IF I WERE KING
JUSTIN HUNTLY McCARTHY
Through Whom and For Whom
This Book was Written
"The Loveliest Lady this side of Heaven."
XXI. XII. MCMI.
If I were king—ah love, if I were king! What tributary nations would I bring To stoop before your sceptre and to swear Allegiance to your lips and eyes and hair. Beneath your feet what treasures I would fling:— The stars should be your pearls upon a string, The world a ruby for your finger ring, And you should have the sun and moon to wear If I were king.
Let these wild dreams and wilder words take wing, Deep in the woods I hear a shepherd sing A simple ballad to a sylvan air, Of love that ever finds your face more fair. I could not give you any godlier thing If I were king.
IN THE FIRCONE TAVERN
In the dark main room of the Fircone Tavern the warm June air seemed to have lost all its delicacy, like a degraded angel. It was sodden through and through, as with the lees of wine; it was stained and shamed with the smells of hams and cheeses; it was thick and heavy as if with the breaths of all the rogues and all the vagabonds that had haunted the hostelry from its evil dawn. Such guttering lights and glimmering flames as lit the place—for there was a small fire on the wide hearth in spite of the fine weather—peopled the gloom with fantastic quivering shadows as of lean fingers that unfolded themselves to filch, or clenched themselves to stab in the back. But its patrons seemed to like the place well enough in spite of its miasma, and Master Robin Turgis, the fat landlord, drowsy with his own wine and dripping from the heat, surveyed them complacently, and wallowed as it were in the rattle and clink of mug and can, the full-throated laughter and the shrill chatter, crisply emphasized by oaths, which assured him of the Fircone's popularity with its intimates. Master Robin's intelligence was limited; his wit was simple; the processes of his mind moved easily along the lines of least resistance. The Burgundians might be hammering with mailed fists at the walls of Paris; the fire-new crown of Louis the Eleventh might be falling from the royal forehead: it mattered not a jot to dishonest Robin so long as the Fircone brimmed with company.
There was enough company in the room on this evening to content even his wish. It was not the kind of company that a wise man would desire to keep, but it delighted the innkeeper, for it drank deeply and spent freely, and in Robin's view it was of no more concern to him how the money that changed hands was come by than it was how the profound potations might affect the brains and stomachs of his clients. If any officer of the law had questioned him as to his association with a certain mysterious Brotherhood of the Cockleshells whose plunderings and pilferings were the pride of the Court of Miracles and the fear of citizens with strong boxes, he would have shrugged his fat shoulders and shaken his round head and disowned all knowledge of any such unlawful corporation. Yet his face wrinkled with smiles as his glance rested amiably upon the bodily presences of certain illustrious members of the brotherhood, wild men in withered frippery, wine-stained to the very bones.
They were five in number, and four of them were huddled round a table in the cosiest corner of the room, the corner that was sheltered from the heat of the fire by the high-backed settle, the corner that was nearest to the main door if one desired—as one often did—to slip out in a hurry, and to the red-curtained windows, if one desired—as one seldom did—a mouthful of fresh air. Robin Turgis knew them all, admired them all, feared them all, and yet he held head against them because his Beaune wine was so adorable, and because he could keep his own counsel. Slender Ren de Montigny, in a jerkin of rubbed and faded purple velvet, with his malign, Italianate face and his delicate Italianate grace; rotund Guy Tabarie, bluff, red and bald; Casin Cholet, tall and bird-like, with the figure of a stork and the features of a bird of prey; Jehan le Loup, who looked as vulpine as his nickname; these Robin Turgis eyed and catalogued with a kind of pride. It was a fearsome privilege for the Fircone to boast such patronage. On the settle, with his face to the fire, Colin de Cayeulx sprawled in a drunken sleep, forgetting and forgotten, a harmless looking, good-natured looking knave who was neither harmless nor good-natured.
For every man of the gang there was a woman, and there was a woman over, who was easily the central star of the flaunting galaxy. The shabby bravery of the men was matched by the shabby bravery of five out of the six women. Gaudy, painted, assertive strumpets with young, fair, shameless faces—worthy Jills of the ill-favoured Jacks who cuddled them—Jehanneton, the fair helm-maker; Denise, Blanche, Isabeau, and Guillemette, the landlord's daughter, who consorted gaily enough with these brightly-plumaged birds of a rogue's paradise. But the sixth woman was a bird of quite another feather.
Over all the clatter this woman's voice rose suddenly as clear as the call of a thrush, and the hot space seemed to cool and the hot air to clean as she sang. She who sang was a girl of five and twenty, whom it had pleased to clothe her ripe womanhood in a boy's habit, that clasped her fine body as close as a second skin, and she might have passed for a man no otherwhere than in a madhouse. She looked very charming in the stained and faded daintiness of her male attire. She wore a green velvet doublet and green woollen hose, with a scarlet girdle and pouch about her waist, and a scarlet feather stuck defiantly in her green cap, beneath which her long fair hair tumbled in liberal confusion about her shoulders. She sat on the edge of a table swinging one shapely leg loose and strained upon its fellow while she nursed her lute as if it had been a baby, and carolled as if there were no other work in the world to do than to sing. The men and women who sat and sprawled around the table kept quiet, listening to her and staring at her; sleepy Colin pricked his ears; Robin Turgis was alert to hear, for he knew that it was worth while to listen when Huguette du Hamel chose to sing. Robin Turgis knew all about her. Her gentle blood was wild blood, and in spite of her birth and her name she had drifted on the stream of strange pleasure to be the idol of the Fircone's shrine. Her voice was sweet and the tune had a tender, appealing grace, with a little minor wail in it that brought tears into the singer's eyes, and she mouthed the words as if she found them sweet as honey. And this is what she sang:
"Daughters of pleasure, one and all, Of form and feature delicate, Of bodies slim, and bosoms small, With feet and fingers white and straight, Your eyes are bright, your grace is great To hold your lovers' hearts in thrall; Use your red lips before too late, Love ere love flies beyond recall."
Her voice dropped and her fingers tinkled over the strings. Ren de Montigny turned his dark, well-featured face in a sweeping leer that seemed to taste the familiar graces with gusto. "Devilish good advice, Dollies," he shouted, and as he spoke he hugged the nearest girl close to him, and tilting up her chin with his free hand, kissed her noisily. The girl squealed a little at his roughness; the other pairs laughed and clasped after his example, only the singer, unheeding, lifted her sweet voice again, and this time there was a savour of gall in the sweetness of the honey:
"For soon the golden hair is grey, And all the body's lovely line In wrinkled meanness slipped astray; The limbs so round and ripe and fine Shrivelled and withered; quenched the shine That made your eyes as bright as day: So, ladies, hear these words of mine, Love, ere love flutter far away."
The drift of the music seemed sadder than before, and there was a little silence when the last words floated away into the blackened rafters, a silence broken by one of the girls.
"Enne, that was a sad song, Abbess," Isabeau sighed, and her face seemed to have paled beneath its false colours and the lines about her mouth and eyes to have grown older in surrender to inevitable thoughts. She whom the girl called Abbess laughed, and her mirth sounded harshly after the dreamy sweetness of her song.
"Master Franois Villon made it for me t'other day," she answered. "' You will grow old, Idol,' he said, 'and I make you this song to teach you true things.'"
Guy Tabarie, whose red hair bunched out like little flames from the fiery sun of his countenance, clapped his hands to the girl's waist and thrust his face near to hers. "Kiss me and forget it," he hiccoughed. The girl gave importunacy a little push which sent him staggering back to his seat. "I have no kisses for any Jack of you all but Franois," she said, while the others roared at the man's discomfiture. "Ah, there is no one of you that can write songs like him, or make one sad as he can in the midst of gladness."
The girl whom purple-coated Ren had kissed so rudely shivered a little. "A strange reason for liking a man," she whispered, "that he make you sad." She glanced wistfully round at her companions: to the faces of the women the influence of the song had lent an unwonted softness, but had brought no touch of tenderness to those of the men. Jehan le Loup banged his fist heavily on the table in furious protestation till the cans and flagons rattled.
"Is this a Court of Love?" he grunted, baring his yellow tusks in a swinish rage. "There are other rooms for love-making," and he jerked his thumb towards the roof. "We are here for drinking; we are here for dicing; to the devil with smocks and sonnets."
He jumbled the ivories lustily as he growled and the familiar jingle banished unfamiliar fancies. He slapped the spotted cubes on the table and as they rolled into equilibrium eager eyes counted them, and fingers eager or reluctant pinched or pushed at coins. The spell of the music was broken. The melodious Abbess, with eyes now glittering and tearless, swung her supple body from table to bench, thrust herself a place among the players, shouted to Robin Turgis to bring more wine, and spreading some silver on the dingy board surrendered to speculation. Nobody heeded the faint clink which told that a hand troubled the latch of the street door; nobody heeded the faint creaking which showed that it was being softly opened; nobody heeded the man who put his head gently through the opening and looked thoughtfully around him. The new-comer was a grim-visaged fellow, somewhere near the edge of middle age. He was dressed in the sober habit of a simple burgess, and he used the long fold that hung from his cloth cap very dexterously to hide his face. He peered into the obscurity of the room with a disquieting smile that deepened in its unpleasing expression as its owner surveyed the noisy fellowship in the corner, and nodded his head as he seemed to identify its members. Confident that nobody marked him he stealthily entered the room, and holding the door ajar, he motioned to one who still stood without to enter. The summons was answered by the entrance of another figure, capped and habited like the first, who slipped in swiftly and furtively, and made at once for the farthest and loneliest angle of the room without looking to right or left, while his herald, after closing the door as noiselessly as possible, followed quickly in his footsteps. If Master Robin, dancing attendance upon his clamourous customers, could have divined the identity of the newcomers whose advent he regarded so indifferently, his purple face would have paled and his stomach failed him at the thought that the Fircone sheltered the baleful presence of the king and of his malign satellite, Tristan l'Hermite.
