In this Etext, text in italics has been written in capital letters.
Many French words in the text have accents, etc. which have been omitted.
THE HOUSE OF THE WOLF
I.—WARE WOLF! II.—THE VIDAME'S THREAT. III.—THE ROAD TO PARIS. IV.—ENTRAPPED! V.—A PRIEST AND A WOMAN. VI.—MADAME'S FRIGHT. VII.—A YOUNG KNIGHT ERRANT. VIII.—THE PARISIAN MATINS. IX.—THE HEAD OF ERASMUS. X.—HAU, HAU, HUGUENOTS! XI.—A NIGHT OF SORROW. XII.—JOY IN THE MORNING.
The following is a modern English version of a curious French memoir, or fragment of autobiography, apparently written about the year 1620 by Anne, Vicomte de Caylus, and brought to this country—if, in fact, the original ever existed in England—by one of his descendants after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. This Anne, we learn from other sources, was a principal figure at the Court of Henry IV., and, therefore, in August, 1572, when the adventures here related took place, he and his two younger brothers, Marie and Croisette, who shared with him the honour and the danger, must have been little more than boys. From the tone of his narrative, it appears that, in reviving old recollections, the veteran renewed his youth also, and though his story throws no fresh light upon the history of the time, it seems to possess some human interest.
THE HOUSE OF THE WOLF.
I had afterwards such good reason to look back upon and remember the events of that afternoon, that Catherine's voice seems to ring in my brain even now. I can shut my eyes and see again, after all these years, what I saw then—just the blue summer sky, and one grey angle of the keep, from which a fleecy cloud was trailing like the smoke from a chimney. I could see no more because I was lying on my back, my head resting on my hands. Marie and Croisette, my brothers, were lying by me in exactly the same posture, and a few yards away on the terrace, Catherine was sitting on a stool Gil had brought out for her. It was the second Thursday in August, and hot. Even the jackdaws were silent. I had almost fallen asleep, watching my cloud grow longer and longer, and thinner and thinner, when Croisette, who cared for heat no more than a lizard, spoke up sharply, "Mademoiselle," he said, "why are you watching the Cahors road?"
I had not noticed that she was doing so. But something in the keenness of Croisette's tone, taken perhaps with the fact that Catherine did not at once answer him, aroused me; and I turned to her. And lo! she was blushing in the most heavenly way, and her eyes were full of tears, and she looked at us adorably. And we all three sat up on our elbows, like three puppy dogs, and looked at her. And there was a long silence. And then she said quite simply to us, "Boys, I am going to be married to M. de Pavannes."
I fell flat on my back and spread out my arms. "Oh, Mademoiselle!" I cried reproachfully.
"Oh, Mademoiselle!" cried Marie. And he fell flat on his back, and spread out his arms and moaned. He was a good brother, was Marie, and obedient.
And Croisette cried, "Oh, mademoiselle!" too. But he was always ridiculous in his ways. He fell flat on his back, and flopped his arms and squealed like a pig.
Yet he was sharp. It was he who first remembered our duty, and went to Catherine, cap in hand, where she sat half angry and half confused, and said with a fine redness in his cheeks, "Mademoiselle de Caylus, our cousin, we give you joy, and wish you long life; and are your servants, and the good friends and aiders of M. de Pavannes in all quarrels, as—"
But I could not stand that. "Not so fast, St. Croix de Caylus" I said, pushing him aside—he was ever getting before me in those days—and taking his place. Then with my best bow I began, "Mademoiselle, we give you joy and long life, and are your servants and the good friends and aiders of M. de Pavannes in all quarrels, as—as—"
"As becomes the cadets of your house," suggested Croisette, softly.
"As becomes the cadets of your house," I repeated. And then Catherine stood up and made me a low bow and we all kissed her hand in turn, beginning with me and ending with Croisette, as was becoming. Afterwards Catherine threw her handkerchief over her face—she was crying—and we three sat down, Turkish fashion, just where we were, and said "Oh, Kit!" very softly.
But presently Croisette had something to add. "What will the Wolf say?" he whispered to me.
"Ah! To be sure!" I exclaimed aloud. I had been thinking of myself before; but this opened quite another window. "What will the Vidame say, Kit?"
She dropped her kerchief from her face, and turned so pale that I was sorry I had spoken—apart from the kick Croisette gave me. "Is M. de Bezers at his house?" she asked anxiously.
"Yes," Croisette answered. "He came in last night from St. Antonin, with very small attendance."
The news seemed to set her fears at rest instead of augmenting them as I should have expected. I suppose they were rather for Louis de Pavannes, than for herself. Not unnaturally, too, for even the Wolf could scarcely have found it in his heart to hurt our cousin. Her slight willowy figure, her pale oval face and gentle brown eyes, her pleasant voice, her kindness, seemed to us boys and in those days, to sum up all that was womanly. We could not remember, not even Croisette the youngest of us—who was seventeen, a year junior to Marie and myself—we were twins—the time when we had not been in love with her.
But let me explain how we four, whose united ages scarce exceeded seventy years, came to be lounging on the terrace in the holiday stillness of that afternoon. It was the summer of 1572. The great peace, it will be remembered, between the Catholics and the Huguenots had not long been declared; the peace which in a day or two was to be solemnized, and, as most Frenchmen hoped, to be cemented by the marriage of Henry of Navarre with Margaret of Valois, the King's sister. The Vicomte de Caylus, Catherine's father and our guardian, was one of the governors appointed to see the peace enforced; the respect in which he was held by both parties—he was a Catholic, but no bigot, God rest his soul!—recommending him for this employment. He had therefore gone a week or two before to Bayonne, his province. Most of our neighbours in Quercy were likewise from home, having gone to Paris to be witnesses on one side or the other of the royal wedding. And consequently we young people, not greatly checked by the presence of good-natured, sleepy Madame Claude, Catherine's duenna, were disposed to make the most of our liberty; and to celebrate the peace in our own fashion.
We were country-folk. Not one of us had been to Pau, much less to Paris. The Vicomte held stricter views than were common then, upon young people's education; and though we had learned to ride and shoot, to use our swords and toss a hawk, and to read and write, we knew little more than Catherine herself of the world; little more of the pleasures and sins of court life, and not one-tenth as much as she did of its graces. Still she had taught us to dance and make a bow. Her presence had softened our manners; and of late we had gained something from the frank companionship of Louis de Pavannes, a Huguenot whom the Vicomte had taken prisoner at Moncontour and held to ransom. We were not, I think, mere clownish yokels.
But we were shy. We disliked and shunned strangers. And when old Gil appeared suddenly, while we were still chewing the melancholy cud of Kit's announcement, and cried sepulchrally, "M. le Vidame de Bezers to pay his respects to Mademoiselle!"—Well, there was something like a panic, I confess!
We scrambled to our feet, muttering, "The Wolf!" The entrance at Caylus is by a ramp rising from the gateway to the level of the terrace. This sunken way is fenced by low walls so that one may not—when walking on the terrace—fall into it. Gil had spoken before his head had well risen to view, and this gave us a moment, just a moment. Croisette made a rush for the doorway into the house; but failed to gain it, and drew himself up behind a buttress of the tower, his finger on his lip. I am slow sometimes, and Marie waited for me, so that we had barely got to our legs—looking, I dare say, awkward and ungainly enough—before the Vidame's shadow fell darkly on the ground at Catherine's feet.
"Mademoiselle!" he said, advancing to her through the sunshine, and bending over her slender hand with a magnificent grace that was born of his size and manner combined, "I rode in late last night from Toulouse; and I go to-morrow to Paris. I have but rested and washed off the stains of travel that I may lay my—ah!"
He seemed to see us for the first time and negligently broke off in his compliment; raising himself and saluting us. "Ah," he continued indolently, "two of the maidens of Caylus, I see. With an odd pair of hands apiece, unless I am mistaken, Why do you not set them spinning, Mademoiselle?" and he regarded us with that smile which—with other things as evil—had made him famous.
Croisette pulled horrible faces behind his back. We looked hotly at him; but could find nothing to say.
"You grow red!" he went on, pleasantly—the wretch!—playing with us as a cat does with mice. "It offends your dignity, perhaps, that I bid Mademoiselle set you spinning? I now would spin at Mademoiselle's bidding, and think it happiness!"
"We are not girls!" I blurted out, with the flush and tremor of a boy's passion. "You had not called my godfather, Anne de Montmorenci a girl, M. le Vidame!" For though we counted it a joke among ourselves that we all bore girls' names, we were young enough to be sensitive about it.
He shrugged his shoulders. And how he dwarfed us all as he stood there dominating our terrace! "M. de Montmorenci was a man," he said scornfully. "M. Anne de Caylus is—"
And the villain deliberately turned his great back upon us, taking his seat on the low wall near Catherine's chair. It was clear even to our vanity that he did not think us worth another word—that we had passed absolutely from his mind. Madame Claude came waddling out at the same moment, Gil carrying a chair behind her. And we—well we slunk away and sat on the other side of the terrace, whence we could still glower at the offender.
Yet who were we to glower at him? To this day I shake at the thought of him. It was not so much his height and bulk, though he was so big that the clipped pointed fashion of his beard a fashion then new at court—seemed on him incongruous and effeminate; nor so much the sinister glance of his grey eyes—he had a slight cast in them; nor the grim suavity of his manner, and the harsh threatening voice that permitted of no disguise. It was the sum of these things, the great brutal presence of the man—that was overpowering—that made the great falter and the poor crouch. And then his reputation! Though we knew little of the world's wickedness, all we did know had come to us linked with his name. We had heard of him as a duellist, as a bully, an employer of bravos. At Jarnac he had been the last to turn from the shambles. Men called him cruel and vengeful even for those days—gone by now, thank God!—and whispered his name when they spoke of assassinations; saying commonly of him that he would not blench before a Guise, nor blush before the Virgin.
Such was our visitor and neighbour, Raoul de Mar, Vidame de Bezers. As he sat on the terrace, now eyeing us askance, and now paying Catherine a compliment, I likened him to a great cat before which a butterfly has all unwittingly flirted her prettiness. Poor Catherine! No doubt she had her own reasons for uneasiness; more reasons I fancy than I then guessed. For she seemed to have lost her voice. She stammered and made but poor replies; and Madame Claude being deaf and stupid, and we boys too timid after the rebuff we had experienced to fill the gap, the conversation languished. The Vidame was not for his part the man to put himself out on a hot day.
