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The countess and the devil.

The Countess and the Devil

The countess came scrambling upthe steep slope to the hazel thicket and trampled the ragged hem of her gown. She embraced a loaf of brown bread, only slightly moldy, a wedge of cheese, and a slab of strong bacon, all swathed round with an old woolen petticoat. She was panting, and her long glossy hair, the color of silver gilt, had tumbled down her back. She was so anxious about the earl that she had forgotten to keep prudently to the wild hedgerows, and she charged straight up the hill.

Consequently, a man ploddingalong the track of roadway below with a sheep across his thick shoulders caught sight of her and watched her out of sight with narrowing eyes.

She flung herself down beside theearl. "Now, I wasn't long, was I?' she demanded. "Did you do any yelling?'

William, Earl of Averney, turneddark, reproachful eyes upon her. He never yelled. He was always remarkably well-behaved, but he still startled her when she got a sudden look at him. He was the homeliest baby she had ever seen. That his sire had possessed carrot-red hair, a great beaked nose, large ears, and a jutting chin was only too apparent. But William's eyes were brown like her own, now that their indefinite baby milkiness was over. She had been all ready to hate him as much as she had hated his father, in those far-off summer days when his growing bulk had swollen her small body until she waddled and panted like Dame Emma, the oldest of her waiting women. But what a comfort he had turned out to be.

"Precious sugarplum.' She caughthim up and felt him expertly. He needed it, but he would have to wait awhile. They must get away quickly; she had already spent too much time in the village as it was.

No one could betray her. The onlylife there had been the snarling our she had had to throw stones at to save the bacon. The dreadful sick-sweet smell of death hung everywhere. She had tried to be stern and brave; she had to have food or the earl would starve. She had ignored burned thatch and broken doors, and great brown splotches here and there where the drowsy flies of autumn buzzed, and bodies hanging from trees. But in the cottage where she had found the food, she had found a battered doll, its sawdust spilling out, and she sat down and cried over it, and she wondered what had become of the child who had played with it.

Devil Robert of Belleme, shethought fiercely, as she trudged away through the drizzle and the wet leaves, the earl over her shoulder, the bundle under her arm. That was his work. But he'll get his wages. King Henry'll see to that. And Devil Robert hasn't got the Averney Treasure and he hasn't got you, either, darling.

Not that Robert of Belleme wouldyearn for the young William's society. But the powerful and sinister border lord was cousin to the late Earl of Averney and, after the child in her arms, heir to the great domain. And if once he laid hold of the little earl, the Devil of Belleme would succeed to the earldom in no more time than would be required to smash a small skull against a handy wall. She shut her mind on mounting horror and concentrated on small things. Her shoes. They were still comfortable after ten days of tramping and hiding and running. They had come from Paris, like the rest of her trousseau--and some big, rawboned wench, ale companion to one of Belleme's men-at-arms, would be making free now with her lovely clothes, all lost in the sack of Averney Castle, which she had not been able to defend.

Really, it was a beautiful trousseau,she recalled, wiping a splash of rain from her nose with her ragged sleeve. Even he had to open his eyes at that green Sarrazin silk with the gold tassels. Stupid thing. She glowered as she always did when her thoughts turned to her late lord. I had him figured out the very first time I saw him, when he came to our place in Dortaine to sign the marriage contract. Ugh.

What a child she'd been to be sosure he'd be handsome and jolly and kind. Vividly she recalled her first sight of the huge, towering shape of Richard, late Earl of Averney; the blue green eyes sneering down at her in the long horse face; the thick wavy hair, red as carrots, falling to the great shoulders he had mistakenly clad in a gown of rich purple red. She'd had to run off alone to get control of herself before she could bear to look at him again. And then, the way he had held her hand, as if it had been a dead fish, at the betrothal ceremony. And the way the horsy smell of him wrangled with the perfume the barber had used on him.

"He was the most annoying man Iever knew,' she pronounced coldly to a tangled thorn thicket. "Filling the castle with his rowdy friends the very day he brought me there, and they stayed for weeks. Carousing till all hours and never giving me a moment's heed except to bellow at me. Trying to tell me where I might hunt, and when, and what. Expecting me to sit prim as a prioress in my own rooms, sewing and pining away, while he played around with every hussy in the neighborhood! If I behaved outrageously, as Dame Emma said, I had good enough reason! Well, anyway, he's dead now.'

Her stride lengthened and the earl'shead wobbled against her ear. She had always regretted she had not been able to make her husband realize she was Mathilde of Dortaine, a person of consequence.

"Well, even he would see that Ihave a little sense now.' She tossed her head. "For if it weren't for me, Devil Robert would have had the earl and the Averney Treasure. And if I did have to abandon the castle, at least Averney village fled safely. You can rebuild houses, but you can't bring back the good honest folk that have been butchered.'

