E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE JUSTICE OF THE KING
Author of "The King's Scapegoat," "Room Five," "The Houses," "Shoes of Gold," Etc.
International Fiction Library Cleveland ————— New York
Copyright, 1911 by the MacMillan Company All rights reserved
I. THE DESPATCH II. A LESSON IN OBEDIENCE III. FOR A WOMAN'S SAKE IV. THE JUSTICE OF THE KING V. THE KING LAYS BARE HIS HEART VI. HOW LOUIS LOVED HIS SON VII. FOUR-AND-TWENTY, WITH THE HEART OF EIGHTEEN VIII. THE BLACK DOG OF AMBOISE IX. FRANCOIS VILLON, POET AND GALLOWS-CHEAT X. LOVE, THE ENEMY XI. THE CROSS IN THE DARKNESS XII. LA MOTHE BELIEVES, BUT IS NOT CONVINCED XIII. "FRIEND IS MORE THAN FAMILY" XIV. FOR LIFE AND THRONE XV. A QUESTION IN THEOLOGY XVI. TOO SLOW AND TOO FAST XVII. STEPHEN LA MOTHE ASKS THE WRONG QUESTION XVIII. FRENCH AND ENGLISH XIX. GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN XX. THE LAST STAND XXI. DENOUNCED XXII. "WE MUST SAVE HER TOGETHER" XXIII. JEAN SAXE IS EXPLICIT XXIV. A PROPHET WITHOUT HONOUR XXV. "IT IS A TRAP" XXVI. COMMINES TAKES ADVICE XXVII. THE SUCCESS OF FAILURE XXVIII. PHILIP DE COMMINES, DIPLOMATIST XXIX. THE PRICE OF A LATE BREAKFAST XXX. "LOVE IS MY LIFE" XXXI. SAXE RISES IN VILLON'S ESTIMATION XXXII. LA MOTHE FULFILS HIS COMMISSION XXXIII. THE ARREST XXXIV. LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS XXXV. THE DAWN BROADENS
THE JUSTICE OF THE KING
All morning the King had been restless, unappeasable, captious, with little relapses unto the immobility of deep thought, and those who knew him best were probing deeply both their conscience and their conduct. Had he sat aloof, quiet in the sunshine, his dogs sleeping at his feet, his eyes half closed, his hands, waxen, almost transparent, and bird's claws for thinness, spread out to the heat, those about him would have gone their rounds with a light heart. At such times his schemes were thoughts afar off, dreams of some new, subtle stroke of policy, and none within touch had cause to fear.
But this May day he was restless, unsettled, his mind so full of an active purpose shortly to be fulfilled that he could not keep his tired body quiet for long, but every few minutes shifted his position or his place. If he sat in his great chair, padded with down to ease his weakness and the aching of his bones, his fingers were constantly plucking at his laces, or playing with the tags which fastened the fur-lined scarlet cloak he wore for a double purpose, to comfort the coldness of his meagre body, and that the death-like pallor of his face might be touched by its gay brightness to a reflected, fictitious glow of health. But to remain seated for any length of time jarred with his mood. Pushing himself to his feet he would walk the length of the gallery and back again, leaning heavily upon his stick, only to sink once more into his chair and fumble anew with shaking hands at whatever loose end or edge lay nearest.
So it had been all morning, but the restlessness had redoubled within the last half-hour. It was then that a post had reached Valmy, no man knew from whence, nor had the messenger been asked any questions. The superscription on the despatch was a warning against the vice of curiosity. It was in the King's familiar handwriting, bold and angular, and ran, "To His Majesty the King of France, At his Chateau of Valmy, These in great haste." A "Louis" in large letters was sprawled across the lower corner of the cover.
But though none asked questions it was noted that the horse was fresher than the man, and that whereas the one was streaming in a lather of sweat which had neither set nor dried, the other was splashed, caked, and powdered with mud and dust to the eyebrows: therefore the wise in such matters deduced that short relays had been provided, but that the rider had only halted long enough to climb from saddle to saddle. In silence he handed his letter to the Captain of the Guard, together with the King's signet, and in silence he rode away; but whereas he came at a gallop he rode away at a slow walk: therefore the wise further deduced that his task was ended.
With the King in residence not even the Captain of the Guard could move freely through Valmy, but the signet answered all challenges. Every door, every stair-head was double-sentried, but except for these silent figures the rooms and passages were alike empty. Loitering for gossip was not encouraged at Valmy, and least of all in the block which held the King's lodgings. Only in the outer gallery, where the King took the air with the pointed windows open to the south for warmth, was there any suggestion of a court. Here, at the entrance, and remote from the King alone at the further end, Saint-Pierre and Leslie were in attendance. Pausing to show the ring for the last time Lessaix unbuckled his sword, handed it in silence to Saint-Pierre, and passed on. In Valmy suspicion never slept, never opened its heart in faith to loyalty, and not even the Captain of the Guard might approach the King armed.
While he was still some yards distant Louis, gnawing his under lip as he watched him, suddenly flung out one hand, the palm outward, the fingers spread, and Lessaix halted.
"Well?" He spoke curtly, harshly, as a man speaks whose temper is worn to breaking-point.
"A despatch, sire."
"There is nothing to show——"
"I do not know, sire."
"Have you no tongue to ask?"
"I asked nothing, sire."
"Um; hold it up." Leaning forward Louis bridged his dim eyes with his hand, and under the shadow Lessaix saw the thin mouth open and shut convulsively; but when the hand was lowered the King's face was expressionless. "What else?"
"Your Majesty's signet."
"Let me see! Let me see! Um; that will do. Put them on the table and go. Where is the messenger?"
"He left at once."
"Um; were the roads bad from Paris?"
"He did not say, sire; he never opened his lips."
"Silent, was he? Then there is one wise man in France. Thank you, Captain Lessaix."
With a salute Lessaix retired, but as he buckled on his sword again Saint-Pierre whispered, "Whence?"
"I don't know," replied Lessaix, also under his breath, "but not from Paris!"
Left alone Louis sat back in his chair, his thin lips mumbling nervously at his nails, his eyes fixed on his own handwriting: the ring, a passport to life or death, he had at once slipped upon his finger. Every moment he knew he was watched, every action weighed, and he was a little uncertain how far a judicious self-betrayal would further his purpose. His handwriting would tell them nothing but that he knew the writer of the letter, whence it came, and that it was important. To heighten the importance but conceal the cause seemed wise. Of course presently he must take some one into his confidence, and from the depth of his soul he regretted the necessity.
That was the curse of kingship—the brain which planned, reconciling discordant elements, must rely for execution on hands it could not always control. Yes, that was the vice of government, and the reason why so many well-devised, smoothly-launched schemes utterly miscarried. If the brain could only be the hands also! If the hands could only reach out from where the brain pondered and foresaw! But they could not, and so he must trust Commines. Trust Commines! A little gust of anger at his impotence shook him and he shivered, dashing his hands upon the table; it was never safe to trust any one—never! But he was helpless, there was no escape, and in turn Commines must trust one other: trust him with execution, that is, with blind performance, not with knowledge. Beyond Commines he would trust no man with knowledge, at least not as yet, nor Commines more than he must. Later it might be policy to let it be known publicly the great danger which had threatened him, and France through him, but not till all was over!
Till all was over! Again Louis shivered a little, but not this time with anger. The phrase was a euphemism for death, and he hated the word even when wrapped up in a euphemism and applied to another. Death was death, disguise it in what phrase one might; a horror, a terror, another vice of kings worse than the first. It said in plain words, "You can sow, but you may never reap; you can begin, but you may never finish. Some one else will reap: some one else will finish." Some one else! The thought was intolerable. He hated, he loathed the some one else as he hated and loathed death. With a sweep of his arm, as if he thrust some bodily presence from him, Louis leaned forward and caught up the despatch. Let him make an end to brooding, here was work to be done.
Having closely examined the seals securing the back to make certain they were intact, he ripped apart the threads which bound it round and round passing through the seals, and drew out the enclosure. It was a single sheet of stiff paper. This he unfolded, and spreading it flat upon the table bent over it eagerly. But before he could have read three lines he sank back in his chair with a cry, and so fierce was his face that Saint-Pierre and Leslie, at the end of the gallery, instinctively drew apart, each suspicious of the other. The King's wrath was like lightning, swift to fall, and where it fell there was the danger of sudden destruction to those near.
So he sat for a full minute, his brows drawn, his thin lips narrowed to a line, his head sunk between his shoulders, then with a sigh audible to the length of the gallery he again bent above the paper, resting his weight on both arms, as if utterly weary both in body and spirit.
This time the pause was while he might have read the page slowly twice over, weighing its sense word by word, and when at length he raised his head all passion had gone from him; he was a sorrowful old man, weary and worn and grey.
"Commines!" he said harshly, "send me Commines," and sat back, the paper crumpled lengthwise in his hand.
But he did not sit for long. Rising, he paced up the gallery, his head bent, his iron-shod stick striking the flags with a clang as he leaned upon it at every second step, the crumpled paper still caught in his hand. At the door he paused, looking up sideways.
"Commines? Where is Commines? Head of God! is there no one to bring me Commines?"
"We have sent for him, sire."
"Sent for him? Why is he not here when I need him? I am the worse-served king in Christendom. No one takes thought, no one cares, no one—— Who is on guard? Leslie? Ah! Leslie cares, with Leslie I am safe: yes, yes, with Leslie I am safe," and once more he turned away, the iron ringing from the pavement as before. Suspicion breeds suspicion, and it would never do to vex Leslie's blunt loyalty with any seeming distrust. Besides, it was true, he could trust Leslie. It was not the same trust as he had in Commines; Leslie would watch over him, would guard him at all costs, but Commines would obey and ask no questions.
Three times he had walked the length of the gallery, always with growing impatience, and three times turned before he heard the sound of whispering at the door, and the ring of rapid feet followed him. But he gave no sign, and went on his way as if he had heard nothing. He recognized the footfall, but preferred that Commines should reach him as remotely from the door as possible.
"Ah!" Louis turned with a start. "You have come at last! At last! There was a time I was served better. But let that pass. Philip, I have had letters."
"Yes, sire, I know: Lessaix told me."
"You know, and Lessaix told you! You watch me—spy on me, do you?"
"Sire, it is my business to know everything which touches——"
"Yes! and what more do you know? Where did the post come from, you, whose business it is to know everything?"
"Lessaix thought from Paris."