It was after one of these pauses—not the first but the longest—that I started on finding his eyes fixed on mine. More, I shivered. It is hard to describe, but there was a look in the Vidame's eyes at that moment which I had never seen before. A look of pain almost: of dumb savage alarm at any rate. From me they passed slowly to Marie and mutely interrogated him. Then the Vidame's glance travelled back to Catherine, and settled on her.
Only a moment before she had been but too conscious of his presence. Now, as it chanced by bad luck, or in the course of Providence, something had drawn her attention elsewhere. She was unconscious of his regard. Her own eyes were fixed in a far-away gaze. Her colour was high, her lips were parted, her bosom heaved gently.
The shadow deepened on the Vidame's face. Slowly he took his eyes from hers, and looked northwards also.
Caylus Castle stands on a rock in the middle of the narrow valley of that name. The town clusters about the ledges of the rock so closely that when I was a boy I could fling a stone clear of the houses. The hills are scarcely five hundred yards distant on either side, rising in tamer colours from the green fields about the brook. It is possible from the terrace to see the whole valley, and the road which passes through it lengthwise. Catherine's eyes were on the northern extremity of the defile, where the highway from Cahors descends from the uplands. She had been sitting with her face turned that way all the afternoon.
I looked that way too. A solitary horseman was descending the steep track from the hills.
"Mademoiselle!" cried the Vidame suddenly. We all looked up. His tone was such that the colour fled from Kit's face. There was something in his voice she had never heard in any voice before—something that to a woman was like a blow. "Mademoiselle," he snarled, "is expecting news from Cahors, from her lover. I have the honour to congratulate M. de Pavannes on his conquest."
Ah! he had guessed it! As the words fell on the sleepy silence, an insult in themselves, I sprang to my feet, amazed and angry, yet astounded by his quickness of sight and wit. He must have recognized the Pavannes badge at that distance. "M. le Vidame," I said indignantly—Catherine was white and voiceless—"M. le Vidame—" but there I stopped and faltered stammering. For behind him I could see Croisette; and Croisette gave me no sign of encouragement or support.
So we stood face to face for a moment; the boy and the man of the world, the stripling and the ROUE. Then the Vidame bowed to me in quite a new fashion. "M. Anne de Caylus desires to answer for M. de Pavannes?" he asked smoothly; with a mocking smoothness.
I understood what he meant. But something prompted me—Croisette said afterwards that it was a happy thought, though now I know the crisis to have been less serious than he fancied to answer, "Nay, not for M. de Pavannes. Rather for my cousin." And I bowed. "I have the honour on her behalf to acknowledge your congratulations, M. le Vidame. It pleases her that our nearest neighbour should also be the first outside the family to wish her well. You have divined truly in supposing that she will shortly be united to M. de Pavannes."
I suppose—for I saw the giant's colour change and his lip quiver as I spoke—that his previous words had been only a guess. For a moment the devil seemed to be glaring through his eyes; and he looked at Marie and me as a wild animal at its keepers. Yet he maintained his cynical politeness in part. "Mademoiselle desires my congratulations?" he said, slowly, labouring with each word it seemed. "She shall have them on the happy day. She shall certainly have them then. But these are troublous times. And Mademoiselle's betrothed is I think a Huguenot, and has gone to Paris. Paris—well, the air of Paris is not good for Huguenots, I am told."
I saw Catherine shiver; indeed she was on the point of fainting, I broke in rudely, my passion getting the better of my fears. "M. de Pavannes can take care of himself, believe me," I said brusquely.
"Perhaps so," Bezers answered, his voice like the grating of steel on steel. "But at any rate this will be a memorable day for Mademoiselle. The day on which she receives her first congratulations—she will remember it as long as she lives! Oh, yes, I will answer for that, M. Anne," he said looking brightly at one and another of us, his eyes more oblique than ever, "Mademoiselle will remember it, I am sure!"
It would be impossible to describe the devilish glance he flung at the poor sinking girl as he withdrew, the horrid emphasis he threw into those last words, the covert deadly threat they conveyed to the dullest ears. That he went then, was small mercy. He had done all the evil he could do at present. If his desire had been to leave fear behind him, he had certainly succeeded.
Kit crying softly went into the house; her innocent coquetry more than sufficiently punished already. And we three looked at one another with blank faces, It was clear that we had made a dangerous enemy, and an enemy at our own gates. As the Vidame had said, these were troublous times when things were done to men—ay, and to women and children—which we scarce dare to speak of now. "I wish the Vicomte were here," Croisette said uneasily after we had discussed several unpleasant contingencies.
"Or even Malines the steward," I suggested.
"He would not be much good," replied Croisette.
"And he is at St. Antonin, and will not be back this week. Father Pierre too is at Albi."
"You do not think," said Marie, "that he will attack us?"
"Certainly not!" Croisette retorted with contempt. "Even the Vidame would not dare to do that in time of peace. Besides, he has not half a score of men here," continued the lad, shrewdly, "and counting old Gil and ourselves we have as many. And Pavannes always said that three men could hold the gate at the bottom of the ramp against a score. Oh, he will not try that!"
"Certainly not!" I agreed. And so we crushed Marie. "But for Louis de Pavannes—"
Catherine interrupted me. She came out quickly looking a different person; her face flushed with anger, her tears dried.
"Anne!" she cried, imperiously, "what is the matter down below—will you see?"
I had no difficulty in doing that. All the sounds of town life came up to us on the terrace. Lounging there we could hear the chaffering over the wheat measures in the cloisters of the market-square, the yell of a dog, the voice of a scold, the church bell, the watchman's cry. I had only to step to the wall to overlook it all. On this summer afternoon the town had been for the most part very quiet. If we had not been engaged in our own affairs we should have taken the alarm before, remarking in the silence the first beginnings of what was now a very respectable tumult. It swelled louder even as we stepped to the wall.
We could see—a bend in the street laying it open—part of the Vidame's house; the gloomy square hold which had come to him from his mother. His own chateau of Bezers lay far away in Franche Comte, but of late he had shown a preference—Catherine could best account for it, perhaps—for this mean house in Caylus. It was the only house in the town which did not belong to us. It was known as the House of the Wolf, and was a grim stone building surrounding a courtyard. Rows of wolves' heads carved in stone flanked the windows, whence their bare fangs grinned day and night at the church porch opposite.
The noise drew our eyes in this direction; and there lolling in a window over the door, looking out on the street with a laughing eye, was Bezers himself. The cause of his merriment—we had not far to look for it—was a horseman who was riding up the street under difficulties. He was reining in his steed—no easy task on that steep greasy pavement—so as to present some front to a score or so of ragged knaves who were following close at his heels, hooting and throwing mud and pebbles at him. The man had drawn his sword, and his oaths came up to us, mingled with shrill cries of "VIVE LA MESSE!" and half drowned by the clattering of the horse's hoofs. We saw a stone strike him in the face, and draw blood, and heard him swear louder than before.
"Oh!" cried Catherine, clasping her hands with a sudden shriek of indignation, "my letter! They will get my letter!"
"Death!" exclaimed Croisette, "She is right! It is M. de Pavannes' courier! This must be stopped! We cannot stand this, Anne!"
"They shall pay dearly for it, by our Lady!" I cried swearing myself. "And in peace time too—the villains! Gil! Francis!" I shouted, "where are you?"
And I looked round for my fowling piece, while Croisette jumped on the wall, and forming a trumpet with his hands, shrieked at the top of his voice, "Back! he bears a letter from the Vicomte!"
But the device did not succeed, and I could not find my gun. For a moment we were helpless, and before I could have fetched the gun from the house, the horseman and the hooting rabble at his heels, had turned a corner and were hidden by the roofs.
Another turn however would bring them out in front of the gateway, and seeing this we hurried down the ramp to meet them. I stayed a moment to tell Gil to collect the servants, and, this keeping me, Croisette reached the narrow street outside before me. As I followed him I was nearly knocked down by the rider, whose face was covered with, dirt and blood, while fright had rendered his horse unmanageable. Darting aside I let him pass—he was blinded and could not see me—and then found that Croisette—brave lad! had collared the foremost of the ruffians, and was beating him with his sheathed sword, while the rest of the rabble stood back, ashamed, yet sullen, and with anger in their eyes. A dangerous crew, I thought; not townsmen, most of them.
"Down with the Huguenots!" cried one, as I appeared, one bolder than the rest.
"Down with the CANAILLE!" I retorted, sternly eyeing the ill-looking ring. "Will you set yourselves above the king's peace, dirt that you are? Go back to your kennels!"
The words were scarcely out of my mouth, before I saw that the fellow whom Croisette was punishing had got hold of a dagger. I shouted a warning, but it came too late. The blade fell, and—thanks to God—striking the buckle of the lad's belt, glanced off harmless. I saw the steel flash up again—saw the spite in the man's eyes: but this time I was a step nearer, and before the weapon fell, I passed my sword clean through the wretch's body. He went down like a log, Croisette falling with him, held fast by his stiffening fingers.
I had never killed a man before, nor seen a man die; and if I had stayed to think about it, I should have fallen sick perhaps. But it was no time for thought; no time for sickness. The crowd were close upon us, a line of flushed threatening faces from wall to wall. A single glance downwards told me that the man was dead, and I set my foot upon his neck. "Hounds! Beasts!" I cried, not loudly this time, for though I was like one possessed with rage, it was inward rage, "go to your kennels! Will you dare to raise a hand against a Caylus? Go—or when the Vicomte returns, a dozen of you shall hang in the market-place!"
I suppose I looked fierce enough—I know I felt no fear, only a strange exaltation—for they slunk away. Unwillingly, but with little delay the group melted, Bezers' following—of whom I knew the dead man was one—the last to go. While I still glared at them, lo! the street was empty; the last had disappeared round the bend. I turned to find Gil and half-a-dozen servants standing with pale faces at my back. Croisette seized my hand with a sob. "Oh, my lord," cried Gil, quaveringly. But I shook one off, I frowned at the other.
"Take up this carrion!" I said, touching it with my foot, "And hang it from the justice-elm. And then close the gates! See to it, knaves, and lose no time."
