Perhaps the fact that the latter feeling ceased to vex him before he had been a minute in the room, was the best testimony to Basterga's tact we could desire. Not that the scholar was either effusive or abject. It was rather by a frank address which took equality for granted, and by an easy assumption that the visit had no importance, that he calmed Messer Blondel's nerves and soothed his pride.
Presently, "If I do not the honour of my poor apartment so pressingly as some," he said, "it is out of no lack of respect, Messer Syndic. But because, having had much experience of visitors, I know that nothing fits them so well as to be left at liberty, nothing irks them so much as to be over-pressed. Here now I have some things that are thought to be curious, even in Padua, but I do not know whether they will interest you."
"Yes, manuscripts and the like. This," Basterga lifted one from the table and placed it in his visitor's hands, "is a facsimile, prepared with the utmost care, of the 'Codex Vaticanus,' the most ancient manuscript of the New Testament. Of interest in Geneva, where by the hands of your great printer, Stephens, M. de Beza has done so much to advance the knowledge of the sacred text. But you are looking at that chart?"
"Yes. What is it, if it please you?"
"It is a plan of the ancient city of Aurelia," Basterga replied, "which Caesar, in the first book of his Commentaries places in Switzerland, but which, some say, should be rather in Savoy."
"Indeed, Aurelia?" the Syndic muttered, turning it about. It was a plan beautifully and elaborately finished, but, like most of the plans of that day, it was without names. "Aurelia?"
"But I seem to—is this water?"
"Yes, a lake," Basterga replied, stooping with a faint smile to the plan.
"And this a river?"
"Aurelia? But—I seem to know the line of this wall, and these bastions. Why, it is—Messer Basterga," in a tone of surprise, not unmingled with anger—"you play with me! it is Geneva!"
Basterga permitted his smile to become more apparent. "Oh no, Aurelia," he said lightly and almost jocosely. "Aurelia in Savoy, I assure you. Whatever it is, however, we have no need to take it to heart, Messer Blondel. Believe me, it comes from, and is not on its way to, the Grand Duke's library at Turin."
The Syndic showed his displeasure by putting the map from him.
"Your taste is rather for other things," Basterga continued, affecting to misunderstand the act. "This illuminated manuscript, now, may interest you? It is in characters which are probably strange to you?"
"Is it Hebrew?" the Syndic muttered stiffly, his temper still asserting itself.
"No, it is in the ancient Arabic character; that into which the works of Aristotle were translated as far back as the ninth century of our era. It is a curious treatise by the Arabic sage, Ibn Jasher, who was the teacher of Ibn Zohr, who was the teacher of Averroes. It was carried from Spain to Rome about the year 1000 by the learned Pope Sylvester the Second, who spoke Arabic and of whose library it formed part."
"Indeed!" Blondel responded, staring at it. "It must be of great value. How came it into your possession, Messer Basterga?"
Basterga opened his mouth and shut it again. "I do not think I can tell you that," he said.
"It contains, I suppose, many curious things?"
"Curious?" Basterga replied impulsively, "I should say so! Why, it was in that volume I found——" And there in apparent confusion he broke off. He laughed awkwardly, and then, "Well, you know," he resumed, "we students find many things interest us which would fail to touch the man of affairs". As if he wished to change the subject, he took the manuscript from the Syndic's hand and threw it carelessly on the table.
Messer Blondel thought the carelessness overdone, and, his interest aroused, he followed the manuscript, he scarcely knew why, with his eyes. "I think I have heard the name of Averroes?" he said. "Was he not a physician?"
"He was many things," Basterga answered negligently. "As a physician he was, I believe, rather visionary than practical. I have his Colliget, his most famous work in that line, but for my part, in the case of an ordinary disease, I would rather trust myself," with a shrug of contempt, "to the Grand Duke's physician."
"But in the case of an extraordinary disease?" the Syndic asked shrewdly.
Basterga frowned. "I meant in any disease," he said. "Did I say extraordinary?"
"Yes," Messer Blondel answered stoutly. The frown had not escaped him. "But I take it, you are something of a physician yourself?"
"I have studied in the school of Fallopius, the chirurgeon of Padua," the scholar answered coldly. "But I am a scholar, Messer Blondel, not a physician, much less a practitioner of the ancillary art, which I take to be but a base and mechanical handicraft."
"Yet, chemistry—you pursue that?" the other rejoined with a glance at the farther table and its load of strange-looking phials and retorts.
"As an amusement," Basterga replied with a gesture of haughty deprecation. "A parergon, if you please. I take it, a man may dip into the mystical writings of Paracelsus without prejudice to his Latinity; and into the cabalistic lore of the school of Cordova without losing his taste for the pure oratory of the immortal Cicero. Virgil himself, if we may believe Helinandus, gave the weight of his great name to such sports. And Cornelius Agrippa, my learned forerunner in Geneva——"
"Went something farther than that!" the Syndic struck in with a meaning nod, twice repeated. "It was whispered, and more than whispered—I had it from my father—that he raised the devil here, Messer Blondel; the very same that at Louvain strangled one of Agrippa's scholars who broke in on him before he could sink through the floor."
Basterga's face took on an expression of supreme scorn. "Idle tales!" he said. "Fit only for women! Surely you do not believe them, Messer Blondel?"
"Yes, you, Messer Syndic."
"But this, at any rate, you'll not deny," Blondel retorted eagerly, "that he discovered the Philosopher's Stone?"
"And lived poor, and died no richer?" Basterga rejoined in a tone of increasing scorn.
"Well, for the matter of that," the Syndic answered more slowly, "that may be explained."
"They say, and you must have heard it, that the gold he made in that way turned in three days to egg-shells and parings of horn."
"Yet having it three days," Basterga asked with a sneer, "might he not buy all he wanted?"
"Well, I can only say that my father, who saw him more than once in the street, always told me—and I do not know any one who should have known better——"
"Pshaw, Messer Blondel, you amaze me!" the scholar struck in, rising from his seat and adopting a tone at once contemptuous and dictatorial. "Do you not know," he continued, "that the Philosopher's Stone was and is but a figure of speech, which stands as some say for the perfect element in nature, or as others say for the vital principle—that vivifying power which evades and ever must evade the search of men? Do you not know that the sages whose speculations took that direction were endangered by accusations of witchcraft; and that it was to evade these and to give their researches such an aspect as would command the confidence of the vulgar, that they gave out that they were seeking either the Philosopher's Stone, which would make all men rich, or the Elixir Vitae, which would confer immortality. Believe me, they were themselves no slaves to these expressions; nor were the initiated among their followers. But as time went on, tyros, tempted by sounds, and caught by theories of transmutation, began to interpret them literally, and, straying aside, spent their lives in the vain pursuit of wealth or youth. Poor fools!"
Messer Blondel stared. Had Basterga, assailing him from a different side, broached the precise story to which, in the case of Agrippa or Albertus Magnus, the Syndic was prepared to give credence, he had certainly received the overture with suspicion if not with contempt. He had certainly been very far from staking good florins upon it. But when the experimenter in the midst of the apparatus of science, and surrounded by things which imposed on the vulgar, denied their value, and laughed at the legends of wealth and strength obtained by their means—this fact of itself went very far towards convincing him that Basterga had made a discovery and was keeping it back.
The vital principle, the essential element, the final good, these were fine phrases, though they had a pagan ring. But men, the Syndic argued, did not spend money, and read much and live laborious days, merely to coin phrases. Men did not surround themselves with costly apparatus only to prove a theory that had no practical value. "He has discovered something," Blondel concluded in his mind, "if it be not the Philosopher's Stone or the Elixir of Life. I am sure he has discovered something." And with eyes grown sharp and greedy, the magistrate raked the room.
The scholar stood thoughtful where he had paused, and did not seem to notice him.
"Then do you mean," Blondel resumed after a while, "that all your work there"—he indicated by a nod the chemical half of the room—"has been thrown away?"
"Not quite, I think?" the Syndic said, his small eyes twinkling. "Eh, Messer Basterga, not quite? Now be candid."
"Well, I would not say," Basterga answered coldly, and as it seemed unwillingly, "that I have not derived something from the researches with which I have amused my leisure. But nothing of value to the general."
"Yet something of value to yourself," Blondel said, his head on one side.
Basterga frowned, then shrugged his shoulders. "Well, yes," he said at length, "as it happens, I have. But a thing of no use to any one else, for the simple reason——"
"That you have only enough for yourself!"
The scholar looked astonished and a little offended.
"I do not know how you learned that," he said curtly, "but you are right. I had no intention of telling you as much, but, as you have guessed that, I do not mind adding that it is a remedy for a disease which the most learned physicians do not pretend to cure."
"Yes, vital and certain."
"And you discovered it?"
"No, I did not discover it," Basterga replied modestly. "But the story is so long that I will ask you to excuse me."
"I shall not excuse you if you do not favour me with it," the Syndic answered eagerly. As he leaned forward there was a light in his eyes that had not been in them a few minutes before. His hand, too, shook as he moved it from the arm of his chair to his knee. "Nay, but, I pray you, indulge me," he continued, in a tone anxious and almost submissive. "I shall not betray your secrets. I am no philosopher, and no physician, and, had I the will, I could make no use of your confidence."
"That is true," Basterga replied. "And, after all, the matter is simple. I do not know why I should refuse to oblige you. I have said that I did not discover this remedy. That is so. But it happened that in trying, by way of amusement, certain precipitations, I obtained not that which I sought—nor had I expected," he continued, smiling, "to obtain that, for it was the Elixir of Life, which, as I have told you, does not exist—but a substance new in my experience, and which seemed to me to possess some peculiar properties. I tested it in all the ways known to me, but without benefit or enlightenment; and in the end I was about to cast it aside, when I chanced on a passage in the manuscript of Ibn Jasher—the same, in fact, that I showed you a few minutes ago."
