The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII

THE GIRL OF THE WINE SHOP

YOUTH and health do not long lie idle. Even while I lay recovering my health, Jerome and I were busy with our plans. Not the least unforeseen item in what had befallen, was the chance that carried me into a house where I saw again the "black wolf's head," which brought once more to mind the history of the d'Artins. But there was still to come that other happening, the one which bound my whole life, heart and soul, my love and happiness forever, in with the fortunes of that black wolf's breed.

As I grew stronger Jerome and I had a long talk. He told me the morning after I left him, which was Thursday, a veiled woman had brought him a pair of gauntlets, with the request that he preserve them carefully. Jerome naturally wanted to know who had sent such a present. The woman answered no questions, only impressed upon him the importance of keeping them himself and letting no one have them. She would not tell whence she came, and when she departed Jerome made a sign to Claude, who followed. He returned and reported she had entered the apartments of Mademoiselle de Chartres by a private way.

Verily this was coming close to the King, and to Orleans; these gauntlets coming from the house of this haughty Bourbon Princess. One of the gauntlets, of course, contained the papers taken from Yvard, the same I had confided to Mademoiselle la Princesse. I smiled my satisfaction that she had been so discreet.

The other packet Jerome found upon me when I was disrobed for bed.

It was many days before Jerome asked me for any details of my imprisonment, or how it came about there was a dead man in the room with me. I related the whole circumstance briefly as possible, who Broussard was, and all, to avoid further questioning. For I hated to dwell upon the occurrences of that night, yet ever returned to them with a sort of secret fascination.

"You choked him well, comrade," was Jerome's only comment, regarding the affair, yet I fancied I saw him shiver somewhat at the ghastly recollection of Broussard. The matter being thus dismissed, we never spoke of it again.

Our fire burned warm, filling the room with a home-like glow, so with good wine and clear consciences Jerome and I drank and talked and stretched the lazy evening through.

"There is just one other thing we can do, Placide, to put the finishing touch upon our success."

I turned an interrogative glance toward the speaker.

"That is to find out, if possible, who is back of this scheming. That fellow Yvard, dare-devil though he is, has not brain enough to concoct such a plan, even if he had courage and energy to fight it through. Depend upon it, some powerful person is behind Yvard. Most likely Madame du Maine. What say you to an adventure?"

My blood was in the humour for sport, the wine heated me somewhat, and recking not of consequences I caught at his idea.

"Willingly, comrade, but what?"

"Let us to Sceaux, to Madame's court, and see what we may discover, for two fools like ourselves might perchance stumble blindly upon what a wise man would overlook," he continued with mock humility.

"Yes, and two fools like ourselves might perchance get themselves hanged for what a wise man would keep his skirts clear of. There's a peril in meddling with the affairs of the great."

"Seriously, now. I have means and ways of learning things in Madame's family. My head has been fast set on this matter for some time. If you agree to take the risk with me, you should know how we are to act. Now mind you," he pursued, rising and stretching his back to the fire, facing me, "mind you, I tell you all I want you to know, and you must promise me to make no inquiries on your own account."

By this time I had grown accustomed to trust de Greville, so I simply assented.

"A lady you know—it might get me into trouble," he further explained; with that I made myself content.

Jerome averted his face as if he would first frame his speech carefully before he gave it me. Here de Serigny's final remark about making friends of the ladies recurred to me, and I wondered what this fair unknown had to do with such a rough game as we played. Before the hand was out, though, I understood how truly it had been said that women's wits now swayed the destinies of France. Since this day, too, our country has suffered much through women, when under the next, and more pliant Louis, they ruled with even a scantier pretence at concealment or of decency. Jerome spoke slow and guardedly, when he turned to me again. He began in a tone subdued by the intensity of his feelings—which, as I soon learned, were quite natural.

"I was a mere lad; I had a sweetheart whose family lived near our own in the vicinity of a certain small provincial town, it matters not where. She, much younger than I, shared all my childish games. It was the will of God that we should love. My family was rich, is rich; both were noble. I had two older brothers who stood between me and a title or wealth. Her parents were ambitious for her future; I was put aside. They sent her away, away from me, and married her here in Paris to a man she had never seen. A simple marriage of convenience, as we say here. Her heart was numb and dead; it made no rebellion. I went to the army; gained nothing but my rank. My brothers died, and I being the next heir can live as it pleases me. Here I am in Paris; she is at Sceaux, two leagues away. I love her yet, and, God forgive her, she loves me. Her old husband who is attached to the Duc du Maine cares nothing for her. She amuses herself half in idleness with the intrigues of the court. Nay do not look so black, Placide, for even this can be innocent enough. There is much excuse for her, too, my friend. A woman must needs have love to feed upon. They can never, like ourselves, fill their hearts entirely with ambition, with glory or with adventure. Men may make of their lives a cloister or a camp and be content; but women, whatever else of gaud and glitter they may have, yet require love and tenderness and gentle sympathy beside. Happy is she who receives all these from her husband; and that husband treads dangerous ground who denies it to her. I see your wonder at hearing this from me; but I have thought constantly upon such things. Peste! this touches not our business; let us go on. Through this lady's husband, and by another source of information, I hope to find the truth concerning Yvard. Do you follow me?"

