Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XIII. "A Little Boast"
My new abode was more cheerful than the one I had quitted in the citadel. It was not large, but it had a window, well barred, through which came the good strong light of the northern sky. A wooden bench for my bed stood in one corner, and, what cheered me much, there was a small iron stove. Apart from warmth, its fire would be companionable, and to tend it a means of passing the time. Almost the first thing I did was to examine it. It was round, and shaped like a small bulging keg on end. It had a lid on top, and in the side a small door with bars for draught, suggesting to me in little the delight of a fireplace. A small pipe from the side carried away the smoke into a chimney in the wall. It seemed to me luxurious, and my spirits came back apace.
There was no fire yet, and it was bitter cold, so that I took to walking up and down to keep warmth in me. I was ill nourished, and I felt the cold intensely. But I trotted up and down, plans of escape already running through my head. I was as far off as you can imagine from that event of the early morning, when I stood waiting, half frozen, to be shot by Lancy's men.
After I had been walking swiftly up and down for an hour or more, slapping my hands against my sides to keep them warm--for it was so cold I ached and felt a nausea--I was glad to see Gabord enter with a soldier carrying wood and shavings. I do not think I could much longer have borne the chilling air--a dampness, too, had risen from the floor, which had been washed that morning--for my clothes were very light in texture and much worn. I had had but the one suit since I entered the dungeon, for my other suit, which was by no means smart, had been taken from me when I was first imprisoned the year before. As if many good things had been destined to come at once, soon afterwards another soldier entered with a knapsack, which he laid down on the bench. My delight was great when I saw it held my other poor suit of clothes, together with a rough set of woollens, a few handkerchiefs, two pairs of stockings, and a wool cap for night wear.
Gabord did not speak to me at all, but roughly hurried the soldier at his task of fire-lighting, and ordered the other to fetch a pair of stools and a jar of water. Meanwhile I stood near, watching, and stretched out my skinny hands to the grateful heat as soon as the fire was lighted. I had a boy's delight in noting how the draught pumped the fire into violence, shaking the stove till it puffed and roared. I was so filled, that moment, with the domestic spirit that I thought a steaming kettle on the little stove would give me a tabby-like comfort.
"Why not a kettle on the hob?" said I gaily to Gabord.
"Why not a cat before the fire, a bit of bacon on the coals, a pot of mulled wine at the elbow, and a wench's chin to chuck, baby-bumbo!" said Gabord in a mocking voice, which made the soldiers laugh at my expense. "And a spinet, too, for ducky dear, Scarrat; a piece of cake and cherry wine, and a soul to go to heaven! Tonnerre!" he added, with an oath, "these English prisoners want the world for a sou, and they'd owe that till judgment day."
I saw at once the meaning of his words, for he turned his back on me and went to the window and tried the stanchions, seeming much concerned about them, and muttering to himself. I drew out from my pocket two gold pieces, and gave them to the soldier Scarrat; and the other soldier coming in just then, I did the same with him; and I could see that their respect for me mightily increased. Gabord, still muttering, turned to us again, and began to berate the soldiers for their laziness. As the two men turned to go, Scarrat, evidently feeling that something was due for the gold I had given, said to Gabord, "Shall m'sieu' have the kettle?"
Gabord took a step forward as if to strike the soldier, but stopped short, blew out his cheeks, and laughed in a loud, mocking way.
"Ay, ay, fetch m'sieu' the kettle, and fetch him flax to spin, and a pinch of snuff, and hot flannels for his stomach, and every night at sundown you shall feed him with pretty biscuits soaked in milk. Ah, go to the devil and fetch the kettle, fool!" he added roughly again, and quickly the place was empty save for him and myself.
"Those two fellows are to sit outside your cage door, dickey-bird, and two are to march beneath your window yonder, so you shall not lack care if you seek to go abroad. Those are the new orders."
"And you, Gabord," said I, "are you not to be my jailer?" I said it sorrowfully, for I had a genuine feeling for him, and I could not keep that from my voice.
When I had spoken so feelingly, he stood for a moment, flushing and puffing, as if confused by the compliment in the tone, and then he answered, "I'm to keep you safe till word comes from the King what's to be done with you."
Then he suddenly became surly again, standing with legs apart and keys dangling; for Scarrat entered with the kettle, and put it on the stove. "You will bring blankets for m'sieu'," he added, "and there's an order on my table for tobacco, which you will send your comrade for."
In a moment we were left alone.
