Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XV. In the Chamber of Torture
I started from my seat; we bowed, and, stretching out a hand to the fire, Doltaire said, "Ah, my Captain, we meet too seldom. Let me see: five months--ah yes, nearly five months. Believe me, I have not breakfasted so heartily since. You are looking older--older. Solitude to the active mind is not to be endured alone--no."
"Monsieur Doltaire is the surgeon to my solitude," said I.
"H'm!" he answered, "a jail surgeon merely. And that brings me to a point, monsieur. I have had letters from France. The Grande Marquise--I may as well be frank with you--womanlike, yearns violently for those silly letters which you hold. She would sell our France for them. There is a chance for you who would serve your country so. Serve it, and yourself--and me. We have no news yet as to your doom, but be sure it is certain. La Pompadour knows all, and if you are stubborn, twenty deaths were too few. I can save you little longer, even were it my will so to do. For myself, the great lady girds at me for being so poor an agent. You, monsieur"--he smiled whimsically--"will agree that I have been persistent--and intelligent."
"So much so," rejoined I, "as to be intrusive."
He smiled again. "If La Pompadour could hear you, she would understand why I prefer the live amusing lion to the dead dog. When you are gone, I shall be inconsolable. I am a born inquisitor."
"You were born for better things than this," I answered.
He took a seat and mused for a moment. "For larger things, you mean," was his reply. "Perhaps--perhaps. I have one gift of the strong man--I am inexorable when I make for my end. As a general, I would pour men into the maw of death as corn into the hopper, if that would build a bridge to my end. You call to mind how those Spaniards conquered the Mexique city which was all canals like Venice? They filled the waterways with shattered houses and the bodies of their enemies, as they fought their way to Montezuma's palace. So I would know not pity if I had a great cause. In anything vital I would have success at all cost, and to get, destroy as I went--if I were a great man."
I thought for a moment with horror of his pursuit of my dear Alixe. "I am your hunter," had been his words to her, and I knew not what had happened in all these months.
"If you were a great man, you should have the best prerogative of greatness," I remarked quietly.
"And what is that? Some excellent moral, I doubt not," was the rejoinder.
"Mercy," I replied.
"Tush!" he retorted, "mercy is for the fireside, not for the throne. In great causes, what is a screw of tyranny here, a bolt of oppression there, or a few thousand lives!" He suddenly got to his feet, and, looking into the distance, made a swift motion of his hand, his eyes half closed, his brows brooding and firm. "I should look beyond the moment, the year, or the generation. Why fret because the hour of death comes sooner than we looked for? In the movement of the ponderous car, some honest folk must be crushed by the wicked wheels. No, no, in large affairs there must be no thought of the detail of misery, else what should be done in the world! He who is the strongest shall survive, and he alone. It is all conflict--all. For when conflict ceases, and those who could and should be great spend their time chasing butterflies among the fountains, there comes miasma and their doom. Mercy? Mercy? No, no: for none but the poor and sick and overridden, in time of peace; in time of war, mercy for none, pity nowhere, till the joybells ring the great man home."
"But mercy to women always," said I, "in war or peace."
He withdrew his eyes as if from a distant prospect, and they dropped to the stove, where I had corn parching. He nodded, as if amused, but did not answer at once, and taking from my hand the feather with which I stirred the corn, softly whisked some off for himself, and smiled at the remaining kernels as they danced upon the hot iron. After a little while he said, "Women? Women should have all that men can give them. Beautiful things should adorn them; no man should set his hand in cruelty on a woman--after she is his. Before--before? Woman is wilful, and sometimes we wring her heart that we may afterwards comfort it."
"Your views have somewhat changed," I answered. "I mind when you talked less sweetly."
He shrugged a shoulder. "That man is lost who keeps one mind concerning woman. I will trust the chastity of no woman, yet I will trust her virtue--if I have her heart. They a foolish tribe, and all are vulnerable in their vanity. They of consequence to man, of no consequence in state matters. When they meddle there, we have La Pompadour and war with England, and Captain Moray in the Bastile of New France."
