I passed through the kitchen out to the stable, marking as I went that the breakfast was ready laid in the sitting room. There I saddled Saladin, grown sleek by fat living, and rolling his great eyes at me wonderingly. I tested the joinings, buckled the girth tight, and led him round to the front of the house, where I tethered him to a tree and entered the door.
A savory smell of hot meats came from the room and a bright wood fire drove away the grayness of the morning. Anne stood by the table, slicing a loaf and looking ever and anon to the entrance. Her face was pale as if with sleeplessness and weeping. Her hair was not so daintily arranged as was her wont. It seemed almost as if she had augured the future. A strange catch — coming as such songs do from nowhere and meaning nothing — ran constantly in my head. ’Twas one of Philippe Desportes’, that very song which the Duke de Guise sang just before his death. So, as I entered, I found myself humming half unwittingly:
‘”Nous verrons, bergère Rosette,
Qui premier s’en repentira.”
Anne looked up as if startled at my coming, and when she saw my dress glanced fearfully at my face. It must have told her some tale, for a red flush mounted to her brow and abode there.
I picked up a loaf from the table. ’Twas my one sacrifice to the gods of hospitality. ’Twould serve, I thought, for the first stage in my journey.
Anne looked up at me with a kind of confused wonder. She laughed, but there was little mirth in her laughter.
“Why, what would you do with the loaf?” said she. “Do you seek to visit the widows and fatherless in their affliction?”
“Nay,” said I gravely. “I would but keep myself unspotted from the world.”
All merriment died out of her face.
“And what would you do?” she stammered.
“The time has come for me to leave, Mistress Anne. My horse is saddled at the door. I have been here long enough; ay, and too long. I thank you with all my heart for your kindness, and I would seek to repay it by ridding you of my company.”
I fear I spoke harshly, but ’twas to hide my emotion, which bade fair to overpower me and ruin all.
“Oh, and why will you go?” she cried.
“Farewell, Anne,” I said, looking at her fixedly, and I saw that she divined the reason.
I turned on my heel, and went out from the room.
“Oh, my love,” she cried passionately, “stay with me; stay, oh, stay!”
Her voice rang in my ear with honeyed sweetness, like that of the Sirens to Ulysses of old.
“Stay!” she cried, as I flung open the house-door.
I turned me round for one last look at her whom I loved better than life. She stood at the entrance to the room, with her arms outstretched and her white bosom heaving. Her eyes were filled with an utterable longing, which a man may see but once in his life — and well for him if he never sees it. Her lips were parted as if to call me back once more. But no word came; her presence was more powerful than any cry.
I turned to the weather. A gray sky, a driving mist, and a chill piercing blast. The contrast was almost more than my resolution. An irresistible impulse seized me to fly to her arms, to enter the bright room again with her, and sell myself, body and soul, to the lady of my heart.
My foot trembled to the step backward, my arms all but felt her weight, when that blind Fate which orders the ways of men intervened. Against my inclination and desire, bitterly, unwilling, I strode to my horse and flung myself on his back. I dared not look behind, but struck spurs into Saladin and rode out among the trees.
A fierce north wind met me in the teeth, and piercing through my tatters, sent a shiver to my very heart.
I cannot recall my thoughts during that ride: I seem not to have thought at all. All I know is that in about an hour there came into my mind, as from a voice, the words: “Recreant! Fool!” and I turned back.