HotFreeBooks.com
From the Memoirs of a Minister of France
by Stanley Weyman
1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Note:

In this Etext, text in italics has been written in capital letters.

Many French words in the text have accents, etc. which have been omitted.



FROM THE MEMOIRS OF A MINISTER OF FRANCE

BY

STANLEY WEYMAN



CONTENTS.

I.—THE CLOCKMAKER OF POISSY II.—THE TENNIS BALLS III.—TWO MAYORS OF BOTTITORT IV.—LA TOUSSAINT V.—THE LOST CIPHER VI.—THE MAN OF MONCEAUX VII.—THE GOVERNOR OF GUERET VIII.—THE OPEN SHUTTER IX.—THE MAID OF HONOUR X.—FARMING THE TAXES XI.—THE CAT AND THE KING XII.—AT FONTAINEBLEAU



I.

THE CLOCKMAKER OF POISSY.

Foreseeing that some who do not love me will be swift to allege that in the preparation of these memoirs I have set down only such things as redound to my credit, and have suppressed the many experiences not so propitious which fall to the lot of the most sagacious while in power, I take this opportunity of refuting that calumny. For the truth stands so far the other way that my respect for the King's person has led me to omit many things creditable to me; and some, it may be, that place me in a higher light than any I have set down. And not only that: but I propose in this very place to narrate the curious details of an adventure wherein I showed to less advantage than usual; and on which I should, were I moved by the petty feelings imputed to me by malice, be absolutely silent.

One day, about a fortnight after the quarrel between the King and the Duchess of Beaufort, which I have described, and which arose, it will be remembered, out of my refusal to pay the christening expenses of her second son on the scale of a child of France, I was sitting in my lodgings at St. Germains when Maignan announced that M. de Perrot desired to see me. Knowing Perrot to be one of the most notorious beggars about the court, with an insatiable maw of his own and an endless train of nephews and nieces, I was at first for being employed; but, reflecting that in the crisis in the King's affairs which I saw approaching—and which must, if he pursued his expressed intention of marrying the Duchess, be fraught with infinite danger to the State and himself—the least help might be of the greatest moment, I bade them admit him; privately determining to throw the odium of any refusal upon the overweening influence of Madame de Sourdis, the Duchess's aunt.

Accordingly I met him with civility, and was not surprised when, with his second speech, he brought out the word FAVOUR. But I was surprised—for, as I have said, I knew him to be the best practised beggar in the world—to note in his manner some indications of embarrassment and nervousness; which, when I did not immediately assent, increased to a sensible extent.

"It is a very small thing, M. de Rosny," he said, breathing hard.

On that hint I declared my willingness to serve him. "But," I added, shrugging my shoulders and speaking in a confidential tone, "no one knows the Court better than you do, M. de Perrot. You are in all our secrets, and you must be aware that at present—I say nothing of the Duchess, she is a good woman, and devoted to his Majesty—but there are others—"

"I know," he answered, with a flash of malevolence that did not escape me. "But this is a private favour, M. de Rosny. It is nothing that Madame de Sourdis can desire, either for herself or for others."

That aroused my curiosity. Only the week before, Madame de Sourdis had obtained a Hat for her son, and the post of assistant Deputy Comptroller of Buildings for her Groom of the Chambers. For her niece the Duchess she meditated obtaining nothing less than a crown. I was at pains, therefore, to think of any office, post, or pension that could be beyond the pale of her desires; and in a fit of gaiety I bade M. de Perrot speak out and explain his riddle.

"It is a small thing," he said, with ill-disguised nervousness. "The King hunts to-morrow."

"Yes," I said.

"And very commonly he rides back in your company, M. le Marquis."

"Sometimes," I said; "or with M. d'Epernon. Or, if he is in a mood for scandal, with M. la Varenne or Vitry."

"But with you, if you wish it, and care to contrive it so," he persisted, with a cunning look.

I shrugged my shoulders. "Well?" I said, wondering more and more what he would be at.

"I have a house on the farther side of Poissy," he continued. "And I should take it as a favour, M. de Rosny, if you could induce the King to dismount there to-morrow and take a cup of wine."

"That is a very small thing," I said bluntly, wondering much why he had made so great a parade of the matter, and still more why he seemed so ill at ease. "Yet, after such a prelude, if any but a friend of your tried loyalty asked it, I might expect to find Spanish liquorice in the cup."

"That is out of the question, in my case," he answered with a slight assumption of offence, which he immediately dropped. "And you say it is a small thing; it is the more easily granted, M. de Rosny."

"But the King goes and comes at his pleasure," I replied warily. "Of course, he might-take it into his head to descend at your house. There would be nothing surprising in such a visit. I think that he has paid you one before, M. de Perrot?"

He assented eagerly.

"And he may do so," I said, smiling, "to-morrow. But then, again, he may not. The chase may lead him another way; or he may be late in returning; or—in fine, a hundred things may happen."

I had no mind to go farther than that; and I supposed that it would satisfy him, and that he would thank me and take his leave. To my surprise, however, he stood his ground, and even pressed me more than was polite; while his countenance, when I again eluded him, assumed an expression of chagrin and vexation so much in excess of the occasion as to awaken fresh doubts in my mind. But these only the more confirmed me in my resolution to commit myself no farther, especially as he was not a man I loved or could trust; and in the end he had to retire with such comfort as I had already given him.

In itself, and on the surface, the thing seemed to be a trifle, unworthy of the serious consideration of any man. But in so far as it touched the King's person and movements, I was inclined to view it in another light; and this the more, as I still had fresh in my memory the remarkable manner in which Father Cotton, the Jesuit, had given me a warning by a word about a boxwood fire. After a moment's thought, therefore, I summoned Boisrueil, one of my gentlemen, who had an acknowledged talent for collecting gossip; and I told him in a casual way that M. de Perrot had been with me.

"He has not been at Court for a week," he remarked.

"Indeed?" I said.

"He applied for the post of Assistant Deputy Comptroller of Buildings for his nephew, and took offence when it was given to Madame de Sourdis' Groom of the Chambers."

"Ha!" I said; "a dangerous malcontent."

Boisrueil smiled. "He has lived a week out of the sunshine of his Majesty's countenance, your excellency. After that, all things are possible."

This was my own estimate of the man, whom I took to be one of those smug, pliant self-seekers whom Courts and peace breed up. I could imagine no danger that could threaten the King from such a quarter; while curiosity inclined me to grant his request. As it happened, the deer the next day took us in the direction of Poissy, and the King, who was always itching to discuss with me the question of his projected marriage, and as constantly, since our long talk in the garden at Rennes, avoiding the subject when with me, bade me ride home with him. On coming within half a mile of Perrot's I let fall his name, and in a very natural way suggested that the King should alight there for a few minutes.

It was one of the things Henry delighted to do, for, endowed with the easiest manners, and able in a moment to exchange the formality of the Louvre for the freedom of the camp, he could give to such cheap favours their full value. He consented on the instant, therefore; and turning our horses into a by-road, we sauntered down it with no greater attendance than a couple of pages.

The sun was near setting, and its rays, which still gilded the tree-tops, left the wood below pensive and melancholy. The house stood in a solitary place on the edge of the forest, half a mile from Poissy; and these two things had their effect on my mind. I began to wish that we had brought with us half a troop of horse, or at least two or three gentlemen; and, startled by the thought of the unknown chances to which, out of mere idle curiosity, I was exposing the King, I would gladly have turned back. But without explanation I could not do so; and while I hesitated Henry cried out gaily that we were there.

A short avenue of limes led from the forest road to the door. I looked curiously before us as we rode under the trees, in some fear lest M. de Perrot's preparations should discover my complicity, and apprise the King that he was expected. But so far was this from being the case that no one appeared; the house rose still and silent in the mellow light of sunset, and, for all that we could see, might have been the fabled palace of enchantment.

"'He is Jean de Nivelle's dog; he runs away when you call him,'" the King quoted. "Get down, Rosny. We have reached the palace of the Sleeping Princess. It remains only to sound the horn, and—"

I was in the act of dismounting, with my back to him, when his words came to this sudden stop. I turned to learn what caused it, and saw standing in the aperture of the wicket, which had been silently opened, a girl, little more than a child, of the most striking beauty. Surprise shone in her eyes, and shyness and alarm had brought the colour to her cheeks; while the level rays of the sun, which forced her to screen her eyes with one small hand, clothed her figure in a robe of lucent glory. I heard the King whistle low. Before I could speak he had flung himself from his horse and, throwing the reins to one of the pages, was bowing before her.

"We were about to sound the horn, Mademoiselle," he said, smiling.

"The horn, Monsieur?" she exclaimed, opening her eyes in wonder, and staring at him with the prettiest face of astonishment.

"Yes, Mademoiselle; to awaken the sleeping princess," he rejoined. "But I see that she is already awake."

Through the innocence of her eyes flashed a sudden gleam of archness. "Monsieur flatters himself," she said, with a smile that just revealed the whiteness of her teeth.

It was such an answer as delighted the King; who loved, above all things, a combination of wit and beauty, and never for any long time wore the chains of a woman who did not unite sense to more showy attractions. From the effect which the grace and freshness of the girl had on me, I could judge in a degree of the impression made on him; his next words showed not only its depth, but that he was determined to enjoy the adventure to the full. He presented me to her as M. de Sage, and inquiring affectionately after Perrot, learned in a trice that she was his niece, not long from a convent at Loches; finally, begging to be allowed to rest awhile, he dropped a gallant hint that a cup of wine from her hands would be acceptable.