THE VIDAME'S THREAT.
Croisette used to tell a story, of the facts of which I have no remembrance, save as a bad dream. He would have it that I left my pallet that night—I had one to myself in the summer, being the eldest, while he and Marie slept on another in the same room—and came to him and awoke him, sobbing and shaking and clutching him; and begging him in a fit of terror not to let me go. And that so I slept in his arms until morning. But as I have said, I do not remember anything of this, only that I had an ugly dream that night, and that when I awoke I was lying with him and Marie; so I cannot say whether it really happened.
At any rate, if I had any feeling of the kind it did not last long; on the contrary—it would be idle to deny it—I was flattered by the sudden respect, Gil and the servants showed me. What Catherine thought of the matter I could not tell. She had her letter and apparently found it satisfactory. At any rate we saw nothing of her. Madame Claude was busy boiling simples, and tending the messenger's hurts. And it seemed natural that I should take command.
There could be no doubt—at any rate we had none that the assault on the courier had taken place at the Vidame's instance. The only wonder was that he had not simply cut his throat and taken the letter. But looking back now it seems to me that grown men mingled some childishness with their cruelty in those days—days when the religious wars had aroused our worst passions. It was not enough to kill an enemy. It pleased people to make—I speak literally—a football of his head, to throw his heart to the dogs. And no doubt it had fallen in with the Vidame's grim humour that the bearer of Pavannes' first love letter should enter his mistress's presence, bleeding and plaistered with mud. And that the riff-raff about our own gates should have part in the insult.
Bezers' wrath would be little abated by the issue of the affair, or the justice I had done on one of his men. So we looked well to bolts, and bars, and windows, although the castle is well-nigh impregnable, the smooth rock falling twenty feet at least on every side from the base of the walls. The gatehouse, Pavannes had shown us, might be blown up with gunpowder indeed, but we prepared to close the iron grating which barred the way half-way up the ramp. This done, even if the enemy should succeed in forcing an entrance he would only find himself caught in a trap—in a steep, narrow way exposed to a fire from the top of the flanking walls, as well as from the front. We had a couple of culverins, which the Vicomte had got twenty years before, at the time of the battle of St. Quentin. We fixed one of these at the head of the ramp, and placed the other on the terrace, where by moving it a few paces forward we could train it on Bezers' house, which thus lay at our mercy.
Not that we really expected an attack. But we did not know what to expect or what to fear. We had not ten servants, the Vicomte having taken a score of the sturdiest lackeys and keepers to attend him at Bayonne. And we felt immensely responsible. Our main hope was that the Vidame would at once go on to Paris, and postpone his vengeance. So again and again we cast longing glances at the House of the Wolf hoping that each symptom of bustle heralded his departure.
Consequently it was a shock to me, and a great downfall of hopes, when Gil with a grave face came to me on the terrace and announced that M. le Vidame was at the gate, asking to see Mademoiselle.
"It is out of the question that he should see her," the old servant added, scratching his head in grave perplexity.
"Most certainly. I will see him instead," I answered stoutly. "Do you leave Francis and another at the gate, Gil. Marie, keep within sight, lad. And let Croisette stay with me."
These preparations made—and they took up scarcely a moment—I met the Vidame at the head of the ramp. "Mademoiselle de Caylus," I said, bowing, "is, I regret to say, indisposed to-day, Vidame."
"She will not see me?" he asked, eyeing me very unpleasantly.
"Her indisposition deprives her of the pleasure," I answered with an effort. He was certainly a wonderful man, for at sight of him, three-fourths of my courage, and all my importance, oozed out at the heels of my boots.
"She will not see me. Very well," he replied, as if I had not spoken. And the simple words sounded like a sentence of death. "Then, M. Anne, I have a crow to pick with you. What compensation do you propose to make for the death of my servant? A decent, quiet fellow, whom you killed yesterday, poor man, because his enthusiasm for the true faith carried him away a little."
"Whom I killed because he drew a dagger on M. St. Croix de Caylus at the Vicomte's gate," I answered steadily. I had thought about this of course and was ready for it. "You are aware, M. de Bezers," I continued, "that the Vicomte has jurisdiction extending to life and death over all persons within the valley?"
"My household excepted," he rejoined quietly.
"Precisely; while they are within the curtilage of your house," I retorted. "However as the punishment was summary, and the man had no time to confess himself, I am willing to—"
"To pay Father Pierre to say ten masses for his soul."
The way the Vidame received this surprised me. He broke into boisterous laughter. "By our Lady, my friend," he cried with rough merriment, "but you are a joker! You are indeed. Masses? Why the man was a Protestant!"
And that startled me more than anything which had gone before; more indeed than I can explain. For it seemed to prove that this man, laughing his unholy laugh was not like other men. He did not pick and choose his servants for their religion. He was sure that the Huguenot would stone his fellow at his bidding; the Catholic cry "Vive Coligny!" I was so completely taken aback that I found no words to answer him, and it was Croisette who said smartly, "Then how about his enthusiasm for the true faith, M. le Vidame?"
"The true faith," he answered—"for my servants is my faith." Then a thought seemed to strike him. "What is more." he continued slowly, "that it is the true and only faith for all, thousands will learn before the world is ten days older. Bear my words in mind, boy! They will come back to you. And now hear me," he went on in his usual tone, "I am anxious to accommodate a neighbour. It goes without saying that I would not think of putting you, M. Anne, to any trouble for the sake of that rascal of mine. But my people will expect something. Let the plaguy fellow who caused all this disturbance be given up to me, that I may hang him; and let us cry quits."
"That is impossible!" I answered coolly. I had no need to ask what he meant. Give up Pavannes' messenger indeed! Never!
He regarded me—unmoved by my refusal—with a smile under which I chafed, while I was impotent to resent it. "Do not build too much on a single blow, young gentleman," he said, shaking his head waggishly. "I had fought a dozen times when I was your age. However, I understand that you refuse to give me satisfaction?"
"In the mode you mention, certainly," I replied. "But—"
"Bah!" he exclaimed with a sneer, "business first and pleasure afterwards! Bezers will obtain satisfaction in his own way, I promise you that! And at his own time. And it will not be on unfledged bantlings like you. But what is this for?" And he rudely kicked the culverin which apparently he had not noticed before, "So! so! understand," he continued, casting a sharp glance at one and another of us. "You looked to be besieged! Why you, booby, there is the shoot of your kitchen midden, twenty feet above the roof of old Fretis' store! And open, I will be sworn! Do you think that I should have come this way while there was a ladder in Caylus! Did you take the wolf for a sheep?"
With that he turned on his heel, swaggering away in the full enjoyment of his triumph. For a triumph it was. We stood stunned; ashamed to look one another in the face. Of course the shoot was open. We remembered now that it was, and we were so sorely mortified by his knowledge and our folly, that I failed in my courtesy, and did not see him to the gate, as I should have done. We paid for that later.
"He is the devil in person!" I exclaimed angrily, shaking my fist at the House of the Wolf, as I strode up and down impatiently. "I hate him worse!"
"So do I!" said Croisette, mildly. "But that he hates us is a matter of more importance. At any rate we will close the shoot."
"Wait a moment!" I replied, as after another volley of complaints directed at our visitor, the lad was moving off to see to it. "What is going on down there?"
"Upon my word, I believe he is leaving us!" Croisette rejoined sharply.
For there was a noise of hoofs below us, clattering on the pavement. Half-a-dozen horsemen were issuing from the House of the Wolf, the ring of their bridles and the sound of their careless voices coming up to us through the clear morning air Bezers' valet, whom we knew by sight, was the last of them. He had a pair of great saddle-bags before him, and at sight of these we uttered a glad exclamation. "He is going!" I murmured, hardly able to believe my eyes. "He is going after all!"
"Wait!" Croisette answered drily.
But I was right. We had not to wait long. He WAS going. In another moment he came out himself, riding a strong iron-grey horse: and we could see that he had holsters to his saddle. His steward was running beside him, to take I suppose his last orders. A cripple, whom the bustle had attracted from his usual haunt, the church porch, held up his hand for alms. The Vidame as he passed, cut him savagely across the face with his whip, and cursed him audibly.
"May the devil take him!" exclaimed Croisette in just rage. But I said nothing, remembering that the cripple was a particular pet of Catherine's. I thought instead of an occasion, not so very long ago, when the Vicomte being at home, we had had a great hawking party. Bezers and Catherine had ridden up the street together, and Catherine giving the cripple a piece of money, Bezers had flung to him all his share of the game. And my heart sank.
Only for a moment, however. The man was gone; or was going at any rate. We stood silent and motionless, all watching, until, after what seemed a long interval, the little party of seven became visible on the white road far below us—to the northward, and moving in that direction. Still we watched them, muttering a word to one another, now and again, until presently the riders slackened their pace, and began to ascend the winding track that led to the hills and Cahors; and to Paris also, if one went far enough.
Then at length with a loud "Whoop!" we dashed across the terrace, Croisette leading, and so through the courtyard to the parlour; where we arrived breathless. "He is off!" Croisette cried shrilly. "He has started for Paris! And bad luck go with him!" And we all flung up our caps and shouted.
But no answer, such as we expected, came from the women folk. When we picked up our caps, and looked at Catherine, feeling rather foolish, she was staring at us with a white face and great scornful eyes. "Fools!" she said. "Fools!"
And that was all. But it was enough to take me aback. I had looked to see her face lighten at our news; instead it wore an expression I had never seen on it before. Catherine, so kind and gentle, calling us fools! And without cause! I did not understand it. I turned confusedly to Croisette. He was looking at her, and I saw that he was frightened. As for Madame Claude, she was crying in the corner. A presentiment of evil made my heart sink like lead. What had happened?
"Fools!" my cousin repeated with exceeding bitterness, her foot tapping the parquet unceasingly. "Do you think he would have stooped to avenge himself on YOU? On you! Or that he could hurt me one hundredth part as much here as—as—" She broke off stammering. Her scorn faltered for an instant. "Bah! he is a man! He knows!" she exclaimed superbly, her chin in the air, "but you are boys. You do not understand!"
I looked amazedly at this angry woman. I had a difficulty in associating her with my cousin. As for Croisette, he stepped forward abruptly, and picked up a white object which was lying at her feet.
