The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 9
IN the morning of the following day we were engaged about a business which troubled me no little. Had it not been for Jerome I fear I had never come through it at all with credit.
First, we repaired to another house which Jerome possessed in a more fashionable quarter, and thither by his directions came a fawning swarm of tailors, boot-makers, barbers, wig-makers; vendors of silken hose and men with laces, jaunty caps, perfumes—it was a huge task, this making a gentlemen of me—as Jerome phrased it.
I worried over it grievously in the beginning, but at length sullenly delivered myself into his hands, murmuring an abject prayer for the salvation of my soul. That, at least, was not to be remodelled by all their fashionable garniture. These heated discussions concerning what I was to wear were not for me to put a voice in. Verily, I knew nothing and cared naught for the cut of a shoe my Lord of Orleans had made the style, nor did it matter whether my coat was slashed with crimson or braided with golden furbelows. Like some wretch a-quivering of the palsy I heard the learned doctors wrangling over my medicine, which they must needs hold my nose to make me swallow. For all their biases and twistings I knew full well they could carve no sprig of fashion from so rough a block as I. Certes, I must now have a squire to fasten this new harness well upon me, for by my word, I knew not one garment from the other by sight of it. Jerome went off into fits of laughter seeing me trying to struggle into things I could not even guess the use of.
When the worst was over, late in the afternoon, I felt like a play-actor, dressed for his part, but who, for the life of him, could not recall one syllable of his speech, nor breathe because of his wig. Jerome surveyed me with a half-critical, half-approving scrutiny, until I essayed to buckle on my sword.
"By my lady, fine sir, that dingy old cutlass will never do for a drawing-room. As well a miller's dusty cap to cover those glorious borrowed curls of thine; we must get thee one shaped in the mode." This quip exterminated my patience.
"To the foul fiend with all this everlasting style of thine. I know this blade, have tested it on many fields, and by all the gods at once I'll not replace it with a silly toy."
"A most virtuous resolution, a most godly oath, but my mettlesome friend, I'll point out thy error."
To his insinuating argument, even in this matter, at length I yielded; surrendered with the better grace perhaps, that he provided a most excellent piece of steel, which he said had seen good service. I tried its temper, and the edge being keen, I laid my own aside with sore misdoubtings, casting off an old friend to strap on a new. He now added a touch of rouge here and there, a black line to my brows and in the corners of my eyes, stepping back ever and anon to observe the effect. It galled me raw, yet I must perforce submit. When the whole job was finished, and I was allowed to sit, I gained no comfort. My clothes were too tight in some places, while in others I rocked about as loose as a washerwoman's arm in her scrubbing tub.
Jerome must now give me some lessons in deportment, he called it. It was but another name for a smirking and a-bowing and a-grimacing, what was denominated the "etiquette of the court." Jerome sat himself contented down, and put me through my paces like some farrier showing off a foundered nag. I more than half believed he was all the while making game of me, yet I knew no better. At any rate it was the veriest nonsense.
After a series of rehearsals Jerome withdrew to make himself ready, leaving me to practice my new acquirements of gait, of gesture, and of speech. What had taken me the better part of a laborious day he accomplished in a short half hour. Coming back unannounced he caught me bowing and scraping before a mirror, like a man stricken with idiocy. I felt as shamed as though I had been detected hiding in face of the enemy.
Jerome mocked and taunted me into a fine rage, which he deftly pacified in wonderment at himself. I should never have known him again for the plain Jerome. Arrayed in much the same character of finery which bedecked me, I could give no accurate description of his dress, except that with glossy wig and a bit of colour in his cheeks he strutted valiantly as a crowing cock in his own barnyard.
"Come, Placide, we are going to a ball; we can do nothing in our quest to-night."
"To a what?"
"A ball. I thought it might be well to have you look in upon Madame M—'s and recite your lessons. It is to be a famous gathering and well worth your seeing."
I was in a whirl, a stupor, by this time, and obeyed implicitly; beside, it required such an infinite skill to keep my sword from swinging between my legs and throwing me down, I had no time to consider of minor matters. He led the way and I followed meekly as a lap-dog.
At the great entrance gate we became entangled in a medley of soldiers, coachmen, torch-bearers and servants coming and going—such a babel of strange oaths—I wished I were safe again in the quiet of Biloxi. I pleaded with Jerome to turn again, but he was inexorable.
"I expect to find out something to-night," he explained.