The two strangers seated themselves at a small table in the very pole of the room to the place where the Abbess and her friends were busy, and the second of the pair, drawing a little apart the dark-coloured fold of cloth that almost concealed his features, looked around him curiously.
"Is this the eyrie?" he whispered, and his companion answered him in the same low tone, "This is the Fircone Tavern, sire." The other's finger was lifted to his lip at once in warning. "Hush, gossip, hush," he muttered. "No title now, I beg of you. Here I am not Louis of France, but a simple sober citizen like yourself. I suppose we must take something for the good of the house?" His henchman promptly replied that such action was indispensable. But Louis still looked doubtful. "Will the liquor be very detestable," he asked, inserting two thin fingers in the black pouch at his belt. Tristan shook his head. "Nay, you can get good wine here if you know how to ask for it—and how to pay for it."
"No one knows better than I how to ask for anything," chuckled the king. "Or worse, how to for it," Tristan sneered. The king scowled at him. "Then, why do you keep my service?" he snapped. Tristan shrugged his shoulders. "Some dregs of devotion, I suppose. Here stands Master Innkeeper." For by this time Robin Turgis was at their elbow, scanning them narrowly with his small, pig—like eyes that could make little, however, of the well-muffled faces. He waited on their order with a kind of ferocious submission, draining his rank forehead with a sweep of his dirty palm.
"Friend," said Louis, sniffing sardonically at the too odoriferous personality of the taverner, "you behold here two decent cits who have turned a penny, or twain in a bargain, and have a mind to wet their whistles in consequence. Have you aught to offer that is good alike for purse and palate?"
Robin Turgis nodded his round head and fondled his round stomach. "We have a white wine of Beaune," he said unctuously, as if he were tasting the wares he commended, "at two sols the flagon that is noble drinking."
The king's sense of economy shivered at the sum; as if it had been a wound.
"Pasques-Dieu!" he stammered. "So it should be at the price." Robin Turgis remained unmoved: Tristan clinched the business. "Bring it," he said decisively, and as the landlord shambled away towards his cellar, Tristan met the king's condemnatory frown squarely.
"I wear out my hands and feet in your service," lie said, "I want to save my throat and stomach."
Louis made no answer and was mournfully silent until the obese landlord returned with the much-vaunted vintage, which he set down on the table with a brace of goblets. Louis fumbled with reluctant fingers in his pouch, extracted the exact amount necessary for payment and dropped it into the fat paw of Robin Turgis. But Robin lingered and Louis looking at him in surprise met the admonishing glare of Tristan. "Give him a penny for himself," Tristan whispered, and the king, with an unwillingness he was at no pains to conceal, added the demanded drink-money to the other coins, and eyed the departing back of the landlord with well-defined aversion. "You are generous with other people's pennies, friend," he snapped at his companion, but Tristan, paying no heed to his querulousness, filled the two cups with the clear golden liquid and thrust one of them under the nose of the sulky monarch. Its fine dry fragrance soothed Louis; he took a deep sip and was mollified; another and he had forgiven if not forgotten his generosity. He winked at Tristan amiably over the rim of the goblet. "This is seeing life, friend Tristan," he murmured, contentedly, stretching his thin legs in delicious ease. But Tristan was in no holiday humour.
"Let's hope it mayn't be seeing death, friend Louis" he snorted. "There are a couple of rogues in that covey who would spit you or split you or slit you for the price of a drink."
Louis laughed affably. "And no such cheap bargain," he commented, "seeing what wine costs here. But this is an interesting business."
Tristan would concede nothing to the king's good-humour. "Where's the interest?" he asked. "A few bullies, bawds and bonarobas boozing together. You can keep the same company at court—only a shade cleaner—and not be out of pocket for the privilege either."
The king's mouth puckered in appreciation of some memory. He leaned forward and touched Tristan's sleeve.
"Gossip Tristan, there is at my court a scholar who told me an Eastern tale."
"Pray God it be a gay one such as your majesty loves,"
"Hush, man; no 'Majesty' here. 'Tis of an Eastern King, one Haroun, surnamed, as I shall be surnamed, The Just."
Tristan grunted sceptically, but Louis, ignoring the ejaculation, went on.
"It was his pastime to go about Bagdad of nights in disguise, and mingling with his people learn much to the advantage of the realm. I am following his example, and I expect to learn much in my turn."
Tristan looked pityingly at the complacent king. "You are likely to learn how unpopular you are, which I could have told you without this trouble; and you will be lucky if you do not get your throat cut into the bargain."
Something almost like a smile disturbed the familiar composure of the king's wrinkles. He took another sip of the wine and his affability expanded. "You are always a bird of evil omen," he chirped. "Be bright, man; look at me. The Burgundian Leaguer is at my gates; my throne sways like a rocking-chair, yet I don't pull a sad face."
"It's a good thing that somebody is pleased," Tristan commented. "Yes," said Louis, opening out his thin hands and studying their palms attentively, "I am pleased—" Tristan interrupted him roughly. "Pleased that the Burgundians threaten you outside the walls of Paris; pleased that Thibaut d'Aussigny bullies you inside the walls of Paris; pleased that your soldiers are mutinous; pleased that your citizens are sullen; by my faith, here are four royal reasons for a royal pleasure."
Louis shook his head playfully at his servant's grumbling. "Gossip Tristan," he asked, "do you know why I have come to this hovel to-night? I do not walk abroad like a king-errant in mere idleness of mind. I have come to learn what company my lord the Grand Constable keeps." Tristan's shaggy eyebrows arched in surprise as the king continued: "Our good Olivier assures us that our dear Thibaut d'Aussigny has taken it into his head of late to walk the streets by night and to haunt strange taverns such as this same Fircone. I am plagued with a womanish curiosity, Tristan, and I thought I would peep over Messire Thibaut's shoulder and have an eye on his cards."
Tristan chuckled. "The Grand Constable bears you a grudge since you chose to turn a kind eye on the girl of Vaucelles."
"She was a wise virgin to dislike Thibaut," mused the king. "Was she a foolish virgin to mistrust your majesty?" questioned Tristan. Louis shrugged his shoulders. "She is a proud piece, gossip. When I told her that she took my fancy she flamed into a red rage that chastened me. But if she's not for me she's not for Thibaut either." "The Grand Constable is a bad enemy," Tristan commented. The king replied at random.
"Tristan, I had a strange dream last night I dreamed that I was a swine rooting in the streets of Paris, and that I found a pearl of great price in the kennel. I picked it up and set it in my crown—"
"A crowned pig," Tristan interrupted. "'Tis like a tavern sign." Louis did not seem to resent the interruption.
"My good gossip, in a dream nothing seems strange. Well, as I said, I set this pearl in my crown and the light of it seemed to fill all my good city of Paris with glory so that I could see every street and alley, every tower and pinnacle, more clearly than in a summer's noon. And then memought that the pearl weighed so heavy upon my forehead that I plucked it from its place and cast it to the ground, and would have trodden it under foot when a star shot swiftly from Heaven and stayed me."
The king looked eagerly at his companion, who seemed wholly uninterested in the narrative of the royal vision. "Dreams and stars, stars and dreams," he sneered. "Leave dreams to weaklings, sire." Louis frowned. "Don't sneer, gossip, but instruct, who are these people?" and the sharp, lean face of the king thrust itself forward a little, bird-like from the nest of its hood, in the direction of the gamblers. His companion shrugged his shoulders.
"Some of the worst cats and rats in all Paris," he answered. "The men belong to a fellowship that is called the Company of the Cockleshells, and babble a cant of their own that baffles the thief-takers. If your majesty—" but here a warning kick from Louis made him wince and change his words-"if you wished to savour rascality these are your blades. The women are trulls. Yonder she-thing in the man's habit is Huguette du Hamel, a wild wench, whom men call the Abbess for her nunnery of light o' loves. There be four of her minions with her now, Jehanneton la belle Heaulmiere as they name her, Denise the slipper-maker, Blanche and Isabeau. Oh, they are delectable doxies!"
King Louis pursed his thin lips in austere censure. "They shall be reproved hereafter," he said. "Who are the men?"
"Worthy Adams of such pestilent Eves," Tristan answered. "That slender fellow in the purple jerkin is one Ren de Montigny, of gentle birth, and a great breaker of commandments. He with the red hair is Guy Tabarie; they are sworn brothers in bawdry and larceny. The ferret-faced knave who is tickling the girl's knee is Jehan le Loup. Bullies and bawds, pandars and parasites: to enumerate their offenses would be to say the Decalogue backward."
"You have a pithy humour, gossip," and Louis grinned. "Our gallows shall be busy anon."
