The House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter IX. The Head of Erasmus.
Waiting, and waiting alone! The gates were almost down now. The gang of ruffians without, reinforced each moment by volunteers eager for plunder, rained blows unceasingly on hinge and socket; and still hotter and faster through a dozen rifts in the timbers came the fire of their threats and curses. Many grew tired, but others replaced them. Tools broke, but they brought more and worked with savage energy. They had shown at first a measure of prudence; looking to be fired on, and to be resisted by men, surprised, indeed, but desperate; and the bolder of them only had advanced. But now they pressed round unchecked, meeting no resistance. They would scarcely stand back to let the sledges have swing; but hallooed and ran in on the creaking beams and beat them with their fists, whenever the gates swayed under a blow.
One stout iron bar still held its place. And this I watched as if fascinated. I was alone in the empty courtyard, standing a little aside, sheltered by one of the stone pillars from which the gates hung. Behind me the door of the house stood ajar. Candles, which the daylight rendered garish, still burned in the rooms on the first floor, of which the tall narrow windows were open. On the wide stone sill of one of these stood Croisette, a boyish figure, looking silently down at me, his hand on the latticed shutter. He looked pale, and I nodded and smiled at him. I felt rather anger than fear myself; remembering, as the fiendish cries half-deafened me, old tales of the Jacquerie and its doings, and how we had trodden it out.
Suddenly the din and tumult flashed to a louder note; as when hounds on the scent give tongue at sight. I turned quickly from the house, recalled to a sense of the position and peril. The iron bar was yielding to the pressure. Slowly the left wing of the gate was sinking inwards. Through the widening chasm I caught a glimpse of wild, grimy faces and bloodshot eyes, and heard above the noise a sharp cry from Croisette--a cry of terror. Then I turned and ran, with a defiant gesture and an answering yell, right across the forecourt and up the steps to the door.
I ran the faster for the sharp report of a pistol behind me, and the whirr of a ball past my ear. But I was not scared by it: and as my feet alighted with a bound on the topmost step, I glanced back. The dogs were halfway across the court. I made a bungling attempt to shut and lock the great door--failed in this; and heard behind me a roar of coarse triumph. I waited for no more. I darted up the oak staircase four steps at a time, and rushed into the great drawing-room on my left, banging the door behind me.
The once splendid room was in a state of strange disorder. Some of the rich tapestry had been hastily torn down. One window was closed and shuttered; no doubt Croisette had done it. The other two were open--as if there had not been time to close them--and the cold light which they admitted contrasted in ghastly fashion with the yellow rays of candles still burning in the sconces. The furniture had been huddled aside or piled into a barricade, a chevaux de frise of chairs and tables stretching across the width of the room, its interstices stuffed with, and its weakness partly screened by, the torn-down hangings. Behind this frail defence their backs to a door which seemed to lead to an inner room, stood Marie and Croisette, pale and defiant. The former had a long pike; the latter levelled a heavy, bell-mouthed arquebuse across the back of a chair, and blew up his match as I entered. Both had in addition procured swords. I darted like a rabbit through a little tunnel left on purpose for me in the rampart, and took my stand by them.
"Is all right?" ejaculated Croisette turning to me nervously.
"All right, I think," I answered. I was breathless.
"You are not hurt?"
I had just time then to draw my sword before the assailants streamed into the room, a dozen ruffians, reeking and tattered, with flushed faces and greedy, staring eyes. Once inside, however, suddenly--so suddenly that an idle spectator might have found the change ludicrous--they came to a stop. Their wild cries ceased, and tumbling over one another with curses and oaths they halted, surveying us in muddled surprise; seeing what was before them, and not liking it. Their leader appeared to be a tall butcher with a pole-axe on his half-naked shoulder; but there were among them two or three soldiers in the royal livery and carrying pikes. They had looked for victims only, having met with no resistance at the gate, and the foremost recoiled now on finding themselves confronted by the muzzle of the arquebuse and the lighted match.
