He began to feel the falseness of his position. It was too late to show himself, and if she discovered him what would she think of him? Would she believe that in spying upon her he had some evil purpose, some low motive, such as Louis might have had? His cheek grew hot. And then—he forgot himself.
Her eyes had left the window and fallen to the window-seat. It was the thing she did then which drew him out of himself. Moving to the window—he had to stoop forward to keep her within the range of his sight—she took from it a glove, held it a moment, regarding it; then with a tender, yet whimsical laugh, a laugh half happiness, half ridicule of herself, she kissed it.
It was Claude's glove. And if, with that before his eyes he could have restrained himself, the option was not his. She turned in the act, and saw him; with a startled cry she put—none too soon—the table between them.
They faced one another across it, he flushed, eager, with love in his eyes, and on his lips; she blushing but not ashamed, her new-found joy in her eyes, and in the pose of her head.
"Anne!" he cried. "I know now! I know! I have seen and you cannot deceive me!"
"In what?" she said, a smile trembling on her lips. "And of what, Messer Claude, are you so certain, if you please?"
"That you love me!" he replied. "But not a hundredth part"—he stretched his arms across the table towards her "as much as I love you and have loved you for weeks! As I loved you even before I learned last night——"
"What?" Into her face—that had not found one hard look to rebuke his boldness—came something of her old silent, watchful self. "What did you learn last night?"
"I have none!" Quick as thought the words came from her lips. "I have none! God is merciful," with a gesture of her open arms, as if she put something from her, "and it is gone! If you know, if you guess aught of what it was"—her eyes questioned his and read in them if not that which he knew, that which he thought of her.
"I ask you to be silent."
"I will, after I have——"
"Not till I have spoken once!" he cried. "Not till I have told you once what I think of you! Last night I heard. And I understood. I saw what you had gone through, what you had feared, what had been your life all these weeks, rising and lying down! I saw what you meant when you bade me go anywhere but here, and why you suffered what you did at their hands, and why they dared to treat you—so! And had they been here I would have killed them!" he added, his eyes sparkling. "And had you been here——"
"Yes?" she did not seek to check him now. Her bearing was changed, her eyes, soft and tender, met his as no eyes had ever met his.
"I should have worshipped you! I should have knelt as I kneel now!" he cried. And sinking on his knees he extended his arms across the table and took her unresisting hands. "If you no longer have a secret, you had one, and I bless God for it! For without it I might not have known you, Anne! I might not have——"
"Perhaps you do not know me now," she said; but she did not withdraw her hands or her eyes. Only into the latter grew a shade of trouble. "I have done—you do not know what I have done. I am a thief."
"It is true. I am a thief."
"What is it to me?" He laughed a laugh as tender as her eyes. "You are a thief, for you have stolen my heart. For the rest, do you think that I do not know you now? That I can be twice deceived? Twice take gold for dross, and my own for another thing? I know you!"
"But you do not know," she said tremulously, "what I have done—what I did last night—or what may come of it."
"I know that what comes of it will happen, not to one but to two," he replied bravely. "And that is all I ask to know. That, and that you are content it shall be so?"
There are things, other than wine, that bring truth to the surface. That which had happened to the girl in the last few hours, that which had melted her into unwonted song, was of these things; and the tone of her voice as she repeated the word "Content!" the surrender of her eyes that placed her heart in his keeping, as frankly as she left her hands in his, proclaimed it. The reserves of her sex, the tricks of coyness and reticence men look for in maids, were shaken from her; and as man to man her eyes told him the truth, told him that if she had ever doubted she no longer doubted that she loved him. In the heart which a single passion, the purest of which men and women are capable, had engrossed so long, Nature, who, expel her as you will, will still return, had won her right and carved her kingdom.
And she knew that it was well with her—whatever the upshot of last night. To be lonely no more; to be no longer the protector, but the protected; to know the comfort of the strong arm as well as of the following eye, the joy of receiving as well as of giving; to know that, however dark the future might lower, she had no longer to face it alone, no longer to plan and hope and fear and suffer alone, but with him—the sense of these things so mingled with her gratitude on her mother's account that the new affection, instead of weakening the old became as it were part of it; while the old stretched onwards its pious hand to bless the new.
If Claude did not read all this in her eyes, and in that one word "Content?" he read so much that never devotee before relic rose more gently or more reverently to his feet. Because all was his he would take nothing. "As I stand by you, may God stand by me," he said, still holding her hands in his, and with the table between them.
"I have no fear," she replied in a low voice. "Yet—if you fail, may He forgive you as fully as I must forgive you. What shall I say to you on my part, Messer Claude?"
"That you love me."
"I love you," she murmured with an intonation which ravished the young man's heart and brought the blood to his cheeks. "I love you. What more?"
"There is no more," he cried. "There can be no more. If that be true, nothing matters."
"No!" she said, beginning to tremble under a weight of emotion too heavy for her, following as it did the excitement of the night. "No!" she continued, raising her eyes which had fallen before the ardour of his gaze. "But there must be something you wish to ask me. You must wish to know——"
"I have heard what I wished to know."
"Tell me what you please."
She stood in thought an instant: then, with a sigh, "He came to me last evening," she said, "when you were at his house."
"Yes. He wished me to procure for him a certain drug that Messer Basterga kept in his room."
Claude stared. "In a steel casket chained to the wall?" he asked.
"Yes," she whispered with some surprise. "You knew of it, then? He had tried to procure it through Louis, and on the pretence that the box contained papers needed by the State. Failing in that he came last evening to me, and told me the truth."
"The truth?" Claude asked, wondering. "But was it the truth?"
"It was." Her eyes, like stars on a rainy night, shone softly. "I have proved it." Again, with a ring of exultation in her voice, "I have proved it!" she cried.
"There was in the box a drug, he told me, possessed of an almost miraculous power over disease of body and mind; so rare and so wonderful that none could buy it, and he knew of but this one dose, of which Messer Basterga had possessed himself. He begged me to take it and to give it to him. He had on him, he said, a fatal illness, and if he did not get this—he must die." Her voice shook. "He must die! Now God help him!"
"You took it."
"I took it." Her face, as her eyes dropped before his, betrayed trouble and doubt. "I took it," she continued, trembling. "If I have done wrong, God forgive me. For I stole it."
His face betrayed his amazement, but he did not release her hands. "Why?" he said.
"To give it to her," she answered. "To my mother. I thought then that it was right—it was a chance. I thought—now I don't know, I don't know!" she repeated. The shade on her face grew deeper. "I thought I was right then. Now—I—I am frightened." She looked at him with eyes in which her doubts were mirrored. She shivered, she who had been so joyous a moment before, and her hands, which hitherto had lain passive in his, returned his pressure feverishly. "I fear now!" she exclaimed. "I fear! What is it? What has happened—in the last minute?"
He would have drawn her to him, seeing that her nerves were shaken; but the table was between them, and before he could pass round it, a sound caught his ear, a shadow fell between them, and looking up he discovered Basterga's face peering through the nearer casement. It was pressed against the small leaded panes, and possibly it was this which by flattening the huge features imparted to them a look of malignity. Or the look—which startled Claude, albeit he was no coward—might have been only the natural expression of one, who suspected what was afoot between them and came to mar it. Whatever it meant, the girl's cry of dismay found an echo on Claude's lips. Involuntarily he dropped her hands; but—and the action was symbolical of the change in her life—he stepped at the same moment between her and the door. Whatever she had done, right or wrong, was his concern now.
We have seen that for Claude, as he hurried from the bridge, the faces he met in the narrow streets of the old town were altered by the medium through which he viewed them; and appeared gloomy, sordid and fanatical. In the eyes of Blondel, who had passed that way before him, the same faces wore a look of selfishness, stupendously and heartlessly cruel. And not the faces only; the very houses and ways, the blue sky overhead, and the snow-peaks—when for an instant he caught sight of them—bore the same aspect. All wore their every-day air, and mocked the despair in his heart. All flung in his teeth the fact, the incredible fact, that whether he died or lived, stayed or went, the world would proceed; that the eternal hills, ay, and the insensate bricks and mortar, that had seen his father pass, would see him pass, and would be standing when he was gone into the darkness.
There are few things that to the mind of man in his despondent moods are more strange, or more shocking, than the permanence of trifles. The small things to which his brain and his hand have given shape, which he can, if he will, crush out of form, and resolve into their primitive atoms, outlive him! They lie on the table when he is gone, are unchanged by his removal, serve another master as they have served him, preach to another generation the same lesson. The face is dust, but the canvas smiles from the wall. The hand is withered, but the pencil is still in the tray and is used by another. There are times when the irony of this thought bites deep into the mind, and goads the mortal to revolt. Had Blondel, as he climbed the hill, possessed the power of Orimanes to blast at will, few of those whom he met, few on whom he turned the gloomy fire of his eyes, would have reached their houses that day or seen another sun.
