Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership

 

Title: The Poisoners
Author: Marjorie Bowen
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1302941h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  May 2013
Most recent update: May 2013

This eBook was produced by Colin Choat.

Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this
file.

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at
http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html

To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au

GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE


The Poisoners

by

Marjorie Bowen
Writing as George R. Preedy

First published by Hutchinson & Co., London, 1936



"...this obscene and horrible episode of the reign of Louis XIV, that,
for more than twenty years, cast all Paris into convulsions of terror."

—Jules Loiseleur, Trois Enigmes Historiques.


TABLE OF CONTENTS



The Poisoners — Beagle Books, New York, 1953



FOREWORD

In the year 1676 Madame de Brinvilliers was executed in Paris for the murders of her father, her two brothers and a sister. It was known that she had procured the mysterious poison that she had employed through the agency of one Sainte-Croix, who, in his turn, had received it from an Italian, Exili, whom he had met when both these scoundrels had been imprisoned in the Bastille for minor offences.

This affair caused an extraordinary sensation in Paris, but, with the death of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, it was considered closed. When this female "monster," as she was termed, had expiated her crimes, public interest in the matter waned and police investigations into the question of poisons ceased.

Shortly after the execution of Madame de Brinvilliers, however, the priests who were in charge of Notre-Dame, the most fashionable church in Paris, informed the police that "an enormous number" of their penitents, when in the sanctity of the confessional, accused themselves of poisoning their husbands. The active and intelligent Chief of Police, M. de La Reynie, refused to give any importance to this information; he thought that these women were so affected by the Brinvilliers case that they had become hysterical and that these painful derangements were better ignored.

The French Monarchy was at the height of its glory during this period; Louis XIV was successful alike in the cabinet and in the field, and overshadowed Europe with his diplomacy and his arms; his Court was the most brilliant that the world had known since the days of the Byzantine Caesars; the arts flourished under his splendid patronage and in every department of social life Paris was the arbiter of fashion, taste and manners. The ruthless ambition of Louis made him hated and feared in Europe, but his influence on his times was undisputed. In 1676 he was under forty years of age and embellished not only with the title of "Great," but with godlike attributes, being commonly known as "the Sun King."

This gorgeous personage had been for fifteen years united by powerful but illicit ties to the Marquise de Montespan, a great lady of imperious temper and remarkable beauty, who considered herself nearly as high-born as her royal lover and exercised a complete domination over him. She had not achieved her position—Queen of the Left Hand—easily, for Louis did not admire her type of bold, sharp-tongued "mâitresse femme," and she had to draw him from a sincere love for the gentle Louise de la Vallière. Once, however, she had brought the King under her enchantments, she was all-powerful: not only did she completely detach him from his wife, Marie Thérèse, but fickle and amorous as Louis naturally was, she contrived to keep him faithful to her by banishing out of his reach any potential rival. She had a large family by the King; these children were made legitimate and given titles and quasi-royal honours.

About the time of the Brinvilliers scandal the position of Madame de Montespan, which had appeared unassailable, was threatened by the King's sudden attraction towards Mlle. Fontanges, a rather stupid young woman, "beautiful as an angel" and belonging to that soft, tender and delicate type which Louis really most admired.

The powerful favourite contrived to keep this possible rival at bay, and no one believed that she would lose any of her influence over her lover; her rule had been so long and so absolute, her hold over the King was stronger than love, it was that of a bad habit.

Such was the situation in Paris towards the end of the year 1678, when this story opens.


What was known in France as l'affaire des poisons was deliberately hushed up by the Chief of Police, acting on royal instructions; small criminals were sacrificed and great ones allowed to escape; most of the examinations and trials were held in secret; at some of these only the King, M. de La Reynie and M. de Louvois, or some other minister, were present. Every effort was made to avert a hideous scandal involving the noblest names in France, and the greatest pre cautions were taken to this end. The King ordered all the voluminous reports of the case in all its ramifications to be destroyed, every dossier to be burnt.

For a long time complete obscurity veiled the subject, until, in 1789, the taking of the Bastille by the Parisian mob brought to light the secret archives of this fortress prison. These were, as the first investigators declared, "in a state of frightful chaos," but years of patient, erudite labour gradually unearthed from these confused masses of papers the reports of the Paris Police from 1655 to 1744. It was then discovered that a large number of the documents relating to l'affaire des poisons had not been destroyed; there were many lacunae in these and many valuable papers were totally missing, some were mutilated and others half-ruined by neglect, some had been torn in fragments and others were partly burned. The scholars, however, set to work with tireless diligence, and the result of their careful zeal was the partial reconstruction of this celebrated historic mystery.

This was finally reduced to a clear outline by the long labours of M. François Ravaisson, who, with exacting care, sorted, deciphered, catalogued, annotated and explained the mass of documents found in the archives of the Bastille. Wherever possible this admirable research worker filled in all gaps in his material from other sources available in France.

What emerged from these labours was not only a valuable picture of the life of a bygone period, full of minute details and the elucidation of a historic mystery that had puzzled generations, but the reconstructions of a wild, sinister tale of love and magic that would do credit to the imagination of any novelist and provide ample material for what is now called a "detective story" or "thriller".

It should be recalled that the French police were then the foremost in Europe; considering what evils they had to combat and the modest means at their disposal, their work was of a high order. Nothing like this police organization was known in England until nearly two hundred years later. British love of freedom revolted against secret policing, and even when Peel introduced his "Bobbies" and private detectives, these were resented as "foreign institutions." The result of these prejudices was unhappy, as the reading of any old English trial will show. National love of fair play was helpless in the face of haphazard methods resulting from lack of trained investigators and from amateur methods of collecting and sifting evidence.

M. de La Reynie, Lieutenant de Police at Paris during this odd and terrifying business of "the poisons," was honest, efficient and zealous. Living under an absolute Monarchy he was forced to suppress or destroy much of his evidence at the royal command, and obliged to allow many criminals whom he had tracked down to escape, and in conclusion to consign the whole case, to which he had devoted so much toil, to oblivion. Time, however, did him tardy justice, and when his archives did at last see daylight, they revealed his integrity, his courage, his industry and those qualities peculiar to the best type of Gallic mind, finesse, clarity, a logical intellect and a serene acceptance of life and all its perverse difficulties.

It is indeed only the characters of La Reynie and his colleagues that give sanity and the effect of reality to what would otherwise seem a fantastic farrago of incredible people and incredible incidents.

The following' novel gives, in the form of fiction, the authentic outline and details of the events, pieced together by M. Ravaisson from the dossiers of La Reynie.

Marjorie Bowen



PART ONE

CHARLES DESGREZ BEGINS HIS INVESTIGATIONS


1. — THE GIRL IN THE COACH

As the coach came swinging round the corner the young man pushed his companion still further behind him and held out his cloak in an effort to protect her, but in vain, the wheels of the vehicle, which was swinging heavily on its leathers, splashed over the broken cobbles and cast a shower of liquid filth over the girl's camelot dress of blue and silver.

"My birthday gown!" she cried in dismay, "and your new cloak, Charles!"

The occupant of the coach had seen the accident and putting her head out of the window called to the coachman to stop. He had gone some yards however before he could rein up the spirited animals, and when the vehicle had come at length to a halt the young couple had regained their good temper.

The girl's first thought had been for her ruined finery, which had not been bought easily or without considerable self-sacrifice; her second thought had been to laugh away the little misfortune in case her husband should be involved in a humiliating and dangerous dispute with a social superior.

"It is nothing," she said with her hand on his arm, "I can wipe it off. Let us go away quietly. Your cloak, too—that will brush."

"What are you frightened of?" he smiled good-humouredly. "There's no one in the coach but a woman. See, she is beckoning to us, she is sorry for what has happened."

Solange Desgrez was still for withdrawal, but her husband took her hand firmly through his arm and led her towards the coach. This was handsomely gilded and painted and bore on the doors a massive coat-of-arms. The coachman, and the footmen who hung behind, were in liveries of maroon and gold: they stared impassively in front of them, while their mistress leaned out of the window and spoke to the two people in their mud-splashed clothes.

"I am sorry, Madame, and for you too, Monsieur. We were driving too fast, we took the corner too suddenly—I had no idea there was anyone there. Your beautiful dress, it is ruined!"

She paused, biting her full underlip in embarrassment. She was very young, and it was clear she did not know what to do. Her sole companion was an elderly woman, who was nursing a frail-looking monkey on a cushion of saffron-coloured velvet. This person, who appeared to be half asleep, offered no help.

Charles Desgrez, curious and amused, waited, his hat in his hand. His wife, also embarrassed and wishing to end the scene, tried to draw him away; but she, too, was interested in the occupant of the coach, despite her desire to efface herself and be civil. An aristocrat, thought Solange, one of the great ladies of the Court, and she noted shrewdly what the other girl, who was about her own age, wore, and how she looked.

Her appearance was singularly fascinating, though she was hardly beautiful; her features were so soft, her complexion was so pale, her hair so light that she gave the impression of extreme, almost exasperating, fragility. An expression of timidity and stupidity, and a slight blurring of the lines of her face prevented her from being lovely; she was rather like a wax doll that had been placed in front of a fire and was beginning to melt. Yet there was an obvious attraction in her air of gentleness and candour and her figure was graceful; she was dressed in purple velvet, with a satin tie under her cravat; all this was far too gloomy and heavy a style for her years, which could not have been more than eighteen or twenty.

"What shall I do?" she sighed, half to herself. "What shall I do?"

The smile of Charles Desgrez deepened; he knew what was in the lady's mind; she saw that she could not offer them money since they had pretensions to gentility; she also saw that they were so poor that the damaged clothes would be to them a considerable loss.

Taking no heed either of her embarrassment or of the whispers of his wife, who wished to end the scene, the shrewd young Frenchman stood his ground and waited, courteous but firm.

"I shall be late," said the lady at length; she unclasped a string of sapphires that she wore over her light doeskin glove, and with an appealing look handed it to Madame Desgrez. "Please accept this—no reparation, of course, but a gift from a friend."

"No, Madame, indeed I would rather not," began Solange; but the lady told the coachman to drive on. With further murmured apology she bowed to the young couple, then with drew into the interior of the coach, which was richly lined and padded with celestial blue velvet and knots of orange braid.

Solange, moving from the roadway and standing against the heavy porch of a dark church, held out the string of blue stones and looked at her husband reproachfully:

"You should not have allowed me to take it. It is very valuable, it must be worth more than the dress and my cloak and your mantle all put together."

"I daresay it is," replied Monsieur Desgrez drily, "but the lady can afford to give it, and you, my dear, cannot afford to lose your frock. You know how long it took you to save up for it."

"But I hope she did not know that," remarked Solange apprehensively.

"No, she does not think of such things. She tried to do something graceful and courteous."

"Oh, yes," agreed Solange warmly. "She meant it in kindness, and in kindness I take it. But I do not like to accept any thing so valuable. See, they are fine, square Indian sapphires held together by little diamonds."

She gave the ornament to her husband, who examined it with a business-like air.

"Yes, I think it is quite valuable, Solange. The price of it will buy you one or two new frocks, and perhaps another piece of furniture for the salon. Or would you like it yourself—it is the sort of ornament," he said, with a harsh tenderness, "that I should like to have given you."

"It is the sort of ornament," replied the young wife quickly, "that I should not want, even if you ever could give it to me, Charles."

"I am afraid you will have a long time to wait before I can buy you anything like that." The smile on his thin lips was stern. "Yes, I should like to see you wearing this, Solange, I should like to see you in a coach like that, with three liveried servants and an old woman with a pet monkey, or any other nonsense you might want."

"Hush, Charles. It is like blaspheming our happiness. Let us thank the good God for what we have. If you know who the lady is, I think we should return the jewel—it might belong to her husband or her father, who would miss it and scold her."

"Yes, I know who the lady is," replied M. Desgrez. "She has no husband. That is Mademoiselle de Fontanges, one of the Queen's waiting women." He paused a second, then added with a cynical glance: "and one of the King's—"

"Oh, no." interrupted Solange. "That's not true!"

"You are her champion," laughed M. Desgrez, "because she gave you this valuable ornament and spoke kindly to you! Well, perhaps it is not true. Come along, my dear, there is a storm rising."

They stood for a moment in the thick shadow of the church porch in the twisting street, while the young man put the jewel carefully away in the inner pocket of his coat. It was winter and the filth in the roadway was coated with thin ice. The narrow street was flanked by the dark, grim facades of hôtels, with their iron gates and porters' lodges. Above the church porch frowning images of saints rose into the grey air. Black clouds driven by a bitter wind were rising over Paris. There were few people abroad, and those few went quickly, with cloaks held over their faces and heads bent before the grim lash of the wind.

Solange wore a grey cloak over the blue and silver dress that had been so splashed; her fine leather shoes were protected by wooden clogs; a dark silk hood was drawn closely under her chin and a coarse goat-skin muff hung by a cord round her neck served to guard her hands from the weather.

Her young husband's glance took in anew all these details which told of their poverty. He contrasted her in his mind with the woman who had given them the bracelet, and bitter regret and resentment rose in his soul, hardening his fine features and narrowing his light-grey eyes. He was a Lieutenant in the city Police or Watch, and he had no means beyond his salary.

Solange was the daughter of a magistrate at Caen, and her dowry had been small, only sufficient to furnish the very modest two rooms in which they lived. Charles Desgrez knew that his wife might have married better; she had left her native town, her relations, the friends of her youth, her home, all the opportunities that lay before a young, pretty and popular woman, to share his fortunes in Paris; and his pride was stung and his ambitions aroused because of her smiling, uncomplaining love and his narrow, mean and poor prospects; his wife's pressure on his arm checked his thoughts.

"Come," she said, shuddering. "The storm is certainly approaching." She glanced up almost fearfully into the blue-black clouds overhead. "How dark and horrible Paris can be on a day like this!"

"You regret Normandy?" her husband asked, pressing her hand to his side, and hastening her along over the dirty cobbles, where the gutter full of filth and rubbish, overflowed from the late rains.

"No, Charles, I regret nothing. But Paris somehow seems to overwhelm me, it is so strange and sinister."

"Paris, why, you know nothing of it, my dear. What if you had seen that side of it which I have!"

"Paris is where horrible things happen." she whispered, settling closely to his side. "Where they used to happen. I am glad that is all over."

"Glad that what is over, Solange?"

"I was thinking," replied the young wife, "of Madame de Brinvilliers. You know. I am glad I was not in Paris when she was put to death, though she was a wicked woman, who poisoned so many people."

"She was a monster," said the young police officer briefly. "But she has been destroyed and there is an end of that. We have no such criminals in Paris now."

"Why, you speak almost regretfully, Charles!"

"Perhaps I do. If I could discover some such crime, if I could track some such criminal, why, I might be able to get you a coach and pair and three liveried servants, and plenty of clothes and a sapphire bracelet, Solange."

"I would rather you did not, Charles, I would rather no such chance came your way, for such work must be difficult and perilous."

"Don't you wish difficult and perilous things for me, Solange? Do you want me to be content and quiet? I am only twenty-five, and I married you."

She pressed his arm in silence, not wishing him to be different, proud indeed that he showed ambition and resolution. Yet she was happy as she was, for she loved this man and never regretted that she had left her pleasant town of Caen to come to this strange, bewildering and unfriendly Paris; even though her husband's duties took him away from their little home so often and she spent many hours alone, Solange was content.

The inner radiance of this contentment made her oblivious of the darkening day, of the gathering strength of the gusts of wind, of the increasing gloom as they proceeded through the sombre streets of Paris.


2. — THE FORTUNE TELLER

Their destination was a small house close to Notre- Dame, which was occupied by one Maître Perrin. This man, who was an obscure clerk in the Parliament of Paris, was one of the few friends whom young Desgrez—who had been in Paris only two years—knew in the capital. A good-natured bachelor with an excellent housekeeper, he had offered the young couple a little party on the occasion of the bride's birthday.

Solange Desgrez had been married only three months and her cheerful good-humour, her pride and pleasure in her new estate, her quiet devotion to her duties and her young husband, had greatly touched the generous heart of Maître Perrin, who had lived in Paris for so many years without achieving or even remembering the ambition of forty years ago that had sent him from Brittany to the capital.

The old clerk was, in his way, as content as the young wife; he liked his little house, his good housekeeper, his cosy post, his sufficient salary and his little circle of friends. His tolerance, his fondness for society and his eagerness to be amused by odd, racy characters made his circle of acquaintances a wide and somewhat eccentric one.

"I expect we shall see some strange people there to-night," remarked M. Desgrez as he pulled the elaborate iron bell in front of Maître Perrin's door.

"Oh, yes, he has some such diverting friends," laughed Solange, ready to be amused and pleased with everything, "and his food is very good and his wine is of the best!"

"Yes," smiled M. Desgrez, "and when that wine has gone round a little, we sometimes hear some strange stories. But perhaps to-night there will be some music, which keeps everyone more or less in order, and we shall leave early."

The thick yellow candles were already lit in the lawyer's modest but comfortable room, and a log fire burnt sturdily under the hooded chimney-piece. An excellent supper of game, pies, roast fowl, stuffed meat, marzipan, fruit and sweetmeats stood upon the polished table—and the bride's place was garnished with a pretty wreath of waxed flowers, through which was drawn Maître Perrin's gift to Solange, a pair of white gloves with a silver monogram embroidered on the backs in small heads.

The pleasure and gratitude of Madame Desgrez were interrupted by apologies for her soiled dress. There was no doubt about it, the blue and silver taffeta was ruined, though the neat old housekeeper with sympathy and dismay did what she could with warm water and a clean cloth. The filth of the Paris gutters, which ran, choked with refuse, down the centre of the street, had left unsightly stains upon the delicate fabric.

M. Desgrez was reticent about the accident, and no one pressed him—such mischances were common enough in the Parisian streets. Solange, with a delicate sense of propriety, followed her husband's lead; she said nothing about Mlle. de Fontanges or the sapphire bracelet; and the company, after roundly cursing the state of the Paris streets, the insolence of the aristocrats and the costliness of wearing apparel, sat down to enjoy Maître Perrin's feast.

The young police officer's narrow grey eyes ran with amusement and interest over the company; he was interested in his work and eager for promotion, ambitious, keen, shrewd and industrious, and though it was commonly believed that Paris was the best policed capital in Europe with a minimum of crime and criminals, yet Desgrez always hoped that something might occur that would give him an opportunity of proving his worth. He had made himself tolerably well acquainted with the life of Paris, both that which showed on the surface and that which flowed beneath; he had a shrewd knowledge of the Court personalities, Court politics and intrigues; he did not disdain to gather from humble sources, such as members of the loyal regiments, members of the King's own special police force and even servants employed in aristocratic mansions.

At a first glance, the people who had gathered to do honour to Madame Desgrez appeared commonplace, if amusing; there were two dry, middle-aged lawyers of the same secure position and mediocre gifts as Maître Perrin himself; there was a third man, who was a wool merchant in a small way, and his pretty young wife, who aped Court fashions; there was Madame Vigoureux, wife of a ladies' tailor; there were a few other members of the small bourgeoisie, whom the young Lieutenant's experienced eyes passed over as nonentities, and there was the Widow Bosse, whom he had met before, and who kept, he knew, a small perfumer's shop, which supplied the more ambitious citizens' wives with soaps and perfumes, that were cheap imitations of those used by Court ladies.

This woman amused the observant young man, because of her affected airs of gentility, her talkativeness, her mechanical coquetry, the extravagant styles of lace and furbelows with which she decked her middle-aged charms.

As he obliquely watched her now across the loaded table, he thought to himself: "She must be making a good deal of money. The clothes she is wearing are very expensive."

Feminine garments were uppermost in his mind then be cause of the accident to Solange's birthday dress; he knew what that had cost; the Widow Bosse's gown of crimson silk gallooned with gold braid must have been double that price; she had a fair string of pearls round her plump white throat, too, and one or two fashionable rings, a bag of brocade at her waist, while the cloak over the chair had a collar of glossy sables. How was it that this little shopkeeper could dress so well?

As the talk and laughter grew louder, M. Desgrez whispered this question to his host, leaning slightly forward across his wife.

"Oh," whispered Maître Perrin with a wink, "the Widow Bosse? Yes, she is very handsomely set out, is she not?" he added with an air of mystery. Then, lowering his voice still more and leaning behind Solange's fan of mirror glass and dove's feathers, he whispered: "She tells fortunes, you know, and casts horoscopes."

"Does the?" whispered Solange gaily. "Then I will do the same. I swear I know as much about such things as she does, or as anyone can about such nonsense."

Maître Perrin shook his head and winked again deliberately at M. Desgrez. "We know better than that, don't we, Monsieur? No, no, it is not a business that a pretty young woman like you, Solange, can meddle in."

"But if it does no harm, it is an easy way to earn money!"

Her husband glanced down the table to where the florid widow, who had already drunk several glasses of wine, was noisily laughing with her neighbour, the tailor's wife.

"Fortune-telling and casting horoscopes," he repeated. "You are wrong, Solange, such practices may do harm."

But Maître Perrin smiled indulgently. "No, no, don't be so severe on the good woman. She is a pleasant creature enough, though she trades a little on human credulity. She only promises handsome husbands to old maids and good fortune for their children to married women, a little bit of good luck to the unfortunate, and then she sells them a ball of soap, a flagon of scent, and everyone is satisfied."

"She's drinking far too much wine," whispered Solange to her husband, lifting her fan to her mouth. "Why doesn't someone tell her? I think she's really very disagreeable."

The young man did not reply; he was studying the Widow Bosse, who certainly had a peculiar physiognomy; from the smooth contours of her round face rose a delicate, beak-like nose out of all proportion to her small baby mouth; her eyes, blue and prominent with a slight cast in one of them, gave her a fascinating expression; her complexion was a brilliant pink and white and owed little to artifice, and her feeble chin rolled in lines of fat to her plump neck; her hair, rather thin, was well pomaded and hung in small spiral ringlets in a fashionable style across her forehead and on to her white, slightly humped shoulders.

Desgrez thought (and laughed at himself for it) that she was like a cruel caricature of Mlle. Fontanges, the lady who had ruined Solange's frock and given her the sapphire bracelet.

The Widow Bosse became conscious of the young man's gaze and, calling to him down the table with embarrassing clumsiness, challenged him to drink her health. This he did with grave courtesy.

The Widow swallowed her wine, smacked her moist rosy lips and filled her glass again. Her neighbours tried, in a joking way, to restrain her, but with a sudden flash of temper she threw them all off. Again her plump white hands glittering with the ostentatious jewellery closed round the glass; when she had again emptied it, she stared in a hostile fashion at Desgrez and challenged him, leaning forward and shouting down the table.

"What are you staring at me like that for? Who do you think I am? Do you suppose, because you're in the police, I am afraid of you? I must say, Maître Perrin, this is funny company you ask one to meet! Come, young man, what do you think of me, after you've taken such a good look?"

Everyone had had sufficient wine; the entire company looked at Desgrez, who answered gravely:

"I think you are charming, Madame. I was admiring your beautiful satin dress, your exquisite furs, your sparkling jewels, your brocade bag and gold braid—and I was thinking what a clever business woman you must be to be able to earn all these fine things for yourself."

The Widow Bosse laughed and touched her thin curls, highly gratified.

"I do quite well for myself, it is true," she boasted with tipsy self-assurance. "A poor woman who's left quite alone has to, hasn't she? Yes, I do better now than I did when my husband, God keep him, was alive."

"By selling perfumes and soaps, Madame?" asked the young Desgrez, "or by telling fortunes?"

"Fortunes!" echoed the Widow Bosse, and her voice rose to a metallic cackle. "Yes, I tell some pretty fortunes. Come round and have yours told, my fine young man—or rather—let your wife come!"

"Indeed, I should like to," began Solange, but her husband silenced her with a smiling glance, while he continued, leaning forward and speaking to the laughing widow:

"How far can you see into the future, Madame, and how many of your predictions come true?"

"All of them," she said, shaking a fat white finger at him, "all of them! There's no woman who's come to me to complain of her husband who can say I never helped her."

"By the cards?" asked Desgrez with a careless air.

"By what else?" put in Madame Vigoureux. "She tells fortunes, by the cards, by a tray of sand and by a bowl of water. I have been there myself, it is most amusing."

"Especially," leered the Widow Bosse, "when a lady turns up spades." She reached out her hand for the dark bottle of claret, which her neighbour snatched out of her reach. "I shall soon be able to retire," she boasted. "I shall buy myself a château in the country and a handsome young husband, and keep a coach and four horses. Yes, three more pretty dears who want to be widows and my fortune will be made."

The company laughed; everyone save Desgrez and his wife was a little flown by wine; Maître Perrin, comfortably warmed by food and drink, smiled cosily:

"What nonsense she talks, La Bosse."

"Nonsense, indeed!" cried the Widow, rising. "I tell you I've only got three more poisonings to do and I shall be a very wealthy woman." She staggered and lurched back into her chair, clutching at the table edge.

"She ought to go home," protested Madame Vigoureux. "She has had too much to drink and she does not know what she is saying."

"Poisonings, indeed," laughed one of the lawyers. "I sup pose she is thinking of that filthy syrup she sells that my wife uses for her complexion."

Madame Bosse now began to weep, her round, fat white elbows on the table, her plump fingers knuckling her prominent eyes. She was a poor honest woman, she declared, and it was a shame to make a jest of her and to bait her. She did nothing but sell scents, soaps and complexion washes and tell the cards for a few friends.

Madame Vigoureux comforted her, and Maître Perrin led the conversation to general talk of the extravagances of the Court, the last arrogance of the well-detested royal mistress, Madame de Montespan. Her insolence and her extravagance grew to greater heights with every day; she had been the King's favourite for twelve years and her influence over him seemed greater than ever; it was really astonishing, just as if the woman knew charms or witchcraft! The little people eagerly gossiped about the great people, turning over their vices, faults and peculiarities with greedy and spiteful zest.

Lieutenant Desgrez listened keenly. He often discovered a good deal of truth in the chaff and scandal and gossip, and it amused him to hear these petty creatures, their tongues loosened by wines, exposing their own jealousies and malices by commenting on those of others.

The character of Madame de Montespan, the gorgeous Queen of the Left Hand, was torn to pieces without compassion. She was declared to be old, raddled, venomous, vile-tempered, an adept in making furious scenes, careless in her dress, unclean in her person, a proper witch.

Desgrez smiled to himself; he had seen the lady driving in her golden coach with six white horses through the allées of Versailles, and he knew how untrue were these mean slanders.

Solange made a little grimace at him behind Maître Perrin's head; she wished to go home, she did not care for this atmosphere of drunkenness, ugly gossiping, flushed faces, raucous voices; she had had enough of her birthday party; Maître Perrin was charming—but some of his friends! Her husband understood, and rose from the table.

It took them some time to make excuses and farewells; within half an hour they were out again in the now dark Parisian streets which were lit only by lamps set at rare intervals over the house doors. The wind had increased in strength, a few drops of rain fell now and then from the torn, hurrying, invisible clouds.

"There is a stand for hired coaches by the Cathedral," said Desgrez. "We will take one."

Solange protested against the extravagance, but the young man insisted. The streets were not only filthy, but not safe after dark.

"You don't want me to be murdered trying to protect you, do you?" he said, kissing her smooth cheek on which the wind blew cold and which the rain wetted.

A shabby vehicle was found; the worn-out horse took them slowly homeward; in the foul-smelling darkness of the worn interior Desgrez put his arm round his young wife.

"It has been a hateful day for you, my dear. First your pretty dress was ruined, then, your birthday party—well, it was not what you should have had, not what I should have wished to have given you. I am sorry I took you there. Maître Perrin is not careful enough whom he invites."

"Oh, no," protested the happy girl, with her head against her husband's shoulder. "I was quite content—indeed, I found it amusing—though perhaps next time we'll make a little feast at home, just the two of us, with a good fire and bottle of wine you have chosen, and dishes that I have cooked, eh, Charles?"

He kissed her again on the forehead where the fair curls fell from beneath the hood; Solange was a handsome young girl, twenty years of age, with that straight, brilliant beauty of her countrywomen which in later years turns to hardness of outline and fixity of colouring. The racial likeness between herself and her husband was strong; though they were in no way related, they might have been cousins. They were alike, too, in character, cool, brave, shrewd and capable.

"Would you like to do something for me?" whispered Desgrez as the wretched vehicle trundled on its way, jolting them now together and now apart as it bumped over the Paris stones.

"Anything in the world, Charles—of course, you know it."

"Well, I want you to go to the Widow Bosse and have your fortune told."

"That, surely, is a waste of money," replied Solange disappointed. "I thought you were going to ask something difficult."

"I think this may be difficult before we have finished. I do not want you to go as yourself. You must put on some disguise. As a police officer's wife you will have to become used to such things. I do not think she observed you very well to day. I have seen her before, have you?"

"No."

"You will be able, perhaps, to alter your voice, your hair—" He paused, thoughtful. "Yes, I should think it can be done. You must go to her, you must make some little purchase, you must ask to have your fortune told."

"Yes, said Solange, when her husband paused. She was impressed by the gravity of his voice.

"It might be a chance for us, I don't know. When she begins to tell the cards you must take your opportunity and do exactly as I tell you. We will have a rehearsal so that nothing can go wrong?"


PART TWO

SEARCHING THE UNDERWORLD OF PARIS


1. — THE SHOP OF THE WIDOW BOSSE

The Widow Bosse sat in her little shop, intermittently studying her face in a hand-mirror. She had taken a long time making up her complexion, her lips, her eyes and her hair, and she was by no means displeased with the result. A handsome cape of red fox fur lay across her shoulders; her dress of green cloth was laced with gold across her broad bosom to where it met her cravat of Mechlin lace.

She was directing a young man with a bilious complexion to tie up some boxes of soap scented with lilac, carnation and rose, and dividing her attention between this occupation and her own appearance.

The shop bell rang and a young woman stepped lightly up to the counter. Madame Bosse was instantly all smiles and attention. The new-comer was tall, dressed in a cheap, grey, mantle and wore a small complexion mask or vizard; her hands were gloved and she carried a plain purse without crest or monogram.

Madame Bosse smiled more broadly. She was used to all these precautions.

"I should like," said the young woman in a provincial accent and lowering her voice, "to purchase a flagon of scent. I am tired of orange-flower water—possibly you have something a little more novel?"

"Indeed, yes," said La Bosse, rising, "in my little parlour at the back of the shop."

The customer followed Madame Bosse past the shelves that were loaded with tin and lacquer boxes and bottles and jars of majolica ware, into a neat, modest parlour, where a tall window discreetly curtained with green serge looked on to a small courtyard. A pleasant fire burnt on the hearth, there was a table, some arm-chairs, a cabinet, and a cat, curled flat as a winkle just drawn from its shell, on a cushion.

When the customer, who was Solange Desgrez, entered this apartment she felt a little twinge of dismay. She did not greatly care to be alone with La Bosse, who was firmly shut ting the door between the parlour and the shop; the young girl, however, soon laughed at her own fears; her courage was equal to any emergency, and this was not an emergency, merely a slight embarrassment. Even if Madame La Bosse recognized her, she had a story up her sleeve to account for her disguise; but the fortune-teller showed no sign of discovering, in the masked stranger, the wife of the young lieu tenant of Police.

"You perhaps have come for the cards, for the horoscope?" she suggested slyly.

Solange nodded and seated herself at the table. She had rehearsed this scene several times with her husband and had her part perfectly by heart; feeling a little amused and a little foolish, she recited the story that she had learnt from Charles Desgrez.

She declared that she was a well-placed lady, who did not wish to divulge her name, that she was in trouble and pre pared to pay highly for any assistance that the Widow Bosse might give her. She admitted that she was unhappy with her husband, whose affection had cooled since the early days of their marriage, that he was behaving to her with injustice and even cruelty, and that she had seen a man whom the greatly preferred to this disappointing partner.

To her surprise the Widow Bosse seemed to accept this story as quite an ordinary one, nor did she try to penetrate her client's disguise; she only asked:

"Who has sent you here, and what makes you think that I can help you?"

To these questions Solange replied: "A lady of some importance has sent me; I do not care to mention her name even between ourselves. You understand? She is a penitent at Notre-Dame. Is that sufficient?"

"A penitent at Notre-Dame," repeated the Widow Bosse. "Tell her, then, to be careful."

"Oh," replied Solange, feeling her way through this conversation, which she did not understand, "she is being very careful—and you helped her considerably. Now, will you help me?"

"It will be expensive," replied the fortune-teller coyly.

"Oh, as for that, it does not matter. I am prepared, of course to pay highly—but only on results," added Solange prudently.

The Widow Bosse smiled, and throwing down the pack of cards she held in her hand, as if they were no longer of any use, said: "Come into the shop with me, and as we are passing through I shall give you a packet of soap balls and a purple phial—this will contain a love potion, which you must give to your husband. I ask no money now. Come back to me in three days' time and if he is not kinder we will try other means."

With this the Widow Bosse waved her plump hands in token of dismissal, and Solange, feeling that she had wasted her time on a silly frivolity, passed out into the shop, received the soap and phial and then went into the street. As the shop door closed behind her she shuddered from the blast of the March wind.

Paris looked dark and gloomy, with tourelles and towers rising up an iron-grey colour against the sky, which appeared like the dappled breast of a grey goose. Solange drew herself closer into her woollen hood and cloak as she crossed the Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame. It was on this wide, sombre square in front of the great Cathedral, and surrounded on either side by the river, that criminals were executed, and as Solange glanced up half in disgust at the heavy Gothic porch of the Church of Our Lady she thought of the scaffold that had been erected there not so long ago, where Madame de Brinvilliers, the poisoner, had been beheaded before her body had been cast into the flames.

A few beggars, mutilated by the wars or disfigured with disease, crawled by, fluttering dark-stained rags; the iron-coloured river ran sluggishly under the Pont Henri-Quatre; Solange stifled a sigh for the old, girlhood days at Caen; she did not regret her marriage, but she wished that her husband had another occupation in another city. She did not know what he was hoping from the errand on which he had sent her to the Widow Bosse's shop, but she feared that she had wasted her afternoon on a piece of folly and she was half-inclined to take the foolish phial of purple glass out of her bosom and throw it into the sullen gloomy river. It probably, she thought, contains nothing but coloured water; she wished, however, to fulfil scrupulously her husband's instructions, so, hunching her shoulders against the wind, she turned towards their modest apartment.


2. — THE OFFICES IN THE BASTILLE

M. de La Reynie, the Chief of Police, sat in his offices in the Bastille; this stern, massive building was a medieval fort, which had been one of the most formidable in Paris; it was still garrisoned, but used now as a State prison where the higher class of offenders were sent, and as the Headquarters of the Parisian Police, who kept their archives there and transacted most of their business behind these thick, ancient walls.

M. de La Reynie was a man still young, of majestic appearance, austere, painstaking, of unimpeachable integrity; he sat in a plain closet lined with shelves, on which were files, books, locked cases of papers. He was severely but fastidiously dressed and his face had an eager look.

In the light space of the round window embrasure sat two clerks copying out dossiers; before the Chief of Police stood the young Lieutenant, Charles Desgrez, who was so insignificant and so newly come to Paris that M. de La Reynie had never heard of him before.

It had been with some difficulty that the young Lieutenant had obtained this interview, but now that at last he stood be fore the great man he found that he was received with grave and courteous attention; he did not know that, before he had been received into his presence M. de La Reynie had made careful enquiries as to his background, character and work.

M. de La Reynie glanced now with approval at the fine, strong figure, clean, precise features and alert grey eyes of Charles Desgrez.

"I need not tell you to be brief, Desgrez."

"I shall give you the essentials of my story, Monsieur, in the fewest possible words, but I think we should be alone." Desgrez smiled towards' the two industrious copyists in the window embrasure.

"They are confidential men," replied La Reynie a little surprised. "But you may, if you like, lower your voice. Take this chair opposite me and lean forward across the table."

Desgrez obeyed instantly, and began speaking clearly and swiftly.

"A certain Maître Perrin gave a dinner-party for my wife on her birthday. There was a woman there whom I have met before at his house, a Madame La Bosse, a widow. She keeps a perfumer's shop and tells fortunes. After she had had too much to drink, she began to boast that three poisonings would make her rich. No one took any notice of this, it was thought to be a jest. You know, that since the Brinvilliers case people have quite had their heads turned by the subject of poisoning. Well, I thought the matter over. As a police officer it had come to my ears that the priests of Notre-Dame had reported that a large number of their penitents accused themselves of murdering their husbands by poisoning. You did not, I think, Monsieur, attach any importance to that?"

"None," replied La Reynie. "These gabbling, idling hysterical women will accuse themselves of anything. After the Brinvilliers affair it is almost a fashion to be a poisoner."

"Ah, well," smiled Desgrez, "that, of course, is as you say, Monsieur. Yet it came into my head to make a little test. I sent my wife to this La Bosse with the excuse of buying soaps and perfumes. I gave her a little tale to recite, she learnt it by heart. She soon induced La Bosse to tell her fortune and other nonsense like that. Then she informed her that she was unhappily married, that her husband was unkind to her, that she was in love with another man. This on the first interview. The Widow gave her a little purple bottle containing some fluid supposed to be a love charm. I sent this to Lecoine, the chemist, to be analysed. He found that it contained water, a little sugar, a little laudanum. After three days, as arranged, my wife returned to La Bosse. She said that the charm had been of no use, that her husband was more detestable than ever—speaking, of course, Monsieur, as I had instructed her. The woman then asked for her money. She wanted thirty gold louis d'or."

As this large sum was named, La Reynie looked keenly into the intent eyes of the young Lieutenant.

"Yes, Monsieur, that is the enormous price she asked. Well, it happened that I was in possession of a piece of valuable jewellery. I had intended to sell this and use the money for my wife's benefit. I did sell it, and I gave my wife these thirty gold pieces to return for a third time to La Bosse and ask her yet again for relief from her husband."

The young man paused a second, leant closer across the table and lowered his voice again. La Reynie nodded to him to continue.

"This time, without the least difficulty, La Bosse took the money and gave my wife a small, white flat bottle very securely corked. She told her to give this to her husband in three separate doses, on no account to touch it herself or allow anyone else to do so, else the charm would not work. I sent this also to Lecoine. Here is his report, here are the two bottles."

Charles Desgrez put his hand in his pocket and brought out a purple phial, a small, flat white bottle and a piece of paper signed and sealed by the chemist, Jules Lecoine.

"You see, he says it is a solution of sublimate of pure arsenic, sufficient to kill ten people—so that is the way in which La Bosse encourages her clients to get rid of their husbands."

Without speaking the Chief of Police read the chemist's report and examined the two bottles.

"You will see, Monsieur," continued the young Lieutenant, "that there is still half the solution left. You may, if you like, have it analysed yourself."

"This is scarcely," said La Reynie in a low tone, "to be believed. Your wife obtained the poison as easily as that?"

"Yes. The inference is that the woman has a flourishing business—she is so used to purveying this poison that she does so without the least hesitation. She feels sure that none of these women will betray her. Indeed, how can they do so without betraying themselves? As you yourself know, Monsieur," added the young agent of Police with a touch of triumph in his voice, "even the priests' talk of what has been told them in the confessional has been disregarded, and no one as yet has tried to investigate the subject."

"That is true, Desgrez. It is, also, I think, a rebuke to me," replied the Chief of Police gravely. "But I never thought such matters possible. I believed that with Brinvilliers we had stamped out all this question of poison. Yes, I have been blind. I did not think this was going on in Paris. Where do they get this stuff? It comes from Italy?"

"One would have to investigate, Monsieur, and very carefully. You accounted for Madame de Brinvilliers' accomplices, I think, Monsieur?"

"Yes, the Italian, Exili, died in the Bastille, where he was on another charge. Sainte Croix, the young Gascon adventurer, who was her lover and who undoubtedly supplied her with the poison, was found dead, you remember, in his laboratory. His glass mask had slipped and some poisonous fumes had killed him."

"Yes, Monsieur, it was through the letters found in his casket on that occasion that she was arrested, was it not?"

"Yes," replied the Chief of Police. "We never could find that the affair went any further. Sainte Croix met Exili in the Bastille—Exili was an Italian and had learnt his tricks at the Court of the Vatican. He had been in the employ of Madame Olympe, the Pope's niece. We never could find anyone else connected with the affair. We thought that we had rooted it all out."

"Your pardon, Monsieur, but I do not think so. I do not believe that this woman Bosse is an isolated case. The fact that she can so easily and so carelessly sell poisons to a stranger, caring for nothing but a high price, shows that the trade is going on shamelessly, almost openly, in the underworld."

"There have been no mysterious crimes lately," remarked M. de La Reynie gravely, frowning down at the little bottle of poison. "No one has disappeared, nor has anyone been found dead, there have been no complaints by relations or heirs of sudden and suspicious deaths."

"No, Monsieur," replied the young police agent, "but who can tell how many deaths that have seemed natural have in truth not been so? I believe that one who dies by this subtle poisoning has the symptoms of an ordinary disease, and you will remember that Madame de Brinvilliers practised her arts on the patients in the hospital where she acted as a Sister of Charity. Who then suspected that these people who died under her hand had been poisoned?"

La Reynie sat silent and put his hands over his tired eyes in the attitude of a man before whom a terrifying prospect had been opened.

Was it possible, he asked himself, that this peculiarly atrocious form of crime was corrupting all Paris and he knew nothing of it?

He felt alarmed and ashamed; this deadly poison so mysterious, so difficult to trace, then, could be bought quite easily, almost openly, in Paris; there must be a ring of scoundrels and their dupes in the horrible business. That it could be used easily he knew too well from the Brinvilliers case, as Desgrez had reminded him; doctors were powerless to discover the symptoms, and how numerous would be the opportunities! In the familiarity of domestic life a woman could poison her father, her husband, her brother, her sister, her child without arousing any suspicion...The Chief of Police said aloud, though under his breath: "The women—always the women! Desgrez—it is the women! They are kept so close, they lead unnatural lives, almost like prisoners—they have lively passions and no means of expressing them. And very often their husbands or their fathers are cruel. Well they take the only weapon to their hand. It seems that we may find it is a weapon that has been used very freely."

M. La Reynie called out suddenly to one of the copyists in the window: "Masson, bring me immediately the dossier of a certain Widow Bosse, who lives at the sign of 'The Lily Pot' in the rue de Saint-Pierre near the Parvis de Notre-Dame."

The clerk, a thin, grave man, rose instantly and left the room. La Reynie turned to Desgrez.

"You shall be paid the money you gave this woman. Tell me what else I can do for you. It seems to me that I am much obliged to you."

A fine colour stained the young man's clear features.

"The only favour I ask," he said, and he could hardly keep the eagerness from his voice, "is that I may be permitted to have a hand in the investigation of this affair."

"Who better suited?" replied the Chief of Police.

"Many, I daresay," replied the young man modestly. "I have not had much experience. But I am ambitious, newly married—"

"Your wife must be a brave, clever woman," put in the Chief of Police kindly.

"Yes, she is, but I do not know that what she did required much courage. She would always be at our service if there was something that a woman alone could do."

"She certainly managed this little affair very well, and if I can do anything—"

"That, Monsieur, is all I require, permission to assist in any investigation you may undertake."

"You have that, of course," replied La Reynie, "but for a moment I do not know how to act. To arrest this La Bosse would be to cause suspicion among a wide circle of criminals; it is better to have her watched, notice who her clients are and discover all we can about her."

"Meanwhile, if Monsieur permits the comment," said Desgrez drily, "several more victims may be sent on the way to heaven."

Before M. de La Reynie could answer, the copyist, Masson, returned with the dossier of the Widow Bosse. In this police register she was described as a Provençal who had come from Marseilles six years ago; at first she had been employed in making hat and bonnet shapes, then she had opened a little shop for the sale of perfumery and soaps. She obtained the capital to do this by a loan from a lover, a married man named Bax, a wool-merchant in a small way. He still visited her and was supposed to have a share in the business. She was fairly respectable and had never given any trouble to the law.

"You see," remarked M. de La Reynie when he had glanced over this dossier, "nothing very much is known about her, simply because no one has troubled with her. We must find out a little more."


3. — A NIGHT AT "THE LILY POT"

That evening Desgrez, acting on instructions from the Chief of Police, took one of his men—a fellow Norman named. Clement, whom he entirely trusted—and set out to watch the house of the Widow Bosse. It was a stormy night; cold rain fell with each gust of wind; the filthy water of the swollen gutters overflowed, making the streets almost impassable; the rain rushed along the gutters in the front of the hôtels and fell in cascades from the spouts at the corners. There were few people abroad.

Solange had watched her husband go on his errand with much trepidation; since the discovery that the second phial that Madame Bosse had sold her contained poison, she had felt most uneasy, and wished that her husband had not em barked upon the affair which he told her enthusiastically would end in fame and fortune for both of them. Solange had been ambitious and had desired, more for her husband's sake than her own, success and the rewards of success. But now that her Charles had discovered so suddenly and unexpectedly this horrible mystery, she would have wished him to draw back. Nor was she consoled by the little bag of gold pieces that he put triumphantly into her hands; this represented the money, part of the price of the sapphire bracelet, which she had expended in "The Lily Pot," and which had been instantly repaid by M. de La Reynie.

"You can now, my dear, buy yourself two or three fine dresses," he had said as he kissed her good-bye.

But Solange had not felt any interest in new clothes, or even in the handsome sum of money locked away in the metal coffer under her bed. She pulled aside the serge curtains from the high casement; she did not dare open the window—the storm wind was too high—but through the diamond panes of glass peered down into the street below and watched her husband and his man, heavily cloaked and looking like ordinary citizens, pass along the narrow street so dimly lit by the oil lamp whose flame fluttered in the tearing wind.

M. de la Reynie had suspected that Madame Bosse received some of her more valuable and more deeply implicated clients in the evening or even at night, and when the two men reached the rue de Saint-Pierre they were pleased to see a faint light burning in the bow-window of the perfumer's shop; the shuttered residences either side were in darkness.

Keeping well in the shadow on the opposite side of the road, Desgrez observed these houses for the first time. Fearful of arousing the Widow's suspicions, he had not been near the place while his wife was making her visits there; now he noted, as closely as he could, the whole neighbourhood.

The little crooked, winding street was lit by four lamps. One was quite close to the perfumer's shop, so Desgrez was able to see that these neighbouring houses were empty, or had every appearance of being so; the shutters were closed across the windows, the doors were shut and had the appearance of not having been opened for a long time, since the metalwork on them was unpolished and heavily splashed with street dirt; no signs hung out.

In the Widow Bosse's dossier the police had noted that she let out the rooms above her shop, but Desgrez could see no sign that this was true; the windows that gave on the street at least were all shuttered and had no hint of life; but in the little shop itself the lantern light gleamed dully through the square panes of glass.

"Well," whispered Desgrez to Clement, "I do not think that we shall see much to-night—the weather is too foul for even one on a bad errand to be abroad."

So keen, however, was his curious interest in the matter he had taken in hand that he could not bring himself to leave immediately, but despite the wind and rain, continued walking up and down, keeping his eyes on the dimly lit shop-front.

He was soon and unexpectedly rewarded. The door of "The Lily Pot" opened with a little tinkle of the shop bell; there was a glimpse of the Widow Bosse in a grey satin dress holding up a lantern, the light of which fell on her plump, flushed and smiling face. A man, heavily cloaked, stepped out. The door was shut, there was the sound of bolts being drawn, the light in the shop went out.

"I suppose," said Desgrez to his man, "that is only the lover, our friend the wool-merchant, Bax. But let us follow him."

The man turned unhesitatingly down the street towards the Cathedral and the river, and the two police agents followed him at a careful distance. This kind of tracking was not easy in the solitude of the streets, where even a footfall echoed distinctly in the emptiness and silence.

But Desgrez and his man contrived to keep the stranger well in view by creeping along softly in the shadows, dodging the lights of the street lamps and hiding under the darkness of balconies and in the black recesses of doorways.

Desgrez had taken the address of Bax, the wool-merchant, who lived in a modest house near the University. This, then, was either not he or he was not going home, for he turned towards the bridge which crossed the river. The force of the rain lessened with the rising of the wind, which howled with a melancholy intensity round the corners of the houses and along the wet, dark, desolate streets. After half an hour's laborious tracking the two policemen saw the man whom they pursued turn down a cul-de-sac and pause before the door of a garden wall at the end.

This part of Paris was not very well known to Desgrez and he was not quite sure where he was; beyond the fact that this was a blind alley (he could not see the name up anywhere) of respectable-looking houses ending in this high brick wall, he knew nothing of his whereabouts. Above the wall the wind shook to and fro straight upright boughs of leafless poplar trees, dimly discernible in the flickering light of the horn lantern that hung above the sunken garden door.

This ragged illumination also fell over the stranger, who appeared to be absorbed in getting out his key; Desgrez with Clement behind him, crouched in the portico of the silent house at the end of the impasse; he intended, as soon as the man had entered the garden, to climb the wall and follow him; meanwhile, he was keenly memorizing the stranger's appearance. There was, however, little peculiar to be discerned in the heavily cloaked figure with the broad-leaved hat drawn down to the folds of the mantle, only that the man was tall, well built and appeared young, at least no more than middle aged.

"He is a long time getting his key, Monsieur," whispered Clement.

"I think he knows we are here," replied Desgrez with his hand on his pistol. "Look out. I do not suppose he would care to tackle us single-handed or even to attract attention to him self by a fight. He is wondering how to slip away."

As they whispered in the doorway the stranger, with an exclamation of annoyance as if he could not find his key, suddenly struck with his knuckles three times, with a pause, and then again three times, upon the door in the garden wall. This signal was almost instantly answered. The door was opened from within; instead of passing through, the stranger said in a loud voice:

"I am followed—in that portico there."

Desgrez instantly blew the whistle he carried, to summon at need help from the Watch and the City police, and advanced, followed by Clement from the doorway; he was unable, how ever, to put himself in an attitude of defence before he was overwhelmed by what seemed to him, in that grey, uncertain light splashed with rain, a crowd of flying shapes. He felt a severe pain on the temple, then his senses slid into darkness.


4. — THE HOUSE OF DR. RABEL

A strange voice roused Charles Desgrez. He opened his eyes, looked round, quickly remembered his circumstances and his adventures, and saw that he was in a modest room, plainly furnished and lit by two candles stuck into cheap sticks placed on a table on which were some glasses, a bottle of wine and a flask of eau-de-vie. Two strangers, both mild-seeming elderly men, were looking at him with an air of concern; both wore rather shabby dressing-gowns and nightcaps. One of them had a roll of linen plaster in his hand.

Desgrez smiled, touched his head and found that it had been bandaged.

"I have to thank you, it seems, for timely assistance, gentle men," he said; he glanced round again and was much re assured on seeing Clement seated inside the door.

"Yes, yes, indeed," nodded the gentleman who held the bandages. "I am Doctor Rabel. This is Père Davout."

He smiled at his companion, a stout, flabby man of fifty or so whose fringe of white hair stuck out in comical fashion underneath his cotton sleeping-cap. "We are two old bachelors and we share this house between us."

Desgrez rose; he felt slightly sick and giddy, but had him self almost instantly under self-control.

"Yes," remarked the fussy priest, with a kind of nervous eagerness, "we heard your whistle—it woke us. We ran to the front door, both of us together. You see, we have no servant who sleeps in the house; we found you and your friend in the doorway. It seems that you have been the victim of some scuffle, some quarrel, perhaps. Oh, the streets! Paris is not safe for decent people, as I always say!"

"I am a police officer," said Desgrez briefly. "This is my assistant." He nodded towards Clement, who maintained a taciturn attitude. "We were patrolling the street when we saw someone whom I took to be a suspicious character. We followed him here, at least, I suppose that it was in the door of your house that we were hiding."

"I suppose so," agreed Doctor Rabel with a vague smile. "It was in our porch we found you. A suspicious character in our peaceful cul-de-sac? Why, this little alley, Monsieur, is occupied almost entirely by doctors and students of the University."

At this Desgrez related briefly his adventure; this was met by protests from both the priest and the doctor, who remained standing side by side, looking rather ridiculous in their night attire.

"But no one can have a key to that garden gate, Monsieur, and no one can be lurking behind it! There is a house there that has been empty for years and must be almost entirely uninhabitable by now, save by spiders, bats, rats and mice. Everyone knows what a quiet, respectable place the Impasse des Fleurs is!"

The old priest laughed as he spoke, as if he had made a good joke.

"No, no, you were attacked by footpads, no doubt," said Dr. Rabel, "but not by anyone who was knocking at that garden gate nor by anyone who came through it!"

"Perhaps not," replied Desgrez drily. "We will investigate by daylight. I have now, gentlemen, to thank you for your assistance. I am afraid I have broken your night's repose and I hope I have not been unconscious a long while."

"A matter, perhaps, of an hour and a half," said the Doctor with an amiable smile. "Will you take a little refreshment before you go? Accidents of this kind are my business—I am used to being summoned at night. I work at the Hôtel Dieu."

"No, no, thank you, Doctor, I feel perfectly well now, but if you will give me a little information about this deserted house at the end—"

"Why, certainly, certainly, but I know very little about it; though I have lived here for several years, no one has ever taken any interest in the house at the end of the impasse. I believe it used to be, perhaps a hundred years ago, quite a considerable mansion, but then the grounds were sold and these houses built upon them. The place itself became old-fashioned and was considered inconvenient—nobody would buy it or live in it and so it fell into disrepair. I believe that it is an entirely uninteresting old house."

Desgrez, signalling to the silent Clement, took his leave; and the mild-looking old priest, still expressing concern at the police agent's accident, bowed them out of the room with many good wishes, while the doctor, holding aloft one of his candles, accompanied them to the front door. He was extremely frank, even voluble.

"My name is Rabel, Antoine Rabel. I attend every day at the Hôtel Dieu. I lecture, too, at the Sorbonne. This is my private residence, the fourth house down the Impasse des Fleurs, though I don't think," he added with a little throaty laugh, "you will find many flowers down here! But perhaps in that strip of neglected garden at the end there still are a few blooming, and all that we have ever seen," he added, shading his candle from the wind as the door was opened, "are those poplar trees, and I assure you they are rather tiresome—especially on a windy night. They make such a melancholy sighing sound."

The door closed upon the nightcapped doctor and his candle; the rain had ceased to fall and the sickly light of a full moon fell over the sombre Impasse des Fleurs.

Desgrez felt weak; he leant upon his assistant's arm.

"What do you make of that, Clement? What happened?"

His man could tell him little; some men, certainly three or four men, had emerged from the garden door and fallen upon them; in the fight that ensued he believed that he, Clement, had wounded two or three of them; Desgrez had been struck almost immediately with the butt end of a pistol, Clement supposed; then all had disappeared, and while he was dragging his unconscious officer to the shelter of the nearest porch the door had opened and Doctor Rabel in dressing-gown and slippers had come out, with the air of one disturbed by the fracas in the street.

"They did, Monsieur, of course, all that could be expected of respectable citizens—and yet somehow—"

"Somehow what?" asked Desgrez sharply.

"I don't know," replied his assistant doubtfully. "My suspicions are too fine to be put into words. It's a queer story about that deserted house, they seemed very anxious for us to think that no one could ever go there—foolish of them since what we saw, we saw with our own eyes. Now, Monsieur, let us get out of this place. You are in no state to withstand another attack."

The man added regretfully, as he helped his officer over the cobbles, "I am sorry, Monsieur, that you told them we were police agents—there was nothing about our dress to betray us and I was careful not to let them know who we were."

"Perhaps it was stupid of me—yes, I should not have said that. My mind was not clear, I was a little giddy from the blow. Yes, perhaps it was foolish. You can go home with me, Clement, and then directly to the Bastille. Tell M. de La Reynie what has happened to-night. Give it him as my ad vice—though no doubt it is impertinent of me to give advice—that La Bosse should be arrested immediately. I will wait on him myself to-day when I have reassured my wife as to my safety. Listen! what was that? A coach, at this time of night, and in this weather, in this quarter of the town?"


5. — THE NEGRO COACHMAN

The two men had reached the entrance into the Impasse; a street of dingy houses mostly let out in apartments lay in front of them; at the corner of the Impasse, now revealed by the moon, and unnoticed by them before, was an ancient statue of a female saint; the tall stone figure much defaced by time and weather was transfixed by a stone dagger, the hilt of which appeared above the bosom; the face was thrown back with a distorted expression of agony, which appeared dreadful in the colourless moonlight.

At the sound of the coach wheels Desgrez and his assistant withdrew into the shadow of this gloomy and sinister-looking statue. Shielding their faces with their cloaks and standing motionless they observed a small, light and fashionable coach, without, as far as they could see, any arms or trappings, drawn by a dark horse, come up the shabby street. The moon light fell clearly on the driver and showed him to be a young Negro or Moor wearing neither livery nor cockade, but a plain grey habit.

At the entrance to the Impasse this equipage, which was proceeding very slowly, stopped; the door opened and a woman descended. Impulsively, without waiting for assistance or for the foot-rest to be put down, she stepped into the muddy roadway. A gust of icy wind blew aside her black cloak and showed a grey satin gown, moulded by the wind to the shape of long limbs, and a square-toed grey shoe with a knot of blue ribbons; a fine black veil was passed over her head and knotted over her face so closely that it was impossible to discern her features. It was, however, easy to see that she was in a state of strong emotion; utterly regardless of the place, the weather or the time, she twisted her hands together, and stumbling forward through the mud, hurried to wards the entrance to the Impasse des Fleurs.

She was instantly followed by a well-dressed man of more than middle age who wore a mask; he hastened after the young woman, put his arm round her and with great agitation addressed to her words of encouragement. Some of these the two police agents could hear distinctly; they were: "Jacquetta, it will soon be over and then you will be free and happy!"

"Monsieur, shall we follow them?" whispered Clement.

"No," said Desgrez, though against his own inclination. "It would be stupid for us to be imprudent now. Besides, it may be some very ordinary though ugly intrigue. You and I know what goes on in Paris, Clement. I wish we could follow the carriage, but see, it is already out of sight."

Indeed, while they were looking after the couple who had passed into the shadows of the Impasse, the little coach driven by the Negro had disappeared along the crooked street, which was full of shadows.

The young police agent was shrewd and hard-headed, not given to imagination or fantasy, but even his clear mind had been touched by a vague, indefinable sense of horror by this last incident. There was something in the sincere despair and terror of the veiled girl, in the grim agitation of her companion, in their sudden appearance in this dreary spot, in the small dark equipage driven by the Negro, that had the air of an evil dream.

Charles Desgrez, though he laughed at himself for the feeling, could almost have imagined the whole scene to have been hallucination produced by the blow on his head. Yet, as he had said to Clement, he knew well enough what went on in Paris after dark, a thousand and one intrigues and tragedies that were by no means his business, that did not come within the scope of the law.

But as he and Clement turned towards his own home, he could not resist connecting the frightened girl and her masked companion with the deserted house behind the garden wall, with the attack on himself, with the man whom he had tracked from "The Lily Pot" and with the Widow Bosse and her trade in poisons; he felt baffled and disheartened by the dark silence of the sleeping city.


6. — THE AFFAIR AT THE LOUVRE

When Lieutenant Charles Desgrez reported himself to M. de La Reynie at his offices in the Bastille he found the Chief of Police disappointed and serious.

"Desgrez, the woman has gone. Though I sent round to this 'Lily Pot' almost as soon as Clement made his report, she had fled. She must have been warned during the night. Not a trace of her! The houses either side are unoccupied, the other people in the street know nothing or will say nothing. Bax, the wool-merchant, has disappeared too. His wife says that he has been two weeks away in Flanders on his business—that is probably a lie, I cannot test it yet. She, too, of course, knows nothing." La Reynie shrugged his shoulders. "The affair looks serious to me. I heard Clement's story of last night. Both Doctor Rabel and Father Davout are beyond reproach. They have been well-known, well-conducted citizens for years." La Reynie opened his hands and let them fall upon the desk. "What they told you of this empty house, which so aroused your suspicions, is true. We will have the place watched, of course, but it would be extremely difficult, almost impossible, for any criminals to make a rendez-vous of this place so near to the residence of respectable people—whose bona fides we cannot doubt—like Doctor Rabel and Father Davout."

"Monsieur," asked Desgrez keenly, "you are not going to drop the affair, are you? We have only just begun. I feel that we have our finger on a thread which, if followed, may lead to important discoveries."

"No, no," replied the Chief of Police at once, "that this woman has fled, that Bax cannot be found, these facts are enough in themselves. Then the attack on you last night—that might have nothing to do with the main business I confess," he added with a smile, "that I am, for a moment, at a loss, baffled."

"Nothing found in the Widow Bosse's shop?"

