McClure's Magazine/Volume 5/Number 2/The Man of Monceaux

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from July 1895, pp. 114-119. Accompanying illustrations omitted.

Mystery follows on mystery when an important paper of the king is found missing after a fire breaks out...



BY Stanley J. Weyman,

Author of "A Gentleman of France," "My Lady Rotha," etc.

IN the month of August the king went on a visit to Monceaux, where he spent two weeks in such diversions as the place afforded. He invited me to accompany him, but on my representing that I could not there—so easily as in my own closet, where I had all the materials within reach—prepare a certain report which he had commanded me to draw up, he directed me to remain in Paris until it was ready, and then to join him.

This report, which he was having written, not only for his own satisfaction, but for the information of his heir, took the form of a recital of all the causes and events, spread over many years, which had induced him to take in hand the Great Design; together with a succinct account of the munitions and treasures which he had prepared to carry it out. As it included many things which were unknown beyond the council, and some which he shared only with me—and as, in particular, it enumerated the various secret alliances and agreements which he had made with the princes of North Germany, whom a premature discovery must place at the emperor's mercy—it was necessary that I should draw up the whole with my own hand, and with the utmost care and precaution. This I did; and that nothing might be wanting to a memorial which I regarded with justice as the most important of the many state papers which it had fallen to my lot to prepare, I spent seven days in incessant labor upon it. It was not, therefore, until the third week in August that I was free to travel to Monceaux.

I found my quarters assigned to me in a pavilion called the Garden House; and, arriving at supper time, sat down with my household with more haste and less ceremony than was my wont. The same state of things prevailed, I suppose, in the kitchen; for we had not been seated half an hour when a great hubbub arose in the house, and the servants, rushing in, cried out that a fire had broken out below, and that the house was in danger of burning.

In such emergencies I take it to be the duty of a man of standing to bear himself with as much dignity as is consistent with vigor; and neither to allow himself to be carried away by the outcry and disorder of the crowd, nor to omit any direction that may avail. On this occasion, however, my first thought was given to the memorial I had prepared for the king, which I remembered had been taken with other books and papers to a room over the kitchen. I lost not a moment, therefore, in sending Maignan for it; nor until I held it safely in my hand did I feel myself at liberty to think of the house. When I did, I found that the alarm exceeded the danger; a few buckets of water extinguished a beam in the chimney which had caught fire, and in a few moments we were able to resume the meal with the added vivacity which such an event gave to the conversation. It has never been my custom to encourage too great freedom at my table; but as the company consisted, with a single exception, of my household, and as this person—a Monsieur de Vilain, a young gentleman, the cousin of one of my wife's maids-of-honor—showed himself possessed of modesty as well as wit, I thought that the time excused a little relaxation.

This was the cause of the misfortune which followed, and bade fair to place me in a position of as great difficulty as I have ever known; for, having in my good humor dismissed the servants, I continued to talk for half an hour or more with Vilain and some of my gentlemen, the result being that I so far forgot myself, when I rose, as to leave the report where I had laid it on the table. In the passage I met a man whom the king had sent to inquire about the fire; and thus reminded of the papers, I turned back to the room, greatly vexed with myself for negligence which in a subordinate I should have severely rebuked, but never doubting that I should find the packet where I had left it.

To my chagrin the paper was gone. Still I could not believe that it had been stolen, and supposing that Maignan or one of my household had seen it and taken it to my closet, I repaired thither in haste. I found Maignan already there, with Monsieur Boisrueil, one of my gentlemen, who was waiting to ask a favor, but they knew nothing of the report; and though I sent them down forthwith, with directions to make strict but quiet inquiry, they returned at the end of half an hour with long faces and no news.

Then I grew seriously alarmed; and reflecting on the many important secrets which the memorial contained, whereof a disclosure must spoil plans so long and sedulously prepared, I found myself brought on a sudden face to face with disaster. I could not imagine how the king, who had again and again urged on me the utmost precaution, would take such a catastrophe, nor how I should make it known to him. For a moment, therefore, while I listened to the tale, I felt the hair rise on my head and a shiver descend my back; nor was it without an uncommon effort that I retained my coolness and composure.

