The House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter VIII. The Parisian Matins.
There are some statements for which it is impossible to be prepared; statements so strong and so startling that it is impossible to answer them except by action--by a blow. And this of M. de Pavannes was one of these. If there had been any one present, I think I should have given him the lie and drawn upon him. But alone with him at midnight in the shadow near the bottom of the Rue des Fosses, with no witnesses, with every reason to feel friendly towards him, what was I to do?
As a fact, I did nothing. I stood, silent and stupefied, waiting to hear more. He did not keep me long.
"She is my wife's sister," he continued grimly. "But I have no reason to shield her on that account! Shield her? Had you lived at court only a month I might shield her all I could, M. de Caylus, it would avail nothing. Not Madame de Sauves is better known. And I would not if I could! I know well, though my wife will not believe it, that there is nothing so near Madame d'O's heart as to get rid of her sister and me--of both of us--that she may succeed to Madeleine's inheritance! Oh, yes, I had good grounds for being nervous yesterday, when my wife did not return," he added excitedly.
"But there at least you wrong Madame d'O!" I cried, shocked and horrified by an accusation, which seemed so much more dreadful in the silence and gloom--and withal so much less preposterous than it might have seemed in the daylight. "There you certainly wrong her! For shame! M. de Pavannes."
He came a step nearer, and laying a hand on my sleeve peered into my face. "Did you see a priest with her?" he asked slowly. "A man called the Coadjutor--a down-looking dog?"
I said--with a shiver of dread, a sudden revulsion of feeling, born of his manner--that I had. And I explained the part the priest had taken.
"Then," Pavannes rejoined, "I am right. There is a trap laid for me. The Abbess of the Ursulines! She abduct my wife? Why, she is her dearest friend, believe me. It is impossible. She would be more likely to save her from danger than to--umph! wait a minute." I did: I waited, dreading what he might discover, until he muttered, checking himself--"Can that be it? Can it be that the Abbess did know of some danger threatening us, and would have put Madeleine in a safe retreat? I wonder!"
And I wondered; and then--well, thoughts are like gunpowder. The least spark will fire a train. His words were few, but they formed spark enough to raise such a flare in my brain as for a moment blinded me, and shook me so that I trembled. The shock over, I was left face to face with a possibility of wickedness such as I could never have suspected of myself. I remembered Mirepoix's distress and the priest's eagerness. I re-called the gruff warning Bezers--even Bezers, and there was something very odd in Bezers giving a warning!--had given Madame de Pavannes when he told her that she would be better where she was. I thought of the wakefulness which I had marked in the streets, the silent hurrying to and fro, the signs of coming strife, and contrasted these with the quietude and seeming safety of Mirepoix's house; and I hastily asked Pavannes at what time he had been arrested.
"About an hour before midnight," he answered.
"Then you know nothing of what is happening?" I replied quickly. " Why, even while we are loitering here--but listen!"
And with all speed, stammering indeed in my haste and anxiety, I told him what I had noticed in the streets, and the hints I had heard, and I showed him the badges with which Madame had furnished me.
His manner when he had heard me out frightened me still more. He drew me on in a kind of fury to a house in the windows of which some lighted candles had appeared not a minute before.
"The ring!" he cried, "let me see the ring! Whose is it?"
He held up my hand to this chance light and we looked at the ring. It was a heavy gold signet, with one curious characteristic: it had two facets. On one of these was engraved the letter "H," and above it a crown. On the other was an eagle with outstretched wings.
Pavannes let my hand drop and leaned against the wall in sudden despair. "It is the Duke of Guise's," he muttered. "It is the eagle of Lorraine."
"Ha!" said I softly, seeing light. The Duke was the idol then, as later, of the Parisian populace, and I understood now why the citizen soldiers had shown me such respect. They had taken me for the Duke's envoy and confidant.
But I saw no farther. Pavannes did, and murmured bitterly, "We may say our prayers, we Huguenots. That is our death-warrant. To-morrow night there will not be one left in Paris, lad. Guise has his father's death to avenge, and these cursed Parisians will do his bidding like the wolves they are! The Baron de Rosny warned us of this, word for word. I would to Heaven we had taken his advice!"
