Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
II. The Master of the King's Magazine
"What fools," said Doltaire presently, "to burn the bread and oven too! If only they were less honest in a world of rogues, poor moles!"
Coming nearer, we saw that La Friponne itself was safe, but one warehouse was doomed and another threatened. The streets were full of people, and thousands of excited peasants, laborers, and sailors were shouting, "Down with the palace! Down with Bigot!"
We came upon the scene at the most critical moment. None of the Governors soldiers were in sight, but up the Heights we could hear the steady tramp of General Montcalm's infantry as they came on. Where were Bigot's men? There was a handful--one company--drawn up before La Friponne, idly leaning on their muskets, seeing the great granary burn, and watching La Friponne threatened by the mad crowd and the fire. There was not a soldier before the Intendant's palace, not a light in any window.
"What is this weird trick of Bigot's?" said Doltaire, musing.
The Governor, we knew, had been out of the city that day. But where was Bigot? At a word from Doltaire we pushed forward towards the palace, the soldiers keeping me in their midst. We were not a hundred feet from the great steps when two gates at the right suddenly swung open, and a carriage rolled out swiftly and dashed down into the crowd. I recognized the coachman first--Bigot's, an old one-eyed soldier of surpassing nerve, and devoted to his master. The crowd parted right and left. Suddenly the carriage stopped, and Bigot stood up, folding his arms, and glancing round with a disdainful smile without speaking a word. He carried a paper in one hand.
Here were at least two thousand armed and unarmed peasants, sick with misery and oppression, in the presence of their undefended tyrant. One shot, one blow of a stone, one stroke of a knife--to the end of a shameless pillage. But no hand was raised to do the deed. The roar of voices subsided--he waited for it--and silence was broken only by the crackle of the burning building, the tramp of Montcalm's soldiers in Mountain Street, and the tolling of the cathedral bell. I thought it strange that almost as Bigot came out the wild clanging gave place to a cheerful peal.
After standing for a moment, looking round him, his eye resting on Doltaire and myself (we were but a little distance from him), Bigot said in a loud voice: "What do you want with me? Do you think I may be moved by threats? Do you punish me by burning your own food, which, when the English are at our doors, is your only hope? Fools! How easily could I turn my cannon and my men upon you! You think to frighten me. Who do you think I am?--a Bostonnais or an Englishman? You--revolutionists! T'sh! You are wild dogs without a leader. You want one that you can trust; you want no coward, but one who fears you not at your wildest. Well, I will be your leader. I do not fear you, and I do not love you, for how have you deserved my love? By ingratitude and aspersion? Who has the King's favour? Francois Bigot. Who has the ear of the Grande Marquise? Francois Bigot. Who stands firm while others tremble lest their power pass to-morrow? Francois Bigot. Who else dare invite revolution, this danger"--his hand sweeping to the flames--"who but Francois Bigot?" He paused for a moment, and looking up to the leader of Montcalm's soldiers on the Heights, waved him back; then he continued:
"And to-day, when I am ready to give you great news, you play the mad dog's game; you destroy what I had meant to give you in our hour of danger, when those English came. I made you suffer a little, that you might live then. Only to-day, because of our great and glorious victory--"
He paused again. The peal of bells became louder. Far up on the Heights we heard the calling of bugles and the beating of drums; and now I saw the whole large plan, the deep dramatic scheme. He had withheld the news of the victory that he might announce it when it would most turn to his own glory. Perhaps he had not counted on the burning of the warehouse, but this would tell now in his favour. He was not a large man, but he drew himself up with dignity, and continued in a contemptuous tone:
"Because of our splendid victory, I designed to tell you all my plans, and, pitying your trouble, divide among you at the smallest price, that all might pay, the corn which now goes to feed the stars."
At that moment some one from the Heights above called out shrilly, "What lie is in that paper, Francois Bigot?"
I looked up, as did the crowd. A woman stood upon a point of the great rock, a red robe hanging on her, her hair free over her shoulders, her finger pointing at the Intendant. Bigot only glanced up, then smoothed out the paper.
He said to the people in a clear but less steady voice, for I could see that the woman had disturbed him, "Go pray to be forgiven for your insolence and folly. His most Christian Majesty is triumphant upon the Ohio. The English have been killed in thousands, and their General with them. Do you not hear the joy-bells in the Church of Our Lady of the Victories? and more--listen!"
