Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XII. "The Point Envenomed Too!"
I was roused by the opening of the door. Doltaire entered. He advanced towards me with the manner of an admired comrade, and, with no trace of what would mark him as my foe, said, as he sniffed the air:
"Monsieur, I have been selfish. I asked myself to breakfast with you, yet, while I love the new experience, I will deny myself in this. You shall breakfast with me, as you pass to your new lodgings. You must not say no," he added, as though we were in some salon. "I have a sleigh here at the door, and a fellow has already gone to fan my kitchen fires and forage for the table. Come," he went on, "let me help you with your cloak."
He threw my cloak around me, and turned towards the door. I had not spoken a word, for what with weakness, the announcement that I was to have new lodgings, and the sudden change in my affairs, I was like a child walking in its sleep. I could do no more than bow to him and force a smile, which must have told more than aught else of my state, for he stepped to my side and offered me his arm. I drew back from that with thanks, for I felt a quick hatred of myself that I should take favours of the man who had moved for my destruction, and to steal from me my promised wife. Yet it was my duty to live if I could, to escape if that were possible, to use every means to foil my enemies. It was all a game; why should I not accept advances at my enemy's hands, and match dissimulation with dissimulation?
When I refused his arm, he smiled comically, and raised his shoulders in deprecation.
"You forget your dignity, monsieur," I said presently as we walked on, Gabord meeting us and lighting us through the passages; "you voted me a villain, a spy, at my trial!"
"Technically and publicly, you are a spy, a vulgar criminal," he replied; "privately, you are a foolish, blundering gentleman."
"A soldier, also, you will admit, who keeps his compact with his enemy."
"Otherwise we should not breakfast together this morning," he answered. "What difference would it make to this government if our private matter had been dragged in? Technically, you still would have been the spy. But I will say this, monsieur, to me you are a man better worth torture than death."
"Do you ever stop to think of how this may end for you?" I asked quietly.
He seemed pleased with the question. "I have thought it might be interesting," he answered; "else, as I said, you should long ago have left this naughty world. Is it in your mind that we shall cross swords one day?"
"I feel it in my bones," said I, "that I shall kill you."
At that moment we stood at the entrance to the citadel, where a good pair of horses and a sleigh awaited us. We got in, the robes were piled around us, and the horses started off at a long trot. I was muffled to the ears, but I could see how white and beautiful was the world, how the frost glistened in the trees, how the balsams were weighted down with snow, and how snug the chateaux looked with the smoke curling up from their hunched chimneys.
Presently Doltaire replied to my last remark. "Conviction is the executioner of the stupid," said he. "When a man is not great enough to let change and chance guide him, he gets convictions, and dies a fool."
"Conviction has made men and nations strong," I rejoined.
"Has made men and nations asses," he retorted. "The Mohammmedan has conviction, so has the Christian: they die fighting each other, and the philosopher sits by and laughs. Expediency, monsieur, expediency is the real wisdom, the true master of this world. Expediency saved your life to-day; conviction would have sent you to a starry home."
As he spoke a thought came in on me. Here we were in the open world, travelling together, without a guard of any kind. Was it not possible to make a dash for freedom? The idea was put away from me, and yet it was a fresh accent of Doltaire's character that he tempted me in this way. As if he divined what I thought, he said to me--for I made no attempt to answer his question:
"Men of sense never confuse issues or choose the wrong time for their purposes. Foes may have unwritten truces."
There was the matter in a nutshell. He had done nothing carelessly; he was touching off our conflict with flashes of genius. He was the man who had roused in me last night the fiercest passions of my life, and yet this morning he had saved me from death, and, though he was still my sworn enemy, I was about to breakfast with him.
Already the streets of the town were filling; for it was the day before Christmas, and it would be the great market-day of the year. Few noticed us as we sped along down Palace Street and I could not conceive whither we were going, until, passing the Hotel Dieu, I saw in front the Intendance. I remembered the last time I was there, and what had happened then, and a thought flashed through me that perhaps this was another trap. But I put it from me, and soon afterwards Doltaire said:
"I have now a slice of the Intendance for my own, and we shall breakfast like squirrels in a loft."
