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Book 6 Chapter 22 Cinq Mars by Alfred de Vigny


CHAPTER XXII

THE STORM

          'Blow, blow, thou winter wind;
          Thou art not so unkind
          As man's ingratitude.
          Thy tooth is not so keen,
          Because thou art not seen,
          Although thy breath be rude.
     Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly.
     Most friendship is feigning; most loving mere folly.'

                       SHAKESPEARE.

Amid that long and superb chain of the Pyrenees which forms the embattled
isthmus of the peninsula, in the centre of those blue pyramids, covered
in gradation with snow, forests, and downs, there opens a narrow defile,
a path cut in the dried-up bed of a perpendicular torrent; it circulates
among rocks, glides under bridges of frozen snow, twines along the edges
of inundated precipices to scale the adjacent mountains of Urdoz and
Oleron, and at last rising over their unequal ridges, turns their
nebulous peak into a new country which has also its mountains and its
depths, and, quitting France, descends into Spain. Never has the hoof of
the mule left its trace in these windings; man himself can with
difficulty stand upright there, even with the hempen boots which can not
slip, and the hook of the pikestaff to force into the crevices of the
rocks.

In the fine summer months the 'pastour', in his brown cape, and his black
long-bearded ram lead hither flocks, whose flowing wool sweeps the turf.
Nothing is heard in these rugged places but the sound of the large bells
which the sheep carry, and whose irregular tinklings produce unexpected
harmonies, casual gamuts, which astonish the traveller and delight the
savage and silent shepherd. But when the long month of September comes, a
shroud of snow spreads itself from the peak of the mountains down to
their base, respecting only this deeply excavated path, a few gorges open
by torrents, and some rocks of granite, which stretch out their
fantastical forms, like the bones of a buried world.

It is then that light troops of chamois make their appearance, with their
twisted horns extending over their backs, spring from rock to rock as if
driven before the wind, and take possession of their aerial desert.
Flights of ravens and crows incessantly wheel round and round in the
gulfs and natural wells which they transform into dark dovecots, while
the brown bear, followed by her shaggy family, who sport and tumble
around her in the snow, slowly descends from their retreat invaded by the
frost. But these are neither the most savage nor the most cruel
inhabitants that winter brings into these mountains; the daring smuggler
raises for himself a dwelling of wood on the very boundary of nature and
of politics. There unknown treaties, secret exchanges, are made between
the two Navarres, amid fogs and winds.

It was in this narrow path on the frontiers of France that, about two
months after the scenes we have witnessed in Paris, two travellers,
coming from Spain, stopped at midnight, fatigued and dismayed. They heard
musket-shots in the mountain.

"The scoundrels! how they have pursued us!" said one of them. "I can go
no farther; but for you I should have been taken."

"And you will be taken still, as well as that infernal paper, if you lose
your time in words; there is another volley on the rock of Saint
Pierre-de-L'Aigle. Up there, they suppose we have gone in the direction
of the Limacon; but, below, they will see the contrary. Descend; it is
doubtless a patrol hunting smugglers. Descend."

"But how? I can not see."

"Never mind, descend. Take my arm."

"Hold me; my boots slip," said the first traveller, stamping on the edge
of the rock to make sure of the solidity of the ground before trusting
himself upon it.

"Go on; go on!" said the other, pushing him. "There's one of the rascals
passing over our heads."

And, in fact, the shadow of a man, armed with a long gun, was reflected
on the snow. The two adventurers stood motionless. The man passed on.
They continued their descent.

"They will take us," said the one who was supporting the other. "They
have turned us. Give me your confounded parchment. I wear the dress of a
smuggler, and I can pass for one seeking an asylum among them; but you
would have no resource with your laced dress."

"You are right," said his companion; and, resting his foot against the
edge of the rock, and reclining on the slope, he gave him a roll of
hollow wood.

A gun was fired, and a ball buried itself, hissing, in the snow at their
feet.

"Marked!" said the first. "Roll down. If you are not dead when you get to
the bottom, take the road you see before you. On the left of the hollow
is Santa Maria. But turn to the right; cross Oleron; and you are on the
road to Pau and are saved. Go; roll down."

