Chapter VIII. An Empty Room.
 

Desiring to start as early as possible, that we might reach Rosny on the second evening, I roused Simon Fleix before it was light, and learning from him where the horses were stabled, went out to attend to them; preferring to do this myself, that I might have an opportunity of seeking out a tailor, and providing myself with clothes better suited to my rank than those to which I had been reduced of late. I found that I still had ninety crowns left of the sum which the King of Navarre had given me, and twelve of these I laid out on a doublet of black cloth with russet points and ribands, a dark cloak lined with the same sober colour, and a new cap and feather. The tradesman would fain have provided me with a new scabbard also, seeing my old one was worn-out at the heel; but this I declined, having a fancy to go with my point bare until I should have punished the scoundrel who had made my mother's failing days a misery to her; a business which, the King of Navarre's once done, I promised myself to pursue with energy and at all costs.

The choice of my clothes, and a few alterations which it was necessary to make in them, detained me some time, so that it was later than I could have wished when I turned my face towards the house again, bent on getting my party to horse as speedily as possible. The morning, I remember, was bright, frosty, and cold; the kennels were dry, the streets comparatively clean. Here and there a ray of early sunshine, darting between the overhanging eaves, gave promise of glorious travelling-weather. But the faces, I remarked in my walk, did not reflect the surrounding cheerfulness. Moody looks met me everywhere and on every side; and while courier after courier galloped by me bound for the castle, the townsfolk stood aloof is doorways listless and inactive, or, gathering in groups in corners, talked what I took to be treason under the breath. The queen-mother still lived, but Orleans had revolted, and Sens and Mans, Chartres and Melun. Rouen was said to be wavering, Lyons in arms, while Paris had deposed her king, and cursed him daily from a hundred altars. In fine, the great rebellion which followed the death of Guise, and lasted so many years, was already in progress; so that on this first day of the new year the king's writ scarce ran farther than he could see, peering anxiously out from the towers above my head.

Reaching the house, I climbed the long staircase hastily, abusing its darkness and foulness, and planning as I went how my mother might most easily and quickly be moved to a better lodging. Gaining the top of the last flight, I saw that mademoiselle's door on the left of the landing was open, and concluding from this that she was up, and ready to start, I entered my mother's room with a brisk step and spirits reinforced by the crisp morning air.

But on the threshold I stopped, and stood silent and amazed. At first I thought the room was empty. Then, at a second glance, I saw the student. He was on his knees beside the bed in the alcove, from which the curtain had been partially dragged away. The curtain before the window had been torn down also, and the cold light of day, pouring in on the unsightly bareness of the room, struck a chill to my heart. A stool lay overturned by the fire, and above it a grey cat, which I had not hitherto noticed, crouched on a beam and eyed me with stealthy fierceness. Mademoiselle was not to be seen, nor was Fanchette, and Simon Fleix did not hear me. He was doing something at the bed--for my mother it seemed.

'What is it, man?' I cried softly, advancing on tiptoe to the bedside. 'Where are the others?'

The student looked round and saw me. His face was pale and gloomy. His eyes burned, and yet there were tears in them, and on his cheeks. He did not speak, but the chilliness, the bareness, the emptiness of the room spoke for him, and my heart sank.

I took him by the shoulders. 'Find your tongue, man!' I said angrily. 'Where are they?'

He rose from his knees and stood staring at me. 'They are gone!' he said stupidly.

'Gone?' I exclaimed. 'Impossible! When? Whither?'

'Half an hour ago. Whither--I do not know.'

Confounded and amazed, I glared at him between fear and rage. 'You do not know?' I cried. 'They are gone, and you do not know?'

He turned suddenly on me and gripped my arm. 'No, I do not know! I do not know!' he cried, with a complete change of manner and in a tone of fierce excitement. 'Only, may the fiend go with them! But I do know this. I know this, M. de Marsac, with whom they went, these friends of yours! A fop came, a dolt, a fine spark, and gave them fine words and fine speeches and a gold token, and, hey presto! they went, and forgot you!'

'What!' I cried, beginning to understand, and snatching fiercely at the one clue in his speech. 'A gold token? They have been decoyed away then! There is no time to be lost. I must follow.'

'No, for that is not all!' he replied, interrupting me sternly, while his grasp on my arm grew tighter and his eyes flashed as they looked into mine. 'You have not heard all. They have gone with one who called you an impostor, and a thief, and a beggar, and that to your mother's face--and killed her! Killed her as surely as if he had taken a sword to her, M. de Marsac! Will you, after that, leave her for them?'

