IN KINGS' BYWAYS
BY STANLEY J. WEYMAN AUTHOR OF "A GENTLEMAN OF FRANCE," "THE CASTLE INN," "COUNT HANNIBAL," ETC.
LONGMANS, GREEN, AND CO. 91 AND 93 FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK 1902
COPYRIGHT, 1902, BY STANLEY J. WEYMAN
All rights reserved.
* * * * *
BY STANLEY J. WEYMAN
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* * * * *
CRILLON'S STAKE, 51
FOR THE CAUSE, 86
THE KING'S STRATAGEM, 131
THE HOUSE ON THE WALL, 152
HUNT THE OWLER, 177
THE TWO PAGES, 194
THE DIARY OF A STATESMAN
EPISODE OF THE FOWL IN THE POT, 213
EPISODE OF THE BOXWOOD FIRE, 238
EPISODE OF THE SNOWBALL, 266
A DAUGHTER OF THE GIRONDE, 295
IN THE NAME OF THE LAW, 329
IN KINGS' BYWAYS
It was about a month after my marriage—and third clerk to the most noble the Bishop of Beauvais, and even admitted on occasions to write in his presence and prepare his minutes, who should marry if I might not?—it was about a month after my marriage, I say, that the thunderbolt, to which I have referred, fell and shattered my fortunes. I rose one morning—they were firing guns for the victory of Rocroy, I remember, so that it must have been eight weeks or more after the death of the late king, and the glorious rising of the Sun of France—and who as happy as I? A summer morning, Monsieur, and bright, and I had all I wished. The river as it sparkled and rippled against the piers of the Pont Neuf far below, the wet roofs that twinkled under our garret window, were not more brilliant than my lord the Bishop's fortunes: and as is the squirrel so is the tail. Of a certainty, I was happy that morning. I thought of the little hut under the pine wood at Gabas in Bearn, where I was born, and of my father cobbling by the unglazed window, his nightcap on his bald head, and his face plaistered where the sherd had slipped; and I puffed out my cheeks to think that I had climbed so high. High? How high might not a man climb, who had married the daughter of the Queen's under-porter, and had sometimes the ear of my lord, the Queen's minister—my lord of Beauvais in whom all men saw the coming master of France! my lord whose stately presence beamed on a world still chilled by the dead hand of Richelieu!
But that morning, that very morning, I was to learn that who climbs may fall. I went below at the usual hour; at the usual hour Monseigneur left, attended, for the Council; presently all the house was in an uproar. My lord had returned, and called for Prosper. I fancied even then that I caught something ominous in the sound of my name as it passed from lip to lip; and nervously I made all haste to the chamber. But fast as I went I did not go fast enough; one thrust me on this side, another on that. The steward cursed me as he handed me on to the head-clerk, who stormed at me; while the secretary waited for me at the door, and, seizing me by the neck, ran me into the room. "In, rascal, in!" he growled in my ear, "and I hope your skin may pay for it!"
Naturally by this time I was quaking: and Monseigneur's looks finished me. He stood in the middle of the chamber, his plump handsome face pale and sullen. And as he scowled at me, "Yes!" he said curtly, "that is the fellow. What does he say?"
"Speak!" the head-clerk cried, seizing me by the ear and twisting it until I fell on my knees. "Imbecile! But it is likely enough he did it on purpose."
"Ay, and was bribed!" said the secretary.
"He should be hung up," the steward cried, truculently, "before he does further mischief! And if my lord will give the word——"
"Silence!" the Bishop said, with a dark glance at me. "What does he plead?"
The head-clerk twisted my ear until I screamed. "Ingrate!" he cried. "Do you hear his Grace speak to you? Answer him aloud!"
"My lord," I cried piteously, "I do not know of what I am accused. And besides, I have done nothing! Nothing!"
"Nothing!" half a dozen echoed. "Nothing!" the head-clerk added brutally. "Nothing, and you add a cipher to the census of Paris! Nothing, and your lying pen led my lord to state the population to be five millions instead of five hundred thousand! Nothing, and you sent his Grace's Highness to the Council to be corrected by low clerks and people, and made a laughing-stock for the Cardinal, and——"
"Silence!" said the Bishop, fiercely. "Enough! Take him away, and——"
"Hang him!" cried the steward.
"No, fool, but have him to the courtyard, and let the grooms flog him through the gates. And have a care you," he continued, addressing me, "that I do not see your face again or it will be worse for you!"
I flung myself down and would have appealed against the sentence, but the Bishop, who had suffered at the Council and whose ears still burned, was pitiless. Before I could utter three words a dozen officious hands plucked me up and thrust me to the door. Outside worse things awaited me. A shower of kicks and cuffs and blows fell upon me; vainly struggling and shrieking, and seeking still to gain his lordship's ear, I was hustled along the passage to the courtyard, and there dragged amid jeers and laughter to the fountain, and brutally flung in. When I scrambled out, they thrust me back again and again: until, almost dead with cold and rage, I was at last permitted to escape, only to be hunted round the yard with stirrup-leathers that cut like knives, and drew a scream at every stroke. I doubled like a hare; more than once I knocked half a dozen down; but I was fast growing exhausted, when some one more prudent or less cruel than his fellows, opened the gates before me, and I darted into the street.
I was sobbing with rage and pain, dripping, ragged, and barefoot; for some saving rogue had prudently drawn off my shoes in the scuffle. It was a wonder that I was not fallen upon and chased through the streets. Fortunately in the street opposite my lord's gates opened the mouth of a little alley. I plunged into it, and in the first dark corner dropped exhausted and lay sobbing and weeping on a heap of refuse. I who had risen so happily a few hours before! I who had climbed so high! I who had a wife new-married in my garret at home!
I do not know how long I lay there, now cursing the jealousy of the clerks, who would have flayed me to save themselves, and now the cruelty of the grooms who thought it fine sport to whip a scholar. But the first tempest of passion had spent itself, when a woman—not the first whom my plight had attracted, but the others had merely shrugged their shoulders and passed on—paused before me. "What a white skin!" she cried, making great eyes at me; and they had cut my clothes so that I was half bare to her. And then, "You are not a street-prowler. How come you here, my lad, in that guise?"
I was silent, and pretended to be sullen, being ashamed to meet her gaze.
She stood a moment staring at me curiously. Then, "Better go home," she said, shaking her head sedately, "or those who have robbed you may end by worse. I doubt not this is what comes of raking and night-work. Go home, my lad," she repeated, and went on her way.
Home! The word raised new thoughts, new hopes, new passions. I scrambled to my feet. I had a home—the Bishop might deprive me of it: but I had also a wife, from whom God only could separate me. I felt a sudden fire run through me at the thought of her, and of all I had suffered since I left her arms: and with new boldness I turned, and sore and aching as I was, I stumbled back to the place of my shame.
The steward and two or three of his underlings were standing in the gateway, and saw me approach; and began to jeer. The high grey front of Monseigneur's hotel, three sides of a square, towered up behind them; the steward in the opening sprawled his feet apart and set his hands to his stout sides, and jeered at me. "Ha! ha! Here is the lame leper from the Cour des Miracles!" he cried. "Have a care or he will give you the itch!"
"Good sir, the swill-tub is open," cried another, mocking me. "Help yourself!"
A third spat at me and bade me begone for a pig. The passers—there were always a knot of gazers opposite my lord of Beauvais' palace in those days, when we had the Queen's ear and bade fair to succeed Richelieu—stayed to stare.
"I want my goods," I said, trembling.
"Your goods!" the steward answered, swelling out his brawny chest, and smiling at me over it. "Your goods, indeed! Begone, and be thankful you have escaped so well."
"Give me my things—from my room," I said stubbornly; and I tried to enter. "They are my own!"
He moved sideways so as to block the passage. "Your goods? They are Monseigneur's," he said.
"My wife, then!"
He winked, the great beast. "Your wife?" he said. "Well, true; she is not Monseigneur's. But she will do for me." And with a coarse laugh he winked again at the crowd.
At that the pent-up rage which I had so long stemmed broke out. He stood a head taller than I, and a foot wider; but with a scream I sprang at his throat, and by the very surprise of the attack and his unwieldiness, I got him down and beat his face with my fists. His fellows, as soon as they recovered from their astonishment, tore me off, showing me no mercy. But by that time I had so marked him that the blood poured down his fat cheeks. He scrambled to his feet, panting and furious, his oaths tripping over one another.
"To the Chatelet with him!" he cried, spitting out a tooth and staring at me through the mud on his face. "He shall swing for this! He tried to break in. I call you to witness he tried to break in!"
