The House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter IV. Entrapped!
There was a long silence. We stood glaring at him, and he smiled upon us--as a cat smiles. Croisette told me afterwards that he could have died of mortification--of shame and anger that we had been so outwitted. For myself I did not at once grasp the position. I did not understand. I could not disentangle myself in a moment from the belief in which I had entered the house-- that it was Louis de Pavannes' house. But I seemed vaguely to suspect that Bezers had swept him aside and taken his place. My first impulse therefore--obeyed on the instant--was to stride to the Vidame's side and grasp his arm. "What have you done?" I cried, my voice sounding hoarsely even in my own ears. "What have you done with M. de Pavannes? Answer me!"
He showed just a little more of his sharp white teeth as he looked down at my face--a flushed and troubled face doubtless. "Nothing--yet," he replied very mildly. And he shook me off.
"Then," I retorted, "how do you come here?"
He glanced at Croisette and shrugged his shoulders, as if I had been a spoiled child. "M. Anne does not seem to understand," he said with mock courtesy, "that I have the honour to welcome him to my house the Hotel Bezers, Rue de Platriere."
"The Hotel Bezers! Rue de Platriere!" I cried confusedly. "But Blaise Bure told us that this was the Rue St. Antoine!"
"Ah!" he replied as if slowly enlightened--the hypocrite! "Ah! I see!" and he smiled grimly. "So you have made the acquaintance of Blaise Bure, my excellent master of the horse! Worthy Blaise! Indeed, indeed, now I understand. And you thought, you whelps," he continued, and as he spoke his tone changed strangely, and he fixed us suddenly with angry eyes, "to play a rubber with me! With me, you imbeciles! You thought the wolf of Bezers could be hunted down like any hare! Then listen, and I will tell you the end of it. You are now in my house and absolutely at my mercy. I have two score men within call who would cut the throats of three babes at the breast, if I bade them! Ay," he, added, a wicked exultation shining in his eyes, "they would, and like the job!"
He was going on to say more, but I interrupted him. The rage I felt, caused as much by the thought of our folly as by his arrogance, would let me be silent no longer. "First, M. de Bezers, first," I broke out fiercely, my words leaping over one another in my haste, "a word with you! Let me tell you what I think of you! You are a treacherous hound, Vidame! A cur! a beast! And I spit upon you! Traitor and assassin!" I shouted, "is that not enough? Will nothing provoke you? If you call yourself a gentleman, draw!"
He shook his head; he was still smiling, still unmoved. "I do not do my own dirty work," he said quietly, "nor stint my footmen of their sport, boy."
"Very well!" I retorted. And with the words I drew my sword, and sprang as quick as lightning to the curtain by which he had entered. "Very well, we will kill you first!" I cried wrathfully, my eye on his eye, and every savage passion in my breast aroused, "and take our chance with the lackeys afterwards! Marie! Croisette!" I cried shrilly, "on him, lads!"
But they did not answer! They did not move or draw. For the moment indeed the man was in my power. My wrist was raised, and I had my point at his breast, I could have run him through by a single thrust. And I hated him. Oh, how I hated him! But he did not stir. Had he spoken, had he moved so much as an eyelid, or drawn back his foot, or laid his hand on his hilt, I should have killed him there. But he did not stir and I could not do it. My hand dropped. "Cowards!" I cried, glancing bitterly from him to them--they had never failed me before. "Cowards!" I muttered, seeming to shrink into myself as I said the word. And I flung my sword clattering on the floor.
"That is better!" he drawled quite unmoved, as if nothing more than words had passed, as if he had not been in peril at all. "It was what I was going to ask you to do. If the other young gentlemen will follow your example, I shall be obliged. Thank you. Thank you."
Croisette, and a minute later Marie, obeyed him to the letter! I could not understand it. I folded my arms and gave up the game in despair, and but for very shame I could have put my hands to my face and cried. He stood in the middle under the lamp, a head taller than the tallest of us; our master. And we stood round him trapped, beaten, for all the world like children. Oh, I could have cried! This was the end of our long ride, our aspirations, our knight-errantry!