"Yes, read it!" she cried, "read it! Ah!" and she clenched her little hand, and in her passion struck the oak table beside her, so that a stain of blood sprang out on her knuckles. "Why did you not kill him? Why did you not do it when you had the chance? You were three to one," she hissed. "You had him in your power! You could have killed him, and you did not! Now he will kill me!"
Madame Claude muttered something tearfully; something about Pavannes and the saints. I looked over Croisette's shoulder, and read the letter. It began abruptly without any term of address, and ran thus, "I have a mission in Paris, Mademoiselle, which admits of no delay, your mission, as well as my own—to see Pavannes. You have won his heart. It is yours, and I will bring it you, or his right hand in token that he has yielded up his claim to yours. And to this I pledge myself."
The thing bore no signature. It was written in some red fluid—blood perhaps—a mean and sorry trick! On the outside was scrawled a direction to Mademoiselle de Caylus. And the packet was sealed with the Vidame's crest, a wolf's head.
"The coward! the miserable coward!" Croisette cried. He was the first to read the meaning of the thing. And his eyes were full of tears—tears of rage.
For me I was angry exceedingly. My veins seemed full of fire, as I comprehended the mean cruelty which could thus torture a girl.
"Who delivered this?" I thundered. "Who gave it to Mademoiselle? How did it reach her hands? Speak, some one!"
A maid, whimpering in the background, said that Francis had given it to her to hand to Mademoiselle.
I ground my teeth together, while Marie, unbidden, left the room to seek Francis—and a stirrup leather. The Vidame had brought the note in his pocket no doubt, rightly expecting that he would not get an audience of my cousin. Returning to the gate alone he had seen his opportunity, and given the note to Francis, probably with a small fee to secure its transmission.
Croisette and I looked at one another, apprehending all this. "He will sleep at Cahors to-night," I said sullenly.
The lad shook his head and answered in a low voice, "I am afraid not. His horses are fresh. I think he will push on. He always travels quickly. And now you know—"
I nodded, understanding only too well.
Catherine had flung herself into a chair. Her arms lay nerveless on the table. Her face was hidden in them. But now, overhearing us, or stung by some fresh thought, she sprang to her feet in anguish. Her face twitched, her form seemed to stiffen as she drew herself up like one in physical pain. "Oh, I cannot bear it!" she cried to us in dreadful tones. "Oh, will no one do anything? I will go to him! I will tell him I will give him up! I will do whatever he wishes if he will only spare him!"
Croisette went from the room crying. It was a dreadful sight for us—this girl in agony. And it was impossible to reassure her! Not one of us doubted the horrible meaning of the note, its covert threat. Civil wars and religious hatred, and I fancy Italian modes of thought, had for the time changed our countrymen to beasts. Far more dreadful things were done then than this which Bezers threatened—even if he meant it literally—far more dreadful things were suffered. But in the fiendish ingenuity of his vengeance on her, the helpless, loving woman, I thought Raoul de Bezers stood alone. Alas! it fares ill with the butterfly when the cat has struck it down. Ill indeed!
Madame Claude rose and put her arms round the girl, dismissing me by a gesture. I went out, passing through two or three scared servants, and made at once for the terrace. I felt as if I could only breathe there. I found Marie and St. Croix together, silent, the marks of tears on their faces. Our eyes met and they told one tale.
We all spoke at the same time. "When?" we said. But the others looked to me for an answer.
I was somewhat sobered by that, and paused to consider before I replied. "At daybreak to-morrow," I decided presently. "It is an hour after noon already. We want money, and the horses are out. It will take an hour to bring them in. After that we might still reach Cahors to-night, perhaps; but more haste less speed you know. At daybreak to-morrow we will start."
They nodded assent.
It was a great thing we meditated. No less than to go to Paris—the unknown city so far beyond the hills—and seek out M. de Pavannes, and warn him. It would be a race between the Vidame and ourselves; a race for the life of Kit's suitor. Could we reach Paris first, or even within twenty-four hours of Bezers' arrival, we should in all probability be in time, and be able to put Pavannes on his guard. It had been the first thought of all of us, to take such men as we could get together and fall upon Bezers wherever we found him, making it our simple object to kill him. But the lackeys M. le Vicomte had left with us, the times being peaceful and the neighbours friendly, were poor-spirited fellows. Bezers' handful, on the contrary, were reckless Swiss riders—like master, like men. We decided that it would be wiser simply to warn Pavannes, and then stand by him if necessary.
We might have despatched a messenger. But our servants—Gil excepted, and he was too old to bear the journey—were ignorant of Paris. Nor could any one of them be trusted with a mission so delicate. We thought of Pavannes' courier indeed. But he was a Rochellois, and a stranger to the capital. There was nothing for it but to go ourselves.
Yet we did not determine on this adventure with light hearts, I remember. Paris loomed big and awesome in the eyes of all of us. The glamour of the court rather frightened than allured us. We felt that shrinking from contact with the world which a country life engenders, as well as that dread of seeming unlike other people which is peculiar to youth. It was a great plunge, and a dangerous which we meditated. And we trembled. If we had known more—especially of the future—we should have trembled more.
But we were young, and with our fears mingled a delicious excitement. We were going on an adventure of knight errantry in which we might win our spurs. We were going to see the world and play men's parts in it! to save a friend and make our mistress happy!
We gave our orders. But we said nothing to Catherine or Madame Claude; merely bidding Gil tell them after our departure. We arranged for the immediate despatch of a message to the Vicomte at Bayonne, and charged Gil until he should hear from him to keep the gates closed, and look well to the shoot of the kitchen midden. Then, when all was ready, we went to our pallets, but it was with hearts throbbing with excitement and wakeful eyes.
"Anne! Anne!" said Croisette, rising on his elbow and speaking to me some three hours later, "what do you think the Vidame meant this morning when he said that about the ten days?"
"What about the ten days?" I asked peevishly. He had roused me just when I was at last falling asleep.
"About the world seeing that his was the true faith—in ten days?"
"I am sure I do not know. For goodness' sake let us go to sleep," I replied. For I had no patience with Croisette, talking such nonsense, when we had our own business to think about.
THE ROAD TO PARIS.
The sun had not yet risen above the hills when we three with a single servant behind us drew rein at the end of the valley; and easing our horses on the ascent, turned in the saddle to take a last look at Caylus—at the huddled grey town, and the towers above it. A little thoughtful we all were, I think. The times were rough and our errand was serious. But youth and early morning are fine dispellers of care; and once on the uplands we trotted gaily forward, now passing through wide glades in the sparse oak forest, where the trees all leaned one way, now over bare, wind-swept downs; or once and again descending into a chalky bottom, where the stream bubbled through deep beds of fern, and a lonely farmhouse nestled amid orchards.
Four hours' riding, and we saw below us Cahors, filling the bend of the river. We cantered over the Vallandre Bridge, which there crosses the Lot, and so to my uncle's house of call in the square. Here we ordered breakfast, and announced with pride that we were going to Paris.
Our host raised his hands. "Now there!" he exclaimed, regret in his voice. "And if you had arrived yesterday you could have travelled up with the Vidame de Bezers! And you a small party—saving your lordships' presence—and the roads but so-so!"
"But the Vidame was riding with only half-a-dozen attendants also!" I answered, flicking my boot in a careless way.
The landlord shook his head. "Ah, M. le Vidame knows the world!" he answered shrewdly. "He is not to be taken off his guard, not he! One of his men whispered me that twenty staunch fellows would join him at Chateauroux. They say the wars are over, but"—and the good man, shrugging his shoulders, cast an expressive glance at some fine flitches of bacon which were hanging in his chimney. "However, your lordships know better than I do," he added briskly. "I am a poor man. I only wish to live at peace with my neighbours, whether they go to mass or sermon."
This was a sentiment so common in those days and so heartily echoed by most men of substance both in town and country, that we did not stay to assent to it; but having received from the worthy fellow a token which would insure our obtaining fresh cattle at Limoges, we took to the road again, refreshed in body, and with some food for thought.
Five-and-twenty attendants were more than even such a man as Bezers, who had many enemies, travelled with in those days; unless accompanied by ladies. That the Vidame had provided such a reinforcement seemed to point to a wider scheme than the one with which we had credited him. But we could not guess what his plans were; since he must have ordered his people before he heard of Catherine's engagement. Either his jealousy therefore had put him on the alert earlier, or his threatened attack on Pavannes was only part of a larger plot. In either case our errand seemed more urgent, but scarcely more hopeful.
The varied sights and sounds however of the road—many of them new to us—kept us from dwelling over much on this. Our eyes were young, and whether it was a pretty girl lingering behind a troop of gipsies, or a pair of strollers from Valencia—JONGLEURS they still called themselves—singing in the old dialect of Provence, or a Norman horse-dealer with his string of cattle tied head and tail, or the Puy de Dome to the eastward over the Auvergne hills, or a tattered old soldier wounded in the wars—fighting for either side, according as their lordships inclined—we were pleased with all.
Yet we never forgot our errand. We never I think rose in the morning—too often stiff and sore—without thinking "To-day or to-morrow or the next day—" as the case might be—"we shall make all right for Kit!" For Kit! Perhaps it was the purest enthusiasm we were ever to feel, the least selfish aim we were ever to pursue. For Kit!
Meanwhile we met few travellers of rank on the road. Half the nobility of France were still in Paris enjoying the festivities which were being held to mark the royal marriage. We obtained horses where we needed them without difficulty. And though we had heard much of the dangers of the way, infested as it was said to be by disbanded troopers, we were not once stopped or annoyed.
But it is not my intention to chronicle all the events of this my first journey, though I dwell on them with pleasure; or to say what I thought of the towns, all new and strange to me, through which we passed. Enough that we went by way of Limoges, Chateauroux and Orleans, and that at Chateauroux we learned the failure of one hope we had formed. We had thought that Bezers when joined there by his troopers would not be able to get relays; and that on this account we might by travelling post overtake him; and possibly slip by him between that place and Paris. But we learned at Chateauroux that his troop had received fresh orders to go to Orleans and await him there; the result being that he was able to push forward with relays so far. He was evidently in hot haste. For leaving there with his horses fresh he passed through Angerville, forty miles short of Paris, at noon, whereas we reached it on the evening of the same day—the sixth after leaving Caylus.
