A Gentleman of France by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter XXV. Terms of Surrender.
I still had my hand on the trap when a touch on the shoulder caused me to turn, and in a moment apprised me of the imminence of a new peril; a peril of such a kind that, summoning all my resolution, I could scarcely hope to cope with it. Henry was at my elbow. He had taken of his mask, and a single glance at his countenance warned me that that had happened of which I had already felt some fear. The glitter of intense excitement shone in his eyes. His face, darkly-flushed and wet with sweat, betrayed overmastering emotion, while his teeth, tight clenched in the effort to restrain the fit of trembling which possessed him, showed between his lips like those of a corpse. The novelty of the danger which menaced him, the absence of his gentlemen, and of all the familiar faces and surroundings without which he never moved, the hour, the mean house, and his isolation among strangers, had proved too much for nerves long weakened by his course of living, and for a courage, proved indeed in the field, but unequal to a sudden stress. Though he still strove to preserve his dignity, it was alarmingly plain to my eyes that he was on the point of losing, if he had not already lost, all self- command.
'Open!' he muttered between his teeth, pointing impatiently to the trap with the hand with which he had already touched me. 'Open, I say, sir!'
I stared at him, startled and confounded. 'But your Majesty,' I ventured to stammer, 'forgets that I have not yet--'
'Open, I say!' he repeated passionately. 'Do you hear me, sir? I desire that this door be opened.' His lean hand shook as with the palsy, so that the gems on it twinkled in the light and rattled as he spoke.
I looked helplessly from him to the women and back again, seeing in a flash all. the dangers which might follow from the discovery of his presence there--dangers which I had not before formulated to myself, but which seemed in a moment to range themselves with the utmost clearness before my eyes. At the same time I saw what seemed to me to be a way of escape; and emboldened by the one and the other, I kept my hand on the trap and strove to parley with him.
'Nay, but, sire,' I said hurriedly, yet still with as much deference as I could command, 'I beg you to permit me first to repeat what I have seen. M. de Bruhl is without, and I counted six men whom I believe to be his following. They are ruffians ripe for any crime; and I implore your Majesty rather to submit to a short imprisonment--'
I paused struck dumb on that word, confounded by the passion which lightened in the king's face. My ill-chosen expression had indeed applied the spark to his wrath. Predisposed to suspicion by a hundred treacheries, he forgot the perils outside in the one idea which on the instant possessed his mind; that I would confine his person, and had brought him hither for no other purpose. He glared round him with eyes full of rage and fear, and his trembling lips breathed rather than spoke the word 'Imprison?'
Unluckily, a trifling occurrence added at this moment to his disorder, and converted it into frenzy. Someone outside fell heavily against the door; this, causing madame to utter a low shriek, seemed to shatter the last remnant of the king's self- control. Stamping his foot on the floor, he cried to me with the utmost wildness to open the door--by which I had hitherto kept my place.
But, wrongly or rightly, I was still determined to put off opening it; and I raised my hands with the intention of making a last appeal to him. He misread the gesture, and retreating a step, with the greatest suddenness whipped out his sword, and in a moment had the point at my breast, and his wrist drawn back to thrust.
It has always been my belief that he would not have dealt the blow, but that the mere touch of the hilt, awaking the courage which he undoubtedly possessed, and which did not desert him in his last moments, would have recalled him to himself. But the opportunity was not given him, for while the blade yet quivered, and I stood motionless, controlling myself by an effort, my knee half bent and my eyes on his, Mademoiselle de la Vire sprang forward at his back, and with a loud scream clutched his elbow. The king, surprised, and ignorant who held him, flung up his point wildly, and striking the lamp above his head with his blade, shattered it in an instant, bringing down the pottery with a crash and reducing the room to darkness; while the screams of the women, and the knowledge that we had a madman among us, peopled, the blackness with a hundred horrors.
