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A Gentleman of France by Stanley Weyman

Part 6 out of 9

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But as it was I dared not wait. I dared not risk the delay, and
I came quickly to the conclusion that the only course open to me
was to go at once to M. de Rambouillet and tell him frankly how
the matter stood.

Maignan had posted one of his men at the open doorway leading
into the street, and fixed his own quarters on the landing at the
top, whence he could overlook an intruder without being seen
himself. Satisfied with the arrangement, I left Rambouillet's
man to reinforce him, and took with me Simon Fleix, of whose
conduct in regard to mademoiselle I entertained the gravest
doubts.

The night, I found on reaching the street, was cold, the sky
where it was visible between the eaves being bright with stars.
A sharp wind was blowing, too, compelling us to wrap our cloaks
round us and hurry on at a pace which agreed well with the
excitement of my thoughts. Assured that had mademoiselle been
complaisant I might have seen my mission accomplished within the
hour, it was impossible I should not feel impatient with one who,
to gratify a whim, played with the secrets of a kingdom as if
they were counters, and risked in passing ill-humour the results
of weeks of preparation. And I was impatient, and with her. But
my resentment fell so far short of the occasion that I wondered
uneasily at my own easiness, and felt more annoyed with myself
for failing to be properly annoyed with her, than inclined to lay
the blame where it was due. It was in vain I told myself
contemptuously that she was a woman and that women were not
accountable. I felt that the real secret and motive of my
indulgence lay, not in this, but in the suspicion, which her
reference to the favour given me on my departure from Rosny had
converted almost into a certainty, that I was myself the cause of
her sudden ill-humour.

I might have followed this train of thought farther, and to very
pertinent conclusions. But on reaching M. de Rambouillet's
lodging I was diverted from it by the abnormally quiet aspect of
the house, on the steps of which half a dozen servants might
commonly be seen lounging. Now the doors were closed, no lights
shone through the windows, and the hall sounded empty and
desolate when I knocked. Not a lackey hurried to receive me even
then; but the slipshod tread of the old porter, as he came with a
lantern to open, alone broke the silence. I waited eagerly
wondering what all this could mean; and when the man at last
opened, and, recognising my face, begged my pardon if he had kept
me waiting I asked him impatiently what was the matter.

'And where is the Marquis?' I added, stepping inside to be out
of the wind, and loosening my cloak.

'Have you not heard, sir?' the man asked, holding up his lantern
to my face. He was an old, wizened, lean fellow. 'It is a
break-up, sir, I am afraid, this time.'

'A break-up?' I rejoined, peevishly. 'Speak out, man! What is
the matter? I hate mysteries.'

You have not heard the news, sir? That the Duke of Mercoeur and
Marshal Retz, with all their people, left Blois this afternoon?'

'No?' I answered, somewhat startled. 'Whither are they gone?'

'To Paris, it is said, sir,--to join the League.'

'But do you mean that they have deserted the king?' I asked.

'For certain, sir!' he answered.

'Not the Duke of Mercoeur?' I exclaimed. 'Why, man, he is the
king's brother-in-law. He owes everything to him.'

'Well, he is gone, sir,' the old man answered positively. 'The
news was brought to M. le Marquis about four o'clock, or a little
after. He got his people together, and started after them to try
and persuade them to return. Or, so it is said.'

As quickly as I could, I reviewed the situation in my mind. If
this strange news were true, and men like Mercoeur, who had every
reason to stand by the king, as well as men like Retz, who had
long been suspected of disaffection, were abandoning the Court,
the danger must be coming close indeed. The king must feel his
throne already tottering, and be eager to grasp at any means of
supporting it. Under such circumstances it seemed to be my
paramount duty to reach him; to gain his ear if possible, and at
all risks; that I and not Bruhl, Navarre not Turenne, might
profit by the first impulse of self-preservation.

Bidding the porter shut his door and keep close, I hurried to the
Castle, and was presently more than confirmed in my resolution.
For to my surprise I found the Court in much the same state as M.
de Rambouillet's house. There were double guards indeed at the
gates, who let me pass after scrutinising me narrowly; but the
courtyard, which should have been at this hour ablaze with
torches and crowded with lackeys and grooms, was a dark
wilderness, in which half a dozen links trembled mournfully.
Passing through the doors I found things within in the same
state: the hall ill lit and desolate; the staircase manned only
by a few whispering groups, who scanned me as I passed; the ante-
chambers almost empty, or occupied by the grey uniforms of the
Switzer guards. Where I had looked, to see courtiers assembling
to meet their sovereign and assure him of their fidelity, I found
only gloomy faces, watchful eyes, and mouths ominously closed.
An air of constraint and foreboding rested on all. A single
footstep sounded hollowly. The long corridors, which had so
lately rung with laughter and the rattle of dice, seemed already
devoted to the silence, and desolation which awaited them when
the Court should depart. Where any spoke I caught the name of
Guise; and I could have fancied that his mighty shadow lay upon
the place and cursed it.

Entering the chamber, I found matters little better there. His
Majesty was not present, nor were any of the Court ladies; but
half a dozen gentlemen, among whom I recognised Revol, one of the
King's secretaries, stood near the alcove. They looked up on my
entrance, as though expecting news, and then, seeing who it was,
looked away again impatiently. The Duke of Nevers was walking
moodily to and fro before one of the windows, his hands clasped
behind his back: while Biron and Crillon, reconciled by the
common peril, talked loudly on the hearth. I hesitated a moment,
uncertain how to proceed, for I was not yet; so old at Court as
to feel at home there. But, at last making up my mind, I walked
boldly up to Crillon and requested his good offices to procure me
an immediate audience of the king.

'An audience? Do you mean you want to see him alone?' he said,
raising his eyebrows and looking whimsically at Biron.

'That is my petition, M. de Crillon,' I answered firmly, though
my heart sank. 'I am here on M. de Rambouillet's business, and I
need to see his Majesty forthwith,'

'Well, that is straightforward,' he replied, clapping me on the
shoulder. 'And you shall see him. In coming to Crillon you have
come to the right man. Revol,' he continued, turning to the
secretary, 'this gentleman bears a message from M. de Rambouillet
to the king. Take him to the closet without delay, my friend,
and announce him. I will be answerable for him.'

But the secretary shrugged his shoulders up to his ears. 'It is
quite impossible, M. de Crillon,' he said gravely. 'Quite
impossible at present.'

'Impossible! Chut! I do not know the word,' Crillon retorted
rudely. 'Come, take him at once, and blame me if ill comes of
it. Do you hear?'

'But his Majesty--'

'Well?'

'Is at his devotions,' the secretary said stiffly.

'His Majesty's devotions be hanged!' Crillon rejoined--so loudly
that there was a general titter, and M. de Nevers laughed grimly.
'Do you hear?' the Avennais continued, his face growing redder
and his voice higher, 'or must I pull your ears, my friend? Take
this gentleman to the closet, I say, and if his Majesty be angry,
tell him it was by my order. I tell you he comes from
Rambouillet.'

I do not know whether it was the threat, or the mention of M. de
Rambouillet's name, which convinced the secretary. But at any
rate, after a moment's hesitation, he acquiesced.

He nodded sullenly to me to follow him, and led the way to a
curtain which masked the door of the closet. I followed him
across the chamber, after muttering a hasty word of
acknowledgment to Crillon; and I had as nearly as possible
reached the door when the bustle of some one entering the chamber
caught my ear. I had just time to turn and see that this was
Bruhl, just time to intercept the dark look of chagrin and
surprise which he fixed on me, and then Revol, holding up the
curtain, signed to me to enter.

I expected to pass at once into the presence of the king, and had
my reverence ready. Instead, I found myself to my surprise in a
small chamber, or rather passage, curtained at both ends, and
occupied by a couple of guardsmen--members, doubtless, of the
Band of the Forty-Five who rose at my entrance and looked at me
dubiously. Their guard-room, dimly illumined by a lamp of red
glass, seemed to me, in spite of its curtains and velvet bench,
and the thick tapestry which kept out every breath of wholesome
air, the most sombre I could imagine. And the most ill-omened.
But I had no time to make any long observation; for Revol,
passing me brusquely, raised the curtain at the other end, and,
with his finger on his lip, bade me by signs to enter.

I did so as silently, the heavy scent of perfumes striking me in
the face as I raised a second curtain, and stopped short a pace
beyond it; partly in reverence--because kings love their subjects
best at a distance--and partly in surprise. For the room, or
rather that portion of it in which I stood, was in darkness; only
the farther end being illumined by a cold pale flood of
moonlight, which, passing through a high, straight window, lay in
a silvery sheet on the floor. For an instant I thought I was
alone; then I saw, resting against this window, with a hand on
either mullion, a tall figure, having something strange about the
head. This peculiarity presently resolved itself into the turban
in which I had once before seen his Majesty. The king--for he it
was--was talking to himself. He had not heard me enter, and
having his back to me remained unconscious of my presence.

I paused in doubt, afraid to advance, anxious to withdraw; yet
uncertain whether I could move again unheard. At this moment
while I stood hesitating, he raised his voice, and his words,
reaching my ears, riveted my attention, so strange and eerie were
both they and his tone. 'They say there is ill-luck in
thirteen,' he muttered. 'Thirteen Valois and last!' He paused
to laugh a wicked, mirthless laugh. 'Ay,--Thirteenth! And it is
thirteen years since I entered Paris, a crowned King! There were
Quelus and Maugiron and St. Megrin and I--and he, I remember.
Ah, those days, those nights! I would sell my soul to live them
again; had I not sold it long ago in the living them once! We
were young then, and rich, and I was king; and Quelus was an
Apollo! He died calling on me to save him. And Maugiron died,
blaspheming God and the saints. And St. Megrin, he had thirty-
four wounds. And he--he is dead too, curse him! They are all
dead, all dead, and it is all over! My God! it is all over, it
is all over, it is all over!'

He repeated the last four words more than a dozen times, rocking
himself to and fro by his hold on the mullions. I trembled as I
listened, partly through fear on my own account should I be
discovered, and partly by reason of the horror of despair and
remorse--no, not remorse, regret--which spoke in his monotonous
voice. I guessed that some impulse had led him to draw the
curtain from the window and shade the lamp; and that then, as he
looked down on the moonlit country, the contrast between it and
the vicious, heated atmosphere, heavy with intrigue and worse, in
which he had spent his strength, had forced itself upon his mind.
For he presently went on.