He spoke plainly. And yet, God forgive me, it was some time before I understood him: before I took in the meaning of his words, or could transfer my thoughts from the absent to my mother lying on the bed before me. When I did do so, and turned to her, and saw her still face and thin hair straggling over the coarse pillow, then, indeed, the sight overcame me. I thought no more of others--for I thought her dead; and with a great and bitter cry I fell on my knees beside her and hid my face. What, after all, was this headstrong girl to me? What were even kings and king's commissions to me beside her--beside the one human being who loved me still, the one being of my blood and name left, the one ever-patient, ever-constant heart which for years had beaten only for me? For a while, for a few moments, I was worthy of her; for I forgot all others.

Simon Fleix roused me at last from my stupor, making me understand that she was not dead, but in a deep swoon, the result of the shock she had undergone. A leech, for whom he had despatched a neighbour, came in as I rose, and taking my place, presently restored her to consciousness. But her extreme feebleness warned me not to hope for more than a temporary recovery; nor had I sat by her long before I discerned that this last blow, following on so many fears and privations, had reached a vital part, and that she was even now dying.

She lay for a while with her hand in mine and her eyes closed, but about noon, the student, contriving to give her some broth, she revived, and, recognising me, lay for more than an hour gazing at me with unspeakable content and satisfaction. At the end of that time, and when I thought she was past speaking, she signed to me to bend over her, and whispered something, which at first I could not catch. Presently I made it out to be, 'She is gone--The girl you brought?'

Much troubled, I answered yes, begging her not to think about the matter. I need not have feared, however, for when she spoke again she did so without emotion, and rather as one seeing clearly something before her.

'When you find her, Gaston,' she murmured, 'do not be angry with her. It was not her fault. She--he deceived her. See!'

I followed the direction rather of her eyes than her hand, and found beneath the pillow a length of gold chain. 'She left that?' I murmured, a strange tumult of emotions in my breast.

'She laid it there,' my mother whispered. 'And she would have stopped him saying what he did'--a shudder ran through my mother's frame at the remembrance of the man's words, though her eyes still gazed into mine with faith and confidence--'she would have stopped him, but she could not, Gaston. And then he hurried her away.'

'He showed her a token, madame, did he not?' I could not for my life repress the question, so much seemed to turn on the point.

'A bit of gold,' my mother whispered, smiling faintly. 'Now let me sleep.' And, clinging always to my hand, she closed her eyes.

The student came back soon afterwards with some comforts for which I had despatched him, and we sat by her until the evening fell, and far into the night. It was a relief to me to learn from the leech that she had been ailing for some time, and that in any case the end must have come soon. She suffered no pain and felt no fears, but meeting my eyes whenever she opened her own, or came out of the drowsiness which possessed her, thanked God, I think, and was content. As for me, I remember that room became, for the time, the world. Its stillness swallowed up all the tumults which filled the cities of France, and its one interest the coming and going of a feeble breath--eclipsed the ambitions and hopes of a lifetime.

Before it grew light Simon Fleix stole out to attend to the horses. When he returned he came to me and whispered in my ear that he had something to tell me; and my mother lying in a quiet sleep at the time, I disengaged my hand, and, rising softly, went with him to the hearth.

Instead of speaking, he held his fist before me and suddenly unclosed the fingers. 'Do you know it?' he said, glancing at me abruptly.

I took what he held, and looking at it, nodded. It was a knot of velvet of a peculiar dark red colour, and had formed, as I knew the moment I set eyes on it, part of the fastening of mademoiselle's mask. 'Where did you find it?' I muttered, supposing that he had picked it up on the stairs.

'Look at it!' he answered impatiently. 'You have not looked.'

I turned it over, and then saw something which had escaped me at first--that the wider part of the velvet was disfigured by a fantastic stitching, done very roughly and rudely with a thread of white silk. The stitches formed letters, the letters words. With a start I read, 'A moi!' and saw in a corner, in smaller stitches, the initials 'C. d. l. V.'

I looked eagerly at the student. 'Where did you find this?' I said.

'I picked it up in the street,' he answered quietly, 'not three hundred paces from here.'

I thought a moment. 'In the gutter, or near the wall?' I asked.

'Near the wall, to be sure.'

'Under a window?'

'Precisely,' he said. 'You may be easy; I am not a fool. I marked the place, M. de Marsac, and shall not forget it.'