"Yes, but how?" I put in. "When I run my neck into a halter, I want to know whose hands are playing with the cord."

"Never fear for her. Madame—that is, the lady—has a firm hold upon the Duc du Maine himself, in fact she is quite indispensable to him. Don't ask me for more. Once let the Duc be made Regent, and my old-time sweetheart of those innocent days in Anjou will be the most powerful woman in France. But with all that, Placide," and the man's quivering voice went straight to the very tenderest core of my heart for the depths of bitterness it contained, "in spite of it all she'd rather be back in the country breathing the pure and peaceful air, a guiltless and happy girl, than to live as she does, and rule the land. God knows I wish we had never seen Paris."

I held my tongue; there was nothing I could say. He felt his trouble keenly enough, and I refrained from molding my undesired sympathy into words. Directly, Jerome took heart and spoke again:

"Those are the conditions, I merely make the best of them. There is still another friend of mine at Sceaux, the Chevalier Charles de la Mora, a most gallant soldier and kindly gentleman. Verily, they are scarce now in France. He has fallen into misfortunes of late and is about to take some command in the colonies. I love him much, and am sorely tempted to cast my lot with his. But, you understand why I stay," and he lifted up his hands with a gesture of perfect helplessness.

"His wife, Madame Agnes—almost a girl—is one of the most beautiful and clever women in France, and who, by way of novelty, loves her own husband. Women are queer sometimes, are they not? To-morrow we go to Sceaux; it will at least be an experience to you, even should nothing good come of it. Do you agree?"

My curiosity was thoroughly aroused, and scenting sport of a rare character I agreed to join the chase. It was judged best that we should make all things ready for an immediate journey to Versailles upon our return from Sceaux.

Before we slept, my few serviceables were put in position for instant departure.

When I arose in the morning Jerome had already left his bed. I supposed it was out of consideration for what he was still pleased to consider my weak condition that he refrained from waking me. Claude came tripping in later with the message that M. de Greville had gone to make some last arrangements for our journey. I slept so restfully through the night my fatigue and all unpleasant reminders of the episode at Bertrand's had quite worn away, and I felt refreshed and strong again. When Florine came to inquire for my health she found me busied about the packing. I greeted her kindly, for in truth my gratitude was deep and sincere.

"Monsieur is preparing to leave?" she asked as if more than afraid of a reply. I could see she had some purpose in the question.

"Yes, I leave Paris to-day."

"To-day?" she echoed.

"Yes, but I would return and find you again; I could not depart from France without finding and thanking you for all your kindness. In truth I am glad you came, for——." I tried to say more, but the words left my lips sounding so cold and meaningless the sentence died away incomplete.

Florine stood there, vaguely watching me as though she did not understand.

"Leave France?" she repeated, her tone expressing the hope she had not heard aright.

I had already said much more than I intended, for I was not fully aware of Jerome's intentions, and desired to say nothing which would reveal them.

"Leave France?" she urged again, "Monsieur—" she halted for the word quite naturally.

"De Mouret," I supplied, and for the first time she knew my name; surely it was little enough to trust one with who had given me my life.

"Monsieur de Mouret is to leave France?"

"Yes," I answered her truly, "but not to-day, possibly not for several days. I would not go away without seeing you again."

I felt my tone become warmer as I thought of all this girl had risked for me, and so blundered on uncertainly. What was I to do? What could I offer her in repayment? Not gold; she had refused that with the air of a grande marquise the night she first helped me from Bertrand's.

Heartily wishing for some of Jerome's finesse and tact, I gazed at her, stupid and silent, watching the tears gather in her eyes. I could only guess the thought which was passing in her mind, and even there I wronged her.

"Oh, Monsieur!" she spoke as from the fullness of her heart, while her voice trembled with excess of emotion, "Monsieur is going back into the great world; Monsieur has honour and fair fame; I must return to the wine shop."

The poor girl must have been wearied out with her watchings by my bed, for she burst into such an uncontrollable weeping as I fain would have prevented. I did my rough best at comfort, but had to let her sorrow run its course.

"Oh, Monsieur, think of it! I must go back to that dreadful wine shop, to the gaming tables; must continue to draw men there to be despoiled of their money, perhaps of their lives; must laugh and be gay, though my heart break at its own debasement. There have been many, ah, so many, I have lured to that place; and it came so near to costing you your life—you who were so kind to Florine."

She had sunk to the floor, and catching my hand poured out all the bitterness of her heart.