Plainly no steps in such a position could be too stringent. I sent Maignan with an order to close all the doors and let no one pass out. Then I made sure that none of the servants had entered the room between the time of my rising and return, and narrowed the tale of those who could have taken the packet to eleven, that being the number of persons who had sat down with me. But having followed the matter so far, I came face to face with this difficulty: that all the eleven were, with one exception, in my service and in various ways pledged to my interests, so that I could not conceive even the possibility of a betrayal by them in a matter so important.

I confess, at this, the perspiration rose upon my brow; for the paper was gone. Still, there remained one stranger; and though it seemed scarcely less difficult to suspect him, since he could have no knowledge of the importance of the document, and could not have anticipated that I should leave it in his power, I found in that the only likely solution. He was one of the Vilains of Pareil by Monceaux, his father living on the edge of the park, little more than a thousand yards from the château, and I knew no harm of him. Still I knew little; and for that reason was forward to believe that there, rather than in my own household, lay the key to the enigma.

My suspicions were not lessened when I discovered that he alone of the party at table had left the house before the doors were closed, and for a moment I was inclined to have him followed and seized. But I could scarcely take a step so decisive without provoking inquiry; and I dared not at this stage let the king know of my negligence. I found myself, therefore, brought up short, in a state of exasperation and doubt difficult to describe; and the most minute search within the house and the closest examination of all concerned failing to provide the slightest clue, I had no alternative but to pass the night in that condition.

On the morrow a third search seeming still the only resource, and proving as futile as the others, I ordered La Trape and two or three in whom I placed the greatest confidence to watch their fellows, and report anything in their bearing or manner that seemed to be out of the ordinary course; while I myself went to wait on the king, and parry his demand for the memorial as well as I could. This it was necessary to do without provoking curiosity; and as the lapse of each minute made the pursuit of the paper less hopeful and its recovery a thing to pray for rather than expect, it will be believed that I soon found the aspect of civility which I was obliged to wear so great a trial of my patience that I made an excuse and retired early to my lodging.

Here my wife, who shared my anxiety, met me with a face full of meaning. I cried out to know if they had found the paper.

"No," she answered; "but if you will come into your closet I will tell you what I have learned."

I went in with her, and she told me briefly that the manner of Mademoiselle de Mars, one of her maids, had struck her as suspicious. The girl had begun to cry while reading to her; and when questioned had been able to give no explanation of her trouble.

"She is Vilain's cousin?" I said.

"Yes, monsieur."

"Bring her to me," I said. "Bring her to me without the delay of an instant."

My wife hastened to comply; and whatever had been the girl's state earlier, before the fright of this hasty summons had upset her, her agitation, when thus confronted with me, gave me, before a word was spoken, the highest hopes that I had here the key to the mystery. I judged that it might be necessary to frighten her still more, and I started by taking a harsh tone with her; but before I had said many words she obviated the necessity of this by falling at my wife's feet and protesting that she would tell all.

"Then speak quickly, wench!" I said. "You know where the paper is?"

"I know who has it," she answered in a voice choked with sobs.


"My cousin. Monsieur de Vilain."

"Ha! and has taken it to his house?"

But she seemed for a moment unable to answer this, her distress being such that my wife had to fetch a vial of pungent salts to restore her before she could say more. At length she found voice to tell us that Monsieur de Vilain had taken the paper, and was this evening to hand it to an agent of the Spanish ambassador.

"But, girl," I said sternly, "how do you know this?"

Then she confessed that the cousin was also the lover, and had before employed her to disclose what went on in my household, and anything of value that could be discovered there. Doubtless the girl, for whom my wife, in spite of her occasional fits of reserve and temper, entertained no little liking, enjoyed many opportunities of prying, and would have continued still to serve him had not this last piece of villainy, with the stir which it caused in the house, and the rigorous punishment to be expected in the event of discovery, proved too much for her nerves. Hence this burst of confession, which, once allowed to flow, ran on almost against her will. Nor did I let her pause to consider the full meaning of what she was saying until I had learned that Vilain was to meet the ambassador's agent, an hour after sunset, at the east end of a clump of trees which stood in the park, and, being situate between his (Vilain's) residence and the château, formed a convenient place for such a transaction.

