A Gentleman of France by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter VI. My Mother's Lodging.
Travelling by way of Chatelherault and Tours, we reached the neighbourhood of Blois a little after noon on the third day without misadventure or any intimation of pursuit. The Norman proved himself a cheerful companion on the road, as I already knew him to be a man of sense and shrewdness while his presence rendered the task of keeping my men in order an easy one. I began to consider the adventure as practically achieved; and regarding Mademoiselle de la Vire as already in effect transferred to the care of M. de Rosny, I ventured to turn my thoughts to the development of my own plans and the choice of a haven in which I might rest secure from the vengeance of M. de Turenne.
For the moment I had evaded his pursuit, and, assisted by the confusion caused everywhere by the death of Guise had succeeded in thwarting his plans and affronting his authority with seeming ease. But I knew too much of his power and had heard too many instances of his fierce temper and resolute will to presume on short impunity or to expect the future with anything but diffidence and dismay.
The exclamations of my companions on coming within sight of Blois aroused me from these reflections. I joined them, and fully shared their emotion as I gazed on the stately towers which had witnessed so many royal festivities, and, alas! one royal tragedy; which had sheltered Louis the Well-beloved and Francis the Great, and rung with the laughter of Diana of Poitiers and the second Henry. The play of fancy wreathed the sombre building with a hundred memories grave and gay. But, though the rich plain of the Loire still swelled upward as of old in gentle homage at the feet of the gallant town, the shadow of crime seemed to darken all, and dim even the glories of the royal standard which hung idly in the air.
We had heard so many reports of the fear and suspicion which reigned in the city and of the strict supervision which was exercised over all who entered--the king dreading a repetition of the day of the Barricades--that we halted at a little inn a mile short of the gate and broke up our company. I parted from my Norman friend with mutual expressions of esteem, and from my own men, whom I had paid off in the morning, complimenting each of them with a handsome present, with a feeling of relief equally sincere. I hoped--but the hope was not fated to be gratified --that I might never see the knaves again.
It wanted less than an hour of sunset when I rode up to the gate, a few paces in front of mademoiselle and her woman; as if I had really been the intendant for whom the horse-dealer had mistaken me. We found the guardhouse lined with soldiers, who scanned us very narrowly as we approached, and whose stern features and ordered weapons showed that they were not there for mere effect. The fact, however, that we came from Tours, a city still in the king's hands, served to allay suspicion, and we passed without accident.
Once in the streets, and riding in single file between the houses, to the windows of which the townsfolk seemed to be attracted by the slightest commotion, so full of terror was the air, I experienced a moment of huge relief. This was Blois-- Blois at last. We were within a few score yards of the Bleeding Heart. In a few minutes I should receive a quittance, and be free to think only of myself.
Nor was my pleasure much lessened by the fact that I was so soon to part from Mademoiselle de la Vire. Frankly, I was far from liking her. Exposure to the air of a court had spoiled, it seemed to me, whatever graces of disposition the young lady had ever possessed. She still maintained, and had maintained throughout the journey, the cold and suspicious attitude assumed at starting; nor had she ever expressed the least solicitude on my behalf, or the slightest sense that we were incurring danger in her service. She had not scrupled constantly to prefer her whims to the common advantage, and even safety; while her sense of self-importance had come to be so great, that she seemed to hold herself exempt from the duty of thanking any human creature. I could not deny that she was beautiful--indeed, I often thought, when watching her, of the day when I had seen her in the King of Navarre's antechamber in all the glory of her charms. But I felt none the less that I could turn my back on her--leaving her in safety--without regret; and be thankful that her path would never again cross mine.
With such thoughts in my breast I turned the corner of the Rue de St. Denys and came at once upon the Bleeding Heart, a small but decent-looking hostelry situate near the end of the street and opposite a church. A bluff grey-haired man, who was standing in the doorway, came forward as we halted, and looking curiously at mademoiselle asked what I lacked; adding civilly that the house was full and they had no sleeping room, the late events having drawn a great assemblage to Blois.
'I want only an address,' I answered, leaning from the saddle and speaking in a low voice that I might not be overheard by the passers-by. 'The Baron de Rosny is in Blois, is he not?'
The man started at the name of the Huguenot leader, and looked round him nervously. But, seeing that no one was very near us, he answered: 'He was, sir; but he left town a week ago and more. 'There have been strange doings here, and M. de Rosny thought that the climate suited him ill.'
He said this with so much meaning, as well as concern that he should not be overheard, that, though I was taken aback and bitterly disappointed, I succeeded in restraining all exclamations and even show of feeling. After a pause of dismay, I asked whither M. de Rosny had gone.
