Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
IV. The Rat in the Trap
When I waked I was alone. At first nothing was clear to me; my brain was dancing in my head, my sight was obscured, my body painful, my senses were blunted. I was in darkness, yet through an open door there showed a light, which, from the smell and flickering, I knew to be a torch. This, creeping into my senses, helped me to remember that the last thing I saw in the Intendant's courtyard was a burning torch, which suddenly multiplied to dancing hundreds and then went out. I now stretched forth a hand, and it touched a stone wall; I moved, and felt straw under me. Then I fixed my eyes steadily on the open door and the shaking light, and presently it all came to me: the events of the night, and that I was now in a cell of the citadel. Stirring, I found that the wound in my body had been bound and cared for. A loosely tied scarf round my arm showed that some one had lately left me, and would return to finish the bandaging. I raised myself with difficulty, and saw a basin of water, a sponge, bits of cloth, and a pocket-knife. Stupid and dazed though I was, the instinct of self-preservation lived, and I picked up the knife and hid it in my coat. I did it, I believe, mechanically, for a hundred things were going through my mind at the time.
All at once there rushed in on me the thought of Juste Duvarney as I saw him last--how long ago was it?--his white face turned to the sky, his arms stretched out, his body dabbled in blood. I groaned aloud. Fool, fool! to be trapped by these lying French! To be tricked into playing their shameless games for them, to have a broken body, to have killed the brother of the mistress of my heart, and so cut myself off from her and ruined my life for nothing--for worse than nothing! I had swaggered, boasted, had taken a challenge for a bout and a quarrel like any hanger-on of a tavern.
Suddenly I heard footsteps and voices outside; then one voice, louder than the other, saying, "He hasn't stirred a peg--lies like a log!" It was Gabord.
Doltaire's voice replied, "You will not need a surgeon--no?" His tone, as it seemed to me, was less careless than usual.
Gabord answered, "I know the trick of it all--what can a surgeon do? This brandy will fetch him to his intellects. And by-and-bye crack'll go his spine--aho!"
You have heard a lion growling on a bone. That is how Gabord's voice sounded to me then--a brutal rawness; but it came to my mind also that this was the man who had brought Voban to do me service!
"Come, come, Gabord, crack your jaws less, and see you fetch him on his feet again," said Doltaire. "From the seats of the mighty they have said that he must live--to die another day; and see to it, or the mighty folk will say that you must die to live another day--in a better world, my Gabord."
There was a moment in which the only sound was that of tearing linen, and I could see the shadows of the two upon the stone wall of the corridor wavering to the light of the torch; then the shadows shifted entirely, and their footsteps came on towards my door. I was lying on my back as when I came to, and, therefore, probably as Gabord had left me, and I determined to appear still in a faint. Through nearly closed eyelids however I saw Gabord enter. Doltaire stood in the doorway watching as the soldier knelt and lifted my arm to take off the bloody scarf. His manner was imperturbable as ever. Even then I wondered what his thoughts were, what pungent phrase he was suiting to the time and to me. I do not know to this day which more interested him--that very pungency of phrase, or the critical events which inspired his reflections. He had no sense of responsibility; his mind loved talent, skill, and cleverness, and though it was scathing of all usual ethics, for the crude, honest life of the poor it had sympathy. I remember remarks of his in the market-place a year before, as he and I watched the peasant in his sabots and the good-wife in her homespun cloth.
"These are they," said he, "who will save the earth one day, for they are like it, kin to it. When they are born they lie close to it, and when they die they fall no height to reach their graves. The rest--the world--are like ourselves in dreams: we do not walk; we think we fly, over houses, over trees, over mountains; and then one blessed instant the spring breaks, or the dream gets twisted, and we go falling, falling, in a sickening fear, and, waking up, we find we are and have been on the earth all the while, and yet can make no claim on it, and have no kin with it, and no right to ask anything of it--quelle vie--quelle vie!"