"Ay, to the Chatelet! To the Chatelet!" cried the crowd, siding with the stronger party. He was my lord of Beauvais' steward; I was a gutter-snipe and dangerous. A dozen hands held me tightly; yet not so tightly, but that, a coach passing at that moment and driving us all to the wall, I managed by a jerk—I was desperate by this time, and savage as a wild-cat—to snatch myself loose. In a second I was speeding down the Rue Bons Enfants with the hue and cry behind me.
I have said, I was desperate. In an hour the world was changed for me. In an hour I had broken with every tradition of safe and modest and clerkly life; and from a sleek scribe was become a ragged outlaw flying through the streets. I saw the gallows, I felt the lash sink like molten lead into the quivering back, still bleeding from the stirrup-leathers: I forgot all but the danger. I lived only in my feet, and with them made superhuman efforts. Fortunately the light was failing, and in the dusk I distanced the pack by a dozen yards. I passed the corner of the Palais Royal so swiftly that the Queen's Guards, though they ran out at the alarm, were too late to intercept me. Thence I turned instinctively to the left, and with the cry of pursuit in my ears strained towards the old bridge, intending to cross to the Cite, where I knew all the lanes and byways. But the bridge was alarmed, the Chatelet seemed to yawn for me—they were just lighting the brazier in front of the gloomy pile—and doubling back, while the air roared with shouts of warning and cries of "Stop thief! Stop thief!"—I evaded my pursuers, and sped up the narrow Rue Troussevache, with the hue and cry hard on my heels.
I had no plan now, no aim; only terror added wings to my feet. The end of that street gained I darted blindly down another, and yet another; with straining chest, and legs that began to fail, and always in my ears the yells that rose round me as fresh pursuers joined in the chase. Still I kept ahead, I was even gaining; with night thickening, I might hope to escape, if I could baffle those who from time to time—but in a half-hearted way, not knowing if I were armed—made an attempt to stop me or trip me up.
Suddenly turning a corner—I had gained a quiet part where blind walls lined an alley—I discovered a man running before me. At the same instant the posse in pursuit quickened their pace in a last effort; I, in answer, put forth my last strength, and in a dozen paces I came up with the man. He turned to me, our eyes met as we ran abreast; desperate myself, I read equal terror in his look, and before I could think what it might mean, he bent himself sideways as he ran, and with a singular movement flung a parcel he carried into my arms. Then wheeling abruptly he plunged into a side-lane on his left.
It was done in a moment. Instinctively I caught the burden: but the impetus with which he had passed it to me, sent me reeling to the right, and the lane being narrow, I fell against the wall before I could steady myself. As luck would have it, that which should have destroyed me, was my salvation; I struck the wall where a door broke it, the door, lightly latched, flew open under the impact, I fell inwards. I alighted, in darkness, on my hands and knees, heard the stifled yelp of a dog, and in a second, though I could see nothing, I was up and had the door closed behind me.
Then I listened. Panting and breathless, I heard the hunt go raving through the lane, and the noise die in the distance; until only the beating of my heart broke the close silence of the darkness in which I stood. When this had lasted a minute or two, I began to peer and wonder where I was; and remembering the dog I had heard, I moved stealthily to find the latch, and escape. As I did so, the bundle, to which through all I had clung—instinctively, for I had not thought of it—moved in my arms.
I almost dropped it; then I held it from me with a swift movement of repulsion. It stirred again, it was warm. In a moment the truth flashed upon me. It was a child!
Burning hot as I had been before, the sweat rose on me at the thought. For I saw again the man's face of terror, and I guessed that he had stolen the child, and I feared the worst. He had mistaken the rabble hooting at my heels for the avengers of blood, and had been only too thankful to rid himself of the damning fact, and escape.
And now I had it, and had as much, or more, to fear. For an instant the impulse to lay the parcel down, and glide out, and so be clear of it, was strong upon me. And that I think is what the ordinary clerk, being no hero, nor bred like a soldier to risk his life, would have done. But for one thing, I was desperate. I knew not, after this, whither to go or where to save myself. For another thing my clerk's wits were already busy, showing me how with luck I might use the occasion and avoid the risk; how with luck I might discover the parents and without suffering for the theft, restore the child. Beyond that I saw an opening vista of pardon, employment and reward.
Suddenly, the dog whined again, close to me; and that decided me. I had found the latch by this time, and warily I drew the door open. In a moment I was in the lane, looking up and down. I saw nothing to alarm me; darkness had completely fallen, no one was moving, the neighbourhood seemed to be of the quietest. I made up my mind to take the bold course: to return at all hazards to the Rue St. Honore, seek my father-in-law at the gates of the Palais Royal—where he had the night turn—and throw the child and myself on his protection.
Without doubt it was the wisest course I could adopt. In those days the streets of Paris, even in the district of the Louvre and Palais Royal, were ill-lighted; a network of lanes and dark courts encroached on the most fashionable parts, and favoured secret access to them, and I foresaw no great difficulty, short of the moment when I must appear in the lighted lodge and exhibit my rags. But my evil star was still above the horizon. I had scarcely reached the end of the lane; I was still hesitating there, uncertain which way to turn for the shortest course, when a babel of voices broke on my ear, lights swept round a distant corner, and I found myself threatened by a new danger. I did not wait to consider. These people, with their torches and weapons, might have naught to do with me. But my nerves were shaken, the streets of Paris were full of terrors, every corner had a gallows for me—and I turned and, fleeing back the way I had come, I made a hurried effort to find the house which had sheltered me before. Failing, in one or two trials, and seeing that the lights were steadily coming on that way, and that in a moment I must be discovered, I sprang across the way, and dived into the side-lane by which the child-stealer had vanished.
I had not taken ten steps before some object, unseen in the darkness, tripped me up, and I fell headlong on the stones. In the fall my burden rolled from my arms; instantly it was snatched up by a dark figure, which rose as by magic beside me, and was gone into the gloom almost as quickly. I got up gasping and limping, and flung a curse after the man; but the lights already shone on the mouth of the lane in which I stood, and I had no time to lose if I would not be detected. I set off running down the passage, turned to the left at the end, and along a second lane, thence passed into another and a wider road; nor did I stop until I had left all signs and sounds of pursuit far behind me.
The place in which I came to a stand at last—too weak to run any farther—was a piece of waste land, in the northern suburbs of the city. High up on the left I could discern a light or two, piercing the gloom of the sky; and I knew they shone from the wind-mills of Montmartre. In every other direction lay darkness; desolation swept by the night wind; silence broken only by the dismal howling of far-off watch-dogs. I might have been ten miles from Paris: even as I was a thousand miles from the man who had risen so happily that morning.
For very misery I sobbed aloud. I did not know exactly where I was; nor had I known, had I the strength to return. Excitement had carried me far, but suddenly I felt the weakness of exhaustion, and sick and aching I craved only a hole in which to lie down and die. Fortunately at this moment I met the wind, and caught the scent of new-mown hay: stumbling forward a few steps with such strength as remained, I made out a low building looming through the night. I staggered to it; I discovered that it was a shed; and entering with my hands extended, I felt the hay under my feet. With a sob of thankfulness I took two steps forward and sank down; but instead of the soft couch I expected, I fell on the angular body of a man, who with a savage curse rose and flung me off.
This at another time would have scared me to death; but I was so far gone in wretchedness that I felt no fear and little surprise. I rolled away without a word, and curling myself up at a distance of a few feet from my fellow-lodger, fell in a minute fast asleep.
When I awoke, daylight, though the sun was not up, was beginning to creep into the shed. I turned, every bone in my body ached: the weals of the stirrup-leathers smarted and burned. I remembered yesterday's doings, and groaned. Presently the hay beside me rustled, and over the shoulder of the mass against which I lay I made out the face of a man, peering curiously at me. I had not yet broken with every habit of suspicion, nor could in a moment recollect that I had nothing but rags to lose; and I gazed back spellbound. In silence which neither broke by so much as a movement we waited gazing into one another's eyes; while the light in the low-roofed hovel grew and grew, and minute by minute brought out more clearly the other's features.
At length I knew him, and almost at the same moment he recognized me; uttering an oath of rage, he rose up as if to spring at my throat. But either because I did not recoil—being too deep-set in the hay to move—or for some other reason, he only shook his claw-like fingers at me, and held off. "Where is it, you dog?" he cried, finding his voice with an effort. "Speak, or I will have your throat slit. Speak; do you hear? What have you done with it?"
He was the man who had passed the child to me! I watched him heedfully, and after a moment's hesitation I told him that it had been taken from me, and I told him when and where.
"And you don't know the man who took it?" he screamed.
"Not from Adam," I said. "It was dark."
In his disappointment and rage, at receiving the answer, I thought again that he would fall upon me: but he only choked and swore, and then stood scowling, the picture of despair. Until, some new thought pricking him, he threw up his arms and cried out afresh. "Oh, mon dieu, what a fool I was!" he moaned. "What a craven I was! I had a fortune in my hands, and, fool that I was, I threw it away!"