"And you found?" The Syndic's attitude as he leaned forward, with parted lips and a hand on each knee, betrayed an interest so abnormal that it was odd that Basterga did not notice it.
Instead, "I found that he had made," the scholar replied quietly, "as far back as the tenth century the same experiment which I had just completed. And with the same result."
"He obtained the substance?"
"And discovered? What?" Blondel asked eagerly. "Its use?"
"A certain use," the other replied cautiously. "Or, rather, it was not he, but an associate, called by him the Physician of Aleppo, who discovered it. This man was the pupil of the learned Rhazes, and the tutor of the equally learned Avicenna, the link, in fact, between them; but his name, for some reason, perhaps because he mixed with his practice a greater degree of mysticism than was approved by the Arabian schools of the next generation, has not come down to us. This man identified the product which had defied Ibn Jasher's tests with a substance even then considered by most to be fabulous, or to be extracted only from the horn of the unicorn if that animal existed. That it had some of the properties of the fabled substance, he proceeded to prove to the satisfaction of Ibn Jasher by curing of a certain incurable disease five persons."
"No more than five?"
"The substance was exhausted."
Blondel gasped. "Why did he not make more?" he cried. His voice was querulous, almost savage.
"The experiment," Basterga answered, "of which it was the product was costly."
Blondel's face turned purple. "Costly?" he cried. "Costly? When the lives of men hung in the balance."
"True," Basterga replied with a smile; "but I was about to say that, costly as it was, it was not its price which hindered the production of a further supply. The reason was more simple. He could not extract it."
"Could not? But he had made it once?"
"Then why could he not make it again?" the Syndic asked. He was genuinely, honestly angry. It was strange how much he took the matter to heart.
"He could not," Basterga answered. "He repeated the process again and again, but the peculiar product, which at the first trial had resulted from the precipitation, was not obtained."
"There was something lacking!"
"There was something lacking," Basterga answered. "But what that was which was lacking, or how it had entered into the alembic in the first instance, could not be discovered. The sage tried the experiment under all known conditions, and particularly when the moon was in the same quarter and when the sun was in the same house. He tried it, indeed, thrice on the corresponding day of the year, but—the product did not issue."
"How do you account for that?"
"Probably, in the first instance, an impurity in one of the drugs introduced a foreign substance into the alembic. That chance never occurred again, as far as I can learn, until, amusing myself with the same precipitation, I—I, Caesar Basterga of Padua," the scholar continued, not boastfully but in a tone thoughtful and almost absent, "in the last year of the last century, hit at length upon the same result."
The Syndic leaned forward; his hands gripped his knees more tightly. "And you," he said, "can repeat it?"
Basterga shook his head sorrowfully. "No," he said, "I cannot. Not that I have myself essayed the experiment more than thrice. I could not afford it. But a correspondent, M. de Laurens, of Paris, physician to the King, has, at the expense of a wealthy patient, spent more than fifteen thousand florins in essays. Alas, without result."
The big man spoke with his eyes on the floor. Had he turned them on the Syndic he must have seen that he was greatly agitated. Beads of moisture stood on his brow, his face was red, he swallowed often and with difficulty. At length, with an effort at composure, "Possibly your product—is not, after all, the same as Ibn Jasher's?" he said.
"I tested it in the same way," Basterga answered quietly.
"What? By curing persons of that disease?"
"Yes," Basterga rejoined. "And I would to Heaven," he continued, with the first spirt of feeling which he had allowed to escape him, "that I had held my hand after the first proof. Instead, I must needs try it again and again, and again."
Basterga shrugged his shoulders. "No," he said, "not for nothing." By a gesture he indicated the objects about him. "I am not a poor man now, Messer Blondel. Not for nothing, but too cheaply. And so often that I have now remaining but one portion of that substance which all the science of Padua cannot renew. One portion, only, alas!" he repeated with regret.
"Enough to cure one person?" the Syndic exclaimed.
"And the disease?" Blondel rose as he spoke. "The disease?" he repeated. He extended his trembling arms to the other. No longer, even if he wished it, could Basterga feign himself blind to the agitation which shook, which almost convulsed, the Syndic's meagre frame. "The disease? Is it not that which men call the Scholar's? Is it not that? But I know it is."
Basterga with something of astonishment in his face inclined his head.
"And I have that disease! I!" the Syndic cried, standing before him a piteous figure. He raised his hands above his head in a gesture which challenged the compassion of gods and men. "I! In two years——" His voice failed, he could not go on.
"Believe me, Messer Blondel," Basterga answered after a long and sorrowful pause, "I am grieved. Deeply grieved," he continued in a tone of feeling, "to hear this. Do the physicians give no hope?"
"Sons of the Horse-Leech!" the Syndic cried, a new passion shaking him in its turn. "They give me two years! Two years! And it may be less. Less!" he cried, raising his voice. "I, who go to and fro here and there, like other men with no mark upon me! I, who walk the streets in sunshine and rain like other men! Yet, for them the sky is bright, and they have years to live. For me, one more summer, and—night! Two more years at the most—and night! And I, but fifty-eight!"
The big man looked at him with eyes of compassion. "It may be," he said, after a pause, "that the physicians are wrong, Messer Blondel. I have known such a case."
"They are, they shall be wrong!" Blondel replied. "For you will give me your remedy! It was God led me here to-day, it was God put it in your heart to tell me this. You will give me your remedy and I shall live! You will, will you not? Man, you can pity!" And joining his hands he made as if he would kneel at the other's feet. "You can pity, and you will?"
"Alas, alas," Basterga replied, much and strongly moved. "I cannot."
The Syndic glared at him. "Why?" he cried, "Why not? If I give you——"
"If you were to give me the half of your fortune," Basterga answered solemnly, "it were useless! I myself have the first symptoms of the disease."
The Syndic fell back in his chair. A groan broke from him that bore witness at once to the bitterness of his soul and the finality of the argument. He seemed in a moment shrunk to half his size. In a moment disease and the shadow of death clouded his features; his cheeks were leaden; his eyes, without light or understanding, conveyed no meaning to his brain. "You, too!" he muttered mechanically. "You, too!"
"Yes," Basterga replied in a sorrowful voice. "I, too. No wonder I feel for you. I have not known it long, nor has it proceeded far in my case. I have even hopes, at least there are times when I have hopes, that the physicians may be mistaken."
Blondel's small eyes bulged suddenly larger. "In that event?" he cried hoarsely. "In that event surely——"
"Even in that event I cannot aid you," the big man answered, spreading out his hands. "I am pledged by the most solemn oath to retain the one portion I have for the use of the Grand Duke, my patron. And apart from that oath, the benefits I have received at his hand are such as to give him a claim second only to my necessity. A claim, Messer Blondel, which—I say it sorrowfully—I dare not set aside for any private feeling or private gain."
Blondel rose violently, his hands clawing the air. "And I must die?" he cried, his voice thick with rage. "I must die because he may be ill? Because—because——" He stopped, struggling with himself, unable, it seemed, to articulate. By-and-by it became apparent that the pause had another origin, for when he spoke he had conquered his passion. "Pardon me," he said, still hoarsely, but in a different tone—the tone of one who saw that violence could not help him. "I was forgetting myself. Life—life is sweet to all, Messer Basterga, and we cannot lightly see it pass from us. To have life within sight, to know it within this room, perhaps within reach——"
"Not quite that," Basterga murmured, his eyes wandering to the steel casket, chained to the wall beside the hearth. "Still, I understand; and, believe me," he added in a tone of sympathy, "I feel for you, Messer Blondel. I feel deeply for you."
"Feel?" the Syndic muttered. For an instant his eyes gleamed savagely, the veins of his temples swelled. "Feel!"
"But what can I do?"
Blondel could have answered, but to what advantage? What could words profit him, seeing that it was a life for a life, and that, as all that a man hath he will give for his life, so there is nothing another hath that he will take for it. Argument was useless; prayer, in view of the other's confession, beside the mark. The magistrate saw this, and made an effort to resume his dignity. "We will talk another day," he murmured, pressing his hand to his brow, "another day!" And he turned to the door. "You will not mention what I have said to you, Messer Basterga?"
"Not a syllable," his host answered, as he followed him out. The abruptness of the departure did not surprise him. "Believe me, I feel for you, Messer Blondel."
The Syndic acknowledged the phrase by a gesture not without pathos, and, passing out, stumbled blindly down the narrow stairs. Basterga attended him with respect to the outer door, and there they parted in silence. The magistrate, his shoulders bowed, walked slowly to the left, where, turning into the town through the inner gate, the Porte Tertasse, he disappeared. The big man waited a while, sunning himself on the steps, his face towards the ramparts.
"He will come back, oh, yes, he will come back," he purred, smiling all over his large face. "For I, Caesar Basterga, have a brain. And 'tis better a brain than thews and sinews, gold or lands, seeing that it has all these at command when I need them. The fish is hooked. It will be strange if I do not land him before the year is out. But the bribe to his physician—it was a happy thought: a happy thought of this brain of Caesar Basterga, graduate of Padua, viri valde periti, doctissimique!"
TO TAKE OR LEAVE.
The house in the Corraterie, near the Porte Tertasse, differed in no outward respect from its neighbours. The same row of chestnut trees darkened its lower windows, the same breezy view of the Rhone meadows, the sloping vineyards and the far-off Jura lightened its upper rooms. A kindred life, a life apparently as quiet and demure, moved within its walls. Yet was the house a house apart. Silently and secretly, it had absorbed and sucked and drawn into itself the hearts and souls and minds of two men. It held for the one that which the old prize above all things in the world—life; and for the other, that which the young set above life—love.
