Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XI. The Coming of Doltaire
At last I was roused by Gabord's voice.
He sat down, and drew the leaves of faded corn between his fingers. "'Tis a poor life, this in a cage, after all--eh, dickey-bird? If a soldier can't stand in the field fighting, if a man can't rub shoulders with man, and pitch a tent of his own somewhere, why not go travelling with the Beast--aho? To have all the life sucked out like these--eh? To see the flesh melt and the hair go white, the eye to be one hour bright like a fire in a kiln, and the next like mother on working vinegar--that's not living at all--no."
The speech had evidently cost him much thinking, and when he ended, his cheeks puffed out and a soundless laugh seemed to gather, but it burst in a sort of sigh. I would have taken his hand that moment, if I had not remembered when once he drew back from such demonstrations. I did not speak, but nodded assent, and took to drawing the leaves of corn between my fingers as he was doing.
After a moment, cocking his head at me as might a surly schoolmaster in a pause of leniency, he added, "As quiet, as quiet, and never did he fly at door of cage, nor peck at jailer--aho!"
I looked at him a minute seriously, and then, feeling in my coat, handed to him the knife which I had secreted, with the words, "Enough for pecking with, eh?"
He looked at me so strangely, as he weighed the knife up and down in his hand, that I could not at first guess his thought; but presently I understood it, and I almost could have told what he would say. He opened the knife, felt the blade, measured it along his fingers, and then said, with a little bursting of the lips, "Poom! But what would ma'm'selle have thought if Gabord was found dead with a hole in his neck--behind? Eh?"
He had struck the very note that had sung in me when the temptation came; but he was gay at once again, and I said to him, "What is the hour fixed?"
"Seven o'clock," he answered, "and I will bring your breakfast first."
"Good-night, then," said I. "Coffee and a little tobacco will be enough."
When he was gone, I lay down on my bag of straw, which, never having been renewed, was now only full of worn chaff, and, gathering myself in my cloak, was soon in a dreamless sleep.
I waked to the opening of the dungeon door, to see Gabord entering with a torch and a tray that held my frugal breakfast. He had added some brandy, also, of which I was glad, for it was bitter cold outside, as I discovered later. He was quiet, seeming often to wish to speak, but pausing before the act, never getting beyond a stumbling aho! I greeted him cheerfully enough. After making a little toilette, I drank my coffee with relish. At last I asked Gabord if no word had come to the citadel for me; and he said, none at all, nothing save a message from the Governor, before midnight, ordering certain matters. No more was said, until, turning to the door, he told me he would return to fetch me forth in a few minutes. But when halfway out he suddenly wheeled, came back, and blurted out, "If you and I could only fight it out, m'sieu'! 'Tis ill for a gentleman and a soldier to die without thrust or parry."
"Gabord," said I, smiling at him, "you preach good sermons always, and I never saw a man I'd rather fight and be killed by than you!" Then, with an attempt at rough humour, I added, "But as I told you once, the knot is'nt at my throat, and I'll tie another one yet elsewhere, if God loves honest men."
I had no hope at all, yet I felt I must say it. He nodded, but said nothing, and presently I was alone.
I sat down on my straw couch and composed myself to think; not upon my end, for my mind was made up as to that, but upon the girl who was so dear to me, whose life had crept into mine and filled it, making it of value in the world. It must not be thought that I no longer had care for our cause, for I would willingly have spent my life a hundred times for my country, as my best friends will bear witness; but there comes a time when a man has a right to set all else aside but his own personal love and welfare, and to me the world was now bounded by just so much space as my dear Alixe might move in. I fastened my thought upon her face as I had last seen it. My eyes seemed to search for it also, and to find it in the torch which stuck out, softly sputtering, from the wall. I do not pretend, even at this distance of time, after having thought much over the thing, to give any good reason for so sudden a change as took place in me there. All at once a voice appeared to say to me, "When you are gone, she will be Doltaire's. Remember what she said. She fears him. He has a power over her."