He was within a hundred paces of his home, when a big man, passing along the Bourg du Four, but on the other side of the way, saw him and came across the road to intercept him. It was Baudichon, his double chin more pendulent, his massive face more dully wistful than ordinary; for the times had got upon the Councillor's nerves, and day by day he grew more anxious, slept worse of nights, and listened much before he went to bed.
"Messer Blondel," he called out, in a voice more peremptory than was often addressed to the Fourth Syndic's ear. "Messer Syndic! One moment, if you please!"
Blondel stopped and turned to him. Outwardly the Syndic was cool, inwardly he was at a white heat that at any moment might impel him to the wildest action. "Well?" he said. "What is it, M. Baudichon?"
"I want to know——"
"Of course!" The sneer was savage and undisguised. "What, this time, if I may be so bold?"
Baudichon breathed quickly, partly with the haste he had made across the road, partly in irritation at the gibe. "This only," he said. "How far you purpose to try our patience? A week ago you were for delaying the arrest you know of—for a day. It was a matter of hours then."
"But days have passed, and are passing! and we have no explanation; nothing is done. And every night we run a fresh risk, and every morning—so far—we thank God that our throats are still whole; and every day we strive to see you, and you are out, or engaged, or about to do it, or awaiting news! But this cannot go on for ever! Nor," puffing out his cheeks, "shall we always bear it!"
"Messer Baudichon!" Blondel retorted, the passion he had so far restrained gleaming in his eyes, and imparting a tremor to his voice, "are you Fourth Syndic or am I?"
"You! You, certainly. Who denies it?" the stout man said. "But——"
"But what? But what?"
"We would know what you think we are, that we can bear this suspense."
"I will tell you what I think you are!"
"By your leave?"
"A fat hog!" the Syndic shrieked. "And as brainless as a hog fit for the butcher! That for you! and your like!"
And before the astounded Baudichon, whose brain was slow to take in new facts, had grasped the full enormity of the insult flung at him, the Syndic was a dozen paces distant. He had eased his mind, and that for the moment was much; though he still ground his teeth, and, had Baudichon followed him, would have struck the Councillor without thought or hesitation. The pigs! The hogs! To press him with their wretched affairs: to press him at this moment when the grave yawned at his feet, and the coffin opened for him!
To be sure he might now do with Basterga as he pleased without thought or drawback; but for their benefit—never! He paused at his door, and cast a haggard glance up and down; at the irregular line of gables which he had known from childhood, the steep, red roofs, the cobble pavement, the bakers' signs that hung here and there and with the wide eaves darkened the way; and he cursed all he saw in the frenzy of his rage. Let Basterga, Savoy, d'Albigny do their worst! What was it to him? Why should he move? He went into his house despairing.
Unto this last hour a little hope had shone through the darkness. At times the odds had seemed to be against him, at one time Heaven itself had seemed to declare itself his foe. But the remedium had existed, the thing was still possible, the light burned, though distant, feeble, flickering. He had told himself that he despaired; but he had not known what real despair was until this moment, until he sat, as he saw now, among the Dead Sea splendours of his parlour, the fingers of his right hand drumming on the arm of the abbot's chair, his shaggy eyelids drooping over his brooding eyes.
Ah, God! If he had stayed to take the stuff when it lay in his power! If he had refused to open until he held it in his hand! If, even after that act of folly, he had refused to go until she gave it him! How inconceivable his madness seemed now, his fear of scandal, his thought of others! Others? There was one of whom he dared not think; for when he did his head began to tremble on his shoulders; and he had to clutch the arms of the chair to stay the palsy that shook him. If she, the girl who had destroyed him, thought it was all one to him whom the drug advantaged, or who lived or who died, he would teach her—before he died! He would teach her! There was no extremity of pain or shame she should not taste, accursed witch, accursed thief, as she was! But he must not think of that, or of her, now; or he would die before his time. He had a little time yet, if he were careful, if he were cool, if he were left a brief space to recover himself. A little, a very little time!
Whose were that foot and that voice? Basterga's? The Syndic's eyes gleamed, he raised his head. There was another score he had to pay! His own score, not Baudichon's. Fool, to have left his treasure unguarded for every thieving wench to take! Fool, thrice and again, for putting his neck back into the lion's mouth. Stealthily Blondel pulled the handbell nearer to him and covered it with his cloak. He would have added a weapon, but there was no arm within reach, and while he hesitated between his chair and the door of the small inner room, the outer door opened, and Basterga appeared and advanced, smiling, towards him.
"Your servant, Messer Syndic," he said. "I heard that you had been inquiring for me in my absence, and I am here to place myself at your disposition. You are not looking——" he stopped short, in feigned surprise. "There is nothing wrong, I hope?"
Had the scholar been such a man as Baudichon, Blondel's answer would have been one frenzied shriek of insults and reproaches. But face to face with Basterga's massive quietude, with his giant bulk, with that air, at once masterful and cynical, which proclaimed to those with whom he talked that he gave them but half his mind while reading theirs, the wrath of the smaller man cooled. A moment his lips writhed, without sound; then, "Wrong?" he cried, his voice harsh and broken. "Wrong? All is wrong!"
"You are not well?" Basterga said, eyeing him with concern.
"Well? I shall never be better! Never!" Blondel shrieked. And after a pause, "Curse you!" he added. "It is your doing!"
Basterga stared. He was in the dark as to what had happened, though the Syndic's manner on leaving the bridge had prepared him for something. "My doing, Messer Blondel?" he said. "Why? What have I done?"
"Ay, done! It was not my fault," the scholar continued, with a touch of sternness, "that I could not offer you the remedium on easy terms. Nor mine, that hard as the terms were, you did not accept them. Besides," he continued, slowly and with meaning,
"Terque quaterque redit!
You remember the Sibylline books? How often they were offered, and the terms? It is not too late, Messer Blondel—even now. While there is life there is hope, there is more than hope. There is certainty."
"Is there?" Blondel cried; he extended a lean hand, shaking with vindictive passion. "Is there? Go and look in your casket, fool! Go and look in your steel box!" he hissed. "Go! And see if it be not too late!"
For a moment Basterga peered at him, his brow contracted, his eyes screwed up. The blow was unexpected. Then, "Have you taken the stuff?" he muttered.
"I? No! But she has!" And on that, seeing the change in the other's face—for, for once, the scholar's mask slipped and suffered his consternation to appear—Blondel laughed triumphantly: in torture himself, he revelled in a disaster that touched another. "She has! She has!"
"The girl of the house! Anne you call her! Curse her! child of perdition, as she is! She!" And he clawed the air.
"She has taken it?" Basterga spoke incredulously, but his brow was damp, his cheeks were a shade more sallow than usual; he did not deceive the other's penetration. "Impossible!" he continued, striving to rally his forces. "Why should she take it? She has no illness, no disease! Try"—he swallowed something—"to be clear, man. Try to be clear. Who has told you this cock-and-bull story?"
"It is the truth."
"She has taken it?"
"To give to her mother—yes."
"Has taken it? Yes."
The scholar, ordinarily so cool and self-contained, could not withhold an execration. His small eyes glittered, his face swelled with rage; for a moment he was within a little of an explosion. Of what mad, what insensate folly, unworthy of a schoolboy, worthy only of a sot, an imbecile, a Grio, had he been guilty! To leave the potion, that if it had not the virtues which he ascribed to it, had virtue—or it had not served his purpose of deceiving the Syndic during some days or hours—to leave the potion unprotected, at the mercy of a chance hand, of a treacherous girl! Safeguarded, in appearance only, and to blind his dupe! It seemed incredible that he could have been so careless!
True, he might replace the stuff at some expense; but not in a day or an hour. And how—with one dose in all the world!—keep up the farce? The dose consumed, the play was at an end. An end—or, no, was he losing his wits, his courage? On the instant, in the twinkling of an eye, he shaped a fresh course.
He cursed the girl anew, and apparently with the same fervour. "A month's work it cost me!" he cried. "A month's work! and ten gold pieces!"
The Syndic, pale, and almost in a state of collapse—for the bitter satisfaction of imparting the news no longer supported him—stared. "A month's work?" he muttered. "A month? Years you told me! And a fortune!"
"I told you? Never!" Basterga opened his eyes in seeming amazement. "Never, good sir, in all my life!" he repeated emphatically. "But"—returning grimly to his former point—"ten gold pieces, or a fortune—no matter which, she shall pay dearly for it, the thieving jade!"
