Queen of the Jesters/The Devil's Bowl and the Strange Affair at Fontenay
THE DEVIL'S BOWL AND THE STRANGE
AFFAIR AT FONTENAY
Corinne de Montesson leant back in her coach and sighed. Paris seemed so far off; the woods of Fontenay were so dark and gloomy that she began to think the sun would never shine for her again.
“Antonio,” she said, speaking to the old physician who sat opposite to her, and asking him a question which she had asked ten times since they were driven through the deserted street of Noisy le Grand—“Antonio, what time is it?”
Antonio, who was making what use he could of the passing daylight to complete a calculation which engrossed him, put down his book and began to observe the surrounding woods very closely.
“Mademoiselle,” said he presently, “it is the hour of sunset on the third day of April in the year 1764.”
Corinne laughed when she heard this very precise statement, and nestling her ruddy cheeks against the cushion of the coach, she fell to watching Antonio, who dipped his pen regularly into an ink-horn slung at his waist, and held his book close to the window that the last rays of the sinking sun might fall upon it. When she had watched him a little while, and, after that, had counted the trees which flashed by as the coach rolled down the hill of Fontenay until she had numbered three hundred, she spoke again,—
“Antonio, you know where we are?”
The old physician stopped in the middle of shaping an 8 and put his head out of the window.
“Mademoiselle,” he said, “we are half of a league from the town of Fontenay at the spot known as the Gorge of the Three Gibbets, reminding us that very lately his Majesty has caused three rogues to be hanged in this place.”
Corinne laughed again.
“My dear Antonio,” she said, “what a guide you would make!”
Antonio picked up his pen.
“My child,” said he, “unless we observe the signposts as we go, life is likely to show us a heavy road. For my part, I forget nothing when I am assured that it is worth remembering.”
“You would say that of Fontenay, Antonio?”
“Certainly, mademoiselle, I would say that of Fontenay. Strange indeed, if I forgot the place where they robbed and killed my poor friend the Count of Charny.”
Corinne shuddered. She remembered that dreadful story well. The darkening woods around her, the silence of the gloomy plantations, the phantom-like shape of tree and bush, compelled her to realise very forcibly in what a dangerous place she was, and how pleased she would be to see the lights of Paris again.
“Oh,” she said, “you are a poor comforter, Antonio—to speak of that affair now, when Bénôit remains at Gros Bois and we ride alone.”
Antonio closed his book with a snap, for the light no longer permitted him to read.
“Mademoiselle,” he said, “do you say that you ride alone when I am with you?”
“Not at all, my dear Antonio; I said that we ride alone—and lack any protector save the good will which some of these men bear to me. What a poor thing is that to rely upon! I am sure that I was very foolish to leave Bénôit behind. The sword is with thieves a better weapon than a thief's charity, mon ami. And was there ever such a swordsman as Bénôit?”
Antonio shrugged his shoulders.
“All that you claim for our kinsman, that I will admit,” said he; “yet when you would praise the sword as a weapon, mademoiselle, then you speak as one who knows nothing of the greater mysteries. I, who am a child with the rapier in my hand, can become the equal of thousands of armies when I turn to those allies which exist neither in matter nor in the schools—but here, in thought, in conception, in, if you will, my dreams.
“To-night you ask for your kinsman and his strong arm, yet, believe me, my daughter, should misfortune overtake us, I, who have no weapon but my book, no ally but my visions, will prove the better friend. Not that I anticipate any such necessity. Another hour will see us at the barrier; we shall pass Fontenay itself before the clock strikes again. Take courage, then, mademoiselle, and forget that the sun no longer shines, and that night is in the woods.”
Corinne, who never ceased to enjoy the pompous self-assurance and the egotistical pronouncements of old Antonio, laughed in her sleeve now, and, having laughed, she buried her head in the cushions, and suffered stoically the terrible lurchings and rollings of the rut-tossed coach. After all, she said, her name was a great name amongst the robbers about Paris, and he would be a daring fellow who would venture to stop her carriage. She recalled again how she had won a pardon for the notorious Coq le Roi, who had narrated the deed in a hundred taverns since then, and had made of her, all unwillingly, a very déesse among patrons.
Should any one now attack her, she thought that it would be sufficient if her lacqueys mentioned her name. Nor did she rely at all upon the mysterious boasts and promises of the old physician, who had forgotten them already, and slept soundly with his half-open book lying neglected at his feet.