There burst from the Heights on the other side a cannon shot, and then another and another. There was a great commotion, and many ran to Bigot's carriage, reached in to touch his hand, and called down blessings on him.
"See that you save the other granaries," he urged, adding, with a sneer, "and forget not to bless La Friponne in your prayers!"
It was a clever piece of acting. Presently from the Heights above came the woman's voice again, so piercing that the crowd turned to her.
"Francois Bigot is a liar and a traitor!" she cried. "Beware of Francois Bigot! God has cast him out."
A dark look came upon Bigot's face; but presently he turned, and gave a sign to some one near the palace. The doors of the courtyard flew open, and out came squad after squad of soldiers. In a moment, they, with the people, were busy carrying water to pour upon the side of the endangered warehouse. Fortunately the wind was with them, else it and the palace also would have been burned that night.
The Intendant still stood in his carriage watching and listening to the cheers of the people. At last he beckoned to Doltaire and to me. We both went over.
"Doltaire, we looked for you at dinner," he said. "Was Captain Moray"--nodding towards me--"lost among the petticoats? He knows the trick of cup and saucer. Between the sip and click he sucked in secrets from our garrison--a spy where had been a soldier, as we thought. You once wore a sword, Captain Moray--eh?"
"If the Governor would grant me leave, I would not only wear, but use one, your excellency knows well where," said I.
"Large speaking, Captain Moray. They do that in Virginia, I am told."
"In Gascony there's quiet, your excellency."
Doltaire laughed outright, for it was said that Bigot, in his coltish days, had a shrewish Gascon wife, whom he took leave to send to heaven before her time. I saw the Intendant's mouth twitch angrily.
"Come," he said, "you have a tongue; we'll see if you have a stomach. You've languished with the girls; you shall have your chance to drink with Francois Bigot. Now, if you dare, when we have drunk to the first cockcrow, should you be still on your feet, you'll fight some one among us, first giving ample cause."
"I hope, your excellency," I replied, with a touch of vanity, "I have still some stomach and a wrist. I will drink to cockcrow, if you will. And if my sword prove the stronger, what?"
"There's the point," he said. "Your Englishman loves not fighting for fighting's sake, Doltaire; he must have bonbons for it. Well, see: if your sword and stomach prove the stronger, you shall go your ways to where you will. Voila!"
If I could but have seen a bare portion of the craftiness of this pair of devils artisans! They both had ends to serve in working ill to me, and neither was content that I should be shut away in the citadel, and no more. There was a deeper game playing. I give them their due: the trap was skillful, and in those times, with great things at stake, strategy took the place of open fighting here and there. For Bigot I was to be a weapon against another; for Doltaire, against myself.
What a gull they must have thought me! I might have known that, with my lost papers on the way to France, they must hold me tight here till I had been tried, nor permit me to escape. But I was sick of doing nothing, thinking with horror on a long winter in the citadel, and I caught at the least straw of freedom.
"Captain Moray will like to spend a couple of hours at his lodgings before he joins us at the palace," the Intendant said, and with a nod to me he turned to his coachman. The horses wheeled, and in a moment the great doors opened, and he had passed inside to applause, though here and there among the crowd was heard a hiss, for the Scarlet Woman had made an impression. The Intendant's men essayed to trace these noises, but found no one. Looking again to the Heights, I saw that the woman had gone. Doltaire noted my glance and the inquiry in my face, and he said:
"Some bad fighting hours with the Intendant at Chateau Bigot, and then a fever, bringing a kind of madness: so the story creeps about, as told by Bigot's enemies."
Just at this point I felt a man hustle me as he passed. One of the soldiers made a thrust at him, and he turned round. I caught his eye, and it flashed something to me. It was Voban the barber, who had shaved me every day for months when I first came, while my arm was stiff from a wound got fighting the French on the Ohio. It was quite a year since I had met him, and I was struck by the change in his face. It had grown much older; its roundness was gone. We had had many a talk together; he helping me with French, I listening to the tales of his early life in France, and to the later tale of a humble love, and of the home which he was fitting up for his Mathilde, a peasant girl of much beauty, I was told, but whom I had never seen. I remembered at that moment, as he stood in the crowd looking at me, the piles of linen which he had bought at Ste. Anne de Beaupre, and the silver pitcher which his grandfather had got from the Duc de Valois for an act of merit. Many a time we had discussed the pitcher and the deed, and fingered the linen, now talking in French, now in English; for in France, years before, he had been a valet to an English officer at King Louis's court. But my surprise had been great when I learned that this English gentleman was no other than the best friend I ever had, next to my parents and my grandfather. Voban was bound to Sir John Godric by as strong ties of affection as I. What was more, by a secret letter I had sent to George Washington, who was then as good a Briton as myself, I had been able to have my barber's young brother, a prisoner of war, set free.
