Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XVI. Be Saint or Imp
Immediately I opened the packet. As Doltaire had said, the two books of poems I had lent Alixe were there, and between the pages of one lay a letter addressed to me. It was, indeed, a daring thing to make Doltaire her messenger. But she trusted to his habits of courtesy; he had no small meannesses--he was no spy or thief.
DEAR ROBERT (the letter ran): I know not if this will ever reach you, for I am about to try a perilous thing, even to make Monsieur Doltaire my letter-carrier. Bold as it is, I hope to bring it through safely.
You must know that my mother now makes Monsieur Doltaire welcome to our home, for his great talents and persuasion have so worked upon her that she believes him not so black as he is painted. My father, too, is not unmoved by his amazing address and complaisance. I do not think he often cares to use his arts--he is too indolent; but with my father, my mother, and my sister he has set in motion all his resources.
Robert, all Versailles is here. This Monsieur Doltaire speaks for it. I know not if all courts in the world are the same, but if so, I am at heart no courtier; though I love the sparkle, the sharp play of wit and word, the very touch-and-go of weapons. I am in love with life, and I wish to live to be old, very old, that I will have known it all, from helplessness to helplessness again, missing nothing, even though much be sad to feel and bear. Robert, I should have gone on many years, seeing little, knowing little, I think, if it had not been for you and for your troubles, which are mine, and for this love of ours, builded in the midst of sorrows. Georgette is now as old as when I first came to love you, and you were thrown into the citadel, and yet in feeling and experience, I am ten years older than she; and necessity has made me wiser. Ah, if necessity would but make me happy too, by giving you your liberty, that on these many miseries endured we might set up a sure home. I wonder if you think--if you think of that: a little home away from all these wars, aloof from vexing things.
But there! all too plainly I am showing you my heart. Yet it is so great a comfort to speak on paper to you, in this silence here. Can you guess where is that here, Robert? It is not the Chateau St. Louis--no. It is not the Manor. It is the chateau, dear Chateau Alixe--my father has called it that--on the Island of Orleans. Three days ago I was sick at heart, tired of all the junketings and feastings, and I begged my mother to fetch me here, though it is yet but early spring, and snow is on the ground.
First, you must know that this new chateau is built upon, and is joined to, the ruins of an old one, owned long years ago by the Baron of Beaugard, whose strange history you must learn some day, out of the papers we have found here. I begged my father not to tear the old portions of the manor down, but, using the first foundations, put up a house half castle and half manor. Pictures of the old manor were found, and so we have a place that is no patchwork, but a renewal. I made my father give me the old surviving part of the building for my own, and so it is.
It is all set on high ground abutting on the water almost at the point where I am, and I have the river in my sight all day. Now, think yourself in the new building. You come out of a dining-hall, hung all about with horns and weapons and shields and such bravery, go through a dark, narrow passage, and then down a step or two. You open a door, bright light breaks on your eyes, then two steps lower, and you are here with me. You might have gone outside the dining-hall upon a stone terrace, and so have come along to the deep window where I sit so often. You may think of me hiding in the curtains, watching you, though you knew it not till you touched the window and I came out quietly, startling you, so that your heart would beat beyond counting.
As I look up towards the window, the thing first in sight is the cage, with the little bird which came to me in the cathedral the morning my brother got lease of life again: you do remember--is it not so? It never goes from my room, and though I have come here but for a week I muffled the cage well and brought it over; and there the bird swings and sings the long day through. I have heaped the window-seats with soft furs, and one of these I prize most rarely. It was a gift--and whose, think you? Even a poor soldier's. You see I have not all friends among the great folk. I often lie upon that soft robe of sable--ay, sable, Master Robert--and think of him who gave it to me. Now I know you are jealous, and I can see your eyes flash up. But you shall at once be soothed. It is no other than Gabord's gift. He is now of the Governor's body-guard, and I think is by no means happy, and would prefer service with the Marquis de Montcalm, who goes not comfortably with the Intendant and the Governor.
One day Gabord came to our house on the ramparts, and, asking for me, blundered out, "Aho, what shall a soldier do with sables? They are for gentles and for wrens to snuggle in. Here comes a Russian count oversea, and goes mad in tavern. Here comes Gabord, and saves count from ruddy crest for kissing the wrong wench. Then count falls on Gabord's neck, and kisses both his ears, and gives him sables, and crosses oversea again; and so good-bye to count and his foolery. And sables shall be ma'm'selle's, if she will have them." He might have sold the thing for many louis, and yet he brought it to me; and he would not go till he had seen me sitting on it, muffling my hands and face in the soft fur.
