He opened the door of the staircase and listened. He heard nothing, and he stole half-way up the flight and again stood. Still all was silent. He mounted more boldly then, and he was within four steps of the top—whence, turning his head a little, he could command the passage—when a sound arrested him. It was a sound easily explicable though it startled him; for a moment later Anne Royaume appeared at the foot of the upper flight of stairs, and moved along the passage towards him.
She did not see him, and he could have escaped unnoticed, had he retired at once. But he stood fixed to the spot by something in her appearance; a something that, as she moved slowly towards him, fancying herself alone, filled him with dread, and with something worse than dread—suspicion.
For if ever woman looked as if she had come from a witch's Sabbath, if ever girl, scarce more than child, walked as if she had plucked the fruit of the Tree and savoured it bitter, it was the girl before him. Despair—it seemed to him—rode her like a hag. Dejection, fear, misery, were in her whole bearing. Her eyes looked out from black hollows, her cheeks were pallid, her mouth was nerveless. Three sleepless nights, he thought, could not have changed a woman thus—no, nor thrice three; and he who had seen her last night and saw her now, gazed fascinated and bewildered, asking himself what had happened, what it meant.
Alas, for answer there rose the spectre which he had been striving to lay; the spectre that had for the men of that day so appalling, so shocking a reality. Witchcraft! The word rang in his brain. Witchcraft would account for this, ay, for all; for her long submission to vile behests and viler men; for that which he had heard in this house at midnight; for that which the Syndic had whispered of Basterga; for that which he noted in her now! Would account for it; ay, but by fixing her with a guilt, not of this world, terrible, abnormal: by fixing her with a love of things vile, unspeakable, monstrous, a love that must deprive her life of all joy, all sweetness, all truth, all purity! A guilt and a love that showed her thus!
But thus, for a moment only. The next she espied his face above the landing-edge, perceived that he watched her, detected, perhaps, something of his feeling. With startling abruptness her features underwent a change. Her cheeks flamed high, her eyes sparkled with resentment. "You!" she cried—and her causeless anger, her impatience of his presence, confirmed the dreadful idea he had conceived. "You!" she repeated. "How dare you come here? How dare you? What are you doing here? Your room is below. Go down, sir!"
He did not move, but he met her eyes; he tried to read her soul, his own quaking. And his look, sombre and stern—for he saw a gulf opening at his feet—should have given her pause. Instead, her anger faced him down and mastered him. "Do you hear me?" she flung at him. "Do you hear me? If you have aught to say, if you are not as those others, go down! Go down, and I will hear you there!"
He went down then, giving way to her, and she followed him. She closed the staircase door behind them; and that done, in the living-room with her he would have spoken. But with a glance at Gentilis' door, she silenced him, and led the way through the outer door to the open air. The hour was still early, the sun was barely risen. Save for a sentry sleeping at his post on the ramparts, there was no one within sight, and she crossed the open space to the low wall that looked down upon the Rhone. There, in a spot where the partly stripped branches which shaded the rampart hid them from the windows, she turned to him. "Now," she said—there was a smouldering fire in her eyes—"if you have aught to say to me, say it. Say it now!"
He hesitated. He had had time to think, and he found the burden laid upon him heavy. "I do not know," he answered, "that I have any right to speak to you."
"Right!" she cried; and let her bitterness have way in that word. "Right! Does any stay for that where I am concerned? Or ask my leave, or crave my will, sir? Right? You have the same right to flout and jeer and scorn me, the same right to watch and play the spy on me, to hearken at my door, and follow me, that they have! Ay, and the same right to bid me come and go, and answer at your will, that others have! Do you scruple a little at beginning?" she continued mockingly. "It will wear off. It will come easy by-and-by! For you are like the others!"
"You are as the others! You begin as they began!" she repeated, giving the reins to her indignation. "The day you came, last night even, I thought you different. I deemed you"—she pressed her hand to her bosom as if she stilled a pain—"other than you are! I confess it. But you are their fellow. You begin as they began, by listening on stairs and at doors, by dogging me and playing eavesdropper, by hearkening to what I say and do. Right?" she repeated the word bitterly, mockingly, with fierce unhappiness. "You have the right that they have! The same right!"
"Have I?" he asked slowly. His face was sombre and strangely old.
"Then how did I gain it?" he retorted with a dark look. "How"—his tone was as gloomy as his face—"did they gain it? Or—he?"
"He?" The flame was gone from her face. She trembled a little.
"Yes, he—Basterga," he replied, his eyes losing no whit of the change in her. "How did he gain the right which he has handed on to others, the right to shame you, to lay hand on you, to treat you as he does? This is a free city. Women are no slaves here. What then is the secret between you and him?" Claude continued grimly. "What is your secret?"
"My secret!" Her passion dwindled under his eyes, under his words.
"Ay," Claude answered, "and his! His secret and yours. What is the thing between you and him?" he continued, his eyes fixed on her, "so dark, so weighty, so dangerous, you must needs for it suffer his touch, bear his look, be smooth to him though you loathe him? What is it?"
"Perhaps—love," she muttered, with a forced smile. But it did not deceive him.
"You loathe him!" he said.
"I may have loved him—once," she faltered.
"You never loved him," he retorted. All the shyness of youth, all the bashfulness of man with maiden were gone. Under the weight of that thought, that dreadful thought, he had grown old in a few minutes. His tone was hard, his manner pitiless. "You never loved him!" he repeated, the very immodesty of her excuse confirming his fears. "And I ask you, what is it? What is it that is between you and him? What is it that gives him this power over you?"
"Nothing," she stammered, pale to the lips.
"Nothing! And was it for nothing that you were startled when you found me upstairs? When you found me watching you five minutes ago, was it for nothing that you flamed with rage——"
"You had no right to be there."
"No? Yet it was an innocent thing enough—to be there," he answered. "To be there, this morning." And then, giving the words all the meaning of which his voice was capable, "To have been there last night," he continued, "were a different thing perhaps."
"Were you there?" Her voice was barely audible.
It was dreadful to see how she sank under that, how she cringed before him, her anger gone, her colour gone, the light fled from her eyes—eyes grown suddenly secretive. It was a minute, it seemed a minute at least, before she could frame a word, a single word. Then, "What do you know?" she whispered. But for the wall against which she leant, she must have fallen.
"What do I know?"
She nodded, unable to repeat the words.
"I was at the door of Basterga's room last night."
"Yes. I had the key of his room in my hand. I was putting it into the lock when I heard——"
"Hush!" She stepped forward, she would have put her hand over his mouth. "Hush! Hush!"
The terror of her eyes, the glance she cast behind her, echoed the word more clearly than her lips. "Hush! Hush!"
He could not bear to look at her. Her voice, her terror, the very defence she had striven to make confirmed him in his worst suspicions. The thing was too certain, too apparent; in mercy to himself as well as to her, he averted his eyes.
They fell on the hills on which he had gazed that morning barely a fortnight earlier, when the autumn haze had mirrored her face; and all his thoughts, his heart, his fancy had been hers, her prize, her easy capture. And now he dared not look on her face. He could not bear to see it distorted by the terrors of an evil conscience. Even her words when she spoke again jarred on him.
"You knew the voice?" she whispered.
"I did not know it," he answered brokenly. "I knew—whose it was."
"Yes." He scarcely breathed the word.
She did not cry "Hush!" this time, but she caught her breath; and after a moment's pause, "Still—you did not recognise it?" she murmured. "You did not know that it was my voice?" Could it be that after all she hoped to blind him?
"I did not."
"Thank God?" He stared at her, echoing the words in his astonishment. How dared she name the sacred name?
She read his thoughts. "Yes," she said hardily, "why not?"
He turned on her. "Why not?" he cried. "Why not? You dare to thank Him, who last night denied Him? You dare to name His name in the light, who in the darkness——You! And you are not afraid?"
"Afraid?" she repeated. There was a strange light, almost a smile he would have deemed it had he thought that possible, in her face, "Nay, perhaps; perhaps. For even the devils, we are told, believe and tremble."
His jaw fell; for a moment he gazed at her in sheer bewilderment. Then, as the full import of her words and her look overwhelmed him, he turned to the wall and bowed his face on his arms. His whole being shook, his soul was sick. What was he to say to her? What was he to do? Flee from her presence as from the presence of Antichrist? Avoid her henceforth as he valued his soul? Pluck even the memory of her from his mind? Or wrestle with her, argue with her, snatch her from the foul spells and enchantments that now held her, the tool and chosen instrument of the evil one, in their fiendish grip?
