The House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter VI. Madame's Fright.
And we breathed again. The agony of suspense, which Bezers' pause had created, passed away. But the night already seemed to us as a week of nights. An age of experience, an aeon of adventures cut us off--as we lay shaking behind the curtain--from Caylus and its life. Paris had proved itself more treacherous than we had even expected to find it. Everything and everyone shifted, and wore one face one minute, and one another. We had come to save Pavannes' life at the risk of our own; we found him to be a villain! Here was Mirepoix owning himself a treacherous wretch, a conspirator against a woman; we sympathised with him. The priest had come upon a work of charity and rescue; we loathed the sound of his voice, and shrank from him, we knew not why, seeming only to read a dark secret, a gloomy threat in each doubtful word he uttered. He was the strangest enigma of all. Why did we fear him? Why did Madame de Pavannes, who apparently had known him before, shudder at the touch of his hand? Why did his shadow come even between her and her sister, and estrange them? so that from the moment Pavannes' wife saw him standing by Diane's side, she forgot that the latter had come to save, and looked on her in doubt and sorrow, almost with repugnance.
We left the Vidame going back to the fireplace. He stooped to set down the candle by the hearth. "They are not here," he said, as he straightened himself again, and looked curiously at his companions. He had apparently been too much taken up with the pursuit to notice them before. "That is certain, so I have the less time to lose," he continued. "But I would--yes, my dear Coadjutor, I certainly would like to know before I go, what you are doing here. Mirepoix--Mirepoix is an honest man. I did not expect to find you in his house. And two ladies? Two! Fie, Coadjutor. Ha! Madame d'O, is it? My dear lady," he continued, addressing her in a whimsical tone, "do not start at the sound of your own name! It would take a hundred hoods to hide your eyes, or bleach your lips to the common colour; I should have known you at once, had I looked at you. And your companion? Pheugh!"
He broke off, whistling softly. It was clear that he recognised Madame de Pavannes, and recognised her with astonishment. The bed creaked as I craned my neck to see what would follow. Even the priest seemed to think that some explanation was necessary, for he did not wait to be questioned.
"Madame de Pavannes," he said in a dry, husky voice, and without looking up, "was spirited hither yesterday; and detained against her will by this good man, who will have to answer for it. Madame d'O discovered her whereabouts, and asked me to escort her here without loss of time to enforce her sister's release."
"And her restoration to her distracted husband?"
"Just so," the priest assented, acquiring confidence, I thought.
"And Madame desires to go?"
"Surely! Why not?"
"Well," the Vidame drawled, his manner such as to bring the blood to Madame de Pavannes' cheek, "it depends on the person who--to use your phrase, M. le Coadjuteur--spirited her hither."
"And that," Madame herself retorted, raising her head, while her voice quivered with indignation and anger, "was the Abbess of the Ursulines. Your suspicions are base, worthy of you and unworthy of me, M. le Vidame! Diane!" she continued sharply, taking her sister's arm, and casting a disdainful glance at Bezers, "let us go. I want to be with, my husband. I am stifled in this room."
"We are going, little one," Diane murmured reassuringly. But I noticed that the speaker's animation, which had been as a soul to her beauty when she entered the room, was gone. A strange stillness was it fear of the Vidame? had taken its place.
"The Abbess of the Ursulines?" Bezers continued thoughtfully. "She brought you here, did she?" There was surprise, genuine surprise, in his voice. "A good soul, and, I think I have heard, a friend of yours. Umph!"
"A very dear friend," Madame answered stiffly. "Now, Diane!"
"A dear friend! And she spirited you hither yesterday!" commented the Vidame, with the air of one solving an anagram. "And Mirepoix detained you; respectable Mirepoix, who is said to have a well-filled stocking under his pallet, and stands well with the bourgeoisie. He is in the plot. Then at a very late hour, your affectionate sister, and my good friend the Coadjutor, enter to save you. From what?"
No one spoke. The priest looked down, his cheek. livid with anger.
"From what?" Bezers continued with grim playfulness. "There is the mystery. From the clutches of this profligate Mirepoix, I suppose. From the dangerous Mirepoix. Upon my honour," with a sudden ring of resolution in his tone, "I think you are safer here; I think you had better stay where you are, Madame, until morning! And risk Mirepoix!"
"Oh, no! no!" Madame cried vehemently.
"Oh, yes! yes!" he replied. "What do you say, Coadjutor? Do you not think so?"