'France! There it lies! And what will they do with it? Will
they cut it up into pieces, as it was before old Louis XI? Will
Mercoeur--curse him! be the most Christian Duke of Brittany?
And Mayenne, by the grace of God, Prince of Paris and the Upper
Seine? Or will the little Prince of Bearn beat them, and be
Henry IV., King of France and Navarre, Protector of the Churches?
Curse him too! He is thirty-six. He is my age. But he is young
and strong, and has all before him. While I--I--oh, my God, have
mercy on me! Have mercy on me, O God in Heaven!'

With the last word he fell on his knees on the step before the
window, and burst into such an agony of unmanly tears and
sobbings as I had never dreamed of or imagined, and least of all
in the King of France. Hardly knowing whether to be more ashamed
or terrified, I turned at all risks, and stealthily lifting the
curtain, crept out with infinite care; and happily with so much
good fortune as to escape detection. There was space enough
between the two curtains to admit my body and no more; and here I
stood a short while to collect my thoughts. Then, striking my
scabbard against the wall, as though by accident, and coughing
loudly at the same moment, I twitched the curtain aside with some
violence and re-entered, thinking that by these means I had given
him warning enough.

But I had not reckoned on the darkness in which the room lay, or
the excitable state in which I had left him. He heard me,
indeed, but being able to see only a tall, indistinct figure
approaching him, he took fright, and falling back against the
moonlit window, as though he saw a ghost, thrust out his hand,
gasping at the same time two words, which sounded to me like 'Ha!
Guise!'

The next instant, discerning that I fell on my knee where I
stood, and came no nearer, he recovered himself. with an effort,
which his breathing made very apparent, he asked in an unsteady
voice who it was.

'One of your Majesty's most faithful servants,' I answered,
remaining on my knee, and affecting to see nothing.

Keeping his face towards me, he sidled to the lamp and strove to
withdraw the shade. But his fingers trembled so violently that
it was some time before he succeeded, and set free the cheerful
beams, which, suddenly filling the room with radiance, disclosed
to my wondering eyes, instead of darkness and the cold gleam of
the moon, a profusion of riches, of red stuffs and gemmed trifles
and gilded arms crowded together in reckless disorder. A monkey
chained in one corner began to gibber and mow at me. A cloak of
strange cut, stretched on a wooden stand, deceived me for an
instant into thinking that there was a third person present;
while the table, heaped with dolls and powder-puff's, dog-collars
and sweet-meats, a mask, a woman's slipper, a pair of pistols,
some potions, a scourge, and an immense quantity of like litter,
had as melancholy an appearance in my eyes as the king himself,
whose disorder the light disclosed without mercy. His turban was
awry, and betrayed the premature baldness of his scalp. The
paint on his cheeks was cracked and stained, and had soiled the
gloves he wore. He looked fifty years old; and in his excitement
he had tugged his sword to the front, whence it refused to be
thrust back.

'Who sent you here?' he asked, when he had so far recovered his
senses as to recognise me, which he did with great surprise.

'I am here, sire,' I answered evasively, 'to place myself at your
Majesty's service.'

'Such loyalty is rare,' he answered, with a bitter sneer. 'But
stand up, sir. I suppose I must be thankful for small mercies,
and, losing a Mercoeur, be glad to receive a Marsac.'

'By your leave, sire,' I rejoined hardily, 'the exchange is not
so adverse. Your Majesty may make another duke when you will.
But honest men are not so easily come by.'

'So! so!' he answered, looking at me with a fierce light in his
eyes. 'You remind me in season, I may still make and unmake! I
am still King of France? That is so sirrah, is it not?'

'God forbid that it should be otherwise!' I answered earnestly.
'It is to lay before your Majesty certain means by which you may
give fuller effect to your wishes that I am here. The King of
Navarre desires only, sire--'

'Tut, tut!' he exclaimed impatiently, and with some displeasure,
'I know his will better than you, man. But you see,' he
continued cunningly, forgetting my inferior position as quickly
as he had remembered it, 'Turenne promises well, too. And
Turenne--it is true he may play the Lorrainer. But if I trust
Henry of Navarre, and he prove false to me--'

He did not complete the sentence, but strode to and fro a time or
two, his mind, which had a natural inclination towards crooked
courses, bent on some scheme by which he might play off the one
party against the other. Apparently he was not very successful
in finding one, however; or else the ill-luck with which he had
supported the League against the Huguenots recurred to his mind.
For he presently stopped, with a sigh, and came back to the
point.

'If I knew that Turenne were lying,' be muttered, 'then indeed--.
But Rosny promised evidence, and he has sent me none.'

'It is at hand, sire,' I answered, my heart beginning to beat,
'Your Majesty will remember that M. de Rosny honoured me with the
task of introducing it to you.'

'To be sure,' he replied, awaking as from a dream, and looking
and speaking eagerly. Matters to-day have driven everything out
of my head. Where is your witness, man? Convince me, and we
will act promptly. We will give them Jarnac and Moncontour over
again. Is he outside?'

'It is a woman, sire,' I made answer, dashed somewhat by his
sudden and feverish alacrity.

'A woman, eh? You have her here?'

'No, sire,' I replied, wondering what he would say to my next
piece of information. 'She is in Blois, she has arrived, but the
truth is--I humbly crave your Majesty's indulgence--she refuses
to come or speak. I cannot well bring her here by force, and I
have sought you, sire, for the purpose of taking your commands in
the matter.'

He stared at me in the utmost astonishment.

'Is she young?' he asked after a long pause.

'Yes, sire,' I answered. 'She is maid of honour to the Princess
of Navarre, and a ward also of the Vicomte de Turenne.'

'Gad! then she is worth hearing, the little rebel!' he replied.
'A ward Of Turenne's is she? Ho! ho! And now she will not
speak? My cousin of Navarre now would know how to bring her to
her senses, but I have eschewed these vanities. I might send and
have her brought, it is true; but a very little thing would cause
a barricade to-night.'

'And besides, sire,' I ventured to add, 'she is known to
Turenne's people here, who have once stolen her away. Were she
brought to your Majesty with any degree of openness, they would
learn it, and know that the game was lost.'

'Which would not suit me,' he answered, nodding and looking at me
gloomily. 'They might anticipate our Jarnac; and until we have
settled matters with one or the other our person is not too
secure. You must go and fetch her. She is at your lodging. She
must be brought, man.'

'I will do what you command, sire,' I answered. 'But I am
greatly afraid that she will not come.'

He lost his temper at that. 'Then why, in the devil's name, have
you troubled me with the matter?' he cried savagely. 'God
knows--I don't--why Rosny employed such a man and such a woman.
He might have seen from the cut of your cloak, sir, which is full
six months behind the fashion, that you could not manage a woman!
Was ever such damnable folly heard of in this world? But it is
Navarre's loss, not mine. It is his loss. And I hope to Heaven
it may be yours too!' he added fiercely.

There was so much in what he said that I bent before the storm,
and accepted with humility blame which was as natural on his part
as it was undeserved on mine. Indeed I could not wonder at his
Majesty's anger; nor should I have wondered at it in a greater
man. I knew that but for reasons, on which I did not wish to
dwell, I should have shared it to the full, and spoken quite as
strongly of the caprice which ruined hopes and lives for a whim.

The king continued for some time to say to me all the hard things
he could think of. Wearied at last by my patience, he paused,
and cried angrily. 'Well, have you nothing; to say for yourself?
Can you suggest nothing?'

'I dare not mention to your Majesty,' I said humbly, 'what seems
to me to be the only alternative.'

'You mean that I should go to the wench!' he answered--for he
did not lack quickness. '"SE NON VA EL OTERO A MAHOMA, VAYA
MAHOMA AL OTERO," as Mendoza says. But the saucy quean, to force
me to go to her! Did my wife guess--but there, I will go. By
God I will go!' he added abruptly and fiercely. 'I will live to
ruin Retz yet! Where is your lodging?'

I told him, wondering much at this flash of the old spirit, which
twenty years before had won him a reputation his later life did
nothing to sustain.

'Do you know,' he asked, speaking with sustained energy and
clearness, 'the door by which M. de Rosny entered to talk with
me? Can you find it in the dark?'

'Yes, sire,' I answered, my heart beating high.

'Then be in waiting there two hours before midnight,' he replied.
'Be well armed, but alone. I shall know how to make the girl
speak. I can trust you, I suppose?' he added suddenly, stepping
nearer to me and looking fixedly into my eyes.

'I will answer for your Majesty's life with my own,' I replied,
sinking on one knee.

'I believe you, sir,' he answered gravely, giving me his hand to
kiss, and then turning away. 'So be it. Now leave me. You have
been here too long already. Not a word to any one as you value
your life.'

I made fitting answer and was leaving him; but when I had my head
already on the curtain, he called me back. 'In Heaven's name get
a new cloak!' he said peevishly, eyeing me all over with his
face puckered up. 'Get a new cloak, man, the first thing in the
morning. It is worse seen from the side than the front. It
would ruin the cleverest courtier of them all!'

CHAPTER XXIV.

A ROYAL PERIL.

The elation with which I had heard the king announce his
resolution quickly diminished on cooler reflection. It stood in
particular at a very low ebb as I waited, an hour later, at the
little north postern of the Castle, and, cowering within the
shelter of the arch to escape the wind, debated whether his
Majesty's energy would sustain him to the point of action, or
whether he might not, in one of those fits of treacherous
vacillation which had again and again marred his plans, send
those to keep the appointment who would give a final account of
me. The longer I considered his character the more dubious I
grew. The loneliness of the situation, the darkness, the black
front, unbroken by any glimmer of light, which the Castle
presented on this side, and the unusual and gloomy stillness
which lay upon the town, all contributed to increase my
uneasiness. It was with apprehension as well as relief that I
caught at last the sound of footsteps on the stone staircase,
and, standing a little to one side, saw a streak of light appear
at the foot of the door.

On the latter being partially opened a voice cried my name. I
advanced with caution and showed myself. A brief conversation
ensued between two or three persons who stood within; but in the
end, a masked figure, which I had no difficulty in identifying as
the king, stepped briskly out.

'You are armed?' he said, pausing a second opposite me.

I put back my cloak and showed him, by the light which streamed
from the doorway, that I carried pistols as well as a sword.

'Good!' he answered briefly; 'then let us go. Do you walk on my
left hand, my friend. It is a dark night, is it not?'

'Very dark, sire,' I said.

He made no answer to this, and we started, proceeding with
caution until we had crossed the narrow bridge, and then with
greater freedom and at a better pace. The slenderness of the
attendance at Court that evening, and the cold wind, which swept
even the narrowest streets and drove roisterers indoors, rendered
it unlikely that we should be stopped or molested by any except
professed thieves; and for these I was prepared. The king showed
no inclination to talk; and keeping silence myself out of
respect, I had time to calculate the chances and to consider
whether his Majesty would succeed where I had failed.