Life? The Syndic did not doubt; the bait had been dangled before his eyes with too much cunning, too much skill. In a casket, in a room in that house in the Corraterie, his life lay hidden; his life, and he could not come at it! His life? Was it a marvel that waking or sleeping he saw only that house, and that room, and that casket chained to the wall; that he saw at one time the four steps rising to the door, and the placid front with its three tiers of windows; at another time, the room itself with its litter of scripts and dark-bound books, and rich furnishings, and phials and jars and strangely shaped alembics? Was it a marvel that in the dreams of the night the sick man toiled up and up and up the narrow staircase, of which every point remained fixed in his mind; or that waking, whatever his task, or wherever he might be, alone or in company, in his parlour or in the Town House, he still fell a-dreaming of the room and the box—the room and the box that held his life?
Had this been the worst! But it was not. There were times, bitter times, dark hours, when the pains were upon him, and he saw his fate clear before him; for he had known men die of the disease which held him in its clutches, and he knew how they had died. And then he must needs lock himself into his room that other eyes might not witness the passionate fits of revolt, of rage and horror, and weak weeping, into which the knowledge cast him. And out of which he presently came back to—the house. His life lay there, in that room, in that house, and he could not come at it! He could not come at it! But he would! He would!
It issued in that always; in some plan or scheme for gaining possession of the philtre. Some of the plans that occurred to him were wild and desperate; dangerous and hopeless on the face of them. Others were merely violent; others again, of which craft was the mainspring, held out a prospect of success. For a whole day the notion of arresting Basterga on a charge of treason, and seizing the steel casket together with his papers, was uppermost. It seemed feasible, and was feasible; nay, it was more than feasible, it was easy; for already there were rumours of the man abroad, and his name had been mentioned at the council table. The Syndic had only to give the word, and the arrest would be made, the search instituted, the papers and casket seized. Nay, if he did not give the word, it was possible that others might.
But when he thought of that step, that irrevocable step, he knew that he would not have the courage to take it. For if Basterga had so much as two minutes' notice, if his ear so much as caught the tread of those who came to take him, he might, in pure malignity, pour the medicine on the floor, or he might so hide it as to defy search. And at the thought—at the thought of the destruction of that wherein lay his only chance of life, his only hope of seeing the sun and feeling again the balmy breath of spring, the Syndic trembled and shook and sweated with rage and fear. No, he would not have the courage. He would not dare. For a week and more after the thought occurred to him, he dared not approach the scholar's lodging, or be seen in the neighbourhood, so great was his fear of arousing Basterga's suspicions and setting him on his guard.
At the end of a fortnight or so, the choice of ways was presented to him in a concrete form; and with an abruptness which placed him on the edge of perplexity. It was at a morning meeting of the smaller council. The day was dull, the chamber warm, the business to be transacted monotonous; and Blondel, far from well and interested in one thing only—beside which the most important affairs of Geneva seemed small as the doings of an ant-hill viewed through a glass—had fallen asleep, or nearly asleep. Naturally a restless and wakeful man, of thin habit and nervous temperament, he had never done such a thing before: and it was unfortunate that he succumbed on this occasion, for while he drowsed the current of business changed. The debate grew serious, even vital. Finally he awoke to the knowledge of place and time with a name ringing in his ears; a name so fixed in his waking thoughts that, before he knew where he was or what he was doing, he repeated it in a tone that drew all eyes upon him.
Some knew he had slept and smiled; more had not noticed it, and turned, struck by the strange tone in which he echoed the name. Fabri, the First Syndic, who sat two places from him, and had just taken a letter from the secretary, leaned forward so as to view him. "Ay, Basterga," he said, "an Italian, I take it. Do you know him, Messer Blondel?"
He was awake now, but, confused and startled, inclined to believe that he was on his trial; and that the faint parleyings with treason, small things hard to define, to which he had stooped, were known. Mechanically, to gain time, he repeated the name: "Basterga?"
"Yes," Fabri repeated. "Do you know him?"
"Caesar Basterga, is it?"
"That is his name."
He was himself now, though his nerves still shook; himself so far as he could be, while ignorant of what had passed, and how he came to be challenged. "Yes, I know him," he said slowly, "if you mean a Paduan, a scholar of some note, I believe. Who applied to me—I dare say it would be six weeks back—for a licence to stay a while in the town."
"Which you granted?"
"In the usual course. He had letters from"—Blondel shrugged his shoulders—"I forget from whom. What of him?" with a steady look at Baudichon the councillor, his life-long rival, and the quarter whence if trouble were brewing it was to be expected. "What of him?" he repeated, throwing himself back in his chair, and tapping the table with his fingers.
"This," Fabri answered, waving the letter which he had in his hands.
"But I do not know what that is," Blondel replied coolly. "I am afraid"—he looked at his neighbour on either side—"was I asleep?"
"I fear so," said one, while the other smiled. They were his very good friends and allies.
"Well, it is not like me. I can say that I am not often," with a keen look at Baudichon, "caught napping! And now, M. Fabri," he continued with his usual practical air, "I have delayed the business long enough. What is it? And what is that?" He pointed to the letter in the First Syndic's hands.
"Well, it is really your affair in the main," Fabri answered, "since as Fourth Syndic you are responsible for the guard and the city's safety; and ours afterwards. It is a warning," he continued, his eyes reverting to the page before him, "from our secret agent in Turin, whose name I need not mention"—Blondel nodded—"informing us of a fresh attempt to be made on the city before Christmas; by means of rafts formed of hurdles and capable of transporting whole companies of soldiers. These he has seen tried in the River Po, and they performed the work. Having reached the walls by their means the assailants are to mount by ladders which are being made to fit into one another. They are covered with black cloth, and can be laid against the wall without noise. It sounds—circumstantial?" Fabri commented, breaking off and looking at Blondel.
The Syndic nodded thoughtfully. "Yes," he said, "I think so. I think also," he continued, "that with the aid of my friend, Captain Blandano, I shall be able to give a good account of the rafts and the ladders."
Baudichon the councillor interposed. "But that is not all," he muttered, rolling ponderously in his chair as he spoke. He was a stout man with a double chin and a weighty manner; honest, but slow, and the spokesman of the more wealthy burghers. His neighbour Petitot, a man of singular appearance, lean, with a long thin drooping nose, commonly supported him. Petitot, who bore the nickname of "the Inquisitor," represented the Venerable Company of Pastors, and was viewed with especial distaste by the turbulent spirits whom the war had left in the city, as well as by the lower ranks, who upheld Blondel. In sense and vigour the Fourth Syndic was more than a match for the two precisians: but honesty of purpose has a weight of its own that slowly makes itself felt. "That is not all," Baudichon repeated after a glance at his neighbour and ally Petitot, "I want to know——"
"One moment, M. Baudichon, if you please," Fabri said, cutting him short, amid a partial titter; the phrase "I want to know" was so often on the councillor's lips that it had become ridiculous. "One moment; as you say, that is not all. The writer proceeds to warn us that the Grand Duke's lieutenant, M. d'Albigny, has taken a house on the Italian side of the frontier, and is there constructing a huge petard on wheels which is to be dragged up to the gate——"
"With the ladders and rafts?"
"They seem to belong to another scheme," Fabri said, as he turned back and conned the letter afresh.
"With M. d'Albigny at the bottom of both?"
"Well, if he be not more successful with this," Blondel answered contemptuously, "than he was with the attempt to mine the Arsenal—which ended in supplying us with two or three casks of powder—I think Captain Blandano and I may deal with him."
A murmur of assent approved the boast; but it did not proceed from all. There were men at the table who had children, who had wives, who had daughters, whose faces were grave. Just thirty years had passed over the world since the horrors of the massacre of St. Bartholomew—to be speedily followed by the sack of Antwerp—had paled the cheek of Europe. Just thirty years were to elapse and the sack of Magdeburg was to prove a match and more than a match for both in horror and cruelty. That the Papists, if they entered, would deal more gently with Geneva, the head and front of offence, or extend to the Mother of Heretics mercy which they had refused to her children, these men did not believe. The presence of an enemy ever lurking within a league of their gates, ever threatening them by night and by day, had shaken their nerves. They feared everything, they feared always. In fitful sleep, in the small hours, they heard their doors smashed in; their dreams were disturbed by cries and shrieks, by the din of bells, and the clash of weapons.
To these men Blondel seemed over confident. But no one took on himself to gainsay him in his particular province, the superintendence of the guard; and though Baudichon sighed and Petitot shook his head, the word was left with him. "Is that all, Messer Fabri?" he asked.
"Yes, if we lay it to heart."
"But I want to know," Baudichon struck in, puffing pompously, "what is to be done about—Basterga."
"Basterga? To be sure I was forgetting him," Fabri answered. "What is to be done? What do you say, Messer Blondel? What are we to do about him?"
"I will tell you if you will tell me what the point is that touches him. You forget, Messer Syndic"—with a somewhat sickly smile—"that I was asleep."
"The letter," Fabri replied, returning to it, "touches him seriously. It asserts that a person of that name is here in the Grand Duke's interest, that he is in the secret of these plots, and that we should do well to expel him, if we do not seize and imprison him."
"And you want to know——"
"I want to know," Baudichon answered, rolling in his chair as was his habit when delivering himself, "what you know of him, Messer Blondel."
Blondel turned rudely on him, perhaps to hide a slight ebb of colour from his cheeks. "What I know?" he said.
"No more than you know!"
"But," Petitot retorted in his dry, thin voice, "it was you, Messer Blondel, not Messer Baudichon, who gave him permission to reside in the town."
"And I want to know," Baudichon chimed in remorselessly, "what credentials he had. That is what I want to know!"