Fearing above all for mademoiselle, I made my way as soon as I could recover my wits to the embers of the fire, and regardless of the king's sword, which I had a vague idea was darting about in the darkness, I searched for and found a half-burnt stick, which I blew into a blaze. With this, still keeping my back to the room, I contrived to light a taper that I had noticed standing by the hearth; and then, and then only, I turned to see what I had to confront.
Mademoiselle de la Vire stood in a corner, half-fierce, half- terrified, and wholly flushed. She had her hand wrapped up in a 'kerchief already stained with blood; and from this I gathered that the king in his frenzy had wounded her slightly. Standing before her mistress, with her hair bristling, like a wild-cat's fur, and her arms akimbo, was Fanchette, her harsh face and square form instinct with fury and defiance. Madame de Bruhl and Simon cowered against the wall not far from them; and in a chair, into which he had apparently just thrown himself, sat the king, huddled up and collapsed, the point of his sword trailing on the ground beside him, and his nerveless hand scarce retaining force to grip the pommel.
In a moment I made up my mind what to do, and going to him in silence, I laid my pistols, sword, and dagger on a stool by his side. Then I knelt.
'The door, sire,' I said, 'is there. It is for your Majesty to open it when you please. Here, too, sire, are my weapons. I am your prisoner, the Provost-Marshal is outside, and you can at a word deliver me to him. Only one thing I beg, sire,' I continued earnestly, 'that your Majesty will treat; as a delusion the idea that I meditated for a moment disrespect or violence to your person.'
He looked at me dully, his face pale, his eyes fish-like. 'Sanctus, man!' he muttered, 'why did you raise your hand?'
'Only to implore your Majesty to pause a moment,' I answered, watching the intelligence return slowly to his face. 'If you will deign to listen I can explain in half a dozen words, sire. M. de Bruhl's men are six or seven, the Provost has eight or nine; but the former are the wilder blades, and if M. de Bruhl find your Majesty in my lodging, and infer his own defeat, he will be capable of any desperate stroke. Your person would hardly be safe in his company through the streets. And there is another consideration,' I went on, observing with joy that the king listened, and was gradually regaining his composure. 'That is, the secrecy you desired to preserve, sire, until this matter should be well advanced. M. de Rosny laid the strictest injunctions on me in that respect, fearing an emeute in Blois should your Majesty's plans become known.'
'You speak fairly,' the king answered with returning energy, though he avoided looking at the women. 'Bruhl is likely enough to raise one. But how am I to get out, sir?' he continued, querulously. 'I cannot remain here. I shall be missed, man! I am not a hedge-captain, neither sought nor wanted!'
'If your Majesty would trust me?' I said slowly and with hesitation.
'Trust you!' he retorted peevishly, holding up his hands and gazing intently at his nails, of the shape and whiteness of which he was prouder than any woman. 'Have I not trusted you? If I had not trusted you, should I have been here? But that you were a Huguenot--God forgive me for saying it!--I would have seen you in hell before I would have come here with you!'
I confess to having heard this testimony to the Religion with a pride which made me forget for a moment the immediate circumstances--the peril in which we stood, the gloomy room darkly lighted by a single candle, the scared faces in the background, even the king's huddled figure, in which dejection and pride struggled for expression. For a moment only; then I hastened to reply, saying that I doubted not I could still extricate his Majesty without discovery.
'In Heaven's name do it, then!' he answered sharply. 'Do what you like, man! Only get me back into the castle, and it shall not be a Huguenot will entice me out again. I am over old for these adventures!'
A fresh attack on the door taking place as he said this induced me to lose no time in explaining my plan, which he was good enough to approve, after again upbraiding me for bringing him into such a dilemma. Fearing lest the door should give way prematurely, notwithstanding the bars I had provided for it, and goaded on by Madame de Bruhl's face, which evinced the utmost terror, I took the candle and attended his Majesty into the inner room; where I placed my pistols beside him, but silently resumed my sword and dagger. I then returned for the women, and indicating by signs that they were to enter, held the door open for them.
