Under the Red Robe by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter XIV. St. Martin's Eve
It was late evening on the twenty-ninth of November when I rode into Paris through the Orleans gate. The wind was in the north- east, and a great cloud of vapour hung in the eye of an angry sunset. The air seemed to be heavy with smoke, the kennels reeked, my gorge rose at the city's smell; and with all my heart I envied the man who had gone out of it by the same gate nearly two months before, with his face to the south and the prospect of riding day after day and league after league across heath and moor and pasture. At least he had had some weeks of life before him, and freedom and the open air, and hope and uncertainty; while I came back under doom, and in the pall of smoke that hung over the huddle of innumerable roofs saw a gloomy shadowing of my own fate.
For make no mistake. A man in middle life does not strip himself of the worldly habit with which experience has clothed him, does not run counter to all the hard saws and instances by which he has governed his course so long, without shiverings and doubts and horrible misgivings, and struggles of heart. At least a dozen times between the Loire and Paris I asked myself what honour was, and what good it could do me when I lay rotting and forgotten; if I were not a fool following a Jack o' Lanthorn; and whether, of all the men in the world, the relentless man to whom I was returning would not be the first to gibe at my folly?
However, shame kept me straight; shame and the memory of Mademoiselle's looks and words. I dared not be false to her again; I could not, after speaking so loftily, fall so low, And therefore--though not without many a secret struggle and quaking --I came, on the last evening but one of November, to the Orleans gate, and rode slowly and sadly through the streets by the Luxembourg on my way to the Pont au Change.
The struggle had sapped my last strength, however; and with the first whiff of the gutters, the first rush of barefooted gamins under my horse's hoofs, the first babel of street cries--the first breath, in a word, of Paris--there came a new temptation; to go for one last night to Zaton's, to see the tables again and the faces of surprise, to be for an hour or two the old Berault. That would be no breach of honour, for in any case I could not reach the Cardinal before to-morrow. And it could do no harm. It could make no change in anything. It would not have been a thing worth struggling about, indeed; only--only I had in my inmost heart a suspicion that the stoutest resolutions might lose their force in that atmosphere; and that there even such a talisman as the memory of a woman's looks and words might lose its virtue.
Still, I think that I should have succumbed in the end if I had not received at the corner of the Luxembourg a shock which sobered me effectually. As I passed the gates, a coach, followed by two outriders, swept out of the Palace courtyard; it was going at a great pace, and I reined my jaded horse on one side to give it room. By chance as it whirled by me, one of the leather curtains flapped back, and I saw for a second by the waning light--the nearer wheels were no more than two feet from my boot --a face inside.
A face and no more, and that only for a second. But it froze me. It was Richelieu's, the Cardinal's; but not as I had been wont to see it--keen, cold, acute, with intellect and indomitable will in every feature. This face was contorted with the rage of impatience, was grim with the fever of haste, and the fear of death. The eyes burned under the pale brow, the moustache bristled, the teeth showed through the beard; I could fancy the man crying 'Faster! Faster!' and gnawing his nails in the impotence of passion; and I shrank back as if I had been struck. The next moment the outriders splashed me, the coach was a hundred paces ahead, and I was left chilled and wondering, foreseeing the worst, and no longer in any mood for Zaton's.
Such a revelation of such a man was enough to appal me, for a moment conscience cried out that he must have heard that Cocheforet had escaped him, and through me. But I dismissed the idea as soon as formed. In the vast meshes of the Cardinal's schemes Cocheforet could be only a small fish; and to account for the face in the coach I needed a cataclysm, a catastrophe, a misfortune as far above ordinary mishaps as this man's intellect rose above the common run of minds.
It was almost dark when I crossed the bridges, and crept despondently to the Rue Savonnerie. After stabling my horse I took my bag and holsters, and climbing the stairs to my old landlord's--I remember that the place had grown, as it seemed to me, strangely mean and small and ill-smelling in my absence--I knocked at the door. It was promptly opened by the little tailor himself, who threw up his arms and opened his eyes at sight of me.
