OF HOW THE VICOMTE PAID HIS DEBT

Orme lay for a considerable time in a dull stupor, unable to collect his
thoughts, but by degrees his senses came back, and he awoke to the
situation in which he was placed. He believed that it was idle to hope
for mercy; he was in the hands of a man who was not likely to trouble
himself further about his fate. He felt that he must die, and that he
must face death with what courage he could command. He had never thought
much about it before, but now when he stood face to face with death, it
became so real and so terrible that for a time he stood aghast at the
contemplation. He saw with awful vividness the preparations of the
morning, and he thought of the moment when his soul and body would part
company for ever. He was young, and the great mysteries of life and
death had never troubled him. The path of his duty had been simple and
plain; to stand by the truth, to show himself modest and pure and
valorous always, to betray no trust, and to worship God according to the
custom of his fathers–this was his creed and his plan of life;
according to this he had sought to live and die. He had no desire for
the martyr´s death and the martyr´s crown; he loved life and clung to
it, and now all the more when he was in danger of losing it. Men like
Hackett might find consolation and support in religion at a time like
this, but for himself it could not lift him superior to the fear of
suffering and the dread of death. There was, however, some consolation
in the thought that he had striven honestly to do his duty, and that he
had not begged in any unmanly way for life. Then his thoughts took
another turn, and his whole past life unrolled itself before him.
Incidents of his boyhood that he had long forgotten came fresh into his
mind. He saw the stream and the stepping-stones where he had been used
to fish, and the patches of sunshine glinting on the water through the
willows; the old stone house and its tall chimneys lifting themselves
among the oaks and firs; the dark wainscoted room where his father had
taught him from Tacitus and Cæsar; and he longed with a great longing
for life.
He raised himself from the straw and stretched out his hands in the
darkness. The walls of the shieling in which he was confined were of
wood, and he did not doubt that had he not been disabled he could have
forced his way out. As it was escape even yet might be possible. To feel
again the fresh wind blowing across the hillside and see the clear light
of the stars, and the dark green fields stretching under them–the
thought gave him strength and courage. Feeling carefully along the walls
of the shed, and searching for a loose plank he came to the door which
opened from without. He stood listening for the tread of the sentry´s
feet, but there was no sound audible but the beating of his own heart
that throbbed wildly with the hope of escape. The door was not guarded.
The planks of which the door was made, were light and had been roughly
put together, but he found it impossible to make any impression upon
them, though he strained and pulled till his wound broke out afresh. In
the darkness he searched for a weapon that might assist him, but he
could find nothing suited to his purpose. Again he followed the walls of
the shed with his hands, searching carefully for a weak place in the
timbers, but again he was unsuccessful. Then the great wave of hope
subsided, and he threw himself once more upon the straw to compose his
mind to meet with resignation the fate that was before him. There seemed
to be no hope of escape left. By degrees he grew calm, and from some odd
corner in his brain there came to his mind the lines–
“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.”
Again and again they repeated themselves until they seemed almost to
lose their meaning for him; but the feeling remained with him, and by
and by he found himself looking forward to the morning with resignation.
Suddenly in the unbroken quiet he heard the sound of footsteps on the
causeway without; then the door of the shed was opened, someone entered,
and the flash of a lantern for a moment dazzled his eyes. It was De
Laprade, flushed with wine and somewhat unsteady in his gait. Closing
the door behind him, he looked round and saw Gervase lying in the
corner.
“Eh, mon ami!” he said, laying down the lantern and removing his cloak,
“but you have had a bad quarter of an hour. It was my fear that they
would hang you at once, for these gentlemen are not nice in their
manners nor long in their grace. It would give me much delight to
measure swords with Galmoy, but the barbarian will not fight save when
he is drunk, and then I am generally far from sober myself. These are
not comfortable quarters,” he added abruptly, looking round him and
shrugging his shoulders.
“They are good enough for a dying man who has but a few hours to live,”
said Gervase gravely.
“For that we shall see,” was the answer. “They have succeeded, not
without difficulty, in putting my colonel to bed, and his condition is
such that he will be hard to awake. I, Victor de Laprade, will now
proceed to arrange matters for him. Are you able to stand?”
Gervase caught a glimpse of his meaning and again a wild hope arose in
his heart. But reflecting for a moment, he felt that he could not take
advantage of the gallant Frenchman´s generosity, and he shook his head.