"He will have it about him?" I said.

She sobbed a moment, but presently confessed. "Yes; or it will be in the hollow of the most easterly tree. He was to leave it there, if the agent could not keep the appointment."

"Good!" I said; and then having assured myself by one or two questions of that of which her state of distress and agitation left me in little doubt, namely, that she was telling the truth, I committed her to my wife's care, bidding the duchess lock her up in a safe place upstairs, and treat her to bread and water until I had taken the steps necessary to prove the fact and secure the paper.

After this—but I should be tedious were I to describe the alternations of hope and fear in which I passed the period of suspense. Suffice it that I informed no one, not even Maignan, of what I had discovered, but allowed those in the secret of the loss still to pursue their efforts; while I, by again attending the court, endeavored at once to mitigate the king's impatience and persuade the world that all was well. A little before the appointed time, however, I made a pretext to rise from supper, and quietly calling out Boisrueil, bade him bring four of the men, armed, and Maignan and La Trape. With this small body I made my way out by a private door, and crossed the park to the place mademoiselle had indicated.

Happily, night had already begun to close in, and the rendezvous was at the farther side of the clump of trees. Favored by these circumstances, we were able to pass round the thicket—some on one side and some on the other—without noise or disturbance; and fortunate enough, having arrived at the place, to discover a man walking uneasily up and down on the very spot where we expected to find him. The evening was so far advanced that it was not possible to be sure that the man was Vilain; but as all depended on seizing him before he had any communication with the Spanish agent, I gave the signal, and two of my men, springing on him from either side, in a moment bore him to the ground and secured him.

He proved to be Vilain, so that, when he was brought face to face with me, I was much less surprised than he affected to be. He played the part of an ignorant so well, indeed, that, for a moment, I was staggered by his show of astonishment, and by the earnestness with which he denounced the outrage; nor could Maignan find anything on him. But a moment later, remembering the girl's words, I strode to the nearest tree, and, groping about it, in a twinkling unearthed the paper from a little hollow in the trunk that seemed to have been made to receive it. I need not say with what relief I found the seals unbroken, nor with what indignation I turned on the villain thus convicted of an act of treachery towards the king only less black than the sin against hospitality of which he had been guilty in my house. But the discovery I had made seemed enough of itself to overwhelm him; for, after standing apparently stunned while I spoke, he jerked himself suddenly out of his captors' hands, and made a desperate attempt to escape. Finding this hopeless, and being seized again before he had gone four paces, he shouted at the top of his voice: "Back! back! Go back!"

We looked about, somewhat startled, and Boisrueil, with presence of mind, ran into the darkness to see if he could detect the person addressed; but though he thought that he saw the skirt of a flying cloak disappear in the gloom, he was not sure; and I, having no mind to be mixed up with the ambassador, called him back. I asked Vilain to whom he had called, but the young man, turning sullen, would answer nothing, except that he knew naught of the paper. I thought it best, therefore, to conduct him at once to my lodgings, whither it will be believed that I returned with a lighter heart than I had gone. It was, indeed, a providential escape.

How to punish the traitor was another matter, for I could scarcely do so adequately without betraying my negligence. I determined to sleep on this, however, and, for the night, directed him to be locked into a chamber in the southwest turret, with a Swiss to guard the door, my intention being to interrogate him further on the morrow. However, Henry sent for me so early that I was forced to postpone my examination; and, being detained by him until evening, I thought it best to tell him, before I left, what had happened.

He heard the story with a look of incredulity, which, little by little, gave way to a broad smile. "Well," he said, "Grandmaster, never chide me again! I have heard that Homer sometimes nods; but if I were to tell this to Sillery or Villeroy, they would not believe me."