Just now, as I am writing, I glance at the table where I sit--a small brown table of oak, carved with the name of Felise, Baroness of Beaugard. She sat here; and some day, when you hear her story, you will know why I begged Madame Lotbiniere to give it to me in exchange for another, once the King's. Carved, too, beneath her name, are the words, "Oh, tarry thou the Lord's leisure."
And now you shall laugh with me at a droll thing Georgette has given me to wipe my pen upon. There are three little circles of deerskin and one of ruby velvet, stitched together in the centre. Then, standing on the velvet is a yellow wooden chick, with little eyes of beads, and a little wooden bill stuck in most quaintly, and a head that twists like a weathercock. It has such a piquant silliness of look that I laugh at it most heartily, and I have an almost elfish fun in smearing its downy feathers. I am sure you did not think I could be amused so easily. You shall see this silly chick one day, humorously ugly and all daubed with ink.
There is a low couch in one corner of the room, and just above hangs a picture of my mother. In another corner is a little shelf of books, among them two which I have studied constantly since you were put in prison--your great Shakespeare, and the writings of one Mr. Addison. I had few means of studying at first, so difficult it seemed, and all the words sounded hard; but there is your countryman, one Lieutenant Stevens of Rogers' Rangers, a prisoner, and he has helped me, and is ready to help you when the time comes for stirring. I teach him French; and though I do not talk of you, he tells me in what esteem you are held in Virginia and in England, and is not slow to praise you on his own account, which makes me more forgiving when he would come to sentiment!
In another corner is my spinning-wheel, and there stands a harpsichord, just where the soft sun sends in a ribbon of light; and I will presently play for you a pretty song. I wonder if you can hear it? Where I shall sit at the harpsichord the belt of sunlight will fall across my shoulder, and, looking through the window, I shall see your prison there on the Heights; the silver flag with its gold lilies on the Chateau St. Louis; the great guns of the citadel; and far off at Beauport the Manor House and garden which you and I know so well, and the Falls of Montmorenci, falling like white flowing hair from the tall cliff.
You will care to know of how these months have been spent, and what news of note there is of the fighting between our countries. No matters of great consequence have come to our ears, save that it is thought your navy may descend on Louisburg; that Ticonderoga is also to be set upon, and Quebec to be besieged in the coming summer. From France the news is various. Now, Frederick of Prussia and England defeat the allies, France, Russia, and Austria; now, they, as Monsieur Doltaire says, "send the great Prussian to verses and the megrims." For my own part, I am ever glad to hear that our cause is victorious, and letters that my brother writes me rouse all my ardour for my country. Juste has grown in place and favour, and in his latest letter he says that Monsieur Doltaire's voice has got him much advancement. He also remarks that Monsieur Doltaire has reputation for being one of the most reckless, clever, and cynical men in France. Things that he has said are quoted at ball and rout. Yet the King is angry with him, and La Pompadour's caprice may send him again to the Bastile. These things Juste heard from D'Argenson, Minister of War, through his secretary, with whom he is friendly.
I will now do what I never thought to do: I will send you here some extracts from my journal, which will disclose to you the secrets of a girl's troubled heart. Some folk might say that I am unmaidenly in this. But I care not, I fear not.
December 24. I was with Robert to-day. I let him see what trials I had had with Monsieur Doltaire, and what were like to come. It hurt me to tell him, yet it would have hurt me more to withhold them. I am hurt whichever way it goes. Monsieur Doltaire rouses the worst parts of me. On the one hand I detest him for his hatred of Robert and for his evil life, yet on the other I must needs admire him for his many graces--why are not the graces of the wicked horrible?--for his singular abilities, and because, gamester though he may be, he is no public robber. Then, too, the melancholy of his birth and history claims some sympathy. Sometimes when I listen to him speak, hear the almost piquant sadness of his words, watch the spirit of isolation which, by design or otherwise, shows in him, for the moment I am conscious of a pity or an interest which I flout in wiser hours. This is his art, the potent danger of his personality.
To-night he came, and with many fine phrases wished us a happy day to-morrow, and most deftly worked upon my mother and Georgette by looking round and speaking with a quaint sort of raillery--half pensive, it was--of the peace of this home-life of ours; and indeed, he did it so inimitably that I was not sure how much was false and how much true. I tried to avoid him to-day, but my mother as constantly made private speech between us easy. At last he had his way, and then I was not sorry; for Georgette was listening to him with more colour than she is wont to wear. I would rather see her in her grave than with her hand in his, her sweet life in his power. She is unschooled in the ways of the world, and she never will know it as I now do. How am I sounding all the depths! Can a woman walk the dance with evil, and be no worse for it by-and-bye? Yet for a cause, for a cause! What can I do? I can not say, "Monsieur Doltaire, you must not speak with me, or talk with me; you are a plague-spot." No, I must even follow this path, so it but lead at last to Robert and his safety.
