THE LONG NIGHT
BY STANLEY WEYMAN
AUTHOR OF "A GENTLEMAN OF FRANCE," ETC.
LONGMANS, GREEN, AND CO. 39 PATERNOSTER ROW, LONDON AND BOMBAY 1903
WORKS BY STANLEY WEYMAN.
The House of the Wolf. The New Rector. The Story of Francis Cludde. A Gentleman of France. The Man in Black. Under the Red Robe. My Lady Rotha. The Red Cockade. Shrewsbury. Sophia. The Castle Inn. From the Memoirs of a Minister of France. Count Hannibal. In Kings' Byways. The Long Night.
I. A Student of Theology 1 II. The House on the Ramparts 16 III. The Quintessential Stone 31 IV. Caesar Basterga 45 V. The Elixir Vitae 59 VI. To Take or Leave 74 VII. A Second Tissot 88 VIII. On the Threshold 102 IX. Melusina 116 X. Auctio Fit: Venit Vita 129 XI. By This or That 143 XII. The Cup and the Lip 157 XIII. A Mystery Solved 172 XIV. "And Only One Dose in all the World!" 185 XV. On the Bridge 200 XVI. A Glove and What Came of It 215 XVII. The Remedium 227 XVIII. The Bargain Struck 242 XIX. The Departure of the Rats 257 XX. In the Darkened Room 271 XXI. The Remedium 285 XXII. Two Nails in the Wall 301 XXIII. In Two Characters 318 XXIV. Armes! Armes! 335 XXV. Basterga at Argos 350 XXVI. The Dawn 365
A STUDENT OF THEOLOGY.
They were about to shut the Porte St. Gervais, the north gate of Geneva. The sergeant of the gate had given his men the word to close; but at the last moment, shading his eyes from the low light of the sun, he happened to look along the dusty road which led to the Pays de Gex, and he bade the men wait. Afar off a traveller could be seen hurrying two donkeys towards the gate, with now a blow on this side, and now on that, and now a shrill cry. The sergeant knew him for Jehan Brosse, the bandy-legged tailor of the passage off the Corraterie, a sound burgher and a good man whom it were a shame to exclude. Jehan had gone out that morning to fetch his grapes from Moeens; and the sergeant had pity on him.
He waited, therefore; and presently he was sorry that he had waited. Behind Jehan, a long way behind him, appeared a second wayfarer; a young man covered with dust who approached rapidly on long legs, a bundle jumping and bumping at his shoulders as he ran. The favour of the gate was not for such as he—a stranger; and the sergeant anxious to bar, yet unwilling to shut out Jehan, watched his progress with disgust. As he feared, too, it turned out. Young legs caught up old ones: the stranger overtook Jehan, overtook the donkeys. A moment, and he passed under the arch abreast of them, a broad smile of acknowledgment on his heated face. He appeared to think that the gate had been kept open out of kindness to him.
And to be grateful. The war with Savoy—Italian Savoy which, like an octopus, wreathed clutching arms about the free city of Geneva—had come to an end some months before. But a State so small that the frontier of its inveterate enemy lies but two short leagues from its gates, has need of watch and ward, and curfews and the like, so that he was fortunate who found the gates of Geneva open after sunset in that year, 1602; and the stranger seemed to know this.
As the great doors clanged together and two of the watch wound up the creaking drawbridge, he turned to the sergeant, the smile still on his face. "I feared that you would shut me out!" he panted, still holding his sides. "I would not have given much for my chance of a bed a minute ago."
The sergeant answered only by a grunt.
"If this good fellow had not been in front——"
This time the sergeant cut him short with an imperious gesture, and the young man seeing that the guard also had fallen stiffly into rank, turned to the tailor. He was overflowing with good nature: he must speak to some one. "If you had not been in front," he began, "I——"
But the tailor also cut him short—frowning and laying his finger to his lip and pointing mysteriously to the ground. The stranger stooped to look more closely, but saw nothing: and it was only when the others dropped on their knees that he understood the hint and hastened to follow the example. The soldiers bent their heads while the sergeant recited a prayer for the safety of the city. He did this reverently, while the evening light—which fell grey between walls and sobered those who had that moment left the open sky and the open country—cast its solemn mantle about the party.
Such was the pious usage observed in that age at the opening and the closing of the gates of Geneva: nor had it yet sunk to a form. The nearness of the frontier and the shadow of those clutching arms, ever extended to smother the free State, gave a reality to the faith of those who opened and shut, and with arms in their hands looked back on ten years of constant warfare. Many a night during those ten years had Geneva gazed from her watch-towers on burning farms and smouldering homesteads; many a day seen the smoke of Chablais hamlets float a dark trail across her lake. What wonder if, when none knew what a night might bring forth, and the fury of Antwerp was still a new tale in men's ears, the Genevese held Providence higher and His workings more near than men are prone to hold them in happier times?
Whether the stranger's reverent bearing during the prayer gained the sergeant's favour, or the sword tied to his bundle and the bulging corners of squat books which stuffed out the cloak gave a new notion of his condition, it is certain that the officer eyed him more kindly when all rose from their knees. "You can pass in now, young sir," he said nodding. "But another time remember, if you please, the earlier here the warmer welcome!"
"I will bear it in mind," the young traveller answered, smiling. "Perhaps you can tell me where I can get a night's lodging?"
"You come to study, perhaps?" The sergeant puffed himself out as he spoke, for the fame of Geneva's college and its great professor, Theodore Beza, was a source of glory to all within the city walls. Learning, too, was a thing in high repute in that day. The learned tongues still lived and were passports opening all countries to scholars. The names of Erasmus and Scaliger were still in the mouths of men.
"Yes," the youth answered, "and I have the name of a lodging in which I hope to place myself. But for to-night it is late, and an inn were more convenient."
"Go then to the 'Bible and Hand,'" the sergeant answered. "It is a decent house, as are all in Geneva. If you think to find here a roistering, drinking, swearing tavern, such as you'd find in Dijon——"
"I come to study, not to drink," the young man answered eagerly.
"Well, the 'Bible and Hand,' then! It will answer your purpose well. Cross the bridge and go straight on. It is in the Bourg du Four."
The youth thanked him with a pleased air, and turning his back on the gate proceeded briskly towards the heart of the city. Though it was not Sunday the inhabitants were pouring out from the evening preaching as plentifully as if it had been the first day of the week; and as he scanned their grave and thoughtful faces—faces not seldom touched with sternness or the scars of war—as he passed between the gabled steep-roofed houses and marked their order and cleanliness, as he saw above him and above them the two great towers of the cathedral, he felt a youthful fervour and an enthusiasm not to be comprehended in our age.
To many of us the name and memory of Geneva stand for anything but freedom. But to the Huguenot of that generation and day, the name of Geneva stood for freedom; for a fighting aggressive freedom, a full freedom in the State, a sober measured freedom in the Church. The city was the outpost, southwards, of the Reformed religion and the Reformed learning; it sowed its ministers over half Europe, and where they went, they spread abroad not only its doctrines but its praise and its honour. If, even to the men of that day there appeared at times a something too stiff in its attitude, a something too near the Papal in its decrees, they knew with what foes and against what odds it fought, and how little consistent with the ferocity of that struggle were the compromises of life or the courtesies of the lists.
At any rate, in some such colours as these, framed in such a halo, Claude Mercier saw the Free City as he walked its narrow streets that evening, seeking the "Bible and Hand". In some such colours had his father, bred under Calvin to the ministry, depicted it: and the young man, half French, half Vaudois, sought nothing better, set nothing higher, than to form a part of its life, and eventually to contribute to its fame. Good intentions and honest hopes tumbled over one another in his brain as he walked. The ardour of a new life, to be begun this day, possessed him. He saw all things through the pure atmosphere of his own happy nature: and if it remained to him to discover how Geneva would stand the test of a closer intimacy, at this moment, the youth took the city to his heart with no jot of misgiving. To follow in the steps of Theodore Beza, a Frenchman like himself and gently bred, to devote himself, in these surroundings to the Bible and the Sword, and find in them salvation for himself and help for others—this seemed an end simple and sufficing: the end too, which all men in Geneva appeared to him to be pursuing that summer evening.
By-and-by a grave citizen, a psalm-book in his hand, directed him to the inn in the Bourg du Four; a tall house turning the carved ends of two steep gables to the street. On either side of the porch a long low casement suggested the comfort that was to be found within; nor was the pledge unfulfilled. In a trice the student found himself seated at a shining table before a simple meal and a flagon of cool white wine with a sprig of green floating on the surface. His companions were two merchants of Lyons, a vintner of Dijon, and a taciturn, soberly clad professor. The four elders talked gravely of the late war, of the prevalence of drunkenness in Zurich, of a sad case of witchcraft at Basle, and of the state of trade in Lausanne and the Pays de Vaud; while the student, listening with respect, contrasted the quietude of this house, looking on the grey evening street, with the bustle and chatter and buffoonery of the inns at which he had lain on his way from Chatillon. He was in a mood to appraise at the highest all about him, from the demure maid who served them to the cloaked burghers who from time to time passed the window wrapped in meditation. From a house hard by the sound of the evening psalms came to his ears. There are moods and places in which to be good seems of the easiest; to err, a thing well-nigh impossible.
The professor was the first to rise and retire; on which the two merchants drew up their seats to the table with an air of relief. The vintner looked after the retreating figure. "Of Lausanne, I should judge?" he said, with a jerk of the elbow.
"Probably," one of the others answered.
"Is he not of Geneva, then?" our student asked. He had listened with interest to the professor's talk and between whiles had wondered if it would be his lot to sit under him.
"No, or he would not be here!" one of the merchants replied, shrugging his shoulders.
"Why not, sir?"
"Why not?" The merchant fixed the questioner with eyes of surprise. "Don't you know, young man, that those who live in Geneva may not frequent Geneva taverns?"
"Indeed?" Mercier answered, somewhat startled. "Is that so?"
"It is very much so," the other returned with something of a sneer.
"And they do not!" quoth the vintner with a faint smile.
"Well, professors do not!" the merchant answered with a grimace. "I say nothing of others. Let the Venerable Company of Pastors see to it. It is their business."