"Now perhaps you will listen to me," he went on smoothly, "and hear what I am going to do. I shall keep you here, young gentlemen, until you can serve me by carrying to mademoiselle, your cousin, some news of her betrothed. Oh, I shall not detain you long," he added with an evil smile. "You have arrived in Paris at a fortunate moment. There is going to be a--well, there is a little scheme on foot appointed for to-night--singularly lucky you are!--for removing some objectionable people, some friends of ours perhaps among them, M. Anne. That is all. You will hear shots, cries, perhaps screams. Take no notice. You will be in no danger. For M. de Pavannes," he continued, his voice sinking, "I think that by morning I shall be able to give you a--a more particular account of him to take to Caylus--to Mademoiselle, you understand."
For a moment the mask was off. His face took a sombre brightness. He moistened his lips with his tongue as though he saw his vengeance worked out then and there before him, and were gloating over the picture. The idea that this was so took such a hold upon me that I shrank back, shuddering; reading too in Croisette's face the same thought--and a late repentance. Nay, the malignity of Bezers' tone, the savage gleam of joy in his eyes appalled me to such an extent that I fancied for a moment I saw in him the devil incarnate!
He recovered his composure very quickly, however; and turned carelessly towards the door. "If you will follow me," he said, "I will see you disposed of. You may have to complain of your lodging--I have other things to think of to-night than hospitality, But you shall not need to complain of your supper."
He drew aside the curtain as he spoke, and passed into the next room before us, not giving a thought apparently to the possibility that we might strike him from behind. There certainly was an odd quality apparent in him at times which seemed to contradict what we knew of him.
The room we entered was rather long than wide, hung with tapestry, and lighted by silver lamps. Rich plate, embossed, I afterwards learned, by Cellini the Florentine--who died that year I remember--and richer glass from Venice, with a crowd of meaner vessels filled with meats and drinks covered the table; disordered as by the attacks of a numerous party. But save a servant or two by the distant dresser, and an ecclesiastic at the far end of the table, the room was empty.
The priest rose as we entered, the Vidame saluting him as if they had not met that day. "You are welcome M. le Coadjuteur," he said; saying it coldly, however, I thought. And the two eyed one another with little favour; rather as birds of prey about to quarrel over the spoil, than as host and guest. Perhaps the Coadjutor's glittering eyes and great beak-like nose made me think of this.
"Ho! ho!" he said, looking piercingly at us--and no doubt we must have seemed a miserable and dejected crew enough. "Who are these? Not the first-fruits of the night, eh?"
The Vidame looked darkly at him. "No," he answered brusquely. "They are not. I am not particular out of doors, Coadjutor, as you know, but this is my house, and we are going to supper. Perhaps you do not comprehend the distinction. Still it exists --for me," with a sneer.
This was as good as Greek to us. But I so shrank from the priest's malignant eyes, which would not quit us, and felt so much disgust mingled with my anger that when Bezers by a gesture invited me to sit down, I drew back. "I will not eat with you," I said sullenly; speaking out of a kind of dull obstinacy, or perhaps a childish petulance.
It did not occur to me that this would pierce the Vidame's armour. Yet a dull red showed for an instant in his cheek, and he eyed me with a look, that was not all ferocity, though the veins in his great temples swelled. A moment, nevertheless, and he was himself again. "Armand," he said quietly to the servant, "these gentlemen will not sup with me. Lay for them at the other end."
Men are odd. The moment he gave way to me I repented of my words. It was almost with reluctance that I followed the servant to the lower part of the table. More than this, mingled with the hatred I felt for the Vidame, there was now a strange sentiment towards him--almost of admiration; that had its birth I think in the moment, when I held his life in my hand, and he had not flinched.
We ate in silence; even after Croisette by grasping my hand under the table had begged me not to judge him hastily. The two at the upper end talked fast, and from the little that reached us, I judged that the priest was pressing some course on his host, which the latter declined to take.
Once Bezers raised his voice. "I have my own ends to serve!" he broke out angrily, adding a fierce oath which the priest did not rebuke, "and I shall serve them. But there I stop. You have your own. Well, serve them, but do not talk to me of the cause! The cause? To hell with the cause! I have my cause, and you have yours, and my lord of Guise has his! And you will not make me believe that there is any other!"