“I cannot allow you,” he said, “to undergo further risk for me; I cannot
do it; already you have far more than repaid any kindness I was able to
render you.”
“Have no fear for me; I am able to answer any man who may dare to
question me in what I do or leave undone. You do not know me, Mr. Orme.
No man shall prevent my paying my debts of honour, whether they be debts
of friendship or enmity. And shall I refuse to give him his life to whom
I owe my own, when I have merely to turn the key in the door and say,
‘Friend, that is your road´? It is impossible.”
“But you do not recollect—-”
“I recollect perfectly. Let us not enter into heroics, my friend, for
this thing is simple and easy. Galmoy shall not know that to me you owe
your escape; indeed it is probable that in the morning he will have
forgotten you altogether, and remember only his headache. I have already
provided you with a horse; your captain´s great beast is the best in the
stable; and for a passport, this will have to serve your turn, though it
will be best that you should avoid showing it too frequently. The name
of De Laprade will not carry you far in this barbarous country. But, in
faith, the signature might pass for that of His Majesty King Louis
himself, or for that matter, of my Lord Galmoy. The handwriting is
hardly as sober as I could wish–indeed, it is cursedly tipsy. When we
next meet it may be at the sword´s point, in which case it were well to
forget this interlude of Corydon and Strephon and try what yesterday we
failed to finish. I have a pretty thrust in tierce that I should like to
show you.”
“If we meet I hope it will never be as enemies,” said Gervase with
warmth, “for I can never forget how much I owe you. I fear you undergo
great risk in thus serving me.”
“Find yourself safe on shipboard or within the walls of Londonderry, and
trouble not yourself about any danger that I may run. I can protect my
reputation and my honour with my sword, and for this act if need be I
shall answer to the king himself, though I fear he has not the nice
sense of honour. I knew him in Whitehall; he is no king, but a priest in
the purple, and a priest without piety. Your William is cold, but he is
the better man. There is but one thing more. Should you again find your
captain, tell him that I have not forgotten his promise, and that I look
forward with eagerness to our next interview. I have crossed swords with
Lauzun and Hamilton and will teach the clown to threaten a gentleman.
That is finished, and now to horse.”
Raising Gervase from the ground, he supported him to the door, in the
meantime wrapping his own cloak about his shoulders and warning him that
the night air was bad for a green wound. Then he left him for a minute
and returned almost immediately with Macpherson´s grey charger, already
harnessed. The windows of the tavern were still aglow with light, and
the sound of loud and uproarious laughter rang on the quiet night as he
helped Gervase into the the saddle. There was little likelihood of
pursuit, for it was clear that no precautions had been taken to guard
the prisoners, and before Gervase was missed he would have put many a
good mile between himself and his pursuers. The only fear was, that weak
and exhausted as he was, it would be impossible for him to continue his
journey for any length of time. Still, there was the sense of the
removal of a great dread, and a feeling of joyous freedom that gave him
new heart and strength. He gathered up the reins in his hands and at
that moment the recollection of Hackett flashed upon his mind.
“It was selfish and cowardly of me to have forgotten,” he said. “Is it
not also possible to save the sergeant? I feel that I am deserting a
comrade and I should not like to leave him.”
“What can you do for him,” said De Laprade, “but make one more for the
hangman? Your remaining will not save him; your going cannot harm him. I
cannot do more than I have done, but I tell you to be of good courage
regarding his safety, for I give you my word of honour that I will do
what I can for the psalm-singing rogue. Be of good cheer. And now you
will find a pistol in your holster which may be of some use. It may be
we shall meet again. Farewell!”
Gervase wrung De Laprade´s hand in silence and giving his impatient
horse the rein passed through the yard, and found himself in the village
street which lay quiet and dark before him. The tower of the church was
darkly outlined against the starlit sky, and from a distance the murmur
of the little stream stole with a hushed and solemn music through the
night. Nowhere was there sight or sound of life; to the ear of the rider
the hoofs of the horse rang upon the road with startling distinctness,
though he walked him slowly past the sleeping houses. Then he came to
the bridge, and on the bridge the the horse started suddenly and sniffed
at something lying at his feet. The night was dark with the moon lifting
faintly through a bank of cloud, but Gervase saw on the road the body of
a man lying on his back with his arms outspread. He dismounted with
difficulty and stooping down, saw it was Ralston. The body was already
cold and the pulse had ceased to beat. It was evident that he had been
surprised at his post, for his carbine lay undischarged at his side, and
the long sword he had carried lay under him, unloosed from the scabbard.
