Chapter III. The Road to Paris.
 

The sun had not yet risen above the hills when we three with a single servant behind us drew rein at the end of the valley; and easing our horses on the ascent, turned in the saddle to take a last look at Caylus--at the huddled grey town, and the towers above it. A little thoughtful we all were, I think. The times were rough and our errand was serious. But youth and early morning are fine dispellers of care; and once on the uplands we trotted gaily forward, now passing through wide glades in the sparse oak forest, where the trees all leaned one way, now over bare, wind-swept downs; or once and again descending into a chalky bottom, where the stream bubbled through deep beds of fern, and a lonely farmhouse nestled amid orchards.

Four hours' riding, and we saw below us Cahors, filling the bend of the river. We cantered over the Vallandre Bridge, which there crosses the Lot, and so to my uncle's house of call in the square. Here we ordered breakfast, and announced with pride that we were going to Paris.

Our host raised his hands. "Now there!" he exclaimed, regret in his voice. "And if you had arrived yesterday you could have travelled up with the Vidame de Bezers! And you a small party-- saving your lordships' presence--and the roads but so-so!"

"But the Vidame was riding with only half-a-dozen attendants also!" I answered, flicking my boot in a careless way.

The landlord shook his head. "Ah, M. le Vidame knows the world!" he answered shrewdly. "He is not to be taken off his guard, not he! One of his men whispered me that twenty staunch fellows would join him at Chateauroux. They say the wars are over, but" --and the good man, shrugging his shoulders, cast an expressive glance at some fine flitches of bacon which were hanging in his chimney. "However, your lordships know better than I do," he added briskly. "I am a poor man. I only wish to live at peace with my neighbours, whether they go to mass or sermon."

This was a sentiment so common in those days and so heartily echoed by most men of substance both in town and country, that we did not stay to assent to it; but having received from the worthy fellow a token which would insure our obtaining fresh cattle at Limoges, we took to the road again, refreshed in body, and with some food for thought.

Five-and-twenty attendants were more than even such a man as Bezers, who had many enemies, travelled with in those days; unless accompanied by ladies. That the Vidame had provided such a reinforcement seemed to point to a wider scheme than the one with which we had credited him. But we could not guess what his plans were; since he must have ordered his people before he heard of Catherine's engagement. Either his jealousy therefore had put him on the alert earlier, or his threatened attack on Pavannes was only part of a larger plot. In either case our errand seemed more urgent, but scarcely more hopeful.

The varied sights and sounds however of the road--many of them new to us--kept us from dwelling over much on this. Our eyes were young, and whether it was a pretty girl lingering behind a troop of gipsies, or a pair of strollers from Valencia --jongleurs they still called themselves--singing in the old dialect of Provence, or a Norman horse-dealer with his string of cattle tied head and tail, or the Puy de Dome to the eastward over the Auvergne hills, or a tattered old soldier wounded in the wars--fighting for either side, according as their lordships inclined--we were pleased with all.

Yet we never forgot our errand. We never I think rose in the morning--too often stiff and sore--without thinking "To-day or to-morrow or the next day--" as the case might be--"we shall make all right for Kit!" For Kit! Perhaps it was the purest enthusiasm we were ever to feel, the least selfish aim we were ever to pursue. For Kit!

Meanwhile we met few travellers of rank on the road. Half the nobility of France were still in Paris enjoying the festivities which were being held to mark the royal marriage. We obtained horses where we needed them without difficulty. And though we had heard much of the dangers of the way, infested as it was said to be by disbanded troopers, we were not once stopped or annoyed.

But it is not my intention to chronicle all the events of this my first journey, though I dwell on them with pleasure; or to say what I thought of the towns, all new and strange to me, through which we passed. Enough that we went by way of Limoges, Chateauroux and Orleans, and that at Chateauroux we learned the failure of one hope we had formed. We had thought that Bezers when joined there by his troopers would not be able to get relays; and that on this account we might by travelling post overtake him; and possibly slip by him between that place and Paris. But we learned at Chateauroux that his troop had received fresh orders to go to Orleans and await him there; the result being that he was able to push forward with relays so far. He was evidently in hot haste. For leaving there with his horses fresh he passed through Angerville, forty miles short of Paris, at noon, whereas we reached it on the evening of the same day-- the sixth after leaving Caylus.