"Stay!" I cried--he was going too fast for me--"stay!" His monstrous conception, though it marched some way with my own suspicions, outran them far! I saw no sufficient grounds for it. "The King--the king would not permit such a thing, M. de Pavannes," I argued.
"Boy, you are blind!" he rejoined impatiently, for now he saw all and I nothing. "Yonder was the Duke of Anjou's captain-- Monsieur's officer, the follower of France's brother, mark you! And he--he obeyed the Duke's ring! The Duke has a free hand to- night, and he hates us. And the river. Why are we not to cross the river? The King indeed! The King has undone us. He has sold us to his brother and the Guises. Va chasser l'idole" for the second time I heard the quaint phrase, which I learned afterwards was an anagram of the King's name, Charles de Valois, used by the Protestants as a password--"Va chasser l'idole has betrayed us! I remember the very words he used to the Admiral, 'Now we have got you here we shall not let you go so easily!' Oh, the traitor! The wretched traitor!"
He leaned against the wall overcome by the horror of the conviction which had burst upon him, and unnerved by the imminence of the peril. At all times he was an unready man, I fancy, more fit, courage apart, for the college than the field; and now he gave way to despair. Perhaps the thought of his wife unmanned him. Perhaps the excitement through which he had already gone tended to stupefy him, or the suddenness of the discovery.
At any rate, I was the first to gather my wits together, and my earliest impulse was to tear into two parts a white handkerchief I had in my pouch, and fasten one to his sleeve, the other in his hat, in rough imitation of the badges I wore myself.
It will appear from this that I no longer trusted Madame d'O. I was not convinced, it is true, of her conscious guilt, still I did not trust her entirely. "Do not wear them on your return," she had said and that was odd; although I could not yet believe that she was such a siren as Father Pierre had warned us of, telling tales from old poets. Yet I doubted, shuddering as I did so. Her companionship with that vile priest, her strange eagerness to secure Pavannes' return, her mysterious directions to me, her anxiety to take her sister home--home, where she would be exposed to danger, as being in a known Huguenot's house-- these things pointed to but one conclusion; still that one was so horrible that I would not, even while I doubted and distrusted her, I would not, I could not accept it. I put it from me, and refused to believe it, although during the rest of that night it kept coming back to me and knocking for admission at my brain.
All this flashed through my mind while I was fixing on Pavannes' badges. Not that I lost time about it, for from the moment I grasped the position as he conceived it, every minute we had wasted on explanations seemed to me an hour. I reproached myself for having forgotten even for an instant that which had brought us to town--the rescue of Kit's lover. We had small chance now of reaching him in time, misled as we had been by this miserable mistake in identity. If my companion's fears were well founded, Louis would fall in the general massacre of the Huguenots, probably before we could reach him. If ill-founded, still we had small reason to hope. Bezers' vengeance would not wait. I knew him too well to think it. A Guise might spare his foe, but the Vidame--the Vidame never! We had warned Madame de Pavannes it was true; but that abnormal exercise of benevolence could only, I cynically thought, have the more exasperated the devil within him, which now would be ravening like a dog disappointed of its victuals.
I glanced up at the line of sky visible between the tall houses, and lo! the dawn was coming. It wanted scarcely half-an-hour of daylight, though down in the dark streets about us the night still reigned. Yes, the morning was coming, bright and hopeful, and the city was quiet. There were no signs, no sounds of riot or disorder. Surely, I thought, surely Pavannes must be mistaken. Either the plot had never existed, that was most likely, or it had been abandoned, or perhaps--Crack!
A pistol shot! Short, sharp, ominous it rang out on the instant, a solitary sound in the night! It was somewhere near us, and I stopped. I had been speaking to my companion at the moment. "Where was it?" I cried, looking behind me.
"Close to us. Near the Louvre," he answered, listening intently. "See! See! Ah, heavens!" he continued in a voice of despair, "it was a signal!"