She still felt the disgrace of havinghad to run away, but what could she have done? Nearly four weeks ago, her husband had got word that the forces of Robert of Belleme were attacking a small keep of his on the Welsh border and had gone tearing off in a furious temper with a handful of men. Later, he had sent a hardriding messenger for reinforcements, and Mathilde had sent all the force she could collect, leaving only a dozen to guard Averney Castle. The relieving party had been gone only a few hours when a terrified farmer had walloped his cart horse into the bailey to announce that the earl was dead, and most of his men; that Robert of Belleme and his gang were on the way to Averney Castle.

Mathilde, almost scared out of herskin, sent the farmer off to warn the village. Then she had assembled the castle folk in the great hall and tried to yell sense into their heads in her halting English.

"Of course I know you'd fight yourbest--yes, and the women too! But we're outnumbered! Save yourselves for a better day! Devil Robert won't be top dog forever, not when the King brings his forces this way! You have friends and relatives not too far away, most of you. Get out by the vaulted way to the river. Emma, Grisilde, Alisoun --you'll go to Saint Urfried's convent--they won't bother you there. Sir Raymond--'

The ancient seneschal and castle tyranthauled himself forward, stooping in his heavy mail hauberk, mustaches bristling, eyes hot coals. "The earl's last order to me was to defend this castle to the last drop of our blood, madam, and I'll do it!'

She stood her ground, the earl wrigglinguneasily in her tight clasp, and argued. They were not abandoning the castle; they were beating a strategic retreat, like the one that had gained William the Conqueror his victory at Hastings. That was a lucky shot in the dark, for Sir Raymond had been fighting in the service of the great duke on that day, and he was very proud of the fact. They would return, and soon, when the power of the lord of Belleme and his rebellious brothers should be broken by King Henry. She talked earnestly, for at any moment she expected to hear the savage challenges of the Devil's men outside the walls.

"Do you think I like to abandonAverney? But men are more than stones and mortar, and we must think about the present earl.' She suddenly swung him high above her head, so they could all see him--looking as presentable as possible in his ermine wrap and blue silk hood--and that turned the tide. Shouts of loyalty, predominantly treble though they were, made the high vault ring.

Then came the frightening nightmareof hustle. Mathilde remembered standing in that secret vault, deep in the solid rock below the lowest dungeon, panting and holding a guttering torch that shed a murky red light on the famous Treasure of Averney, while Sir Raymond, still protesting that it was not right for him to see it, thrust the plate from the chapel altar into the nearest of the great oak chests. She saw a chased silver bowl that had been part of her dowry holding a pair of ancient Viking bracelets of ruddy gold.

"Never mind!' she cut short hiscomplaints. "There'll be nobody here to be tortured into telling where it is. And I defy anybody to find it without help. Come along now. I have to change my clothes. You start the women out of the castle by the underground way to the river. Don't let 'em carry much or they'll be noticed.'

She flew to her own chamber andstripped the earl to his clout. Then she tore off her own clothes and put on the holiday smock and petticoat presented, with much pride, by the small scullery wench. But it had just dawned on Dame Emma that the Countess Mathilde was not going to Saint Urfried's convent. The old waiting woman blustered, shrieked, called on the saints, and at last burst into noisy sobs. Never had she heard of such senseless--at least, an armed escort--

"Now, Emma, you might as wellface it. I know what I'm about, and you know about Robert of Belleme's little ways as well as I do. What would happen to the poor nuns if some gossip let it out that I was hiding there with the earl? And an escort would just make me noticeable, for there's not enough left to do any real good. I've hunted all over this country, and the earl will be safe with me.'

Her plans were all neatly made. Inspite of her late husband's loud decree that she should concern herself with her own affairs, she knew something of the political situation in England. Duke Robert of Normandy, the King's brother and a good-natured ass, had tried an invasion of England and flubbed it badly. King Henry had bluffed him into retreat and then turned his attention to the great nobles who had allied themselves to the duke for the sake of what they could get out of him. The King's justice--strictly legal, but heavy-handed --had scared everybody into submission except the three great brother lord's of the West Country-- Belleme, Pembroke, and Poitou. These had fortified their castles and defied the King.

Mathilde did not exactly approve ofthe King. He neglected his wife and chased the girls even more eagerly than had her late husband. But she knew that he stood for the force of law against the uncontrolled oppressions, the sporadic, bloody feuds, the continual treasons of the great lords. She had been rather surprised to learn that her husband, lawless rake though he was, inclined to the King. But now that he had gone rushing out with an inadequate force against Belleme and got himself killed, she would have to take immediate steps to save her son's property.

She would go to the King with theearl in her arms and place the younger peer under his protection. He would be the King's ward until he was old enough to fight as the King's man. She would have trouble, certainly, and the King would probably try to make advances. But she would round up her scattered forces, as soon as Belleme was overcome, rebuild the castle, and do her best.

