Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XXI. La Jongleuse
At nine o'clock I was waiting by the window, and even as a bugle sounded "lights out" in the barracks and change of guard, I let the string down. Mr. Stevens shot round the corner of the chateau, just as the departing sentinel disappeared, and attached a bundle to the string, and I drew it up.
"Is all well?" I called softly down.
"All well," said Mr. Stevens, and, hugging the wall of the chateau, he sped away. In another moment a new sentinel began pacing up and down, and I shut the window and untied my bundle. All that I had asked for was there. I hid the things away in the alcove and went to bed at once, for I knew that I should have no sleep on the following night.
I did not leave my bed till the morning was well advanced. Once or twice during the day I brought my guards in with fear on their faces, the large fat man more distorted than his fellow, by the lamentable sounds I made with my willow toys. They crossed themselves again and again, and I myself appeared devout and troubled. When we walked abroad during the afternoon, I chose to saunter by the river rather than walk, for I wished to conserve my strength, which was now vastly increased, though, to mislead my watchers and the authorities, I assumed the delicacy of an invalid, and appeared unfit for any enterprise--no hard task, for I was still very thin and worn.
So I sat upon a favourite seat on the cliff, set against a solitary tree, fixed in the rocks. I gazed long on the river, and my guards, stoutly armed, stood near, watching me, and talking in low tones. Eager to hear their gossip, I appeared to sleep. They came nearer, and, facing me, sat upon a large stone, and gossiped freely concerning the strange sounds heard in my room at the chateau.
"See you, my Bamboir," said the lean to the fat soldier, "the British captain, he is to be carried off in burning flames by that La Jongleuse. We shall come in one morning and find a smell of sulphur only, and a circle of red on the floor where the imps danced before La Jongleuse said to them, 'Up with him, darlings, and away!'"
At this Bamboir shook his head, and answered, "To-morrow I'll to the Governor, and tell him what's coming. My wife, she falls upon my neck this morning. 'Argose,' she says, ''twill need the bishop and his college to drive La Jongleuse out of the grand chateau.'"
"No less," replied the other. "A deacon and sacred palm and sprinkle of holy water would do for a cottage, or even for a little manor house, with twelve candles burning, and a hymn to the Virgin. But in a king's house--"
"It's not the King's house."
"But yes, it is the King's house, though his Most Christian Majesty lives in France. The Marquis de Vaudreuil stands for the King, and we are sentinels in the King's house. But, my faith, I'd rather be fighting against Frederick, the Prussian boar, than watching this mad Englishman."
"But see you, my brother, that Englishman's a devil. Else how has he not been hanged long ago? He has vile arts to blind all, or he would not be sitting there. It is well known that M'sieu' Doltaire, even the King's son--his mother worked in the fields like your Nanette, Bamboir--"
"Or your Lablanche, my friend. She has hard hands, with warts, and red knuckles therefrom--"
"Or your Nanette, Bamboir, with nose that blisters in the summer, as she goes swingeing flax, and swelling feet that sweat in sabots, and chin thrust out from carrying pails upon her head--"
"Ay, like Nanette and like Lablanche, this peasant mother of M'sieu' Doltaire, and maybe no such firm breasts like Nanette--"
"Nor such an eye as has Lablanche. Well, M'sieu' Doltaire, who could override them all, he could not kill this barbarian. And Gabord--you know well how they fought, and the black horse and his rider came and carried him away. Why, the young M'sieu' Duvarney had him on his knees, the blade at his throat, and a sword flashed out from the dark--they say it was the devil's--and took him in the ribs and well-nigh killed him."
"But what say you to Ma'm'selle Duvarney coming to him that day, and again yesterday with Gabord?"
"Well, well, who knows, Bamboir? This morning I said to Nanette, 'Why is't, all in one moment, you send me to the devil, and pray to meet me in Abraham's bosom too?' What think you she answered me? Why, this, my Bamboir: 'Why is't Adam loved his wife and swore her down before the Lord also, all in one moment?' Why Ma'm'selle Duvarney does this or that is not for muddy brains like ours. It is some whimsy. They say that women are more curious about the devil than about St. Jean Baptiste. Perhaps she got of him a magic book."