The Syndic sat heavily in his seat, and, with a hand on either arm of the abbot's chair, stared dully at the other. "A fortune, you told me," he said, in a voice little above a whisper. "And years. Was it a fiction, all a fiction? About Ibn Jasher, and the Physician of Aleppo, and M. Laurens of Paris, and—and the rest?"
Basterga deliberately took a turn to the window, came back, and stood looking down at him. "Mon Dieu!" he muttered. "Is it possible?"
"I can scarcely believe it!" The scholar spoke with a calmness half cynical, half compassionate. "But I suppose you really think that of me, though it seems incredible! You are under the impression that the drug this jade stole was the remedium of Ibn Jasher, the one incomparable and sovereign result of long years of study and research? You believe that I kept this in a mere locked box, the key accessible by all who knew my habits, and the treasure at the mercy of the first thief! Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu! If I said it a thousand times I could not express my astonishment. I might be the vine grower of the proverb,
Cui saepe viator Cessisset magna compellans voce cucullum!"
The Syndic heard him without changing the attitude of weakness and exhaustion into which he had fallen on sitting down. But midway in the other's harangue, his lips parted, he held his breath, and in his eyes grew a faint light of dawning hope. "But if it be not so?" he muttered feebly. "If this be not so, why——"
"Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!"
"Why did you look so startled a moment ago?"
"Why, man? Because ten pieces of gold are ten pieces! To me at least! And the potion, which was made after a recipe of that same Messer Laurens of Paris, cost no less. It is a love-philtre, beneficent to the young, but if taken by the old so noxious, that had you swallowed it," with a grin, "you had not been long Syndic, Messer Blondel!"
Blondel shook his head. "You do not deceive me," he muttered. For though he was anxious to believe, as yet he could not. He could not; he had seen the other's face. "It is the remedium she has taken! I feel it."
"And given to her mother?"
Blondel inclined his head.
The scholar laughed contemptuously. "Then is the test easy," he said. "If it be the remedium you will find her mother, who has not left her bed for three years, grown strong and well and vigorous, and like to him who lifted up his bed and walked. But if it be the love-philtre, you have but to come with me, and you will find her——" He did not finish the sentence, but a shrug of his shoulders and a mysterious smile filled the gap.
Imperceptibly Blondel had raised himself in his chair. The gleam of hope, once lighted in his eyes, was growing bright. "How?" he asked. "How shall we find her? If it be the philtre only that she has taken—as you say?"
"If it be the philtre? The mother, you mean?"
"Mad! Mad!" Basterga repeated with decision, "and beside herself. As you had been," he continued grimly, "had you by any chance taken the aqua Medeae."
"That you kept in the steel box?"
"You are sure it was not the remedium?" Blondel leaned forward. If only he could believe it, if only it were the truth, how great the difference! No wonder that the muscles of his lean throat swelled, and his hands closed convulsively on the arms of his great chair, as he strove to read the other's mind.
He had as soon read a printed page without light. The scholar saw that it needed but a little to convince him, and took his line with confidence; nor without some pride in the wits that had saved him. "The remedium?" he repeated with impatient wonder. "Do you know that the remedium is unique? That it is a man's life? That in the world's history it scarce appears once in five hundred years? That all the wealth of kings cannot produce it, nor the Spanish Indies furnish it? Do you remember these things, Messer Blondel, and do you ask if I keep it like a common philtre in a box in my lodgings?" He snorted in contempt, and going disdainfully to the hearth spat in the fire as if he could not brook the idea. Then returning to the Syndic's side, he took up his story in a different tone. "The remedium," he said, "my good friend, is in the Grand Duke's Treasury at Turin. It is in a steel box, it is true, but in one with three locks and three keys, sealed with the Grand Duke's private signet and with mine; and laid where the Treasurer himself cannot meddle with it."
The Syndic sat up straight, and with his eyes fixed sullenly on the floor fingered his beard. He was almost persuaded, but not quite. Could it be, could it really be that the thing still existed? That it was still to be obtained, that life by its means was still possible?
"Well?" Basterga said, when the silence had lasted some time.
"The proof!" Blondel retorted, excitement once more over-mastering him. "Let me have the proof! Let me see, man, if the woman be mad."
But the scholar, leaning Atlas-like, against the wall beside the long low window, with his arms crossed, and his great head sunk on his breast, did not move. He saw that this was his hour and he must use it. "To what purpose?" he answered slowly: and he shrugged his shoulders. "Why go to the trouble? The remedium is in Turin. And if it be not, it is the Grand Duke's affair only, and mine, since you will not come to his terms. I would, I confess," he continued, in a more kindly tone, "that it were your affair also, Messer Blondel. I would I could have made you see things as they are and as I see them. As, believe me, Messer Petitot would see them were he in your place; as Messer Fabri and Messer Baudichon—I warrant it—do see them; as—pardon me—all who rank themselves among the wise and the illuminate, see them. For all such, believe me, these are times of enlightening, when the words which past generations have woven into shackles for men's minds fall from them, and are seen to be but the straw they are; when men move, like children awaking from foolish dreams, and life——"
The Syndic's eyes glowed dully.
"Life," Basterga continued sonorously, "is seen to be that which it is, the one thing needful which makes all other things of use, and without which all other things are superfluities! Bethink you a minute, Messer Blondel! Would Petitot give his life to save yours?"
The Syndic smiled after a sickly fashion. Petitot? The stickling pedant! The thin, niggling whipster!
"Or Messer Fabri?"
Blondel shook his head.
"Or Messer Baudichon?"
"I called him but now—a fat hog!"
It was Basterga's turn to shake his head. "He is not one to forget," he said gravely. "I fear you will hear of that again, Messer Blondel. I fear it will make trouble for you. But if these will not, is there any man in Geneva, any man you can name, who would give his life for you?"
"Do men give life so easily?" Blondel answered, moving painfully in his chair.
"Yet you will give yours for them! You will give yours! And who will be a ducat the better?"
"I shall at least die for freedom," the Syndic muttered, gnawing his moustache.
"For the religion, then."
"It is that which men make it!" the scholar retorted. "There have been good men of all religions, though we dare not say as much in public, or in Geneva. 'Tis not the religion. 'Tis the way men live it! Was John Bernardino of Assisi, whom some call St. Francis, a worse man than Arnold of Brescia, the Reformer? Or is your Beza a better man than Messer Francis of Sales? Or would the heavens fall if Geneva embraced the faith of the good Archbishop of Milan? Words, Messer Blondel, believe me, words!"
"Yet men die for them!"
"Not wise men. And when you have died for them, who will thank you?" The Syndic groaned. "Who will know, or style you martyr?" Basterga continued forcibly. "Baudichon, whom you have called a fat hog? He will sit in your seat. Petitot—he said but a little while ago that he would buy this house if he lived long enough."
"He did?" The Syndic came to his feet as if a spring had raised him.
"Certainly. And he is a rich man, you know."
"May the Bise search his bones!" Blondel cried, trembling with fury. For this was the realisation of his worst fears. Petitot to live in his house, lie warm in his bed, sneer at his memory across the table that had been his, rule in the Council where he had been first! Petitot, that miserable crawler who had clogged his efforts for years, who had shared, without deserving, his honours, who had spied on him and carped at him day by day and hour by hour! Petitot to succeed him! To be all and own all, and sun himself in the popular eye, and say "Geneva, it is I!" While he, Blondel, lay rotting and forgotten, stark, beneath snow and rain, winter wind and summer drought!
Perish Geneva first! Perish friend and foe alike!
The Syndic wavered. His hand shook, his thin dry cheek burned with fever, his lips moved unceasingly. Why should he die? They would not die for him. Nay, they would not thank him, they would not praise him. A traitor? To live he must turn traitor? Ay, but try Petitot, and see if he would not do the same! Or Baudichon, who could not sleep of nights for fear—how would he act with death staring him in the face? The bravest soldiers when disarmed, or called upon to surrender or die, capitulate without blame. And that was his position.
Life, too; dear, warm life! Life that might hold much for him still. Hitherto these men and their fellows had hampered and thwarted him, marred his plans and balked his efforts. Freed from them and supported by an enlightened and ambitious prince, he might rise to heights hitherto invisible. He might lift up and cast down at will, might rule the Council as his creatures, might live to see Berne and the Cantons at his feet, might leave Geneva the capital of a great and wealthy country.
All this, at his will; or he might die! Die and rot and be forgotten like a dog that is cast out.
