THE BLUE PAVILIONS
THE TRIBULATIONS OF TRISTRAM.
"I think there must be some mistake," said Tristram, as he turned in surprise and saw a tall man of soldierly presence, with three stalwart comrades immediately behind him.
"No mistake at all," said the tall man, with conviction. "My orders are to arrest and convey you back to The Hague."
"But I am about to leave Holland, and this will cause me considerable delay."
"In that case," Tristram replied, springing back a pace and whipping out his sword, "I must decline to follow you."
"Bah! This is folly."
"On the contrary, it is the conclusion of a valid syllogism which I will explain to you if you have time."
"Seize him!" was the only answer. The four men drew their swords and rushed forward together. Perceiving that he must be skewered against the shop door if he awaited their onset, Tristram contented himself with disarming his foremost assailant; then, springing wildly back on his left heel, he spun round and began to run down the street for dear life.
His movement had been so sudden that he gained a dozen yards before his enemies recovered from their surprise and set off in pursuit. Sword in hand, Tristram flew along the causeway, under the high garden-walls, for the open country and the windmills ahead. He heard the feet pounding after him, but luckily did not look behind. Therefore he was ignorant that his leading pursuer carried a brace of pistols in his belt and was pulling one out as he ran.
It was so, however; and in half a minute the pistol cracked out behind him—as it seemed, at the very back of his ear.
He sped on nevertheless, not knowing if he were wounded or not, but very wisely deciding that this was the surest way to find out.
As it happened, this pistol-shot proved of the greatest service to him. For an inquisitive burgher, hearing the outcries along the road, had popped his head out of his garden door at the very moment that Tristram whizzed by, followed by the detonation. The burgher, too, was uncertain about the bullet, but determined on the instant to take the gloomier view. He therefore fell across the pavement on his stomach and bellowed.
The distraction was so sudden that two of the pursuers tripped over his prostrate form and fell headlong. Their swords clanged on the cobbles. With the clang there mingled the sound of a muffled explosion.
"Curse the idiot! You've killed him, Dick."
The pair picked themselves up as their comrades leapt past them. Dick snatched up his second pistol, and resumed the pursuit without troubling his head about the burgher.
The burgher picked himself up and extracted the ball—from the folds of his voluminous breeches. Then he went indoors for ointment and plaster, the flame of the powder having scorched him severely. Later he had the bent guelder (which had diverted the bullet) fastened to a little gold chain, and his wife wore it always on the front of her bodice. Finally it became an heirloom in a thriving Dutch family.
But he was a very slow man, and all this took a considerable time. Meanwhile we have left Tristram running, about thirty yards ahead of his foremost enemy.
He gained the end of the quiet suburb, still maintaining his distance, and scanned the landscape in front. Evening was descending fast. To his right he saw the waters of a broad canal glimmering under the grey sky. Straight before him the high-road ran, without so much as a tree to shelter him, for miles. On the horizon a score of windmills waved their arms like beckoning ghosts. He was a good swimmer. It flashed upon him that his one hope was to make for the canal and strike for the farther bank. There was a reasonable chance of shaking off one or more of his pursuers by this device.
He leapt the narrow ditch that ran parallel with the road, and began to bear across the green meadows in a line which verged towards the canal-bank, at an angle sufficiently acute to prevent his foes from intercepting him by a short cut. By their shouts he judged that his guess was fairly correct, and the prospect of having to swim the canal daunted them somewhat. He looked over his shoulder. The pace had told upon three of them, but one man had actually gained on him, and could not be more than twenty strides behind.
"I shall have to settle with this fellow," he thought. "He is going to catch me up before I reach the bank."
His first wind was failing him, and his heart began to thump against his ribs. He spied a beaten path at this point that trended across the meadow at a blunter angle than the one he was following. Almost unconsciously he began to reason as follows:
"A beaten path is usually the shortest cut: also, to follow it is usually to escape the risk of meeting unforeseen obstacles. But if I change the angle at which I am running for one more obtuse, I give my pursuer the advantage of ten yards or so. Yes; but I shorten the distance to be covered, and, moreover, this is a long-distance man, and he is wearing me down."
