Chapter VII. Simon Fleix.
 

For some minutes I forgot mademoiselle in paying those assiduous attentions to my mother which her state and my duty demanded; and which I offered the more anxiously that I recognised, with a sinking heart, the changes which age and illness had made in her since my last visit. The shock of mademoiselle's words had thrown her into a syncope, from which she did not recover for some time; and then rather through the assistance of our strange guide, who seemed well aware what to do, than through my efforts. Anxious as I was to learn what had reduced her to such straits and such a place, this was not the time to satisfy my curiosity, and I prepared myself instead for the task of effacing the painful impression which mademoiselle's words had made on her mind.

On first coming to herself she did not remember them, but, content to find me by her side--for there is something so alchemic in a mother's love that I doubt not my presence changed her garret to a palace--she spent herself in feeble caresses and broken words. Presently, however, her eye falling on mademoiselle and her maid, who remained standing by the hearth, looking darkly at us from time to time, she recalled, first the shock which had prostrated her, and then its cause, and raising herself on her elbow, looked about her wildly. 'Gaston!' she cried, clutching my hand with her thin fingers, 'what was it I heard? It was of you someone spoke--a woman! She called you--or did I dream it?--a cheat! You!'

'Madame, madame,' I said, striving to speak carelessly, though the sight; of her grey hair, straggling and dishevelled, moved me strangely, 'was it; likely? Would anyone dare to use such expressions of me is your presence? You must indeed have dreamed it!'

The words, however, returning more and more vividly to her mind, she looked at me very pitifully, and in great agitation laid her arm on my neck, as though she would shelter me with the puny strength which just enabled her to rise in bed. 'But someone,' she muttered, her eyes on the strangers, 'said it, Gaston? I heard it. What did it mean?'

'What you heard, madame,' I answered, with an attempt at gaiety, though the tears stood in my eyes, 'was, doubtless, mademoiselle here scolding our guide from Tours, who demanded three times the proper pourboire. The impudent rascal deserved all that was said to him, I assure you.'

'Was that it?' she murmured doubtfully.

'That must have been what you heard, madame,' I answered, as if I felt no doubt.

She fell back with a sigh of relief, and a little colour came into her wan face. But her eyes still dwelt curiously, and with apprehension, on mademoiselle, who stood looking sullenly into the fire; and seeing this my heart misgave me sorely that I had done a foolish thing in bringing the girl there. I foresaw a hundred questions which would be asked, and a hundred complications which must ensue, and felt already the blush of shame mounting to my cheek.

'Who is that?' my mother asked softly. 'I am ill. She must excuse me.' She pointed with her fragile finger to my companions.

I rose, and still keeping her hand in mine, turned so as to face the hearth. 'This, madame,' I answered formally, 'is Mademoiselle--, but her name I will commit to you later, and in private. Suffice it to say that she is a lady of rank, who has been committed to my charge by a high personage.'

'A high personage?' my mother repeated gently, glancing at me with a smile of gratification.

'One of the highest,' I said, 'Such a charge being a great honour to me, I felt that I could not better execute it madame, since we must lie in Blois one night, than by requesting your hospitality on her behalf.'

I dared mademoiselle as I spoke--I dared her with my eye to contradict or interrupt me. For answer, she looked at me once, inclining her head a little, and gazing at us from under her long eyelashes. Then she turned back to the fire, and her foot resumed its angry tapping on the floor.

'I regret that I cannot receive her better,' my mother answered feebly. 'I have had losses of late. I--but I will speak of that at another time. Mademoiselle doubtless knows,' she continued with dignity, 'you and your position in the south too well to think ill of the momentary straits to which she finds me reduced.'

I saw mademoiselle start, and I writhed under the glance of covert scorn, of amazed indignation, which she shot at me. But my mother gently patting my hand, I answered patiently, 'Mademoiselle will think only what is kind, madame--of that I am assured. And lodgings are scarce to-night in Blois.'

'But tell me of yourself, Gaston,' my mother cried eagerly; and I had not the heart, with her touch on my hand, her eyes on my face, to tear myself away, much as I dreaded what was coming, and longed to end the scene. 'Tell me of yourself. You are still in favour with the king of -- I will not name him here?'

'Still, madame,' I answered, looking steadily at mademoiselle, though my face burned.

'You are still--he consults you, Gaston?'

'Still, madame.'

My mother heaved a happy sigh, and sank lower in the bed. 'And your employments?' she murmured, her voice trembling with gratification. 'They have not been reduced? You still retain them, Gaston?'

'Still, madame,' I answered, the perspiration standing on my brow, my shame almost more than I could bear.

'Twelve thousand livres a year, I think?'

'The same, madame.'

'And your establishment? How many do you keep now? Your valet, of course? And lackeys--how many at present?' She glanced, with an eye of pride, while she waited for my answer, first at the two silent figures by the fire, then at the poverty-stricken room; as if the sight of its bareness heightened for her the joy of my prosperity.

