Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XXIV. The Sacred Countersign
That night, at nine o'clock, the Terror of France, catching the flow of the tide, with one sail set and a gentle wind, left the fleet, and came slowly up the river, under the batteries of the town. In the gloom we passed lazily on with the flow of the tide, unquestioned, soon leaving the citadel behind, and ere long came softly to that point called Anse du Foulon, above which Sillery stood. The shore could not be seen distinctly, but I knew by a perfect instinct the cleft in the hillside where was the path leading up the mountain. I bade Clark come up the river again two nights hence to watch for my signal, which was there agreed upon. If I did not come, then, with General Wolfe's consent, he must show the General this path up the mountain. He swore that all should be as I wished; and indeed you would have thought that he and his Terror of France were to level Quebec to the water's edge.
I stole softly to the shore in a boat, which I drew up among the bushes, hiding it as well as I could in the dark, and then, feeling for my pistols and my knife, I crept upwards, coming presently to the passage in the mountain. I toiled on to the summit without a sound of alarm from above. Pushing forward, a light flashed from the windmill, and a man, and then two men, appeared in the open door. One of them was Captain Lancy, whom I had very good reason to remember. The last time I saw him was that famous morning when he would have had me shot five minutes before the appointed hour, rather than endure the cold and be kept from his breakfast. I itched to call him to account then and there, but that would have been foolish play. I was outside of the belt of light falling from the door, and stealing round I came near to the windmill on the town side. I was not surprised to see such poor watch kept. Above the town, up to this time, the guard was of a perfunctory sort, for the great cliffs were thought impregnable; and even if surmounted, there was still the walled town to take, surrounded by the St. Lawrence, the St. Charles, and these massive bulwarks.
Presently Lancy stepped out into the light, and said, with a hoarse laugh, "Blood of Peter, it was a sight to-day! She has a constant fancy for the English filibuster. 'Robert! my husband!' she bleated like a pretty lamb, and Doltaire grinned at her."
"But Doltaire will have her yet."
"He has her pinched like a mouse in a weasel's teeth."
"My faith, mademoiselle has no sweet road to travel since her mother died," was the careless reply.
I almost cried out. Here was a blow which staggered me. Her mother dead!
Presently the scoffer continued: "The Duvarneys would remain in the city, and on that very night, as they sit at dinner, a shell disturbs them, a splinter strikes Madame, and two days after she is carried to her grave."
They linked arms and walked on.
It was a dangerous business I was set on, for I was sure that I would be hung without shrift if captured. As it proved afterwards, I had been proclaimed, and it was enjoined on all Frenchmen and true Catholics to kill me if the chance showed.
Only two things could I depend on: Voban and my disguise, which was very good. From the Terror of France I had got a peasant's dress, and by rubbing my hands and face with the stain of butternut, cutting again my new-grown beard, and wearing a wig, I was well guarded against discovery.
How to get into the city was the question. By the St. Charles River and the Palace Gate, and by the St. Louis Gate, not far from the citadel, were the only ways, and both were difficult. I had, however, two or three plans, and these I chewed as I went across Maitre Abraham's fields, and came to the main road from Sillery to the town.
Soon I heard the noise of clattering hoofs, and jointly with this I saw a figure rise up not far ahead of me, as if waiting for the coming horseman. I drew back. The horseman passed me, and, as he came on slowly, I saw the figure spring suddenly from the roadside and make a stroke at the horseman. In a moment they were a rolling mass upon the ground, while the horse trotted down the road a little, and stood still. I never knew the cause of that encounter--robbery, or private hate, or paid assault; but there was scarcely a sound as the two men struggled. Presently, there was groaning, and both lay still. I hurried to them, and found one dead, and the other dying, and dagger wounds in both, for the assault had been at such close quarters that the horseman had had no chance to use a pistol.
My plans were changed on the instant. I drew the military coat, boots, and cap off the horseman, and put them on myself; and thrusting my hand into his waistcoat--for he looked like a courier--I found a packet. This I put into my pocket, and then, making for the horse which stood quiet in the road, I mounted it and rode on towards the town. Striking a light, I found that the packet was addressed to the Governor. A serious thought disturbed me: I could not get into the town through the gates without the countersign. I rode on, anxious and perplexed.
Presently a thought pulled me up. The courier was insensible when I left him, and he was the only one who could help me in this. I greatly reproached myself for leaving him while he was still alive. "Poor devil," thought I to myself, "there is some one whom his death will hurt. He must not die alone. He was no enemy of mine." I went back, and, getting from the horse, stooped to him, lifted up his head, and found that he was not dead. I spoke in his ear. He moaned, and his eyes opened.