'To Rosny,' was the answer.
'Is beyond Chartres, pretty well all the way to Mantes,' the man answered, stroking my horse's neck. 'Say thirty leagues.'
I turned my horse, and hurriedly communicated what he said to mademoiselle, who was waiting a few paces away. Unwelcome to me, the news was still less welcome to her. Her chagrin and indignation knew no bounds. For a moment words failed her, but her flashing eyes said more than her tongue as she cried to me: 'Well, sir, and what now? Is this the end of your fine promises? Where is your Rosny, if all be not a lying invention of your own?'
Feeling that she had some excuse I suppressed my choler, and humbly repeating that Rosny was at his house, two days farther on, and that I could see nothing for it but to go to him, I asked the landlord where we could find a lodging for the night.
'Indeed, sir, that is more than I can say,' he answered, looking curiously at us, and thinking, I doubt not, that with my shabby cloak and fine horse, and mademoiselle's mask and spattered riding-coat, we were an odd couple. 'There is not an inn which is not full to the garrets--nay, and the stables; and, what is more, people are chary of taking strangers in. These are strange times. They say,' be continued in a lower tone, 'that the old queen is dying up there, and will not last the night.'
I nodded. 'We must go somewhere' I said.
'I would help you if I could,' he answered, shrugging his shoulders. 'But there it is! Blois is full from the tiles to the cellars.'
My horse shivered under me, and mademoiselle, whose patience was gone, cried harshly to me to do something. 'We cannot spend the night in the streets,' she said fiercely.
I saw that she was worn out and scarcely mistress of herself. The light was falling, and with it some rain. The reek of the kennels and the close air from the houses seemed to stifle us. The bell at the church behind us was jangling out vespers. A few people, attracted by the sight of our horses standing before the inn, had gathered round and were watching us.
Something I saw must be done, and done quickly. In despair, and seeing no other resort, I broached a proposal of which I had not hitherto even dreamed. 'Mademoiselle,' I said bluntly, 'I must take you to my mother's.'
'To your mother's, sir?' she cried, rousing herself. Her voice rang with haughty surprise.
'Yes,' I replied brusquely; 'since, as you say, we cannot spend the night in the streets, and I do not know where else I can dispose of you. From the last advices I had I believe her to have followed the court hither. My friend,' I continued, turning to the landlord, 'do you know by name a Madame de Bonne, who should be in Blois?'
'A Madame de Bonne!' he muttered, reflecting. 'I have heard the name lately. Wait a moment.' Disappearing into the house, he returned almost immediately, followed by a lanky pale-faced youth wearing a tattered black soutane. 'Yes,' he said nodding, 'there is a worthy lady of that name lodging in the next street, I am told. As it happens, this young man lives in the same house, and will guide you, if you like.'
I assented, and, thanking him for his information, turned my horse and requested the youth to lead the way. We had scarcely passed the corner of the street, however, and entered one somewhat more narrow and less frequented, when mademoiselle, who was riding behind me, stopped and called to me. I drew rein, and, turning, asked what it was.
'I am not coming,' she said, her voice trembling slightly, but whether with alarm or anger I could not determine. 'I know nothing of you, and I--I demand to be taken to M. de Rosny.'
'If you cry that name aloud in the streets of Blois, mademoiselle,' I retorted, 'you are like enough to be taken whither you will not care to go! As for M. de Rosny, I have told you that he is not here. He has gone to his seat at Mantes.'
'Then take me to him!'
'At this hour of the night?' I said drily. 'It is two days' journey from here.'
'Then I will go to an inn,' she replied sullenly.
'You have heard that there is no room in the inns ' I rejoined with what patience I could. 'And to go from inn to inn at this hour might lead us into trouble. I can assure you that I am as much taken aback by M. de Rosny's absence as you are. For the present, we are close to my mother's lodging, and--'
'I know nothing of your mother!' she exclaimed passionately, her voice raised. 'You have enticed me hither by false pretences, sir, and I will endure it no longer. I will--'
'What you will do, I do not know then, mademoiselle,' I replied, quite at my wits' end; for what with the rain and the darkness, the unknown streets--in which our tarrying might at any moment collect a crowd--and this stubborn girl's opposition, I knew not whither to turn. 'For my part I can suggest nothing else. It does not become me to speak of my mother,' I continued, 'or I might say that even Mademoiselle de la Vire need not be ashamed to accept the hospitality of Madame de Bonne. Nor are my mother's circumstances,' I added proudly, 'though narrow, so mean as to deprive her of the privileges of her birth.'