Mademoiselle, whose bandaged hand I could not regard without emotion, though the king's presence and the respect I owed him forbade me to utter so much as a word, advanced readily until she reached the doorway abreast of me. There, however, looking back, and seeing Madame de Bruhl following her, she stopped short, and darting a haughty glance at me, muttered, 'And--that lady? Are we to be shut up together, sir?'
'Mademoiselle,' I answered quickly in the low tone she had used herself, 'have I ever asked anything dishonourable of you?'
She seemed by a slight movement of the head to answer in the negative.
'Nor do I now,' I replied with earnestness. 'I entrust to your care a lady who has risked great peril for us; and the rest I leave to you.'
She looked me very keenly in the face for a second, and then, without answering, she passed on, Madame and Fanchette following her in that order. I closed the door and turned to Simon; who by my direction had blown the embers of the fire into a blaze so as to partially illumine the room, in which only he and I now remained. The lad seemed afraid to meet my eye, and owing to the scene at which he had just assisted, or to the onslaught on the door, which grew each moment more furious, betrayed greater restlessness than I had lately observed in him. I did not doubt his fidelity, however, or his devotion to mademoiselle; and the orders I had to give him were simple enough.
'This is what you have got to do,' I said, my hand already on the bars. 'The moment I am outside secure this door. After that, open to no one except Maignan. When he applies, let him in with caution, and bid him, as he loves M. de Rosny, take his men as soon as the coast is clear, and guard the King of France to the castle. Charge him to be brave and wary, for his life will answer for the king's.'
Twice I repeated this; then fearing lest the Provost-Marshal should make good his word and apply a ram to the door, I opened the trap. A dozen angry voices hailed my appearance, and this with so much violence and impatience that it was some time before I could get a hearing; the knaves threatening me if I would not instantly open, and persisting that I should do so without more words. Their leader at length quieted them, but it was plain that his patience too was worn out. 'Do you surrender or do you not?' he said. 'I am not going to stay out of my bed all night for you!'
'I warn you,' I answered, 'that the order you have there has been cancelled by the king!'
'That is not my business,' he rejoined hardily.
'No, but it will be when the king sends for you to-morrow morning,' I retorted; at which he looked somewhat moved. 'However, I will surrender to you on two conditions,' I continued, keenly observing the coarse faces of his following. 'First, that you let me keep my arms until we reach the gate- house, I giving you my parole to come with you quietly. That is number one.'
'Well,' the Provost-Marshal said more civilly, 'I have no objection to that.'
'Secondly, that you do not allow your men to break into my lodgings. I will come out quietly, and so an end. Your order does not direct you to sack my goods.'
'Tut, tut!' he replied; 'I want, you to come out. I do not want to go in.'
'Then draw your men back to the stairs,' I said. 'And if you keep terms with me, I will uphold you to-morrow, For your orders will certainly bring you into trouble. M. de Retz, who procured it this morning, is away, you know. M. de Villequier may be gone to-morrow. But depend upon it, M. de Rambouillet will be here!'
The remark was well timed and to the point. It startled the man as much as I had hoped it would. Without raising any objection he ordered his men to fall back and guard the stairs; and I on my side began to undo the fastenings of the door.
The matter was not to be so easily concluded, however; for Bruhl's rascals, in obedience, no doubt, to a sign given by their leader, who stood with Fresnoy on the upper flight of stairs, refused to withdraw; and even hustled the Provost-Marshal's men when the latter would have obeyed the order. The officer, already heated by delay, replied by laying about him with his staff, and in a twinkling there seemed to be every prospect of a very pretty melee, the end of which it was impossible to foresee.
Reflecting, however, that if Bruhl's men routed their opponents our position might be made worse rather than better, I did not act on my first impulse, which was to see the matter out where I was. Instead, I seized the opportunity to let myself out, while Simon fastened the door behind me. The Provost-Marshal was engaged at the moment in a wordy dispute with Fresnoy; whose villainous countenance, scarred by the wound which I had given him at Chize, and flushed with passion, looked its worst by the light of the single torch which remained. In one respect the villain had profited by his present patronage, for he was decked out in a style of tawdry magnificence. But I have always remarked this about dress, that while a shabby exterior does not entirely obscure a gentleman, the extreme of fashion is powerless to gild a knave.
