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Title: The Knot Garden: Some Old Fancies Reset Author: Marjorie Bowen * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1900991h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sep 2019 Most recent update: Sep 2019 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. 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
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"When you design a Knot or 'broderie' garden, you have only indent devices to combine, such as the loop, the twist, the circle, the diamond and the star, and you have only familiar plants such as box, lavender, dwarf laurel, rue and sundry small herbs at your service. Yet by resetting these old fancies you may achieve something of novelty in your parterre. And so it may be in the telling of tales." —Anon.
(First performed at the Court of Luneburg
Hohenheim on the occasion of the tweny-first birthday of His
Serene Highness, Prince Chlodwig of Luneburg Hohenheim, in the
Residentzschloss of the Capital)
Lento Doloroso e Lamentoso
Allegro Vivace e Sempre Scherzando
Allegretto Tranquillo con Grazia
(Variazione finale a coda)
"This littel, pleasant laundschip of love—"
"WHEN I was a child," said the Princess Sophia Magdalena thoughtfully, "I used to dream of escaping into the woods and of living there for ever. I thought that I could exist on wild strawberries, that the moss would make a very pleasant bed at night, that the dew, caught in the cups of the lily leaves, would make a delicious drink. You perceive that I imagined that it would be always summer. Such was my plan to escape from the world."
"But now," smiled her friend uneasily, "you know that you cannot evade your responsibilities and that the world from which you would escape needs you."
The Princess Sophia Magdalena was too courteous to remark on this obvious flattery. She smiled civilly, and leaning over the elaborate ironwork of the balcony, glanced down the sunny street.
"How gay the city looks to-day," she remarked. "All those flags! How bright their colours are and how brilliantly the sun gleams on all the spires and weathercocks."
"It is my son's birthday," smiled the Princess Hedwig, with a slight emphasis of her uneasiness. "He is very popular, more for his vices, I fear, than for his virtues. Between you and me, my dear, he is a rather thoughtless, worthless fellow."
Sophia Magdalena knew that her friend and hostess did not mean this deprecation of her son to be taken seriously, but she appreciated the spirit in which it was made, for Prince Chlodwig had everything that she, Sophia Magdalena, had not and the contrast, even in the eyes of this shining young hero's mother, must have been a painful one.
As she continued to gaze down the long, brightly-lit street where the little figures of citizens in their best clothes moved busily to and fro setting up garlands, pennants and loyal mottoes above their doors and in front of their windows, the Princess Sophia Magdalena said sincerely:
"If I had known—I mean, if I had remembered, that this was your son's birthday festival I should not have paused here on my way to Gandersheim."
"But how absurd!" exclaimed the Princess Hedwig in hasty kindliness. "We rejoice to have you, my dear child. I only hope that these rather tiresome ceremonies will not seem to you childish and tedious."
"It is not that," replied the other gently, "but you know, Madame, that I am not made for festivals."
She said this without either reproach or sadness, but the Princess Hedwig was silent; she did not know in what manner to comfort and console one whose destiny indeed permitted of neither comfort nor consolation.
The Princess Sophia Magdalena was the sixth daughter of a Prince-Bishop who was extremely poor and extremely proud. To be thus placed was, in itself; no great good fortune, but, to add bitterness to this dubious destiny the Princess Sophia Magdalena was the plainest high-born lady within the Empire. Indeed, some had said, within the frontiers of Europe.
She was good, she was accomplished, she had plenty of common sense, she had early learned resignation, but her portrait had been in vain hawked round all the Courts of Germany. Envoys, tactful and insinuating, had endeavoured to put forward her claims anywhere where there was a prince, however stupid, plain, poor or ill-tempered, desiring a wife. But always in vain. Painters might flatter and make a passable miniature of those pinched features, those thin lips, that large nose, that thin neck and bony shoulders, but rumour spoke truer than the artist's pencil—the lady's fame always preceded her, and it had been impossible to dispose of the ugly princess even among princes uglier than she was and infinitely her inferior in every other respect. Even if she had had a large dowry it would have been difficult to find her a husband, but as she was penniless the task had become hopeless and her father and his ministers had thrown up their hands in despair and, when she was twenty-seven years old, had secured for her, by extraordinary good luck and from the compassion of an Emperor who knew her patience and her good temper, the envied post of Abbess of the old Abbey of Gandersheim.
She was on her way to take up this position and had made, in her slow and stately travel, a pause at the Court of the Princess Hedwig, who was a distant relation of her mother.
The Princess Hedwig had been everything that was kind and considerate, but her guest would rather have proceeded on her way than have remained to partake at the festivals of that spoilt darling of the Fortune, the goddess who had never smiled on her. The Prince Chlodwig was not, she considered, even for her distant contemplation.
"When one is about to leave the world," she remarked, leaning awkwardly on the balcony ('Everything she does is awkward,' thought the Princess Hedwig miserably), "the less one sees of it the better. And do you know, Madame, though I have so well learnt resignation, I still long for my summer woods, my diet of strawberries, my drink of lily dew."
"But you are going into a great position," said the other woman eagerly and with real admiration. "Do not forget your accomplishments—how well you know Greek and Latin, how excellently you can make verses, how delicate a hand you have with a needle, yes, and even with the engraver's burin! You will have a position of great power, everybody will admire you and applaud your prudence and piety and good behaviour! Think, my dear, what it is to have reached your age and never to have had anyone say an unkind word about you, not to have a single blemish on your character!"
This compliment was, perhaps, unfortunately phrased. The Princess Sophia Magdalena Sybilla smiled over her shoulder and said gently:
"No blemish on my character perhaps, but is not that because there are several blemishes in my person? If I had been beautiful I might have been as wanton as—" She paused, for she did not know the names of many careless, beautiful ladies, and was too kind to have named them if she had had so much knowledge, but the Princess Hedwig supplied, with a sigh, the end of the sentence:
"As Roszianka, perhaps," she said, "as Rozsika."
"Who is she?" asked Magdalena Sybilla without much interest, for her attention was strangely attracted by the movements in the sunny street below.
She had lived much secluded in her desolate, gaunt palace, which was all that her father could afford as a residence for his daughter. She had read a great deal, but experienced very little and all along her journey—she had to cross the Empire to reach Gandersheim—she had been aware of an increasing sense of intoxication produced by the strange sights and sounds around her, by all the evidences of a busy, active life in which she had never had, and now never could have, any part. And this sense of excitement, of anticipation, of a poignant longing, had been intensified since she had been in the elegant city where sumptuous preparations for the festival of a beloved prince were being made.
"Rozsika," sighed the Princess Hedwig, with a gesture and glance of dismay, "means, I think, to marry my son, and a marriage with her! That would be in every way a dreadful thing to occur! Of course, it would only be a morganatic affair—she is not of royal birth, but it would be quite sufficient to prevent him from making the match which is in view elsewhere."
"I suppose," sighed the Princess Magdalena Sybilla slowly, "she is very lovely."
"My son thinks so," sighed the elder woman shortly. "She uses every possible device to entrap him, she assumes virtue, and her father, who is a cunning old rogue, watches her diligently. What is the use of speaking of them?" The Princess Hedwig shrugged her plump shoulders. "I, of course, can do nothing. The truth is, Rozsika is behaving very badly."
"Well, perhaps if I were pretty I also might behave badly. I rather wish I had missed your festival. You see, Madame, I have never seen anything of this kind before, we are as poor as church mice, there have been times when we have hardly had a party dress between us."
"I ought to have asked you and your sisters here before," confessed the other lady uncomfortably, "but somehow—somehow—"
"Of course, Madame," interrupted Magdalena Sybilla pleasantly, "you would never think of such a thing, and why should you? With all the women there are in the world why should you trouble yourself with the plainest and most ungainly of their sex? Besides," she added with a sigh, "it would have been of no use."
Princess Hedwig, looking at her with deep sympathy, thought so too.
"The poor creature certainly deserves her title of 'The Ugly Princess.' What maid, however skilful, could do anything with those irregular features, with that yellow complexion, with those small eyes and that long nose, with the harsh dark hair? What dressmaker, however cunning, could do anything with that angular figure, those clumsy movements, with those large hands and feet?"
She had fine white teeth and a most agreeable voice, her smile was ready and humorous. One could well believe that there was no evil in her; nay, that she had never had as much as an unworthy thought. But this was all, and it was not very much, to be said in favour of "The Ugly Princess."
"Let us go into the palace," said the Princess Hedwig hastily, "the sun is really much too hot here."
But she spoke too late and the Princess Sophia Magdalena had lingered on the balcony a little too long. Around the corner of the street came the Prince Chlodwig, returning from the hunt with his retinue. He flashed unexpectedly on to the brilliant scene. This was no formal entry nor ceremonial occasion but the townsfolk, though taken by surprise, cheered him lustily, standing, with their flags and garlands in their hands, to shout for one who had never increased taxes, who spent a great deal of money, who continually provided amusement and scandal and was, in addition, most agreeable to look at, and always had a good- humoured smile on his face and a pleasant word on his lips.
He raised his white-plumed hat in gay return of these loyal salutations; the July sun shone on his hair which was as gold and as pale and gleaming as his mother's wedding ring.
"Is that your son?" asked the Princess Magdalena Sybilla, and the other lady said "Yes," almost as if she were ashamed, and she made a nervous and perhaps cowardly movement to draw the ugly Princess away from the balcony. But Princess Magdalena Sybilla lingered and he looked up and she saw on the handsomest face that she had yet beheld the expression that she had seen on too many other faces—surprise, incredulity, quickly controlled pity. Ah, well she knew that look! No man, especially no young man, expected a woman, especially a young woman, to look like she looked. But his mother was quickly beside her, masking her, protecting her, and he bowed low in the saddle in an exaggeration of courtesy.
But she had seen the glance. She was, however, a philosopher—how would the unhappy and the unfortunate exist without philosophy? She said to herself: "I was certain to meet him, sooner or later, therefore I was certain to see such a glance." Aloud she said:
"I think, after all, I did stand too long in the sun. I have a little headache, I will go and lie down until dinner-time, if you please, Madame. I have, besides, some letters to write home."
And as she went on with her courteous excuses, which were very sensibly and even prettily given, the Princess Hedwig, who was very good-natured, was thinking most unhappily:
"It was very stupid for her to come here just now. It ought to have been arranged differently. It would seem so inhospitable to send her away, but I wish I could think of some excuse for her to avoid the festival. What a figure, poor child, will she cut at the supper and the ball and the carnival masquerade! She has no clothes, either, and no jewels and even were I to find the courage to offer to lend her any and she were to accept, why, finery would only make her look grotesque."
In the very handsome chamber that was assigned to her in the Residentzschloss the ugly Princess communed with her own soul. She, also, wished she had not come to the gay city in this time of festival. Her father had arranged the matter with the best intentions, but thought-lessly. She did not blame him nor the Princess Hedwig. "It is I," she said to herself, "who am wrong. I have no right to be ugly. People cannot be always remembering it and making allowances and wondering how they can avoid hurting my feelings. It will be a good thing for me and for everyone else when I am safely in the Abbey of Gandersheim."
So she tried to fix her thoughts on that, on what her future life would be in the Abbey, that large building with a small town around it where she would be mistress, nay, almost queen. It was a Protestant establishment in name, but one modelled on pre- Reformation lines. It was very old—there had been an abbey at Gandersheim even in the time of legends, of silver knights, black dragons and blonde princesses. Sophia Magdalena had heard of white cloisters, of ancient lime trees, of grass plots, of vines growing in the open air (for Gandersheim was far south), and she had pictured, in her sad mind, a place of peace and solitude where she might be, if not happy, at least free to indulge her favourite virtue of resignation.
She had thought that such a life might not be wholly distasteful. It would have some power, some dignity, some scope for those qualities which she knew she possessed. She would be an Abbess, she would rule a community, she would not be one of six plain women whom no one wanted. There had been moments at her father's poverty-stricken Court when she had longed for Gandersheim and had implored him to hurry on the negotiations which would secure for her the post of Abbess. But all of this had been before she had seen the Prince Chlodwig, before she had travelled the broad highways, seen the children playing, the maidens working in the fields, the students with hood and gown, and schoolchildren with satchels, pretty women with their cavaliers, middle-aged and old women comfortable with their families around them, all the busy bustling life, all the eager coming and going of the public highways.
For several days during her slow progress she had marked these things. She had seen much at the inn where they had been put up with ceremony and received with respect. Although her apartments had always been separated from those of the common people, she had had glimpses of inn yards, she had seen men and women on the stairs, in the public parlour and dining-room, and she had realised that she had missed much more than she had ever known before.
She took out her Bible, her prayer-book and the volume which contained the History of Gandersheim and the rules for the Abbess of the Sisters. She tried to fix her mind again on this placid, tranquil future which lay before her, the prospect which had seemed not uninviting when viewed from the arid poverty of her father's house, was now marred by a thousand memories—the incidents of the last few days, and, most of all, by the thought of Prince Chlodwig whom she had just seen riding round the corner of the street on his fine bay horse with all his gold and scarlet trappings, the sun bright on his pale uncovered head.
She looked at herself steadily in the mirror which hung above the large dressing-table. She had never shrunk before from gazing at herself in a mirror, she had never used any formula of reproach towards any destiny or providence that might be responsible for her misfortune, but now she did murmur "Cruel!" as she looked at those crooked features, at that sallow complexion, at that thin dark hair, at that lean figure which no garment of festival could disguise.
"I should not have come here. There is to be a ball to-night and I have nothing to wear. I should need to blaze with jewels to disguise how ugly I am. But then, that would be no use, either. They would merely say 'Poor creature, how hopeless it is!' And yet if I go in my green velvet, which is all I have, with the tarnished braid, they will say 'She looks like a goblin and spoils the feast.'"
So, staring at herself in the mirror the ugly Princess resolved that she would not attend the ball. She was quite sure that the kind Princess Hedwig would understand her when she pleaded a headache, a sudden indisposition from the sun. Yes, she was quite sure that that understanding woman would allow her to remain in peace in her handsome suite of apartments and depart quietly in two or three days' time, perhaps early in the morning before anyone was astir, when all the festival, if not over, was at least, in abeyance.
But, even as she stared at her unhappy reflection her courage rose. She was well-bred and had been finely trained.
"I must not be a coward. I am about to take up a position which will require a certain force of character, I must not allow myself to be despised. What does it matter to me whether these people find me ugly, whether they scorn me or pity me. I do not belong to them or their world, I am merely passing through to another sphere where I shall, at least, be at peace, where I shall, at least, reign, where it will not matter that my features are crooked and my skin yellow, where I shall be respected for my integrity, for my purity of purpose, for my piety and resignation. Let me then, keep this dignity which is going to be so necessary to me in the future. If I am cowardly now I shall lose so much in my own estimation that perhaps I shall never be able to hold up my head again."
So it came about that on the evening of the great ball to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of Prince Chlodwig in the Residentzschloss, the ugly Princess was there in the green velvet gown with the slightly tarnished silver braid which had belonged to her mother, with a string of garnets round her throat and about her shoulders, to disguise their ungainly slope, a little cape of rubbed fox-skin.
The Princess Hedwig showed her much kind attention, but, tactfully, not sufficient to make her conspicuous. She was treated as an honoured guest whose precedence is taken for granted and seated, by her own wish, near the orchestra, on a gilt stool in a corner where the light was not too strong, where there were no flowers to flaunt their frail loveliness, and where a dark tapestry of sombre blues and greens could not shame her modest attire.
It was a very splendid ball, excellently arranged, and after quite a little while the ugly Princess forgot her personal discomforts and disappointments and began, as a spectator, to enjoy the lively scene.
Never before had she seen such dresses, such jewellery, such elegant men and charming women. She admired everything as wholeheartedly as if she had been at a play, and when Baron Hagemann, the Chancellor, spoke to her out of compassion and duty combined, he was quite enchanted by her ingenuous and unenvious delight in a spectacle in which she had no part.
A pool had been made in the middle of the room and from this rose a fountain. On the top of the jet of water shone tiny balls of coloured glass. The ugly Princess thought she had never seen anything so exquisite in her life—she could hardly take her eyes away from the incessant rise and fall of the water, from the endless dance of the coloured balls.
She was passionately fond of music, though no one had ever written any for her, and her father could not afford to keep an orchestra. She had learnt to play a little on the violin, and she was an adept at the harpsichord, but never had she heard anything like this. The twenty-four musicians in their purple and white livery played such enchanting melodies that the ugly Princess thrilled with rapture. Her cheeks were quite flushed and her eyes quite sparkling for the first time in her life as the Princess Hedwig found a way to her side and endeavoured delicately to deprecate the festival and to say how conventional and noisy and foolish it all was.
"Oh, no, Madame," cried the ugly Princess eagerly, "I think it is very beautiful: I am enjoying it—every moment, the voices, and the music and those dresses and those garlands of flowers from one pillar to another and the wax lights in the crystal chandeliers! Oh, yes, indeed, Madame, it is very beautiful."
She smiled in such touching and such forgetful admiration of pleasures not dedicated to her that the elder woman turned her head aside in a sudden shame.
"Where is Rozsika? Show her to me I implore you, Madame. You said she was lovely and I have been looking for her, but all the ladies here seem so lovely that I cannot understand which is she."
"She is over there," replied the Princess Hedwig, "talking to the man in the saffron-coloured coat. She has a bunch of green ribbons on her shoulders, but you see how insolent she is and how loudly she laughs! She is, I suppose, quite sure of him."
The last bitter words escaped the notice of the ugly Princess who was looking with a wholehearted admiration at the fair Rozsika.
"Why, yes, she is certainly exquisite—it looks as if the whole festival had been planned for her. What grace, what poise! Those diamonds on her hair and her breast, how perfectly they set off her colouring of white and gold!"
"She is talking too loudly," said the Princess Hedwig, "she is not as happy as she looks nor as confident as she would make us think. If you observe her closely you will see that she is really very uneasy and, after all, my dear, I must tell you that this festival is not the success that it seems. My son, in whose honour it is given, has not yet arrived."
"I had not seen him," replied the ugly Princess timidly, "but then, I thought that he was in another part of the room or in one of the ante-chambers or the gallery."
"He has not arrived," repeated the Princess Hedwig sternly. "Three separate messengers have been sent and they cannot find him. I have now ordered the Baron Hagemann to discover him at any cost. If he does not come soon there will be a great many people offended. One cannot afford that nor an open scandal."
"Scandal?" repeated the Princess faintly.
"I suppose," thought the Princess Hedwig, "she already admires him very much, even after that glimpse this morning." Aloud she remarked: "One can never be sure of him. He is impudent and must always have his own way. No doubt I spoilt him when he was a child and now he forgets that he is no longer a boy. Nothing would suit him to-day but that he must go and celebrate his birthday with some students who invited him to a dinner at a Club near the University."
"Surely, it is quite fitting that he should go?"
"It were quite fitting, my dear, he should go if he would return in time. But he delays, he delays! No doubt he is roystering, perhaps taking too much to drink, and who knows but that," added the anxious mother with a sigh, "when he is in his cups he might commit himself to someone far worse even than Rozsika!"
"Look, Madame," whispered Magdalena Sybilla eagerly, "I think that is he entering now. See, Baron Hagemann has him by the elbow, everyone is flocking round him." The Princess Hedwig beat her hand upon her knees.
"Yes, that is he," she said impatiently, "and he has had too much to drink. See, he is quite unsteady in his walk. He has done this just to defy us all because we gave him some good advice. He wants to show that he is without leading-strings and only proves that he is a fool."
She rose and curtly directed the leader of the orchestra to strike up his loudest march with which to cover some possible indiscretion of Prince Chlodwig. Then she resumed her seat in the shadowy corner by Princess Sophia Magdalena.
"I will stay here. If he sees me it will only inflame him. See! he is asking Rozsika to dance. How she has changed!"
"Like a flower opening!" murmured the ugly Princess.
"Yes, yes, he has taken her in his arms, he is looking at her lovingly. Perhaps, before the whole Court, he will ask her to be his wife," and with an angry glance the Princess Hedwig rose. "See, his coarse manner, and I have taken such trouble with him! It is you whom he should ask to dance. You are the woman of the highest rank here, you are his relation and his guest."
"Oh, no, Madame, I implore you! I do not know how to dance; I would not wish to stand up before all these people. Indeed, leave me as I am."
The Princess Hedwig gave her a steady look.
"One must not shirk one's duty, it is not right for you to sit here. You should lead the dance with my son."
The victim of this etiquette remembered the resolution she had made before the mirror in her chamber—not to be cowardly, not to shirk anything, to consider always what was due to her rank and breeding. So she rose and dropped a very low curtsey to her hostess and said:
"If your son asks me, Madame, I shall be pleased to lead the dance with him."
But though she both despised and disavowed her own cowardice, the truth was that she was in her heart very much afraid. She did not want to dance with the handsome prince before the roomful of strangers, all of them no doubt scornful and hostile; she did not want to go through the movements of the gavotte under the bright jeering eyes of Rozsika. Only his entire tender courtesy would have made such an ordeal tolerable, and of that she fered she would receive none. It was clear that his mother had instructed him to open the ball with her, but that he had forgotten.
He had Rozsika on his arm, he was bending towards her, playing with a flower in her corsage, everyone was looking, raising their eyebrows, even their shoulders, smiling, whispering behind fans. It seemed clear that he was to commit himself openly and for ever to Baron Lubomirsky's daughter and this seemed to the ugly Princess right and fitting. They made such a splendid pair—he, so handsome and so gorgeous, she, so lovely and so elegant, both in their rich festival attire, in love one with the other—she in love with his rank and splendour, he in love with her youth and gaiety!
The ugly Princess would have liked to have fled; she would liked to have gone up to her room where her old servant would be nodding in the candle light waiting to make her a hot posset before she crept into bed, but this cowardly flight could not be contemplated. She must accept the suffering that was ordained for her to endure.
The Princess Hedwig, moving tactfully, easily, with a word here, a smile there, contrived to cross the room to her son's side without appearing to do so. The blood burnt in the ugly Princess' thin cheeks as she saw her hostess speak to her son, as she saw him, still with Rozsika on his arm, move towards her where she sat by the orchestra.
The march had come to an end and it was in silence that Prince Chlodwig approached the guest in her shadowed tapestried corner. The musicians were busy with their music, fixing on the stands the pages on which were written the gavotte that was to open the ball.
He came towards her and she fluttered like a cornered dove at his approach. Rozsika insolently and reluctantly had left his arm but she stood her ground beside the Princess Hedwig.
"How lovely she is!" thought Magdalena Sybilla. "How exquisite is her gown!—all those sequins like icicles, like water! Yes, she is like the fountain rising in the middle of the room, as white, as sparkling, as serene!"
She ventured to look at the young prince; she saw that he was making an effort over himself; his walk, his movements, his speech, his dignity, all was exaggerated, his carriage was that of a boy, drunk for the first time in public. His beauty, his fine clothes, his splendid carriage, his jewels, could not entirely disguise the degradation of his condition.
His mother touched his elbow. He stood in front of the ugly Princess and bowed. The Court, slowly moving, like a flight of swans behind their leader, in the wake of their master, was but a hand's stretch behind him as he bowed before his guest.
She rose, she trembled into a curtsey; her downcast eyes saw the billows of her old green velvet with the tarnished silver braid about her feet. She glanced up at him, pleading for mercy; she saw his flushed gaze staring down into hers, she heard him laugh, she saw him thrust his hand on his hip and exclaim in a loud, unnatural voice:
"The ugly Princess! My God! what a disaster!"
The insult was underlined by the shrill laughter of Rozsika.
They continued to stare at each other and no one had the courage to say anything. The silence seemed as if it would be impossible to break when the first violin dropping his instrument directly at their feet and sprawling clumsily after it caused a diversion—a hubbub, a relief from the excitement, the dismay, the horror. The musician apologised, he was blamed, everyone talked at once and of nothing save the clumsiness of the fellow with the violin.
PRINCESS MAGDALENA SYBILLA of Marienburg lay in bed late on the day following the ball.
"It will be difficult," she thought, "after the events of last night, to begin life again. It will never be quite, of course, on the old footing."
She had been far too excited to sleep and through the short hours between her retirement to her room and her ancient maid bringing in her chocolate she had reviewed again and again the circumstances of the ball.
She was gratified by the recollection of the part she had played under conditions which might have been, but had not been, disastrous. It had been an occasion to reveal good breeding and she had revealed it; it had been an occasion to display courage and nerve, and she had shown that she had possessed both these admirable qualities. What had inspired her had been an intense pity both for the young man, who was, she was sure, honest and honourable when sober, and for his mother who had tried all along to be so kind to her, the Princess Magdalena Sybilla of Marienburg, to whom it was not so easy to be kind.
This pity for them had made her forget herself Instead of running from the room and bursting into tears, of pointing the catastrophe by some collapse on her own part, she had ignored the insult of the drunken youth and the silence that had followed. She had laughed quite gaily over the episode of the broken violin and the musician sprawling after it along the beeswaxed floor.
"It was curious," she reflected, sitting up in bed and drawing about her shoulders her old-fashioned tippet of white wool, "that no one else among all those sophisticated well-trained people could think of anything to cause a diversion—not one of them, they all stood dumbfounded until that poor player, a plain fellow like myself, I remember, must do something ludicrous like that—throwing down his violin and then himself!"
She had laughed in genuine amusement. There had been something so forlorn about the action, something so desperate in the musician's face as he had looked up at her, a glance, she flattered herself, of real devotion, as if he had said: "A little thing, but all I could do."
After that everything had been a confusion, but not a disagreeable chaos. Everyone had moved about together. She had seen the young Prince's face with an expression on it which was, she thought, like that of a drowning man who, before he sinks, suddenly realises his end is near—such an expression of emphatic horror and incredulity had been on the fair young countenance of Prince Chlodwig of Luneburg Hohenheim as his friends had closed round him and led him away. Rozsika, the ugly Princess had noticed, was not in that protecting, friendly group. After her thin and insolent laugh, which had maliciously pointed the discomfiture of the other woman, she was left rather alone. The Princess Hedwig had deliberately turned her back on her as she had drawn the lean arm of Magdalena Sybilla round her own plump waist.
Rozsika had pouted, frowned, then laughed again and raised her brows. One or two flatterers had fluttered near her, then hesitated and fluttered away. She had, of course, received a good deal of homage of late but on this occasion her sycophants seemed to find other objects of admiration. It was the ugly Princess who had been the centre of all attention. The Graf von Böhmlau had suggested showing her the fireworks; Baron Baps, bowing still lower, had talked of a visit to the aviary so sweetly lit by coloured fairy lamps. One charming lady, with a tenderness not to be mistaken for mockery, had admired the regal cut of the green gown and the elegant festooning of the tarnished silver lace, the victim was so sorry for all of them that she had taken their tributes in good part. She had laughed and jested, done her utmost to set them all at their ease, to show that she did not remember, that she had not been offended, that nothing ugly had happened. In her heart, she took all the blame on herself.
"I should not have been here, I was like a challenge. He is spoilt, fortune's coxcomb, and was very intoxicated. When he is sober some fool, or more likely some malicious woman—Rozsika, no doubt—will tell him what he said and then he will suffer horribly."
Thinking of what Prince Chlodwig must suffer, the ugly Princess had suffered also and so became more easy and gay and animated. She had talked with this one and jested with that one, made dry and amusing remarks, until the glances of admiration turned in her direction became no longer feigned but genuine. These people discovered that she was a real wit, that she had humour and charm and a gracious pleasant way. For their own sakes they tried to make themselves worthy of her intelligence and her graciousness.
When she had been escorted through the formal grounds of the Residentzschloss from one aspect of the spectacle to another, she returned to the ballroom.
The Prince was no longer there; he had tacitly withdrawn from his own feast and no one mentioned him.
The ugly Princess, remarking his absence, cried in her tender heart: "How long it will be before he regains his reputation as a gallant man! Indeed, I fear that socially he is ruined. What can he do to redeem himself?"
Rozsika also had disappeared. Her father, seeing her in a petulant isolation, had tactfully borne her away.
"Alas!" thought Magdalena Sybilla sorrowfully, "have I, by my inopportune ugliness ruined a sweet and tender romance? If she laughed she could not help it, it was not meant in unkindness. No, it was mere nervous hysteria. Or perhaps she did it to cover up his disgrace!"
She sipped the froth on her chocolate. She decided to be on her way to Gandersheim that morning; she could do no more to help these people. For herself she no longer suffered, she had the reward of courage. Last night she had endured and triumphed. She believed that a great many people knew her a little better, liked, and possibly even admired her, and this was a pleasant sensation.
"I may even," she thought with a glow, "be admired and beloved in Gandersheim."
She told the maid to bid her lackey get ready her modest baggage. She could not, she was sure, endure to see Prince Chlodwig again, and though she must, perforce, see his mother, she hoped to make her interview as brief and formal as possible. It would be intolerable if she had to endure the unfortunate lady's apologies, tears, and lamentations.
So she got from bed with great energy and began to busily put on her clothes. She had always attended to her own service; it mattered so little what she wore or how it was put on. When she had laced herself into her habit of serviceable grey Kersey, she ran to the window and pulled wide the pink damask curtains which were so much finer than any curtains she had ever had before, and looked out into the garden.
It was a lovely day and her spirits rose just because of that. The pure sunshine, the glistening leaves and the opening flowers, the smooth green in the parterres and the flight of two pink doves in the sky, who seemed to be tumbling in the heavens in a sheer ecstasy of joy, all these things raised the spirits of the ugly Princess.
But she was almost immediately sad and even humbled again, for the Princess Hedwig entered her room and began what Magdalena Sybilla had so dreaded—trembling apologies and bitter regrets for the hideous circumstance of the ball the night before.
Her guest besought her earnestly to be silent.
"Madame, I heard nothing...and if I did hear something it was only the truth. I am ugly, and it is a disaster, and let it go. Do you know, I enjoyed myself tremendously last night! Everyone was so kind, and, not only because they were sorry for me, but because even they liked me a little. I felt that."
The Princess Hedwig said:
"My dear child, you are too generous," then could say no more for tears.
While she sobbed into her handkerchief, Magdalena Sybilla patted her on the shoulder and added in a voice that was almost gay:
"It was good for me, too, Madame, I have been too sheltered. Everything has been too shielded from me, my life has been very strange and very dull. Last night! why, it was like a glass of wine! I learnt, too, that I can do things, that I can be, perhaps, courageous and well-mannered under difficulties."
"I make no excuses," sobbed the Princess Hedwig. "Do me that justice to observe that I make no excuses. There is nothing to be said for him—nothing at all."
"No," replied the other lady gravely and reflectively, "I will not do you that injustice to suppose that you would come here to make excuses, but I, I may do so. I may say that he is very young, that it was his twenty-first birthday, that he had been with his wild companions, that he had drunk so much wine that he had forgotten it was your house and did not remember who I was."
"We must not talk any more of it!" exclaimed the Princess Hedwig. Suddenly she stifled her sobs and drew herself up with a resolute air. "He will make amends. He has thought himself of how to do this."
The other Princess frowned, though there was a smile on her lips.
"Oh dear, are we never to have the end of this bad business? I am going away this morning and I do not want to see him again. I do not say that in unkindness, you know, but I do not think that I could endure him to come and apologise."
"You must not think him so base as that," murmured Prince Chlodwig's mother, "he would not wish to inflict on you an apology. It is an offence he feels can only be effaced one way—"
Magdalena Sybilla interrupted with an impatient little wave of her hand.
"Oh, Madame, what a pity this has to be referred to! Who told him? He would never by himself have remembered."
"There were not lacking those who told him, and if there had been none I myself should have done so."
Princess Magdalena Sybilla was now a little curious. She was still immensely sorry for these people; she wondered how they were ever going to put themselves right with themselves. She thought: "Perhaps still something more is required of me. Perhaps I ought not to run away but stay and face him and help them."
"Madame, have you seen your son this morning already, early as it is."
"I have not left him all night. As soon as the ball was over I went to his rooms. He and I—we have been together."
Still curious, still compassionate, the other Princess said delicately:
"I hope that Prince Chlodwig is not angry with Rozsika?"
"He never wishes to see her again. When he recalls that he was ever attracted by such a creature he loathes himself."
Magdalena Sybilla raised her sensitive brows.
"He could not then have been fond of her," she murmured, "or he would have passed her faults."
"He knows her now as she really is, that laugh can never be pardoned. I have sent to her father already and advised him to take his daughter away from the Court—away, if possible, from Luneburg Hohenheim."
"A pity!" murmured the ugly Princess with a sigh. "They made such an exquisite couple."
The Princess Hedwig caressed her pomaded locks which had become somewhat dishevelled during her night's vigil. She looked fatigued but not downcast as in a firm voice she said:
"There is now only one woman in the world whom my son can marry—only one woman whom he wishes to marry."
The other Princess rather wondered what this had to do with herself and with the incidents of last night, but she said politely:
"Who is she? Have I seen her? Was she at the ball last night?"
The Princess Hedwig gave her a glance which seemed to comment on her innocence.
"It is yourself, my dear Magdalena Sybilla. My son can marry no one but yourself."
A deep flush stained the sallow cheeks of the Princess Magdalena Sybilla. She sank down into the high-backed chair by the window and said nothing. The sunlight fell on her crooked features and her hands worked nervously in her lap. The Princess Hedwig continued to speak eagerly with infinite energy.
"Do not you see this is the only possible action for him to take? He suggested it and I agreed at once. You will marry him, won't you, Magdalena? He can offer you a better position than that of Abbess of Gandersheim. I am very, very fond of you already and I do believe you like me a little. You are brilliant, clever, so intelligent! Everybody remarked on it last night. I daresay you will be his salvation. Underneath his gallant exterior he really is a young fool. You will be able to save him by your tact, wit and kindness from a hundred disasters." She glanced sideways at the other Princess who did not speak or move. "Think what services you have done him already! You have set him free from a woman like Rozsika, you have made him ashamed of himself for the first time in his life—and consider how good that is for him—you have humbled his pride and his self-confidence, you have made him take a vow never to touch a drop of wine again—and think what a rarity that is in a gentleman and how much it will be to his advantage in dealing with others! And now," she hurried on nervously after another glance at the immobile young woman by the window, "you will do him yet another service if you accept his hand which he offers so humbly to you.
"You will restore him his sense of self-respect, you will have allowed him to do the only thing that is possible to save him from his self-disdain, from his profound humiliation."
A little smile hovered at the corners of the pale lips of the ugly Princess.
"All this for him," she thought, "but what of me? What is any of it going to mean to me? But I must not forget that it is his mother who speaks."
"Madame, you offer me a very brilliant destiny." She inclined her head.
"Oh, no nothing beyond your birth and your merit. You will be very popular, everyone will love you." And the Princess Hedwig continued, in her mellow, pleasant and anxious voice, to dilate on the advantages to Prince Chlodwig and to Luneburg Hohenheim on seeing this Princess on the throne. How her tact would soothe away difficulties for the headstrong young man, how her kindness would win him popularity, how her wisdom would guide his policies, how her penetration would choose his friends!
"But I," thought the other wistfully, "might be happier in Gandersheim."
Aloud she said, rising and dropping a low curtsey, so that her plain grey dress billowed gracefully around her ungraceful limbs:
"Madame, you do me a very great honour. The amends you propose to make for the unfortunate incidents of last night are fantastic, extravagant, not to be thought of! I perceive that you have a very delicate sense of honour with which you have taught to your son and that neither of you can be at ease, until, by undertaking the most frightful penitence you can think of, you have put yourselves right in your own estimation." She paused, then added in another and shorter tone: "But for me it is a worse than loveless marriage."
"Had you been wed in the ordinary way," the Princess Hedwig reminded her gently, "it had been to some man whom you had never seen."
"He would have known nothing of me save a flattering portrait, and your son has seen me, and—your pardon, Madame, but he spoke what was in his heart when he said 'What a disaster.'"
"If you refuse him," cried the Princess Hedwig in despair, "he will never hold up his head again! I do not know what I should do with him. He considers himself lost, ruined, dishonoured."
The younger Princess sighed and smiled together.
"They still must think of themselves," she thought, of their honour, their disgrace, their disaster! "They are doing this through their own pride and neither of them think of me."
Yet she felt sorry for them. They were generous, honest people, both of them. She thought of her father, of her mother and sisters, of the good friends she had at home. They would regard this fantastic chance as a piece of astonishing good luck, her father would look happier than he had looked for years when he heard of her betrothal to the most brilliant prince in the Empire—she could see the kindly face alight with triumph!
One of her sisters could have the Abbey of Gandersheim—poor Louisa Maria perhaps, who was only two years younger than she was and nearly as plain. What rejoicings there would be in Marienburg, everyone would feel that they had been personally complimented by the splendid marriage of their Princess!
This was a prospect hardly to be foregone, a temptation hardly to be resisted. While, for herself, could she deny it would be like an enchantment to be betrothed to Prince Chlodwig? Could she refuse to admit in her secret heart that it would be like entering again into that realm of dreams on which she had long since closed the door? It could not last, of course, it would be but a fairy interlude, a masque on a summer lawn, or a snatch of music heard as a procession passed. Might it not be, however, even for a transient space, enjoyed? He would be tender, he would be courteous, even grateful to her for the chance she gave him to re-establish himself in his dignity, through her he would again be a hero in his own eyes.
Should she deny him this supreme satisfaction and go away peevishly, petulantly to her Abbey?
Her smile deepened to a laugh.
"Oh, Madame, tell your son that I will receive his addresses."
PRINCE CHLODWIG rose phoenix-like from the ashes of his own humiliation, with a re-burnished grandeur he shone in the eyes of his admirers re-established as the preux cavalier that he had always affected to be, his pose of sensitive nobility returned, the bright glitter of his much-vaunted honour was untarnished.
He had always, from his cradle, been popular but never so popular as when his betrothal to the slighted Princess was announced. He was extolled from the farthest corners of his little kingdom. Everyone commented on his generosity, on his nobility, and the splendour of the reparation he had made for what was, after all, but a trivial and insignificant fault.
"They do not seem to think, they do not seem to consider," mused the betrothed Princess, "that by this flamboyant amend, they call attention to my humiliation. Everyone now, the whole Empire, knows that he said: 'The ugly Princess! What a disaster!' whereas if I had gone to Gandersheim and he had married Rozsika there would not have been more than perhaps a score who would have been ever aware of what happened."
Her situation was outwardly, indeed, enviable. As she had supposed her family was delighted, transported by her good news. She was popular too in the Capital of Luneburg Hohenheim; she had expensive clothes, well-tailored, and wide hats with plumes, and when she rode abroad she made, in the saddle, not such an ill figure. The people both at the Court and in the city admired her good temper, her pleasant voice, her gentle humour, and she was wise enough never to challenge her insecure happiness. She never expected much attention from him, she never asked him if, after all, he found her so abhorrent. She never demanded his time nor his attention, she never strained his courtesy.
Then he was all that a grateful, that a humble duty could inspire him to be—her most obedient cavalier, her most submissive escort.
His character seemed to have changed since the banishment of Rozsika—he had abandoned his frivolous and wanton companions, he devoted several hours a day to business, his dress became less fantastic. He dismissed his coloured pages and his Italian lute players, he did not spend so many hours at tennis and at billiards. People murmured that the gentle Princess had a good influence on her future husband...
The Princess Hedwig and Baron Hagemann, who had been for long the anxious guardians of the headstrong young man, were most joyful.
They were seldom alone together, she was careful to avoid a solitude that might have proved embarrassing to him, but he often sent her presents, an often asked her advice. Magdalena would lay awake through the most part of the brief summer night saying to herself like a prayer: "I must not come to love him! I must not come to love him!"
They were to be married in September, there was nothing to wait for, no negotiations to be put through. She had no dowry; her father's blessing was eagerly sent. It was the Princess Hedwig who bought her clothes, who lent her jewels and horses.
Gandersheim waited for an Abbess. Louisa Maria would not, after all, accept that post. She had not entirely forgotten her hopes of an earthly felicity. Sometimes the Princess Magdalena Sybilla thought with regret of that vision of white cloisters and green grass plots and ancient lime trees surrounding a long church, a pleasant dwelling in which quiet souls serene in abnegation might dwell on philosophy, on the arts, on the goodness of God.
"Perhaps I have, for all the outward show, abandoned the substance for the shadow. My position here is wholly false and hollow. I do not understand this man—who is six years younger than I am and that's a deal of difference. Can I ever make him know me? Could I ever make him love me? If we marry should we have children who would bring us together, would he come to dislike and even hate me? He has betrothed himself to me to please his pride and in one moment of self-disgust. That mood will not go on for ever, and then, even if I were his bride, Rozsika might creep back, not to the Palace this time, perhaps, but to some villa outside the city walls. While I should be lonely, waiting, day after day, night after night, pitying while I waited. If it were not Rozsika, it would be another. He is so young and what have I, who have never pleased him at all, what have I to hold him?"
She walked alone in the lofty avenues of the garden where the first leaves began to fall. It was a day when milk and pearls seemed blended in the air, veils of gold were swathed about the golden foliage of the beech trees. The Residentzschloss, white, clean, and many-turreted, rose from terrace after terrace with gilded balustrades.
It was the most beautiful place she had ever seen, or she was sure, she was ever likely to see. On a lake, flat and bright as a lady's mirror, swans floated; she saw that a man, whose ungainly figure and dark habit was in melancholy contrast with the serene gaiety of the scene, was feeding the white birds. There was something in his dejected and resigned attitude as he tossed the scraps from his basket on to the surface of the lake that moved the ready tenderness of the Princess.
She approached him along the straight gravel path; there was something about him that seemed familiar and yet she could not place where she had seen him before. As he heard her approaching step he looked round timidly, and when she saw him full in the face she recognised him—it was the violinist who had dropped his instrument on the night of the ball. She paused in her walk; she noted that he no longer wore the palace livery of white and purple, that his clothes were shabby, his hair ragged—he had the air of an under-gardener.
"But surely," she said impulsively, "it is you!"
He bowed very low, with a flush on his unhappy and embarrassed face.
"I am Johann Böhm."
"I was the violinist, madame." He added hastily: "Would Your Highness care to see the swans fed? It is really very charming to observe how they glide over the water with their wings arched up."
Magdalena Sybilla looked at the swans, but she was not thinking of them but rather thus: "He was the only one who made a diversion to save me—clumsy and stupid, no doubt, but he made it and it served its purpose. How ridiculous he looked, poor fellow, sprawling after his instrument! That made people laugh, gave them an excuse to pretend it was a jest. But I have never thought of him since. How ungrateful one is when one is self- absorbed!"
"I remember you very well," she said shyly and gravely. "You do not wear your musician's coat? Is it part of your duty to feed the swans?"
He shook his head.
"I am no longer in the orchestra, Highness."
"No? And why?"
"I was dismissed. That was quite just, you know. I was extremely clumsy and I smashed the violin—it was a very valuable Italian instrument."
Magdalena Sybilla coloured painfully and stammered in her reply:
"There has been some mistake. Oh, but this is impossible! Everyone knows, everyone understood. You were not clumsy."
"I was ridiculous, Highness."
"No, nor ridiculous, either. It is absurd! I must tell Prince Chlodwig."
He did not reply. She had expected eager thanks for her promised intervention, but the tall, clumsy fellow stood silent. His hands (and they, although his frame was gaunt and bony, were finely made—a musician's hands) were busy and trembling in the basket of scraps that he had set on the marble verge of the lake; he was on one knee beside it and threw the succulent morsels one after another on to the shining surface where, before the swans darted at them, they made ever-growing ripples.
"Is this your employment now?"
"Yes, Highness, and I am glad to have it. The gardener is fond of music—I mean the head gardener, Von Handersheim, you know." A smile quivered for a second on his coarse lips; he gave her an appealing glance. "I am not very clever at any work—I could find none, and so I was forced to come back here, though I was not very willing to return to the palace. Von Handersheim was kind—he has me on trial for a week."
This sounded incoherent to her strained attention.
"But you have been to the Prince?" she asked. "He—he would—" She could not speak the words. What she had meant, what she wished to say was: "He would reward you for helping me, for trying, however foolishly and clumsily, to cover up his disgrace."
The young musician replied reluctantly:
"It was His Highness who dismissed me."
She could hardly believe that. She stood incredulous—staring.
"Dismissed you! And when?"
"The day after the ball, Highness."
"For what reason?"
"For my great clumsiness, Highness, in breaking the violin." And he added hastily: "I make no complaint, it was quite just. I knew when I did it what would happen."
"Did you? And why?"
"I know the Prince, Highness," he replied simply.
"I see—you know the Prince!"
"Yes, Highness. I have been in the palace since we were both boys, children, indeed."
"So! you know him like that—intimately, and you expected that he would behave as in fact he has behaved? His mother, the Princess Hedwig, does she know?"
"I could not tell you, Highness. I do not think she would greatly care one way or another as long as His Highness was pleased. She would not, one understands, interfere with him or his wishes, anyway."
The sallow pinched face of the Princess was very pale.
"He uses people, Johann Böhm, is that so? He must shine in his own eyes, no one else must share in his applause?"
The musician did not reply, but continued with a mournful air to throw the morsels to the swans.
"You are fond of music?" she asked abruptly.
"Yes, Highness. I compose a little. But it is difficult—people do not pay any attention. It cannot be expected that they should."
She perceived that here was a spirit, as meek, as resigned as her own.