"They would believe anything that your Majesty told them," I said. "But you will not tell them this?"

"No," he said kindly, "I will not; and there is my hand on it. For the matter of that, if it happened to them, they would not have told me."

"And perhaps been the wiser for that," I said.

"Don't believe it," he answered. "But now, what of this young Vilain? You have him safe?"

"Yes, sire."

"The girl is one degree worse; she betrays both sides to save her skin."

"Still, I promised——"

"Oh, she must go," Henry said. "I quite understand. But for him—we had better have no scandal. Keep him until to-morrow, and I will see his father, and have him sent out of the country."

"And he will go scot free," I said, bluntly, "when a rope and the nearest tree——"

"Yes, my friend," Henry answered with a dry smile; "but that should have been done last night. As it is, he is your guest, and we must give an account of him. But first drain him dry. Frighten him as you please, and get all out of him; then I wish them joy of him. Faugh! and he a young man. I would not be his father for two such crowns as mine!"

As I returned to my lodgings I thought over these words, and I fell to wondering by what stages Vilain had sunk so low. Occasionally admitted to my table, he had always borne himself with a modesty and discretion that had not failed to prepossess me; indeed, the longer I considered the king's saying, the greater was the surprise I felt at this dénouncement, which left me in doubt whether my dulness exceeded my negligence, or the young man's parts surpassed his wickedness.

A few questions, I thought, might resolve this; but having been detained by the king until supper-time, I postponed the interview until I rose. Then bidding them bring in the prisoner, I assumed my harshest aspect and prepared to blast him by discovering all his vileness to his face.

But when I had waited a little, only Maignan came in, with an air of consternation that brought me to my feet. "Why, man, what is it?" I cried.

"The prisoner," he faltered. "If your excellency pleases——"

"I do not please," I said sternly, believing that I knew what had happened. "Is he dead?"

"No, your excellency; but he has escaped."

"Escaped? From that room?"

Maignan nodded.

"Then, par Dieu!" I replied, "the man who was on guard shall suffer in his place! Escaped? How could he escape except by treachery? Where was the guard?"

"He was there, excellency. And he says that no one passed him."

"Yet the man is gone?"

"The room is empty."

"But the window—the window, fool, is fifty feet from the ground!" I said. "And not so much footing outside as would hold a crow!"

Maignan shrugged his shoulders, and in a rage I bade him follow me, and went myself to view the place, to which a number of my people had already flocked with the lights, so that I found some difficulty in mounting the staircase. A very brief inspection, however, sufficed to confirm my first impression that Vilain could have escaped by the door only; for the window, though it lacked bars and boasted a tiny balcony, hung over fifty feet of sheer depth, so that evasion that way seemed, in the absence of ladder or rope, purely impossible. This being clear, I ordered the Swiss to be seized; and as he could give no explanation of the escape, and still persisted that he was as much in the dark as anyone, I declared that I would make an example of him, and hang him unless the prisoner was recaptured within three days.

I did not really propose to do this, but in my irritation I spoke so roundly that my people believed me; even Boisrueil, who presently came to intercede for the culprit, who, it seemed, was a favorite. "As for Vilain," he continued, "you can catch him whenever you please."

"Then catch him before the end of three days," I answered obstinately, "and the man lives."

The truth was that Vilain's escape placed me in a position of some discomfort; for though, on the one hand, I had no particular desire to get him again into my hands, seeing that the king could effect as much by a word to his father as I had proposed to do while I held him safe; on the other hand, the evasion placed me very peculiarly in regard to the king himself, who was inclined to think me ill or suddenly grown careless. Some of the facts, too, were leaking out, and provoking smiles among the more knowing, and a hint here and there; the result of all being that, unable to pursue the matter farther in Vilain's case, I hardened my heart and persisted that the Swiss should pay the penalty.

This obstinacy on my part had an unforeseen issue. On the evening of the second day, a little before supper-time, my wife came to me, and announced that a young lady had waited on her with a tale so remarkable that she craved leave to bring her to me that I might hear it.