"What is your name?" said I.
"Jean--Labrouk," he whispered.
Now I remembered him. He was the soldier whom Gabord had sent as messenger to Voban the night I was first taken to the citadel.
"Shall I carry word for you to any one?" asked I.
There was a slight pause; then he said, "Tell my--Babette--Jacques Dobrotte owes me ten francs--and--a leg--of mutton. Tell--my Babette--to give my coat of beaver fur to Gabord the soldier. Tell"...he sank back, but raised himself, and continued: "Tell my Babette I weep with her.... Ah, mon grand homme de Calvaire--bon soir!" He sank back again, but I roused him with one question more, vital to me. I must have the countersign.
"Labrouk! Labrouk!" said I sharply.
He opened his dull, glazed eyes.
"Qui va la?" said I, and I waited anxiously.
Thought seemed to rally in him, and, staring--alas! how helpless and how sad: that look of a man brought back for an instant from the Shadows!--his lips moved.
"France," was the whispered reply.
"Advance and give the countersign!" I urged.
"Jesu--" he murmured faintly. I drew from my breast the cross that Mathilde had given me, and pressed it to his lips. He sighed softly, lifted his hand to it, and then fell back, never to speak again.
After covering his face and decently laying the body out, I mounted the horse again. Glancing up, I saw that this bad business had befallen not twenty feet from a high Calvary at the roadside.
I was in a painful quandary. Did Labrouk mean that the countersign was "Jesu," or was that word the broken prayer of his soul as it hurried forth? So strange a countersign I had never heard, and yet it might be used in this Catholic country. This day might be some great feast of the Church--possibly that of the naming of Christ (which was the case, as I afterwards knew). I rode on, tossed about in my mind. So much hung on this. If I could not give the countersign, I should have to fight my way back again the road I came. But I must try my luck. So I went on, beating up my heart to confidence; and now I came to the St. Louis Gate. A tiny fire was burning near, and two sentinels stepped forward as I rode boldly on the entrance.
"Qui va la?" was the sharp call.
"France," was my reply, in a voice as like the peasant's as possible.
"Advance and give the countersign," came the demand.
Another voice called from the darkness of the wall: "Come and drink, comrade; I've a brother with Bougainville."
"Jesu," said I to the sentinel, answering his demand for the countersign, and I spurred on my horse idly, though my heart was thumping hard, for there were several sturdy fellows lying beyond the dull handful of fire.
Instantly the sentinel's hand came to my bridle-rein. "Halt!" roared he.
Surely some good spirit was with me then to prompt me, for, with a careless laugh, as though I had not before finished the countersign, "Christ," I added--"Jesu Christ!"
With an oath the soldier let go the bridle-rein, the other opened the gates, and I passed through. I heard the first fellow swearing roundly to the others that he would "send yon courier to fires of hell, if he played with him again so."
The gates closed behind me, and I was in the town which had seen the worst days and best moments of my life. I rode along at a trot, and once again beyond the citadel was summoned by a sentinel. Safely passed on, I came down towards the Chateau St. Louis. I rode boldly up to the great entrance door, and handed the packet to the sentinel.
"From whom?" he asked.
"Look in the corner," said I. "And what business is't of yours?"
"There is no word in the corner," answered he doggedly. "Is't from Monsieur le General at Cap Rouge?"
"Bah! Did you think it was from an English wolf?" I asked.
His dull face broke a little. "Is Jean Labrouk with Bougainville yet?"
"He's done with Bougainville; he's dead," I answered.
"Dead! dead!" said he, a sort of grin playing on his face.
I made a shot at a venture. "But you're to pay his wife Babette the ten francs and the leg of mutton in twenty-four hours, or his ghost will follow you. Swallow that, pudding-head! And see you pay it, or every man in our company swears to break a score of shingles on your bare back."
"I'll pay, I'll pay," he said, and he took to trembling.
"Where shall I find Babette?" asked I. "I come from Isle aux Coudres; I know not this rambling town."
"A little house hugging the cathedral rear," he explained. "Babette sweeps out the vestry, and fetches water for the priests."
"Good," said I. "Take that to the Governor at once, and send the corporal of the guard to have this horse fed and cared for, and he's to carry back the Governor's messenger. I've further business for the General in the town. And tell your captain of the guard to send and pick up two dead men in the highway, just against the first Calvary beyond the town."