"No, no! If he had the magic Petit Albert, he would have turned us into dogs long ago. But I do not like him. He is but thirty years, they say, and yet his hair is white as a pigeon's wing. It is not natural. Nor did he ever, says Gabord, do aught but laugh at everything they did to him. The chains they put would not stay, and when he was set against the wall to be shot, the watches stopped--the minute of his shooting passed. Then M'sieu' Doltaire came, and said a man that could do a trick like that should live to do another. And he did it, for M'sieu' Doltaire is gone to the Bastile. Voyez, this Englishman is a damned heretic, and has the wicked arts."
"But see, Bamboir, do you think he can cast spells?"
"What mean those sounds from his room?"
"So, so. But if he be a friend of the devil, La Jongleuse would not come for him, but--"
Startled and excited, they grasped each other's arms. "But for us--for us!"
"It would be a work of God to send him to the devil," said Bamboir in a loud whisper. "He has given us trouble enough. Who can tell what comes next? Those damned noises in his room, eh--eh?"
Then they whispered together, and presently I caught a fragment, by which I understood that, as we walked near the edge of the cliff, I should be pushed over, and they would make it appear that I had drowned myself.
They talked in low tones again, but soon got louder, and presently I knew that they were speaking of La Jongleuse; and Bamboir--the fat Bamboir, who the surgeon had said would some day die of apoplexy--was rash enough to say that he had seen her. He described her accurately, with the spirit of the born raconteur:
"Hair so black as the feather in the Governor's hat, and green eyes that flash fire, and a brown face with skin all scales. Oh, my saints of Heaven, when she pass I hide my head, and I go cold like stone. She is all covered with long reeds and lilies about her head and shoulders, and blue-red sparks fly up at every step. Flames go round her, and she burns not her robe--not at all. And as she go, I hear cries that make me sick, for it is, I said, some poor man in torture, and I think, perhaps it is Jacques Villon, perhaps Jean Rivas, perhaps Angele Damgoche. But no, it is a young priest of St. Clair, for he is never seen again--never!"
In my mind I commended this fat Bamboir as an excellent story-teller, and thanked him for his true picture of La Jongleuse, whom, to my regret, I had never seen. I would not forget his stirring description, as he should see. I gave point to the tale by squeezing an inflated toy in my pocket, with my arm, while my hands remained folded in front of me; and it was as good as a play to see the faces of these soldiers, as they sprang to their feet, staring round in dismay. I myself seemed to wake with a start, and, rising to my feet, I asked what meant the noise and their amazement. We were in a spot where we could not easily be seen from any distance, and no one was in sight, nor were we to be remarked from the fort. They exchanged looks, as I started back towards the chateau, walking very near the edge of the cliff. A spirit of bravado came on me, and I said musingly to them as we walked:
"It would be easy to throw you both over the cliff, but I love you too well. I have proved that by making toys for your children."
It was as cordial to me to watch their faces. They both drew away from the cliff, and grasped their firearms apprehensively.
"My God," said Bamboir, "those toys shall be burned to-night. Alphonse has the smallpox and Susanne the croup--damned devil!" he added furiously, stepping forward to me with gun raised, "I'll--"
I believe he would have shot me, but that I said quickly, "If you did harm to me you'd come to the rope. The Governor would rather lose a hand than my life."
I pushed his musket down. "Why should you fret? I am leaving the chateau to-morrow for another prison. You fools, d'ye think I'd harm the children? I know as little of the devil or La Jongleuse as do you. We'll solve the witcheries of these sounds, you and I, to-night. If they come, we'll say the Lord's Prayer, and make the sacred gesture, and if it goes not, we will have one of your good priests to drive out this whining spirit."
This quieted them much, and I was glad of it, for they had looked bloodthirsty enough, and though I had a weapon on me, there was little use in seeking fighting or flight till the auspicious moment. They were not satisfied, however, and they watched me diligently as we came on to the chateau.
I could not bear that they should be frightened about their children, so I said:
"Make for me a sacred oath, and I will swear by it that those toys will do your children no harm."
I drew out the little wooden cross that Mathilde had given me, and held it up. They looked at me astonished. What should I, a heretic and a Protestant, do with this sacred emblem? "This never leaves me," said I; "it was a pious gift."
I raised the cross to my lips, and kissed it.