"The king's?" suggested the priest, smiling sourly.
"Say rather the Italian woman's!" the Vidame answered recklessly--meaning the queen-mother, Catherine de' Medici, I supposed.
"Well, then, the cause of the Church?" the priest persisted.
"Bah! The Church? It is you, my friend!" Bezers rejoined, rudely tapping his companion--at that moment in the act of crossing himself--on the chest. "The Church?" he continued; "no, no, my friend. I will tell you what you are doing. You want me to help you to get rid of your branch, and you offer in return to aid me with mine--and then, say you, there will be no stick left to beat either of us. But you may understand once for all"--and the Vidame struck his hand heavily down among the glasses--"that I will have no interference with my work, master Clerk! None! Do you hear? And as for yours, it is no business of mine. That is plain speaking, is it not?"
The priest's hand shook as he raised a full glass to his lips, but he made no rejoinder, and the Vidame, seeing we had finished, rose. "Armand!" he cried, his face still dark, "take these gentlemen to their chamber. You understand?"
We stiffly acknowledged his salute--the priest taking no notice of us--and followed the servant from the room; going along a corridor and up a steep flight of stairs, and seeing enough by the way to be sure that resistance was hopeless. Doors opened silently as we passed, and grim fellows, in corslets and padded coats, peered out. The clank of arms and murmur of voices sounded continuously about us; and as we passed a window the jingle of bits, and the hollow clang of a restless hoof on the flags below, told us that the great house was for the time a fortress. I wondered much. For this was Paris, a city with gates and guards; the night a short August night. Yet the loneliest manor in Quercy could scarcely have bristled with more pikes and musquetoons, on a winter's night and in time of war.
No doubt these signs impressed us all; and Croisette not least. For suddenly I heard him stop, as he followed us up the narrow staircase, and begin without warning to stumble down again as fast as he could. I did not know what he was about; but muttering something to Marie, I followed the lad to see. At the foot of the flight of stairs I looked back, Marie and the servant were standing in suspense, where I had left them. I heard the latter bid us angrily to return.
But by this time Croisette was at the end of the corridor; and reassuring the fellow by a gesture I hurried on, until brought to a standstill by a man opening a door in my face. He had heard our returning footsteps, and eyed me suspiciously; but gave way after a moment with a grunt of doubt I hastened on, reaching the door of the room in which we had supped in time to see something which filled me with grim astonishment; so much so that I stood rooted where I was, too proud at any rate to interfere.
Bezers was standing, the leering priest at his elbow. And Croisette was stooping forward, his hands stretched out in an attitude of supplication.
"Nay, but M. le Vidame," the lad cried, as I stood, the door in my hand, "it were better to stab her at once than break her heart! Have pity on her! If you kill him, you kill her!"
The Vidame was silent, seeming to glower on the boy. The priest sneered. "Hearts are soon mended--especially women's," he said.
"But not Kit's!" Croisette said passionately--otherwise ignoring him. "Not Kit's! You do not know her, Vidame! Indeed you do not!"
The remark was ill-timed. I saw a spasm of anger distort Bezers' face. "Get up, boy!" he snarled, "I wrote to Mademoiselle what I would do, and that I shall do! A Bezers keeps his word. By the God above us--if there be a God, and in the devil's name I doubt it to-night!--I shall keep mine! Go!"
His great face was full of rage. He looked over Croisette's head as he spoke, as if appealing to the Great Registrar of his vow, in the very moment in which he all but denied Him. I turned and stole back the way I had come; and heard Croisette follow.
That little scene completed my misery. After that I seemed to take no heed of anything or anybody until I was aroused by the grating of our gaoler's key in the lock, and became aware that he was gone, and that we were alone in a small room under the tiles. He had left the candle on the floor, and we three stood round it. Save for the long shadows we cast on the walls and two pallets hastily thrown down in one corner, the place was empty. I did not look much at it, and I would not look at the others. I flung myself on one of the pallets and turned my face to the wall, despairing. I thought bitterly of the failure we had made of it, and of the Vidame's triumph. I cursed St. Croix especially for that last touch of humiliation he had set to it. Then, forgetting myself as my anger abated, I thought of Kit so far away at Caylus--of Kit's pale, gentle face, and her sorrow. And little by little I forgave Croisette. After all he had not begged for us--he had not stooped for our sakes, but for hers.