"Are you married?" she asked. "Have you parents, or any tie in this city?"
He replied: "None;" and he named the town a long way off from which he had wandered as an orphan child many years ago, playing on a willow whistle made of pith by the roadside, for his food. He repeated that he had always loved music however made.
"I shall soon be on my travels again," he added. "Your Highness has a very kind heart, but it must not be troubled for me. When I have saved up a few crowns to buy a little instrument I shall begin to take the road again. By playing outside the inns I can soon earn my food and, when the weather is rough, a bed. The winter is coming on and one must think of these things," he added with a smile. "Then, perhaps at some other Court, I may find my fortune again."
"Or your misfortune," she smiled. "How pure those swans keep their plumage, Herr Böhm! We are, few of us, so diligent or so lucky—only too easily we become soiled."
She returned to the Residentzschloss and she put off at once the expensive clothes for which the Princess Hedwig had so generously and so tactfully paid. She put aside the jewels and ornaments that that kind hostess had lent her and she took from her drawers and caskets all the lavish presents which had been given her by Prince Chlodwig, and she bade her ancient servant pack up the modest baggage in which she had come to Luneburg Hohenheim.
Then, when she was attired in her plain travelling dress in which a few weeks before she had arrived at the charming city, she went to the cabinet where Prince Chlodwig at this hour always worked diligently by himself.
She paused a little before she tapped on the door. She did not want to discover that he was asleep or smoking or idling over a frivolous book, for she did not want to find out that he was wholly deceitful. But she need not have alarmed herself; he answered at once to her timid tap and he was really employed at his bureau with piles of documents and maps before him.
He was startled that she should thus wait on him, and rose, embarrassed, protesting. And then when he saw her attire he exclaimed at that.
"It is what I wore when you first saw me on the balcony." She smiled and held out her hand in a friendly fashion. "Do not let us pretend any more, Chlodwig. I hope you will be very fortunate. The appointment at Gandersheim is still open; I am going there to-morrow. Wish me luck, too."
He would have protested, he would have expressed amaze, chagrin, an outraged wonderment, but her sincerity broke down his protests. He stared at her, coloured, and stammered.
"It has been," she said kindly, "a delicious make-belief. I never meant it to continue."
"I wish it could, Magdalena; it meant a great deal to me."
She smiled wistfully as she thought to herself: "He never thinks what he may have meant to me. How impossible for me to tell him I have discovered he is not the man I thought he was."
She looked at him very keenly and saw under his bewilderment a certain relief. It had been, then, a strain, this maintenance of a heroic pose. She could not avoid seeing on his desk a paper with the name "Rozsika" written across. Well, it was only natural! How could she have supposed that such as he could breathe in such an atmosphere of rarefied virtue and abnegation? He made another effort to maintain his chivalry. It was not so difficult, for he really admired her. He was used to relying on his mother and on Baron Hagemann, and lately of relying a little on her. He did not wish to lose any of this support. With some sincerity he began to plead with her determination.
"Are you not giving up something after all, Magdalena? An Abbess!—what is that? Do you dislike me?" Vanity pathetically strove for reassurances on this point, she saw an offended pride in his glance. It was, of course, incredible to him that any woman could forgo him and all he offered. She gave him all that was in her power to offer at his shrine; she could afford to do so.
"I am not good enough," she said meekly. Behind his protests she sensed the serenity of one who is appeased.
THE Princess sighed when she thought of the disappointment of her father and her family.
"However," she consoled herself; though a little wistfully, "one cannot satisfy everyone. And he has the satisfaction of knowing that his daughter has refused the most brilliant prince in the Empire."
They had overwhelmed her with every courtesy, the Prince and his mother, but after a little while they had not striven to break her resolution. She was sure they were very glad that she had not insisted on a prolongation of the sacrifice. They had accomplished their purpose, re-instated themselves in their own esteem and in that of their subjects and neighbours. The glow of a generous deed would remain with them, though the price of that deed would not be exacted.
She had had the good sense to see how abominable it was to expect a man like Prince Chlodwig really to marry her, but that did not, in the eyes of his contemporaries, lessen his chivalry and generosity.
If Rozsika or another like her came to the Court once more, well, it would only be natural, and who would there be to blame? He would forget that she had laughed, he would only remember how lovely she had looked.
She, Magdalena Sybilla, had served her turn. She had helped him to redeem himself, he was once again the brilliant hero, the gilded cavalier, the resplendent young Prince. She had not been, she flattered herself, without a certain effect on his character. She had not observed him drink during their brief betrothal, though there had been a certain affectation in the ostentation of his abstinence. Well, let that pass, too. He was but one-and- twenty, in time he would outgrow his whims and fancies and no doubt become a steadfast and an honourable man and perhaps she would be the only one who would ever be aware of the real weakness of his character, and even she would never have known of it if she had not come upon Johann Böhm feeding the swans on a lake which was like a lady's mirror in the garden where the first leaves of autumn began to fall. He was a man who could not endure to lose, who could not suffer that an inferior should excel him. Where he had behaved ill no other must behave well.
He honoured her departure with very great courtesy. An escort was placed at her disposal; gifts she was not allowed to refuse were placed in her baggage-waggon. Standing there before all his people he kissed her hand as she sat in her carriage and regretted once more, with many vows and protestations, that she had felt herself unable to carry out that marriage contract.
He promised himself a visit some day, perhaps soon, perhaps immediately, to Gandersheim, that noblest of Abbeys that would now have the noblest of Abbesses...
He played his part perfectly and she admired him with a certain compassion and she was sorry that his eye should chance to rest upon a humble figure among her servants. As he recognised that gaunt form, those spare, harsh features, he forgot his dignity and his equanimity and exclaimed harshly:
"Johann Böhm goes with you?"
She replied with a meekness that was not assumed:
"The Abbess of Gandersheim is allowed an orchestra, and Herr Böhm plays the violin very well."
The young Prince opened his lips as if about to speak, but was silent. He seemed entirely withdrawn into himself, hostile not only to her, but to all the world. He bowed again with stiff military precision; behind this salutation she sensed an abrupt, a disdainful dismissal.
She had not meant to say any more, but his obvious hardening, his antagonistic glance, though it did not provoke her, decided her to add gently, bowing from the window of the gilded coach which his noble generosity had provided:
"Herr Böhm and I promised ourselves some duettos at Gandersheim. He has now a new violin, of a finer tone than that he broke. And I brought from home my spinet which is painted with a charming landscape of Love."
THEY had always disliked each other with a firm, unchangeable dislike; often expressed in words on the part of the master and glances and gestures on the part of the servant. They had remained together for nearly forty years, from expediency or custom. De Ravignac paid well and was just in his dealings; Jacques was a good and honest servant.
De Ravignac aged first; he was suddenly an old man: his beautiful youth, his superb manhood seemed stolen from him as suddenly as the gold watch and sapphire seal that had been snatched out of his pocket one dusky blue evening as he entered the Opera. He also had lost most of his money, his estates, his credit; partly through his own extravagant vices, partly because his class, which had so long battened on the labours of the plebeians, was in turn plucked and stripped. He had never cared about politics—nor, indeed, about anything save himself; but a revolution he was forced to notice. His friends, his mistresses, his property disappeared; he was too old to fight in the press, too feeble to raise his voice in the tumult; too old, he declared, to be able to die a violent death with decency. With a sneer he retired to a little château he owned in the Limousin. All his servants had been dismissed or had left; only Jacques remained. De Ravignac kept him, he said, because he was cheap, and Jacques said he stayed because he was too old to find work or even a home elsewhere. They lived alone, save for a village woman or two, in the pleasant little country house, and regarded each other with contempt.
De Ravignac had his books, his comforts, his flower-beds. He had discovered a passion for horticulture: even when gout held him in his room, he received a pleasure that was almost violent from contemplating the parterres beneath his windows. Jacques waited on him precisely, efficiently. He gave that one chamber the air of an apartment in a palace; his service hinted at many lackeys beyond the door; but the other parts of the château were unfurnished. Everything had been stolen or sold, and Jacques mended his own livery and gave a gourmet's touch to the rough cooking of Mère Bonnot.
De Ravignac had never condescended to ask the opinions of Jacques, who had been born a peasant and had become a servant; but Jacques was a liberal, a progressive. Whenever he was with his own class he proclaimed his eager sympathy with the people, his delight in the "Age of Reason" and the "Rights of man." Many times he had been asked: "Why do you stay with an aristocrat? Why do you perform these menial services for an enemy of France? You should have seen he was put out of the way long ago..." And the reply of Jacques was always the same: he was saving his master for a tit-bit of revenge; he had so much stored up against de Ravignac; so many insults, neglects, quietly borne; such a long tale of endless service accepted without a shade of thanks or even recognition; such a long-garnered hatred against a man in whom not even his friends nor his lovers had found a single virtue. Yes, yes, that was it: he was staying by de Ravignac till the moment should be quite ripe—and he would strike with all the force of accumulated years of patient waiting. Oh, yes! he was still strong, vigorous—how different from cet animal-là worn out by his sins!
This attitude on the part of Jacques had been the means of saving, several times, the life of de Ravignac. His servant's friends declared that it was but just that Jacques should have the handling of the affair; and when the shabby carriage passed the Paris barriers, some sans-culottes on the outlook for prey had whispered: "Let them go—his executioner is on the box!"
The Limousin was quiet with the peace of devastation, but even there some keen prying peasants remained who questioned sharply the seeming devotion of Jacques to his hateful old master—a cruel landlord, a man of whom no good was ever said; a fine specimen of the vermin from whom France was to be cleansed! Why was Jacques, himself one of the people, serving, even petting and coddling, the villainous old dog? Even Mère Bonnot wanted to know that: "You wait on him like a slave; he lacks for nothing; you even fuss about his cooking, keeping a bit of silver for him to eat off—wearing his livery—even looking after his flowers!"
"I'm waiting," Jacques would answer, showing his long teeth. "He's mine. I'm to do what I like with him." Then even Mère Bonnot refused to come any more; the temper of the times was more fierce; it wasn't safe to work at the château, she declared.
"What more do the people want?" grinned Jacques, polishing his buttons, which bore the de Ravignac crest. "They don't pay any rent; they've stripped the château and the park."
"They don't think he should be allowed to live."
"Tell them to leave that to me."
Early in the lovely gay April mornings, while de Ravignac slept, Jacques worked silently in the flower-beds beneath his window. De Ravignac, peering out, could not know that all other portions of the garden were a tangle of neglect: failing eyesight had brought his horizon very close; he affected to believe that there were several gardeners, several indoor servants remaining, that Jacques was still merely his own body-servant; and often, with cold elegance, he complained of Jacques, as he had complained all his life.
"You rascal, you are not worth what I pay you—how fortunate for you to be in my service! You are past work, that is what's the matter—old and incapable, Jacques."
His fine hands would pass the wages of Jacques across the marquetry table. He had brought a small hoard of coin from Paris; as he never counted this, he did not know that while he slept Jacques frequently replenished it from his own savings.
"I shall have to dismiss you, Jacques, you become every day more clumsy and stupid."
"Yes, Monseigneur le Marquis."
It was a delicious spring, like the youth of the world; strong green leaves thrust up through the carefully kept soil beneath the window of de Ravignac as the lusty plants forced up to the sunshine, which was thick and sweet like Narbonne honey. "It will be agreeable," remarked de Ravignac, "when the flowers appear."
Though his physical powers failed so rapidly, his spirit was not clouded; he was still arrogant, alert, malicious. Though his eyes were sunk in their sockets, they still turned glances of amused contempt, of wicked raillery, on Jacques. He scorned to think of the possibility of a changed world; his lofty cynical intelligence appeared to be satisfied with his books, his game of solitaire, his hyacinth border. He was like an aged bird of prey, gaunt, still magnificent, in his dying moments gazing at a few bright feathers from the gorgeous affrays of the past.
Jacques (who kept him exquisitely—linen, food, lace, and napery) wondered if the bright green leaves, the rich promise of blossom, reminded him of those bold, joyous sins of his which the servant had witnessed for so many years.
"That white flower will be the first, Jacques. I wish it potted and brought in here when the blossoms appear."
"Very good, Monseigneur le Marquis."
The morning that de Ravignac gave these orders, a threatening group appeared before the château where the two old men dwelt alone: a straggle of soldiers of the Republic passing through the village had been informed of the continued existence of the ci-devant Marquis. They battered on the door; a moment after, the silver bell of de Ravignac rang. Jacques, who had seen the soldiers from the window, went first to his master's room. He believed that de Ravignac knew everything; perhaps he was going to ask for mercy—he, Louis Anne de Ravignac!
De Ravignac said: "I intend to reduce your wages. It is regrettable that I have not been able to train you better. You are still very clumsy and incompetent. Why doesn't someone answer those knocks?"
When Jacques went to the door, opened it, and showed his large powerful hands glistening with blood, the citizen soldiers grinned approvingly; Mère Bonnot had told them already the story of the patient old servant hoarding his revenge.
"Too late!" he snarled. "Why, what do you suppose? Just now he told me he was going to reduce my wages..."
They went away; they agreed that if there was any plunder left in the château it belonged to Jacques, who had waited so long for his reward. With them went the remaining villagers; the whole countryside was deserted; it had become the kingdom of Jacques, where he was not likely to be again disturbed.
He went into the kitchen and very carefully washed his hands, while he considered what sauce would most successfully make the rabbit taste like chicken. On the shelf was a freshly-potted white flower; the purity of the clustered bells was as intense as light incarnate. Jacques carried this to de Ravignac's elegant chamber. Arrogant and cool, the haughty old man waited. Jacques was sure that he understood everything; why, his glance, guarded under his full-folded lids, even fell to a speck of the rabbit's blood under the thick nails of Jacques' scrubbed fingers.
"This is the first hyacinth to blossom, Monseigneur le Marquis."
Their gaze met for a quick second across the radiancy of the perfect bloom; Jacques felt an inexpressible joy as de Ravignac serenely remarked: "It is a fine blossom. Thank you, Jacques."
THE carriage bearing the wounded man from the defeat hurried through the ravine. The jagged rocks were so high, the gorge was so narrow that only when the sun was at its zenith, did the rays strike into the dark defile which cut for miles through the mountains.
Veils of water gushed down the clefts of sombre granite; clusters of fern, trails of ivy and clumps of moss freshly green, glittered with drops of moisture; high above the ravine, tall pines showed blue black plumes.
The loose stone rattled under the vehicle, and some crushed beneath its wheels; the two frightened white horses plunged forward as if they had the bit between their teeth.
"For God's sake not so fast! We shall overturn!" cried the corporal who was beside the coachman. "You will lose a wheel!"
"We shall go more slowly when the frontier is reached," shouted the other, sending his long whip curling round the sweating flanks of the straining beasts.
"We may have crossed it already for all I know," muttered the other. "It is a pity we have lost the escort—"
"Those fellows following us? Who were they?"
The corporal dryly grinned.
"I saw one or two generals—that was Lichenstein who was down—his animal rolled on him. Well, we have distanced them all—"
"By now they are in the hands of the enemy. It's firing that I still hear?"
"It is not possible that we still make a stand," muttered the corporal, trying to distinguish some sound beyond the clatter of the carriage—cannon, surely—no—thunder. A storm was coming up over the mountains.
Clinging to the gold braided cloth of the seat the soldier looked up at the strip of sky visible above the dark sides of the ravine; purple clouds were closing over the azure; the thunder rolled again.
"Shall we not stop to see if he be dead or alive?" suggested the corporal; the coachman made no answer and the soldier resigned himself to his own thoughts.
Phew! What a defeat! Trapped on that barren plateau, the Imperialists had withstood the fire of the Allies for hours. A massacre. What a confusion! of movements, of orders, of mingled disasters. Generals and their staffs galloping aimlessly across the field in and out of the wood where the artillery smoked, the trees were suddenly fired and the maddened horses rushed from the flaming forest...
The standards wavering, down, up again, then down to rise no more...the pitiful groans of the wounded, men who, a moment before had seemed the bravest of the brave, incapable of fear.
"Difficult," thought the corporal, "to be a hero with a bullet in your entrails or a sabre-cut across the face."
And where had the wine carts been, the waggons with barrels of water? Not a drop of anything to wash the taste of all this out of one's mouth.
A hideous defeat. Odd to be rattling away from it, without a scratch, hastening through this dark, cool ravine.
The road became rougher. The storm darkened down overhead.
"At this pace," grumbled the corporal, "the animals will drop exhausted and where shall we be then?"
The thunder crashed nearer; a sharp bend in the rocks brought them in full sight of a water break, dropping sheer, white, tall as a spectre; maddened by this ghostly menace and the thunder the wet frightened animals reared and plunged in the taut traces.
"Rein 'em up!" shouted the soldier. "Stop 'ern!" Straining back all his weight the coachman shouted his last words:
The carriage rocked from side to side, then overturned. The corporal was flung against the cold surface of the rock and for a moment stunned.
When he recovered, he thrust his hand into some dropping water and drank greedily; then, feeling that no bones were broken, he thought: I must be under the protection of the Devil,' and made the sign of the Cross.
He looked round for his companions.
The coachman lay sprawling on the stones with a broken neck, his whip, surmounted by the heavy gold coronet, still in his hand, his ornate livery spotted by the oncoming rush of rain.
The carriage was smashed, one wheel of; the fine side panelling, exquisitely painted with a grandiose coat of arms, had been shattered against the rock; the white horses were struggling together amid the snapped shaft and entangled reins.
"Gently, my friends, gently," muttered the corporal; he gave a practised glance at the dead man, then cautiously and after some difficulty released the scared animals, freeing the leathers with his bayonet that he had still in his frog.
The thunder rolled above the ravine in a sky completely dark, the water foamed down the blackness of the rock. The loneliness was complete. But the soldier was absorbed in his task—he was fond of animals.
"They must be under the protection of the Devil, too," he remarked to himself as he urged the horses to struggle to their hoofs. Save for some cuts they were unhurt; all strength and spirit had left them; they stood steaming, with drooping heads, their flanks rising and falling desperately.
The rain slanted down heavily; the soldier was reflecting in his slow mind on what he should do, when he suddenly remembered the occupant of the carriage.
The most important personage to save, and for whom this desperate flight had been undertaken.
The soldier grinned stupidly. Only yesterday he had stood, a most insignificant unit of a pompous array of foot, and watched this man (infinitely far away, it had seemed) move across the parade ground, stately on his costly charger which kept slow pace to the Imperial march of the drums and trumpets playing proudly in the sun. His staff had followed him, glittering with stars and crosses, with diamonds on their sword hilts and in their hats—now the poor corporal had forgotten even the existence of this mighty man. He did not seem so great in the solitude of the ravine. Even if he was still alive he had lost everything.
But the corporal was slightly ill at ease as he peered through the broken window of the smashed upturned carriage; the occupant, covered by a travelling cloak, lay huddled and unconscious. And a curious miscellany of articles were scattered about him; objects flung in with the indiscriminate haste of panic.
The soldier wrenched open the jammed door and dragged out a satin pelisse lined with fur, a gorget scrolled with gold, a travelling toilet-case with all the engraved glass smashed, a porcelain pipe with crimson tassels, several stars of diamonds and enamel, a copy of Cortelius and a gilt and crystal Eucharist wrapped in a tinsel fringed altar cloth.
The interior being freed of these the corporal, who was a tall, stout fellow, was, after great difficulty, able to lift out the unfortunate occupant and place him by the roadside with his head on a wet stone, and the scatter of rich articles (useless in this place) about him among the green antlers of the ferns.
Scratching his chin, the soldier gazed inquisitively at the defeated general, who, but a few hours ago had been as far away from him as the stars, and who now lay so quietly at his feet.
A queer predicament.
The corporal's curiosity so absorbed him that he made no attempt to help the other, but continued to stare at him as if he had been a strange trapped animal.
The general was about his own age and a great deal less than his strength—to judge by the look of him; his face was smooth and pale above the rich cravat, his nose aquiline, his eyebrows startlingly dark; his thick hair, still heavy with pomade, hung in loose thick tresses over the shining granite; his cloak was twisted about his disordered uniform—the white, gold and scarlet of the highest Imperial rank.
Slowly he opened his eyes, and as if there was nothing horrific or even uncommon in the circumstances said:
"I knew that fool was driving too fast."
The soldier withdrew his booby stare.
"He's broken his neck, my prince."
"Then that leaves just you and I?"
"Yes, my prince."
The general got to his feet gracefully; to the other's surprise he did not seem to be hurt at all; he leant against the rock, however, as if giddy, and held his hand against his side.
"Who are you, my friend?"
The soldier gave his name and that of his regiment; one that had been almost wiped out in the day's engagement.
"We both seem to have been unlucky," smiled the general; despite the composure due to his breeding and position, he turned even more unnaturally pale as the remembrance of his frightful defeat rushed into his anguished mind. "Bring me water," he added. And as the soldier was looking for a drinking cup in the debris among the stones: "You are a Pomeranian, are you not?"
"Yes, my prince." He was surprised that his accent had been recognised.
He found a flask, filled it and brought it awkwardly to the general who thanked him gravely.
"Where are the others? Were not some following?"
"We left them behind, sir."
"How did you come to be with me?"
"I don't rightly know, sir. There was a confusion—like—like—"
"Hell. I recall. And you were flying for your life, like the rest of us. But do me the justice to observe that I was unconscious."
"I saw them lift you in, my prince. They turned your horse—you wanted to go back. And then you were hit in the shoulder—"
"Bah! What does it matter? But it was an ill turn to drive me away. If I had died then I might have achieved a little glory. As it is I have completely lost my reputation and shall have to die just the same."
He rested his head in his hand and seemed to speak to himself.
"Die? How?" demanded the soldier stupidly.
The other laughed coldly.
"I don't know. This is an unlikely place, is it not?"
He glanced round the dark, still, ravine; the rain had ceased, only a thin violet haze of cloud blotted the pure blue overhead; only the lonely sound of the falling water broke the sombre stillness.
"The horses are alive and fairly sound," suggested the soldier.
"The carriage horses? But we have no equipment for them. What is there here that is of any use?"
"Very little, my prince. Neither money, nor food—all those things were thrown in—a panic—I suppose we ought to keep the Eucharist."
"Who put that in?"
"Prince Lichenstein, sir."
"An odd thing to do. Was he not with us?"
"I saw him thrown. I think he was killed."
The young General winced; he had refused to take Lichenstein's advice yesterday; at the final Council of War he had overruled everyone; with confident audacity he had dared to carry out a plan of his own. And had failed completely. What could one do in such circumstances? He hated the well-meaning friends who had huddled him into his carriage and forced him off the field of battle. A tattered impression of smoke and flame, of falling men, of dipping flags rushed across his inner vision as he stared at the narrow ravine, the water break, the ferns. He moved stiffly, bruised by two falls, disabled by the flesh wound in his shoulder. The pure air, the draught of cold water had revived him, however, and he wondered that he should, on such slight occasion, have fainted twice; emotion, not the bullet in his shoulder must have caused him to fall from his horse...he cursed quietly inwardly his destiny, remaining outwardly so calm that the corporal thought him without feeling.
"We must leave this place, my poor fellow. Are we over the frontier yet?"
"I do not know, my prince; this is the wilderness to me."
"And to me also, assuredly."
He inspected the horses with mechanical precision, thinking the while: "A defeat like that! No excuse whatever. And I fled in a carriage like a sick girl."
Before his mind floated lines of the dispatches that would be penned by the victorious generals to their respective Kings: "Sire, we captured so many cannon, flags, baggage, prisoners—a stupendous victory, one that will change the history, the map of Europe—"
"Take one of these horses, and follow me."
"Shall I bring any of these things, sir?" The soldier looked greedily at the gold and jewels and the scattered objects strewn in the ravine.
"Bring any weapons or powder. Cover up poor Jacques—his business is done."
"Shall we not take, my prince, some of these valuables?" A returning roll of thunder accompanied the other's answer.
"I shall not need them. And you should not. If you wish to be of my company you must share in what I seek. Shall I ride alone?"
The corporal touched nothing of the treasure save the Eucharist. And that he took with him; he understood little of what the other remark meant save that it was a rebuke; the officer added:
"Keep all, and look after yourself if you will."
But the corporal replied doggedly:
"I would rather come with you, sir." And he mounted the other horse without another look at the valuables scattered on the wet ground.
These strange companions rode slowly along the ravine on the weary scared animals, without saddle or stirrups; each thought how peculiar it was he should be with the other—the two of them, the highest and one of the least, thrown together out of the hideous debris of the fearful defeat; the general, absorbed in his own frightful thoughts, soon forgot the soldier, but the soldier remained uneasily aware of the presence of the great, though fallen gentleman.
Neither spoke until the cleft in the mountains ended sharply and they emerged on a sloping side of rock through which the road wound down into the valley which was full of late sunshine that sparkled in the heavy moisture left by the storm. After so long in the darkness of the narrow gorge, these wide, luminous prospects, these far off horizons were bewildering.
Neither of the fugitives knew where he was. The rays of the sun lay level across the vast open country and a diminishing glory behind the retreating tempest clouds showed that it would soon be dark.
The General was wondering how he should employ the few hours that were all he allowed himself of life; the corporal puzzled how he should save himself, and, somehow, get back to his home which was so far away. Both needed shelter, the gentleman a place in which to think, the peasant a place in which to sleep.
Where the mountain broke into the plain appeared a small but fine house rising from a terraced garden and shaded by the light boughs of a group of fernlike swamp cedars; a small open belvedere was pierced by the translucent scarlet gold of the sunset; in the parterres bright petalled flowers lay bent beneath the onslaught of the recent rain; all the doors and windows seemed closed.
"We will go there," said the General.
"It is certainly deserted, sir."
"It will serve us better if it is."
The light iron gates opened easily; they rode along a path between high banked laurel and oleanders; a rough-looking servant thrust his head out of the house door and rudely demanded their business.
"A little hospitality," said the General; he was incurably romantic and at once imagined that the lonely house held some beautiful woman whose graces and favours might gild his farewell to life; the corporal was ashamed of his humble personality and would have turned away, but the General, whom the servant instinctively recognised as master, detained him by a gesture.
The man who had spied their uniforms, began a tirade against all soldiers...his gutteral accents were raucous.
"I think we have not got across the frontier," said the General. "On which side is your master—or—is it your mistress?"
"My master doesn't care a damn for either side. Be off, only a day ago he filled some rascals like you full of shot—"
An upper window was thrown open and a young man in an untidy chamber robe looked out; he gripped a pistol and began to shout angrily.
The General interrupted.
"We are a couple of fugitives from the battle—we want a few hours' repose."
"You and your battles are an infernal nuisance," grumbled the young man. "This is the second time I've been interrupted—however, if you behave yourself; I suppose that you may come in—"
"An eccentric," smiled the General.
The gruff servant opened reluctantly the door wider, and, descending the few steps, led away the horses; the young man left the window and came down to the hall; he dispelled quickly the general's romantic hopes.
"I live here alone. I am a musician. This house was given me by a patron that I might work in quiet. And now nothing but hellish interruptions!"
"Well, my dear sir, with a war raging—"
"I know nothing about that. What has the war to do with me? I am a citizen of Venice. You, I suppose, a German?"
"Austrian. My name is Charles Ferdinand."
He had thought that his face, his uniform, his name would be instantly recognised, but he perceived that none of them meant anything to the musician who regarded him blankly.
"And your man?"
"A Pomeranian corporal. We were both unfortunate."
"Why? You seem to have whole skins."
"We ought to have died in the battle."
"It was a most frightful defeat."
"I see. Excuse me, but I don't really know anything about it What is the war about, anyhow?"
"I don't know. But I had the misfortune to command on the losing side—"
"A general of division?"
"Call it that, if you will. I see none of this means anything to you."
"It doesn't. Why can't I be left in peace? All this fighting is damned folly. Still, you look good company." The general bowed.
"I am credited with some social gifts."
"Come in and have supper."
"And my companion?"
"Hermann, who is a useful fellow, will give him something—"
The General commanded:
"Guard your tongue, await my orders," and dismissed the corporal.
The musician conducted his guest into an agreeable room where the lamp had just been lit and a cold supper stood ready; walls and furniture were encumbered by musical instruments, bursting portfolios held manuscripts, albums and scores; the windows stood open on to the terrace, the drenched gardens, the violet twilight.
The General glanced round; he felt inclined to laugh; the thought of himself being hurtled away from the defeat through the ravine, of the accident, of the huge Pomeranian dragging him from the carriage ("how the devil did he do it?") seemed now amusing.
Stiff, bruised and shaken, he flung himself into the best chair as he had been used to do all his life, and graciously told his host to be seated.
The musician was inclined to take this as an impertinence; he glowered doubtfully at the unfinished piece of music scattered over a clavecin.
"I have interrupted a composition?"
The other thrust his fingers through his untidy hair.
"Yes. I should have finished it after supper."
"What is it?"
"It is very appropriate. Why do you write an Elegy?"
Exasperated, the musician broke out angrily:
"How the devil should I know? How can I tell where these things come from that I hear in my head?"
"I perceive you live in a world of fantasy. What is your name?"
"I am like you, I have Christian names only—"
Confused for a moment the guest replied:
"Ah, my name—it would sound strange here—" Making an effort over his frightful melancholy he exclaimed: "Let us at least pass a pleasant evening."
They seated themselves at the table. The musician soon found his guest very much to his taste; he liked his grace and energy, his vigour and his youth; he admired that long, smooth face, those intensely black brows, the clearly outlined mouth with the full lower lip, he was childishly pleased by the soiled splendours of the brilliant uniform covered by braid and tassels.
He was himself a fine young man, frank and lively, much neglected in his person and living entirely in the phantasmagoria he created for himself out of his art. Of the great world in which the other had lived since his cradle, he knew nothing. Even the vast war was to him only a hideous stupid nightmare. He did not know what had become of his patron. He spoke German very well, but now and then, as he drank more and more, broke into a Venetian patois unintelligible to his companion.
They got on very well together; Jacopo did most of the talking. With naive candour he related his love affairs, his triumphs with Operas and Masses, the difficulty of securing appreciation for excellent work—the disgusting jealousy of puny rivals—his luck at finding this retreat away from all the vile stupidities of the world.
The soldier sympathised. He was himself a musical amateur. He played the flute.
As he listened to the frank boastings of the musician that were full of inspiration and nobility he felt his own tragedy sink into the background of his mind.
The untidy room, his loquacious companion, the dark night beyond the terrace were alone real; the ghastly scenes of yesterday, the results of his blunders, his obstinacy, became like a drop cloth in a theatre. He ate little and drinking on top of his fatigue and bruises, his mind became at once exhilarated and clouded.
He knew, however, through all this curious hallucination of peace and hope, that with the dawn would come another tale.
Excited by his own talk and the grace and sympathy of his companion, Jacopo went to the clavecin and played over the opening of his Elegy.
"I believe I could finish it now."
"Pray do not allow me to disarrange you. I shall sit very quietly here."
The musician grinned good-humouredly.
"It is strange how often I have been interrupted! Yesterday those fellows broke into the garden and sent every idea out of my head—"
"Oh, they were soldiers. Confounded devils! They kicked up a fine noise. I soon put them to flight. Cannot you understand that I came here for quiet?" I cried, and as they still refused to go away, I fired out of the window. I hit two of them. That silenced them. They went away—quick enough.
Instantly alert the General demanded:
"Who were they? What did they want?"
"How should I know?"
"What was their uniform?"
"Oh, they had scarlet and yellow fools' caps and little bells—"
"Hanoverian!" exclaimed the other. "The enemy—how was it you were so stupid as to fire on them?"
"Because they were making such a row just when I was in the midst of my Elegy—"
"You have acted like an imbecile. A civilian firing on a soldier signs his own death warrant."
Jacopo, surprised at the energy of this statement, swung round on his stool.
"But they went away!"
"They thought, of course, that some of our men were concealed here. They will return—"
"Yes, they shouted out something about returning—"
"—with reinforcements. They will burn the house about your ears and shoot you and your servant. While we have been idling over our supper with open windows, they, no doubt, are on their way—very likely they would wait till dark."
"Bah! Why should they trouble about me? No doubt something has, by now, occurred to distract them—"
"Maybe," replied the other dryly. "But if you wish to finish your Elegy I should advise you to begin at once."
"That is all very well, but you have contrived to distract my thoughts with your infernal suggestion of those rogues returning—"
The General laughed, rose and looked out of the window; the dark night was peaceful, silent; perhaps by some chance of war this fool might escape the consequences of his folly. He was to the soldier a new type, eccentric, half crazy, totally absorbed in his own emotions, his own music, which did not matter to anyone, but full of a fierce attractive energy.
"He has not done the harm that I have," thought the fugitive thinking of the hundreds of dead on yesterday's battlefield. "He has made me forget what I must do. If the house should be attacked would that not be a good way out of it all?"
Straining his ears he fancied that he heard sinister noises without. Instantly he closed and shuttered the windows.
"Who is with you besides your servant?"
"No one!" roared the musician from the clavecin. "Cannot you let me be in peace?"
The General left the room; behind him sounded the repetition of a mournful melody. He shouted up the corporal, the servant, from the kitchen.
They came at once and he ordered them into the room opposite that where he had supped, and himself lit a few candles. This apartment was in wretched disorder; a packet of love letters savagely torn across was flung down beside a bouquet of dead flowers thrust into a vase of Persian porcelain.
The General threw some carnival clothes off a sofa and demanded from Hermann the story of the attack on the soldiers.
Both this fellow and the Pomeranian had been drinking heavily. The noble patron of the musician had by no means intended to give his protégé the keys of his cellars; but Hermann, exasperated by boredom and the vagaries of his master, hoping besides that the owner of the villa had been killed in battle by now, had broken into the wine vaults.
Fortified by drink the corporal had lost all his awkward timidity; carrying his huge bulk proudly he eyed the General without awe as a mere puny fellow whose life he had saved by his own address and strength.
Hermann, taciturn and sullen, admitted to the firing—had he not already boasted of it when the two of them had arrived at the house?
Yes, the cursed rogues had threatened to return—yes, there was an officer with them, his language had been very violent. No, there was not much powder and shot in the house, nor any means of defending it that he knew of—yes, he believed two of the scoundrels had been hit, one at least, badly, he had seen him being carried away. That was queer, too, for, as far as he knew, the musician, who was undoubtedly mad, had never fired a shot before.
"Beginner's luck," remarked the General; his spirits rose, he saw a chance to fill the last hours of his life with movement, action, excitement. He hoped that the enemy would return to revenge themselves and quickly—no doubt they would proceed cautiously, believing the place full of armed men...there might be a pretty diversion of several hours.
When, however, he put before the other two his certainty of an attack and his scheme of defence they both roundly declared their intention of abandoning the place and taking to the open country.
The extravagant plans of the General, intoxicated by despair, desire of glory, grandeur and heroism, meant nothing to these two; they decided to pillage the house and fly.
Weary, with his thoughts in frightful disarray, the other remained silent, and took his head in his hands; then, with a dreadful effort, recovered his empire over himself and rose.
"You will do as I order you. I speak to men not to dogs or rats. If the house is attacked you will help me defend it."
He dominated them; encouraged by the thought of the well- plenished cellar, they consented to remain; the General bade them close all the doors and windows with lock and bolt and bring up such weapons as the place afforded.
He then returned to the room where he had left his host; as he paused outside the door he heard the most heavenly melodies arising from the clavecin; he was moved, startled by such beauty which accorded very well with his exalted mood.
"The fellow has talent. He would be a success in Vienna. Is it possible that I shall never see Vienna again?"
He entered, half enchanted by the slow harmonies.
"I believe, Herr Jacopo, that the house is being surrounded—they intend, no doubt, to surprise us—but I am ready to receive them."
The musician's broad white hands came to rest on the keys.
"Why? What is it to you?" he asked impatiently.
Encouraged by the music he had heard, the young soldier leant on the clavecin, eagerly bending forward.
"Listen—I was in command yesterday. Do you understand? I refused all advice and was horribly defeated. I fled. I must, in face of this frightful disgrace, die, before I hear what is said of me. I can tell by your music that you will comprehend this attitude—"
"Yes, yes, I understand very well. It is grand, it is noble! But why not fall on your sword as the Romans did?"
"Times have changed. Heroic virtue, alas, is no longer the fashion. One must not attract attention to oneself. I have already made myself sufficiently ridiculous—thrust into a carriage, jolted along a ravine, dragged out of a stupid accident by a great boor of a Pomeranian—"
"Well, no doubt you know your own affairs and the house is at your disposal. I suppose I may finish my Elegy which I think will be very noble?"
"I will do my best to assure that you are not disturbed. Will you allow me to write the dedication of your Elegy which is much to my taste?"
He took the pen from the music rest and wrote on the top of the first sheet of music—
"By special Permission dedicated to His Imperial Highness the Archduke Charles Ferdinand Leopold Christian—Generalissimo of the Forces of His Caesarean Majesty."
"Very well," replied the musician impatiently; he had completely forgotten the name the young man had given him earlier in the evening. "But who is this fellow? Could he get my Opera Amphion performed at Vienna?"
"Once—he would have been honoured—but now he is useless."
"Bah!" interrupted Jacopo furiously. "Why, then, do you interrupt me to dedicate my beautiful Elegy to him? Is it not enough that I must compose on this wretched, tinkling instrument when I require a whole orchestra to express my inspiration without being plagued by your impertinence?"
The soldier laughed; for him the moment had become relentless, feverish; he listened at the closed windows and was sure he could hear the furtive sounds of men creeping round the house; leaving the musician to his work he returned to Hermann and the Pomeranian who quietly awaited his orders.
To keep up their courage they had opened some more bottles of wine; in an ironic humour Charles Ferdinand surveyed them.
"Two of us are crazy and two are drunk," he thought; "we should make a fine conclusion to our affairs."
With professional and mechanical accuracy he began detailing his plans for the defence of the house; the two men looked at each other doubtfully; neither of them had heard anything; they had cautiously loosened the shutter and peered out into the night; it had seemed as quiet as dark.
When the General had gone upstairs, a taper in his hand, to examine, he said, the upper rooms, the Pomeranian tapped his forehead and winked at his companion.
"It is true that he must have had a bruise or two on the head. No one is attacking the house."
"Therefore we can easily humour him," replied Hermann. "We are comfortable enough here with two lunatics who do not interfere with us at all."
And they continued to drink and exchange contemptuous opinions about life. The impatient, interrupted, repeated melody of the Elegy, unheard by them, broke in the passage without.
"What is he doing upstairs?" wondered the Pomeranian at length.
"No doubt he thinks he can see, even in the dark, the enemies surrounding us—leave him to his ideas—"
"It seems a pity I dragged him out of the carriage. His defeat has turned his head—what was that?" The big man shuddered, for a voice that sounded unearthly, rang without.
Hermann opened the door and the two peered up the narrow stairway which was lit by a high lamp set in a niche.
They drew back, silenced.
Charles Ferdinand was descending the stairs, his bare sword in his hand, his uniform further disordered as if he had been in a struggle, his shirt open on his bare bosom, his hair straggling on his shoulders. He held his head high, as if he carried, and looked up to, a flag.
"My friends," he said on seeing the two below, "the house is completely surrounded—they are crowding on the javelins, demi-lunes—they fill the covered ways—they are near enough to throw bombs. We will, of course, die negligently, fighting to the last—you understand my metaphor? The Hanoverians, believing this an ambush, are cautiously advancing to the attack—listen, what do you hear?"
"Rats and owls, as usual," replied Hermann, "and my poor master at his music—"
Charles Ferdinand entered the room with the torn love letters, the dead flowers, the empty bottles of wine and the guttering candles; he flung down his sword and seized a handsome inlaid fowling piece which lay among the weapons the two men had carelessly collected and flung down.
"They approach this window! The rascals little know the prey they will miss." Turning abruptly to the Pomeranian he added: "This is a good opportunity to discover what they really thought of me in the army—what did fellows like you used to say of me?"
"That you were too young, my prince. And would never have had your post but for your rank," grinned the drunken corporal. "That you would be governed by your mistresses in your youth and your priests in old age—and several other things not to be repeated in good company—"
"What, was there not one of you willing to die for me?"
"Oh, we were paid to do that. And we bore you no ill will."
"And my plans, my orders, my marches and countermarches—were these not thought to show as remarkable a genius as that of Eugene or Marlborough?"
The Pomeranian laughed stupidly.
"We excused everything—knowing that there was madness in your illustrious family, my prince."
"So one is judged by base fellows," smiled the General sadly; then, with a sudden fury that startled them both, he flung open the shutters and fired into the dark, muttering: "I may have been defeated—I may have fled—but you shall never take me alive—"
Inflamed by his fierce energy the two men caught up weapons and pressed behind him; they thought that they could see ferocious forms shaping out of the blackness of the clouded night and sparks of fire twinkling in the garden, and with shouts of defiance they also loaded and fired.
Exasperated beyond endurance by this fracas the musician broke into the room, abusing them all heartily.
"Cannot you kill each other without all this noise?"—seeing them crouching at the window, firing as fast as they could reload, his mood changed to one of martial fury. He began to yell outrageous taunts at the unseen enemy and in a delirium of wrath looked about for a weapon; as he did so, blundering in his anger, he knocked over one of the candles on to the untidy pile of old love letters that immediately flared up.
"Ah, that confounded Marietta was always a tiresome woman!" he yelled, endeavouring to beat out the flames with his hands.
The young General looked round severely; his aristocratic face was flushed.
"This is not a burla or an operetta at Venice," he said. "Extinguish that fire at once—"
"There are some barrels of water in the cellars," added Hermann who was absorbed in tracing the progress of a gigantic grenadier in yellow and red who was creeping under the dense laurel bushes; to all three defenders of the lonely house the midnight dark palpitated with monstrous foes; air and earth belched enemies.
Behind them the flames, catching the dry damask, the crisp silk of the sofa, sprang clear and high.
The musician ran to the cellar, stumbling, cursing in the half dark smeared by the dubious rays of a wall lamp; the rhythms of his Elegy ran in his head; these hideous interruptions appeared to him like so many demons sent to plague him; he had no longer any sense of reality—he wished for peace, for silence only. Pausing on the cellar steps he beat the air with grandiose gestures as if he conducted a vast orchestra of rebellious angels.
As he fell half over a barrel he was reminded of his detestable errand; with a cry of rage he seized the cask and ran upstairs—"tempo di marcia—presto—why should it not end like that?"
When he returned to the room it was half enveloped in flames; indifferent to this fierce illumination behind them, the three men at the open window continued to fire; the orders of the young General sounded sharply through the crackle of the muskets.
"Ah, the rascals, the scoundrels, the devils, they have dared to come back!" shouted Jacopo, looking round for something with which to smash in the cask. "Give them a lesson, my friends, give them a lesson!"
"Master, the dead are already nearly as high as the balcony," grinned Hermann. "It is good to kill."
"But we shall be vanquished in the end," said the General, leaning, exhausted from his own violent mood, against the window frame, "and there is no priest to give us supreme absolution—" In a terrible voice he added, making the sign of the Cross:
"—Vitae aeterne. Amen."
Seizing a candelabrum of Florentine copper the young musician, in a frenzy, stove in the barrel and hurled the contents that at once gushed out, on to the already victorious flames.
It was not however water, but brandy, that he had cast on the conflagration, and the alcohol, bursting into pure fire, instantly enveloped the room and the four men in an apogee of glory, light, colour, consuming heat, and ignited the powder horns ready for their defence.
The house did not burn out until the pure melancholy of the dawn which broke with pale serenity above the mountains beyond the valley.
At that hour a vedette of Hanoverians passed by and gazed curiously at the blackened walls of the mansion from which smoke rose in slow puffs, issuing sullenly from empty windows.
"That is the house where that fellow shot at us the other day," remarked the officer thoughtfully. "Evidently there was some mystery about the place and I did well to withdraw."
Cautiously they examined the distant out-building. They found nothing of interest, save two fine white carriage horses, well worth taking away.
"If there was anyone here they have been consumed."
"Perhaps there was a night attack?"
"Bah! Who would trouble themselves with this?—after yesterday no need to concern ourselves with small matters! But we ought really to have punished that idiot for his insolence in firing—"
Without enthusiasm the Hanoverians examined the garden; it was too dangerous to enter the smouldering house.
The lieutenant perceived a fragment of half-burnt paper blown against one of the scorched oleander bushes; on it was written:
"By special Permission dedicated to His Imperial Highness the Archduke Charles Ferdinand—"
"Bah!" smiled the German complacently. "That is a little out of date! Charles Ferdinand is the egregious young fool who was beaten so completely yesterday—what a disaster for him!"
"I wonder where he has hidden himself?"
"It doesn't matter. He is no longer of importance."
Turning on his heel, the Hanoverian ground the little fragment of the Elegy into the soft earth.
When the vedette had ridden away the silence was unbroken save for the monotonous chirping of the birds in the swamp cedars. The valley was full of luminous shadows, the mountain-tops, like gigantic funeral pyres lit at the top, flamed with the first fires of the day.
