"You did not see it?" the Syndic said slowly. "The phial? You did not see the phial?"
This time Messer Blondel did not strike. He leant heavily upon the table; his face, which a moment before had been swollen with impatience, turned a sickly white. "You—you didn't see it?" he muttered—his tone had sunk to a whisper. "You didn't see it? Then all you told me was a lie? There was nothing—no bottle in the box? But how, then, did you know anything of a bottle? Did he"—with a sharp spasm of pain—"send you here to tell me this?"
"No, no! She told me. She looked—for me in the box."
"Anne. Anne Royaume! I was afraid," the lad continued, speaking with a little more confidence, as he saw that the Syndic made no movement to strike him, "and she said that she would look for me. She could go to his room, and run little risk. But if he had caught me there he would have killed me! Indeed he would!" Louis repeated desperately, as he read the storm-signs that began to darken the Syndic's face.
"You told her then?"
"I could not do it myself! I could not indeed."
He cowered lower; but he fared better than he expected. The Syndic drew a long fluttering breath, a breath of returning life, of returning hope. The colour, too, began to come back to his cheeks. After all, it might have been worse. He had thought it worse. He had thought himself discovered, tricked, discomfited by the man against whom he had pitted his wits, with his life for stake. Whereas—it seemed a small thing in comparison—this meant only the inclusion of one more in the secret, the running of one more risk, the hazarding another tongue. And the lad had not been so unwise. She had easier access to the room than he, and ran less risk of suspicion or detection. Why not employ her in place of the lad?
The youth grovelling before him wondered to see him calm, and plucking up spirit stood upright. "You must go back to her, and ask her to get it for you," Blondel said firmly. "You can be back within the half-hour, bringing it."
Louis began to shrink. His eyes sank. "She will not give it me," he muttered.
"No?" Blondel, as he repeated the word, wondered at his own moderation. But the shock had been heavy; he felt the effect of it. He was languid, almost half-hearted. Moreover, a new idea had taken root in his mind. "You can try her," he said.
"I can try her, but she will not give it me," Louis repeated with a new obstinacy. As the Syndic grew mild he grew sullen. The change was in the other, not in himself. Subtly he knew that the Syndic was no longer in the mood to strike.
Blondel ruminated. It might be better, it might even be safer, if he saw the girl himself. The story—of treason and a bottle—which had imposed on his colleagues might not move her much. It might be wiser to attack her on other grounds, grounds on which women lay more open. And self-pity whispered with a tear that the truth, than which he could conceive nothing more moving, nothing more sublimely sad, might go farther with a woman than bribes or threats or the most skilful inventions. He made up his mind. He would tell the truth, or something like it, something as like it as he dared tell her.
"Very well," he said, "you can go! But be silent! A word to him—I shall learn it sooner or later—and you perish on the wheel! You can go now. I shall put the matter in other hands."
A MYSTERY SOLVED.
Whether Basterga, seeing that Claude was less pliant than he had looked to find him, shunned occasion of collision with him, or the Paduan being in better spirits was less prone to fall foul of his companions, certain it is that life for a time after the outbreak at supper ran more quietly in the house in the Corraterie. Claude's gloomy face—he had not forgiven—bade beware of him; and little save on the subject of Louis' disfigured cheek—of which the most pointed questions could extract no explanation—passed among them at table. But outward peace was preserved and a show of ease. Grio's brutal nature broke out once or twice when he had had wine; but discouraged by Basterga, he subsided quickly. And Louis, starting at a voice and trembling at a knock, with the fear of the Syndic always upon him, showed a nervousness which more than once drew the Italian's eye to him. But on the whole a calm prevailed; a stranger entering at noon or during the evening meal might have deemed the party ill-assorted and silent, but lacking neither in amity nor ease.
Meantime, under cover of this calm, destined to be short-lived and holding in suspense the makings of a storm of no mean violence, two persons were drawing nearer to one another. A confidence, even a confidence not perfect, is a tie above most. Nor does love play at any time a higher part than when it repeats "I do not understand—I trust". By the common light of day, which showed Anne moving to and fro about her household tasks, at once the minister and the providence of the home, the dark suspicion that had for a moment—a moment only!—mastered Claude's judgment, lost shape and reality. It was impossible to see her bending over the hearth, or arranging her mother's simple meal, it was impossible to witness her patience, her industry, her deftness, to behold her, ever gentle yet supporting with a man's fortitude the trials of her position, trials of the bitterness of which she had given him proof—it was impossible, in a word, to watch her in her daily life, without perceiving the wickedness as well as the folly of the thought which had possessed him.
True, the more he saw of her the graver seemed the mystery; and the more deeply he wondered. But he no longer dreaded the answer to the riddle; nor did he fear to meet at some turn or corner a Megaera head that should freeze his soul. Wickedness there might be, cruelty there might be, and shame; but the blood ran too briskly in his veins and he had looked too often into the girl's candid eyes—reading something there which had not been there formerly—to fear to find either at her door.
He had taken to coming to the living-room a little before nightfall; there he would seat himself beside the hearth while she prepared the evening meal. The glow of the wood-fire, reflected in rows of burnished pewters, or given back by the night-backed casements, the savour of the coming meal, the bubbling of the black pot between which and the table her nimble feet carried her a dozen times in as many minutes, the pleasant, homely room with its touches of refinement and its winter comfort, these were excuses enough had he not brought the book which lay unheeded on his knee.
But in truth he offered her no excuse. With scarce a word an understanding had grown up between them that not a million words could have made more clear. Each played the appropriated part. He looked and she bore the look, and if she blushed the fire was warrant, and if he stared it was the blind man's hour between day and night, and why should he not sit idle as well as another? Soon there was not a turn of her head or a line of her figure that he did not know; not a trick of her walk, not a pose of her hand as she waited for a pot to boil that he could not see in the dark; not a gleam from her hair as she stooped to the blaze, nor a turn of her wrist as she shielded her face that was not as familiar to him as if he had known her from childhood.
In these hours she let the mask fall. The apathy, which had been the least natural as it had been the most common garb of her young face, and which had grown to be the cover and veil of her feelings, dropped from her. Seated in the shadow, while she moved, now in the glow of the burning embers, now obscured, he read her mind without disguise—save in one dark nook—watched unrebuked the eye fall and the lip tremble, or in rarer moments saw the shy smile dimple the corner of her cheek. Not seldom she stood before him sad: sad without disguise, her bowed head and drooping shoulders the proof of gloomy thoughts, that strayed, he fancied, far from her work or her companion. And sometimes a tear fell and she wiped it away, making no attempt to hide it; and sometimes she would shiver and sigh as if in pain or fear.
At these times he longed for Basterga's throat; and the blood of old Enguerrande de Beauvais, his ancestor, dust these four hundred years at "Damietta of the South," raced in him, and he choked with rage and grief, and for the time could scarcely see. Yet with this pulse of wrath were mingled delicious thrills. The tear which she did not hide from him was his gage of love. The brooding eye, the infrequent smile, the start, the reverie were for him only, and for no other. They were the gift to him of her secret life, her inmost heart.
It was an odd love-making, and bizarre. To Grio, even to men more delicate and more finely wrought, it might have seemed no love-making at all. But the wood-smoke that perfumed the air, sweetened it, the firelight wrapped it about, the pots and pans and simple things of life, amid which it passed, hallowed it. His eyes attending her hither and thither without reserve, without concealment, unabashed, laid his heart at her feet, not once, but a hundred times in the evening; and as often, her endurance of the look, more rarely her sudden blush or smile, accepted the offering.
And scarce a word said: for though they had the room to themselves, they knew that they were never alone or unheeded. Basterga, indeed, sat above stairs and only descended to his meals; and Grio also was above when he was not at the tavern. But Louis sulked in his closet beside them, divided from them only by a door, whence he might emerge at any minute. As a fact he would have emerged many times, but for two things. The first was his marked face, which he was chary of showing; the second, the notion which he had got that the balance of things in the house was changing, and the reign of petty bullying, in which he had so much delighted, approaching its end. With Basterga exposed to arrest, and the girl's help become of value to the authorities, it needed little acumen to discern this. He still feared Basterga; nay, he lived in such terror, lest the part he had played should come to the scholar's ears, that he prayed for his arrest night and morning, and whenever during the day an especial fit of dread seized him. But he feared Anne also, for she might betray him to Basterga; and of young Mercier's quality—that he was no Tissot to be brow-beaten, or thrust aside—he had had proof on the night of the fracas at supper. Essentially a coward, Louis' aim was to be on the stronger side; and once persuaded that this was the side on which they stood, he let them be.