As we drove into the open space before the palace, a company of soldiers standing before the great door began marching up to the road by which we came. With them was a prisoner. I saw at once that he was a British officer, but I did not recognize his face. I asked his name of Doltaire, and found it was one Lieutenant Stevens, of Rogers' Rangers, those brave New Englanders. After an interview with Bigot he was being taken to the common jail. To my request that I might speak with him Doltaire assented, and at a sign from my companion the soldiers stopped. Stevens's eyes were fixed on me with a puzzled, disturbed expression. He was well built, of intrepid bearing, with a fine openness of manner joined to handsome features. But there was a recklessness in his eye which seemed to me to come nearer the swashbuckling character of a young French seigneur than the wariness of a British soldier.
I spoke his name and introduced myself. His surprise and pleasure were pronounced, for he had thought (as he said) that by this time I would be dead. There was an instant's flash of his eye, as if a suspicion of my loyalty had crossed his mind; but it was gone on the instant, and immediately Doltaire, who also had interpreted the look, smiled, and said he had carried me off to breakfast while the furniture of my former prison was being shifted to my new one. After a word or two more, with Stevens's assurance that the British had recovered from Braddock's defeat and would soon be knocking at the portals of the Chateau St. Louis, we parted, and soon Doltaire and I got out at the high stone steps of the palace.
Standing there a moment, I looked round. In this space surrounding the Intendance was gathered the history of New France. This palace, large enough for the king of a European country with a population of a million, was the official residence of the commercial ruler of a province. It was the house of the miller, and across the way was the King's storehouse, La Friponne, where poor folk were ground between the stones. The great square was already filling with people who had come to trade. Here were barrels of malt being unloaded; there, great sacks of grain, bags of dried fruits, bales of home-made cloth, and loads of fine-sawn boards and timber. Moving about among the peasants were the regular soldiers in their white uniforms faced with blue, red, yellow, or violet, with black three-cornered hats, and black gaiters from foot to knee, and the militia in coats of white with black facings. Behind a great collar of dogskin a pair of jet-black eyes flashed out from under a pretty forehead; and presently one saw these same eyes grown sorrowful or dull under heavy knotted brows, which told of a life too vexed by care and labour to keep alive a spark of youth's romance. Now the bell in the tower above us rang a short peal, the signal for the opening of La Friponne, and the bustling crowd moved towards its doors. As I stood there on the great steps, I chanced to look along the plain, bare front of the palace to an annex at the end, and standing in a doorway opening on a pair of steps was Voban. I was amazed that he should be there--the man whose life had been spoiled by Bigot. At the same moment Doltaire motioned to him to return inside; which he did.
Doltaire laughed at my surprise, and as he showed me inside the palace said: "There is no barber in the world like Voban. Interesting interesting! I love to watch his eye when he draws the razor down my throat. It would be so easy to fetch it across; but Voban, as you see, is not a man of absolute conviction. It will be sport, some day, to put Bigot's valet to bed with a broken leg or a fit of spleen, and send Voban to shave him."
"Where is Mathilde?" I asked, as though I knew naught of her whereabouts.
"Mathilde is where none may touch her, monsieur; under the protection of the daintiest lady of New France. It is her whim; and when a lady is charming, an Intendant, even, must not trouble her caprice."
He did not need to speak more plainly. It was he who had prevented Bigot from taking Mathilde away from Alixe, and locking her up, or worse. I said nothing, however, and soon we were in a large room, sumptuously furnished, looking out on the great square. The morning sun stared in, some snowbirds twittered on the window-sill, and inside, a canary, in an alcove hung with plants and flowers, sang as if it were the heart of summer. All was warm and comfortable, and it was like a dream that I had just come from the dismal chance of a miserable death. My cloak and cap and leggings had been taken from me when I entered, as courteously as though I had been King Louis himself, and a great chair was drawn solicitously to the fire. All this was done by the servant, after one quick look from Doltaire. The man seemed to understand his master perfectly, to read one look as though it were a volume--
"The constant service of the antique world."
Such was Doltaire's influence. The closer you came to him, the more compelling was he--a devilish attraction, notably selfish, yet capable of benevolence. Two years before this time I saw him lift a load from the back of a peasant woman and carry it home for her, putting into her hand a gold piece on leaving. At another time, an old man had died of a foul disease in a miserable upper room of a warehouse. Doltaire was passing at the moment when the body should be carried to burial. The stricken widow of the dead man stood below, waiting, but no one would fetch the body down. Doltaire stopped and questioned her kindly, and in another minute he was driving the carter and another upstairs at the point of his sword. Together they brought the body down, and Doltaire followed it to the burying-ground; keeping the gravedigger at his task when he would have run away, and saying the responses to the priest in the short service read above the grave.
