Chapter XXII. 'La Femme Dispose.'
 

The moment the equerry's foot touched the uppermost stair I advanced upon him. 'Where is your mistress, man?' I said. 'Where is Mademoiselle de la Vire? Be quick, tell me what you have done with her.'

His face fell amazingly. 'Where is she?' he answered, faltering between surprise and alarm at my sudden onslaught. 'Here, she should be. I left her here not an hour ago. Mon Dieu! Is she not here now?'

His alarm increased mine tenfold. 'No!' I retorted, 'she is not! She is gone! And you--what business had you, in the fiend's name, to leave her here, alone and unprotected? Tell me that!'

He leaned against the balustrade, making no attempt to defend himself, and seemed, in his sudden terror, anything but the bold, alert fellow who had ascended the stairs two minutes before. 'I was a fool,' he groaned. 'I saw your man Simon here; and Fanchette, who is as good as a man, was with her mistress. And I went to stable the horses. I thought no evil. And now--My God!' he added, suddenly straightening himself, while his face. grew hard and grim, 'I am undone! My master will never forgive me!'

'Did you come straight here?' I said, considering that, after all, he was no more in fault than I had been on a former occasion.

'We went first to M. de Rosny's lodging,' he answered, 'where we found your message telling us to come here. We came on without dismounting.'

'Mademoiselle may have gone back, and be there,' I said. 'It is possible. Do you stay here and keep a good look-out, and I will go and see. Let one of your men come with me.'

He uttered a brief assent; being a man as ready to take as to give orders, and thankful now for any suggestion which held out a hope of mademoiselle's safety. Followed by the servant he selected, I ran down the stairs, and in a moment was hurrying along the Rue St. Denys. The day was waning. The narrow streets and alleys were already dark, but the air of excitement which I had noticed in the morning still marked the townsfolk, of whom a great number were strolling abroad, or standing in doorways talking to their gossips. Feverishly anxious as I was, I remarked the gloom which dwelt on all faces; but as I set it down. to the king's approaching departure, and besides was intent on seeing that those we sought did not by any chance pass us in the crowd, I thought little of it. Five minutes' walking brought us to M. de Rosny's lodging. There I knocked at the door; impatiently, I confess, and with little hope of success. But, to my surprise, barely an instant elapsed before the door opened, and I saw before me Simon Fleix!

Discovering who it was, he cowered back, with a terrified face, and retreated to the wall with his arm raised.

'You scoundrel!' I exclaimed, restraining myself with difficulty. 'Tell me this moment where Mademoiselle de la Vire is! Or, by Heaven, I shall forget what my mother owed to you, and do you a mischief!'

For an instant he glared at me viciously, with all his teeth exposed, as though he meant to refuse--and more. Then he thought better of it, and, raising his hand, pointed sulkily upwards.

'Go before me and knock at the door,' I said, tapping the hilt of my dagger with meaning.

Cowed by my manner, he obeyed, and led the way to the room in which M. de Rambouillet had surprised us on a former occasion. Here he stopped at the door and knocked gently; on which a sharp voice inside bade us enter. I raised the latch and did so, closing the door behind me.

Mademoiselle, still wearing her riding-coat, sat in a chair before the hearth, on which a newly kindled fire sputtered and smoked. She had her back to me, and did not turn on my entrance, but continued to toy in an absent manner with the strings of the mask which lay in her lap. Fanchette stood bolt upright behind her, with her elbows squared and her hands clasped; in such an attitude that I guessed the maid had been expressing her strong dissatisfaction with this latest whim of her mistress, and particularly with mademoiselle's imprudence in wantonly exposing herself, with so inadequate a guard as Simon, in a place where she had already suffered so much. I was confirmed in this notion on seeing the woman's harsh countenance clear at sight of me; though the churlish nod, which was all the greeting she bestowed on me, seemed to betoken anything but favour or good-will. She touched her mistress on the shoulder, however, and said, 'M. de Marsac is here.'

Mademoiselle turned her head and looked at me languidly, without stirring in her chair or removing the foot she, was warming. 'Good evening,' she said.

The greeting seemed so brief and so commonplace, ignoring, as it did, both the pains and anxiety to which she had just put me and the great purpose for which we were here--to say nothing of that ambiguous parting which she must surely remember as well as I-- that the words I had prepared died on my lips, and I looked at her in honest confusion. All her small face was pale except her lips. Her brow was dark, her eyes were hard as well as weary. And not words only failed me as I looked at her, but anger; having mounted the stairs hot foot to chide, I felt on a sudden --despite my new cloak and scabbard, my appointment, and the same I had made at Court--the same consciousness of age; and shabbiness and poverty which had possessed me in her presence from the beginning. I muttered, 'Good evening, mademoiselle,' and that was all I could say--I who had frightened the burly Maignan a few minutes before!