"Credentials? Oh, something formal! I don't know what," Blondel replied rudely. He looked to the secretary who sat at the foot of the table. "Do you know?" he asked.
"No, Messer Syndic," the man replied. "I remember that a licence was granted to him in the name of Caesar Basterga, graduate of Padua; and doubtless—for licences to reside are not granted without such—he had letters, but I do not recall from whom. They would be returned to him with the licence."
"And that is all," Petitot said, his long nose drooping, his inquisitive eyes looking over his glasses, "that you know about him, Messer Blondel?"
Did they know anything, and, if so, what did they know? Blondel hesitated. This persistence, this continual harping on one point, began to alarm him. But he carried it bravely. "Do you mean as to his convictions?" he asked with a sneer.
"No, I mean at all!"
"I want to know," Baudichon added—the parrot phrase began to carry to Blondel's ears the note of fate—"what you know about him."
This time a pause betrayed Blondel's hesitation. Should he admit that he had been to Basterga's lodging; or dared he deny a fact that might imply an intimacy greater than he had acknowledged? A faint perspiration rose on his brow as he decided that he dare not. "I know that he lives in a house in the Corraterie," he answered, "a house beside the Porte Tertasse, and that he is a scholar—I believe of some repute. I know so much," he continued boldly, "because he wrote to thank me for the licence, and, by way of acknowledgment, invited me to visit his lodging to view a rare manuscript of the Scriptures. I did so, and remained a few minutes with him. That is all I know of him. I suppose," with a grim look at Baudichon and the Inquisitor, who had exchanged meaning glances, "it is not alleged that I am in the plot with him? Or that he has confided to me the Grand Duke's plans?"
Fabri laughed heartily at the notion, and the laugh, which was echoed by four-fifths of those at the table, cleared the air. Petitot, it is true, limited himself to a smile, and Baudichon shrugged his shoulders. But for the moment the challenge silenced them. The game passed to Blondel's hands, and his spirits rose. "If M. Baudichon wants to know more about him," he said contemptuously, "I dare say that the information can be obtained."
"The point is," Fabri answered, "what are we to do?"
"As to expelling him or seizing him."
"Oh!" The exclamation fell from Blondel's lips before he could stay it. He saw what was coming, and the dilemma in which he was to be placed.
"We have the letter before us," the First Syndic continued, "and apart from it, we know nothing for this person or against him." He looked round the table and met assenting glances. "I think, therefore, that it will be well, to leave it to Messer Blondel. He is responsible for the safety of the city, and it should be for him to say what is to be done."
"Yes, yes," several voices agreed. "Leave it to Messer Blondel."
"You assent to that, Messer Baudichon?"
"I suppose so," the councillor muttered reluctantly.
"Very good," said Fabri. "Then, Messer Blondel, it remains with you to say what is to be done."
The Fourth Syndic hesitated, and with reason; had Baudichon, had the Inquisitor known the whole, they could hardly have placed him in a more awkward dilemma. If he took the course that prudence in his own interests dictated, and shielded Basterga, his action might lay him open to future criticism. If, on the other hand, he gave the word to expel or seize him, he broke at once and for ever with the man who held his last chance of life in the hollow of his hand.
And yet, if he dared adopt the latter course, if he dared give the word to seize, there was a chance, and a good chance, that he would find the remedium in the casket; for with a little arrangement Basterga might be arrested out of doors, or be allured to a particular place and there be set upon. But in that way lay risk; a risk that chilled the current of the Syndic's blood. There was the chance that the attempt might fail; the chance that Basterga might escape; the chance that he might have the remedium about him—and destroy it; the chance that he might have hidden it. There were so many chances, in a word, that the Syndic's heart stood still as he enumerated them, and pictured the crash of his last hope of life.
He could not face the risk. He could not. Though duty, though courage dictated the venture, craven fear—fear for the loss of the new-born hope that for a week had buoyed him up—carried it. Hurriedly at last, as if he feared that he might change his mind, he pronounced his decision.
"I doubt the wisdom of touching him," he said. "To seize him if he be guilty proclaims our knowledge of the plot; it will be laid aside, and another, of which we may not be informed, will be hatched. But let him be watched, and it will be hard if with the knowledge we have we cannot do something more than frustrate his scheme."
After an interval of silence, "Well," Fabri said, drawing a deep breath and looking round, "I believe you are right. What do you say, Messer Baudichon?"
"Messer Blondel knows the man," Baudichon answered drily. "He is, therefore, the best judge."
Blondel reddened. "I see you are determined to lay the responsibility on me," he cried.
"The responsibility is on you already!" Petitot retorted. "You have decided. I trust it may turn out as you expect."
"And as you do not expect!"
"No; but you see"—and again the Inquisitor looked over his glasses—"you know the man, have been to his lodging, have conversed with him, and are the best judge what he is! I have had naught to do with him. By the way," he turned to Fabri, "he is at Mere Royaume's, is he not? Is there not a Spaniard of the name of Grio lodging there?"
Blondel did not answer and the secretary looked up from his register. "An old soldier, Messer Petitot?" he said. "Yes, there is."
"Perhaps you know him also, Messer Blondel?"
"Yes, I know him. He served the State," Blondel answered quietly. He had winked at more than one irregularity on the part of Grio, and at the sound of the name anger gave place to caution. "I have also," he continued, "my eye upon him, as I shall have it upon Basterga. Will that satisfy you, Messer Petitot?"
The councillor leaned forward. "Fac salvam Genevam!" he replied in a voice low and not quite steady. "Do that, keep Geneva safe—guard well our faith, our wives and little ones—and I care not what you do!" And he rose from his seat.
The Fourth Syndic did not answer. Those few words that in a moment raised the discussion from the low level of detail on which the Inquisitor commonly wasted himself, and set it on the true plane of patriotism—for with all his faults Petitot was a patriot—silenced Blondel while they irritated and puzzled him. Why did the man assume such airs? Why talk as if he and he alone cared for Geneva? Why bear himself as if he and he alone had shed and was prepared to shed his blood for the State? Why, indeed? Blondel snarled his indignation, but made no other answer.
A few minutes later, as he descended the stairs, he laughed at the momentary annoyance which he had felt. What did it matter to him, a dying man, who had the better or who the worse, who posed, or who believed in the pose? It was of moment indeed that his enemies had contrived to fix him with the responsibility of arresting Basterga, or of leaving him at large: that they had contrived to connect him with the Paduan, and made him accountable to an extent which did not please him for the man's future behaviour. But yet again what did that matter—after all? Of what moment was it—after all? He was a dying man. Was anything of moment to him except the one thing which Basterga had it in his power to grant or to withhold, to give or to deny?
He pondered on what had passed, and wondered if he had not done foolishly. Certainly he had let slip a grand, a unique opportunity of seizing the man and of snatching the remedium. He had put the chance from him at the risk of future blame. Now he was of two minds about it. Of two minds: but of one mind only about another thing. As he veered this way and that in his mind, now cursing his cowardice, and now thanking God that he had not taken the irrevocable step,
Opportunity That work'st our thoughts into desires, desires To resolutions,
kindled in him a burning impatience to act. If he did not act, if he were not going to act, if he were not going to take some surer and safer step, he had been foolish and trebly foolish to let slip the opportunity that had been his.
But he would act. For a fortnight he had abstained from visiting Basterga, and had even absented himself from the neighbourhood of the house lest the scholar's suspicions should be wakened. But to what purpose if he were not going to act? If he were not going to build on the ground so carefully prepared, to what end this wariness and this abstention?
Within an hour the Syndic, long so wary, had worked himself into a fever and, rather than remain inactive, was ripe for any step, however venturesome, provided it led to the remedium. He had still the prudence to postpone action until night; but when darkness had fairly set in and the bell of St. Peter, inviting the townsfolk to the evening preaching, had ceased to sound—an indication that he would meet few in the streets—he cloaked himself, and, issuing forth, bent his steps across the Bourg du Four in the direction of the Corraterie.
Even now he had no plan in his mind. But amid the medley of schemes that for a week had been hatching in his brain, he hoped to be guided by circumstances to that one which gave surest promise of success. Nor was his courage as deeply rooted as he fancied: the day had told on his nerves; he shivered in the breeze and started at a sound. Yet as often as he paused or hesitated, the words "A dying man! A dying man!" rang in his ears and urged him on.
A SECOND TISSOT.
Messer Blondel's sagacity in forbearing completely and for so long a period the neighbourhood of Basterga proved an unpleasant surprise to one man; and that was the man most concerned. For a day or two the scholar lived in a fool's paradise, and hugging himself on certain success, anticipated with confidence the entertainment which he would derive from the antics of the fish as it played about the bait, now advancing and now retreating. He had formed a low opinion of the magistrate's astuteness, and forgetting that there is a cunning which is rudimentary and of the primitives, he entertained for some time no misgiving. But when day after day passed by and still, though more than a week had elapsed, Blondel did not appear, nor make any overture, when, watch he never so carefully in the dusk of the evening or at the quiet hours of the day, he caught no glimpse of the Syndic's lurking figure, he began to doubt. He began to fear. He began to wait about the door himself in the hope of detecting the other: and a dozen times between dawn and dark he was on his feet at the upper window, looking warily down, on the chance of seeing him in the Corraterie.
At last, slowly and against his will, the fear that the fish would not bite began to take hold of him. Either the Syndic was honest, or he was patient as well as cunning. In no other way could Basterga explain his dupe's inaction. And presently, when he had almost brought himself to accept the former conclusion, on an evening something more than a week later, a thing happened that added sharpness to his anxiety. He was crossing the bridge from the Quarter of St. Gervais, when a man cloaked to the eyes slipped from the shadow of the mills, a little before him, and with a slight but unmistakable gesture of invitation proceeded in front of him without turning his head.