All this, and her innocent doubt what she ought to do, thus brought face to face with two strange cavaliers, threw the girl into such a state of blushing confusion as redoubled her charms. It appeared that her uncle had been summoned unexpectedly to Marly, and had taken his son with him; and that the household had seized the occasion to go to a village FETE at Acheres. Only an old servant remained in the house; who presently appeared and took her orders. I saw from the man's start of consternation that he knew the King; but a glance from Henry's eyes bidding me keep up the illusion, I followed the fellow and charged him not to betray the King's incognito. When I returned, I found that Mademoiselle had conducted her visitor to a grassy terrace which ran along the south side of the house, and was screened from the forest by an alley of apple trees, and from the east wind by a hedge of yew. Here, where the last rays of the sun threw sinuous shadows on the turf, and Paris seemed a million miles away, they were walking up and down, the sound of their laughter breaking the woodland silence. Mademoiselle had a fan, with which and an air of convent coquetry she occasionally shaded her eyes. The King carried his hat in his hand. It was such an adventure as he loved, with all his heart; and I stood a little way off, smiling, and thinking grimly of M. de Perrot.

On a sudden, hearing a step behind me, I turned, and saw a young man in a riding-dress come quickly through an opening in the yew hedge. As I turned, he stopped; his jaw fell, and he stood rooted to the ground, gazing at the two on the terrace, while his face, which a moment before had worn an air of pleased expectancy, grew on a sudden dark with passion, and put on such a look as made me move towards him. Before I reached him, However, M. de Perrot himself appeared at his side. The young man flashed round on him. "MON DIEU, sir!" he cried, in a voice choked with anger; "I see it all now! I understand why I was carried away to Marly! I—but it shall not be! I swear it shall not!"

Between him and me—for, needless to say, I, too, understood all—M. de Perrot was awkwardly placed. But he showed the presence of mind of the old courtier. "Silence, sir!" He exclaimed imperatively. "Do you not see M. de Rosny? Go to him at once and pay your respects to him, and request him to honour you with his protection. Or—I see that you are overcome by the honour which the King does us. Go, first, and change your dress. Go, boy!"

The lad retired sullenly, and M. de Perrot, free to deal with me alone, approached me, smiling assiduously, and trying hard to hide some consciousness and a little shame under a mask of cordiality. "A thousand pardons, M. de Rosny," he cried with effusion, "for an absence quite unpardonable. But I so little expected to see his Majesty after what you said, and—"

"Are in no hurry to interrupt him now you are here," I replied bluntly, determined that, whoever he deceived, he should not flatter himself he deceived me. "Pooh, man! I am not a fool," I continued.

"What is this?" he cried, with a desperate attempt to keep up the farce. "I don't understand you!"

"No, the shoe is on the other foot—I understand you," I replied drily. "Chut, man!" I continued, "you don't make a cats-paw of me. I see the game. You are for sitting in Madame de Sourdis' seat, and giving your son a Hat, and your groom a Comptrollership, and your niece a—"

"Hush, hush, M. de Rosny," he muttered, turning white and red, and wiping his brow with his kerchief. "MON DIEU! your words might—"

"If overheard, make things very unpleasant for M. de Perrot," I said.

"And M. de Rosny?"

I shrugged my shoulders contemptuously. "Tush, man!" I said. "Do you think that I sit in no safer seat than that?"

"Ah! But when Madame de Beaufort is Queen?" he said slily.

"If she ever is," I replied, affecting greater confidence than I at that time felt.

"Well, to be sure," he said slowly, "if she ever is." And he looked towards the King and his companion, who were still chatting gaily. Then he stole a crafty glance at me. "Do you wish her to be?" he muttered.

"Queen?" I said, "God forbid!"

"It would be a disgrace to France?" he whispered; and he laid his hand on my arm, and looked eagerly into my face.

"Yes," I said.

"A blot on his fame?"

I nodded.

"A—a slur on a score of noble families?"

I could not deny it.

"Then—is it not worth while to avoid all that?" he murmured, his face pale, and his small eyes glued to mine. "Is it not worth a little—sacrifice, M. de Rosny?"

"And risk?" I said. "Possibly."

While the words were still on my lips, something stirred close to us, behind the yew hedge beside which we were standing. Perrot darted in a moment to the opening, and I after him. We were just in time to catch a glimpse of a figure disappearing round the corner of the house. "Well," I said grimly, "what about being overheard now?"

M. de Perrot wiped his face. "Thank Heaven!" he said, "it was only my son. Now let me explain to you—"

But our hasty movement had caught the King's eye, and he came towards us, covering himself as he approached. I had now an opportunity of learning whether the girl was, in fact, as innocent as she seemed, and as every particular of our reception had declared her; and I watched her closely when Perrot's mode of address betrayed the King's identity. Suffice it that the vivid blush which on the instant suffused her face, and the lively emotion which almost overcame her, left me in no doubt. With a charming air of bashfulness, and just so much timid awkwardness as rendered her doubly bewitching, she tried to kneel and kiss the King's hand. He would not permit this, however, but saluted her cheek.

"It seems that you were right, sire," she murmured, curtseying in a pretty confusion, "The princess was not awake."

Henry laughed gaily. "Come now; tell me frankly, Mademoiselle," he said. "For whom did you take me?"

"Not for the King, sire," she answered, with a gleam of roguishness. "You told me that the King was a good man, whose benevolent impulses were constantly checked—"

"Ah!"

"By M. de Rosny, his Minister."

The outburst of laughter which greeted this apprised her that she was again at fault; and Henry, who liked nothing better than such mystifications, introducing me by my proper name, we diverted ourselves for some minutes with her alarm and excuses. After that it was time to take leave, if we would sup at home and the King would not be missed; and accordingly, but not without some further badinage, in which Mademoiselle de Brut displayed wit equal to her beauty, and an agreeable refinement not always found with either, we departed.

It should be clearly understood at this point, that, notwithstanding all I have set down, I was fully determined (in accordance with a rule I have constantly followed, and would enjoin on all who do not desire to find themselves one day saddled with an ugly name) to have no part in the affair; and this though the advantage of altering the King's intentions towards Madame de Beaufort was never more vividly present to my mind. As we rode, indeed, he put several questions concerning the Baron, and his family, and connections; and, falling into a reverie, and smiling a good deal at his thoughts, left me in no doubt as to the impression made upon him. But being engaged at the time with the Spanish treaty, and resolved, as I have said, to steer a course uninfluenced by such intrigues, I did not let my mind dwell upon the matter; nor gave it, indeed, a second thought until the next afternoon, when, sitting at an open window of my lodging, I heard a voice in the street ask where the Duchess de Beaufort had her apartment.

The voice struck a chord in my memory, and I looked out. The man who had put the question, and who was now being directed on his way—by Maignan, my equerry, as it chanced had his back to me, and I could see only that he was young, shabbily dressed, and with the air of a workman carried a small frail of tools on his shoulder. But presently, in the act of thanking Maignan, he turned so that I saw his face, and with that it flashed upon me in a moment who he was.

Accustomed to follow a train of thought quickly, and to act; on its conclusion with energy, I had Maignan called and furnished with his instructions before the man had gone twenty paces; and within the minute I had the satisfaction of seeing the two return together. As they passed under the window I heard my servant explaining with the utmost naturalness that he had misunderstood the stranger, and that this was Madame de Beaufort's; after which scarce a minute elapsed before the door of my room opened, and he appeared ushering in young Perrot!

Or so it seemed to me; and the start of surprise and consternation which escaped the stranger when he first saw me confirmed me in the impression. But a moment later I doubted; so natural was the posture into which the man fell, and so stupid the look of inquiry which he turned first on me and then on Maignan. As he stood before me, shifting his feet and staring about him in vacant wonder, I began to think that I had made a mistake; and, clearly, either I had done so or this young man was possessed of talents and a power of controlling his features beyond the ordinary. He unslung his tools, and saluting me abjectly waited in silence. After a moment's thought, I asked him peremptorily what was his errand with the Duchess de Beaufort.

"To show her a watch, your excellency," he stammered, his mouth open, his eyes staring. I could detect no flaw in his acting.

"What are you, then?" I said.

"A clockmaker, my lord."

"Has Madame sent for you?"

"No, my lord," he stuttered, trembling.

"Do you want to sell her the watch?"

He muttered that he did; and that he meant no harm by it.

"Show it to me, then," I said curtly.

He grew red at that, and seemed for an instant not to understand. But on my repeating the order he thrust his hand into his breast, and producing a parcel began to unfasten it. This he did so slowly that I was soon for thinking that there was no watch in it; but in the end he found one and handed it to me.

"You did not make this," I said, opening it.

"No, my lord," he answered; "it is German, and old."

I saw that it was of excellent workmanship, and I was about to hand it back to him, almost persuaded that I had made a mistake, when in a second my doubts were solved. Engraved on the thick end of the egg, and partly erased by wear, was a dog's head, which I knew to be the crest of the Perrots.

"So," I said, preparing to return it to him, "you are a clockmaker?"

"Yes, your excellency," he muttered. And I thought that I caught the sound of a sigh of relief.

I gave the watch to Maignan to hand to him. "Very well," I said. "I have need of one. The clock in the next room—a gift from his Majesty—is out of order, and at a standstill. You can go and attend to it; and see that you do so skilfully. And do you, Maignan," I continued with meaning, "go with him. When he has made the clock go, let him go; and not before, or you answer for it. You understand, sirrah?"