We rode into the yard of the inn—a large place, seeming larger in the dusk—so tired that we could scarcely slip from our saddles. Jean, our servant, took the four horses, and led them across to the stables, the poor beasts hanging their heads, and following meekly. We stood a moment stamping our feet, and stretching our legs. The place seemed in a bustle, the clatter of pans and dishes proceeding from the windows over the entrance, with a glow of light and the sound of feet hurrying in the passages. There were men too, half-a-dozen or so standing at the doors of the stables, while others leaned from the windows. One or two lanthorns just kindled glimmered here and there in the semi-darkness; and in a corner two smiths were shoeing a horse.
We were turning from all this to go in, when we heard Jean's voice raised in altercation, and thinking our rustic servant had fallen into trouble, we walked across to the stables near which he and the horses were still lingering. "Well, what is it?" I said sharply.
"They say that there is no room for the horses," Jean answered querulously, scratching his head; half sullen, half cowed, a country servant all over.
"And there is not!" cried the foremost of the gang about the door, hastening to confront us in turn. His tone was insolent, and it needed but half an eye to see that his fellows were inclined to back him up. He stuck his arms akimbo and faced us with an impudent smile. A lanthorn on the ground beside him throwing an uncertain light on the group, I saw that they all wore the same badge.
"Come," I said sternly, "the stables are large, and your horses cannot fill them. Some room must be found for mine."
"To be sure! Make way for the king!" he retorted. While one jeered "VIVE LE ROI!" and the rest laughed. Not good-humouredly, but with a touch of spitefulness.
Quarrels between gentlemen's servants were as common then as they are to-day. But the masters seldom condescended to interfere. "Let the fellows fight it out," was the general sentiment. Here, however, poor Jean was over-matched, and we had no choice but to see to it ourselves.
"Come, men, have a care that you do not get into trouble," I urged, restraining Croisette by a touch, for I by no means wished to have a repetition of the catastrophe which had happened at Caylus. "These horses belong to the Vicomte de Caylus. If your master be a friend of his, as may very probably be the case, you will run the risk of getting into trouble."
I thought I heard, as I stopped speaking, a subdued muttering, and fancied I caught the words, "PAPEGOT! Down with the Guises!" But the spokesman's only answer aloud was "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" he repeated, flapping his arms in defiance. "Here is a cock of a fine hackle!" And so on, and so forth, while he turned grinning to his companions, looking for their applause.
I was itching to chastise him, and yet hesitating, lest the thing should have its serious side, when a new actor appeared. "Shame, you brutes!" cried a shrill voice above us in the clouds it seemed. I looked up, and saw two girls, coarse and handsome, standing at a window over the stable, a light between them. "For shame! Don't you see that they are mere children? Let them be," cried one.
The men laughed louder than ever; and for me, I could not stand by and be called a child. "Come here," I said, beckoning to the man in the doorway. "Come here, you rascal, and I will give you the thrashing you deserve for speaking to a gentleman!"
He lounged forward, a heavy fellow, taller than myself and six inches wider at the shoulders. My heart failed me a little as I measured him. But the thing had to be done. If I was slight, I was wiry as a hound, and in the excitement had forgotten my fatigue. I snatched from Marie a loaded riding-whip he carried, and stepped forward.
"Have a care, little man!" cried the girl gaily—yet half in pity, I think. "Or that fat pig will kill you!"
My antagonist did not join in the laugh this time. Indeed it struck me that his eye wandered and that he was not so ready to enter the ring as his mates were to form it. But before I could try his mettle, a hand was laid on my shoulder. A man appearing from I do not know where—from the dark fringe of the group, I suppose—pushed me aside, roughly, but not discourteously.
"Leave this to me!" he said, coolly stepping before me. "Do not dirty your hands with the knave, master. I am pining for work and the job will just suit me! I will fit him for the worms before the nuns above can say an AVE!"
I looked at the newcomer. He was a stout fellow; not over tall, nor over big; swarthy, with prominent features. The plume of his bonnet was broken, but he wore it in a rakish fashion; and altogether he swaggered with so dare-devil an air, clinking his spurs and swinging out his long sword recklessly, that it was no wonder three or four of the nearest fellows gave back a foot.
"Come on!" he cried, boisterously, forming a ring by the simple process of sweeping his blade from side to side, while he made the dagger in his left hand flash round his head. "Who is for the game? Who will strike a blow for the little Admiral? Will you come one, two, three at once; or all together? Anyway, come on, you—" And he closed his challenge with a volley of frightful oaths, directed at the group opposite.
"It is no quarrel of yours," said the big man, sulkily; making no show of drawing his sword, but rather drawing back himself.
"All quarrels are my quarrels! and no quarrels are your quarrels. That is about the truth, I fancy!" was the smart retort; which our champion rendered more emphatic by a playful lunge that caused the big bully to skip again.
There was a loud laugh at this, even among the enemy's backers. "Bah, the great pig!" ejaculated the girl above. "Spit him!" and she spat down on the whilom Hector—who made no great figure now.
"Shall I bring you a slice of him, my dear?" asked my rakehelly friend, looking up and making his sword play round the shrinking wretch. "Just a tit-bit, my love?" he added persuasively. "A mouthful of white liver and caper sauce?"
"Not for me, the beast!" the girl cried, amid the laughter of the yard.
"Not a bit? If I warrant him tender? Ladies' meat?"
"Bah! no!" and she stolidly spat down again.
"Do you hear? The lady has no taste for you," the tormentor cried. "Pig of a Gascon!" And deftly sheathing his dagger, he seized the big coward by the ear, and turning him round, gave him a heavy kick which sent him spinning over a bucket, and down against the wall. There the bully remained, swearing and rubbing himself by turns; while the victor cried boastfully, "Enough of him. If anyone wants to take up his quarrel, Blaise Bure is his man. If not, let us have an end of it. Let someone find stalls for the gentlemen's horses before they catch a chill; and have done with it. As for me," he added, and then he turned to us and removed his hat with an exaggerated flourish, "I am your lordship's servant to command."
I thanked him with a heartiness, half-earnest, half-assumed. His cloak was ragged, his trunk hose, which had once been fine enough, were stained, and almost pointless, He swaggered inimitably, and had led-captain written large upon him. But he had done us a service, for Jean had no further trouble about the horses. And besides one has a natural liking for a brave man, and this man was brave beyond question.
"You are from Orleans," he said respectfully enough, but as one asserting a fact, not asking a question.
"Yes," I answered, somewhat astonished, "Did you see us come in?"
"No, but I looked at your boots, gentlemen," he replied. "White dust, north; red dust, south. Do you see?"
"Yes, I see," I said, with admiration. "You must have been brought up in a sharp school, M. Bure."
"Sharp masters make sharp scholars," he replied, grinning. And that answer I had occasion to remember afterwards.
"You are from Orleans, also?" I asked, as we prepared to go in.
"Yes, from Orleans too, gentlemen. But earlier in the day. With letters—letters of importance!" And bestowing something like a wink of confidence on us, he drew himself up, looked sternly at the stable-folk, patted himself twice on the chest, and finally twirled his moustaches, and smirked at the girl above, who was chewing straws.
I thought it likely enough that we might find it hard to get rid of him. But this was not so. After listening with gratification to our repeated thanks, he bowed with the same grotesque flourish, and marched off as grave as a Spaniard, humming—
"Ce petit homme tant joli! Qui toujours cause et toujours rit, Qui toujours baise sa mignonne, Dieu gard' de mal ce petit homme!"
On our going in, the landlord met us politely, but with curiosity, and a simmering of excitement also in his manner. "From Paris, my lords?" he asked, rubbing his hands and bowing low. "Or from the south?"
"From the south," I answered. "From Orleans, and hungry and tired, Master Host."
"Ah!" he replied, disregarding the latter part of my answer, while his little eyes twinkled with satisfaction. "Then I dare swear, my lords, you have not heard the news?" He halted in the narrow passage, and lifting the candle he carried, scanned our faces closely, as if he wished to learn something about us before he spoke.
"News!" I answered brusquely, being both tired, and as I had told him, hungry. "We have heard none, and the best you can give us will be that our supper is ready to be served."
But even this snub did not check his eagerness to tell his news. "The Admiral de Coligny," he said, breathlessly, "you have not heard what has happened to him?"
"To the admiral? No, what?" I inquired rapidly. I was interested at last.
For a moment let me digress. The few of my age will remember, and the many younger will have been told, that at this time the Italian queen-mother was the ruling power in France. It was Catharine de' Medici's first object to maintain her influence over Charles the Ninth—her son; who, ricketty, weak, and passionate, was already doomed to an early grave. Her second, to support the royal power by balancing the extreme Catholics against the Huguenots. For the latter purpose she would coquet first with one party, then with the other. At the present moment she had committed herself more deeply than was her wont to the Huguenots. Their leaders, the Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the King of Navarre, and the Prince of Conde, were supposed to be high in favour, while the chiefs of the other party, the Duke of Guise, and the two Cardinals of his house, the Cardinal of Lorraine and the Cardinal of Guise, were in disgrace; which, as it seemed, even their friend at court, the queen's favourite son, Henry of Anjou, was unable to overcome.
Such was the outward aspect of things in August, 1572, but there were not wanting rumours that already Coligny, taking advantage of the footing given him, had gained an influence over the young king, which threatened Catharine de' Medici herself. The admiral, therefore, to whom the Huguenot half of France had long looked as to its leader, was now the object of the closest interest to all; the Guise faction, hating him—as the alleged assassin of the Duke of Guise—with an intensity which probably was not to be found in the affection of his friends, popular with the latter as he was.
Still, many who were not Huguenots had a regard for him as a great Frenchman and a gallant soldier. We—though we were of the old faith, and the other side—had heard much of him, and much good. The Vicomte had spoken of him always as a great man, a man mistaken, but brave, honest and capable in his error. Therefore it was that when the landlord mentioned him, I forgot even my hunger.
"He was shot, my lords, as he passed through the Rue des Fosses, yesterday," the man declared with bated breath. "It is not known whether he will live or die. Paris is in an uproar, and there are some who fear the worst."
"But," I said doubtfully, "who has dared to do this? He had a safe conduct from the king himself."
