A Gentleman of France by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter XXXIV. ''Tis an Ill Wind.'
We had made our way slowly and with much jostling as far as the principal street, finding the press increase as we advanced, when I heard, as I turned a corner, my name called, and, looking up, saw at a window the face of which I was in search. After that half a minute sufficed to bring M. d'Agen flying to my side, when nothing, as I had expected, would do but I must dismount; where I was and share his lodging. He made no secret of his joy and surprise at sight of me, but pausing only to tell Simon where the stable was, haled me through the crowd and up his stairs with a fervour and heartiness which brought the tears to my eyes, and served to impress the company whom I found above with a more than sufficient sense of my importance.
Seeing him again in the highest feather and in the full employment of all those little arts and graces which served as a foil to his real worth, I took it as a great honour that he laid them aside for the nonce; and introduced me to the seat of honour and made me known to his companions with a boyish directness and a simple thought for my comfort which infinitely pleased me. He bade his landlord, without a moment's delay, bring wine and meat and everything which could refresh a traveller, and was himself up and down a hundred times in a minute, calling to his servants for this or that, or railing at them for their failure to bring me a score of things I did not need. I hastened to make my excuses to the company for interrupting them in the midst of their talk; and these they were kind enough to accept in good part. At the same time, reading clearly in M. d'Agen's excited face and shining eyes that he longed to be alone with me, they took the hint, and presently left us together.
'Well,' he said, coming back from the door, to which he had conducted them, 'what have you to tell me, my friend? She is not with you?'
'She is with Mademoiselle de la Vire at Meudon,' I answered, smiling. 'And for the rest, she is well and in better spirits.'
'She sent me some message? he asked.
I shook my head. 'She did not know I should see you,' I answered.
'But she--she has spoken of me lately?' he continued, his face falling.
'I do not think she has named your name for a fortnight,' I answered, laughing. 'There's for you! Why, man,' I continued, adopting a different tone, and laying my hand on his shoulder in a manner which reassured him at least; as much as my words, 'are you so young a lover as to be ignorant that a woman says least of that of which she thinks most? Pluck up, courage! Unless I am mistaken, you have little to be afraid of except the past. Only have patience.'
'You think so?' he said gratefully.
I assured him that I had no doubt of it; and on that he fell into a reverie, and I to watching him. Alas for the littleness of our natures! He had received me with open arms, yet at sight of the happiness which took possession of his handsome face I gave way to the pettiest feeling which can harbour in a man's breast. I looked at him with eyes of envy, bitterly comparing my lot with that which fate had reserved for him. He had fortune, good looks, and success on his side, great relations, and high hopes; I stood in instant jeopardy, my future dark, and every path which presented itself so hazardous that I knew not which to adopt. He was young, and I past my prime; he in favour, and I a fugitive.
To such reflections he put an end in a way which made me blush for my churlishness. For, suddenly awaking out, of his pleasant dream, he asked me about myself and my fortunes, inquiring eagerly how I came to be in St. Cloud, and listening to the story of my adventures with a generous anxiety which endeared him to me more and more. When I had done--and by that time Simon had joined us, and was waiting at the lower end of the room--he pronounced that I must see the king.
'There is nothing else for it,' he said.
'I have come to see him,' I answered.
'Mon dieu, yes!' he continued, rising from his seat and looking at me with a face of concern. 'No one else can help you.'
'Turenne has four thousand men here. You can do nothing against so many?'
'Nothing,' I said. 'The question is, will the king protect me?'
'It is he or no one,' M. d'Agen answered warmly. 'You cannot see him to-night: he has a Council. To-morrow at daybreak you may. You must lie here to-night, and I will set my fellows to watch, and I think you will be safe. I will away now and see if my uncle will help. Can you think of anyone else who would speak for you?'
I considered, and was about to answer in the negative, when Simon, who had listened with a scared face, suggested M. de Crillon.
'Yes, if he would,' M. d'Agen exclaimed, looking at the lad with approbation. 'He has weight with the king.'
'I think he might,' I replied slowly. 'I had a curious encounter with him last night. And with that I told M. d'Agen of the duel I fought at the inn.