Maignan saluted obsequiously, and in a moment hurried young Perrot from the room; leaving me to congratulate myself on the strange and fortuitous circumstance that had thrown him in my way, and enabled me to guard against a RENCONTRE that might have had the most embarassing consequences.

It required no great sagacity to foresee the next move; and I was not surprised when, about an hour later, I heard a clatter of hoofs outside, and a voice inquiring hurriedly for the Marquis de Rosny. One of my people announced M. de Perrot, and I bade them admit him. In a twinkling he came up, pale with heat, and covered with dust, his eyes almost starting from his head and his cheeks trembling with agitation. Almost before the door was shut, he cried out that we were undone.

I was willing to divert myself with him for a time, and I pretended to know nothing. "What?" I said, rising. "Has the King met with an accident?"

"Worse! worse!" he cried, waving his hat with a gesture of despair. "My son—you saw my son yesterday?"

"Yes," I said.

"He overheard us!"

"Not us," I said drily. "You. But what then, M. de Perrot? You are master in your own house."

"But he is not in my house," he wailed. "He has gone! Fled! Decamped! I had words with him this morning, you understand."

"About your niece?"

M. de Perrot's face took a delicate shade of red, and he nodded; he could not speak. He seemed for an instant in danger of some kind of fit. Then he found his voice again. "The fool prated of love! Of love!" he said with such a look—like that of a dying fowl—that I could have laughed aloud. "And when I bade him remember his duty he threatened me. He, that unnatural boy, threatened to betray me, to ruin me, to go to Madame de Beaufort and tell her all—all, you understand. And I doing so much, and making such sacrifices for him!"

"Yes," I said, "I see that. And what did you do?"

"I broke my cane on his back," M. de Perrot answered with unction, "and locked him in his room. But what is the use? The boy has no natural feelings!"

"He got out through the window?"

Perrot nodded; and being at leisure, now that he had explained his woes, to feel their full depth, shed actual tears of rage and terror; now moaning that Madame would never forgive him, and that if he escaped the Bastille he would lose all his employments and be the laughing-stock of the Court; and now striving to show that his peril was mine, and that it was to my interest to help him.

I allowed him to go on in this strain for some time, and then, having sufficiently diverted myself with his forebodings, I bade him in an altered voice to take courage. "For I think I know," I said, "where your son is."

"At Madame's?" he groaned.

"No; here," I said.

"MON DIEU! Where?" he cried. And he sprang up, startled out of his lamentations.

"Here; in my lodging," I answered.

"My son is here?" he said.

"In the next room," I replied, smiling indulgently at his astonishment, which was only less amusing than his terror. "I have but to touch this bell, and Maignan will bring him to you."

Full of wonder and admiration, he implored me to ring and have him brought immediately; since until he had set eyes on him he could not feel safe. Accordingly I rang my hand-bell, and Maignan opened the door. "The clockmaker," I said nodding.

He looked at me stupidly. "The clock-maker, your excellency?"

"Yes; bring him in," I said.

"But—he has gone!" he exclaimed.

"Gone?" I cried, scarcely able to believe my ears. "Gone, sirrah! and I told you to detain him!"

"Until he had mended the clock, my lord," Maignan stammered, quite out of countenance. "But he set it going half-an-hour ago; and I let him go, according to your order."

It is in the face of such CONTRETEMPS as these that the low-bred man betrays himself. Yet such was my chagrin on this occasion, and so sudden the shock, that it was all I could do to maintain my SANGFROID, and, dismissing Maignan with a look, be content to punish M. de Perrot with a sneer. "I did not know that your son was a tradesman," I said. He wrung his hands. "He has low tastes," he cried. "He always had. He has amused himself that way, And now by this time he is with Madame de Beaufort and we are undone!"

"Not we," I answered curtly; "speak for yourself, M. de Perrot."

But though, having no mind to appear in his eyes dependent on Madame's favour or caprice, I thus checked his familiarity, I am free to confess that my calmness was partly assumed; and that, though I knew my position to be unassailable—based as it was on solid services rendered to the King, my master, and on the familiar affection with which he honoured me through so many years—I could not view the prospect of a fresh collision with Madame without some misgiving. Having gained the mastery in the two quarrels we had had, I was the less inclined to excite her to fresh intrigues; and as unwilling to give the King reason to think that we could not live at peace. Accordingly, after a moment's consideration, I told Perrot that, rather than he should suffer, I would go to Madame de Beaufort myself, and give such explanations as would place another complexion on the matter.

He overwhelmed me with thanks, and, besides, to show his gratitude—for he was still on thorns, picturing her wrath and resentment he insisted on accompanying me to the Cloitre de St. Germain, where Madame had her apartment. By the way, he asked me what I should say to her.

"Whatever will get you out of the scrape," I answered curtly.

"Then anything!" he cried with fervour. "Anything, my dear friend. Oh, that unnatural boy!"

"I suppose that the girl is as big a fool?" I said.

"Bigger! bigger!" he answered. "I don't know where she learned such things!"

"She prated of love, too, then?"

"To be sure," he groaned, "and without a sou of DOT!"

"Well, well," I said, "here we are. I will do what I can."

Fortunately the King was not there, and Madame would receive me. I thought, indeed, that her doors flew open with suspicious speed, and that way was made for me more easily than usual; and I soon found that I was not wrong in the inference I drew from these facts. For when I entered her chamber that remarkable woman, who, whatever her enemies may say, combined with her beauty a very uncommon degree of sense and discretion, met me with a low courtesy and a smile of derision. "So," she said, "M. de Rosny, not satisfied with furnishing me with evidence, gives me proof."

"How, Madame?" I said; though I well understood.

"By his presence here," she answered. "An hour ago," she continued, "the King was with me. I had not then the slightest ground to expect this honour, or I am sure that his Majesty would have stayed to share it. But I have since seen reason to expect it, and you observe that I am not unprepared."

She spoke with a sparkling eye, and an expression of the most lively resentment; so that, had M. de Perrot been in my place I think that he would have shed more tears. I was myself somewhat dashed, though I knew the prudence that governed her in her most impetuous sallies; still, to avoid the risk of hearing things which we might both afterwards wish unsaid, I came to the point. "I fear that I have timed my visit ill, Madame," I said. "You have some complaint against me."

"Only that you are like the others," she answered with a fine contempt. "You profess one thing and do another."

"As for example?"

"For example!" she replied, with a scornful laugh. "How many times have you told me that you left women, and intrigues in which women had part, on one side?"

I bowed.

"And now I find you—you and that Perrot, that creature!—intriguing against me; intriguing with some country chit to—"

"Madame!" I said, cutting her short with a show of temper, "where did you get this?"

"Do you deny it?" she cried, looking so beautiful in her anger that I thought I had never seen her to such advantage. "Do you deny that you took the King there?"

"No. Certainly I took the King there."

"To Perrot's? You admit it?"

"Certainly," I said, "for a purpose."

"A purpose!" she cried with withering scorn. "Was it not that the King might see that girl?"

"Yes," I replied patiently, "it was."

She stared at me. "And you can tell me that to my face!" she said.

"I see no reason why I should not, Madame," I replied easily—"I cannot conceive why you should object to the union—and many why you should desire to see two people happy. Otherwise, if I had had any idea, even the slightest, that the matter was obnoxious to you, I would not have engaged in it."

"But—what was your purpose then?" she muttered, in a different tone.

"To obtain the King's good word with M. de Perrot to permit the marriage of his son with his niece; who is, unfortunately, without a portion."

Madame uttered a low exclamation, and her eyes wandering from me, she took up—as if her thoughts strayed also—a small ornament; from the table beside her. "Ah!" she said, looking at it closely. "But Perrot's son did he know of this?"

"No," I answered, smiling. "But I have heard that women can love as well as men, Madame. And sometimes ingenuously."

I heard her draw a sigh of relief, and I knew that if I had not persuaded her I had accomplished much. I was not surprised when, laying down the ornament with which she had been toying, she turned on me one of those rare smiles to which the King could refuse nothing; and wherein wit, tenderness, and gaiety were so happily blended that no conceivable beauty of feature, uninspired by sensibility, could vie with them. "Good friend, I have sinned," she said. "But I am a woman, and I love. Pardon me. As for your PROTEGEE, from this moment she is mine also. I will speak to the King this evening; and if he does not at once," Madame continued, with a gleam of archness that showed me that she was not yet free from suspicion, "issue his commands to M. de Perrot, I shall know what to think; and his Majesty will suffer!"

I thanked her profusely, and in fitting terms. Then, after a word or two about some assignments for the expenses of her household, in settling which there had been delay—a matter wherein, also, I contrived to do her pleasure and the King's service no wrong—I very willingly took my leave, and, calling my people, started homewards on foot. I had not gone twenty paces, however, before M. de Perrot, whose impatience had chained him to the spot, crossed the street and joined himself to me. "My dear friend," he cried, embracing me fervently, "is all well?"

"Yes," I said.

"She is appeased?"

"Absolutely."

He heaved a deep sigh of relief, and, almost crying in his joy, began to thank me, with all the extravagance of phrase and gesture to which men of his mean spirit are prone. Through all I heard him silently, and with secret amusement, knowing that the end was not yet. At length he asked me what explanation I had given.

"The only explanation possible," I answered bluntly. "I had to combat Madame's jealousy. I did it in the only way in which it could be done: by stating that your niece loved your son, and by imploring her good word on their behalf."