THE old woman pushed her truck through the soldiers gathered on the outskirts of the ruined village. Corded to the truck was a large rudely-made box in the shape of a coffin. The soldiers were amazed, for it was amusing that anyone should think of burying their dead when corpses were as common in Silesia as hedgerow berries. They began to gather round the rude bier, offering to challenge, to interfere. The beldame was plainly glad to pause at her task. She stopped, rested on the hand-cart and wiped with the ragged ends of her tattered shawl the dirty sweat from her face. She was greatly fatigued; had she not been as strong as a draught-mare she would have been dead of starvation, plague or fright, long since.
Some of the soldiers jeered.
"Where are you going, ma belle? Where did you get the coffin? Crazy hag, did you see the bonfire in the churchyard last night after the bomb had made a hole? Plenty of coffins there, ma foi! And fine yellow skulls inside. Mon Dieu! they seemed glad of a little warmth by the way they grinned at us."
Swinging his arms across his chest a cuirassier added through blue lips: "You have a damned early winter in this infernal country!"
The old woman had a little recovered her breath, only a slight trembling of her strong jaw showed her age and her exhaustion.
"It is my husband—my man—he is dead of famine; I am taking him to the little cemetery which the nuns keep on the hill. He used to work for them and they always promised to give him a burying."
"How did you make the coffin?" asked a slim cornet. He was young enough to be depressed by the devastated country, the constant massacres. His fine eyes were inflamed by smoke and wine, but his complexion, despite the rigors of military life, was clear and smooth above his blue uniform.
"My husband was a carpenter, he made his own coffin when wood was cheap."
The soldiers, yawning, heavy-headed, stared; there was something monstrous about the old hag, so powerful, so gaunt, with great worn hands, lean chaps rough with silver hairs, dried saliva at the corners of her lips, and a glance direct, vigorous, perhaps crazy.
"Very likely," suggested a sergeant, embittered by a shattered hand roughly bandaged (even the victors lacked almost everything), "the harridan has some concealed money or good stuff in that box; I have heard of such dirty tricks, vielle folle!"
The cornet again languidly approached the hand-cart; he sneered at the thought of any booty being left in Klatz; why, it was a wonder that the old woman was alive herself. The loungers grinned to see him retreat, for the loathsome odour of decay had struck disgust into even his nostrils no longer sensitive.
"Parbleu, you have kept the carrion long enough, ma fille," he said, holding his nose.
"May His Holy Name be blessed," murmured the ancient creature. "Had I not to get up strength in my old body to do all as it should be done? It is not easy in these times."
"Get on!" shrugged the cornet.
As the old woman bent to her task he threw a late loosened wild rose that he had been tormenting in his fingers on to the massive deal box; the others thought he mocked, but his face expressed only weariness; it was near the end of the campaign, everything pleasant had long since been destroyed, all supplies were wanting...When had anyone last tasted a glass of good wine, or a plate of fresh meat? And a pretty, lively girl would have been worth her weight in gold.
Along the road to Cracow by the side of the Vistula the old woman trudged, pushing and pulling her burden.
The sky was milky blue, the clouds curdled into heavy flower- like forms; half-rotted rushes bent in the flow of the river. The old creature was nearing the end of her endurance. She was so old, so ill-fed, and then the anxiety, eh, it was nearly too much for a miserable ancient woman.
"Surely she would never reach the convent on the hill...Eh, but she would; after all these weeks was she to fail now? And getting away from those ruffians, too, that was luck...God must be looking after a wretched old woman. May His Holy Name be blessed!" She crossed herself.
But her body and limbs ached, a bitter fluid soured her mouth, an acrid film dimmed her eyes, her heart beat heavily, with reluctance, in a bosom which felt empty...She leant straining against the hand-cart.
She proceeded with great pain along the road to Cracow. She reached the small orchard below the cemetery, she looked up at the lonely chapel of the convent (the soldiers had respected the nuns, it was difficult to know why), and she thought: "I cannot go any further."
Her rough hands untied the knotted cords of the rude coffin on the truck, and slowly she lifted the lid after glancing round furtively, and a sprightly young girl, white and plump as a pet rabbit, sat up; she held a cloth soaked in vinegar to her dainty nostrils to deaden the smell of the dead rats at her feet. She got out stiffly and yawned. The fresh air was delicious. Ever since the soldiers had entered Klatz she had lived in a cupboard, hidden from greedy and covetous eyes, fed on tit-bits, it is true, but still in a cupboard.
The old woman cast away the rats and sank down on her haunches, gazing at her granddaughter with looks of pride, with the timidity of love.
"Listen, my Lisbeth, I have saved you, God be praised; the soldiers do not know you exist, but I can do no more, I am very tired—no one can see us here for the bend in the road—Now you must run quickly up to the convent, my darling."
The girl gazed about her. It was an exquisite evening, pure, cold, azure; in all the landscape only the convent was dark, sombre.
The old woman's senses began to fail, she had spent her last forces in pushing her heavy burden.
"Run quickly, my love, my dear, you will be safe with the holy sisters. Kiss me good-bye, Lisbeth...God be praised I have saved you from the soldiers and their desires!"
The girl glanced at the old woman, no need to kiss her since she was already dead...How ugly she was, sprawling in the frost- bitten grass! Lisbeth fingered her own soft unblemished bosom and eyed the convent on the hill. She was hungry, she greedily snatched up a fallen apple and lustfully set her little pointed teeth in it. A crab apple! She pitched it away with disgust; as if her mouth were not already twisted with the vinegar! The disappointment confirmed her decision; everything was so dull and quiet, the convent so morosely silent, her grandame so repulsive in her sudden twisted death—and the orchard was of crab apples! She picked up from the truck the overblown rose, licked her red lips slyly and turned back along the Cracow road in search of the fine young cornet whom she had observed through the joints of the roughly-made coffin.
GIAN FRANCESCO leant against the great Horse in Venice, which, save for the slim green chargers against the rich blue of the San Marco portico, is the only beast of its kind in the streetless city.
Close beside him was Filipo, who regarded him with a watchful air; they both, in fine dark cloaks and slouch hats, looked very much the same, but Gian Francesco was a very important personage indeed and Filipo was only his valet.
It was a June night and the air was melancholy with the haunted song of the caged nightingales who mourned unseen from the dark fronts of the palaces.
Gian Francesco was well used to the splendid and the lovely but very sensitive to their appeal, and he leant against the statue in indolent enjoyment of the passionate night, so soft, so dark, so sparkling with stars, so permeated with music, so deliciously full of the possibility of adventure.
He was a well-made man who wore his simple attire with a rather exaggerated grace; he was, at most, five and twenty.
It has been said that it was June in Venice and that the nightingales were singing pressed against the gilt wires of their cages, so perhaps the nature of his musings may be better imagined than described.
But Filipo, the valet, was an older man, also one with no such leisure for dreams, and one whose credit and livelihood depended on his care of Gian Francesco.
Therefore he looked with disfavour on these public musings, and suggested, with due humility, a return to the discreet chambers in Il Capello Nero where Gian Francesco lodged his incognito grandeur.
Gian Francesco reminded him:
"Did I not come here to taste some such hours as these? What poetry is there in sitting in an inn parlour that breathes garlic and wood smoke?"
"Discretion," murmured Filipo, "craves some consideration. You are here surrounded by enemies who may at any moment penetrate your disguise with sharp eyes and your body with sharp swords."
"It is beneath me," replied the other in the grand manner in which he had been so carefully trained, "to consider such things. Besides," he added, on a more human note, "I do not think that even if my identity were discovered any violence would be offered to my person."
"I would not trust the Venetians," said Filipo anxiously. "And consider the bad terms the Republic is on with Tuscany—"
"Fie," interrupted his master, "introducing politics on such a night as this!"
"I hope, Serenity, that something worse does not introduce itself."
"Could there be anything worse? I doubt it," replied Gian Francesco lazily.
"Surely," said the valet, still all anxiety, "it is near the hour of the rendezvous?"
"You think that to scale into one of these palaces is safer than meditating here?" asked his master. "It is certainly not time yet—the lady particularly warned me not to be too soon—when the clock strikes—"
This sentence was never completed, for, most unfortunately, the valet absorbed in his trepidation and the master in his romantic dreaming had both failed to notice four figures that had crept from the purple shadows in front of the palaces, slipped across the tiny piazzetta and concealed themselves behind the huge plinth that supported Il Cavallo, and as Gian Francesco was dwelling languidly on his amorous expectations he was most dexterously seized from behind, his arms nipped together, a cloth flung over his head and drawn tightly round his throat.
Two of the men had served for this turn and the other two had similarly disposed of Filipo.
The master's sword and the valet's pistol rang together on the pavement as they were neatly disarmed.
Two lengths of fine whipcord served to bind their arms and feet, and thus muffled and helpless they were borne swiftly to a gondola that waited by the edge of the piazzetta and disposed carefully in the felzi; the gondolier shot the boat with the four men and their two victims out into the sombre rio, and the monstrous horse and ferocious rider pranced and stared immobile over the deserted piazzetta, lit by a moon glow that began to slowly illuminate the sky as the crescent rose above the Lido.
Gian Francesco felt himself being carried upstairs; from the first he had not struggled, feeling it both useless and undignified, and he had been, besides, very gently handled.
The cloth had been loosened so that he could breathe, and it would have been possible for him to have shouted as the gondola sped along the dark canals, but it had not needed the gleam of a stiletto in one of his companion's hands to keep him silent.
The fear of the scandal of being found in such a position was sufficient for that; he still ventured to hope that his identity was unknown and that he might get out of this adventure without revealing it, and he strove, though agitated by wrath, shame, and apprehension, to maintain (even against such odds) the dignity and tranquillity of his demeanour.
Finally he was released, the bonds and cloth removed, and he himself placed on his feet.
He looked about him with more eagerness than he often displayed, or, indeed, felt.
He was in a small, gloomy room that appeared to be usually uninhabited; the one window had a heavy double grille, the one door was bolted; there were five chairs, a table on which stood a lantern, and nothing else.
His four captors stood in front of Gian Francesco. They were (as he had known they would be) masked, and in the Venetian fashion, with lace fall and cloak over the head, so that it was impossible to distinguish a single trait in any one of them.
Gian Francesco shook out his disordered clothes; his powdered locks were tumbled, his cravat twisted. The four bowed and afforded him leisure in which to adjust his toilet, by which he perceived that he had at least fallen into the hands of gentlemen.
As his plain cloak had been removed with his bonds it now became obvious that Gian Francesco was in something of gala array.
His peach-coloured silk, finely embroidered with silver threads, his waistcoat, richly flowered and blazing with diamond buttons, his long cravat and wrist ruffles of Mechlin lace, his scarlet heels and paste buckles all proclaimed that he was no ordinary man on no ordinary errand.
The four masks glanced at each other, and one remarked in Venetian dialect:
"It is quite likely to be true—for he is certainly very attractive—a minion of the moon, up to any mischief."
Gian Francesco, having now recovered his complete composure, seated himself; he also glanced round for his hat and would have put it on—but it had been lost in the scuffle.
These habits were stronger than his sincere desire to preserve his incognito.
"I am waiting," he said grandly, "for your explanation."
"It is most simple," replied one of the masks. "When the Grand Duke of Tuscany comes in disguise to Venice—he must expect the Serene Republic to take advantage of the fact."
Gian Francesco blushed.
"How on earth did you know me?" he demanded testily.
"It is the business of the Serene Republic to find out everything that happens within her territory."
"But my passport was so skilfully faked," complained Gian Francesco, "I have been so extremely careful."
"So," observed the mask, "have we."
"And now," asked another, "I suppose Your Serenity will not deny that you are the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Archduke of Austria—and a few other titles besides?"
"No," said Gian Francesco haughtily, "I will not deny it."
"Good. Then we have only to proceed to our business, which is very quickly dispatched. First I must inform you that we are representatives of the Senate and Republic of Venice and empowered to perform justice in her name."
The Grand Duke did not like the sound of that word "justice."
"I am not in Venice for any political ends," he remarked. "One understands. Unfortunately, Highness, our business is politics, always."
"How does that concern me?" asked the victim, with more insouciance than he felt.
"Your Highness is the enemy of the republic, you influence both Tuscany and the empire against us—our special delegate sent to you recently was most coldly received."
"And would be again. I found his demands both insolent and provocative—"
"I entreat Your Highness not to flourish so much. Let us leave personalities and come directly to the matter in hand. Can Your Highness give us any reason for coming to Venice in disguise?"
His Serenity remained obstinately silent.
Another of the masks took up the conversation.
"Perhaps there was not one reason, but four."
Gian Francesco blushed again; it was a tiresome habit that not even his most rigid training had been able to cure.
"When that envoy came from Venice to Florence," continued the other, "he took with him his wife, and she, the noble Costanza di Bertoli, had in her train four ladies, to whom Your Highness was observed to pay great attention—is it possible that your secret visit to Venice—?"
"Since your concern is with politics," returned Gian Francesco coolly, "why drag in anything else?"
"Precisely. Your Highness has admirable business capacity. We will drag in nothing else. We have then, signor, only to inform you that the Senate, sitting to-day in secret conclave, unanimously decreed your death, and we are here to put that resolve into execution."
"I see," said Gian Francesco, who had, during this speech, become rather pale. "And have you reflected on the consequences of this murder?"
"We have reflected on how to avoid them."
"You cannot avoid them. You will bring not only Tuscany but the empire about your ears. Venice will be blown into her own marshes by the fury of the wrath of my family and people."
"That might be," replied the mask, "if anyone knew of the fate of Your Highness, but no one will."
"No one will?" The Grand Duke felt distinctly chilled. "Precisely. You will simply disappear. Your body will be disposed of in one of the secret prisons under the Ducal Palazzo and there will be not the slightest clue to the whereabouts of your bones."
"But it will be known that I disappeared in Venice."
"Will it? Did Your Highness tell anyone that you were coming to Venice? I think not, for everyone would have condemned such an escapade. No, you are supposed to be hunting in the Pratolino and when you are missed Venice will be the last place where anyone will look for you, Serenity."
"You seem marvellously well informed," remarked Gian Francesco grimly.
The mask bowed.
"Your Highness has half an hour. You may see a priest if you will."
"Where is my valet?" demanded the Grand Duke. If Filipo had escaped he might have been able to summon help from the Florentine envoy or the Austrian Embassy.
The answer dispelled these faint hopes.
"The fellow is neatly trussed up below; when Your Serenity is safely in Heaven you will find him waiting for you—God forbid that we should send a man of quality on so long a journey without a body servant."
Gian Francesco sat thoughtfully gazing into the lantern; he had always been taught that prudence is the chief virtue for a prince and he knew that there was no one to blame but himself for his present predicament, which was foolish as well as fatal.
"Very well," he said at length. "Words are wasted when one is dealing with assassins—send along your priest."
"We are willing to grant you one other favour," said the spokesman of the masks, "and that is permission to write a farewell letter—provided there is nothing political, but a letter to some person you hold dear—the person perhaps for whose sake you are in Venice."
"You are trying to find out who it is knows I am in Venice," replied the Grand Duke. "Of course I shall write no such letter."
"Indeed you are wrong," the mask assured him. "Whoever the lady is who knows you are in Venice, she will be quiet about it for obvious reasons. All the four ladies who went to Tuscany have extremely jealous husbands."
Gian Francesco saw the reason of this; it was certainly not likely that the lady would make any disclosures of her knowledge.
"Perhaps," suggested another of the masks, "you were about to go to an appointment when we interrupted you—it would be only gallant to explain your failure to keep so important a rendezvous."
Gian Francesco rose.
"Will you swear, as gentlemen, that this letter will not be used for any political purpose?"
They all swore with what seemed to him unmistakable sincerity.
One produced writing materials from his pocket and Gian Francesco sat down by the lantern light to write his letter.
"Naturally," they warned him, "you will make no allusion to the manner of your fate."
"Naturally," said the Grand Duke dryly.
Without more ado he began to write:
The only thing that could have occurred to keep me from you to-night has occurred. I must leave you to conjecture what that is.
This letter is, alas! not only an apology, but a farewell. Do not expect to see me more, and believe that in bidding farewell to you I have bidden farewell to all that is life.
The Grand Duke, who was rather sentimental, felt a certain pleasure in writing this. He signed with a flourish:
Yours far beyond the slight incident that now
He gazed a little pensively at the signature; it occurred to him that this was the last time that he would sign his august name.
The masks took the paper and each read it with approval.
"Discreet certainly," the leader conceded. "Now, to whom are we to deliver this farewell?"
The Grand Duke looked at them thoughtfully.
"It is clearly impossible for me to give you the name of the lady."
"It is clearly impossible for us to deliver the message without it."
"Not at all. At midnight—in a little inn towards Chioggia, which is always full of sailors and onions—will appear a small, dwarfish black woman—give her the letter saying that it is from Gian Francesco, and she will know where to deliver it."
"She is your usual messenger?"
"Precisely—but it will be no use to ask her the name of the lady for she does not know it herself:"
"We do not," said the mask gallantly, "wish to pry into the secrets of Your Highness—the letter shall be delivered. What is the name of the inn?"
Gian Francesco answered:
"La Corona del Piombo."
The masks all bowed again.
"We will now leave you to your meditations—the priest will shortly be with you."
They left him, taking the lantern with them, and Gian Francesco, alone in the dark, heard the bolting of the door.
The four masks, for political agents, showed a vast interest in the farewell letter written by their victim.
Leaving him secured in the attic and the valet secured in the cellar, they proceeded, not to fetch a priest or an executioner, but direct to the little inn near Chioggia full of sailors and onions, and known by the name of La Corona del Piombo.
By the time that they reached this queer resort it was midnight, but there was no negress among the medley of people drinking thin wine, eating cheese and rye bread, or sleeping on the long benches.
The masks had now removed their disguise and appeared as four ordinary Venetian gentlemen, therefore their appearance caused no comment though they lingered on well into the night, idling over the soiled tables and eyeing the door.
"We have been fooled," they decided at length, "or some accident or suspicion has overtaken the messenger."
They looked at one another and considered if they should return to Gian Francesco and endeavour to wring from him the name of the lady.
They decided, however, that this would be useless and also that that part of the jest had gone far enough.
These four masks were, as you may have perceived, the four husbands of the ladies who had come to Florence in the train of the noble Lady Costanza di Bertoli, and no agents of the Serene Republic; and their sole object had been to discover which of the ladies the Grand Duke was pursuing—or being pursued by—and on their spies informing them of the presence of His Highness in Venice they had concocted this plan for coming at the truth.
One had suggested that it would have been more simple to have shadowed him to the scene of his assignation; but though you may catch even a wary man with sudden violence in Venice it is next to impossible to shadow even an unwary one, by reason of the quick waterways and dark canals; and the four ladies were as subtle as they were fair.
It would be impossible for them to long keep the Grand Duke and his valet a prisoner without the trick being discovered, and they meant to escort him across the frontier while he was still under the impression that he was in the power of the republic.
So, having no time to lose, the four husbands agreed on this expedient.
They took the letter to a scribe they knew, knocked him up and obliged him to make three fair copies of the letter; then, each with a farewell in his pocket, they proceeded home. They considered that the matter would soon be settled, as it would be impossible for the guilty lady to disguise her knowledge of the letter and the writer.
The noble Lady Orsola Schiavoni was yawning in a pink chemise, stretched on a little bed of ivory, when her husband entered the room.
Her dense black hair was plaited with thousands of little pearls and hundreds of little braids of silver; she blew her husband a kiss and sat up in bed.
"I have," said he, "a letter for you."
"From my mother?" asked she sweetly.
"From my brother or sister?"
"It is a riddle! How delightful!"
"It is from a gallant."
"Then it is not for me," she smiled. "Am I not the only lady in Venice without a gallant?"
"So I always believed," he returned. "Still, this letter! It is from one called Gian Francesco and seems to be a farewell, written when on the point of death."
He waited for this thunderbolt to take effect, but the noble Lady Orsola gazed at him with candid eyes and her colour neither rose nor fell.
"Poor soul," she said, "it must be for one of my women. Where did you find it?"
He gave her the letter, which she looked at with languid curiosity.
"I intercepted a messenger," he said, "a dwarfish negress—who waits in an inn near Chioggia, full of onions and and sailors."
Orsola yawned and handed him back the letter.
"What a queer story," she remarked. "I am really too sleepy to try to understand it all—"
The noble Lady Mafalda Capello was an early riser; when her husband reached home she was already on the roof with her fair hair drawn through a crownless hat and spread on the brim that the morning sun (the only one now supportable) might bleach the thick locks.
Her lord had a different method with his copy of the letter.
He gave it to her hairdresser who was busy with a mess of camomile flowers.
"Present this," he said, "to your mistress, saying it was given you by a dwarfish negress who fetched it from an inn near Chioggia which is full of sailors and onions and goes by the name of La Corona del Piombo, and give it her as I come forward with my eyes on her."
With the letter he put a gold bezant into the hand of the hairdresser, who was an adept at this kind of affair and did not fail to carry out his instructions very well.
So the message was delivered to the noble Lady Mafalda just as her husband had directed it should be, and the note put into her hand just as he was turning back from the roof parapet towards her. She read it without the least sign of motion, shrugged her shoulders, and remarking: "Thou hast mistaken the direction, this is for some other lady," handed it back to the hairdresser.
The third husband was even more cunning; he folded up the note and flung it on the balcony of his wife's room where she always went to feed her doves early in the morning.
And there Madonna Bonaventura found it lying on the pink marble as she began to scatter the orange grain. While her husband watched from behind a curtain.
The lady picked up the note, read it, and then, with an air of indifferency, tore it into shreds and cast it into the canal.
And the fourth lady?
The letter she received happened to be the original one—that which Gian Francesco had really penned when he believed himself under sentence of death.
This lady was Carola Visdomini, sweet, idle, and luscious as a summer day, and when her husband found her she was doing nothing better than twist flowers into her auburn locks while she gazed at herself in a mirror set in a shell.
Her husband dropped the letter into her lap.
"As the man is dying or dead," he said grimly, "I will deliver you his message."
Her smile was most innocent, like that of a child listening to a fairy tale, and when she had read the note it was sweeter and more innocent still.
"Dear love," she murmured, "what is this subtle jest?" She gave him back the note and returned to braiding flowers into her hair.
The four husbands met at the appointed rendezvous; each was pleased with himself and felt a secret pity for the others, for each was convinced of the innocence of his own lady and sure of the guilt of one of the wives of his companions.
And they related their experiences, one after the other, with pride and delight in the virtue of each separate lady. And they concluded with something the same words:
"Suspicious as I am, and cautious as you know me to be, I certainly could not have been deceived—truth was in her eyes, on her cheeks and brow, candour on her lips and innocence in her smile!"
Only Prince Schiavoni, who was the most cynical minded, asked:
"Then why did the Grand Duke risk his person in Venice?"
"Perhaps for some lady of whom we know nothing."
"Ah, perhaps." Prince Schiavoni smiled up his sleeve, thinking: "One of you is a credulous fool to be twisted round a woman's finger."
And each of the others thought:
"Strange that Schiavoni should be so easily gulled—it must have been his Orsola."
While they were thus congratulating themselves on the success of their plot they remembered suddenly Gian Francesco.
The poor devil must be still in expectation of death and sorely in need of food and drink, and the conspirators who had been so absorbed in their own domestic affairs as to forget their prisoner, glanced at each other with some consternation.
After all, it was the person of the Grand Duke of Tuscany they dealt with and their lives and estates might answer for it if their stratagem was discovered.
It was clearly impossible to smuggle His Serenity across the frontier until dark, therefore he must be kept a prisoner until nightfall.
Meanwhile they might (now none of them had a special grievance against him) put him out of his fear of death, give him refreshments and repose.
They decided to tell him that the Serene Republic had been graciously pleased to spare his life on condition he allowed himself to be put over the frontier and swore never to return to Venice save in an official capacity.
In pursuance of this plan the four, severally, and as it appeared, casually, gathered in the dark little piazzetta where stood the house where the Grand Duke was confined; there they slipped their masks out of their pockets, threw their cloaks about their persons and proceeded to enter the dismal-looking dwelling that sheltered the unfortunate Grand Duke.
What was the consternation upon discovering that the door, which they had left so carefully locked and bolted was open and had swung ajar!
They crowded into the narrow passage and nearly fell over the body of their guard and watch which was lying prone, gagged and bound on the stained—yes, blood-stained—black and white flags.
They dragged him into a sitting posture, took off his bonds and gag, and were selfishly relieved to find that, though seriously wounded, he was conscious and still had breath enough, to speak.
"The prisoners!" they demanded. "The prisoners!"
"Both released," gasped the man, "and by the foul fiend, as I do think!"
One rushed upstairs to see if this was true—and sure enough he found the room empty where they had left Gian Francesco—another dashed into the basement and found that the valet had followed the master.
All four stood close to hear the tale of the wretched watch who had now the cut on his head hastily bound up and had been given a drink of the wine they had brought for Gian Francesco.
The poor man's tale was short.
"The door was burst open, by the powers of Hell, for all I know. I was knocked on the head and disarmed; one held me down while the others rushed upstairs, and bound and gagged me, as you found me. I saw them go past again with the prisoners—the one from the attic and the one from the cellar."
"Who were these people?" cried Prince Schiavoni bitterly.
"Four bravos, in masks, of course, signor, and a diabolical, dwarfish negress leading them."
"A dwarfish negress!"
"No higher than my waist, with a face to rebuke sin, and peacocked out in orange brocade under her mantle." There was silence.
Each of the four husbands debated a curious thought. At length one spoke, voicing the general feeling: "At what hour did this occur?"
"Soon after Your Excellencies left me," groaned the man, nursing his head. "A good half-hour could not have passed before the door was thrust in."
They looked at each other.
"Then, while we were waiting in that wine shop at Chioggia, Gian Francesco was free to—"
"Do what he pleased," finished another.
"Visit any lady he desired to visit," added a third. And the fourth added:
"It seems to me that we have been properly fooled."
"Yes, but by whom?"
It was indeed difficult to tell. Many theories at once presented themselves, and one thing at least was clear. They had been watched when they arrested their men (probably by the diabolical negress) and shadowed in a gondola to their destination, the house being marked, help had been summoned.
Gian Francesco's safety was guarded either by his own prudence or by that of someone else. Had he fooled them when he sent them to watch for the negress? Had he known of his own approaching rescue?—or was it all the work of the lady with whom he had the appointment?
Had the negress, the go-between, been spying on the Grand Duke to watch over his safety? or was she herself in the employ of that Prince?
And what of the bravos?
Who had employed them?
And how had Gian Francesco employed his time while the four husbands were waiting in the inn at Chioggia? All the night before him—and all the ways clear.
How easy for the guilty lady to have aped innocence if she had already heard the whole story from Gian Francesco a few hours previously...
The four husbands gazed grimly at each other.
Late, late the next night, as the dawn light was beginning to drown the stars in a vapour of pearly light, Gian Francesco and Filipo his valet rode safely over the Venetian frontier. Gian Francesco was singing gaily and there were four red roses in his cravat. Filipo looked relieved to be across the frontier, yet not wholly dissatisfied with his past adventures.
Neither the Chronicles of Venice nor those of Tuscany mention the manner in which His Serene Highness spent the hours after his release from his imprisonment, where he was hiding the following day, nor to whom he bade farewell that night before he rode across the frontier.
It is equally obscure who employed the bravos who rescued him and which of the ladies (if any) was lying.
Perhaps it may be guessed—perhaps not.
Four farewells, four husbands, four bravos—four red roses in Gian Francesco's cravat, Minion of the Moon, equal to any mischief.
EUGEN TÖLLONG offered money in vain; none of the boatmen would row him across the lake; the ice was breaking and the dark water choked by cracking floes.
He was desperate enough to risk an accident.
"A matter of life or death?" they asked.
Töllong smiled behind his high fur collar; quick riding through the wind had flayed his cheeks a burning red; his eyes, under the heavy cloth cap, showed a hard, bright blue that seemed as unnaturally vivid as coloured glass.
"Certainly it is a matter of life and death—my motto, since I began my journey, has been—hurry!"
"Very well, then, if you go a little further up the lake, where the ice is firmer, you can hire a sledge, and if you care to drive it yourself; with your own horse—"
Töllong turned, waiting to hear no more, and rode along the edge of the vast lake that stretched between him and the capital, the objective of his swift journey; to have gone round by the road would have meant a delay that he could not afford.
The landscape was bare as a bleached bone; even the distant line of pines on the further shore appeared frozen in stark immobility; ash-grey geese flew across a cold, pallid sky; in subdued, menacing tumult the water strove against the ice; as he hastened, Töllong heard this crack, saw, in the deep splits, the dark, bitter wavelets.
He procured a sledge by paying the value of it in advance; the people at the lonely post house were amazed at his lavishness, at his recklessness.
"The ice will scarcely bear—this must be very important business!"
"I have but one word in my ears and that is—'hurry!'" replied Töllong; he reflected that he was making himself conspicuous, that these inquisitive people would remember him—afterwards.
But that would not matter; it was not as if he had reckoned on escape; still it was a pity that the affair had been left so late and that the spring had chanced so early this year.
He leaped into the sledge to which his stout, fresh horse had been harnessed, placed his case, the only luggage he carried, beside him, drew closely round his limbs the reindeer rugs and started off across the ice which there lay smooth enough; now and then he heard a crack beneath him which startled the horse, and urged the frightened beast on as fiercely as if the wolves were behind; as he neared the further shore he felt the heave of the ice crust beneath him; it was breaking. Töllong stood up, loosened the reins, yelled at the plunging horse, trying to guide him to the block of ice ahead—the foreshore was so close, failure seemed impossible, he could discern a wooden house at the verge of the black wood, a man, a boat among the frozen reeds.
Töllong's horse missed the ice floe, and plunged into the lake, dragging the sledge after him; Töllong struggled in the sharp cold water, was sucked under and lost his senses; the hideous sensation of swimming in blackness gave way to one of drowsy warmth; he felt something hot in his mouth and sat up suddenly, spilling the liquid on his chest. "Hurry!" he muttered, making an effort to rise; but he was held back and answered by a laugh.
"Yes—hurry, indeed. Fool's haste!—and fool's luck too—you're all right."
Töllong lay quiet as his senses, his memories flowed back to him; he was on a rough bed by a huge stove that warmed a plain wooden room; before this his own clothes and those of another were drying; on the top of it, coffee was heating and a pan of food cooking; Töllong stretched and looked round for the man who had spoken.
"You rescued me?" he asked, stupidly.
"Well, I had to pull you out of the lake—why did they let you attempt the crossing?"
"I insisted—my business is very important."
Töllong sat up; he was covered in rugs and skins and wore a shirt not his own; he felt foolish and vexed as he tried to express to his rescuer some gratitude, some appreciation.
This young man was about his own age, of a fine physique; he had changed into a linen shirt, that hung open carelessly on his broad white chest, and blue cloth breeches; his wide, comely face expressed great vitality and vivacity; he was obviously full of gaiety and daring; his thick fair hair, roughly dried, hung on to his shoulders, giving him an uncouth appearance; but for all that, Töllong noted at once his elegance and distinction.
"You are not a farmer or a peasant," he said—"who are you?"
The other answered this blunt question candidly.
"I am an officer in the garrison in Stockholm—and I came out here for a little duck shooting. I love the winter quiet."
"It was not for me to be questioning you," replied Töllong awkwardly. "I am hardly in my right senses yet. Forgive me—it was only that you are so different from the people one expects to meet—no doubt you will be wondering about me—"
"I know one thing. You are a Smälander—"
"My accent betrays me?—yes—"
Töllong was uneasy; he remembered his case and what he had in the pocket of the coat drying before the stove, also his need for haste; then he recalled with pleasure that he had crossed the lake; he would, after all, be in time.
"—as long as I am in the city by to-night," he continued.
"That is easy—we are an hour's ride from the suburbs. Your horse struggled ashore—like yourself he is none the worse. The sledge is lost—"
"I fear that has also gone."
Töllong was vexed; but the best place for his papers if they must leave his own possession was the bottom of the lake; again he tried to express his thanks, asked his rescuer's name—
"Gustaf Erikson. I suppose you would have done as much for me." The genial young man seemed amused. "But it was lucky for you I was there. Now you must share my dinner and we will go to the town together. Your clothes will not be dry, but I can lend you others—a servant keeps this place for me, I will send him to you."
As his host left the room Töllong sprang to his furred overcoat, steaming before the stove, and searched nervously in the inner pocket—yes, there was his thick leather wallet almost untouched by the water; on opening it quickly he found, to his great relief, the horn badge of peculiar shape with "Hurry!" cut on it in small letters, his money, and a handsomely engraved ticket for the masquerade at the palace that evening.
His host returned.
"I hope you find your possessions all right?"
Töllong, taken by surprise, laughed awkwardly, vexed at being caught searching in his coat.
"I was anxious, about my money—"
"And that, too, I suppose," added Captain Erikson pointing to the large card embellished with flowers and cupidons that Töllong held. "Forgive me, my friend, but admission to the royal masquerade is not so easily procured—you must be a person of some consequence!
"I owe it to the kindness of friends," replied Töllong. "Now you understand my reasons for haste—to have gone by the road would have meant missing the ball."
"Which is, however, really not worth risking one's life for," smiled Gustaf Erikson with his strong glance of vivid hazel eyes turned on Töllong. "Though I admit that many of my fellow- officers would have given a great deal—which they don't possess—for a chance to go to such an exclusive affair—at which the King himself will be present."
"Will he, indeed?" replied Töllong, carefully putting away the wallet. "Then I am luckier than I thought."
Captain Erikson's servant entered and opened one of the large pinewood cupboards that lined the wall opposite the stove; this was full of a sufficient variety of garments to prove the soldier to be wealthy and whimsical; for the place was lonely and desolate indeed, yet the wooden house well equipped for a long residence.
As Töllong dressed himself (the two men were much of a size) his host asked him his name and where he should send his own clothes when dry?
"My name is Olaf Brandt and I am staying at The Silver Antlers—but I will not disoblige you any further—I can send for the things to-morrow," he grinned, thinking that to- morrow he would have little need of trifles.
The two men sat down to a meal that Kristian, the servant, prepared and served; with his badge and ticket safe against his heart Töllong felt at ease and even sanguine as to the success of his mission; it was vexatious, of course, that he had roused the curiosity of this amiable stranger who expressed a frank amazement at the young provincial's wild journey to the capital to attend the royal ball—
Töllong also affected to be frank.
"I am under such an obligation to you that it seems pleasure that he had crossed the lake; he would, after all, be in time.
"—as long as I am in the city by to-night," he continued.
"That is easy—we are an hour's ride from the suburbs. Your horse struggled ashore—like yourself he is none the worse. The sledge is lost—"
"I fear that has also gone."
Töllong was vexed; but the best place for his papers if they must leave his own possession was the bottom of the lake; again he tried to express his thanks, asked his rescuer's name—
"Gustaf Erikson. I suppose you would have done as much for me." The genial young man seemed amused. "But it was lucky for you I was there. Now you must share my dinner and we will go to the town together. Your clothes will not be dry, but I can lend you others—a servant keeps this place for me, I will send him to you."
As his host left the room Töllong sprang to his furred overcoat, steaming before the stove, and searched nervously in the inner pocket—yes, there was his thick leather wallet almost untouched by the water; on opening it quickly he found, to his great relief, the horn badge of peculiar shape with "Hurry!" cut on it in small letters, his money, and a handsomely engraved ticket for the masquerade at the palace that evening.
His host returned.
"I hope you find your possessions all right?"
Töllong, taken by surprise, laughed awkwardly, vexed at being caught searching in his coat.
"I was anxious, about my money—"
"And that, too, I suppose," added Captain Erikson pointing to the large card embellished with flowers and cupidons that Töllong held. "Forgive me, my friend, but churlish to keep secrets—but the friend who has procured me this ticket has done it at some risk—you understand? I must not mention his name."
"A court official?"
"Well, it wouldn't mean much to me! I don't move in those circles—"
Töllong, feeling pressed, admitted:
"Well—the secret isn't mine—forgive me, my friend, the affair is rather delicate!"
"Precisely! You perceive that my lips are sealed—"
He smiled, knowing that the other thought he insinuated a hint of a love affair, but there was no love in his errand and the lady concerned was long past tenderness or gallantry. When Töllong smiled he was agreeable to look at, for his teeth were even and white and his too vivid blue eyes half closed in a pleasant manner; his features were harsh, his cheek-bones high and his hair rough and stiff, of the colour of burnt flax; he was splendidly made and had an attractive air of health.
"You ought to be in the army," commented Captain Erikson, probing, Töllong felt, for information.
"I would, maybe, under a different government—"
"Ah, a revolutionary! A republican, what a number there are about!"
"No, no—but one can't have much respect for the present régime—"
"You blame the King, no doubt—"
"Well, you can't call him popular, even in the army—"
"Speak freely before me," smiled Gustaf Erikson. "I agree with you that the King is a sad fellow—as much abused in the provinces as in the capital, no doubt."
But Töllong's frankness was nicely calculated, he refused to be drawn further.
"Oh, I haven't thought much about it," he replied.
"I live too remote from politics, I've other things to think of—I'm still a student at Uppsala for one thing and then I help my father with the estates—"
"Ah, you students are dangerous! It is you who write all these wild pamphlets against God and the King—when you have not as much as seen either—"
"Well, I have never written a line in my life—and under your favour, sir, I ought to be getting on."
"I'll swear," smiled the officer, rising, "you are a red-hot 'sans culotte' or Jacobin—full of advanced ideas and eager to practise 'em!"
"Well," said Töllong, "surely a man of your age isn't satisfied to dry rot in a garrison supporting all the old traditions and conventions and amusing yourself duck shooting in a place like this!"
"I divert myself one way and another, it isn't a bad life, I assure you!" Gustaf Erikson laughed joyously as he slipped into his heavy fur coat; there was something about him, an active grace, a subtle distinction, that was very charming; his easy, friendly manner and an air of generous nobility in his mien tempted Töllong to confidences that he knew he must by no means give. He delighted in the sense of speed given by the swift sledge drive; the young officer had a pair of fine horses and drove at a brisk pace along the level road; as they sped along he talked with great vivacity, smiling over his shoulder above the grey fur of his collar.
Tölling's accident, his brief unconsciousness, his meeting with this charming stranger, had altered his mood; he put his hand over the hidden badge and grinned with excitement; his blue eyes shone with the heartless fervour of the fanatic and his lips, stiff from the cold, formed the word—"hurry!"
Before he crossed the lake he had not paused to think; he had been blindly intent on his errand, almost like an automaton.
Now his mission assumed a sharp importance, because at once richly fantastic, with all the glamour of high adventure, and intensely real, making commonplace incidents appear trivial and intolerably futile.
His blood raced with a keen exhilaration as he saw the towers of the city rise against the cold sky; he, Eügen Töllong, unknown, obscure, with little hope, to the casual observer, of ever being anything else, was entering the capital of his country for the first time utterly unnoticed—but, to-morrow, ah, to-morrow there would be no one in the whole of Sweden who had not heard his name—
"You seem pleased, my friend," remarked Captain Erikson as they drove through the suburbs. "It is true that it is a fine, frosty day, and that you are going to the royal masquerade to- night!"
"But you seem to think there must be a deeper cause for my satisfaction!" smiled Töllong. "Well, I have told you that there is a secret—"
"Which I will not probe—perhaps to-morrow you would like me to show you some of the sights of the city?"
Töllong echoed—"to-morrow!" then added quickly, "To- morrow I shall have to return."
"So soon! You are indeed a mysterious person! This evening—the masquerade does not begin till midnight—come with me to a little cabaret first—"
Töllong reflected—"I shall have to pass the time somehow—why not with this harmless fellow, who clearly has not a thought beyond his pleasures?" And he agreed to meet the young officer at The Silver Antlers at nine o'clock.
"I have an appointment first, you understand!"
"Ah, with the fair dame, no doubt!"
Töllong nodded; he felt very friendly towards his rescuer though warm feelings were contrary to his nature; but this man had saved his life at risk of his own and at a most opportune moment—if he, Töllong, had gone to the bottom of the lake, how much more than his own life would have been lost!
They parted at the door of Töllong's inn; as the young officer drove gaily away Töllong half regretted that he had made that appointment with him for later in the evening; had he not been warned to beware of all strangers?—"anyone, the most unlikely person, might be a police or government agent in disguise—"; but Töllong reassured himself—the circumstances of his meeting with Gustaf Erikson had been so peculiar—it would have been the oddest coincidence in the world if he had been rescued by an emissary of the government—besides, Erikson was so obviously what he said he was, a careless young officer.
But—no time for reflection—hurry!
The city seemed very gay to him as he started out on his first errand; the fashionable shops, the well-dressed crowds, the tinkle of sledge bells, the darkening blue sky sparkling with clear frost-bright stars all absurdly stimulated Eügen Töllong, the studious provincial.
As he searched for the address he had so carefully committed to memory he came upon a vast building that could be no other than the palace; Töllong stopped dead to stare while passers-by glanced with vexation at his large bulk and rustic obstruction of the pavement.
The lamps of festival were already being hung in the windows of the palace, the last light of day showed the evening wind lifting the folds of the royal standard on the topmost tower...Töllong felt himself part of great events. He found his destination to be an old timber house in a quiet square; there were gooseberry bushes in the patch of garden, he noticed the tiny first leaves among the long thorns.
The door opened at once to his five carefully spaced knocks; he showed his horn badge and was admitted by a fellow who might have been any servant in any service.
Töllong followed him up the narrow stairs into a plain room shuttered against the twilight. Three men, all strangers to Töllong, sat round a deal table lit by a cheap lamp; one was corpulent and slovenly in his person, one a dandy, gaunt and high shouldered, the third elderly, withered and bowed; their faces Töllong could not see, for they wore masks.
He stood before them, his badge in his hand; knowing that he was being keenly scrutinised; with an effort at ease he said:
"You are the members of the Committee to whom I was to report?"
"We are," replied the stout man. "And you are Eügen Töllong whom we were to expect?"
"Yes—is there any need for mystery, gentlemen? Surely I have proved that I am to be trusted?"
"No doubt," answered the other dryly, "or you would not be here. But why wish to burden yourself with the knowledge of our identities? What you do not know you cannot reveal."
Without waiting for any possible comment he continued:
"We have examined your dossier, you seem in all suitable. You have no regrets, fears or scruples?"
"None," Töllong declared vehemently. "When I was told that the lot had fallen to me, I prepared to put myself absolutely at your disposal—"
"You know what you risk?"
"Of course." Töllong's wrought-up fanaticism was scornful of this prosy talk; the masks glanced at each other, approving his resolute carriage; the oldest handed him a packet.
"Very well, no need for further talk when we all understand each other perfectly. Here are your instructions, your costume and domino will be delivered at your inn."
To this the stout man added:
"Madame wishes to see you first—"
Töllong bowed; the third man, who had not yet spoken, offered him a glass of brandy which he drank—"to the health of our enterprise ". The cold had been so intense on his journey that he had not touched alcohol since he left home, the spirit therefore sent his blood racing and made his mood even more buoyant; he felt a hero and a martyr; his face, frostbitten on the nose arch and cheek bones, set in an expression of cold ferocity, the relentless grimace of the fanatic.
The three conspirators, looking at him, were satisfied with the skilful jugglery that had made the name of Eügen Töllong appear on the ticket drawn from so many others, the man was made for his purpose—no need to fear that he would not carry it through.
They questioned him about his journey—he had had a long way to travel since he had received the message that his had been the name drawn.
Töllong said nothing about that adventure at the lake; it now seemed a rather ridiculous kind of miracle; he would not waste time recounting such futilities—besides, he did not wish to admit that his papers were at the bottom of the ice-bound waters.
"At twelve o'clock someone will call for you," remarked the most elegant of the masks; he rose, as if dismissing Töllong, but added:
"One formality—you will take the customary oath that nothing whatever will turn you from your purpose—"
"Easily—what could turn me?"
"Nothing, as we hope. Remember, nothing, not the most unforeseen, most fantastic circumstance—swear." Raising his right hand to heaven, Töllong swore.
"You are the saviour of your country!" exclaimed the stout man, embracing him.
Töllong was outside in the cold night, in the obscure little garden; a sharp subtle fragrance came from the gooseberry bushes, the moon, nearly at the full, was rising above the dark lines of the roofs.
He hastened back to his inn; his domino had arrived; a lavender-blue Venetian cloak with a white mask and black hat; with it was a suit of violet velvet.
Töllong laid all ready in his room, locked the door and went down to dinner in the public ordinary.
The place was full and he heard a good deal of revolutionary talk; how quickly these new ideas spread, how free they were in the capital! In the provinces one had to be circumspect, but here every topic was openly criticised, every public personage abused, the example of France, of America, freely admired; "A bas les tyrants!"; everyone seemed full of intoxicating hope, of relentless vigour; what a marvellous new world was to rise from the ruins of the old!
Töllong with difficulty restrained himself from joining in this patriotic hubbub, especially when the King was abused, ah, he, too, knew something of that evil monarch.
Slightly lowering their voices the two men at the nearest table gloated over the vices, the extravagances, the insolences of the King; all the faults of a corrupt government were laid at his door; so headstrong, too, and infatuate.
"Can't he see when he is going too far?"
"We want another Brutus—"
"The old Queen-mother now, she knows what she is about—she has up-to-date ideas."
Töllong drank another glass of brandy, but no more; he must, of all things, be sober to-night; but sober was what he could not be, for the strange events through which he was passing intoxicated him without the help of spirits.
