The House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter XII. Joy in the Morning.
I was too weary with riding to go entirely without sleep. And moreover it is anxiety and the tremor of excitement which make the pillow sleepless, not, heaven be thanked, sorrow. God made man to lie awake and hope: but never to lie awake and grieve. An hour or two before daybreak I fell asleep, utterly worn out. When I awoke, the sun was high, and shining slantwise on our window. The room was gay with the morning rays, and soft with the morning freshness, and I lay a while, my cheek on my hand, drinking in the cheerful influence as I had done many and many a day in our room at Caylus. It was the touch of Marie's hand, laid timidly on my arm, which roused me with a shock to consciousness. The truth broke upon me. I remembered where we were, and what was before us. "Will you get up, Anne?" Croisette said. "The Vidame has sent for us."
I got to my feet, and buckled on my sword. Croisette was leaning against the wall, pale and downcast. Bure filled the open doorway, his feathered cap in his hand, a queer smile on his face. "You are a good sleeper, young gentleman," he said. "You should have a good conscience."
"Better than yours, no doubt!" I retorted, "or your master's."
He shrugged his shoulders, and, bidding us by a sign to follow him, led the way through several gloomy passages. At the end of these, a flight of stone steps leading upwards seemed to promise something better; and true enough, the door at the top being opened, the murmur of a crowd reached our ears, with a burst of sunlight and warmth. We were in a lofty room, with walls in some places painted, and elsewhere hung with tapestry; well lighted by three old pointed windows reaching to the rush-covered floor. The room was large, set here and there with stands of arms, and had a dais with a raised carved chair at one end. The ceiling was of blue, with gold stars set about it. Seeing this, I remembered the place. I had been in it once, years ago, when I had attended the Vicomte on a state visit to the governor. Ah! that the Vicomte were here now!
I advanced to the middle window, which was open. Then I started back, for outside was the scaffold built level with the floor, and rush-covered like it! Two or three people were lounging on it. My eyes sought Louis among the group, but in vain. He was not there: and while I looked for him, I heard a noise behind me, and he came in, guarded by four soldiers with pikes.
His face was pale and grave, but perfectly composed. There was a wistful look in his eyes indeed, as if he were thinking of something or some one far away--Kit's face on the sunny hills of Quercy where he had ridden with her, perhaps; a look which seemed to say that the doings here were nothing to him, and the parting was yonder where she was. But his bearing was calm and collected, his step firm and fearless. When he saw us, indeed his face lightened a moment and he greeted us cheerfully, even acknowledging Bure's salutation with dignity and good temper. Croisette sprang towards him impulsively, and cried his name-- Croisette ever the first to speak. But before Louis could grasp his hand, the door at the bottom of the hall was swung open, and the Vidame came hurriedly in.
He was alone. He glanced round, his forbidding face, which was somewhat flushed as if by haste, wearing a scowl. Then he saw us, and, nodding haughtily, strode up the floor, his spurs clanking heavily on the boards. We gave us no greeting, but by a short word dismissed Bure and the soldiers to the lower end of the room. And then he stood and looked at us four, but principally at his rival; and looked, and looked with eyes of smouldering hate. And there was a silence, a long silence, while the murmur of the crowd came almost cheerfully through the window, and the sparrows under the eaves chirped and twittered, and the heart that throbbed least painfully was, I do believe, Louis de Pavannes'!
At last Bezers broke the silence.
"M. de Pavannes!" he began, speaking hoarsely, yet concealing all passion under a cynical smile and a mock politeness, "M. de Pavannes, I hold the king's commission to put to death all the Huguenots within my province of Quercy. Have you anything to say, I beg, why I should not begin with you? Or do you wish to return to the Church?"
Louis shrugged his shoulders as in contempt, and held his peace, I saw his captor's great hands twitch convulsively at this, but still the Vidame mastered himself, and when he spoke again he spoke slowly. "Very well," he continued, taking no heed of us, the silent witnesses of this strange struggle between the two men, but eyeing Louis only. "You have wronged me more than any man alive. Alive or dead! or dead! You have thwarted me, M. de Pavannes, and taken from me the woman I loved. Six days ago I might have killed you. I had it in my power. I had but to leave you to the rabble, remember, and you would have been rotting at Montfaucon to-day, M. de Pavannes."
"That is true," said Louis quietly. "Why so many words?"
But the Vidame went on as if he had not heard. "I did not leave you to them," he resumed, "and yet I hate you--more than I ever hated any man yet, and I am not apt to forgive. But now the time has come, sir, for my revenge! The oath I swore to your mistress a fortnight ago I will keep to the letter. I--Silence, babe!" he thundered, turning suddenly, "or I will keep my word with you too!"
Croisette had muttered something, and this had drawn on him the glare of Bezers' eyes. But the threat was effectual. Croisette was silent. The two were left henceforth to one another.
