Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XXIX. "Master Devil" Doltaire
The bells of some shattered church were calling to vespers, the sun was sinking behind the flaming autumn woods, as once more I entered the St. Louis Gate, with the grenadiers and a detachment of artillery, the British colours hoisted on a gun-carriage. Till this hour I had ever entered and left this town a captive, a price set on my head, and in the very street where now I walked I had gone with a rope round my neck, abused and maltreated. I saw our flag replace the golden lilies of France on the citadel where Doltaire had baited me, and at the top of Mountain Street, near to the bishop's palace, our colours also flew.
Every step I took was familiar, yet unfamiliar too. It was a disfigured town, where a hungry, distracted people huddled among ruins, and begged for mercy and for food, nor found time in the general overwhelming to think of the gallant Montcalm, lying in his shell-made grave at the chapel of the Ursulines, not fifty steps from where I had looked through the tapestry on Alixe and Doltaire. The convent was almost deserted now, and as I passed it, on my way to the cathedral, I took off my hat; for how knew I but that she I loved best lay there, too, as truly a heroine as the admirable Montcalm was hero! A solitary bell was clanging on the chapel as I went by, and I saw three nuns steal past me with bowed heads. I longed to stop them and ask them of Alixe, for I felt sure that the Church knew where she was, living or dead, though none of all I asked knew aught of her, not even the Chevalier de la Darante, who had come to our camp the night before, accompanied by Monsieur Joannes, the town major, with terms of surrender.
I came to the church of the Recollets as I wandered; for now, for a little time, I seemed bewildered and incapable, lost in a maze of dreadful imaginings. I entered the door of the church, and stumbled upon a body. Hearing footsteps ahead in the dusk, I passed up the aisle, and came upon a pile of debris. Looking up, I could see the stars shining through a hole in the roof, Hearing a noise beyond, I went on, and there, seated on the high altar, was the dwarf who had snatched the cup of rum out of the fire the night that Mathilde had given the crosses to the revellers. He gave a low, wild laugh, and hugged a bottle to his breast. Almost at his feet, half naked, with her face on the lowest step of the altar, her feet touching the altar itself, was the girl--his sister--who had kept her drunken lover from assaulting him. The girl was dead--there was a knife-wound in her breast. Sick at the sight I left the place, and went on, almost mechanically, to Voban's house. It was level with the ground, a crumpled heap of ruins. I passed Lancy's house, in front of which I had fought with Gabord; it too was broken to pieces.
As I turned away I heard a loud noise, as of an explosion, and I supposed it to be some magazine. I thought of it no more at the time. Voban must be found; that was more important. I must know of Alixe first, and I felt sure that if any one guessed her whereabouts it would be he: she would have told him where she was going, if she had fled; if she were dead, who so likely to know, this secret, elusive, vengeful watcher? Of Doltaire I had heard nothing; I would seek him out when I knew of Alixe. He could not escape me in this walled town. I passed on for a time without direction, for I seemed not to know where I might find the barber. Our sentries already patrolled the streets, and our bugles were calling on the heights, with answering calls from the fleet in the basin. Night came down quickly, the stars shone out in the perfect blue, and, as I walked along, broken walls, shattered houses, solitary pillars, looked mystically strange. It was painfully quiet, as if a beaten people had crawled away into the holes our shot and shell had made, to hide their misery. Now and again a gaunt face looked out from a hiding-place, and drew back again in fear at sight of me. Once a drunken woman spat at me and cursed me; once I was fired at; and many times from dark corners I heard voices crying, "Sauvez-moi--ah, sauvez-moi, bon Dieu!" Once I stood for many minutes and watched our soldiers giving biscuits and their own share of rum to homeless French peasants hovering round the smouldering ruins of a house which carcasses had destroyed.
And now my wits came back to me, my purposes, the power to act, which for a couple of hours had seemed to be in abeyance. I hurried through narrow streets to the cathedral. There it stood, a shattered mass, its sides all broken, its roof gone, its tall octagonal tower alone substantial and unchanged. Coming to its rear, I found Babette's little house, with open door, and I went in. The old grandfather sat in his corner, with a lighted candle on the table near him, across his knees Jean's coat that I had worn. He only babbled nonsense to my questioning, and, after calling aloud to Babette and getting no reply, I started for the Intendance.
I had scarcely left the house when I saw some French peasants coming towards me with a litter. A woman, walking behind the litter, carried a lantern, and one of our soldiers of artillery attended and directed. I ran forward, and discovered Voban, mortally hurt. The woman gave a cry, and spoke my name in a kind of surprise and relief; and the soldier, recognizing me, saluted. I sent him for a surgeon, and came on with the hurt man to the little house. Soon I was alone with him save for Babette, and her I sent for a priest. As soon as I had seen Voban I guessed what had happened: he had tried for his revenge at last. After a little time he knew me, but at first he could not speak.
"What has happened--the Palace?" said I.
"You blew it up--with Bigot?" I asked.
His reply was a whisper, and his face twitched with pain: "Not--with Bigot."