Boisterously he hailed Captain Erikson, who drove up his spanking greys exact to the minute.
"You city folk are pretty cool! The people here talk boldly of the most delicate subjects—even railing against the King—"
"Oh, that's nothing! One hears that kind of conversation at any mess table—it is rather the fashion. Rousseau, Voltaire, Danton! Come along, I will take you to a cabaret where you will hear some fine spouting!"
"Do you, an officer of the garrison, dare to frequent such haunts?" asked Töllong, springing in beside the other as the sledge took the street again, sending the powdered snow flying.
"Oh, the city is very badly policed, one does what one likes! It is easy to see that everything goes to pieces!"
"It seems to me," said Töllong, settling under the warm fur rugs, "that the King must be not only a scoundrel, but an imbecile!"
"Very likely—they say he is certain to be assassinated one of these days."
"He takes no precautions?"
"Eh, how do I know!" replied the young officer, who seemed indeed a wild, reckless fellow. "But why do you call him a scoundrel? Has he ruined your sister, seduced your wife, or cast your old father into prison?"
"Bah, he has never heard of my existence—but everyone knows he is a scoundrel—"
"I have heard him sometimes called a reformer—"
"Nonsense, he is a contemptible tyrant." Töllong spoke casually.
"Why should we concern ourselves with him! Perhaps the old Queen is more to your mind—she is always quarrelling with him—"
"I know nothing about her," lied Töllong.
The sledge drew up at an obscure cabaret; the windows sent long rays of yellow light on to the piled snow without; a porter sprang out to seize the reins, Töllong followed his friend into noise, warmth, a close atmosphere of food and wine odours, then into a crowded inner room where the company greeted Gustaf Erikson with lusty pleasure.
"I must be cautious," Töllong told himself, "or these half- drunken fools will delay me."
Seizing him by the arm Erikson shouted:
"Here is Olaf Brandt whom I fished out of the lake this morning—he was frozen as stiff as a radish! A fine introduction to Stockholm! But—what do you think, this lucky devil has a ticket for the masquerade to-night!"
"I have a friend at court," Töllong hastened to explain. "No names, gentlemen, you understand!"
He sat down in the chair pulled out for him; he had a pleasant feeling of dominating them all, that there was something in his air, his glance that betrayed his full and magnificent life, his powerful purpose which was soon to sweep up to a dramatic climax that would startle the whole of Europe, yes, soon the whole world would hear of Eügen Tölling!
"Come!" cried Erikson. "What is the subject for debate to- night! Was it not to be that man should live to his full capacity—regardless of commendation and convention?"
By this Töllong learned that he had been introduced into some manner of club and one which, despite the presence of several officers, was of a revolutionary tendency; many of those crowded round the table began to talk together; how full of eagerness and vivacity they were, how they clamoured for youth, youth! Away with the old men, away with the middle-aged men, away with all mouldering tradition, sentiment, and rules!
There were several pretty women present; and they were loudest of all in their enthusiastic outcry; one, of a flamboyant beauty, sat next Töllong, crowded up to him in the press; her bosom was bare, a fur hat was tied under her chin, she continually offered to touch glasses with Töllong, inviting him to drink, but he remembered the badge on his breast—"hurry!"
Through the tobacco smoke showed a clock painted with pale, sickly sentimental wreaths of blue and pink flowers; Töllong watched the minutes tick away on the bland face of this timepiece; he must be wary, sober, quick.
He closed his eyes, overwhelmed by a spasm of giddiness; he seemed to be floundering in the black, icy water again, being sucked under the dark blue ice floes; he heard Erikson vehemently, with reckless gaiety, talking this wild modern talk—he, Eügen Töllong, ought to love that man who had saved him for such a glorious destiny—
"Man's utmost capabilities!" cried Erikson; "who knows if he is not a potential hero or murderer!"
"Perhaps it is the same thing," said Töllong's neighbour, nudging him.
He opened his eyes; the heated faces crowded round the table looked grotesque—some seemed even to assume animal shapes, foxes, wolves, ferrets—only the amiable countenance of Gustaf Erikson remained charming, ingenuous amid the hurly- burly.
Töllong struggled to his feet amid burst of laughter; there were shouts of "Speech! Speech!"
Was it possible, he wondered, that he was becoming light- headed, or even a little drunk, or that the submersion in the lake had left a fever in his blood?
"I must get away," he declared—"this is all very amusing, but while you are all talking I have work to do—"
The fair woman at his side tried to detain him.
"What work, tell us; we are all friends here!"
"I thought you were going to the masquerade!" cried another.
They all laughed again; insanely, Töllong thought; the circle of faces began to dip and reel before him, the insipid dial of the clock seemed to simper through that idiotic wreath of pallid flowers.
"Hurry!" said Töllong under his breath, and broke through the room; laughter followed him; he hurried across the outer parlour; a drunkard, still clasping a pewter pot, was being thrown out; Töllong broke into the open air; ah, that was better!
The fresh, clear cold after the stale heat of the stove, the sting of the frosty wind on one's face, the icy sparkle of the stars overhead—now the high heroic purpose showed definite again.
The snow was beautiful in the light from the tavern window, the pure white drifts flushed with amber gold; Töllong hurried; the city was splendid about him, rich, darkling; he saw nothing squalid nor vile.
Back again in his room at The Silver Antlers he changed into the carnival suit and cloak; at midnight precisely a stranger, a sober sad-looking man, called for him; another sledge was at the door, two impatient horses—ah, that was it, movement, perpetual movement!—hurry, hurry, towards the great climax!
"You have your ticket?" asked the muffled man beside him as they drove to the palace.
"You will be admitted to the ball by a side entrance—but the police are very watchful just now—every mask may be asked to show his ticket—"
"I am in every way prepared—"
"No hesitancies, no regrets of any kind, no tremors, Eügen Töllong?"
"None," he replied, thinking how famous that name would be to- morrow.
The palace suddenly towered over them, blocking out the stars; a figure sprang out from the shadows to seize the reins, the two jumped out, skirted the wall, entered by a small door, crossed the garden and were in the grandiose building.
A narrow dark staircase led to a plainly furnished room overheated by a white porcelain stove; a parrot slept in an ebony ring, a length of linen embroidered in gold sequins trailed over a hooded chair.
Töllong struggled against a sense of unreality; too many varied scenes had he been hurried through in the last few hours; he could scarcely control his exalted mood. His companion, looking at him sharply, demanded: "Are you ill? Do your spirits, after all, fail?"
"Follow me, then—and be circumspect—"
Another room hung with grey serge in sign of mourning, a huge bed with black posts and tufts of sable plumes above the crape canopy on which the dust lay heavily; a stove of dark glaze with the grate pulled open showing the fire as red as hell—an old woman in a great chair wearing the monstrous headdress of twenty years before.
Töllong went on one knee and the lady held out a withered hand covered with ugly jewellery.
"So—you are he!" she exclaimed eagerly, "and the moment has come at last!"
"I am, Madame, ready."
Töllong gazed with veneration at the repulsive old hag; she had reigned beside Sweden's greatest King during the golden age of splendid victory, of freedom and progress; for years she had been a prisoner in the hands of the brood descended from her husband's disastrous first marriage with the false intriguing Latin; her own children had been exiled or slain.
But even in her great age she preserved the spirit and energy of her youth and was the linch-pin of numerous conspiracies; all had been unsuccessful and followed by bloody reprisals, all save this last skilful plot, long in maturing.
The ancient Queen, who had been for so long an historic figure, a relic of the gorgeous past, an inspiration for an even more gorgeous future, was a hideous enough figure in her painted decrepitude, her lean head nodding with palsy, her lips drawn up like a purse with a string, her whistling voice.
But Töllong bowed before her courage, her race, her patriotism.
"Odd," she grinned, "that this great work should come into the hands of a raw young provincial like you—hold up your head and let me look at you!"
"The lot fell to me, Madame."
Töllong raised his gaunt face, so hard in outline for all his youth; the harsh blue eyes over-vivid with the blaze of fanaticism.
"You'll do," chuckled the Queen. "Though they say he has the devil's luck, it should desert him this time!"
"I do not see how I can possibly fail."
The old woman nodded with approval; she had great dignity; it was astonishing to reflect how many tragedies she had seen, how many delusions and disappointments she had survived.
"You will be the liberator of your country," she said, "but very likely you will never hear anyone call you that—"
Töllong on one knee before her, in his fantastic garb, felt love of life well into his heart; he suddenly recalled, with intense regret, the fleshly young woman who had sat next him in the cabaret; again he seemed to be beneath the lake, in blackness under the ice; the old voice came from a distance.
"Some women would not have avowed themselves to you—but my House has never lacked courage. I wished to thank you, to assure you that you will rid the country of a tyrant, a vicious, cruel, blasphemous wretch."
Töllong opened his eyes; this sounded like the talk in the cabaret; the old creature was sunk into her hooded chair; there was something disgusting about her intense vitality; why should she any longer care about the disposition of kingdoms?
Töllong wished that he had not seen her; she gave him her blessing; God, she was sure, would give His benison to the deed that would put her son on the throne.
A widow for forty years, she had lived shut away in deepest mourning—the day that her husband's grandson was no more her dismal rooms would be hung with ruddy brocade.
She babbled on; Töllong's companion whispered the password—"Hurry!" in his ear; he rose, thinking that she had forgotten his presence, but, as he was departing, she said clearly:
"If you can escape—remember your way here, I would hide you—perhaps, after all, you may live to be a hero!"
Töllong was conducted down long, dim corridors; on one side were large circular windows wreathed with massive alabaster fruit; Töllong peered through one of these into the ballroom below.
The masquerade, which was to continue until seven in the morning, had begun.
A low delicate fountain cast glittering drops into a pool lit by faint coloured lamps; on the strong jets little scarlet balls danced; round this, in the centre of the great ballroom moved the masks in elaborate disguises.
Invisible musicians provided delicious music, at once rich and fine; buffets placed against the walls of blue-veined alabaster were heaped with sweetmeats and corbeilles of hot-house peaches, nectarines, muscat grapes and gnarled melons, wreathed by garlands of jasmine and orange blossoms.
The crowd perpetually moved to and fro, and perpetually laughed.
Töllong peered from behind the carvings of the circular window at which no one thought to glance up.
His companion, gazing over his shoulder, whispered: "That is he, in the purple red domino with the white lining—"
"Can you be absolutely sure?"
"I am his valet," replied the sad-faced man. "I put it on him myself."
"Is he as much hated as that?"
He thought it an ugly thing that a man's own body-servant should betray him.
"And to make everything quite certain," continued the servant in an even lower whisper, "I put a little ruby brooch, that he is quite unaware of himself, in the back of the collar of his cloak."
"I shall make no mistake," grinned Töllong.
"Now I must go, lest I am found missing from my post."
He crept away, down the corridor, and Eügen Töllong's gaze followed through the shifting, brilliant crowd the man whom he had hastened across the country to assassinate.
Everything had gone smoothly; so much intelligence, care and skilful organisation had gone to make it possible for him to be here, in the royal palace with a long, sharp, fine knife under his cloak ready to rid Sweden of the tyrant who flaunted so securely below.
So many plots had been discovered, but this would not be; so many attempts on the King's life had been foiled, but this would not be—
The man sauntering among his guests below was as surely doomed as if steel was already next his ribs.
Töllong leant his head against the rich window frame; queer waves of giddiness swept over him, he was now hot, now cold; he shivered though the palace was luxuriously warm.
He refused to admit that he was excited; it must be a touch of fever following his accident; but he could not deny that he began, for the first time, to realise that he intended to murder a fellow creature. Yes, he had considered himself utterly without heart or conscience in this affair, but now—bah! he must be ill!
Grimly controlling himself, he deliberately noted the way he had come from the old Queen's apartments—she had said she would hide him—that would be his one chance of escape—but he must not think of himself.
It was easy to reach the ballroom; as he descended the stairs where several revellers had strayed, he saw, through a window of clear glass, fireworks rising and falling across the park; the beauty, the gaiety of these artificial suns and stars in green, violet, gold and ruby added to his excitement, which was increased by the gorgeous spectacle in which he found himself when he entered the ballroom—never had he seen anything so splendid.
Here, opulent, insolent and still supreme was the world which men like himself had sworn to destroy—here was what all the people in The Silver Antlers, in the cabaret, had raved against—how imposing it was, how august, how, in some subtle way, different from that gross luxury, that wasteful extravagance that Töllong had so often heard so ferociously denounced; now it seemed impossible that there could be anything sinful in what was so rich, so exquisite—
He was touched on the arm; the password "Hurry!" was whispered in his ear under cover of the sweet incessant music; he followed the scarlet domino who had spoken into an alcove where gilded alabaster statues of the Three Graces poured scented water into a silver basin.
The mask, whose voice Töllong recognised as the stout member of the Committee, said:
"You have seen him?"
"Yes, yes," whispered Töllong. "I have never lost sight of him—but there is no chance of a mistake? He has not changed dominoes with anyone? I have heard of such things—"
"Be at ease—to make all certain—I will call him aside and tell him something so startling that he will raise his vizard—"
"But I do not know him!"
"I do," the corpulent man chuckled; evidently he was a great personage about the court—"if it is he I will say the one word—'hurry!'—and you will strike—"
"Very well." Töllong was shuddering to his heart. "But what can you tell him to so move him!"
The other laughed grossly.
"I shall tell him I have discovered a plot to assassinate him! That's a good joke, eh? You have all ready? A firm blow, remember, though his cloak is only light silk—"
Töllong felt sunk in waves of perfume, of music that blended into the icy waters of the lake; he saw a woman unmask in the recess behind the alabaster statues; she laughed into the hidden visage of her companion; there were big diamonds round her throat.
"That is the Princess Ulrica, the King's sister—she does as much evil as he; afterwards—she must be disposed of."
"Extraordinary," muttered Töllong. "I thought I saw her in a cabaret to-night among a party of revolutionaries—"
"You must keep your wits about you better—"
The scarlet domino moved away; Eügen Töllong thought that the Princess was looking at him; he put up a prayer both for himself and the man he was about to kill, and again he had the sensation of water closing over him; icy currents that were yet perfumed, cracking floes that gave out the music of violins, a cruel ice maiden lurking in the depths who had the features of the woman in the cabaret, of the Princess Ulrica...of his evil spirit.
The scarlet and the purple-red domino entered the alcove together; Töllong fixed his gaze on the brooch of rubies on the deep silk collar—how many inches below that must he strike?
He slipped behind the simpering statues; the woman had moved away; he was distracted by the sight of her gauzy fan she had left behind; he heard the conspirator say:
"Sire—this is deeply important—a plot against your life—I must be assured that it is His Majesty to whom I speak—"
"Surely you cannot mistake me, my dear councillor, even in a mask!" But as he uttered these words the speaker raised his vizard and his companion at once ejaculated: "Hurry!"
Töllong sprang forward, his knife in his hand; it did not seem possible then that any miracle could have saved the King.
But Töllong's raised arm fell to his side, the knife dropped at his feet, with a horrid exclamation he turned and stumbled away.
In the face the King turned on him he had recognised the candid, amiable countenance of Gustaf Erikson.
He was conscious of a hubbub, a shrieking behind him; he groaned in the hysterical anguish of the realisation of his own deception as he fled through the silken crowd, pushing aside garlands from porticoes.
It was he, not the tyrant, who was doomed to die to- night—ah, he understood how that wicked man had fooled him—stolen his papers, looked through his pockets—led him on, wickedly disguised, with his evil sister, knowing that at the supreme moment he, Eügen Töllong, would be unable to strike the man who had saved his life.
He dare not think of the hundreds he had betrayed by his cowardice, of the heroic old Queen impatient to proclaim him "hero," of all those waiting for a signal that now would never be given—"Hurry!" not to another's end but to his own; he and not the King had been doomed when the lot was drawn.
He flung aside his mask, his domino—all disguise was useless—and fled down the frozen path, embracing the imaginary waters that closed over his head; the hubbub was behind him; before him the fireworks soared and scattered; he saw them beneath his feet, he was near water then; without pause he flung himself headlong; his plunge broke the reflected glories of the sham stars; a panting crowd with lanterns gathered round the stone edge of the artificial lake, jostling each other in the bewildering light and shade.
Councillor ——, panting behind the King, who seemed to regard the whole affair as a jest, thought, very bitterly:
"How is it that they all fail when it comes to the scratch! He seemed such a likely fellow—and to lose his head so desperately! It is true that I am not able to do it myself—"
Eügen Tölling was dragged out of the pretty little pond and laid at the feet of the King; his teeth were showing, his harsh hair stuck out in spikes; he looked like a drowned wolf; the Princess Ulrica shrieked, but gazed greedily.
"Conscience makes cowards of us all," quoted a pedant solemnly; the King said:
"Bah! the fellow was mad!"
Both were right; the King never knew that he owed his life to a slight likeness he bore to one Gustaf Erikson who at that moment was enjoying himself in a cabaret where revolutionary doctrines were discussed.
The festival crowd dispersed from about the corpse which was fast becoming frozen; all shuddered back to the warmth, the music, the perfumes; even his fellow-conspirators were glad to forsake Eügen Töllong.
"How quickly he died!" one whispered with horror. But Töllong had been dying since he had received the command to murder.
VON BRÜHL governed a kingdom and found life going stale and sour about him; he could not understand how those whose work was obviously even duller than his own found the fortitude to resist suicide; if he, handling what people called "big affairs," could find it scarcely worth while, how could those little wretches, with no excitement, no prospects, endure it?
Yet some of them seemed happy.
"If I could only find a man to turn it all over to, I would grow melons and read philosophy."
Von Brühl was so bored that he indulged in the courtier's dream of a careless country life with exotic fruits ripening under glass, windows wide on a lawn in eternal summer shade, volumes of the sophists easy to the hand, and perfect meals prepared by invisible cooks.
But Von Brühl was a patriot; he would not seriously think of leaving his place until he could find someone as able as himself to fill it; by that he meant someone as shrewd, as hard, as unscrupulous; the first Minister would have to be everything, for the King was the most stupid man alive.
Every morning Von Brühl would find himself in the royal cabinet with an empty portfolio under his arm; always he would find the King deep in a low chair, smoking a tasselled pipe, experimenting in different tobaccos. Always there would be a respectful pause of five minutes as if one statesman waited for another's matured opinion; then His Majesty would say:
"Von Brühl, how much money have we got?"
And the Minister, inclining a little lower, would answer: "Sufficient for Your Majesty's needs."
And that would be an end of the audience. A faint shade of satisfaction would pass over the moonlike countenance of His Majesty, blurred by the tobacco smoke, and Von Brühl would go about his business of the Kingdom, which he ran very efficiently and very profitably to himself He found that the more wearied he became with his successful routine, the more interest he took in little things; small objects of compact beauty like jewelled watches from Nürnberg, carpets with black cypress trees on a blue ground from Ispahan, rosy pastels from France and cups of flamecoloured-egg shell enamel from China.
"These," said Von Brühl, contemptuous of himself, "are the toys of my second childhood."
He possessed a pair of vases in celadon green ware, lustrous as polished gold, delicate as a hot-house-grown leaf, flawless as a youth's dream of love.
To Von Brühl they were like living creatures; he caressed them with his tired fingers and lingered over their perfection in his tired mind.
He kept them on a shelf above his bureau; a mirror behind duplicated their beauty; he would look up from reports, dispatches, protocols, petitions, all, to his disillusioned mind, revealing human futility or human frustration, and his spirit would feed eagerly, like a traveller sucking ripe dates in the desert, on the matchless grace of the celadon green vases.
Bertheim was the one man whom Von Brühl believed capable of succeeding him; but Bertheim was too young, had too much heart, might possibly be swayed by women, was altogether not sufficiently disenchanted; yet he was enthusiastic, adroit, artful. Von Brühl thought, some day, of suggesting him to the King; he would certainly be able to make a good appearance in the royal closet with the empty portfolio, under his arm, and would be capable of answering His Majesty's one question with the correct air.
But the Minister regretted the moment of utter ennui in which he had held out this hope to Bertheim, for that gentleman became gracefully importunate, a little weary of waiting.
"My dear fellow," declared Von Brühl, "I'd give up my post to- morrow if I thought you were capable of filling it; believe me, I am as tired as a pack-horse. If you knew my experiences you'd hardly be so eager—"
"But I don't want to know your experiences, Baron, I want to have some of my own. I suppose I've earned the right to activity as you have earned the right to rest."
Von Brühl reflected.
"If you were a cleverer man than I you would be able to deceive me. As it is I can read you like a text-book."
"I've never tried to deceive you. Besides, what need of the 'cleverer,' my dear Baron? If I was as clever as you, would it not be sufficient?"
"Perfectly. But are you?"
Bertheim replied modestly:
"I hope to be—"
Without boasting Von Brühl declared:
"If you could, only once, completely outwit me I'd step down—but no, I fear I am altogether too ruse, my dear Count."
That day one of the celadon vases was broken; of course, no one would take the responsibility for such a catastrophe; the fine fragments, glistening like a wet lily leaf and delicate as the shell of a thrush's egg lay scattered on Von Brühl's bureau; possibly the lackey searching for that very choice tobacco the Minister kept hidden in his desk?
It was the definite loss of an enchantment to the Minister, though he had believed himself completely disillusioned; the single vase irritated him; it was symbolical of frustration, of incompletion, even of disaster, for he could never glance at it without experiencing again the horrid sensation he had felt on seeing those shattered shards on his writing table.
He endeavoured to match the vase; agents in Europe and the East discreetly sought for the exact replica of the forlorn piece on Von Brühl's shelf; but in vain. This quest for the seemingly unattainable began to be identified in the Minister's mind with the length of his term of office—"when I've found the vase I'll hand everything over to Bertheim."
This possible successor, himself a dilettante, did not know of this whimsical decision, but he tried to find the companion to the vase so stupidly broken: "to oblige you, my dear Baron." But the perfect celadon porcelain, exact in shape and colour, in glaze, lustre and fragility, could not be found.
It was Bertheim who suggested:
"Is it not rather a mistake to endeavour to replace a lost dream?"
"A dream—at my age!" Von Brühl's smile was a little bitter; he gave away his capricious decision. "It is purely a practical matter—if you could find the vase I would give you my post."
That winter the Minister had business with the Signoria and met Ferdinand Bertheim at the carnival in Venice; the young man waited on him in his amber-coloured marble palace on the Grand Canal; Von Brühl was surprised; he did not know Bertheim had left Dresden.
"I am preparing myself, with a little diversion, for the cares of office," explained Bertheim; he wore a russet silk domino, a buff satin coat; never before had Von Brühl noticed that his neat triangle-shaped face, so alert and healthy under the abundant chestnut hair, was very like the elegant mask of a handsome young fox; the Minister felt in comparison exceptionally old and tired; the fireworks beyond the dark water fatigued him with flares and crackles. Bertheim's page brought in a case; opened, the padded interior revealed another celadon vase. Von Brühl knew at once that it was exact to that which he had left forlorn in his cabinet in the Residenzschloss in Dresden; a minute scrutiny proved it to be perfect in every detail. Thankful to be relieved of the cares of office Von Brühl embraced Bertheim.
"The office is yours, if you have not been able to outwit me, at least you have been able to oblige me. And certainly you have proved yourself both able and fortunate in finding the celadon vase."
Bertheim departed immediately for Dresden, but Von Brühl lingered a little in Venice to complete, as his last gesture of service to his country, the agreement with the Signoria.
On his return he found Bertheim respectfully waiting to take over the seals of office; but his lackey was also reluctantly waiting to tell him that the other celadon vase had been mysteriously broken during his absence...this time not a fragment remained; the pieces of porcelain had entirely gone.
"Ah, well," condoled Bertheim, "you are lucky, Baron, to have even the one vase I procured for you as a reminder of a shattered delight—"
Von Brühl looked at him keenly; he was a shade too impassive.
"Ah! I know. You stole my vase!" cried the Minister with satisfaction, glad to find his successor so clever, "and brought it to me in Venice—"
Quickly Bertheim saw his cue—his eyes turned suddenly on Von Brühl.
"You challenged me to a trick, my dear Baron. But I am not confessing."
"No," returned Von Brühl, yet more delighted, "that is always in the worst of taste. I believe you will take my place quite well. I shall content myself with one vase, which will always remind me of the capabilities of my successor—and your little saw, Count, about not trying to replace a dream."
The next morning it was Bertheim who stood bowing in the royal cabinet; the King was silent for ten minutes instead of five before he asked:
"Where is Von Brühl?"
"Retired to his estates, Sire. At last."
After smoking thoughtfully for awhile, His Majesty, with a slight indication of relief, remarked:
"Then he need never know that I smashed both his green vases looking for that Turkish tobacco he keeps hidden in his bureau—the last whilst you were in Venice—"
Bertheim no longer regretted the time and money spent on finding the vase Von Brühl had taken into the country. His Majesty settled comfortably into his chair and asked: "Well, Bertheim, how much money have we got?"
"SEND me," said the Cardinal, "Lally of Dillon's." M. Anelot permitted himself a smile. For years His Eminence, agreeably but definitely, had been avoiding Lally of Dillon's, all his schemes and all his importunities.
"You see," said the Cardinal, noting the discreet amusement on his secretary's face, "I have found some business for the gentleman at last. Belleisle and Chauvigny have spoken to me of him, lately."
"He has," suggested the secretary slily, "another scheme in hand, perhaps?"
"He has always schemes in hand."
"Do you," asked the secretary, "altogether trust him, Your Eminence? He is very seductive, but, do you altogether put much faith in him for a serious piece of work?"
"I do not," said the Cardinal, "but, all the same, I believe that he may be useful."
That afternoon Lally of Dillon's found himself where for years he had striven to be—in the private apartments of His Eminence Cardinal Fleury, master of France—sole guardian and minister of the young King, and the supreme disposer of that immense power that Lally of Dillon's had, since he was a youth, striven to enlist in the cause of the Stewart King and the Irish nation.
Captain Thomas Lally of Dillon's Brigade, who was a bold, ambitious, restless and brilliant soldier, had been as strenuously and continuously endeavouring to obtain an audience of the Cardinal as the astute, cautious, and tactful priest had been endeavouring to avoid him.
Captain Lally remarked on these facts with a frankness that was one of his most engaging qualities.
"I never believed that Your Eminence would ever see me or listen to any scheme of mine."
"I scarcely believed so myself; Captain Lally," replied the Cardinal in a sweet and amiable manner. "But I may be able, it seems, to take some advantage of your loyalty to your house and country, and your devotion"—he lightly stressed this—"to the interests of France."
"Neither can be doubted," said the Irishman firmly. And they looked at each other a little, in silence.
Each was, in his different way, a notable man. Andre Hercule de Fleury, Bishop of Frejus, and Cardinal, was then eighty-five years old, possessed of an exact delicate and spiritual beauty, and the most perfect of manners. He was, perhaps, not often sincere in either his words or his actions; like most men of intelligence and experience, he occupied himself in finding diversion for that internal dissatisfaction and amazement that consumes most human beings who are not distracted by the heats of passions. The finest distraction that Cardinal Fleury had discovered was governing France; though not of brilliant abilities, he had shown a negative cleverness in never committing himself to any definite policy. His tact was as unlimited as his power, he offended no one, not even those he disliked; amiable, fastidious, serene, he surveyed the young soldier who humorously awaited the result of this scrutiny.
Captain Thomas Arthur Lally, of Dillon's Brigade of the Irish troops, in the service of the King of France, had a fine person and a fine record. He was the son of Sir Gerard Lally and the nephew of Lord Dillon. His mother was a De Brissac, and in his true titles he was one of the O'Mullaghs of Tuam or Tullaghdalie, who had been princes in Ireland before Strongbow came to Ireland. Cardinal Fleury had the highest opinion of the Irish exiles as accomplished soldiers and high-spirited martial gentlemen. He had found them extremely useful in the late war and he knew all about Captain Lally's record during the conquest of Lorraine; his behaviour in the trenches before Kehl, at the siege of Phillipsburg; and the act of audacious bravery by which he had saved his father's life in the lines of Ettlingen. So far the Cardinal had had nothing but approval for the behaviour of Captain Lally in particular and the Irish Brigade in general, though he had been slow to promote these brilliant officers, because of his quiet but firm understanding with Walpole's cabinet at St. James's; for all his exceptional services Lally was nothing more than a captain of brigadiers, and this final promotion had come as the reward for a most daring exploit. He had landed secretly on the English coast, visited all the Jacobite centres in England, Scotland and Ireland, drawn maps, surveyed lines of advance, and returned to Fleury's cabinet with all the details mapped out for a possible campaign.
Cardinal Fleury had not moved in the matter; Lally hardly dared to hope that he was going to move now.
"What is your last scheme, Captain Lally?" asked the prelate smoothly, with his insinuating and deceptive air of guileless patience.
"I wish to serve my king," replied Captain Lally, simply and directly, "and the plan I have now in hand—on which I believe Belleisle and Chauvigny have already broached Your Eminence—is an alliance between France and Russia, aimed at the English and particularly at their maritime and commercial power."
"A large, bold conception, Captain Lally."
"A sound one," said the Irishman, "not founded on mere boastings and vapourings round camp-fires, nor the slight and unstable talk of exiles, Your Eminence, but well planned."
"And how do you propose to set about this?" asked the Cardinal, very amiably.
"I have an uncle, sir—Peter Lacy of Ballingarry, who is a Russian Marshal, and I could get an appointment on his staff and conduct the affair under cover of that."
The handsome soldier looked with a flashing yet wistful glance at the old man, whom he hardly hoped to find sympathetic. He had tasted deeply of the studied delays, unfulfilled promises, and adroit evasions of the French Court; but there was a natural buoyancy, ardour and fire about him which no disappointment could quell.
"You'd go anywhere, do anything, risk all?" queried the Cardinal, delicately putting his finger-tips together.
"In the way of honour and if it might serve my prince—yes!" replied Lally.
"Russia," mused the Cardinal, his voice tired, and his words sunk to a murmur, "Russia is an enigma; I should certainly very much like to sound that obscure government. In Russia we have an enormous potential force; I certainly should not care to see it enlisted on the side of our enemies. And you are perfectly right, my dear Captain, in suggesting that in the Germanic confederation and in Great Britain, France sees the most dangerous and inveterate of her foes."
"Send me to Petersburg."
"I'll send you," replied the Cardinal, "upon terms. You are, monsieur, a very accomplished gentleman, a very able soldier; you carried off that English business as if you were a very able diplomat—and yet, I am not entirely sure of you. Eh, do not be offended. I have had no opportunity of testing you on every point. But I will send you to Russia upon terms."
"I will go," cried Lally, "on any terms!"
"These, then." The Cardinal leaned easily forward, drew a small paper from between the pages of a book which rested on his desk. "You will go to St. Petersburg without credentials, without a passport. You will sound the Empress and her favourites; you will broach your scheme and see how it is received. You will represent France, but unofficially; you may do what you can in your leisure for your prince and your friends, but you will never forget, Captain Lally, that you are an officer in the army of His Most Christian Majesty."
"That's twice you have reminded me of that," said Captain Lally. "Now, I wonder why?"
"I wish," said the priest suavely, "to be assured of your loyalty under every possible test. I do not suggest anything so crude as betrayal or negligence; but it is possible that you might be tempted away from the service of France."
"It is not possible," said Lally, "while I'm in Dillon's Brigade—and Dillon's Brigade fights for France."
The Cardinal slightly inclined his head as if he courteously accepted this statement.
"Do you take my terms?" he asked. "They are not very good. You will go as a volunteer diplomat. The King will know how to recompense your devotion."
"There's only one recompense I want," flashed Lally, "help for King James."
With a courteous smile the prelate proceeded: "In the event of failure, you may be disowned. You will write to me the most detailed despatches of your progress and of your affairs in Russia in general; and I, if you are successful, will send to you credentials and authority to form an alliance."
"I'll start to-morrow," said Captain Lally eagerly.
"You take considerable risks, you know?" smiled the Cardinal. "Russia is an unknown country—I believe the Empress and her favourites are little more than barbarians."
"The easier for that," said Lally confidently.
"You think so? Well, if you can manage an imperious woman, possessed of unlimited power, and the savages whom she has elevated into her confidence, you will be indeed a most useful person, my dear Captain Lally; there are not," he added thoughtfully, "many men would undertake such a commission."
"I have waited for years," replied the impetuous soldier, "for any chance. I have not the least doubt of a complete success."
Cardinal Fleury smiled: adroit and astute as he was, he could not judge how much merit might lie beneath this superb self- confidence. Of the Irishman's reckless courage, brilliant personality, seductive good-looks, attractive accomplishments and swift intelligence there could be no doubt, but for the Cardinal's ultimate purpose he required more solid qualities than these.
"Remember," he said, fingering his little paper, "you depend entirely upon your own wits; you will have no more instructions than those I have already given you."
"But if," asked Captain Lally, "I am successful, if I bring them to the point of an alliance, then you will acknowledge me and send me authority?"
The Cardinal bowed:
"You must trust me, my dear Captain Lally, even as I trust you."
He carefully sealed with his signet the little paper which he had now folded across.
"All that I shall give you is this," he added; "you will put it somewhere secure—screwed into the hollow of your sword- hilt, stitched inside your boot—and if there should arise, as there may arise, in Russia, a moment of emergency, you will open it and find therein my instructions and advice. On your honour, Captain Lally, you will not open that paper until you are in such grave and perilous crisis."
"On my honour," agreed Lally, eagerly and gaily. He put the paper into a small note-book which he carried in his breast- pocket, already swollen with many love-letters (each of which bore a different signature), a relic rescued from the family chapel by his grandfather before he took part in "the flight of the wild geese," and several papers covered with lists of possible Jacobites, and diagrams of landing-places in England and Ireland.
The old man, sitting motionless in his glittering silk and fine lawn, watched the young man as he put away his pocket-book, noted the fine athletic figure in the showy regimentals of Dillon's Brigade, the handsome dark face, rich black hair so carefully curled, powdered and pomaded, the air of ardour, power and pride.
"I wonder," he murmured to himself, "I wonder..." Aloud, he said:
"You cut a very fine figure on a captain's pay—how do you contrive, you Irish?"
"Debts and the cards," smiled Captain Lally briefly.
"It's a queer life," mused the Cardinal; "you're everywhere but in your own country. You can do everything, but you couldn't keep your own estates and titles. A strange people!"
"We don't ask for pity, Your Eminence; we give service for what we get. My father was forty-four years with the colours—and only a colonel. And I'm not over-advanced in being a captain of brigadiers. We've learnt what it is to be exiled—we're none of us nice, or difficult, or fastidious, save where our prince or our honour is concerned."
"You're loyal," said the Cardinal; "remember, when you open that paper, that I have staked on your loyalty."
"You know the family I come of," said Captain Lally.
The Cardinal reflected that it was odd this young man's ancestors had been princes of Ireland when those of the present King of France had been no more than gentlemen...the Cardinal was surprised by Captain Lally's next action.
The young man crossed to his chair and, with a sudden impetuous grace, knelt before him.
"Will Your Eminence forget," he asked, "that you are a Cardinal and I but a poor soldier, and remember only that you are a priest and I a penitent, and give me your blessing before I go."
It was not often that Cardinal Fleury was reminded that he was a priest, and it was still less often that he was asked for his blessing. His delicate cheek was flushed with the faint, cold flush of old age, but he gave the blessing with a gracious dignity, peering out of his dim eyes at the ardent and passionate beauty of the dark young face looking up at him with such ingenuous trust; and again, as the Captain rose and left him, after warmly kissing his withered hand, the Cardinal said to himself: "I wonder—I wonder..."
Belleisle, Chauvigny, and all the officers of Dillon's and Clare's tried to dissuade Lally from undertaking the Cardinal's secret mission. Belleisle doubted if he would return from Muscovy, dead or alive; some of the Jacobites who had, during their adventurous period of exile, penetrated as far as St. Petersburg, assured him that nothing whatever was to be done at the barbaric northern court.
"It's a chance," said Captain Lally, "and I'll take it. I've never asked any more from mortals but chances."
He said good-bye to his many friends and to a certain lady, who took his departure most lamentably, and who insisted on presenting him with a dressing-case of which every bottle had a diamond in the stopper. She knew the poverty concealed behind the flashing bravado of his appearance, and hoped that these jewels might serve him in an emergency. Lally accepted the gift and returned the worth of it in a pair of rose-coloured shoes with pearl knots for buckles. The lady was in despair, and importuned heaven for vengeance on Cardinal Fleury—old, cold, crafty man!—for sending out of Paris, in the gay season of the winter, the most charming of all the Irish officers. Lally cared nothing either for the dubious encouragements of his friends, the tears and regrets of the lady, or the discouraging prophecies that accompanied him on his peculiar journey.
He had never—since the time when, as a boy of seven, his father had taken him to serve beside him in the trenches, to learn something (as Sir Gerald said, grimly) of the look and smell of war—asked for a better fortune than to struggle face to face and to the utmost of his ability with his hereditary foe, the English, either on the battlefield or in the council cabinet.
Accompanied by no one save an Irish body-servant, Captain Lally proceeded as far as Riga; there, as he could show no passport, he was immediately thrown into prison, but Admiral Gordon—a Stewart agent—procured his release, and Captain Lally, his baggage and servant restored, continued on his journey and, arriving at St. Petersburg in the gloom of a Russian winter, attached himself at once to the staff of his uncle, Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry, who received him with affection for his person, but no enthusiasm for his errand.
"Why, it's easier than taking a trench full of dead men," said Lally cheerfully, and entreated his uncle to carry him to wait upon the Empress.
"It's not she with whom you'll have to deal, Tom," said Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry, "but the man Buren, whom she has made Courland—who is her master."
"I'll deal with both of them," smiled Captain Lally.
Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry remarked: "It's a queer life we Irish have, eh?"
"But you seem to flourish here, sir, and the country is well enough?"
"But I'd sooner be in Paris, Tom," sighed the Marshal. "They're not civilised here, to my thinking."
"They make a fine show," said Captain Lally, "but here or there, it's an exile's life."
Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry had no hope of any success for his nephew's mission, but on an early occasion he presented his new staff officer to the Empress Anna Ivanowna, niece of the great Peter, formerly Duchess of Courland, a widow, and Empress of All the Russias.
This formidable lady had already heard something of Captain Lally. She knew of his arrest at Riga, and also of the rumours which said the young soldier was a French agent in disguise, the fully-accredited ambassador of Cardinal Fleury; she was flattered by so much attention from the greatest nation in the world.
Lally of Dillon's made a very fine figure. He considered himself infinitely superior in birth and breeding to any of the Russians, and this gave a certain lustre of pride to his seductive manners, and supplied him with a natural pomp which took the place of a retinue or credentials. The mistress of All the Russias was of an exuberant beauty, coarse and heavy, with a look at once capricious and sullen. There was a shade of savagery in her flat Tartar features, a wilful and passionate abandon in her manners, a violence in her speech—all new to Captain Lally.
He awaited her pleasure with a manly composure, while she looked him up and down as if he were a new toy. Satisfied with the result of her insolent scrutiny, she smiled with a voluptuous grace which made her appear handsome in a barbaric fashion.
Captain Lally only returned the smile in the most formal fashion, for he had observed standing behind the Empress's chair, the favourite of whom his uncle had told him—the Duke of Courland, who was as definitely master of the Empress as the Empress was mistress of All the Russias. This person was regarding the Irishman with a scowl and a sneer.
The Empress asked if it were true that he had been sent by Cardinal Fleury?
Captain Lally, with dexterous boldness, plunged immediately into his mission, for he saw that, with Anna Ivanowna, delays and subtleties would only irritate. With knowledge, with enthusiasm, Captain Lally sketched his scheme—the alliance between France and Russia for the immediate overthrow of England and the Empire...As he spoke, Anna smiled.
Lally returned the bold encouragement of the Empress with a cautious grace, not only because she was not greatly to his taste—he could, if need were, have assumed that she was—but because he was conscious of Courland's lowering glance in the background. He, therefore, adroitly disengaged himself from the attention of the Empress and addressed himself to Buren.
Ivan Ernest Buren, Duke of Courland, was of lowly birth and—as his enemies often reminded each other and, when they dare, the favourite himself—the grandson of a groom. He was handsome, able, splendid and unscrupulous.
Captain Lally, to whom he was far more important than the Empress, regarded him with a secret and impartial anxiety, wondering how far he could bring this man into his designs. Courland, who was accustomed to the bitter and scarcely-disguised disdain and contempt of the Russian nobles, responded instantly to these flattering attentions from the elegant young foreigner, and invited Lally to a private conference in his cabinet. Anna Ivanowna sulked and flounced, but a sombre glance from her formidable favourite reduced her to a sullen submission.
Courland, with an unsmiling face and folded arms, awaited Captain Lally's disclosures.
In spite of his superficial French graces, lace and powder, brocades and ribbands and stars, Courland was very much to the Irishman's mind like the dark, gloomy and savage bear which has been taken as an emblem of his incomprehensible country, but Captain Lally was too elated at his opportunity to consider the hopelessness of his task.
With easy assurance and deferential civility he proceeded to lay before the Minister his plan. He spoke to Courland as if he spoke to the Emperor of all the Russias, caressing him with many artfully-turned assurances of the great Cardinal's regard and the estimation in which he, the great Duke of Courland, was held at Paris. Humiliated, thwarted and slighted on every hand by his countrymen, who regarded him as an upstart, Courland was entranced by the subtle flatteries of the Irishman. But he showed more shrewdness and more self-command than Captain Lally had altogether expected.
"Who are you?" he asked. "Where are your credentials, and why is not the French Ambassador in Petersburg entrusted with this mission?"
"Because," smiled the Irishman, "it's altogether too confidential, perilous, and nice. As for my credentials, the first express will bring them, together with the articles of our alliance ready engrossed, the moment that Your Highness is prepared to sign."
"You come to me with this," said Courland, staring at him—"not to the Empress? And yet she regarded you favourably enough."
Captain Lally spoke as one man of the world to another. "It is easy to see," he remarked, "that Your Highness can do what you please with Her Majesty."
Courland appeared satisfied, though his manner was sombre. When Lally left the Peterhof he sent at once an exultant despatch to Cardinal Fleury and begged that his credentials and the articles of the treaty and all further instructions in the matter might be sent immediately to him in St. Petersburg. He urged the need for haste lest the Courlander change his mind, or Anna Ivanowna discover another favourite. "At present he is her ears, her eyes, her mouth." At the end of his letter, significantly underlined, he wrote: "Russia can put into the field a hundred and thirty thousand regulars and sixty thousand Cossacks: Your Eminence would surely desire to see these ranged on the side of France."
Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry was a little taken aback by his nephew's audacity, yet could not withhold applause for what appeared to be a brilliant success. Courland and the Empress alike caressed and flattered him, nay, they seemed to compete for his favours.
Captain Lally, steering his way delicately between their perilous yet gratifying advances, never forgot the cause he had in hand. Not only did he continue to press the French alliance, but he roused up a party for the Jacobites, and pushed his master's cause with restless and ardent energy. He found, however, both time and occasion to grace the festivities of the Peterhof, to soothe the Empress and flatter Courland. He had observed that Anna Ivanowna was not only infatuated with Courland, but was afraid of him. The powerful, passionate and violent woman was silent before the least glance from under those scowling brows; the least word of reproof that fell from the groom's grandson. Lally knew that Courland watched him, spied on him, and he by no means underrated the Russian's ability, while daily he glowed with a deep and ardent expectancy of success.
But as the weeks went on he heard nothing from Cardinal Fleury, although the ordinary accredited Ambassador in St. Petersburg received his usual letters and instructions.
"Well, Tom," advised Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry, "I'm not denying that you've had the luck. But you would be wise to bring your business to a conclusion while the wind blows fair; it all seems very smooth and glittering at the Peterhof, but it's like a bog beneath."
"And I'm walking as if it were a bog," smiled Captain Lally. "And how can I bring the business to a conclusion if Cardinal Fleury does not write?"
"It may be he doesn't intend to write," said Marshal Peter Lacy suspiciously; "maybe your hopes flew too high and you misunderstood His Eminence, Tom."
"Nay, his instructions were clear enough. He said he trusted me and I said I trusted him," said the Irishman simply, "and he gave me his blessing."
"However prudent you are," added the Marshal, as a further warning, "I should be yet more prudent. I've known those who have been loaded with honours and ribbands and stars one day poked out of their beds by bayonets and driven through the snow to Siberia the next."
Captain Lally was, however, confident in himself; he was convinced that he could bring the Russians into an agreement and convinced that Cardinal Fleury would write.
At balls, suppers and banquets, at sledging parties on the Neva and private conferences with Courland, he pressed his points, one after one, and lost not the finest or the slightest opportunity of furthering the cause of his King and of France. His success was rapid to a point, and there Courland stuck; although he appeared convinced by the Irishman's arguments he refused to give the final sanction to the scheme of the alliance with Fleury. Lally, whose easy brilliance concealed a violent impatience of delay and opposition, the sluggishness of fools and the trickery of knaves, suddenly put into execution what his uncle conceived the most reckless plan of ignoring the favourite and dealing direct with the Empress.
"I like your schemes, Captain Lally," responded Anna, with a sleepy, smiling air, "but, as you know, my minister, the Duke of Courland, deals with affairs; he advises me in everything."
"Does he always," insinuated the audacious Irishman, "advise Your Majesty to your own advantage?"
