Chapter XXXIII. At Meudon.
 

Making so early a start from Etampes that the inn, which had continued in an uproar till long after midnight, lay sunk in sleep when we rode out of the yard, we reached Meudon about noon next day. I should be tedious were I to detail what thoughts my mistress and I had during that day's journey--the last, it might be, which we should take together; or what assurances we gave one another, or how often we, repented the impatience which had impelled us to put all to the touch. Madame, with kindly forethought, detached herself from us, and rode the greater part of the distance with Fanchette; but the opportunities she gave us went for little; for, to be plain, the separation we dreaded seemed to overshadow us already. We uttered few words, through those few were to the purpose, but riding hand-in-hand, with full hearts, and eyes which seldom quitted one another, looked forward to Meudon and its perils with such gloomy forebodings as our love and my precarious position suggested.

Long before we reached the town, or could see more of it than the Chateau, over which the Lilies of France and the broad white banner of the Bourbons floated in company, we found ourselves swept into the whirlpool which surrounds an army. Crowds stood at all the cross-roads, wagons and sumpter-mules encumbered the bridges; each moment a horseman passed us at a gallop, or a troop of disorderly rogues, soldiers only in name, reeled, shouting and singing, along the road. Here and there, for a warning to the latter sort, a man, dangled on a rude gallows; under which sportsmen returning from the chase and ladies who had been for an airing rode laughing on their way.

Amid the multitude entering the town we passed unnoticed. A little way within the walls we halted to inquire where the Princess of Navarre had her lodging. Hearing that she occupied a house in the town, while her brother had his quarters in the Chateau, and the King of France at St. Cloud, I stayed my party in a by-road, a hundred paces farther on, and, springing from the Cid, went to my mistress's knee.

'Mademoiselle,' I said formally, and so loudly that all my men might hear, 'the time is come. I dare not go farther with you. I beg you, therefore, to bear me witness that as I took you so I have brought you back, and both with your good-will. I beg that you will give me this quittance, for it may serve me.'

She bowed her head and laid her ungloved hand on mine, which I had placed on, the pommel of her saddle. 'Sir,' she answered in a broken voice, 'I will not give you this quittance, nor any quittance from me while I live.' With that she took off her mask before them all, and I saw the tears running down her white face. 'May God protect you, M. de Marsac,' she continued, stooping until her face almost touched mine, 'and bring you to the thing you desire. If not, sir, and you pay too dearly for what you have done for me, I will live a maiden all my days. And, if I do not, these men may shame me!'

My heart was too full for words, but I took the glove she held out to me, and kissed her hand with my knee bent. Then I waved-- for I could not speak--to madame to proceed; and with Simon Fleix and Maignan's men to guard them they went on their way. Mademoiselle's white face looked back to me until a bend in the road hid them, and I saw them no more.

I turned when all were gone, and going heavily to where my Sard stood with his head drooping, I climbed to the saddle, and rode at a foot-pace towards the Chateau. The way was short and easy, for the next turning showed me the open gateway and a crowd about it. A vast number of people were entering and leaving, while others rested in the shade of the wall, and a dozen grooms led horses up and down. The sunshine fell hotly on the road and the courtyard, and flashed back by the cuirasses of the men on guard, seized the eye and dazzled it with gleams of infinite brightness. I was advancing alone, gazing at all this with a species of dull indifference which masked for the moment the suspense I felt at heart, when a man, coming on foot along the street, crossed quickly to me and looked me in the face.

I returned his look, and seeing he was a stranger to me, was for passing on without pausing. But he wheeled beside me and uttered my name in a low voice.

I checked the Cid and looked down at him. 'Yes,' I said mechanically, 'I am M. de Marsac. But I do not know you.'

'Nevertheless I have been watching for you for three days,' he replied. 'M. de Rosny received your message. This is for you.'

He handed me a scrap of paper. 'From whom?' I asked.

'Maignan,' he answered briefly. And with that, and a stealthy look round, he left me, and went the way he had been going before.