He did not believe in his heart that faith and honour were words; fetters woven by wise men to hamper fools. He did not believe that all religions were alike, and good or bad as men made them. But on the one side was life, and on the other death. And he longed to live.
"I would that I could make you see things as I see them," Basterga resumed, in a gentle tone. Patiently waiting the other's pleasure he had not missed an expression of his countenance, and, thinking the moment ripe, he used his last argument. "Believe me, I have the will, all the will, to help you. And the terms are not mine. Only I would have you remember this, Messer Blondel: that others may do what you will not, so that after all you may find that you have cast life away, and no one the better. Baudichon, for instance, plays the Brutus in public. But he is a fearful man, and a timid; and to save himself and his family—he thinks much of his family—he would do what you will not."
"He would do it!" the Syndic cried passionately. And he struck the table. "He would, curse him!"
"And he would not forget," Basterga continued, with a meaning nod, "that you had miscalled him!"
"No! But I will be before him!" The Syndic was on his feet again, shaking like a leaf.
"Ay?" Basterga blew his nose to hide the flash of triumph that shone in his eyes. "You will be wise in time? Well, I am not surprised. I thought that you would not be so mad—that no man could be so mad as to throw away life for a shadow!"
"But mind you," Blondel snarled, "the proof. I must have the proof," he repeated. He was anxious to persuade himself that his surrender depended on a condition; he would fain hide his shame under a show of bargaining. "The proof, man, or I will not take a step."
"You shall have it."
"Within the hour."
"And if she be not mad—I believe you are deceiving me, and it was the remedium the girl took—if she be not mad——" The Syndic, stammering and repeating himself, broke off there. He could not meet the other's eyes; between a shame new to him and the overpowering sense of what he had done, he was in a pitiable state. "Curse you," with violence, "I believe you have laid a trap for me!" he cried. "I say if she be not mad, I have done."
"Let it stand so," Basterga answered placidly. "Trust me, if she has taken the philtre she will be mad enough. Which reminds me that I also have a crow to pick with Mistress Anne."
"We will do more than that," Basterga murmured. "If she be not very good we will burn her, my friend.
Uritur infelix Dido, totaque videtur Urbe furens!"
His eyes were cruel, and he licked his lips as he applied the quotation.
THE BARGAIN STRUCK.
Claude, at the first sign of peril, had put himself between Anne and the door; and, had not the fear which seized the girl at the sight of Basterga robbed her of the power to think, she must have thrilled with a new and delicious sensation. She, who had not for years known what it was to be sheltered behind another, was now to know the bliss of being protected. Nor did her lover remain on the defensive. It was he who challenged the intruders.
"What is it?" he asked, as the Syndic crossed the threshold; which was darkened a moment later by the scholar's huge form. "What is your business here, Messer Syndic, if it please you?"
"With you, none!" Blondel answered; and pausing a little within the door, he cast a look, cold and searching, round the apartment. His outward composure hid a tumult of warring passions; shame and rage were at odds within him, and rising above both was a venomous desire to exact retribution from some one. "Nothing with you!" he repeated. "You may stand aside, young man, or, better, go to your classes. What do you here at this hour, and idle, were the fitting question; and not, what is my business! Do you hear, sirrah?" with a rap of his staff of office on the floor. "Begone to your work!"
But Claude, who had been thirsting this hour past for realms to conquer and dragons to subdue, and who, with his mistress beside him, felt himself a match for any ten, was not to be put aside. His manhood rebelled against the notion of leaving Anne with men whose looks boded the worst. "I am at home," he replied, breathing a little more quickly, and aware that in defying the Syndic he was casting away the scabbard. "I am at home in this house. I have done no wrong. I am in no inn now, and I know of no right which you have to expel me without cause from my own lodging."
Blondel's lean face grew darker. "You beard me?" he cried.
"I beard no one," Claude answered hardily. "I am at home here, that is all. If you have lawful business here, do it. I am no hindrance to you. If you have no lawful business—and as to that," he continued, recalling with indignation the tricks which had been employed to remove him, "I have my opinion—I have as much right to be here as you! The more, as it is not very long," he went on, with a glance of defiance, directed at Basterga, "since you gave the man who now accompanies you the foulest of characters! Since you would have me rob him! Since you called him reprobate of the reprobate! Is he reprobate now?"
"A corrupter of women, as you called him?"
"Liar!" the Syndic cried, trembling with passion. "Be silent!" The blow found him unprepared. "He lies!" he stammered, turning to his ally.
Basterga laughed softly. He had guessed as much: none the less he thought it time to interfere, lest his tool be put too much out of countenance. "Gently, young man," he said, "or perhaps you may go too far. I know you."
"He is a liar!" Blondel repeated.
"Probably," Basterga said, "but it matters not. It is enough that our business here lies not with him, but with this young woman. You seem to have taken her under your protection," he continued, addressing Claude, "and may choose, if you please, whether you will see her haled through the streets, or will suffer her to answer our questions here. As you please."
"Your questions?" Claude cried, recalling with rage the occasions on which he had heard this man insult her. "Hear me one moment, and I will very quickly prove——"
He was silent with the word on his lips. Her hand on his sleeve recalled the necessity of prudence. He bit his lip and stood glowering at them. It was she who spoke.
"What do you wish?" she asked in a low voice.
Naturally courageous as she was, she could not have spoken but for the support of her lover. For the unexpected conjunction of these two, and their entrance together, smote her with fear. "What is your desire?" she repeated.
"To see your mother," Basterga answered. "We have no business with you—at present," he added, after a perceptible pause, and with a slight emphasis.
She caught her breath. "You want to see my mother?" she faltered.
"I spoke plainly," Basterga replied with sternness. "That was what I said."
"What do you want with her?"
"That is our affair."
Pale to the lips, she hesitated. Yet, after all, why should they not go up and see her mother? Things were not to-day as they had been yesterday: or she had done in vain that which she had done, had sinned in vain if she had sinned. And that was a thing not to be considered. If they found her mother as she had left her, if they found the promise of the morning fulfilled, even their unexpected entrance would do no harm. Her mother was sane to-day: sane and well as other people, thank God! It was on that account she had let her heart rise like a bird's to her lips.
Yet, when she opened her mouth to assent, she found the words with difficulty. "I do not know what you want," she said faintly. "Still if you wish to see her you can go up."
"Good!" Basterga replied, and advancing, he opened the staircase door, then stood aside for the Syndic to ascend first. "Good! The uppermost floor, Messer Blondel," he continued, holding the door wide. "The stairs are narrow, but I think I can promise you that at the top you will find what you want."
He could not divest his tone of the triumph he felt. Slight as the warning was, it sufficed; while the last word was still on his lips, she snatched the door from his grasp, closed it and stood panting before it. What inward monition had spoken to her, what she had seen, what she had heard, besides that note of triumph in Basterga's voice, matters not. Her mind was changed.
"No!" she cried. "You do not go up! No!"
"You will not let us see her?" Basterga exclaimed.
"No!" Her breast heaving, she confronted them without fear.
In his surprise at her action the scholar had recoiled a step: he was fiercely angry. "Come, girl, no nonsense," he said roughly and brutally. "Make way! Or we shall have a little to say to you of what you did in my room last night! Do you mark me?" he continued. "I might have you punished for it, wench! I might have you whipped and branded for it! Do you mind me? You robbed me, and that which you took——"
"I took at his instigation!" she retorted, pointing an accusing finger at Blondel, who stood gnawing his beard, hating the part he was playing, and hating still more this white-faced girl who had come so near to ruining, if she had not ruined, his last chance of life. Hate her? The Syndic hated her for the hour of anguish through which he had just passed, hated her for the price—he shuddered to think of it—which he must now pay for his life. He hated her for his present humiliation, he hated her for his future shame. She seemed to blame for all.
"You took it," Basterga answered, acknowledging her words only by a disdainful shrug, "and gave it to your mother. Why, I care not. Now that you see we know so much, will you let us go up!"
"No!" She faced him bravely and steadfastly. "No. If you know so much, you know also why I took it, and why I gave it to her." And then, the radiance of unselfish love illuminating her pallid face, "I would do it again were it to do," she said. "And again, and yet again! For you, I have done you wrong; I have robbed you, and you may punish me. I must bear it. But as to him," pointing to Messer Blondel, "I am innocent! Innocent," she repeated firmly. "For he would have done it himself and for himself; it was he who would have me do it. And if I have done it, I have done it for another. I have robbed you, if need be I must pay the price; but that man has naught against me in this! And for the rest, my mother is well."
"Ay, well! well!" she repeated, the light of joy softening her eyes as she repeated the word. "Well! and I fear nothing."
