The House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter I. Ware Wolf!
I had afterwards such good reason to look back upon and remember the events of that afternoon, that Catherine's voice seems to ring in my brain even now. I can shut my eyes and see again, after all these years, what I saw then--just the blue summer sky, and one grey angle of the keep, from which a fleecy cloud was trailing like the smoke from a chimney. I could see no more because I was lying on my back, my head resting on my hands. Marie and Croisette, my brothers, were lying by me in exactly the same posture, and a few yards away on the terrace, Catherine was sitting on a stool Gil had brought out for her. It was the second Thursday in August, and hot. Even the jackdaws were silent. I had almost fallen asleep, watching my cloud grow longer and longer, and thinner and thinner, when Croisette, who cared for heat no more than a lizard, spoke up sharply, "Mademoiselle," he said, "why are you watching the Cahors road?"
I had not noticed that she was doing so. But something in the keenness of Croisette's tone, taken perhaps with the fact that Catherine did not at once answer him, aroused me; and I turned to her. And lo! she was blushing in the most heavenly way, and her eyes were full of tears, and she looked at us adorably. And we all three sat up on our elbows, like three puppy dogs, and looked at her. And there was a long silence. And then she said quite simply to us, "Boys, I am going to be married to M. de Pavannes."
I fell flat on my back and spread out my arms. "Oh, Mademoiselle!" I cried reproachfully.
"Oh, Mademoiselle!" cried Marie. And he fell flat on his back, and spread out his arms and moaned. He was a good brother, was Marie, and obedient.
And Croisette cried, "Oh, mademoiselle!" too. But he was always ridiculous in his ways. He fell flat on his back,and flopped his arms and squealed like a pig.
Yet he was sharp. It was he who first remembered our duty, and went to Catherine, cap in hand, where she sat half angry and half confused, and said with a fine redness in his cheeks, "Mademoiselle de Caylus, our cousin, we give you joy, and wish you long life; and are your servants, and the good friends and aiders of M. de Pavannes in all quarrels, as--"
But I could not stand that. "Not so fast, St. Croix de Caylus" I said, pushing him aside--he was ever getting before me in those days--and taking his place. Then with my best bow I began, "Mademoiselle, we give you joy and long life, and are your servants and the good friends and aiders of M. de Pavannes in all quarrels, as--as--"
"As becomes the cadets of your house," suggested Croisette, softly.
"As becomes the cadets of your house," I repeated. And then Catherine stood up and made me a low bow and we all kissed her hand in turn, beginning with me and ending with Croisette, as was becoming. Afterwards Catherine threw her handkerchief over her face--she was crying--and we three sat down, Turkish fashion, just where we were, and said "Oh, Kit!" very softly.
But presently Croisette had something to add. "What will the Wolf say?" he whispered to me.
"Ah! To be sure!" I exclaimed aloud. I had been thinking of myself before; but this opened quite another window. "What will the Vidame say, Kit?"
She dropped her kerchief from her face, and turned so pale that I was sorry I had spoken--apart from the kick Croisette gave me. "Is M. de Bezers at his house?" she asked anxiously.
"Yes" Croisette answered. "He came in last night from St. Antonin, with very small attendance."
"The news seemed to set her fears at rest instead of augmenting them as I should have expected. I suppose they were rather for Louis de Pavannes, than for herself. Not unnaturally, too, for even the Wolf could scarcely have found it in his heart to hurt our cousin. Her slight willowy figure, her pale oval face and gentle brown eyes, her pleasant voice, her kindness, seemed to us boys and in those days, to sum up all that was womanly. We could not remember, not even Croisette the youngest of us--who was seventeen, a year junior to Marie and myself--we were twins--the time when we had not been in love with her.