He sprang a pace from me with a cry of rage and astonishment. "You did that?" he screamed.

"Softly, softly, M. de Perrot," I said, in a voice which brought him somewhat to his senses. "Certainly I did. You bade me say whatever was necessary, and I did so. No more. If you wish, however," I added grimly, "to explain to Madame that—"

But with a wail of lamentation he rushed from me, and in a moment was lost in the darkness; leaving me to smile at this odd termination of an intrigue that, but for a lad's adroitness, might have altered the fortunes not of M. de Perrot only but of the King my master and of France.



II.

THE TENNIS BALLS.

A few weeks before the death of the Duchess of Beaufort, on Easter Eve, 1599, made so great a change in the relations of all at Court that "Sourdis mourning" came to be a phrase for grief, genuine because interested, an affair that might have had a serious issue began, imperceptibly at the time, in the veriest trifle.

One day, while the King was still absent from Paris, I had a mind to play tennis, and for that purpose summoned La Trape, who had the charge of my balls, and sometimes, in the absence of better company, played with me. Of late the balls he bought had given me small satisfaction, and I bade him bring me the bag, that I might choose the best. He did so, and I had not handled half-a-dozen before I found one, and later three others, so much more neatly sewn than the rest, and in all points so superior, that even an untrained eye could not fail to detect the difference.

"Look, man!" I said, holding out one of these for his inspection. "These are balls; the rest are rubbish. Cannot you see the difference? Where did you buy these? At Constant's?"

He muttered, "No, my lord," and looked confused.

This roused my curiosity. "Where, then?" I said sharply.

"Of a man who was at the gate yesterday."

"Oh!" I said. "Selling tennis balls?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Some rogue of a marker," I exclaimed, "from whom you bought filched goods! Who was it, man?"

"I don't know his name," La Trape answered. "He was a Spaniard."

"Well?"

"Who wanted to have an audience of your excellency."

"Ho!" I said drily. "Now I understand. Bring me your book. Or, tell me, what have you charged me for these balls?"

"Two francs," he muttered reluctantly.

"And never gave a sou, I'll swear!" I retorted. "You took the poor devil's balls, and left him at the gate! Ay, it is rogues like you get me a bad name!" I continued, affecting more anger than I felt—for, in truth, I was rather pleased with my quickness in discovering the cheat. "You steal and I bear the blame, and pay to boot! Off with you and find the fellow, and bring him to me, or it will be the worse for you!"

Glad to escape so easily, La Trape ran to the gate; but he failed to find his friend, and two or three days elapsed before I thought again of the matter, such petty rogueries being ingrained in a great man's VALETAILLE, and being no more to be removed than the hairs from a man's arm. At the end of that time La Trape came to me, bringing the Spaniard; who had appeared again at the gate. The stranger proved to be a small, slight man, pale and yet brown, with quick-glancing eyes. His dress was decent, but very poor, with more than one rent neatly darned. He made me a profound reverence, and stood waiting, with his cap in his hand, to be addressed; but, with all his humility, I did not fail to detect an easiness of deportment and a propriety that did not seem absolutely strange since he was a Spaniard, but which struck me, nevertheless, as requiring some explanation. I asked him, civilly, who he was. He answered that his name was Diego.

"You speak French?"

"I am of Guipuzcoa, my lord," he answered, "where we sometimes speak three tongues."

"That is true," I said. "And it is your trade to make tennis balls?"

"No, my lord; to use them," he answered with a certain dignity.

"You are a player, then?"

"If it please your excellency."

"Where have you played?"

"At Madrid, where I was the keeper of the Duke of Segovia's court; and at Toledo, where I frequently had the honour of playing against M. de Montserrat."

"You are a good player?"

"If your excellency," he answered impulsively, "will give me an opportunity—"

"Softly, softly," I said, somewhat taken aback by his earnestness. "Granted that you are a player, you seem to have played to small purpose.. Why are you here, my friend, and not in Madrid?"

He drew up his sleeves, and showed me that his wrists were deeply scarred.

I shrugged my shoulders. "You have been in the hands of the Holy Brotherhood?" I said.

"No, my lord," he answered bitterly. "Of the Holy Inquisition."

"You are a Protestant?"

He bowed.

On that I fell to considering him with more attention, but at the same time with some distrust; reflecting that he was a Spaniard, and recalling the numberless plots against his Majesty of which that nation had been guilty. Still, if his tale were true he deserved support; with a view therefore to testing this I questioned him farther, and learned that he had for a long time disguised his opinions, until, opening them in an easy moment to a fellow servant, he found himself upon the first occasion of quarrel betrayed to the Fathers. After suffering much, and giving himself up for lost in their dungeons, he made his escape in a manner sufficiently remarkable, if I might believe his story. In the prison with him lay a Moor, for whose exchange against a Christian taken by the Sallee pirates an order came down. It arrived in the evening; the Moor was to be removed in the morning. An hour after the arrival of the news, however, and when the two had just been locked up for the night, the Moor, overcome with excess of joy, suddenly expired. At first the Spaniard was for giving the alarm; but, being an ingenious fellow, in a few minutes he summoned all his wits together and made a plan. Contriving to blacken his face and hands with charcoal he changed clothes with the corpse, and muffling himself up after the fashion of the Moors in a cold climate he succeeded in the early morning in passing out in his place. Those who had charge of him had no reason to expect an escape, and once on the road he had little difficulty in getting away, and eventually reached France after a succession of narrow chances.

All this the man told me so simply that I knew not which to admire more, the daring of his device—since for a white man to pass for a brown is beyond the common scope of such disguises—or his present modesty in relating it. However, neither of these things seemed to my mind a good reason for disbelief. As to the one, I considered that an impostor would have put forward something more simple; and as to the other, I have all my life long observed that those who have had strange experiences tell them in a very ordinary way. Besides, I had fresh in my mind the diverting escape of the Duke of Nemours from Lyons, which I have elsewhere related. On the other hand, and despite all these things, the story might be false; so with a view to testing one part of it, at least, I bade him come and play with me that afternoon.

"My lord," he said bluntly, "I had rather not. For if I defeat your excellency, I may defeat also your good intentions. And if I permit you to win, I shall seem to be an impostor."

Somewhat surprised by his forethought, I reassured him on this point; and his game, which proved to be one of remarkable strength and finesse, and fairly on an equality, as it seemed to me, with that of the best French players, persuaded me that at any rate the first part of his tale was true. Accordingly I made him a present, and, in addition, bade Maignan pay him a small allowance for a while. For this he showed his gratitude by attaching himself to my household; and as it was the fashion at that time to keep tennis masters of this class, I found it occasionally amusing to pit him against other well-known players. In the course of a few weeks he gained me great credit; and though I am not so foolish as to attach importance to such trifles, but, on the contrary, think an old soldier who stood fast at Coutras, or even a clerk who has served the King honestly—if such a prodigy there be—more deserving than these professors, still I do not err on the other side; but count him a fool who, because he has solid cause to value himself, disdains the ECLAT which the attachment of such persons gives him in the public eye.

The man went by the name of Diego the Spaniard, and his story, which gradually became known, together with the excellence of his play, made him so much the fashion that more than one tried to detach him from my service. The King heard of him, and would have played with him, but the sudden death of Madame de Beaufort, which occurred soon afterwards, threw the Court into mourning; and for a while, in pursuing the negotiations for the King's divorce, and in conducting a correspondence of the most delicate character with the Queen, I lost sight of my player—insomuch, that I scarcely knew whether he still formed part of my suite or not.

My attention was presently recalled to him, however, in a rather remarkable manner. One morning Don Antonio d'Evora, Secretary to the Spanish Embassy, and a brother of that d'Evora who commanded the Spanish Foot at Paris in '94, called on me at the Arsenal, to which I had just removed, and desired to see me. I bade them admit him; but as my secretaries were at the time at work with me, I left them and received him in the garden—supposing that he wished to speak to me, about the affair of Saluces, and preferring, like the King my master, to talk of matters of State in the open air.

However, I was mistaken. Don Antonio said nothing about Savoy, but after the usual preliminaries, which a Spaniard never omits, plunged into a long harangue upon the comity which, now that peace reigned, should exist between the two nations. For some time I waited patiently to learn what he would be at; but he seemed to be lost in his own eloquence, and at last I took him up.

"All this is very well, M. d'Evora," I said. "I quite agree with you that the times are changed, that amity is not the same thing as war, and that a grain of sand in the eye is unpleasant," for he had said all of these things. "But I fail, being a plain man and no diplomatist, to see what you want me to do."

"It is the smallest matter," he said, waving his hand gracefully.

"And yet," I retorted, "you seem to find a difficulty in coming at it."

"As you do at the grain of sand in the eye," he answered wittily. "After all, however, in what you say, M. de Rosny, there is some truth. I feel that I am, on delicate ground; but I am sure that you will pardon me. You have in your suite a certain Diego."

"It may be so," I said, masking my surprise, and affecting indifference.

"A tennis-player."

I shrugged my shoulders. "The man is known," I said.

"A Protestant?"

"It is not impossible."

"And a subject of the King, my master. A man," Don Antonio continued, with increasing stiffness, "in fine, M. de Rosny, who, after committing various offences, murdered his comrade in prison, and, escaping in his clothes, took refuge in this country."

I shrugged my shoulders again.

"I have no knowledge of that," I said coldly.

"No, or I am sure that you would not harbour the fellow," the secretary answered. "Now that you do know it, however, I take it for granted that you will dismiss him? If you held any but the great place you do hold, M. de Rosny, it would be different; but all the world see who follow you, and this man's presence stains you, and is an offence to my master."