She had no suspicion of my trouble, my misery, or that the last question almost filled the cup too full. Hitherto all had been easy, but this seemed to choke me. I stammered and lost my voice. Mademoiselle, her head bowed, was gazing into the fire. Fanchette was staring at me, her black eyes round as saucers, her mouth half-open. 'Well, madame,' I muttered at length, 'to tell you the truth, at present, you must understand, I have been forced to--'

'What, Gaston?' Madame de Bonne half rose in bed. Her voice was sharp with disappointment and apprehension; the grasp of her fingers on my hand grew closer.

I could not resist that appeal. I flung away the last rag of shame. 'To reduce my establishment somewhat,' I answered, looking a miserable defiance at mademoiselle's averted figure. She had called me a liar and a cheat--here in the room! I must stand before her a liar and a cheat confessed. 'I keep but three lackeys now, madame.'

Still it is creditable,' my mother muttered thoughtfully, her eyes shining. 'Your dress, however, Gaston--only my eyes are weak--seems to me--'

'Tut, tut! It is but a disguise,' I answered quickly.

'I might have known that,' she rejoined, sinking back with a smile and a sigh of content. 'But when I first saw you I was almost afraid that something had happened to you. And I have been uneasy lately,' she went on, releasing my hand, and beginning to play with the coverlet, as though the remembrance troubled her. 'There was a man here a while ago--a friend of Simon Fleix there--who had been south to Pau and Nerac, and he said there was no M. de Marsac about the Court.'

'He probably knew less of the Court than the wine-tavern,' I answered with a ghastly smile.

'That was just what I told him,' my mother responded quickly and eagerly. 'I warrant you I sent him away ill-satisfied.'

'Of course,' I said; 'there will always be people of that kind. But now, if you will permit me, madame, I will make such arrangements for mademoiselle as are necessary.'

Begging her accordingly to lie down and compose herself--for even so short a conversation, following on the excitement of our arrival, had exhausted her to a painful degree--I took the youth, who had just returned from stabling our horses, a little aside, and learning that he lodged in a smaller chamber on the farther side of the landing, secured it for the use of mademoiselle and her woman. In spite of a certain excitability which marked him at times, he seemed to be a quick, ready fellow, and he willingly undertook to go out, late as it was, and procure some provisions and a few other things which were sadly needed, as well for my mother's comfort as for our own. I directed Fanchette to aid him in the preparation of the other chamber, and thus for a while I was left alone with mademoiselle. She had taken one of the stools, and sat cowering over the fire, the hood of her cloak drawn about her head; in such a manner that even when she looked at me, which she did from time to time, I saw little more than her eyes, bright with contemptuous anger.

'So, sir,' she presently began, speaking in a low voice, and turning slightly towards me, 'you practise lying even here?'

I felt so strongly the futility of denial or explanation that I shrugged my shoulders and remained silent under the sneer. Two more days--two more days would take us to Rosny, and my task would be done, and Mademoiselle and I would part for good and all. What would it matter then what she thought of me? What did it matter now?

For the first time in our intercourse my silence seemed to disconcert and displease her. 'Have you nothing to say for yourself?' she muttered sharply, crushing a fragment of charcoal under her foot, and stooping to peer at the ashes. 'Have you not another lie in your quiver, M. de Marsac?' De Marsac!' And she repeated the title, with a scornful laugh, as if she put no faith in my claim to it.

But I would answer nothing--nothing; and we remained silent until Fanchette, coming in to say that the chamber was ready, held the light for her mistress to pass out. I told the woman to come back and fetch mademoiselle's supper, and then, being left alone with my mother, who had fallen asleep, with a smile on her thin, worn face, I began to wonder what had happened to reduce her to such dire poverty.

I feared to agitate her by referring to it; but later in the evening, when her curtains were drawn and Simon Fleix and I were left together, eyeing one another across the embers like dogs of different breeds--with a certain strangeness and suspicion--my thoughts recurred to the question; and determining first to learn something about my companion, whose pale, eager face and tattered, black dress gave him a certain individuality, I asked him whether he had come from Paris with Madame de Bonne.

He nodded without speaking.

I asked him if he had known her long.

'Twelve months,' he answered. 'I lodged on the fifth, madame on the second, floor of the same house in Paris.'

I leaned forward and plucked the hem of his black robe. 'What is this?' I said, with a little contempt. 'You are not a priest, man.'

'No,' he answered, fingering the stuff himself, and gazing at me in a curious, vacant fashion. 'I am a student of the Sorbonne.'

I drew off from him with a muttered oath, wondering--while I looked at him with suspicious eyes--how he came to be here, and particularly how he came to be in attendance on my mother, who had been educated from childhood in the Religion, and had professed it in private all her life. I could think of no one who, in old days, would have been less welcome in her house than a Sorbonnist, and began to fancy that here should lie the secret of her miserable condition.

'You don't like, the Sorbonne?' he said, reading my thoughts; which were, indeed, plain enough.

'No more than I love the devil!' I said bluntly.