I tore open the note, and knowing that Maignan could not write, was not surprised to find that it lacked any signature. The brevity of its contents vied with the curtness of its bearer. 'In Heaven's name go back and wait,' it ran. 'Your enemy is here, and those who wish you well are powerless.'

A warning so explicit, and delivered under such circumstances, might have been expected to make me pause even then. But I read the message with the same dull indifference, the same dogged resolve with which the sight of the crowded gateway before me had inspired me. I had not come so far and baffled Turenne by an hour to fail in my purpose at the last; nor given such pledges to another to prove false to myself. Moreover, the distant rattle of musketry, which went to show that a skirmish was taking place on the farther side of the Castle, seemed an invitation to me to proceed; for now, if ever, my sword might earn protection and a pardon. Only in regard to M. de Rosny, from whom I had no doubt that the message came, I resolved to act with prudence; neither making any appeal to him in public nor mentioning his name to others in private.

The Cid had borne me by this time into the middle of the throng about the gateway, who, wondering to see a stranger of my appearance arrive without attendants, eyed me with a mixture of civility and forwardness. I recognised more than one man whom I had seen about the Court at St. Jean d'Angely six months before; but so great is the disguising power of handsome clothes and equipments that none of these knew me. I beckoned to the nearest, and asked him if the King of Navarre was in the Chateau.

'He has gone to see the King of France at St. Cloud,' the man answered, with something of wonder that anyone should be ignorant of so important a fact. 'He is expected here in an hour.'

I thanked him, and calculating that I should still have time and to spare before the arrival of M. de Turenne, I dismounted, and taking the rein over my arm, began to walk up and down in the shade of the wall. Meanwhile the loiterers increased in numbers as the minutes passed. Men of better standing rode up, and, leaving their horses in charge of their lackeys, went into the Chateau. Officers in shining corslets, or with boots and scabbards dulled with dust, arrived and clattered in through the gates. A messenger galloped up with letters, and was instantly surrounded by a curious throng of questioners; who left him only to gather about the next comers, a knot of townsfolk, whose downcast visages and glances of apprehension seemed to betoken no pleasant or easy mission.

Watching many of these enter and disappear, while only the humbler sort remained to swell the crowd at the gate, I began to experience the discomfort and impatience which are the lot of the man who finds himself placed in a false position. I foresaw with clearness the injury I was about to do my cause by presenting myself to the king among the common herd; and yet I had no choice save to do this, for I dared not run the risk of entering, lest I should be required to give my name, and fail to see the King of Navarre at all.

As it was I came very near to being foiled in this way; for I presently recognised, and was recognised in turn, by a gentleman who rode up to the gates and, throwing his reins to a groom, dismounted with an air of immense gravity. This was M. Forget, the king's secretary, and the person to whom I had on a former occasion presented a petition. He looked at me with eyes of profound astonishment, and saluting me stiffly from a distance, seemed in two minds whether he should pass in or speak to me. On second thoughts, however, he came towards me, and again saluted me with a peculiarly dry and austere aspect.

'I believe, sir, I am speaking to M. de Marsac?' he said in a low voice, but not impolitely.

I replied in the affirmative.

'And that, I conclude, is your horse?' he continued, raising his cane, and pointing to the Cid, which I had fastened to a hook in the wall.

I replied again in the affirmative.

'Then take a word of advice,' he answered, screwing up his features, and speaking in a dry sort of way. 'Get upon its back without an instant's delay, and put as many leagues between yourself and Meudon as horse and man may.'

'I am obliged to you,' I said, though I was greatly startled by his words. 'And what if I do not take your advice?'

He shrugged his shoulders. 'In that case look to yourself!' he retorted. 'But you will look in vain!'