It was. One, two, three! Before I could count so far, lights sprang into brightness in the windows of nine out of ten houses in the short street where we stood, as if lighted by a single hand. Before too I could count as many more, or ask him what this meant, before indeed, we could speak or stir from the spot, or think what we should do, with a hurried clang and clash, as if brought into motion by furious frenzied hands, a great bell just above our heads began to boom and whirr! It hurled its notes into space, it suddenly filled all the silence. It dashed its harsh sounds down upon the trembling city, till the air heaved, and the houses about us rocked. It made in an instant a pandemonium of the quiet night.
We turned and hurried instinctively from the place, crouching and amazed, looking upwards with bent shoulders and scared faces. "What is it? What is it?" I cried, half in resentment; half in terror. It deafened me.
"The bell of St. Germain l'Auxerrois!" he shouted in answer. "The Church of the Louvre. It is as I said. We are doomed!"
"Doomed? No!" I replied fiercely, for my courage seemed to rise again on the wave of sound and excitement as if rebounding from the momentary shock. "Never! We wear the devil's livery, and he will look after his own. Draw, man, and let him that stops us look to himself. You know the way. Lead on!" I cried savagely.
He caught the infection and drew his sword. So we started boldly, and the result justified my confidence. We looked, no doubt, as like murderers as any who were abroad that night. Moving in this desperate guise we hastened up that street and into another--still pursued by the din and clangour of the bell --and then a short distance along a third. We were not stopped or addressed by anyone, though numbers, increasing each moment as door after door opened, and we drew nearer to the heart of the commotion, were hurrying in the same direction, side by side with us; and though in front, where now and again lights gleamed on a mass of weapons, or on white eager faces, filling some alley from wall to wall, we heard the roar of voices rising and falling like the murmur of an angry sea.
All was blurr, hurry, confusion, tumult. Yet I remember, as we pressed onwards with the stream and part of it, certain sharp outlines. I caught here and there a glimpse of a pale scared face at a window, a half-clad form at a door, of the big, wondering eyes of a child held up to see us pass, of a Christ at a corner ruddy in the smoky glare of a link, of a woman armed, and in man's clothes, who walked some distance side by side with us, and led off a ribald song. I retain a memory of these things: of brief bursts of light and long intervals of darkness, and always, as we tramped forwards, my hand on Pavannes' sleeve, of an ever-growing tumult in front--an ever-rising flood of noise.
At last we came to a standstill where a side street ran out of ours. Into this the hurrying throng tried to wheel, and, unable to do so, halted, and pressed about the head of the street, which was already full to overflowing; and so sought with hungry eyes for places whence they might look down it. Pavannes and I struggled only to get through the crowd--to get on; but the efforts of those behind partly aiding and partly thwarting our own, presently forced us to a position whence we could not avoid seeing what was afoot.
The street--this side street was ablaze with light. From end to end every gable, every hatchment was glowing, every window was flickering in the glare of torches. It was paved too with faces --human faces, yet scarcely human--all looking one way, all looking upward; and the noise, as from time to time this immense crowd groaned or howled in unison, like a wild beast in its fury, was so appalling, that I clutched Pavannes' arm and clung to him in momentary terror. I do not wonder now that I quailed, though sometimes I have heard that sound since. For there is nothing in the world so dreadful as that brute beast we call the Canaille, when the chain is off and its cowardly soul is roused.
Near our end of the street a group of horsemen rising island-like from the sea of heads, sat motionless in their saddles about a gateway. They were silent, taking no notice of the rioting fiends shouting at their girths, but watching in grim quiet what was passing within the gates. They were handsomely dressed, although some wore corslets over their satin coats or lace above buff jerkins. I could even at that distance see the jewels gleam in the bonnet of one who seemed to be their leader. He was in the centre of the band, a very young man, perhaps twenty or twenty-one, of most splendid presence, sitting his horse superbly. He wore a grey riding-coat, and was a head taller than any of his companions. There was pride in the very air with which his horse bore him.