"You'll live like a stuffed pig here," he said, "though 'twill be cold o' nights."
After another pass or two of words he left me, and I hastened to make a better toilet than I had done for a year. My old rusty suit which I exchanged for the one I had worn seemed almost sumptuous, and the woollen wear comforted my weakened body. Within an hour my cell looked snug, and I sat cosily by the fire, feeding it lazily.
It must have been about four o'clock when there was a turning of keys and a shooting of bolts, the door opened, and who should step inside but Gabord, followed by Alixe! I saw Alixe's lips frame my name thrice, though no word came forth, and my heart was bursting to cry out and clasp her to my breast. But still with a sweet, serious look cast on me, she put out her hand and stayed me.
Gabord, looking not at us at all, went straight to the window, and, standing on a stool, busied himself with the stanchions and to whistle. I took Alixe's hands and held them, and spoke her name softly, and she smiled up at me with so perfect a grace that I thought there never was aught like it in the world.
She was the first to break the good spell. I placed a seat for her, and sat down by her. She held out her fingers to the fire, and then, after a moment, she told me the story of last night's affair. First she made me tell her briefly of the events of the morning, of which she knew, but not fully. This done, she began. I will set down her story as a whole, and you must understand as you read that it was told as women tell a story, with all little graces and diversions, and those small details with which even momentous things are enveloped in their eyes. I loved her all the more because of these, and I saw, as Doltaire had said, how admirably poised was her intellect, how acute her wit, how delicate and astute a diplomatist she was becoming; and yet, through all, preserving a simplicity of character almost impossible of belief. Such qualities, in her directed to good ends, in lesser women have made them infamous. Once that day Alixe said to me, breaking off as her story went on, "Oh, Robert, when I see what power I have to dissimulate--for it is that, call it by what name you will--when I see how I enjoy accomplishing against all difficulty, how I can blind even so skilled a diplomatist as Monsieur Doltaire, I almost tremble. I see how, if God had not given me something here"--she placed her hand upon her heart--"that saves me, I might be like Madame Cournal, and far worse, far worse than she. For I love power--I do love it; I can see that!"
She did not realize that it was her strict honesty with herself that was her true safeguard.
But here is the story she told me:
"When I left you, last night, I went at once to my home, and was glad to get in without being seen. At nine o'clock we were to be at the Chateau, and while my sister Georgette was helping me with my toilette--oh, how I wished she would go and leave me quite alone!--my head was in a whirl, and now and then I could feel my heart draw and shake like a half-choked pump, and there was a strange pain behind my eyes. Georgette is of such a warm disposition, so kind always to me, whom she would yield to in everything, so simple in her affections, that I seemed standing there by her like an intrigante, as one who had got wisdom at the price of a good something lost. But do not think, Robert, that for one instant I was sorry I played a part, and have done so for a long year and more. I would do it and more again, if it were for you.
"Georgette could not understand why it was I stopped all at once and caught her head to my breast, as she sat by me where I stood arranging my gown. I do not know quite why I did it, but perhaps it was from my yearning that never should she have a lover in such sorrow and danger as mine, and that never should she have to learn to mask her heart as I have done. Ah, sometimes I fear, Robert, that when all is over, and you are free, and you see what the world and all this playing at hide-and-seek have made me, you will feel that such as Georgette, who have never looked inside the hearts of wicked people, and read the tales therein for knowledge to defeat wickedness--that such as she were better fitted for your life and love. No, no, please do not take my hand--not till you have heard all I am going to tell."
She continued quietly; yet her eye flashed out now and then, and now and then, also, something in her thoughts as to how she, a weak, powerless girl, had got her ends against astute evil men, sent a little laugh to her lips; for she had by nature as merry a heart as serious.
"At nine o'clock we came to the Chateau St. Louis from Ste. Anne Street, where our winter home is--yet how much do I prefer the Manor House! There were not many guests to supper, and Monsieur Doltaire was not among them. I affected a genial surprise, and asked the Governor if one of the two vacant chairs at the table was for monsieur; and looking a little as though he would reprove me--for he does not like to think of me as interested in monsieur--he said it was, but that monsieur was somewhere out of town, and there was no surety that he would come. The other chair was for the Chevalier de la Darante, one of the oldest and best of our nobility, who pretends great roughness and barbarism, but is a kind and honourable gentleman, though odd. He was one of your judges, Robert; and though he condemned you, he said that you had some reason on your side. And I will show you how he stood for you last night.