Though this process of reasoning appeared to him deliberate enough, in point of fact he had worked it out and put the conclusion into practice in a couple of bounds. As he darted aside and along the footpath he could hear the momentary break in his antagonist's stride.
Tristram had hardly turned into this footpath, however, before he saw the occasion of it. Just before him lay a plank, and beneath the plank a sunken dyke, dividing the meadow so unexpectedly that at fifty yards' distance the green lips seemed to meet in one continuous stretch of turf. And yet the dyke was full forty feet wide. He leapt on to the swaying bridge and across to the farther edge, almost without a glance at the sluggish black water under his feet.
It is probable that his sudden weight jolted the plank out of its position. For hardly was he safe on the turf again when he heard a sharp cry. Throwing a look behind, he saw his pursuer totter, clutch at the slipping timber, and, still clutching at it, turn a somersault and disappear.
Tristram ran on. Then a series of shouts rang in his ear, and he looked behind again. The other three men had come up, and were running aimlessly to and fro upon the farther bank. From the pit at their feet rose a gurgling and heartrending appeal for help. It was plain the poor fellow was drowning, and equally plain that his comrades could not swim. Tristram took a couple of strides, and halted. Then he faced about and walked back towards the dyke, his heart still knocking against his ribs.
"Help! help!" resounded from the depths of the dyke.
"Gentlemen," said Tristram, "are you aware that your comrade is perishing?"
They stared at him helplessly. Without more to-do he slipped off his shoes, and sliding down the bank, flung himself forward into the icy water. In two strokes he was able to grasp the drowning man by the collar and began to tug him towards the bank.
But it appeared that the fellow had other views on the right method of being saved: for, casting his arms about Tristram's neck and wreathing them tightly, he not only resisted all efforts to drag him ashore, but began to throttle his rescuer. In the struggle both went under.
As the water closed over them the drowning man relaxed his hold a little, and Tristram, breaking free, rose to the surface coughing and spouting like a whale. Another moment, and a hand appeared above the water, its fingers hooked like a bird's talons. This grisly appeal determined Tristram to make another attempt. He kicked out, seized the uplifted arm just around the wrist, and with half a dozen fierce strokes managed to gain the bank at the feet of his enemies. While he dug a hand into the soft mud and paused for a moment to shift his hold and draw breath, one of the three unclasped a leathern belt and dangled it over the brink. Tristram reached out, caught it by the buckle, and was helped up with his burden. Two pairs of strong arms grasped and pulled him forward.
"Turn him—on his face and let the water—run out; then on his back— give him air!" he gasped, and with that fainted clean away on the green turf.
When his senses came back, the three men were bending over him.
"Where is the other one?" he asked feebly.
"Oh, Dick's all right." And indeed Dick was sitting up a few paces off, and coughing violently.
"But look here, you've played us a pretty trick!" the voice went on.
Tristram did not know that his wig had been lost in the struggle, or that the burnt cork which Captain Salt had applied was now running across his face in a vague smear. He had forgotten all about his disguise.
"I was thinking," he answered simply, "that you might give me the start I held before this happened. Fifteen yards, gentlemen, is as near as I can guess it. Don't you think that would be fair!"
"But why should we chase you at all?"
"Upon my word, sirs, I don't know. I took it for granted that you must have some motive."
"So we had; but it appears that you are not Captain Salt."
"That is certain. A man cannot well be his own father."
"But you are disguised to resemble him."
"Ah! I remember. It was a fancy of his to dress me thus, an hour back. But stop a minute—I begin to perceive. You were after my father?"
"Yes, to arrest him. The King suspects him of carrying treasonable papers."
As the full treachery of his father's conduct began to dawn upon Tristram, they heard the clatter of hoofs on the road at their back, and turned. A thin moon hung in the twilight sky. It was just that hour before dark when the landscape looks flat to the eye, and forms at a little distance grow confused in outline. Yet they could see the horseman plainly enough to recognise him. It was Captain Salt who flew past, well out of pistol-shot, and headed southwards at a stretch-gallop, his hands down and his shoulders bent as he rode.
