“Then he may have left the house as well.”
“I believe that he did.”
“He has abandoned me to my fate. Etienne, Etienne, they are coming!”
Afar off I heard those fateful steps and the jingle of distant keys. What were they coming for now, since there were no other prisoners to drag to judgment? It could only be to carry out the sentence upon my darling.
I stood between her and the door, with the strength of a lion in my limbs. I would tear the house down before they should touch her.
“Go back! Go back!” she cried. “They will murder you, Etienne. My life, at least, is safe. For the love you bear me, Etienne, go back. It is nothing. I will make no sound. You will not hear that it is done.”
She wrestled with me, this delicate creature, and by main force she dragged me to the opening between the cells. But a sudden thought had crossed my mind.
“We may yet be saved,” I whispered. “Do what I tell you at once and without argument. Go into my cell. Quick!”
I pushed her through the gap and helped her to replace the planks. I had retained her cloak in my hands, and with this wrapped round me I crept into the darkest corner of her cell. There I lay when the door was opened and several men came in. I had reckoned that they would bring no lantern, for they had none with them before.
To their eyes I was only a dark blur in the corner.
“Bring a light,” said one of them.
“No, no; curse it!” cried a rough voice, which I knew to be that of the ruffian, Matteo. “It is not a job that I like, and the more I saw it the less I should like it. I am sorry, signora, but the order of the tribunal has to be obeyed.”
My impulse was to spring to my feet and to rush through them all and out by the open door. But how would that help Lucia? Suppose that I got clear away, she would be in their hands until I could come back with help, for single-handed I could not hope to clear a way for her. All this flashed through my mind in an instant, and I saw that the only course for me was to lie still, take what came, and wait my chance. The fellow's coarse hand felt about among my curls– those curls in which only a woman's fingers had ever wandered. The next instant he gripped my ear and a pain shot through me as if I had been touched with a hot iron. I bit my lip to stifle a cry, and I felt the blood run warm down my neck and back.
“There, thank Heaven, that's over,” said the fellow, giving me a friendly pat on the head. “You're a brave girl, signora, I'll say that for you, and I only wish you'd have better taste than to love a Frenchman. You can blame him and not me for what I have done.”
What could I do save to lie still and grind my teeth at my own helplessness? At the same time my pain and my rage were always soothed by the reflection that I had suffered for the woman whom I loved. It is the custom of men to say to ladies that they would willingly endure any pain for their sake, but it was my privilege to show that I had said no more than I meant. I thought also how nobly I would seem to have acted if ever the story came to be told, and how proud the regiment of Conflans might well be of their colonel. These thoughts helped me to suffer in silence while the blood still trickled over my neck and dripped upon the stone floor. It was that sound which nearly led to my destruction.
“She's bleeding fast,” said one of the valets. “You had best fetch a surgeon or you will find her dead in the morning.”
“She lies very still and she has never opened her mouth,” said another. “The shock has killed her.”
“Nonsense; a young woman does not die so easily.” It was Matteo who spoke. “Besides, I did but snip off enough to leave the tribunal's mark upon her. Rouse up, signora, rouse up!”
He shook me by the shoulder, and my heart stood still for fear he should feel the epaulet under the mantle.
“How is it with you now?” he asked.
I made no answer.
“Curse it, I wish I had to do with a man instead of a woman, and the fairest woman in Venice,” said the gondolier. “Here, Nicholas, lend me your handkerchief and bring a light.”
It was all over. The worst had happened. Nothing could save me. I still crouched in the corner, but I was tense in every muscle, like a wild cat about to spring.
If I had to die I was determined that my end should be worthy of my life.
One of them had gone for a lamp and Matteo was stooping over me with a handkerchief. In another instant my secret would be discovered. But he suddenly drew himself straight and stood motionless. At the same instant there came a confused murmuring sound through the little window far above my head. It was the rattle of oars and the buzz of many voices. Then there was a crash upon the door upstairs, and a terrible voice roared: “Open! Open in the name of the Emperor!”
The Emperor! It was like the mention of some saint which, by its very sound, can frighten the demons.
Away they ran with cries of terror– Matteo, the valets, the steward, all of the murderous gang. Another shout and then the crash of a hatchet and the splintering of planks. There were the rattle of arms and the cries of French soldiers in the hall. Next instant feet came flying down the stair and a man burst frantically into my cell.
“Lucia!” he cried, “Lucia!” He stood in the dim light, panting and unable to find his words. Then he broke out again. “Have I not shown you how I love you, Lucia? What more could I do to prove it? I have betrayed my country, I have broken my vow, I have ruined my friends, and I have given my life in order to save you.”
It was young Lorenzo Loredan, the lover whom I had superseded. My heart was heavy for him at the time, but after all it is every man for himself in love, and if one fails in the game it is some consolation to lose to one who can be a graceful and considerate winner.
I was about to point this out to him, but at the first word I uttered he gave a shout of astonishment, and, rushing out, he seized the lamp which hung in the corridor and flashed it in my face.
“It is you, you villain!” he cried. “You French coxcomb. You shall pay me for the wrong which you have done me.”
But the next instant he saw the pallor of my face and the blood which was still pouring from my head.
“What is this?” he asked. “How come you to have lost your ear?”
I shook off my weakness, and pressing my handkerchief to my wound I rose from my couch, the debonair colonel of Hussars.
“My injury, sir, is nothing. With your permission we will not allude to a matter so trifling and so personal.”
But Lucia had burst through from her cell and was pouring out the whole story while she clasped Lorenzo's arm.
“This noble gentleman– he has taken my place, Lorenzo! He has borne it for me. He has suffered that I might be saved.”
I could sympathise with the struggle which I could see in the Italian's face. At last he held out his hand to me.
“Colonel Gerard,” he said, “you are worthy of a great love. I forgive you, for if you have wronged me you have made a noble atonement. But I wonder to see you alive. I left the tribunal before you were judged, but I understood that no mercy would be shown to any Frenchman since the destruction of the ornaments of Venice.”
“He did not destroy them,” cried Lucia. “He has helped to preserve those in our palace.”
“One of them, at any rate,” said I, as I stooped and kissed her hand.
This was the way, my friends, in which I lost my ear. Lorenzo was found stabbed to the heart in the Piazza of St. Mark within two days of the night of my adventure. Of the tribunal and its ruffians, Matteo and three others were shot, the rest banished from the town.
Lucia, my lovely Lucia, retired into a convent at Murano after the French had left the city, and there she still may be, some gentle lady abbess who has perhaps long forgotten the days when our hearts throbbed together, and when the whole great world seemed so small a thing beside the love which burned in our veins. Or perhaps it may not be so. Perhaps she has not forgotten.
There may still be times when the peace of the cloister is broken by the memory of the old soldier who loved her in those distant days. Youth is past and passion is gone, but the soul of the gentleman can never change, and still Etienne Gerard would bow his grey head before her and would very gladly lose his other ear if he might do her a service.
II. How the Brigadier Captured Saragossa
Have I ever told you, my friends, the circumstances connected with my joining the Hussars of Conflans at the time of the siege of Saragossa and the very remarkable exploit which I performed in connection with the taking of that city? No? Then you have indeed something still to learn. I will tell it to you exactly as it occurred. Save for two or three men and a score or two of women, you are the first who have ever heard the story.
You must know, then, that it was in the Second Hussars– called the Hussars of Chamberan– that I had served as a lieutenant and as a junior captain. At the time I speak of I was only twenty-five years of age, as reckless and desperate a man as any in that great army.
It chanced that the war had come to a halt in Germany, while it was still raging in Spain, so the Emperor, wishing to reinforce the Spanish army, transferred me as senior captain to the Hussars of Conflans, which were at that time in the Fifth Army Corps under Marshal Lannes.
It was a long journey from Berlin to the Pyrenees.
My new regiment formed part of the force which, under Marshal Lannes, was then besieging the Spanish town of Saragossa. I turned my horse's head in that direction, therefore, and behold me a week or so later at the French headquarters, whence I was directed to the camp of the Hussars of Conflans.