Seeing me on a sudden at the Provost's elbow, he recoiled with a change of countenance so ludicrous that that officer was himself startled, and only held his ground on my saluting him civilly and declaring myself his prisoner I added a warning that he should look to the torch which remained; seeing that if it failed we were both like to have our throats cut in the confusion.
He took the hint promptly, and calling the link-man to his side prepared to descend, bidding Fresnoy and his men, who remained clumped at the head of the stairs, make way for us without ado. They seemed much inclined, however, to dispute our passage, and replying to his invectives with rough taunts, displayed so hostile a demeanour that the Provost, between regard for his own importance and respect for Bruhl, appeared for a moment at a loss what to do; and seemed rather relieved than annoyed when I begged leave to say a word to M. de Bruhl.
'If you can bring his men to reason,' he replied testily, 'speak your fill to him!'
Stepping to the foot of the upper flight, on which Bruhl retained his position, I saluted him formally. He returned my greeting with a surly, watchful look only, and drawing his cloak more tightly round him affected to gaze down at me with disdain; which ill concealed, however, both the triumph he felt and the hopes of vengeance he entertained. I was especially anxious to learn whether he had tracked his wife hither, or was merely here in pursuance of his general schemes against me, and to this end. I asked him with as much irony as I could compass to what I was to attribute his presence. 'I am afraid I cannot stay to offer you hospitality,' I continued; 'but for that you have only your friend M. Villequier to thank!'
'I am greatly obliged to you,' he answered with a devilish smile, 'but do not let that affect you. When you are gone I propose to help myself, my friend, to whatever takes my taste.'
'Do you?' I retorted coolly--not that I was unaffected by the threat and the villainous hint which underlay the words, but that, fully expecting them, I was ready with my answer. 'We will see about that.' And therewith I raised my fingers to my lips, and, whistling shrilly, cried 'Maignan! Maignan!' in a clear voice.
I had no need to cry the name a third time, for before the Provost-Marshal could do more than start at this unexpected action, the landing above us rang under a heavy tread, and the man I called, descending the stairs swiftly, appeared on a sudden within arm's length of M. de Bruhl; who, turning with an oath, saw him, and involuntarily recoiled. At all times Maignan's hardy and confident bearing was of a kind to impress the strong; but on this occasion there was an added dash of recklessness in his manner which was not without its effect on the spectators. As he stood there smiling darkly over Bruhl's head, while his hand toyed carelessly with his dagger, and the torch shone ruddily on his burly figure, he was so clearly an antagonist in a thousand that, had I sought through Blois, I might not have found his fellow for strength and sang-froid. He let his black eyes rove from one to the other, but took heed of me only, saluting me with effusion and a touch of the Gascon which was in place here, if ever.
I knew how M. de Rosny dealt with him, and followed the pattern as far as I could. 'Maignan!' I said curtly, 'I have taken a lodging for to-night elsewhere. Then I am gone you will call out your men and watch this door. If anyone tries to force an entrance you will do your duty.'
'You may consider it done,' he replied.
'Even if the person be M. de Bruhl here,' I continued.
'You will remain on guard,' I went on, 'until to-morrow morning if M. de Bruhl remains here; but whenever he leaves you will take your orders from the persons inside, and follow them implicitly.'
'Your Excellency's mind may be easy,' he answered, handling his dagger.
Dismissing him with a nod, I turned with a smile to M. de Bruhl, and saw that between rage at this unexpected check and chagrin at the insult put upon him, his discomfiture was as complete as I could wish. As for Fresnoy, if he had seriously intended to dispute our passage, he was no longer in the mood for the attempt. Yet I did not let his master off without one more prick. 'That being settled, M. de Bruhl,' I said pleasantly, 'I may bid you good evening. You will doubtless honour me at Chaverny tomorrow. But we will first let Maignan look under the bridge!'