He felt a Churchman's horror—Protestant as he was—at the thought of a woman possessed. But for that reason, and because he was in the way of becoming a minister, was it not his duty to measure his strength with the Adversary? Alas! he could conceive of no words, no thoughts, no arguments adequate to that strife. Had he been a Papist he might have turned with hope, even with pious confidence, to the Holy Stoup, the Bell and Book and Candle, to the Relics, and hundred Exorcisms of his Church. But the colder and more abstract faith of Calvin, while it admitted the possibility of such possessions, supplied no weapons of a material kind.
He groaned in his impotence, stifled by the unwholesome atmosphere of his thoughts. He dared not even ponder too long on what she was who stood beside him; nor peer too closely through the murky veil that hid her being. To do so might be to risk his soul, to become a partner in her guilt. He might conjecture what dark thoughts and dreadful aptitudes lurked behind the girl's gentle mask, he might strive to learn by what black arts she had been seduced, what power over visible things had been the price of her apostasy, what Sabbath-mark, seal and pledge of that apostasy she bore—but at what peril! At what risk of soul and body! His brain reeled, his blood raced at the thought.
Such things had lately been, he knew. Had there not been a dreadful outbreak in Alsace—Alsace, the neighbour almost of Geneva—within the last few years. In Thann and Turckheim, places within a couple of days' journey of Geneva, scores had suffered for such practices; and some of these not old and ugly, but young and handsome, girls and pages of the Court and young wives! Had not the most unlikely persons confessed to practices the most dreadful? The most innocent in appearance to things unspeakable!
But—with a sudden revulsion of feeling—that was in Alsace, he told himself. That was in Alsace! Such things did not happen here at men's elbows! He must have been mad to think it or dream it. And, lifting his head, he looked about him. The sun had risen higher, the rich vale of the Rhone, extended at his feet, lay bathed in air and light and brightness. The burnished hills, the brown, tilled slopes, the gleaming river, the fairness of that rare landscape clad in morning freshness, gave the lie to the suspicions he had been indulging, gave the lie, there and then, to possibilities he dared not have denied in school or pulpit. Nature spoke to his heart, and with smiling face denied the unnatural. In Bamberg and Wurzburg and Alsace, but not here! In Magdeburg, but not here! In Edinburgh, but not here! The world of beauty and light and growth on which he looked would have none of the dark devil's world of which he had been dreaming: the dark devil's world which the sophists and churchmen and the weak-witted of twoscore generations had built up!
He turned and looked at her, the scales fallen from his eyes. Though she was still pale, she had recovered her composure and she met his gaze without blenching. But now, behind the passive defiance, grave rather than sullen, which she presented to his attack, the weakness, the helplessness, the heart pain of the woman were plain.
He discerned them, and while he hungered for a more explicit denial, for a cry of indignant protest, for a passionate repudiation, he found some comfort in that look. And his heart spoke. "I do not believe it!" he cried impetuously, in perfect forgetfulness of the fact that he had not put his charge into words. "I do not—I will not! Only say that it is false! And I will say no more."
Her answer was as cold water thrown upon him. "I will tell you nothing," she answered.
"Why not? Why not?" he cried.
"You ask why not," she answered slowly. "Are you so short of memory? Is it so long since, against my will and prayers, you came into yonder house—that you forget what I said and what I did? And what you promised?"
"My God!" he cried in excitement. "You do not know where you stand! You do not know what perils threaten you. This is no time," he continued, holding out his hands to her in growing agitation, "for sticking on scruples or raising trifles. Tell me all!"
"I will tell you nothing!" she replied with the same quiet firmness. "I have suffered. I suffer. Can you not suffer a little?"
"Not blasphemy!" he said. "Not that! Tell me"—his voice, his face grew suppliant—"tell me only that it was not your voice, Anne. Tell me that it was not you who spoke! Tell me—but that."
"I will tell you nothing!" she answered in the same tone.
"You do not know——"
"I know what it is you have in your mind!" she replied. "What it is you are thinking of me. That they will burn me in the Bourg du Four presently, as they burned the girl in Aix last year! As they burned the woman in Besancon not many months since; I have seen those who saw it. As they did to two women in Zurich—my mother was there! As they did to five hundred people in Geneva in my grandfather's time. It is that," she continued, a strange wild light in her eyes, "that you think they will do to me?"
"God forbid!" he cried.
"Nay, you may do it, too, if you choose," she answered, gravely regarding him. "But I do not think you will, for you are young, almost as young as I am, and, having done it, you would have many years to live and think. You would remember in those years that it was my mother who nursed your father, that it was you who came to us not we to you, that it was you who promised to aid us, not I who sought your aid! You would remember all these things of a morning when you awoke early: and this—that in the end you gave me up to the law and burned me."
"God forbid!" he cried, and hid his face with his hands. The very quietness of her speech set an edge on horror. "God forbid!"
"Ay, but men allow!" she answered drearily. "What if I was mad last night, and in my madness denied my Maker? I am sane to-day, but I must burn, if it be known! I must burn!"
"Not by my mouth!" he cried, his brow damp with sweat. "Never, I swear it! If there be guilt, on my head be the guilt!"
"You mean it? You mean that?" she said.
"You will be silent?"
Her lips parted, hope in her eyes shone—hope which showed how deep her despair had been. "And you will ask no questions?" she whispered.
"I will ask no questions," he answered. He stifled a sigh.
She drew a deep breath of relief, but she did not thank him. It was a thing for which no thanks could be given. She stood a while, sad and thoughtful, reflecting, it seemed, on what had passed; then she turned slowly and left him, crossed the open space, and entered the house, walking as one under a heavy burden.
And he? He remained, troubled at one time by the yearning to follow and comfort and cherish her; cast at another into a cold sweat by the recollection of that voice in the night, and the strange ties which bound her to Basterga. Innocent, it seemed to him, that connection could not be. Based on aught but evil it could hardly be. Yet he must endure, witness, cloak it. He must wait, helpless and inactive, the issue of it. He must lie on the rack, drawn one way by love of her, drawn the other by daily and hourly suspicions, suspicions so strong and so terrible that even love could hardly cast them out.
For the voice he had heard at midnight, and the horrid laughter, which greeted the words of sacrilege—were facts. And her subjection to Basterga, the man of evil past the evil name, was a fact. And her terror and her avowal were facts. He could not doubt, he could not deny them. Only—he loved her. He loved her even while he doubted her, even while he admitted that women as young and as innocent had been guilty of the blackest practices and the most evil arts. He loved her and he suffered: doubting, though he could not abandon her. The air was fresh about him, the world lay sunlit under his eyes. But the beauty of the world had not saved young and tender women, who on such mornings had walked barefoot, none comforting them, to the fiery expiation of their crimes. Perhaps—perhaps among the thousands who had witnessed their last agony, one man hidden in the crowd, had vainly closed ears and eyes, one man had died a hundred deaths in one.
AUCTIO FIT: VENIT VITA.
In his spacious chestnut-panelled parlour, in a high-backed oaken chair that had throned for centuries the Abbots of Bellerive, Messer Blondel sat brooding with his chin upon his breast. The chestnut-panelled parlour was new. The shields of the Cantons which formed a frieze above the panels shone brightly, the or and azure, gules and argent of their quarterings, undimmed by time or wood-smoke. The innumerable panes of the long heavily leaded windows which looked out on the Bourg du Four were still rain-proof; the light which they admitted still found something garish in the portrait of the Syndic—by Schouten—that formed the central panel of the mantelpiece. New and stately, the room had not its pair in Geneva; and dear to its owner's heart had it been a short, a very short time before. He had anticipated no more lasting pleasure, looked forward to no safer gratification for his declining years, than to sit, as he now sat, surrounded by its grandeur. In due time—not at once, lest the people take alarm or his enemies occasion—he had determined to rebuild the whole house after the same fashion. The plans of the oaken gallery, the staircase and dining-chamber, prepared by a trusty craftsman of Basle, lay at this moment in the drawer of the bureau beside his chair.
Now all was changed. A fiat had gone forth, which placed him alike beyond the envy of his friends, and the hatred of his foes. He must die. He must die, and leave these pleasant things, this goodly room, that future of which he had dreamed. Another man would lie warm in the chamber he had prepared; another would be Syndic and bear his wand. The years of stately plenty which he had foreseen, were already as last year's harvest. No wonder that the sheen of portrait and panel, the pride of echoing oak, were fled; or that the eyes with which he gazed on the things about him were dull and lifeless.