At this point the host brought in lights. After closing the shutters he was in the act of retiring when a door near at hand—on the farther side of the passage if the sound could be trusted—flew open with a clatter. Its opening let out a burst of laughter, nor was that the worst: alas, above the laughter rang an oath—the ribald word of some one who had caught his foot in the step.
The landlord uttered an exclamation and went out hurriedly, closing the door behind him. A moment and his voice could be heard, scolding and persuading in the passage.
"Umph!" the vintner muttered, looking from one to the other with a humorous eye. "It seems to me that the Venerable Company of Pastors have not yet expelled the old Adam."
Open flew the door and cut short the word. But it had been heard, "Pastors?" a raucous voice cried. "Passers and Flinchers is what I call them!" And a stout heavy man, whose small pointed grey beard did but emphasise the coarse virility of the face above it, appeared on the threshold, glaring at the four. "Pastors?" he repeated defiantly. "Passers and Flinchers, I say!"
"In Heaven's name, Messer Grio!" the landlord protested, hovering at his shoulder, "these are strangers——"
"Strangers? Ay, and flinchers, they too!" the intruder retorted, heedless of the remonstrance. And he lurched into the room, a bulky, reeling figure in stained green and tarnished lace. "Four flinchers! But I'll make them drink a cup with me or I'll prick their hides! Do you think we shed blood for you and are to be stinted of our liquor!"
"Messer Grio! Messer Grio!" the landlord cried, wringing his hands. "You will be my ruin!"
"But I do fear!" the host retorted sharply, going so far as to lay a hand on his shoulder. "I do fear." Behind the man in green his boon-fellows, flushed with drink, had gathered, and were staring half curious, half in alarm into the room. The landlord turned and appealed to them. "For Heaven's sake get him away quietly!" he muttered. "I shall lose my living if this be known. And you will suffer too! Gentlemen," he turned to the party at the table, "this is a quiet house, a quiet house in general, but——"
"Tut-tut!" said the vintner good-naturedly. "We'll drink a cup with the gentleman if he wishes it!"
"You'll drink or be pricked!" quoth Messer Grio; he was one of those who grow offensive in their cups. And while his friends laughed, he swished out a sword of huge length, and flourished it. "Ca! Ca! Now let me see any man refuse his liquor!"
The landlord groaned, but thinking apparently that soonest broken was soonest mended, he vanished, to return in a marvellously short space of time with four tall glasses and a flask of Neuchatel. "'Tis good wine," he muttered anxiously. "Good wine, gentlemen, I warrant you. And Messer Grio here has served the State, so that some little indulgence——"
"What art muttering?" cried the bully, who spoke French with an accent new and strange in the student's ears. "Let be! Let be, I say! Let them drink, or be pricked!"
The merchants and the vintner took their glasses without demur: and, perhaps, though they shrugged their shoulders, were as willing as they looked. The young man hesitated, took with a curling lip the glass which was presented to him, and then, a blush rising to his eyes, pushed it from him.
"'Tis good wine," the landlord repeated. "And no charge. Drink, young sir, and——"
"I drink not on compulsion!" the student answered.
Messer Grio stared. "What?" he roared. "You——"
"I drink not on compulsion," the young man repeated, and this time he spoke clearly and firmly. "Had the gentleman asked me courteously to drink with him, that were another matter. But——"
"Sho!" the vintner muttered, nudging him in pure kindness. "Drink, man, and a fico for his courtesy so the wine be old! When the drink is in, the sense is out, and," lowering his voice, "he'll let you blood to a certainty, if you will not humour him."
But the grinning faces in the doorway hardened the student in his resolution. "I drink not on compulsion," he repeated stubbornly. And he rose from his seat.
"You drink not?" Grio exclaimed. "You drink not? Then by the living——"
"For Heaven's sake!" the landlord cried, and threw himself between them. "Messer Grio! Gentlemen!"
But the bully, drunk and wilful, twitched him aside. "Under compulsion, eh!" he sneered. "You drink not under compulsion, don't you, my lad? Let me tell you," he continued with ferocity, "you will drink when I please, and where I please, and as often as I please, and as much as I please, you meal-worm! You half-weaned puppy! Take that glass, d'you hear, and say after me, Devil take——"
"Messer Grio!" cried the horrified landlord.
"Devil take"—for a moment a hiccough gave him pause—"all flinchers! Take the glass, young man. That is well! I see you will come to it! Now say after me, Devil take——"
"That!" the student retorted, and flung the wine in the bully's face.
The landlord shrieked; the other guests rose hurriedly from their seats, and got aside. Fortunately the wine blinded the man for a moment, and he recoiled, spitting curses and darting his sword hither and thither in impotent rage. By the time he had cleared his eyes the youth had got to his bundle, and, freeing his blade, placed himself in a posture of defence. His face was pale, but with the pallor of excitement rather than of fear; and the firm set of his mouth and the smouldering fire in his eyes as he confronted the drunken bravo, no less than the manner in which he handled his weapon, showed him as ready to pursue as he had been hardy to undertake the quarrel.
He gave proof of forethought, too. "Witness all, he drew first!" he cried; and his glance quitting Grio for the briefest instant sought to meet the merchants' eyes. "I am on my defence. I call all here to witness that he has thrust this quarrel upon me!"
The landlord wrung his hands. "Oh dear! oh dear!" he cried. "In Heaven's name, gentlemen, put up! put up! Stop them! Will no one stop them!" And in despair, seeing no one move to arrest them, he made as if he would stand between them.
But the bully flourished his blade about his ears, and with a cry the goodman saved himself "Out, skinker!" Grio cried grimly. "And you, say your prayers, puppy. Before you are five minutes older I will spit you like a partridge though I cross the frontier for it. You have basted me with wine! I will baste you after another fashion! On guard! On guard, and——"
"What is this?"
The voice stayed Grio's tongue and checked his foot in the very instant of assault. The student, watching his blade and awaiting the attack, was surprised to see his point waver and drop. Was it a trick, he wondered? A stratagem? No, for a silence fell on the room, while those who held the floor hastened to efface themselves against the wall, as if they at any rate had nothing to do with the fracas. And next moment Grio shrugged his shoulders, and with a half-stifled curse stood back.
"What is this?"
The same question in the same tone. This time the student saw whose voice it was had stayed Grio's arm. Within the door a pace in front of two or three attendants, who had displaced the roisterers on the threshold, appeared a spare dry-looking man of middle height, wearing his hat, and displaying a gold chain of office across the breast of his black velvet cloak. In age about sixty, he had nothing that at a first glance seemed to call for a second: his small pinched features, and the downward curl of the lip, which his moustache and clipped beard failed to hide, indicated a nature peevish and severe rather than powerful. On nearer observation the restless eyes, keen and piercing, asserted themselves and redeemed the face from insignificance. When, as on this occasion, their glances were supported by the terrors of the State, it was not difficult to understand why Messer Blondel, the Syndic, though no great man to look upon, had both weight with the masses, and a hold not to be denied over his colleagues in the Council.
No one took on himself to answer the question he had put, and in a voice thin and querulous, but with a lurking venom in its tone, "What is this?" the great man repeated, looking from one to another. "Are we in Geneva, or in Venice? Under the skirts of the scarlet woman, or where the magistrates bear not the sword in vain? Good Mr. Landlord, are these your professions? Your bailmen should sleep ill to-night, for they are likely to answer roundly for this! And whom have we sparking it here? Brawling and swearing and turning into a profligate's tavern a place that should be for the sober entertainment of travellers? Whom have we here—eh! Let me see them! Ah!"
He paused rather suddenly, as his eyes met Grio's: and a little of his dignity fell from him with the pause. His manner underwent a subtle change from the judicial to the paternal. When he resumed, he wagged his head tolerantly, and a modicum of sorrow mingled with his anger. "Ah, Messer Grio! Messer Grio!" he said, "it is you, is it? For shame! For shame! This is sad, this is lamentable! Some indulgence, it is true"—he coughed—"may be due after late events, and to certain who have borne part in them. But this goes too far! Too far by a long way!"
"It was not I began it!" the bully muttered sullenly, a mixture of bravado and apology in his bearing. He sheathed his blade, and thrust the long scabbard behind him. "He threw a glass of wine in my face, Syndic—that is the truth. Is an old soldier who has shed blood for Geneva to swallow that, and give God thanks?"
The Syndic turned to the student, and licked his lips, his features more pinched than usual. "Are these your manners?" he said. "If so, they are not the manners of Geneva! Your name, young man, and your dwelling place?"
"My name is Claude Mercier, last from Chatillon in Burgundy," the young man answered firmly. "For the rest, I did no otherwise than you, sir, must have done in my case!"
The magistrate snorted. "I!"
"Being treated as I was!" the young man protested. "He would have me drink whether I would or no! And in terms no man of honour could bear."
"Honour?" the Syndic retorted, and on the word exploded in great wrath. "Honour, say you? Then I know who is in fault. When men of your race talk of honour 'tis easy to saddle the horse. I will teach you that we know naught of honour in Geneva, but only of service! And naught of punctilios but much of modest behaviour! It is such hot blood as yours that is at the root of brawlings and disorders and such-like, to the scandal of the community: and to cool it I will commit you to the town jail until to-morrow! Convey him thither," he continued, turning sharply to his followers, "and see him safely bestowed in the stocks. To-morrow I will hear if he be penitent, and perhaps, if he be in a cooler temper——"
But the young man, aghast at this sudden disgrace, could be silent no longer. "But, sir," he broke in passionately, "I had no choice. It was no quarrel of my beginning. I did but refuse to drink, and when he——"
"Silence, sirrah!" the Syndic cried, and cut him short. "You will do well to be quiet!" And he was turning to bid his people bear their prisoner out without more ado when one of the merchants ventured to put in a word.
"May I say," he interposed timidly, "that until this happened, Messer Blondel, the young man's conduct was all that could be desired?"
"Are you of his company?"
"Then best keep out of it!" the magistrate retorted sharply.
"And you," to his followers, "did you hear me? Away with him!"
But as the men advanced to execute the order, the young man stepped forward. "One moment!" he said. "A moment only, sir. I caught the name of Blondel. Am I speaking to Messer Philibert Blondel?"