I felt that he had something to say to me. But he turned away and disappeared among the crowd. I might have had some clue if I had known that he had been crouched behind the Intendant's carriage while I was being bidden to the supper. I did not guess then that there was anything between him and the Scarlet Woman who railed at Bigot.
In a little while I was at my lodgings, soldiers posted at my door and one in my room. Doltaire gone to his own quarters promising to call for me within two hours. There was little for me to do but to put in a bag the fewest necessaries, to roll up my heavy cloak, to stow safely my pipes and two goodly packets of tobacco, which were to be my chiefest solace for many a long day, and to write some letters--one to Governor Dinwiddie, one to George Washington, and one to my partner in Virginia, telling them my fresh misfortunes, and begging them to send me money, which, however useless in my captivity, would be important in my fight for life and freedom. I did not write intimately of my state, for I was not sure my letters would ever pass outside Quebec. There were only two men I could trust to do the thing. One was a fellow-countryman, Clark, a ship-carpenter, who, to save his neck and to spare his wife and child, had turned Catholic, but who hated all Frenchmen barbarously at heart, remembering two of his bairns butchered before his eyes. The other was Voban. I knew that though Voban might not act, he would not betray me. But how to reach either of them? It was clear that I must bide my chances.
One other letter I wrote, brief but vital, in which I begged the sweetest girl in the world not to have uneasiness because of me; that I trusted to my star and to my innocence to convince my judges; and begging her, if she could, to send me a line at the citadel. I told her I knew well how hard it would be, for her mother and her father would not now look upon my love with favour. But I trusted all to time and Providence.
I sealed my letters, put them in my pocket, and sat down to smoke and think while I waited for Doltaire. To the soldier on duty, whom I did not notice at first, I now offered a pipe and a glass of wine, which he accepted rather gruffly, but enjoyed, if I might judge by his devotion to them.
By-and-bye, without any relevancy at all, he said abruptly, "If a little sooner she had come--aho!"
For a moment I could not think what he meant; but soon I saw.
"The palace would have been burnt if the girl in scarlet had come sooner--eh?" I asked. "She would have urged the people on?"
"And Bigot burnt, too, maybe," he answered.
"Fire and death--eh?"
I offered him another pipeful of tobacco. He looked doubtful, but accepted.
"Aho! And that Voban, he would have had his hand in," he growled.
I began to get more light.
"She was shut up at Chateau Bigot--hand of iron and lock of steel--who knows the rest! But Voban was for always," he added presently.
The thing was clear. The Scarlet Woman was Mathilde. So here was the end of Voban's little romance--of the fine linen from Ste. Anne de Beaupre and the silver pitcher for the wedding wine. I saw, or felt, that in Voban I might find now a confederate, if I put my hard case on Bigot's shoulders.
"I can't see why she stayed with Bigot," I said tentatively.
"Break the dog's leg, it can't go hunting bones--mais, non! Holy, how stupid are you English!"
"Why doesn't the Intendant lock her up now? She's dangerous to him. You remember what she said?"
"Tonnerre, you shall see to-morrow," he answered; "now all the sheep go bleating with the bell. Bigot--Bigot--Bigot--there is nothing but Bigot! But, pish! Vaudreuil the Governor is the great man, and Montcalm, aho! son of Mahomet! You shall see. Now they dance to Bigot's whistling; he will lock her safe enough to-morrow, 'less some one steps in to help her. Before to-night she never spoke of him before the world--but a poor daft thing, going about all sad and wild. She missed her chance to-night--aho!"
"Why are you not with Montcalm's soldiers?" I asked. "You like him better."
"I was with him, but my time was out, and I left him for Bigot. Pish! I left him for Bigot, for the militia!" He raised his thumb to his nose, and spread out his fingers. Again light dawned on me. He was still with the Governor in all fact, though soldiering for Bigot--a sort of watch upon the Intendant.
I saw my chance. If I could but induce this fellow to fetch me Voban! There was yet an hour before I was to go to the intendance.