Dull and lifeless at one moment, and clouded by the apathy of despair; at another bright with the fierce fever of revolt. In the one phase or the other he had passed many hours of late, some of them amid the dead-sea grandeur of this room. And he had had his hours of hope also. A fortnight back a ray of hope, bright as the goblin light which shines the more brilliantly the darker be the night, had shone on him and amused and enchanted him. And then, in one moment, God and man—or if not God, the devil—had joined to quench the hope; and this morning he sat sunk in deepest despair, all in and around him dark. Hitherto he had regarded appearances. He had hidden alike his malady and his fears, his apathy and his mad revolt; he had lived as usual. But this morning he was beyond that. He could not rouse himself, he could not be doing. His servants, wondering why he did not go abroad or betake himself to some task, came and peeped at him, and went away whispering and pointing and nudging one another. And he knew it. But he paid no heed to them or to anything, until it happened that his eyes, resting dully on the street, marked a man who paused before the door and looked at the house, in doubt it seemed, whether he should seek to enter or should pass on.
For an appreciable time the Syndic watched the loiterer without seeing him. What did it matter to a dying man—a man whom heaven, impassive, abandoned to the evil powers—who came or who went? But by-and-by his eyes conveyed the identity of the man to his brain; and he rose to his feet, laying his hands on a bell which stood on the table beside him. In the act of ringing he changed his mind, and laying the bell down, he strode himself to the outer door, the house door, and opened it. The man was still in the street. Scarcely showing himself, Blondel caught his eye, signed to him to enter, and held the door while he did so.
Claude Mercier—for he it was—entered awkwardly. He followed the Syndic into the parlour, and standing with his cap in his hand, began shamefacedly to explain that he had come to learn how the Syndic was, after—after that which had happened——He did not finish the sentence.
For that matter, Blondel did not allow him to finish. He had passed at sight of the youth into the other of the two conditions between which his days were divided. His eyes glittered, his hands trembled. "Have you done anything?" he asked eagerly; and the voice in which he said it surprised the young man. "Have you done anything?"
"As to Basterga, do you mean, Messer Syndic?"
"As to what else? What else?"
"No, Messer Blondel, I have not."
"Nor learned anything?"
"But you don't mean—to leave it there?" Blondel cried, his voice rising high. And he sat down and rose up again. "You have done nothing, but you are going to do something? What will it be? What?" And then as he discerned the other's surprise, and read suspicion in his eyes, he curbed himself, lowered his tone, and with an effort was himself. "Young man," he said, wiping his brow, "I am still ridden—by what happened last night. I have lain, since we parted, under an overwhelming sense of the presence of evil. Of evil," he repeated, still speaking a little wildly, "such as this God-fearing town should not know even by repute! You think me over-anxious? But I have felt the hot blast of the furnace on my cheek, my head bears even now the smell of the burning. Hell gapes near us!" He was beginning to tremble afresh, partly with impatience of this parleying, partly with anxiety to pluck from the other his answer. The glitter was returning to his eyes. "Hell gapes near us," he repeated. "And I ask you, young man, what are you going to do?"
Claude stared. "What would you have me do?" he asked.
"What would you have done last night?" the Syndic retorted. "Did you ask me then? Did you wait for my permission? Did you wait even for my presence?"
"Things are changed."
"Changed? How?" Blondel's tone sank to one of unnatural calm; but his frame shook and his face was purple with the pressure he put upon himself. "What is changed? Who has changed it?" he continued; to see his chance of life hang on the will of this imbecile was almost more than he could bear. "Speak out! Let me know what has happened."
"You know what happened as well as I do," Claude answered slowly. He had given his word to the girl that he would not interfere, but he began to see difficulties of which he had not thought. "It was enough for me! He may be all you said he was, Messer Syndic, but——"
"But you no longer burn to break the spell?" Blondel cried. "You no longer desire to snatch from him the woman you love? You will stand by and see her perish body and soul in this web of iniquity? You are frightened, and will leave her to the law!" He thrust out his thin flushed face, his pointed beard wagging malignantly. "For that is what will come of it! To the law, you understand! I warn you, the magistrates in Geneva bear not the sword in vain."
The young man's brow grew damp. The crisis was nearer than he had feared. "But—she has done nothing!" he faltered.
"The tool with the hand that uses it! The idol and him who made it!" the Syndic cried, swaying himself to and fro.
Claude stared. "But you know nothing!" he made shift to say after a pause. "You have nothing against her, Messer Blondel. He may be all you say, but she——"
"I have ears!"
The tone said more than the words, and Claude trembled. He knew the width of the net where witchcraft or blasphemy was in question. He knew that, were Basterga seized, all in the house would be taken with him, and though men often escaped for the fright, it was seldom that women went free so cheaply. The knowledge of this tied his tongue; and urgent as he felt the need to be, he could only glare helplessly at the magistrate.
Blondel, on his part, saw the effect of his words, and desperately resolved to force the young man to his will, he followed up the blow. "If you would see her burn, well and good!" he cried. "It is for you to choose. Either break the spell, bring me the box, and set her free; or see the law take its course! Last night——"
"Last night," Claude replied, hurt to the quick, "you were not so bold, Messer Blondel!"
The Syndic winced, but merged his wrath in an anxiety a thousand times deeper. "Last night is not to-day," he answered. "Midnight is not daylight! I have told you where the spell is, where, at least, it is reputed to be, what it does, and under what sway it lays her; you who love her—and I see you do—you who have access to the house at all hours, who can watch him out——"
"We watched him out last night!" Claude muttered.
"Ay, but day is day! In the daylight——"
"But it is not laid on me to do this! I am not the only one——"
"You love her!"
"Who has access to the house."
"Are you a coward?"
Claude breathed hard. He was driven to the wall. Between his promise to her, and the Syndic's demand, he found himself helpless. And the demand was not so unreasonable. For it was true that he loved her, and that he had access to the house; and if the plan suggested seemed unusual, if it was not the course most obvious or most natural, it was hardly for him to cavil at a scheme which promised to save her, not only from the evil influence which mysteriously swayed her, but from the law, and the danger of an accusation of witchcraft. Apart from his promise he would have chosen this course; as it had been his first impulse to pursue it the evening before. But now he had given his word to her that he would not interfere, and he was conscious that he understood but in part how she stood. That being so——
"A coward!" the Syndic repeated, savagely and coarsely. He had waited in intolerable suspense for the other's answer. "That is what you are, with all your boasting!—A coward! Afraid of—why, man, of what are you afraid? Basterga?"
"It may be," Claude answered sullenly.
"Basterga? Why——" But on the word Blondel stopped; and over his face came a startling change. The rage died out of it and the flush; and fear, and a cringing embarrassment, took the place of them. In the same instant the change was made, and Claude saw that which caused it. Basterga himself stood in the half-open doorway, looking towards them.
For a few seconds no one spoke. The magistrate's tongue clave to the roof of his mouth, as the scholar advanced, cap in hand, and bowed to one and the other. The florid politeness of his bearing thinly veiling the sarcasm of his address when he spoke.
"O mire conjunctio!" he said. "Happy is Geneva where age thinks no shame of consorting with youth! And youth, thrice happy, imbibes wisdom at the feet of age! Messer Blondel," he continued, looking to him, and dropping in a degree the irony of his tone, "I have not seen you for so long, I feared that something was amiss, and I come to inquire. It is not so, I hope?"
The Syndic, unable to mask his confusion, forced a sickly phrase of denial. He had dreaded nothing so much as to be surprised by Basterga in the young man's company: for his conscience warned him that to find him with Mercier and to read his plan, would be one and the same thing to the scholar's astuteness. And here was the discovery made, and made so abruptly and at so unfortunate a moment that to carry it off was out of his power, though he knew that every halting word and guilty look bore witness against him.
"No? that is well," Basterga answered, smiling broadly as he glanced from one face to the other. "That is well!" He had the air of a good-natured pedagogue who espies his boys in a venial offence, and will not notice it save by a sly word. "Very well! And you, my friend," he continued, addressing Claude, "is it not true what I said,
Terque Quaterque redit!
You fled in haste last night, but we meet again! Your method in affairs is the reverse, I fear, of that which your friend here would advise: namely, that to carry out a plan one should begin slowly, and end quickly; thereby putting on the true helmet of Plato, as it has been called by a learned Englishman of our time."
Claude glowered at him, almost as much at a loss as the Syndic, but for another reason. To exchange commonplaces with the man who held the woman he loved by an evil hold, who owned a power so baneful, so foul—to bandy words with such an one was beyond him. He could only glare at him in speechless indignation.
"You bear malice, I fear," the big man said. There was no doubt that he was master of the situation. "Do you know that in the words of the same learned person whom I have cited—a marvellous exemplar amid that fog-headed people—vindictive persons live the life of witches, who as they are mischievous, so end they unfortunate."
The blood left Claude's face. "What do you mean?" he muttered, finding his voice at last.
"Who hates, burns. Who loves, burns also. But that is by the way."