Seeing, I have no doubt, the effect she produced on me, she maintained for some time an embarrassing silence. At length she said, frigidly, 'Perhaps M. de Marsac will sit, Fanchette. Place a chair for him. I am afraid, however, that after his successes at Court he may find our reception somewhat cold. But we are only from the country,' she added, looking at me askance, with a gleam of anger in her eyes.

I thanked her huskily, saying that I would not sit, as I could not stay. 'Simon Fleix,' I continued, finding my voice with difficulty, 'has, I am afraid, caused you some trouble by bringing you to this house instead of telling you that I had made preparation for you at my lodgings.'

'It was not Simon Fleix's fault,' she replied curtly. 'I prefer these rooms. They are more convenient.'

'They are, perhaps, more convenient,' I rejoined humbly, 'But I have to think of safety, mademoiselle, as you know. At my house I have a competent guard, and can answer for your being unmolested.'

'You can send your guard here,' she said with a royal air.

'But, mademoiselle--'

'Is it not enough that I have said that I prefer these rooms?' she replied sharply, dropping her mask on her lap and looking round at me in undisguised displeasure. 'Are you deaf, sir? Let me tell you, I am in no mood for argument. I am tired with riding. I prefer these rooms, and that is enough!'

Nothing could exceed the determination with which she said these words, unless it were the malicious pleasure in thwarting my wishes which made itself seen through the veil of assumed indifference. I felt myself brought up with a vengeance, and in a manner the most provoking that could be conceived. But opposition so childish, so utterly wanton, by exciting my indignation, had presently the effect of banishing the peculiar bashfulness I felt in her presence, and recalling me to my duty.

'Mademoiselle,' I said firmly, looking at her with a fixed countenance, 'pardon me if I speak plainly. This is no time for playing with straws. The men from whom you escaped once are as determined and more desperate now. By this time they probably know of your arrival. Do, then, as I ask, I pray and beseech you. Or this time I may lack the power, though never the will, to save you.'

Wholly ignoring my appeal, she looked into my face--for by this time I had advanced to her side--with a whimsical smile. 'You are really much improved in manner since I last saw you,' she said.

'Mademoiselle!' I replied, baffled and repelled. 'What do you mean?'

'What I say,' she answered, flippantly. 'But it was to be expected.'

'For shame!' I cried, provoked almost beyond bearing by her ill- timed raillery, 'will you never be serious until you have ruined us and yourself? I tell you this house is not safe for you! It is not safe for me! I cannot bring my men to it, for there is not room for them. If you have any spark of consideration, of gratitude, therefore--'

'Gratitude!' she exclaimed, swinging her mask slowly to and fro by a ribbon, while she looked up at me as though my excitement amused her. 'Gratitude--'tis a very pretty phrase, and means much; but it is for those who serve us faithfully, M. de Marsac, and not for others. You receive so many favours, I am told, and are so successful at Court, that I should not be justified in monopolising your services.'

'But, mademoiselle--' I said in a low tone. And there I stopped. I dared not proceed.

'Well, sir,' she answered, looking up at she after a moment's silence, and ceasing on a sudden to play with her toy, 'what is it?'

'You spoke of favours,' I continued, with an effort. 'I never received but one from a lady. That was at Rosny, and from your hand.'

'From my hand?' she answered, with an air of cold surprise.

'It was so, mademoiselle.'

'You have fallen into some strange mistake, sir,' she replied, rousing herself, and looking at me indifferently 'I never gave you a favour.'

I bowed low. 'If you say you did not, mademoiselle, that is enough,' I answered.

'Nay, but do not let me do you an injustice, M. de Marsac,' she rejoined, speaking more quickly and in an altered tone. 'If you can show me the favour I gave you, I shall, of course, be convinced. Seeing is believing, you know,' she added, with a light nervous laugh, and a gesture of something like shyness.

If I had not sufficiently regretted my carelessness, and loss of the bow at the time, I did so now. I looked at her in silence, and saw her face, that had for a moment shown signs of feeling, almost of shame, grow slowly hard again.

'Well, sir?' she said impatiently. 'The proof is easy.'

'It was taken from me; I believe, by M. de Rosny,' I answered lamely, wondering what ill-luck had led her to put the question and press it to this point.

'It was taken from you!' she exclaimed, rising and confronting me with the utmost suddenness, while her eyes flashed, and her little hand crumpled the mask beyond future usefulness. 'It was taken from you, sir!' she repeated, her voice and her whole frame trembling with anger and disdain. 'Then I thank you, I prefer my version. Yours is impossible. For let me tell you, when Mademoiselle de la Vire does confer a favour, it will be on a man with the power and the wit--and the constancy, to keep it, even from M. de Rosny!'