Basterga laughed cruelly. "Well?" he said. "Well, is she? Then let us go up and see her. If she be well, why not?"
She did not answer, but she did not make way.
"Why not? I will tell you, if you please," he said. "And it will make you pipe to another tune. You have given her, young woman, that which will make her worse, and not better!"
"She is better!"
"For an hour, or for twelve hours!" he retorted. "That certainly. Then worse."
"No? But I see what it is," he continued—and, alas, his voice strengthened the fear that like a dead hand was closing on her heart and staying it; deepened the terror that like a veil was falling before her eyes and darkening the room; so that she had much ado, gripping finger-nails into palms, to keep her feet and let herself from fainting. "I see what it is. You would fain play Providence," he continued—"that is it, is it? You would play Providence? Then come! Come then, and see what kind of Providence it is you have played. We will see if you are right or I am right! And if she be well, or if she be ill!" And again he moved towards the staircase.
But she stood obstinately between him and the door. "No," she said. "You do not go up!" She was resolute. The fear that as she listened to his gibing tones had driven the colour from her face, had hardened it too. For, if he were right? If for that fear there were foundation? If that which the Syndic had led her to give and that which she had given, proved—though for a few hours it had seemed to impart marvellous vigour—useless or worse than useless? Then the need to keep these men from her mother was the greater, the more desperate. How they could be kept, for how long it was possible to keep them, she did not pause to consider, any more than the she-wolf that crouches, snarling, between her whelps and the hunt, counts odds. It was enough for her that if they were right the worst had come, and naught lay between her mother's weakness and their cruel eyes and judgments but her own feeble strength.
Or no! she was wrong in that; she had forgotten! As she spoke, and as Basterga with a scowl repeated the order to stand aside, Claude put her gently but irresistibly by, and took her place. The young man's eyes were bright, his colour high. "You will not go up!" he said, a mocking note of challenge, replying to Basterga's tone, in his voice. "You will not go up."
"Fool! Will you prevent us?"
"You will not go up! No!"
In the very act of falling on the lad, Basterga recoiled. Claude had not been idle while the others disputed. He had gone to the corner for his sword, and it was the glittering point, suddenly whipped out and flickered before his eyes that gave the scholar pause, and made him leap back. "Pollux!" he cried, "are you mad? Put down! Put down! Do you see the Syndic? Do you know," he continued, stamping his foot, "that it is penal to draw in Geneva?"
"I know that you are not going upstairs!" Claude answered gently. He was radiant. He would not have exchanged his position for a crown. She was looking, and he was going to fight.
"You fool," Basterga returned, "we have but to call the watch from the Tertasse and you will be haled to the lock-up, and jailed and whipped, if not worse! And that jade with you! Stultus es? Do you hear? Messer Syndic, will you be thwarted in this fashion? Call these lawbreakers to order and bid them have done!"
"Put up!" the Syndic cried, hoarse with rage. He was beside himself, when he thought of the position in which he had placed himself. He looked at the two as if he would fain have slain them where they stood. "Or I call the watch, and it will be the worse for you," he continued. "Do you hear me? Put up?"
"He shall not go upstairs!" Claude answered, breathing quickly. He was pale, but utterly and fixedly resolved. If Basterga made a movement to attack him, he would run him through whatever the consequences.
"Then, fool, I will call the watch!" Blondel babbled, fairly beside himself.
Claude had no answer to that; only they should not go up. It was the girl's readier wit furnished the answer.
"Call them!" she cried, in a clear voice. "Call the watch, Messer Syndic, and I will tell them the whole story. What Messer Blondel would have had me do, and get, and give."
"It was for the State!" the Syndic hissed.
"And is it for the State that you come to-day with that man?" she retorted, and with her outstretched finger she accused Basterga of unspoken things. "That man! Last night you would have had me rob him. The day before he was a traitor. To-day he and you are one. Are one! What are you plotting together?"
The Syndic shrank from the other's side under the stab of her words—words that, uttered at random, flew, straight as the arrow that slew Ahab, to the joint of his armour. "To-day you and that man are one," she repeated. "One! What are you plotting together?"
She knew as much as that, did she? She knew that they were one, and that they were plotting together; while in the Council men were clamouring for the Paduan's arrest, and were growing suspicious because he was not arrested—Baudichon, whom he had called a fat hog, and Petitot, that slow, plodding sleuth-hound of a patriot. What if light fell on the true state of things—and less than the girl had said might cast that light? Then the warrant might go, not for the Paduan only, but for himself. Ay, for him! For with an enemy ever lying within a league of the gates warrants flew quickly in Geneva. Men who sleep ill of nights, and take the cock-crow for war's alarum, are suspicious, and, once roused, without ruth or mercy.
There was the joint in his harness. Once let his name be published with Basterga's,—as must happen if the watch were summoned and the girl spoke out—and no one could say where the matter might end, or what suspicions might not be awakened. Nay, the matter was worse, more perilous and more lightly balanced; for, setting himself aside, none the less was a brawl that brought up Basterga's name, a thing to be shunned. The least thing might precipitate the scholar's arrest; his arrest must lead to the loss of the remedium, if it existed; and the loss of the remedium to the loss of that which Messer Blondel had come to value the more dearly the more he sacrificed to keep it—the Syndic's life.
He dared not call the watch, and he dared not use violence. As he awoke to those two facts, he stood blinking in dismayed silence, swallowing his rage, and hating the girl and hating the man with a dumb hatred. Though the reasons which weighed with him were unknown to the two, they could not be blind to his fear and his baffled mien; and had he been alone they might have taken victory for certain. But Basterga was not one to be so lightly thwarted. His intellect, his wit, his very mass intimidated. Therefore it was with as much relief as surprise that Anne read in his face the reflection of the other's doubts, and saw that he, too, gave back.
"You are two fools!" he said. "Two great, big fools!" There was resignation, there was something that was almost approval in his tones. "You do not know what you are doing! Is there no way of making you hear reason?"
"You cannot go up," Anne said. She had won, it seemed, without knowing how she had won.
Basterga grunted; and then, "Ah, well," he said, addressing Claude, "if I had you in the fields, my lad, it would not be that bit of metal would save you!" And he spouted with appropriate gesture—
"—Illum fidi aequales, genua aegra trahentem Jactantemque utroque caput, crassumque cruorem Ore ejectantem mixtosque in sanguine dentes Ducunt ad navis!
Half an hour in my company, and you would not be so bold."
Claude smiled with pardonable contempt, but made no reply, nor did he change his attitude.
"Come!" Blondel muttered, addressing his ally with his eyes averted. "I have reasons at present for letting them be!" They were strange reasons, to judge by the hang-dog look of the proud magistrate. "But I shall know how to deal with them by-and-by. Come, man, come!" he repeated impatiently. And he turned towards the door and unlocked it.
Basterga moved reluctantly after him. "Ay, we go now," he said, with a look full of menace. "But wait a while! Caesar Basterga does not forget, and his turn will come! Where is my cap?"
He had let it fall on the floor, and he turned to pick it up, stooping slowly and with difficulty as stout men do. As he raised himself, his head still low, he butted it suddenly and with an activity for which no one would have given him credit full into Claude's chest. The unlucky young man, who had lowered his weapon the instant before, fell back with a "sough" against the wall, and leant there, pale and breathless. Anne uttered one scream, then the scholar's huge arm enfolded her neck and drew her backwards against his breast.
"Up! up! Messer Blondel!" he cried. "Now is your chance! Up and surprise her!" And with his disengaged hand he gripped Claude, for further safety, by the collar. "Up; I will keep them quiet!"
The Syndic wasted a moment in astonishment, then he took in the situation and the other's cleverness. Before Basterga had ceased to speak, he was at the door of the staircase, and had dragged it open. But as he set his foot on the lowest stair, Anne, held as she was against Basterga's breast, and almost stifled by the arm which covered her mouth, managed to clutch the Syndic by his skirts, and, once having taken hold, held him with the strength of despair. In vain he struggled and strove and wrestled to jerk himself free; in vain Basterga, hampered by Claude, tried to drag the girl away—Blondel came away with her! She clung to him, and even, freeing her mouth for a moment, succeeded in uttering a scream.
"Curse her!" Basterga foamed: and had he had a hand to spare, he would have struck her down. "Pull, man, have you no strength! Let go, you vixen! Let go, or——"
He tried to press her throat, but in changing his hold allowed her to utter a second scream, louder, more shrill, more full of passion than the other. At the same instant a chair, knocked down by Blondel in his efforts, fell with a crash, throwing down a pewter platter; and Claude, white and breathless as he was, began to struggle, seeing his mistress so handled. The four swayed to and fro. Another moment, and either the Syndic must have jerked himself free, or the contest must have attained to dimensions that could not escape the notice of the neighbours, when a sound—a sound from within, from upstairs—stayed the tumult as by magic.