"Ay," with a grin, "burns! It seems to come home to you. Burns! Fie, young man; you hate, I fear, beyond measure, or love beyond measure, if you so fear the fire. What, you must leave us? It is not very mannerly," with sarcasm, "to go while I speak!"
But Claude could bear no more. He snatched his cap from the table, and with an incoherent word, aimed at the Syndic and meant for leave-taking, he made for the door, plucked it open and disappeared.
The scholar smiled as he looked after him. "A foolish young man," he said, "who will assuredly, if he be not stayed, end unfortunate. It is the way of Frenchmen, Messer Blondel. They act without method and strike without intention, bear into age the follies of youth, and wear the gravity neither of the north nor of the south. But that reminds me," he continued, speaking low and bending towards the other with a look of sympathy—"you are better, I hope?"
The words were harmless, but they conveyed more than their surface meaning, and they touched the Syndic to the quick. He had begun to compose himself; now he had much ado not to gnash his teeth in the scholar's face. "Better?" he ejaculated bitterly. "What chance have I of being better? Better? Are you?" He began to tremble, his hands on the arms of his chair. "Otherwise, if you are not, you will soon have cause to know what I feel."
"I am better," Basterga answered with fervour. "I thank Heaven for it."
Blondel rose to his feet, his hands still clutching the chair. "What!" he cried. "You—you have not tried the——"
"The remedium?" The scholar shook his head. "No, on the contrary, I am relieved from my fears. The alarm was baseless. I have it not, I thank Heaven. I have not the disease. Nor, if there be any certainty in medicine, shall have it."
The Syndic, alas for human nature, could have struck him in the face!
"You have it not?" he snarled. "You have it not?" And then regaining control of himself, "I suppose I ought," with a forced and ghastly smile, "to felicitate you on your escape."
"Rather to felicitate yourself," Basterga answered. "Or so I had hoped two days ago."
"Yes," Basterga replied lightly. "For as soon as I found that I had no need of the remedium, I thought of you. That was natural. And it occurred to me—nay, calm yourself!"
"Nay, calm yourself, my dear Messer Blondel," Basterga repeated with outward solicitude and inward amusement. "Be calm, or you will do yourself an injury; you will indeed! In your state you should be prudent; you should govern yourself—one never knows. And besides, the thought, to which I refer—I see you recognise what it was——"
"Yes! yes! Go on! Go on!"
"Yes, I am sorry to say it. Futile."
"Futile!" The wretched man's voice rose almost to a scream as he repeated the word. He rose and sat down again. "Then how did you—why did you——" He stopped, fighting for words, and, unable to frame them, clutched the air with his hands. A moment he mouthed dumbly, then "Tell me!" he gasped. "Speak, man, speak! How was it? Cannot you see—that you are killing me?"
Basterga saw indeed that he had gone nearer to it than he had intended: for a moment the starting eyes and purple face alarmed him. In all haste, he gave up playing with the others fears. "It occurred to me," he said, "that as I no longer needed the medicine myself, there was only the Grand Duke to be considered, I thought that he might be willing to waive his claim, since he is as yet free from the disease. And four days ago I despatched a messenger whom I could trust to him at Turin. I had hopes of a favourable reply, and in that event, I should not have lost a minute in waiting upon you. For I am bound to say, Messer Blondel"—the big man rubbed his chin and eyed the other benevolently—"your case appealed to me in an especial manner. I felt myself moved, I scarcely know why, to do all I could on your behalf. Alas, the answer dashed my hopes."
"What was it?" Blondel's voice sounded hollow and unnatural. Sunk in the high-backed chair, his chin fallen on his breast, it was in his eyes alone, peering from below bent brows, that he seemed to live.
"He would not waive his claim," Basterga answered gently, "save on a—but in substance that was all."
Blondel raised himself slowly and stiffly in the chair. His lips parted. "In substance?" he muttered hoarsely, "There was more then?"
Basterga shrugged his shoulders. "There was. Save, the Grand Duke added, on the condition—but the condition which followed was inadmissible."
Blondel gave vent to a cackling laugh. "Inadmissible?" he muttered. "Inadmissible." And then, "You are not a dying man, Messer Basterga, or you would think—few things inadmissible."
"What was it? What was it?"—with a gesture eloquent of the impatience that was choking him.
"He asked," Basterga replied reluctantly, "a price."
The big man nodded.
The Syndic rose up and sat down again. "Why did you not say so? Why did you not say so at once?" he cried fiercely. "Is it about that you have been fencing all this time? Is that what you were seeking? And I fancied—A price, eh? I suppose"—in a lower tone, and with a gleam of cunning in his eyes—"he does not really want—the impossible? I am not a very rich man, Messer Basterga—you know that; and I am sure you would tell him. You would tell him that men do not count wealth here as they do in Genoa or Venice, or even in Florence. I am sure you would put him right on that," with a faint whine in his tone. "He would not strip a man to the last rag. He would not ask—thousands for it."
"No," Basterga answered, with something of asperity and even contempt in his tone. "He does not ask thousands for it, Messer Blondel. But he asks, none the less, something you cannot give."
"Then—what is it?" Blondel leant forward in growing fury. "Why do you fence with me? What is it, man?"
Basterga did not answer for a moment. At length, shrugging his shoulders, and speaking between jest and earnest, "The town of Geneva," he said. "No more, no less."
The Syndic started violently, then was still. But the hand which in the first instant of surprise he had raised to shield his eyes, trembled; and behind it great drops of sweat rose on his brow, and bore witness to the conflict in his breast.
"You are jesting," he said presently, without removing his hand.
"It is no jest," Basterga answered soberly. "You know the Grand Duke's keen desire. We have talked of it before. And were it only a matter," he shrugged his shoulders, "of the how—of ways and means in fact—there need be no impossibility, your position being what it is. But I know the feeling you entertain on the subject, Messer Blondel; and though I do not agree with you, for we look at the thing from different sides, I had no hope that you would come to it."
"No. So much so, that I had it in my mind to keep the condition to myself. But——"
"Why did you not, then?"
"Hope against hope," the big man answered, with a shrug and a laugh. "After all, a live dog is better than a dead lion—only you will not see it. We are ruled, the most of us, by our feelings, and die for our side without asking ourselves whether a single person would be a ducat the worse if the other side won. It is not philosophical," with another shrug. "That is all."
Apparently Blondel was not listening, for "The Duke must be mad!" he ejaculated, as the other uttered his last word.
"Mad!" the Syndic repeated harshly, his eyes still shaded by his hand. "Does he think," with bitterness, "that I am the man to run through the streets crying 'Viva Savoia!' To raise a hopeless emeute at the head of the drunken ruffians who, since the war, have been the curse of the place! And be thrown into the common jail, and hurried thence to the scaffold! If he looks for that——"
"He does not."
"He is mad."
"He does not," Basterga repeated, unmoved. "The Grand Duke is as sane as I am."
"Then what does he expect?"
But the big man laughed. "No, no, Messer Blondel," he said. "You push me too far. You mean nothing, and meaning nothing, all's said and done. I wish," he continued, rising to his feet, and reverting to the tone of sympathy which he had for the moment laid aside, "I wish I might endeavour to show you the thing as I see it, in a word, as a philosopher sees it, and as men of culture in all ages, rising above the prejudices of the vulgar, have seen it. For after all, as Persius says,
Live while thou liv'st! for death will make us all, A name, a nothing, but an old wife's tale.
But I must not," reluctantly. "I know that."
The Syndic had lowered his hand; but he still sat with his eyes averted, gazing sullenly at the corner of the floor.
"I knew it when I came," Basterga resumed after a pause, "and therefore I was loth to speak to you."
"You understand, I am sure?"
The Syndic moved in his chair, but did not speak, and Basterga took up his cap with a sigh. "I would I had brought you better news, Messer Blondel," he said, as he rose and turned to go. "But Cor ne edito! I am the happier for speaking, though I have done no good!" And with a gesture of farewell, not without its dignity, he bowed, opened the door, and went out, leaving the Syndic to his reflections.
BY THIS OR THAT.
Long after Basterga, with an exultant smile and the words "I have limed him!" on his lips, had passed into the Bourg du Four and gone to his lodging, the Syndic sat frowning in his chair. From time to time a sigh deep and heart-rending, a sigh that must have melted even Petitot, even Baudichon, swelled his breast; and more than once he raised his eyes to his painted effigy over the mantel, and cast on it a look that claimed the pity of men and Heaven.
Nevertheless with each sigh and glance, though sigh and glance lost no whit of their fervour, it might have been observed that his face grew brighter; and that little by little, as he reflected on what had passed, he sat more firmly and strongly in his chair.