'By Saint Genevieve!' he said, 'if it is not M. de Berault?'
'It is,' I said. It touched me a little, after my lonely journey, to find him so glad to see me; though I had never done him a greater benefit than sometimes to unbend with him and borrow his money. 'You look surprised, little man!' I continued, as he made way for me to enter. 'I'll be sworn that you have been pawning my goods and letting my room, you knave!' 'Never, your Excellency!' he answered. 'On the contrary, I have been expecting you.'
'How?' I said. 'To-day?'
'To-day or to-morrow,' he answered, following me in and closing the door. 'The first thing I said when I heard the news this morning was--now we shall have M. de Berault back again. Your Excellency will pardon the children,' he continued, bobbing round me, as I took the old seat on the three-legged stool before the hearth. 'The night is cold and there is no fire in your room.'
While he ran to and fro with my cloak and bags, little Gil, to whom I had stood at St Sulpice's, borrowing ten crowns the same day, I remember, came shyly to play with my sword hilt.
'So you expected me back when you heard the news, Frison, did you?' I said, taking the lad on my knee.
'To be sure, your Excellency,' he answered, peeping into the black pot before he lifted it to the hook.
'Very good. Then now let us hear what the news is,' I said drily.
'Of the Cardinal, M. de Berault.'
'Ah! And what?' He looked at me, holding the heavy pot suspended in his hands.
'You have not heard?' he exclaimed in astonishment.
'Not a tittle. Tell it me, my good fellow.'
'You have not heard that his Eminence is disgraced?'
I stared at him. 'Not a word,' I said.
He set down the pot.
'Then your Excellency must have made a very long journey indeed,' he said with conviction. 'For it has been in the air a week or more, and I thought that it had brought you back. A week? A month, I dare say. They whisper that it is the old Queen's doing. At any rate, it is certain that they have cancelled his commissions and displaced his officers. There are rumours of immediate peace with Spain. Everywhere his enemies are lifting up their heads; and I hear that he has relays of horses set all the way to the coast that he may fly at any moment. For what I know he may be gone already.'
'But, man--' I said, surprised out of my composure. 'The King! You forget the King. Let the Cardinal once pipe to him and he will dance. And they will dance too!' I added grimly.
'Yes,' Frison answered eagerly. 'True, your Excellency, but the King will not see him. Three times to-day, as I am told, the Cardinal has driven to the Luxembourg and stood like any common man in the ante-chamber, so that I hear it was pitiful to see him. But his Majesty would not admit him. And when he went away the last time I am told that his face was like death! Well, he was a great man, and we may be worse ruled, M. de Berault, saving your presence. If the nobles did not like him, he was good to the traders and the bourgeoisie, and equal to all.'
'Silence, man! Silence, and let me think,' I said, much excited. And while he bustled to and fro, getting my supper, and the firelight played about the snug, sorry little room, and the child toyed with his plaything, I fell to digesting this great news, and pondering how I stood now and what I ought to do. At first sight, I know, it seemed to me that I had nothing to do but to sit still. In a few hours the man who had taken my bond would be powerless, and I should be free; in a few hours I might smile at him. To all appearance the dice had fallen well for me. I had done a great thing, run a great risk, won a woman's love; and, after all, I was not to pay the penalty.
But a word which fell from Frison as he fluttered round me, pouring out the broth and cutting the bread, dropped into my mind and spoiled my satisfaction.
'Yes, your Excellency,' he said, confirming something he had stated before and which I had missed, 'and I am told that the last time he came into the gallery there was not a man of all the scores who had been at his levee last Monday would speak to him. They fell off like rats--just like rats--until he was left standing alone. And I have seen him!'--Frison lifted up his eyes and his hands and drew in his breath--'Ah! I have seen the King look shabby beside him! And his eye! I would not like to meet it now.'
'Pish!' I growled. 'Someone has fooled you. Men are wiser than that.'