I seized the occasion. I knew, indeed, that the pause presented our only chance, and I sprang on a chair and waved my hand for silence. The instinct of obedience for the moment asserted itself; there was a stillness in the room.
"Beware!" I cried loudly--as loudly and confidently as I could, considering that there was a quaver at my heart as I looked on those savage faces, which met and yet avoided my eye. "Beware of what you do! We are Catholics one and all like yourselves, and good sons of the Church. Ay, and good subjects too! Vive le roi, gentlemen! God save the King! I say." And I struck the barricade with my sword until the metal rang again. "God save the King!"
"Cry vive la messe!" shouted one.
"Certainly, gentlemen!" I replied, with politeness. "With all my heart. Vive la messe! Vive la messe!"
This took the butcher, who luckily was still sober, utterly aback. He had never thought of this. He stared at us as if the ox he had been about to fell had opened its mouth and spoken, and grievously at a loss, he looked for help to his companions.
Later in the day, some Catholics were killed by the mob. But their deaths as far as could be learned afterwards were due to private feuds. Save in such cases--and they were few--the cry of vive la messe! always obtained at least a respite: more easily of course in the earlier hours of the morning when the mob were scarce at ease in their liberty to kill, while killing still seemed murder, and men were not yet drunk with bloodshed.
I read the hesitation of the gang in their faces: and when one asked roughly who we were, I replied with greater boldness, "I am M. Anne de Caylus, nephew to the Vicomte de Caylus, Governor, under the King, of Bayonne and the Landes!" This I said with what majesty I could. "And these" I continued--"are my brothers. You will harm us at your peril, gentlemen. The Vicomte, believe me, will avenge every hair of our heads."
I can shut my eyes now and see the stupid wonder, the baulked ferocity of those gaping faces. Dull and savage as the men were they were impressed; they saw reason indeed, and all seemed going well for us when some one in the rear shouted, "Cursed whelps! Throw them over!"
I looked swiftly in the direction whence the voice came--the darkest corner of the room the corner by the shuttered window. I thought I made out a slender figure, cloaked and masked--a woman's it might be but I could not be certain and beside it a couple of sturdy fellows, who kept apart from the herd and well behind their fugleman.
The speaker's courage arose no doubt from his position at the back of the room, for the foremost of the assailants seemed less determined. We were only three, and we must have gone down, barricade and all, before a rush. But three are three. And an arquebuse--Croisette's match burned splendidly--well loaded with slugs is an ugly weapon at five paces, and makes nasty wounds, besides scattering its charge famously. This, a good many of them and the leaders in particular, seemed to recognise. We might certainly take two or three lives: and life is valuable to its owner when plunder is afoot. Besides most of them had common sense enough to remember that there were scores of Huguenots --genuine heretics--to be robbed for the killing, so why go out of the way, they reasoned, to cut a Catholic throat, and perhaps get into trouble. Why risk Montfaucon for a whim? and offend a man of influence like the Vicomte de Caylus, for nothing!
Unfortunately at this crisis their original design was recalled to their minds by the same voice behind, crying out, "Pavannes! Where is Pavannes?"
"Ay!" shouted the butcher, grasping the idea, and at the same time spitting on his hands and taking a fresh grip of the axe, "Show us the heretic dog, and go! Let us at him."
"M. de Pavannes," I said coolly--but I could not take my eyes off the shining blade of that man's axe, it was so very broad and sharp--"is not here!"
"That is a lie! He is in that room behind you!" the prudent gentleman in the background called out. "Give him up!"
"Ay, give him up!" echoed the man of the pole-axe almost good humouredly, "or it will be the worse for you. Let us have at him and get you gone!"
This with an air of much reason, while a growl as of a chained beast ran through the crowd, mingled with cries of "A mort les Huguenots! Vive Lorraine!"--cries which seemed to show that all did not approve of the indulgence offered us.