This calculation, which was not inconsistent with the keenest
watchfulness on my part whenever we turned a corner or passed the
mouth of an alley, was brought to an end by our safe arrival at
the house. Briefly apologising to the king for the meanness and
darkness of the staircase, I begged leave to precede him, and
rapidly mounted until I met Maignan. Whispering to him that all
was well, I did not wait to hear his answer, but, bidding him be
on the watch, I led the king on with as much deference as was
possible until we stood. at the door of mademoiselle's
apartment, which I have elsewhere stated to consist of an outer
and inner room. The door was opened by Simon Fleix, and him I
promptly sent out. Then, standing aside and uncovering, I begged
the king to enter.

He did so, still wearing his hat and mask, and I followed and
secured the door. A lamp hanging from the ceiling diffused an
imperfect light through the room, which was smaller but more
comfortable in appearance than that which I rented overhead. I
observed that Fanchette, whose harsh countenance looked more
forbidding than usual, occupied a stool which she had set in a
strange fashion against the Inner door; but I thought no more of
this at the moment, my attention passing quickly to mademoiselle,
who sat crouching before the fire, enveloped in a large outdoor
cloak, as if she felt the cold. Her back was towards us, and she
was, or pretended to be, still ignorant of our presence. With a
muttered word I pointed her out to the king, and went towards her
with him.

'Mademoiselle, I said in a low voice, 'Mademoiselle de la Vire!
I have the honour--'

She would not turn, and I stopped. Clearly she heard, but she
betrayed that she did so only by drawing her cloak more closely
round her. Primed by my respect for the king, I touched her
lightly on tile shoulder. 'Mademoiselle!' I said impatiently,
'you are not aware of it, but--'

She shook herself free from my hand with so rude a gesture that I
broke off, and stood gazing foolishly at her. The king smiled,
and nodding to me to step back a pace, took the task on himself.
'Mademoiselle,' he said with dignity, 'I am not accustomed--'

His voice had a magical effect. Before he could add another word
she sprang up as if she had been struck, and faced us, a cry of
alarm on her lips. Simultaneously we both cried out too, for it
was not mademoiselle at all. The woman who confronted us, her
hand on her mask, her eyes glittering through the slits, was of a
taller and fuller figure. We stared at her. Then a lock of
bright golden hair which had escaped from the hood of her cloak
gave us the clue. 'Madame!' the king cried.

'Madame de Bruhl!' I echoed, my astonishment greater than his.

Seeing herself known, she began with trembling fingers to undo
the fastenings of her mask; but the king, who had hitherto
displayed a trustfulness I had not expected in him, had taken
alarm at sight of her, as at a thing unlooked for, and of which I
had not warned him. 'How is this?' he said harshly, drawing
back a pace from her and regarding me with anger and distrust.
'Is this some pretty arrangement of yours, sir? Am I an intruder
at an assignation, or is this a trap with M. de Bruhl in the
background? Answer, sirrah!' he continued, working himself
rapidly into a passion. 'Which am I to understand is the case?'

'Neither, sire,' I answered with as much dignity as I could
assume, utterly surprised and mystified as I was by Madame's
presence. 'Your Majesty wrongs Madame de Bruhl as much by the
one suspicion as you injure me by the other. I am equally in the
dark with you, sire, and as little expected to see madame here.'

'I came, sire,' she said proudly, addressing herself to the king,
and ignoring me, 'out of no love to M. de Marsac, but as any
person bearing a message to him might come. Nor can you, sire,'
she added with spirit, 'feel half as much surprise at seeing me
here, as I at seeing your Majesty.'

'I can believe that,' the king answered drily. 'I would you had
not seen me.'

'The King of France is seen only when he chooses,' she replied,
curtseying to the ground.

'Good,' he answered. 'Let it be so, and you will oblige the King
of France, madame. But enough,' he continued, turning from her
to me; 'since this is not the lady I came to see, M. de Marsac,
where is she?'

'In the inner room, sire, I opine,' I said, advancing to
Fanchette with more misgiving at heart than my manner evinced.
'Your mistress is here, is she not?' I continued, addressing the
woman sharply.

'Ay, and will not come out,' she rejoined, sturdily keeping her
place.

'Nonsense!' I said. 'Tell her--'

'You may tell her what you please,' she replied, refusing to
budge an inch. 'She can hear.'

'But, woman!' I cried impatiently, 'you do not understand. I
MUST speak with her. I must speak with her at once! On business
of the highest importance.'

'As you please,' she said rudely, still keeping her seat. 'I
have told you you can speak.'

Perhaps I felt as foolish on this occasion as ever in my life;
and surely never was man placed in a more ridiculous position.
After overcoming numberless obstacles, and escaping as many
perils, I had brought the king here, a feat beyond my highest
hopes--only to be baffled and defeated by a waiting-woman! I
stood irresolute; witless and confused; while the king waited
half angry and half amused, and madame kept her place by the
entrance, to which she had retreated.

I was delivered from my dilemma by the curiosity which is,
providentially perhaps, a part of woman's character, and which
led mademoiselle to interfere herself. Keenly on the watch
inside, she had heard part of what passed between us, and been
rendered inquisitive by the sound of a strange man's voice, and
by the deference which she could discern I paid to the visitor.
At this moment, she cried out, accordingly, to know who was
there; and Fanchette, seeming to take this as a command, rose and
dragged her stool aside, saying peevishly and without any
increase of respect, 'There, I told you she could hear.'

'Who is it?' mademoiselle asked again, in a raised voice.

I was about to answer when the king signed to me to stand back,
and, advancing himself, knocked gently on the door. 'Open, I
pray you, mademoiselle,' he said courteously.

'Who is there?' she cried again, her voice trembling.

'It is I, the king,' he answered softly; but in that tone of
majesty which belongs not to the man, but to the descendant, and
seems to be the outcome of centuries of command.

She uttered an exclamation and slowly, and with seeming
reluctance, turned the key in the lock. It grated, and the door
opened. I caught a glimpse for an instant of her pale face and
bright eyes, and then his Majesty, removing his hat, passed in
and closed the door; and I withdrew to the farther end of the
room, where madame continued to stand by the entrance.

I entertained a suspicion, I remember, and not unnaturally, that
she had come to my lodging as her husband's spy; but her first
words when I joined her dispelled this. 'Quick!' she said with
an imperious gesture. 'Hear me and let me go! I have waited
long enough for you, and suffered enough through you. As for
that, woman in there, she is mad, and her servant too! Now,
listen to me. You spoke to me honestly to-day, and I have come
to repay you. You have an appointment with my husband to-morrow
at Chaverny. Is it not so?' she added impatiently.

I replied that it was so.

'You are to go with one friend,' she went on, tearing the glove
she had taken off, to strips in her excitement, 'He is to meet
you with one also?'

'Yes,' I assented reluctantly, 'at the bridge, madame.'

'Then do not go,' she rejoined emphatically. 'Shame on me that I
should betray my husband; but it were worse to send an innocent
man to his death. He will meet you with one sword only,
according to his challenge, but there will be those under the
bridge who will make certain work. There, I have betrayed him
now!' she continued bitterly. 'It is done. Let me go!'

'Nay, but, madame,' I said, feeling more concerned for her, on
whom from the first moment of meeting her I had brought nothing
but misfortune, than surprised by this new treachery on his part,
'will you not run some risk in returning to him? Is there
nothing I can do for you--no step I can take for your
protection?'

'None!' she said repellently and almost rudely, 'except to speed
my going.'

'But you will not pass through the streets alone?'

She laughed so bitterly my heart ached for her. 'The unhappy are
always safe,' she said.

Remembering how short a time it was since I had surprised her in
the first happiness of wedded love, I felt for her all the pity
it was natural I should feel. But the responsibility under which
his Majesty's presence and the charge of mademoiselle laid me
forbade me to indulge in the luxury of evincing my gratitude.
Gladly would I have escorted her back to her home--even if I
could not make that home again what it had been, or restore her
husband to the pinnacle from which I had dashed him--but I dared
not do this. I was forced to content myself with less, and was
about to offer to send one of my men with her, when a hurried
knocking at the outer door arrested the words on my lips.

Signing to her to stand still, I listened. The knocking was
repeated, and grew each moment more urgent. There was a little
grille, strongly wired, in the upper part of the door, and this I
was about to open in order to learn what was amiss, when Simon's
voice reached me from the farther side imploring me to open the
door quickly. Doubting the lad's prudence, yet afraid to refuse
lest I should lose some warning he had to give, I paused a
second, and then undid the fastenings. The moment the door gave
way he fell in bodily, crying out to me to bar it behind him. I
caught a glimpse through the gap of a glare as of torches, and
saw by this light half a dozen flushed faces in the act of rising
above the edge of the landing. The men who owned them raised a
shout of triumph at sight of me, and, clearing the upper steps at
a bound, made a rush for the door. But in vain. We had just
time to close it and drop the two stout bars. In a moment, in a
second, the fierce outcry fell to a dull roar; and safe for the
time, we had leisure to look in one another's faces and learn the
different aspects of alarm. Madame was white to the lips, while
Simon's eyes seemed starting from his head, and he shook in every
limb with terror.

At first, on my asking him what it meant, he could not speak.
But that would not do, and I was in the act of seizing him by the
collar to force an answer from him when the inner door opened,
and the king came out, his face wearing an air of so much
cheerfulness as proved both his satisfaction with mademoiselle's
story and his ignorance of all we were about. In a word he had
not yet taken the least alarm; but seeing Simon in my hands, and
madame leaning against the wall by the door like one deprived of
life, he stood and cried out in surprise to know what it was.

'I fear we are besieged, sire,' I answered desperately, feeling
my anxieties increased a hundredfold by his appearance--'but by
whom I cannot say. This lad knows, however,' I continued, giving
Simon, a vicious shake, 'and he shall speak. Now, trembler,' I
said to him, 'tell your tale?'

'The Provost-Marshal!' he stammered, terrified afresh by the
king's presence: for Henry had removed his mask. 'I was on
guard below. I had come up a few steps to be out of the cold,
when I heard them enter. There are a round score of them.'

I cried out a great oath, asking him why he had not gone up and
warned Maignan, who with his men was now cut off from us in the
rooms above. 'You fool!' I continued, almost beside myself with
rage, 'if you had not come to this door they would have mounted
to my rooms and beset them! What is this folly about the
Provost-Marshal?'

'He is there,' Simon answered, cowering away from me, his face
working.