"Softly, softly, M. d'Evora," I said, with a little warmth. "You go too fast. Let me tell you first, that, for my honour, I take care of it myself; and, secondly, for your master, I do not allow even my own to meddle with my household."

"But, my lord," he said pompously, "the King of Spain—"

"Is the King of Spain," I answered, cutting him short without much ceremony. "But in the Arsenal of Paris, which, for the present, is my house, I am king. And I brook no usurpers, M. d'Evora."

He assented to that with a constrained smile.

"Then I can say no more," he answered. "I have warned you that the man is a rogue. If you will still entertain him, I wash my hands of it. But I fear the consequences, M. de Rosny, and, frankly, it lessens my opinion of your sagacity."

Thereat I bowed in my turn, and after the exchange of some civilities he took his leave. Considering his application after he was gone, I confess that I found nothing surprising in it; and had it come from a man whom I held in greater respect I might have complied with it in an indirect fashion. But though it might have led me under some circumstances to discard Diego, naturally, since it confirmed his story in some points, and proved besides that he was not a persona grata at the Spanish Embassy, it did not lead me to value him less. And as within the week he was so fortunate as to defeat La Varenne's champion in a great match at the Louvre, and won also a match, at M. de Montpensier's which put fifty crowns into my pocket, I thought less and less of d'Evora's remonstrance; until the king's return put it quite out of my head. The entanglement with Mademoiselle d'Entragues, which was destined to be the most fatal of all Henry's attachments, was then in the forming; and the king plunged into every kind of amusement with fresh zest. The very day after his return he matched his marker, a rogue, but an excellent player, against my man; and laid me twenty crowns on the event, the match to be played on the following Saturday after a dinner which M. de Lude was giving in honour of the lady.

On the Thursday, however, who should come in to me, while I was sitting alone after supper, but Maignan: who, closing the door and dismissing the page who waited there, told me with a very long face and an air of vast importance that he had discovered something.

"Something?" I said, being inclined at the moment to be merry. "What? A plot to reduce your perquisites, you rascal?"

"No, my lord," he answered stoutly. "But to tap your excellency's secrets."

"Indeed," I said pleasantly, not believing a word of it. "And who is to hang?"

"The Spaniard," he answered in a low voice.

That sobered me, by putting the matter in a new light; and I sat a moment looking at him and reviewing Diego's story, which assumed on the instant an aspect so uncommon and almost incredible that I wondered how I had ever allowed it to pass. But when I proceeded from this to the substance of Maignan's charge I found an IMPASSE in this direction also, and I smiled. "So it is Diego, is it?" I said. "You think that he is a spy?"

Maignan nodded.

"Then, tell me," I asked, "what opportunity has he of learning more than all the world knows? He has not been in my apartments since I engaged him. He has seen none of my papers. The youngest footboy could tell all he has learned."

"True, my lord," Maignan answered slowly; "but—"

"Well?"

"I saw him this evening, talking with a Priest in the Rue Petits Pois; and he calls himself a Protestant."

"Ah! You are sure that the man was a priest?"

"I know him."

"For whom?"

"One of the chaplains at the Spanish Embassy."

It was natural that after this I should take a more serious view of the matter; and I did so. But my former difficulty still remained, for, assuming this to be a cunning plot, and d'Evora's application to me a ruse to throw me off my guard, I could not see where their advantage lay; since the Spaniard's occupation was not of a nature to give him the entry to my confidence or the chance of ransacking my papers. I questioned Maignan further, therefore, but without result. He had seen the two together in a secret kind of way, viewing them himself from the window of a house where he had an assignation. He had not been near enough to hear what they said, but he was sure that no quarrel took place between them, and equally certain that it was no chance meeting that brought them together.

Infected by his assurance, I could still see no issue; and no object in such an intrigue. And in the end I contented myself with bidding him watch the Spaniard closely, and report to me the following evening; adding that he might confide the matter to La Trape, who was a supple fellow, and of the two the easier companion.

Accordingly, next evening Maignan again appeared, this time with a face even longer; so that at first I supposed him to have discovered a plot worse than Chastel's; but it turned out that he had discovered nothing. The Spaniard had spent the morning in lounging and the afternoon in practice at the Louvre, and from first to last had conducted himself in the most innocent manner possible. On this I rallied Maignan on his mare's nest, and was inclined to dismiss the matter as such; still, before doing so, I thought I would see La Trape, and dismissing Maignan I sent for him.

When he was come, "Well," I said, "have you anything to say?"

"One little thing only, your excellency," he answered slyly, "and of no importance."

"But you did not tell it to Maignan?"

"No, my Lord," he replied, his face relaxing in a cunning smile.

"Well?"

"Once to-day I saw Diego where he should not have been."

"Where?"

"In the King's dressing-room at the tennis-court."

"You saw him there?"

"I saw him coming out," he answered.

It may be imagined how I felt on hearing this; for although I might have thought nothing of the matter before my suspicions were aroused—since any man might visit such a place out of curiosity—now, my mind being disturbed, I was quick to conceive the worst, and saw with horror my beloved master already destroyed through my carelessness. I questioned La Trape in a fury, but could learn nothing more. He had seen the man slip out, and that was all.

"But did you not go in yourself?" I said, restraining my impatience with difficulty.

"Afterwards? Yes, my lord."

"And made no discovery?"

He shook his head.

"Was anything prepared for his Majesty?"

"There was sherbet; and some water."

"You tried them?"

La Trape grinned. "No, my lord," he said. "But I gave some to Maignan."

"Not explaining?"

"No, my lord."

"You sacrilegious rascal!" I cried, amused in spite of my anxiety. "And he was none the worse?"

"No, my lord."

Not satisfied yet, I continued to press him, but with so little success that I still found myself unable to decide whether the Spaniard had wandered in innocently or to explore his ground. In the end, therefore, I made up my mind to see things for myself; and early next morning, at an hour when I was not likely to be observed, I went out by a back door, and with my face muffled and no other attendance than Maignan and La Trape, went to the tennis-court and examined the dressing-room.

This was a small closet on the first floor, of a size to hold two or three persons, and with a casement through which the King, if he wished to be private, might watch the game. Its sole furniture consisted of a little table with a mirror, a seat for his Majesty, and a couple of stools, so that it offered small scope for investigation. True, the stale sherbet and the water were still there, the carafes standing on the table beside an empty comfit box, and a few toilet necessaries; and it will be believed that I lost no time in examining them. But I made no discovery, and when I had passed my eye over everything else that the room contained, and noticed nothing that seemed in the slightest degree suspicious, I found myself completely at a loss. I went to the window, and for a moment looked idly into the court.

But neither did any light come thence, and I had turned again and was about to leave, when my eye alighted on a certain thing and I stopped.

"What is that?" I said. It was a thin case, book-shaped, of Genoa velvet, somewhat worn.

"Plaister," Maignan, who was waiting at the door, answered. "His Majesty's hand is not well yet, and as your excellency knows, he—"

"Silence, fool!" I cried, and I stood rooted to the spot, overwhelmed by the conviction that I held the clue to the mystery, and so shaken by the horror which that conviction naturally brought with it that I could not move a finger. A design so fiendish and monstrous as that which I suspected might rouse the dullest sensibilities, in a case where it threatened the meanest; but being aimed in this at the King, my master, from whom I had received so many benefits, and on whose life the well-being of all depended, it goaded me to the warmest resentment. I looked round the tennis-court—which, empty, shadowy and silent, seemed a fit place for such horrors—with rage and repulsion; apprehending in a moment of sad presage all the accursed strokes of an enemy whom nothing could propitiate, and who, sooner or later, must set all my care at nought, and take from France her greatest benefactor.

But, it will be said, I had no proof, only a conjecture; and this is true, but of it hereafter. Suffice it that, as soon as I had swallowed my indignation, I took all the precautions affection could suggest or duty enjoin, omitting nothing; and then, confiding the matter to no one the two men who were with me excepted—I prepared to observe the issue with gloomy satisfaction.

The match was to take place at three in the afternoon. A little after that hour, I arrived at the tennis-court, attended by La Font and other gentlemen, and M. l'Huillier, the councillor, who had dined with me. L'Huillier's business had detained me somewhat, and the men had begun; but as I had anticipated this, I had begged my good friend De Vic to have an eye to my interests. The King, who was in the gallery, had with him M. de Montpensier, the Comte de Lude, Vitry, Varennes, and the Florentine Ambassador, with Sancy and some others. Mademoiselle d'Entragues and two ladies had taken possession of his closet, and from the casement were pouring forth a perpetual fire of badinage and BONS MOTS. The tennis-court, in a word, presented as different an aspect as possible from that which it had worn in the morning. The sharp crack of the ball, as it bounded from side to side, was almost lost in the crisp laughter and babel of voices; which as I entered rose into a perfect uproar, Mademoiselle having just flung a whole lapful of roses across the court in return for some witticism. These falling short of the gallery had lighted on the head of the astonished Diego, causing a temporary cessation of play, during which I took my seat.

Madame de Lude's saucy eye picked me out in a moment. "Oh, the grave man!" she cried. "Crown him, too, with roses."

"As they crowned the skull at the feast, madame?" I answered, saluting her gallantly.

"No, but as the man whom the King delighteth to honour," she answered, making a face at me. "Ha! ha! I am not afraid! I am not afraid! I am not afraid!"