On several consecutive evenings the two passed an hour or more in this silent communion. On the last the door of Louis' room stood open, the young man had not come in, and for the first time they were really alone. But the fact did not at once loosen Claude's tongue; and if the girl noticed it, or expected aught to come of it, more than had come of their companionship on other evenings, she hid her feelings with a woman's ease. He remarked, however, that she was more thoughtful and downcast than usual, and several times he saw her break off in the middle of a task and listen nervously as for something she expected. Presently:—
"Are you listening for Louis?" he asked.
She turned on him, her eyes less kind than usual. "No," she said, almost defiantly. "Was I listening?"
"I thought so," he said.
She turned away again, and went on with her work. But by-and-by as she stooped over the fire a tear fell and pattered audibly in the wood-ash on the hearth; and another. With an impatient gesture she wiped away a third. He saw all—she made no attempt to hide them—and he bit his lip and drove his finger-ends into his palms in the effort to be silent. Presently he had his reward.
"I am sorry," she said in a low tone. "I was listening, and I knew I was. I do not know why I deceived you."
"Why will you not tell me all?" he cried.
"I cannot!" she answered, her breast heaving passionately. "I cannot!" For the first time in his knowledge of her, she broke down completely, and sinking on a bench with her back to the table she sobbed bitterly, her face in her hands. For some minutes she rocked herself to and fro in a paroxysm of trouble.
He had risen and stood watching her awkwardly, longing to comfort her, but ignorant how to go about it, and feeling acutely his helplessness and his gaucherie. Sad she had always been, and at her best despondent, with gleams of cheerfulness as fitful as brief. But this evening her abandonment to her grief convinced him that something more than ordinary was amiss, that some danger more serious than ordinary threatened. He felt no surprise therefore when, a little later, she arrested her sobbing, raised her head, and with suspended breath and tear-stained face listened with that scared intentness which had impressed him before.
She feared! He could not be mistaken. Fear looked out of her strained eyes, fear hung breathless on her parted lips. He was sure of it. And "Is it Basterga?" he cried. "Is it of him that you are afraid? If you are——"
"Hush!" she cried, raising her hand in warning. "Hush!" And then, "You did not—hear anything?" she asked. For an instant her eyes met his.
"No." He met her look, puzzled; and, obeying her gesture, he listened afresh. "No, I heard nothing. But——"
He heard nothing even now, nothing; but whatever it was sharpened her hearing to an abnormal pitch, it was clear that she did. She was on her feet; with a startled cry she was round the table and half-way across the room, while he stared, the word suspended on his lips. A second, and her hand was on the latch of the staircase door. Then as she opened it, he sprang forward to accompany her, to help her, to protect her if necessary. "Let me come!" he said. "Let me help you. Whatever it is, I can do something."
She turned on him fiercely. "Go back!" she said. All the confidence, the gentleness, the docility of the last three days were gone; and in their place suspicion glared at him from eyes grown spiteful as a cat's. "Go back!" she repeated. "I do not want you! I do not want any one, or any help! Or any protection! Go, do you hear, and let me be!"
As she ceased to speak, a sound from above stairs—a sound which this time, the door being open, did reach his ears, froze the words on his lips. It was the sound of a voice, yet no common voice, Heaven be thanked! A moment she continued to confront him, her face one mute, despairing denial! Then she slammed the door in his teeth, and he heard her panting breath and fleeing footsteps speed up the stairs and along the passage, and—more faintly now—he heard her ascend the upper flight. Then—silence.
Silence! But he had heard enough. He paused a moment irresolute, uncertain, his hand raised to the latch. Then the hand fell to his side, he turned, and went softly—very softly back to the hearth. The firelight playing on his face showed it much moved; moved and softened almost to the semblance of a woman's. For there were tears in his eyes—eyes singularly bright; and his features worked, as if he had some ado to repress a sob. In truth he had. In a breath, in the time it takes to utter a single sound, he had hit on the secret, he had come to the bottom of the mystery, he had learnt that which Basterga, favoured by the position of his room on the upper floor, had learned two months before, that which Grio might have learned, had he been anything but the dull gross toper he was! He had learned, or in a moment of intuition guessed—all. The power of Basterga, that power over the girl which had so much puzzled and perplexed him, was his also now, to use or misuse, hold or resign.
Yet his first feeling was not one of joy; nor for that matter his second. The impression went deeper, went to the heart of the man. An infinite tenderness, a tenderness which swelled his breast to bursting, a yearning that, man as he was, stopped little short of tears, these were his, these it was thrilled his soul to the point of pain. The room in which he stood, homely as it showed, plain as it was, seemed glorified, the hearth transfigured. He could have knelt and kissed the floor which the girl had trodden, coming and going, serving and making ready—under that burden; the burden that dignified and hallowed the bearer. What had it not cost her—that burden? What had it not meant to her, what suspense by day, what terror of nights, what haggard awakenings—such as that of which he had been the ignorant witness—what watches above, what slights and insults below! Was it a marvel that the cheeks had lost their colour, the eyes their light, the whole face its life and meaning? Nay, the wonder was that she had borne the weight so long, always expecting, always dreading, stabbed in the tenderest affection; with for confidant an enemy and for stay an ignorant! Viewed through the medium of the man's love, which can so easily idealise where it rests, the love of the daughter for the mother, that must have touched and softened the hardest—or so, but for the case of Basterga, one would have judged—seemed so holy, so beautiful, so pure a thing that the young man felt that, having known it, he must be the better for it all his life.
And then his mind turned to another point in the story, and he recalled what had passed above stairs on that day when he had entered a stranger, and gone up. With what a smiling face of love had she leant over her mother's bed. With what cheerfulness had she lied of that which passed below, what a countenance had she put on all—no house more prosperous, no life more gay—how bravely had she carried it! The peace and neatness and comfort of the room with its windows looking over the Rhone valley, and its spinning-wheel and linen chest and blooming bow-pot, all came back to him; so that he understood many things which had passed before him then, and then had roused but a passing and a trifling wonder.
Her anxiety lest he should take lodging there and add one more to the chances of espial, one more to the witnesses of her misery; her secret nods and looks, and that gently checked outburst of excitement on Madame Royaume's part, which even at the time had seemed odd—all were plain now. Ay, plain; but suffused with a light so beautiful, set in an atmosphere so pure and high, that no view of God's earth, even from the eyrie of those lofty windows, and though dawn or sunset flung its fairest glamour over the scene, could so fill the heart of man with gratitude and admiration!
Up and down in the days gone by, his thoughts followed her through the house. Now he saw her ascend and enter, and finding all well, mask—but at what a cost—her aching heart under smiles and cheerful looks and soft laughter. He heard the voice that was so seldom heard downstairs murmur loving words, and little jests, and dear foolish trifles; heard it for the hundredth time reiterate the false assurances that affection hallowed. He was witness to the patient tendance, the pious offices, the tireless service of hand and eye, that went on in that room under the tiles; witness to the long communion hand in hand, with the world shut out; to the anxious scrutiny, to the daily departure. A sad departure, though daily and more than daily taken; for she who descended carried a weight of fear and anxiety. As she came down the weary stairs, stage by stage, he saw the brightness die from eye and lip, and pale fear or dull despair seize on its place. He saw—and his heart was full—the slender figure, the pallid face enter the room in which he stood—it might be at the dawning when the cold shadow of the night still lay on all, from the dead ashes on the hearth to the fallen pot and displaced bench; or it might be at mid-day, to meet sneers and taunts and ignoble looks; and his heart was full. His face burned, his eyes filled, he could have kissed the floor she had walked over, the wooden spoon her hand had touched, the trencher-edge—done any foolish thing to prove his love.
Love? It was a deeper thing than love, a holier, purer thing—that which he felt. Such a feeling as the rough spearsmen of the Orleannais had for Joan the maid; or the great Florentine for the girl whom he saw for the first time at the banquet in the house of the Portinari; or as that man, who carried to his grave the Queen's glove, yet had never touched it with his bare hand.
Alas, that such feelings cannot last, nor such moments endure; that in the footsteps of the priest, be he never so holy, treads ever the grinning acolyte with his mind on sweet things. They pass, these feelings, and too quickly. But once to have had them, once to have lived such moments, once to have known a woman and loved her in such wise leaves no man as he was before; leaves him at the least with a memory of a higher life.
That the acolyte in Claude's case took the form of Louis Gentilis made him no more welcome. Claude was still dreaming on his feet, still viewing in a kind of happy amaze the simple things about him, things that for him wore
The light that never was on land or sea,
and that this world puts on but once for each of us, when Gentilis opened the door and entered, bringing with him a rush of rain, and a gust of night air. He breathed quickly as if he had been running, yet having closed the door, he paused before he advanced into the room; and he seemed surprised, and at a nonplus. After a moment, "Supper is not ready?" he said.