"You come from a court, monsieur, which believes in nothing, not even in itself."
"I come from a court," he rejoined, "which has made a gospel of artifice, of frivolity a creed; buying the toys for folly with the savings of the poor. His most Christian Majesty has set the fashion of continual silliness and universal love. He begets children in the peasant's oven and in the chamber of Charlemagne alike. And we are all good subjects of the King. We are brilliant, exquisite, brave, and naughty; and for us there is no to-morrow."
"Nor for France," I suggested.
He laughed, as he rolled a kernel of parched corn on his tongue. "Tut, tut! that is another thing. We the fashion of an hour, but France is a fact as stubborn as the natures of you English; for beyond stubbornness and your Shakespeare you have little. Down among the moles, in the peasants' huts, the spirit of France never changes--it is always the same; it is for all time. You English, nor all others, you can not blow out that candle which is the spirit of France. I remember of the Abbe Bobon preaching once upon the words, 'The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord'; well, the spirit of France is the candle of Europe, and you English will be its screen against the blowing out, though in spasms of stupidity you flaunt the extinguisher. You--you have no imagination, no passion, no temperament, no poetry. Yet I am wrong. The one thing you have--"
He broke off, nodding his head in amusement. "Yes, you have, but it is a secret. You English are the true lovers, we French the true poets; and I will tell you why. You are a race of comrades, the French of gentlemen; you cleave to a thing, we to an idea; you love a woman best when she is near, we when she is away; you make a romance of marriage, we of intrigue; you feed upon yourselves, we upon the world; you have fever in your blood, we in our brains; you believe the world was made in seven days, we have no God; you would fight for the seven days, we would fight for the danseuse on a bonbon box. The world will say 'fie!' at us and love us; it will respect you and hate you. That is the law and the gospel," he added, smiling.
"Perfect respect casteth out love" said I ironically.
He waved his fingers in approval. "By the Lord, but you are pungent now and then!" he answered; "cabined here you are less material. By the time you are chastened unto heaven you will be too companionable to lose."
"When is that hour of completed chastening?" I asked.
"Never," he said, "if you will oblige me with those letters."
"For a man of genius you discern but slowly," retorted I.
"Discern your amazing stubbornness?" he asked. "Why should you play at martyr, when your talent is commercial? You have no gifts for martyrdom but wooden tenacity. Pshaw! the leech has that. You mistake your calling."
"And you yours," I answered. "This is a poor game you play, and losing it you lose all. La Pompadour will pay according to the goods you bring."
He answered with an amusing candour: "Why, yes, you are partly in the right. But when La Pompadour and I come to our final reckoning, when it is a question who can topple ruins round the King quickest, his mistress or his 'cousin,' there will be tales to tell."
He got up, and walked to and fro in the cell, musing, and his face grew dark and darker. "Your Monmouth was a fool," he said. "He struck from the boundaries; the blow should fall in the very chambers of the King." He put a finger musingly upon his lip. "I see--I see how it could be done. Full of danger, but brilliant, brilliant and bold! Yes, yes...yes!" Then all at once he seemed to come out of a dream, and laughed ironically. "There it is," he said; "there is my case. I have the idea, but I will not strike; it is not worth the doing unless I am driven to it. We are brave enough, we idlers," he went on; "we die with an air--all artifice, artifice! ... Yet of late I have had dreams. Now that is not well. It is foolish to dream, and I had long since ceased to do so. But somehow all the mad fancies of my youth come back. This dream will go, it will not last; it is--my fate, my doom," he added lightly, "or what you will!"
I knew, alas, too well where his thoughts were hanging, and I loathed him anew; for, as he hinted, his was a passion, not a deep abiding love. His will was not stronger than the general turpitude of his nature. As if he had divined my thought, he said, "My will is stronger than any passion that I have; I can never plead weakness in the day of my judgment. I am deliberate. When I choose evil it is because I love it. I could be an anchorite; I am, as I said--what you will."
"You are a conscienceless villain, monsieur."
"Who salves not his soul," he added, with a dry smile, "who will play his game out as he began; who repents nor ever will repent of anything; who for him and you some interesting moments yet. Let me make one now," and he drew from his pocket a packet. He smiled hatefully as he handed it to me, and said, "Some books which monsieur once lent Mademoiselle Duvarney--poems, I believe. Mademoiselle found them yesterday, and desired me to fetch them to you; and I obliged her. I had the pleasure of glancing through the books before she rolled them up. She bade me say that monsieur might find them useful in his captivity. She has a tender heart--even to the worst of criminals."
I felt a strange churning in my throat, but with composure I took the books, and said, "Mademoiselle Duvarney chooses distinguished messengers."
"It is a distinction to aid her in her charities," he replied.
I could not at all conceive what was meant. The packet hung in my hands like lead. There was a mystery I could not solve. I would not for an instant think what he meant to convey by a look--that her choice of him to carry back my gift to her was a final repulse of past advances I had made to her, a corrective to my romantic memories. I would not believe that, not for one fleeting second. Perhaps, I said to myself, it was a ruse of this scoundrel. But again, I put that from me, for I did not think he would stoop to little meannesses, no matter how vile he was in great things. I assumed indifference to the matter, laying the packet down upon my couch, and saying to him, "You will convey my thanks to Mademoiselle Duvarney for these books, whose chief value lies in the honourable housing they have had."
He smiled provokingly; no doubt he was thinking that my studied compliment smelt of the oil of solitude. "And add--shall I--your compliments that they should have their airing at the hands of Monsieur Doltaire?"
"I shall pay those compliments to Monsieur Doltaire himself one day," I replied.
He waved his fingers. "The sentiments of one of the poems were commendable, fanciful. I remember it"--he put a finger to his lip--"let me see." He stepped towards the packet, but I made a sign of interference--how grateful was I of this afterwards!--and he drew back courteously. "Ah well," he said, "I have a fair memory; I can, I think, recall the morsel. It impressed me. I could not think the author an Englishman. It runs thus," and with admirable grace he recited the words:
"O flower of all the world, O flower of all! The garden where thou dwellest is so fair, Thou art so goodly and so queenly tall, Thy sweetness scatters sweetness everywhere, O flower of all! "O flower of all the years, O flower of all! A day beside thee is a day of days; Thy voice is softer than the throstle's call, There is not song enough to sing thy praise, O flower of all! "O flower of all the years, O flower of all! I seek thee in thy garden, and I dare To love thee; and though my deserts be small, Thou art the only flower I would wear, O flower of all!"
"Now that," he said, "is the romantic, almost the Arcadian spirit. We have lost it, but it lingers like some rare scent in the folds of lace. It is also but artifice, yet so is the lingering perfume. When it hung in the flower it was lost after a day's life, but when gathered and distilled into an essence it becomes, through artifice, an abiding sweetness. So with your song there. It is the spirit of devotion, gathered, it may be, from a thousand flowers, and made into an essence, which is offered to one only. It is not the worship of this one, but the worship of a thousand distilled at last to one delicate liturgy. So much for sentiment," he continued. "Upon my soul, Captain Moray, you are a boon. I love to have you caged. I shall watch your distressed career to its close with deep scrutiny. You and I are wholly different, but you are interesting. You never could be great. Pardon the egotism, but it is truth. Your brain works heavily, you are too tenacious of your conscience, you are a blunderer. You will always sow, and others will reap."
I waved my hand in deprecation, for I was in no mood for further talk, and I made no answer. He smiled at me, and said, "Well, since you doubt my theories, let us come, as your Shakespeare says, to Hecuba.... If you will come with me," he added, as he opened my cell door, and motioned me courteously to go outside. I drew back, and he said, "There is no need to hesitate; I go to show you merely what will interest you."
We passed in silence through the corridors, two sentinels attending, and at last came into a large square room, wherein stood three men with hands tied over their heads against the wall, their faces twitching with pain. I drew back in astonishment, for there, standing before them, were Gabord and another soldier. Doltaire ordered from the room the soldier with Gabord, and my two sentinels, and motioned me to one of two chairs set in the middle of the floor.
Presently his face became hard and cruel, and he said to the tortured prisoners, "You will need to speak the truth, and promptly. I have an order to do with you what I will, and I will do it without pause. Hear me. Three nights ago, as Mademoiselle Duvarney was returning from the house of a friend living near the Intendance, she was set upon by you. A cloak was thrown over her head, she was carried to a carriage, where two of you got inside with her. Some gentlemen and myself were coming that way. We heard the lady's cries, and two gave chase to the carriage, while one followed the others. By the help of soldier Gabord here you all were captured. You have hung where you are for two days, and now I shall have you whipped. When that is done, you shall tell your story. If you do not speak truth, you shall be whipped again, and then hung. Ladies shall have safety from rogues like you."
Alixe's danger told in these concise words made me, I am sure, turn pale; but Doltaire did not see it, he was engaged with the prisoners. As I thought and wondered, four soldiers were brought in, and the men were made ready for the lash. In vain they pleaded they would tell their story at once. Doltaire would not listen; the whipping first, and their story after. Soon their backs were bared, their faces were turned to the wall, and, as Gabord with harsh voice counted, the lashes were mercilessly laid on. There was a horrible fascination in watching the skin corrugate under the lashes, rippling away in red and purple blotches, the grooves in the flesh crossing and recrossing, the raw misery spreading from the hips to the shoulders. Now and again Doltaire drew out a box and took a pinch of snuff, and once, coolly and curiously, he walked up to the most stalwart prisoner and felt his pulse, then to the weakest, whose limbs and body had stiffened as though dead. "Ninety-seven! Ninety-eight! Ninety-nine!" growled Gabord, and then came Doltaire's voice:
"Stop! Now fetch some brandy."
The prisoners were loosened, and Doltaire spoke sharply to a soldier who was roughly pulling one man's shirt over the excoriated back. Brandy was given by Gabord, and the prisoners stood, a most pitiful sight, the weakest livid.
"Now tell your story," said Doltaire to this last.
The man, with broken voice and breath catching, said that they had erred. They had been hired to kidnap Madame Cournal, not Mademoiselle Duvarney.
Doltaire's eyes flashed. "I see, I see," he said aside to me. "The wretch speaks truth."
"Who was your master?" he asked of the sturdiest of the villains; and he was told that Monsieur Cournal had engaged them. To the question what was to be done with Madame Cournal, another answered that she was to be waylaid as she was coming from the Intendance, kidnapped, and hurried to a nunnery to be imprisoned for life.
Doltaire sat for a moment, looking at the men in silence. "You are not to hang," he said at last; "but ten days hence, when you have had one hundred lashes more, you shall go free. Fifty for you," he continued to the weakest who had first told the story.
"Not fifty nor one!" was the shrill reply, and, being unbound, the prisoner snatched something from a bench near; there was a flash of steel, and he came huddling in a heap on the floor, muttering a malediction on the world.
"There was some bravery in that," said Doltaire, looking at the dead man. "If he has friends, hand over the body to them. This matter must not be spoken of--at your peril," he added sternly. "Give them food and brandy."
Then he accompanied me to my cell, and opened the door. I passed in, and he was about going without a word, when on a sudden his old nonchalance came back, and he said:
"I promised you a matter of interest. You have had it. Gather philosophy from this: you may with impunity buy anything from a knave and fool except his nuptial bed. He throws the money in your face some day."
So saying he plunged in thought again, and left me.