I do not know how long I lay at see-saw between these two moods. Or whether during that time the others talked or were silent, moved about the room or lay still. But it was Croisette's hand on my shoulder, touching me with a quivering eagerness that instantly communicated itself to my limbs, which recalled me to the room and its shadows. "Anne!" he cried. "Anne! Are you awake?"
"What is it?" I said, sitting up and looking at him.
"Marie," he began, "has--"
But there was no need for him to finish. I saw that Marie was standing at the far side of the room by the unglazed window; which, being in a sloping part of the roof, inclined slightly also. He had raised the shutter which closed it, and on his tip- toes--for the sill was almost his own height from the floor--was peering out. I looked sharply at Croisette. "Is there a gutter outside?" I whispered, beginning to tingle all over as the thought of escape for the first time occurred to me.
"No," he answered in the same tone. "But Marie says he can see a beam below, which he thinks we can reach."
I sprang up, promptly displaced Marie, and looked out. When my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom I discerned a dark chaos of roofs and gables stretching as far as I could see before me. Nearer, immediately under the window, yawned a chasm--a narrow street. Beyond this was a house rather lower than that in which we were, the top of its roof not quite reaching the level of my eyes.
"I see no beam," I said.
"Look below!" quoth Marie, stolidly,
I did so, and then saw that fifteen or sixteen feet below our window there was a narrow beam which ran from our house to the opposite one--for the support of both, as is common in towns. In the shadow near the far end of this--it was so directly under our window that I could only see the other end of it--I made out a casement, faintly illuminated from within.
I shook my head.
"We cannot get down to it," I said, measuring the distance to the beam and the depth below it, and shivering.
"Marie says we can, with a short rope," Croisette replied. His eyes were glistening with excitement.
"But we have no rope!" I retorted. I was dull--as usual. Marie made no answer. Surely he was the most stolid and silent of brothers. I turned to him. He was taking off his waistcoat and neckerchief.
"Good!" I cried. I began to see now. Off came our scarves and kerchiefs also, and fortunately they were of home make, long and strong. And Marie had a hank of four-ply yarn in his pocket as it turned out, and I had some stout new garters, and two or three yards of thin cord, which I had brought to mend the girths, if need should arise. In five minutes we had fastened them cunningly together.
"I am the lightest," said Croisette.
"But Marie has the steadiest head," I objected. We had learned that long ago--that Marie could walk the coping-stones of the battlements with as little concern as we paced a plank set on the ground.
"True," Croisette had to admit. "But he must come last, because whoever does so will have to let himself down."
I had not thought of that, and I nodded. It seemed that the lead was passing out of my hands and I might resign myself. Still one thing I would have. As Marie was to come last, I would go first. My weight would best test the rope. And accordingly it was so decided.
There was no time to be lost. At any moment we might be interrupted. So the plan was no sooner conceived than carried out. The rope was made fast to my left wrist. Then I mounted on Marie's shoulders, and climbed--not without quavering--through the window, taking as little time over it as possible, for a bell was already proclaiming midnight.
All this I had done on the spur of the moment. But outside, hanging by my hands in the darkness, the strokes of the great bell in my ears, I had a moment in which to think. The sense of the vibrating depth below me, the airiness, the space and gloom around, frightened me. "Are you ready?" muttered Marie, perhaps with a little impatience. He had not a scrap of imagination, had Marie.
"No! wait a minute!" I blurted out, clinging to the sill, and taking a last look at the bare room, and the two dark figures between me and the light. "No!" I added, hurriedly. "Croisette--boys, I called you cowards just now. I take it back! I did not mean it! That is all!" I gasped. "Let go!"
A warm touch on my hand. Something like a sob.
The next moment I felt myself sliding down the face of the house, down into the depth. The light shot up. My head turned giddily. I clung, oh, how I clung to that rope! Half way down the thought struck me that in case of accident those above might not be strong enough to pull me up again. But it was too late to think of that, and in another second my feet touched the beam. I breathed again. Softly, very gingerly, I made good my footing on the slender bridge, and, disengaging the rope, let it go. Then, not without another qualm, I sat down astride of the beam, and whistled in token of success. Success so far!