Monsieur, having me alone at last, said to me, "I have kept my word as to the little boast: this Captain Moray still lives."
"You are not greater than I thought," said I.
He professed to see but one meaning in my words, and answered, "It was then mere whim to see me do this thing, a lady's curious mind, eh? My faith, I think your sex are the true scientists: you try experiment for no other reason than to see effect."
"You forget my deep interest in Captain Moray," said I, with airy boldness.
He laughed. He was disarmed. How could he think I meant it! "My imagination halts," he rejoined. "Millennium comes when you are interested. And yet," he continued, "it is my one ambition to interest you, and I will do it, or I will say my prayers no more."
"But how can that be done no more, Which ne'er was done before?"
I retorted, railing at him, for I feared to take him seriously.
"There you wrong me," he said. "I am devout; I am a lover of the Scriptures--their beauty haunts me; I go to mass--its dignity affects me; and I have prayed, as in my youth I wrote verses. It is not a matter of morality, but of temperament. A man may be religious and yet be evil. Satan fell, but he believed and he admired, as the English Milton wisely shows it."
I was most glad that my father came between us at that moment; but before Monsieur left, he said to me, "You have challenged me. Beware: I have begun this chase. Yet I would rather be your follower, rather have your arrow in me, than be your hunter." He said it with a sort of warmth, which I knew was a glow in his senses merely; he was heated with his own eloquence.
"Wait," returned I. "You have heard the story of King Artus?"
He thought a moment. "No, no. I never was a child as other children. I was always comrade to the imps."
"King Artus," said I, "was most fond of hunting." (It is but a legend with its moral, as you know.) "It was forbidden by the priests to hunt while mass was being said. One day, at the lifting of the host, the King, hearing a hound bay, rushed out, and gathered his pack together; but as they went, a whirlwind caught them up into the air, where they continue to this day, following a lonely trail, never resting, and all the game they get is one fly every seventh year. And now, when all on a sudden at night you hear the trees and leaves and the sleepy birds and crickets stir, it is the old King hunting--for the fox he never gets."
Monsieur looked at me with curious intentness. "You have a great gift," he said; "you make your point by allusion. I follow you. But see: when I am blown into the air I shall not ride alone. Happiness is the fox we ride to cover, you and I, though we find but a firefly in the end."
"A poor reply," I remarked easily; "not worthy of you."
"As worthy as I am of you," he rejoined; then he kissed my hand. "I will see you at mass to-morrow."
Unconsciously, I rubbed the hand he kissed with my handkerchief.
"I am not to be provoked," he said. "It is much to have you treat my kiss with consequence."
March 25. No news of Robert all this month. Gabord has been away in Montreal. I see Voban only now and then, and he is strange in manner, and can do nothing. Mathilde is better--so still and desolate, yet not wild; but her memory is all gone, all save for that "Francois Bigot is a devil." My father has taken anew a strong dislike to Monsieur Doltaire, because of talk that is abroad concerning him and Madame Cournal. I once thought she was much sinned against, but now I am sure she is not to be defended. She is most defiant, though people dare not shut their doors against her. A change seemed to come over her all at once, and over her husband also. He is now gloomy and taciturn, now foolishly gay, yet he is little seen with the Intendant, as before. However it be, Monsieur Doltaire and Bigot are no longer intimate. What should I care for that, if Monsieur Doltaire had no power, if he were not the door between Robert and me? What care I, indeed, how vile he is, so he but serve my purpose? Let him try my heart and soul and senses as he will; I will one day purify myself of his presence and all this soiling, and find my peace in Robert's arms--or in the quiet of a nunnery.
This morning I got up at sunrise, it being the Annunciation of the Virgin, and prepared to go to mass in the chapel of the Ursulines. How peaceful was the world! So still, so still. The smoke came curling up here and there through the sweet air of spring, a snowbird tripped along the white coverlet of the earth, and before a Calvary, I saw a peasant kneel and say an Ave as he went to market. There was springtime in the sun, in the smell of the air; springtime everywhere but in my heart, which was all winter. I seemed alone--alone--alone. I felt the tears start. But that was for a moment only, I am glad to say, for I got my courage again, as I did the night before when Monsieur Doltaire placed his arm at my waist, and poured into my ears a torrent of protestations.