The Empress stared at him, a smouldering light in her slanting Slavonic eyes.
"Do you seek to undermine Courland?" she asked in a thick, drowsy voice.
She put her hand on her brocaded skirts at the hip and gazed at Captain Lally with an expression that he could not read.
The Irishman took bold measures and leaped preliminaries as he had leapt the trenches at Phillipsburg:
"Where one man has got another may get, and the man who has climbed up can always be pulled down."
Anna Ivanowna leaned forward and patted Captain Lally's hand where it rested on the malachite table.
"I like brave fellows," she said slowly, "and what you say is, of course, quite true. Courland exists only by my favour, and that might be won any day by another."
Captain Lally kept his head in the face of these amazing advances. He thought that the Empress was like a sulky, heartless and slumbrous tigress; but he contrived to look as if he considered her a goddess.
Anna Ivanowna continued to pat his hand.
"Courland," she grumbled, "is the worst tempered man in the world. If you can get rid of him without any trouble to me you may have his place."
Captain Lally now understood what his uncle had meant when he had warned him that, despite the gay splendour and the opulent luxury of St. Petersburg, the Russians were really savages. He contrived to extricate himself from the perilous interview by falling on his knee and covering the Empress's plump hand with kisses, while he made meaningless and non-committal terms and expressions of devotion, withdrawing finally under the pretence of being too moved to continue any longer in the dazzling presence of the Romanoff.
He went direct to Courland and was received with the usual impassive, impersonal and inscrutable courtesy that the Russian always showed.
"I'll give you something," thought the reckless Irishman, "to quicken up your slow ways."
Aloud, he said: "Courland, you cannot keep the representative of a great King waiting about like a supplicant in ante-chambers. Will you or will you not have this alliance on the terms which I have suggested?"
"I'll wait—I'll consider," replied the Russian, with sullen calm.
"No, you will do neither," replied Captain Lally. "If you, sir, do not care to sign, the Empress will."
"Never," smiled Courland contemptuously.
"Easily," said Captain Lally. "She may be afraid of you, but I am not. I am inured to intrigue and the lady is fickle; it may be if it came to a push—we are both adventurers and ought to be able to understand each other," he added, with a smile.
The Russian considered this without hostility or malice.
"I never threaten," added Lally steadily, "but I might give you a warning. Fallen favourites have ugly treatment in this country. From what I can hear, it is either Siberia or the Fortress of Peter and Paul."
Courland looked at his rival, with a keen, steady interest.
"Do you think," he asked without resentment, "that you could supplant me in the favour of the Empress?"
"Without betraying a lady's confidence," replied the Irishman, "I can assure you, my dear Duke, that I am certain I could. I can also assure you," he added, with that air of engaging candour which he usually found so successful, "that I have not the least desire to do so. Not only are you better fitted to rule the Russias than I, but my duties and affections are engaged at another shrine."
"Still," said Courland, "I suppose you would do it for the sake of your country and your King?"
"Certainly I would, and needs must, if you keep me dallying any longer."
Captain Lally stood over the Russian with his terms, exactly as if he stood over him with a pistol at his forehead. Courland seemed so fully to appreciate the situation that Captain Lally had even a higher opinion of his intelligence than before.
"If you undermine me you destroy a friend, Captain Lally. I'll sign your articles, and immediately. Bring them with you to- night."
And, with an amiable look and a civil withdrawal, he dismissed the elated Irishman, who hastened to his uncle with the story of his triumph.
Certainly his victory had been brilliant, rapid and decisive. But Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry was able to point out a fatal flaw in his success. "Where are the articles that Courland is to sign? Fleury has not written."
Fleury did not write. Even Captain Lally came to the end of his excuses. He had sent off despatch after despatch, telling of his success, and demanding the promised support from Cardinal Fleury. But no answer came.
"You're in it, Tom," sighed Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry. "Don't I know what it is serving foreigners?"
Captain Lally himself began to lose heart. Not all his ardour could suffice any longer to hold the scales between the Empress and Courland. Nor could his utmost caresses, insinuations and flatteries, frankness and plain-speaking, avail him any further with the Russian, who every day demanded, in a more peremptory tone, his credentials and papers.
Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry advised him to leave the country before the frontiers were closed to him, but Captain Lally scorned a retreat...even when Courland haughtily summoned him to the Peterhof and, breaking into a violent fury, threatened him with arrest as an impostor.
"You've fooled me!" roared the Russian. "Cardinal Fleury never sent you! You have no power to offer me an alliance with France!"
"You've the word of an Irish gentleman for your assurance," replied Captain Lally calmly; "and as for Cardinal Fleury's despatches being slow on the way, if you kept your roads in better condition, maybe they would have been here by now."
"The road to Siberia," shouted Courland, "is in excellent condition, as you can soon test for yourself!"
"It's been worn smooth by the feet of all the exiles who you've sent there, I suppose," smiled Captain Lally. "It must be very diverting to have so much authority. But, as for me, I'd have you remember that I am in Dillon's Brigade and serve the King of France."
"The king of hell!" roared the Russian, who had flared from a long sombre smiling patience to a savage fury. "I'll not believe you serve any other master! Your Government disowns you!"
Captain Lally escaped from this interview and endeavoured to obtain one with the Empress, but she refused this favour, and when he chanced to meet her in the corridors of the Peterhof, scowled upon him; it was evident that her patience also was exhausted and that she regarded Lally as a discredited adventurer.
"I warned you, Tom," sighed Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry; "now get out of the country while you can."
Lally was obdurate; his bravery was reckless to the point of foolhardiness. He would not leave St. Petersburg while there was a chance that the Cardinal might write; he could not endure to forgo his success—so quick, so unexpected. But he did not deny to his uncle that he was in a confounded difficulty and he bethought him of the little billet which Cardinal Fleury had given him, and which was only to be opened in a moment of emergency. This moment had surely now arrived, and Captain Lally broke the seal and read these lines:
As you should be in considerable danger before
you read this I think it just to inform you that your mission was
a mere sham. I never intended to support you. I merely sent you
to St. Petersburg as a last expedient to rid myself of one whose
importunities I could not otherwise silence. No one but an
Irishman would have undertaken so forlorn a hope. Adieu, my dear
Captain, I fear for ever!
With a thousand regrets,
Captain Lally clapped the paper down in front of his uncle. "That's the way they treat us," he said, with bitterness—"fools, dupes and catspaws, eh?"
"The mean old viper!" cried Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry. "I warned you, Tom, there's not one of them that you can trust the length of your nose."
"He never thought I'd be successful," said Lally grimly; "had he known that he would have treated me differently. Now, how to get out of Russia as quickly as I came in, and get back to Paris and tell the old, lying cowardly priest this is no way to treat a gentleman who risks everything for his King."
With that he flung off to the Peterhof to face the matter out; he was never a man to slink away or leave his work unfinished. He haughtily demanded an interview with Courland, pointed out in smooth and impressive sentences the difficulties of conducting any negotiations behind the backs of the Ambassadors of the Powers concerned, of the necessity of maintaining a strict secrecy in the affair, declared his intention to return to Paris and finally arrange matters personally with the Cardinal, and, as a final throw, with unfaltering audacity he suggested to Courland that a Russian envoy should be sent with him to Paris, there to conclude the negotiations on the spot. The Russian's furies were overborne; he was baffled, impressed, and dazzled by the splendid advantages to himself which the Irishman eloquently depicted as the result of the proposed treaty. He at length gave a reluctant and sullen consent to Captain Lally's departure for Paris.
But the Irishman was not to leave St. Petersburg without further obstacles to overcome. The Empress sent for him. Marshal Peter Lacy of Ballingarry groaned at the summons, but Lally's headstrong and reckless spirit did not falter.
"I've managed Courland and I'll manage the woman." The Empress received him favourably.
She had an unexpected and astounding proposal to make—no less than that Captain Lally should leave the French service and enter her own. "She cared nothing," she said, with sleepy frankness, "for either alliances with France or any other power, but she very much liked to see handsome and spirited young men wearing her splendid uniform; and she was sure that Captain Lally, to whom she would give the command of a regiment of Cossacks with the title of Brigadier-General, would make himself both agreeable and useful."
Captain Lally considered the glittering temptation—only one thing held him back: Cardinal Fleury's words—"I trust you to remember your sworn loyalty to France." He could rule the Empress, he could oust Courland, he could govern the Russias, he could make himself a prince in name as he was in blood, nay, possibly an emperor—for Courland had the disadvantage of being a married man, but he—he was free...and, against all this, the obscure rank of captain of brigadiers, in the service of a country which had never rewarded him for his exertions, and a man who had duped him miserably.
But Captain Lally's loyalty was to Dillon's and to France. He gave the Empress fair words and evasion and, without even taking leave of his uncle, escaped across the frontier. Travelling rapidly, with fury in his heart, he reached Paris in a passion of rage, and presented himself before the Cardinal.
"Diplomacy goes slowly," smiled the old man; "it may be, if you had waited until I had sent."
"Monseigneur," replied the outraged soldier, "a captain of brigadiers goes straight to the breach; one who, in his zeal for the King, courts inglorious danger, ought not to be left to the mercy of strangers little better than savages, with the result that, having entered Russia as a lion, I regard myself fortunate in escaping like a fox."
The old Cardinal smiled.
"The anger of the Captain strikes terror into the priest," he rejoined meekly. "When we have read your reports we shall doubtless have occasion to praise your wit, if we may not your patience."
"And what of your little paper, Monseigneur?" asked Captain Lally, with a heaving breast and flashing eyes.
"That," said Fleury, "can be explained when I have read your reports." And he laughed a little: "So you came back, after all! You know, my dear Captain, I hardly expected to see you; those barbarians are very dangerous when roused."
"I came back," said Captain Lally, "because I had promised to do so. My service is with Dillon's—but I'm not sure that I won't ask to be released of that, and go back to St. Petersburg."
He told the Cardinal, with contemptuous brevity, of the Empress's offer.
"Which you refused?"
"Perhaps now, Monseigneur, Your Eminence knows how unnecessary it was, twice, to remind me where my duty lay."
Cardinal Fleury read the despatches which Captain Lally had sent from Russia and those which he had brought with him. Accurate, able, concise, and just in their conclusions, they contained a complete survey of the court and country of Russia; their conditions and potential forces—how France might utilise these towards the accomplishment of the great aim of the Irishman's life, the defeat and overthrow of England and the English. The Cardinal had sufficient ability and clear- sightedness to appreciate this brilliant work. He summoned the Captain to a second interview, and this time received him in his bed, for a chill had taken the Cardinal and he lay shivering in an aguish fit. He gave Captain Lally his white, feeble hand to kiss.
"This is all very bold and audacious," he smiled, "but I am not at all sure that it wouldn't be successful. Aye, Captain Lally, I have almost made up my mind to send you as Envoy- Extraordinary to Russia with full credentials, and escort, and complete power to make this alliance."
"And why," exclaimed Captain Lally, "did you not do that before?"
"That is perfectly easy to understand. I was not sure of you. You had not been tempted."
"And the paper?" asked Lally. "Why did you give me that? Many a man, Your Eminence, would have been driven to despair or some desperate action on discovering that paper disowning him in a moment of peril."
"Many a man," murmured the Cardinal, "but not the man I was looking for. It was a frightful test, no doubt, Captain Lally; but I believed you would survive it."
Lally gazed at the frail, sick old man in the great ornate bed.
"You remained loyal," smiled the Cardinal, "you did not leave the French service, and you extricated yourself from a situation of appalling difficulty. All this proves that you are exactly the person for whom I was looking. Rest assured, my dear Captain, that Russia and France will march together to fight the battles of your Chevalier St. George."
For three days a golden light of intoxicating hope and glory surrounded the valiant captain of brigadiers. On the fourth day Cardinal Fleury died and his successor repudiated the Russian scheme.
It was Irish luck—Lally's luck, and taken with a laugh. The captain of brigadiers returned to his regiment to build another house of cards—to shelter a Lost Cause.
MATTHIAS MARIASSY wagered Ferdinand Horvath that he would flourish, before the war was out, the yellow jewel named the Eye of War, which glowed in the turban of the Grand Signor.
After all, one must do something, have some end in view. The war was so long, so many of their companions had been shattered on the battlefield, their ears were tired of the sound of muskets, culverins and cannon, even of the slap of the sappers' spades on the earth as they dug trenches, and the songs of the drunken soldiers at night where they gathered by the glare of the blazing pitch knots. All had become very boring in the camp at Zenta.
The supper given by Field-Marshal Mocsary was becoming dull. Angry with their lowness of spirit the two young men made the mad wager while Mariassy rolled pellets of bread on the cloth and Horvath drank wine that made him flushed, but not excited.
"That means, my dear Matthias," he smiled, "that you must kill the Grand Signor, for I suppose you will hardly get the thing otherwise."
"Nevertheless I have made the wager." Mariassy spoke sullenly.
He was in love with Marie Batthyany and had not seen her for three months. He felt weary of the tedious war and of being fooled by destiny.
The weather was of an intolerable heat, they were too far East for Christian comfort and they cursed heathendom for being on the frontiers of their wretched country. All very well for the Emperor who is safe in Vienna, but day after day of this! They did not miss their dead companions much, but they could not forget how they had looked, besmirched, fly-blown, rotting in the sultry haze of August.
Field-Marshal Mocsary, voluble and heated, was vaunting of great heaven-storming glories, of huge tumultuous victories like Belgrade—Peterwaradin. The young men did not listen. At their end of the table they gossiped of the impoverished Empire, the malcontent soldiers, the waning fame of the generals...when the pavilion flap was lifted for some possible air they could see the pinkish mist, hard as metal over the sullen marshes in the distance, nearer were tents and men soiled and tattered. Baggage wagons passed, creaking under loads of coffins, fever and plague could be smelled on every sick breeze.
Field-Marshal Mocsary continued to boast, his raucous voice was like the buzz of the flies which circled over the wine stains on the laced cloth.
Matthias thought of Marie Batthyany in her flesh-coloured dress of thick satin falling from her lovely shoulders, her saffron-coloured hair bound with a lace of gold filigree, her face ardent and innocent, which seemed, in a glance, to entreat and deny. She had been promised to him when the campaign was over, he longed to present her with some magnificent exploit as a marriage gift, he feared some sidelong look of disdain if he did not impossibly distinguish himself. He swore again that he would win the "Eye of War."
Horvath asked him cunningly if this unattainable jewel was for the Countess Marie.
"No, God forbid that she should even touch such a godless, heathen ornament." And Mariassy frowned, angry that the high- placed lady should have been mentioned at the camp supper. Horvath smiled, knowing him lovesick, smiled a little enviously, too.
She was very lovely, rare and fine. She had that chaste distinction which would make any favoured lover feel honoured. She was wealthy, of an ancient house thrice noble and yet, with all her niceness and high-breeding, there was a voluptuous softness in all she did and said that fired unbounded passion, and in her bearing a very extravagance of grace.
Horvath entered the wager on his tablets—five hundred rix dollars against the "Eye of War" being in the possession of Count Matthias Mariassy before the campaign was over.
It would not be the first Turkish trophy to fall into Christian hands. The Horse Tails of Pashas, the jewelled ring armour, white jade daggers and pink diamond agraffes of Grand Viziers glittered in the treasuries at Vienna, Dresden, Hesse- Cassel, Munich. After a rout of the infidel, rings, buttons, scimitars and belts of great value could be picked up on the battlefield or torn from the dead and dying.
"But this stone," Horvath reminded his friend, "never leaves the Grand Signor's brow save when he sleeps, and then it is guarded by his janizaries, so thou hast set thyself, my dear sir, a tedious task."
Mariassy's dark, heavy-lashed eyes were dreamy. He was slim, black-haired, of a noble outline, he had that impalpable air of the heroic which charms beyond all other qualities. In his scarlet, white and bullion-trimmed uniform he appeared a fitting lieutenant of a courtly Mars, and there was a fiery impatience in his stately face.
Casting the last of his pellets across the disordered table, he gazed at the coffin-carts rumbling without and asked, "Who will some day be called to answer for all this misery?"
The supper was over, the officers went to their quarters, behind a little wood of stunted trees the moon was up, a smouldering sultry red, like a dying ember.
A foul miasma hovered above the fens that had sucked in so many corpses of late, the Imperialists and the mercenaries of all nations moved among the pavilions, hoping to find a fresher air with the evening.
Above a half-ruined château turret hung sullenly the standard of Lorraine, the Commander-in-Chief of this great army. He lay ill of a quinsy and Prince Eugene of Savoy had taken over the command. Here and there the drums hurried, concealing the groans of sick men.
Mariassy's weary mind dwelt on Marie Batthyany—like a green lily, like a dove-tinted pearl veiled in the freshet of a virgin spring, all that was pure, untouched, richly innocent, lovely, chaste, was Marie Batthyany.
He pictured her at her harp in the low shadows of her gold- adorned chamber, singing her delicate ballads celebrating an impossible heroism, the mellifluous songs of Hungary...Blasphemy even to think of Marie Batthyany in this wild waste of war.
With the night, murky clouds closed over the fiery moon, through the commotion of the camp sounded the incessant drums, the thudding hoofs of horses, the shouts of the sentries, of commands. The young Hungarian officers gambled in their pavilion, the rix dollars flickered in the gross light of the oil lamp. After all one must do something, boredom was over them like a pall. Mariassy still thought of Marie Batthyany, it was like an aching, gnawing wound in his heart.
A trumpeter summoned him to the sick Commanderin-Chief's quarters; as he crossed the camp he saw a ruddy glow in the East, like the "Eye of War" itself, peeping from the frowning clouds.
The Duke of Lorraine reclined on an embroidered chair by the open window, a medicated plaster was on his neck, his splendid face looked small and death-like, he was wrapped in a silk bedgown and, close to his hand, among the drug bottles was the bâton of command, embossed with golden eagles. Some officers and priests stood behind him; a Pandour who had brought dispatches, furtively wiped the sweat from his brow.
"Colonel Mariassy," said Lorraine, very hoarse and low, "I have news here of a sudden raid by the Grand Signor, they have broken through our outposts and besiege Titul."
Mariassy waited eagerly while the Duke struggled with his failing voice. Was it possible that after weeks of monotonous duties, of stupid inaction, he was to be given some notable duty to perform?
"I think," whispered Lorraine, "it is fitting that you, sir, undertake to regain this fort, for it seems that on an alarm of this raid several Hungarian ladies fled to Titul and among them was the Countess Marie Batthyany."
When the Hungarian officer had received these orders and left the room, the sick General smiled at one of his adjutants.
"I think I shall save my fort of Titul, eh?"
Over the plains of Zenta the Hungarian regiment passed at a gallop. Stammering with excitement, Mariassy had given his orders. Unchecked, his great warrior horse leapt forward, like the steady flow of a great wave the Imperialists surged towards Titul.
The blaze of distant fireballs lit an airless dawn, the first rays of the sun fell on the Hungarians riding slowly for fear of bursting their horses' hearts. The light glinted along their scabbards, the gold-wreathed breastplates, the knots of bullion in their cockades.
Before them rose the fort of Titul, guarding desolation.
Horvath, leaning from his leopard-skin saddle towards Mariassy, reminded him of his wager.
"Since the Grand Signor in person made this foray, maybe thou wilt have thy chance of the oculus belli."
Mariassy did not reply. No word had he spoken of this since Lorraine had given him this charge. It seemed as if he had been aware of nothing but the sound of his five hundred horse behind him. Horvath shrugged, respecting one who gambled deep with destiny. After all Matthias Mariassy had excuse for his wild silence, the very thought of the women being taken by the Turks was Hell open at the feet of Christian men, and Marie Batthyany...
The Imperialists halted beneath the citadel. It was clear that this had been taken by assault, the covered way had been mined, an explosion had shattered the redoubts, those of the garrison who had endeavoured to make a sortie lay huddled on the upthrown heaps of fresh earth. Here and there a turban showed among the Christian uniforms. Mariassy made the sign of the Cross on his breast, Horvath feared that he would drop from his horse and flung out a hand to steady him, but it was Mariassy who was the first to spring out of the saddle and mount the ruined glacis.
The Turks had taken Titul, massacred the garrison, dismantled the fort and prudently withdrawn into Bosnia.
Their fireballs, cast contemptuously behind in their march, yet smirched the distance with flame, and their drums beat in far-off fury.
"It was only what was to be expected," grumbled Horvath, picking his way among the dead bodies. "Why did the women remain so near the seat of war?"
He sent up two of his hussars to pull down the cursed Crescent that drooped upon the highest tower and trample it in the mud. The sunlight poured unmercifully down through the apertures of the fort and showed the heaped corpses of the Christian women—some strangled, some with arrows in their breasts.
Horvath felt his limbs tremble, the dust sting his eyes and a rising sickness in his heart. He dared not turn to Mariassy, but presently saw him, stumbling up a twist of steps and followed.
"Nay, my dear Mariassy, this were best left to me—"
Mariassy did not hear, he continued to mount the stairs, his drawn sword in his hand, his face inhuman. Horvath did not doubt that he was already insane. Controlling his own nausea, Horvath helped in the search for Marie Batthyany, but among the dead, overtaken in corners, struck down behind doors, flung from windows, was none so lovely as she...
"Look up," said Horvath, "maybe she has escaped, maybe she was not here, but in good keeping."
A young officer came running after them, panting up the stairs. He had found a woman, alive, hidden in one of the closets, alive and uninjured, shut away from all the carnage. He spoke as if he had beheld a miracle, his eyes were frightened.
Mariassy reeled against the wall, his scabbard jangled on the ground.
From every part of the fort rose the groans and blasphemies of the Hungarians as they turned over the dead women and children. Already graves were being dug in the earth upheaved by the explosion. The sun seemed to stride forward into the centre of the heavens, so suddenly bright it became.
As if he conducted a blind man Horvath led Mariassy, to where the young Captain guided them.
The small closet had belonged to the Governor of Titul. It was untouched, the tapestry hung precise, the furniture was in order. On the bureau was the Governor's inkhorn and standish, even his lorgnette, there were jasmine and carnations in a glass; an inner door stood open on to the small bedchamber of the murdered General—he had been one of the first they had found, shot in the dark ditch. On a low chair sat Marie Batthyany, her long tresses of saffron yellow were disordered, her fingers intertwined in an attitude of prayer.
At sight of her Mariassy moved from Horvath's support like one newly restored to life, incapable of speech. He cast himself on his knees beside her and pressed his tears and his kisses on her clasped hands.
She stared down at his fallen black locks, she too seemed to find it impossible to say a word.
Horvath, as an excuse not to break in on this meeting, so touching and terrible, inspected the two rooms, the young Captain accompanying him, and pointed out that these apartments alone had been spared of the entire fort. The bed had been slept in though the coverlet was drawn over the disorder; in a corner of the room, as if hastily pushed out of sight, were table appointments, glasses, dishes, fruit, bread, sweetmeats, hidden under a napkin.
"So, the Governor slept and supped here," remarked Horvath, "but I thought the fort had fallen last night."
"'Tis clear," shuddered the Captain, "from the bodies already cold and stiffening, that it was so."
To wash his soul of horror Horvath leaned from the window. The sky was pellucid blue and simple as a faery tale, the heavy vapours of the night hung low and purple on the horizon, it was good to gaze from the fort of Titul at the passive purity of those meek heavens.
When he returned to the closet he found the lovers had risen. Marie Batthyany lay in the arms of Mariassy.
It was not to be expected that she could give an account of her escape, but Horvath, pricked by curiosity, asked how she had contrived so extraordinary a deliverance.
"Are all gone?" she murmured. Her eyes were closed, but her cheeks were neither sunk nor pale.
"The Turks are gone," said Horvath, "and the Christians...Put a veil over her face, Matthias, and let us carry her out of this accursed place so that she may not see what she passes."
But Marie Batthyany clung to her lover, she had no courage to leave the closet where all was clean and fresh, even perfumed by the fine flowers in the glass, she was afraid of smelling blood, of hearing perhaps a groan. She began to kiss his dark cheek softly, his beautiful mouth, begging him to spare her this pain.
"When did these dogs leave?" demanded Horvath.
"Last night," whispered Marie Batthyany. "I have been here so long, crouching in the dark."
Mariassy soothed her with passionate solicitude. Horvath remembered the fireballs and the drums, not an hour's march away when they had come up. He looked at the young Captain who glanced aside. Horvath told him to go and see if some litter could be contrived for Marie Batthyany.
"Shall we take her to Zenta, Matthias?"
The young woman declared that she could ride, if a horse could be found, or even mount behind Mariassy, so that she got to safety. She had left her lover's arms and stood, slim and vigorous, in the sunlight by the window, a sudden breeze, quick as a hunted bird, troubled her hair, lifted the heavy locks. She looked at Horvath with a deeper attention than she had given her lover.
"I know nothing whatever, Major Horvath, of what happened. When the assault began I fled here, I rushed to the bed and hid myself under the coverlets—"
"Oh," said Horvath, "that is why it was pulled about?"
"Yes, and then, as I suppose, I must have fainted, the noise was so horrible, the expectation so fearful—I prayed to God, and I think He struck me senseless—"
"No need, Countess," interrupted Horvath, "to justify yourself to me."
"Justify?" cried Mariassy, fiercely and bewildered.
"He thinks," put in Marie Batthyany swiftly, "that I should not be the one Christian alive, but I cannot help my cowardice, if I had not been senseless I had run out to die with them."
"Madame," asked Horvath, "how do you know all are slain? We never said so. But it is true, even the little children..." He turned to the young Captain. "Give me what lies beneath the bureau."
This was a crucifix of silver-gilt, it had been defaced and twisted; it seemed stamped on by a heavy heel. Above the bureau still showed the nail from which it had been wrenched.
"What is this?" asked Mariassy, looking at the ruined symbol in the fine steady hand of Horvath. "If no one entered here, how was this done?"
"I do not know," said Marie Batthyany, "I have never seen it before."
"Colonel," Horvath spoke formally, "I will make what order I can before you bring out your lady."
He left, followed by the young Captain; both of them looked sombrely on the ground as they descended the twist of stairs.
"Mariassy is the unluckiest of men," said Horvath gloomily. "That one woman—of all—"
The Captain protested at the hinted suggestion, his frightened voice was very low.
"'Tis not possible for a Christian woman, and all these dead without her very door. Besides, who would have had the power to—?"
"Only one—he whom we call the Grand Signor—Kara Mustapha."
The young Captain straightened himself against the wall like one bedazzled and sick to retching.
"If a woman," he stammered, "had the misfortune to please a dog like Mustapha, would he not take her with him?"
"No," said Horvath, "he would despise her too much."
He touched his sword, the lines were deep round his arched upper lip, the fatigue of the long night ride seemed to have suddenly affected him, he moved slowly.
"If she in any way belonged to me—"
Matthias Mariassy brought out of Titul the only survivor of the Turkish massacre, she had wrapped a square of lawn over her face, her shoulders were covered by the great-coat of the late governor, her silk dress showed beneath in pale gleams, she leaned heavily on her lover's arm.
There was silence among the Hungarians, all looked away; those burying the dead crossed themselves, the air seemed full of menace. Mariassy, with the woman on his arm, peered about him with narrowed, tired eyes.
"No one," he said, "seems to rejoice with me in my good fortune."
His glance fell on a group of officers standing near; despite the heat of the day they were sipping brandy from their metal flasks. He addressed them.
"Gentlemen, by the grace of God, the Countess Marie Batthyany is safe."
The officers saluted, their faces were expressionless. One of them, an engineer, said:
"My Colonel, it will be impossible to cleanse or repair the fort, shall we not blow it up?"
"Do so at once," said Mariassy.
Marie Batthyany took off her lawn veil and stared about her. She was, without dispute, a most beautiful woman, no one ever denied that, and all the silent men who looked at her felt something pressing on their hearts.
Mariassy seemed to wonder at the stillness. Horvath had his vinaigrette to his distended nostrils as if overcome by the fumes of death.
"Shall I take the Countess to safety, my Colonel," he demanded, "while you pursue the Grand Signor?" He tried to smile. "Remember your wager—the 'Eye of War' from his turban, well, here is your chance to obtain it."
The woman startled against her betrothed as if she had been menaced; she would not be parted from him, she declared, he and only he should take her to Zenta. Mariassy conceded to her fears.
The Hungarians laid the mine beneath the ruined fort. Nothing but fire could purge Titul, and they had found it impossible to bury all the dead.
While the Italian engineers worked the Hungarians rested themselves and their horses, all were silent.
The Countess Marie Batthyany waited under a tree by a dry well. She appeared to be absorbed in the attentions of her betrothed, but often she cast a sidelong, furtive glance at Horvath.
By noon all was ready for departure. A quiet soft-paced Arab was brought for Marie Batthyany, it belonged to a young ensign who would lead him gently through the heat. The horse snorted and trampled.
Horvath helped her to mount and, as she sprang into the saddle, a flash of coloured light fell from her bosom laces to the well-trodden ground, Horvath put his foot on it, when Mariassy's head was turned he picked it up. In his palm scintillated the famous yellow diamond, the "Eye of War" from the front of Kara Mustapha's turban.
In this he saw the needed proof of his suspicions and he was immediately resolved.
"Colonel, the Countess says she left some papers on the Governor's bureau. I have offered to send for them, but she will have no hand but yours touch them—likely they are your letters to her."
The woman swung round in the saddle with a denial of this lie on her lips, but the dark soldier glanced at her, then at his loosely-closed fingers through which shot a baleful gleam. And she was terribly silent.
"Did I not so understand your meaning, Countess?"
Rigid with fear she obeyed his unspoken commands. She entreated Mariassy to return to the fort for her love-letters. Never before had she been parted from them, only he must touch them; he was pleased to obey so delicate a whim.
Horvath swung into the saddle and sat his horse beside the Countess Marie Batthyany. All the soldiers watched Mariassy going slowly over the rough ground towards the ruined fort; a freshet of air stirred his black locks and his white plumes, he held himself very erect and easy, yet like a man who is tired; once he passed his hand across his eyes, they could hear the sound of his spurs and his sword on the debris. He disappeared into the distant fort.
Horvath called up the captain of engineers.
"Now spring the mine!" he said.
The two men looked into each other's eyes, they understood each other perfectly.
The engineer turned away to give his orders, the woman would have fallen forward on her horse had not Horvath supported her firmly.
"Why this?" she stammered stupidly.
"Because he was my friend, Madame."
With a 'deep roar and a bursting flash Titul blazed into the air, a shower of dust and splinters descended on the Hungarians. Many of them prayed.
When the veil of smoke and dust had passed Horvath still sat erect amongst his men. He was now in command of the regiment. In gouts of fire Titul was consumed.
"Have the goodness, Madame, to descend and stand by that tree."
She slipped out of the saddle and was on her knees beside his horse.
"I was frightened. I did it to save my life."
"You took something besides your life." He showed her the gem, dancing with light on his palm. "You take payment, you, a Christian, a Batthyany, betrothed to Matthias Mariassy. There's only one thing possible, but I do not wish you to suffer."
There was no truer shot or one who had a steadier hand than himself. He brought out his petronel, she suddenly fell from her knees prone on to her side insensible on the ground.
It seemed a blasphemy to destroy anything so beautiful, but the silence about him urged it, the sound of the pistol was like a salvo fired for Mariassy devoured in the storming flames of Titul which, with heat and glare, seemed to absorb the whole landscape and the rich sweetness of the summer.
Again the lawn veil was laid over the face of Marie Batthyany; it did not take long for them to hide her for ever in a grave by the gaunt tree, the rough mound would soon be covered with weeds and thistles.
Horvath addressed his men.
"It is to be regretted that we did not find one Christian woman left alive in Titul. Not one. It is to be regretted that Colonel Mariassy was slain by a chance grenade left in the fort. No one will imagine anything else. Gentlemen, I commend to you the honour of Hungary."
They rode slowly back to Zenta through the August warmth, the "Eye of War" burned in the war glove of Ferdinand Horvath; he remembered his wager. He felt the hard gem there while he gave his report to Lorraine, anguished in his yellow-leather chair, dying, choking with his quinsy.
"It is to be regretted, my General."
"It is greatly to be regretted, Colonel Horvath. But I hope to have my revenge. Prince Eugene is preparing to meet the Grand Signor when he crosses the Danube—all the Christian women!"...Lorraine moved his sick head on the pillows and fainted.
When the Turks passed the Teisse Colonel Howarth and his Hungarians were among the first troops to oppose them. That day twenty thousand of the Infidel were left dead on the field, ten thousand were drowned. This was not enough for Horvath. Hacking his way through the Spahis he tore down the green Ottoman flag and dragged the Grand Signor from his litter; the Turks shrieking "Aman! Aman!" abandoned their general; the Hungarian hussars, their smoked faces rigid, galloped up round their colonel.
With cries of delight the Christian slew the Mussulman.
Before he cast the bloody head of the Grand Signor into the waters of the Teisse, Horvath thrust the yellow diamond into the torn turban that was twisted round the gashed forehead. He watched the tormented waters close over the glaring face, and the oculus belli flash for the last time among the drowned men.
He believed that Matthias Mariassy would be well content with him. His pleasing face wore a satisfied expression as he galloped away from the river banks into the active clamour of the battle.
THE gilt crook knotted with silver ribbons fell from the satin chair as M. de Penthièvre moved and sighed. Mlle. de Alexandre, in the silk extravagances of a toy shepherdess, gazing at herself in the mirror wreathed with roses and cupidons, did not notice the sigh nor the glance of profound disillusion that M. de Penthièvre gave her languishing charms of fashionable ballet dancer. When she did look at him his perfect courtesy had concealed his weariness. Though he was only twenty-five his handsome face was already a mask that smilingly concealed his infinite boredom with his luxurious existence.
The age was cynic and exhausted, voluptuous frivolities barely disguised a universal languor and decay; those, who, like M. de Penthièvre, had some intelligence, could see no object in life.
Mlle. de Alexandre caressed him in vain; she asked him to admire her gauze gown and he admired it as he would have admired a porcelain de saxe, without enthusiasm or interest; he was so tired of porcelains and ballet dancers, of ribbons and pearls and perfumes of lilies and roses set in rococo vases or placed, in stiff rosettes, in powdered curls.
He was, above all, tired of Mlle. de Alexandre.
Yet he but exchanged one boudoir for another, and leaving the dancer went to that great lady, Madame de Sourdeau, whose lover he had been for five years.
And there, icily, he watched her idleness; eh, but life was stale!
Madame de Sourdeau was at her toilette; while her pomaded curls were dressed a black page amused her by teasing a scarlet parakeet, an abbe read some love verses, and the chamber woman unpacked slippers and feathers from boxes with elegant stripes.
"Are you coming to the Opera, Andre?" asked Madame de Sourdeau. Oddly enough, she still loved him, and his profound indifference to their intrigue was like a chill miasma in the warm extravagance of the boudoir.
M. de Penthièvre said, No, that night he would not go to the Opera.
The lady adjusted, with bleached fingers, a patch on her powdered face.
"What, then, are you going to do?"
It was a question that she should never have asked; it showed that she was losing her lightness of touch, a fatal error.
"How can one answer?" he replied. He could not avoid his own reflection in the cool mirror opposite, his pale face, his dark eyes, his powdered curls, his diamonds and satins in pastel tints, his elegance of aristocrat and courtier; this image seemed to him the epitome of ineptitude, but he had not the energy to move from the delicate bergère where he sat.
Madame de Sourdeau was ten years older than her lover and had always held him tightly despite, or perhaps because of, his profound indifference. She regarded him coolly and wondered if Mlle. de Alexandre was a serious rival; she reminded him that this dancer was performing at the Opera to-night.
"You should come to see her, Andre, you who admire her so much," and Madame de Sourdeau clasped a cascade of diamonds round her throat. This made a glitter in the candles, a glitter that was reflected in all the wanton mirrors.
M. de Penthièvre smiled, seeing her meaning and not deigning to argue with it. He had noticed of late that she was jealous; with languid compliments he excused himself and left her and went out into the streets of Paris where an autumn wind blew the rotting leaves from the tall trees in the gardens of the dark houses.
Having broken all his engagements and avoided all his acquaintances, he had nothing to do and could think of nothing that he wished to do. He sauntered along the chill streets in a deep melancholy and a dangerous idleness, despising himself and finding all the world odious.
By force of habit he turned towards the Palais Royal and the doors of a gambling club where he was sure to find some companions of his own rank and age; cards were less wearisome than women, and here one could drink, a pretence of excitement, a pretence of oblivion, at least.
As he was about to enter these doors someone timidly plucked at his cloak.
"Pardon, Monseigneur, but if I could speak to you?" He thought it a beggar, and drew haughtily away, but the man continued earnestly:
"Monsieur le Duc, just a word or two, on a serious matter?"
"You know me?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Duc—"
"Then it is surprising that you wish to speak to me on a serious matter."
"It is true, however, that I do wish to do so, Monseigneur."
M. de Penthièvre paused; in the twilight he could just discern the speaker to be an elderly man, decently dressed.
"I have been," continued this person very respectfully, "to Monseigneur's house at Auteuil, I have waited in the ante-chamber of Mlle. Alexandre, and at last I have come here in the hope of finding Monseigneur."
"You have taken some trouble at least," smiled M. de Penthièvre, rather amused by this distraction just when he was in need of distraction. "Who are you?"
"Monseigneur does not know me, but I am in the service of Monseigneur—I am Fayard, the major-domo of the Hotel de Penthièvre."
"The devil you are; well, my good Fayard, of course I remember you perfectly. I believe your family was always very devoted to mine."
"That is precisely why I am here, Monseigneur."
"Come inside," said the young Duke indifferently, "and tell me what you have to say."
He led the way into the bright corridors of the club and into a private room where a fire burnt and the candles were lit. He recalled Fayard, when he was a boy, a child, in the chateau in Touraine, in Paris, in his father's service. Yes, he had been fond of Fayard, though of course he had forgotten him, as one did forget—everything.
He seated himself and took off his gauntlets, his hat, his cloak, while Fayard stood humbly and bare-headed before him; an elderly man, Fayard, with a shrewd, kindly face, that seemed now distressed and pallid. Odd for him to come after his master like this, but the Duke was too disinterested to be astonished.
"If it is to do with my business affairs, M. de Mailly would have seen you," he remarked, naming the man who administered his great wealth and his vast estates.
"Monseigneur, it has nothing to do with business. Monsieur l'Intendant conducts the affairs of Monseigneur perfectly."
"Eh bien, then?"
Some beautiful apples were in a dish on the side-table and M. de Penthièvre took one idly up in his long fine fingers.
The old servant wiped his forehead furtively and gave an agonised glance at the beautiful face of his master, a face so young and yet so impassive.
"Monseigneur is never at his hotel."
"No. There is no occasion, Fayard."
"Monseigneur has been married two years."
"Is it as long as that, Fayard?"
"Precisely two years, Monsieur le Duc."
M. de Penthièvre smiled.
"You have a good memory, Fayard."
"During those two years Madame la Duchesse has lived alone in the Hotel de Penthièvre—save when Monseigneur has taken her to the Tuileries or Versailles."
"It is correct, Fayard, to say that I have allowed Madame la Duchesse the enjoyment of my hotel without troubling her with my presence—but alone? My domestics are in adequate numbers. Madame has her friends." The young man was amused; he smiled again.
"My meaning, Monseigneur, was that Madame has lived—since her marriage—without her husband."
"Eh, mon Dieu, a husband!"
Fayard trembled before this light laugh, but bowed.
"Precisely, Monseigneur. What I have to say is so extraordinarily difficult—"
"It shall be pardoned, Fayard. You are a good fellow. I remember you quite well—you served my father diligently."
"I wish also to serve Monseigneur diligently. I am an old man, an old servant. Will what I have to say indeed be pardoned?"
"Speak," smiled the Duke.
Fayard, still standing respectfully, seemed to consider a second, as if gathering together his forces, then said earnestly, even desperately:
"Monseigneur has not perhaps thought much of Madame la Duchesse?"
"Why should I, Fayard?"
"I have lived with her for two years, Monsieur le Duc, I know her very well. I beg Monseigneur to condescend to remember that she is only seventeen in this November, that he married her when she left the convent, that when she came to Paris she knew nothing whatever of the world."
"But in two years she has learnt something, eh, Fayard?"
"Monseigneur, I fear she has learnt too much."
After the slightest pause M. de Penthièvre replied negligently:
"I do not think that possible; Madame must learn—all there is to know—of the world in which she must live. She is charming and pretty—a little provincial, no doubt, but that fault can be repaired and it is my wish that she should enjoy herself while she has the capacity to do so."
He then paused again for the fraction of a second, and looking at his servant with slightly narrowed eyes, added:
"I think it very strange that you should have told me this—you, Fayard, must know the usual progress of a mariage de convenance."
"It is because of that I am here, Monseigneur. I talk of a child—and a child entrusted to you, Monsieur le Duc."
The accents of the servant were gone; it was a man talking to a man, an old man talking to a young man; but M. de Penthièvre did not seem to resent this. He answered quietly:
"You have become attached to Madame la Duchesse, Fayard?"
"Yes, Monseigneur, I have even, if Monsieur le Duc will pardon me, presumed to forget the differences in our positions and to pity, to pity very greatly, Madame la Duchesse."
Even at this M. de Penthièvre continued to smile as if he considered any impertinence from his servant to himself impossible, as if this was all amusing and rather foolish. There was no change in his fine, cool face; yet he did not dismiss Fayard nor even glance at the clock, and Fayard took courage from this and from the recollection of the days when this grand gentleman had been a little boy riding on his shoulders through the allies of the park on the banks of the Loire.
"Madame la Duchesse is much admired, Monseigneur."
"So one would suppose, Fayard."
"Very young, very ignorant, admired—alone—Monseigneur has thought about it?"
"Monseigneur will think about it now?"
"Why should I?"
Fayard was silent. The young Duke looked into the fire, his brows slightly raised, his lips faintly smiling, his whole figure languid.
"My poor Fayard, you waste your time."
"It is possible, Monseigneur."
"And mine, Fayard."
The servant bowed.
"But Monseigneur has wasted so much already—and yet not much on Madame la Duchesse."
"That is true, Fayard. But what can I do for Madame la Duchesse? She has my name, my estate—"
"And if she should—slight—one and squander the other, Monsieur le Duc?"
"Eh bien, it is all in the mode!"
He laughed, with intense disillusion. The servant eyed him, and said dryly:
"Her lover is M. Saint Mexme."
The apple slid out of the Duke's fingers and rolled across the floor, but he answered, without a change of tone:
"She has shown good taste."
"Monseigneur, he is also very young."
"And charming, don't you think, Fayard?"
"They are very much in earnest, Monsieur le Duc."
"That is a pity, Fayard."
"Monseigneur, it is all so much a pity."
"The conclusion of all the philosophers, Fayard!"
"What I had to say did not surprise Monseigneur?"
"Surprise? I suppose I could have found it out for myself had I wished, Fayard. But it did not occur to me to inquire into the affairs of Madame la Duchesse." He smiled, looking into the pale, distressed face of the servant. "My good Fayard, I am afraid that the air of Paris does not agree with you, you appear quite discomposed and ill."
"Perhaps Monseigneur will consider that I have been, and my father before me, greatly attached to his illustrious house, of which he is the last—"
"The last, Dieu merci!"
"It has been a very noble house, a great house of soldiers, statesmen, Monsieur le Duc, of brave men and pure women—all for France."
"Those days are past, Fayard. For war and statecraft we have peace and politics. One amuses oneself—if one can."
"But there is still France."
"Why do you remind me of France, Fayard?" M. de Penthièvre turned in his seat slightly.
"When I said France, Monseigneur, I meant chivalry."
"Eh bien, Fayard?"
"Madame la Duchesse has not come to this easily, Monseigneur, there have been tears and prayers, and torments and bewilderments and great misery—"
"How do you know?"
"My daughter, Margot, has the honour to be femme de chambre to Madame la Duchesse, and to love her, Monseigneur."
"She seems lacking in discretion—your Margot."
"Only to me. Monseigneur will perhaps forgive our great presumption when he considers that Madame la Duchesse had no one to care for her—in all Paris. Madame came from the convent not knowing what marriage meant, expecting to live with Monseigneur, anxious to please him, timid and sensitive, not knowing of Madame de Sourdeau, not knowing anything."
"But now," remarked the young Duke quietly, "she knows a little more. Nor is she quite alone—there is M. de Saint Mexme to instruct her in Paris manners."
At this a fine thin colour overspread the servant's pale face. He advanced a step and said firmly:
"Not being a great noble, Monseigneur, nor even a gentleman, I could not help pitying this young girl, sacrificed to a mockery of marriage, abandoned to the corruptions of Paris, left without defence in this intolerable position—I could not help feeling remorse and shame—"
M. de Penthièvre looked at him with the faintest shade of surprise.
"Did you, Fayard?"
"Yes, remorse and shame for you, Monseigneur."
"You're not afraid of me, Fayard?"
"That's odd, Fayard," mused the young Duke. "It's all odd, is it not? And quite useless."
"I am very sorry, Monsieur le Duc."
"Pray do not be. By to-morrow I shall have forgotten everything."
"Monseigneur has asked if I am afraid of him and I have said no. With all respect, a time is coming when men like myself will never be afraid of men like you, Monsieur le Duc; things are changing, on all sides one hears that—"
"Yes, I have thought so too."
