A Gentleman of France by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter XII. Maximilian de Bethune, Baron de Rosny.
I looked to make the journey to Rosny in two days. But the heaviness of the roads and the sorry condition of my hackney hindered me so greatly that I lay the second night at Dreux, and, hearing the way was still worse between that place and my destination, began to think that I should be fortunate if I reached Rosny by the following noon. The country in this part seemed devoted to the League, the feeling increasing in violence as I approached the Seine. I heard nothing save abuse of the King of France and praise of the Guise princes, and had much ado, keeping a still tongue and riding modestly, to pass without molestation or inquiry.
Drawing near to Rosny, on the third morning, through a low marshy country covered with woods and alive with game of all kinds, I began to occupy myself with thoughts of the reception I was likely to encounter; which, I conjectured, would be none of the most pleasant. The daring and vigour of the Baron de Rosny, who had at this time the reputation of being in all parts of France at once, and the familiar terms on which he was known to live with the King of Navarre, gave me small reason to hope that he would listen with indulgence to such a tale as I had to tell. The nearer I came to the hour of telling it, indeed, the more improbable seemed some of its parts, and the more glaring my own carelessness in losing the token, and in letting mademoiselle out of my sight in such a place as Blois. I saw this so clearly now, and more clearly as the morning advanced, that I do not know that I ever anticipated anything with more fear than this explanation; which it yet seemed my duty to offer with all reasonable speed. The morning was warm, I remember; cloudy, yet not dark; the air near at hand full of moisture and very clear, with a circle of mist rising some way off, and filling the woods with blue distances. The road was deep and foundrous, and as I was obliged to leave it from time to time in order to pass the worst places, I presently began to fear that I had strayed into a by-road. After advancing some distance, in doubt whether I should persevere or turn back, I was glad to see before me a small house placed at the junction of several woodland paths. From the bush which hung over the door, and a water-trough which stood beside it, I judged the place to be an inn; and determining to get my horse fed before I went farther, I rode up to the door and rapped on it with my riding-switch.
The position of the house was so remote that I was surprised to see three or four heads thrust immediately out of a window. For a moment I thought I should have done better to have passed by; but the landlord coming out very civilly, and leading the way to a shed beside the house, I reflected that I had little to lose, and followed him. I found, as I expected, four horses tied up in the shed, the bits hanging round their necks and their girths loosed; while my surprise was not lessened by the arrival, before I had fastened up my own horse, of a sixth rider, who, seeing us by the shed, rode up to us, and saluted me as he dismounted.
He was a tall, strong man in the prime of youth, wearing a plain, almost mean suit of dust-coloured leather, and carrying no weapons except a hunting-knife, which hung in a sheath at his girdle. He rode a powerful silver-roan horse, and was splashed to the top of his high untanned boots, as if he had come by the worst of paths, if by any.
He cast a shrewd glance at the landlord as he led his horse into the shed; and I judged from his brown complexion and quick eyes that he had seen much weather and lived an out-of-door life.
He watched me somewhat curiously while I mixed the fodder for my horse; and when I went into the house and sat down in the first room I came to, to eat a little bread-and-cheese which I had in my pouch, he joined me almost immediately. Apparently he could not stomach my poor fare, however, for after watching me for a time in silence, switching his boot with his whip the while, he called the landlord, and asked him, in a masterful way, what fresh meat he had, and particularly if he had any lean collops, or a fowl.
The fellow answered that there was nothing. His honour could have some Lisieux cheese, he added, or some stewed lentils.
'His honour does not want cheese,' the stranger answered peevishly, 'nor lentil porridge. And what is this I smell, my friend?' he continued, beginning suddenly to sniff with vigour. 'I swear I smell cooking.'
'It is the hind-quarter of a buck, which is cooking for the four gentlemen of the Robe; with a collop or two to follow,' the landlord explained; and humbly excused himself on the ground that the gentlemen had strictly engaged it for their own eating.
'What? A whole quarter! And a collop or two to follow!' the stranger retorted, smacking his lips. 'Who are they?'
'Two advocates and their clerks from the Parliament of Paris. They have been viewing a boundary near here, and are returning this afternoon,' the landlord answered.