I thought bitterly of my own case—I was not much afraid of him now, for I began to think that I understood him. "So had I, yesterday morning," I said, "a fortune. You are in no worse case than others."
"Yesterday morning!" he exclaimed. "No, last night. Then, if you like, you had. But yesterday morning? Fortune and you, scarecrow? Go hang yourself."
He looked gloomily at me for a moment with his arms crossed on his chest, and his face darkly set. Then "Who are you?" he asked.
I told him. When he learned that the rabble that had alarmed him, had in fact been pursuing me—so that his fright had been groundless—he broke into fresh execrations: and these so violent that I began to feel a sort of contempt for him, and even plucked up spirit to tell him that look as disdainfully as he might at me, he seemed to be in no better case.
He looked at me askance at that. "Ay, as it turns out," he said grimly. "In worse case, if you please. But see the difference, idiot. You are a poor fool beaten from pillar to post; at all men's mercy, and naught to get by it; while I played for a great stake. I have lost, it is true! I have lost!" he continued, his voice rising almost to a yell, "and we are both in the gutter. But if I had won—if I had won, man——"
He did not finish the sentence but flung himself down on his face in the hay, and bit and tore it in his passion. A moment I viewed him with contempt, and thought him a poor creature for a villain. Then the skirt of his coat, curling over as he grovelled and writhed, disclosed something that turned my thoughts into another channel. Crushed under his leather girdle was a little cape, or a garment of that kind, of velvet so lustrous that it shone in the dark place where I saw it, as the eyes shine in a toad. Nor it only: before he rolled over and hid it again, I espied embroidered on one corner of the velvet a stiff gold crown!
It was with difficulty that I repressed a cry. Cold, damp, aching, I felt the heat run through me like wine. A crown! A little purple cape! And taken beyond doubt from the infant he had stolen last night! Then last night—last night I had carried the King! I had carried the King of France in my arms.
I no longer found it hard to understand the man's terror of yesterday; or his grief and despair of this morning. He had indeed played for a great stake; he had risked torture and the wheel; death in its most horrible form. And that for which he had risked so much he had lost!—lost!
I looked at him with new eyes, and a sort of wonder: and had scarcely time to compose my face, when, the paroxysm of his fury spent, he rose, and looking at me askance, to see how I took his actions, he asked me sullenly whither I was going.
"To Monseigneur's," I said cunningly: had I answered, "To the Palais Royal," he would have suspected me.
"To the Bishop's?"
"To be beaten again?" he sneered.
I said nothing to that, but asked him whither he was going.
"God knows," he said. "God knows!"
But when I went out, he accompanied me; and we slunk silently, like the pair of night-birds we were, through lanes and alleys until we were fairly in town again. By that time the sun was up and the market people were beginning to enter the city. Here and there eyes took curious note of my disorder: and thinking of the company I was in, I trembled, and wondered that the alarm was not abroad and the bells proclaiming us from every tower. I was more than content, therefore, when my companion at the back of the Temple halted before a small door in a blind wall. Over against it stood another small door in the opposite wall.
"Do you stay here?" I said.
He swore churlishly. "What is that to you?" he said, looking up and down. "Go your way, idiot."
I was glad to affect a like ill-humour, shrugged my shoulders, and lounged on without looking back. But my brain was on fire. The King! The four-year-old King! What was I to do? To whom to go with my knowledge? And then—even then, while I paused hesitating, I heard steps running behind me, and I turned to find him at my elbow. His face was pale, but his eyes burned with eagerness, and his whole demeanour was changed.
"Stay!" he cried panting; and then seizing me peremptorily by the breast of my shirt, "the man who tripped you up, fellow—you did not see him?"
"It was dark," I answered curtly. "I told you I did not know him from Adam."
"But had he—" he gasped, "you heard him run away—was he lame?"
I could not repress an exclamation. "Par dieu!" I said. "Yes, I had forgotten that. I think he was. I remember I heard his foot go cluck—clack, cluck—clack as he ran."
His face became burning red, and he staggered. If ever man was near dying from blood in his head, it was that man at that moment! But after a while he drew a long breath, and got the better of it, nodded to me, and turned away. I marked, however—for I stood a moment, watching—that he did not go back to the door at which I had left him: but after looking round once and espying me standing, he took a lane on the right and disappeared.
But I knew or thought that I knew all now; and the moment he was out of sight, I set off towards the Palais Royal like a hound let loose, heeding neither those against whom I bumped in the straiter ways, nor the danger I ran of recognition, nor the miserable aspect I wore in my rags. I forgot all, save my news, even my own wretchedness; and never halted or stayed to take breath until I crept panting into the doorway of the lodge at the Palais, and met my father-in-law's look of disgust and astonishment.
He was just off the night turn, and met me on the threshold. I saw beyond him the grinning faces of the under-porters. But I had that to tell which still upheld me. I threw up my hands.
"I know where they are!" I cried breathlessly. "I can take you to them!"
He gazed at me, dumb for the moment with surprise and rage; and doubtless a less reputable son-in-law than I appeared, it would have been hard to find in all Paris. Then his passion found vent. "Pig!" he cried. "Jackal! Gutter-bird! Begone! I have heard about you! Begone! or I will have you flayed!"
"But I know where they are! I know where they have him!" I protested.
His face underwent a startling change. He stepped forward with a nimbleness wonderful in one of his bulk, and he caught me by the collar. "What," he said, "have you seen the dog?"
"The dog?" I cried. "No, but I have seen the King! I have held him in my arms! I know where he is."
He released me suddenly, and fell back a pace, looking at me so oddly that I paused. "Say it again," he said slowly. "You have held the——"
"The King! The King!" I cried impatiently. "In these arms. Last night! I know where they have him, or at least—where the robbers are."
His double chin fell, and his fat face lost colour. "Poor devil!" he said, staring at me like one fascinated. "They have took his senses from him."
"But—" I cried, advancing, "are you not going to do anything?"
He waved me off, and retreating a step, crossed himself. "Jacques!" he said, speaking to one of the porters, but without taking his eyes off me, "move him off! Move him off; do you hear, man? He is not safe!"
"But I tell you," I cried fiercely, "they have stolen the King! They have stolen his Majesty, and I—have held him in my arms. And I know——"
"There, there, be calm," he answered. "Be calm, my lad. They have stolen the Queen's dog, that is true. But have it your own way if you like, only go. Go from here, and quickly, or it will be the worse for you; for here comes Monseigneur the Bishop to wait on her Majesty, and if he sees you, you will suffer worse things. There, make way, make way!" he continued, turning from me to the staring crowd that had assembled. "Way, for Monseigneur the Bishop of Beauvais! Make way!"
As he spoke, the Bishop in his great coach turned heavily out of the Rue St. Honore, and the crowd attending him eddied about the Palace entrance. I was hustled and swept out of the way, and fortunately escaping notice, found myself a few minutes later crouching in a lane that runs beside the church of St. Jacques. I was wolfing a crust of bread, which one of the men with whom I had often talked in the lodge had thrust into my hand. I ate it with tears: in all Paris, that day, was no more miserable outcast. What had become of my little wife I knew not; and I dared not show myself at the Bishop's to ask. My father-in-law, I feared, was hardened against me, and at the best thought me mad. I had no longer home or friend, and—this at the moment cut most sharply—the gorgeous hopes in which I had indulged a few moments before were as last year's snow! The King was not lost!
I crouched and shivered. In St. Antoine's, at the mouth of the lane, a man was beating a drum preparatory to publishing a notice; and presently his voice caught my attention in the middle of my lamentations. I listened, at first idly, then with my mind. "Oyez! Oyez!" he cried. "Whereas some evil person, having no fear of God or of the law before his eyes, has impudently, feloniously, and treasonably stolen from the Palais Royal, a spaniel, the property of the Queen-Regent's most excellent Majesty, this is to say, that any one—rumble—rumble—rumble"—here a passing coach drowned some sentences—after which I caught—"five hundred crowns, the same to be paid by Monseigneur the Bishop of Beauvais, President of the Council!"
"And glad to pay it," snarled a voice, quite close to me. I started and looked up. Two men were talking at a grated window above my head. I could not see their faces.
"Yet it is a high price for a dog," the other sneered.
"But low for a queen. Yet it will buy her. And this is Richelieu's France!"
"Was!" the other said pithily. "Well, you know the proverb, my friend. 'A living dog is better than a dead lion.'"
"Ay," his companion rejoined, "but I have a fancy that that dog's name is spelt neither with an F for Flore—which was the whelp's name, was it not?—nor a B for Beauvais; nor a C for Conde; but with an M——"
"For Mazarin!" the other answered sharply. "Yes, if he find the dog. But Beauvais is in possession."