This was the young fellow whose merry song had disturbed Macpherson in
the morning–his lips were silent enough now. Gervase bent down and
touched the cold forehead. As yet he had not grown callous to the sight
of sudden death, and it was with a lump in his throat and a mist before
his eyes that he again set out on his perilous journey.


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The road, a mere cart-track, wound for several miles up the hill,
climbing for the most part through a dense growth of stunted firs, but
here and there winding through the open bog and hardly to be
distinguished from it. But the great horse seemed to have a natural
instinct for the beaten track, and put his generous shoulders bravely to
it. So steady he was and so footsure, that his rider let the reins fall
upon his neck and left him to choose his path as he pleased. A small
rain had begun to fall and there was a sharpness in the wind blowing
down the mountain-gap. But Gervase heeded neither the rain nor the wind.
For a time the sense of deliverance swallowed up every other thought,
but presently he began to consider what fate was in store for him. It
was hardly likely that he could reach Londonderry in safety, for the
enemy would by that time no doubt have completely invested the city; and
there was only a remote chance of his finding a ship in Lough Foyle,
could he get so far. He had now no doubt that the enemy held possession
of the roads; should he be fortunate enough to meet with part of the
regular force he did not much doubt that as a prisoner he would receive
honourable terms, but should he meet with a body of those marauders who
hung on the skirts of the regular army and whose main business was
robbery and murder, there was little hope of his life. But, after all,
was it not idle to hope to escape at all? Wounded as he was he could not
long continue his journey but must inevitably sink from weakness and
exhaustion.
[Illustration: “THE STRANGER CAUGHT HIS HORSE BY THE REIN”]
The road began to descend once more into the valley, and under the grey
light of the early dawn he could see the fields and hedgerows sloping
down to where the little river ran through clumps of hazel and osier. As
he drew towards the river the sound of running water was pleasant to
hear in the unbroken silence–a sign of movement and life. After a while
the road grew narrow and ran through an arch of tall poplars, through
which he could see the dull red light of the rising dawn at the further
end. On one side of the road was a sluggish pool of water and on the
other a high hedge of thorns. He had ridden half way through this dark
colonnade when he saw the figure of a man standing in the shadow,
apparently awaiting his approach. He could not see his face but he could
see that he had a weapon in his hand. He instinctively drew from his
holster the pistol with which De Laprade had provided him, and was about
to drive his spurs into the charger´s flanks, when the stranger sprang
forward, caught his horse by the rein, and placed the point of a sword
at his throat. Gervase presented his pistol at the head of his assailant
and fired point-blank, but the hammer snapped ineffectually on the
flint. Then he drave the spurs deep into the horse´s sides, but he
stopped short and refused to move.
“This has come as an answer to prayer,” said a deep voice. “Dismount,
sir, and that speedily; I have business to do that will not brook delay
and your necessity, however pressing, must yield to mine.”
In a moment Gervase recognized the full sonorous voice as that of
Macpherson. The horse, too, had recognized his master, for he gave a
joyous whinney.
“Use no force, Captain Macpherson,” said Gervase; “right glad am I to
see you, for I had begun to fear that we should meet no more.”
“It is Mr. Orme,” said the old soldier, lowering the point of his weapon
and placing his hand on the horse´s neck. “I knew not what withheld my
hand that I did not strike, but now I know. Little did I think as I
heard the sound of the horse´s feet far down the road that I was
listening to the tramp of my brave Bayard, or that it was for you that I
held my sword and prepared to strike hard and deep. It was God´s mercy
that my pistol was left behind or I should have brought you down like a
laverock on the wing. And how have the others fared?”
Gervase told him briefly what had happened, explaining how he owed his
life to the kindness of De Laprade, and how Hackett had been left
behind, with the prospect of a violent death before him.
Macpherson interrupted him with many interjaculations, and when he had
finished exclaimed dejectedly:
“My fault, my fault! that comes of sending a boy to do a man´s errand.