I called up what looks of candour were possible to me, and told him bluntly that I wished Voban to bear a letter for me to the Seigneur Duvarney's. At that he cocked his ear and shook his bushy head, fiercely stroking his mustaches.
I knew that I should stake something if I said it was a letter for Mademoiselle Duvarney, but I knew also that if he was still the Governor's man in Bigot's pay he would understand the Seigneur's relations with the Governor. And a woman in the case with a soldier--that would count for something. So I said it was for her. Besides, I had no other resource but to make a friend among my enemies, if I could, while yet there was a chance.
It was like a load lifted from me when I saw his mouth and eyes open wide in a big soundless laugh, which came to an end with a voiceless aho! I gave him another tumbler of wine. Before he took it, he made a wide mouth at me again, and slapped his leg. After drinking, he said, "Poom--what good? They're going to hang you for a spy."
"That rope's not ready yet," I answered. "I'll tie a pretty knot in another string first, I trust."
"Damned if you haven't spirit!" said he. "That Seigneur Duvarney, I know him; and I know his son the ensign--whung, what saltpetre is he! And the ma'm'selle--excellent, excellent; and a face, such a face, and a seat like leeches in the saddle. And you a British officer mewed up to kick your heels till gallows day! So droll, my dear!"
"But will you fetch Voban?" I asked.
"To trim your hair against the supper to-night--eh, like that?"
As he spoke he puffed out his red cheeks with wide boylike eyes, burst his lips in another soundless laugh, and laid a finger beside his nose. His marvellous innocence of look and his peasant openness hid, I saw, great shrewdness and intelligence--an admirable man for Vaudreuil's purpose, as admirable for mine. I knew well that if I had tried to bribe him he would have scouted me, or if I had made a motion for escape he would have shot me off-hand. But a lady--that appealed to him; and that she was the Seigneur Duvarney's daughter did the rest.
"Yes, yes," said I, "one must be well appointed in soul and body when one sups with his Excellency and Monsieur Doltaire."
"Limed inside and chalked outside," he retorted gleefully. "But M'sieu' Doltaire needs no lime, for he has no soul. No, by Sainte Helois! The good God didn't make him. The devil laughed, and that laugh grew into M'sieu' Doltaire. But brave!--no kicking pulse is in his body."
"You will send for Voban--now?" I asked softly.
He was leaning against the door as he spoke. He reached and put the tumbler on a shelf, then turned and opened the door, his face all altered to a grimness.
"Attend here, Labrouk!" he called; and on the soldier coming, he blurted out in scorn, "Here's this English captain can't go to supper without Voban's shears to snip him. Go fetch him, for I'd rather hear a calf in a barn-yard than this whing-whanging for 'M'sieu' Voban!'"
He mocked my accent in the last two words, so that the soldier grinned, and at once started away. Then he shut the door, and turned to me again, and said more seriously, "How long have we before Monsieur comes?"--meaning Doltaire.
"At least an hour," said I.
"Good," he rejoined, and then he smoked while I sat thinking.
It was near an hour before we heard footsteps outside; then came a knock, and Voban was shown in.
"Quick, m'sieu'," he said. "M'sieu' is almost at our heels."
"This letter," said I, "to Mademoiselle Duvarney," and I handed four: hers, and those to Governor Dinwiddie, to Mr. Washington, and to my partner.
He quickly put them in his coat, nodding. The soldier--I have not yet mentioned his name--Gabord, did not know that more than one passed into Voban's hands.
"Off with your coat, m'sieu'," said Voban, whipping out his shears, tossing his cap aside, and rolling down his apron. "M'sieu' is here."
I had off my coat, was in a chair in a twinkling, and he was clipping softly at me as Doltaire's hand turned the handle of the door.
"Beware--to-night!" Voban whispered.
"Come to me in the prison," said I. "Remember your brother!"
His lips twitched. "M'sieu', I will if I can." This he said in my ear as Doltaire entered and came forward.
"Upon my life!" Doltaire broke out. "These English gallants! They go to prison curled and musked by Voban. Voban--a name from the court of the King, and it garnishes a barber. Who called you, Voban?"
"My mother, with the cure's help, m'sieu'."
Doltaire paused, with a pinch of snuff at his nose, and replied lazily, "I did not say 'Who called you Voban?' Voban, but who called you here, Voban?"