"A number of empty jars, drawers, boxes and feminine frippery of no account. There was not a drug or medicine in the place—everything has been cleared out—burnt, I should think, by the look of the fireplaces."

"I have been clumsy," said Desgrez in a tone of great vexation. "I should not have aroused this wretch's suspicion. Yet it was only the Doctor and the Priest, whose characters you say are irreproachable, whom I told last night that I was attached to the police."

"The man who attacked you, if he was an accomplice of La Bosse, probably recognized you."

"I do not see how that is possible. He was in front of us all the way. He could only have found out by a backward glance or so that he was being followed. There was nothing on us to betray who we were."

La Reynie shrugged his shoulders. "Well, the woman's suspicion was aroused somehow, she managed to warn her lover. She must have had some hours in which to prepare her flight, for she has left nothing suspicious behind her, not so much as a scrap of paper, and absolutely no clue as to her whereabouts. Of course, we shall do the best we can to track her. The frontiers will be watched and the boats to England. I shall have my eye on the Netherlands too. You remember it was to Flanders that Madame de Brinvilliers escaped." With a sudden change of tone M. de La Reynie added briskly: "Desgrez, I have another affair for you." He raised his fine hands from above a letter on his desk. "This was brought me by a special messenger from the Louvre this morning. You know that the King, much as he dislikes the place, is in residence there for a short while."

"Yes," said Desgrez, surprised and rather disappointed at this turn of affairs.

"The reason," added the Chief of Police with impassive voice and face, "why His Majesty stays in the Louvre, is that Mademoiselle de Fontanges, in whom His Majesty takes a considerable interest, is ill. She is not fit to be moved to Versailles or Fontainebleau or Marli, so the King delays in Paris while the best doctors from the Sorbonne attend the young lady."

Charles Desgrez was not very much interested; he remained silent, still thinking over the events of last night, which greatly exasperated him.

"This poor young girl's illness has been complicated by a tragedy that has overtaken one of her favourite maids," continued La Reynie, "an Italian girl, who was her constant companion. This girl, going out alone this morning to the Orangery to pick some flowers and fruit for her mistress, was attacked by some mysterious malefactors. She was discovered in a dying condition a few hours later by her father. She was taken at once to her apartment, but for a long while was unconscious. Now she is able to speak, I understand, but can give very little account of this horrible affair. They say she has only a few hours to live." La Reynie raised his hazel eyes and gazed directly at the young policeman, who instantly be came alert. "This girl's name is Jacquetta Malipiero."

"Ah!" exclaimed Desgrez under his breath.

"The King is much disturbed by this criminal affair," continued M. de La Reynie quietly, "which, of course," he added emphatically, "is wholly mysterious. I waited on the King early this morning and heard an account of this business from His Majesty's own lips. His Majesty, you will understand, is chiefly concerned with the effect on Mademoiselle de Fontanges. He is, Desgrez, and this is truly important, infatuated with that unfortunate young lady, who is extremely stupid and not even very beautiful."

"What, then, is the attraction, for a Prince like the King?" asked Desgrez with an accent almost of contempt.

"You must understand," said M. de La Reynie gravely, "if you are to assist me in what I think is going to be a very difficult business, that the King's feeling for Mademoiselle de Fontanges is a feeling for a ghost, a sentiment, a faded rose, a memory of yesterday. In brief, this young lady is like, in looks and in character, Mademoiselle Louise de La Vallière who, nearly twelve years ago, left His Majesty to go into a convent. It is well known," added the Chief of Police drily, "that the King always loved that lady, who was good and loyal and who has repented her fault in loving him with years of penitence."

"Why did he let her go, then?" asked Desgrez bluntly.

"Madame de Montespan saw to that," smiled Monsieur de La Reynie. "She contrived, God, or rather the Devil, knows how, to win the King completely. You know how many years she has held him. You can imagine her feelings now, when she sees him turning to Mademoiselle de Fontanges. Ah, well, this is none of our business, but it is well you should know the state of affairs."

M. de La Reynie rose, and Desgrez got to his feet.

"I want you to go to the Louvre to investigate this extra ordinary attack upon Mademoiselle Malipiero. These are your instructions."


PART THREE

THE ITALIAN APOTHECARY'S DAUGHTER


1. — THE APARTMENTS OF MLLE. DE FONTANGES

Desgrez did not attempt to disguise from his wife the importance and difficulty of the work upon which he was engaged, or the near escape from death he had had in the attack made on him in the Impasse des Fleurs; nor did she disturb him by fears or lamentations. Since she had married him and come to Paris she had known the nature of his work and what she was likely to have to face; she permitted herself only one sigh: "I wish I had not helped you to enter into this unhappy business!"

Then, with her head resting on his shoulder and his arm round her waist, she asked him one favour; it was much the same as the favour that he had asked M. de La Reynie.

"Will you, Charles, if there is ever a chance, allow me to help you?"

Desgrez looked earnestly at his young wife. "I did not bring you to Paris, Solange, to involve you in this sort of business. It is ugly and sordid, and it may be dangerous."

"I know, but I did come to Paris to be with you in every thing. I want to help you. I have already, you say, helped you a little."

"More than a little," he replied, "and there may be some things in this matter that only a woman can undertake. You must understand, of course, that even M. de La Reynie him self can see only a little ahead. He's like, and so am I, a man in a fog—only a foot or two of the way is visible."

"Remember that I am a stranger in Paris," said Solange coaxingly. "There is really nothing for me to do. I have no friends, and few acquaintances whom I care about. You cannot allow me to sit here alone hour after hour wondering what has happened to you You know, too, that you can trust me—I am not foolish nor am I sentimental or hysterical. If you confide any secrets to me, they will be safe."

"I know," he replied gravely. He was by no means blinded by his affection for Solange; he did indeed know her character, which was much the same as his own.

These two, united by so strong an affection, understood each other perfectly. Desgrez knew that his wife had an active mind and that enforced leisure would be almost intolerable to one of her temperament. Before, therefore, he bade her good bye, he promised her seriously and gravely that, if there was an opportunity for her of helping him in his work, he would gladly accept her assistance.

Fortified by the strong, sincere love and friendship of Solange, which was the deepest reality of his life, the young Lieutenant of Police proceeded to the Louvre. The weather was ugly, there had been no sun over Paris for days; sheets of grey rain still continued to fall into the swollen river, which was beginning to lap the embankment and to overflow on to the cobbles of the streets.

Desgrez paused a moment to look at the long, impressive facade of the Louvre, which stretched along the banks of the Seine in a formidable monotony of pedimented windows and straight doors.

The great palace, which had been built by the extravagant Valois Kings, was in the form of a quadrangle, one frontage lying along the river, the other enclosing courtyards and gardens; gardens also lay either side of the facade facing the Seine. Behind the elegant balustrade Desgrez could see the statues, looking livid in this winter light, standing wet and gleaming under the leafless trees. Here and there an arbutus, an ilex or a laurel, retained the dark green of its foliage, and through the thick leaves dripped water into fishponds and founts.

Desgrez could see, not far from the palace, the warm-coloured bricks of a modern orangery where exotic plants were kept during the winter; he wondered if that had been the scene of the attack on Mademoiselle Jacquetta. Avoiding the arched entrance to the noble gates that pierced the palace frontage, which was reserved for the King and personages of importance, Desgrez went, as La Reynie had directed him, to a side door, the third from the main entrance to the palace, and there pulled the elaborate bell of wrought iron.

He felt rather a childish and foolish sensation of elation at the importance of his commission. It was highly satisfactory to him, a raw provincial, to be able, so soon after his arrival in Paris, to enter the Louvre and to concern himself in the affairs of those attached to the Court. In the eyes of the young Norman Lieutenant of Police, as in the eyes of every French man, the King was a very great man indeed—revered at home, feared abroad, successful in the field as in the cabinet, a model of courtesy, patron of the arts, a personality that flashed, glittered and dazzled like a diamond.

Desgrez knew the King's faults, which were open enough to all his subjects. Charles Desgrez judged His Majesty to be a little vainglorious, extravagant in everything, from the magnificent, almost incredible, palaces he built down to the lives of his subjects, who perished by hundreds of thousands in his successful campaigns. He knew him, also, to be a man who, though religious to the point of bigotry, lived with a licentiousness that was an example not only to his subjects but to all Europe, for Louis XIV set the fashion all over the civilized world. Desgrez was only one of the many Frenchmen who did not condone the King's notorious and blazing infidelities to his gentle wife, or his subjection to Madame de Montespan who, cold, haughty, grasping and bitter-tongued, seemed to have no qualities beyond her high birth and her imperious beauty to fit her for her magnificent though shameful position as Queen of the Left Hand.

Desgrez deliberately put the King out of his mind; he had to concentrate on the matter before him; M. de La Reynie had furnished him with the dossiers of both Mademoiselle de Fontanges and Mademoiselle Jacquetta, one of her maids.

The first named lady was an orphan and lived under the nominal guardianship of an uncle, an intriguing and unscrupulous man, who was believed to have sent his beautiful ward to Court in the hope that she would catch the King's fancy. Her likeness to Louise de La Vallière, who had been now for ten years in a convent, was considered by all who had seen both these women remarkable, and it was common talk that Mademoiselle de Fontanges' uncle had hoped that the fair gentle girl would soon displace the powerful favourite in the King's affection.

"That leaves her," M. de La Reynie had said, "unprotected, you will perceive. She has not been very well educated and her mind is not strong. Her heart is good, her training has been religious, she is at Court alone and exposed to the strongest possible temptations."

So much for Mademoiselle de Fontanges! Desgrez remembered her as she had leant from the window of her painted coach and offered with so much courtesy and kindness the bracelet of sapphires to his wife.

Jacquetta was an Italian girl, who had been educated in France. M. de La Reynie did not know how or when she had entered the employment of Mademoiselle de Fontanges. Her father, Agostino Malipiero, had recently come from Turin; he was trained in chemistry and his daughter had secured him the position of apothecary to Mademoiselle de Fontanges. He did not live in the palace but had a shop along the quai, but he was frequently at the Louvre on the excuse of seeing his daughter and of attending to a small menagerie that Mademoiselle de Fontanges kept, for he was supposed to be very skilful with animals, not only in looking after them when they were sick, but in training them to perform those tricks that the idle ladies of Court found so amusing.

Desgrez was admitted to the Louvre by a manservant, to whom he explained his business. He was expected and without delay taken up to the apartments of Mademoiselle de Fontanges in one of the long galleries facing the river. These handsome but rather gloomy chambers were decorated in the magnificent heavy style of the Valois and were situated in an angle of the vast building. A light, outside staircase led from them to the riverside gardens. This the servant, who seemed a confidential major-domo, hastily explained as he ran over with Desgrez the story of the attack on the little Italian girl, which had so distressed his mistress.

He had scarcely finished this whispered tale when they reached the door of Mademoiselle de Fontanges's private apartment and Desgrez found himself looking with respect and compassion at the young girl whose name, perhaps all unknown to herself, was passing from lip to lip in Paris with various accents of derision, sympathy or amazement.

The girl was alone and seemed extremely agitated; Desgrez judged her to have little courage or control, little discretion or wisdom. She was seated in a high, crimson chair trimmed with fringed braid before the hearth, on which burned perfumed logs.

The chamber was ornate and heavy; massive carvings of fruit and flowers surrounded dark and gloomy portraits. The chill light of the wet afternoon fell through the tall windows, from which dark curtains had been looped back.

The girl in her dress of pale grey satin with her light, almost silver hair knotted with a pearl-coloured ribbon, with her pale face and her large light eyes slightly reddened by weeping, looking ethereal against this sombre background, like a wind-flower in the blackness of a pine forest. She did not recognize Desgrez as the man to whose wife she had given the bracelet: neither quick nor clever, she took the young man, who was wearing his uniform, for an agent of police and nothing more. Desgrez, inwardly smiling, saw that she accepted him as a mere automaton, an official without personality.

She stammered, speaking vaguely, even incoherently, over the story of the attack on her maid. The young man soon courteously interrupted.

"There is no need, Mademoiselle, for you to distress your self with that story. We have heard it all."

She seemed relieved and Desgrez's smile deepened—how little she understood! He had a full account of her and her maid and her maid's father in his pocket, and both he and M. de La Reynie had a shrewd idea as to the truth about the crime of the night before.

"May I see this Mademoiselle Jacquetta, may I take her deposition from her own lips?"

"Alas," replied the lady in deep and almost uncontrollable distress, "she is dying! M. Aquin, the King's physician, has been with her—he thinks there is no hope, she has already received the last Sacrament."

"Nevertheless, Mademoiselle," said Desgrez firmly, "it is my duty to investigate this atrocious crime. Consider, Mademoiselle; a young lady who is an attendant on one of Her Majesty's maids of honour goes out in the palace gardens to select some fruit from a greenhouse. The palace, during the residence of His Majesty, is guarded by numerous sentries. The gates are locked, the walls are high, yet some villain is lurking within, who, for no purpose as it seems, so maltreats this poor young woman that she is about to die of her in juries."

The tone in which Desgrez spoke these words caused Mademoiselle de Fontanges to look at him in quick apprehension and frowning bewilderment.

"M. de La Reynie is responsible for the policing of Paris," continued Desgrez, "and I am his representative. Pray, Mademoiselle, let us lose no time. Take me to the bedside of this unfortunate young girl."

Mademoiselle de Fontanges pulled the silken rope that hung by the side of the massive fireplace. A page almost instantly appeared.

"Take this police officer to Mademoiselle Jacquetta," she said faintly. Then, as if distracted: "No, I will come too. I should like to be present."

"That is as you wish," replied Desgrez. "I have no instructions, Mademoiselle, on that point, but if I had the honour to be your friend or adviser, I should suggest that you remain here."

"Ah!" exclaimed the girl, sitting down again in the fringed chair from which she had risen. "You do, then, suspect some mystery?"

"My business," said Desgrez, "is to investigate, not to suspect."

He followed the page down the corridor, Mademoiselle de Fontanges staring after him in what seemed to him an agony of indecision.


2.— CARNATION-PINK

Jacquetta, the Italian girl, lay in a closet close to her mistress's bedchamber, a rich but gloomy little room with old-fashioned furnishings, which included a dark tapestry in indigo blue and mignonette green of a hundred years ago, showing a hunt—a monstrous fat beast being pursued by lean hounds through a dense vegetation of enormous leaves and flowers.

The overcast light of the March day had receded early from this northward-looking chamber; the curtains had been drawn over the window and a lamp lit. The girl lay in a narrow bed, the curtains of white serge, embroidered with fox-gloves and acorns in russet and purple wool, were drawn back; a nun in a dark robe knelt praying beside the bed; at the end of it stood a middle-aged man, whom Desgrez took to be the Doctor; the perfume of incense hung heavily on the enclosed air.

Jacquetta lay stretched on her back, her hands outside the white woollen quilt, a cloak of white fur round her shoulders, her eyes closed and her black hair twisted on the pillow.

Desgrez glanced at the Doctor, who raised his eyebrows and shook his head.

"I have come to question her," whispered the police agent. "You are perhaps M. Aquin?"

The Doctor nodded and replied in a law tone: "I am here by special request of His Majesty, but I can do nothing. This is a terrible affair, I hope M. de La Reynie will spare no pains to investigate it."

"I am here," returned Desgrez still whispering, "because of his sparing no pains. You, Monsieur, who are attending her, you know her injuries. What truth is there in her story?"

The Doctor, whose eyes showed swollen and tired from behind his heavy spectacles, replied in one word: "None"—then laid his fingers on his lips.

"We knew as much," said Desgrez drily, "but I must find out what I can."

"You will be lucky if you discover anything from her," said the Doctor. "She's dying—a question, perhaps, of a few hours."

He bowed and moved towards the door. "I am here by the direct command of His Majesty, to whom I must now make a report. One of Mademoiselle Fontanges's doctors has been attending the young lady. Doctor Rabel."

"Who lectures at the Sorbonne and lives in the Impasse des Fleurs?" asked Desgrez.

"Yes," replied the Doctor. "The very man. He is extremely clever."

"Extremely," agreed the police agent quietly. To himself he added: "They work in a very close ring."

He stepped to the bedside of the young girl and, addressing the nun, said courteously: "My Sister, I am sent by M. de La Reynie, Lieutenant of Police. Will you leave me alone for a few minutes with Mademoiselle Jacquetta?"

The nun looked up from her prayer, which she was reciting to a pear-wood rosary, and bowing without speaking was about to leave the room when another voice caused Desgrez to startle; it came from the corner behind the curtained bed and asked, with a hint of sarcasm: "Am I also to leave the chamber? I am this unfortunate young woman's father, Agostino Malipiero."

Desgrez showed nothing of the surprise that he felt at the presence of this man, which had been effectively concealed by the shadow of the bed curtain.

"If you please, Monsieur," he said coolly. "I have to speak to your daughter alone."

"It seems," sighed the Italian apothecary, rising, "that she is in no condition to speak to anyone. Maybe she will die without opening her lips."

As he spoke the girl unclosed her eyes and turned her mournful gaze slowly from her father to Desgrez.

"Mademoiselle Jacquetta," asked the young police agent, "can you understand me? I am here to help you. We want to discover the cause of your misfortune. Terrible things like this must not happen in the King's palace."

The girl gazed at her father, who remarked drily: "She might answer my questions—she will hardly answer yours."

"Please leave us," commanded Desgrez sternly, then to the girl: "Mademoiselle, I think you have received the Last Rites of the Church, you have confessed to the priest—what you have said I do not know, but it is not enough. You must confide your secrets not only to God, but to me, who represent His Law on earth."

"Yes, yes," whispered Jacquetta from the pillow, "I should die happier if I were to speak. Father," she added on a note of poignant appeal, "leave me. I have so little time left, let me have that to myself."

At this the Italian slowly and reluctantly moved to the end of the room and stood with folded arms in the curtained window-place.

"Further than this I refuse to go," he remarked. "She is my child and she is suffering. I have the skill, the right to help her. Unless you use force you will not make me leave her chamber."

Desgrez hesitated, then decided that the Italian had won this move. To eject him forcibly would be to cause a tumult and a scandal, which might cost the patient her remaining strength. He knew by the 'ghastly change that was taking place in the girl's features that he had arrived almost if not quite too late.

Kneeling down on the bed-step, he said impressively:

"Mademoiselle, you are shortly to appear before God. Do so with a pure conscience. You are now beyond all earthly fears, for the sake of others who may be in danger—tell me the truth."

"For the sake of others," the girl repeated. She tried to turn her head and to sit up. Desgrez placed his arm underneath the pillow and raised her gently. "I know so little," she gasped. "They never told me much. My mistress knows nothing at all."

"No one suspects her," said Desgrez. "Quick, Mademoiselle, tell me all you can."

"My father," whispered Mademoiselle Jacquetta, "is he still in the room? I cannot see, the lamp gives such a poor light."

"He cannot hear what we say," whispered Desgrez. "Is it your father of whom you are afraid?"

"Of him, and others—most of all the Master."

"Yes, the Master? Whom do you mean? Who is hidden under that name?"

The girl tried to shake her head; she stared intently into Desgrez's anxious face with her dark, half-veiled eyes.

"He is not French—an Italian—an Englishman. They need the children for the Mass—everybody must make a sacrifice—if I had not loved him! He always promised to take me away—save my mistress—I think they intend—" She paused, struggling with her fluttering breath. "Was it a crime? I was deceived!"

"Mademoiselle, in the name of God," urged Desgrez anxiously, "explain yourself. I can make nothing of your broken sentences—all is incoherent. Give me a name, a clue!"

"The cock," whispered Mademoiselle Jacquetta, "did you hear the cock?"

Desgrez thought the unhappy creature's mind was wandering and again passionately exhorted her to tell him the truth, to give him at least, as he repeated, a name, a clue. He saw that she was desperately eager to respond, willing to exhaust her last strength. There was an expression of anguish in her eyes and she made a convulsive, fluttering movement towards him—but in vain. He felt her slender body relax on the pillow that he supported. She gave him but one word, and that of no use; it was the name of a flower—"carnation-pink."

The young man laid Mademoiselle Jacquetta back on her bed. Her father with his cat-like tread, who had been intently watching them conversing, as he could not contrive to overhear, came from the shadows by the window.

"So you see, Monsieur," he sighed, "she is dead."

"And it is the business of the police," replied Charles Desgrez glancing up sharply, "to discover who killed her."

"I hope you will," replied the apothecary with what appeared to be sincere distress. "She was my only child and very dear to me."

He bent over his daughter, composing her hands over her breast, closing her eyes, smoothing back her tangled black hair with reluctant, tender movements.

A quick and trained observer, Desgrez was glancing round the room to see if he could discover anything that might be of help to him in his business, when the door opened violently and Mademoiselle de Fontanges entered. She was quite unnerved at the loss of one of her favourite maids under circumstances so mysterious and horrible; she stumbled to the bedside and stood crying like a child, wringing her hands and biting her handkerchief, calling upon her lost Jacquetta to look at her, to speak to her, one word, one glance!

"Mademoiselle, she is dead," said the Italian apothecary with sad calm; he drew the sheet up over his daughter's face. "Let her rest in peace. It is gracious of you," he added gently, "to be concerned over one so insignificant."

Mademoiselle de Fontanges did not appear to hear these words, at least she took no notice of them: throwing herself on the embroidered bed she rested her fair head on the white coverlet and sobbed out in an excess of almost hysterical weakness:

"Save me, save me! Oh, God, do not let this happen to me! No, no, I will not, I will go into a convent, I will go to the ends of the earth!"

"What is she afraid of?" asked Desgrez, and touched the distracted lady on her satin-clad shoulder. "Mademoiselle, you must not speak so freely in front of me, in front of your apothecary. Have you no friend here, no one in whom you can confide?"

She raised her smooth, pearl-like face disfigured by tears and stared at him for a moment as if she did not realize who he was, then muttering: "Oh, yes, the police agent," she allowed him to assist her to her feet; he had to hold her, she was trembling so violently.

"Can you tell me anything?" he asked. "Mademoiselle Jacquetta is dead, it might be possible to save others from her fate. Can you throw any light upon this mystery?"

Mademoiselle de Fontanges shook her head; her blonde hair had fallen on to her fine lace collar, her pale satin dress; she looked like a white rose drenched in a storm; the young man felt an immense compassion for her; M. de La Reynie had said that she was so lonely, so high-placed, subject to such temptation...

"Let me take you out of this room, Mademoiselle."

"No, no, I will stay, I want to watch by Jacquetta." She looked half-timidly, half-defiantly at the Italian apothecary. "You, Monsieur, must leave us also. After the good nun comes back she and I will pray together."

"Come," said Desgrez to the Italian.

The two men left the room together; the grey nun slipped back to her place and Mademoiselle de Fontanges's voice could be heard coming in sobs from behind her clenched fingers: "Save me, save me! Oh, God, save me!"

In the noble, dark corridor was Doctor Rabel, hastening towards the sick-room. Desgrez greeted him with a dry smile.

"Odd that we should meet again so soon, Doctor." He touched his plastered forehead. "I am very grateful for your care. You see it has quite put me on my feet again."

Doctor Rabel, who was by daylight a little owl-like man, grey and mildly staring, said in an unconcerned tone:

"Ah, Monsieur the police agent! Well, I suppose you are here investigating the mystery of poor Mademoiselle Jacquetta. I heard that Doctor Aquin was attending her, and I have been at the hospital."

Desgrez interrupted: "It is too late, Doctor, she died a few minutes ago."

Doctor Rabel did not appear in the least surprised; he lifted his shoulders to his ears: "Well, I can spare you the trouble of investigating this case any further," he said in a confidential tone, pointing his finger at the young man's chest. "It was a love affair, you understand, and it was rather badly bungled. Mademoiselle Jacquetta was desperate to save what young ladies term their honour, so she made up, with her father's help, that rather stupid story. Just that," repeated the doctor with a deepening smile, "a love affair and no more."

"A common sort of affair to ask the police to help in," said Desgrez drily.

"Ah, indeed." The Doctor took a pinch of snuff. "It's a pity it should happen in the household of Mademoiselle de Fontanges. It was very badly managed. The little Italian girl might have kept her lover, her baby and her honour, if she had made her preparations a little more carefully. As it is, my dear sir, I am afraid you have wasted your time."

"Mademoiselle de Fontanges seems much distressed," said Desgrez. He looked out of the window by which he stood at the grey rain over Paris and the grey river, in which were reflected the sparse lights of the lamps far set on the parapet.

"One understands that," said Doctor Rabel genially. "Poor little Jacquetta fell a victim to temptations, to the lures of some charming lover. Mademoiselle de Fontanges, here, might find herself in a like case. She is in a difficult position, there is no one to protect her." The Doctor again shrugged his neat, rounded shoulders. "One understands this tragedy would make a great impression on her."

"What do you know of the father, the Italian apothecary?" asked Desgrez, standing in the narrow corridor in such a position that the other could not pass him.

"Quite an inoffensive fellow," replied the Doctor blandly. "Able too, in his ways. He supplies me with many useful drugs which he gets from Italy."

"He is with his daughter now," smiled the young police agent. "No doubt, Doctor, he will be glad of your consolation."


3. — INNOCENZO, NEPHEW TO THE POPE

He turned and followed the page who was waiting to guide him to the door by which he had entered the Louvre; the vast palace, so sombre, magnificent and silent, oppressed him; he had, too, been saddened by the death of Jacquetta and the painful, childish distress of her mistress; himself upright and temperate he was disgusted by this society, on the surface so gay and brilliant, where such horrors were possible—yes, horrors, for whatever truth there might be in the tale of Doctor Rabel it was clear that one of these girls had been destroyed and that the other was in grave fear because of secret intrigues instigated by ambition, greed and lust.

The page led Desgrez across a large salon, which was full of shadow; the fire under the high hooded chimney had burnt to a bed of red ashes, the heavy curtains of dark-crimson Venetian cut velvet were still drawn back from the tall windows that showed the grey, gloomy prospect of Paris beneath a dark sky.

Crossing this room, and directly in the way of Desgrez, was a young man of singularly pleasant aspect; his clothes were of almost clerical sobriety, his smooth dark hair hung on his crisp linen collar, and his long fingers were between the pages of a book. Glancing with aversion at Desgrez this gentleman exclaimed:

"A police agent in the Louvre!"

"Yes, Monsieur, I have been sent to investigate a very unfortunate affair."

"That of Mademoiselle Jacquetta?" asked the other sadly. "Does she live?"

"No. I have just seen her die."

The young man made the sign of the cross on his breast, a faint tremor of disgust passed over his serene features.

"The Court of France," he said serenely, "is one of the ante-chambers of Hell. I do not envy the Chief of Police."

"You are very bold, Monsieur."

"Perhaps because I have nothing to fear," sighed the other, as with a courteous bow he turned towards the dying fire.

"You are fortunate," replied Desgrez as he followed the page out of the gloomy salon. "Who is that gentleman?" he asked the boy in the corridor.

"That is the Marchese Innocenzo Pignata, nephew to His Holiness the Pope."

"He is here on a diplomatic mission?"

"No, Monsieur—he has been sent from the Pope to the King on private business. Everyone respects him—people say that he could be a Cardinal if he wanted."

"He allows himself very free speech."

"Yes, Monsieur, the King permits him every freedom—as he permits any liberty to M. Bossuet. It is believed that His Majesty thinks M. Pignata a saint."

"I think he may be," replied Desgrez; he had been much impressed by the personality, austere and serene, of the young Italian, who seemed to disdain so coldly the vicious atmosphere in which he moved. "Probably," the young police agent thought, "the King respects him because he tells him the truth; it is as well that there is someone to do so."

He had reached the postern door by which he had entered and the page, opening this, left him on the wet step.

Twilight had fallen, the sparse river-side lamps glimmered dully through a rising mist; the rain fell in a cold drizzle, now and then driven by gusts of wind.

Desgrez felt baffled, dissatisfied and oppressed by a sense of failure; he was haunted too, by last night's adventure—the Negro coachman, the frightened girl...

He had memorized the last words of the unfortunate Jacquetta, but he could make no sense of them and feared they were but the babblings of a broken, dying mind. What could she have meant by her references to "the Master", to a cock, to "carnation", to an Englishman, to an Italian?

Perhaps, indeed, it was just a sordid tragedy, common enough in a licentious Court, and the unhappy girl had died, as Doctor Babel said she had died, from the results of a secret love intrigue; perhaps her lover was a foreigner, an Englishman or an Italian, perhaps the crowing of a cock had been the signal agreed on between them for their secret meetings, at first so charming and tender, afterwards so full of terror and anxiety. Perhaps her first pledge-offering to him had been a knot of pinks or carnations.

But—what Desgrez had seen last night? As the door of the Louvre closed behind him the young man lifted his shoulders with a shrug of resignation; he had a poor story to tell M. de La Reynie and no story at all to tell Solange. The wind blew in icy gusts into his face and flapped his hat about his eyes.


4. — THE PLENIPOTENTIARY FROM SAVOY

He was turning in sober mood along the embankment towards the dark arch of the bridge when he heard a step behind him and, turning, saw that a man had followed him from the palace; this was a tall, sallow fellow, who addressed him with a half-insolent civility, speaking French with a strong foreign accent.

"You are Charles Desgrez, an agent of police? You have been sent by M. de La Reynie, eh, to investigate the attack on Mademoiselle Malipiero?"

Desgrez nodded, scanning the speaker closely through the twilight.

"Well, before you make your report to the Chief of Police it will be to your interest to see my master."

"And who may he be?" asked Desgrez, smiling, as he clutched his hat and bent before a sudden onslaught of wind and rain.

"One who can make it worth your while to oblige him," replied the other. "Come, there is no mystery—he Is the Ambassador of Savoy, the Comte de Ferrero."

Desgrez was completely surprised by this name, which he did not connect in the least with the business he had in hand; but disguising his amazement he replied that he was at the service of His Excellency of Savoy.

"But you must come with me now," insisted the sallow young man. "It will be too late after you have returned to the Bastille."

So saying he took the young police agent's arm in a familiar way and led him along the windy quay.

"I congratulate you," he grinned. "You have not been long in the police force, you are, forgive me, a raw provincial, and this piece of good luck comes your way."

"The good luck of attracting your master's attention?" said Desgrez, feeling his way through this mysterious conversation.

"Oh, I don't know that you have attracted his attention. Any police agent who had been sent to the Louvre to-day would have received the same consideration."

"Yet you know something about me," countered the young man, "how long I have been in Paris and so on."

"Yes, it is our business to know all that goes on in the Court, and, of course, when we heard that you were taking up this case it was to our interest to find out something about you. Your very simple dossier, my dear Desgrez, is in the hands of His Excellency."

The young man smiled as if he had made a good joke.

Charles Desgrez was thinking rapidly. No one had known, save the Chief of Police himself, that he; Desgrez, was going to the Louvre to investigate the tragedy of Mademoiselle Jacquetta: it would have been quite impossible for the Ambassador of Savoy to have discovered who was going to be sent on this business. It followed then, argued Desgrez, that the attention of De Ferrero must have been attracted to himself before; was the envoy from Turin, then, interested in the Widow Bosse, in the mysterious house in the Impasse des Fleurs? Who, wondered the young police agent, could have warned him that I was concerned in this business? The hag of a fortune-teller herself or Doctor Babel, whom I do not trust at all, the fat, innocent-looking priest who lodges with him, the Italian apothecary. And how is he, the Ambassador of the Duke of Savoy, concerned in all these matters?

While Desgrez thus considered the case in which he found himself, he was keeping up a casual conversation with his companion, on whom he now and then cast a wary eye; he thought that it was quite possible that his guide had been sent to lure him into some deserted quarter, some dismal cul-de-sac, to be kidnapped or murdered, and that this sallow-faced fellow had nothing whatever to do with the great personage whose name he so freely used.

But his fear proved unfounded. His companion conducted him to the hôtel of the Ambassador of Savoy, which Desgrez knew well—it was his business to know all the principal residences in Paris.

When they were in the ornate porch of this handsome mansion, the young man said to Desgrez:

"You will not see M. de Ferrero, the Ambassador of Savoy, but M. de Saint-Maurice, who is Plenipotentiary to France, as doubtless you know. He brings the gratitude of the Dowager Duchess for the condolences of His Most Christian Majesty on the untimely death of her husband, the late Duke Charles Emmanuel II."

"That is doubtless very interesting," replied Desgrez as he followed the other into the magnificent hall of the hôtel, "but I cannot see what it has to do with me or with my business."

As he spoke he tried to recall all that he knew about the late Duke of Savoy and his Duchess, Marie de Nemours, but he possessed nothing more than the common knowledge of these Princes.

The last Duke, a relative of the King of France, had died suddenly from a chill caught while out hunting; his widow was a French Princess, gay and difficult, a favourite of the late Queen Dowager, Anne of Austria. Desgrez knew no more than this; he had not seen either the Ambassador or the Plenipotentiary.

His guide took him up wide and handsome stairs to a little chamber, richly hung with gilt leather, where a young man dressed in the extreme of fashion was lounging in a high-backed gilt chair, turning over the last copy of the Gazette de France.

"This, Monseigneur, is M. Charles Desgrez—Lieutenant Desgrez, the police agent."

So saying, Desgrez's companion bowed and left him alone with the stranger, who, putting his paper down but not rising, looked at him with half-amused interest.

This scrutiny the young Norman willingly returned; he found the gentleman not at all to his taste: he did not like either his exceptionally good-looking, smooth features, framed as they were in a quantity of glossy black ringlets, or his costume of peach-coloured velvet and silver braiding, or his air of half-insolent bravado. Charles Desgrez was quick to decide that this brilliant young cavalier owed much to his tailor and barber, to native effrontery and comeliness and that he pushed his fortunes through his success with women.

"I am the Comte de Saint-Maurice," remarked Saint-Maurice coolly. "Doubtless you are surprised, M. l'agent de police, that I have sent for you."

"I am trained," replied Desgrez quietly, "to be surprised at nothing, Monseigneur."

"That is the right attitude." The young cavalier smiled, indicated a stool and begged the young police agent to be seated. "In Paris I am Plenipotentiary of Savoy, in Turin I am Grand Chamberlain to the Dowager Duchess."

His words and his information were commonplace, but Desgrez noticed that there was a shrewdness and a sparkle in his large dark eyes that were in contradiction to the insipid handsomeness of his charming features.

"Monseigneur has a distinguished position."

"I have also responsibilities. Madame, whom His Most Christian Majesty permits to be termed Madame Royale, is often homesick for Paris. She has instructed me to buy furniture, pictures, even costumes—she has a sure reliance on my taste. She also wishes me to procure for her active and able men. A French Princess—forgive me if I emphasize this point—likes to see her own countrymen about her." Saint-Maurice paused for a second, smiling at Desgrez, and then added abruptly: "Would you, Monsieur, care to take service at the Court of Turin, say in the private police force of Her Royal Highness? I can promise you good pay, every consideration and every chance of promotion."

"To what," asked Desgrez, "do I owe the honour of this offer, which is as unexpected, Monseigneur, as it is gratifying?"

"Oh," replied Saint-Maurice carelessly, "I do not waste my time here. My nominal errand is a mere formality, I have plenty of leisure for the business of the Duchess. I am a friend of M. de La Reynie. I dined with him the other night, he mentioned you, your services. I thought, that is the man for Madame Royale. I have engaged several other Frenchmen for her service."

Desgrez appeared to hesitate, as if he were dazzled and amazed by this sumptuous offer; all the while he was turning the situation over swiftly in his mind and coming to a decision. At last he said, with an air of embarrassment:

"Monseigneur, I am truly overwhelmed—this is all so surprising. I have a young wife."

"She, too, would be welcome in Turin," replied the other smoothly. "As you are both from Caen, perhaps you would not find yourselves greater strangers in Turin than you do in Paris."

Charles Desgrez quickly decided what course to take.

"If you had made me this offer a few days ago, Monseigneur," he said with an air of candour, "I should have been only too honoured to accept. But it happens that I am on a very important piece of business."

"Ah, I suppose you are not permitted to say what that business is," smiled Saint-Maurice, playing with the golden acorns that hung from the ribbons at his wrist.

With an assumed frankness tinged with stupidity, Desgrez replied:

"M. de La Reynie thinks he has put his fingers on a group of criminals engaged in some obscure conspiracy. He has entrusted me with investigating this affair. I find the work very interesting. If I am successful it will mean promotion. You can understand that under these circumstances I do not care to leave Paris."

Saint-Maurice flung down his paper and rose suddenly; Desgrez also out of respect got to his feet. He saw now that the young man was very tall with wide shoulders and narrow hips, of athletic build; there was something formidable about his strength; his dark grace, his precise, almost girlish features set off by the fleece of black curls.

"Nevertheless." he said abruptly, "I advise you to do so. Yes, Lieutenant Desgrez, I advise you to leave this affair alone. I know, on good authority, that it is not one that you, with your experience, can wisely meddle with."

"Ah, well, Monseigneur, you advise me to leave it alone—you have, then, a good idea of what it is?"

"Think over my offer and accept it," smiled Saint-Maurice. "You are a good fellow with a young wife and fair prospects. Keep clear of Court intrigue."

"Monseigneur," said Desgrez sharply, "I did not mention the words Court intrigue. I said I was investigating an affair for the Chief of Police."

"Do not let us quarrel over words," replied Saint-Maurice indifferently. "I have made my offer, I have given you my advice. You must see," he added with meaning, "the fact that I have taken the trouble to receive you privately shows I regard the affair as of some importance." He bowed, then remarked quietly: "Allow me to assure you once more, Monsieur, that you would not regret going to Turin. But really, I have no more time to waste on a trivial matter."

He struck a bell. The sallow man who had conducted Desgrez from the Louvre to the Hôtel de Savoie instantly appeared and took the young police agent down the magnificent stairs to the front door.

"I hope," smiled he confidentially, "you are pleased with your interview with Monsieur de Saint-Maurice. If he has cast a favourable eye on you, your fortune is made. He is a very great personage indeed in Turin."

"No doubt," said Desgrez guardedly, "he is the kind of man that would be successful anywhere."

"I am his secretary," remarked the other, pausing with his hands on the bolt of the front door. "My name is Cléry, Pierre Cléry. I know my master well. He is, as you say, the kind of man that would be successful anywhere. I might tell you also that he can be formidable, nay, terrible, anywhere."

With that M. Cléry opened the door and bowed Desgrez into the street. Expecting to be followed, Desgrez turned along the windy, rain-swept quay in the opposite direction to the Bastille; but after a while he satisfied himself that there was no one tracking him, so turned about and went to the Police Headquarters in the Bastille.


5. — THE PAPER IN THE CONFESSIONAL

M. de La Reynie admitted him instantly to his office—he had, indeed, been waiting for him—and Desgrez related what had happened at the Louvre and his interview with M. de Saint-Maurice.

"It was obviously, Monsieur, an attempt to bribe me, to get me out of the way. Saint-Maurice didn't trouble to disguise his intention. He offered me almost anything I might like to ask for, if I would drop these investigations and leave Paris. He thinks I know too much. But of what knowledge am I suspected, Monsieur? I have been thinking over the whole affair. I cannot put two and two together."

"I certainly did not think," smiled M. de La Reynie, with a sparkle of excitement in his tired eyes, "that when we were tracking our quarry we should come upon the Court of Savoy. Now what the devil have La Bosse and this poor Italian girl, the Italian apothecary, and Doctor Rabel, if it is true that he has anything to do with it—I tell you his career is irreproachable—but what the devil have these people to do with M. de Saint-Maurice?"

"Is anything known of him?" asked Desgrez eagerly. "He is an exceptional man, powdered, scented, with features like a girl's—but no fool, no weakling."

"He is reputed to be the lover of the Duchess of Savoy—that is all I know of him," replied M. de La Reynie. "I have had no reason to take any interest in him so far. Now we will keep a watch on him. You say he is no fool, no weakling—he made a stupid move to-day when he tried to bribe you so openly. He might have guessed that you would come straight to me with the tale."

"He thought I was a raw provincial who could not fail to be dazzled. I daresay, now he sees that I have not been dazzled, he will take other means."

"I daresay," repeated M. de La Reynie, with a cynic smile. "Look out for your safety, don't go about alone. Beware of traps. If M. de Saint-Maurice thinks that you know something that affects him or his mistress, it is quite likely he will take measures to remove you. Perhaps you would, after all, have been wise to accept his bribe."

The Chief of Police glanced at his subordinate, who smiled without replying; then M. de La Reynie took a paper from a portfolio that lay close under his hands.

"I do not know if this is anything to do with the affair that we are dealing with, but a Jesuit from the Jesuit Church in the rue Saint-Antoine found this in one of the confessional boxes to-day. It is a letter with neither address nor date nor signature that refers to the proposed taking off of a high personage—the King himself, as it would seem. It may be a trap, a trick, a false scent—it may be something very important. In the same way that Mademoiselle Jacquetta may have died—a mere ruined folly—or there may be something else behind her tragedy—even those stupid words that she gave you with her last breath, poor child, may have a meaning."

"I wish I could think so, Monsieur."

"This paper about the King may have no importance. Something else has occurred," continued M. de La Reynie. "We have arrested a certain Madame Poulaillon, one Marguerite de Jehan, a young widow. You know we reopened 'The Lily Pot' and made it look as if La Bosse were still in business. Well, this poor fool walked straight into the trap. At present she is half-dead with fear and will say nothing. But presently, I hope, I can make her speak."

"What is there against her?"

"Only an old husband who died suddenly and a good-for-nothing lover, whom she's been supporting out of that same husband's coffers."

M. de La Reynie then showed Desgrez the scrap of paper that had been found by the Jesuits in one of their confessional boxes, remarking that the priests had no clue to which of their penitents had dropped it. Several ladies had visited that particular confessional box in the course of the day, and all had denied any knowledge of the paper.

It was gilt-edged, smelt of bergamot, and on it was written in English:

"The affair is becoming extremely dangerous. I shall write no more. I do not wish to be involved in bringing down such a magnificent quarry. Remember the difficulties of the enterprise. Not only France but the whole of Europe will be shocked and disturbed. You are too ambitious, too vindictive. You could never make it worth my while."

"Monsieur," asked Desgrez, "do you read that as referring to some plot against the King? Why is it in English? Perhaps it is the King of England to whom it refers."

M. de La Reynie shrugged his shoulders. "It appears to be a woman's notepaper and a woman's hand. It seems such an unaccountable piece of carelessness for one involved in anything dangerous to drop this in the confessional, and I am inclined to believe that it is a trick—something to put us off the track. I have a list of the ladies who visit the Jesuit Church—they include Madame de Soissons and Madame de Bouillon. That reminds me that I have heard that this M. de Saint-Maurice frequently visits the Hôtel de Soissons."

"It is natural, I suppose, since Madame de Soissons is connected with the House of Savoy."

"She is also," commented the Chief of Police drily, "a widow. You notice, my dear Desgrez, that in this investigation we come upon a good number of widows. Also Madame de Soissons was Olympe Mancini, one of Cardinal Mazarin's nieces, an Italian. It is not difficult to connect all these people together."

"But, Monsieur," said Desgrez earnestly, "I cannot see what is behind it all, what these people have to do with one another, what we are really fighting against."

"The secret sale of poisons in Paris," replied the Chief of Police quietly. "That, Desgrez, is what we have to face first of all. Then we have to discover who are these traders in death and where they obtain their stock-in-trade and who are their clients. We have to discover, also, if they are all but little people, or if, possibly, we may come upon some great ones connected with Court intrigues and politics."

Desgrez looked round the plain dark office with the bay window; it seemed such a quiet, dull, business-like place, yet the young man knew it was the nerve centre of a large, skilful organization on which the lives and peace of mind of all honest citizens depended. To Desgrez the Chief of Police was more important than the King and all his ministers; he was also a man in whose integrity the young man had complete trust; not wholly for selfish reasons did Desgrez long with an intensity that was almost violent to disentangle this affair of the poisons, he wished to serve, to please, M. de La Reynie.

"Monsieur," he asked eagerly. "What shall we do now?"

The elder man smiled kindly, if a little sadly, at this enthusiasm.

"We must wait. We must distrust all evidence until we have proofs. It is true that M. de Saint-Maurice did dine with me, and did try to recruit for the police force of Savoy. His application to you might, possibly, have been genuine. He may be no more than the mignon of Marie de Nemours—his concern may be that he is the friend of Jacquetta Malipiero's lover and wishes to hush that scandal up."

"I am convinced that it was Jacquetta Malipiero whom I saw last night descending from the coach driven by the Negro."

"It is likely enough. Work of that kind—abortion, infanticide—why, it is a trade in Paris, almost impossible to trace, so many are concerned in keeping it quiet. The law scarcely touches these horrors."

"But if the woman dies—is it not murder?"

"Yes—but how to prove it? Some tale is made up—like the attack in the Orangery—wild, foolish, incredible—but how to disprove it?"

"If we could arrest some of the scoundrels, we could force the truth out of them!"

"We have no evidence against anyone. The girl may have been going to Dr. Rabel's house, but I really cannot suspect him." M. de La Reynie shrugged his shoulders. "We must work very slowly, very carefully. If we are too officious—we shall find ourselves suddenly silenced. The King detests scandal."

"I saw a certain Marchese Pignata in the Louvre," said Desgrez. "My page told me the King respected him—feared him, perhaps."

"That is true—but what has it to do with our affair?"

"Pardon, Monsieur, but who exactly is this gentleman?"

"A very gifted, brilliant man—but a fanatic, he cares for nothing but the supremacy of Rome. He has been sent to France to steady the King against the Protestants, to keep the Church of France loyal to the Pope."

"Thank you, Monsieur—he seemed truly shocked by the death of Mademoiselle Jacquetta."

"He was sincere. He has refused all worldly honours which he might have had, and lives like a monk—vice disgusts him, crime angers him, he seems to have none of the passions of his age."

"Well, Monsieur," said Desgrez eagerly, "a man of this type must have great influence with the King, who is, at heart, very religious."

"Yes—but how does this help us?"

"Well, Monsieur, if I were Lieutenant of Police I should take this Innocenzo Pignata into my confidence and ask him to persuade the King to allow me to arrest all persons suspected of being customers of the Widow Bosse—"

M. de La Reynie laughed as he interrupted.

"You do not yet know the Court, Desgrez! We must employ indirect methods. But, if the chance arises I shall try to enlist the help of the Marchese Pignata."


6. — THE FIRST PRISONER IN THE BASTILLE

Marguerite de Jehan, Madame de Poulaillon, had collapsed as soon as she was arrested and it was impossible to obtain anything from her but expressions of incoherent fear and indignation.

She was a small, fair woman who seemed at once frivolous and gentle, not more than twenty-three years of age, ignorant, elegant and naturally gay; her story, to a man of M. de La Reynie's experience, was not in the least extraordinary.

The daughter of small shopkeepers and convent-bred, she had been married at eighteen to M. de Poulaillon, a widower, a manufacturer of porcelain, and a man thirty years her senior. The marriage had been unhappy. The young wife was so extravagant that the husband refused to allow her to have a sou in her pocket, even buying her clothes and household necessaries for her in case she should cheat him in the price of these.

In spite of this severity on the part of her husband, Marguerite de Jehan had contrived to find a lover, an idle, good-looking young scoundrel of the name of Saint-Richard, who made his living by getting into the good graces of well-to-do women.

While her husband was away on business in Flanders, Madame de Poulaillon had sold most of the furniture in his house, including a very valued possession—a bed furnished in English moire; the proceeds of this reckless act had gone into the pocket of young Saint-Richard.

When the husband returned, furious scenes had followed his discovery of his wife's actions; she had been shut up in the house, being allowed to go out only to Mass accompanied by a manservant wholly in the confidence of her husband. She had affected, however, a deep penitence and contrived to get once more in the old man's good graces and wholly to conceal from him the existence of her lover. Soon after this reconciliation the porcelain merchant fell ill, and despite all his wife's devoted nursing, died in a few days.

His widow had then taken possession of everything on which she could lay her hands, and, defying the relatives who were the heirs to her husband's fortune, had lavishly supplied her lover with money. At the time of her arrest she was still living in her husband's hôtel waiting for his affairs to be settled and under the guardianship of a brother-in-law and his wife. These people were very bitter against the blonde little woman who had wasted, in so criminal a fashion, as they declared, their brother's substance, and who, they were sure, was visiting "The Lily Pot" for very evil reasons indeed.

But M. de La Reynie could get no direct evidence against her; a female servant, who was supposed to be in her confidence, one Catherine Tokin, had disappeared, and it was impossible to find Saint-Richard.

It was M. de La Reynie that suggested to Desgrez that his wife should visit Madame de Poulaillon and endeavour to extract the truth from her; Solange had passionately demanded of her husband the right to help him in his task, but she made a wry face when asked to visit the Bastille and cross-examine this miserable prisoner; this was not the kind of assistance which she really wished to render, but she sup pressed her feelings of distaste, listened carefully to the instructions that the Chief of Police gave her personally and was admitted on the afternoon of a stormy day towards the end of March into the cell in the Bastille where the Widow Bosse's unhappy client was confined.

The apartment was comfortable and decently furnished; it held a fire, writing materials, a good lamp, a shelf with books of devotion, a comfortable bed, a straw-stuffed chair, a screen, and a worn carpet; but Solange, with an inward shudder, noticed at once that the place was unmistakably a prison. There was the barred window set high and looking on a blank wall, there was the heavy door with bolts and locks, beyond which a jailer was perpetually on guard, and there was, beyond the screen, in a corner of the room discreet with her book of devotion, a grey nun. Madame de Poulaillon was never left alone, because it was feared she might endeavour to destroy herself in a fit of despair.

When Solange looked at the little creature huddled up on the bed with closed eyes, bluish lips and twitching hands, her heart failed her; it seemed cruel to torture one already in such despair; it seemed, also, hopeless to expect from one in such a state of collapse any information of value. Forcing herself, however, to an air of confidence and serenity, Solange approached the bed, sat down on the stool beside it and took one of the little woman's restless hands in her firm clasp.

"I have come as a friend," she said in her cool, pleasant voice. "You are in a terrible situation and I pity you from my heart. I may be able to help you, too. Please look at me—I think, when you see my face, you will understand that I am not here to trick or deceive you."

Madame de Poulaillon opened her eyes, which were blood shot with tears and sleeplessness; she snatched away her hand, sat up in bed and broke into a flood of meaningless protestations—why had she been arrested?—she was innocent, she had never done any wrong—unless it was wrong for a young woman to love a young man and to hate an old husband—and she began lamenting Saint-Richard, of whom she had had no news since she had been in the Bastille.

"He is safe, I can assure you of that," said Solange. "He has not been arrested, I do not think he is in any danger. Probably he has left the country. You can help him and your self and all your friends if you will tell the truth."

"The truth," repeated the prisoner as if the words sounded strange in her ears.

"Yes, the truth," said Solange with a stern accent. "Come, it is known that the Widow Bosse sold poisons. You were found going to her shop, secretly at night. She had fled but you did not know that. Come now, Madame de Poulaillon, what were you going to that shop for?"

"I used to go to meet Saint-Richard there," replied the prisoner faintly. "The Widow Bosse kept a maison de rendez-vous—that was how she made her money. She had two fine chambers at the back of the shop and another one upstairs. It paid her to buy the houses next door, so everything was secret and quiet." The prisoner glanced furtively sideways at Solange. "I used to go and buy soap and perfume there, too."

"Yes," agreed Madame Desgrez, "but what kind of soap and what kind of perfume? You remember the case of Madame de Brinvilliers, how she was tortured, taken in a tumbril through Paris, beheaded in front of Notre-Dame and how her body was thrown to the flames, because she had poisoned people?"

A spasm passed over the wan face of Madame de Poulaillon; she sat up in bed, clasping her hands feverishly round her hunched-up knees; twice she tried to speak, but her dry lips refused to move.

"I can save you from these horrors," urged Solange. "The police believe that they have put their finger on a conspiracy of criminals. If you will help them—"

"How can I help?" whispered the prisoner, shrinking into herself and speaking with difficulty. "I don't know what she gave me. She said the bottles held potions for charms. I gave them to my husband in his broth to make him kinder to me."

"Did you not give them to him in order that he might die and leave you his money, that you might be free to go to your lover? And When you found you had but exchanged one tyranny for another and that your brother and sister-in-law were taking up residence in your hôtel, did you not think that you would go back to La Bosse and get another charm to put in their broth?"

"It cannot be known!" sighed the prisoner; she fell back on her pillow as if half-unconscious, but Solange saw her eyes gleaming underneath the fair lashes and her fingers stiffly clutching the coarse blanket.

"You cannot pretend and act with me as you can with the men, Madame de Poulaillon. I see that you are trying to be cunning. Very well. I will leave you."

Solange rose and the prisoner at once sat up in bed and caught her skirt.

"No, don't leave me. I will tell you all I know, if you'll save me, if you'll swear—"

Solange broke in on this desperate vehemence. "I can swear to nothing. I have no power to promise anything—but if you help the police, we will see that you are protected."

A convulsion of terror, which Solange saw was not assumed, now shook the prisoner, who sat up crouching on the pallet bed.

"But I dare not! You do not know how powerful they are! You do not understand any of it! They always threatened me that if I breathed a word—"

"Yes, but who are they?" asked Solange, leaning forward. "Who are these people who have this power over you? Who was the Widow Bosse?"

"She was only one of their agents," shuddered Madame de Poulaillon. "I didn't know much about her, she was only one of those people that one met at the services of the Mass that was held in that house at the end of the Impasse des Fleurs. I did not go there often. He was so unfaithful—Saint-Richard, I mean—I gave him all the money I could."

"Yes, the old house in the Impasse des Fleurs," repeated Solange quietly, "and the Mass? What was this service?"

"It was in honour of the Devil," whispered Madame de Poulaillon. "They said one had to do it, or the charms would not work. There were horrors—but one had to shut one's eyes. They all worked under the direction of the Master. I never saw him—I think he is an Englishman."

She fell back again as if exhausted and a light foam gathered on her pale lips.

"Tell me," asked Solange, speaking gently, "how one may find these people and attend these Satanic rites? They shall never know that you have betrayed them. Come, you are safe."

But the tormented girl shook her head on the coarse pillow. "Give me the password," urged Solange. "Tell me how you found your way there."

"If one shows in one's hand," whispered Madame de Poulaillon without opening her eyes, "a black cross upside down—"

A convulsion shook her; her limbs then became rigid; she lay still.

Solange tried to comfort the unhappy creature, for whom she felt an unreasoning pity.

"You are so young," she pleaded, leaning over her. "Perhaps you have only been foolish, deceived by others, perhaps if you have done wrong, it has been unintentional. Come, make amends by helping us to discover and wipe out this evil."

Madame de Poulaillon opened her eyes; she seemed quite exhausted.

"I trust you and believe in you." Her feeble hand caught at the strong fingers of Solange Desgrez. "But I can't talk now. Indeed I am tired. The doctor has been giving me laudanum for the pain in my head, and that has made me sleepy. If I have done wrong," she added with a feeble attempt at violence, "it was because I was so unhappy! A girl does not like to live like a bird in a cage—locked up by an old man. He beat me because I sold his bed of English moire—it was a hideous thing, too." She turned her thin face to the pillow and began to weep.

Solange saw that it was of no use to endeavour to question her any longer.

"I will come again to-morrow," she said quietly with impressive serenity. "Please think over all I have told you—please give me an exact account of all you know. I think I can promise you perfect safety, in the future perhaps, even happiness."

"Yes, yes," whispered the prisoner from her pillow. "It will ease me to confess—I will tell you everything. But not now, not now—my head is not clear, I do not remember very well."

Solange rose, and looking behind the screen, made a sign to the holy sister to attend to her patient. As the dark-robed sister rose to her feet, Solange left the prison. She was disappointed that she had nothing to give her husband but a recital of some confused jargon, no more coherent than that which had left the lips of Jacquetta, the Italian girl, on her death-bed, and which very likely meant nothing at all except that the unfortunate Madame de Poulaillon had been in love with a scoundrel, for whose sake she had robbed her husband and bought charms and even drugs from the Widow Bosse.

Charles Desgrez agreed with his wife's opinion of what she had been able to extract from the prisoner. Very likely in Marguerite de Jehan they had nothing but a weak, silly, vicious little woman driven to desperate straits by ill-treatment.

"We have no proof at all," said the young agent of police, "that she poisoned her husband. She may, indeed, as she said herself, have gone to the shop merely to meet her lover. It is certainly odd that she should have mentioned the empty house in the Impasse des Fleurs, but it is quite possible that that was only used for some more or less innocent purposes."

"Innocent purposes!" grimaced Solange with a little lift of her pretty upper lip, which made Desgrez exclaim in laughing rebuke:

"I see, my dear, that you take very lightly these matters, which seem to me most serious! Do you think," he added with mock gravity, "that that is the way for a young wife to behave?"

Charles Desgrez took his Solange round the waist and kissed her smooth cheeks.

"You must remember what kind of husband she has, my dear!" she exclaimed, "one who takes horrors for granted and is quite at home with scoundrels!"

"That is my work, Solange—one must have a certain in sensibility."

But Charles Desgrez did not feel as easy as he tried to appear; the business in which he had so unexpectedly found himself engaged did secretly shock and horrify him; crime he expected to have to face, but there was about this affair of the poisoners a miasma of evil that was peculiarly dreadful; the fact that these young women, Mademoiselle de Fontanges, Jacquetta and Madame de Poulaillon were involved in matters so noisome and mysterious was intensely painful to Charles Desgrez. He did not care to think of that little shop where the unctuous widow sold poison so freely to discontented wives—he did not care to think that Dr. Rabel, a hard-working physician well known for his charity. was concerned in infanticide, or that the meek, rosy priest, Father Davout, might be his accomplice. He felt as if he and his young wife belonged to another world from that in which the poisoners moved; he looked round the hired room that she had made so charming and clasped her close, laying his cheek next to hers; a frightening sensation that their lives, in themselves so happy, were built over a dark abyss of wrong and suffering, possessed him; supposing their thin crust of security cracked and they were engulfed in the blackness of these unnamable horrors!

Too eagerly and thoughtlessly he had taken this dear creature from her comfortable provincial home, where no one had ever dreamed of the underworld of Paris or of those who crawled there.

Some fear seemed to touch Solange also, for she said with a sigh under her breath:

"I wish I had not seen that poor wretch in the Bastille—Charles, she was no older than I!"

Struggling against his own repugnance the police agent replied:

"But if she does confess anything to you, the lives of many people may be saved—Solange, it is really our duty to get to the bottom of this business, as it is the duty of a doctor to cut away the tumour that is killing the patient."

"Yes, I know."

They stood silent, each thinking of Paris, the tortuous slums, the crooked alleys, the cavernous doorways, the windswept, river-washed quays, the dens and hovels that clustered close to the magnificent courts of the Louvre, the austere and noble outlines of the University, the splendid mansions of the nobility. Solange had a simple unquestioning faith in God that gave her a courage not easily shaken and, besides, knew little of what Charles knew or suspected about the secret practices of the poisoners; but he could not altogether repress a shudder at the thought of Satan and his crew. Who could say that these were not fiends, or that fiendish work was not abroad in Paris? Who knew what power the Evil one possessed? Desgrez, like many robust-minded, hard-headed Normans, possessed a strong vein of mysticism and was unable to discredit all evidence of the supernatural.

Solange seemed to read his thoughts, for she tenderly kissed his cheek and said gravely:

"We must go on, Charles, and trust in God."

The commonplace words were full of meaning for the young man; they did really seem to picture the brilliant, if distant light of Eternal Justice shining over the dark places of human sin; in silence he traced the sign of the cross over his wife's forehead, then, releasing her gently, turned to the chair where lay his sword, gloves, cloak and hat.


7. — THE ARREST OF THE WIDOW BOSSE

Leaving Solange a little lonely, a little afraid for all her brave front, in the humble apartment that she kept so trim, Charles Desgrez went to the Chief of Police's office in the Bastille to report the result of his wife's visit to the prisoner.

M. de La Reynie agreed that what Madame de Poulaillon had said in her misery was not of much importance; he had, on his part, some news of the affaire Bosse, as he termed it on the headings of the various dossiers to do with the case.

"The mysterious Widow herself has been arrested close to the Spanish frontier. She has been passing under an assumed name, that of the wife of a certain Delmas. The couple have been arrested because they were endeavouring to pass false money."

"Counterfeiters now!" exclaimed Desgrez.

"This Delmas," added M. de La Reynie, "has been in the household of the Duke of Savoy."

He looked up at his subordinate. "We shall have to go very carefully and very secretly. Desgrez."

"Is it possible that the Widow Bosse will confess?" asked the young man eagerly.

"Unfortunately, no. Through a stupid oversight she was allowed to commit suicide."

"Suicide!" exclaimed Desgrez in a tone of strong excitement.