The Syndic nodded ungraciously. "Yes," he said, "I am he. What of it?"
"Only this, that I have a letter for him," the student answered, groping with trembling fingers in his pouch. "From my uncle, the Sieur de Beauvais of Nocle, by Dijon."
"The Sieur de Beauvais?"
"He is your uncle?"
"So! Well, I remember now," Blondel continued, nodding. "His name was Mercier. Certainly, it was. Well, give me the letter." His tone was still harsh, but it was not the same; and when he had broken the seal and read the letter—with a look half contemptuous, half uneasy—his brow cleared a little. "It were well young people knew better what became them," he cried, peevishly shrugging his shoulders. "It would save us all a great deal. However, for this time as you are a stranger and well credited, I find, you may go. But let it be a lesson to you, do you hear? Let it be a lesson to you, young man. Geneva," pompously, "is no place for brawling, and if you come hither for that, you will quickly find yourself behind bars. See that you go to a fit lodging to-morrow, and do you, Mr. Landlord, have a care that he leaves you."
The young man's heart was full, but he had the wisdom to keep his temper and to say no more. The Syndic on his part was glad, on second thoughts, to be free of the matter. He was turning to go when it seemed to strike him that he owed something more to the bearer of the letter. He turned back. "Yes," he said, "I had forgotten. This week I am busy. But next week, on some convenient day, come to me, young sir, and I may be able to give you a word of advice. In the forenoon will be best. Until then—see to your behaviour!"
The young man bowed and waited, standing where he was, until the bustle attending the Syndic's departure had quite died away. Then he turned. "Now, Messer Grio," he said briskly, "for my part I am ready."
But Messer Grio had slipped away some minutes before.
THE HOUSE ON THE RAMPARTS.
The affair at the inn which had threatened to turn out so unpleasantly for our hero, should have gone some way towards destroying the illusions with which he had entered Geneva. But faith is strong in the young, and hope stronger. The traditions of his boyhood and his fireside, and the stories, animate with affection for the cradle of the faith, to which he had listened at his father's knee, were not to be over-ridden by the shadow of an injustice, which in the end had not fallen. When the young man went abroad next morning and viewed the tall towers of St. Peter, of which his father had spoken—when, from those walls which had defied through so many months the daily and nightly threats of an ever-present enemy, he looked on the sites of conflicts still famous and on farmsteads but half risen from their ruins—when, above all, he remembered for what those walls stood, and that here, on the borders of the blue lake, and within sight of the glittering peaks which charmed his eyes—if in any one place in Europe—the battle of knowledge and freedom had been fought, and the rule of the monk and the Inquisitor cast down, his old enthusiasm revived. He thirsted for fresh conflicts, for new occasions: and it is to be feared dreamt more of the Sword than of the sacred Book, which he had come to study, and which, in Geneva, went hand in hand with it.
In the fervour of such thoughts and in the multitude of new interests which opened before him, he had well-nigh forgotten the Syndic's tyranny before he had walked a mile: nor might he have given a second thought to it but for the need which lay upon him of finding a new lodging before night. In pursuit of this he presently took his way to the Corraterie, a row of gabled houses, at the western end of the High Town, built within the ramparts, and enjoying over them a view of the open country, and the Jura. The houses ran for some distance parallel with the rampart, then retired inwards, and again came down to it; in this way enclosing a triangular open space or terrace. They formed of themselves an inner line of defence, pierced at the point farthest from the rampart by the Porte Tertasse: a gate it is true, which was often open even at night, for the wall in front of the Corraterie, though low on the town side, looked down from a great height on the ditch and the low meadows that fringed the Rhone. Trees planted along the rampart shaded the triangular space, and made it a favourite lounge from which the inhabitants of that quarter of the town could view the mountains and the sunset while tasting the freshness of the evening air.
A score of times had Claude Mercier listened to a description of this row of lofty houses dominating the ramparts. Now he saw it, and, charmed by the position and the aspect, he trembled lest he should fail to secure a lodging in the house which had sheltered his father's youth. Heedless of the suspicious glances shot at him by the watch at the Porte Tertasse, he consulted the rough plan which his father had made for him—consulted it rather to assure himself against error than because he felt doubt. The precaution taken, he made for a house a little to the right of the Tertasse gate as one looks to the country. He mounted by four steep steps to the door and knocked on it.
It was opened so quickly as to disconcert him. A lanky youth about his own age bounced out and confronted him. The lad wore a cap and carried two or three books under his arm as if he had been starting forth when the summons came. The two gazed at one another a moment: then, "Does Madame Royaume live here?" Claude asked.
The other, who had light hair and light eyes, said curtly that she did.
"Do you know if she has a vacant room?" Mercier asked timidly.
"She will have one to-night!" the youth answered with temper in his tone: and he dashed down the steps and went off along the street without ceremony or explanation. Viewed from behind he had a thin neck which agreed well with a small retreating chin.
The door remained open, and after hesitating a moment Claude tapped once and again with his foot. Receiving no answer he ventured over the threshold, and found himself in the living-room of the house. It was cool, spacious and well-ordered. On the left of the entrance a wooden settle flanked a wide fireplace, in front of which stood a small heavy table. Another table a little bigger occupied the middle of the room; in one corner the boarded-up stairs leading to the higher floors bulked largely. Two or three dark prints—one a portrait of Calvin—with a framed copy of the Geneva catechism, and a small shelf of books, took something from the plainness and added something to the comfort of the apartment, which boasted besides a couple of old oaken dressers, highly polished and gleaming, with long rows of pewter ware. Two doors stood opposite the entrance and appeared to lead—for one of them stood open—to a couple of closets: bedrooms they could hardly be called, yet in one of them Claude knew that his father had slept. And his heart warmed to it.
The house was still; the room was somewhat dark, for the windows were low and long, strongly barred, and shaded by the trees, through the cool greenery of which the light filtered in. The young man stood a moment, and hearing no footstep or movement wondered what he should do. At length he ventured to the door of the staircase and, opening it, coughed. Still no one answered or came, and unwilling to intrude farther he turned about and waited on the hearth. In a corner behind the settle he noticed two half pikes and a long-handled sword; on the seat of the settle itself lay a thin folio bound in stained sheepskin. A log smouldered on the hearth, and below the great black pot which hung over it two or three pans and pipkins sat deep among the white ashes. Save for these there was no sign in the room of a woman's hand or use. And he wondered. Certainly the young man who had departed so hurriedly had said it was Madame Royaume's. There could be no mistake.
Well, he would go and come again. But even as he formed the resolution, and turned towards the outer door—which he had left open—he heard a faint sound above, a step light but slow. It seemed to start from the uppermost floor of all, so long was it in descending; so long was it before, waiting on the hearth cap in hand, he saw a shadow darken the line below the staircase door. A second later the door opened and a young girl entered and closed it behind her. She did not see him; unconscious of his presence she crossed the floor and shut the outer door.
There was a something in her bearing which went to the heart of the young man who stood and saw her for the first time; a depression, a dejection, an I know not what, so much at odds with her youth and her slender grace, that it scarcely needed the sigh with which she turned to draw him a pace nearer. As he moved their eyes met. She, who had not known of his presence, recoiled with a low cry and stared wide-eyed: he began hurriedly to speak.
"I am the son of M. Gaston Mercier, of Chatillon," he said, "who lodged here formerly. At least," he stammered, beginning to doubt, "if this be the house of Madame Royaume, he lodged here. A young man who met me at the door said that Madame lived here, and had a room."
"He admitted you? The young man who went out?"
She gazed hard at him a moment, as if she doubted or suspected him. Then, "We have no room," she said.
"But you will have one to-night," he answered
"I do not know."
"But—but from what he said," Claude persisted doggedly, "he meant that his own room would be vacant, I think."
"It may be," she answered dully, the heaviness which surprise had lifted for a moment settling on her afresh. "But we shall take no new lodgers. Presently you would go," with a cold smile, "as he goes to-day."
"My father lodged here three years," Claude answered, raising his head with pride. "He did not go until he returned to France. I ask nothing better than to lodge where my father lodged. Madame Royaume will know my name. When she hears that I am the son of M. Gaston Mercier, who often speaks of her——"
"He fell sick here, I think?" the girl said. She scanned him anew with the first show of interest that had escaped her. Yet reluctantly, it seemed; with a kind of ungraciousness hard to explain.
"He had the plague in the year M. Chausse, the pastor of St. Gervais, died of it," Claude answered eagerly. "When it was so bad. And Madame nursed him and saved his life. He often speaks of it and of Madame with gratitude. If Madame Royaume would see me?"
"It is useless," she answered with an impatient shrug. "Quite useless, sir. I tell you we have no room. And—I wish you good-morning." On the word she turned from him with a curt gesture of dismissal, and kneeling beside the embers began to occupy herself with the cooking pots; stirring one and tasting another, and raising a third a little aslant at the level of her eyes that she might peer into it the better. He lingered, watching her, expecting her to turn. But when she had skimmed the last jar and set it back, and screwed it down among the embers, she remained on her knees, staring absently at a thin flame which had sprung up under the black pot. She had forgotten his presence, forgotten him utterly; forgotten him, he judged, in thoughts as deep and gloomy as the wide dark cavern of chimney which yawned above her head and dwarfed the slight figure kneeling Cinderella-like among the ashes.
Claude Mercier looked and looked, and wondered, and at last longed: longed to comfort, to cherish, to draw to himself and shelter the budding womanhood before him, so fragile now, so full of promise for the future. And quick as the flame had sprung up under her breath, a magic flame awoke in his heart, and burned high and hot. If he did not lodge here,
The sky might fall, fish fly, and sheep pursue The tawny monarch of the Libyan strand!
But he would lodge here. He coughed.
She started and turned, and seeing him, seeing that he had not gone, she rose with a frown. "What is it?" she said. "For what are you waiting, sir?"
"I have something in charge for Madame Royaume," he answered.
"I will give it her," she returned sharply. "Why did you not say so at once?" And she held out her hand.
"No," he said hardily. "I have it in charge for her hand only."
"I am her daughter."