Of this ball I remember nothing but that the slippery floor, in which a man could see his own face, kept me in deadly fear lest my sword trip me. Jerome was gay and talkative, pointing out many people of whom I had heard, but they did not look so great after all.
"For sake of heaven man, wear not so long a face; it is not the funeral of thy mistress I have brought thee to."
I marvelled that so many old ladies should carry such young faces or perchance their hair had turned gray earlier than was its wont in the colonies. And, too, they seemed sadly disfigured with boils, for on the chin or cheek of nearly every one there showed a patch of black sticking-plaster. Poor things! I sorrowed for them, it was so humiliating. Verily, I pitied them all, and speculated on the wonderful compensations of Providence. With all their wealth and rank, their lordly castles and their jewels, these noble dames could not purchase that which the humblest serving-maid in Quebec had, and to spare—a clear skin and sunny locks.
I touched upon these matters to Jerome, but he only laughed immoderately. He was ever a light-headed young spark who gave no contemplation to deeper questions than present enjoyment.
Of a sudden my wits almost left me at a terrible outcry from one end of the great hall, a cry not of human beings but of wild beasts, muffled and menacing. The dancing, the music, the hum of voices ceased, and a thick silence as of direst fear fell upon them all. Then there came a loud crackling and shattering of glass, a woman's scream, the first of very many. This for aught I know might have been a usual happening at a ball, I had never been to one before.
I looked for Jerome. He was gone, speeding toward a young lady surpassing fair, with whom he had been speaking but a few moments since. I fain would have assisted him, for the damsel appeared woefully beset, but the whole throng of mincing lords and screaming ladies, in the rankest riot, over-ran me. They swept me from my feet and bore me back to the farthest wall, where I found myself pinned tight and fast against a window.
What the danger was I could not see, but it must have been dolorous from the headlong terror of their flight. Soon by the thinning of the crowd through the doors I saw the cause. It was a motley and a moving spectacle. For by some mischance a flock of sheep had broken into the ball-room, and frightened out of their shallow senses by the lights and music, they rushed pell-mell here and there, upsetting without discrimination whatever stood in their path.
Verily such an onset would do brave work against an enemies' ranks, for could our knights but make a gap like that, an army of children might march through unhindered. All went down alike before their charge, my lord and my lady, the Prince of the Blood, and the humblest page who bore his pouncet box. Such a slipping and a sliding across a floor slickened with much wax and polishing, was never in a ball room before, nor ever was again. One old ram regarded each mirror as a certain avenue of escape, and the radiating fracture of each taught him no greater wisdom concerning the others.
Standing spellbound as a statue in the midst of the ruins, I caught sight of a florid, rotund lady, speechless in her horror and her misery.
"The Duchess does not enjoy her quaint surprise," laughed a light voice behind me, and a slim finger directed my gaze toward the lady whom I had just noted.
I observed then at my back, standing upon a chair where she could see the better, a young woman of distinguished appearance, rather more plainly attired than the balance. She appeared greatly to enjoy the confusion.
"That is the reward for her romantic and pastoral tastes," and she laughed till the tears dripped down her cheeks. Her hair was still black, and neither paint nor sticking plaster marred the whiteness of her skin. I asked no questions, but regarded more closely this young woman with whom I now drifted naturally into conversation. Her manners were strikingly free and unconstrained. There was, however, an air of reserve, of dignity—of majesty even—-about her, despite her frankness, which forbade anything but the utmost deference.
"Does my lord understand—that?" and she pointed her finger to the servants who were chasing and capturing the refractory sheep one by one.
I shook my head, for, in all seriousness, it was a queer proceeding.
"Well it's too merry a jest to keep long a secret. Beside I'm weary of these eternal shackles of court which forbid me to speak to those whom I please." A certain defiance gave an undercurrent of sadness to her voice, a mounting rebellion to her tone.
"And I will talk if I want to; there's no harm, is there?"
I gravely assured her not, and wondered what was coming.