"Rocroy, a hit that counted for Conde shook him; you may be sure of that."
"Still he is in possession."
"So is my shoe in possession of my foot," was the keen reply. "And see—I take it off. Beauvais is tottering, I tell you; tottering. It wants but a shove, and he falls."
I heard no more, for they moved from the window into the room; but they left me a different man. It was not so much the hope of reward as the desire for vengeance that urged me; my clerk's wits returned once more, and in the very desperation of my affairs gave me the courage I sometimes lacked. I recognized that I had not to do with a King, but a dog; but that none the less that way lay revenge. And I rose up and slunk again into the main street and passed through the crowd and up the Rue St. Martin and by St. Merri, a dirty, ragged, barefoot rascal from whom people drew their skirts; yes, all that, and the light of the sun on it—all that, and yet vengeance itself in the body—the hand that should yet drag my cruel master's fauteuil from under him.
Once I halted, weighing the risks and whether I should take my knowledge direct to the Cardinal and let him make what use he pleased of it. But I knew nothing definite, and hardening my heart to do the work myself, I went on, until I found again the alley between the blind walls where I had left the dog-stealer. It was noon. The alley was empty, the neighbouring lane at the back of the Filles Dieu towards St. Martin's was empty. I looked this way and that and slowly went down to the door at which the man had halted in his despair; but to which, as soon as he knew that the game was not lost, he had been heedful not to return while I watched him.
There, seeing all so quiet, with the green of a tree showing here and there above the dead wall, I began to blench and wonder how I was to take the next step. And for half an hour, I dare say, I sneaked to and fro, now in sight of the door and now with my back to it; afraid to advance, and ashamed to retreat. At length I came once more through the alley, and, seeing how quiet and respectable it lay, with the upper part of a house visible at intervals above the wall, I took heart of grace and tried the door.
It was so firmly closed, that I despaired; and after looking to assure myself that the attempt had not been observed, I was going to move away, when I espied the edge of a key projecting from under the door. Still all was quiet. A stealthy glance round, and I had out the key. To draw back now was to write myself craven all my life; and with a shaking hand I thrust the wards into the lock, turned them, and in another moment stood on the other side of the door in a neat garden, speckled with sunshine and shade, and where all lay silent.
I remained a full minute, flattened against the door, staring fearfully at the high-fronted mansion that beyond the garden looked down on me with twelve great eyes. But all remained quiet, and observing that the windows were shuttered, I took courage to move, and slid under a tree and breathed again.
Still I looked and listened, fearfully, for the silence seemed to watch me; and the greenness and orderliness of the place frightened me. But nothing happened, and everything I saw went to prove that the house was empty. I grew bolder then, and sneaking from bush to bush, reached the door and with a backward glance between courage and desperation tried it.
It was locked, but I hardly noticed that; for, as my hand left the latch, from some remote part of the house came the long-drawn whine of a dog!
I stood, listening and turning hot and cold in the sunshine; and dared not touch the latch again lest others should hear the noise. Instead, I stole out of the doorway, and crept round the house and round the house again, hunting for a back entrance. I found none; but at last, goaded by the reflection that fortune would never again be so nearly within my grasp, I marked a window on the first floor, and at the side of the house; by which it seemed to me that I might enter. A mulberry-tree stood by it, and it lacked bars; and other trees veiled the spot. To be brief, in two minutes I had my knee on the sill, and, sweating with terror—for I knew that if I were taken I should hang for a thief—I forced in the casement, and dropped on the floor.
There I waited a while, listening. I was in a bare room, the door of which stood ajar. Somewhere in the bowels of the house the dog whined again—and again; otherwise all was still—deadly still. But I had risked too much to stand now; and in the end, emboldened by the silence, I crept out and stole along a passage, seeking the way to the lower floor.
The passage was dark, and every board on which I stepped shrieked the alarm. But I felt my way to the landing at the head of the stairs, and I was about to descend, when some impulse, I know not what—perhaps a shrinking from the dark parts below, to which I was about to trust myself—moved me to open one of the shutters and peer out.
I did so, cautiously, and but a little—a few inches. I found myself looking, not into the garden through which I had passed, but into the one over the way, beyond the alley, and there on a scene so strange and yet so apropos to my thoughts, that I paused, gaping.
On a plat of grass four men were standing, two and two; between them, with nose upraised and scenting this way and that, moved a beautiful curly-haired spaniel, in colour black and tan. The eyes of all four men were riveted to the dog; which, as I looked, walked sedately first to the one pair, and then, as if dissatisfied, to the other pair; and then again stood midway and sniffed the air. The men were speaking, but I could not catch even their voices, and I was reduced to drawing what inferences I could from their appearance.
Of the two further from me, one was my rascally bed-fellow; the other was a crooked villain, almost in rags, with a leg shorter than its comrade, yet a face bold and even handsome. Of the nearer pair, who had their backs to me, the shorter, dressed in black, wore the ordinary aspect of a clerk, or confidential attendant; but when my eyes travelled to his companion, they paused. He, it was plain to me, was the chief of the party, for he alone stood covered; and though I could not see his face nor more of his figure than that he was tall, portly, and of very handsome presence, it chanced that as I looked he raised his hand to his chin, and I caught on his thumb, which was white as a woman's, the sparkle of a superb jewel.
That dazzled me, and the presence of the dog puzzled me; and I continued to watch, forgetting myself. Presently the man again raised his hand, and this time it seemed to me that an order was given, for the lame man started into action, and moved briskly across the sward towards the wall which bordered the garden on my side—and consequently towards the house in which I stood. Before he had moved far my companion of the night interposed; apparently he would have done the errand himself. But at a word he stood sulkily and let the other proceed; who when he had all but disappeared—on so little a thing my fortunes turned—below the level of the intervening walls, looked up and caught sight of me at the window.
Apparently he gave the alarm; for in an instant the eyes of all four were on me. I hung a moment in sheer surprise, too much taken aback to retreat; then, as the lame man and his comrade sprang to the door in the wall—with the evident intention of seizing me—I flung the shutter close, and, cursing my curiosity, I fled down the stairs.
I had done better had I gone to the window by which I had entered, for all below was dark; and at the foot of the staircase, I stood, unable, in my panic, to remember the position of the door. A key grating in the lock informed me of this, but too late. On the instant the door opened, a flood of light entered, a cry warned me that I was detected. I turned to reascend, but stumbled before I had mounted six steps, and as I tried to rise, felt a weight fall on my back, and the clutch of long fingers close about my throat. I screamed, as I felt the fingers close in a grip, deadly, cold, and merciless—then in sheer terror I swooned.
When I recovered my senses, I found myself propped in a chair, and for a time sat wondering, with an aching head, where I was. In front of me a great door stood open, admitting a draught of summer air, and a flood of sunshine that fell even to my feet. Through the doorway I looked on grass and trees, and heard sparrows twitter, and the chirp of crickets; and I found all so peaceful that my mind went no further, and it was only after some minutes that I recognized with a sharp return of terror, that turned me sick, that I was still in the hall of the empty house. That brought back other things, and with a shudder I carried my hand to my throat and tried to rise. A hand put me back, and a dry voice said in my ear, "Be easy, Monsieur Prosper, be easy. You are quite safe. But I am afraid that in our haste we have put you to some inconvenience."
I looked with a wry face at the speaker, and recognized him for one of those I had seen in the garden. He had the air of a secretary or—as he stood rubbing his smooth chin and looking down at me with a saturnine smile—of a physician. I read in his eyes something cold and not too human, yet it went no further. His manner was suave, and his voice, when he spoke again, as well calculated to reassure as his words were to surprise me.
"You are better now?" he said. "Yes, then I have to congratulate you on a strange chance. Few men, Monsieur Prosper, few men, believe me, were ever so lucky. You were lately I think in the service of Monseigneur the Bishop of Beauvais, President of her Majesty's Council?"
I fancied that a faint note of irony lurked in his words—particularly as he recited my late master's titles. I kept silence.
"And yesterday were dismissed," he continued easily, disregarding my astonishment. "Well, to-day you shall be reinstated—and rewarded. Your business here, I believe, was to recover her Majesty's dog, and earn the reward?"
I remembered that the wretch whose fingermarks were still on my throat might be within hearing, and I tried to utter a denial.
He waved it aside politely. "Just so," he said. "But I know your mind, better than you do yourself. Well, the dog is in that closet; and on two conditions it is at your service."
Amazed before, I stared at him now, in a stupor of astonishment.
