Chapter V. A Priest and a Woman.
 

"He is my husband!"

The statement was made in the purest innocence; yet never, as may well be imagined, did words fall with more stunning force. Not one of us answered or, I believe, moved so much as a limb or an eyelid. We only stared, wanting time to take in the astonishing meaning of the words, and then more time to think what they meant to us in particular.

Louis de Pavannes' wife! Louis de Pavannes married! If the statement were true--and we could not doubt, looking in her face, that at least she thought she was telling the truth--it meant that we had been fooled indeed! That we had had this journey for nothing, and run this risk for a villain. It meant that the Louis de Pavannes who had won our boyish admiration was the meanest, the vilest of court-gallants. That Mademoiselle de Caylus had been his sport and plaything. And that we in trying to be beforehand with Bezers had been striving to save a scoundrel from his due. It meant all that, as soon as we grasped it in the least.

"Madame," said Croisette gravely, after a pause so prolonged that her smile faded pitifully from her face, scared by our strange looks. "Your husband has been some time away from you? He only returned, I think, a week or two ago?"

"That is so," she answered, naively, and our last hope vanished. "But what of that? He was back with me again, and only yesterday--only yesterday!" she continued, clasping her hands, "we were so happy."

"And now, madame?"

She looked at me, not comprehending.

"I mean," I hastened to explain, "we do not understand how you come to be here. And a prisoner." I was really thinking that her story might throw some light upon ours.

"I do not know, myself," she said. "Yesterday, in the afternoon, I paid a visit to the Abbess of the Ursulines."

"Pardon me," Croisette interposed quickly, "but are you not of the new faith? A Huguenot?"

"Oh, yes," she answered eagerly. "But the Abbess is a very dear friend of mine, and no bigot. Oh, nothing of that kind, I assure you. When I am in Paris I visit her once a week. Yesterday, when I left her, she begged me to call here and deliver a message."

"Then," I said, "you know this house?"

"Very well, indeed," she replied. "It is the sign of the 'Hand and Glove,' one door out of the Rue Platriere. I have been in Master Mirepoix's shop more than once before. I came here yesterday to deliver the message, leaving my maid in the street, and I was asked to come up stairs, and still up until I reached this room. Asked to wait a moment, I began to think it strange that I should be brought to so wretched a place, when I had merely a message for Mirepoix's ear about some gauntlets. I tried the door; I found it locked. Then I was terrified, and made a noise."

We all nodded. We were busy building up theories--or it might be one and the same theory--to explain this. "Yes," I said, eagerly.

"Mirepoix came to me then. 'What does this mean?' I demanded. He looked ashamed of himself, but he barred my way. 'Only this,' he said at last, 'that your ladyship must remain here a few hours--two days at most. No harm whatever is intended to you. My wife will wait upon you, and when you leave us, all shall be explained.' He would say no more, and it was in vain I asked him if he did not take me for some one else; if he thought I was mad. To all he answered, No. And when I dared him to detain me he threatened force. Then I succumbed. I have been here since, suspecting I know not what, but fearing everything."

"That is ended, madame," I answered, my hand on my breast, my soul in arms for her. Here, unless I was mistaken, was one more unhappy and more deeply wronged even than Kit; one too who owed her misery to the same villain. "Were there nine glovers on the stairs," I declared roundly, "we would take you out and take you home! Where are your husband's apartments?"

"In the Rue de Saint Merri, close to the church. We have a house there."

"M. de Pavannes," I suggested cunningly, "is doubtless distracted by your disappearance."

"Oh, surely," she answered with earnest simplicity, while the tears sprang to her eyes. Her innocence--she had not the germ of a suspicion--made me grind my teeth with wrath. Oh, the base wretch! The miserable rascal! What did the women see, I wondered--what had we all seen in this man, this Pavannes, that won for him our hearts, when he had only a stone to give in return?

I drew Croisette and Marie aside, apparently to consider how we might force the door. "What is the meaning of this?" I said softly, glancing at the unfortunate lady. "What do you think, Croisette?"

I knew well what the answer would be.

"Think!" he cried with fiery impatience. "What can any one think except that that villain Pavannes has himself planned his wife's abduction? Of course it is so! His wife out of the way he is free to follow up his intrigues at Caylus. He may then marry Kit or--Curse him!"

"No," I said sternly, "cursing is no good. We must do something more. And yet--we have promised Kit, you see, that we would save him--we must keep our word. We must save him from Bezers at least."

Marie groaned.

But Croisette took up the thought with ardour. "From Bezers?" he cried, his face aglow. "Ay, true! So we must! But then we will draw lots, who shall fight him and kill him."

I extinguished him by a look. "We shall fight him in turn," I said, "until one of us kill him. There you are right. But your turn comes last. Lots indeed! We have no need of lots to learn which is the eldest."

I was turning from him--having very properly crushed him--to look for something which we could use to force the door, when he held up his hand to arrest my attention. We listened, looking at one another. Through the window came unmistakeable sounds of voices. "They have discovered our flight," I said, my heart sinking.