"What is it?" I said impatiently.

"It is about Monsieur de Vilain," my wife answered, her face still wearing all the marks of lively astonishment.

"Ha!" I exclaimed. "I will see her, then. But it is not that baggage who——"

"No," my wife answered. "It is another."

"One of your maids?"

"No, a stranger."

"Well, bring her," I said shortly.

She went, and quickly returned with a young lady whose face and modest bearing were known to me, though I could not, at the moment, recall her name. This was the less remarkable as I am not prone to look much in maids' faces, leaving that to younger men; and Mademoiselle de Figeac's, though beautiful, was disfigured on this occasion by the marked distress under which she was laboring. Accustomed as I was to the visits of persons of all classes and characters who came to me daily with petitions, I should have been disposed to cut her short, but for my wife's intimation that her errand had to do with the matter which annoyed me. This, as well as a trifle of curiosity—from which none are quite free—inclined me to be patient; and I asked her what she would have with me.

"Justice, Monsieur le Duc," she answered simply. "I have heard that you are seeking Monsieur de Vilain, and that one of your people is lying under sentence for complicity in his escape."

"That is true, mademoiselle," I said. "If you can tell me——"

"I can tell you how he escaped, and by whose aid," she answered.

It is my custom to betray no astonishment, even when I am astonished. "Do so," I said.

"He escaped through the window," she answered firmly, "by my brother's aid."

"Your brother's?" I exclaimed, amazed at her audacity. "I do not remember him."

"He is only thirteen years old."

I could hide my astonishment no longer. "You must be mad, girl!" I said; "mad! You do not know what you are saying! The window of the room in which Vilain was confined is fifty feet from the ground, and you say that your brother, a boy of thirteen, contrived his escape?"

"Yes, Monsieur de Sully," she answered. "And the man who is about to suffer is innocent."

"How was it done, then?" I asked, not knowing what to think of her persistence.

"My brother was flying a kite that day," she answered. "He had been doing so for a week or more, and every one was accustomed to seeing him here. After sunset, the wind being favorable, he came under Monsieur de Vilain's window, and when it was nearly dark, and the servants and household were at supper, he guided the kite against the balcony outside the window."

"But a man cannot descend by a kite string!"

"My brother had a knotted rope, which Monsieur de Vilain drew up," she answered simply; "and afterwards, when he had descended, disengaged."

I looked at her in profound amazement. "Your brother acted on instructions?" I said at last.

"On mine," she answered.

"You avow that?"

"I am here to do so," she replied, her face white and red by turns, but her eyes continuing to meet mine.

"This is a very serious matter," I said. "Are you aware, mademoiselle, why Monsieur de Vilain was arrested, and of what he is accused?"

"Perfectly," she answered; "and that he is innocent. More!" she continued clasping her hands, and looking at me bravely, "I am willing both to tell you where he is, and to bring him, if you please, into your presence."

I stared at her. "You will bring him here?" I said.

"Within five minutes," she answered, "if you will first hear me."

"What are you to him?" I said.

She blushed vividly. "I shall be his wife or no one's," she said; and she looked a moment at my wife.

"Well, say what you have to say!" I cried roughly.

"This paper which it is alleged that he stole—it was not found on him, but in the hollow of a tree."

"Within three paces of him. And what was he doing there?"

"He came to meet me," she answered, her voice trembling slightly. "He could have told you so, but he would not shame me."

"This is true?" I said, eyeing her closely.

"I swear it!" she answered, clasping her hands. And then, with a sudden flash of rage, "Will the other woman swear to her tale?" she cried.

"Ha!" I said, "what other woman?"

"The woman who sent you to that place," she answered. "He would not tell me her name, or I would go to her now and wring the truth from her. But he confessed to me that he had let a woman into the secret of our meeting; and this is her work."