The lad fell asleep and the villains stole a march on us. There is no
use crying over milk that is spilt, but I would that I had arranged it
otherwise. And old Hackett–I saw he was made of the right stuff; they
may break but they will not bend him. I will yet make them pay for it.
And now let us hold a council of war, for in no case can we let the
grass grow under our feet.”
“I fear,” said Gervase, leaning forward on the horse´s neck and feeling
faint and ill, “that I am not in a condition to travel with much
expedition. I have lost some blood though I do not think the wound is
serious.”
“Hell´s fury! man, why did you not tell me that you had been touched?
Here have we been talking like a pair of garrulous gossips, while haply
in the meantime your wound needs that I should look to it. A hospital
hath been made ready to our hand, and if needs be we can pass a day or
two here in safety, for I do not think the enemy will trouble us. I had
already made my bivouac, when I heard Bayard on the road, and turned out
to see if I could not better my fortune.”
Taking the horse by the bridle he led him a short distance down the
road, and then turning abruptly up a path to the right through a small
plantation of oaks and poplars, came upon an open space, lately used as
a farm-yard, before a low thatched house built of stone and roughly
plastered over. The roof had been fired at one end, but the oak rafters
were still standing blackened and charred; at the other, where the
thatch had not ignited, the roof was still intact. The door lay open,
through which shone the glow of a hospitable fire that burned in the
open hearth. Macpherson had fastened his cloak against the open window
to shut in the light and prevent it being seen from the outside. The
greater portion of the simple furniture still stood as the owner had
left it–a high-backed oak chair drawn up to the hearth, the rough
earthenware ranged upon a dresser against the wall, a bed, known as a
settle, in a corner, and a small table roughly put together, under the
window.
Macpherson helped his young friend off the horse and gently supported
him into the kitchen. “We will look to your wound presently,” he said,
“but first it behoves us to set our guard and prepare against the
approach of the enemy. Howbeit they will not trouble us here; we may lie
_perdu_ for a week if needs must, though it were well we should be astir
as soon as you think you can travel.”
“A day´s rest will set me on my feet, I doubt not,” said Gervase
wearily, “but we cannot live without food, though the bullet they have
bestowed on me has somewhat robbed me of an appetite.”
“Be not troubled on that score; I am too long campaigning not to have an
eye to the commissariat, which matter is too often neglected by the
great masters of strategy; ´tis half the art of war. There are several
measures of meal in the chest yonder; there are some lean fowl roosting
in the byre, and I heard the lowing of a cow in the little meadow at the
foot of the orchard, though I cannot understand why her owner should
have left her behind, unless, as I take to have been the case, his
flitting was of the speediest. But why the rogues should have overlooked
spoil so much to their mind passes my comprehension.”
“Perchance,” said Gervase, with a wan smile, “´tis _vox et praeterea
nihil_.”
“A vox that runs on four legs, and will furnish us with some excellent
beef when I have passed my sword across the throat of the same. I
remember that such a beast furnished five of us with excellent, if
scanty, sustenance for a month, until we fell out over the horns and
hoofs, and two of us were removed thereafter from all need of earthly
provender. But ´tis not likely that thou and I will come to such a
pass,” he added, holding out his broad brown palm, while a gleam of
kindly humour lighted up his rugged face.
“I am but fit for the hospital, and am like to be a heavy burden on your
hands.”
“Tut, tut, man, never despair till the last shot is fired, and the
garrison has hauled down its ensign in token of surrender. I had been a
passable leech had I not rather cared to break heads than to mend them,
whereby it seems to me the two trades are but complements the one of the
other. In a day or two at the furthest you will be able to hold your own
with any cut-throat rascal who cries for James Stuart. For that you may
trust Ninian Macpherson.”
The old soldier had a good many sides to his character; as yet Gervase
had only seen the praying and the fighting sides. He was now to see him
as a loyal comrade, ready to cheer him with words of comfort; helpful as
a brother, tender as a woman. In half an hour he had looked to his
wound, which had opened afresh and bled considerably, had prepared a
meal, and had stretched a bed for him along the hearth, which though
rough and hard, was very acceptable in his present condition. Then
Bayard was stabled at the further end of the building, and the day had
already risen broad and clear with the singing of birds and the whisper
of the soft spring wind, as Macpherson wrapped himself in his cloak and
with his saddle under his head, gave himself up to sleep.