Chapter IX. The House in the Ruelle D'Arcy.
 

I had not gone down half a dozen steps before I heard a man enter the staircase from the street, and begin to ascend. It struck me at once that this might be M. de Bruhl; and I realised that I had not left madame's apartment a moment too soon. The last thing I desired, having so much on my hands, was to embroil myself with a stranger, and accordingly I quickened my pace, hoping to meet him so near the foot of the stairs as to leave him in doubt whether I had been visiting the upper or lower part of the house. The staircase was dark, however, and being familiar with it, he had the advantage over me. He came leaping up two steps at a time, and turning the angle abruptly, surprised me before I was clear of the upper flight.

On seeing me, he stopped short and stared; thinking at first, I fancy, that he ought to recognise me. When he did not, he stood back a pace. 'Umph!' he said. 'Have you been--have you any message for me, sir?'

'No,' I said, 'I have not.'

He frowned. 'I am M. de Bruhl,' he said.

'Indeed?' I muttered, not knowing what else to say.

'You have been--'

'Up your stairs, sir? Yes. In error,' I answered bluntly.

He gave a kind of grunt at that, and stood aside, incredulous and dissatisfied, yet uncertain how to proceed. I met his black looks with a steady countenance, and passed by him, becoming aware, however, as I went on down the stairs that he had turned and was looking after me. He was a tall, handsome man, dark, and somewhat ruddy of complexion, and was dressed in the extreme of Court fashion, in a suit of myrtle-green trimmed with sable. He carried also a cloak lined with the same on his arm. Beyond looking back when I reached the street, to see that he did not follow me, I thought no more of him. But we were to meet again, and often. Nay, had I then known all that was to be known I would have gone back and--But of that in another place.

The Rue de Valois, to which a tradesman, who was peering cautiously out of his shop, directed me, proved to be one of the main streets of the city, narrow and dirty, and darkened by overhanging eaves and signboards, but full of noise and bustle. One end of it opened on the parvis of the Cathedral; the other and quieter end appeared to abut on the west gate of the town. Feeling the importance of avoiding notice in the neighbourhood of the house I sought, I strolled into the open space in front of the Cathedral, and accosting two men who stood talking there, learned that the Ruelle d'Arcy was the third lane on the right of the Rue de Valois, and some little distance along it. Armed with this information I left them, and with my head bent down, and my cloak drawn about the lower part of my face, as if I felt the east wind, I proceeded down the street until I reached the opening of the lane. Without looking up I turned briskly into it.

When I had gone ten paces past the turning, however, I stopped and, gazing about me, began to take in my surroundings as fast as I could. The lane, which seemed little frequented, was eight or nine feet wide, unpaved, and full of ruts. The high blank wall of a garden rose on one side of it, on the other the still higher wall of a house; and both were completely devoid of windows, a feature which I recognised with the utmost dismay. For it completely upset all my calculations. In vain I measured with my eye the ten paces I had come; in vain I looked up, looked this way and that. I was nonplussed. No window opened on the lane at that point, nor, indeed, throughout its length. For it was bounded to the end, as far as I could see, by dead-walls as of gardens.

Recognising, with a sinking heart, what this meant, I saw in a moment that all the hopes I had raised on Simon Fleix's discovery were baseless. Mademoiselle had dropped the velvet bow, no doubt, but not from a window. It was still a clue, but one so slight and vague as to be virtually useless, proving only that she was in trouble and in need of help; perhaps that she had passed through this lane on her way from one place of confinement to another.

Thoroughly baffled and dispirited, I leant for awhile against the wall, brooding over the ill-luck which seemed to attend me in this, as in so many previous adventures. Nor was the low voice of conscience, suggesting that such failures arose from mismanagement rather than from ill-luck, slow to make itself heard. I reflected that if I had not allowed myself to be robbed of the gold token, mademoiselle would have trusted me; that if I had not brought her to so poor an abode as my mother's, she would not have been cajoled into following a stranger; finally, that if I had remained with her, and sent Simon to attend to the horses in my place, no stranger would have gained access to her.

But it has never been my way to accept defeat at the first offer, and though I felt these self-reproaches to be well deserved, a moment's reflection persuaded me that in the singular and especial providence which had brought the velvet knot safe to my hands I ought to find encouragement. Had Madame de Bruhl not picked it up it would have continued to lie in this by-path, through which neither I nor Simon Fleix would have been likely to pass. Again, had madame not dropped it in her turn, we should have sought in vain for any, even the slightest, clue to Mademoiselle de la Vire's fate or position.

Cheered afresh by this thought, I determined to walk to the end of the lane; and forthwith did so, looking sharply about me as I went, but meeting no one. The bare upper branches of a tree rose here and there above the walls, which were pierced at intervals by low, strong doors. These doors I carefully examined, but without making any discovery; all were securely fastened, and many seemed to have been rarely opened. Emerging at last and without result on the inner side of the city ramparts, I turned, and moodily retraced my steps through the lane, proceeding more slowly as I drew near to the Rue de Valois. This time, being a little farther from the street, I made a discovery.