He did my bidding, and I dismounted, and was about to get away, when I saw the Chevalier de la Darante and the Intendant appear at the door. They paused upon the steps. The Chevalier was speaking most earnestly:
"To a nunnery--a piteous shame! it should not be, your Excellency."
"To decline upon Monsieur Doltaire, then?" asked Bigot, with a sneer.
"Your Excellency believes in no woman," responded the Chevalier stiffly.
"Ah yes, in one!" was the cynical reply.
"Is it possible? And she remains a friend of your Excellency?" came back in irony.
"The very best; she finds me unendurable."
"Philosophy shirks the solving of that problem, your Excellency," was the cold reply.
"No, it is easy. The woman to be trusted is she who never trusts."
"The paragon--or prodigy--who is she?"
"Even Madame Jamond."
"She danced for you once, your Excellency, they tell me."
"She was a devil that night; she drove us mad."
So Doltaire had not given up the secret of that affair! There was silence for a moment, and then the Chevalier said, "Her father will not let her go to a nunnery--no, no. Why should he yield to the Church in this?"
Bigot shrugged a shoulder. "Not even to hide--shame?"
"Liar--ruffian!" said I through my teeth. The Chevalier answered for me:
"I would stake my life on her truth and purity."
"You forget the mock marriage, dear Chevalier."
"It was after the manner of his creed and people."
"It was after a manner we all have used at times."
"Speak for yourself, your Excellency," was the austere reply. Nevertheless, I could see that the Chevalier was much troubled.
"She forgot race, religion, people--all, to spend still hours with a foreign spy in prison," urged Bigot, with damnable point and suggestion.
"Hush, sir!" said the Chevalier. "She is a girl once much beloved and ever admired among us. Let not your rancour against the man be spent upon the maid. Nay, more, why should you hate the man so? It is said, your Excellency, that this Moray did not fire the shot that wounded you, but one who has less reason to love you."
Bigot smiled wickedly, but said nothing.
The Chevalier laid a hand on Bigot's arm. "Will you not oppose the Governor and the bishop? Her fate is sad enough."
"I will not lift a finger. There are weightier matters. Let Doltaire, the idler, the Don Amato, the hunter of that fawn, save her from the holy ambush. Tut, tut, Chevalier. Let her go. Your nephew is to marry her sister; let her be swallowed up--a shame behind the veil, the sweet litany of the cloister."
The Chevalier's voice set hard as he said in quick reply, "My family honour, Francois Bigot, needs no screen. And if you doubt that, I will give you argument at your pleasure;" so saying, he turned and went back into the chateau.
Thus the honest Chevalier kept his word, given to me when I released him from serving me on the St. Lawrence.
Bigot came down the steps, smiling detestably, and passed me with no more than a quick look. I made my way cautiously through the streets towards the cathedral, for I owed a duty to the poor soldier who had died in my arms, through whose death I had been able to enter the town.
Disarray and ruin met my sight at every hand. Shot and shell had made wicked havoc. Houses where, as a hostage, I had dined, were battered and broken; public buildings were shapeless masses, and dogs and thieves prowled among the ruins. Drunken soldiers staggered past me; hags begged for sous or bread at corners; and devoted priests and long-robed Recollet monks, cowled and alert, hurried past, silent, and worn with labours, watchings, and prayers. A number of officers in white uniforms rode by, going towards the chateau, and a company of coureurs de bois came up from Mountain Street, singing:
"Giron, giran! le canon grand-- Commencez-vous, commencez-vous!"
Here and there were fires lighted in the streets, though it was not cold, and beside them peasants and soldiers drank and quarreled over food--for starvation was abroad in the land.
By one of these fires, in a secluded street--for I had come a roundabout way--were a number of soldiers of Languedoc's regiment (I knew them by their trick of headgear and their stoutness), and with them reckless girls, who, in their abandonment, seemed to me like those revellers in Herculaneum, who danced their way into the Cimmerian darkness. I had no thought of staying there to moralize upon the theme; but, as I looked, a figure came out of the dusk ahead, and moved swiftly towards me.
It was Mathilde. She seemed bent on some errand, but the revellers at the fire caught her attention, and she suddenly swerved towards them, and came into the dull glow, her great black eyes shining with bewildered brilliancy and vague keenness, her long fingers reaching out with a sort of chafing motion. She did not speak till she was among them. I drew into the shade of a broken wall, and watched. She looked all round the circle, and then, without a word, took an iron crucifix which hung upon her breast, and silently lifted it above their heads for a moment. I myself felt a kind of thrill go through me, for her wild beauty was almost tragical. Her madness was not grotesque, but solemn and dramatic. There was something terribly deliberate in her strangeness; it was full of awe to the beholder, more searching and painfully pitiful than melancholy.
