It was about a month after my marriage, and, third clerk to the most noble the bishop of Beauvais, and even admitted on occasions to write in his presence and prepare his minutes, who should marry if I might not? It was about a month after my marriage, I say, Monsieur, that the thunderbolt, to which I have referred, fell and shattered my fortunes, I rose one morning—they were firing guns for the victory of Rocroy I remember, so that it must have been eight weeks or more after the death of the late king, and the glorious rising of the sun of France—and who so happy as I. A summer morning, Monsieur, and bright, and I had all I wished. The river as it sparkled and rippled against the piers of the Pont Neuf far below, the wet roofs that twinkled under our garret window, were not more brilliant than my lord's fortunes, and as is the squirrel so is the tail.
Of a certainty, I was happy that morning. I thought of the little hut under the pinewood at Gabas, and my father cobbling by the unglazed window, his nightcap on his bald head, and his face plastered where the shred had slipped, and I puffed out my cheeks to think that I had climbed so high. High! how high might not a man climb who had married the daughter of the Queen's under-porter, and had sometimes the ear of my lord, the Queen's Minister—my lord of Beauvais, in whom all men saw the coming Master of France—my lord, whose stately presence beamed on a world still chilled by the dead hand of Richelieu.
But that morning, that very morning, I was to learn that who climbs may fall. I went below at the usual hour. At the usual hour Monseigneur left, attended, for the Council; presently all the house was in an uproar. My lord had returned, and called for Prosper. I fancied that I caught even then something ominous in the sound of my name as it passed from lip to lip, and I hastened, scared, to the chamber. But fast as I went I did not go fast enough; one thrust me on this side, another on that. The steward cursed me, the head clerk stormed at me, the secretary waited for me at the door, and seizing me by the neck ran me into the room. "In, rascal, in," he growled in my ear, "and I hope your skin may pay for it."
Naturally, by this time I was quaking. Monseigneur's looks finished me, He stood in the middle of the chamber, gnawing the nails of his left hand; and scowled at me, his handsome face pale and sullen. "Yes!" he said curtly, "that is the fellow!"
"Wretch!" the head clerk cried, seizing me by the ear and twisting it until I fell on my knees. "Imbecile! Or more likely he did it on purpose."
"Bribed!" said the secretary,
"He should be hung up!" the steward cried truculently, "before he does further mischief. And if my lord will give theword——"
"Silence!" the Bishop said with a glance at me, "What does he plead?"
The head clerk twisted my ear until I screamed. "Ingrate!" he cried. "Do you hear His Grace speak to you? Answer?"
"My Lord," I cried piteously. "I have done nothing! Nothing!"
"Nothing?" half a dozen echoed. "Nothing!" the head clerk added brutally. "Nothing, and you added a cipher to the census of Paris! Nothing, and your lying pen led my lord to state the population to be five millions instead of five hundred thousand! Nothing, and you sent His Grace's Highness to the Council to be corrected by low clerks and people, and made a laughing stock for the Cardinal, and——"
"Silence!" said the Bishop fiercely. "Enough! Take him away, and——"
"Hang him!" cried the steward.
"No, rascal, but have him to the courtyard, and let the grooms flog him through the gates. And have a care, you," he continued, addressing me, "that I do not see your face again, or it will be worse for you."
I flung myself down, and would have appealed against the sentence, but the Bishop, between rage and discomfiture was pitiless, and before I could utter three words, a dozen officious hands plucked me up and were thrusting me to the door. Outside worse things awaited me. A shower of kicks and cuffs and blows rained upon me; vainly struggling and shrieking, and seeking still to gain his ear, I was hustled along the passage to the courtyard, and there dragged amid brutal jeers and laughter to the fountain, and flung in. When I scrambled out, they thrust me back again and again: until trembling with cold and rage I at last evaded them, only to be hunted round the yard with leathers and bridles that cut like knives, and drew a scream at every stroke. I doubled like a hare more than once I knocked half a dozen men down; but I was fast growing exhausted, when some one more prudent or less cruel than his fellows, opened the gates and I darted into the street.
I was sobbing with rage and pain, dripping, ragged, and barefoot—some rogue had prudently drawn off my shoes in the scuffle. It was a wonder that I was not attacked and chased through the streets. Fortunately, opposite my lord's gates, opened the mouth of a little alley. I plunged into it, and in the first dark corner dropped, exhausted, and lay panting in the mud—I who had risen so happily a few hours before!—I who had climbed so high!—I who had a wife new-married in my garret at home!
I do not know how long I lay there, now cursing the jealousy of the clerks, who would have flayed me to save themselves, and now the cruelty of the grooms, who thought it fine sport to whip a scholar; but the first tempest of passion had spent itself when a woman—not the first whom my plight had attracted, but the others had merely shrugged their shoulders and passed on—paused before me. "What a white skin!" she cried, making great eyes at me; and then: "You are not a street prowler. How come you here, my lad?"
I was silent, ashamed to meet her gaze.
She stood a moment staring at me curiously, then, "Better go home," she said, shaking her head sedately, "or those who have robbed you may end by worse. I doubt this is what comes of raking and night work. Go home, my lad," she repeated, and went on her way.
Home! The word raised new thoughts I scrambled to my feet. I had a home; the Bishop might deprive me of it; but I had also a wife, from whom God only could separate me, I felt a sudden fire run through me at thought of her, and of all I had suffered since I left her arms; and with new boldness I turned, and, sore and aching as I was, stumbled back to the place of my shame.
The steward and two or three of his underlings were standing in the gateway, and saw me come up, and began to jeer. The high grey front of Monseigneurs hotel, three sides of a square, towered up behind them; the steward sprawled his feet apart, and set his hand to his stout side, and jeered at me. "Here is the lame leper from the Cour des Miracles!" he cried. "Have a care, or he will give you the evil!"
"Good sir, the swill-tub is open," cried another, "Help yourself!"
A third spat at me, and bade me begone for a pig. The passers—there were always a knot of gazers opposite my lord of Beauvais' palace in those days, when he had the Queen's ear and bade fair to succeed Richelieu—stayed to stare.
"I want my goods!" I said, trembling.