Tristan was abcut to open his mouth in approval of a sentiment so pleasing to his ears when his words and his purpose were alike arrested by a sound of a voice singing outside the tavern door.
The voice was a man's voice, something rough and strained for fine music, and yet with a kind of full and florid sweetness that carried the words clearly through the red-curtained windows. They seemed to make a complaint of Fortune:
"Since I have left the prison gate Where I came near to say good-bye To this poor life that needs must fly From the malignity of Fate, Perchance she now will pass me by Since I have left the prison gate."
If the king pricked his ear to listen, and even Tristan moved a little in his lethargy, the effect of the song upon the company of gamblers was instant and pronounced. The Abbess leaped to her feet, crying out: "It is the voice of Franois!" "It is indeed his own unutterable pipe," agreed Ren de Montigny, sweeping his winnings into his pouch. Robin Turgis raised his hands in a comical despair as he muttered: "Here is the devil out of hell again." All the men and women were looking eagerly at the door.
"Who is this?" asked Louis of Tristan, "whose coming seems so to flutter these night-birds?"
"The strangest knave in all Paris," Tristan answered. "One Franois Villon, scholar, poet, drinker, sworder, drabber, blabber, good at pen, point, and pitcher. In the Court of Miracles they call him the King of the Cockleshells. Judge him for yourself."
MASTER FRANOIS VILLON
As Tristan spoke the tavern latch rattled, the tavern door was flung noisily open, and the king's gaze rested on a strange figure framed in the entry. The man was of middle height, spare and slight and lean; his thin, eager face was bronzed with the suns and winds of a generation, and lined with the stern ciphers of malign experiences. His dark, straight hair was long and unkempt; the finer lines of his cheeks and chin were blurred with the uncropped growth of a week-old beard; his eyes were bright and quick; his glance restless and comprehensive. A cunning reader of features would have found a home for high thoughts behind the fine forehead, the lines of infinite tenderness upon the mobile lips, the light of some noble conflagration in the wild eyes. He was dressed in faded finery of many colours, so ragged and patched and hostile that he had very much the air of a gaudy scarecrow. His ruined cloak was tilted by a long sword; his disordered thatch was crowned by a battered cap grotesquely adorned with a cock's feather. In his leathern belt a small vellum bound book of verses kept company with a dagger. For all his whimsical appearance the king's keen eyes could note a something gallant in the carriage of the scamp, could spy out qualities of manhood beneath the battered bravery. He poised for a moment on the threshold in a fantastic attitude of salutation ere he slammed the door behind him and strode forward to meet his friends.
"Well, Hearts of Gold, how are ye?" he cried joyously as he advanced with head thrown back and open hands extended. "Did ye miss me, lads; did ye miss me, lasses?"
Abbess Huguette was at his side in an instant, with her arms about his neck fondling him and fawning upon him. "Surely I missed you," she whispered. "Where have you been, little monkey?"
Master Franois looked at her for a moment with a curious pity. Then gently extricating himself from her embrace he called out, "Give me a wash of wine for my throat's parched with piping."
Every man thrust his own mug towards Master Franois, beseeching him to drink of it, but he waved them all aside imperially. "Nay, I will have my own," he said. "Have we no landlord here? Master Robin, come hither."
Robin Turgis, who had kept apart up to now, surveying the new-comer with no excess of favour, moved slowly forward with his thumbs in his girdle and a sour smile on his fat cheeks. Master Franois addressed him sternly, twitching as he did so the landlord's greasy cap from his pate and sending it flying down the room. "Why do you not salute gentry when they honour your pot-house? A mug of your best Beaune, Master Beggar-maker, to drink damnation to the Burgundians."
Robin Turgis made no motion to obey, but his small eyes seemed to grow smaller as they stared. "What colour has money now-a-days, Master Franois?" he asked doggedly. In a moment the brown, dirty hand of the poet was clapped to his dagger and there was something of a wolfish snarl in his voice as he answered menacingly, "The colour of blood sometimes." But the landlord, unabashed and undismayed, stood his ground.
"None of your swaggering, Master Franois," he said sturdily. "There is such a thing as a king in France and that king's name is writ fair on his coinage. Show me a Louis XI. and I will show you my Beaune wine."
The face of Master Franois flushed under its grime, and he fiddled at his dagger nervously, as one uncertain whether to laugh or cry at the dilemma which confronted him. Huguette and Montigny alike had dipped their hands into their pouches for money to pay the poet's score when to the amazement of Tristan the king forestalled their kindnesses. Rising to his feet with creditable alacrity he advanced towards Master Franois and saluted him with a gracious wave of the hand. "Will you let me be of some small service to you," he began politely, and as Villon turned to stare at him in surprise he continued: "Will you honour me by drinking that Beaune wine our host brags of at my expense?"
Villon's astonishment had not unnerved his clutch at opportunity. Here was a god out of a machine, proffering cool liquor to dry gullets. Master Franois gave back the salutation with a mien of splendid condescension, while the rest of the company glared at the burgess who thus thrust himself upon them, and Tristan, cursing the king for his temerity, felt for a hidden dagger.
Villon's patronizing wave of the hand was magnificent in its effrontery, and his words matched his gesture nobly.
"You are a civil stranger, and I will so far honour you." Louis bowed. "I left my purse under my pillow this morning"—a roar of laughter saluted the ancient jape—"and this ungentle fellow denies me credit. How rarely we meet with an ale-draper who is also a gentleman."
With an unmoved countenance Louis listened to Villon's words. "Yet the sale of a thing so noble ought to beget a kind of nobility in the vendor," he said with great gravity; then turning to Robin Turgis, whose mouth was gaping at this colloquy, he bade him bring a flagon of his best, and as he did so he tendered him a silver coin for which Robin extended his fat fingers—and extended them too late. For at the sight of the silver the eyes of Master Franois had glistened, and his lean, brown hand, swift and agile as a hawk, had swooped between the king and the publican, and had secured the coin, which he promptly held up and surveyed in an apparent ecstasy of admiration.
"Is this the good king's counter?" he asked, and as he did so he plucked off his shabby bonnet and paid the exalted coin a profound obeisance. "Well, God bless his majesty, say I, for I owe him my present liberty. There was a gaol-clearing when he came to Paris, and as I happened to be in gaol at the time—through an error of the law"—here he paused to leer knowingly at his comrades, who yelled commendation—"they were good enough to kick me into the free air. Will you add to your kindness, old gentleman"—and here Master Franois spun round and solemnly saluted his unknown entertainer—"by allowing me to guard and cherish this token of our dear monarch in memory of this notable event?"
Louis' fortitude could not prevent him from making something of a wry face as he hastily answered, "By all means." He beckoned discreetly to Robin Turgis, who, making a wide circle round Master Franois, stole to the king's side, received from him another coin and hastened away to bring the drink it paid for.
From his corner Tristan surveyed the episode with a grim enjoyment. "Master Villon, Master Villon," he murmured to himself, "you'll be sorry for this, very sorry indeed." And in his mind's eye he transferred the fantastic figure, posturing and grimacing before Louis, to the end of a long rope hanging from a high gallows. Master Franois, ignorant of the immediate irony of existence, wafted a kiss airily from the tips of his fingers to his patron. "You are a very obliging old gentleman," he said approvingly.
Louis frowned slightly. "You harp on my age, sir," he said. "Yet you are yourself no chicken." This mild reproof seemed to irritate Villon's friends more than it irritated Villon. The men manifested a marked inclination to hustle so questioning a citizen; the women cackled at him angrily. Casin Cholet bluntly proposed to lend the cit a slap on the chops; and Huguette enquired with every emphasis of impoliteness: "What's his age to you, sobersides?" But Villon quietly waved his turbulent companions into tranquility. "Patience, damsels," he said blandly. "Patience, good comrades of the Cockleshell. If our friend is inquisitive at least he has paid his fee," and as he spoke he hid his face for a moment behind the huge mug of Beaune wine which Robin Turgis at that moment handed to him. Much refreshed by his mighty draught he resumed briskly: "For three and thirty years I have taken toll of life with such result as you see. A light pocket is a plague, but a light heart and a light love make amends for much." And as he spoke he slapped his pocket whose emptiness gave back no jingle, drummed lightly on his bosom and nodded gallantly to the admiring womenkind. "You are a philosopher," said the king. "You are a little angel," cried the Abbess, flinging her arms round the poet in an enthusiastic hug. The girl's homage seemed little to Villon's taste, for he disengaged himself swiftly from the embrace, saying as he did so: "Gently, Abbess, gently! My shoulders tingle and my sides ache too sorely for claspings."
Villon's manner was so decisive and his meaning so obvious that the curiosity of the gang burned keenly and found voice in Ren de Montigny, who asked what ailed him with commendable solicitude. Villon shook his head, applied himself again to the cannakin, and emerged from it with a most melancholy expression of countenance. "You behold in me, friends," he sighed, "a victim of love," and his visage showed so lugubrious that it sorely tempted Louis to laugh, and hotly moved Huguette to anger, for she raged up to Villon, challenging the meaning of his speech. Villon gently cooled her impatience. "Hush, hush, my girl! There are many kinds of love, as you ought to know well enough. I am a rogue and a vagabond, no less, and so sometimes I love you and other such Athanasian wenches; Isabeau there and Jehanneton."
