The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 18

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CHAPTER XVIII

DE SERIGNY'S DEPARTURE

THE clocks were striking, one after the other in monotonous imitative fashion, the hour of nine when I delivered my horse to a sleepy groom at the little tavern just outside the Versailles gate.

Serigny was already in his rooms, intent on some business, and opened his door himself. There was no need for concealing his gratification and the intense impatience he felt to know results, nor did he make any attempt at concealment. On the contrary, he was as urgent as a school child. Everything about him, packed in boxes and travelling bags, seemed prepared for instant journey. Upon his table a few disarranged papers were scattered beside a leathern portfolio, through which he had evidently been looking when I arrived. Without stopping to replace any of the documents he hastened me to a seat, and drawing his chair close, commanded me to begin. My coming had been so sudden I had given no consideration to the nature of my report to Serigny, and found some difficulty in gathering ideas together in such shape they would be understood. I had hardly begun my statement when quick steps sounded along the outer passage followed by an almost imperative knock on the door. Jerome, I thought. So it was. Jerome, bespattered and soiled from his hard ride, a raw bruise across his cheek, his clothing awry. He was pale and determined, yet quiet withal.

I instinctively rose and laid my hand to my hilt. A glance reassured me. His purpose, lying deeper, I could not divine; it was plain though he brooded not that kind of quarrel. Nor do I to this day know what he intended when he first entered Serigny's room that night.

"I rode after you in all haste, Captain."

"Indeed you did," I mentally agreed.

"And met a fall, which, as you see, has somewhat disfigured me," and he laughed, while I agreed with him again.

Serigny, being so intent on the important transactions of the hour, accepted his explanation without question. The welcome, though cordial, was brief, Serigny being a man of no unnecessary words.

"Go on, Captain," and I picked up the broken thread of my narrative where Jerome had interrupted.

As I went on obediently, Jerome would now and again supply some link wherein my memory failed, or suggest something I had left unsaid, until having so much the nimbler tongue he took the telling out of my mouth entirely. I could not complain, for he detailed the various adventures far better than I, and gave me more of the credit than I would have claimed for myself. We had, by common consent, forgotten our late strife, and becoming much interested I broke in upon a glowing account of my heroism:

"Hold, Jerome, by my faith, you grow more garrulous than a fish-wife of the barriers; tell but a plain, straight tale, and leave off all that romantic garniture of thine," and thence I reclaimed my straggling story and brought it to a conclusion. All this while the dispatches for which we had risked so much lay safe in my breast. I rather hesitated to produce them, dreading what the hot-headed fellow might do to get a hold upon that which peradventure would cause trouble to his lady love. I could not decline when Serigny asked for them, but hauled out both packets, one taken from Yvard, the other from Broussard, casting them upon the table. Jerome eyed them so I that knew from the look his late fury was not yet dead, and I watched him in readiness for any move he might make to repossess them.

He sat as unconcerned as if the whole affair interested him no further, now that the main object of his solicitude was safe in the keeping of his superior. I misdoubted whether this was not all a sham, and could hardly believe him the same frenzied Jerome who had pleaded so hard, and fought so desperately for this self-same packet of Yvard's, which at this time reposed within easy reach of his hand. Once he reached out and took it up negligently, inspected the seals and marks, then replaced it. His examination seemed one of mere idle curiosity, or would have so appeared had I not known that he was already perfectly acquainted with every mark borne by our charge. The eyes, half closed in dreamy contemplation, spoke apparently of a man who has been relieved of some grave responsibility and enjoys the relaxation, yet, for all of that, he was listening most intently to what Serigny and I were talking of. Serigny was now fondling the instruments which were to be the restoration of his own and his brother's influence. His words were addressed to neither of us in particular.

"Here is the seal of Spain. Cellemare again, Egad! They are bold, or must have great confidence in their emissaries. Here, too, is Madame. Ah, my clever little lady, you have outdone your own cleverness at last. I fancy even the King's old love for his son's mother will not save you now. I would I knew what was in them."

"We can easily see, and close them snug again," ventured Jerome, but noting Serigny's frown, he turned it off with a laugh, "or so our friend Madame would advise."

It thus became manifest he had not abandoned his idea of intercepting whatever might compromise Madame de Chartrain.

Serigny continued: "These must be placed before the King unopened by any of us. Yes, it's a risk," he caught Jerome's knotted brow of indecision, "I grant you it is a risk, for I know not what complications are here contained. I will myself seek the King, and with these am sure to gain his own ear."

Jerome all this while uttered no other word, nervously flicking the mud splotches off his boots, and lifting an earnest look now and anon to Serigny.