"I need not tell you how the supper passed, while I was planning--planning to reach the Governor if monsieur did not come; and if he did come, how to play my part so he should suspect nothing but a vain girl's caprice, and maybe heartlessness. Moment after moment went by, and he came not. I almost despaired. Presently the Chevalier de la Darante entered, and he took the vacant chair beside me. I was glad of this. I had gone in upon the arm of a rusty gentleman of the Court, who is over here to get his health again, and does it by gaming and drinking at the Chateau Bigot. The Chevalier began at once to talk to me, and he spoke of you, saying that he had heard of your duel with my brother, and that formerly you had been much a guest at our house. I answered him with what carefulness I could, and brought round the question of your death, by hint and allusion getting him to speak of the mode of execution.
"Upon this point he spoke his mind strongly, saying that it was a case where the penalty should be the musket, not the rope. It was no subject for the supper table, and the Governor felt this, and I feared he would show displeasure; but other gentlemen took up the matter, and he could not easily change the talk at the moment. The feeling was strong against you. My father stayed silent, but I could see he watched the effect upon the Governor. I knew that he himself had tried to get the mode of execution changed, but the Governor had been immovable. The Chevalier spoke most strongly, for he is afraid of no one, and he gave the other gentlemen raps upon the knuckles.
"'I swear,' he said at last, 'I am sorry now I gave in to his death at all, for it seems to me that there is much cruelty and hatred behind the case against him. He seemed to me a gentleman of force and fearlessness, and what he said had weight. Why was the gentleman not exchanged long ago? He was here three years before he was tried on this charge. Ay, there's the point. Other prisoners were exchanged--why not he? If the gentleman is not given a decent death, after these years of captivity, I swear I will not leave Kamaraska again to set foot in Quebec.'
"At that the Governor gravely said, 'These are matters for our Council, dear Chevalier.' To this the Chevalier replied, 'I meant no reflection on your Excellency, but you are good enough to let the opinions of gentlemen not so wise as you weigh with you in your efforts to be just; and I have ever held that one wise autocrat was worth a score of juries.' There was an instant's pause, and then my father said quietly, 'If his Excellency had always councillors and colleagues like the Chevalier de la Darante, his path would be easier, and Canada happier and richer.' This settled the matter, for the Governor, looking at them both for a moment, suddenly said, 'Gentlemen, you shall have your way, and I thank you for your confidence.--If the ladies will pardon a sort of council of state here!' he added. The Governor called a servant, and ordered pen, ink, and paper; and there before us all he wrote an order to Gabord, your jailer, to be delivered before midnight.
"He had begun to read it aloud to us, when the curtains of the entrance-door parted, and Monsieur Doltaire stepped inside. The Governor did not hear him, and monsieur stood for a moment listening. When the reading was finished, he gave a dry little laugh, and came down to the Governor, apologizing for his lateness, and bowing to the rest of us. He did not look at me at all, but once he glanced keenly at my father, and I felt sure that he had heard my father's words to the Governor.
"'Have the ladies been made councillors?' he asked lightly, and took his seat, which was opposite to mine. 'Have they all conspired to give a criminal one less episode in his life for which to blush? ... May I not join the conspiracy?' he added, glancing round, and lifting a glass of wine. Not even yet had he looked at me. Then he waved his glass the circuit of the table, and said, 'I drink to the councillors and applaud the conspirators,' and as he raised his glass to his lips his eyes came abruptly to mine and stayed, and he bowed profoundly and with an air of suggestion. He drank, still looking, and then turned again to the Governor. I felt my heart stand still. Did he suspect my love for you, Robert? Had he discovered something? Was Gabord a traitor to us? Had I been watched, detected? I could have shrieked at the suspense. I was like one suddenly faced with a dreadful accusation, with which was a great fear. But I held myself still--oh, so still, so still--and as in a dream I heard the Governor say pleasantly, 'I would I had such conspirators always by me. I am sure you would wish them to take more responsibility than you will now assume in Canada.' Doltaire bowed and smiled, and the Governor went on: 'I am sure you will approve of Captain Moray being shot instead of hanged. But indeed it has been my good friend the Chevalier here who has given me the best council I have held in many a day.'