He shook his head stubbornly.
What she would have done on that—her face was hard and promised nothing—is uncertain. Fortunately for the young man's hopes, a dull report as of a stick striking the floor in some room above reached their ears; he saw her eyes flicker, alter, grow soft. "Wait!" she said imperiously; and stooping to take one of the pipkins from the fire, she poured its contents into a wooden bowl which stood beside her on the table. She added a horn-spoon and a pinch of salt, fetched a slice of coarse bread from a cupboard in one of the dressers, and taking all in skilled steady hands, hands childishly small, though brown as nuts, she disappeared through the door of the staircase.
He waited, looking about the room, and at this, and at that, with a new interest. He took up the book which lay on the settle: it was a learned volume, part of the works of Paracelsus, with strange figures and diagrams interwoven with the crabbed Latin text. A passage which he deciphered, abashed him by its profundity, and he laid the book down, and went from one to another of the black-framed engravings; from these to an oval piece in coarse Limoges enamel, which hung over the little shelf of books. At length he heard a step descending from the upper floors, and presently she appeared in the doorway.
"My mother will see you," she said, her tone as ungracious as her look. "But you will say nothing of lodging here, if it please you. Do you hear?" she added, her voice rising to a more imperious note.
She turned on the lowest step. "She is bed-ridden," she muttered, as if she felt the need of explanation. "She is not to be disturbed with house matters, or who comes or goes. You understand that, do you?"
He nodded, with a mental reservation, and followed her up the confined staircase. Turning sharply at the head of the first flight he saw before him a long narrow passage, lighted by a window that looked to the back. On the left of the passage which led to a second set of stairs, were two doors, one near the head of the lower flight, the other at the foot of the second. She led him past both—they were closed—and up the second stairs and into a room under the tiles, a room of good size but with a roof which sloped in unexpected places.
A woman lay there, not uncomely; rather comely with the beauty of advancing years, though weak and frail if not ill. It was the woman of whom he had so often heard his father speak with gratitude and respect. It was neither of his father, however, nor of her, that Claude Mercier thought as he stood holding Madame Royaume's hand and looking down at her. For the girl who had gone before him into the room had passed to the other side of the bed, and the glance which she and her mother exchanged as the daughter leant over the couch, the message of love and protection on one side, of love and confidence on the other—that message and the tone, wondrous gentle, in which the girl, so curt and abrupt below, named him—these revealed a bond and an affection for which the life of his own family furnished him with no precedent.
For his mother had many children, and his father still lived. But these two, his heart told him as he held Madame Royaume's shrivelled hand in his, were alone. They had each but the other, and lived each in the other, in this room under the tiles with the deep-set dormer windows that looked across the Pays de Gex to the Jura. For how much that prospect of vale and mountain stood in their lives, how often they rose to it from the same bed, how often looked at it in sunshine and shadow with the house still and quiet below them, he seemed to know—to guess. He had a swift mental vision of their lives, and then Madame Royaume's voice recalled him to himself.
"You are newly come to Geneva?" she said, gazing at him.
"I arrived yesterday."
"Yes, yes, of course," she answered. She spoke quickly and nervously. "Yes, you told me so." And she turned to her daughter and laid her hand on hers as if she talked more easily so. "Your father, Monsieur Mercier," with an obvious effort, "is well, I hope?"
"Perfectly, and he begged me to convey his grateful remembrances. Those of my mother also," the young man added warmly.
"Yes, he was a good man! I remember when, when he was ill, and M. Chausse—the pastor, you know"—the reminiscence appeared to agitate her—"was ill also——"
The girl leant over her quickly. "Monsieur Mercier has brought something for you, mother," she said.
"His grateful remembrances and this letter," Claude murmured with a blush. He knew that the letter contained no more than he had already said; compliments, and the hope that Madame Royaume might be able to receive the son as she had received the father.
"Ah!" Madame Royaume repeated, taking the letter with fingers that shook a little.
"You shall read it when Monsieur Mercier is gone," her daughter said. With that she looked across at the young man. Her eyes commanded him to take his leave.
But he was resolute. "My father expresses the hope," he said, "that you will grant me the same privilege of living under your roof, Madame, which was so highly prized by him."
"Of course, of course," she answered eagerly, her eyes lighting up. "I am not myself, sir, able to overlook the house—but, Anne, you will see to—to this being done?"
"My dear mother, we have no room!" the girl replied; and stooping, hid her face while she whispered in her mother's ear. Then aloud, "We are so full, so—it goes so well," she continued gaily. "We never have any room. I am sure, sir,"—again she faced him across the bed—"it is a disappointment to my mother, but it cannot be helped."
"Dear, dear, it is unfortunate!" Madame Royaume exclaimed; and then with a fond look at her daughter, "Anne manages so well!"
"Yet if there be a room at any time vacant?"
"You shall assuredly have it."
"But, mother dear," the girl cried, "M. Grio and M. Basterga are permanent on the floor below. And Esau and Louis are now with us, and have but just entered on their course at college. And you know," she continued softly, "no one ever leaves your house before they are obliged to leave it, mother dear!"
The mother patted the daughter's hand. "No," she said proudly. "It is true. And we cannot turn any one away. And yet," looking up at Anne, "the son of Messer Mercier? You do not think—do you think that we could put him——"
"A closet however small!" Claude cried.
"Unfortunately the room beyond this can only be entered through this one."
"It is out of the question!" the girl responded quickly; and for the first time her tone rang a little hard. The next instant she seemed to repent of her petulance; she stooped and kissed the thin face sunk in the pillow's softness. Then, rising, "I am sorry," she continued stiffly and decidedly. "But it is impossible!"
"Still—if a vacancy should occur?" he pleaded.
Her eyes met his defiantly. "We will inform you," she said.
"Thank you," he answered humbly. "Perhaps I am fatiguing your mother?"
"I think you are a little tired, dear," the girl said, stooping over her. "A little fatigues you."
Madame's cheeks were flushed; her eyes shone brightly, even feverishly. Claude saw this, and having pushed his plea and his suit as far as he dared, he hastened to take his leave. His thoughts had been busy with his chances all the time, his eyes with the woman's face; yet he bore away with him a curiously vivid picture of the room, of the bow-pot blooming in the farther dormer, of the brass skillet beside the green boughs which filled the hearth, of the spinning wheel in the middle of the floor, and the great Bible on the linen chest beside the bed, of the sloping roof, and a queer triangular cupboard which filled one corner.
At the time, as he followed the girl downstairs, he thought of none of these things. He only asked himself what mystery lay in the bosom of this quiet house, and what he should say when he stood in the room below at bay before her. Of one thing he was still sure—sure, ay and surer, since he had seen her with her mother,
The sky might fall, fish fly, and sheep pursue The tawny monarch of the Libyan strand!
but he lodged here. The mention of his adversary of last night, which had not escaped his ear, had only hardened him in his resolution. The room of Esau—or was it Louis' room—must be his! He must be Jacob the Supplanter.
She did not speak as she preceded him down the stairs, and before they emerged one after the other into the living-room, which was still unoccupied, he had formed his plan. When she moved towards the outer door to open it he refused to follow: he stood still. "Pardon me," he said, "would you mind giving me the name of the young man who admitted me?"
"I do not see——"
"I only want his name."
"And his room? Which was it?"
Grudgingly she pointed to the nearer of the two closets, that of which the door stood open.
He stepped quickly into it, and surveyed it carefully. Then he laid his cap on the low truckle-bed. "Very good," he said, raising his voice and speaking through the open door, "I will take it." And he came out again.
The girl's eyes sparkled. "If you think," she cried, her temper showing in her face, "that that will do you any good——"
"I don't think," he said, cutting her short, "I take it. Your mother undertook that I should have the first vacant room. Tissot resigned this room this morning. I take it. I consider myself fortunate—most fortunate."
Her colour came and went. "If you were a boor," she cried, "you could not behave worse!"
"Then I am a boor!"
"But you will find," she continued, "that you cannot force your way into a house like this. You will find that such things are not done in Geneva. I will have you put out!"
"Why?" he asked, craftily resorting to argument. "When I ask only to remain and be quiet? Why, when you have, or to-night will have, an empty room? Why, when you lodged Tissot, will you not lodge me? In what am I worse than Tissot or Grio," he continued, "or—I forget the other's name? Have I the plague, or the falling sickness? Am I Papist or Arian? What have I done that I may not lie in Geneva, may not lie in your house? Tell me, give me a reason, show me the cause, and I will go."
Her anger had died down while he spoke and while she listened. Instead, the lowness of heart to which she had yielded when she thought herself alone before the hearth showed in every line of her figure. "You do not know what you are doing," she said sadly. And she turned and looked through the casement. "You do not know what you are asking, or to what you are coming."
"Did Tissot know when he came?"
"You are not Tissot," she answered in a low tone, "and may fare worse."
"Or better," he answered gaily. "And at worst——"
"Worse or better you will repent it," she retorted. "You will repent it bitterly!"
"I may," he answered. "But at least you never shall."
She turned and looked at him at that; looked at him as if the curtain of apathy fell from her eyes and she saw him for the first time as he was, a young man, upright and not uncomely. She looked at him with her mind as well as her eyes, and seeing felt curiosity about him, pity for him, felt her own pulses stirred by his presence and his aspect. A faint colour, softer than the storm-flag which had fluttered there a minute before, rose to her cheeks; her lips began to tremble. He feared that she was going to weep, and "That is settled!" he said cheerfully. "Good!" and he went into the little room and brought out his cap. "I lay last night at the 'Bible and Hand,' and I must fetch my cloak and pack."
She stayed him by a gesture. "One moment," she said. "You are determined to—to do this? To lodge here?"
"Firmly," he answered, smiling.
"Then wait." She passed by him and, moving to the fireplace, raised the lid of the great black pot. The broth inside was boiling and bubbling to within an inch of the lip, the steam rose from it in a fragrant cloud. She took an iron spoon and looked at him, a strange look in her eyes. "Stand where you are," she said, "and I will try you, if you are fit to come to us or no. Stand, do you hear," she repeated, a note of excitation, almost of mockery, in her voice, "where you are whatever happens! You understand?"