"Yet, Monsieur, what can Florine do? There is no way for a weak woman to do anything in this wretched Paris. If I do not bring players to the house my aunt beats me. See," she drew up her sleeve, and exposed the welts of cruel cuts across the bare white flesh. "She denies me food in my garret. So I must work, be merry and work—and weep all the day for the misery of the nights." My heart went out to the girl with all sympathy, but, every whit as helpless as she, I only wondered what could be done.

"Monsieur, it was not of my choosing, believe me, believe me, it really was not. My father thought his sister so well off in this fine Paris, when she offered to bring me up as her own child, and sent us presents, he made me come with her. We were so poor, so cruelly poor. My mother could not come for me, and now how can I go back? I dare not let her know how I am treated. It would break her heart, and she is so old and tottering. If I seek other employment no one will take me, no one would give me a character for service. All the world is open to you. You go where you please, do what pleases you. All the world is shut to Florine. And you, Monsieur, my only friend, I hoped when you were well again, such a rich gentleman could find me a place among his friends; find me some quiet place where I might live and be of use, not bringing evil to all I touch. What an evil life, what a wicked life I lead. Oh, Monsieur, save me from it; save me! The horrible man you defended me from that night pursues me everywhere; my aunt is jealous because of him. She hates me now and would like to drive me out upon the streets—ugh! the terror of it. But her husband won't let her; he is kinder than she. See, I am pretty, I bring custom. She can not tell her husband why she hates me. No, no. Bertrand would kill her. And I dare not tell him. They would kill me—"

Her speech rambled on now, disconnected and incoherent. Still by catching sentences here and there the whole pitiful story was clear to me. My eyes would always overflow at sight of woman's suffering, my throat choked up; I could speak no word to her. Of a truth what a horrible life it must be; what iron webs do sin and circumstance weave round their victim. The cowering girl sobbed convulsively on the floor at my feet. I laid my hand tenderly upon her head.

"Florine, I have but two friends myself in all this land of France. You have served one of these faithfully in helping me. I will commend you to him, and am sure he will reward you well."

"Monsieur, I seek no reward; I served you not for money."

She shamed me, though I persisted.

"Not a reward, Florine, but surely you can let him send you back to your mother. Here is money; his money, not mine; he is rich, I am poor. He can pay you for valuable service, I can only give you my undying gratitude."

I bent down and kissed her pale forehead, whereat she wept afresh.

"Claude's wife will keep you here safe until we come again. Then we will find means to protect and provide for you."

I bade her rise now and calm herself, for a bustle in the street announced the noisy arrival of several horsemen. A few moments, and Jerome's voice called me from below to make all ready.

I called Claude's wife up and delivered the girl to her keeping, then turned to look out into the street. There were now drawn up in front of the door four sturdy equerries, well mounted, and leading two excellent nags, which I took to be those Jerome had provided for our own use.

Jerome obliged me once more to dress with exceeding care, but I fretted much for my own easy garments which permitted a man to use his limbs with the freedom God had given them. Verily there would be no regret when all this frippery could be cast aside, and by my faith, it was much simpler to lay it off than to array one's self in. I never did learn all the eccentricities of that remarkable rig my fashionable friend had adorned me with.

"Had we better not strap on our pistols?" I asked, not knowing what he purposed.

"No; gentlemen do not wear them. Beside, at Sceaux one sharpens one's wits, and lets even his good blade dull and rust."

We mustered six stout swords as we clattered away from the Austrian Arms, and I could not but note, despite what Jerome had said, he took good care to provide trusty fellows and swift horses.

"A lean hound for a long race," Jerome laughingly remarked, noticing my inspection of the not over-fed nag I bestrode.

We took that road leading past the heights of Villejuif, which in hardly more than an hour's brisk ride brought us to the park of Sceaux, overlooking the beautiful Fontenay valley of which I was destined to learn much. During this ride I had leisure to speak with de Greville of Florine, for the girl's story had roused a real desire in my heart to see her bettered.

"There are thousands such in Paris," he replied, shrugging his shoulders unconcernedly. "The few tell you truth, the many lie to you. You know not when to believe them. If you like, though, I will see what may be done. At least she may be placed in la Saltpeterie where no present harm can reach her, to earn a living. It is not a pleasant life, and no wonder young and pretty girls prefer the gay world to the seclusion and labour of Saltpeterie. Yet we will try."

He treated the matter lightly, as a thing of common occurrence, yet was Jerome tender-hearted. Men who live in great cities become so hardened to the vice and crime about them that they no longer feel keenly, as we provincials do, the appeal of misery.

I might say here that Florine was one of the next ship-load of girls who were sent to the colonies. There she found a very worthy young planter who took her to wife, and after the manner of the mistreated girl in the fairy tales you children used to read, "lived happily ever afterward." She became, from all accounts, a good wife and devoted mother; her children yet live in Louisiana, happy and prosperous.