Yet the Vidame seemed to be put out by the interruption. Muttering a string of oaths he strode from us to the window and back again. The cool cynicism, with which he was wont to veil his anger and impose on other men, while it heightened the effect of his ruthless deeds, in part fell from him. He showed himself as he was--masterful, and violent, hating, with all the strength of a turbulent nature which had never known a check. I quailed before him myself. I confess it.
"Listen!" he continued harshly, coming back and taking his place in front of us at last, his manner more violent than before the interruption. "I might have left you to die in that hell yonder! And I did not leave you. I had but to hold my hand and you would have been torn to pieces! The wolf, however, does not hunt with the rats, and a Bezers wants no help in his vengeance from king or Canaille! When I hunt my enemy down I will hunt him alone, do you hear? And as there is a heaven above me"--he paused a moment--"if I ever meet you face to face again, M. de Pavannes, I will kill you where you stand!"
He paused, and the murmur of the crowd without came to my ears; but mingled with and heightened by some confusion in my thoughts. I struggled feebly with this, seeing a rush of colour to Croisette's face, a lightening in his eyes as if a veil had been raised from before them. Some confusion--for I thought I grasped the Vidame's meaning; yet there he was still glowering on his victim with the same grim visage, still speaking in the same rough tone. "Listen, M. de Pavannes," he continued, rising to his full height and waving his hand with a certain majesty towards the window--no one had spoken. "The doors are open! Your mistress is at Caylus. The road is clear, go to her; go to her, and tell her that I have saved your life, and that I give it to you not out of love, but out of hate! If you had flinched I would have killed you, for so you would have suffered most, M. de Pavannes. As it is, take your life--a gift! and suffer as I should if I were saved and spared by my enemy!"
Slowly the full sense of his words came home to me. Slowly; not in its full completeness indeed until I heard Louis in broken phrases, phrases half proud and half humble, thanking him for his generosity. Even then I almost lost the true and wondrous meaning of the thing when I heard his answer. For he cut Pavannes short with bitter caustic gibes, spurned his proffered gratitude with insults, and replied to his acknowledgments with threats.
"Go! go!" he continued to cry violently. "Have I brought you so far safely that you will cheat me of my vengeance at the last, and provoke me to kill you? Away! and take these blind puppies with you! Reckon me as much your enemy now as ever! And if I meet you, be sure you will meet a foe! Begone, M. de Pavannes, begone!"
"But, M. de Bezers," Louis persisted, "hear me. It takes two to--"
"Begone! begone! before we do one another a mischief!" cried the Vidame furiously. "Every word you say in that strain is an injury to me. It robs me of my vengeance. Go! in God's name!"
And we went; for there was no change, no promise of softening in his malignant aspect as he spoke; nor any as he stood and watched us draw off slowly from him. We went one by one, each lingering after the other, striving, out of a natural desire to thank him, to break through that stern reserve. But grim and unrelenting, a picture of scorn to the last, he saw us go.
My latest memory of that strange man--still fresh after a lapse of two and fifty years--is of a huge form towering in the gloom below the state canopy, the sunlight which poured in through the windows and flooded us, falling short of him; of a pair of fierce cross eyes, that seemed to glow as they covered us; of a lip that curled as in the enjoyment of some cruel jest. And so I--and I think each of us four saw the last of Raoul de Mar, Vidame de Bezers, in this life.
He was a man whom we cannot judge by to-day's standard; for he was such an one in his vices and his virtues as the present day does not know; one who in his time did immense evil--and if his friends be believed, little good. But the evil is forgotten; the good lives. And if all that good save one act were buried with him, this one act alone, the act of a French gentleman, would be told of him--ay! and will be told--as long as the kingdom of France, and the gracious memory of the late king, shall endure.
* * * * * *
I see again by the simple process of shutting my eyes, the little party of five--for Jean, our servant, had rejoined us--who on that summer day rode over the hills to Caylus, threading the mazes of the holm-oaks, and galloping down the rides, and hallooing the hare from her form, but never pursuing her; arousing the nestling farmhouses from their sleepy stillness by joyous shout and laugh, and sniffing, as we climbed the hill-side again, the scent of the ferns that died crushed under our horses' hoofs--died only that they might add one little pleasure more to the happiness God had given us. Rare and sweet indeed are those few days in life, when it seems that all creation lives only that we may have pleasure in it, and thank God for it. It is well that we should make the most of them, as we surely did of that day.
It was nightfall when we reached the edge of the uplands, and looked down on Caylus. The last rays of the sun lingered with us, but the valley below was dark; so dark that even the rock about which our homes clustered would have been invisible save for the half-dozen lights that were beginning to twinkle into being on its summit. A silence fell upon us as we slowly wended our way down the well-known path.