I did not need to ask Pavannes who he was. I knew that he was the Duke of Guise, and that the house before which he stood was Coligny's. I knew what was being done there. And in the same moment I sickened with horror and rage. I had a vision of grey hairs and blood and fury scarcely human, And I rebelled. I battled with the rabble about me. I forced my way through them tooth and nail after Pavannes, intent only on escaping, only on getting away from there. And so we neither halted nor looked back until we were clear of the crowd and had left the blaze of light and the work doing by it some way behind us.
We found ourselves then in the mouth of an obscure alley which my companion whispered would bring us to his house; and here we paused to take breath and look back. The sky was red behind us, the air full of the clash and din of the tocsin, and the flood of sounds which poured from every tower and steeple. From the eastward came the rattle of drums and random shots, and shrieks of "A bas Coligny!" "A bas les Huguenots!" Meanwhile the city was rising as one man, pale at this dread awakening. From every window men and women, frightened by the uproar, were craning their necks, asking or answering questions or hurriedly calling for and kindling tapers. But as yet the general populace seemed to be taking no active part in the disorder.
Pavannes raised his hat an instant as we stood in the shadow of the houses. "The noblest man in France is dead," he said, softly and reverently. "God rest his soul! They have had their way with him and killed him like a dog. He was an old man and they did not spare him! A noble, and they have called in the Canaille to tear him. But be sure, my friend"--and as the speaker's tone changed and grew full and proud, his form seemed to swell with it--"be sure the cruel shall not live out half their days! No. He that takes the knife shall perish by the knife! And go to his own place! I shall not see it, but you will!"
His words made no great impression on me then. My hardihood was returning. I was throbbing with fierce excitement, and tingling for the fight. But years afterwards, when the two who stood highest in the group about Coligny's threshold died, the one at thirty-eight, the other at thirty-five--when Henry of Guise and Henry of Valois died within six months of one another by the assassin's knife--I remembered Pavannes' augury. And remembering it, I read the ways of Providence, and saw that the very audacity of which Guise took advantage to entrap Coligny led him too in his turn to trip smiling and bowing, a comfit box in his hand and the kisses of his mistress damp on his lips, into a king's closet--a king's closet at Blois! Led him to lift the curtain-- ah! to lift the curtain, what Frenchman does not know the tale? --behind which stood the Admiral!
To return to our own fortunes; after a hurried glance we resumed our way, and sped through the alley, holding a brief consultation as we went. Pavannes' first hasty instinct to seek shelter at home began to lose its force, and he to consider whether his return would not endanger his wife. The mob might be expected to spare her, he argued. Her death would not benefit any private foes if he escaped. He was for keeping away therefore. But I would not agree to this. The priest's crew of desperadoes-- assuming Pavannes' suspicions to be correct--would wait some time, no doubt, to give the master of the house a chance to return, but would certainly attack sooner or later out of greed, if from no other motive. Then the lady's fate would at the best be uncertain. I was anxious myself to rejoin my brothers, and take all future chances, whether of saving our Louis, or escaping ourselves, with them. United we should be four good swords, and might at least protect Madame de Pavannes to a place of safety, if no opportunity of succouring Louis should present itself. We had too the Duke's ring, and this might be of service at a pinch. "No," I urged, "let us get together. We two will slip in at the front gate, and bolt and bar it, and then we will all escape in a body at the back, while they are forcing the gateway."
"There is no door at the back," he answered, shaking his head.
"There are windows?"
"They are too strongly barred. We could not break out in the time," he explained, with a groan.
I paused at that, crestfallen. But danger quickened my wits. In a moment I had another plan, not so hopeful and more dangerous, yet worth trying I thought, I told him of it, and he agreed to it. As he nodded assent we emerged into a street, and I saw--for the grey light of morning was beginning to penetrate between the houses--that we were only a few yards from the gateway, and the small door by which I had seen my brothers enter. Were they still in the house? Were they safe? I had been away an hour at least.