But let me explain how we four, whose united ages scarce exceeded seventy years, came to be lounging on the terrace in the holiday stillness of that afternoon. It was the summer of 1572. The great peace, it will be remembered, between the Catholics and the Huguenots had not long been declared; the peace which in a day or two was to be solemnized, and, as most Frenchmen hoped, to be cemented by the marriage of Henry of Navarre with Margaret of Valois, the King's sister. The Vicomte de Caylus, Catherine's father and our guardian, was one of the governors appointed to see the peace enforced; the respect in which he was held by both parties--he was a Catholic, but no bigot, God rest his soul!-- recommending him for this employment. He had therefore gone a week or two before to Bayonne, his province. Most of our neighbours in Quercy were likewise from home, having gone to Paris to be witnesses on one side or the other of the royal wedding. And consequently we young people, not greatly checked by the presence of good-natured, sleepy Madame Claude, Catherine's duenna, were disposed to make the most of our liberty; and to celebrate the peace in our own fashion.
We were country-folk. Not one of us had been to Pau, much less to Paris. The Vicomte held stricter views than were common then, upon young people's education; and though we had learned to ride and shoot, to use our swords and toss a hawk, and to read and write, we knew little more than Catherine herself of the world; little more of the pleasures and sins of court life, and not one- tenth as much as she did of its graces. Still she had taught us to dance and make a bow. Her presence had softened our manners; and of late we had gained something from the frank companionship of Louis de Pavannes, a Huguenot whom the Vicomte had taken prisoner at Moncontour and held to ransom. We were not, I think, mere clownish yokels.
But we were shy. We disliked and shunned strangers. And when old Gil appeared suddenly, while we were still chewing the melancholy cud of Kit's announcement, and cried sepulchrally, "M. le Vidame de Bezers to pay his respects to Mademoiselle!"--Well, there was something like a panic, I confess!
We scrambled to our feet, muttering, "The Wolf!" The entrance at Caylus is by a ramp rising from the gateway to the level of the terrace. This sunken way is fenced by low walls so that one may not--when walking on the terrace--fall into it. Gil had spoken before his head had well risen to view, and this gave us a moment, just a moment. Croisette made a rush for the doorway into the house; but failed to gain it, and drew himself up behind a buttress of the tower, his finger on his lip. I am slow sometimes, and Marie waited for me, so that we had barely got to our legs--looking, I dare say, awkward and ungainly enough-- before the Vidame's shadow fell darkly on the ground at Catherine's feet.
"Mademoiselle!" he said, advancing to her through the sunshine, and bending over her slender hand with a magnificent grace that was born of his size and manner combined, "I rode in late last night from Toulouse; and I go to-morrow to Paris. I have but rested and washed off the stains of travel that I may lay my-- ah!"
He seemed to see us for the first time and negligently broke off in his compliment; raising himself and saluting us. "Ah," he continued indolently, "two of the maidens of Caylus, I see. With an odd pair of hands apiece, unless I am mistaken, Why do you not set them spinning, Mademoiselle?" and he regarded us with that smile which--with other things as evil--had made him famous.
Croisette pulled horrible faces behind his back. We looked hotly at him; but could find nothing to say.
"You grow red!" he went on, pleasantly--the wretch!--playing with us as a cat does with mice. "It offends your dignity, perhaps, that I bid Mademoiselle set you spinning? I now would spin at Mademoiselle's bidding, and think it happiness!"
"We are not girls!" I blurted out, with the flush and tremor of a boy's passion. "You had not called my godfather, Anne de Montmorenci a girl, M. le Vidame!" For though we counted it a joke among ourselves that we all bore girls' names, we were young enough to be sensitive about it.
He shrugged his shoulders. And how he dwarfed us all as he stood there dominating our terrace! "M. de Montmorenci was a man," he said scornfully. "M. Anne de Caylus is--"
And the villain deliberately turned his great back upon us, taking his seat on the low wall near Catherine's chair. It was clear even to our vanity that he did not think us worth another word--that we had passed absolutely from his mind. Madame Claude came waddling out at the same moment, Gil carrying a chair behind her. And we--well we slunk away and sat on the other side of the terrace, whence we could still glower at the offender.