As he spoke, he pushed his comrade, and without condescending to look
after him, and himself neither ascending nor descending, followed the
flank of the mountain horizontally, hanging on by rocks, branches, and
even by plants, with the strength and energy of a wild-cat, and soon
found himself on firm ground before a small wooden hut, through which a
light was visible. The adventurer went all around it, like a hungry wolf
round a sheepfold, and, applying his eye to one of the openings,
apparently saw what determined him, for without further hesitation he
pushed the tottering door, which was not even fastened by a latch. The
whole but shook with the blow he had given it. He then saw that it was
divided into two cabins by a partition. A large flambeau of yellow wax
lighted the first. There, a young girl, pale and fearfully thin, was
crouched in a corner on the damp floor, just where the melted snow ran
under the planks of the cottage. Very long black hair, entangled and
covered with dust, fell in disorder over her coarse brown dress; the red
hood of the Pyrenees covered her head and shoulders. Her eyes were cast
down; and she was spinning with a small distaff attached to her waist.
The entry of a man did not appear to move her in the least.

"Ha! La moza,--[girl]--get up and give me something to drink. I am tired
and thirsty."

The young girl did not answer, and, without raising her eyes, continued
to spin assiduously.

"Dost hear?" said the stranger, thrusting her with his foot. "Go and tell
thy master that a friend wishes to see him; but first give me some drink.
I shall sleep here."

She answered, in a hoarse voice, still spinning:

"I drink the snow that melts on the rock, or the green scum that floats
on the water of the swamp. But when I have spun well, they give me water
from the iron spring. When I sleep, the cold lizards crawl over my face;
but when I have well cleaned a mule, they throw me hay. The hay is warm;
the hay is good and warm. I put it under my marble feet."

"What tale art thou telling me?" said Jacques. "I spoke not of thee."

She continued:

"They make me hold a man while they kill him. Oh, what blood I have had
on my hands! God forgive them!--if that be possible. They make me hold
his head, and the bucket filled with crimson water. O Heaven!--I, who was
the bride of God! They throw their bodies into the abyss of snow; but the
vulture finds them; he lines his nest with their hair. I now see thee
full of life; I shall see thee bloody, pale, and dead."

The adventurer, shrugging his shoulders, began to whistle as he passed
the second door. Within he found the man he had seen through the chinks
of the cabin. He wore the blue berret cap of the Basques on one side,
and, enveloped in an ample cloak, seated on the pack-saddle of a mule,
and bending over a large brazier, smoked a cigar, and from time to time
drank from a leather bottle at his side. The light of the brazier showed
his full yellow face, as well as the chamber, in which mule-saddles were
ranged round the byasero as seats. He raised his head without altering
his position.

"Oh, oh! is it thou, Jacques?" he said. "Is it thou? Although 'tis four
years since I saw thee, I recognize thee. Thou art not changed, brigand!
There 'tis still, thy great knave's face. Sit down there, and take a
drink."

"Yes, here I am. But how the devil camest thou here? I thought thou wert
a judge, Houmain!"

"And I thought thou wert a Spanish captain, Jacques!"

"Ah! I was so for a time, and then a prisoner. But I got out of the thing
very snugly, and have taken again to the old trade, the free life, the
good smuggling work."

"Viva! viva! Jaleo!"--[A common Spanish oath.]--cried Houmain. "We brave
fellows can turn our hands to everything. Thou camest by the other
passes, I suppose, for I have not seen thee since I returned to the
trade."

"Yes, yes; I have passed where thou wilt never pass," said Jacques.

"And what hast got?"

"A new merchandise. My mules will come tomorrow."

"Silk sashes, cigars, or linen?"

"Thou wilt know in time, amigo," said the ruffian. "Give me the skin. I'm
thirsty."

"Here, drink. It's true Valdepenas! We're so jolly here, we bandoleros!
Ay! jaleo! jaleo! come, drink; our friends are coming."

"What friends?" said Jacques, dropping the horn.

"Don't be uneasy, but drink. I'll tell thee all about it presently, and
then we'll sing the Andalusian Tirana."--[A kind of ballad.]

