A Gentleman of France by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter XI. The Man at the Door.
There are some things, not shameful in themselves, which it shames one to remember, and among these I count the succeeding hurry and perturbation of that night: the vain search, without hope or clue, to which passion impelled me, and the stubborn persistence with which I rushed frantically from place to place long after the soberness of reason would have had me desist. There was not, it seems to me, looking back now, one street or alley, lane or court, in Blois which I did not visit again and again in my frantic wanderings; not a beggar skulking on foot that night whom I did not hunt down and question; not a wretched woman sleeping in arch or doorway whom I did not see and scrutinise. I returned to my mother's lodging again and again, always fruitlessly. I rushed to the stables and rushed away again, or stood and listened in the dark, empty stalls, wondering what had happened, and torturing myself with suggestions of this or that. And everywhere, not only at the North-gate, where I interrogated the porters and found that no party resembling that which I sought had passed out, but on the parvis of the Cathedral, where a guard was drawn up, and in the common streets, where I burst in on one group and another with my queries, I ran the risk of suspicion and arrest, and all that might follow thereon.
It was strange indeed that I escaped arrest. The wound in my chin still bled at intervals, staining my doublet; and as I was without my cloak, which I had left in the house in the Rue Valois, I had nothing to cover my disordered dress. I was keenly, fiercely anxious. Stray passers meeting me in the glare of a torch, or seeing me hurry by the great braziers which burned where four streets met, looked askance at me and gave me the wall; while men in authority cried to me to stay and answer their questions. I ran from the one and the other with the same savage impatience, disregarding everything in the feverish anxiety which spurred me on and impelled me to a hundred imprudences, such as at my age I should have blushed to commit. Much of this feeling was due, no doubt, to the glimpse I had had of mademoiselle, and the fiery words she had spoken; more, I fancy, to chagrin and anger at the manner in which the cup of success had been dashed at the last moment from my lips.
For four hours I wandered through the streets, now hot with purpose, now seeking aimlessly. It was ten o'clock when at length I gave up the search, and, worn out both in body and mind, climbed the stairs at my mother's lodgings and entered her room. An old woman sat by the fire, crooning softly to herself, while she stirred something in a black pot. My mother lay in the same heavy, deep sleep in which I had left her. I sat down opposite the nurse (who cried out at my appearance) and asked her dully for some food. When I had eaten it, sitting in a kind of stupor the while, the result partly of my late exertions, and partly of the silence which prevailed round me, I bade the woman call me if any change took place; and then going heavily across to the garret Simon had occupied, I lay down on his pallet, and fell into a sound, dreamless sleep.
The next day and the next night I spent beside my mother, watching the life ebb fast away, and thinking with grave sorrow of her past and my future. It pained me beyond measure to see her die thus, in a garret, without proper attendance or any but bare comforts; the existence which had once been bright and prosperous ending in penury and gloom, such as my mother's love and hope and self-sacrifice little deserved. Her state grieved me sharply on my own account too, seeing that I had formed none of those familiar relations which men of my age have commonly formed, and which console them for the loss of parents and forbears; Nature so ordering it, as I have taken note, that men look forward rather than backward, and find in the ties they form with the future full compensation for the parting strands behind them. I was alone, poverty-stricken, and in middle life, seeing nothing before me except danger and hardship, and these unrelieved by hope or affection. This last adventure, too, despite all my efforts, had sunk me deeper in the mire; by increasing my enemies and alienating from me some to whom I might have turned at the worst. In one other respect also it had added to my troubles not a little; for the image of mademoiselle wandering alone and unguarded through the streets, or vainly calling on me for help, persisted in thrusting itself on my imagination when I least wanted it, and came even between my mother's patient face and me.
I was sitting beside Madame de Bonne a little after sunset on the second day, the woman who attended her being absent on an errand, when I remarked that the lamp, which had been recently lit, and stood on a stool in the middle of the room, was burning low and needed snuffing. I went to it softly, and while stooping over it, trying to improve the light, heard a slow, heavy step ascending the stairs. The house was quiet, and the sound attracted my full attention. I raised myself and stood listening, hoping that this might be the doctor, who had not been that day.