We rode into the yard of the inn--a large place, seeming larger in the dusk--so tired that we could scarcely slip from our saddles. Jean, our servant, took the four horses, and led them across to the stables, the poor beasts hanging their heads, and following meekly. We stood a moment stamping our feet, and stretching our legs. The place seemed in a bustle, the clatter of pans and dishes proceeding from the windows over the entrance, with a glow of light and the sound of feet hurrying in the passages. There were men too, half-a-dozen or so standing at the doors of the stables, while others leaned from the windows. One or two lanthorns just kindled glimmered here and there in the semi-darkness; and in a corner two smiths were shoeing a horse.

We were turning from all this to go in, when we heard Jean's voice raised in altercation, and thinking our rustic servant had fallen into trouble, we walked across to the stables near which he and the horses were still lingering. "Well, what is it?" I said sharply.

"They say that there is no room for the horses," Jean answered querulously, scratching his head; half sullen, half cowed, a country servant all over.

"And there is not!" cried the foremost of the gang about the door, hastening to confront us in turn. His tone was insolent, and it needed but half an eye to see that his fellows were inclined to back him up. He stuck his arms akimbo and faced us with an impudent smile. A lanthorn on the ground beside him throwing an uncertain light on the group, I saw that they all wore the same badge.

"Come," I said sternly, "the stables are large, and your horses cannot fill them. Some room must be found for mine."

"To be sure! Make way for the king!" he retorted. While one jeered "Vive le roi!" and the rest laughed. Not good- humouredly, but with a touch of spitefulness.

Quarrels between gentlemen's servants were as common then as they are to-day. But the masters seldom condescended to interfere. "Let the fellows fight it out," was the general sentiment. Here, however, poor Jean was over-matched, and we had no choice but to see to it ourselves.

"Come, men, have a care that you do not get into trouble," I urged, restraining Croisette by a touch, for I by no means wished to have a repetition of the catastrophe which had happened at Caylus. "These horses belong to the Vicomte de Caylus. If your master be a friend of his, as may very probably be the case, you will run the risk of getting into trouble."

I thought I heard, as I stopped speaking, a subdued muttering, and fancied I caught the words, "Papegot! Down with the Guises!" But the spokesman's only answer aloud was "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" he repeated, flapping his arms in defiance. "Here is a cock of a fine hackle!" And so on, and so forth, while he turned grinning to his companions, looking for their applause.

I was itching to chastise him, and yet hesitating, lest the thing should have its serious side, when a new actor appeared. "Shame, you brutes!" cried a shrill voice above us in the clouds it seemed. I looked up, and saw two girls, coarse and handsome, standing at a window over the stable, a light between them. "For shame! Don't you see that they are mere children? Let them be," cried one.

The men laughed louder than ever; and for me, I could not stand by and be called a child. "Come here," I said, beckoning to the man in the doorway. "Come here, you rascal, and I will give you the thrashing you deserve for speaking to a gentleman!"

He lounged forward, a heavy fellow, taller than myself and six inches wider at the shoulders. My heart failed me a little as I measured him. But the thing had to be done. If I was slight, I was wiry as a hound, and in the excitement had forgotten my fatigue. I snatched from Marie a loaded riding-whip he carried, and stepped forward.

"Have a care, little man!" cried the girl gaily--yet half in pity, I think. "Or that fat pig will kill you!"

My antagonist did not join in the laugh this time. Indeed it struck me that his eye wandered and that he was not so ready to enter the ring as his mates were to form it. But before I could try his mettle, a hand was laid on my shoulder. A man appearing from I do not know where--from the dark fringe of the group, I suppose--pushed me aside, roughly, but not discourteously.

"Leave this to me!" he said, coolly stepping before me. "Do not dirty your hands with the knave, master. I am pining for work and the job will just suit me! I will fit him for the worms before the nuns above can say an ave!"

I looked at the newcomer. He was a stout fellow; not over tall, nor over big; swarthy, with prominent features. The plume of his bonnet was broken, but he wore it in a rakish fashion; and altogether he swaggered with so dare-devil an air, clinking his spurs and swinging out his long sword recklessly, that it was no wonder three or four of the nearest fellows gave back a foot.

