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The countess and the devil.

The Countess and the Devil

Conclusion: The crowd shovedMathilde along past cattle and sheep pens, past the bishop's steward and his clerks, all busy and flustered, past rickety booths piled with cheap cloth and gimcracks.

Suddenly somebody sneezed thunderously.She looked up and saw the Devil's man-at-arms, Sim, wiping his inflamed nose on his sleeve not an arm's length away, and, beside him, Gilles, holding his horse securely by the bit and staring over the crowd.

She turned and wormed herself andthe interested earl into the crowd around the nearest booth. She forgot that they had not seen her last night; she only wanted to dive out of sight.

Far away, she heard the salesmanbawling his wares at the customers, bashful but eager, crowding up to the booth. "Here you are, here you are, girls! Here's your London fashions, exactly as worn by good Queen Maude!'

Mathilde gave before somebody'selbow and clutched at the counter to save herself. The salesman's eye fell on her at once.

"Here, dearie! Just your style--acoif from London! Slip off your hood and try it! . . . Look, ladies! See it on the little lady here!'

She stood numb and helpless whilethe salesman wound folds of bright blue stuff around her head. She dared not protest; her foreign accent would draw notice.

"There, face about and show 'em,dearie!' He thrust her around and the crowding red faces swarmed before her eyes. "That's the London fashion this moment, ladies--close and tight around the head, and the band to hold it! There you are! And only thrippence! I've got 'em in purple and green and red, and black for the serious!'

Mathilde hastily drew the knottedkerchief that was her purse from her waistband. She thrust a thrippence at him as the crowd surged forward, and the gratified salesman began harvesting. She wormed her way out of the press and saw, just beyond, the gray bulk of Saint Milburgh's church. She felt the bright blue coif attracting eyes like a blazing beacon and met the interested, if bleary, state of Sim, the man-at-arms. He prodded his mate and pointed. She clutched the earl tightly and tore through the crowd like a crossbow bolt and into the dark and odorous sanctuary of Saint Milburgh's church.

Outside the church once again, shewaited, clutching now only her bundle of food. She felt oddly calm. It was as if Saint Milburgh herself had taken charge, instead of the harried and excited little priest. At last she saw the two men, looking baffled, follow her out of the church. Gilles carried a portly silver candlestick, and that was all. She waited until Sim caught sight of her blue coif. Then she started to run. The Devil had ordered them to find her; they would not dare disobey. But they had not found the earl! And now she would draw them away from his hiding place.

". . . so I says to Gilles, messire, Isays, "Her hands is pretty white for a farm wench,' I says. So we chased her into the church and out again.'

Mathilde's old smock had beentorn from her shoulders; she was cold. The great hall of Bridgnorth Castle rose high above her dizzy head, and the excited yells and the constant clang of metal echoed against the vault. She shook back her hair defiantly and regretted it; she had used her nails rather freely on Devil Robert's master of horse, and he, a lad who believed that women should not be allowed to get by with everything, had hit her a tremendous whack over the ear. At which, Robert of Belleme, sprawling in his great chair of state on the high dais, had laughed gently.

He spoke now to the man-at-arms:"Well done, Sim, and bravely, too--to have fetched her so far without losing your own hides! That candlestick I'll have. Take these for yourselves.' He flung two bright coins . . .. "Madame, you interest me. You may interest me still more, presently.'

Mathilde stared at him.She had seen him only once before, and despite the fact that she did not think much of any man but her father, she had been impressed. His calm good looks, his tall, well-proportioned figure, his polite manners made it hard to realize that he was her homely husband's cousin. They said that he roasted humble captives over slow fires for his amusement, that his dungeons were full of the slimed bones of forgotten captives, that he had been known to put men of noble blood to torture. But she could not believe those tales then; she had contrasted him favorably with her own surly lord. Now, looking into his eyes, she felt an icy horror; the old incredulity was frozen by it. But the ice seemed to stiffen her spine. She met his cold stare with a stare as cold. All I must do, she told herself, is keep my mouth shut.

The lord of Belleme rose, and theflaring torchlight glinted on his mail hauberk and the long, crimson mantle that set off his good looks. "You must forgive me that I remained seated in your presence, madame. Those remarkable garments do not hide your beauty, not at all.'

"Messire!' she shouted, blushinghotly, and clutched the smock rags across her breast.

"You are the daughter of theCount of Dortaine,' he went on in his softly polite tones. "I shall see that you are set safely on your way back to him--after you have given me the information I want. I am master of Averney; in a short time I shall be master of England. Robert of Normandy is a fat fool; I used him for my own benefit. But, my dear'--he smiled gently--"I need the Averney Treasure. I searched the castle ruins personally but found nothing. Just where is it?'

So that was it. Mathilde braced hershaking knees. "I think it was moved, messire,' she said. "I'm afraid I can't say where it is now.'

"Too bad.' He shook his headdeprecatingly. "Let me stimulate your wits a trifle.'

He rose up suddenly, tall and terrible,and took her right arm between his hands. She drew a hard breath. Suddenly she thought of her husband. However annoying he had been, he had died bravely, defending the domain that was his and his son's. She could not do less.

"Oh, messire!' she cried to his wanderingghost. "Help me--help me!'

The angry color died from her faceas Devil Robert twisted, leaving it waxen white. Her eyes grew bigger and darker. She swayed slightly, but she still stared up into the cold gray eyes.

"Try to remember, madame. Ashame to spoil so lovely an arm.'

She gulped hard to ease her drythroat; otherwise, when she spoke, she might scream. But her voice came at last, soft and firm as his own, "My memory is so poor, messire.'

He glanced at her, released hisclutch, and chafed his reddened palms. Her arm fell helpless at her side, her knees gave, and darkness swarmed over her. When she came back to consciousness and agony, she lay huddled in the carved chair, and Belleme was bending over her. Beyond him she could see hard, curious faces crowding closer.

"Amazing, what stubbornnessyou delicate little things have. If I'm overrough you may die, and where will the treasure be then? No, no. Let me try something else. How would you like to see the earl's eyes torn from his head? I hold him prisoner, you know.'

Mathilde's bitten lip curledin scorn. "That's a big lie,' she said. "I know better.'

"Dear countess, the vaultsof Shrewsbury Castle are quite secure. I hold the earl there. And I have no scruples about employing my chief tormentor on a male, of whatever noble birth. I say I will have his eyes gouged out and flung at your feet!'

Mathilde actually grinned. "Notuntil you catch him,' she said. "And you won't. Don't talk nonsense, my lord.'

Devil Robert stared in ominous silence.Then he said, "Can it be that the Lady of Averney has no affection in her heart? Surely the earl's fate moves you?'

"Of course it does!' she flungback, tears welling into her eyes. "And that's why you haven't got him now! You're going to tear me to pieces, I have no doubt, but the earl is safe, and so is the Averney Treasure, and I know where they both are, and,' she added rudely, being tired and in most cruel pain, "you can go to hell, messire!'

He hit her in the face. His followersjumped and retreated, for the Devil of Belleme almost never showed temper. Mathilde watched the terror rising in their faces with dim satisfaction. She heard voices expostulating, protesting, very far away, echoing against the vault. The agony in her arm made her whole body throb. Now he'll kill me . . .. Be a good boy, darling, don't cry, don't get sick . . .. That was a big lie . . .. They might ravage the altar, but they'd never look inside the pulpit . . .. Tie up a little bread in a rag, and dip it in milk. Her head fell back, her long yellow hair kissed the dais, and her last conscious thought was of her dead lord. Did I behave well, messire? Are you pleased with me at last? You did help me--I felt you near me--it was kind of you. I'll be joining you soon, you know. I--I really think I'll be glad to see you.

The master of horse cut inrudely on his lord's meditations. His scratched face was sickly pale. "If you ask me, messire, the King has stolen a march on us--God knows how! And he must have taken Shrewsbury Castle! She's mighty sure of herself, so the word must be out everywhere but here! I think we'd better hustle to Bristol and take ship for France.'

Robert of Belleme staredat the limp form in his chair. "No, I'll see for myself what goes on at Shrewsbury. Have the castellan lock her up in the dungeon. I'll get the treasure out of her later. I'll have no damned woman's tricks spoiling my plans.'

The next dawn, Belleme hurriedaway with his depleted forces. The next afternoon, a noisy army of mixed English and Normans was hammering at Bridgnorth gate. The castellan took one look at them, at the royal banner snapping in the wind, and prudently resigned the fortress. Its dungeon spewed up a score of blinking, half-idiotic prisoners who bore the trademarks of Belleme's chief tormentor. But one of them, a young woman, feverish and in rags, her right arm cruelly wrenched and bruised, was clamoring to see King Henry and would accept no substitute.

Ten days later, the Dowager Countessof Averney swept into the great hall of Shrewsbury Castle. A slender man in a gown of rich crimson, the dark hair retreating from his high forehead, rose up from the chair of state and bowed to her, and so did the large force f noble gentlemen surrounding him and staring. Mathilde, conscious of her borrowed gown, hastily reefed in at the sides by her faithful old waiting woman, Dame Emma, sank into a deep reverence, and the King's eyes, bright as a stallion's, traveled over her.

"I have brought my son, Earl Williamof Averney, messire, to do homage to you as your vassal. Will you accept his wardship?'

Behind her, she heard the earl makingsmall noises in the arms of Dame Emma. Surely he wouldn't set up a howl now! At her gesture, the old lady presented the earl to the King, who stared and smoothed away a grin.

"The undoubted son of Earl Richard,'he remarked. "If he resembles his mother as well in spirit, we could have no truer vassal. None the worse for his stay at Saint Milburgh's?'

"Oh, no,' Mathilde smiled shyly."Father Hugo took good care of him. I am very grateful to him--and to you, messire, for arriving at Bridgnorth when you did. Things were a bit . . . difficult.'

"But before we speak of wardship,'the King went on, "it will be necessary for you to interview a gentleman now waiting in the small retiring chamber to your right. The chamberlain will show you.'

Puzzled and rather worried,Mathilde followed the grizzled, smiling officer. He drew aside a curtain before an arched doorway. "This way, madame. The gentlewoman is to wait outside until summoned.' He pointed to a bench. Dame Emma deposited herself on it with a sniff, jealously clutching the earl, and Mathilde went inside.

She saw a small room dimlylighted by a high, narrow window. On the stone hearth a fire glowed, and near it sat a man in a high-backed chair, slouched against cushions. An elderly, foreign-looking man in a fur-bordered gown, who was speaking to him, bowed when he saw Mathilde and hurried from the room.

The man in the chair turnedtoward her, and Mathilde's breath died in her throat. His neatly brushed red hair was streaked with gray, his temples and cheeks deep-hollowed, his great nose pinched and waxen, and new lines deeply graved between his dark brows and around his hard-set mouth.

"Y-you're not d-dead,' she stammeredfoolishly.

Richard, Earl of Averney, inclinedhis head. "No. Are you all right? Understood you'd been sick.'

She came closer. He did not rise ormove at all.

"I--I don't understand,' she whispered.

"Sit down and I'll tell you. There'sa stool.' How polite he was! She sank down helplessly.

"I've been here over a month, eversince they started stripping the bodies after the fight and found I wasn't dead. Only I've been belowstairs. Didn't the King tell you? Little joke of his. You gave the Devil of Belleme some bad moments, Mathilde. I had a little talk with him before they shipped him off to exile after Shrewsbury surrendered. When you told him the earl was safe, and that you knew where he was, he thought you meant me, see? So he hustled back to find out, and the King's men closed in on him. They were all for hanging him, but he's stripped of his lands and his power. He'd rather be dead, I haven't a doubt.'

Mathilde rose up slowly. "You'vebeen . . . belowstairs. Do you mean he . . . hurt you?'

"Some,' the earl said wryly. "Firstfor his own fun, and then he wanted to get the Averney Treasure. That's why he didn't kill me. Dead men can't help you get rich. By the way, I've seen Sir Raymond. That was a nice bit of work you did at Averney Castle, Mathilde. And where have you been, if I'm not too curious?'

She told him. It occurred to her thatthis was the longest conversation they had ever had without yelling. He made no scornful comments at all. He asked numerous questions and then said curiously, "What did you say when Belleme threatened to blind me before you?'

"I though he meant William; Ididn't know you were alive, messire. And I knew William was safe, if I could only -- --'

He leaned forward suddenly, scowling."He didn't . . . hurt you?'

"He--uh--twisted my arm a little.'

The earl uttered a loud bellow, quitelike old times. "The swine! The dirty ----Why, in the name of God, didn't you tell him and save yourself?'

"You didn't,' Mathilde answered."It wasn't the treasure. It was the principle of the thing. We can't give up what's ours just because somebody gets rough!'

He grinned at her. "Rather feel thatway myself. Well, now, we're going to Medeham; I've got a hall there, small place. Far as I can go by horse litter, the doctor says. Can't ride, can't even walk yet. I won't spoil your hunting for you this winter, anyway.'

"Wh-what did they . . . d-do toyou?' Mathilde paled.

"Oh, they wrung me around on therack now and again. Broke a sprocket on me once. Damned cold it was down there, too--enough to give you the rheumatics . . .. Mathilde! What's wrong?'

She had burst into tears ofterror and fellow feeling.

"Stop bawling, Mathilde,damn it all! Look. When I was down there, I promised myself I'd have another try at you, if I lived. It's not very pleasant for a chap to realize his wife would just as soon be his widow! It's your own fault. You always acted as if I smelled bad, and I'm not going to bow and scrape around before a bit of a yellow-haired girl with her nose in the air.'

"Oh!' Mathilde glaredthrough her tears. "Just let me tell you -- --'

"I knew you didn't like me, and itmade me sore as a saddle gall. I tried ignoring you. I tried to make you jealous. Maybe I should have beaten you. But I'd rather be married to you than to anyone else, and I'll try to behave better. I--er--I'm rather proud of you, Mathilde.'

She said, reasonably, "Well, in thatcase I'll meet you halfway,' and she bent and kissed him on the lips, slightly off-center.

The earl blinked and then lookedresolute.

"Stoop down and I'll see what Ican do with my arms,' he ordered.

Dame Emma got tired of waiting atlast and marched in with William, safe from the responsibilities of earldom for a while. "It's time for his dinner,' she proclaimed sternly. Mathilde sat up, smoothed her hair, and hastily took her son in her arms.

The earl bent forward. "GoodGod, but he certainly looks like me! Poor little devil, he'll be 20 years catching up with his nose--I was!'

Mathilde smiled gently. "He's notpretty, but he's very good. And then, these homely babies so often grow up into handsome men!'

And over William's red head shefluttered dark lashes at her lord.

Photo: "Try to remember, madame. A shame tospoil so lovely an arm.'
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Colyton, Henry John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1987
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