I did not move at first. But I could feel my cheeks go to stone, and something clamp my heart. Yet had ever man such hateful eloquence! There is that in him--oh, shame! oh, shame!--which goes far with a woman. He has the music of passion, and though it is lower than love, it is the poetry of the senses. I spoke to him calmly, I think, begging him place his merits where they would have better entertainment; but I said hard, cold things at last, when other means availed not; which presently made him turn upon me in another fashion.
His words dropped slowly, with a consummate carefulness, his manner was pointedly courteous, yet there was an underpressure of force, of will, which made me see the danger of my position. He said that I was quite right; that he would wish no privilege of a woman which was not given with a frank eagerness; that to him no woman was worth the having who did not throw her whole nature into the giving. Constancy--that was another matter. But a perfect gift while there was giving at all--that was the way.
"There is something behind all this," he said. "I am not so vain as to think any merits of mine would influence you. But my devotion, my admiration of you, the very force of my passion, should move you. Be you ever so set against me--and I do not think you are--you should not be so strong to resist the shock of feeling. I do not know the cause, but I will find it out; and when I do, I shall remove it or be myself removed." He touched my arm with his fingers. "When I touch you like that," he said, "summer riots in my veins. I will not think that this which rouses me so is but power upon one side, and effect upon the other. Something in you called me to you, something in me will wake you yet. Mon Dieu, I could wait a score of years for my touch to thrill you as yours does me! And I will--I will."
"You think it suits your honour to force my affections?" I asked; for I dared not say all I wished.
"What is there in this reflecting on my honour?" he answered. "At Versailles, believe me, they would say I strive here for a canonizing. No, no; think me so gallant that I follow you to serve you, to convince you that the way I go is the way your hopes will lie. Honour? To fetch you to the point where you and I should start together on the Appian Way, I would traffic with that, even, and say I did so, and would do so a thousand times, if in the end it put your hand in mine. Who, who can give you what I offer, can offer? See: I have given myself to a hundred women in my time--but what of me? That which was a candle in a wind, and the light went out. There was no depth, no life, in that; only the shadow of a man was there those hundred times. But here, now, the whole man plunges into this sea, and he will reach the lighthouse on the shore, or be broken on the reefs. Look in my eyes, and see the furnace there, and tell me if you think that fire is for cool corners in the gardens at Neuilly or for the Hills of--" He suddenly broke off, and a singular smile followed. "There, there," he said, "I have said enough. It came to me all at once how droll my speech would sound to our people at Versailles. It is an elaborate irony that the occasional virtues of certain men turn and mock them. That is the penalty of being inconsistent. Be saint or imp; it is the only way. But this imp that mocks me relieves you of reply. Yet I have spoken truth, and again and again I will tell it you, till you believe according to my gospel."
How glad I was that he himself lightened the situation! I had been driven to despair, but this strange twist in his mood made all smooth for me. "That 'again and again' sounds dreary," said I. "It might almost appear I must sometime accept your gospel, to cure you of preaching it, and save me from eternal drowsiness."
We were then most fortunately interrupted. He made his adieus, and I went to my room, brooded till my head ached, then fell a-weeping, and wished myself out of the world, I was so sick and weary. Now and again a hot shudder of shame and misery ran through me, as I thought of monsieur's words to me. Put them how he would, they sound an insult now, though as he spoke I felt the power of his passion. "If you had lived a thousand years ago, you would have loved a thousand times," he said to me one day. Sometimes I think he spoke truly; I have a nature that responds to all eloquence in life.
Robert, I have bared my heart to thee. I have hidden nothing. In a few days I shall go back to the city with my mother, and when I can I will send news; and do thou send me news also, if thou canst devise a safe way. Meanwhile, I have written my brother Juste to be magnanimous, and to try for thy freedom. He will not betray me, and he may help us. I have begged him to write to thee a letter of reconcilement.
And now, comrade of my heart, do thou have courage. I also shall be strong as I am ardent. Having written thee, I am cheerful once more; and when again I may, I will open the doors of my heart that thou mayst come in. That heart is thine, Robert. Thy
who loves thee all her days.
P.S.--I have found the names and places of the men who keep the guard beneath thy window. If there is chance for freedom that way, fix the day some time ahead, and I will see what may be done. Voban fears nothing; he will act secretly for me.
The next day I arranged for my escape, which had been long in planning.