"Your goods!" the steward answered, swelling out his brawny chest, and smiling at me over it. "Your goods, indeed. Begone, and be thankful you have escaped so well."
"Give me my things from my room," I said stubbornly; and I tried to enter.
He moved sideways so as to block the passage, "Your goods? They are Monseigneur's," he said.
"My wife, then!"
He winked. "Your wife?" he said. "Well, true, she is not Monseigneur's. But she will do for me," And with a coarse laugh he winked again at the crowd.
At that the pent-up rage I had stemmed so long broke out. He stood a head taller than I, but with a scream I sprang at his throat, and by the very surprise of the attack got him down and beat his face with my fists. His fellows, as soon as they recovered from their astonishment, tore me off; but by that time I had so marked him that the blood poured down his face. He scrambled to his feet, panting and furious, his oaths tripping over one another.
"To the Châtelet with him!" he cried, spitting out a tooth and glaring at me through the mud on his face. "He shall swing for this! He tried to break in! I call you to witness he tried to break in!"
"Ay, to the Châtelet! To the Châtelet!" cried the crowd, siding with the stronger party. He was my lord of Beauvais' steward; I was a gutter-snipe and dangerous. A dozen hands held me tightly, yet not so tightly but that a coach passing at that moment and driving us all to the wall. I managed by a jerk—I was desperate by this time, and fierce as a wild cat—to snatch myself loose and in a second was speeding down St. Antoine with the hue and cry behind me.
I have said I was desperate. In an hour the world was changed for me. In an hour I had broken with every tradition of safe and modest life; and from a sleek scribe become a ragged outlaw flying through the streets, I saw the gallows; I felt already the lash sink like molten lead into the quivering back; I forgot all but the danger, I lived only on my feet, and with them made superhuman efforts. Fortunately the light was failing, and in the first dash I distanced the pack by a dozen yards; passing the front of the Palais Royal so swiftly that the Queen's Guards, though they ran out at the alarm, were too late to intercept me. Thence I strained instinctively, and with the cry of pursuit in my ears, towards the old bridge, intending to cross to the Cité, where I knew all the lanes; but the bridge was alarmed, the Châtelet seemed to yawn for me—they were just lighting the brazier in front of the gloomy pile; and doubling back—while the air roared with shouts of warning—I shot by my pursuers, and sped down the narrow Rue de la Chausse, with the hue and cry hard on my heels.
I had no plan now—only terror added wings to my feet, and the end of that street gained I darted blindly down another, and yet another, with straining chest, and legs that began to fail, and always in my ears the yells that rose round me as fresh pursuers joined in the chase. Still I kept ahead, I was even gaining; another turn, and with night thickening, I might hope to escape, if I could baffle those who from time to time—but in a half-hearted way, not knowing if I were armed—tried to stop me or trip me up.
Suddenly turning a corner—I had gained a quiet part where blind walls lined the alleys—I found a man running before me. At the same instant the posse in pursuit quickened their pace in a last effort; I, in answer, put forth all my strength, and in a dozen paces I came up with the man. He turned to me, our eyes met; desperate myself, I read equal terror in his, but before I could reason on the fact, he bent himself forward as he ran, and with a singular movement flung a parcel he carried into my arms, and wheeling abruptly, plunged into an alley on his left.
It was done in a moment. Instinctively I caught the burden and held it; but the impetus with which he had thrown it sent me reeling to the right, and, the lane being narrow, I fell against the wall before I could steady myself. As luck would have it, however, that which should have destroyed me was my salvation; I happened to hit the wall where a doorway broke it, the door, lightly latched, flew open under the impact, and I fell inwards. I alighted, in darkness, on my hands and knees, heard a stifled yelp as of a dog, and in a second, though I could see nothing, was up and had the door closed behind me.
Then, and not till then, I listened, panting and breathless, and heard the hunt go raving through the lane, and the noise die in the distance, until only the beating of my heart broke the close silence of the room in which I stood. When this had lasted a minute or two, I began to peer about and wonder where I was, and remembering the dog, moved stealthily to find the latch, and escape. As I did so, the bundle, to which through all I had clung, moved in my arms.
I almost dropped it, and then held it from me with a swift movement of repulsion. It stirred again, it was warm. In an instant the truth flashed on me. It was a child!
Hot as I had been before, the sweat rose on me at the thought; for I saw again the man's face of livid terror, and guessed that he had stolen the child, and I feared the worst. He had taken the rabble hooting at my heels for the avengers of blood, and had been only too thankful to rid himself of the damning fact, and escape.
And now I had it, and had as much, or more, to fear. For an instant the impulse to lay the parcel down, and glide out, and so be clear of it was strong upon me. And that, I think, is what the ordinary man, however brave, would have done. But for one thing, I was desperate, I knew not, when outside, whither to go or where to save myself; and for another, my clerk's wits were already busy showing me how, with luck, I might use the occasion and avoid the risk, might discover the parents, and without suffering for the theft, restore the child. Beyond that I saw a vista of pardon, employment, and reward!
Suddenly, the dog whined again, close to me, and that decided me. I had found the latch already, and now I warily drew the door open and in a moment was in the lane, looking up and down. I saw nothing to alarm me; darkness had completely fallen, no one was moving, the neighbourhood seemed to be of the quietest, I made up my mind to take the bold course: to return at all hazards to St. Antoine, seek my father-in-law at the gate of the Palais Royal—where he had the night turn—and throw the child and myself on his protection. Without doubt it was the wisest course I could choose; and as in those days the streets of Paris, even in the district of the Louvre and Palais Royal, were ill-lighted, and a network of lanes and dark courts encroached on the most fashionable pans, and favoured secret access to them, I foresaw no great difficulty short of the moment when I must stand out in the lighted lodge and exhibit my rags. But my evil star was still above the horizon. I had scarcely reached the end of the lane, and was still hesitating there, uncertain which way to turn for the shortest course, when a babel of voices broke on my ear, lights swept round a distant corner, and I found myself threatened with a new danger, I did not wait to consider whether this band, with their torches and weapons, had aught to do with me—my nerves were shaken, the streets of Paris were full of terrors, every corner had a gallows for me—but I turned and, fleeing back the way I had come, made a hurried effort to find the house which had sheltered me. Failing, in one or two trials, and seeing that the lights were really coming that way, and that in a moment I must be discovered, I sprang across the lane, and dived into the alley by which the child-stealer had vanished.
