E-text prepared by Al Haines
Author of "The Lord Protector," "The Chevalier d'Auriac," etc.
Longmans, Green, and Co. 91 and 93 Fifth Avenue, New York London and Bombay 1904
Copyright, 1904, by S. Levett-Yeats All Rights Reserved
I THE CRY IN THE RUE DES LAVANDIERES II I BECOME THE OWNER OF A RING III MY PYRAMID OF CARDS COMES DOWN IV THE QUEEN'S MIRACLE V THE PORTE ST. MICHEL VI SIMON AND I MEET AGAIN VII DIANE VIII THE ACTS OF PIERREBON IX THE WHITE MASK X THE BITER BITTEN XI THE ROAD TO POITIERS XII A WRITER OF COMMENTARIES XIII THE TOUR DE L'OISEAU XIV MADEMOISELLE DE PARADIS XV MY PRISONER XVI THE TWELVE ROSE PETALS XVII MADEMOISELLE DECIDES XVIII DR. JOHANNES CABALLUS XIX THE WOMAN IN BLACK AND WHITE XX THE CROWN JEWELS XXI THE HOUSE IN THE PASSAGE OF PITY XXII THE TABLETS OF DOM ANTOINE DE MOUCHY XXIII THE MASQUERADE XXIV THE KING AND THE FAVOURITE XXV THE PACKET OF LETTERS XXVI THE CHURCH UNDER THE GROUND XXVII THE RING XXVIII THE ARM OF GOD XXIX LA VALENTINOIS AND I XXX FONTAINEBLEAU XXXI THE PEARS OF ORRAIN
THE CRY IN THE RUE DES LAVANDIERES
My father, Rene, Vidame d'Orrain, was twice married. By his first wife he had one son, Simon, who subsequently succeeded to his title and estates, and was through his life my bitter enemy. By his second wife, whom he married somewhat late in life, he had two sons—the elder, Anne, known as the Chevalier de St. Martin from his mother's lands, which he inherited; and the younger, Bertrand—myself.
Simon betook himself early to the Court, and we heard but little of him, and that not to his credit; St. Martin went to Italy under the banner of Brissac; and as for me, my parents yielding to the persuasion of my mother's uncle, the Bishop of Seez, decided that I should become a Churchman, and I was forthwith packed off to Paris, and entered at the College of Cambrai, being then about seventeen years of age. Being remarkably tall and strongly built, with a natural taste for all manly exercises, it might have been expected that my books saw little of me; but, on the contrary, I found in them a pleasure and a companionship that has lasted through my life. Thus it happened that I made considerable progress. So much so that the good Bishop, my great-uncle, often flattered me with the ambitious hopes of some day filling his Episcopal chair—a hope that, I need not say, was never realised.
About this time, I being nineteen years of age, things happened that entirely altered my life. My mother sickened and died. Shortly after news came of the death of my brother St. Martin, who was killed in an affair of honour at Milan. The Vidame, my father, then in his eighty-first year, and much enfeebled by old wounds, especially one he had received at Fornovo, felt that his last hours were come, and summoned my brother Simon and myself home to receive his last blessing before he died.
I hurried back as fast as possible, but when I reached Orrain I found to my astonishment the gates of the Chateau closed against me, and Simon, leaning over the battlements, bade me begone.
Overcome with this reception, I was for a space struck speechless; but at length finding voice I begged, even with tears, to be allowed to see my father. But Simon sneered back:
"You will have to take a long journey, then; either below or above—I know not which," he mocked. "Your father is dead. He has left you his curse, and the lands of St. Martin are yours. I am master here at last, thank God! And I tell you to be off! Take that pink and white face of yours back to your College of Cambrai!"
He lied, for, as I afterwards heard, my father was not dead then, but lay dying in his chamber, to which no one but Simon had access, and over which he had placed a guard of his men-at-arms, a cut-throat set of Italians whom he ever had with him.
Simon's cruel words stung me to the quick. My blood flamed with rage, and I dared him to come forth and meet me as a man; but he only laughed all the more, and, pointing to the tree of justice outside the gate, asked how I would like to swing from one of its branches. He added that, as I was his step-brother, he would give me a high one, if I chose.
I can almost see him now as I write this, with his cruel hatchet face snarling over the parapet, his red hair, his tall, thin figure and bent back—if the truth were known, Simon's affairs of gallantry must have been few.
In brief, despite all my efforts, I was unable to see my father, who died that night asking for me.
In the hamlet of Orrain itself I could find no shelter, although the villagers knew and loved me, and this was from fear of the new Vidame. I, however, found a temporary retreat in the forest, living there like a wild beast for four days, waiting with a burning heart for a chance of meeting Simon, but he never came forth.
On the fourth day my father was buried at dead of night in the Chapel of St. Hugo of Orrain, where every Vidame of Orrain, save one, lies.
Pierrebon, now my steward, and at that time my servant, and the only companion I had with me, brought me news from the village that this was to be, and I determined to be there at all hazard. This resolution I carried out, and Simon and I met beside our father's grave. The time and the occasion sealed my lips and stayed my hand. Even Simon spake never a word, but, when it was all over, rode off sullenly through the night back to the Chateau, his cursed Italians around him, and with the dawn started off for Paris.
This I did too. There was nothing else to be done, and I returned to my College.
I was, however, no longer in the position of a poor cadet, without means or resource. My mother's lands of St. Martin had come to me on Anne's death. Even my great-uncle the good Bishop agreed with me, with many sighs, that the profession of arms was more suited to my present position than the Church, but advised me to stay for a year more in College, and fortify my mind by taking the course of Philosophy.
I very willingly assented to this; but the wealthy Chevalier d'Orrain as I was called—I did not take the name of St. Martin—was a vastly different person from the poor cadet of the past year. I found myself courted and sought after. I began to find pleasures in life unknown to me before, and in the young man of fashion, who entered the world a year later it was hardly possible to recognise the once quiet and studious Bertrand d'Orrain.
I plunged into the dissipations of the capital. At the Court I found a patron in Monseigneur the Duc d'Enghien. My extravagance and my follies brought me many reproofs from the Bishop of Seez, but the good man's warnings were in vain, and might have been shouted to the stars. They were certainly at times loud enough to be heard there.
I often met Simon, now Vidame d'Orrain. He was high in favour with the Dauphin, who succeeded to the throne as Henri II., and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, whom he made Duchess of Valentinois. By tacit consent there was an armed peace between us, though I well knew he would take any chance that might arise to my injury. As it was, we met, and passed each other without greeting, and in silence, ever with black looks, and hands on the hilts of our swords.
My acres began to diminish and the woods of St. Martin to go down. Things, in fact, were going from bad to worse, when war with the Emperor broke out afresh, and I was amongst the first of those who volunteered under Enghien for the Italian campaign. There I did my part, and shared in the day of Cerisolles as a captain in the Light Horse of Monsieur de Randan. Then, on the peace, back to Paris once more and the old life; with this difference, that now there was no restraining hand over me, for my great-uncle was dead. He left me his blessing, his copy of "Plutarch's Lives," and thirty crowns of the sun—all his fortune—for, though Bishop of Seez, he was a true shepherd of God, and laid up for himself all his treasures on high.
It was impossible that things could go on much longer without disaster, and the death—murder, rather—of that gallant prince the Duc d'Enghien deprived me of a protector upon whom I could always rely. This, followed by an unfortunate duel, the circumstances of which will be detailed later, precipitated matters. The Edict of Fontainebleau served as a weapon to my enemies, and it was put in force with the utmost rigour against me. My principal accuser was my unnatural step-brother the Vidame d'Orrain. He went so far as to charge me with aiding and harbouring the members of the New Heresy, and the discovery of a small leaflet printed at Geneva amongst my books was held to be sufficient proof against me. The affair of the duel I might have lived through, but this meant death. I took refuge in flight; it was the only course. I was condemned in my absence by the Chambre Ardente to the extreme penalty, and what remained of my property was given to Simon, who shared it with Diane, the mistress of the King.
Thus at five and twenty I found myself an exile, and penniless. One friend alone remained to me, and this was a young man of Orrain called Pierrebon, whom I have mentioned before. Through good and ill he adhered to me with ancient fidelity, and he lives still, honoured and trusted by all who know him.
Together we sought a refuge in the Low Countries, and there I learned the first great lesson of my life, and that was to live by honest work. For five years I labored, until I had amassed sufficient to give me a small estate of about fifty ecus.
During those five years so many things had happened—I myself was so changed—that I began to think that I and my affairs had been consigned to oblivion, and that I might safely return to France. One day I was seized with an uncontrollable desire to see my native land once again. I determined to do so then and there, and a fortnight later, accompanied by Pierrebon, I was in Paris.
I had every reason to confirm the opinion I had formed, that I and my doings had been forgotten. In the humble class to which I now belonged no one had ever heard of the Chevalier d'Orrain. Here in Paris I felt I was safe, and I consequently determined to fix my abode in the great city. I hired an apartment in the Rue des Lavandieres, and established myself there, giving out that I was a fencing-master. No pupils came; but at any rate there was peace and contentment. I formed no acquaintances except one, a certain Camus, a glove-maker, who had an apartment above mine. For some reason or other this man forced himself upon me, and though at first I repulsed his attentions he would not be denied, and I grew to tolerate him. He was possessed of extraordinary learning, and, under the guise of his ostensible calling, plied another terrible trade—those who know the story of Jeanne of Navarre will know what I mean.
This I was unaware of at the time; but, despite myself, the man's conversation interested me, so that I occasionally yielded to his importunities, and visited him for an hour or so after supper, when we passed the time in discussion.
In this manner close upon six years elapsed, until I myself had almost forgotten in the Bourgeois Broussel—the name I assumed—the once brilliant Chevalier d'Orrain. Pierrebon alone knew my secret, and he was as silent as the grave. At times the honest fellow would speak hopefully of a good day to come; but I poured cold water on that, and, pointing to my lute and my copy of "Plutarch's Lives," was wont to say that there was enough happiness there for my life without seeking to reopen the past or delve into the future.