"It is not time," Claude answered curtly. The vision of an angel does not necessarily purify at all points, and he had small stomach for Master Louis at any time.
The youth winced under the tone, but stood his ground.
"Where is Anne?" he asked, something sullenly.
"Upstairs. Why do you ask?"
"Messer Basterga is not coming to supper. Nor Grio. They bade me tell her. And that they would be late."
"Very well, I will tell her."
But it was evident that that was not all Louis had in his mind. He remained fidgeting by the door, his cap in his hand; and his face, had Claude marked it—but he had already turned a contemptuous shoulder on him—was a picture of doubt and indecision. At length, "I've a message for you," he muttered nervously. "From Messer Blondel the Syndic. He wants to see you—now."
Claude turned, and if he had not looked at the other before, he made up for it now. "Oh!" he said at last, after a stare that bespoke both surprise and suspicion. "He does, does he? And who made you his messenger?"
"He met me in the street—just now."
"He knows you, then?"
"He knows I live here," Louis muttered.
"He pays us a vast amount of attention," Claude replied with polite irony. "Nevertheless"—he turned again to the fire—"I cannot pleasure him," he continued curtly, "this time."
"But he wants to see you," Gentilis persisted desperately. It was plain that he was on pins and needles. "At his house. Cannot you believe me?" in a querulous tone. "It is all fair and above board. I swear it is."
"It is—I swear it is. He sent me. Do you doubt me?" he added with undisguised eagerness.
Claude was about to say, with no politeness at all, that he did, and to repeat his refusal in stronger terms, when his ear caught the same sound which had revealed so much to him a few minutes earlier at the foot of the stairs. It came more faintly this time, deadened by the closed door of the staircase, but to his enlightened senses it proclaimed so clearly what it was—the echo of a cracked, shrill voice, of a laugh insane, uncanny, elfish—that he trembled lest Louis should hear it also and gain the clue. That was a thing to be avoided at all costs; and even as this occurred to him he saw the way to avoid it. Basterga and Grio were absent: if this fool could be removed, even for an hour or two, Anne would have the house to herself, and by midnight the crisis might be overpast.
"I will come with you," he said.
Louis uttered a sigh of relief. He had expected—and he had very nearly received—another answer. "Good," he said. "But he does not want me."
"Both or neither," Claude replied coolly. "For all I know 'tis an ambush."
"In which event I shall see that you share it. Or it may be a scheme to draw me from here, and then if harm be done while I am away——"
"Harm? What harm?" Louis muttered.
"Any harm! If harm be done, I say, I shall then have you at hand to pay me for it. So—both or neither!"
For a moment Louis' hang-dog face—none the handsomer for the mark of the Syndic's cane—spelt refusal. Then he changed his mind. He nodded sulkily. "Very well," he said. "But it is raining, and I have no great wish to—Hush! What is that?" He raised his hand in the attitude of one listening and his eyes sought his companion's. "What is that? Did you not hear something—like a scream upstairs?"
"I hear something like a fool downstairs!" Claude retorted gruffly.
"But it was—I certainly heard something!" Louis persisted, raising his hand again. "It sounded——"
"If we are to go, let us go!" Claude cried with temper. "Come, if you want me to go! It is not my expedition," he continued, moving noisily hither and thither in search of his staff and cloak. "It is your affair, and—where is my cap?"
"I should think it is in your room," Louis answered meekly. "It was only that I thought it might be Anne. That there might be——"
"Two fools in the house instead of one!" Claude broke in, emerging noisily, and slamming the door of his closet behind him. "There, come, and we may hope to be back to supper some time to-night! Do you hear?" And jealously shepherding the other out of the house, he withdrew the key when both had passed the threshold. Locking the door on the outside, he thrust the key under it. "There!" he said, smiling at his cleverness, "now, who enters—knocks!"
"AND ONLY ONE DOSE IN ALL THE WORLD!"
In his picture of the life led by the two women on the upper floor of the house in the Corraterie, that picture which by a singular intuition he had conceived on the day of his arrival, Claude had not gone far astray. In all respects but one the picture was truly drawn. Than the love between mother and daughter, no tie could be imagined at once more simple and more holy; no union more real and pure than that which bound together these two women, left lonely in days of war and trouble in the midst of a city permanently besieged and menaced by an enduring peril. Almost forgotten by the world below, which had its own cares, its alarums and excursions, its strivings and aims, they lived for one another. The weak health of the one and the brave spirit of the other had gradually inverted their positions; and the younger was mother, the elder, daughter. Yet each retained, in addition, the pious instincts of the original relation. To each the welfare of the other was the prime thought. To give the other the better portion, be it of food or wine, of freedom from care, or ease of mind, and to take the worse, was to each the ground plan of life, as it was its chiefest joy.
In their eyrie above the anxious city they led an existence all their own. Between them were a hundred jests, Greek to others; and whimsical ways, and fond sayings and old smiles a thousand times repeated. And things that must be done after one fashion or the sky would fall; and others that must be done after another fashion or the world would end. When the house was empty of boarders, or nearly empty—though at such times the cupboard also was apt to be bare—there were long hours spent upstairs and surveys of household gear, carried up with difficulty, and reviews of linen and much talk of it, and small meals, taken at the open windows that looked over the Rhone valley and commanded the sunset view. Such times were times of gaiety though not of prosperity, and far from the worst hours of life—had they but persisted.
But in the March of 1601 a great calamity fell on these two. A fire, which consumed several houses near the Corraterie, and flung wide through the streets the rumour that the enemy had entered, struck the bedridden woman—aroused at midnight by shouts and the glare of flames—with so dire a terror, not on her own account but on her daughter's, that she was never the same again. For weeks at a time she appeared to be as of old, save for some increase of weakness and tremulousness. But below the surface the brain was out of poise, and under the least pressure of excitement she betrayed the change in a manner so appalling—by the loud negation of those beliefs which in saner moments were most dear to her, and especially by a denial of the Providence and goodness of God—that even her child, even the being who knew her and loved her best, shuddered lest Satan, visible and triumphant, should rise to confront her.
Fortunately the fits of this mysterious malady were short as they were appalling, and to the minds of that day, suspicious. And in the beginning Anne had the support of an old physician, well-nigh their only intimate. True, even he was scared by a form of disease, new and beyond his science; but he prescribed a sedative and he kept counsel. He went further: for sufficiently enlightened himself to believe in the innocence of these attacks, he none the less explained to the daughter the peril to which her mother's aberrations must expose her were they known to the vulgar; and he bade her hide them with all the care imaginable.
Anne, on this would fain have adopted the safest course and kept the house empty; to the end that to the horror of her mother's fits of delirium might not be added the chance of eavesdropping. But to do this was to starve, as well as to reveal to Madame Royaume the fact of those seizures of which no one in the world was more ignorant than the good woman who suffered under them. It followed that to Anne's burden of dread by reason of the outer world, whom she must at all costs deceive, was added the weight of concealment from the one from whom she had never kept anything in her life. A thing which augmented immeasurably the loneliness of her position and the weight of her load.
Presently the drama, always pitiful, increased in intensity. The old leech who had been her stay and helper died, and left her to face the danger alone. A month later Basterga discovered the secret and henceforth held it over her. From this time she led a life of which Claude, in his dreams upon the hearth, exaggerated neither the tragedy nor the beauty. The load had been heavy before. Now to fear was added contumely, and to vague apprehensions the immediate prospect of discovery and peril. The grip of the big scholar, subtle, cruel, tightening day by day and hour by hour, was on her youth; slowly it paralysed in her all joy, all spirit, all the impulses of life and hope, that were natural to her age.
That through all she showed an indomitable spirit, we know. We have seen how she bore herself when threatened from an unexpected quarter on the morning when Claude Mercier, after overhearing her mother's ravings, had his doubts confirmed by the sight of her depression on the stairs. How boldly she met his attack, unforeseen as it was, how bravely she shielded her other and dearer self, how deftly she made use of the chance which the young man's soberer sense afforded her, will be remembered. But not even in that pinch, no, nor in that worse hour when Basterga, having discovered his knowledge to her, gave her—as a cat plays with a mouse which it is presently to tear to pieces—a little law and a little space, did she come so near to despair as on this evening when the echo of her mother's insane laughter drew her from the living-room at an hour without precedent.
For hitherto Madame Royaume's attacks had come on in the night only. With a regularity not unknown in the morbid world they occurred about midnight, an hour when her daughter could attend to her and when the house below lay wrapped in sleep. A change in this respect doubled the danger, therefore. It did more: the prospect of being summoned at any hour shook, if it did not break, the last remains of Anne's strength. To be liable at all times to such interruptions, to tremble while serving a meal or making a bed lest the dreadful sound arise and reveal all, to listen below and above and never to feel safe for a minute, never! never!—who could face, who could endure, who could lie down and rise up under this burden?