Yet who were we to glower at him? To this day I shake at the thought of him. It was not so much his height and bulk, though he was so big that the clipped pointed fashion of his beard a fashion then new at court--seemed on him incongruous and effeminate; nor so much the sinister glance of his grey eyes--he had a slight cast in them; nor the grim suavity of his manner, and the harsh threatening voice that permitted of no disguise. It was the sum of these things, the great brutal presence of the man--that was overpowering--that made the great falter and the poor crouch. And then his reputation! Though we knew little of the world's wickedness, all we did know had come to us linked with his name. We had heard of him as a duellist, as a bully, an employer of bravos. At Jarnac he had been the last to turn from the shambles. Men called him cruel and vengeful even for those days--gone by now, thank God!--and whispered his name when they spoke of assassinations; saying commonly of him that he would not blench before a Guise, nor blush before the Virgin.
Such was our visitor and neighbour, Raoul de Mar, Vidame de Bezers. As he sat on the terrace, now eyeing us askance, and now paying Catherine a compliment, I likened him to a great cat before which a butterfly has all unwittingly flirted her prettiness. Poor Catherine! No doubt she had her own reasons for uneasiness; more reasons I fancy than I then guessed. For she seemed to have lost her voice. She stammered and made but poor replies; and Madame Claude being deaf and stupid, and we boys too timid after the rebuff we had experienced to fill the gap, the conversation languished. The Vidame was not for his part the man to put himself out on a hot day.
It was after one of these pauses--not the first but the longest-- that I started on finding his eyes fixed on mine. More, I shivered. It is hard to describe, but there was a look in the Vidame's eyes at that moment which I had never seen before. A look of pain almost: of dumb savage alarm at any rate. From me they passed slowly to Marie and mutely interrogated him. Then the Vidame's glance travelled back to Catherine, and settled on her.
Only a moment before she had been but too conscious of his presence. Now, as it chanced by bad luck, or in the course of Providence, something had drawn her attention elsewhere. She was unconscious of his regard. Her own eyes were fixed in a far-away gaze. Her colour was high, her lips were parted, her bosom heaved gently.
The shadow deepened on the Vidame's face. Slowly he took his eyes from hers, and looked northwards also.
Caylus Castle stands on a rock in the middle of the narrow valley of that name. The town clusters about the ledges of the rock so closely that when I was a boy I could fling a stone clear of the houses. The hills are scarcely five hundred yards distant on either side, rising in tamer colours from the green fields about the brook. It is possible from the terrace to see the whole valley, and the road which passes through it lengthwise. Catherine's eyes were on the northern extremity of the defile, where the highway from Cahors descends from the uplands. She had been sitting with her face turned that way all the afternoon.
I looked that way too. A solitary horseman was descending the steep track from the hills.
"Mademoiselle!" cried the Vidame suddenly. We all looked up. His tone was such that the colour fled from Kit's face. There was something in his voice she had never heard in any voice before--something that to a woman was like a blow. "Mademoiselle," he snarled, "is expecting news from Cahors, from her lover. I have the honour to congratulate M. de Pavannes on his conquest."
Ah! he had guessed it! As the words fell on the sleepy silence, an insult in themselves, I sprang to my feet, amazed and angry, yet astounded by his quickness of sight and wit. He must have recognized the Pavannes badge at that distance. "M. le Vidame," I said indignantly--Catherine was white and voiceless--"M. le Vidame--" but there I stopped and faltered stammering. For behind him I could see Croisette; and Croisette gave me no sign of encouragement or support.
So we stood face to face for a moment; the boy and the man of the world, the stripling and the roue. Then the Vidame bowed to me in quite a new fashion. "M. Anne de Caylus desires to answer for M. de Pavannes?" he asked smoothly; with a mocking smoothness.
