The lady looked first to me, then stepped inside and stood back as if she bade me enter.
This was an adventure I had not bargained for. Thinking only to see that the lady reached her destination in safety, here was a complication of which I had never dreamed. What her singular errand was, or wherein she desired my assistance, I could not even hazard a guess. Yet there she stood and beckoned me to enter, and I moved forward a pace or two so I could see within the door.
The concierge held the door ajar, and a more repulsive, deformed wretch I never laid eyes upon. His left arm hung withered by his side; at his girdle he swung a bunch of keys, with any one of which a strong man might have brained an ox. Every evil passion which curses the race of men had left its imprint upon his lowering countenance. Yet for a moment, when his gaze rested upon the girl, it was as though some spark of her loveliness drove the villainy from his face. He was hardly so tall as she who stood beside him watching me, the semblance of a mocking sneer about her lips. Looking past them both I could see what manner of place it was. A smoky oil-lamp sputtered in the rear, sufficiently distinct to disclose the paved court-yard, covered with the green slime which marks the place where no sun ever shines. Further than this I could see nothing except the tall gray buildings which shut in every side and this wall in front. That door once locked upon the intruder there would be no easy egress. Instinctively I held back.
"Monsieur is afraid?" she inquired, then tossed back her head, and laughed such a low, disdainful, mean laugh, as fired my every nerve to hear. I hesitated no longer. Let come what will, let the Governor's errand look to itself, for no man or no woman could ever laugh at me like that.
Holding my blade at easy command, I stepped inside. Immediately the door closed, and the rasping of the key told me it was securely locked as before. Then came regret, but came too late. What I had so foolishly commenced, I must now see finished. The cup had been taken in hand and the dice must be thrown.
As we came, I followed her again, though at much closer range. We crossed the yard diagonally, across the broken panes, bits of casks, wine bottles and other refuse scattered about. I liked not the aspect of the place. As the girl was about to enter a door leading inside the building, a man came down the inner stairs and passed out, coming in our direction. For the moment he was under the light I had good sight of him.
A rather low, dark fellow, dressed in the height of the fashion, yet somewhat flashily withal; not too foppish, he was evidently a young gallant of the better class. He staggered somewhat from wine, and carried a magnificent breadth of shoulder, denoting considerable strength. This was my mental catalogue from the glimpse I caught.
By this time, the lady had got rather within the range of the light; the man came straight at her, and, to my amazement, despite her struggles, seized and kissed her. This was before I could reach them.
I was upon him in an instant. Another, and he had reeled back against the wall, drawing his weapon as he fell. He recovered his feet, my blade met his, yet each paused, well knowing the deadly lottery of such a duel in the dark.
The lady ran up as nearly between us as she dared, and besought:
"Oh, Messires, Messires," she plucked me by the sleeve, "do not fight; there is no need of it."
"Get out of the way you impudent hussy," he commanded, "I'll kill your meddling lover, like the varlet hound he is."
I went at him in earnest. His further insult to her made every muscle a cord of steel. I soon found this no mere sport, for the fellow was a thorough master of his weapon. I was a trifle the taller and had a longer reach; this, with my heavier blade, gave me well the vantage. Besides I had touched no wine, and my nerves were steady.
However, I had the light full in my face, and he was not slow to see the annoyance it caused me. I knew I could not maintain such a fight for long, so I pressed him sternly and the bright sparks flew. Backwards, step by step he retreated, until he had almost reached the door out of which he came. I durst not withdraw my eyes from his, yet I had seen the lady run swiftly up the inner stairs, whether for help or for other assassins I could not guess.
Still back, ever pressing him desperately back, the fight went, and he stood again inside the door, at the very foot of the stair. Now every advantage was mine, for he was well within the glow of the lamp, every movement distinctly visible, while I yet stood in darkness.
"For the sake of mercy, my lord, come quick." It was the girl's voice at the head of the stairs; "there they are. They will desist if you command it." And I heard the heavy tread of two men coming down the stairs, a lighter step behind them. My foot touched something which lay in the dense shadow of the doorstep. It felt soft, a package of some kind. Then I remember seeing something fall from the cloak of my adversary forgotten in the heat of the fray. I placed my foot upon it.
"What quarrel is this, gentlemen? Put by your swords?"
The voice was that of a man accustomed to obedience. My antagonist stood entirely upon the defensive; I stepped back a pace and we rested at ease. He leaned heavily against the balustrade; his breath came hard; I could see he was nearly spent, so furious had been our short contest. His face showed, besides, the flush of too much wine, or perchance I had not been so fortunate.
"What mean you, gentlemen? Your quarrel?"
"I did but kiss the wench, and this fellow set upon me in the dark."
"Aye, my lord," I replied stoutly, according to the stranger the respect he seemed to command. "A wanton insult to this lady whom I met unprotected in the streets, and saw her safely to her gate. Who she is, or what, I know not."
The two men looked at each other, from the girl to me, then burst into such peals of incredulous laughter as roused my anger again. Even my late foe joined in, but faintly.
"Would either of you, my lords, be pleased to take the matter up?" for I was hot now indeed.
But they only laughed the more. The lady looked much confused.
"Thou art not of Paris?" the taller man asked.
"No, this is my first night in Paris."
"I thought as much. This lady," the tall man continued in a sarcastic tone, "permit me to present you to Mademoiselle Florine, waitress and decoy pigeon for Betrand's wine rooms, where gentlemen sometimes play at dice."
He laughed again, and even the girl could muster up a smile now that the danger had blown over.
"That is true, Mademoiselle?" I asked. She nodded.
"Then, good sirs, I'll fight no more in such a matter."
"And by my soul, comrade, right glad I am to hear you say it; for you fight like a very devil of hell, and Carne Yvard knows a swordsman."
Carne Yvard! The very fellow I had been sent out to find, now by a queer chance thrown full in my way. Verily, I was relieved to know I could hold my own against this famous—or infamous—bravo. Another thing gained; I knew my man while yet a stranger to him. And further, I stumbled on the very place which of all others I desired to find. Truly the chance was odd.
The two gentlemen upon the stair had not yet staunched their merriment, while these thoughts coming so unexpectedly had swept from me every recollection of the fight.
"Thou art not of Paris?" the spokesman asked again.
I heard him as a man hears something afar off, for my foot resting upon the package which had been dropped, sent my mind a wandering again. Could it be that this was a paper of importance, or possibly the very one I desired? Why not? I resolved to possess it at every hazard. Yet were I to stoop and pick it up now, and they saw me, I knew of no means by which I might leave the place in safety. So I carelessly shoved it with my foot farther into the shadow of the step. I answered the question asked me so long before.
"No, my lord, the city is a strange one to me."
"Of what place, did you say?"
Now I had purposely refrained from saying, and did not know what reply to give. I hated to appear boorish, besides it would not serve my purpose. My father being of Normandy, I deemed I would have nearly the accent of those people, so I made a venture to say:
"Of Normandy, sir," in such a way he did not pursue the subject further.
"We thought you no Parisian, or this lady would not have made so easy a conquest," and they laughed again.
"Do you play?" he queried.
"But rarely, my lord," the fact was I knew little of the dice.
They put about and ascended the stair, the two together, then Yvard, I coming on behind, but not until the packet, from which I hoped so much, was safely in my bosom. This was easily accomplished when Yvard had turned his back.
We climbed the stair, and after some forty or fifty paces stood inside the room of which Serigny had spoken to me. I could recognize the place from his description.
The gaming tables were ranged about in the center of the room, and about them sat many men—and women, too—at play. On three sides of the place a row of columns ran some four or five yards from the wall. These pillars formed convenient alcoves for those who would sit and sip their wine. Some were curtained, the better to screen their occupants. Others stood broadly open.
The four of us walked over to a table well out of view and sat down to wine. It was then I regretted not having already heeded Serigny's admonition to provide myself with garments more suited to my character, for I felt I attracted some attention as we passed through the room, and this was most to be avoided.
We seated ourselves about the table and ordered wine; mine remained untasted while the others drank. I determined to touch no wine that night.
"Comrade, you do not drink," Yvard remarked, "is your blood still hot with the clash of steel?"
"No, by my honor, that is long forgotten; it is my oath, an oath, too, that can not be broken."
"Ah, to a lady?"
I nodded, and he smiled.