One night—I remember it well; it was the night of Pentecost, in the year 1555—I went up, at Camus' request, to his apartment. I had not seen the old man for some time, and our talk was longer than usual. By some chance we began to discuss poisons, and Camus opened the stores of his curious knowledge. He had studied, he said, with a strange smile, the works of the Rabbi Moses bin Maimon, and was possessed of antidotes for each of the sixteen poisons; but there was one venom, outside the sixteen, the composition of which he knew, but to which there was no antidote. On my inquiry he stated that this was the poison used by the Borgia, and it was prepared as follows:
A bear having been caught, it was made to swallow a draught of Acqua di Borgia. On this beginning to take effect the bear was suspended head downwards. Whilst the animal was in convulsions there poured from his mouth a foamy stream. This, collected in a silver vessel and securely bottled, was the Borgia venom, and to this there was no antidote.
I made some remark of horror, and he laughed a dry, crackling laugh, and rose from his seat.
"I will show you," he said, and was moving towards a press when we were startled by a cry from the street—a cry for help:
"A moi! A moi!"
I BECOME THE OWNER OF A RING
I started from my seat, and Camus, with a turn and a step, reached the window, where, resting his hands on the mullions, he leaned far out. I was on his heels; but the window was narrow, a mere slit, and so I could see nothing below. Late as it was the cry had, however, reached other ears than ours as well. Here and there a dim light glowed for an instant or so in an overhanging window. Here and there a shadowy figure appeared at a balcony, only to vanish like a ghost after peering for a moment in the direction of the sound. This was all the interest, all the attention it excited, and this spoke for the times.
"What is it? Can you see anything?" I asked, craning over Camus' shoulder; and, as if in answer to my question, the cry rang out again, just below the window:
"A moi! Au secours!" Then came an oath, and the rasp of steel.
"They are killing someone there," said Camus; "killing with clumsy steel. Well! 'tis an affair for the watch." And with a shrug of his lean shoulders he turned back. But I waited to hear no more. Drawing my sword I made all haste down the stairway and into the street, and there before me, where the moonlight glistened on the mud and on the green and slimy cobble stones of the Rue des Lavandieres, two men, their backs to the wall, fought for their lives against four, whilst a fifth, who seemed to direct them, stood a little apart.
The odds were heavy against the two. All the heavier because one, dressed in the bizarre attire of jester, had no sword but only a dagger for defence. Nevertheless, with his short cloak wrapped over his left arm, and the dagger in his right hand, he held his own with skill and courage.
The attack, however, was chiefly directed upon his companion, a fair-haired man, with a short moustache and beard. He had lost his hat. There was a red line of blood on his face from a wound in the forehead, and a twitching smile on his lips; but he fought silent as a wolf.
A thrust that would have found his heart was parried, but not by him. Quick as thought, the swordless man by his side hit up the bravo's rapier with his left arm, and the blade, stabbing the air, struck and bent against the stones of the wall just over shoulder-height.
"Sus! sus!" cried the leader of the night-hawks; and he ran forward.
Clearly it was time that help came. So I passed my sword through one of the bravos, and as the others, surprised and disconcerted, gave way a little, I ranged myself beside the two.
"Courage!" I said, "affairs are more equal now."
Cursing and growling, spitting like so many cats, the villains came on with a rush, their leader first. A long arm and a long sword are, however, great advantages in affairs of this kind, and I took him on the riposte. A cry and a gasp, a sword clattered on to the pavement, and the stricken man spun round and, holding his hand to his side, tried to stagger off, but after stumbling a few steps he fell in a heap in the shadow.
This settled the matter. The others, seeing their leader hit, waited for no more, but fled. There was no pursuit. For a few brief seconds we heard the patter of running feet, and then all was still.
We stood, all three staring at each other, and then the fair-haired man held out his hand, saying simply: "I thank you, monsieur!"
I met his grasp, expressing at the same time my concern for his wound.
"It is not much, I think—all due to a weak parry on my part." And he strove with a gold-laced handkerchief to staunch the blood that was flowing somewhat freely. I was about to offer what help I could when the jester cut in.
"Faith of a fool!" he said, sheathing his dagger, "my gossip here is apt to make light of these scratches; but I would give my cap and bells now for a little salve."
"If you will come into my house, messieurs—'tis but a step—we will see to the hurt."
I almost repented of my offer the moment after I made it, for I caught the jester plucking at my friend's sleeve in warning; but the other laughed, and, addressing me in a high and gracious way, said:
"Monsieur, once more thanks! I accept your offer. Of a truth!" and he ruefully looked at his handkerchief, "this is a trifle too much cupping for me."
I bowed, and led the way across the road; but the jester stayed us, calling out in his high-pitched tones:
"Just a look at this carrion! One may as well see upon whom our friend here has put his mark." So saying he stooped and turned over the man, the first of the two who had fallen. He lay half in a stagnant pool of water, and was quite dead, as we could see, for the moon fell clearly on his evil and distorted face and horny, film-covered eyes.
"As dead as imperial Caesar," said the jester; "nor can I say who or what he was. St. Siege! Stay—see this!" And throwing back the man's cloak, which half covered his breast, he pointed with his fingers at a crest embroidered on the doublet. It was a crescent in silver, with a scroll beneath it, and as we all stooped down to see, the jester's keen eyes met those of his companion.
"The scroll explains all," he said, as if in reference to the attack upon them: "it is totum donec impleat orbem."
"Yes; Diane de Poitiers—Diane, Duchess of Valentinois—Diane, the curse of France! But I should play the Caliph Aaron no more, and keep home of nights; better still, take horse with the dawn for Navarre!"
There was a strange earnestness in the speaker's voice. There he was, one knee to ground, a finger resting on the ill-omened crest of the mistress of the King, the moon shining on his rich dress of black and gold, on the sharp, weasel-like face, and keen eyes that looked up at his friend.
"There is more in this than I thought at first," I said to myself, and scanned the features of the dead man more closely. He looked like a foreigner, and, saying that I was going to see after the other, I turned away, but with my ears skinned, as I began to dislike the affair exceedingly.
As I suspected, the jester began to warn his friend once more.
"Monseigneur, there has been enough folly for tonight, and your wound is but slight. Go not into the house! Let us thank him—reward him if you will—but let us be off!"
"Hush, Le Brusquet!" said the other in the same low tone. "There is no fear, and if there is danger I turn not from it."
I had heard enough, and seen enough too. The other man had got off somehow. He had fallen, it is true, but recovered himself sufficiently to make away. One can never be sure of the riposte in an uncertain light, and uncertain moonlight is worst of all.
"He has got off," I said as I returned; "and 'twere well to have your wound looked after, if you mean to have it done."
With this I led the way to the door of my house, and opening it bade them enter. The fair-haired man passed in at once, but I caught a gleam in Le Brusquet's hand as he followed. He had drawn his dagger once more.
My first thought had been, much as I disliked him, to ask Camus to help me in dressing the wound; but upon consideration, and chiefly, after I had heard Le Brusquet address his friend as "Monseigneur," I deemed it preferable that I should see to it myself. I had some experience in these things. A soldier should know how to stop as well as to let blood; and by way of precaution I always keep a little store of remedies at hand, for one never knows when they may be needed, as they were then. With this in my mind I led the way up into my apartment. Here, I may mention, I had established myself modestly but comfortably. It is true that the walls were bare, except for a demi-suit of mail, a couple of swords, and a banner I had taken at Cerisolles; but for the rest, what with my books—I had five in all—and my lute, I flattered myself that I had all that a man needed.
Pierrebon was asleep on a settle, and I had to call twice ere I could wake him, for he slept like the dead. But he rose quickly enough, and lit the candles. Then, bidding him fetch me materials for dressing a cut, I begged my guests to be seated. It was the first chance we had of really seeing each other. The jester Le Brusquet I did not recognize at all, though I noticed the royal cipher on his pourpoint. As for the other, there is only one house in France that bears such features, and the greatest of them all is now King, and owes his being to the man who stood before me.
As the lights fell on us I noticed a quick glance pass between the two, and Le Brusquet's hand moved beneath his cloak. It was as if suspicion were gone and he had resheathed his poniard. I smiled to myself; but Pierrebon now entered with a ewer and the things I required. He placed these on the table, and at a look from me, which he understood, vanished again.
I set myself at once to dress the wound, which was, after all, but a slight affair, though it had bled freely. I said so as I finished, adding that if it had been a trifle deeper the business would have been serious; but, as it was, a couple of days would mend matters entirely, except for a patch.
"Not Frenel himself could have tended me better," said the wounded man. "Monsieur, I am deeply obliged to you."
And Pierrebon entering at this time with some wine I begged them to do me the honour to drink a cup.
This they willingly assented to, and filling three cups from the flagon I raised mine on high.
"Messieurs, a toast for all good Christians! Down with the crescent!"
They understood and drank—Le Brusquet with a searching look in his eyes and a smile on his lips, and his companion with a reckless laugh.
And now they rose. "Monsieur," said the wounded man, "will you add to your kindness by telling us to whom we are indebted? You are a soldier—I can see that—and I can keep that sword of yours from rusting if you will."
So he had not recognised me! Well, ten years make a difference! And yet, if once, he had seen me a hundred times in the days when his valiant brother Enghien lived. I began to feel sure that if he did not know me I was safe indeed; but I had no mind to change my present peace for any other life, and so made answer:
"Monseigneur, it were idle for me to say that I do not know you. Rest assured that were I so minded I could follow no braver or more generous prince than Antony of Vendome, but my sword is hung to the wall. My name is Broussel. I am bourgeois, as you see, and having a small estate of fifty ecus have all that suffices for the simple needs of a citizen such as I. Monseigneur, the little service I rendered is small; let it be forgotten. Nevertheless, I thank you for the kind offer you have made."
I delivered this speech with a respectful air, but yet in a tone that carried the conviction that my resolve was unchangeable.
"As you will," said the Duke, with some coldness of manner. "A Bourbon does not offer twice. And so, farewell! I fear 'tis a long road and an ugly road we have yet to travel, thanks to my folly—eh, Le Brusquet?"
Out of the tail of my eye I had been watching Le Brusquet. All this time he had been engaged in examining the silver cup from which he had drunk his wine—a relic of my past splendour. He toyed with it this way and that, looking at the arms engraved thereon, and comparing them with those on the flagon. Then his little eyes stole a swift, searching glance at me, and a smile—just the shadow of a smile—flickered over his lips. He had not, however, lost a word of what was passing between Vendome and myself, and on the Duke addressing him he put down the cup he held in his hand, saying quietly: "If Monsieur Broussel will add to his kindness by lending me a sword it may, perhaps, be better for us, and I promise faithfully to return it."