"From Paris," and Louis raised his voice so that the affirmation in it might be clearly heard at the further end of the gallery. Then he turned to the silent group at the doorway, watchful to seize upon any clue to the King's mystery which might guide their feet clear of the pitfalls besetting Valmy.
"Let all men go from me but my friend Argenton," he said, with a wave of the hand which still held the paper crumpled in the grasp. "Let the guard remain beyond the door, but let no man enter till I give leave. Paris! Let them think Paris," he went on, lowering his voice, "but from you, Philip, I have no secrets. We are old friends, too old friends to have secrets one from the other, eh, Philip, eh? Give me your arm that I may lean upon it, for I grow tired. It is the heat, not that I am ill or weaker; the heat, the heat, and I grow tired. And yet I must walk: I cannot rest; no, not for a moment; this—this horror has unstrung me."
A LESSON IN OBEDIENCE
Passing his clenched hand through the crook of Commines' arm, and leaning heavily on the stick in the other hand, Louis turned slowly up the gallery, and for a time both were silent. They made a strange contrast. The King was shrunken, bowed, and bent, a veritable walking skeleton to whom the grave already imperiously beckoned nor would take long denial. With his bony head, his listless face, his lean, long neck thrust out from the fur of his upturned collar, he resembled a giant bird of prey. The skinny hand thrust through the crook of Commines' arm, and still grasping the crumpled despatch, was the claw of a vulture. Above him, head and shoulders, towered Commines, square-set, burly, muscular, and as full of life and vigour as his master was sapless. Just midway to the threescore years and ten, his bodily powers were at their highest, and in the ten years he had served Louis his mind had ripened so that few men were more astute, more shrewd to see and seize upon advantages, whether for himself or his master. In the King's service few scruples troubled him, the questionable act was Louis', his part was to obey.
"Then, sire, the post was not from Paris?"
"From Amboise," answered Louis, with sudden incisive vigour, his voice rasping harshly. "From Amboise, where the ungrateful son of a miserable father plots and plots and plots: and you, whose business it is to know everything, know nothing."
"The Dauphin? and plotting against you? But, sire, it is impossible. The Dauphin is barely thirteen years of age."
"The pity of it, Argenton, oh! the pity of it." As he spoke one who did not know him as Commines knew him would have sworn that tears were very near the dull, dry eyes. "No more than thirteen—no, not thirteen, and yet—ah! the pity of it."
"Oh, sire, some one has deceived you. The Dauphin is too young to plot, even if affection and common nature——"
"Too young?" broke in Louis, halting in his slow walk to strike the pavement angrily with his stick. "At what age does a serpent grow fangs? Too young? Ill weeds grow apace, and then there may be those about him who egg him on, who sow wrong ideas in his mind that they may reap some gain to themselves. All are not as faithful as thou art, Philip. I have not always been merciful—not always. At times justice has rejoiced against mercy for the general good; yes, for the general good. There was Molembrais; men blame me for Molembrais; but if the King's arm be not strong enough to strike, who shall hold the kingdom in its place? And because the King's hand pulls down and raises up as God wills"—he paused, and bowed with a little gesture of his hand to his cap—"there are those who do not love me. But if they egg on, those others who should be loyal to their King and are not, if they suggest, it is my son—my son, Argenton—who is the very heart and centre; my son, who out of his little twelve years raises his hand against my threescore."
"If he has done that," began Commines, picking his words slowly (he had not as yet fathomed Louis' purpose, and feared lest he should commit himself in too great haste to the wrong policy), "if the Dauphin has truly so forgotten natural love and duty——"
"If!" With a snarl which showed his gapped and yellow teeth Louis again straightened himself, and as he raised his head beyond the reflected glow of the scarlet cloak his face was grey with passion. "If? If? Head of God, man! do you dare talk to me in 'ifs'? Philip de Commines, when you were little in your own eyes, when you were the humble fetcher and carrier to that Bully of Burgundy whom I crushed, when you were the very hound and cur of his pleasure, fawning on him for the scraps of life, I took you up, I!—I! Now you are Lord of Argenton, now you are Seneschal of Poitou, now you are Prince of Talmont, and I have made you all these, I!—I! and you answer me with an 'if'! But the hand which raised you up can drag down, you who answer me with an 'if.' The hand which drew from the mud can fling into the ditch, you who answer me with an 'if.' And, by God! I'll do it! An 'if'? We say 'ifs' to fools. Was I a fool to turn the lickshoe of Charles the Bully into the Prince of Talmont? Was I a fool to grope in the mud for a Seneschal of Poitou? Am I a fool now—I, who have held the strings of all Europe in my hand for thirty years, and loosed or ravelled them as suited the greatness of France? God be my witness, all has been for the greatness of France! France comes first, always first. And now, when I say my son plots against me, that twelve-year boy who is of an age to be king, am I a fool and liar? Does this lie? Answer me, Argenton, does this lie?" And wrenching his hand free from Commines he shook the paper passionately above his head.
So sudden and so fierce was the attack, so full of bitter venom and raw rage, so brutally naked and perilous in its threat, that Commines fairly quailed. The florid ruddiness of his fleshy face faded to a pallor more cadaverous than the unhealthy grey of Louis' sunken cheeks as he remembered Molembrais. At the door stood the guards with crossed pikes, beyond these were Leslie and Saint-Pierre, watchful and alert. He was loved little better than his master, and he knew it. Let the King speak and there would be no hesitancy, little pity. In his rapid rise he had kicked many rivals from the ladder of Court favour, and climbed yet higher by trampling them underfoot, caring little what gulf of disgrace or worse swallowed them. And the King's threat was no idle boast; the hand which had raised could drag down, not only to irremediable disaster, but to the very grave itself. A hand? A beckoning finger to those who waited at the door would be enough, and Commines trembled.
"Sire, sire," he cried, his arms raised in protest and supplication, "how have I offended you? In what have I been ungrateful? I meant no more but that it seemed impossible a son could turn against so good, so great a father. That—that—staggered me for the moment. It beggared reason; it—it—but let me read the despatch for myself, sire. Not for belief, but for comprehension, and that we may meet the blow together, that we may turn it aside—may turn it back on—on—the hand that strikes."
"Aye!" said Louis drily, "that is more like the Commines of old, the Commines who served his master without an 'if.' And that is a good phrase of yours—turn back the blow on the hand that strikes! When that is done, and the time comes for reward, I will not forget that it was your phrase. And it was for that I sent for you: I knew my friend Commines would find a way to—to—guard his master effectually."
Before Louis ended all the harshness had gone from his voice, and it became marvellously gentle, marvellously kindly, almost caressing. A master student of the subtle trifles which unconsciously influence great events, he played upon men's minds as a skilled musician on his instrument, and they obeyed the touch. Nor was Philip de Commines, opportunist, political adventurer, philosopher, soldier of fortune, diplomatist, exempt from the influence of that skilful mastery. As he had gloomed so now he gladdened: he squared his shoulders to his fullest height, filling his lungs with a deeper inspiration, and the colour ran back to his cheeks in flood. Nor was it all in pride; there was relief, and the lifting up of a burden which for one terrible moment had threatened to crush him to the earth itself.
But the life which gave its strength to the hand which lifted and dragged down was frail almost to extinction, and remembering that one day the Dauphin must step into Louis' place Commines ventured to temporize.
"Yes, sire, but to turn back the blow I must know who aims the blow, whence it comes, where it will strike, and when. To fight in the dark is to waste strength. Have I your leave to read the despatch from Amboise?"
"Eh?" With the gesture of a natural impulse Louis held out the paper, then drew it back. "We will wait a little. I am tired, very tired. This shock has unnerved me. Let me sit down, Philip, and rest."
Slowly, with an arm on Commines' shoulder, he turned and, sinking into the chair, leaned forward upon the table in an attitude of utter weariness, his hand still resting upon the despatch. So there was a pause for a moment, Commines standing to one side, silent and ill at ease. Then with a sigh, which was almost a groan, Louis roused himself. Reaching out his hand he raised to his lips a little silver image of Saint Denis, one of a group which filled a corner of the table, some standing upright, some pitched upon their faces without regard to reverence or respect. Kissing it fervently he again sighed, his eyes raised to the groined roof, and shook his head sadly. If Saint Denis did not whisper inspiration he at least spun out the time for thought. Commines' request was reasonable, and he was at a loss how plausibly to evade it.
"Have I your leave, sire?"
"Eh?" Down came the King's hand upon the paper, Saint Denis grasped, baton-fashion, by the feet. "No, Philip, no, I think not. It is in confidence, and above all things a king must respect confidence, or how could he be trusted?" A sentence which sounded strange from the lips of a man who never kept a treaty he could break to his own advantage, or, to give him his due, to the advantage of France.
"That I can understand," answered Commines, as gravely as if his master's tortuous road to the consolidation of the kingdom had not been strewn with ruptured contracts, unscrupulous chicanery, and solemn pledges brazenly evaded. "But how am I to act? How can I, in the dark, parry a blow from the dark?"
"Suspect every one," answered Louis, brushing aside Saint Denis as he turned sharply in his chair. The saint had served his turn. He had been invoked in a perplexity, and now that the way was clear, no doubt in answer to the invocation, he was flung aside without ceremony. "Suspect every one. To suspect all you meet is the first great rule of prudence, wisdom, success; and to suspect your own self is the second. Go to Amboise. Remember there is no if, and sift, search, find, but especially find."
"Find what, sire?"
For answer Louis clutched the paper yet tighter and shook it in the air, and if Commines could but have guessed it, there was a double meaning in the action and the words which accompanied it.
"And having found?" Commines paused, conscious that the ground was treacherous under his feet. "Sire, remember he is the Dauphin and the son of France."
FOR A WOMAN'S SAKE
With a quick gesture, the arm thrust out, the hand open, the fingers spread, Louis shrank back, his other arm across his face. It was a movement eloquent of pathos, despair, and suffering; then, with another sigh, he straightened himself, his corpse-like face pinched with care.
"The son of France!" he repeated. "Yes! the son of France! but, Philip, my friend, my one friend, must the father perish for the son?"
"Oh, sire, sire," cried Commines, deeply moved, both by the words and the appeal in the voice. "Never that. And it is true—you are France, France itself as no King ever has been; France in its strength, France in its hope, and God knows what evil will befall——" He checked himself sharply as a spasm twisted the King's sunken mouth. Carried away by his sympathy he had forgotten that it was an almost unforgivable offence to hint that Louis was not immortal. For him the word death was wiped from the language. If the dread shadow took form to strike, those near might say "Speak little," or "Confess," but nothing more.