We talked indifferent gossip, and after awhile the Spanish troubles were mentioned; I think the tall man first spoke of it. Somehow I felt Yvard's carelessness to be assumed, and that he very much desired to hear what these two gentlemen would say on a matter so important. His manner made it plain to me he knew the two gentlemen, and also that they were men of rank. However, they were quite discreet; while they talked much, yet they said nothing which was not common talk on the streets. After a bit they arose to leave, and I was sorely perplexed whether it were better that I depart with them, now that papers which might be valuable rested safely against my breast, or had I better stay and endeavor to learn more from Yvard, who was beginning to drink heavily. Perhaps a little more liquor might loosen his tongue, and I might even capture him or his confederate. Discretion would have taken me away, for that these two gentlemen were powerful enough to protect me in case of trouble in the house I did not doubt. The bearing of the elder man especially was such as to inspire confidence.
The adventure, though, was too enticing, and the hotter counsels of youth prevailed. I bade the gentlemen good night, and remained sitting at table with Yvard. It was but a few moments before I regretted my unwise decision.
Yvard leaned forward, the edge of the table pressing against his breast, and in so doing noticed the absence of the paper which he had forgotten in the fight. His face changed instantly, the drunken leer vanished. At first there was merely a puzzled expression, as of an intense effort to remember. He looked swiftly at me. I gave no sign. The two men were gone. His anxiety convinced me of the importance of the papers. He thought for a moment, then excused himself and went out the way we came. As he passed through the room, I saw him stoop and whisper a word to one of the men at the dice table. In a minute the fellow shifted his seat, and though he continued to play, he had taken a position where, as I imagined, he could watch me that I did not leave. I became uneasy now, for I could not tell how many there were, and my principal thought was how to get out of the house. Assuredly not by the way I entered.
Looking about more carefully to note the different means of egress, my attention was attracted by a carven shield above the main door. The arms were the same as those graven on the locket shown me by Colonel d'Ortez the night I left Biloxi. There, standing out boldly above the door, was the same sable wolf, the crest of the d'Artins. For a moment his story filled my mind again but I had no time then for such reflections, and dismissed them to a future period of leisure. The question how to leave the house on that particular night gave me infinitely more concern than the idle speculation as to who had probably owned it long years before.
A NEW FRIEND
I rapped on the table, called a waitress, and ordered a bottle of light wine, which I knew would not hurt me.
"Send for Mademoiselle Florine," and before many seconds were gone that lady presented herself, and perched upon the edge of the table where I sat. Her humor was gay, her laugh was keen; she smiled and asked, "Has Monsieur forgiven?" with such a penitent little look I bade her be at ease.
"Mademoiselle, sit down, I pray you," and she saw by my serious face I was in no mood for chaffing, so she seated herself with a pretty air of attention. I could see the fellow at the dice watching, but now he appeared quite satisfied I intended to stay and drink with the girl. She was evidently a great favorite with the habitues of the place. He looked at me less frequently than at the door, and I guessed he expected Yvard's return.
Now I grew certain. Yvard had merely gone down the stair to see if he had dropped the papers in the fight. As soon as he found they were not there I felt morally certain he would come and demand them of me. I had begun the game, and must play out the hand. So I reached across the table, filled the glasses for myself and Florine, raising mine high as if I would propose a toast. I tapped her banteringly on the cheek, for the benefit of him who watched, and said in a low tone, trying to maintain my nonchalant manner.
"Listen to me a minute, and I beseech you smile, do not look so serious. You brought me here, and now I trust you to get me out alive. Is there any other way than that I came?"
She looked about her apprehensively, so I cautioned her again.
"For heaven's sake smile; I am closely watched, and you must laugh and be merry as if I drank with you and made love."
She comprehended, and well did she play her part. The tones of her voice were light and playful; she lifted the glass to her lips, tasting as a connoisseur, and said between her sips:
"Yes, Monsieur, there is—another way leading out—on an alley—in the rear."
"How do you reach it?"
"The door behind the table—where they play for highest stakes—leads to the passage. Do but cast—your eyes that way—and you will see."
"Then let us—"
"Wait, Monsieur, not yet. If Monsieur would go and seat himself at that table, as if he desired to play, I will slip around and make ready the door for him. Monsieur was kind to me, and Florine is grateful. Even we women here respect a gentleman."
I pitied the woman from the bottom of my heart. I took out my purse, paid the reckoning, and together we wandered aimlessly toward that table, laughing and looking on at the various games. The fellow watched us as we went, but was pleased, and seemed satisfied the woman but carried out the purposes of her employment.
I took a seat at the table, laid a wager or two and made myself intent upon the game. Florine stood behind my chair for awhile, watched my play, then disappeared. After a little she returned and again took her place behind me. Directly she laughed out merrily, and in a tone loud enough to be heard by the man who listened as well as watched, cried:
"Monsieur plays the stakes too low. Fortune favors the brave," and reaching over she took several gold pieces from my store, laid them out and leaned close beside me to watch the throw. In this position she whispered:
"I have the key to the outer door. The inner door will be unlocked. Monsieur will play twice more, and by that time I will be in the passage. Arise, and when you lay your hand upon the door I will open it from the other side." I lost the throw.
"Double the wager, and better luck next time," she laughed as she moved off, and joking lightly to different men she knew, made her way beyond my range of vision. During the play I saw Yvard come in hurriedly and question the man at the door. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. Yvard evidently asked who had passed out or in.
The doorkeeper then recollected, and I imagined he was telling of the two gentlemen who had just gone down the stair. Yvard stood an instant as if uncertain what to do. He was much agitated and perfectly sober. He glanced toward the table where he had left me. I was gone. He strode over to his confederate, yet engaged in play, and made no pretense of concealing the abruptness of his question. The man, in reply, indicated my position at the other table. Yvard appeared somewhat relieved. Again he spoke, and this time the man at the table gathered up the money in front of him and replaced it in his purse. Then he cried loud enough for me to hear:
And sprang up instantly. They both looked at me and held a hurried consultation, then separated, and one going one way, one the other, came over toward where I sat. By this time my second throw was made, and I felt if Florine played me false the game was lost. Yet hoping for everything I rose quietly, and thrusting my winnings in a wallet—for I had been fortunate—stepped back and laid my hand upon the knob. It was locked.
I had no time to think, but saw the whole trick; lured to my destruction, hemmed in beyond hope of escape. Bitterly I repented my folly.
I have heard men say they faced death without a tremor, and so for that matter have I, yea, many times, but it was upon an honest field in lawful fight for honor's sake or duty's. My cheek paled in spite of me, at sight of the men who now came on. Three others with blades half drawn pressed close behind Yvard. How many more there were I had no knowledge.
It was a sore test to my courage thus to meet the ugly chill of death in a Parisian gambling hell—in a place of such ill-repute. But there was no escape, and even if I fell in fight, they would brand me as a thief. Should the papers be found on my body, then honorable men would execrate my memory as a traitor to country and to King, for had not Serigny told me he could not avow my connection with him? The lust of life still surging strong within me, I drew my sword. Its point effectually guarded the narrow space in front from post to post. They parleyed a time, and I rested firm against the door.
"Come, fellow, thou art trapped; give me up my purse."
"Spit the thief, run him through," came from one of those behind—for the rear guard, beyond the reach of steel, was ever loud and brave. But Yvard, being in front, was more cautious. He well knew the first man who came against me would be badly hurt. And, I rather fancied, he respected my blade.
As they took counsel together, dozens of voices from the hall swelled the din, yet above it all I caught a light step without. My heart bounded to my throat; I felt the door give way at my back, and before they understood what had happened, I was safe on the other side, with the stout oaken boards well locked between.
I heard Yvard yell: "To the great gate, my bullies, and I will follow here," and at once a great pressure was cast against the door, but it bravely bore the strain.
"Come," Florine said; and taking me by the hand together we sped through many dark and devious windings, until I stood once more in the open street.
"Hurry, Monsieur, take that street; it leads to Rue St. Antoine, whence Monsieur can find his way."
I would have paused a moment to thank the girl, but she bade me haste. I pressed a piece of gold into her hand; she would not have it.
"No, Monsieur, not for your gold," and the woman of the wine shop shamed my thought. "Good-night, Monsieur." She kissed my hand, and drew back into the darkness.
I turned hastily down the street, but had not made more than the distance of three rods when I heard a scream, and looking back saw two men dragging Florine back into the street.
"Which way did he go?" Yvard demanded fiercely.