There was mist on the face of the river that rushed in a cataract below; a steady rain was falling, and darkness itself was not far off. There were few abroad, and those were going their ways without looking behind them. A better time for a secret rendezvous could not be, and Messer Basterga's heart leapt up and his spirits rose as he followed the cloaked figure. At the end of the bridge the man turned leftwards on to a deserted wharf between two mills; Basterga followed. Near the water's edge the projecting upper floor of a granary promised shelter from the rain; under this the stranger halted, and turning, lowered with a brusque gesture his cloak from his face. Alas, the eager "Why, Messer Blondel——" that leapt to Basterga's lips died on them. He stood speechless with disappointment, choking with chagrin. The stranger noted it and laughed.
"Well," he said in French, his tone dry and sarcastic, "you do not seem overpleased to see me, Monsieur Basterga! Nor am I surprised. Large promises have ever small fulfilments!"
"His Highness has discovered that?" Basterga replied, in a tone no less sarcastic. For his temper was roused.
The stranger's eyes flickered, as if the other's words touched a sore. "His Highness is growing impatient!" he returned, his tone somewhat warmer. "That is what he has sent me to say. He has waited long, and he bids me convey to you that if he is to wait longer he must have some security that you are likely to succeed in your design."
"Or he will employ other means?"
"Precisely. Had he followed my advice," the stranger continued with an air of lofty arrogance, "he would have done so long ago."
"M. d'Albigny," Basterga answered, spreading out his hands with an ironical gesture, "would prefer to dig mines under the Tour du Pin near the College, and under the Porte Neuve! To smuggle fireworks into the Arsenal and the Town House; and then, on the eve of execution, to fail as utterly as he failed last time! More utterly than my plan can fail, for I shall not put Geneva on its guard—as he did! Nor set every enemy of the Grand Duke talking—as he did!"
M. d'Albigny—for he it was—let drop an oath. "Are you doing anything at all?" he asked savagely, dropping the thin veil of irony that shrouded his temper. "That is the question. Are you moving?"
"That will appear."
"When? When, man? That is what his Highness wants to know. At present there is no appearance of anything."
"No," Basterga replied with fine irony. "There is not. I know it. It is only when the fireworks are discovered and the mines opened and the engineers are flying for their lives—that there is really an appearance of something."
"And that is the answer I am to carry to the Grand Duke?" d'Albigny retorted in a tone which betrayed how deeply he resented such taunts at the lips of his inferior. "That is all you have to tell him?"
Basterga was silent awhile. When he spoke again, it was in a lower and more cautious tone. "No; you may tell his Highness this," he said, after glancing warily behind him. "You may tell him this. The longest night in the year is approaching. Not many weeks divide us from it. Let him give me until that night. Then let him bring his troops and ladders and the rest of it—the care whereof is your lordship's, not mine—to a part of the walls which I will indicate, and he shall find the guards withdrawn, and Geneva at his feet."
"The longest night? But that is some weeks distant," d'Albigny answered in a grumbling tone. Still it was evident that he was impressed by the precision of the other's promise.
"Was Rome built in a day? Or can Geneva be destroyed in a day?" Basterga retorted.
"If I had my hand on it!" d'Albigny answered truculently, "the task would not take more than a day!" He was a Southern Frenchman and an ardent Catholic; an officer of high rank in the employ of Savoy; for the rest, proud, brave, and difficult.
"Ay, but you have not your hand on it, M. d'Albigny!" Basterga retorted coolly. "Nor will you ever have your hand on it, without help from me."
"And that is all you have to say?"
"Very good," d'Albigny replied, nodding contemptuously. "If his Highness be wise——"
"He is wise. At least," Basterga continued drily, "he is wiser than M. d'Albigny. He knows that it is better to wait and win, than leap and lose."
"But what of the discontented you were to bring to a head?" d'Albigny retorted, remembering with relief another head of complaint, on which he had been charged to deliver himself. "The old soldiers and rufflers whom the peace has left unemployed, and with whom the man Grio was to aid you? Surely waiting will not help you with them! There should be some in Geneva who like not the rule of the Pastors and the drone of psalms and hymns! Men who, if I know them, must be on fire for a change! Come, Monsieur Basterga, is no use to be made of them?"
"Ay," Basterga answered, after stepping back a pace to assure himself by a careful look that no one was remarking a colloquy which the time and the weather rendered suspicious. "Use them if you please. Let them drink and swear and raise petty riots, and keep the Syndics on their guard! It is all they are good for, M. d'Albigny; and I cannot say that aught keeps back the cause so much as Grio's friends and their line of conduct!"
"So! that is your opinion, is it, Monsieur Basterga?" d'Albigny answered. "And with it I must go as I came! I am of no use here, it seems?"
"Of great use presently, of none now," Basterga replied with greater respect than he had hitherto exhibited. "Frankly, M. d'Albigny, they fear you and suspect you. But if President Rochette of Chambery, who has the confidence of the Pastors, were to visit us on some pretext or other, say to settle such small matters as the peace has left in doubt, it might soothe their spirits and allay their suspicions. He, rather than M. d'Albigny, is the helper I need at present."
D'Albigny grunted, but it was evident that the other's boldness impressed him. "You think, then, that they suspect us?" he said.
"How should they not? Tell me that. How should they not? Rochette's task must be to lull those suspicions to sleep. In the meantime I——"
"Will be at work," Basterga replied. He laughed drily as if it pleased him to baulk the other's curiosity. Softly he added under his breath,
"Captique dolis, lacrimisque coactis, Quos neque Tydides, nec Larrissaeus Achilles Non anni domuere decem, non mille carinae!
D'Albigny nodded. "Well, I trust you are really counting on something solid," he answered. "For you are taking a great deal upon yourself, Monsieur Basterga. I hope you understand that," he added with a searching look.
"I take all on myself," the big man answered.
The Frenchman was far from content, but he argued no more. He reflected a moment, considering whether he had forgotten anything: then, muttering that he would convey Basterga's views to the Grand Duke, he pulled his cloak more closely about his face, and with a curt nod of farewell, he turned on his heel and was gone. A moment, and he was lost to sight between the wooden mills and sheds which flanked the bridge on either side, and rendered it at once as narrow and as picturesque as were most of the bridges of the day. Basterga, left solitary, waited a while before he left his shelter. Satisfied at length that the coast was clear, he continued his way into the town, and thinking deeply as he went came presently to the Corraterie. It cannot be said that his meditations were of the most pleasant; and perhaps for this reason he walked slowly. When he entered the house, shaking the moisture from his cloak and cap, he found the others seated at table and well advanced in their meal. He was twenty minutes late.
He was a clever man. But at times, in moments of irritation, the sense of his cleverness and of his superiority to the mass of men led him to do the thing which he had better have left undone. It was so this evening. Face to face with d'Albigny, he had put a bold face on the difficulties which surrounded him: he had let no sign of doubt or uncertainty, no word of fear respecting the outcome escape him. But the moment he found himself at liberty, the critical situation of his affairs, if the Syndic refused to take the bait, recurred to his mind, and harassed him. He had no confidante, no one to whom he could breathe his fears, no one to whom he could explain the situation, or with whom he could take credit for his coolness: and the curb of silence, while it exasperated his temper, augmented a hundredfold the contempt in which he held the unconscious companions among whom chance and his mission had thrown him. A spiteful desire to show that contempt sparkled in his eyes as he took his seat at the table this evening; but for a minute or two after he had begun his meal he kept silence.
On a mind such as his, outward things have small effect; otherwise the cheerful homeliness of the scene must have soothed him. The lamp, telling of present autumn and approaching winter, had been lit: a wood-fire crackled pleasantly in the great fireplace and was reflected in rows of pewter plates on either dresser: a fragrant stew scented the air; all that a philosopher of the true type could have asked was at his service. But Basterga belonged rather to the fifteenth century, the century of the south, which was expiring, than to the century of the north which was opening. Splendour rather than comfort, the gorgeousness of Venice, of red-haired dames, stiff-clad in Titian velvets, of tables gleaming with silk and gold and ruby glass, rather than the plain homeliness which Geneva shared with the Dutch cities, held his mind. To-night in particular his lip curled as he looked round. To-night in particular ill-pleased and ill-content he found the place and the company well matched, the one and the other mean and contemptible!
One there—Gentilis—marked the great man's mood, and, cringing, after his kind, kept his eyes low on his platter. Grio, too, knew enough to seek refuge in sullen silence. Claude alone, impatient of the constraint which descended on the party at the great man's coming, continued to talk in a raised voice. "Good soup to-night, Anne," he said cheerfully. For days past he had been using himself to speak to her easily and lightly, as if she were no more to him than to the others.
She did not answer—she seldom did. But "Good?" Basterga sneered in his most cutting tone. "Ay, for schoolboys! And such as have no palate save for pap!"
Claude being young took the thrust a little to heart. He returned it with a boy's impertinence. "We none of us grow thin on it," he said with a glance at the other's bulk.
Basterga's eyes gleamed. "Grease and dish-washings," he exclaimed. And then, as if he knew where he could most easily wound his antagonist, he turned to the girl.
"If Hebe had brought such liquor to Jupiter," he sneered, "do you think he had given her Hercules for a husband, as I shall presently give you Grio? Ha! You flush at the prospect, do you? You colour and tremble," he continued mockingly, "as if it were the wedding-day. You'll sleep little to-night, I see, for thinking of your Hercules!" With grim irony he pointed to his loutish companion, whose gross purple face seemed the coarser for the small peaked beard that, after the fashion of the day, adorned his lower lip. "Hercules, do I call him? Adonis rather."