It could not be. As Anne ascended the stairs she felt that the end was coming, was come. Strive as she might, war as she might, with all the instinct, all the ferocity, of a mother defending her young, the end was come. The secret could not be kept long. Even while she administered the medicine with shaking hands, while with tears in her voice she strove to still the patient and silence her wild words, even while she restrained by force the feeble strength that would and could not, while in a word she omitted no precaution, relaxed no effort, her heart told her with every pulsation that the end was come.
And presently, when Madame was quiet and slept, the girl bowed her head over the unconscious object of her love and wept, bitterly, passionately, wetting with her tears the long grey hair that strewed the pillow, as she recalled with pitiful clearness all the stages of concealment, all the things which she had done to avert this end. Vainly, futilely, for it was come. The dark mornings of winter recurred to her mind, those mornings when she had risen and dressed herself by rushlight, with this fear redoubling the chill gloom of the cold house; the nights, too, when all had been well, and in the last hour before sleep, finding her mother sane and cheerful, she had nursed the hope that the latest attack might be the last. The evenings brightened by that hope, the mornings darkened by its extinction, the rare hours of brooding, the days and weeks of brave struggle, of tendance never failing, of smiles veiling a sick heart—she lived all these again, looking pitifully back, straining tenderly in her arms the dear being she loved.
And then, stabbing her back to life in the midst of her exhaustion, the thought pierced her that even now she was hastening the end by her absence. They would be asking for her below; they must be asking for her already. The supper-time was come, was past, perhaps; and she was not there! She tried to picture what would happen, what already must be happening; and rising and dashing the tears from her face she stood listening. Perhaps Claude would make some excuse to the others; or, perhaps—how much had he guessed?
Her mother was passive now, sunk in the torpor which followed the attack and from which the poor woman would awake in happy unconsciousness of the whole. Anne saw that her charge might be left, and hastily smoothing the tangle of luxuriant hair which had fallen about her face, she opened the door. Another might have stayed to allay the fever of her cheeks, to remove the traces of her tears, to stay the quivering of her hands; but such small cares were not for her, nor for the occasion. She could form no idea of the length of time she had spent upstairs, a half-hour, or an hour and a half; and without more ado she raised the latch, slipped out, and turning the key on her patient ran down the upper flight of stairs.
She anticipated many things, but not that which she encountered—silence on the upper landing, and below when she had descended and opened the staircase door—an empty room. The place was vacant; the tables were as she had left them, half laid; the pot was gently simmering over the fire.
What had happened? The supper-hour was past, yet none of the four who should have sat down to the meal were here. Had they overheard her mother's terrible cry—those words which voiced the woman's despair on finding, as she fancied, the city betrayed? And were they gone to denounce her? The thought was discarded as soon as formed; and before she could hit on a second explanation a hasty knocking on the door turned her eyes that way.
The four who lodged in the house were not in the habit of knocking, for the door was only locked at night when the last retired. She approached it then, wondering, hesitated an instant, and at last, collecting her courage, raised the latch. The door resisted her impulse. It was locked.
She tried it twice, and it was only as she drew back the second time that she saw the key lying at the foot of the door. That deepened the mystery. Why had they locked her in? Why, when they had done so, had they thrust the key under the door and so placed it in her power? Had Claude Mercier done it that the others might not enter to hear what he had heard and discover what he had discovered? Possibly. In which case the knocker—who at that instant made a second and more earnest attack upon the door—must be one of the others, and the sooner she opened the door the less would be the suspicion created.
With an apology trembling on her lips she hastened to open. Then she stood bewildered; she saw before her, not one of the lodgers, but Messer Blondel. "I wish to speak to you," the magistrate said with firmness. Before she knew what was happening he had motioned to her to go before him into the house, and following had locked the door behind them.
She knew him by sight, as did all Geneva; and the blood, which surprise at the sight of a stranger had brought to her cheeks, fled as she recognised the Syndic. Had they betrayed her, then, while she lingered upstairs? Had they locked her in while they summoned the magistrate? And was he here to make inquiries about—something he had heard?
His voice cut short her thoughts without allaying her fears. "I wish to speak to you alone," he said. "Are you alone, girl?" His manner was quiet, but masked excitement. His eyes scrutinised her and searched the room by turns.
She nodded, unable to speak.
"There is no one in the house with you?"
"Only my mother," she murmured.
"She is bedridden, is she not? She cannot hear us?" he added, frowning.
"No, but I am expecting the others to return."
"He will not return before morning," the Syndic replied with decision, "nor his companion. The two young men are safe also. If you are alone, therefore, I wish to speak to you."
She bowed her head, trembling and wondering, fearing what the next moment might disclose.
"The young man who lodges here—of the name of Gentilis—he came to you some time ago and told you that the State needed certain letters which the man Basterga kept in a steel box upstairs? That is so, is it not?"
"Yes, Messer Syndic."
"And you looked for them?"
"Yes, I—I was told that you desired them."
"You found a phial? You found a phial?" the Syndic repeated, passing his tongue over his lips. His face was flushed; his eyes shone with a peculiar brightness.
"I found a small bottle," she answered slowly. "There was nothing else."
He raised his hand. If she had known how the delay of a second tortured him! "Describe it to me!" he said. "What was it like?"
Wondering, the girl tried to describe it. "It was small and of a strange shape, of thin glass, Messer Syndic," she said. "Shot with gold, or there was gold afloat in the liquid inside. I do not know which."
"It was not empty?"
"No, it was three parts full."
His hand went to his mouth, to hide the working of his lips. "And there was with it—a paper, I think?"
"A scrap of parchment then? Some words, some figures?" His voice rose as he read a negative in her face. "There was something, surely?"
"There was nothing," she said. "Had there been a scrap even of writing——"
"Yes, yes?" He could not control his impatience.
"I should have sent it to you. I should have thought," she continued earnestly, "that it was that you needed, Messer Syndic; that it was that the State needed. But there was nothing."
"Well, be there papers with it or be there not, I must have that phial!"
Anne stared. "But I do not think"—she ventured with hesitation—and then as she gained courage, she went on more firmly—"that I can take it! I dare not, Messer Syndic."
"Papers for the State—were one thing," she stammered in confusion; "but to take this—a bottle—would be stealing!"
The Syndic's eyes sparkled. His passion overcame him. "Girl, don't play with me!" he cried. "Don't dare to play with me!" And then as she shrank back alarmed by his tone, and shocked by this sudden peeping forth of the tragic and the real, lo, in a twinkling he was another man, trembling, and holding out shaking hands to her. "Get it for me!" he said. "Get it for me, girl! I will tell you what it is! If I had told you before, I had had it now, and I should be whole and well! whole and well. You have a heart and can pity! Women can pity. Then pity me! I am rich, but I am dying! I am a dying man, rising up and lying down, counting the days as I walk the streets, and seeing the shroud rise higher and higher upon my breast!"
He paused for breath, endeavouring to gain some command of himself; while she, carried off her feet by this rush of words, stared at him in stupefaction. Before he came he had made up his mind to tell her the truth—or something like the truth. But he had not intended to tell the truth in this way until, face to face with her and met by her scruples, he let the impulse to tell the whole carry him away.
He steadied his lips with a shaking hand. "You know now why I want it," he resumed, speaking huskily and with restrained emotion. "'Tis life! Life, girl! In that"—he fought with himself before he could bring out the word—"in that phial is my life! Is life for whoever takes it! It is the remedium, it is strength, life, youth, and but one—but one dose in all the world! Do you wonder—I am dying!—that I want it? Do you wonder—I am dying!—that I will have it? But"—with a strange grimace intended to reassure her—"I frighten you, I frighten you."
"No!" she said, though in truth she had unconsciously retreated almost to the door of the staircase before his extended hands. "But I—I scarcely understand, Messer Blondel. If you will please to tell me——"
"What Messer Basterga—how he comes to have this?" She must parley with him until she could collect her thoughts; until she could make up her mind whether he was sane or mad and what it behoved her to do.
"Comes to have it!" he cried vehemently. "God knows! And what matter? 'Tis the remedium, I tell you, whoever has it! It is life, strength, youth!" he repeated, his eyes glittering, his face working, and the impulse to tell her not the truth only, but more even than the truth, if he might thereby dazzle her, carrying him away. "It is health of body, though you be dying, as I am! And health of mind though you be possessed of devils! It is a cure for all ills, for all weaknesses, all diseases, even," with a queer grimace, "for the Scholar's evil! Think you, if it were not rare, if it were not something above the common, if it were not what leeches seek in vain, I should be here! I should have more than enough to buy it, I, Messer Blondel of Geneva!" He ceased, lacking breath.