She made no reply.
"Speak quick or I'll kill you as I would a hare."
Still she kept her tongue.
"She makes time for her lover, Carne," the other man suggested, and as I feared he would strike, I called out loudly to them:
"Here he is," to draw them off from the girl.
They dropped her at once and started in my direction. I ran on ahead, yet at a disadvantage, for I knew not where to go, knowing, too, that I could not fight them both. Yet more than all I dreaded falling into the hands of the city guard with the papers I had upon me. I ran under a street lamp, and taking up a position some twenty feet beyond in the dark, waited. The knife for one, the sword for the other, was my thought. Holding my long sword in my left hand, I swung my right free, and catching my knife by its point, stood my ground. The younger man was swifter, yet seemed afraid to lead Yvard. So they passed under the lamp side by side.
Selecting Yvard as my mark, I made a quick cast, and had the satisfaction of seeing my knife glitter as it struck him full in the shoulder, and bury itself well to the hilt. It was a trick I had learned from the Indians, and it had not been lost.
"A million devils, who was that?" screamed the stricken man, tugging to free the knife. Out it came, followed by a widening dark stain upon his doublet.
"He had others with him—hidden in the dark," and at his companion's suggestion, they stood back to back, in readiness for their imaginary foes.
This gave me an opportunity to slip away, they pursuing no further. I dodged round the next corner and took my way up a street running parallel to the one I left.
When they no longer came I slackened my pace to a walk, trying in vain to recall how I came and how to reach Rue St. Denis. There was nothing for it but to keep straight on. The streets grew broader and travelers were not so few. I questioned several, and for a coin secured an honest-looking idler to guide me. It was not so very far after all to my inn, yet right joyful I was to see the place again and to find a cheerful fire blazing on the hearth. I stood before the homelike warmth and chuckled to myself at the success of my adventure.
The host and some crony of his sat at table with their cards and ale. I overlooked the game. They exchanged glances and prepared to leave off, whereat I apologized and begged them not to let me disturb them. Claude declared he had only waited for me, and being tired he would shut the house. He went on up to bed and his friend took a seat beside me at the fire.
He was a simple-looking young fellow, dressed after the fashion of a peasant farmer, with mild blue eyes, and straggling yellow whiskers on his chin. I thought to question him about the city.
"Well, friend, how goes the world in Paris?"
"Much the same as ever, yet your Paris is new to me."
"Indeed? You are not of the city; of what place, then?"
"Of Languedoc, in the south, where the skies are bluer and the wind does not cut you through as it does in this damp Paris of yours."
"Yes, I thought you of Languedoc, from your speech. So the climate is with us in our parts beyond the seas. Beneath our southern sun ice is a thing almost unknown, and the snow never comes."
"And where do you live, my lord?" his eyes wide open and shallow.
I felt somewhat flattered at his artless recognition of the difference In our stations.
"In Biloxi; the Southern Provinces, Louisiana," I explained, "whereof Bienville is governor."
Afterward I thought I could remember a knowing twinkle in the fellow's eye, which passed unnoticed at the moment.
"Ah, I hear much of the colonies; it must be a goodly land to dwell in, but for the savages and the cannibals."
I laughed outright.
"Verily, friend, we have no cannibals worse than the barbarous Spaniards who wait but the chance to slaughter our garrison," and before I was aware, I had told him of my voyage from Biloxi, and of going to Versailles, stopping short only of giving the purpose of my visit to Paris. I was sore ashamed of the indiscretion. When I looked I found him laughing silently to himself, laughing at me.
"Then you are Captain de Mouret?" he asked with purest Parisian intonation, and the courtesy of a gentleman.
"How do you know?" I attempted to be stern, but somehow my effort fell flat. "How do you know?"
"Well, I've been expecting you," and he brushed his hand across his chin, wiping the yellow whiskers away before my astonished eyes.
"I am Jerome de Greville. Claude told me of your coming, but I wished to make sure. We have examined your baggage," he went on frankly, unmindful of my ill-concealed disapproval, "but found nothing in the way of identification. You see," he apologized, "these things are necessary here, in affairs of this nature, if a fellow would preserve the proper connection between his head and his body."
He rolled up his whiskers, laid aside a yellow wig, and I could see he was as Serigny had described. He was not as tall as I, but strongly built, and some two good years my senior.
"Captain, if you will allow me I will take these traps of yours to our apartments. You lodge with me."
I was nettled that I should have spoken so freely to a stranger, and felt ill-disposed to be pleasant, but he soon drove away any lingering animosity.
When we had settled in our rooms, which adjoined, de Greville threw himself across his couch and said:
"Look here, de Mouret, we have a hard task before us, and you may as well know it. M. de Serigny tells me he has instructed you himself, but details he would leave to me. What's your name?"
"Placide," I replied as simply as a lad of ten.
"Well, I'm Jerome. We are to stand together now, and men engaged in business like ours have no time for extra manners."
His bon camaraderie was contagious, and I gladly caught it. "Agreed, Jerome; so be it. Go on."
"First we must locate our friend Carne Yvard, the very fiend of a fellow, who stops at nothing. Then to catch him with the papers, take them, cost what it will. For that work we have strong lads enough and true. Above all we must make no mistake when we strike, for if he scents our suspicions of him he'll whisk them off to Spain before you could bat your eye."
I listened to him intently, yet enjoying to the utmost my prospective triumph. He went on:
"Then there is that other fellow; we don't know who he is, the one that came over with you. He will probably exchange dispatches with Yvard, then off to the colonies again. There is not so much trouble about him, for he can be captured aboard ship. It is Yvard we want, and his dispatches."
I said very quietly, still looking into the fire:
"That much is already done."
Jerome raised up on his elbow and stared at me as if he thought me mad.
"I have taken those dispatches from your friend. Here they are."
"The devil you have," he cried out, reaching the middle of the floor at a single bound. "How and when?"
He would not leave off until I had related the whole of my adventure beginning with meeting the girl, and ending when I found him, at the inn. He was as happy as a school-boy, and laughed heartily at my being so readily made a victim of by the girl Florine.
"Such tender doves to pluck she does not often find, and I warrant you she lets not many go so easily."
I thought it unnecessary to tell him of my encounter with Yvard, only that I had found the packet where he dropped it.
"You lucky dog; it's well he did not see you, or you might not now be talking to me with a whole skin."
It was better though to let him know of Yvard's wound, for that would perhaps assist us in a measure to determine upon our future course. So that part of the affair I detailed in full.
"Verily, lad, your savage accomplishment stood you in good stead."
He recognized the description I gave of the fellow with Yvard, but said he was a bully, hired merely to fight, and perhaps knew nothing of consequence. Then we examined very closely the envelope containing the papers. It had, from all appearance, come over from the colonies, and bore traces of having long been carried about a man's person. This settled one matter. The go-betweens had met, and the traitor on le Dauphin was most likely in possession of the instructions from Spain. This made his capture the more important.
De Greville well merited all Serigny had said of his shrewdness, and more. Now see what a simple scheme he laid.
We were first to find where Yvard was hidden. He would certainly go into hiding until his wound was healed; the finding of the papers upon him making it necessary he should not be seen in Paris.
Where would he be likely to secrete himself? Ah, trust a woman for that; so reasoned Jerome. What woman? L'Astrea, of course. Of her intrigue with Yvard, de Greville, who was a handsome gallant with a smooth tongue, had learned from a waitress at Bertrand's. This was the more probable because, Bertrand's being a public place, the confederate could seek him there without suspicion. This confederate being unknown and unsuspected could come and go unchallenged. Jerome's deductions were plain enough when he told me these things and the wherefore.
It was agreed our plan would be to watch L'Astrea; she at least would enable us to find Yvard, or his accomplice whom we most wished to discover.
Who would do this? Why I, of course, for no one knew me, or would know me when I had wrought the miracle of shining boots, blue coat, curly wig, laces at throat, in all which small matters Jerome was a connoisseur, and so it was laid out with much care; run the quarry to earth, then continue the chase as needs demanded.
Yet folly of follies; how lightly are such well arranged plans broken into. Through a woman came all this scheming, by a woman's hand it was all swept into naught. Both innocent of intention, both ignorant of effect. Yet it was true. Jerome and I, as we then thought, disposed our pieces with great care and circumspection, advanced the pawns, guarded the king, and made ready for the final checkmate. Yet a woman's caprice overturned the board, scattered our puppets far and wide, and by the tyranny of an accident recast our game on other lines, without rule or rhyme or reason.