"You are surprised?" he said. "Yet the case is of the simplest. We stole the dog, and now have our reasons for restoring it; but we cannot do so without incurring suspicion. You, on the other hand, who are known to the Bishop, and did not steal it, may safely restore it. I need not say that we divide the reward; that is one of the two conditions."
"And the other?" I stammered.
"That you refresh your memory as to the past," he answered lightly. "If I have the tale rightly, you saw a man convey a dog to this house, an empty house in the Montmartre Faubourg. You watched, and saw the man leave, and followed him; he took the alarm, fled, and dropped in his flight the dog's coat. I think I see it there. On that you hurried with the coat to Monseigneur, and gave him the address of the house, and——"
"And the dog!" I exclaimed.
"No. Let Monseigneur come and find the dog for himself," he answered, smiling. "In the closet."
I felt the blood tingle through all my limbs. "But if he comes, and does not find it?" I cried.
The stranger shrugged his shoulders. "He will find it," he said coolly. And slightly raising his voice, he called "Flore! Flore!" For answer a dog whined behind a door, and scratched the panels, and whined again.
The stranger nodded, and his eyes sparkled as if he were pleased. "There," he said, "you have it. It is there and will be there. And I think that is all. Only keep two things in mind, my friend. For the first, a person will claim our share of the reward at the proper time: for the second, I would be careful not to tell Monseigneur the President of the Council"—again that faint note of irony—"the true story, lest a worse thing happen!" And the stranger, with a very ugly smile, touched his throat.
"I will not!" I said, shuddering. "But——?"
"But I may not," I said faintly—I hated the Bishop—"I may not get speech of Monseigneur. May I not then take the news to the Palais Royal and—and let the Queen know directly? Or go with it to the Cardinal?"
"No, you may not!" he said, with a look and in a tone that sent a shiver down my back. "The Cardinal? What has the Cardinal to do with it? Understand! You must do precisely that and that only which I have told you, and add not a jot nor a tittle to it!"
"I will do it," I muttered in haste. My spite against the Bishop was a small thing beside my neck. And there was the reward!
"Good! Then—then, I think that is all," he answered, seeing in my face, I think, that I was minded to be obedient. "And I may say farewell. Until we meet again, adieu, Monsieur Prosper! Adieu, and remember!" And setting on his hat with a polite gesture, he turned his back to me, went out into the sunlight, passed to the left, and vanished. I heard the garden door close with a crash, and then, silence—silence, broken only by the faint whine of the dog, as it moved in its prison.
Was I alone? I waited awhile before I dared to move; and even when I found courage to rise, I stood listening with a beating heart, expecting a footfall on the stairs or that something—I knew not what—would rush on me from the closed doors of this mysterious house. But the silence endured. The sparrows outside twittered, the cricket renewed its chirp, and at length, drawing courage from the sunlight, I moved forward and lifted the dog's coat from the floor. I examined it: it was the one I had seen in the possession of the man in the shed. Five minutes later I was in the streets on my way to the Bishop's hotel, the parcel of velvet tucked under my girdle.
I have since thought that I did not fully appreciate at the moment the marvel that had happened to me. But by this time in truth I was nearly light-headed. I went my way as a man moves in a dream, and even when I found myself at the door of the hotel, whence I had been so cruelly ejected, I felt none of those qualms which must have shaken me had I been sensible. I did not even question how I should reach Monseigneur, or get the news to him: which proves that we often delude ourselves with vain fears, and climb obstacles where none exist. For, as it happened, he was descending from his coach when I entered the yard, and though he raised his gold-headed staff at sight of me, and in a fury bade the servants put me out, I had the passion if not the wit to wave the velvet coat in his face, and cry my errand before them all.
Heaven knows at that there was such a sudden pause and about-face as must have made even the stolen dog laugh had it been there. Monseigneur in high excitement bade them bring me in to him as soon as he was shifted, the secretary whispered in my ear that he had a cloak that would replace the one I had lost, a valet told me that my wife was gone to her father's, a serving-man brought me food, and nudged me to remember him, while others ran and fetched me shoes and a cap; and all—all from the head-clerk, who was most insistent, downwards, would know where the dog was, and how I came to know what I did.
But I had even then the sense to keep my secret, and would tell my story only to the Bishop. He had me in, and heard it. In ten minutes he was in his coach on his way to the Montmartre Faubourg, taking me with him.
His presence and the food they had given me while I waited had sobered me somewhat; and I trembled as we went lest the man who had spared me on terms so strange had some disappointment yet in store for me, lest the closet be found empty. But a whine, that grew into a long and melancholy howl, greeted us on the threshold of the room whither I led them; and the closet door being forced, in a trice the dog was out and amongst us.
Monseigneur clapped his hands and swore freely. "Dieu benisse!" he cried. "It is the dog, sure enough! Here, Flore! Flore!" And as the dog jumped on us and licked his hand, he turned to me. "Lucky for you, rascal!" he cried, in great good humour. "There shall be fifty crowns in your pocket, and your desk again!"
I gasped. "But the reward, Monseigneur?" I stammered. "The five hundred crowns?"
He bent his black eyebrows. "Reward? Reward, villain?" he thundered. "Do I hear aright? Is it not enough that I spare you the gallows you richly earned but yesterday by assaulting my servant? Reward? For what do I pay you wages, do you think, except to do my work? Are you not my servant? Go and hang yourself! Or rather," he continued grimly, "stir at your peril. Look to him, Bonnivet, he is a rogue in grain; and bring him with me to the Queen's ante-chamber, Her Majesty may desire to ask him questions, and if he answer them well and handsomely, good! He shall have the fifty crowns I promised him. If not—I shall know how to deal with him."
At that, and the mean treachery of his conduct, I fell into my old rage again, and even his servants looked oddly at him, until a sharp word recalled them to their duty; on which they hustled me off with little ceremony, and the less for that which they had before showed me. While the Bishop, carrying the dog in his arms, mounted his coach and went by the Rue St. Martin and the Lombards, they hurried me by short cuts and byways to the Palais Royal, which we reached as his running footman came in sight. The approach to the gate was blocked by a great crowd of people, and for a moment I was fond enough to imagine that they had to do with our affair—and I shrank back. But the steward, with a thrust of his knee against my hip, which showed me that he had not forgotten my assault upon him, urged me forward, and from what passed round me as we pushed through the press, I gathered that a score of captured colours had arrived from Flanders within the hour, and were about to be presented to the Queen.
The courtyard confirmed this, for in the open part of it, and much pressed upon by the curious who thronged the arcades, we found a troop of horse, plumed and dusty and travel-stained, fresh from the Flanders road. The officers who bore the trophies we overtook on the stairs near the door of the ante-chamber. Burning with resentment as I was, and strung to the last pitch of excitement, I none the less remember that I thought it an odd time to push in with a dog; but Monseigneur the Bishop did not seem to see this. Whether he took a certain pleasure in belittling the war-party, to whom he was opposed in his politics, or merely knew his ground well, he went on, thrusting the militaires aside with little ceremony; and as every one was as quick to give place to him, as he was to advance, in a moment we were in the ante-chamber.
I had never been admitted before, and from the doorway, where I paused in Bonnivet's keeping, I viewed the scene with an interest that for the first time overcame my sense of injustice. The long room hummed with talk; a crowd of churchmen and pages, with a sprinkling of the lesser nobility, many lawyers and some soldiers, filled it from end to end. In one corner were a group of tradesmen bearing plate for the Queen's inspection: in another stood a knot of suitors with petitions; while everywhere men, whose eager faces and expectant eyes were their best petitions, watched the farther door with quivering lips, or sighed when it opened, and emitted merely a councillor or a marquis. Several times a masked lady flitted through the crowd, with a bow here and the honour of her taper fingers there. The windows were open, the summer air entered; and the murmur of the throng without, mingling with the stir of talk within, seemed to add to the light and colour of the room.
My lord of Beauvais, with his chaplain and his pages at his shoulder, was making in his stately way towards the farther door, when he met M. de Chateauneuf, and paused to speak. When he escaped from him a dozen clients, whose obsequious bows rendered evasion impossible, still delayed him. And I had grown cold, and hot again, and he was but halfway on his progress up the crowded room, when the inner door opened, half a dozen voices cried "The Queen! The Queen!" and an usher with a silver wand passed down the room and ranked the company on either side—not without some struggling, and once a fierce oath, and twice a smothered outcry.
Of the bevy of ladies in attendance, only half a dozen entered; for a few paces within the doorway the Queen-Mother stood still to receive my patron, who had advanced to meet her. It seemed to me that she was not best pleased to see him at that moment; her voice rang somewhat loud and peevish as she said, "What, my lord! Is it you? I came to receive the trophies from Rocroy, and did not expect to see you at this hour."
"I bring my own excuse, Madam," he answered, smiling and unabashed. "Have I your Majesty's leave to present it?" he continued, with a smirk and a low bow.