I had not taken ten steps before something unseen in the darkness tripped me up, and I fell sprawling in the mud. In the fall, my burden roiled from my arms, and was instantly snatched up by a dark figure, which, rising as by magic beside me, was gone into the gloom almost as quickly, I got up, limping, and flung a curse after both; but the lights already shone on the mouth of the alley, and I had no time to lose if I would not be detected. I set off running down the passage, turned to the left at the end, and along a lane, thence into another lane and a wider road; nor did I stop until I had left all signs and sounds of pursuit behind me.
The place in which I came to a stand at last was a piece of waste land, apparently in the suburbs of the city. High up on the left I could discern a light or two, piercing the gloom of the sky, and knew they shone from the windmills of Montmartre, In every other direction lay darkness, desolation swept by the night wind; silence broken only by the dismal howling of far off watch dogs. I might have been ten miles from Paris.
For very misery I sobbed aloud. I no longer knew where I was; nor, had I known, had I the strength to return. Excitement had carried me far, but at last I felt the weakness of utter exhaustion, and, sick and aching, craved only a hole in which to lie down and die. Fortunately at this moment I met the wind, and caught the scent of new-mown hay, and, stumbling forward a few steps, made out a low building looming through the night. I staggered to it, and discovered that it was a shed and, entering with my hands extended, felt the hay under my feet. With a sob of thankfulness I sank down upon it, but, instead of the soft couch I expected, fell on the angular body of a man, who, with a savage curse, flung me off.
This at another time would have scared me to death, but I was so far gone in wretchedness that I felt no fear and little surprise, I rolled away without a word, and, curling myself up at a distance of a few feet from my fellow lodger, fell in a minute fast asleep.
When I awoke, daylight, though the sun was not up, was beginning to creep into the shed. I turned; every bone I had ached. I remembered yesterday's doings, and groaned. Presently the hay beside me rustled, and over the shoulder of the mass against which I lay, I made out the face of a man, peering at me. I felt a thrill of fear, and stared back, spellbound. I had not yet broken with every habit of suspicion, nor could I in a moment recollect that I had nothing but rags to lose. In silence, which neither again broke by so much as a movement, we waited gazing, while the light in the mean hovel grew and grew, and minute by minute brought out more closely the other's features.
At length I knew him, and almost at the same moment he recognised me, and, uttering an oath of rage, rose up as if to spring at my throat. But either because I did not recoil—being too deep set in the hay to move—or for some other reason, he only shook his claw-like fingers at me, and held off. "Where is it, you dog?" he cried, finding his voice with an effort. "Speak, or I will have your throat slit. Speak, do you hear? What have you done with it?"
He was the man who had passed the child to me! I watched him heedfully, and after a moments hesitation I told him that it had been taken from me, and when and where.
"And you don't know the man who took it?" he screamed.
"Not from Adam. It was dark," I said.
In his disappointment and rage, at receiving this answer, I thought that he would fairly fall upon me: but he only choked and swore, and then stood scowling, the picture of despair; until, some new thought pricking him, he threw up his arms again, and cried out afresh: "Oh, mon Dieu, what a fool I was!" he screamed. "What a craven I was! I had a fortune in my hands—in my hands, fool—and I threw it away!"
I thought bitterly of my own case—I was not much afraid of him now; I began to think that I understood him. "So had I, yesterday morning," I said. "You are in no worse case than others."
"Yesterday morning?" he exclaimed. "No, last night. Then, if you like, you had But yesterday morning? Fortune and you, scarecrow! Go hang yourself!"
He looked gloomily at me for a moment with his arms crossed on his chest, and his face darkly set. Then: "Who are you?" he asked curtly.
I told him. When he learnt that the rabble that had alarmed him, had in fact been pursuing me, so that his fright had been groundless, he broke into fresh execrations, and those so violent that I began to feel a sort of contempt for him, and even plucked up spirit to say that he seemed to be in as evil case as I was.
He looked at me askance. "Ay, as it turns out," he said grimly. "But see the difference, idiot. You are a poor fool beaten from pillar to post; I played for a great stake. I have lost! I have lost!" he continued, his voice rising almost to a yell, "and we are both in the gutter. But if I had won—if I had won, man——"
He did not finish the sentence, but flung himself down on his face in the hay, and bit and tore it in his passion. A moment I viewed him with contempt, and thought him a poor creature for a villain. Then the skirt of his coat, curling over as he grovelled and writhed, disclosed something that turned my thoughts into another channel. Crushed under his leather girdle was a little cape, or a garment of that kind, of velvet so lustrous that it shone where I saw it, as the eyes shine in a toad. Nor it only. Before he rolled over and hid it, I spied embroidered on one corner of the velvet a stiff gold crown!
I barely repressed a cry. Cold, damp, aching, I felt the heat run through me like wine. A crown! A little purple cape! Then last night—last night, I had carried the King! the King of France in my arms.
I no longer found it hard to understand the man's terror of yesterday, or his grief and despair this morning. He had indeed played for a great stake, and risked torture and the wheel, and lost! and lost!
I looked at him with new eyes and a sort of wonder, and had scarcely time to compose my face when, the paroxysm of his fury past, he rose, and, looking at me askance, to see how I took his grovellings, asked me sullenly whither I was going.
"To Monseigneur's," I said cunningly. Had I answered "To the Palais Royal," he would have suspected me.
"To be beaten again?" he sneered.
I said nothing to that, but asked him whither he was going.
"God knows!" he said.
When I went out, however, he accompanied me, and we slunk silently like the pair of night-birds we were, through lanes and alleys until we were fairly in town again. By that time the sun was up, and the market people were beginning to enter the city. Here and there I found curious eyes on me, and, thinking of the company I was in, I trembled, and wondered that the alarm was not abroad and the bells proclaiming us from every tower. I was more than content, therefore, when my companion halted before a small mean door in a blind wall, over against another small mean door in a like wall.