The coach rolled on deeper and deeper into the hollow of the night. By here and there the trees were so thick that the lantern which a lacquey had kindled scarce saved them from the ditch. At other times you could see a little way into the clearings of the thickets, or espy dark and noxious pools suggesting solitude and terrible deeds and the gloomy mystery of woodland life.
Corinne needed all her courage to banish the thoughts suggested by the scenes, but she had a mind powerful in obedience, and when her first alarms had passed, she compelled herself to think of the gaiety and life of Paris, and of all she would do during her long summer there. Indeed, she had made some very pretty plans for herself, and was in fancy dancing a minuet with the king, when a loud report of a musket, followed by a great clamour of question and answer and the sudden stopping of the coach, awoke her from her dream; and all her little castles came tumbling on the ground.
“Antonio, Antonio!” she cried, “do you not see—they have stopped the coach, Antonio, make haste to tell them who I am. Oh, if I not left Bénôit at Gros Bois!”
Antonio, who woke with a start, stopped a moment to pick up his book; then he put his head out of the window, but drew it back upon the instant.
“Madeomoiselle,” said he, “there are three men, they are tying your lacqueys to the trees.”
Corrine, ashamed of her first alarms, attempted to laugh, but the laugh had a quaver of fear in it.
”Antonio,” she exclaimed, “pray make haste to tell the gentlemen whose coach this is.”
Antonio, thus commanded, put his head out of the window for the second time, and began to address the robbers.
”Sirs,” said he, “I beg a word with you. This is the coach of Mademoiselle Corinne de Montesson, whose name, I make sure, is very well known to you.”
To the physician's surprise the three men made no answer at all, but continued quietly to bind the hands of the lacqueys and then to tie them to the nearest trees. When they had done their work, the tallest of the three, who was dressed in black and silver and wore a mask upon his face, came up to the door of the coach and opened it. At the same time he doffed his cap and bowed with the dignity of a courtier.
“Mademoiselle,” said he, addressing Corinne, “a thousand pardons for the liberty we have taken. Be assured that I know your name well and that it is held in great reverence here. But I have laid a wager of a thousand crowns that you shall sup with me to-night at the house of the Silver Birch, and that I shall kiss you on both cheeks afterwards. Accord me, I beg of you, a favour so trifling, and earn the lasting gratitude of Claude Brissac.”
He stood up, a fine figure even in the sombre flare of the two torches which his companions had kindled, and now held aloft that Corinne might see to alight. Very bright eyes shone humorously beneath the velvet mask; diamonds sparkled upon the ample ruffles of lace at his wrist and throat.
Corinne had heard his name often. It was that of one of the most gallant and successful highwaymen upon the eastern roads to Paris. “La Force” they called him, for his unquenchable energy and his unfailing boldness. Corinne knew that such a man would allow nothing to turn him from his purpose, and she trembled a little when she answered him.
“Monsieur,” she said in her own pretty way, “I cannot think that you would compel me against my will. I would eat of your supper very gladly, did you choose other opportunity to invite me. But I must be in Paris to-night, and I rely upon you to hasten my journey thither. Indeed, I am sure that you will do so.”
“Saint Denis!” replied the man, “and gladly would I help you. Yet, mademoiselle, if you will but reflect a little, you will see how reasonable is my request. It must be plain to you, since your lacqueys are now keeping company with yonder trees, while your coachman is shedding tears in the ditch, that you cannot arrive in Paris before dawn at any rate. What more pleasant occupation, then, than a little supper—where, be assured, the homage due to so great a name shall be fully paid. Let this old man hasten to get out of the coach, that I may have the pleasure of feeling your pretty hand upon my arm.”
He held his plumed hat still in his hand, and his manner was in all things the manner of Trianon. Corinne did not fail to see that no words of hers would turn him from his purpose; but old Antonio was by no means so willing to surrender readily.
“Sir,” cried he, “you are a very impertinent fellow; if you do not have a care, all Paris will come presently to see you hang at your own door.”
“Saint John I” said the robber, grimly, “if that day come, old man, surely I will ask for the halter which thou hast worn. Get down, lest I hasten thy steps with my boot.”