"Come on!" he cried, boisterously, forming a ring by the simple process of sweeping his blade from side to side, while he made the dagger in his left hand flash round his head. "Who is for the game? Who will strike a blow for the little Admiral? Will you come one, two, three at once; or all together? Anyway, come on, you--" And he closed his challenge with a volley of frightful oaths, directed at the group opposite.

"It is no quarrel of yours," said the big man, sulkily; making no show of drawing his sword, but rather drawing back himself.

"All quarrels are my quarrels! and no quarrels are your quarrels. That is about the truth, I fancy!" was the smart retort; which our champion rendered more emphatic by a playful lunge that caused the big bully to skip again.

There was a loud laugh at this, even among the enemy's backers. "Bah, the great pig!" ejaculated the girl above. "Spit him!" and she spat down on the whilom Hector--who made no great figure now.

"Shall I bring you a slice of him, my dear?" asked my rakehelly friend, looking up and making his sword play round the shrinking wretch. "Just a tit-bit, my love?" he added persuasively. "A mouthful of white liver and caper sauce?"

"Not for me, the beast!" the girl cried, amid the laughter of the yard.

"Not a bit? If I warrant him tender? Ladies' meat?"

"Bah! no!" and she stolidly spat down again.

"Do you hear? The lady has no taste for you," the tormentor cried. "Pig of a Gascon!" And deftly sheathing his dagger, he seized the big coward by the ear, and turning him round, gave him a heavy kick which sent him spinning over a bucket, and down against the wall. There the bully remained, swearing and rubbing himself by turns; while the victor cried boastfully, "Enough of him. If anyone wants to take up his quarrel, Blaise Bure is his man. If not, let us have an end of it. Let someone find stalls for the gentlemen's horses before they catch a chill; and have done with it. As for me," he added, and then he turned to us and removed his hat with an exaggerated flourish, "I am your lordship's servant to command."

I thanked him with a heartiness, half-earnest, half-assumed. His cloak was ragged, his trunk hose, which had once been fine enough, were stained, and almost pointless, He swaggered inimitably,and had led-captain written large upon him. But he had done us a service, for Jean had no further trouble about the horses. And besides one has a natural liking for a brave man, and this man was brave beyond question.

"You are from Orleans," he said respectfully enough, but as one asserting a fact, not asking a question.

"Yes," I answered, somewhat astonished, "Did you see us come in?"

"No, but I looked at your boots, gentlemen," he replied. "White dust, north; red dust, south. Do you see?"

"Yes, I see," I said, with admiration. "You must have been brought up in a sharp school, M. Bure."

"Sharp masters make sharp scholars," he replied, grinning. And that answer I had occasion to remember afterwards.

"You are from Orleans, also?" I asked, as we prepared to go in.

"Yes, from Orleans too, gentlemen. But earlier in the day. With letters--letters of importance!" And bestowing something like a wink of confidence on us, he drew himself up, looked sternly at the stable-folk, patted himself twice on the chest, and finally twirled his moustaches, and smirked at the girl above, who was chewing straws.

I thought it likely enough that we might find it hard to get rid of him. But this was not so. After listening with gratification to our repeated thanks, he bowed with the same grotesque flourish, and marched off as grave as a Spaniard, humming--

  "Ce petit homme tant joli!
  Qui toujours cause et toujours rit,
  Qui toujours baise sa mignonne,
  Dieu gard' de mal ce petit homme!"

On our going in, the landlord met us politely, but with curiosity, and a simmering of excitement also in his manner. "From Paris, my lords?" he asked, rubbing his hands and bowing low. "Or from the south?"

"From the south," I answered. "From Orleans, and hungry and tired, Master Host."

"Ah!" he replied, disregarding the latter part of my answer, while his little eyes twinkled with satisfaction. "Then I dare swear, my lords, you have not heard the news?" He halted in the narrow passage, and lifting the candle he carried, scanned our faces closely, as if he wished to learn something about us before he spoke.

"News!" I answered brusquely, being both tired, and as I had told him, hungry. "We have heard none, and the best you can give us will be that our supper is ready to be served."

But even this snub did not check his eagerness to tell his news. "The Admiral de Coligny," he said, breathlessly, "you have not heard what has happened to him?"