The adventurer took the horn, and assumed an appearance of ease.

"And who's that great she-devil I saw out there?" he said. "She seems
half dead."

"Oh, no! she's only mad. Drink; I'll tell thee all about her."

And taking from his red sash a long poniard denticulated on each side
like a saw, Houmain used it to stir up the fire, and said with vast
gravity:

"Thou must know first, if thou dost not know it already, that down below
there [he pointed toward France] the old wolf Richelieu carries all
before him."

"Ah, ah!" said Jacques.

"Yes; they call him the king of the King. Thou knowest? There is,
however, a young man almost as strong as he, and whom they call Monsieur
le Grand. This young fellow commands almost the whole army of Perpignan
at this moment. He arrived there a month ago; but the old fox is still at
Narbonne--a very cunning fox, indeed. As to the King, he is sometimes
this, sometimes that [as he spoke, Houmain turned his hand outward and
inward], between zist and zest; but while he is determining, I am for
zist--that is to say, I'm a Cardinalist. I've been regularly doing
business for my lord since the first job he gave me, three years ago.
I'll tell thee about it. He wanted some men of firmness and spirit for a
little expedition, and sent for me to be judge-Advocate."

"Ah! a very pretty post, I've heard."

"Yes, 'tis a trade like ours, where they sell cord instead of thread; but
it is less honest, for they kill men oftener. But 'tis also more
profitable; everything has its price."

"Very properly so," said Jacques.

"Behold me, then, in a red robe. I helped to give a yellow one and
brimstone to a fine fellow, who was cure at Loudun, and who had got into
a convent of nuns, like a wolf in a fold; and a fine thing he made of
it."

"Ha, ha, ha! That's very droll!" laughed Jacques. "Drink," said Houmain.
"Yes, Jago, I saw him after the affair, reduced to a little black heap
like this charcoal. See, this charcoal at the end of my poniard. What
things we are! That's just what we shall all come to when we go to the
Devil."

"Oh, none of these pleasantries!" said the other, very gravely. "You know
that I am religious."

"Well, I don't say no; it may be so," said Houmain, in the same tone.
"There's Richelieu, a Cardinal! But, no matter. Thou must know, then, as
I was Advocate-General, I advocated--"

"Ah, thou art quite a wit!"

"Yes, a little. But, as I was saying, I advocated into my own pocket five
hundred piastres, for Armand Duplessis pays his people well, and there's
nothing to be said against that, except that the money's not his own; but
that's the way with us all. I determined to invest this money in our old
trade; and I returned here. Business goes on well. There is sentence of
death out against us; and our goods, of course, sell for half as much
again as before."

"What's that?" exclaimed Jacques; "lightning at this time of year?"

"Yes, the storms are beginning; we've had two already. We are in the
clouds. Dost hear the roll of the thunder? But this is nothing; come,
drink. 'Tis almost one in the morning; we'll finish the skin and the
night together. As I was telling thee, I made acquaintance with our
president--a great scoundrel called Laubardemont. Dost know him?"

"Yes, a little," said Jacques; "he's a regular miser. But never mind
that; go on."

"Well, as we had nothing to conceal from one another, I told him of my
little commercial plans, and asked him, when any good jobs presented
themselves, to think of his judicial comrade; and I've had no cause to
complain of him."

"Ah!" said Jacques, "and what has he done?"

"Why, first, two years ago, he himself brought, me, on horseback behind
him, his niece that thou'st seen out there."

"His niece!" cried Jacques, rising; "and thou treat'st her like a slave!
Demonio!"

"Drink," said Houmain, quietly stirring the brazier with his poniard; "he
himself desired it should be so. Sit down."

Jacques did so.

"I don't think," continued the smuggler, "that he'd even be sorry to know
that she was--dost understand?--to hear she was under the snow rather
than above it; but he would not put her there himself, because he's a
good relative, as he himself said."

"And as I know," said Jacques; "but go on."