But for once the offence passed without rebuke; it was even seized upon to point a moral, and nerving himself to face the thought the King completed the sentence.
"God knows what evil will befall France in a boy's hands! And within a year he will be of age; of age and yet a child. A puppet king of France!" Louis paused, drawing in his breath with a shudder like a man chilled to the marrow. "A puppet, a puppet, and in the hands of a puppet what must the end be? Ah! France! France! France! It is disaster, unless it can be turned aside. Philip, you must go to Amboise. Take with you some one you can trust, if in all Valmy there is such an one!"
"There is, sire; one I can trust as my King can trust me."
"Yes, yes, but not overmuch; do not trust him overmuch. Remember what I said—suspect, suspect."
"I am not afraid, sire, Stephen La Mothe owes everything to me."
"Gratitude? Is that any reason for faithfulness? Piff!" And the King blew out his thin lips in contempt. "To bind men to you, Commines, to bind them so that you may sleep easy o' nights, you must hold them either by the fear of to-day or the hope of to-morrow. Gratitude! Thanks for eaten bread! How many are there who owe me everything, and yet have turned against me. But let that pass; may God and the Saints forgive them as I do." Louis paused, and a sardonic smile flickered for an instant across his face. If God and the Saints had no more forgiveness for his enemies than he had, then their prospects in the life to come were as miserable as Louis would have made the remnant of their days in this present world if they but fell into his power. "And this La Mothe," he went on, "there is no need to tell him all we know. To tell all you know is to lose your advantage. And why should he be faithful? Why does he owe you everything?"
"I promised his sister—it was years ago——"
"A woman? Um, I do not like women. The ways of men I can follow, but the ways of women are beyond me. Seven devils were cast out of one, but not from the rest, and so there is no understanding them. No, I do not like women."
"Sire, she is long dead."
"Yes? That makes it safer, but I do not see that it is any reason for trusting the brother. Take him with you to Amboise if you think he is safe, but remember"—and the King's lean hand was shaken suddenly upward almost in Commines' face, a threat as well as a warning—"I hold you responsible, you, you, you only. Let him be with you, but not of you; let him enter Amboise apart from you, and let him work out of sight like a mole, obeying orders without knowing why he obeys. Then if he fails, or blunders, or is fool enough to be caught spying, you can disown him, can wash your hands of him, and let him hang! Um! You don't like it? I see in your face that you don't like it. Will you never learn that a face has a tongue of its own to be used to conceal our thoughts? But yours—I know your thought. The woman! Bah! the woman is dead."
"Sire, a promise to the dead is like a vow to the Saints; none can give it back."
"Um! a vow to the Saints? But we must have the Saints on our side. Let me see—let me see. Yes! Take him with you, openly or secretly as you will, and if he bungles I shall deal with him. That frees you from your promise. The justice of the King! Eh, Philip! will the justice of the King please you better?"
The justice of the King! Louis sat back in his chair as he spoke, his blotched gums showing in a grin between his thin lips, his dull eyes half veiled by the drooping of the leaden-hued lids. More than ever he was a mask of death, but of a death that possessed a grim humour, malevolent in its satirical cynicism. The justice of the King. Who should know that justice so well as Commines, its minister for almost a dozen years, or who so testify to its stern implacability? None escaped the rigid iron of its wrath. Their almost royal blood saved neither the Duke of Nemours nor the Count of Armagnac. Saint-Pol, Constable of France, perished on the scaffold. Besides these a score of the greater nobles of France had fallen, nor could the scarlet of the Cardinalate shield Balue from its vengeance. If these, the great ones of the chess-board, were beyond the pale of mercy, what hope would there be for a simple pawn like Stephen La Mothe, if once he fell beneath that inflexible ban? And yet to the courtier the King's question could have but one reply.
"The justice of the King," repeated Commines; and added, without thought of irreverence, "Let him fall into the hands of God and not of man."
"Good!" The thin lips twitched, and deep in the dead eyes a sombre fire glowed. It warmed his cold humour to read so plainly the thought hidden behind the smooth words. But to a mind as fertile as the King's that very thought was a suggestion. It would be well that this La Mothe should clearly understand all he had to fear; and not to fear only but also to hope. The justice of the King could raise up as well as cast down, could reward without measure as well as crush without mercy.
"Go to Amboise. Be myself in Amboise. If—I use your own word, Philip—if justice must strike—— Ah! poor wretched King and yet more wretched father!—be thou the King's justice, be thou the King's hand in Amboise, and let this Monsieur La Mothe be your ears, your eyes. And—um—yes, let me see this La Mothe before you leave; I am, as you know, something of a judge of men. To-morrow will do, and the next day you can go to Amboise."
"And my commission, sire? My authority to act on your behalf?"
"Commission?" The plaintive, gentle calm of the King's voice broke up in storm. Leaning forward Louis tapped his finger-tips on the table noisily. "Sift, search, find, find, there is your commission. Authority? Um—um—when Absalom rebelled against David did Joab, the king's servant, say, 'Where is my authority?' Rebellion is your authority; the safety of your King is your authority; the plot against France is your authority. For such crimes there is none above justice, Monsieur d'Argenton, none—none. But justice is like truth, and sometimes dwells in shadow. Do you understand? Justice, but no scandal. We must be circumspect. There must be no shock to public thought in France. It is the curse and fate of kings to be misjudged. Justice might well come by way of accident. And—let me see! This La Mothe! He owes you everything and you say he can be trusted?"
"Yes, sire, but I have been thinking——"
"Then, Philip, tell him something of what I have told you. The danger——" The King again shook in the air the crumpled despatch which had never been exposed, never left his grasp for an instant. "The danger to me—to France—to you, above all to you who vouch for him. He owes you everything as you owe me, perhaps he will understand as you do?"
"But, sire," said Commines again, striving hard to keep his voice unemotional, "while you spoke I have been thinking. I fear Stephen La Mothe is too young, too inexperienced, for so grave a mission."
"And are there two in Valmy you can trust with your life? Too young? No! To be young is to be generous, to be young is to dream dreams. The generosity of his youth will repay you all he thinks he owes, and will not count the cost: the dreams will see the glory of serving France. Age brings caution, Philip; age brings too much of the weighing of consequence; and at Amboise a little incaution will be good, incaution of himself, you understand. He owes you everything; let him get it into his head that you are the gainer by his incaution—as you will be, Philip, as you will be, and he too. There! That is settled. Send him to me to-morrow. Move the brazier nearer to me, then go. Nearer yet; within reach of my hand. There! that will do."
But filled by a fear he dared not show Commines still lingered. Across the gulf of the past years came the voice of the dear, dead woman, the voice of the lost love of his youth, lost while youth was generous, while youth dreamed dreams and loved passionate. It was the sweetest voice he had ever known; sweet in itself because of itself, caressing, gentle, sweeter still because passionate love had throbbed through it. "Watch over him, Philip, for my sake," it said, and she had died comforted by his promises, died trusting him. And now—— But while he hesitated, willing but afraid to dare, Louis bestirred himself. Resting one arm upon the table he pushed himself half upright with the other hand, and so, half poised, pointed forward at the door. A blotch of crimson showed upon the cheek-bones and the dull eyes glowed.
"God's name, man! did you not hear me? Do you serve me or the Dauphin? Which? Go! go! go!"
This time Commines obeyed, and obeyed in silence. The King's question was not one which called for an answer; or rather he understood that Amboise must give the answer, give it emphatically and without a quibble. Once outside the door he paused. Between Saint-Pierre, Leslie, and himself no love was lost, but the bond of a united watchfulness against a common danger bound them to mutual service.
"Where was it from?" asked Saint-Pierre. But Commines shook his head, running his fingers inside the collar of his doublet significantly. Complacency, even when it was the complacency of self-defence, had its limits.
"I dare not," he whispered back. "He is in the mood of the devil. What is he doing now?"
As if playing the part of sentry Saint-Pierre turned and walked twice or thrice up and down before the open door, glancing cautiously within.
"Tearing the despatch, and burning it piecemeal in the brazier."
"I feared as much. If you love yourselves, gentlemen, see that you do not cross him to-day. And when I am gone from Valmy walk warily."
"Where are you going, Monsieur de Commines?"
"To Amboise, and I would have given a thousand crowns for one look at that despatch."
But it is a question whether the look would have taught him much, though he had studied the paper for an hour. It was blank; beyond the superscription and the "Louis" sprawled across the corner there was not one single word. And yet, to one trained by ten years service in his master's ways of crooked cunning the very blank would have been eloquent of warning.
THE JUSTICE OF THE KING
As Commines crossed the courtyard to his lodgings his face was puckered with anxious thought. Many a time he had fished for his master in waters both foul and troubled, but always he had known the prey he angled for. Now, and he shook his head like a man who argues against his doubts, but with little hope of compelling conviction, he was not sure. Or was it that he was afraid to be sure? Was he afraid to say bluntly out, even in the secret of his own mind, the King desires the death of the Dauphin and for good cause?
That there might well be cause, that there might well be a sinister upheaval against the King with the Dauphin as its rallying centre he could easily believe, even without the evidence of the despatch. France had never yet known such a nation-builder as Louis. His quarries had lain north, south, and east. In his twenty-two years upon the throne he had added to the crown Artois, Burgundy, the northern parts of Picardy, Anjou, Franche-Comte, Provence, and Roussillon. To secure such a wholesale aggrandizement he had been unscrupulous in chicanery, sleepless in his aggression, ruthless to the extremest verge of cruelty; no treaty had been too solemn to tear up, no oath too sacred for violation, no act of blood too pitiless.
With Louis the one sole question had ever been, Does it advantage France? If it did, then his hand struck or his cunning filched, careless of right or privileges. As he had said, and said truly, France came first. It was his one justification for the unjustifiable. No! Never such a nation-builder and never a man so feared and hated for valid cause. He was the King of the greatest, the most powerful France Europe had ever known, but it was a miserable France, a France seething with wretchedness, with discontent, and each hour he went in terror for his life. Only a few, such as Commines himself, could foresee how great would one day be the power of these weak, antagonistic states he had so ruthlessly welded into one. For the rest, France was so full of unhappiness and dread that the Dauphin might well be the centre of a plot, a plot to murder the father in the son's name for the relief of the nation. But was the Dauphin himself concerned in the plot, or had he that knowledge which, prince though he was, laid him open to the penalty for blood-guiltiness? These were the questions which troubled Commines.
