Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
I. An Escort to the Citadel
When Monsieur Doltaire entered the salon, and, dropping lazily into a chair beside Madame Duvarney and her daughter, drawled out, "England's Braddock--fool and general--has gone to heaven, Captain Moray, and your papers send you there also," I did not shift a jot, but looked over at him gravely--for, God knows, I was startled--and I said,
"The General is dead?"
I did not dare to ask, Is he defeated? though from Doltaire's look I was sure it was so, and a sickness crept through me, for at the moment that seemed the end of our cause. But I made as if I had not heard his words about my papers.
"Dead as a last years courtier, shifted from the scene," he replied; "and having little now to do, we'll go play with the rat in our trap."
I would not have dared look towards Alixe, standing beside her mother then, for the song in my blood was pitched too high, were it not that a little sound broke from her. At that, I glanced, and saw that her face was still and quiet, but her eyes were shining, and her whole body seemed listening. I dared not give my glance meaning, though I wished to do so. She had served me much, had been a good friend to me, since I was brought a hostage to Quebec from Fort Necessity. There, at that little post on the Ohio, France threw down the gauntlet, and gave us the great Seven Years War. And though it may be thought I speak rashly, the lever to spring that trouble had been within my grasp. Had France sat still while Austria and Prussia quarreled, that long fighting had never been. The game of war had lain with the Grande Marquise--or La Pompadour, as she was called--and later it may be seen how I, unwillingly, moved her to set it going.
Answering Monsieur Doltaire, I said stoutly, "I am sure he made a good fight; he had gallant men."
"Truly gallant," he returned--"your own Virginians among others" (I bowed); "but he was a blunderer, as were you also, monsieur, or you had not sent him plans of our forts and letters of such candour. They have gone to France, my captain."
Madame Duvarney seemed to stiffen in her chair, for what did this mean but that I was a spy? and the young lady behind them now put her handkerchief to her mouth as if to stop a word. To make light of the charges against myself was the only thing, and yet I had little heart to do so. There was that between Monsieur Doltaire and myself--a matter I shall come to by-and-bye--which well might make me apprehensive.
"My sketch and my gossip with my friends," said I, "can have little interest in France."
"My faith, the Grande Marquise will find a relish for them," he said pointedly at me. He, the natural son of King Louis, had played the part between La Pompadour and myself in the grave matter of which I spoke. "She loves deciding knotty points of morality," he added.
"She has had chance and will enough," said I boldly, "but what point of morality is here?"
"The most vital--to you," he rejoined, flicking his handkerchief a little, and drawling so that I could have stopped his mouth with my hand. "Shall a hostage on parole make sketches of a fort and send them to his friends, who in turn pass them on to a foolish general?"
"When one party to an Article of War brutally breaks his sworn promise, shall the other be held to his?" I asked quietly.
I was glad that, at this moment, the Seigneur Duvarney entered, for I could feel the air now growing colder about Madame his wife. He, at least, was a good friend; but as I glanced at him, I saw his face was troubled and his manner distant. He looked at Monsieur Doltaire a moment steadily, stooped to his wife's hand, and then offered me his own without a word; which done, he went to where his daughter stood. She kissed him, and, as she did so, whispered something in his ear, to which he nodded assent. I knew afterwards that she had asked him to keep me to dinner with them.
Presently turning to Monsieur Doltaire, he said inquiringly, "You have a squad of men outside my house, Doltaire?"
Doltaire nodded in a languid way, and answered, "An escort--for Captain Moray--to the citadel."
I knew now, as he had said, that I was in the trap; that he had begun the long sport which came near to giving me the white shroud of death, as it turned white the hair upon my head ere I was thirty-two. Do I not know, the indignities, the miseries I suffered, I owed mostly to him, and that at the last he nearly robbed England of her greatest pride, the taking of New France?--For chance sometimes lets humble men like me balance the scales of fate; and I was humble enough in rank, if in spirit always something above my place.