In the morning of the following day we were engaged about a business which troubled me no little. Had it not been for Jerome I fear I had never come through it at all with credit.
First, we repaired to another house which Jerome possessed in a more fashionable quarter, and thither by his directions came a fawning swarm of tailors, boot-makers, barbers, wig-makers; vendors of silken hose and men with laces, jaunty caps, perfumes—it was a huge task, this making a gentlemen of me—as Jerome phrased it.
I worried over it grievously in the beginning, but at length sullenly delivered myself into his hands, murmuring an abject prayer for the salvation of my soul. That, at least, was not to be remodeled by all their fashionable garniture. These heated discussions concerning what I was to wear were not for me to put a voice in. Verily, I knew nothing and cared naught for the cut of a shoe my Lord of Orleans had made the style, nor did it matter whether my coat was slashed with crimson or braided with golden furbelows. Like some wretch a-quivering of the palsy I heard the learned doctors wrangling over my medicine, which they must needs hold my nose to make me swallow. For all their biases and twistings I knew full well they could carve no sprig of fashion from so rough a block as I. Certes, I must now have a squire to fasten this new harness well upon me, for by my word, I knew not one garment from the other by sight of it. Jerome went off into fits of laughter seeing me trying to struggle into things I could not even guess the use of.
When the worst was over, late in the afternoon, I felt like a play-actor, dressed for his part, but who, for the life of him, could not recall one syllable of his speech, nor breathe because of his wig. Jerome surveyed me with a half-critical, half-approving scrutiny, until I essayed to buckle on my sword.
"By my lady, fine sir, that dingy old cutlass will never do for a drawing-room. As well a miller's dusty cap to cover those glorious borrowed curls of thine; we must get thee one shaped in the mode." This quip exterminated my patience.
"To the foul fiend with all this everlasting style of thine. I know this blade, have tested it on many fields, and by all the gods at once I'll not replace it with a silly toy."
"A most virtuous resolution, a most godly oath, but my mettlesome friend, I'll point out thy error."
To his insinuating argument, even in this matter, at length I yielded; surrendered with the better grace perhaps, that he provided a most excellent piece of steel, which he said had seen good service. I tried its temper, and the edge being keen, I laid my own aside with sore misdoubtings, casting off an old friend to strap on a new. He now added a touch of rouge here and there, a black line to my brows and in the corners of my eyes, stepping back ever and anon to observe the effect. It galled me raw, yet I must perforce submit. When the whole job was finished, and I was allowed to sit, I gained no comfort. My clothes were too tight in some places, while in others I rocked about as loose as a washerwoman's arm in her scrubbing tub.
Jerome must now give me some lessons in deportment, he called it. It was but another name for a smirking and a-bowing and a-grimacing, what was denominated the "etiquette of the court." Jerome sat himself contented down, and put me through my paces like some farrier showing off a foundered nag. I more than half believed he was all the while making game of me, yet I knew no better. At any rate it was the veriest nonsense.
After a series of rehearsals Jerome withdrew to make himself ready, leaving me to practice my new acquirements of gait, of gesture, and of speech. What had taken me the better part of a laborious day he accomplished in a short half hour. Coming back unannounced he caught me bowing and scraping before a mirror, like a man stricken with idiocy. I felt as shamed as though I had been detected hiding in face of the enemy.
Jerome mocked and taunted me into a fine rage, which he deftly pacified in wonderment at himself. I should never have known him again for the plain Jerome. Arrayed in much the same character of finery which bedecked me, I could give no accurate description of his dress, except that with glossy wig and a bit of color in his cheeks he strutted valiantly as a crowing cock in his own barnyard.
"Come, Placide, we are going to a ball; we can do nothing in our quest to-night."
"To a what?"
"A ball. I thought it might be well to have you look in upon Madame M—'s and recite your lessons. It is to be a famous gathering and well worth your seeing."
I was in a whirl, a stupor, by this time, and obeyed implicitly; beside, it required such an infinite skill to keep my sword from swinging between my legs and throwing me down, I had no time to consider of minor matters. He led the way and I followed meekly as a lap-dog.
At the great entrance gate we became entangled in a medley of soldiers, coachmen, torch-bearers and servants coming and going—such a babel of strange oaths—I wished I were safe again in the quiet of Biloxi. I pleaded with Jerome to turn again, but he was inexorable.
"I expect to find out something to-night," he explained.
Of this ball I remember nothing but that the slippery floor, in which a man could see his own face, kept me in deadly fear lest my sword trip me. Jerome was gay and talkative, pointing out many people of whom I had heard, but they did not look so great after all.
"For sake of heaven man, wear not so long a face; it is not the funeral of thy mistress I have brought thee to."
I marveled that so many old ladies should carry such young faces or perchance their hair had turned gray earlier than was its wont in the colonies. And, too, they seemed sadly disfigured with boils, for on the chin or cheek of nearly every one there showed a patch of black sticking-plaster. Poor things! I sorrowed for them, it was so humiliating. Verily, I pitied them all, and speculated on the wonderful compensations of Providence. With all their wealth and rank, their lordly castles and their jewels, these noble dames could not purchase that which the humblest serving-maid in Quebec had, and to spare—a clear skin and sunny locks.
I touched upon these matters to Jerome, but he only laughed immoderately. He was ever a light-headed young spark who gave no contemplation to deeper questions than present enjoyment.
Of a sudden my wits almost left me at a terrible outcry from one end of the great hall, a cry not of human beings but of wild beasts, muffled and menacing. The dancing, the music, the hum of voices ceased, and a thick silence as of direst fear fell upon them all. Then there came a loud crackling and shattering of glass, a woman's scream, the first of very many. This for aught I know might have been a usual happening at a ball, I had never been to one before.
I looked for Jerome. He was gone, speeding toward a young lady surpassing fair, with whom he had been speaking but a few moments since. I fain would have assisted him, for the damsel appeared wofully beset, but the whole throng of mincing lords and screaming ladies, in the rankest riot, over-ran me. They swept me from my feet and bore me back to the farthest wall, where I found myself pinned tight and fast against a window.
What the danger was I could not see, but it must have been dolorous from the headlong terror of their flight. Soon by the thinning of the crowd through the doors I saw the cause. It was a motley and a moving spectacle. For by some mischance a flock of sheep had broken into the ball-room, and frightened out of their shallow senses by the lights and music, they rushed pell-mell here and there, upsetting without discrimination whatever stood in their path.
Verily such an onset would do brave work against an enemies' ranks, for could our knights but make a gap like that, an army of children might march through unhindered. All went down alike before their charge, my lord and my lady, the Prince of the Blood, and the humblest page who bore his pouncet box. Such a slipping and a sliding across a floor slickened with much wax and polishing, was never in a ball room before, nor ever was again. One old ram regarded each mirror as a certain avenue of escape, and the radiating fracture of each taught him no greater wisdom concerning the others.
Standing spellbound as a statue in the midst of the ruins, I caught sight of a florid, rotund lady, speechless in her horror and her misery.
"The Duchess does not enjoy her quaint surprise," laughed a light voice behind me, and a slim finger directed my gaze toward the lady whom I had just noted.
I observed then at my back, standing upon a chair where she could see the better, a young woman of distinguished appearance, rather more plainly attired than the balance. She appeared greatly to enjoy the confusion.
"That is the reward for her romantic and pastoral tastes," and she laughed till the tears dripped down her cheeks. Her hair was still black, and neither paint nor sticking plaster marred the whiteness of her skin. I asked no questions, but regarded more closely this young woman with whom I now drifted naturally into conversation. Her manners were strikingly free and unconstrained. There was, however, an air of reserve, of dignity—of majesty even—-about her, despite her frankness, which forbade anything but the utmost deference.
"Does my lord understand—that?" and she pointed her finger to the servants who were chasing and capturing the refractory sheep one by one.
I shook my head, for, in all seriousness, it was a queer proceeding.
"Well it's too merry a jest to keep long a secret. Beside I'm weary of these eternal shackles of court which forbid me to speak to those whom I please." A certain defiance gave an undercurrent of sadness to her voice, a mounting rebellion to her tone.
"And I will talk if I want to; there's no harm, is there?"
I gravely assured her not, and wondered what was coming.
