The Refugees/Chapter XXI
Chapter XXI: The Man in the Caleche
Often had De Montespan feigned a faint in the days when she wished to disarm the anger of the king. So she had drawn his arms round her, and won the pity which is the twin sister of love. But now she knew what it was to have the senses struck out of her by a word. She could not doubt the truth of what she heard. There was that in her rival's face, in her steady eye, in her quiet voice, which carried absolute conviction with it. She stood stunned for an instant, panting, her outstretched hands feeling at the air, her defiant eyes dulling and glazing. Then, with a short sharp cry, the wail of one who has fought hard and yet knows that she can fight no more, her proud head drooped, and she fell forward senseless at the feet of her rival. Madame de Maintenon stooped and raised her up in her strong white arms. There was true grief and pity in her eyes as she looked down at the snow-pale face which lay against her bosom, all the bitterness and pride gone out of it, and nothing left save the tear which sparkled under the dark lashes, and the petulant droop of the lip, like that of a child which had wept itself to sleep. She laid her on the ottoman and placed a silken cushion under her head. Then she gathered together and put back into the open cupboard all the jewels which were scattered about the carpet. Having locked it, and placed the key on the table where its owner's eye would readily fall upon it, she struck a gong, which summoned the little black page.
"Your mistress is indisposed," said she. "Go and bring her maids to her." And so, having done all that lay with her to do, she turned away from the great silent room, where, amid the velvet and the gilding, her beautiful rival lay like a crushed flower, helpless and hopeless.
Helpless enough, for what could she do? and hopeless too, for how could fortune aid her? The instant that her senses had come back to her she had sent away her waiting women, and lay with clasped hands and a drawn face planning out her own weary future. She must go; that was certain. Not merely because it was the king's order, but because only misery and mockery remained for her now in the palace where she had reigned supreme. It was true that she had held her position against the queen before, but all her hatred could not blind her to the fact that her rival was a very different woman to poor meek little Maria Theresa. No; her spirit was broken at last. She must accept defeat, and she must go.
She rose from the couch, feeling that she had aged ten years in an hour. There was much to be done, and little time in which to do it. She had cast down her jewels when the king had spoken as though they would atone for the loss of his love; but now that the love was gone there was no reason why the jewels should be lost too. If she had ceased to be the most powerful, she might still be the richest woman in France. There was her pension, of course. That would be a munificent one, for Louis was always generous. And then there was all the spoil which she had collected during these long years--the jewels the pearls, the gold, the vases, the pictures, the crucifixes, the watches, the trinkets--together they represented many millions of livres. With her own hands she packed away the more precious and portable of them, while she arranged with her brother for the safe-keeping of the others. All day she was at work in a mood of feverish energy, doing anything and everything which might distract her thoughts from her own defeat and her rival's victory. By evening all was ready, and she had arranged that her property should be sent after her to Petit Bourg, to which castle she intended to retire.
It wanted half an hour of the time fixed for her departure, when a young cavalier, whose face was strange to her, was ushered into the room.
He came with a message from her brother.
"Monsieur de Vivonne regrets, madame, that the rumour of your departure has got abroad among the court."
"What do I care for that, monsieur?" she retorted, with all her old spirit.
"He says, madame, that the courtiers may assemble at the west gate to see you go; that Madame de Neuilly will be there, and the Duchesse de Chambord, and Mademoiselle de Rohan, and--"
The lady shrank with horror at the thought of such an ordeal. To drive away from the palace, where she had been more than queen, under the scornful eyes and bitter gibes of so many personal enemies! After all the humiliations of the day, that would be the crowning cup of sorrow. Her nerve was broken. She could not face it.
"Tell my brother, monsieur, that I should be much obliged if he would make fresh arrangements, by which my departure might be private."
"He bade me say that he had done so, madame."
"Ah! at what hour then?"
"Now. As soon as possible."
"I am ready. At the west gate then?"
"No; at the east. The carriage waits."
"And where is my brother?"
"We are to pick him up at the park gate."
"And why that?"
"Because he is watched; and were he seen beside the carriage, all would be known."
"Very good. Then, monsieur, if you will take my cloak and this casket we may start at once."