"Devil seize him if he hasn't got my mare!" roared the man Dick, forgetting his cough and leaping to his feet. "I can tell the sorrel a mile away!"
Then followed a dismayed silence as they watched the escaping rider.
"She's the best nag of the four, too," one of the men muttered gloomily.
"Boys," said the fellow who had first arrested Tristram, "he's done us for a certainty. In an hour or two he'll reach the French outposts. We must go back and patch up the best story we can find. Young man," he added, turning sharply, "I'd like to be certain you're as big a fool as you make out. Where d'ye come from, and where are ye bound for?"
Tristram told his story ingenuously enough.
"We'll have to search you."
They searched him and found a sealed packet.
"What is this?"
"Pepper-cress be damned!" was the only comment.
However, when the packet was opened it was found that he spoke the truth.
"Well, we can't take you along with us, or we shall have to tell his Majesty the truth; which is something more improbable than I care to risk. Moreover, you've saved a comrade—"
"And many thanks for it, my lad," Dick added, shaking Tristram by the hand.
"Therefore you're free to go. The question is, where you do want to go?"
"Harwich is a long way; and you've lost your passport. However, there's a chance you may find a boat on the coast to smuggle you over. Cross the canal yonder, and bear away to the west. There's a road'll take you to Nieupoort. But first you'll have to pass this cursed dyke, unless you care to follow us back to the town and walk round."
"Thank you, no; I'll push on. I've crossed the dyke twice already this evening, and a second wetting won't matter much. Besides, I see my sword and shoes lying on the other bank."
He said farewell, slid down into the dyke again, and swam across. Then, regaining his property, he turned, called back another "Good night!" and bore resolutely across the meadow, the water squishing in his shoes at every step. The one purpose in his head was to reach the coast. He was young and sick of heart, but his gentle mind abhorred from considering his father's baseness. He thought only of home and Sophia.
In a minute or two he began to run; for the night air searched his sodden clothes and chilled him. The sky was starless, too, but he saw the dull gleam of the canal, and made for it. Then he followed the towpath southward for half a mile, and came to a bridge, and crossing it found himself upon a firm high-road leading (as it seemed) straight towards the west, for it certainly diverged from the canal at something like a right angle. Unfortunately, Tristram could not see in the gloom that the canal here took a sharp bend inland, and in consequence he tramped on with his face set almost due south, nothing doubting of his direction, but hoping, as each hour passed, that the next would bring him within sound of the surf. The road ran straight for mile after mile. Now and again he passed a small cabaret brightly lit and merry with a noise of talk and laughter that warmed his heart for a moment. In the stretches of darkness between he met one or two wayfarers, who wished him "Good night" in gruff voices and passed on. Not understanding what they said, he made no reply, but pushed forward briskly, breaking into a run whenever the cold began to creep upon him. By and by the road was completely deserted. The lights no longer shone from the lower floors of the wayside cottages, but, after lingering for a while in the bedroom windows, vanished altogether. The whole country slept. Then followed hour after hour of dogged walking. A thick haze encircled the moon, and under it a denser exhalation began to creep up from the sodden land. In the silence the fog gathered till it seemed to bar the way like a regiment of white ghosts, wavering and closing its ranks as the wind stirred over the levels. This wind breathed on his right cheek steadily. He never guessed that it came from the sea, nor remembered that when he ran towards the canal it had been blowing full in his face.
It was in the chilliest hour—the one before dawn—that a voice suddenly called out from the fog ahead:
"Qui va la?"
Tristram halted, then took another step forward in some uncertainty.
The voice repeated its challenge in an angrier tone; and this time our hero stood stock-still. The misfortune was that he knew not a word of the French language.
Once more the voice called. Then a trigger clicked, a yellow flare leapt out on the fog with a roar, and something sang by Tristram's ear. He jumped off the road and pelted across the meadow to his right. A second shot was sent after him, but this time very wide of its mark. Then, as it seemed, at his very feet a dozen black forms rose out of the earth. He tripped over one and went floundering on to his nose. As his hands touched the ground, a score of bright sparks flew up and were extinguished. With a cry of pain he rolled upon his back, and was at once pinned to the ground by a dozen firm hands.