"Well, you see," she dried her eyes on a handkerchief of costliest lace, "you see my—that is, the Duchess, is of such a romantic temperament, so enamoured of rural scenes, idyllic meadows, pretty shepherdesses, and the like—all the court makes merry at her foible. She thought to astonish Paris to-night by a lavish display of sweet simplicity—did Monsieur see it? That big dark place back there, behind the glass partition, was arranged as a meadow, with a stream winding through it, and rocks and trees, and what not. She had a flock of sheep washed clean and white, penned up and in waiting. At a signal from her during the ball, lights were to have been turned on, and Mademoiselle, the pretty opera singer, was to come gracefully down a curving pathway, dressed as a shepherdess, singing and leading her sheep. Oh, it was to be too pure for this earth. The Duchess fretted for the opportune time. But the sheep escaped from their keepers, and, oh, isn't it too ludicrous?"
Thus she chattered on with the naive freedom of any other young demoiselle. I agreed with her, and was inwardly glad the affair turned out an accident, for were this the custom of balls I'd go to no others.
We continued to chat gayly together; she was of a lively wit, and surprised me by her knowledge of dogs and horses, of the chase, of sword play and of hwe|arms|firearms}}. Odd tastes for a gentlewoman, most of all for one of her exalted rank. Of this latter I had no doubt. I knew none of the people she mentioned, nothing of the drawing-room gossip, and she very naturally remarked.
"My lord is a stranger?"
"Only yesterday in Paris," I assented.
"From what place comes my lord?" and for the second time in a day I was driven to a direct lie.
"From Normandy," I replied.
"To live in Paris?"
"No, unfortunately; my affairs will be finished in a few days at most. Then I return to the country." The lady was pensive for a space, hesitated in a pretty perplexity and then spoke doubtfully.
"You can be of a service to me if you will."
I immediately signified my willingness to render her aid, in the courtliest speech I could muster. She looked at me long and seriously again, then again pursued the subject of her thought.
"It is a mere woman's whim, but I gratify my whims. Perchance it is not a proper wish for a lady of birth, yet I have it, and if you will but aid me, I will carry it through."
Moved as much by curiosity as by any other motive, I inquired of her what so weighty a matter could be.
"Come, let us go into this ante-room that we may converse undisturbed," she said, and led me into a quiet corner where there were seats. I would have thoughtlessly taken a place by her side, forgetful of Jerome's teachings, but she commanded coldly:
"Monsieur will stand."
And I stood.
"You are a stranger in Paris, you seem a man of honour; for those reasons I choose you. I would not care to have one of my own gentlemen know what I wish to do. All Paris would talk of it to-morrow. We in the palace see naught of the common people, and I have long dreamed it would be a brave adventure to go unknown among them, to their inns and gathering places. I have always desired to know more of our Paris, especially one place which I hear mentioned frequently of late. My position will not permit me to visit it openly—you understand."
I protested that knowing naught of the streets I should be but a blind guide.
"I know where I would go," she said, determinedly, brushing aside the difficulties I would suggest, "and I will go; you will go too."
I was vastly troubled at this, for might it not lead to such another escapade as came so near costing me dear? Her eyes fixed full upon me, her voice blended a command which no man dared disobey, with an entreaty which none would willingly run counter to, and I gave reluctant assent.
"Will you await me here?" she demanded rather than asked. "My apartments are in this building. I will return very briefly."
When the lady came back she would never have been taken for a woman; her long cloak, such as men wore, reached to her boots, identical in all respects with my own. Her hat, plume and sword were correct and bravely worn. Her maid, a trifle nervous over the adventure, but who said nothing, bore a similar cloak for me, and held two masks in her hands.
"Will my lord throw this about him?" and without any question I assumed the cloak.
"Now this," and she handed me a mask while she affixed one about her own face.
I demurred to the mask.
"I will not take my lady upon an errand where we can not show our faces."
She laughed merrily, and replied: "It is the way of Paris, my lord, and naught is thought of it. Many lords and ladies wish to keep their faces from the canaille."
I drew a breath of resignation and put it on.
"Am I not a comely man?" the lady asked, one touch of woman's vanity showing through it all.
"Yes, by my faith, madame;" but such sayings were foreign to my awkward tongue.
She led me out of the palace by a private way, and when the street was reached we walked along as two men would. She directed our course, and as she gave no hint of her destination I did not inquire. It was but a brief walk before we came to an arched door on a side street, and there she paused and looked carefully about to see that no one watched us and then—in we went.
The lady seemed in highest spirits over her unaccountable prank, and laughed girlishly. "Now I will gratify my curiosity. You know I admit my curiosity, sometimes. These men are not alone in their thirst for excitement. It is so tiresome at court, ever the same thing day after day."