I thought he was lying, and had merely fancied this in his
fright. But the assailants at this moment began to hail blows on
the door, calling on us to open, and using such volleys of
threats as penetrated even the thickness of the oak; driving the
blood from the women's cheeks, and arresting the king's step in a
manner which did not escape me. Among their cries I could
plainly distinguish the words, 'In the king's name!' which bore
out Simon's statement.

At the moment I drew comfort from this; for if we had merely to
deal with the law we had that on our side which was above it.
And I speedily made up my mind what to do. 'I think the lad
speaks the truth, sire,' I said coolly. 'This is only your
Majesty's Provost-Marshal. The worst to be feared, therefore, is
that he may learn your presence here before you would have it
known. It should not be a matter of great difficulty, however,
to bind him to silence, and if you will please to mask, I will
open the grille and speak with him.'

The king, who had taken his stand in the middle of the room, and
seemed dazed and confused by the suddenness of the alarm and the
uproar, assented with a brief word. Accordingly I was preparing
to open the grille when Madame de Bruhl seized my arm, and
forcibly pushed me back from it.

'What would you do?' she cried, her face full of terror. 'Do
you not hear? He is there.'

'Who is there?' I said, startled more by her manner than her
words.

'Who?' she answered; 'who should be there? My husband! I hear
his voice, I tell you! He has tracked me here! He has found me,
and will kill me!'

'God forbid!' I said, doubting if she had really heard his
voice. To make sure, I asked Simon if he had seen him; and my
heart sank when I heard from him too that Bruhl was of the party.
For the first time I became fully sensible of the danger which
threatened us. For the first time, looking round the ill-lit
room on the women's terrified faces, and the king's masked figure
instinct with ill-repressed nervousness, I recognised how
hopelessly we were enmeshed. Fortune had served Bruhl so well
that, whether he knew it or not, he had us all trapped--alike the
king whom he desired to compromise, and his wife whom he hated,
mademoiselle who had once escaped him, and me who had twice
thwarted him. It was little to be wondered at if my courage sank
as I looked from one to another, and listened to the ominous
creaking of the door, as the stout panels complained under the
blows rained upon them. For my first duty, and that which took
the PAS of all others, was to the king--to save him harmless.
How, then, was I to be answerable for mademoiselle, how protect
Madame de Bruhl?--how, in a word, redeem all those pledges in
which my honour was concerned?

It was the thought of the Provost-Marshal which at this moment
rallied my failing spirits. I remembered that until the mystery
of his presence here in alliance with Bruhl was explained there
was no need to despair; and turning briskly to the king I begged
him to favour me by standing with the women in a corner which was
not visible from the door. He complied mechanically, and in a
manner which I did not like; but lacking time to weigh trifles, I
turned to the grille and opened it without more ado.

The appearance of my face at the trap was greeted with a savage
cry of recognition, which subsided as quickly into silence. It
was followed by a momentary pushing to and fro among the crowd
outside, which in its turn ended in the Provost-Marshal coming to
the front. 'In the king's name!' he said fussily.

'What is it?' I replied, eyeing rather the flushed, eager faces
which scowled over his shoulders than himself. The light of two
links, borne by some of the party, shone ruddily on the heads of
the halberds, and, flaring up from time to time, filled all the
place with wavering, smoky light. 'What do you want?' I
continued, 'rousing my lodging at this time of night?'

'I hold a warrant for your arrest,' he replied bluntly.
'Resistance will be vain. If you do not surrender I shall send
for a ram to break in the door.'

'Where is your order?' I said sharply. 'The one you held this
morning was cancelled by the king himself.'

'Suspended only,' he answered. 'Suspended only. It was given
out to me again this evening for instant execution. And I am
here in pursuance of it, and call on you to surrender.'

'Who delivered it to you?' I retorted.

'M. de Villequier,' he answered readily. 'And here it is. Now,
come, sir,' he continued, 'you are only making matters worse.
Open to us.'

'Before I do so,' I said drily, 'I should like to know what part
in the pageant my friend M. de Bruhl, whom I see on the stairs
yonder, proposes to play. And there is my old friend Fresnoy,' I
added. 'And I see one or two others whom I know, M. Provost.
Before I surrender I must know among other things what M. de
Bruhl's business is here.'

'It is the business of every loyal man to execute the king's
warrant,' the Provost answered evasively. 'It is yours to
surrender, and mine to lodge you in the Castle. 'But I am loth
to have a disturbance. I will give you until that torch goes
out, if you like, to make up your mind. At the end of that time,
if you do not surrender, I shall batter down the door.'

'You will give the torch fair play?' I said, noting its
condition.

He assented; and thanking him sternly for this indulgence, I
closed the grille.

CHAPTER XXV.

TERMS OF SURRENDER.

I still had my hand on the trap when a touch on the shoulder
caused me to turn, and in a moment apprised me of the imminence
of a new peril; a peril of such a kind that, summoning all my
resolution, I could scarcely hope to cope with it. Henry was at
my elbow. He had taken of his mask, and a single glance at his
countenance warned me that that had happened of which I had
already felt some fear. The glitter of intense excitement shone
in his eyes. His face, darkly-flushed and wet with sweat,
betrayed overmastering emotion, while his teeth, tight clenched
in the effort to restrain the fit of trembling which possessed
him, showed between his lips like those of a corpse. The novelty
of the danger which menaced him, the absence of his gentlemen,
and of all the familiar faces and surroundings without which he
never moved, the hour, the mean house, and his isolation among
strangers, had proved too much for nerves long weakened by his
course of living, and for a courage, proved indeed in the field,
but unequal to a sudden stress. Though he still strove to
preserve his dignity, it was alarmingly plain to my eyes that he
was on the point of losing, if he had not already lost, all self-
command.

'Open!' he muttered between his teeth, pointing impatiently to
the trap with the hand with which he had already touched me.
'Open, I say, sir!'

I stared at him, startled and confounded. 'But your Majesty,' I
ventured to stammer, 'forgets that I have not yet--'

'Open, I say!' he repeated passionately. 'Do you hear me, sir?
I desire that this door be opened.' His lean hand shook as with
the palsy, so that the gems on it twinkled in the light and
rattled as he spoke.

I looked helplessly from him to the women and back again, seeing
in a flash all. the dangers which might follow from the
discovery of his presence there--dangers which I had not before
formulated to myself, but which seemed in a moment to range
themselves with the utmost clearness before my eyes. At the same
time I saw what seemed to me to be a way of escape; and
emboldened by the one and the other, I kept my hand on the trap
and strove to parley with him.

'Nay, but, sire,' I said hurriedly, yet still with as much
deference as I could command, 'I beg you to permit me first to
repeat what I have seen. M. de Bruhl is without, and I counted
six men whom I believe to be his following. They are ruffians
ripe for any crime; and I implore your Majesty rather to submit
to a short imprisonment--'

I paused struck dumb on that word, confounded by the passion
which lightened in the king's face. My ill-chosen expression had
indeed applied the spark to his wrath. Predisposed to suspicion
by a hundred treacheries, he forgot the perils outside in the one
idea which on the instant possessed his mind; that I would
confine his person, and had brought him hither for no other
purpose. He glared round him with eyes full of rage and fear,
and his trembling lips breathed rather than spoke the word
'Imprison?'

Unluckily, a trifling occurrence added at this moment to his
disorder, and converted it into frenzy. Someone outside fell
heavily against the door; this, causing madame to utter a low
shriek, seemed to shatter the last remnant of the king's self-
control. Stamping his foot on the floor, he cried to me with the
utmost wildness to open the door--by which I had hitherto kept my
place.

But, wrongly or rightly, I was still determined to put off
opening it; and I raised my hands with the intention of making a
last appeal to him. He misread the gesture, and retreating a
step, with the greatest suddenness whipped out his sword, and in
a moment had the point at my breast, and his wrist drawn back to
thrust.

It has always been my belief that he would not have dealt the
blow, but that the mere touch of the hilt, awaking the courage
which he undoubtedly possessed, and which did not desert him in
his last moments, would have recalled him to himself. But the
opportunity was not given him, for while the blade yet quivered,
and I stood motionless, controlling myself by an effort, my knee
half bent and my eyes on his, Mademoiselle de la Vire sprang
forward at his back, and with a loud scream clutched his elbow.
The king, surprised, and ignorant who held him, flung up his
point wildly, and striking the lamp above his head with his
blade, shattered it in an instant, bringing down the pottery with
a crash and reducing the room to darkness; while the screams of
the women, and the knowledge that we had a madman among us,
peopled, the blackness with a hundred horrors.

Fearing above all for mademoiselle, I made my way as soon as I
could recover my wits to the embers of the fire, and regardless
of the king's sword, which I had a vague idea was darting about
in the darkness, I searched for and found a half-burnt stick,
which I blew into a blaze. With this, still keeping my back to
the room, I contrived to light a taper that I had noticed
standing by the hearth; and then, and then only, I turned to see
what I had to confront.

Mademoiselle de la Vire stood in a corner, half-fierce, half-
terrified, and wholly flushed. She had her hand wrapped up in a
'kerchief already stained with blood; and from this I gathered
that the king in his frenzy had wounded her slightly. Standing
before her mistress, with her hair bristling, like a wild-cat's
fur, and her arms akimbo, was Fanchette, her harsh face and
square form instinct with fury and defiance. Madame de Bruhl and
Simon cowered against the wall not far from them; and in a chair,
into which he had apparently just thrown himself, sat the king,
huddled up and collapsed, the point of his sword trailing on the
ground beside him, and his nerveless hand scarce retaining force
to grip the pommel.

In a moment I made up my mind what to do, and going to him in
silence, I laid my pistols, sword, and dagger on a stool by his
side. Then I knelt.

'The door, sire,' I said, 'is there. It is for your Majesty to
open it when you please. Here, too, sire, are my weapons. I am
your prisoner, the Provost-Marshal is outside, and you can at a
word deliver me to him. Only one thing I beg, sire,' I continued
earnestly, 'that your Majesty will treat; as a delusion the idea
that I meditated for a moment disrespect or violence to your
person.'

He looked at me dully, his face pale, his eyes fish-like.
'Sanctus, man!' he muttered, 'why did you raise your hand?'

'Only to implore your Majesty to pause a moment,' I answered,
watching the intelligence return slowly to his face. 'If you
will deign to listen I can explain in half a dozen words, sire.
M. de Bruhl's men are six or seven, the Provost has eight or
nine; but the former are the wilder blades, and if M. de Bruhl
find your Majesty in my lodging, and infer his own defeat, he
will be capable of any desperate stroke. Your person would
hardly be safe in his company through the streets. And there is
another consideration,' I went on, observing with joy that the
king listened, and was gradually regaining his composure. 'That
is, the secrecy you desired to preserve, sire, until this matter
should be well advanced. M. de Rosny laid the strictest
injunctions on me in that respect, fearing an EMEUTE in Blois
should your Majesty's plans become known.'