"Yes, I am to stand here, whatever happens," he answered, wondering. What was she going to do?
She was going to do a thing outside the limits of his imagination. She dipped the iron spoon in the pot and, extending her left arm, deliberately allowed some drops of the scalding liquor to fall on the bare flesh. He saw the arm wince, saw red blisters spring out on the white skin, he caught the sharp indraw of her breath, but he did not move. Again she dipped the spoon, looking at him with defiant eyes, and with the same deliberation she let the stuff fall on the living flesh. This time the perspiration sprang out on her brow, her face burned suddenly hot, her whole frame shrank under the torture.
"Don't!" he cried hoarsely. "I will not bear it! Don't!" And he uttered a cry half-articulate, like a beast's.
"Stand there!" she said. And still he stood: stood, his hands clenched and his lips drawn back from his teeth, while she dipped the spoon again, and—though her arm shook now like an aspen and there were tears of pain in her eyes—let the dreadful stuff fall a third time.
She was white when she turned to him. "If you do it again," he cried furiously, "I will upset—the cursed pot."
"I have done," she said, smiling faintly. "I am not very brave—after all!" And going to the dresser, her knees trembling under her, she poured out some water and drank it greedily. Then she turned to him, "Do you understand?" she said with a long tense look. "Are you prepared? If you come here, you will see me suffer worse things, things a hundred times, a thousand times worse than that. You will see me suffer, and you will have to stand and see it. You will have to stand and suffer it. You will have to stand! If you cannot, do not come."
"I stood it," he answered doggedly. "But there are things flesh and blood cannot stand. There is a limit——"
"The limit I shall fix," she said proudly. "Not you."
"But you will fix it?"
"Perhaps. At any rate, that is the bargain. You may accept or refuse. You do not know where I stand, and I do. You must see and be blind, feel and be dumb, hear and make no answer, unless I speak—if you are to come here."
"But you will speak—sometime?"
"I do not know," she answered wearily, and her whole form wilting she looked away from him. "I do not know. Go now, if you please—and remember!"
THE QUINTESSENTIAL STONE.
The old town of Geneva, pent in the angle between lake and river, and cramped for many generations by the narrow corselet of its walls, was not large; it was still high noon when Mercier, after paying his reckoning at the "Bible and Hand," and collecting his possessions, found himself again in the Corraterie. A pleasant breeze stirred the leafy branches which shaded the ramparts, and he stood a moment beside one of the small steep-roofed watch-towers, and resting his burden on the breast-high wall, gazed across the hazy landscape to the mountains, beyond which lay Chatillon and his home.
Yet it was not of his home he was thinking as he gazed; nor was it his mother's or his father's face that the dancing heat of mid-day mirrored for him as he dreamed. Oh, happy days of youth when an hour and a face change all, and a glance from shy eyes, or the pout of strange lips blinds to the world and the world's ambitions! Happy youth! But alas for the studies this youth had come so far to pursue, for the theology he had crossed those mountains to imbibe—at the pure source and fount of evangelical doctrine! Alas for the venerable Beza, pillar and pattern of the faith, whom he had thirsted to see, and the grave of Calvin, aim and end of his pilgrimage! All Geneva held but one face for him now, one presence, one gracious personality. A scarlet blister on a round white arm, the quiver of a girl's lip a-tremble on the verge of tears—these and no longing for home, these and no memory of father or mother or the days of childhood, filled his heart to overflowing. He dreamed with his eyes on the hills, but it was not
Of Providence, foreknowledge, will and fate, Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
the things he had come to study; but of a woman's trouble and the secret life of the house behind him, of which he was about to form part.
At length the call of a sentry at the Porte Tertasse startled him from his thoughts. He roused himself, and uncertain how long he had lingered he took up his cloak and bag and, turning, hastened across the street to the door at the head of the four steps. He found it on the latch, and with a confident air, which belied his real feelings, he pushed it open and presented himself.
For a moment he fancied that the room held only one person. This was a young man who sat at the table in the middle of the room and, surprised by the appearance of a stranger, suspended his spoon in the air that he might the better gaze at him. But when Claude had set down his bag behind the door, and turned to salute the other, he discovered his error; and despite himself he paused in the act of advancing, unable to hide his concern. At the table on the hearth, staring at him in silence, sat two other men. And one of the two was Grio.
Mercier paused we have said; he expected an outburst of anger if not an assault. But a second glance at the old ruffian's face relieved him: a stare of vacant wonder made it plain that Grio sober retained little of the doings of Grio drunk. Nevertheless, the silent gaze of the three—for no one greeted him—took Claude aback; and it was but awkwardly and with embarrassment that he approached the table, and prepared to add himself to the party. Something in their looks as well as their silence whispered him unwelcome. He blushed, and addressing the young man at the larger table—
"I have taken Tissot's room," he said shyly. "This is his seat, I suppose. May I take it?" And indicating an empty bowl and spoon on the nearer side of the table, he made as if he would sit down before them.
In place of answering, the young man looked from him to the two on the hearth, and laughed—a foolish, frightened laugh. The sound led Mercier's eyes in the same direction, and he appreciated for the first time the aspect of the man who sat with Grio; a man of great height and vast bulk, with a large plump face and small grey eyes. It struck Mercier as he met the fixed stare of those eyes, that he had entered with less ceremony than was becoming, and that he ought to make amends for it; and, in the act of sitting down in the vacant seat, he turned and bowed politely to the two at the other table.
"Tissotius timuit, jam peregrinus adest!" the big man murmured in a voice at once silky and sonorous. Then ignoring Mercier, but looking blandly at the young man who sat facing him at the table, "What is this of Tissot?" he continued. "Can it be," with a side-glance at the newcomer, "that we have lost our—I may not call him our quintessence or alcahest—rather shall I say our baser ore, that at the virgin touch of our philosophical stone blushed into ruddy gold? And burned ever brighter and hotter in her presence! Tissot gone, and with him all those fair experiments! Is it possible?"
The young man's grin showed that he savoured a jest. But, "I know nothing," he muttered sheepishly. "'Tis new to me."
"Tissot gone!" the big man repeated in a tone humorously melancholy. "No more shall we
Upon his viler metal test our purest pure, And see him transmutations three endure!
Tissot gone! And you, sir, come in his place. What change is here! A stranger, I believe?"
"In Geneva, yes," Claude answered, wondering and a little abashed. The man spoke with an air of power and weight.
"And a student, doubtless in our Academia? Like our Tissot? Yes. It may be," he continued in the same smooth tones wherein ridicule and politeness appeared to be so nicely mingled that it was difficult to judge if he spoke in jest or earnest, "like him in other things! It may be that we have gained and not lost. And that qualities finer and more susceptible underlie an exterior more polished and an ease more complete," he bowed, "than our poor Tissot could boast! But here is
Our stone angelical whereby All secret potencies to light are brought!
Doubtless"—with a wave of the hand he indicated the girl who had that moment entered—"you have met before?"
"I could not otherwise," Claude answered coldly—he began to resent both the man and his manner—"have engaged the lodging." And he rose to take from the girl's hand the broth she was bringing him. She, on her side, made no sign that she noticed a change, or that it was no longer Tissot she served. She gave him what he needed, mechanically and without meeting his eyes. Then turning to the others, she waited on them after the same fashion. For a minute or two there was silence in the room.
A strange silence, Claude thought, listening and wondering: as strange and embarrassing as the talk of the man who shared with Grio the table by the fireplace: as strange as the atmosphere about them, which hung heavy, to his fancy, and oppressive, fraught with unintelligible railleries, with subtle jests and sneers. The girl went to and fro, from one to another, her face pale, her manner quiet. And had he not seen her earlier with another look in her eyes, had he not detected a sinister something underlying the big man's good humour, he would have learned nothing from her; he would have fancied that all was as it should be in the house and in the company.
As it was he understood nothing. But he felt that a something was wrong, that a something overhung the party. Seated as he was he could not without turning see the faces of the two at the other table, nor watch the girl when she waited on them. But the suspicion of a smile which hovered on the lips of the young man who sat opposite him—whom he could see—kept him on his guard. Was a trick in preparation? Were they about to make him pay his footing? No, for they had no notice of his coming. They could not have laid the mine. Then why that smile? And why this silence?
On a sudden he caught the sound of a movement behind him, the swirl of a petticoat, and the clang of a pewter plate as it fell noisily to the floor. His companion looked up swiftly, the smile on his face broadening to a snigger. Claude turned too as quickly as he could and looked, his face hot, his mind suspecting some prank to be played on him; to his astonishment he discovered nothing to account for the laugh. The girl appeared to be bending over the embers on the hearth, the men to be engaged with their meal; and baffled and perplexed he turned again and, his ears burning, bent over his plate. He was glad when the stout man broke the silence for the second time.
"Agrippa," he said, "has this of amalgams. That whereas gold, silver, tin are valuable in themselves, they attain when mixed with mercury to a certain light and sparkling character, as who should say the bubbles on wine, or the light resistance of beauty, which in the one case and the other add to the charm. Such to our simple pleasures"—he continued with a rumble of deep laughter—"our simple pleasures, which I must now also call our pleasures of the past, was our Tissot! Who, running fluid hither and thither, where resistance might be least of use, was as it were the ultimate sting of enjoyment. Is it possible that we have in our friend a new Tissot?"
The young man at the table giggled. "I did not know Tissot!" Claude replied sharply and with a burning face—they were certainly laughing at him. "And therefore I cannot say."
"Mercury, which completes the amalgam," the stout man muttered absently and as if to himself, "when heated sublimes over!" Then turning after a moment's silence to the girl, "What says our Quintessential Stone to this?" he continued. "Her Tissot gone will she still work her wonders? Still of base Grios and the weak alloys red bridegrooms make? Still—kind Anne, your hand!"
Silence! Silence again. What were they doing? Claude, full of suspicion, turned to see what it meant; turned to learn what it was on which the greedy eyes of his table-fellow were fixed so intently. And now he saw, more or less. The stout man and Grio had their heads together and their faces bent over the girl's hand, which the former held. On them, however, Claude scarcely bestowed a glance. It was the girl's face which caught and held his eyes, nay, made them burn. Had it blushed, had it showed white, he had borne the thing more lightly, he had understood it better. But her face showed dull and apathetic; as she stood looking down at the men, suffering them to do what they would with her hand, a strange passivity was its sole expression. When the big man (whose name Claude learned later was Basterga), after inspecting the palm, kissed it with mock passion, and so surrendered it to Grio, who also pressed his coarse lips to it, while the young man beside Claude laughed, no change came over her. Released, she turned again to the hearth, impassive. And Claude, his heart beating, recognised that this was the hundredth performance; that so far from being a new thing it was a thing so old as to be stale to her, moving her less, though there were insult and derision in every glance of the men's eyes, than it moved him.
And noting this he began in a dim way to understand. This was the thing which Tissot had not been able to bear; which in the end had driven the young man with the small chin from the house. This was the pleasantry to which his feeble resistance, his outbursts of anger, of jealousy, or of protest had but added piquancy, the ultimate sting of pleasure to the jaded palate of the performers. This was the obsession under which she lay, the trial and persecution which she had warned him he would find it hard to witness.
Hard? He believed her, trifling as was the thing he had seen. For behind it he had a glimpse of other and worse things, and behind all of some shadowy brooding mystery which compelled her to suffer them and forbade her to complain. What that was he could not conceive, what it could be he could not conceive: nor had he long to consider the question. He found the shifty eyes of his table-fellow fixed upon him, and, though the moment his own eyes met them they were averted, he fancied that they sped a glance of intelligence to the table behind him, and he hastened to curb, if not his feelings, at least the show of them. He had his warning. It was not as Tissot he must act if he would help her, but more warily, more patiently, biding her time, and letting the blow, when the time came, precede the word. Unwarned, he had acted it is probable as Tissot had acted, weakly and stormily: warned, he had no excuse if he failed her. Young as he was he saw this. The fault lay with him if he made the position worse instead of better.
Whether, do what he would, his feelings made themselves known—for the shoulders can speak, and eloquently, on occasion—or the reverse was the case, and his failure to rise to the bait disappointed the tormentor, the big man, Basterga, presently resumed the attack.
"Tissotius pereat, Tissotianus adest!" he muttered with a sneer. "But perhaps, young sir, Latinity is not one of your subjects. The tongue of the immortal Cicero——"
"I speak it a little," Claude answered quietly. "It were foolish to approach the door of learning without the key."
"Oh, you are a wit, young sir! Well, with your wit and your Latinity can you construe this:—
Stultitiam expellas, furca tamen usque recurret Tissotius periit terque quaterque redit!"
"I think so," Claude replied gravely.
"Good, if it please you! And the meaning?"
"Tissot was a fool, and you are another!" the young man returned. "Will you now solve me one, reverend sir, with all submission?"
"Said and done!" the big man answered disdainfully.
"Nec volucres plumae faciunt nec cuspis Achillem! Construe me that then if you will!"
Basterga shrugged his shoulders. "Fine feathers do not make fine birds!" he said. "If you apply it to me," he continued with a contemptuous face, "I——"
"Oh, no, to your company," Claude answered. Self-control comes hardly to the young, and he had already forgotten his role. "Ask him what happened last night at the 'Bible and Hand,'" he continued, pointing to Grio, "and how he stands now with his friend the Syndic!"
"The Syndic Blondel!"
The moment the words had passed his lips, Claude repented. He saw that he had struck a note more serious than he intended. The big man did not move, but over his fat face crept a watching expression; he was plainly startled. His eyes, reduced almost to pin-points, seemed for an instant the eyes of a cat about to spring. The effect was so evident indeed that it bewildered Claude and so completely diverted his attention from Grio, the real target, that when the bully, who had listened stupidly to the exchange of wit, proved by a brutal oath his comprehension of the reference to himself, the young man scarcely heard him.
"The Syndic Blondel?" Basterga muttered after a pregnant pause. "What know you of him, pray?"
Before the young man could answer, Grio broke in. "So you have followed me here, have you?" he cried, striking his jug on the table and glaring across the board at the offender. "You weren't content to escape last night it seems. Now——"
"Enough!" Basterga muttered, the keen expression of his face unchanged. "Softly! Softly! Where are we? I don't understand. What is this? Last night——"
"I want not to rake up bygones if you will let them be," Claude answered with a sulky air, half assumed. "It was you who attacked me."
"You puppy!" Grio roared. "Do you think——"
"Enough!" Basterga said again: and his eyes leaving the young man fixed themselves on his companion. "I begin to understand," he murmured, his voice low, but not the less menacing for that, or for the cat-like purr in it. "I begin to comprehend. This is one of your tricks, Messer Grio. One of the clever tricks you play in your cups! Some day you'll do that in them will—No!" repressing the bully as he attempted to rise. "Have done now and let us understand. The 'Bible and Hand,' eh? 'Twas there, I suppose, you and this youth met, and——"
"Quarrelled," said Claude sullenly. "That's all."
"And you followed him hither?"
"No, I did not."
"No? Then how come you here?" Basterga asked, his eyes still watchful. "In this house, I mean? 'Tis not easy to find."
"My father lodged here," Claude vouchsafed. And he shrugged his shoulders, thinking that with that the matter was clear.
But Basterga continued to eye him with something that was not far removed from suspicion. "Oh," he said. "That is it, is it? Your father lodged here. And the Syndic—Blondel, was it you said? How comes he into it? Grio was prating of him, I suppose?" For an instant, while he waited the answer to the question, his eyes shrank again to pin-points.
"He came in and found us at sword-play," Claude answered. "Or just falling to it. And though the fault was not mine, he would have sent me to prison if I had not had a letter for him."
"Oh!" And returning with a manifest effort to the tone and manner of a few minutes before:—
"Impiger, Iracundus, Inexorabilis, acer Jura neget sibi nata, nihil non arroget armis,"
he hummed. "I doubt if such manners will be appreciated in Geneva, young man," and furtively he wiped his brow. "To old stagers like my friend here who has given his proofs of fidelity to the State, some indulgence is granted——"
"I see that," Claude answered with sarcasm.
"I am saying it. But you, if you will not be warned, will soon find or make the town too hot for you."
"He will find this house too hot for him!" growled his companion, who had made more than one vain attempt to assert himself. "And that to-day! To-day! Perdition, I know him now," he continued, fixing his bloodshot eyes on the young man, "and if he crows here as he crowed last night, his comb must be cut! As well soon as late, for there will be no living with him! There, don't hold me, man! Let me at him!" And he tried to rise.
"Fool, have done!" Basterga replied, still restraining him, but only by the exertion of considerable force. And then in a lower tone but one partially audible, "Do you want to draw the eyes of all Geneva this way?" he continued. "Do you want the house marked and watched and every gossip's tongue wagging about it? You did harm enough last night, I'll answer, and well if no worse comes of it! Have done, I say, or I shall speak, you know to whom!"
"Why does he come here? Why does he follow me?" the sot complained.
"Cannot you hear that his father lodged here?"
"A lie!" Grio cried vehemently. "He is spying on us! First at the 'Bible and Hand' last night, and then here! It is you who are the fool, man. Let me go! Let me at him, I say!"
"I shall not!" the big man answered firmly. And he whispered in the other's ear something which Claude could not catch. Whatever it was it cooled Grio's rage. He ceased to struggle, nodded sulkily and sat back. He stretched out his hand, took a long draught, and having emptied his jug, "Here's Geneva!" he said, wiping his lips with the air of a man who had given a toast. "Only don't let him cross me! That is all. Where is the wench?"
"She has gone upstairs," Basterga answered with one eye on Claude. He seemed to be unable to shake off a secret doubt of him.
"Then let her come down," Grio answered with a grin, half drunken, half brutal, "and make her show sport. Here, you there," to the young man who shared Claude's table, "call her down and——"
"Sit still!" Basterga growled, and he trod—Claude was almost sure of it—on the bully's foot. "It is late, and these young gentlemen should be at their themes. Theology, young sir," he turned to Claude with the slightest shade of over-civility in his pompous tone, "like the pursuit of the Alcahest, which some call the Quintessence of the Elements, allows no rival near its throne!"
"I attend my first lecture to-morrow," Claude answered drily. And he kept his seat. His face was red and his hand trembled. They would call her down for their sport, would they! Not in his presence, nor again in his absence, if he could avoid it.
Grio struck the table. "Call her down!" he ordered in a tone which betrayed the influence of his last draught. "Do you hear!" And he looked fiercely at Louis Gentilis, the young man who sat opposite Claude.
But Louis only looked at Basterga and grinned.
And Basterga it was plain was not in the mood to amuse himself. Whatever the reason, the big man was no longer at his ease in Mercier's company. Some unpleasant thought, some suspicion, born of the incident at the "Bible and Hand," seemed to rankle in his mind, and, strive as he would, betrayed its presence in the tone of his voice and the glance of his eye. He was uneasy, nor could he hide his uneasiness. To the look which Gentilis shot at him he replied by one which imperatively bade the young man keep his seat. "Enough fooling for to-day," he said, and stealthily he repressed Grio's resistance. "Enough! Enough! I see that the young gentleman does not altogether understand our humours. He will come to them in time, in time," his voice almost fawning, "and see we mean no harm. Did I understand," he continued, addressing Claude directly, "that your father knew Messer Blondel?"
"Who is now Syndic? My uncle did," Claude answered rather curtly. He was more and more puzzled by the change in Basterga's manner. Was the big man a poltroon whom the bold front shown to Grio brought to heel? Or was there something behind, some secret upon which his words had unwittingly touched?
"He is a good man," Basterga said. "And of the first in Geneva. His brother too, who is Procureur-General. Their father died for the State, and the sons, the Syndic in particular, served with high honour in the war. Savoy has no stouter foe than Philibert Blondel, nor Geneva a more devoted son." And he drank as if he drank a toast to them.
"A man of great parts too. Probably you will wait on him?"
"Next week. I was near waiting on him after another fashion," Claude continued rather grimly. "Between him and your friend there," with a glance at Grio, who had relapsed into a moody glaring silence, "I was like to get more gyves than justice."
The big man laughed. "Our friend here has served the State," he remarked, "and does what another may not. Come, Messer Grio," he continued, clapping him on the shoulder, as he rose from his seat. "We have sat long enough. If the young ones will not stir, it becomes the old ones to set an example. Will you to my room and view the precipitation of which I told you?"
Grio gave a snarling assent, and got to his feet; and the party broke up with no more words. Claude took his cap and prepared to withdraw, well content with himself and the line he had taken. But he did not leave the house until his ears assured him that the two who had ascended the stairs together had actually repaired to Basterga's room on the first floor, and there shut themselves up.
Had it been Mercier's eye in place of his ear which attended the two men to the upper room, he would have remarked—perhaps with surprise, since he had gained some knowledge of Grio's temper—that in proportion as they mounted the staircase, the toper's crest drooped, and his arrogance ebbed away; until at the door of Basterga's chamber, it was but a sneaking and awkward man who crossed the threshold.
Nor was the reason far to seek. Whatever the standpoint of the two men in public, their relations to one another in private were delivered up, stamped and sealed in that moment of entrance. While Basterga, leaving the other to close the door, strode across the room to the window and stood gazing out, his very back stern and contemptuous, Grio fidgeted and frowned, waiting with ill-concealed penitence, until the other chose to address him. At length Basterga turned, and his gleaming eyes, his moon-face pale with anger, withered his companion.
"Again! Again!" he growled—it seemed he dare not lift his voice. "Will you never be satisfied until we are broken on the wheel? You dog, you! The sooner you are broken the better, were that all! Ay, and were that all, I could watch the bar fall with pleasure! But do you think I will see the fruit of years of planning, do you think that I will see the reward of this brain—this! this, you brainless idiot, who know not what a brain is"—and he tapped his brow repeatedly with an earnestness almost grotesque—"do you think that I will see this cast away, because you swill, swine that you are! Swill and prate in your cups!"
"'Fore God, I said nothing!" Grio whined. "I said nothing! It was only that he would not drink and I——"
"No, he would not, I say, and we were coming to blows. And then——"
"He gave back, did he?"
"No, Messer Blondel came in."
Caesar Basterga stretched out his huge arms. "Fool! Fool! Fool!" he hissed, with a gesture of despair. "There it is! And Blondel, who should have sent you to the whipping-post, or out of Geneva, has to cloak you! And men ask why, and what there is between our most upright Syndic and a drunken, bragging——"
"Softly," Grio muttered, with a flash of sullen resentment. "Softly, Messer Basterga! I——"
"A drunken, swilling, prating pig!" the other persisted. "A broken soldier living on an hour of chance service? Pooh, man," with contempt, "do not threaten me! Do you think that I do not know you more than half craven? The lad below there would cut your comb yet, did I suffer it. But that is not the point. The point is that you must needs advertise the world that you and the Syndic, who has charge of the walls, are hail-fellows, and the world will ask why! Or he must deal with you as you deserve and out you go from Geneva!"
"Per Bacco! I am not the only soldier," Grio muttered, "who ruffles it here!"
"No! And is not that half our battle?" Basterga rejoined, gazing on him with massive scorn. "To make use of them and their grumbling, and their distaste for the Venerable Company of Pastors who rule us! Such men are our tools; but tools only, and senseless tools, for Geneva won for the Grand Duke, and what will they be the better, save in the way of a little more licence and a little more drink? But for you I had something better! Is the little farm in Piedmont not worth a month's abstinence? Is drink-money for your old age, when else you must starve or stab in the purlieus of Genoa, not worth one month's sobriety? But you must needs for the sake of a single night's debauch ruin me and get yourself broken on the wheel!"
Grio shrank under his eye. "There is no harm done," he muttered at last. "Nobody suspects what is between us."
"How do you know that?" came the retort. "What? You think it is natural Blondel should favour such as you?"
"It will not be the first time Geneva cloak has covered Genoa velvet!"
"Velvet!" Basterga repeated with a sneer. "Rags rather!" And then more quickly, "But that is not all, nor the half. Do you think Blondel, who is on the point, Blondel, who will and will not and on whom all must turn, Blondel the upright, the impeccable, the patriotic, without whom we can do nothing, and who, I tell you, hangs in the balance—do you think he likes it, blockhead? Or is the more inclined to trust his life with us when he sees us brawlers, toss-pots, common swillers? Do you think he on whom I am bringing to bear all the resources of this brain—this!"—and again the big man tapped his forehead with tragic earnestness—"and whom you could as much move to side with us as you could move yonder peak of the Jura from its base—do you think he will deem better of our part for this?"
"No! No, a thousand times!"
"But I count drunk the same as sober for that!" Grio cried, plucking up spirit and speaking with a gleam of defiance in his eye. "For it is my opinion that you have no more chance of moving him than I have! And so to be plain you have it, Messer Basterga. For how are you going to move him? With what? Tell me that!"
"With money?" Grio continued with a fluency which showed he spoke on a subject to which he had given much thought. "He is rich and ten thousand crowns would not buy him. And the Grand Duke, much as he craves Geneva, will not spend over boldly."
"No, I shall not move him with money."
"With power and rank, then? Will the Grand Duke make him Governor of Geneva? No, for he dare not trust him. And less than that, what is it to Syndic Blondel, whose word to-day is all but law in Geneva?"
"No, nor with power," Basterga answered quietly.
"Is it with revenge, then? There are men I know who love revenge. But he is not of the south, and at such a risk revenge were dearly bought."
"No, nor with revenge," Basterga replied.
"A woman, then? For that is all that is left," Grio rejoined in triumph. Once he had spoken out, he had put himself on a level with his master; he had worsted him, or he was much mistaken. "Perhaps, from the way you have played with the little prude below, it is a woman. But they are plenty, even in Geneva, and he is rich and old."
"No, nor with a woman."
"Then with what?"
"With this!" Basterga replied. And for the third time, drawing himself up to his full height, he tapped his brow. "Do you doubt its power?"
For answer Grio shrugged his shoulders, his manner sullen and contemptuous.
"I don't see how it works, Messer Basterga," the veteran muttered. "I say not you have not good wits. You have, I grant it. But the best of wits must have their means and method. It is not by wishing and willing——"
"How know you that?"
"How know you that?" Basterga repeated with sudden energy, and he shook a massive finger before the other's eyes. "But how know you anything," he continued with disdain, as he dropped the hand again, and turned on his heel, "dolt, imbecile, rudiment that you are? Ay, and blind to boot, for it was but the other day I worked a miracle before you, and you learned nothing from it."
"It is no question of miracles," the other muttered doggedly. "But of how you will persuade the Syndic Blondel to betray Geneva to Savoy!"
"Is it so? Then tell me this: the girl below who smacked your face a month back because you laid a hand upon her wrist, and who would have had you put to the door the same day—how did I tame her? Can you answer me that?"
Grio's face fell remarkably. "No, master," he said, nodding thoughtfully. "I grant it. I cannot. A wilder filly was never handled."
"So! And yet I tamed her. And she suffers you! She's sport for us within bounds. Yet do you think she likes it when you paw her hand or lay your dirty arm about her waist, or steal a kiss? Think you the blood mounts and ebbs for nothing? Or the tears rise and the lip trembles and the limbs shake for sheer pleasure. I tell you, if eyes could slay, you had breathed your last some weeks ago."
"I know," Grio answered, nodding thoughtfully. "I have wondered and wondered, ay, many a time, how you did it."
"Yet I did it? You grant that?"
"And you do not understand—with what?"
Grio shook his head.
"Then why mistrust me now, blockhead," the other retorted, "when I say that as I charmed her, I can charm Blondel? Ay, and more easily. You know not how I did the one, nor how I shall do the other," the big man continued. "But what of that?" And in a louder voice, and with a gusto which showed how genuine was his delight in the metre,
"Pauci quos aequus amavit Jupiter aut ardens evexit ad aethera virtus Dis geniti potuere,"
he mouthed. "But that," he added, looking scornfully at his confederate, "is Greek to you!"
Grio's altered aspect, his crestfallen air owned the virtue of the argument if not of the citation; which he did not understand. He drew a deep breath. "Per Bacco," he said, "if you succeed in doing it, Messer Basterga——"
"I shall do it," Basterga retorted, "if you do not spoil all with your drunken tricks!"
Grio was silent a moment, sunk plainly in reflection. Presently his bloodshot eyes began to travel respectfully and even timidly over the objects about him. In truth the room in which he found himself was worthy of inspection, for it was no common room, either in aspect or furnishing. It boasted, it is true, none of the weird properties, the skulls and corpse-lights, dead hands, and waxen masks with which the necromancer of that day sought to impress the vulgar mind. But in place of these a multitude of objects, quaint, curious, or valuable, filled that half of the room which was farther from the fire-hearth. On the wall, flanked by a lute and some odd-looking rubrical calendars, were three or four silver discs, engraved with the signs of the Zodiac; these were hung in such a position as to catch the light which entered through the heavily leaded casement. On the window-seat below them, a pile of Plantins and Elzevirs threatened to bury a steel casket. On the table, several rolls of vellum and papyrus, peeping from metal cylinders, leant against a row of brass-bound folios. A handsome fur covering masked the truckle-bed, but this, too, bore its share of books, as did two or three long trunks covered with stamped and gilded leather which stood against the wall and were so long that the ladies of the day had the credit of hiding their gallants in them. On stools lay more books, and yet more books, with a medley of other things: a silver flagon, and some weapons, a chess-board, an enamelled triptych and the like.
In a word, this half of the room wore the aspect of a library, low-roofed, dark and richly furnished. The other half, partly divided from it by a curtain, struck the eye differently. A stove of peculiar fashion, equipped with a powerful bellows, cumbered the hearth; before this on a long table were ranged a profusion of phials and retorts, glass vessels of odd shapes, and earthen pots. Crucibles and alembics stood in the ashes before the stove, and on a sideboard placed under the window were scattered a set of silver scales, a chemist's mask, and a number of similar objects. Cards bearing abstruse calculations hung everywhere on the walls; and over the fireplace, inscribed in gold and black letters, the Greek word "EUREKA" was conspicuous.
The existence of such a room in the quiet house in the Corraterie was little suspected by the neighbours, and if known would have struck them with amazement. To Grio its aspect was familiar: but in this case familiarity had not removed his awe of the unknown and the magical. He looked about him now, and after a pause:—
"I suppose you do it—with these," he murmured, and with an almost imperceptible shiver he pointed to the crucibles.
"With those?" Basterga exclaimed, and had the other ascribed supernatural virtues to the cinders or the bellows he could not have thrown greater scorn into his words. "Do you think I ply this base mechanic art for aught but to profit by the ignorance of the vulgar? Or think by pots and pans and mixing vile substances to make this, which by nature is this, into that which by nature it is not! I, a scholar? A scholar? No, I tell you, there was never alchemist yet could transmute but one thing—poor into rich, rich into poor!"
"But," Grio murmured with a look and in a voice of disappointment, "is not that the true transmutation which a thousand have died seeking, and one here and there, it is rumoured, has found? From lead to gold, Messer Basterga?"
"Ay, but the lead is the poor alchemist, who gets gold from his patron by his trick. And the gold is the poor fool who finds him in his living, and being sucked, turns to lead! There you have your transmutation."
"There is no yet!"
"But Agrippa," Grio persisted, "Cornelius Agrippa, who sojourned here in Geneva and of whom, master, you speak daily—was he not a learned man?"
"Ay, even as I am!" Caesar Basterga answered, swelling visibly with pride. "But constrained, even as I am, to ply the baser trade and stoop to that we see and touch and smell! Faugh! What lot more cursed than to quit the pure ether of Latinity for the lower region of matter? And in place of cultivating the literae humaniores, which is the true cultivation of the mind, and sets a man, mark you, on a level with princes, to stoop to handle virgin milk and dragon's blood, as they style their vile mixtures; or else grope in dead men's bodies for the thing which killed them. Which is a pure handicraft and cheirergon, unworthy a scholar, who stoops of right to naught but the goose-quill!"
"And yet, master, by these same things——"
"Men grow rich," Basterga continued with a sneer, "and get power? Ay, and the bastard sits in the chair of the legitimate; and pure learning goes bare while the seekers after the Stone and the Elixir (who, in these days are descending to invent even lesser things and smaller advantages that in the learned tongues have not so much as names) grow in princes' favour and draw on their treasuries! But what says Seneca? 'It is not the office of Philosophy to teach men to use their hands. The object of her lessons is to form the soul and the taste.' And Aldus Manucius, vir doctissimus, magister noster," here he raised his hand to his head as if he would uncover, "says also the same, but in a Latinity more pure and translucent, as is his custom."
Grio scratched his head. The other's vehemence, whether he sneered or praised, flew high above his dull understanding. He had his share of the reverence for learning which marked the ignorant of that age: but to what better end, he pondered stupidly, could learning be directed than to the discovery of that which must make its owner the most enviable of mortals, the master of wealth and youth and pleasure! It was not to this, however, that he directed his objection: the argumentum ad hominem came more easily to him. "But you do this?" he said, pointing to the paraphernalia about the stove.
"Ay," Basterga rejoined with vehemence. "And why, my friend? Because the noble rewards and the consideration which former times bestowed on learning are to-day diverted to baser pursuits! Erasmus was the friend of princes, and the correspondent of kings. Della Scala was the companion of an emperor; Morus, the Englishman, was the right arm of a king. And I, Caesar Basterga of Padua, bred in the pure Latinity of our Master Manucius, yield to none of these. Yet am I, if I would live, forced to stoop 'ad vulgus captandum!' I must kneel that I may rise! I must wade through the mire of this base pursuit that I may reach the firm ground of wealth and learned ease. But think you that I am the dupe of the art wherewith I dupe others? Or, that once I have my foot on firm ground I will stoop again to the things of matter and sense? No, by Hercules!" the big man continued, his eye kindling, his form dilating. "This scheme once successful, this feat that should supply me for life, once performed, Caesar Basterga of Padua will know how to add, to those laurels which he has already gained,
The bays of Scala and the wreath of More, Erasmus' palm and that which Lipsius wore."
And in a kind of frenzy of enthusiasm the scholar fell to pacing the floor, now mouthing hexameters, now spurning with his foot a pot or an alembic which had the ill-luck to lie in his path. Grio watched him, and watching him, grew only more puzzled—and more puzzled. He could have understood a moral shrinking from the enterprise on which they were both embarked—the betrayal of the city that gave them shelter. He could have understood—he had superstition enough—a moral distaste for alchemy and those practices of the black art which his mind connected with it. But this superiority of the scholar, this aloofness, not from the treachery, but from the handicraft, was beyond him. For that reason it imposed on him the more.
Not the less, however, was he importunate to know wherein Basterga trusted. To rave of Scholarship and Scaliger was one thing, to bring Blondel into the plot which was to transfer Geneva to Savoy and strike the heaviest blow at the Reformed that had been struck in that generation, was another thing and one remote. The Syndic was a trifle discontented and inclined to intrigue; that was true, Grio knew it. But to parley with the Grand Duke's emissaries, and strive to get and give not, that was one thing; while to betray the town and deliver it tied and bound into the hands of its arch-enemy, was another and a far more weighty matter. One, too, to which in Grio's judgment—and in the dark lanes of life he had seen and weighed many men—the magistrate would never be brought.
"Shall you need my aid with him?" he asked after a while, seeing the scholar still wrapt in thought. The question was not lacking in craft.
"Your aid? With whom?"
"With Messer Blondel."
"Pshaw, man," Basterga answered, rousing himself from his reverie. "I had forgotten him and was thinking of that villain Scioppius and his tract against Joseph Justus. Do you know," he continued with a snort of indignation, "that in his Hyperbolimaeus, not content with the statement that Joseph Justus left his laundress's bill at Louvain unpaid, he alleges that I—I, Caesar Basterga of Padua—was broken on the wheel at Munster a year ago for the murder of a gentleman!"
Grio turned a shade paler. "If this business miscarry," he said, "the statement may prove within a year of the mark. Or nearer, at any rate, than may please us."
Basterga smiled disdainfully. "Think it not!" he answered, extending his arms and yawning with unaffected sincerity. "There was never scholar yet died on the wheel."
"No, friend, no. Nor will, unless it be Scioppius, and he is unworthy of the name of scholar. No, we have our disease, and die of it, but it is not that. Nevertheless," he continued with magnanimity, "I will not deny that when Master Pert-Tongue downstairs put our names together so pat, it scared me. It scared me. For how many chances were there against such an accident? Or what room to think it an accident, when he spoke clearly with the animus pugnandi? No, I'll not deny he touched me home."
Grio nodded grimly. "I would we were rid of him!" he growled. "The young viper! I foresee danger from him."
"Possibly," Basterga replied. "Possibly. In that case measures must be taken. But I hope there may be no necessity. And now, I expect Messer Blondel in an hour, and have need, my friend, of thought and solitude before he comes. Knock at my door at eight this evening and I may have news for you."
"You don't think to resolve him to-night?" Grio muttered with a look of incredulity.
"It may be. I do not know. In the meantime silence, and keep sober!"
"But it is more than ay, ay!" Basterga retorted with irritation; with something of the temper, indeed, which he had betrayed at the beginning of the interview. "Scholars die otherwise, but many a broken soldier has come to the wheel! So do you have a care of it! If you do not——"
"I have said I will!" Grio cried sharply. "Enough scolding, master. I've a notion you'll find your own task a little beyond your hand. See if I am not right!" he added. And with this show of temper on his side, he went out and shut the door loudly behind him.
Basterga stood a few moments in thought. At length,
"Dimidium facti, qui bene c[oe]pit, habet!"
he muttered. And shrugging his shoulders he looked about him, judging with an artistic eye the effect which the room would have on a stranger. Apparently he was not perfectly content with it, for, stepping to one of the long trunks, he drew from it a gold chain, some medals and a jewelled dagger, and flung these carelessly on a box in a corner. He set up the alembics and pipkins which he had overturned, and here and there he opened a black-lettered folio, discovered an inch or two of crabbed Hebrew, or the corner of an illuminated script. A cameo dropped in one place, a clay figure of Minerva set up in another, completed the picture.
His next proceeding was less intelligible. He unearthed from the pile of duo-decimos on the window-seat the steel casket which has been mentioned. It was about twelve inches long and as many wide; and as deep as it was broad. Wrought in high relief on the front appeared an elaborate representation of Christ healing the sick; on each end, below a massive ring, appeared a similar design. The box had an appearance of strength out of proportion to its size; and was furnished with two locks, protected and partly hidden by tiny shields.
Basterga handling it gently polished it awhile with a cloth, then bearing it to the inner end of the room he set it on a bracket beside the hearth. This place was evidently made for it, for on either side of the bracket hung a steel chain and padlock; with which, and the rings, the scholar proceeded to secure the casket to the wall. This done, he stepped back and contemplated the arrangement with a smile of contemptuous amusement.
"It is neither so large as the Horse of Troy," he murmured complacently, "nor so small as the Wafer that purchased Paris. It is neither so deep as hell, nor so high as heaven, nor so craftily fastened a wise man may not open it, nor so strong a fool may not smash it. But it may suffice. Messer Blondel is no Solomon, and may swallow this as well as another thing. In which event, Ave atque vale, Geneva! But here he comes. And now to cast the bait!"
THE ELIXIR VITAE.
As the Syndic crossed the threshold of the scholar's room, he uncovered with an air of condescension that, do what he would, was not free from uneasiness. He had persuaded himself—he had been all the morning persuading himself—that any man might pay a visit to a learned scholar—why not? Moreover, that a magistrate in paying such a visit was but in the performance of his duty, and might plume himself accordingly on the act.
Yet two things like worms in the bud would gnaw at his peace. The first was conscience: if the Syndic did not know he had reason to suspect that Basterga bore the Grand Duke's commission, and was in Geneva to further his master's ends. The second source of his uneasiness he did not acknowledge even to himself, and yet it was the more powerful: it was a suspicion—a strong suspicion, though he had met Basterga but twice—that in parleying with the scholar he was dealing with a man for whom he was no match, puff himself out as he might; and who secretly despised him.