Not that he purposed buying his life at the price which Basterga had put on it. Never! But when a ship is on the lee-shore it is pleasant to know that if one anchor fails to hold there is a second, albeit a borrowed one. The knowledge steadies the nerves and enables the mind to deal more firmly with the crisis. Or—to put the image in a shape nearer to the fact—though the power to escape by a shameful surrender may sap the courage of the garrison, it may also enable it to array its defences without panic. The Syndic, for the present at least, entertained no thought of saving himself by a shameful compliance; it was indeed because the compliance was so shameful, and the impossibility of stooping to it so complete, that he sighed thus deeply, and raised eyes so piteous to his own portrait. He who stood almost in the position of Pater Patriae to Geneva, to betray Geneva! He the father of his country to betray his country! Perish the thought! But, alas, he too must perish, unless he could hit on some other way of winning the remedium.
Still, it is not to be gainsaid that the Syndic went about the search for this other way in a more cheerful spirit; and revolved this plan and that plan in a mind more at ease. The ominous shadow of the night, the sequent gloom of the morning were gone; in their place rode an almost giddy hopefulness to which no scheme seemed too fanciful, no plan without its promise. Betray his country! Never, never! Though, be it noted, there was small scope in the Republic for such a man as himself, and he had received and could receive but a tithe of the honour he deserved! While other men, Baudichon and Petitot for instance, to say nothing of Fabri and Du Pin, reaped where they had not sown.
That, by the way; for it had naught to do with the matter in hand—the discovery of a scheme which would place the remedium within his grasp. He thought awhile of the young student. He might make a second attempt to coerce him. But Claude's flat refusal to go farther with the matter, a refusal on which, up to the time of Basterga's abrupt entrance, the Syndic had made no impression, was a factor; and reluctantly, after some thought, Blondel put him out of his mind.
To do the thing himself was his next idea. But the scare of the night before had given him a distaste for the house; and he shrank from the attempt with a timidity he did not understand. He held the room in abhorrence, the house in dread; and though he told himself that in the last resort—perhaps he meant the last but one—he should venture, while there was any other way he put that plan aside.
And there was another way: there were others through whom the thing could be done. Grio, indeed, who had access to the room and the box, was Basterga's creature; and the Syndic dared not tamper with him. But there was a third lodger, a young fellow, of whom the inquiries he had made respecting the house had apprised him. Blondel had met Gentilis more than once, and marked him; and the lad's weak chin and shifty eyes, no less than the servility with which he saluted the magistrate had not been lost on the observer. The youth, granted he was not under Basterga's thumb, was unlikely to refuse a request backed by authority.
As he reflected, the very person who was in his thoughts passed the window, moving with the shuffling gait and sidelong look which betrayed his character. The Syndic took his presence for an omen: tempted by it, he rose precipitately, seized his head-gear and cane, and hurried into the street. He glanced up and down, and saw Louis in the distance moving in the direction of the College. He followed. Three or four youths, bearing books, were hastening in the same direction through the narrow street of the Coppersmiths, and the Syndic fell in behind them. He dared not hasten over-much, for a dozen curious eyes watched him from the noisy beetle-browed stalls on either side; and presently, finding that he did not gain, he was making up his mind to await a better occasion, when Louis, abandoning a companion who had just joined him, dived into one of the brassfounders' shops.
The Syndic walked on slowly, returning here and there a reverential salute. He was nearly at the gate of the College, when Louis, late and in haste, overtook him, and hurried by him. Blondel doubted an instant what he should do; doubted now the moment for action was come the wisdom of the step he had in his mind. But a feverish desire to act had seized upon him, and after a moment's hesitation he raised his voice. "Young man," he said, "a moment! Here!"
Louis, not quite out of earshot, turned, found the magistrate's eye upon him, wavered, and at last came to him. He cringed low, wondering what he had done amiss.
"I know your face," Blondel said, fixing him with a penetrating look. "Do you not lodge, my lad, in a house in the Corraterie? Near the Porte Tertasse?"
"Yes, Messer Syndic," Louis answered, overpowered by the honour of the great man's address, and still wondering what evil was in store for him.
"The Mere Royaume's?"
"Yes, Messer Syndic."
"Then you can do me—or rather"—with an expression of growing severity—"you can do the State a service. Step this way, and listen to me, young man!" And his asperity increased by the fear that he was taking an unwise step, he told the youth, in curt stiff sentences, such facts as he thought necessary.
The young student listened thunderstruck, his mouth open, and an expression of fatuous alarm on his face. "Letters?" he muttered, when the Syndic had come to a certain point in the story he had decided to tell.
"Yes, papers of importance to the State," the Syndic replied weightily, "of which it is necessary that possession should be taken as quietly as possible."
"And they are——"
"They are in the steel box chained to the wall of his apartment. Be it your task, young man, to bring the box and the letters unread and untouched to me. Opportunities of securing them in Messer Basterga's absence cannot but occur," he continued more benignly. "Choose one wisely, use it boldly, and the care of your fortunes will be in better hands than yours! A word to Basterga, on the other hand," Blondel continued slowly, and with a deadly look—he had not failed to notice that Louis winced at the name of Basterga—"and you will find yourself in the prison of the Two Hundred, destined to share the fate of the conspirators."
The young man began to shake. "Conspirators?" he cried faintly. The word brought vividly before him the horrors of the scaffold and the wheel. "Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Why did I go to that house to lodge?"
"Do your duty," the Syndic said, "and you need fear nothing."
"But if I cannot—do it?" the youth stammered, his teeth chattering. He to penetrate to Basterga's room unbidden! He to rob the formidable man and perhaps be caught in the act! He to deceive him and meet his eye at meals! Impossible! "But if I cannot—do it?" he repeated, cowering.
"The State knows no such word!" the Syndic returned grimly. "Cannot," he continued slowly, "means will not. Do your duty and fear nothing. Do it not, pause, hesitate, breathe but a syllable of that which I have told you, and you will have all to fear. All!"
He saw too late that it was he himself who had all to fear; that in taking the lad before him into his confidence, he had placed himself in the hands of a craven. But he had done it. He had gone too far, moved by the foolish impulse of the moment, to retreat. His sole chance lay in showing the lad on which side danger pressed him most closely; on frightening him completely. And when Louis did not reply:—
"You do not answer me?" Blondel said in his sternest tones. "You do not reply? Am I to understand that you decline? That you refuse to perform the task which the State assigns to you? In that case be sure you will perish with those whom the Two Hundred know to be the enemies of Geneva, and for whom the rack and the wheel are at this moment prepared."
"No!" Louis cried passionately; he almost fell on his knees in the open street. "No, no! I will go anywhere, do anything, Messer Syndic! I swear I will; I am no enemy! No conspirator!"
"You may be no enemy. But you must show yourself a friend!"
"I will! I will indeed."
"And no syllable of this will pass your lips?"
"As I live, Messer Syndic! Nothing! Nothing!"
When he had repeated this several times with the earnestness of extreme terror, and appeared to have laid to heart such particulars as Blondel thought he should know, the Syndic dismissed him, letting him go with a last injunction to be silent and a last threat.
By mere force of habit the lad would have gone forward and entered the College; but on the threshold he felt how unfit he was to meet his fellows' eyes, and he turned and hastened as fast as his trembling limbs would carry him towards his home. The streets, to his excited imagination, were full of spies; he fancied his every movement watched, his footsteps counted. If he lingered they might suppose him lukewarm, if he paused they might think him ill-affected. His speed must show his zeal. His poor little heart beat in his breast as if it would spring from it, but he did not stay nor look aside until the door of the house in the Corraterie closed behind him.
Then within the house there fell upon him—alas! what a thing it is to be a coward—a new fear. The fear was not the fear of Basterga, the bully and cynic, whom he had known and fawned on and flattered; but of Basterga the dark and dangerous conspirator, of whom he now heard, ready to repay with the dagger the least attempt to penetrate his secrets! On his entrance he had flung himself face downward on his pallet in the little closet in which he slept; but at that thought he sprang up, suffocated by it; already he fancied himself in the hands of the desperadoes whom he had betrayed, already he pictured slow and lingering deaths. But again, at the remembrance of the task laid upon him, he flung himself prostrate, writhing, and cursing his fate, and shedding tears of panic. He to beard Basterga! He to betray him! Impossible! Yet if he failed, the rack and the wheel awaited him. Either way lay danger, on either side yawned torture and death. And he was a coward. He wept and shuddered, abandoning himself to a very paroxysm of terror.