"You have power of life and death over me and mine now, Monseigneur," continued the servant quietly, "but that will not long be so—but always some power you will have, for I have always loved your house."
"Have you, Fayard—loved?"
M. de Penthièvre looked at him with curiosity. The servant bowed and added:
"I will leave Monseigneur to his amusements."
"Good night, Fayard."
Fayard buttoned his cloak, moved to the door and bowed again.
"M. de Saint Mexme is received to-night at the Hotel de Penthièvre by Madame la Duchesse—alone—" The young Duke rose.
"For the first time—"
"You are well informed of the progress of this affair."
"Monseigneur wears a sword."
"But not to annoy children at their play—let them enjoy themselves, Fayard, since we are so near this débâcle of which you speak—"
"They will not enjoy themselves to-night."
"Why?" asked M. de Penthièvre slowly.
"Because I have not relied only on Monsieur le Duc to protect the honour of Madame la Duchesse."
At this the young man was more roused than he had been since the beginning of the interview.
"What have you done?" he demanded haughtily.
"I have asked M. de Lavardin, the brother of Madame, to come to the Hotel de Penthièvre to-night. M. de Lavardin is of the noblesse de province, is he not, Monsieur le Duc? He has ideas different from those of Monseigneur."
"Fayard, you are a villain."
"M. de Lavardin hoped his sister would be what she has never been—your wife, Monseigneur, with children to inherit your honours, which she will never have—when he sees what he will see to-night—"
M. de Penthièvre interrupted:
"What will he do? Eh?"
"He will make a scandal, an open scandal. He will very likely kill M. de Saint Mexme."
The young Duke was silent a second, then said coolly:
"He certainly has no tact nor finesse—you are a rogue, Fayard, to have done this. I shall have you severely punished."
"Anything else, Monseigneur?"
"Nothing else. The affair is between M. de Lavardin and M. de Saint Mexme. I am not interested in either."
"Nor in Madame la Duchesse?"
"Madame la Duchesse, like everyone else, Fayard, must pay for her experiences. I shall give her the satisfaction of seeing you thrashed, at least—and the hint to be more discreet with her femme de chambre—she shall learn in time to conduct an affair without a fracas."
The servant, very pale now, answered simply "Yes, she will learn, that is what is so bad, Monseigneur."
M. de Penthièvre picked up his cloak and hat; the servant had one more thing to say:
"Monsieur le Duc will remember his toast at the betrothal fête?—to Madelon—and all the Graces '? She did possess them once, Monseigneur."
Then he was gone.
Now M. de Penthièvre looked at the clock. Seven. The fellow had talked a long time, yet still there was a great deal of the evening to get through. Lavardin would go to-night, he was in Paris on one of his brief visits, and that manner of man; he had quarrelled with him, he believed, but one forgot; at least he disliked him, a provincial and a bore. Really it had been a misalliance, but then the dowry had been tempting; Madame de Sourdeau had been expensive. De Saint Mexme was a fool, too, fresh from Saint Cyr; neither would know how to manage the situation. But what did it matter?
It was odd, all of it. Fayard, now, how intelligently he had spoken, with what courage and feeling. Very likely, if the débâcle came, Fayard would rise in the new order; he had spoken of that, everyone did now, even at Court, even nobles like M. Lafayette talked of a coming change, perhaps of a revolution like those savages in America were indulging in. Eh, Fayard, with these ideas, it was amusing!
Of course, something must be done with Fayard, a lettre de cachet, the Bastille, or merely a flogging and a dismissal?
M. de Penthièvre went into the large room where some other young men were gambling and yawning, oh, la, everywhere yawning! M. de Hauterive lost his snuff-box set with brilliants to M. de Penthièvre; inside the lid was the miniature of a pretty young woman with the legend, "Souviens-toi." M. de Penthièvre tossed the box back, he felt slightly nauseated; he thought it a physical feeling and blamed the wine, which was horribly new; and the air, which was unutterably stale.
At last the clock struck midnight—at last.
"Souviens-toi"—why had Fayard reminded him of the betrothal toast—"Madelon—and all the Graces?"
He remembered her, so shy and forlorn, fifteen years old, in her huge brocade skirts and bodice laced with diamonds. "It weighs more than a cuirass, that dress," her brother had said, "and she has worn it for hours."
All the Graces—grace of youth, grace of loveliness, grace of innocence—
But after to-night?
M. de Penthièvre left the gambling hell and came into the streets; cold, dull weather with a fine rain falling on the litter of the deserted streets.
He turned to the Hotel de Penthièvre; dark and large and grim the black bulk of his house rose into the cloudy night.
He rang the bell at the gates and the porter came, sleepy, alarmed, and would have refused him admission.
"Don't you know me?" M. de Penthièvre lifted his hat. "Is it so long since I was here?"
"Eh, no, Monseigneur," stammered the terrified porter, "only a year—"
A year, and then only for a few hours when he had come to fetch her to Versailles.
The porter scrambled across the courtyard to open the doors of the mansion; clangour of bells and shouting and running of domestics; M. de Penthièvre hushed all this clamour.
"Mon Dieu, may a man not come into his own house without this?" He mounted the vast stairs followed by a page with a girandole of candles. "Where are the apartments of Madame la Duchesse?"
He was amused to see that all the servants looked frightened, pale and frightened; the page took him to his wife's apartments, and he entered the ante-chamber.
Here he glanced round curiously; he had never entered these rooms since they had been furnished for his bride. He was not impressed; they were exactly like the rooms of any other woman—satin, porcelain de saxe, gilded cupidons, crystal lustres...
He dismissed the page; he told him to send all the servants to bed. Fayard had not appeared; he wondered a little about Fayard.
M. de Penthièvre knocked on the inner door after carefully taking off his cloak, hat and gloves, that were slightly wet, and mechanically adjusting his cravat, ruffles, and hair in one of the tiresome little mirrors he detested.
He had to knock several times before the femme de chambre, who appeared to have hastily dressed, opened cautiously the door. This would be Margot, Fayard's daughter, not quite the type of soubrette he knew so well, a serious girl—for Paris.
She appeared terrified beyond measure, but he gently put her aside and entered the sparkling little boudoir like that of Mlle. Alexandre, of Madame de Sourdeau.
"Is your mistress awake?"
"Monseigneur, she has been asleep—for hours."
"Will you wake her, please? I want to speak to her."
"But, Monseigneur, at this hour of the night! Madame will be terrified—oh, but Monsieur le Duc will wait till the morning?"
"Such," he replied, "is not my custom. It is Margot, Fayard's daughter, is it not? Will you announce me to Madame?"
She had no choice, but quite pallid with alarm knocked on the door of the bedchamber. Immediately a frightened voice answered:
"Who is it?"
"Not, I think, asleep, Madame la Duchesse," remarked M. de Penthièvre. "Take in some candles, Margot."
The girl opened the door, holding a cluster of wax lights, hastily lit, in her left hand, and announced in sinking tones:
"Monsieur le Duc, Madame."
"Leave the candles," said he, entering; then, as Margot placed these on the console, "Now you may return to bed."
The young Duchess sat up in bed under a grand imperial of straw-coloured silk, and when she saw who it was who entered she instinctively gathered the elegant rosy quilt and the fine lawn sheets up to her chin with a cry of complete dismay.
"It is permitted—before one's husband," smiled M. de Penthièvre, "to appear in déshabillé." He looked with a faint curiosity about the room. "Is this to your taste? For me—a little ordinary."
Madame de Penthièvre could not reply. She sat huddled under the coquettish canopy, holding the bedclothes to her chin, her curls escaping from her muslin cap and her small round face distorted with alarm. He had never seen her save in a robe de parade, and had not realised how very delicate and slight she was, nor how pretty without her rouge and pomade; prettier, he thought idly, than Mlle. Alexandre, but still extremely unsophisticated.
He went round the room, lighting the candles, hoping she would recover her composure. Finding a négligé of swansdown and lace and a pair of slippers, he brought these to the bed and suggested she should rise and put them on.
"But why?" she stammered, quivering with fright. "Why are you here, Monseigneur? Have pity on me, I implore you—"
He checked her with cool serenity.
"Eh, one does not talk like that, Madame, that is for the theatre! Will you please rise? If I embarrass you I will remain here till you are ready."
He seated himself on the brocade stool at the foot of the bed so that he could not see her. Her trembling voice came from behind him:
"If Monseigneur would explain? I am so bewildered, so alarmed—"
"Occasionally one likes to see one's wife," he answered. "My dear—" he wanted to use her name and had forgotten it, then it came into his mind with the memory of the toast, "Madelon—and all the Graces"—"my dear Madelon, it occurred to me to inquire if everything was to your liking here; if the air of Paris agreed with you, if the house was run to your taste."
Madame de Penthièvre came round the bed; she was dressed in robe and slippers, and had put over the light lace and gauze a white cashmere Andalusian shawl which concealed her effectively from throat to ankles—at which detail he smiled, and rising, invited her to a chair. They sat facing each other, at the end of the bed, she quite rigid with fright.
"You have found Paris agreeable?" he asked pleasantly. "You have diverted yourself? At first, perhaps, you felt a little—rustic—but that, by now, should have worn off."
He wondered if she had Saint Mexme concealed anywhere in the room. Personally, he had always been too adroit to be involved in any of these comedy situations, but he knew they did occur, and young Saint Mexme was the type of youth to find himself in some opera bouffe position, thrust cramped into a wardrobe or stifling behind curtains. There were both wardrobes and curtains well in view; M. de Penthièvre glanced at all with a languid interest.
"If I were you," he remarked, "I should change these furnishings, they seem to me very insipid—a fair woman should have more brilliant colours—rose or turquoise—"
"The room is very well," she replied faintly.
"Perhaps you think so because you have not seen many others. Believe me, a gayer decoration would set off your beauty better and raise your spirits—"
"I am," she murmured, "well enough—"
"You appear, on the contrary, Madame," he smiled, "to be extremely discomposed and languid—please do me the honour to believe that I should never put you in a false position—"
"What do you mean, Monseigneur; ah, you alarm me so!"
"I mean that you may trust me not to cause you any agitation. And pray do not be alarmed, Madame, at anything—it really is not worth while."
But she could not command herself. He was as surprised and amused at her fear of him as he had been surprised and amused at Fayard's lack of fear of him. Was it possible that, after two years of Paris, she had learnt so little?
Fayard had spoken of prayers and tears, and there was a holy statue in a corner of the frivolous room, a dévote perhaps, after all? He casually asked her the name of her confessor.
At this her terror redoubled. He thought she was about to faint, and said with some sternness:
"Madame, control these vapours, there is nothing in the world more wearisome."
Madame de Penthièvre appeared stung by this; she replied with some dignity:
"Monseigneur must excuse me, I have been taken greatly by surprise at this visit. My confessor is Père Duchène."
"You must learn, Madame, never to be taken by surprise. Père Duchène is, I dare say, very suitable."
"He is a holy, good man—and I—"
"It is, then, astonishing that he remains in Paris—"
"It is because his ministrations are so needed here."
"And so ineffectual, eh?"
"No, Monseigneur, even in Paris—"
"Oh, you have learnt to say—even in Paris! You progress."
Madame bit her lip and was silent. Her cheeks were now flushed, her dark eyes sparkling. She was very pretty indeed; why had no one told him she had bright gold hair under the powder? Madame de Sourdeau had been jealous of his marriage and he had wondered why; now he knew that his mistress had noticed what he had missed—a beauty in the bud.
What of Fayard's coup de théâtre?—it was the middle of the night. Lavardin had not risen to the occasion perhaps. M. de Penthièvre glanced round the room again; if the lover was hidden somewhere he must be getting very stiff and feeling very foolish by now, poor devil!
But was he yet her lover?
M. de Penthièvre began to feel a faint interest in that question. Fayard had said "To-night—for the first time." One trusted Fayard.
He looked reflectively at his wife and suggested a game of tric-trac. "I see you have a board there—"
She clasped her hands in terror.
"But, Monseigneur, you are not remaining—I implore you not to remain—in the morning, anything in the morning—"
"My name is Andre," said M. de Penthièvre gently. "It will have escaped your memory, perhaps—if we were interrupted it would be tactful for you to use the familiar address—"
"If we are interrupted?" she cried in an extremity of terror.
"I spoke of possibilities."
He had fetched the tric-trac board and set it between them; while his back had been turned to her he had observed in a mirror that she had given a glance and gesture of panic terror towards the window. M. Saint Mexme had, then, not come, but was expected.
M. de Penthièvre placed himself facing the window and set the pieces on the board. He saw the long satin curtains waving slightly in the night breeze; surely the window was unlocked.
Madame de Penthièvre called out:
"Monsieur, I implore you to go away!"
And it seemed to her husband that she did not speak to him, but to someone beyond him; but, if this was so, her warning was unsuccessful, for round the curtains came a bare hand and a cascade of ruffles, the gleam of a brocade coat-cuff.
M. de Penthièvre moved his piece on the board. The lady had her back to the window and dare not turn her head; there was silence for a moment and in that moment M. Saint Mexme had stepped lightly into the room.
"Good evening," said M. de Penthièvre agreeably. "Will you close the window, please? There is a draught."
No one could have been more amazed and shocked than M. Saint Mexme; he had two considerable disadvantages in this encounter; he was twenty years old and rapt in an idealistic love; he was quite prepared to die, but first he cried, in tones of faltering reproach:
"You said that I might come if there was a light in the window!"
Madame de Penthièvre was also quite ready to die; she perceived that she had been betrayed. She felt more courage than she had felt since her husband had entered; she contrived to answer.
"I did not put this light!"
"No," said M. de Penthièvre, "it was I—"
"And," she added, "the signal I promised was to have been in my oratory—this—" and she covered her face with her hands, "is my bedchamber—"
M. de Penthièvre saw by the youth's horrified glance round the room that he was here for the first time. Fayard was right, one could trust Fayard.
"I have been betrayed," murmured M. Saint Mexme. "Not by me," said the lady, looking up. "My husband is here without my invitation."
"That is true," confirmed M. de Penthièvre. He was interested; he looked from one to another of the two half-swooning young creatures. They made him feel quite old.
Madelon continued speaking:
"I did not intend to put the light, I meant you to go—without a further farewell, but now we are undone."
"I suppose it is always a farewell," remarked the young Duke, "when a midnight assignation is discovered."
M. Saint Mexme replied, like one rapt above the world. "To- morrow I was to have gone to Rennes with Pere Duchène, to enter the monastery of the Dominicans."
"So Père Duchène is in this intrigue?"
"He persuaded us to—say farewell," said M. Saint Mexme. "I would have gone with the dawn, to Rennes."
"Eh bien, Monsieur," asked M. de Penthièvre, "what prevents you?"
"You, Monsieur le Duc. You will certainly kill me. I am useless at sword-play—"
M. de Penthièvre eyed the graceful, handsome youth who had such a studious, serious air, with amusement. He wanted to say, "Then you should keep out of these situations," but refrained, out of charity, and smiled, considering them both. His tolerant philosophy told him that even if what they said seemed to him highly improbable, it might nevertheless be true; the bizarre was not inevitably impossible.
And as he paused, master of their immediate fate,
Madame de Penthièvre, unable any longer to endure this terrible suspense, rose and flung herself at his feet.
"Monseigneur, I know that you cannot forgive, me for loving Claude! But if you could forgive him! We were both so young and so lonely! Perhaps," she added in despair, "I might take the veil, only, Monseigneur, have the generosity not to kill Claude!"
M. de Penthièvre rose.
"Do not kneel to me, Madame; rise up, Madame la Duchesse—I forbid you to kneel, Madame de Penthièvre—"
And M. Saint Mexme cried:
"Why do you plead for me, Madelon, when I would sooner be dead?"
Through this came sharp raps on the door and a harsh voice crying without:
"Ah," remarked M. de Penthièvre, "I fear, after all, chevalier, you will have to step behind those curtains—I regret the inconvenience, which I trust will be brief."
And he gently led the astonished and half-fainting youth to the alcove and dropped in front of him the lengths of soft 'brocade; then M. de Penthièvre turned to his wife and spoke more seriously than he had yet done, more seriously than, indeed, he had spoken to anyone for a long while.
"Madame, I implore you to command yourself—this is no moment for rustic breeding."
Now the door opened and M. de Lavardin entered angrily and hastily; he had seen a man's cloak and gloves and hat in the ante-room, and no protests of Margot could keep him from his sister's room.
"My dear Marquis," said M. de Penthièvre, "you look quite discomposed—and this agitated entry! No ill-fortune, I trust—one of your favourite dogs killed in the chase?"
"You here!" exclaimed M. de Lavardin stupidly.
"Your astonishment," remarked the young Duke, "is a poor compliment to your sister, my dear Lavardin." He eyed him coldly. "An explanation, don't you think? The time and manner of your visit are both distinctly unusual."
M. de Lavardin was utterly nonplussed; he gazed at his sister, who met his glance with dignity, and then round the room; he felt that he was being fooled, but it was impossible to discover how, or by whom. He could hardly voice his suspicions of Madelon in the presence of Madelon's husband, who gazed at him with such haughty indifference.
He thought with fury of Fayard.
"I have been misinformed or deceived," he muttered.
"That may happen to the most intelligent," remarked M. de Penthièvre; he turned to his wife, addressing her in the familiar style. "You have, perhaps, Madelon, something to say to your brother?"
She replied with ease and spirit.
"Nay, my dear Andre, what should I have to say, I am as utterly at a loss as you—"
M. de Lavardin strode up to them.
"You will not venture to tell me, Madelon, that you are happily married?" he exclaimed, looking with hate at the young Duke, "when I know you have been pining and neglected by the fashionable roué I was so mad as to give you to? You will not deny, that, weary of his infidelities, you were about to take a lover? No, I think you are not likely to deny it. I have come to take you home, Madelon, while our honour is untarnished; to remove you from temptation and scorn."
"How admirably you speak!" remarked the young Duke pleasantly. "I had no idea, Lavardin, that you were so eloquent. And now, my dear Madelon, I believe it rests with you."
"What rests with me?" She looked from one to the other apprehensively.
M. de PenPenthièvreplained.
"Your brother believes you unhappy—he has chosen this odd moment to say so—he has generously offered to take you back to the amenities of the Château Lavardin—while, I presume, a divorce is arranged?"
"Exactly," said the Marquis harshly. "I have come, in brief, to rescue my sister—I have stood by too long."
M. de PenPenthiè looked at his wife and his eyes were serious though his words were light.
"You see, my dear Madelon, a chance of escape—if you are bored with Paris, with me—if you have felt dull or sad." He paused a second, and added: "If you have, by any chance, seen someone whom you would prefer as a husband—some noble, virtuous youth, entirely devoted to you, for instance—here is your chance, so elegantly offered by your brother."
"And by you?" she asked.
M. de PenPenthiè bowed.
"And by me, certainly."
Madame de PenPenthiè fluttered her long lashes from one man to another and did not fail of a glance at the brocade curtain where the third man was concealed.
"I am afraid you have entirely misunderstood me," she said to her brother. "I am perfectly content."
"You do not wish," demanded M. de Lavardin, incredulous, "for a separation—for a divorce?"
"No," replied Madame de PenPenthiè faintly. "I am happy with my husband."
The young Duke was moving the pieces on the tric-trac board; he seemed absorbed in that.
M. de Lavardin bowed bitterly to his sister.
"I shall, then," he remarked, "cease to interest myself in your affairs slisinceu assure me that you are happy—"
"Thank you, Charles, I am indeed happy."
M. de PenPenthiè looked up.
"Fayard admitted you, I believe. Fayard, my dear Marquis, will let you out."
"It is Fayard, then, who has betrayed me—"
"Fayard is in my service—and my confidence. I knew that he was about to play a little jest on your austerity, Marquis."
"Did he not say—to-night Madame will receive a lover?"
"Well—you behold us!"
"I behold a husband!"
"Sometimes," remarked M. de PenPenthiè reflectively, "they are the same person—you have never, perhaps, heard of it, Marquis?"
At this M. de Lavardin turned angrily on his sister.
"This is an insolent and indelicate jest," he declared, "and I wash my hands of your affairs!" Then, to the young Duke, "De Penthièvre, I ought to call you out for this—"
"But you won't, will you? Au revoir, my dear Marquis." M. de Lavardin flounced out of the room. M. de Penthièvre looked at his wife.
"Madame, you did that quite well, I see you have learnt some discretion."
He locked the door while she stood motionless by the bed, looking down.
"Why did you save me, Monseigneur?"
"Why didn't you save yourself; Madame? Your brother would have taken you away and in time you could have married M. Saint Mexme, who will be getting very stiff behind that curtain."
As he spoke he drew the brocade aside and the young chevalier came slowly into the room.
"I'm afraid," said M. de Penthièvre pleasantly, "that you must leave the way you came, Monsieur, but it is not, I believe, difficult. Do not miss your foothold on the sculptures, or the door in the garden wall." He pulled the curtains aside from the window. "Ah, the dawn, you will have plenty of light!"
The pearly lustre of the rising sun was indeed illuminating Paris; in this light they all looked pale.
"I may say farewell to Madame?" murmured M. Saint Mexme.
"Certainly. I will, if you wish, withdraw to the antechamber."
But Madame de Penthièvre cried out:
"No! Claude, I have nothing to say—we have been extricated from disaster—" She turned aside.
"I fear, Madame, you are very fickle," said poor M. Saint Mexme reproachfully. "You appear to take no further interest in me."
"Don't grieve for that, my dear child," remarked M. de Penthièvre. "You must absolutely steel yourself against feminine caprice. And do not, I beg," he added, taking the youth kindly by the arm, "go to that dull monastery, you would be very wretched. Rennes is a ville de province—eh, have more sense!"
"But, Madelon," lamented the youth, "appears to no longer care for me!"
"I am very fond of you," faltered Madame de Penthièvre; "I have for you, I believe, a sisterly affection; forgive me if, till now, I have not known my own feelings."
"I am quite bewildered!" cried M. Saint Mexme.
"You are inexperienced," consoled the young Duke, "but you will, I trust, my dear chevalier, be none the worse for this little adventure—if you ever get into similar difficulties I shall be delighted to give you the benefit of my advice."
"You are not, then, going to kill me?"
"No. You will probably do that for yourself, my poor friend, if you continue to take life so seriously."
"You have been most generous, I will go," said the youth heavily; he bowed to the lady with what grace he could muster and stepped on to the balcony.
"I hope that he does not break his neck," said M. de Penthièvre, drawing the curtains over the dawn light.
"He is very silly," murmured Madelon. "I am disappointed that he behaved no better—you, Monseigneur, must have found us so foolish, so indiscreet! I am entirely ashamed!"
"On the contrary I thought that you displayed admirable presence of mind."
"I did my best to second your efforts, Monseigneur, to save me from my terrible predicament. Mon Dieu, what should I have done if Charles had discovered Claude here? But you, Monseigneur," she added, flushing with emotion, "have behaved with a generosity, a magnanimity!"
She sank down on to the chair beside the tric-trac board; she forgot the Andalusian shawl; under the gauze robe her bosom heaved with agitation. She was really extremely pretty and by no means lacking in sensibility.
M. de Penthièvre took the chair the other side of the tric- trac board and glanced at her with approval.
"I am afraid," he remarked, "that you have lost the championship of your brother."
"I am not sorry—Charles I never wish to see again! But for you he would have ruined me to-night!"
"But this leaves you, Madame, entirely under my protection—you have dismissed your lover and your brother—" He smiled. "I fear, Madelon, you are rather fickle."
"No," said Madame de Penthièvre, on a quick breath, "sometimes—when one cannot get what one wants—one amuses oneself with—second best."
They were silent; the room was very still; little rays of the dawn filtered under the curtains, the candlelight dying in the acanthus cups of the girandole gave a flickering glow in the rich chamber and flashed in the lustre of M. de Penthièvre's diamonds, which rose rather hurriedly on his breast.
They looked at each other.
"Shall we," said she, blushing and timid, "finish the game of tric-trac?"
"Unless you think, my dear love, that we could find something better to do?"
LUCIEN confessed, with blushes, that he was in the toils of Madame de la Morilière, and that the description of her, as furnished by the ladies of his acquaintance, "as a minx, a designing piece," was true enough.
"But I must marry her," he concluded dolefully, "for she has so tangled me in her net that there is no escape."
"Fie, upon such weakness and ungallantry," protested his friend, the Cavalier Lebeuf. "Putting the blame on the lady will not help you to ease your situation!"
"You do not know her tricks—"
"It is their manner to have tricks—what else is there for them but tricks, after all, poor creatures?"
Lucien was, however, neither consoled nor rebuked.
"You," he declared, "have not to face an angry guardian who has other designs for you, who controls your fortune and has an austere temper!"
"What designs has M. Delaruelle for you, my poor Lucien?"
"Nothing less than a rich heiress," groaned the unhappy youth. "I have seen her and she is the sweetest creature in the world, she makes Madame de la Morilière look like a gypsy, she is submissive to a glance, and with enough money, Adrien, to pay all my debts and yours too—"
"Then marry her and receive the blessing of M. Delaruelle."
"But I am promised to Madame de la Morilière. Cannot you understand? And she will by no means let me go."
"I see no reason for the lady's tenacity," smiled the candid friend. "Nay, on reflection, I see three excellent reasons—your titles, honours, and estates."
Lucien flounced, like the pampered, idle, effeminate and vain youth that he was, and declared that the other had neither feeling nor understanding.
But neither his flouncings nor his complaints would help him; he had come up from his chdteau with the purpose of seeing his uncle and guardian, and see him he must, though with such a sorry story on his lips, the more sorry that he had been rescued from an unapproved charmer in Paris and sent to the country to learn wisdom in seclusion, while M. Delaruelle prepared for him an establishment, "worthy," as the phrase went, "of his rank." Lucien was considerably in awe of his uncle who had been rendered, by a disappointment in his youth, harsh and difficult on the subject of feminine allurements, and who, early discovering the pleasures of life to be dusty to his taste, had devoted himself to business and was now a portentous figure in State affairs.
This was another reason for the dislike of Lucien, who thought anything serious tedious and anything difficult boring; keenly did he look forward to the happy day when he should be of age and at liberty to squander his estates, his health, and his reputation as he pleased; meanwhile there was this disagreeable moment to be faced, and sulk as he would Lucien must face his uncle.
So he set off in his dove-coloured cabriolet with the glasses up to keep off the November winds, and two lusty hounds to run in front and clear the way, and a coachman with a long whip to lash the stray pedestrians from coming too close, and so arrived at the Hotel Delaruelle at that very unpleasant time, the twilight of a wet autumn day, but with some state, as befitting his rank as a pair de France, or so he thought.
His uncle, who from a window had watched his equipage sweep into the forecourt, did not hesitate to express a contrary opinion.
"That coach is absurd for anyone but an opera dancer—and you are most ridiculously over-dressed. With all that powder, silk, lace, and fal-lal you look more like a pet monkey than a man!"
Lucien was not impressed; he never had any respect for the taste of those who disagreed with him and he knew that he was arrayed in the latest fashion and to the admiration of his tailor and barber; in other words, of the people he had paid (or might pay) to set him out like he was.
So he bowed ironically and answered coolly:
"Monseigneur, we cannot all be so immersed in great matters as to be regardless of our appearance, or so intellectual as to be ignorant of the mode. Dieu merci," he added, impertinently putting up his quizzing glass, "for I declare, my dear uncle, that you cut a very old-fashioned figure."
M. Delaruelle disdained this sally, but it did not improve his temper towards his nephew, whom he had disliked ever since he was an odious, spoilt child in a satin frock and silk leading strings, cracking pages on the head with a silver spoon.
"Please do not answer my rebukes till you have the wit to understand them," he replied dryly.
"By that time," said Lucien, making another bow, "I shall be my own master and not need to hear them."
"I have no doubt," answered M. Delaruelle, "that you will ruin yourself, my dear Lucien, just as soon as you are at liberty to do so; then, as you insinuate, it will be no affair of mine. At present it is, and I, as your guardian, must do my duty by it—"
"Then, pray, Monseigneur," asked the frivolous youth, "let that same duty be done as briefly as possible. I find nothing so boring as a grumbling virtue which does good for five minutes and preaches about it for an hour."
"And I," replied his uncle, "find nothing so boring as a mincing young ape who reaches for wit and falls on folly."
After which hopeful beginning the two gentlemen settled to business, the elder bringing out papers and account books and rent rolls, and the younger fetching yawns and sighs and deriving his only consolation from his own sparkling reflection in the only mirror the sober room afforded, near to which he had contrived to place himself. The room and the person of M. Delaruelle had indeed rather an affectation of plainness; he had been so absorbed in being of service to his country that he had neglected the graces of life, often observing that to be an honest statesman is a full occupation for any man.
What leisure he had over after his scrupulous labours was engaged in securing applause for them; for, as he remarked, it was not for the advantage of the country to have the great and good obscured and the wicked and paltry pushed to the front.
In short, M. Delaruelle had acquired a modicum of that boring quality which has, alas, too frequently given virtue a bad name, and, despite his earnest desire to do good to the unworthy, found that these usually fled his company, leaving him to that of those as dull and as useful as himself.
Having therefore his nephew and (unfortunately) the future head of his house before him, he did not neglect the opportunity to deliver a homily, under various heads, on all the vices, follies and shortcomings of that disappointing young man.
Seeing that he was thus well in for it, Lucien made a dramatic diversion by relating his entanglement with Madame de la Morilière, even deriving a certain pleasure in the lengthening and blanching of his uncle's face.
"An entanglement! With a widow! Impossible!" cried that gentleman.
"I wish," replied Lucien pettishly, "that it were; but it is not, and you, my dear uncle, must make the worst of it—"
This M. Delaruelle at once proceeded to do, sparing no epithets in his denunciation of Lucien's idiocy.
"And how did this creature find you out?" he concluded. "Where was your tutor and your confessor and your steward that they did not protect you?"
"They were all courting her themselves," replied Lucien, "save M. l'Abbé, and he was occupied in writing a treatise on 'The Perils of Worldly Temptation to the Devout,' which you, no doubt, my dear uncle, will find very edifying."
"Bah!" cried M. Delaruelle, "who is this snake in the grass, and how did she come to be at Château Mailly?"
"She appeared, in a night, in a little farm on the estate; she was attired in mourning and sought, she said, to fly worldly pleasures."
"And you had nothing better to do than to bring them to her notice, I suppose?"
"Absolutely nothing. And that, Monseigneur, was your fault—you should have allowed me to remain in Paris."
"And you have promised to marry her?"
M. Delaruelle groaned.
"And I had obtained for you an heiress with a fortune!"
"I regret that myself," admitted Lucien. "I have seen the young lady and approve her—but Madame de la Morilière will be by no means put off—"
"Nonsense," cried M. Delaruelle. "You will return at once to Mailly, seek out this cunning adventuress and repudiate all your engagements to her—"
"You don't know her—to see her is to consider her the most fascinating creature in the world. Only at a distance can I regard her calmly. If I was to see her again I should probably marry her immediately."
"Then," said M. Delaruelle grimly, "I must go." Lucien was delighted.
"That, of course, would be most suitable; everyone knows how impervious you are, Monseigneur, to female charms. And everyone can see," he added in an aside, "how unlikely you are to inspire a tender passion—you are doubly safe."
This was a mere malicious sally, however, for M. Delaruelle was in the prime of life and a handsome man had it not been for a certain cast of rigidity in his face, due to condemning others, and a certain priggishness in his expression, due to a consciousness of his own good qualities. He did not catch the last part of Lucien's speech and the first flattered him.
"I have had my lesson," he remarked. "As you know, my youth was blighted by the faithlessness of woman."
"And your character soured, most unfortunate—"
"Soured, my dear Lucien! My feet were turned from the way of folly, my eyes were opened, from a useless fop I became a not unworthy member of the Government. Yes, I really owe a great deal to Terèse. It was," he added reflectively, "a curious case. She was, I may say, in every way my inferior, birth, fortune, talent, character, and yet she jilted me, actually jilted me for a grinning fool with twopence a year!"
"I've heard the tale," said Lucien hastily, fearful of further reminiscences. "Yes, indeed, she must have had no taste whatever. No doubt she has by now heartily repented of her error."
"I believe that she has," replied M. Delaruelle with stern satisfaction. "The last I heard of her, she was living in indigence in Spain."
"Well," said Lucien, rising, "I take it that you, my dear uncle, will settle matters with Madame de la Mori-lière and leave me free to marry the delicious little heiress."
"I hope," answered his uncle grimly, "that this will be the last trouble that I shall have to take for you—"
"That is unlikely," remarked Lucien with resignation, "for you have, unhappily, a penchant for interfering—"
"Your impertinence is scarcely amusing. I am bound to endure you, Lucien, but do not make my task more disagreeable than it need be. Perhaps, after all, I need not go to Mailly; what could this wretched woman do if we ignored her?"
"Come to Paris and make an esdandre; she would relish doing that. She has, also, some notes of mine that I fear you would not call very sensible."
"Very well, then, I must sacrifice myself; my ease, my leisure, my duty to my country, must all, Lucien, be sacrificed to you!"
"That," said the ungrateful youth, "is a sad thought, but consider the virtuous glow that will be your reward!"
M. Delaruelle then, in the heaviest of greatcoats and the worst of tempers, set out for Mailly, his nephew's estate; it was that season of the year when the roads were as vile as the weather and the humour of those forced to travel worse than either.
The cold triumphed over fur capes and foot-warmers, over sips of old cognac and pious thoughts; when M. Delaruelle pressed his reddened nose to the carriage window he saw a landscape that appeared to be traced in ashes and vinegar, a sky that looked like iron, and a varied collection of those filthy hovels in which Divine decree had placed the poor.
The inns, expecting no one at this time of the winter, were ill provided with everything save draughts and smoky fires, and M. Delaruelle was obliged to reflect that, plainly as he had lived, he had been a great deal more comfortable than he had supposed.
Water masquerading as soup, an ancient foul masquerading as capon, wine that turned the stomach instead of raising the spirits, did little to change the mood of M. Delaruelle.
The second day being one of perpetual wind, sleet, and floundering of the horses in the mud, was a constant (and unnecessary) trial of the stoic patience that M. Delaruelle under different circumstances had found so easy to employ.
Worse than this, as the darkness came on the postillion, with the stupidity of his kind, declared that he had lost his way; the road that he had been confidently following had proved to be no road at all, but had run into a track that turned into a gaunt and dreary wood. It was raining heavily and the cold was of a singularly penetrating order; to crown all, M. Delaruelle, on asking for the cognac, discovered that this, by some singular oversight, had been left behind at the last stopping place.
It was an excellent occasion for the exercise of that philosophy that M. Delaruelle had always advocated, but he felt oddly disinclined to profit by it. Dismounting from the carriage into the icy slush he viewed with dismay the barren woods, the rain-slashed prospect, the growing dark, the complete loneliness, and all his intelligence could bring him to no better conclusion than that already arrived at by the postillions, i.e., that they must turn back and endeavour to discover the road to Mailly.
Even this course, however, was far from proving successful; the tempest increased, the lamps flickered in the wind, and the end of the business was the coach in a ditch with a broken wheel.
M. Delaruelle therefore had now to emerge from the comparative shelter of the carriage and survey by the gusty light of the surviving lantern the extent of the damage. This was not considerable, but it was sufficient; it would be quite impossible to proceed further.
M. Delaruelle therefore took one postillion with him, together with the light, and, leaving the other two men reluctantly in charge of the broken equipage, set out to discover if some shelter might be found.
They were not indeed long before they came upon a neat little house, which, though it was not the kind of dwelling that the statesman usually honoured with his presence, he was, nevertheless, extremely glad to see.
A vigorous knocking brought a pretty little maid to the door; M. Delaruelle, conscious of his draggled appearance, asked pompously if they were on the estates of Monseigneur le Duc de Mailly, adding that he was no less a person than the Marquis Delaruelle, that nobleman's uncle.
The servant replied respectfully that this was a long way from the Chateau Mailly, but that she was sure that her mistress, the Baronne, would desire them to take refuge against the inclemency of the weather.
The traveller jumped at the suggestion, explained the accident to the coach, and begged that assistance might be sent to his men and horses.
He was assured that the case would be put before the mistress of the house, and was shown (after being relieved of his dripping coat) into a snug, cosy parlour, where a huge fire burned on the hearth, a rosy lamp glowed on the table, and a cushioned chair stood invitingly empty. M. Delaruelle did not hesitate to make use of this, and stretched himself luxuriously before the warm blaze; his returning good humour was helped by the entry of the maid with a tray of cordials and the news that supper was in preparation.
"Evil fortune," remarked M. Delaruelle, who, left alone with the cordials, had carelessly drunk rather more glasses of these excellent liqueurs than he was aware of, "seldom resists the steady fortitude of the lofty minded." And he smiled at the row of bottles with a smile slightly fatuous.
The entry of his hostess brought him in some confusion to his feet.
The lady, who was attired with a nunlike sobriety, a mourning cap with lappets and a housewifely apron, regarded him expectantly.
"Terèse!" he cried.
"Exactly. How nice of you to remember the name!" And she sat down beside him as he sank, astonished, into the great chair.
"What an extraordinary meeting!" he stammered. "I—er—thought you were in Spain—"
"So I was," she said demurely, "but I have returned, a chastened, and, I trust, a better woman."
"Alphonse?" he murmured.
"He would be," said M. Delaruelle. "He was that sort of man."
"A sad error," the widow admitted frankly. "I assure you that if I have wept it was not for his demise, but for my wasted youth."
"That I can believe—and he left you—?"
"A pittance and the memory of a mistake," she sighed. M. Delaruelle smiled the smile of one justified of himself. "My dear Terèse! Now I hope that you will confess that you were foolish to cast me of Terèse threw up her charming eyes.
"Is there need to confess? And you, Armand, have become a great man!"
"I trust that I have been of some service to my country, and there I will allow you some merit. Had you not early shown me the vanity of earthly affections I might not have been the man I am now."
"I was never," sighed Terèse humbly, "good enough for you, Armand, a little, silly, vain thing!"
"Well, well," he replied generously, "we will not dwell on that. You, no doubt, have paid for your foolishness. Now tell me what you are doing here and how you employ your time."
"I live in this secluded spot in the retirement suitable to my estate," she said. "I work for the poor and add to my scanty income by fine needlework."
M. Delaruelle approved.
"I am glad that you are of such a turn of mind," he remarked, thinking how plump and comely and neat she still was. "And now perhaps you can help me in a very disagreeable business. Are we near the Château Mailly?"
"No, we are not."
"Dear me, how that fool must have mistaken the road! Well, that simpleton, Lucien, my nephew, has actually entangled himself with a designing female, one Terèse, a widow like yourself, but in character far different."
"Fie, Monsieur," protested the lady, casting down her eyes. "I hope that this is a tale that the strictest decorum would permit to be unfolded?"
"Yes, yes, though I admire your caution. Have you heard of a certain Madame de la Morilière?"
"Monsieur, I have. Let my blushes complete my answer."
"She is. Pray pursue the subject no further."
"Mon Dieu!" cried M. Delaruelle, pouring out another glass of cordial. "Is it as bad as that?"
"It is. This reproach to her sex has allured, by the basest of means, all the youths of the neighbourhood, among them your nephew. Let us avert our eyes, Armand, from the degrading spectacle."
"I can't. I've got to rescue the young fool. His marriage is arranged for him—"
"No, in Paris, a more definite, if a less reputable locality. I do not remember, Terèse, that you used to be so pious and proper."
"Armand! Have you forgotten my years, my situation? What is there for a woman blighted in her affections, deceived in her marriage, but a retirement given to good works and the most circumspect behaviour?"
"Of course, of course," he agreed hastily. "Now, as for this Madame de la Morilière—where does she live?"
"At the very gates of Château Mailly, which she regards as her future residence."
"I must buy her off;" sighed M. Delaruelle. "She is, of course, unscrupulous, rapacious, heartless?"
"To the last degree."
"What the devil could Lucien have seen in her?"
"That, Armand, you should be able to answer better than I," replied Terèse demurely. "It is useless to ask a virtuous female of what consist the attractions of the—er—other sort."
"Quite so. But you will have noticed if she is pretty?"
"I always drop my veil when we chance to meet," said Terèse with a shudder.
"Well, well," said M. Delaruelle, resigned, "I must see her myself; that is all. I shall not spare her, I assure you."
"How was it that you left Lucien unprotected so long? I have often wondered."
"How could I guess that in a spot so secluded there would be danger? And you, Terèse, might have warned me!"
"I dare not bring myself to your notice—nor was it an affair in which a female of delicacy could with propriety interfere."
M. Delaruelle regarded his long-lost love with an approval that was not unmingled with amazement. Never, surely, since the days of Luther had there been such a reformation!
Gone were all her wild, roguish tricks, her indiscreet talk, her flightly airs, her careless laugh, the hundred fripperies of her dress, her rouge and powder, her trinkets and laces; she was as demure a piece as the soberest of men could desire.
"Is it possible," thought her former lover, "that this change is due to my precepts? To remorse and regret at my loss?"
Never, surely, had a man ever received such a compliment; and the meek creature seemed to expect no reward; though he observed her glances of shy adoration they were not tempered by hope; she was content to worship from afar the rich prize she had, in her flippant youth, so wantonly flung away.
"I am glad, my dear Terèse," he said, feeling outwardly and inwardly warmed and comforted, "that any recollection of me or of my admonitions should have had this gratifying effect of making you change the mode of life to which I so strongly took exception. I commend your efforts, and you may be comforted in your seclusion by the knowledge that your, er—penitence has been appreciated, yes, my dear Terèse, appreciated!"
"How beautifully you speak," she cried, her eyes swimming in tears of gratitude. "Believe me, Armand, never shall I again transgress those rules of decorum the breaking of which cost me, alas, my life's happiness!"
M. Delaruelle had begun by now to forget that it was the lady who had jilted him, and to believe that it was he who had left the lady; this added to his state of spiritual comfort, and when he heard supper announced he smiled with greater amiability than he had shown for years.
The supper was excellent; Terèse had evidently not included the pleasures of the table among the vanities she had renounced, and M. Delaruelle relaxed to that cosy state of sleepy repletion when there is a positive delight in sitting in a warm room with a good meal on the table and listening to the winter wind howling without.
He was beginning to think, with delicious anticipation, of a soft bed, a warming pan, and a tempting breakfast in the distance, when Terèse rose and said:
"Now, my dear Armand, I hope that you are sufficiently refreshed to continue your journey."
"Continue my journey!"
"I do not know if you can find the Château Mailly, for it is very dark and stormy, and I have no guide to send with you, also I fear you must go on foot as your coach had to be left in the ditch and I have no carriage—"
"But why? Surely I may trespass on your hospitality to the extent of a bed?"
"Fie, Armand, what are you suggesting? Consider my reputation."
"Consider the night, Terèse—why, there is a storm fit to blow one away—icy cold, torrents of rain," cried M. Delaruelle in dismay.
"Armand, you forget yourself—surely it is better that you should expose yourself to—and even perish in—the tempest, than that the rules of decorum should be offended!"
"Rules of decorum!" answered the exasperated gentleman. "You overdo it, Terèse—your good name—and mine—are now above slander—"
"They are not," said the lady firmly. "I am an unprotected female, living alone. What have I if I lose my fair name?"
"And what have I, if I break my neck in a ditch, or catch a mortal chill?"
"A clear conscience," she replied modestly. "Oh, can I believe it possible that he for whose sake I reformed my whole mode of life is now tempting me to a gross indiscretion?"
"Fudge," cried M. Delaruelle, almost rudely. "There is no indiscretion, the storm covers all. Besides, who need be the wiser?"
"A dozen people know you are here—your men, my maids. They have heard us address each other, I fear very imprudently—in the familiar mode—and would it be so difficult for gossip to discover that once we cherished a tender passion for each other?"
These arguments left M. Delaruelle cold.
"It is an indecency," he exclaimed, "to turn a man out a night like this."
"Then what is it," she retorted, "to rob a poor widow of her one possession, her good name? Armand, I will not be compromised because you fear to face a little rain."
"A little rain! Mon Dieu! You are altogether too high flown and fantastical, Terèse—I swear I never compromised anyone."
"That I can believe, Armand, but the argument is unaltered. Fie, would you have me spoken of as another Madame de la Morilière?"
"There can be no danger. My hair is grey and yours ought to be," he replied snappishly. "Surely that is our defence?"
"'Twill but add a touch of ridicule to the esclandre," she sighed. "And you may be grey, Armand, though I vow I thought you were powdered, but I, alas, am not yet counted past the period of feminine weakness!"
M. Delaruelle pulled the curtains and tried to look out, but saw only blackness, opened the window and was met by a blast that nearly sent him backwards; a filthy night, there was no doubt of that.
"You will feel odd if my corpse is discovered frozen or drowned or broken by the way," he said morosely.
"I shall feel that you have died in a good cause," she replied. "As one should die whose principal occupation was observing the proprieties. Come, Armand, I will send for your coat, which must be nearly dry, and you will take your staff and set out, trusting in that God who is the sure protector of innocence—"
"I never boasted that manner of innocence," retorted M. Delaruelle, exasperated, "nor was I so presumptuous as to expect Heaven to provide me with a guardian angel—"
"Pray, Monsieur," replied the lady primly, "begin then, to- night, to solicit for one, for I doubt whether, without that Divine protection, you will get as far as the Château Mailly."