Sick as I was, I thought of that as he stood there, looking in at me; and though I knew I ought to hate him, I admired him in spite of all.
Presently he said to Gabord, "You'll come to me at noon to-morrow, and see you bring good news. He breathes?"
Gabord put a hand on my chest and at my neck, and said at once, "Breath for balloons--aho!"
Doltaire threw his cloak over his shoulder and walked away, his footsteps sounding loud in the passages. Gabord began humming to himself as he tied the bandages, and then he reached down for the knife to cut the flying strings. I could see this out of a little corner of my eye. When he did not find it, he settled back on his haunches and looked at me. I could feel his lips puffing out, and I was ready for the "Poom!" that came from him. Then I could feel him stooping over me, and his hot strong breath in my face. I was so near to unconsciousness at that moment by a sudden anxiety that perhaps my feigning had the look of reality. In any case, he thought me unconscious and fancied that he had taken the knife away with him; for he tucked in the strings of the bandage. Then, lifting my head, he held the flask to my lips; for which I was most grateful--I was dizzy and miserably faint.
I think I came to with rather more alacrity than was wise, but he was deceived, and his first words were, "Ho, ho! the devil's knocking; who's for home, angels?"
It was his way to put all things allusively, using strange figures and metaphors. Yet, when one was used to him and to them, their potency seemed greater than polished speech and ordinary phrase.
He offered me more brandy, and then, without preface, I asked him the one question which sank back on my heart like a load of ice even as I sent it forth. "Is he alive?" I inquired. "Is Monsieur Juste Duvarney alive?"
With exasperating coolness he winked an eye, to connect the event with what he knew of the letter I had sent to Alixe, and, cocking his head, he blew out his lips with a soundless laugh, and said:
"To whisk the brother off to heaven is to say good-bye to sister and pack yourself to Father Peter."
"For God's sake, tell me, is the boy dead?" I asked, my voice cracking in my throat.
"He's not mounted for the journey yet," he answered, with a shrug, "but the Beast is at the door."
I plied my man with questions, and learned that they had carried Juste into the palace for dead, but found life in him, and straightway used all means to save him. A surgeon came, his father and mother were sent for, and when Doltaire had left there was hope that he would live.
I learned also that Voban had carried word to the Governor of the deed to be done that night; had for a long time failed to get admittance to him, but was at last permitted to tell his story; and Vaudreuil had gone to Bigot's palace to have me hurried to the citadel, and had come just too late.
After answering my first few questions, Gabord say nothing more, and presently he took the torch from the wall and with a gruff good-night prepared to go. When I asked that a light be left, he shook his head, said he had no orders. Whereupon he left me, the heavy door clanging to, the bolts were shot, and I was alone in darkness with my wounds and misery. My cloak had been put into the cell beside my couch, and this I now drew over me, and I lay and thought upon my condition and my prospects, which, as may be seen, were not cheering. I did not suffer great pain from my wounds--only a stiffness that troubled me not at all if I lay still. After an hour or so passed--for it is hard to keep count of time when one's thoughts are the only timekeeper--I fell asleep.
I know not how long I slept, but I awoke refreshed. I stretched forth my uninjured arm, moving it about. In spite of will a sort of hopelessness went through me, for I could feel long blades of corn grown up about my couch, an unnatural meadow, springing from the earth floor of my dungeon. I drew the blades between my fingers, feeling towards them as if they were things of life out of place like myself. I wondered what colour they were. Surely, said I to myself, they can not be green, but rather a yellowish white, bloodless, having only fibre, the heart all pinched to death. Last night I had not noted them, yet now, looking back, I saw, as in a picture, Gabord the soldier feeling among them for the knife that I had taken. So may we see things, and yet not be conscious of them at the time, waking to their knowledge afterwards. So may we for years look upon a face without understanding, and then, suddenly, one day it comes flashing out, and we read its hidden story like a book.