There was a good deal of laughter at this. "What shall I do to her, M. de Rosny?" Mademoiselle cried out, coming to my rescue.

"If you will have the goodness to kiss her, mademoiselle," I answered, "I will consider it an advance, and as one of the council of the King's finances, my credit should be good for the re—"

"Thank you!" the King cried, nimbly cutting me short. "But as my finances seem to be the security, faith, I will see to the repayment myself! Let them start again; but I am afraid that my twenty crowns are yours, Grand Master; your man is in fine play."

I looked into the court. Diego, lithe and sinewy, with his cropped black hair, high colour, and quick shallow eyes, bounded here and there, swift and active as a panther. Seeing him thus, with his heart in his returns, I could not but doubt; more, as the game proceeded, amid the laughter and jests and witty sallies of the courtiers, I felt the doubt grow; the riddle became each minute more abstruse, the man more mysterious. But that was of no moment now.

A little after four o'clock the match ended in my favour; on which the King, tired of inaction, sprang up, and declaring that he would try Diego's strength himself, entered the court. I followed, with Vitry and others, and several strokes which had been made were tested and discussed. Presently, the King going to talk with Mademoiselle at her window, I remarked the Spaniard and Maignan, with the King's marker, and one or two others waiting at the further door. Almost at the same moment I observed a sudden movement among them, and voices raised higher than was decent, and I called out sharply to know what it was.

"An accident, my lord," one of the men answered respectfully.

"It is nothing," another muttered. "Maignan was playing tricks, your excellency, and cut Diego's hand a little; that is all."

"Cut his hand now!" I exclaimed angrily "And the King about to play with him. Let me see it!"

Diego sulkily held up his hand, and I saw a cut, ugly but of no importance.

"Pooh!" I said; "it is nothing. Get some plaister. Here, you," I continued wrathfully, turning to Maignan, "since you have done the mischief, booby, you must repair it. Get some plaister, do you hear? He cannot play in that state."

Diego muttered something, and Maignan that he had not got any; but before I could answer that he must get some, La Trape thrust his may to the front, and producing a small piece from his pocket, proceeded with a droll air of extreme carefulness to treat the hand. The other knaves fell into the joke, and the Spaniard had no option but to submit; though his scowling face showed that he bore Maignan no good-will, and that but for my presence he might not have been so complaisant. La Trape was bringing his surgery to an end by demanding a fee, in the most comical manner possible, when the King returned to our part of the court. "What is it?" he said. "Is anything the matter?"

"No, sire," I said. "My man has cut his hand a little, but it is nothing."

"Can he play?" Henry asked with his accustomed good-nature.

"Oh, yes, sire," I answered. "I have bound it up with a strip of plaister from the case in your Majesty's closet."

"He has not lost blood?"

"No, sire."

And he had not. But it was small wonder that the King asked; small wonder, for the man's face had changed in the last ten seconds to a strange leaden colour; a terror like that of a wild beast that sees itself trapped had leapt into his eyes. He shot a furtive glance round him, and I saw him slide his hand behind him. But I was prepared for that, and as the King moved off a space I slipped to the man's side, as if to give him some directions about his game.

"Listen," I said, in a voice heard only by him; "take the dressing off your hand, and I have you broken on the wheel. You understand? Now play."

Assuring myself that he did understand, and that Maignan and La Trape were at hand if he should attempt anything, I went back to my place, and sitting down by De Vic began to watch that strange game; while Mademoiselle's laughter and Madame de Lude's gibes floated across the court, and mingled with the eager applause and more dexterous criticisms of the courtiers. The light was beginning to sink, and for this reason, perhaps, no one perceived the Spaniard's pallor; but De Vic, after a rally or two, remarked that he was not playing his full strength.

"Wise man!" he added.

"Yes," I said. "Who plays well against kings plays ill."

De Vic laughed. "How he sweats!" he said, "and he never turned a hair when he played Colet. I suppose he is nervous."

"Probably," I said.

And so they chattered and laughed—chattered and laughed, seeing an ordinary game between the King and a marker; while I, for whom the court had grown sombre as a dungeon, saw a villain struggling in his own toils, livid with the fear of death, and tortured by horrible apprehensions. Use and habit were still so powerful with the man that he played on mechanically with his hands, but his eyes every now and then sought mine with the look of the trapped beast; and on these occasions I could see his lips move in prayer or cursing. The sweat poured down his face as he moved to and fro, and I, fancied that his features were beginning to twitch. Presently—I have said that the light was failing, so that it was not in my imagination only that the court was sombre—the King held his ball. "My friend, your man is not well," he said, turning to me.

"It is nothing, sire; the honour you do him makes him nervous," I answered. "Play up, sirrah," I continued; "you make too good a courtier."

Mademoiselle d'Entragues clapped her hands and laughed at the hit; and I saw Diego glare at her with an indescribable look, in which hatred and despair and a horror of reproach were so nicely mingled with something as exceptional as his position, that the whole baffled words. Doubtless the gibes and laughter he heard, the trifling that went on round him, the very game in which he was engaged, and from which he dared not draw back, seemed in his eyes the most appalling mockery; but ignorant who were in the secret, unable to guess how his diabolical plot had been discovered, uncertain even whether the whole were not a concerted piece, he went on playing his part mechanically; with starting eyes and labouring chest, and lips that, twitching and working, lost colour each minute. At length he missed a stroke, and staggering leaned against the wall, his-face livid and ghastly. The King took the alarm at that, and cried out that something was wrong. Those who were sitting rose. I nodded to Maignan to go to the man.

"It is a fit," I said. "He is subject to them, and doubtless the excitement—but I am sorry that it has spoiled your Majesty's game.

"It has not," Henry answered kindly. "The light is gone. But have him looked to, will you, my friend? If La Riviere were here he might do something for him."

While he spoke, the servants had gathered round the man, but with the timidity which characterises that class in such emergencies, they would not touch him. As I crossed the court, and they made way for me, the Spaniard, who was still standing, though in a strange and distorted fashion, turned his bloodshot eyes on me.

"A priest!" he muttered, framing the words with difficulty, "a priest!"

I directed Maignan to fetch one. "And do you," I continued to the other servants, "take him into a room somewhere."

They obeyed, reluctantly. As they carried him out, the King, content with my statement, was giving his hand to Mademoiselle to descend the stairs; and neither he nor any, save the two men in my confidence, had the slightest suspicion that aught was the matter beyond a natural illness. But I shuddered when I considered how narrow had been the King's escape, how trifling the circumstance which had led to suspicion, how fortuitous the inspiration by which I had chanced on discovery. The delay of a single day, the occurrence of the slightest mishap, might have been fatal not to him only but to the best interests of France; which his death at a time when he was still childless must have plunged into the most melancholy of wars.

Of the wretched Spaniard I need say little more. Caught in his own snare, he was no sooner withdrawn from the court than he fell into violent convulsions, which held him until midnight when he died with symptoms and under circumstances so nearly resembling those which had attended the death of Madame de Beaufort at Easter, that I have several times dwelt on the strange coincidence, and striven to find the connecting link. But I never hit on it; and the King's death, and that unexplained tendency to imitate great crimes under which the vulgar labour, prevailed with me to keep the matter secret. Nay, as I believed that d'Evora had played the part of an unconscious tool, and as a hint pressed home sufficed to procure the withdrawal of the chaplain whom Maignan had named, I did not think it necessary to disclose the matter even to the King my master.



III.

TWO MAYORS OF BOTTITORT.

Believing that I have now set down all those particulars of the treaty with Epernon and the consequent pacification of Brittany in the year 1598 which it will be of advantage to the public to know, that it may the better distinguish in the future those who have selfishly impoverished the State from those who, in its behalf, have incurred obloquy and high looks, I proceed next to the events which followed the King's return to Paris.

But, first, and by way of sampling the diverting episodes that will occur from time to time in the most laborious existence, and for the moment reduce the minister to the level of the man, I am tempted to narrate an adventure that befell me on my return, between Rennes and Vitre; when the King having preceded me at speed under the pretext of urgency, but really that he might avoid the prolix addresses that awaited him in every town, I found myself no more minded to suffer. Having sacrificed my ease, therefore, in two of the more important places, and come within as many stages of Vitre, I determined also on a holiday. Accordingly, directing my baggage and the numerous escort and suite that attended me to the full tale of four-score horses—to keep the high road, I struck myself into a byway, intending to seek hospitality for the night at a house of M. de Laval's; and on the second evening to render myself with a good grace to the eulogia and tedious mercies of the Vitre townsfolk.

I kept with me only La Font and two servants. The day was fine, and the air brisk; the country open, affording many distant prospects which the sun rendered cheerful. We rode for some time, therefore, with the gaiety of schoolboys released from their tasks, and dining at noon in the lee of one of the great boulders that there dot the plain, took pleasure in applying to the life of courts every evil epithet that came to mind. For a little time afterwards we rode as cheerfully; but about three in the afternoon the sky became overcast, and almost at the same moment we discovered that we had strayed from the track. The country in that district resembles the more western parts of Brittany, in consisting of huge tracts of bog and moorland strewn with rocks and covered with gorse; which present a cheerful aspect in sunshine, but are savage and barren to a degree when viewed through sheets of rain or under a sombre sky.