Without a word I took a sword from the wall and handed it to Le Brusquet, who received it with a bow, and then, turning to the Duke, I offered to accompany them to the end of the street, which was an evil place even by day. I added that a little beyond the end of the street was the Gloriette, where the guards of Monsieur the Lieutenant of the Chatelet were to be found, and that thence their way would be safe.
The Duke pulled a long face, apparently at the thought of having to disclose his identity to the guards of the Chatelet, but Le Brusquet cut in with a "Let it be so, Monseigneur. Three are better than two, except in love-making."
At this the Duke laughed, and agreed, and we all three went out into the street, which twisted and wound its crooked way towards the river face between two rows of overhanging houses, that seemed as if they were ever threatening to fall over and bury it in their ruins.
For a little we walked without a word; for Antony of Vendome—fickle and vain, at once the hope and despair of his time—felt himself hurt and aggrieved by the refusal of his offer, and for a space preserved a sulky silence. Ere we had gone a quarter mile, however, his temper—variable as the wind—began to change and his kindly nature to reassert itself. We were passing the house of the Duplessis Richelieu when he spoke.
"Eh bien, Monsieur Broussel, change your mind and think better of my offer. What with one thing and another there is steel in the air at present, and a stout heart and a good sword such as you are may make an estate of fifty ecus five hundred or more. Come, think of it!"
I felt my blood warm within me in spite of my fancied devotion to my contented life; but I thought of that affair of the duel, of the judgment of the Chambre Ardente, and above all, of Simon and the cards he held against me. Besides, I knew Vendome, and so I refused once more.
"Well, well," he said, "as you will; but never say Antony of Vendome was ungrateful."
We had by this time reached the point where the road opened out upon the river face, and halted together in the moonlight.
A little distance from us lay the Seine, shining in scales of hammered brass. The convicts were still on the Gloriette. Poor wretches! They slaved there day and night, and lights were moving to and fro amongst them as the guards watched them at their toil. They were singing a weird refrain—a chorus—ever and again interrupted by yells and curses as the lash of the task-master fell on some victim of his hatred or sluggard at work.
"Here we part, Monseigneur!" I said. "The lieutenant of the Chatelet will give you guards to escort you farther."
I bowed to both, and would have gone—for I thought it well not to be mixed up further in this matter—but the Duke stayed me. He had taken off his glove, and was fumbling with a ring on his finger. This he drew off and thrust into my hand.
"Keep this, monsieur. Remember, if ever you want a friend you have but to send it to me. Farewell!"
"Au revoir!" cried Le Brusquet, who had up to now preserved silence. "Remember, Le Brusquet is also your debtor doubly—once for a life and once for a sword—and forget not my address is the sign of the Crescent."
With this mocking allusion to the Louvre and to Diane de Poitiers' influence there, he followed on the heels of Vendome, leaving me with the ring in my hand.
I watched them until they were lost in the shivering haze. They never sought the Gloriette, but kept on the right, making directly for the Louvre.
Then I looked at the ring. It was light enough for me to see that it was a plain gold signet in the shape of a shield, with the arms of Bearn—two cows on a field Or—cut thereon.
"Perhaps," I said to myself, "I shall need it some day." With this I slipped it on my finger, and went back.
MY PYRAMID OF CARDS COMES DOWN
I may say at once that in this chronicle it often befalls that I have to describe the actions and deal with the motives of others. In doing this I have given no rein to idle fancy, but have strictly followed what those who played a part in my life have told me.
To show that my authorities in this respect are beyond reproach I have but to mention the names of my friends—Blaise Ste. Marie de Lorgnac, now, as all know, the Marechal Duc de Lorgnac; and Nicholas d'Ayen, Sieur de Besme, of the Quercy, who acted so strange a part in his day under the name of Le Brusquet. Each of these is prepared on his faith, as knight and gentleman, to support my words, either on foot or on horseback, with sword or with lance, and in this respect I too am ready to cross a blade, or run a course; and so, God defend the Truth!
If further proof is needed I beg leave to refer to the confession of the Italian, Torquato Trotto, made at his expiation, which gives many and curious details, especially of what happened in Le Jaquemart, and which is registered in the archives of the Parliament of Paris, where all who list may see it. There is yet one other whom I could name, one who is ever at my side, and who for good or for ill has taken me as part of her life; but for the present the names I have cited are sufficient, and I shall say no more on the subject.
On returning to my apartment after leaving Vendome and Le Brusquet I found old Camus at the door awaiting me. He entered with me, saying:
"I watched it all from the window. Hey! but it was well done!"
I pretended to take no notice of this remark, and pressed some refreshment upon him; but the old rascal refused, and sat with his knee between his hands, rocking himself backwards and forwards. He went on to make some roundabout inquiries as to who the persons were to whose assistance I had gone, but I told him plainly that I did not desire to discuss the subject.
Becoming nettled at this, he said: "Ho! ho! and so you do not trust me, Monsieur Broussel! Well, I tell you I know at any rate who it is that lies dead out there, for I have been to see, and it will not take long for me to find out the rest."
"Go and find out, then!" I said somewhat roughly, being annoyed in my turn.
At which he rose in a white heat. "That I will," he said; "and you will find that the hand of Madame Diane, soft as it is, can grip hard—hard, mind you, Monsieur Broussel!"
With this he flung out; and so we, who but an hour or two ago were in friendly converse, parted in anger, and with stormy words.
In a manner I was not sorry for this, for in my heart I always felt a warning against him, and there was something so ominous, so evil, in his face as he left that I felt assured he would strike a felon blow at the first opportunity.
The more I reflected on what had happened, and on Camus' threat in connection with Diane de Poitiers, the more I began to see a crop of dangers ahead of me. I began to think it well to retire to some other city. In this I was influenced by the fact that, if there were trouble about the dead man and I were involved in it, as after Camus' words I felt I should certainly be, it was hardly possible that I could escape being recognised.
The sentence against me, cruel and unjust as it was, stood still, and, once I was discovered, it would be put into force for certain.
Like a prudent general, I felt I must beat a retreat. The bulk of my money was in trustworthy hands in Antwerp, but in my oak chest were a hundred gold crowns of the sun—a great stand-by and help in the hour of trouble.
There was nothing for it but to go, and, summoning Pierrebon, I told him of my intention. We set to work to pack a valise at once. This being done, we waited for the small hours.
It was about four in the morning that I decided to move, and taking a last look at the place where I had lived so long in peace I went out into the street, followed by Pierrebon bearing the valise. I had to leave everything behind except the barest necessities and my money, and to trust the well-being of my goods to Fortune. The jade was unkind enough to forget me in this matter, which put me to heavy loss.
It was, of course, impossible to leave Paris at this hour, as the gates would be shut; but behind the Abbey of St. Germain de Pres was a little hostel called the Chapeau Rouge, where I knew I could find shelter until I could procure a couple of horses and be off.
At four in the morning night-hawks are abed, and even the convicts had ceased working on the Gloriette. The moon had gone, and it was dark now—the darkness that precedes the dawn.
We met not a soul as we stumbled along, and coming out at length to the Vallee de Misere we passed the Gloriette, and kept to our right along the river face, until almost opposite the Church of St. Germain l'Auxerrois. Here moored to the bank were a number of boats, the boatmen sleeping within them. Groping about in the darkness—such noises as we made being fortunately drowned by the continual lap, lap of the water against the sides of the boat, and their creaking and groaning as they rubbed against each other—we at length found a small empty boat tied to a large one. Favoured by darkness, we loosened the knot, and, taking to the oars, crossed the river without being perceived by a soul.
Once on the opposite bank we made the boat fast to some piles of wood near the water's edge, and leaving a piece of silver for the boatman, which I trust he found, we took the road to the Abbey of St. Germain. Near here we found a retreat in the scaffolding of a house that was being repaired. There we stayed until it was light, and about six in the morning arrived at the inn, as though we were early travellers who had entered Paris on the opening of the Porte St. Germain. In this manner, favoured by luck, and by the exercise of caution, I bade farewell to the Rue de Lavandieres, and gave Camus the slip, without leaving any trace behind me.
The Chapeau Rouge was an inn mostly frequented by students, and in my younger days I knew it well, though, to be sure, more than a dozen years had passed since I last entered it. It was surrounded by a large garden, enclosed by a high wall, and I could have chosen no better place for my purpose, which was to lie close during the day, and, as soon as horses were procured, to depart at dusk, about the hour of the shutting of the gates.
As it happened, on this day there was scarce a soul at the inn, all the usual customers having been drawn away to witness the execution of a Portuguese named Gomez, who had been found guilty of sorcery, witchcraft, and other crimes, and was to suffer in expiation on the Place Maubert.
This ill wind, however, blew fair for me, as it left me undisturbed; and sending Pierrebon to purchase or hire horses I awaited his return.
It was well on in the afternoon, and the sun being hot I was resting in the shade of the garden wall, when from within a summer-house all covered with roses, that stood near to me, I heard a lute string touched by a master-hand, and a man's voice, full and clear, began to sing "The Three Cavaliers." With a rush a hundred recollections of the past came back to me, and I felt myself once more a heedless boy, sitting on that very same seat where the singer was now, and singing the same song. I rose and went forward, and to my surprise saw it was Le Brusquet, lute in hand, and by his side there sat a small brown ape, a collar of gold round his neck.
I listened till the last of the song, and was about to turn away; but, the ape running out of the summer-house at the time, the jester put his head through the entrance, with a "Back! Pompon! back!" and caught sight of me.
In a moment he was by my side, and, willy-nilly, forced me into the summer-house.
"The very man I wanted," he said. "I came here to think of you. I always come here when in doubt or trouble—and here you are—dropped from the clouds." He poured out some wine for me, and when we had drank a health together he asked me:
"Eh bien, monsieur, tell me how you came here; tell me all, for I am a friend."
It was impossible not to see this, and in a few words I told him. He listened gravely the while, stroking his ape's head.
When I had done he spoke. "I too have something to tell you. There is an outcry about Madame Diane's Italian—the first time an outcry has been made about any such scum. This morning there was a scene at the petit couvert. I was there. The short of it is that the King, my gossip, sided with his mistress as against Vendome. Words ran so high that the Duke was ordered to leave Paris, which he did at once."