"Why not Bacchus?" Claude muttered, his eyes on his plate. In spite of the strongest resolutions, he could not keep silence.
"Bacchus? And why, boy?" frowning darkly.
"He were better bestowed on a tun of wine," the youth retorted, without looking up.
"That you might take his place, I suppose?" Basterga retorted swiftly. "What say you, girl? Will you have him?" And when she did not answer, "Bread, do you hear?" he cried harshly and imperiously. "Bread, I say!" And having forced her to come within reach to serve him, "What do you say to it?" he continued, his hand on the trencher, his eyes on her face. "Answer me, girl, will you have him?"
She did not answer, but that which he had quite falsely attributed to her before, a blush, slowly and painfully darkened her cheeks and neck. He seized her brutally by the chin, and forced her to raise her face. "Blushing, I see?" he continued. "Blushing, blushing, eh? So it is for him you thrill, and lie awake, and dream of kisses, is it? For this new youth and not for Grio? Nay, struggle not! Wrest not yourself away! Let Grio, too, see you!"
Claude, his back to the scene, drove his nails into the palms of his hands. He would not turn. He would not, he dared not see what was passing, or how they were handling her, lest the fury in his breast sweep all away, and he rise up and disobey her! When a movement told him that Basterga had released her—with a last ugly taunt aimed as much at him as at her—he still sat bearing it, curbing, drilling, compelling himself to be silent. Ay, and still to be silent, though the voice that so cruelly wounded her was scarcely mute before it began again.
"Tissot, indeed!" Basterga cried in the same tone of bitter jeering. "A fig for Tissot! No more shall we
Upon his viler metal test our purest pure, And see him transmutations three endure!
And why? Because a mightier than Tissot is here! Because," with a coarse laugh,
"Our stone angelical whereby All secret potencies to light are brought
has itself suffered a transmutation! A transmutation do I say! Rather an eclipse, a darkening! He, whom matrons for their maidens fear, has come, has seen, has conquered! And we poor mortals bow before him."
Still Claude, his face burning, his ears tingling, put force upon himself and sat mute, his eyes on the board. He would not look round, he would not acknowledge what was passing. Basterga's tone conveyed a meaning coarser and more offensive than the words he spoke; and Claude knew it, and knew that the girl, at whom he dared not look knew it, as she stood helpless, a butt, a target for their gloating eyes. He would not look for he remembered. He saw the scalding liquid blister the skin, saw the rounded arm quiver with pain; and remembering and seeing, he was resolved that the lesson should not be lost on him. If it was only by suffering he could serve her, he would serve her.
He dared not look even at Gentilis, who sat opposite him; and who was staring in gross rapture at the girl's confusion, and the burning blushes, so long banished from her pale features. For to look at that mean mask of a man was the same thing as to strike! Unfortunately, as it happened, his silence and lack of spirit had a result which he had not foreseen. It encouraged the others to carry their brutality to greater and even greater lengths. Grio flung a gross jest in the girl's face: Basterga asked her mockingly how long she had loved. They got no answer; on which the big man asked his question again, his voice grown menacing; and still she would not answer. She had taken refuge from Grio's coarseness in the farthest corner of the hearth: where stooping over a pot, she hid her burning face. Had they gone too far at last? So far, that in despair she had made up her mind to resist? Claude wondered. He hoped that they had.
Basterga, too, thought it possible; but he smiled wickedly, in the pride of his resources. He struck the table sharply with his knife-haft. "What?" he cried. "You don't answer me, girl? You withstand me, do you? To heel! To heel! Stand out in front of me, you jade, and answer me at once. There! Stand there! Do you hear?" With a mocking eye he indicated with his knife the spot that took his fancy.
She hesitated a moment, scarlet revolt in her face; she hesitated for a long moment; and the lad thought that surely the time had come. But then she obeyed. She obeyed! And at that Claude at last looked up; he could look up safely now for something, even as she obeyed, had put a bridle on his rage and given him control over it. That something was doubt. Why did she comply? Why obey, endure, suffer at this man's hands that which it was a shame a woman should suffer at any man's? What was his hold over her? What was his power? Was it possible, ah, was it possible that she had done anything to give him power? Was it possible——
"Stand there!" Basterga repeated, licking his lips. He was in a cruel temper: harassed himself, he would make some one suffer. "Remember who you are, wench, and where you are! And answer me! How long have you loved him?"
The face no longer burned: her blushes had sunk behind the mask of apathy, the pallid mask, hiding terror and the shame of her sex, which her face had worn before, which had become habitual to her. "I have not loved him," she answered in a low voice.
"I have not loved him."
"You do not love him?"
"No." She did not look at Claude, but dully, mechanically, she stared straight before her.
Grio laughed boisterously. "A dose for young Hopeful!" he cried. "Ho! Ho! How do you feel now, Master Jackanapes?"
The big man smiled.
"Galle, quid insanis? inquit, Tua cura Lycoris Perque nives alium perque horrida castra secuta est!"
he murmured. He bowed ironically in Claude's direction. "The gentleman passes beyond the jurisdiction of the court," he said. "She will have none of him, it seems; nor we either! He is dismissed."
Claude, his eyes burning, shrugged his shoulders and did not budge. If they thought to rid themselves of him by this fooling they would learn their mistake. They wished him to go: the greater reason he should stay. A little thing—the sight of a small brown hand twitching painfully, while her face and all the rest of her was still and impassive, had expelled his doubts for the time—had driven all but love and pity and burning indignation from his breast. All but these, and the memory of her lesson and her will. He had promised and he must suffer.
Whether Basterga was deceived by his inaction, or of set purpose was minded to try how far they could go with him, the big man turned again to his victim. "With you, my girl," he said, "it is otherwise. The soup was bad, and you are mutinous. Two faults that must be paid for. There was something of this, I remember, when Tissot—our good Tissot, who amused us so much—first came. And we tamed you then. You paid forfeit, I think. You kissed Tissot, I think; or Tissot kissed you."
"No, it was I kissed her," Gentilis said with a smirk. "She chose me."
"Under compulsion," Basterga retorted drily. "Will you ransom her again?"
"Willingly! But it should be two this time," Gentilis said grinning. "Being for the second offence, a double——"
"Pain," quoth Basterga. "Very good. Do you hear, my girl? Go to Gentilis, and see you let him kiss you twice! And see we see and hear it. And have a care! Have a care! Or next time your modesty may not escape so easily! To him at once, and——"
"No!" The cry came from Claude. He was on his feet, his face on fire. "No!" he repeated passionately.
"Not while I am here! Not under compulsion," the young man cried. "Shame on you!" He turned to the others, generous wrath in his face. "Shame on you to torture a woman so—a woman alone! And you three to one!"
Basterga's face grew dark. "You are right! We are three," he muttered, his hand slowly seeking a weapon in the corner behind him. "You speak truth there, we are three—to one! And——"
"You maybe twenty, I will not suffer it!" the lad cried gallantly. "You may be a hundred——"
But on that word, in the full tide of speech he stopped. His voice died as suddenly as it had been raised, he stammered, his whole bearing changed. He had met her eyes: he had read in them reproach, warning, rebuke. Too late he had remembered his promise.
The big man leaned forward. "What may we be?" he asked. "You were going, I think, to say that we might be—that we might be——"
But Claude did not answer. He was passing through a moment of such misery as he had never experienced. To give way to them now, to lower his flag before them after he had challenged them! To abandon her to them, to see her—oh, it was more than he could do, more than he could suffer! It was——
"Pray go on," Basterga sneered, "if you have not said your say. Do not think of us!"
Oh, bitter! But he remembered how the scalding liquor had fallen on the tender skin. "I have said it," he muttered hoarsely. "I have said it," and by a movement of his hand, pathetic enough had any understood it, he seemed to withdraw himself and his opposition.
But when, obedient to Basterga's eye, the girl moved to Gentilis' side and bent her cheek—which flamed, not by reason of Gentilis or the coming kisses, but of Claude's presence and his cry for her—he could not bear it. He could not stay and see it, though to go was to abandon her perhaps to worse treatment. He rose with a cry and snatched his cap, and tore open the door. With rage in his heart and their laughter, their mocking, triumphant laughter, in his ears, he sprang down the steps.
A coward! That was what he must seem to them. A coward's part, that was the part they had seen him play. Into the darkness, into the night, what mattered whither, when such fierce anger boiled within him? Such self-contempt. What mattered whither when he knew how he had failed! Ay, failed and played the Tissot! The Tissot and the weakling!
ON THE THRESHOLD.
He hurried along the ramparts in a rage with those whom he had left, in a still greater rage with himself. He had played the Tissot with a vengeance. He had flown at them in weak passion, he had recoiled as weakly, he had left them to call him coward. Now, even now, he was fleeing from them, and they were jeering at him. Ay, jeering at him; their laughter followed him, and burned his ears.
The rain that beat on his fevered face, the moist wind from the Rhone Valley below, could not wipe out that—the defeat and the shame. The darkness through which he hurried could not hide it from his eyes. Thus had Tissot begun, flying out at them, fleeing from them, a thing of mingled fury and weakness. He knew how they had regarded Tissot. So they now regarded him.
And the girl? What shame lay on his manhood who had abandoned her, who had left her to be their sport! His rage boiled over as he thought of her, and with the rain-laden wind buffeting his brow he halted and made as if he would return. But to what end if she would not have his aid, to what end if she would not suffer him? With a furious gesture, he hurried on afresh, only to be arrested, by-and-by, at the corner of the ramparts near the Bourg du Four, by a dreadful thought. What if he had deceived himself? What if he had given back before them, not because she had willed it, not because she had looked at him, not in compliance with her wishes; but in face of the odds against him, and by virtue of some streak of cowardice latent in his nature? The more he thought of it, the more he doubted if she had looked at him; the more likely it seemed that the look had been a straw, at which his craven soul had grasped!
