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- When Valmond Came to Pontiac, Volume 3. - 1/10 -
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]
WHEN VALMOND CAME TO PONTIAC
The Story of a Lost Napoleon
By Gilbert Parker
The sickness had come like a whirlwind: when it passed, what would be left? The fight went on in the quiet hills--a man of no great stature or strength, against a monster who racked him in a fierce embrace. A thousand scenes flashed through Valmond's brain, before his eyes, while the great wheel of torture went round, and he was broken, broken-mended and broken again, upon it. Spinning--he was for ever spinning, like a tireless moth through a fiery air; and the world went roaring past. In vain he cried to the wheelman to stop the wheel: there was no answer. Would those stars never cease blinking in and out, or the wind stop whipping the swift clouds past? So he went on, endless years, driving through space, some terrible intangible weight dragging at his heart, and all his body panting as it spun.
Grotesque faces came and went, and bright-eyed women floated by, laughing at him, beckoning to him; but he could not come, because of this endless going. He heard them singing, he felt the divine notes in his battered soul; he tried to weep for the hopeless joy of it; but the tears came no higher than his throat. Why did they mock him so? At last, all the figures merged into one, and she had the face--ah, he had seen it centuries ago!--of Madame Chalice. Strange that she was so young still, and that was so long past--when he stood on a mountain, and, clambering a high wall of rock, looked over into a happy No-man's Land.
Why did the face elude him so, flashing in and out of the vapours? Why was its look sorrowful and distant? And yet there was that perfect smile, that adorable aspect of the brow, that light in the deep eyes. He tried to stop the eternal spinning, but it went remorselessly on; and presently the face was gone; but not till it had given him ease of his pain.
Then came fighting, fighting, nothing but fighting--endless charges of cavalry, continuous wheelings and advancings and retreatings, and the mad din of drums; afterwards, in a swift quiet, the deep, even thud of the horses' hoofs striking the ground. Flags and banners flaunted gaily by. How the helmets flashed, and the foam flew from the bits! But those flocks of blackbirds flying over the heads of the misty horsemen--they made him shiver. Battle, battle, battle, and death, and being born--he felt it all.
All at once there came a wide peace and clearing, and the everlasting jar and movement ceased. Then a great pause, and light streamed round him, comforting him.
It seemed to him that he was lying helpless and still by falling water in a valley. The water soothed him, and he fell asleep. After a long time he waked, and dimly knew that a face, good to look at, was bending over him. In a vague, far-off way he saw that it was Elise Malboir; but even as he saw, his eyes closed, the world dropped away, and he sank to sleep again.
It was no vision or delirium; for Elise had come. She had knelt beside his bed, and given him drink, and smoothed his pillow; and once, when no one was in the tent, she stooped and kissed his hot dark lips, and whispered words that were not for his ears to hear, nor to be heard by any one of this world. The good Cure found her there. He had not heart to bid her go home, and he made it clear to the villagers that he approved of her great kindness. But he bade her mother also come, and she stayed in a tent near by.
Lagroin and two hundred men held the encampment, and every night the recruits arrived from the village, drilled as before, and waited for the fell disease to pass. No one knew its exact nature, but now and again, in long years, some one going to Dalgrothe Mountain was seized by it, and died, or was left stricken with a great loss of the senses, or the limbs. Yet once or twice, they said, men had come up from it no worse at all. There was no known cure, and the Little Chemist could only watch the swift progress of the fever, and use simple remedies to allay the suffering. Parpon knew that the disease had seized upon Valmond the night of the burial of Gabriel. He remembered now the sickly, pungent air that floated past, and how Valmond, weak from the loss of blood in the fight at the smithy, shuddered, and drew his cloak about him. A few days would end it, for good or ill.
Madame Chalice heard the news with consternation, and pity would have sent her to Valmond's bedside, but that she found Elise was his faithful nurse and servitor. This fixed in her mind the belief that if Valmond died, he would leave both misery and shame behind; if he lived, she should, in any case, see him no more. But she sent him wines and delicacies, and she also despatched a messenger to a city sixty miles away, for the best physician. Then she sought the avocat, to discover whether he had any exact information as to Valmond's friends in Quebec, or in France. She had promised not to be his enemy, and she remembered with a sort of sorrow that she had told him she meant to be his friend; but, having promised, she would help him in his sore strait.