When his door was pushed open a minute later, he did not hear the movement; with his head buried in the pillow he did not see the face of wonder, mingled with alarm, which viewed him from the doorway. He had forgotten that it was Anne Royaume's custom to attend to the young men's rooms during their absence at the afternoon lecture; and when her voice, asking in startled accents what was amiss and if he were ill, reached his ears, he sought, with a smothered shriek, to cover his head with the bedclothes. He fancied that Basterga was upon him!
"What is the matter?" she repeated, advancing slowly to the side of the bed. Then, getting no answer, she dragged the coverlet off him. "What is it? Don't you know me?"
He sat up then, saw who it was and came gradually to himself, but with many sighs and tears. She stood, looking down on him with contempt. "Has some one been beating you?" she asked, and searched with hard eyes—he had been no friend to her—for signs of ill-treatment.
He shook his head. "Worse," he sobbed. "Far worse! Oh, what will become of me? What will become of me? Lord, have mercy upon me! Lord, have mercy upon me!"
Her lip curled. Perhaps she was comparing him with another youth who had spoken to her that morning in a different strain.
"I don't think it matters much," she said scornfully, "what becomes of you."
"Matters?" he exclaimed.
"If you are such a coward as this! Tell me what it is. What has happened? If it is not that some one has beaten you, I don't know what it is—unless you have been doing something wrong, and they have put you out of the University? Is it that?"
"No!" he cried fretfully. "Worse, worse! And do you leave me! You can do nothing! No one can do anything!"
She had her own troubles, and to-day was almost sinking under them. But this was not her way of bearing them. She shrugged her shoulders contemptuously. "Very well," she said, "I will go if I can do nothing."
"Do?" he cried vehemently. "What can you do?" And then, in the act of turning from him, she stood; so startling was the change, so marvellous the transformation which she saw come over his face. "Do," he repeated, trembling violently, and speaking in a tone as much altered as his expression. He rose to his feet. "Do? Perhaps you—you can do something—still. Wait. Please wait a minute! I—I was not quite myself." He passed his hand across his brow. She did not know that behind his face of frightened stupor his mind was working cunningly, following up the idea that had occurred to him.
She began to think him mad. But though she held him in distaste, she had no fear of him; and even when he closed the door with a cringing air, and a look that implored indulgence, she held her ground. "Only, you need not close the door," she said coldly. "There is no one in the house except my mother."
"He has gone out. Is it of him," in sudden enlightenment, "that you are afraid?"
He nodded sullenly. "Yes," he said; and then he paused, eyeing her in doubt if he could trust her. At last, "It is, but, if you dared do it, I know how I could draw his teeth! How I could"—with the cruel grin of the coward—"squeeze him! squeeze him!" and he went through the act with his nervous, shaking fingers. "I could hold him like that! I could hold him powerless as the dog that would bite and dare not!"
She stared at him. "You?" she said; it was hard to say whether incredulity or scorn were written more plainly on her face. "You?"
"I! I!" he replied, with the same gesture of holding something. "And I know how to put him in your power also!"
"In my power!"
Her face grew hard as if she too held her enemy passive in her grip. Then her lip curled, and she laughed in scorn. "Ay! And what must I do to bring that about? Something, I suppose, you dare not, Louis?"
"Something you can do more easily than I," he answered doggedly. "A small thing, too," he continued, clasping his hands in his eagerness and looking at her with imploring eyes. "A nothing, a mere nothing!"
"And yet it will do so much?"
"I swear it will."
"Then," she retorted, eyeing him shrewdly, "if it is so easy to do why were you undone a minute ago? And puling like a child in arms?"
"Because," he said, flushing under her eyes, "it—it is not easy for me to do. And I did not see my way."
"It looked like it."
"But I see it now if you will help me. You have only to take a packet of letters from his room—and you go there when you please—and he is yours! While you have the letters he dare not stir hand or foot, lest you bring him to the scaffold!"
"Bring him to the scaffold?"
"Get the letters, give them to me, and I will answer for the rest." Louis' voice was low, but he shook with excitement. "See!" he continued, his eyes at all times prominent, almost starting from his head, "it might be done this minute. This minute!"
"It might," the girl replied, watching him coldly. "But it will not be done either this minute or at all unless you tell me what is in the letters, and how you come to know about them."
Should he tell her? He fancied that he had no choice. "Messer Blondel the Syndic wants the letters," he answered sullenly. And, urged farther by her expression of disbelief, he told the astonished girl the story which Blondel had told him. The fact that he believed it went far with her; why, for the rest, doubt a story so extraordinary that it seemed to bear the stamp of truth?
"And that is all?" she said when he came to the end.
"Is it not enough?"
"It may be enough," she replied, her resolute manner in strange contrast with his cowardly haste. "Only there is a thing not clear. If the Syndic knows what is in the letters, why does he not seize them and Basterga with them—the traitor with the proof of his treason?"
"Because he is afraid of the Grand Duke," Louis cried. "If he seize Basterga and miss the proof of his treason, what then?"
"Then he is not sure that the letters are there?" Anne replied keenly.
"He is not sure that they would be there when he came to seize them," Louis answered. "Basterga might have a dozen confederates in the house ready at a sign to destroy the letters."
"And that is what they will make us out to be," he continued, his voice sinking as his fears returned upon him. "The Syndic threatened as much; and such things have happened a hundred times. I tell you, if we do not do something, we shall suffer with him. But do it, and he is in your power! And if he has any hold on you, it is gone!"
The blood surged to her face. Hold upon her? Ah! Rage—or was it hope?—lightened in her eyes and transformed her face. She was thinking, he guessed, of the hundred insults she had undergone at Basterga's hands, of the shame-compelling taunts to which she had been forced to listen, of the loathed touch she had been forced to bear. If there was aught in her mind beyond this, any motive deeper or more divine, he did not perceive it; enough, that he saw that she wavered, and he pressed her.
"You will be free," he cried passionately. "Freed from him! Freed from fear of him! Say you will do it! Say that you will do it," he continued fervently, and he made as if he would kneel before her. "Do it, and I swear that never shall a word to displease you pass my lips."
With a glance of scorn that pierced even his selfishness, "Swear only," she said, "that you have told me the truth! I ask no more."
"I swear it on my salvation!"
She drew a deep breath.
"I will do it," she said. "The steel box which is chained to the wall?"
"Yes, yes," he panted, "you cannot mistake it. The key——"
"I know where he keeps it."
She said no more, but turned, and regarding his thanks as little as if they had been the wind passing by her, she opened the door, crossed the living-room, and vanished up the staircase. He followed her as far as the foot of the stairs, and there stood listening and shifting his feet and biting his nails in an agony of suspense. She had not deigned to bid him watch for Basterga's coming, but he did so; his eyes on the outer door, through which the scholar must enter, and his tongue and feet in readiness to warn her or save himself, according as the pressure of danger directed the one or the other step.
Meanwhile his ears were on the stretch to catch what she did. He heard her try the door of the room. It was locked. He heard her shake it. Then he guessed that she fetched a key, for after an interval, which seemed an age, he caught the grating of the wards in the lock. After that, she was quiet so long, that but for the apprehensions of Basterga's coming, which weighed on his coward soul, he must have gone up in sheer jealousy so see what she was doing.
Not that he distrusted her. Even while he waited, and while the thing hung in the balance, he smiled to think how cleverly he had contrived it. On the side of the authorities he would gain favour by delivering the letters: on the other side, if Basterga retained power to harm, it was not he who had taken the letters, nor he who would be exposed to the first blast of vengeance—but the girl. The blame for her, the credit for him! From the nettle danger his wits had plucked the flower safety. But for his fears he could have chuckled; and then he heard her leave the room, and relock the door. With a gasp of relief, he retired a pace or two, and waited, his eyes fixed on the doorway through which she must enter.
She was long in coming, and when she came his hand, extended to receive the letters, fell by his side, the whispered question died on his lips. Her face told him that she had failed. It might have told him also that she had built far more on the attempt than she had let him perceive. But what was that to him? It was enough for him that she had not the letters. He could have torn her with his hands. "Where are they? Where are they?" he cried, advancing upon her. "You have not got them?"
"Got them?" And then she straightened herself, and with a passionate glance at the door, "No! And he has not come in time to take me in the act, it seems. As I have no doubt you planned, you villain! That I might be more and deeper in his power!"
"No! No!" he cried, recoiling. "I never thought of it!"
"Yes, yes!" she retorted.
He wrung his hands. How was he to make her understand? "I swear," he cried, and he fell on his knees with uplifted hands. "I swear on my knees I thought of no such thing. The tale I told you was true! True, every word of it! And the letters——"
"There are no letters!" she said.
"In the box?"
He sprang to his feet. He shook his fist at her in low ignoble rage. "You lie!" he cried. "You have not looked. You have played with me. You have gone into the room and come out again, but you have not looked, you have not dared to look."