I gave him some cordial, which he was inclined to refuse. It revived him, but I saw he could live only a few hours. Presently he made an effort. "I will tell you," he whispered.
"Tell me first of my wife," said I. "Is she alive?--is she alive?"
If a smile could have been upon his lips then, I saw one there--good Voban! I put my ear down, and my heart almost stopped beating, until I heard him say, "Find Mathilde."
"Where?" asked I.
"In the Valdoche Hills," he answered, "where the Gray Monk lives--by the Tall Calvary."
He gasped with pain. I let him rest awhile, and eased the bandages on him, and at last he told his story:
"I am to be gone soon. For two years I have wait for the good time to kill him--Bigot--to send him and his palace to hell. I can not tell you how I work to do it. It is no matter--no. From an old cellar I mine, and at last I get the powder lay beneath him--his palace. So. But he does not come to the Palace much this many months, and Madame Cournal is always with him, and it is hard to do the thing in other ways. But I laugh when the English come in the town, and when I see Bigot fly to his palace alone to get his treasure-chest I think it is my time. So I ask the valet, and he say he is in the private room that lead to the treasure-place. Then I come back quick to the secret spot and fire my mine. In ten minutes all will be done. I go at once to his room again, alone. I pass through the one room, and come to the other. It is a room with one small barred window. If he is there, I will say a word to him that I have wait long to say, then shut the door on us both--for I am sick of life--and watch him and laugh at him till the end comes. If he is in the other room, then I have another way as sure--"
He paused, exhausted, and I waited till he could again go on. At last he made a great effort, and continued: "I go back to the first room, and he is not there. I pass soft, to the treasure-room, and I see him kneel beside a chest, looking in. His back is to me. I hear him laugh to himself. I shut the door, turn the key, go to the window and throw it out, and look at him again. But now he stand and turn to me, and then I see--I see it is not Bigot, but M'sieu' Doltaire!
"I am sick when I see that, and at first I can not speak, my tongue stick in my mouth so dry. 'Has Voban turn robber?' m'sieu' say. I put out my hand and try to speak again--but no. 'What did you throw from the window?' he ask. 'And what's the matter, my Voban?' 'My God,' I say at him now, 'I thought you are Bigot!' I point to the floor. 'Powder!' I whisper.
"His eyes go like fire so terrible; he look to the window, take a quick angry step to me, but stand still. Then he point to the window. 'The key, Voban?' he say; and I answer, 'Yes.' He get pale; then he go and try the door, look close at the walls, try them--quick, quick, stop, feel for a panel, then try again, stand still, and lean against the table. It is no use to call; no one can hear, for it is all roar outside, and these walls are solid and very thick.
"'How long?' he say, and take out his watch. 'Five minutes--maybe,' I answer. He put his watch on the table, and sit down on a bench by it, and for a little minute he do not speak, but look at me close, and not angry, as you would think. 'Voban,' he say in a low voice, 'Bigot was a thief.' He point to the chest. 'He stole from the King--my father. He stole your Mathilde from you! He should have died. We have both been blunderers, Voban, blunderers,' he say; 'things have gone wrong with us. We have lost all.' There is little time. 'Tell me one thing,' he go on: 'Is Mademoiselle Duvarney safe--do you know?' I tell him yes, and he smile, and take from his pocket something, and lay it against his lips, and then put it back in his breast.
"'You are not afraid to die, Voban?' he ask. I answer no. 'Shake hands with me, my friend,' he speak, and I do so that. 'Ah, pardon, pardon, m'sieu',' I say. 'No, no, Voban; it was to be,' he answer. 'We shall meet again, comrade--eh, if we can?' he speak on, and he turn away from me and look to the sky through the window. Then he look at his watch, and get to his feet, and stand there still. I kiss my crucifix. He reach out and touch it, and bring his fingers to his lips. 'Who can tell--perhaps--perhaps!' he say. For a little minute--ah, it seem like a year, and it is so still, so still he stand there, and then he put his hand over the watch, lift it up, and shut his eyes, as if time is all done. While you can count ten it is so, and then the great crash come."
For a long time Voban lay silent again. I gave him more cordial, and he revived and ended his tale. "I am a blunderer, as m'sieu' say," he went on, "for he is killed, not Bigot and me, and only a little part of the palace go to pieces. And so they fetch me here, and I wish--my God in Heaven, I wish I go with M'sieu' Doltaire." But he followed him a little later.
Two hours afterwards I went to the Intendance, and there I found that the body of my enemy had been placed in the room where I had last seen him with Alixe. He lay on the same couch where she had lain. The flag of France covered his broken body, but his face was untouched--as it had been in life, haunting, fascinating, though the shifting lights were gone, the fine eyes closed. A noble peace hid all that was sardonic; not even Gabord would now have called him "Master Devil." I covered up his face and left him there-- peasant and prince--candles burning at his head and feet, and the star of Louis on his shattered breast; and I saw him no more.
All that night I walked the ramparts, thinking, remembering, hoping, waiting for the morning; and when I saw the light break over those far eastern parishes, wasted by fire and sword, I set out on a journey to the Valdoche Hills.