"But," she said timidly, "will not Messer Basterga give it to you? Or sell it to you?"
"Give it to me? Sell it to me? He?" Blondel's hands flew out and clawed the air as if he had the Paduan before him, and would tear it from him. "He give it me? No, he will not. Nor sell it! He is keeping it for the Grand Duke! The Grand Duke? Curse him; why should he escape more than another?"
Anne stared. Was she dreaming or had her brain given way? Or was this really Messer Blondel the austere Syndic, this man standing before her, shaking in his limbs as he poured forth this strange farrago of remedia and scholars and princes and the rest? Or if she were not mad was he mad? Or could there be truth, any truth, any fact in the medley? His clammy face, his trembling hands, answered for his belief in it. But could there be such a thing in nature as this of which he spoke? She had heard of panaceas, things which cured all ills alike; but hitherto they had found no place in her simple creed. Yet that he believed she could not doubt; and how much more he knew than she did! Such things might be; in the cabinets of princes, perhaps, purchasable by a huge fortune and by the labour, the engrossment, the devotion of a life. She did not know; and for him his acts spoke.
"It was this that Louis Gentilis was seeking?" she murmured.
"What else?" he retorted, opening and shutting his hands. "Had I told him the truth, as I have told you, the thing had been in my grasp now!"
"But are you sure," she ventured to ask with respect, "that it will do these things, Messer Blondel?"
He flung up his hands in a gesture of impatience. "And more! And more!" he cried. "It is life and strength, I tell you! Health and youth! For body or mind, for the old or the young! But enough! Enough, girl!" he resumed in an altered tone, a tone grown peremptory and urgent. "Get it me! Do you hear? Stand no longer talking! At any moment they may return, and—and it may be too late."
Too late! It was too late already. The door shook even as he spoke under an angry summons. As he stiffened where he stood, his eyes fixed upon it, his hand still pointing her to his bidding, a face showed white at the window and vanished again. An instant he imagined it Basterga's; and hand, voice, eyes, all hung frozen. Then he saw his mistake—to whomsoever the face belonged, it was not Basterga's; and finding voice and breath again, "Quick!" he muttered fiercely, "do you hear, girl? Get it! Get it before they enter!"
Her hand was on the latch of the inner door. Another second and, swayed by his will, she would have gone up and got the thing he needed, and the stout door would have shielded them, and within the staircase he might have taken it from her and no one been the wiser. But as she turned, there came a second attack on the door, so loud, so persistent, so furious, that she faltered, remembering that the duplicate key of Basterga's chamber was in her mother's room, and that she must mount to the top of the house for it.
He saw her hesitation, and, shaken by the face which had looked in out of the night, and which still might be watching his movements, his resolution gave way. The habit of a life of formalism prevailed. The thing was as good as his, she would get it presently. Why, then, cause talk and scandal by keeping these persons—whoever they were—outside, when the thing might be had without talk?
"To-night!" he cried rapidly. "Get it to-night, then! Do you hear, girl? You will be sure to get it?" His eyes flitted from her to the door and back again. "Basterga will not return until to-morrow. You will get it to-night!"
She murmured some form of assent.
"Then open the door! open the door!" he urged impatiently. And with a stifled oath, "A little more and they will rouse the town!"
She ran to obey, the door flew open, and into the room bundled first Louis without his cap; and then on his heels and gripping him by the nape, Claude Mercier. Nor did the latter seem in the least degree abashed by the presence in which he found himself. On the contrary, he looked at the Syndic, his head high; as if he, and not the magistrate, had the right to an explanation.
But Blondel had recovered himself. "Come, come!" he said sternly. "What is this, young man? Are you drunk?"
"Why was the door locked?"
"That you might not interrupt me," Blondel replied severely, "while I asked some questions. I have it in my mind to ask you some also. You took him to my house?" he continued, addressing Louis.
Louis whined that he had.
"You were late then?" His cold eye returned to Claude. "You were late, I warrant. Attend me to-morrow at nine, young man. Do you hear? Do you understand?"
"Then have a care you are there, or the officers will fetch you. And you," he continued, turning more graciously to Anne, "see, young woman, you keep counsel. A still tongue buys friends, and is a service to the State. With that—good-night."
He looked from one to the other with a sour smile, nodded, and passed out.
He left Claude staring, and something bewildered in the middle of the room. The love, the pity, the admiration of which the lad's heart had been full an hour before, still hungered for expression; but it was not easy to vent such feelings before Louis, nor at a moment when the Syndic's cold eye and the puzzle of his presence there chilled for the time the atmosphere of the room.
Claude, indeed, was utterly perplexed by what he had seen; and before he could decide what he would do, Anne, ignoring the need of explanation, had taken the matter into her own hands. She had begun to set out the meal; and Louis, smiling maliciously, had seated himself in his place. To speak with any effect then, or to find words adequate to the feelings that had moved him a while before, was impossible. A moment later, the opportunity was gone.
"You must please to wait on yourselves," the girl said wearily. "My mother is not well, and I may not come down again this evening." As she spoke, she lifted from the table the little tray which she had prepared.
He was in time to open the door for her; and even then, had she glanced at him, his eyes must have told her much, perhaps enough. But she did not look at him. She was preoccupied with her own thoughts; pressing thoughts they must have been. She passed him as if he had been a stranger, her eyes on the tray. Worshipping, he stood, and saw her turn the corner at the head of the flight; then with a full heart he went back to his place. His time would come.
And she? At the door of Basterga's room she paused and stood long in thought, gazing at the rushlight she carried on the tray—yet seeing nothing. A sentence, one sentence of all those which Blondel had poured forth—not Blondel the austere Syndic, who had set the lads aside as if they had been schoolboys, but Blondel the man, trembling, holding out suppliant hands—rang again and again in her ears.
"It is health of body, though you be dying as I am, and health of mind, though you be possessed of devils!" Health of body! Health of mind! Health of body! Health of mind! The words wrote themselves before her eyes in letters of fire. Health of Body! Health of Mind!
And only one dose in all the world. Only one dose in all the world! She recalled that too.
ON THE BRIDGE.
To say that the Syndic, as soon as he had withdrawn, repented of his weakness and wished with all his heart that he had not opened until the remedium was in his hand, is only to say that he was human. He did more than this, indeed. When he had advanced some paces in the direction of the Porte Tertasse he returned, and for a full minute he stood before the Royaumes' door irresolute; half-minded to knock and, casting the fear of publicity to the winds, to say that he must have at once that for which he had come. He would get it, if he did, he was certain of that. And for the rest, what the young men said or thought, or what others who heard their story might say or think, mattered not a straw now that he came to consider it; since he could have Basterga seized on the morrow, and all would pass for a part of his affair.
Yet he did not knock. A downward step on the slope of indecision is hard to retrace. He reflected that he would get the remedium in the morning. He would certainly get it. The girl was won over, Basterga was away. Practically, he had no one to fear. And to make a stir when the matter could be arranged without a stir was not the part of a wise man in the position of a magistrate. Slowly he turned and walked away.
But, as if his good angel touched him on the shoulder, under the Porte Tertasse he had qualms; and again he stood. And when, after a shorter interval and with less indecision, he resumed his course, it was by no means with the air of a victor. He would receive what he needed in the morning: he dared not admit a doubt of that. And yet—was it a vague presentiment that weighed on him as he walked, or only the wintry night wind that caused the blood to run more slowly and more tamely in his veins? He had not fared ill in his venture, he had made success certain. And yet he was unreasonably, he was unaccountably, he was undefinably depressed.
He grew more cheerful when he had had his supper and seated before a half-flagon of wine gave the reins to his imagination. For the space of a golden hour he held the remedium in his grasp, he felt its life-giving influence course through his frame, he tasted again of health and strength and manhood, he saw before him years of success and power and triumph! In comparison to it the bath of Pelias, though endowed with the virtues which lying Medea attributed to it, had not seemed more desirable, nor the elixir of life, nor the herb of Anticyra. Nor was it until he had taken the magic draught once and twice and thrice in fancy, and as often hugged himself on health renewed and life restored that a thought, which had visited him at an earlier period of the evening, recurred and little by little sobered him.
This was the reflection that he knew nothing of the quantity of the potion which he must take, nothing of the time or of the manner of taking it. Was it to be taken all at once, or in doses? Pure, or diluted with wine, or with water, or with aqua vitae? At any hour, or at midnight, or at a particular epoch of the moon's age, or when this or that star was in the ascendant?