"To the admiral? No, what?" I inquired rapidly. I was interested at last.

For a moment let me digress. The few of my age will remember, and the many younger will have been told, that at this time the Italian queen-mother was the ruling power in France. It was Catharine de' Medici's first object to maintain her influence over Charles the Ninth--her son; who, ricketty, weak, and passionate, was already doomed to an early grave. Her second, to support the royal power by balancing the extreme Catholics against the Huguenots. For the latter purpose she would coquet first with one party, then with the other. At the present moment she had committed herself more deeply than was her wont to the Huguenots. Their leaders, the Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the King of Navarre, and the Prince of Conde, were supposed to be high in favour, while the chiefs of the other party, the Duke of Guise, and the two Cardinals of his house, the Cardinal of Lorraine and the Cardinal of Guise, were in disgrace; which, as it seemed, even their friend at court, the queen's favourite son, Henry of Anjou, was unable to overcome.

Such was the outward aspect of things in August, 1572, but there were not wanting rumours that already Coligny, taking advantage of the footing given him, had gained an influence over the young king, which threatened Catharine de' Medici herself. The admiral, therefore, to whom the Huguenot half of France had long looked as to its leader, was now the object of the closest interest to all; the Guise faction, hating him--as the alleged assassin of the Duke of Guise--with an intensity which probably was not to be found in the affection of his friends, popular with the latter as he was.

Still, many who were not Huguenots had a regard for him as a great Frenchman and a gallant soldier. We--though we were of the old faith, and the other side--had heard much of him, and much good. The Vicomte had spoken of him always as a great man, a man mistaken, but brave, honest and capable in his error. Therefore it was that when the landlord mentioned him, I forgot even my hunger.

"He was shot, my lords, as he passed through the Rue des Fosses, yesterday," the man declared with bated breath. "It is not known whether he will live or die. Paris is in an uproar, and there are some who fear the worst."

"But," I said doubtfully, "who has dared to do this? He had a safe conduct from the king himself."

Our host did not answer; shrugging his shoulders instead, he opened the door, and ushered us into the eating-room.

Some preparations for our meal had already been made at one end of the long board. At the other was seated a man past middle age; richly but simply dressed. His grey hair, cut short about a massive head, and his grave, resolute face, square-jawed, and deeply-lined, marked him as one to whom respect was due apart from his clothes. We bowed to him as we took our seats.

He acknowledged the salute, fixing us a moment with a penetrating glance; and then resumed his meal. I noticed that his sword and belt were propped against a chair at his elbow, and a dag, apparently loaded, lay close to his hand by the candlestick. Two lackeys waited behind his chair, wearing the badge we had remarked in the inn yard.

We began to talk, speaking in low tones that we might not disturb him. The attack on Coligny had, if true, its bearing on our own business. For if a Huguenot so great and famous and enjoying the king's special favour still went in Paris in danger of his life, what must be the risk that such an one as Pavannes ran? We had hoped to find the city quiet. If instead it should be in a state of turmoil Bezers' chances were so much the better; and ours --and Kit's, poor Kit's--so much the worse.

Our companion had by this time finished his supper. But he still sat at table, and seemed to be regarding us with some curiosity. At length he spoke. "Are you going to Paris, young gentlemen?" he asked, his tone harsh and high-pitched.

We answered in the affirmative. "To-morrow?" he questioned.

"Yes," we answered; and expected him to continue the conversation. But instead he became silent, gazing abstractedly at the table; and what with our meal, and our own talk we had almost forgotten him again, when looking up, I found him at my elbow, holding out in silence a small piece of paper.

I started his face was so grave. But seeing that there were half-a-dozen guests of a meaner sort at another table close by, I guessed that he merely wished to make a private communication to us; and hastened to take the paper and read it. It contained a scrawl of four words only--

  "Va chasser l'Idole."

No more. I looked at him puzzled; able to make nothing out of it. St. Croix wrinkled his brow over it with the same result. It was no good handing it to Marie, therefore.

"You do not understand?" the stranger continued, as he put the scrap of paper back in his pouch.

"No," I answered, shaking my head. We had all risen out of respect to him, and were standing a little group about him.

