Chapter 25 | In the Night | !Tention

Chapter Twenty Five.

Nearer and nearer came the sound of marching, and it was all Punch could do to keep from rising to his knees and changing his position; but he mastered himself into a state of content by sending and receiving signals with his companion, each giving and taking a long, firm pressure, as at last the invisible body of approaching men reached the cottage door, and an authoritative voice uttered the sharp command, “Halte!”

Punch’s eye was now glued to the hole. He felt that if anybody looked up he would be sure to see it glittering in the lamplight; but the fascination to learn what was to be their fate was too strong to be resisted.

From his coign of vantage he could command the doorway and the legs of a small detachment of men, two of whom separated themselves and came full into sight, one being an officer, from the sword he bore, the other a rough, clumsy-looking peasant. And now for the first time the little priest appeared to be aware of the presence of strangers, for he slowly lowered the hand which held the book, raised his head, and seemed to be looking wonderingly at his visitors.

“Ah!” he said, as if just awakened from his studies; and he uttered some words, which sounded like a question, to the peasant, who made a rough obeisance and replied in apologetic tones, as if making an excuse for his presence there.

And now the officer uttered an impatient ejaculation and took another step into the room, saying in French, “I am sorry to interrupt your devotions, father; but this fellow tells me that he saw a couple of our English prisoners take refuge here.”

“I do not speak French, my son,” replied the old man calmly.

“Bah! I forgot,” ejaculated the officer; and then in a halting way he stumbled through the same sentence in a very bad translation as he rendered it into Spanish.

“Ah!” said the old man, rising slowly; and Punch saw him look as if wonderingly at the rough peasant, who seemed to shrink back, half-startled, from the priest’s stern gaze.

There was a few moments’ silence, during which the two fugitives clutched each other’s hands so tightly that Punch’s nerves literally quivered as he listened for the sharp cracking of the boards, which he seemed to know must betray them to their pursuers.

But no sound came; and, as the perspiration stood out in big drops upon his face in the close heat of the little loft, both he and his companion could feel the horrible tickling sensation of the beads joining together and trickling down their necks.

Then after what seemed to be quite an interval, the old man’s voice arose in deep, stern tones, as he exclaimed, “What lie is this, my son, that you have uttered to these strangers?”

“I—I, father—” faltered the man, shrinking back a step and dropping the soft cap he was turning in his hands upon the beaten floor, and then stooping hastily to snatch it up again—“I—father—I—”

“I say, what lie is this you have told these strangers for the sake of gaining a few accursed pieces of silver? Go, before I— Ah!” For there was a quick movement on the part of the peasant, and he dashed out of the door.

Halte!” yelled the French officer, following the peasant outside; and then, giving a sharp command, the scattered reports of some half-dozen muskets rang out on the night-air, the two fugitives starting as at each shot the flash of the musket lit up the loft where they lay. Then a short question or two, and their replies came through the open doorway, and it became evident to the listeners that the peasant had escaped.

“Bah!” ejaculated the officer, as Punch saw him stride through the doorway into the room again. “Look here, father,” he said in his bad Spanish, “I paid this scoundrel to guide me to the place where he said two Englishmen were in hiding; but he did not tell me it was with his priest. As he has brought us here I must search.”

“For the escaped prisoners?” the old man said, drawing himself up with dignity. “I do not speak your language, sir, but I think that is what you mean. Can you repeat your words in Latin? You might make your wishes more plain.”

“Latin? No, I have forgotten all that,” said the officer impatiently in more clumsy Spanish than before. “The English prisoners—my men must search,” And the fugitives, unable though they were to comprehend the words, naturally grasped their meaning and held their breath till they felt they must draw it again with a sound that would betray their presence.

Then, with a slight laugh, the old priest laid his book upon the table and took up the smoky oil-lamp. As he did so, Punch could see his face plainly, for it was lit up by the lamp, and the boy could perceive the mocking mirth in his eyes as he raised it above his head with his left hand, and walked slowly towards the door which covered the ladder-like staircase; and then as Punch felt that all was over, the old man slowly passed the light across and moved to the rough fireplace, and so on all round the room, before raising the light above his head once more, and with a comprehensive movement waving his right hand slowly round the place as if to say, “You see there are no prisoners here.”

“Bah!” ejaculated the French officer, and, turning angrily, he marched out through the open doorway.

Punch was beginning to breathe again, but to his horror the officer marched back into the room, for he had recollected himself. He was the French gentleman still.

Pardon, mon père!” he said sharply, keeping now to his own tongue. “Bon soir!”

Then, marching out again, he gave a short command, and, from where Punch’s eye was still glued to the opening, he saw the soldiers turn rightabout face, disappear through the open doorway, and then, beat, beat, beat, the sound of marching began again, this time to die slowly away, and he looked and listened till the pressure of Pen’s hand upon his arm grew almost painful. But he did not wince, till a movement on the part of the priest drew his attention to what was passing beneath; and he saw him set down the lamp and cross to the door, which he closed and barred, and then dropped upon his knees, as his head sank down upon his clasped-together hands.