Even the sorrow and solicitude I felt on my mother's behalf-- feelings which had seemed a minute before to secure me against all other cares or anxieties whatever--were not proof against this discovery. For I found myself placed in a strait so cruel I must suffer either way. On the one hand, I could not leave my mother; I were a heartless ingrate to do that. On the other, I could not, without grievous pain, stand still and inactive while Mademoiselle de la Vire, whom I had sworn to protect, and who was now suffering through my laches and mischance, appealed to me for help. For I could not doubt that this was what the bow of velvet meant; still less that it was intended for me, since few save myself would be likely to recognise it, and she would naturally expect me to make some attempt at pursuit.

And I could not think little of the sign. Remembering mademoiselle's proud and fearless spirit, and the light in which she had always regarded me, I augured the worst from it. I felt assured that no imaginary danger and no emergency save the last would have induced her to stoop so low; and this consideration, taken with the fear I felt that she had fallen into the hands of Fresnoy, whom I believed to be the person who had robbed me of the gold coin, filled me with a horrible doubt which way my duty lay. I was pulled, as it were, both ways. I felt my honour engaged both to go and to stay, and while my hand went to my hilt, and my feet trembled to be gone, my eyes sought my mother, and my ears listened for her gentle breathing.

Perplexed and distracted, I looked at the student, and he at me. 'You saw the man who took her away,' I muttered. Hitherto, in my absorption on my mother's account, I had put few questions, and let the matter pass as though it moved me little and concerned me less. 'What was he like? Was he a big, bloated man, Simon, with his head bandaged, or perhaps a wound on his face?'

'The gentleman who went away with mademoiselle, do you mean?' he asked.

'Yes, yes, gentleman if you like!'

'Not at all,' the student answered. 'He was a tall young gallant, very gaily dressed, dark-haired, and with a rich complexion, I heard him tell her that he came from a friend of hers too high to be named in public or in Blois. He added that he brought a token from him; and when mademoiselle mentioned you --she had just entered madame's room with her woman when he appeared--'

'He had watched me out, of course.'

'Just so. Well, when she mentioned you, he swore you were an adventurer, and a beggarly impostor, and what not, and bade her say whether she thought it likely that her friend would have entrusted such a mission to such a man.'

'And then she went with him?'

The student nodded.

'Readily? Of her own free-will?'

'Certainly,' he answered. 'It seemed so to me. She tried to prevent him speaking before your mother, but that was all.'

On the impulse of the moment I took a step towards the door; recollecting my position, I turned back with a groan. Almost beside myself, and longing for any vent for my feelings, I caught the lad by the shoulder, where he stood on the hearth, and shook him to and fro.

'Tell me, man, what am I to do?' I said between my teeth. 'Speak! think! invent something!'

But he shook his head.

I let him go with a muttered oath, and sat down on a stool by the bed and took my head between my hands. At that very moment, however, relief came--came from an unexpected quarter. The door opened and the leech entered. He was a skilful man, and, though much employed about the Court, a Huguenot--a fact which had emboldened Simon Fleix to apply to him through the landlord of the 'Bleeding Heart,' the secret rendezvous of the Religion in Blois. When he had made his examination he was for leaving, being a grave and silent man, and full of business, but at the door I stopped him.

'Well, sir?' I said in a low tone, my hand on his cloak.

'She has rallied, and may live three days,' he answered quietly. 'Four, it may be, and as many more as God wills.'

Pressing two crowns into his hand, I begged him to call daily, which he promised to do; and then he went. My mother was still dozing peacefully, and I turned to Simon Fleix, my doubts resolved and my mind made up.

'Listen,' I said, 'and answer me shortly. We cannot both leave; that is certain. Yet I must go, and at once, to the place where you found the velvet knot. Do you describe the spot exactly, so that I may find it, and make no mistake.'

He nodded, and after a moment's reflection answered,

'You know the Rue St. Denys, M. de Marsac? Well, go down it, keeping the "Bleeding Heart" on your left. Take the second turning on the same side after passing the inn. The third house from the corner, on the left again, consists of a gateway leading to the Hospital of the Holy Cross. Above the gateway are two windows in the lower story, and above them two more. The knot lay below the first window you come to. Do you understand?'

'Perfectly,' I said. 'It is something to be a clerk, Simon.'

He looked at me thoughtfully, but added nothing; and I was busy tightening my sword-hilt, and disposing my cloak about the lower part of my face. When I had arranged this to my satisfaction, I took out and counted over the sum of thirty-five crowns, which I gave to him, impressing on him the necessity of staying beside my mother should I not return; for though I proposed to reconnoitre only, and learn if possible whether mademoiselle was still in Blois, the future was uncertain, and whereas I was known to my enemies, they were strangers to me.

Having enjoined this duty upon him, I bade my mother a silent farewell, and, leaving the room, went slowly down the stairs, the picture of her worn and patient face going with me, and seeming, I remember, to hallow the purpose I had in my mind.