Now, some will set it down to a low, unmanly jealousy and suspicion; it is hard to name it, but I know that I was seized with a misery so deep that all my past sufferings and disappointments, and even this present horror were shadowy beside it. I pictured to myself Alixe in Doltaire's arms, after I had gone beyond human call. It is strange how an idea will seize us and master us, and an inconspicuous possibility suddenly stand out with huge distinctness. All at once I felt in my head "the ring of fire" of which Mathilde had warned me, a maddening heat filled my veins, and that hateful picture grew more vivid. Things Alixe had said the night before flashed to my mind, and I fancied that, unknown to herself even, he already had a substantial power over her.
He had deep determination, the gracious subtlety which charms a woman, and she, hemmed in by his devices, overcome by his pleadings, attracted by his enviable personality, would come at last to his will. The evening before I had seen strong signs of the dramatic qualities of her nature. She had the gift of imagination, the epic spirit. Even three years previous I felt how she had seen every little incident of her daily life in a way which gave it vividness and distinction. All things touched her with delicate emphasis--were etched upon her brain--or did not touch her at all. She would love the picturesque in life, though her own tastes were so simple and fine. Imagination would beset her path with dangers; it would be to her, with her beauty, a fatal gift, a danger to herself and others. She would have power, and feeling it, womanlike, would use it, dissipating her emotions, paying out the sweetness of her soul, till one day a dramatic move, a strong picturesque personality like Doltaire's, would catch her from the moorings of her truth, and the end must be tragedy to her. Doltaire! Doltaire! The name burnt into my brain. Some prescient quality in me awaked, and I saw her the sacrifice of her imagination, of the dramatic beauty of her nature, my enemy her tyrant and destroyer. He would leave nothing undone to achieve his end, and do nothing that would not in the end poison her soul and turn her very glories into miseries. How could she withstand the charm of his keen knowledge of the world, the fascination of his temperament, the alluring eloquence of his frank wickedness? And I should rather a million times see her in her grave than passed through the atmosphere of his life.
This may seem madness, selfish and small; but after-events went far to justify my fears and imaginings, for behind there was a love, an aching, absorbing solicitude. I can not think that my anxiety was all vulgar smallness then.
I called him by coarse names, as I tramped up and down my dungeon; I cursed him; impotent contempt was poured out on him; in imagination I held him there before me, and choked him till his eyes burst out and his body grew limp in my arms. The ring of fire in my head scorched and narrowed till I could have shrieked in agony. My breath came short and labored, and my heart felt as though it were in a vise and being clamped to nothing. For an instant, also, I broke out in wild bitterness against Alixe. She had said she would save me, and yet in an hour or less I should be dead. She had come to me last night ah--true; but that was in keeping with her dramatic temperament; it was the drama of it that had appealed to her; and to-morrow she would forget me, and sink her fresh spirit in the malarial shadows of Doltaire's.
In my passion I thrust my hand into my waistcoat and unconsciously drew out something. At first my only feeling was that my hand could clench it, but slowly a knowledge of it travelled to my brain, as if through clouds and vapours. Now I am no Catholic, I do not know that I am superstitious, yet when I became conscious that the thing I held was the wooden cross that Mathilde had given me, a weird feeling passed through me, and there was an arrest of the passions of mind and body; a coolness passed over all my nerves, and my brain got clear again, the ring of fire loosing, melting away. It was a happy, diverting influence, which gave the mind rest for a moment, till the better spirit, the wiser feeling, had a chance to reassert itself; but then it seemed to me almost supernatural.
One can laugh when misery and danger are over, and it would be easy to turn this matter into ridicule, but from that hour to this the wooden cross which turned the flood of my feelings then into a saving channel has never left me. I keep it, not indeed for what it was, but for what it did.
As I stood musing, there came to my mind suddenly the words of a song which I had heard some voyageurs sing on the St. Lawrence, as I sat on the cliff a hundred feet above them and watched them drift down in the twilight:
"Brothers, we go to the Scarlet Hills: (Little gold sun, come out of the dawn!) There we will meet in the cedar groves; (Shining white dew, come down!) There is a bed where you sleep so sound, The little good folk of the hills will guard, Till the morning wakes and your love comes home. (Fly away, heart, to the Scarlet Hills!)"