"Do you stay here?" I said.
He swore churlishly. "What is that to you?" he said, looking up and down. "Go your way, idiot."
I was glad to affect a like ill-humour, shrugged my shoulders, and lounged on without looking back. But my brain was on fire. The King! the four-year-old King! What was I to do? To whom to go with my knowledge? And then—even then—while I paused hesitating, I heard steps running behind me, and turned to find him at my elbow, his face pale but his eyes burning, and his whole demeanour changed.
"Stay!" he cried, panting, and seizing me by the breast of my shirt. "The man who tripped you up, fellow—you did not see him?"
"It was dark," I answered curtly. "I told you I did not know him from Adam."
"But had he——" he gasped; "you heard him run away—was he lame?"
I could not repress an exclamation. "Par Dieu!" I said. "Yes, I had forgotten that. He was. I remember I heard his feet go cluck-clack, cluck-clack, as he ran."
His face became burning red, and he staggered. If ever man was near dying from blood in the head, it was that man! But in a moment he drew a long breath, and got the better of it, nodded to me, and turned away. I marked, however—for I stood a moment watching—that he did not go back to the door at which I had left him, but, after looking round once and espying me, took a lane on the right and disappeared.
But I knew, or thought that I knew, all now, and the moment he was out of sight I set off towards the Palais Royal like a hound let loose, heeding neither those against whom I bumped in the straiter ways, nor the danger I ran of recognition, nor the miserable aspect I wore, I forgot all save my news, even my own wretchedness, and never halted or stayed to take breath until I stood panting in the doorway of the lodge at the Palais, and met my father-in-law's gaze of disgust and astonishment.
He was just off the night turn, and met me on the threshold, I saw beyond him the grinning faces of the under-porters. But I had that to tell which still upheld me. I threw up my hands.
"I know where they are!" I cried, breathless. "I can take you to them!"
He gazed at me dumb with surprise and rage; and doubtless a less reputable son-in-law than I appeared would have been hard to find. Then his passion found vent. "Pig! jackal! gutter-bird!" he cried. "Begone! Begone! or I will have you flayed!"
"But I know where they are! I know where they have him!" I protested.
His face underwent a startling change, He darted forward with a nimbleness wonderful in one of his bulk, and caught me by the collar. "What," he said? "have you seen the dog?"
"The dog?" I cried. "No, but I have seen the King! I have held him in my arms! He is——"
He released me suddenly, and fell back a pace, looking at me so oddly that I paused. "Say it again," he said slowly. "You have held the——"
"The King! The King," I cried impatiently—"in these arms. I know where they have him, or at least where the robbers are."
His double-chin fell, and his red face lost colour. "Poor devil!" he said, still staring at me. "They have driven him mad!"
"But," I cried, advancing, "are you not going to——"
He waved me off and retreated a step hastily, and crossed himself. "Jacques!" he exclaimed. "Move him off! Move him off, do you hear, man?"
"But I tell you," I cried fiercely, "they have stolen the King! They have stolen his Majesty, and I——"
"There, there, be calm," he answered. "They have stolen the Queen's dog, that is true. But have it your own way if you like, only go. Go from here, and quickly, or it will be the worse for you, for here comes Monseigneur the Bishop to wait on her Majesty, and if he sees you, you will—. There, make way, make way!" he continued, addressing the little crowd that had assembled. "Way, way, for Monseigneur the Bishop of Beauvais!"
As he spoke, the Bishop and his train turned out of St. Antoine, and the crowd attending him eddied about the Palais entrance. I was hustled and swept out of the way, and, luckily escaping notice, found myself a few minutes later crouching in a blind alley that runs beside the church of St. Jacques, crouching and wolfing a crust of bread, which one of the men with whom I had often talked in the lodge had thrust into my hand. I ate it with tears; in all Paris, that day, was no more miserable outcast. What had become of my wife I knew not, and I dared not show myself at the Bishop's to ask; my father-in-law was hardened against me, and at the best thought me mad. I had no longer home or friend, and—this at the moment cut most sharply—the gorgeous hopes in which I had indulged a few moments before were as last year's snow.
I crouched and shivered. In St. Antoine, at the mouth of the alley, a man was publishing a notice, and presently his voice caught my attention in the middle of my lamentations. I listened, at first idly, then with my mind. "Oyez! Oyez!" he cried. "Whereas some evil person, having no fear of God or of the law before his eyes, has impudently, feloniously, and treasonably stolen from the Palais Royal a spaniel, the property of the Queen Regent's most excellent Majesty, this is to say, that anyone—rumble—rumble—rumble—" here a passing coach drowned some sentences, and then I caught, "five hundred crowns, the same to be paid by Monseigneur the Bishop of Beauvais, President of the Council."
"And glad to pay it," snarled a voice quite close to me. I started and looked up. Two men were talking at a window above my head.
"Yet it is a high price for a dog," the other sneered.
"But low for a Queen. Still it buys her. And this is Richelieu's France."
"Was!" the other said pithily. "Well, you know the proverb, 'a living dog is better than a dead lion.'"
"Ay," his companion rejoined; "but I have a fancy that that dog's name is spelt neither with an F for Flore—which was the whelp's name, was it not?—nor a B for Beauvais, nor a C for Condé, but with an M——"
"For Mazarin!" the other answered sharply. "Yes, if he find the dog. But Beauvais is in possession——"
"Rocroy shook him."
"Still he is in possession."
"So is my shoe in possession of my foot. And see—I take it off. Beauvais is tottering, I tell you. It wants but a——"
I heard no more, for they moved from the window, but they left me a different man. Urged, less by the hope of reward than by the desire for vengeance, my clerk's wits awoke once more, while the very desperation of my affairs gave me the courage I sometimes lacked. I recognised that I had had to do, not with a king, but a dog, and that none the less that way lay revenge. And I rose up, and slunk again into St. Antoine, and through the crowd, and up the Rue de St. Martin, and by St. Merri, a dirty, ragged, barefoot rascal, from whom people drew their skirts—yes, all that, and the light of the sun on it—all that, and yet vengeance itself, the hand that should yet drag my thankless, cruel master'sfrom under him.
