Chapter XXIV. A Royal Peril.
 

The elation with which I had heard the king announce his resolution quickly diminished on cooler reflection. It stood in particular at a very low ebb as I waited, an hour later, at the little north postern of the Castle, and, cowering within the shelter of the arch to escape the wind, debated whether his Majesty's energy would sustain him to the point of action, or whether he might not, in one of those fits of treacherous vacillation which had again and again marred his plans, send those to keep the appointment who would give a final account of me. The longer I considered his character the more dubious I grew. The loneliness of the situation, the darkness, the black front, unbroken by any glimmer of light, which the Castle presented on this side, and the unusual and gloomy stillness which lay upon the town, all contributed to increase my uneasiness. It was with apprehension as well as relief that I caught at last the sound of footsteps on the stone staircase, and, standing a little to one side, saw a streak of light appear at the foot of the door.

On the latter being partially opened a voice cried my name. I advanced with caution and showed myself. A brief conversation ensued between two or three persons who stood within; but in the end, a masked figure, which I had no difficulty in identifying as the king, stepped briskly out.

'You are armed?' he said, pausing a second opposite me.

I put back my cloak and showed him, by the light which streamed from the doorway, that I carried pistols as well as a sword.

'Good!' he answered briefly; 'then let us go. Do you walk on my left hand, my friend. It is a dark night, is it not?'

'Very dark, sire,' I said.

He made no answer to this, and we started, proceeding with caution until we had crossed the narrow bridge, and then with greater freedom and at a better pace. The slenderness of the attendance at Court that evening, and the cold wind, which swept even the narrowest streets and drove roisterers indoors, rendered it unlikely that we should be stopped or molested by any except professed thieves; and for these I was prepared. The king showed no inclination to talk; and keeping silence myself out of respect, I had time to calculate the chances and to consider whether his Majesty would succeed where I had failed.

This calculation, which was not inconsistent with the keenest watchfulness on my part whenever we turned a corner or passed the mouth of an alley, was brought to an end by our safe arrival at the house. Briefly apologising to the king for the meanness and darkness of the staircase, I begged leave to precede him, and rapidly mounted until I met Maignan. Whispering to him that all was well, I did not wait to hear his answer, but, bidding him be on the watch, I led the king on with as much deference as was possible until we stood. at the door of mademoiselle's apartment, which I have elsewhere stated to consist of an outer and inner room. The door was opened by Simon Fleix, and him I promptly sent out. Then, standing aside and uncovering, I begged the king to enter.

He did so, still wearing his hat and mask, and I followed and secured the door. A lamp hanging from the ceiling diffused an imperfect light through the room, which was smaller but more comfortable in appearance than that which I rented overhead. I observed that Fanchette, whose harsh countenance looked more forbidding than usual, occupied a stool which she had set in a strange fashion against the Inner door; but I thought no more of this at the moment, my attention passing quickly to mademoiselle, who sat crouching before the fire, enveloped in a large outdoor cloak, as if she felt the cold. Her back was towards us, and she was, or pretended to be, still ignorant of our presence. With a muttered word I pointed her out to the king, and went towards her with him.

'Mademoiselle, I said in a low voice, 'Mademoiselle de la Vire! I have the honour--'

She would not turn, and I stopped. Clearly she heard, but she betrayed that she did so only by drawing her cloak more closely round her. Primed by my respect for the king, I touched her lightly on tile shoulder. 'Mademoiselle!' I said impatiently, 'you are not aware of it, but--'

She shook herself free from my hand with so rude a gesture that I broke off, and stood gazing foolishly at her. The king smiled, and nodding to me to step back a pace, took the task on himself. 'Mademoiselle,' he said with dignity, 'I am not accustomed--'

His voice had a magical effect. Before he could add another word she sprang up as if she had been struck, and faced us, a cry of alarm on her lips. Simultaneously we both cried out too, for it was not mademoiselle at all. The woman who confronted us, her hand on her mask, her eyes glittering through the slits, was of a taller and fuller figure. We stared at her. Then a lock of bright golden hair which had escaped from the hood of her cloak gave us the clue. 'Madame!' the king cried.