'No reason why they should cause a famine!' ejaculated the stranger with energy. 'Go to them and say a gentleman, who has ridden far, and fasted since seven this morning, requests permission to sit at their table. A quarter of venison and a collop or two among four!' he continued, in a tone of extreme disgust, 'It is intolerable! And advocates! Why, at that rate, the King of France should eat a whole buck, and rise hungry! Don't you agree with me, sir?' he continued, turning on me and putting the question abruptly.
He was so comically and yet so seriously angry, and looked so closely at me as he spoke, that I hastened to say I agreed with him perfectly.
'Yet you eat cheese, sir!' he retorted irritably.
I saw that, not withstanding the simplicity of his dress, he was a gentleman, and so, forbearing to take offence, I told him plainly that my purse being light I travelled rather as I could than as I would.
'Is it so?' he answered hastily. 'Had I known that, I would have joined you in the cheese! After all, I would rather fast with a gentleman, than feast with a churl. But it is too late now. Seeing you mix the fodder, I thought your pockets were full.'
'The nag is tired, and has done its best,' I answered.
He looked at me curiously, and as though he would say more. But the landlord returning at that moment, he turned to him instead.
'Well!' he said briskly. 'Is it all right?'
'I am sorry, your honour,' the man answered, reluctantly, and with a very downcast air, 'but the gentlemen beg to be excused.'
'Zounds!' cried my companion roundly. 'They do, do they?'
'They say they have no more, sir,' the landlord continued, faltering, 'than enough for themselves and a little dog they have with them.'
A shout of laughter which issued at that moment from the other room seemed to show that the quartette were making merry over my companion's request. I saw his cheek redden, and looked for an explosion of anger on his part; but instead he stood a moment in thought in the middle of the floor, and then, much to the innkeeper's relief, pushed a stool towards me, and called for a bottle of the best wine. He pleasantly begged leave to eat a little of my cheese, which he said looked better than the Lisieux, and, filling my glass with wine, fell to as merrily as if he had never heard of the party in the other room.
I was more than a little surprised, I remember; for I had taken him to be a passionate man, and not one to sit down under an affront. Still I said nothing, and we conversed very well together. I noticed, however, that he stopped speaking more than once, as though to listen; but conceiving that he was merely reverting to the party in the other room, who grew each moment more uproarious, I said nothing, and was completely taken by surprise when he rose on a sudden, and, going to the open window, leaned out, shading his eyes with his hand.
'What is it?' I said, preparing to follow him.
He answered by a quiet chuckle. 'You shall see,' he added the next instant.
I rose, and going to the window looked out over his shoulder. Three men were approaching the inn on horseback. The first, a great burly, dark-complexioned man with fierce black eyes and a feathered cap, had pistols in his holsters and a short sword by his side. The other two, with the air of servants, were stout fellows, wearing green doublets and leather breeches. All three rode good horses, while a footman led two hounds after them in a leash. On seeing us they cantered forward, the leader waving his bonnet.
'Halt, there!' cried my companion, lifting up his voice when they were within a stone's throw of us. 'Maignan!'
'My lord?' answered he of the feather, pulling up on the instant.
'You will find six horses in the shed there,' the stranger cried in a voice of command. 'Turn out the four to the left as you go in. Give each a cut, and send it about its business!'
The man wheeled his horse before the words were well uttered, and crying obsequiously 'that it was done,' flung his reins to one of the other riders and disappeared in the shed, as if the order given him were the most commonplace one in the world.
The party in the other room, however, by whom all could be heard, were not slow to take the alarm. They broke into a shout of remonstrance, and one of their number, leaping from the window, asked with a very fierce air what the devil we meant. The others thrust out their faces, swollen and flushed with the wine they had drunk, and with many oaths backed up his question. Not feeling myself called upon to interfere, I prepared to see something diverting.
My companion, whose coolness surprised me, had all the air of being as little concerned as myself. He even persisted for a time in ignoring the angry lawyer, and, turning a deaf ear to all the threats and abuse with which the others assailed him, continued to look calmly at the prospect. Seeing this, and that nothing could move him, the man who had jumped through the window, and who seemed the most enterprising of the party, left us at last and ran towards the stalls. The aspect of the two serving-men, however, who rode up grinning, and made as if they would ride him down, determined him to return; which he did, pale with fury, as the last of the four horses clattered out, and after a puzzled look round trotted off at its leisure into the forest.