"To this Monsieur Doltaire replied: 'A council unknown to statute, but approved of those who stand for etiquette with ones foe's at any cost. For myself, it is so unpleasant to think of the rope'" (here Alixe hid her face in her hands for a moment) "'that I should eat no breakfast to-morrow, if the gentleman from Virginia were to hang.' It was impossible to tell from his tone what was in his mind, and I dared not think of his failure to interfere as he had promised me. As yet he had done nothing, I could see, and in eight or nine hours more you were to die. He did not look at me again for some time, but talked to my mother and my father and the Chevalier, commenting on affairs in France and the war between our countries, but saying nothing of where he had been during the past week. He seemed paler and thinner than when I last saw him, and I felt that something had happened to him. You shall hear soon what it was.
"At last he turned from the Chevalier to me, and, said, 'When did you hear from your brother, mademoiselle?' I told him; and he added, 'I have had a letter since, and after supper, if you will permit me, I will tell you of it.' Turning to my father and my mother, he assured them of Juste's well-being, and afterwards engaged in talk with the Governor, to whom he seemed to defer. When we all rose to go to the salon, he offered my mother his arm, and I went in upon the arm of the good Chevalier. A few moments afterwards he came to me, and remarked cheerfully, 'In this farther corner where the spinet sounds most we can talk best'; and we went near to the spinet, where Madame Lotbiniere was playing. 'It is true,' he began, 'that I have had a letter from your brother. He begs me to use influence for his advancement. You see he writes to me instead of to the Governor. You can guess how I stand in France. Well, we shall see what I may do.... Have you not wondered concerning me this week?' he asked. I said to him, 'I scarce expected you till after to-morrow, when you would plead some accident as cause for not fulfilling your pretty little boast.' He looked at me sharply for a minute, and then said: 'A pretty little boast, is it? H'm! you touch great things with light fingers.' I nodded. 'Yes,' said I, 'when I have no great faith.' 'You have marvellous coldness for a girl that promised warmth in her youth,' he answered. 'Even I, who am old in these matters, can not think of this Moray's death without a twinge, for it is not like an affair of battle; but you seem to think of it in its relation to my "little boast," as you call it. Is it not so?'
"'No, no,' said I, with apparent indignation, 'you must not make me out so cruel. I am not so hard-hearted as you think. My brother is well--I have no feeling against Captain Moray on his account; and as for spying--well, it is only a painful epithet for what is done here and everywhere all the time.' 'Dear me, dear me,' he remarked lightly, 'what a mind you have for argument!--a born casuist; and yet, like all women, you would let your sympathy rule you in matters of state. But come,' he added, 'where do you think I have been?' It was hard to answer him gaily, and yet it must be done, and so I said, 'You have probably put yourself in prison, that you should not keep your tiny boast.' 'I have been in prison,' he answered, 'and I was on the wrong side, with no key--even locked in a chest-room of the Intendance,' he explained, 'but as yet I do not know by whom, nor am I sure why. After two days without food or drink, I managed to get out through the barred window. I spent three days in my room, ill, and here I am. You must not speak of this--you will not?' he asked me. 'To no one,' I answered gaily, 'but my other self.' 'Where is your other self?' he asked. 'In here,' said I, touching my bosom. I did not mean to turn my head away when I said it, but indeed I felt I could not look him in the eyes at the moment, for I was thinking of you.
"He mistook me; he thought I was coquetting with him, and he leaned forward to speak in my ear, so that I could feel his breath on my cheek. I turned faint, for I saw how terrible was this game I was playing; but oh, Robert, Robert,"--her hands fluttered towards me, then drew back--"it was for your sake, for your sake, that I let his hand rest on mine an instant, as he said: 'I shall go hunting there to find your other self. Shall I know the face if I see it?' I drew my hand away, for it was torture to me, and I hated him, but I only said a little scornfully, 'You do not stand by your words. You said'--here I laughed a little disdainfully--'that you would meet the first test to prove your right to follow the second boast.'
"He got to his feet, and said in a low, firm voice: 'Your memory is excellent, your aplomb perfect. You are young to know it all so well. But you bring your own punishment,' he added, with a wicked smile, 'and you shall pay hereafter. I am going to the Governor. Bigot has arrived, and is with Madame Cournal yonder. You shall have proof in half an hour.'