The question bulked larger as he considered it; for in life no trouble is surmounted but another appears to confront us; nor is the most perfect success of an imperfect world without its drawback. Now that he held the elixir his, now that in fancy he had it in his grasp, the problem of the mode and the quantity which had seemed trivial and negligible a few days or hours before, grew to formidable dimensions; nor could he of himself discover any solution of it. He had counted on finding with the potion some scrap of writing, some memorandum, some hieroglyphics at least, that, interpreted by such skill as he could command, would give him the clue he sought. But if there was nothing, as the girl asserted, not a line nor a sign, the matter could be resolved in one way only. He must resort to pressure. With the potion and the man in his possession, he must force the secret from Basterga; force it by threats or promises or aught that would weigh with a man who lay helpless and in a dungeon. It would not be difficult to get the truth in that way: not at all difficult. It seemed, indeed, as if Providence—and Fabri and Petitot and Baudichon—had arranged to put the man in his power ad hoc.
He hugged this thought to him, and grew so enamoured of it that he wondered that he had not had the courage to seize Basterga in the beginning. He had allowed himself to be disturbed by phantoms; there lay the truth. He should have seen that the scholar dared not for his own sake destroy a thing so precious, a thing by which he might, at the worst, ransom his life. The Syndic wondered that he had not discerned that point before: and still in sanguine humour he retired to bed, and slept better than he had slept for weeks, ay, for months. The elixir was his, as good as his; if he did not presently have Messer Basterga by the nape he was much mistaken.
He had had the scholar watched and knew whither he was gone and that he would not return before noon. At nine o'clock, therefore, the hour at which he had directed Claude to come to him at his house, he approached the Royaumes' door. Pluming himself on the stratagem by which twice in the twenty-four hours he had rid himself of an inconvenient witness, he opened the door boldly and entered.
On the hearth, cap in hand, stood not Claude, but Louis. The lad wore the sneaking air as of one surprised in a shameful action, which such characters wear even when innocently employed. But his actions proved that he was not surprised. With finger on his lip, and eyes enjoining caution, he signed to the Syndic to be silent, and with head aside set the example of listening.
The Syndic was not the man to suffer fools gladly, and he opened his mouth. He closed it—all but too late. All but too late, if—the thought sent cold shivers down his back—if Basterga had returned. With an air almost as furtive as that of the lad before him, he signed to him to approach.
Louis crossed the room with a show of caution the more strange as the early December sun was shining and all without was cheerful. "Has he come back?" Blondel whispered.
"Fool!" Low as the Syndic pitched his tone it expressed a world of contempt. "No, Basterga?"
The youth shook his head, and again laying his finger to his lips listened.
"What! He has not?" Blondel's colour returned, his eyes bulged out with passion. What did the imbecile mean? Because he knew certain things did he think himself privileged to play the fool? The Syndic's fingers tingled. Another second and he had broken the silence with a vengeance, when—
"You are—too late!" Louis muttered. "Too late!" he repeated with protruded lips.
Blondel glared at him as if he would annihilate him. Too late? What did this creature know? Or how could it be too late, if Basterga had not returned? Yet the Syndic was shaken. His fingers no longer tingled for the other's cheek; he no longer panted to break the silence in a way that should startle him. On the contrary, he listened; while his eyes passed swiftly round the room, to gather what was amiss. But all seemed in order. The lads' bowls and spoons stood on the table, the great roll of brown bread lay beside them, and a book, probably Claude's, lay face downwards on the board. The door of one of the bedrooms stood open. The Syndic's suspicious gaze halted at the closed door. He pointed to it.
Louis shook his head; then, seeing that this was not enough, "There is no one there," he whispered. "But I cannot tell you here. I will follow you, honoured sir, to——"
"The Porte Tertasse."
"Mercier would meet us, by your leave," Louis rejoined with a faint grin.
The magistrate glared at the tool who on a sudden was turned adviser. Still, for the time he must humour him. "The mills, then, on the bridge," he muttered. And he opened the door with care and went out. With a dreadful sense of coming evil he went along the Corraterie and took his way down the steep to the bridge which, far below, curbed the blue rushing waters of the Rhone. The roar of the icy torrent and of the busy mills, stupendous as it was, was not loud enough to deaden the two words that clung to his ears, "Too late! Too late!" Nor did the frosty sunshine, gloriously reflected from the line of snowy peaks to eastward, avail to pierce the gloom in which he walked. For Louis Gentilis, if it should turn out that he had inflicted this penance for naught, there was preparing an evil hour.
The magistrate turned aside on a part of the bridge between two mills. With his back to the wind-swept lake and its wide expanse of ruffled waves, he stood a little apart from the current of crossers, on a space kept clear of loiterers by the keen breeze. He seemed, if any curious eye fell on him, to be engaged in watching the swirling torrent pour from the narrow channel beneath him, as in warmer weather many a one stood to watch it. Here two minutes later Louis found him; and if Blondel still cherished hope, if he still fought against fear, or maintained courage, the lad's smirking face was enough to end all.
For a moment, such was the effect on him, Blondel could not speak. At last, with an effort, "What is it?" he said. "What has happened?"
"Much," Louis replied glibly. "Last night, after you had gone, honoured sir, I judged by this and that, that there was something afoot. And being devoted to your interests, and seeking only to serve you——"
"The point! The point!" the Syndic ejaculated. "What has happened?"
"Treachery," the young man answered, mouthing his words with enjoyment; it was for him a happy moment. "Black, wicked treachery!" with a glance behind him. "The worst, sir, the worst, if I rightly apprehend the matter."
"Curse you," Blondel cried, contrary to his custom, for he was no swearer, "you will kill me, if you do not speak."
"What has happened. What has happened, man!"
"I was going to tell you, honoured sir, that I watched her——"
"Anne? The girl?"
"Yes, and an hour before midnight she took that which you wished me to get—the bottle. She went to Basterga's room, and——"
"Took it! Well? Well?" The Syndic's face, grey a moment before, was dangerously suffused with blood. The cane that had inflicted the bruise Louis still wore across his visage, quivered ominously. Public as the bridge was, open to obloquy and remark as an assault must lay him, Blondel was within an inch of striking the lad again. "Well? Well?" he repeated. "Is that all you have to tell me?"
"Would it were!" Louis replied, raising his open hands with sanctimonious fervour. "Alas, sir!"
"You watched her?"
"I watched her back to her room."
"Yes, the room which she occupies with her mother. And kneeling and listening, and seeing what I could for your sake," the knave continued, not a feature evincing the shame he should have felt, "I saw her handle the phial at a little table opposite the door, but hidden by a curtain from the bed."
The Syndic's eyes conveyed the question his lips refused to frame. No man, submitted to the torture, has ever suffered more than he was suffering.
But Louis had as much mind to avenge himself as the bravest, if he could do so safely; and he would not be hurried. "She held it to the light," he said, dwelling on every syllable, "and turned it this way and that, and I could see bubbles as of gold——"
"Whirling and leaping up and down in it as if they lived—God guard us from the evil one! Then she knelt——"
The Syndic uttered an involuntary cry.
"And prayed," Louis continued, confirming his astonishing statement by a nod. "But whether to it—'twas on the table before her—or to the devil, or otherwise, I know not. Only"—with damnatory candour—"it had a strange aspect. Certainly she knelt, and it was on the table in front of her, and her forehead rested on her hands, and——"
"What then? What then? By Heaven, the point!" gasped Blondel, writhing in torture. "What then? blind worm that you are, can you not see that you are killing me? What did she do with it? Tell me!"
"She poured it into a glass, and——"
"She drank it?"
"No, she carried it to her mother," Louis replied as slowly as he dared. Fawning on the hand that had struck him, he would fain bite it if he could do so safely. "I did not see what followed," he went on, "they were behind the screen. But I heard her say that it was Madame's medicine. And I made out enough——"
"To be sure that her mother drank it."
Blondel stared at him a moment, wide-eyed; then, with a cry of despair, bitter, final, indescribable, the Syndic turned and hurried away. He did not hear the timid remonstrances which Louis, who followed a few paces behind, ventured to utter. He did not heed the wondering looks of those whom he jostled as he plunged into the current of passers and thrust his way across the bridge in the direction whence he had come. The one impulse in his blind brain was to get home, that he might be alone, to think and moan and bewail himself unwatched; even as the first instinct of the wounded beast is to seek its lair and lie hidden, there to await with piteous eyes and the divine patience of animals the coming of death.
But this man had the instinct only, not the patience. In his case would come with thought wild rages, gnawings of regret, tears of blood. That he might have, and had not, that he had failed by so little, that he had been worsted by his own tools—these things and the bitter irony of life's chances would madden and torment him. In an hour he would live a lifetime of remorse; yet find in his worst moments no thought more poignant than the reflection that had he played the game with courage, had he grasped the nettle boldly, had he seized Basterga while it was yet time, he might have lived! He might have lived! Ah, God!