"I came to receive the colours," she retorted, still frowning. It seemed to me that he presumed a trifle on his favour; and either knew his ground particularly well, or was more obtuse than a clever man should have been.
For he did not blench. "I bring your Majesty something as much to your liking as the colours!" he replied.
Then I think she caught his meaning, for her proud Hapsburg face cleared wonderfully, and she clapped her hands together with a gesture of pleasure almost childish. "What!" she exclaimed. "Have you found—Flore?"
"Yes, Madam," he said, smiling gallantly. He turned. "Bonnivet!" he said.
But Bonnivet had watched his moment. Before the name fell clear of his master's lips, he was beside him, and with bent knee laid the dog tenderly at her Majesty's feet. She uttered a cry of joy and stooped to caress it, her fair ringlets falling and hiding her face and her plump white shoulders. On that I did not see exactly what happened; for her ladies flocked round her, and all that reached me, where I stood by the door, took the form of excited cries of "Flore! Flore!" "Oh, the darling!" and the like. A few old men who stood nearest the wall and farthest from the Queen raised their eyebrows, and the officers standing with the colours by the door, wore fallen faces and glum looks; but nine-tenths of the crowd seemed to be carried away by the Queen's delight, and congratulated one another as warmly as if ten Rocroys had been won.
At that moment, while I hung in suspense, expecting each moment to be called forward, I heard a little stir at my elbow. Turning—I had advanced some way into the room—I found myself with others pushed aside to give place to a person of consequence who was entering; and I heard several voices whisper, "Mazarin!" As I looked, he came in, and pausing to speak to the foremost of the officers, gave me the opportunity—which I had never enjoyed before—of viewing him near at hand. He bore a certain likeness, to my lord of Beauvais, being tall and of a handsome and portly figure. But it was such a likeness when I looked a second time, as a jewelled lanthorn, lit within, bears to its vacant fellow. And then in a moment it flashed upon me—though now he wore his Cardinal's robes and then had been very simply dressed—that it was he whose back I had seen, and whose dazzling thumb-ring had blinded me in the garden near the Filles Dieu.
The thought had scarcely grown to a conviction before he passed by me, apologizing almost humbly to those whom he displaced, and courteously to all; and this, and perhaps also the fact that the mass of those present belonged to my patron's party—who in the streets had the nick-name of "The Importants"—so that they were not quick to make room for him, rendered his progress so slow that, my name being called and everybody hustling me forward, I came face to face with the Queen almost at the moment that he did. And so I saw—though for a while I was too much excited to understand—what passed.
Her Majesty, it seemed to me, did not look unkindly upon him. On the contrary. But my lord of Beauvais was so full of his success, and so uplifted by the presence of his many friends, that he had a mind to make the most of his triumph and even to flaunt it in his rival's face. "Ha, the Cardinal!" he cried; and before the Queen could speak, "I hope," with a bow and a simper, "that your Eminence has been as zealous in her Majesty's service as I have been."
"As zealous, assuredly," the Cardinal replied meekly. "For my zeal I can answer. But as effective? Alas, it is not given to all to vie with your Lordship in affairs."
This answer—though I detected no smack of irony in the tone—did not seem to please the Queen. "The Bishop has done me a great service. He has recovered my dog," she said tartly.
"He is a happy man, and the happy must look to be envied," the Cardinal answered glibly. "Your Majesty's dog——"
"Your Eminence never liked Flore!" the Queen exclaimed with feeling. And she tossed her head, as I have seen quite common women do it in the street.
"You do me a very great wrong, Madam!" the Cardinal answered, with the look of a man much hurt. "If the dog were here—but it is not, I think."
"Your Eminence is for once at a loss!" the Bishop said, with a sneer; and at a word from him one of the ladies came forward, nursing the dog in her arms.
The Cardinal looked. "Umph," he said. He looked again, frowning.
I did not know then that, whether the Queen liked him or disliked him, she ever took heed of his looks; and I started when she cried pettishly——
"Well, sir, what now? What is it?"
The Cardinal pursed up his lips.
My lord the Bishop could bear it no longer.
"He will say presently," he cried, snorting with indignation, "that it is not the dog! It is that his Eminence would say," with a sneer, "if he dared!"
His Eminence shrugged his shoulders very slightly, and turned the palms of his hands outwards. "Oh," he said, "if her Majesty is satisfied I am."
"M'dieu!" the Queen cried, with a spirt of anger—"what do you mean?" But she turned to the lady who held the dog, and took it from her. "It is the dog!" she said, her colour high. "Do you think that I do not know my own dog?" she continued. And she set the dog on its feet. She called it "Flore! Flore!" It turned to her and wagged its tail eagerly, and jumped upon her skirts, and licked her hand.
"Poor Flore!" said the Cardinal. "Flore!" It went to him.
"Certainly its name is Flore," he said: yet he continued to scan it with a puzzled eye. "It is the dog, I suppose. But it used to die at the word of command, I think?"
"What it did, it will do!" Monseigneur de Beauvais cried scornfully. "But I see that your Eminence was right in one thing you said."
The Cardinal bowed.
"That I should be envied!" the Bishop retorted, with a sneer. And he glanced round the circle. There was a slight though general titter; a great lady at the Queen's elbow laughed out.
"Flore," said the Queen, "die! Die, good dog. Do you hear, m'dieu! die!"
But the dog only gazed into her Majesty's face with a spaniel's soft affectionate eyes, and wagged its tail; and though she cried to it again and again, and angrily, it made no attempt to obey. On that a deep-drawn breath ran round the circle; one looked at another; and there were raised eyebrows. A score of heads were thrust forward, and some who had seemed merry enough the moment before looked grave as mutes now.
"It used to bark for France and growl for Spain," the Cardinal continued in his softest voice. "One of the charmingest things, madam, I ever saw. Perhaps if your Majesty would try——"
"France!" the Queen cried imperiously; and she stamped on the floor. "France! France!"
But the dog only retreated, cowering and dismayed. From a distance it wagged its tail pitifully.
"France!" cried the Queen, almost with passion. The dog cowered.
"I am afraid, my Lord, that it has lost its accomplishments—in your company!" the Cardinal said, a faint smile curling his lips.
The Bishop dropped a smothered oath. "It is the dog!" he cried vehemently.
But the Queen turned to him sharply, her face crimson.
"I do not agree with you!" she replied. "It is like the dog, but it is not the dog. And more, my Lord," she continued, with vehemence equal to his own, "I should be glad if you would explain how you came into possession of this dog. A dog so nearly resembling my dog—and yet not my dog—could not be found in a moment nor without some foul contrivance."
"It has forgotten its tricks," the Bishop said.
"Nonsense!" the Queen retorted.
A great many faces had grown grave by this time; I have said that the room was filled for the most part with the Bishop's supporters. "At any rate I know nothing about it!" he exclaimed, wiping his brow and pointing to me. "I offered a reward, and that knave there found the dog." Between anger and discomfiture he stammered.
"One of my Lord's servants, I think," the Cardinal said easily.
"Oh!" the Queen answered, with a world of meaning; and she looked at me with eyes before which I quailed. "Is that true, fellow!" she said. "Are you in my Lord's service?"
I stammered an affirmative.
"Then I wish to hear no more," she replied haughtily. "No, my Lord. Enough!" she continued, raising her voice to drown his protestations. "I do not care to know whether you were more sinned against than sinning; or a greater fool than your creature is a knave. Pray take your animal away. Doubtless in a very short time I should have discovered the cheat for myself. I think I see a difference now. I am sure I do. But, as it is, I am greatly indebted to his Eminence for his aid—and his sagacity."
She brought out the last word with withering emphasis, and amid profound silence. The Bishop, staggered and puzzled, but too wise to persist longer in the dog's identity, still tried desperately to utter some word of excuse; but the Queen, whose vanity had received a serious wound—since she had not at once known her own pet—cut him short with a curt and freezing dismissal, and immediately turning to the Cardinal, she requested him to introduce to her the officers who had the colours in charge.
It may be imagined how I felt, and what terrors I experienced during this struggle; since it required no great wit to infer that the Bishop, if defeated, would wreak his vengeance on me. Already a dozen who had attended my Lord of Beauvais' levee that morning were fawning on the Cardinal; the Queen had turned her shoulder to him; a great lady over whom he bent to hide his chagrin, talked to him indeed, but flippantly, and with eyes half closed and but part of her attention. For all these slights, and the defeat which they indicated, I foresaw that I should pay with my life: and in a panic, seeing no hope but in escaping on the instant before he took his measures, I slid back and strove to steal away through the crowd.