'You speak fairly,' the king answered with returning energy,
though he avoided looking at the women. 'Bruhl is likely enough
to raise one. But how am I to get out, sir?' he continued,
querulously. 'I cannot remain here. I shall be missed, man! I
am not a hedge-captain, neither sought nor wanted!'

'If your Majesty would trust me?' I said slowly and with
hesitation.

'Trust you!' he retorted peevishly, holding up his hands and
gazing intently at his nails, of the shape and whiteness of which
he was prouder than any woman. 'Have I not trusted you? If I had
not trusted you, should I have been here? But that you were a
Huguenot--God forgive me for saying it!--I would have seen you in
hell before I would have come here with you!'

I confess to having heard this testimony to the Religion with a
pride which made me forget for a moment the immediate
circumstances--the peril in which we stood, the gloomy room
darkly lighted by a single candle, the scared faces in the
background, even the king's huddled figure, in which dejection
and pride struggled for expression. For a moment only; then I
hastened to reply, saying that I doubted not I could still
extricate his Majesty without discovery.

'In Heaven's name do it, then!' he answered sharply. 'Do what
you like, man! Only get me back into the castle, and it shall
not be a Huguenot will entice me out again. I am over old for
these adventures!'

A fresh attack on the door taking place as he said this induced
me to lose no time in explaining my plan, which he was good
enough to approve, after again upbraiding me for bringing him
into such a dilemma. Fearing lest the door should give way
prematurely, notwithstanding the bars I had provided for it, and
goaded on by Madame de Bruhl's face, which evinced the utmost
terror, I took the candle and attended his Majesty into the inner
room; where I placed my pistols beside him, but silently resumed
my sword and dagger. I then returned for the women, and
indicating by signs that they were to enter, held the door open
for them.

Mademoiselle, whose bandaged hand I could not regard without
emotion, though the king's presence and the respect I owed him
forbade me to utter so much as a word, advanced readily until she
reached the doorway abreast of me. There, however, looking back,
and seeing Madame de Bruhl following her, she stopped short, and
darting a haughty glance at me, muttered, 'And--that lady? Are
we to be shut up together, sir?'

'Mademoiselle,' I answered quickly in the low tone she had used
herself, 'have I ever asked anything dishonourable of you?'

She seemed by a slight movement of the head to answer in the
negative.

'Nor do I now,' I replied with earnestness. 'I entrust to your
care a lady who has risked great peril for US; and the rest I
leave to you.'

She looked me very keenly in the face for a second, and then,
without answering, she passed on, Madame and Fanchette following
her in that order. I closed the door and turned to Simon; who by
my direction had blown the embers of the fire into a blaze so as
to partially illumine the room, in which only he and I now
remained. The lad seemed afraid to meet my eye, and owing to the
scene at which he had just assisted, or to the onslaught on the
door, which grew each moment more furious, betrayed greater
restlessness than I had lately observed in him. I did not doubt
his fidelity, however, or his devotion to mademoiselle; and the
orders I had to give him were simple enough.

'This is what you have got to do,' I said, my hand already on the
bars. 'The moment I am outside secure this door. After that,
open to no one except Maignan. When he applies, let him in with
caution, and bid him, as he loves M. de Rosny, take his men as
soon as the coast is clear, and guard the King of France to the
castle. Charge him to be brave and wary, for his life will
answer for the king's.'

Twice I repeated this; then fearing lest the Provost-Marshal
should make good his word and apply a ram to the door, I opened
the trap. A dozen angry voices hailed my appearance, and this
with so much violence and impatience that it was some time before
I could get a hearing; the knaves threatening me if I would not
instantly open, and persisting that I should do so without more
words. Their leader at length quieted them, but it was plain
that his patience too was worn out. 'Do you surrender or do you
not?' he said. 'I am not going to stay out of my bed all night
for you!'

'I warn you,' I answered, 'that the order you have there has been
cancelled by the king!'

'That is not my business,' he rejoined hardily.

'No, but it will be when the king sends for you to-morrow
morning,' I retorted; at which he looked somewhat moved.
'However, I will surrender to you on two conditions,' I
continued, keenly observing the coarse faces of his following.
'First, that you let me keep my arms until we reach the gate-
house, I giving you my parole to come with you quietly. That is
number one.'

'Well,' the Provost-Marshal said more civilly, 'I have no
objection to that.'

'Secondly, that you do not allow your men to break into my
lodgings. I will come out quietly, and so an end. Your order
does not direct you to sack my goods.'

'Tut, tut!' he replied; 'I want, you to come out. I do not want
to go in.'

'Then draw your men back to the stairs,' I said. 'And if you
keep terms with me, I will uphold you to-morrow, For your orders
will certainly bring you into trouble. M. de Retz, who procured
it this morning, is away, you know. M. de Villequier may be gone
to-morrow. But depend upon it, M. de Rambouillet will be here!'

The remark was well timed and to the point. It startled the man
as much as I had hoped it would. Without raising any objection
he ordered his men to fall back and guard the stairs; and I on my
side began to undo the fastenings of the door.

The matter was not to be so easily concluded, however; for
Bruhl's rascals, in obedience, no doubt, to a sign given by their
leader, who stood with Fresnoy on the upper flight of stairs,
refused to withdraw; and even hustled the Provost-Marshal's men
when the latter would have obeyed the order. The officer,
already heated by delay, replied by laying about him with his
staff, and in a twinkling there seemed to be every prospect of a
very pretty MELEE, the end of which it was impossible to foresee.

Reflecting, however, that if Bruhl's men routed their opponents
our position might be made worse rather than better, I did not
act on my first impulse, which was to see the matter out where I
was. Instead, I seized the opportunity to let myself out, while
Simon fastened the door behind me. The Provost-Marshal was
engaged at the moment in a wordy dispute with Fresnoy; whose
villainous countenance, scarred by the wound which I had given
him at Chize, and flushed with passion, looked its worst by the
light of the single torch which remained. In one respect the
villain had profited by his present patronage, for he was decked
out in a style of tawdry magnificence. But I have always
remarked this about dress, that while a shabby exterior does not
entirely obscure a gentleman, the extreme of fashion is powerless
to gild a knave.

Seeing me on a sudden at the Provost's elbow, he recoiled with a
change of countenance so ludicrous that that officer was himself
startled, and only held his ground on my saluting him civilly and
declaring myself his prisoner I added a warning that he should
look to the torch which remained; seeing that if it failed we
were both like to have our throats cut in the confusion.

He took the hint promptly, and calling the link-man to his side
prepared to descend, bidding Fresnoy and his men, who remained
clumped at the head of the stairs, make way for us without ado.
They seemed much inclined, however, to dispute our passage, and
replying to his invectives with rough taunts, displayed so
hostile a demeanour that the Provost, between regard for his own
importance and respect for Bruhl, appeared for a moment at a loss
what to do; and seemed rather relieved than annoyed when I begged
leave to say a word to M. de Bruhl.

'If you can bring his men to reason,' he replied testily, 'speak
your fill to him!'

Stepping to the foot of the upper flight, on which Bruhl retained
his position, I saluted him formally. He returned my greeting
with a surly, watchful look only, and drawing his cloak more
tightly round him affected to gaze down at me with disdain; which
ill concealed, however, both the triumph he felt and the hopes of
vengeance he entertained. I was especially anxious to learn
whether he had tracked his wife hither, or was merely here in
pursuance of his general schemes against me, and to this end. I
asked him with as much irony as I could compass to what I was to
attribute his presence. 'I am afraid I cannot stay to offer you
hospitality,' I continued; 'but for that you have only your
friend M. Villequier to thank!'

'I am greatly obliged to you,' he answered with a devilish smile,
'but do not let that affect you. When you are gone I propose to
help myself, my friend, to whatever takes my taste.'

'Do you?' I retorted coolly--not that I was unaffected by the
threat and the villainous hint which underlay the words, but
that, fully expecting them, I was ready with my answer. 'We will
see about that.' And therewith I raised my fingers to my lips,
and, whistling shrilly, cried 'Maignan! Maignan!' in a clear
voice.

I had no need to cry the name a third time, for before the
Provost-Marshal could do more than start at this unexpected
action, the landing above us rang under a heavy tread, and the
man I called, descending the stairs swiftly, appeared on a sudden
within arm's length of M. de Bruhl; who, turning with an oath,
saw him, and involuntarily recoiled. At all times Maignan's
hardy and confident bearing was of a kind to impress the strong;
but on this occasion there was an added dash of recklessness in
his manner which was not without its effect on the spectators.
As he stood there smiling darkly over Bruhl's head, while his
hand toyed carelessly with his dagger, and the torch shone
ruddily on his burly figure, he was so clearly an antagonist in a
thousand that, had I sought through Blois, I might not have found
his fellow for strength and SANG-FROID. He let his black eyes
rove from one to the other, but took heed of me only, saluting me
with effusion and a touch of the Gascon which was in place here,
if ever.

I knew how M. de Rosny dealt with him, and followed the pattern
as far as I could. 'Maignan!' I said curtly, 'I have taken a
lodging for to-night elsewhere. Then I am gone you will call out
your men and watch this door. If anyone tries to force an
entrance you will do your duty.'

'You may consider it done,' he replied.

'Even if the person be M. de Bruhl here,' I continued.

'Precisely.'

'You will remain on guard,' I went on, 'until to-morrow morning
if M. de Bruhl remains here; but whenever he leaves you will take
your orders from the persons inside, and follow them implicitly.'

'Your Excellency's mind may be easy,' he answered, handling his
dagger.

Dismissing him with a nod, I turned with a smile to M. de Bruhl,
and saw that between rage at this unexpected check and chagrin at
the insult put upon him, his discomfiture was as complete as I
could wish. As for Fresnoy, if he had seriously intended to
dispute our passage, he was no longer in the mood for the
attempt. Yet I did not let his master off without one more
prick. 'That being settled, M. de Bruhl,' I said pleasantly, 'I
may bid you good evening. You will doubtless honour me at
Chaverny tomorrow. But we will first let Maignan look under the
bridge!'

CHAPTER XXVI.

MEDITATIONS.

Either the small respect I had paid M. de Bruhl, or the words I
had let fall respecting the possible disappearance of M.
Villequier, had had so admirable an effect on the Provost-
Marshal's mind that from the moment of leaving my lodgings he
treated me with the utmost civility; permitting me even to retain
my sword, and assigning me a sleeping-place for the night in his
own apartments at the gate-house.

