Chapter XVII. The Jacobin Monk.
 

Had I needed any reminder of the uncertainty of Court favour, or an instance whence I might learn the lesson of modesty, and so stand in less danger of presuming on my new and precarious prosperity, I had it in this episode, and in the demeanour of the company round me. On the circle breaking up in confusion, I found myself the centre of general regard, but regard of so dubious a character, the persons who would have been the first to compliment me had the king retired earlier, standing farthest aloof now, that I felt myself rather insulted than honoured by it. One or two, indeed, of the more cautious spirits did approach me; but it was with the air of men providing against a danger particularly remote, their half-hearted speeches serving only to fix them in my memory as belonging to a class, especially abhorrent to me--the class, I mean, of those who would run at once with the hare and the hounds.

I was rejoiced to find that on one person, and that the one whose disposition towards me was, next to the king's, of first importance, this episode had produced a different impression, Feeling, as I made for the door, a touch on my arm, I turned to find M. de Rambouillet at my elbow, regarding me with a glance of mingled esteem and amusement; in fine, with a very different look from that which had been my welcome earlier in the evening. I was driven to suppose that he was too great a man, or too sure of his favour with the king, to be swayed by the petty motives which actuated the Court generally, for he laid his hand familiarly on my shoulder, and walked on beside me.

'Well my friend,' he said,' you have distinguished yourself finely! I do not know that I ever remember a pretty woman making more stir in one evening. But if you are wise you will not go home alone to-night.'

'I have my sword, M. le Marquis,' I answered, somewhat proudly. 'Which will avail you little against a knife in the back!' he retorted drily. 'What attendance have you?'

'My equerry, Simon Fleix, is on the stairs.'

'Good, so far, but not enough,' he replied, as we reached the head of the staircase. 'You had better come home with me now, and two or three of my fellows shall go on to your lodging with you. Do you know, my friend,' he continued, looking at me keenly, 'you are either a very clever or a very foolish man?'

I made answer modestly. 'Neither the one, I fear, nor the other, I hope sir,' I said.

'Well, you have done a very pertinent thing,' he replied, 'for good or evil. You have let the enemy know what he has to expect, and he is not one, I warn you, to be despised. But whether you have been very wise or very foolish in declaring open war remains to be seen.'

'A week will show,' I answered.

He turned and looked at me. 'You take it coolly,' he said.

'I have been knocking about the world for forty years, marquis,' I rejoined.

He muttered something about Rosny having a good eye, and then stopped to adjust his cloak. We were by this time in the street. Making me go hand in hand with him, he requested the other gentlemen to draw their swords; and the servants being likewise armed and numbering half a score or more, with pikes and torches, we made up a very formidable party, and caused, I think, more alarm as we passed through the streets to Rambouillet's lodging than we had any reason to feel. Not that we had it all to ourselves, for the attendance at Court that evening being large, and the circle breaking up as I have described more abruptly than usual, the vicinity of the castle was in a ferment, and the streets leading from it were alive with the lights and laughter of parties similar to our own.

At the door of the marquis's lodging I prepared to take leave of him with many expressions of gratitude, but he would have me enter and sit down with him to a light refection, which it was his habit to take before retiring. Two of his gentlemen sat down with us, and a valet, who was in his confidence, waiting on us, we made very merry over the scene in the presence. I learned that M. de Bruhl was far from popular at Court; but being known to possess some kind of hold over the king, and enjoying besides a great reputation for recklessness and skill with the sword, he had played a high part for a length of time, and attached to himself, especially since the death of Guise, a considerable number of followers.

'The truth is,' one of the marquis's gentlemen, who was a little heated with wine, observed, 'there is nothing at this moment which a bold and unscrupulous man may not win in France!'

'Nor a bold and Christian gentleman for France!' replied M. de Rambouillet with, some asperity. 'By the way,' he continued, turning abruptly to the servant, 'where is M. Francois?'

The valet answered that he had not returned with us from the castle. The Marquis expressed himself annoyed at this, and I gathered, firstly, that the missing man was his near kinsman, and, secondly, that he was also the young spark who had been so forward to quarrel with me earlier in the evening. Determining to refer the matter, should it become pressing, to Rambouillet for adjustment, I took leave of him, and attended by two of his servants, whom he kindly transferred to my service for the present, I started towards my lodging a little before midnight.

The moon had risen while we were at supper, and its light, which whitened the gables on one side of the street, diffused a glimmer below sufficient to enable us to avoid the kennel. Seeing this, I bade the men put out our torch. Frost had set in, and a keen wind was blowing, so that we were glad to hurry on at a good pace; and the streets being quite deserted at this late hour, or haunted only by those who had come to dread the town marshal, we met no one and saw no lights. I fell to thinking, for my part, of the evening I had spent searching Blois for Mademoiselle, and of the difference between then and now. Nor did I fail while on this track to retrace it still farther to the evening of our arrival at my mother's; whence, as a source, such kindly and gentle thoughts welled up in my mind as were natural, and the unfailing affection of that gracious woman required. These, taking the place for the moment of the anxious calculations and stern purposes which had of late engrossed me, were only ousted by something which, happening under my eyes, brought me violently and abruptly to myself.

This was the sudden appearance of three men, who issued one by one from an alley a score of yards in front of us, and after pausing a second to look back the way they had come, flitted on in single file along the street, disappearing, as far as the darkness permitted me to judge, round a second corner. I by no means liked their appearance, and, as a scream and the clash of arms rang out next moment from the direction in which they had gone, I cried lustily to Simon Fleix to follow, and ran on, believing from the rascals' movements that they were after no good, but that rather some honest man was like to be sore beset.

On reaching the lane down which they had plunged, however, I paused a moment, considering not so much its black-ness, which was intense, the eaves nearly meeting overhead, as the small chance I had of distinguishing between attackers and attacked. But Simon and the men overtaking me, and the sounds of a sharp tussle still continuing, I decided to venture, and plunged into the alley, my left arm well advanced, with the skirt of my cloak thrown over it, and my sword drawn back. I shouted as I ran, thinking that the knaves might desist on hearing me; and this was what happened, for as I arrived on the scene of action--the farther end of the alley--two men took to their heels, while of two who remained, one lay at length in the kennel, and another rose slowly from his knees.

'You are just in time, sir,' the latter said, breathing hard, but speaking with a preciseness which sounded familiar. 'I am obliged to you, sir, whoever you are. The villains had got me down, and in a few minutes more would have made my mother childless. By the way, you have no light, have you?' he continued, lisping like a woman.

One of M. de Rambouillet's men, who had by this time come up, cried out that it was Monsieur Francois.

'Yes, blockhead!' the young gentleman answered with the utmost coolness. 'But I asked for a light, not for my name.

'I trust you are not hurt, sir?' I said, putting up my sword.

'Scratched only,' he answered, betraying no surprise on learning who it was had come up so opportunely; as he no doubt did learn from my voice, for he continued with a bow, a slight price to pay for the knowledge that M. de Marsac is as forward on the field as on the stairs.'

I bowed my acknowledgments.

'This fellow,' I said, 'is he much hurt?'

'Tut, tut! I thought I had saved the marshal all trouble, M. Francois replied. 'Is he not dead, Gil?'

The poor wretch made answer for himself, crying out piteously, and in a choking voice, for a priest to shrive him. At that moment Simon Fleix returned with our torch, which he had lighted at the nearest cross-streets, where there was a brazier, and we saw by this light that the man was coughing up blood, and might live perhaps half an hour.

'Mordieu! That comes of thrusting too high!' M. Francois muttered, regretfully. An inch lower, and there would have been none of this trouble! I suppose somebody must fetch one. Gil,' he continued, 'run, man, to the sacristy in the Rue St. Denys, and get a Father. Or--stay! Help to lift him under the lee of the wall there. The wind cuts like a knife here.'