I looked at the ring on my finger, and Le Brusquet saw the look.
"I fear," he said, "that little talisman has lost its power for the present; but, to go on, I had other business in the morning which I could not avoid. Towards eleven o'clock I hastened to the Rue des Lavandieres to return your sword and to warn you. To my relief you were not there. Your hermit's paradise is gone, and an angel, in the form of one of M. Morin's guards, is at the door. Instead of a flaming sword he carries an arquebus——"
"It is quick work," I cut in; "and they have seized everything, I suppose?"
"Yes; everything. And your ostensible accuser and witness against you is one Camus, a glove-maker. He laid an information against you at sunrise. He was with Valentinois an hour later. Diane rises with the dawn, you know; and he is her glove-maker."
"So he has struck hard, and struck quickly."
"Yes; there is very little glove about his action. And more, Diane seems bent upon avenging the death of her Italian. But, monsieur, what is your next move?"
I explained my intention, and how I proposed to quit Paris; whereat he shook his head.
"It will not do," he said; "the gates are watched. So far you have beaten them, but there you will fail, and here detection is certain."
"I must risk something."
"As little as possible." And after a pause: "What do you say to the Louvre?"
"The Louvre!—the lion's den!"
"The safest place on earth. See here, Monsieur Broussel. I owe you my life; give me a chance to make some return. Can you trust me enough to put yourself in my hands? I will not fail you. It is not Le Brusquet the King's jester, but Nicholas d'Ayen, Sieur de Besme, of the Quercy, who pledges his word."
We stared each other in the face, and my good genius came to my elbow.
"Yes," I said.
In short, it was arranged that I should meet him towards sunset at the entrance to the tennis court, east of the Louvre. There was some difficulty about Pierrebon and the horses; but in this Le Brusquet again came to my aid, and it was settled that Pierrebon should find shelter in a house in the Rue Tire Boudin, which belonged to Monsieur Blaise de Lorgnac, Seigneur of Malezieux, and lieutenant of the Queen's guard, the same being a tried and true friend of my new-found benefactor.
Pierrebon at this moment returning, I hailed him. He had been unsuccessful in his attempt to obtain horses such as we needed, but hoped to do so the next day; and shortly after Le Brusquet departed, taking Pierrebon with him, and my valise.
"Fast bind, safe find," he said as he pointed at Pierrebon; and then, calling to his ape, went off.
Towards the appointed time I found myself close to the parvis of St. Germain l'Auxerrois. For some reason or other there was a greater crowd than usual, and I was compelled to halt for a moment. Just at this moment a body of eight or ten horsemen came trotting rapidly towards the Chatelet. Their leader all but rode over a child, and would certainly have done so had I not made a long arm and pushed it aside. There was no doubt of it, the leading horseman was my brother Simon, the Vidame d'Orrain, and I thanked my good star that, owing to the dusk, the bustle, and the pace he was going at, he did not recognise me. Something, however, struck him, for twice he turned back to look. I did not wait for a third glance, and, mixing with the crowd, was lost to view.
At the gate of the tennis court I met Le Brusquet, and, passing through a wicket, we entered the precincts of the Louvre.
THE QUEEN'S MIRACLE
Where the eastern wing of the Louvre rose high above the Rue St. Thomas lay the apartments of Le Brusquet, at the end of a labyrinth of passages and galleries. Having brought me here my friend left me, with a warning not to stir forth until his return—a piece of advice I was quite prepared to follow. Once alone I stepped out into a small, overhanging balcony, that clung like a beehive to the leprous grey of the wall, and, sitting well under cover of the battlements, looked around. Far below me was a walled courtyard, in which an archer of M. de Lorges' guard paced steadily backwards and forwards. Beyond this lay the narrow Rue St. Thomas du Louvre, its many-storeyed houses crowding one above the other, as if struggling for light and air. Here were the spires of St. Thomas du Louvre, the church raised to the martyr of Canterbury, and St. Nicaise. There lay the Quinze Vingts. To the right stood the Campanile of St. Germain l'Auxerrois, all empurpled in the afterglow of the sunset. Still farther, where the mouth of the street opened out, was a glimpse of the Seine; and with a turn of my head I could see, huge and vast, the enormous keep of the Louvre, built by Philip Augustus, and evilly known as the Philippine. But although my eyes, straining through the twilight, rested on these and more, my thoughts were far away. At a puff my pyramid of cards, the little life I had built up for myself, had come down, and all my labour and toil were in vain.
I am not of those who give way to despair; but the blue devils attack the best hearted at times, and for once I felt the hopelessness of my position, and began to think it useless to struggle further. Perhaps, after all, it would be better to accept defeat and surrender myself. Better that than being hunted like a hare, as I was. And then my thoughts were cut short. Something soft and furry sprang into my lap. It was Pompon, Le Brusquet's ape, and he looked into my face with soft, melancholy eyes.
"Poor little beast!"—and I stroked him. "You at least build no pyramids of cards."
"Tudieu!" said a voice, "that is true, but for pulling them down he has no equal." And Le Brusquet appeared at the window, which opened out upon the balcony.
I rose and came in. Le Brusquet stepped back and seated himself on a table, and then for the first time I noticed a third person in the room—a tall, soldierly man, with the collar of The Order at his neck. With a wave of his hand Le Brusquet presented me to the stranger, whom I found was M. de Lorgnac, the lieutenant of the Queen's guard—he in whose house Pierrebon had obtained shelter.
I thanked him for the kindness he had shown in this, to one so utterly unknown as I was to him; but he stayed me with a smile, saying that in this or any other matter I could command him, as the friend of Le Brusquet, and went on to pay me a handsome compliment in regard to the affair of the previous night.
"An affair that is like to place me on the road to Montfaucon," I said a little bitterly.
"On the contrary," replied De Lorgnac, "rather, perhaps, on the road to better things."
"Hearken not unto him!" said Le Brusquet; "he is for ever looking out for recruits for his guard. Blaise de Lorgnac is as insatiable a stirrer of the porridge of the times as I; only I use a longer ladle, as beseems a person of my wisdom. As for you, mon ami Blaise,—you throw your lures in vain! Know you that Monsieur Broussel is a philosopher, who has found contentment in—fifty ecus a year, did you not say, monsieur?" And, reaching for his lute, he ran his fingers over the strings and began to sing:
"Mes amis, la terre est a moi. J'ai de quoi Vivre en roi Si l'eclat me tente. Les honneurs me sont devolus J'ai cinquante ecus, J'ai cinquante ecus, J'ai cinquante ecus de."
"Mille tonnerres! Stop! Do you want to bring half the Louvre here to listen?" And De Lorgnac placed his hand over the singer's mouth, and took the lute from him.
"Enough!" said Le Brusquet; "you have banished the inspiration. I sing no more. And as for you, Monsieur Blaise, take yourself off with that long sword of yours. It frightens the ape, and I have that to say which is for M. Broussel's ear alone."
"Au revoir!" said Lorgnac, but as he reached the door he turned to me.
"Your Pierrebon is safe and sound in the Rue Tire Boudin. He has received orders not to stir forth. In the matter of the horses—you must let that be my care." And without waiting for reply he went away.
"I know not how to thank M. de Lorgnac or you——" I began, but Le Brusquet cut in:
"As yet the thanks are due from me, and Lorgnac is helping me to pay my debts. And now listen, mon ami. One half the world consists of fools who give advice, and the other half of idiots who refuse to benefit by it; let me for once see an exception to the rule."
"I hardly follow you."
"I will explain. Between us there is this difference. In the search for happiness that every man makes I remained in the world, and you left it and turned philosopher. The result is that I am fairly satisfied with life, whereas you are sick of it in your heart. Yet, until this disaster came to you, you tried to play the happy man with your lute, your 'Plutarch's Lives,' and your hermit's cell of a house. Is it not so?"
I made no answer, and he continued:
"Last night, for some reason of your own—perhaps because you still clung to your belief in your own way of life—you refused a chance; that chance has gone; but another is left, and it remains for you to take it or not."
"What is left?"
"What is left is this. Last night you refused the sauce of a prince of the blood; to-day will you refuse the soup of a Queen?"
"Of a Queen!"
"Yes; of the Queen of France. In brief, the Queen wants a reliable person to do something for her. It must be someone unknown to the Court. Will you undertake the business or not? It will, at any rate, enable you to leave Paris in safety, in broad day if you will, though out of Paris you may have to look to your skin."
Like an old war-horse I scented the battle, and my blood flamed through me. Le Brusquet was right. With cunning knowledge he had pulled at my heart-strings, and laid bare my secret to myself. Win or lose, I now knew that I had to come back to the world; and it should be now. I rose to my feet.
"I accept," I said, "whatever is offered me."
"I thought you would," he answered; "and I may tell you that De Lorgnac knows of this. At first it was he who was to have undertaken the affair; but he is too well known, and the Queen would have none of him. He it was who suggested your name to me; and," he went on, with a smile, "it was all prearranged that he should leave us together, so that I might open the matter to you."
"But the Queen! Perhaps——"
"There is no perhaps about it. The Queen asked De Lorgnac to find her an agent, and he has named you."
"I was going to say that if the Queen finds I am bourgeois——"
"We can leave the matter of a coat-of-arms to the Queen." And he laughed as he continued: "Perhaps that may come to the plain Monsieur Broussel—and—it has just gone compline, and we, or rather you, must see the Queen."
"I am ready," I said.
"Then let us be away! Everything has gone well. The King has left for Fontainebleau to hunt the boar. He started this afternoon; Madame Diane is with him. The royal children are at St. Germain-en-Laye, and but for its guards the Louvre is deserted; there is no one here but the Queen. Come, then!"
With a whistle to the ape, which hopped along in front of us, he opened the door and passed out, I following on his heels. Outside, we found ourselves in a maze of twisting passages, along which my guide went with quick, light steps. Finally, we turned into an arched doorway, and, ascending a stair, stood on the roof of one of the galleries connecting the wings of the Louvre with the great keep.