Clearly—and as he followed his train of thought he turned aside, his hands locked behind him, his head bowed, and walked up and down in the shadow flung by the gloomy range of buildings which cut the courtyard into two halves—clearly the King had no doubt: clearly the despatch had left no room for doubt. Or else—the thought was contemptible, but it refused to be thrust aside—the King wished to have no room for doubt. The frown deepened on Commines' face as he remembered how often the King's wishes had been master of the truth.
But could any father be cursed with such a terrible wish? Yes, when the father was that complex, unhappy man, Louis of France. Commines knew the King as no man else knew him, and in the gloomy depths of that knowledge he found two reasons why the father would have no sorrow for the death of the son. It was characteristic of Louis to hate and dread his natural successor, nor did his distrustful fears pause to consider that if the Dauphin was swept aside Charles of Orleans would stand in his son's place. When that day came he would hate and dread Charles as his suspicious soul now hated and dreaded the Dauphin.
The other reason he had himself unveiled to Commines, no doubt with a set purpose. Behind the King's most trivial act there was always a set purpose. In a boy's feeble hands, a puppet as he had called him, a king in legal age and yet a child in years and ignorance, this great France he had built up so laboriously would crumble into ruin. Louis was a statesman first and a father afterwards. So Commines must go to Amboise, must sift, search, find—but especially find. Find what? His question had been answered—find and prove the boy's guilty knowledge. But having found, having proved that the King's fears were terribly justified, what then? The answer to that question touched the hopes of his ambition. Upon most men death steals unawares, but for Louis the edge of the grave crumbled in the sight of all who served him, nor, when the end came, would it linger in the coming. Supposing death struck down the King while he, Commines, was still at Amboise, finding? What then? The opportunist in Commines was vigilantly awake, that nice sense which discriminates the rising power and clings to its skirts. The Dauphin would be King of France. For the third time he asked himself, What then?
It was a relief to his perplexity that a cheery full-noted whistle broke across the question, a whistle which from time to time slipped into a song whose words Commines could hear in part:
"Heigh-ho! Love's but a pain, Love's but a bitter-sweet, lasts an hour: Heigh-ho! Sunshine and rain! If it's so brief whence comes love's power? Wherefore go clearly, Sweetly and dearly—"
and the song ran again into a whistle.
At the sound the gravity faded from Commines' face and the coarse set mouth grew almost tender. It was Stephen La Mothe: and whatever the words might be, the lad surely knew little of love when he so lightly marred his own sentiment. A lover sighing for his mistress would have sighed less blithesomely and to the very end of his plaint. Presently the voice rose afresh:
"Heigh-ho! where dost thou hide, Love, that I seek for thee, high and low? Heigh-ho! world, thou art wide, Heat of the summer and cold of the snow. April so smiling, June so beguiling, Let us forget, love, that winter's storms blow."
Entering the narrow hall, lit only from the courtyard and with a much-shadowed stairway rising from the further end, Commines pushed open a door on his right, fastening it behind him as he entered.
"Stephen, Stephen, what do you know of June and December, love's sunshine and the cold of the snow?" he said railingly.
"Nothing at all, Uncle, and just as much as I want to know," was the answer. "But a song must have a theme or there'd be no song."
"And you think love is a better theme than the text you hold on your knee."
"Yes: for a song. If it was a tale, now, or an epic, it would be a different matter. But they are beyond me, both of them. Do you think, Uncle," and La Mothe turned over the arquebuse Commines had pointed at in jest as it lay on his lap, "this will ever be better than a curious toy? I think it is quite useless. By the time you could prime it here, set your tinder burning and touch it off there, I would have my sword through you six times over."
"Charles the Rash found it no toy in the hands of the Swiss at Morat," replied Commines. "But toy or no toy, put it aside while I talk to you. Stephen, my son, I fear I have done you an ill turn to-day."
"Then it is the first of your life," answered La Mothe cheerily, as he stood the weapon upright in the angle of the wall. "It would need a good many ill turns to set the balance even between us, Uncle Philip."
"No. One thoughtless act which cannot be recalled or undone may outweigh a life. And so with this. Stephen, I have commended you to the King for service."
La Mothe leaped to his feet, laying his hands on Commines' shoulders impulsively, one upon each. And if proof were needed of the relations between these two, it would be found in the spontaneous frankness of the gesture: Philip de Commines was not a man with whom to take liberties, but there stood La Mothe almost rocking the elder man in the fullness of his satisfaction.
"At last," he cried. "I have been eating my heart out for this for a week past! And you call that an ill turn?"
"Stop! Stop! Stop!" and Commines, smiling through his gravity, followed the other's gesture so that the two stood face to face, locked the one to the other at arm's length.
How like the lad was to Suzanne: a man's strong likeness of a woman's sweet face. There were the same clear expressive eyes, ready to light with laughter or darken with sympathy; the same sensitive firm mouth and squared chin, fuller and stronger as became a man and yet Suzanne's in steadfastness to the life; the same broad forehead and arched brows; the same unconscious trick of flushing in moments of excitement. Even the colour of the hair was the same, with the curious ruddy copper tint running through the brown in certain lights.
Yes; it was Suzanne's self, Suzanne whom he had loved as he had never loved Helene de Chambes, his wife these nine years past! Suzanne whom he still loved with that reverence which belongs alone to the gentle dead: Suzanne for whom even now his spirit cried out in these rare moments when it broke through the cynical, selfish crust which had hardened upon him since Suzanne died. So for Suzanne's sake he called Stephen his son, though there was no such difference in age, nor any drop of blood relationship.
"Do you know," he went on, gravely tender in the memory of the dead woman, "that a king's service brings with it a king's risks?"
"And did Monsieur de Perche call me coward when he wrote to you?"
"No; he said many things which it were better a boy should not know were said. Conceit is only too ready to take youth by the arm."
"And am I such a boy? Surely four-and-twenty——"
"Are you so old? It always comes as an astonishment when those we love are no longer children. It is then we realize how the years have passed."
"So old, Uncle. Four-and-twenty is no boy."
"A man in years, a boy at heart. Be a boy at heart as long as you can, Stephen, for so will you keep your conscience clean before God. And yet what use has the King for a boy's service?"
"Teach the boy to be a man in thought that he may find a use for himself, Uncle; and who can do that so well as you?"
Commines let his hands fall to his sides and turned away, pacing the room with short strides. His man's thoughts were not always such as he would care to teach Stephen La Mothe.
"To the King's service every man must bring his own thought."
"And did Monsieur de Perche call me fool when he wrote to you?"
"No: but the little things of Marbahan are poor training for the greater things of Valmy, of Blois, of Plessis, of Amboise, of Paris."
"But truth and faithfulness and courage are the same everywhere, and whether at Marbahan or Valmy a man can but serve God and the King with the best wits God has given him, and that I'll do."
"Aye!" said Commines drily, "but what of that Heigh-ho song of yours? When love knocks on one door the service of the King may get bundled out of the other."
Stephen La Mothe laughed a hearty, wholesome laugh, pleasant to hear. There was nothing of self-consciousness in it, and no protest could have more clearly proved that the mental comment of Commines' shrewdness had read the broken melody aright.
"That is easily settled. All His Majesty has to do is to find me a wife of seven thousand crowns a year with two or three little additions to give salt to their spending. Item, eyes which see straight; item, a mouth that's sweet for kissing; item, a temper as sweet as the mouth; item, a proper appreciation of my great merit. But, Uncle, what is the service?"
"That the King will tell you himself. And, lad, when kings talk it is a simple man's duty to listen and obey. Stephen, whatever the service may be, do it."
"Gratefully and faithfully, Uncle. Anything my honour——"
"Honour? God's name, boy, the King's honour is your honour: the King's service, no matter what it may be, is your honour. Are you, a milk-child from Marbahan, knowing nothing of the ways of men, to talk of your honour to the King?"
"Yes, but Uncle, Monsieur de Perche taught me——"
"Monsieur de Perche? Monsieur de Perche taught you many admirable truths, I don't doubt. That he might so teach you I placed you in his household seven years ago. Monsieur de Perche has taught you the use of arms, and that courtesy which next to arms goes to the making of a man. But what can a simple gentleman in the wilds of Poitou know of a king's service? and above all, of such a King? His little household with its round of petty thought was his great world, and a trial of hawks an event to be talked of for a week; but all France is the household of the King, and beyond the borders the eagles of Europe are poised to harry us. But while he lives they are afraid to swoop. While he lives, yes, while he lives."
"But after him comes the Dauphin?"
"A child! a puling, weakling, feeble child. Stephen, as king the Dauphin spells disaster."
"He will have you to guide him, Uncle, and under you——"
But Commines silenced him with a gesture full of angry denial. Unconsciously La Mothe had put his finger on a rankling sore.
"With the Dauphin king my career ends!" he said harshly. "He and those around him hate me as they hate his father: hate me because I am faithful to the father. And yet, Stephen, I have sometimes thought—this is for you alone—it might be that if in some crisis of his life I served the Dauphin as I served his father—but no! no! no! Even then it is doubtful, worse than doubtful. If Charles of Orleans were king it would be different. He is no child and old enough to be grateful. Always remember, Stephen, that a child is never grateful; it forgets too soon."
"And I am a grown man, Uncle, and so never can forget."
"I know, my son," and Commines' stern eyes softened. "I told the King you were faithful, and already he trusts you as I trust you," which was rather an overstatement of the case, seeing that Louis trusted no man, not even Commines' self. "To-morrow you are to see him."
"Then I hope his service, no matter what it is, will take me out of Valmy."
For a moment La Mothe hesitated. The thought in his mind seemed at variance with his assertions of maturity and manhood, but he spoke it with characteristic frankness.
"Valmy frightens me."
"Why?" repeated Commines.
"Because of its silences, its coldness, its inhumanity—no, not inhumanity, its inhumanness. In Valmy no man sings; in Valmy few men laugh. When they speak they say little and their eyes are always afraid. And they are afraid; I see it, and I am growing afraid too."
"But half an hour ago you were singing?"
"But I am only nine days in Valmy. And sometimes when I sing I remember where I am and stop suddenly. It is as indecent as if one sang in the house of the dead. Soon I shall always remember and not sing at all. And I do not wonder that few men laugh."