The street being on the slope of the hill, the lower part of the house nearest us stood a few feet from the ground, on wooden piles, and the space underneath it, being enclosed at the back and sides, was used as a cart-house. The servants moved the dying man into this rude shelter, and I accompanied them, being unwilling to leave the young gentleman alone. Not wishing, however, to seem to interfere, I walked to the farther end, and sat down on the shaft of a cart, whence I idly admired the strange aspect of the group I had left, as the glare of the torch brought now one and now another into prominence, and sometimes shone on M. Francois' jewelled fingers toying with his tiny moustache, and sometimes on the writhing features of the man at his feet.

On a sudden, and before Gil had started on his errand, I saw there was a priest among them. I had not seen him enter, nor had I any idea whence he came. My first impression was only that here was a priest, and that he was looking at me--not at the man craving his assistance on the floor, or at those who stood round him, but at me, who sat away in the shadow beyond the ring of light!

This was surprising; but a second glance explained it, for then I saw that he was the Jacobin monk who had haunted my mother's dying hours. And, amazed as much at this strange rencontre as at the man's boldness, I sprang up and strode forwards, forgetting, in an impulse of righteous anger, the office he came to do. And this the more as his face, still turned to me, seemed instinct to my eyes with triumphant malice. As I moved towards him, however, with a fierce exclamation on my lips, he suddenly dropped his eyes and knelt. Immediately M. Francois cried 'Hush!' and the men turned to me with scandalised faces. I fell back. Yet even then, whispering on his knees by the dying man, the knave was thinking, I felt sure, of me, glorying at once in his immunity and the power it gave him to tantalise me without fear.

I determined, whatever the result, to intercept him when all was over; and on the man dying a few minutes later, I walked resolutely to the open side of the shed, thinking it likely he might try to slip away as mysteriously as he had come. He stood a moment speaking to M. Francois, however, and then, accompanied by him, advanced boldly to meet me, a lean smile on his face.

'Father Antoine,' M. d'Agen said politely,' tells me that he knows you, M. de Marsac, and desires to speak to you, mal-a-propos as is the occasion.'

'And I to him,' I answered, trembling with rage, and only restraining by an effort the impulse which would have had me dash my hand in the priest's pale, smirking face. 'I have waited long for this moment,' I continued, eyeing him steadily, as M. Francois withdrew out of hearing, 'and had you tried to avoid me, I would have dragged you back, though all your tribe were here to protect you.'

His presence so maddened me that I scarcely knew what I said. I felt my breath come quickly, I felt the blood surge to my head, and it was with difficulty I restrained myself when he answered with well-affected sanctity, 'Like mother, like son, I fear, sir. Huguenots both.'

I choked with rage. What!' I said, 'you dare to threaten me as you threatened my mother? Fool! know that only to-day for the purpose of discovering and punishing you I took the rooms in which my mother died.'

'I know it,' he answered quietly. And then in a second, as by magic, he altered his demeanour completely, raising his head and looking me in the face. 'That, and so much besides, I know,' he continued, giving me, to my astonishment, frown for frown, 'that if you will listen to me for a moment, M. de Marsac, and listen quietly, I will convince you that the folly is not on my side.'

Amazed at his new manner, in which there was none of the madness that had marked him at our first meeting, but a strange air of authority, unlike anything I had associated with him before, I signed to him to proceed.

'You think that I am in your power?' he said, smiling.

'I think,' I retorted swiftly, 'that, escaping me now, you will have at your heels henceforth a worse enemy than even your own sins.'

'Just so,' he answered, nodding. 'Well, I am going to show you that the reverse is the case; and that you are as completely in my hands, to spare or to break, as this straw. In the first place, you are here in Blois, a Huguenot!'

'Chut!' I exclaimed contemptuously, affecting a confidence I was far from feeling. 'A little while back that might have availed you. But we are in Blois, not Paris. It is not far to the Loire, and you have to deal with a man now, not with a woman. It is you who have cause to tremble, not I.'

'You think to be protected,' he answered with a sour smile, 'even on this side of the Loire, I see. But one word to the Pope's Legate, or to the Duke of Nevers, and you would see the inside of a dungeon, if not worse. For the king--'

'King or no king!' I answered, interrupting him with more assurance than I felt, seeing that I remembered only too well Henry's remark that Rosny must not look to him for protection, 'I fear you not a whit! And that reminds me. I have heard you talk treason--rank, black treason, priest, as ever sent man to rope, and I will give you up. By heaven I will!' I cried, my rage increasing, as I discerned, more and more clearly, the dangerous hold he had over me. 'You have threatened me! One word, and I will send you to the gallows!'