On this, the man grew more violent, as I have remarked frightened men do; so that at last the stranger condescended to notice him.
'My good sir,' he said coolly, looking at him through the window as if he had not seen him before, 'you annoy me. What is the matter?'
The fellow retorted with a vast amount of bluster, asking what the devil we meant by turning out his horses.
'Only to give you and the gentlemen with you a little exercise,' my companion answered, with grim humour, and in a severe tone strange in one so young--'than which nothing is more wholesome after a full meal. That, and a lesson in good manners. Maignan,' he continued, raising his voice, 'if this person has anything more to say, answer him. He is nearer your degree than mine.'
And leaving the man to slink away like a whipped dog--for the mean are ever the first to cringe--my friend turned from the window. Meeting my eyes as he went back to his seat, he laughed. 'Well,' he said, 'what do you think?'
'That the ass in the lion's skin is very well till it meets the lion,' I answered.
He laughed again, and seemed pleased, as I doubt not he was. 'Pooh, pooh!' he said. 'It passed the time, and I think I am quits with my gentlemen now. But I must be riding. Possibly our roads may lie for a while in the same direction, sir?' And he looked at me irresolutely.
I answered cautiously that I was going to the town of Rosny.
'You are not from Paris?' he continued, still looking at me.
'No,' I answered. 'I am from the south.'
'From Blois, perhaps?'
'Ah!' he said, making no comment, which somewhat surprised me, all men at this time desiring news, and looking to Blois for it. 'I am riding towards Rosny also. Let us be going.'
But I noticed that as we got to horse, the man he called Maignan holding his stirrup with much formality, he turned and looked at me more than once with an expression in his eye which I could not interpret; so that, being in an enemy's country, where curiosity was a thing to be deprecated, I began to feel somewhat uneasy. However, as he presently gave way to a fit of laughter, and seemed to be digesting his late diversion at the inn, I thought no more of it, finding him excellent company and a man of surprising information.
Notwithstanding this my spirits began to flag as I approached Rosny; and as on such occasions nothing is more trying than the well-meant rallying of a companion ignorant of our trouble, I felt rather relief than regret when he drew rein at four cross- roads a mile or so short of the town, and, announcing that here our paths separated, took a civil leave of me, and went his way with his servants.
I dismounted at an inn at the extremity of the town, and, stopping only to arrange my dress and drink a cup of wine, asked the way to the Chateau, which was situate, I learned, no more than a third of a mile away. I went thither on foot by way of an avenue of trees leading up to a drawbridge and gateway. The former was down, but the gates were closed, and all the formalities of a fortress in time of war were observed on my admission, though the garrison appeared to consist only of two or three serving-men and as many foresters. I had leisure after sending in my name to observe that the house was old and partly ruinous, but of great strength, covered in places with ivy, and closely surrounded by woods. A staid-looking page came presently to me, and led me up a narrow staircase to a parlour lighted by two windows, looking, one into the courtyard, the other towards the town. There a tall man was waiting to receive me, who rose on my entrance and came forward. Judge of my surprise when I recognised my acquaintance of the afternoon! 'M. de Rosny?' I exclaimed, standing still and looking at him in confusion.
'The same, sir,' he answered, with a quiet smile. 'You come from the King of Navarre, I believe? and on an errand to me. You may speak openly. The king has no secrets from me.'
There was something in the gravity of his demeanour as he waited for me to speak: which strongly impressed me; notwithstanding that he was ten years younger than myself, and I had seen him so lately in a lighter mood. I felt that his reputation had not belied him--that here was a great man; and reflecting with despair on the inadequacy of the tale I had to tell him, I paused to consider in what terms I should begin. He soon put an end to this, however. 'Come, sir,' he said with impatience. 'I have told you that you may speak out. You should have been here four days ago, as I take it. Now you are here, where is the lady?'
'Mademoiselle de la Vire?' I stammered, rather to gain time than with any other object.
'Tut, tut!' he rejoined, frowning. 'Is there any other lady in the question? Come, sir, speak out. Where have you left her? This is no affair of gallantry,' he continued, the harshness of his demeanour disagreeably surprising me, 'that you need beat about the bush. The king entrusted to you a lady, who, I have no hesitation in telling you now, was in possession of certain State secrets. It is known that she escaped safely from Chize and arrived safely at Blois. Where is she?'