'Good!' he said, his eyes sparkling. 'I wish I had been there to see. At any rate we will try him. Crillon fears no one, not even the king.'
So it was settled. For that night I was to keep close in my friend's lodging, showing not even my nose at the window.
When he had gone on his errand, and I found myself alone in the room, I am fain to confess that I fell very low in my spirits. M. d'Agen's travelling equipment lay about the apartment, but failed to give any but an untidy air to its roomy bareness. The light was beginning to wane, the sun was gone. Outside, the ringing of bells and the distant muttering of guns, with the tumult of sounds which rose from the crowded street, seemed to tell of joyous life and freedom, and all the hopes and ambitions from which I was cut off.
Having no other employment, I watched the street, and keeping myself well retired from the window saw knots of gay riders pass this way and that through the crowd, their corslets shining and their voices high. Monks and ladies, a cardinal and an ambassador, passed under my eyes--these and an endless procession of townsmen and beggars, soldiers and courtiers, Gascons, Normans and Picards. Never had I seen such a sight or so many people gathered together. It seemed as if half Paris had come out to make submission, so that while my gorge rose against my own imprisonment, the sight gradually diverted my mind from my private distresses, by bidding me find compensation for them in the speedy and glorious triumph of the cause.
Even when the light failed the pageant did not cease, but, torches and lanthorns springing into life, turned night into day. From every side came sounds of revelry or strife. The crowd continued to perambulate the streets until a late hour, with cries of 'Vive le roi!' and 'Vive Navarre!' while now and again the passage of a great noble with his suite called forth a fresh outburst of enthusiasm. Nothing seemed more certain, more inevitable, more clearly predestinated than that twenty-four hours must see the fall of Paris.
Yet Paris did not fall.
When M. d'Agen returned a little before midnight, he found me still sitting in the dark looking from the window. I heard him call roughly for lights, and apprised by the sound of his voice that something was wrong, I rose to meet him. He stood silent awhile, twirling his small moustaches, and then broke into a passionate tirade, from which I was not slow to gather that M. de Rambouillet declined to serve me.
'Well,' I said, feeling for the young man's distress and embarrassment, 'perhaps he is right.'
'He says that word respecting you came this evening,' my friend answered, his cheeks red with shame, 'and that to countenance you after that would only be to court certain humiliation. I did not let him off too easily, I assure you,' M. d'Agen continued, turning away to evade my gaze; 'but I got no satisfaction. He said you had his good-will, and that to help you he would risk something, but that to do so under these circumstances would be only to injure himself.'
'There is still Crillon,' I said, with as much cheerfulness as I could assume. 'Pray Heaven he be there early! Did M. de Rambouillet say anything else?'
'That your only chance was to fly as quickly and secretly as possible.'
'He thought; my situation desperate, then?'
My friend nodded; and scarcely less depressed on my account than ashamed on his own, evinced so much feeling that it was all I could do to comfort him; which I succeeded in doing only when I diverted the conversation to Madame de Bruhl. We passed the short night together, sharing the same room and the same bed, and talking more than we slept--of madame and mademoiselle, the castle on the hill, and the camp in the woods, of all old days in fine, but little of the future. Soon after dawn Simon, who lay on a pallet across the threshold, roused me from a fitful sleep into which I had just fallen, and a few minutes later I stood up dressed and armed, ready to try the last chance left to me.
M. d'Agen had dressed stage for stage with me, and I had kept silence. But when he took up his cap, and showed clearly that he had it in his mind to go with me, I withstood him. 'No, I said, 'you can do me little good, and may do yourself much harm.'
'You shall not go without one friend,' he cried fiercely.
'Tut, tut!' I said. 'I shall have Simon.'
But Simon, when I turned to speak to him, was gone. Few men are at their bravest in the early hours of the day, and it did not surprise me that the lad's courage had failed him. The defection only strengthened, however, the resolution I had formed that I would not injure M. d'Agen; though it was some time before I could persuade him that I was in earnest, and would go alone or not at all. In the end he had to content himself with lending me his back and breast, which I gladly put on, thinking it likely enough that I might be set upon before I reached the castle. And then, the time being about seven, I parted from him with many embraces and kindly words, and went into the street with my sword under my cloak.