The priest looked down sullenly. His voice shook as he murmured in answer, "Madame will please herself. She has a character, M. le Vidame. But if she prefer to stay here--well!"
"Oh, she has a character, has she?" rejoined the giant, his eyes twinkling with evil mirth, "and she should go home with you, and my old friend Madame d'O, to save it! That is it, is it? No, no," he continued when he had had his silent laugh out, "Madame de Pavannes will do very well here--very well here until morning. We have work to do. Come. Let us go and do it."
"Do you mean it?" said the priest, starting and looking up with a subtle challenge--almost a threat--in his tone.
"Yes, I do."
Their eyes met: and seeing their looks, I chuckled, nudging Croisette. No fear of their discovering us now. I recalled the old proverb which says that when thieves fall out, honest men come by their own, and speculated on the chance of the priest freeing us once for all from M. de Bezers.
But the two were ill-matched. The Vidame could have taken up the other with one hand and dashed his head on the floor. And it did not end there. I doubt if in craft the priest was his equal. Behind a frank brutality Bezers--unless his reputation belied him--concealed an Italian intellect. Under a cynical recklessness he veiled a rare cunning and a constant suspicion; enjoying in that respect a combination of apparently opposite qualities, which I have known no other man to possess in an equal degree, unless it might be his late majesty, Henry the Great. A child would have suspected the priest; a veteran might have been taken in by the Vidame.
And indeed the priest's eyes presently sank. "Our bargain is to go for nothing?" he muttered sullenly.
"I know of no bargain," quoth the Vidame. "And I have no time to lose, splitting hairs here. Set it down to what you like. Say it is a whim of mine, a fad, a caprice. Only understand that Madame de Pavannes stays. We go. And--" he added this, as a sudden thought seemed to strike him, "though I would not willingly use compulsion to a lady, I think Madame d'O had better come too."
"You speak masterfully," the priest said with a sneer, forgetting the tone he had himself used a few minutes before to Mirepoix.
"Just so. I have forty horsemen over the way," was the dry answer. "for the moment, I am master of the legions, Coadjutor."
"That is true," Madame d'O said; so softly that I started. She had scarcely spoken since Bezers' entrance. As she spoke now, she shook back the hood from her face and disclosed the chestnut hair clinging about her temples--deep blots of colour on the abnormal whiteness of her skin, "That is true, M. de Bezers," she said. "You have the legions. You have the power. But you will not use it, I think, against an old friend. You will not do us this hurt when I--But listen."
He would not. In the very middle of her appeal he cut her short --brute that he was! "No Madame!" he burst out violently, disregarding the beautiful face, the supplicating glance, that might have moved a stone, "that is just what I will not do. I will not listen! We know one another. Is not that enough?"
She looked at him fixedly. He returned her gaze, not smiling now, but eyeing her with a curious watchfulness.
And after a long pause she turned from him. "Very well," she said softly, and drew a deep, quivering breath, the sound of which reached us. "Then let us go." And without--strangest thing of all--bestowing a word or look on her sister, who was weeping bitterly in a chair, she turned to the door and led the way out, a shrug of her shoulders the last thing I marked.
The poor lady heard her departing step however, and sprang up. It dawned upon her that she was being deserted. "Diane! Diane!" she cried distractedly--and I had to put my hand on Croisette to keep him quiet, there was such fear and pain in her tone--"I will go! I will not be left behind in this dreadful place! Do you hear? Come back to me, Diane!"
It made my blood run wildly. But Diane did not come back. Strange! And Bezers too was unmoved. He stood between the poor woman and the door, and by a gesture bid Mirepoix and the priest pass out before him. "Madame," he said--and his voice, stern and hard as ever, expressed no jot of compassion for her, rather such an impatient contempt as a puling child might elicit--"you are safe here. And here you will stop! Weep if you please," he added cynically, "you will have fewer tears to shed to-morrow."
His last words--they certainly were odd ones--arrested her attention. She checked her sobs, being frightened I think, and looked up at him. Perhaps he had spoken with this in view, for while she still stood at gaze, her hands pressed to her bosom, he slipped quickly out and closed the door behind him. I heard a muttering for an instant outside, and then the tramp of feet descending the stairs. They were gone, and we were still undiscovered.
For Madame, she had clean forgotten our presence--of that I am sure--and the chance of escape we might afford. On finding herself alone she gazed a short time in alarmed silence at the door, and then ran to the window and peered out, still trembling, terrified, silent. So she remained a while.