He had blundered full-tilt across the embers of a French camp-fire.
A lantern was lit and thrust close to his face. He blinked painfully for a moment or two, and then perceived that he lay within a circle of fierce, grey-coated soldiers, who were putting him a score of questions in a tongue which he felt sure it would take him a year to master.
He endeavoured to say so.
"Ar-r-rh!" exclaimed one of the soldiers, spitting contemptuously, "C'est un Anglais."
"J'en reponds." He gave an order, and in a trice Tristram's wrists were strapped together with a handkerchief. Then he was heaved up on his feet, and a couple of men took him, each by an arm. They were about to march him off, when a voice hailed them, and up rode a general officer, with two dragoons cantering behind him for escort.
"Qu'y a-t-il, mes enfants?" He had plainly been disturbed by the noise of the firing.
The soldiers murmured, "M. de Soisson!" and presented arms. Then they explained matters, and thrust Tristram forward, holding the lantern uncomfortably near his face.
M. de Soisson began an interrogatory in good French. As the prisoner shook his head, he harked back and repeated his questions in extremely bad English. Tristram answered them truthfully, which had the effect of raising disbelief in M. de Soisson's breast. After ten minutes this disbelief grew to such an extent that the peppery officer turned to the sergeant and ordered Tristram to be taken off to the barn where the deserters were kept under guard.
This barn lay a mile to the rear, across half a dozen meadows, over which Tristram was hurried at a quick trot, with the point of a bayonet at his back to discountenance delay. On arriving at the building he was held while the sergeant unlocked the door. Then he was kicked into inner darkness. He stumbled over the legs of a man who cursed him volubly, and dropped on to a heap of straw. Within ten minutes he was asleep, utterly worn out both in body and mind.
Three hours passed, and then the door of the barn was flung open and another sergeant appeared with a squad of soldiers at his back. He strode through the barn, kicking the sleepers, among whom was our hero. Tristram sat up and rubbed his eyes. He was one of at least three dozen poor wretches, hollow-eyed, lean of cheek, and shivering with famine, whom the sergeant proceeded to drive into a small crowd near the entrance, shouting an order which was repeated outside. Six men appeared, each carrying a load of chains. With these he fastened his prisoners together, two-and-two, by the wrist and ankle, and marched them out into the open air.
Outside the rain was descending sullenly, and in this downpour the captives waited for a mortal hour. Then three men came along, bearing trays heaped up with thick hunks of brown bread. A hunk was doled out to each of the gang, and Tristram ate his portion greedily, slaking his thirst afterwards by sucking at the sleeve of his cloak. He had hardly done when the sergeant gave the word to march.
That day they tramped steadily till sunset, when they reached the town of Courtrai, and were halted on the outskirts. Here they remained for half an hour in the road while the sergeant sought for quarters. Tristram's comrade—that is to say, the man who was attached to him by the wrist and ankle—was sulky and extremely dejected. As for Tristram, his very soul shuddered as he looked back upon the journey. He was wet to the skin and aching; his teeth chattered with an ague; his legs were so weary that he could scarcely drag them along. But worse than the shiverings, the weariness, and the weight of his fetters, were the revolting sights he had witnessed along the road—men dropping with hunger and faintness, kicked to their feet again, prodded with bayonets till the blood ran, knouted with a thick whip if they broke step, jeered at when they shrieked (as some did) for mercy. There was worse to come, and he alone of all the gang was ignorant of it. Very merciful was the confusion of tongues which hid that knowledge from him for a few hours.
At length they were marched back half a mile and turned into a barn, narrower than their shelter of the previous night. Nor was there any straw in it. They slept on the hard bricks, pillowing their heads on each other's legs, or lay awake and listened to their fellows' moans. Two sentries with loaded muskets kept guard by the door, and looked in whenever a chain clanked or some unfortunate began to rave in his sleep. Before morning a third of the gang was sickening for rheumatic fever or typhus. At six o'clock the sergeant entered and examined them. Then he retired, and came back in another hour with a covered wagon, into which the sick were hoisted and packed like herrings. All who had power to move their legs were afterwards turned out and treated to a pound and a half of the "King's bread" and a drink of water before starting. Tristram was one of these. The fever had relieved him of his companion, and this day he marched with more comfort, albeit his wrists were bound together and a rope of ten yards or more tied him by the waist to a couple of fettered deserters in front.