I said to him then, "You rail at the world and scoff at men and many decencies, and yet you do these things!"
To this he replied--he was in my own lodgings at the time--"The brain may call all men liars and fools, but the senses feel the shock of misery which we do not ourselves inflict. Inflicting, we are prone to cruelty, as you have seen a schoolmaster begin punishment with tears, grow angry at the shrinking back under his cane, and give way to a sudden lust of torture. I have little pity for those who can help themselves--let them fight or eat the leek; but the child and the helpless and the sick it is a pleasure to aid. I love the poor as much as I love anything. I could live their life, if I were put to it. As a gentleman, I hate squalor and the puddles of wretchedness but I could have worked at the plough or the anvil; I could have dug in the earth till my knuckles grew big and my shoulders hardened to a roundness, have eaten my beans and pork and pea-soup, and have been a healthy ox, munching the bread of industry and trailing the puissant pike, a diligent serf. I have no ethics, and yet I am on the side of the just when they do not put thorns in my bed to keep me awake at night!"
Upon the walls hung suits of armour, swords of beautiful make, spears, belts of wonderful workmanship, a tattered banner, sashes knit by ladies' fingers, pouches, bandoleers, and many strong sketches of scenes that I knew well. Now and then a woman's head in oils or pencil peeped out from the abundant ornaments. I recalled then another thing he said at that time of which I write:
"I have never juggled with my conscience--never 'made believe' with it. My will was always stronger than my wish for anything, always stronger than temptation. I have chosen this way or that deliberately. I am ever ready to face consequences, and never to cry out. It is the ass who does not deserve either reward or punishment who says that something carried him away, and, being weak, he fell. That is a poor man who is no stronger than his passions. I can understand the devil fighting God, and taking the long punishment without repentance, like a powerful prince as he was. I could understand a peasant, killing King Louis in the palace, and being ready, if he had a hundred lives, to give them all, having done the deed he set out to do. If a man must have convictions of that sort, he can escape everlasting laughter--the final hell--only by facing the rebound of his wild deeds."
These were strange sentiments in the mouth of a man who was ever the mannered courtier, and as I sat there alone, while he was gone elsewhere for some minutes, many such things he had said came back to me, suggested, no doubt, by this new, inexplicable attitude towards myself. I could trace some of his sentiments, perhaps vaguely, to the fact that--as I had come to know through the Seigneur Duvarney--his mother was of peasant blood, the beautiful daughter of a farmer of Poictiers, who had died soon after giving birth to Doltaire. His peculiar nature had shown itself in his refusal to accept a title. It was his whim to be the plain "Monsieur"; behind which was, perhaps, some native arrogancy which made him prefer that to being a noble whose origin, well known, must ever interfere with his ambitions. Then, too, maybe, the peasant in him--never in his face or form, which were patrician altogether--spoke for more truth and manliness than he was capable of, and so he chose to be the cynical, irresponsible courtier, while many of his instincts had urged him to the peasant's integrity. He had undisturbed, however, one instinct of the peasant--a directness, which was evident chiefly in the clearness of his thoughts.
As these things hurried through my mind, my body sunk in a kind of restfulness before the great fire, Doltaire came back.
"I will not keep you from breakfast," said he. "Voban must wait, if you will pass by untidiness."
A thought flashed through my mind. Maybe Voban had some word for me from Alixe! So I said instantly, "I am not hungry. Perhaps you will let me wait yonder while Voban tends you. As you said, it should be interesting."
"You will not mind the disorder of my dressing-room? Well, then, this way, and we can talk while Voban plays with temptation."
So saying, he courteously led the way into another chamber, where Voban stood waiting. I spoke to him, and he bowed, but did not speak; and then Doltaire said:
"You see, Voban, your labour on Monsieur was wasted so far as concerns the world to come. You trimmed him for the glorious company of the apostles, and see, he breakfasts with Monsieur Doltaire--in the Intendance, too, my Voban, which, as you know, is wicked--a very nest of wasps!"