Her scorn hurt, though it did not anger me. I felt it to be in a measure deserved, and raged against myself rather than against her. But aware through all of the supreme importance of placing her in safety, I subjected my immediate feelings to the exigencies of the moment and stooped to an argument which would, I thought, have weight though private pleading failed.

'Putting myself aside, mademoiselle,' I said, with more formality than I had yet used, 'there is one consideration which must weigh with you. The king--'

'The king!' she cried, interrupting me violently, her face hot with passion and her whole person instinct with stubborn self- will. 'I shall not see the king!'

'You will not see the king?' I repeated in amazement.

'No, I will not!' she answered, in a whirl of anger, scorn, and impetuosity. 'There! I will not! I have been made a toy and a tool long enough, M. de Marsac,' she continued, 'and I will serve others' ends no more. I have made up my mind. Do not talk to me; you will do no good, sir. I would to Heaven,' she added bitterly, 'I had stayed at Chize and never seen this place!'

'But, mademoiselle,' I said, 'you have not thought--'

'Thought!' she exclaimed, shutting her small white teeth so viciously I all but recoiled. 'I have thought enough. I am sick of thought. I am going to act now. I will be a puppet no longer. You may take me to the castle by force if you will; but you cannot make me speak.'

I looked at her in the utmost dismay, and astonishment; being unable at first to believe that a woman who had gone through so much, had run so many risks, and ridden so many miles for a purpose, would, when all was done and the hour come, decline to carry out her plan. I could not believe it, I say, at first; and I tried arguments, and entreaties without stint, thinking that she only asked to be entreated or coaxed.

But I found prayers and even threats breath wasted upon her; and beyond these I would not go. I know I have been blamed by some and ridiculed by others for not pushing the matter farther; but those who have stood face to face with a woman of spirit--a woman whose very frailty and weakness fought for her--will better understand the difficulties with which I had to contend and the manner in which conviction was at last borne in on my mind. I had never before confronted stubbornness of this kind. As mademoiselle said again and again, I might force her to Court, but I could not make her speak.

When I had tried every means of persuasion, and still found no way of overcoming her resolution the while Fanchette looked on with a face of wood, neither aiding me nor taking part against me--I lost, I confess, in the chagrin of the moment that sense of duty which had hitherto animated me; and though my relation to mademoiselle should have made me as careful as ever of her safety, even in her own despite, I left her at last in anger and went out without saying another word about removing her--a thing which was still in my power. I believe a very brief reflection would have recalled me to myself and my duty; but the opportunity was not given me, for I had scarcely reached the head of the stairs before Fanchette came after me, and called to me in a whisper to stop.

She held a taper in her hand, and this she raised to my face, smiling at the disorder which she doubtless read there. 'Do you say that this house is not safe?' she asked abruptly, lowering the light as she spoke.

'You have tried a house in Blois before?' I replied with the same bluntness. 'You should know as well as I, woman.'

'She must be taken from here, then,' she answered, nodding her head, cunningly. 'I can persuade her. Do you send for your people, and be here in half an hour. It may take me that time to wheedle her. But I shall do it.'

'Then listen,' I said eagerly, seizing the opportunity and her sleeve and drawing her farther from the door. 'If you can persuade her to that, you can persuade to all I wish. Listen, my friend,' I continued, sinking my voice still lower. 'If she will see the king for only ten minutes, and tell him what she knows, I will give you--'

'What?' the woman asked suddenly and harshly, drawing at the same time her sleeve from my hand.

'Fifty crowns,' I replied, naming in my desperation a sum which would seem a fortune to a person in her position. 'Fifty crowns down, the moment the interview is over.'

'And for that you would have me sell her!' the woman cried with a rude intensity of passion which struck me like a blow. 'For shame! For shame, man! You persuaded her to leave her home and her friends, and the country where she was known; and now you would have me sell her! Shame on you! Go!' she added scornfully. 'Go this instant and get your men. The king, say you? The king! I tell you I would not have her finger ache to save all your kings!'

She flounced away with that, and I retired crestfallen; wondering much at the fidelity which Providence, doubtless for the well- being of the gentle, possibly for the good of all, has implanted in the humble. Finding Simon, to whom I had scarce patience to speak, waiting on the stairs below, I despatched him to Maignan, to bid him come to me with his men. Meanwhile I watched the house myself until their arrival, and then, going up, found that Fanchette had been as good as her word. Mademoiselle, with a sullen mien, and a red spot on either cheek, consented to descend, and, preceded by a couple of links, which Maignan had thoughtfully provided, was escorted safely to my lodgings; where I bestowed her in the rooms below my own, which I had designed for her.

At the door she turned and bowed to me, her face on fire.

'So far, sir, you have got your way,' she said, breathing quickly. 'Do not flatter yourself, however, that you will get it farther--even by bribing my woman!'