The weather had lifted somewhat; but the roads were still heavy, and their pace was regulated by the covered wagon, which seemed to loiter malevolently, as if to get every possible jolt out of the rutted highway. With every jolt came a scream from one or more of the sick men inside. Some, however, were past screaming, and babbled continuously in high delirium; and the ceaseless, monotonous talk of these tortured Tristram's ears from Courtrai to Lille.
They reached Lille long after dark, and were driven through the streets, between the bright windows of happier men, to the gloomy tower of Saint Pierre, that at this time was set apart for galley-slaves. On entering the prison they were marshalled in a long corridor, where a couple of jailers searched them all over. Nothing was found on Tristram but his packet of pepper-cress seed, which the searchers obligingly returned. As soon as this ceremony was over, all who were not broken with fever were led up two flights of stone stairs. An iron door was opened, and the sound of heavy snoring struck their ears. Inside they perceived by the light of the jailer's lantern a dozen figures stretched on straw pallets, and between the sleepers as many more empty couches, for which the newcomers were left to scramble. Tristram secured one as the door clanged and left them in pitch-black night, but gave it up to a pitiful wretch who crept near and kissing his hand implored leave to share it. Curling himself up upon the bare floor, he was quickly asleep and dreaming of Sophia.
A hand shook his shoulder and aroused him. Looking up, he saw a couple of villainous faces, which he did not recognise as belonging to the gang he had been walking with for two days. It was morning, as he could perceive by the light that was strained through a cobwebbed grating over his head.
The two men demanded if he wished to be tossed in a blanket. Tristram, not understanding, shook his head.
They thereupon demanded money and began to threaten. Tristram hit one violently in the eye, and catching the other by the throat pounded his head against the wall of the dungeon. He was surprised at the strength left in him, and also at a fury which he had never felt before in his life. A few of the prisoners roused themselves listlessly and laughed. He kicked the two fellows out of the way and lay down again.
Later in the morning he witnessed the game they had meant to play with him. One of his comrades, a wretched boy, blue with starvation, denied them money, for the simple reason that he had none in his pocket. Four of the old hands thereupon produced a filthy counterpane of coarse cloth and stretched their victim upon it. Then each took a corner, and raising it as high as they could reach, they let the counterpane fall on the stone flooring with a horrible thud. Tristram leapt forward indignantly and caught one of these ruffians a blow on the back of the neck that sent him down like an ox. Upon this the other three dropped their sport and fell upon him, like angry women, tooth and nail. Nobody interfered. He was driven back against the wall, where he leant, just contriving to keep his adversaries at arm's length with his fists, and feeling, now that the first spurt of wrath had left him, that within three minutes he must faint from hunger and weakness.
There is no knowing how the affair would have ended had not the door been thrown open at this moment. A couple of priests advanced between the files of prisoners, who sat up at once and started to howl out a dismal litany at the top of their lungs. Tristram's assailants left him hurriedly, and, shrinking back to their pallets, began to lift their voices with the rest. The noise was like that of a cat's battle, and the priests marched to and fro while it continued, smiling to left and right and exhorting the poor devils to an increase of fervour. One of them spied Tristram and whispered to his brother; and the pair seemed about to address him, when three jailers entered with large trays, bearing the prisoners' breakfasts. The litany ceased and the singers glanced at these trays with greedy eyes.
It proved to be the best meal that Tristram had swallowed since his misfortunes began, there being a pint of soup to each man in addition to the usual brown bread. After devouring it, Tristram sat with his back to the wall, wondering if the three ruffians would renew their attack; but they appeared to have forgotten their resentment, and even his presence. Some of his fellow-miserables fell to chatting; others to plaiting ropes out of the straw on which they lay; while some occupied themselves in keeping a look out for the rats that swarmed everywhere and stole out in the dim light to gnaw the pieces of bread which the prisoners saved and hid away for future use.