Once I halted, weighing the risks, and whether I should not take my knowledge to the Cardinal. But I knew nothing definite, and, hardening my heart, I went on, until I reached the alley between the blind walls. It was noon, the alley was empty, the neighbouring lane empty. I looked this way and that, and then went slowly down to the door, at which the man had halted, but to which as soon as he knew that the game was not lost, he had been heedful not to return.
There, seeing all so quiet, with the green of a tree showing here and there above the wall, I began to blench and wonder how I was to take the next step, and for half an hour I daresay I sneaked to and fro, now in sight of the door, and now with my back to it, afraid to advance and ashamed to retreat. At length I went through the alley, and, seeing how quiet and respectable it lay, with the upper part of a house visible at intervals above the wall, I took at last heart of grace, and tried the door.
It stood so firm that I despaired, and, after listening, and looking to assure myself that the attempt had not been observed, I was about to move away, when I espied the edge of the ring of a key projecting from under the door. Still all was quiet; a stealthy look round, and I had the key out. To draw back now was to write myself craven all my life, and with a shaking hand I thrust the wards into the lock, turned them, and in another moment stood on the other side of the door in a neat garden, speckled with sunshine and shade, and all silent.
I remained a full minute, flattened against the door, staring fearfully at the high-fronted mansion that beyond the garden looked down on me with twelve great eyes. But all remained silent, and, observing presently that the windows were shuttered, I took courage to move, and slid aside under a tree and breathed again.
Still I looked and listened, fearfully, for the silence seemed to watch me; but nothing happened, and everything I saw tending to prove the house empty, I grew bolder, and, sneaking from bush to bush, reached the door at last, and, with a backward glance between courage and desperation, tried it.
It was locked, but that I hardly noticed, for, as my hand left the latch, from some remote part of the house came the long-drawn whine of a dog!
I stood, listening and turning hot and cold in the sunshine, and dared not touch the latch again lest others should hear the noise. Instead, I stole out of the doorway, and crept round the house and round the house again, hunting for a back entrance. I found none; but at last, goaded by the reflection that fortune would never again be so nearly within my grasp, I marked a window on the first floor, and in the side of the house, by which it seemed to me I might enter. A mulberry tree stood by it and it lacked a shutter, and other trees veiled the spot. To be brief, in two minutes I had my knee on the sill, and, sweating with terror, forced the casement in and dropped on the floor.
Then I stood an instant, listening, in a bare room, the door of which stood ajar. Somewhere in the bowels of the house the dog whined again; otherwise all was still—deadly still. At length, emboldened by the silence, I crept out and stole along a passage seeking the way down.
The passage was dark, and every board on which I stepped shrieked the alarm. But I felt my way to the landing at the head of the stairs, and was about to descend when some impulse, I know not what—perhaps a shrinking from the dark parts below, to which I was about to intrust myself—moved me to open one of the shutters and peer out.
I did so, cautiously and but a little, and found myself looking, not into the garden through which I had passed, but into the one beyond the alley; and there on a scene so strange and yet à propos to my thoughts, that I paused gaping.
On a plat of grass four men were standing, two and two; between them with nose up- raised, and scenting this way and that, moved a beautiful black and tan spaniel. The eyes of all four men were riveted on the dog, which, as I looked, walked sedately first to the one pair and then, as if dissatisfied, to the other pair; and then again stood mid-way and sniffed the air. The men were speaking, but. I could not catch even their voices, and was reduced to drawing what inferences I could from their appearance.
Of the two farther from me, one was my rascally bed-fellow, the other a crooked villain, almost in rags, with one leg shorter than the other, yet a face bold and even handsome. Of the nearer pair, who had their backs to me, the shorter, dressed in black, wore an ordinary aspect; when, however, my eyes travelled to his companion they paused. He, it was plain, was the chief of the party, for he alone was covered; and, though I could not see his face nor more of his figure than that he was tall and of handsome presence, it chanced that as I looked he raised his hand to his chin, and I caught the sparkle of a superb jewel.
That dazzled me, and the presence of the dog perplexed me, and I continued to watch. Presently the great man again raised his hand, and this time it seemed to me that an order was given, for the lame man started into action, and moved briskly towards the wall which bordered the alley—and consequently towards the house in which I stood. My companion of the night interposed, however, and apparently would have done the errand himself; but at a word he stood sulkily and let the other proceed; who when he had all but disappeared—on so little a thing is turned—below the level of the intervening walls, looked up and caught sight of me at the window.
Apparently he gave the alarm, for in an instant the eyes of all four were on me. I hung a moment in sheer surprise; then, as the lame man and his comrade sprang to the door in the wall, with the evident intention of engaging me, I flung the shutter close, and, cursing my curiosity, fled down the stairs.
I had done better had I gone back to the window by which I had entered; for all below was dark, and at the foot of the staircase I stood unable in my panic to remember the position of the door. A key grating in the lock told me that, but told it me too late. Almost on the instant the door flew open, a flood of light entered, a cry warned me that I was detected. I turned to go back, but stumbled before I had mounted six steps, and as I staggered up again, felt a weight fall on my back, and the clutch of long fingers close on my throat. I screamed, however; felt the fingers close in a deadly grip, cold and merciless, and then in sheer terror I swooned.
When I recovered my senses, I found myself propped up in a chair; and for a time sat wondering hazily where I was. In front of me a great door stood open, admitting a draught of summer air, and a flood of sunshine that fell even to my feet. Through the doorway I looked on grass and trees, and heard sparrows twitter, and the chirp of a cricket; and found all so peaceful that my mind went no farther; and it was only after some minutes that I recognised, with a sharp return of terror that shook me to the soul that I was still in the hall of the empty house. That brought back other things; and with a shudder I carried my hand to my throat and tried to rise. A hand put me back, and a dry voice said in my ear: "Be easy, M. Prosper, I am afraid that we put you to some inconvenience."
I looked dizzily at the speaker, and recognised him for one of those I had seen in the garden. He had the air of a secretary or—as he stood rubbing his chin and looking down at me with a saturnine smile—of a physician, I read in his eyes something cold and not too human, yet it went no farther. His manner was suave, and his voice, when he spoke again, as well calculated to reassure as his words were to surprise me.