The corner house, which had its front on the Rue Valois, presented, as I have said, a dead, windowless wall to the lane; but from my present standpoint I could see the upper part of the back of this house--that part of the back, I mean, which rose above the lower garden-wall that abutted on it--and in this there were several windows. The whole of two and a part of a third were within the range of my eyes; and suddenly in one of these I discovered something which made my heart beat high with hope and expectation. The window in question was heavily grated; that which I saw was tied to one of the bars. It was a small knot of some white stuff--linen apparently--and it seemed a trifle to the eye; but it was looped, as far as I could see from a distance, after the same fashion as the scrap of velvet I had in my pouch.

The conclusion was obvious, at the same time that it inspired me with the liveliest admiration of mademoiselle's wit and resources. She was confined in that room; the odds were that she was behind those bars. A bow dropped thence would fall, the wind being favourable, into the lane, not ten, but twenty paces from the street. I ought to have been prepared for a slight inaccuracy in a woman's estimate of distance.

It may be imagined with what eagerness I now scanned the house, with what minuteness I sought for a weak place. The longer I looked, however, the less comfort I derived from my inspection. I saw before me a gloomy stronghold of brick, four-square, and built in the old Italian manner, with battlements at the top, and a small machicolation, little more than a string-course, above each story; this serving at once to lessen the monotony of the dead-walls, and to add to the frowning weight of the upper part. The windows were few and small, and the house looked damp and mouldy; lichens clotted the bricks, and moss filled the string- courses. A low door opening from the lane into the garden naturally attracted my attention; but it proved to be of abnormal strength, and bolted both at the top and bottom.

Assured that nothing could be done on that side, and being unwilling to remain longer in the neighbourhood, lest I should attract attention, I returned to the street, and twice walked past the front of the house, seeing all I could with as little appearance of seeing anything as I could compass. The front retreated somewhat from the line of the street, and was flanked on the farther side by stables. Only one chimney smoked, and that sparely. Three steps led up to imposing double doors, which stood half open, and afforded a glimpse of a spacious hall and a state staircase. Two men, apparently servants, lounged on the steps, eating chestnuts, and jesting with one another; and above the door were three shields blazoned in colours. I saw with satisfaction, as I passed the second time, that the middle coat was that of Turenne impaling one which I could not read--which thoroughly satisfied me that the bow of velvet had not lied; so that, without more ado, I turned homewards, formulating my plans as I went.

I found all as I had left it; and my mother still lying in a half-conscious state, I was spared the pain of making excuses for past absence, or explaining that which I designed. I communicated the plan I had formed to Simon Fleix, who saw no difficulty in procuring a respectable person to stay with Madame de Bonne. But for some time he would come no farther into the business. He listened, his mouth open and his eyes glittering, to my plan until I came to his share in it; and then he fell into a violent fit of trembling.

'You want me to fight, monsieur,' he cried reproachfully, shaking all over like one in the palsy. 'You said so the other night. You want to get me killed! That's it.'

'Nonsense!' I answered sharply. 'I want you to hold the horses!'

He looked at me wildly, with a kind of resentment in his face, and yet as if he were fascinated.

'You will drag me into it!' he persisted. 'You will!'

'I won't,' I said.

'You will! You will! And the end I know. I shall have no chance. I am a clerk, and not bred to fighting. You want to be the death of me!' he cried excitedly.

'I don't want you to fight,' I answered with some contempt. 'I would rather that you kept out of it for my mother's sake. I only want you to stay in the lane and hold the horses. You will run little more risk than you do sitting by the hearth here.'

And in the end I persuaded him to do what I wished; though still, whenever he thought of what was in front of him, he fell a- trembling again, and many times during the afternoon got up and walked to and fro between the window and the hearth, his face working and his hands clenched like those of a man in a fever. I put this down at first to sheer chicken-heartedness, and thought it augured ill for my enterprise; but presently remarking that he made no attempt to draw back, and that though the sweat stood on his brow he set about such preparations as were necessary --remembering also how long and kindly, and without pay or guerdon, he had served my mother, I began to see that here was something phenomenal; a man strange and beyond the ordinary, of whom it was impossible to predicate what he would do when he came to be tried.

For myself, I passed the afternoon in a state almost of apathy. I thought it my duty to make this attempt to free mademoiselle, and to make it at once, since it was impossible to say what harm might come of delay, were she in such hands as Fresnoy's; but I had so little hope of success that I regarded the enterprise as desperate. The certain loss of my mother, however, and the low ebb of my fortunes, with the ever-present sense of failure, contributed to render me indifferent to risks; and even when we were on our way, through by-streets known to Simon, to the farther end of the Ruelle d'Arcy, and the red and frosty sunset shone in our faces, and gilded for a moment the dull eaves and grey towers above us, I felt no softening. Whatever the end, there was but one in the world whom I should regret, or who would regret me; and she hung, herself, on the verge of eternity.