We had now come into a fairly wide, well-lighted hall, and an obsequious attendant showed us up a stair, and opening a door, pointed out the place she asked for. Imagine my utter astonishment when we stood together within the gaming room at Bertrand's. What an infernal fool I had been to be tempted back into this very place of all others. I thought at once it was some cowardly trick of Yvard's. I seized the woman by the arm, for I supposed her then but another decoy; there was no telling how far this Spanish intrigue had gone or what high personages Madame du Maine might be able to enlist in furtherance of her schemes. I seized her firmly, and had taken one step back towards the door again, when her cold ringing voice undeceived me.
"What means my lord; I thought him a gentleman. Shall I appeal for protection to these low men here?"
There was such a truth in her low tones that I cast her free, and in some measure explained my thought.
"Well, well, we'll not quarrel here," and looking about her with eager curiosity, she chose a table where fewest players sat, and thitherwards we went. This table was placed rather apart from the others, against a pillar, and no gamesters sat on the side next the wall. It left but scant space to sit between. There we took our places, and the lady tumbled out a purse well filled with gold pieces, handed some to me and bade me play. She laid her wagers, and won with the glee of a child, her face alternate flushed and pale. I could see I wronged her by supposing her in league with the place. She played in too feverish earnest.
During this while I had observed the same two men who had met me on the stair the previous night. They were walking about and carelessly looking on at the different games. Yet for all their nonchalance there was a well-defined method in their procedure, that attracted my attention. The taller man scanned every person in the hall, and when the lady and I came in he watched us intently.
His companion—the same as on the previous night—withdrew to talk. After some consultation they reached a decision. Together they came our way, and the tall man clapped his hand twice.
At the signal, for such it was, from every table rose a man or two, and ranged themselves about him who called. I could also see a guard suddenly stationed, as if by magic, at each point of exit. Where, here and there, a cloak was thrown back, the gleam of a uniform showed beneath.
"There, my lads, is our quarry; take them," commanded the tall man, pointing to us.
I cursed myself for a silly fool to run again into such danger.
The dispatches in my bosom would hang me, and I dared not explain my possession of them. It was plain, too, that the King's officers, as well as Serigny, had their suspicions of the place. It was too late now for penitence, it was time to act.
The lady arose so trembling and frightened that my courage all came back to me. She forgot her gold pieces lying on the table in front of her.
"My lord," she whispered, "you must protect me; it would be the scandal of all France were I to be discovered in such a place."
Her appeal made me forget my own imminent danger, and I bethought myself what best to do. They could approach me by but one side, and while I considered a parley with the officers, heard a glad little cry from the lady. She calmly gathered up her gold and restored it to her purse, as if the matter were already settled, though I could see no change in the front of those around us. As the soldiers would have pulled the table away, she bade them wait, and said: "I would speak to your leader."
The tall man asked: "And what would you say? We have no time to talk."
"It is not to you, I know you both; I would speak to my lord by your side."
With that, the other, who had remained rather in the background, came forward, and she took him aside where none could hear, save myself a word or two. The lady spoke to him in a low, quiet tone, and raised her mask a little. The man started back, then removed his cap deferentially. I was close enough to hear his exclamation:
"Mademoiselle la Princesse."
"Hush," she placed her finger on her lips, "he does not know," indicating me by a gesture.
I was as astonished as he, but had no further anxiety. No officer would dare arrest a Princess of the Blood in such a place.
"What does Mademoiselle do in Bertrand's gaming house?"
"It is not for you to question, my lord," she drew herself up coldly, "I chose it. Now I would go. Provide an escort for me and the gentleman who has the honour to accompany me."
She came back to me smiling. "We will go in peace; It is Vauban. It must be no trifling matter to fetch him out to-night. I wonder who it is he seeks?"
I thought I could enlighten her, perhaps, but kept a still tongue.
Vauban gave a quiet order to the tall man, who, it appears, was in command of the squad, which order he in turn communicated to them.
"We have made a mistake. Permit these gentlemen to pass out, and none else."
Vauban then interrupted:
"De Verrue, do you take ten men and escort these, these—gentlemen where they will."
A young officer stepped forward at the word, but seemed not pleased to leave in face of more exciting events.
"Nay, nay, boy do not look so glum; take my word, it is an honour a marshal of France would assume did not sterner duties bid him stay."
My lady tossed her purse to the sergeant as she passed:
"Divide this with your men, and drink a health to—well—the Princess Unknown."