I put my hand out farther, then brought it back near to my couch, feeling towards its foot mechanically, and now I touched an earthen pan. A small board lay across its top, and moving my fingers along it I found a piece of bread. Then I felt the jar, and knew it was filled with water. Sitting back, I thought hard for a moment. Of this I was sure: the pan and bread were not there when I went to sleep, for this was the spot where my eyes fell naturally while I lay in bed looking towards Doltaire; and I should have remembered it now, even if I had not noted it then. My jailer had brought these while I slept. But it was still dark. I waked again as though out of sleep, startled: I was in a dungeon that had no window!
Here I was, packed away in a farthest corner of the citadel, in a deep hole that maybe had not been used for years, to be, no doubt, denied all contact with the outer world--I was going to say friends, but whom could I name among them save that dear soul who, by last night's madness, should her brother be dead, was forever made dumb and blind to me? Whom had I but her and Voban!--and Voban was yet to be proved. The Seigneur Duvarney had paid all debts he may have owed me, and he now might, because of the injury to his son, leave me to my fate. On Gabord the soldier I could not count at all.
There I was, as Doltaire had said, like a rat in a trap. But I would not let panic seize me. So I sat and ate the stale but sweet bread, took a long drink of the good water from the earthen jar, and then, stretching myself out, drew my cloak up to my chin, and settled myself for sleep again. And that I might keep up a kind delusion that I was not quite alone in the bowels of the earth, I reached out my hand and affectionately drew the blades of corn between my fingers.
Presently I drew my chin down to my shoulder, and let myself drift out of painful consciousness almost as easily as a sort of woman can call up tears at will. When I waked again, it was without a start or moving, without confusion, and I was bitterly hungry. Beside my couch, with his hands on his hips and his feet thrust out, stood Gabord, looking down at me in a quizzical and unsatisfied way. A torch was burning near him.
"Wake up, my dickey-bird," said he in his rough, mocking voice, "and we'll snuggle you into the pot. You've been long hiding; come out of the bush--aho!"
I drew myself up painfully. "What is the hour?" I asked, and meanwhile I looked for the earthen jar and the bread.
"Hour since when?" said he.
"Since it was twelve o'clock last night," I answered.
"Fourteen hours since then," said he.
The emphasis arrested my attention. "I mean," I added, "since the fighting in the courtyard."
"Thirty-six hours and more since then, m'sieu' the dormouse," was his reply.
I had slept a day and a half since the doors of this cell closed on me. It was Friday then; now it was Sunday afternoon. Gabord had come to me three times, and seeing how sound asleep I was had not disturbed me, but had brought bread and water--my prescribed diet.
He stood there, his feet buried in the blanched corn--I could see the long yellowish-white blades--the torch throwing shadows about him, his back against the wall. I looked carefully round my dungeon. There was no a sign of a window; I was to live in darkness. Yet if I were but allowed candles, or a lantern, or a torch, some books, paper, pencil, and tobacco, and the knowledge that I had not killed Juste Duvarney, I could abide the worst with some sort of calmness. How much might have happened, must have happened, in all these hours of sleep! My letter to Alixe should have been delivered long ere this; my trial, no doubt, had been decided on. What had Voban done? Had he any word for me? Dear Lord! here was a mass of questions tumbling one upon the other in my head, while my heart thumped behind my waistcoat like a rubber ball to a prize-fighter's fist. Misfortunes may be so great and many that one may find grim humour and grotesqueness in their impossible conjunction and multiplicity. I remembered at that moment a friend of mine in Virginia, the most unfortunate man I ever knew. Death, desertion, money losses, political defeat, flood, came one upon the other all in two years, and coupled with this was loss of health. One day he said to me:
"Robert, I have a perforated lung, my liver is a swelling sponge, eating crowds my waistband like a balloon, I have a swimming in my head and a sinking at my heart, and I can not say litany for happy release from these for my knees creak with rheumatism. The devil has done his worst, Robert, for these are his--plague and pestilence, being final, are the will of God--and, upon my soul, it is an absurd comedy of ills!" At that he had a fit of coughing, and I gave him a glass of spirits, which eased him.