"Why?" asked Commines for the third time. This was a new side to Stephen La Mothe and one that in the King's service—not forgetting his own—should not be ignored. Often in his career he had seen a well-laid plan miscarry because some seeming triviality was ignored. Was it not one of Louis' aphorisms that life held nothing really trivial?
"Because it is a house of the living dead."
"For God's sake, Stephen, hush. If the King heard you speak of his feebleness in such a way there would be a sudden end to both you and your service."
"The King? But I don't mean the King. I mean——" He paused as if searching for a comprehensive word or phrase, and presently he found it. "I mean the justice of the King."
"Well?" Commines' throat seemed suddenly to have gone dry, so that the word came harshly. Within the hour the King had used the same phrase, and the coincidence startled him unpleasantly.
But La Mothe made no immediate reply. To answer the little jerked-cut dry interrogatory in concise words was not easy. He knew his own meaning clearly enough, but how was he to make it equally clear to Commines, who was plainly unsympathetic? When at last he spoke it was with a hesitation which was almost an apology.
"As I passed through Thouars on my way from Poitou—you know Thouars, Uncle?"
"Yes; go on."
"Then you know its market-place with the little shops all round and the church of St. Laon to the side: a cobble-paved space where the children play? At the one end there was a ring of black and white ashes with the heat still in them, and in the middle a Thing which hung by chains from an iron stake. It had been a man that morning, but there it hung by the spine with the chains through its ribs; a man no more, only blackened bones and little crisped horrors here or there. Round it two or three score, white-faced women and children mostly, stood and gaped, or talked in whispers, pointing. Presently the little children will play there, and shout and sing and laugh, and the women gossip or buy and sell."
"A coiner," said Commines. "The King must see that the silver is full weight."
"Yes, Uncle: but I have heard that sometimes the King himself has coined——"
"Hush, boy: the King is King."
"Then at Tours, as I rode through the Rue des Trois Pucelles, there was a house with a fine bold front. One would say that a man with the soul of an artist lived in it. There were brave carvings on the stout oak door, carvings on the stone divisions of its five windows, strong iron bars of very choice smith-work, twisted and hammered, to keep the common folk from tumbling into the cellars, and in the peaked roof of fair white plaster were driven great nails from which hung fags of rope, and from one something which was no rope, but a poor wisp of humanity staring horribly aslant above a broken neck."
"Yes," said Commines, "Tristan's house. He is the King's Provost-Marshal and—and——"
"Yes, I know, Uncle. He carries out the justice of the King. But to hang a fellow-Christian over one's own hall-door is a strange taste."
"Stephen, take my advice and have naught to do with Tristan by word or deed. And no doubt the fellow deserved his hanging."
"That he may have naught to do with me is my hope," answered La Mothe, with a little laugh which had no humour in it. "And as to deserts, he drank overmuch and beat the watch. Truly a vicious rascal! God send us all sober to bed, Uncle, and may a sudden end find nothing worse on our conscience than a dizzy brain. But that's not all. Midway between the castle and the Loire stands the Valmy gibbet, fair set in the sunshine and for all to see: and as I rode past there were two hung from it; two hang from it still, but they are not the same two."
"Thieves," said Commines. "Would you have the roads unsafe?"
"One of to-day's couple is a boy of twelve—unripe fruit for such a tree, Uncle, and a fearsome danger to the peace of France. Tristan does well to keep the roads safe from such swaggerers. Twelve years of life, twelve years of a pinched stomach, and—the justice of the King to end it all! And what of the woman who gathered nettles for the pot from the river-bank? The archers shouted to her, but she was hungry, poor starved soul, and gathered on, bent to all-fours like a beast. Then they shot her—like a beast. Down she went with an arrow through the bent back; a woman, Uncle."
"She should have hearkened and kept away," said Commines. "Neither man nor woman may come near Valmy without permission when the King is here."
"She should have hearkened," echoed La Mothe. "But the Good God had sealed her ears; she was deaf as a stone and so for the justice of the King she died. Then three days ago it was Guy de Molembrais, who came to Valmy—so 'tis said—with the King's safe-conduct."
"Molembrais lost his head as a traitor," answered Commines roughly.
"And the safe-conduct?"
"The safe-conduct was given before Molembrais' treason was fully proved."
"Then it is the King's justice to lure suspects——"
"There can be no faith with traitors. Did the safe-conduct make his treason less? Do you not see," he went on, as La Mothe made no reply, "that Molembrais got no more than his deserts?"
"Like the brawler in Tours," said the lad whimsically. "Perhaps Tristan gave him a safe-conduct too, and the fool got drunk. And if we have good, warm blood in us we all get drunk sooner or later. Yes, and please God my time will come, but may the Saints send me far from Valmy! You think I'm talking nonsense, Uncle; but Monsieur de Perche always let me talk. He said it was better to let blow at the bung than burst the cask."
"You drunk!" answered Commines jestingly. La Mothe had been on very dangerous ground and a change of subject was an unspeakable relief. "Why, except the King, no man in Valmy drinks less wine."
"Wine-drunk? Am I a beast, Uncle, that you should say such a thing? No, not wine-drunk. Love-drunk, war-drunk, fighting-drunk. To feel the nerves tingle, the blood run hot, the heart go throbbing mad! to feel a glorious exultation quiver through you like—yes, Uncle, I know I'm a fool, but it's not so long since you were young yourself."
"Nor am I so old yet, Stephen boy. When that day of your drunkenness comes there will either be a very happy woman or a sorrowful man."
"Yes, Uncle, if only the King gives me a safe-conduct——"
"The King requires the attendance of Monsieur Stephen La Mothe without delay."
With a start like the cringe of a nervous woman suddenly frightened, Commines, the man of iron nerves, turned to the door, the colour rushing in a flood to his face. Neither had heard its latch click nor seen it open, but the broad figure of a burly man was massed in the gloom against the greater light from the outer entrance. A passing torch, flaring up the hall-way from behind, showed him draped from throat to ankle in some self-coloured, russet-red, woollen stuff which caught the glare, and outlined him for the moment as with sweeping curves of blood. To La Mothe he was a stranger, but from the little he could see of the shaven face, at once harsh and fleshly sensual, he judged him to be nearly twenty years older than Commines.
"You—Tristan——" The surprise had shaken even Commines from his self-control and he spoke brokenly. "How long have you been here?"
"Since the King sent me for Monsieur La Mothe. At once, if you please, Monsieur."
"But it was to-morrow——"
"He has changed his mind. What is to be done is best done quickly. You, Monsieur d'Argenton, will understand what the King means by quickly. I know nothing but that you are to leave Valmy to-morrow morning instead of the day after, and so he must see Monsieur La Mothe to-night. As Monsieur d'Argenton's friend, Monsieur La Mothe, I would advise humble acquiescence."
"In what?" It was the first time La Mothe had spoken, and in his repugnance he could not bring himself to add the courtesy "Monsieur" to the curt question.
"Our Master's will, whatever it may be. It is a privilege, young sir, to further the justice of the King."
"The justice of the King!" replied La Mothe, carried hotly away by that repugnance. "God's name, Provost-Marshal, I am not—not—not the King's arm, like you," he added lamely. But though Tristan might neither forgive nor forget the suggestion of the broken sentence he was not the man to resent it at the moment. The King's arm must endure pin-pricks as well as deal justice. It was Commines, rather, who replied.
"Hush, Stephen, our friend is entirely right. It is you who misunderstand. The King's justice is in all his acts. Yes! and not only his justice, but his mercy and his greatness, and these three have made France what she is."
"And all these three are waiting for Monsieur La Mothe. Come, young sir, the King is very weary and it is time he was in his bed—though I would not advise you to tell him so," and leaving the door open behind him Tristan went out into the night: that he did so they were sure, for they heard the rasp of his feet on the flags of the court.
"How long was he there?" Commines spoke under his breath as his fingers closed on La Mothe's arm with a grip which left its mark. "How long was he listening? What did he hear? You fool, you fool, you may have ruined yourself—and me, and me. And why has he left us together? He has some reason for it—some end to serve: his own or the King's. Try and think what you said: no, not now, there is no time, but when you are with the King, and unsay it, unsay it. And Stephen, remember, he is the King, he is the Master of France, the maker of France, and he is dying. Promise him——"
"Monsieur La Mothe, Monsieur La Mothe, is the King to wait all night, or shall I say Monsieur d'Argenton detains you?"
"Go, boy, go. Promise everything, everything—he is the King," and as Commines pushed him through the doorway La Mothe could hear his breath coming in heavy gasps.
THE KING LAYS BARE HIS HEART
If proof were needed of the King's unique trust in his Grand Marshal it was to be found in the ease with which Tristan conveyed La Mothe past the sentries who stood guard at every door. Not Commines, not Lessaix, not Beaujeu himself, for all that he was the King's son-in-law, could have brought a stranger to the King's presence without special licence. But to none Tristan gave greeting, much less vouchsafed explanation, and by none was he challenged. Nor did La Mothe speak. Not only had the suddenness of the unexpected summons confused him, but his thoughts were too deeply busied trying to remember how far he had allowed his tongue to outrun discretion.
To say he was afraid would be too much, to say he had no fear would be too little, but his fear was less a dread than an awe. The gaiety of his laughter had clean gone from him, and his heart of song was hushed: even the crude, ironical satire of his uncomprehending youth was stayed. He had made grim jest of the justice of the King, and now the King's justice, in its sternest, most sinister incarnation, rubbed shoulders with him. It was little wonder that his mood was sobered as his mind, instinctively swayed by Commines' almost frenzied insistence, groped its way step by step from Poitou to Valmy in a troubled endeavour to recall just what had passed between them when Tristan's interruption pricked the bubble of his irony.
And he succeeded in part. First there had been the coiner of Thouars, then the brawling drunkard of Tours, the thief of Valmy, the nettle-gatherer, and lastly Molembrais who held the King's safe-conduct. Truly the meshes of the net of Justice were small when not even a twelve-year thief, a common quarreller in his cups, or the holder of the King's safe-conduct could slip through. Perhaps it was as he spoke of this last the door had opened. It was then he had hoped he might be far from Valmy the day his passion of soul was stirred. It expressed his mood of the moment, but now he knew he had said more, much more, than he had meant, as youth so often does in its gay self-sufficiency, and the words as they stood—if Tristan had caught them—were no commendation to either favour or confidence. How could the King trust him when his foolish satire had so plainly hinted that he did not trust the King? It would be unreasonable: faith begets faith. For an instant it flashed across his mind that he might explain away the words, but in the same instant he dismissed the thought. Explanation would never win belief from such a man as Tristan, nor could he bend his repugnance to such a familiarity.
