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Historical Romances: Under the Red Robe, Count Han

Tignonville answered recklessly


"We have an hour, now!" Tignonville cried; and leaping, with flaming eyes, on the bed, he fell to hacking and jabbing and tearing at the laths amid a rain of dust and rubbish. Fortunately the stuff, falling on the bed, made little noise; and in five minutes, working half-choked and in a frenzy of impatience, he had made a hole through which he could thrust his arms, a hole which extended almost from one joist to its neighbour. By this time the air was thick with floating lime; the two could scarcely breathe, yet they dared not pause. Mounting on La Tribe's shoulders--who took his stand on the bed--the young man thrust his head and arms through the hole, and, resting his elbows on the joists, dragged himself up, and with a final effort of strength landed nose and knees on the timbers, which formed his supports. A moment to take breath, and press his torn and bleeding fingers to his lips; then, reaching down, he gave a hand to his companion and dragged him to the same place of vantage.

They found themselves in a long narrow cockloft, not more than six feet high at the highest, and insufferably hot. Between the tiles, which sloped steeply on either hand, a faint light filtered in, disclosing the giant rooftree running the length of the house, and at the farther end of the loft the main tie-beam, from which a network of knees and struts rose to the rooftree.

Tignonville, who seemed possessed by unnatural energy, stayed only to put off his boots. Then "Courage!" he panted, "all goes well!" and, carrying his boots in his hands, he led the way, stepping gingerly from joist to joist until he reached the tie-beam. He climbed on it, and, squeezing himself between the struts, entered a second loft similar to the first. At the farther end of this a rough wall of bricks in a timber-frame lowered his hopes; but as he approached it, joy! Low down in the corner where the roof descended, a small door, square, and not more than two feet high, disclosed itself.

The two crept to it on hands and knees and listened. "It will lead to the leads, I doubt?" La Tribe whispered. They dared not raise their voices.

"As well that way as another!" Tignonville answered recklessly. He was the more eager, for there is a fear which transcends the fear of death. His eyes shone through the mask of dust, the sweat ran down to his chin, his breath came and went noisily. "Naught matters if we can escape him!" he panted. And he pushed the door recklessly. It flew open, the two drew back their faces with a cry of alarm.

They were looking, not into the sunlight, but into a grey dingy garret open to the roof, and occupying the upper part of a gable-end somewhat higher than the wing in which they had been confined. Filthy truckle-beds and ragged pallets covered the floor, and, eked out by old saddles and threadbare horse-rugs, marked the sleeping quarters either of the servants or of travellers of the meaner sort. But the dinginess was naught to the two who knelt looking into it, afraid to move. Was the place empty? That was the point; the question which had first stayed, and then set their pulses at the gallop.

Painfully their eyes searched each huddle of clothing, scanned each dubious shape. And slowly, as the silence persisted, their heads came forward until the whole floor lay within the field of sight. And still no sound! At last Tignonville stirred, crept through the doorway, and rose up, peering round him. He nodded, and, satisfied that all was safe, the minister followed him.

They found themselves a pace or so from the head of a narrow staircase, leading downwards. Without moving they could see the door which closed it below. Tignonville signed to La Tribe to wait, and himself crept down the stairs. He reached the door, and, stooping, set his eye to the hole through which the string of the latch passed. A moment he looked, and then, turning on tiptoe, he stole up again, his face fallen.


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