"Yes. Nobody could be more vexed than I am. She asked for a glass of water. When it was given her, she broke it and swallowed the pieces." De La Reynie frowned and added drily: "She must have been very much afraid, to give herself such a frightful death. Even broken glass in one's entrails is, I suppose, preferable to the torture-room and the stake."

Desgrez sighed, deeply disappointed.

"We still, however, Monsieur, have this Delmas."

"Yes, but he is a slippery fish. He says he had met the woman only a few weeks before—picked her up in a gambling hall in Tours. As for the coins, they were louis d'or—he says they were given him in payment of a long-standing debt. He declares that he was dismissed from the household of the late Duke of Savoy on the sudden death of that prince, that when we arrested him he was travelling to take up a new place—he is a trained manservant—in Brussels. All this, of course," added M. de La Reynie with an air of fatigue, "will have to be investigated. But so far we seem in another blind alley. There is only just one thing, that little connection with Savoy."

With this M. de La Reynie gave Desgrez copies of the de positions of this Delmas, an account of the Widow Bosse and her death, and told him to take a clerk, and annotating and collating the evidence, to combine it with the other dossiers of the case.

When the Chief of Police had done this, he left the modest office where he did most of his serious work and went into the handsome ante-chamber where he had to receive a visitor of distinction.

This apartment had been modernized, was handsomely panelled and furnished with gilt chairs upholstered with heavy Genoese velvet and ball fringe in green colour.

His visitor was punctual; as the brass bracket clock struck the appointed hour, the Marchese Innocenzo Pignata was shown into the presence of the Chief of Police.

The crystal and silver lamp hanging from the ceiling had been lit and the soft light fell full on the two men at the table, the tall, stately figure of the Chief of Police, in his plain, dark green coat, braided with black soutache, and carelessly folded cambric cravat, and the slim person of Innocenzo Pignata, which was attired in the simplest of black broad cloth, cut in an almost clerical style.

The young Italian wore linen cuffs and bands and was as unarmed as if he had been a priest; M. de La Reynie admired him for this disdainful courage, which few men living in Paris would have dared to emulate.

"The bravado of the fanatic," thought the Chief of Police, "the enthusiasm of the Puritan!"

He eyed his visitor with some secret amusement as well as a lively interest; even when he was not engaged in his duties he could not help mentally "summing up" everyone with whom he came in contact and probing into his character.

"I am a foreigner," began Pignata gravely, speaking good if slow French. "I am here for one reason only, to keep His Most Christian Majesty loyal to the Church of Rome—"

M. de La Reynie bowed, hardly listening to this preamble, but studying with pleasure the young man's noble features, which were peculiarly engaging by reason of their amiable expression and the light of enthusiasm that sparkled in the soft, dark eyes, above which the hairs rose in pure lines like the wings of a bird.

"I hear that you have arrested some miserable wretches near the Spanish frontiers," continued Pignata, "and that one is the woman who kept 'The Lily Pot.'"

"Yes, Monseigneur. I fear I have a heavy affair on my hands."

"But you must probe to the depths, Monsieur! You must stop at nothing to clean this hideous sore that eats into the very entrails of France."

"Ah, well, Monseigneur," smiled the other. "But I have to be careful—I am only the Chief of Police."

Pignata interrupted passionately.

"Care for nothing but the blessing of God Almighty! I have no right to interfere—but one cannot see such horrors going on and not be moved. Besides, I believe you begin to touch on my countrymen."

"This Malipiero, yes. I have no evidence against him."

"Nor I, though I have been making enquiries. But do not trust him! Assuredly he killed his wretched daughter!"

The Chief of Police shrugged his shoulders.

"I will say," continued Pignata, frowning, "though it be to my shame—that all these malpractices come from Italy. The police of Rome, directed by the zeal of His Holiness, struggle in vain against the underworld of these criminals, whose activities stretch all over Europe."

"We know that. We are aware that Exili and Sainte-Croix who supplied the poison to Madame de Brinvilliers, received it from Italy."

"I can give you more precise information. Madame Olympia Maldachini, niece of the late Pope, discovered the secret of this deadly poison—it was with this that she removed her enemies and obtained the cardinal's hat for her brother by putting his rivals out of the way."

"Does this help us? The lady is dead and her secrets with her."

"It was the apothecary Glazer that used to make this poison, which floats on the water, is consumed by fire, is so dangerous that one must wear a glass mask when preparing it—and so subtle that it can be introduced into every article of daily use. Oh, Monsieur! I was absorbed in investigating this business in Rome—and to find that it has taken root here!"

"It seems it has. Lecoine, the chemist, could not wholly name the poison that Madame Desgrez obtained from this Widow Bosse—arsenic there was, certainly—but something else, strange and deadly."

"It is that! The secret death of Exili; of Glazer; of Olympia Maldachini!" Pignata was obviously distressed. "What a terrible weapon to be in the hands of these scoundrels, Monsieur!"

"Yes, we shall have a panic in Paris soon, the traffic must be pretty well established," remarked the Chief of Police grimly.

"Have you no clue? This woman Bosse destroyed herself?"

"Yes. Can you help-do you know anything that might assist us, Monseigneur?"

"I want to, that is why I am here," replied the young man eagerly. "I know, as you, Monsieur, cannot know, the extent of this powerful evil. My uncle, His Holiness, I myself have been threatened—it seems incredible that these villains can not be tracked down!"

M. de La Reynie smiled drily.

"Remember that we deal with—as I think—a powerful secret organization, probably protected by people in high positions—we deal not only with a traffic in poisons, but with all the foul trades that pander to vice—abortion, infanticide, coining, the manufacture of supposed love philtres, of drugs that profess to restore lost youth and withered beauty."

"Yes—I fear as much," sighed Pignata. "And Italy is the home of this accursed business. Have you, Monsieur, any suspicions of Black Magic?"

"That, too, without doubt. But what form it takes and how far the practice goes, I do not know."

"This Marguerite de Poulaillon, will she speak?"

"Not yet. I have hopes, however."

Innocenzo di Pignata rose, the natural sweetness of his face was overcast with an expression of horror.

"I shall write to Rome to-night. My uncle's police will get to work on this. I daresay I may be able to render you some assistance. But keep my name out of it."

"Certainly, Monsieur."

"Not that I fear anything," added the young Italian simply. "I devote my life to the Church, and she is best served by combating evil—but if it is known that I meddle, I shall be handicapped in my investigations."

"There is one other matter, Monseigneur. I believe that there is a chief to this conspiracy, one whom they name the Master—or the Great Author. It is possible that he is an Italian? Do you know of anyone on whom suspicion might fall?"

Pignata gave a slight shudder of disgust.

"God guard me from such acquaintances! No, Monsieur, I am aware of several unscrupulous, detestable men in Italy—of none whom I could suspect of such hideous infamy."

"I think, however, there is such a person."

"It seems to me impossible! Such a man would have to possess great wit, courage, address, knowledge—why should he waste such qualities in the service of the Devil? What could he gain from these petty, horrible and fruitless crimes?"

"I cannot guess his aims," replied M. de La Reynie gravely. "He may work towards some private end—he may act solely from love of power, he may be a convinced Satanist—inspired by diabolical motives! All I know is, I must find him—if he exists."

"I shall try all means to assist you, Monsieur—count on me. I have some influence at the Vatican and even in the Court of France."

"You are fortunate in keeping so long in the King's favour, His Majesty is fickle and unstable."

"I find something noble in him, despite his weakness, his vices," replied the young man earnestly. "M. Bossuet and I have hopes of detaching him from his evil genius, Madame de Montespan."

"To deliver him to poor little Mlle. Fontanges?"

"Ah, now! The instrument of the Church, Monsieur, is Madame de Maintenon, governess to the royal children."

"Well," smiled M. de La Reynie, "these Court intrigues are beyond me. I have enough to do in policing Paris. I shall keep you in touch with all I discover and count on your help."

He was really grateful for the assistance promised by this intelligent, highly connected young man, who moved in the very centre of the Court, but he saw him depart without regret.

The Chief of Police, liberal-minded by nature, had long since learned a complete, detached tolerance, and the rather tiresome fanaticism and unbending austerity of Pignata wearied him; there was something unnatural in the bigotry of one so young and M. de La Reynie had heard remarkable tales as to the length that the secret envoy from the Vatican pushed his enthusiasm for orthodox piety.

It was true that Pignata was attractive, gentle, well-bred and winning, but M. de La Reynie would have preferred his being less absorbed in the Faith of Rome and the policies of the Vatican.

"However, I daresay he can be of use to me, and I must endure his fanaticisms. A pity he does not enter the Church—they say that he declares himself unworthy. Well, I suppose he will be sainted for his pains."


8. — A HOT HOUSE BOUQUET

Solange Desgrez was sincerely sorry for the unhappy prisoner in the Bastille, whom she could not think of as a murderess, but only as a love-sick fool.

"Perhaps she loved her Saint-Richard as I love my Charles," thought the happy young wife, as she prepared a basket of fruit and cakes to take with her to the prison.

"Even if she cannot eat the things, she will like to see them," thought Solange as she arranged her macaroons in a pretty packet of gilded paper and placed round them the oranges set off by their dark green leaves and added little packets of comfits in cardboard spangled with silver stars. "Poor thing, perhaps she is really quite innocent, and it was only some so-called charm that she gave her husband—perhaps a drug to make him sleep while she ran out with her Saint-Richard. Well, it is a temptation to which any woman might succumb. I hope to-day that I can soothe her and get her confidence and perhaps find out from her something that really will be of use to Charles and that will save her from punishment."

With a light heart and an air of expectancy Solange set out along the Paris streets. She had thrown off all the nervous terrors which, despite her courage, had been hanging over her for the last few days; all these mysteries, excitements, hints of crimes were new to her; in Caen she had lived a most peaceful life. Yet, if her heart shrank from these dark affairs, her intellect was roused and interested—besides, it was all for Charles.

When she arrived at the cell of Madame de Poulaillon she was told that the prisoner had been very ill during the night, but towards the morning had recovered and seemed to look forward to Solange's visit with great pleasure.

"She is resolved, I think," said the nun who admitted Solange into the cell, "to tell you everything. Ah, I see you have brought her a basket of cakes and fruit—that is the second present she has received this morning."

"Who sent her the other?" asked Solange. "I am glad that some of her friends remember her."

"I do not know who it was—a woman called at the prison lodge and sent up, what do you think—a basket containing a bouquet of flowers!—so early in the year, they are indeed rare and costly, hyacinths, daffodils and syringa grown under glass. They gave her such pleasure."

And the good nun smiled towards the plain screen that hid the prisoner's bed in the dark corner of the cell.

Solange passed round this with pleasant words of greeting on her lips, but these changed immediately to an exclamation of horror.

"Sister! Come here!"

The nun hastened to the side of Madame Desgrez; the two women instinctively clutched at each other's hands. Madame de Poulaillon lay dead upon her prison bed, her stiffening fingers stuck in the mattress either side of her as if she had died in a strong convulsion, her head thrown back with a grimace of agony on her sharp features. On her thin bosom, arched in a contortion, lay the bouquet of forced flowers, the waxy bells of purple and white hyacinths, the cream and coral coloured horns of syringa, the yellow cups of daffodils and their scattered smooth blue-green leaves.

"Go for the doctor, Sister," said Solange faintly, and the nun hurried from the cell, grasping her rosary.

Madame Desgrez sat down on the stool by the bed; she felt a curious faintness coming over her, her senses seemed blur red. She had never in her life swooned nor lost full control of her faculties, and shocked and distressed as she was by this sudden sight of the corpse of Marguerite de Jehan, it did not seem to her that her emotion was sufficient to account for this physical collapse. With a strong effort of will she left the bed and passed to the window. The air coming in through the high-placed bars revived her and she pushed her fingers up into her thick, fair hair, trying to think, to reflect...

In a few minutes the Sister returned with the prison doctor; he began at once to talk of suicide—it was so common among prisoners, especially the women, they all dreaded the torture chamber.

"I do not think so in this case—she had been assured of safety. Besides, she was happy," protested the nun. "I heard her this morning—she was looking forward to the visit of Madame Desgrez here—she was a light, easy creature, afraid of death."

Solange came forward. "How could she have destroyed herself?" she asked the doctor. "The Sister was with her all night."

"Yes," said the nun. "I took turn and turn about with Sister Marie-Joseph—the prisoner was never alone."

The doctor knelt by the body of Madame de Poulaillon, from which Solange with a shiver averted her eyes. The face of the poor young girl was horribly distorted; a thick, discoloured foam was on her grinning lips, her eyes had turned in her head with a stare of anguish, her delicate body was already rigid in an unnatural hoop.

"I cannot think how it happened," stammered the nun. "She was talking a little while ago. She seemed so pleased to see the flowers. I gave them to her and then she said she would sleep so as to be strong when Madame came, and I put the screen round her. The light vexed her."

"She has been poisoned," announced the doctor, interrupting the nun's voluble excuses.

"Poisoned!" exclaimed Solange. "But how—and by whom?"

"How can I tell that, Madame? But here are all the symptoms of violent poisoning. In this manner the victims of Madame Brinvilliers died. Stand back. Who knows—" He touched the coarse sheets gingerly with his fingers. "There seem to me to be heavy fumes rising here."

"I thought so, too," said Solange. "When I was bending over her I felt faint."

"The flowers!" remarked the doctor, grimly; with the edge of his sleeve he cast the spring blossoms, so gay and fragile, on to the floor.

"Is it possible!" exclaimed the frightened nun. "A poisoned bouquet! I have heard of such horrors happening in Italy—but the blossoms are themselves quite fresh!"

"They, the poisoners, know how to do such things," stammered the doctor, who was himself pale; he wiped his lips with a hand that trembled. "Bring me a 'kerchief, a pillow cover, anything—"

He kicked into a corner of the cell the wicker basket that had contained the flowers.

The nun, from a cupboard in a corner of the cell, brought a square of white linen. This the doctor laid on the floor, then, with the toe of his shoe, pushed the flowers on to it; the linen was then knotted and the deadly bouquet placed out side the cell.

"This," said the doctor, "must be reported at once to M. de La Reynie. I believe this unhappy girl to have been poisoned by those flowers. We shall soon know. A pity there is no record nor remembrance of the woman who brought them."

"I suppose," said Solange with a half-sob in her throat as she turned from the cell, leaning on the nun, "the poor little wretch was poisoned because she knew too much and they thought she would speak."

When half an hour later the prison doctor brought Madame de Poulaillon's bouquet of flowers to put before M. de La Reynie he had nothing but a few blackened shrivelled stalks lying in the centre of a square of stained linen to offer the Chief of Police. He pointed to these with gloomy triumph.

"You see, Monsieur, we are dealing with a very virulent poison—some form of arsenic, I suppose, but the Devil him self alone knows what it is these damned Italians make. The prisoner only needed to put the bouquet to her nostrils and she would have been poisoned without being able to cry out. One convulsion and phew—all is over!"

M. de La Reynie rose angrily; he glanced at the stern face of Desgrez who stood behind him:

"This is becoming serious. We are not dealing with trivial matters. I shall go straight to M. Louvois or M. Colbert, maybe to the King himself. This is intolerable. One of our prisoners commits suicide, another is poisoned! Certainly it was care less to allow her to receive gifts from outside—but who would have thought of this! Even Exili was not able to play tricks like these—why, no one is safe. What secret of importance is being guarded? Everywhere I turn the birds are flown. I had that house in the Impasse des Fleurs watched—no one ever comes near it, it is deserted. I have had Doctor Rabel and his friend, Father Davout, watched—they seem to me the most irreproachable men alive."

"The Italian apothecary?" asked Desgrez.

"Nothing against him either. It seems, indeed, as if his daughter died through the result of an imprudent love affair?" M. de La Reynie added bitterly: "I cannot find even this young scoundrel Saint-Richard, or the maidservant who was no doubt the go-between of this wretched girl and himself."

The Chief of Police then dismissed the doctor and the two copyists who always sat in the window embrasure, and turning to Desgrez said earnestly:

"Only you and I, Desgrez, know how serious this affair is. I have tried to make light of it to everyone. Perhaps I spoke a little too frankly just now before the doctor, but he is a man whom one can trust—twenty-five years in service here. It is true I intend to go to the King and I also intend to give it out publicly that the affair has been dropped, that I am satisfied it is of no importance. Above all things I do not wish to start a panic among these devils. Let us wait a little till they gain enough confidence to come out into the open."

"What—whom do you suspect?" asked Desgrez keenly.

"I do not know—I have some vague suspicions. I dare not voice them even to you. It is this skill of the poisoners that confounds me. Where have they learnt these tricks? I, poor fool that I was, thought the whole infamous business had been wiped out with the death of Madame de Brinvilliers."

"Monsieur," suggested Desgrez, "pardon me, but would it not be better to keep this from the King until we know a little more? I doubt if it would be wise. His Majesty likes to think he knows all that goes on in his capital—this would disturb him. He might forbid further investigations. Besides, the death of this Italian girl who was in the employ of Mademoiselle Fontanges touches him very closely."

"You've heard that that young lady, shocked, no doubt, by the sordid death of her favourite maid, has fled from the Court to her guardian's château? It is a triumph for Madame de Montespan and a grief for the King."

"I hope," replied Desgrez sincerely, "that the young lady will never return to Court. I felt a deep compassion for her, lonely and unprotected as she was."

"Well, she has gone. Maybe the King will persuade her back—I do not know how deep his affection is," said M. de La Reynie impatiently. He added, with increased distaste: "It is the licentiousness of His Majesty's own manners that makes this state of affairs possible in his capital."

So saying, the Chief of Police took his hat, cane and gloves from the stand in the corner of his room and prepared to leave his office.

"Monsieur," said Desgrez, "I have something to tell you. I have done a little work on my own. I have taken it upon myself to watch the apothecary's shop kept by Malipiero, and I have seen the Comte de Saint-Maurice, the youth with the doll-like features and the eyes like Satan, to whom I took a powerful dislike, frequently enter the place."

"No doubt to buy his soaps and perfumes," said M. de La Reynie impatiently. "That's the worst of an affair like this, one is always starting a hare. There is probably nothing in that."

Desgrez was not discouraged by this rebuke. "This Delmas that you have, Monsieur, what was his position at the Court of Savoy?"

"He was manservant to the Duke. He was in attendance on him at his death."

"Then he must know M. de Saint-Maurice. Would it not be as well to confront them?"

"Confront them!" exclaimed the Chief of Police. "But how is that possible? One is a prisoner—a miserable wretch with out friends or influence and accused of an odious crime, forgery, and possibly poisoning—and the other is the Plenipotentiary from Savoy, against whom we have not a shadow of an imputation. How confront them?"

"I think it could be contrived. If you will leave the business to me, Monsieur," added Desgrez eagerly. "I believe I can do it and with due discretion. You know that my wife and I are working hand in glove in this?"

"Yes, Desgrez, and I am grateful for her help. What she has discovered may yet be useful. But do remember what you are exposing her to. We have had three deaths already in this affair and have only touched the fringe of it. Desgrez, I implore you, do not let your loyalty to me interfere with your loyalty to your wife."

The young man flushed. "As if I would expose her to the least danger—"

"You would not willingly do so, I know, but your zeal might outrun your discretion. Be very careful how she is seen interfering—do not let it be known that she helps you. If she does anything, let it be done in the most secretive manner, under some disguise."

"Monsieur, you touch my heart when you talk of danger to my Solange. Yet I promised her she should help me—and there are things that only a woman can do. But I will remember your advice. Give me twenty-four hours in which to make a few investigations into the affairs of Saint-Maurice, and his friend, the Italian apothecary. Delmas, I suppose, is being brought to Paris?"

"Yes. Immediately. He has been interrogated several times, but nothing is to be got out of him. If he is a scoundrel, he is a close one."


9. — SOAP BALLS SCENTED WITH ALMONDS

A few evenings later Charles and Solange, in the plain attire of citizens of the humbler sort, kept watch on the little shop owned by Matiniero, the Italian apothecary. Aware that the man might well be suspicious, Desgrez took care that this spying was not done in any conspicuous way. He and his wife took it in turns to watch at the entrance to the street, which was one of a narrow huddle of lanes at the back of the Jesuit church in the rue Saint-Antoine, while the other hurried past the shop looking like a drab passer-by in pursuit of some humble business.

The April day was fine, sharp and clear; the rains, which had been continuous for the last five weeks, had suddenly ceased; there was a sparkle in the air and mists no longer rose from the wide, grey river.

It was Solange, loitering at the corner of the street with her market basket and her woollen hooded cloak well over her face, that saw the handsome equipage of the Plenipotentiary of Savoy draw up.

The alley in which the apothecary's shop was situated was too narrow to allow a coach to pass down it, so M. de Saint-Maurice descended from his ornate coach, and on foot, care fully treading among the filth that strewed the cobbles, made his way without disguise to Malipiero's shop.

Solange studied him carefully and not without approval: she smiled secretly at her husband's unfriendly description of the Plenipotentiary as a popinjay and effeminate wretch who looked more like a doll, a painted puppet out of a marionette show, than a man. In the feminine estimation of Solange, Saint-Maurice was extremely attractive; she by no means disliked his exquisitely tailored coat of green velvet, his sable muff, his embroidered gloves and sword-belt, the cascades of lace at wrist and throat.

As soon as Saint-Maurice had entered the apothecary's shop, Solange joined her husband, who loitered in a doorway the other side of the street.

"Well, Solange, there he is, and now you know what to do. I shall be waiting for you a few paces down the road."

With her heart beating rather fast, but more from excitement than fear or embarrassment, Solange boldly entered the apothecary's shop, closing the door with its jangling bell smartly behind her; Saint-Maurice was leaning across the counter; he looked up, surprised. There was amazement, too, on the wrinkled face of the yellow Italian standing among his pots, jars and scales; he was not used to customers of this type—Solange appeared like the wife of a small tradesman.

She dropped a little curtsey to the nobleman, and addressing the apothecary, said in an assumed voice: "Monsieur, I hear you have very good soap balls scented with almonds. They have been recommended to me for the complexion."

"They are not cheap, my good woman," replied the apothecary, to which Solange replied with a laugh that she had won a prize in a lottery and could afford a little extravagance.

Agostino Malipiero then reluctantly turned to the back of the shop to fetch the soap, and instantly Mange took a paper out of her bag and slid it along the counter to M. de Saint-Maurice, lounging elegantly over the counter. On it her husband had carefully printed in Gothic lettering the following message:

The man Roussel, who has been arrested for passing counterfeit money on the Spanish frontier, is in reality Delmas. He is being brought to Paris. It is feared that, faced by torture, he may speak. What do you suggest?

At the bottom of this message Charles Desgrez had painted a stiff bunch of carnations and a black cross upside down. He and Solange had laughed together as they had composed this message, they had had so little to go upon, and as for the two symbols they had placed at the bottom of the paper, they were indeed the drawing of a bow at a venture, since they referred only to expressions which had fallen from the lips of foolish, distracted, sick women now dead.

Solange waited for M. de Saint-Maurice to flick aside the paper, to upbraid her for insolence or impertinence; but in stead he folded it up quickly, put it in his pocket, and said to her in an undertone: "At Passy, the usual place, the usual time."

Quickly Solange replied in her half-assumed voice: "But that is dangerous, the police are watching."

"In the Impasse des Fleurs, then," said Saint-Maurice, still not looking at her but standing rigidly at the counter so that his fine profile framed in the long curls was towards her.

"No, no," protested Solange, desperately eager to get a rendez-vous that it would be possible to keep, "Passy would be better than that. But at what time?"

"Nine o'clock to-morrow," replied Saint-Maurice, picking up a flask of perfume from the counter and affecting to smell it.

Malipiero was coming back from the parlour behind the shop, the soap in his hands, and Solange feared that her effort had been a failure, when, to her great relief, Saint-Maurice whispered sharply: "Come to my house this time—the side door." He gave her a sharp look as if he wished to penetrate her disguise but Solange had her hood full over her face. She perceived that Saint-Maurice had some secrets from the apothecary and did not wish the Italian to know that he had received the message—so she paid for the soap, took it up and put it in her basket and left the shop in a slow and indifferent manner.

Charles was waiting for her at the corner of the street; when she joined him she could not refrain from breaking out into laughter.

"He walked straight into the trap, Charles! He does know something. He accepted the message and the symbols. It is quite clear that he is afraid of what Delmas might give away." And she told her husband of the appointment that had been made for to-morrow night. "Will you be able to find it? He said at his house at Passy. Has he got a house there, he, a mere visitor to Paris?"

"He is a Frenchman and used to live here," replied Charles Desgrez, taking his wife's arm and leading her rapidly away from the crooked by-street. "These great nobles like to keep these little villas along the river. Now what are we going to do next? It is clear that you cannot keep that appointment to-morrow," he added gaily. "I am not so sure that it would be wise for me to do so; if I am known, my game is up. I have not done much in the way of disguises and I doubt if I could escape discovery. Still, we will see. I believe Delmas has arrived in Paris. I will interview him in the light of the know ledge we now have."

Solange clung to her husband's arm; the streets of Paris looked more than ever foreboding and sinister; a new moon hung high in the pellucid sky and a cold wind blew above the dark housetops, the grim facades, pointed tourelles and churches, mansions and public buildings.

"I almost wish," whispered Solange, shuddering, "that we could draw back. What we have put our hand to seems to me to become with every day more difficult and dangerous. Charles, I know it's just a woman's weakness, but—"

"But what?" he said tenderly, and leaning down, pinched her cheek, which was cold under the grey hood. "Surely you don't expect me to give up now, just when the business is becoming exciting and looks to be profitable? Why, think what I have made out of it already. I may almost call myself, in a quiet, secret sort of way, M. de La Reynie's right hand. I have had an entrée to the Louvre, I may have a chance of going to Versailles itself. Come, my darling, do not lose heart—this affair may bring us fortune yet."

"But," replied Solange gravely, "you may not live to enjoy this fortune. Remember that Saint-Maurice has offered to bribe you—the next thing will be a threat. I felt that it was a dangerous thing I did to-night in the shop. It is true he has never seen me before, nor is he likely to again, but somehow I felt uneasy at deceiving him. He has a terrible face."

"A terrible face, Solange?" laughed Desgrez. "It's like as I told you, a girl's, a doll's."

"That makes it more terrible. His eyes are really like those of the Devil with those sweeping brows that almost meet."

"And when have you seen the Devil?" laughed Desgrez. "Saint-Maurice is a very ordinary young scoundrel who happens to be good-looking."

He stopped at the corner of the street; taking his wife by the shoulders, he kissed her warmly.

"We will go home separate ways, dear," he said. "I shall make a détour by the Bastille to see if M. de La Reynie has returned yet to his offices. You will be quite safe now—you have nothing but one broad, well-frequented street to walk down."

With that Charles Desgrez parted from his wife and turned away briskly into the shadows.

It was true that Solange had only a little way to go before she reached the respectable quarter where she and her husband lodged, and as the streets of Paris were so well policed—unlike those of London and the Italian towns—it was quite safe for a respectable woman to be out after dark alone as long as she avoided dubious quarters and dark alleys.

Yet Solange felt a sense of loneliness, even of apprehension, and almost instinctively quickened her steps. Through nervousness she kept looking over her shoulder, yet she was sure that she had not been followed from the apothecary's shop. How would that have been possible without either her or her husband knowing of it? Yet when she was a few paces from her own door, a man, who seemed to her excited fancy to have sprung from the ground, was suddenly behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. Solange, with difficulty, sup pressed a scream of terror.

This stranger had his hat well pulled over his brow and a winter cloak thrown round the lower part of his face; he was immensely tall and broad-shouldered, and Solange recognized him even before he spoke; it was M. de Saint-Maurice himself.

"He must indeed be in league with the Devil to be able to follow me like this unperceived," thought Solange in terror, but she stood her ground bravely.

"Listen," said Saint-Maurice. "I do not know who you are—perhaps you would be good enough to tell me?"

"It would be too dangerous," whispered Solange in her assumed voice. "I dare not breathe a word, even here. Who knows, behind some doorway, at some window—" she re called the words uttered by Jacquetta and Madame de Poulaillon. "I obey the Master."

Saint-Maurice seemed satisfied with this excuse; he lowered his voice even more, and muttered: "If you are in touch with the man Delmas, or can get in touch with him, warn him that it will be more dangerous for him to confess than to keep silent. Tell him not to fear, we can rescue him from these infernal police."

"Yes, yes, I will do my best," replied Solange. "But what if the man is obstinate? After all, they will provably threaten to torture him."

"Then he must be silenced," replied Saint-Maurice, "as Madame de Poulaillon was silenced. You should not," he added in a harsh tone of rebuke, "have followed me into Malipiero's shop—there are some things of winch he knows nothing though probably now he must be told—he saw you pass the note."

With that he turned off abruptly into the shadows of the houses, walking slowly, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched.

Solange walked on, undecided what to do. It was clearly most imprudent even to think of returning to her own home; Saint-Maurice would certainly follow her, watch where she went, and find out, without much difficulty, who she was. "They will call me," she thought with a touch of horror, "a police spy. Neither my life nor that of Charles will be safe. But where shall I go, how shall I get rid of him?"

As she was still hesitating, Saint-Maurice, to her great alarm, came back and overtook her again. This time he said, bending down from his great height towards her:

"Tell 'Miss Pink' to be a little more careful the next time she sends me messages. The Master could not have wished this imprudence."

With that he was gone swiftly again.

"'Miss Pink'!" Solange turned over the two English words, which to her meant nothing whatever. Then she took her resolution—a bold and, no doubt, a foolish one she could think of nothing better in that moment of fear and distraction. She would go to the Louvre, she would pretend to be entering the great palace by one of the side doors—or, at least, she would cast off the man who was shadowing her in the vicinity of that dark and majestic building.

"Perhaps," she thought, as she hurried in the direction of the river, "I am making a mistake and he will know that he has no friends within the palace."

Yet she thought of Jacquetta, of Doctor Rabel—"Malipiero at least has the entrée to the palace, I suppose."

Then she remembered that Mademoiselle de Fontanges had left the Court and retired to her guardian's country house, and that therefore the apothecary had no longer an excuse to visit the Louvre. Still, she shrugged her shoulders: "I can think of nothing else."

She did not see Saint-Maurice again, but she was quite sure that by dodging in shadows and doorways he was contriving to follow her; she crossed the bridge; there the faint moon light and the yellow lamplight made a clear enough illumination, and when she looked over her shoulder there was the tall, broad-shouldered figure of her pursuer, sauntering with a careless air several yards behind.

Gaining the embankment in front of the Louvre, Solange made as if to turn under the main archway and crouched there in the shadows; her grey cloak made her, she was sure, invisible; she saw Saint-Maurice, a dark figure in the half-light, pause and look to right and left; then she ran along the front of the palace, keening well in the shadows of the jutting ornaments of the balconies; Saint-Maurice, she observed by looking over her shoulders, turned in the opposite direction. Solange rounded the palace, then, when she reached the private gates where the sentries stood, darted back and gained the embankment, and traversed it for a long while until she came to a ferry which took her across. She was by now quite sure that she had entirely baffled Saint-Maurice, and it was with a feeling of triumph—although she was exhausted—that she gained her apartment.

With a laugh, being a neat housewife, she unpacked at once Malipiero's soap, and placed it by the wash-basin.

"Miss Pink, Miss Pink." She repeated the two meaningless words to herself. "Now what did he mean by that? I wish Charles were here, so that I could ask him."

Then a horrible thought struck her: she snatched the soap and, folding it in a towel, laid it carefully aside.


10. — THE EXAMINATION OF DELMAS

The man Roussel or Delmas, the companion of the Widow Bosse when she had been arrested, was lodged roughly in the Bastille. His stone cell with the one, high-placed, barred window, the rough wooden furniture and pallet bed, his meals of coarse boiled meat, black bread and sour wine were not calculated to fill him with much hope of leniency from the law.

When Charles Desgrez went to interview him the day after the visit of Solange to the Italian apothecary, he found Delmas in a dejected mood. The man was a dark, lean Southerner with the cropped hair, shaven face and servile manners of a lackey. He alternated between terrified humility and insolent effrontery.

"Monsieur," he began at once when Desgrez entered his cell, "it is useless to interrogate me further. I have said all I know, my poor head splits with answering questions. Was it my fault that I was at the Court of Savoy when the Duke caught a chill out hunting? Was it my fault," he added with increasing defiance, "that I picked up a pleasant-looking little woman for a travelling companion and found she was wanted by the police? Is it my fault that a debtor pays me with bad money?"

"All this is certainly your misfortune," said Desgrez, smiling. "A man is judged, you know, Delmas, by the company he keeps. You were under an assumed name, too, and we can find nothing about this so-called debtor of yours."

"Would he be likely to put in an appearance?" retorted the other. "Surely, Monsieur, you can see that it is the mere common sense of the case—the man knowing he gave me this counterfeit money would disappear and leave me to pay the penalty."

"I have not come here to talk to you about the counterfeit money," said Desgrez, standing inside the door and folding his arms on his chest. "I think you are involved in matters more serious than that."

Delmas seemed frightened, Desgrez thought, by this re mark. He made an effort at jauntiness as he replied: "More serious? There are heavier penalties for forgery than I should care to undergo."

Coolly and deliberately Desgrez drew his bow at a venture.

"But for the murderer is reserved the most terrible fate of all. He is broken on the wheel, and then cast, still living, into the flames."

Delmas winced; he put his hands before his eyes and pushed his fingers up into his cropped hair.

"Your only hope," said Desgrez, "is in making a confession."

But to the police agent's intense disappointment the prisoner seemed to have recovered some of his courage, for he answered sullenly:

"Indeed, I know nothing. The Duke was overheated, he had been in the saddle for hours. I tell you, Monsieur, he was a doomed man when I gave him the shirt."

"Ah," cried Desgrez, tailing with delicate precision on that statement, "when you gave him the shirt! So you admit that, do you?" He was still moving like a man blind-fold, intently watching the movements and expression of the prisoner, who stammered:

"Ah, well, Monsieur, yes. I gave him the shirt—it was my duty. I was his body-servant. I did not know, when M. de Saint-Maurice got me the position—"

"Ah, it was M. de Saint-Maurice who got you this position, was it?"

"Yes, yes, that is known—I have already told the police."

"And what was it you did not know?"

"I knew nothing," said Delmas sullenly, "nothing whatever! Who am I to know anything of the intrigues of Princes?"

"It is usually their body-servants that do know these matters," replied Desgrez. "Come back to the shirt, my friend. What was it you were not to know?"

"I was not to know that it was poisoned—if it was," said Delmas. "The story went round afterwards, but that was the first I heard of it."

"In whose interest could it have been poisoned?"

An expression of cynic malice crossed Delmas's sallow face. "Perhaps the Duchess can tell you that—and she's Madame Royale of France now, so I don't suppose the King will want the matter investigated. But I know nothing, nothing at all."

"Perhaps the sight of the rack would refresh your memory," said Desgrez, narrowing his shrewd grey eyes. He was sick with disappointment, baffled and fatigued, and would willingly have given the wretch the shock of a visit to the torture chamber, but Delmas forced a sickly grin.

"One can't say what one doesn't know, Monsieur, even if one's limbs are pulled off one's body."

Desgrez thought: "The fellow is highly protected."

He turned as if to leave by the door which stood behind him, then paused and on the threshold asked abruptly: "Is the sign of a black cross turned upside down familiar to you, or that of a knot of carnations?"

The prisoner's repulsive face was inscrutable. He answered with a leer: "My betters will be able to give you that in formation, Monsieur l'agent de police."


11. — A SUPPER PARTY AT PASSY

On that same day when Charles Desgrez told the Chief of Police what Solange had learned from M. de Saint-Maurice, de La Reynie was completely at a loss as to how to make use of the information that Solange had so cleverly obtained. He had several good spies in his employment, but hesitated to employ them in this instance. He had seen M. Colbert at the palace of Versailles; he had only just returned from that interview, and the Minister had told him that the King took the affair very seriously and wished it to be most thoroughly investigated; he also wished it kept, for the present at least, secret, so that the criminals might be lured into betraying themselves.

"I could not see His Majesty himself," continued La Reynie. "He is not well. M. Aquin is in attendance on him. He is suffering from the most frightful headaches and a continuous sickness that is quite alarming; few see him besides Madame de Montespan and his children and the pious governess, Madame de Maintenon."

"He is taking it to heart, perhaps," said Desgrez, "the flight of Mademoiselle de Fontanges from the Court?"

"I believe so," smiled Monsieur de La Reynie with a wry face. "He misses, too, the occupation of war—he would like to be going as usual to a campaign in Flanders. Times of peace are tedious to these great ones." He sighed as he smiled.

"Meanwhile we have this affair on our hands. As I said, I do not wish to employ an ordinary spy to-night, because that means letting someone else into the secret of what we Are doing."

"I will go," said Desgrez. "I believe, after all, I can disguise myself well enough. I am new to Paris and scarcely likely to be known to these people. I do not think any of associate me with these investigations. It is true that Malipiero and Doctor Rabel both saw me at the Louvre, but they consider that case closed. Doctor Rabel and Father Davout also know that I was investigating in the Impasse des Fleurs, but if you, Monsieur, say they are innocent men, there is no matter for that." He smiled ironically.

"Do not concern yourself, my friend," said the Chief of Police. "We are certainly dealing with infernally clever criminals, and it is quite obvious that they must know by now you are working with me against them. Your wife, however, was able to deceive Saint-Maurice, and it is possible that you may be able to deceive them to-night. You will, however, be taking, as the saying goes, your life in your hands."

"I am willing to do that, Monsieur," said Desgrez, but gravely, for he was thinking of Solange. "Only, if anything should happen to me—"

"I know what you would ask," said the Chief of Police kindly, "your wife—she shall be looked after, protected and pensioned."

"That is all I want," said Desgrez. "But who, in the Devil's name, am I suppose to be?" he asked in mock despair. "I shall go to this rendez-vous—I have discovered where M. de Saint-Maurice lives—the little house of his at Passy—and I am supposed to be one of themselves. But who?"

"I do not know enough about them to be able to suggest a character for you. It seems to me," M. de La Reynie added reflectively, "that your part will be extremely difficult. I doubt even if it is wise for you to go until we know a little more. Perhaps it would be safer merely to watch the house."

The following plan was then decided upon. Desgrez was to assume some disguise and keep watch upon the villa from nine o'clock onwards. If he could not see enough to satisfy himself through this means, then he was to endeavour to introduce himself to the conspirators as one of their number, keeping up a mystery concerning his identity. M. de La Reynie thought that this plan would not work, but Desgrez believed that it could be done.


When Desgrez returned home he found Solange anxiously waiting for him; she had not seen him since they had parted in the street the night before. With a laughter that disguised an inward trepidation, she told him of her adventures and how she had been followed by Saint-Maurice, who had spoken twice to her, and how she had thrown him off by losing herself in the shadows of the vast façade of the Louvre.

Desgrez commended his wife's ingenious spirit, but with an inner sinking of the heart.

"You must do no more of this sort of work," he said. "I will not employ you again."

Solange shook her head and placed her hands on her husband's shoulders.

"You know that you promised that I should help you—help you I must, and will."

Then, trying to make matters light between them to relieve the tension they both felt, she told him about the strange message that M. Saint-Maurice had given her. "Miss Pink, now—what does that mean? Miss, I know it is Mademoiselle, but Pink—an English word, or is it Dutch? I have been thinking so hard what it could be. I remember a Dutch friend of my father's—he used to speak of pinken or the pink, a little fishing-boat it meant, when we visited him at Fecamp."

"In English it means the colour rose," said Desgrez, "so we must look for a Miss Rose—then perhaps again it is a mere trick and Saint-Maurice was fooling you."


Twenty-four hours later Desgrez was standing outside the villa of Monsieur de Saint-Maurice at Passy. He had chosen one of the simplest and most effective of disguises, that of a wandering Franciscan monk. The Chief of Police's wardrobe had provided him with a long tow-coloured, grey-speckled beard and wig, which one of the police spies experienced in the art of disguise had fastened carefully over his own straight fair locks and smooth chin. A liberal handful of Paris dirt rubbed into his face and hands and under his nails, the donning of a tattered brown habit with a cord girdle and a leather bag full of greasy pieces on his shoulder, the en casing of his feet in torn stockings, the thrusting of them into ride sandals, and the police agent's disguise was complete; fastened in a belt under his habit and easily accessible through a slit in the coarse cloth was a sharp dagger, whistle and a purse of gold and silver pieces, for Charles Desgrez did not know where the adventure might end.

A coach belonging to the Chief of Police brought him easy distance of the villa, which was known as Les Peupliers because of the group of tall poplars that grew at the end of the garden; there was a sense of spring in the air and these trees were already dusted with the first reddish gold leaves which gave them a shimmer of colour in the pale, cloudless moonlight.

The villa was not large and consisted, as Desgrez discovered by gazing through the great iron gate, of gardens laid out in the Italian style with little pavilions, fountains and par terres. The house was an ordinary little pleasure or summer house, red-bricked, white-faced, one-storeyed, with green shutters and a wide door with a winged staircase. At the back was a small orangery or glasshouse used to protect exotic plants during the winter. Beside the line main gate through which Desgrez made his observation there were two postern doors, one in each of two side walls of the villa garden.

Desgrez had no guide to the time; it was, as he supposed, somewhere about rune o'clock that three cavaliers rode up from the direction of Paris; one was clearly recognizable from his tall figure, wide shoulders and fleece of black hair as M. de Saint-Maurice himself; the other two were strangers to Desgrez, who, by reason of the moonlight, had to keep his distance and crouch down in the shadow cast by the garden wall, which was some way from the main gate. The cavaliers were all laughing immoderately; to the police agent there was some thing sinister and most unpleasant in this high, half-hysterical laughter which rang in the air as the three flung themselves from their horses and pulled the iron bell at the gate.

A servant came and opened this; he had in his hand a lantern. The beams of this tell on one of the cavaliers, revealing a characteristic that the police agent immediately noted; though this man wore a broad-brimmed hat and a long cloak they did not conceal the fact that he was hunchbacked. The third person appeared to be a young boy or youth of very slender build, or, and this seemed to Desgrez the more likely, a woman in masculine attire.

The three men disappeared into the garden and were followed by the servant leading their horses. The gates closed. Almost immediately afterwards a plain, shabby coach, which might have been a hired vehicle, drew up. Out of this coach descended two women and two men; they rang the bell at the gate for it to be opened and passed into the villa grounds while the coach drove off; the driver was a little old man, almost a dwarf.

Several more people, walking too close together for Desgrez to distinguish either their number or their sex in the con fusing moonlight and cross-shadows, now approached on foot. They were instantly admitted, as the others had been on the first ringing of the bell.

After waiting for a while and finding that no one else appeared, Desgrez thought:

"I suppose the company is now complete—it seems a sufficiently large and formidable gathering. They must be all extremely anxious to have the latest news of M. Delmas."

Encumbered by his robe and smiling grimly to himself at his own clumsiness, Desgrez now climbed over the wall at the point furthest from the house where it was shadowed by the poplar trees. With the assistance of these he was able to drop lightly on to the soft ground the other side; before him lay the well-kept grounds, the clipped rose trees already beginning to put forth their glossy leaves, the panes of the glass-house gleaming like ice in the moonlight, the fountain where the water splashed in silver threads, hollow-eyed termini set between yew trees. The windows in the side of the pleasure house facing Desgrez were shuttered; he crept along, however, most warily; he did not know who was posted in the gardens nor what sentries might be placed about the house and grounds.

As he passed the glass-house, keeping carefully behind it, he noticed that the door of this had been left ajar; through it came the delicious fragrance of forced and exotic flowers. This brought swiftly to the police agent's mind the bouquet that had been sent to Madame de Poulaillon and had caused her death. He peered in at the flowers, which looked as if they were cut from ice and silver in the fantastic light that the moonbeams sent through the glass, even the purple hyacinths and dark tresses of Persian lilac appearing diaphanous in those pallid rays.

Desgrez noticed that in the glass-house were all the flowers that had composed the fatal bouquet. He then, cautious and alert but with considerable trepidation, for he was not used to this kind of work, scouted round the garden wall, keeping in the shadow. When he had reached a point of vantage where he could see the other side of the house he noticed that the windows were unshuttered.

Deciding to risk everything in order to gain a sight of the Company within, he followed the wall till he was opposite the front of the house, then crossed over to it, and passing round it found that he was able, by going on his hands and knees, to gaze into the room. Two curtains of straw-coloured silk impeded his vision a little, but by turning his head here and there he was soon able to his intense satisfaction to observe and memorize all the members of the company who were gathered round a long table of green marble, on which were placed sweetmeats, wine and fruit cordials.

Some of these people, at whom he looked with curiosity, were already well known to him. At the head of the table was M. de Saint-Maurice; further down were Malipiero, the Italian apothecary, Father Davout in civilian dress, Doctor Rabel, and several women. In a place of honour on the right hand of Saint-Maurice sat the hunchbacked cavalier whom Desgrez had noticed entering the iron gates of the villa. He was a man of middle age with a clever, imperious countenance. The police agent believed that he recognized this gentleman, but was almost afraid to do so; surely there was but one hunchback with such a commanding and haughty presence, so richly dressed and treated with so much honour in France?

Next to him sat the woman in boy's clothes; she was pretty in an insipid kind of way with fair hair, hazel eyes, upper teeth that caught on her lower lip and an anxious and defiant expression.

Desgrez made note of the other persons present; he was particularly impressed by the formidable personalities of two women; by the likeness and the difference in age, he judged them to be mother and daughter—black-browed, with a strong face marked by cunning, self-indulgence and the scarcely healed traces of a virulent skin disease, the elder woman was a most repulsive personality, but she was bravely decked underneath her disguising hood and cloak in green satin trimmed with vermilion ribbons; the woman who appeared to be her daughter was no less brazen in bearing and had not a much larger portion of good looks; she too was handsomely dressed and wore a good deal of jewellery. Desgrez judged them to be of the lower middle-class.

There was little by which he could distinguish the other women present; there were three of them, of middle age and nondescript features, dressed in plain garments that Desgrez believed had been assumed as disguises. To his intense annoyance, Desgrez could not overhear what was being said; the window was well closed, and the thick silk curtains further impeded the sound.

The hunchbacked cavalier was speaking, with force, with a commanding air, with irony, with occasional cynic laughter. The rest of the company listened; all—save Saint-Maurice and his companion, the woman disguised as a man—seemed to be uneasy.

Desgrez, unused to espionage and anxious not to lose a single detail of what was occurring, forgot his own peril, and it was with genuine amazement as well as alarm that he saw the woman with the face eruption, whom he had so much disliked, suddenly rise and point her finger at him, while the whole company turned and gazed at the window behind which he crouched; but Desgrez felt his courage and nerve increased at this terrible emergency; he smiled and nodded from under his hood at the company and knocked three times on the glass pane.

Malipiero sprang up, crossed the floor, opened the window and drew Desgrez into the room; the company gazed at him in silence, and, cool as he was, the police agent felt a tautening of all his nerves, a tightening of all his muscles; he knew that he was in the presence of extreme danger.

Whatever these people were, he was quite sure that they were cold-blooded and unscrupulous criminals, or people who were the associates of cold-blooded and unscrupulous criminals.

The pause of silence in which they all stared at him had in it something dreadful and there was an atmosphere in the room, a miasma of evil that the police agent, unimaginative as he was, found truly appalling.

On the surface, it was an ordinary enough gathering in an ordinary enough room, for the chamber with its green walls, handsome pictures of game and fruit, the fire burning under a marble chimney-piece, the chairs of gilt leather, and the Persian carpet were comfortable, even rich and luxurious; but there was something in those faces—male and female—bent on him with such expressions of watchful fear and hate, that made the whole scene appear sinister—even unnatural, as if all were spectres.

Desgrez had the impression, which he threw off instantly, as it was necessary for him to keep all his wits, that he was gazing at a group of lost souls.

"Well, Mesdames and Messieurs," he said in his rough assumed voice, "did I not yesterday promise M. de Saint-Maurice that I should be here at nine o'clock? I think you leave your gates unattended. I rang, but no one took any heed, so, as I have done before, I jumped the wall."

"Who are you?" demanded Saint-Maurice, standing up from his chair and folding his arms across his chest.

Desgrez at once noticed how truly terrible was that young man's face with its baby features, sweeping brows and full dark eyes, which, it did not take much fancy to imagine, flashed with infernal fire. Desgrez knew that to hesitate might mean half a dozen knives in his body, so he said boldly:

"She who sent me, and you know who that is, desired me to keep myself secret. I gave you yesterday the password."

"It was you that gave me the note?" asked Saint-Maurice suspiciously.

"It was I. I give the sign again." Desgrez drew in the air a cross turned upside-down, "that and a knot of carnations."

The fair woman in male attire made a vehement movement at these words; she was becoming extremely restless.

"Whom is she employing now?—I at least have a right to know."

"She is becoming desperate," said Desgrez, inventing generalizations with a growing boldness. "She wants to know when all this will end? Delmas will certainly talk. I have sure information that he fainted twice at the sight of the rack. It will not be so easy to make away with him as it was to make away with Madame de Poulaillon and Jacquetta."

He saw that his words had impressed the company. They exchanged glances with one another and several of them bit their lips and rapped sharply with their nails on the table.

"One does not send a man a bouquet of flowers," continued Desgrez, "and all food will be closely watched, you may be sure."

At this the woman with the scarred face threw in: "Mademoiselle Rose will wash his linen for him."

Desgrez noted the name, "Miss Pink"—Mademoiselle Rose. He had hardly time, however, to formulate his thoughts when the hunchbacked cavalier rose impatiently and exclaimed with harsh authority: "None of this business has anything to do with me. I think there are too many people here to-night. One gets weary of the whole affair. I have had no results yet—no, none. And who is this man, this friar?—what are his credentials?"

He turned his arrogant gaze with grim suspicion towards Desgrez. "I say this business becomes, Madame Voisin"—he flung the words at the woman with the scarred face—"not only tedious but dangerous."

"It is true," said Desgrez, deliberately risking much, perhaps everything, on a bold throw, "and she who sent me, M. le Maréchal de Luxembourg, thinks so also. That is why she contrived the taking off of Madame de Poulaillon."

The manner in which this was received proved to the police agent that he had been right in his supposition that had at first seemed to him so extravagant; it was François-Henrie de Montmorenci—duc de Luxembourg, one of King Louis's most famous and respected generals, that stood there in this ugly company; with a sour laugh the hunchbacked Maréchal sank into his seat and smiling maliciously said:

"I see at least that you are not a spy and know what you're talking about. Why this mystery as to your identity? Some foolish feminine trick on the part of your mistress, I suppose? Well, tell her that I have a warning in my turn—a younger and more beautiful woman is ready to step into her place, and I very much doubt if our friend here, Madame Voisin"—he bowed sarcastically towards the woman with the scars—"can prevent this catastrophe, even with all the diabolic weapons in her infernal arsenal."

Saint-Maurice rapped the table impatiently; his eyes narrowed with fury; Desgrez noted that he was a man of a violent temper.

"Tell me about Delmas—explain yourself. Remember that we risk a great deal. You, or your mouthpiece, bungled the message. Miss Rose did not send it."

"I have given you the news about Delmas," replied Desgrez composedly. "As Madame La Voisin suggested, Monseigneur, I should think that a shirt washed by Mademoiselle Rose would do this business as well as it did that of the Duke of Savoy. As for the message, you, not I, mentioned Miss Pink."

"Ah, for God's sake!" exclaimed the woman in masculine attire, springing up, while Saint-Maurice, with his baby face unmoved, remained smiling in his chair, his long, elegant fingers closed round the gold knob of his cane.

"You will produce your credentials?" asked Madame Voisin of Desgrez. Before the police agent could answer, Malipiero, who hitherto had been silent with a sullen, brooding face, rose in his place and addressing Saint-Maurice said harshly:

"Saving your presence, Monseigneur, I am still not satisfied. I want this good friar to disclose who he is and whom he comes from. Let us have no hints, half-words or generalizations, but the plain truth."

"The plain truth," said Desgrez, advancing to the table and staring at the Italian from under his greasy hood and the drab locks of his tangled wig. "Do you, Agostino Malipiero, wish to hear the plain truth?" He let his glance rove to Father Davout, who wore the drab clothes of a small merchant or tradesman. "There I see a fellow priest," he declared. "One who, like me, has assisted at the Mass, eh? Such a Mass as Boulle was burnt for celebrating some while ago—the Eucharist of Hell, eh, Monsieur?"

Father Davout answered uneasily:

"I have no doubt, Monsieur, that you are initiated into all our mysteries, but if you would but disclose to the satisfaction of these gentlemen here who you are—"

"Is it not rather a question who you are?" replied Desgrez, still feeling his way through his own pretences. "You and this learned doctor here who have such good reputations, who live in your little apartment in the Impasse des Fleurs, who were there when Mlle. Jacquetta was brought by her father to assist at one of our ceremonies—"

"No more, no more," muttered Davout hastily, "even here." But Madame Voisin laughed loudly.

"I see you are a fine fellow. I like the way this cock crows," she grinned. "Let us see you to-morrow. She absolutely insists on another ceremony, and you said yourself she was growing desperate. We have everything ready. M. de Luxembourg intends to be there, out of curiosity and in disguise, of course."

"In the Impasse des Fleurs?" asked Desgrez, but at that moment the Italian apothecary, who had been scowling at him in a hostile manner, broke out.

"I'll not stay here another moment. I think this man's a spy." The word, like a snake's hiss, went round the table—"spy," "spy"—half in incredulity, half in terror; all the faces, which seemed to be slightly disturbed, turned towards Desgrez.

"At least," said Luxembourg, who seemed to take a disdainful, cynically scornful view of the whole proceeding, "tell us who you are. Your disguise is fair, but I feel it to be a disguise."

"Surely it is that." said Desgrez boldly, "since the priests of Satan dress themselves as the priests of God. What is that but a disguise?"

The woman dressed as a man suddenly flung herself on to Saint-Maurice with a cry of terror: she seemed unnerved; Desgrez had seen her whimpering like a child.

"Perhaps it is the Master, the Grand Author himself!" she slobbered, while Saint-Maurice tried to fling her off.

Desgrez snatched at this suggestion. "Ay, take care, I am newly come from Italy," he cried. "I have visited England on my way. It may he you are in the presence of the Master."

He felt himself at the end of his nerves, confused by the nonsense he was uttering, bewildered by this company of sinister people who regarded him with such unnatural glances of fear, awe and curiosity, he thought that all of them—with the possible exceptions of Luxembourg and Saint-Maurice—were partly drugged or intoxicated: he himself felt as if he were under the influence of some hallucination; these strained, pallid faces looked distorted, monstrous, the shadows that filled the room beyond the table were abominably dark, there was an acrid perfume in the air that seemed clouded by veils of faint lilac smoke: with an effort he gripped at his control.

Malipiero began to speak, but Luxembourg harshly cried:

"Silence, lackey!" To Saint-Maurice the Maréchal then said: "What company are we in? That man should not be here!"

Desgrez heard Saint-Maurice whisper in reply. "He knows too much. We shall see to it, Monseigneur."

The police agent felt that he must carry all before him or be lost; folding his arms across his chest, he exclaimed:

"Remember I hold all your lives in the hollow of my hand. I can sacrifice you all and save myself. You have no conception of my power." Desgrez remembered what Innocenzo Pignata had told him and added: "Which reaches to the Vatican itself!"

At this Catherine Voisin began to moan fearfully, and tried to raise her bulky person from the chair in which she sat in order to cast herself at Desgrez's feet: "Oh, Master, Master, you never told me you were coming in this guise nor so soon!" she exclaimed, rolling her eyes as if about to fall into a fit.

She would have said more but the apothecary snatched her plump, coarse hand and flung her back into her place. "It is all a trick and we are betrayed!" he exclaimed, leaving the table, springing towards the police agent as if to snatch at his beard, hair and cloak.

"Once I lose my disguise someone here may recognize me. It will be almost impossible to deceive M. de Luxembourg. I shall certainly be murdered," thought Desgrez swiftly. He leaned forward, took the crystal lamp from the table, dashed it on the ground, and crying out in a loud and terrible voice: "You will soon find out if I was the Master or no"—rushed towards the window through which he had been admitted.

There was a tawny darkness only broken by the spurting light from the coals on the hearth, and then from the flames in the centre of the room as the overturned lamp caught the lace cloth.

Desgrez, stumbling into the grateful damp of the garden, felt somebody stumble after him; in the moonlight he could see it to be the fair-headed creature with the slightly protruding teeth who was dressed as a cavalier, that gasped: "I believe in you, and she, she would not offend you at any price. Ah, Master, be there on Friday—the Impasse des Fleurs. We will all be there, ready to worship you, ready to obey you. Oh, Master, but appear and put us at ease."

"Ease about what?" said Desgrez, roughly grasping the woman's arm. "I am not satisfied, I have been insufficiently obeyed."

"But she will do anything. Only this one last boon—she will give anything."

"I care nothing for what she does. Tell her if she is not careful her day is over!" cried Desgrez.

"You say," replied the woman, still clinging to him as the others came stumbling out of the window in the half light, "that you came through England, my native country. Did you see—"

Desgrez flung her off, for behind her were her companions, fled down the garden, vaulted the wall by the poplar trees and ran along the river bank to the grove of chestnuts where he had left the coach in charge of two mounted archers. Tearing off his false beard and wig, thrusting these into his robe and making this into a bundle, he jumped into the vehicle, which turned in the direction of Paris.


12. — THE GRIMOIRES

M. de La Revnie and his two confidential clerks soon reduced to bare essentials Desgrez's already concise report of his ad ventures at the villa of M. de Saint-Maurice at Passy.

It was now beyond dispute that the Plenipotentiary from Savoy entertained with almost insolent recklessness a very strange company at his pleasure house. Of these Desgrez had been able to identify the Maréchal de Luxembourg, the Italian apothecary Malipiero, Doctor Rabel and Father Davout. He had also learnt that a certain swarthy woman, whose face was disfigured by a scarcely healed skin disease, was named La Voisin, and he surmised that her younger companion was her daughter. The other people present at the villa Desgrez could not identify: the most remarkable of them had been the blonde woman. English, he believed—so at least she had stated herself—who had been dressed as a cavalier.

From the conversation of these people, whom he had been able for a while to deceive so successfully, Desgrez had not learned very much beyond that they were engaged in some criminal practices and that they were quite prepared to murder the prisoner Delmas by means of a poisoned shirt which should be prepared by a certain Mlle. Rose; M. de La Reynie and his subordinate believed that this must be the "Miss Pink," the Englishwoman already mentioned by Saint-Maurice.

Two other facts were clearly visible in the convolutions of the intricate puzzle; one was that these people worked under directions of a certain unknown Master or "great author" as they termed him, of whose identity at least some of them were unaware; the other was that a certain great lady, whom Desgrez had only heard referred to as "she," was deeply involved in this dark organization and that the Englishwoman dressed as a man was her confidante.

M. de La Reynie, always anxious to avoid exaggerations or romanticisms or any matter of wild supposition, declared cautiously and after long consideration:

"Understand, Desgrez, there may after all not be very much in this. These people are wealthy, idle, licentious—they are indulging in all the intrigues that one must expect about a Court, especially a Court ruled by women. Some low scoundrels, men and women, deal in drugs, charms, abortion, for tune-telling, astrology and the like, and they have induced—we do not yet know the link—these great ones to trade with them. It is possible that some of these people, like this de Luxembourg, for instance, are in this ugly business for mere cynic amusement. It is hard to believe that a man like the Maréchal could believe in these crude witchcrafts."

"Can anyone of education believe in this foul rubbish?" asked Desgrez with aversion.

"A large number of people believe anything," replied the Chief of Police. "The matter is neither so simple nor so foolish as it seems. The witchcraft of two hundred years ago was a very potent evil—it was a network of secret societies dealing in every kind of abomination, directly opposed to Christianity and encouraging paganism and atheism. It had its network all over Europe and there was hardly a town of any importance without some branch society affiliated to the headquarters, which were probably here in Paris."

"All this is ancient history, is it not?" asked Desgrez. "I frightened them by mentioning the Boulle affair—but surely that kind of thing is stamped out?"

"By no means. We believe that we have broken up this organization, rooted out its members, and, by the most severe punishments, abolished its practices—but a remnant exists here and there, and this remnant is, perhaps, far more powerful than we know. It seems that we have our finger on it here. These people may be mere ignorant imitators, they may know nothing of the secrets of the true black magic cult—they may be mere dabblers in wizardry, but that they practise it there seems little doubt."

"And little doubt that they deal in poisons, Monsieur," said Desgrez. "I heard quite enough last night. They do in tend to murder Delmas, they practically admitted that the Duke of Savoy was made away with by means of a shirt washed with arsenic soap. At least, I put so much together from what they said."