Meanwhile Louis, though consumed with desire to see what would happen, remained on the bridge. He had tasted a fearful joy and would fain savour more of it if he could do so with a whole skin. But to follow seemed perilous; he held the Syndic's mood in too great awe for that. He did the next best thing. He hastened to a projecting part of the bridge a few paces from the spot where they had conferred; there he raised himself on the parapet that he might see which way Blondel turned at the end of the bridge. If he entered the town no more could be made of it: but if he turned right-handed and by the rampart to the Corraterie, Louis' mind was made up to risk something. He would follow to the Royaumes' house. The magistrate could hardly blame him for going to his own lodging!
It was a busy hour, and, cold as it was, a fair number of people were passing between the island and the upper town. For a moment, look as he might, he could not discern the Syndic's spare figure; and he was beginning to think that he had missed him when he saw something that in a twinkling turned his thoughts. On the bank a little beside the end of the bridge stood Claude Mercier. He carried a heavy stick in his hand, and he was waiting: waiting, with his eyes fixed on our friend, and a look in those eyes that even at that distance raised a gentle sweat on Louis' brow.
It required little imagination to follow Claude's past movements. He had gone to the Syndic's house at nine, and finding himself tricked a second time had returned hot-foot to the Corraterie. Thence he had tracked the two to this place. But how long had he been waiting, Louis wondered; and how much had he seen? Something for certain. His face announced that; and Louis, hot all over, despite the keen wind and frosty air, augured the worst. Cowards however have always one course open. The way was clear behind him. He could cross the island to the St. Gervais bank, and if he were nimble he might give his pursuer the slip in the maze of small streets beside the water. It was odd if the lapse of a few hours did not cool young Mercier's wrath, and restore him to a frame of mind in which he might be brought to hear reason.
No sooner planned than done. Or rather it would have been done if turning to see that the way was clear behind him, Louis had not discovered a second watcher, who from a spot on the edge of the island was marking his movements with grim attention. This watcher was Basterga. Moreover the glance which apprised Louis of this showed him that the scholar's face was as black as thunder.
Then, if the gods looked down that day upon any mortal with pity, they must have looked down on this young man; who was a coward. At the one end of the bridge, Claude, with an ugly weapon and a face to match! At the other, Basterga, with a black brow and Heaven alone could say how much knowledge of his treachery! The scholar could not know of the loss of the phial, indeed, for it was clear that he had just returned to the city by the St. Gervais gate. But that he soon would know of it, that he knew something already, that he had been a witness to the colloquy with the Syndic—this was certain.
At any rate Louis thought so, and his knees trembled under him. He had no longer a way of retreat, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Claude beginning to advance. What was he to do? The perspiration burst out on him. He turned this way and that, now casting wild eyes at the whirling current below, now piteous eyes—the eyes of a calf on its way to the shambles, and as little regarded—on the thin stream of passers. How could they go on their way and leave him to the mercies of this madman?
He smothered a shriek as Claude, now less than twenty paces away, sped a look at him. Claude, indeed, was thinking of Anne and her wrongs; and of a certain kiss. His face told this so plainly, and that passion was his master, that Louis' cheek grew white. What if the ruffian threw him into the river? What if—and then like every coward, he chose the remoter danger. With Claude at hand, he turned and fled, dashed blindly through the passers on the bridge, flung himself on Basterga, and, seizing the big scholar by the arm, strove to shelter himself behind him.
"He is mad!" he gasped. "Mad! Save me! He is going to throw me over!"
"Steady!" Basterga answered; and he opposed his huge form to Claude's rush. "What is this, young man? Coming to blows in the street? For shame! For shame!" He moved again so as still to confront him.
"Give him up!" Claude panted, scarcely preventing himself from attacking both. "Give him up, I say, and——"
"Not till I have heard what he has done! Steady, young man, keep your distance!"
"I will tell you everything! Everything!" Louis whined, clinging to his arm.
"Do you hear what he says?" Basterga replied. "In the meantime, I tell you to keep your distance, young man. I am not used to be jostled!"
Claude hesitated a moment, scowling. Then, "Very well!" he said, drawing off with a gesture of menace. "It is only put off: I shall pay him another time. It is waiting for you, sneak, bear that in mind!" And shrugging his shoulders he turned with as much dignity as he could and moved off.
Basterga wheeled from him to the other. "So!" he said. "You have something to tell me, it seems?" And taking the trembling Louis by the arm, he drew him aside, a few paces from the approach of the bridge. In doing this he hung a moment searching the bridge and the farther bank with a keen gaze. He knew, and for some hours had known, on what a narrow edge of peril he stood, and that only Blondel's influence protected him from arrest. Yet he had returned: he had not hesitated to put his head again into the lion's mouth. Still if Louis' words meant that certain arrest awaited him, he was not too proud to save himself.
He could discern no officers on the bridge, and satisfied on the point of immediate danger, he turned to his shivering ally. "Well, what is it?" he said. "Speak!"
"I'll tell you the truth," Louis gabbled.
"You had better!" Basterga replied, in a tone that meant much more than he said. "Or you will find me worse to deal with than yonder hot-head! I will answer for that."
"Messer Blondel has been at the house," Louis murmured glibly, his mind centred on the question how much he should tell. "Last night and again this morning. He has been closeted with Anne and Mercier. And there has been some talk—of a box or a bottle."
"Were they in my room?" Basterga asked, his brow contracting.
"Did they get—the box or the bottle?" There was a dangerous note in Basterga's voice; and a look in his eyes that scared the lad.
Louis, as his instinct was, lied again, fleeing the more pressing peril. "Not to my knowledge," he said.
"And you?" The scholar eyed him with bland suavity. "You had nothing to do—with all this, I suppose?"
"I listened. I was in my room, but they thought I was out. When I went," the liar continued, "they discovered me; and Messer Blondel followed me and overtook me on the bridge and threatened—that he would have me arrested if I were not silent."
"You refused to be silent, of course?"
But Louis was too acute to be caught in a trap so patent. He knew that Basterga would not believe in his courage, if he swore to it. "No, I said I would be silent," he answered. "And I should have been," he continued with candour, "if I had not run into your arms."
"But if you assented to his wish," Basterga retorted, eyeing him keenly, "why did he depart after that fashion?"
"Something happened to him," Louis said. "I do not know what. He seemed to be in distress, or to be ill."
"I could see that," the scholar answered dryly. "But Master Claude? What of him? And why was he so enamoured of you that he could not be parted from you?"
"It was to punish me for listening. They followed me different ways."
"I see. And that is the truth, is it?"
"I swear it is!"
The scholar saw no reason why it should not be the truth. Louis, a facile tool, had always been of his, the stronger, party. If Blondel tampered with any one, he would naturally, if he knew aught of the house, suborn Claude or Anne. And Louis, spying and fleeing, and when overtaken, promising silence, was quite in the picture. The only thing, indeed, which stood out awkwardly, and refused to fall into place, was the fashion in which the Syndic had turned and gone off the bridge. And for that there might be reasons. He might have been seized with a sudden attack of his illness, or he might have perceived Basterga watching him from the farther bank.
On the whole, the scholar, forgetting that cowards are ever liars, saw no reason to doubt Louis' story. It did but add one more to the motives he had for action: immediate, decisive, striking action, if he would save his neck, if he would succeed in his plans. That the Syndic alone stood between him and arrest, that by the Syndic alone he lived, he had learned at a meeting at which he had been present the previous night at the Grand Duke's country house four leagues distant. D'Albigny had been there, and Brunaulieu, Captain of the Grand Duke's Guards, and Father Alexander, who dreamed of the Episcopate of Geneva, and others—the chiefs of the plot, his patrons. To his mortification they had been able to tell him things he had not learned, though he was within the city, and they without. Among others, that the Council had certain knowledge of him and his plans, and but for the urgency of Blondel would have arrested him a fortnight before.
His companions at the midnight supper had detected his dismay, and had derided him, thinking that with that there was an end of the mysterious scheme which he had refused to impart. They fancied that he would not return to the city, or venture his head a second time within the lion's jaws. But they reckoned without their man, Basterga with all his faults was brave; and he had failed in too many schemes to resign this one lightly.
"Si fractus illabatur orbis Impavidum ferient ruinae,"
he murmured; and he had ventured, he had passed the gates, he was here. Here, with his eyes open to the peril, and open to the necessity of immediate action if the slender thread by which all hung were not to snap untimely.
Blondel! He lived by Blondel. And Blondel—why had he left the bridge in that strange fashion? Abruptly, desperately, as if something had befallen him. Why? He must learn, and that quickly.
A GLOVE AND WHAT CAME OF IT.