Something in the half-mystical, half-Arcadian spirit of the words soothed me, lightened my thoughts, so that when, presently, Gabord opened the door, and entered with four soldiers, I was calm enough for the great shift. Gabord did not speak, but set about pinioning me himself. I asked him if he could not let me go unpinioned, for it was ignoble to go to ones death tied like a beast. At first he shook his head, but as if with a sudden impulse lie cast the ropes aside, and, helping me on with my cloak, threw again over it a heavier cloak he had brought, gave me a fur cap to wear, and at last himself put on me a pair of woollen leggings, which, if they were no ornament, and to be of but transitory use (it seemed strange to me then that one should be caring for a body so soon to be cut off from all feeling), were most comforting when we came into the bitter, steely air. Gabord might easily have given these last tasks to the soldiers, but he was solicitous to perform them himself. Yet with surly brow and a rough accent he gave the word to go forward, and in a moment we were marching through the passages, up frosty steps, in the stone corridors, and on out of the citadel into the yard.
I remember that as we passed into the open air I heard the voice of a soldier singing a gay air of love and war. Presently he came in sight. He saw me, stood still for a moment looking curiously, and then, taking up the song again at the very line where he had broken off, passed round an angle of the building and was gone. To him I was no more than a moth fluttering in the candle, to drop dead a moment later.
It was just on the verge of sunrise. There was the grayish-blue light in the west, the top of a long range of forest was sharply outlined against it, and a timorous darkness was hurrying out of the zenith. In the east a sad golden radiance was stealing up and driving back the mystery of the night, and that weird loneliness of an arctic world. The city was hardly waking as yet, but straight silver columns of smoke rolled up out of many chimneys, and the golden cross on the cathedral caught the first rays of the sun. I was not interested in the city; I had now, as I thought, done with men. Besides the four soldiers who had brought me out, another squad surrounded me, commanded by a young officer whom I recognized as Captain Lancy, the rough roysterer who had insulted me at Bigot's palace over a year ago. I looked with a spirit absorbed upon the world about me, and a hundred thoughts which had to do with man's life passed through my mind. But the young officer, speaking sharply to me, ordered me on, and changed the current of my thoughts. The coarseness of the man and his insulting words were hard to bear, so that I was constrained to ask him if it were not customary to protect a condemned man from insult rather than to expose him to it. I said that I should be glad of my last moments in peace. At that he asked Gabord why I was unbound, and my jailer answered that binding was for criminals who were to be hanged!
I could scarcely believe my ears. I was to be shot, not hanged. I had a thrill of gratitude which I can not describe. It may seem a nice distinction, but to me there were whole seas between the two modes of death. I need not blush in advance for being shot--my friends could bear that without humiliation; but hanging would have always tainted their memory of me, try as they would against it.
"The gallows is ready, and my orders were to see him hanged," Mr. Lancy said.
"An order came at midnight that he should be shot," was Gabord's reply, producing the order, and handing it over.
The officer contemptuously tossed it back, and now, a little more courteous, ordered me against the wall, and I let my cloak fall to the ground. I was placed where, looking east, I could see the Island of Orleans, on which was the summer-house of the Seigneur Duvarney. Gabord came to me and said, "M'sieu', you are a brave man"--then, all at once breaking off, he added in a low, hurried voice, "'Tis not a long flight to heaven, m'sieu'!" I could see his face twitching as he stood looking at me. He hardly dared to turn round to his comrades, lest his emotion should be seen. But the officer roughly ordered him back. Gabord coolly drew out his watch, and made a motion to me not to take off my cloak yet.
"'Tis not the time by six minutes," he said. "The gentleman is to be shot to the stroke--aho!" His voice and manner were dogged. The officer stepped forward threateningly; but Gabord said something angrily in an undertone, and the other turned on his heel and began walking up and down. This continued for a moment, in which we all were very still and bitter cold--the air cut like steel--and then my heart gave a great leap, for suddenly there stepped into the yard Doltaire. Action seemed suspended in me, but I know I listened with singular curiosity to the shrill creaking of his boots on the frosty earth, and I noticed that the fur collar of the coat he wore was all white with the frozen moisture of his breath, also that tiny icicles hung from his eyelashes. He came down the yard slowly, and presently paused and looked at Gabord and the young officer, his head laid a little to one side in a quizzical fashion, his eyelids drooping.