At this mention of her novices' names the Abbess turned on the two girls fiercely. "You minxes," she cried. "Do you make eyes at my man?" The pair shrank back from her fury, but Master Villon, who seemed suddenly to have fallen into a meditative mood, rambled on in a, kind of reverie, as indifferent to the Fircone and all his surroundings as if he were a lonely shepherd tending his sheep on a lonely hillside.
"But also I am, Heaven forgive me, a jingler of rhymes, with the stars for my candles and the roses for my toys, and singers of songs sometimes love in another fashion. And so it has chanced to me for my sins and to my sorrow."
Villon's chin had dropped upon his breast; the cock's feather drooped dismally; the singer seemed quite chapfallen. Huguette, tired of glaring at her offending minions, again turned her scornful attention to her dejected lover. "Cry-baby!" she sneered scornfully, pointing with derisive finger at Master Franois, in whose eyes indeed the close observer could discern the threatening of tears. Jehanneton came sidling round to Villon, piqued by natural curiosity, and the desire to vex Huguette. "Tell us your love-tale, Franois," she pleaded, and her pleading found an immediate supporter in Louis. The Arabian nature of his adventure enchanted him, and he had a child's taste for a story. "May I support the lady's prayer," he said, "unless a stranger's presence distresses you?"
Villon turned to him with a mocking laugh. "Lord love you, no," he answered. "I have long since forgotten reticence and will discourse of my empty purse, my empty belly, and my empty heart to any man. Gather around me, cullions and cut-purses, and listen to the strange adventure of Master Franois Villon, clerk of Paris."
Joyous applause greeted his speech, Jehan le Loup, seizing upon an empty barrel that stood in a corner, trundled it forward, and standing it on one end invited Villon to take his seat upon this whimsical throne. The poet sprang lightly upon the perch thus provided for him, and sat there with his legs crossed, holding his long sword against his knees with both hands. The men and women gathered about him, like bees about a rose-bush. Huguette placed herself on a stool at his feet. Jehanneton flung herself full length on the ground and stared up into his face. Robin Turgis straddled a bench at some distance and grinned. Louis seized the opportunity to whisper behind his hand to Tristan that he found the fellow diverting, to which Tristan replied gruffly that he for his part found him a dull ape. Louis might have argued the point but his interest was claimed by the voice of Villon, who, being comfortably installed on his wine-cask, was beginning his promised narrative. A philosopher would have discerned something pathetic in the picture of the ragged rascal thus girdled about with blackguards of a baser sort, his lean body quivering, his eager face alive with emotions, mockery on his lips and sorrow in his eyes: to the sardonic king it afforded nothing more and nothing less than amusement. "You must know, dear Devils and ever-beautiful Blowens, that three days ago, when I was lying in the kennel, which is my humour, and staring at the sky, which is my recreation—I speak, honest citizen, but in parable or allegory, a dear device with the schoolmen—I saw between me and Heaven the face of a lady, the loveliest face I ever saw."
Here the poor Abbess, indignation overcrowding her borrowed mannishness, began to sniffle and to assert that the speaker was a faithless pig, but Villon, unheeding her whimpers, went on with his tale.
"She was going to church—God shield her—but she looked my way as she passed, and though she saw me no more than she saw the cobble-stone I stood on, I saw her once and for ever. We song-chandlers babble a deal of love, but for the most part we know little or nothing about it, and when it comes it knocks us silly. I was knocked so silly that—well, what do you think was the silly thing I did?"
Villon turned his alert face to each member of his audience, and his derisive mouth belied the sadness of his eyes.
"Emptied a can for oblivion," Montigny suggested. Blanche was no less practical.
"Kissed a wench for the same purpose," she cried. "The times that I've been wooed out of my name!"
"Picked the woman's pocket," Casin Cholet hinted, wagging his shock head wisely, while Jehan le Loup, with a hideous leer, sniggered: "Got near her in the crowd and pinched her," and suited the action to the word with finger and thumb on Blanche's plump shoulder.
Master Franois dissipated all this roguish philosophy with a contemptuous gesture.
"La, la, la," he chirruped. "Sillier than all these. I followed her into the church."
The silence of astonishment fell upon the audience. Only Colin de Cayeulx had sufficient presence of mind to formulate his amazement in a prolonged whistle. Louis crossed himself repeatedly under his gown. "You are not a church-goer, sir?" he questioned sourly. Villon answered him sweetly.
"No, old Queernabs, unless there's an alms-box to open or a matter of gold plate to pilfer." Guy Tabarie hurriedly interrupted him with a warning cry of "Cave!" and a significant glance at the strangers, but Villon derided his fears.
"Nonsense," he cried, leaning forward and playfully slapping Louis on the back with his sword. "This good Cuffin has a friendly face and can take a joke. Can't you, old rabbit?"
Louis winced and then grinned as Tristan gasped in anger. "I thank Heaven I have a sense ot humour," he said, with a sly glance at his companion. Villon went on with his story.
"Well, I sprawled there in the dark, with my knees on the cold ground, and all the while the sound of her beauty was sweet in my ears, and the taste of her beauty was salt on my lips, and the pain of her beauty was gnawing at my heart, and I prayed that I might see her again."
At this point Huguette, who had been following the narrative with a feline ferocity, caught up a wine-jug and made to throw it at the poet's head, but was dexterously disarmed by Guy Tabarie before the vessel had time to quit her fingers. Sulkily she plumped herself down on her stool again, while Villon, quite unconscious of the averted peril, rambled on dreamily.
"And the incense tickled my nostrils and the painted saints sneered at me, and bits of rhymes and bits of prayers jigged in my brain and I felt as if I were drunk with some new and delectable liquor. And then she slipped out and I after her. She took the Holy Water from my fingers."
Villon's voice sank reverently and Huguette took advantage of the pause.
"I wish it had burned you to the bone," she interrupted spitefully. Master Villon shook his head.
"It burned deeper than that, believe me. Outside, on God's steps, stood a yellow-haired, pink-faced puppet who greeted her and they ambled away together, I on their heels. Presently they came to a gateway and in slips my quarry, and as she did so she turned to her squire and I saw her face again and lost it, for the tears came into my eyes." With a heavy sigh he turned to Louis. "I suppose you wonder why I talk like this, but when my heart's in my mouth I must spit it out or it chokes me."
"I have learned to wonder at nothing," Louis answered sagely. Villon picked up the dropped thread of his tale.
"I saluted the gallant and begged to know the lady's name. He took me for a madman, but he told me."
In a second Huguette was on her legs again and nestling her eager face close to that of Villon as she whispered coaxingly:
"What was the lady's name, dear Franois?"
Master Franois looked into her watchful eyes with a wise smile.
"Be secret, sweet," he murmured. "It was Her Majesty, the Queen." A wild roar of laughter from Villon's friends greeted this sally, and the fury it brought to Huguette's face. Louis, royally angered, made as if to rise in protest, but the heavy hand of Tristan fell on his shoulder and restrained him, and Villon, noticing his irritation, waved him down with a pacifying gesture.
"Now, now, my rum duke," he cried, "your loyalty need not take fire. It was not her majesty, but her name I shall keep to myself, though it is written on my shoulders in fair large blue and black bruises."
This statement stirred a murmur of surprise in the gathering. "Did the pink and gold popinjay beat you?" Montigny asked, interpreting the general curiosity.
"No, no," Villon answered. "It came about thus. We tinkers of verses set a price on our wares that few find them worth, yet with the love-fever in my veins I wrote rhymes to this lady and sent them to her fairly writ on a piece of parchment that cost me a dinner."
"Did you think she would come to your whistle like a bird to a lure?" Louis enquired playfully. Villon sighed again.
"In this kind of madness a minstrel thinks himself a new Orpheus who could win a woman out of hell with his music. But I got my answer—oh, I got my answer."
He dropped suddenly into a moody silence, which was not to the taste of the fellowship who were interested in the adventure. Montigny, leaning forward, gave Villon a clap on the back which made him shrink, and shouted "What was the answer?"
Villon began to laugh, a loud, mirthless laugh that had no human warmth in it.
"A fellow like a page boarded me here three days ago. He asked me if I had sent certain verses to a certain quarter. If so I was to follow him at once. I followed like a sheep with my heart drumming till we came to a quiet place, and there four boobies with yard-long cudgels fell upon me. I was taken unawares, I had no weapon but my jackdagger, the blows were raining upon me as fast as acorns fly in a high wind, so I thought it no shame to take to my heels. The varlets pursued me, full cry, till I led them to a part of Paris where their lives would not have been worth a minute's purchase and they had to stay their chase. But I have been rarely drubbed and roundly basted, and my poor back and sides are most womanishly tender. I go abroad no more without Excalibur." He tapped his sword hilt as he spoke. Huguette glared fiercely up at him. "Will it teach you not to play the fool again?" asked, with a vicious snap of her white teeth.
"It will teach me not to play the fool again," Villon answered sadly. "The mark of the beast is upon me and I shall dream no more dreams." He shook himself as if he were trying to shake away clinging memories and extended his empty can to Montigny, saying: "I'm thirsty again. More liquor."
As Montigny filled up for his leader, Louis commented, "You drink more than is good for your health, sir." Villon rounded on him angrily, with flushed face and shining eyes.
