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- The Seats Of The Mighty, Volume 2. - 3/15 -
his coat, and hurriedly thrust into my hands, a piece of meat and a small flask of wine, and, swinging round like a schoolboy afraid of being caught in a misdemeanor, he passed through the door and the bolts clanged after him. He left the torch behind him, stuck in the cleft of the wall.
I sat down on my couch, and for a moment gazed almost vacantly at the meat and wine in my hands. I had not touched either for a year, and now I could see that my fingers, as they closed on the food nervously, were thin and bloodless, and I realized that my clothes hung loose upon my person. Here were light, meat, and wine, and there was a piece of bread on the board covering my water-jar. Luxury was spread before me, but although I had eaten little all day I was not hungry. Presently, however, I took the knife which I had hidden a year before, and cut pieces of the meat and laid them by the bread. Then I drew the cork from the bottle of wine, and, lifting it towards that face which was always visible to my soul, I drank--drank--drank!
The rich liquor swam through my veins like glorious fire. It wakened my brain and nerved my body. The old spring of life came back. This wine had come from the hands of Alixe--from the Governor's store, maybe; for never could Gabord have got such stuff. I ate heartily of the rich beef and bread with a new-made appetite, and drank the rest of the wine. When I had eaten and drunk the last, I sat and looked at the glowing torch, and felt a sort of comfort creep through me. Then there came a delightful thought. Months ago I had put away one last pipeful of tobacco, to save it till some day when I should need it most. I got it, and no man can guess how lovingly I held it to a flying flame of the torch, saw it light, and blew out the first whiff of smoke into the sombre air; for November was again piercing this underground house of mine, another winter was at hand. I sat and smoked, and--can you not guess my thoughts? For have you all not the same hearts, being British born and bred? When I had taken the last whiff, I wrapped myself in my cloak and went to sleep. But twice or thrice during the night I waked to see the torch still shining, and caught the fragrance of consuming pine, and minded not at all the smoke the burning made.
A LITTLE CONCERNING THE CHEVALIER DE LA DARANTE
I was wakened completely by the shooting of bolts. With the opening of the door I saw the figures of Gabord and Voban. My little friend the mouse saw them also, and scampered from the bread it had been eating, away among the corn, through which my footsteps had now made two rectangular paths, not disregarded by Gabord, who solicitously pulled Voban into the narrow track, that he should not trespass on my harvest.
I rose, showed no particular delight at seeing Voban, but greeted him easily--though my heart was bursting to ask him of Alixe--and arranged my clothes. Presently Gabord said, "Stools for barber," and, wheeling, he left the dungeon. He was gone only an instant, but long enough for Voban to thrust a letter into my hand, which I ran into the lining of my waistcoat as I whispered, "Her brother--he is well?"
"Well, and he have go to France," he answered. "She make me say, look to the round window in the Chateau front."
We spoke in English--which, as I have said, Voban understood imperfectly. There was nothing more said, and if Gabord, when he returned, suspected, he showed no sign, but put down two stools, seating himself on one, as I seated myself on the other for Voban's handiwork. Presently a soldier appeared with a bowl of coffee. Gabord rose, took it from him, waved him away, and handed it to me. Never did coffee taste so sweet, and I sipped and sipped till Voban had ended his work with me. Then I drained the last drop and stood up. He handed me a mirror, and Gabord, fetching a fine white handkerchief from his pocket, said, "Here's for your tears, when they drum you to heaven, dickey-bird."
But when I saw my face in the mirror, I confess I was startled. My hair, which had been black, was plentifully sprinkled with white, my face was intensely pale and thin, and the eyes were sunk in dark hollows. I should not have recognized myself. But I laughed as I handed back the glass, and said, "All flesh is grass, but a dungeon's no good meadow."
"'Tis for the dry chaff," Gabord answered, "not for young grass--aho!"
He rose and made ready to leave, Voban with him. "The commissariat camps here in an hour or so," he said, with a ripe chuckle.
It was clear the new state of affairs was more to his mind than the long year's rigour and silence. It seemed to me strange then, and it has seemed so ever since, that during all that time I never was visited by Doltaire but once, and of that event I am going to write briefly here.
It was about two months before this particular morning that he came, greeting me courteously enough.
"Close quarters here," said he, looking round as if the place were new to him and smiling to himself.
"Not so close as we all come to one day," said I.
"Dismal comparison!" he rejoined; "you've lost your spirits."
"Not so," I retorted; "nothing but my liberty."
"You know the way to find it quickly," he suggested.
"The letters for La Pompadour?" I asked.
"A dead man's waste papers," responded he; "of no use to him or you, or any one save the Grande Marquise."
"Valuable to me," said I.
"None but the Grande Marquise and the writer would give you a penny for them!"
"Why should I not be my own merchant?"
"You can--to me. If not to me, to no one. You had your chance long ago, and you refused it. You must admit I dealt fairly with you. I did not move till you had set your own trap and fallen into it. Now, if you do not give me the letters--well, you will give them to none else in this world. It has been a fair game, and I am winning now. I've only used means which one gentleman might use with another. Had you been a lesser man I should have had you spitted long ago. You understand?"
"Perfectly. But since we have played so long, do you think I'll give you the stakes now--before the end?"
"It would be wiser," he answered thoughtfully.
"I have a nation behind me," urged I.
"It has left you in a hole here to rot."
"It will take over your citadel and dig me out some day," I retorted hotly.
"What good that? Your life is more to you than Quebec to England."
"No, no," said I quickly; "I would give my life a hundred times to see your flag hauled down!"
"A freakish ambition," he replied; "mere infatuation!"
"You do not understand it, Monsieur Doltaire," I remarked ironically.
"I love not endless puzzles. There is no sport in following a maze that leads to nowhere save the grave." He yawned. "This air is heavy," he added; "you must find it trying."
"Never as trying as at this moment," I retorted.
"Come, am I so malarious?"
"You are a trickster," I answered coldly.
"Ah, you mean that night at Bigot's?" He smiled. "No, no, you were to blame--so green. You might have known we were for having you between the stones."
"But it did not come out as you wished?" hinted I.
"It served my turn," he responded; and he gave me such a smiling, malicious look that I knew sought to convey he had his way with Alixe; and though I felt that she was true to me, his cool presumption so stirred me I could have struck him in the face. I got angrily to my feet, but as I did so I shrank a little, for at times the wound in my side, not yet entirely healed, hurt me.
"You are not well," he said, with instant show of curiosity; "your wounds still trouble you? They should be healed. Gabord was ordered to see you cared for."
"Gabord has done well enough," answered I. "I have had wounds before, monsieur."
He leaned against the wall and laughed. "What braggarts you English are!" he said. "A race of swashbucklers--even on bread and water!"
He had me at advantage, and I knew it, for he had kept his temper. I made an effort. "Both excellent," rejoined I, "and English too."
He laughed again. "Come, that is better. That's in your old vein. I love to see you so. But how knew you our baker was English?--which he is, a prisoner like yourself."
"As easily as I could tell the water was not made by Frenchmen."
"Now I have hope of you," he broke out gaily; "you will yet
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