I was standing as he spoke these words, and I turned to him and said, "Monsieur, I am at your service."
"I have sometimes wished," he said instantly, and with a courteous if ironical gesture, "that you were in my service--that is, the King's."
I bowed as to a compliment, for I would not see the insolence, and I retorted, "Would I could offer you a company in my Virginia regiment!"
"Delightful! delightful!" he rejoined. "I should make as good a Briton as you a Frenchman, every whit."
I suppose he would have kept leading to such silly play, had I not turned to Madame Duvarney and said, "I am most sorry that this mishap falls here; but it is not of my doing, and in colder comfort, Madame, I shall recall the good hours spent in your home."
I think I said it with a general courtesy, yet, feeling the eyes of the young lady on me, perhaps a little extra warmth came into my voice, and worked upon Madame, or it may be she was glad of my removal from contact with her daughter; but kindness showed in her face, and she replied gently, "I am sure it is only for a few days till we see you again."
Yet I think in her heart she knew my life was perilled: those were rough and hasty times, when the axe or the rope was the surest way to deal with troubles. Three years before, at Fort Necessity, I had handed my sword to my lieutenant, bidding him make healthy use of it, and, travelling to Quebec on parole, had come in and out of this house with great freedom. Yet since Alixe had grown towards womanhood there had been strong change in Madame's manner.
"The days, however few, will be too long until I tax your courtesy again," I said. "I bid you adieu, Madame."
"Nay, not so," spoke up my host; "not one step: dinner is nearly served, and you must both dine with us. Nay, but I insist," he added, as he saw me shake my head. "Monsieur Doltaire will grant you this courtesy, and me the great kindness. Eh, Doltaire?"
Doltaire rose, glancing from Madame to her daughter. Madame was smiling, as if begging his consent; for, profligate though he was, his position, and more than all, his personal distinction, made him a welcome guest at most homes in Quebec. Alixe met his look without a yes or no in her eyes--so young, yet having such control and wisdom, as I have had reason beyond all men to know. Something, however, in the temper of the scene had filled her with a kind of glow, which added to her beauty and gave her dignity. The spirit of her look caught the admiration of this expatriated courtier, and I knew that a deeper cause than all our past conflicts--and they were great--would now, or soon, set him fatally against me.
"I shall be happy to wait Captain Moray's pleasure," he said presently, "and to serve my own by sitting at your table. I was to have dined with the Intendant this afternoon, but a messenger shall tell him duty stays me.... If you will excuse me!" he added, going to the door to find a man of his company. He looked back for an instant, as if it struck him I might seek escape, for he believed in no man's truth; but he only said, "I may fetch my men to your kitchen, Duvarney? 'Tis raw outside."
"Surely. I shall see they have some comfort," was the reply.
Doltaire then left the room, and Duvarney came to me. "This is a bad business, Moray," he said sadly. "There is some mistake, is there not?"
I looked him fair in the face. "There is a mistake," I answered. "I am no spy, and I do not fear that I shall lose my life, my honour, or my friends by offensive acts of mine."
"I believe you," he responded, "as I have believed since you came, though there has been gabble of your doings. I do not forget you bought my life back from those wild Mohawks five years ago. You have my hand in trouble or out of it."
Upon my soul, I could have fallen on his neck, for the blow to our cause and the shadow on my own fate oppressed me for the moment.
At this point the ladies left the room to make some little toilette before dinner, and as they passed me the sleeve of Alixe's dress touched my arm. I caught her fingers for an instant, and to this day I can feel that warm, rich current of life coursing from finger-tips to heart. She did not look at me at all, but passed on after her mother. Never till that moment had there been any open show of heart between us. When I first came to Quebec (I own it to my shame) I was inclined to use her youthful friendship for private and patriotic ends; but that soon passed, and then I wished her companionship for true love of her. Also, I had been held back because when I first knew her she seemed but a child. Yet how quickly and how wisely did she grow out of her childhood! She had a playful wit, and her talents were far beyond her years. It amazed me often to hear her sum up a thing in some pregnant sentence which, when you came to think, was the one word to be said. She had such a deep look out of her blue eyes that you scarcely glanced from them to see the warm sweet colour of her face, the fair broad forehead, the brown hair, the delicate richness of her lips, which ever were full of humour and of seriousness--both running together, as you may see a laughing brook steal into the quiet of a river.