"Well, you see," she dried her eyes on a handkerchief of costliest lace, "you see my—that is, the Duchess, is of such a romantic temperament, so enamoured of rural scenes, idyllic meadows, pretty shepherdesses, and the like—all the court makes merry at her foible. She thought to astonish Paris to-night by a lavish display of sweet simplicity—did Monsieur see it? That big dark place back there, behind the glass partition, was arranged as a meadow, with a stream winding through it, and rocks and trees, and what not. She had a flock of sheep washed clean and white, penned up and in waiting. At a signal from her during the ball, lights were to have been turned on, and Mademoiselle, the pretty opera singer, was to come gracefully down a curving pathway, dressed as a shepherdess, singing and leading her sheep. Oh, it was to be too pure for this earth. The Duchess fretted for the opportune time. But the sheep escaped from their keepers, and, oh, isn't it too ludicrous?"
Thus she chattered on with the naive freedom of any other young demoiselle. I agreed with her, and was inwardly glad the affair turned out an accident, for were this the custom of balls I'd go to no others.
We continued to chat gayly together; she was of a lively wit, and surprised me by her knowledge of dogs and horses, of the chase, of sword play and of firearms. Odd tastes for a gentlewoman, most of all for one of her exalted rank. Of this latter I had no doubt. I knew none of the people she mentioned, nothing of the drawing-room gossip, and she very naturally remarked.
"My lord is a stranger?"
"Only yesterday in Paris," I assented.
"From what place comes my lord?" and for the second time in a day I was driven to a direct lie.
"From Normandy," I replied.
"To live in Paris?"
"No, unfortunately; my affairs will be finished in a few days at most. Then I return to the country." The lady was pensive for a space, hesitated in a pretty perplexity and then spoke doubtfully.
"You can be of a service to me if you will."
I immediately signified my willingness to render her aid, in the courtliest speech I could muster. She looked at me long and seriously again, then again pursued the subject of her thought.
"It is a mere woman's whim, but I gratify my whims. Perchance it is not a proper wish for a lady of birth, yet I have it, and if you will but aid me, I will carry it through."
Moved as much by curiosity as by any other motive, I inquired of her what so weighty a matter could be.
"Come, let us go into this ante-room that we may converse undisturbed," she said, and led me into a quiet corner where there were seats. I would have thoughtlessly taken a place by her side, forgetful of Jerome's teachings, but she commanded coldly:
"Monsieur will stand."
And I stood.
"You are a stranger in Paris, you seem a man of honor; for those reasons I choose you. I would not care to have one of my own gentlemen know what I wish to do. All Paris would talk of it to-morrow. We in the palace see naught of the common people, and I have long dreamed it would be a brave adventure to go unknown among them, to their inns and gathering places. I have always desired to know more of our Paris, especially one place which I hear mentioned frequently of late. My position will not permit me to visit it openly—you understand."
I protested that knowing naught of the streets I should be but a blind guide.
"I know where I would go," she said, determinedly, brushing aside the difficulties I would suggest, "and I will go; you will go too."
I was vastly troubled at this, for might it not lead to such another escapade as came so near costing me dear? Her eyes fixed full upon me, her voice blended a command which no man dared disobey, with an entreaty which none would willingly run counter to, and I gave reluctant assent.
"Will you await me here?" she demanded rather than asked. "My apartments are in this building. I will return very briefly."
When the lady came back she would never have been taken for a woman; her long cloak, such as men wore, reached to her boots, identical in all respects with my own. Her hat, plume and sword were correct and bravely worn. Her maid, a trifle nervous over the adventure, but who said nothing, bore a similar cloak for me, and held two masks in her hands.
"Will my lord throw this about him?" and without any question I assumed the cloak.
"Now this," and she handed me a mask while she affixed one about her own face.
I demurred to the mask.
"I will not take my lady upon an errand where we can not show our faces."
She laughed merrily, and replied: "It is the way of Paris, my lord, and naught is thought of it. Many lords and ladies wish to keep their faces from the canaille."
I drew a breath of resignation and put it on.
"Am I not a comely man?" the lady asked, one touch of woman's vanity showing through it all.
"Yes, by my faith, madame;" but such sayings were foreign to my awkward tongue.
She led me out of the palace by a private way, and when the street was reached we walked along as two men would. She directed our course, and as she gave no hint of her destination I did not inquire. It was but a brief walk before we came to an arched door on a side street, and there she paused and looked carefully about to see that no one watched us and then—in we went.
The lady seemed in highest spirits over her unaccountable prank, and laughed girlishly. "Now I will gratify my curiosity. You know I admit my curiosity, sometimes. These men are not alone in their thirst for excitement. It is so tiresome at court, ever the same thing day after day."
We had now come into a fairly wide, well-lighted hall, and an obsequious attendant showed us up a stair, and opening a door, pointed out the place she asked for. Imagine my utter astonishment when we stood together within the gaming room at Bertrand's. What an infernal fool I had been to be tempted back into this very place of all others. I thought at once it was some cowardly trick of Yvard's. I seized the woman by the arm, for I supposed her then but another decoy; there was no telling how far this Spanish intrigue had gone or what high personages Madame du Maine might be able to enlist in furtherance of her schemes. I seized her firmly, and had taken one step back towards the door again, when her cold ringing voice undeceived me.
"What means my lord; I thought him a gentleman. Shall I appeal for protection to these low men here?"
There was such a truth in her low tones that I cast her free, and in some measure explained my thought.
"Well, well, we'll not quarrel here," and looking about her with eager curiosity, she chose a table where fewest players sat, and thitherwards we went. This table was placed rather apart from the others, against a pillar, and no gamesters sat on the side next the wall. It left but scant space to sit between. There we took our places, and the lady tumbled out a purse well filled with gold pieces, handed some to me and bade me play. She laid her wagers, and won with the glee of a child, her face alternate flushed and pale. I could see I wronged her by supposing her in league with the place. She played in too feverish earnest.
During this while I had observed the same two men who had met me on the stair the previous night. They were walking about and carelessly looking on at the different games. Yet for all their nonchalance there was a well-defined method in their procedure, that attracted my attention. The taller man scanned every person in the hall, and when the lady and I came in he watched us intently.
His companion—the same as on the previous night—withdrew to talk. After some consultation they reached a decision. Together they came our way, and the tall man clapped his hand twice.
At the signal, for such it was, from every table rose a man or two, and ranged themselves about him who called. I could also see a guard suddenly stationed, as if by magic, at each point of exit. Where, here and there, a cloak was thrown back, the gleam of a uniform showed beneath.
"There, my lads, is our quarry; take them," commanded the tall man, pointing to us.
I cursed myself for a silly fool to run again into such danger.
The dispatches in my bosom would hang me, and I dared not explain my possession of them. It was plain, too, that the King's officers, as well as Serigny, had their suspicions of the place. It was too late now for penitence, it was time to act.
The lady arose so trembling and frightened that my courage all came back to me. She forgot her gold pieces lying on the table in front of her.
"My lord," she whispered, "you must protect me; it would be the scandal of all France were I to be discovered in such a place."
Her appeal made me forget my own imminent danger, and I bethought myself what best to do. They could approach me by but one side, and while I considered a parley with the officers, heard a glad little cry from the lady. She calmly gathered up her gold and restored it to her purse, as if the matter were already settled, though I could see no change in the front of those around us. As the soldiers would have pulled the table away, she bade them wait, and said: "I would speak to your leader."
The tall man asked: "And what would you say? We have no time to talk."
"It is not to you, I know you both; I would speak to my lord by your side."
With that, the other, who had remained rather in the background, came forward, and she took him aside where none could hear, save myself a word or two. The lady spoke to him in a low, quiet tone, and raised her mask a little. The man started back, then removed his cap deferentially. I was close enough to hear his exclamation:
"Mademoiselle la Princesse."
"Hush," she placed her finger on her lips, "he does not know," indicating me by a gesture.
I was as astonished as he, but had no further anxiety. No officer would dare arrest a Princess of the Blood in such a place.
"What does Mademoiselle do in Bertrand's gaming house?"
"It is not for you to question, my lord," she drew herself up coldly, "I chose it. Now I would go. Provide an escort for me and the gentleman who has the honor to accompany me."
She came back to me smiling. "We will go in peace; It is Vauban. It must be no trifling matter to fetch him out to-night. I wonder who it is he seeks?"
I thought I could enlighten her, perhaps, but kept a still tongue.