As she rang the bell to summon the maid, M. Delaruelle groaned; plainly she was inexorable, too rigidly had she learned the lesson that in their mutual youth he had tried in vain to teach her, and he heartily wished that he had left the matrimonial affairs of Lucien to disentangle themselves, as indeed they would now probably have to, for he greatly doubted if he should survive the rigours of the winter storm.
Bitterly he watched while a lantern, his greatcoat and hat (still far from dry) were fetched, and sourly he asked if his men had fared any better than himself.
"They are housed in the stables, long since disused, and, I fear, rat-ridden, but naturally my maids, all chosen for their impeccable characters, refuse to allow them to remain in the house."
When M. Delaruelle reached the door and heard the wind and the rain, felt the cold and saw the dark, he nearly decided to beg permission to share the stables with the postillions, great as that sacrifice to his dignity would be.
Terèse was meanwhile giving him directions as to his road; confused they sounded, nor was the adventure rendered more enticing by her warning that banditti were known to lurk in the woods between her house and the Château Mailly.
At the last moment, however, the lady relented, or rather conceived a brilliant compromise. There was, she said, a summer- house at the end of the garden, known, from the statue of Eros it contained, as the "Temple d'Amour", and there the uninvited guest might spend the night; stone certainly, and damp possibly, was this refuge, but better perhaps than a journey through the storm.
M. Delaruelle agreed; a straight-faced abigail, whose virtue was obviously unassailable by the influence of any god, or temple of love, muffled herself up and, with a martyred air, conducted M. Delaruelle through the wet and cold to the summer-house and there left him with a lantern and the coy deity, who, for the moment, surveyed a barren kingdom.
As soon as he was left alone M. Delaruelle discovered that he had forgotten to ask for pillows or blankets; there was nothing for it but to wrap himself in his damp greatcoat and lie on one of the damp stone seats; wind and rain blew in through the elegant pillars of the open entrance, and shift his position as he would he could by no means become either dry or comfortable; after some hours of this a stiffness and numbness overcame his limbs that made him fear he was seized by a creeping palsy; this was followed by shooting pains that showed he was in the grip of his old enemy—rheumatism.
Sheer fatigue brought him some snatches of uneasy sleep, disturbed by nightmares, and when at last the late winter daylight penetrated into the summer-house, it was with a cold and sour eye that the shivering M. Delaruelle glanced at the frozen figure of the jaunty Cupid, and with a leer of disgust that he thanked him for his icy hospitality.
The storm had abated, but even by the light of day the prospect looked desolate; the only cheerful thing in sight was a rosy light in the windows of the house at the end of the garden, the glow of fires that were dissipating the gloom of the winter morning.
M. Delaruelle wished to hide his disordered and discomfited person in retreat, to hasten away to the nearest inn for rest, refreshment, and a wheelwright, but the lure of that sparkling rosy light was too strong; a breakfast and a fire proved irresistible temptations; he moved stiffly towards the house.
The tempting perfume of frothing chocolate came to his nostrils as he approached the parlour window, and, as he passed, he looked in greedily.
There was the breakfast of his desires, the most elegant of equipages set by the most cosy of fires and there was Terèse presiding at the table in a charming undress, all knots of pink ribbon and falls of blonde lace, in a coquettish cap that made her appear not a day more than twenty-five. So far so good, and a pretty enough picture—but Terèse was not alone.
Who was that lounging in the comfortable chair opposite with his toes to the blaze and a smile of lazy self-satisfaction on his face?
No one in the world but Lucien, that miserable "scapegrace."
M. Delaruelle tapped on the window in blind, bewildered fury.
"Mon Dieu!" cried Lucien, "it is a ghost!"
"Of a good man," murmured Terèse, daintily serving sugar, "even though he did die in the Temple of Love!"
Again M. Delaruelle violently rattled at the pane. Lucien rose languidly and opened the window an inch or so.
"It is not a ghost, but uncle," he remarked. "We thought you must be dead. You really can't come in, you're far too damp and dirty, Monsieur."
"Terèse," cried M. Delaruelle, his eyes glaring.
"Oh, fie, is she Terèse to you?" exclaimed Lucien. "Occupying a lady's summer-house hardly gives you the right to use her so familiarly."
"Fool," said M. Delaruelle furiously. "What are you doing here?"
"Arguing with you. I was so moped in Paris that I came down here yesterday morning to pay a little visit to Terèse—"
"Terèse," groaned M. Delaruelle.
"I suppose," said Lucien, bored, "you never thought to ask her other name? It is Madame de la Morilière. And now I must close the window. There is a plaguey draught."
He slipped the bolt and drew the curtains, from behind which floated the perfume of chocolate and of laughter.
It was a drab consolation for the man outside to vow that both belonged to a wicked woman.
WHEN Marco Gherardi pledged his troth to Geva Gradenigo at her villa on the Brenta the oranges showed jade-green beneath the dark, glossy leaves and the July grapes, hard and bloomless, spilled from the plates of gleaming lustre ware.
Geva leant on the table with chequered light and shade of vine leaves moving over the smooth chestnut locks into which a last white rose was negligently pinned; her face was pallid as a sea- water pearl, and her two long hands lay in the warm clasp of her dark lover.
Her dress gleamed the colour of moonlight; in her heavy-lidded eyes lay tears for the beauty of the purple haze and the air drowsy with the scent of ripening fruit.
"Pledge me till death," she said, "and past death?"
"Till death and past death," he whispered, and kissed her frail fingers with long kisses, like a bee lingering by a flower.
Geva drew away her right hand and took a silver bodkin from her hair; the drooping rose fell from her locks to the table of pale marble. Delicately she raised the slim, amber-hued bottle of white wine and poured the clear drink into the two glasses of milky lines that stood beside the platters of piled grapes, then she pricked her arm and let the blood run into the glasses, drop by drop, sliding into the fragrant liquid.
Marco also lightly stabbed his wrist veins, and the mingled blood floated together as they drank the flushed wine, swearing eternal fidelity in the warm, sleepy hot, hot afternoon; yea, eternal, for their vows reached beyond death into the still blue distances of the unknown.
That night a poisonous fly from the marshes stung Geva on the opened skin and the burning malaria ran through all her limbs. After another day and night of palpitating heat Geva died in the great bed of chestnut wood with the Gradenigo coat of arms on the head-board and Marco along the bedstep with buried face; till they took away the four painted candles and the long, narrow, gilt coffin.
Then Marco wandered through the mellow autumn wooing melancholy in leafless groves, till October found him in Venice amid the first glare and clatter of Carnival.
He was caught into the stream of gaiety, of riot, of licence; beneath yellow moon and yellow lanterns, Arlequino whispered his immortal jests, Spavento rattled his sword and Tartaglia grinned. Columbina shook her gauzy plumes, and lisping murmurs from the folds of black and white beauta asked when the Duca Gherardi was likely to wed.
Men who had forgotten Geva Gradenigo, and women who had never known her, mocked him for his sad face and sullen movements, till the music and the light balloons, the pennons against the autumn sky, the fantastic crowd on the Piazza, the languorous couples passing in the cushioned gondolas, the doves flying above the bronze horses of San Marco into the wine-purple air filled with the powdered gold of Carnival dust, worked their way with him. When the first shuddering chill of winter sent the freezing waves over the sun-withered seaweed of the palace steps Marco was betrothed to Camilla Andreini, and in Carnival time the marriage feasts began.
Scaramouche, with his guitar, danced behind the wedding procession, and the music of Furlanetto was played in the rococo ballroom, where the Murano candelabra glanced with rainbow colours and the masquers ran in and mingled with the guests.
Brilliant as a pearl in cloth of silver, with flowing veils of black lace and a bouquet of diamonds, the bride danced a gavotte with the bridegroom; the violins played the "Devil's Sonata," that inhuman music that Tartini heard in a dream; the blonde and happy light illuminated a company gay as sunshine on a stream, only Camilla whispered to her husband during the measures of the dance: "Who is the mask clothed like me in cloth of silver and priceless lace?"
Marco glanced where this lady sat alone and did not know who she might be.
"See," added Camilla, "she, too, has a bouquet of diamonds, and I did not know that there was another in Venice!"
Marco was also amazed to see the second bouquet of diamonds lying before the masked lady on her table, but when the dance was over he drew from his saffron waistcoat a single eight-sided sapphire.
"This is unique," he said, "the heirloom of our house. Ask her who she is!" he cried; but before they could reach the mask she had disappeared, and in the voluptuous melodies of the violins, in the tender smiles of the women, the murmurs of the men, the feast danced through the limpid, frosty hours of night.
Now the bride was led to the doors of the nuptial chamber, and guests and masks alike charged their glasses with bubbling champagne of France. The doors closed behind the bridal couple and the glasses were raised...
"But my wine is red!" cried one. "And mine!" another. "And mine!" a third. "The colour of blood!" screamed a woman.
And as they gazed Camilla ran in from the balcony.
"Did you not go with Marco into the bridal chamber?" asked the pale mother.
"Nay, I was on the balcony listening to the concert over the water—"
"Who went into the bedchamber with the Duca Gherardi?" asked the guests, and pale as snow they looked at each other above the goblets of red champagne.
The air blew very chill from the sea and they all were silent as if something passed through the room and out by the grand entrance, then they rushed and broke open the bedchamber door; there was no bride, but on the bridal couch lay Marco Gherardi dead, and staining the white velvet coverlet was blood, for all his wrist veins had been opened by a silver bodkin, such as women use to pin their hair.
THE letter was fumigated in the thick, pungent vapour arising from the brazier; a lackey held it carefully by a long pair of brass tongs; the scarlet wax of the seal began to soften and slip.
The Margraf waited impatiently, his hands in the pockets of his wide-skirted coat; behind him through the high arch of the window showed thick pale clouds curdling in a heaven of intense blue; against the swanlike soft whiteness of these pure vapours darkened the purplish green of the pines, appearing as solid as fine jade up the almost perpendicular sides of the mountain ravines.
Schloss Stertzingen stood higher than even the highest pine, and it stood beneath the loftiest peak of the Bavarian Alps. Sabrina, curled up in the yellow-cushioned window-place waiting for the Margraf to read his letter, felt dizzy when she looked through the window at the deep precipice. The violet lake, the dusty high road, the forest and pastures below, all appeared so small that she could hide them with her extended thumb.
The huge upward sweep of the clouds increased her dizziness. She was too light and easy a creature for the sombre and stately solitude of Schloss Stertzingen; she yawned and raged inwardly against the plague that kept her a prisoner in this high-set loneliness. She watched the Margraf tear open impetuously the fumigated letter.
Of course it was from Olympe von Hohenaschen, the woman he loved; but she, Sabrina, and the plague held him prisoner in the mountains.
Her triumph, however, did not compensate for her own imprisonment or that chill, secret terror of the plague; almost Olympe might have this rich, famous, powerful lover, if she, Sabrina, could be free—free of Stertzingenof fear.
"News from Munich?" she asked teasingly. Since they had been shut up together so long they frequently tormented one another, she slily, he brutally. 'Soon there will be hate between us,' she thought with dismal distaste.
The Margraf angrily threw the letter on the brazier, the coarse red flame mounted above the compact glowing pastilles.
"Is she still unkind?" mocked Sabrina, turning her back on the surge of the white clouds, the rigid darkness of the pines, the long drop of the precipice.
The Margraf von Ohnspach disdained to rebuke her. Olympe had written:
"Cease to importune me for paper avowals, if I should ever think of you with favour I will apprise you of it when we meet. I'll write no more."
A heavy bitter impatience weighed the spirits of Maximilian von Ohnspach. This was the first woman to refuse him, the first woman he had ever sincerely desired; rare, choice and difficult, the Grafin von Hohenaschen was indifferent to any bribes he could give, even to that of marriage, which he had been reduced to offer; her wealth, her inaccessibility, her rank added to his passion. The proud man who had disdained so many found himself proudly disdained. He loathed to think that he must content himself with such an easy piece as Sabrina, while the distant Olympe repulsed him; yet if Sabrina had not chanced to be with him in Stertzingen, how even more intolerably dull would his imprisonment have been...
He sent for Johan Appenzel his bailiff; and demanded of him an account of the progress of the epidemic. Castle and village were beleaguered by death; on the plain, in the valley, in the city the black plague was master.
Johan Appenzel had a grim answer:
"The post that brought Your Lordship's letters—and we made him fling down his bag and stand ten yards away—says the dead begin to lie unburied, only the monks go about freely, as he saw them busy at a farm outside Brixen."
"So near as that," frowned the Margraf. He had been in duels, in battles, in sudden perils, never before had he been afraid.
Shut up in Stertzingen he lurked like a coward.
Johan Appenzel could read the grim expression on his master's handsome face, he judged it the moment to urge his point:
"Sir, we await your orders, but it would be a sorry thing after all our precaution, if we were to get the plague in Stertzingen."
"Damn you, Appenzel, are we not entirely safe, cut off from the world—perched up above it all?"
"Sir, you still receive letters. Yesterday, Kurt, the woodman, tried to get his son, who has been working at Brixen, to return. But the villages would not have him."
"All the roads, all the passes are to be closed," declared the Margraf violently. "Put men with carbines at every entry to Stertzingen, ay, along the high road, too. If anyone offers to stop, warn them; if they endeavour to force an entrance, shoot them. Ay, if it be a son returned to see a dying mother, shoot!"
Johan Appenzel was pleased with these orders which he knew would be well liked by the villagers; it was the wish of all to keep themselves from the contagion of the plague. Did not even the priest, praying near all day in his mountain church, applaud this resolution?
"Your Lordship may be sure," he grinned, "that I shall attend to your commands."
"Attend to them. As for letters, I will take none—let the post pass to Brixen."
What interest had he in letters since Olympe had said she would write no more?
He knew her for a woman who would keep her word—"when we meet" she had written—was that flung as a taunt, because she knew that he would not venture from the mountains while the plague stalked the plains!...Well, was she not safe herself in her elegant château, high as an eagle's eyrie on the slopes of the Brenner?
"Johan Appenzel, we have plenty of everything—stores, ammunition, fodder, wine?"
"In all Your Lordship may be abundantly furnished for months to come."
"Months to come!" Sabrina laughed nervously, "this is like a siege."
And she thought that never at any time since she began to market her charms, had she been for so long in the possession of one man; this idea of her forced fidelity made her laugh again.
The Margraf scowled down at her, his arms akimbo.
"What have you to complain of? Well-housed, well-fed, pampered beyond your value. Eh, if I had been free I had been rid of you months ago."
"But not being free, why don't you love me?" The foolishness of this made her laugh once more. "I mean, let us make the best of it—shut your eyes and make believe that I am—" she did not dare name the Grafin von Hohenaschen—"whoever you choose."
"'Twere better if you said your prayers."
"Well, I would," said Sabrina, clasping her hands against her rosy tender cheeks, "if it would be of any use. But do you think that even prayers would avert an approaching doom?"
He did not like that and flung away; but she was after him, clamouring and wailing.
"Don't leave me! In God's name! Don't you see that I am horribly frightened? That I'm going mad through idleness and waiting?"
These were his own sensations but he kept calm.
"You're a fool, Sabrina. I have taken every precaution. You heard what I told Appenzel just now. Believe me, he will see those orders are attended to. Everyone is as frightened as you are."
"Except yourself," she whined. "You, of course, are afraid of nothing."
He glanced at her savagely; did she dare to mock him, knowing that no gentleman could admit cowardice?...but her shallow blue eyes were candid.
She added cunningly:
"That is why I want you to stay with me. You are the only one who has no fear. It gives me strength to be with you."
He put her by; he was appeased, not flattered; he saw he would have to take a strong hand with her or she would become intolerable.
He went out on to the terrace and gazed at the majestic, sombre expanse of the spacious landscape, sweep of mighty cloud, gigantic mountain, imposing forest.
In the distance sounded the steady rush of a water-break, roaring in the blackness of the pines on the ravine.
The Margraf Max stood staunch and vigorous as the landscape, which he suited very well. He too was dark and stately, erect and graceful as becomes a man of war. He appeared able to affront any calamity with equanimity. As he felt the strong wind blow on his face and gazed at the tranquil splendour of the mountains on which the clouds cast changing shadows of purple he was himself astonished at that biting fear in his breast.
He who had dared bullet, fire, shot and mine without a tremor, to have this timor because of the plague...
"'Tis an unclean death," he argued, to excuse himself, "but I will keep it at bay, there is nothing to fear in Stertzingen, nay, nothing to fear."
He left his castle that seemed a continuation of the living rock and wound down a little to the church that stood on a jutting crag above the mountain village.
Johan Appenzel had not been idle. The Margraf could see the men with carbines ready guarding the pass down from the castle. Half-concealed by the boulders they stared gloomily down at the high road winding near the base of the mountain.
The priest was in his church with the bulbous cupola and thin spire which looked like a dried metal lily-root. The graves seemed crowded together, there was barely room for a tuft of lush grass between each headstone. The Margraf had not noticed this huddling of the dead before, yet there were no new inhabitants of the churchyard.
The first shadow of the gloaming had fallen over the mountains, slow gliding glooms of purple passed over the peaks, the valley was deep in violet obscurity, the clouds were tinged with a sulphurous bronze, the wind dropped, a closeness in the air presaged a storm.
The priest welcomed the Margraf with due respect; as an army chaplain he had, in his earlier years, come at some knowledge of most men, and a great deal of men like Max of Ohnspach who was now thirty-four years of age and at the height of his violent passions, his power and his beauty.
They spoke about the plague and all the fearful tales that had floated like a miasma up from the smitten plains.
"But after to-day," said the Margraf, "we shall hear nothing more."
He told the priest of the measures he had taken to cut of Stertzingen from the polluted world; the old man nodded approvingly. They sat at the window of the living-room in the priest's poor house and stared out at the landscape. Neither had anything to do.
The priest thought of the soldier:
"'Tis odd to think he is afraid, a man like that, but, after all, no doubt he has a good deal to lose."
And the soldier thought of the priest:
"He seems a wretched intermediary with heaven. Why should God listen to a man like that, who has never in his life refused a glass of good liquor?"
A few large drops of rain fell on the graves and glanced, like thin frail lances, across the hollows and abysses of the darkling mountains. A distant range that seemed infinitely far away was edged with light. Neither of the men had anything to say, but they were glad of each other's company, for neither dared show the fear openly displayed by everyone else in the village and the castle.
It was no comfort to be with one who had to affect equanimity.
The Margraf drank some of the priest's wine which, being his own gift, was excellent.
Leaning across the table, so that the last ragged light gleamed in the bullion on his wide cuffs, he almost shouted: "How the devil could the plague get into Stertzingen?"
"Exactly," agreed the priest, swallowing another cup of fiery Falernian. "How the devil—" then recollecting himself—"I am sure it is God's intention to protect us."
"You know nothing about it," declared the Margraf. "But my carbines will see that we are not molested."
Beyond the graveyard was a crucifix under a penthouse, at the base were offerings of mountain and beckside flowers, drooping in withered garlands. A first flash of lightning showed the livid feet of the Christ, streaming with blood, gleaming from the twilight.
The priest seeing this, crossed himself; a despairing gloom darkened his bloated face.
"After all, it is God's will," he stammered.
The Margraf rose violently, blasphemy trembled on his tongue. He snatched up his cloak, his hat, and went out into the storm which was yet far distant and seemed to thunder round the awful summit of the Brenner.
Max of Ohnspach plunged into the lofty pine forest which climbed the crest of the mountain, the rain spattered through the blackish green of the flat boughs, the dashing plunge of the waterfall sounded nearer, the red, tawny, pine needles were thick beneath his feet. In the glimpses of the sky between the sombre trees he could see sullenly advancing clouds which seemed but an extravagant exaggeration of the grim outline of the mountains.
The distant thunder grumbled, ringing him round like the menace of advancing foes.
Scowling, he ascended through the wood to a little amber- coloured alabaster temple built for summer, for music, for dreaming; fluted pillars supported a circular roof, within was a seat of violet-dark marble, onto this the first dry leaves of summer had drifted like a discarded wreath.
The empty temple, on the verge of the empty wood and on the edge of a wide ravine, was a solitude within a solitude.
The Margraf flung himself along the bench and stared across the loneliness of the dark cleft in the mountain which was half- lost in a sullen driftage of dense cloud.
He thought of Olympe...if she could have loved him, if she could have been with him then, high in the intense isolation of the mountain storm he believed that he would have died very willingly on the morrow...this temple was dedicated to Venus Anadyomene, but the goddess had fled.
Lying prone and biting his wrist above the cambric ruffles he compared her perfections to the noble richness of the landscape.
Her hair was glowing dark like the pines, her gait had the majestic grace of the clouds passing over the abyss, her eyes could flash with the brilliancy of the very fires of heaven, yet withal, she was white, and small, and fragrant as the little secret flowers the children found modestly concealed in the mosses and ravished to weave into chaplets for the Virgin.
"If things go amiss between she and I, why should I make an ado of living? One must have something besides meat and drink! Why is the one delight most desired always impossible?"
He raised himself on his elbow, bit his nether lip to pallor and frowned at the lightning-shot cloud drifting over the blackness of the ravine.
"If one cannot be a demi-god, what is the use of any of it? To miss the only woman one wants and to be afraid of the plague—that is certainly very humiliating."
And anger, sharp as the shafts from heaven, blazed across his face.
Sabrina was in her fine bed of chestnut wood when he returned to the Schloss. She shrieked with joy to see him again, she had believed him lost in the storm. Her room was softly bright with fifty wax candles and the shutters were closed fast. The air was hazed with the vapours from aromatics burning to keep off the plague. Sabrina had her vinaigrette in her hand, and her pale hair was stiffened with medicinal unguents.
"Why have you left me so long alone?" she lamented. "Is this weather to be abroad on the mountain-side? Wandering in the darkness of the storm you may even catch the plague from some lurking wretch who tries to reach Stertzingen."
The Margraf Max sat on the bedstep and changed the theme. He was angry with her for such a display of candles, coming in from the fresh dark they bedazzled his eyes; besides, if she was reckless, they might find themselves short of wax lights.
Then he sat tongue-tied while she glided from the bed, not reluctant to show her figure rosy pink through the gauze shift, and put out the lights in the girandoles.
He did not look at her. His face, clear-skinned from the pure air, bore traces of a long-endured solitude; even Sabrina, as she extinguished the last candle, stole a glance at him and thought: "How lonely he is!"
Already it was late in the evening; Sabrina huddled into the silken bedclothes and pressed her delicate head into the swansdown pillows.
But the Margraf Max remained on the bedstep, awake in a sitting posture. Presently she put out her hand timidly and felt his thick locks on the coverlet. Fatigue had overcome him and his head had sunk aside; sighing, she let him sleep; her own dreams were not agreeable.
When she awoke in the early morning he had gone. She opened the shutters herself, the prospect was pure azure sparkling with light, a glittering brilliancy lay over everything. It was impossible to believe that the plague was abroad in the plains, the valleys, and the city.
Sabrina felt her empty heart fill with the joy of living. She laced herself into a poppy-red silk.
"He is really more afraid of the plague than I am; how absurd to think that he is in love with that stiff Olympe and will not risk crossing the plains to get to her! While I, yes, I would almost dare the infection to go to Munich for some new clothes."
She sighed as she looked at herself twice seen in the double mirrors surrounded by silver-gilt dolphins.
"What is the use of anything here? He cares nothing for me, never notices what I wear, and even money is useless here. Another long day! What on earth shall I do?"
She put her hand on the red satin smoothness of her waist and swung round, displaying her trim figure.
"I am much prettier than Olympe, a man ought to be punished for having such whims. He tried to tell me once there was a great deal of difference between passion and love—what nonsense! Even if there were Max would not know it."
Her pleasure in the bright day vanished, she sulked herself into discontent.
When she came out onto the terrace, spreading her skirts like a peacock's fan on the warm pavement, she looked in vain for the Margraf.
He had gone early to one of the ravines that overlooked the high road. His fear of the plague had increased, like a burden growing hourly heavier it had become almost more than he could endure. There were rumours that the horror was coming closer. Last night, during the storm, a man had tried to get through the cordon. But even during the sweeping rain the watchers had crouched with lanterns in the shelter of ledges of rock, and the man had fled before their threats.
"If anyone else tries you must shoot," said the Margraf. His face was wan and his eyes were aching and swollen, he could not see very clearly; the dazzle of the storm was still in the bright air, the sky was of unbearable brilliancy, the whole firmament glittered with points of light, the foliage on the mountain slopes sparkled with large water drops from the rains of last night, broken boughs cumbered the paths, all but the smallest plants were prostrate.
Max of Ohnspach almost conquered his degrading fear which had been so insupportable; he believed that he would, after all, escape from this ridiculous position and live to enjoy the love of Olympe, violently, if briefly.
Olympe was full of caprices and sudden passions, any day she might decide to accept him, even to make a crazy obsession of the affair. If only the plague would cease, or he was not too cowardly to go to her.
He began to dream of the winter, when the foul disease would be quenched beneath the pure weight of snow, when corruption would be frozen, when the might of the cold would disperse the miasma of the plague. He would be glad when the sun was hidden, even for weeks together.
The landscape now lay as if exhausted under the steadily- diffused blaze of noonday, the moisture from the storm was soon evaporated and the air seemed opaque, it was hardly possible to breathe. Behind the distant Brenner the tempest clouds were sullenly advancing again, at present no more than a distant oppression on the senses.
There were sounds of a tumult on the high road from Brixen to Innspruck below, the Margraf and his men hurried down the ravine; some desperate, impertinent fellow was endeavouring to enter Stertzingen.
The sound of a shot made the Margraf hasten; his relaxed, jangled nerves became taut, a frantic vexation of pain consumed him. If someone should, despite all his precautions, bring the plague into Stertzingen and cheat him of his future with Olympe...
When he swung into view of the road he saw below his men driving back two horsemen and a group of peasants throwing sticks and stones. The impudent cavaliers were endeavouring to reach the path that wound up to the Schloss, with their whips they made an effort to defend themselves. Johan Appenzel was shouting abuse at them. The Margraf called out:
"Hullo, there, hullo!"
With savage curses Johan Appenzel yelled back that the strangers were from Brixen where half the people were dead of the plague and the other half dying—"And these two pretend they want a shelter in the mountains and one of them looks already ill."
The Margraf was profoundly moved with rage and hate. He snatched the carbine from the man beside him and sprang lightly down the rocks. The actors in the altercation on the road were yet small shapes like figurines, like puppets, they did not seem human. One of the cavaliers had fled, perhaps against his will; his horse, struck with a stone, plunged along the Brixen road. The peasants gave a yell of half-frightened elation as the horseman disappeared in the golden purple distance towards the abysses of violent shadow. But there remained the other, around him the turbulence surged. He appeared as resolute to force his way into Stertzingen as they to keep him out; even, the Margraf thought, he laughed.
The priest had come panting down the slopes, he was uneasy and dejected because of the storm and a sense of the futility of prayers; the church had seemed to him as empty as the temple of Venus Anadyomene had seemed to the Margraf.
"It may be the Devil," he stammered, "and we had better look after ourselves, for I don't really think that God—"
The Margraf fired, he had taken very careful aim. The horseman rolled from the saddle into the road made muddy by the storm. Exultant, cruel shouts rose from the Stertzingeners. The frightened horse galloped away towards Brixen. Max of Ohnspach grinned up at the priest who sucked his lips nervously.
"Well done, well done! Now, if those rascals were just to tip the body over the edge on the further side Your Excellency would never hear any more of the matter."...
The Margraf lowered himself to the road. The horseman was on his face, there were some gouts of blood on the road. The peasants all stood back, no one would approach the corpse even to push it over the black ravine which dropped the far side of the highway.
"With a long pole," suggested the priest nervously, but the keepers, woodmen and peasants, fearful of being asked to handle the dead stranger, had slunk away.
"Let us leave the body," commanded the Margraf, eyeing the priest maliciously, "unless you wish to say a few prayers. It will serve as a warning to the next intruder."
At this moment the cavalier they had supposed dead heaved over on his back in a last convulsion and expired.
The Margraf then saw that it was Olympe von Hohenaschen whom he had murdered. The wilful, passionate woman, bored by her monotonous confinement on the Brenner, had decided to disguise herself as a cavalier and visit her lover. The Devil must surely have guided his hand; he had not had time to ask her pardon...the silence of his despair was almost ludicrous, the priest, terribly upset, began to giggle.
There was something absurd in such a tragedy; besides it was probably an error...
"Certainly the lad has a likeness to the Margravine of Hohenaschen, but let Your Excellency consider that it cannot possibly be she. I beseech you, sir," added the man of God who felt that he was launching into a sermon, "to control yourself and put black fancies out of your mind, and to think of the dear little rosy golden love-bird waiting for you in the Schloss. As for this body, how do you know that it is not infected with plague? I should advise a long, stout pole—Good God! the Margraf is taken ill!"
But instead of springing forward to help he retreated, for Max of Ohnspach had thrown himself across the corpse, he was pallid- grey and his brows were wrinkled; as he began to fumble open the cravat of the dead cavalier the priest waddled yet farther away up the mountain path. He was sure that beneath the ruffled curls, under the small ears were the livid spots of the plague. Self- possession deserted him, his hands hung powerless, he felt sick as if he had touched a rat, he babbled prayers, but not for long.
"You are a fool," he stammered. "What does it matter if that is a woman or not, Olympe von Hohenaschen or not, as long as it has the plague?"
The Margraf took no heed, he was prone on the body.
"He will be killed by his own fear," thought the priest, climbing up to the church. "I wonder who, after all, it is! Just the sort of amazing thing that woman would do, especially if she felt ill."
To keep off any possible infection he drank a whole bottle of Falernian when he reached his house, then he was so drunk that he called in the sexton and they played dice on the communion table.
The huge clouds advanced with an amazing suddenness over Stertzingen, but only partially obscured the glare of the sun. The priest and the sexton could see the swift violence of unexpected rain through the narrow window of the little church, and the pine wood, dark and wet, and beyond, the shining chaos of lighter, higher clouds, lashed with the sheen of sunshine that slanted through the rain. A perfume of fragrant dampness dispelled the acid staleness of the incense odour in the church. When the rain first fell on the hot gravestones there was a stinging hiss and vapour rose.
They saw a man pass upwards through this storm, he walked with vigour among the pines, yet slowly and with pauses, for he carried someone on his back.
"If I wasn't so drunk," whispered the sexton, "I should have thought that was our gracious lord the Margraf."
"You saw," the priest assured him, "nothing." But he himself talked of the two figures going up the mountain.
How could it be the Margraf? Was he not of supernatural size, gigantic? Could a mortal man have carried another up those heights? Even carried a woman—a small woman?
"I hope," said the sexton, "you are not suggesting that they are daemons? I never liked that temple up there to a heathen witch and, between you and me "—he winked and sniggered—"I pushed that naked figure over the ravine."
"Venus Anadyomene," whispered the priest regretfully.
"Who was she, reverent father?"
"Let her not be named," the priest sighed. "At the same time, if things were only simpler, it might be very delicious up there, in the storm, above the ravine."...
The sexton lumbered to the window. There certainly was a man bearing another on his back, labouring up to the temple on the summit; or perhaps he only thought so, for the incessant rain hazed everything, like the fumes of the wine in his brain fused good and evil.
Sabrina waited hopelessly for the Margraf. What was the use of spreading one's skirts like a peacock's fan when there was no one to admire? She was really utterly bored.
No one told her of the incident on the high road nor of the disappearance of her master; some things were best ignored. God be with us! all muttered to themselves.
Biting hot sunshine poured through the transparent rain as the storm passed; green and purple, gold and azure, the monstrous landscape, ravine and forest, peak and plain, gleamed through fire and water.
Washed in every corner by rain the temple of Venus Anadyomene remained empty. There were footprints round the edge of the ravine, slipping smears in the wet grass and mud. After a while the priest would put a wooden cross there, to keep off the evil spirits. At the bottom of the crevasse the swollen waters roared and foamed over the sharp rocks.
Sabrina could endure no more. She ordered out the carriage and took the road to Munich. She found two servants quite willing to go with her. After all, things could never be as they were once at Schloss Stertzingen, one might as well try one's luck elsewhere.
The atmosphere was flushed with an emerald-azure brilliance, the unearthly white of the higher clouds swelled behind the smoky tawny purple of the nearer vapours, beyond all was the piercing blue of the sky.
Why had Sabrina fled so fast from Stertzingen that she had forgotten to take any plunder with her?
As the light chariot sped, as if in a panic, down the way of escape, a mighty rainbow leapt, in a sudden shining span, across the Brenner.
THE packet from Calais was delayed by the storm. The December night was dark when two passengers knocked at the door of The Warden of the Channel and demanded supper, two horses, and a man to bring their baggage to town.
The host had occasion afterwards to remember every detail of this incident, which was peculiar enough to impress him keenly.
"Sirs," said he, "you'll stay the night? It is dark, bad weather, and the London coach starts to-morrow morning."
"If you look at the calendar," replied the elder traveller pleasantly, "you will see that the moon rises in an hour's time, the storm is over, it will be a clear night—and it is our wish," he added with great authority, "to proceed at once to London."
As they sat in the parlour where the huge fire glowed and a plentiful meal was served immediately, the landlord, while he presided at the service, studied these two impatient travellers.
They were foreigners and of high rank (so the landlord thought) and were very handsomely attired in broad cloth, fur and braid-trimmed coats; each kept with him a costly-looking travelling case that contained, no doubt, valuables, and in the hall were their saddlebags filled with valises.
The elder man was a man in middle life, of a very noble and notable appearance, with a fiery energy in all he said and did, yet with the control of perfect breeding; he showed the greatest concern for his companion, who was still pale, sick, and uneasy from the rough sea voyage, and who spoke very little but left everything to the other.
He was very young, dark, slender, and, but for his air of extreme languor, of attractive appearance. He sank on the settle in the chimney corner, warming his hands and shivering, while his companion supped heartily and now and then affectionately offered him wine, coffee, and biscuits.
When he had satisfied a lusty appetite, the elder traveller went to the window and pulled aside the thick curtains.
"There, you see," he exclaimed in English that had only a slight accent. "It is a clear, still night."
It was true that the wind had dropped, the moon was rising, and her rays sparkling in the snow drifts on the roofs of Dover.
"You'll not get to London by the morning, sir—"
"But you will tell us the name of a post-house where we can breakfast and get fresh horses? There is a reason in this speed, my friend. I journey to see someone who is ill."
And with his eager, impatient, yet wholly agreeable air the traveller went to inspect the mounts as they were brought into the cold lamplit courtyard.
"And you have a packhorse and a groom?" he asked. "We travel, in our great haste, without servants."
"I'm not well provided in that way, sir, not expecting anything of the kind—there's only Joe, Moleskin Joe, as we call him; he's dull, but stout and honest—I've had him here ten years—"
"I've no doubt that he will do very well—I suppose that your highways are safe?"
"Yes, sir, it's a long time since there was a robbery on the Dover Road."
"Good! But let your man be armed, as we are."
The gentleman returned to the parlour where his companion, soothed by the wine and the warmth had fallen asleep on the cushioned settle. The landlord, helping with the valises in the hall, heard the two talking, the voice of the elder high above that of the younger. Then they came out into the passage and the dark young man was yawning and walking unsteadily, while the other affectionately guided his steps.
Moleskin Joe was ready with the packhorse in the yard and the elder traveller took the lantern from the landlord and looked keenly at the servant whom he had engaged.
The ostler was a small, wiry man, with a stupid but candid, good-natured face; he wore a cap and waistcoat of moleskins, sewn by himself, and blinked a little in the frosty air for he had just been roused from sleep.
"You'll do, fellow." The traveller turned away and took a purse from his case. "How much for your fee?" And he displayed English gold in neat rouleaux that sparkled in the lamplight. Moleskin Joe stared at more money than he had ever seen before, and the owner of this wealth laughed good-humouredly at his amazement.
The clock in the courtyard struck ten as the traveller mounted, the two gentlemen well wrapped against the cold, with their pistols in their holsters, and Joe behind on a stout roadster with the old-fashioned weapon his master had given him in his belt.
The cold was intense, the blue moon clear as ice in the bleached heavens, the snow on the roof of The Warden of the Channel sparkled with millions of vivid crystals.
"We shall have a pleasant journey after all," smiled the elder traveller. He seemed in high good spirits and the landlord thought that he made a fine figure on Bessie, the big bay mare, with the moonlight showing in clear light and shade his square- cut face and rich appointments.
"You do not know who we are," he said suddenly, checking the mare. "I am from Wurtemberg," and he gave a name that the landlord tried in vain to understand or repeat. "Never mind! I have a soubriquet—you translate it so—Idler—Mr. Maarten Idler, then, if you please—" Laughing, he glanced ahead at his companion who was already riding under the arch that led to the street. "He is an Englishman, Mr. Peter Burnley, I met him on the packet."
The landlord was surprised.
"Well, Your Honour, I must say that I thought he was a foreigner, too, and you old friends—"
"No! An utter stranger to me! I was sorry for him, he was so ill—and seems in some trouble, and oddly, he has the same need of haste as I—but for what reason I do not know."
"I'm sure that it is very good natured in you, sir, to look after him, he seems very down."
At this the traveller laughed pleasantly.
"I give you these explanations in case anyone inquires after me—my servants will follow in a day or so, your horses and your man will be returned to you from London. I shall be lodging in Cork Street—good night, and thank you."
The landlord, hat in hand, watched the heavy horseman also ride away under the shadow of the arch. The night was quiet, unnaturally so, it seemed, after the late fury of the storm; the waves, not having spent their tumult, were yet lashing at the foot of the high cliffs. And from this disturbed ocean there suddenly blew a breath so icy that the landlord shivered to the heart, vowing that such a freezing still air was worse than any biting wind.
As he turned gladly into the warm house he could faintly hear the sound of the hoofs on the cobbles as the three riders took their way into the clear, cold night—the handsome foreigner who had given the odd name of Maarten Idler, the sick Englishman, and Moleskin Joe with the luggage.
Mrs. Ransome, wife of the owner of Three Ashes farm, was sitting up that night over a low fire in her comfortable kitchen; she had an aching tooth that kept her awake and she continually poulticed her face from a pot of simmering mess on the hob. A small lamp stood on the high mantelshelf. This left the room in shadow. The house was silent, and Mrs. Ransome, her pain eased, was dozing off in her cosy chintz-covered chair when she was roused by a thundering rat-a-tat on the front door which sent her to her feet with an unpleasant start.
She glanced instinctively at the tall clock with the wreath of faded blue flowers on the face, that stood in the corner; through the shadows she could just make out the time—nearly midnight.
"Mercy on us!" she exclaimed as the knock was repeated, for Three Ashes stood back from the road in a lonely stretch of the Dover highway. So, before she went to the door she called out for her husband, and despite the repeated knocks, waited till he appeared. Then the man and wife looked cautiously over the chain into the bare moonlit lane. They saw a tall figure, dark against the pure light of the brilliant moon, anger and despair were in his face and gesture as he chid them for their delay; he was hatless and his black hair hung tangled on his brow.
"There's been murder!" he cried, pointing to the direction of the road. "Help! Quickly! It may be possible to save the life of my friend."
While the farmer, trembling with excitement and some fear, flung on his clothes and shouted up his farm-hands, the stranger, with an accent of agony, told his story.
He and his friend had been riding from Dover to London with a hired man, proceeding slowly, for the roads were hard with frost, when, on this lonely stretch, the servant had suddenly turned on them with intent to murder and to rob. He had pulled out his pistol, and without warning, shot one of the travellers through the back and had been about to grapple with the other when he, the narrator, had struck him with the butt end of his pistol and left him for dead.
"If I've killed the rogue it is no matter—I only hope that we can save that poor young man—"
When the little party from Three Ashes reached the long, bare road, white beneath the lustrous, serene moon, they found the baggage horse standing drowsy beside the sprawling bodies. One was that of the young Englishman who had been so ill on crossing from Calais the day before, the other was Moleskin Joe.
The first was a fearful sight; not only had he been shot, but, as his companion explained, in falling from the saddle he had been kicked by the frightened horse, which had then plunged away towards Dover.
"He's not only dead, you can't see what he was like, poor soul," whispered Mr. Ransome; and he was glad to leave that shattered head, that slim body, in the rich clothes with the outstretched arms to attend to the servant, who lay face downwards near the ditch.
But the surviving traveller stood for a full minute gazing at that mutilated face, a horrible clot of battered flesh flung back in the long dark hair, through which the blood soaked on to the hard road. And as he did so a contortion between a grin and a frown passed over his own sombre features and he muttered some passionate sentences that the others took to be a prayer in a foreign tongue.
"I should not," he added in English, "have let the wretch see the gold—my carelessness has cost this poor fellow his life!"
Mr. Ransome and his men were looking with alarmed curiosity at the body of the other man.
"He'll live to answer for it, sir, he's coming round—we'd better take him to the farm—I'll send someone to the village for the constable—better cover that one up, sir, he's an ugly sight, poor gentleman."
"He lives? The villain lives? See that he does not escape—" The foreigner took his fine linen handkerchief from his pocket and laid it over what had been the face of the dead man. An icy stir of air began to freeze the blood on the trampled road.
When Moleskin Joe stood his trial for murder a curious circumstance connected with the case came to light. It was impossible to identify the murdered man. His companion could give no information about him; he had met him on the Dover packet and a certain friendliness had grown up between them during the storm, and he had been interested in the young man because he was travelling alone, and though of obvious rank, seemed sick and distressed, and said that his errand was one of great urgency.
Beyond that he had said he was an Englishman and his name was Peter Burnley, he had given no clue as to his identity, nor did an examination of his body and his effects provide any hint as to who he might be or what his errand was. No one claimed him, no man of his rank was missing, no one of the name of Burnley (and several such were found) had any knowledge of the murdered stranger. No papers, passport, or letters were discovered in his case (it was supposed that he had cast all such documents into the fire of the parlour of The Warden of the Channel), there was no name in his hat or clothes. It had to be assumed that he was some adventurer, travelling under an assumed name on some dubious errand. It was his travelling companion who paid for the grave where he was laid in a Maidstone churchyard.
About this personage, the handsome German who good-humouredly allowed himself to be known as Maarten Idler, there was no mystery whatever. The Graf Maarten von I was well known both in his own country and in England; his credentials were unimpeachable, all his life known, his name illustrious, his fortune considerable. If he were credited with a certain wildness, an adventurous youth, a flamboyant war service against the Turks, nothing had ever been said of him that did not add a lustre to the brilliant reputation of a great gentleman.
His splendid appearance, his candid manner, his generous horror at the tragedy of the Dover Road, greatly impressed the jury at the Assizes.
Robust, richly dressed, with his air at once noble and charming, he was a complete contrast to the wretched figure of the prisoner who, in his moleskin waistcoat and shabby coat, bandaged head and pallid face, stood, without hope, in the dock.
He had always been dull, and the blow he had received seemed to have further confused his faculties so that he made no great show of defending himself, but stupidly repeated that he had not killed the gentleman, but what had happened he could not say.
"I don't remember, sir," he answered to all the questions that were asked of him. Patiently, with neither protest nor complaint, he awaited his fate. Now and then his vacant eyes glimmered with a faint intelligence, and that was when they turned a glance on the superb gentleman whose evidence was sending him to the gallows, a baffled glance, full of a puzzled curiosity.
On one point only was the Graf Maarten reserved—that was the reason for his hasty visit to England, his travelling without servants, his setting forth so strangely late on a winter's night. He would admit no more than:
"Someone very dear to me fell ill in London. When I heard the news I could not restrain myself—must I give the name? It is that of a lady."
His chivalry was respected, the more so as it became generally known who the lady was—Emily Dennison, daughter of the late Resident at Wurtemberg, then lying ill at her father's house in Golden Square, and believed to be secretly betrothed to the Graf Maarten.
On a dull winter afternoon, when the thick twilight that invaded the court was only scattered by the yellow rays of the oil-lamp above the Judge's head, Moleskin Joe was sentenced to death.
He made no protest, there was no one to speak for him, since he was without relations, friends, or means, and none felt any pity for the man who, out of brutal cupidity, had tried to murder two strangers, and had succeeded in murdering one of them, a man whose youth, rank, mysterious personality, and hideous end aroused the keenest interest and sympathy.
For one second Moleskin Joe, when asked what he had to say after the death sentence, became animated, as if about to speak violently; he clasped tightly the dirty rail of the dock, and stared, not at the Judge, but at Graf Maarten, who returned this look with the indifference of utter contempt.
But the condemned man did not speak, the tension of his attitude relaxed, an expression of imbecility veiled his face as the warders seized him, and a little sigh of relief went up from the people in the court because of an ugly business ended.
A common lodging-house faced the prison before which Moleskin Joe was to be hanged. On the snowy morning of his punishment a group of curious people gathered in the upper room of this house and peered through the soiled window panes. The snow was falling slowly, in large flakes that showed white against the grey sky, the dark outline of the prison, and the darker outline of the gallows.