Late as it was, I could not allow so much politeness to pass
unacknowledged. I begged leave, therefore, to distribute a small
gratuity among his attendants, and requested him to do me the
honour of drinking a bottle of wine with me. This being speedily
procured, at such an expense as is usual in these places, where
prisoners pay, according as they are rich or poor, in purse or
person, kept; us sitting for an hour, and finally sent us to our
pallets perfectly satisfied with one another.

The events of the day, however, and particularly one matter, on
which I have not dwelt at length, proved as effectual to prevent
my sleeping as if I had been placed in the dampest cell below the
castle. So much had been crowded into a time so short that it
seemed as if I had had until now no opportunity of considering
whither I was being hurried, or what fortune awaited me at the
end of this turmoil. From the first appearance of M. d'Agen in
the morning, with the startling news that the Provost-Marshal was
seeking me, to my final surrender and encounter with Bruhl on the
stairs, the chain of events had run out so swiftly that I had
scarcely had time at any particular period to consider how I
stood, or the full import of the latest check or victory. Now
that I had leisure I lived the day over again, and, recalling its
dangers and disappointments, felt thankful that all had ended so
fairly.

I had the most perfect confidence in Maignan, and did not doubt
that Bruhl would soon weary, if he had not already wearied, of a
profitless siege. In an hour at most--and it was not yet
midnight--the king would be free to go home; and with that would
end, as far as he was concerned, the mission with which M. de
Rosny had honoured me. The task of communicating his Majesty's
decision to the King of Navarre would doubtless be entrusted to
M. de Rambouillet, or some person of similar position and
influence; and in the same hands would rest the honour and
responsibility of the treaty which, as we all know now, gave
after a brief interval and some bloodshed, and one great
providence, a lasting peace to France. But it must ever be--and
I recognised this that night with a bounding heart, which told of
some store of youth yet unexhausted--a matter of lasting pride to
me that I, whose career but now seemed closed in failure, had
proved the means of conferring so especial a benefit on my
country and religion.

Remembering, however, the King of Navarre's warning that I must
not look to him for reward, I felt greatly doubtful in what
direction the scene would next open to me; my main dependence
being upon M. de Rosny's promise that he would make my fortune
his own care. Tired of the Court at Blois, and the atmosphere of
intrigue and treachery which pervaded it, and with which I hoped
I had now done, I was still at a loss to see how I could recross
the Loire in face of the Vicomte de Turenne's enmity. I might
have troubled myself much more with speculating upon this point
had I not found--in close connection with it--other and more
engrossing food for thought in the capricious behaviour of
Mademoiselle de la Vire.

To that behaviour it seemed to me that I now held the clue. I
suspected with as much surprise as pleasure that only one
construction could be placed upon it--a construction which had
strongly occurred to me on catching sight of her face when she
intervened between me and the king.

Tracing the matter back to the moment of our meeting in the
antechamber at St. Jean d'Angely, I remembered the jest which
Mathurine had uttered at our joint expense. Doubtless it had
dwelt in mademoiselle's mind, and exciting her animosity against
me had prepared her to treat me with contumely when, contrary to
all probability, we met again, and she found herself placed in a
manner in my hands. It had inspired her harsh words and harsher
looks on our journey northwards, and contributed with her
native pride to the low opinion I had formed of her when I
contrasted her with my honoured mother.

But I began to think it possible that the jest had worked in
another way as well, by keeping me before her mind and impressing
upon her the idea--after my re-appearance at Chize more
particularly--that our fates were in some way linked. Assuming
this, it was not hard to understand her manner at Rosny when,
apprised that I was no impostor, and regretting her former
treatment of me, she still recoiled from the feelings which she
began to recognise in her own breast. From that time, and with
this clue, I had no difficulty in tracing her motives, always
supposing that this suspicion, upon which I dwelt with feelings
of wonder and delight, were well founded.

Middle-aged and grizzled, with the best of my life behind me I
had never dared to think of her in this way before. Poor and
comparatively obscure, I had never raised my eyes to the wide
possessions said to be hers. Even now I felt myself dazzled and
bewildered by the prospect so suddenly unveiled. I could
scarcely, without vertigo, recall her as I had last seen her,
with her hand wounded in my defence; nor, without emotions
painful in their intensity, fancy myself restored to the youth of
which I had taken leave, and to the rosy hopes and plannings
which visit most men once only, and then in early years.
Hitherto I had deemed such things the lot of others.

Daylight found me--and no wonder--still diverting myself with
these charming speculations; which had for me, be it remembered,
all the force of novelty. The sun chanced to rise that morning
in a clear sky, and brilliantly for the time of year; and words
fail me when I look back, and try to describe how delicately this
single fact enhanced my pleasure! I sunned myself in the beams,
which penetrated my barred window; and tasting the early
freshness with a keen and insatiable appetite, I experienced to
the full that peculiar aspiration after goodness which Providence
allows such moments to awaken in us in youth; but rarely when
time and the camp have blunted the sensibilities.

I had not yet arrived at the stage at which difficulties have to
be reckoned up, and the chief drawback to the tumult of joy I
felt took the shape of regret that my mother no longer lived to
feel the emotions proper to the time, and to share in the
prosperity which she had so often and so fondly imagined.
Nevertheless, I felt myself drawn closer to her. I recalled with
the most tender feelings, and at greater leisure than had before
been the case, her last days and words, and particularly the
appeal she had uttered on mademoiselle's behalf. And I vowed, if
it were possible, to pay a visit to her grave before leaving the
neighbourhood, that I might there devote a few moments to the
thought of the affection which had consecrated all women in my
eyes.

I was presently interrupted in these reflections by a
circumstance which proved in the end diverting enough, though far
from reassuring at the first blush. It began in a dismal
rattling of chains in the passage below and on the stairs outside
my room; which were paved, like the rest of the building, with
stone. I waited with impatience and some uneasiness to see what
would come of this; and my surprise may be imagined when, the
door being unlocked, gave entrance to a man in whom I recognised
on the instant deaf Mathew--the villain whom I had last seen with
Fresnoy in the house in the Rue Valois. Amazed at seeing him
here, I sprang to my feet in fear of some treachery, and for a
moment apprehended that the Provost-Marshal had basely given me
over to Bruhl's custody. But a second glance informing me that
the man was in irons--hence the noise I had heard--I sat down
again to see what would happen.

It then appeared, that he merely brought me my breakfast, and was
a prisoner in less fortunate circumstances than myself; but as he
pretended not to recognise me, and placed the things before me in
obdurate silence, and I had no power to make him hear, I failed
to learn how he came to be in durance. The Provost-Marshal,
however, came presently to visit me, and brought me in token that
the good-fellowship of the evening still existed a pouch of the
Queen's herb; which I accepted for politeness' sake rather than
from any virtue I found in it. And from him I learned how the
rascal came to be in his charge.

It appeared that Fresnoy, having no mind to be hampered with a
wounded man, had deposited him on the night of our MELEE at the
door of a hospital attached to a religious house in that part of
the town. The fathers had opened to him, but before taking him
in put, according to their custom, certain questions. Matthew
had been primed with the right answers to these questions, which
were commonly a form; but, unhappily for him, the Superior by
chance or mistake began with the wrong one.

'You are not a Huguenot, my son?' he said.

'In God's name, I am!' Matthew replied with simplicity,
believing he was asked if he was a Catholic.

'What?' the scandalised Prior ejaculated, crossing himself in
doubt, 'are you not a true son of the Church?'

'Never!' quoth our deaf friend--thinking all went well.

'A heretic!' cried the monk.

'Amen to that!' replied Matthew innocently; never doubting but
that he was asked the third question, which was, commonly,
whether he needed aid.

Naturally after this there was a very pretty commotion, and
Matthew, vainly protesting that he was deaf, was hurried off to
the Provost-Marshal's custody. Asked how he communicated with
him, the Provost answered that he could not, but that his little
godchild, a girl only eight years old, had taken a strange fancy
to the rogue, and was never so happy as when talking to him by
means of signs, of which she had invented a great number. I
thought this strange at the time, but I had proof before the
morning was out that it was true enough, and that the two were
seldom apart, the little child governing this grim cut-throat
with unquestioned authority.

After the Provost was gone I heard the man's fetters clanking
again. This time he entered to remove my cup and plate, and
surprised me by speaking to me. Maintaining his former
sullenness, and scarcely looking at me, he said abruptly: 'You
are going out again?'

I nodded assent.

'Do you remember a bald-faced bay horse that fell with you?' he
muttered, keeping his dogged glance on the floor.

I nodded again.

'I want to sell the horse,' he said. 'There is not such another
in Blois, no, nor in Paris! Touch it on the near hip with the
whip and it will go down as if shot. At other times a child
might ride it. It is in a stable, the third from the Three
Pigeons, in the Ruelle Amancy. Fresnoy does not know where it
is. He sent to ask yesterday, but I would not tell him.'

Some spark of human feeling which appeared in his lowering,
brutal visage as he spoke of the horse led me to desire further
information. Fortunately the little girl appeared at that moment
at the door in search of her play-fellow; and through her I
learned that the man's motive for seeking to sell the horse was
fear lest the dealer in whose charge it stood should dispose of
it to repay himself for its keep, and he, Matthew, lose it
without return.

Still I did not understand why he applied to me, but I was well
pleased when I learned the truth. Base as the knave was, he had
an affection for the bay, which had been his only property for
six years. Having this in his mind, he had conceived the idea
that I should treat it well, and should not, because he was in
prison and powerless, cheat him of the price.

In the end I agreed to buy the horse for ten crowns, paying as
well what was due at the stable. I had it in my head to do
something also for the man, being moved to this partly by an idea
that there was good in him, and partly by the confidence he had
seen fit to place in me, which seemed to deserve some return.
But a noise below stairs diverted my attention. I heard myself
named, and for the moment forgot the matter.

CHAPTER XXVII.

TO ME, MY FRIENDS!

I was impatient to learn who had come, and what was their errand
with me; and being still in that state of exaltation in which we
seem to hear and see more than at other times, I remarked a
peculiar lagging in the ascending footsteps, and a lack of
buoyancy, which was quick to communicate itself to my mind. A
vague dread fell upon me as I stood listening. Before the door
opened I had already conceived a score of disasters. I wondered
that I had not inquired earlier concerning the king's safety, and
in fine I experienced in a moment that complete reaction of the
spirits which is too frequently consequent upon an excessive flow
of gaiety.