The position, therefore, was not without its discomforts. I had taken care to choose a servant who was familiar with the country, but his knowledge seemed now at fault. However, under his direction we retraced our steps, but still without regaining the road; and as a small rain presently began to fall and the day to decline, the landscape which in the morning had flaunted a wild and rugged beauty, changed to a brown and dreary waste set here and there with ghost-like stones. Once astray on this, we found our path beset with sloughs and morasses; among which we saw every prospect of passing the night, when La Font espied at a little distance a wind-swept wood that, clothing a low shoulder of the moor, promised at least a change and shelter. We made towards it, and discovered not only all that we had expected to see, but a path and a guide.

The latter was as much surprised to see us as we to see her, for when we came upon her she was sitting on the bank beside the path weeping bitterly. On hearing us, however, she sprang up and discovered the form of a young girl, bare-foot and bareheaded, wearing only a short ragged frock of homespun. Nevertheless, her face was neither stupid nor uncomely; and though, at the first alarm, supposing us to be either robbers or hobgoblins—of which last the people of that country are peculiarly fearful—she made as if she would escape across the moor, she stopped as soon as she heard my voice. I asked her gently where we were.

At first she did not understand, but the servant who had played the guide so ill, speaking to her in the PATOIS of the country, she answered that we were near St. Brieuc, a hamlet not far from Bottitort, and considerably off our road. Asked how far it was to Bottitort, she answered—between two and three leagues, and an indifferent road.

We could ride the distance in a couple of hours, and there remained almost as much daylight. But the horses were tired, so, resigning myself to the prospect of some discomfort, I asked her if there was an inn at St. Brieuc.

"A poor place for your honours," she answered, staring at us in innocent wonder, the forgotten tears not dry on her cheeks.

"Never mind; take us to it," I answered.

She turned at the word and tripped on before us. I bade the servant ask her, as we went, why she had been crying, and learned through him that she had been to her uncle's two leagues away to borrow money for her mother; that the uncle would not lend it, and that now they would be turned out of their house; that her father was lately dead, and that her mother kept the inn, and owed the money for meal and cider.

"At least, she says that she does not owe it," the man corrected himself, "for her father paid as usual at Corpus Christi; but after his death M. Grabot said that he had not paid, and—"

"M. Grabot?" I said. "Who is he?"

"The Mayor of Bottitort."

"The creditor?"

"Yes."

"And how much is owing?" I asked.

"Nothing, she says."

"But how much does he say?"

"Twenty crowns."

Doubtless some will view my conduct on this occasion with surprise; and wonder why I troubled myself with inquiries so minute upon a matter so mean. But these do not consider that ministers are the King's eyes; and that in a State no class is so unimportant that it can be safely overlooked. Moreover, as the settlement of the finances was one of the objects of my stay in those parts—and I seldom had the opportunity of checking the statements made to me by the farmers and lessees of the taxes, the receivers, gatherers, and, in a word, all the corrupt class that imparts such views of a province as suit its interests—I was glad to learn anything that threw light on the real condition of the country: the more, as I had to receive at Vitre a deputation of the notables and officials of the district.

Accordingly, I continued to put questions to her until, crossing a ridge, we came at last within sight of the inn, a lonely house of stone, standing in the hollow of the moor and sheltered on one side by a few gnarled trees that took off in a degree from the bleakness of its aspect. The house was of one story only, with a window on either side of the door, and no other appeared in sight; but a little smoke rising from the chimney seemed to promise a better reception than the desolate landscape and the girl's scanty dress had led us to expect.

As we drew nearer, however, a thing happened so remarkable as to draw our attention in a moment from all these points, and bring us, gaping, to a standstill. The shutters of the two windows were suddenly closed before our eyes with a clap that came sharply on the wind. Then, in a twinkling, one window flew open again and a man, seemingly naked, bounded from it, fled with inconceivable rapidity across the front of the house and vanished through the other window, which opened to receive him. He had scarcely gained that shelter before a coal-black figure followed him, leaping out of the one window and in at the other with the same astonishing swiftness—a swiftness which was so great that before any of us could utter more than an exclamation, the two figures appeared again round the corner of the house, in the same order, but this time with so small an interval that the fugitive barely saved himself through the window. Once more, while we stared in stupefaction, they flashed out and in; and this time it seemed to me that as they vanished the black spectre seized its victim.

When I say that all this time the two figures uttered no sound, that there was no other living being in sight, and that on every side of the solitary house the moor, growing each minute more eerie as the day waned, spread to the horizon, the more superstitious among us may be pardoned if they gave way to their fears. La Font was the first to speak.

"MON DIEU!" he cried—while the girl moaned in terror, the Breton crossed himself, and La Trape looked uncomfortable—"the place is bewitched!"

"Nonsense!" I said. "Who is in the house, girl?"

"Only my mother," she wailed. "Oh, my poor mother!"

I silenced her, scolding them all for fools, and her first; and La Font, recovering himself, did the same. But this was the year of that strange appearance of the spectre horseman at Fontainebleau of which so much has been said; and my servants, when we had approached the house a little nearer, and it still remained silent and, as it were, dead to the eye, would go no farther, but stood in sheer terror and permitted me to go on alone with La Font. I confess that the loneliness of the house, and the dreary waste that surrounded it (which seemed to exclude the idea of trickery) were not without their effect on my spirits; and that as I dismounted and approached the door, I felt a kind of chill not remarkable under the circumstances.

But the courage of the gentleman differs from that of the vulgar in that he fears yet goes; and I lifted the latch, and entered boldly. The scene which met my eyes inside was sufficiently commonplace to reassure me. At the farther end of a long bare room, draughty, half-lighted, and having an earthen floor, yet possessing that air of homeliness which a wood fire never fails to impart, sat a single traveller; who had drawn his small table under the open chimney, and there, with his feet almost in the fire, was partaking of a poor meal of black bread and onions. He was a tall, spare man, with sloping shoulders and a long sour face, of which, as I entered, he gave me the full benefit.

I looked round the room, but look as I might I could see no one else, nor anything that explained what we had witnessed and I accosted the man civilly, wishing him good evening. He made an answer, but indistinctly, and, this done, went on with his meal like one who viewed our arrival with little pleasure; while I, puzzled and astonished by the ordinary look of things and the stillness of the house, affected to warm my feet at the logs. At length, espying no signs of disturbance anywhere, I asked him if he was alone.

"I was, sir," he answered gravely.

I was going on to tell him, though reluctantly, what we had seen outside, and to question him upon it, when on a sudden, before I could speak again, he leaned towards me and accosted me with startling abruptness. "Sir," he said, "I should like to have your opinion of Louis Eleven."

I stared at him in the most perfect astonishment; and was for a moment so completely taken aback that I mechanically repeated his words. For answer, he did so also.

"The Eleventh Louis?" I said.

"Yes," he rejoined, turning his pale visage full upon me. "What is your opinion of him, sir? He was a man?"

"Well," I said, shrugging my shoulders, "I take that for granted." I began to think that the traveller was demented.

"And a king?"

"Yes, I suppose so," I answered contemptuously. "I never heard it doubted."

He leaned towards me, and spoke with the most eager impressiveness. "A man—and a king!" he said. "Yet neither a manly king, nor a kingly man! You take me?"

"Yes," I said impatiently. "I see what you mean.

"Neither a kingly man, nor a manly king!" he repeated with solemn gusto. "You take me clearly, I think?"

I had no stomach for further fooleries, and I was about to answer him with some sharpness—though I could not for the life of me tell whether he was mad or an eccentric when a harsh voice shrieked in my ear, "Bob!" and in a twinkling a red figure appeared bounding and whirling in the middle of the kitchen; now springing into the air until its head touched the rafters, now eddying round and round the floor in the giddiest gyrations. At the first glance, startled by the voice in my ear, I recoiled; but a second disclosing what it was, and the secret of our alarm outside, I masked my movement; and when the man brought his performance to a sudden stop, and falling on one knee in an attitude of exaggerated respect held out his cap, I was ready for him.

"Why, you knave," I said, "you should be whipped, not rewarded. Who gave you leave to play pranks on travellers?"

He looked at me with a droll smile on his round merry face, which at its gravest was a thing to laugh at. "Let him whip who is scared," he said, with roguish impudence. "Or if there is to be whipping, my lord, whip Louis XI."

Thus reminded, I turned to the solemn traveller; but my eyes had no sooner met his than he twisted his visage into so wry a smile—if smile it could be called—that wherever there was a horse collar he must have won the prize. To hide my amusement, I asked them what they were. "Mountebanks?" I said curtly.

"Your lordship has pricked the garter offhand," the merry man answered cheerfully. "You see before you the renowned Pierre Paladin VOILA!—and Philibert Le Grand! of the Breton fairs, monsieur."

"But why this foolery—here?" I said.

"We took you for another, monsieur," he answered.

"Whom you intended to frighten?"

"Precisely, your grace."

"Well, you are nice rogues," I said, looking at him.

"So is he," he answered, undaunted.

I left the matter there for a moment, while I summoned La Font and the servants; whose rage, when, entering a-tiptoe and with some misgiving, they discovered how they had been deceived, and by whom, was scarcely to be restrained even by my presence. However, aided by Philibert's comicalities, I presently secured a truce, and the two strollers vacating in my honour the table by the fire—though they had not the slightest notion who I was we were soon on terms. I had taken the precaution to bring a meal with me, and while La Trape and his companion unpacked it, and I dried my riding boots, I asked the players who it was they had meant to frighten.

They were not very willing to tell me, but at length confessed, to my astonishment, that it was M. Grabot.

"Grabot—Grabot!" I said, striving to recollect where I had heard the name. "The Mayor of Bottitort?"

