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COUNT VICTOR COMES TO A STRANGE COUNTRY.
It was an afternoon in autumn, with a sound of wintry breakers on the shore, the tall woods coppercolour, the thickets dishevelled, and the nuts, in the corries of Ardkinglas, the braes of Ardno, dropping upon bracken burned to gold. Until he was out of the glen and into the open land, the traveller could scarcely conceive that what by his chart was no more than an arm of the ocean could make so much ado; but when he found the incoming tide fretted here and there by black rocks, and elsewhere, in little bays, the beaches strewn with massive boulders, the high rumour of the sea - breakers in that breezy weather seemed more explicable. And still, for him, it was above all a country of appalling silence in spite of the tide thundering. Fresh from the pleasant rabble of Paris, the tumult of the streets, the unending gossip of the faubourgs that were at once his vexation and his joy, and from the eager ride that had brought him through Normandy when its orchards were busy from morning till night with cheerful peasants plucking fruit, his ear had not grown accustomed to the still of the valleys, the
of the tive all a counxplicable.ers in
terrific hush of the mountains, in whose mist or sunshine he had ridden for two days. The woods, with leaves that fell continually about him, seemed in some swoon of nature, with no birds carolling on the boughs; the cloisters were monastic in their silence. A season of most dolorous influences, a land of sombre shadows and ravines, a day of sinister solitude; the sun slid through scudding clouds, high over a world blown upon by salt airs brisk and tonic, but man was wanting in those weary valleys, and the heart of Victor Jean, Comte de Montaiglon, was almost sick for very loneliness.
Thus it came as a relief to his ear, the removal of an oppression little longer to be endured, when he heard behind him what were apparently the voices of the odd-looking uncouth natives he had seen a quarter of an hour ago lurking, silent but alert and peering, phantoms of old story rather than humans, in the fir-wood near a defile made by a brawling cataract. They had wakened no suspicions in his mind. It was true they were savage-looking rogues in a ragged plaid-cloth of a dull device, and they carried arms he had thought forbidden there by law. To a foreigner fresh from gentle lands there might well be a menace in their ambuscade, but he had known men of their race, if not of so savage an aspect, in the retinues of the Scots exiles who hung about the side-doors of Saint Germains, passed mysterious days between that domicile of tragic comedy and Avignon or Rome, or ruffled it on empty pockets at the gaming-tables, so he had no apprehension. Besides, he was in the country of the Argyll, at least on the verge of it; a territory accounted law-abiding even to dulness by every Scot he had known since he was a child at Cammercy, and snuff-strewn conspirators, come to meet his uncles, took him on their knees when a lull in the cards or wine permitted, and recounted their adventures for his entertainment in a villainous French: he could not guess that the gentry in the wood COUNT VICTOR COMES TO A STRANGE COUNTRY. 3
behind him had taken a fancy to his horse, that they were broken men (as the phrase of the country put it), and that when he had passed them at the cataracta haughty, well-set-up duine uasail all alone with a fortune of silk and silver lace on his apparel and the fob of a watch dangling at his groin most temptingly —they had promptly put a valuation upon himself and his possessions, and decided that the same were sent by Providence for their enrichment.
Ten of them ran after him clamouring loudly to give the impression of larger numbers ; he heard them with relief when oppressed by the inhuman solemnity of the scenery that was too deep in its swoon to give back even an echo to the breaker on the shore, and he drew up his horse, turned his head a little and listened, Aushing with annoyance when the rude calls of his pursuers became, even in their unknown jargon, too plainly peremptory and meant for him.
“Dogs!” said he, “I wish I had a chance to open school here and teach manners,” and without more deliberation he set his horse to an amble, designed to betray neither complacency nor a poltroon's terrors.
“ Stad ! stad !” cried a voice closer than any of the rest behind him; he knew what was ordered by its accent, but no Montaiglon stopped to an insolent summons. He put the short rowels to the flanks of the sturdy lowland pony he bestrode, and conceded not so little as a look behind.
There was the explosion of a bell-mouthed musket, and something smote the horse and spattered behind the rider's left boot. The beast swerved, gave a scream of pain, fell clumsily on its side. With an effort, Count Victor saved himself from the falling body and clutched his pistols. For a moment he stood bewildered at the head of the suffering animal. The pursuing shouts had ceased. Behind him, short hazel-trees clustering thick with nuts, reddening bramble, and rusty bracken, tangled together in a
coarse rank curtain of vegetation, quite still and motionless (but for the breeze among the upper leaves), and the sombre distance, dark with pine, had the mystery of a vault. It was difficult to believe his pursuers harboured there, perhaps reloading the weapon that had put so doleful a conclusion to his travels with the gallant little horse he had bought on the coast of Fife. That silence, that prevailing mystery, seemed to be the essence and the mood of this land, so different from his own, where laughter was ringing in the orchards and a myriad towns and clamant cities brimmed with life.