Blondel ceased to struggle, and stood aghast. Basterga relaxed his hold upon his prisoners and listened. Claude leant back against the wall. The girl alone—she alone moved. Without speaking, without looking, as a bird flies to its young, she sprang to the stairs and fled up them.
The maniacal laugh, the crazy words—a moment only, they heard them: and then the door above, which the poor woman, so long bedridden, had contrived in her frenzy of fear to open, closed on the sounds and stifled them. But enough had been heard: enough to convince Blondel, enough to justify Basterga, enough to change the fortunes of more than one in the room. The scholar's eyes met the Syndic's.
"Are you satisfied?" he asked, in a low voice.
Blondel, breathing hard, nodded.
He nodded a second time. He looked scared.
"Then you have enough to burn the old witch and the young one with her!" Basterga replied. He turned his small eyes, sparkling with malignity, on the young man, who stood against the wall, pale, and but half recovered from the blow he had sustained. "You thought to thwart me, did you, Messer Claude? You thought yourself clever enough to play with Caesar Basterga, did you? To hold at bay—oh, clever fellow—a magistrate and a scholar! And defy us both! Now I will tell you what will come of it!" He shook his great finger in front of the young man. "Your pretty bit of pink and white will burn! Burn, see you! A show for the little boys, a holiday for the young men and the young women, a treat for the old men, who will see her white limbs writhe in the smoke! Ha!" as Claude, with a face of horror, would have waved him away, "that touches you, does it? You had not thought of that? Nay, you had not thought of other things. I tell you, before the sun sets this evening, this house shall be anathema! Before night what we have heard will be known abroad, and there will be much added to it. There was a child died in the fourth house from this on Sunday! It will be odd if she did not overlook it. And the young wife of the Lieutenant at the Porte Tertasse, who has ailed since her marriage—a pale thing; who knows but he looked this way once and Mistress Anne thought ill of his defection? Ha! Ha! You would cross Caesar Basterga, would you? No, Messer Claude," he set his huge foot on the fallen sword which Claude had made a movement to recover. "I fight with other weapons than that! And if you lay a finger on me"—he extended his arms to their widest extent—"I will crush the life out of you. That is better," as Claude stood glaring helplessly at him—"I teach you prudence, at any rate. And as," with a sneer, "you are so apt at learning, I will do you, if you choose, a greater kindness that man ever did you, or woman either!"
The young man, breathing quickly, did not speak. Perhaps his eyes were watching for an opening; at the least appearance of one he would have flung himself upon his enemy.
"You do not choose. And yet, I will do it. In one word—Go!
Teque his, puer, eripe flammis!"
He pointed to the door with a gesture tragic enough. "Go and live, for if you stay you die! Wait not until the chain is drawn before the door, until boards darken the windows, and men cross the street when they would pass! Until women hide their heads as they go by, and the market will not sell, nor the water run for you! For then, as surely as she will perish, you will perish with her!"
"So be it!" Claude cried. And in his turn he pointed, not without dignity, to the door. "Go you, and our blood be upon your head!"
Basterga shrugged his shoulders, and in one moment put the thing and his grand manner away from him. "Enough! we will go," he said. "You are satisfied, Messer Syndic? Yes. Farewell, young sir, you have my last word." And while the young man stood glowering at him, he opened the street door, and the two passed out.
"You will not go on with this?" Blondel muttered with a backward gesture, as the two paused.
"Nothing," Basterga answered in a low voice, "will suit our purpose better. It will amuse Geneva and fill men's mouths till the time come. For you too, Messer Blondel," he continued, with a piercing look, "will live and not die, I take it?"
The other knew then that the hour had come to set his seal to the bargain: and equally, that if at this eleventh hour he would return, the path was open. But facilis—known is the rest, and the grip which a strong nature gains on a weaker, and how hardly fear, once admitted, is cast out. Within the Syndic's sight rose one of the gates, almost within touch rose the rampart of the city, long his own, which he was asked to betray. The mountains of his native land, pure, cold and sunlit, stood up against the blue depth of winter sky, eloquent of the permanence of things, and the insignificance of men. The contemplation of them turned his cheek a shade paler and struck terror to his heart; but did not stay him. His eyes avoiding the other's gaze, his face shrinking and pitiable, shame already his portion, he nodded.
"Precisely," Basterga said. "Then nothing can better serve our purpose than this. Let your officers know what you have heard, and know that you would hear more—of this house. That, and a hint of evil practices and witch's spells dropped here and there, will give your townsfolk something to talk of and stare at and swallow—till our time come."
"But if I bid them watch this house," Blondel muttered weakly—how fast, how fast the thing was passing out of his hands!—"attention will be called to you, and then, Messer Basterga——"
"My work is done here," Basterga replied calmly. "I have crossed that threshold for the last time. When I leave you—and it is time we parted—I go out of the gates, not again to return until—until things have been brought to the point at which we would have them, Messer Blondel."
"And that," the Syndic said with a shudder, "will be?"
"Towards the longest night. Say, in a week or so from now. The precise moment—that and other things, I will let you know by a safe mouth."
"But the remedium? That first!" the Syndic muttered, a scowl, for a second, darkening his face.
Basterga smiled. "Have no fear," he replied. "That first, by all means. And afterwards—Geneva."
THE DEPARTURE OF THE RATS.
The wood-ash on the hearth had sunk lower and grown whiter. The last flame that had licked the black sides of the great pot had died down among the expiring embers. Only under the largest log glowed a tiny cavern, carbuncle-hued; and still Claude walked restlessly from the window to the door, or listened with a frowning face at the foot of the stairs. One hour, two hours had passed since the Syndic's departure with Basterga; and still Anne remained with her mother and made no sign. Once, spurred by anxiety and the thought that he might be of use, Claude had determined to mount and seek her; but half-way up the stairs his courage had failed he had recoiled from a scene so tender, and so sacred. He had descended and fallen again to moving to and fro, and listening, and staring remorsefully at the weapon—it lay where he had dropped it on the floor—that had failed him in his need.
He had their threats in his ears, and by-and-by the horror of inaction, the horror of sitting still and awaiting the worst with folded hands, overcame him; and in a panic planning flight for them all, flight, however hopeless, however desperate, he hurried into his bed-closet, and began to pack his possessions. He packed impulsively until even the fat text-books bulked in his bundle, and the folly of flying for life with a Caesar and Melancthon on his back struck him. Then he turned all out on the floor in a fury of haste lest she should surprise him, and think that he had had it in his mind to desert her.
Back he went on that to the living-room with its dying fire and lengthening shadows; and there he resumed his solitary pacing. The room lay silent, the house lay silent; even the rampart without, which the biting wind kept clear of passers. He tried to reason on the position, to settle what would happen, what steps Basterga and Blondel would take, how the blow they threatened would fall. Would the officers of the Syndic enter and seize the two helpless women and drag them to the guard-house? In that case, what should he do, what could he do, since it was most unlikely that he would be allowed to go with them or see them? For a time the desperate notion of bolting and barring the house and holding it against the law possessed his mind; but only to be quickly dismissed. He was not yet mad enough for that. In the meantime was there any one to whom he could appeal? Any course he could adopt?
The sound of the latch rising in its socket drew his eyes to the outer door. It opened, and he saw Louis Gentilis on the threshold. Holding the door ajar, the young man peered in. Meeting Claude's eyes, he looked to the stairs, as if to seek the protection of Anne's presence; failing to find her, he made for an instant as if he would shut the door again, and go. But apparently he saw that Claude, thoroughly dispirited, was making no motion to carry out his threats of vengeance; and he thought better of it. He came in slowly, and closed the door after him. Turning his cap in his hand, and with his eyes slyly fixed on Claude, he made without a word for his bed-closet, entered it, and closed the door behind him.
His silence was strange, and his furtive manner impressed Claude unpleasantly. They seemed to imply a knowledge that boded ill; nor was the impression they made weakened when, two minutes later, the closet door opened again, and he came out.
"What is it?" Claude asked, speaking sharply. He was not going to put up with mystery of this sort.
For answer Louis' eyes met his a moment; then the young man, without speaking, slid across the room to a chair on which lay a book. He took up the volume; it was his. Next he discovered another possession—or so it seemed—approached it and took seisin of it in the same dumb way; and so with another and another. Finally, blinking and looking askance, he passed his eyes from side to side to learn if he had overlooked anything.