"What time was monsieur to be shot?" he asked of Captain Lancy.
"At seven o'clock, monsieur," was the reply.
Doltaire took out his watch. "It wants three minutes of seven," said he. "What the devil means this business before the stroke o' the hour?" waving a hand towards me.
"We were waiting for the minute, monsieur," was the officer's reply.
A cynical, cutting smile crossed Doltaire's face. "A charitable trick, upon my soul, to fetch a gentleman from a warm dungeon and stand him against an icy wall on a deadly morning to cool his heels as he waits for his hour to die! You'd skin your lion and shoot him afterwards--voila!" All this time he held the watch in his hand.
"You, Gabord," he went on, "you are a man to obey orders--eh?"
Gabord hesitated a moment as if waiting for Lancy to speak, and then said, "I was not in command. When I was called upon I brought him forth."
"Excuses! excuses! You sweated to be rid of your charge."
Gabord's face lowered. "M'sieu' would have been in heaven by this if I had'nt stopped it," he broke out angrily.
Doltaire turned sharply on Lancy. "I thought as much," said he, "and you would have let Gabord share your misdemeanor. Yet your father was a gentleman! If you had shot monsieur before seven, you would have taken the dungeon he left. You must learn, my young provincial, that you are not to supersede France and the King. It is now seven o'clock; you will march your men back into quarters."
Then turning to me, he raised his cap. "You will find your cloak more comfortable, Captain Moray," said he, and he motioned Gabord to hand it to me, as he came forward. "May I breakfast with you?" he added courteously. He yawned a little. "I have not risen so early in years, and I am chilled to the bone. Gabord insists that it is warm in your dungeon; I have a fancy to breakfast there. It will recall my year in the Bastile."
He smiled in a quaint, elusive sort of fashion, and as I drew the cloak about me, I said through chattering teeth, for I had suffered with the brutal cold, "I am glad to have the chance to offer breakfast."
"To me or any one?" he dryly suggested. "Think! by now, had I not come, you might have been in a warmer world than this--indeed, much warmer," he suddenly said, as he stooped, picked up some snow in his bare hand, and clapped it to my cheek, rubbing it with force and swiftness. The cold had nipped it, and this was the way to draw out the frost. His solicitude at the moment was so natural and earnest that it was hard to think he was my enemy.
When he had rubbed awhile, he gave me his own handkerchief to dry my face; and so perfect was his courtesy, it was impossible to do otherwise than meet him as he meant and showed for the moment. He had stepped between me and death, and even an enemy who does that, no matter what the motive, deserves something at your hands.
"Gabord," he said, as we stepped inside the citadel, "we will breakfast at eight o'clock. Meanwhile, I have some duties with our officers here. Till we meet in your dining-hall, then, monsieur," he added to me, and raised his cap.
"You must put up with frugal fare," I answered, bowing.
"If you but furnish locusts," he said gaily, "I will bring the wild honey.... What wonderful hives of bees they have at the Seigneur Duvarney's!" he continued musingly, as if with second thought; "a beautiful manor--a place for pretty birds and honey-bees!"
His eyelids drooped languidly, as was their way when he had said something a little carbolic, as this was to me, because of its hateful suggestion. His words drew nothing from me, not even a look of understanding, and, again bowing, we went our ways.
At the door of the dungeon Gabord held the torch up to my face. His own had a look which came as near to being gentle as was possible to him. Yet he was so ugly that it looked almost ludicrous in him. "Poom!" said he. "A friend at court. More comfits."
"You think Monsieur Doltaire gets comfits, too?" asked I.
He rubbed his cheek with a key. "Aho!" mused he--"aho! M'sieu' Doltaire rises not early for naught."