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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLorraine: A Romance - Chapter 28. The Braconnier
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Lorraine: A Romance - Chapter 28. The Braconnier Post by :noidle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :1956

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Lorraine: A Romance - Chapter 28. The Braconnier

CHAPTER XXVIII. THE BRACONNIER

Lorraine had turned ghastly white; Jack's shocked face was colourless as he drew her away from the ridge with him into the forest. The appalling horror had stunned her; her knees gave way, she stumbled, but Jack held her up by main force, pushing the undergrowth aside and plunging straight on towards the thickest depths of the woods. He had not the faintest idea where he was; he only knew that for the moment it was absolutely necessary for them to get as far away as possible from the Uhlans and their butcher's work. Lorraine knew it, too; she tried to recover her coolness and her strength.

"Here is another road," she said, faintly; "Jack--I--I am not strong--I am--a--little--faint--" Tears were running over her cheeks.

Jack peered out through the trees into the narrow wood-road. Immediately a man hailed him from somewhere among the trees, and he shrank back, teeth set, eyes fixed in desperation.

"Who are you?" came the summons again in French. Jack did not answer. Presently a man in a blue blouse, carrying a whip, stepped out into the road from the bushes on the farther side of the slope.

"Hallo!" he called, softly.

Jack looked at him. The man returned his glance with a friendly and puzzled smile.

"What do you want?" asked Jack, suspiciously.

"Parbleu! what do you want yourself?" asked the peasant, and showed his teeth in a frank laugh.

Jack was silent.

The peasant's eyes fell on Lorraine, leaning against a tree, her blanched face half hidden under the masses of her hair. "Oho!" he said--"a woman!"

Without the least hesitation he came quickly across the road and close up to Jack.

"Thought you might be one of those German spies," he said. "Is the lady ill? Coeur Dieu! but she is white! Monsieur, what has happened? I am Brocard--Jean Brocard; they know me here in the forest--"

"Eh!" broke in Jack--"you say you are Brocard the poacher?"

"Hey! That's it--Brocard, braconnier--at your service. And you are the young nephew of the Vicomte de Morteyn, and that is the little chatelaine De Nesville! Coeur Dieu! Have the Prussians brutalized you, too? Answer me, Monsieur Marche--I know you and I know the little chatelaine--oh, I know!--I, who have watched you at your pretty love-making there in the De Nesville forest, while I was setting my snares for pheasants and hares! Dame! One must live! Yes, I am Brocard--I do not lie. I have taken enough game from your uncle in my time; can I be of service to his nephew?"

He took off his cap with a merry smile, entirely frank, almost impudent. Jack could have hugged him; he did not; he simply told him the exact truth, word by word, slowly and without bitterness, his arm around Lorraine, her head on his shoulder.

"Coeur Dieu!" muttered Brocard, gazing pityingly at Lorraine; "I've half a mind to turn franc-tireur myself and drill holes in the hides of these Prussian swine!"

He stepped out into the road and beckoned Jack and Lorraine. When they came to his side he pointed to a stone cottage, low and badly thatched, hidden among the trunks of the young beech growth. A team of horses harnessed to a carriage was standing before the door; smoke rose from the dilapidated chimney.

"I have a guest," he said; "you need not fear him. Come!"

In a dozen steps they entered the low doorway, Brocard leading, Lorraine leaning heavily on Jack's shoulder.

"Pst! There is a thick-headed Englishman in the next room; let him sleep in peace," murmured Brocard.

He threw a blanket over the bed, shoved the logs in the fireplace with his hobnailed boots until the sparks whirled upward, and the little flames began to rustle and snap.

Lorraine sank down on the bed, covering her head with her arms; Jack dropped into a chair by the fire, looking miserably from Lorraine to Brocard.

The latter clasped his big rough hands between his knees and leaned forward, chewing a stem of a dead leaf, his bright eyes fixed on the reviving fire.

"Morteyn! Morteyn!" he repeated; "it exists no longer. There are many dead there--dead in the garden, in the court, on the lawn--dead floating in the pond, the river--dead rotting in the thickets, the groves, the forest. I saw them--I, Brocard the poacher."