The clocks were striking the hour before noon as I stepped from the doorway, and, standing a moment in the lane, looked this way and that for any sign of espionage. I could detect none, however. The lane was deserted; and feeling assured that any attempt to mislead my opponents, who probably knew Blois better than I did, must fail, I made none, but deliberately took my way towards the 'Bleeding Heart,' in the Rue St. Denys. The streets presented the same appearance of gloomy suspense which I had noticed on the previous day. The same groups stood about in the same corners, the same suspicious glances met me in common with all other strangers who showed themselves; the same listless inaction characterised the townsfolk, the same anxious hurry those who came and went with news. I saw that even here, under the walls of the palace, the bonds of law and order were strained almost to bursting, and judged that if there ever was a time in France when right counted for little, and the strong hand for much, it was this. Such a state of things was not unfavourable to my present design, and caring little for suspicious looks, I went resolutely on my way.

I had no difficulty in finding the gateway of which Simon had spoken, or in identifying the window beneath which he had picked up the velvet knot. An alley opening almost opposite, I took advantage of this to examine the house at my leisure, and remarked at once, that whereas the lower window was guarded only by strong shutters, now open, that in the story above was heavily barred. Naturally I concentrated my attention on the latter. The house, an old building of stone, seemed sufficiently reputable, nor could I discern anything about it which would have aroused my distrust had the knot been found elsewhere. It bore the arms of a religious brotherhood, and had probably at one time formed the principal entrance to the hospital, which still stood behind it, but it had now come, as I judged, to be used as a dwelling of the better class. Whether the two floors were separately inhabited or not I failed to decide.

After watching it for some time without seeing anyone pass in or out, or anything occurring to enlighten me one way or the other, I resolved to venture in, the street being quiet and the house giving no sign of being strongly garrisoned. The entrance lay under the archway, through a door on the right side. I judged from what I saw that the porter was probably absent, busying himself with his gossips in matters of State.

And this proved to be the case, for when I had made the passage of the street with success, and slipped quietly in through the half-open door, I found only his staff and charcoal-pan there to represent him. A single look satisfied me on that point; forthwith, without hesitation, I turned to the stairs and began to mount, assured that if I would effect anything single-handed I must trust to audacity and surprise rather than to caution or forethought.

The staircase was poorly lighted by loopholes looking towards the rear, but it was clean and well-kept. Silence, broken only by the sound of my footsteps, prevailed throughout the house, and all seemed so regular and decent and orderly that the higher I rose the lower fell my hopes of success. Still, I held resolutely on until I reached the second floor and stood before a closed door. The moment had come to put all to the touch. I listened for a few seconds but hearing nothing, cautiously lifted the latch. Somewhat to my surprise the door yielded to my hand, and I entered.

A high settle stood inside, interrupting my view of the room, which seemed to be spacious and full of rich stuffs and furniture, but low in the roof, and somewhat dimly lighted by two windows rather wide than high. The warm glow of a fire shone on the woodwork of the ceiling, and as I softly closed the door a log on the hearth gave way, with a crackling of sparks, which pleasantly broke the luxurious silence. The next moment a low, sweet voice asked, 'Alphonse, is that you?'

I walked round the settle and came face to face with a beautiful woman reclining on a couch. On hearing the door open she had raised herself on her elbow. Now, seeing a stranger before her, she sprang up with a low cry, and stood gazing at me, her face expressing both astonishment and anger. She was of middling height, her features regular though somewhat childlike, her complexion singularly fair. A profusion of golden hair hung in disorder about her neck, and matched the deep blue of her eyes, wherein it seemed to me, there lurked more spirit and fire than the general cast of her features led one to expect.

After a moment's silence, during which she scanned me from head to foot with great haughtiness--and I her with curiosity and wonder--she spoke. 'Sir!' she said slowly, 'to what am I to attribute this--visit?'

For the moment I was so taken aback by her appearance and extraordinary beauty, as well as by the absence of any sign of those I sought, that I could not gather my thoughts to reply, but stood looking vaguely at her. I had expected, when I entered the room, something so different from this!

'Well, sir?' she said again, speaking sharply, and tapping her foot on the floor.

'This visit, madame?' I stammered.

'Call it intrusion, sir, if you please!' she cried imperiously. 'Only explain it, or begone.'

'I crave leave to do both, madame,' I answered, collecting myself by an effort. 'I ascended these stairs and opened your door in error--that is the simple fact--hoping to find a friend of mine here. I was mistaken, it seems, and it only remains for me to withdraw, offering at the same time the humblest apologies,' And as I spoke I bowed low and prepared to retire.