Coarse hands fell away from wanton waists; ribaldry hesitated; hot faces drew apart; and all at once a girl with a crackling laugh threw a tin cup of liquor into the fire. Even as she did it, a wretched dwarf sprang into the circle without a word, and, snatching the cup out of the flames, jumped back again into the darkness, peering into it with a hollow laugh. As he did so a soldier raised a heavy stick to throw at him; but the girl caught him by the arms, and said, with a hoarse pathos, "My God, no, Alphonse! It is my brother!"
Here Mathilde, still holding out the cross, said in a loud whisper, "'Sh, 'sh! My children, go not to the palace, for there is Francois Bigot, and he has a devil. But if you have no cottage, I will give you a home. I know the way to it up in the hills. Poor children, see, I will make you happy."
She took a dozen little wooden crosses from her girdle, and, stepping round the circle, gave each person one. No man refused, save a young militiaman; and when, with a sneering laugh, he threw his into the fire, she stooped over him and said, "Poor boy! poor boy!"
She put her fingers on her lips, and whispered, "Beati immaculati--miserere mei, Deus," stray phrases gathered from the liturgy, pregnant to her brain, order and truth flashing out of wandering and fantasy. No one of the girls refused, but sat there, some laughing nervously, some silent; for this mad maid had come to be surrounded with a superstitious reverence in the eyes of the common people. It was said she had a home in the hills somewhere, to which she disappeared for days and weeks, and came back hung about the girdle with crosses; and it was also said that her red robe never became frayed, shabby, or disordered.
Suddenly she turned and left them. I let her pass, unchecked, and went on towards the cathedral, humming an old French chanson. I did this because now and then I met soldiers and patrols, and my free and careless manner disarmed notice. Once or twice drunken soldiers stopped me and threw their arms about me, saluting me on the cheeks a la mode, asking themselves to drink with me. Getting free of them, I came on my way, and was glad to reach the cathedral unchallenged. Here and there a broken buttress or a splintered wall told where our guns had played upon it, but inside I could hear an organ playing and a Miserere being chanted. I went round to its rear, and there I saw the little house described by the sentinel at the chateau. Coming to the door, I knocked, and it was opened at once by a warm-faced, woman of thirty or so, who instantly brightened on seeing me. "Ah, you come from Cap Rouge, m'sieu'," she said, looking at my clothes--her own husband's, though she knew it not.
"I come from Jean," said I, and stepped inside.
She shut the door, and then I saw, sitting in a corner, by a lighted table, an old man, bowed and shrunken, white hair and white beard falling all about him, and nothing of his features to be seen save high cheek-bones and two hawklike eyes which peered up at me.
"So, so, from Jean," he said in a high, piping voice. "Jean's a pretty boy--ay, ay, Jean's like his father, but neither with a foot like mine--a foot for the Court, said Frotenac to me--yes, yes, I knew the great Frotenac--"
The wife interrupted his gossip. "What news from Jean?" said she. "He hoped to come one day this week."
"He says," responded I gently, "that Jacques Dobrotte owes you ten francs and a leg of mutton, and that you are to give his great beaver coat to Gabord the soldier."
"Ay, ay, Gabord the soldier, he that the English spy near sent to heaven." quavered the old man.
The bitter truth was slowly dawning upon the wife. She was repeating my words in a whisper, as if to grasp their full meaning.
"He said also," I continued, "'Tell Babette I weep with her.'"
She was very still and dazed; her fingers went to her white lips, and stayed there for a moment. I never saw such a numb misery in any face.
"And last of all, he said, 'Ah, mon grand homme de Calvaire--bon soir!'"
She turned round, and went and sat down beside the old man, looked into his face for a minute silently, and then said, "Grandfather, Jean is dead; our Jean is dead."
The old man peered at her for a moment, then broke into a strange laugh, which had in it the reflection of a distant misery, and said, "Our little Jean, our little Jean Labrouk! Ha! ha! There was Villon, Marmon, Gabriel, and Gouloir, and all their sons; and they all said the same at the last, 'Mon grand homme--de Calvaire--bon soir!' Then there was little Jean, the pretty little Jean. He could not row a boat, but he could ride a horse, and he had an eye like me. Ha, ha! I have seen them all say good-night. Good-morning, my children, I will say one day, and I will give them all the news, and I will tell them all I have done these hundred years. Ha, ha, ha--"
The wife put her fingers on his lips, and, turning to me, said with a peculiar sorrow, "Will they fetch him to me?"