M. de La Reynie made a wry grimace. "Here we touch on high matters. The Duchess of Savoy is related to the King. This part of the intrigue I see quite clearly. Her husband was gross and unfaithful, the lady was spirited and amorous, Saint-Maurice was a comely villain—he came her way at the right time. He, with Delmas and this Mlle. Rose, the laundress, and probably some others, contrived the death of the Duke in so subtle a way that no suspicion was aroused."

"Is it possible for us to bring these people to justice?" asked Desgrez eagerly. "I detest Saint-Maurice—cannot we arrest him?"

"I do not think so. I should not dare to take any steps until I have asked the King."

Desgrez made a gesture of vexation.

"It is hard," he said bitterly, "to unearth these criminals and then find they are protected by the very highest in the land."

"It would not be for the honour of the King or for the honour of France to expose a scandal of this magnitude," replied La Reynie frowning. "But we are not defeated yet, we may get these people on some other account. If I could once persuade His Majesty, or even M. Colbert or M. Louvois, of the guilt of Saint-Maurice, he would certainly never set foot in France again—and for the lesser ruffians, we should get them."

"I think so, Monsieur. It would be possible to arrest the apothecary, the priest, the doctor, now, for instance—and the two La Voisin if you could find them."

"I shall find them without much difficulty. All these people seem very confident, they take little trouble to disguise them selves. I shall discover, too, this Englishwoman who dresses as a boy. As for the great lady whose confidante she is, I imagine her to be the Comtesse de Soissons."

"Is she another lady," asked Desgrez grimly, "who has put a dull and boring husband out of the way?"

"She has been for some time a widow, she was once the King's mistress," said La Reynie rising, with an agitation he rarely showed. "You do not know Paris, the Court, well yet, my friend. Do not talk, speak so boldly, even here."

"Surely Monsieur, we are safe in your offices in the Bastille?"

"One never knows," replied the Chief of Police. "Even I, I, might be hurled from my position to-morrow, I might disappear. Remember, the King has only to sign a lettre de cachet and one goes into darkness, and for ever."

"Is there no justice in the country?" said the young man scornfully. "Is all corruption and intrigue?"

"No," replied the Chief of Police gravely while he twisted his long white quill pen in restless fingers, "and the King is at heart just and generous—he does not know what goes on. M. Colbert is an honest man, and so are many others who hold high offices, but these streams of iniquity flow under the feet of these great ones, who never see how their shoes are being soiled. The King has the greatest horror of these kinds of practices—of Satanism, of witchcraft, of any manner of wizardry. If he knew that anyone connected with his Court was touched by it, he would go, without scandal, without éclat—he would go. But I, I must move carefully, or it may be—" and the Chief of Police shrugged his shoulders—"that I shall be the one who will go."

"I see, Monsieur," replied Desgrez gravely. "The King is an absolute Monarch, but yet he is a man who is ruled by his own passions. Therefore he is in some sense a slave, not a King."

"That is true. For twelve years he has been ruled by Madame de Montespan, whom, as is said, I think he has never loved. She is so imperious, so violent, such an adept at seduction and scenes of temper and fury, he has never been able to free himself from her Think of that, Desgrez, this man, the greatest Monarch in the world, really afraid of that beautiful shrew—but not so beautiful now, she is thirty-eight years old and has borne a large family."

"It seems," said Desgrez, "that she has triumphed in the withdrawal of Mlle. de Fontanges from the Court."

"For a while, yes," M. de La Reynie sighed. "The King is not by nature faithful, he has been attracted by several fresh young beauties during the reign of Madame de Montespan but they have never dared to rival her. As soon as she has noticed that the King is looking at them, they retire from Court—they are afraid to take up the challenge."

"Is that why Mlle. de Fontanges returned to her guardian's house, because she was afraid of this other woman?"

"No," said M. de La Reynie. "M. Colbert told me that the child is really good and timid—she thinks that it is a great sin to be a King's mistress. She was much shocked by the death of the young Italian girl, Jacquetta, the victim of another illicit love affair—and while she could save her honour and her peace of mind, she has fled."

"Do you connect her at all with this affair we have in hand?" asked Desgrez quickly.

"I cannot in any way connect her, except that this Italian girl was in her employ and that Doctor Rabel, one of the suspects, attended her household—but we must keep our eyes and ears open. I have had it put into the Gazette that the affair of the Widow Bosse is closed. I have never let it leak out that you have discovered she was a poisoner. I allow it to pass now that she was no more than a fortune-teller, an abortionist—that she died a natural death soon after her arrest. I have covered up the Delmas affair in secrecy. I have done all I can to quiet everyone—I do not wish the least suspicion raised. Yet I feel, I sense, a certain uneasiness in Paris. There are a great many people who are afraid."

"You will not, then," asked Desgrez disappointed, "be able to arrest these ruffians that I am able to point out to you, such as the Italian apothecary, the doctor and the priest who live together in the Impasse des Fleurs?"

"Not yet. Do not let them suspect too soon that you are a police spy—let them continue to think that you were there as the Master or 'grand author' in disguise. It is imperative that we should see this ceremony. How is it to be contrived? How, I do not know."

"I could go in the same dress—as a beggar."

"I do not think it would be wise. The Italian apothecary suspected you. He might be able to unmask you. It is not a question of courage, my dear Desgrez, but of prudence. Of what use would you be to me if you were murdered, or clapped up somewhere, or your body put into a sack and thrown into the Seine—I should never even know what had become of you."

"Well," said Desgrez, "I must obey your commands, Monsieur. In any case, perhaps you will permit me to investigate this ancient house in the Impasse des Fleurs? It has the appearance of having been deserted for years and years."

"Can you do this without arousing suspicion?" asked the Chief of Police.

"Surely, Monsieur; I think so."

"I will give you La Tulipe to help you. He is one of my most able spies—during the war he did good work for me in England and the Netherlands. I have found it necessary to confide in him. He should be able to tell you a good deal about disguise. Go then, and discover what you can, while I make some more enquiries about this La Voisin, her daughter, and Mlle. Rose. Perhaps first, you would like to see a little collection of mine."

He put his hand on the shoulder of Desgrez and led him across the simple room to an inner door, which he opened, and revealed a small inner chamber, lit by a high barred window. The walls were lined with cupboards and on the table in the centre of the room was a curious collection of objects; the hawk-like face of M. de La Reynie bent over these as he explained them to the eager Charles Desgrez.

"This was the still used by Exili, this retort came from the laboratory of Glazer, this is the glass mask that slipped from the face of Sainte-Croix, causing his death, these bottles were used by Madame de Brinvilliers for her concoctions—these are much older, they date from '47, the case you spoke of just now—that of Boulle, who, accused of Satanic practices by the nun Madeleine Davent, was convicted and burnt."

M. de La Reynie picked up a small wooden box, opened it and showed Desgrez some black three-pointed wafers mingled with others of a crimson colour.

"These the nun, Davant, declared were used in the Eucharist of Hell. This," M. de La Reynie took up a small pot, "is magic ointment made by Boulle. It is composed of aconite, soot and human fat—the first is a powerful poison. This was supposed to confer the gift of flight when rubbed over the limbs. On this parchment, traced in human blood, is the double pentacle or seal of Solomon. This is a chew stone or crystal—sometimes called Hecate's circle—you see it is en closed in a thong of bull's hide. All these other parchments have similarly magic meaning."

The young police agent eyed the ugly collection with aversion.

"Is this, Monsieur, all nonsense, mere blasphemous rubbish, or do these wretches know some secrets?"

"They certainly do," smiled M. de La Reynie grimly. "The use of subtle drugs and the manufacture of these extra ordinary poisons. As for the Satanic side of the affair, I must leave you to decide for yourself, my dear Desgrez, how much truth there is in that."

He turned to the wall cupboards, unlocked them and showed Desgrez rows of books.

"There is a fine collection of grimoires, books on magic. The police have been gathering them together for years—some are mere trash, peddled to the peasantry, some are elaborate copies of the Kabbalah, the Clavicle and the Grand Grimoire. We found some of these rubbishy treatises on Satanism in the possession of the Widow Bosse and of Delmas—facts that may mean little or nothing."

Desgrez glanced at the volumes, handsomely bound in wood, brass and parchment, at the pamphlets rudely printed on rough paper, and took several down from their shelves and opened them at random. The cold light coming from the high-set window showed uncouth and complicated designs on the pages that Desgrez turned over; drawings of witches surrounded by hideous familiars, sketches of Sabbaths, witches in flight, figures of pentacles, magic circles and formulae for charms, recipes for making potions, for conducting mysteries, for incantations and spells.

The young man closed and returned the volumes to their place with disgust.

"Rubbish much of it is," remarked M. de La Reynie gravely, closing the cupboard doors, "but imagine the evils that spring from these means when placed in the hands of the wicked to exploit the weak! Think, Desgrez, of human passions inflamed by these means! What filthy practices result, what crimes, what sins!"

"It is this that we now face, Monsieur!"

"Surely—yes. Nor are these people fools. They know a great deal about chemistry. We have not yet been able to discover how they prepare their arsenic. That must be sent from Italy. They know, too, how to bemuse the senses, to inflame the appetites, to create illusions—and they are most carefully organized by someone of great talent."

M. de La Reynie sighed and glanced at the collection on the table.

"I sometimes believe in Black Magic myself, Desgrez, seeing how I have been baffled for so long by these scoundrels. Take care, do not despise them," he added earnestly. "I have shown you these things in order to warn you. I am myself taking great precautions, my food, my drink, my linen are all carefully supervised. I touch nothing sent by strangers. I use gloves or tongs—"

"Is it as widespread as that, Monsieur!"

"I think so. How did Madame de Poulaillon die? By the by, I think I have M. Saint-Richard or rather his corpse. We tracked our suspects to Lille and there found his body hanging from the bed-tester of his own bedroom. His pockets were full of charms and powders, which I am having examined."

"At every turn we are defeated!" exclaimed Desgrez. "I thank you for your warning, Monsieur. Solange, my wife, has given me a charm to wear." He smiled tenderly, shyly. "Some words from St. John, written on virgin parchment, in a silk bag, poor child!"

"Wear it, Desgrez, it can do no harm. And since we believe in God, we must believe in His power to protect us."


13. — LA TULIPE

Desgrez found this "La Tulipe," who had been a police spy for twenty years and, in a hundred and one disguises, had travelled all over Europe, to be a dry fellow, taciturn to the point of seeming dull, an adept in impersonation, whose profession seemed to be not only his occupation and his hobby, but his sole delight. Throwing his usual quiet zeal into his task and telling Desgrez that in this case the simplest disguises would be the most effective, La Tulipe selected the humble at tire of stonemasons for himself and Desgrez from the large wardrobe of the police in the Bastille.

"You know," he remarked in a detached manner that concealed an intense interest in the matter in hand, "that the deserted mansion at the end of the Impasse and the gardens have been thoroughly examined. Nothing is to be gained by going over that ground again—we shall find nothing but over grown briars and weeds, a few broken statues, a dried-up fountain, and a mansion that is rapidly becoming too dilapidated for repair."

"You have, I think, a theory?" said Desgrez, not without envy of the other man's wider experience.

"I was interrupted in my scrutiny of the old house," replied the police spy. "Some men who affected to be possible purchasers, and who were probably nothing of the kind, entered the grounds guided by a man who pretended to be a house agent. As I was disguised as a filthy old beggar with a string of ballads round my neck, dozing away in this miserable shelter, there was nothing for me to do but clear out. But my suspicion is that there is a large cellar or even chamber underneath that mansion and that it is approached from Doctor Rabel's house."

In order to put this to the test the police agent and the spy, in their disguises, on the Friday after the meeting in the villa at Passy, waited about the entrance to the Impasse des Fleurs until they ascertained that Doctor Rabel had gone to the hospital and Father Davout was also abroad; this priest did not appear to be attached to any church; the police had discovered that he was a Belgian, probably unfrocked and using an assumed name.

Picking up their bags of tools, Desgrez and La Tulipe then went to the doctor's house and knocked confidently on the front door. A grumbling old woman opened it, and La Tulipe told her, with an air of indifference, that they had come to inspect the repairs in the kitchen, having been ordered to do this some days before but not having found leisure until now.

The old servant admitted them without delay. She said that she did not sleep in the house and knew very little about what was to be done to it, but she added viciously that it wanted repairing from top to bottom: "The rats and mice in the cellar eat one alive."

"It is the fireplace that we are to repair," said La Tulipe with professional effrontery. "The good doctor says part of the chimney has fallen down and that the damp and soot ruin the cooking."

The old woman, with maledictions on the world in general, agreed that this was so, and led the two men down to the basement.

La Tulipe affected to examine the fireplace, which was large, open, with a couple of brick ovens and in a half-ruinous condition. The old woman, who had been chosen probably for her dull senses and her stupidity, protested that very little cooking was done there and that the doctor had most of his meals abroad in a café, while the priest cooked his scanty fare in his own room.

"Perhaps there is going to be a change in the establishment," said La Tulipe with a sudden grim humour that surprised Desgrez. "Perhaps the good doctor is going to take a wife and wishes to have everything fresh and dainty for her."

He then begged the grumbling hag to bring him some water and, seeing her reluctance, added: "Perhaps when we have finished our work we can all share a bottle of wine—but bring the water, good mother, I wish to mix a little mortar and replace some bricks."

The woman, slightly mollified at this, hobbled out of the kitchen. The two men began to make an instant, quick but earnest scrutiny. They had not long to search for what they wanted to find; in the middle of the dirty floor was a large, ordinary cellar flap.

"We have some minutes—the well is in the backyard and the old witch is crippled with rheumatism," said La Tulipe.

Desgrez took hold of the rusty iron ring and pulled up the flap; a short ladder led to the cellar below.

"See," added La Tulipe, "that is the way. They go down there, through a passage, and come out in some vault under the old mansion. You go down. When the old woman returns I shall say that I have sent you back for some more material—I will keep her in play a little and then pretend that I have made a mistake in the house and that it was another doctor in another impasse whom I meant I shall so confuse the old fool that she will have but a chaotic tale to tell her master—indeed, if she troubles to tell him at all—and I shall not rouse her suspicions."

As Desgrez began to descend the ladder into the cellar, La Tulipe, going on his knees, bent down and said to him: "You have flint and tinder, weapons, money. I do not think you will be disturbed, but"—he cautioned—"I have always found the disguise you are wearing a very useful one. Hardly anyone concerns himself about an odd labourer or mason, especially if he is discovered in an old house. Find out what you can."

"How am I to return?" whispered Desgrez, looking up.

"Not this way, certainly. I should say up through the house—there must be a way—through the garden and over the wall. But you will be guided by what you find."

With that La Tulipe cautiously lowered the flap and Desgrez found himself in complete darkness. When he felt his feet on the cold stone floor of the cellar, he struck a flint and tinder and looked about him. The place was bare save for a rotting barrel and a heap of broken bottles in a corner; it was obviously long since it had been put to its proper use. Near Desgrez, as he stood with his back to the ladder, was a half= open door. He went to this at once and, the tinder still flaring in his hand, saw a long straight passage before him. Evidently the experienced La Tulipe had been correct in his surmises. It was clear, too, that the people who were in the habit of using this passage had regarded it as so secure that they had taken no precautions to disguise it.

Feeling his way, for he wished to economize his light, Desgrez proceeded along the passage, which was so narrow that when he squared his elbows they touched the walls on either side. As he proceeded he began to breathe with difficulty—the air was so horribly nauseous that he thought that it was fouler than could be accounted for by mere damp and staleness. Since Doctor Rabel's house was the last in the Impasse des Fleurs, Desgrez knew that he must almost immediately be passing under the rotting garden; probably the foul earth over head, and the weight of dead vegetation accounted for the unpleasant odour that penetrated the passage.

This, after a while, turned sharply to the right—towards the centre of the garden and under the mansion, thought Desgrez. He lit another tinder and stood still for a moment listening; the walls of the passage, which were of stone, oozed damp and were patched with livid-looking black, purple and white lichen.

Desgrez stared about him with a feeling of distaste amounting to horror—a miasma of he knew not what, that was evil and disgusting, seemed to overwhelm and almost choke him. Yet there was nothing there—only those foully blotched walls, darkness behind him and ahead of him, and, when he chanced to look down, some broken black feathers lying on the dirty flags. The tinder flared out as the police agent proceeded through the thick darkness; this was broken at last by two straight glimmers of light—the top and bottom of a door.


14. — THE DEVIL'S KITCHEN

Desgrez found the latch, lifted it cautiously, opened the door and stepped into the kitchens of the deserted mansion. These neglected, decaying apartments showed the police agent nothing of interest; they were half basement; the glass in the windows had long since been broken or removed—tangles of last year's rotting weeds forced themselves through the window spaces, the damp made patches of black mould on the walls; it was obviously a long time since the place had been used, but in the large fireplace were signs of a recent fire—a charred log, ashes, and a serviceable set of kitchen utensils, a three-legged cauldron, a poker, a pair of tongs, and one or two nondescript metal vessels.

"Well, someone comes to cook here—in a place like this," thought Desgrez. "I suppose they require refreshment after their orgies."

An unpleasant smell, even more objectionable than that which he had noticed in the passage, caused him to pull out his handkerchief and hold it to his lips. He was almost retching with horror and disgust, partly physical, partly mental.

"It is like the Devil's kitchen itself," he thought. "Someone must have left some meat or game to putrefy here."

Opposite him was an entrance in the wall, which had obviously been recently made; the doorway had been roughly knocked into the brickwork and the door itself was of rough, unfinished wood; Desgrez pushed it open and saw a flight of new, roughly hewn steps descending below him. All was as La Tulipe had said: there was evidently a large chamber, too spacious to be termed a cellar, beneath the old mansion. The ancient quarters of Paris were full of such places, Desgrez knew, and it was possible that this had once been a chapel, and that the subterranean chamber had once been a burial vault, perhaps even part of the catacombs that lay under Paris. When he reached it, he found it to be of considerable size and lit by a scant filter of daylight that came from a square window at one end, which was lit by a little area and grating giving on the garden beyond.

Desgrez looked round cautiously; there was no place for anybody to be concealed—he was alone. There was little to gratify his intense curiosity, but he could at least be sure that the place had been used recently.

The underground chamber was in good repair, the plaster work on the walls looked fairly new; no damp entered, the thick greenish glass in the window was clean, the floor had been lately swept. In one corner was a pile of straw-bottomed chairs set one on the other, in another corner some footstools and a broom; beneath the window was a small platform approached by two steps—nothing else, save that foul smell which seemed here to mingle with the acrid perfume of burnt aromatics.

"I suppose," thought Desgrez, "whatever horrid ceremonies they have, they hold here, but they must bring all their paraphernalia with them."

As a matter of routine duty, for he did not expect to discover anything, the police agent searched the pile of chairs. Nothing there. He then went to the other corner and looked behind the footstools, which were of plain green serge. Nothing there. Behind the broom was a little heap of twigs, dust and dirt from the floor, some black feathers similar to those that Desgrez had seen in the passage, a gilt tassel from a woman's dress, some charred fragments of paper, and what seemed to Desgrez a bundle of rags stained with blood.

He thought rapidly: "There has been food cooked here, these are the rags the meat was wrapped in."

But he recoiled from the corner and looked apprehensively round the gaunt chamber—so drab, so bare in appearance. There was nothing to horrify or disgust, only the plain walls, the blank window through which the daylight filtered chill and grey past the grating, the piled up chairs, the piled up foot stools and the plain platform; yet the whole place seemed to Desgrez, strong nerved as he was, to be full of a miasma of indescribable evil.

The police agent stooped, picked up the fragments of half-charred paper, on which he could see some writing in ink, put this into his shirt and left the underground apartment by the way he had come.

He looked at the scraps of paper and found that they bore traces of some of the curious figures that M. de La Reynie had shown him in the pages of the grimoires, pentacles and magic circles; the name Louis was repeated many times in red ink. This told Desgrez nothing; Louis was, perhaps, the commonest name in France.

The police agent had no doubt that he had discovered the place, probably one of many, where the Black Mass was held, together with other obscene and terrible ceremonies; sticking to the end of one of the pieces of paper was a three-cornered black wafer, such as had been used in the Boulle affair.

Desgrez had been told by M. de La Reynie that the Satanists chose, if possible, for their ghastly celebrations, places that had once been used for Christian worship, and liked, as a background to their abominations, ruins haunted by the bat, the owl and the spider.

Desgrez could not altogether repress a shudder as he left the dismal, bare underground chamber; even when all obvious theatrical effects were discounted, there remained a hideous residue of the vilest human passions expressed by means of the most repulsive of human degradations, leading to secret murder for the basest motives. The young police agent wondered what purpose there could be strong enough to induce even the vicious-minded and the black-hearted to sink to these depths—the very cesspools of human folly and sin.

When he reached the kitchens, he easily found the door that led him to the staircase that brought him into the large salon of the mansion. Here, as La Tulipe had told him, there was nothing; the place was unfurnished and falling into decay; the shutters had dropped from the windows, the plaster from the cornice, the floorboards had rotted, festoons of cobwebs draped the corners of the room; an unnerving silence filled the place.

Desgrez peered out of the broken window-panes into a thick growth of laurels and briars, which, amid their entangled stems and branches, were putting out small pale leaves; beneath them on the neglected earth grew some thick bright weeds; beyond waved the blue-black flat boughs of a cypress tree; the ground was so shaded and concealed by the long neglected overgrowth that Desgrez believed it would be easy for him to pass through the gardens unobserved. He therefore stepped through the window and, avoiding the briars with their large flesh-coloured thorns, passed between the glossy leaves and stiff branches of the laurel.

Making as little movement as possible among the boughs of the trees in case the garden might be observed from any of the houses in the Impasse des Fleurs, the police agent slowly forced his way towards what he thought must be the back wall of the garden, which looked on to a little place that was usually deserted. Suddenly the bushes came to an end. Putting aside a bough of the long dark leaves of a laurel Desgrez found himself face to face with a small clearing, which had evidently recently been freed of trees, shrubs and even weeds. He looked at a square space of newly turned earth, among which showed the withering roots of wind flowers and blue bells; beyond this was a further waste of untouched brambles, laurels and ilex trees. Against one of these Desgrez could discern a rough shed, from which hung two large spades to which fresh mould clung.

The police agent, though not a religious man, made the sign of the Cross and muttered: "God protect us, God save us from evil."

The cleared ground had been turned over into little heaps; at one end was a shallow trench not more than two feet long. "They look like graves," thought the police agent, "and one still awaits its occupant. But no, it isn't possible."

He stood rigid, his shrewd face hardening, his eyes narrowed; he remembered the death of Jacquetta, the terror of Mlle. de Fontanges, the suspected activities of the Italian apothecary—he counted the heaps of upturned earth, which cast faint shadows in the veiled light that fell scattered through the budding boughs.

The silence of the place was oppressive: Desgrez was so conscious of a miasma of evil that he could fancy fiendish voices whispering in the undergrowth, fiendish faces peering through the still branches of the trees.

He was relieved to think that it was not his duty to dig in any of these mounds—no, he must not leave behind any traces of his visit.

Quitting this clearing, he plunged again into the bushes, made his way as well as he could through the thick under growth, reached the back wall, surmounted it with the help of the trees and found himself in the deserted little place, which contained only some tumbledown houses and a cheap wine shop. Desgrez went to this latter, and, putting down his sous, ordered a glass of coarse wine. While he was drinking it he tried to get some information out of the host, a rough Parisian of the lowest type, but the man either could not or would not speak; he knew nothing about the deserted mansion, he had never seen anyone go in or out, it was just an old place that had been allowed to fall into decay, he did not know to whom it belonged.

"Well," said Desgrez, "I ask because I have been sent along to repair the wall. My master told me to come here to-day. When I got there I rang the bell at the outer gates and no body took any notice. I suppose I must have made a mistake."

With this excuse he left the wine shop and, losing himself in a maze of streets, took a roundabout way to the Bastille.

Despite the spring day, Paris, always an alien city to the young Norman, looked dark and grim; the old, smoke-grimed towers and chimneys rose drab and gloomy into the thick pale clouds that obscured the sky; the streets through which Desgrez threaded his way were crooked, pierced by alleys and courts, overhung by medieval houses, some of which had half fallen down, others were propped up by timbers; weather-de faced signs hung on rusty stanchions, crowns, roses, lilies, fantastic beasts showed dimly from the broken boards. Filth, over which flies hovered, rotted in the choked gutter channels that ran down the centre of the streets; with the increasing warmth of the season the foul stenches were insistent and mingled with the odour of frying oil, garlic and greasy soup.

Ragged loungers stood before the sunk doors of wine-shops, pallid-faced children played on dirty thresholds where the sewing and spinning women sat; hawkers and ballad singers wandered up and down crying their wares.

Desgrez eyed all of these people with suspicion—who could tell whether some of them might not be the devil's scouts? Which of these wretched dwellings was free from the possibility that it was an outpost of Hell?


PART FOUR

CATHERINE LA VOISIN


1. — "MISS PINK"

M. de La Reynie listened keenly to the report brought him by Desgrez after he had inspected the house in the Impasse des Fleurs.

"It is much what one expected," said the Chief of Police. "They have got hold of some old burial vault, as you surmised—no doubt there are several of these places in Paris. As for your little graveyard, we can guess who is accommodated there. You remember," he added drily, "the death of Mlle. Jacquetta?"

"I did not want to remember it," said Desgrez. "The ground I saw was large enough to hide dozens of new-born infants."

"And probably does," said La Reynie. "I think," he added, "we have another link in our chain of evidence. I have discovered who your Catherine La Voisin is—these people have a great deal of effrontery and do not even trouble to change their names. She is a nurse and midwife who is often employed by Doctor Rabel. She frequently changes her address and does not seem very successful in her profession—she lives in obscure quarters and even slums at present in the rue Beauregard. She is as often in Versailles as in Paris—she has various lodgings in that town. Her daughter is her frequent companion; though she is not young, and, as you saw for yourself, extremely unattractive, she has a lover—a certain Descourets. He is a coach builder in a small way. None of these people has been in prison, but all of them belong to the lowest class of society."

"Why should this Catherine La Voisin," asked Desgrez, "go to Versailles?"

"I do not know, but one may guess, if she is an intimate of men like the Maréchal de Luxembourg. I should very much like to arrest her and put her to the question, but it would be imprudent to do so until she has betrayed herself a little further. It is clear that she is only the instrument, the tool, of some great personage. The Englishwoman in male attire is probably the link between her and her patroness. This person is, we may believe, for some reason or other, desperate—she requires the help of these base creatures and is prepared to go any length to obtain it. She is becoming reckless. I believe that she is either Olympe Mancini, or Madame de Soissons, or Madame de Bouillon—in any case, it is almost certainly a love intrigue, possibly complicated with money. These women, wealthy as they are, lose enormously at cards—they are some times desperate to obtain the means to continue their extravagances.

"But, Monsieur, you warned me that we could not proceed against these people."

"I know. I do not think we can, but it is our duty to collect all possible evidence against them. I shall then put it before M. de Louvois or M. Colbert. I have found them both deeply concerned at what I have told them, incredulous too. I blame myself," added the Chief of Police bitterly. "The affair has grown to such proportions, under my very nose, as it were! I believed that after the La Brinvilliers case I had made the utmost investigations; these people are cunning, their very recklessness saves them, they go about so openly that one does not suspect them. It is as if one lifted up a fair white stone and underneath was a nest of cockroaches."

"How long are you going to hold your hand, Monsieur?"

"Not long. Be at the end of the Impasse des Fleurs at half-past eight to-night. This is the appointed Friday, is it not?"

"You intend, Monsieur, to be present at the ceremony held in the vault underneath the old mansion?"

"Yes. Someone else is coming with me, too. I will not ex plain to you now what we are going to do. Be there. Go home to your wife, Desgrez, and set her mind at ease. You've been many hours away from home. Ah," he added, glancing at the notes on the table in front of him, "there is one item in the dossier of Madame Catherine La Voisin that I forgot to tell you. She has had living with her for some weeks a girl of the name of Mlle. Rose, who used to be a laundress, an expert in fine starching of ruffles and frills—she is your Miss Pink, as I believe, and that part of the plot is clear enough."

"Why the English name?" asked Desgrez.

La Reynie shrugged his shoulders. "Who can tell? It is all so trivial, and, in a way, stupid—yet maybe it is of the utmost importance. I saw the Marchese Pignata again to-day—he is very zealous. The truth is, I think, that he is, for all his piety, full of intrigue and has provoked some bitter enemies."

"He fears to be struck at secretly?"

"I think so. I believe that is one reason why he remains in Paris. Not only is he anxious to watch the interests of the Vatican, but he wishes to be out of the way of those who mean him a mischief."

"No doubt, then," smiled Desgrez, "he will be a little nervous when he finds these evil activities have reached Paris."

"He is. I am convinced that he is trying to help me, He has given me some very succinct reports from the Roman police. The thing seems very deeply rooted in Italy."

"Is any of this information of any positive use to us, Monsieur?"

"I'm afraid not. There is a list of seven or eight Italian Princes who might be, in Pignata's opinion, the 'author' or 'Master'—but no proof against any of them—no, Desgrez, we must continue to play a dangerous game—and partly, at least, in the dark." He rose, adding pleasantly: "Be ready for to night. Perhaps we shall really discover something useful."


2. — SOLANGE IS AFRAID

When Charles Desgrez returned to his apartment he found Solange in a state of deep dejection; she had been anxious while he was abroad, and had brought herself to the point when she wished that they had never attended Maître Perrin's party that he had given on her last birthday.

"Oh, Charles, see what it has entangled us in! I'm afraid, I can hardly endure to have you out of my sight. I know you don't tell me everything, and that only makes it worse."

Charles Desgrez embraced his wife warmly, feeling in her sweet presence even more than his usual pleasure after the hideous company he had been in, and the horrible places he had seen.

When he was with Solange, his arms round her waist and her cheek on his shoulder, he did indeed feel that he would willingly leave Paris and all the Paris underworld that was being slowly and in such hideous colours unfolded before his eyes. He longed for his native Normandy, the cider-apple orchards, the fields of grain, the great estates, the green meadow and woodland, the clean towns swept by sea winds, the comfortable farms with the bakehouses, tiled roofs, allées of chestnuts, and lily ponds. But he suppressed this nostalgia as a weakness; he was a young man with his way to make, he could not turn back from whatever fate might offer him. Besides, his strong, simple nature could see no escape from integrity; his loyalty was to his work, and to his Chief; he tried to reassure Solange, declaring that he was in no danger and was well-protected. All of what he knew, and all that he had seen, he did not like to tell her.

"I see," smiled the young woman sadly, "that you are going to break your word to me, Charles. You promised that I should be with you in this and help you in your work, even in your danger. Instead of that you are now keeping things back from me. You leave me alone for hours. Oh, I am not rebuking you, I understand why you do this, but it leaves me lonely, restless, sad."

Charles gazed at her tenderly, anxiously. "Even if there were anything you could do—"

"Ah, I know your provisos." She put her fingers over his lips. "Do not say the words 'if there is anything you can do that is not dangerous!' I don't mind a little danger—I'm healthy and quick-witted and I rather love to disguise and play tricks on people. Did I not do well with that young M. de Saint-Maurice? He never suspected me—and how clever it was of me to throw him off by the Louvre. Do you know, Maître Perrin came to see me to-day. He knows nothing of what we are engaged in. It was so strange to look at him, to think that it had all begun on the night of the birthday-party he gave for me. He mentioned the disappearance of the Widow Bosse—he doesn't know that we have had a hand in it! He thinks that she was in debt and shut her shop to run away to escape her creditors. Do you know, I asked him about those two English words—Miss Pink."

"Yes, I have found out that they mean just 'Mlle. Rose', and I've found out the person too, Solange—a little laundress or servant kept by this La Voisin I told you of."

"Yes, but the words mean something else besides 'Mlle. Rose'—pink is the English word for the flower that we call carnation. They are called that, Maître Perrin said, because of the little cutting or frill to their petals. You remember that there was a little drawing—a pink—on the paper that I showed M. de Saint-Maurice? You remember I put it there because of what poor Jacquetta said when she was dying? You see, I think there may be another meaning beside 'Mlle. Rose'."

Charles Desgrez turned the matter over thoughtfully—he could make no connection, however, between anything he knew of the poisoners and these exquisite flowers, called by the French carnations and by the English pinks.

"It may be just a symbol or password they use. I shall re member, however, what you have told me, Solange."

He studied her gratefully in the pleasant mingled lamp and firelight of their little room, thankful for her pleasant, pale Norman beauty, for her candour and love, for her courage and trust, grateful—half-unconsciously—to God for giving him this woman in a world where there were those other women of whom he had lately heard and seen too much.

"You wear the little charm I gave you, Charles?"

"Yes, yes, indeed I do," he touched his breast. "But why are you afraid for me. I do nothing more than any other police agent in Paris."

"Perhaps not," replied Solange thoughtfully, "but you are my concern, the others are not. I spend a lot of time alone, you know, Charles, and so I think—and so I become afraid—"

"You must not be afraid, Solange. I cannot endure that

"Afraid for you, dear. I look out over the roofs and towers of Paris, so old—so dark. I think of all those little courts and alleys, of the river—so wide and swift—"

"Don't have such gloomy thoughts, Solange!"

She smiled.

"Even now you want to leave me and you will not tell me where you are going! Oh, wear the charm, Charles. God deliver us from evil!" She crossed her breast. "I remember the old tales my grandmother used to tell me of the powers of evil. I think they are abroad in Paris now."

In great distress Desgrez tried to protest, but she stopped him by kissing his lips.

"You know that it is true! Don't worry, I shan't vex you any more—while you are out to-night I shall pray for you."

"I shall remember that, Solange. I shall feel protected and blessed."

He held her closely to him, strengthened and comforted by her love, her trust and courage; she laughed, casting back her curls, disguising her deep fear that was like a cold hand clutching at her heart.

"Go to sleep, sweetheart, don't wait up for me."

He kissed her eagerly and was gone; Solange stood rigid, listening to his departing footsteps.


3. — THE BLACK MASS

When Desgrez kept the appointment with the Chief of Police at the corner of the Impasse des Fleurs, he found La Reynie accompanied by a gentleman of his own height and apparently his own age; he wore a plain cloak and hat, a reddish brown peruke and one of those deep masks which were usually worn by all persons of quality when travelling.

Desgrez bowed to this stranger, who was not presented to him by his Chief and who said nothing; M. de La Reynie walked a few paces in front as the three turned down the Impasse des Fleurs; Desgrez was wearing an ordinary civilian dress with a vizor; so, too, was the Chief of Police, who said: "You have nothing to do but keep close to me and obey any instructions I may give you. Be on the alert, affect no surprise or horror at whatever you may see."

The night was overcast, though the air was full of the freshness of late spring; now and then the twinkle of stars showed behind the loose, dark purple of the clouds. There were only two street lamps in the Impasse and one of them was attached to the porch of Doctor Rabel's house; Desgrez glanced up at this building and saw the windows all shuttered; the Chief of Police snatched at the iron bell-pull and the door was instantly opened by one of his own archers.

"Ah," thought Desgrez, "he has taken strong measures at last."

The three entered the narrow passage of the house, "Upstairs?" asked La Reynie.

The archer replied:

"Yes, Monsieur—all has been done as you directed."

Desgrez glanced at the stranger with a certain curiosity; he suspected that this must be someone sent from the Court; the King must have been no doubt satisfied with the evidence of one of his intimates that there was some truth in the horrible tale that La Reynie had told him; Desgrez found it impossible to judge the person and features of this man, concealed as they were by hat, peruke and cloak; only it was obvious that he was a gentleman, a person of distinction and used to command.

When they reached the room on the first floor where Desgrez had been taken after he was attacked and where he had been attended by Doctor Rabel, they found the physician disarmed, seated at his desk and surrounded by four police agents, who had their muskets ready in their hands.

The doctor had taken off his wig, his bald head shone pink and damp in the light of the shabby lamp; seldom had Desgrez seen a picture of more piteous terror on a human face; all colour had been sucked from the doctor's waxy features—his pallid mouth hung loose, his eyes stared fixedly in front of him, and with shuddering fingers he fumbled at the cravat round his neck, as if he feared it would choke him.

When the three men entered the room the prisoner made an attempt at self-control and dignity; he tried to rise, could not, and stammered out:

"This is an outrage! Why am I arrested in my own house, without any explanation? I demand justice!"

"Do not trouble," replied La Reynie sternly, "to make use of those commonplace words, Doctor Rabel, that are uttered by all prisoners. Everything is known. There is only one means by which you can escape the worst of punishments."

"The worst," stammered the physician, with such a look and action of miserable terror that Desgrez almost pitied him.

"The worst," repeated La Reynie. "The rack, the wheel, the fire. All, I repeat to you, is known."

"What service do you require of me? What do you want me to do?" whispered the doctor, his hands at his throat as if he still tried to untie the knot of his cravat.

"You are to attend a certain ceremony to-night in the room underneath the deserted mansion at the end of the Impasse. The entrance is through your house, a flap in your cellar leads to a passage that comes out in this vault. It is my intention, and that of my two companions, to be present at this Mass."

"This Mass," repeated the doctor thickly, stupidly.

"Ah, you see I know what I am talking about," said La Reynie.

"I dare not. I dare not. No, I would rather die."

"Very likely you will die in any case. It's simply a question of how you die."

"If it were discovered, as it's bound to be discovered, I should be torn limb from limb," stammered the physician. "I know what they do, ay, I know."

"As to that, you need have no fear. As soon as this ceremony is over, you will be arrested and lodged in the Bastille. There you will be safe from your friends—your accomplices."

"But from you, from the law?"

"I can promise you your life, your limbs too—you shall neither be tortured nor be put to death, if you will do as I bid you now. If you refuse, if you endeavour to warn your accomplices, you will be taken at once to the torture chamber at the Bastille, and there, no doubt, the rack and the pulley and the water-jar will help you to make a complete confession. Now, Antoine Rabel."

"I will do as you say. Yes, yes, I am in your hands."

"You must control yourself. Your agitation is pitiful and obvious."

"Yes, yes." The trembling man reached for his wig, which hung on the corner of the chair. "I will compose myself, I see how much is at stake. But how am I to introduce you? How am I to excuse your presence?"

"You will say"—La Reynie pointed to his companion—"that this gentleman is the 'great author', 'the unknown', 'the Master.'"

"Ah, you know that do you?" stammered Rabel, falling back into the chair from which he was trying to rise.

"Yes, and more. My companion is masked and disguised by his peruke, his hat, his cloak. He will readily be accepted as the person you say he is. I and this other gentleman will pass as his guards or companions. You will say that we are Italians. Leave it at that—and the rest to us."

"You will be discovered," gibbered Rabel, shaking his head foolishly and clasping and unclasping his hands. "You have no idea how careful they are, how everything is scrutinised. There may be some to-night who know the Master."

"Even if they do," replied La Reynie, "they cannot be certain that this is not he."

Doctor Rabel made one more protest:

"But since you know everything, why should I go through this? Why should you want to attend to-night since you know what is going to take place?"

"I and my companions," said La Reynie, "wish to see certain things with our own eyes."

"Well, I won't be answerable for your lives," said the doctor, biting his pale ragged lips. "You hear that?"

"As for that, have no fear. I have a couple of hundred archers hidden in the Impasse and round the mansion. I have only to blow my whistle and they will break into the vault. They know exactly where it is."

The doctor rose; he had recovered something of his dignity. "Monsieur, have I your word, if I do this, for my safety?"

"You have my word that you will be taken to the Bastille, free from the vengeance of your accomplices, and that you will be dealt with—as an informer—with the greatest possible leniency."

"Very well. But I know nothing. I was dragged into this against my will—I do not know even the names of all the people who come. I have been blackmailed because of a little mistake. A stupid young woman in a difficulty—you under stand? I helped her out of the goodness of my heart. I had no idea of—of—the other business."

"When you are examined by the magistrate," said La Reynie, "you will be able to explain all that. Take," he added quietly, "a glass of eau-de-vie or a glass of wine, or one of your own stimulants—for upon your self-control now, depends not only your life but the lives of all your accomplices."

"You ask of me more than you know," replied the doctor, still with a certain dignity. "I do not know who your friends are, Monsieur, and no doubt it is useless for me to ask, but I think that for the sake of France, the sake of the King, you should leave this matter alone."

"You are indeed insolent," smiled La Reynie. "You are trying to frighten me by hinting that there will be a scandal about some high-placed people, if this conspiracy of criminals is revealed?"

He turned to his companion, the disguised stranger who stood silently beside Desgrez. "This gentleman here, who is far more powerful than I am, is resolved to see this matter through to a finish, no matter whom it involves."

The doctor shrugged his shoulders, straightened his attire and adjusted his wig. He had been disarmed, but the archers kept very close to him, for he was continually glancing from right to left, as if to snatch at some weapon or even the light. M. de La Reynie was soon by his side; he feared that the cornered man might do something desperate, such as casting himself out of the window or trying to snatch at one of the archers' knives to cut his throat.

"Let us make haste," said the stranger standing beside Desgrez, speaking for the first time. "Let us have no more delays, Monsieur de La Reynie."

"Very well," cried the doctor in a harsh voice that rose nearly to a scream. "I warn you, gentlemen, that if it is discovered I am a traitor, if it is found out that I have introduced three of the police into this place, we shall be all torn to pieces at once."

"Believe me," replied M. de La Reynie, "we are all well-armed, the house is watched as I told you. Before your friends have got far enough to drag our limbs off our bodies, my archers would be at their throats. Lead the way."

Doctor Rabel, with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched up, walked forward. Desgrez, obeying a signal from M. de La Reynie, stepped beside him; two other police agents came behind. The archers were left in charge of the doctor's house; they put out all the lights and remained seated in the dark so that the place seemed empty when seen from the street.

Doctor Rabel brought his three captors to the trap door already familiar to Desgrez and the four descended the ladder, leaving the two police agents behind, into the cellar and walked along the passage that Desgrez had already traversed; M. de La Reynie was provided with a lantern; this Desgrez took from him and held aloft to light the way.

When they had almost reached the kitchens of the deserted mansion, the physician's courage sank; he hung back and muttered that he would rather be killed on the spot than go through with the business he had undertaken.

"You have no such choice," whispered La Reynie harshly. "If you do not go forward you will be taken to the Bastille and instantly put to the question—we already know enough against you to send you to the wheel and the stake."

The doctor stumbled forward. They passed through the kitchen; Desgrez noticed that a large fire now burnt on the open hearth, and so down into the room that the young police agent had visited before. This was very much altered in appearance; the walls had been hung with some cheap black material, side tables had been set out on which were lamps; the straw chairs and the green footstools had been put in place, arranged in rows as if to accommodate an audience; on the dais was erected a rude altar, consisting of a table covered with three linen cloths, an inverted crucifix, a large book bound in pale parchment and six black candles in copper sticks. Two "priests", also robed in black were in attendance; one of them Desgrez recognized as Father Davout. He had a violet chasuble. The other, who wore a cope of white silk embroidered with fir cones, was a stranger to him. A wicker cage, which contained three black cockerels, was at the side of the altar.

Some of the company had already assembled. Desgrez noticed the Maréchal de Luxembourg, who was laughing and talking with a cynic and petulant air, the Englishwoman, debauched looking, who was still attired as a cavalier.' M. de Saint-Maurice and the Italian apothecary; also veiled and attired in black as if they were nuns, Catherine La Voisin and her daughter.

All these people turned and stared as the doctor entered the room with his three companions, masked, shrouded in their slouch hats and long cloaks.

"Now," whispered La Reynie in the ear of his prisoner; a spasm passed over the physician's face; then, by a frantic effort, he assumed composure which surprised even La Reynie and Desgrez; stepping up to the altar, he said with an air of authority:

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are honoured to-night with the presence of the Grand Master himself, our unknown chief! The man who supplies the materials with which we work has recently returned from Italy and intends to be present at to-night's ceremony."

"Surely," thought Desgrez, "they will not accept that."

But to his amazement the company made no demur. There was a movement among them; some of the women laughed in an excited way, some shouted, Desgrez thought that many of them were drugged; Saint-Maurice seemed alarmed, Luxembourg amused.

"It must be," thought Desgrez, "that none of them actually know who this unknown is. Probably he is an entirely fictitious person, whom some of these scoundrels have invented to be muse the others," and he wondered with a lively curiosity who the man really was whom M. de La Reynie had brought with him. While he was looking at this, the stranger, advancing to the foot of the altar, in a deep voice and an impressive manner, said:

"I find that in my absence you become reckless. Is this a place in which to hold your ceremonies? Do you not know that the death of Jacquetta Malipiero, the end of La Bosse and that of Madame de Poulaillon have excited the suspicions of the police? And yet you meet here boldly in the very heart of Paris!"

Saint-Maurice rose to answer this rebuke; his manner, usually so coolly insolent, was servile; he stammered, excusing himself. "We believed, Master, that the stable was becoming a dangerous place to use, too much observed, and as for the house at Versailles, there were many reasons against that. We have been assured, too, that the police are no longer on our track. Three prisoners have been made, Monseigneur, one has been destroyed, one destroyed herself, and the third, Delmas, will certainly be put out of the way before he has a chance to speak."

"I accept your excuses," replied the stranger brusquely. "Let the ceremony proceed. Afterwards, M. de Saint-Maurice, I will see you in private. These, my two companions,"—he nodded first towards La Reynie, then towards Desgrez—"are men completely in my trust. They come from the Court of England on the business you know something about."

With that he seated himself on one of the chairs in the front row, the two police officers beside him. Desgrez felt his heart beating quicker; he had not believed that this bold effrontery would be successful, and he wondered, with an even deeper curiosity, who this man might be who could carry off such a situation with so high a hand.

Some more women, masked and cloaked, now entered the apartment, and in a few moments the ceremony, a parody of the fearsome Black Mass of the Middle Ages, began.

Desgrez became more convinced that most of those present—all perhaps with the exception of Luxembourg and Saint Maurice—were drugged, such groans, cries and hysterical shrieks rose from this strange congregation.

Besides, the enclosed air was thickened from the fumes of some narcotic, which seemed to be burning in a pan behind the altar: Desgrez felt his senses becoming drowsy and his vision slightly troubled. The two priests came to the edge of the dais and by means of a black brush sprinkled some noisome liquids into the air; one of them turned towards the inverted crucifix, and in a mumbling rigmarole invoked the Devil, making the sign of the inverted cross with his right hand.

The Host was then produced, some filthy-looking water was poured over a black, three-cornered wafer, which was flung down and trodden on by the priests.

The congregation uttered frenzied cries and yells during this ceremony; the fumes from the burning drug became stronger; Desgrez, slightly dizzy, felt the sweat beading under his vizard; he steadied himself by glancing at the immobile figures of La Reynie and his companion: Doctor Rabel looked livid. Desgrez feared that his nerve would not hold, that he would betray himself and them.

The priests seemed to be leading a general confession in which the congregation joined; everyone participated in the ritual, which was full of blasphemy and obscenity.

Desgrez found this ceremony at first stupid and even tedious, like some jest played by a schoolboy to terrify a child; he even smiled behind his vizard as he saw the priests, who had been joined by the two La Voisin women, passing to and fro in front of the black altar muttering incantations, reading sentences in some unintelligible gibberish from the parchment-covered book, lighting the black candles in groups of seven until twenty-one burnt upon the altar.

He thought, fighting off drowsiness: "Oh well, one must lead a very empty life, have a very idle mind to be amused by this sort of rubbish."

At a sign from Father Davout the company went on their knees and then Desgrez was suddenly conscious of a feeling of nausea, of fierce distaste; the place was odious, the black candles against the black walls gave a sickly and unnatural light; the faces of the two women and of the priest were bestial; there was something most sinister in that masked congregation, for everyone save Luxembourg, Saint-Maurice, and the Italian apothecary, wore wizards. The presence of the women, too, irked Desgrez, who, like so many hard-headed materialists, was sentimental where the female sex were concerned; he disliked to see those delicate creatures with their fine hands clutched and twitching in their laps, with their white throats and delicate bosoms showing between the folds of their black scarves and cloaks, while hysterical cries issued from behind their masks.

Nonsense the whole horrid business might be, but it was ugly nonsense; it was not pleasant to the austere young man to know that there were so many women—and finely-bred gentlewomen, too, by the looks of them—in Paris who cared to be present at this kind of blasphemy. Blasphemy! That word came into his mind and stuck there, and he began to shiver a little.

He stared at the altar on which was placed the huge black cross, upside-down; he remembered the symbol that he had put at the end of the paper Solange had given to Saint-Maurice.

The rigmarole of the service went on; the black cocks, squawking and fluttering, were taken out of the wicker cage, their throats cut and their blood dropped into a chalice that was held by the elder La Voisin woman. The dead birds were then slit open, their entrails taken out and cast on to a brazier the younger woman produced from behind the altar; a nauseous odour filled the underground room; Desgrez noticed that his two companions coughed and choked as the fumes rose; La Voisin then came to the front of the platform and asked if there was anyone present who had a favour to demand.

At this M. Luxembourg rose instantly, and said in a tone of cynic indifference:

"What I demanded before—the death of my wife, the favour of the King, the position of Lord-Lieutenant of Languedoc."

Then he added with sardonic self-contempt: "But you, Madame, cannot obtain any of these things for me and I do not believe in your spells." He sank back in his place, folded his arms on his chest and seemed to go to sleep, his head nod ding under his great reddish peruke.

"Perhaps, Monseigneur," cried La Voisin at the top of her loud, harsh voice, "the time will come when you will believe in my power!"

The women in the congregation then began to come up to the altar one by one; they knelt before the two priests, the two priestesses at the altar, muttering some prayers, which were unintelligible to Desgrez, and handing up, he thought, some personal possession, some trifle like a ribbon or a buckle or a flower made of silk or velvet, a kerchief or a bracelet of beads. All these articles La Voisin took in her hands and touched with the blood of the black cocks in the dark chalice, which stood on the altar.

The monotonous drone of the female whisperings as the procession of the black-veiled, black-cloaked women advanced and bowed, one after another, began to oppress Desgrez with a sense of an intolerable nightmare; he had to use a strong effort of will to hold himself in his place, he had to reassure himself of reality by looking at the stranger by his side and then at La Reynie; they at least were sane in a world that seemed composed of lunatics.

Some of the women were overcome by emotion when they reached the altar and fell down in a kind of fit or trance; one foamed at the mouth and screamed hysterically; she was dragged back to her seat and hushed by her companions. The air had become thick and foul from the smoke of the burning entrails of the cocks; it was mingled with the reek of the per fume used by the women. Desgrez thrust his handkerchief to his nostrils and hoped the affair would soon be over.

La Voisin began to throw more drugs on the brazier; blue and yellow flames she up and nauseous fumes rose slowly, diffused through the chamber so that the congregation seemed to be blurred by a visible miasma of evil.

Exhausted, excited and half-drowsy owing to the drugs, many of the people took off their masks. Two of the women fainted and were allowed to lie unconscious in a huddle in their chairs. La Voisin began chanting a parody of the penitential psalm; the dog-Latin mingled with scraps of Arabic rose harshly, like the song of a lunatic.

Saint-Maurice got to his feet and clapped his hands. The congregation, after a little hesitation, a little reluctance, rose also and went by twos and threes to the door. La Voisin, her daughter and the two priests remained standing by the black altar; they were joined by the young Englishwoman in masculine attire; who was laughing in hysteric fashion.

Doctor Rabel put a cold hand on that of M. de La Reynie and whispered quickly in his ear: "I implore you, for the love of God, to come away now. I think you have seen enough."

"I intend," whispered the Chief of Police, "to see every thing."

La Voisin came to the edge of the platform, bowed low before the three strangers, and demanded if it was the Master's pleasure to remain.

The stranger replied: "Yes, and one of my friends. But this man"—he put his hand on Desgrez's shoulder—"will leave."


4. — A SACRIFICE TO SATAN

Desgrez was bitterly disappointed, even offended; he wished to protest, but knew that he dared not do so. Why had he been dismissed when La Reynie was allowed to remain? Bowing stiffly he rose and passed down the room. Where was he to go? What was he to do?

Shaken with regret and shame, he wondered if in some way he had disobeyed or offended. To be thus dismissed at the moment of the greatest interest, and possibly—humiliating thought—greatest danger! Did not M. de La Reynie trust, then, his courage, discretion?

It was Saint-Maurice that escorted him to the kitchen, where the fire burned brightly.

"I can guess your identity, Monseigneur," he remarked pleasantly. "You were always squeamish. I can't say I like the ceremony myself, but she insists. I suppose I shall meet you at Versailles to-morrow?—or are you here on unofficial business only?"

"At Versailles," said Desgrez bowing, and using an assumed voice.

"I wish," said Saint-Maurice, "that Doctor Rabel had told me you were coming to-night. I agree with what the Grand Master said. I think this is a most imprudent place. I prefer the stables or Passy." With that Saint-Maurice opened the door that led from the kitchen to the upper part of the house and, nodding carelessly, turned away.

The house was lit dimly but Desgrez had no difficulty in finding the front door and letting himself out into the garden. He knew that the house was surrounded, though he believed that it was not M. de La Reynie's intention to make many, if any, arrests that night. He could not bring himself to leave, while he knew that something of interest and importance was taking place, and so stood hesitant in the dark garden where the strong, mild wind refreshed his drowsy senses.

He remembered the window that lit, by means of a grating in the garden, the underground room and hastened round to this. Moving cautiously through the undergrowth he found that by lying flat, screened by the laurels and bushes, he could contrive to see between the cracks of the black curtains that had been carelessly drawn over this window.

The hall was as he had left it; he could see the altar with the inverted cross, the brazier, the chalice of blood, the two women and the two priests with the violet chasuble and white cope; close beside them still stood the Englishwoman in her male attire, which was adorned with a great frippery of coloured ribbons. She was now holding a large closed wicker basket against her side.

The rest of the room was empty save for M. de La Reynie and his companion, the stranger, who remained in their places on the chairs near the altar.

There was something to Desgrez sinister and horrible to the last degree in this scene, which had first seemed to him so paltry and even ridiculous; he felt a pang of apprehension for the safety of his chief and his chief's friend. He thought: "They should not have sent me away, they might need me. If they were suspected they would be killed instantly."

As he lay there clutching at the bars of the grating and peering through the division in the curtains, he saw a woman enter the underground room alone; she wore no mask but her head and face were tied up in a fine black veil, as Jacquetta's face had been disguised when she had entered the Impasse des Fleurs. Passing up to the altar, she bowed to the man whom she believed to be the "Master" or "great author"; standing in front of the altar, she unclasped her purple cloak and let it fall to the ground, then unbuttoned her bodice and unhooked her skirts and, letting these garments sink to the ground, she stood erect in a white shift that had a border of fir cones.

Desgrez could not hear what was taking place, but he could see the lips of the priests and of the two women moving: "They must be at their horrid incantations again."

Doctor Rabel then advanced from his seat beside the Chief of Police and his friend to the altar, and took from Father Davout a long, sharply pointed knife: slowly, with movements that seemed mechanical, the woman standing in front of the altar divested herself of her remaining garment. Completely naked, she stepped on to the platform and laid herself along the altar, her head and face still swathed in the black veil.

To Desgrez, staring through the grating, her pale glimmering body looked like a length of satin laid on the three white linen cloths on the table; she had the black lace veil so tightly knotted round her head and face that it was impossible to discern even the outline of her features or the colour of her hair; the six black candles had half burnt away; the inverted cross stood in the centre, by the middle of the woman's body.

As Desgrez gazed fascinated, he saw the Englishwoman, grotesque in her masculine attire, open the wicker basket that she held and disclose a small, naked baby who began to wail. As this infant was lifted up by La Voisin and carried towards the woman stretched on the altar, Desgrez scrambled from his place and fell back into the laurel bushes.

"They were right to send me away," he thought. "I could not have endured it. I must have come forward and betrayed myself."

As he pushed through the laurels he heard, or thought he heard, a shrill scream of anguish; but, no, he tried to re assure himself—he had not seen properly, the whole thing had been an hallucination, a nightmare; even if there had been a child, it would have been dead—or perhaps it was not a child at all, merely a wax image.

Hardly seeing where he was going, he scrambled through the ragged undergrowth of neglected trees, which waved dark boughs in the thick, cold light of a moon that appeared and disappeared behind the ragged clouds. When he reached the wall he found this closely guarded by M. de La Reynie's archers; on showing his badge he was allowed through the postern door.

He was in no mood to return to Solange, he felt soiled by what he had seen, degraded by what he had taken part in; he was glad of the night air on his face, he was glad to be able to look up at the moon sailing cold and pure so high over head. He walked briskly towards the Bastille and waited there till the Chief of Police returned, which was not until early the next morning.


5. — THE MOST WICKED WOMAN IN EUROPE

M. de La Reynie, who appeared to be exhausted, had with him the stranger, who, once he was in the Chief of Police's office, flung off, with a sigh, his hat, cloak and mask, and showed that he was a much older man than Desgrez had supposed him to be; he was perhaps sixty years of age, stoutly built, tall and upright, his face grave and lined, his eyes tired and heavy-lidded.

"This is M. de Colbert," said the Chief of Police to his sub ordinate. "He wished to see those abominations with his own eyes."

Desgrez bowed before the Controller-General of His Most Christian Majesty's finances, a man whom he well knew by reputation as one who was great not only by reason of his position but by reason of his character.

"I have seen, I have seen." M. de Colbert with a groan sank down in the high-backed chair by the desk. "You are offended with me, perhaps, young man, because I had you sent away. I guessed what was going to happen and I did not think you could endure it. I dared not risk an indiscretion on your part."

Desgrez bowed again without speaking.

M. Colbert continued heavily: "A child, new-born, and living as I think, though of that I cannot be sure, was sacrificed on the naked body of some woman, which was used as an altar. There was some nasty ceremony of conjuration."

"Did you not find out, Monseigneur, who she was?" asked Desgrez eagerly.

"No, that I could not. I was supposed, in my rôle of the Grand Master, to know. She retained a veil over her head the whole time. A portion of the child was burnt afterwards to make a philtre. The rites were obscene and disgusting to the last degree—may I never see anything like it again."

M. Colbert made the Sign of the Cross on his breast. "I saw! I saw!" he repeated. "We have arrested Rabel, he is in the Bastille now—also we have taken the Italian apothecary, Father Davout, as I hear his name is, and his companion who calls himself the Abbe Guibourg. I tell you these things, M. Desgrez, because I heard from M. de La Revnie that you have been active in this affair, most zealous and diligent from the first."

Desgrez bowed again and murmured his thanks.

"But Monseigneur has not touched those others, who were there. M. de Luxembourg—"

"I have their names!" cried Colbert with a grim smile. "I wonder if you, young man, recognized any of them?"

"No, Monsieur, the ladies and gentlemen of the Court are not known to me—only M. de Luxembourg, I guessed who he was when I saw him the other night at Passy."

"Because of his deformity?" asked M. Colbert. "It is within as well as without that M. le Maréchal is deformed."

The minister pointed to the stand of pens and paper at the end of the bureau: "Write down, M. Desgrez, these names. The Prince de Clermont Lodène, the Princesse de Tingry, Madame de Roure, Madame de Bouillon, Madame de Soissons, Madame Saint-Martin, the Marquise de Chanteuil. Madame de Polignac, the Duc de Vendôme, the Duc de Villeroy, Madame Dreux, the Maréchale de la Ferté—"

Desgrez exclaimed: "But, Monseigneur, all these people of quality were present to-night?"

"All of them," said Colbert, whose deep distress was evident in his face, in his words, in his gestures. "Perhaps you, Monsieur, who are young, sober-minded and honest, can appreciate something of what this means to me."

He turned and traced up and down the narrow room, where the drab light of dawn was falling through the wide windows and mingling with the warm glow of the lamp that Desgrez had lit and placed on the bureau.

Colbert was so deeply moved that he could barely contain himself; his heavily furrowed face twitched and the hand that grasped his dark cloak trembled, as he muttered hail to him self: "I, who have made modern France; I, who have controlled this extravagant, vicious and frivolous King; I, who have somehow financed his senseless wars and round the money for the buildings, those monstrous, vain-glorious palaces that M. de Louvois has put up to gratify his master's vanity! Do you know anything of me, M. Desgrez?" continued the Minister, who was moved beyond control, beyond reserve, "do you know what I have tried to do for this country, do you know how many years I have been the first Minister of France, how many times I have drawn her back from the verge of bankruptcy, where she had been driven by the reckless ambition of the King, supported by M. de Louvois?" He paused, sighed and added in a lower voice: "I know, perhaps, as no other Frenchman knows, how this country is run, how the revenues are spent. I have had to find four thousand livres for a single feast. Let it go, I have done what I can."