Our host did not answer; shrugging his shoulders instead, he opened the door, and ushered us into the eating-room.
Some preparations for our meal had already been made at one end of the long board. At the other was seated a man past middle age; richly but simply dressed. His grey hair, cut short about a massive head, and his grave, resolute face, square-jawed, and deeply-lined, marked him as one to whom respect was due apart from his clothes. We bowed to him as we took our seats.
He acknowledged the salute, fixing us a moment with a penetrating glance; and then resumed his meal. I noticed that his sword and belt were propped against a chair at his elbow, and a dag, apparently loaded, lay close to his hand by the candlestick. Two lackeys waited behind his chair, wearing the badge we had remarked in the inn yard.
We began to talk, speaking in low tones that we might not disturb him. The attack on Coligny had, if true, its bearing on our own business. For if a Huguenot so great and famous and enjoying the king's special favour still went in Paris in danger of his life, what must be the risk that such an one as Pavannes ran? We had hoped to find the city quiet. If instead it should be in a state of turmoil Bezers' chances were so much the better; and ours—and Kit's, poor Kit's—so much the worse.
Our companion had by this time finished his supper. But he still sat at table, and seemed to be regarding us with some curiosity. At length he spoke. "Are you going to Paris, young gentlemen?" he asked, his tone harsh and high-pitched.
We answered in the affirmative. "To-morrow?" he questioned.
"Yes," we answered; and expected him to continue the conversation. But instead he became silent, gazing abstractedly at the table; and what with our meal, and our own talk we had almost forgotten him again, when looking up, I found him at my elbow, holding out in silence a small piece of paper.
I started his face was so grave. But seeing that there were half-a-dozen guests of a meaner sort at another table close by, I guessed that he merely wished to make a private communication to us; and hastened to take the paper and read it. It contained a scrawl of four words only—
"Va chasser l'Idole."
No more. I looked at him puzzled; able to make nothing out of it. St. Croix wrinkled his brow over it with the same result. It was no good handing it to Marie, therefore.
"You do not understand?" the stranger continued, as he put the scrap of paper back in his pouch.
"No," I answered, shaking my head. We had all risen out of respect to him, and were standing a little group about him.
"Just so; it is all right then," he answered, looking at us as it seemed to me with grave good-nature. "It is nothing. Go your way. But—I have a son yonder not much younger than you, young gentlemen. And if you had understood, I should have said to you, 'Do not go! There are enough sheep for the shearer!'"
He was turning away with this oracular saying when Croisette touched his sleeve. "Pray can you tell us if it be true," the lad said eagerly, "that the Admiral de Coligny was wounded yesterday?"
"It is true," the other answered, turning his grave eyes on his questioner, while for a moment his stern look failed him, "It is true, my boy," he added with an air of strange solemnity. "Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth. And, God forgive me for saying it, whom He would destroy, He first maketh mad."
He had gazed with peculiar favour at Croisette's girlish face, I thought: Marie and I were dark and ugly by the side of the boy. But he turned from him now with a queer, excited gesture, thumping his gold-headed cane on the floor. He called his servants in a loud, rasping voice, and left the room in seeming anger, driving them before him, the one carrying his dag, and the other, two candles.
When I came down early next morning, the first person I met was Blaise Bure. He looked rather fiercer and more shabby by daylight than candlelight. But he saluted me respectfully; and this, since it was clear that he did not respect many people, inclined me to regard him with favour. It is always so, the more savage the dog, the more highly we prize its attentions. I asked him who the Huguenot noble was who had supped with us. For a Huguenot we knew he must be.
"The Baron de Rosny," he answered; adding with a sneer, "He is a careful man! If they were all like him, with eyes on both sides of his head and a dag by his candle—well, my lord, there would be one more king in France—or one less! But they are a blind lot: as blind as bats." He muttered something farther in which I caught the word "to-night." But I did not hear it all; or understand any of it.
"Your lordships are going to Paris?" he resumed in a different tone. When I said that we were, he looked at me in a shamefaced way, half timid, half arrogant. "I have a small favour to ask of you then," he said. "I am going to Paris myself. I am not afraid of odds, as you have seen. But the roads will be in a queer state if there be anything on foot in the city, and—well, I would rather ride with you gentlemen than alone."
"You are welcome to join us," I said. "But we start in half-an-hour. Do you know Paris well?"
"As well as my sword-hilt," he replied briskly, relieved I thought by my acquiescence, "And I have known that from my breeching. If you want a game at PAUME, or a pretty girl to kiss, I can put you in the way for the one or the other."
The half rustic shrinking from the great city which I felt, suggested to me that our swashbuckling friend might help us if he would. "Do you know M. de Pavannes?" I asked impulsively, "Where he lives in Paris, I mean?"
"M. Louis de Pavannes?" quoth he.
"I know—" he replied slowly, rubbing his chin and looking at the ground in thought—"where he had his lodgings in town a while ago, before—Ah! I do know! I remember," he added, slapping his thigh, "when I was in Paris a fortnight ago I was told that his steward had taken lodgings for him in the Rue St. Antoine."
"Good!" I answered overjoyed. "Then we want to dismount there, if you can guide us straight to the house."
"I can," he replied simply. "And you will not be the worse for my company. Paris is a queer place when there is trouble to the fore, but your lordships have got the right man to pilot you through it."
I did not ask him what trouble he meant, but ran indoors to buckle on my sword, and tell Marie and Croisette of the ally I had secured. They were much pleased, as was natural; so that we took the road in excellent spirits intending to reach the city in the afternoon. But Marie's horse cast a shoe, and it was some time before we could find a smith. Then at Etampes, where we stopped to lunch, we were kept an unconscionable time waiting for it. And so we approached Paris for the first time at sunset. A ruddy glow was at the moment warming the eastern heights, and picking out with flame the twin towers of Notre Dame, and the one tall tower of St. Jacques la Boucherie. A dozen roofs higher than their neighbours shone hotly; and a great bank of cloud, which lay north and south, and looked like a man's hand stretched over the city, changed gradually from blood-red to violet, and from violet to black, as evening fell.
Passing within the gates and across first one bridge and then another, we were astonished and utterly confused by the noise and hubbub through which we rode. Hundreds seemed to be moving this way and that in the narrow streets. Women screamed to one another from window to window. The bells of half-a-dozen churches rang the curfew. Our country ears were deafened. Still our eyes had leisure to take in the tall houses with their high-pitched roofs, and here and there a tower built into the wall; the quaint churches, and the groups of townsfolk—sullen fellows some of them with a fierce gleam in their eyes—who, standing in the mouths of reeking alleys, watched us go by.
But presently we had to stop. A crowd had gathered to watch a little cavalcade of six gentlemen pass across our path. They were riding two and two, lounging in their saddles and chattering to one another, disdainfully unconscious of the people about them, or the remarks they excited. Their graceful bearing and the richness of their dress and equipment surpassed anything I had ever seen. A dozen pages and lackeys were attending them on foot, and the sound of their jests and laughter came to us over the heads of the crowd.
While I was gazing at them, some movement of the throng drove back Bure's horse against mine. Bure himself uttered a savage oath; uncalled for so far as I could see. But my attention was arrested the next moment by Croisette, who tapped my arm with his riding whip. "Look!" he cried in some excitement, "is not that he?"
I followed the direction of the lad's finger—as well as I could for the plunging of my horse which Bure's had frightened—and scrutinized the last pair of the troop. They were crossing the street in which we stood, and I had only a side view of them; or rather of the nearer rider. He was a singularly handsome man, in age about twenty-two or twenty-three with long lovelocks falling on his lace collar and cloak of orange silk. His face was sweet and kindly and gracious to a marvel. But he was a stranger to me.
"I could have sworn," exclaimed Croisette, "that that was Louis himself—M. de Pavannes!"
"That?" I answered, as we began to move again, the crowd melting before us. "Oh, dear, no!"
"No! no! The farther man!" he explained.
But I had not been able to get a good look at the farther of the two. We turned in our saddles and peered after him. His back in the dusk certainly reminded me of Louis. Bure, however, who said he knew M. de Pavannes by sight, laughed at the idea. "Your friend," he said, "is a wider man than that!" And I thought he was right there—but then it might be the cut of the clothes. "They have been at the Louvre playing paume, I'll be sworn!" he went on. "So the Admiral must be better. The one next us was M. de Teligny, the Admiral's son-in-law. And the other, whom you mean, was the Comte de la Rochefoucault."
We turned as he spoke into a narrow street near the river, and could see not far from us a mass of dark buildings which Bure told us was the Louvre—the king's residence. Out of this street we turned into a short one; and here Bure drew rein and rapped loudly at some heavy gates. It was so dark that when, these being opened, he led the way into a courtyard, we could see little more than a tall, sharp-gabled house, projecting over us against a pale sky; and a group of men and horses in one corner. Bure spoke to one of the men, and begging us to dismount, said the footman would show us to M. de Pavannes.
The thought that we were at the end of our long journey, and in time to warn Louis of his danger, made us forget all our exertions, our fatigue and stiffness. Gladly throwing the bridles to Jean we ran up the steps after the servant. The thing was done. Hurrah! the thing was done!
The house—as we passed through a long passage and up some steps—seemed full of people. We heard voices and the ring of arms more than once. But our guide, without pausing, led us to a small room lighted by a hanging lamp. "I will inform M. de Pavannes of your arrival," he said respectfully, and passed behind a curtain, which seemed to hide the door of an inner apartment. As he did so the clink of glasses and the hum of conversation reached us.
"He has company supping with him," I said nervously. I tried to flip some of the dust from my boots with my whip. I remembered that this was Paris.
"He will be surprised to see us," quoth Croisette, laughing—a little shyly, too, I think. And so we stood waiting.
I began to wonder as minutes passed by—the gay company we had seen putting it in my mind, I suppose—whether M. de Pavannes, of Paris, might not turn out to be a very different person from Louis de Pavannes, of Caylus; whether the king's courtier would be as friendly as Kit's lover. And I was still thinking of this without having settled the point to my satisfaction, when the curtain was thrust aside again. A very tall man, wearing a splendid suit of black and silver and a stiff trencher-like ruff, came quickly in, and stood smiling at us, a little dog in his arms. The little dog sat up and snarled: and Croisette gasped. It was not our old friend Louis certainly! It was not Louis de Pavannes at all. It was no old friend at all, It was the Vidame de Bezers!