"That's better," said I cheerily to him.
"It's robbing Peter to pay Paul," he answered; "for I owed it to my head to put the quid refert there, and here it's gone to my lungs to hurry up my breathing. Did you ever think, Robert," he added, "that this breathing of ours is a labor, and that we have to work every second to keep ourselves alive? We have to pump air in and out like a blacksmith's boy." He said it so drolly, though he was deadly ill, that I laughed for half an hour at the stretch, wiping away my tears as I did it; for his pale gray face looked so sorry, with its quaint smile and that odd, dry voice of his.
As I sat there in my dungeon, with Gabord cocking his head and his eyes rolling, that scene flashed on me, and I laughed freely--so much so that Gabord sulkily puffed out his lips, and flamed like bunting on a coast-guard's hut. The more he scowled and spluttered, the more I laughed, till my wounded side hurt me and my arm had twinges. But my mood changed suddenly, and I politely begged his pardon, telling him frankly then and there what had made me laugh, and how I had come to think of it. The flame passed out of his cheeks, the revolving fire of his eyes dimmed, his lips broke into a soundless laugh, and then, in his big voice, he said:
"You've got your knees to pray on yet, and crack my bones, but you'll have need to con your penitentials if tattle in the town be true."
"Before you tell of that," said I, "how is young Monsieur Duvarney? Is--is he alive?" I added, as I saw his face look lower.
"The Beast was at door again last night, wild to be off, and foot of young Seigneur was in the stirrup, when along comes sister with drug got from an Indian squaw who nursed her when a child. She gives it him, and he drinks; they carry him back, sleeping, and Beast must stand there tugging at the leathers yet."
"His sister--it was his sister," said I, "that brought him back to life?"
"Like that--aho! They said she must not come, but she will have her way. Straight she goes to the palace at night, no one knowing but--guess who? You can't--but no!"
A light broke in on me. "With the Scarlet Woman--with Mathilde," I said, hoping in my heart that it was so, for somehow I felt even then that she, poor vagrant, would play a part in the history of Alixe's life and mine.
"At the first shot," he said. "'Twas the crimson one, as quiet as a baby chick, not hanging to ma'm'selle's skirts, but watching and whispering a little now and then--and she there in Bigot's palace, and he not knowing it! And maids do not tell him, for they knew the poor wench in better days--aho!"
I got up with effort and pain, and made to grasp his hand in gratitude, but he drew back, putting his arms behind him.
"No, no," said he, "I am your jailer. They've put you here to break your high spirits, and I'm to help the breaking."
"But I thank you just the same," I answered him; "and I promise to give you as little trouble as may be while you are my jailer--which, with all my heart, I hope may be as long as I'm a prisoner."
He waved out his hands to the dungeon walls, and lifted his shoulders as if to say that I might as well be docile, for the prison was safe enough. "Poom!" said he, as if in genial disdain of my suggestion.
I smiled, and then, after putting my hands on the walls here and there to see if they were, as they seemed, quite dry, I drew back to my couch and sat down. Presently I stooped to tip the earthen jar of water to my lips, for I could not lift it with one hand, but my humane jailer took it from me and held it to my mouth. When I had drunk, "Do you know," asked I as calmly as I could, "if our barber gave the letter to Mademoiselle?"
"M'sieu', you've travelled far to reach that question," said he, jangling his keys as if he enjoyed it. "And if he had--?"
I caught at his vague suggestion, and my heart leaped.
"A reply," said I, "a message or a letter," though I had not dared to let myself even think of that.
He whipped a tiny packet from his coat. "'Tis a sparrow's pecking--no great matter here, eh?"--he weighed it up and down on his fingers--"a little piping wren's par pitie."