I spoke up testily then of purpose: "What would you have, monsieur? The citadel has better butchers than barbers. I sent for him."
He shrugged his shoulders and came over to Voban. "Turn round, my Voban," he said. "Voban--and such a figure! a knee, a back like that!"
Then, while my heart stood still, he put forth a finger and touched the barber on the chest. If he should touch the letters! I was ready to seize them--but would that save them? Twice, thrice, the finger prodded Voban's breast, as if to add an emphasis to his words. "In Quebec you are misplaced, Monsieur le Voban. Once a wasp got into a honeycomb and died."
I knew he was hinting at the barber's resentment of the poor Mathilde's fate. Something strange and devilish leapt into the man's eyes, and he broke out bitterly,
"A honey-bee got into a nest of wasps--and died."
I thought of the Scarlet Woman on the hill.
Voban looked for a moment as if he might do some wild thing. His spirit, his devilry, pleased Doltaire, and he laughed. "Who would have thought our Voban had such wit? The trade of barber is double-edged. Razors should be in fashion at Versailles."
Then he sat down, while Voban made a pretty show of touching off my person. A few minutes passed so, in which the pealing of bells, the shouting of the people, the beating of drums, and the calling of bugles came to us clearly.
A half hour afterwards, on our way to the Intendant's palace, we heard the Benedictus chanted in the Church of the Recollets as we passed--hundreds kneeling outside, and responding to the chant sung within:
"That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hands of all that hate us."
At the corner of a building which we passed, a little away from the crowd, I saw a solitary cloaked figure. The words of the chant, following us, I could hear distinctly:
"That we, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, might serve Him without fear."
And then, from the shadowed corner came in a high, melancholy voice the words:
"To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace."
Looking closer, I saw it was Mathilde.
Doltaire smiled as I turned and begged a moment's time to speak to her.
"To pray with the lost angel and sup with the Intendant, all in one night--a liberal taste, monsieur; but who shall stay the good Samaritan!"
They stood a little distance away, and I went over to her and said, "Mademoiselle--Mathilde, do you not know me?"
Her abstracted eye fired up, as there ran to her brain some little sprite out of the House of Memory and told her who I was.
"There were two lovers in the world," she said: "the Mother of God forgot them, and the devil came. I am the Scarlet Woman," she went on; "I made this red robe from the curtains of Hell--"
Poor soul! My own trouble seemed then as a speck among the stars to hers. I took her hand and held it, saying again, "Do you not know me? Think, Mathilde!"
I was not sure that she had ever seen me, to know me, but I thought it possible; for, as a hostage, I had been much noticed in Quebec, and Voban had, no doubt, pointed me out to her. Light leapt from her black eye, and then she said, putting her finger on her lips, "Tell all the lovers to hide. I have seen a hundred Francois Bigots."
I looked at her, saying nothing--I knew not what to say. Presently her eye steadied to mine, and her intellect rallied. "You are a prisoner, too," she said; "but they will not kill you: they will keep you till the ring of fire grows in your head, and then you will make your scarlet robe, and go out, but you will never find It--never. God hid first, and then It hides.... It hides, that which you lost--It hides, and you can not find It again. You go hunting, hunting, but you can not find It."
My heart was pinched with pain. I understood her. She did not know her lover now at all. If Alixe and her mother at the Manor could but care for her, I thought. But alas! what could I do? It were useless to ask her to go to the Manor; she would not understand.
Perhaps there come to the disordered mind flashes of insight, illuminations and divinations, greater than are given to the sane, for she suddenly said in a whisper, touching me with a nervous finger, "I will go and tell her where to hide. They shall not find her. I know the woodpath to the Manor. Hush! she shall own all I have--except the scarlet robe. She showed me where the May-apples grew. Go,"--she pushed me gently away--"go to your prison, and pray to God. But you can not kill Francois Bigot, he is a devil." Then she thrust into my hands a little wooden cross, which she took from many others at her girdle. "If you wear that, the ring of fire will not grow," she said. "I will go by the woodpath, and give her one, too. She shall live with me: I will spread the cedar branches and stir the fire. She shall be safe. Hush! Go, go softly, for their wicked eyes are everywhere, the were-wolves!"
She put her fingers on my lips for an instant, and then, turning, stole softly away towards the St. Charles River.
Doltaire's mockery brought me back to myself.
"So much for the beads of the addled; now for the bowls of sinful man," said he.