Then, turning to Corinne, he continued:—
“Mademoiselle, our supper is getting cold while we wait. Bid this old man be silent, I implore you, lest injury befall him. You have heard of me, I doubt not, and will know how little I am disposed to take 'no' for my answer when I have set my mind upon a 'yes.' 'La Force,' they call me, mademoiselle, as I shall call you my friend presently.”
He bowed again, and seeing that Antonio still hesitated, he put his hand roughly upon the physician's collar and dragged him from the coach. Corinne, on her part, convinced that further resistance was useless, stepped lightly from the carriage and took the robber's arm.
“Monsieur,” she said, “I am trusting to you as to one of my own kinsmen. But I warn you that you will find me a dangerous guest.”
The robber laughed.
“Mademoiselle,” said he, “my own daughter shall not win greater respect. You have but to command and I obey.”
“In that case,” said she, “I beg you permit my lacqueys to accompany me, and to bring the coach to your house, so that when we have supped I can continue my journey.”
He answered her very gallantly,—
”Your lacqueys are even now following us—and look, your coachman is again upon his box. If they no longer carry pistols, mademoiselle, it is that they may not shoot themselves. Take my word for it, they will never shoot any one else.”
He laughed gaily, and gave the pretty white arm which rested upon his own the suspicion of a squeeze. Had Corinne been certain that the adventure would have begun and ended with the supper at the house of the Silver Birch, her alarm would have been less. As it was, she had a great dread of her company and of the very dark wood which the highwayman now entered.
As for old Antonio, he stumbled along behind her, muttering to himself like a man demented. But he still carried his book, his pen, and his ink-horn; and now and then, had there been light whereby to observe it, a meaning smile might have been seen playing upon his usually placid face. The lacqueys, on the other hand, were in the last stages of fear; and while the coachman cried out that his coach would surely be found in the ditch, the others behind clung to their straps desperately and rolled against each other as men drunk with wine. It was five minutes before this strange cavalcade reached the house of the Silver Birch.
The robber's house lay snug in the thicket as a nest in the hedge. Save for a small clearing near the door, where a stagnant pool gleamed as with the face of a blackened mirror, the copse put walls of bramble and of bracken about the simple chalet, and so sheltered it that only the eyes of a woodlander might detect a habitation in the vicinity.
Nor did there seem to be any one to guard a retreat so remarkable. Not a light shone from the windows when the guests arrived; not a dog barked or a sound made itself heard. Corinne, who was shivering with the rasping air of the night and the noxious and humid miasma of the swamp, began at last to be seriously alarmed. Her coach, perforce, had been left in the more open glade a hundred yards from the robber's home.
“La Force” was accompanied now by one only of the torch-bearers. He had left the other heavily armed to watch the terrified lacqueys. Old Antonio in his turn had become green with anger and cold and impatience. He mumbled no longer, even to himself. The highwayman alone remained self-possessed and talkative; indeed, he assumed a more plausible politeness with every step he took.
“Mademoiselle,” he said, producing a great key from his pocket, and bidding his fellow hold the flambeau nearer to the door, “why do you tremble? Am I not here to protect you? In half an hour you shall have eaten a good supper, and be on your way to Paris again. Judge me not harshly since my honour is at stake.”
Corinne stamped her foot.
“Your honour, monsieur!” she cried; “if that be at stake, then surely the wager is trifling.”
”Saint John! madame, it is no trifle, since my honour intrusts to me so precious a charge.”
He spoke with exceeding deference, and stood bareheaded, despite the raw cold of the night, while he threw open the door for her to enter, and bade the torch-bearer hold up the light. None the less did Corinne continue to tremble when she passed into the house and found herself at once in the chief room of it. She asked only that the adventure might draw quickly to its end, for she felt very helpless, and thought how different it would have been had Bénôit accompanied her from Gros Bois. As for her old physician, who had been so ready with his boasts and his talk of mysteries, she could have laughed aloud at his undisguised distress. The shadow of death seemed already upon him. He started at every sound.
The robber entered the house, and, quickly divesting himself of his heavy cloak and his mask, he lighted candles in a heavy silver candelabrum. Directly the pale yellow light flooded the room, Corinne uttered a little word of surprise, for she had never thought that so poor a house could afford such a feast to the eye as this room now presented. Though the chalet itself was rough hewn of wood from the surrounding thickets, its internal ornament was worthy of the Louvre. Rare tapestries hid bare walls; dainty cabinets filled with fine china, chairs and tables reflecting the delicate taste of the period, a fine copy of the Apollo and Marsyas of Raphael, a genuine sketch by Jean de Paris, another by Rigaud, added to the wealth of its decoration.