'Madame de Bruhl!' I echoed, my astonishment greater than his.

Seeing herself known, she began with trembling fingers to undo the fastenings of her mask; but the king, who had hitherto displayed a trustfulness I had not expected in him, had taken alarm at sight of her, as at a thing unlooked for, and of which I had not warned him. 'How is this?' he said harshly, drawing back a pace from her and regarding me with anger and distrust. 'Is this some pretty arrangement of yours, sir? Am I an intruder at an assignation, or is this a trap with M. de Bruhl in the background? Answer, sirrah!' he continued, working himself rapidly into a passion. 'Which am I to understand is the case?'

'Neither, sire,' I answered with as much dignity as I could assume, utterly surprised and mystified as I was by Madame's presence. 'Your Majesty wrongs Madame de Bruhl as much by the one suspicion as you injure me by the other. I am equally in the dark with you, sire, and as little expected to see madame here.'

'I came, sire,' she said proudly, addressing herself to the king, and ignoring me, 'out of no love to M. de Marsac, but as any person bearing a message to him might come. Nor can you, sire,' she added with spirit, 'feel half as much surprise at seeing me here, as I at seeing your Majesty.'

'I can believe that,' the king answered drily. 'I would you had not seen me.'

'The King of France is seen only when he chooses,' she replied, curtseying to the ground.

'Good,' he answered. 'Let it be so, and you will oblige the King of France, madame. But enough,' he continued, turning from her to me; 'since this is not the lady I came to see, M. de Marsac, where is she?'

'In the inner room, sire, I opine,' I said, advancing to Fanchette with more misgiving at heart than my manner evinced. 'Your mistress is here, is she not?' I continued, addressing the woman sharply.

'Ay, and will not come out,' she rejoined, sturdily keeping her place.

'Nonsense!' I said. 'Tell her--'

'You may tell her what you please,' she replied, refusing to budge an inch. 'She can hear.'

'But, woman!' I cried impatiently, 'you do not understand. I must speak with her. I must speak with her at once! On business of the highest importance.'

'As you please,' she said rudely, still keeping her seat. 'I have told you you can speak.'

Perhaps I felt as foolish on this occasion as ever in my life; and surely never was man placed in a more ridiculous position. After overcoming numberless obstacles, and escaping as many perils, I had brought the king here, a feat beyond my highest hopes--only to be baffled and defeated by a waiting-woman! I stood irresolute; witless and confused; while the king waited half angry and half amused, and madame kept her place by the entrance, to which she had retreated.

I was delivered from my dilemma by the curiosity which is, providentially perhaps, a part of woman's character, and which led mademoiselle to interfere herself. Keenly on the watch inside, she had heard part of what passed between us, and been rendered inquisitive by the sound of a strange man's voice, and by the deference which she could discern I paid to the visitor. At this moment, she cried out, accordingly, to know who was there; and Fanchette, seeming to take this as a command, rose and dragged her stool aside, saying peevishly and without any increase of respect, 'There, I told you she could hear.'

'Who is it?' mademoiselle asked again, in a raised voice.

I was about to answer when the king signed to me to stand back, and, advancing himself, knocked gently on the door. 'Open, I pray you, mademoiselle,' he said courteously.

'Who is there?' she cried again, her voice trembling.

'It is I, the king,' he answered softly; but in that tone of majesty which belongs not to the man, but to the descendant, and seems to be the outcome of centuries of command.

She uttered an exclamation and slowly, and with seeming reluctance, turned the key in the lock. It grated, and the door opened. I caught a glimpse for an instant of her pale face and bright eyes, and then his Majesty, removing his hat, passed in and closed the door; and I withdrew to the farther end of the room, where madame continued to stand by the entrance.

I entertained a suspicion, I remember, and not unnaturally, that she had come to my lodging as her husband's spy; but her first words when I joined her dispelled this. 'Quick!' she said with an imperious gesture. 'Hear me and let me go! I have waited long enough for you, and suffered enough through you. As for that, woman in there, she is mad, and her servant too! Now, listen to me. You spoke to me honestly to-day, and I have come to repay you. You have an appointment with my husband to-morrow at Chaverny. Is it not so?' she added impatiently.