My own mind was busy devising means to foil any contemplated treachery upon his part, and wondering whether it was not my duty to acquaint Serigny with the whole truth of the matter. The test came when I least expected it. When all our adventures had been detailed again and again, his dozens of incisive questions answered, our conversation naturally drifted toward the future. My mission in France completed, there was nothing now but a return to the colonies, and the uncertainties of a campaign which I no longer doubted was imminent. Somehow the thought of a great and glorious war did not appeal to me so forcibly as such a prospect would have done some few weeks agone.

There was ever a shy little face, a brave girlish figure which stood resolute and trembling before me in the park, that intruded between me and the barbaric splendour of our western wars. Nor did I raise a hand to brush the vision aside. It toned down the innate savagery of man, softened the stern, callous impulses of the soldier, and all the currents of my being trickled through quieter, sweeter channels of life and love. Even the shame of it made not the thought less sweet.

There was but trifling period to spare for such gentler musings, for Serigny, by a gesture, called attention to his well packed luggage.

"See, I am ready. I only waited your coming and report to put out at once for Le Dauphin. My people have already gone forward to arm and provision her for the struggle. We must be prompt. There is much to lose in a day. I myself will go on to-morrow and have all in complete readiness for the voyage, and, who knows, for the fighting on the other side. Now give heed Placide—Captain de Mouret," for he was always particular to distinguish the man from the soldier, and in giving orders to address me by my proper title. "The war has been decided upon; you will remain here and watch developments"—he was proceeding to acquaint me with what was expected of me. I knew not what he might say, but felt impelled to throw out a silent warning, which even though he understood it not, he was quick enough to take. He paused and looked me inquisitively in the face. I glanced awkwardly from him to Jerome and back again.

The thought then dominant was a growing distrust of Jerome, and the desire to have our movements secret. I remembered Bienville's words "We know not who to trust," and being ignorant of what orders Serigny meant to give, or how much information they would convey to Jerome, deemed it best to let all the occurrences of the day come out. I could not forget the lad's gallantry, nor must I lose sight of the fact that as affairs now were, he might very well have gone over to the other side for the sake of Madame; things stranger than that took place every day, and I had learned to be discreet. He might thus come into valuable hints and afterward cast them into the scale against Bienville, for every means good or bad would be used by them to save their own influence, to uplift the Duke of Maine. If Bienville were involved in the general ruin, why, what mattered it to them?

While I remained hesitating for a word, Jerome's ready wit had already comprehended my purpose. He took the words from my lips. His countenance first flushed, then became hard and fixed, compelling me for the time into silence.

"Monsieur de Serigny, I perhaps can speak you better our good Captain's mind. He mistrusts me—."

"You?" burst out Serigny greatly surprised. "Why you have ever been our staunch and loyal friend. What is this, Captain de Mouret, surely you are above a young man's jealousy?"

Jerome gave me no time to explain.

"Softly, softly, sir. The Captain has good cause. Give me heed, my friends. To you, M. de Serigny, I will say upon my honour, which until this day was never stained by thought or deed, I will say,—this day I would have betrayed you. Nay, do not look so pained and unbelieving; all men are mortal, and passions stronger even than duty, stronger than loyalty, yea, stronger than honour itself, may tyrannize over the best of us. I repeat, this day would I gladly have betrayed you, betrayed my friends to save—well it boots not whom, but a woman. For the woman I love may lose her liberty if not her life when those accursed papers reach the hands of the King. I was mad, and at this moment doubt and fear myself. It is better not to trust me with your plans; the Captain is right. Jerome de Greville never yet deceived a friend, but for the love of God, Messires, do not tempt him now," and he faced about with unsteady step and started toward the door. Before we could detain him he was gone, leaving Serigny staring in the most unbelieving and bewildered fashion at me.

"In God's name, Captain, what piece of folly is this? Tell me all, for ofttimes the success of the most careful plans is governed by just such undercurrents as this, of man's love or woman's spite. Go on, I listen."

I explained briefly Madame's position, Serigny nodding his acquiescence; it was an old tale to him, except he did not know Jerome's relations with Madame. Of her domination over the Duke of Maine he was well aware. When my story was fully done he pondered for a long while in silence. His sorrow was deep and sincere.

"Poor fellow; poor fellow; as noble a lad as ever drew a sword, but in his present frame of mind it is safer not to trust him; he is capable of any act of desperation. We will do our best to protect his lady, though. Where was I? This matter has disturbed me— Oh, yes, about to give your orders. You see I am all ready to leave. I have but waited your return. The war has been decided on and the news needs only to be given out. The King hesitates and wavers; Chamillard is a mere reflection of the royal whim. If we do not attack the Spaniard he will attack us; it is simply a question of whether we want the war at Biloxi or Havana. For my part I would rather see Havana in siege than Biloxi. This matter can not be long delayed, a few days more at most. These dispatches may decide. With these before the King he will no longer doubt my brother, but will place the blame where it most properly belongs—for in the main, Louis is just. I would not desire any greater pleasure than to see the gibbet whereon these traitors of the itching palms, these thieves who sell their King for Spanish gold, will take their last dance. Do you remain here for as many as six days, this room is at your disposal. Be quiet and discreet; learn all and tell nothing. A still tongue is the safest in these times. The moment war is declared make all speed for Dieppe and we will up anchor and away."