Duvarney and I were thus alone for a moment, and he straightway dropped a hand upon my shoulder. "Let me advise you," he said, "be friendly with Doltaire. He has great influence at the Court and elsewhere. He can make your bed hard or soft at the citadel."
I smiled at him, and replied, "I shall sleep no less sound because of Monsieur Doltaire."
"You are bitter in your trouble," said he.
I made haste to answer, "No, no, my own troubles do not weigh so heavy--but our General's death!"
"You are a patriot, my friend," he added warmly. "I could well have been content with our success against your English army without this deep danger to your person."
I put out my hand to him, but I did not speak, for just then Doltaire entered. He was smiling at something in his thought.
"The fortunes are with the Intendant always," said he. "When things are at their worst, and the King's storehouse, the dear La Friponne, is to be ripped by our rebel peasants like a sawdust doll, here comes this gay news of our success on the Ohio; and in that Braddock's death the whining beggars will forget their empty bellies, and bless where they meant to curse. What fools, to be sure! They had better loot La Friponne. Lord, how we love fighting, we French! And 'tis so much easier to dance, or drink, or love." He stretched out his shapely legs as he sat musing.
Duvarney shrugged a shoulder, smiling. "But you, Doltaire--there's no man out of France that fights more."
He lifted an eyebrow. "One must be in the fashion; besides, it does need some skill to fight. The others--to dance, drink, love: blind men's games!" He smiled cynically into the distance.
I have never known a man who interested me so much--never one so original, so varied, and so uncommon in his nature. I marvelled at the pith and depth of his observations; for though I agreed not with him once in ten times, I loved his great reflective cleverness and his fine penetration--singular gifts in a man of action. But action to him was a playtime; he had that irresponsibility of the Court from which he came, its scornful endurance of defeat or misery, its flippant look upon the world, its scoundrel view of women. Then he and Duvarney talked, and I sat thinking. Perhaps the passion of a cause grows in you as you suffer for it, and I had suffered, and suffered most by a bitter inaction. Governor Dinwiddie, Mr. Washington (alas that, as I write the fragment chapters of my life, among the hills where Montrose my ancestor fought, George leads the colonists against the realm of England!), and the rest were suffering, but they were fighting too. Brought to their knees, they could rise again to battle; and I thought then, How more glorious to be with my gentlemen in blue from Virginia, holding back death from the General, and at last falling myself, than to spend good years a hostage at Quebec, knowing that Canada was for our taking, yet doing nothing to advance the hour!
In the thick of these thoughts I was not conscious of what the two were saying, but at last I caught Madame Cournal's name; by which I guessed Monsieur Doltaire was talking of her amours, of which the chief and final was with Bigot the Intendant, to whom the King had given all civil government, all power over commerce and finance in the country. The rivalry between the Governor and the Intendant was keen and vital at this time, though it changed later, as I will show. At her name I looked up and caught Monsieur Doltaire's eye.
He read my thoughts. "You have had blithe hours here, monsieur," he said--"you know the way to probe us; but of all the ladies who could be most useful to you, you left out the greatest. There you erred. I say it as a friend, not as an officer, there you erred. From Madame Cournal to Bigot, from Bigot to Vaudreuil the Governor, from the Governor to France. But now--"
He paused, for Madame Duvarney and her daughter had come, and we all rose.
The ladies had heard enough to know Doltaire's meaning. "But now--Captain Moray dines with us," said Madame Duvarney quietly and meaningly.
"Yet I dine with Madame Cournal," rejoined Doltaire, smiling.