I was prepared, therefore, for heavy looks, but not for the
persons who wore them nor the strange bearing the latter
displayed on entering. My visitors proved to be M. d'Agen and
Simon Fleix. And so far well. But the former, instead of coming
forward to greet me with the punctilious politeness which always
characterised him, and which I had thought to be proof against
every kind of surprise and peril, met me with downcast eyes and a
countenance so gloomy as to augment my fears a hundredfold; since
it suggested all those vague and formidable pains which M. de
Rambouillet had hinted might await me in a prison. I thought
nothing more probable than the entrance after them of a gaoler
laden with gyves and handcuffs; and saluting M. Francois with a
face which, do what I would, fashioned itself upon his, I had
scarce composure sufficient to place the poor accommodation of my
room at his disposal.

He thanked me; but he did it with so much gloom and so little
naturalness that I grew more impatient with each laboured
syllable. Simon Fleix had slunk to the window and turned his
back on us. Neither seemed to have anything to say. But a state
of suspense was one which I could least endure to suffer; and
impatient of the constraint which my friend's manner was fast
imparting to mine, I asked him at once and abruptly if his uncle
had returned.

'He rode in about midnight,' he answered, tracing a pattern on
the floor with the point of his riding-switch.

I felt some surprise on hearing this, since d'Agen was still
dressed and armed for the road, and was without all those
prettinesses which commonly marked his attire. But as he
volunteered no further information, and did not even refer to the
place in which he found me, or question me as to the adventures
which had lodged me there, I let it pass, and asked him if his
party had overtaken the deserters.

'Yes,' he answered, 'with no result.'

'And the king?'

'M. de Rambouillet is with him now,' he rejoined, still bending
over his tracing.

This answer relieved the worst of my anxieties, but the manner of
the speaker was so distrait and so much at variance with the
studied INSOUCIANCE which he usually, affected, that I only grew
more alarmed. I glanced at Simon Fleix, but he kept his face
averted, and I could gather nothing from it; though I observed
that he, too, was dressed for the road, and wore his arms. I
listened, but I could hear no sounds which indicated that the
Provost-Marshal was approaching. Then on a sudden I thought of
Mademoiselle de la Vire. Could it be that Maignan had proved
unequal to his task?

I started impetuously from my stool under the influence of the
emotion which this thought naturally aroused, and seized M.
d'Agen by the arm. 'What has happened?' I exclaimed. 'Is it
Bruhl? Did he break into my lodgings last night? What!' I
continued, staggering back as I read the confirmation of my fears
in his face. 'He did?'

M. d'Agen, who had risen also, pressed my hand with convulsive
energy. Gazing into my face, he held me a moment thus embraced,
His manner a strange mixture of fierceness and emotion. 'Alas,
yes,' he answered, 'he did, and took away those whom he found
there! Those whom he found there, you understand! But M. de
Rambouillet is on his way here, and in a few minutes you will be
free. We will follow together. If we overtake them--well. If
not, it will be time to talk.'

He broke off, and I stood looking at him, stunned by the blow,
yet in the midst of my own horror and surprise retaining sense
enough to wonder at the gloom on his brow and the passion which
trembled in his words. What had this to do with him? 'But
Bruhl?' I said at last, recovering myself with an effort--'how
did he gain access to the room? I left it guarded.'

'By a ruse, while Maignan and his men were away,' was the answer.
'Only this lad of yours was there. Bruhl's men overpowered him.'

'Which way has Bruhl gone?' I muttered, my throat dry, my heart
beating wildly.

He shook his head. 'All we know is that he passed through the
south gate with eleven horsemen, two women, and six led horses,
at daybreak this morning,' he answered. 'Maignan came to my
uncle with the news, and M. de Rambouillet went at once, early as
it was, to the king to procure your release. He should be here
now.'

I looked at the barred window, the most horrible fears at my
heart; from it to Simon Fleix, who stood beside it, his attitude
expressing the utmost dejection. I went towards him. 'You
hound!' I said in a low voice, 'how did it happen?'

To my surprise he fell in a moment on his knees, and raised his
arm as though to ward off a blow. 'They imitated Maignan's
voice,' he muttered hoarsely. 'We opened.'

'And you dare to come here and tell me!' I cried, scarcely
restraining my passion. 'You, to whom I entrusted her. You,
whom I thought devoted to her. You have destroyed her, man!'

He rose as suddenly as he had cowered down. His thin, nervous
face underwent a startling change; growing on a sudden hard and
rigid, while his eyes began to glitter with excitement. 'I--I
have destroyed her? Ay, mon dieu! I HAVE,' he cried, speaking
to my face, and no longer flinching or avoiding my eye. 'You may
kill me, if you like. You do not know all. It was I who stole
the favour she gave you from your doublet, and then said M. de
Rosny had taken it! It was I who told her you had given it away!
It was I who brought her to the Little Sisters', that she might
see you with Madame de Bruhl! It was I who did all, and
destroyed her! Now you know! Do with me what you like!'

He opened his arms as though to receive a blow, while I stood
before him astounded beyond measure by a disclosure so
unexpected; full of righteous wrath and indignation, and yet
uncertain what I ought to do. 'Did you also let Bruhl into the
room on purpose?' I cried at last.

'I?' he exclaimed, with a sudden flash of rage in his eyes. 'I
would have died first!'

I do not know how I might have taken this confession; but at the
moment there was a trampling of horses outside, and before I
could answer him I heard M. de Rambouillet speaking in haughty
tones, at the door below. The Provost-Marshal was with him, but
his lower notes were lost in the ring of bridles and the stamping
of impatient hoofs. I looked towards the door of my room, which
stood ajar, and presently the two entered, the Marquis listening
with an air of contemptuous indifference to the apologies which
the other, who attended at his elbow, was pouring forth. M. de
Rambouillet's face reflected none of the gloom and despondency
which M. d'Agen's exhibited in so marked a degree. He seemed, on
the contrary, full of gaiety and good-humour, and, coming forward
and seeing me, embraced me with the utmost kindness and
condescension.

'Ha! my friend,' he said cheerfully, 'so I find you here after
all! But never fear. I am this moment from the king with an
order for your release. His Majesty has told me all, making me
thereby your lasting friend and debtor. As for this gentleman,'
he continued, turning with a cold smile to the Provost-Marshal,
who seemed to be trembling in his boots, 'he may expect an
immediate order also. M. de Villequier has wisely gone a-
hunting, and will not be back for a day or two.'

Racked as I was by suspense and anxiety, I could not assail him
with immediate petitions. It behoved me first to thank him for
his prompt intervention, and this in terms as warm as I could
invent. Nor could I in justice fail to commend the Provost; to
him, representing the officer's conduct to me, and lauding his
ability. All this, though my heart was sick with thought and
fear and disappointment, and every minute seemed an age.

'Well, well,' the Marquis said with stately good-nature, 'We will
lay the blame on Villequier then. He is an old fox, however, and
ten to one he will go scot-free. It is not the first time he has
played this trick. But I have not yet come to the end of my
commission,' he continued pleasantly. 'His Majesty sends you
this, M. de Marsac, and bade me say that he had loaded it for
you.'

He drew from under his cloak as he spoke the pistol which I had
left with the king, and which happened to be the same M. de Rosny
had given me. I took it, marvelling impatiently at the careful
manner in which he handled it; but in a moment I understood for I
found it loaded to the muzzle with gold-pieces, of which two or
three fell and rolled upon the floor. Much moved by this
substantial mark of the king's gratitude, I was nevertheless for
pocketing them in haste; but the Marquis, to satisfy a little
curiosity on his part, would have me count them, and brought the
tale to a little over two thousand livres, without counting a
ring set with precious stones which I found among them. This
handsome present diverted my thoughts from Simon Fleix, but could
not relieve the anxiety I felt on mademoiselle's account. The
thought of her position so tortured me that M. de Rambouillet
began to perceive my state of mind, and hastened to assure me
that before going to the Court he had already issued orders
calculated to assist me.

'You desire to follow this lady, I understand?' he said. 'What
with the king who is enraged beyond the ordinary by this outrage,
and Francois there, who seemed beside himself when be heard the
news, I have not got any very clear idea of the position.'

'She was entrusted to me by--by one, sir, well known to you,' I
answered hoarsely. 'My honour is engaged to him and to her. If
I follow on my feet and alone, I must follow. If I cannot save
her, I can at least punish the villains who have wronged her.'

'But the man's wife is with them,' he said in some wonder.

'That goes for nothing,' I answered.

He saw the strong emotion under which I laboured, and which
scarcely suffered me to answer him with patience; and he looked
at me curiously, but not unkindly. 'The sooner you are off, the
better then,' he said, nodding. 'I gathered as much. The man
Maignan will have his fellows at the south gate an hour before
noon, I understand. Francois has two lackeys, and he is wild to
go. With yourself and the lad there you will muster nine swords.
I will lend you two. I can spare no more, for we may have an
EMEUTE at any moment. You will take the road, therefore, eleven
in all, and should overtake them some time to-night if your
horses are in condition.'

I thanked him warmly, without regarding his kindly statement that
my conduct on the previous day had laid him under lasting
obligations to me. We went down together, and he transferred two
of his fellows to me there and then, bidding them change their
horses for fresh ones and meet me at the south gate. He sent
also a man to my stable--Simon Fleix having disappeared in the
confusion--for the Cid, and was in the act of inquiring whether I
needed anything else, when a woman slipped through the knot of
horsemen who surrounded us as we stood in the doorway of the
house, and, throwing herself upon me, grasped me by the arm. It
was Fanchette. Her harsh features were distorted with grief, her
cheeks were mottled with the violent weeping in which such
persons vent their sorrow. Her hair hung in long wisps on her
neck. Her dress was torn and draggled, and there was a great
bruise over her eye. She had the air of one frantic with despair
and misery.

She caught me by the cloak, and shook me so that I staggered. 'I
have found you at last!' she cried joyfully. 'You will take me
with you! You will take me to her!'

Though her words tried my composure, and my heart went out to
her, I strove to answer her according to the sense of the matter.
'It is impossible, I said sternly. 'This is a man s errand. We
shall have to ride day and night, my good woman.'

'But I will ride day and night too!' she replied passionately,
flinging the hair from her eyes, and looking wildly from me to M.
Rambouillet. 'What would I not do for her? I am as strong as a
man, and stronger. Take me, take me, I say, and when I meet that
villain I will tear him limb for limb!'

I shuddered, listening to her; but remembering that, being
country bred, she was really as strong as she said, and that
likely enough some advantage might accrue to us from her perfect
fidelity and devotion to her mistress, I gave a reluctant
consent. I sent one of M. de Rambouillet's men to the stable
where the deaf man's bay was standing, bidding him pay whatever
was due to the dealer, and bring the horse to the south gate; my
intention being to mount one of my men on it, and furnish the
woman with a less tricky steed.