My last words appeared to make some impression upon my companion. She turned and spoke to her woman, who replied in a low voice, tossing her head the while and glaring at me in speechless indignation. Had there been anything else for it, they would doubtless have flouted my offer still; but apparently Fanchette could suggest nothing, and presently mademoiselle, with a sullen air, bade me lead on.
Taking this for permission, the lanky youth in the black soutane, who had remained at my bridle throughout the discussion, now listening and now staring, nodded and resumed his way; and I followed. After proceeding a little more than fifty yards he stopped before a mean-looking doorway, flanked by grated windows, and fronted by a lofty wall which I took to be the back of some nobleman's garden. The street at this point was unlighted, and little better than an alley; nor was the appearance of the house, which was narrow and ill-looking, though lofty, calculated, as far as I could make it out is the darkness, to allay mademoiselle's suspicions. Knowing, however, that people of position are often obliged in towns to lodge in poor houses, I thought nothing of this, and only strove to get mademoiselle dismounted as quickly as possible. The lad groped about and found two rings beside the door, and to these I tied up the horses. Then, bidding him lead the way, and begging mademoiselle to follow, I plunged into the darkness of the passage and felt my way to the foot of the staircase, which was entirely unlighted, and smelled close and unpleasant.
'Which floor?' I asked my guide.
'The fourth,' he answered quietly.
'Morbleu!' I muttered, as I began to ascend, my hand on the wall. 'What is the meaning of this?'
For I was perplexed. The revenues of Marsac, though small, should have kept; my mother, whom I had last seen in Paris before the Nemours edict, in tolerable comfort--such modest comfort, at any rate, as could scarcely be looked for in such a house as this--obscure, ill-tended, unlighted. To my perplexity was added, before I reached the top of the stairs, disquietude-- disquietude on her account as well as on mademoiselle's. I felt that something was wrong, and would have given much to recall the invitation I had pressed on the latter.
What the young lady thought herself I could pretty well guess, as I listened to her hurried breathing at my shoulder. With every step I expected her to refuse to go farther. But, having once made up her mind, she followed me stubbornly, though the darkness was such that involuntarily I loosened my dagger, and prepared to defend myself should this turn out to be a trap.
We reached the top, however, without accident. Our guide knocked softly at a door and immediately opened it without waiting for an answer. A feeble light shone out on the stair-head, and bending my head, for the lintel was low, I stepped into the room.
I advanced two paces and stood looking about me in angry bewilderment. The bareness of extreme poverty marked everything on which my eyes rested. A cracked earthenware lamp smoked and sputtered on a stool in the middle of the rotting floor. An old black cloak nailed to the wall, and flapping to and fro in the draught like some dead gallowsbird, hung in front of the unglazed window. A jar in a corner caught the drippings from a hole in the roof. An iron pot and a second stool--the latter casting a long shadow across the floor--stood beside the handful of wood ashes, which smouldered on the hearth. And that was all the furniture I saw, except a bed which filled the farther end of the long narrow room, and was curtained off so as to form a kind of miserable alcove.
A glance sufficed to show me all this, and that the room was empty, or apparently empty. Yet I looked again and again, stupefied. At last finding my voice, I turned to the young man who had brought us hither, and with a fierce oath demanded of him what he meant.
He shrank back behind the open door, and yet; answered with a kind of sullen surprise that I had asked for Madame de Bonne's, and this was it.
'Madame de Bonne's!' I muttered. 'This Madame de Bonne's!'
'Of course it is! And you know it!' mademoiselle hissed in my ear, her voice, as she interposed, hoarse with passion. 'Don't think that you can deceive us any longer. We know all! This,' she continued, looking round, her cheeks scarlet, her eyes ablaze with scorn, 'is your mother's, is it! Your mother who has followed the court hither--whose means are narrow, but not so small as to deprive her of the privileges of her rank! This is your mother's hospitality, is it? You are a cheat, sir! and a detected cheat! Let us begone! Let me go, sir, I say!'
Twice I had tried to stop the current of her words; but in vain. Now with anger which surpassed hers a hundredfold--for who, being a man, would hear himself misnamed before his mother?--I succeeded, 'Silence, mademoiselle!' I cried, my grasp on her wrist. 'Silence, I say! This is my mother!'
And running forward to the bed, I fell on my knees beside it. A feeble hand had half withdrawn the curtain, and through the gap my mother's stricken face looked out, a great fear stamped upon it.