I never saw more hate than shot out of Voban's eyes at that moment; but the lids drooped over them at once, and he made ready for his work, as Doltaire, putting aside his coat, seated himself, laughing. There was no little daring, as there was cruelty, in thus torturing a man whose life had been broken by Doltaire's associate. I wondered now and then if Doltaire were not really putting acid on the barber's bare nerves for some other purpose than mere general cruelty. Even as he would have understood the peasant's murder of King Louis, so he would have seen a logical end to a terrible game in Bigot's death at the hand of Voban. Possibly he wondered that Voban did not strike, and he himself took a delight in showing him his own wrongs occasionally. Then, again, Doltaire might wish for Bigot's death, to succeed him in his place! But this I put by as improbable, for the Intendant's post was not his ambition, or, favourite of La Pompadour as he was, he would, desiring, have long ago achieved that end. Moreover, every evidence showed that he would gladly return to France, for his clear brain foresaw the final ruin of the colony and the triumph of the British. He had once said in my hearing:
"Those swaggering Englishmen will keep coming on. They are too stupid to turn back. The eternal sameness of it all will so distress us we shall awake one morning, find them at our bedsides, give a kick, and die from sheer ennui. They'll use our banners to boil their fat puddings in, they'll roast oxen in the highways, and after our girls have married them they'll turn them into kitchen wenches with frowsy skirts and ankles like beeves!"
But, indeed, beneath his dangerous irony there was a strain of impishness, and he would, if need be, laugh at his own troubles, and torture himself as he had tortured others. This morning he was full of a carbolic humour. As the razor came to his neck he said:
"Voban, a barber must have patience. It is a sad thing to mistake friend for enemy. What is a friend? Is it one who says sweet words?"
There was a pause, in which the shaving went on, and then he continued:
"Is it he who says, I have eaten Voban's bread, and Voban shall therefore go to prison, or be hurried to Walhalla? Or is it he who stays the iron hand, who puts nettles in Voban's cold, cold bed, that he may rise early and go forth among the heroes?"
I do not think Voban understood that, through some freak of purpose, Doltaire was telling him thus obliquely he had saved him from Bigot's cruelty, from prison or death. Once or twice he glanced at me, but not meaningly, for Doltaire was seated opposite a mirror, and could see each motion made by either of us. Presently Doltaire said to me idly:
"I dine to-day at the Seigneur Duvarney's. You will be glad to hear that mademoiselle bids fair to rival the charming Madame Cournal. Her followers are as many, so they say, and all in one short year she has suddenly thrown out a thousand new faculties and charms. Doubtless you remember she was gifted, but who would have thought she could have blossomed so! She was all light and softness and air; she is now all fire and skill as well. Matchless! matchless! Every day sees her with some new capacity, some fresh and delicate aplomb. She has set the town admiring, and jealous mothers prophesy trist ending for her. Her swift mastery of the social arts is weird, they say. La! la! The social arts! A good brain, a gift of penetration, a manner--which is a grand necessity, and it must be with birth--no heart to speak of, and the rest is easy. No heart--there is the thing; with a good brain and senses all warm with life--to feel, but never to have the arrow strike home. You must never think to love and be loved, and be wise too. The emotions blind the judgment. Be heartless, be perfect with heavenly artifice, and, if you are a woman, have no vitriol on your tongue--and you may rule at Versailles or Quebec. But with this difference: in Quebec you may be virtuous; at Versailles you must not. It is a pity that you may not meet Mademoiselle Duvarney. She would astound you. She was a simple ballad a year ago; to-morrow she may be an epic."
He nodded at me reflectively, and went on:
"'Mademoiselle,' said the Chevalier de la Darante to her at dinner, some weeks ago, 'if I were young, I should adore you.' 'Monsieur,' she answered, 'you use that "if" to shirk the responsibility.' That put him on his mettle. 'Then, by the gods, I adore you now,' he answered. 'If I were young, I should blush to hear you say so,' was her reply. 'I empty out my heart, and away trips the disdainful nymph with a laugh,' he rejoined gaily, the rusty old courtier; 'there's nothing left but to fall upon my sword!' 'Disdainful nymphs are the better scabbards for distinguished swords,' she said, with charming courtesy. Then, laughing softly, 'There is an Egyptian proverb which runs thus: "If thou, Dol, son of Hoshti, hast emptied out thy heart, and it bring no fruit in exchange, curse not thy gods and die, but build a pyramid in the vineyard where thy love was spent, and write upon it, Pride hath no conqueror."' It is a mind for a palace, is it not?"