'One moment, sir!' she said quickly, and in an altered tone. 'You are, perhaps, a friend of M. de Bruhl--of my husband. In that case, if you desire to leave any message I will--I shall be glad to deliver it.'

She looked so charming that, despite the tumult of my feelings, I could not but regard her with admiration. 'Alas! madame, I cannot plead that excuse,' I answered. 'I regret that I have not the honour of his acquaintance.'

She eyed me with some surprise. 'Yet still, sir,' she answered, smiling a little, and toying with a gold brooch which clasped her habit, 'you must have had some ground, some reason, for supposing you would find a friend here?'

'True, madame,' I answered, 'but I was mistaken.'

I saw her colour suddenly. With a smile and a faint twinkle of the eye she said, 'It is not possible, sir, I suppose--you have not come here, I mean, out of any reason connected with a--a knot of velvet, for instance?'

I started, and involuntarily advanced a step towards her. 'A knot of velvet!' I exclaimed, with emotion. 'Mon Dieu! Then I was not mistaken! I have come to the right house, and you--you know something of this! Madame,' I continued impulsively, 'that knot of velvet? Tell me what it means, I implore you!'

She seemed alarmed by my violence, retreating a step or two, and looking at me haughtily, yet with a kind of shame-facedness. 'Believe me, it means nothing,' she said hurriedly. 'I beg you to understand that, sir. It was a foolish jest.'

'A jest?' I said. 'It fell from this window.'

'It was a jest, sir,' she answered stubbornly. But I could see that, with all her pride, she was alarmed; her face was troubled, and there were tears in her eyes. And this rendered me under the circumstances only the more persistent.

'I have the velvet here, madame,' I said. 'You must tell me more about it.'

She looked at me with a weightier impulse of anger than she had yet exhibited. 'I do not think you know to whom you are speaking,' she said, breathing fast. 'Leave the room, sir, and at once! I have told you it was a jest. If you are a gentleman you will believe me, and go.' And she pointed to the door.

But I held my ground, with an obstinate determination to pierce the mystery. 'I am a gentleman, madame,' I said, 'and yet I must know more. Until I know more I cannot go.'

'Oh, this is insufferable!' she cried, looking round as if for a way of escape; but I was between her and the only door. 'This is unbearable! The knot was never intended for you, sir. And what is more, if M. de Bruhl comes and finds you here, you will repent it bitterly.'

I saw that she was at least as much concerned on her own account as on mine, and thought myself justified under the circumstances in taking advantage of her fears. I deliberately laid my cap on the table which stood beside me. 'I will go madame,' I said, looking at her fixedly, 'when I know all that you know about this knot I hold, and not before. If you are unwilling to tell me, I must wait for M. de Bruhl, and ask him.'

She cried out 'Insolent!' and looked at me as if in her rage and dismay she would gladly have killed me; being, I could see, a passionate woman. But I held my ground, and after a moment she spoke. 'What do you want to know?' she said, frowning darkly.

'This knot--how did it come to lie in the street below your window? I want to know that first.'

'I dropped it,' she answered sullenly.

'Why?' I said.

'Because--' And then she stopped and looked at me, and then again looked down, her face crimson. 'Because, if you must know,' she continued hurriedly, tracing a pattern on the table with her finger, 'I saw it bore the words "A moi." I have been married only two months, and I thought my husband might find it--and bring it to me. It was a silly fancy.'

'But where did you get it?' I asked, and I stared at her in growing wonder and perplexity. For the more questions I put, the further, it seemed to me, I strayed from my object.

'I picked it up in the Ruelle d'Arcy,' she answered, tapping her foot on the floor resentfully. 'It was the silly thing put it into my head to--to do what I did. And now, have you any more questions, sir?'

'One only,' I said, seeing it all clearly enough. 'Will you tell me, please, exactly where you found it?'

'I have told you. In the Ruelle d'Arcy, ten paces from the Rue de Valois. Now, sir, will you go?'

'One word, madame. Did--'

But she cried, 'Go, sir, go! go!' so violently, that after making one more attempt to express my thanks, I thought it better to obey her. I had learned all she knew; I had solved the puzzle. But, solving it, I found myself no nearer to the end I had in view, no nearer to mademoiselle. I closed the door with a silent bow, and began to descend the stairs, my mind full of anxious doubts and calculations. The velvet knot was the only clue I possessed, but was I right; in placing any dependence on it? I knew now that, wherever it had originally lain, it had been removed once. If once, why not twice? why not three times?