It was a strange position, and I have often dreamed of it since. In the darkness about me Paris lay to all seeming asleep. A veil, and not the veil of night only, was stretched between it and me; between me, a mere lad, and the strange secrets of a great city; stranger, grimmer, more deadly that night than ever before or since. How many men were watching under those dimly- seen roofs, with arms in their hands? How many sat with murder at heart? How many were waking, who at dawn would sleep for ever, or sleeping who would wake only at the knife's edge? These things I could not know, any more than I could picture how many boon-companions were parting at that instant, just risen from the dice, one to go blindly--the other watching him--to his death? I could not imagine, thank Heaven for it, these secrets, or a hundredth part of the treachery and cruelty and greed that lurked at my feet, ready to burst all bounds at a pistol-shot. It had no significance for me that the past day was the 23rd of August, or that the morrow was St. Bartholomew's feast!
No. Yet mingled with the jubilation which the possibility of triumph over our enemy raised in my breast, there was certainly a foreboding. The Vidame's hints, no less than his open boasts, had pointed to something to happen before morning--something wider than the mere murder of a single man. The warning also which the Baron de Rosny had given us at the inn occurred to me with new meaning. And I could not shake the feeling off. I fancied, as I sat in the darkness astride of my beam, that I could see, closing the narrow vista of the street, the heavy mass of the Louvre; and that the murmur of voices and the tramp of men assembling came from its courts, with now and again the stealthy challenge of a sentry, the restrained voice of an officer. Scarcely a wayfarer passed beneath me: so few, indeed, that I had no fear of being detected from below. And yet unless I was mistaken, a furtive step, a subdued whisper were borne to me on every breeze, from every quarter. And the night was full of phantoms.
Perhaps all this was mere nervousness, the outcome of my position. At any rate I felt no more of it when Croisette joined me. We had our daggers, and that gave me some comfort. If we could once gain entrance to the house opposite, we had only to beg, or in the last resort force our way downstairs and out, and then to hasten with what speed we might to Pavannes' dwelling. Clearly it was a question of time only now; whether Bezers' band or we should first reach it. And struck by this I whispered Marie to be quick. He seemed to be long in coming.
He scrambled down hand over hand at last, and then I saw that he had not lingered above for nothing. He had contrived after getting out of the window to let down the shutter. And more he had at some risk lengthened our rope, and made a double line of it, so that it ran round a hinge of the shutter; and when he stood beside us, he took it by one end and disengaged it. Good, clever Marie!
"Bravo!" I said softly, clapping him on the back. "Now they will not know which way the birds have flown!"
So there we all were, one of us, I confess, trembling. We slid easily enough along the beam to the opposite house. But once there in a row one behind the other with our faces to the wall, and the night air blowing slantwise--well I am nervous on a height and I gasped. The window was a good six feet above the beam, The casement--it was unglazed--was open, veiled by a thin curtain, and alas! protected by three horizontal bars--stout bars they looked.
Yet we were bound to get up, and to get in; and I was preparing to rise to my feet on the giddy bridge as gingerly as I could, when Marie crawled quickly over us, and swung himself up to the narrow sill, much as I should mount a horse on the level. He held out his foot to me, and making an effort I reached the same dizzy perch. Croisette for the time remained below.
A narrow window-ledge sixty feet above the pavement, and three bars to cling to! I cowered to my holdfasts, envying even Croisette. My legs dangled airily, and the black chasm of the street seemed to yawn for me. For a moment I turned sick. I recovered from that to feel desperate. I remembered that go forward we must, bars or no bars. We could not regain our old prison if we would.
It was equally clear that we could not go forward if the inmates should object. On that narrow perch even Marie was helpless. The bars of the window were close together. A woman, a child, could disengage our hands, and then--I turned sick again. I thought of the cruel stones. I glued my face to the bars, and pushing aside a corner of the curtain, looked in.