"Just so; it is all right then," he answered, looking at us as it seemed to me with grave good-nature. "It is nothing. Go your way. But--I have a son yonder not much younger than you, young gentlemen. And if you had understood, I should have said to you, 'Do not go! There are enough sheep for the shearer!'"

He was turning away with this oracular saying when Croisette touched his sleeve. "Pray can you tell us if it be true," the lad said eagerly, "that the Admiral de Coligny was wounded yesterday?"

"It is true," the other answered, turning his grave eyes on his questioner, while for a moment his stern look failed him, "It is true, my boy," he added with an air of strange solemnity. " Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth. And, God forgive me for saying it, whom He would destroy, He first maketh mad."

He had gazed with peculiar favour at Croisette's girlish face, I thought: Marie and I were dark and ugly by the side of the boy. But he turned from him now with a queer, excited gesture, thumping his gold-headed cane on the floor. He called his servants in a loud, rasping voice, and left the room in seeming anger, driving them before him, the one carrying his dag, and the other, two candles.

When I came down early next morning, the first person I met was Blaise Bure. He looked rather fiercer and more shabby by daylight than candlelight. But he saluted me respectfully; and this, since it was clear that he did not respect many people, inclined me to regard him with favour. It is always so, the more savage the dog, the more highly we prize its attentions. I asked him who the Huguenot noble was who had supped with us. For a Huguenot we knew he must be.

"The Baron de Rosny," he answered; adding with a sneer, "He is a careful man! If they were all like him, with eyes on both sides of his head and a dag by his candle--well, my lord, there would be one more king in France--or one less! But they are a blind lot: as blind as bats." He muttered something farther in which I caught the word "to-night." But I did not hear it all; or understand any of it.

"Your lordships are going to Paris?" he resumed in a different tone. When I said that we were, he looked at me in a shamefaced way, half timid, half arrogant. "I have a small favour to ask of you then," he said. "I am going to Paris myself. I am not afraid of odds, as you have seen. But the roads will be in a queer state if there be anything on foot in the city, and--well, I would rather ride was you gentlemen than alone."

"You are welcome to join us," I said. "But we start in half-an- hour. Do you know Paris well?"

"As well as my sword-hilt," he replied briskly, relieved I thought by my acquiescence, "And I have known that from my breeching. If you want a game at paume, or a pretty girl to kiss, I can put you in the way for the one or the other."

The half rustic shrinking from the great city which I felt, suggested to me that our swashbuckling friend might help us if he would. "Do you know M. de Pavannes?" I asked impulsively, "Where he lives in Paris, I mean?"

"M. Louis de Pavannes?" quoth he.

"Yes."

"I know--" he replied slowly, rubbing his chin and looking at the ground in thought--"where he had his lodgings in town a while ago, before--Ah! I do know! I remember," he added, slapping his thigh, "when I was in Paris a fortnight ago I was told that his steward had taken lodgings for him in the Rue St. Antoine."

"Good!" I answered overjoyed. "Then we want to dismount there, if you can guide us straight to the house."

"I can," he replied simply. "And you will not be the worse for my company. Paris is a queer place when there is trouble to the fore, but your lordships have got the right man to pilot you through it."

I did not ask him what trouble he meant, but ran indoors to buckle on my sword, and tell Marie and Croisette of the ally I had secured. They were much pleased, as was natural; so that we took the road in excellent spirits intending to reach the city in the afternoon. But Marie's horse cast a shoe, and it was some time before we could find a smith. Then at Etampes, where we stopped to lunch, we were kept an unconscionable time waiting for it. And so we approached Paris for the first time at sunset. A ruddy glow was at the moment warming the eastern heights, and picking out with flame the twin towers of Notre Dame, and the one tall tower of St. Jacques la Boucherie. A dozen roofs higher than their neighbours shone hotly; and a great bank of cloud, which lay north and south, and looked like a man's hand stretched over the city, changed gradually from blood-red to violet, and from violet to black, as evening fell.

Passing within the gates and across first one bridge and then another, we were astonished and utterly confused by the noise and hubbub through which we rode. Hundreds seemed to be moving this way and that in the narrow streets. Women screamed to one another from window to window. The bells of half-a-dozen churches rang the curfew. Our country ears were deafened. Still our eyes had leisure to take in the tall houses with their high- pitched roofs, and here and there a tower built into the wall; the quaint churches, and the groups of townsfolk--sullen fellows some of them with a fierce gleam in their eyes---who, standing in the mouths of reeking alleys, watched us go by.