"I have looked," she answered quietly. "In the box that is chained to the wall. There are no papers in it. There is nothing in it except a small phial."
"Of some golden liquid."
"That is all?"
Louis Gentilis stared at her, open-mouthed. Had the Syndic deceived him? Or had some one deceived the Syndic?
THE CUP AND THE LIP.
Blondel could not hide the agitation he felt as he listened to his unexpected visitors, and saw whither their errand tended. Fabri, who was leader of the deputation of three who had come upon him without warning, discerned this; much more Baudichon and Petitot, whose eyes were on the watch for the least sign of weakness. And Blondel was conscious that they saw it, and on that account strove the more to mask his feelings under a show of decision. "I have little doubt that I shall have news within the hour," he said. "Before night, I must have news." And nodding with the air of a man who knew much which he could not impart, he leant back in the old abbot's chair.
But Fabri had not come for that, nor was he to be satisfied with that; and, after a pause, "Yes," he replied, "I know. That may be so. But you see, Messer Blondel, this affair is not quite where it was yesterday, or we should not have come to you to-day. The King of France—I am sure we are much indebted to him—does not write on light occasions, and his warning is explicit. From Paris, then, we get the same story as from Turin. And this being so, and the King's tale agreeing with our agent's——"
"He does not mention Basterga!" Blondel objected. He repented the moment he had said it.
"By name, no. But he says——"
"Enough for any one with eyes!" Petitot exclaimed.
"He says," Fabri repeated, requesting the other by a gesture to be silent, "that the Grand Duke's emissary is a Paduan expelled from Venice or from Genoa. That is near enough. And I confess, were I in your place, Messer Blondel——"
"With your responsibilities," Petitot muttered through closed teeth.
"I should want to know—more about him." This from Baudichon.
Fabri nodded assent. "I think so," he said. "I really think so. In fact, I may go farther and say that were I in your place, Messer Blondel, I should seize him to-day."
"Ay, within the hour!"
"This minute!" said Baudichon, last of the three. And all three, their ultimatum delivered, looked at Blondel, a challenge in their eyes. If he stood out longer, if he still declined to take the step which prudence demanded, the step on which they were all agreed, they would know that there was something behind, something of which he had not told them.
Blondel read the look, and it perturbed him. But not to the point of sapping the resolution which he had formed at the Council Table, and to which, once formed, he clung with the obstinacy of an obstinate man. The remedium first; afterwards what they would, but the remedium first. He was not going to risk life, warm life, the vista of sunny unending to-morrows, of springs and summers and the melting of snows, for a craze, a scare, an imaginary danger! Why at that very minute the lad whom he had commissioned to seize the thing might be on the way with it. At any minute a step might sound on the threshold, and herald the promise of life. And then—then they might deal with Basterga as they pleased. Then they might hang the Paduan high as Haman, if they pleased. But until then—his mind was made up.
"I do not agree with you," he said, his underlip thrust out, his head trembling a little.
"You will not arrest him?"
"No, I shall not arrest him," he replied, hardening himself to meet their protestant and indignant eyes. "Nor would you," he continued with bravado, "in my place. If you knew as much as I do."
"But if you know," Baudichon said, "I would like to know also."
"The responsibility is mine." Blondel swayed himself from side to side in his chair as he said it. "The responsibility is mine, and I am willing to bear it. It is the old difference of policy between us," he continued, addressing Petitot. "You are willing to grasp at every petty advantage, I am willing——"
"To risk much to gain much," Petitot exclaimed.
"To take some risk to gain a real advantage," Blondel retorted, correcting him with an eye to Fabri; whom alone, as the one impartial hearer, he feared. "For to what does the course which you are so eager to take amount? You seize Basterga: later, you will release him at the Grand Duke's request. What are we the better? What is gained?"
"No, on the other hand, danger. Danger! For, warned that we have detected their plot, they will hatch another plot, and instead of working as at present under our eyes, they will work below the surface with augmented care and secrecy: and will, perhaps, deceive us. No, my friends"—throwing himself back in his chair with an air of patronage, almost of contempt—for by dint of repeating his argument he had come to believe it, and to plume himself upon it—"I look farther ahead than you do, and for the sake of future gain am willing to take—present responsibility."
They were silent awhile: his old mastery was beginning to assert itself. Then Petitot spoke. "You take a heavy responsibility," he said, "a heavy charge, Messer Blondel. What if harm come of it?"
Blondel shrugged his shoulders.
"You have no wife, Messer Blondel."
The Fourth Syndic stared. What did the man mean?
"You have no daughters," Petitot continued, a slight quaver in his tone. "You have no little children, you sleep well of nights, the fall of wood-ash does not rouse you, you do not listen when you awake. You do not——" he paused, the last barrier of reserve broken down, the tears standing openly in his eyes—"it is foolish perhaps—you do not yearn, Messer Blondel, to take all you love in your arms, and shelter them and cover them from the horrors that threaten us, the horrors that may fall on us—any night! You do not"—he looked at Baudichon and the stout man's face grew pale, he averted his eyes—"you do not dream of these things, Messer Blondel, nor awake to fancy them, but we do. We do!" he repeated in accents which went to the hearts of all, "day and night, rising and lying down, waking and sleeping. And we—dare run no risks."
In the silence which followed Blondel's fingers tapped restlessly on the table. He cleared his throat and voice.
"But there, I tell you there are no risks," he said. He was moved nevertheless.
Petitot bowed, humbly for him. "Very good," he said. "I do not say that you are not right. But——"
"And moment by moment I expect news. It might come at this minute, it might come at any minute," the Syndic continued. With a glance at the window he moved his chair, as if to shake off the spell that Petitot had cast over him. "Besides—you do not expect the town to be taken in an hour from now?"
"In broad daylight?"
Petitot shook his head, "God knows what I expect!" he murmured despondently.
"When the information we have points to a night attack?"
Fabri nodded. "That is true," he said.
"And the walls are well guarded at night."
Fabri nodded again. "Yes," he said, "it is true. I think, Messer Petitot," he went on, turning to him, "we are a little over-fearful."
The two others were silent, and Blondel eyed them harshly, aware that he had mastered them, yet hating them. Petitot's appeal to his feelings—which had touched and moved Blondel even while he resented it as something cruel and unfair—had lacked but a little of success. But missing, failing by ever so little, it left the three ill-equipped to continue the struggle on lower grounds. They sat silent, Fabri almost convinced, the others dejected: and Blondel sat silent also, hardened by his victory, and hating them for the manner of it. Was not his life as dear to him as their wives and children were to them? And was it not at stake? Yet he did not whine and pule to them. God! they whine, they complain, who had long years to live and rose of mornings without counting the days, and, at the worst and were Geneva taken, had but the common risks to run and many a chance of escape! While he—yet he did not pule to them! He did not stab them unfairly, cruelly, striving to reach their tender spots, to take advantage of their kindness of heart. He had no thought, no notion of betraying them; but, had he such, it would serve them right! It would repay them selfishness for selfishness, greed for greed! In his place they would not hesitate. He could see at what a price they set their petty lives, and how little they would scruple to buy them in the dearest market. Well was it for Geneva that it was he and not they whom God saw fit to try. And he glowered at them. Wives and daughters! What were wives and daughters beside life, warm life, life stretching forward pleasantly, indefinitely, morning after morning, day after day—life and a continuance of good things?
Immersed as he was in this train of thought, it was none the less he who first caught the sound of a foot on the threshold, and a summons at the door. He rose to his feet. Already in his mind's eye he saw Basterga cast to the lions: and why not? The sooner the better if the remedium were really at the door. "There may be news even now," he said, striving to master his emotion, and to speak with the superiority of a few minutes before. "One moment, by your leave! I will see and let you know if it be so, Messer Fabri."
"Do by all means," Fabri answered earnestly. "You will greatly relieve me."
"Ay, indeed, I hope it is so," Petitot murmured.
"I will see, and—and return," Blondel repeated, beginning to stammer. "I—I shall not be a minute." The struggle for composure was vain; his head was on fire, his limbs twitched. Had it come?
Yet when he reached the door he paused, afraid to open. What if it were not the remedium, what if it were some trifle? What if—but as he hesitated, his hand, half eager, half reluctant, rested on the latch, the door slid ajar, and his eyes met the complacent smirking face of his messenger. He fancied that he read success in Gentilis' looks, and his heart leapt up. "I shall be back in a moment," he babbled, speaking over his shoulder to those whom he left. "In a moment, gentlemen, one moment!" And going out he closed the door behind him—closed it jealously, that they might not hear.
"I hope he has news will decide him," Petitot muttered lowering his voice involuntarily. "Messer Blondel is over-courageous for me!" He shook his head dismally.