He turned on his heel, as he spoke, and in a moment was gone. I watched him enter the Chateau, and in the uncertainty which possessed me whether he was not gone--after salving his conscience by giving me warning--to order my instant arrest, I felt, and I doubt not I looked, as ill at ease for the time being as the group of trembling townsfolk who stood near me. Reflecting that he should know his master's mind, I recalled with depressing clearness the repeated warnings the King of Navarre had given me that I must not look to him for reward or protection. I bethought me that I was here against his express orders: presuming on those very services which he had given me notice he should repudiate. I remembered that Rosny had always been in the same tale. And in fine I began to see that mademoiselle and I had together decided on a step which I should never have presumed to take on my own motion.

I had barely arrived at this conclusion when the trampling of hoofs and a sudden closing in of the crowd round the gate announced the King of Navarre's approach. With a sick heart I drew nearer, feeling that the crisis was at hand; and in a moment he came in sight, riding beside an elderly man, plainly dressed and mounted, with whom he was carrying on an earnest conversation. A train of nobles and gentlemen, whose martial air and equipments made up for the absence of the gewgaws and glitter, to which my eyes had become accustomed at Blois, followed close on his heels. Henry himself wore a suit of white velvet, frayed in places and soiled by his armour; but his quick eye and eager, almost fierce, countenance could not fail to win and keep the attention of the least observant. He kept glancing from side to side as he came on; and that with so cheerful an air and a carriage so full at once of dignity and good-humour that no one could look on him and fail to see that here was a leader and a prince of men, temperate in victory and unsurpassed in defeat.

The crowd raising a cry of 'Vive Navarre!' as he drew near, he bowed, with a sparkle in his eye. But when a few by the gate cried 'Vivent les rois!' he held up his hand for silence, and said in a loud, clear voice, 'Not that, my friends. There is but one king in France. Let us say instead, "Vive le Roi!"'

The spokesman of the little group of townsfolk, who, I learned, were from Arcueil, and had come to complain of the excessive number of troops quartered upon them, took advantage of the pause to approach him. Henry received the old man with a kindly look, and bent from his saddle to hear what he had to say. While they were talking I pressed forward, the emotion I felt on my own account heightened by my recognition of the man who rode by the King of Navarre--who was no other than M. de la Noue. No Huguenot worthy of the name could look on the veteran who had done and suffered more for the cause than any living man without catching something of his stern enthusiasm; and the sight, while it shamed me, who a moment before had been inclined to prefer my safety to the assistance I owed my country, gave me courage to step to the king's rein, so that I heard his last words to the men of Arcueil.

'Patience, my friends,' he said kindly. 'The burden is heavy, but the journey is a short one. The Seine is ours; the circle is complete. In a week Paris must surrender. The king, my cousin, will enter, and you will be rid of us. For France's sake one week, my friends.'

The men fell back with low obeisances, charmed by his good- nature, and Henry, looking up, saw me before him. In the instant his jaw fell. His brow, suddenly contracting above eyes, which flashed with surprise and displeasure, altered in a moment the whole aspect of his face; which grew dark and stern as night. His first impulse was to pass by me; but seeing that I held my ground, he hesitated, so completely chagrined by my appearance that he did not know how to act, or in what way to deal with me. I seized the occasion, and bending my knee with as much respect as I had ever used to the King of France, begged to bring myself to his notice, and to crave his protection and favour.

'This is no time to trouble me, sir,' he retorted, eyeing me with an angry side-glance. 'I do not know you. You are unknown to me, sir. You must go to M. de Rosny.'

'It would be useless sire,' I answered, in desperate persistence.

'Then I can do nothing for you,' he rejoined peevishly. 'Stand on one side, sir.'

But I was desperate. I knew that I had risked all on the event, and must establish my footing before M. de Turenne's return, or run the risk of certain recognition and vengeance. I cried out, caring nothing who heard, that I was M. de Marsac, that I had come back to meet whatever my enemies could allege against me.

'Ventre Saint Gris!' Henry exclaimed, starting in his saddle with well-feigned surprise. 'Are you that man?'

'I am, sire,' I answered.

'Then you must be mad!' he retorted, appealing to those behind him. 'Stark, staring mad to show your face here! 'Ventre Saint Gris! Are we to have all the ravishers and plunderers in the country come to us?'