"You are better now?" he said, "Yes. Then I have to congratulate you. Few men, M. Prosper, few men believe me were ever so lucky. You were lately I think in the service of Monseigneur the Bishop of Beauvais, President of her Majesty's Council?"
I fancied that a faint note of irony lurked in his words. I kept silence.
"And yesterday were dismissed," he continued easily, disregarding my astonishment. "Well, to-day you shall be reinstated—and rewarded. Your business here, I believe, was to recover her Majesty's dog?"
I remembered that the wretch whose finger-marks were still on my throat might be within hearing, and I tried to utter a denial.
He waved it aside politely. "Just so," he said. "Well, the dog is in that closet; and on two conditions it is at your service."
Amazed before, I stared at him now in a stupor of astonishment,
"You are surprised?" he said, "Yet the case is of the simplest. We stole the dog, and therefore we cannot restore it without incurring suspicion. You, on the other hand, who are known to the Bishop, and did not steal it, may safely restore it. I need not say that we divide the reward; that is one of the two conditions."
"And the other?" I stammered,
"That you refresh your memory as to the past," he answered lightly. "If I have the tale rightly, you saw a man convey a dog to this house, an empty house in a lonely suburb. You watched, and saw the man leave, and followed him; he took the alarm, fled, and dropped in his flight the dog's coat—I think I see it there. On that you hurried with the coat to Monseigneur, and gave him the address of the house, and——"
"And the dog!" I exclaimed.
"No, Let Monseigneur come and find the dog for himself!" he answered, smiling, "in the closet."
I felt the blood tingle through all my limbs. "But if he comes and does not find it?" I cried.
The stranger shrugged his shoulders, "He will find it," he said coolly. And, slightly raising his voice, he called "Flore! Flore!"
For answer a dog whined behind a door, and scratched the panels, and whined again.
The stranger nodded, as well pleased. "There," he said, "you have it. It is there, and will be there. And I think that is all. Only keep two things in mind, my friend. For the first, a person will claim our share of the reward at the proper time; for the second, I would be careful not to tell Monseigneur, the President of the Council"—again I caught a faint note of irony—"the true story, lest a worse thing happen." And the stranger with a very ugly smile touched his throat.
"I will not," I said, shuddering.
"Then—then, I think that is all," he answered briskly. "And I may say farewell. Until we meet again, adieu, M. Prosper." And, setting on his hat with a polite gesture, he turned his back to me, went out into the sunlight, passed to the left and vanished. I heard the garden door close with a crash, and then, silence—silence broken only by the faint whine of the dog, as it moved in its prison.
Was I alone? I waited awhile before I dared to move; and even when I found courage to rise, stood listening with a beating heart, expecting a footfall on the stairs, or that something—I knew not what—would rush on me from the closed doors of this mysterious house. But the silence endured; the sparrows outside twittered, the cricket renewed its chirp, and at length, drawing courage from the sunlight, I moved forward and lifted the dog's coat from the floor. Five minutes later I was in the streets on my way to the Bishop's hotel, the morsel of velvet tucked under my girdle.
I have since thought hat I did not fully appreciate the marvel that had happened to me. But by this time I was light-headed. I went my way as a man moves in a dream, and even when I came to the door of the hotel, suffered none of those qualms which must have shaken me had I been sensible. I did not even question how I should reach Monseigneur, which proves that we often delude ourselves with vain fears, and climb obstacles where none exist. For, as it happened, he was descending from his coach when I entered the yard, and, though he raised his gold-headed staff at sight of me, and in a fury bade the servants oust me, I had the passion, if not the wit, to wave the velvet coat in his face, and cry my errand before them all.
Heaven knows at that there was such a sudden pause and about-face as must have made the stolen dog laugh had it been there. Monseigneur, in high excitement, bade them bring me in to him, the secretary whispered in my ear that he had a cloak that would replace the one I had lost, a valet told me that my wife had gone to her fathers, a second brought me food, and nudged me to remember him, others ran and fetched me shoes and a cap, and all, all from the head clerk, who was most insistent, downwards, would know where the dog was.
But I had even then the sense to keep my secret, and would tell my story only to the Bishop. He heard it. In ten minutes he was in his coach on his way to the house, taking me with him. His presence and the food they had given me had sobered me somewhat, and I trembled as we went along lest the villains had some disappointment yet in store for me—lest the closet be found empty. But a whine, growing into a howl, greeted us on the threshold; and, the closet door being forced in a trice, the dog was amongst us.
Monseigneur clapped his hands and swore freely, "Dieu bénisse!" he cried, "It is the dog, sure enough! Here, Flore! Flore!" Then, as the dog jumped on us and licked his hand, he turned to me, "Lucky for you, rascal!" he cried in good humour, "There shall be fifty crowns in your pocket, and your desk again!"
I gasped. "But the reward, Monseigneur?" I stammered.
He bent his black brows. "Reward! You villain!" he thundered, "Is it not enough that I spare you the gallows? Reward? For what do I pay you wages, do you think, except to do my work? And you ask rewards besides? Go and hang yourself! Or rather," he continued grimly, "stir at your peril. Look to him, Bonnivet, he is a rogue in grain, and bring him with me to the antechamber. Her Majesty may desire to ask him questions, and if he answer them, well! He shall still have the fifty crowns I promised him. If not, I shall know how to deal with him."
At that, and the reversal of all my hopes, I fell into my old rage again, and even his servants looked oddly at him, until a sharp word recalled them to their duty; on which they hustled me off with little ceremony, and the less for that which they had before showed me. While the Bishop, carrying the dog in his arms, mounted his coach and went by the Rue St. Martin and St. Antoine, they hurried me by short cuts and by-ways to the Palais Royal, which we reached as his running footmen came in sight. The approach to the gate was blocked by a great crowd of people, and for a moment I was fond enough to imagine that they had to do with my affair, and I shrank back. But the steward, with a thrust of his knee against my hip, which showed me that he had not forgiven my blow, urged me forward, and, from what passed round me as we pushed through the press, I gathered that a score of captured colours had arrived within the hour from Flanders, and were being presented to the Queen.