But presently we had to stop. A crowd had gathered to watch a little cavalcade of six gentlemen pass across our path. They were riding two and two, lounging in their saddles and chattering to one another, distainfully unconscious of the people about them, or the remarks they excited. Their graceful bearing and the richness of their dress and equipment surpassed anything I had ever seen. A dozen pages and lackeys were attending them on foot, and the sound of their jests and laughter came to us over the heads of the crowd.

While I was gazing at them, some movement of the throng drove back Bure's horse against mine. Bure himself uttered a savage oath; uncalled for so far as I could see. But my attention was arrested the next moment by Croisette, who tapped my arm with his riding whip. "Look!" he cried in some excitement, "is not that he?"

I followed the direction of the lad's finger--as well as I could for the plunging of my horse which Bure's had frightened--and scrutinized the last pair of the troop. They were crossing the street in which we stood, and I had only a side view of them; or rather of the nearer rider. He was a singularly handsome man, in age about twenty-two or twenty-three with long lovelocks falling on his lace collar and cloak of orange silk. His face was sweet and kindly and gracious to a marvel. But he was a stranger to me.

"I could have sworn," exclaimed Croisette, "that that was Louis himself--M. de Pavannes!"

"That?" I answered, as we began to move again, the crowd melting before us. "Oh, dear, no!"

"No! no! The farther man!" he explained.

But I had not been able to get a good look at the farther of the two. We turned in our saddles and peered after him. His back in the dusk certainly reminded me of Louis. Bure, however, who said he knew M. de Pavannes by sight, laughed at the idea. "Your friend," he said, "is a wider man than that!" And I thought he was right there--but then it might be the cut of the clothes. "They have been at the Louvre playing paume, I'll be sworn!" he went on. "So the Admiral must be better. The one next us was M. de Teligny, the Admiral's son-in-law. And the other, whom you mean, was the Comte de la Rochefoucault."

We turned as he spoke into a narrow street near the river, and could see not far from us a mass of dark buildings which Bure told us was the Louvre--the king's residence. Out of this street we turned into a short one; and here Bure drew rein and rapped loudly at some heavy gates. It was so dark that when, these being opened, he led the way into a courtyard, we could see little more than a tall, sharp-gabled house, projecting over us against a pale sky; and a group of men and horses in one corner. Bure spoke to one of the men, and begging us to dismount, said the footman would show us to M. de Pavannes.

The thought that we were at the end of our long journey, and in time to warn Louis of his danger, made us forget all our exertions, our fatigue and stiffness. Gladly throwing the bridles to Jean we ran up the steps after the servant. The thing was done. Hurrah! the thing was done!

The house--as we passed through a long passage and up some steps --seemed full of people. We heard voices and the ring of arms more than once. But our guide, without pausing, led us to a small room lighted by a hanging lamp. "I will inform M. de Pavannes of your arrival," he said respectfully, and passed behind a curtain, which seemed to hide the door of an inner apartment. As he did so the clink of glasses and the hum of conversation reached us.

"He has company supping with him," I said nervously. I tried to flip some of the dust from my boots with my whip. I remembered that this was Paris.

"He will be surprised to see us," quoth Croisette, laughing--a little shyly, too, I think. And so we stood waiting.

I began to wonder as minutes passed by--the gay company we had seen putting it in my mind, I suppose--whether M. de Pavannes, of Paris, might not turn out to be a very different person from Louis de Pavannes, of Caylus; whether the king's courtier would be as friendly as Kit's lover. And I was still thinking of this without having settled the point to my satisfaction, when the curtain was thrust aside again. A very tall man, wearing a splendid suit of black and silver and a stiff trencher-like ruff, came quickly in, and stood smiling at us, a little dog in his arms. The little dog sat up and snarled: and Croisette gasped. It was not our old friend Louis certainly! It was not Louis de Pavannes at all. It was no old friend at all, It was the Vidame de Bezers!

"Welcome, gentlemen!" he said, smiling at us--and never had the cast been so apparent in his eyes. "Welcome to Paris, M. Anne!"