I replied that it was so.

'You are to go with one friend,' she went on, tearing the glove she had taken off, to strips in her excitement, 'He is to meet you with one also?'

'Yes,' I assented reluctantly, 'at the bridge, madame.'

'Then do not go,' she rejoined emphatically. 'Shame on me that I should betray my husband; but it were worse to send an innocent man to his death. He will meet you with one sword only, according to his challenge, but there will be those under the bridge who will make certain work. There, I have betrayed him now!' she continued bitterly. 'It is done. Let me go!'

'Nay, but, madame,' I said, feeling more concerned for her, on whom from the first moment of meeting her I had brought nothing but misfortune, than surprised by this new treachery on his part, 'will you not run some risk in returning to him? Is there nothing I can do for you--no step I can take for your protection?'

'None!' she said repellently and almost rudely, 'except to speed my going.'

'But you will not pass through the streets alone?'

She laughed so bitterly my heart ached for her. 'The unhappy are always safe,' she said.

Remembering how short a time it was since I had surprised her in the first happiness of wedded love, I felt for her all the pity it was natural I should feel. But the responsibility under which his Majesty's presence and the charge of mademoiselle laid me forbade me to indulge in the luxury of evincing my gratitude. Gladly would I have escorted her back to her home--even if I could not make that home again what it had been, or restore her husband to the pinnacle from which I had dashed him--but I dared not do this. I was forced to content myself with less, and was about to offer to send one of my men with her, when a hurried knocking at the outer door arrested the words on my lips.

Signing to her to stand still, I listened. The knocking was repeated, and grew each moment more urgent. There was a little grille, strongly wired, in the upper part of the door, and this I was about to open in order to learn what was amiss, when Simon's voice reached me from the farther side imploring me to open the door quickly. Doubting the lad's prudence, yet afraid to refuse lest I should lose some warning he had to give, I paused a second, and then undid the fastenings. The moment the door gave way he fell in bodily, crying out to me to bar it behind him. I caught a glimpse through the gap of a glare as of torches, and saw by this light half a dozen flushed faces in the act of rising above the edge of the landing. The men who owned them raised a shout of triumph at sight of me, and, clearing the upper steps at a bound, made a rush for the door. But in vain. We had just time to close it and drop the two stout bars. In a moment, in a second, the fierce outcry fell to a dull roar; and safe for the time, we had leisure to look in one another's faces and learn the different aspects of alarm. Madame was white to the lips, while Simon's eyes seemed starting from his head, and he shook in every limb with terror.

At first, on my asking him what it meant, he could not speak. But that would not do, and I was in the act of seizing him by the collar to force an answer from him when the inner door opened, and the king came out, his face wearing an air of so much cheerfulness as proved both his satisfaction with mademoiselle's story and his ignorance of all we were about. In a word he had not yet taken the least alarm; but seeing Simon in my hands, and madame leaning against the wall by the door like one deprived of life, he stood and cried out in surprise to know what it was.

'I fear we are besieged, sire,' I answered desperately, feeling my anxieties increased a hundredfold by his appearance--'but by whom I cannot say. This lad knows, however,' I continued, giving Simon, a vicious shake, 'and he shall speak. Now, trembler,' I said to him, 'tell your tale?'

'The Provost-Marshal!' he stammered, terrified afresh by the king's presence: for Henry had removed his mask. 'I was on guard below. I had come up a few steps to be out of the cold, when I heard them enter. There are a round score of them.'

I cried out a great oath, asking him why he had not gone up and warned Maignan, who with his men was now cut off from us in the rooms above. 'You fool!' I continued, almost beside myself with rage, 'if you had not come to this door they would have mounted to my rooms and beset them! What is this folly about the Provost-Marshal?'

'He is there,' Simon answered, cowering away from me, his face working.

I thought he was lying, and had merely fancied this in his fright. But the assailants at this moment began to hail blows on the door, calling on us to open, and using such volleys of threats as penetrated even the thickness of the oak; driving the blood from the women's cheeks, and arresting the king's step in a manner which did not escape me. Among their cries I could plainly distinguish the words, 'In the king's name!' which bore out Simon's statement.

