Chapter XVIII. The Offer of the League.
 

When the last sound of his footsteps died away, I awoke as from an evil dream, and becoming conscious of the presence of M. Francois and the servants, recollected mechanically that I owed the former an apology for my discourtesy in keeping him standing in the cold. I began to offer it; but my distress and confusion of mind were such that in the middle of a set phrase I broke off, and stood looking fixedly at him, my trouble so plain that he asked me civilly if anything ailed me.

'No,' I answered, turning from him impatiently; 'nothing, nothing, sir. Or tell me,' I continued, with an abrupt change of mind, 'who is that; who has just left us?'

'Father Antoine, do you mean?'

'Ay, Father Antoine, Father Judas, call him what you like,' I rejoined bitterly.

'Then if you leave the choice to me,' M. Francois answered with grave politeness, 'I would rather call him something more pleasant, M. de Marsac--James or John, let us say. For there is little said here which does not come back to him. If walls have ears, the walls of Blois are in his pay. But I thought you knew him,' he continued. 'He is secretary, confidant, chaplain, what you will, to Cardinal Retz, and one of those whom--in your ear-- greater men court and more powerful men lean on. If I had to choose between them, I would rather cross M. de Crillon.'

'I am obliged to you,' I muttered, checked as much by his manner as his words.

'Not at all,' he answered more lightly. 'Any information I have is at your disposal.'

However, I saw the imprudence of venturing farther, and hastened to take leave of him, persuading him to allow one of M. de Rambouillet's servants to accompany him home. He said that he should call on me in the morning; and forcing myself to answer him in a suitable manner, I saw him depart one way, and myself, accompanied by Simon Fleix, went off another. My feet were frozen with long standing--I think the corpse we left was scarce colder--but my head was hot with feverish doubts and fears. The moon had sunk and the streets were dark. Our torch had burned out, and we had no light. But where my followers saw only blackness and vacancy, I saw an evil smile and a lean visage fraught with menace and exultation.

For the more closely I directed my mind to the position in which I stood, the graver it seemed. Pitted against Bruhl alone, amid strange surroundings and in an atmosphere of Court intrigue, I had thought my task sufficiently difficult and the disadvantages under which I laboured sufficiently serious before this interview. Conscious of a certain rustiness and a distaste for finesse, with resources so inferior to Bruhl's that even M. de Rosny's liberality had not done much to make up the difference, I had accepted the post offered me rather readily than sanguinely; with joy, seeing that it held out the hope of high reward, but with no certain expectation of success. Still, matched with a man of violent and headstrong character, I had seen no reason to despair; nor any why I might not arrange the secret meeting between the king and mademoiselle with safety, and conduct to its end an intrigue simple and unsuspected, and requiring for its execution rather courage and caution than address or experience.

Now, however, I found that Bruhl was not my only or my most dangerous antagonist. Another was in the field--or, to speak more correctly, was waiting outside the arena, ready to snatch the prize when we should have disabled one another, From a dream of Bruhl and myself as engaged in a competition for the king's favour, wherein neither could expose the other nor appeal even in the last resort to the joint-enemies of his Majesty and ourselves, I awoke to a very different state of things; I awoke to find those enemies the masters of the situation, possessed of the clue to our plans, and permitting them only as long as they seemed to threaten no serious peril to themselves.

No discovery could be more mortifying or more fraught with terror. The perspiration stood on my brow as I recalled the warning which M. de Rosny had uttered against Cardinal Retz, or noted down the various points of knowledge which were in Father Antoine's possession. He knew every event of the last month, with one exception, and could tell, I verily believed, how many crowns I had in my pouch. Conceding this, and the secret sources of information he must possess, what hope had I of keeping my future movements from him? Mademoiselle's arrival would be known to him before she had well passed the gates; nor was it likely, or even possible, that I should again succeed in reaching the king's presence untraced and unsuspected. In fine, I saw myself, equally with Bruhl, a puppet in this man's hands, my goings out and my comings in watched and reported to him, his mercy the only bar between myself and destruction. At any moment I might be arrested as a Huguenot, the enterprise in which I was engaged ruined, and Mademoiselle de la Vire exposed to the violence of Bruhl or the equally dangerous intrigues of the League.

Under these circumstances I fancied sleep impossible; but habit and weariness are strong persuaders, and when I reached my lodging I slept long and soundly, as became a man who had looked danger in the face more than once. The morning light too brought an accession both of courage and hope. I reflected on the misery of my condition at St. Jean d'Angely, without friends or resources, and driven to herd with such a man as Fresnoy. And telling myself that the gold crowns which M. de Rosny had lavished upon me were not for nothing, nor the more precious friendship with which he had honoured me a gift that called for no return, I rose with new spirit and a countenance which threw Simon Fleix who had seen me lie down the picture of despair-- into the utmost astonishment.

'You have had good dreams,' he said, eyeing me jealously and with a disturbed air.

'I had a very evil one last night,' I answered lightly, wondering a little why he looked at me so, and why he seemed to resent my return to hopefulness and courage. I might have followed this train of thought further with advantage, since I possessed a clue to his state of mind; but at that moment a summons at the door called him away to it, and he presently ushered in M. d'Agen, who, saluting me with punctilious politeness, had not said fifty words before he introduced the subject of his toe--no longer, however, in a hostile spirit, but as the happy medium which had led him to recognise the worth and sterling qualities--so he was pleased to say--of his preserver.

I was delighted to find him in this frame of mind, and told him frankly that the friendship with which his kinsman, M. de Rambouillet, honoured me would prevent me giving him satisfaction save in the last resort. He replied that the service I had done him was such as to render this immaterial, unless I had myself cause of offence; which I was forward to deny.

We were paying one another compliments after this fashion, while I regarded him with the interest which the middle-aged bestow on the young and gallant in whom they see their own youth and hopes mirrored, when the door was again opened, and after a moment's pause admitted, equally, I think, to the disgust of M. Francois, and myself, the form of Father Antoine.

Seldom have two men more diverse stood, I believe, in a room together; seldom has any greater contrast been presented to a man's eyes than that opened to mine on this occasion. On the one side the gay young spark, with his short cloak, his fine suit; of black-and-silver, his trim limbs and jewelled hilt and chased comfit-box; on the other, the tall, stooping monk, lean-jawed and bright-eyed, whose gown hung about him in coarse, ungainly folds. And M. Francois' sentiment on first seeing the other was certainly dislike. Is spite of this, however, he bestowed a greeting on the new-comer which evidenced a secret awe, and in other ways showed so plain a desire to please, that I felt my fears of the priest return in force. I reflected that the talents which in such a garb could win the respect of M. Francois d'Agen--a brilliant star among the younger courtiers, and one of a class much given to thinking scorn of their fathers' roughness --must be both great and formidable; and, so considering, I received the monk with a distant courtesy which I had once little thought to extend to him. I put aside for the moment the private grudge I bore him with so much justice, and remembered only the burden which lay on me in my contest with him.

I conjectured without difficulty that he chose to come at this time, when M. Francois was with me, out of a cunning regard to his own safety; and I was not surprised when M. Francois, beginning to make his adieux, Father Antoine begged him to wait below, adding that he had something of importance to communicate. He advanced his request in terms of politeness bordering on humility; but I could clearly see that, in assenting to it, M. d'Agen bowed to a will stronger than his own, and would, had he dared to follow his own bent, have given a very different answer. As it was he retired--nominally to give an order to his lackey-- with a species of impatient self-restraint which it was not difficult to construe.

Left alone with me, and assured that we had no listeners, the monk was not slow in coming to the point.

'You have thought over what I told you last night?' he said brusquely, dropping in a moment the suave manner which he had maintained in M. Francois's presence.

I replied coldly that I had.

'And you understand the position?' he continued quickly, looking at me from under his brows as he stood before me, with one clenched fist on the table. 'Or shall I tell you more? Shall I tell you how poor and despised you were some weeks ago, M. de Marsac--you who now go in velvet, and have three men at your back? Or whose gold it is has brought you here, and made you, this? Chut! Do not let us trifle. You are here as the secret agent of the King of Navarre. It is my business to learn your plans and his intentions, and I propose to do so.'

'Well?' I said.

'I am prepared to buy them,' he answered; and his eyes sparkled as he spoke, with a greed which set me yet more on my guard.

'For whom?' I asked. Having made up my mind that I must use the same weapons as my adversary, I reflected that to express indignation, such as might become a young man new to the world, could, help me not a whit. 'For whom?' I repeated, seeing that he hesitated.

'That is my business,' he replied slowly.

'You want to know too much and tell too little,' I retorted, yawning.