"Thou mayst suppose that a man like him, who lives at court, does not
like to have a mad niece in his house. The thing is self-evident; if I'd
continued to play my part of the man of the robe, I should have done the
same in a similar case. But here, as you perceive, we don't care much for
appearances; and I've taken her for a servant. She has shown more good
sense than I expected, although she has rarely ever spoken more than a
single word, and at first came the delicate over us. Now she rubs down a
mule like a groom. She has had a slight fever for the last few days; but
'twill pass off one way or the other. But, I say, don't tell Laubardemont
that she still lives; he'd think 'twas for the sake of economy I've kept
her for a servant."

"How! is he here?" cried Jacques.

"Drink!" replied the phlegmatic Houmain, who himself set the example most
assiduously, and began to half shut his eyes with a languishing air.
"'Tis the second transaction I've had with this Laubardemont--or demon,
or whatever the name is; but 'tis a good devil of a demon, at all events.
I love him as I do my eyes; and I will drink his health out of this
bottle of Jurangon here. 'Tis the wine of a jolly fellow, the late King
Henry. How happy we are here!--Spain on the right hand, France on the
left; the wine-skin on one side, the bottle on the other! The bottle!
I've left all for the bottle!"

As he spoke, he knocked off the neck of a bottle of white wine. After
taking a long draught, he continued, while the stranger closely watched
him:

"Yes, he's here; and his feet must be rather cold, for he's been waiting
about the mountains ever since sunset, with his guards and our comrades.
Thou knowest our bandoleros, the true contrabandistas?"

"Ah! and what do they hunt?" said Jacques.

"Ah, that's the joke!" answered the drunkard. "'Tis to arrest two
rascals, who want to bring here sixty thousand Spanish soldiers in paper
in their pocket. You don't, perhaps, quite understand me, 'croquant'.
Well, 'tis as I tell thee--in their own pockets."

"Ay, ay! I understand," said Jacques, loosening his poniard in his sash,
and looking at the door.

"Very well, devil's-skin, let's sing the Tirana. Take the bottle, throw
away the cigar, and sing."

With these words the drunken host began to sing in Spanish, interrupting
his song with bumpers, which he threw down his throat, leaning back for
the greater ease, while Jacques, still seated, looked at him gloomily by
the light of the brazier, and meditated what he should do.

A flash of lightning entered the small window, and filled the room with a
sulphurous odor. A fearful clap immediately followed; the cabin shook;
and a beam fell outside.

"Hallo, the house!" cried the drunken man; "the Devil's among us; and our
friends are not come!"

"Sing!" said Jacques, drawing the pack upon which he was close to that of
Houmain.

The latter drank to encourage himself, and then continued to sing.

As he ended, he felt his seat totter, and fell backward; Jacques, thus
freed from him, sprang toward the door, when it opened, and his head
struck against the cold, pale face of the mad-woman. He recoiled.

"The judge!" she said, as she entered; and she fell prostrate on the cold
ground.

Jacques had already passed one foot over her; but another face appeared,
livid and surprised-that of a very tall man, enveloped in a cloak covered
with snow. He again recoiled, and laughed a laugh of terror and rage. It
was Laubardemont, followed by armed men; they looked at one another.

"Ah, com-r-a-d-e, yo-a ra-a-scal!" hiccuped Houmain, rising with
difficulty; "thou'rt a Royalist."

But when he saw these two men, who seemed petrified by each other, he
became silent, as conscious of his intoxication; and he reeled forward to
raise up the madwoman, who was still lying between the judge and the
Captain. The former spoke first.

"Are you not he we have been pursuing?"

"It is he!" said the armed men, with one voice; "the other has escaped."

Jacques receded to the split planks that formed the tottering wall of the
hut; enveloping himself in his cloak, like a bear forced against a tree
by the hounds, and, wishing to gain a moment's respite for reflection, he
said, firmly:

"The first who passes that brazier and the body of that girl is a dead
man."

And he drew a long poniard from his cloak. At this moment Houmain,
kneeling, turned the head of the girl. Her eyes were closed; he drew her
toward the brazier, which lighted up her face.

"Ah, heavens!" cried Laubardemont, forgetting himself in his fright;
"Jeanne again!"