The town, late in rising after its orgy, lay very still and quiet. The morning was grey and warm, with a cloudy sky. The flags, which had made so gay, a show yesterday, hung close to the poles, or flapped idly and fell dead again. I walked slowly along beneath them, keeping a sharp look-out on every side; but there were few persons moving in the streets, and I reached the Castle gates without misadventure. Here was something of life; a bustle of officers and soldiers passing in and out, of courtiers whose office made their presence necessary, of beggars who had flocked hither in the night for company. In the middle of these I recognised on a sudden and with great surprise Simon Fleix walking my horse up and down. On seeing me he handed it to a boy, and came up to speak to me with a red face, muttering that four legs were better than two. I did not say much to him, my heart being full and my thoughts occupied with the presence chamber and what I should say there; but I nodded kindly to him, and he fell in behind me as the sentries challenged me. I answered them that I sought M. de Crillon, and so getting by, fell into the rear of a party of three who seemed bent on the same errand as myself.
One of these was a Jacobin monk, whose black and white robes, by reminding me of Father Antoine, sent a chill to my heart. The second, whose eye I avoided, I knew to be M. la Guesle, the king's Solicitor-General. The third was a stranger to me. Enabled by M. la Guesle's presence to pass the main guards without challenge, the party proceeded through a maze of passages and corridors, conversing together in a low tone; while I, keeping in their train with my face cunningly muffled, got as far by this means as the ante-chamber, which I found almost empty. Here I inquired of the usher for M. de Crillon, and learned with the utmost consternation that he was not present.
This blow, which almost stunned me, opened my eyes to the precarious nature of my position, which only the early hour and small attendance rendered possible for a moment. At any minute I might be recognised and questioned, or my name be required; while the guarded doors of the chamber shut me off as effectually from the king's face and grace as though I were in Paris, or a hundred leagues away. Endeavouring to the best of my power to conceal the chagrin and alarm which possessed me as this conviction took hold of me, I walked to the window; and to hide my face more completely and at the same time gain a moment to collect my thoughts, affected to be engaged in looking through it.
Nothing which passed in the room, however, escaped me. I marked everything and everyone, though all my thought was how I might get to the king. The barber came out of the chamber with a silver basin, and stood a moment, and went in again with an air of vast importance. The guards yawned, and an officer entered, looked round, and retired. M. la Guesle, who had gone in to the presence, came out again and stood near me talking with the Jacobin, whose pale nervous face and hasty movements reminded me somehow of Simon Fleix. The monk held a letter or petition in his hand, and appeared to be getting it by heart, for his lips moved continually. The light which fell on his face from the, window showed it to be of a peculiar sweaty pallor, and distorted besides. But supposing him to be devoted, like many of his kind, to an unwholesome life, I thought nothing of this; though I liked him little, and would have shifted my place but for the convenience of his neighbourhood.
Presently, while I was cudgelling my brains, a person came out and spoke to La Guesle; who called in his turn to the monk, and started hastily towards the door. The Jacobin followed. The third person who had entered in their company had his attention directed elsewhere at the moment; and though La Guesle called to him, took no heed. On the instant I grasped the situation. Taking my courage in my hands, I crossed the floor behind the monk; who, hearing me, or feeling his robe come in contact with me, presently started and looked round suspiciously, his face wearing a scowl so black and ugly that I almost recoiled from him, dreaming for a moment that I saw before me the very spirit of Father Antoine. But as the man said nothing, and the next instant averted his gaze, I hardened my heart and pushed on behind him, and passing the usher, found myself as by magic in the presence which had seemed a while ago as unattainable by my wits as it was necessary to my safety.
It was not this success alone, however, which caused my heart to beat more hopefully. The king was speaking as I entered, and the gay tones of his voice seemed to promise a favourable reception. His Majesty sat half-dressed on a stool at the farther end of the apartment, surrounded by five or six noblemen, while as many attendants, among whom I hastened to mingle, waited near the door.
La Guesle made as if he would advance, and then, seeing the king's attention was not on him, held back. But in a moment the king saw him and called to him. 'Ha, Guesle!' he said with good-temper, 'is it you? Is your friend with you?'