Luckily we had had the forethought to draw the curtain across the casement. Bezers' people could therefore, from their window, see no more than ours, dimly lighted and indistinct. Yet they would no doubt guess the way we had escaped, and hasten to cut off our retreat below. For a moment I looked at the door of our room, half-minded to attack it, and fight our way out, taking the chance of reaching the street before Bezers' folk should have recovered from their surprise and gone down. But then I looked at Madame. How could we ensure her safety in the struggle? While I hesitated the choice was taken from us. We heard voices in the house below, and heavy feet on the stairs.

We were between two fires. I glanced irresolutely round the bare garret, with its sloping roof, searching for a better weapon. I had only my dagger. But in vain. I saw nothing that would serve. "What will you do?" Madame de Pavannes murmured, standing pale and trembling by the hearth, and looking from one to another. Croisette plucked my sleeve before I could answer, and pointed to the box-bed with its scanty curtains. "If they see us in the room," he urged softly, "while they are half in and half out, they will give the alarm. Let us hide ourselves yonder. When they are inside--you understand?"

He laid his hand on his dagger. The muscles of the lad's face grew tense. I did understand him. "Madame," I said quickly, "you will not betray us?"

She shook her head. The colour returned to her cheek, and the brightness to her eyes. She was a true woman. The sense that she was protecting others deprived her of fear for herself.

The footsteps were on the topmost stair now, and a key was thrust with a rasping sound into the lock. But before it could be turned--it fortunately fitted ill--we three had jumped on the bed and were crouching in a row at the head of it, where the curtains of the alcove concealed, and only just concealed us, from any one standing at the end of the room near the door.

I was the outermost, and through a chink could see what passed. One, two, three people came in, and the door was closed behind them. Three people, and one of them a woman! My heart--which had been in my mouth--returned to its place, for the Vidame was not one. I breathed freely; only I dared not communicate my relief to the others, lest my voice should be heard. The first to come in was the woman closely cloaked and hooded. Madame de Pavannes cast on her a single doubtful glance, and then to my astonishment threw herself into her arms, mingling her sobs with little joyous cries of "Oh, Diane! oh, Diane!"

"My poor little one!" the newcomer exclaimed, soothing her with tender touches on hair and shoulder. "You are safe now. Quite safe!"

"You have come to take me away?"

"Of course we have!" Diane answered cheerfully, still caressing her. "We have come to take you to your husband. He has been searching for you everywhere. He is distracted with grief, little one."

"Poor Louis!" ejaculated the wife.

"Poor Louis, indeed!" the rescuer answered. "But you will see him soon. We only learned at midnight where you were. You have to thank M. le Coadjuteur here for that. He brought me the news, and at once escorted me here to fetch you."

"And to restore one sister to another," said the priest silkily, as he advanced a step. He was the very same priest whom I had seen two hours before with Bezers, and had so greatly disliked! I hated his pale face as much now as I had then. Even the errand of good on which he had come could not blind me to his thin- lipped mouth, to his mock humility and crafty eyes. "I have had no task so pleasant for many days," added he, with every appearance of a desire to propitiate.

But, seemingly, Madame de Pavannes had something of the same feeling towards him which I had myself; for she started at the sound of his voice, and disengaging herself from her sister's arms--it seemed it was her sister--shrank back from the pair. She bowed indeed in acknowledgment of his words. But there was little gratitude in the movement, and less warmth. I saw the sister's face--a brilliantly beautiful face it was--brighter eyes and lips and more lovely auburn hair I have never seen--even Kit would have been plain and dowdy beside her--I saw it harden strangely. A moment before, the two had been in one another's arms. Now they stood apart, somehow chilled and disillusionised. The shadow of the priest had fallen upon them--had come between them.

At this crisis the fourth person present asserted himself. Hitherto he had stood silent just within the door: a plain man, plainly dressed, somewhat over sixty and grey-haired. He looked disconcerted and embarrassed, and I took him for Mirepoix-- rightly as it turned out.

"I am sure," he now exclaimed, his voice trembling with anxiety, or it might be with fear, "your ladyship will regret leaving here! You will indeed! No harm would have happened to you. Madame d'O does not know what she is doing, or she would not take you away. She does not know what she is doing!" he repeated earnestly.

"Madame d'O!" cried the beautiful Diane, her brown eyes darting fire at the unlucky culprit, her voice full of angry disdain. "How dare you--such as you--mention my name? Wretch!"

She flung the last word at him, and the priest took it up. "Ay, wretch! Wretched man indeed!" he repeated slowly, stretching out his long thin hand and laying it like the claw of some bird of prey on the tradesman's shoulder, which flinched, I saw, under the touch. "How dare you--such as you--meddle with matters of the nobility? Matters that do not concern you? Trouble! I see trouble hanging over this house, Mirepoix! Much trouble!"

The miserable fellow trembled visibly under the covert threat. His face grew pale. His lips quivered. He seemed fascinated by the priest's gaze. "I am a faithful son of the church," he muttered; but his voice shook so that the words were scarcely audible. "I am known to be such! None better known in Paris, M. le Coadjuteur."