After a moment he resumed:

"There were more poachers than Jean Brocard in Morteyn. I saw the Prussian officers stand in the carrefours and shoot the deer as they ran in, a line of soldiers beating the woods behind them. I saw the Saxons laugh as they shot at the pheasants and partridges; I saw them firing their revolvers at rabbits and hares. They brought to their camp-fires a great camp-wagon piled high with game--boars, deer, pheasants, and hares. For that I hated them. Perhaps I touched one or two of them while I was firing at white blackbirds--I really cannot tell."

He turned an amused yellow eye on Jack, but his face sobered the next moment, and he continued: "I heard the fusillade on the Saint-Lys highway; I did not go to inquire if they were amusing themselves. Ma foi! I myself keep away from Uhlans when God permits. And so these Uhlan wolves got old Tricasse at last. Zut! C'est embetant! And poor old Passerat, too--and Brun, and all the rest! Tonnerre de Dieu! I--but, no--no! I am doing very well--I, Jean Brocard, poacher; I am doing quite well, in my little way."

An ugly curling of his lip, a glimpse of two white teeth--that was all Jack saw; but he understood that the poacher had probably already sent more than one Prussian to his account.

"That's all very well," he said, slowly--he had little sympathy with guerilla assassination--"but I'd rather hear how you are going to get us out of the country and through the Prussian lines."

"You take much for granted," laughed the poacher. "Now, did I offer to do any such thing?"

"But you will," said Jack, "for the honour of the Province and the vicomte, whose game, it appears, has afforded you both pleasure and profit."

"Coeur Dieu!" cried Brocard, laughing until his bright eyes grew moist. "You have spoken the truth, Monsieur Marche. But you have not added what I place first of all; it is for the gracious chatelaine of the Chateau de Nesville that I, Jean Brocard, play at hazard with the Prussians, the stakes being my skin. I will bring you through the lines; leave it to me."

Before Jack could speak again the door of the next room opened, and a man appeared, dressed in tweeds, booted and spurred, and carrying a travelling-satchel. There was a moment's astonished silence.

"Marche!" cried Archibald Grahame; "what the deuce are you doing here?" They shook hands, looking questioningly at each other.

"Times have changed since we breakfasted by candle-light at Morteyn," said Jack, trying to regain his coolness.

"I know--I know," said Grahame, sympathetically. "It's devilish rough on you all--on Madame de Morteyn. I can never forget her charming welcome. Dear me, but this war is disgusting; isn't it now? And what the devil are you doing here? Heavens, man, you're a sight!"

Lorraine sat up on the bed at the sound of the voices. When Grahame saw her, saw her plight--the worn shoes, the torn, stained bodice and skirt, the pale face and sad eyes--he was too much affected to speak. Jack told him their situation in a dozen words; the sight of Lorraine's face told the rest.

"Now we'll arrange that," cried Grahame. "Don't worry, Marche. Pray do not alarm yourself, Mademoiselle de Nesville, for I have a species of post-chaise at the door and a pair of alleged horses, and the whole outfit is at your disposal; indeed it is, and so am I. Come now!--and so am I." He hesitated, and then continued: "I have passes and papers, and enough to get you through a dozen lines. Now, where do you wish to go?"

"When are you to start?" replied Jack, gratefully.

"Say in half an hour. Can Mademoiselle de Nesville stand it?"

"Yes, thank you," said Lorraine, with a tired, quaint politeness that made them smile.

"Then we wish to get as near to the French Army as we can," said Jack. "I have a mission of importance. If you could drive us to the Luxembourg frontier we would be all right--if we had any money."