Vauban gave a quiet order to the tall man, who, it appears, was in command of the squad, which order he in turn communicated to them.
"We have made a mistake. Permit these gentlemen to pass out, and none else."
Vauban then interrupted:
"De Verrue, do you take ten men and escort these, these—gentlemen where they will."
A young officer stepped forward at the word, but seemed not pleased to leave in face of more exciting events.
"Nay, nay, boy do not look so glum; take my word, it is an honor a marshal of France would assume did not sterner duties bid him stay."
My lady tossed her purse to the sergeant as she passed:
"Divide this with your men, and drink a health to—well—the Princess Unknown."
IN THE HOUSE OF BERTRAND
It would now have been a most simple matter for me to go out unmolested beside the princess. And this is what I should have done had it not been for an accident. While Vauban was talking to the princess, I glanced round the room to see if Yvard was there, or any other person likely to know of this business. There was one figure strolling about in the rear which wore a familiar look, yet I could not say I had seen the man before.
When Vauban gave the order to allow us to pass "and none else," this man very visibly took on an air of apprehension. He looked from one door to the other and, finding all guarded, was quite alarmed, then, without perceiving himself observed, he manned himself with his former unconcerned manner. There was something in the poise of his head, his walk, which came as a well remembered thing from some secret niche of memory.
Now as the princess and I walked out in front of our guard, this man fell, as if naturally, into the rear of our company, and attempted nonchalantly to saunter out behind us. The guard at the door locked their bayonets across, barring his exit.
"By whose orders," he demanded with some show of haughty indignation, "do you hold me a prisoner with this disorderly rabble?"
"Marshal Vauban's," the sentry replied, unmoved.
The man shrank back perceptibly; as I took a longer sight of him the familiarity of voice and figure recurred more strongly. I stood still to look. He turned his face. Broussard! I almost spoke the name. Yes, beyond all peradventure it was Broussard, disguised, but still Broussard.
What a world of vain speculation this opened on the instant, speculation to which no answer came. How much and what had I told him during our voyage? How had he treasured it and where repeated it? For I had now no other thought than he was the spy who brought Yvard the packet designed for Spain.
"Come my lord, are you dreaming?" the princess broke in impatiently. I had quite forgotten her.
"No madame, I crave your patience, and beg attention a moment."
I then asked hurriedly whether she knew the young officer in charge of our escort, and whether she would trust him to see her to a place of safety. She knew the lad as a gentleman of birth and reputed honor, so with the guard and the marshal's orders felt herself safe. Despite the effort to speak coolly my whole frame and voice quivered with excitement at prospect of winding up the entire affair by one more stroke of luck. Seeing which my lady icily inquired:
"But why? Why do you fear? Surely these soldiers are sufficient to afford protection."
The half veiled scorn of her manner cut me to the quick, but I determined not to be drawn aside from my purpose. My face still a-flush at her suggestion of cowardice, I replied earnestly:
"Mademoiselle la Princesse—"
"Ah, you know me?"
"And yet are willing to relinquish the honor of my escort?"
"It is duty, Mademoiselle la Princesse; stern and imperative duty."
"Sh!" Placing her finger to her lips, "address me simply as Madame."
"Madame, you wrong me; I would not desert you while in danger; now I may give you into safer hands with honor. A most urgent matter demands my presence there," pointing inside, "it may cost my life. Had I better not acquaint M. de Verrue with your character? He will then be more circumspect?" She thought a space.
"No, you may tell him I am a woman—tell him of the stupid folly which led me here to-night and brought a brave gentleman into danger—but not my name."
She would have thanked me further, but I was all impatience to be inside, seeing which she graciously bade me go. I bethought me then of the packet yet in my bosom, and knowing all those within were to be searched I took a hasty resolution, born of my confidence in the Princess. It may be said here that the lady whom I escorted on that memorable night was known throughout the kingdom for her eccentric tastes, and noted for never meddling with intrigues of either state or love. Her passion lay with her dogs and horses, the hunt, and not in the trifles of a court.
"Madame, will you not render me a service in return?" I felt my whole attitude to be imploring, so warmly did I bespeak her grace.
"I have here some papers of the utmost value to myself, to no one else. My honor requires that they be delivered to M. Jerome de Greville before to-morrow's sun arises. He keeps his lodging in Rue St. Denis, at the sign of the Austrian Arms. Can Madame not dispatch a trusted messenger and secure their delivery?"
The fervor of the appeal touched her, for she listened with interest.
"Oh, Madame, I beseech you, as I have obeyed you without question this night, do not fail me as you love the glory of France. You may have M. de Greville informed how and where you came by them, in case aught of ill should happen to me this night."
She took the packet.
"Upon my royal word," she whispered, in such a tone of sincerity I felt relieved of any uneasiness concerning the papers.
I had a real regret at seeing her leave the hall. Walking so regally in front of the guard I wondered at my thick-headedness which had not before perceived in her every movement the princely pride of Bourbon. I threw my cloak, which fettered me, to one of the men, and wearing still my mask, re-entered the hall. They were already engaged in the search, questioning closely each man in rotation. None was allowed to depart without being questioned and examined. I immediately sought for Broussard. He had gone over towards another small door, the same through which I had escaped the night before. There were two guards posted here.
Broussard dawdled about with the air of a man very much bored, who only waited his turn to go through a disagreeable ordeal that he might leave. I fancied his wits were actively at work beneath so impassive an exterior. He had spoken privately to several men, one at a time, in careless fashion, and then tapping the legs of the tables, and kicking the chairs as he passed, he again came near the door. I managed to keep close to him. As he stood talking to the sentries the four men came up two by two from opposite directions, and at a sign from him, grappled with the guard. While they were thus engaged Broussard bolted through the door. I drew my sword and plunged after him.
From inside, the sentries cried out: "The two spies have gone this way," and the whole mob surged out and divided in chase. Some perhaps were in league with Broussard, others were in the service of Vauban, I could not tell.
The hall was densely dark; I knew not the way, but I had Broussard but a few feet in front to guide me; behind, some twenty or thirty stout varlets strung out in pursuit, not a dozen paces to the rear.
It so happened that there was a door which stood half open, and Broussard being hard pressed doubled by this and darted in. He was but a couple of yards ahead and I alone observed this stratagem. When he vanished to the right, I slipped in behind, just as our foremost pursuers swept by. The great noises they made and the resounding echoes effectually prevented their notice of a cessation of sounds from us. Nor did they pause to listen. Crushing through the narrow passage their pressure slammed the door behind us. I heard the clank of a heavy bolt as it dropped into place. Thinking Broussard had sought some secret means of escape known to himself, and fearing he would get away, I dashed madly on, only to fetch up with a terrific thump against a stone wall.
The shock dazed me and I fell in a heap to the floor. Perhaps it was as well, for I made no further noise. But I listened.
The place was intensely dark, and not a sound save the heightened beating of my own heart disturbed it. I was afraid to move, lest I bring upon me the crowd outside. Had not one of the men cried "two spies." It did look as if I too was a confederate of Broussard, and I could not have explained. The echoes of the chase died away, and all was still. My mind and ears were very busy then trying to make out what sort of a hole this was I had so unceremoniously fallen into. And Broussard? Where had he disappeared? I knew he could not be far, for there had been no footsteps since the door shut. I took it that he must be in the room, and that the reasons which enforced quiet upon me were also powerful to him.
He was worse off though than I, for he had doubtless heard me blunder into the wall, and thought one of the marshal's men had followed him. This idea suggested he would probably then lay perfectly still and wait for the man to recover and go out. Or, the thought made me shiver—he might steal up and finish me with the dagger. As quietly as I could I loosened my own knife in its sheath and got it well in hand. In spite of all the caution I used, the sheath rattled against a buckle. I knew my position was betrayed. I thought then to reach a corner where I could the better protect myself against a stealthy attack.
Immediately overhead an almost indistinguishable blur marked a high, square window, some seven feet from the floor. There was but one. In all probability the door lay directly opposite. That being true, the natural inclination of a man flying down the hall in the direction we came would be to go further to the right. Reasoning in this wise, hoping to avoid a struggle with Broussard in the dark, I edged my way along the wall toward the left. Inch by inch I went, holding my sword extended at arm's length in front of me, and lifting each foot carefully to avoid the scraping. Every few feet I made a complete sweep in all directions with my blade, to guard against approach. Proceeding in this way, I felt my sword's point at length touch something—something soft. Before I had time to wonder what it was, the sharp hiss of a blade cut close to my cheek, and struck clanging against the wall. I sprang back beyond reach.