"Beware, gentlemen, beware," I urged, "I swear he is not here! I swear it, do you hear?"
A howl of impatience and then a sudden movement of the crowd as though the rush were coming warned me to temporize no longer. "Stay! Stay!" I added hastily. "One minute! Hear me! You are too many for us. Will you swear to let us go safe and untouched, if we give you passage?"
A dozen voices shrieked assent. But I looked at the butcher only. He seemed to be an honest man, out of his profession.
"Ay, I swear it!" he cried with a nod.
"By the Mass?"
"By the Mass."
I twitched Croisette's sleeve, and he tore the fuse from his weapon, and flung the gun--too heavy to be of use to us longer-- to the ground. It was done in a moment. While the mob swept over the barricade, and smashed the rich furniture of it in wanton malice, we filed aside, and nimbly slipped under it one by one. Then we hurried in single file to the end of the room, no one taking much notice of us. All were pressing on, intent on their prey. We gained the door as the butcher struck his first blow on that which we had guarded--on that which we had given up. We sprang down the stairs with bounding hearts, heard as we reached the outer door the roar of many voices, but stayed not to look behind--paused indeed for nothing. Fear, to speak candidly, lent us wings. In three seconds we had leapt the prostrate gates, and were in the street. A cripple, two or three dogs, a knot of women looking timidly yet curiously in, a horse tethered to the staple--we saw nothing else. No one stayed us. No one raised a hand, and in another minute we had turned a corner, and were out of sight of the house.
"They will take a gentleman's word another time," I said with a quiet smile as I put up my sword.
"I would like to see her face at this moment,' Croisette replied. "You saw Madame d'O?"
I shook my head, not answering. I was not sure, and I had a queer, sickening dread of the subject. If I had seen her, I had seen oh! it was too horrible, too unnatural! Her own sister! Her own brother in-law!
I hastened to change the subject. "The Pavannes," I made shift to say, "must have had five minutes' start."
"More," Croisette answered, "if Madame and he got away at once. If all has gone well with them, and they have not been stopped in the streets they should be at Mirepoix's by now. They seemed to be pretty sure that he would take them in."
"Ah!" I sighed. "What fools we were to bring madame from that place! If we had not meddled with her affairs we might have reached Louis long ago our Louis, I mean."
"True," Croisette answered softly, "but remember that then we should not have saved the other Louis as I trust we have. He would still be in Pallavicini's hands. Come, Anne, let us think it is all for the best," he added, his face shining with a steady courage that shamed me. "To the rescue! Heaven will help us to be in time yet!"
"Ay, to the rescue!" I replied, catching his spirit. "First to the right, I think, second to the left, first on the right again. That was the direction given us, was it not? The house opposite a book-shop with the sign of the Head of Erasmus. Forward, boys! We may do it yet."
But before I pursue our fortunes farther let me explain. The room we had guarded so jealously was empty! The plan had been mine and I was proud of it. For once Croisette had fallen into his rightful place. My flight from the gate, the vain attempt to close the house, the barricade before the inner door--these were all designed to draw the assailants to one spot. Pavannes and his wife--the latter hastily disguised as a boy--had hidden behind the door of the hutch by the gates--the porter's hutch, and had slipped out and fled in the first confusion of the attack.
Even the servants, as we learned afterwards, who had hidden themselves in the lower parts of the house got away in the same manner, though some of them--they were but few in all were stopped as Huguenots and killed before the day ended. I had the more reason to hope that Pavannes and his wife would get clear off, inasmuch as I had given the Duke's ring to him, thinking it might serve him in a strait, and believing that we should have little to fear ourselves once clear of his house; unless we should meet the Vidame indeed.