'Sh!' he answered, indicating M. Francois by, a gesture of the hand. 'For your own sake, not mine. This is fine talking, but you have not yet heard all I know. Would you like to hear how you have spent the last month? Two days after Christmas, M. de Marsac, you left Chize with a young lady--I can give you her name, if you please. Four days afterwards you reached Blois, and took her to your mother's lodging. Next morning she left you for M. de Bruhl. Two days later you tracked her to a house in the Ruelle d'Arcy, and freed her, but lost her in the moment of victory. Then you stayed in Blois until your mother's death, going a day or two later to M. de Rosny's house by Mantes, where mademoiselle still is. Yesterday you arrived in Blois with M. de Rosny ; you went to his lodging; you--'

'Proceed, I muttered, leaning forward. Under cover of my cloak I drew my dagger half-way from its sheath. 'Proceed, sir, I pray,' I repeated with dry lips.

'You slept there,' he continued, holding his ground, but shuddering slightly, either from cold or because he perceived my movement and read my design in my eyes.

'This morning you remained here in attendance on M. de Rambouillet.'

For the moment I breathed freely again, perceiving that though he knew much, the one thing on which M. de Rosny's design turned had escaped him. The secret interview with the king, which compromised alike Henry himself and M. de Rambouillet, had apparently passed unnoticed and unsuspected. With a sigh of intense relief I slid back the dagger, which I had fully made up my mind to use had he known all, and drew my cloak round me with a shrug of feigned indifference. I sweated to think what he did know, but our interview with the king having escaped him, I breathed again.

'Well, sir,' I said curtly, 'I have listened. And now, what is the purpose of all this?'

'My purpose?' he answered, his eyes glittering. 'To show you that you are in my power. You are the agent of M. de Rosny. I, the agent, however humble, of the Holy Catholic League. Of your movements I know all. What do you know of mine?'

'Knowledge,' I made grim answer, 'is not everything, sir priest.'

'It is more than it was,' he said, smiling his thin-lipped smile. 'It is going to be more than it is. And I know much--about you, M. de Marsac.'

'You know too much!' I retorted, feeling his covert threats close round me like the folds of some great serpent. 'But you are imprudent, I think. Will you tell me what is to prevent me striking you through where you stand, and ridding myself at a blow of so much knowledge?'

'The presence of three men, M. de Marsac,' he answered lightly, waving his hand towards M. Francois and the others, 'every one of whom would give you up to justice. You forget that you are north of the Loire, and that priests are not to be massacred here with impunity, as in your lawless south-country. However, enough. The night is cold, and M. d'Agen grows suspicious as well as impatient. We have, perhaps, spoken too long already. Permit me --he bowed and drew back a step--'to resume this discussion to- morrow.'

Despite his politeness and the hollow civility with which he thus sought; to close the interview, the light of triumph which shone in his eyes, as the glare of the torch fell athwart them, no less than the assured tone of his voice, told me clearly that he knew his power. He seemed, indeed, transformed: no longer a slinking, peaceful clerk, preying on a woman's fears, but a bold and crafty schemer, skilled and unscrupulous, possessed of hidden knowledge and hidden resources; the personification of evil intellect. For a moment, knowing all I knew, and particularly the responsibilities which lay before me, and the interests committed to my hands, I quailed, confessing myself unequal to him. I forgot the righteous vengeance I owed him; I cried out helplessly against the ill-fortune which had brought him across my path. I saw myself enmeshed and fettered beyond hope of escape, and by an effort only controlled the despair I felt.

'To-morrow?' I muttered hoarsely. 'At what time?'

He shook his head with a cunning smile. 'A thousand thanks, but I will settle that myself!' he answered. 'Au revoir!' and uttering a word of leave-taking to M. Francois d'Agen, he blessed the two servants, and went out into the night.