About four in the afternoon the great door was flung open again and the chief jailer appeared, with four turnkeys and the soldiers of the prison guard, all armed to the teeth with pistols, swords and bayonets. Their object, it turned out, was to examine the four walls and the floor very minutely, to see if the prisoners were making any holes or planning any attempt to escape. They spent a full half an hour in routing out the prisoners and searching high and low with their lanterns, using great roughness and the most abominable talk. Tristram watched their movements for some time, but at length curled himself up in his corner, which had already been explored. He was closing his eyes, and putting a finger in each ear to shut out the riot, when a smart blow descended across his thighs.
One of the soldiers was belabouring him with the flat of a sword, as a hint to stand up.
Tristram did so, and now observed that a dozen of the men with whom he had marched during the two previous days were collected in a little group by the door. He was taken by the arms and hustled forward to join them. As he came close and could see their faces in the dingy twilight, he saw also that, though big, strapping fellows, the most of them were weeping, and shivering like conies in a trap.
He was still wondering at the cause of their agitation when the jailer reopened the door and they were marched out, down the stone stairs, then sharply to the right and along a narrow corridor. A lamp flickered at the farther end, over a small door studded with iron nails; and before this door another small company of soldiers was drawn up in two rows of six, with their backs to either wall of the corridor. Between them the prisoners were forced to defile, still cringing and weeping, as the small door opened and they passed into the chamber beyond.
And now for the first time Tristram felt thoroughly alarmed. The chamber was narrow and lofty, and without any window that he could perceive. But just now it was full of a red light that poured out through the eyes of a charcoal brazier in the far corner. Two grim figures in leathern aprons stood over this brazier, with the glare on their brutal faces—the one puffing with a pair of bellows till the room was filled with suffocating vapours, the other diving a handful of irons into the glowing centre, wherein five or six already glowed at a red heat.
Beside them, and watching these operations with a business-like air, stood a gentleman in a handsome suit and plumed hat.
"Premiree fournee!" announced the sergeant in a loud tone, marshalling the prisoners along the wall. Four or five of them had by this time broken out into loud sobs and cries for mercy. The gentleman scarcely turned his head, but continued to watch the heating of the irons. At length, satisfied that all was ready, he turned and walked in front of the line, examining each prisoner attentively with an absolutely impassive face.
Coming to Tristram—who by this time was committing his fate to Heaven—he paused for a moment, and beckoning the sergeant put a question or two. The sergeant shrugged his shoulders and spread out both palms apologetically. Then the gentleman addressed a sentence to Tristram, and receiving no answer but a shake of the head, cast about for a moment and began again in English.
"You are Englishman?"
"Not French deserter?"
"Then what the devil you do here?"
This was a question that seemed to require a deal of answering. While Tristram was perpending how best to begin, his interrogator spoke again:
"Speak out. I am M. de Lambertie, Grand Provost of Flanders. You had better speak me the truth."
Our hero began a recital of his woes, condensing as well as he could. After a minute, M. de Lambertie interrupted him.
"I beg your pardon. I speak the English ver' well; but mordieu if I can comprehend a word as you speak it! Tenez donc—You are a spy?"
"Not a bit."
"Well, well," said the Grand Provost, altogether gravelled, "you must be something—come!"
He called the sergeant again; who plainly could give no information, and was quite as plainly surprised that any fuss should be made over an affair so trivial. Indeed, the sergeant ventured to suggest that Tristram should be branded on the off-chance of its turning out for his good.
"But no," said M. de Lambertie, "I am a man of justice and of logic. It is incredible that a youth who cannot speak a word but English should be a deserter from our Majesty's army. Moreover, I am a physiognomist, and his face is honest. Therefore," concluded the man of logic, "he shall go to the galleys."
This was interpreted to Tristram, who found the argument fallacious, but fell on his knees and kissed M. de Lambertie's hand.
"Take him away," said the Grand Provost. He was dragged to his feet and led to the door, followed by the desperate eyes of his comrades. He heard their sobs and outcries renewed above the steady pant of the bellows. Then the door clanged. The soldiers took him upstairs and cast him back into the great dungeon.
The next morning he started in a chain of thirty-five slaves for the galleys at Dunkirk.