I could see in the mirror facing him the provoking devilry of his eyes. I knew that he was trying how much he could stir me. He guessed my love for her, but I could see he was sure that she no longer--if she ever had--thought of me. Besides, with a lover's understanding, I saw also that he liked to talk of her. His eyes, in the mirror, did not meet mine, but were fixed, as on some distant and pleasing prospect, though there was, as always, a slight disdain at his mouth. But the eyes were clear, resolute, and strong, never wavering--and I never saw them waver--yet in them something distant and inscrutable. It was a candid eye, and he was candid in his evil; he made no pretense; and though the means to his ends were wicked, they were never low. Presently, glancing round the room, I saw an easel on which was a canvas. He caught my glance.
"Silly work for a soldier and a gentleman," he said, "but silliness is a great privilege. It needs as much skill to carry folly as to be an ambassador. Now, you are often much too serious, Captain Moray."
At that he rose, and, after putting on his coat, came over to the easel and threw up the cloth, exposing a portrait of Alixe! It had been painted in by a few bold strokes, full of force and life, yet giving her face more of that look which comes to women bitterly wise in the ways of this world than I cared to see. The treatment was daring, and it cut me like a knife that the whole painting had a red glow: the dress was red, the light falling on the hair was red, the shine of the eyes was red also. It was fascinating, but weird, and, to me, distressful. There flashed through my mind the remembrance of Mathilde in her scarlet robe as she stood on the Heights that momentous night of my arrest. I looked at the picture in silence. He kept gazing at it with a curious, half-quizzical smile, as if he were unconscious of my presence. At last he said, with a slight knitting of his brows:
"It is strange--strange. I sketched that in two nights ago, by the light of the fire, after I had come from the Chateau St. Louis--from memory, as you see. It never struck me where the effect was taken from, that singular glow over all the face and figure. But now I see it; it returns: it is the impression of colour in the senses, left from the night that lady-bug Mathilde flashed out on the Heights! A fine--a fine effect! H'm! for another such one might give another such Mathilde!"
At that moment we were both startled by a sound behind us, and, wheeling, we saw Voban, a mad look in his face, in the act of throwing at Doltaire a short spear which he had caught up from a corner. The spear flew from his hand even as Doltaire sprang aside, drawing his sword with great swiftness. I thought he must have been killed, but the rapidity of his action saved him, for the spear passed his shoulder so close that it tore away a shred of his coat, and stuck in the wall behind him. In another instant Doltaire had his sword-point at Voban's throat. The man did not cringe, did not speak a word, but his hands clinched, and the muscles of his face worked painfully. There was at first a fury in Doltaire's face and a metallic hardness in his eyes, and I was sure he meant to pass his sword through the other's body; but after standing for a moment, death hanging on his sword-point, he quietly lowered his weapon, and, sitting on a chair-arm, looked curiously at Voban, as one might sit and watch a mad animal within a cage. Voban did not stir, but stood rooted to the spot, his eyes, however, never moving from Doltaire. It was clear that he had looked for death, and now expected punishment and prison. Doltaire took out his handkerchief and wiped a sweat from his cheeks. He turned to me soon, and said, in a singularly impersonal way, as though he were speaking of some animal:
"He had great provocation. The Duchess de Valois had a young panther once which she had brought up from the milk. She was inquisitive, and used to try its temper. It was good sport, but one day she took away its food, gave it to the cat, and pointed her finger at monsieur the panther. The Duchess de Valois never bared her breast thereafter to an admiring world--a panther's claws leave scars." He paused, and presently continued: "You remember it, Voban; you were the Duke's valet then--you see I recall you! Well, the panther lost his head, both figuratively and in fact. The panther did not mean to kill, maybe, but to kill the lady's beauty was death to her.... Voban, yonder spear was poisoned!"
He wiped his face, and said to me, "I think you saw that at the dangerous moment I had no fear; yet now when the game is in my own hands, my cheek runs with cold sweat. How easy to be charged with cowardice! Like evaporation, the hot breath of peril passing suddenly into the cold air of safety leaves this!"--he wiped his cheek again.