The solemn man made an atrocious grimace. Then, "Yes, monsieur, the Mayor of Bottitort," he said frankly. "A year ago he put Philibert in the stocks for a riddle; that is his affair. And the woman of this house has more than once befriended me, and he is for turning her out for a debt she does not owe; and that is my affair. However, your lordship's arrival has saved him for this time."

"You expected him here this evening, then?"

"He is coming," he answered, with more than his usual gloom. "He passed this way this morning, and announced that on his return he should spend the night here. We found the goodwife all of a tremble when we arrived. He is a hard man, monsieur," the mountebank continued bitterly. "She cried after him that she hoped that God would change his heart, but he only answered that even if St. Brieuc changed his body—you know the legend, monseigneur, doubtless—he should be here."

"And here he is," the other, who had been looking out of one of the windows, cried. "I see his lanthorn coming down the hill. And by St. Brieuc, I have it! I have it," the droll continued, suddenly spinning round in a wild dance of triumph on the floor, and then as suddenly stopping and falling into an attitude before us. "Monsieur, if you will help us, I have the richest jest ever played. Pierre, listen. You, gentlemen all, listen! We will pretend that he is changed. He is a pompous man; he thinks the Mayor of Bottitort equal to the Saint Pere. Well, Pierre shall be M. Grabot, Mayor of Bottitort. You, monsieur, that we may give him enough of mayors, shall be the Mayor of Gol, and I will be the Mayor of St. Just. This gentleman shall swear to us, so shall the servants. For him, he does not exist. Oh, we will punish him finely."

"But," I said, astounded by the very audacity of the rogue's proposition, "you do not flatter yourself that you will deceive him?"

"We shall, monsieur, if you will help," he answered confidently. "I will be warrant for it we shall."

The thing had little of dignity in it, and I wonder now that I complied; but I have always shared with the King, my master, a taste for drolleries of the kind suggested; while nothing that I had as yet heard of this Grabot was of a nature to induce me to spare him. Seeing that La Font was tickled with the idea, and that the servants were a-grin, and the more eager to trick others as they had just been tricked themselves, I was tempted to consent.

After this, the preparations took not a minute. Philibert covered his fool's clothes with a cloak, and their table was drawn nearer to the fire, so as, with mine, to take up the whole hearth. La Trape fell into an attitude behind me; and the Breton, adopting a refinement suggested at the last moment, was sent out to intercept Grabot before he entered, and tell him that the inn was full, and that he had better pass on.

The knave did his business so well that Grabot, being just such a man as the stroller had described to us, the altercation on the threshold was of itself the most amusing thing in the world. "Who?" we heard a loud, coarse voice exclaim. "Who d'ye say are here, man?"

"The Mayor of Bottitort."

"MILLE DIABLES!"

"The Mayor of Bottitort and the Mayors of Gol and St. Just," the servant repeated as if he noticed nothing amiss.

"That is a lie!" the new comer replied, with a snort of triumph, "and an impudent one. But you have got the wrong sow by the ear this time."

"Why, man," a third voice, somewhat nasal and rustical, struck in, "don't you know the Mayor of Bottitort?"

"I should," my Breton answered bluntly, and making, as we guessed, a stand before them. "For I am his servant, and he is this moment at his meat."

"The Mayor of Bottitort?"

"Yes."

"M. Grabot?"

"Yes."

"And you are his servant?"

"I have thought so for some time," the Breton answered contemptuously.

The Mayor fairly roared in his indignation. "You—his servant! The Mayor of Bottitort's?" he cried in a voice of thunder. "I'll tell you what you are; you are a liar!—a liar, man, that is what you are! Why, you fool, I am the Mayor of Bottitort myself. Now, do you see how you have wasted yourself? Out of my way! Jehan, follow me in. I shall look into this. There is some knavery here, but if Simon Grabot cannot get to the bottom of it the Mayor of Bottitort will. Follow me, I say. My servant indeed? Come, come!"

And, still grumbling, he flung open the door, which the Breton had left ajar, and stalked in upon us, fuming and blowing out his cheeks for all the world like a bantam cock with its feathers erect. He was a short, pursy man; with a short nose, a wide face, and small eyes. But had he been Caesar and Alexander rolled into one, he could not have crossed the threshold with a more tremendous assumption of dignity. Once inside, he stood and glared at us, somewhat taken aback, I think, for the moment by our numbers; but recovering himself almost immediately, he strutted towards us, and, without uncovering or saluting us, he asked in a deep voice who was responsible for the man outside.

"I am," the graver mountebank answered, looking at the stranger with a sober air of surprise. "He is my servant."

"Ah!" the Mayor exclaimed, with a withering glance. "And who, may I ask, are you?"

"You may ask, certainly," the player answered drily. "But until you take off your hat I shall not answer."

The Mayor gasped at this rebuff, and turned, if it were possible, a shade redder; but he uncovered.

"Now I do not mind telling you," Pierre continued, with a mild dignity admirably assumed, "that I am Simon Grabot, and have the honour to be Mayor of Bottitort."

"You!"

"Yes, monsieur, I; though perhaps unworthy."

I looked to see an explosion, but the Mayor was too far gone. "Why, you swindling impostor," he said, with something that was almost admiration in his tone. "You are the very prince of cheats! The king of cozeners! But for all that, let me tell you, you have chosen the wrong ROLE this time. For I—I, sir, am the Mayor of Bottitort, the very man whose name you have taken!"

Pierre stared at him in composed silence, which his comrade was the first to break. "Is he mad?" he said in a low voice.

The grave man shook his head.

The Mayor heard and saw; and getting no other answer, began to tremble between passion and a natural, though ill-defined, misgiving, which the silent gaze of so large a party—for we all looked at him compassionately—was well calculated to produce. "Mad?" he cried. "No, but some one is, Sir," he continued, turning to La Font with a gesture in which appeal and impatience were curiously blended, "Do you know this man?"

"M. Grabot? Certainly," he answered, without blushing. "And have these ten years."

"And you say that he is M. Grabot?" the poor Mayor retorted, his jaw falling ludicrously.

"Certainly. Who should he be?"

The Mayor looked round him, sudden beads of sweat on his brow. "MON DIEU!" he cried. "You are all in it. Here, you, do you know this person?"

La Trape, to whom he addressed himself, shrugged his shoulders. "I should," he said. "The Mayor is pretty well known about here."

"The Mayor?"

"Ay."

"But I am the Mayor—I," Grabot answered eagerly, tapping himself on the breast in the most absurd manner. "Don't you know me, my friend?"

"I never saw you before, to my knowledge," the rascal answered contemptuously; "and I know this country pretty well. I should think that you have been crossing St. Brieuc's brook, and forgotten to say your—"

"Hush!" the stout player interposed with some sharpness. "Let him alone. LE BON DIEU knows that such a thing may happen to the best of us."

The Mayor clapped his hand to his head. "Sir," he said almost humbly, addressing the last speaker, "I seem to know your voice. Your name, if you please?"

"Fracasse," he answered pleasantly. "I am Mayor of Gol."

"You—Fracasse, Mayor of Gol?" Grabot exclaimed between rage and terror. "But Fracasse is a tall man. I know him as well as I know my brother."

The pseudo-Fracasse smiled, but did not contradict him.

The Mayor wiped the moisture from his brow. He had all the characteristics of an obstinate man; but if there is one thing which I have found in a long career more true than another, it is that no one can resist the statements of his fellows. So much, I verily believe, is this the case, that if ten men maintain black to be white, the eleventh will presently be brought into their opinion. Besides, the Mayor had a currish side. He looked piteously from one to another of us, his cheeks seemed to grow in a moment pale and flabby, and he was on the point of whimpering, when at the last moment he bethought him of his servant, and turned to him in a spurt of sudden thankfulness. "Why, Jehan, man, I had forgotten you," he said. "Are these men mad, or am I?"

But Jehan, a simple rustic, was in a state of ludicrous bewilderment. "Dol, master, I don't know," he stuttered, rubbing his head.

"But I am myself," the Mayor cried, in a most ridiculous tone of remonstrance.

"Dol, and I don't know," the man whimpered. "I do believe that there is a change in you. I never saw you look the like before. And I never said any PATER either. Holy saints!" the poor fool continued piteously, "I wish I were at home. And there, for all I know, my wife has got another man."

He began to blubber at this; which to us was the most ludicrous thought, so that it was all we could do to restrain our laughter. But the Mayor saw things in another light. Shaken by our steady persistence in our story, and astounded by our want of respect, the defection of his follower utterly cowed him. After staring wildly about him for a moment, he fairly turned tail, and sat down on an old box by the door, where with his hands on his knees, he looked out before him with such an expression of chap-fallen bewilderment as nearly discovered our plot by throwing us into fits of laughter.

Still he was not persuaded; for, from time to time, he roused himself, and lifting his head cast suspicious glances at our party. But the two strollers, who were now in their element, played their parts with so much craft and delicacy, and with such an infinity of humour besides, that everything he overheard plunged him deeper in the slough. They knew something of local affairs, and called one another Mayor very naturally; and mentioning their wives, let drop other scraps of information that, catching his ear, made the wretched man every now and then sit up as if a wasp had stung him. One story in particular which the false Mayor told—and which, it appeared, was to the knowledge of all the country round the real Mayor's stock anecdote—had an absurd effect upon him. He straightened himself, listened as if his life depended upon it, and when he heard the well-known ending, uttered, doubtless, in something of his old tone, he collapsed into himself like a man who had no longer faith in anything.

1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse