A Gentleman of France by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter XIX. Men Call it Chance.
If I were telling more than the truth, or had it in my mind to embellish my adventures, I could, doubtless, by the exercise of a little ingenuity make it appear that I owed my escape from Father Antoine's meshes to my own craft; and tell, in fine, as pretty a story of plots and counterplots as M. de Brantome has ever woven. Having no desire, however, to magnify myself and, at this time of day, scarcely any reason, I am fain to confess that the reverse was the case; and that while no man ever did less to free himself than I did, my adversary retained his grasp to the end, and had surely, but for a strange interposition, effected my ruin. How relief came, and from what quarter, I might defy the most ingenious person, after reading my memoirs to this point, to say; and this not so much by reason of any subtle device, as because the hand of Providence was for once directly manifest.
The three days of grace which the priest had granted I passed in anxious but futile search for some means of escape, every plan I conceived dying stillborn, and not the least of my miseries lying in the fact that I could discern no better course than still to sit and think, and seemed doomed to perpetual inaction. M. de Rambouillet being a strict Catholic, though in all other respects a patriotic man, I knew better than to have recourse to him; and the priest's influence over M. d'Agen I had myself witnessed. For similar reasons I rejected the idea of applying to the king; and this exhausting the list of those on whom I had any claim, I found myself thrown on my own resources, which seemed limited--my wits failing me at this pinch--to my sword and Simon Fleix.
Assured that I must break out of Blois if I would save not myself only, but others more precious because entrusted to my charge, I thought it no disgrace to appeal to Simon; describing in a lively fashion the danger which threatened us, and inciting the lad by every argument which I thought likely to have weight with him to devise some way of escape.
Now is the time, my friend,' I said, 'to show your wits, and prove that M. de Rosny, who said you had a cunning above the ordinary, was right. If your brain can ever save your head, now is the time! For I tell you plainly, if you cannot find some way to outmanoeuvre this villain before to-morrow, I am spent. You can judge for yourself what chance you will have of going free.'
I paused at that, waiting for him to make some suggestion. To my chagrin he remained silent, leaning his head on his hand, and studying the table with his eyes in a sullen fashion; so that I began to regret the condescension I had evinced in letting him be seated, and found it necessary to remind him that he had taken service with me, and must do my bidding.
'Well,' he said morosely, and without looking up, 'I am ready to do it. But I do not like priests, and this one least of all. I know him, and I will not meddle with him.'
'You will not meddle with him?' I cried, almost beside myself with dismay.
'No, I won't,' he replied, retaining his listless attitude. 'I know him, and I am afraid of him. I am no match for him.'
'Then M. de Rosny was wrong, was he?' I said, giving way to my anger.
'If it please you,' he answered pertly.
This was too much for me. My riding-switch lay handy, and I snatched it up. Before he knew what I would be at, I fell upon him, and gave him such a sound wholesome drubbing as speedily brought him to his senses. When he cried for mercy--which he did not for a good space, being still possessed by the peevish devil which had ridden him ever since his departure from Rosny--I put it to him again whether M. de Rosny was not right. When he at last admitted this, but not till then, I threw the whip away and let him go, but did not cease to reproach him as he deserved.
'Did you think,' I said, 'that I was going to be ruined because you would not use your lazy brains? That I was going to sit still, and let you sulk, while mademoiselle walked blindfold into the toils? Not at all, my friend!'
'Mademoiselle!' he exclaimed, looking at me with a, sudden change of countenance, end ceasing to rub himself and scowl, as he had been doing. 'She is not here, and is in no danger.'
'She will be here to-morrow, or the next day,' I said.
You did not tell me that!' he replied, his eyes glittering. 'Does Father Antoine know it?'
'He will know it the moment she enters the town,' I answered.
Noting the change which the introduction of mademoiselle's name into the affair had wrought in him, I felt something like humiliation. But at the moment I had no choice; it was my business to use such instruments as came to my hand, and not, mademoiselle's safety being at stake, to pick and choose too nicely. In a few minutes our positions were reversed. The lad had grown as hot as I cold, as keenly excited as I critical. When he presently came to a stand in front of me, I saw a strange likeness between his face and the priest's; nor was I astonished when he presently made just such a proposal as I should have expected from Father Antoine himself.
'There is only one thing for it,' he muttered, trembling all over. 'He must be got rid of!'
'Fine talking!' I said, contemptuously. 'If he were a soldier he might be brought to it. But he is a priest, my friend, and does not fight.'
'Fight? Who wants him to fight?' the lad answered, his face dark, his hands moving restlessly. 'It is the easier done. A blow in the back, and he will trouble us no more.'
'Who is to strike it?' I asked drily.
Simon trembled and hesitated; but presently, heaving a deep sigh, he said, 'I will.'
'It might not be difficult,' I muttered, thinking it over.
'It would be easy,' he answered under his breath. His eyes shone, his lips were white, and his long dark hair hung wet over his forehead.
I reflected, and the longer I did so the more feasible seemed the suggestion. A single word, and I might sweep from my path the man whose existence threatened mine; who would not meet me fairly, but, working against me darkly and treacherously, deserved no better treatment at my hands than that which a detected spy receives. He had wronged my mother; he would fain destroy my friends!
And, doubtless, I shall be blamed by some and ridiculed by more for indulging in scruples at such a time. But I have all my life long been prejudiced against that form of underhand violence which I have heard old men contend came into fashion in our country in modern times, and which certainly seems to be alien from the French character. Without judging others too harshly, or saying that the poniard is never excusable--for then might some wrongs done to women and the helpless go without remedy--I have set my face against its use as unworthy of a soldier. At the time, moreover, of which I am now writing the extent to which our enemies had lately resorted to it tended to fix this feeling with peculiar firmness in my mind; and, but for the very desperate dilemma in which I stood at the moment--and not I alone--I do not think that I should have entertained Simon's proposal for a minute.
As it was, I presently answered him in a way which left him in no doubt of my sentiments. 'Simon, my friend,' I said--and I remember I was a little moved--'you have something still to learn, both as a soldier and a Huguenot. Neither the one nor the other strikes at the back.'
'But if he will not fight?' the lad retorted rebelliously. 'What then?'
It was so clear that our adversary gained an unfair advantage in this way that I could not answer the question. I let it pass, therefore, and merely repeating my former injunction, bade Simon think out another way.
He promised reluctantly to do so, and, after spending some moments in thought, went out to learn whether the house was being watched.
When he returned, his countenance wore so new an expression that I saw at once that something had happened. He did not meet my eye, however, and did not explain, but made as if he would go out again, with something of confusion in his manner. Before finally disappearing, however, he seemed to change his mind once more; for, marching up to me where I stood eyeing him with the utmost astonishment, he stopped before me, and suddenly drawing out his hand, thrust something into mine.
'What is it, man?' I said mechanically.
'Look!' he answered rudely, breaking silence for the first time. 'You should know. Why ask me? What have I to do with it?'
I looked then, and saw that he had given me a knot of velvet precisely similar is shape, size, and material to that well- remembered one which had aided me so opportunely in my search for mademoiselle. This differed from that a little in colour, but in nothing else, the fashion of the bow being the same, and one lappet hearing the initials 'C. d. l. V.,' while the other had the words, 'A moi.' I gazed at it in wonder. 'But, Simon,' I said, 'what does it mean? Where did you get it?'
'Where should I get it?' he answered jealously. Then, seeming to recollect himself, he changed his tone. 'A woman gave it to me in the street,' he said.
I asked him what woman.
'How should I know?' he answered, his eyes gleaming with anger. 'It was a woman in a mask.'
'Was it Fanchette?' I said sternly.
'It might have been. I do not know,' he responded.
I concluded at first that mademoiselle and her escort had arrived in the outskirts of the city, and that Maignan had justified his reputation for discretion by sending in to learn from me whether the way was clear before he entered. In this notion I was partly confirmed and partly shaken by the accompanying message; which Simon, from whom every scrap of information had to be dragged as blood from a stone, presently delivered.
'You are to meet the sender half an hour after sunset to-morrow evening,' he said, 'on the Parvis at the north-east corner of the cathedral.'
'Yes, when else?' the lad answered ungraciously. 'I said to- morrow evening.'
I thought this strange. I could understand why Maignan should prefer to keep his charge outside the walls until he heard from me, but not why he should postpone a meeting so long. The message, too, seemed unnecessarily meagre, and I began to think Simon was still withholding something.
'Was that all?' I asked him.
'Yes, all,' he answered, 'except--'
'Except what?' I said sternly.
'Except that the woman showed me the gold token Mademoiselle de la Vire used to carry,' he answered reluctantly, 'and said, if you wanted further assurance that would satisfy you.'
'Did you see the coin?' I cried eagerly.
'To be sure,' he answered.
'Then, mon dieu!' I retorted, 'either you are deceiving me, or the woman you saw deceived you. For mademoiselle has not got the token! I have it here, in my possession! Now, do you still say yon saw it, man?'
'I saw one like it,' he answered, trembling, his face damp. 'That I will swear. And the woman told me what I have told you. And no more.'
'Then it is clear,' I answered, 'that mademoiselle has nothing to do with this, and is doubtless many a league away. This is one of M. de Bruhl's tricks. Fresnoy gave him the token he stole from me. And I told him the story of the velvet knot myself. This is a trap; and had I fallen into it, and gone to the Parvis to-morrow evening, I had never kept another assignation, my lad.'
Simon looked thoughtful. Presently he said, with a crestfallen air, 'You were to go alone. The woman said that.'
Though I knew well why he had suppressed this item, I forbore to blame him. 'What was the woman like?' I said.
'She had very much of Franchette's figure,' he answered. He could not go beyond that. Blinded by the idea that the woman was mademoiselle's attendant, and no one else, he had taken little heed of her, and could not even say for certain that she was not a man in woman's clothes.
I thought the matter over and discussed it with him; and was heartily minded to punish M. de Bruhl, if I could discover a way of turning his treacherous plot against himself. But the lack of any precise knowledge of his plans prevented me stirring in the matter; the more as I felt no certainty that I should be master of my actions when the time came.
Strange to say the discovery of this movement on the part of Bruhl, who had sedulously kept himself in the background since the scene in the king's presence, far from increasing my anxieties, had the effect of administering a fillip to my spirits; which the cold and unyielding pressure of the Jacobin had reduced to a low point. Here was something I could understand, resist, and guard against. The feeling that I had once more to do with a man of like aims and passions with myself quickly restored me to the use of my faculties; as I have heard that a swordsman opposed to the powers of evil regains his vigour on finding himself engaged with a mortal foe. Though I knew that the hours of grace were fast running to a close, and that on the morrow the priest would call for an answer, I experienced that evening an, unreasonable lightness and cheerfulness. I retired to rest with confidence, and slept is comfort, supported in part, perhaps, by the assurance that in that room where my mother died her persecutor could have no power to harm me.
Upon Simon Fleix, on the other hand, the discovery that Bruhl was moving, and that consequently peril threatened us from a new quarter, had a different effect. He fell into a state of extreme excitement, and spent the evening and a great part of the night in walking restlessly up and down the room, wrestling with the fears and anxieties which beset us, and now talking fast to himself, now biting his nails in an agony of impatience. In vain I adjured him not to meet troubles halfway; or, pointing to the pallet which he occupied at the foot of my couch, bade him, if he could not devise a way of escape, at least to let the matter rest until morning. He had no power to obey, but, tortured by the vivid anticipations which it was his nature to entertain, he continued to ramble to and fro in a fever of the nerves, and had no sooner lain down than be was up again. Remembering, however, how well he had borne himself on the night of mademoiselle's escape from Blois, I refrained from calling him a coward; and contented myself instead with the reflection that nothing sits worse on a fighting-man than too much knowledge--except, perhaps, a lively imagination.