He leaned forward and, stretching out a thin, nervous hand, laid it on my knee. 'What if they are right, though?' he muttered, his voice hoarse. 'What if they are right, M. de Marsac?'

'Who right?' I asked roughly, drawing back afresh.

'The Sorbonne.' he repeated, his face red with excitement, his eyes peering uncannily into mine. 'Don't you see,' he continued, pinching my knee in his earnestness, and thrusting his face nearer and nearer to mine, 'it all turns on that? It all turns on that--salvation or damnation! Are they right? Are you right? You say yes to this, no to that, you white-coats; and you say it lightly, but are you right? Are you right? Mon Dieu!' he continued, drawing back abruptly and clawing the air with impatience, 'I have read, read, read! I have listened to sermons, theses, disputations, and I know nothing. I know no more than when I began.'

He sprang up and began to pace the floor, while I gazed at him with a feeling of pity. A very learned person once told me that the troubles of these times bred four kinds of men, who were much to be compassionated: fanatics on the one side or the other, who lost sight of all else in the intensity of their faith; men who, like Simon Fleix, sought desperately after something to believe, and found it not; and lastly, scoffers, who, believing in nothing, looked on all religion as a mockery.

He presently stopped walking--in his utmost excitement I remarked that he never forgot my mother, but trod more lightly when he drew near the alcove--and spoke again. 'You are a Huguenot?' he said.

'Yes,' I replied.

'So is she,' he rejoined, pointing towards the bed. 'But do you feel no doubts?'

'None,' I said quietly.

'Nor does she.' he answered again, stopping opposite me. You made up your mind--how?'

'I was born in the Religion,' I said.

'And you have never questioned it?'

'Never.'

'Nor thought much about it?'

'Not a great deal,' I answered.

'Saint Gris!' he exclaimed in a low tone. 'And do you never think of hell-fire--of the worm which dieth not, and the fire which shall not be quenched? Do you never think of that, M. de Marsac?'

'No, my friend, never!' I answered, rising impatiently; for at that hour, and in that silent, gloomy room I found his conversation dispiriting. 'I believe what I was taught to believe, and I strive to hurt no one but the enemy. I think little; and if I were you I would think less. I would do something, man--fight, play, work, anything but think! I leave that to clerks.'

'I am a clerk,' he answered.

'A poor one, it seems,' I retorted, with a little scorn in my tone. 'Leave it, man. Work! Fight! Do something!'

'Fight?' he said, as if the idea were a novel one. 'Fight? But there, I might be killed; and then hell-fire, you see!'

'Zounds, man!' I cried, out of patience with a folly which, to tell the truth, the lamp burning low, and the rain pattering on the roof, made the skin of my back feel cold and creepy. 'Enough of this! Keep your doubts and your fire to yourself! And answer me,' I continued, sternly. 'How came Madame de Bonne so poor? How did she come down to this place?'

He sat down on his stool, the excitement dying quickly out of his face. 'She gave away all her money,' he said slowly and reluctantly. It may be imagined that this answer surprised me. 'Gave it away?' I exclaimed. 'To whom? And when?'

He moved uneasily on his seat and avoided my eye, his altered manner filling me with suspicions which the insight I had just obtained into his character did not altogether preclude. At last he said, 'I had nothing to do with it, if you mean that; nothing. On the contrary, I have done all I could to make it up to her. I followed her here. I swear that is so, M. de Marsac.'

'You have not told me yet to whom she gave it,' I said sternly.

'She gave it,' he muttered, 'to a priest.'

'To what priest?'

'I do not know his name. He is a Jacobin.'

'And why?' I asked, gazing incredulously at the student. 'Why did she give it to him? Come, come! have a care. Let me have none of your Sorbonne inventions!'

He hesitated a moment, looking at me timidly, and then seemed to make up his mind to tell me. 'He found out--it was when we lived in Paris, you understand, last June--that she was a Huguenot. It was about the time they burned the Foucards, and he frightened her with that, and made her pay him money, a little at first, and then more and more, to keep her secret. When the king came to Blois she followed his Majesty, thinking to be safer here; but the priest came too, and got more money, and more, until he left her--this.'

'This!' I said. And I set my teeth together.

Simon Fleix nodded,

I looked round the wretched garret to which my mother had been reduced, and pictured the days and hours of fear and suspense through which she had lived; through which she must have lived, with that caitiff's threat hanging over her grey head! I thought of her birth and her humiliation; of her frail form and patient, undying love for me; and solemnly, and before heaven, I swore that night to punish the man. My anger was too great for words, and for tears I was too old. I asked Simon Fleix no more questions, save when the priest might be looked for again--which he could not tell me--and whether he would know him again--to which he answered, 'Yes.' But, wrapping myself in my cloak, I lay down by the fire and pondered long and sadly.

So, while I had been pinching there, my mother had been starving here. She had deceived me, and I her. The lamp flickered, throwing uncertain shadows as the draught tossed the strange window-curtain to and fro. The leakage from the roof fell drop by drop, and now and again the wind shook the crazy building, as though it would lift it up bodily and carry it away.