"Welcome, gentlemen!" he said, smiling at us—and never had the cast been so apparent in his eyes. "Welcome to Paris, M. Anne!"
There was a long silence. We stood glaring at him, and he smiled upon us—as a cat smiles. Croisette told me afterwards that he could have died of mortification—of shame and anger that we had been so outwitted. For myself I did not at once grasp the position. I did not understand. I could not disentangle myself in a moment from the belief in which I had entered the house—that it was Louis de Pavannes' house. But I seemed vaguely to suspect that Bezers had swept him aside and taken his place. My first impulse therefore—obeyed on the instant—was to stride to the Vidame's side and grasp his arm. "What have you done?" I cried, my voice sounding hoarsely even in my own ears. "What have you done with M. de Pavannes? Answer me!"
He showed just a little more of his sharp white teeth as he looked down at my face—a flushed and troubled face doubtless. "Nothing—yet," he replied very mildly. And he shook me off.
"Then," I retorted, "how do you come here?"
He glanced at Croisette and shrugged his shoulders, as if I had been a spoiled child. "M. Anne does not seem to understand," he said with mock courtesy, "that I have the honour to welcome him to my house the Hotel Bezers, Rue de Platriere."
"The Hotel Bezers! Rue de Platriere!" I cried confusedly. "But Blaise Bure told us that this was the Rue St. Antoine!"
"Ah!" he replied as if slowly enlightened—the hypocrite! "Ah! I see!" and he smiled grimly. "So you have made the acquaintance of Blaise Bure, my excellent master of the horse! Worthy Blaise! Indeed, indeed, now I understand. And you thought, you whelps," he continued, and as he spoke his tone changed strangely, and he fixed us suddenly with angry eyes, "to play a rubber with me! With me, you imbeciles! You thought the wolf of Bezers could be hunted down like any hare! Then listen, and I will tell you the end of it. You are now in my house and absolutely at my mercy. I have two score men within call who would cut the throats of three babes at the breast, if I bade them! Ay," he, added, a wicked exultation shining in his eyes, "they would, and like the job!"
He was going on to say more, but I interrupted him. The rage I felt, caused as much by the thought of our folly as by his arrogance, would let me be silent no longer. "First, M. de Bezers, first," I broke out fiercely, my words leaping over one another in my haste, "a word with you! Let me tell you what I think of you! You are a treacherous hound, Vidame! A cur! a beast! And I spit upon you! Traitor and assassin!" I shouted, "is that not enough? Will nothing provoke you? If you call yourself a gentleman, draw!"
He shook his head; he was still smiling, still unmoved. "I do not do my own dirty work," he said quietly, "nor stint my footmen of their sport, boy."
"Very well!" I retorted. And with the words I drew my sword, and sprang as quick as lightning to the curtain by which he had entered. "Very well, we will kill you first!" I cried wrathfully, my eye on his eye, and every savage passion in my breast aroused, "and take our chance with the lackeys afterwards! Marie! Croisette!" I cried shrilly, "on him, lads!"
But they did not answer! They did not move or draw. For the moment indeed the man was in my power. My wrist was raised, and I had my point at his breast, I could have run him through by a single thrust. And I hated him. Oh, how I hated him! But he did not stir. Had he spoken, had he moved so much as an eyelid, or drawn back his foot, or laid his hand on his hilt, I should have killed him there. But he did not stir and I could not do it. My hand dropped. "Cowards!" I cried, glancing bitterly from him to them—they had never failed me before. "Cowards!" I muttered, seeming to shrink into myself as I said the word. And I flung my sword clattering on the floor.
"That is better!" he drawled quite unmoved, as if nothing more than words had passed, as if he had not been in peril at all. "It was what I was going to ask you to do. If the other young gentlemen will follow your example, I shall be obliged. Thank you. Thank you."
Croisette, and a minute later Marie, obeyed him to the letter! I could not understand it. I folded my arms and gave up the game in despair, and but for very shame I could have put my hands to my face and cried. He stood in the middle under the lamp, a head taller than the tallest of us; our master. And we stood round him trapped, beaten, for all the world like children. Oh, I could have cried! This was the end of our long ride, our aspirations, our knight-errantry!
"Now perhaps you will listen to me," he went on smoothly, "and hear what I am going to do. I shall keep you here, young gentlemen, until you can serve me by carrying to mademoiselle, your cousin, some news of her betrothed. Oh, I shall not detain you long," he added with an evil smile. "You have arrived in Paris at a fortunate moment. There is going to be a—well, there is a little scheme on foot appointed for to-night—singularly lucky you are!—for removing some objectionable people, some friends of ours perhaps among them, M. Anne. That is all. You will hear shots, cries, perhaps screams. Take no notice. You will be in no danger. For M. de Pavannes," he continued, his voice sinking, "I think that by morning I shall be able to give you a—a more particular account of him to take to Caylus—to Mademoiselle, you understand."
For a moment the mask was off. His face took a sombre brightness. He moistened his lips with his tongue as though he saw his vengeance worked out then and there before him, and were gloating over the picture. The idea that this was so took such a hold upon me that I shrank back, shuddering; reading too in Croisette's face the same thought—and a late repentance. Nay, the malignity of Bezers' tone, the savage gleam of joy in his eyes appalled me to such an extent that I fancied for a moment I saw in him the devil incarnate!
He recovered his composure very quickly, however; and turned carelessly towards the door. "If you will follow me," he said, "I will see you disposed of. You may have to complain of your lodging—I have other things to think of to-night than hospitality, But you shall not need to complain of your supper."
He drew aside the curtain as he spoke, and passed into the next room before us, not giving a thought apparently to the possibility that we might strike him from behind. There certainly was an odd quality apparent in him at times which seemed to contradict what we knew of him.
The room we entered was rather long than wide, hung with tapestry, and lighted by silver lamps. Rich plate, embossed, I afterwards learned, by Cellini the Florentine—who died that year I remember—and richer glass from Venice, with a crowd of meaner vessels filled with meats and drinks covered the table; disordered as by the attacks of a numerous party. But save a servant or two by the distant dresser, and an ecclesiastic at the far end of the table, the room was empty.
The priest rose as we entered, the Vidame saluting him as if they had not met that day. "You are welcome M. le Coadjuteur," he said; saying it coldly, however, I thought. And the two eyed one another with little favour; rather as birds of prey about to quarrel over the spoil, than as host and guest. Perhaps the Coadjutor's glittering eyes and great beak-like nose made me think of this.
"Ho! ho!" he said, looking piercingly at us—and no doubt we must have seemed a miserable and dejected crew enough. "Who are these? Not the first-fruits of the night, eh?"
The Vidame looked darkly at him. "No," he answered brusquely. "They are not. I am not particular out of doors, Coadjutor, as you know, but this is my house, and we are going to supper. Perhaps you do not comprehend the distinction. Still it exists—for me," with a sneer.
This was as good as Greek to us. But I so shrank from the priest's malignant eyes, which would not quit us, and felt so much disgust mingled with my anger that when Bezers by a gesture invited me to sit down, I drew back. "I will not eat with you," I said sullenly; speaking out of a kind of dull obstinacy, or perhaps a childish petulance.
It did not occur to me that this would pierce the Vidame's armour. Yet a dull red showed for an instant in his cheek, and he eyed me with a look, that was not all ferocity, though the veins in his great temples swelled. A moment, nevertheless, and he was himself again. "Armand," he said quietly to the servant, "these gentlemen will not sup with me. Lay for them at the other end."
Men are odd. The moment he gave way to me I repented of my words. It was almost with reluctance that I followed the servant to the lower part of the table. More than this, mingled with the hatred I felt for the Vidame, there was now a strange sentiment towards him—almost of admiration; that had its birth I think in the moment, when I held his life in my hand, and he had not flinched.
We ate in silence; even after Croisette by grasping my hand under the table had begged me not to judge him hastily. The two at the upper end talked fast, and from the little that reached us, I judged that the priest was pressing some course on his host, which the latter declined to take.
Once Bezers raised his voice. "I have my own ends to serve!" he broke out angrily, adding a fierce oath which the priest did not rebuke, "and I shall serve them. But there I stop. You have your own. Well, serve them, but do not talk to me of the cause! The cause? To hell with the cause! I have my cause, and you have yours, and my lord of Guise has his! And you will not make me believe that there is any other!"
"The king's?" suggested the priest, smiling sourly.
"Say rather the Italian woman's!" the Vidame answered recklessly—meaning the queen-mother, Catharine de' Medici, I supposed.
"Well, then, the cause of the Church?" the priest persisted.
"Bah! The Church? It is you, my friend!" Bezers rejoined, rudely tapping his companion—at that moment in the act of crossing himself—on the chest. "The Church?" he continued; "no, no, my friend. I will tell you what you are doing. You want me to help you to get rid of your branch, and you offer in return to aid me with mine—and then, say you, there will be no stick left to beat either of us. But you may understand once for all"—and the Vidame struck his hand heavily down among the glasses—"that I will have no interference with my work, master Clerk! None! Do you hear? And as for yours, it is no business of mine. That is plain speaking, is it not?"
The priest's hand shook as he raised a full glass to his lips, but he made no rejoinder, and the Vidame, seeing we had finished, rose. "Armand!" he cried, his face still dark, "take these gentlemen to their chamber. You understand?"
We stiffly acknowledged his salute—the priest taking no notice of us—and followed the servant from the room; going along a corridor and up a steep flight of stairs, and seeing enough by the way to be sure that resistance was hopeless. Doors opened silently as we passed, and grim fellows, in corslets and padded coats, peered out. The clank of arms and murmur of voices sounded continuously about us; and as we passed a window the jingle of bits, and the hollow clang of a restless hoof on the flags below, told us that the great house was for the time a fortress. I wondered much. For this was Paris, a city with gates and guards; the night a short August night. Yet the loneliest manor in Quercy could scarcely have bristled with more pikes and musquetoons, on a winter's night and in time of war.
No doubt these signs impressed us all; and Croisette not least. For suddenly I heard him stop, as he followed us up the narrow staircase, and begin without warning to stumble down again as fast as he could. I did not know what he was about; but muttering something to Marie, I followed the lad to see. At the foot of the flight of stairs I looked back, Marie and the servant were standing in suspense, where I had left them. I heard the latter bid us angrily to return.