Meanwhile, Claude, robbed of his prey, had gone into the town in great disgust. As he passed from the bridge, and paused before he entered the huddle of narrow streets that climbed the hill, he had on his left the glittering heights of snow, rising ridge above ridge to the blue; and most distant among them Mont Blanc itself, etherealised by the frosty sunshine and clear air of a December morning. But Mont Blanc might have been a marsh, the Rhone, pouring its icy volume from the lake, might have been a brook, for him. Aware, at length, of the peril in which Anne stood, and not doubting that these colloquies of Messers Blondel and Louis, these man[oe]uvrings to be rid of his presence, were part of a conspiracy against her, he burned with the desire to thwart it. They had made a puppet of him; they had sent him to and fro at their will and pleasure; and they had done this, no doubt, in order that in his absence they might work—Heaven knew what vile and miserable work! But he would know, too! He was going to know! He would not be so tricked thrice.
His indignation went beyond the Syndic. The smug-faced towns-folk whom he met and jostled in the narrow ways, and whose grave starched looks he countered with hot defiant glances—he included them in his anathema. He extended to them the contempt in which he held Blondel and Louis and the rest. They were all of a breed, a bigoted breed; all dull, blind worms, insensible to the beauty of self-sacrifice, or the purity of affection. All, self-sufficient dolts, as far removed, as immeasurably divided from her whom he loved, as the gloomy lanes of this close city lay below the clear loveliness of the snow-peaks! For, after all, he had lifted his eyes to the mountains.
One thing only perplexed him. He understood the attitude of Basterga and Grio and Louis towards the girl. He discerned the sword of Damocles that they held over her, the fear of a charge of witchcraft, or of some vile heresy, in which they kept her. But how came Blondel in the plot? What was his part, what his object? If he had been sincere in that attempt on Basterga's secrets, which Madame's delirious words had frustrated, was he sincere now? Was his object now as then—the suppression of the devilish practices of which he had warned Claude, and in the punishment of which he had threatened to include the girl with her tempter? Presumably it was, and he was still trying to reach the goal by other ways, using Louis as he had used Claude, or tried to use him.
And yet Claude doubted. He began to suspect—for love is jealous—that Blondel had behind this a more secret, a more personal, a more selfish aim. Had the young girl, still in her teens, caught the fancy of the man of sixty? There was nothing unnatural in the idea; such things were, even in Geneva; and Louis was a go-between, not above the task. In that case she who had showed a brave front to Basterga all these months, who had not blenched before the daily and hourly persecution to which she had been exposed in her home, was not likely to succumb to the senile advances of a man who might be her grandfather!
If he did not hold her secret. But if he did hold it? If he did hold it, and the cruel power it gave? If he held it, he who had only to lift his hand to consign her to duress on a charge so dark and dangerous that innocence itself was no protection against it? So plausible that even her lover had for a short time held it true? What then?
Claude, who had by this time reached the Tertasse gate and passed through it from the town side, paused on the ramparts and bared his head. What then?
He had his answer. Framed in the immensity of sky and earth that lay before him, he saw his loneliness and hers, his insignificance and hers, his helplessness and hers; he, a foreigner, young, without name or reputation, or aught but a strong right hand; she, almost a child, alone or worse than alone, in this great city—one of the weak things which the world's car daily and hourly crushes into the mud, their very cries unheard and unheeded. Of no more account than the straw which the turbid Rhone, bore one moment on its swirling tide, and the next swallowed from sight beneath its current!
They were two—and a mad woman! And against them were Blondel and Basterga and Grio and Louis, and presently all the town of Geneva! All these gloomy, narrow, righteous men, and shrieking, frightened women—frightened lest any drop of the pitch fall on them and destroy them! Love is a marvellous educator. Almost as clearly as we of a later day, he saw how outbreaks of superstition, such as that which he dreaded, began, and came to a head, and ended. A chance word at a door, a spiteful rumour or a sick child, the charge, the torture, the widening net of accusation, the fire in the market-place. So it had been in Bamberg and Wurzburg, in Geneva two generations back, in Alsace scarce as many years back: at Edinburgh in Scotland where thirty persons had suffered in one day—ten years ago that; in the district of Como, where a round thousand had suffered!
Nobility had not availed to save some, nor court-favour others; nor wealth, nor youth, nor beauty. And what had he or she to urge, what had they to put forward that would in the smallest degree avail them? That could even for a moment stem or avert the current of popular madness which power itself had striven in vain to dam. Nothing!
And yet he did not blench, nor would he; being half French and of good blood, at a time when good French blood ran the more generously for a half century of war. He would not have blenched, even if he had not, from the sunlit view of God's earth and heaven which lay before his eyes, drawn other thoughts than that one of his own littleness and insignificance. As this view of vale and mountain had once before lifted his judgment above the miasma of a cruel superstition, so it raised him now above creeping fears and filled him with confidence in something more stable than magistrates or mobs. Love, like the sunlight, shone aslant the dark places of the prospect and filled them with warmth. Sacrifice for her he loved took on the beauty of the peaks, cold but lovely; and hope and courage, like the clear blue of the vault above, looked smiling down on the brief dangers and the brief troubles of man's making.
The clock of St. Gervais was striking eleven as, still in exalted mood, he turned his back on the view and entered the house in the Corraterie. He had entered on his return from his fruitless visit to Blondel, and had satisfied himself that Anne was safe. Doubtless she was still safe, for the house was quiet.
In his new mood he was almost inclined to quarrel with this. In the ardour of his passion he would gladly have seen the danger immediate, the peril present, that he might prove to her how much he loved her, how deeply he felt for her, what he would dare for her. To die on the hearth of the living-room, at her feet and saving her, seemed for a moment the thing most desirable—the purest happiness!
That was denied him. The house was quiet, as in a morning it commonly was. So quiet that he recalled without effort the dreams which he had dreamed on that spot, and the thoughts which had filled his heart to bursting a few hours before. The great pot was there, simmering on its hook; and on the small table beside it, the table that Basterga and Grio occupied, stood a platter with a few dried herbs and a knife fresh from her hand. Claude made sure that he was unobserved, and raising the knife to his lips, kissed the haft gently and reverently, thinking what she had suffered many a day while using it! What fear, and grief and humiliation, and——
He stood erect, his face red: he listened intently. Upstairs, breaking the long silence of the house, opening as it were a window to admit the sun, a voice had uplifted itself in song. The voice had some of the tones of Anne's voice, and something that reminded him of her voice. But when had he heard her sing? When had aught so clear, so mirthful, or so young fallen from her as this; this melody, laden with life and youth and abundance, that rose and fell and floated to his ears through the half-open door of the staircase?
He crept to the staircase door and listened; yes, it was her voice, but not such as he had ever heard it. It was her voice as he could fancy it in another life, a life in which she was as other girls, darkened by no fear, pinched by no anxiety, crushed by no contumely; such as her voice might have been, uplifted in the garden of his old home on the French border, amid bees and flowers and fresh-scented herbs. Her voice, doubtless, it was; but it sorted so ill with the thoughts he had been thinking, that with his astonishment was mingled something of shock and of loss. He had dreamed of dying for her or with her, and she sang! He was prepared for peril, and her voice vied with the lark's in joyous trills.
Leaning forward to hear more clearly, he touched the door. It was ajar, and before he could hinder it, it closed with a sharp sound. The singing ceased with an abruptness that told, or he was much mistaken, of self-remembrance. And presently, after an interval of no more than a few seconds, during which he pictured the singer listening, he heard her begin to descend.
Two men may do the same thing from motives as far apart as the poles. Claude did what Louis would have done. As the foot drew near the staircase door, treading, less willingly, less lightly, more like that of Anne with every step, he slid into his closet, and stood. Through the crack between the hinges of the open door, he would be able to view her face when she appeared.
A second later she came, and he saw. The light of the song was still in her eyes, but mingled, as she looked round the room to learn who was there, with something of exaltation and defiance. Christian maidens might have worn some such aspect, he thought—but he was in love—as they passed to the lions. Or Esther, when she went unbidden into the inner court of the King's House, and before the golden sceptre moved. Something had happened to her. But what?
She did not see him, and after standing a moment to assure herself that she was alone, she passed to the hearth. She lifted the lid of the pot, bent over it, and slowly stirred the broth; then, having covered it again, she began to chop the dried herbs on the platter. Even in her manner of doing this, he fancied a change; a something unlike the Anne he had known, the Anne he had come to love. The face was more animated, the action quicker, the step lighter, the carriage more free. She began to sing, and stopped; fell into a reverie, with the knife in her hand, and the herb half cut; again roused herself to finish her task; finally having slid the herbs from the platter to the pot, she stood in a second reverie, with her eyes fixed on the window.