The Cloister and the Hearth is a Webnovel completed by Charles Reade.
This webnovel is currently completed.
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Read WebNovel The Cloister and the Hearth Part 49
When they were almost starved with cold, and waiting for the attack, the door on the stairs opened softly and closed again. Nothing more.
There was another harrowing silence.
Then a single light footstep on the stair; and nothing more.
Then a light crept under the door; and nothing more.
Presently there was a gentle scratching, not half so loud as a mouse’s, and the false door-post opened by degrees and left a perpendicular s.p.a.ce through which the light streamed in. The door, had it been bolted, would now have hung by the bare tip of the bolt, which went into the real door-post, but, as it was, it swung gently open of itself. It opened inwards, so Denys did not raise his crossbow from the ground, but merely grasped his dagger.
The candle was held up, and shaded from behind by a man’s hand.
He was inspecting the beds from the threshold, satisfied that his victims were both in bed.
The man glided into the apartment. But at the first step something in the position of the cupboard and chair made him uneasy. He ventured no further, but put the candle on the floor and stooped to peer under the chair; but, as he stooped, an iron hand grasped his shoulder, and a dagger was driven so fiercely through his neck that the point came out at his gullet. There was a terrible hiccough, but no cry; and half a dozen silent strokes followed in swift succession, each a death-blow, and the a.s.sa.s.sin was laid noiselessly on the floor.
Denys closed the door; bolted it gently; drew the post to, and even while he was doing it whispered Gerard to bring a chair. It was done.
“Help me set him up.”
“Frighten them! Gain time.”
Even while saying this, Denys had whipped a piece of string round the dead man’s neck, and tied him to the chair, and there the ghastly figure sat fronting the door.
“Denys, I can do better. Saints forgive me!”
“What? Be quick then, we have not many moments.”
And Denys got his cross-bow ready, and, tearing off his straw mattress, reared it before him and prepared to shoot the moment the door should open, for he had no hope any more would come singly, when they found the first did not return.
While thus employed, Gerard was busy about the seated corpse, and, to his amazement, Denys saw a luminous glow spreading rapidly over the white face.
Gerard blew out the candle. And on this the corpse’s face shone still more like a glowworm’s head.
Denys shook in his shoes, and his teeth chattered.
“What in Heaven’s name is this?” he whispered.
“Hush! ’tis but phosphorus. But ’twill serve.”
“Away! they will surprise thee.”
In fact uneasy mutterings were heard below, and at last a deep voice said, “What makes him so long? is the drole rifling them?”
It was their comrade they suspected then, not the enemy. Soon a step came softly but rapidly up the stairs: the door was gently tried.
When this resisted, which was clearly not expected, the sham post was very cautiously moved, and an eye no doubt peeped through the aperture: for there was a howl of dismay, and the man was heard to stumble back and burst into the kitchen, where a babel of voices rose directly on his return.
Gerard ran to the dead thief and began to work on him again.
“Back, madman!” whispered Denys.
“Nay, nay. I know these ignorant brutes. They will not venture here awhile. I can make him ten times more fearful.”
“At least close that opening! Let them not see you at your devilish work.”
Gerard closed the sham post, and in half a minute his brush made the dead head a sight to strike any man with dismay. He put his art to a strange use, and one unparalleled perhaps in the history of mankind. He illuminated his dead enemy’s face to frighten his living foe: the staring eyeb.a.l.l.s he made globes of fire; the teeth he left white, for so they were more terrible by the contrast, but the palate and tongue he tipped with fire, and made one lurid cavern of the red depths the chap-fallen jaw revealed: and on the brow he wrote in burning letters “LA MORT.” And, while he was doing it, the stout Denys was quaking, and fearing the vengeance of Heaven; for one man’s courage is not another’s; and the band of miscreants below were quarrelling and disputing loudly, and now without disguise.
The steps that led down to the kitchen were fifteen, but they were nearly perpendicular: there was therefore in point of fact no distance between the besiegers and besieged, and the latter now caught almost every word. At last one was heard to cry out “I tell ye the devil has got him and branded him with h.e.l.l-fire. I am more like to leave this cursed house than go again into a room that is full of fiends.”
“Art drunk? or mad? or a coward?” said another.
“Call me a coward, I’ll give thee my dagger’s point, and send thee where Pierre sits o’ fire for ever.”
“Come, no quarrelling when work is afoot,” roared a tremendous diapason, “or I’ll brain ye both with my fist, and send ye where we shall all go soon or late.”
“The Abbot,” whispered Denys, gravely.
He felt the voice he had just heard could belong to no man but the colossus he had seen in pa.s.sing through the kitchen. It made the place vibrate. The quarrelling continued some time, and then there was a dead silence.
“Look out, Gerard.”
“Ay. What will they do next?”
“We shall soon know.”
“Shall I wait for you, or cut down the first that opens the door?”
“Wait for me, lest we strike the same and waste a blow. Alas! we cannot afford that.”
Sudden came into the room a thing that made them start and their hearts quiver.
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