Serigny was as happy as a boy at the prospect of action; the atmosphere of court ill agreed with his fiery temper. This was the gist of our plan of operations, and it was so arranged in detail.

In a few moments Serigny left me, taking the packet with him, and I in excess of caution followed him at a little distance, locking the door behind me and keeping the key in my pocket. I bore his tall figure well in sight until he passed out of the unfrequented halls into that portion of the palace where the many shuttlecocks of fortune congregated to laugh and talk and plot and lie. Not long after he came back, sorely nettled and disappointed.

"It is done; the King has them in his own hands; yet he does not talk; promises nothing; is closeted with his ministers; they must be of considerable importance. It is all secure for us, for I told him of my departure in the morning to the colonies, and he assented. I judge, then, it is something of a very delicate nature, touching the royal honour of the King's own blood. Besides much is in cipher which it will take time to read. Louis, you know, would not admit, save to those nearest his throne, the possession of the secret Spanish cipher."

The night passed by dismal and uncertain enough. I must confess to a great sinking of the heart when I saw Serigny's carriage roll away in the gray of the early morning, leaving me absolutely alone in my father's land of France, where in the short space of two weeks so much had transpired; much to be ever remembered, much I would have given worlds to forget.

It must have been a most forlorn and dejected looking creature that stood in the great square that sunless morning, peering into the mists which had absorbed the carriage. The solitude of vast untrodden forests breeds not that vacant sense of desolation which we children of nature feel in the crowded haunts of men. Face after face, form after form, voice after voice, yet not one familiar countenance, not one remembered tone, not the glance of a kindly eye; all is new, all is strange, all at seeming enmity. The defection of Jerome, my only comrade, was indeed a cup of bitterness. I dreaded to meet him, not knowing what tack he might cut away on. Yet I could not blame him; it was more of pity I felt.

I recall with great delight some of the minor occurrences of the next three or four days. After Serigny's departure, every afternoon at imminent risk I would take horse to Sceaux, and pursuing a by-way through the forests and fields, through which a wood-cutter first led me, ride hard to catch a glimpse of her who now occupied all my thoughts. I wonder at this time how I then held so firm by the duty of returning to the colonies, when the very thought of war and turmoil was so distasteful to me. When I rode to Paris and clothed myself once more in my own proper garments, their friendly folds gave me a new courage to meet whatever Fate might send.

It may be pertinent to chronicle here, what history has already recorded, the result of placing those dispatches in the King's hands.

The Duke of Maine, as all the world knows, disavowed his wife's act in treating with Spain, and thus saved his own dainty carcass from sharing her captivity in the Bastille. But both he and Madame were imprisoned until he made most abject submission and apology to Orleans.

Madame de Chartrain was sent to a provincial fortress, and bore her incarceration with great fortitude, winning even from her enemies the admiration always accorded to firmness and virtue.

Philip of Orleans being once firmly established in the Regency, changed his usual course, and pardoned many of those who had conspired against him. Their prison doors were opened, and the Duke of Maine, becoming reconciled to his haughty lady, forgave her and gained great credit thereby in the vulgar mind. They spent their lives quietly at Sceaux during the Regency, and naught else of them concerns this history.

Philip of Orleans possessed some of the virtues of a great man, and many of a good man, but these he kept ever locked within his own bosom. His mother, the rigid and austere Madame, said once of him:

"Though good fairies have gifted my son at his birth with numerous noble qualities, one envious member of the sisterhood spitefully decreed that he should never know how to use any of these gifts." Such was the character of the Regent.

Of Jerome and Madame de Chartrain I would fain tell more, but during the troubled times in America I completely lost sight of them, and my inquiries developed nothing of sufficient verity to give credence to here.

All Frenchmen know of Jerome's gallant death at Malplaquet. It is a fireside legend now, and young French lads turn their moistened eyes away at the hearing. Marshal Villars being sorely hurt and in peril of capture, there fought beside his litter an unknown gentleman who, without name or rank, yet bore himself so commandingly, the discouraged guard rallied again and gave him willing obedience. Arrived at a narrow bridge he urged the litter-bearers safely across, and fighting at the rear to be himself the last to reach a place of safety, he was struck and fell. Prince Eugene, the courteous enemy, who had himself witnessed the incident, sent a guard of honour to the Marshal at Valenciennes the next day with the body, deeming it that of a man of consequence. His letter congratulated the defeated Villars upon having such chivalric friends.

It was poor Jerome, and no one knew him then. He rests now with his fathers.

I loved the lad truly. As knightly a gentleman as ever died for his King, or lied for his lady.