There was only one person in the room--a woman, who was moving about fully dressed, late as it was. The room was a mere attic, the counterpart of that we had left. A box-bed with a canopy roughly nailed over it stood in a corner. A couple of chairs were by the hearth, and all seemed to speak of poverty and bareness. Yet the woman whom we saw was richly dressed, though her silks and velvets were disordered. I saw a jewel gleam in her hair, and others on her hands. When she turned her face towards us--a wild, beautiful face, perplexed and tear-stained--I knew her instantly for a gentlewoman, and when she walked hastily to the door, and laid her hand upon it, and seemed to listen-- when she shook the latch and dropped her hands in despair and went back to the hearth, I made another discovery I knew at once, seeing her there, that we were likely but to change one prison for another. Was every house in Paris then a dungeon? And did each roof cover its tragedy?
"Madame!" I said, speaking softly, to attract her attention. "Madame!"
She started violently, not knowing whence the sound came, and looked round, at the door first. Then she moved towards the window, and with an affrighted gesture drew the curtain rapidly aside.
Our eyes met. What if she screamed and aroused the house? What, indeed? "Madame," I said again, speaking hurriedly, and striving to reassure her by the softness of my voice, "we implore your help! Unless you assist us we are lost."
"You! Who are you?" she cried, glaring at us wildly, her hand to her head. And then she murmured to herself, "Mon Dieu! what will become of me?"
"We have been imprisoned in the house opposite," I hastened to explain, disjointedly I am afraid. "And we have escaped. We cannot get back if we would. Unless you let us enter your room and give us shelter--"
"We shall be dashed to pieces on the pavement," supplied Marie, with perfect calmness--nay, with apparent enjoyment.
"Let you in here?" she answered, starting back in new terror; "it is impossible."
She reminded me of our cousin, being, like her pale and dark- haired. She wore her hair in a coronet, disordered now. But though she was still beautiful, she was older than Kit, and lacked her pliant grace. I saw all this, and judging her nature, I spoke out of my despair. "Madame," I said piteously, "we are only boys. Croisette! Come up!" Squeezing myself still more tightly into my corner of the ledge, I made room for him between us. "See, Madame," I cried, craftily, "will you not have pity on three boys?"
St. Crois's boyish face and fair hair arrested her attention, as I had expected. Her expression grew softer, and she murmured, "Poor boy!"
I caught at the opportunity. "We do but seek a passage through your room," I said fervently. Good heavens, what had we not at stake! What if she should remain obdurate? "We are in trouble --in despair," I panted. "So, I believe, are you. We will help you if you will first save us. We are boys, but we can fight for you."
"Whom am I to trust?" she exclaimed, with a shudder. "But heaven forbid," she continued, her eyes on Croisette's face, "that, wanting help, I should refuse to give it. Come in, if you will."
I poured out my thanks, and had forced my head between the bars --at imminent risk of its remaining there--before the words were well out of her mouth. But to enter was no easy task after all. Croisette did, indeed, squeeze through at last, and then by force pulled first one and then the other of us after him. But only necessity and that chasm behind could have nerved us, I think, to go through a process so painful. When I stood, at length on the floor, I seemed to be one great abrasion from head to foot. And before a lady, too!
But what a joy I felt, nevertheless. A fig for Bezers now. He had called us boys; and we were boys. But he should yet find that we could thwart him. It could be scarcely half-an-hour after midnight; we might still be in time. I stretched myself and trod the level door jubilantly, and then noticed, while doing so, that our hostess had retreated to the door and was eyeing us timidly--half-scared.
I advanced to her with my lowest bow--sadly missing my sword. "Madame," I said, "I am M. Anne de Caylus, and these are my brothers. And we are at your service."
"And I," she replied, smiling faintly--I do not know why--"am Madame de Pavannes, I gratefully accept your offers of service."
"De Pavannes?" I exclaimed, amazed and overjoyed. Madame de Pavannes! Why, she must be Louis' kinswoman! No doubt she could tell us where he was lodged, and so rid our task of half its difficulty. Could anything have fallen out more happily? "You know then M. Louis de Pavannes?" I continued eagerly.
"Certainly," she answered, smiling with a rare shy sweetness this time. "Very well indeed. He is my husband."