But by this time Croisette was at the end of the corridor; and reassuring the fellow by a gesture I hurried on, until brought to a standstill by a man opening a door in my face. He had heard our returning footsteps, and eyed me suspiciously; but gave way after a moment with a grunt of doubt I hastened on, reaching the door of the room in which we had supped in time to see something which filled me with grim astonishment; so much so that I stood rooted where I was, too proud at any rate to interfere.
Bezers was standing, the leering priest at his elbow. And Croisette was stooping forward, his hands stretched out in an attitude of supplication.
"Nay, but M. le Vidame," the lad cried, as I stood, the door in my hand, "it were better to stab her at once than break her heart! Have pity on her! If you kill him, you kill her!"
The Vidame was silent, seeming to glower on the boy. The priest sneered. "Hearts are soon mended—especially women's," he said.
"But not Kit's!" Croisette said passionately—otherwise ignoring him. "Not Kit's! You do not know her, Vidame! Indeed you do not!"
The remark was ill-timed. I saw a spasm of anger distort Bezers' face. "Get up, boy!" he snarled, "I wrote to Mademoiselle what I would do, and that I shall do! A Bezers keeps his word. By the God above us—if there be a God, and in the devil's name I doubt it to-night!—I shall keep mine! Go!"
His great face was full of rage. He looked over Croisette's head as he spoke, as if appealing to the Great Registrar of his vow, in the very moment in which he all but denied Him. I turned and stole back the way I had come; and heard Croisette follow.
That little scene completed my misery. After that I seemed to take no heed of anything or anybody until I was aroused by the grating of our gaoler's key in the lock, and became aware that he was gone, and that we were alone in a small room under the tiles. He had left the candle on the floor, and we three stood round it. Save for the long shadows we cast on the walls and two pallets hastily thrown down in one corner, the place was empty. I did not look much at it, and I would not look at the others. I flung myself on one of the pallets and turned my face to the wall, despairing. I thought bitterly of the failure we had made of it, and of the Vidame's triumph. I cursed St. Croix especially for that last touch of humiliation he had set to it. Then, forgetting myself as my anger abated, I thought of Kit so far away at Caylus—of Kit's pale, gentle face, and her sorrow. And little by little I forgave Croisette. After all he had not begged for us—he had not stooped for our sakes, but for hers.
I do not know how long I lay at see-saw between these two moods. Or whether during that time the others talked or were silent, moved about the room or lay still. But it was Croisette's hand on my shoulder, touching me with a quivering eagerness that instantly communicated itself to my limbs, which recalled me to the room and its shadows. "Anne!" he cried. "Anne! Are you awake?"
"What is it?" I said, sitting up and looking at him.
"Marie," he began, "has—"
But there was no need for him to finish. I saw that Marie was standing at the far side of the room by the unglazed window; which, being in a sloping part of the roof, inclined slightly also. He had raised the shutter which closed it, and on his tip-toes—for the sill was almost his own height from the floor—was peering out. I looked sharply at Croisette. "Is there a gutter outside?" I whispered, beginning to tingle all over as the thought of escape for the first time occurred to me.
"No," he answered in the same tone. "But Marie says he can see a beam below, which he thinks we can reach."
I sprang up, promptly displaced Marie, and looked out. When my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom I discerned a dark chaos of roofs and gables stretching as far as I could see before me. Nearer, immediately under the window, yawned a chasm—a narrow street. Beyond this was a house rather lower than that in which we were, the top of its roof not quite reaching the level of my eyes.
"I see no beam," I said.
"Look below!" quoth Marie, stolidly,
I did so, and then saw that fifteen or sixteen feet below our window there was a narrow beam which ran from our house to the opposite one—for the support of both, as is common in towns. In the shadow near the far end of this—it was so directly under our window that I could only see the other end of it—I made out a casement, faintly illuminated from within.
I shook my head.
"We cannot get down to it," I said, measuring the distance to the beam and the depth below it, and shivering.
"Marie says we can, with a short rope," Croisette replied. His eyes were glistening with excitement.
"But we have no rope!" I retorted. I was dull—as usual. Marie made no answer. Surely he was the most stolid and silent of brothers. I turned to him. He was taking off his waistcoat and neckerchief.
"Good!" I cried. I began to see now. Off came our scarves and kerchiefs also, and fortunately they were of home make, long and strong. And Marie had a hank of four-ply yarn in his pocket as it turned out, and I had some stout new garters, and two or three yards of thin cord, which I had brought to mend the girths, if need should arise. In five minutes we had fastened them cunningly together.
"I am the lightest," said Croisette.
"But Marie has the steadiest head," I objected. We had learned that long ago—that Marie could walk the coping-stones of the battlements with as little concern as we paced a plank set on the ground.
"True," Croisette had to admit. "But he must come last, because whoever does so will have to let himself down."
I had not thought of that, and I nodded. It seemed that the lead was passing out of my hands and I might resign myself. Still one thing I would have. As Marie was to come last, I would go first. My weight would best test the rope. And accordingly it was so decided.
There was no time to be lost. At any moment we might be interrupted. So the plan was no sooner conceived than carried out. The rope was made fast to my left wrist. Then I mounted on Marie's shoulders, and climbed—not without quavering—through the window, taking as little time over it as possible, for a bell was already proclaiming midnight.
All this I had done on the spur of the moment. But outside, hanging by my hands in the darkness, the strokes of the great bell in my ears, I had a moment in which to think. The sense of the vibrating depth below me, the airiness, the space and gloom around, frightened me. "Are you ready?" muttered Marie, perhaps with a little impatience. He had not a scrap of imagination, had Marie.
"No! wait a minute!" I blurted out, clinging to the sill, and taking a last look at the bare room, and the two dark figures between me and the light. "No!" I added, hurriedly. "Croisette—boys, I called you cowards just now. I take it back! I did not mean it! That is all!" I gasped. "Let go!"
A warm touch on my hand. Something like a sob.
The next moment I felt myself sliding down the face of the house, down into the depth. The light shot up. My head turned giddily. I clung, oh, how I clung to that rope! Half way down the thought struck me that in case of accident those above might not be strong enough to pull me up again. But it was too late to think of that, and in another second my feet touched the beam. I breathed again. Softly, very gingerly, I made good my footing on the slender bridge, and, disengaging the rope, let it go. Then, not without another qualm, I sat down astride of the beam, and whistled in token of success. Success so far!
It was a strange position, and I have often dreamed of it since. In the darkness about me Paris lay to all seeming asleep. A veil, and not the veil of night only, was stretched between it and me; between me, a mere lad, and the strange secrets of a great city; stranger, grimmer, more deadly that night than ever before or since. How many men were watching under those dimly-seen roofs, with arms in their hands? How many sat with murder at heart? How many were waking, who at dawn would sleep for ever, or sleeping who would wake only at the knife's edge? These things I could not know, any more than I could picture how many boon-companions were parting at that instant, just risen from the dice, one to go blindly—the other watching him—to his death? I could not imagine, thank Heaven for it, these secrets, or a hundredth part of the treachery and cruelty and greed that lurked at my feet, ready to burst all bounds at a pistol-shot. It had no significance for me that the past day was the 23rd of August, or that the morrow was St. Bartholomew's feast!
No. Yet mingled with the jubilation which the possibility of triumph over our enemy raised in my breast, there was certainly a foreboding. The Vidame's hints, no less than his open boasts, had pointed to something to happen before morning—something wider than the mere murder of a single man. The warning also which the Baron de Rosny had given us at the inn occurred to me with new meaning. And I could not shake the feeling off. I fancied, as I sat in the darkness astride of my beam, that I could see, closing the narrow vista of the street, the heavy mass of the Louvre; and that the murmur of voices and the tramp of men assembling came from its courts, with now and again the stealthy challenge of a sentry, the restrained voice of an officer. Scarcely a wayfarer passed beneath me: so few, indeed, that I had no fear of being detected from below. And yet unless I was mistaken, a furtive step, a subdued whisper were borne to me on every breeze, from every quarter. And the night was full of phantoms.
Perhaps all this was mere nervousness, the outcome of my position. At any rate I felt no more of it when Croisette joined me. We had our daggers, and that gave me some comfort. If we could once gain entrance to the house opposite, we had only to beg, or in the last resort force our way downstairs and out, and then to hasten with what speed we might to Pavannes' dwelling. Clearly it was a question of time only now; whether Bezers' band or we should first reach it. And struck by this I whispered Marie to be quick. He seemed to be long in coming.
He scrambled down hand over hand at last, and then I saw that he had not lingered above for nothing. He had contrived after getting out of the window to let down the shutter. And more he had at some risk lengthened our rope, and made a double line of it, so that it ran round a hinge of the shutter; and when he stood beside us, he took it by one end and disengaged it. Good, clever Marie!
"Bravo!" I said softly, clapping him on the back. "Now they will not know which way the birds have flown!"
So there we all were, one of us, I confess, trembling. We slid easily enough along the beam to the opposite house. But once there in a row one behind the other with our faces to the wall, and the night air blowing slantwise—well I am nervous on a height and I gasped. The window was a good six feet above the beam, The casement—it was unglazed—was open, veiled by a thin curtain, and alas! protected by three horizontal bars—stout bars they looked.
Yet we were bound to get up, and to get in; and I was preparing to rise to my feet on the giddy bridge as gingerly as I could, when Marie crawled quickly over us, and swung himself up to the narrow sill, much as I should mount a horse on the level. He held out his foot to me, and making an effort I reached the same dizzy perch. Croisette for the time remained below.
A narrow window-ledge sixty feet above the pavement, and three bars to cling to! I cowered to my holdfasts, envying even Croisette. My legs dangled airily, and the black chasm of the street seemed to yawn for me. For a moment I turned sick. I recovered from that to feel desperate. I remembered that go forward we must, bars or no bars. We could not regain our old prison if we would.
It was equally clear that we could not go forward if the inmates should object. On that narrow perch even Marie was helpless. The bars of the window were close together. A woman, a child, could disengage our hands, and then—I turned sick again. I thought of the cruel stones. I glued my face to the bars, and pushing aside a corner of the curtain, looked in.