"Then he left me. An idea occurred to me. If he succeeded in staying your execution, you would in all likelihood be placed in the common jail. I would try to get an order from the Governor to visit the jail to distribute gifts to the prisoners, as my mother and I had done before on the day before Christmas. So, while Monsieur Doltaire was passing with Bigot and the Chevalier de la Darante into another room, I asked the Governor; and that very moment, at my wish, he had his secretary write the order, which he countersigned and handed me, with a gift of gold for the prisoners. As he left my mother and myself, Monsieur Doltaire came back with Bigot, and, approaching the Governor, they led him away, engaging at once in serious talk. One thing I noticed: as monsieur and Bigot came up, I could see monsieur eying the Intendant askance, as though he would read treachery; for I feel sure that it was Bigot who contrived to have monsieur shut up in the chest-room. I can not quite guess the reason, unless it be true what gossips say, that Bigot is jealous of the notice Madame Cournal has given Doltaire, who visits much at her house.
"Well, they asked me to sing, and so I did; and can you guess what it was? Even the voyageurs' song,--
'Brothers, we go to the Scarlet Hills, (Little gold sun, come out of the dawn!)'
I know not how I sang it, for my heart, my thoughts, were far away in a whirl of clouds and mist, as you may see a flock of wild ducks in the haze upon a river, flying they know not whither, save that they follow the sound of the stream. I was just ending the song when Monsieur Doltaire leaned over me, and said in my ear, 'To-morrow I shall invite Captain Moray from the scaffold to my breakfast-table--or, better still, invite myself to his own.' His hand caught mine, as I gave a little cry; for when I felt sure of your reprieve, I could not, Robert, I could not keep it back. He thought I was startled at his hand-pressure, and did not guess the real cause.
"'I have met one challenge, and I shall meet the other,' he said quickly. 'It is not so much a matter of power, either; it is that engine opportunity. You and I should go far in this wicked world,' he added. 'We think together, we see through ladders. I admire you, mademoiselle. Some men will say they love you; and they should, or they have no taste; and the more they love you, the better pleased am I--if you are best pleased with me. But it is possible for men to love and not to admire. It is a foolish thing to say that reverence must go with love. I know men who have lost their heads and their souls for women whom they knew infamous. But when one admires where one loves, then in the ebb and flow of passion the heart is safe, for admiration holds when the sense is cold.'
"You know well, Robert, how clever he is; how, listening to him, you must admit his talent and his power. But oh, believe that, though I am full of wonder at his cleverness, I can not bear him very near me."
She paused. I looked most gravely at her, as well one might who saw so sweet a maid employing her heart thus, and the danger that faced her. She misread my look a little, maybe, for she said at once:
"I must be honest with you, and so I tell you all--all, else the part I play were not possible to me. To you I can speak plainly, pour out my soul. Do not fear for me. I see a battle coming between that man and me, but I shall fight it stoutly, worthily, so that in this, at least, I shall never have to blush for you that you loved me. Be patient, Robert, and never doubt me; for that would make me close the doors of my heart, though I should never cease to aid you, never weary in labor for your well-being. If these things, and fighting all these wicked men, to make Doltaire help me to save you, have schooled to action some worse parts of me, there is yet in me that which shall never be brought low, never be dragged to the level of Versailles or the Chateau Bigot--never!"
She looked at me with such dignity and pride that my eyes filled with tears, and, not to be stayed, I reached out and took her hands, and would have clasped her to my breast, but she held back from me.
"You believe in me, Robert?" she said most earnestly. "You will never doubt me? You know that I am true and loyal."
"I believe in God, and you," I answered reverently, and I took her in my arms and kissed her. I did not care at all whether or no Gabord saw; but indeed he did not, as Alixe told me afterwards, for, womanlike, even in this sweet crisis she had an eye for such details.
"What more did he say?" I asked, my heart beating hard in the joy of that embrace.
"No more, or little more, for my mother came that instant and brought me to talk with the Chevalier de la Darante, who wished to ask me for next summer to Kamaraska or Isle aux Coudres, where he has manorhouses. Before I left Monsieur Doltaire, he said, 'I never made a promise but I wished to break it. This one shall balance all I've broken, for I'll never unwish it.'
"My mother heard this, and so I summoned all my will, and said gaily, 'Poor broken crockery! You stand a tower among the ruins.' This pleased him, and he answered, 'On the tower base is written, This crockery outserves all others.' My mother looked sharply at me, but said nothing, for she has come to think that I am heartless and cold to men and to the world, selfish in many things."
At this moment Gabord turned round, saying, "'Tis time to be done. Madame comes."
"It is my mother," said Alixe, standing up, and hastily placing her hands in mine. "I must be gone. Good-bye, good-bye."
There was no chance for further adieu, and I saw her pass out with Gabord; but she turned at the last, and said in English, for she spoke it fairly now, "Believe, and remember."