I understood what he meant. But something prompted me--Croisette said afterwards that it was a happy thought, though now I know the crisis to have been less serious than he fancied to answer, "Nay, not for M. de Pavannes. Rather for my cousin." And I bowed. "I have the honour on her behalf to acknowledge your congratulations, M. le Vidame. It pleases her that our nearest neighbour should also be the first outside the family to wish her well. You have divined truly in supposing that she will shortly be united to M. de Pavannes."
I suppose--for I saw the giant's colour change and his lip quiver as I spoke--that his previous words had been only a guess. For a moment the devil seemed to be glaring through his eyes; and he looked at Marie and me as a wild animal at its keepers. Yet he maintained his cynical politeness in part. "Mademoiselle desires my congratulations?" he said, slowly, labouring with each word it seemed. "She shall have them on the happy day. She shall certainly have them then. But these are troublous times. And Mademoiselle's betrothed is I think a Huguenot, and has gone to Paris. Paris--well, the air of Paris is not good for Huguenots, I am told."
I saw Catherine shiver; indeed she was on the point of fainting, I broke in rudely, my passion getting the better of my fears. "M. de Pavannes can take care of himself, believe me," I said brusquely.
"Perhaps so," Bezers answered, his voice like the grating of steel on steel. "But at any rate this will be a memorable day for Mademoiselle. The day on which she receives her first congratulations--she will remember it as long as she lives! Oh, yes, I will answer for that, M. Anne," he said looking brightly at one and another of us, his eyes more oblique than ever, "Mademoiselle will remember it, I am sure!"
It would be impossible to describe the devilish glance he flung at the poor sinking girl as he withdrew, the horrid emphasis he threw into those last words, the covert deadly threat they conveyed to the dullest ears. That he went then, was small mercy. He had done all the evil he could do at present. If his desire had been to leave fear behind him, he had certainly succeeded.
Kit crying softly went into the house; her innocent coquetry more than sufficiently punished already. And we three looked at one another with blank faces, It was clear that we had made a dangerous enemy, and an enemy at our own gates. As the Vidame had said, these were troublous times when things were done to men--ay, and to women and children--which we scarce dare to speak of now. "I wish the Vicomte were here," Croisette said uneasily after we had discussed several unpleasant contingencies.
"Or even Malines the steward," I suggested.
"He would not be much good," replied Croisette.
"And he is at St. Antonin, and will not be back this week. Father Pierre too is at Albi."
"You do not think," said Marie, "that he will attack us?"
"Certainly not!" Croisette retorted with contempt. "Even the Vidame would not dare to do that in time of peace. Besides, he has not half a score of men here," continued the lad, shrewdly, "and counting old Gil and ourselves we have as many. And Pavannes always said that three men could hold the gate at the bottom of the ramp against a score. Oh, he will not try that!"
"Certainly not!" I agreed. And so we crushed Marie. "But for Louis de Pavannes--"
Catherine interrupted me. She came out quickly looking a different person; her face flushed with anger, her tears dried.
"Anne!" she cried, imperiously, "what is the matter down below --will you see?"
I had no difficulty in doing that. All the sounds of town life came up to us on the terrace. Lounging there we could hear the chaffering over the wheat measures in the cloisters of the market-square, the yell of a dog, the voice of a scold, the church bell, the watchman's cry. I had only to step to the wall to overlook it all. On this summer afternoon the town had been for the most part very quiet. If we had not been engaged in our own affairs we should have taken the alarm before, remarking in the silence the first beginnings of what was now a very respectable tumult. It swelled louder even as we stepped to the wall.
We could see--a bend in the street laying it open--part of the Vidame's house; the gloomy square hold which had come to him from his mother. His own chateau of Bezers lay far away in Franche Comte, but of late he had shown a preference--Catherine could best account for it, perhaps--for this mean house in Caylus. It was the only house in the town which did not belong to us. It was known as the House of the Wolf, and was a grim stone building surrounding a courtyard. Rows of wolves' heads carved in stone flanked the windows, whence their bare fangs grinned day and night at the church porch opposite.