The twilight was dead, but the moon was rising in a clear, cloudless sky. By her light we walked along the lonely battlements until we reached a flight of steps, upon which the shadow of the Philippine fell darkly. Arrived at the head of the steps we gained an embattled balcony, giving access, by means of a lancet arch, into the keep. Through this we passed, and entered a long, low corridor. So low, indeed, that by raising the baton he carried in his hand Le Brusquet, though not a tall man, could easily reach the joints of the groined roof. Here we stood for a space, where a banner of moonlight lay on the floor—the ape a dark spot in its whiteness. All was silent as the grave. Once there was a startling rush of wings as a homing-pigeon flew past the open arch and hissed off into the night. All was in semi-gloom, except where the moon lit the floor at our feet, and where, at intervals, a dim yellow halo marked the spot where a feeble lamp was burning in a niche set far back in the huge walls.
"And this leads to the Queen's apartment," whispered Le Brusquet, with a shrug of his shoulders, as he led the way along the gallery, which curved with the shape of the keep. On rounding the curve it came to an abrupt ending. Here a lamp swung by a chain from the roof, and by its light we dimly saw before us a large door, firmly closed, and seeming to bar all further progress. Near the door a man was seated in an alcove in the wall, his knees almost up to his chin, his drawn sword in his hand. He swung round on to his feet as we came up. It was De Lorgnac.
"The Queen awaits you," he said, without further greeting, and tapped twice at the door. It was opened at once, and both Le Brusquet and myself were about to step in when De Lorgnac laid his hand on the former's arm.
"M. Broussel alone," he said, drawing Le Brusquet back, and I passed through the door.
I found myself in a small ante-chamber; but there was not a soul within. I stood for a moment irresolute, when the door behind me opened once again, and I heard De Lorgnac's voice.
"Onwards! Through the curtains ahead of you."
This I did, and entered a large room, richly furnished. The light, bright though soft, of the tall candles burning in grotesque holders fell on the curtains of violet velvet, starred with the golden lilies of France, on the rare tapestry, that covered the walls, on embroidered cushions and quaint carvings. There were flowers in abundance everywhere; but their scent was killed by something that burned in a cup held by a little bronze Ganymede, the odour of which filled the room with a sweet but heavy scent. This room, like the other, was likewise empty, and after glancing round twice to make sure, I took my stand near a table, upon which there were some writing materials and a pair of richly embroidered gloves. The sight of the gloves brought old Camus back to my mind, and I was about to take one up, to look at the workmanship, when I heard a footfall; the curtains were set aside, and a woman stood before me.
It was Catherine de Medicis herself. It was years since I had seen her, then a young girl; but now, though still young, she was in the bloom of ripened womanhood. People said that, with all her accomplishments, she lacked courage, and was dull and stupid. As my glance rested on the pale features, on the somewhat sullen mouth, and on the dark, expressionless eyes before me, I began to think they were right. To-day, however, I was also to begin learning a new lesson. Others have since learned it too, and paid for the learning as lessons have never been paid for before or after. She let fall the curtain she held as I sank on one knee before her and extended me a shapely hand. As I touched it with my lips she said in her deep-toned voice:
"M. Broussel, arise!"
I did so, and, moving towards the chair near the table, she sat down, and began toying with one of the gloves, her eyes not meeting my look, but surveying me with a swift sidelong glance.
"Eh bien!" she said, "you are that M. Broussel who came so opportunely to the rescue of my cousin of Vendome."
I bowed, and with another of her swift glances she asked:
"And you are to be trusted?"
"Your Majesty," I said, "I have but my word to offer for this—I have none who will add his pledge to mine."
"No one? Are you sure?"
"Your Majesty, it is as I have said."
A faint smile parted her lips, and she looked up at me suddenly and quickly, her eyes as alive with intelligence as they had appeared dull and lifeless before.
"Well, monsieur, before I trust you," and she struck the glove she held in her hand on the table, "it is necessary for me to tell you something. Listen. Many years ago—I was new to France then—a young gentleman of the best blood of Burgundy came to Paris, and entered at the College of Cambrai. Well, he did what none other of his time did, nor has any of his order done the like since. He took the three courses—took them brilliantly. You follow me?"
"I am all attention, madame." My voice was as cold and measured as hers, but in my heart I began to wonder if I would leave the room for a journey to Montfaucon, with a halt by the way at the Chatelet.
"But," she continued, "this man was not a mere bookworm nor a pedant, though Le Brun, whose voice was the voice of the Sorbonne then, prophesied a red hat for him. The red hat never came, nor did a marshal's baton, though Bevilacqua himself foretold the latter one day, as he brushed away a chalk mark just over the heart, where this young man's foil had touched him. Bevilacqua, mind you—the best sword in Europe!"
I made as if about to speak. I was about to ask her bluntly what was to be the end of this, but with a wave of her hand she stayed me.
"Permit me to continue, monsieur! This man, or boy as he was then, was true metal all through, but he was cursed with an open heart and wealth. Let us say that the course of Philosophy unsettled his mind, that the two campaigns in Italy brought but withered laurels. Let it be what you will, but back he came to Paris; and because his blood was warm, his spirits high, and his heart full of vanity and vain imaginings, the red wine was poured forth, the dice rattled, fair women smiled, and the gold crowns went. It was the old, old story; but the pity of it, monsieur, was that it was such pure good steel that was fretting thus to rust! Was it not?"
She stopped, and looked at me again with her wonderful, searching eyes, and I braced myself, as one who was about to receive a death-blow.
"At last the end came. This brave, gallant—fool—yes, that is the word—quarrelled with his best friend over a lady of the Marais—of the Marais, mind you! This friend wanted to save him from himself. The result was that those two, who had been like brothers, met each other sword in hand under the lee of the Louvre, and one—it was not the fool—fell."
The words seemed to thunder in my ears. By some effort, I knew not how, I managed to restrain myself, and her cold, passionless voice went on:
"After that came ruin—ruin utter and hopeless. And he who might have been anything died like a dog of the streets."
Something like a gasp of relief broke from me; but the Medicis had not done yet. She rose swiftly, and for one brief second let her white hand, glittering with rings, rest on my shoulder. It was for a moment only, and then she let fall her hand, with a smile on her face.
"They say, monsieur, that the age of miracles is past. Caraffa the Legate smiles if you mention them. But I—I believe, for I know. The dead have come back before. Why not again, Bertrand d'Orrain? Would you live again, and pledge your faith for that of the Bourgeois Broussel?"
THE PORTE ST. MICHEL
Half-an-hour later, when I quitted the presence of the Queen, it was as one to whom the world was opening afresh, and in that brief interval I had felt and begun to understand the subtle intellect of Catherine, of the existence of which few as yet were aware.
In regard to the mission with which I was entrusted I am pledged to preserve silence. The people concerned in it are dead, and when I follow them the secret will go with me. Let it suffice for me to say that my task was such that a man of honour could accept, and that if I failed the preservation of my skin was my own affair, for help I would get from none. Hidden in the inner pocket of my vest was a dispatch to Montluc, the King's lieutenant in the South. In my hand I openly bore a letter, sealed with the palle of the Medici, and addressed in the Queen's own writing to the King. It was to be the means of my freeing the gates of Paris if difficulty arose, and how it did so I shall presently show.
I found my friends awaiting me, and Le Brusquet asked:
"Well, have you come forth a made man?"
"Monsieur, I will answer you that," I said with assumed gravity, "if you will tell me who betrayed me to the Queen."
I looked from one to the other, and they both laughed.
"Behold the traitor, then!" And Le Brusquet pointed with his finger at me.
"Yes, you!—as if you had called it from the housetops. Mon ami, did ever hear of a bourgeois handling sword as you, or bearing arms un coq d'or griffe de sable, en champ d'azur? Those arms are on your wine-cups—if they exist still—they are on the hilt of the sword you lent me."
"But that is not all. In the gay, red days, when Lorgnac here and I had all the world before us, we were of the College of Cambrai. It is true we entered as you left; but we knew you, and when all Paris was full of your name Lorgnac and I, and others whom you knew not, aped the fall of your cloak, the droop of your plume, the tilt of your sword. Those days are gone, and until last night you, I thought, were gone with them."
"Listen! There is more yet. I but told the Queen of the arms you bore. She recognised them at once."
"That is not strange; the Vidame d'Orrain is in Paris!"
"True! But she remembered your history—every detail of it. It was long ago, and many things have happened, and the Seine there has rolled much water under its bridges since then, but she had forgotten nothing. My friend, they who say the Medicis ever forgets are fools—blind in their folly. And so, for the sake of last night, and a little for the days that have gone, we will see pretty things yet, God willing! Eh, De Lorgnac?"
"I for one look forward to the day when a brave man will come to his own," replied the other, and their kindness touched me to the quick.
I am not one gifted with the power of speech—indeed, I hold that the greater the tongue the smaller the heart—but I found words to thank these gallant gentlemen, and De Lorgnac said:
"Monsieur, it is enough thanks to hold us in your esteem, and we will say no more about it. I have, however, some information that may be useful. Your brother the Vidame left Paris this evening for the South, it is said. Thus one danger is at any rate removed from your path."
It was something to know that Simon was gone. I thanked De Lorgnac, and added:
"Now, messieurs, for my news. I know not if I have come forth from that chamber"—and I pointed behind me—"a made man or not. This much I know, I am the bearer of a letter, the delivery of which must not be delayed, and I must leave Paris with the dawn, or before—horse or no horse."
"The horses I said were my care," De Lorgnac said. And then turning to Le Brusquet: "Await me on the steps that lead to the eastern gallery; I am relieved in less than an hour. We will then take monsieur here to my house, where there are two horses in the stables at his disposal, and the rest concerns himself."
Le Brusquet and I went back as we came, his constant companion, the ape, with us. Passing through the open arch I have already mentioned we halted on the steps that lead from the balcony to the eastern wing, and here we awaited De Lorgnac.
For a little there was a silence. Perhaps we were both impressed by the scene. In front lay the river, a band of silver, with here and there the twinkling, swaying lights of a crossing boat upon it. All around was the great city, and from the distance there came a murmuring hum of voices, like waves lapping upon a far-off shore. Around us, towering above and ringing us in with its immense strength, rose the Louvre, its vast outlines looking, if possible, larger and more gigantic in the enchanted light.
After a space Le Brusquet began to speak of the Vidame, my brother, and so we passed the time in converse until De Lorgnac came. He bade us haste if we wished to quit the Louvre ere the pontlevis were raised, and hurrying after him we made our way to the southern gate, the only one open. As we went onwards the desolation that marked the entrance to the Queen's apartments was no longer visible. Ever and again we were stopped and challenged by sentries.