So in silence they crossed the courtyard where Leslie's Scottish archers lurked in every shadow, in silence passed the many guards grouped at the gateway to the King's lodgings, in silence traversed the great square hall, gaunt and comfortless, but brighter than daylight from its many lamps—the King was afraid of gloom—and in silence mounted the stone stairway. At its head they turned along the right-hand corridor, entering a silent ante-room with sentinels at its door; at a further door, masked by drawn curtains, the guard was doubled. Force, vigilance, suspicion, were the dominant notes of Valmy—in a sense they were Valmy itself. Midway across this ante-room Tristan paused and struck La Mothe lightly on the arm with a gesture that seemed part contempt.
"A word of advice, young man, from one who knows. Be frank, say little, answer promptly: do what the King bids you and be thankful."
"Is that a threat?" La Mothe answered the tone of half-truculent command rather than the words.
"A threat? No! The King and I do not threaten, we fulfil."
"The King and you?"
"I have said so, do you want it proved?" Drawing back the curtains very quietly Tristan stood a moment blocking the doorway before motioning to La Mothe to follow him. He knew his master, and wished to make certain that the stage picture was set before the audience was admitted.
The room was even more brilliantly lit than any they had passed through, and yet with such a skilful distribution of the light that the further end was completely shadowed. It was the effect of an artificial alcove. There, where the grey thickened, sat the King, or rather there he lay propped high upon a couch, pillows behind him and pillows at either side to support and comfort his weakness. A peaked, close-fitting cap of crimson silk, laced with gold embroidery, covered his head down to the very roots of the ears, while a long, wide-sleeved robe of the same colour, furred at the neck, and draped to give an appearance of breadth of chest, swathed him to the feet. So shadowed, and with a reflected glow flushing the thin face, it would have needed a shrewder suspicion than that of country-bred Stephen La Mothe to detect how low the flame of life burned in the frail vessel of clay.
In front of the couch a low table, hardly higher than the couch itself, was placed within reach of the King's hand: behind all—the draping, as it were, of the alcove—hung arras of blue cloth interwoven with golden fleurs-de-lis, a fitting and picturesque background to the tableau. To the left were windows, fast shuttered, to the right a closed door.
Drawing La Mothe to the front Tristan turned on his heel and re-entered the ante-room in silence, dropping the curtains behind him. There had been no formal announcement, no word spoken, but as the curtain fell the King stirred upon his pillows and La Mothe was conscious of a scrutiny which slowly swept him from head to foot. But the protection of the peaked cap was insufficient. Lifting his hand Louis shaded his eyes yet further, and leaning forward repeated the scrutiny; then he beckoned very gently and lay back upon the pillows. He was a judge of men, a crafty reader of the dumb truths told by eyes and mouth, or the faint, uncontrollable shifts of expression, and so far he was satisfied. Commines might be right or wrong, but at least this La Mothe was no assassin. Nevertheless the door upon the right opened quietly so soon as La Mothe had passed beyond eyesight of it, opened wide enough for a cross-bow to cover him from the darkness of the passage without. Louis was not a man to run a needless risk, and the bolt which brought home the King's justice to the nettle-gatherer would not miss Stephen La Mothe at thirty feet.
"Nearer," said a soft voice as La Mothe paused, uncertain how far that beckoning hand had called him, "nearer yet; there! that will do for the present. You are Stephen La Mothe, the friend of my dear and trusted friend, therefore my friend also, and the King has need of friends. No, no, say nothing, Philip said I could trust you as himself. That is a great deal for one man to say of another."
"Prove me, sire." La Mothe spoke with an effort. The weary, caressing voice with its subtle note of pathos, the affectionate, frank admission of Commines' worth, the half-veiled appeal with its confession of a personal need, had touched him deeply, stirring him as music has the power to stir, so that to command words was difficult. "My uncle told me——"
"Uncle?" Louis' suspicions sprang to life newborn. Goaded by their sting he leaned forward, one arm thrust out, and for the first time La Mothe saw the deathly pallor of his face. "Uncle, do you say? Commines never called you nephew?"
"Not in blood, sire: in love—service—gratitude."
"Then it is better to have a nephew by name than a son by nature. Do you hear? If you love your uncle pray with all your soul that he may never have a son to grudge him his life." The thrust-out fingers, little more than bleached skin drawn tight over fleshless bones, were shaken in a convulsion of passion, from the sunken, dull eyes a sudden fire glared, and the thin lips shrank upon the uneven teeth. But in an instant the spasm passed and Louis sank back upon the pillows, breathing heavily and plucking at the tags of gold cord fastening his robe at the breast. "See what it is to have a son," he said, but in so low a tone that La Mothe barely caught the words, nor were they spoken as if addressed to him, then with an effort which racked his strength the King roused himself. "Love! Service and gratitude! Words! empty words! Kings hear them daily and find them lies. Because of these in his mouth Guy de Molembrais was trusted as it may be Stephen La Mothe will be trusted, and Molembrais is dead—dead in a traitor's grave. Words? It is deeds France has need of, deeds—deeds. And you, young sir, for whom my friend Philip vouched as for himself, are you more faithful than Molembrais?"
"God helping me, sire."
"Um, um; have you need of God's help to be faithful?"
"I only meant——"
"There! there! obey orders and you will have help enough. You owe much to Monsieur de Commines?"
"Everything? Sit there," and Louis pointed to a low stool placed just beyond the transverse angle of the bench-like table which fronted the couch. "Everything! Love! Service! Gratitude! You are right! Take these from life and there is not much left. And how will you repay the everything you owe?"
"Love for love——"
"Um! A woman may have a word to say as to that! Well?"
"Service for service——"
"You are not your own. France claims you; never forget a man's first service is to his country. The nation is the mother of us all. Well, what next? Shall I tell you? Win his gratitude in return! Eh, Master Stephen, how would that please you? Prove your love, show your service, earn his gratitude, and these you will do to the uttermost by serving the King and France."
"Sire, sire," cried La Mothe, shaken out of himself by the gust of healthy emotion which seized him as the King's quiet voice grew in strength and fullness till it seemed to vibrate with as generous a passion as that which stirred the depths of the listener; "I am yours to use body and soul."
"Body and soul," repeated Louis, his eyes fixed searchingly on La Mothe's face. The lad's prompt response promised well, all that was needed was to keep this enthusiasm of devotion keyed to the pitch of action. "Body and soul! Be sure I shall not forget. But what you promise in hot blood you will forget when your mood cools. No? Well, Molembrais' mood cooled and he has been colder than his mood these three days past. But you are different, you are of stronger, finer, truer stuff, your love and service are for Commines as well as for France, and so you will not forget. You understand? Monsieur de Commines vouches for you. Monsieur de Commines." The King paused, and the nervous fretful fingers plucked at the breast of his robe afresh. He was utterly wearied and must have time to regain strength. "Monsieur de Commines stands surety for you; never forget that. Your faithfulness is his faithfulness, your failure his failure: keep that always before you. To-morrow you will——, but first tell me something of yourself." With a moan of weakness he settled back into the pillows and his eyes closed. "I must know Philip's friend as Philip knows him," said the soft voice.
And again La Mothe was touched to the heart, touched in his pride for Commines, the King's trusted friend, touched in his grateful sympathies that the King, weary and burdened by many anxieties, should find time and thought for so kind an interest in one so insignificant as himself, though that, too, was for Commines' sake; touched above all with a generous self-reproach when he remembered his bitter satire on the King's justice. He now saw that the severities which had horrified and repelled him were exigencies of State, repugnant to the gentle, kindly nature of the man in whose name the law took its course.
And out of that grateful heart of youth he spoke frankly as Tristan had bidden him speak. Briefly, succinctly, he told of his childhood's poverty, of the change which came later under Commines' unfailing, affectionate liberality, of his placing him as a lad in the household of Monsieur de Perche, of the life in Poitou with its training in arms and simple teaching of Keep faith, Live clean, Follow the right and trust God unafraid. It was a very simple story, but he told it well. No tale grows cold in the interest or halts for words when the heart is behind the telling.
And through it all Louis lay among his cushions like one dead. Not an eyelid flickered, not a finger moved, his breath came so softly, so quietly that the red robe scarcely stirred beneath his sunken chin. Every muscle was relaxed in that restfulness which next to sleep is the surest restorer of exhausted vitality. But the brain, the most acute and cunning brain in France, was awake. With that dual consciousness which, even more than dissimulation, is the diplomatist's prime necessity for success in the worsting of an adversary, he gathered and stored for use in his memory the salient points from La Mothe's story, while all the while, co-energetically, his mind was busy searching out how best to use this new tool for the cementing closer that fabric of France which was his pride and glory. France was at once the mother who gave his genius form and the son of his jealous love. And as he listened, planning, sufficient strength crept back to the worn body. He could play out his part to the end, and La Mothe would carry with him no sense of his master's frailty to paralyze action. In loyalty for loyalty's sake Louis had no faith.
"You need say no more," he said, nodding his head with sympathetic interest. "A debt—a debt indeed. And to-morrow you begin your repayment. To-morrow you go to Amboise with Monsieur de Commines. Amboise," he repeated slowly, "Amboise," and paused. "Where His Highness, the Dauphin——"
"Where my son waits—and watches." The thin hand crept up to the sunk lips, lingered there an instant, crept up to the dull eyes, passed across them once or twice with a motion eloquent of weary hopelessness, and fell drearily to the lap. "God keep us in His mercy," said the King, and as his finger-tips made the four points of the cross upon his breast La Mothe felt he was upon holy ground. "God keep us in His comfort. All is not well at Amboise, but my friend Philip knows—knows and feels for me. I have no orders to give. All is left to him. Only I say this, and never forget it, never—France comes first and obedience is the payment of your debt."
HOW LOUIS LOVED HIS SON
La Mothe sat silent. His fear had passed away utterly, but in its place his awe had grown, an awe full of a deep pity. Youth is the true age of intolerance and for the simple reason that it is the age of ignorance. In its abundant strength, its sense of growth and development, its vigorous, unfailing elasticity, its blessed want of knowledge of the ills of life, its blindness to the inevitable coming of these ills, it is impatient of a caution it calls cowardice, or a frailty it neither understands in another nor anticipates for itself. But in the rare instances when it takes thought its sympathies are more generous than those of age, because the sorrows it sees are so much greater than any it has known, ever realized in itself or even conceived. So was it now with La Mothe. The pathetic, solitary figure, feeble almost to helplessness, diseased, shrunken, dying, Commines had said, yet with a heart warm in friendliness and a thought for France alone, thrilled him to the very depths. And the dull eyes, watching him from under the heavy lids with an alert vigilance from which no shift of mood escaped, read his emotion unerringly.
Again Louis leaned forward. But it was a changed Louis. This time the light fell on a worn face fixed in a grey solemnity. The grave protesting voice, the outstretched hand driving home its indignant points, completed the spell.
"No, all is not well at Amboise. They think the King grows old. Poor humanity must needs grow old, but they are impatient and would—anticipate age. I have a son, not yet thirteen—but of age to be king. Silence—silence, he is the Dauphin. It is not for you to blame—or condemn the Dauphin. Nor does the King's justice condemn ignorantly. Plots, plots, plots! Plots against the father, God and the father can forgive; but plots against the King—plots against France: for these there is no forgiveness and youth is no excuse."
"But, sire," began La Mothe. Then he remembered the Valmy gibbet where a boy of twelve still hung that the roads of France might be safe, and his voice choked. The King was right; youth was no excuse.
"There are no buts," said Louis, sternly emphatic, and sank back upon the pillows. "I have knowledge, I have knowledge, Commines knows—others—France, Europe—must know later; an honest lad like you will be believed."
"Three weeks ago I was in Poitou——"
"Yes, and so they will trust you; you are without prejudice, you are not of the Court."
"I meant, sire, I have no experience."
"And so the nut may be too hard for your teeth? I see no fault in your modesty: diffidence is not cowardice. But you will have help in your nut-cracking, you will have three good friends in Amboise, Greed, Fear, and Love: with these three I have made France what she is. Money—a man—a woman; what will these not do! With the first—bribe and see that you do not hold my skin too cheap; Fear—a life forfeit, if I lift a finger he hangs; Love—a woman."
"A friend, sire?"
"An enemy—but a woman. Fool her: she is young and Amboise is dull. I have a scheme for you ready made. You sing? But I know you do, Tristan has told me. Nothing escapes him, nothing: and nothing is too small for the King's service. Always remember life holds nothing trivial. Leave Valmy with Commines, but separate on the road and go to Amboise as a wandering jongleur. They are dull and will welcome any distraction. You make verses?"
"Sometimes, sire," stammered La Mothe, very ill at ease, and flushing as youth will in the shame of its pride. It was almost as disconcerting as being found out in a lie.
"Margaret of Scotland kissed Alain Chartier who made verses, and Amboise is dull. Queen or waiting-maid, women are all of one flesh under the skin, and to fool her should be easy. Remember," added Louis hastily, "I do not bid you do this or that: I only suggest, nothing more, nothing more. Monsieur de Commines—your uncle—will give you your orders, and when—when"—he paused, catching at the throat of his robe as if it choked the breath a little, swallowed with a gasp, then went on harshly—"when the end has come say nothing, but take horse and ride here for your life. Find me—me, without an instant's delay and keep silence till you have found. Here is a ring that day or night will open every door in Valmy."
"What end, sire?"
"What end? What end? Ask Commines, serve him, serve France; that end, boy, that end, and in the name of Almighty God, ride fast." The dull eyes took fire, and this time there was no need for the lying glow of the scarlet robe to make pretence of health; so fierce a passion waked the blood even in the deathly cheeks. But it also had the defect of its quality, and Louis sank back breathless in exhaustion. "No, no!" he whispered, the words whistling in his throat as he motioned imperiously to La Mothe to keep his seat. "Call no one, it will pass—it is nothing, nothing at all—and I have one thing more to say."
Fumbling amongst the cushions he drew out a little silver figure, whether of man or woman La Mothe was uncertain, so fully the tense fingers clenched it. This he held up, palsied, before his face, bowed to it thrice, his lips moving soundlessly, then the hand slipped weakly to his knees, the grasp relaxed, and the image clattered on the floor. It had served its purpose, out of the curious act of faith a renewal of strength was born and Louis was again King. But even then the words faltered.
Shading his face with one hand he reached forward to the low bench. It was littered with the contents natural to such a surrounding in such a presence, papers, parchments, an ink-horn or two, a stand of goose quills, a tray of blotting-sand, with, nearer to the King's hand, a lumped-up linen cloth with the four corners folded and twisted inwards. Amongst these the nervous hand shifted uncertainly here and there, almost like the fluttering of a bird, then came to rest upon the bunched folds of the napkin.
"The Dauphin is a child," he said, his fingers closing upon the looseness of the linen as he spoke. "A weakling—girl! And so, girl-like, he loves to play at make-believe. You know their games? There is the shell of a ruined house beyond the walls and he holds it against all-comers with a sword of lath, or carries it by assault at the head of his army of two stable-boys. Then he cries, 'I am Charlemagne! I am Roland! I am the Cid! I am——'—anything but the Dauphin of France!"
"But, sire," ventured La Mothe, as the King paused, "that is natural in a child."
"I played no such games at twelve years old," answered Louis bitterly. "At twelve I learned king's-craft and foresaw realities; at twelve I struggled to be a man in thought, never was I a girl-child in make-believe, but Charles—Charles sucks sugar and hugs his toys. But being a child we must treat him as a child, yes, yes, and so—and so——" The voice trailed into silence and the hand upon the linen shook as with a palsy. "You see," the King went on hoarsely, "what it is to be a father. The child is a child and must be treated as a child, and yet not encouraged in childish plays by the father, not outwardly—not outwardly. Else Commines, Beaujeu, and these others would say I fostered with my hand what I condemned with my head. No, the father's hand must be hidden out of sight, and that will be your part."
With a quick jerk he flung the linen napkin on the floor, and, dropping the hand which had shaded his face, turned to La Mothe with what seemed a challenge in his eyes, almost a defiance: it was as if he said, Scoff if you dare! And yet in the little heap of interwoven, fine steel rings there was nothing to move either laughter or contempt, and if the quaint velvet mask which lay beside the coat of mail was effeminate in the tinsel of its gold embroidery, it was at least no child's toy to raise a sneer or gibe a moral.
Laughter? There was no thought of laughter. The warm heart of young blood is emotional once its crust of unthinking carelessness is pierced, and La Mothe was never nearer tears. More than that, the pathetic humanness of it all, the bitter cynical censure of the King, overborne and cast out by the abiding tenderness of the father, crushed by no logic of kingcraft, was that touch of nature which made him kin even to this stern and pitiless despot in spite of the repulsion wakened by the justice of the King. With these secret gifts of fatherhood before him he saw Louis in a new light, and the loyalty which had been a loyalty of cold duty took fire in that enthusiasm which is the devotion of the heart and counts life itself no sacrifice. Nor could he hide the new birth within him, and the dark lines of challenge were smoothed from the King's face.
"A little slender coat such as the French Maid might have worn," he said, lifting the woven links gently as if he loved them, and dropping them again in a little heap that caught the light on every separate ring and split it up into a hundred glittering points. "It may have a message for him when he plays Roland or Charlemagne, and through it the spirit of the child may grow."
"But surely all the world may know of such a gift as that? Sire, sire, let me tell the whole truth; give me leave to say this is from the father to the son, from the King who is to the King who shall be——"
"God's name, boy, who bade you fill thrones with your King who shall be! Is this Commines' work? Does he think—does he think—that—that—Christ give me breath!" And the hooked fingers caught roughly, fiercely, at his robe, tearing it open so that the lean neck with its tense sinewy cords was laid bare to the glare. "Quick, quick, is it Commines—Commines—Commines?" he stammered, gasping. "I took him from the gutter—from the very gutter; he was traitor to a Charles to serve Louis, and now is he a traitor to Louis to serve a Charles again?" Pushing himself up, half kneeling on the couch, half leaning on the low bench, he stretched out a shaking, threatening hand towards La Mothe. "Why don't you speak, boy, why don't you speak and tell the truth, you dumb dog?"
But the passion was beyond his strength, his jaw dropped, he shivered as if with cold, and fell back upon the cushions, one hand feebly beckoning to La Mothe to come nearer.
"Whisper," he said, patting La Mothe's arm fawningly, a wry smile twitching his lips, but leaving the watchful eyes cold. "We are alone, we two. Who put that thought into your head? Eh? Come now? Come now?"
"No one, sire, on my honour, no one."
"Honour? I know too much of the ways of men to trust men's honour. Swear, boy," he burst out again, passionately roused. "Swear on this. It is the Cross of Saint Lo, and remember, remember, whoso swears falsely dies, dies within the year—dies damned. Honour? Honour is a net with too wide a mesh to hold men's oaths. Dare you swear?"
Lifting the relic to his lips La Mothe kissed it reverently, while Louis, his lungs still fighting for breath, witched him narrowly.
"Sire, I meant nothing, nothing but——"
"But that you were a fool. Only a fool sells—the lion's skin—while the lion—is alive." His voice strengthened as if the thought stimulated him like a cordial. "And the lion is alive—alive! I must finish, I must finish," he went on more querulously. "Yes, a fool, but fools are commonly honest. You may be a faithful servant, but you are a bad courtier, Monsieur La Mothe."
"But, sire, have you not more need of the one than of the other?"
"Of the servant than the courtier? Aye, aye, that is well said, very well said. You are less a fool than I thought. But I must finish or Coictier, my doctor—he thinks me less strong than I am—will be scolding me. Take these," and he pushed the coat of mail away from him impatiently, as if vexed that he had been betrayed into such a display of feeling. "Remember that I have never seen them, never, never. You promise me that? You swear that?"
"I swear it, sire, solemnly."
"And you will return to Valmy—to me, in silence?"
"I promise, sire."
"Swear, boy, swear."
"I swear it, solemnly."
"There!" And again he pushed the mail from him, his delicate fingers touching the mask delicately. "Give them from yourself. All things have their price, and the price of a child's confidence is to serve its pleasures. But, young sir, remember this too, remember it, I say, my son is the Dauphin of France and that which is for a prince's use, even in play, is for his use only. Let no one else have commerce with these."
"Be sure, sire, I reverence the prince too deeply——"
"Aye, aye: you can go. Words cost even less than honour. Give me proofs, Stephen La Mothe, proofs, and trust to the justice of the King," which shows how right Commines was when he said that the justice of the King had many sides.
And so, with his deepest bow and his heart full of many emotions, La Mothe left his master's presence, and the cross-bow in the shadows beyond the door on the right was lowered for the first time in more than half an hour. For what he was to trust the justice of the King he was no more clear in the confusion of the moment than what his mission to Amboise was. But of one thing he was certain, the King was a man much maligned and little understood: harsh of word and stern of act, perhaps, but with a great, undreamed wealth of tenderness behind the apparent austerity. Of that the little coat of mail and tinselled mask bore witness. It was wonderful, he told himself, how the yearnings of the human heart found excuse for what the sterner brain condemned; surely that was where the human drew nearest to the divine! This was not alone a master to serve, but a man to love!
And Louis, a huddled, shapeless mass on his tossed cushions, sat gnawing his finger-tips and staring with dull eyes into vacancy. All passion had died from him and suddenly he had grown very old, though the indomitable spirit knew no added touch of age.
"My son," he said, shivering, "my son, my son." Then the bent shoulders straightened, the bowed head was raised, and into the tired eyes there shot a gleam of fire. "I have no son but France!" Was he a hypocrite? Who can tell? But let the man who never deceived himself to another's hurt cast the first stone at him.
When the little troop of ten or a dozen rode from Valmy the next morning on their way to Amboise he was there upon the walls, a solitary grey figure pathetic in his utter loneliness. Nor, so long as they were in sight, did his eyes wander from them.
FOUR-AND-TWENTY, WITH THE HEART OF EIGHTEEN
Many, deep, and diverse are the springs of silence. If Commines asked no question when La Mothe returned from his interview with Louis, and made no comment beyond "You are late, my son," it was because he knew that curiosity was almost as dangerous as opposition where the schemes or secrets of his master were concerned. La Mothe, in his ignorance, had on the other hand no such thought, no such fear, but a charge which he held sacred had been solemnly committed to him: he shared a secret with the King and the first necessity was silence. Whatever Commines' ultimate orders might be he understood now what his mission was, this mission to Amboise: it was to do for the father what the father might not do for himself, and as they rode slowly along the high road from Valmy he thought complacently to himself that he alone recognized the true nature of the man who watched them from the walls.
But there were obvious limits to the silence if the line of procedure laid down by the King was to be followed. A parting and a meeting were to be arranged, a plan of campaign to be decided upon; and it struck La Mothe as curious that the man who scoffed at make-believe in a boy could yet seize upon make-believe for his own purposes.
"The King does not wish me to arrive at Amboise with you," began La Mothe, and it is to his credit that he spoke with hesitation. To Commines, as Commines himself had said, he owed everything, and yet it seemed as if already he had come between Commines and the King's confidence. And yet, just because he was in the King's confidence it was not easy to keep a touch of importance out of his voice. It was as if he said, "The King and I have decided so-and-so, and you are to stand aside." But the bubble of his complacency was soon pricked.
"At Chateau-Renaud you will stay behind after we have dined," answered Commines, "nor will you leave the inn until three o'clock. You will then go on foot to Limeray, where you will cross the Eisse, and take the Tours road until west of Amboise. You are then to ford the Loire at Grand-Vouvray and enter Amboise from the south. Once in Amboise ask for the Chien Noir and put up there for the night."
"So you know all about it," said La Mothe, crest-fallen. Nor was it simply that Commines knew all about it, it seemed he knew much more than La Mothe himself.
"Except that at the Chien Noir you will find some one who can open the doors of the Chateau to you I know nothing, and I want to know nothing. There you are to obey orders, but to have your time to yourself; and, my son, my son, pray God there may be no orders to give."
"But the King told me nothing of all this last night."
"It is enough that he told me this morning," answered Commines drily. "You need not look downcast; it is his custom to divide his instructions."
But La Mothe had another objection, and one so obvious that he marvelled how it had escaped Commines' notice.
"One thing the King forgets. To enter Amboise as a stranger will be impossible. Riding behind us there are twelve good reasons why I should be recognized."
"Do you take us for fools?" retorted Commines. Turning in his saddle he pointed backwards. Valmy was still in sight, and a keen eye could have detected the meagre grey figure above the outlines of the grey walls. "What is that to the right of the castle?"
"And from it hang three good reasons why the twelve will keep silence. The King's grip is as sure in Amboise as it is in Valmy; it is over all France, and God have mercy on the man it closes upon in anger. Think twice, Stephen, before you say the King forgets—and then don't say it."
La Mothe rode on in silence. This sudden reminder of the justice of the King had dashed his satisfaction. Wherever he turned it confronted him, and always with a warning which was less a warning than a threat. It had been so with Tristan, it was so now with Commines, nor could the memory of the coat of mail and embroidered toy in his saddle-bags entirely quiet the uneasiness of the threat gendered. But, seeking relief, his thought cast back to Commines' curt instructions.
"Who is this fellow—for I suppose it is a man who is to meet me at the Chien Noir?"
"Who is he? Slime of the gutter, contemptible old age unashamed, human pitch whose very touch is a loathing, a repulsion, a defilement." It seemed as if Commines was less afraid to speak his mind now that the walls of Valmy were out of hearing, for he went on bitterly: "The King chooses his tools well, a foul tool for a foul use, and neither you nor I can come out of it with clean hands. His name? The gallows-cheat has a dozen names and changes them as you would your coat. He is like a Paris rag-picker, and his basket of life is full of the garbage he has raked from the gutter."
"And the woman?"
"The woman! To hear you say the woman one would think there was but one in the world. The King told me of no woman."
"Then I am not likely to get drunk in Amboise, unless your rag-picker pours the wine.
'Heigh ho! Love is the sun, Love is the moon and the stars by night.'
The scheme seems a foolish one to me. I can never play the part. But, Uncle, what do you say? Shall I make a good troubadour?"
"Sing while you may," answered Commines, with a dry gravity behind the softening of his stern mouth, "and remember that at Amboise you sing for a King's pay."
"And I would sing five songs for nothing but the pleasure of singing rather than one for a fee. What kind of a little lad is the Dauphin?"
Commines made no reply, but rode on with knit brows. The question so lightly asked was one he had often weighed in his own mind nor found a clear answer. Rumour said of him—but under her breath, for to speak at all was dangerous—that he was shamefully neglected, slow-witted, ill-taught, or, worse still, untaught, but, and here rumour whispered yet lower, that flashes of shrewdness broke the dull level of the undeveloped intellect when least expected. That he was small for his age he knew, that he was weakly, ill-formed, and awkward. These things were patent to the eye and common knowledge, but into the depths of the lad's nature he had not ventured to probe lest Louis' suspicious jealousy should be aroused. Now that he found himself between a father's twilight and a son's dawn, with "The king is dead, long live the king," an imminent proclamation, he blamed himself for his cowardice as men always do who are wise after the event. With a little more certain knowledge his star might rise with the dawn, instead of, as he feared, setting with the twilight.
"Eh?" he said, rousing himself as La Mothe repeated the question. "The Dauphin? I know little of him. He has lived at Amboise, I at Valmy or Plessis with the King: it is long since the two have met. An ailing, obstinate, dull boy, they say, with no more wit than can be put in him with a spoon. If it were not that weak natures often turn vicious that they may be thought strong I would say the King's fear of a plot was baseless."
"But surely there is no plot—a son against a father: a father who loves him," added La Mothe, remembering the contents of his saddle-bags.
"I wish the plot was as doubtful as the love; we might then have stayed comfortably in Valmy," answered Commines cynically, and La Mothe's eyes twinkled as he thought how much better he had read the King in his single hour than Commines had in all his ten years of intimacy. "The woman," he went on, "must be Ursula de Vesc, and if so you can spend your hour or two's walk from Chateau-Renaud to Amboise adding a verse to your love song."
"Why not a new song all for herself!" replied La Mothe, the twinkle broadening to a laugh, "or had I better wait till I see her? She would never forgive me if the adored dimple was in the right cheek instead of the left, or the sweet eyes of my song grey instead of blue. Which are they, Uncle?"
"I never knew the colour of any woman's eyes but one," answered Commines; and La Mothe knew by the softened voice that he spoke of Suzanne. "And when a woman has taught you the colour of her eyes may you see that in them which will make black or blue or grey the one colour in the world for you. As to Ursula de Vesc, she detests me much as I detest that offscouring from the dregs of brazen Paris who will meet you at the Chien Noir. But there is Chateau-Renaud, where you will find something better for your age and more to your liking than women's eyes."
"Dinner! and I twenty-four!"
"Eighteen, Stephen, eighteen, not a day older, and be thankful for the heart of a boy."
"Why not be thankful for the heart of a girl!" retorted La Mothe. "Pray the Saints, as the King would say, that Ursula de Vesc is as pretty as her name."
Partly that his men might be free from the restraint of his presence, and partly because he did not wish to advertise his visit to Amboise more broadly than necessary, Commines ordered their meal to be served in a private room. It was to the front, with two small windows overlooking the roadway. These were open, and as the stamping of hoofs and jingling of bridle-chains came through them Commines bade La Mothe see who were without.
"But do not show yourself. Between Valmy and Amboise every man is a friend or an enemy, with fewer friends the further Valmy is left behind."
"A priest, with three of an escort," said La Mothe, "King's men, I am sure. Some of your own have gone out to meet them. Shall I go down to make sure?"
"No; go into that inner room, rather, for I hear feet upon the stairs. If you are to be a stranger in Amboise the fewer who see you at Chateau-Renaud the better. We cannot give a priest the Valmy gallows as a reason for silence."
As the inner door closed the outer opened, and a Franciscan entered, his robe strewn thickly with the dust from the highway. Commines recognized him at once; he was from Valmy, one of the many clerics the King's strange religiosity gathered round him, and justly held by Louis in deep respect for the simplicity and saintliness of his life. In an age when the fires of scandal scorched the Church with such a flaming vehemence that the heat kindled round the throne of the Chief Bishop himself, Father John escaped without so much as the smell of burning on his garments. None could lay self-seeking to his charge, nor even the smallest of the many vices which in every order raised their heads, rampant and unashamed. It was characteristic of Louis that he should attach to himself men of such unselfish humility and austere pureness of life. God and the Saints would surely forgive a little chicanery to one who lived in an atmosphere of other men's holy lives.