"Mind your own business!" he shouted, and the rest shouted with him applaudingly. "What can a man do but drink when France is going to the devil, with the Burgundians camped in the free fields where I played in childhood, and a nincompoop sits on the throne and lets them besiege his city?" The rascals laughed. Tristan whispered to himself, "You'll be sorry you spoke, Master Villon." The king propounded a problem. "No doubt you could do better than the king if you wore the king's shoes?"
Villon rolled about on his barrel in an ecstasy of entertainment. "If I could not do better than Louis Do-Nothing, Louis Dare-Nothing, having his occasions and advantages, may Huguette there never kiss me again."
His boon companions laughed. Huguette whispered sulkily, "Perhaps she never will."
Isabeau came sidling and bridling up to Louis, wheedling like a cat as she said: "Our Franois has made a rhyme of it, sir, how he would carry himself if he wore the king's shoes."
Louis was always ready for any kind of gallantry. He put his arms around the girl's slim body and drew her on to his knee. "Has he, indeed, pretty minion?" he said. "May we not hear it, Master Poet?"
Villon, with mock modesty, had tried to restrain Isabeau from speaking of the work, but now he changed his tune. "You may; you shall; for 'tis a true song, though it would cost me my neck if it came to the king's ears, very likely. But you are not tall enough to whisper in them, so here goes."
With a shout Villon sprang to his feet, draped his tattered cloak closely about him, struck a commanding attitude, and began to recite with great solemnity. Louis scooped his claw-like fingers behind his ear, that he might hear the better the words that fell from the wild poet's mouth:
"All French folk, whereso'er ye be, Who love your country, soil and sand. From Paris to the Breton sea, And back again to Norman strand, Forsooth ye seem a silly band, Sheep without shepherd, left to chance— Far otherwise our Fatherland If Villon were the King of France!"
Louis glanced grimly at Tristan; the rogues rubbed their hands and chuckled. Villon smiled in pride and went on:
"The figure on the throne you see Is nothing but a puppet, planned To wear the regal bravery Of silken coat and gilded wand. Not so we Frenchmen understand The Lord of lion's heart and glance, And such a one would take command If Villon were the King of France!"
The king's face was a study in sardonics. Tristan was poppy-red with rage. The gang applauded and Villon glowed with their applause.
"His counsellors are rogues, Perdie! While men of honest mind are banned. To creak upon the Gallows Tree, Or squeal in prisons over-mann'd; We want a chief to bear the brand, And bid the damned Burgundians dance; God! Where the Oriflamme should stand If Villon were the King of France!"
Mugs and cans clattered approval. The rhymer's eyes widened as he drew breath to blow forth the envoi of his ballade.
"Louis the Little, play the grand; Buffet the foe with sword and lance; 'Tis what would happen, by this hand, If Villon were the King of France!"
A roar of enthusiasm came from the full throats of the band. Montigny slapped Villon on the back with a "Well crowed, Chanticleer!" Huguette flung her arms around him and hugged him as she cried passionately: "I forgive you much, for that light in your eyes."
But the poet seemed weary after so much heat. He pushed the girl away and drooped on his hogshead. The rogues rattled away to their table again, and Villon was left alone with Louis, who questioned him drily: "You call yourself a patriot, I suppose?"
Villon had recovered sufficient energy to drain a mug of wine. He turned to the king, passing his hand over his forehead. "By no such high-sounding title," he answered. "I am but a poor devil with a heart too big for his body and a hope too large for his hoop. Had I been begotten in a brocaded bed, I might have led armies and served France; have loved ladies without fear of cudgellings, and told kings truths without dread of the halter, while as it is, I consort with sharps and wantons, and make my complaint to a dull little buzzard like you, old noodle! Oh,'tis a fool's play and it were well to be out of it."
"You won't have long to worry," Tristan muttered to himself under his breath, and found great comfort in the thought. Louis merely said: "You are sententious!"
Villon took him up swiftly. "The quintessence of envy, no less. I have great thoughts, great desires, great ambitions, great appetites, what you will. I might have changed the world and left a memory. As it is I sleep in a garret under the shadow of the gallows, and shall be forgotten to-morrow, even by the wolves I pack with. But this is dry thinking; let's to drinking!" As he spoke Villon rose to join his comrades, when his quick eye noted that Robin Turgis had fallen asleep on his bench. Villon skipped lightly toward him, dexterously unhooked his bunch of keys from his girdle, and, with a triumphant gesture, made on tiptoe for the cellar door, which he unlocked and through which he disappeared. Louis looked after him with an acid smile. Tristan leaned forward and plucked at the kind's sleeve. "Shall I hang him to-morrow?" he asked, hoarsely. The king turned, musing, to his henchman. "We shall see! He is a loose-lipped fellow, but he might have been a man. He has set me thinking of my dream. I was a swine rioting in the streets of Paris and I found a pearl-well, well. Let us kill the time with cards till Thibaut d'Aussigny comes." Tristan produced a pack of cards from his pouch and laid them on the table. "Do you think he will come?" he asked.
"He does not expect to find me here, I promise you," Louis answered. "He would not come if he did. Barber Olivier is to warn me of his coming." As he spoke the inn-door opened a little and the king, hearing the click of the catch, asked: "Is that he?"
Tristan glanced round over his shoulder. The door was pushed partly open, and an old, stooped woman was peeping curiously into the room. Tristan shrugged his shoulders.
"No, sire," he snarled, "another old woman."
By this time the king had arranged the cards to his satisfaction. He made an imperative gesture to his companion to seat himself and in a few seconds had forgotten everything else in the excitement of the game. Meanwhile the old woman, having pushed the door wide open, came softly into the room. She was a quiet, mild-faced creature, one of those human shadows who suggest without tragedy faded youth and withered comeliness. She was very poorly but very neatly dressed, in worn grey and rusty black, and the linen folds about her lined face were scrupulously clean. She looked anxiously around her, shading her eyes with her hand, in the dim light of the tavern, unable to discern much but evidently eager to discern something.
Ren de Montigny, tired of teasing Isabeau, suddenly looked up and caught sight of the old woman as she stood, very helpless and wistful, peering about her. An impish spirit floated leaf-like on the surface of his mind. He rose to his feet and danced towards her in a fantastic manner, sweeping her a profound salutation as he approached her.
"Your pleasure, sweet princess?" he said with mock deference.
The old woman turned her wrinkled visage up to his in wonder.
"Is Master Franois Villon in this company, sir?" she faltered.
Montigny treated her to another profound bow.
"Sweet creature," he simpered, "I kiss your hand and inquire."
He turned to his companions at the table and his eye rested mockingly on the bowed figure of Huguette. After Master Villon had told his tale Huguette had been glum enough, and her comrades finding her snappish wisely left her to herself. She had pulled a pack of cards from her scarlet pouch; she had been spelling out her fortune silently, and the death card insisted itself again and again with grim pertinacity. With a sense of despair that was strange to her airy nature she had bowed her face on her arms and was sobbing softly to herself. Montigny was not a man to be touched by a woman's sorrow. He mockingly gesticulated over her bent shoulders as he cried to the others in a false whisper,
"There is a beautiful woman at the door, beseeching our Franois."
The moment these words fell on Huguette's ears, they stung her into life and activity. She leaped to her feet in a flash.
"What do you say?" she raged, and then, seeing a woman's form a few feet away from her, she rushed towards the stranger furiously while the others rose in cages expectation of some new excitement.
"What do you seek here?" she asked fiercely of the old woman, and then as she saw the pitiful wrinkled face staring up at her, she started back in surprise.
The old woman, misinterpreting the sex of her questioner from the dress that Huguette wore, began apologetically.
"Asking your pardon, young gentleman," and for a moment her words were drowned in a shout of delighted laughter, as the listening rogues appreciated the blunder she had made.
"Asking your pardon, young gentleman, I seek Master Franois Villon."
Huguette snapped at her impatiently, "Seek him and find him." Then turning to Ren, she cried, "Montigny, you beast!" and with her hand on her dagger, made hotly for him.
Montigny, grinning like a delighted monkey, skipped for safety, dodging her around the table, while the others perceiving a victim in the bewildered old woman, joined hands in a ring and began dancing wildly around her, singing a ribald song. The old woman, as frightened and timid as a mouse might be if it suddenly found itself the centre of a circle of dancing cats, stood still.
At this moment the cellar door opened, and Franois reappeared, carrying in his arms a large jug of wine. Perceiving that the landlord still lay in his heavy sleep, he smiled delightedly to himself, closed the cellar door softly and placed his booty in the corner of the fireplace nearest to the settle. The noise of the tumult attracted him from his successful plunder, and looking up, he became aware of what was happening. In a second his contented mien changed, and dashing into the dancing crowd, he struck Jehan le Loup a heavy blow with the bunch of keys, which felled him to the ground like a log. In a moment the cluster of rascals dissipated, and Villon caught the old woman in his arms.
"Damn you, chubs!" he shouted at them. "It's my mother." Then as he drew the trembling old woman towards the fireplace, he whispered in her ears, "Don't be frightened, mammy, they meant no harm."
A certain hang-dog air of contrition was on the faces of most of the members of the gang as they stood apart and eyed the mother and son shame-facedly. Guy Tabarie, who had a wholesome dislike to quarrels, slipped quietly into the cool street to seek pleasure in some place where the atmosphere might be less stormy.
Robin Turgis wakened from his heavy sleep, clapped his hand instinctively to his girdle and found that his keys were missing.
"My keys! my keys!" he shouted—"where are my keys?" And then, catching sight of them where they lay by the prostrate form of Jehan le Loup, he rushed forward and secured them greedily.
By this time Jehan le Loup had recovered the senses which Villon's swinging blow had knocked out of him and was crawling slowly into a sitting posture. He glared ferociously at Master Franois and his evil right hand stole to the pommel of his dagger.
"You have cracked my crown, curse you," he grunted, and then swiftly sprang to his feet with the bare blade in his hand and rushed at his assailant. But Villon was too alert to be taken unawares. He had not time to draw his sword, but in a second he had snatched a spit from the fire and extending it scientifically kept Jehan le Loup at arm's length. Huguette seized Jehan by the dagger arm.
"She is his mother!" she said angrily. "You all had mothers, I suppose? Let him alone!"
Jehan le Loup unwillingly sheathed his weapon; Huguette dragged him back to the table; Villon replaced the spit, which had somewhat burned his fingers, and sat down by his mother's side on the settle, in peace.
"Did they frighten you, mammy?" he whispered. "But they meant no harm. Boys and girls, girls and boys."
The old woman put her arms tightly about him. Villon grimaced. Her loving touch was as painful as a hostile one to his bruised body, but he made no attempt to repress her embrace.
"Come home, Franois," she said. "Come home. Where have you been these three days?"
Villon caressed the old woman very tenderly, as he answered:
"Very busy, mammy—state secrets. Mum's the word. How did you find me out?"
"They told me at the Unicorn," the old woman said, "that I might find you here."
Villon made a gesture of contempt.
"Oh, the Unicorn is no longer fashionable. They want payment on the nail there, confound them! Besides, this is nearer the walls and we can hear the Burgundians shouting. It is as good as a relish with our wine."
Mother Villon shook her grey head sadly.
"Come away," she entreated. "You have had wine enough."
Villon contradicted her instantly.
"Never in my life, mammy. I have a fool's head and always get into my altitudes too soon."
Then, seeing the look of disappointment that made her grey old face look greyer still,—he added, "I cannot come home just now, mammy, but there is something I can do for you. Do you remember when I was a little child—"
Something in the words made him stop suddenly. The hideous contrast between the phrase and the place wherein he was, between the mother who fondled him and the wild men-savages and women-savages who were his daily friends and who were drinking and dicing behind him at the other side of the settle, came upon him like a great wave of pain and knocked the mirth out of him. He turned away from his mother and repeated to himself dismally, "God! when I was a little child!" The mother's pity, the mother's protection immediately asserted themselves.
"You were the prettiest child woman ever bore," she said, softly.
Villon turned towards her again, while he tried to wink the tears out of his eyes.
"You used to sing me to sleep," he said, and as he spoke he rocked her slowly backward and forward in his arms, while he crooned the words of that old nurse's song which has soothed so many generations of French children to sleep, "Do, do, l'enfant do, l'enfant dormira tantot."
"Well, mammy, your dutiful son has made a song for you to sing yourself to sleep with. I went to church the other day. Oh, on my honour, I did"—this was in reply to a startled look of surprise that flooded the old woman's face—"and a prayer came into my head—a prayer for you to say to our Lady."
The old woman kissed him fondly on the forehead.
"My love bird," she said, and as she spoke a boyish look that had long been absent from Villon's face came back to it for a moment.
"Here it is," he said. "Listen." And he whispered to her the verses he had made, while the old woman crossed herself reverentially.
"Lady of Heaven, Queen of Earth, Empress of Hell, I kneel and plead You pity, by the holy birth, The humblest Christian of the Creed; I cannot write; I cannot read; I am a woman poor and old, But in the Church, where I behold The gates of Paradise, I cry Woman to woman, make me bold In thy belief to live and die."
"There, mammy, there is a pretty prayer for you."
Mother Villon was dissolved in tears and sobbed on his shoulder.
"You should have been a good man," she said.
Villon stroked her hair very gently.
"We are as Heaven pleases, dear." He paused for a moment, then suddenly remembering the silver coin which he had confiscated from the king, he dipped his fingers into his pouch and produced it.
"Here is something for you, mammy," he said, and as the old woman, with a faint flush on her worn cheeks, seemed about to protest, he insisted. "Oh, yes. Take it, take it. It was honestly come by, and you will spend it more honestly than I should." He forced the coin into her lean, brown hand, and added, "Now run away, mammy, and pray yourself to sleep, You shall see me soon, I promise you."
He led her gently across the tavern floor to the door, which he opened for her. As she turned to go, she looked up to him and repeated two lines of his prayer:
"Woman to woman, make me bold In thy belief to live and die."
As the door closed and Villon turned to come back to his seat, Jehan le Loup, who had been eyeing him and who was eager to pay off the score of his cracked crown, rose to his feet, dragging Isabeau with him, and barred his passage.
"Kiss a young mouth for a change," he said, and thrust the girl against the poet. Villon brushed them both aside.
"Go to the devil," he said angrily, and passed them. Once again Jehan's hand sought his weapon and once again he was restrained.
"He is in one of his bad moods," said Isabeau. "Leave him to himself," and she drew her reluctant companion back to the table, while Villon seated himself in a corner of the settle, staring into the fire.
At the moment the tavern door was thrust open violently and Guy Tabarie rushed into the room, his great moon face sweating, his eyes bulging, his fringe of crimson locks flaming out from the eggshell dome of his bald head, his mighty belly swaying with a passion of excitement.
"Friends!" he shrieked, at the top of his voice, "there's a fight at Fat Margot's between two wenches. They are stripped to the waist and at it hammer and tongs. Come and see for the love of God!"
The whole band was afoot in an instant, clamantly agog. Guy Tabarie turned as he finished speaking and rushed through the open door into the shining moonlit street. The rest trailed after him, wandering stars in the tail of a dishonourable comet, shouting, screaming, laughing, pushing, panting, eager for the promised sport.
"I'll crown the victor!" cried Montigny as he ran and "I'll console the vanquished!" shouted Jehan le Loup, as he brought up the rear of the road and vanished, clattering, into the night. Only Huguette remained of all the fellowship, and she turned instinctively to Villon when he crouched over the dying fire.
"Will you come, Franois?" she whispered softly. Villon lifted his head for a moment from his hands to signify a refusal.
"Nay, I am reading."
Huguette blazed out at him a fierce "You lie!" which failed to move the poet from his melancholy resolve.
"A man may read without book," he said. "Go your ways, girl, and skelp both the hussies!" He drooped into a dejected heap again, oblivious of the girl, who looked at him half sadly, half angrily for an instant, and then disappeared in her turn into the causeway, calling upon her knavish heralds to wait for her.
Robin Turgis, shutting the door after her with a sigh of satisfaction, retired to his own quarters to seek sleep until custom should return. Louie and Tristan, deep in their cards, paid little heed to anything else.
"Your barber tarries," Tristan said, after a panse.
"The game makes amends," Louis answered.
"You are winning, sire," Tristan grunted. The king chirruped merrily.
"My grandsire will be remembered longer than most kings for the sake of these wasters and winners that they made to soothe his madness."
But even as he spoke his mirth faded, for a turn of Fortune gave Tristan an opportunity.
"My game, sire!" he said, and swept the stakes into his pocket.
The king fell into a frowning silence as Tristan dealt the cards again, and scrutinized his new hand with a sombre care, as if the fate of Empire depended upon it. Scarcely a sound disturbed the heavy quiet of the room. Master Franois Villon glooming in his settle corner, sucked a long noiseless draught from his stolen jug and meditated drearily. Between wine and weariness his head was beginning to swim. His head felt as heavy as lead and his brain as light and foolish as a wind-tumbled feather. Two women's faces danced before his eyes, one proud and beautiful and young, the other humble and pitiful and old, and he tried his best to shut both of them out of his senses. Vaguely he tried to shape a ballade, a noble ballade in honour of all things good to eat. He had got at least an excellent overword. "A dish of tripe's the best of all." He mouthed the line with a relish, but his eyes were seeing straws and his stubbled chin scraped his breast. There came a click at the latch, but he did not heed it. He would scarcely have heeded a Burgundian cannon shot; he had drifted into a lumpish doze. And yet the way of the world depended, for him, upon that lift of a latch.
THE COMING OF KATHERINE
The door opened and a woman entered the room, a woman closely muffled after the fashion adopted by discreet ladies when they walked abroad in Paris in the fifteenth century. She was followed by an armed serving-man to whom she turned and spoke in a whisper as she paused upon the threshold.
"You are sure this is the place?" she asked, and the man answered—
"Wait outside!" the muffled lady commanded, and the servant with an obeisance stepped back into the street. The woman looked cautiously about her, only her bright eye showing over the lifted fold of her cloak. Villon was hidden from her while he sat; there was no one in her view save the two men playing cards. She came cautiously forward and touched Tristan, who was nearest to her, on the shoulder. He swung round, with hooded face, to answer the challenge, and as he did so Louis took advantage of his turned back to examine Tristan's hand, which he had laid upon the table, and to substitute a card from his own hand for one of his adversary's.
"Has Master Franois Villon been here to-night?" the woman asked. Her voice was full and sweet, and Tristan knew it well though he listened unmovably. She had lowered her cloak enough to allow him a glimpse of a young, lovely face, but he needed no, glimpse to assure him.
"Yonder he squats by the hearth," he answered, masking his own voice with hoarseness and jerking his thumb towards the settle. The girl's eyes followed the signal and saw for the first time the huddled figure on the bench. "I thank you," she said simply, and moved away into the background, her eyes fixed on the crouching form, her fingers clasped nervously, waiting an impatient patience upon resolution.
Tristan leaned hurriedly over to the king.
"Zounds, sire! do you know who that was?"
Louis, smiling at his adopted cards, answered carelessly, "Some bonaroba who took you for a gull," but Tristan's nest words pricked him from his indifference.
"It was your majesty's kinswoman, the Lady Katherine de Vaucelles."
The king rose cautiously to his feet.
"Oh, ho, Oh, ho!" he chuckled. "Does lovely Katherine come to meet Thibaut?"
"She seeks Franois Villon, sire."
The king started.
"Is she the girl he spoke of? Do we catch her tripping?"
Louis looked at the motionless figure of the girl, then his gaze travelled rapidly around the room. Behind him was a doorway. Soundlessly he opened it, saw that it gave on to a dark passage, motioned Tristan through it, bade him in a whisper to wait in the darkness. As Tristan disappeared the girl seemed to make up her mind and moved slowly across the floor toward the dozing poet. The king watched her narrowly as he, too, began to move, skulking among the shadows along the wall. His goal was the distant space behind the settle, where his cunning mind discerned a good listening place—for to listen was Louis' passion. The king's cread was cat-quiet—the king's breath was mouse-still; for a moment he paused at the street-door as if about to pass out, but seeing that he was unnoticed he drifted unheeded through obscurity to his haven and nestled there just as the girl, bending forward, touched the sleeper firmly on the shoulders and then drew back, defiantly abiding by her temerity.
Villon moved uneasily, as if resenting the interruption to his slumbers that the firm touch had disturbed, and he grumbled sullenly, without looking up, "What is it?"
The woman bent towards him again and whispered "A word with you."
Villon rose wearily to his feet, and as he did so the woman drew back towards the open centre of the room, which now appeared to her to be empty. Her nerves were too highly strung to note anything surprising in the disappearance of the two visitors. If she thought of them at all it was only to be glad that they had gone their ways and left the place so lonely. Villon followed her almost unconsciously, too sleepy for wonder. Suddenly the woman threw off the folds that muffled her face and the vision that had haunted him flashed on his frightened eyes, the vision so proud, so beautiful and young. He crossed himself as he questioned in a voice that sounded strangely alien to him, "Are you real?"
"Do I look like a ghost?" the fair woman answered.
In an ecstasy of joy Villon fell on his knees as he seldom kneeled in prayer, while he gasped,
"If this be a dream, pray Heaven I may never wake."
The girl drew from her bosom a little piece of folded parchment and held it out towards him.
"You wrote me these verses. My elders tell me that poets say much and mean little; that their oaths are like gingerbread, as hot and sweet in the mouth and as easily swallowed. 'Are you such a one?"
Villon rose to his feet. He knew that this exquisite presence was flesh and biood; that her speech was human speech. He answered her very gravely—
"My words are life. I love you!"
"Just because I show a smooth face?"
A great wave of rapture swept over the poet's soul and his brain seemed as busy with words as a hive with bees. He spoke slowly like a man inspired.
"Because you are the loveliest she alive. If all my dreams of loveliness had been pieced together into one perfect woman she would have been like you. All my life I have read tales of love and tried to find their secret in the bright eyes about me—tried and failed. I might as well have been seeking for the Holy Grail. But when I saw you the old Heaven and the old Earth seemed to shrivel away and I knew what love might mean, and God-like desire and God-like surrender. The world is changed by; your coming, all sweet tastes and fair colours and soft sounds have something of you in them. I eat and drink, I see and hear in your honour. The people in the street are blessed because you have passed among them. That stone on the ground is sacred, for your foot has touched it; or the dusty booth at the corner, which your sleeve has brushed in passing. I love you! All philosophy, all wisdom, religion, honour, manhood, hope, beauty lie in those words—I love you!"
The girl looked at him with wide eyes, quite fearless, much astonished, as a brave maid might look at some wild beast of the woods that came in her way. But the purport of his words seemed to please her, for she answered him quickly and readily.
"Well, I have come to you to put your protestations to the proof. If you meant every word you said, every syllable, every letter, you can serve me well. If not, good-night and good-bye."
And with these words she moved a little as if she were ready to say farewell to him then and there. Villon put forward an appealing hand that stayed her.
"I wrote with my heart's blood," he protested, and even a green girl could not fail to read the truth in his voice. Now she came close to him, speaking very low but very distinctly.
"Listen. I am one of the Queen's ladies; Thibaut d'Aussigny, the Grand Constable of France, loves me a little and my broad lands much. He wills that I should marry him. He tried to force me to his will, to shame me to his pleasure, and so I hate him, and so should you, for it was he who gave you your beating."
Villon, who had been listening to her in wonder, started as if he had been struck anew.
"Oh, it was he?" he interrupted. The girl came a little closer, became a little more confidential.
"He gave your rhymes to me and told me how you had been treated. When I read them I said—here, if a poet speaks truth, is the one man in France who can help me."
Villon drew himself back with a little shiver of intelligence. The lumes of wine, the fumes of wonder were drifting away from him, leaving him face to face with naked, amazing reality.
"Why not your yellow-haired, pink-faced lover?" he asked. Katherine frowned disdain.
"Noel le Jolys is a man many women might love, but I love no man; I only hate Thibaut d'Aussigny. Do you understand?"
"I begin to understand," Villon answered, sadly.
The girl came nearer to Villon. Her face was very pale in the dim light, and a fleeting image of the moon in clouds teased his fancy. Her lips were as red, he thought, as the ruby of a bishop's ring, and her eyes out-starred Venus. So it was he who trembled and not the maiden who was saying strange unmaiden-like words in a clear, steel-like whisper.
"Kill Thibaut d'Aussigny. You are a skillful swordsman, they say. You are little better than an outlaw. You say you love me more than life. Kill Thibaut d'Aussigny!"
Villon looked at her queerly. To save his life he could not keep his face from quivering. He was eating his heart and it tasted very bitter, and his own voice sounded far away to him, like a voice heard in a dream.
"So that you and Noel what's his name may live happily ever after?"
Katherine drew back from him, a little scorn in her eyes and on her lips.
"Are you less eager to serve me than you were?"
The question struck him in the breast like the stroke of a sword. He remembered his golden vows and his golden verses, and sickened at his shadow of disloyal doubt and anger.
"No, by Heaven, but I've been dozing and dreaming, and I've got to rub the sleep out of my eyes and the dream out of my heart. Tell me how to serve you."
She was reassured on the instant and neared him again confidently.
"Thibaut d'Aussigny comes here to-night. He has come here before in disguise, for I have had him followed. I think he means to betray the king to Burgundy, so you will serve France as well as me. How do such men as you kill each other?"
Villon looked at her ironically out of the corner of his eyes; answered her ironically out of the corner of his mouth. He saw himself as she saw him, and was sadly entertained at the sight.
"Generally in a drunken scuffle. Will you wait here till he comes, pretty lady, for I never saw him? Then leave the rest to me."
Something in his voice, though it was firm and clear, seemed to touch the girl's ear more than any word he had yet uttered. A new curiosity seemed to lurk in her eyes and there was almost a sound of pity in her speech.
"You love me very much?" she asked softly. Villon drew himself up proudly and answered her proudly.
"With all the meaning that the word can have in Paradise."
A faint shade of colour came into the woman's pale, pure cheeks.
"You didn't expect to be taken at your word?"
Villon smiled brightly and his eyes were dancing, though his heart was heavy enough.
"I didn't hope to be, I will try to be worthy of the honour."
The girl's eyes shone with wonder.
"You love and laugh in the same breath," she asserted.
Villon made a deprecatory gesture with his hands, half in protest, half in approval.
"That is my philosophy."
This view of life seemed to astonish her not a little. She caught her breath for a moment, then suddenly glided close to him.
"If you wish," she said in an even whisper, "you may kiss me once."
All the blood in the man's heart seemed to turn to fire and flame into his face as he turned towards her, making as if he would take her face in his hands and seal his soul upon her mouth. Then he sharply flung himself away from her.
"Nay, I can fight and if needs must die in your quarrel, but if once I touched your lips—that would make life too sweet to adventure."
The woman's face had flushed a little at her offer: it now paled again.
"As you will," she said, and as she spoke there came the noise of shouting, singing and trampling feet outside. The poet dropped in a moment from the dizzy pinnacle of dreamland to the calm valley of a commonplace world.
"These are my friends returning," he said. "They mustn't see you. Come this way." As he spoke he caught her hand and drew her across the room to the stairs that led to the upper gallery. On the gallery he bade her wait.
"Here you can see without being seen. When he comes, show him to me. Then you can reach the street by this passage."
Even as he spoke the main door was dashed open and the wild rout foamed into the room, bubbling with exhilaration, Huguette leaping like a bubble on the eddies of their enthusiasm. Louis and Tristan took advantage of the confusion to emerge from their hiding places and resume their seats at their table,
"That was rare sport while it lasted," Colin shouted.
"It didn't last long enough," Jehan yelled.
"Things took a different turn when you came, Abbess," Montigny said, patting the girl on the back approvingly. Huguette shook her long hair out of her eyes and laughed as she turned down her rolled-up sleeves.
"I did as Franois bade me and basted both the jades. Wine, landlord, wine! My arms ache."
Robin Turgis was prompt; flagons and pipkins rattled as the men and women gathered round their table and Renwed their drinking and dicing with fresh zest from the scuffle they had just witnessed. Guy Tabarie laughed one of his long fat laughs as he lingered over memory's picture of the way Huguette had trussed and trounced each of the amazons. "Lord, how they squeaked and wriggled!" he said unctuously.
Louis whispered to his companion.
"Our mad poet may do me a good turn, Gossip Tristan."
Even as he spoke the inn door opened and a man entered—a small man, plainly clad, with his hood about his face. He glanced about him anxiously till he caught sight of Louis and Tristan, for whom he made immediately. Villon, craning over the balustrade, saw him and touched the girl on the arm to call her attention to the new-comer.
"Is that he?" he whispered. The girl shook her head.
"No, no. Thibaut is a big man. Yet that figure seems familiar."
The stranger came to the table and stooped between Louis and Tristan. Louis looked up and grinned recognition of his barber, Olivier le Dain.
"He is coming, sire," Olivier said.
"You are sure?"
"We dogged his footsteps all the way, till I slipped ahead. Here he comes!"
With finger on lip Olivier glided through the door behind which Tristan had been concealed a few moments before. The king rubbed his hands and chuckled. Even Tristan looked pleased.
Once again the door swung on its hinges admitting a very tall, powerful man, dressed like a common soldier, his brawny bulk panoplied in steel and leather. He glanced about him as he entered, exchanged looks with Ren de Montigny and came down to the settle, where he flung his vast body with a clatter while he called to the landlord in a bull's bellow to bring him some wine.
Katherine leaning and looking gave a little gasp. "That is he!" she breathed into Villon's ear. Villon gave an involuntary sigh, partly indeed of satisfaction at the thought that his quarry was before him, a very vast and royal stag for a hunter's hand to threaten, but partly too of exquisite regret. It had been very sweet to crouch there in the darkness of the stairway so close to the one fair woman of all the world, to feel her breath upon his cheek, almost to hear her heart-beats, to know that once if only for once they were alone together and allied in a common purpose, to feel the touch of her soft gown, to know that if he chose he could touch her hair with his outstretched hand. Those seconds of strange intimacy seemed to be worth all the rest of his life—and now they had come to an end. Now he had to show that he deserved them. "Good," he said, and leaving her side he softly descended the stairs, crept cat-foot across the tavern floor and insinuated himself dexterously into the society of his friends, who were by this time far too mad and merry to show any surprise at his sudden re-appearance, or to question whence he came. Only one of the fellowship was away from the board—Ren de Montigny, who had risen as soon as the soldier had taken his seat by the fireplace, and had come down to greet him in a seemingly careless, off-hand fashion. Villon dexterously moving from friend to friend managed to niche himself by the back of the settle where he could catch some of the words that passed between Montigny and the stranger, whose meeting was also the subject of unsuspected scrutiny on the part of the unassuming burgesses who sat apart and to whom no one now gave heed.
"A fine evening, friend," Montigny said affably.
"Pretty fine for the time of year," the soldier answered. "How is your garden, friend?"
Montigny smiled whimsically.
"Very salubrious, if it were not for the shooting stars."
Then as the soldier stared at him he hastened to explain.
"My quip. The shooting star was a Burgundian arrow a cloth-yard long which came winging its way over the walls at noon and made itself at home in my garden. Here is what the arrow carried."
He pulled from his pouch a small piece of parchment folded and sealed, and handed it to the seeming soldier. The disguised constable took the missive and scanned it narrowly.
"The seal has not been tampered with," he said to himself. Ren caught him up with a noble gesture of indignation.
"I never read other people's letters," he protested.
Thibaut shrugged his shoulders.
"It would have profited you little if you had," he said, as he broke the seal and turning aside stooped a little to read by the faint fire light what the letter said. It was couched in words that seemed commonplace enough, but Thibaut knew their secret meaning, knew that the Duke of Burgundy would do all that he asked, give him a duchy, give him the girl he coveted, all that he might ask for or lust for if he would only play the traitor and deliver Louis into the Duke of Burgundy's hands. As this was precisely what Thibaut was resolved to do, a pleased smile played over his lips as he tossed the parchment into the glowing ashes and watched it wither into nothingness. He turned to Montigny, who was watching him attentively.
"Can you command some safe rogues of your kidney who think better of Burgundian gold than of the fool on the throne?"
Montigny answered him behind his hand. "Aye. I know of half a dozen stout lads who would pilfer the king from his palace of the Louvre if they were paid well enough for the job," and he jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of his carousing comrades. Thibaut nodded approval. He thrust some gold into Montigny's ready palm, whispered to him to meet him again to-morrow, and as Montigny rejoined his friends he turned to leave the tavern.
To his surprise he found himself confronted by Villon, who feigning intoxication barred his passage with an air of great hilarity. "You walk abroad late, honest soldier," he hiccoughed.
"That's my business," Thibaut answered, trying to pass, but Villon still delayed him.
"Don't be testy. Come and crack a bottle."
"I've had enough, and you've had more than enough," Thibaut growled. "Go to bed!"
Villon's false good humour changed in a clap.
"You're a damned uncivil fellow, soldier, and don't know how to treat a gentleman when you see one."
Thibaut began to lose patience.
"Get out of the way!" he said, and gave Villon a little push with his open hand that made him stagger. Villon's voice rose to a yell.
"I will not get out of the way! How do I know you are an honest soldier? How do I know that you are a true man?"
As Villon's voice rose the altercation attracted the attention of the revellers. Montigny glided to Villon's side and whispered him.
"Let him alone, Franois; he's not what he seems."
"Seems! Who cares what he seems?" Villon shouted. "It's what he is I want to know. Perhaps he's not an honest soldier at all. Perhap's he's a damned Burgundian spy!"
Thibaut lifted his hand to crush Villon, but the poet's naked dagger menaced him and he paused.
"Fling this drunken dog into the street," he commanded angrily. Villon's friends snapped at him furiously. Villon flung back the phrase.
"Drunken dog, indeed! You are a lying, ill-favoured knave! Keep the door, friends, this rogue has insulted me. Pluck out your iron, soldier!"
In a moment the whole pack were between Thibaut and the door, every woman a fury, every man a fighter, every man with the exception of Ren de Montigny, who, dexterously disentangling himself from the mass of his companions, made for the side door and slipped out of it unheeded in the confusion. It was his intention to alarm the watch and intervene for the protection of his powerful patron, and with this purpose in his mind he disappeared into the darkness of the street and ran as fast as his legs could carry him.
In the meantime the quarrel at the Fircone raged hotter. Thibaut, glaring at his enemies as a bull might glare at barking dogs, asked savagely of the poet who was brandishing his sword:
"Who the devil are you?"
Villon flung has head back defiantly and flourished his sword.
"I am Franois Villon, and my sword is as good as another man's."
The moment the name fell on Thibaut's ears the giant gave a giant's laugh.
"Are you Franois Villon?" he thundered. "Lend me a cudgel, some one," and he looked around as if seeking for the weapon he asked for..Villon snatched up a mug and flung the heel taps in the soldier's face, spotting his cheeks with drops of crimson that trickled on to his breast plate. With a choking cry of rage Thibaut dragged his sword into the air.
"You fool," he hissed, "I'll kill you!"
"We shall see," Villon answered gallantly, as he stood on guard alert and wary.
For a moment the he-rascals and she-rascals held their breath. The great figure in the shining steel seemed so to dominate the slight frame of their favourite that anything like an equal contest between the two men seemed little less than ridiculous. What skill of Villon's could hope to avail against the mighty sweep of that huge soldier's weapon? Suddenly the swift spirit of Huguette solved the problem. Springing forward with the delicate agility of a young panther, she poised, opinionative, between the opponents.
"Fair play!" she screamed. "This is David and Goliath," and as she spoke she pointed with one hand at Villon while with the other she struck with her open palm a ringing blow on the cuirass of Villon's antagonist. "Let them fight it out with sword and lantern in the dark."
A loud shout of applause greeted the girl's suggestion. That fantastic form of duello was not unfamiliar to the free companions of the Court of Miracles, and Villon himself, eager as he was for the combat, was keen enough to see how well this way might work for the surety of his purpose. Skill, inches, tricks of fence, all things were equal when men fought as shadows in shadowland.
"What do you say, Goliath?" he laughed, and the grim face of Thibaut smiled responsive.
"As you please," he said, serenely confident in his strength and length of arm. "It is all one to me." Then suddenly looking round on the leering, sullen faces about him, a wolfish girdle of ferocity, he caught back his agreement and held it for a moment. "On this condition," he added. "When there is an end of you, there is an end of the quarrel. Your friends here must agree to that."
Villon agreed on the instant. He was all for ridding the world of Thibaut, but he wanted to do it himself for the sake of the white girl crouching on the stairway.
"I promise," he said, "for myself and for them," and turning to the girl, he insisted, "Promise, Huguette; swear it!"