I thought it possible that mademoiselle might arrive next day before Father Antoine called to receive his answer. In this event I hoped to have the support of Maignan's experience. But the party did not arrive. I had to rely on myself and my own resources, and, this being so, determined to refuse the priest's offer, but in all other things to be guided by circumstances.
About noon he came, attended, as was his practice, by two friends, whom he left outside. He looked paler and more shadowy than before, I thought, his hands thinner, and his cheeks more transparent. I could draw no good augury, however, from these, signs of frailty, for the brightness of his eyes and the unusual elation of his manner told plainly of a spirit assured of the mastery. He entered the room with an air of confidence, and addressed me in a tone of patronage which left me in no doubt of his intentions; the frankness with which he now laid bare his plans going far to prove that already he considered me no better than his tool.
I did not at once undeceive him, but allowed him to proceed, and even to bring out the five hundred crowns which he had promised me, and the sight of which he doubtless supposed would clench the matter.
Seeing this he became still less reticent, and spoke so largely that I presently felt myself impelled to ask him if he would answer a question.
'That is as may be, M. de Marsac,' he answered lightly. 'You may ask it.'
'You hint at great schemes which you have in hand, father,' I said. 'You speak of France and Spain and Navarre, and kings and Leagues and cardinals! You talk of secret strings, and would have me believe that if I comply with your wishes I shall find you as powerful a patron as M. de Rosny. But--one moment, if you please,' I continued hastily, seeing that he was about to interrupt me with such eager assurances as I had already heard; 'tell me this. With so many irons in the fire, why did you interfere with one old gentlewoman--for the sake of a few crowns?"
'I will tell you even that,' he answered, his face flushing at my tone. 'Have you ever heard of an elephant? Yes. Well, it has a trunk, you know, with which it can either drag an oak from the earth or lift a groat from the ground. It is so with me. But again you ask,' he continued with an airy grimace, 'why I wanted a few crowns. Enough that I did. There are going to be two things in the world, and two only, M. de Marsac: brains and money. The former I have, and had: the latter I needed--and took.'
'Money and brains?' I said, looking at him thoughtfully.
'Yes,' he answered, his eyes sparkling, his thin nostrils beginning to dilate. 'Give me these two, and I will rule France!'
'You will rule France?' I exclaimed, amazed beyond measure by his audacity. 'You, man?'
'Yes, I,' he answered, with abominable coolness. 'I, priest, monk, Churchman, clerk. You look surprised, but mark you, sir, there is a change going on. Our time is coming, and yours is going. What hampers our lord the king and shuts him up in Blois, while rebellions stalk through France? Lack of men? No; but lack of money. Who can get the money for him--you the soldier, or I the clerk? A thousand times, I! Therefore, my time is coming, and before you die you will see a priest rule France.'
'God forbid it should be you,' I answered scornfully.
'As you please,' he answered, shrugging his shoulders, and assuming in a breath a mask of humility which sat as ill on his monstrous conceit as ever nun's veil on a trooper. 'Yet it may even be I; by the favour of the Holy Catholic Church, whose humble minister I am.'
I sprang up with a great oath at that, having no stomach for more of the strange transformations, in which this man delighted, and whereof the last had ever the air of being the most hateful. 'You villain!' I cried, twisting my moustaches, a habit I have when enraged. 'And so you would make me a stepping-stone to your greatness. You would bribe me--a soldier and a gentleman. Go, before I do you a mischief. That is all I have to say to you. Go! You have your answer. I will tell you nothing--not a jot or a tittle. Begone from my room!'