She had not noticed that Bezers on going out had omitted to lock the door behind him. I had. But I was unwilling to move hastily. Some one might return to see to it before the Vidame left the house. And besides the door was not over strong, and if locked would be no obstacle to the three of us when we had only Mirepoix to deal with. So I kept the others where they were by a nudge and a pinch, and held my breath a moment, straining my ears to catch the closing of the door below. I did not hear that. But I did catch a sound that otherwise might have escaped me, but which now riveted my eyes to the door of our room. Some one in the silence, which followed the trampling on the stairs, had cautiously laid a hand on the latch.
The light in the room was dim. Mirepoix had taken one of the candles with him, and the other wanted snuffing. I could not see whether the latch moved; whether or no it was rising. But watching intently, I made out that the door was being opened-- slowly, noiselessly. I saw someone enter--a furtive gliding shadow.
For a moment I felt nervous--then I recognised the dark hooded figure. It was only Madame d'O. Brave woman! She had evaded the Vidame and slipped back to the rescue. Ha, ha! We would defeat the Vidame yet! Things were going better!
But then something in her manner--as she stood holding the door and peering into the room--something in her bearing startled and frightened me. As she came forward her movements were so stealthy that her footsteps made no sound. Her dark shadow, moving ahead of her across the floor, was not more silent than she. An undefined desire to make a noise, to give the alarm, seized me.
Half-way across the room she stopped to listen, and looked round, startled herself, I think, by the silence. She could not see her sister, whose figure was blurred by the outlines of the curtain; and no doubt she was puzzled to think what had become of her. The suspense which I felt, but did not understand, was so great that at last I moved, and the bed creaked.
In a moment her face was turned our way, and she glided forwards, her features still hidden by the hood of her cloak. She was close to us now, bending over us. She raised her hand to her head--to shade her eyes, as she looked more closely, I supposed, and I was wondering whether she saw us--whether she took the shapelessness in the shadow of the curtain for her sister, or could not make it out--I was thinking how we could best apprise her of our presence without alarming her--when Croisette dashed my thoughts to the winds! Croisette, with a tremendous whoop and a crash, bounded over me on to the floor!
She uttered a gasping cry--a cry of intense, awful fear. I have the sound in my ears even now. With that she staggered back, clutching the air. I heard the metallic clang and ring of something falling on the floor. I heard an answering cry of alarm from the window; and then Madame de Pavannes ran forward and caught her in her arms.
It was strange to find the room lately so silent become at once alive with whispering forms, as we came hastily to light. I cursed Croisette for his folly, and was immeasurably angry with him, but I had no time to waste words on him then. I hurried to the door to guard it. I opened it a hand's breadth and listened. All was quiet below; the house still. I took the key out of the lock and put it in my pocket and went back. Marie and Croisette were standing a little apart from Madame de Pavannes, who, hanging over her sister, was by turns bathing her face and explaining our presence.
In a very few minutes Madame d'O seemed to recover, and sat up. The first shock of deadly terror had passed, but she was still pale. She still trembled, and shrank from meeting our eyes, though I saw her, when our attention was apparently directed elsewhere, glance at one and another of us with a strange intentness, a shuddering curiosity. No wonder, I thought. She must have had a terrible fright--one that might have killed a more timid woman!
"What on earth did you do that for!" I asked Croisette presently, my anger certainly not decreasing the more I looked at her beautiful face. "You might have killed her!"
In charity I supposed his nerves had failed him, for he could not even now give me a straightforward answer. His only reply was, "Let us get away! Let us get away from this horrible house!" and this he kept repeating with a shudder as he moved restlessly to and fro.
"With all my heart!" I answered, looking at him with some contempt. "That is exactly what we are going to do!"
But all the same his words reminded me of something which in the excitement of the scene I had momentarily forgotten, and that was our duty. Pavannes must still be saved, though not for Kit; rather to answer to us for his sins. But he must be saved! And now that the road was open, every minute lost was reproach to us. "Yes," I added roughly, my thoughts turned into a more rugged channel, "you are right. This is no time for nursing. We must be going. Madame de Pavannes," I went on, addressing myself to her, "you know the way home from here--to your house!" "Oh, yes," she cried.
"That is well," I answered. "Then we will start. Your sister is sufficiently recovered now, I think. And we will not risk any further delay."
I did not tell her of her husband's danger, or that we suspected him of wronging her, and being in fact the cause of her detention. I wanted her services as a guide. That was the main point, though I was glad to be able to put her in a place of safety at the same time that we fulfilled our own mission.