Corinne felt her feet sinking into soft white skins the moment she passed the door of the house. A blazing fire of fagots spangled with golden stars the polished wood of the ingle-nook. The table itself was almost hidden by bouquets of spring flowers and early fruits. The whole place was redolent with the air of dishes steaming, and of good things made ready.
“Come,” said “La Force, when he had indicated the seat of honour, and had placed Corinne therein, “you will forgive me that I have no lacqueys as you have, mademoiselle. I am a lover of solitude, and my secrets are not well worn in company. But you will find my supper none the less excellent, believe me. As for our friend here, let there be no hot blood between us. I have not forgotten the service he did to Coq le Roi. Saint John! it is I who should fear with such a wizard for my guest.”
The bloodless eyes of the old physician twinkled when the compliment was paid. He, for the first time, appeared to forget the pass to which things had come, and to observe the supper now being served by the comrade of their host. When at length he sat down, a smile of satisfaction played upon his face, and he hastened to admit so much to the robber.
“Monsieur,” said he, “it is to my mistress that your friend Coq le Roi owes thanks. My own share in that business is not worthy of mention.”
“Ciel!” cried the robber, helping Corinne to a goblet of Chianti, “you are modest, Monsieur le Médecin; did you not, as the story goes, tell the lieutenant of police everything that Coq le Roi was about to do during the next four-and-twenty hours? Holy Mother of God! I would have given a hundred crowns had I been there to hear the jest.”
Antonio looked up from his plate.
“My friend,” said he, “it was a jest, I grant; yet had it been my intention, I could have told the future of Coq le Roi not for one day, but for a year.”
“La Force” roared with laughter; the wine had warmed him, and his wager was nearly won.
“Name of the devil,” cried he, “you are a true magician, old man; have a care lest you provoke me to ask a like experiment.”
“Indeed,” intervened Corinne, who had exchanged a quick glance with the doctor, “you do Antonio an injustice. A very little provocation, Monsieur Brissac, will induce him to grant your request. He has been absorbed in some calculation ever since we left Gros Bois.”
“La Force” drained a goblet to the dregs.
“Saint Denis!” said he, “we will put him to the proof upon the spot. Did not Coq le Roi tell me that he drew little lines upon a piece of paper? Very well, then, your physician has paper, mademoiselle, and I see an ink-horn at his waist. Let him tell me what I shall be doing this time to-morrow night. If he can do that, I will conduct you to your coach before the clock strikes again.”
Corinne looked at Antonio inquiringly, but the doctor shook his head.
“It is true,” said he, “that I told Coq le Roi's fate, and traced the orbit of his day; but that, I would ask you to remember, was a jest. To-night we leave the jester's mask behind us, and neither pen nor paper will serve our purpose. Command, I pray you, monsieur, that your servant bring me yon silver bowl full to the brim with boiling water.”
“Pah!” exclaimed the robber, “you think that I am a child!”
“I think nothing, monsieur. I wait to act. But if you do not choose—”
“La Force” shrugged his shoulders; the wine had quickened his more brutal instincts.
“Oh,” replied he, “as for that—I choose; but I tell you plainly, mon ami, if this be another of your jests, you shall drain the bowl to the dregs.”
Had the robber been sober enough to detect it, he would have observed that old Antonio's eyes were lighted for a moment by a look which boded no good to him. But he was too busy with the flagons of wine, and the excellent supper his fellow rogue had cooked, to observe it, and the look passed upon the instant, to leave the physician unmoved and apparently unconcerned. Even a close observer would not have foretold anything of the comedy then about to be played in the house of the Silver Birch.
None the less, Corinne foretold it. A subtle instinct warned her from the first that her old friend had not forgotten altogether his boasts in the coach. She knew not what plan he had contrived, nor what weapon he sought; but she began to take heart, hoping that she might, after all, be revenged on this insolent fellow who had subjected her to such an insult. In truth, her pride was sore hurt; and although she hid her feelings very prettily, nevertheless she told herself that the highwayman known as “La Force” should find her, as she had declared, a dangerous guest.