The courtyard confirmed this, for in the open part of it, and much pressed on by the curious who thronged the arcades, we found a troop of horse, plumed and mud-stained, fresh from the Flanders road. The officers who bore the trophies we overtook on the stairs near the door of the antechamber. Burning with rage as I was, and strung to the last pitch of excitement, I yet remember that I thought it an odd time to push in with a dog. But Monseigneur did not seem to see this. Whether he took a certain pleasure in belittling the war party to whom he was opposed, or merely knew his ground well, he went on, thrusting the militaires aside with little ceremony, and as everyone was as quick to give place to him as he was to advance, in a moment we were in the antechamber.
I had never been admitted before, and, from the doorway, within which I paused in Bonnivet's keeping, I viewed the scene with an interest that for the time overcame my sense of injustice. The long room hummed with talk; a crowd of churchmen and pages, with a sprinkling of the lesser nobility, many lawyers, and some soldiers, filled it from end to end. In one corner was a group of tradesmen bearing plate for the queen's inspection; in another stood a knot of suitors with petitions; while everywhere, men whose eager faces and expectant eyes were their best petitions, watched the farther door with quivering lips, and sighed whenever it opened and emitted merely a councillor or a marquis. From time to time a masked lady flitted through the crowd, with a bow here and the honour of her taper fingers there. The windows were open, and the murmur of the throng without, mingling with the stir of talk within, seemed to fill up the light and colour of the room.
Monseigneur, with his chaplain and pages at his shoulder, making in his stately way for the farther door, met M. de Chateauneuf, and paused to speak. When he escaped from him a dozen clients, whose obsequious bows rendered evasion impossible, still delayed him; and I had grown cold and hot again and he was still on his progress, when the inner door opened, half-a-dozen voices cried "the Queen!" and an usher with a silver wand passed down the room and ranked the company on either side—not without some struggling, and once a fierce oath, and twice a smothered outcry.
Of the bevy of ladies in attendance, only half-a-dozen entered, for a few paces within the doorway the Queen stood still to receive my patron, who advanced to meet her. It seemed to me that she was not best pleased to see him, and certainly her voice rang loud and peevishly as she cried: "What, my lord! Are you here? I came to receive the trophies from Rocroy, and did not expect to see you at this hour."
"I bring my own excuse, Madame," he answered unabashed. "Have I your Majesty's leave to present it?" he continued with a smirk, and a low bow.
"I came to receive the colours," she retorted, still frowning.
"I bring your Majesty something equally to your liking!" he replied.
Then I think she caught his meaning, for her proud handsome face cleared wonderfully, and she clapped her hands together with a gesture of pleasure almost childish, "What?" she exclaimed. "Have you——"
"Yes, Madame," he said, smiling gallantly, "Bonnivet!"
But Bonnivet had watched his moment, and, before the name fell clear of his masters lips, was beside him, and with bent knee laid the dog tenderly at her Majesty's feet. She uttered a cry of joy, and stooped to caress it, her fair ringlets falling and hiding her face. On that I did not see exactly what happened, for her ladies flocked round her, with cries that echoed hers, the courtiers pressed round them, and all that reached me, where I stood by the door, took the form of excited cries of "Flore! Flore! Oh, the darling!" and the like! A few old men who stood nearest the wall and farthest from the Queen raised their eyebrows, and the officers standing with the colours by the door, wore fallen faces: but nine-tenths of the crowd seemed to be fairly carried away by the Queen's delight, and congratulated one another as if ten Rocroys had been won.
Suddenly, while I hung in suspense, expecting each moment to be called forward, I heard a little stir at my elbow, and, looking to the side, saw the knot on the threshold break inward to give place, while several voices whispered "Mazarin!" As I looked, he came in, and pausing to speak to the foremost of the officers, gave me the opportunity—which I had never enjoyed before—of viewing him near at hand; and in a moment it flashed upon me—though now he wore his Cardinal's robes and then had been very simply dressed—that it was he whose back I had seen, and whose dazzling ring had blinded me in the garden!
The thought had scarcely grown to a conviction before he passed on, apologising almost humbly to those whom he displaced, and courteously to all; and this, and perhaps also the fact that the mass of those present belonged to my patrons party, and were not quick to see him, rendered his progress so slow that, my name being called and everybody hustling me forward, I came face to face with the Queen at the moment that he did, and saw, though for a moment I was too much excited to understand, what passed. Her Majesty, it seemed to me, did not look unkindly upon him. But the Bishop was so full of his success, and uplifted by the presence of his friends, that he could not contain himself. "Ha, the Cardinal!" he cried, and before the Queen could speak, "I hope your Eminence has been as zealous in her Majesty's service as I have been."
"As zealous, assuredly," the Cardinal answered meekly. "As effective? Alas, it is not given to all to vie with your lordship in affairs."
But this—though I detected no smack of irony in the tone—did not seem to please the Queen. "The Bishop has done me a great service. He has recovered my dog," she said tartly.
"He is a happy man, and the happy must look to be envied," the Cardinal answered gaily. "Your Majesty's dog——"
"Your Eminence never liked Flore!" the Queen exclaimed.
"You never made a greater mistake, Madam!" the Cardinal answered with unusual emphasis. "Flore—but the dog is not here, I think."
"Your omniscience is for once at a loss!" the Bishop sneered: and at a word from him one of the ladies came forward, nursing the dog in her arms.
The Cardinal looked. "Umph!" he said. And he looked again, frowning.
I did not know then why the Queen took heed even of his looks: and I started when she cried pettishly: "Well, sir, what now?"
The Cardinal pursed up his lips.
The Bishop could bear it no longer. "He will say presently," he cried, snorting with indignation, "that it is not the dog!"
His Eminence shrugged his shoulders very slightly, and turned the palm of his hands outwards. "Oh," he said, "if her Majesty is satisfied."
"M'dieu!" the Queen cried angrily, "what do you mean?" But she turned to the lady who held the dog, and took it from her. "It is the dog!" she said. "Do you think that I do not know my own? Flore! Flore!" And she set the dog on its feet. It turned to her and wagged its tail eagerly.