I stood a moment pondering, with my eyes on the girl's excited face, and my thoughts following this new clew through the maze of recent events, wherein I could not fail to see that it led to a very different conclusion from that at which I had arrived. If Vilain had been foolish enough to wind up his love-passages with Mademoiselle de Mars by confiding to her his passion for the Figeac, and even the place and time at which the latter was so imprudent as to meet him, I could fancy the deserted mistress laying this plot; and first placing the packet where we found it, and then punishing her lover by laying the theft at his door. True, he might be guilty, and it might be only confession and betrayal on which jealousy had thrust her. But the longer I considered the whole of the circumstances, as well as the young man's character, and the lengths to which I knew a woman's passion would carry her, the more probable seemed the explanation I had just received.

Nevertheless, I did not at once express my opinion; but, veiling the chagrin I naturally felt at the simple part I had been led to play—in the event I now thought probable—I sharply ordered Mademoiselle de Figeac to retire into the next room, and then I requested my wife to fetch her maid.

Mademoiselle de Mars had been three days in solitary confinement, and might be taken to have repented of her rash accusation, were it baseless. I counted somewhat on this; and more on the effect of so sudden a summons to my presence. But at first sight it seemed that I did so without cause. Instead of the agitation which she had displayed when brought before me to confess, she now showed herself quiet and even sullen; nor did the gleam of passion, which I thought that I discerned smouldering in her dark eyes, seem to promise either weakness or repentance. However, I had too often observed the power of the unknown over a guilty conscience to despair of eliciting the truth.

"I want to ask you two or three questions," I said civilly. "First, was Monsieur de Vilain with you when you placed the paper in the hollow of the tree, or were you alone?"

I saw her eyelids quiver as with sudden fear, and her voice shook as she stammered, "When I placed the paper?"

"Yes," I said, "when you placed the paper. I have reason to know that you did it. I wish to learn whether he was present, or you did it merely under his orders?"

She looked at me, her face a shade paler, and I do not doubt that her mind was on the rack to divine how much I knew, and how far she might deny and how far confess. My tone seemed to encourage her frankness, however, and in a moment she said, "I placed it under his directions."

"Yes," I said dryly, my last doubt resolved by the admission; "but that being so, why did Vilain go to the spot?"

She grew still a shade paler, but in a moment she answered, "To meet the agent."

"Then why did you place the paper in the tree?"

She saw the difficulty in which she had placed herself, and for an instant she stared at me with the look of a wild animal caught in a trap. Then, "In case the agent was late," she muttered.

"But since Vilain had to go to the spot, why did he not deposit the paper in the tree himself? Why did he send you to the place beforehand? Why did—" and then I broke off and cried harshly, "Shall I tell you why? Shall I tell you why, you false jade?"

She cowered away from me at the words, and stood terror-stricken, gazing at me like one fascinated. But she did not answer.

"Because," I cried, "your story is a tissue of lies! Because it was you, and you only, who stole this paper! Because—down on your knees! down on your knees!" I thundered, " and confess! Confess, or I will have you whipped at the cart's tail, like the false witness you are!"

She threw herself down, shrieking, and caught my wife by the skirts, and in a breath had said all I wanted, and more than enough to show me that I had suspected Vilain without cause, and both played the simpleton myself and harried my household to distraction.

So far, good. I could arrange matters with Vilain, and probably avoid publicity. But what was to be done with her?

In the case of a man I should have thought no punishment too severe, and the utmost rigor of the law too tender for such perfidy; but as she was a woman, and young, and under my wife's protection, I hesitated. Finally, the duchess interceding, I leaned to the side of that mercy which the girl had not shown to her lover, and thought her sufficiently punished, at the moment, by the presence of Mademoiselle de Figeac, whom I called into the room to witness her humiliation, and, in the future, by dismissal from my household. As this imported banishment to her father's country house, where her mother, a shrewd old Béarnaise, saved pence and counted lentils into the soup, and saw company once a quarter, I had, perhaps, reason to be content with her chastisement.

For the rest, I sent for Monsieur de Vilain, and by finding him employment in the finances, and interceding for him with the old Vicomte de Figeac, confirmed him in the attachment he had begun to feel for me before this unlucky event.