"One may use more option with enemies and prisoners," she said keenly, and the shot ought to have struck home. In so small a place it was not easy to draw lines close and fine, and it was in the power of the Intendant, backed by his confederates, to ruin almost any family in the province if he chose; and that he chose at times I knew well, as did my hostess. Yet she was a woman of courage and nobility of thought, and I knew well where her daughter got her good flavor of mind.
I could see something devilish in the smile at Doltaire's lip's, but his look was wandering between Alixe and me, and he replied urbanely, "I have ambition yet--to connive at captivity"; and then he looked full and meaningly at her.
I can see her now, her hand on the high back of a great oak chair, the lace of her white sleeve falling away, and her soft arm showing, her eyes on his without wavering. They did not drop, nor turn aside; they held straight on, calm, strong--and understanding. By that look I saw she read him; she, who had seen so little of the world, felt what he was, and met his invading interest firmly, yet sadly; for I knew long after that a smother was at her heart then, foreshadowings of dangers that would try her as few women are tried. Thank God that good women are born with greater souls for trial than men; that, given once an anchor for their hearts, they hold until the cables break.
When we were about to enter the dining-room, I saw, to my joy, Madame incline towards Doltaire, and I knew that Alixe was for myself--though her mother wished it little, I am sure. As she took my arm, her finger-tips plunged softly into the velvet of my sleeve, giving me a thrill of courage. I felt my spirits rise, and I set myself to carry things off gaily, to have this last hour with her clear of gloom, for it seemed easy to think that we should meet no more.
As we passed into the dining-room, I said, as I had said the first time I went to dinner in her father's house, "Shall we be flippant, or grave?"
I guessed that it would touch her. She raised her eyes to mine and answered, "We are grave; let us seem flippant."
In those days I had a store of spirits. I was seldom dismayed, for life had been such a rough-and-tumble game that I held to cheerfulness and humour as a hillsman to his broadsword, knowing it the greatest of weapons with a foe, and the very stone and mortar of friendship. So we were gay, touching lightly on events around us, laughing at gossip of the doorways (I in my poor French), casting small stones at whatever drew our notice, not forgetting a throw or two at Chateau Bigot, the Intendant's country house at Charlesbourg, five miles away, where base plots were hatched, reputations soiled, and all clean things dishonoured. But Alixe, the sweetest soul France ever gave the world, could not know all I knew; guessing only at heavy carousals, cards, song, and raillery, with far-off hints of feet lighter than fit in cavalry boots dancing among the glasses on the table. I was never before so charmed with her swift intelligence, for I never had great nimbleness of thought, nor power to make nice play with the tongue.
"You have been three years with us," suddenly said her father, passing me the wine. "How time has flown! How much has happened!"
"Madame Cournal's husband has made three million francs," said Doltaire, with dry irony and truth.
Duvarney shrugged a shoulder, stiffened; for, oblique as the suggestion was, he did not care to have his daughter hear it.
"And Vaudreuil has sent bees buzzing to Versailles about Bigot and Company," added the impish satirist.
Madame Duvarney responded with a look of interest, and the Seigneur's eyes steadied to his plate. All at once by that I saw the Seigneur had known of the Governor's action, and maybe had counseled with him, siding against Bigot. If that were so--as it proved to be--he was in a nest of scorpions; for who among them would spare him: Marin, Cournal, Rigaud, the Intendant himself? Such as he were thwarted right and left in this career of knavery and public evils.
"And our people have turned beggars; poor and starved, they beg at the door of the King's storehouse--it is well called La Friponne," said Madame Duvarney, with some heat; for she was ever liberal to the poor, and she had seen manor after manor robbed, and peasant farmers made to sell their corn for a song, to be sold to them again at famine prices by La Friponne. Even now Quebec was full of pilgrim poor begging against the hard winter, and execrating their spoilers.
Doltaire was too fond of digging at the heart of things not to admit she spoke truth.
"La Pompadour et La Friponne! Qu'est que cela, mon petit homme?" "Les deux terribles, ma chere mignonne, Mais, c'est cela-- La Pompadour et La Friponne!"