"It is known, Monsieur," said Desgrez, deeply touched. "Indeed, it is known and appreciated in France. We are not all of us braggart and shallow—"

"No," said Colbert with a wry smile. "Some of you are employed in the industries I have founded. I have broken the Venetian monopoly for silks and lace, that of Genoa for velvet. I have established factories all over the country, I have protected the workers by my factory laws. Why do I run over these things now? Perhaps it is cowardice—I am tainted by the abominations I have seen to-night. M. de La Reynie, am I the man who founded the Imperial Observatory, the Jardin des Plantes, the Academy of Painting, the Academy of Architecture, the arsenals of Brest, Toulon and Rochefort; am I the man who created the French Marine and taught my country how to compete even with England; am I the man who has made engineers, ministers, captains, sailors; have I sent the flag of France even to the Indies?"

He turned to Desgrez: "You are a Norman. You have seen, perhaps, Cherbourg, which, on your barren shore, I have turned into a safe harbour. All these things I have done and in doing them I have displeased the King and M. de Louvois, his flatterer. And now when I age, when I am worn out, it comes to this—I discover Paris, nay, for all I know, the whole of France, undermined by sorcerers—all the horrors of murder, abortion, charms, all this filth—half a hideous absurdity, half an obscene reality!" He paused and put his hand over his tired eyes.

"What are your orders, Monsieur?" asked La Reynie. "I, from my heart, feel for you. I appreciate all you have said. I will work with you and for you to the end."

"You may incur the enmity of Louvois, even that of the King. Several of these people are friends of his. Even I, M. de La Reynie, could so easily be sent into retirement."

"I know, Monsieur. And as for me, my post would be worth nothing 'should I offend either the King or M. de Louvois. But as long as I have my liberty and my authority, I will do as you bid me."

The Minister put out his hand and clasped that of the Chief of Police.

"We will do what we can, while we can. You have a certain number of men you can trust?"

"Yes, Monsieur. A good staff of entirely reliable men."

"These people of quality must not be arrested, the King must be told. You have La Voisin, her daughter, those two blaspheming priests and the Doctor and the Italian apothecary under lock and key. We will see what we can get out of them. There is, besides, the man Delmas."

"I have, too, the girl Rose. She was, it seems, a laundress at the Court of Savoy."

"That affair seems clear enough," said Colbert bitterly. "A French Princess!—the King will have it hushed up, no doubt. Pride and arrogance before justice again."

La Reynie asked anxiously:

"Who was the woman? She is obviously the person whom Lieutenant Desgrez heard spoken of in the little house at Passy, the woman of whom they are all afraid, the most important person, after this mysterious Grand Master, in the whole conspiracy."

"I do not know." sighed Colbert wearily. "I should have said Madame de Soissons, that black Olympe, but she was in the congregation. The Englishwoman dressed as a man I do know; she held some position at the Court, but years ago—I thought she had returned to England, she must be over here secretly."

He paused, went to the window and stared at the brightening sky.

"The King of England's son, the Duke of Monmouth," he added, "is in Paris. He is idle, frivolous, unscrupulous. Saint-Maurice thought that you, Desgrez, were this Prince to night. He excused your squeamishness on that score—this young English scoundrel has, I believe, a tender heart, at least that kind of tenderness which will not assist at abominations."

"It is very likely, Monsieur," said La Reynie. "We have been watching the young English Prince, his movements are erratic, suspicious."

"We are honoured," remarked the Minister bitterly, "with the presence of another English person—Lady Castlemaine—she is the King of England's mistress, and, I believe, fears to lose her power over the King. She is reputed to dabble in sorcery, I think it was she that we saw to-night. The English woman, who has been living so long in Paris, is a go-between."

"It is possible. Lady Castlemaine has been called the most wicked woman in Europe."

"I never heard any good of her. But we can do nothing. Two Kings protect her!"

"I recall," remarked the Chief of Police, "that this Lady Castlemaine came over to Paris to watch the execution of Madame de Brinvilliers—she seemed greatly interested in that affair."

"It is possible," replied the Minister, "that she deals in poison herself. We can do nothing but have her watched, and pray the good God that she soon leaves France. Keep your prisoners close, M. de La Reynie, have them carefully guarded so that they do not commit suicide, see that nothing is given them that may be sent them—neither flowers nor shirts nor cakes."

"I shall have an eye to that," said de La Reynie. "They shall neither die nor escape nor be murdered while they are in my care. Monsieur, may I ask if you intend to put these abominations before the King?"

"It is my duty to do so. I shall ask for a Special Commission to be set up to investigate the whole affair, I shall demand that no one, no matter of what sex or rank, be spared." As he rose wearily, he added with a flash of sardonic humour: "It may be that I shall, after all, have M. de Louvois on my side. He loathes M. de Luxembourg."

The Minister was about to leave when he turned to Desgrez and put his hand kindly on the young man's shoulder: "The King of France needs men like you. You are the material that I like to see, I shall not lose sight of you. You must not mind burning your fingers a little, or, what is worse, soiling them, in this most necessary service."

With that M. de Colbert left the office, followed by the Chief of Police. Desgrez remained erect by the chair in which the great Minister had sat; those last few words had atoned to him for all the abominations of the evening.


PART FIVE

THE SUN KING


1. — THE POISONERS IN THE BASTILLE

Shortly after the arrest of La Voisin and her accomplices, M. de La Revnie told Desgrez that he would like his constant personal attendance and desired him to sleep in the police quarters in the Bastille. This gave Desgrez an opportunity of saying what had been for some days on his mind.

"It is my wife, Monsieur," he said simply. "She is not a nervous or a foolish woman—indeed, as you know, she has been more than anxious to help in this affair—but lately she has been much on my conscience. We live in a little apartment in a good quarter of Paris, but she believes that she has been followed and recognized."

"Ah, by whom?" asked La Revnie, glancing up from the pile of papers under his hands, which he was scrutinizing with profound earnestness.

"That she cannot say. The man was tall and, of course, cloaked with his hat pulled over his brow. She thinks it might have been Saint-Maurice. Since I heard that, of course. I have made her promise to spend her days with Maître Perrin, a friend of mine who knows something of what I am doing in this affair."

"Not much I hope. You know how I desire to keep it all secret."

"Certainly, Monsieur. I hone you do not think that I have been indiscreet. M. Perrin knows no more than appears in the Gazette. Nor do I wish to trouble you with my private affairs, but now that you have asked me to be in constant attendance upon you perhaps you could suggest some place of safety for my wife."

"Yes, I can find you such a retreat for Madame Desgrez," replied the Chief of Police gravely. "I cannot ask her to come into the Bastille," he added with a wry smile, "unless she cares to occupy a cell. But I do know a house on the Versailles road, where Captain Dechamps, one of my staunchest officers, an old soldier well-seasoned in the wars, lives with his wife. The Versailles road is, for His Majesty's sake, extremely well-guarded. I will see that your wife lodges with these good people. Dechamps breeds a peculiarly savage kind of watch dog—he usually has two or three archers also in his house. Your wife could not be safer anywhere."

Desgrez thanked the Chief of Police with deep gratitude.

"Once Solange is safe I am yours day and night, Monsieur, until this affair is cleared up."

"Cleared up! You are young and hopeful," exclaimed the older man bitterly, raising his fine hands and letting them fall on the pile of papers in front of him. "The tangle, the con fusion is worse, darker, as we proceed. The girl Rose has confessed—the mere sight of the rack, the water jars was sufficient. She seems, however, to have been a mere tool, the mistress of this Delmas, who, in his turn, was employed by Saint-Maurice, and he again, in his turn, receives the poisons from some unknown person—this Grand Master or 'great author', perhaps. The girl says that the custom is to wash shirts or even bed-linen or cravats in arsenic soap—this produces on the victim an eruption and a slight fever. He is then put to bed and the doctor called in. The poisoner then gets to work; he doses the medicine, and the fever and the skin eruption pass as the disease that has proved fatal."

"Is that how the Duke of Savoy died?"

"So it seems." La Reynie shrugged his shoulders. "I suppose M. Colbert will find means to get this Saint-Maurice out of the Kingdom. He can do very little. But this is only one branch of the whole business—we are concerned more with what is happening in our own Kingdom. France is our concern not Savoy."

"La Voisin," asked Desgrez, "will she speak?"

"No. She is extremely insolent. It is clear that she considers herself highly protected—no doubt she is." La Reynie sighed from physical fatigue and put his hands in front of his weary eyes. "I have been questioning her. She has that mixture of stupidity, ignorance and effrontery which, when combined in a female, makes all one's arts useless, useless."

"She must admit something," said Desgrez. "She cannot deny the whole thing. Why, she was caught red-handed."

"Well, she admits to selling a few love philtres, helping a few women to get rid of their unwanted children, casting a few spells—harmless she calls them. Nothing more. Her daughter is silent too. The two priests, Davout and Guibourg, are sullen also—I think they may talk, out I do not know how much I can rely on what they say. I daresay they are only tools, they did perhaps nothing but officiate at these hideous ceremonies."

"The other places where these were held," asked Desgrez. "Cagny—that is a suburb of Versailles, is it not?"

"Yes," replied the Chief of Police, "and leads us nowhere. There are seven or eight mansions there, all belonging to different noblemen. There are also one or two empty houses. Cagny is too vague a clue."

"The stable—they spoke, too, of the stable?"

"That also is vague enough. What mansion of any pre tension has not a stable? No, Desgrez, it is my opinion that these abominable ceremonies have been held all over Paris and its environs. After all, the ingredients are simple."

"The Italian apothecary," questioned Desgrez, "and Doctor Rabel? What of those two prisoners, Monsieur?"

"The Italian apothecary is an extremely cunning rogue—he lies skilfully. I intend to charge him with the murder of his daughter, Mlle. Jacquetta."

"Why should he murder her?" asked Desgrez, frowning.

"I think he was, in a way, blackmailing her. She was involved in some love affair that was about to break her—she was also, I think, acting for him under threat of exposure on some difficult and, perhaps, horrible business. The girl's courage failed her, she refused to go on—she even, perhaps, threatened to betray her father's schemes. Under the excuse of taking her to some wise woman who would end her trouble for her, he had the wretched girl poisoned—that is my theory."

"What work could she be doing for him? She was only a little Italian chambermaid at the Louvre."

"Who knows, who knows?" replied the Chief of Police. "I tell you I work in the dark. As for the Doctor, he too is stubborn. He will admit nothing except attendance at some of these ceremonies, which he declares are obscene but not criminal. He swears he has never before seen a living sacrifice."

"Liar," said Desgrez. "That child was alive the other evening. I heard it crying out in the basket."

"The children, of course, have always been alive—when they could procure them." said M. de La Reynie grimly. "But this is a difficult matter to prove. Who has any care of, or kept any records of the base-born of great ladies who have gone astray? The bringing into the world of these children, dead or alive, and the selling of their bodies, dead or alive, have been the most profitable part of the whole business."

"Madame La Voisin does not seem to have found it very profitable. Monsieur." remarked Desgrez. "As far as I can understand she has always lived in miserable quarters and poor streets and accented small sums for nursing in the hospitals from those patients who could not afford much."

"Yes, that is mysterious, it puzzles me," replied M. de La Reynie. "The woman must have had a large fortune passing through her hands. I can only suppose that she has sent it out of the country, that she intends, when she considers her hoard big enough, to retire. She must have agents, perhaps in Italy, perhaps in the Netherlands, her fortune must be securely banked—she did not dare attract attention to herself. Some one whom we have not vet put our finger on would fee her very highly indeed, making it worth her while to live this miserable life for the sake of what she has accumulated."

The Chief of Police was silent a moment: he looked across his drab office to the square of window that showed the pale sky of early summer; he sighed then, as if vexed with himself for even momentarily forgetting his duty, turned to the pile of papers under his hands.

"I have some other news for you, which I will tell you briefly. Desgrez. It was in the Gazette that La Voisin and her daughter had been arrested. I did not mention the other names. The result has been that several high-placed people have left France—the Princesse de Tingry, the Prince de Clermont Lodene, several others—some of those M. de Colbert recognized that night at the Black Mass. Well, they have gone, crossed the frontiers."

"But not all of them, Monsieur; some stay to brazen it out?"

"They do indeed, and with disgraceful insolence. M. de Colbert, however, intends to have them arrested. Yes, he even intends to have Madame de Soissons and Madame de Bouillon, though they are among the greatest in the land, arrested and lodged in the Bastille near La Voisin."

"Will he be able to do this? Will the King be agreeable?"

"That we do not know. Probably the influence of M. de Louvois will be against him. M. Colbert is an honest man, a great man, his integrity is unimpeachable. He has been struck to the heart by the discovery of this canker in the bosom of France. He orders you, Desgrez, to go to him at Versailles. You will be, of course, at his disposal. As soon as he has done with you, you will return to me here. I have La Tulipe and several other confidential men working on this now. You can assure M. Colbert—if he asks you—that the prisoners are all well guarded and well watched. Tell him of the girl Rose's confession."

La Reynie leant over his bureau and scribbled a few lines on a sheet of paper:

"This is the address of Captain Dechamps—his house. You can take your wife there on your way to Versailles, and leave her confident that she will be safe. Give this note to Dechamps. Be assured that your wife will have every consideration."


2. — SOLANGE IN RETREAT

Solange did not want to leave the little apartment that was her first home after her marriage; she liked the two rooms and the pieces of modest furniture that she kept so shining, she liked the view over the roof-tops of Paris and the pigeons that came fluttering round the window to be fed; she liked the sound of the bells from the Paris churches, ringing out their nine canonical hours above the fumes of the wood smoke. She shrank from going to live with strangers, who she feared were taking her in only on sufferance, and who might, for all she knew, be harsh. The young woman's spirit was as independent as it was strong and she could not endure to surrender her liberty.

"I would rather be in danger," she said emphatically to her husband. But, seeing his real concern and his intense anxiety for both her safety and obedience to his Chief, she gave way, though with an effort.

"Must it come to it. Charles?" She smiled and sighed together. "You promised you would let me help you. I've even been already of some assistance to you, but when it comes to anything dangerous or difficult a woman is always put aside. Keep your sword with you—you will need food and drink, you want money in your pocket—but will you need a woman, your wife, no, certainly not! The moment there is real danger I must go!"

Charles Desgrez did not attempt to deny this; he kissed his wife tenderly, regretfully. "So it is, my love—a woman's a woman, a man's a man! How can a man work if he knows the dearest creature in the world is in danger? Were you to live here I should never feel easy, even though I asked M. de La Reynie to guard the house, even though I asked Maître Perrin always to accompany you on your walks—no, I should not be able to do my work, my duty, I might make some blunders which would be very costly to France. This is your part, Solange, the difficult part—abnegation."

"I know! Well, perhaps some day we shall come back to these little rooms!"

"If I am at all successful," replied the young man keenly, "we shall return to a better house than this, Solange."

"I do not want to leave it—there are all my memories here. I have been happy, yes, even in Paris, Charles. I know I feel that it is a formidable, sinister place, with its dark towers, narrow streets, strange alleys, the muddy river—so different from Caen—yet I am reluctant to leave it."

Charles took his wife, riding pillion behind him, along the Versailles road, recently laid out straight and elegant for the King's pleasure that he might drive without hindrance from the capital to his magnificent palace.

Beyond the gates of Paris and the fortifications were several small houses of the meaner kind; further on along the road were some pretty country villas and farms, and near the little town of Versailles were some handsome châteaux that had recently sprung up for the accommodation of the King's Court and some of his favourites. It was in one of the little houses, midway between the Court suburbs and Paris, that Captain Dechamps lived.

Desgrez noticed with some satisfaction that the house stood well back from the road, had a high wall all round it and was shaded by a bouquet of chestnut trees then unfolding their white blossoms. The outer gates were kept locked and a porter with a couple of dogs was on duty in the little brick gate house behind.

The residence itself was a pleasant two-storey building with red brick and white stone facings and green shutters. Though he worked obscurely and his name was unknown to the public, Dechamps had an important position in the Paris police; he was one of those who were responsible for the safety of His Majesty; he and his men had to patrol the road to Versailles with an eye on suspicious characters and to prevent importunate beggars, possible conspirators or anyone who might be disagreeable to the King.

He was a man of rather more than middle-age, heavily built, with a florid complexion and iron grey hair clipped to his shoulders; his manner, however, was refined and kindly, and he welcomed Solange with a courtesy that set her soon at ease. His wife Agnes was a pleasant creature much younger than himself.

She took Solange at once to see her child, a boy of eight years of age, who was playing in the garden near a large aviary full of exotic birds, doves and pigeons, many of which had been given to Dechamps by one of the gardeners at Versailles from the royal aviary, which was one of the most magnificent in the world.

Desgrez had hardly realized how anxious he had been for his wife's safety until he found himself again on the road galloping towards Versailles, truly light-hearted at knowing that Solange was safe and that he could, whilst this earnest business pressed upon him, put her for a time out of his mind.


3. — IN THE PALACE OF VERSAILLES

Desgrez had not been to the royal palace before, and the stately splendour of the place impressed him with a sense of awe, he felt himself insignificant, on the enormous parade ground in the huge Court of Honour; there seemed to him to be something superhuman in the mighty building, as if it had taken more than mortal hands to raise this grandiose erection.

He remembered what he had heard of it, how a marsh had been drained and thousands of men had died or malaria in doing this, how the allées, groves, green swards, fountains and lakes were all the results of human ingenuity and human labour struggling against immense odds. In the creation of Versailles, the King and his architects, gardeners and artists, had indeed made "the desert blossom like the rose!"

Desgrez, as he made his way, after losing it once or twice, to the door where he had been bidden to enquire for M. Colbert, remembered what all this had cost, and in his prudent, practical Norman mind there arose a faint scorn of the King who could squander money on wars and pleasure while his capital was allowed to breed a corruption that was spreading to his own Court. Desgrez thought of the elegant ladies whom he had seen at the Black Mass.

M. Colbert received Desgrez in a plain office that had no other adornments but a series of maps of France, plans of harbours and great buildings, which, carefully engraved with little keys underneath, hung on the walls.

In the light of the fair summer day that fell uninterrupted through the square windows, M. Colbert looked far older than Desgrez had remembered him; his face, handsome in outline, was sallow and heavily shadowed; his eyes, tired and blood shot, were protected with a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. He took these off, wiped them and slipped them into his pocket, glanced at Desgrez and said at once:

"Come with me. I want from you, Lieutenant Desgrez, nothing but frankness. You will tell all you know and as briefly as possible."

"Yes, Monseigneur."

The Minister rose and opened a door in the wall that, when closed, seemed part of the panelling, and so they proceeded along a small corridor that was hung with the tapestry showing the Voyage of the Argo.

With a slight smile M. Colbert pointed out this pictured tale to the police lieutenant.

"Commerce, Monsieur, commerce—the golden fleece that is all worth a nation's while—not wars, not extravagances, but commerce—always remember that! Teach your sons that! Schools, colleges, factories—commerce."

Before the young Norman could reply, the Minister had opened a door in the corridor and passed into another room that was hung with embossed leather. Desgrez, with his hat under his arm, expectant and eager, followed him across the polished threshold.

This room was small, lit by a window that gave on to the famous "green carpet" (tapis vert) that stretched the whole length of the château de Versailles and of the terraces in front of the long façade, which were adorned with large stone vases, in which gleamed the thick leaves of arbutus and agaves.

Beyond this magnificent lawn, the largest in Europe, was stretched an enchanting vista—the finest effort of the foremost landscape gardeners of the day, broken by groups of statuary and smaller lawns, on which shone the shell-like basins of fountains casting the intermittent glitter of their cascades through the pure air; a slight haze was over this prospect; trees and air were blended in a silver mist; the upper blue was faintly broken by a curdle of milky-coloured clouds.

This superb view was the one centre of interest in a room that otherwise contained nothing but leather chairs where the gold embossed designs rose from a scarlet ground, a small desk and a cabinet, above which hung a costly crucifix where an ivory Christ gleamed from an ebony cross; the nails piercing the Sacred limbs had diamond heads, the Crown of Thorns was of twisted gold and the drops of blood on the tortured forehead and from the pierced side were of rubies.

This cabinet was occupied by two men; one was seated at the window and the other stood in an easy attitude by his chair; both were of the same age, something about forty, and both had the same type of Gallic features, high cheek-bones, small nose, mouth and chin, long brown eyes the colour of an onyx under straight brows and a quantity of natural chestnut-coloured hair elaborately curled.

The seated gentleman was the better looking; he might indeed have passed in the eyes of a woman for an extremely handsome man; others might have considered his features too hard, too exact, they had almost a look as if they had been delicately carved from polished stone; he wore a prune-coloured cloth coat, a stiff bow of black ribbon at his throat in the centre of which was a large diamond on a cascade of lace—all his other appointments were very plain; his hands were notably white and well-shaped; he looked at them continually as if he himself admired them; his air was grave and anxious; his pallor seemed due to agitation, or ill-health and not natural to his rather florid complexion.

The other gentleman had coarser features, a more insolent air and was more gorgeously dressed. His coat was of brocade, his ruffles and cravat of rich lace were of excessive length; his sword-belt and sash were heavily embroidered.

At the entry of Colbert and Desgrez these two men both turned sharply, while the seated one said:

"Ah! M. Colbert at last! I think you are three minutes late." He glanced at an egg-shaped crystal watch on the table in front of him.

Desgrez knew that it was his fault, this unpunctuality; he had lost his way in the vastness of the great palace; but he did not dare to sneak until asked to do so. The seated gentle man continued rapidly:

"Is that the young Norman of whom you spoke, Lieutenant Charles Desgrez? Come forward, sir."

Desgrez obeyed: standing in the full light of the April day he looked down into the almost colourless face, the onyx-coloured eves and clearly defined features also handsomely framed with the chestnut curls, of the seated gentleman, who said to him with a simplicity that was nevertheless subtly touched with a theatrical air:

"You are speaking to your King."

For a second Desgrez lost his habitual coolness; he blushed, stammered and knew not what to do; he really felt like a man who had climbed up one mountain piled on another until he finally faced the sun, with so deep an awe did it inspire him to know that he stood face to face in this small room with the King of France; but, at the very second that he felt thus overwhelmed, his shrewd Norman observation showed him that the King was gratified by his confusion, and this made him guess that this little surprise had been arranged for its dramatic value. It was not in M. Colbert's simple nature to bring him thus unannounced into the august presence.

With the sense of the very fallible humanity of the man before him, Desgrez's composure returned; he fell on one knee and gracefully protested his duty to His Majesty. The King, although he had obvious preoccupations, was also clearly gratified with the effect he had produced upon the young Lieutenant Desgrez, and his manner became exceedingly gracious. Nodding to the man with the rather cynic expression who remained standing behind his chair, he told the young lieutenant that this was M. de Louvois. His Majesty then asked M. Colbert to be seated, and bidding Desgrez to remain standing in front of the bureau, he asked him to tell him everything from the first of the affair of the poisoners.

"All you know, omitting nothing."

"Yes, Sire."

Desgrez almost imperceptibly caught his breath, fixing his two front teeth in his lower lip; this was a hard and unexpected task. The eyes of the three greatest men in France were upon him. He respected most M. Colbert, the man who was the oldest of the three, the most simple in manner, the most unattractive in exterior; he ventured to flash his eyes to Louvois and saw disdain, incredulity and arrogance upon those hard, formidable features.

"Speak," commanded the King with a touch of impatience. "This is an affair that comes right to our heart. Speak, Lieutenant Desgrez—all you know, and from the first!"

The young police-lieutenant began his recital, from the day that he had taken his wife to the birthday party at Maître Perrin's, where the Widow Bosse had boasted that three more poisonings would make her a wealthy woman. Once he had begun his recital, he did not find it difficult to continue; the affair had absorbed him for weeks, and every night he had made notes of it and committed them to memory. He flattered himself that not a single detail had escaped his mind—all that he had himself seen, all that Solange had seen and told him, all that M. de La Reynie had told him, he had been able to tabulate and arrange clearly. Remembering that he must not weary or exasperate his illustrious listeners, he told his tale in the fewest possible words. At the end of twenty minutes by the crystal watch at which the King now and then cast a glance, Desgrez had finished his account of what he knew of the mysterious affair in which he had so strangely become involved.

Even as he spoke the reflection was passing through the back of his mind—"how curious that this business should begin in so humble a way, that modest little party at Maître Perrin's, that stupid, half-drunk woman making her boast, and so, from one to another, that I am now here, in the King's room, speaking to the King."

He was aware that Louis must have been familiar with a great part of what he, Desgrez, now related; and he could see that, as the King heard the horrid tale again, confirmed and in added detail, he was profoundly moved, and, as he listened he even, Desgrez thought, forgot himself; he no longer glanced complacently at his beautiful hands, nor remembered that he was the King; slight spasms of pain passed over his pallid face, he bit his lips, he set his elbows on the table and thrust his fingers up into his hair; he closed his eyes, then glanced down sideways at the prospect beyond the window; never once did he look either towards Colbert, seated in the centre of the room, or at Louvois, standing behind his chair.

Desgrez thought: "All these people were his friends, he trusted them."

Yet the comment of His Majesty, made after Desgrez had said: "Sire, that is all," was a purely selfish one. He asked: "The paper that was found in the confessional of the Jesuit church in the rue Saint-Antoine—that referred to an attempt on my life—has anything further been discovered about that?"

"No, Your Majesty. M. de La Reynie thought that it might not be Your Majesty that was intended, but the King of England."

At this Louis slightly shrugged his shoulders. Desgrez interpreted the gesture to mean: "There is only one King in the world of the least importance."

"I should have thought," remarked His Majesty, "that that business might have been investigated."

"Sire," said Desgrez, anxious for the credit of his Chief, "M. de La Reynie did all that was possible. The words, Your Majesty will recall, were in English. M. de La Reynie believes that the message has reference, rather, to M. de Monmouth's father, the King of England."

The King sat for a second in moody silence, then remarked: "These subtle poisoners abroad—so many insidious fiends administering poisons—who feels safe? In a shirt, in a bouquet, or rubbed on one's fork or spoon, on the rim of one's goblet, in one's handkerchief or medicine—who knows, eh, Louvois?"

He swung round in his chair and glanced up at the Minister of War, the man who had more influence over him than any other person, the man who encouraged him in all his vices and extravagances, the man who spent the money saved by the careful patient genius of Colbert.

Now that he had an opportunity of speaking, M. Louvois expressed himself emphatically.

"Sire, I think this affair has been, by the zeal, no doubt sincere, of M. de La Reynie and his subordinates, greatly exaggerated. I wonder that M. Colbert has taken such a farrago of nonsense seriously. I can see nothing in any of this but the follies of some feather-headed women and their cavaliers. When has there been a moment that idle, great ladies have not amused themselves with charms, philtres and incantations? What wealthy capital has ever existed that has not had its means of concealing the results of illicit love affairs?"

"But poisoning, Louvois!" emphasized the King, "but poisoning!"

"We have no proof of that, Sire. It is all surmise, wild words of distraught, dying girls, half confessions of prisoners threatened with torture—a series of crazy romances as far as I can see it!"

"But," urged the King earnestly, "look at this list I have here—of those who have left the Kingdom since the arrest of this woman La Voisin."

"They know the zeal of M. de La Reynie," replied Louvois drily. "One cannot suppose that Madame de Bouillon or Madame de Soissons would relish being arrested by your Chief of Police and lodged at the Bastille."

"Still, had they been innocent surely they would not have fled?" replied the King uneasily; he looked across the room at Colbert, who maintained a dignified and sad silence. "Do you believe in all these atrocities, this witchcraft, sorcery, forgery, abortion, poisoning?"

"Sire, had I not believed, I should not have put the matter before you. The affair of the death of the Duke of Savoy is practically proved, there are some points not clear—"

The King interrupted with an accent almost of terror: "We will have it no clearer! Saint-Maurice shall be handed his papers—the laundress and Delmas, and any other who may be implicated in that affair, shall be accused on other charges and put to death—swiftly, and it may be, secretly."

"Sire, is this justice?" asked Colbert.

The King looked down at his hands without replying, and Louvois, with an impatient sneer, exclaimed:

"Do you question the King's justice, M. Colbert?"

"Ah I you are very hostile to the whole business," replied the Controller-General unmoved. "Perhaps you are interested, M. Louvois, to know that La Voisin has mentioned the name of the Maréchal de Luxembourg in her brief confession? She says that he has been present at many of her obscene ceremonies, and I, with my own eyes, beheld him at the Black Mass in the vault under the house in the Impasse des Fleurs."

"I certainly," said the Minister of War scornfully, "should not be sorry to hear M. de Luxembourg answer for himself."

"We cannot touch Luxembourg," said the King nervously. "A Maréchal of France, one of our greatest heroes. Impossible! Yet," he added with a shudder that he strove in vain to repress, "I would not have him near me if he is a wizard or concerned with sorcery. My God! these horrors!" He put his hand to his throat and stared out of the window at the exquisite landscape that was glowing in the brightening rays of the sun, as if to reassure himself of beauty, of goodness.

"The Chief of Police," said M. Colbert, "awaits your Majesty's commands. He will not, of course, take a step that you forbid him to take, but until you do forbid him—" Colbert rose to his gaunt height in the centre of the little room "—he will continue to investigate this most horrible affair, and I shall continue to assist him according to my best power."

"Hush up the Savoy scandal," said the King hurriedly. "We cannot have the name of a Princess of France dragged into such an ugly business. Investigate the other. Hold out the hope of a pardon to La Voisin and her daughter, to any of them who seem inclined to talk. Let all the examinations be held in secret in the Bastille or in the Arsenal—only yourself and de La Reynie, this young man and a few other confidential police present. The Commission that I may set up must sit in secret. It might be that I should wish to go myself and listen to the examination of some of these criminals."

"Surely, Sire!" protested Louvois.

"You too, Monsieur, you too should go, Monsieur Louvois you should hear yourself. The affair must be kept secret. I will certainly set a Commission up to investigate it—yes, a secret Commission to sit in the Bastille or at the Arsenal. Put nothing in the Gazette or the Mercury—too much has been blown abroad already." He paused a moment as if struggling to retain his complete self-control, and Desgrez saw disgust and nausea convulse his fine features; at length he said, half-stammering: "Find her—at all costs find her—that woman—the one who took the principal part at that abominable ceremony. My God! Colbert, is it possible that a woman exists who could so behave?"

"We are leaving no stone unturned," replied Colbert gravely, "M. de La Reynie and I, we still believe that it was Madame Castlemaine."

"I hope," sighed the King, "it is not a Frenchwoman. In deed, I hope so." He turned quickly and exclaimed: "Come in!"—for his quick ear had heard an accustomed signal of a tapping on the door that the others had not noticed.

It was Lacombe, the King's confidential valet, one of the most powerful men in France, that entered; with his gliding step and gentle yet not servile air, he crossed to the King and whispered something into His Majesty's ear at which he startled violently. Turning towards Colbert, he exclaimed:

"An express has just come in from the Bastille from M. de La Reynie. Luxembourg has given himself up!"

"Ah, and yet no suspicion has been cast on him," remarked Colbert keenly. "He has heard his name mentioned."

"Well, Louvois, you have him now under lock and key," said the King with some bitterness.

"The old hunchbacked devil!" exclaimed the Minister of War. "Your Majesty in his heart knows him as I do."

"It's true I have never liked the man," murmured the King uneasily. "A wizard! The curse of God is on that hunch back, and yet—a brilliant, a successful general! Is it possible he gained my victories with the help of Satan!" exclaimed the King with a look of horror.

"We shall soon find out," smiled M. de Louvois with a look of satisfaction. "With Your Majesty's permission I will order him to be confined in a small underground cell, say twelve feet by nine feet. There, without any of his friends, books or usual dark amusements, M. de Luxembourg will perhaps be able to think things over."

"A Maréchal of France in the Bastille!" exclaimed Louis. "I should never have dared to have him arrested. Why did he give himself up?"

"Sire," replied Colbert, "Luxembourg is not a man to fly over the frontiers. He is a soldier."

"Perhaps he is," added the King, with a wildness in his voice and taking no heed of this, "planning my death!"

"I do not think so, Sire," replied Colbert quietly. "I do not believe much in M. de Luxembourg's black magic. It cannot take the hump off his back, or, I fancy, open the doors of the Bastille for him."

At this the King seemed somewhat reassured. He turned to Desgrez, and with an assumption of that easy yet pompous dignity which sat so gracefully upon him, said: "Lieutenant, we can count absolutely on your zeal, devotion, even till death."

"Even till death, Sire," replied the young Norman, putting what fervour he could into the conventional words.


4. — MADEMOISELLE DES OEILLETS

When M. Colbert and the young Lieutenant of Police had left the palace and were proceeding along the terrace then fully lit by the summer sun, the Minister said: "His Majesty is afraid for his personal safety—that makes him difficult, unreasonable. He has all his linen, all his silver inspected—only the most trusted and faithful servants are allowed to handle his personal belongings. Ah, well!"

"The King, I noticed, has also a general horror of sacrilege and sorceries and all the other abominations, Monsieur."

"Yes, in his heart he is a religious man, bigoted and superstitious—and yet he defies God by living in open adultery with Madame de Montespan."

"He pays for that, perhaps, Monsieur," suggested Desgrez.

"Yes, he pays for it," said Colbert, "when he's ill or despondent, when the priests get hold of him, when Madame de Maintenon, the pious governess, reminds him of his soul! Then he is for sending Madame de Montespan away and for becoming reconciled with the Queen. I have seen the Marquise once, twice, thrice sent from the Court—each time she has returned, more powerful than ever, more by reason of her tongue and hysteric scenes than because of her beauty or her tenderness."

When they had reached the corner of the terrace by the magnificent little theatre, Colbert, with an air of simplicity, bade farewell to Desgrez and told him to return at once to Paris, and to report at the Bastille to M. de La Reynie; the Minister added that he was pleased with Desgrez; then, with bent shoulders and a heavy step, Colbert turned aside, walking with the slowness of an ageing man whose burden becomes hard to bear.

Desgrez went to fetch his horse, which he had left in the stables, situated in the right wing of the palace. As he crossed the park, feeling, despite the complications of his heavy task, gay-hearted because of the summer, his own youth and Solange, he saw moving quickly through the trees of orange-coloured branched firs a woman whose gait seemed familiar. He could not see her face, for her back was towards him and she wore a wide-brimmed hat with sulphur-coloured plumes; yes, there was something familiar in her walk and in the way she swung her hips in the flowing blue skirt, in the way she now and then jerked her head back. He hurried until he had overtaken her, passed, her and then glanced back. Although she appeared to walk rapidly she took short steps that made little progress.

For a moment he could not place her countenance with the pale, slightly prominent eyes, with an upper tooth catching on the lower lip; then he recalled who she was, and with that re collection the reason for not knowing her before.

It was the Englishwoman that he had seen twice before in man's attire.

Desgrez sauntered on through the tall trees, baffled, wondering what to do; at first he could not quite credit his own senses; was it possible that this woman, who seemed even to his hard-headed realism the lost of the lost, the abandoned of the abandoned, was walking freely with a gay and pleasant air in the gardens of Versailles? He had had so far no clue to her identity, but had believed that she was the link between the French conspirators and Madame de Castlemaine, and perhaps with the Duke of Monmouth.

The lady took no notice of him—he was careful to keep his face turned away; yet he remembered rapidly that he had been disguised on each occasion that he had seen her before. Why should she notice him? Hundreds of people were allowed into the park of Versailles, and he was dressed inconspicuously in russet and grey, he might have been a clerk, perhaps a servant.

The lady sauntered on and Desgrez affecting a leisurely walk himself, kept her in sight. She reached a little Temple that enclosed a figure of Love poised on a pedestal and shooting a feathered arrow down an avenue of oleanders; a gardener was working there, bedding out plants he had brought from a glass-house. The lady paused and spoke to him; Desgrez passed close enough to hear her ask the man if the roses were yet above ground in the forcing house.

Then she passed on still with her careless air, and the lieutenant pausing himself by the little temple saw her walking round the lake, which reflected her blue dress, her dark hat with sulphur-coloured feathers. From a little bag on her arm she took morsels of bread, which she cast on to the smooth surface of the water, thus beguiling to her side several fine swans that were preening their strong feathers in the bright sunlight.

Desgrez asked the gardener in a quiet voice: "Who was that lady—I have met her but cannot recall her name." The man absorbed in his task answered indifferently "Monsieur, that is the Demoiselle des Oeillets."

"Ah, yes," replied the young man, controlling his intense surprise. "I recall now of course. She is no longer attached to the Court; I have not seen her for some time."

"No, Monsieur, she has not been here very long, but then neither have I; she is familiar with the palace and with the household of His Majesty. She is an Englishwoman and often goes to England."

The man now began to look curiously at Desgrez, wondering why he was questioning him, and he went on with his work as a signal for the other's departure. Desgrez turned away quickly having no wish to come face to face with the lady whom he had now identified as "Miss Pink," oeillet being the French word for that flower whose English name is pink or carnation.

He contrived for some space of time in the sunny after noon to keep the lady in view. This was a tedious and not altogether easy matter, for she proceeded slowly, indifferently through the magnificent grounds; now and then she met a friend with whom she chatted for a few moments; now and then she sat on a bank and taking a book from the bag on her arm, read a little; then she would pass on and look for flowers in the grass; and while she lingered Desgrez had to secrete himself, remain hidden, and move carefully behind bushes and down paths at right angles to that which she had chosen, in order that she might not suspect that she was being watched.

At last, however, she left the park by a postern door and proceeded on foot down the street of Versailles.

Now Desgrez's task was easier; the streets of the little town were crowded like a fair with all manners of people, charlatans, old soldiers, loose women, all the hangers on of the Court who were kept at arm's length from the Royal circle, and it was not difficult for the police agent to lose himself in this crowd and yet to keep in sight the lady in her conspicuous blue dress and the vivid sulphur feathers.

She presently went into a glover's shop; Desgrez waited outside till she re-appeared, then himself entered the shop; a spruce little woman was behind the counter putting back gloves into their long boxes folded in silver paper.

"That was Mlle. des Oeillets, who has just left your shop, was it not, Madame?" asked the police agent.

The shopkeeper seeing so personable a cavalier scented an amorous intrigue, especially as Desgrez took the precaution to turn over the gloves with an appreciative eye.

"Where is she living now?" he asked. "I have not seen her since she came back from England, and as she was a little offended with me before she left, I do not like to ask her direct. I want however to send her a little present."

He then selected two pairs of finely fringed gauntlets; his prudent mind somewhat resented the price the woman instantly put upon them, but it was not a moment to argue. Two gold pieces went down on the counter, and he was the possessor of Mlle. des Oeillets' address.

This was a villa at Cagny that had the fanciful foreign name of La Villa Malcontenta, "The Discontented House." Desgrez did not like to press his enquiries further, where the house was, and how one obtained access to it, who was the owner, and so on.

He gathered that Mlle. des Oeillets was merely some dependent in a noble establishment; he directed that the gloves should be sent to her at the address given and left the shop.

The English woman in the blue gown and sulphur-coloured feathers was now out of sight, and Desgrez returned to the Palace of Versailles, obtained admission to the grounds by showing his police badge, got his horse from the stables and rode back to Paris.


5.— THE SHADOW OF THE POISONING

M. de La Reynie had scarcely seen to the lodging of the sardonic Maréchal de Luxembourg in the Bastille when he received a letter brought by a prim man in a sad-coloured livery; this epistle was from the Marchese Pignata, who had not followed the Court to Versailles but had remained in his apartment in the Louvre.

The Pope's nephew prayed the instant attendance of the Chief of Police; he was too ill to come to the Bastille.

M. de La Reynie felt distracted; he had been working long and closely at this mysterious case and was baffled, sickened and exhausted.

"Does your master think that he has been poisoned?" he asked ironically. "Tell him to drink quantities of milk—and to take a strong emetic."

The lackey replied gravely that the Marchese had some news of importance to communicate personally to the Chief of Police.

"I suppose I must, then, wait on him. Tell him I will be with him in half an hour."

M. de La Reynie struck his bell, ordered coffee and some bread and cheese.

"I suppose," he said to his confidential clerk, "that you are still taking all precautions—for all our sakes?"

"Yes, Monsieur. Everything is locked up. I keep the keys. Nothing is accepted from strangers."

The man placed carefully on the desk the thick white cup and plate.

"I notice, Monsieur, that these same precautions are being taken everywhere in Paris, people even use paper napkins and cloths that can be burnt."

"I know, I know. I tried to prevent this panic from getting abroad—but we could not keep such a number of arrests secret. Suspicion, horror, distrust everywhere! And sometimes I wonder if I shall ever get to the bottom of this horrid mystery, ever clear out and fumigate this stinking cesspool that infects the entire nation."

M. de La Reynie found the Marchese Pignata in bed, the curtains looped back from his pillows and a priest seated by his side; as the Chief entered, this good father rose silently and glided away, never raising his eyes from his book.

The young Italian looked ill; his face was hollow and sallow, his black hair hung lankly either side his thin cheeks and his plain linen night-shirt had almost the suggestion of a shroud; his large eyes, slightly bloodshot under dark frowning brows, glittered with pleasure when he saw the Chief of Police and he nervously clasped M. de La Reynie's hand.

"I felt I must see you," he said hoarsely. "I have had news from Rome," he glanced towards a packet on the bed coverlet, "and for my own sake—I confess that I am afraid," he added with a sad smile, "not for myself—I have often wished to die—my life has been nothing but disappointment and toil—but I am afraid because I see the power of Satan increasing."

He sat silent, propped against his cushions and the Chief of Police took the stool that the priest had just left; M. de La Reynie found the atmosphere of the large, barely furnished bedchamber oppressive, the young zealot had made his apartment as austere as possible; the hangings were of sage-green serge such as was used for mourning, the furniture was of dark wood, without upholstery or cushions; the bed curtains were of drab-coloured cloth and a sombre Spanish picture of a tortured saint hung, in a black frame, beneath a crude crucifix, where the agonising figure of Christ was painted with life like details of tears, sweat and blood.

"I was too ill to follow the King to Versailles," said Pignata, "but his Confessor reports to me daily. The King is deeply troubled by the affair of the poisoners—he even tries to avoid Madame de Montespan and to devote himself to piety."

"Or to Mlle. de Fontanges?"

"No—she has left the Court, she is resolved not to return, she is, really, a good child. Besides, Madame de Maintenon, a pious, earnest woman, begins to have some influence with His Majesty—and she works entirely in the interests of the Holy Church."

"But the particular business, Monseigneur, upon which you wished to see me?"

"I wished to give you this dossier from Rome. It tells of the police work there during the last few weeks."

M. de La Reynie took the packet.

"Does it contain anything relative to matters here?"

"Nothing definite I fear—but there is much useful information—for one thing, it is suspected that this 'grand author' or 'great Master', whatever they call him, may be a woman."

"No, because Colbert passed for him in the vault in the Impasse des Fleurs—no one questioned him."

"Did they not? I was ignorant of that—what a rash thing for M. Colbert to do!"

"Oh, I had the place surrounded. We—I was there, too—were safe enough."

Pignata shuddered and thrust his handkerchief to his lips.

"You—actually saw this abomination?"

"Yes, I don't care to think of it. What I saw I shall never forget. I am determined to do all in my power to cleanse Paris."

"And the King? He will allow you to arrest some of the noblest in France? It is known that several great ones have fled the country, that the Maréchal de Luxembourg is in the Bastille?'

"I am backed by M. Colbert."

"But not by M. de Louvois!" Pignata flung himself back on his pillow with a groan. "I despair! I despair! My own life has been threatened—in letters that I have found even here—on my bed—that have been flung into my carriage, sealed by that detestable blasphemy, a three-cornered, black wafer."

"You fear poisoning?"

"Perhaps. I fear I have incurred the enmity of Madame de Soissons, I spoke too boldly in her presence of the licence of the Court."

"But you are careful?"

"Yes, yes, indeed." Pignata seemed exhausted, he closed his eyes and his head sunk into the cushions, but he began to ask eagerly about the prisoners in the Bastille, what they had confessed, what evidence there was against them.

"He has some good reason to fear these poisoners," thought La Reynie. "Perhaps he knows more about them than he dare tell me."

He then told the anxious Italian that he had been able to obtain very little information from the prisoners; their partial confessions had been contradictory, what they swore one day they denied the next.

"I believe," said the Chief of Police, "that they are highly protected and they think they are safe."

Pignata seemed much disappointed and very uneasy.

"Why are not these wretches put to death?" he demanded. "Surely if they were punished severely it would be an example to the others."

"No doubt, Monseigneur, they will all come eventually to the Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame," replied M. de La Reynie. "But first I hope to make them speak."

He rose, slightly vexed at the loss of his time through the nerves of Innocenzo Pignata who, after all, had nothing to tell him of the least importance. As he was gathering up his hat, gloves and cane, he saw an inner door open and a little old woman entered wearing a Neapolitan peasant's dress, her head, which was unusually large, being covered with a white silk handkerchief, embroidered in brilliant colours. She carried a tray on which was a meat soup in a yellow bowl, a couple of raw eggs and two slices of black bread.

"I told you, Monsieur, that I was careful," smiled Pignata from his pillow. "My old nurse, Maria Pia, prepares every thing I eat and use."

The ancient woman set down her tray on the white coverlet and dropped a curtsey to M. de La Reynie; her dim eyes were fixed devotedly on her young master, to whom she spoke a few words in rapid Italian; Pignata replied affectionately, but to the Chief of Police Maria Pia had a repulsive aspect; like so many aged Southern Italians she was completely withered, toothless and blear-eyed, while sprouting hairs on her chin and upper lip gave her a harsh, masculine appearance.

Pignata again thanked M. de La Reynie for his visit and urged him to read carefully the dossiers from Rome.

The Chief of Police left the Louvre in a dissatisfied mood. "That bigoted Italian is merely afraid for his own skin—he has wasted my time." he thought as he turned over the Roman papers and found that, though they gave interesting accounts of the activities of criminals in the Papal dominions, they contained nothing helpful to himself.

When he again reached his bureau at the Bastille he found Charles Desgrez waiting for him with a report of his visit to Versailles and his encounter with the Demoiselle des Oeillets, the lady whom he had identified as Miss Pink. La Reynie said that he would at once take steps to discover who was the owner of the Villa Malcontenta.

"But it will not be easy," he added, "in that little suburb there are many fantastic houses kept by these great ladies of dubious reputation. The houses are hired out to them or run by them under names not their own. They retire there when they are weary of the Court or when they are in some disgrace or difficulty. They go there to rest, to gamble, to revive their beauty by secret treatments, to meet their lovers. But though it will be difficult to discover who the owner of this villa is, you have done much in discovering that 'Miss Pink' is not Mlle. Rose, but Mlle. des Oeillets."


6. — SOLANGE WALKS IN THE WOODS

One of the archers who came to and fro between the police headquarters in Paris and the house of Captain Dechamps on the Versailles road brought Solange a letter from her husband, in which he told her of his love, his gratitude for her abnegation in going into retreat and his assurance that he would come and see her as soon as there was a break in his incessant attendance on M. de La Reynie. He knew how this separation, so early in their married life, must be depressing her, and how gaffing this inactivity must be to her alert and resolute nature; and (like a sop, thought Solange to herself with a loving smile) he told her about the Villa Malcontenta, to which he had finally tracked "Miss Pink" or Mlle. des Oeillets. While warmly urging her not to go out without an escort and never to be beyond her host's gates after dusk, Desgrez suggested that when she went shopping in Versailles or walking with the Dechamps she might do what she could to discover something about this villa and its mysterious owners. It was, now and then, inhabited, as M. de La Reynie had ascertained; the sullen, one-eyed man and his crabbed wife who lived there as caretakers declared that the owner of the house lived abroad—sometimes in England, sometimes in the Netherlands, sometimes in Vienna. The loyalty and prudence of this uncouth couple had defeated the subtle efforts of the police spies to discover the name of this person.

"Why should not I," thought Solange at once, "go and try to discover something about this place. It will not be breaking my word to Charles, I shall be perfectly safe, I will even take one of the dogs with me."

It was not difficult for Solange to discover that the Villa Malcontenta lay in a small, pleasant nark at Cagny, a suburb of Versailles, and the day after she had received her husband's letter, the active young woman, who liked Madame Dechamps, who liked the dogs, the child, the aviary in the garden, but who nevertheless felt alien in this comfortable home, took Rollo, one of the large wolf-hounds, and went out, promising her host to keep to the high road, to return within an hour or so. Captain Dechamps had no fear that any harm would befall his charge in broad daylight and on the Versailles road, so well-patrolled, so near the palace. He had not, indeed, any fear that she would come to harm were she to explore the neighbourhood, and he had smiled to himself at the lover-like anxieties of Charles Desgrez, who believed that his wife was the object of special attention on the part of dangerous criminals. So, without any misgiving, he gave Solange her freedom, only offering her the perfunctory advice to keep the dog always with her and to beware of strangers.

It was a beautiful day; the stiff green leaves of the chestnuts showed tipped with brown: the silver boles of the beech were splashed with the red-gold of their fading foliage; the scarlet leaves of wild geraniums, ground ivy and late bramble flowers were vivid in the woods; the air was fresh with the scent of fading ferns and with the strong weeds growing among the damp mosses; a few fleecy clouds passed over the pale blue of the upper air.

Solange felt her heart light within her; her mood was in harmony with the exquisite day; she was a contented woman; she valued her blessings: she felt that it was good to have found her true love while she was young, that it was good to be united to a man whom she admired and respected, that there was a glorious feeling of exhilaration in the fact that she had no sense of regret or remorse, no sighing for any past, no yearning for any future; she was happy now in this moment to be the wife of Charles Desgrez, the young Police Lieutenant, to be in a way helpful to him, even if only by waiting, by leaving him alone to do his work.

She left the high road as she approached Cagny, which was not far from the Dechamps' house, and entered the woods that bordered the fine estate lying beyond the town of Versailles. She passed no one save one or two woodmen, who saluted her without taking any interest in her, and a few children gathering the late flowers to weave into garlands for the wayside shrines and the altars of Our Lady in the village churches; Rollo trotted beside her contentedly, now and then making an excursion into the undergrowth, but never far nor for long, for he was a trained watch-dog and he knew that Solange was in his care.

The girl walked quickly, taking a great pleasure in the exercise; she had to lift her full, long skirts up, for they impeded her progress, and she wished that she could have followed the example of the, to her, mysterious "Miss Pink" and put on male attire for such an excursion as this. She had almost for gotten her self-imposed errand to the Villa Malcontenta, and all the ugly, mysterious affair in which her husband was involved, in the joy of her own youth and happiness and the brightness of the morning, when Rollo, coming to her side, gave a warning growl; looking down at him, she saw him standing rigid with his smooth grey lips lifted over his sharp white teeth.

Fearful that he might, in her defence, fly at some unoffending stranger, she slipped the hook of the chain she carried on to his collar, though she wondered if she would be able to restrain the wolf-hound should he exert his full strength.

Speaking to the dog soothingly, she looked round to see what had caused his warning growl: as she did so, she perceived that she had, in a sense, lost her way: she had left the wide path running through the wood that had led her from the high road, and unconsciously had followed a mere track between the young beech trees—a little footpath that had been so long disused that the yellowing ferns almost met across it.

A little to the right of this was a well, circled by a stone parapet and covered by a stone arch in which maidenhair and other ferns grew luxuriantly.

Seated on this parapet was the cause of Rollo's angry suspicion. A man in a plain green habit, who might have been, Solange thought, a forester or garde chasse, was looking keenly at Solange from underneath the brim of his broad-brimmed hat; he carried a small riding switch, with which he was impatiently tapping his high boots. He was good-looking and, Solange thought, attractive, but he was gazing at her in a way that she found unpleasant, as if he resented and even challenged her presence there; then it occurred to her that she might be trespassing, so she said, holding on to the straining dog by the collar:

"Monsieur, I am a stranger here. I have lost my way. I hope I am not, by error, on private ground."

The gentleman rose and lifted his hat with extreme but formal courtesy.

"These parts of the woods are open to all," he replied. "I see you have a good watch-dog. Does he not belong to the police?"

"Oh, yes," smiled Solange. "I am staying with Captain Dechamps who lives on the Paris-Versailles road."

At the mention of this name the hard look of resentment passed from the stranger's face; he smiled pleasantly, and wishing the lady a good-day, returned to his seat on the parapet of the well.

"He is waiting for somebody, it is a romantic appointment," thought Solange, but in her extreme youth, she added innocently: "But he is too old, he must be nearly forty." Then, being a young woman of resource, she thought she might turn this chance meeting to account and said aloud:

"Monsieur, is the Villa Malcontenta near here?"

At once a look of suspicion and even of alarm returned to the gentleman's face, rendering his features hard and formidable.

"What do you want, Mademoiselle, with the Villa Malcontenta?" he demanded.

She noticed that he had retained his seat and kept his hat on. She did not resent this, she thought: "He is probably of high rank." Aloud, and risking a random shot, she said: "Oh, I am acquainted with Mlle. des Oeillets."

This name seemed to reassure the stranger as much as that of Captain Dechamps had done.

"Then, if you are acquainted with that lady, you should know the way to the Villa Malcontenta, where she is frequently staying, as I believe."

"I do, Monsieur, but not from this part of the wood. As I told you," replied Solange with affected simplicity, "I have lost my way in the forest. The day is so sweet, so beguiling."

"You think of your lover, perhaps," smiled the stranger.

"Certainly, Monsieur, I think of my lover, and in thinking of him I have strayed from the road to the Villa Malcontenta."

"If you go straight on," said the gentleman, still retaining his seat on the parapet of the well, "until you come to a large chestnut tree that stands by itself in a clearing and then turn to the left keeping along a fence, you will come into a grove of ilex, on a height. From there you will see below you the Villa Malcontenta."

Delighted to have this information Solange dropped a little curtsey and with pretty thanks and farewell passed on her way, the police dog trotting behind her. The man seated on the parapet of the well looked after her and sighed; she was young, she was fresh, she was in love; she was, he was sure, as good as she was charming. He watched her plain brown habit flecked with shadow and sun, now crossed by the trunks of trees, now by the fronds of ferns, now by the entanglements of bracken, until it had disappeared. Then he turned, and looking down into the dark water under the hooded arch, dipped in his fine forefinger, and in the water wrote on the stone his name and quality—Louis de Bourbon, King of France and Navarre.

"Written in water," he murmured to himself, "no sign, no trace."


7. — THE KING'S LAST LOVE

It was with an unwonted humility that the magnificent man, usually surrounded by thousands of magnificent flatterers, mused in the lovely woods. He felt stripped of all his worldly grandeur in the still beauty of the summer weather; he could no longer, in this solitude, believe that he was a great King, a magnificent conqueror, a superb general, the statesman at whose feet Europe trembled, the dispenser of millions of pounds, the absolute arbiter over millions of lives—all these things seemed to have dropped from him with his splendid habit.

The man felt as simple as his plain attire; his mind went back to the day when he had been a cowed and timid boy, poorly clad, poorly fed, ignorant and browbeaten. He put his hand, still wet with the well water, across his tired eyes; he was tormented by a continual headache, he had frequent at tacks of giddiness and his sight was troubled. These symptoms of mortality alarmed him acutely—he believed they were punishments for sin; the priests had warned him; in particular M. de Bossuet, whom he admired and dreaded, had warned him—those grave, serious men whom he respected, men who had been his father's friends, had warned him.

He was living in sin with a woman whom he did not love, he was making a mockery of the laws of God and man, he was slighting his Queen and causing a scandal in France and in Europe for the sake of a woman whom he did not love—nay, almost more than that, for the sake of a woman whom he had come to hate.

How often had he resolved to be rid of her, and each time she had won him round again with her flattery and her violence and her threats, with that overpowering vitality that overbore him and held him chained as by an enchantment. He sighed again, in profound discouragement, and stared down at the gold and green trembling leafage of the glade. He whom thousands flattered as the greatest man in the world was the slave of custom, of tradition, of a shrewish tongue. This moment of peace and inner communion revealed to him the truth about himself with poignant clarity.

One truth at least was apparent to him; he forced his mind backwards, he turned over the past—no, he had never loved her. He had loved only two women, one was the sister of Olympe Mancini, the black-browed Marie Mancini, Cardinal Mazarin's niece. He had loved her when he was a very young man, almost a boy; he would have married her, putting aside for her sake pride of birth and race, all political considerations, but they had forced him to resign her; he had let her go, he had sent her from his Court to marry another man and he had made that political marriage with the dull little Spanish Princess. He could remember the last reproach of the fiery beautiful creature when she left him; her eyes had been as brilliant as diamonds behind her tears as she said: "You are the King, you love me, and I go away."

Well, she had gone. He, the King, had served his Ministers' turn, and, he supposed, the country's turn.

Then there had been Louise de La Valhère. He had loved her truly and for years, so gentle was she, so soft, so uncomplaining, so clearly had she loved the man and cared nothing for the King; she had been virtuous too, she had only yielded to him with shame, with remorse, with regret. Yes, he loved her; he would have married her too had she outlived his wife. But the Marquise de Montespan had won him away—the gentle Louise had been no match for that tempestuous and haughty creature. He felt ashamed as he remembered how his gentle love had been harried, insulted and finally driven into a convent.

Since then he had not seen her. Often, even recently, he had gone to the House of the Carmelite Sisters where she lodged and implored but five minutes with her; yes, even though they kept her behind the grille. But she would not see him. As far as he was concerned, nay, as far as the world was concerned, she might as well have been in Heaven; so he had to content himself, like many lesser men, with second best, with the shadow, with the substitute—and this, too, had escaped him.

His face took on its least pleasant expression as he reflected how Madame de Montespan's spite and fury had driven from the Court Mlle. de Fontanges, how she had taken refuge with her guardian and, when that adroit courtier had tried to send her back to Versailles, how she too had gone into a convent. He had sent for her, however; he was waiting for her now. She was, in truth, but a phantom of his own love, his Louise, but in her softness, in her blondeness, in her skin white as the lily of the valley, in her pale blue eyes and delicate contours, she did remind him of that lost delight.

He said to himself aloud: "I must have her."

He needed her for many reasons; he was no longer young, he dreaded age, he could not endure to think of death, he wished to put this young, fair ghost of his one true love between himself and the black thoughts of despair that over came him when he considered that end of all things, which came to all men, even to Louis de Bourbon, King of France and Navarre.

He did not care to reside in his gorgeous palace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye because from the terrace he could see the spires of Saint-Denis, where all the Kings of France were buried.

She flattered him, too, this pale girl; she adored him, she was at his feet, in an ecstasy of rapture whenever he should deign to notice her; she did not know him as Madame de Montespan knew him, as his courtiers knew him, as his wife and his confessor knew him. Ah, yes, they might all flatter him and whine and cringe to his face, but they knew him—all the faults and weaknesses in his character, all his vices, his gluttony, his vanity, his extravagance!

They knew that he was not a brave man on the battlefield not a good statesman in the cabinet, they knew that it was Louvois that really controlled his armies and Colbert that really controlled his finances and La Reynie that really con trolled his police.

But she, La Fontanges, she knew nothing! She took him for a demi-god. There was only one whom she put higher than Louis de Bourbon, and that was God—and he meant to win her away from God.

He looked again into the black water of the well, in which no light was reflected, as if he gazed into his own destiny; as he turned his head he saw her coming across the grass through the woods.

Ah he knew that she would not be able to resist this romantic, dangerous mood. When he had written in the note he had sent to the convent. "I shall be there alone by the old well," he knew that she, the silly child, would come.

She was there in her long grey cloak with her pale hair, the colour of new cedar wood, falling outside the hood: she was wringing her hands and sobbing at his feet among the moist ferns. He was almost ashamed of his easy victory. Yet he needed her far more deeply than she knew. He raised her, set her on the seat beside him and began to kiss her hands.

"You will return to Versailles," he said in a low tone of command.

She showed here more firmness than he had expected; there was terror in her broken voice as she replied:

"Sire, I have sworn to God to save myself—I cannot, I will not I am afraid."

"With me to protect you?" he smiled.

"Sire, I have spoken of God—it is He that I fear. I have vowed to detach myself from the world, I wish to efface from myself the sin—"

"—of loving me?" asked the King in the voice he could so well modulate into seductive tones.

"Yes," breathed Mlle. de Fontanges. "I wish to expiate that sin, I wish to enter the Sisterhood—to take the veil. I desire to see no more of the world."

"Why, has it proved so distasteful to you? Did you find my Court a hateful place?"