"That's well," said Bamboir to his comrade. "If otherwise, he should have been struck down by the Avenging Angel."
We got back to the chateau without more talk, and I was locked in, while my guards retired. As soon as they had gone I got to work, for my great enterprise was at hand.
At ten o'clock I was ready for the venture. When the critical moment came, I was so arrayed that my dearest friend would not have known me. My object was to come out upon my guards as La Jongleuse, and, in the fright and confusion which should follow, make my escape through the corridors and to the entrance doors, past the sentinels, and so on out. It may be seen now why I got the woman's garb, the sheet, the horsehair, the phosphorus, the reeds, and such things; why I secured the knife and pistol may be guessed likewise. Upon the lid of a small stove in the room I placed my saltpetre, and I rubbed the horsehair on my head with phosphorus, also on my hands, and face, and feet, and on many objects in the room. The knife and pistol were at my hand, and when the clock struck ten, I set my toys to wailing.
Then I knocked upon the door with solemn taps, hurried back to the stove, and waited for the door to open before I applied the match. I heard a fumbling at the lock, then the door was thrown wide open. All was darkness in the hall without, save for a spluttering candle which Bamboir held over his head, as he and his fellow, deadly pale, stood peering forward. Suddenly they gave a cry, for I threw the sheet from my face and shoulders, and to their excited imagination La Jongleuse stood before them, all in flames. As I started down on them, the coloured fire flew up, making the room all blue and scarlet for a moment, in which I must have looked devilish indeed, with staring eyes, and outstretched chalky hands, and wailing cries coming from my robe.
I moved swiftly, and Bamboir, without a cry, dropped like a log (poor fellow, he never rose again! the apoplexy which the surgeon promised had come), his comrade gave a cry, and sank in a heap in a corner, mumbling a prayer, and making the sign of the cross, his face stark with terror.
I passed him, came along the corridor and down one staircase, without seeing any one; then two soldiers appeared in the half-lighted hallway. Presently also a door opened behind me, and some one came out. By now the phosphorus light diminished a little, but still I was a villainous picture, for in one hand I held a small cup from which suddenly sprang red and blue fires. The men fell back, and I sailed past them, but I had not gone far down the lower staircase when a shot rang after me, and a bullet passed by my head. Now I came rapidly to the outer door, where two more sentinels stood. They shrank back, and suddenly one threw down his musket and ran; the other, terrified, stood stock-still. I passed him, opened the door, and came out upon the Intendant, who was just alighting from his carriage.
The horses sprang away, frightened at sight of me, and nearly threw Bigot to the ground. I tossed the tin cup with its chemical fires full in his face, as he made a dash for me. He called out, and drew his sword. I wished not to fight, and I sprang aside; but he made a pass at me, and I drew my pistol and was about to fire, when another shot came from the hallway and struck him. He fell, almost at my feet, and I dashed away into the darkness. Fifty feet ahead I cast one glance hack, and saw Monsieur Cournal standing in the doorway. I was sure that his second shot had not been meant for me, but for the Intendant--a wild attempt at a revenge, long delayed, for the worst of wrongs.
I ran on, and presently came full upon five soldiers, two of whom drew their pistols, fired, and missed. Their comrades ran away howling. They barred my path, and now I fired, too, and brought one down; then came a shot from behind them, and another fell. The last one took to his heels, and a moment later I had my hand in that of Mr. Stevens. It was he who had fired the opportune shot that rid me of one foe. We came quickly along the river brink, and, skirting the citadel, got clear of it without discovery, though we could see soldiers hurrying past, roused by the firing at the chateau.
In about half an hour of steady running, with a few bad stumbles and falls, we reached the old windmill above the Anse du Foulon at Sillery, and came plump upon our waiting comrades. I had stripped myself of my disguise, and rubbed the phosphorus from my person as we came along, but enough remained to make me an uncanny figure. It had been kept secret from these people that I was to go with them, and they sullenly kept their muskets raised and cocked; but when Mr. Stevens told them who I was, they were agreeably surprised. I at once took command of the enterprise, saying firmly at the same time that I would shoot the first man who disobeyed my orders. I was sure that I could bring them to safety, but my will must be law. They took my terms like men, and swore to stand by me.