She grew aware that she had left thewoodland behind and that she was climbing steadily, knee-deep in sodden heath. Before her the mountains of Wales retreated, sullen and gray, into the wet mists. Yes, she knew what she was about. She had always been sturdily independent and something of a tomboy. But the autumn dampness and chill bit into her heart, and she felt miserably alone and unhappy. She had once thought of war as something noble and dashing, like a tournament, full of the flash of steel and the thundering rush of proud horses. It was nothing of the kind. War meant piled corpses in a field, stripped, reeking, swollen, and unhuman, with the crows wheeling overhead. War was a big lout in mail and leather, walking off with a squealing pig under one arm and a brace of fowl in the other hand, while a woman stood dumb and helpless, staring after him from the cottage door, with her children clinging to her skirts. War was a girl shrieking for mercy behind a hedge, a dead blacksmith dangling above his own threshold.

"Damm the fog!' somebody saidpettishly.

She halted in her tracks, her breathdrying in her throat. A horse and rider stood on the comb of the ridge directly in front of her. The horse snorted, shook its head, the man spoke to it roughly, and another mounted man loomed up behind him, huge in the mists. She collapsed quietly into the heath.

"Can't see the damned path, letalone hunt for loose skirts! Hey, Sim! D'you think there's any truth in that yarn the fellow told about seeing the dame, huh?' She saw them now-- two well-armed, well-mounted, uneasy-looking roughs.

Sim blew his nose and answeredscornfully, "He's a dab liar, like all the rest of 'eb. If you've addy seds, Gilles, you'll cub away, like I said. Break the hosses' legs is all we'll do todight. If that sheep-stealig lad did see the Coudess of Averdey--ad he's probably lyig--she's warbig sob-body's bed for hib by dow. Devil Robert'll have to wait till toborrow. By head's full of church bells. I tell you--'

Mathilde, prone in the deep furze,her hand clamped tight over the earl's mouth, heard the heavy hoofs tramping past her. Her mind scrambled around like a caged squirrel. Who had told them? She had hunted in this district once.

She gave it up and cried soundlessly into the earl's neck. He gurgled, caught his fist in a strand of her tumbled hair, and jerked it. She roused up and wiped her eyes. She would have to find some sort of shelter for the night.

Down below the crest of the hill, athicket of willows grew beside a thread of brook. She fumbled her way into it, sat down, and drew her mantle well over her head to shelter them both from the cold drizzle, and then changed the earl. He nuzzled her to suggest that he would like supper, so she opened her smock and held him close while she gnawed at the moldy bread and cheese. The rain spattered gently on her head, on the dead leaves, and a slow tear slid down her cheek. "Come, come!' She brushed it off. "I'm tired and--and I'm not crying, really, only leaking a little. I thought I was being so clever to escape from the Devil and his men, and they almost walked on me! Wouldn't he crow over me if he knew!'

And into her unwilling mind camethe thought that the late Earl Richard, after he had finished exulting over her stupidity, would have found them a warm shelter and stood guard over them with jealous care and a long, stout lance. He would not have permitted any damage to his own property. The dowager countess lifted uncertain eyes to the rainy darkness.

"If you are anywhere around,' shewhispered reluctantly, "we would be glad of your help--m-messire. I suppose you're still wandering around loose, because we didn't have time for proper masses for your soul. I'll have them attended to, I promise--if we get out of this. I--I almost wish you weren't dead!'

She paused, half expecting to see ahorrid mailed shape rising up in greenish light, dead eyes glaring, wounds gaping. But nothing happened, except that the autumn night grew colder and the rain fell steadily.

Morning dawned, red and windy.When she had attended to the earl, she started off, keeping to the woods until a stray deer fled crashing away at her approach. Then she wondered if a keeper, noticing the disturbed game, might investigate. So when she came to a thin track of road she decided to follow it, since it led eastward, where the royal forces might be found.

After several hours' steady tramping,she came upon a tall gibbet at a crossroad. Outraged crows flapped away from its burden at her approach, and the earl uttered an angry howl. Should she go on? A gallows meant a town. She saw the stumpy tower of a church rising out of a wooded valley on her right. Presently she recognized it. Saint Milburgh's church--then the town must be Milburham. She had come here once with her husband and a large hunting party. Milburham was a poor huddle of houses; it would not attract the eye of the rapacious lord of Belleme.

I may run into trouble, she thought,but surely I'll be able to hear some news of the King's army if I go into town, and save myself going out of the way.

She arrived in Milburham simultaneouslywith an old swineherd and four shoats, a drunken carter, and a peddler and his mules, and found herself in a deafening uproar, for she had happened on Saint Milburgh's Fair. Where everybody had come from, and how the little town square could hold all the pushing, shoving, shouting crowds was a mystery. She edged her way into the thick of it. Presently she heard a thick, important voice sounding off about the King, God bless him! Middle-sized fellow, the King was, going baldish. She lingered, and learned to her great relief that King Henry and his forces had passed not a league from Milburham on their way westward--the fair was safe. And so was she--she hoped.

Photo: "Try to remember, madam. A shame tospoil so lovely an arm.'

Photo: Mathilde remembered standing in thatsecret vault, panting and holding a guttering torch that shed a marky light on the famous Treasure of Averney, while Sir Raymond thrust the plate into the nearest of the great oak chests.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Colyton, Henry John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1987
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