"Hein!" exclaimed Le Brusquet, "the Scots archers keep good ward."
"Quick! Hurry!" was De Lorgnac's answer. "There goes the first signal for closing the gates!"
And as he spoke a clarion rang out shrilly. We had reached the outer court by this, and were hurrying for the bridge that led to the pontlevis when we saw a tall man, his cuirass glittering like silver in the moonlight, step out of the shadow and signal to a trumpeter, who stood at his side.
"A moment, De Lorges. Stay!" And Lorgnac ran up to him. "Faith! but your time is punctual."
Montgomery de Lorges laughed as he laid a restraining hand on his trumpeter. "I have more than half a mind to give the signal," he said. "There is a rare flagon of Arbois in my apartment, and you would have been forced to share it. Come, change your mind and stay."
"Thanks; but I cannot. We are bound to my house, where you are very welcome if you care to come."
"And leave my post? No, no!"
"Au revoir, then."
And we passed over the bridge. Almost had we freed it when the trumpet sounded again, and with a rattling of chains the huge pontlevis rose.
"Faith! 'twas a narrow thing. Had we been but a minute later the Scot would have barred all egress." And Le Brusquet looked back at the gate through which we had passed. It lay on the other side of the pontlevis—the fosse between us—and was of angular shape, surmounted by a statue of Charles V. of France, and, as De Lorgnac said, was already doomed to destruction to make way for the improvements contemplated by the King.
It was midnight now, and the streets were almost deserted, though here and there were groups of people collected together for mutual protection. As time was short we decided to take the Rue St. Thomas du Louvre despite its ill-paved and noisome condition. Passing the fountain near the Marche des Innocents we turned up by the St. Eustache into the Tiquetonne, and thence Rue Tire Boudin was but a short step. I need not say with what joy the good Pierrebon received me, and after a light supper—in which, I fear, I did but scant justice to De Lorgnac's Joue—I determined to snatch an hour or so of rest before starting. Before doing so, however, Lorgnac took me to see the horses. They looked what he said they were—good, stout roadsters. I asked him his price, but, as I expected from one of his generous nature, he offered them to me as a gift. This I was determined not to accept, and finally, after much persuasion, he took forty crowns of the sun for the two. This was barely their worth, but nothing would induce him to accept a denier more.
The valise I had packed contained the requisites for a journey, and having changed my attire I decided to take such rest as I could get in a chair until it was time to start. I seemed to have barely closed my eyes when I was awakened again by the touch of a hand on my shoulder. It was Le Brusquet.
"Eh bien," he said, "but you sleep like an honest man! It has gone three. The horses are ready, and De Lorgnac and Pierrebon await you below. Come!"
So saying he led the way down. We had to go to the stables, and in the yard were the two horses ready saddled. Lorgnac was also there, and to my surprise I saw that he too was mounted.
"I will see you to the gates," he explained as he caressed his horse, a magnificent grey charger.
"And as for me," said Le Brusquet, "I will wish you good fortune here, and a safe return, and the sword you lent me is in secure keeping."
And so we rode out in the grey darkness of the morning through the solitary streets, where there was never a sign of life except an occasional dog, which—homeless and friendless—stared wistfully after us as we went past. I had decided to leave Paris by the Porte St. Michel, and this all the more as the captain of the gate—the Vicomte de Crequy—was a near relative of De Lorgnac, and the passage through might, perhaps, be made easier on this score. It was still dark as we trotted down the Rue de la Harpe under the shadow of the Sorbonne, having passed the Pont au Change and the Pont St. Michel without difficulty, although we expected some check there.
On our coming up to the Porte St. Michel the guard challenged us, threatening to fire with his arquebus if we did not halt. This we were compelled to do, and a parley ensued. The result was that the under-officer of the guard came forth, with two or three of his men, and allowed us to approach.
On our coming up, and on my explaining that I desired to have the gates opened, he swore as he surveyed us with the aid of a lantern that he swung in our faces.
"Mordieu!" he said, with a rough southern accent—and a grim old soldier he was—"are you madmen, or have you dropped from the clouds, not to know that the gates are shut and will not be opened till sunrise?"
"That may be, monsieur," I replied; "but I have a letter to the King—to the King, mind you—which he must get ere he starts for the hunt."
"He!" he said doubtfully. "A letter to the King! You will have to take it on wings, then. But from whom is this letter?" he added suspiciously.
"That, monsieur, does not concern you. The fact remains that I have this letter, and it is you who will have to answer for its late delivery, not I."
"Then let me see it."
I pulled out the letter and showed it to him, without, however, letting it pass from my hands. He cast the light of the lantern on it, and looked this way and that at the seals and at the address, muttering to himself the while.
"Devil take me! But I never could read. Here! Can any one of you read this?" And he turned to his men, but they one and all shook their heads.
"I will read it for you if you like," said De Lorgnac as he pushed his horse forwards.
"Yes. I am Monsieur de Lorgnac, the lieutenant of the Queen's guard."
The old soldier made a mock bow. "And I," he said, "am Agrippa Pavanes, without a De, lieutenant of the Gate of St. Michel; and your friend there is, I suppose, Monsieur de Croquemort, lieutenant of Trouands. And, as we all know each other now, I tell you plainly you must hold patience by the tail as best you may until the gates are opened. Letter or no letter, I will not let you through."
And so saying he would have turned away, but Lorgnac said quietly:
"You will be good enough, monsieur, to inform Monsieur de Crequy that I am here and desire to see him at once."
Agrippa Pavanes swung round and faced us, his hand on his sword-hilt.
"I am in charge of this gate at present, and I will act as I think best. I may not be able to read or write, but if you do not be off I will make a full stop on you with the point of my sword," he snarled.
Affairs were getting serious. Nor do I know what might have happened, but at this juncture a head appeared at a window in one of the flanking towers of the gate, and an angry and a sleepy voice asked what was the matter below.
"It is I, Crequy," began De Lorgnac, and the other exclaimed:
"You! What in the—saints' name—brings you here, De Lorgnac, at this hour of the night, or rather morning? Is it not enough that I am banished here to keep watch over this infernal gate? And now you——"
"Come, Crequy; this is a matter of urgency. There is a letter here from the Queen which must reach the King before the petit couvert, and your lieutenant will not let the messenger pass through the gates."
"He is quite right! But a letter from the Queen, did you say?"
"Yes; and to the King in person. Come down, and see for yourself."
"Not I; I am in my shirt, and my health is delicate. Send up the letter. Pavanes, do me the favour to bring it up."
I handed the letter to Agrippa, who took it up, with very much the surly air of a dog walking away with a bone. A moment after he too appeared at the window with his light, and Crequy examined the letter and the seals.
"'Tis right, Pavanes," we heard him say; "'tis the Queen's own hand and seal. Let the messenger through." And leaning out of the window he repeated the same to us.
De Lorgnac thanked him, regretting, at the same time, the necessity he had of arousing him; and Crequy swore back, in mock tones of injury, that he would have a special cell built for disturbers of his rest, and, wishing us the day, retired abruptly.
Agrippa carried out his orders with an ill grace, and made no answer to my thanks; so, bidding farewell to De Lorgnac, I put spurs to my horse, and, followed by Pierrebon, rode out of Paris.
SIMON AND I MEET AGAIN
The stars were yet shining as we skirted the heights of Charenton, but it was day when we saw Villaneuve St. Georges on its wooded hill. Here, where the Yeres wound between banks covered with willows and poplars, I first drew rein, and taking the King's letter from my pocket tore it into a hundred fragments. Some I let drift down the stream, and the remainder I scattered to the winds. I may say at once that this was in accordance with the Queen's instructions. The letter was merely intended to enable me to free the gates, and after that it was to be destroyed. It had served its purpose, and now went its way. Needless to add, I had no intention to touch at Fontainebleau or disturb the petit couvert of the King. At Melun, therefore, where horse and man were refreshed, I crossed the bridge, and took the road to Etampes. Half way, where the little town of Alais lies on the Essonne, I turned due south, and entered the Orleannois by Malesherbes.
There was many a league yet between me and Montluc, and though I had to ride hard I had yet to husband the horses, lest they should break down, or in case of emergency.
By avoiding the main roads and large towns and keeping to by-paths I lessened the chance of danger as much as possible. At Candes, which lies at the junction of the Loire and the Vienne, I heard that the Guidon of Montpensier was hard at hand, and, knowing well the reputation of this person, I bade Pierrebon saddle up, and we started without a meal, though we had ridden far and fast. In a short time we entered the forest of Fontevrault, and my spirits rose high at the thought that in a brief space I would be in Poitiers, where Montluc lay, and my mission accomplished.
So far so good; but towards midday I began to feel the need of rest, and splashing across a ford of the Negron I called a halt on the opposite bank and looked around me; whilst Pierrebon, who was a little stiff, jumped from his hackney, and began to mop his brow and stretch his legs.
We were in the heart of the forest, and to the north, south, east, and west of us there was nothing but trees and dense underwood, with here and there a long, shimmering glade or an open space, through which a small streamlet hummed, its banks gay with flowers.
But I confess that at the moment I had no eyes for the scene—for the yellow mary-buds, the blue of the wild hyacinth, or the white stars of the wind-flowers; for leaf and shade, and all the enchantment of the woodland. In brief, I was famished, and would have given a gold Henri to have seen a signboard swinging in the air. And, besides, it was dawning upon me that somehow we had missed the track.
"Pierrebon," I said, "do you know how far it is to Marcay?"
Pierrebon shook his head dolefully, saying as he did so that he did not even know where we were.
"Then, my friend, we are lost in Fontevrault Forest."
Pierrebon made no answer to this, but mounted his hackney. And, touching my nag with the spur, we cantered along a lean glade, trusting that the track which ran along it would hap to be the right one. Now and again as we sped onwards a startled deer would break cover and rush through brake and bramble, and once an evil-tempered old boar, feeding under an older oak, glared savagely at us as we passed, grinding his tusks in senseless rage till the foam flecked his brindled sides.