We did not meet him as it turned out; but before we had traversed a quarter of the distance we had to go we found that fears based on reason were not the only terrors we had to resist. Pavannes' house, where we had hitherto been, stood at some distance from the centre of the blood-storm which was enwrapping unhappy Paris that morning. It was several hundred paces from the Rue de Bethisy where the Admiral lived, and what with this comparative remoteness and the excitement of our own little drama, we had not attended much to the fury of the bells, the shots and cries and uproar which proclaimed the state of the city. We had not pictured the scenes which were happening so near. Now in the streets the truth broke upon us, and drove the blood from our cheeks. A hundred yards, the turning of a corner, sufficed. We who but yesterday left the country, who only a week before were boys, careless as other boys, not recking of death at all, were plunged now into the midst of horrors I cannot describe. And the awful contrast between the sky above and the things about us! Even now the lark was singing not far from us; the sunshine was striking the topmost storeys of the houses; the fleecy clouds were passing overhead, the freshness of a summer morning was--
Ah! where was it? Not here in the narrow lanes surely, that echoed and re-echoed with shrieks and curses and frantic prayers: in which bands of furious men rushed up and down, and where archers of the guard and the more cruel rabble were breaking in doors and windows, and hurrying with bloody weapons from house to house, seeking, pursuing, and at last killing in some horrid corner, some place of darkness--killing with blow on blow dealt on writhing bodies! Not here, surely, where each minute a child, a woman died silently, a man snarling like a wolf--happy if he had snatched his weapon and got his back to the wall: where foul corpses dammed the very blood that ran down the kennel, and children--little children--played with them!
I was at Cahors in 1580 in the great street fight; and there women were killed, I was with Chatillon nine years later, when he rode through the Faubourgs of Paris, with this very day and his father Coligny in his mind, and gave no quarter. I was at Courtas and Ivry, and more than once have seen prisoners led out to be piked in batches--ay, and by hundreds! But war is war, and these were its victims, dying for the most part under God's heaven with arms in their hands: not men and women fresh roused from their sleep. I felt on those occasions no such horror, I have never felt such burning pity and indignation as on the morning I am describing, that long-past summer morning when I first saw the sun shining on the streets of Paris. Croisette clung to me, sick and white, shutting his eyes and ears, and letting me guide him as I would. Marie strode along on the other side of him, his lips closed, his eyes sinister. Once a soldier of the guard whose blood-stained hands betrayed the work he had done, came reeling--he was drunk, as were many of the butchers-- across our path, and I gave way a little. Marie did not, but walked stolidly on as if he did not see him, as if the way were clear, and there were no ugly thing in God's image blocking it.
Only his hand went as if by accident to the haft of his dagger. The archer--fortunately for himself and for us too--reeled clear of us. We escaped that danger. But to see women killed and pass by--it was horrible! So horrible that if in those moments I had had the wishing-cap, I would have asked but for five thousand riders, and leave to charge with them through the streets of Paris! I would have had the days of the Jacquerie back again, and my men-at-arms behind me!
For ourselves, though the orgy was at its height when we passed, we were not molested. We were stopped indeed three times--once in each of the streets we traversed--by different bands of murderers. But as we wore the same badges as themselves, and cried "Vive la messe!" and gave our names, we were allowed to proceed. I can give no idea of the confusion and uproar, and I scarcely believe myself now that we saw some of the things we witnessed. Once a man gaily dressed, and splendidly mounted, dashed past us, waving his naked sword and crying in a frenzied way "Bleed them! Bleed them! Bleed in May, as good to-day!" and never ceased crying out the same words until he passed beyond our hearing. Once we came upon the bodies of a father and two sons, which lay piled together in the kennel; partly stripped already. The youngest boy could not have been more than thirteen, I mention this group, not as surpassing others in pathos, but because it is well known now that this boy, Jacques Nompar de Caumont, was not dead, but lives to-day, my friend the Marshal de la Force.