All day long we had ridden in great joy; if thoughtless, yet innocent; if selfish, yet thankful; and always blithely, with a great exultation and relief at heart, a great rejoicing for our own sakes and for Kit's.
Now with the nightfall and the darkness, now when we were near our home, and on the eve of giving joy to another, we grew silent. There arose other thoughts--thoughts of all that had happened since we had last ascended that track; and so our minds turned naturally back to him to whom we owed our happiness--to the giant left behind in his pride and power and his loneliness. The others could think of him with full hearts, yet without shame. But I reddened, reflecting how it would have been with us if I had had my way; if I had resorted in my shortsightedness to one last violent, cowardly deed, and killed him, as I had twice wished to do.
Pavannes would then have been lost almost certainly. Only the Vidame with his powerful troop--we never knew whether he had gathered them for that purpose or merely with an eye to his government--could have saved him. And few men however powerful-- perhaps Bezers only of all men in Paris would have dared to snatch him from the mob when once it had sighted him. I dwell on this now that my grandchildren may take warning by it, though never will they see such days as I have seen.
And so we clattered up the steep street of Caylus with a pleasant melancholy upon us, and passed, not without a more serious thought, the gloomy, frowning portals, all barred and shuttered, of the House of the Wolf, and under the very window, sombre and vacant, from which Bezers had incited the rabble in their attack on Pavannes' courier. We had gone by day, and we came back by night. But we had gone trembling, and we came back in joy.
We did not need to ring the great bell. Jean's cry, "Ho! Gate there! Open for my lords!" had scarcely passed his lips before we were admitted. And ere we could mount the ramp, one person outran those who came forth to see what the matter was; one outran Madame Claude, outran old Gil, outran the hurrying servants, and the welcome of the house. I saw a slender figure all in white break away from the little crowd and dart towards us, disclosing as it reached me a face that seemed still whiter than its robes, and yet a face that seemed all eyes--eyes that asked the question the lips could not frame.
I stood aside with a low bow, my hat in my hand; and said simply --it was the great effect of my life--"Voila Monsieur!"
And then I saw the sun rise in a woman's face.
* * * * * *
The Vidame de Bezers died as he had lived. He was still Governor of Cahors when Henry the Great attacked it on the night of the 17th of June, 1580. Taken by surprise and wounded in the first confusion of the assault, he still defended himself and his charge with desperate courage, fighting from street to street, and house to house for five nights and as many days. While he lived Henry's destiny and the fate of France trembled in the balance. But he fell at length, his brain pierced by the ball of an arquebuse, and died an hour before sunset on the 22nd of June. The garrison immediately surrendered.
Marie and I were present in this action on the side of the King of Navarre, and at the request of that prince hastened to pay such honours to the body of the Vidame as were due to his renown and might serve to evince our gratitude. A year later his remains were removed from Cahors, and laid where they now rest in his own Abbey Church of Bezers, under a monument which very briefly tells of his stormy life and his valour. No matter. He has small need of a monument whose name lives in the history of his country, and whose epitaph is written in the lives of men.
NOTE.--The character and conduct of Vidame de Bezers, as they appear in the above memoir find a parallel in an account given by de Thou of one of the most remarkable incidents in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew: "Amid such examples," he writes, "of the ferocity of the city, a thing happened worthy to be related, and which may perhaps in some degree weigh against these atrocities. there was a deadly hatred, which up to this time the intervention of their friends and neighbours had failed to appease, between two men--Vezins, the Lieutenant of Honoratus of Savoy, Marshal Villars, a man notable among the nobility of the province for his valour, but obnoxious to many owing to his brutal disposition (ferina natura), and Regnier, a young man of like rank and vigour, but of milder character. When Regnier then, in the middle of that great uproar, death meeting his eye everywhere, was making up his mind to the worst, his door was suddenly burst open, and Vezins, with two other men, stood before him sword in hand. Upon this Regnier, assured of death, knelt down and asked mercy of heaven: but Vezins in a harsh voice bid him rise from his prayers and mount a palfrey already standing ready in the street for him. So he led Regnier--uncertain for the time whither he was being taken--out of the city, and put him on his honour to go with him without trying to escape. And together, without pausing in their journey, the two travelled all the way to Guienne. During this time Vezins honoured Regnier with very little conversation; but so far cared for him that food was prepared for him at the inns by his servants: and so they came to Quercy and the castle of Regnier. There Vezins turned to him and said, "You know how I have for a long time back sought to avenge myself on you, and how easily I Might now have done it to the full, had I Been willing to use this opportunity. But shame would not suffer it; and besides, your courage seemed worthy to be set against mine on even terms. Take therefore the life which you owe to my kindness." With much more which the curious will find in the 2nd (folio) volume of de Thou.