He fell back a step in his surprise, and stood against the table biting his nails and scowling at me, fear and chagrin contending with half a dozen devils for the possession of his face. 'So you have been deceiving me,' he said slowly, and at last.
'I have let you deceive yourself' I answered, looking at him with scorn, but with little of the fear with which he had for a while inspired me. 'Begone, and do your worst.'
'You know what you are doing,' he said. 'I have that will hang you, M. de Marsac--or worse.'
'Go!' I cried.
'You have thought of your friends,' he continued mockingly.
'Go!' I said.
'Of Mademoiselle de la Vire, if by any chance she fall into my hands? It will not be hanging for her. You remember the two Foucauds?'--and he laughed.
The vile threat, which I knew he had used to my mother, so worked upon me that I strode forward unable to control myself longer. In another moment I had certainly taken him by the throat and squeezed the life out of his miserable carcase, had not Providence in its goodness intervened to save me. The door, on which he had already laid his hand in terror, opened suddenly. It admitted Simon, who, closing it; behind him, stood looking from one to the other of us in nervous doubt; divided between that respect for the priest which a training at the Sorbonne had instilled into him, and the rage which despair arouses in the weakest.
His presence, while it checked me in my purpose, seemed to give Father Antoine courage, for the priest stood his ground, and even turned to me a second time, his face dark with spite and disappointment. 'Good,' he said hoarsely. 'Destroy yourself if you will! I advise you to bar your door, for in an hour the guards will be here to fetch you to the question.'
Simon cried out at the threat, so that I turned and looked at the lad. His knees were shaking, his hair stood on end.
The priest saw his terror and his own opportunity. 'Ay, in an hour,' he continued slowly, looking at him with cruel eyes. 'In an hour, lad! You must be fond of pain to court it, and out of humour with life to throw it away. Or stay,' he continued abruptly, after considering Simon's narrowly for a moment, and doubtless deducing from it a last hope, 'I will be merciful. I will give you one more chance.'
'And yourself?' I said with a sneer.
'As you please,' he answered, declining to be diverted from the trembling lad, whom his gaze seemed to fascinate. 'I will give you until half an hour after sunset this evening to reconsider the matter. If you make up your minds to accept my terms, meet me then. I leave to-night for Paris, and I will give you until the last moment. But,' he continued grimly, 'if you do not meet me, or, meeting me, remain obstinate--God do so to me, and more also, if you see the sun rise thrice.'
Some impulse, I know not what, seeing that I had no thought of accepting his terms or meeting him, led me to ask briefly, 'Where?'
'On the Parvis of the Cathedral,' he answered after a moment's calculation. 'At the north-east corner, half an hour after sunset. It is a quiet spot.'
Simon uttered a stifled exclamation. And then for a moment there was silence in the room, while the lad breathed hard and irregularly, and I stood rooted to the spot, looking so long and so strangely at the priest that Father Antoine laid his hand again on the door and glanced uneasily behind him. Nor was he content until he had hit on, as he fancied, the cause of my strange regard.
'Ha!' he said, his thin lip curling in conceit at his astuteness, 'I understand you think to kill me to-night? Let me tell you, this house is watched. If you leave here to meet me with any companion--unless it be M. d'Agen, whom I can trust, I shall be warned, and be gone before you reach the rendezvous. And gone, mind you,' he added, with a grim smile, 'to sign your death-warrant.'
He went out with that, closing the door behind him; and we heard his step go softly down the staircase. I gazed at Simon, and he at me, with all the astonishment and awe which it was natural we should feel in presence of so remarkable a coincidence.
For by a marvel the priest had named the same spot and the same time as the sender of the velvet knot!
'He will go,' Simon said, his face flushed and his voice trembling, 'and they will go.'
'And in the dark they will not know him,' I muttered. 'He is about my height. They will take him for me!'
'And kill him!' Simon cried hysterically. 'They will kill him! He goes to his death, monsieur. It is the finger of God.'