"Men are known by their works!" the priest retorted. "Now, now," he continued, abruptly raising his voice, and lifting his hand in a kind of exaltation, real or feigned, "is the appointed time! And now is the day of salvation! and woe, Mirepoix, woe! woe! to the backslider, and to him that putteth his hand to the plough and looketh back to-night!"

The layman cowered and shrank before his fierce denunciation; while Madame de Pavannes gazed from one to the other as if her dislike for the priest were so great that seeing the two thus quarrelling, she almost forgave Mirepoix his offence. "Mirepoix said he could explain," she murmured irresolutely.

The Coadjutor fixed his baleful eyes on him. "Mirepoix," he said grimly, "can explain nothing! Nothing! I dare him to explain!"

And certainly Mirepoix thus challenged was silent. "Come," the priest continued peremptorily, turning to the lady who had entered with him, "your sister must leave with us at once. We have no time to lose."

"But what what does it mean!" Madame de Pavannes said, as though she hesitated even now. "Is there danger still?"

"Danger!" the priest exclaimed, his form seeming to swell, and the exaltation I had before read in his voice and manner again asserting itself. "I put myself at your service, Madame, and danger disappears! I am as God to-night with powers of life and death! You do not understand me? Presently you shall. But you are ready. We will go then. Out of the way, fellow!" he thundered, advancing upon the door.

But Mirepoix, who had placed himself with his back to it, to my astonishment did not give way. His full bourgeois face was pale; yet peeping through my chink, I read in it a desperate resolution. And oddly--very oddly, because I knew that, in keeping Madame de Pavannes a prisoner, he must be in the wrong--I sympathised with him. Low-bred trader, tool of Pavannes though he was, I sympathised with him, when he said firmly:

"She shall not go!"

"I say she shall!" the priest shrieked, losing all control over himself. " Fool! Madman! You know not what you do!" As the words passed his lips, he made an adroit forward movement, surprised the other, clutched him by the arms, and with a strength I should never have thought lay in his meagre frame, flung him some paces into the room. "Fool!" he hissed, shaking his crooked fingers at him in malignant triumph. "There is no man in Paris, do you hear--or woman either--shall thwart me to- night!"

"Is that so? Indeed?"

The words, and the cold, cynical voice, were not those of Mirepoix; they came from behind. The priest wheeled round, as if he had been stabbed in the back. I clutched Croisette, and arrested the cramped limb I was moving under cover of the noise. The speaker was Bezers! He stood in the open door-way, his great form filling it from post to post, the old gibing smile on his face. We had been so taken up, actors and audience alike, with the altercation, that no one had heard him ascend the stairs. He still wore the black and silver suit, but it was half hidden now under a dark riding cloak which just disclosed the glitter of his weapons. He was booted and spurred and gloved as for a journey.

"Is that so?" he repeated mockingly, as his gaze rested in turn on each of the four, and then travelled sharply round the room. "So you will not be thwarted by any man in Paris, to-night, eh? Have you considered, my dear Coadjutor, what a large number of people there are in Paris? It would amuse me very greatly now-- and I'm sure it would the ladies too, who must pardon my abrupt entrance--to see you put to the test; pitted against--shall we say the Duke of Anjou? Or M. de Guise, our great man? Or the Admiral? Say the Admiral foot to foot?"

Rage and fear--rage at the intrusion, fear of the intruder-- struggled in the priest's face. "How do you come here, and what do you want?" he inquired hoarsely. If looks and tones could kill, we three, trembling behind our flimsy screen, had been freed at that moment from our enemy.

"I have come in search of the young birds whose necks you were for stretching, my friend!" was Bezers' answer. "They have vanished. Birds they must be, for unless they have come into this house by that window, they have flown away with wings."

"They have not passed this way," the priest declared stoutly, eager only to get rid of the other and I blessed him for the words! "I have been here since I left you."

But the Vidame was not one to accept any man's statement. "Thank you; I think I will see for myself," he answered coolly. "Madame," he continued, speaking to Madame de Pavannes as he passed her, "permit me."

He did not look at her, or see her emotion, or I think he must have divined our presence. And happily the others did not suspect her of knowing more than they did. He crossed the floor at his leisure,and sauntered to the window, watched by them with impatience. He drew aside the curtain, and tried each of the bars, and peered through the opening both up and down, An oath and an expression of wonder escaped him. The bars were standing, and firm and strong; and it did not occur to him that we could have passed between them. I am afraid to say how few inches they were apart.

As he turned, he cast a casual glance at the bed--at us; and hesitated. He had the candle in his hand, having taken it to the window the better to examine the bars; and it obscured his sight. He did not see us. The three crouching forms, the strained white faces, the starting eyes, that lurked in the shadow of the curtain escaped him. The wild beating of our hearts did not reach his ears. And it was well for him that it was so. If he had come up to the bed I think that we should have killed him, I know that we should have tried. All the blood in me had gone to my head, and I saw him through a haze--larger than life. The exact spot near the buckle of his cloak where I would strike him, downwards and inwards, an inch above the collar-bone,--this only I saw clearly. I could not have missed it. But he turned away, his face darkening, and went back to the group near the door, and never knew the risk he had run.