All this passed through her mind when the lesser rogue, who aped the rôle of lacquey, brought the silver bowl from the kitchen, and the steam from the boiling water began to moisten the air of the supper-room. Antonio had now tucked up the sleeves of his heavy gown, and was prepared, apparently, to fulfil his promise to the ultimate letter.
“Monsieur Brissac, you have asked me to tell you upon what employment you will be engaged at this hour to-morrow night. When the steam from that bowl shall have cleared away, I will ask you to look at the surface of the water, and to read your own fate therein.”
The robber laughed scornfully.
“At your pleasure, friend,” said he, “though if you fail me, I warrant you I will keep my word.”
Antonio bowed, but said nothing. Corinne felt her heart beating quickly, while the blood surged up into her head and made her dizzy. She began to fear that Antonio was embarked upon some very dangerous enterprise, in which failure might leave her alone with this ruffian who had stopped her coach. She was tempted almost to beg her friend to desist, but he refused steadfastly to exchange a glance with her, and she, by a great effort of will, held her peace.
A minute passed, perhaps, before the steam floated away from the circle of the bowl. When it was quite clear Antonio rose from his chair and began to peer into the water very diligently.
“Monsieur,” said he, with great dignity, “come near and tell me if the water of life has any message for you.”
The robber bent over the bowl, and examined its contents very narrowly. “Bah!” he answered, “you mock me; there is nothing there.”
Antonio looked again.
“My son,” said he, speaking now with the air of a doctor, “fate is not the child of man, that he shall say to her, do this, and she will do it. Seek rather to approach these mysteries with awe, for they are mysteries to which God alone holds the key. Let there be obedience in your heart and humility in your mind, since the hour of your death is about to be made known to you.”
“Monsieur,” said he, “for the third time, I tell you, beware how you jest with me.”
In spite of his braggadocio, “La Force” trembled. His hand shook a little when he bent over the table; the colour rushed from his face and his lips were bloodless.
“Speak not of jests, I say,” cried the old physician, solemnly,—“speak not of jests, for the book of God is about to be opened before your eyes. Nay, my son, let there be a prayer upon your lips, and the fear of God in your mind. Behold, the picture shapes itself.”
Swiftly and deftly he took a phial from his pocket and cast the contents upon the face of the water. The robber, wound up to a surpassing dread and curiosity, bent over the bowl until his eyes almost touched the water. At the same moment the white powder from the phial began to mix with the liquid and to set up a great effervescence, with a noxious odour which filled the whole room: a seething vapour, which hurt the lungs of those who breathed it. “La Force,” who all unwillingly inhaled the vapour as he bent over the water, uttered a loud cry and made to draw back from the table; but old Antonio had gripped him by the neck now, and was strong with the strength of ten men.
“Behold, my son, behold, and read the book of life,” he cried, with a ferocity which was almost devilish, while he forced the robber's head down until his brow touched the silver rim. “Did I not tell you that the hour of your death was written there?—look well then, for the hour is come.”
During a terrible instant, the struggle was a doubtful one. The bowl rocked and spilt the water upon the table; glasses fell and were crunched under the elbows of the men; the robber, about whose throat the bony fingers of the physician were twined, fought like a wild beast. For the first fumes of the drug had robbed him of breath, almost of sense; his lungs were scorched as by burning needles; his eyes were blinded and smarting; it seemed as though a hand of iron had been put upon his heart to still it.
Presently sense began to leave him; and after a moment of suffering, when he thought that he was sinking down, down into a vast abyss of darkness, the idea began to recur in his mind that he was lapping the water of the bowl; and this quickened and quickened, as ideas will in the brains of those who are on the point of losing sensibility, until he sank as one dead upon the floor, and silence fell upon the room again.
Silence fell upon the room, but half of a minute was not marked on the clock before it was broken. The robber's comrade, awakened to curiosity by the hush of voices, appeared suddenly at the door of the supper-room, and stood half choked by the vapours. Corinne herself was upon the point of fainting, when the old physician unbarred the shutters of the little window, and let the night breeze come blowing in like a gift of life.
“Mademoiselle,” said he, “stand here at the window, and your faintness will pass; I am going to deal with this fellow as I have dealt with his master.”
The second of the robbers gave a great cry, for he saw the body of “La Force” huddled upon the floor, and did not neglect to observe the broken glasses and the disordered table.