"Broussard," and in the extreme excitement I spoke his name unwittingly, "Broussard, stand still; I had no thought to attack you. Stay where you are, and I will seek another place."
There came a voice, "Who are you to call me Broussard?" but I answered not.
In the absence of any preparation for assault, I took it that he would remain where he was. Thereupon I backed into the diagonal corner, and stood stock still.
After some period—hours or minutes, I knew not what, they were interminable—Broussard spoke again. His voice sounded sharp, and unnaturally loud.
"Who are you, and what do you want? I know you; is it Nortier, Lireux?"
"Hush, fool; dost not hear the tread of Vauban's men outside? You will call them down upon us with your babble." They were stamping through the passage as I spoke.
"Ah!" and there was a world of relief and incredulity in his lowered tone. "Then you are not with Vauban? Who are you?" I made no reply.
During the long period of absolute and profound silence which succeeded I had much time to reflect. I judged myself to be in an unused chamber, which, if square, would be about thirty feet across—calculating by the distance from the diagonal corner—if in fact Broussard lay in the corner. There was but one opening, for I could hear the wind stirring outside, and no draught came in. Did the window open on the street, or on an inner court? There was no way of telling.
If it be true that men live in thoughts rather than in deeds, if the changing phantoms of our brain carve deeper impressions than the petty part we play with our hands, then, indeed, that frightful night would form by far the longest chapter in the history of my soul.
Darkness, darkness, darkness; quivering, soundless, hopeless night.
I feared to move, and no sense save that of hearing bound me to the world of living men. Living men? What place had I among them?
A party of drunken roisterers staggered beneath the window, singing coarse songs and bandying their brutal jests. But it no longer interested me to know the window opened on a street.
Hour after hour plodded in slow procession through the night.
Outside, a clattering vehicle whipped past over the rough stones, the driver swearing at his team. The day was coming at last. Did I wish it? Perhaps the night were kinder, for it at least obscured my misery. I almost prayed the darkness might last.
THE DAWN AND THE DUSK
Gradually, so gradually the change could hardly be observed, the inner grating of the window became visible; the chinks between the edges of the stones assumed distinctness. A ghostly blotch grew into a fact upon the floor. A leaden hue, less black than the pulsing sea of ink about it, spread and spread, lighter and lighter, until it invaded the dim recesses where I stood. My hand became once more a tangible possession, unreal and grim, yet all my own. The opposite wall loomed up, my utmost frontier of the domain of certainty. Dimmer, darker, more obscure, the door, a vast unexplored cavern gathered to itself the hobgoblins of evil and gave them shelter. As still as the creeping on of day we two men stood, glaring at each other and watched it come.
Exactly when I began to see him I could not say. Every impulse and vital force of nature centered in my eyes, and they fastened themselves upon that one irregular shadow in the opposing corner which slowly—oh! with such agonizing slowness—assumed the outlines of a man. My fascinated gaze wandered not nor wearied. When in the moist light of the morning I clearly saw Broussard, haggard, pale and sunken-eyed, watching me thirty feet away, it seemed that I had seen him all the night.
No detail of his dress or manner but I observed. There was a scar across his forehead, fresh and bleeding a bit. A contusion rather. He had probably struck the door-facing as he rushed in. Yes, it bled. A few drops had trickled down his nose; there hung one, quite dry, from his brow. Precisely beneath this there were some dozen or so upon the floor. All could have been covered by my hand. Like myself Broussard had not moved throughout that awful night. God, how I pitied him. With such a weight of treason on his soul. And yet, looking back, the night was less awful than the coming day, far more merciful than the hideous night which followed it. With the sun Broussard heartened up, and first broke the silence.
"Who are you comrade, and what do you here?"
I was at a loss for reply. I had no faith in him, yet even a rotten stick might serve to get me out.
"I am trapped like yourself, and feared you all the night. God in Heaven what a long night it was."
Broussard had no words, his convulsive shudder expressed more than mine.
"Do you know how to get out of here?" I asked.
"Not I, except by the door, or the window," looking at that.
"I'll try the door," he continued, smiling the treacherous smile of the tiger. I remembered so well the first day he showed his teeth aboard ship. The man well knew I recognized him, he had heard me speak his name, and I feared if he found the door open he would shut me up again, and escape.
"I'll test the door softly and see what is outside," and he moved as if to put his thought in action.
"Hold on, not yet; methinks I'll try that door myself." I could see he had the same idea which had occurred to me, for he demurred.
"No, my fine sir; why you and not I?"
"Because I know you, sir, and fear to trust you."
"Verily, you have honorable intentions yourself to suspect me so readily." He was bent on engaging me in conversation, so he might perhaps recognize me from my voice. The mask still hid my features, and the entire difference in my mode of dress made recognition almost impossible. The puzzled expression of a half recollection still rested on his face as I continued:
"I do not merely suspect you, I know you for a traitor—nay do not clap your hand upon your sword until I have finished. You have now in your possession certain traitorous dispatches which were given you by one Carne Yvard in exchange for others which you brought over with you in a vessel called le Dauphin. Ah, you begin to pale and shrink, and well you may—"
"You lie!" he shrieked, convincing me I had made a home thrust.
"Softly, softly, have a care, lest you call the Marshal's bloodhounds down upon us. The dispatches with the purple seals, which you brought with such care from Biloxi, have been taken from Yvard, and are now in safe keeping for the King. The lie, ah, well, I'll pardon that for the while. You can not leave here, and I have ample time for avenging my honor after I have had the pleasure of your delightful conversation."
He leaned morosely against the wall, staring at me, as I went on.
"Now listen to me quietly. You have those dispatches upon your person. I want them, and by all the gods I will have them. If I have to kill you for them, then so much the worse for you. Now listen. Give me those dispatches. We will then get out of here together, and once outside, I will give you full four and twenty hours. That time elapsed, I will turn the dispatches over to the authorities. If you can escape with your miserable life so be it. Do you agree?"
"I have no dispatches," he sullenly replied, "and who are you to dare charge me with treason?"
There was no ring of real resentment in his tones, though he strove manfully to simulate offended and indignant innocence. It was necessary to keep him in ignorance for a while, because I feared he might set upon me, and being really an excellent swordsman, the issue of conflict would be doubtful. But the weightier reason lay in the fact that the clash of steel might draw down upon us the occupants of the house. Here I was in a much worse plight than he, though he knew it not. For whether those occupants were the friends of Broussard or the Marshal's men, the result would be equally fatal to me. A man must think quickly under such straits, and I was sorely put to it for some device. No stratagem would be too base to use against such a villain, for he would not hesitate to knife me in the back.
"Broussard, let us understand each other here and now. You know me. I am Placide de Mouret," removing my mask and looking him sternly in the eye.
"Great God, de Mouret!"
"The same. I am your master at the swords, and you know it. Now turn out those papers." I had been quietly drawing my blade during this speech, as the dazed man tried to collect his senses, so I was ready while he still stood unprepared.
"Throw up your hands."
He mechanically obeyed; the discovery of his villainy had completely unmanned him.
"Now unbuckle your belt, and drop it to the ground." He did as he was bid.
"Kick it across the floor." The weapon was tossed out of his reach.
I walked up closer to him, and forced him to loose his coat that I might find the papers, and was rewarded by the discovery of a packet, much similar to that dropped by Yvard. It was sealed in such a manner it could not be opened, and bore no address. I removed the dagger from his hip, and having, as I thought, completely disarmed him, felt no further uneasiness. The man was thoroughly cowed, and never once raised his eyes to mine. Verily treason doth rob the stoutest heart of half its courage.
"Now do as I bid you, and I will keep my promise to let you go. And mind that you make not the slightest sound which may attract the soldiers."
"Ah, you fear the soldiers too?" he asked, vaguely trying to puzzle out why I should be afraid of those in whose service I was.
"It is not to our purpose to talk. I simply want the credit myself, and do not want to share it with those fellows out there. We must work to leave this place at once. Do you stand where you are."