I assured her that they would.
The old man fixed his eyes on me most strangely, and then, stretching out his finger and leaning forward, he said, with a voice of senile wildness, "Ah, ah, the coat of our little Jean!"
I stood there like any criminal caught in his shameful act. Though I had not forgotten that I wore the dead man's clothes, I could not think that they would be recognized, for they seemed like others of the French army--white, with violet facings. I can not tell to this day what it was that enabled them to detect the coat; but there I stood condemned before them.
The wife sprang to her feet, came to me with a set face, and stared stonily at the coat for an instant. Then, with a cry of alarm, she made for the door; but I stepped quickly before her, and bade her wait till she heard what I had to say. Like lightning it all went through my brain. I was ruined if she gave an alarm: all Quebec would be at my heels, and my purposes would be defeated. There was but one thing to do--tell her the whole truth, and trust her; for I had at least done fairly by her and by the dead man.
So I told them how Jean Labrouk had met his death; told them who I was, and why I was in Quebec--how Jean died in my arms; and, taking from my breast the cross that Mathilde had given me, I swore by it that every word which I said was true. The wife scarcely stirred while I spoke, but with wide dry eyes and hands clasping and unclasping heard me through. I told her how I might have left Jean to die without a sign or message to them, how I had put the cross to his lips as he went forth, and how by coming here at all I placed my safety in her hands, and now, by telling my story, my life itself.
It was a daring and a difficult task. When I had finished, both sat silent for a moment, and then the old man said, "Ay, ay, Jean's father and his uncle Marmon were killed a-horseback, and by the knife. Ay, ay, it is our way. Jean was good company--none better, mass over, on a Sunday. Come, we will light candles for Jean, and comb his hair back sweet, and masses shall be said, and--"
Again the woman interrupted, quieting him. Then she turned to me, and I awaited her words with a desperate sort of courage.
"I believe you," she said. "I remember you now. My sister was the wife of your keeper at the common jail. You shall be safe. Alas! my Jean might have died without a word to me all alone in the night. Merci mille fois, monsieur!" Then she rocked a little to and fro, and the old man looked at her like a curious child. At last, "I must go to him," she said. "My poor Jean must be brought home."
I told her I had already left word concerning the body at headquarters. She thanked me again. Overcome as she was, she went and brought me a peasant's hat and coat. Such trust and kindness touched me. Trembling, she took from me the coat and hat I had worn, and she put her hands before her eyes when she saw a little spot of blood upon the flap of a pocket. The old man reached out his hands, and, taking them, he held them on his knees, whispering to himself.
"You will be safe here," the wife said to me. "The loft above is small, but it will hide you, if you have no better place."
I was thankful that I had told her all the truth. I should be snug here, awaiting the affair in the cathedral on the morrow. There was Voban, but I knew not of him, or whether he was open to aid or shelter me. His own safety had been long in peril; he might be dead, for all I knew. I thanked the poor woman warmly, and then asked her if the old man might not betray me to strangers. She bade me leave all that to her--that I should be safe for a while, at least.
Soon afterwards I went abroad, and made my way by a devious route to Voban's house. As I did so, I could see the lights of our fleet in the Basin, and the camp-fires of our army on the Levis shore, on Isle Orleans, and even at Montmorenci, and the myriad lights in the French encampment at Beauport. How impossible it all looked--to unseat from this high rock the Empire of France! Ay, and how hard it would be to get out of this same city with Alixe!
Voban's house stood amid a mass of ruins, itself broken a little, but still sound enough to live in. There was no light. I clambered over debris, made my way to his bedroom window, and tapped on the shutter. There was no response. I tried to open it, but it would not stir. So I thrust beneath it, on the chance of his finding it if he opened the casement in the morning, a little piece of paper, with one word upon it--the name of his brother. He knew my handwriting, and he would guess where to-morrow would find me, for I had also hastily drawn upon the paper the entrance of the cathedral.
I went back to the little house by the cathedral, and was admitted by the stricken wife. The old man was abed. I climbed up to the small loft, and lay there wide-awake for hours. At last came the sounds that I had waited for, and presently I knew by the tramp beneath, and by low laments floating up, that a wife was mourning over the dead body of her husband. I lay long and listened to the varying sounds, but at last all became still, and I fell asleep.