“Holy God!” exclaimed he, “'La Force' is dead.”
“As you say, my friend,” answered Antonio, “'La Force' is dead. Let me conjure you to leave this house quickly, lest my art strike you as it has struck him.”
The man answered him by levelling a pistol at his head; but, when he pulled the trigger, the powder did not even flash in the pan.
“You see,” continued Antonio, “that pistol is my servant also. Begone, then, lest you lie there with your master.”
He pointed impatiently to the door, whereto the man slunk in awe, muttering “'La Force' is dead.” They heard him a moment later galloping wildly through the woods with the same cry upon his lips.
“Mademoiselle,” said Antonio, very quietly, “it is fortunate that I took the opportunity to spill my wine upon the pan of yon fellow's pistol while we sat at supper, or assuredly he would have blown my brains out. Now, if it be agreeable to you, we will bind up this rogue in his own table-cloth and carry him to Paris with us as a souvenir of this evening.”
“To Paris!” cried Corinne, in amazement, “and what shall we do with him in Paris, my dear Antonio?”
“We shall punish him for his audacity in stopping the coach of Corinne de Montesson. Did I not tell you that my mysteries were more powerful than the sword of your kinsman, Bénôit? Have patience a little while and you shall doubt my word no more.”
Corinne could not repress a word of fear.
“You carry your jest far—it seems to me that the man is dead.”
“Indeed, there is very little the matter with him, mademoiselle—so little that I fear to hear him tell us so if we delay. Run back to the coach, then, and bid one of the men attend me. If the third knave should desire to know what we have done to his master, ask him to come to the house and I will show him.”
She did not answer him, but, drawing her cloak about her, ran off swiftly through the thicket.
The Man answered him by levelling a Pistol.
When the lacqueys and the third of the robbers arrived at the chalet presently, they found “La Force” already bound hand and foot with the white cloth from his own table.
Indeed, a physician alone could have told that he lived; and when the remaining highwayman saw the body he reeled back as though a pistol had been fired in his face.
“Rascal!” cried Antonio, taking advantage of the situation to grip him by the throat and to clap a pistol to his head—one of the pistols he had snatched from the belt of “La Force”—“rascal! I have killed your master as you see, and am taking his body back to Paris as a warning to those who do not respect the name of my mistress. Choose, then, whether you will throw down your arms and have your liberty, or be taken to Paris to die upon the gibbet.”
The man writhed and gasped under the powerful hand—but impotently—for the lacqueys had taken heart now and had made haste to seize him by the arms. When he spoke, it was to beseech the old physician to give him his liberty.
“By the God above me, we have trapped the devil this night!” said he; “show me but the back of a horse and you shall see my face no more, monsieur.”
Two minutes later, he also was galloping through the woods, crying like one demented, “'La Force' is dead.” But the body of his master lay secure upon the top of Corinne's coach, where, rolling and jolting like a log, it rested until the barrier was passed and the horses were driven through the gateway of the Hôtel Beautreilles. Dark as the night proved, many stopped in the narrow streets of the great city to point the finger at a burden so curious; many cried, “They carry a dead man,—what a thing to see!” But others only crossed themselves and lifted their hats. “She jests with the dead,” they said, and hurried on, afraid.
It was one o'clock in the morning when “La Force,” who had been conscious of a restless and troubled sleep, and of strange happenings in his dreams, wholly recovered his senses and sat up in the bed upon which unknown hands had laid him. He thought at the instant of waking that he had slept out in the woods by Gros Bois again; but when he rubbed his eyes and looked well around him, some of the events of the night began to shape themselves again in his brain, and to be acted anew, until he remembered all things—even to the silver bowl and the horrible draught of vapour he had drunk therefrom.
“Mort Dieu!” said he, springing from his bed angrily, “it was the devil's bowl I drank from—a curse upon them! And now—and now—?”
He began to examine the room with questioning eyes, but his curiosity was soon satisfied. It was a small apartment with walls of stone, in shape, a horseshoe; having for furniture a stool and a table, in addition to the plain wooden bed whereupon he had slept. Its only ornament was a crucifix hung high upon the crown of the apse.
“La Force” saw that the door was sheathed with iron and monstrous thick, like the door of a dungeon. A little window, heavily barred, permitted him, when he stood upon the tips of his toes, to see the world without. At the moment, however, such a privilege was worth little, for the night was moonless, and his keen eyes could detect nothing beyond a great black shape, which had no meaning to him. None the less did he begin to be haunted by the thought that he was in a prison; and when he had reflected a little while, he said it would be the prison of the Conciergerie.