Anxious as I was about them, I looked round me very keenly as we flitted across the road, and knocked gently at the door. I thought it so likely that we should be fallen upon here, that I stood on my guard while we waited. But we were not molested. The street, being at some distance from the centre of the commotion, was still and empty, with no signs of life apparent except the rows of heads poked through the windows--all possessing eyes which watched us heedfully and in perfect silence. Yes, the street was quite empty: except, ah! except, for that lurking figure, which, even as I espied it, shot round a distant angle of the wall, and was lost to sight.
"There!" I cried, reckless now who might hear me, "knock! knock louder! never mind the noise. The alarm is given. A score of people are watching us, and yonder spy has gone off to summon his friends."
The truth was my anger was rising. I could bear no longer the silent regards of all those eyes at the windows. I writhed under them--cruel, pitiless eyes they were. I read in them a morbid curiosity, a patient anticipation that drove me wild. Those men and women gazing on us so stonily knew my companion's rank and faith. They had watched him riding in and out daily, one of the sights of their street, gay and gallant; and now with the same eyes they were watching greedily for the butchers to come. The very children took a fresh interest in him, as one doomed and dying; and waited panting for the show to begin. So I read them.
"Knock!" I repeated angrily, losing all patience. Had I been foolish in bringing him back to this part of the town where every soul knew him? "Knock; we must get in, whether or no. They cannot all have left the house!"
I kicked the door desperately, and my relief was great when it opened. A servant with a pale face stood before me, his knees visibly shaking. And behind him was Croisette.
I think we fell straightway into one another's arms.
"And Marie," I cried, "Marie?"
"Marie is within, and madame," he answered joyfully; "we are together again and nothing matters, But oh, Anne, where have you been? And what is the matter? Is it a great fire? Or is the king dead? Or what is it?"
I told him. I hastily poured out some of the things which had happened to me, and some which I feared were in store for others. Naturally he was surprised and shocked by the latter, though his fears had already been aroused. But his joy and relief, when he heard the mystery of Louis de Pavannes' marriage explained, were so great that they swallowed up all other feelings. He could not say enough about it. He pictured Louis again and again as Kit's lover, as our old friend, our companion; as true, staunch, brave without fear, without reproach: and it was long before his eyes ceased to sparkle, his tongue to run merrily, the colour to mantle in his cheeks--long that is as time is counted by minutes. But presently the remembrance of Louis' danger and our own position returned more vividly. Our plan for rescuing him had failed--failed!
"No! no!" cried Croisette, stoutly. He would not hear of it. He would not have it at any price. "No, we will not give up hope! We will go shoulder to shoulder and find him. Louis is as brave as a lion and as quick as a weasel. We will find him in time yet. We will go when--I mean as soon as--"
He faltered, and paused. His sudden silence as he looked round the empty forecourt in which we stood was eloquent. The cold light, faint and uncertain yet, was stealing into the court, disclosing a row of stables on either side, and a tiny porter's hutch by the gates, and fronting us a noble house of four storys, tall, grey, grim-looking.
I assented; gloomily however. "Yes," I said, "we will go when--"
And I too stopped. The same thought was in my mind. How could we leave these people? How could we leave madame in her danger and distress? How could we return her kindness by desertion? We could not. No, not for Kit's sake. Because after all Louis, our Louis, was a man, and must take his chance. He must take his chance. But I groaned.
So that was settled. I had already explained our plan to Croisette: and now as we waited he began to tell me a story, a long, confused story about Madame d'O. I thought he was talking for the sake of talking--to keep up our spirits--and I did not attend much to him; so that he had not reached the gist of it, or at least I had not grasped it, when a noise without stayed his tongue. It was the tramp of footsteps, apparently of a large party in the street. It forced him to break off, and promptly drove us all to our posts.
But before we separated a slight figure, hardly noticeable in that dim, uncertain light, passed me quickly, laying for an instant a soft hand in mine as I stood waiting by the gates. I have said I scarcely saw the figure, though I did see the kind timid eyes, and the pale cheeks under the hood; but I bent over the hand and kissed it, and felt, truth to tell, no more regret nor doubt where our duty lay. But stood, waiting patiently.