So that I was able to give Simon Fleix his last directions with as much coolness as I ever felt in my life. I stationed him with the three horses in the lane--which seemed as quiet and little frequented as in the morning--near the end of it, and about a hundred paces or more from the house.

'Turn their heads towards the ramparts,' I said, wheeling them round myself, 'and then they will be ready to start. They are all quiet enough. You can let the Cid loose. And now listen to me, Simon,' I continued. 'Wait here until you see me return, or until you see you are going to be attacked. In the first case, stay for me, of course; in the second, save yourself as you please. Lastly, if neither event occurs before half-past five-- you will hear the convent-bell yonder ring at the half-hour-- begone, and take the horses; they are yours, And one word more,' I added hurriedly. 'If you can only get away with one horse, Simon, take the Cid. It is worth more than most men, and will not fail you at a pinch.'

As I turned away, I gave him one look to see if he understood. It was not without hesitation that after that look I left him. The lad's face was flushed, he was breathing hard, his eyes seemed to be almost starting from his head. He sat his horse shaking in every limb, and had all the air of a man in a fit. I expected him to call me back; but he did not, and reflecting that I must trust him, or give up the attempt, I went up the lane with my sword under my arm, and my cloak loose on my shoulders. I met a man driving a donkey laden with faggots. I saw no one else. It was already dusk between the walls, though light enough in the open country; but that was in my favour, my only regret; being that as the town gates closed shortly after half-past five, I could not defer my attempt until a still later hour.

Pausing in the shadow of the house while a man might count ten, I impressed on my memory the position of the particular window which bore the knot; then I passed quickly into the street, which was still full of movement, and for a second, feeling myself safe from observation in the crowd, I stood looking at the front of the house. The door was shut. My heart sank when I saw this, for I had looked to find it still open.

The feeling, however, that I could not wait, though time might present more than one opportunity, spurred me on. What I could do I must do now, at once. The sense that this was so being heavy upon me, I saw nothing for it but to use the knocker and gain admission, by fraud if I could, and if not, by force. Accordingly I stepped briskly across the kennel, and made for the entrance.

When I was within two paces of the steps, however, someone abruptly threw the door open and stepped out. The man did not notice me, and I stood quickly aside, hoping that at the last minute my chance had come. Two men, who had apparently attended this first person downstairs, stood respectfully behind him, holding lights. He paused a moment on the steps to adjust his cloak, and with more than a little surprise I recognised my acquaintance of the morning, M. de Bruhl.

I had scarcely time to identify him before he walked down the steps swinging his cane, brushed carelessly past me, and was gone. The two men looked after him awhile, shading their lights from the wind, and one saying something, the other laughed coarsely. The next moment they threw the door to and went, as I saw by the passage of their light, into the room on the left of the hall.

Now was my time. I could have hoped for, prayed for, expected no better fortune than this. The door had rebounded slightly from the jamb, and stood open an inch or more. In a second I pushed it from me gently, slid into the hall, and closed it behind me.

The door of the room on the left was wide open, and the light which shone through the doorway--otherwise the hall was dark--as well as the voices of the two men I had seen, warned me to be careful. I stood, scarcely daring to breathe, and looked about me. There was no matting on the floor, no fire on the hearth. The hall felt cold, damp, and uninhabited. The state staircase rose in front of me, and presently bifurcating, formed a gallery round the place. I looked up, and up, and far above me, in the dim heights of the second floor, I espied a faint light--perhaps, the reflection of a light.

A movement in the room on my left warned me that I had no time to lose, if I meant to act. At any minute one of the men might come out and discover me. With the utmost care I started on my journey. I stole across the stone floor of the hall easily and quietly enough, but I found the real difficulty begin when I came to the stairs. They were of wood, and creaked and groaned under me to such an extent that, with each step I trod, I expected the men to take the alarm. Fortunately all went well until I passed the first corner--I chose, of course, the left-hand flight--then a board jumped under my foot with a crack which sounded in the empty hall, and to my excited ears, as loud as a pistol-shot. I was in two minds whether I should not on the instant make a rush for it, but happily I stood still. One of the men came out and listened, and I heard the other ask, with an oath, what it was. I leant against the wall, holding my breath.

'Only that wench in one of her tantrums!' the man who had come out answered, applying an epithet to her which I will not set down, but which I carried to his account in the event of our coming face to face presently. 'She is quiet now. She may hammer and hammer, but--'

The rest I lost, as he passed through the doorway and went back to his place by the fire. But in one way his words were of advantage to me. I concluded that I need not be so very cautious now, seeing that they would set down anything they heard to the same cause; and I sped on more quickly, I had just gained the second floor landing when a loud noise below--the opening of the street door and the heavy tread of feet in the hall--brought me to a temporary standstill. I looked cautiously over the balustrade, and saw two men go across to the room on the left. One of them spoke as he entered, chiding the other knaves, I fancied, for leaving the door unbarred; and the tone, though not the words, echoing sullenly up the staircase, struck a familiar chord in my memory. The voice was Fresnoy's!