This reminds me too of the single act of kindness we were able to perform. We found ourselves suddenly, on turning a corner, amid a gang of seven or eight soldiers, who had stopped and surrounded a handsome boy, apparently about fourteen. He wore a scholar's gown, and had some books under his arm, to which he clung firmly --though only perhaps by instinct--notwithstanding the furious air of the men who were threatening him with death. They were loudly demanding his name, as we paused opposite them. He either could not or would not give it, but said several times in his fright that he was going to the College of Burgundy. Was he a Catholic? they cried. He was silent. With an oath the man who had hold of his collar lifted up his pike, and naturally the lad raised the books to guard his face. A cry broke from Croisette. We rushed forward to stay the blow.
"See! see!" he exclaimed loudly, his voice arresting the man's arm in the very act of falling. "He has a Mass Book! He has a Mass Book! He is not a heretic! He is a Catholic!"
The fellow lowered his weapon, and sullenly snatched the books. He looked at them stupidly with bloodshot wandering eyes, the red cross on the vellum bindings, the only thing he understood. But it was enough for him; he bid the boy begone, and released him with a cuff and an oath.
Croisette was not satisfied with this, though I did not understand his reason; only I saw him exchange a glance with the lad. "Come, come!" he said lightly. "Give him his books! You do not want them!"
But on that the men turned savagely upon us. They did not thank us for the part we had already taken; and this they thought was going too far. They were half drunk and quarrelsome, and being two to one, and two over, began to flourish their weapons in our faces. Mischief would certainly have been done, and very quickly, had not an unexpected ally appeared on our side.
"Put up! put up!" this gentleman cried in a boisterous voice-- he was already in our midst. "What is all this about? What is the use of fighting amongst ourselves, when there is many a bonny throat to cut, and heaven to be gained by it! put up, I say!"
"Who are you?" they roared in chorus.
"The Duke of Guise!" he answered coolly. "Let the gentlemen go, and be hanged to you, you rascals!"
The man's bearing was a stronger argument than his words, for I am sure that a stouter or more reckless blade never swaggered in church or street. I knew him instantly, and even the crew of butchers seemed to see in him their master. They hung back a few curses at him, but having nothing to gain they yielded. They threw down the books with contempt--showing thereby their sense of true religion; and trooped off roaring, "Tues! Tues! Aux Huguenots!" at the top of their voices.
The newcomer thus left with us was Bure--Blaise Bure--the same who only yesterday, though it seemed months and months back, had lured us into Bezers' power. Since that moment we had not seen him. Now he had wiped off part of the debt, and we looked at him, uncertain whether to reproach him or no. He, however, was not one whit abashed, but returned our regards with a not unkindly leer.
"I bear no malice, young gentlemen," he said impudently.
"No, I should think not," I answered.
"And besides, we are quits now," the knave continued.
"You are very kind," I said.
"To be sure. You did me a good turn once," he answered, much to my surprise. He seemed to be in earnest now. "You do not remember it, young gentleman, but it was you and your brother here"--he pointed to Croisette--"did it! And by the Pope and the King of Spain I have not forgotten it!"
"I have," I said.
"What! You have forgotten spitting that fellow at Caylus ten days ago? Ca! Sa! You remember. And very cleanly done, too! A pretty stroke! Well, M. Anne, that was a clever fellow, a very clever fellow. He thought so and I thought so, and what was more to the purpose the most noble Raoul de Bezers thought so too. You understand!"
He leered at me and I did understand. I understood that unwittingly I had rid Blaise Bure of a rival. This accounted for the respectful, almost the kindly way in which he had--well, deceived us.
"That is all," he said. "If you want as much done for you, let me know. For the present, gentlemen, farewell!"
He cocked his hat fiercely, and went off at speed the way we had ourselves been going; humming as he went,
"Ce petit homme tant joli, Qui toujours cause et toujours rit, Qui toujours baise sa mignonne Dieu gard' de mal ce petit homme!"