"No, but Sire, I had an Italian waiting woman, a charming creature whom I loved, and she—she died horribly. She was so gay, she had no thought of evil, I am sure, and someone loved her and she was afraid of disgrace. She cried—they gave her something, she died, poor Jacquetta!"

The King frowned. He had heard something of that unpleasant affair. "You must not compare yourself," he said, annoyed that the woman whom he had singled out by his favour should be so humble in her thoughts, "with an Italian waiting woman Her father is under arrest for her death," he added harshly. "It shall be remembered against him that he has distressed you."

"My apothecary, Malipiero, arrested!" exclaimed Mlle. de Fontanges. "I had not heard that, though I knew that there had been some arrests in Paris, some cases of poisoning, was it not, and selling of charms and such like horrors? Oh, Sire, the more I hear of the world, the more I desire to leave it. Indeed, indeed," she added passionately, clasping her hands, "suffer me to depart, suffer me to retire into my convent—remember me only in your prayers, Sire, in no other way."

She rose and was turning aside; her strength startled and exasperated him; he felt conscious that he was combating some force that, unless he was careful, would be more powerful than himself. Not only did this offend his profound vanity but it inspired him with a sense of panic.

If he lost her, what was there before him—him, an ageing, ailing man tied to an ageing shrew, his friends growing old, this hideous conspiracy cracking the very foundations of his world, poisoners, sorcerers, witchcraft all about him; a man like Luxembourg, who had won for him some of his most brilliant laurels, a prisoner in the Bastille; a Princess of His Royal House, Marie de Nemours, a secret poisoner; the Black Mass and all those abominable sorceries that made him sick even to think of, taking place in his capital, and he was al One to face it all, no one to love him, no woman, no friend!

"You must stay!" he cried, and the sincerity in his heart, voice, so different from his usual tone of light compliment, caused the girl, alarmed and moved, to turn and stare at him.

"I need you, I need you more than God needs you, more than anyone in Heaven or on earth needs you."

"You, you do not love me, Sire!" she stammered.

"I do not know the answer to that," he said, looking at her in bewilderment. "I love something you represent, you are like one whom I did love. Come back to Versailles, come to me. I will make it easy for you, you shall have everything."

"I shall lose everything," replied Mlle. de Fontanges, "even my soul—and I am afraid of the dark, of death, of damnation."

She stood silent for a moment gazing down the solitary sunny woodland glade; then whispered in a terror-stricken tone:

"Madame de Montespan was refused absolution."

The King shuddered.

"I, too, should be refused," added Mlle. de Fontanges, closing her pale blue eyes, "and I do not know if I could endure to live as one who is lost, abandoned by the Church."

"Nevertheless," said the King harshly, "I ask you to come to Versailles. All these matters may be accommodated. I have said that I will give you everything."

"I cannot bargain," replied the girl, "do not, Sire, try to bribe me. Should I come, it would be without conditions. But I tell you, I speak to you as if you were not the King, merely a man who says he loves me, I tell you I am afraid for my soul in the next world and my body in this."

"Do not be afraid!" exclaimed the King, "when I have said that I will protect you."

"I am afraid!" emphasized Mlle. de Fontanges, "afraid of Madame de Montespan—yet I did not leave the Court be cause of her, but because of the death of Jacquetta, because I saw that the same thing would happen to me—yet I do not think I could have long affronted her wrath."

"She would not dare to give you even an unpleasant glance," said the King, deeply moved.

"You know, Sire, that she dares everything. She seems to me a formidable and sinister woman. Every woman on whom your eye has fallen, Sire, everyone whom you have deigned to notice, has had to leave the Court. Some have sickened and died. When I was at the Court I was ill—since I have been away I have become well again. I have enjoyed the sunlight, walking in the woods, my birds, my music, my needlework. When I was at the Court I was always sick—with apprehension, fear and conflict of the mind."

It was above all things intolerable to the King that he should be considered the slave of an arrogant mistress; he could not endure to reflect that the reproach of Mlle. de Fontanges was true, that Madame de Montespan had contrived to drive from the Court every woman who was a possible rival.

"I will make you a Duchess, I will give you a fine revenue, you shall have the right to the tabouret, at the Queen's levée—you shall have a coach with six horses and outriders and your own château. I will set you up as high as I ever set La Vallière—"

"And leave me, when my time comes for me to go, as she was left!" whispered the pale girl, stepping back before him as he approached her.

"I shall keep you with me always. I think you love me, that this moment means a great deal to you. Mademoiselle, consider, it is the man and not the King that speaks to you—I have cares and anxieties of which you could scarcely guess. I have found that much that I once so enjoyed has become a little bitter to the taste. I have planned and spent and conquered and done what I pleased, and all is becoming stale."

"Oh, no, Sire, you are the greatest King, the most splendid man in the world!" Mlle. de Fontanges spoke with child like enthusiasm, and Louis smiled.

"I am weak enough, I am petty enough to want to hear at least one woman say that, with a truthful accent! I am surrounded now, Mademoiselle, with horrors of which I cannot even speak to you, that I never want you to hear. I must pause. See, I confess to you my weakness, I am not above common fears and needs—I must have one who loves me, who admires me, who trusts me, standing beside me. Mademoiselle, you will be my last love."

The girl put her hands to her face and began to weep softly; she repeated:

"I am afraid, I am afraid of Madame de Montespan."

"Should she harm you by a glance, by a word, she shall leave the Court." The King raised his hand. "I swear that to you! Trust me! My God, what am I, if you cannot trust me, not less than a King, but less than a man?"

"Sire," said Mlle. de Fontanges trembling, "leave me now—let me return."

"No," he said, kissing her trembling hands which he drew down from her face. "Once the priests and the nuns have got hold of you again, you will forget all I have said—they will overbear you, you will forsake me. Your post in the Queen's household has never been filled, your apartments wait for you—"

His mood changed into a bitter reaction against himself, against her, he had never pleaded so long nor so seriously with any woman, not even with Louise; the thought that he was ageing struck him with an intolerable pang—yes, a middle-aged man beseeching a girl for her favours.

"Perhaps," he said harshly, "you have another lover."

He dropped her hands and turned away from the well; in that second she was won, she could not leave him, to return after this to the bleak solitude of the convent, the abnegation of a long penitence for a sin she had not committed, for a pleasure she had not enjoyed, for a worldly triumph that had never been hers—that was too much for her gentle spirit.

"I will come," she sobbed, "I will come."

In her heart, she added: "Now I am doomed and lost, body and soul."


8. — THE SUMMER HOUSE

Solange soon found the summit crowned with ilex of which the King had told her, and that commanded a fair view of the Villa Malcontenta—a fine park and gardens, that lay on the hillside, the house being in the centre in a slight hollow of a valley; "a dark and uncomfortable situation," Solange thought; the mansion was also guarded by groves of tall trees, so that it was much in shadow.

It was an old-fashioned, François Premier building with a high slate hip roof and tourelles and red brick walls faced with white stone; it was surrounded by a small moat, used more as a toy and an ornament than because it was part of the original design of the building, for this had never been a fortified dwelling. The place was well-kept; the trees were evidently continually looked after, the sward near the house was smoothly cut; there was an Italian garden, where the last roses—Solange could see the red, white and pink of them—were blooming in the neat beds beneath the white marble termini. There were swans on the moat, and the drawbridge was up, held by chains to the posts of the gate; as Solange gazed she noticed the purple black of storm rising behind the tourelles and darkening the sunshine.

"So that," she thought, "is where 'Miss Pink', our amiable Englishwoman, spends some of her time. Now, there must be some connection between the occupant or the owner of this house, whoever it may be, and the criminals whom Charles is pursuing—'Miss Pink' was present at the meeting in Saint Maurice's Passy Villa and at the Black Mass in the house in the Impasse des Fleurs."

She turned and patted the dog, who stood beside her: "I wish that we could investigate, you and I, Rollo."

She saw two gardeners below working among the roses and longed to question them. Of course, the police had already done this in some subtle, unobtrusive way—but perhaps she, a woman, might be able to discover something. It was, how ever, useless to think of such a scheme—she had no good excuse for approaching the Villa further; she did not wish either to disobey her husband's injunctions not to run into danger or to attract attention to herself by rash adventuring; so she turned with a sigh back into the woods. Her problem now was how to find her way to the high road and to the Dechamps' establishment. She hesitated to return by the path along which she had come.

"If that was a lover's rendez-vous, the gentleman in the green habit may still be there. I do not wish to surprise them. They might think I was spying."

She turned and walked straight through the trees in the direction where she felt sure the high road must lie. Once that was gained, she would have no difficulty in reaching the Dechamps' house. She had not proceeded far before she came upon a little summer-house; this was made of wood, painted blue and red in a fantastic style with gilt pine-apples at the four corners and a glass dome above. It looked like the toy of a very capricious person and rather amused Solange—it was so out of place in the serene beauty of the summer woods. Impelled by a bold curiosity, she fastened the dog to a tree, whispering in his ear as she left him that he was to lie quiet and wait for her, she then went forward alone. The back of the summer-house was towards her; it was raised on a stone platform; at the four corners of this were terra-cotta vases filled with the thick, fleshy, thorny leaves of agaves.

"I feel," thought Solange, "like a child getting into mischief."

She went softly across the platform and found that by standing on tip-toe, she could see through the high-set window of the summer-house. There were four of these windows, each in a section underneath the glass cupola.

Solange peered down into the interior of the little pavilion, which was lined by a circular seat piled with cushions covered in thick gold and crimson brocade; she felt a little thrill of surprise, for she had expected the summer-house—she did not know why—to be empty, but there was an occupant.

An extremely beautiful woman was seated by the entrance, staring across the view of trees flushed with yellowing leaves, of lawns that led to the Villa Malcontenta, covered with shadows from the dark moving clouds. Her profile was to wards Solange; a quantity of dark brown hair, rich but untended, flowed over her white neck, she was negligently dressed in a russet-coloured silk; Solange could see only her profile; she noted its superb lines and the beautiful sweep of throat and bust. The lady seemed to be impatient, for with an air of irritation she was tapping her foot continuously on the stone step of the pavilion. In one hand that hung down beside her was a small book in a costly binding; across her bosom was an unusual ornament for such a place and such an hour—a magnificent cluster of diamonds glittered on the russet-brown silk.

To Solange, peering through the small round window of the summer-house, there was something fearful and sinister about the scene; she felt that same odd chill of apprehension as she had experienced when she had walked through the streets of Paris at the beginning of this affair months ago, when the black skies and the rain had oppressed her with a sense of darkness and of doom. Now the day was fair enough, but Solange could perceive, rolling over the horizon, the purple clouds that presaged a coming thunderstorm, and the air was becoming close and sultry so that there seemed a difficulty of breathing.

"How curious that the fair morning should be so suddenly overcast," thought the young woman fearfully. When she had been walking through the wood, when she had been speaking to the gentleman seated on the parapet of the fern-grown well, all had seemed to be fair and sweet—she had been happy in her own personal happiness; now as she gazed at that strange woman, who in her turn was gazing down at the Villa Malcontenta, she felt uneasy, alarmed, uncertain of the future, and, as if in sympathy with her mood, the whole day had changed and darkened.

Solange was bold and healthy and not given to fancies, yet it did seem to her that the change in the whole scene and in her own humour emanated from the richly dressed woman with a cluster of diamonds on her bosom who was seated at the entrance to the summer-house, and that in this beautiful per son lay the clue to all the horrid mystery that had surrounded Solange and her husband for so many weeks.

Solange did not know what to do, whether to continue her spying, which was repugnant to her, and yet which she felt it was almost her duty to continue, whether boldly to go round the summer-house and announce herself to the stranger as a woman staying in the neighbourhood who had lost her way, or whether merely to creep back through the woods to the place where she had left Rollo tied up to one of the yellow-leaved beeches.

As she was still hesitant the strange lady rose, glanced towards the violet clouds that were mounting beyond the distant rolling horizon and, to Solange's surprise, fell upon her knees in an attitude of prayer, her mind, however, did not seem fixed on Heaven—it was on the earth she looked, and this she touched several times with her plump white hands, muttering as she did so words which Solange could not hear. She then turned her face towards the summer-house and, drawing some chalk from her bosom, made a curious figure, a pentacle set with numbers, on the smooth stone floor of the pavilion; all the while she gazed down, never raising her eyes for a second to the round window where Solange furtively gazed, nor beyond at the rich rolling country now gradually being over-shadowed by the thunderstorm. Still on her knees, she dragged herself to the centre of the circle she had made, and with a small fruit knife she had hanging at her girdle she gashed her arm and allowed the blood to drop into the centre of each of the figures she had chalked.

Solange knew what the beautiful stranger was about; this was some rite of witchcraft; perhaps, thought the young woman, it is innocent in its sheer foolishness, yet she does not think it either innocent or foolish and it is horrible to watch. It was precisely the stranger's complete and desperate sincerity that affected Solange with the greatest repugnance and horror—whatever might be the real value of the rites that the lady was performing, there was no question that she her self believed in them; her face was pale, her forehead beaded with perspiration, her lips compressed, her beauty effaced by the excess of her passion; it was clear that she was imploring some favour of some infernal power and doing so with all the earnestness and sincerity of which she was capable.

Unable to endure this scene any longer, Solange came round the summer-house and, standing in the doorway, clapped her hands to attract the attention of the woman on her knees and said in a voice that agitation made harsh:

"Madame! Madame! You are not alone. I am here."

She spoke at random, being desirous above all things to distract the woman from this horrid business; she had some half-formed idea in her head of saying that she had lost her way, which, after all, was but the truth. But the other woman gave her no chance of saying any more; she turned, still on her knees, and stared up at Solange with an expression, to the other's extreme surprise, of rapturous joy.

"So, you have come—I was told to expect anyone, any shape—only it was to be here! Have you a message? Yes, it must be that you have one!"

"From whom do you think I come, Madame?" asked Solange, without the intention to deceive and recoiling a little from this passionate, overwrought creature, who replied from pallid lips:

"I do not ask. I know that whatever you say, I will listen to! I thought I could not be so patient in my need—yes, in my great need—but I can, I can!"

"She thinks," thought Solange with repugnance, "that I am some infernal messenger come in answer to her magic rites. How lost she must be, how sunk in superstition!"

Yet even as these thoughts passed through Solange's mind, they were followed by the uneasy reflection: "Perhaps there is something in it after all"—and her hand closed half-unconsciously on the familiar rosary in her pocket.

"Stand up, Madame, and speak to me—tell me what it is you want," she said, and in her daring and bold way she reflected that this woman must in some manner be concerned with the poisoners and that it was her duty to her husband and to M. de La Reynie to obtain what information she could from her, and underneath her repulsion, disgust and uneasiness was a sense of pleasure in the prospect that she might be after all useful to Charles.

The woman rose and stood in her dark flowing gown, the diamonds sparkling on her bosom and her hands clasped over her heart, gazing at Solange with blood-injected eyes; she was hardly in that moment beautiful; there was no colour in her face, and in her carelessly pushed-back hair, grey strands showed under the chestnut locks; her lips were dry across her glistening teeth, her face was shadowed and hollowed—she looked almost middle-aged, yet in her shape and bearing was still a majesty that approached beauty.

"My need is desperate," she said. "Tell her so—even if she is in the Bastille, cannot she work her spells? How long does she intend to remain there? She has not communicated with me. Every day there are more arrests—what am I to think? Every hour someone crosses the frontier."

"All this is known to me," replied Solange coldly.

"Your pardon," said the other woman, speaking with a humility that seemed foreign to her disposition. "I have done what I could for myself—there are few of us left, and we make the sacrifices and hold the Mass, but what comes of it? He intends to ask her back to Court—tell La Voisin that, though she knows it if her arts are what people say they are. How many times have I done all that she has told me? How much gold have I not put into her hands?"

"I know all this," replied Solange. She stood erect with her back to the light, the thunderclouds, increasing in volume, slowly blotting out the pale blue sky behind her; a low mutter of thunder broke across the horizon and some lightning pierced the purple clouds.

"See," said Solange, "what you have evoked with your spells. All the fiends are darkening the heavens to help you!" She was almost afraid to utter this blasphemy, but she saw that it had an effect upon her listener, who again went on her knees, and in her magic circle, clasping her hands on her bosom, began to mutter some jargon that Solange thought was supposed to be prayers to the infernal powers.

"Leave that," said Solange, "and tell me what you want. What do you ask for now? La Voisin is not powerless—she will do as you bid her. Is it not sufficient that she has sent me here in answer to your applications and spells?"

"It is sufficient," murmured the other woman in the tone and attitude of subjection. "Tell her that if I cannot retain his passion—" Solange noticed she did not use the word 'love'—"as I have retained it for all these years by spells and enchantments, tell her that if this pale girl is to gain him, then I desire that they both shall perish."

"Both perish?" repeated Solange in a harsh voice.

"Yes, let that be contrived. I will not be left. I will have my revenge. And it must be done in such a way that not the least suspicion falls on me. La Voisin knows that I am not for a convent, that I shall not, like La Vallière, play the penitent, perhaps for thirty, forty years."

Solange began to guess to whom she spoke; she controlled herself, using a firm effort of her strong will, and said in a low voice:

"How far would you dare?"

"Have I not already dared as far as any woman could when I first spoke the name of Louis de Bourbon before the infernal altars?" The other woman paused, and Solange suppressed the exclamation that rose to her lips. "Yes, let him die, let his heart be burnt and his entrails consumed, let him endure all the agonies that the poisons can contrive or the spells induce."

Solange stood her ground and controlled the desire to flinch away from this fearful woman who uttered with such a hard passion words so terrible and cruel.

"But let her die first," continued the frantic creature, "let him see that! Let him stand by and see her suffer and die, and be unable to help her! Then, perhaps, he will feel some thing of what I have felt, the agony, the despair, the humiliation, the shame of being powerless, of losing what one—"

"Do not," interrupted Solange harshly, "use the word love, Madame. We are speaking of infernal spells and of matters where we must ask the Devil's aid."

The words had scarcely left her lips when the thunder broke overhead; the sky was now veiled with the thick violet clouds that the lightning pierced with greenish livid darts behind the black facade of the Villa Malcontenta.

"Speak clearly," muttered the other woman. "Tell her from me what I desire. What name shall I give you?"

"Nay, none," said Solange. "When next you see me I shall be in another shape."

She was turning away with as grim and threatening an aspect as she could assume, when the other woman called after her:

"Everything is safe, is it not? La Voisin can see to it that none of them speak?"

Solange's voice was borne on the sultry air as she turned away from the summer-house. "All is safe—be content, be patient."


9. — THE CHAPEL OF SAINT-HUBERT

Solange hastened into the wood, hardly knowing for a few moments where she went, unconscious of the heavy drops of rain that fell upon her; it was the barking of the dog that roused her to a sense of reality; she turned her steps, still half-mechanically, towards the tree where she had left Rollo tied up, unfastened him and hastened again forward through the wood, holding the dog's lead tightly.

She began to debate her own conduct—the episode had been so extraordinary, so unexpected; she had no doubt as to whom she had spoken, she could not doubt the plot now laid bare before her. It had not been Lady Castlemaine, the mistress of the English King, but Madame de Montespan, the mistress of the French King, that had been the central figure at the Black Mass, that had been using La Voisin to provide her with spells and drugs, that now required La Voisin to provide her with poison.

Solange remembered the paper that had been picked up in the confessional box of the Jesuit Church in the rue Sainte-Antoine. That had spoken of some plot against the King. This furious, desperate woman, threatened, after all these years, by a rival whom she could not displace as she had displaced all the others, was prepared to go to extreme lengths to remove not only her rival but her faithless lover.

To Solange, it was still impossible that she, a substantial flesh and blood woman, should have been mistaken by an other human being for a spirit, for a messenger from the internal regions; but she turned her mind back to all she had heard, since this horrible affair had begun, of the cult of Black Magic, and she realized that those who took part in these obscene ceremonies, who endured the horrors and degradations that Madame de Montespan had endured, must firmly believe in witchcraft, devils and evil spirits and in their power to take tangible forms...the diamonds too, were not these considered most potently magical stones?

"And this La Voisin, I suppose," thought Solange as she hastened through the darkening wood, "is no more than a clever charlatan, full of tricks—and yet this great lady thinks her capable of dealing with the devil, of escaping punishment by magic."

Again the young woman's hand closed round the rosary. Supposing, after all, it was true!

She paused, finding that she had lost her way, that in her agitation and confusion of thought she had been walking blindly. Perhaps if she gave the dog his liberty, he would find it, she could follow him. She unleashed the animal and spoke to him encouragingly. The sky was now black overhead and the withering leaves of the trees looked an odd, livid yellow green against this unnatural darkness. The thunder was rolling away, but was still frequent and insistent, the lightning cut the sombre vapours of the clouds, and darted in the dense recesses of the woods.

The dog ran about a little, snuffling the ground, then whined and returned to Solange, sitting down beside her. He obviously considered it his duty to guard her, to guide her by his means to Captain Dechamps' house.

"They will be getting anxious about me," she thought. "Perhaps even they will send out to search for me." She much disliked causing trouble or concern to anyone, and it occurred to her that perhaps her husband might come late that after noon to Les Peupliers and be deeply distressed at finding her absent and unaccounted for.

Yet even these considerations went again into the back ground of her mind as she pondered over what had occurred in the summer-house of the Villa Malcontenta. She felt smirched by this scene, degraded by her own grotesque deception; she wished that she had told Madame de Montespan her identity; yet to have done so would have been an act of extreme folly.

Supposing she had said: "I am Solange, wife of Charles Desgrez, the agent of police who is helping M. de la Reynie in the affair of the poisoners." Not only would she have learnt nothing from Madame de Montespan, but that lady would surely have found an opportunity of having her put very securely out of the way. Solange knew from her husband that there were many people shut away in the dungeons through lettres de cachet which Madame de Montespan had begged of the King.

Solange winced in terror as she thought of the possibility of such a fate; yes, it was in the power of Madame de Montespan to snatch her away to be a prisoner under ground for ever, without even Charles knowing what her fate had been!

No, she had done right to keep up the ghastly farce and she had learnt much that was of supreme importance—Madame de Montespan was trying to invoke infernal spirits, she was trying to get Catherine La Voisin, then a prisoner in the Bastille, to communicate with her, she was trying—in an excess of spite and fury and jealousy that approached insanity—to poison not only Mlle. de Fontanges, but the man whom she named Louis de Bourbon.

"I must tell Charles," thought the loyal young wife "Charles must have the credit of this, but first I must find my way back to Captain Dechamps' house—"

She struck out boldly through the woods, following the dog: the rain was increasing as the storm died away, refreshing the air and causing an acrid perfume of fading green to rise from the woodland.

"If only Rollo can find a path," thought Solange; she hurried along, holding up her skirts, Rollo trotting beside her. She was becoming unpleasantly drenched and was concerned for her fine, new autumn clothes, nor could she altogether banish a sense of loneliness and apprehension at knowing she was, if not lost, far from home in these woods, that seemed so desolate even though they were so near the town and château of Versailles. It was, therefore, with relief that she saw, as she turned at random through the wood, a path that, moss-grown and disused, broke from a tangle of under growth that she was hurrying past. Following Rollo, who took this track, she found that it broadened into a well-frequented way that ended abruptly in a small chapel.

This, from the statue over the door, appeared to be dedicated to Saint-Hubert, patron saint of sportsmen. Chapels in his honour were common enough near hunting-lodges or pleasure villas, and usually there was a priest, monk or lay brother in charge of them.

Solange, therefore, hastened forward hopefully, glad not only of the shelter from the rain, but of the prospect once more of wholesome human company. She fastened the dog in the shelter of the porch, securing his lead to the leg of one of the benches that had been placed there for tired wayfarers, and entered the church, not without a desire to purify herself from her interview with that distracted woman in the pavilion, and to breathe a prayer to God after having been taken for an emissary of the devil.

The piety of Solange was sincere if undefined; she had goodness and evil clearly divided in her mind and shuddered from the latter as much as she aspired to the former; she was con tent to accept all the rites of the church without ever suspecting that they might be as much a part of a superstition as the rites practised by the devil worshippers that had seemed to her so unspeakably horrible.

The little chapel was simply furnished; it was empty but well cared for, a few kneeling hassocks were laid about the altar and there was a handsomely carved prie-Dieu. Solange knelt at this for a moment and prayed. There was some ancient coloured glass in the window; the brilliant vermilion and transparent blue colours showed oddly bright in the greenish darkness of the chapel interior and against the outer darkness of the stormy day.

The place was cold, and Solange, chilled by the rain, began to shiver a little. She tried to concentrate on spiritual matters but she found herself thinking of what had happened to her so recently. She became restless and impatient to return to her friends, to Charles. It now seemed hopeless to wait here until the rain had ceased; indeed, in this shelter her impression of a long, heavy storm seemed more intense; the splashing of rain against those coloured windows seemed more terrifying than the direct fall of it upon her own person when she had hastened through the woods; yes, the forest seemed more friendly than God's church.

She rose, only by a strong effort repressing a sensation of panic. She wanted to see even the friendly grey face of Rollo, who would surely, if she trusted him, lead her home.

As Solange left the prie-Dieu, she was brought to a pause by the sound of knocking directly beneath her feet. She had been so sure that she was alone in a small chapel in the midst of a large forest that she had to grip the back of the prie-Dieu to steady herself; then she tried to put all super natural fears out of her head; there were human beings here, then, in some cellars or vaults beneath her; she did not think that these chapels attached to hunting-lodges were ever used as burial places, but here there must be a vault or subterranean passage. As she listened the knocking continued, irregularly, loudly, and then softly, as if someone were hammering on metal, then ended.

Solange listened intently in the silence for a few moments, then left the chapel, patting Rollo's head as she passed him. He remained watchful in the porch and whined after her, straining at his lead. Cautiously and continually looking about her, Solange went round the chapel; on one side the grass grew right up to the wall; behind the east end or top she found a small enclosed grating, roughly two or three feet square. She had never seen an entrance to a burial vault like this before; she avoided it for fear her shadow might fall across it or she herself be seen; she noticed at the side a small chimney that rose up beside and blended with the masonry of the wall. From this, driven downward again by the heavy rain, rose some dun-coloured smoke.

"There must be people down there," thought Solange at once, "and they are up to no good purpose. It must all be part of this same business."

She reflected rapidly that it would be useless for her, a woman, without disguise, and hampered with feminine clothes, to attempt to investigate, but it would be quite easy to memorize the position of this building, and to send Captain Dechamps or Charles to investigate still further and find out what was going on there. She therefore returned hastily to the porch in order to collect the dog.

Rao was growling and the hairs on his narrow back were rising. "He, too, must have heard something," thought Solange with a slightly increased apprehension—but it took her by surprise as the powerful animal got out of control when she unleashed him, and tried to get through the half-open chapel door. His growling was increasing; in alarm Solange threw herself on the animal and grasped him by the collar; he struggled for his freedom and between them they pushed the chapel door wide open. The young woman, using all her strength to hold the animal back, saw the cause of his unrest.

A Negro was standing beside the altar to the left; he had come up through a door that was open behind him—it showed on to the blackness of a subterranean staircase. He wore a plain turban of saffron-coloured and scarlet silk wound round his small head; he had a plain green coat with galloons of gold that might have been a livery; there was nothing uncommon in his appearance; since she had come to Paris Solange had seen many such black servants, yet his appearance here, in this place, at this moment, filled her with indescribable terror; for getting prudence and courage, she turned to run.

One word left the Negro's lips: "Spy!" he exclaimed and clapped his hands.

"Here Rollo!" cried Solange, "come with me at once."

She felt that it would be intolerable to lose the companion ship and protection of the dog. The animal turned, leapt up, licked her hands and followed her. He was soon, indeed, through the church door ahead of her, as if he too scented an unexpected danger and wanted to get away. Solange stumbled in her long skirts and fell forward against the door, closing it. In terror, she looked back over her shoulder and saw that five men had entered the chapel by the secret stairway; their appearance was the last thing she expected to see and its grotesqueness added to her alarm. They had, at first, the look of workmen wearing leather aprons and breeches, coarse stockings, and clumsy shoes. Two of them were wearing coloured spectacles and all of them had their short sleeves rolled up above the elbows exposing their arms and hands, which were stained with chemicals.

Solange, gathering all her courage, called out in a loud voice: "Gentlemen!" as, leaning against the closed door, she tried to fumble with the heavy complicated fastening, "I have lost my way, I am staying near Versailles with friends! After having walked through the woods I came here by chance!"

The Negro spoke up quickly to his associates:

"She has seen too much, whether she be fool or spy it is the same thing. Madame, it is useless to trouble with that door. You are too frightened, and too encumbered with your heavy, damp skirts to run far or fast—we should soon overtake you."

He was speaking in perfect French, with a cultured accent, not in the least like the dialect of the Negroes Solange had overheard speaking in their clipped, broken lingo. She noticed, too, as he now advanced towards her, that his colouring was a deep brown, with none of the bluish look common to Africans. "He, is, I suppose," she thought, "a Moor."

Folding her arms on her bosom, she replied: "My companions are not far away. They will seek for me and I'm sure will soon find me. I am well-known and shall soon be missed. If you have anything to conceal, Messieurs, it would surely be wiser for you to allow me to go than bring several other people to your hiding place."

Gathering courage from the sound of her own words, Solange added: "This is, I suppose, or once was, a holy place. I am prepared to swear not to betray you if you will allow me to go."

"What do you think we have to conceal?" asked the Negro, lifting his lips over sharp teeth.

"I do not know," replied Solange honestly enough, for she could not understand what these people were about.

"No doubt, Madame, you have a shrewd suspicion," replied the Moor harshly. "How did you contrive to come here? This is, for miles around, private ground. How you escaped the sentries I do not know. You lie when you say you are accompanied, that you have friends near. You must be miles from any possible help."

He made a signal to two of the leather-aproned men, who advanced without a word to place themselves either side of Solange. "Perhaps you were sent from the police," sneered the Moor. "The Paris police are becoming very active just now, are they not, with their spies and their arrests and their clever disguises."

"I was not sent by the police," said Solange, again truth fully. She walked forward reluctantly, not daring to remain where she was for fear the two rough-looking men should seize her. When she reached the door by which the Moor still stood, she drew back with an involuntary shudder.

"Oh, it is quite amusing and agreeable below, Madame," said the coloured man with an ironic bow. "You will please step down, there is one of your own sex there to welcome you."

Solange tried to keep her nerves cool and steady; she thought: "The best thing I can do is to play for time, to discover all I can and look for a possible chance of escape."

She thought with relief and gratitude of the dog; he must have run off through the forest—surely he would be trained to return home, and when he did go back to Captain Dechamps' house without her, surely he would lead his master to the place of her imprisonment? This at least was her great hope. Meanwhile, she told herself as she descended the dark staircase with the Moor and the leather-aproned men behind her, she must keep cool, alert, and observant, and in her heart she prayed earnestly that she might be guarded against the powers of Evil.

She found herself in a good-sized underground chamber, which, she thought, must run almost the entire length of the church; it was lit partly by the grating she had observed from the outside and partly by large oil lamps fastened against the wall. By the side of this grating was the furnace—from it rose the chimney shaft that Solange had seen from outside—this was filled with clear burning coal and either side were ovens, on the top of which stood various vessels of copper and iron, while on the floor below were moulds, crucibles, retorts and a large number of utensils and implements of which Solange did not know the names.

She was, however, well aware of the character of the place she had entered. Alchemy was obviously practised here, and she wondered why they should be so fearful and so secretive about it, since this science was by no means forbidden and was practised openly by many highly placed people, while the search for the "philosopher's stone" had, Solange knew, been going on for hundreds of years without secrecy or blame. But when she glanced at the other end of the room, which, being farthest from the window and the lamps, was mostly in shadow, she saw an elaborate apparatus, the use of which she did not in the least know. There seemed to be a small mill, a small press, several blocks and moulds, as well as all the paraphernalia for distilling. As she gazed through the shadows she made out—and this caused her to wince with horror—the form of a dead boar: its hind legs were tied together and fastened to a nail on the wail, and from the open jaws of its low-hanging head, blood-stained foam was dropping into a small copper vessel. Beside this were some uncouth wax images and, on a shelf, several books in pale bindings.

In the centre of the room was a plain table covered with writing material and more books, some knives and swords and rolls of silk. At this sat a young woman in male attire—Solange recognized her instantly as the Englishwoman known as "Miss Pink" or Mlle. des Oeillets.

"A police spy," remarked the Moor to this woman, drily indicating Solange.

"Ali!" cried the young Englishwoman with a look of fury, "how stupid to send a female, and in that attire, to track us here. Well, you must decide what to do with her. It is quite certain," she added rapidly, "that she has seen too much. The whole affair is getting extremely unpleasant."

Solange thought so also; for the presence of Mlle. des Oeillets caused her to connect these people with the poisoners—something worse than alchemy was practised here, she guessed; perhaps this was where they actually distilled the poisons.

Then another suspicion came into her mind—those five men in their workmanlike attire, who had gone to the shadows at the end of the room, the apparatus she saw there, the anvil and the hammers, little sacks lying along the wall out of the mouths of which bright coins gleamed—this was a fabrication of false money, the headquarters of a gang of forgers.

Her courage wavered a little: she did not doubt their ferocity, there was something pitiless in the cold prominent eyes of the Englishwoman, in the strained, almost doll-like features of the Moor, in the silent impassivity of the five workmen; she thought, too, of the solitude of the place; if the dog failed her, who was likely to find her here?

Besides, no doubt these people were in touch with Madame de Montespan, and once Madame de Montespan knew that she had betrayed herself to a woman whom she would consider a police spy!—Solange stood erect without wincing, but her lips narrowed and her eyes were cast down.

The Englishwoman was surveying her coldly. "You are very brave, but you are afraid nevertheless," she said. "You have good reason to be so. There are so many great ones in this that we cannot consider people like you." She rose as if to leave the vault, and said casually to the Moor: "I will go upstairs and you must do what you will with her."

"There's no need to leave us," replied the coloured man. "This woman may have many uses. She will never be found here, though we had better take the precaution of damping down the fire so that no smoke appears, and putting sods over the grating."

"Well, what do you intend to do?" asked Mlle. des Oeillets impatiently. "Remember, we are in constant danger our selves. For my part, I am tired of it all—I shall return to England."

"Perhaps it will not be so easy," sneered the Moor, "Re member, all the ports are watched."

He turned abruptly to Solange, and when he looked full at her with his large dark eyes she found it difficult to control her impulse of terror. Plain as was his attire and ordinary as was his appearance, she found his personality completely terrifying.

"If you care to tell us who you are and what your errand here was, it might help you."

Solange thought rapidly: "The more I can invent and con fuse them, the better for me"—so, with an assumed air of honesty, she replied: "I am staying with a friend of mine, Madame Rameau, in Versailles. My name is Claire Montaigne, I am an orphan. My home is with an uncle in Rouen." She thought, with triumph, that she perceived a baffled look on the Moor's face, as if he were almost persuaded by her seeming frankness.

After a second or two, however, he lightly shrugged his shoulders as if he dismissed everything she had said as rubbish, and, handing her a chair with something of an air of breeding, bade her rest herself, for she would presently have much to endure.


10. — CHARLES SEARCHES FOR SOLANGE

During the first few days of Solange's stay at the house of Captain Dechamps, Charles Desgrez had scarcely left the Police Headquarters in the Bastille or the Arsenal. He had been present at all the private examinations of the prisoners before the Tribunal or Commission that the King had set up—which sat sometimes at the Bastille and sometimes at the Arsenal. Some of them had been examined before Louvois or Colbert. With the various underlings and accomplices of the principals, the prisoners amounted to nearly a hundred, though this number was concealed from the public; there was no desire on the part of the Government to spread further the panic that had already seized Paris.

Silver utensils had gone out of fashion, save for those wealthy enough to carry their own cases of knives, forks and cutlery; glasses, plates and dishes were cleaned at table, charming bouquets of flowers and innocent-looking dishes of luscious fruit were regarded with horrible suspicion; a woman feared to handle her Mass book, a man to touch his rosary; as every day fresh arrests were made, the alarm, and horror grew; universal distrust was abroad. Colbert, listening to nothing but the dictates of the sternest justice, ordered the arrest of two great Court ladies—Madame de Soissons and Madame de Bouillon. The former of these fled the country, but the latter was lodged in handsome apartments in the Bastille, where M. de Luxembourg still fretted away his existence in a small dark dungeon assigned to him by the spite of Louvois. Everyone felt insecure, embarrassed; every twenty-four hours brought an added horror to Paris.

"The thing," said M. de La Reynie, "must come to an end."

He did what he could to allay the public alarm; the meanest of the victims were sacrificed; Malipiero, the Italian apothecary, Doctor Rabel, the two priests, Davout and Guibourg, were condemned to death for infanticide, sorcery and blasphemy. There was nothing about poisoning in the charges brought against them, and as they had been examined in secret and no reports of the trials published, the public were in the dark as to the real extent of their crimes; even when faced with the prospect of torture and death, all these wretches refused to make confessions. It was the opinion of M. de La Reynie that they knew very little beyond their own small part in the large plot in which they were involved; he also believed that they were buoyed up by the hope of rescue from the powerful organization to which they belonged.

The Marchese Pignata, now restored to health and activity, had been able to give him useful information, which linked these people with criminals in Italy.

Charles Desgrez was present one brilliant autumn morning when these criminals were led out, and, amid the exclamations of the huge crowd, strangled and burnt in the Place de Grève. The Chief of Police, obeying orders received direct from the King, had acted swiftly; daily executions took place until, by the time of Solange's adventure in the woods near the Villa Malcontenta, few people remained in custody beyond La Voisin and her daughter, the Maréchal de Luxembourg, the Duchesse de Bouillon and some scoundrels, unfrocked priests.

The two La Voisin women, Catherine and her daughter, were regarded by the Chief of Police as the two most important prisoners. The first affected an insolent demeanour and when examined bore herself with arrogance and told manifest and casual lies. The second affected a state of semi-idiocy and alternated between bravado and hysterical fear. La Reynie believed that both these states were assumed, and that the two women were really shrewd, brave, and perfectly well-informed of all the ramifications of the conspiracy of the poisoners.

He concealed from them the fate of their accomplices and the number of arrests that had been made, and took the greatest possible care that neither should have any communication with the outside world; but for all that, though they were kept in isolation, and could not possibly have received any messages of hope or encouragement, the two in their ways remained unmoved. Neither M. Colbert nor M. de Louvois, neither La Reynie himself nor the young police-lieutenant could shake them in their baffling pretences.

It was M. de La Reynie himself that advised his young assistant to take a brief respite from these arduous and gloomy labours and to visit his young wife at the house of Captain Dechamps.

As soon as Charles Desgrez took the Versailles road, he felt his load of anxiety lifted, and all the black, hideous, melancholy spectacle that he had lately seen vanished from his mind.

But when he reached the pleasant little house near the town of Versailles he was met with the disquieting news that Solange had gone for a walk with the dog and was now many hours overdue: Captain Dechamps and two of his assistants were leaving the house, armed and with lanterns and dogs when Desgrez reined up his horse at the gate. They had already been out once, searching up and down the high road for Solange; now Dechamps intended to take what he felt was an extreme measure—that of searching the woods round Versailles, parts of which were private and strictly guarded. It was possible, he argued, that there was nothing really sinister in the long absence of the young woman, that she had merely lost her way in unfamiliar places; he had come back to see if, during his absence, she had returned home.

He was explaining all this to the alarmed and anxious husband, who felt his heart sink to acute despair at the thought of the possible danger of Solange, when Rollo, flecked with foam and with his tongue hanging out, came hastening up out of the dark and fawned with an anxious air at the feet of his master, now and then pausing in these endearments to throw back his head and howl.

"It is the dog she took with her," said Dechamps as the Lieutenant of Police threw himself from his saddle. "He is well-trained, old Rollo, he will probably lead us to where he last saw her."

"Why should he have left her?" stammered Charles Desgrez in an excess of anxiety. "Why did not the dog remain with her? What can have happened?"

The elder man took the young Norman's arm reassuringly.

"Do not let us waste time," he said quietly, "with these speculations. There may be nothing horrible or mysterious about it at all. Your wife may have met with some accident. These dogs are trained, if they lose sight of the person they are in charge of, to return and seek help as the St. Bernards do in the Alps when they find someone overcome in the snow."

Charles Desgrez controlled himself, but with difficulty; he had found his experiences of the last few months very horrible; he was not used to these matters of mystery, secret death and public execution, not yet hardened to all the odious filth a man must gaze on who tries to find his way through the underworld of Paris, and he had felt, while so constantly and so faithfully at de La Reynie's side, an intense desire to retire with his young wife to some pleasant, peaceful place where he would not hear the words—poisoner, crime, prisoner, punishment.

The thought that Solange, whose company he had sacrificed by sending her to what he regarded as a safe place, had nevertheless fallen into danger afflicted him almost beyond en durance; it was with difficulty that he avoided bitter reproaches against Captain Dechamps, who, indeed, took some blame on himself, but, as he reminded Desgrez:

"Your wife is fairly high-spirited and fairly independent. It has irked her very much being shut up here and it was really impossible for me to forbid her going out for a walk accompanied by the dog. She promised me," he added with a sly smile, "to keep to the high road. Is it possible that she broke her word?"

"It is true," muttered Desgrez, "Solange has, for a woman, an uncommon courage and daring. She has been most anxious to help me—it is even possible that she has tried to investigate on her own account. I did, fool that I was, mention to her that we should like to know something about the inhabitants of the Villa Malcontenta. It is conceivable that she went there."

"Let us, at least, go in that direction, if the dog leads us nowhere in particular," agreed Dechamps.

The two officers, accompanied by four men, set off down the high road; Rollo, as his master had expected, led them. With his nose on the ground, the dog set on the trail. At a certain point in the road he turned off into the woods, now dark save for the faint light of the stars that were scattered over the black heavens. The storm had rolled completely away and the air was fresh and pure; the last faint twittering of the homing birds was heard in the half-closed branches over their heads; the wood flowers, mosses and grasses, still drenched with the strong rain of the late afternoon, gave out their cool, pure night perfume; now and then a little animal scurried away into the undergrowth with a soft rustle of twigs. The dog kept at first to well-defined paths, then branched off into the forest where the men had difficulty in following him through the bushes, tall weeds and close-set trunks of the trees; they had to go in single file.

Captain Dechamps, who by no means wished to attract attention to themselves, had all the lanterns darkened save one, which Charles Desgrez carried, and walked ahead. At one time they came close to a long, low wall, behind which, through a screen of chestnuts where the sparse yellow leaves gleamed faintly pale in the thick dusk, could be seen the out lines of a building; Captain Dechamps told the Lieutenant that that was the convent where Mlle. de Fontanges was in retreat.

"They say the King urges her daily to return, despite the violence and the warnings she has received from Madame de Montespan. It is not believed that Versailles," added Dechamps with a laugh and a shrug, "vast as it is, can hold both those ladies."

The last vestige of light had gone, and they had been two hours or more walking through the forest when the dog at last led them on to a well-worn path.

Desgrez's lantern flashed on to a large white stone cross that was placed between the trees; the sight of this, looming out of the darkness by the little group of trees, was to Desgrez him self ominous; his impatience began to be touched with despair.

Captain Dechamps pressed him reassuringly on the arm. "I know where we are now, close to the little chapel of Saint-Hubert that is in the grounds of the Villa Malcontenta. We are in the woods of Cagny."

"I expect Solange came here!" exclaimed Desgrez in deep distress. "Yes, she was trying to investigate for me."

"Do not raise your voice," Captain Dechamps's grip tightened on the younger man's arm. "The chapel is, I think, deserted—I believe these grounds are private, and yet we have passed no sentry. See, the dog continues to lead us ahead. Cover your lantern," he commanded, "we can find our way in the dark."

Rollo, the wolf-hound, was straining at his lead, which Dechamps held tightly. The other men fell into line behind him, and so advanced slowly, cautiously, along the path that here and there was impeded by brackens, ferns and weeds towards the porch of the chapel of Saint-Hubert.


11. — "MISS PINK" SHOWS HER HAND

In the room under the chapel Solange sat alone with Mile. des Oeillets. The Moor and the five leather-aproned workmen had disappeared through the passage by which they had brought Solange to this chamber, which was now her prison. Her head was aching and she had a sensation of constriction over her heart.

The scene appeared to her totally unreal. The soft day light, which had entered through the grating, had now totally faded, and only the yellow light of two oil lamps illuminated the vault-like chamber. Solange -had twisted her chair so that she could not see the unearthly looking apparatus behind her and the dead boar suspended by its feet from the hook; but every object upon which she cast her eye was to her horrible and full of sinister meaning; nor could she by any means evade the presence of the Englishwoman, who lounged across the table with her face in her hands and taunted her with malicious and rambling speech.

There was something about the figure of this woman that was to Solange in every way repellent. Her face, which once perhaps had been beautiful, had a ruined, ashy look; her lips were loose and her eyes bloodshot, her fair hair hung in a tangle over her masculine cravat. To her dishevelled love-lock was fastened a knot of blue ribbon; her hands were fine, well-kept and adorned with rings, but they twitched nervously. Her accents were, Solange thought, those of a lost soul.

"'Tis pleasant," she said in a tone of evil mockery, "to have someone to speak to. You know, I have not had a confidante for years."

"Beware," Solange replied sternly, "how you confide in me, Mademoiselle."

"It will not matter—in a few hours you will be dead. If you are not dead, you will be past caring about what I have told you."

Solange shuddered inwardly at these words, which she tried to force herself to believe were mere bravado.

"I have been in this business a long while," added the Englishwoman. She filled a milk-coloured glass in front of her with liquid from a flat ruby-coloured bottle. It was not, Solange thought, wine, but some kind of drug; Miss Pink appeared bemused, indifferent to reality—yet this drowsiness was broken by flashes of unnatural violence.

"I cannot remember when I was not like this," she muttered, propping her chin on her shaking hands and staring at Solange with greedy envy of the younger woman's firm health, brilliant youth and wholesome beauty. "As soon as I entered her service I found out which way the money lay. She bribes high, you know, and it was so easy to go from one thing to another."

"Was it?" asked Solange disdainfully. "Did you find it easy to go from what began, as I suppose, with the usual lies and flattery and ended with poisoning?"

"They have no proof of that," sneered Mlle. des Oeillets, "and if they have, they'll not dare to use it. She is safe enough, and so am I, for I know all her secrets."

"If you do," replied Mme Desgrez, "you must be very vile."

"Ah, you can call me what you like," replied the English woman. "It makes no difference to me now—I'm in and I can't get out. There are no doors in hell, you know."

"How, then, does one enter that region?" asked Solange with a wry smile.

"It grows about one, little by little—it walls one in, and then there is no way out."

"The devil, it seems," said Solange grimly, "is an ill pay master. He has not, Mademoiselle, served you very well, or Catherine La Voisin, or her daughter, or those people who were strangled and burned on the Place de Grève the other day."

"One never knows," whispered Mlle. des Oeillets with a maudlin sigh, "perhaps they did something wrong, disobeyed."

"Hush," said Solange, moving from her chair, for it was intolerable to her to sit there any longer listening to this evil talk. "You do not know of what you speak. I do not think, Mademoiselle, that you could have ever realized evil for what it is."

"No?" exclaimed the other with a wild laugh. "You will soon see, when you begin to understand what they intend to do with you."

"What do they intend to do with me?" demanded Solange. "Come, you may as well tell me."

"Perhaps I may—I rather like to see people afraid, I have been made afraid so often myself. Well, you will be useful to them in many ways. Perhaps you will serve at one of the ceremonies." She put her forefinger across her throat. "At first I used to shudder at seeing the warm blood run into the cup, but now, I enjoy it." She laughed again her wild, lost laugh. "The devil, you know, demands his sacrifices."

Solange frowned and her lips tightened. It was quite possible that these ruffians, half-lunatics as she took them to be, did intend to subject her to fearful torture, perhaps to use her as a victim at one of their obscene ceremonies. She looked at the woman in front of her, wondering if it were possible to appeal to her for pity, to reason with her.

She thought: "If they knew what I discovered this after noon, they would not let me live another five minutes." A steady scrutiny of the face of Mlle. des Oeillets told Solange that it was useless to appeal to her either on the grounds of compassion or on those of common sense, useless to say to her: "Do not stain yourself with another crime, it would be wiser for you to let me go. I will swear to keep silence about what I have seen." No, this woman was debauched with vice, and, Solange thought, broken by misery—sodden, too, with the drugs she was continually taking from the milk-coloured glass.

The prisoner, for all her courage, could not resist a nervous movement of her hand to her bosom and a quick glance round the room.

Mlle. des Oeillets saw this and laughed: "It is useless, the grating has been covered up with sods, the fire you see, has been banked down. Neither smoke nor light will come up, even supposing that anyone should chance to stroll this way."

"Where are the others?" demanded Solange. "Where are the Moor and those workmen? It cannot be possible that they are all going to stand by and see me murdered. Where have they gone? What do they intend to do?"

"Ah, for a spy you have not, after all, very much courage."

"I tell you," said Solange, "I was not spying." I was out here with my dog, she was going to add, but she held these words back. Better, perhaps, not to warn the woman that she had been accompanied by the dog Rollo, in whom lay now her sole chance of rescue. She sat silent, casting down her eyes and knotting her fingers in her lap, fighting hard against the sense of horror, the gloom, the depression, with which these unnatural surroundings and this hideous company inspired her.

"I am sitting," she thought, "in an outpost of Hell—speaking with a lost soul."

Mlle. des Oeillets picked up one of the books on the table and held it in front of the prisoner's face.

"This is the service for the Black Mass—the Mass of Ste. Secaire where they all wear goats' masks," she muttered with an intoxicated laugh. "It is bound in the skin of an unbaptized child."

"Oh, horror!" exclaimed Solange. "I pray that you are deceived or that you lie!"

"Neither, my pretty dear, I have been in this business for years now. There is a good trade in these misbegotten brats—I've known as many as eighty to be sacrificed in one place alone."

"What does the celebrant—what does anyone hope to gain by such horrors?"

"Love—money," grinned the Englishwoman, "and power."

"What have you made out of this hideous traffic?"

"Oh, I have had my pleasant times! I have ridden in a coach-and-six and been embraced by handsome young men. I've had great ladies flatter me. I like to move behind the scenes, to help pull the strings."

"And what will the end be? During the last weeks there has been a constant stream of criminals to the Place de Grève."

"I am too well protected," leered the other. "I know too much—no one will ever dare to touch me. I care nothing about what happens to the others."

Solange remembered the frantic woman in the summer house; she thought, "I will find out what I can—in case I escape." Her fingers clutched the rosary in her pocket as she asked:

"Your patroness—your employer—is Madame de Montespan?"

"Ah, you are a police spy!"

"No. But I can tell you more. This woman has resolved that, if Mlle. de Fontanges is taken into the King's favour, she will destroy not only the girl but Louis himself."

"So! It is lucky for us that you came here to-day—we should all be lost were that known. Yet," added Mlle. des Oeillets, recovering her effrontery, "no one would believe it. The King would never credit it. Ah, La Voisin has confessed!" she exclaimed suddenly, "the cowardly trull—"

"Perhaps she has," replied Solange. "In any case you see that I know what I am talking about."

"It will avail you nothing, you will soon have a sod in your mouth."

Solange compressed her lips and cast a fearful glance at the dead boar hanging in the shadows at the end of the room.

"Is that how you get your poison? Distilled from a dead beast?"

"That is only half the secret. The stuff we poison the animal with comes from Italy—we have not the knowledge to distil it perfectly—that which we use for our most subtle death comes ready-made from Rome."

"Who makes it? Who sends it?"

"I don't know. There are some things one is shut out of. I don't think," muttered the Englishwoman sullenly, "that Saint-Maurice knows—he has spoken to the Master—but does not know his identity. He is always disguised."

"Perhaps it is the Devil himself," said Solange with a wan smile, crossing herself. "Strange to me that you should be in subjection to this Unknown! Stranger still that he should care to risk what he does risk—for what?"

"For power, for his own secret ends—how should I know," replied Mlle. des Oeillets drowsily. "I should like to be in his place. Think of having Popes and Kings tremble before you! Think of having the power of life and death over all the great ones of the world!"

"But he has not that power—no, it is not possible!"

"Is it not? Why, you yourself know that the life of the King of France is threatened."

"Are you not all lunatics there?" asked Solange shrewdly. "If you murder the King, Madame de Montespan will fall—and you with her—you are tearing down the power that supports you."

Mlle. des Oeillets laughed and thrust her fingers through her dishevelled hair.

"She will have her revenge—at all costs. The Master sup ports her—he too, it seems, wishes—at all costs—vengeance on the King of France."

"Politics?" breathed Solange.

But the Englishwoman was not to be drawn further; lost, wretched and reckless as she was, a gradual remorse and regret seemed to penetrate her drug-sodden mind as she contemplated the other woman, as if she, Mary Pink, recalled the days when she too had been young, innocent and happy.

"Why don't they come and take you away?" she muttered, pushing her chair back from the table. "I don't want to sit here looking at you."

"Oh!" exclaimed Solange, "how did you come to such a pass!"

"That would be a long story and one not worth telling now, but cursed be the day when I first met Athénais de Montespan!" She groaned and pressed her temples with her finger tips. "The dwarf is certainly an evil spirit—he is the link with the Master, who, as you say, my dear, may be the Devil himself."

"What dwarf?" asked Solange, who had seen several of these piteous deformities in Paris where they were often attached to the households of great nobles; she recalled that her husband had told her that one of the carriages driven up to the villa at Passy had had a dwarf coachman. The English woman did not answer, she had fallen back in her chair and seemed sunk in a stupor; Solange rose, passed round the table that was laden with the ugly and sinister mummery of black magic and shook the other woman by the shoulders.

"You do know more than you pretend," she said. "Why not ease your mind by telling me the truth? Since I am soon to die I can betray nothing."

Without opening her eyes the Englishwoman muttered: "Lost and damned! Lost and damned!"

Solange stood erect and braced herself to look round the horrible room. It was clear what evil activities took place there, the manufacture of poisons, the coining of false money, researches for the Philosopher's Stone, ceremonies of conjuration and divination, the distilling of philtres and charms.

No doubt, also, this dark, dismal and secret place was the scene of many a hideous conspiracy, of many a foul plot. No doubt but that here the bouquet plucked in the glass-houses of M. de Saint-Maurice at Passy had been subtly poisoned before it was sent to Madame de Poulaillon in the Bastille, that here the letters on Madame de Montespan's evil business, marked with the sign of a knot of carnations, the name of her go-between, had been written, and so had those other missives on which the inverted cross was drawn.

Solange had discovered much, but she knew that much remained to be discovered—who was this Master—the adroit head of this criminal organization—why was he working in the interests of Madame de Montespan? Why did he wish to avenge himself on King Louis?

The captive put her hands to her head, trying to think clearly, to reason out these problems—if only to take her mind off her present situation. Her eyes ached and her temples throbbed, the very air—stale, fetid—that she breathed seemed to be infecting her with a deadly lethargy against which she fought desperately, fearing to be deprived of her consciousness, perhaps of her reason.

As she glanced again and with increasing fear round the hideous vault and at the figure of the wretched woman in masculine attire, slumped grotesquely in her chair, with her draggled love-lock hanging over her pallid brows, and a leer in her half-closed eyes and on her ragged lips, Solange could hardly repress a cry of despair.

As she stood rigid, her hand clutching her heart, striving for control, the door by which she had been dragged into this prison, and which seemed the only entrance to the room, was opened, and the Moor, standing on the threshold, beckoned her towards him.


12. — SAINT-MAURICE PAYS THE PRICE

Solange saw that he had behind him the leather-aproned men; she judged it better to obey implicitly, so she rose and crossed the floor, and Mlle. des Oeillets, lurching to her feet, swayed behind her.

Solange thought as she passed up the dark staircase between her captors: "They will let Madame de Montespan know that they have captured me, and so she will be warned—she will learn that it was not some infernal messenger that appeared to her in the pavilion during the thunderstorm, but a mortal woman." And Solange regretted bitterly that she had failed to help her husband; she could hardly endure the impatience that possessed her when she thought what M. de La Reynie would give for the news that she would be able to impart to him were she free. The sombre party reached the upper air; Solange felt the cool night air on her face.

"I warn you," whispered the Moor, close to her ear, "not to call out. It would be useless if you did, for you are in utter loneliness. Yet if you make a sound I shall have to gag you. I daresay," he added with a sneer, "that you would not care to be handled by my men here."

This was true, but Solange could not repress the instinct to shout for help, to make one frantic, if hopeless, effort to escape. She thought of the Black Mass, of the sacrifices and the unspeakable rites that took place; she imagined herself stretched in front of the sable altar with the black-hooded priestess holding the knife to her throat, and all her agony escaped in her cry of "Charles!"

She was instantly struck on the shoulder with a force that sent her to her knees, but her frantic appeal for help was as opportune as if her guardian angel had directed her to make it, for at that moment the little party of police were emerging from the thicket by the church, and had not Solange called aloud, she and her captors might have hurried off in the other direction while Dechamps and his men were in the porch.

As it was, they came running round the church in the direction of the cry, and in a few seconds the two parties were engaged in a struggle, the fiercer and the more desperate for the darkness; heartened by this miraculous, unexpected rescue, Solange with reckless courage sprang from her knees. The door leading up from the vault was not yet closed; in the dim light of it lurched Mlle. des Oeillets. Seeing that her accomplices had been surprised, the Englishwoman drew an elegant pistol from her belt and would have fired it at random, but Solange threw herself on her, knocked up her arm, pushed her backward down the vault steps, and closed the door on her, leaning against it, panting.

"There is one at least," she gasped, "accounted for."

Uncertain and excited she watched the shapes struggling together in the half-dark.

The fight was brief; though the numbers were equal, the conspirators were unprepared and the five workmen were without weapons. The Moor, taken at a disadvantage, was forced against the chapel wall, where he fought furiously, striking at random with a short sword; it was Desgrez that disarmed him and thrust him down after he had refused to surrender and was struggling in what seemed an insane passion with bare hands.

Dechamps, hastening up, slid back the shutter of the dark lantern and saw the police-lieutenant kneeling beside the fallen man; the yellow lantern-rays fell over the Moor, writhing in convulsion on the ground.

"I had to strike him," exclaimed Desgrez regretfully. "He was at my throat! I fear he is dying."

"A pity," remarked Captain Dechamps, falling on one knee. "Now very likely we shall never know who he is."

He tried to lift up the dying man, and as he did so the turban fell off, disclosing that the Moor's black hair was attached to it and revealing him as a European; the stains that made the brown complexion ended where the turban had pressed the brow.

"A disguise!" exclaimed Desgrez.

"Let him be, he is dying," said Dechamps. "Fellow, do you care to speak? Is there anything you wish to say?"

The fallen man shook his head, at the same time giving a ghastly smile, and turning over on to his face gasped out his last breaths on the grass.

"What of the others?" asked Captain Dechamps rising.

"Two have been captured, two killed," Desgrez reported, after he had passed his lamp round the group of men. "They were taken by surprise and disarmed. It was not a very difficult business. But I am sorry I have killed this ruffian, who seems the leader."

"There is another prisoner!" exclaimed Solange, coming for ward. "Oh, Charles, if ever a prayer was answered, surely mine was just now!"

With an incoherent cry her husband took her in his arms. "You must thank Rollo for this," he said as the great hound fawned on them both.

"Madame Desgrez!" exclaimed Captain Dechamps. "The dog led us very well after all."

"These men made me a prisoner, there is a room underneath the chapel," gasped Solange quickly. "There is a woman down there. I thrust her down just now. She was about to fire her pistol. It is your Mademoiselle des Oeillets, Charles."

"Then we need not regret the death of that scoundrel," said Captain Dechamps. "Let us make haste, she may do herself some mischief down there."

"She is a wild, lost soul," said Solange. "I think probably she will tell you everything. She was taking some kind of drug that sends her into a half-sleep and a half-frenzy."

"Perhaps she has locked the door on the inside," exclaimed Desgrez; but this was not the case, for a small-sized door beside the stone buttress opened, and Desgrez and Dechamps, hastening down the dark stairs, found Mlle. des Oeillets seated again at the table, holding in her pale fingers the milk-coloured glass.

She looked at them insolently, sleepily. The room was full of acrid smoke and a foul stench. During the few moments she had been down there she had been employed in burning various substances on the smouldering coal of the banked-down furnace.

Captain Dechamps put the Englishwoman, who refused to say a word, in charge of Lieutenant Desgrez, whilst he made a thorough search of the vault. There was little to be found beyond the boar hanging up by its hind-legs and the various apparatus for coining, distilling and chemical experiments. All the papers that had been on the table had been cast on to the fire by Mlle. des Oeillets; acid, too, had been sprinkled over the pages of the books so that it was almost impossible to decipher any of them.