The thought maddened him. But it was too late to return, too late to undo his act. He must have left them a full half-hour. The town was growing quiet, the sound of the evening psalms was ceasing. The rustle of the wind among the branches covered the tread of the sentries as they walked the wall between the Porte Neuve and the Mint tower; only their harsh voices as they met midway and challenged came at intervals to his ears. It must be hard on ten o'clock. Or, no, there was the bell of St. Peter's proclaiming the half-hour after nine.
He was ashamed to return to the house, yet he must return; and by-and-by, reluctantly and doggedly, he set his face that way. The wind and rain had cooled his brow, but not his brain, and he was still in a fever of resentment and shame when his lagging feet brought him to the house. He passed it irresolutely once, unable to make up his mind to enter and face them. Then, cursing himself for a poltroon, he turned again and made for the door.
He was within half a dozen strides of it when a dark figure detached itself from the doorway, and stumbled down the steps. Its aim seemed to be to escape, and leaping to the conclusion that it was Gentilis, and that some trick was being prepared for him, Claude sprang forward. His hand shot out, he grasped the other's neck. His wrath blazed up.
"You rogue!" he said. "I'll teach you to lie in wait for me!" And shifting his grasp from the man's neck to his shoulder, he turned him round regardless of his struggles. As he did so the man's hat fell off. With amazement Claude recognised the features of the Syndic Blondel.
The young man's arm fell, and he stared, open-mouthed and aghast, the passion with which he had seized the stranger whelmed in astonishment.
The Syndic, on the other hand, behaved with a strange composure. Breathing rather quickly, but vouchsafing no word of explanation, he straightened the crumpled linen about his neck, and set right his coat. He was proceeding, still in silence, to pick up his hat, when Claude, anticipating the action, secured the hat and restored it to him.
"Thank you," he said. And then, stiffly, "Come with me," he continued.
He turned as he spoke and led the way to a spot at some distance from the house, yet within sight of the door; there he wheeled about. "I was coming to see you," he said, steadfastly confronting Claude. "Why have you not called upon me, young man, in accordance with the invitation I gave you?"
Claude stared. The Syndic's matter-of-factness and the ease with which he ignored what had just passed staggered him. Perhaps after all Blondel had come for this, and had been startled while waiting at the door by the quickness of his approach. "I—I had overlooked it," he murmured, trying to accept the situation.
"Then," the Syndic answered shrewdly, "I can see that you have not wanted anything."
"You lodge there?" Blondel continued, pointing to the house. "But I know you do. And keep late hours, I fear. You are not alone in the house, I think?"
"No," Claude replied; and on a sudden, as his mind went back to the house and those in it, there leapt into it the temptation to tell all to this man, a magistrate, and appeal to him in the girl's behalf. He could not speak to a more proper person, if he sought the city through; and here was the opportunity, brought unsought, to his door. But then he had not the girl's leave to speak; could he speak without her leave? He shifted his feet, and to gain time, "No," he said slowly, "there are two or three who lodge in the house."
"Is not the person with whom you quarrelled at the inn one of them?" the Syndic asked. "Eh? Is not he one?"
"Yes," Claude answered; and the recollection of the scene and of the support which the Syndic had given to Grio checked the impulse to speak. Perhaps after all the girl knew best.
"And a person of the name of Basterga, I think?"
Claude nodded. He dared not trust himself to speak now. Could it be that a whisper of what was passing in the house had reached the magistrates?
The Syndic coughed. He glanced from the distant door, now a mere blur in the obscurity, to his companion's face and back again to the door—of which he seemed reluctant to lose sight. For a moment he seemed at a loss how to proceed. When he did speak, after a long pause, it was in a dry curt tone. "It is about him I wish to hear something," he said. "I look to you as a good citizen to afford such information as the State requires. The matter is more important than you think. I ask you what you know of that man."
Claude stared. "I know no good," he answered, more and more surprised. "I do not like him, Messer Syndic."
"But he is a learned man, I believe. He passes for such, does he not?"
"Yet you do not like him. Why?"
Claude's face burned. "He puts his learning to no good use," he blurted out. "He uses it to—to torture women. If I could tell you all—all, Messer Blondel," the young man continued, in growing excitement, "you would understand me better! He gains power over people, a strange power, and abuses it."
"Power? What do you mean? What kind of power?"
The Syndic stared a moment, his face expressive of contempt. This was not the line he had meant his questions to take. What did it matter to him how the man treated women? Pshaw! Then suddenly a light—as of satisfaction, or discovery—gleamed in his eyes. "Do you mean," he muttered, lowering his voice, "by sorcery?"
"By evil arts?"
The young man shook his head. "I do not know," he answered, almost pettishly. "How should I? But he has a power. A secret power! I do not understand him or it!"
The Syndic looked at him darkly thoughtful. "You did not know that that was said of him?" he asked.
"Has magical arts?"
Claude shook his head.
"Nor that he has a laboratory upstairs?" Blondel continued, fixing the young man gravely with his eyes. "A laboratory in which he reads much in unknown tongues? And speaks much when no one is present? And tries experiments with strange substances?"
Claude shook his head. "No!" he said. "Never! I never heard it."
He never had; but in his eyes dawned none the less a look of horror. No man in those days doubted the existence of the devilish arts at which Blondel hinted—arts by the use of which one being could make himself master of the will and person of another. No man doubted their existence: and that they were rare, were difficult, were seldom brought within a man's experience, made them only the more hateful without making them seem to the men of that day the less probable. That they were often exercised at the cost of the innocent and pure, who in this way were added to the accursed brood—few doubted this too; but the full horror of it could be known only to the man who loved, and who reverenced where he loved. Fortunately, men who never doubted the reality of witchcraft, seldom conceived of it as touching those about them; and it was only slowly that Claude took in the meaning of the Syndic's suggestion, or discerned how perfectly it accounted for a thing otherwise unaccountable—the mysterious sway which the scholar held over the young girl.
But he reached, he came to that point at last; and his silence and agitation were more eloquent than words. The Syndic, who had not shot his bolt wholly at a venture—for to accuse Basterga of the black art had passed through his mind before—saw that he had hit the mark; and he pushed his advantage. "Have you noted aught," he asked, "to bear out the idea that he is given to such practices?"
Claude was silent in sheer horror: horror of the thing suggested to him, horror of the punishment in which he might involve the innocent.
"I don't know!" he stammered at last, and almost incoherently. "I know nothing! Don't ask me! God grant it be not so!" And he covered his face.
"Amen! Amen, indeed," Blondel answered gravely. "But now for the woman, over whom you said he had power?"
"Aye, you, a minute ago! Who is she? Is she one of the household? Come, young man, you must answer me," the Syndic continued with severity proportioned to the other's hesitation. "I know much, and a little more light may enable us to act and to bring the guilty to punishment. Does she live in the house?"
Only the darkness hid Claude's pallor. "There is a woman," he muttered reluctantly, "who lives in the house. But I know nothing! I have no proof! Nothing, nothing!"
"But you suspect! You suspect, young man," the Syndic continued, eyeing him sternly, "and suspecting you would leave her in the clutches of the devil whose she must become, body and soul! For shame!"
"But I do not believe it!" Claude cried fiercely. "I do not believe it!"
"Of her? No! Mon dieu! No! She is a child! She is innocent! Innocent as——"
"The day! you would say?" the Syndic struck in, almost solemnly. "The likelier prey? The choicest are ever the devil's morsels."
"And you think that she——"
"God help her, if she be in his power! This man," the Syndic continued, laying his hand on the other's arm, "has ruined hundreds by his secret arts, by his foul practices, by his sorceries. He has made Venice too hot for him. In Padua they will have him no more. Genoa has driven him forth. If you doubt this character of him there is an easy proof; for it is whispered, nay, it is almost certain, in what his power lies. Do you know his room?"
"No?" in a tone of dismay. "But is it not on a level with yours?"
"No," Claude answered, shivering; "it is over mine."
"No matter, there is an easy mode of proving him," the Syndic replied; and despite himself his tone was eager. "If he be the man they say he is, there is in his room a box of steel chained to the wall. It contains the spell he uses. By means of it he can enter where he pleases, he can enslave women to his will, he——"
"And you do not seize it?" Claude cried in a tone of horror.
"He has the Grand Duke's protection," the Syndic answered smoothly, "and to touch him without clear proof might cause much trouble to the State."
"And for that you suffer him," Claude exclaimed, his voice trembling. "You suffer him to work his will? You suffer him——"
"I must follow the law," Blondel answered, shaking his head. He looked warily round; the dark ramparts were quiet. "I act but as a magistrate. Were I a mere man and knew him, as I know him now, for what he is—a foul magician weaving his spells about the young, ensnaring, with his sorceries, the souls of innocent women, corrupting—but what is it, young man?"
"He is within?"
"No; he left the house a minute or so before you arrived. But what is it?" Seizing the young man's arm he restrained him. "Where are you going?"
"To his room!" Claude answered between his set teeth. "Be he man or devil—to his room!"
"I dare and I will!" Resisting the Syndic's feigned efforts to hold him back, he strode towards the door. "That spell shall not be his another hour."
But Blondel terrified by his sudden success, and loth, now the time was come, to put all on a cast, kept his hand on him. "Stay! Stay!" he babbled, dragging him back. "Do not be rash!"
"Stay, and leave him to ruin her!"