'I am neither the one nor the other!' I answered, looking with indignation from him to the gaping train behind him.

'That you will have to settle with M. de Turenne!' he retorted, frowning down at me with his whole face turned gloomy and fierce. 'I know you well, sir, now. Complaint has been made that you abducted a lady from his Castle of Chize some time back.'

'The lady, sire, is now in charge of the Princess of Navarre.'

'She is?' he exclaimed, quite taken aback.

'And if she has aught of complaint against me,' I continued with pride,' I will submit to whatever punishment you order or M. de Turenne demands. But if she has no complaint to make, and vows that she accompanied me of her own free-will and accord, and has suffered neither wrong nor displeasure at my hands, then, sire, I claim that this is a private matter between myself and M. de Turenne.'

'Even so I think you will have your hands full,' he answered grimly. At the same time he stopped by a gesture those who would have cried out upon me, and looked at me himself with an altered countenance. 'Do I understand that you assert that the lady went of her own accord?' he asked.

'She went and has returned, sire,' I answered.

'Strange!' he ejaculated. 'Have you married her?'

'No, sire,' I answered. 'I desire leave to do so.'

'Mon dieu! she is M. de Turenne's ward,' he rejoined, almost dumbfounded by my audacity.

'I do not despair of obtaining his assent, sire,' I said patiently.

'Saint Gris! the man is mad!' he cried, wheeling his horse and facing his train with a gesture of the utmost wonder. 'It is the strangest story I ever heard.'

'But somewhat more to the gentleman's credit than the lady's!' one said with a smirk and a smile.

'A lie!' I cried, springing forward on the instant with a boldness which astonished myself. 'She is as pure as your Highness's sister! I swear it. That man lies in his teeth, and I will maintain it.'

'Sir!' the King of Navarre cried, turning on me with the utmost sternness, 'you forget yourself in my presence! Silence, and beware another time how you let your tongue run on those above you. You have enough trouble, let me tell you, on your hands already.'

'Yet the man lies!' I answered doggedly, remembering Crillon and his ways. 'And if he will do me the honour of stepping aside with me, I will convince him of it!'

'Ventre Saint Gris!' Henry replied, frowning, and dwelling on each syllable of his favourite oath. 'Will you be silent, sir, and let me think? Or must I order your instant arrest?'

'Surely that at least, sire,' a suave voice interjected. And with that a gentleman pressed forward from the rest, and gaining a place, of 'vantage by the King's side, shot at me a look of extreme malevolence. 'My lord of Turenne will expect no less at your Highness's hands,' he continued warmly. 'I beg you will give the order on the spot, and hold this person to answer for his misdeeds. M. de Turenne returns to-day. He should be here now. I say again, sire, he will expect no less than this.'

The king, gazing at me with gloomy eyes, tugged at his moustaches. Someone had motioned the common herd to stand back out of hearing; at the same time the suite had moved up out of curiosity and formed a half-circle; in the midst of which I stood fronting the king, who had La Noue and the last speaker on either hand. Perplexity and annoyance struggled for the mastery in his face as he looked darkly down at me, his teeth showing through his beard. Profoundly angered by my appearance, which he had taken at first to be the prelude to disclosures which must detach Turenne at a time when union was all-important, he had now ceased to fear for himself; and perhaps saw something in the attitude I adopted which appealed to his nature and sympathies.

'If the girl is really back,' he said at last, 'M. d'Aremburg, I do-not see any reason why I should interfere. At present, at any rate.'

'I think, sire, M. de Turenne will see reason,' the gentleman answered drily.

The king coloured. 'M. de Turenne,' he began,

'Has made many sacrifices at your request, sire,' the other said with meaning. 'And buried some wrongs, or fancied wrongs, in connection with this very matter. This person has outraged him in the grossest manner, and in M. le Vicomte's name I ask, nay I press upon you, that he be instantly arrested, and held to answer for it.'