The briskness of these and the like preparations, which even for
one of my age and in my state of anxiety were not devoid, of
pleasure, prevented my thoughts dwelling on the future. Content
to have M. Francois' assistance without following up too keenly
the train of ideas which his readiness suggested, I was satisfied
also to make use of Simon without calling him to instant account
for his treachery. The bustle of the streets, which the
confirmation of the king's speedy departure had filled with
surly, murmuring crowds, tended still further to keep my fears at
bay; while the contrast between my present circumstances, as I
rode through them well-appointed and well-attended, with the
Marquis by my side, and the poor appearance I had exhibited on my
first arrival in Blois, could not fail to inspire me with hope
that I might surmount this danger, also, and in the event find
Mademoiselle safe and uninjured. I took leave of M. de
Rambouillet with many expressions of esteem on both sides, and a
few minutes before eleven reached the rendezvous outside the
south gate.

M. d'Agen and Maignan advanced to meet me, the former still
presenting an exterior so stern and grave that I wondered to see
him, and could scarcely believe he was the same gay spark whose
elegant affectations had more than once caused me to smile. He
saluted me in silence; Maignan with a sheepish air, which ill-
concealed the savage temper defeat had roused in him. Counting
my men, I found we mustered ten only, but the equerry explained
that he had despatched a rider ahead to make inquiries and leave
word for us at convenient points; to the end that we might follow
the trail with as few delays as possible. Highly commending
Maignan for his forethought in this, I gave the word to start,
and crossing the river by the St. Gervais Bridge, we took the
road for Selles at a smart trot.

The weather had changed much in the last twenty-four hours. The
sun shone brightly, with a warm west wind, and the country
already showed signs of the early spring which marked that year.
If, the first hurry of departure over, I had now leisure to feel
the gnawing of anxiety and the tortures inflicted by an
imagination which, far outstripping us, rode with those whom we
pursued and shared their perils, I found two sources of comfort
still open to me. No man who has seen service can look on a
little band of well-appointed horsemen without pleasure. I
reviewed the stalwart forms and stern faces which moved beside me
and comparing their decent order and sound equipments with the
scurvy foulness of the men who had ridden north with me, thanked
God, and, ceased to wonder at the indignation which Matthew and
his fellows had aroused in mademoiselle's mind. My other source
of satisfaction, the regular beat of hoofs and ring of bridles
continually augmented. Every step took us farther from Blois--
farther from the close town and reeking streets and the Court;
which, if it no longer seemed to me a shambles, befouled by one
great deed of blood--experience had removed that impression--
retained an appearance infinitely mean and miserable in my eyes.
I hated and loathed its intrigues and its jealousies, the folly
which trifled in a closet while rebellion mastered France, and
the pettiness which recognised no wisdom save that of balancing
party and party. I thanked God that my work there was done, and
could have welcomed any other occasion that forced me to turn my
back on it, and sent me at large over the pure heaths, through
the woods, and under the wide heaven, speckled with moving
clouds.

But such springs of comfort soon ran dry. M. d'Agen's gloomy
rage and the fiery gleam in Maignan's eye would have reminded me,
had I been in any danger of forgetting the errand on which we
were bound, and the need, exceeding all other needs, which
compelled us to lose no moment that might be used. Those whom we
followed had five hours' start. The thought of what might;
happen in those five hours to the two helpless women whom I had
sworn to protect burned itself into my mind; so that to refrain
from putting spurs to my horse and riding recklessly forward
taxed at times all my self-control. The horses seemed to crawl.
The men rising and falling listlessly in their saddles maddened
me. Though I could not hope to come upon any trace of our quarry
for many hours, perhaps for days, I scanned the long, flat heaths
unceasingly, searched every marshy bottom before we descended
into it, and panted for the moment when the next low ridge should
expose to our view a fresh track of wood and waste. The rosy
visions of the past night, and those fancies in particular which
had made the dawn memorable, recurred to me, as his deeds in the
body (so men say) to a hopeless drowning wretch. I grew to think
of nothing but Bruhl and revenge. Even the absurd care with
which Simon avoided the neighbourhood of Fanchette, riding
anywhere so long as he might ride at a distance from the angry
woman's tongue and hand--which provoked many a laugh from the
men, and came to be the joke of the company--failed to draw a
smile from me.

We passed through Contres, four leagues from Blois, an hour after
noon, and three hours later crossed the Cher at Selles, where we
stayed awhile to bait our horses. Here we had news of the party
before us, and henceforth had little doubt that Bruhl was making
for the Limousin; a district in which he might rest secure under
the protection of Turenne, and safely defy alike the King of
France and the King of Navarre. The greater the necessity, it
was plain, for speed; but the roads in that neighbourhood, and
forward as far as Valancy, proved heavy and, foundrous, and it
was all we could do to reach Levroux with jaded horses three
hours after sunset. The probability that Bruhl would lie at
Chateauroux, five leagues farther on--for I could not conceive
that under the circumstances he would spare the women--would have
led me to push forward had it been possible; but the darkness and
the difficulty of finding a guide who would venture deterred me
from the hopeless attempt, and we stayed the night where we were.

Here we first heard of the plague; which was said to be ravaging
Chateauroux and all the country farther south. The landlord of
the inn would have regaled us with many stories of it, and
particularly of the swiftness with which men and even cattle
succumbed to its attacks. But we had other things to think of,
and between anxiety and weariness had clean forgotten the matter
when we rose next morning.

We started shortly after daybreak, and for three leagues pressed
on at tolerable speed. Then, for no reason stated, our guide
gave us the slip as we passed through a wood, and was seen no
more. We lost the road, and had to retrace our steps. We
strayed into a slough, and extracted ourselves with difficulty.
The man who was riding the bay I had purchased forgot the secret
which I had imparted to him, and got an ugly fall. In fine,
after all these mishaps it wanted little of noon, and less to
exhaust our patience, when at length we came in sight of
Chateauroux.

Before entering the town we had still an adventure; for we came
at a turn in the road on a scene as surprising as it was at first
inexplicable. A little north of the town, in a coppice of box
facing the south and west, we happed suddenly on a rude
encampment, consisting of a dozen huts and booths, set back from
the road and formed, some of branches of evergreen trees laid.
clumsily together, and some of sacking stretched over poles. A
number of men and women of decent appearance lay on the short
grass before the booths, idly sunning themselves; or moved about,
cooking and tending fires, while a score of children raced to and
fro with noisy shouts and laughter. The appearance of our party
on the scene caused an instant panic. The women and children
fled screaming into the wood, spreading the sound of breaking
branches farther and farther as they retreated; while the men, a
miserable pale-faced set, drew together, and seeming half-
inclined to fly also, regarded us with glances of fear and
suspicion.

Remarking that their appearance and dress were not those of
vagrants, while the booths seemed to indicate little skill or
experience in the builders, I bade my companions halt, and
advanced alone.

'What is the meaning of this, my men?' I said, addressing the
first group I reached. 'You seem to have come a-Maying before
the time. Whence are you?'

'From Chateauroux,' the foremost answered sullenly. His dress,
now I saw him nearer, seemed to be that of a respectable
townsman.

'Why?' I replied. 'Have you no homes?'

'Ay, we have homes,' he answered with the same brevity.

'Then why, in God's name, are you here?' I retorted, marking the
gloomy air and downcast faces of the group. 'Have you been
harried?'

'Ay, harried by the Plague!' he answered bitterly. 'Do you mean
to say you have not heard? In Chateauroux there is one man dead
in three. Take my advice, sir--you are a brave company--turn,
and go home again.'

'Is it as bad as that?' I exclaimed. I had forgotten the
landlord's gossip, and the explanation struck me with the force
of surprise.

'Ay, is it! Do you see the blue haze?' he continued, pointing
with a sudden gesture to the lower ground before us, over which a
light pall of summery vapour hung still and motionless. 'Do you
see it? Well, under that there is death! You may find food in
Chateauroux, and stalls for your horses, and a man to take money;
for there are still men there. But cross the Indre, and you will
see sights worse than a battle-field a week old! You will find
no living soul in house or stable or church, but corpses plenty.
The land is cursed! cursed for heresy, some say! Half are dead,
and half are fled to the woods! And if you do not die of the
plague, you will starve.'

'God forbid!' I muttered, thinking with a shudder of those
before us. This led me to ask him if a party resembling ours in
number, and including two women, had passed that way. He
answered, Yes, after sunset the evening before; that their horses
were stumbling with fatigue and the men swearing in pure
weariness. He believed that they had not entered the town, but
had made a rude encampment half a mile beyond it; and had again
broken this up, and ridden southwards two or three hours before
our arrival.

'Then we may overtake them to-day?' I said.

'By your leave, sir,' he answered, with grave meaning. 'I think
you are more likely to meet them.'

Shrugging my shoulders, I thanked him shortly and left him; the
full importance of preventing my men hearing what I had heard--
lest the panic which possessed these townspeople should seize on
them also--being already in my mind. Nevertheless the thought
came too late, for on turning my horse I found one of the
foremost, a long, solemn-faced man, had already found his way to
Maignan's stirrup; where he was dilating so eloquently upon the
enemy which awaited us southwards that the countenances of half
the troopers were as long as his own, and I saw nothing for it
but to interrupt his oration by a smart application of my switch
to his shoulders. Having thus stopped him, and rated him back to
his fellows, I gave the word to march. The men obeyed
mechanically, we swung into a canter, and for a moment the danger
was over.

But I knew that it would recur again and again. Stealthily
marking the faces round me, and listening to the whispered talk
which went on, I saw the terror spread from one to another.
Voices which earlier in the day had been raised in song and
jest grew silent. Great reckless fellows of Maignan's following,
who had an oath and a blow for all comers, and to whom the
deepest ford seemed to be child's play, rode with drooping heads
and knitted brows; or scanned with ill-concealed anxiety the
strange haze before us, through which the roofs of the town, and
here and there a low hill or line of poplars, rose to plainer
view. Maignan himself, the stoutest of the stout, looked grave,
and had lost his swaggering air. Only three persons preserved
their SANG-FROID entire. Of these, M. d'Agen rode as if he had
heard nothing, and Simon Fleix as if he feared nothing; while
Fanchette, gazing eagerly forward, saw, it was plain, only one
object in the mist, and that was her Mistress's face.

'We found the gates of the town open, and this, which proved to
be the herald of stranger sights, daunted the hearts of my men
more than the most hostile reception. As we entered, our horses'
hoofs, clattering loudly on the pavement, awoke a hundred echoes
in the empty houses to right and left. The main street, flooded

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