In lowered voices (they knew not why) the squalid company discussed the mystery of the murdered man, and the stupid obstinacy of the murderer. Something terrible, mysterious, and alarming about this useless crime held even these coarse and callous sightseers in awe; the women thought of the new grave where the lonely stranger lay with his secret buried, as it seemed, for ever with him, and the men thought of Moleskin Joe who had lived nearly forty years obscure and harmless, and now was about to be damned for a cowardly deed of blood.
As the prisoner appeared at the prison gates the door of the upper room in the lodging-house opened and Maarten Idler (as he was known to all English people) entered with a gold piece in his hand.
"I will pay this for a chance to see this rogue turned off."
They made way for him, his broadcloth brushed their shabby suits as the landlady clutched the fee. All looked at him with some embarrassment, he was so splendid, had such an air of command; they believed that he was, in his own country, a prince.
As Moleskin Joe mounted stiffly he ladder to the gallows, Graf Maarten explained why he wished to be present at so ghastly a ceremony.
"I can't get the fellow out of my mind. I fear that scene on the Dover Road is printed for ever on my heart. I wake up at night, sweating, thinking I see poor M. Peter Burnley stretched out in his blood—"
Moleskin Joe paused on the ladder, and bending down, spoke vehemently to the hangman, as if a sudden desperate thought had come into his mind.
Observing this, Graf Maarten pushed open the casement, regardless of the driving snowflakes, and thrust out his head and shoulders.
"Perhaps he is going to confess."
"They often do, sir, at the last minute."
The shivering, excited people pressed close behind the German who, resting his hands on the sill, watched Moleskin Joe turn again and mount the gallows step, the hangman behind him.
The condemned man was facing the window from which Graf Maarten leant, and, as the noose was adjusted round his neck, and the hangman descended from the ladder, he tore the handkerchief from his eyes and stared directly across at the German, who returned his awful look with an unwavering stare.
Before even the ladder was taken away and he began to kick and struggle amid the softly falling snow, the face of the ostler was terrible to see, yellow and contorted beneath the dirty bandages on his brow, with a coarse growth of greying beard and eyes injected with blood.
The women shrank back from the window, some of the men lowered their gaze, but Graf Maarten stared until his sight was confused by the snowflakes passing, hesitating, floating downwards, and the face of the dying man seemed to swing forward until he was grinning at the window-sill, face to face with his accuser.
Graf Maarten spoke to the hangman.
"Did the fellow confess?"
"Not he, your honour—nor would he say a word to the chaplain. He was dumb to the last, and then it was only a foolishness."
"Why, sir, he said that he had a sister, a maid-servant in London, and that she looked to him for all."
"What of it?"
"He asked me if I'd see that some charitable soul took his place towards her—she knows nothing of his horrid end, he said."
"He said—' there was someone here would do it—and that it was his legacy, all he left'. And then, as he went up the ladder—' that the hand of God was in it '."
Graf Maarten knelt by Emily Dennison's couch; her thin hands rested lightly on his thick dark ringlets. She was much touched by the devotion with which, when he had heard of her illness, he had hastened across Europe and much moved by the horrible crime in which he, entirely through his imprudent haste on her account, had nearly lost his life.
"Will you marry me, Emily? You know that never have I desired anything so much."
She was flattered by the intense, almost bitter sincerity (as if the man resented his own bondage to this need for her) that lay behind these ordinary words, and she was minded to yield to him, at last; her illness had exhausted her and there seemed all she had lacked, health, strength, passion, in his eager love, so ardently offered.
"There seemed some barrier between us in Germany," she mused, "but that, I think, has gone now."
He answered, with a strength that made her shrink as before a menace:
"You should have loved me before—what was wrong with me that I could not have amended? Before you all my life paused."
She tried to laugh away his dark earnestness. Laughing or languishing she was as fair as a water lily, and something even more lovely than herself was about her like an aroma—a memory, a perfume, a promise, unearthly sweet...
"Maarten, you cannot blame me for hesitating—all my friends advised me against you! Idler! Is not that your name! You have done so much, been so brilliant—yet, unstable always!"
"I had not found you, my lode star."
The English girl smiled, looking at him kindly, yet not with complete surrender. He rose and his great height blotted out the light from her silver fairness, which became ghostly in the shadow.
"Was it young Adalbrecht who stood between us?" he asked, and she pitied the difficulty he had with the name. "I do not know. Perhaps—but he has gone, has he not?"
"He went to Persia with the last Embassy. A good post. He was always ambitious."
"Stand a little aside, Maarten. I want to see the light."
"There is so little, only snow flakes against the pane—come away with me to Provence, to Italy."
"Maarten—you did not contrive for Adalbrecht to go to the East?"
"Upon my soul, no. I can swear it."
She sighed, and her slim fingers twined in the long, pale curls on the muslins about her bosom.
"I will be frank with you, Maarten. When I was in Wurtemberg I did not, at first, know my own mind—first it was you, then it was Adalbrecht—and then, at last, when we had to return to England—I thought that it was he." With a charming innocent frankness she added thoughtfully, "He asked me before I left if I cared for him—I could not be sure, but I thought—surely, 'tis he—but—"
She broke off with another sigh, yet smiled too, though wistfully.
"He has gone, my darling; he did not wait for your answer. And I have heard that his father makes a match for him with the Margraf von P 's daughter. I always thought him light."
"So did not I!" her voice quivered. "But let it go—as he has gone. I wish him happiness."
"But what for me, my darling, what for me?"
"My father should ask you this, but I will do it myself—Maarten, I heard that you and Adalbrecht's young sister were promised before ever I came to Wurtemberg—and that upon your leaving of her, she died."
"It is a lie; what evil will not gossips do with their evil tongues!"
"I will take your word, Maarten. It was but a hint I heard, and I could never believe it."
"Then there is nothing between us? No doubt, no shadow?"
He bent towards her as he spoke, and before her gentle face came the vision of a drift of snowflakes and the grimacing visage of Moleskin Joe swinging close to his own as he had seen it swing from the gallows when he leant from the window in Maidstone.
"Save me, my darling, from myself, from this useless, this futile life that I lead—from this no man's land where my soul seems to wander stark, so lonely, so lonely—"
He was shuddering on his knees beside her again and she regarded him with trust and compassion; she thought that if her own life were to be absorbed into this other life so tumultuous, brilliant, and strange, it would be a sweet fulfilment of her vague dreams and half unconfessed longings.
"I, too, am lonely, Maarten. But wait awhile. I am very tired. Leave me in quiet for a few more days."
Graf Maarten kissed her hands humbly, promising obedience to her least whims. It was as he was about to leave that he spoke of a subject that Miss Dennison had hoped never to hear mentioned again.
"That man who was hanged for the Dover Road murder—"
"Ah, Maarten, need we think of that?"
"I wanted to ask your advice. This wretch was quite poor and friendless. He had one sister. When he was on the—at the last, he asked if anyone would look to her. He said that the hand of God was in it."
"There is no one else? And you think that you should do this?"
"How quickly you catch my thought—she is a maidservant in London. I have her address from the Dover landlord. Remember that she is quite innocent—a little foolish in her intellect, and alone."
The whole subject filled Miss Dennison with unutterable horror, she wished to forget it for ever, but mastering her repugnance she said:
"Yes, yes—I think that you—that we—should do something at least, see that she is comfortable."
Bella, the sister of Moleskin Joe, lived in Mrs. Curie's house at Uxbridge; she had been there for many years, a patient but taciturn and stupid servant, who gave no trouble and whose wage was very low.
Mrs. Curle did not read the news-sheets, and when Bella asked her if she could guess the reason why her brother had not come to London that Christmas the lady could not answer. She was surprised, for she had noted the affection between brother and sister. Neither could read nor write, but Joe came to Uxbridge twice a year, and sent little presents and messages by the Dover mail. When Mrs. Curie inquired from The Warden of the Channel she soon learned the cause of Moleskin Joe's silence, and she was so profoundly shocked that she could not, for a while, bring herself to say a word to Bella.
But at last, being a religious woman, she felt it her duty to do so. She summoned Bella into the parlour that looked on to the large garden with the high brick wall; above this the bare boughs of a plane tree tossed against the scudding clouds, rooks cawed amid the interlacing twigs and large drops of rain fell heavily on the frost-bitten grass. The room where Mrs. Curie sat with her Bible on her knees was full of a cold, grey light, more gloomy than any shadow.
The lady's mind was uneasily occupied by the tale of the murder on the lonely midnight winter road; there was something horrifying and mysterious in all the circumstances of the crime, and Mrs. Curie wondered very much, as so many others had wondered, as to the identity of the richly dressed stranger who lay in a Maidstone churchyard with "Peter Burnley" and one date on his flat stone.
When Bella came in, Mrs. Curie told her, with much compassion, the dreadful story.
The girl seemed (and this was horrible to her mistress) to be neither surprised nor shocked, she stood twisting her hands in her apron and repeating that she had seen her brother in a dream, and that he had told her "That he had never done it."
Mrs. Curie looked sadly at the poor creature who had always been almost half-witted, and feared that this disaster had completely turned her feeble brain, for she seemed to show neither sorrow nor dismay, but rather a sly, lunatic and malignant self-communing. So that Mrs. Curle, for the first time, felt a horrid distrust of one who was, after all, sister to a brutal murderer, and resolved to be quickly rid of her. The rain began to slash steadily on the glass Bella had polished that morning; the bare boughs made a deep soughing and the grey clouds darkened down to a storm. Sharply Mrs. Curie bade the girl withdraw to the kitchen and keep her story from the other servants.
"He never did it," muttered Bella. She was much younger than her brother, and had an unwholesome beauty, white, smooth features, and harsh red hair that showed in broken ruddy gold through her cambric cap; her eyes were like her brother's, their expression was of a bewildered resignation, a patient submission to inscrutable tyrannies.
As she left her mistress the bell rang and she went mechanically to the front door; Graf Maarten was on the step and the wind and rain made havoc in his cloak and hair. He knew her at once, and asked her if she would step into the garden and speak with him, which she did without question and despite the weather.
Mrs. Curie from the window, watched curiously her servant and this splendid stranger, walking up and down under this tumult of grey clouds, the rooks and bare boughs of the plane tree behind them, the rain slanting on their faces, which were turned one to the other.
The Graf von I told the girl who he was, and of his desire to help her since he respected a dying man's last wish, even if that man were a murderer.
"He never did it, sir."
"I was there and saw it. But he has been punished and I would not have you suffer, who are innocent."
"As he was, sir, innocent."
"To say so is to flout all sense and prove yourself witless. Come, as I have you on my conscience, as a Christian, what can I do for you?"
"Sir, I am very well with Madame Curle."
"Why, good-bye, then, and I'll think no more of it."
They parted at the tall iron gates in the high wall; the clouds were flying so low that it seemed as if, any second, they would swoop down and encompass those two windblown figures. He hastened to his carriage and was driven to the house of Sir Arthur Dennison and she returned to tell her dull tale to her mistress, who much commended the generous chivalry of the wealthy foreigner, the more so as she found it highly convenient. For she had decided, after the strangeness of Bella's late behaviour, that she could not possibly live with her any longer in the lonely house in Uxbridge.
Moleskin Joe's sister came in a scurry of snow and waited at the area door of the Graf Maarten's opulent house in Cork Street. Mrs. Curle, she said to the servant who opened to her, would keep her no longer, could she have a place in the establishment of the gentleman who, alone of all the world, had promised her kindness?
The other woman allowed her to sit by the kitchen fire, but, when she had heard her story, rebuked her sharply.
"How can you come here? Your brother tried to murder this gentleman, too, and it was his evidence hanged him—I'd go elsewhere if I were you—"
"I've nowhere to go. I was bound to come here."
Graf von I was with the lady to whom he had just been betrothed, as the public prints announced that day, and it was late before he returned to his expensive hired house.
He found Bella, with her patient resigned look and her red hair falling from under her bonnet, waiting at the foot of the stairs, the other servants not being very willing to have her company.
He had never expected to see her again, yet she was so insignificant that his start and exclaim at the sight of her amazed even himself.
"I have nowhere to go, sir, might I stay here? I work very well, Mrs. Curle will speak for me."
He stood looking at her across the dim light of the hall lamp; he thought as of a refuge and a haven of the woman whom he had just left with joy, love and comfort in their farewells.
"This is but a hired establishment," he said, "I shall send you to Sir Arthur Dennison—he will find a place for you. Miss Emily will be kind to you."
"What have I to do with her? You'll let me stay here, sir?"
The Graf Maarten muttered:
"What matter is any of this?" He went aside to his room and rang for the housekeeper.
"Find that poor girl a bed and a place in the house. I am bound to help her."
"Your honour is too generous—you don't know what you're taking in."
"What could I be taking in but a miserable wretch who has no other refuge!"
"God guard us, sir, it is the sister of a murderer, and a queer creature herself—"
A sudden fury disturbed the calm of Maarten Idler's good manners.
"Are you not here to do my bidding? Why do you dare to question me? Look after the girl."
That night a tumult of wind and rain broke over London. Maarten Idler could not sleep in his well-appointed bedchamber. He turned and tossed, restless, fevered, but it was not of his sweet beloved from whom he had parted so kindly a little before that he thought; a great chaos of snowflakes seemed to fill the firelit chamber and through them swung the dying face of Moleskin Joe, gasping on the gallows.
Neither could Emily Dennison sleep that dreadful night of tempest, twice she sprang out of bed, confused by evil dreams in which someone whom she could not reach had passionately implored her help.
"Maarten! Maarten! Is it you?"
When no answer came out of the turmoil of the storm she wept for fear.
"You have changed, Maarten, you are ill, something is troubling you."
He denied this, but with a weary impatience that startled her; she seemed to have lost her power over him, he was no longer engrossed by his love for her, nor was she able easily to soothe him; Emily Dennison felt unhappiness creeping over her in slow tide of misery. This man's passion had been all of reality she had had in a world where she felt herself out of harmony with common events.
"A man may be forgiven for being uneasy," he replied sullenly. "When he has been party to an ugly murder."
She was surprised that he should still think of that and mention it to her; he was not young, he had had many adventures, he had been in fierce battles and witnessed, she was sure, many scenes of blood and horror.
"It is over," she replied gently.
"No! It is only just beginning."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that the effect of it—on me—is only just beginning—I dream of it, at night, as soon as I fall asleep I see again that bare road, the sparkling frost on the hedges, the cold sky—"
"Hush, Maarten, do not dwell on it." Miss Dennison shuddered, thinking of the night of the monstrous storm, when she had heard, she thought, a voice crying to her for help—was it the voice of Maarten or that of another, one far away, who had forsaken her?
"You have done what you could, Maarten, for that poor girl?"
"She has her brother's eyes." He turned to Emily Dennison impetuously. "Will you not marry me at once and go with me to Italy?"
"We are to be married in June, Maarten, I cannot be ready before." She could not, a few days past, have given this answer, but she was estranged from him by his late abstracted coldness; she was, too, profoundly disappointed by the flaring out—as it seemed—of that passion that had held her enthralled by its heat and light. She saw that he needed her, but intermittently, as if she were a shield that he snatched at now and then in some dark desperation, as a defence against some terror unknown to her. So she refused him, and not without pain.
He took this rebuff with a resignation that stung her; where, she wondered, was the ardour which had flung him across Europe on the news of her illness?
"You must have your wish," he answered, and then added, strangely, "June will be too late."
"For what, Maarten?"
"For my salvation," he replied, smiling, but not with an air of gallantry.
He always met her, sitting at the foot of the stairs when he came home—later and later every night, for daily he more avoided that house in Cork Street that he had hired with such pleasure. As he could not bring himself to mention her he could not complain of her conduct, and she took no heed of his angry commands to keep "out of his sight." Indeed, she never said anything to him at all, save, occasionally, "He never did it," with a look from those resigned eyes that were so like the eyes of Moleskin Joe, swinging forward, staring, in the contorted, snow-swept face that dangled from the gallows.
Once, when he came in late, not radiant from the kisses of Emily Dennison, but drunk from a gambling hell, he found her polishing with a dirty cloth the newel post of the handsome stairway. She peered at him over her shoulder and gave a giggling laugh.
"Don't you begin to see them, sir?" Then she answered his dark frown of horror: "Who? Them two, Joe and the young gentleman—at first they were no bigger than my hand, but every day they grow larger. What will happen when they are life size, sir?"
Graf Maarten turned into his private room; whatever time he spent in the house he now passed locked into this chamber. He had brandy in his desk and he drank heavily to dull further his fuddled senses, but he could not shut out from his mind what she had said, nor from his ears the sound of her slow steps going up and down the passage outside his door.
"If I ignore her," he whispered to himself in the silent shadows, "surely in time she will cease to exist and I shall be free. Can I ever undo my mistake? Why did I ever meddle with the girl? Oh, God, am I a haunted man?"
But he could not believe that all his cleverness, boldness, and great daring had failed—because of what? An act of kindness.
The storms were fearful that year; the winter was prolonged unduly, and impatient tempests, destroying as they passed, shook the faith of man in God. Maarten Idler began to disappear from among his usual companions and even Sir Arthur Dennison was forced to rebuke him for his neglect of Emily. The reply of the German was at once so sullen and so careless that the other began to ponder whether or no he were wise to give his daughter to this man whose devotion seemed to have so capriciously flagged. It was, no doubt, a brilliant match for a simple English gentlewoman, but Sir Arthur Dennison began to turn over rather uneasily in his mind reports of the reckless wildness of the youth of Graf Maarten—and tales—tales.
The girl herself had no comment to make on her lover's behaviour; she became, thus deprived of the support of that passion which she had timidly stretched out to reach, intensely self-centred; the voices of the living came to her from a great distance and seemed muffled, and among them she heard, every day more frequently, that cry of a spirit that appealed to her for help. And she became absorbed in endeavouring to discover if it were the voice of Maarten Idler.
In a few weeks he was defeated. He himself scarcely knew the ravaged features that he beheld in his mirror as those of the confident, handsome man who had ridden out of Dover with Moleskin Joe behind him; his hands trembled in whatever task they undertook and he drank much strong coffee to keep him awake at night.
One Sunday evening, when the church bells were sounding through the wind and rain, he heard a knock on the door of his private room, where he sat locked in alone.
"Very well, my girl, very well," he answered, grinning. "I am coming."
He lit a candle, for he had been in the dark since the daylight had failed, and drew out a sheet of paper from his portfolio. As the candle flamed, spluttered up on the cold wax he began to write:
"He should not have dogged me. As soon as he did that he knew that I was bound to kill him. I sent him to the East to be out of the way, but he must come slinking back. He was sure that Emily preferred him, and he threatened to tell her of the business with his sister. I knew that she would think that I had behaved very badly there. Women cannot understand how all the rules of society fret a man of spirit. Why did I stake so much on the love of Emily? I think of her now with indifference. He would come with me to England. I, knowing what was before us both if he insisted, tried to shake him off. But, even when he fell sick, he was obstinate. It was during the storm at sea that the idea came to me. When I saw the groom I knew that I was safe. No one would be concerned to vindicate him. I killed Adalbrecht on the loneliest stretch of road that I could find, I thought that I had killed the servant also, I had plenty of time to mutilate his face, take all his papers and take his name out of his clothes. No one thought of searching me, of questioning me, I was above suspicion from the first. I had prepared the way at Dover, when I told the landlord that lie about his being an Englishman of the name of Peter Burnley—"
The Graf Maarten had been writing very quickly, now and then he paused to listen to the repeated knocking, very low and steady, on the door.
"Why should I write any more?" he muttered. "They would never have thought of looking for Adalbrecht in an English grave. They believe that he has disappeared in the East. If I had never gone to the execution—if I had left the girl alone!"
He sighed, rose, and went to the door. Bella was there, waiting patiently, as he had known she would be, with a service of coffee on a lacquer tray.
"Come in and put that down," then, as she obeyed, "I shall not need it to-night. I am going on a long journey.
"To Maidstone? Isn't it Maidstone?"
"They are both buried there, sir."
"Have you seen them lately?"
"You know what it would mean when they grow to full height, sir—"
"Yes, yes," he noticed that she wore a moleskin waistcoat over her calico dress, under her neat apron.
"Did that belong to your brother?"
"The hangman sent it to me. Joe was innocent."
"Take this paper. I am going."
"I cannot read, sir."
"Give it to the police. Wait, I have not signed it." He wrote his strange name over the confession, and took up his hat. Bella regarded him stupidly.
"Have you got your pistols, sir?"
"You do well to remind me. I must be far away before anyone reads that paper. Farewell, Emily Dennison!" he added, without regret.
He went quietly out of the house. The rain had ceased, and high above the narrow house the spectral glimmer of the moon showed in a curdle of dead white cloud.
With his pistol primed, Maarten Idler rode towards Maidstone. He rejoiced at the thought of the liberty before him. When, kneeling on the stone incised with the false name of "Peter Burnley," he should put the cold muzzle of the weapon that had murdered the man lying beneath, on to his own forehead, he could escape from the girl with her brother's eyes and from that face of Moleskin Joe swinging out into the snowflakes.
Emily Dennison did not know if it were the murdered or the murderer who had cried out to her for help. She turned her face from the world and lived upon memories. People thought it strange that this tragic crime should come to light through the means of an idiot girl. It was the hangman who remembered that Moleskin Joe had said "There was the hand of God in it."
MY LORDS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN:—
I once heard a fat fellow in a play exclaim—"Oh, the brave things I've seen! But death is certain;" a cowardly sentiment. I have seen many brave things but without being troubled by the thought of the certainty of death, which event I was prudently careful to postpone to a period when extreme old age would make me indifferent to all the allurements of the world.
My master, that great and glorious hero, Prince François Eugéne, often used to say: "Neither God nor Politicks is any business of a soldier; it is the métier of the Deity to reward us according to our merits, and of the Politicians to provide the broils which give us our opportunities, let us leave it at that."
It was one of the principles of this noble Conqueror never to inquire into the causes, ethics, rights or wrongs of any quarrel in which he was engaged. "Our business," he would declare, "is to beat our enemies and make as much money as possible out of our friends, and I would take it as a kind of baseness to inquire into what any War is about."
But this Prince, wise as he was brave, put on another tone when he was addressing his men, and then was careful to adopt sentiments suited to their low, brutish and dull intellects, always telling them how truth, honour and justice lay on their side, that they fought for the noblest cause in the world for which they should be cheerfully willing to lay down their lives (or even forgo their pay) and such was his eloquence that you would see his dragoons, wounded, starved, diseased, rejoicing after a victory as lustily as if the rewards had been in their pockets instead of in his—a great man!
Great, too, was the magnificent Duke of Marlborough. I made his career my peculiar study and contrived to discover many astounding particulars of his early life which illustrate his extraordinary genius, the world fitted him like a hand to a glove; nothing ever annoyed or disgusted him and he found an opportunity in everything; he was besides the most civil man alive and could flatter the most obstinate stiffneck or the most awkward fool into complacency and self-satisfaction—what gifts! I ventured once, when he did me the honour to speak with me (as he often did, when coming into my master's tent to save the expense of an entertainment in his own) to suggest to him that part of his success lay in a just estimate of the weaknesses of mankind. "Nay, my dear Sfacciato," His Grace was pleased to reply, "a man's weaknesses can take care of themselves, leave his vices alone and make an attack on his virtues, and then you'll discover he has none, and so all is clear between you, and you may be very good friends."
His Grace had better natural advantages than my master; his person was in the first degree handsome and he was as fearless in the cabinet or the ball-room as in the field; never did he even contemplate the possibility of making a false step; whereas my noble master, Prince Eugène, was a little dry and stiff save during a campaign, and would often, at meal-times, have the kettle-drums beaten to avoid conversation.
His Grace also showed better parts in his dealings with women; cursed with a plain sister he yet contrived for her to fall down before the Duke of York and display a fine pair of ankles in modish green stockings, these same stockings being his gift and a fine investment, for the lady, having thus attracted the attention of the Royal Prince (whose wits and taste were none of the best) managed to get so close into his regards as to influence him to promote her brother in the Guards.
My master would not have been adroit enough to make a conquest of a King's mistress, arrange that His Majesty interrupted a conversation in the lady's bedroom, jump from the window and so win five hundred pounds as an expression of her gratitude, which would go towards his rise in the Army, for His Grace of Marlboro' plainly perceived that as Europe was like to be in a perpetual ferment, many glorious laurels might be culled by a man of his address and ability.
I had, too, the honour of the acquaintance of his noble friend, the Duke of Chandos who, having nothing to start with (like His Grace of Marlborough) but natural genius rose to be Paymaster to Her Majesty's forces and had sufficient talents to amass three million sterling beyond his due, and this after paying a handsome percentage to His Grace of Marlborough who, by representing him to the Queen (a simple creature) as a patriot as honest as himself, kept him in a post that many would have paid high to have gotten into.
The two of them, like the dauntless noble heroes they were, contrived to weather even a Parliamentary Inquiry into the National Accounts, which some dull, envious pedant set on foot, and by a serene air of conscious virtue and a steady refusal to answer questions (injurious, so they declared, to the nicety of their honour) escaped a direct censure. If they incurred the cloudy suspicions of the narrow-minded, they certainly received the plaudits of the vulgar, for whom they had obtained such glorious brilliant victories in a war that was no concern of England but in which thousands of Englishmen had had the wonderful chance of being cut to pieces in the service of these two mighty Dukes (one a Caesar, one a Maecenas) who were assuredly the brightest ornaments (always excepting my master) known to this or any other Age.
The Prince of Savoy moved in a freer ambient; I have often heard him congratulate himself, that not being in the service of his own country he was not obliged to assume an air of patriotism, and because the Court of Vienna, which employed him, was in no position to ask for his accounts.
He too became vastly rich and built the most wonderful palaces in the world, fit for the most considerable hero in Europe; the Duke of Chandos also cut a figure but not to the same extent owing to the petulant jealousy of the foggy islanders among whom it was his misfortune to live and who would peevishly question as to the source of so much wealth.
But nothing hampered my master; he would sign away provinces as other men would farms, give away diamond necklaces as freely (and for the same end) as an ensign gives promises of marriage; distribute halters and ribbons with the greatest impartiality, dictate to the Emperor and sup with a circle of reigning princes about his table. He was very liberal to those who pleased him and very extravagant in pleasing himself; in this he differed considerably from His Grace of Marlborough, who had two strange qualities for a great man; firstly, he was avaricious, secondly, he was faithful to his wife.
My master, a loyal friend, would make no comment on these failings, save "'Tis a pity," but I had the honour to be present when His Grace showed my master, in a tobacco box, the very first guineas he had ever earned, relating how he had left 'em untouched even when short of coach hire, or the price of a bottle of wine. I saw that my master, though civil, thought such boasts ill-bred and secretly recalled the difference between Jack Churchill, a country esquire, and François Eugène, a Prince of the House of Savoy (or possibly of even a more illustrious family).
But I must leave these reflections which the splendour of my subject inspires and proceed to commit to paper some of the episodes of these brilliant careers which led directly to the Pavilion of Honour; how fortunate have I (Arlequino Sfacciato, son of the meanest barber in Mantua) been in my association with such great heroes who had given the world such shining examples of the lustre human genius can attain!
But, let me restrain these encomiums and give proof that they are based on truth; I will begin by setting down my first acquaintance with my glorious master, Prince Eugène of Savoy and, craving my patrons' patience, I will relate how Olympia Mancini, Comtesse de Soissons, poisoned the Queen of Spain in a dish of oysters, and the encouraging effect of this on the career of my young Prince.
I will not here burden a reader (eager to be presented to my heroes) with any personal details of my ignoble self, but will merely state that in the year 1679 I was a cook-boy in the kitchens of the Alcazà in Madrid, which was then the residence of His Most Christian Majesty Don Carlos II of Spain.
It was a gloomy court; the King was an imbecile and the Queen was a saint; the sole exercise of the courtiers was yawning so that their jaws became developed at the expense of the rest of their persons. His Majesty would play spillikens for hours, and food was so scarce that the cooks were forced to lock the silver tureen covers for fear the pages should steal the meat on the stairs.
I despise the Spaniards, they appear to think there is no way of living but work or poverty and so, preferring poverty, sink into abject misery. What ignorance!
I soon saw that this was no place for one of my activity.
"My career," I said to myself, abstracting the succulent portions of the O11a Podrida while the cook was watering the Royal soup, "will never be made in the Alcazà."
How mistaken even the wisest can be!
Fortune was then hurrying towards me with outstretched hands; I make bold to say I deserved her favours, for though (I take no shame to relate) a mere scullion, I had two virtues—I kept myself clean and I never lost heart.
To add to our miseries that year there was a glut of melons and the quantity of these gross vegetables coming to His Majesty's notice, he must insist on a great preserve-making (though sugar was scarce and dear, the last consignment from the New World having been run into Amsterdam and sold there by the Admiral in charge of the convoy) and all the kitchens were aswim with sticky liquor, and slices and parings of melons, and courtiers coming down (having nothing worse to do) to try new flavours, such as sassafras, cinnamon, calomel and suchlike outlandish herbs, "to tempt," as they said, "His Majesty's palate." But well they knew that he had been born without one; this tincturing and doctoring of melons was but an excuse for a cheap amusement (but none to me, who had the scraping, scouring and polishing of pans and ladles as my share of the diversion).
However, God be praised, all comes well in the end to a man of spirit (as my father used to say) and if you miss the beard you spare the pimples (this on a complaint of a tufted hairiness left on a customer's chin), and this foolery with conserves led to a direct change in the course of my life.
The Spaniards are not a talkative race, being aware that their thoughts are not worth the labour of speech, but whenever they did speak I was listening.
And so I heard of the arrival of the Comtesse de Soissons (a noble French lady on her travels) at the Alcazà.
If you live among servants you have a vast amount of information about ladies like Madame de Soissons, whose bad health or bad luck force them to be perpetually travelling.
The Comtesse (I knew) was born Olympia Mancini, niece to the great Cardinal Mazarin; she had the loveliest face, the worst temper and the most obliging husband in the world, yet hardly the wit to make the best of these great advantages (as had Her Grace of Marlborough who was equally blessed).
She was married to Eugène Maurice, Comte de Soissons, General of the Swiss and Grisons, son of the Prince de Carignan; she had nothing to complain of in the conduct of this gentleman who gave his name (if nothing else) to a family about as numerous as his wife's lovers, and only once allowing himself the remark: "that his wife's loyalty to the throne was such that she had contrived to give her son François Eugène an extraordinary likeness to His Majesty."
My honoured master had indeed the Bourbon outline, but far be it from me to defile these pages with mere scandal.
Therefore I shall write nothing of the reasons for the withdrawal of Madame de Soissons (her lord being insignificantly dead) from the Court where she was esteemed by all who had the honour of her conversation; she took with her François Eugène, who so little favoured the House of Savoy.
The vulgar must have their nose in the affair and talk of this noble lady's implication in the poisoning mystery of "La Voisin," suggesting she had been involved in an attempt (in some jealous fit) to doctor His Majesty's posset—what nonsense! How absurd the rumours the credulous believe!
Never shall I forget my first sight of Madame de Soissons; she came sauntering into the kitchens and spoke to the Duque de L—— (the kind of man of whom no one hears until he commits suicide out of boredom at being so ignored, even by the Devil) accompanied by my dear future master. Eagerly I sought in his person traces of his Jovian origin; he certainly bore no outward likeness at least to the House of Savoy, nor did the most spiteful ever accuse Madame de Soissons' husband of being the father of any of her children, and I at once detected something regal in that long countenance, that arched nose, that blue gaze so impressively blank, that Austrian lower lip and jaw, those ringlets of chestnut-black hair. At once this young Prince excited my liveliest admiration, though he was penniless, in a manner discredited and not above seventeen years old.
Which admiration was further increased when I (only by the closest scrutiny) observed him abstract, with a technique that bespoke the future great tactician, a large portion of the supper sweetmeats.
"Here, Sfacciato," said I to myself, "is thy future master!"
What a beautiful woman was his mother! What a shape, a wrist, an ankle, what a snowy skin, what glossy curls of raven black! Withal there was something perilous in her eyes; one felt that it would be dangerous to gaze too long at these dazzling charms.
"What," I asked myself, "is this magnificent creature doing at this gloomy, pauper, miserable Court?"
I was soon to know and that in a lucky hour for myself.
Don Carlos II (the last of his line and hopeless of heirs) was extremely plagued as to the disposition of his kingdoms; France working for a Bourbon Prince and the rest of Europe for anyone else, by preference an Austrian Archduke.
Now His Majesty, though detesting France and naturally inclined to the Emperor, was held completely to the Bourbons by his wife, the lovely Maria Luisa; what a saint! If there be no Heaven she for one will have just cause of complaint, for no one ever worked harder for celestial bliss; the games of spillikens that angelic woman played with her husband!
Olympia Mancini, glancing about the kitchens, spied me, and asked in our native tongue if I was Italian?
She was then pleased to add that I was too clean and agile for a scullion and should be a page.
"But I perceive," she sighed, "that merit is no passport to promotion in Spain."
As I held the pan of sugar for her (she was affecting to make conserves) I ventured to assure her that I had no hope of fortune in the Alcazà.
"And you, Madame," I insinuated, "are surely wasting your opportunities by lingering here?"
"I have never, child, wasted anything, but there are those who have wasted me," she added with a thoughtful cast. "I have the fortunes of my poor boy to make. I wish to obtain for him a commission in the Imperial service, and that without influence is difficult."
I realised then how ruined she was and my heart went out to the widow and the orphan. I also realised that she was probably an Austrian spy and had some good reason for this graciousness to a cook-boy.
"I daresay you are bold and unscrupulous," she smiled as I sliced the melon for her (I flushed with pleasure, surely my good angel was hovering very near!); "and not above taking a chance—a risk?"
"The first, yes, Madame. The second, no."
"Bravo!" said she, delighted, "one must never take risks, all must be a certainty."
Upon this the young Eugène remarked, in a melancholy fashion "that he wished she had always been so prudent, and that she seemed to have taken risks enough in the past."
"I was very inexperienced and lacked good advice, but if I don't get you a commission in the Imperial Army in a few days you have my leave to upbraid me."
But the boy seemed to make very little of his hopes: he was the younger son of a younger son, "and all the Princes of the Empire clamouring for the only posts worth a gentleman's acceptance," as he remarked with a shrewdness admirable for his tender years.
"My son," replied Madame de Soissons, "was destined for the Church and applied himself to all that is requisite to be known by a person of that profession, but he is fired with too noble and generous an ambition for such a career and hopes to do some good in the world."
I bowed at this confidence, but the young hero, who perfectly understood the Italian tongue, exclaimed:
"To be sure, my dear mother, you are a little too intriguing, and have even," he added with a laugh, "been accused of witchcraft by those who are no great conjurers themselves," (for this compliment she gave him a tap with her fan); "but as for you, my lad," he addressed me with this gracious familiarity, though some years younger and a head shorter than myself, "I believe you are such a fellow as I am looking for as a body servant. You appear (said he) lively, clean and adroit."
"Necessary qualities," added Madame de Soissons. "Since we can pay no wages we must have one who can recompense himself by the exercise of his own wits."
"Such a post," said I with enthusiasm, "would suit me to perfection."
"Bravo!" smiled my new master. And his mother questioned with a look I did not greatly care to encounter: "We may count on your fidelity?"
"Madame," replied I, with a bow copied from the stiffest of the Hidalgos, "I have always passionately devoted myself to my own best interests, and I feel sure, were I in the service of a lady of your wit, these would coincide with an absolute fidelity to you."
Her smile showed me her famous dimples.
"You require neither menaces nor warning," she remarked. "Courage, my child, you may yet live to keep the back stairs in a noble establishment. I shall beg that you wait on us to-night, when I sup privately with the Queen."
His Majesty's establishment, tho' rigorous, was poverty- stricken, and the favour of Madame de Soissons gained me rapid promotion to an unpaid post, and I was allowed to help serve the dishes in the apartments of the Queen of Spain on that evening, an evening I shall always remember. For how can a man forget that spin of fortune which whirls him to the top of his desires?
The visit of Madame de Soissons was the most exciting event that had ever happened to the Queen since she had come to Spain. She had gossiped for hours with the French lady about the delicious world she had left behind, and about Monseigneur the Dauphin, whom she had loved and hoped to marry before she was sacrificed to an ambitious politick, how my heart had always bled at the thought of this poor pretty creature!
I had never seen her before; she was not allowed to show herself even at a window, and never went abroad.
As I brought in the first covers I felt decidedly nervous, but a glance from Madame de Soissons encouraged me; I felt I had a protectress in that lady.
Although we were all unpaid and starving and neither the King nor the grandees had a maravedi in their pockets, the Alcazà contained half the wealth of the Indies and the New World; this room was lit by a candelabra of rock crystal, the dining table was of gold and malachite, the Queen sat on blue satin cushions in a chair of massy silver.
I contrived to glance at her; tho' she was of an active, lively disposition, she had not been permitted to do anything (because of Spanish etiquette) since her marriage, and so had become plump through lying in bed and eating sweetmeats in a shuttered room.
She remained lovely, however, and her magnificent chestnut hair (a gift from her Stewart mother) hung to her waist braided with the purest of pearls; never had I seen such gems as glittered on her corsage and on her snowy arms.
Madame de Soissons was seated beside her; their gold- embroidered skirts made one glitter of billowing folds and they talked in French, which His Majesty had never learnt.
This personage was playing spillikens with my master (as I already named him) and it was admirable to see how the youth, full of ambition and flaming ardours, constrained himself to flip the ivory counters to and fro His Majesty.
What a figure Don Carlos cut in his outmoded clothes, his pallid hair tucked behind his ears, his huge starched collar sticking out like a platter, his long face with eyes that were never quite open and a mouth that was never quite shut!
I looked with admiration at the Queen; what a saint! What a patriot! She had endured this imbecile for years merely to secure the Spanish succession for France: I observed how fond a husband he was, he continually stared at her with a gaping affection, like a dog for his master; it was plain to see he was an idiot.
Madame de Soissons was admiring the Queen's pearls as I handed the covers; such lustre, such colour!
"But has Your Majesty perceived the glancing hues in oystershell mother o' pearl? An even brighter rainbow glory, I swear!" Then, turning to me, "Arlequino, bid them fetch up a dish of oysters!"
The Queen smiled; she was always agreeable and she liked oysters; I noted, in the dark tapestry behind her, the figure of a giant with a raised club; he seemed exactly as if he were about to strike her pretty head.
I fetched the oysters with my own hands and, as I came up the private stairway with them, I met Madame de Soissons.
"Boy," she whispered, "I want to prove to the Queen how vivid are the tints in these shells, and I have a lotion here will make them more brilliant."
I found it cold in that chill private way but contrived not to shiver as she brought a phial from her bosom and inserted the rosy drops into the finest of the oysters.
"How fortunate," she murmured, "that the Queen is young and strong, for if she were to die, King Louis would lose the Spanish succession."
Her glance met mine; I endeavoured to look resolute. "The Emperor," she added, "is poor. But for some services he would pay very well."
"Even a miserable cook-boy, Madame?"
"Even my son's valet-de-chambre, child. See to it that Her Majesty hath the finest oyster."
I was awed; my elevation into the great world had been so sudden as to afflict me with giddiness; when I bore that dish into the royal presence, when I glanced at the fair young Queen and the adoration in her husband's gaze I felt a sinking of the spirits.
I was considering what would be my fate if my part in this brilliant coup d'état was discovered.
Madame de Soissons and the Queen were laughing over the oysters, comparing the gleaming lining of the shells with the pearls; the Queen was so happy to be with a Frenchwoman that she was talking a great deal of nonsense.
The King, absently flicking the spillikens, still gazed at his wife with a touching devotion, and my young master looked more and more impatient, but kept his temper admirably.
The atmosphere was oppressive; the crystal candelabra glittered too much and those figures in the tapestry appeared of alarming proportions. I kept my eyes on the covers I was serving. I heard Madame de Soissons reading to the Queen out of the Gazette de France she had been (she said) to fetch, and then Her Majesty say:
"He strangled a parrot of mine because it spoke French."
The King began to yawn; François Eugène looked at his mother; I looked at the dish of oysters; the two largest shells were empty, their colours were certainly beautiful, the Spanish make furniture of mother o' pearl but I have always had a distaste for this material.
Through an open door I could see the Duennas asleep, their yellow faces daubed with rouge; my fellow-page, a knock-kneed youth, was staring at the beauty of Madame de Soissons, who was dressed in the French fashion, very outrageous to the formal taste and prejudices of these wretched Spaniards. The sound of the spillikens was the only noise, for everyone seemed to become drowsy in that warm, shadowed room; I felt my own heart beating fast, I am ashamed to say, but then this was my first taste of la haute monde, and I was very young.
Sinking back on her cushions the Queen whispered dreamily:
"Madame, tell me more of Paris, of Versailles, of Marli—of civilisation!"
The King stammered suddenly, with a green look of jealousy: "Speak Spanish!"
A draught (what a place the Alcazà was for draughts!) bellied out the tapestry, so that the snarling giants, black warriors and ferocious beasts seemed to come right into the room.
"Mon Dieu!" exclaimed Her Majesty in her own tongue, "I have such a pain at my heart!"
"'Tis home-sickness for France, Madame," smiled Madame de Soissons, "'twould be a charity to relieve you from this terrible life—what boredom!"
The King rose, stumbling; he loathed everything French; the Queen had not been allowed to speak that language for years, he suspected all manner of insults from Madame de Soissons' smile.
The spillikens board clattered to the ground and with an adroit secret contempt, my young master pushed it with his toe into the fire, whilst he glowered at me with all the scorn of the man of action for a dull evening.
How all my devotion went out to him! Everything was to be expected from such composure, such a carriage and the Bourbon outline.
The Queen said hysterically:
"He threw my little dog To-To downstairs and broke his neck because he came from Paris, but I have always, even under torment, been true to France; yes, tell His Majesty King Louis that I have worked for France."
Don Carlos approached her, slobbering in imbecile rage: "Speak Spanish!"
Her Majesty began to scream; though I was expecting it, I confess I was a little startled at the rapid change in her; poor woman! She had certainly done her best for her country and lived the life of a saint, but such must not expect rewards on earth for these things.
Everyone ran to support her, she wrenched and writhed in their arms, some of her pearl chains broke in her struggles, I gathered them up, no one took any notice of me.
Don Carlos was on his knees, whimpering like a beaten monkey; even in her agony she gave him a kind look and patted his sleek flaxen head.
"When I am dead," she murmured, "keep true to France."
His grief and her courage were quite affecting; I was glad when she was carried to her chamber, he wailing by her side; I was always soft-hearted.
"Pick up those oyster shells," Madame de Soissons commanded me, "and throw them on the fire."
She frightened me, she seemed to have grown a head taller, her air was one of swelling majesty; there could no longer be any doubt that it would be perilous to admire or even to serve her; I resolved to persuade my young master to have very little to do with his mother.
He was now, I observed, a little pale, and I offered him a glass of Tokai.
"The Queen being taken so ill," he observed, "had we not, Madame, better withdraw from the Alcazà?"
"We will go to the Imperial Embassy, my child, and inform the Envoy that he may select an Austrian wife for this imbecile. And that the power of France in Spain is extinct."
"And my commission, Madame?" asked the young hero, avid for future glories.
"We are assured of that, my child, and a few rewards besides." She gathered up Her Majesty's blue velvet cloak which had fallen during the struggles of the dying woman, and put it round her shoulders. "Swear to me one thing," the handsome termagant snatched her son by his slim shoulder, "do all the mischief you ever can to King Louis—remember, he refused you even a miserable captaincy, offered to make you an Abbé, and allowed me to be banished as a poisoner! What stupid stuff!"
"Stupid, indeed, Madame," replied the bold youth, "and I will see it is avenged. Meanwhile had we better not leave the Alcazà?"
"Your advice is good," said she. "Come, cook-boy, you have been quite useful."
"And may be of further service." I showed them a napkin full of gold spoons, bonbon dishes and the Queen's pearls which I had gathered up since we had been left alone; they commended me, she hid the booty under her stolen cloak: "And now run!" said she.
We ran; never had the dark, monstrous corridors of the Alcazà seemed so long, we had to keep slipping aside into black alcoves and deserted chambers to avoid a jostle of monks, priests, doctors, with lights, relics and medicines.
What a confusion! Everyone seemed to have lost their heads.
I knew of a private door; we escaped into the gardens where an arid wind rustled the dry trees. The palace looked bleak as a bone in the bitter moonlight.
"What a climate!" shuddered Madame de Soissons. We found the Imperial coach waiting, the Imperial Envoy, yellow with expectancy, within.
"'Tis done," remarked Madame de Soissons. She certainly was dangerous, in the moonlight her face seemed shaped like an antique busto of a Fury. "King Louis will have cause to regret having vexed Olympia Mancini."
The Envoy rubbed his beak of a nose and seemed scared; he kept opening his mouth without speaking.
"She's dead, you fool," said the Frenchwoman, "let me in and tell them to drive like Hell."
That roused him, he pulled wide the door, the Soissons swept into the coach with my napkin of plunder, her son followed with the expressionless stare of the truly great, I leaped on to the outboard behind, the Envoy shouted directions.
We certainly drove le tombeau ouvert and the streets were most ill-paved; I, clinging to the straps, was confoundedly uncomfortable, with the wind whistling round my thin borrowed stockings and my limbs bruised with every jerk of the carriage; but I consoled myself with the reflection that (if I were prudent) my fortune was made.
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