They made their way by a circuitous route through the less-used corridors, she hurrying on like a guilty creature, a hood drawn over her face, and her heart in a flutter at every stray footfall. But fortune stood her friend. She met no one, and soon found herself at the eastern postern gate. A couple of phlegmatic Swiss guardsmen leaned upon their muskets upon either side, and the lamp above shone upon the carriage which awaited her. The door was open, and a tall cavalier swathed in a black cloak handed her into it. He then took the seat opposite to her, slammed the door, and the caleche rattled away down the main drive.
It had not surprised her that this man should join her inside the coach, for it was usual to have a guard there, and he was doubtless taking the place which her brother would afterwards occupy. That was all natural enough. But when ten minutes passed by, and he had neither moved nor spoken, she peered at him through the gloom with some curiosity. In the glance which she had of him, as he handed her in, she had seen that he was dressed like a gentleman, and there was that in his bow and wave as he did it which told her experienced senses that he was a man of courtly manners. But courtiers, as she had known them, were gallant and garrulous, and this man was so very quiet and still. Again she strained her eyes through the gloom. His hat was pulled down and his cloak was still drawn across his mouth, but from out of the shadow she seemed to get a glimpse of two eyes which peered at her even as she did at him.
At last the silence impressed her with a vague uneasiness. It was time to bring it to an end.
"Surely, monsieur, we have passed the park gate where we were to pick up my brother."
Her companion neither answered nor moved. She thought that perhaps the rumble of the heavy caleche had drowned her voice.
"I say, monsieur," she repeated, leaning forwards, "that we have passed the place where we were to meet Monsieur de Vivonne."
He took no notice.
"Monsieur," she cried, "I again remark that we have passed the gates."
There was no answer.
A thrill ran through her nerves. Who or what could he be, this silent man? Then suddenly it struck her that he might be dumb.
"Perhaps monsieur is afflicted," she said. "Perhaps monsieur cannot speak. If that be the cause of your silence, will you raise your hand, and I shall understand." He sat rigid and silent.
Then a sudden mad fear came upon her, shut up in the dark with this dreadful voiceless thing. She screamed in her terror, and strove to pull down the window and open the door. But a grip of steel closed suddenly round her wrist and forced her back into her seat. And yet the man's body had not moved, and there was no sound save the lurching and rasping of the carriage and the clatter of the flying horses. They were already out on the country roads far beyond Versailles. It was darker than before, heavy clouds had banked over the heavens, and the rumbling of thunder was heard low down on the horizon.
The lady lay back panting upon the leather cushions of the carriage. She was a brave woman, and yet this sudden strange horror coming upon her at the moment when she was weakest had shaken her to the soul. She crouched in the corner, staring across with eyes which were dilated with terror at the figure on the other side. If he would but say something! Any revelation, any menace, was better than this silence. It was so dark now that she could hardly see his vague outline, and every instant, as the storm gathered, it became still darker. The wind was blowing in little short angry puffs, and still there was that far-off rattle and rumble. Again the strain of the silence was unbearable. She must break it at any cost.
"Sir," said she, "there is some mistake here. I do not know by what right you prevent me from pulling down the window and giving my directions to the coachman."
He said nothing.
"I repeat, sir, that there is some mistake. This is the carriage of my brother, Monsieur de Vivonne, and he is not a man who will allow his sister to be treated uncourteously."
A few heavy drops of rain splashed against one window. The clouds were lower and denser. She had quite lost sight of that motionless figure, but it was all the more terrible to her now that it was unseen. She screamed with sheer terror, but her scream availed no more than her words.
"Sir," she cried, clutching forward with her hands and grasping his sleeve, "you frighten me. You terrify me. I have never harmed you. Why should you wish to hurt an unfortunate woman? Oh, speak to me; for God's sake, speak!"
Still the patter of rain upon the window, and no other sound save her own sharp breathing.
"Perhaps you do not know who I am!" she continued, endeavouring to assume her usual tone of command, and talking now to an absolute and impenetrable darkness. "You may learn when it is too late that you have chosen the wrong person for this pleasantry. I am the Marquise de Montespan, and I am not one who forgets a slight. If you know anything of the court, you must know that my word has some weight with the king. You may carry me away in this carriage, but I am not a person who can disappear without speedy inquiry, and speedy vengeance if I have been wronged. If you would--Oh, Jesus! Have mercy!"