'So? Well, your Excellency understands,' he answered meekly. 'But--there are no cats on a cold hearth.'
I told him again that he was a fool. But for all that, and my reasoning, I felt uncomfortable. This was a great man, if ever a great man lived, and they were all leaving him; and I--well, I had no cause to love him. But I had taken his money, I had accepted his commission, and I had betrayed him. These three things being so, if he fell before I could--with the best will in the world--set myself right with him, so much the better for me. That was my gain--the fortune of war, the turn of the dice. But if I lay hid, and took time for my ally, and being here while he still stood, though tottering, waited until he fell, what of my honour then? What of the grand words I had said to Mademoiselle at Agen? I should be like the recreant in the old romance, who, lying in the ditch while the battle raged, came out afterwards and boasted of his courage.
And yet the flesh was weak. A day, twenty-four hours, two days, might make the difference between life and death, love and death; and I wavered. But at last I settled what I would do. At noon the next day, the time at which I should have presented myself if I had not heard this news, at that time I would still present myself. Not earlier; I owed myself the chance. Not later; that was due to him.
Having so settled it, I thought to rest in peace. But with the first light I was awake, and it was all I could do to keep myself quiet until I heard Frison stirring. I called to him then to know if there was any news, and lay waiting and listening while he went down to the street to learn. It seemed an endless time before he came back; an age, when he came back, before he spoke.
'Well, he has not set off?' I asked at last, unable to control my eagerness.
Of course he had not; and at nine o'clock I sent Frison out again; and at ten and eleven--always with the same result. I was like a man waiting and looking and, above all, listening for a reprieve; and as sick as any craven. But when he came back, at eleven, I gave up hope and dressed myself carefully. I suppose I had an odd look then, however, for Frison stopped me at the door, and asked me, with evident alarm, where I was going.
I put the little man aside gently.
'To the tables,' I said, 'to make a big throw, my friend.'
It was a fine morning, sunny, keen, pleasant, when I went out into the street; but I scarcely noticed it. All my thoughts were where I was going, so that it seemed but a step from my threshold to the Hotel Richelieu; I was no sooner gone from the one than I found myself at the other. Now, as on a memorable evening when I had crossed the street in a drizzling rain, and looked that way with foreboding, there were two or three guards, in the Cardinal's livery, loitering in front of the great gates. Coming nearer, I found the opposite pavement under the Louvre thronged with people, not moving about their business, but standing all silent, all looking across furtively, all with the air of persons who wished to be thought passing by. Their silence and their keen looks had in some way an air of menace. Looking back after I had turned in towards the gates, I found them devouring me with their eyes.
And certainly they had little else to look at. In the courtyard, where, some mornings, when the Court was in Paris, I had seen a score of coaches waiting and thrice as many servants, were now emptiness and sunshine and stillness. The officer on guard, twirling his moustachios, looked at me in wonder as I passed him; the lackeys lounging in the portico, and all too much taken up with whispering to make a pretence of being of service, grinned at my appearance. But that which happened when I had mounted the stairs and came to the door of the ante-chamber outdid all. The man on guard would have opened the door, but when I went to enter, a major-domo who was standing by, muttering with two or three of his kind, hastened forward and stopped me.
'Your business, Monsieur, if you please?' he said inquisitively; while I wondered why he and the others looked at me so strangely.
'I am M. de Berault,' I answered sharply. 'I have the entree.'
He bowed politely enough.
'Yes, M. de Berault, I have the honour to know your face,' he said. 'But--pardon me. Have you business with his Eminence?'
'I have the common business,' I answered sharply. 'By which many of us live, sirrah! To wait on him.'
'But--by appointment, Monsieur?'
'No,' I said, astonished. 'It is the usual hour. For the matter of that, however, I have business with him.'
The man still looked at me for a moment in seeming embarrassment. Then he stood aside and signed to the door-keeper to open the door. I passed in, uncovering; with an assured face and steadfast mien, ready to meet all eyes. In a moment, on the threshold, the mystery was explained.
The room was empty.