"She should have been watched sooner," said Desgrez bitterly.

The Englishwoman laughed in his face. "The less you know of this business, it will be the better for you, young man."

Captain Dechamps gave his further orders:

"Let the prisoners and the bodies be taken to Versailles and as quickly as possible. There we will find a wagon to convey them to Paris. I wish as little noise to be made of this as possible. This is a coiners' den and, I take it, a poisoners' distillery. It is not safe for anyone to remain here. I will seal up the door and set a guard on it."

When the two men and their prisoner again reached the upper air, Solange, though half-fainting from exhaustion and excitement, drew her husband aside and told him that she had most important information to give to Captain Dechamps before he departed for Versailles with the prisoners.

"I must go with them, darling. But what are we to do with you?"

"Madame Desgrez will come with us," said Dechamps. "She cannot remain here and I have no escort to send with her, I cannot even spare you. I do not know what number of the gang there may be in the woods. We cannot, after all, take the corpses with us." As he spoke he turned, and gripping Mlle. des Oeillets by the wrists, demanded fiercely: "Who is that man?—that supposed Moor or Negro?"

The Englishwoman broke into crazy laughter, throwing her head back and showing her prominent teeth. "It is the Comte de Saint-Maurice," she shrieked, "the Comte de Saint-Maurice! You have killed the Plenipotentiary from Savoy! Now get out of that, if you can!"


13. — THE CHIEF OF POLICE MAKES A DECISION

After Desgrez had given M. de La Reynie an account of Solange's adventure and the extraordinarily important discovery she had made at the summer-house in the grounds of the Villa Malcontenta, the Chief of Police remarked quietly:

"Your wife is a brave woman, Monsieur Desgrez. She shall be rewarded. I hope you have her now in a place of safety."

"I have sent her to the convent at Claves—I did not consider her safe even in Dechamps' house."

"You have done wisely. The convent is triple walled, and yet—" M. de La Reynie gave a wry smile, "it could not long contain Mademoiselle de Fontanges. That is where she was in retreat, and you have heard that she is now at Versailles?"

"Yes, I am sorry about it, Monsieur."

"Sorry? Well, I don't know—it's the way the world goes round. She will be the King's mistress; and made a Duchess, and given a fortune, and she will drive in a coach with six horses."

"She will not be happy. One can see that she is not the kind of woman to enjoy those tarnished honours."

"Maybe, maybe," replied the Chief of Police wearily.

"Besides, I think—I don't know," said Desgrez, "but I do think that she is frightened. I saw her once, I remember, it seems so long ago, but it was only last winter, driving through the streets of Paris. She splashed my wife's dress and gave her a bracelet—it was just at the beginning of this affair. I thought her gentle, kind, courteous—"

"She is all that, but foolish. She is the ghost of the King's real love," smiled La Reynie. "Well, she must work out her destiny like the rest of us. But why should you think she is afraid?"

"Perhaps she guesses, Monsieur, what we know—that Madame de Montespan is resolved to remove her."

There was a silence between the two men, and the Chief of Police looked grimly down at the desk in front of him.

"I do not like to use the words 'I dare not'," he said. "Yet I think there are no others that apply here. I dare not tell the King what we have discovered about Madame de Montespan."

Desgrez knew that La Reynie did not speak from any personal fear, for there was no blemish in his courage.

"For what reason, then, Monsieur, dare you not tell the King that we have discovered Madame de Montespan to be a sorceress capable of murder?"

"He has lived with her for twelve years, they have several children, whom he has made legitimate Princes of the Blood—he has not, perhaps, loved her, who can judge?—but she has been his Queen of the Left Hand, set up by him above all other women. He would not believe me," added M. de La Reynie simply. "He has an unspeakable horror of such things—he would believe that I, you, your wife, Dechamps, all of us, were in a conspiracy to slander the favourite—and we should go, as so many others have gone, that have dared to say a word against her."

After a pause he added sadly: "We have, you see, no proof."

"That is true," said Desgrez. "There is only my wife's word. The King would not be likely to take that against Madame de Montespan's—she must be, by now, an accomplished liar. Perhaps," he added, "you yourself, Monsieur, do not believe that what Solange says is true? You think, perhaps, it was an hallucination born of the thunderstorm, her fright when she was lost?"

"No," replied the Chief of Police gravely, "because La Voisin herself has confessed she has been for years in the employment of Madame de Montespan."

"Well, then," exclaimed Desgrez eagerly, "will not that convince the King?"

"The word of a woman like that, a sorceress, a poisoner, an abortionist, a creature from the slums of Paris? No!"

"Yet His Majesty was ready to credit that other great ladies were guilty, that M. de Luxembourg was guilty. Is he so infatuated with Madame de Montespan that he will not hear a word against her?"

"His pride," said M. de La Reynie, "his pride. Never would he admit that he had been deceived, vilely deceived by such a woman—and for years."

"What then, Monsieur," demanded Desgrez, "do you intend to do?"

Without bravado, but rather with the air of a man greatly fatigued, M. de La Reynie replied: "My duty, Lieutenant Desgrez. I shall put the dossier containing the examination of Catherine La Voisin before M. Colbert. He, I do not doubt, will put it before the King, and the result will be—" he smiled grimly, "we shall be ordered to send the woman to instant execution—and Madame de Montespan will shine more brightly in her lover's eyes as she has shone before after attempts to remove her."

He rose, at which Desgrez instantly also go to his feet. "Monsieur, may I ask one thing? What of Mademoiselle de Fontanges?"

"What of her?" repeated the Chief of Police, eyeing his subordinate intently.

"Do you not think, on your conscience, on your honour, Monsieur, that we should try to save her? It is undoubted that there is a plot against her life—that is the kernel of all this business we have been fumbling with for months, a plot against the life of that unhappy young girl, against the life of the King."

"The King will be warned—we can do no more. He will refuse to believe—I think you will find that we, you and I, and everyone else involved in this warning, shall lose our positions—we may be sent to the dungeons here in the Bastille. As I read the King, he will be glad to do this service for Madame de Montespan in order to balance his infidelity with Mademoiselle de Fontanges."

"It is intolerable," exclaimed Desgrez, "that we should lose everything, our work, our position, perhaps our lives, for the gratification of this woman—and is she to be left to work further mischief?"

"I do not know what else we can do, Colbert himself may fall if he tries to cross her."

M. de La Reynie took a pace or two across the room; the window-space where the clerks usually worked was empty. He paused there in the big bow and looked out at the late summer sunshine gleaming over the bleak walls of the Bastille. "We have this for our comfort, Desgrez," he said seriously. "As far as I can understand, the net has been flung wide, and all her tools and accomplices are in prison."

"Saint-Maurice is dead—and all his secrets with him, Monsieur," said Desgrez with regret, "I see that the manner of his death was skilfully hushed up."

"M. Colbert wished it to be so—he did not even tell the King, he knew that he would not hear any scandal that might touch the name of the Princess of Savoy. You see what we work against," and M. de La Reynie shrugged his shoulders. "You saw the sumptuous and public funeral that Saint-Maurice had; he was supposed to have died from a sudden ague."

"Is it so easy," exclaimed Desgrez, "to buy so many people—doctors, lackeys, priests?"

"In Paris," replied M. de La Reynie, "anything may be bought for money."

He added in a more businesslike tone: "The two coiners, whom I take to be but mean underlings, I am charging with their offence. That is public—they are brutish, sullen fellows who have refused to answer any questions. As for this Englishwoman, this Mademoiselle des Oeillets, now that she is deprived of her drugs, she lies in an unconscious condition. It seems that she used to be in the service of Madame de Montespan, who long ago rented the Villa Malcontenta at Cagny to retire there when she had quarrelled with His Majesty. It was in this spot, La Voisin declares, in the stables there, that the Black Mass was frequently held. Mademoiselle des Oeillets, La Voisin also confesses, left the service of Madame de Montespan some years ago and was believed to have returned to England—she came now and then on visits to Versailles. It is clear that she has been the go-between for Madame de Montespan and La Voisin."

"We get so far!" exclaimed Desgrez in exasperation, "and yet, Monsieur, we never get to the end!"

"We never shall," replied M. de La Reynie. "The case is too obscure, too mysterious, too far-reaching. We might sit here examining prisoners for years and still never get to the bottom of it. All these people lie, contradict one another, create a con fusion by sheer malice, or sheer stupidity. Even the sight of the torture chamber, the fear of the wheel or the stake only frightens them into fresh lies. There have been now seventy-five executions—and where are we? What we know has been discovered by chance, partly by your exertions and the courage of your wife. I have," he added, "to keep as clear a head as possible. This, I think, is all we can do. Madame de Montespan must be frightened, must be warned—she wouldn't dare, I believe, to attempt either the life of the King or that of Mademoiselle de Fontanges—I cannot believe that she has any tools, accomplices at liberty. She would not like to at tempt anything herself—so," he added reflectively, "Madame de Montespan, aware that La Voisin, La Voisin's daughter, and Mademoiselle des Oeillets are in prison, will, I think, hold her hand."

"And yet one can never be sure, Monsieur, with a jealous woman. Think of her—ageing, fighting hard for the power that is life to her, seeing the King fall into the hands of a younger rival!"

"I do think of it," said the Chief of Police grimly. "I shall do what I can."


14. — THE CHIEF OF POLICE IS BAFFLED

For several weeks M. de La Reynie received no answer to the dispatches that he had sent to M. Colbert. He and his sub ordinates doggedly did their duty through the autumn days that were slipping into winter; the tedious routine work of examining prisoners, collating evidence, conducting the secret trials in the Arsenal, attending executions, went on.

Madame de Bouillon was examined before the Tribunal sitting in the Arsenal and behaved with the greatest insolence. She appeared, attended by her dolt of a husband and by her arrogant lover, the Duc de Vendome, and denied all the charges against her with a careless bravado that exasperated the Chief of Police.

M. de Luxembourg, undaunted by weeks spent in his gloomy underground cell, also behaved with cynic indifference, and treated all the charges of sorcery, poisoning and blasphemy as mere childish inventions of his enemies. The scandal of keeping a man of his position in prison so long became at length intolerable to the Court, and M. de Luxembourg was offered his release from the Bastille on condition that he re tired to his estates; this he would not do, demanding an open trial, which was refused.

La Voisin proved equally obstinate: she declined to add to her confession relating to Madame de Montespan. She even took back much of this, declaring that she had lied from spite.

M. de La Reynie believed, though all evidence was to the contrary, that she must have received some message telling her to keep up her courage because a rescue was at hand, so hard and insolent had become her defiant manner—and yet her position was to all appearances hopeless: she knew that nearly a hundred of her accomplices had perished miserably and before her there was no prospect save that of the rope and the stake.

"She has received some letter," said M. de La Reynie, "from the outside. Or the Devil himself," he added in exasperation, "has in reality got into her cell to encourage her."

The Chief of Police felt dispirited; he had the truth, the ugly, tremendous truth in his hands, and he knew that he could do nothing with it. This affair of the poisoners continued to spread a fearful panic throughout France and still he could not stamp the evil out. He felt exhausted, weary, both his strength and his courage ebbing; he envied Charles Desgrez, his young attendant, and his brilliant young wife, who had each other, their common youth, their common happiness. He now had all the streets between Paris and Versailles so well policed that he considered it safe for Solange to leave the convent at Claves; she had returned to the house of Captain Dechamps, and there she had been joined by her husband, to whom the Chief of Police had given leave of absence for a few days.

The Chapel of Saint-Hubert that was over the coiners' den had been demolished and the police had taken possession of every object found there. M. de La Reynie believed that in the dead boar they had come very near to the secret of the mysterious poison. It had been suspected before that this poison was distilled from the foam falling from the jaws of an animal that had died from a dose of arsenic. It had, however, been impossible to prove this, as "Miss Pink" had made the most of the few minutes she had been shut alone in the underground room. The pan that had contained the liquid that had dropped from the dead animal's mouth had been cast on to the coals and the mouth itself smeared with ashes. Nor could La Reynie find a doctor in Paris who dared to under take the task of dissecting the animal; it was certain death, they declared, even to touch the carcass, which, dragged out from the coiners' den by iron hooks, was cast into a deep pit in the woods.

The rest of the paraphernalia in the vault was such as was necessary both to forge apparent gold and silver pieces of base metal and to perform various chemical experiments. It was possible to discern from what remained of the books over which Mlle. des Oeillets had sprinkled the acid that these were works of black magic in various languages, mostly German and English.

It was on the day that M. de La Reynie read in the Gazette, and read with an indescribable pang, of the sudden illness of the young Duchesse de Fontanges, that he received a message from Versailles. This contained a letter from M. Colbert; in it were the brief instructions that La Voisin was to be sent to instant execution and to be allowed to believe that at the last minute she might be rescued. This was only what the Chief of Police had expected—yet it filled him with bitterness. The lesser criminal was to be sacrificed and the greater to escape! The King, Colbert wrote, treated the information about Madame de Montespan as the basest slander, and he would not risk any chance of its being repeated.

"He will not face the truth," thought La Reynie as he gave the order for the execution of Catherine La Voisin. "He will not even face the bare possibility of its being true. How can I," he asked himself in despair, "do my duty? How can I root out this horror of poisoning and sorcery from Paris when I act under such a King?"

The other letter from Versailles, from M. de Louvois, added to M. de La Reynie's disappointment. The Commission sitting in the Arsenal was to be dissolved, the affair of the poisoners was to be closed, the punishment of La Voisin was to write finis at the end of this chapter. The affair, wrote Louvois, was becoming so world-wide, so pernicious in its effects on the dignity and reputation of France, that it must be at all costs hushed up.

"And secret murder," said La Reynie bitterly to himself, "it to continue! All our lives are to be held at the mercy of malice, greed, jealousy or madness!"

The Chief of Police's bitter and baffled musings were interrupted by one of his clerks who informed him that the Marchese Pignata awaited him in his ante-chamber; M. de La Reynie received his visitor with a courtesy that concealed a weary reluctance to concern himself with this young zealot who had so officiously proffered his help in the affair of the poisoners, but who, though he had taken up a good deal of the time and patience of M. de La Reynie, had never contributed anything of value to his researches.

He stood now by the fireplace on which the logs burned, for the days were becoming short and chill, and greeted the Chief of Police eagerly.

"I wanted to see you, Monsieur," he began at once, "'for I feared that you would be depressed by the dispatches from Versailles."

"You know their contents?" demanded La Reynie rather drily.

"I am in the confidence of His Majesty's spiritual advisers. I am aware of the terrible conflict that is taking place in the mind of the King," replied Pignata simply. "I know what he has suffered. I was even permitted to offer him some advice."

"And what was that?"

"I urged him to allow Madame de Montespan to be arrested and face the charges of sorcery and murder."

"By your leave, Monseigneur, that's bold advice!" exclaimed La Reynie. "The King could not, would not, sacrifice this woman."

"Did not you suggest it yourself?"

"No. I only hoped to convince the King of her guilt in order that he might banish her from Court, from public life."

"A compromise!" exclaimed Pignata contemptuously. He held his delicate hands out to the blaze of the fire. "This terrible woman ought to be punished—with great severity."

La Reynie shrugged his shoulders; the young Italian's continual platitudes annoyed him.

"Well, it is out of my hands. I have orders to send La Voisin to the scaffold, and to encourage her to hope for a rescue to the last."

"It is fitting that she should die, but first she should be put to the torture in order that she might confess."

"But it is precisely her confession that I am to prevent—"

"Her public confession, perhaps, but do you not wish, for your own satisfaction, to hear what she has to say?"

"Under torture? No, I shall probably examine her once more, in my own fashion, before her sentence is executed. Besides, I remember what even Colbert seems to have for gotten, that I have the daughter of La Voisin in prison and that she is in possession of all the secrets of her mother."

Pignata shuddered, drawing nearer to the flames.

"If I were the King of France I should root out all these abominations! I should fear nothing. Saint-Maurice should not sleep in an honoured grave."

"So, Monseigneur, you know that!"

"Did I not tell you that the King, deeply religious at heart, often confides in me?" replied Pignata with his sweet, serene look. "I know more than Colbert or Louvois—more perhaps that M. Bossuet or His Majesty's confessor. I have a certain power," he added modestly.

"Then, Monseigneur, I beg of you," said La Reynie earnestly, "try to save the King's last favourite—the Duchesse de Fontanges."

"To save her?" Pignata glanced over his shoulder. "Her soul, you mean? Ah, she will repent soon enough! And per form as long a penance as La Valhère."

"I did not mean her soul, but her life, poor child—since you know so much, Monseigneur, you must know that Madame de Montespan threatens her very existence."

"Now that all her accomplices are in jail—or dead—she would not dare—nor would she have the means."

"So I thought, but I see in the Gazette that La Fontanges is ill."

"Yes, she is believed to be fretting, she was never strong—but I shall watch, I shall do my best—though what I can do I do not know."

"Could not 'you speak to Madame de Montespan, warn her of what you know?"

"She flaunts me, despises all advice; she is sure that though the King may cease to care for her he will never believe any thing against her," Pignata made a gesture of despair.

"The Devil himself seems to support that woman!"

"Or perhaps this 'Grand Master'," suggested Pignata bitterly. "You have not come upon his tracks?"

"No."

"Well, I believe that I perhaps have. I was leaving the Louvre the other evening when a plain carriage drew up—a dwarf was driving, a pale young man something of my own complexion was inside. He let down the window and threw me a package, then the equipage drove on." Pignata paused; he seemed much agitated. "I was so amazed that I shouted after the carriage, but it was soon out of sight. I then returned to my apartment and found that the wrapping of the packet was covered with a number of horrible signs, including the inverted cross. I was about to open it when my faithful Maria Pia came in to make up the fire and snatched the package from me. I had forgotten my customary precaution of wearing gloves when touching strange objects—a faintness over came me. My old nurse threw the devilish stuff on the fire—there was an explosion, some thick foul fumes—and, God help me, I saw some hideous creatures like toads and reptiles crawling amid the flames!"

"Some of their vile drugs produce hallucinations," observed La Reynie, who was inclined to think that the overwrought young man greatly exaggerated in this wild story.

"Maybe, maybe," Pignata shuddered, and put his slender hands over his face for a second. "I am convinced," he added, struggling for composure, "that this was an attempt to poison me."

"That may well be, Monseigneur. You are well advised to take all precautions. I do myself."

Pignata sighed.

"I am convinced, also, that the young man was the 'Grand Master'—he had the face of a fiend!"

"It might be, I confess that I have found no clue. Yet some head of this vile organization there must be. It is difficult to understand his motives."

The young Italian picked up his black hat and gloves. "The motives of this villain? Those which inspire the Devil, Monsieur. Pride and love of power."

La Reynie had scarcely conducted his visitor to the gates of the Bastille when another express arrived from Versailles. The advice of Colbert had prevailed over that of Louvois and the influence of Madame de Montespan. La Voisin was not to be sent to the stake and every effort was to be made to extract confessions from all the prisoners.


PART SIX

THE BURNING OF A SORCERESS


1. — LA VOISIN IS EXAMINED

A delay of more than three months in the execution of the sentence had not resulted in the extraction of any useful in formation from either La Voisin, or her daughter, or the English woman, Mary Pink (Mlle. des Oeillets), and the complicated Court intrigues in which M. de La Reynie knew it useless to concern himself had ended in the triumph of Madame de Montespan. La Voisin was to be put beyond any possible weakening on her part; she was to be burnt publicly in Paris while her male accomplices, among whom was Adam Descourets, her lover, were to be sent to serve a life sentence in the galleys.

"Let us see now," remarked Louvois drily, "how useful her pact with Satan will prove! Perhaps he can rescue her in broad daylight from the midst of the Parisian crowds!"

As if to confirm his contempt for the rumour whispered abroad against Madame de Montespan, the King was seen frequently in the company of his haughty mistress, who could not, however, induce him to dismiss the young Duchesse de Fontanges, who was kept with secret splendour in a villa out side Versailles.

"It seems," sighed La Reynie, "as if the powers of evil have won the day."

He knew that La Voisin was being punished not because of her crimes, but because Madame de Montespan did not feel safe while she lived—he could guess at the scenes and counterscenes that had taken place before the distracted King had been brought to this decision.

The Chief of Police had no choice but instant obedience to the King and to the Ministers. He determined, however, if only for his own satisfaction, to discover as much as he could of the truth, before La Voisin paid the penalty for her crime. For this purpose, therefore, he decided to visit her, on the eve of her terrible punishment, in her cell.

Charles Desgrez accompanied him. M. de La Reynie had conceived a warm regard for this young man to whose shrewdness he owed much of the gradual unfolding of the whole affair of the poisoners.

Catherine La Voisin still occupied the bleak cell that had been her home for months. A straw pallet was in one corner, a wooden stool in another, a barred window gave, in the daytime, a gloomy light—at night there was a small lantern placed in one corner, beneath which sat the drab figure of the janitress whose wax-like face was tied in a cotton rag. The sorceress was never alone, a female jailer always sat inside, and a male jailer always outside, her cell; Desgrez had not seen her for several weeks and he felt an almost unconquerable revulsion at her appearance, as she half-sat, half-lay on her mat tress. The confinement, conflicting passions, the prison diet had reduced her person, always coarse and degraded, to one almost bestial; she had folded her hand in the dirty white kerchief of coarse linen across her bosom, a filthy cap with strings was drawn down over her ragged grey hair, her lower lip hung pendulous, her lids drooped over her pouched eyes.

As soon as she saw the two police officers, she began to mutter a stream of abuse in the language of the Paris streets. They stood silent just inside the door listening to her; there was no sense to be made out of her vile speech, which was incoherent and contradictory.

"There is no trust," said La Reynie at last, "to be placed in anything you say, Catherine La Voisin. You would accuse the King himself if you thought it would gain you another day's life or gratify your malice."

La Voisin drew her knees up to her chin and clasped her hands round them and, crouching in this unnatural position, grinned up at the two police officers.

"You are not as clever as you think you are," she sneered, dropping her witch-like abuse for a businesslike tone. "You have already told me that to-morrow I shall be taken out in a tumbril and on the Place de Grève be burned alive unless someone has the charity to order me to be strangled first."

"That is the truth. Have no more hope," said La Reynie sternly. "Remember that over a hundred people, your accomplices, your tools, or those working in the same organization as that to which you belong, have already suffered this fate."

"It will not be mine," replied the old woman wildly. "I have powers who will rescue me."

"Can you still deceive yourself on that score?" demanded the Chief of Police with disgust. "Do you not see your own condition, your miserable plight? Is it possible you are still so besotted in your vile superstition as to think that any devil or fiend will come to your aid now?"

At this La Voisin laughed so defiantly and with such an air of self-assurance that M. de La Reynie was, as he had been on this score before, considerably baffled. It certainly seemed to him that someone had conveyed assurance of help to the woman. She would not surely, if she really believed that she was going to die the most horrible of deaths to-morrow, be have like this.

Lieutenant Desgrez said in a low tone to the Chief of Police:

"Monsieur, ask her on what she founds her hope."

M. de La Reynie did so; the reply of the woman showed that she was gratified by having confused the two police officers.

"Ah! you are wondering who has got in to me here—you keep me closely guarded, do you not? I am never alone night or day, am I? How many times have you taken me out and had me examined, how many times have been led to the torture-chamber and made to look upon the rack and the pulleys and the water-jars? And still you've had nothing out of me."

"Nothing but lies," said M. de La Reynie; then he uttered the names of Madame de Montespan, Madame de Soissons and Madame de Bouillon. Catherine La Voisin laughed again; the dim yellow light of the lantern cast her pallid face with the ragged hair and untidy cap into hideous relief of light and shade; she turned and shook her fist at the jailer's wife, who, with her face bandaged because of toothache, was seated inside the door knitting indifferently.

"Ah! you would like to get something out of me now, would you not? But I have nothing to say—no, nothing! And don't you think that to-morrow you will see me reduced to ashes. I shall be rescued—aye, even if you had ten thousand archers lining the route," she added wildly, "there are powers who will come to snatch me away! As for this hag here, she can't get anything out of me either, even though she spies on me while I sleep."

"There will be nobody," said M. de La Reynie grimly, "even to hand you a drop of your own poison to put an end to your agonies to-morrow. You will be tied to the stake and burnt to ashes—these will be scattered to the four winds of Heaven, and Paris will be the purer. Come, Desgrez."

He took the arm of his subordinate and they left the cell. As they walked down the ill-lit corridors of the Bastille, Desgrez asked his Chief:

"The jailer, and the woman who sits with her, they are beyond suspicion?"

"Oh yes," replied de La Reynie wearily. "People whom I have had in my employ for years, the staunchest and most faithful in my service."

"Well," said Desgrez, "I was observing the woman who was sitting in the corner while we were talking. I did not care for her looks—an odd, rat-like face—I thought the creature might have been a boy, it is true she is ill—perhaps in pain, with that swollen, bandaged face."

"Your fancy is running away with you," smiled de La Reynie. "That was Martha Regnier. She is the wife of one of the jailers. No, no, Desgrez, Catherine La Voisin has had no communication with the outside world. No trick of that kind can have been played. She is merely deceiving herself—and that's what the King wants. I should not have said what I said to her to-night, only I thought she might have revealed something that would put us on the track of what yet remained to be discovered. You must remember we still do not know who this 'Grand Author', this 'Master' is, who is directing the whole business—if such a person exists outside Hell! I thought I could discover something from La Voisin on that score—but no!"

"I think that secret," replied Desgrez, "lies in the tomb that holds Saint-Maurice."


2. — THE WOMAN WITH THE TOOTHACHE

M. de La Reynie was forced to do what he much disliked, to play into the hands of his enemies. It was as much the intention of the King as of the poisoners that La Voisin should not confess to any crimes that implicated great names or cast any scandal upon the Court. This M. de La Reynie under stood and in a way approved; yet his instincts, both as a man and as Chief of Police, were against this closing over of an ulcerated wound, this hushing up of a network of odious crimes. He had, however, stood over one of his cleverest clerks—an expert copyist of all kinds of handwriting and a man able to remove and replace seals without breaking them—while he had written out on a scrap of paper as near as possible in colour and texture to that found in the confessional in the Jesuit church—"Fear nothing. Your friends are powerful. You will be rescued, even at the last minute. Let no secrets pass your lips."

This piece of thin paper was rolled carefully, thrust into a straw, and the straw put through an orange that was served to La Voisin with her evening meal the night before her execution.

It was with some vexation that M. de La Reynie told Desgrez of this trick. "Not that I flatter myself I could ever have got the truth out of the woman, but I might have got something on which I could have worked—but now, because of great ladies like la Montespan and la Bouillon and a few others, she is to be hushed up, and forever! Buoyed up with these false hopes, she will go smiling to the scaffold and never utter a word."

"You hold the other two women," said Desgrez eagerly, "Mlle. des Oeillets and La Voisin's daughter."

"Yes," reported the Chief of Police wearily. "But the first is so drug-sodden that she is useless for our purpose—she does nothing but rave incoherent nonsense. The second is, or affects to be, an idiot."

"Monsieur, I do not think her so idiotic," remarked Desgrez. "Let her stand to-day at the window of her prison, where she may see her mother going out in the tumbril, seated in the straw with the confessor behind her. Perhaps that will re store to her some of her wits."

"I had thought of that. The King and M. de Louvois have overlooked these two women. They are so anxious that La Voisin should not speak, they have not remembered that there are two others who possibly might open their mouths. Yes, I will do that. Both these women shall stand where they will be forced to see La Voisin going forth to the stake, where, perhaps, they will hear the shout of the crowd that greets her."

"I have something else to tell you," said Desgrez. "Listen, Monsieur. I was not satisfied with regard to that woman whose face was bound up as if she had a toothache, seated in the corner of La Voisin's cell. Your know you told me that she was Martha Regnier, the jailer's wife, and a faithful servant."

"Yes, and surely it was?"

"I did not like the look of her, she gave me a stare too blank, and this morning I took it upon myself to go to the woman Regnier's lodging, and, as I supposed, she had been bribed to give up her post on more than one occasion to this stranger, this creature whom we saw yesterday. She showed me, poor devil, in a paroxysm of remorse and fear, a bag of gold—five newly minted louts d'or—that she had been given to surrender her place to this person."

"Is it possible!" exclaimed La Reynie, amazed and humiliated. "Have you any clue, Desgrez, to discover who this creature is? Some messenger from any of the poisoners that are still at large?"

"No, I have no clue. The disguise was very carefully done. Madame Regnier knows nothing except that two men dressed as Franciscan friars brought her the money, took from her the clothes she usually wears, her keys and the password, and sent this substitute in her place. As far as I can make out, on at least three occasions, this creature—I do not know if it be man or woman, but I suspect the former—has been seated in La Voisin's cell for hours. It was quite unnecessary, Monsieur, I think," added Desgrez with a touch of respectful irony, "for you to send a message in the orange. La Voisin is already fully assured of a rescue."

"I grow weary at my task," admitted the Chief of Police, "These people are too clever for me."

"As it happens in this instance, Monsieur," replied Desgrez, with great sympathy for his over-burdened Chief, "these people have played into our hands. It was to our advantage that La Voisin should be reassured concerning her last minute rescue. By the by, Monsieur, do you think it possible that a rescue may really be undertaken?"

"No, no. Who would be concerned to rescue this wretched sorceress? She has served the turn of these people—they are only concerned that she should die without betraying them. It is strange that she trusts them."

"Perhaps," suggested Desgrez with a wry smile, "she really believes in the protection of the Devil."

The Chief of Police wrote an order for the arrest of Marthe Regnier, the jailer's wife, and closely questioned Desgrez about the two false Franciscans who had visited this wretch.

Desgrez had obtained all possible information on this point. The woman had described one monk as of medium height, slender, with features so set and stiff that he appeared to be wearing a mask under his hood, the other as being so short that he might, have been described as a dwarf; they had obtained entrance to the precincts of the Bastille because they had passed for begging friars. They seemed to know their way about the place very well, and had found just the right moment to tempt poor Marthe Regnier when she was alone in her little upper chamber.

There was, the miserable woman had declared, something fearful about the two friars and she had acceded to their wishes as much from fear as from greed.

"They were sent by Madame de Montespan without doubt," said La Reynie. "It shows that she still has willing, adroit tools at her command."

"What is she afraid of now?"

"That La Voisin will speak her name to the crowds—confessing everything out of spite."

"This messenger, then, promised her a rescue?"

"So I take it, yes."

"But, Monsieur," said Desgrez, "if Madame de Montespan still has these powerful accomplices—what of the Duchesse de Fontanges, who is still, we hear, in a languishing state?"

"There may be a hundred reasons for that illness, besides the malice of Madame de Montespan," replied the Chief of Police, but a shade of uneasiness passed over his worn face. "She has always been delicate—she must feel her position, this glittering dishonour, acutely. She is no doubt frightened—even her fanatic love for the King cannot blind her to the shame and danger of her post. I hear that she has retired from the Court to a villa the King has given her near Versailles—poor child, she has everything the world can offer, yet they say she seems to be fading daily, like a flower without water."

"Still, I suspect Madame de Montespan," whispered Desgrez, lowering his voice. Though the two were alone in one of the long corridors of the prison, he was cautious.

"I do not think she would dare, and now that the poor little rival has left the Court, how is la Montespan to find an opportunity of harming her?"

"Still, I fear her," replied M. Desgrez. "And so does Solange—she says she can never forget her meeting with la Montespan at Cagny."


3. — THE SHUTTERED HOUSE

The streets of Paris were crowded with spectators on the occasion of the punishment of La Voisin. There was in the great city a sense of relief; it was believed that this dreadful sorceress was the chief of the band of poisoners who had been lately brought to light, and it was felt that with her death, and the scattering of her ashes to the winds, a deep terror and a horrible menace would be lifted from all France. In all, nearly a hundred and fifty people had been executed for the crimes of poisoning, sorcery, infanticide and blasphemy, while more than that number of suspects had fled from France. The details of these crimes were kept from the public, who therefore invented wildly and embroidered fantastically the little that became known. The numbers of murders, the times the Black Mass had been held, the death roll of the infants used in the Satanic ritual, the high names involved, were all exaggerated. The names of the great ones who, like M. de Luxembourg, having been released from the Bastille, retired to their estates, Of of those who, like the Comtesse de Soissons, had left the country, were mouthed with delight by the gossips. But the precautions taken by the Chief of Police, in obedience to the order from the Court, had been successful, and the name of the King's powerful favourite had never been mentioned in connection with these dreadful affairs, though bitter gossip had circled as freely and maliciously around the name of many another great lady suspected of—if not punished for—sorcery, poisoning and infanticide.

Now the execution of the sentence on La Voisin was looked upon as the climax of the affair. Every window, every roof on the way from the Bastille to the Place de Grève was packed; people stood in the road and on stands erected in front of shops and doors. There was some dark expectancy that there might be an attempt at rescue, some uneasy feeling that the terrible sorceress might even now escape her fate; there was also hope that a blasphemous but fascinating display of black magic might be about to take place.

Who knew the powers of this woman? They had certainly not been sufficient to get her out of the Bastille or to prevent her from being dragged in a tumbril to the most ingnominious and horrible of deaths—yet who knew? She might have saved the supreme moment for a spectacular rescue, if not by human forces, perhaps by the cohorts of Hell.

The February day was cold, a chilly wind blew over the dark towers of Paris. The river, swollen in its banks, moved heavily, flecked by showers of rain; but this bleak weather did not prevent spectators from crowding to suffocation all along the route, round the great square where the scaffold was erected, where from the noble door of the Cathedral the grinning gargoyles looked down on the funeral pyre where the flames already burnt brightly.

It was Lieutenant Desgrez's duty to ride behind the tumbril at the head of his company of archers. The death-cart was so heavily guarded and the streets were so crowded that the gaunt white horse could proceed only at a slow walking pace. To Desgrez this long progress was horrible; he had now been present at the deaths of many criminals, but had not over come his repugnance to this elaborate ceremonial that presaged the taking of human life. He had to remind himself of that scene in the underground room at the end of the Impasse des Fleurs, the moan of the infant in the basket, the naked woman stretched on the black altar and all the abominations of the witch and her crew, before he could go through this final scene with equanimity. Desgrez thought of the row of small, hastily-made graves in the clearing of the tangled garden of the deserted house, and decided firmly that it would be better for Catherine La Voisin to pass through the purifying flames and be reduced to ashes.

The demeanour of the condemned woman on whom so many eyes were turned with looks of fear and hate showed that she was under no apprehension in regard to her safety. She bore herself, indeed, with incomparable insolence, turning with arrogant rudeness from the confessor in the cart with her, who tried to induce her to look at the crucifix he held. She wore a widow's plain dress of grey serge, with black braiding and a plain white kerchief tied under her chin; a long confinement and the privation she had undergone had added greatly to her appearance of age; she seemed twenty years older than the still buxom matron with dyed hair and painted face who had been sent to the Bastille less than a year before.

She is either, thought Desgrez, very sure of herself or extra ordinarily courageous for, riding as close as he was behind the cart, he could mark that her lips were firm, her eyes clear, that the clasped hands she kept folded in her lap did not tremble. She looked with disdain and curiosity on the crowd that, held back with difficulty by the archers who lined the road, now and then surged forward so as to bring the pro cession to a standstill. All of the spectators were hostile and many shouted vile names at the sorceress; now and then she smiled or waved her hand at someone whom she managed to pick out in the crowd, either a friend or an enemy; then her eyes, bright in their pouches of ash-coloured flesh, were lifted and she stared eagerly at the facades of the houses, the hooded porches and elegant balconies of the noble hôtels; from these, curious faces, some shrinking, some avid with curiosity and hate, gazed down upon her.

"She is wondering," thought Desgrez, "from what direction her rescue is coming."

He, too, was on the alert; he knew that nearly a thousand men would be on duty in the Place de Grève in case, indeed, there was some wild attempt to rescue the sorceress at the last moment. He shared M. de La Reynie's opinion that this would not be very likely—it was worth no one's while to at tempt so daring a deed for the sake of this abominable woman, now useless even to those who had employed her so long. Besides, how could anyone attempt a rescue without disclosing their identity and running the risk of sharing the fate of the prisoner?

"It is curious," thought Desgrez, "that she is still so confident."

He felt relieved when the dismal progress at length ended in the great square where the soldiery were massed in front of the press of the spectators. The scaffold with its hideous paraphernalia stood stark against the noble facade of the church; the flames of the funeral pyre burned brightly; the rain had been swept aside by a stiff, freshening wind and the sky showed pale and faintly blue behind the two noble towers of Notre Dame.

Desgrez took up his place with his men beneath the scaffold, already guarded by two files of soldiery. He glanced round the windows of the houses nearest the scaffold and he noticed that the second house from the Cathedral appeared to be empty, although no doubt a good price could have been obtained for the use of the windows by sightseers.

These windows, however, were shuttered, save in the case of one in the top storey. There, while Desgrez gazed, a figure appeared—a woman in a black cloak which, as no doubt it was intended, merged with the background of the room. This person wore an ordinary vizard or travelling mask and her hood was over her head. There was nothing peculiar about her appearance; Desgrez knew that there were many ladies of position and title who liked these horrible spectacles, but did not care to be seen enjoying them. It was quite likely, he thought grimly, that this was one of Madame La Voisin's former clients who, having escaped herself by reason of her high position, wished to see how the common wretch endured the torture she was about to suffer. Desgrez, however, glanced continually at the house, for it occurred to him that it was possible some attempt at rescue might be made from this quiet-looking building.

He noticed that La Voisin, as she mounted the first step of the scaffold, also turned and glanced at this house; no doubt she had been told that even at the last minute she would be rescued. Yes, it was astonishing, but her bearing showed that she believed it certain that even now, surrounded by hundreds of soldiers and a large hostile crowd, she would be rescued.

"She must, indeed, believe in the Devil," thought Desgrez with an inner shudder; the wind was bitter and stung his upturned face.

The sorceress had been allowed the privilege of strangulation before she was cast to the flames, and the executioner stood ready; robed in black, masked, with the cord in his hand, officials behind him and the priests beside him; the drums beat, then were silent; the sentence was read; the crowd was bushed in expectancy.

Even now La Voisin did not seem to lose hope; she slowly unknotted the white kerchief under her chin and, following the instructions of the executioner, turned down the neck of her bodice. All the while her small, evil eyes were travelling over the crowd, waiting perhaps for a signal, waiting for some intervention from man or devil; then her glance travelled again to that plain house with the closed shutters and to that upper window where the woman in black sat half-crouching behind the window-frame.

A deep hiss of horrid expectancy rose from the crowd as the executioner stepped forward with his cord. This sound caused Catherine La Voisin, for the first time, to falter; her courage seemed to fall from her as suddenly as the white kerchief dropped from her stiffened fingers. She looked round, saw the man, saw the rope, she looked down and saw the faces of the crowd and the gleam of the cold daylight on the iron weapons of the soldiers; she looked up again to that silent, shuttered house.

The executioner's assistant forced her down on her knees; an expression of diabolical despair distorted her hideous features; as the rope was passed round her neck, a name uttered in a gurgle of fury and hatred left her lips.

The cord was tightened so quickly that only those nearest the scaffold could hear this name: "La Montespan!"

At the same moment as the body of the sorceress was hurled to the flames, the woman at the upper window with drew into the darkness of the room, which Desgrez believed must have been hung for the purpose of concealment with black cloth.

"Madame de Montespan herself!" he thought, and a daring scheme came into his head. If that was the King's favourite who had come to make sure that her vile tool perished with out speaking, this might be a superb opportunity of trapping her, a chance, though it was the last chance of saving the life of la Fontanges, for Desgrez could not share the belief of M. de La Reynie in the impossibility of the favourite's attempting the life of the King's new love. He could not, however, leave his post until the execution was complete in all its detail, and even when the body of Catherine La Voisin had been hurled into the flames and raucous cries of exultation and relief had gone up from the crowd, the press was so great that Desgrez could only with considerable difficulty manoeuvre his horse through the excited people.

So, when, accompanied by two of his men, he reached the door of the closed house, some time had passed since he had seen the lady at the upper window. The door was locked and there was no answer to the repeated pulls he gave the wrought-iron bell handle. It was necessary, therefore, to force the door. This action on the part of the police caused a commotion among the crowd in the vicinity, and Desgrez silenced them by shouting out that he was tracking a pickpocket who had been stealing from some of the good citizens who had been watching the death of the sorceress.

Desgrez felt his heart beat high; he knew that he was doing a daring, perhaps an indiscreet thing; even if it were Madame de Montespan crouching in this mean house in the Place de Grève, it was not the wish of the King or of many other powerful people that she should be discovered. But Desgrez could not get out of his mind, perhaps out of his heart, the figure of that gentle young girl—la Fontanges. He remembered the two occasions on which he had seen her, once as she leant with an air of concern out of her heavy coach, and offered his wife the sapphire bracelet to pay for the spoiled gown, once as she knelt in terror by the death-bed of Jacquetta, the Italian maid.

He thought of her now, of all she had sacrificed for her romantic, childish love for the King—of the horrible vengeance that he was sure was slowly consuming her life. He was playing for high stakes—a dangerous game, too—but if he could find the jealous Marquise who was a client of La Voisin, he might be able to terrify her into forgoing her vengeance. He would have liked to undertake the adventure alone; he did not dare to do so; it was quite possible that Madame de Montespan, or whoever the lady might be, had several accomplices with her in the house, and to confront them alone would be merely foolhardy. Nor was it likely that either of the archers he had with him knew the King's favourite by sight or would recognize her under such unexpected circumstances.

The house was unfurnished save for a few of the heavier pieces—sideboard, chairs and table: "Someone with some money to spend must have taken it, and taken it some months ago," thought Desgrez. "The houses that overlook the place of execution command a high price."

There was no one on the ground floor; he sent his archers to the back to ascertain if there was an exit there, and alone, with his hand on his sword, went up the narrow, plain, dark staircase. He believed it most likely that the woman whom he had seen at the top window would wait until the crowd and soldiery had left the square, before she attempted to leave the house—unless, of course, there was some secret way at the back. He was, therefore, intensely disappointed when he found the two upper storeys completely empty; there were the large beds with their mattresses and hangings rolled up, there was a big Bible box (which made Desgrez suspect that the house belonged to Protestants), there were one or two bales of tapestries and blankets—nothing else.

Desgrez searched hastily, but carefully everywhere, looking in the cupboards, in the closets, and even running upstairs and searching the attics in the mansard-roof—there was no one.

"She, whoever she was, has fooled me," he thought. "There must be a way out at the back. It is impossible she should have slipped through that crowd unobserved—I had my eye on the door the whole time."

As he stood hesitating a shout from his men below caused him to hurl himself downstairs, taking two or three steps at a time. There was a back door, which led on to a small court yard, and there stood the two archers, a woman entirely dressed in black struggling in their grasp. She was cloaked, hooded and masked and was undoubtedly the same woman as Desgrez had seen at the upper window.

The archer explained that at first they had found nobody either in the courtyard at the back of the house or in the small out-building that surrounded the outdoor well, but that when one of them had gone downstairs into the cellar he had found this woman crouching there behind a wine-butt. Convinced that they had captured a notable prize, either the pick pocket herself or the accomplice of a pickpocket, they held the struggling woman firmly while they explained themselves to Lieutenant Desgrez.

"Take your hands off the lady," he said, "and allow her to explain herself."

"Surely, Monsieur," cried the woman in a voice that was hoarse with anger, "it is you that should explain yourself—this is my house, how is it you dare enter it with your men and treat me so violently?"

"We are in search of a suspected person, Madame. We have the King's warrant to enter where we will. If you are innocent take off that vizard and explain your business. Tell me how it was that you were crouching in the cellar of your house, instead of confronting us as you would have done if you had been innocent?"

The lady seemed baffled by this bold address.

"I refuse to declare my identity," she answered, and her voice, which was low, harsh and oddly attractive, faltered a little. "I appeal to your gallantry, your chivalry, Monsieur. There are occasions when it is not to a lady's advantage to disclose herself."

"Do not try to put me off, Madame," replied Desgrez sternly, "by feigning a love intrigue. I know you are here for another reason. I saw you looking from the window when La Voisin was strangled half an hour or so ago. I saw you, Madame, put your finger to your lips as she raised her eyes to you."

At this the lady drew back, setting her tall majestic figure against the door that led into the courtyard.

"What do you want of me?" she said; her hand went to her bosom, and through the folds of the black cloak, which was of some fine woollen material, Desgrez saw the glitter of a remarkable cluster of diamonds.

"Not a bribe," he remarked harshly. "But I have no doubt we can come to some bargain."

"Bargain! You bargain with me!" replied the stranger with indescribable haughtiness.

Desgrez was inflamed by her tone and said grimly:

"Remember, Madame, that it is in my power to have your vizard taken from your face. I have no doubt that I should recognize you."

"Your pardon," said the lady, who seemed overcome by weakness; she drooped against the dirty stone wall of the pas sage. "I feel faint—you will excuse me—let me have at least a little air."

"Go into the courtyard, Madame, and take what air you wish."

Desgrez motioned to his men to accompany the lady. She stepped into the courtyard and, as if half-unconscious from faintness, sank down on to the stone rim of the well on which stood a bucket.

"Very well," she sighed in feeble tones. "I am in your power, and if you wish to bargain with me I must submit. But, Monsieur, you are a gentleman, send away these two men. Do not have me exposed before them."

"I dare not, Madame," replied Desgrez. "I have seen too much this last year in Paris to trust anyone."

"But you see how helpless I am! Indeed, I feel ill! Do you think it is pleasant to see another woman strangled? My God, her eyes, her face—she began to scream, too, I think, as she felt the rope round her neck."

"She did not scream—she uttered a name, one that should be familiar to you, though perhaps it did not come to your ears, Madame."

"Allow me," whispered the lady in an even fainter voice, "to smell my vinaigrette."

She pulled off her long black gloves and Desgrez remarked that her ringless hands were white and well kept; but they was already beginning to show the faint curdle of middle-age in the smooth skin. He was watching her carefully, sure that she was looking for an opportunity of fooling him, but she did indeed take the vinaigrette from a châtelaine at her waist. It was a long bottle of pink glass covered with filigree silver, with a stopper shaped like a tulip, he noticed.

Still swaying, as if from extreme weakness, on the edge of the well, the lady with a slow movement uncorked the bottle and raised it to her nostrils under the black lace frill of her vizard. Then, with a movement of incredible swiftness, she rose, dashed the contents—a strong-smelling perfumed spirit—in the face of Desgrez, and was gone with a quickness almost unbelievable in one of her majestic stature through a side door in the courtyard.

The men were after her instantly, but she had locked the door in their faces, and when Desgrez, feeling humiliated and foolish, had dashed the stinging perfume out of his eyes, he saw them struggling in vain at the closed door. But one of them had a trophy of considerable value; he had clutched at the flying lady and snatched from her bosom the knot of diamonds that Desgrez had seen gleaming under her cloak.

"I should never have listened to her plea for fresh air, I should never have allowed her to come out here."

Desgrez felt bitterly cheated. He stared at the diamonds in his hand; these were attached to a knot of blue ribbon, the colour of the cordon bleu; he saw that they were inter laced initials—A. L.

"Well, that is better than nothing," he sighed as he put them in his pocket.

When the two archers had broken down the door in the corridor they found themselves in an empty passage, one of the small, tortuous alleys that twisted among the ancient houses in the île de cité; there was no one in sight. Desgrez saw the pursuit was hopeless; the woman certainly had her accomplices waiting for her with a sedan chair, possibly a coach or even a hackney carriage; it was impossible to know even what direction she had taken. He returned to the Bastille with the cluster of diamonds carefully concealed in the inner pocket of his jacket.


4. — THE WITCH'S DAUGHTER CONFESSES

M. de La Reynie found the expedient of placing his two remaining prisoners where they could see La Voisin being driven forth to her hideous death highly successful. The Englishwoman had fallen into a succession of fits and, despite the cares of a doctor, seemed now beyond hope. But this mattered little to the Chief of Police, for the other prisoner, the younger La Voisin, had dropped all her affectations of idiocy and falling on her knees, had declared in a loud, clear voice that she would confess to the least detail all the transactions she had taken part in. She declared that she had been her mother's right hand from the very beginning of the affair, that she knew all her mother's clients and that she had been present at all the Black Masses both in Paris and Cagny where Madame de Montespan had invoked infernal aid, first to secure, then to keep the affection and passion of Louis de Bourbon.

M. de La Reynie sat up all night with two clerks taking down the deposition of Mlle. La Voisin; he had taken it upon himself to promise her life; she would not be allowed to remain in France, she might be imprisoned in some island off the coast, she might be exiled, but he could promise her her life, and that she would not have to face torture if she would tell him without reserve all she knew. He did not doubt her sincerity; she dropped all her theatrical airs and all her well-assumed affectations and proved to be a woman of some sense, completely unscrupulous in character, callous to the last degree, and, until the moment when she had seen her mother being taken in the cart to the Place de Grève, of an implacable courage.

She spoke clearly and sensibly; her story fitted together and on many points she was able to offer evidence. What she said coincided with the depositions taken from other prisoners of which she had not heard, and of which she could not be aware. On only one point was she obdurate; she declared that she did not know the identity of the "Grand Author" or "Grand Master", the head of this infernal organization.

M. de La Reynie, after examining this woman for hours, came exhausted and stern-faced into his office. The first pale, ghastly light was falling over Paris and streaming faintly into the room where Desgrez waited for his Chief. M. de La Reynie called for coffee, and when one of the clerks who were on duty at night brought this—it was always kept ready on a pan of charcoal—he drank it eagerly, cup after cup.

Desgrez shook his head; he had already had his breakfast and some sleep. He related to M. de La Reynie the scene that had taken place on the Place de Grève and his own attempt, which had only just failed, to seize the woman whom he believed to be Madame de Montespan; and he put on the Chief of Police's desk the cluster of diamonds twisted into the shape of an A and an L.

"It was she," agreed M. de La Reynie sternly. "I have the whole story now complete."

"And, Monsieur, what are you going to do with it?" demanded Desgrez. "Is this to be hushed up?"

"No, I think it is a question of a woman's life. From what I can hear, you were right. La Fontanges is doomed, the other woman does intend to remove her."

"The King—is the King to be told?" asked Desgrez.

"I shall go to Versailles at once. Though I feel that I can scarcely keep my head up from fatigue, it is my duty to go. She, this poor young Duchess, is languishing—and whether the King loves her or whether he has merely used her as his toy, he surely will wish to save her."

"But will he believe you?" exclaimed Desgrez. "You have always told me that not a word against Madame de Montes pan will be credited."

"That is true enough," said M. de La Reynie wearily. "But I must try. I shall go to M. Colbert. I shall ignore M. de Louvois, who is her ally, and if M. Colbert permits me, I shall myself tell the King what I have heard to-night from the lips of Catherine La Voisin's daughter."


5. — THE KING HEARS FOR HIMSELF

When later in that day M. de La Reynie entered Versailles, a weary man leaning back on the cushions of his modest coach, his equipage had to stand back while another far more sumptuous passed it. This was drawn by six grey horses harnessed in azure leather and caparisoned in tassels of blue wool and scarlet silk. On top of this ornate coach was an elaborate coronet, and a sumptuous coat of arms adorned the panels. M. de La Reynie glanced through the window and saw within, leaning back on the blue cushions, the woman whom he knew as la Fontanges—now the youngest Duchess in France and the King's last mistress. Her hands were clasped on her lap, where her pet monkey lay asleep, her eyes were closed, her face was pale—she looked as pallid as a hot-house flower. "She is dying," thought M. de La Reynie with a pang of remorse. In a small room in the vast palace of Versailles, far from the sumptuous galleries and stately salons, M. de La Reynie spoke with M. Colbert, showed him papers, explained them briefly, gave an account of what he had heard from the daughter of La Voisin.

The Minister made notes of this conversation, took the papers from the Chief of Police, put them into his portfolio and waited on the King, entering His Majesty's apartments immediately before the elaborate ceremonial of supper.

That night the courtiers were not received by His Majesty, who sent out a message by his chamberlain that he was indisposed and would keep his rooms. It was seldom that one so rigid in the matter of etiquette as Louis XIV broke his own rules, anti the withdrawal of the King from all his familiar observances and customs caused much comment and whisper among the courtiers. It was commonly believed that he was greatly disturbed by the sudden relapse of la Fontanges, who had lately been much recovered in her health.

There was no one, however, who came near to guessing the real cause of the King's withdrawal from his Court, and no one save M. Colbert, M. de La Reynie and the King's faithful valet knew that His Majesty, in the plainest of clothes and wearing, contrary to his custom, a black peruke over his own chestnut hair, had left the vast château by a side door and had driven in La Reynie's coach, as quickly as fresh horses could contrive, to Paris.

The Chief of Police was allowed through the gates without any questioning, and the plainly dressed gentleman in the shadow of the coach passed for one of his assistants. When they arrived at the Bastille it was the middle of the night, a cool wind blowing, the glow of cold moonlight falling over the roofs and towers of Paris.

M. de La Reynie sent for Lieutenant Desgrez and, drawing him aside, hastily explained the position to him:

"The King has been told by M. Colbert of our discovery. He is utterly overwhelmed, and yet, even now, he will not believe. He has come here to listen himself to this woman."

"Here, himself!" whispered Desgrez. "His Majesty in the Bastille!"

"Aye, for the first, and, as I suppose, the last time. But nothing else will satisfy him. M. Colbert told me that his sufferings are terrible—he has been struck cruelly on his tenderest spot, his pride, and perhaps his affection for this woman."

"But," replied Charles Desgrez, "does he not understand that he is endangering the life of the young Duchess?"

"He does not, cannot, believe that. He thinks that she is sinking in a consumption. Yet he was shaken when he re called that the Duchesse de Fontanges had received from Madame de Montespan a pair of Italian gloves, a box of English lace, a bouquet of hot-house flowers and several other trifles. She has affected, you see, a complete reconciliation with, and friendship for, her rival."

"There still may," said Desgrez, "be nothing in it."

"I do not think so," said M. de La Reynie sternly. "My hope is to save that young woman, the last victim of the poisoners. It is hardly possible that the King will not be convinced by what he hears to-night. I want you." he added, "to be present. There is no one else on whom I can so completely rely. You will take the place of a clerk and will remain in a corner, taking down as rapidly as you can what passes. You will, of course, pretend to be entirely ignorant of the identity of the King."

The examination of the younger La Voisin took place in her cell; there were present M. Colbert, the Chief of Police, the King and Desgrez; the prisoner knew only the identity of the two police officers—the other gentlemen were to her merely officials of the Bastille.

Desgrez could not help giving a furtive glance at the King. He felt a deep compassion for the man who must be enduring at this moment a bitter humiliation and an almost inconceivable anguish.

With a nervous signal to M. Colbert and M. de La Revnie to undertake all the business, the King took one of the straw-bottomed chairs and sat with his back against the wall, well out of the light of the one lantern that cast a gloomy illumination into the cell. His face was pale and twitching, his hands moved nervously in the plain lace of his ruffles; he looked his age and more. Desgrez wondered whether if any of his subjects were to see him now they would recognize in him their magnificent Monarch, the idol of a nation and the terror of Europe.

La Voisin, haggard and desperate, but clear and resolute in her speech, repeated all she had already told M. de La Reynie. M. Colbert cross-examined her with impartiality and skill, now and then checking facts and dates from the papers he held in his hands. The narrative that thus emerged was unassailable in its grim truth. La Voisin declared that Madame de Montespan had come to her mother for a love philtre some twelve years ago, before the King had even looked at her, that it was by the means of these potions that she had drawn His Majesty's affection from Louise de Vallière to herself. She declared that during these years when Madame de Montespan had ruled as Queen of the Left-Nand she had been in constant touch with Catherine La Voisin, who had supplied her with drugs to keep the King faithful to her every time that there had been a weakening in his infatuation—when, for instance, he had left to join the armies in Flanders, Madame de Montespan, in despair at either his absence or his coldness, had resorted to Catherine La Voisin, and there had been in the stables of the villa at Cagny or in the ruined house in the Impasse des Fleurs in Paris or in some other obscure spot, a celebration of the Black Mass at which Madame de Montespan had not hesitated to perform the most revolting and detestable rites. She had permitted, on her behalf, infanticide—the sacrifice of a new-born infant whose blood, as an offering to the Infernal Powers, had been poured upon her nude body, which had served as altar.

La Voisin also confessed that when the King had first turned his attention to Mademoiselle de Fontanges, Madame de Montespan had again resorted to these black arts. This time they had not been successful, and the young woman swore that she had heard the displaced favourite ask Madame La Voisin not for a love charm but for some poison which should destroy both la Fontanges and the King.

"You say," suggested M. de La Reynie deliberately, not looking at the man who sat in the shadow beyond the lantern light, but glancing for a second at the pale, lined face of M. Colbert, "that Madame de Montespan desired to encompass the death of the King."

"Indeed, that is so. It was before our arrest that she first made the suggestion. She said that she would not live to be supplanted, to retire to a convent. She declared that the King should go. One suggestion was that he should he handed a petition when he was driving from Versailles, and that this should be impregnated with arsenic. But she always declared that she would see la Fontanges die first, that the King was to endure that suffering."

At these words Louis made a sudden movement, then, as Colbert glanced at him, drew back into the shadow again, putting his hands in front of his face.

"Why was it that your mother did not reveal any of these horrors?"

"Because," replied the young woman, "she was promised, even to the last, that she should he rescued. She believed that the Master had the power to do this. She did not think that Madame de Montespan would allow her to die. Her hopes were raised when a messenger arrived, taking the place of the jailer's wife and sitting with her all day. She told me this when we were allowed to meet just before she was taken away for her sentence to be executed."

"And this messenger," asked La Reynie keenly, "did you know who he was?"

"No, I did not. My mother did not tell me. I do not know who the Grand Author is, I swear to you—I should swear as much with the rack and the pulleys in front of me. I should swear as much were I at the stake—I do not know."

"It is possible," said M. de La Reynie calmly. "I have promised you your life, that you shall not be tortured. Now, I have one thing more to ask you. As far as I know, all the conspirators in this horrible business have been arrested and most of them have been put to death. How then would it be possible for Madame de Montespan to implement her designs without any help?"

"She will do it herself," said La Voisin. "I see, Monsieur, that you do not know this woman. Nothing would stop her once her fury was roused."

Again the King made a movement of distress, and Colbert spoke hastily:

"Do you mean that Madame de Montespan, would, by her own means, her own hands, as it were, poison her rival?"

"Yes, she would. She would even risk detection. She knows that the King will not dare to touch her—even if he came to loathe her, the scandal would be too horrible. Besides, I think that if she could avenge herself, she would die willingly."

"Where," asked M. de La Reynie, "would she get the poison? It used, I take it, to be manufactured in the coiners' den beneath the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the park at Cagny?"

"Mademoiselle des Oeillets conveyed to Madame de Montespan a large portion of the sublimate of arsenic shortly before her arrest. She was the go-between, why don't you question her? There was a dwarf, too, who seemed to know everything."

"But you—have you told everything? We are dealing with coinage, murder, blasphemy, all these atrocities! The only expiation that you can make—a miserable one—is to reveal all that you know."

"Question me," replied the woman with a sullen, exhausted air. "Ask what you will."

The Minister glanced at the King and asked in a low voice:

"What is your pleasure, Monsieur?"

There was a moment's silence in the dark cell, then, with a half sigh, the King spoke.

"Yes, I have some questions to ask. Woman, answer me honestly. If I detect you in a lie, M. de La Reynie's promise will be withdrawn, and you shall suffer the proper punishment for a witch."

Trembling before this tone of authority, La Voisin clasped her hands and swore to speak the truth.

"Then," said the King, speaking slowly, "do you know anything of the death of the Duke of Savoy?"

"He was poisoned by his wife, Marie de Nemours, and her lover, Saint-Maurice. They were helped by Delmas (or Roussel), the Duke's body-servant, and Rose, a laundry-girl my mother trained."

"Why did the Duchess send her lover—after this murder—to France?"

"Because she found another. They quarrelled. She paid Saint-Maurice—all of us—to keep quiet. Saint-Maurice ran a coining factory—we had agents to pass the money into Spain and Flanders, but he was very extravagant. My mother introduced him to la Montespan. He was the only one amongst us that knew how to get the truly effective poison, the mixture of Exili and Glazer. He set up several women in Paris to sell the stuff—La Bosse among them. My mother's lover, Adam Descourets, used to act as agent for Saint-Maurice."

"Where in the first instance did the poison come from?"

"Italy as we supposed, but we never knew. Saint-Maurice kept that secret. I am not sure if even he knew who the Grand Master was."

The King gave a faint groan, and bit his under-lip.