We were in the deeps of the forest now, and, high noon as it was, it was grey as twilight. Here, as we eased up for a moment, a dog-wolf crossed our path, and with snarling lip and shining fangs slunk into the thorn. Oh, for a leash of hounds now! But on we went, catching a glimpse of a grim head peering after us through the thorn—a head with blazing, angry eyes, that almost seemed to speak. It was lucky it was not winter-tide, or that gentleman there would not be alone, but, with a hundred or so of his fellows, would have made rare sport with us, according to his lights.
Still we went on through the endless woods, which closed in deeper and deeper around us, until at last the track died utterly away in the tanglewood, and the horses began to give sign that they were beaten.
I saw that it was necessary to rest the beasts, and as I came to this conclusion we came upon a little natural clearing, where, around a clump of enormous elms, the turf was green as emerald and spangled with a hundred flowers. Immediately behind the trees the ground rose, forming a low hill covered with wild juniper and white thorn, and a little stream bustled by it, whilst from the leafy shades above the voices of many birds warbled sweet and low.
There was no need to tighten rein. The horses seemed to know of their own accord that they were to stop, and five minutes later they were cropping the rich forage; whilst I, stretched on the turf, my back against a tree, was resting with a sense of repose that would have been delicious except for the pangs of hunger gnawing at me in a manner that would take no denial.
"Hein," I grumbled to myself, "nothing to eat but grass! If I were the good King Nebuchadnezzar, now, I might do very well; but as it is——" And then I heard a chuckle, and saw Pierrebon fumbling with the valise. He cast a sly look at me, his blue eyes twinkling.
"Monsieur is hungry?"
"Well, I have drank a little"—and I glanced at the streamlet—"but a cup of d'Arbois now, or even some white Rochecorbon, would be nectar. Confound my stupidity at losing the way! We should have been at Marcay hours ago; but—what the devil——"
In effect I might well have exclaimed, for Pierrebon had opened the valise and taken therefrom a bulging wallet; and as I watched him with astonished eyes he rapidly unpacked it, pulling forth a cold chicken, some Mayence ham, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine, which last he put down with a little flourish, saying as he did so: "'Tis red Joue, monsieur. Not so good as d'Arbois, nor so bad as Rochecorbon."
But I had already attacked the fowl, and answered, with my mouth full:
"Pierrebon, this is the best service you have ever rendered. Open the wine, and sit down and eat. Corbleu! but I will dub you knight, and you shall bear arms for this—a trussed capon on a field vert."
And then there was a silence, for, with the feast before us, time spent in talking was time wasted. Finally, the capon disappeared, the last slice of ham was divided with the edge of my dagger, the last drop drained from the bottle, and restful and contented we lay back in the shade; and Pierrebon slept, whilst I slipped into a waking dream. How long this lasted I know not; but I came to myself with a start, and looked around me.
The shadow had shifted, leaving Pierrebon asleep in the sunshine, his red face looking straight up at the blue sky. The horses too were asleep in the purple loosestrife, and there was an intense peace over all things. There as I lay, listening to the splashing of the water and the song of the birds, a line of deer came out to drink, and, catching sight of us, stopped and gazed, until a sudden panic took a little speckled fawn, and it dashed away madly through the thicket, followed by its mother and a cluster of startled doe, the stag going last at a slow trot.
I rose to my feet and saw how long the shadows were. In truth, it was time to be up and moving. So, arousing Pierrebon, we were soon mounted and jogging through the woods, with our backs to the west. We made good way now, for the nags were refreshed; yet we knew not where the night would bring us, for we were wholly lost.
Farther and farther we rode into the woods, holding desperately on to a faint track that wound and twisted through the endless aisles of the forest. As the hour grew later the sky overhead changed from blue to crimson and gold, and the sunset, stabbing through the lace-work of branches overhead, cast ruddy lights on the trees, deepening the shadows, and giving a ghostly distance to objects around, so that we seemed in a fairy realm of enchantment.
As the sunset began to fade, and the red and gold overhead changed softly to purple and grey, over which the silver light of the moon would soon be cast, we decreased our speed, and now, riding side by side, peered anxiously into the wood for some sign of a human habitation; but there was none to be seen.
We rode in silence, for Pierrebon, to say truth, was uneasy at the uncanny stillness, and that awe with which Nature in her lonely grandeur inspires the dullest of mortals had begun to fill us. And so no word was spoken.
In and out the track wound, until at last it brought us to the very heart of the forest, where the shadows lay black and deep. Around us on every side the huge and aged trees, stretching in long lines of receding obscurity, stood like a phantom army of giants guarding some dreadful secret of the past. Twisted, distorted, and bent, with hairy, moss-grown trunks from which the decaying bark peeled like the mouldering cement on some old and forgotten ruin, the kings of the forest stood silent and grim, their branches stretched out in grisly menace—giant arms that threatened death to all who approached.
Deeper and yet more deep we rode into the gloom, though the sunset yet clung in a girdle of fire round the horizon, casting red blades of light between the tree trunks; and Pierrebon's cheek grew pale, for goblin and gnome and fay lived to him, and even I, who did not believe, felt if my sword played freely in my sheath. And then I tried to sing.
But so dismal were the echoes, so lowering the aspect of the mighty trees, that seemed, in the quaking shadows, to be instinct with life and motion, that "The Three Cavaliers" died away at the first verse; and then, from the woods in front of us, rang out a scream for help, so shrill and sharp in its agony that it froze the blood in our veins.
"'Tis a spirit!" gasped Pierrebon, with pale lips, and half pulled his horse round; but even as he did so the shriek rang out again—a woman's voice—and high and shrill in its octave of suffering. It was enough for me, and, sword in hand, I galloped for the sound.
A few strides of the good beast, a leap over a fallen tree trunk, and in a wide clearing I saw before me a deed of shame.
There was a man lying dead on the ground. There was a white-robed woman, screaming and struggling as two men tried to force her on to a horse; whilst another man, mounted on a white horse, with a white mask on his face, was urging them on to their work, and a long sword glittered in his hand.
I stayed not for a second, but, galloping straight on, made so sudden an assault that one of the knaves was down and twisting on the grass like a snake with a broken back, and the other had fled with a howl into the forest almost before my coming was realised.
But as the horse carried me on I felt a felon blow graze my cap, and I had but time to half turn and parry another when I found myself face to face with the masked man.
Even as the sparks flew from our swords, and I felt that I had met a master of fence, I knew it was Simon despite his mask. There lived not a man like him. Tall and thin, with long, bird-like limbs and a stooping back, with the features concealed by the white mask all but the eyes, which glittered like those of an angry asp, he seemed more spirit than man; and I felt as if I were crossing blade with some uncanny phantom of the woods rather than a thing of flesh and blood, as after a fierce bout we circled round, watching each other warily.
"So, brother, we meet at last," I said. But he made no answer, though his eyes flashed evilly as he came on again with a swift, lightning attack that chance alone enabled me to avoid. And then my life was on my wrist and eye; but I kept it, and began to slowly force him back.
God forgive me! he was my brother; but he would have slain me there like a mad dog—and life is dear. He never said a word until he was being driven back, and then an oath broke from him.
'Tis an ill thing to swear with a sword in one's hand. That oath gave me strength and cooled me to ice.
"Come!" I said, "you would not slay your heir; or are you going to make room for me, Simon?" And my sword point ripped his doublet.
The answer was a thrust that ripped my coat in turn, and then followed the rasp of our blades. It was almost dark above us now, but a lance height from the ground the horizon was still flaming red. We could barely see each other's blades, but guided ourselves by the little circles of light the sword points made as they flashed hither and thither, seeking for an opening, to slip forward like a snake's tongue.
Twice had I been touched. The first time it was a parry en prime that saved me; the second time Simon had hit me on my bridle arm. It was only a touch; but I felt the warm blood on my sleeve, and Simon laughed like a devil.
But he mistook his man. Collecting all my strength I made so furious an attack that I slowly drove him against the belting of trees, and then there was a lightning thrust in tierce, a quick parry, and a return over Simon's heart, but the point of my blade glanced from a steel vest he wore. In glancing, however, it slipped upwards, and catching the mask almost rent it from my brother's face, leaving it half hanging, and almost blinding him.
In my fury I followed up the thrust with another, but with the skill that was his alone he partly parried it, though my blade found his sword arm, just above the elbow joint; but as Simon's now useless hand fell to his side he saw his defeat, and, with matchless presence of mind, drove his spurs into his horse, and dashing off at full speed was lost to view in a moment.
It was useless to follow, though I rode a few yards after him, and then, restraining myself, I pulled round and came back. Then I heard a voice thank me, and Pierrebon appeared at my horse's head, as though he had dropped from the clouds, and as I dismounted he burst forth: "Now, praise to St. Hugo of Orrain! We have defeated the bandits."
Man of the world and of many experiences as I was; old courtier, who had seen the fairest of my land in the galleries of the Tournelles, or the salons of the Louvre, I confess that I had never seen so graceful a figure, or heard so sweet a voice as that which thanked me now. As for her, when I stepped up, my sword still in my hand, some thought that she had only escaped the beak of the vulture to feel the talons of the hawk made her shrink back into silence.
I felt this, and, bowing, said gravely: "There is no danger now, mademoiselle. I doubt if our friends will return; but I fear it is far to any refuge to-night."
My words had effect. She was brave enough, and she answered:
"We are not far from the Mable, monsieur!"
"From the Mable! Then Marcay is behind?"
"About six miles."
"Ah! I thought we had overridden ourselves. And Richelieu is at hand?"
"'Tis but a bare league."
"Then in two hours at most we will be there. You will, of course, ride my horse, and Pierrebon and I will share the other."
"Thank you!" she said simply. And then with an effort, as she pointed before her: "Monsieur, there is a man lying there who gave up his life for me. I cannot leave him thus."
And Pierrebon answered: "There are two, lady. I have covered them with their cloaks, for they are both dead."
"A moment," I said, and I too went and looked at the twain.
There was no mistake. For these two the trees and the sky, the good and the bad of the world had ceased to be; and as I pulled their cloaks over their faces I muttered to myself, with a remembrance of the course of "The Philosophy":
"Maximum vitae bonum mors."
Then I came back to the lady's side. "Mademoiselle, for these two lying there, the honest man and the knave, what can be done at present has been done. Come, I pray you! It grows late."