"Be calm, my lo-lord," said Houmain, trying to open the eyelids, which
closed again, and to raise her head, which fell back again like wet
linen; "be, be--calm! Do-n't ex-cite yourself; she's dead, decidedly."

Jacques put his foot on the body as on a barrier, and, looking with a
ferocious laugh in the face of Laubardemont, said to him in a low voice:

"Let me pass, and I will not compromise thee, courtier; I will not tell
that she was thy niece, and that I am thy son."

Laubardemont collected himself, looked at his men, who pressed around him
with advanced carabines; and, signing them to retire a few steps, he
answered in a very low voice:

"Give me the treaty, and thou shalt pass."

"Here it is, in my girdle; touch it, and I will call you my father aloud.
What will thy master say?"

"Give it me, and I will spare thy life."

"Let me pass, and I will pardon thy having given me that life."

"Still the same, brigand?"

"Ay, assassin."

"What matters to thee that boy conspirator?" asked the judge.

"What matters to thee that old man who reigns?" answered the other.

"Give me that paper; I've sworn to have it."

"Leave it with me; I've sworn to carry it back."

"What can be thy oath and thy God?" demanded Laubardemont.

"And thine?" replied Jacques. "Is't the crucifix of red-hot iron?"

Here Houmain, rising between them, laughing and staggering, said to the
judge, slapping him on the shoulder.

"You are a long time coming to an understanding, friend; do-on't you know
him of old? He's a very good fellow."

"I? no!" cried Laubardemont, aloud; "I never saw him before."

At this moment, Jacques, who was protected by the drunkard and the
smallness of the crowded chamber, sprang violently against the weak
planks that formed the wall, and by a blow of his heel knocked two of
them out, and passed through the space thus created. The whole side of
the cabin was broken; it tottered, and the wind rushed in.

"Hallo! Demonio! Santo Demonio! where art going?" cried the smuggler;
"thou art breaking my house down, and on the side of the ravine, too."

All cautiously approached, tore away the planks that remained, and leaned
over the abyss. They contemplated a strange spectacle. The storm raged in
all its fury; and it was a storm of the Pyrenees. Enormous flashes of
lightning came all at once from all parts of the horizon, and their fires
succeeded so quickly that there seemed no interval; they appeared to be a
continuous flash. It was but rarely the flaming vault would suddenly
become obscure; and it then instantly resumed its glare. It was not the
light that seemed strange on this night, but the darkness.

The tall thin peaks and whitened rocks stood out from the red background
like blocks of marble on a cupola of burning brass, and resembled, amid
the snows, the wonders of a volcano; the waters gushed from them like
flames; the snow poured down like dazzling lava.

In this moving mass a man was seen struggling, whose efforts only
involved him deeper and deeper in the whirling and liquid gulf; his knees
were already buried. In vain he clasped his arms round an enormous
pyramidal and transparent icicle, which reflected the lightning like a
rock of crystal; the icicle itself was melting at its base, and slowly
bending over the declivity of the rock. Under the covering of snow,
masses of granite were heard striking against each other, as they
descended into the vast depths below. Yet they could still save him; a
space of scarcely four feet separated him from Laubardemont.

"I sink!" he cried; "hold out to me something, and thou shalt have the
treaty."

"Give it me, and I will reach thee this musket," said the judge.

"There it is," replied the ruffian, "since the Devil is for Richelieu!"
and taking one hand from the hold of his slippery support, he threw a
roll of wood into the cabin. Laubardemont rushed back upon the treaty
like a wolf on his prey. Jacques in vain held out his arm; he slowly
glided away with the enormous thawing block turned upon him, and was
silently buried in the snow.

"Ah, villain," were his last words, "thou hast deceived me! but thou
didst not take the treaty from me. I gave it thee, Father!" and he
disappeared wholly under the thick white bed of snow. Nothing was seen in
his place but the glittering flakes which the lightning had ploughed up,
as it became extinguished in them; nothing was--heard but the rolling of
the thunder and the dash of the water against the rocks, for the men in
the half-ruined cabin, grouped round a corpse and a villain, were silent,
tongue-tied with horror, and fearing lest God himself should send a
thunderbolt upon them.