But Claude's patience, though prolonged by curiosity, was at an end. He took a step forward, and had the satisfaction of seeing Louis drop his air of mystery, and recoil two paces. "If you don't speak," Claude cried, "I will break every bone in your body! Do you hear, you sneaking rogue? Do you forget that you are in my debt already? Tell me in two words what this dumb show means, or I will have payment for all!"
Master Louis cringed, divided between the desire to flee and the fear of losing his property. "You will be foolish if you make any fuss here," he muttered, his arm raised to ward off a blow. "Besides, I'm going," he continued, swallowing nervously as he spoke. "Let me go."
"Do you mean," Claude exclaimed in astonishment, "that you are going for good?"
"Yes, and if you will take my advice"—with a look of sinister meaning—"you will go too. That is all."
"Why? Why?" Claude repeated.
Louis' only answer was a shudder, which told Claude that if the other did not know all, he knew much. Dismayed and confounded, Mercier stepped back, and, with a secret grin of satisfaction, Louis turned again to his task of searching the room. He found presently that for which he had been looking—his cloak. He disentangled it, with a peculiar look, from a woman's hood, contact with which he avoided with care. That done, he cast it over his arm, and got back into his closet. Claude heard him moving there, and presently he emerged a second time.
Precisely as he did so Claude caught the sound of a light footstep on the stairs, the stair door opened, and Anne, her face weary, but composed, came in. Her first glance fell on Louis, who, with his sack and cloak on his arm, was in the act of closing the closet door. Habit carried her second look to the hearth.
"You have let the fire go out," she said. Then, turning to Louis, in a voice cold and free from emotion, "Are you going?" she asked.
He muttered that he was, his face a medley of fear and spite and shame.
She nodded, but to Claude's astonishment expressed no surprise. Meanwhile Louis, after dropping first his cloak and then his sack, in his haste to be gone, shuffled his way to the door. The two looked on, without moving or speaking, while he opened it, carried out his bag, and, turning about, closed the door upon himself. They heard his footsteps move away.
At length Claude spoke. "The rats, I see, are leaving," he muttered.
"Yes, the rats!" she echoed, and carried for a moment her eyes to his. Then she knelt on the hearth, and uncovering the under side of the log, where a little fire still smouldered, she fed it with two or three fir-cones, and, stooping low, blew steadily on them until they caught fire and blazed. He stood looking down at her, and marvelled at the strength of mind that allowed her to stoop to trifles, or to think of fires at such a time as this. He forgot that habit is of all stays the strongest, and that to women a thousand trifles make up—God reward them for it—the work of life: a work which instinct moves them to pursue, though the heavens fall.
Several hours had elapsed since he had entered hotfoot to see her; and the day was beginning to wane. The flame of the blazing fir-cones, a hundred times reflected in the rows of pewter plates and the surface of the old oaken dressers, left the corners of the room in shadow. Immediately within the windows, indeed, the daylight held its own; but when she rose and turned to him her back was towards the casement, and the firelight which lit up her face flickered uncertainly, and left him in doubt whether she were moved or not.
"You have eaten nothing!" she said, while he stood pondering what she would say. "And it is four o'clock! I am sorry!" Her tone, which took shame to herself, gave him a new surprise.
He stopped her as she turned to the dresser. "Your mother is better?" he said gently.
"She is herself now," she replied, with a slight quaver, and without looking at him. And she went about her work.
Did she know? Did she understand? In his world was only one fact, in his mind only one tremendous thought: the fact of their position, the thought of their isolation and peril. In her treatment of Louis she had seemed to show knowledge and a comprehension as wide as his own. But if she knew all, could she be as calm as she was? Could she go about her daily tasks? Could she cut and lay and fetch with busy fingers, and all in silence?
He thought not; and though he longed to consult her, to assure her and comfort her, to tell her that the very isolation, the very peril in which they stood were a happiness and a joy to him, whatever the issue, because he shared them with her, he would not, by reason of that doubt. He did not yet know the courage which underlies the gentlest natures: nor did he guess that even as it was a joy to him to stand beside her in peril, so it was a joy to her, even in that hour, to come and go for him, to cut his bread and lay for him, to draw his wine from the great cask under the stairs, and pour for him in the tall horn mug.
And little said. By him, because he shrank from opening her eyes to the danger of their position; by her, because her mind was full and she could not trust herself to speak calmly. But he knew that she, too, had fasted since morning, and he made her eat with him: and it was in the thoughts of each that they had never eaten together before. For commonly Anne took her meal with her mother, or ate as the women of her time often ate, standing, alone, when others had finished. There are moments when the simplest things put on the beauty and significance of rites, and this first eating together at the small table on the fire-lit hearth was one of such moments. He saw that she did eat; and this care for her, and the reverence of his manner, so moved her, that at last tears rose and choked her, and to give her time and to hide his own feelings, he stood up and affected to get something from the fireside.
Before he turned again, the latch rattled and the door flew open. The freezing draught that entered, arrested him between the table and the fire. The intruder was Grio. He stood an instant scowling on them, then he entered and closed the door. He eyed the two with a sneering laugh, and, turning, flung his cloak on a chair. It was ill-aimed and fell to the ground.
"Why the devil don't you light?" he cried violently. "Eh?" He added something in which the words "Old hag's devilry!" were alone audible. "Do you hear?" he continued, more coherently. "Why don't you light? What black games are you playing, I'd like to know? I want my things!"
Claude's fingers tingled, but danger and responsibility are sure teachers, and he restrained himself. Neither of them answered, but Anne fetched the lamp, and kindling a splinter of wood lighted it, and placed it on the table. Then bringing the Spaniard's rushlight from the three or four that stood on the dresser, she lighted it and held it out to him.
"Set it down!" he said, with tipsy insolence. He was not quite sober. "Set it down! I am not going to—hic!—risk my salvation! Avaunt, Satan! It is possible to palm the evil one, like a card I am told, and—hic!—soul out, devil in, all lost as easy as candle goes out!"
He had taken his candle with an unsteady hand, and unconsciously had blown it out himself. She restrained Claude by a look, and patiently taking the rushlight from Grio, she re-lit it and set it on the table for him to take.
"As a candle goes out!" he repeated, eyeing it with drunken wisdom. "Candle out, devil in, soul lost, there you have it in three words—clever as any of your long-winded preachers! But I want my things. I am going before it is too late. Advise you to go too, young man," he hiccoughed, "before you are overlooked. She is a witch! She's the devil's mark on her, I tell you! I'd like to have the finding it!" And with an ugly leer he advanced a step as if he would lay hands on her.
She shrank back, and Claude's eyes blazed. Fortunately, the bully's mind passed to the first object of his coming; or it may be that he was sober enough to read a warning in the younger man's face.
"Oh! time enough," he said. "You are not so nice always, I'll be bound. And things come—hic!—to those who wait! I don't belong to your Sabbaths, I suppose, or you'd be freer! But I want my things, and I am going to have them! I defy thee, Satan! And all thy works!"
Still growling under his breath he burst open the staircase door, and stumbled noisily upwards, the light wavering in his hand. Anne's eyes followed him; she had advanced to the foot of the stairs, and Claude understood the apprehension that held her. But the sounds did not penetrate to the room on the upper floor, or Madame Royaume did not take the alarm; perhaps she slept. And after assuring herself that Grio had entered his room the girl returned to the table.
The Spaniard had spoken with brutal plainness; it was no longer possible to ignore what he had said, or to lie under any illusion as to the girl's knowledge of her peril. Claude's eyes met hers: and for a moment the anguished human soul peered through the mask of constancy, for a moment the woman in her, shrinking from the ordeal and the fire, from shame and death, thrust aside the veil, and held out quivering, piteous hands to him. But it was for a moment only. Before he could speak she was brave as before, quiet as he had ever seen her, patient, mistress of herself. "It is as you said," she muttered, smiling wanly, "the rats are leaving us."
"Vermin!" he whispered. He could not trust himself to say more. His voice shook, his eyes were full.
"They have not lost time," she continued in a low tone. She did not cease to listen, nor did her eyes leave the staircase door. "Louis first, and now Grio. How has it reached them so quickly, do you think?"
"Louis is hand in glove with the Syndic," he murmured.
She nodded. "What do you think they will do—first?" she whispered. And again—it went to his heart—the woman's face, fear-drawn, showed as it were beneath the mask with which love and faith and a noble resignation had armed her. "Do you think they will denounce us at once?"
He shook his head in sheer inability to foresee; and then, seeing that she continued to look anxiously for his answer, that answer which he knew to be of no value, for minute by minute the sense of his helplessness was weighing upon him, "It may be," he muttered. "God knows. When Grio is gone we will talk about it."