"Poor Flore!" said the Cardinal. "Flore!" It went to him.
"Certainly its name is Flore," he continued silkily. "But it used to die at the word of command, I think?"
"What it did, it will do!" Monseigneur de Beauvais cried scornfully. "But I see that your Eminence was right in one thing you said."
The Cardinal bowed.
"That I should be envied!" the Bishop continued, with a sneer. And he glanced round the circle. There was a general titter: a great lady at the Queen's elbow laughed out.
"Flore," said the Queen, "die, die, good dog. Do you hear, m'dieu, die!"
But the dog only gazed into her face and wagged its tail; and though she cried to it again and angrily, it made no attempt to obey. On which a deep-drawn breath ran round the circle; one looked at another; a score of heads were thrust forward, and some who had seemed merry enough the moment before looked grave as mutes now.
"It used to bark for France and growl for Spain," the Cardinal continued in his softest voice. "Perhaps——"
"France!" the Queen cried harshly, and she stamped on the floor. "France! France!"
But the dog only retreated, cowering and dismayed, and at a distance wagged its tail pitifully.
"France!" cried the Queen desperately. The dog cowered.
"I am afraid, my lord, that it has lost its accomplishments in your company," the Cardinal said, a faint smile curling his lips.
The Bishop let drop a smothered oath. "It is the dog!" he cried passionately.
But the Queen turned to him sharply, her face crimson. "I do not agree with you," she replied. "And more, my lord," she continued with vehemence, "I should be glad if you would explain how you came into possession of this dog. A dog so nearly resembling my dog—and yet not my dog—could not be found in a moment, nor without some foul contrivance."
"It has forgotten its tricks," the Bishop said.
"Nonsense," the Queen retorted.
A great many faces had grown grave by this time: I have said that the room was filled for the most part with the Bishop's supporters. "At any rate I know nothing about it. That man found it," he exclaimed, wiping his brow and pointing to me. Between anger and discomfiture he stammered.
"One of my lord's servants," the Cardinal said easily.
"Oh," the Queen answered with a world of meaning, and she looked at me with eyes before which I quailed. "Is that true, fellow?" she said. "Are you in my lord's service?"
I stammered an affirmative.
"Then I wish to hear no more," she replied haughtily. "No, my lord. Enough," she continued, raising her voice to drown his protestations. "I do not care to know whether you were more sinned against than sinning, or a greater fool and your adviser a knave; pray take your creature away. Doubtless in a very short time I should have discovered the fraud for myself. I think I see a difference now. But, as it is, I am greatly indebted to his Eminence for his aid and sagacity."
She brought out the last word with withering emphasis, and amid profound silence. The Bishop, too wise after the event to persist longer in the dog's identity, still tried desperately to utter a word of excuse; but the Queen, whose vanity had received a serious wound, cut him short with a curt and freezing dismissal, and, immediately turning to the Cardinal, requested him to introduce to her the officers who had the colours in charge.
It may be imagined how I felt, and what terrors I experienced during this struggle, since it required no great wit to infer that the Bishop, if defeated, would wreak his vengeance on me. Already a dozen who had attended his levée were fawning on the Cardinal; the Queen had turned her shoulder to him; a great lady, over whom he bent himself to hide his chagrin, talked to him indeed, but flippantly, and with eyes half closed. For all these slights, and the more real defeat which they indicated, I foresaw that I should pay; and in a panic, I slid back and strove to steal away through the crowd.
I reached the door in safety, and even the head of the stairs, but there a hand gripped my shoulder, and the steward thrust his face, white with rage, into mine. "Not so fast, Master Plotter," he hissed in my ear. "If your hide does not pay for this—if you are not lashed liked a dog until life is out of your body; if for this I do not——"
"By the Queen's command," said a quiet voice in my other ear, and a hand fell also on that shoulder.
The steward glanced at his rival. "He is the Bishop's man!" he cried, throwing out his chest, and he gripped me again.
"And the Bishop is the Queen's!" was the curt reply; and the stranger, in whom I recognised the man who had delivered the dog to me, quietly put him by. "Her Majesty has committed this person to the Cardinal's custody until inquiry be made into the truth of his story. In the meantime, if you have any complaint to make you can make it to his Eminence."
After that there was no more to be said. The steward, baffled and bursting with rage, fell back, and the stranger, directing me by a gesture to attend him, descended the stairs, and, crossing the courtyard, entered St. Antoine. I knew not now what to expect from him, nor whether, overjoyed as I was at such a deliverance, I might not be courting a worse fate in this inquiry; so grim and secretive was my guide's face, and so much did that sombre dress, which gave him somewhat of the character of an inquisitor, add to the mystery of his silence. However, when we had crossed St, Antoine, and entered a lane leading to the river, he halted, and turned to me
"There are twenty crowns' he said, abruptly, and he placed a purse in my hand. "Take them, and do exactly as I bid you, and all will be well. At the Quai de Nôtre Dame you will find a market boat starting for Rouen. Go by it, and at the 'Ecce Homo' in that city you will find your wife and a hundred crowns. Live there quietly, and in a month apply for work at the Chancery; it will be given you. The rest lies with you. I have known men," he continued, with a puzzling smile, "who started at a desk in that Chancery, and lived to rent one of the great farms."
I tried to find words to thank him.
"There is no need," he said. "For what you have done, it is not too much."
And now I agree with him. Now—though his words came true to the letter, and to-day I hold one of the great farms on a second term—I too think that it was not too much, for, if M. de Conde won Rocroy for his party in the field, the Cardinal on that day won a victory no less eminent at Court: of which the check administered to M. de Beauvais—who had nothing but a good presence, and collapsed like a pricked bladder, becoming within a month the most discredited of men—was the first movement. Within a month the heads of the Importans—as the Bishop's party were christened—were in prison or exiled, and all France recognised that it was in a master's hand, and that the mantle of Richelieu, with a double portion of the Royal favour, had fallen on Mazarin's shoulders. 1 need scarcely add that long before, he had been happy enough to recover and restore the true Flore to his mistress's arms.