I gathered up the scattered weapons and piled them all in one corner, farthest from the door, where I now proposed to set about getting free. With the fearful blight of uncovered treason in his soul, Broussard obeyed me cringingly as a servant, and worked as hard, for his safety lay in mine. We went first to the door by which we entered, and after a tedious examination failed to find any means by which it could be opened or broken down. A stout latch, of some pattern we could not tell, held it fast from the outside. There was no catch or fastening of any sort within. The age-hardened oak, studded as it was with heavily wrought nails, forbade the plan of cutting through. This would require days and days of patient labor, and I was already faint from lack of food and the exhaustion of the night. Plainly the room was intended for a prison, and as such it served well its purpose. Baffled and disheartened I turned my thought to the window. It looked out upon the street; this was so much in my favor. The irons that guarded it were close set, bending out toward the street in the shape of a bow. I judged this was in order that archers stationed there might shoot the more easily into the street in times of siege.
I could have reached this without trouble, but I desired to employ Broussard, that I might know where he was and prevent treachery. For that double purpose I reached up and grasped the sill, commanding him to catch me about the knees and lift so I might see out. This he did. While in that position he made a pretense of shifting his hold, and something impelled me to glance downward at him. He was stealthily drawing a concealed knife from his bosom. I threw all my weight back upon him, casting the twain of us together to the floor. Meantime he had the knife full drawn, in his left hand held at my breast.
I grappled with him, holding his left hand in my right, and with the free hand clutched him by the throat, burying my thumb deep in his wind-pipe. Instinctively he raised both hands to protect his throat, and then we struggled to our feet. He made futile efforts to strike me with the knife, but his strength deserted him with his wind. The blade dropped clattering on the floor. My other hand closed about his neck, circling it with an unyielding collar of steel. Desperately as a caged rat might fight he squirmed and twisted in my grasp. To no avail.
Tigerish now, as though I held a rabid dog, I thrust him back against the wall, and there rigidly held him fast. In merciless silence I listened to the precious breath gurgling from his body; a reddish froth gathered at the lips. I could feel his hot blood surge and beat against my thumb under that deadly pressure. The cold sweat stood in clammy clusters upon his forehead; his head thrown back, the eyes turned toward the ceiling no longer pleaded into mine. I sickened almost at sight of the tongue swelling black, which seemed to consume all the fleeing color from lips and face. Oh God, how he struggled! His hands closed over mine as bars of steel to tear them from his throat.
Even in our mortal strife I marked the eternal harmony of the scene. Truly death had never stage more fitting whereon to play its last stern drama of dissolution. Hemmed in by four massive walls of granite, ghastly grim and desolately gray, we wrestled in a stifling stillness, while hell stood umpire at the game. No sound of trumpet, no warlike cry, no strains of martial music were there to thrill the nerves and taunt men on to glory. We fought to the scrape and scratch of shuffling feet, the labored gasp, the rattle in the throat, while echo hushed in silence and in fright.
He grew more quiet, his muscles stiffened and relaxed—he was no longer conscious. A few more convulsive quivers, as a serpent might writhe and jerk, then he hung, a limp dead thing, in my hands. My outstretched arms seemed made as a gibbet, feeling no fatigue, so lightly did they sustain him. Cords of brass could be no more tense than mine; his weight was as nothing. Softly I eased him down, and composed his limbs in decent order upon the stones.
Then I rose, and gazed complacently at my work. Yes, it was well done, excellently done, in fact. The most expert strangler of the Choctows could have done no better. Those purpling lines about the throat, those darker clots where my thumbs had left their signs, could not have been more intelligently placed. I smiled my satisfaction at the job, then—then—my own overstrung nerves gave way, and I fell unconscious across the corpse of my hands' creation.
When I came to myself I was weeping, weeping as a child might weep, over the dead, distorted face of him I had loved. How long this lasted I had no means of knowing. Uncompromising necessity forced me to action; forbade me time to dream.
The body being in my way where it lay—for I proposed now to work in earnest at the window—I moved it tenderly as possible across the floor and stretched him out near the door sill. Springing up then I attacked the bars at the window. Hours and hours I labored, impelled to greater effort by the dread of spending another night in that room of murder. I was patient, too, patient with the cunning of a maniac.
The dagger made my chisel; my sword, wrapped in a cloth to muffle the strokes, furnished me a maul. Full half the day was before me. The rough paving stones below held out the hope of escape or death. How to reach the street after the bars were removed, I did not suffer myself to consider. I should go mad if I lay idle. I leaned as far out the window as the grating would allow, and observed a guard standing in plain view at the corner. It was very evident the Provost of Paris had taken possession of the house, and there was little use in my trying to make a way out the door.
I bitterly resented the intrusion of every passenger along the street, and scanned with hatred the few who came. For while they remained in hearing I was obliged to cease my chipping at the masonry and leaden cement which held my freedom. I bided my time, and, long before the shadow of the house across the way had climbed to the window where I worked, had the gratification of finding a bar give way in my hands, and found I could take it out. Removing this bar, it gave me a powerful leverage on the others, and by exerting all my strength, succeeded in bending the two on either side to such a degree I could force my body between.
While thus engaged, my eyes were ever fixed anxiously upon the street, in the hope that Jerome might pursue his plan of watching the house, and I would catch sight of him. The passers-by were few indeed, but somehow it struck me that the same persons passed several times, and in something like regular order. A patrol of Jerome's? My heart bounded at the thought. I watched more carefully; yes, it was true. I counted five different persons; some walked fast, some walked slow, but all looked about them and inspected the house with more than an ordinary glance. And, no, I was not mistaken, that simple-looking countryman yonder was Jerome.
I was quite at a loss how to attract his attention; I feared to yell, lest that give notice to the sentry. I took a spur from my heel and dropped it directly in front of him; I knew he would recognize it, for it was his own, loaned to me for my more fashionable appearance. He heard the jingle and glanced around. His hat blew off as if by accident and fell near the spur. In stooping to pick it up, the spur also found its way into his hand beneath the hat. He was truly a quick-witted gentleman, and I forgave him from my heart all his chaff in the matter of teaching me manners. It took him not a great while to comprehend, and taking note of the situation of my window, he sauntered off. Thence forward only three men passed by the house, at much longer intervals. He had taken one with him, and I was left to surmise in what method they purposed to effect my deliverance. I made myself almost merry. The long labor at the window had cramped my limbs to such a degree it pained me to move. I clambered down and took a few turns about the room as if I had naught to do but exercise. But at every turn the hideous face and whitened eyes of Broussard dogged my footsteps as a spectre. Look where I would, it was only that I saw. Hour after hour crawled by. Jerome would wait for night. Night!
Did he but know what lurking horrors filled the dismal hours for me, he would come soon. By some fatality I had drawn the body directly to the spot where the last fading shafts of light would hover about its face. Not for a paradise of peace would I touch the loathsome thing again to hide it in the shadows. I could neither take my eyes from it nor put my hands upon it. Like the basilisk of fable it held my gaze charmed, fixed it, bound it fast. Crouch as I might in the remotest corner, cover my face in my mantle, still that searching, penetrating thing pierced all obstacles, glared grisly and distinct before me.
I tried to throw off the thought which now constantly recurred. What if Jerome did not come? Would I starve here in company with this corrupting flesh? No, there was the window; a headlong dash from that would bring death and release. So I determined. Then came on the night. To me it brought no rest, no sweet surcease of the labors through the day.
Somewhere, afar off in the city, there rang a tremulous bell, launching its vibrations upon the infinite silence as a sinner's guilty soul might trembling stand in the presence of Almighty condemnation. The melancholy howl of a dog at first cleft through every nerve and fibre of my being, thrilling with a creeping chill of horror. So regular did it come, so unvaried, I grew to count the seconds under my breath, and to note its monotonous precision. Somehow this occupation in a measure relieved me, and when the howls came more infrequently and at less well defined intervals, I mentally resented the change. Time had ceased to be. I cowered in the corner with naught but death and fear and darkness to keep me company.
FLORINE TO THE RESCUE
A shroud of consuming terror now possessed me. I crouched in the dank corner clutching my sword, listening, vainly listening, for some sound out of which to conjure up an assassin. A rat ran across my foot. Screaming out I bounded erect and beat about me with blind desperation. One hand touched the other and shrank from its mate. They were as ice.
Oh, God, the horrid silence! How weightily it bore upon me, stripping me of voice, of courage and of hope. How many, many times I braced myself against the wall, cold with fear at the apprehension of an attack by some demon of the night. How many, many times I sank again into the same dumb misery when no enemy appeared to do me hurt.