At the moment I drew comfort from this; for if we had merely to deal with the law we had that on our side which was above it. And I speedily made up my mind what to do. 'I think the lad speaks the truth, sire,' I said coolly. 'This is only your Majesty's Provost-Marshal. The worst to be feared, therefore, is that he may learn your presence here before you would have it known. It should not be a matter of great difficulty, however, to bind him to silence, and if you will please to mask, I will open the grille and speak with him.'

The king, who had taken his stand in the middle of the room, and seemed dazed and confused by the suddenness of the alarm and the uproar, assented with a brief word. Accordingly I was preparing to open the grille when Madame de Bruhl seized my arm, and forcibly pushed me back from it.

'What would you do?' she cried, her face full of terror. 'Do you not hear? He is there.'

'Who is there?' I said, startled more by her manner than her words.

'Who?' she answered; 'who should be there? My husband! I hear his voice, I tell you! He has tracked me here! He has found me, and will kill me!'

'God forbid!' I said, doubting if she had really heard his voice. To make sure, I asked Simon if he had seen him; and my heart sank when I heard from him too that Bruhl was of the party. For the first time I became fully sensible of the danger which threatened us. For the first time, looking round the ill-lit room on the women's terrified faces, and the king's masked figure instinct with ill-repressed nervousness, I recognised how hopelessly we were enmeshed. Fortune had served Bruhl so well that, whether he knew it or not, he had us all trapped--alike the king whom he desired to compromise, and his wife whom he hated, mademoiselle who had once escaped him, and me who had twice thwarted him. It was little to be wondered at if my courage sank as I looked from one to another, and listened to the ominous creaking of the door, as the stout panels complained under the blows rained upon them. For my first duty, and that which took the pas of all others, was to the king--to save him harmless. How, then, was I to be answerable for mademoiselle, how protect Madame de Bruhl?--how, in a word, redeem all those pledges in which my honour was concerned?

It was the thought of the Provost-Marshal which at this moment rallied my failing spirits. I remembered that until the mystery of his presence here in alliance with Bruhl was explained there was no need to despair; and turning briskly to the king I begged him to favour me by standing with the women in a corner which was not visible from the door. He complied mechanically, and in a manner which I did not like; but lacking time to weigh trifles, I turned to the grille and opened it without more ado.

The appearance of my face at the trap was greeted with a savage cry of recognition, which subsided as quickly into silence. It was followed by a momentary pushing to and fro among the crowd outside, which in its turn ended in the Provost-Marshal coming to the front. 'In the king's name!' he said fussily.

'What is it?' I replied, eyeing rather the flushed, eager faces which scowled over his shoulders than himself. The light of two links, borne by some of the party, shone ruddily on the heads of the halberds, and, flaring up from time to time, filled all the place with wavering, smoky light. 'What do you want?' I continued, 'rousing my lodging at this time of night?'

'I hold a warrant for your arrest,' he replied bluntly. 'Resistance will be vain. If you do not surrender I shall send for a ram to break in the door.'

'Where is your order?' I said sharply. 'The one you held this morning was cancelled by the king himself.'

'Suspended only,' he answered. 'Suspended only. It was given out to me again this evening for instant execution. And I am here in pursuance of it, and call on you to surrender.'

'Who delivered it to you?' I retorted.

'M. de Villequier,' he answered readily. 'And here it is. Now, come, sir,' he continued, 'you are only making matters worse. Open to us.'

'Before I do so,' I said drily, 'I should like to know what part in the pageant my friend M. de Bruhl, whom I see on the stairs yonder, proposes to play. And there is my old friend Fresnoy,' I added. 'And I see one or two others whom I know, M. Provost. Before I surrender I must know among other things what M. de Bruhl's business is here.'

'It is the business of every loyal man to execute the king's warrant,' the Provost answered evasively. 'It is yours to surrender, and mine to lodge you in the Castle. 'But I am loth to have a disturbance. I will give you until that torch goes out, if you like, to make up your mind. At the end of that time, if you do not surrender, I shall batter down the door.'

'You will give the torch fair play?' I said, noting its condition.

He assented; and thanking him sternly for this indulgence, I closed the grille.