Father Peter."
"For God's sake, tell me, is the boy dead?" I asked, my voice cracking in my throat.
"He's not mounted for the journey yet," he answered, with a shrug, "but the Beast is at the door."
I plied my man with questions, and learned that they had carried Juste into the palace for dead, but found life in him, and straightway used all means to save him. A surgeon came, his father and mother were sent for, and when Doltaire had left there was hope that he would live.
I learned also that Voban had carried word to the Governor of the deed to be done that night; had for a long time failed to get admittance to him, but was at last permitted to tell his story; and Vaudreuil had gone to Bigot's palace to have me hurried to the citadel, and had come just too late.
After answering my first few questions, Gabord say nothing more, and presently he took the torch from the wall and with a gruff good-night prepared to go. When I asked that a light be left, he shook his head, said he had no orders. Whereupon he left me, the heavy door clanging to, the bolts were shot, and I was alone in darkness with my wounds and misery. My cloak had been put into the cell beside my couch, and this I now drew over me, and I lay and thought upon my condition and my prospects, which, as may be seen, were not cheering. I did not suffer great pain from my wounds--only a stiffness that troubled me not at all if I lay still. After an hour or so passed--for it is hard to keep count of time when one's thoughts are the only timekeeper--I fell asleep.
I know not how long I slept, but I awoke refreshed. I stretched forth my uninjured arm, moving it about. In spite of will a sort of hopelessness went through me, for I could feel long blades of corn grown up about my couch, an unnatural meadow, springing from the earth floor of my dungeon. I drew the blades between my fingers, feeling towards them as if they were things of life out of place like myself. I wondered what colour they were. Surely, said I to myself, they can not be green, but rather a yellowish white, bloodless, having only fibre, the heart all pinched to death. Last night I had not noted them, yet now, looking back, I saw, as in a picture, Gabord the soldier feeling among them for the knife that I had taken. So may we see things, and yet not be conscious of them at the time, waking to their knowledge afterwards. So may we for years look upon a face without understanding, and then, suddenly, one day it comes flashing out, and we read its hidden story like a book.
I put my hand out farther, then brought it back near to my couch, feeling towards its foot mechanically, and now I touched an earthen pan. A small board lay across its top, and moving my fingers along it I found a piece of bread. Then I felt the jar, and knew it was filled with water. Sitting back, I thought hard for a moment. Of this I was sure: the pan and bread were not there when I went to sleep, for this was the spot where my eyes fell naturally while I lay in bed looking towards Doltaire; and I should have remembered it now, even if I had not noted it then. My jailer had brought these while I slept. But it was still dark. I waked again as though out of sleep, startled: I was in a dungeon that had no window!
Here I was, packed away in a farthest corner of the citadel, in a deep hole that maybe had not been used for years, to be, no doubt, denied all contact with the outer world--I was going to say FRIENDS, but whom could I name among them save that dear soul who, by last night's madness, should her brother be dead, was forever made dumb and blind to me? Whom had I but her and Voban!--and Voban was yet to be proved. The Seigneur Duvarney had paid all debts he may have owed me, and he now might, because of the injury to his son, leave me to my fate. On Gabord the soldier I could not count at all.
There I was, as Doltaire had said, like a rat in a trap. But I would not let panic seize me. So I sat and ate the stale but sweet bread, took a long drink of the good water from the earthen jar, and then, stretching myself out, drew my cloak up to my chin, and settled myself for sleep again. And that I might keep up a kind delusion that I was not quite alone in the bowels of the earth, I reached out my hand and affectionately drew the blades of corn between my fingers.
Presently I drew my chin down to my shoulder, and let myself drift out of painful consciousness almost as easily as a sort of woman can call up tears at will. When I waked again, it was without a start or moving, without confusion, and I was bitterly hungry. Beside my couch, with his hands on his hips and his feet thrust out, stood Gabord, looking down at me in a quizzical and unsatisfied way. A torch was burning near him.
"Wake up, my dickey-bird," said he in his rough, mocking voice, "and we'll snuggle you into the pot. You've been long hiding; come out of the bush--aho!"
I drew myself up painfully. "What is the hour?" I asked, and meanwhile I looked for the earthen jar and the bread.
"Hour since when?" said he.
"Since it was twelve o'clock last night," I answered.
"Fourteen hours since THEN," said he.
The emphasis arrested my attention. "I mean," I added, "since the fighting in the courtyard."
"Thirty-six hours and more since then, m'sieu' the dormouse," was his reply.
I had slept a day and a half since the doors of this cell closed on me. It was Friday then; now it was Sunday afternoon. Gabord had come to me three times, and seeing how sound asleep I was had not disturbed me, but had brought bread and water--my prescribed diet.
He stood there, his feet buried in the blanched corn--I could see the long yellowish-white blades--the torch throwing shadows about him, his back against the wall. I looked carefully round my dungeon. There was no a sign of a window; I was to live in darkness. Yet if I were but allowed candles, or a lantern, or a torch, some books, paper, pencil, and tobacco, and the knowledge that I had not killed Juste Duvarney, I could abide the worst with some sort of calmness. How much might have happened, must have happened, in all these hours of sleep! My letter to Alixe should have been delivered long ere this; my trial, no doubt, had been decided on. What had Voban done? Had he any word for me? Dear Lord! here was a mass of questions tumbling one upon the other in my head, while my heart thumped behind my waistcoat like a rubber ball to a prize-fighter's fist. Misfortunes may be so great and many that one may find grim humour and grotesqueness in their impossible conjunction and multiplicity. I remembered at that moment a friend of mine in Virginia, the most unfortunate man I ever knew. Death, desertion, money losses, political defeat, flood, came one upon the other all in two years, and coupled with this was loss of health. One day he said to me:
"Robert, I have a perforated lung, my liver is a swelling sponge, eating crowds my waistband like a balloon, I have a swimming in my head and a sinking at my heart, and I can not say litany for happy release from these for my knees creak with rheumatism. The devil has done his worst, Robert, for these are his--plague and pestilence, being final, are the will of God--and, upon my soul, it is an absurd comedy of ills!" At that he had a fit of coughing, and I gave him a glass of spirits, which eased him.
"That's better," said I cheerily to him.
"It's robbing Peter to pay Paul," he answered; "for I owed it to my head to put the quid refert there, and here it's gone to my lungs to hurry up my breathing. Did you ever think, Robert," he added, "that this breathing of ours is a labor, and that we have to work every second to keep ourselves alive? We have to pump air in and out like a blacksmith's boy." He said it so drolly, though he was deadly ill, that I laughed for half an hour at the stretch, wiping away my tears as I did it; for his pale gray face looked so sorry, with its quaint smile and that odd, dry voice of his.
As I sat there in my dungeon, with Gabord cocking his head and his eyes rolling, that scene flashed on me, and I laughed freely--so much so that Gabord sulkily puffed out his lips, and flamed like bunting on a coast-guard's hut. The more he scowled and spluttered, the more I laughed, till my wounded side hurt me and my arm had twinges. But my mood changed suddenly, and I politely begged his pardon, telling him frankly then and there what had made me laugh, and how I had come to think of it. The flame passed out of his cheeks, the revolving fire of his eyes dimmed, his lips broke into a soundless laugh, and then, in his big voice, he said:
"You've got your knees to pray on yet, and crack my bones, but you'll have need to con your penitentials if tattle in the town be true."
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