This thought was slow to be accepted, slow to force itself upon his mind. He found himself at first laughing at the idea as a folly; but he could pause in his laughter to feel the damp sweat upon his brow and to sink upon the bed shivering with fear. Well he knew that, if his surmise were true, he might ask nothing more of life. They would send him to the galleys—possibly to death. He remembered the dashing life of the road, the women he had kissed, the gay company he had enjoyed, the debauches which had been kept in the house of the Silver Birch; and these pleasant memories helped him to stave off the dreadful omens of the cell. “God!” he said, “it cannot be that I shall never see the woods again!”
It needed a great effort to banish a sense of peril such as this; but he refused to hear the damning voices which haunted him; and anon, he got into bed again and tried to sleep. He was very weak after the trial of the night; and when he lay down and pulled the heavy covering over his head to shut out the light of the lantern which illumined the apartment, he found that he was hot as one in a fever, and that there was a new pain in his lungs which forbade him to rest.
Do what he would, recall as he might the most pleasant scenes of his past, a phantom figure ever at his side seemed to whisper, “You are come to the judgment.” For a while he battled bravely with the spectre, but when a clock without struck two, he was able to endure the vision no longer, and he sprang from his bed in an agony of fear and of foreboding.
“Jesus!” he said, “it is my dream; that which I see is a thing of sleep. The sun will shine in my eyes presently, and I shall behold the forest again. My horse will come to me, and we will—”
A shadow falling across the floor cut short his pleasant promises. It was a dreadful shadow, magnified by the lantern's feeble light until it represented nothing human, being a horrid shape, eyeless, with masked face, and a head upon which a cap like a fool's cap was placed. “La Force” staggered against the bed when he beheld it, and covered his eyes with his hand.
“Mother of God!” he sobbed, “what do I see?”
“Monsieur,” was the answer, in a low and gentle voice, “fear nothing from me. I come to warn you.”
“La Force” turned his head and looked. A figure dressed in the rough black robe of a monk, but having the head and face covered with a pointed black hood, like the hood of the Misereri in Rome, stood motionless at his side. For a moment the highwayman succumbed to an overwhelming panic. He shrieked aloud at the terrible aspect of the phantom, believing that the devil stood with him in the cell.
“Oh, for pity's sake,” he wailed, “tell me what this means.”
“My son,” said the monk, “it means that you have stopped the coach of Mademoiselle de Montesson; for which crime you now find yourself a prisoner in her house, where—”
He paused, as though he did not wish to finish the sentence; but the robber, being assured now that the apparition was no ghostly one, could not suppress his curiosity.
“Yes—yes,” he asked eagerly, “where—?”
“Where you are to die at dawn,” said the monk.
“La Force” wiped the sweat from his brow and laughed like an hysterical woman.
“Bah,” he said, “she will not kill me.”
“My son,” said the monk, very earnestly, “she will think no more of killing you than of crushing an insect in her path. Do you hear those blows? They are the blows of the axes which hew a scaffold for you. If you doubt me, look from yon window and you shall see—”
“La Force” ran to the window, and standing upon the tips of his toes looked into the court. Where darkness had prevailed ten minutes before, light—the light of fifty torches—now mastered the night. The highwayman saw that these torches were held by men gowned as his mysterious visitor, all in deep black, with hoods covering their faces, and holes for their eyes, which gave them an ogreish aspect terrible to behold.
But that which interested him more than all was the great structure they were helping to build—a structure of wood heavily draped in black. Very familiar to him was that warning shape—the great cross-beam, the heavy side supports, the platform for the victim. He could even see a coil of rope curled like a snake upon the black carpet.
“Jesus!” he said, dropping upon his feet again, “they build a scaffold.”
“Exactly,” said the monk, “and at dawn they will have finished their work.”
“La Force” felt his heart beating quickly, but he nerved himself to look out of the window again.
“Holy God, have pity upon me; I see a coffin!” he exclaimed, reeling back from the casement and falling, terror-struck, upon the bed. “Oh, monsieur, of your charity beseech a little mercy for me. I cannot die—I have sin upon my soul.”
The monk watched his agony unmoved.