He said this with cool drollery and point, in the patois of the native, so that he set us all laughing, in spite of our mutual apprehensions.
Then he continued, "And the King has sent a chorus to the play, with eyes for the preposterous make-believe, and more, no purse to fill."
We all knew he meant himself, and we knew also that so far as money went he spoke true; that though hand-in-glove with Bigot, he was poor, save for what he made at the gaming-table and got from France. There was the thing that might have clinched me to him, had matters been other than they were; for all my life I have loathed the sordid soul, and I would rather, in these my ripe years, eat with a highwayman who takes his life in his hands than with the civilian who robs his king and the king's poor, and has no better trick than false accounts, nor better friend than the pettifogging knave. Doltaire had no burning love for France, and little faith in anything; for he was of those Versailles water-flies who recked not if the world blackened to cinders when their lights went out. As will be seen by-and-bye, he had come here to seek me, and to serve the Grande Marquise.
More speech like this followed, and amid it all, with the flower of the world beside me at this table, I remembered my mother's words before I bade her good-bye and set sail from Glasgow for Virginia.
"Keep it in mind, Robert," she said, "that an honest love is the thing to hold you honest with yourself. 'Tis to be lived for, and fought for, and died for. Ay, be honest in your loves. Be true."
And there I took an oath, my hand clenched beneath the table, that Alixe should be my wife if better days came; when I was done with citadel and trial and captivity, if that might be.
The evening was well forward when Doltaire, rising from his seat in the drawing-room, bowed to me, and said, "If it pleases you, monsieur?"
I rose also, and prepared to go. There was little talk, yet we all kept up a play of cheerfulness. When I came to take the Seigneur's hand, Doltaire was a distance off, talking to Madame. "Moray," said the Seigneur quickly and quietly, "trials portend for both of us." He nodded towards Doltaire.
"But we shall come safe through," said I.
"Be of good courage, and adieu," he answered, as Doltaire turned towards us.
My last words were to Alixe. The great moment of my life was come. If I could but say one thing to her out of earshot, I would stake all on the hazard. She was standing beside a cabinet, very still, a strange glow in her eyes, a new, fine firmness at the lips. I felt I dared not look as I would; I feared there was no chance now to speak what I would. But I came slowly up the room with her mother. As we did so, Doltaire exclaimed and started to the window, and the Seigneur and Madame followed. A red light was showing on the panes.
I caught Alixe's eye, and held it, coming quickly to her. All backs were on us. I took her hand and pressed it to my lips suddenly. She gave a little gasp, and I saw her bosom heave.
"I am going from prison to prison," said I, "and I leave a loved jailer behind."
She understood. "Your jailer goes also," she answered, with a sad smile.
"I love you! I love you!" I urged.
She was very pale. "Oh, Robert!" she whispered timidly; and then, "I will be brave, I will help you, and I will not forget. God guard you."
That was all, for Doltaire turned to me then and said, "They've made of La Friponne a torch to light you to the citadel, monsieur."
A moment afterwards we were outside in the keen October air, a squad of soldiers attending, our faces towards the citadel heights. I looked back, doffing my cap. The Seigneur and Madame stood at the door, but my eyes were for a window where stood Alixe. The reflection of the far-off fire bathed the glass, and her face had a glow, the eyes shining through, intent and most serious. Yet how brave she was, for she lifted her handkerchief, shook it a little, and smiled.
As though the salute were meant for him, Doltaire bowed twice impressively, and then we stepped forward, the great fire over against the Heights lighting us and hurrying us on.
We scarcely spoke as we went, though Doltaire hummed now and then the air La Pompadour et La Friponne. As we came nearer I said, "Are you sure it is La Friponne, monsieur?"
"It is not," he said, pointing. "See!"
The sky was full of shaking sparks, and a smell of burning grain came down the wind.
"One of the granaries, then," I added, "not La Friponne itself?"
To this he nodded assent, and we pushed on.