The footsteps passed the landing below, but at the first stair of the next flight the person, whoever it was, stumbled, and made a considerable noise. At that, or it might be a moment later, the step still ascending, I heard a sudden rustling behind me, and, turning quickly with a start, saw my mother sitting up in bed. Her eyes were open, and she seemed fully conscious; which she had not been for days, nor indeed since the last conversation I have recorded. But her face, though it was now sensible, was pinched and white, and so drawn with mortal fear that I believed her dying, and sprang to her, unable to construe otherwise the pitiful look in her straining eyes.
'Madame,' I said, hastily passing my arm round her, and speaking with as much encouragement as I could infuse into my voice, 'take comfort. I am here. Your son.'
'Hush!' she muttered in answer, laying her feeble hand on my wrist and continuing to look, not at me, but at the door. 'Listen, Gaston! Don't you hear? There it is again. Again!'
For a moment I thought her mind still wandered, and I shivered, having no fondness for hearing such things. Then I saw she was listening intently to the sound which had attracted my notice. The step had reached the landing by this time. The visitor, whoever it was, paused there a moment, being in darkness, and uncertain, perhaps, of the position of the door; but in a little while I heard him move forward again, my mother's fragile form, clasped as it was in my embrace, quivering with each step he took, as though his weight stirred the house. He tapped at the door.
I had thought, while I listened and wondered, of more than one whom this might be: the leech, Simon Fleix, Madame Bruhl, Fresnoy even. But as the tap came, and I felt my mother tremble in my arms, enlightenment came with it, and I pondered no more, I knew as well as if she hail spoken and told me. There could be only one man whose presence had such power to terrify her, only one whose mere step, sounding through the veil, could drag her back to consciousness and fear! And that was the man who had beggared her, who had traded so long on her terrors.
I moved a little, intending to cross the floor softly, that when he opened the door he might find me face to face with him; but she detected the movement, and, love giving her strength, she clung to my wrist so fiercely that I had not the heart, knowing how slender was her hold on life and how near the brink she stood, to break from her. I constrained myself to stand still, though every muscle grew tense as a drawn bowstring, and I felt the strong rage rising in my throat and choking me as I waited for him to enter.
A log on the hearth gave way with a dull sound startling in the silence. The man tapped again, and getting no answer, for neither of us spoke, pushed the door slowly open, uttering before he showed himself the words, 'Dieu vous benisse!' in a voice so low and smooth I shuddered at the sound. The next moment he came in and saw me, and, starting, stood at gaze, his head thrust slightly forward, his shoulders bent, his hand still on the latch, amazement and frowning spite in turn distorting his lean face. He had looked to find a weak, defenceless woman, whom he could torture and rob at his will; he saw instead a strong man armed, whose righteous anger he must have been blind indeed had he failed to read.
Strangest thing of all, we had met before! I knew him at once-- he me. He was the same Jacobin monk whom I had seen at the inn on the Claine, and who had told me the news of Guise's death!
I uttered an exclamation of surprise on making this discovery, and my mother, freed suddenly, as it seemed, from the spell of fear, which had given her unnatural strength, sank back on the bed. Her grasp relaxed, and her breath came and went with so loud a rattle that I removed my gaze from him, and bent over her, full of concern and solicitude. Our eyes met. She tried to speak, and at last gasped, 'Not now, Gaston! Let him--let him--'
Her lips framed the word 'go,' but she could not give it sound. I understood, however, and in impotent wrath I waved my hand to him to begone. When I looked up he had already obeyed me. He had seized the first opportunity to escape. The door was closed, the lamp burned steadily, and we were alone.
I gave her a little Armagnac, which stood beside the bed for such an occasion, and she revived, and presently opened her eyes. But I saw at once a great change in her. The look of fear had passed altogether from her face, and one of sorrow, yet content, had taken its place. She laid her hand in mine, and looked up at me, being too weak, as I thought, to speak. But by-and-by, when the strong spirit had done its work, she signed to me to lower my head to her mouth.
'The King of Navarre,' she murmured-you are sure, Gaston--he will retain you is your--employments?'
Her pleading eyes were so close to mine, I felt no scruples such as some might have felt, seeing her so near death; but I answered firmly and cheerfully, 'Madame, I am assured of it. There is no prince in Europe so trustworthy or so good to his servants.'