He rose, moved slowly to Voban, and, pricking him with his sword, said, "You are a bungler, barber. Now listen. I never wronged you; I have only been your blister. I prick your sores at home. Tut! tut! they prick them openly in the market-place. I gave you life a minute ago; I give you freedom now. Some day I may ask that life for a day's use, and then, Voban, then will you give it?"
There was a moment's pause, and the barber answered, "M'sieu', I owe you nothing. I would have killed you then; you may kill me, if you will."
Doltaire nodded musingly. Something was passing through his mind. I judged he was thinking that here was a man who as a servant would be invaluable.
"Well, well, we can discuss the thing at leisure, Voban," he said at last. "Meanwhile you may wait here till Captain Moray has breakfasted, and then you shall be at his service; and I would have a word with you, also."
Turning with a polite gesture to me, he led the way into the breakfast-room, and at once, half famished, I was seated at the table, drinking a glass of good wine, and busy with a broiled whitefish of delicate quality. We were silent for a time, and the bird in the alcove kept singing as though it were in Eden, while chiming in between the rhythms there came the silvery sound of sleigh-bells from the world without. I was in a sort of dream, and I felt there must be a rude awakening soon. After a while, Doltaire, who seemed thinking keenly, ordered the servant to take in a glass of wine to Voban.
He looked up at me after a little, as if he had come back from a long distance, and said, "It is my fate to have as foes the men I would have as friends, and as friends the men I would have as foes. The cause of my friends is often bad; the cause of my enemies is sometimes good. It is droll. I love directness, yet I have ever been the slave of complication. I delight in following my reason, yet I have been of the motes that stumble in the sunlight. I have enough cruelty in me, enough selfishness and will, to be a ruler, and yet I have never held an office in my life. I love true diplomacy, yet I have been comrade to the official liar, and am the captain of intrigue--la! la!"
"You have never had an enthusiasm, a purpose?" said I.
He laughed, a dry, ironical laugh. "I have both an enthusiasm and a purpose," he answered, "or you would by now be snug in bed forever."
I knew what he meant, though he could not guess I understood. He was referring to Alixe and the challenge she had given him. I did not feel that I had anything to get by playing a part of friendliness, and besides, he was a man to whom the boldest speaking was always palatable, even when most against himself.
"I am sure neither would bear daylight," said I.
"Why, I almost blush to say that they are both honest--would at this moment endure a moral microscope. The experience, I confess, is new, and has the glamour of originality."
"It will not stay honest," I retorted. "Honesty is a new toy with you. You will break it on the first rock that shows."
"I wonder," he answered, "I wonder, ... and yet I suppose you are right. Some devilish incident will twist things out of gear, and then the old Adam must improvise for safety and success. Yes, I suppose my one beautiful virtue will get a twist."
What he had said showed me his mind as in a mirror. He had no idea that I had the key to his enigmas. I felt as had Voban in the other room. I could see that he had set his mind on Alixe, and that she had roused in him what was perhaps the first honest passion of his life.
What further talk we might have had I can not tell, but while we were smoking and drinking coffee the door opened suddenly, and the servant said, "His Excellency the Marquis de Vaudreuil!"
Doltaire got to his feet, a look of annoyance crossing his face; but he courteously met the Governor, and placed a chair for him. The Governor, however, said frostily, "Monsieur Doltaire, it must seem difficult for Captain Moray to know who is Governor in Canada, since he has so many masters. I am not sure who needs assurance most upon the point, you or he. This is the second time he has been feasted at the Intendance when he should have been in prison. I came too late that other time; now it seems I am opportune."
Doltaire's reply was smooth: "Your Excellency will pardon the liberty. The Intendance was a sort of halfway house between the citadel and the jail."
"There is news from France," the Governor said, "brought from Gaspe. We meet in council at the Chateau in an hour. A guard is without to take Captain Moray to the common jail."
In a moment more, after a courteous good-by from Doltaire, and a remark from the Governor to the effect that I had spoiled his night's sleep to no purpose, I was soon on my way to the common jail, where arriving, what was my pleased surprise to see Gabord! He had been told off to be my especial guard, his services at the citadel having been deemed so efficient. He was outwardly surly--as rough as he was ever before the world, and without speaking a word to me, he had a soldier lock me in a cell.