The noise drew our eyes in this direction; and there lolling in a window over the door, looking out on the street with a laughing eye, was Bezers himself. The cause of his merriment--we had not far to look for it--was a horseman who was riding up the street under difficulties. He was reining in his steed--no easy task on that steep greasy pavement--so as to present some front to a score or so of ragged knaves who were following close at his heels, hooting and throwing mud and pebbles at him. The man had drawn his sword, and his oaths came up to us, mingled with shrill cries of "Vive la messe!" and half drowned by the clattering of the horse's hoofs. We saw a stone strike him in the face, and draw blood, and heard him swear louder than before.
"Oh!" cried Catherine, clasping her hands with a sudden shriek of indignation, "my letter! They will get my letter!"
"Death!" exclaimed Croisette, "She is right! It is M. de Pavannes' courier! This must be stopped! We cannot stand this, Anne!"
"They shall pay dearly for it, by our Lady!" I cried swearing myself. "And in peace time too--the villains! Gil! Francis!" I shouted, "where are you?"
And I looked round for my fowling piece, while Croisette jumped on the wall, and forming a trumpet with his hands, shrieked at the top of his voice, "Back! he bears a letter from the Vicomte!"
But the device did not succeed, and I could not find my gun. For a moment we were helpless, and before I could have fetched the gun from the house, the horseman and the hooting rabble at his heels, had turned a corner and were hidden by the roofs.
Another turn however would bring them out in front of the gateway, and seeing this we hurried down the ramp to meet them. I stayed a moment to tell Gil to collect the servants, and, this keeping me, Croisette reached the narrow street outside before me. As I followed him I was nearly knocked down by the rider, whose face was covered with, dirt and blood, while fright had rendered his horse unmanageable. Darting aside I let him pass --he was blinded and could not see me--and then found that Croisette--brave lad! had collared the foremost of the ruffians, and was beating him with his sheathed sword, while the rest of the rabble stood back, ashamed, yet sullen, and with anger in their eyes. A dangerous crew, I thought; not townsmen, most of them.
"Down with the Huguenots!" cried one, as I appeared, one bolder than the rest.
"Down with the Canaille!" I retorted, sternly eyeing the ill- looking ring. "Will you set yourselves above the king's peace, dirt that you are? Go back to your kennels!"
The words were scarcely out of my mouth, before I saw that the fellow whom Croisette was punishing had got hold of a dagger. I shouted a warning, but it came too late. The blade fell, and-- thanks to God--striking the buckle of the lad's belt, glanced off harmless. I saw the steel flash up again--saw the spite in the man's eyes: but this time I was a step nearer, and before the weapon fell, I passed my sword clean through the wretch's body. He went down like a log, Croisette falling with him, held fast by his stiffening fingers.
I had never killed a man before, nor seen a man die; and if I had stayed to think about it, I should have fallen sick perhaps. But it was no time for thought; no time for sickness. The crowd were close upon us, a line of flushed threatening faces from wall to wall. A single glance downwards told me that the man was dead, and I set my foot upon his neck. "Hounds! Beasts!" I cried, not loudly this time, for though I was like one possessed with rage, it was inward rage, "go to your kennels! Will you dare to raise a hand against a Caylus? Go--or when the Vicomte returns, a dozen of you shall hang in the market-place!"
I suppose I looked fierce enough--I know I felt no fear, only a strange exaltation--for they slunk away. Unwillingly, but with little delay the group melted, Bezers' following--of whom I knew the dead man was one--the last to go. While I still glared at them, lo! the street was empty; the last had disappeared round the bend. I turned to find Gil and half-a-dozen servants standing with pale faces at my back. Croisette seized my hand with a sob. "Oh, my lord," cried Gil, quaveringly. But I shook one off, I frowned at the other.
"Take up this carrion!" I said, touching it with my foot, "And hang it from the justice-elm. And then close the gates! See to it, knaves, and lose no time."