"Still, listen! Whatever you do, listen!" the Syndic answered; and insisted, clinging to him. His agitation was such, that had Claude retained his powers of observation, he must have found something strange in this anxiety. "Listen! If you find the casket, on your life touch nothing in it! On your life!" Blondel repeated, his hands clinging more tightly to the other's arm. "Bring it entire—touch nothing! If you do not promise me I will raise the alarm here and now! To open it, I warn you, is to risk all!"
"I will bring it!" Claude answered, his foot on the steps, his hand on the latch. "I will bring it!"
"Ay, but you do not know what hangs on it! You will bring it as you find it?"
His persistence was so strange, he clung to the young man's arm with so complete an abandonment of his ordinary manner, that, with the latch half raised, Claude looked at him in wonder. "Very well, I will bring it as I find it!" he muttered. Then, notwithstanding a movement which the Syndic made to restrain him, he pushed the door.
It was not locked, and, in a moment, he stood in the living-room which he had left little more than an hour before. It was untenanted, but not in darkness; a rushlight, set in an earthen vessel on the hearth, flung long shadows on the walls and ceiling, and gave to the room, so homely in its every-day aspect, a sinister look. The door of Gentilis' room was shut; probably he was asleep. That at the foot of the staircase was also shut. Claude stood a moment, frowning; then he crossed the floor towards the staircase door. But though his mind was fixed, the spell of the other's excitement told on him: the flicker of the rushlight made him start; and half-way across the room a sound at his elbow brought him up as if he had been stabbed. He turned his head, expecting to find the big man's eyes bent on him from some corner. He found instead the Syndic, who had stolen in after him, and with a dark anxious face was standing like a shadow of guilt between him and the door.
The young man resented the alarm which the other had caused him. "If you are going, go," he muttered. "And if you will do it yourself, Messer Syndic, so much the better." He pointed to the door of the staircase.
The Syndic recoiled, his beard wagging senilely. "No, no," he babbled. "No, I will go back."
It was no longer the formal magistrate, but a frightened man who stood at Claude's elbow. And this was so clear that superstition, which is of all things the most infectious, began to shake the young man's resolution. Desperately he threw it off, and went to open the door. Then he reflected that it would be dark upstairs, he must have a light; and re-crossing the floor he brought the rushlight from the hearth. Holding it aloft he opened the creaking door and began to ascend the stairs.
With every step the awe of the other world grew on him; while the shadow, which he had found at his elbow below, followed him upwards. When he paused at the head of the flight the Syndic's face was on a level with his knee, the Syndic's eyes were fixed on his.
Claude did not understand this; but the man's company was welcome now; and the sight of Basterga's door, not three paces from the place where he stood, diverted his thoughts. He had not been above stairs since the day of his arrival, but he knew that Basterga's room was the nearest to the stairs. That was the door then; behind that door the Italian wrought his devilish spells!
His light, smoky and wavering, cast black shadows on the walls of the passage as he moved. The air seemed heavy, laden with some strange drug; the house was still, with the stillness which precedes horror. Not many men of his time, suspecting what he suspected, would have opened that door, or at that hour of the night would have entered that room. But Claude, though he feared, though he shuddered, though unearthly terrors pressed upon him, possessed a charm that supported his courage: the memory of the scene in the room below, of the scalding drops falling on the white skin, of the girl looking at him with that face of pain. The devil was strong, but there was a stronger; and in the strength of love the young man approached the door and tried it. It was locked.
Somehow the fact augmented his courage. "Where the devil is, is no need of locks," he muttered, and he felt above the door, then, stooping, groped under it. In the latter place he found the key, thrust out of sight between door and floor, where doubtless it was Basterga's custom to hide it. He drew it out, and with a grim face set it in the lock.
"Quick!" muttered a voice in his ear, and turning he saw that the Syndic was trembling with eagerness. "Quick, quick! Or he may return!"
Claude smiled. If he did not fear the devil he certainly did not fear Basterga. He was about to turn the key in the lock when a sound stayed his hand, ay, and rooted him to the spot. Yet it was only a laugh—but a laugh such as his ears had never caught before, a laugh full of ghastly, shrill, unearthly mirth. It rang through the passage, through the house, through the night; but whence it proceeded, whether from some being at his elbow, or from above stairs, or below, it was impossible to say; and the blood gone from his face, Claude stood, peering over his shoulder into the dark corners of the passage. Again that laugh rose, shrill, mocking, unearthly; and this time his hand fell from the lock.
The Syndic, utterly unmanned, leant sweating against the wall. He called upon the name of his Maker. "My God!" he muttered. "My God!"
"There is no God!"
The words, each syllable of them clear, though spoken in a voice shrill and cracked and strange, and such as neither of them had ever heard before, were beyond doubt. Close on them followed a shriek of weird laughter, and then the blasphemy repeated in the same tone of mockery. The hair crept on Claude's head, the blood withdrew to his heart. The key which he had drawn out of the lock fell from the hand it seemed to freeze.
With distended eyes he glared down the passage. The words were still in the air, the laughter echoed in his brain, the shadows cast by the shaking rushlight danced and took weird shapes. A rustling as of black wings gathered about him, unseen shapes hovered closer and closer—was it his fancy or did he hear them?
He tried to disbelieve, he strove to withstand his terror; and a moment his fortitude held. Then, as the Syndic, shaking as with the palsy, tottered, with a hand on either wall down the stairs, and moaning aloud in his terror, felt his way across the room below, Claude's courage, too, gave way; not in face of that he saw, but of that which he fancied. He turned too, and with a greater show of composure, and still carrying the light, he stumbled down the stairs and into the room below.
There, for an instant sense and nerve returned, and he stood. He turned even, and made as if he would re-ascend the staircase. But he had no sooner thrust his head into it, and paused an instant to listen ere he ventured, than a faint echo of the same mirthless laughter reached him, and he turned shuddering, and fled—fled out of the room, out of the house, out of the light, to the same spot under the trees whence he had started with so bold a heart a few minutes earlier.
The Syndic was there before him—or no, not the Syndic, but a stricken man, clinging to a tree; seized now and again with a fresh fit of trembling. "Take me home," he babbled. "There is no hope! There is no hope. Take me home!"
His house was not far off, and Claude, when he had a little recovered himself, assented, gave the tottering man his arm and supported him—he needed support—until they reached the dwelling in the Bourg du Four. Still a wreck Blondel was by this time a little more coherent. He foresaw solitude, and dreaded it; and would have had the other enter and pass the night with him. But the young man, already ashamed of his weakness, already doubting and questioning, refused, and would say no more than that he would return on the morrow. With an aspect apparently composed, he insisted on taking his leave, turned from the door and retraced his steps to the Corraterie. But when he came to the house, he lacked, brave as he was, the heart to enter; and passing it, he spent the time until daybreak, in walking up and down the rampart within hearing of the sentries.
His mind grown somewhat calmer, he set himself to recall, precisely and exactly, the thing that had happened. But recall it as he might, he could not account for it. The words of blasphemy that had scorched his ears as the key entered the lock, had been uttered, he was sure, in no voice known to him; nay more, in no voice of human intonation. How could he explain them? How account for them save in one way? How defend his cowardice save on one ground? He shuddered, gazing at the house, and murmuring now a prayer, and now a word of exorcism. But the day had come, the sky was red, and the sun was near its rising before he took courage and dared to cross the threshold.
Even then, with the daylight about him, he crept into the house under a weight of awe and dread. He left the door ajar that the daylight might enter with him and dispel the shadows: and when he had crossed the threshold it was with a pale and frowning face that he advanced to the middle of the floor, and stood peering round the deserted living-room. No one was stirring above or below, the house and all within it slept: the rushlight stand, its wick long extinguished, remained where he had set it down in the panic of his flight.
With that exception—he eyed it darkly—no trace of the mysterious event of the night was visible. The room wore, or minute by minute assumed, its daylight aspect. Nor had he stood long gazing upon it before he breathed more freely and felt his heart lightened. What was to be thought, what could be thought in the circumstances, he was not prepared to say. But the panic of the night was gone with the darkness; and with it all thought—if in the depths he had really sunk so low—of relinquishing the woman he loved to the powers of evil.
To the powers of evil! To a fate as much worse than death as the soul and the mind are higher than the body! Was he really face to face with that? Was this house, so quiet, so peaceful, so commonplace, in reality the theatre of one of those manifestations of Satan's power which were the horror of the age? His senses affirmed it, and yet he doubted. Such things were, he did not deny it. Few men of the time denied it. But presented to him, brought within his experience, they shocked him to the point of disbelief. He found that from the thing which he was prepared to admit in the general, he dissented fiercely and instinctively in the particular.
What, the woman he loved! Was he to believe her delivered, soul and body, to the power of Satan? Never! All that was sane and wholesome and courageous in the man rebelled against the thought. He would not believe it. The pots and pans on the hearth, the simple implements of work and life, on which his eyes alighted wherever he turned them, and to none of which her hand was stranger, his memory of the love that was between her and her mother, his picture of the sacred life led by those two above stairs, all gave the lie to it! Her subjection to Basterga, her submission to contumely and to insult—there must be a reason for these, a natural and innocent reason could he hit on it. The strange occurrences of the night, the blasphemous words, the mocking laughter, at the worst they might not import a mastery over her. He shuddered as he recalled them, they rang in his ears and brain, the vividness of his memory of them was remarkable. But they might not have relation to her.
He stood long in moody thought, but his ears never for an instant relaxed their vigil, their hearkening for he knew not what. At length he passed into his bedcloset, and cooled his hot face with water and repaired his dress. Coming out again, he found the house still quiet, the door as he had left it, the daylight pouring in through the aperture. No one was moving, he was still safe from interruption; and a curiosity to visit the passage above and learn if aught abnormal was to be seen, took possession of him. It was just possible that Basterga had not returned; that the key still lay where he had dropped it!