She began, but always with a listening ear and an eye to the open door, to remove from the table the remains of their meal. Midway in her task, she glanced askance at the window, under the impression that some one was looking through it; and in any case now the lamp was lit it exposed them to the curiosity of the rampart. She was going to close the shutters when Claude interposed, raised the heavy shutters and bolted and barred them. He was turning from them when Grio's step was heard descending.
Strange to say the Spaniard's first glance was at the windows, and he looked genuinely taken aback when he saw that they were closed. "Why the devil did you shut?" he exclaimed, in a rage; and passing Anne with a sidelong movement, he flung a heavy bundle on the floor by the door. As he turned to ascend again he met her eyes, and backing from her he made with two of his fingers the ancient sign which southern people still use to ward off the evil eye. Then, half shamefacedly, half recklessly, he blundered upstairs again. A moment, and he came stumbling down; but this time he was careful to keep the great bundle he bore between himself and her eyes, until he had got the door open.
That precaution taken, as if he thought the free cold air which entered would protect him from spells, he showed himself at his ease, threw down his bundle and faced her with an air of bravado.
"I need not have feared," he said with a tipsy grin, "but I had forgotten what I carry. I have a hocus-pocus here "—he touched his breast—"written by a wise man in Ravenna, and sealed with a dead Goth's hand, that is proof against devil or dam! And I defy thee, mistress."
"Why?" she cried. "Why?" And the note of indignation in her voice, the passionate challenge of her eyes, enforced the question. In the human mind is a desire for justice that will not be denied; and even from this drunken ruffian a sudden impulse bade her demand it. "Why should you defy me or fear me? What have I done to you, what have I done to any one," she continued, with noble resentment, "that you should spread this of me? You have eaten and drunk at my hand a hundred times; have I poisoned or injured you? I have looked at you a hundred times; have I overlooked you? You have lain down under this roof by night a hundred times; have I harmed you sleeping or waking, full moon or no moon?"
For answer he leered at her slyly. "Not a whit," he said. "No."
"No?" Her colour rose.
"No; but you see"—with a grin—"it never leaves me, my girl." He touched his breast. "While I wear that I am safe."
She gasped. "Do you mean that I——"
"I do not know what you would have done—but for that!" he retorted. "Maimed me or wizened me, perhaps! Or, may be, made me waste away as you did the child that died three doors away last Sunday!"
Her face changed slowly. Prepared as she had been for the worst by many an hour of vigil beside her mother's bed, the horror of this precise accusation—and such an accusation—overcame her. "What?" she cried. "You dare to say that I—that I——" She could not finish.
But her eyes lightened, her form dilated with passion; and tipsy, ignorant, brutish as he was, the Spaniard could not be blind to the indignation, the resentment, the very wonder which stopped her breath and choked her utterance. At the sight some touch of shame, some touch of pity, made itself felt in the dull recesses even of that brain. "I don't say it," he muttered awkwardly. "It is what they are saying in the street."
"In the street?"
"Ay, where else?" He knew who said it, for he knew whence his orders came: but he was not going to tell her. Yet the spark of kindliness which she had kindled still lived—how could it be otherwise in presence of her youth and gentleness? "If you'll take my advice," he continued roughly, "you'll not show yourself in the streets unless you wish to be mishandled, my girl. It will be time enough when the time comes. Even now, if you were to leave your old witch of a mother and get good protection, there is no knowing but you might be got clear! You are a fair bit of red and white," with a grin. "And it is not far to Savoy! Will you come if I risk it?"
A gesture, half refusal, half loathing, answered him.
"Oh, very well!" he said. The short-lived fit of pity passed from him; he scowled. "You'll think differently when they have the handling of you. I'm glad to be going, for where there's one fire there are apt to be more; and I am a Christian, no matter who's not! Let who will burn, I'll not!"
He picked up one bundle and, carrying it out, raised his voice. A man, who had shrunk, it seemed, from entering the house, showed his face in the light which streamed from the door. To this fellow he gave the bundle, and shouldering the other, he went heavily out, leaving the door wide open behind him.
Claude strode to it and closed it; but not so quickly that he had not a glimpse of three or four pairs of eyes staring in out of the darkness; eyes so curious, so fearful, so quickly and noiselessly withdrawn—for even while he looked, they were gone—that he went back to the hearth with a shiver of apprehension.
Fortunately, she had not seen them. She stood where he had left her, in the same attitude of amazement into which Grio's accusation had cast her. As she met his gaze—then, at last, she melted. The lamplight showed her eyes brimming over with tears; her lips quivered, her breast heaved under the storm of resentment.
"How dare they say it?" she cried. "How dare they? That I would harm a child? A child?" And, unable to go on, she held out protesting hands to him. "And my mother? My mother, who never injured any one or harmed a hair of any one's head! That she—that they should say that of her! That they should set that to her! But I will go this instant," impetuously, "to the child's mother. She will hear me. She will know and believe me. A mother? Yes, I will go to her!"
"Not now," he said. "Not now, Anne!"
"Yes, now," she persisted, deaf to his voice. She snatched up her hood from the ground on which it had fallen, and began to put it on.
He seized her arm. "No, not now," he said firmly. "You shall not go now. Wait until daylight. She will listen to you more coolly then."
She resisted him. "Why?" she said. "Why?"
"People fancy things at night," he urged. "I know it is so. If she saw you enter out of the darkness"—the girl with her burning eyes, her wet cheeks, her disordered hair looked wild enough—"she might refuse to believe you. Besides——"
"I will not have you go now," he said firmly. That instant it had flashed upon him that one of the faces he had seen outside was the face of the dead child's mother. "I will not let you go," he repeated. "Go in the daylight. Go to-morrow morning. Go then, if you will!" He did not choose to tell her that he feared for her instant safety if she went now; that, if he had his will, the streets would see her no more for many a day.
She gave way. She took off her hood, and laid it on the table. But for several minutes she stood, brooding darkly and stormily, her hands fingering the strings. To foresee is not always to be forearmed. She had lived for months in daily and hourly expectation of the blow which had fallen; but not the more easily for that could she brook the concrete charge. Her heart burned, her soul was on fire. Justice, give us justice though the heavens fall, is an instinct planted deep in man's nature! Of the Mysterious Passion of our Lord our finite minds find no part worse than the anguish of innocence condemned. A child? She to hurt a child? And her mother? Her mother, so harmless, so ignorant, so tormented! She to hurt a child?
After a time, nevertheless, the storm began to subside. But with it died the hope which is inherent in revolt; in proportion as she grew more calm the forlornness of her situation rose more clearly before her. At last that had happened which she had so long expected to happen. The thing was known. Soon the full consequences would be upon her, the consequences on which she dared not dwell. Shudderingly she tried to close her eyes to the things that might lie before her, to the things at which Grio had hinted, the things of which she had lain thinking—even while they were distant and uncertain—through many a night of bitter fear and fevered anticipation.
They were at hand now, and though she averted her thoughts, she knew it. But the wind is tempered to the shorn. Even as the prospect of future ill can dominate the present, embitter the sweetest cup, and render thorny the softest bed, so, sometimes, present good has the power to obscure the future evil. As Anne sank back on the settle, her trembling limbs almost declining to bear her, her eyes fell on her companion. Failing to rouse her, he had seated himself on the other side of the hearth, his elbows on his knees, his chin on his hands, in an attitude of deep thought. And little by little, as she looked at him, her cheeks grew, if not red, less pale, her eyes lost their tense and hopeless gaze. She heaved a quivering sigh, and slowly carried her look round the room.
Its homely comfort, augmented by the hour and the firelight, seemed to lap them round. The door was locked, the shutters were closed, the lamp burned cheerfully. And he sat opposite—sat as if they had been long married. The colour grew deeper in her face as she gazed; she breathed more quickly; her eyes shone. What evil cannot be softened, what misfortune cannot be lightened to a woman by the knowledge that she is loved by the man she loves? That where all have fled, he remains, and that neither fear of death nor word of man can keep him from her side?
He looked up in the end, and caught the look on her face, the look that a woman bestows on one man only in her life. In a moment he was on his knees beside her, holding her hands, covering them with kisses, vowing to save her, to save her—or to die with her!
IN THE DARKENED ROOM.
Claude flung the cloak from his head and shoulders, and sat up. It was morning—morning, after that long, dear sitting together—and he stared confusedly about him. He had been dreaming; all night he had slept uneasily. But the cry that had roused him, the cry that had started that quick beating of the heart, the cry that still rang in his waking ears and frightened him, was no dream.