The Solicitor went forward with the monk at his elbow, and I had leisure to remark the favourable change which had taken place in the king, who spoke more strongly and seemed in better health than of old. His face looked less cadaverous under the paint, his form a trifle less emaciated. That which struck me more than anything, however, was the improvement in his spirits. His eyes sparkled from time to time, and he laughed continually, so that I could scarcely believe that he was the same man whom I had seen overwhelmed with despair and tortured by his conscience.
Letting his attention slip from La Guesle, he began to bandy words with the nobleman who stood nearest to him; looking up at him with a roguish eye, and making bets on the fall of Paris.
'Morbleu!' I heard him cry gaily, 'I would give a thousand pounds to see the 'Montpensier this morning! She may keep her third crown for herself. Or, peste! we might put her in a convent. That would be a fine vengeance!'
'The veil for the tonsure,' the nobleman said with a smirk.
'Ay. Why not? She would have made a monk of me,' the king rejoined smartly. 'She must be ready to hang herself with her garters this morning, if she is not dead of spite already. Or, stay, I had forgotten her golden scissors. Let her open a vein with them. Well, what does your friend want, La Guesle?'
I did not hear the answer, but it was apparently satisfactory, for in a minute all except the Jacobin fell back, leaving the monk standing before the king; who, stretching out his hand, took from him a letter. The Jacobin, trembling visibly, seemed scarcely able to support the honour done him, and the king, seeing this, said in a voice audible to all, 'Stand up, man. You are welcome. I love a cowl as some love a lady's hood. And now, what is this?'
He read a part of the letter and rose. As he did so the monk leaned forward as though to receive the paper back again, and then so swiftly, so suddenly, with so unexpected a movement that no one stirred until all was over, struck the king in the body with a knife! As the blade flashed and was hidden, and His Majesty with a deep sob fell back on the stool, then, and not till then, I knew that I had missed a providential chance of earning pardon and protection. For had I only marked the Jacobin as we passed the door together, and read his evil face aright, a word, one word, had done for me more than the pleading of a score of Crillons!
Too late a dozen sprang forward to the king's assistance; but before they reached him he had himself drawn the knife from the wound and struck the assassin with it on the head. While some, with cries of grief, ran to support Henry, from whose body the blood was already flowing fast, others seized and struck down the wretched monk. As they gathered round him I saw him raise himself for a moment on his knees and look upward; the blood which ran down his face, no less than the mingled triumph and horror of his features, impressed the sight on my recollection. The next instant three swords were plunged into his breast, and his writhing body, plucked up from the floor amid a transport of curses, was forced headlong through the casement and flung down to make sport for the grooms and scullions who stood below.
A scene of indescribable confusion followed, some crying that the king was dead, while others called for a doctor, and some by name for Dortoman. I expected to see the doors closed and all within secured, that if the man had confederates they might be taken. But there was no one to give the order. Instead, many who had neither the entree nor any business in the chamber forced their way in, and by their cries and pressure rendered the hub-bub and tumult a hundred times worse. In the midst of this, while I stood stunned and dumbfounded, my own risks and concerns forgotten, I felt my sleeve furiously plucked, and, looking round, found Simon at my elbow. The lad's face was crimson, his eyes seemed, starting from his head.
'Come,' he muttered, seizing my arm. 'Come!' And without further ceremony or explanation he dragged me towards the door, while his face and manner evinced as much heat and impatience as if he had been himself the assassin. 'Come, there is not a moment to be lost,' he panted, continuing his exertions without the least intermission.
'Whither?' I said, in amazement, as I reluctantly permitted him to force me along the passage and through the gaping crowd on the stairs. 'Whither, man?'
'Mount and ride!' was the answer he hissed in my ear. 'Ride for your life to the King of Navarre--to the King of France it may be! Ride as you have never ridden before, and tell him the news, and bid him look to himself! Be the first, and, Heaven helping us, Turenne may do his worst!'
I felt every nerve in my body tingle as I awoke to his meaning. Without a word I left his arm, and flung myself into the crowd which filled the lower passage to suffocation. As I struggled fiercely with them Simon aided me by crying 'A doctor! a doctor! make way there!' and this induced many to give place to me under the idea that I was an accredited messenger. Eventually I succeeded in forcing my way through and reaching the courtyard; being, as it turned out, the first person to issue from the Chateau. A dozen people sprang towards me with anxious eyes and questions on their lips; but I ran past them and, catching the Cid, which was fortunately at hand, by the rein, bounded into the saddle.