A livid flash of lightning had burst from the heart of the cloud, and, for an instant, the whole country-side and the interior of the caleche were as light as day. The man's face was within a hand's breadth of her own, his mouth wide open, his eyes mere shining slits, convulsed with silent merriment. Every detail flashed out clear in that vivid light-- his red quivering tongue, the lighter pink beneath it, the broad white teeth, the short brown beard cut into a peak and bristling forward.
But it was not the sudden flash, it was not the laughing, cruel face, which shot an ice-cold shudder through Francoise de Montespan. It was that, of all men upon earth, this was he whom she most dreaded, and whom she had least thought to see.
"Maurice!" she screamed. "Maurice! it is you!"
"Yes, little wifie, it is I. We are restored to each other's arms, you see, after this interval."
"Oh, Maurice, how you have frightened me! How could you be so cruel? Why would you not speak to me?"
"Because it was so sweet to sit in silence and to think that I really had you to myself after all these years, with none to come between. Ah, little wifie, I have often longed for this hour."
"I have wronged you, Maurice; I have wronged you! Forgive me!"
"We do not forgive in our family, my darling Francoise. Is it not like old days to find ourselves driving together? And in this carriage, too. It is the very one which bore us back from the cathedral where you made your vows so prettily. I sat as I sit now, and you sat there, and I took your hand like this, and I pressed it, and--"
"Oh, villain, you have twisted my wrist! You have broken my arm!"
"Oh, surely not, my little wifie! And then you remember that, as you told me how truly you would love me, I leaned forward to your lips, and--"
"Oh, help! Brute, you have cut my mouth! You have struck me with your ring."
"Struck you! Now who would have thought that spring day when we planned out our future, that this also was in the future waiting for me and you? And this! and this!"
He struck savagely at her face in the darkness. She threw herself down, her head pressed against the cushions. With the strength and fury of a maniac he showered his blows above her, thudding upon the leather or crashing upon the woodwork, heedless of his own splintered hands.
"So I have silenced you," said he at last. "I have stopped your words with my kisses before now. But the world goes on, Francoise, and times change, and women grow false, and men grow stern."
"You may kill me if you will," she moaned.
"I will," he said simply.
Still the carriage flew along, jolting and staggering in the deeply-rutted country roads. The storm had passed, but the growl of the thunder and the far-off glint of a lightning-flash were to be heard and seen on the other side of the heavens. The moon shone out with its clear cold light, silvering the broad, hedgeless, poplar-fringed plains, and shining through the window of the carriage upon the crouching figure and her terrible companion. He leaned back now, his arms folded upon his chest, his eyes gloating upon the abject misery of the woman who had wronged him.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked at last.
"To Portillac, my little wifie."
"And why there? What would you do to me?"
"I would silence that little lying tongue forever. It shall deceive no more men."
"You would murder me?"
"If you call it that."
"You have a stone for a heart."
"My other was given to a woman."
"Oh, my sins are indeed punished."
"Rest assured that they will be."
"Can I do nothing to atone?"
"I will see that you atone."
"You have a sword by your side, Maurice. Why do you not kill me, then, if you are so bitter against me? Why do you not pass it through my heart?"
"Rest assured that I would have done so had I not an excellent reason."
"I will tell you. At Portillac I have the right of the high justice, the middle, and the low. I am seigneur there, and can try, condemn, and execute. It is my lawful privilege. This pitiful king will not even know how to avenge you, for the right is mine, and he cannot gainsay it without making an enemy of every seigneur in France."
He opened his mouth again and laughed at his own device, while she, shivering in every limb, turned away from his cruel face and glowing eyes, and buried her face in her hands. Once more she prayed God to forgive her for her poor sinful life. So they whirled through the night behind the clattering horses, the husband and the wife, saying nothing, but with hatred and fear raging in their hearts, until a brazier fire shone down upon them from the angle of a keep, and the shadow of the huge pile loomed vaguely up in front of them in the darkness. It was the Castle of Portillac.