His reckless song came back to us on the summer breeze. We watched him make a playful pass at a corpse which some one had propped in ghastly fashion against a door--and miss it--and go on whistling the same air--and then a corner hid him from view.
We lingered only a moment ourselves; merely to speak to the boy we had befriended.
"Show the books if anyone challenges you," said Croisette to him shrewdly. Croisette was so much of a boy himself, with his fair hair like a halo about his white, excited face, that the picture of the two, one advising the other, seemed to me a strangely pretty one. "Show the books and point to the cross on them. And Heaven send you safe to your college."
"I would like to know your name, if you please," said the boy. His coolness and dignity struck me as admirable under the circumstances. "I am Maximilian de Bethune, son of the Baron de Rosny,"
"Then," said Croisette briskly, "one good turn has deserved another. Your father, yesterday, at Etampes--no it was the day before, but we have not been in bed--warned us--"
He broke off suddenly; then cried, "Run! run!"
The boy needed no second warning indeed. He was off like the wind down the street, for we had seen and so had he, the stealthy approach of two or three prowling rascals on the look out for a victim. They caught sight of him and were strongly inclined to follow him; but we were their match in numbers. The street was otherwise empty at the moment: and we showed them three excellent reasons why they should give him a clear start.
His after adventures are well-known: for he, too, lives. He was stopped twice after he left us. In each case he escaped by showing his book of offices. On reaching the college the porter refused to admit him, and he remained for some time in the open street exposed to constant danger of losing his life, and knowing not what to do. At length he induced the gatekeeper, by the present of some small pieces of money, to call the principal of the college, and this man humanely concealed him for three days. The massacre being then at an end, two armed men in his father's pay sought him out and restored him to his friends. So near was France to losing her greatest minister, the Duke de Sully.
To return to ourselves. The lad out of sight, we instantly resumed our purpose, and trying to shut our eyes and ears to the cruelty, and ribaldry, and uproar through which we had still to pass, we counted our turnings with a desperate exactness, intent only on one thing--to reach Louis de Pavannes, to reach the house opposite to the Head of Erasmus, as quickly as we could. We presently entered a long, narrow street. At the end of it the river was visible gleaming and sparkling in the sunlight. The street was quiet; quiet and empty. There was no living soul to be seen from end to end of it, only a prowling dog. The noise of the tumult raging in other parts was softened here by distance and the intervening houses. We seemed to be able to breathe more freely.
"This should be our street," said Croisette.
I nodded. At the same moment I espied, half-way down it, the sign we needed and pointed to it, But ah! were we in time? Or too late? That was the question. By a single impulse we broke into a run, and shot down the roadway at speed. A few yards short of the Head of Erasmus we came, one by one, Croisette first, to a full stop. A full stop!
The house opposite the bookseller's was sacked! gutted from top to bottom. It was a tall house, immediately fronting the street, and every window in it was broken. The door hung forlornly on one hinge, glaring cracks in its surface showing where the axe had splintered it. Fragments of glass and ware, hung out and shattered in sheer wantonness, strewed the steps: and down one corner of the latter a dark red stream trickled--to curdle by and by in the gutter. Whence came the stream? Alas! there was something more to be seen yet, something our eyes instinctively sought last of all. The body of a man.
It lay on the threshold, the head hanging back, the wide glazed eyes looking up to the summer sky whence the sweltering heat would soon pour down upon it. We looked shuddering at the face. It was that of a servant, a valet who had been with Louis at Caylus. We recognised him at once for we had known and liked him. He had carried our guns on the hills a dozen times, and told us stories of the war. The blood crawled slowly from him. He was dead.
Croisette began to shake all over. He clutched one of the pillars, which bore up the porch, and pressed his face against its cold surface, hiding his eyes from the sight. The worst had come. In our hearts I think we had always fancied some accident would save our friend, some stranger warn him.
"Oh, poor, poor Kit!" Croisette cried, bursting suddenly into violent sobs. "Oh, Kit! Kit!"