"It is incredible!" he exclaimed, "that all this was taking place in Paris and no one knew!"

"A large number of people knew, Monsieur," replied La Voisin with a sneer. "It was because of that that the secret was kept—it was in the interest of so many to be discreet!"

Controlling himself with an effort, the King asked:

"This—trade—was so well organised, so well established that poisons, charms, drugs could be obtained freely and infanticide and abortion were almost openly practised?"

"Yes," the prisoner grinned. "No doubt you would be surprised, Monsieur, at the names of some of the great ones who made pacts with Satan—why hardly a Captain went to the wars who did not come to us for a charm to render him bullet proof."

"So!" exclaimed the King with an impatient movement. "Well, witch, I have a mind to order you, after all, a turn of the rack. I believe that you do know who this Grand Master, this arch-villain, is."

"No! No! I swear! No one knows! Not even la Montespan!"

"There must be an intermediary."

"It was a dwarf."

"Bah, there are hundreds of these little monsters in Paris!"

"On my soul—"

"Your soul," interrupted the King in great agitation, "that is due to the Devil—lost, damned. La Reynie," he turned to the Chief of Police, "I feel stifled in here—the air is really foul with evil."

"You wish this examination to be concluded, Monsieur?" asked the Chief of Police.

The King glanced at Colbert and then said heavily: "No." Bracing himself, he turned again to the prisoner and asked harshly:

"Have you ever seen the Devil or any of his fiends?" The prisoner gave a wild laugh.

"How do I know? The Masses were ugly enough—one was always intoxicated. I've seen things."

The King leant forward and clutched Colbert's wrist.

"Young Innocenzo Pignata told me he had seen vile reptiles in the fire after he had burned a packet given him by a stranger who was driven by a dwarf."

"Pignata is a zealot," replied Colbert. "He's a fanatic."

"He is pious and devoted to God," said the King uneasily. "He may have a clear vision for these abominations! He saw La Voisin driven through Paris—he told me he saw her familiars crouching in the straw of the cart." Louis shuddered violently. "He fainted on the balcony of the Hôtel de Sully."

"He ought to be in a monastery where his vision could be controlled," remarked Colbert.

The King's panic was checked by this comment. He turned to the prisoner and demanded in tones of sharp authority:

"You have no suspicion of the identity of this Grand Master—no clue?"

"None. I have declared as much again and again. Why do you contrive to torture me?"

"You were present at these unspeakable ceremonies—in which Madame de Montespan took part?" whispered the King.

"Yes—many times."

"Who were the celebrants?"

"Guibourg and Davout."

"Both since strangled at the stake," put in La Reynie. "What was the object of Madame de Montespan's attendance at these ceremonies?"

"I have said. To awaken and retain the passion of the King for herself. My mother continually gave her love-philtres with which she dosed the King. She kept him drugged for years."

Louis put his hand to his face, then asked quietly:

"What do you know of the murder of Jacquetta Malipiero?"

"The usual story!" sneered the prisoner. "Her father was in the pay of Saint-Maurice and tried to employ the girl to dose the food of la Fontanges, when she aroused the jealousy of la Montespan."

"Ah, that!"

"Precisely, that! Besides Jacquetta had a lover, she would never tell his name—she said he lived in the Louvre, and that he was as beautiful as an angel! An angel! My God!"

"Why was she murdered?" demanded the King fiercely.

"She had to get rid of her child, and we wanted one for the Mass—but it was difficult to get her consent. She knew too much. So her father got rid of her and invented the attack in the orangery. How much more do you want to know?"

"Have you any idea who this miserable creature's lover may have been?"

"No. We always thought it was the Saint-Richard who was the lover of Madame de Poulaillon. Perhaps the Grand Master in person amusing himself with his disciples!"

"Was this Saint-Richard ever found?" demanded the King of M. de La Reynie.

"No, Monsieur. The name was, I think, assumed."

The King rose; Desgrez noticed that he had to clutch the back of his chair to support himself.

"Enough," he muttered. "Enough," and he turned to leave the cell. With a frenzied cry the prisoner hurled herself for ward, shrieking:

"Remember your promise! Remember!"

"It shall be remembered," replied M. de La Reynie, with upraised hand. The four men passed into the corridor, and the Chief of Police slipped the bolts of the cell door.

"She must not be released," whispered the King. "Ten years at least in Sainte-Marguerite, until this—horror—has been forgotten."

"If she made public, Sire, what she has told us to-night, she would not be believed," said Colbert. "Does Your Majesty wish to leave now?"

"No. I want to see Mademoiselle des Oeillets."

"Sire!" protested La Reynie, "she is in a shocking state—the lack of her drugs has reduced her to semi-idiocy."

"I must see her. I knew her—she was Madame de Montes pan's attendant."

Reluctantly La Reynie led the way to the quarters of the fortress where the sick prisoners were kept and, leaving Colbert and Desgrez on the threshold, conducted the King into the room where the Englishwoman passed her existence between raving frenzy and torpor.

She lay on a bed half concealed by blue and white check curtains, a serge coverlet over her body; a nun sat at her Breviary by the table in the corner, the cell, if bleak, was clean and warmed by a stove well filled with billets of wood. Motioning to the sister to remain still, the King crossed the room, pulled aside the cheap curtains, and stared down into the puffy, distorted face of Mary Pink.

She opened her swollen eyes and blinked up for a second at the haggard man gazing at her in the gloomy light of the oil lamp, then, with a maniac shriek, she sprang to a sitting position.

"Ah! Louis de Bourbon! How often has your name been written on the black wafer and sprinkled with the blood of the murdered infant!"

The King stepped back, letting the curtains fall, and lifted his hands to his eyes.


6. — THE DIAMONDS

The Chief of Police led the way to his office, and there he and Colbert remained standing while the King sank into the worn leather chair at the desk.

"Poisoned!" he exclaimed, "and for years!—kept bemused, crazed, sick with her filthy drugs."

He raised his hand and let it fall over the pile of papers in front of him. It was clear to the two men who watched him that he could scarcely command himself. "And yet," he added obstinately, "still I do not believe! How can I tell whether that sorceress was not lying? The Englishwoman was clearly lunatic."

"It is possible, Sire," replied M. de La Reynie quietly, "that she is lying. I have but one other piece of evidence to put before Your Majesty." He related briefly the incident that had taken place on the occasion of the execution of the sentence upon Catherine La Voisin, when Desgrez had seen a woman watching from the apparently empty house in the Place de Grève.

"That lady, who pretended she was some aristocrat engaged in an amorous intrigue, escaped by a trick—not, however, before one of the archers had clutched this from her dress."

M. de La Reynie put on the desk in front of the King the interlaced diamonds that formed the initials A. and L. "Those who meddle in witchcraft, Sire, like to wear diamonds, which are supposed to have the property of protecting them from the power of Satan."

After a half-glance at the King's face, the two men turned aside and walked to the window place, leaving Louis de Bourbon without anyone to pry on his agony of distress and shame.

He picked up the flashing jewels and crushed them in his hands until the setting pierced his flesh; he remembered when he had given them to her—the day of the great fête in Versailles when her beauty, her brilliance and her amusing tongue had won him from the woman whom he had truly loved—Louise de La Vallière.

He had had the jewels set for Madame de Montespan some weeks before the festival, and yet had hesitated whether or not to give her this token of love, for she had not before then greatly fascinated him, he had not liked her violent temper, her arrogant airs.

It was useless now to think of these things; he had been united to a sorceress, perhaps to a murderess—all that he held abominable and dreadful had been united to him by the tenderest, most passionate of ties; for her sake he had sacrificed Louise, for her sake he was sacrificing another woman. With greater terror and misery than he had ever felt in his triumphant life, he thought of the young woman whom he had lately created a Duchess, whom he had seen sick and languishing in the splendid villa he had given her close to his own castle—who had told him in the glades of Cagny: "I am afraid!"

He put the diamonds in his pocket and rose. "M. de La Reynie," he whispered hoarsely.

The Chief of Police came forward.

"Should Your Majesty require any more evidence, I have it. There are letters, there are papers that were found in the last residence of La Voisin in the rue Beauregard—the paper that was found in the confessional of the Jesuit Church in the rue Saint-Antoine has been traced to this Mademoiselle des Oeillets. It seems, even then, there was a plot against your Majesty's life. This Englishwoman had begun at that period to take drugs, she was not a trustworthy agent of these abominable designs, and in a fit of remorse entered the confessional, where she dropped this paper."

The King did not seem to listen; he was staring down at the desk, on which were the neat piles of police dossiers.

"I do not desire," he said under his breath, "to hear any more. I wish to return, instantly, to Versailles."

M. Colbert went up to his master, to the man whom he had served so loyally and brilliantly for so long; the King took his arm; he staggered a little as he turned to the door, and the Minister said:

"Would not Your Majesty stay in Paris for one night? It could all be contrived so that no suspicion was aroused."

"Not for one night," replied the King. "I have an urgent duty to perform."

"And so have I," sighed M. de La Reynie as the door closed upon the two. "I have nearly cleared up this affair, but I in tend to find out who this Grand Author is."

He touched his bell for Desgrez, who was waiting outside, and when the young man came in, spoke to him with weary resolution.

"Desgrez, the King is convinced at last. I hope in time to save la Fontanges."

"He suffered horribly, Monsieur. I actually pitied him. I pitied the King of France!"

"You had good cause. He is a most unhappy man, most humiliated. Besides, he is getting old. They say that he turns more and more to la Maintenon, the pious governess of his children by this wretched woman."

"I hope that she can comfort him now."

"She will do her best," smiled La Reynie. "She has been waiting a long time. It is odd that while la Montespan has gone to such lengths to rid herself of possible rivals, she has never noticed that menace on her own hearth."

The Chief of Police sighed and yawned.

"Tell them to make some coffee, Desgrez, plenty of strong coffee. Sit down. Keep me company a little while."

Desgrez obeyed, asking, "Is this affair really at an end, Monsieur?"

"It is to be closed. The King will deal with la Montespan. The Commission sitting at the Arsenal is to be dismissed. All the records of the different examinations and trials are to be destroyed. The public is to be reassured that all is over—the sorcerers and poisoners all rooted out."

"But I regret, Monsieur, that we cannot find this infernal Grand Master!"

"I intend to find him," replied La Revnie, eagerly drinking his coffee. "See this, Desgrez, that was flung into my carriage to-day, wrapped round a stone."

"By a dwarf?"

"By an old woman wearing a high bonnet—read it." Desgrez unfolded the scrap of plain white paper on which was written in a neat script:

"Congratulations. M. le Lieutenant de Police! You have done very well! But I think that the winning card remains with me. You have certainly broken up my organization, but you have not discovered my identity. You are, after all, slightly stupid! Grubbing along at your routine work you have no conception of real greatness, courage, genius! Do you think that I who have dared so much will now resign myself to oblivion? You cannot understand my motives. You do not realize the joy it is to be God and Satan in one—to destroy for the love of destruction, for lust or greed or ambition, as one wishes! You cannot understand the superb sense of power it gives me to walk modestly, unnoticed, perhaps despised, and to know that I have power even over Kings! I could have removed you before—though it is true that you took great precautions—but I spared you because it amused me to pit my wits against yours. But I shall no longer hold my hand. Unless you get me—soon—I shall get you.

"(Signed) The Great Author."

"The letter of a madman!" exclaimed Desgrez.

"Perhaps. I have noticed many crazy anonymous letters since this affair began. Yet, I don't know. You see, at the bottom, the inverted cross, the black three-cornered wafer. In any case I shall take up the challenge."

"How, Monsieur?" asked Desgrez keenly. "Have you any clue?"

"None!" smiled La Reynie, rising. "Come, let us get some fresh air, my head aches."

The two men went to the round window and, opening the shutters, looked silently over the darkling mass of Paris, silent beneath the starless sky. Charles Desgrez thought with joy of Solange.


PART SEVEN

THUNDERBOLT IN OLYMPUS


1. — THE KING'S LAST LOVE

Without sleep, with no more refreshment than a cup of coffee, merely changing his disguise for a plain riding costume, the King left Versailles an hour or so after he had reached it, and in the early morning drove over to the mansion where he had installed the young Duchesse de Fontanges.

He found the household astir and in some commotion. The illness of the Duchess had reached a crisis; there were two doctors at her bedside; a messenger had already put foot in the stirrup with the intention of riding to Versailles to tell the King the sad condition of his mistress.

Louis put aside all the women and pages and, mounting briskly the gilt staircase, made his way to the chamber where the young woman lay. Restless and unhappy as she was, she had not been to bed that night, but had lain during all the weary dark hours on a couch in front of the wood fire that a dwarf in her liveries kept tended. This little creature, who was no more than four feet high, and a young girl who was her mistress's favourite, were the only people in the room besides the doctors, who, quite at a loss, were standing by the couch on which their patient lay.

Brocade cushions adorned with armorial designs in gilt braid were piled under the frail fair head of the Duchesse de Fontanges. She had complained, between her fits of fever and convulsions, of intense cold. Her weeping female attendant declared that her feet already felt like ice—over her, there fore, were draped two cloaks, one of fox fur, one of ermine, gifts from the King.

When Louis entered the room she tried to raise her head, but fell back, smiling faintly. The King was deeply shocked by the change in her; he threw himself on his knees by her side and seized her hands in his, stammering in an incoherent passion that was more remorse and fury than love. But this the young woman did not know; in that moment she believed that her romantic passion was returned, and even in the feebleness of her agony, she smiled. Her face, pale as the chill petals of a winter rose, was flushed with joy.

"Sire," she murmured, and her voice was so faint and uncertain that the King could scarcely catch the word, "I knew I could not live. You remember I told you that day in the park by the well, when I left the cloister to meet you. I knew that my sin was to be punished, but the priest tells me that perhaps I have expiated everything."

The King bent his head on her hands; he could not speak.

"Do not be distressed," she murmured. "If I had lived, I should not have come back to you. Think of me kindly. I have not been, save for this, a great sinner."

"You shall not die," cried Louis harshly, suddenly looking up. "I will have all the physicians in France, in Europe, here to cure you. Why should you die? You are so young."

"I am twenty years of age," replied the Duchess. "I have seen the graves of those who have died younger." She turned her face in the pillows, her talk distracted by a spasm of agony.

The King called to the two doctors, who stood fearful and hesitant at the back of the room.

"What is her disease?" he demanded. "How is it that you cannot cure or relieve her?"

"It is beyond our arts, Sire," said the elder of the physicians. "We have used all resources."

"Don't speak to them—let them go," murmured the dying woman. "Let us be alone. I do not regret—no, I regret nothing."

She twisted on the cushions; she tried to raise her head as if she offered her lips to the King, then fell back in horrible convulsions.

The King, who never could endure the sight of death, covered his eyes with his hands and fell back against the tapestried wall as the attendant and the doctors rushed for ward. Only the dwarf in his livery of green and gold remained impassive by the fire, on which he placed, delicately using steel tongs, small billets of aromatic wood.

Louis crept away from the death chamber, he had not the courage to watch her die. He sat unnoticed in the ante-chamber while the women and the doctors went to and fro with water, napkins, surgical instruments—they were opening a vein, he supposed—how useless!

He had seen death on the grey face that had turned such piteous looks of love towards him; and he had never loved her, only taken her to put between himself and loneliness, tedium and fear of old age.

Never again; this was his last love, his last mistress—the sorceress would have to go. He shuddered, then thought with grateful relief of the serene face, the cold piety of Madame de Maintenon, who had often soothed his remorse, given him good advice, comforted his boredom. Perhaps she could advise him even in this crisis; how was he to punish the sorceress—perhaps the murderess?

He rose uncertainly as the bedroom door opened.

"Is she—?" he stammered.

"The young Duchess is dead, Sire," replied the scared doctor.

"From what cause?"

"I do not know, Sire. But the symptoms seem to suggest poison."


2. — THE PUNISHMENT OP MADAME DE MONTESPAN

The King commanded an autopsy to be immediately per formed upon the body of the Duchesse de Fontanges. It was, he declared to the doctors, the most important thing in the world for him to know how she had died.

Taking upon himself what he had never taken before, the details of his own private business, the King examined the principal members of the dead woman's household. They ware Most of them of his own appointing and well-known to him. The little attendant whom the young Duchess had lately taken into favour was beyond suspicion; she was an orphan girl from a convent, and had been adopted by the lonely, sad young favourite because she reminded her of the dead Jacquetta.

The King then asked what had become of the gifts that Madame de Montespan had sent to the Duchesse de Fontanges. He declared that he wished to take them with him back to Versailles—a souvenir from the dead woman. He then learnt that all these articles—some gloves, some flowers—had disappeared. The chamberwomen declared that they had al ways considered it curious that soon after Madame de Montes pan had sent a gift—and she had sent many during the illness of Mlle. de Fontanges—it could not be found, even a few hours afterwards. When asked who had been the messenger who had brought these presents, the chamberwomen replied that it was the dwarf that His Majesty might have noticed making the fire in their mistress's bedchamber.

The King had not noticed this monstrosity; he was too used to coloured slaves, dwarfs and such creatures in all the chambers he entered; but as the women spoke it occurred to him that here was the link. The dwarf was no doubt in Madame de Montespan's pay. Sick with fury, but maintaining an outward coolness, he ordered the creature to be brought before him. It was too late; the dwarf, who was an Italian of the name of Grimaldi, and who had been in the young Duchess's service for only a few weeks, had disappeared.

The King ordered the creature to be tracked and taken. Disguising his purpose, though with an effort, he said:

"No doubt the little monster is overcome with grief for his mistress. I wish to have him consoled and rewarded for his faithfulness to her No doubt Madame de Montespan will take him into her service."

But to himself the stricken man said: "Too late! Too late! I would not believe, I would not be warned! Now it is too late! They have destroyed her, almost they have destroyed me."

He put his hand on the knot of diamonds in his pocket: "A and L"...how often had those two names been muttered together before the ghastly altar at which obscene rites were celebrated.

"Poisoned! And for years!" He shuddered as he sank back against the cushions of his coach. Well, now he understood his headaches, his drowsiness, those attacks of sickness and giddiness that had so puzzled his physicians. The woman had been filling him with filthy drugs—and for years, for years.

The King stayed his hand and kept to his apartments on pretence of sickness until he received the result of the autopsy on the Duchesse de Fontanges. When this arrived, he glanced at it, put it in his pocket, and went at once to the apartments of Madame de Montespan, which, sumptuous as those of the Queen, occupied almost one of the entire wings of the château. His mistress was not there; she had driven out early that morning and her women did not know when she would return; they cowered before him, frightened by his face.

"I will wait," he said, but he remained in the ante-chamber, refusing to enter those apartments where he had spent so many hours with Madame de Montespan. The women fled and called the governess, Madame de Maintenon, who soon entered the antechamber. She was a quiet widow nearly forty-six years of age, virtuous, discreet, always cool and able to offer good advice.

The King saw her with a strange relief; there was some thing both consoling and refreshing in her staid, demure presence after the horrors which still beat in his heart and brain. He had known her for years, for she had always been present when he had come to see his children, whom she tended with the care their mother never showed them. He had learnt to value her good sense, her piety, her regular and decorous life. He asked her now with the abrupt freedom used towards an old friend:

"Do you know a dwarf, an Italian who goes by the name of Grimaldi—who used to go between Madame de Montespan and Mademoiselle de Fontanges with gifts?"

"Yes, Sire," replied the widow. "There was such a one. He was formerly, but not for very long, in the household of Madame de Montespan. I believe he came originally from Italy, but he used to be in the employ of the Comtesse de Soissons."

"The Duchesse de Fontanges is dead," said Louis harshly. The governess made an exclamation of pity, and the King continued: "The dwarf has disappeared. I hold here the result of the autopsy on the Duchesse de Fontanges."

"I did not know she was dead," faltered the governess. "Poor lady! Poor child! I fear that she suffered."

"I had the news of her death kept back until I had this report. She died, Madame de Maintenon, of poisoning."

"Ah, poisoning!" The widow's hands rose in a gesture of despair and fell again. "This terrible matter of poisoning comes so close to Your Majesty, then!"

"So close indeed," said the King. In the fury of his distress he turned to this trustworthy counsellor, scarcely realizing the tremendous step he was taking in making her thus his confidante. "What would you do if you discovered one whom you had trusted all your life—no, for years—what am I saying—"

"Sire," interrupted the widow in the most passionate, yet most respectful of tones, "Sire, let me speak for you. If one were to discover that a person whom one had honoured and loved and trusted was guilty of unspeakable infamy—"

"Yes," whispered the King, "unspeakable infamy—such as sorcery or murder."

"Sire," said Madame de Maintenon with great dignity and composure. "Almighty God will punish the wicked. Such crimes as these must be answered for to God, and to God alone."

The King, always superstitious and intensely religious, blanched before these words, and stepped back, put out his hand and touched the black marble mantelpiece, above which a tall mirror reflected his haggard, distorted face.

"I too, am to blame," he said. "I, too."

"Sire," replied the widow undaunted, "that is true. Has not the Church long endeavoured to induce Your Majesty to break your connections with these women, which are against the laws of God and of man?"

There was no other person in the world except the quiet governess from whom the King would have taken these words. It was not the first time that Madame de Maintenon had spoken to him frankly of his failings, and he never felt any resentment at her courageous reproaches. He crossed himself now, murmuring under his breath:

"My fault! My fault! Tell me what I am to do?"

His head was bowed on his hands and a curious, triumphant smile passed over the smooth features of the widow as she gazed over at the bent head and bowed shoulders of the greatest man in Europe.

"He ages," she thought. "He grows afraid of God. He has found her out at last. La Fontanges was his last love. I shall have him when he is old, burnt out, dull and pious, but I shall never be his mistress—only, if the Queen dies, I might be his wife."

Aloud she said in her still, demure voice: "Do not gratify your enemies in Europe, Sire, by making a scandal of this horrible affair. Let the whole thing be ignored, let it be believed that this unhappy young lady died of consumption. Hush it all up. Bid M. de La Reynie destroy all the records he has made of this affair of the poisoners. After a decent lapse of years, allow those people of high position who have been accused to return to France or to their estates."

"Yes," whispered the King, "yes," meek and eager as the child at his mother's knee, thankful to have the burden of the terrible decision taken from his mind. "But what of her? You do not know what I know."

"I do not wish to, Sire," said the widow, raising her gentle hands. "But I can guess. I have been her close companion for years."

"But you never spoke, you never warned me."

"Sire," smiled Madame de Maintenon. "When a man is infatuated with a woman, it is useless for another woman to speak. I have waited. I think perhaps the time has come."

In her mind she thought: "My time has come."

"Should she not be punished?" asked the King.

"Sire, have I not said that she will be in the hands of God? Believe me, the rest of her life will be a hell. Yes, she shall be punished," added the widow reflectively. "Let Your Majesty leave her the semblance of her position so that the world is deceived. Let Your Majesty even visit her to keep up the pretence—but let Your Majesty never see her alone, never address her a kind word. Let Your Majesty's every look and glance, save those few formal ones you exchange in public, express your implacable hate, your undying revenge."

The King smiled faintly. This scheme suited his temperament and his circumstances; it saved his pride in the face of the world, and, he was quick to see, it did indeed inflict terrible punishment upon the proud vindictive woman whom he now loathed and feared.

"See her alone! Nay, I could never see her alone!" he exclaimed.

"There will be no need. Sire," said the other woman, keeping the triumphant smile from her charming mouth. "I should always be present. I do not think she will long endure that life. She will of herself retire from the Court and enter a convent—where," added the widow demurely, "no doubt her penitence will save her soul."

"It shall be," said the King, incredibly relieved that the affair had been arranged so cleverly for him, "exactly as you say. You shall have everything in her establishment, the children, the authority, the money. She will have only the outward semblance."

"I hope, Sire, I shall be worthy of this great trust, this great honour." The widow dropped a curtsey and kissed the King's hand, soothing his deeply wounded vanity by this graceful humility, while she thought: "Is it possible? I have won at last, after all these years of patient waiting." She was amazed at the sudden manner in which the prize had fallen into her lap.


3. — LA MONTESPAN'S PUNISHMENT

As soon as Madame de Montespan heard of the death of the Duchesse de Fontanges, she had, in a state of indescribable agitation, left her apartments and gone to wander in the woods of the great park of Versailles. There alone she had communed with her tormented soul; no remorse touched her she was glad that she had, despite the handicap of having most of her accomplices either dead or in prison, been able to wreak her vengeance upon the young woman who had dared to try to steal her Royal lover; nor did she hesitate in her further design of removing the King himself should he refuse to return to her enchantments.

Her pacing to and fro beneath the trees was merely to gain control and courage for this last effort. In her eyes the King had but one chance of life, and that was to admit her once and forever as his mistress—and this in the full sense of the word.

Madame de Montespan wanted to be not merely a Royal favourite, but absolute ruler of the King, of his life, his actions, his thoughts and all his tendencies. She had not altogether relinquished a wild hope of becoming the wife of Louis de Bourbon when his effaced and sickly Queen should die.

In spite of the grim fact that neither Catherine La Voisin nor any of her associates had been able to save themselves from death, Madame de Montespan did not altogether disbelieve in the powers of black magic—whatever might have happened to others she felt that she had been miraculously protected. Throughout the long and elaborate investigations into the affair of the poisoners, no finger of suspicion had been pointed at her, and, as it were, under the very eyes of the police who were most concerned in bringing the poisoners to justice, she had been able to destroy the King's mistress.

"If," thought the pitiless woman, "La Voisin was strangled and flung to the flames, it must have been because the Devil forsook her—if all those others came to miserable ends, it must have been because they made some mistake in their spells. But, as for me, I am protected."

Yet Madame de Montespan's superstition cut both ways.

She believed in God as ardently as she believed in the Devil, and still trusted that a time might come when she would be in a worldly sense so safe that she could forsake the worship of Satan and return with an acceptable penitence to God. For this end she intended to force the priests to give her absolution.

Feeling serene, sure of herself, satisfied with the horrible death of her rival, Madame de Montespan returned to her apartments at Versailles. As usual, disdainful of ceremony, she went alone through the corridors of the great château, swinging her fan, which hung by a gold chain at her wrist, carelessly, and looking with the arrogance that made her so detested at all who passed her. "Yes, some of them ran after la Fontanges," she thought, "but now they would all willingly fawn on me. They see that it is not safe for anyone to affect to be my rival."

Now that she had disposed of the young Duchess, her mind, which had been entirely occupied by this affair, re turned to Madame de Maintenon, the meek governess of her children—a poor relation of hers, a meek, useful woman, almost a drudge, one whom it was ridiculous to think of in any way as a rival—and yet one who had become a little too prominent in Madame de Montespan's domestic life.

She had discovered the King rather too often in quiet conversation with the widow; not that there was any harm in that, they talked only of the children and such-like dull matters.

"Yet I feel sure," thought Madame de Montespan with her fingers on the handle of the door leading to her antechamber, "that it is time she went. I will have someone even older and uglier to look after the children. She is too stupid to be an intriguer, too plain-featured to be feared—and yet I have had quite enough of her."

She stepped into the antechamber and found herself to her surprise in the presence of the King and of the woman who had just been in her thoughts. There was something in the looks and attitudes of these two people that impressed Madame de Montespan very unpleasantly. She closed the door and set her back against it, and her eyes narrowed.

Madame de Maintenon was leaning against the harpsichord that occupied one corner of the room, looking down with a curious air on the King, who, seated on a low chair, had his face in his hands.

"Has she dared to console him for the death of la Fontanges!" thought Madame de Montespan; she was about to speak, and to speak vehemently, when the other woman raised her head and the smile on her thin lips was such as to keep even the imperious favourite silent. At that second the King looked up, saw who had entered, and sprang to his feet.

"Sorceress, poisoner," he said under his breath, holding his heart.

"You are mad," cried Madame de Montespan. "See me alone, send that woman away."

"I shall never see you alone, Madame—for the sake of France, for the sake of our children, you will keep the semblance of your position as long as you can endure to do so. When you leave my Court, it will be of your own free will—but never shall I see you alone."

"Send away that woman," repeated Madame de Montespan, livid with fury.

The King cast down on the floor between them the knot of diamonds that were twisted into an A and an L.

"These were given to me by the Paris police," he said. "You know from whom they were taken, and where."

Madame de Montespan only repeated: "Send away that woman," and threw herself on her knees before the King.

"Never," said Louis. "She never shall be sent away. I shall never speak to you except in her presence. It is useless to implore me, do not touch me, not so much as the hem of my coat."

"Is this possible?" moaned Madame de Montespan, "is it possible?"

"Last night," replied the King, "I listened as Catherine La Voisin's daughter was being examined by M. de La Reynie and M. Colbert in the Bastille. I spoke to your tool, the Englishwoman. This morning I was present at the death-bed of the Duchesse de Fontanges. There is no more to be said."

He passed her without looking down at the frantic woman and left the room.

As the door closed Madame de Montespan sprang to her feet and turned in a vindictive fury on the governess, pouring out a torrent of half-incoherent words.

"It is useless," said the widow smiling demurely, "quite useless, Madame. I am here by the King's orders—and by the King's orders I shall remain."


4. — PEARLS FOR SOLANGE

M. de La Reynie told Desgrez that he had had orders from the King to release Mlle. des Oeillets on the condition that she returned instantly to England. She had once been in the service of Lady Castlemaine and it was through the instance of the English Ambassador that she had been granted this favour.

"But," said M. de La Reynie, "she will obviously be of no use to anyone. I think her wits have gone, she is no more than a drooling idiot."

"And what about the other woman, La Voisin?" asked Desgrez.

"I promised she should not be harmed, and I must keep my word," replied the Chief of Police with a wry face. "Though I do not like to set such a vile creature free to work more mischief. However, I think she has had a severe fright, and she probably will be quiet—at least for a while. I shall set her over the frontier. She says she knows where to go and has some means."

"No doubt she has all the plunder that her mother hid," said Desgrez.

"Let her keep it," replied the Chief of Police. "We have cleaned up France as well as we can. The Commission is dismissed, the records destroyed, and my work is at an end—or almost at an end."

"You still intend to try to discover who the Grand Author is? A pity that we have not been able to trace this dwarf, who was, no doubt, the intermediary between Madame de Montespan and the unfortunate young Duchess."

"No, and yet it should not be difficult to trace a dwarf. He must be a conspicuous figure anywhere. I have made enquiries and found there was some such dwarf in the service of Saint-Maurice when he was at the Court of Turin."

"There is another person we never traced," said Desgrez, "and that is the man who disguised himself as a jailer's wife. I always think of him as the woman with the toothache."

"No doubt there are many of these people still about. We know that those great ones who have fled France had a hand in the business, but they may not be touched. Still, we have done what we can. With the death of La Voisin, the panic seems to have lifted a little from Paris—people breathe more easily, smile more readily, trust one another again." M. de La Reynie drew towards him from under the papers on his desk a case of red leather. "This came from Versailles to-day," he said. "It was sent through M. de Colbert—it comes from Madame de Maintenon. It is for your wife."

"For Solange—" exclaimed the young lieutenant, flushing deeply.

"Yes, His Majesty heard of what she had done. Madame de Maintenon, too, feels grateful. She said, Colbert told me, that she would not send diamonds, or yet sapphires—they have, in this affair, sad associations. But these I think Madame Desgrez may accept, and wear—contentedly."

He opened the red leather case and showed a necklace and hair ornament of pearls of the finest lustre.

"I do not like to take them," said Desgrez uneasily. "I do not wish Solange to have any reward out of this affair. I am sorry that she mingled in it, I wish she had not been used as an instrument, even though it was to bring evil to justice."

"You must take them—Madame has this way of doing things—she will be all-powerful now. The King intends promotion, reward for you, too—but you must wait a while, he does not wish anything conspicuous at the moment."

Desgrez felt his heart swell with triumph. He was young, ambitious, eager to succeed, eager to show his wife and his wife's relations that he was something more than a humble agent of police, and in his simple gratification he forgot the swift horrors of the affair of the poisoners. He had succeeded, and by valiant and honest means. The older man looked at him with a certain sad sympathy; for him there was no reward, no triumph. The whole affair was to be hushed up and the archives that would contain the evidence of the honest, pains taking industry and patience of M. de La Reynie were to be destroyed. He, the Chief of Police, had earned little for him self beyond an almost universal hatred.

"Of course," the wits had said, "the fact that M. de La Reynie lives is a proof there are no more poisoners in Paris."

"One thing, Monsieur," said Desgrez, standing before his melancholy Chief, "I should like to understand—how much does His Majesty know? Madame de Maintenon sends this handsome gift to Solange and the King talks of awards of promotion for me, he was present at the examination of the young La Voisin, and yet—and yet—Madame de Montespan appears to enjoy all her former favour. The King even visits her, her children are not taken from her, not a word is breathed against her."

"Perhaps not," said La Reynie, glancing up with a half-smile at the young man. "But for all that, believe me, she is punished. Happier la Vallière in the convent, happier la Fontanges in her tomb than la Montespan in her apartments in Versailles. The King, too, is punished," added the Chief of Police in a lower voice. "No more light loves for him—he's turned to piety, and to Madame de Maintenon, who is a most virtuous woman."

Desgrez picked up the King's gift and put the case in his pocket. "I am pleased, honoured and flattered that Solange should have these pearls," he said uneasily. "And yet—and yet—"

"You cannot hold them blessed," smiled La Reynie. "Do not think of that, let your wife wear them with a light heart."

"They are too rich," said the young man. "Solange is not a woman for such splendid ornaments. We will perhaps sell them or put them by." He added: "I should like to find before this affair is finally closed the dwarf and the woman with tooth ache."

"Certainly, if you think you can obtain any more information from her. There are certainly some matters I should like cleared up. My life has been threatened again in an anonymous letter in the same handwriting, marked with the same symbols. Not that I attach much importance to that—but, unless they are the work of a jester, these letters show that one of these criminals is still active."

"Cannot something more be extracted from this La Voisin woman before she is released?"

La Reynie shrugged his shoulders.

"You were present when the King examined her, I think she told all she knew—as for the dwarf, as His Majesty him self said—there are so many of these little monsters in Paris!"

"Just as there are so many Negroes—that is why Saint-Maurice took that disguise."

"But, Desgrez, no one could disguise himself as a dwarf!"

"No, Monsieur, but a dwarf would be a very useful go between—a creature easily insinuated into a luxurious house hold. And this creature is cunning and skilful as they so often are. With your permission I will question La Voisin once more."

"As you please, Desgrez," smiled the Chief of Police. "Do not forget to give Madame de Maintenon's pearls to your wife—and she can wear them without disgrace—they come from a very virtuous source!"

When the Chief of Police was alone, he sat musing for a while. He was fatigued, not wholly satisfied with the result of his year's labours on the case of the poisoners. He had seen Madame de Montespan driving furiously through the narrow streets of Paris in full state, the knot of diamonds twisted into an L on her breast; but he had noted her stony face, her glittering eyes, her compressed lips, and he had seen Madame de Maintenon, placid, serene, smiling beside her. La Reynie believed that la Fontanges was avenged.

Not even the iron nerve, the icy courage that had been able to confront the powers of Hell could withstand such a punishment. La Reynie knew that before long la Montespan would fly from the grim mockery of her position and seek by abject penitence to appease the Heaven she had so foully outraged.

The Chief of Police rose and went into the inner room where he kept all the books on magic, the dossiers of the affair of the poisoning and the collection of curious and repulsive objects found in the houses, dens and lairs of the suspects.

Nearly two hundred people had gone to public death for this black business, as many more had fled the country. The distorted faces of the men and women who had been driven in the tumbrils through Paris passed before the mind of La Reynie—Davout, Guibourg, the renegade priests, Malipiero, who had murdered his daughter, Descourets, the lover of La Voisin, the coiner's skilful workmen, Dr. Rabel, clever physician—one after another they had nerved themselves for the rope, the wheel, the stake—the hisses of the furious crowds.

La Reynie thought of La Bosse, swallowing broken glass, of Madame de Poulaillon, dying from the poisoned bouquet, of Jacquetta sacrificed to a rascal lover, a vile father, of la Fontanges, the victim of infernal jealousy, of the English woman known as Mlle. des Oeillets reduced to imbecility through drugs, of Saint-Maurice, slain miserably in his de grading disguise...

With a sigh the Chief of Police returned to his cabinet, the various dossiers of the affairs in his hand—the examinations of M. de Luxembourg, of Madame de Bouillon, the evidence against Madame de Soissons, the Duc de Vendôme, the Princesse de Tingry—against a dozen other great ones.

Slowly La Reynie tore these papers across and threw them into the sinking fire. There were others, equally compromising to the dignity of the aristocracy of France, that would have to be destroyed, but to-night he was tired; he contented him self with locking up what remained of the dossiers relating to l'affaire des poisons.


5. — WHO WAS SAINT-RICHARD?

Desgrez found La Voisin's daughter ready enough to talk; even willing to search her memory for any details she might have forgotten till now. She was that most dangerous type of woman, the completely pliable. She had become a criminal because her mother was one, and she found herself in the company of criminals; while even indirectly under the influence of her mother she had remained staunch to her old associates. Since her mother's death she had come completely under the influence of the police and was now as resolute to speak as she once had been obstinately silent; she was also frantically grateful for her release and promised, with facile sincerity, to lead a reformed life.

Desgrez found, however, to his disappointment, that she knew very little. She had seen the dwarf, or a dwarf, as she had declared, before at several of the meetings held at Saint Maurice's house in Passy or in the other places where the conspirators gathered to celebrate the Black Mass; but for some while she had lost sight of him She still maintained that she did not know who the messenger was who had come in disguise as the jailer's wife with the toothache. The only scraps of information that Desgrez gathered from the wretched woman that were of the least use to him were these:

This dwarf, who had been seen at these meetings and whom La Voisin had never heard named Grimaldi, but some times Trictrac and sometimes Des Rues, at times disguised himself as an old woman selling ballads. La Voisin had known him, under this assumed character, to lodge in a certain shop that sold rags and old clothes in the Impasse de l'Enfer, which was not far from the hôtel of the Ambassador of Savoy and the shop of the Italian apothecary. She had been sent there once or twice in the old days by her mother, and she had seen the dwarf, whose disguise, she declared, was perfect, in company with a tall, dark young man who she was told was Saint-Richard, the missing lover of Madame de Poulaillon, and who might possibly, she thought, be the person who had penetrated into the Bastille in the disguise of a jailer's wife. Saint-Richard looked like an Italian, declared La Voisin, and was undoubtedly in the plot.

"Saint-Richard!" exclaimed Desgrez. "Yes, we never traced him—you say that he was the companion of this dwarf."

"Yes," grinned La Voisin, "and the lover of Jacquetta as well as of Madame de Poulaillon—he was a black-hearted man, without pity."

"Jacquetta Malipiero said that her lover resided in the Louvre."

"Well, Monsieur, may not Saint-Richard have lived there? Many hundreds of people do—and Saint-Richard was not, of course, his name. Perhaps that was one reason why she was put out of the way—she had discovered this villain's identity."

"But if this man was in some good employment he would not need to have ruined a tradesman's wife and robbed her husband."

"Ah," laughed La Voisin's daughter. "He liked mischief for its own sake, he was malicious, callous and always ready to take money from anyone."

"Can you recall his appearance?"

"I did not see him very often—he came sometimes to our house in the rue Beauregard. He used to wear different coloured perukes and masks, he was not very tall and had a swarthy complexion. I have seen many southern Italians like that."

"And since the police began to investigate this affair he has disappeared completely?"

"Monsieur," replied the woman eagerly, "I swear to you that I had not seen him for several months before my arrest! But my mother told me that she thought that the woman with the toothache was Saint-Richard. That was why she was so comforted, she had great faith in his powers, she felt sure that she would be rescued."

"You must all believe in the Devil!" exclaimed Desgrez contemptuously. "Who else could have rescued your mother from the midst of the police, the soldiers, the crowd?"

"Ah, well," replied the woman sullenly. "Some of us thought that Saint-Richard was the Devil, and who knows?"

The young police officer watched La Voisin's daughter enter the plain coach that was to convey her, under strong escort, to the Spanish frontier, and then stood thoughtfully, fondling the pearls for Solange that lay in his pocket.

A dwarf disguised as an old woman, who kept a rag shop in the Impasse de l'Enfer!

The clue was so vague that it scarcely seemed worth investigating, but Desgrez resolved to put the information, for what it was worth, before La Reynie. He recalled the suicide discovered at Lille—that had been thought to be Saint-Richard. There had, however, been no proof of the dead man's identity, and the wretch, whoever he was, might have been sacrificed in the interests of his master.


6. — THE RUBY RING

Desgrez went to see La Reynie at his private house, for the Chief of Police had not been for some days past at his bureau in the Bastille, where he had worked so continuously for the last year.

La Reynie was not alone; the Marchese Pignata sat opposite to him, resting his elegantly gloved hands on a long, tasselled cane. He greeted Desgrez courteously, reminding him of their meeting in the Louvre.

"I have come to take leave of M. de La Reynie," he said. "I am returning to Rome. There is work for me to do else where. Perhaps I shall never come to France again."

"You are satisfied with the result of your mission here?" asked the Chief of Police, civility cloaking a lack of interest.

"The King of France," replied Pignata with his grave, sweet smile, "has—despite appearances—dismissed Madame de Montespan and through the influence of la Maintenon become reconciled with Holy Church. There remains nothing further for me to do—again, my congratulations, Monsieur, on your excellent management of this abominable poisoning affair."

"I have not satisfied myself, Monseigneur."

"No? But why? Has not the whole horror been stamped out—all the criminals punished?"

La Reynie smiled.

"The case is closed. Some are punished. Some remain not only free, but unknown."

"Ah!" exclaimed Pignata with a sigh, "it is true that I never feel safe!" He pulled off his left glove and showed a magnificent ruby in a curious setting on the third finger of his shapely hand. "Now I always wear this talisman—this carbuncle protects from evil and, by darkening, warns one of danger?'

"I thought," remarked La Reynie, "that it was the diamond that had that power."

"Yes, that is true," replied Pignata gravely. "The diamond gives courage—it is the one unchangeable substance in nature and can withstand even fire, it protects against enchantment and evil."

"Therefore, no doubt, Madame de Montespan always wears them," remarked the Chief of Police drily, "but they do not seem able to deal with Madame de Maintenon."

"She—la Montespan, is an evil, worthless woman," Pignata moved his hand so that the light slipped in and out of the great ruby on his finger. "This is the stone that I prefer! So you say, Monsieur, that you believe that some of these criminals are at large still? A horrible thought!"

"What did La Voisin tell you, Desgrez?" asked the Chief of Police, turning to his subordinate.

"Practically nothing. She has really, I think, no idea who this dwarf is—or was. She reminded me that we had never found out who that Saint-Richard was, who seduced and plundered Madame de Poulaillon."

"One of the thousand and one anonymous scoundrels in Paris!" replied La Reynie, drily.

The Marchese Pignata rose.

"You really, Lieutenant Desgrez, discovered nothing from this witch?"

"No, Monseigneur."

The young Italian drew on his soft white glove that contrasted vividly with his trim black attire.

"Well, I wish you all success. I shall send you reports from Rome. I hope you are taking all precautions against these rascals?"

"Against secret poisoning? Yes, the most stringent precautions."

"Farewell. I leave to-morrow morning. Did I tell you of my misfortune? My faithful old nurse, Maria Pia, is dead—she will not see Italy again, alas!" He turned towards the door, holding his black hat with the long sable feather to his breast; then paused.

"I had forgotten—I picked this up on your threshold—a letter for you."

He turned back and, smiling, cast on the table a little packet with a black seal.

"An anonymous letter!" exclaimed La Reynie. "I get enough of them!"

"Anonymous letters!" repeated Pignata gravely. "Now I think of it, I saw, as I stepped from my carriage, a dwarf hurrying up the street."

He bowed again with his sweet smile and left the room.

The Chief of Police was about to take up the letter when Desgrez exclaimed:

"You forget your usual precautions, Monsieur! Have you no tongs?"

"Bah, these letters have never been poisoned!"

"Perhaps that was to give you confidence."

Desgrez pulled on his glove, broke the black seal and read:

"Farewell, M. le Lieutenant de Police! I believe that our accounts are now squared, and that you will, after all, die without guessing my identity."

"Nonsense, as usual," said La Reynie wearily, but Desgrez pondered over the message and replied:

"By your leave, I will take this paper to Lecoine, the chemist—or make some experiments with it myself. I also, though this seems hardly worth mentioning, intend to investigate the rag shop in the Impasse de l'Enfer."

"As you please, Desgrez, but I scarcely hope to discover anything further now."


7. — A NECKLACE FOR SOLANGE

Solange received her pearls with childlike pleasure; contrary to her young husband's expectation, she desired neither to sell nor to hoard them.

"I know they are too splendid for me, yet I can wear them with safety, for everyone will think they are imitation. Yet I would change them for the bracelet of sapphires which that poor young girl gave me."

"I could do that for you, if you wish, Solange. It would not be difficult to discover the man to whom we sold the bracelet, and buy it back again with some of these splendid pearls."

"Do that for me then, dear," said Solange, holding up her face for her husband to kiss. "I should like to keep it in memory of this strange year in Paris."

"In memory of our failure, too," said the young man rather bitterly. "I would have given a great deal to have saved her life."

"Perhaps," said Solange, smiling sadly, speaking the commonplace words with sincerity, "she is happier where she is. I do not say that idly, Charles. Her position was from the first most wretched. Yes," said the happy young wife tenderly, "I will buy her jewels back and I will sell some more of the pearls to pay for Masses for her soul at the Church of the Jesuits in the rue Saint Antoine—and that will still leave me enough to make a very fine necklace."

"There are other rewards coming our way, too, Solange. I may have a very fine position—almost any post I choose, I think, in the Paris police."

"I am glad for your sake, Charles—yet, you know, I regret the happier, secure days—I dread that we may be suddenly too successful! Never mind, I am a fool, pay no attention to me!"

He kissed her again and held her in his arms, and then ventured to tell her that he had one dangerous duty to under take; Solange was most disappointed.

"I thought this was all over!"

"How can it ever be over? It is my work, my life. I must expect at any moment the dangerous commissions."

"But you have done so much, you have been in such peril—and now, when all seems safe—"

"In this affair I shall not meddle again. I promise you that, Solange. Only this once, only to-morrow night I have persuaded M. de La Reynie to go with me to investigate a certain place where—possibly—we may find something about one of the poisoners, a certain Saint-Richard."

Solange leaned against his shoulder as he told her of the possible clue in the Impasse de l'Enfer.

"I have been there in the daytime, there is what seems to be a rag shop—it is generally shut up—but the neighbours talked of an old woman who came there at night."

Solange was only half listening; she was watching the pearls slip over her firm pretty fingers, and thinking that she would have an oyster-white frock to wear with them, but the bracelet of blue stones would give her greater pleasure, and certainly she would pay for Masses for the soul of the poor young Duchess, who had died, it was whispered, without a priest...

"Solange, you are not listening! The mice died. Yes, I took the letter that the Marchese Pignata brought in to La Reynie to Lecoine. He shut it in a cage with some mice—and they died!"

"The letter was poisoned!"

"So it seems," replied Desgrez drily. "If La Reynie had touched it with bare hands, he would have died. It was very subtly poisoned, Lecoine did not know how—it was the poison of Glazer, of Exili, of Sainte Croix. It was that that persuaded La Reynie to accompany me to-night."

Solange, sighed and glanced wistfully round her new apartment. She answered gravely. "You are right. You must do what you can, Charles. Wear your talisman and think of me. I shall stay here and pray for you—and then choose the pearls that I mean to keep."


8. — THE RAG AND BONE SHOP

When La Reynie agreed to accompany Desgrez on his investigations into the shop in the Impasse de l'Enfer, he had suggested that La Tulipe should be of the party.

"The three of us should be enough—against two, and one a dwarf. They may have assistants or accomplices, but we can not take a large number or we shall rouse suspicion. Let us not delay, as you may be sure these people will be getting out of Paris as soon as possible since they have, doubtless, heard of the release of La Voisin's daughter."

It was a still, warm night of early spring when the Chief of Police, Desgrez and La Tulipe in the plain clothes of sober citizens passed the noble facade of the Hôtel de Savoie, and made their way through the network of dark, shabby streets at the back of the mansion. They soon reached, close to a miser able wine shop, the dark alley known as the Impasse de l'Enfer.

La Tulipe, who looked the humblest of the three, entered this tavern, and after ordering a pint of claret got into conversation with the landlord, and asked him where he might find the shop of an old woman who bought disused clothes. His wife, he said, was lately dead, and the woman who nursed her had recommended this shop, then forgotten to give him the exact address. By this ruse, La Tulipe discovered that La Voisin's daughter had spoken the truth for once—there was such a rag shop and it was kept by an old woman who was looked upon, according to the wine-shop keeper, with a good deal of awe and suspicion, since she was supposed to be a witch, or at least to have witch-like qualities. She was avoided because she was secretive, morose and vile-tempered; her shop was often closed for weeks together; she sometimes wandered the country selling ballads or peddling trifles; then again, for long periods, she would be in the shop and appear to do a thriving trade in old clothes, bones and rubbish; she was suspected of selling charms.

When La Tulipe joined the other two men outside in the still, moonless night, he related his information: "This sup posed shop is where they keep all their disguises, Monsieur. It is a simple but clever expedient. One can understand that they could here, without the least difficulty, keep every manner of costume, wig, material for making themselves up, as well as different weapons and any other kind of trumpery."

"It is curious," said La Reynie, as they turned down the little dark alley, badly lit by the flickering lamp over the shrine at the corner, picking their way carefully through the filth on the cobbles. "It is strange that this affair that has led us to the very heights of Olympus, should finally bring us to a rag-picker's shop in a slum!"

They found, without much difficulty, the miserable habitation the wine seller had spoken of; the lower windows were stuffed with rags, the upper windows had weather-beaten shutters across them, but the three police officers noted that the door was firmly fastened, and that the lock-plates were in good condition. At the side of this door was a low arch that led down a narrow passage—this was in complete darkness.

"That," said La Reynie, "is probably where they enter. They have chosen a very good lair," he remarked, glancing up and down. "This is a poor, miserable street, probably inhabited by thieves and gutter scum. Almost any evil activities would be quite unremarked here."

"Monsieur, what are we to do?" asked Desgrez. "We might watch the house all night in vain and see no light anywhere."

"Let us go down the passage," replied La Reynie. "Both of you, have your hands on your weapons. We shall probably take them completely by surprise. As I think I have rounded all the poisoners up, I do not believe there will be more than these two, the man who goes by the name of Saint-Richard, and the dwarf who was in the establishment of la Fontanges." He glanced at the filthy-looking shop, and added grimly; "No doubt it was here that the poisoned letter was fabricated."

The three went cautiously down the dark, vile-smelling passage that turned abruptly to the right and led them, as they had supposed it would, to the back of the rag shop. This looked upon a tall, walled courtyard, in the middle of which was a pump. The scene was illuminated by the light that fell from one of the back windows of the half tumble-down house; La Tulipe, an adept at this sort of work, edged up to this window, and resting his fingers on the sill, peered through the dirty glass.

Returning to the two men who remained in the shadow of the wall, he reported that he had seen within an old woman in full skirt, shawl and high Norman cap, who easily might be the dwarf, Grimaldi, and a dark young man seated at a table watching a retort in which bubbled some chemicals.

The room was small, wretched, and lined with clothes hanging on pegs or draped on to wooden figures. The only light was a lamp on the table by the stranger; there seemed to be a good deal of magical apparatus about the place.

"We will take," decided M. de La Reynie, "a bold course."

He crossed the yard, went to the back door and knocked on it loudly with the hilt of his sword; he kept La Tulipe with him, and sent Desgrez to return down the passage and wait at the front of the house. There was, for a second or two, complete silence in the rag shop. Then a commanding voice said:

"Open."

There was another pause, a shuffling sound within the house, a key turning in its lock, and the door was opened by the old woman, who, peering out of uncertain light into uncertain light, gazed with dark twinkling eyes suspiciously at the tall figure of La Reynie; a glass mask covered her ugly features.

A thrill of exultation, not untouched with fear, caused the Chief of Police to clasp his sword tightly—had he at last, unexpectedly, almost by chance, come upon the heart of this terrifying mystery? Was this hideous creature, whose glass mask left little room for doubt as to his occupation, perhaps the Master himself?

"I wish to speak to your master," said the Chief of Police. "It is most important. Admit me without delay."

He stepped over the threshold, brushing the old woman aside against the wall of the corridor. At this she turned and clutched his cloak with a surprising strength, but La Tulipe, following quickly, had the creature gripped firmly by the collar of her bodice at the back of the neck.

"You are caught, Grimaldi, Trictrac—Satanic whelp, what ever you call yourself," he said shortly. "Do not give us any trouble!"

But the dwarf, with amazing strength and agility, writhed free from his captor and, shouting out harshly in a strange language, rushed back into the lighted room: the two police officers were on his track in a second. The young man, whom La Tulipe had observed through the window, had risen and was standing by the table. He was of medium height, slender, and attired in dark green. La Reynie, glancing eagerly at his face, was astonished at his blank expression, and for all his professional insensibility he could not help a chill of distaste when he saw that it was a mask he gazed at. A wax mask, exactly fitting the man's face, was tied over his features, by black ribbons fastened across his thick hair; there were small holes at eves, nose and mouth.

On the table, casting monstrous shadows in the light of the one lamp, stood a chemical apparatus, brazier filled with char coal, an alembic, some tubes, retorts, phials, moulds, seals and several sheets of paper marked with black wafers and inverted crosses.

"No doubt!" exclaimed La Reynie, advancing while La Tulipe kept the door and struggled with the dwarf. "You are engaged in another attempt to poison me—but your luck is out. Saint-Richard."

The masked young man stood his ground not only with courage, but with disdain. He folded his hands covered with loose gloves on his breast, and replied in tones that whistled horribly through the hole in the wax that had been painted to a doll-like prettiness.

"I am indeed Saint-Richard. You are powerless to harm me. We have been matching wits for a year now and you are as far from learning the truth about me as you ever were."

"Whoever you are, or whoever you pretend to be," said La Reynie contemptuously, "I shall soon know—you'll need the help of all the devils of your acquaintance now."

The young man leaned forward and snatched the alembic in which the poisonous essence seethed behind the glass globe.

"Seize him!" exclaimed La Reynie to La Tulipe, reaching out his hand for the lamp. The young man was too quick; he had seized and dashed down the light and, in the moment of confusion of darkness full of stifling fumes, escaped, followed by the dwarf, the Chief of Police and La Tulipe in pursuit.

"Desgrez will catch them!" exclaimed La Reynie, as they gained the street, but even as he spoke he saw the police lieutenant sprawling over the broken step in front of the shuttered rag shop. Desgrez explained ruefully as he scrambled to his feet that the two fugitives had flung themselves on him, caught him unawares, thrown him off his balance and escaped.

"The young man made a pass at me with his dagger, but missed." Desgrez, laughing bitterly at himself, showed a bleeding hand.

"Quick, in pursuit, La Tulipe is a swift runner, and you are young," gasped La Reynie. "I shall follow as quickly as I can. They cannot get far. The young man is light on his feet—the dwarf won't be, especially impeded by those skirts."

Desgrez, smarting from his humiliation, started off at a quick pace; he found La Tulipe, who was wiry and lean, well able to keep up with him. The slum quarter through which the pursuit took place was deserted, save for a few beggars crouching in doorways and tattered drunkards lurching out of poor wine shops. The moonlight shone full on the street as Desgrez turned out of the dark Impasse, for the moon had just risen above the dark roofs of Paris; in this silver light he could see before him the two flying figures; the dwarf had discarded his skirt and shawl and now wore nothing but the masculine attire he had had concealed beneath this disguise. "Fools," thought Desgrez, "where do they think they can hide? What is the use of this flight?"

The pursuit had settled into a steady race; all four were conserving their efforts. The moonlight made concealment difficult; they came out on the quay, and Desgrez saw the two dark figures running towards the bridge, the Pont-Henri-Quatre; the police agents were steadily gaining upon the fugitives. The whole scene, the whole circumstances had to Desgrez, panting along the quay, an air of unreality; he looked up at the sky, clear, full of moonlight, at the dark roofs, towers and tourelles of Paris; he looked ahead of him at the silent silver scene, at the arch of the bridge, at those two running figures, bent before the night wind; he spurred his strength to another effort—La Tulipe was slightly ahead of him.

Desgrez gained the bridge and began to cross it; he had fallen to a steady pace, not so fast now; the pursuit began to seem hopeless; his temples throbbed and there was a pain in his side; if these two escaped, even now, what irony! And they might escape, in some alley, through some door—and the identity of the man in the waxen mask would remain a mystery.

But La Tulipe was gaining on the two fugitives, his trained agility was telling in the race; he had often had to risk his life on his speed.

A clock chimed, breaking the stillness with startling clangs; a cold wind rose suddenly from the river; Desgrez felt his strength fail him; he paused for a second, grasping the cold parapet of the bridge, drawing his breath in great gasps.

He could see the three dark figures ahead, now almost blended into one. Nerving himself to one more effort, Desgrez struggled on.

In the centre of the bridge the dwarf had fallen, broken by fatigue and stumbling in the deep cobbles; he made a clutch at the cloak of his companion, who brutally shook him off. This second's delay was sufficient to give La Tulipe time to overtake his men; with Desgrez panting a few paces behind, he came up to them.

The dwarf had risen; the two police officers seized him; the young man turned aside and began to climb the parapet of the bridge.

"Don't let him escape," shrieked the dwarf, writhing in the strong hands of La Tulipe. "It is right that he should suffer too! He is the man you want, he is the Grand Master—he has always been a bad employer! Trying to serve two ends at once."

"He will scarcely escape by falling into the Seine," gasped Desgrez, hastening to the place where the young man clung to the parapet.

"Yes, yes, he will," screamed the dwarf. "He knows how to get away!"

Desgrez hurled himself upon the young man, seizing him by the cloak, by the arm, by the leg, fought with him desperately.

"Don't let him go over!" he shouted to La Tulipe. "Get hold of him, even if you have to let the other go!"

"He shan't escape!" yelled the dwarf. "Let him taste the wheel, the stake!"

"Fool," came the unnatural voice hissing from behind the wax mask, "help me now and you shall have your heart's desire."

As he spoke he snatched his cloak from the grasp of Desgrez and began to lower himself over the side of the parapet; his gloves had been torn off in the struggle and a dark red stone on one of his fingers gleamed dully in the moonlight.

The dwarf in what seemed a frenzy of malice, had seized the young man by the throat, thus causing him to lose his balance. The two toppled together over the bridge with a terrible cry, and the police agents, gazing over the parapet, saw the bodies tightly locked being borne down the rapid current.

"Towards Saint-Cloud!" cried Desgrez. "Come, La Tulipe, let us go down to the foreshore. The currents may wash them up!"

Panting, frantic, the two police agents hastened off the bridge and ran along the river below the narrow parapet of the embankment. Too late! The bodies, swirled along the muddy yellow river, were already out of sight.

Desgrez found a boat and waterman not many paces from the bridge; he and La Tulipe sprang in and told the astonished man to row them down the river.

"Nothing!" muttered La Tulipe bitterly.

Desgrez, leaning eagerly from the boat and peeling into the turgid water, drew out a wax mask to which was attached black strings; as he gazed at the beautifully modelled classic features a sensation of superstitious horror such as he had never known before ran through him, and glancing at the impassive face of La Tulipe, he muttered: "The Grand Master! The Devil himself I should say!"

With the staring wax mask with its painted wistful smile in his hand, the long strings dripping water, Desgrez gazed about him; above was the moon, remote, high, cold, around was the gloomy outline of Paris roofs, towers, tourelles, black against the silver-filled atmosphere; below the boat in which he sat with the darkling, huddled figures of the boatman and La Tulipe, the powerful river swirled in muddy currents to wards the sea.


9. — A NOTICE IN THE GAZETTE

The police sealed up the rag and bone shop in the Impasse de l'Enfer; M. de La Reynie and Charles Desgrez examined the contents of that hideous little house in private. Standing amid the sinister-looking apparatus, the books on magic, the rows of dresses, coats and costumes that hung like shrivelled corpses round the walls, the rows of masks that grinned or simpered from their hooks like dead faces, La Reynie showed Desgrez a notice in the weekly Gazette:

The body of the Pope's nephew, Innocenzo Pignata, who disappeared on the eve of his departure for Rome, has been found washed ashore at Saint-Cloud.

This distinguished person had been a victim of foul play, or an accident, it was supposed. He had been identified only by some curious marks on his body that had been known to his servant, and by the magnificent ruby that he wore on his left hand as a charm against evil, for his face had been entirely eaten by water-rats.


THE END

This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia