"No, monseigneur; from Paris."
"I must ask the Queen to spare me her hard riders," replied Montmorenci, with a grim smile, as he pointed at our dust-soiled apparel, and passed on into the council room.
"It is war, as sure as I stand here," exclaimed De Lorges; and at once a hubbub of voices arose, in the midst of which Carnavalet appeared, and beckoned to us. It took us a little time to reach him, but on our doing so he passed us through the door at once, entering with us, and closing it after him. Then pointing to the curtains before him, he said:
"The King awaits you there, messieurs. Enter!"
So tremendous was the issue for me that now that the crisis had come I felt for the moment almost unable to move. But De Lorgnac gripped me by the arm.
"Come," he said; "we either win or lose all in the next five minutes. Come!"
With this he set aside the curtains, and we passed through.
There were but three persons in the room we entered. The King was standing, a hand resting on the back of the chair in which La Valentinois sat, as radiantly lovely as though all the fatigues of the night had never been. A little behind them was Bertrandi, the keeper of the seals, a lean, ascetic figure, holding a paper in his hands, and eyeing us with a vulpine curiosity. Somewhat to my surprise the King received us graciously, saying:
"Eh bien, messieurs, you have served madame here well, and in doing so have served me. Have they not, Diane?" And he began toying with the black curls of her hair. La Valentinois looked up at him, a world of tenderness in her glance, but made no reply, and we remained silent, struck dumb by the infinite resource of her audacity. Evil as she was it was impossible not to admire her courage; and, as De Lorgnac had rightly foreseen, she had played a great game, but even we were far from guessing the extent to which her duplicity would carry her.
"Messieurs," the King went on, "madame has joined her entreaty to that of the Queen for the life of Mademoiselle de Paradis, and very willingly and from my heart have I signed this pardon." With this he took the paper Bertrandi held and placed it in Diane's hands.
"I give this to you, mignonne," he said, "for from you comes the mercy of France. Give it to these gentlemen to bear to the Queen; and for the present I must leave you for an hour, for the council awaits me. Come, Bertrandi." With these bald words, delivered in a stilted fashion, his voice only warming as he bade au revoir to La Valentinois, the King left us, followed by Bertrandi.
THE PEARS OF ORRAIN
As the curtains fell behind the King all the soft lights left La Valentinois' eyes, and they shone like blue-black steel. She glanced at us, an odd triumph in her look. So intensely an actress was she that it almost seemed, and perhaps it was so, that she was looking at us for some sign, some token of admiration at the skill with which she had played her game, but both De Lorgnac and myself remained impassive as stone.
"Here," she said at last, "here is my part of the bargain." And, handing me the paper, she continued: "I presume it is correct?" Eagerly I ran my eyes over it, De Lorgnac bending over my shoulder and reading with me. It was correct in every particular, signed by the King, and sealed by Bertrandi. As I folded the pardon up, with an inward prayer of thanks to God, La Valentinois asked again:
"It is correct, is it not?"
"Now for your, or rather the Queen's share, of this business. Give me my letters!"
I looked her straight in the face. "Pardon me, madame, Mademoiselle de Paradis is not yet free——"
"What do you mean? You quibble with words, monsieur." Her lips were trembling, and her hands clenched; but, bowing coldly, I said:
"No, madame, I do not quibble with words. Your letters are in Paris, and will be given to you only when Mademoiselle de Paradis is placed, unharmed and free, in her Majesty's hands. That is the bargain, as you call it, and it will be kept to the letter." With this I placed the precious document in my breast pocket, and, making a sign to De Lorgnac, turned to go; but with a cry La Valentinois sprang to her feet.
"You lie!" she said shrilly; "you lie! Give me my letters, or——" And words failed her for once as she stood there, with such fear and baffled hate in her look as I have never seen in human eyes.
"No, madame," I said, "I do not lie, and threats are useless. If this pardon is recalled," and I touched my breast pocket, "the consequences rest with you—and you know what they will be."
"There is no need for alarm," put in De Lorgnac. "I pledge my word to deliver you the letters as soon as the conditions are complete."
She glanced from the one to the other of us, and set her white teeth.
"To be beaten!" she gasped rather than spoke. "To be beaten!—and by that Italian woman!"
"Look you, madame!" I said sternly, for doubts were crowding thick and fast upon me. "If you have played false—if there is any treachery or trickery here—it is ruin to you, and no power in France can save you."
She gave me a single, livid glance, and then her courage broke, and burying her face in her hands she stood shaking like an aspen.
De Lorgnac and I looked at each other, the same thought with us, and then on a sudden the wretched woman made a step forward and clutched me by the arm, her face like death, her breath coming thick and fast.
"It is not my fault," she gasped, "but he—the Vidame. Messieurs, if Mademoiselle de Paradis is to be saved, if I am to be saved, you must be in Paris ere the sun sets."
"You mean?" I said hoarsely.
"I mean that mademoiselle will die if the Vidame reaches Paris, and I shall be lost!" And with this she flung herself back in her chair, and began rocking herself backwards and forwards like a thing distraught, muttering to herself: "I shall be lost! I shall be lost!"
Her devilish cunning had overreached itself, and she sat there a pitiable object, with the ruin she had herself caused around her. I gave her one look, and turned to De Lorgnac.
"There is just time. We may just do it. Come!"
And leaving the miserable woman with her sin we hurried from the room.
I will not stop to tell, indeed I never knew, how we pushed through the crowds in the waiting-rooms and gained the outer courts; but ten minutes later De Lorgnac and I, with Pierrebon at our heels, were galloping on the Paris road, hoping almost against hope, for Simon had nearly two hours' start of us, and our horses had been ridden far and fast. Nevertheless, the stout heart of Lizette never flinched, and Cartouche, De Lorgnac's great grey, raced bravely by her side. We rode in silence, exchanging no speech, though now and again we uttered a word of encouragement to our horses. Crossing the bridge of Melun Pierrebon's nag failed him, and we lost him for the time. At the little village of Cesson we drew rein to breathe our horses, and here we had news of Simon. He had passed about an hour ago, riding easily in the direction of Lieusaint, and keeping to the high road. At last we were off once more, and leaving the plain of La Brie entered the hilly country that sloped downwards to the valley of the Yeres, and on pulling up for a moment on the crest of a hill that lay to the northwest of Lieusaint we got a glimpse of Simon. It was De Lorgnac who saw him first.
"There!" he said, pointing before him into the valley. And craning forward I looked too, and saw far in the distance a white speck—a mere speck—moving rapidly on the cross road to Montgeron, and then we lost him behind a line of trees.
"He is cutting off the angle!" I exclaimed. "Quick!" And I put Lizette down the slope; but De Lorgnac called out after me: "He is lost if he does that—he will meet the marsh of Brunoy, and must come back—keep to the road!"
And, ding, dong, we galloped on the white track, white with dust ourselves, our gallant horses kept up by their own matchless courage, and by that alone.
"He must turn back from the marsh, and we get him at Villaneuve," shouted De Lorgnac to me as we hammered along, pointing as he spoke to the wooded height that rose to our front above the willow-fringed Yeres. But he little knew Simon of Orrain. I made no reply; and leaning forward in the saddle stroked the foam-wet neck that reached out before me, and felt Lizette answer to my touch, as though she knew that life and death lay in her speed.
As we raced on I watched the plain to our left, where Simon had vanished, with hot eyes that reached everywhere—eyes that missed nothing. But he was not to be seen, and hope began to spring up within me that we had beaten him. I shook up the reins, and urged Lizette on faster; but the brave heart was doing her best.
It was impossible that this could last, and as we galloped into Montgeron I felt Lizette falter under me, and an oath broke from De Lorgnac, for Cartouche had lost a shoe.
"We must get fresh horses here at any cost," I said as we pulled up at the door of a small auberge, the only inn the village possessed; but the wealth of Croesus would have been useless here, for other horses were not procurable. And so, whilst Cartouche was being shod, we off-saddled, giving the horses a drink of milk, and getting them rubbed down hastily. Whilst this was going on we stood, moody and dejected, surrounded by a group of yokels, the keeper of the auberge fussing near us. After a time, more to ease my impatience than aught else, I inquired if anyone had seen a man, mounted on a white horse, pass this way, and offered five crowns for the information. The landlord shook his head ruefully, for five crowns were five crowns; but a rough-looking fellow, apparently a fowler, stepped out of the group around us and claimed the reward.
"Ay," he said; "I have seen and spoken with him. He was dressed in hunting green, and crossed the marsh a half-hour ago."
"But there is no way!"
"So he thought too; and it cost him five crowns to find it, for I showed it to him. He is beyond Villaneuve now; but his horse is worn, and, monsieur," he went on with a grin, "I will take those five crowns from you. St. Siege! But this is the red day of my life!"
I paid him in silence, and Cartouche being reshod by this we pressed forward once more; but hope had almost gone from me, and De Lorgnac's set face was more expressive than any words. It was well on in the afternoon when we saw the houses of Charenton, and but a league and a half before us lay Paris, silhouetted in purple and grey against the sky. We were trotting round the elbow of the wood that fringed the banks of the Maren when we came suddenly on our man. He was seated on the wall of the bridge, holding the reins of his horse in his hands; and he saw us too, for we were scarce a hundred paces off. He was away like a flash, looking but once behind him as he drove his spurs home, and raced for Paris.
De Lorgnac gave a great cry, and neck and neck we followed him. If ever man knew his peril, Simon did. Against one he would have fought like a wolf; but against two the odds were hopeless, and with the rage of a wolf in his heart he fled, taking to the country away from the road in the hope of shaking us off.
As for me, I felt the hot blood throbbing in my temples, and all seemed dark around me, except there where that bowed figure on the white horse raced in front, carrying death in his hands, death for her who was to me more than life. Lizette seemed to know it too, and stretched beneath me like a greyhound; but I heard the sobbing breath that told me of a beaten horse. Foot by foot De Lorgnac drew from me, the great grey going like a stag; but still Simon held the front, and we gained not a yard on him. Already we could see the Porte St. Michel lying open before us; and now Simon looked back once more, and pointed at the gate, laughing in triumph as he did so. It was then that my gallant Lizette made a supreme effort. It seemed as if in two strides she had caught up the grey and passed him; only to falter as she did so; then there was a long stagger, and down she came.
By God's providence I was able to regain my feet almost as I fell. De Lorgnac had pulled up beside me; but pointing to Simon, who had now passed the gate, I called out: "Follow him; do not lose sight of him!"
With a nod he galloped on, and casting one look to the side of the road where all that remained of my brave Lizette lay, I hurried after the two.
The gates were not two hundred paces from me; and, sword in hand, as I ran towards them someone came trotting up to me. I thought he was riding at me, and had all but slashed his mount across the face, when he pulled up, and I saw it was Le Brusquet on his mule.
"Hold!" he cried; "it is I. He cannot escape. De Lorgnac is on his heels, and I have set the mob after him with a hue and cry." With this he jumped from his mule and hastened on by my side, the mule trotting after us.
I made no answer, said nothing, until we reached the gates, where an excited crowd had collected, and then I asked: "Which way?"
"Do you not hear them shouting?" And Le Brusquet pointed to a crowd running up the Rue de la Harpe. "Come!" And side by side we ran on. Panting as he ran by me, Le Brusquet gasped out: "Mademoiselle is confined in De Mouchy's house. It is there the Vidame must go for safety with this mob at his heels. Hark! Hear them!"
And shrill and high we heard the cries, "Assassin! Assassin! Tue! Tue!"
Le Brusquet chuckled. "It was a happy thought to set the mob on him, and a happier thought still to pass my day at the gate." Still I made no answer, but ran on with my teeth set. The mob swung round by the Mathurins, and, forcing my way round the corner of the road, I saw they were led by a madman, shouting, yelling, and muttering fearful imprecations.
Using all my strength I headed the mob at last, only to find the madman by my side. He glared at me for an instant, and then screamed out:
"You too! You too, friend! Then we shall both see him die." And bursting into a horrid laugh he clawed at me with his hands. I thrust him back, and it was only in doing so that the light of a sudden recognition came to me. The miserable, frenzied being was none other than De Ganache. God help him!
With another look of pity and horror I ran on; but fast as I went he kept by me, and side by side we two led the crowd that howled after us in pitiless rage.
We could see nothing of either Simon or De Lorgnac; but we did not want for guides. A hundred fingers pointed out their course at every street corner, and at last a white horse, riderless, and the reins trailing loosely, came galloping out of a by-street; and a roar went up:
"He is down! he is down! In the Passage of Pity!"
With a yell the madman flashed past me, and hot foot on his heels we crowded into the narrow street; but, save for a big grey horse standing, with hanging head and heaving flanks, near the dark archway at the head of the passage, it was empty. A howl of disappointment rose behind me, and the mob halted and swayed irresolutely; but I felt that the end was come, and ran on. Followed by Le Brusquet I passed the archway, and there in the dark, vaulted passage, with his back to the door of De Mouchy's house, stood Simon of Orrain, at bay at last! De Lorgnac had been too quick for him, and had forced him to fight at the very entrance of his lair. Covered with the dust of his reckless ride, his gay hunting dress torn and soiled, bareheaded, and with the blood streaming from a wound in his face, where De Lorgnac had touched him, Simon stood, despair and hate in his look. Yet he fought fiercely for his life; but he had met his equal with the sword, and, doing his worst, could but hold on the defence and no more. He saw us as we came. He saw too the hundred faces of the mob—the mob he had once himself led to a deed of shame—glaring, shouting, and yelling at him through the open archway, though not one dared to pass the entrance. Escape was hopeless, and his pale face grew paler still, as with an oath he wiped the blood from his lips with the back of his hand, and screamed out to De Lorgnac:
"Stand aside, man! I have no quarrel with you! Stand back, or——" But the thrust he made was parried with a wrist as sure as his own, and it was only his own rare skill of fence that saved him from the riposte.
After all, he was blood of my blood, and it was not my hand that should slay him. The thought came to me sudden and insistent, as I put my blade beside that of De Lorgnac, and covering him with my point, saw the grey despair in his eyes.
"Simon," I called out, "put down your sword. I promise your life!"
He spat at me in his fury, the fury of a beast, and I was a lost man if De Lorgnac had not stayed his hand.
"God!" he burst out, "if there were only you!"
At my look—a glance that almost cost me my life—De Lorgnac stepped back, lowering his point, and our swords crossed. Again parrying a thrust, I once more offered Simon his life, only to meet with the same refusal. There was no help for it! A life stood on the issue, to which his was nothing to me, and setting my teeth I made at him. The fury of my attack almost lost me the game, and I heard Le Brusquet's low warning:
"Have a care. Remember!"
Suddenly Simon, who had gained a slight advantage, called out: "I accept. I have lost." And he half raised his blade. I gave back, lowering my point as I did so, and at that moment the door opened, and with a laugh Simon sprang back, and vanished from our sight.
So quick, so instant was his retreat, that for a second I hardly realised it. But someone else had. All unnoticed by us De Ganache had been crouching in the shadow of the vaulted passage watching the struggle and gibbering to himself—the only one of the mob who had dared to venture so far. Perhaps he had been waiting for his chance against the man who had destroyed his life, and had chosen the very moment of Simon's flight for his revenge. Who knows? But as Simon slipped back he sprang forward, something shining in his hand, and flung himself desperately against the door ere it could be closed. The moment's delay he caused was our chance, and rushing forward we too added our weight to that of the maniac.
In an instant the door gave way, and we dashed in, the madman first, striking to the right and left of him with a poniard. It is difficult, almost impossible, to describe what followed. All that I know is that I stumbled over someone who had fallen, and as I rose to my feet I caught a glimpse of De Mouchy flying up the stair, Le Brusquet at his heels, and realised at the same instant that Simon was on me, death in his eyes.
Nothing could have saved me then, but that a stronger hand than that of man was stretched forth to claim its own vengeance. As Simon's arm was lifted the figure over which I had fallen raised itself to its knees and, clasping the Vidame round the waist, buried a knife in his side.
With a fearful cry Simon shortened his sword and stabbed back in his turn; but De Ganache, for it was he, uttered no sound, and with a last effort, rising to his feet, struck Simon once more, this time to the heart. And they both fell sideways, the madman's hand still clenching the haft of the poniard in his death-grip.
It was over in a hand-turn, and the two who had died so terribly together had taken their quarrel with them to the last judgment seat. Simon's face I could not see; but as I bent over the two I saw in the glazing eyes of De Ganache the light of an unutterable hate—a hate that, mayhap, was carried beyond the grave.
Twice the cry rang out—Le Brusquet's voice—and pushing my way past the mob that had already swarmed in and begun to sack and pillage I ran up the stair. At the head stood Le Brusquet, and huddled in a corner near a door was De Mouchy, with a white, fear-stricken face and chattering teeth, and De Lorgnac's sword at his heart.
Numbers had followed me, and at the sight of De Mouchy a roar went forth that was taken up by those below.
"Give us the judge! Give us De Mouchy!"
Let it be remembered, that amongst those who cried for him to be thrown to them were many who had suffered, or seen their dearest suffer, hideous torture at his hands. Revenge, and such revenge as this, was never dreamed of, never hoped for by them, and now that chance had placed it within their reach they were almost mad for it. Shouting, struggling, and raging they crowded the stair. A moment more, and De Mouchy was lost; but it was then that Le Brusquet stayed them with a jest, a grim jest that tickled their fancy, and arrested their outstretched hands for a yet sweeter vengeance.
"A moment, my children!" he called out, barring the way at the head of the stair; "one moment! We have a little business with monsieur here, and after that you can make this house another Chambre Ardente if you will."
They laughed and cheered him in their fickle mood, and as De Mouchy heard too some choking words escaped from his blue lips, and he made a forward movement, but at the sight of me he shrank back again, terror and despair on his face, and, grovelling on the floor, wept for his life.
This fiend, who had never shown mercy, now that his own time was come, pleaded abjectly, pleaded with tears and miserable cries for the life he had forfeited ten times over, and each frenzied appeal he made was answered with mocking laughter by those who, crowded on the stair, were waiting with patience, deadly patience, for the time when he would be their very own.
I raised him to his feet, and in a few quick words asked him for mademoiselle. He could not speak, but pointed to the door at his side. It was closed, not locked, and, pushing it open, I dragged him through after me. A cry of anger rose from those on the stair, who feared their prey would escape, and, despite Le Brusquet's appeals, they were no longer to be restrained. With a rush they bore back both Le Brusquet and De Lorgnac, but keeping themselves between me and the foremost of those who followed us, with alternate threats and appeals, my brave friends enabled me to make headway. Down we went, along a narrow passage, at one end of which was a door.
"There!" gasped De Mouchy. "Quick!"
Twice I put my shoulder to it, but in vain; and De Mouchy shrieked with terror, for the mob was scarce ten feet from us, filling the passage. But still De Lorgnac and Le Brusquet held them back at the sword's point, and the way was so narrow that not more than three could stand abreast therein.
"Stand back!" I heard Le Brusquet cry; "we are freeing a prisoner!"
"Give us De Mouchy!" they howled, and then the foremost three made a dash forward. There was a smothered cry, and the leader, an evil-looking villain, lurched forward on to his face. Back they fell at this, for they were unarmed, and we got a moment's respite.
Again and again I put myself at the door, and at last it crashed open. As I rushed in I saw a kneeling figure before me. One glance, and I called out:
"Diane! It is I—Orrain!"
As she rose to her feet with a cry I put my arms around her to support her, and then the brave heart gave way, and she began to sob on my shoulder. So for a space we stood, and even the savage mob stayed their course, and halted, peering at us across the two bright swords that still held the passage.
It was now that De Mouchy made a last bid for life. In the momentary respite he had from pursuit, as the mob halted, he slunk to the farthest end of the room, and stood there, looking at us, with his back to the wainscoting, his hands resting against it, and moving nervously, as though he searched for something. Already those at the far end of the passage were getting impatient, and angry cries began once more to arise. As I put my arm round Diane to help her away we heard a click. A door concealed in the wainscoting flew open, disclosing a dark passage, into which De Mouchy dived, and vanished in a flash. But his enemies were not to be denied; and this time no effort of De Lorgnac or Le Brusquet could stay them. In his flight, whether overcome by fear, or whether it were otherwise impossible, I cannot say, but De Mouchy neglected to lock the secret door behind him. The mob, blood mad, and now utterly out of hand, filled the room, and rushed after him. For a space we ourselves were hemmed in, so that it was impossible to move, and it was whilst we stood thus that there came a frightful shriek of agony from the dark passage, and then the distant sound of struggling, and again a shriek. God, and they who were there, alone knew what happened; but as the mob swept through the room and into the dark opening that was before them the way became clear, and we passed into the street.
Cartouche was still there, standing where De Lorgnac had left him. At a word from De Lorgnac I lifted mademoiselle into the saddle—though wearied the great grey was well able to bear so light a burden—and holding her there we made our way with all the speed we could out of the Passage of Pity, Le Brusquet holding the horse.
When we reached the river face Le Brusquet turned back and pointed to the sky. There were dark clouds of smoke rolling over the Mathurins.
"Eh bien," he said, "there is the expiation of Dom Antoine de Mouchy!"
A half-hour later we were in the Louvre, and I had surrendered my charge to the Queen.
* * * * * *
About a month after the events I have just described I received the Queen's commands to attend her at St. Germain-en-Laye, and that very evening rode through the gates of the Vieux Chateau.
From the time that I had placed mademoiselle in safety in Catherine's hands, with the aid of the two best friends man ever had, I had not seen her. She had been ill, but was now recovered, and when I received the Queen's message, I hoped that, perhaps, Fortune would give me a chance to say farewell to Diane ere I departed for Italy to join Montluc.
The Spanish war had broken out, and De Lorgnac was in the field at Marienbourg. Le Brusquet had gone, none knew whither—perchance to see the pears of Besme—and as for me, I felt it was time to be up and stirring. Things had changed with me, for I was now the Vidame d'Orrain, and I might hope and dream again. Moved by these thoughts I rode into the palace gates, followed by Pierrebon, and Monsieur de Tolendal, who was in waiting, at once took me to the Queen.
I found Catherine surrounded by her ladies, but though my eyes searched here, there, and everywhere I could not see the face I longed to see. The Queen engaged me for a few moments in desultory talk, and then at a sign from her we were left alone together.
"Monsieur le Vidame," she said, "is it true that you leave for Italy in a few days?"
I bowed in silence.
"And you are resolved?"
"In that case, perhaps, it is needless for me to say what I intended; but, as a matter of fact, I have a government I would willingly surrender, and thought of offering it to you."
"Madame!" I began; but she cut in upon my words.
"Take a moment to consider, monsieur! Go into the next room, through that curtain there, and think over it for five minutes. Then come back and tell me. Go!"
For a second I stared at her, and then did as I was bidden. As I stepped in a figure rose from a seat near the window, and I heard Diane's voice:
"Orrain, you have come to see me at last!"
And then what followed concerns not anyone. I know not how long we were there, talking, planning, and dreaming; but suddenly the curtains lifted, and Catherine stood before us.
"Monsieur d'Orrain," she said, "I await my answer."
And then she burst out laughing.
There is but a word more to add, and my story ends. We were married the following week, for that was the Queen's wish, and then my wife and I said farewell to Paris and the Court for ever. As we rode one evening on our way to Orrain, round the elbow of the pine-clad hill of St. Hugo, and the towers of the Chateau came in sight, I told my wife of my dream, and then we were aware of a figure galloping up the leaf-strewn road towards us. It was Le Brusquet on his mule.
"Eh bien!" he said as he kissed my wife's hand. "And I am the first to welcome you home, after all! Orrain, mon ami, I have seen your pears. They are finer than mine—I swear it!"