'I would to Heaven I knew, sir!' I exclaimed in despair, feeling the painfulness of my position increased a hundred fold by his manner. 'I wish to God I did.'
'What is this?' he cried in a raised voice. 'You do not know where she is? You jest, M. de Marsac.'
'It were a sorry jest,' I answered, summoning up a rueful smile. And on that, plunging desperately into the story which I have here set down, I narrated the difficulties under which I had raised my escort, the manner in which I came to be robbed of the gold token, how mademoiselle was trepanned, the lucky chance by which I found her again, and the final disappointment. He listened, but listened throughout with no word of sympathy-- rather with impatience, which grew at last into derisive incredulity. When I had done he asked me bluntly what I called myself.
Scarcely understanding what he meant, I repeated my name.
He answered, rudely and flatly, that it was impossible. I do not believe it, sir!' he repeated, his brow dark. 'You are not the man. You bring neither the lady nor the token, nor anything else by which I can test your story. Nay, sir, do not scowl at me,' he continued sharply. 'I am the mouthpiece of the King of Navarre, to whom this matter is of the highest importance. I cannot believe that the man whom he would choose would act so. This house you prate of in Blois, for instance, and the room with the two doors? What were you doing while mademoiselle was being removed?'
'I was engaged with the men of the house,' I answered, striving to swallow the anger which all but choked me. 'I did what I could. Had the door given way, all would have been well.'
He looked at me darkly. 'That is fine talking!' he said with a sneer. Then he dropped his eyes and seemed for a time to fall into a brown study, while I stood before him, confounded by this new view of the case, furious, yet not knowing how to vent my fury, cut to the heart by his insults, yet without hope or prospect of redress.
'Come' he said harshly, after two or three minutes of gloomy reflection on his part and burning humiliation on mine, 'is there anyone here who can identify you, or in any other way confirm your story, sir? Until I know how the matter stands I can do nothing.'
I shook my head in sullen shame. I might protest against his brutality and this judgment of me, but to what purpose while he sheltered himself behind his master?
'Stay!' he said presently, with an abrupt gesture of remembrance. 'I had nearly forgotten. I have some here who have been lately at the King of Navarre's Court at St. Jean d'Angely. If you still maintain that you are the M. de Marsac to whom this commission was entrusted, you will doubtless have no objection to seeing them?'
On this I felt myself placed in a most cruel dilemma. if I refused to submit my case to the proposed ordeal, I stood an impostor confessed. If I consented to see these strangers, it was probable they would not recognise me, and possible that they might deny me in terms calculated to make my position even worse, if that might be. I hesitated but, Rosny standing inexorable before me awaiting an answer, I finally consented.
'Good!' he said curtly. 'This way, if you please. They are here. The latch is tricky. Nay, sir, it is my house.'
Obeying the stern motion of his hand, I passed before him into the next room, feeling myself more humiliated than I can tell by this reference to strangers. For a moment I could see no one. The day was waning, the room I entered was long and narrow, and illuminated only by a glowing fire. Besides I was myself, perhaps, in some embarrassment. I believed that my conductor had made a mistake, or that his guests had departed, and I turned towards him to ask for an explanation. He merely pointed onwards, however, and I advanced; whereupon a young and handsome lady, who had been seated in the shadow of the great fireplace, rose suddenly, as if startled, and stood looking at me, the glow of the burning wood falling on one side of her face and turning her hair to gold.
'Well!' M. de Rosny said, in a voice which sounded a little odd in my ears. 'You do not know madame, I think?'
I saw that she was a complete stranger to me, and bowed to her without speaking. The lady saluted me in turn ceremoniously and in silence.
'Is there no one else here who should know you?' M. de Rosny continued, in a tone almost of persiflage, and with the same change in his voice which had struck me before; but now it was more marked. 'If not, M. de Marsac, I am afraid--But first look round, look round, sir; I would not judge any man hastily.'
He laid his hand on my shoulder as he finished in a manner so familiar and so utterly at variance with his former bearing that I doubted if I heard or felt aright. Yet I looked mechanically at the lady, and seeing that her eyes glistened in the firelight, and that she gazed at me very kindly, I wondered still more; falling, indeed, into a very confusion of amazement. This was not lessened but augmented a hundredfold when, turning in obedience to the pressure of de Rosny's hand, I saw beside me, as if she had risen from the floor, another lady--no other than Mademoiselle de la Vire herself! She had that moment stepped out of the shadow of the great fireplace, which had hitherto hidden her, and stood before me curtseying prettily, with the same look on her face and in her eyes which madame's wore.