"He is very courageous," Fabri assented in the same undertone. "Perhaps even—a little rash."
Baudichon grunted. "Rash!" he repeated. "I would like to know what he expects? I would like to know——"
A cry as of a wild beast cut short the word: a blow, a shriek of pain followed, the door flew open; as they rose to their feet in wonder, into the room fell a lad—it was Louis—a red weal across his face, his arm raised to protect his head. Close on him, his eyes flaming, his cane quivering in the air, pressed Messer Blondel. In their presence he aimed another blow at the lad: but the blow fell short, and before he could raise his stick a third time the astonished looks of the three in the room reminded him where he was, and in a measure sobered him. But he was still unable to articulate: and the poor smarting wretch cowering behind the magistrates was not more deeply or more visibly moved.
"Steady, steady, Messer Blondel!" Fabri said. "I fear something untoward has happened. What is it?" And he put himself more decidedly between them.
"He has ruined us!"
"Not that, I hope?"
"Ruined us! Ruined us!" Blondel panted, his rage almost choking him. "He had it in his hands and let it go. He let it go!"
"That which you——"
"That which I"—a pause—"commissioned him to get."
"But you did not! Oh, worshipful gentlemen," Gentilis wailed, turning to them, "indeed, he did not tell me to bring aught but papers! I swear he did not."
"Whatever was there, I said! Whatever was there!" the Syndic screamed.
"No, worshipful sir!" amid a storm of sobs. "No, no! Indeed no! And how was I to know? There was naught but that in the box, and who would think treason lay in a——"
"Mischief lay in it!"
"In a bottle!"
"And treason," Blondel thundered, drowning his last word, "for aught you knew! Who are you to judge where treason lies, or may lie? Oh, pig, dog, fool," he continued, carried away by a fresh paroxysm of rage, at the thought that he had had it in his grasp and let it go! "If I could score your back!" And he brandished his cane.
"You have scored his face pretty fairly," Baudichon muttered. "To score his back too——"
"Were nothing for the offence! Nothing! As you would say if you knew it," Blondel panted.
"Then I would like to know it. What is it he has done?"
"He has left undone that which he was ordered to do," Blondel answered more soberly than he had yet spoken. He had recovered something of his power to reason. "That is what he has done. But for his default we should at this moment be in a position to seize Basterga."
"Ay, and to seize him with proof of his guilt! Proof and to spare."
"But I could not know," Louis whimpered. "Worshipful gentlemen, I could not know. I could not know what it was you wanted."
"I told you to bring the contents of the box."
"Letters, ay! Letters, worthy sir, but not——"
"Silence, and go into that room!" Blondel pointed with a shaking finger to a small inner serving-room at the end of the parlour. "Go!" he repeated peremptorily, "and stay there until I come to you."
Then, but not until the lad had taken his tear-bedabbled face into the closet and had closed the door behind him, the Syndic turned to the three. "I ask your pardon," he said, making no attempt to disguise the agitation which still moved him. "But it was enough, it was more than enough, to try me." He paused and wiped his brow, on which the sweat stood in beads. "He had under his hand the papers," looking at them a little askance as if he doubted whether the explanation would pass, "that we need! The papers that would convict Basterga. And because they did not wear the appearance he expected—because they were disguised, you understand—they were in a bottle in fact—and were not precisely what he expected——"
"He left them?"
"He left them." There was something like a tear, a leaden drop, in the corner of the Fourth Syndic's eye.
"Still if he had access to them once," Petitot suggested briskly, "what has been done once may be done twice. He may gain access to them again. Why not?"
"He may, but he may not. Still, I should have thought of that and—and made allowance," Blondel answered with a fair show of candour. "But too often an occasion let slip does not return, as you well know. The least disorder in the box he searched may put Basterga on the alert, and wreck my plans."
They did not answer. They felt one and all, Petitot and Baudichon no less than Fabri, that they had done this man an injustice. His passion, his chagrin, his singleness of aim, the depth of his disappointment, disarmed even those who were in the daily habit of differing from him. Was this—this the man whom they had secretly accused of lukewarmness? And to whom they had hesitated to entrust the safety of the city? They had done him wrong. They had not credited him with a tithe of the feeling, the single-mindedness, the patriotism which it was plain he possessed.
They stood silent, while Blondel, aware of the precipice, to the verge of which his improvident passion had drawn him, watched them out of the corner of his eye, uncertain how far their comprehension of the scene had gone. He trembled to think how nearly he had betrayed his secret; and took the more shame to himself, inasmuch as in cooler blood he saw the lad's error to be far from irremediable. As Petitot said, that which could be done so easily and quickly could be done a second time. If only he had not struck the lad! If only he had commanded himself, and spoken him fairly and sent him back! Almost by this time the remedium might be here. Ay, here, in the palm of his hand! The reflection stabbed Blondel so poignantly, the sense of his folly went so deep, he groaned aloud.
That groan fairly won over Baudichon, who was by nature of a kind heart. "Tut, tut," he said; "you must not take it to heart, Messer Blondel. Try again."
"Unless, indeed," Petitot murmured, but with respect, "Messer Blondel knows the mistake to be fraught with consequences more grave than we suppose."
The Fourth Syndic smiled awry: that was precisely what he did know. But "No," he said, "the thing can be cured. I am sorry I lost my temper. Not a moment must be wasted, however. I will see this young man: if he raises any difficulty, I have still another agent whom I can employ. And by to-morrow at latest——"
"You may still have the thing in your hands."
"I think so. I certainly think so."
"Good. Then till to-morrow," Fabri answered, as he took his cap from the table and with the others turned towards the door. "Good luck, Messer Blondel. We are reassured. We feel that our interests are in good hands."
"Yes," said Petitot almost warmly. "Still, caution, caution! Messer Blondel. One bad man within the gates——"
"May be hung!" Blondel cried gaily.
"Ay, may be! But unhung is a graver foe than five hundred men without! It is that I would have you bear in mind."
"I will bear it in mind," the Fourth Syndic answered. "And when I can hang him," with a vindictive look, "be sure I will—and high as Haman!"
He attended them with solicitude to the door, being set by what had happened a little more upon his behaviour. That done and the outer door closed upon them, he returned to the parlour, but did not at once seek the young man, upon whom he had taken the precaution of turning the key.
Instead he stood a while, pondering with a pale face; a haggard, paler replica he seemed of the stiff, hard portrait on the panel over the mantel. He was wondering why he had let himself go so foolishly; he was recognising with a sinking heart that it was to his illness he owed it that he had so frequently of late lost control of himself.
For a man to discover that the power of self-mastery is passing from him is only a degree less appalling than the consciousness of insanity itself; and Blondel cowered, trembling under the thought. If aught could strengthen his purpose it was the suspicion that the insidious disease from which he suffered was already sapping the outworks of that mind on whose clever combinations he depended for his one chance of cure.
Yet while the thought strengthened, it terrified him. "I must make no second mistake—no second mistake!" he muttered, his eyes on the door of the serving-room. "No second mistake!" And he waited a while considering the matter in all its aspects. Should he tell Louis more than he had told him already? It seemed needless. To send the lad with curt, stern words to fetch that which he had omitted to bring—this seemed the more straight-forward way: and the more certain, too, since the lad had now seen the other magistrates, and could have no doubt of their concurrence or of the importance of the task entrusted to him. Blondel decided on that course, and advancing to the door he opened it and called to his prisoner to come out.
To his credit be it said the sight of the lad's wealed face gave the Syndic something of a shock. He was soon to be more gravely shaken. Instigated partly by curiosity, partly by the desire to fix Louis' scared faculties, he began by asking what was the aspect of the phial which the lad had omitted to bring. "What was its colour and size, and how full was it?" he proceeded, striving to speak gently and to make allowance for the cowering weakness of the youth before him. "Do you hear?" he urged. "Of what shape was it? You can tell that at least. You handled it, I suppose? You took it out of the metal box?"
Louis burst into tears.
Blondel had much ado—for it was true, he had small command of himself—not to strike the lad again. Instead, "Fool," he said, "what do your tears help you or advance me? Speak, I tell you, and answer my question! What was the appearance of this flask or bottle, or what it was—that you left there?"
The lad sank to his knees. Fear and pain had robbed him of the petty cunning he possessed. He no longer knew what to tell nor what to withhold. And in a breath the truth was out. "Don't strike me!" he wailed, guarding his smarting face with his arm. "And I'll tell you all! I will indeed!"
The Syndic knew then that there was more to learn. "All?" he repeated, aghast.
"Ay, the truth. All the truth," Louis moaned. "I didn't see it. I did not go to it! I dared not! I swear I dared not.'"