She had heard of De la Riviere's visit to Valmond, and she intended sending for him, but delayed it. The avocat told her nothing: matters were in abeyance, and she abided the issue; meanwhile getting news of the sick man twice a day. More, she used all her influence to keep up the feeling for him in the country, to prevent flagging of enthusiasm. This she did out of a large heart, and a kind of loyalty to her temperament and to his own ardour for his cause. Until he was proved the comedian (in spite of the young Seigneur) she would stand by him, so far as his public career was concerned. Misfortune could not make her turn from a man; it was then she gave him a helping hand. What was between him and Elise was for their own souls and consciences.
As she passed the little cottage in the field the third morning of Valmond's illness, she saw the girl entering. Elise had come to get some necessaries for Valmond and for her mother. She was pale; her face had gained a spirituality, a refinement, new and touching. Madame Chalice was tempted to go and speak to her, and started to do so, but turned back.
"No, no, not until we know the worst of this illness--then!" she said to herself.
But ten minutes later De la Riviere was not so kind. He had guessed a little at Elise's secret, and as he passed the house on the way to visit Madame Chalice, seeing the girl, he came to the door and said:
"How goes it with the distinguished gentleman, Elise? I hear you are his slave."
The girl turned a little pale. She was passing a hot iron over some coarse sheets, and, pausing, she looked steadily at him and replied:
"It is not far to Dalgrothe Mountain, monsieur."
"The journey's too long for me; I haven't your hot young blood," he said suggestively.
"It was not so long a dozen years ago, monsieur." De la Riviere flushed to his hair. That memory was a hateful chapter in his life--a boyish folly, which involved the miller's wife. He had buried it, the village had forgotten it,--such of it as knew,--and the remembrance of it stung him. He had, however, brought it on himself, and he must eat the bitter fruit.
The girl's eyes were cold and hard. She knew him to be Valmond's enemy, and she had no idea of sparing him. She knew also that he had been courteous enough to send a man each day to inquire after Valmond, but that was not to the point; he was torturing her, he had prophesied the downfall of her "spurious Napoleon."
"It will be too long a journey for you, and for all, presently," he said.
"You mean that His Excellency will die?" she asked, her heart beating so hard that it hurt her. Yet the flat-iron moved backwards and forwards upon the sheets mechanically.
"Or fight a Government," he answered. "He has had a good time, and good times can't last for ever, can they, Elise? Have you ever thought of that?"
She turned pale and swayed over the table. In an instant he was beside her; for though he had been irritable and ungenerous, he had at bottom a kind heart. Catching up a glass of water, he ran an arm round her waist and held the cup to her lips.
"What's the matter, my girl?" he asked. "There, pull yourself together."
She drew away from him, though grateful for his new attitude. She could not bear everything. She felt nervous and strangely weak.
"Won't you go, monsieur?" she said, and turned to her ironing again.
He looked at her closely, and not unkindly. For a moment the thought possessed him that evil and ill had come to her. But he put it away from him, for there was that in her eyes which gave his quick suspicions the lie. He guessed now that the girl loved Valmond, and he left her with that thought. Going up the hill, deep in thought, he called at the Manor, to find that Madame Chalice was absent, and would not be back till evening.
When Elise was left alone, a weakness seized her again, as it had done when De la Riviere was present. She had had no sleep in four days, and it was wearing on her, she said to herself, refusing to believe that a sickness was coming. Leaving the kitchen, she went up to her bedroom. Opening the window, she sat down on the side of the bed and looked round. She figured Valmond in her mind as he stood in this place and that, his voice, his words to her, the look in his face, the clasp of his hand.
All at once she sprang up, fell on her knees before the little shrine of the Virgin, and burst into tears. Her rich hair, breaking loose, flowed round her-the picture of a Magdalen; but it was, in truth, a pure girl with a true heart. At last she calmed herself and began to pray:
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