I reached the door in safety, and even the head of the stairs. But there a hand gripped my shoulder, and the steward thrust a face, white with rage and dismay, into mine. "Not so fast, Master Plotter!" he hissed in my ear. "You have ruined us, but if your neck does not pay for this—if you are not lashed like a dog first and hung afterwards—I am a Spaniard! If for this I do not——"
"By the Queen's command," said a quiet voice in my other ear; and a hand fell on that shoulder also.
The steward glanced at his rival. "He is the Bishop's man!" he cried, throwing out his chest; and he gripped me again.
"And the Bishop is the Queen's!" was the curt and pithy reply; and the stranger, in whom I recognized the man who had delivered the dog's cape to me, quietly put him by. "Her Majesty has committed this person to the Cardinal's custody until inquiry be made into the truth of his story, and the persons who are guilty be ascertained. In the mean time, if you have any complaint to make you can make it to his Eminence."
After that there was no more to be said or done. The steward, baffled and bursting with rage, fell back; and the stranger, directing me by a gesture to attend him close, descended the stairs and crossing the courtyard, entered St. Honore. I was in a maze what I was to expect from him; and overjoyed as I was at my present deliverance, had a sneaking fear that I might be courting a worse fate in this inquiry; so grim and secretive was my guide's face, and so much did that sombre dress—which gave him somewhat of the character of an inquisitor—add to the weight of his silence. However, when he had crossed St. Honore and entered a lane leading to the river, he halted and turned to me.
"There are twenty crowns," he said abruptly; and he placed a purse in my hand. "Take them, and do exactly as I bid you, and all will be well. At the Quai de Notre Dame you will find a market-boat starting for Rouen. Go by it, and at the Ecce Homo in the Rue St. Eloi in that city you will find your wife and a hundred crowns. Live there quietly, and in a month apply for work at the Chancery; it will be given you. The rest lies with you. I have known men," he continued, with a puzzling smile, "who started at a desk in that Chancery and, being very silent men, able to keep a secret—able to keep a secret, mark you—lived to rent one of the great farms."
I tried to find words to thank him.
"There is no need," he said. "For what you have done, it is too much. For what you have to do—rule the unruly member—it is no more than is right."
And now I agree with him. Now—though his words came true to the letter, and to-day I hold one of the great farms on a second term—I too think that it was no more than was right. For if M. de Conde won Rocroy for his side in the field, the Cardinal on that day won a victory no less eminent at court; of which victory the check administered to M. de Beauvais—who had nothing but a good presence, and collapsing like a pricked bladder, became within a month the most discredited of men—was the first movement. Within a month the heads of the Importants—so, I have said, the Bishop's party were christened—were in prison or exiled or purchased; and all France knew that it lay in a master's hand—knew that the mantle of Richelieu, with a double portion of the royal favour, had fallen on Mazarin's shoulders. I need scarcely add that, before that fact became known to all—for such things do not become certainties in a minute—his Eminence had been happy enough to find the true Flore and restore it to her Majesty's arms.
On a certain wet night, in the spring of the year 1587, the rain was doing its utmost to sweeten the streets of old Paris: the kennels were aflood with it, and the March wind, which caused the crowded sign-boards to creak and groan on their bearings, and ever and anon closed a shutter with the sound of a pistol-shot, blew the downpour in sheets into exposed doorways, and drenched to the skin the few wayfarers who were abroad. Here and there a stray dog, bent over a bone, slunk away at the approach of a roisterer's footstep; more rarely a passenger, whose sober or stealthy gait whispered of business rather than pleasure, moved cowering from street to street, under such shelter as came in his way.
About two hours before midnight, a man issued somewhat suddenly from the darkness about the head of the Pont du Change and turned the corner into the Rue de St. Jacques la Boucherie, a street which ran parallel with the Quays, about half a mile east of the Louvre. His heavy cloak concealed his figure, but he made his way in the teeth of the wind with the spring and vigour of youth; and arriving presently at a doorway, which had the air of retiring modestly under a couple of steep dark gables, and yet was rendered conspicuous by the light which shone through the unglazed grating above it, he knocked sharply on the oak. After a short delay the door slid open of itself and the man entered. He showed none of a stranger's surprise at the invisibility of the porter, but after staying to shut the door, he advanced along a short passage, which was only partially closed at the further end by a high wooden screen. Coasting round this he entered a large low-roofed room, lighted in part by a dozen candles, in part by a fire which burned on a raised iron plate in the corner.
The air was thick with wood smoke, but the occupants of the room, a dozen men, seated, some at a long table, and some here and there in pairs, seemed able to recognize the new-comer through it, and hailed his appearance with a cry of welcome—a cry that had in it a ring of derision. One man who stood near the fire, impatiently kicking the logs with his spurred boots, turned, and seeing who it was moved towards him. "Welcome, M. de Bazan," he said briskly; "so you have come to resume our duel! I had given up hope of you."
"I am here," the new-comer answered. He spoke curtly, and as he did so he took off his horseman's cloak and laid it aside. The action disclosed a man scarcely twenty, moderately well dressed, and of slight though supple figure. His face wore an air of determination singular in one so young, and at variance with the quick suspicious glances with which he took in the scene. He did not waste time in staring, however, but quickly and with a business-like air he seated himself at a small wooden table which stood in a warm corner of the hearth, and directly under a brace of candles. Calling for a bottle of wine, he threw a bag of coin on the table; at the same time he hitched forward his sword until the pommel of the weapon lay across his left thigh; a sinister movement which the debauched and reckless looks of some of his companions seemed to justify. The man who had addressed him took his seat opposite, and the two, making choice of a pair of dice-boxes, began to play.
They did not use the modern game of hazard, but simply cast the dice, each taking it in turn to throw, and a nick counting as a drawn battle. The two staked sums higher than were usual in the company about them, and one by one, the other gamblers forsook their tables, and came and stood round. As the game proceeded, the young stranger's face grew more and more pale, his eyes more feverish. But he played in silence. Not so his backers. A volley of oaths and exclamations almost as thick as the wood smoke that in part shrouded the game, began to follow each cast of the dice. The air, one moment still and broken only by the hollow rattle of the dice in the box, rang the next instant with the fierce outburst of a score of voices.
The place, known as Simon's, was a gaming-house of the second class: frequented, as the shabby finery of some and the tarnished arms of others seemed to prove, by the poorer courtiers and the dubious adventurers who live upon the great. It was used in particular by the Guise faction, at this time in power; for though Henry of Valois was legal and nominal King of France, Henry of Guise, the head of the League, and the darling of Paris, imposed his will alike upon the King and the favourites. He enjoyed the substance of power; the King had no choice but to submit to his policy. In secret Henry the Third resented the position, and between his immediate servants and the arrogant followers of the Guises there was bitter enmity.
As the game proceeded, a trifle showed that the young player was either ignorant of politics, or belonged to a party rarely represented at Simon's. For some time he and his opponent had enjoyed equal luck. Then they doubled the stakes, and fortune immediately declared herself against him; with wondrous quickness his bag grew lank and thin, the pile at the other's elbow a swollen sliding heap. The perspiration began to stand on the young man's face. His hand trembled as he shook out the last coins left in the bag and shoved them forward amid a murmur half of derision half of sympathy; for if he was a stranger from the country—that was plain, and they had recognized it at his first appearance among them three days before—at least he played bravely. His opponent, whose sallow face betrayed neither joy nor triumph, counted out an equal sum, and pushed it forward without a word. The young man took up the box, and for the first time seemed to hesitate; it could be seen that he had bitten his lip until it bled. "After you," he muttered at last, withdrawing his hand. He shrank from throwing his last throw.
"It is your turn," the other replied impassively, "but as you will." He shook the box, brought it down sharply on the table and raised it. "The Duke!" he said with an oath—he had thrown the highest possible. "Twelve is the game."
With a shiver the lad—he was little more than a lad, though in his heart, perhaps, the greatest gambler present—dashed down his box. He raised it. "The King!" he cried; "long life to him!" He had also thrown twelve. His cheek flushed a rosy red, and with a player's superstitious belief in his luck he regarded the check given to his opponent in the light of a presage of victory. They threw again, and he won by two points—nine to seven. Hurrah!
"King or Duke," the tall man answered, restraining by a look the interruption which more than one of the bystanders seemed about to offer, "the money is yours; take it."
"Let it lie," the young man answered joyously. His eyes sparkled. When the other had pushed an equal amount into the middle of the table, he threw again, and with confidence.
Alas! his throw was a deuce and an ace. The elder player threw four and two. He swept up the pile. "Better late than never," he said. And leaning back he looked about him with a grin of satisfaction.