“My son,” said he, “of that which we sow assuredly we must reap. Forget not that your harvest is death. At dawn you will garner the fruit you have fostered so well. Remember that the sun will shine down to-morrow, not upon your eyes glad to behold the day again, but upon the earth which lies heavy upon a spiritless body. Think of that, and be warned, for here mercy is unknown.”
“La Force” answered him with a great oath and a threat, lifting his clenched hand to strike the speaker; but the monk seized the upraised arm by the wrist and threw the robber to the ground with such force that he lay there many minutes stunned and bruised. When he looked up again the monk had left the cell.
He heard a clock strike three at this time; but the sound of hammering still continued in the court without, and although he dared not to look again, he made sure that the scaffold must be now near its completion.
Had it been given him to die upon the high-road in some affair where swords clashed and pistols made merry music, he would have shown a bold face enough; but to be killed like a rat in a trap, to swing like a common thief, simply because he had compelled a woman to sup with him against her will, was a punishment not to be borne.
There were moments when he raved like a madman, beating with his fists against the cold stone wall, or casting himself in rabid fits of fury at the iron-sheathed door. At other moments he lay upon his bed in a stupor, scarcely seeming to breathe, trying in his mind to imagine that the end was passed, and that he lay in his coffin, still and voiceless, beneath a heavy weight of earth. When at length a glimmer of day struck the dark court without, and came with timid step even into his cell, he had no longer the mind either to fear or hope. A dull and merciful insensibility to thought prevailed.
It was half-past five precisely when the door of his cell was opened, and the monk, accompanied by three others similarly habited, re-entered the prison and bade “La Force” arise.
“Monsieur,” said the monk, “the hour has come. Have courage, then, and drink a cup of wine. Remember what a reputation you bear, and do not let them speak of you as other than the brave man I know you to be.”
“La Force” opened his eyes, for he was half asleep.
“Christ!” said he, “I dreamed that I was in the woods again.”
He was like a man walking in a sleep now; and he drank off the wine they offered him, protesting that he was ready to die; but no sooner were the words spoken, than he fell into an uncontrollable fit of sobbing, and, throwing himself upon his knees, he craved mercy of them. The four hooded men gave no sign that they heard him, but stood like messengers of death, silent and unmoved. Nor did they speak when they led him from the cell presently, and, coming out into the court, he beheld a towering scaffold with a masked executioner upon the steps of it, and other hooded men ready to assist in the last great act.
“La Force” had never thought that death could wear a shape so awful. The cold light of dawn, the silent, hooded figures, the gaunt black scaffold, struck his heart with a deadly and overwhelming fear. He gave one long-drawn cry of agony, and then fell fainting upon the stone floor.
But at the moment when he fell, a great shout of laughter went up in the court, and one of the monks, pulling aside his hood, exclaimed: “Haste to drive him to Gros Bois. The drug that was in the wine acts for three hours. Let him be quite alone when he awakes.”
“La Force” awoke when the church bells in the village of Gros Bois were proclaiming the Angelus. They had laid him in the heart of a solitary thicket, wherefrom, through a bower of the trees, he could espy a little pond shining like a silver mirror in the generous sunshine. But he was very weak when the spell of the drug passed, and he lay for long minutes content to feel the sweet morning air blowing upon his face, and to gaze up at the cloudless heaven above him.
“Holy Virgin,” he said, “can it be that I live—that I have dreamed the things of the night! Is it I, 'La Force, who speaks, or do I hear voices in the grave? Oh, Heaven pity me, for I have suffered.”
Slowly and with painful effort he dragged himself to the pond. A horse whinnied in a neighbouring brake as he went, and he knew that it was his own horse calling to him.
“Oh,” he said-, “how good it is to live—how good! Last night I died ten deaths, but to-day—to-day—”
He tried to collect his thoughts and to knit the story of this night together, but confused images played with his brain, and he could recall nothing. Once or twice the old fear came back to him. His heart quickened when he remembered the masked men and the heavy blows of those who had hewn out his scaffold. But this mood passed, and at length he crawled to the pond and began to lap up the water.
A tree shaded the place where he lay, and the water being clear and without a ripple, he beheld his own image reflected in it; and at this he started back from the bank, and his trembling hands clutched the grass convulsively.
“God!” he said, “she was right—she is a dangerous guest.”