As I turned the horse to the gate I heard Simon cry after me. 'The Scholars' Meadow! Go that way!' and then I heard no more. I was out of the yard and galloping bare-headed down the pitched street, while women snatched their infants up and ran aside, and men came startled to the doors, crying that the League was upon us. As the good horse flung up his head and bounded forward, hurling the gravel behind him with hoofs which slid and clattered on the pavement, as the wind began to whistle by me, and I seized the reins in a shorter grip, I felt my heart bound with exultation. I experienced such a blessed relief and elation as the prisoner long fettered and confined feels when restored to the air of heaven.
Down one street and through a narrow lane we thundered, until a broken gateway stopped with fascines--through which the Cid blundered and stumbled--brought us at a bound into the Scholars' Meadow just as the tardy sun broke through the clouds and flooded the low, wide plain with brightness. Half a league in front of us the towers of Meudon rose to view on a hill. In the distance, to the left, lay the walls of Paris, and nearer, on the same side, a dozen forts and batteries; while here and there, in that quarter, a shining clump of spears or a dense mass of infantry betrayed the enemy's presence.
I heeded none of these things, however, nor anything except the towers of Meudon, setting the Cid's head straight for these and riding on at the top of his speed. Swiftly ditch and dyke came into view before us and flashed away beneath us. Men lying in pits rose up and aimed at us; or ran with cries to intercept us. A cannon-shot fired from the fort by Issy tore up the earth to one side; a knot of lancers sped from the shelter of an earthwork in the same quarter, and raced us for half a mile, with frantic shouts and threats of vengeance. But all such efforts were vanity. The Cid, fired by this sudden call upon his speed, and feeling himself loosed--rarest of events--to do his best, shook the foam from his bit, and opening his blood-red nostrils to the wind, crouched lower and lower; until his long neck, stretched out before him, seemed, as the sward swept by, like the point of an arrow speeding resistless to its aim.
God knows, as the air rushed by me and the sun shone in my face, I cried aloud like a boy, and though I sat still and stirred neither hand nor foot, lest I should break the good Sard's stride, I prayed wildly that the horse which I had groomed with my own hands and fed with my last crown might hold on unfaltering to the end. For I dreamed that the fate of a nation rode in my saddle; and mindful alike of Simon's words, 'Bid him look to himself,' and of my own notion that the League would not be so foolish as to remove one enemy to exalt another, I thought nothing more likely than that, with all my fury, I should arrive too late, and find the King of Navarre as I had left the King of France.
In this strenuous haste I covered a mile as a mile has seldom been covered before; and I was growing under the influence of the breeze which whipped my temples somewhat more cool and hopeful, when I saw on a sudden right before me, and between me and Meudon, a handful of men engaged in a melee. There were red and white jackets in it--leaguers and Huguenots--and the red coats seemed to be having the worst of it. Still, while I watched, they came off in order, and unfortunately in such a way and at such a speed that I saw they must meet me face to face whether I tried to avoid the encounter or not. I had barely time to take in the danger and its nearness, and discern beyond both parties the main-guard of the Huguenots, enlivened by a score of pennons, when the Leaguers were upon me.
I suppose they knew that no friend would ride for Meudon at that pace, for they dashed at me six abreast with a shout of triumph; and before I could count a score we met. The Cid was still running strongly, and I had not thought to stay him, so that I had no time to use my pistols. My sword I had out, but the sun dazzled me and the men wore corslets, and I made but poor play with it; though I struck out savagely, as we crashed together, in my rage at this sudden crossing of my hopes when all seemed done and gained. The Cid faced them bravely--I heard the distant huzza of the Huguenots--and I put aside one point which threatened my throat. But the sun was in my eyes and something struck me on the head. Another second, and a blow in the breast forced me fairly from the saddle. Gripping furiously at the air I went down, stunned and dizzy, my last thought as I struck the ground being of mademoiselle, and the little brook with the stepping-stones.