The young man rose. The words which had betrayed that he was not of the Duke's faction, had cost him the sympathy the spectators had before felt for him; and no one spoke. It was something that they kept silence, that they did not interfere with him. His face, pale in the light of the candles which burned beside him, was a picture of despair. Suddenly, as if he bethought him of something, he sat down again, and with a shaking hand took from his neck a slender gold chain with a pendant ornament. "Will you stake against this?" he murmured with dry lips.
"Against that, or your sword, or your body, or anything but your soul!" the other answered with a reckless laugh. He took up the chain and examined it. "I will set you thirty crowns against it!" he said.
They threw and the young man lost.
"I will stake ten crowns against your sword if you like," the victor continued, eyeing the curiously chased pommel.
"No," the young man replied, stung by something in the elder's tone. "That I may want. But I will set my life against yours!"
A chuckle went round. "Bravo!" cried half a dozen voices. One man in the rear, whose business it was to enlist men in the Duke's guard, pressed forward, scenting a recruit.
"Your life against mine! With these?" the winner answered, holding up the dice.
"Yes, or as you please." He had not indeed meant with those: he had spoken in the soreness of defeat, intending a challenge.
The other shook his head. "No," he said, "no. No man can say that Michel Berthaud ever balked his player, but it is not a fair offer. You have lost all, my friend, and I have won all. I am rich, you are poor. 'Tis no fair stake. But I will tell you what I will do. I will set you your gold chain and seventy crowns—against your life if you like."
A roar of laughter hailed the proposal. "A hundred!" cried several, "a hundred!"
"Very well. The gold chain and a hundred. Be it so!"
"But my life?" the young man muttered, gazing at him in bewilderment. "Of what use will it be to you, M. Berthaud?"
"That is my business," was the dry answer. "If you lose, it is forfeit to me. That is all, and the long and the short of it. To be frank, I have a service which I wish you to perform for me."
"And if I will not perform it?"
"Then I will take your word as a gentleman that you will kill yourself. Observe, however, that if I win I shall allow you a choice, my friend."
He leaned back with that, meeting with a faint smile and half-lowered eye-lids, the various looks bent on him. Some stared, some nodded secret comprehension, some laughed outright, or nudged one another and whispered. For four evenings they, the habitues of the place, had watched this play duel go on, but they had not looked for an end so abnormal as this. They had known men stake wives and mistresses, love and honour, ay, their very clothes, and go home naked through the streets; for the streets of Paris saw strange things in those days. But life? Well, even that they had seen men stake in effect, once, twice, a hundred times; but never in so many words, never on a wager as novel as this. So with an amazement which no duel, fought as was the custom in that day, three to three, or six to six, would have evoked, they gathered round the little table under the candles and waited for the issue.
The young man shivered. Then, "I accept," he said slowly. In effect he was desperate, driven to his last straits. He had lost his all, the all of a young man sent up to Paris to make his fortune, with a horse, his sword, and a bag of crowns—the latter saved for him by a father's stern frugality, a mother's tender self-denial. A week ago he had never seen a game of chance. Then he had seen; the dice had fallen in his way, the devil of play, cursed legacy of some long-forgotten ancestor, had awoke within him, and this was the end. "I accept," he said slowly.
His opponent, still with his secretive smile, took up the caster. But a short, sturdy man, who was standing at his elbow, and who wore the colours of the Duke of Guise, intervened. "No, Michel," he said, with a good-natured glance at the young player. "Let the lad choose his bones, and throw first or last as he pleases."
"Right," said Berthaud, yawning. "It is no matter. My star is in the ascendant to-night. He will not win."
The young man took up the box, shook it, hesitated, swallowed, and threw seven!
Berthaud threw carelessly—seven!
Some shouted, some drew a deep breath, or whispered an oath. These wild spirits, who had faced death often in one form or another, were still children, and still in a new thing found a new pleasure.
"Your star may be in the ascendant," the man muttered who had intervened before, "but it—well, it twinkles, Michel."
Berthaud did not answer. The young man made him a sign to throw. He threw again—eight.
The young man threw with a hand that scarcely dared to let the dice go. Seven! He had lost.
An outburst might have been expected, some cry of violence, of despair. It did not come. And a murmur passed round the circle. "Berthaud will recruit him," growled one. "A queer game," muttered another, and thought hard. Nor did the men go back to their tables. They waited to see what would follow, what would come of it. For the young man who had lost sat staring at the table like one in a dream; until presently his opponent reaching out a hand touched his sleeve. "Courage!" Berthaud said, a flicker of triumph in his eye, "a word with you aside. No need of despair, man. You have but to do what I ask, and you will see sixty yet."
Obedient to his gesture the young man rose, and the other drawing him aside began to talk to him in a low voice. The remaining players loitering about the deserted table could not hear what was said; but one or two by feigning to strike a sudden blow, seemed to pass on their surmises to those round them. One thing was clear. The lad objected to the proposal made, objected fiercely and with vehemence; and at last submitted only with reluctance. Submit in the end, however, he did, for after some minutes of this private talk he went to his cloak, and avoiding, as it seemed, his fellows' eyes, put it on. Berthaud accompanied him to the door, and the winner's last words were audible. "That is all," he said; "succeed in what I impose, M. de Bazan, and I cry quits, and you shall have fifty crowns for your pains. Fail, and you will but be paying your debt. But you will not fail. Remember, half an hour after midnight. And courage!"
The young man nodded sullenly, and drawing his cloak about his throat, went through the passage to the street. The night was a little older than when he had entered, otherwise it was unchanged. The rain was still falling; the wind still buffeted the creaking shutters and the swinging sign-boards. But the man? He had entered, thinking nothing of rain or wind, thinking little even of the horse and furniture, and the good clothes made under his mother's eye, which he had sacrificed to refill his purse. The warmth of the play fever coursing through his veins had clad him in proof against cold and damp and the depression of the gloomy streets, even against the thought of home. And for the good horse, and the laced shirts and the gold braid, the luck could not run against him again! He would win all back, and the crowns to boot.
So he had thought as he went in. And now? He stood a moment in the dark, narrow chasm of a street, and looked up, letting the rain cool his brow; looked up, and, seeing a wrack of clouds moving swiftly across the slit of stormy sky visible between the overhanging roofs, faced in a dull amazement the fact that he who now stood in the darkness, bankrupt even in life, was the same man who had entered Paris so rich in hope and youth and life a week—only a week—before. He remembered—it was an odd thing to occur to him when his thoughts should have been full of the events of the last hour—a fault of which he had been guilty down there in the country; and of which, taking advantage of a wrathful father's offer to start him in Paris, he had left the weaker sinner to bear the brunt. And it seemed to him that here was his punishment. The old grey house at home, quaint and weather-beaten, rose before him. He saw his mother's herb-garden, the great stackyard, and the dry moat, half filled with blackberry bushes, in which he had played as a boy. And on him fell a strange calm, between apathy and resignation. This, then, was his punishment. He would bear it like a man. There should be no flinching a second time, no putting the burden on others' shoulders, no self-sparing at another's cost.
He started to walk briskly in the direction of the Louvre. But when he had gained the corner of the open space in front of the palace, whence he had a view of the main gate between the two tennis courts, he halted and looked up and down as if he hesitated. A watch-fire smouldering and sputtering in the rain was burning dully before the drawbridge; the forms of one or two men, apparently sentinels, were dimly visible about it. After standing in doubt more then a minute, Bazan glided quickly to the porch of the church of St. Germain l'Auxerrois, and disappeared in the angle between it and the cloisters.
He had been stationary in this position for some half-hour—in what bitterness of spirit, combating what regrets and painful thoughts it is possible only to imagine—when a slight commotion took place at the gate which faced him. Two men came out in close converse, and stood a moment looking up as if speaking of the weather. They separated then, and one who even by that uncertain light could be seen to be a man of tall, spare presence, came across the open space towards the end of the Rue des Fosses, which passed beside the cloisters. He had just entered the street, when Bazan, who had been closely watching his movements, stepped from the shadow of the houses and touched his sleeve.
The tall man recoiled sharply as he turned. He laid his hand on his sword and partly drew it. "Who are you?" he said, trying in the darkness to make out the other's features.
"M. de Crillon, is it not?" the young man asked.
"Yes. And you, young sir?"
"My name is Claude de Bazan, but you do not know me, I have a word to say to you."
"You have chosen an odd time, my friend."
"Some things are always timely," the young fellow answered, the excitement under which he laboured and the occasion imparting a spice of flippancy to his tone. "I come to warn you that your life is in danger. Do not go alone, M. de Crillon, or pass this way at night! And whatever you do, walk for the future in the middle of the street!"
"For the warning I am obliged to you," the tall man answered, his voice cool and satirical, while his eyes continued to scan the other's features. "But, I say again, you have chosen a strange time to give it, young sir. Moreover, your name is new to me, and I do not know your face."