'And you are playing with me,' he cried, looking at me suddenly, with so piercing a gaze and so dark a countenance that I checked a shudder with difficulty. 'So much the worse for you, so much the worse for you!' he continued fiercely. 'I am here to buy the information you hold, but if you will not sell, there is another way. At an hour's notice I can ruin your plans, and send you to a dungeon! You are like a fish caught in a net not yet drawn. It thrusts its nose this way and that, and touches the mesh, but is slow to take the alarm until the net is drawn--and then it is too late. So it is with you, and so it is,' he added, falling into the ecstatic mood which marked him at times, and left me in doubt whether he were all knave or in part enthusiast, 'with all those who set themselves against St. Peter and his Church!'

'I have heard you say much the same of the King of France,' I said derisively.

'You trust in him?' he retorted, his eyes gleaming. 'You have been up there, and seen his crowded chamber, and counted his forty-five gentlemen and his grey-coated Swiss? I tell you the splendour you saw was a dream, and will vanish as a dream. The man's strength and his glory shall go from him, and that soon. Have you no eyes to see that he is beside the question? There are but two powers in France--the Holy Union, which still prevails, and the accursed Huguenot; and between them is the battle.'

'Now you are telling me more,' I said.

He grew sober in a moment, looking at me with a vicious anger hard to describe.

'Tut tut,' he said, showing his yellow teeth, 'the dead tell no tales. And for Henry of Valois, he so loves a monk that you might better accuse his mistress. But for you, I have only to cry "Ho! a Huguenot and a spy!" and though he loved you more than he loved Quelus or Maugiron, he dare not stretch out a finger to save you!'

I knew that he spoke the truth, and with difficulty maintained the air of indifference with which I had entered on the interview.

'But what if I leave Blois?' I ventured, merely to see what he would say.

He laughed. 'You cannot,' he answered. 'The net is round you, M. de Marsac, and there are those at every gate who know you and have their instructions. I can destroy you, but I would fain have your information, and for that I will pay you five hundred crowns and let you go.'

'To fall into the hands of the King of Navarre?'

'He will disown you, in any case,' he answered eagerly. 'He had that in his mind, my friend, when he selected an agent so obscure. He will disown you. Ah, mon Dieu! had I been an hour quicker I had caught Rosny--Rosny himself!'

'There is one thing lacking still,' I replied. 'How am I to be sure that, when I have told you what I know, you will pay me the money or let me go?'

'I will swear to it!' he answered earnestly, deceived into thinking I was about to surrender. 'I will give you my oath, M. de Marsac!'

'I would as soon have your shoe-lace!' I exclaimed, the indignation I could not entirely repress finding vent in that phrase. 'A Churchman's vow is worth a candle--or a candle and a half, is it?' I continued ironically. 'I must have some security a great deal more substantial than that, father.'

'What?' he asked, looking at me gloomily.

Seeing an opening, I cudgelled my brains to think of any condition which, being fulfilled, might turn the table on him and place him in my power. But his position was so strong, or my wits so weak, that nothing occurred to me at the time, and I sat looking at, him, my mind gradually passing from the possibility of escape to the actual danger in which I stood, and which encompassed also Simon Fleix, and, in a degree, doubtless, M. de Rambouillet. In four or five days, too, Mademoiselle de la Vire would arrive. I wondered if I could send any warning to her; and then, again, I doubted the wisdom of interfering with M. de Rosny's plans, the more as Maignan, who had gone to fetch mademoiselle, was of a kind to disregard any orders save his master's.

'Well!' said the monk, impatiently recalling me to myself, 'what security do you want?'

'I am not quite sure at this moment,' I made answer slowly. 'I am in a difficult position. I must have some time to consider.'

'And to rid yourself of me, if it be possible,' he said with irony. 'I quite understand. But I warn you that you are watched; and that wherever you go and whatever you do, eyes which are mine are upon you.'

'I, too, understand,' I said coolly.

He stood awhile uncertain, regarding me with mingled doubt and malevolence, tortured on the one hand by fear of losing the prize if he granted delay, on the other of failing as utterly if he exerted his power and did not succeed in subduing my resolution. I watched him, too, and gauging his eagerness and the value of the stake for which he was striving by the strength of his emotions, drew small comfort from the sight. More than once it had occurred to me, and now it occurred to me again, to extricate myself by a blow. But a natural reluctance to strike an unarmed man, however vile and knavish, and the belief that he had not trusted himself in my power without taking the fullest precautions, withheld me. When he grudgingly, and with many dark threats, proposed to wait three days--and not an hour more--for my answer, I accepted; for I saw no other alternative open. And on these terms, but not without some short discussion, we parted, and I heard his stealthy footstep go sneaking down the stairs.