She sighed with infinite content, and blessed him in a feeble whisper. 'And if you live,' she went on, 'you will rebuild the old house, Gaston. The walls are sound yet. And the oak in the hall was not burned. There is a chest of linen at Gil's, and a chest with your father's gold lace--but that is pledged,' she added dreamily. 'I forgot.'
'Madame,' I answered solemnly, 'it shall be done--it shall be done as you wish, if the power lie with me.'
She lay for some time after that murmuring prayers, her head supported on my shoulder. I longed impatiently for the nurse to return, that I might despatch her for the leech; not that I thought anything could be done, but for my own comfort and greater satisfaction afterwards, and that my mother might not die without some fitting attendance. The house remained quiet, however, with that impressive quietness which sobers the heart at such times, and I could not do this. And about six o'clock my mother opened her eyes again.
'This is not Marsac,' she murmured abruptly, her eyes roving from the ceiling to the wall at the foot of the bed.
No, Madame,' I answered, leaning over her, 'you are in Blois. But I am here--Gaston, your son.'
She looked at me, a faint smile of pleasure stealing over her pinched face. 'Twelve thousand livres a year,' she whispered, rather to herself than to me, 'and an establishment, reduced a little, yet creditable, very creditable.' For a moment she seemed to be dying in my arms, but again opened her eyes quickly and looked me in the face. 'Gaston?' she said, suddenly and strangely. 'Who said Gaston? He is with the King--I have blessed him; and his days shall be long in the land!' Then, raising herself in my arms with a last effort of strength, she cried loudly, 'Way there! Way for my son, the Sieur de Marsac!'
They were her last words. When I laid her down on the bed a moment later, she was dead, and I was alone.
Madame de Bonne, my mother, was seventy at the time of her death, having survived my father eighteen years. She was Marie de Loche de Loheac, third daughter of Raoul, Sieur de Loheac, on the Vilaine, and by her great-grandmother, a daughter of Jean de Laval, was descended from the ducal family of Rohan, a relationship which in after-times, and under greatly altered circumstances, Henry Duke of Rohan condescended to acknowledge, honouring me with his friendship on more occasions than one. Her death, which I have here recorded, took place on the fourth of January, the Queen-Mother of France, Catherine de Medicis, dying a little after noon on the following day.
In Blois, as in every other town, even Paris itself, the Huguenots possessed at this time a powerful organisation; and with the aid of the surgeon, who showed me much respect in my bereavement, and exercised in my behalf all the influence which skilful and honest; men of his craft invariably possess, I was able to arrange for my mother's burial in a private ground about a league beyond the walls and near the village of Chaverny. At the time of her death I had only thirty crowns in gold remaining, Simon Fleix, to whose fate I could obtain no clue, having carried off thirty-five with the horses. The whole of this residue, however, with the exception of a handsome gratuity to the nurse and a trifle spent on my clothes, I expended on the funeral, desiring that no stain should rest on my mother's birth or my affection. Accordingly, though the ceremony was of necessity private, and indeed secret, and the mourners were few, it lacked nothing, I think, of the decency and propriety which my mother loved; and which she preferred, I have often heard her say, to the vulgar show that is equally at the command of the noble and the farmer of taxes.
Until she was laid in her quiet resting-place I stood in constant fear of some interruption on the part either of Bruhl, whose connection with Fresnoy and the abduction I did not doubt, or of the Jacobin monk. But none came; and nothing happening to enlighten me as to the fate of Mademoiselle de la Vire, I saw my duty clear before me. I disposed of the furniture of my mother's room, and indeed of everything which was saleable, and raised in this way enough money to buy myself a new cloak--without which I could not travel in the wintry weather--and to hire a horse. Sorry as the animal was, the dealer required security, and I had none to offer. It was only at the last moment, I bethought me of the fragment of gold chain which mademoiselle had left behind her, and which, as well as my mother's rings and vinaigrette, I had kept back from the sale. This I was forced to lodge with him. Having thus, with some pain and more humiliation, provided means for the journey, I lost not an hour in beginning it. On the eighth of January I set oat for Rosny, to carry the news of my ill-success and of mademoiselle's position whither I had looked a week before to carry herself.