"You shall have everything," cried Grahame; "you shall be driven where you wish. I'm looking for a battle, but I can't seem to find one. I've been driving about this wreck of a country for the last three days; I missed Amonvillers on the 18th, and Rezonville two days before. I saw the battles of Reichshofen and Borney. The Germans lost three thousand five hundred men at Beaumont, and I was not there either. But there's a bigger thing on the carpet, somewhere near the Meuse, and I'm trying to find out where and when. I've wasted a lot of time loafing about Metz. I want to see something on a larger scale, not that the Metz business isn't large enough--two hundred thousand men, six hundred cannon--and the Red Prince--licking their chops and getting up an appetite for poor old Bazaine and his battered, diseased, starved, disheartened army, caged under the forts and citadel of a city scarcely provisioned for a regiment."

Lorraine, sitting on the edge of the bed, looked at him silently, but her eyes were full of a horror and anguish that Grahame could not help seeing.

"The Emperor is with the army yet," he said, cheerfully. "Who knows what may happen in the next twenty-four hours? Mademoiselle de Nesville, there are many shots to be fired yet for the honour of France."

"Yes," said Lorraine.

Instinctively Brocard and Grahame moved towards the door and out into the road. It was perhaps respect for the grief of this young French girl that sobered their faces and sent them off to discuss plans and ways and means of getting across the Luxembourg frontier without further delay. Jack, left alone with Lorraine in the dim, smoky room, rose and drew her to the fire.

"Don't be unhappy," he said. "The tide of fortune must turn soon; this cannot go on. We will find the Emperor and do our part. Don't look that way, Lorraine, my darling!" He took her in his arms. She put both arms around his neck, and hid her face.

For a while he held her, watching the fire with troubled eyes. The room grew darker; a wind arose among the forest trees, stirring dried leaves on brittle stems; the ashes on the hearth drifted like gray snowflakes.

Her stillness began to trouble him. He bent in the dusk to see her face. She was asleep. Terror, pity, anguish, the dreadful uncertainty, had strained her child's nerves to the utmost; after that came the deep fatigue that follows torture, and she lay in his arms, limp, pallid, exhausted. Her sleep was almost the unconsciousness of coma; she scarcely breathed.

The fire on the hearth went out; the smoking embers glimmered under feathery ashes. Grahame entered, carrying a lantern.

"Come," he whispered. "Poor little thing!--can't I help you, Marche? Wait; here's a rug. So--wrap it around her feet. Can you carry her? Then follow; here, touch my coat--I'm going to put out the light in my lantern. Now--gently. Here we are."

Jack climbed into the post-chaise; Grahame, holding Lorraine in his arms, leaned in, and Jack took her again. She had not awakened.

"Brocard and I are going to sit in front," whispered Grahame. "Is all right within?"

"Yes," nodded Jack.

The chaise moved on for a moment, then suddenly stopped with a jerk.

Jack heard Grahame whisper, "Sit still, you fool! I've got passes; sit still!"

"Let go!" murmured Brocard.

"Sit still!" repeated Grahame, in an angry whisper; "it's all right, I tell you. Be silent!"

There was a noiseless struggle, a curse half breathed, then a figure slipped from the chaise into the road.

Grahame sank back. "Marche, that damned poacher will hang us all. What am I to do?"

"What is it?" asked Jack, in a scarcely audible voice.

"Can't you hear? There's an Uhlan in the road in front. That fool means to kill him."

Jack strained his eyes in the darkness; the road ahead was black and silent.

"You can't see him," whispered Grahame. "Brocard caught the distant rattle of his lance in the stirrup. He's gone to kill him, the bloodthirsty imbecile!"

"To shoot him?" asked Jack, aghast.

"No; he's got his broad wood-knife--that's the way these brutes kill. Hark! Good God!"

A scream rang through the forest; something was coming towards them, too--a horse, galloping, galloping, pounding, thundering past--a frantic horse that tossed its head and tore on through the night, mane flying, bridle loose. And there, crouched on the saddle, two men swayed, locked in a death-clench--an Uhlan with ghostly face and bared teeth, and Brocard, the poacher, cramped and clinging like a panther to his prey, his broad knife flashing in the gloom.

In a second they were gone; far away in the forest the hoof strokes echoed farther and farther, duller, duller, then ceased.

"Drive on," muttered Jack, with lips that could barely form the words.

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