"Oh, but I cannot!" And she too went forward to where the long dark things lay stretched out on the sward, and shrinking, she looked, and then on a sudden she sank on her knees, and prayed, and because, whatever had happened, I had never lost my faith in God, without whom we are nothing, I knelt too, and Pierrebon with me, and in our own way we each sought comfort. After a while mademoiselle rose again, and with a voice half choked with tears, said:
"Monsieur, I am ready."
We placed her on my brown horse, which Pierrebon led, I riding his, and so we took our way in silence—a silence now and again broken by a sob from the girl. I said nothing, deeming it wiser to let her be with her thoughts; but as we came to the skirts of the wood I spoke:
"Mademoiselle, I promise you that I will see to the Christian burial of your friend."
And then she wept unrestrainedly. To tell the truth, I knew not what to do, and Pierrebon kept his head well to the front, looking neither to the right nor to the left. In sheer desperation I asked her not to weep, whereat she wept the more; and then I touched her shoulder with my hand, as one would caress a child; but she shook me off, turning a face that seemed scared with terror to me, and I could only stammer out an apology, and remain silent. At last the violence of her grief abated, and I ventured to ask who the dead man was.
"He," she answered sadly, "was a trusted servant, and he was taking me home. His name was Olivet."
"Will not mademoiselle do me the honour to give me her name as well? I am called Bertrand Broussel."
She looked up as I spoke, and a nervous laugh escaped her.
"I am glad I know your name, monsieur; it is one I shall always think upon with gratitude. As for me, I—I am called Diane. I am the niece of Cujus the furrier, a citizen of Tours, who is as a father to me. I was going to rejoin him from Saumur when all this happened."
"Have you any friends near, where I can leave you?"
"Oh yes! Near Richelieu I have friends; and, once in the house of the Bailiff of Muisson, I would be safe."
"I will see you there, with your permission."
"Thank you! And I want to tell you how this happened. I was going back home from Saumur, under the charge of Olivet, and we halted at Marcay to rest. About a half-hour after leaving Marcay we were set upon and taken prisoners by the men from whom you have saved me.
"Where they were taking us I cannot tell. As evening came I heard your voice singing, and, screaming for help, I slipped from my saddle, with the intention of running towards you. Olivet made a brave effort to help me—but——" And it was only with an effort that she prevented another breakdown.
"Have you any idea who these men are?"
She remained silent, as if collecting her thoughts. And I went on:
"I ask because I recognised one—the leader."
"Ah, monsieur, I feared to mention his name. He is a great noble, and he—he—but I cannot tell you." And she stopped, with a little shiver.
"You need not, madame. He is Simon, Vidame d'Orrain."
"Yes," she said, and our talk stopped. My cheeks were burning at the thought of Simon's deed of shame, and I put this down to the long score I had against him. And so on we rode, until we passed the skirts of the forest, though still keeping to its edge, and came to a stretch of moorland, beyond which was a series of small hills. We could now hear water running like a mill-race, and from the hills there glinted the lights of a large village.
"That is Richelieu, monsieur," exclaimed mademoiselle, "and the water that we hear is the Mable."
"See there, monsieur!" Pierrebon suddenly cut in, as he arrested mademoiselle's horse, and pointed to his right, where on the edge of the forest we saw lights at the windows of a low-lying, irregular building half concealed amidst trees. "See there!" continued Pierrebon; "that is a house where at least we shall be able to sup and get a guide."
"A guide," I exclaimed, "with Richelieu before us!"
"Listen to the Mable," urged Pierrebon; "is there a bridge? If not we must ford it; and they say the river is deep and dangerous; but perhaps mademoiselle knows the ford?"
"Indeed I do not."
Considering all things, I came to the conclusion that Pierrebon was right, and that it would be wiser to seek the house. As we approached it, mademoiselle said:
"It may be the hunting-lodge of Le Jaquemart, belonging to the Sieur de Richelieu."
"Well, we will know soon," I said, and urged Pierrebon to quicken his pace. There was but a bare quarter mile of moorland, covered with yellow broom and purple thistle, to be passed, and then we came up to the house. As we did so we perceived that it was surrounded by a high stone wall, and mademoiselle exclaimed positively:
"It is Le Jaquemart; but it is strange it is occupied, for the Sieur de Richelieu is in Italy."
"Bien," I thought to myself, "the furrier's niece knows all about the Sieurs de Richelieu!" And then aloud: "Perhaps he has returned with Montluc, mademoiselle; or it may be that friends of his hunt the forest."
"M. de Parthenay is near Loudon."
I made no answer, for at this moment we reined up before the gate, and glanced at the massive, studded portal, and the old wall, with its soft crowning of ivy on the top, and grey-green, moss-covered sides, where the yellow wall-pepper and white serpyllum pushed between the crevices of the stonework. And as we looked we heard from within a peal of loud laughter, a woman's voice mingling with the deeper tones of that of a man. As the laughter ceased Pierrebon exclaimed:
"They are gay within, monsieur!" And then, on a sign from me, he knocked long and loudly.
"Enough, enough! You would waken the dead."
"One more, monsieur!" And Pierrebon, who already smelt his supper, brought the brass lion's head of the knocker with such force against the studded door that it might have been heard a quarter mile away.
From within came a shrill whistle, and a voice called out, with a foreign accent: "The gate, Piero! Who is it? Someone knocks."
"And will knock again soon if you do not make haste," grumbled Pierrebon; whilst I pricked up my ears, and glanced at mademoiselle, and saw her drooping in her saddle. Now we heard a heavy, lurching step on the other side of the gate, a sliding panel covering a Judas Hole was drawn back, a man's face appeared dimly, and a voice asked in halting French:
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"Supper and a guide," began Pierrebon; but dismounting I put him aside, and said:
"We are three travellers, one of whom is a lady. We have lost our way, and seek but a guide to the ford."
As I spoke the man on the other side of the gate raised a dark lantern he had hitherto held low in his hand, and flashed it through the opening, whilst he peered at us.
"Only three?" he asked.
"And one a lady," I answered; whilst Pierrebon let his tongue wag: "Oh, the mole! To want a lantern in this moonlight!" And following his words came the voice from the house, asking again in Italian:
"What is the matter, Piero?"
To which Piero answered: "I come, signor," and with a brief "Wait!" to us, swung round on his heel and went back, Pierrebon, as he looked at the retreating figure through the grille, saying, "By St. Hugo! monsieur, we might be a party of the Guidon's Free Riders, or Captain Loup and his gang!" But, paying no heed to his words, I turned to mademoiselle.
"I like not this place. We had better take our chance of finding the ford. Come!"
At this Pierrebon, with the freedom of an old servant, began to protest, and mademoiselle aided him.
"Oh, monsieur, could we not rest here for a little?"
"We may rest here for ever if we do," I said a little sharply. "Come!"
My words had, perhaps, too much of command in their tone, for she answered back coldly: "I intend to rest here, monsieur; you may go on if you like."
At this I said nothing more, and let her have her way, but gave Pierrebon a warning grip of the arm to be careful. Pierrebon nodded in comprehension. He was no fool, though many thought him so, and though if his betters drew steel he as a rule let matters lie with them, yet he could be dangerous—a thing which people found out sometimes when it was a trifle late.
We had to wait a space, then we heard the woman's voice laughing once more within. Something in its hard, clear tones jarred upon me, and I glanced at mademoiselle, but she kept her face aside. But now we heard returning footsteps, the grating of a bolt drawn back, the turning of a key, and then the gate opened; whilst Piero, a huge figure, stood before us, swinging his lantern, and beside him another man, armed with an arquebus, the fuse burning like a glow-worm.
"Enter," said Piero; "the signor will receive you."
"Facilis est descensus Averni," I murmured to myself, and led the way, and the gate was shut behind us. Before us lay a short drive bordered with tall poplars, and on either hand a tangle of a garden that had run to a wilderness. As we rode up a woman's figure appeared at an open window, but stepped back at once, and I asked Piero, in his own Italian:
"Has Monsieur de Richelieu returned?"
The giant answered gruffly: "I know not, signor. He who is within is the Captain Torquato Trotto."
"Torquato Trotto! I know not the name."
And Piero made no answer, for we had now come to the door of the house. Here I helped mademoiselle to alight, whilst Pierrebon took charge of the horses, and mademoiselle and I entered the house. At the same time a man came running down the stairs to meet us. As his eyes fell on us a slight exclamation of surprise broke from him; but he checked it on the instant, and advanced, saying in French:
"You are very welcome, madame and monsieur, I do assure you—very welcome."
And he bowed before us, courteously enough; but I caught the veiled mockery in his voice, and as I took the speaker in I thought he was bravo to his finger-tips.
"Monsieur," I said, "I thank you. We but crave permission to rest a while, and seek a guide to the ford of the Mable, for we have to be at Richelieu to-night."
"We will do what we can for you, monsieur. Be pleased to ascend. I will be with you in a moment. I have but a word to say to my man here. Excuse me!"
THE ACTS OF PIERREBON
Leaving us to find our way upstairs Torquato Trotto went out into the porch where Piero the giant stood, cast a glance at the retreating figure of Pierrebon, who was leading the horses away, looked over his shoulder like a cat, and, gripping Piero by the arm, shook with laughter.
"Maledetto!" exclaimed Piero, who was of an evil temper, as he freed himself from Trotto's clutches, and looked at the swaying figure before him. "Loose hold, signor! Have you been bitten by a tarantula?"
"Oh! I could sing, I could shout, I could dance. Man! that is the very girl we want; and Monsieur the Vidame, who lies within, twisting in his chair, will pay a thousand fat, gold Henris for her when he knows. Ho! it will be rare news for him!"
"Are you sure?"
"As I live. Did I not watch her for a whole week at Saumur? 'Tis well we have not Aramon and the rest with us. The fewer there are the larger the shares. Can Malsain deal with the lackey?"
Piero grinned for reply.
"Well! let him be his care, and you had better stay at hand here. Give me the key of the gate, and, remember, a hundred crowns apiece to you and Malsain for this. And now for a word in the Vidame's ear."
With this he turned back into the house, leaving Piero looking after him.
"A hun—dred crowns apiece! Diavolo! Captain Torquato! If I knew the money was here I would make the whole thousand mine; and then—hey for Rome again! But a hundred crowns are a hundred crowns, and fill a purse rarely. Well, I go to warn Malsain!"