'I am ready to answer for it now!' I retorted, looking from face to face for sympathy, and finding none save in M. de la Noue's, who appeared to regard me with grave approbation. 'To the Vicomte de Turenne, or the person he may appoint to represent him.'

'Enough!' Henry said, raising his hand and speaking in the tone of authority he knew so well how to adopt. 'For you, M. d'Aremburg, I thank you. Turenne is happy in his friend. But; this gentleman came to me of his own free will and I do not think it consistent with my honour to detain him without warning given. I grant him an hour to remove himself from my neighbourhood. If he be found after that time has elapsed,' he continued solemnly, 'his fate be on his own head. Gentlemen, we are late already. Let us on.'

I looked at him as he pronounced this sentence, and strove to find words in which to make a final appeal to him. But no words came; and when he bade me stand aside, I did so mechanically, remaining with my head bared to the sunshine while the troop rode by. Some looked back at me with curiosity, as at a man of whom they had heard a tale, and some with a jeer on their lips; a few with dark looks of menace. When they were all gone, and the servants who followed them had disappeared also, and I was left to the inquisitive glances of the rabble who stood gaping after the sight, I turned and went to the Cid, and loosed the horse with a feeling of bitter disappointment.

The plan which mademoiselle had proposed and I had adopted in the forest by St. Gaultier--when it seemed to us that our long absence and the great events of which we heard must have changed the world and opened a path for our return--had failed utterly. Things were as they had been; the strong were still strong, and friendship under bond to fear. Plainly we should have shewn ourselves wiser had we taken the lowlier course, and, obeying the warnings given us, waited the King of Navarre's pleasure or the tardy recollection of Rosny. I had not then stood, as I now stood, in instant jeopardy, nor felt the keen pangs of a separation which bade fair to be lasting. She was safe, and that was much; but I, after long service and brief happiness, must go out again alone, with only memories to comfort me.

It was Simon Fleix's voice which awakened me from this unworthy lethargy--as selfish as it was useless--and, recalling me to myself, reminded me that precious time was passing while I stood inactive. To get at me he had forced his way through the curious crowd, and his face was flushed. He plucked me by the sleeve, regarding the varlets round him with a mixture of anger and fear.

'Nom de Dieu! do they take you for a rope-dancer?' he muttered in my ear. 'Mount, sir, and come. There is not a moment to be lost.'

'You left her at Madame Catherine's?' I said.

'To be sure,' he answered impatiently. 'Trouble not about her. Save yourself, M. de Marsac. That is the thing to be done now.'

I mounted mechanically, and felt my courage return as the horse moved under me. I trotted through the crowd, and without thought took the road by which we had come. When we had ridden a hundred yards, however, I pulled up 'An hour is a short start,' I said sullenly. 'Whither?'

'To St. Cloud,' he answered promptly. 'The protection of the King of France may avail for a day or two. After that, there will still be the League, if Paris have not fallen.'

I saw there was nothing else for it, and assented, and we set off. The distance which separates Meudon from St. Cloud we might have ridden under the hour, but the direct road runs across the Scholars' Meadow, a wide plain north of Meudon. This lay exposed to the enemy's fire, and was, besides, the scene of hourly conflicts between the horse of both parties, so that to cross it without an adequate force was impossible. Driven to make a circuit, we took longer to reach our destination, yet did so without mishap; finding the little town, when we came in sight of it, given up to all the bustle and commotion which properly belong to the Court and camp.

It was, indeed, as full as it could be, for the surrender of Paris being momentarily expected, St. Cloud had become the rendezvous as well of the few who had long followed a principle as of the many who wait upon success. The streets, crowded in, every part, shone with glancing colours, with steel and velvet, the garb of fashion and the plumes of war. Long lines of flags obscured the eaves and broke the sunshine, while, above all, the bells of half a dozen churches rang merry answer to the distant crash of guns. Everywhere on flag and arch and streamer I read the motto, 'Vive le Roi!'--words written, God knew then, and we know now, in what a mockery of doom!