'Mademoiselle!' I muttered, unable to take my eyes from her.
'Mais oui, monsieur, mademoiselle,' she answered, curtseying lower, with the air of a child rather than a woman.
'Here?' I stammered, my mouth open, my eyes staring.
'Here, sir--thanks to the valour of a brave man,' she answered, speaking in a voice so low I scarcely heard her. And then, dropping her eyes, she stepped back into the shadow, as if either she had said too much already, or doubted her composure were she to say more. She was so radiantly dressed, she looked in the firelight more like a fairy than a woman, being of small and delicate proportions; and she seemed in my eyes so different a person, particularly in respect of the softened expression of her features, from the Mademoiselle de la Vire whom I had known and seen plunged in sloughs and bent to the saddle with fatigue, that I doubted still if I had seen aright, and was as far from enlightenment as before.
It was M. de Rosny himself who relieved me from the embarrassment I was suffering. He embraced me in the most kind and obliging manner, and this more than once; begging me to pardon the deception he had practised upon me, and to which he had been impelled partly by the odd nature of our introduction at the inn, and partly by his desire to enhance the joyful surprise he had in store for me. 'Come,' he said presently, drawing me to the window, 'let me show you some more of your old friends.'
I looked out, and saw below me in the courtyard my three horses drawn up in a row, the Cid being bestridden by Simon Fleix, who, seeing me, waved a triumphant greeting. A groom stood at the head of each horse, and on either side was a man with a torch. My companion laughed gleefully. 'It was Maignan's arrangement,' he said. 'He has a quaint taste in such things.'
After greeting Simon Fleix a hundred times, I turned back into the room, and, my heart overflowing with gratitude and wonder, I begged M. de Rosny to acquaint me with the details of mademoiselle's escape.
'It was the most simple thing in the world,' he said, taking me by the hand and leading me back to the hearth. 'While you were engaged with the rascals, the old woman who daily brought mademoiselle's food grew alarmed at the uproar, and came into the room to learn what it was. Mademoiselle, unable to help you, and uncertain of your success, thought the opportunity too good to be lost. She forced the old woman to show her and her maid the way out through the garden. This done, they ran down a lane, as I understand, and came immediately upon the lad with the horses, who recognised them and helped them to mount. They waited some minutes for you, and then rode off.'
'But I inquired at the gate,' I said.
'At which gate?' inquired M. de Rosny, smiling.
'The North-gate, of course,' I answered.
'Just so,' he rejoined with a nod. 'But they went out through the West-gate and made a circuit. He is a strange lad, that of yours below there. He has a head on his shoulder, M. de Marsac. Well, two leagues outside the town they halted, scarcely knowing how to proceed. By good fortune, however, a horse-dealer of my acquaintance was at the inn. He knew Mademoiselle de la Vire, and, hearing whither she was bound, brought her hither without let or hindrance.'
'Was he a Norman?' I asked,
M. de Rosny nodded, smiling at me shrewdly. 'Yes,' he said, 'he told me much about you. And now let me introduce you to my wife, Madame de Rosny.'
He led me up to the lady who had risen at my entrance, and who now welcomed me as kindly as she had before looked on me, paying me many pleasant compliments. I gazed at her with interest, having heard much of her beauty and of the strange manner in which M. de Rosny, being enamoured of two young ladies, and chancing upon both while lodging in different apartments at an inn, had decided which he should visit and make his wife. He appeared to read what was in my mind, for as I bowed before her, thanking her for the obliging things which she had uttered, and which for ever bound me to her service, he gaily pinched her ear, and said, 'When you want a good wife, M. de Marsac, be sure you turn to the right.'
He spoke in jest, and having his own case only in his mind. But I, looking mechanically in the direction he indicated, saw mademoiselle standing a pace or two to my right in the shadow of the great chimney-piece. I know not whether she frowned more or blushed more; but this for certain, that she answered my look with one of sharp displeasure, and, turning her back on me, swept quickly from the room, with no trace in her bearing of that late tenderness and gratitude which I had remarked.