She rose eagerly. "You are sure that we can get out?" she said.
"Sure," I replied with a brevity worthy of Bezers himself.
And I was right. We trooped down stairs, making as little noise as possible; with the result that Mirepoix only took the alarm, and came upon us when we were at the outer door, bungling with the lock. Then I made short work of him, checking his scared words of remonstrance by flashing my dagger before his eyes. I induced him in the same fashion--he was fairly taken by surprise --to undo the fastenings himself; and so, bidding him follow us at his peril, we slipped out one by one. We softly closed the door behind us. And lo! we were at last free--free and in the streets of Paris, with the cool night air fanning our brows. A church hard by tolled the hour of two; and the strokes were echoed, before we had gone many steps along the ill-paved way, by the solemn tones of the bell of Notre Dame.
We were free and in the streets, with a guide who knew the way. If Bezers had not gone straight from us to his vengeance, we might thwart him yet. I strode along quickly, Madame d'O by my side the others a little way in front. Here and there an oil- lamp, swinging from a pulley in the middle of the road, enabled us to avoid some obstacle more foul than usual, or to leap over a pool which had formed in the kennel. Even in my excitement, my country-bred senses rebelled against the sights, and smells, the noisome air and oppressive closeness of the streets.
The town was quiet, and very dark where the smoky lamps were not hanging. Yet I wondered if it ever slept, for more than once we had to stand aside to give passage to a party of men, hurrying along with links and arms. Several times too, especially towards the end of our walk, I was surprised by the flashing of bright lights in a courtyard, the door of which stood half open to right or left. Once I saw the glow of torches reflected ruddily in the windows of a tall and splendid mansion, a little withdrawn from the street. The source of the light was in the fore-court, hidden from us by a low wall, but I caught the murmur of voices and stir of many feet. Once a gate was stealthily opened and two armed men looked out, the act and their manner of doing it, reminding me on the instant of those who had peeped out to inspect us some hours before in Bezers' house. And once, nay twice, in the mouth of a narrow alley I discerned a knot of men standing motionless in the gloom. There was an air of mystery abroad, a feeling as of solemn stir and preparation going on under cover of the darkness, which awed and unnerved me.
But I said nothing of this, and Madame d'O was equally silent. Like most countrymen I was ready to believe in any exaggeration of the city's late hours, the more as she made no remark. I supposed--shaking off the momentary impression--that what I saw was innocent and normal. Besides, I was thinking what I should say to Pavannes when I saw him---in what terms I should warn him of his peril, and cast his perfidy in his teeth. We had hurried along in this way--and in absolute silence, save when some obstacle or pitfall drew from us an exclamation--for about a quarter of a mile, when my companion, turning into a slightly wider street, slackened her speed, and indicated by a gesture that we had arrived. A lamp hung over the porch, to which she pointed, and showed the small side gate half open. We were close behind the other three now. I saw Croisette stoop to enter and as quickly fall back a pace. Why?
In a moment it flashed across my mind that we were too late that the Vidame had been before us.
And yet how quiet it all was.
Then I breathed freely again. I saw that Croisette had only stepped back to avoid some one who was coming out--the Coadjutor in fact. The moment the entrance was clear, the lad shot in, and the others after him, the priest taking no notice of them, nor they of him.
I was for going in too, when I felt Madame d'O's hand tighten suddenly on my arm, and then fall from it. Apprised of something by this, I glanced at the priest's face, catching sight of it by chance just as his eyes met hers. His face was white--nay it was ugly with disappointment and rage, bitter snarling rage, that was hardly human. He grasped her by the arm roughly and twisted her round without ceremony, so as to draw her a few paces aside; yet not so far that I could not hear what they said.
"He is not here!" he hissed. "Do you understand? He crossed the river to the Faubourg St. Germain at nightfall--searching for her. And he has not come back! He is on the other side of the water, and midnight has struck this hour past!"
She stood silent for a moment as if she had received a blow-- silent and dismayed. Something serious had happened. I could see that.
"He cannot recross the river now?" she said after a time. "The gates--"
"Shut!" he replied briefly. "The keys are at the Louvre."
"And the boats are on this side?"
"Every boat!" he answered, striking his one hand on the other with violence. "Every boat! No one may cross until it is over."
"And the Faubourg St. Germain?" she said in a lower voice.
"There will be nothing done there. Nothing!"