I reached out for it. "I should read it," said he. "There must be no more of this. But new orders came after I'd got her dainty a m'sieu'! Yes, I must read it," said he--"but maybe not at first," he added, "not at first, if you'll give word of honour not to tear it."
"On my sacred honour," said I, reaching out still.
He looked it all over again provokingly, and then lifted it to his nose, for it had a delicate perfume. Then he gave a little grunt of wonder and pleasure, and handed it over.
I broke the seal, and my eyes ran swiftly through the lines, traced in a firm, delicate hand. I could see through it all the fine, sound nature, by its healthy simplicity mastering anxiety, care, and fear.
"Robert," she wrote, "by God's help my brother will live, to repent with you, I trust, of Friday night's ill work. He was near gone, yet we have held him back from that rough-rider, Death.
"You will thank God, will you not, that my brother did not die? Indeed, I feel you have. I do not blame you; I know--I need not tell you how--the heart of the affair; and even my mother can see through the wretched thing. My father says little, and he has not spoken harshly; for which I gave thanksgiving this morning in the chapel of the Ursulines. Yet you are in a dungeon, covered with wounds of my brother's making, both of you victims of others' villainy, and you are yet to bear worse things, for they are to try you for your life. But never shall I believe that they will find you guilty of dishonour. I have watched you these three years; I do not, nor ever will, doubt you, dear friend of my heart.
"You would not believe it, Robert, and you may think it fanciful, but as I got up from my prayers at the chapel I looked towards a window, and it being a little open, for it is a sunny day, there sat a bird on the sill, a little brown bird that peeped and nodded. I was so won by it that I came softly over to it. It did not fly away, but hopped a little here and there. I stretched out my hand gently on the stone, and putting its head now this side, now that, at last it tripped into it, and chirped most sweetly. After I had kissed it I placed it back on the window-sill, that it might fly away again. Yet no, it would not go, but stayed there, tipping its gold-brown head at me as though it would invite me to guess why it came. Again I reached out my hand, and once more it tripped into it. I stood wondering and holding it to my bosom, when I heard a voice behind me say, 'The bird would be with thee, my child. God hath many signs.' I turned and saw the good Mere St. George looking at me, she of whom I was always afraid, so distant is she. I did not speak, but only looked at her, and she nodded kindly at me and passed on.
"And, Robert, as I write to you here in the Intendant's palace (what a great wonderful place it is! I fear I do not hate it and its luxury as I ought!), the bird is beside me in a cage upon the table, with a little window open, so that it may come out if it will. My brother lies in the bed asleep; I can touch him if I but put out my hand, and I am alone save for one person. You sent two messengers: can you not guess the one that will be with me? Poor Mathilde, she sits and gazes at me till I almost fall weeping. But she seldom speaks, she is so quiet--as if she knew that she must keep a secret. For, Robert, though I know you did not tell her, she knows--she knows that you love me, and she has given me a little wooden cross which she said will make us happy.
"My mother did not drive her away, as I half feared she would, and at last she said that I might house her with one of our peasants. Meanwhile she is with me here. She is not so mad but that she has wisdom too, and she shall have my care and friendship.
"I bid thee to God's care, Robert. I need not tell thee to be not dismayed. Thou hast two jails, and one wherein I lock thee safe is warm and full of light. If the hours drag by, think of all thou wouldst do if thou wert free to go to thine own country--yet alas that thought!--and of what thou wouldst say if thou couldst speak to thy Alixe.
"Postscript.--I trust that they have cared for thy wounds, and that thou hast light and food and wine. Voban hath promised to discover this for me. The soldier Gabord, at the citadel, he hath a good heart. Though thou canst expect no help from him, yet he will not be rougher than his orders. He did me a good service once, and he likes me, and I him. And so fare thee well, Robert. I will not languish; I will act, and not be weary. Dost thou really love me?"